Saturday, December 27, 2008

What's New with Literature Circles Workshop

A few weeks ago I attended a workshop entitled "What's New with Literature Circles?" led by Harvey Daniels.  When my department head offered me the opportunity to go in his place, I was pretty psyched as I had two of Daniel's books on my shelf at home, Minilessons for Literature Circles and A Community of Writers.

I tried literature circles / book clubs when student teaching and they could have gone better.  I took away some new ideas from this workshop that I'll try this semester.

There were some pieces of the workshop that acted as helpful reminders - things that I knew or had read but forgotten when planning.  One element is the direct instruction of social skills when starting students in book clubs.  Building classroom community is important, but also teaching students what friendliness, piggybacking questions, extending discussion, and peer support look and sound like.  Another is the use of short text before moving to full novels.  A new resource for me mentioned was the book Micro Fiction , a collection of super short stories for students to quickly respond to and discuss.  I had used short stories with my students to practice group discussion, but even these were too long to start with.  The final element is one I will favor a great deal: having silent literature circles where students write and pass their discussion of the book to different members.  I won't ask students to do it more often than discussion aloud, but I like the amount of control it gives me of the classroom, the record of discussion taking place, and that no one person can dominate or withdraw from the conversation.

Daniels also emphasized a few revisions to what had been considered book club requirements when I was in college.  The biggest difference as Daniels saw it was the decreased use of role sheets for book club meetings, especially those that assign cooperative learning roles to the various group members because they are inauthentic.  For me, the greatest change came in the new forms of assessment.  Instead of using book talks, body biographies, or multigenre projects, Daniels suggests assessing the actual book club time for student preparation and participation, also for the sake of authenticity.  Final projects are fine, but Daniels suggests reducing the weight they carry.  How many real-life book clubs involve a culminating final project?

For me, however, the greatest blow to my current thinking was when myself and others asked Daniels whether literature circles were possible with district required reading.  His answer was absolutely and that it could even aid students who are doing book clubs for the first time.  I had attributed part of my previous failures to the district requirement that students had no choice in what they read; however, I now will drastically revise my design and try book clubs again with To Kill a Mockingbird .

In spring 2006, my students practiced literature circles with one short story before beginning a novel; this year they'll meet six times before beginning Mockingbird.  In 2006, they had no more than four minilessons on comprehension tools and zero minilessons on social skills; this year the count is six and five (with some overlap, and I want the second number to grow depending on how I can fit it in.  Social skills minilessons take about 10 minutes each, so I should be able to throw some more in at the beginning or end of some classes).  In spring 2006, our prereading tool was a fairly schooly anticipation guide and one period of discussion; this year I'm reading aloud part one of Mockingbird while we practice with short pieces of text and then setting them loose on part two.  I'm sure I'll be reflecting on my experiences a great deal, and I'll share my thoughts here when I can.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

IEPs for Every Student

Years ago, I wrote about creating an Individualized Education Plan for every student whether they're required by law to have one or not. Next semester, I'm asking my students to do it for themselves and I need the help of my network. Below is my first draft of the assignment. Please help me make it successful by leaving your suggestions in the comments.

IEP Assignment
Starters (choose one):
Soup & Salad (optional):
  • Interview a parent or former teacher. Ask them what they see your strengths and weaknesses are as a student and what things they believe help you to learn best.
Main Course (required):
Write a personal reflection that answers all of the following questions:
  1. What kind of student do you think you are (poor, fair, average, great)? Why do you believe this? What kind of student do you want to be?
  2. Identify at least three attainable goals you have for this semester in language arts. What do you need to do to meet them? How will you know when you've met them?
  3. Reflect on and write about a time in school (a year, a unit, a particular assignment, a class) when you didn't do well. How did you know you didn't do well? What made it difficult? Go into as much depth as possible.
  4. Reflect on and write about a time in school (a year, a unit, a particular assignment, a class) when you really succeeded. How did you know you did well? What made it possible? Go into as much depth as possible.
  5. Reflect on and write about a time in school (a year, a unit, a particular assignment, a class) when you had trouble at first, but eventually succeeded. How did you know you did well? What changes did you, your parents, your teachers, or your friends make that made it possible? Go into as much depth as possible.
  6. Read over your reflections from numbers 3, 4, and 5. Make a list of the things that make learning difficult for you personally, and a list of the things that make learning easy for you personally. Using those lists, create at least three accommodations you believe your teachers, parents, and classmates should provide to make it easier for you to learn and perform well in school.
  7. Review your goals from number 2. Make sure they match your accommodations and still seem attainable, but not so easy that you'll achieve them all in one week. Make any changes needed.
  8. Fill out the IEP Cover Sheet handed out in class.
Dessert (optional):
  • Share your personal reflection with another teacher or parent and ask for their comments. Particularly ask if they would add any other accommodations or goals to your lists.
  • Interview a licensed clinical social worker or a psychologist in an education related field. Ask them how they determine accommodations and goals for the students they serve in their IEPs.

Monday, October 20, 2008

My Philosophy of Education

On my first day of middle school, I wore my boy scout uniform.

To my innocent, sixth grade mind, this seemed like a logical idea.  In elementary school, I wore my scout uniform every Monday, because Monday was the day we had den meetings.  When I graduated from cub scouts to boy scouts in February of my fifth grade year, boy scout meetings continued on Monday.  So I continued to wear my uniform.

I liked wearing my uniform.  I was proud that I was in the boy scouts.  Proud that I knew how to camp outdoors, how to cook, how to use a map and compass.  Proud that the experiences I had were making me a better person, though maybe I wasn’t fully aware of it yet.

Wearing my boy scout uniform on the first day of middle school was probably one of the worst decisions I could have ever made.

Most teenagers know the detailed social rules and taboos of middle school culture would not permit the average student to wear a scout uniform, unless it could be construed as an anti-establishment statement.  Instead, I was embracing the massive organization and the recruitment visions of my scoutmaster by wearing my earthy tan uniform with its bright badges and neckerchief.  Unlike most teens, I had not yet learned those social rules.

I tried to be brave.  A week after that first day the initial pain had dulled and my resolve had hardened.  I wore my uniform again, thinking I or they would get used to it.  I told myself that I couldn’t be the target of their emotional insults or physical assaults forever. 

Eventually, however, I learned that the best way to avoid social conflict was to blend in, or better yet, disappear.  It wasn’t just wearing my uniform that taught me this.  But when I think of those first few days and wearing the uniform, it embodies that feeling of alienation I felt throughout middle school and struggled to overcome in high school before ultimately and finally defeating in college.

I teach to break down social barriers.  To linguistically redefine the common usage of “gay” as an individual’s sexual orientation, rather than the superlative opposite of cool.  To encourage the jock and the nerd to empathize with one another.  To put the Latina and the White girl in each other’s shoes.  To make the 6th grader in his earthy tan boy scout uniform feel that his individuality is valued and that his opinions and voice are an important contribution to his community and have the potential to change lives.  All this can happen in the books we read and the thoughts we write and the discussions and interactions we have as learners inside and outside of the classroom.

