Sunday, November 29, 2009

Not So Teachable Moments

Have you sat at the back of your classroom recently? I feel like I learn so much from watching others teach. When we are in the throws of what we do, rarely do we have time to take notice of Lara’s dazed look, Tim staring out the window, Tammy’s disappointment at not being able to share, Luis’s look of glee at being right. Teaching is so…well, frenetic.

However, when you put some distance between yourself and the class, you start to notice things you never noticed before—important things, like for example, how we teach read aloud.

I have long been a proponent of using read aloud to teach skills in meaningful contexts. As I sat and watched my colleagues use read aloud to support reading instruction, I felt like I was looking in a mirror. In their expressions, I recognized my own. In their words, I heard my own. In their shortcomings, I saw my own.

“Shortcomings?” you ask. Interactive read aloud seems like one of the most straightforward approaches out there. But as I watched, my colleagues talked about characters and themes and morals. In addition, they made predictions and asked questions. And thirty to forty minutes later, the read aloud ended.

While the many skills and strategies that came up during the read aloud were important, it took thirty to forty minutes to complete. It is no wonder Lara looks dazed and Tim is staring out the window. They are getting bored. And possibly confused. “Why are we reading this book?”they wonder.

Read alouds offer many teaching opportunities. Watching my colleagues reminded me that when we are using read alouds to teach what children need to know to become better readers, we need to be very conscious of what we want children to learn. While it is tempting to follow the conversation in every direction possible, we need to remember that that decision comes with the risk of losing our purpose in the middle of the conversation. Some kids might get it, but others will leave simply thinking, “what was the point of that?”

As teachers, we are trained to seize teachable moments and no doubt, great children’s literature is filled with them. However, do we teach more when we teach less? When it comes to read aloud, the answer, unequivocally, is “yes.”

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Shroud of Secrecy

This weekend, my brother was a vendor at a local woodworking expo. As a show of moral support, I stopped by to see him. As I made my way through the crowd (and it was surprisingly crowded), I stopped to admire all sorts of beautiful, one-of-a-kind works of art.

In the far corners of the room, I noticed large groups of people gathered to listen to what other hobbyists and professionals had to say about perfecting finishes or more precise saw cuts. All those folks recognized there was information out there to help them do what they do better. They embraced the opportunity to learn.

One day during the week past, I presented a mini workshop at a nearby school district. The crowd was respectful and listened politely. When we broke out into groups, a teacher asked me, “Did our administrators tell you we don’t know how to teach reading?”

This question left me dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say.

This is not the first time I have met a teacher suspicious of a professional development initiative. Instead of learning being an opportunity, it is an insult. They are curiously suspicious, loathe to admit that there might be gaps or things that they don’t know about teaching.

The woodworkers reminded me that we all have things to learn about our craft. Just like they don’t attend seminars because they are incapable of creating beautiful things out of wood, teachers don’t attend professional development because they don’t know how to teach children.
Beautiful, one-of-a-kind works of art are the culmination of study, practice, and reflection. If we want a masterpiece, we’ve got to embrace every opportunity to learn.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Turtle and the Hare

In a blog titled Book Emergencies, I introduced you to my now fourth grade son Matthew, my feast or famine reader. On some occasions, he devours books, on others, he nibbles his way through them. Last month, Jeff Kinney’s Dog Days came out and when he got his hands on it, he read it in one day, staying up late to finish it. Since then, he has merrily returned to Lego magazine and his fifth reread of Club Penguin pick your own ending. In a conversation with other teachers, I affectionately referred to Matthew as “my turtle,” the one content to plod along slowly, slowly, slowly.

My other son, Nathan, is “my hare.” He’s a first grader who wants to read everything. He’s dying to read “chapter books.” In fact, very often he will pick up a Magic Tree House book and read several lines and not make a mistake.

Hallelujah, right?

Wrong. I am worried about Nathan, too. Sure, he can say all the words in Magic Tree House but he works awfully hard at it. All of his energy is poured into decoding and by the time he reaches the end of a paragraph, do you know what he has left for understanding? Zilch.

Matthew, on the other hand, understands everything. Recently, he read Amber Brown is Not a Crayon, another book below his “level.” Yet, as he read this story, he talked about how Amber is “forgetful” (like him, he added) and Justin is feeling “awkward” about moving. When he finished he told me that this book is “a lot like that saying ‘If you love something, set if free.’”

When he told me this, I nearly fell off my chair…and as I hit my head, a thought occurred to me. So, he reads all this easy stuff, but he gets it. In fact, not only does he get it, he goes deep.
Hmmm. Maybe Aesop was onto something when he told us about the turtle and the hare. Maybe slow and steady really is the way to win the race.