While the social aspect may be what drove me into pursuing education as a career, I have a commitment to my chosen profession that makes me yearn to do it exceptionally well.  Before studying education, I thought teaching was a simple mix of presenting information with enthusiasm.  Mr. Keating from Dead Poets’ Society was my idol.  When I took my first real education courses, I learned that while there is an art to teaching, there is a critical science that one cannot successfully teach without.

As the importance of pedagogy became central to my teaching, I began contributing to discussions with other educators online by writing my own blog and commenting on those of other educators.  Edublogging has become my personal form of professional development where I can reflect on my teaching ideas and receive constructive feedback from peers.  By writing about my thoughts on education, I’ve been able to process many of the methods I want to implement when I am a full-time classroom teacher.

Upon completing my college’s professional development program and graduating, I had had the opportunity to practice multiple intelligence theory, differentiated education, applied Bloom’s revised taxonomy, and other pedagogies in a number of classrooms in the middle and high school setting.  My wife and I had applied for the Peace Corps, and I taught as a substitute while waiting for an invitation to serve, expecting a chance to teach English in another county.  Instead, we were assigned to South Africa, where volunteers help to educate primary school teachers.  Although we accepted the invitation, I was terrified – I was supposed to “teach” educators who had been working for up to 30 years when I had just finished college.  What could I possibly teach these experienced instructors?

I arrived in South Africa to find that the majority of teachers received training from an Apartheid led government over 15 years ago.  Those educated after the end of Apartheid fell to a similar fate: they teach as they had been taught.  In a culture where age and experience is respected more than education, I had to be mindful of my youth and race, humble in my interactions with professionals who felt understandably vulnerable, and advocate for pedagogically sound methods.  I had to teach proven methods to the toughest of critics, which further solidified for me the importance of pedagogy and its practice.

I believe I can best continue to explore my philosophy of education in a school environment as a classroom teacher.  The coming of age social struggles drove me to education, but the study and implementation of pedagogy is what intrigues and sustains my love for it.

Teaching a Love of Reading

I've posted my contribution to Professional Learning Community for the month.  Here's the teaser:
I would like to propose that we stop telling our students what to read.
If you have any students like I’ve had in the past, at least half of them won’t read something because you tell them to anyway, so why waste your breath?
Please consider taking a look and thanks for reading.

Update: The Professional Learning Community blog seems to be no more.  Here is my post originally published there in its entirety:
“It looks as though school, no matter the age or nation, has had only one role. And that’s to teach the mastery of technique and critical commentary and to cut off spontaneous contract with books by discouraging the pleasure of reading. It’s written in stone in every land: pleasure has no business in school, and knowledge gained must be the fruit of deliberate suffering.” (Pennac 1999 p. 91)

I would like to propose that we stop telling our students what to read.

If you have any students like I’ve had in the past, at least half of them won’t read something because you tell them to anyway, so why waste your breath?

Ask yourself instead, “Why do we want students to read?

You could go through a number of answers, and I think it’d be great if you left some in the comments of this post. But I think the reason that holds the most weight is this: to encourage them to become life-long readers and life-long learners. And there is no better way to mess it up than choosing for them what they should read.
I’m really big into book clubs. To me it’s an authentic environment that prepares students for reading in the adult world. The teacher chooses five to seven books on the same topic, like coming of age, culture, religion, and then lets students choose which book they read. The students reading the same book meet once a week in small groups to discuss what they’ve read. I wanted to take these great reading units typically only seen in the advanced placement/honors classroom and bring it to the mainstream and remedial classes.

It doesn’t work in the mainstream classroom. I tried it as a student teacher, and while some groups really got into it, plenty did not. They didn’t like the district required reading either. Almost everyone hated The Pearl, and while the ones that read Night thought it was important to read it, the ones that didn’t read it cared about the Holocaust, but not about the book.

If we want students to become life-long readers, we can’t force it on them. At the risk of comparing students to members of the equine family, you can lead a horse to water . . .

In Better Than Life, Daniel Pennac argues that we need to read aloud to our students. For him, it is the key ingredient that will bring back the joy of reading - focusing on the story, instead of the book, or the words, or whether or not the student can critically analyze from the historical-cultural standpoint. He believes that students will become so enthralled with the story, they’ll go find the book so they can read the end before you do.

I’m skeptical. I was read to in English class too, but I never ran out to find the book so I could read ahead. There was one critical difference, however. I was always tested on the book.
We have to satisfy one condition for this reconciliation to take place: we must ask for nothing in return. Absolutely nothing. Erect no wall of prior knowledge around books. Ask not a single question. Do not assign the smallest scrap of homework. Do not add a single word to the pages that have been read. No value judgements, no vocabulary explainations, no textual analysis, no biographical notes. It is strictly forbidden to talk about the book.

Reading is a gift.

Read, and wait.

Curiosity can’t be forced. It must be awakened.

Read, and trust the eyes that open slowly, the faces that light up, the questions that will begin to form and give way to other questions.

If the pedagogue in us has a hard time not “presenting the work in it’s total context,” persuade that little voice that the only context that counts, right now, is this moment in this classroom.
The pathways to knowledge do not end in this classroom; they should start from it.
For the time being, I am reading novels to an audience that thinks it doesn’t like reading. Nothing important can be taught until I’ve defeated that illusion and completed my work as a go-between.

Once these teenagers are reconciled with books, they’ll gladly take the road that leads from the novel to the author, from the author to his or her era, from the story they’ve read to the many meanings it contains.

Be prepared. (Pennac 1999 p. 149-50)

Pennac believes that the students will come to the books from the syllabus on their own. I don’t know if I’m as convinced they will, but I am also not convinced that it matters too much.

If students are reading something, we are in a much better position than if they were reading nothing. Unless they’re going to go on to become English majors, what they’ve read specifically does not matter too much.

No avid reader will read bad literature forever.

Pennac gives us a Reader’s Bill of Rights - rights that life-long readers have, but our students often are restricted.
  1. The right to not read.
  2. The right to skip pages.
  3. The right to not finish a book.
  4. The right to reread.
  5. The right to read anything.
  6. The right to escapism.
  7. The right to read anywhere.
  8. The right to browse.
  9. The right to read out loud.
  10. The right not to defend your tastes.

Some would be easy to enact in the traditional classroom. Some would be difficult.

Supposing you accept my belief that these should be posted in every classroom throughout the land, how do we do it? 

Works Cited 

Pennac, D., & Homel, D. (1999). Better Than Life York: Stenhouse Publishers.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Classroom Community Day Seven: Home Team Advantage

This activity I've shamelessly stolen from Mini-lessons for Literature Circles by Harvey Daniels and Nancy Steineke (2004, pg 43-7).

Start with the sports page in your local paper and announce the standings of a few of your home teams.  Point out to students that the teams typically do better at home than away (unless they are incredibly good or incredibly bad).  This begs the question, why do teams win more games at home than away?  Give students a few minutes to work with a partner or a group of three to list as many reasons why they think this is the case.  Then as a whole class, compile a master list.

Daniels and Steineke's major goal with this lesson is to discourage put-downs, and the big moment in the lesson comes when the teacher tells the students, after compiling the list, that "one of the most important ways to keep the home court advantage is to avoid using put-downs.  From now on, if anyone hears a put-down, just gently say 'home court' to remind that person to stop" (pg 44-5).  It's a great idea.

But it can be taken so much further.  Many of the items from a class list can be adjusted and implemented in the classroom.  When I worked with teachers in South Africa, they had this thing where if a student did well, the teacher would say, "give it to him."  On this cue, the 48 other students in the class would rub the palms of their hands around, one on top of the other a couple times, finally letting the top hand slide in the direction of the student.

I thought it was pretty lame the first time I saw it.  Especially in the context of corporal punishment being used by teachers so often to punish misbehaving and even simply forgetful students.  What student would care about this meaningless motion when they feel too unsafe in their classroom to learn?

But you should have seen the face of the student on the receiving end of that praise.

I'm not suggesting anything quite like that.  It would be too easily ridiculed in most middle school classrooms.  But supporting the idea of praise and encouragement between students is certainly not a bad idea.

Daniels and Steineke designed this as a mini-lesson, but I devote at least a full class period.  Once you've made the list, discuss with students how these could translate into the classroom.  It might be interesting to see if they see themselves as all being on the same team, or if the grading and the current schooling system creates a more competitive attitude.  Ask students what they can do on a daily basis in the class to support a home court environment.

Daniels and Steineke suggest as a variation on their mini-lesson asking students to create posters displaying some of the elements of a home court advantage along with how these would look in a classroom.  Despite the feelings of the rest of my 2005 pre-service teaching book club, I think this is a great activity, would use it to wrap up the discussion, and put the finished posters up in the room for the remainder of the school year (while still alternating other displays in the classroom throughout the year, because us secondary teachers don't do it enough).

Previous - Day Four through Six: Two Truths and a Lie
Next - Day Eight: Creative Problem Solving

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Classroom Community Days Four to Six: Two Truths and a Lie

Closing in on the first week, I know a lot about my students from the information sheets they filled out.  Students began to learn each other's names by playing name games.  They may have identified with each other during the classroom grids activity.  Now I want them to get some of the information I had on the first day, but in a way that the student has more control.

Two truths and a lie takes a lot of class time, but is time well spent.  Every student gets about 10 minutes of time when everyone is giving them their complete attention and asking about them.  There's no need to force students to go, but most teenagers are alright being the center of positive attention.

One person tells the class three things about themselves.  Two of the statements are true and one is false.  Members of the class can ask any (and as many) questions as they want to figure out which statement is the lie.  The person who offered their three statements doesn't have to answer these questions truthfully - so the object is to make them slip up and reveal their lie.

I model first.  My three statements might be:

1. I was on Sesame Street when I was 8 years old.
2. I was a Boy Scout for 16 years.
3. I lived in Africa for two years.

Then I give students a good half hour to ask questions.  It gives them an opportunity to figure out and practice asking good ones.  Then we vote on which statement the students think is the lie.

For the game to be worthwhile though, the instructor has to very clearly model the activity and set some guidelines for the two truths and the lie.  Students who don't see it modeled and understand how to choose good statements might give the following three options:

1. I have five brothers.
2. This summer I went to Disney World.
3. I have a pet dinosaur.

Students who know the individual outside of school may already know they have five brothers, or that they went to Disney World.  Or that information might have shown up on the classroom grid activity.  And all students probably know that dinosaurs are extinct.

So after I model, I offer a few guidelines to help students choose their statements.
One, don't choose any statements that are related.

1. I've lived in South America.
2. I speak fluent Spanish.
3. I have a pet dinosaur.

If someone knows the majority of countries in South America are Spanish speaking, one will know that the first two statements are most likely true because only one can be false.

Two, never say never.

1. I've never failed a class.
2. I speak fluent Spanish.
3. I have a pet dinosaur.

It's hard to determine the truth value of a negative.

Three, all three statements should have a certain level of unbelievability.

1. I have two brothers.
2. I ate a hot dog yesterday.
3. Michael Jackson is my uncle.

Though you could potentially fake a number of people out, the object is to get to know each other better, and one doesn't learn a whole lot about a person by how many brothers they have or what they ate for dinner.

Four, lies need to be complete lies, not half truths.

1. My uncle is Michael Jackson.
2. I speak Spanish fluently.
3. I grow all my vegetables in my back yard.

It's pretty lame when people have voted to say "ha! I grow all my vegetables in my front yard!  Tricked you all!"

One thing that can go wrong with this activity is students will start asking all kinds of questions that don't have anything to do with the three truths.  While this is in a way the point of the whole activity (to get them to want to know more about each other), it could become uncomfortable for the student put on the spot.  One potential intervention is to limit how many questions they can ask to a hard number - "okay, only 10 more questions and then we vote!"  Students will start asking good questions about the statements rather than going off on tangents.

Each student will need about 10 minutes for offering their statements and answering questions.

Previous - Day Three: Classroom Grid
Next - Day Five: Home Team Advantage

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Classroom Community Day Three: Classroom Grid

On the first day of school I do an information sheet to get to know my students. Then over the first and second nights of school I make up classroom grids for each of my classes. Each student gets a grid with one block of information for each student in the class, but there is no name.

Every student has to find all the people on their grid. The rules: you can't ask questions like "which block are you?" or copy off someone else's sheet. You can ask, "hey, do you have a dog and ride your bike to school?" The teacher should play along as well (unless you've memorized the answer sheet, which you shouldn't do because that's cheating).

Name tags are a nice thing to use on these days, since it's only the third day students have seen each other that year. Then there's none of that awkward, "who are you?" while students are filling out their sheets.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Classroom Community Day Two: Name Games

There used to be a man at Peaceful Valley Scout Ranch in Elbert, Colorado by the name of Chuck Forsyth. He was the ranger, the man in charge of all the support for camp. He lived there year round, took care of all the facilities and got trucks running again at the start of the summer. He bought all the tents, tools, and lumber for camp. He probably did an armful of other things I don't even know about.

He has a full gray beard and piercing eyes. He has a great sense of humor, but you didn't see it before he got to know you. When I first starting working at camp, all I knew was that if I broke anything, I'd be having a talk with him, and knowing that I made sure I didn't break anything.

Chuck had gotten to know me a bit better by my sixth year at camp, and he told me about a staff member who had worked there before my time.

"He did the most important thing any staff member could do," Chuck said. "He learned the two most important words for every scout."

What are those, I wondered. Merit Badges? No, that's lame. Scout Oath and Law? Not two words.

"Their first and last names," Chuck said.

I had a teacher in high school, Father Burshek, who taught world religion (comparative theology) to the seniors every year. He was considered by the student body to be one very cool guy. He had a love for music and one of the most comprehensive collections of jazz music (rumor had it) in the world. I was surprised when he greeted me by name in my sophomore year. The only time I'd seen him was when he gave Mass one Thursday a semester. I'll never forget how cool I felt - "Father Burshek knows me. He knows my name."

Rumor has it that Father Burshek flipped through the Rolodex of student names and pictures before the start of every year, memorizing the names of every student in the school. All the incoming freshmen, any transfer students, and reviewing everyone else1.

All teachers, I think, know how important it is to learn the names of their students. But few teachers do everything they can to ensure their students know the names of each other. I attended a tracked school (school within a school) of 360 students, but never attended my core classes with the same 90 students every year for three years. I should have known everyone's name by the end of middle school, but I think I might have known only half, and knew only ten or twenty after my first year there. Middle school was not a good time for me. Knowing names works both ways - you feel more comfortable when people address you by name, and less anxious when you know the names of everyone.

There are two name games I play on the second day of class, but I'm sure there are many more and probably some better ones out there2. Name tags are great too, I think. I used to think they're kind of silly, but I think they can help a lot. You might not wear them for these games though, as it sort of defeats the purpose.

In the first, everyone sits in a circle. The first student says their name, then the person to their right says the first student's name and their own name. Then the person on their right says the names of the first and second students, and their own name. This continues through the whole group until the first student who started says the name of everyone in the class.

  1. The second and third person to go don't really need to listen to everyone else say their name, only the first person and those who are waiting to go. You could possibly fix this by making everyone repeat everyone's name at the end of the game, if you had the time.

  1. The names are repeated 20 to 40 times, depending on the number of students in your class.
  2. Students don't get to choose who's names they remember, they have to say everyone's, whether the student is in their social group or not.

The second game I enjoy a lot more. You'll need six tennis balls. The students all stand in a circle. There are a few rules: you have to say the name of the person you're throwing the ball to before you throw it; each person should get the ball once, but only once; you need to remember who threw the ball to you, and who you threw the ball to. The teacher can start by saying the name of a student and throwing one ball to them. Once you have the ball again, make sure everyone has thrown it once. Then, tell students they will throw again following the same pattern as before; everyone throws to the same person they did during the last round, only faster. You repeat as many times as you want, eventually adding more tennis balls and throwing them to the first student at intervals after the first ball is thrown.

  1. Some students might get a little rowdy when they get to throw balls around the room. I tell them if they drop a ball, they have to start over. Usually this way they throw more gently and work together to make sure everyone catches the ball.
  2. I was the kid everyone made fun of in gym class - my bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is pretty low. Some kids who, like me, can't catch, might feel the eyes of their classmates, but you can encourage a positive atmosphere. The countermeasures for the first disadvantage can help here too.

  1. Everyone knows the name of the person they threw to during the game and hopefully picked up some other names as well (the names are repeated as many times as you play, which could be a lot if you go all the way to six balls, no mistakes).
Previous - Day One: Information Sheets
Next - Day Three: Classroom Grid
1. There were apparently at least two rumors about Father Burshek and I can't really confirm either one. The Rolodex makes a nice teacher legend though. Go back.
2. If you know other name games, you should definitely leave them in the comments. Go back.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Edupunk: New Name, Same Practice

I don't get it. Maybe it's because I was too much of the nerd in school, and never was a part of punk culture, so it doesn't resonate with me like it does with Alec. Or maybe I'm missing a crucial part of the definition. The Wikipedia stub states:
"Edupunk is an ideology referring to teaching and learning practices that result from a do it yourself (DIY) attitude."
If that's all there is too it, edupunk to me doesn't seem new, revolutionary, or going against any system. The cost or corporate ownership isn't an issue to me. If it works, use it. If is doesn't, don't.

Ms. Michetti beat me to the punch here. If you don't improve improve on something that already works really well, why do it yourself? If all the available resources stink, of course you would do it yourself. It's what a good teacher would do. As Ms. Michetti says, "it's just good practice."

Case in point: I'm co-teaching grade 7 English next semester. Since I'm in a sense mentoring the other teacher, I started planning my units by using the same textbook he is, because I saw it as the easiest way for him to improve his teaching.

I chose a unit called "Dragons." Dragons are cool, right? The students would have fun with it, I could read aloud Eragon for the first few minutes of every class, and there was an assignment in the textbook where students pretend they're on a radio show - perfect for making podcasts. And technology is great for at-risk students.

So I started writing my first lesson plan.

Luckily, built in safeguards stopped me before I got too far. Theory into Practice has been around for a while, but Relevancy/Schooliness is new. I considered adding it a while ago, and Clay convinced me of it's importance. There will be at least one kid in class who won't see the immediate relevancy of learning about dragons. Or drawing one. And that kid will be right. Not to mention the fact that the textbook wasn't using any educational theory I'm familiar with, nor did it differentiate. So no more Dragon unit, and no more textbook. The textbook doesn't work for me, so I'll do it myself.

I plan a unit on gender roles; relevant because the girls get stuck cleaning the classroom way more often than the boys. The girls have something to gain and the boys have something to lose, maybe even beyond the schoolyard (I hope). We'll read A Girl Named Disaster aloud as part of the unit, which will fit in nicely with our next unit on immigration, which has it's relevancy in the riots that happened last month in Johannesburg and just down the road 30 km in Jane Furse. And I'll differentiate and scaffold as much as I want. Just as much as I did before anyone was calling it edupunk.

Here's the thing though: my counterparts at the school have spent the majority of their professional careers teaching under the Bantu education system. They were taught during Apartheid. They are going to need a lot of additional professional development to get to the point where they can connect lessons to specific educational theories. So when I teach my coworkers to lesson plan, we use lessons from the textbook. In the teacher's guide, each lesson is already paired with it's Learning Outcomes and Assessment Standards (standards set at the federal level). Instead of listening to a 30 minute to hour long lecture everyday1, they're getting direct instruction, followed by modeling, followed by guided practice. Occasionally, they get to do group work, science experiments, or create authentically assessed projects. For the teachers, the textbooks work relatively better. They may be sold by a corporate power like Oxford University Press, but it's closer to good practice. So they use it. Why not?

1. I'm not saying lectures are the root of all evil, I'm just saying you don't use them every time you teach. Go back.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Teaching Reading: A Reflection and a Way Forward

Starting my semester as a student teacher, I was asked to cover two district required books with the students: The Pearl by John Steinbeck and Night by Elie Wiesel1. I tried to use what I had learned at university - methods that were supposed to be on the cutting edge: book clubs, sticky notes, bookmark prompts, double-entry journals. It could have been beautiful, but it was a failure. Because the most critical element in life-long reading was missing.


You can't mix mandated reading with methods that encourage life-long reading. It doesn't work. No one outside of school has a required reading list written by someone else. That's ridiculous. Readers read what they want to.

District required reading is schooly.

Ever since reading Daniel Penac's Better than Life, I've been struggling with the question "How do I hang the Reader's Bill of Rights in my classroom and still teach reading?"

And now I know the answer: Teach reading; don't teach themes in specific books to the whole class when only half the class is interested in reading the text.
  1. The right to not read.
  2. The right to skip pages.
  3. The right to not finish.
  4. The right to reread.
  5. The right to read anything.
  6. The right to escapism.
  7. The right to read anywhere.
  8. The right to browse.
  9. The right to read out loud.
  10. The right not to defend your tastes.
My answer, I think, addresses rights two through ten. The critical prerequisite for number one (from the teacher's point of view) is that students have a text that interests them. My job is to help them find it. If they still choose not to read during class after we've found a book that they will read at some point, then I've fulfilled my duty, I think. They still have to do something productive during that time and not disrupt others' reading (their right to read anywhere). A student may still choose not to read though, and I'm not sure what to do with that yet. The argument "you can choose not to read, but you'd be choosing to receive a poor grade" is lame, in my opinion.

Models of Unschooly Reading Instruction

Following are the various models I've come up with for properly teaching reading as I see them. Each model is rated on a scale of 1-10 (1 is low, 10 is high) on Constitutionality (ability to adhere to the Reader's Bill of Rights), Potential Learning (ability for the method to meet standards or teach specific themes/genres to the entire class), and Unschooliness (how real world the learning is).

A. Students read what they want individually

Students choose any book, periodical, collection of short stories, or other text. Student provides evidence of their learning by writing a summary, book report, or creates another form of evidence. Students share what they're reading with others. Struggling readers are given support with their trouble area and offered texts that match their reading level.

Students can exercise all of their rights, but must read at least one text in full, or in their book report explain why they chose not to finish or chose to skip pages in a certain section.

Constitutionality: 9
Potential Learning: 5
Unschooliness: 8, depending on available forms of evidence students can submit

B. Students choose from a wide range of books on a broad topic and read individually

The teacher identifies a broad theme (like historical fiction, diversity, socio-economic status) and finds a significant number of books and genres (novels, short stories, graphic novels) students can choose from. Fifty might be enough. Students can submit books to be considered. (Though they would have to read them and understand the theme to know if they could be considered, in which case maybe they won't learn anything new in that unit but instead should focus on something else. But they have a right to reread, and their presence in discussion might be beneficial to other students, so perhaps they read the same book, but explore an additional element or go deeper.) Struggling readers are given support with their trouble areas and texts that match their reading level. This option requires a lot of work from the teacher, however.

Constitutionality: 7
Potential Learning: 8
Unschooliness: 7

C. Book Clubs or Literature Circles

Students are introduced to six or eight books on a narrower theme (like color, poverty, coming of age). Students submit their first, second, and third choice of book. All students are guaranteed to get one of their top three choices. Throughout the unit, students participate in book clubs where they clarify the plot line and discuss character motivations, themes, and personal opinions. Or, in literature circles, students take part in two groups: one that discusses the specific book and another small group that discusses major themes and connections between texts with one student from each book club group in the second small group - like a jigsaw group.

Constitutionality: 4
Potential Learning: 9
Unschooliness: 6 (even though book clubs are more common place outside of school, the narrow range of book choices is a more schooly thing)

D. Real World Reading

I'm coining the term, but have no idea if someone else has tried it. It's only an idea in my head right now, so who knows if it will work.

Students choose any text to read. They may choose to read it alone. They may choose to read a text with other students and form a book club. Some students may choose not to finish a book and leave the book club. Other students may finish their first book and decide to join a book club to start their second. Students may decide to investigate a particular theme and form literature circles (with members reading books individually or in book club groups). Students (as individuals or in groups) may ask the teacher to guide them to a group of books with a specific theme or of a certain genre. They may choose to read with a partner. They may choose not to read during classroom reading time but work on something else, like a writing piece.

Students complete a reading portfolio with evidence of their reading throughout the semester or year. This may include group projects from book clubs or individual work. Students know and understand the state standards, and each possible form of evidence students have the option of producing is matched with the standards it addresses. Students may propose additional forms of evidence. Portfolios must meet all the state standards.

The amount of teacher work involved is enormous. The payoff would be too.

Constitutionality: 9
Potential Learning: 10
Unschooliness: 10

I think these models could be set in a progression - A & B during first term, C during second, and D during the last semester.

How do I deal with the required reading? Like the teacher down the hall did when I was student teaching: give them three days in class to read it on their own and don't formally assess it. Or maybe I'll read it aloud. Maybe. But I still won't assess it.

I'm sure I'm missing some methods for teaching reading - please leave me your criticisms of these models and the many other possibilities in the comments.
1. I think every teenager should read Night. Especially if they have no idea what the holocaust was, like my students. But I won't force it on them. I might do a webquest to get them interested though. Go back

Monday, June 2, 2008

Classroom Community Day One: Information Sheets

Charlie commented on my post where I did Clay's meme:
My question is what are truly effective ways to address bullying in schools. It seems students suffer so much and so many are unaware of this going on. How do we address it to make it stop? I've googled the bullying sites and seen the nifty programs but it still seems like too little.
My philosophy of teaching stems from my social experiences as a middle school student. To prevent bullying in my classroom, I plan to use the first month in a classroom for community building.

The last time I had a classroom of my own I was student teaching during second semester. So I haven't tried using these methods on my own. But other teachers I met during my college years have used the methods I'm detailing here.

Day One: Ask students to fill out an information sheet about themselves.

This is a nice way to get to know a few details about your students at the start of the year. I also use this day to take pictures of all my students which I then turn into flashcards and begin to learn students' names. Learning names is one of my weak points, but by doing this I usually know all their names within the first two weeks of class.

My information sheet looks something like this:


Class period:

I own a: tape player CD player mp3 player/ipod cell phone

I have access to a computer at home: yes no

I have access to the internet at home: yes no

Number of siblings:


Sports I like to play:


After school today I will:

This weekend, I will:

I think I am:
The second section helps me with a couple of ways I might try to bring technology into the classroom. When I grade writing, I like to read and think aloud and record for the student. Based on the responses I can decide if I want students to buy a tape or a CD-RW. If many have an mp3 player I might e-mail them the files or put them on a password protected website. I also want to know how fair it is for me to ask for typed work depending on the amount of time they have to complete an assignment. I'm also planning on using Twitter to break down the schoolroom walls. From this information and the student's age, I can also start to think about the socio-economic status of my students and their previous successes in school. This will inform my teaching but also just a few of the challenges I might face in helping to build community.

The third section I take and start making a grid for every class. Each grid has a space for every student with some of their facts written in, but without their name. Of course I don't put in any information that might have been shared in confidence.

On the Day Three, I'll pass out one copy of each form to the students and give them about an hour to fill in all the spaces. I might start the class with a quick icebreaker. I also might choose to associate a small grade with it and make a few different versions of the sheet to discourage cheating, but usually just saying "don't use this time as an excuse to talk to your friends" and "don't copy off of each other's sheets" works well enough. I put myself on the grid too and try to complete my own sheet modeling the activity and getting to know the students as well, finding the ones I share common things with (I don't usually remember who is who from filling out the grid during the previous two days).

Day Two: Two Truths and a Lie Name Games

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Bullied Then, Successful Now

I went to all the trouble to create a podcast in response to Clay's meme and only then, as I was browsing for the file over at Switchpod, remembered that in South Africa I don't really have the bandwidth or the speed to upload a 16 megabyte audio file.

This is the first meme I've participated in the two plus year's I've been writing here. I was never tagged, and I wasn't always sure readers would be interested. I understand part of the purpose of a meme is to let people know more about yourself. I guess since I don't write annoymously, I feel that there are some things about myself I don't share online. I don't know.

But Clay's meme has to do with the reason I teach.

I was a pretty cool kid in elementary school. Not because I listened to The New Kids on the Block or MC Hammer. I was the smart kid. If you and I were working on a project together, we were going to take out the trash.

I was so popular in fifth grade, I was even elected mayor of Ameritown. Each week we had a business professional come teach us how to fill out a checkbook and how much of your income should go to savings - basic capitalist education. It all culminated in a day at this simulated city in downtown Denver - Ameritown - where everyone had a job. There were police officers, bankers, a television studio, and city hall. And I was elected mayor.

My speeches are what won it for me. I used a famous line from one of Shakespeare's plays to lead each one. My first speech started something like "Friends, students, teachers, lend me your ears." I won the first round with that. I used another one in the final round, but I don't remember what it was. They made me sound smart enough to win though, everyone whispered "oh my, I believe that's Shakespeare, isn't it?" At least that's how I envisioned it. My inarrgural speech began "to be Ameritown, or not to be Ameritown?" before launching into a talk about how unbelieveable it was that we were there. In each of my speeches, Bill came to my aid.

Everything changed on my first day of middle school. There were about three others from elementary school joining me on yellow track at Mrachek Middle School. The rest were on different tracks (meaning somewhere else in the school or on vacation - I would never share any classes with them) or going to Aurora Middle School on the other side of town. All the friends I had were gone and I was back at square one.

On the first day, I made the crucial cultural fopah of wearing my Boy Scout uniform to school. Apparently what was cool at Tollgate Elementary did not fly at the bus stop.

Riding the bus was the worst. It picked us up at 7:00 outside Tollgate. Maybe it was the boy scout uniform from that first day, maybe it was because I didn't put up a fight, but I was the punching bag for a number of my fellow students.

It got so bad, I started walking an extra mile to ride another bus. One day, walking home, three of my old bus-mates stooped in waiting behind a parked car. One jumped up too early and I was able to run home by a back way. I don't know what I would have experienced if I hadn't been warned.

In class, I was belittled and harrassed. My grades dropped. And my reaction to all this was to put up walls around myself. I stopped answering questions in class. I stopped participating openly in group work. I didn't even try to make friends anymore.

After the worst three years of my life, my parents enrolled me in a private Cathoic high school. But I had learned my lesson. From the start I didn't do anything that put me at risk. I kept myself socially baracaded until junior year, when a really excellent retreat built enough community between myself and classmates that I started to open up again.

I saw college as a fresh start. In the first few months, young and idealistic, I rolled a trash can out in front of the student center and began collecting money for UNICEF. I held a giant sign that said "everytime the horn honks, a child dies" and distastefully squeezed a bike horn every 15 seconds. Some people thought I was combating abortion, and being on a politically charged college campus, some of the glares I got eventually deterred my efforts. But I raised $20 and $50 more when I did Trick or Treat for UNICEF in October. It was better than I expected.

In January of my freshman year I met my future wife, sitting directly behind me in a literature class. We ended up doing a lot of group work together and shared a poetry class next period. I had an assignment to read a poem for a class poetry slam. Choosing Shakespeare's sonnet 18, I read it with a little guitar accompaniment I composed myself. I made eye contact with Jennie at key moments in the poem. Of course, Ol' Bill didn't fail me then either.

Years later, a professor asked me why I was going to be a teacher, what was my philosophyof education. I told him I'm going back to middle school and I'm going to get my revenge. I will teach to help students discover the skills to create healthy social relationships. My first month in any classroom will be spent on community building. Before we go after parts of speech or young adult literature, very student will feel welcomed and safe - physically, mentally, and emotionally. And we won't fall behind in material. Because after that first month, we will be in the zone. We will learn together like a well oiled machine - we will each know each other on a level that we can discuss with respect, deliver deserved praise to each other, and admit a change in thinking without embarressment.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Playing Catch-up

A few months ago, I wrote about the grade seven math class I'm co-teaching and the rote memorization of multiplication facts. The basic thesis is that I know my students need to learn the multiplication facts, but I cringe at the monotonous repetition of multiplication tables and skip counting (the comments suggest I didn't convey the former as well as I did the latter).

After a few weeks of helping my counterpart get started with the instruction and use of mad math minutes every morning, I let her take over and moved on to other projects. Last week I checked back in.

"How is mad maths minutes going?" I asked.

"You know, I can say now, though it is not one hundred percent" she said, "I can say that I am satisfied."

She is an excellent teacher who receives much respect from her students and co-workers, but I was skeptical that the six week mad math minute program with only two weeks of instruction would yield results we could both be satisfied with. Together we've been focusing a great deal on assessment and it's three main uses as I see it: assessment of instruction, feedback to learners in the form of evaluation, and grading. So I suggested we perform a post-assessment to check our instruction.

We gave the learners five minutes to complete 50 multiplication facts. Using the rules of mad math minute, a learner could only receive points for the number of problems they consecutively and correctly solve starting with problem one. So for a learner to get 10 points, the first 10 answers must be correct. They may have missed number 11, but if number 12 is correct, it makes no difference. The reason for this harsh grading is to get the students to know all 390 of the math facts, not just the easy ones.

As I feared, the highest score out of 98 students was 17. Few learners completed more than 10 questions and the vast majority could not answer the first problem - 9 x 9.

My counterpart felt that the students had relaxed since she had finished doing mad math minute a couple weeks before. I agreed with her, but added that our instruction did not make the information stick, and so this Monday, we're starting fresh. All grade seven students are arriving at school an hour early for 50 minutes of multiplication instruction. (South African students, unlike most of their American counterparts, are more than willing to arrive before school for additional learning.)

I've written up six weeks worth of lesson outlines (here they call it a work schedule) and this weekend I'll write up the lesson plans for each day next week. We're throwing everything we can think of at them - flashcards on yarn, 1-100 squares that you color in the numbers on, touch math mini-lessons, and mad math minutes is back on a daily basis. If our lessons prove successful then we can hit grades 3 to 6 next and hopefully end this game of catch-up. I'll post my lesson reflections here, but they'll only appear on the complete feed with lessons.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Multiple Intelligences of Poetry

In spring of 2005, before I started blogging, I taught a poetry class to youth at the Methodist church. I taught Sunday school to grades 6 through 12, and being Methodists, it wasn't a problem to teach a poetry class just for the heck of it at the church.

Teaching the class was the practicum segment for my course Teaching Reading at college. I was already observing a class at a nearby middle school, and wanted a chance to teach. The students all chose to come. Not all of them liked poetry though. I was able to convince a couple students who I knew hated poetry to come and try it out.

Multiple intelligence theory was my basis for the activities I did in reading and writing poetry. When we read, I used the following options for the students to respond to the activities:
Artistic - Create a drawing or image of what you see when reading the poem. This could be multiple images of several lines, or just one overall image. [Visual/Spatial Intelligence]

Soundtrack - If the poem was a movie, choose three to five songs that would play in the background while the poem was being read. [Musical Intelligence]

Write a Letter - Write a letter from the point of view of the speaker in the poem, or a character in the poem, explaining what is happening from their point of view. [Intrapersonal Intelligence] Or write a letter to the speaker or a character where you emphasize with their situation, praise or criticize a trait, or offer advise. [Interpersonal Intelligence]

Pantomime - Act out the poem, but walk as the speaker would walk, go through the movements as the speaker would. Show the speaker's emotions through the way you move. [Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence]

Find the Patterns - Map out the rhyme and rhythm of the poem - how many syllables per line? Which lines rhyme? How do these elements, or lack there of, lend themselves to the message of the speaker? [Logical-Mathematical Intelligence, Linguistic Intelligence]
The students have to be able to explain how the pieces related to the specific poem. The last two activities, pantomime and finding patterns, wouldn't necessarily work with all the poems, but the first three activities were for the most part universal. So I'd throw in the last two only when the material allowed (like it would with this poem).

Often this activity was done in pairs or groups. We would read a select number of poems in class, then each pair or group would take one of the poems and decide which intelligence they wanted to use.

I distributed surveys at the beginning and the end of the course. The very unscientific results were that students had a greater appreciation for poetry from the beginning to the end of the course.

I used this same method again while student teaching and the majority of students chose the drawing because they thought it was the easiest. Then I asked them to explain their response and it didn't go so well for them. Other students, however, proved their comprehension of the selected chapters in Night with their drawings.

I think a mini-lesson on each one where I model the process for poems we had read in class and discussed a few possible interpretations would improve the results of this exercise. I might use some poems by Shel Silverstein for these mini-lessons.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Rote Memorization

I've been battling with my conscience over the use of rote memorization.

This method was the core of Bantu education in South Africa. Here's how a Bantu education class would go:

Teacher lectures for 15 minutes. Sometimes the teacher will repeat a statement multiple times, and the students are expected to state the last word of the statement.
Teacher: "There are three types of what?
Students: "ABUSE"
Teacher: "Correct, there is physical -"
Students: "ABUSE"
Teacher: "sexual -"
Students: "ABUSE"
Teacher: "and emotional -"
Students: "ABUSE"
For the second half of the class, notes are written on the blackboard and the student copies them word for word into their notebooks. Tests consisted mostly of fill in the blank questions. The first level of Bloom's taxonomy was good enough. But those who held the power were intentionally trying not to educate students.

Rote memorization goes against everything I've learned and everything I've practiced. I've always considered it one of the deadly sins of education.

But last week, my South African counterpart and I decided that our seventh graders need to know their multiplication tables before we go into long division. Some of these students can't count by 2s, much less multiply. So, although it's killing our progression with the curriculum, we're hitting them with everything we can.

We started with Mad Math Minute, but we're giving them 10 questions to complete in the 60 seconds instead of 30 to save on paper and because three or four students out of 49 get through the 10. We're having them make flash cards and study them in class and at home. I'm doing a series of lessons using the number dots.

And we're counting aloud in class by 2s, 3s, 4s, 5s, through to the 12s. On the 2s, 5s, and 10s, to a hundred, on the others to X times 12.

The idea made me cringe.

But it was the way I learned them. Full class repetition, every time we lined up for gym, lunch, and recess.

So maybe rote memorization has its place in very rare circumstances, when building a foundation of facts so that you can learn more complex facts - like in math and maybe sometimes in science.

Then Christian throws this wrench into my works:
Every one of my 10th graders -- 4 sections worth (the entire 10th grade for our school, actually) -- were given the following non-negotiable challenge the first week of this 3rd quarter:

Each of you has been assigned the challenge to memorize Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias," a 14-line poem centered on the historical fragments of one leader's "cold command" that lies "half sunk" in sand long after his proclamation of greatness was supposed to inspire "[d]espair" in those standing before him.

You are to write out the full poem -- word for word, punctuation mark for punctuation mark -- without making a single mistake of any type. Not even a single comma out of place or a missing moment of capitalization. Perfection, in other words.

There are 2 possible grades: "zero" or "A+". Nothing in between. Until you ace it, you'll have a "big fat zero" in the gradebook for an assignment that is the equivalent of a major essay.

Granted, you can re-take the challenge over and over again (outside of class) anytime this quarter until you ace it...but don't be tempted to wait too long to get it done. Trust me. You do not want to be trying to 're-memorize' it weeks from now after forgetting about the assignment as the rest of the syllabus takes over.

That being said, this will be a real test for many of you. And it'll be a great warm-up as we prime our brains/imaginations for doing similar work -- on paper and in front of an 'audience' -- once Shakespeare comes knocking on the classroom door later this semester.

[All italics are the author's.]

I'm sure his students could pull it off, but for me the question was why. What are they going to learn from memorizing Shelley? But my mind was a little more open to the idea since I had been doing it in math class, and I asked Christian for his rationale.

Ben: Know that I'm definitely NO expert on the real implications of 'memorization' projects (and frankly rarely give 'traditional' exams that require such study styles) I can only offer an anecdotal response. Here goes:

Skills (beyond the obvious 'I did it'):

* An ability to 'enter' the poem in a way that would have been otherwise impossible if they had only 'read' it or 'analyzed' it. I am convinced that most of my students now 'own' the poem on 'their' terms. I was just the audience for this moment.

* An ability to look for 'patterns' or 'techniques' to aide their own thinking and memorization style. Once the kids began to break down the poem into component parts and saw how 'visual' it was, the anxiety fell away for most.

* EVERY one of them can now 'empathize' more personally with ANYONE who acts, presents, etc. And they can see themselves doing it in ways that many would not have thought possible before.

* When we discuss the 'oral' tradition of literature's roots, they know 'get it' on a much deeper level. The traveling bard did NOT read from paper. They had the entire story, poem, etc memorized...including some really 'epic' pieces.

As to what they 'learned'?

* "Know thyself (as a problem solver)" is what comes to mind here for me. Instead of generically thinking they could or could not do this, every one of them had to solve the puzzle in their own way...and everyone has figured it out.

* And there are obviously the many 'intellectual' elements that allow this poem (and the entire Romantic poetry movement) to come to life and raise off the printed page for them.

I hope this helps or makes sense.

Thanks for the response.

Fair enough, though I question a few of his reasons - the purpose of "analyzing" a poem is to enter it and own it and I think approaching that through the multiple intelligences is more reliable way for students to own the poem (I tried to link to this method I've used, but it turns out I've never blogged about it - later this week). And if I was going to use recitation to teach the oral tradition, I've have them present verse orally, and it would be Homer or Beowulf, something that was part of the oral tradition (unless I'm wrong and Shelley was on some level).

The rest of the reasons are cross-curricular study skills, and but I could see the worth in helping students learn these skills towards the beginning of the year. And as Christian writes in the full post, some students walked away actually liking a poem they had dreaded. So maybe there is something to be said for it.

I'm not going to ask my students to memorize poems anytime soon, but these experiences do keep me mindful of the toolbox I have available, even though some of the tools aren't popular according to where the pendulum was when I graduated. (Dan planted the seed for that thought a while ago here.)

Update: Added link to new post about using Multiple Intelligences theory with poetry analysis.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

How Do We Teach Critical Thinking?

Here in South Africa, the teaching methods of Bantu education and their effects can still be seen. One problem I've encountered when teaching classes is getting students to respond to my questions. They're used to answering questions that deal with identifying, recalling, and understanding, but don't do so well with the higher level thinking of comparison and evaluation. Most often, they seem confused by my questions. They don't understand why I'm asking them something I haven't already given them the answer to previously. The teachers may be as equally confused by my line of questioning - their teachers didn't ask those kinds of questions either. All of them were subjected to the Bantu education system, and they've worked very hard to overcome its effects.

I would define critical thinking as the ability to choose the "best" option from various options (whatever I mean by option) and explain and justify the choice. Our trainer at pre service training defined it as the ability to argue the other side of an issue. I think anything above the understanding threshold of Bloom's taxonomy constitutes critical thinking.

My one successful lesson in this area utilized a chart to compare the good and bad effects of mining in South Africa with a fourth grade Economic Management Sciences class. So charts are a good tool.

What is critical thinking? How do we teach critical thinking in the schools? Do we teach it, or do we only model it? What tools can we use to facilitate critical thinking?

Friday, January 4, 2008

It's About the Teaching

It's good luck I ended up in South Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Because the country is in the process of developing, I've been able to keep up on my Google Reader list via cell phone.

May seem like a trivial thing. But there have been some great posts lately from writers who I often read. Many that make me realize this blog and my involvement in the blogosphere as a whole is fulfilling its original purposes:
  1. Helping me to find and use Web 2.0 tools in the classroom; but to a greater extent and more importantly,

  2. To make me a better teacher.
Bud posts about similar reasons for blogging. So does Cindy in this post. Two posts I read one morning a few weeks ago hit it home for me.
The first is from a new post Karl suggested, Beyond School. Clay writes about a lesson he taught in the spring:
Sure, the attempt to be “Classroom 2.0″ with the 1001 Flat World Tales was not your run-of-the-mill way to deliver a lesson - it was inventive, it was fresh, and it had pedagogical potential to improve both engagement and literacy. But. In terms of its content, its basic objectives, it was nothing new at all. Just a traditionally irrelevant and arbitrary, teacher-dictated little exercise in writing a nice little story for school with other nice little students stuck in their classrooms around the world.

It wasn’t “Beyond School” at all. It was Classroom 1.0 with Web 2.0 bells and whistles. In terms of vision, it was still “school-y.”

“Nobody’s doing anything about it.” It kept on echoing. My pride in the 1001 Flat World Tales collapsed as a result. I wasn’t “teacher 2.0.” I was one of the “Nobodies” that frustrated students by my complicity in schoolhouse irrelevance.
From this experience and his first year of blogging, he reaches this conclusion:
On New Year’s Day, 2007, I started this blog. I named it “Beyond School” and, in the months that followed, thought I was being true to the aspiration so vaguely adumbrated in that title. A lot has happened in the seven months since that time that has energized my professional life beyond my wildest expectations, and none if it would have occurred if I hadn’t started participating in the edublogosphere.

But I see now that my personal journey to get Beyond School is only now starting to crystallize. It’s not about web 2.0 for me anymore (though that is a tool I’ll continue using). And it’s definitely not about “Classroom 2.0,” since I dislike the realities of schools and classrooms as much now, as a teacher, as I did when I was a very miserable high school student.

Putting “what it is about” in positive terms is more difficult, but here are a few stabs. It’s about not being “a Nobody doing anything” when my students are looking for “Somebody doing something” about what they care about. It’s about inviting them to discover that they have the power to do something too. It’s about being a community leader more, and a teacher less. It’s about extending my relationship with these young adults beyond the nine-month term (if church youth group leaders can do it, so can teachers - and they can do it in the name of earth instead of heaven). It’s about re-conceptualizing schools as community action centers instead of walled gardens (or day-care centers, or juvenile detention centers). It’s about designing relevant experiences and projects in which any metaphors or synecdoches that, Nature help us, they learn, will have a purpose and meaning beyond an alphanumeric grade.

It’s about trying to be World-Changing instead of World-Ignoring and World-Ignorant.
The same morning I read this post by Dan (who won the title of "Best New Blog" in the Edublogger Awards this year) where he defends the use of handouts and worksheets:
Let me say, first, that I think there is a decent heart here, something that may lightly rattle those  teachers who content themselves cranking out worksheet after worksheet, passing them out after a rote opener, and then receiving questions at their desks.

But I think her post also reflects:
a. the 21st-century-learning crowd's total misapprehension of how students learn mathematics, particularly of how students who don't understand mathematics at all learn mathematics, and
b. the 21st-century-learning crowd's haste to throw out old mediums along with their bathwater.
Maybe technology isn't going to "change" education. Maybe a better way to talk about it is as an additional condiment option - like the first time you have ranch with your french fries. Ketchup has its advantages, uses, and shortcomings, as does ranch.
In the past two years, I've reflected on my student teaching and my need to remember my college training and find my own voice. I've explored the pedagogy of vocabulary instruction and the ed-tech tools that could compliment that instruction - topics that I'd like to address more fully in a Master's thesis someday. I've further explored my teaching abilities and developed classroom management skills as a substitute and considered alternatives to the traditional model of education. But the reflections I've done here and the thinking it encourages has multiplied the learning from the experiences ten-fold.
Looking at the big picture, it's not about the technology. It's about the teaching - pedagogy in practice.