Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Magic? Or Just Reflective Teaching? Lessons from a 9 Year Old

When last I left you, I had imposed upon the nine year teacher of the Dark Arts and suggested that he listen to his students. He was slightly annoyed but the next day something amazing happened.

Lessons at Hogwarts resumed. In preparation for the day’s lesson, Matthew prepared a ditto so that his students didn’t have to write as much. As it turned out, it did cut down slightly on the amount of writing Matthew’s students had to do. But, they never finished taking the notes about the fantastic beasts that Matthew had prepared for his lesson.

Later that evening, it was time for another class at Hogwarts. This time, Matthew decided that he wasn’t going to have his students copy notes. He was going to read aloud to them and ask them to draw pictures of how they imagined gnomes. He was surprised at the outcome. As he read, Nathan drew a diagram and labeled it. He took notes on what Matthew was saying. When all was said and done, Nathan filled up almost four pieces of paper with drawings and words.

When I asked Matthew what made the difference, he admitted that this perplexed him but as he thought about it, he guessed it was because his teaching was “more inclusive.” He thought that allowing Nathan to draw really helped and he thought that because it was more about what Nathan was interested in, he was more willing to write and participate than he had been when Matthew was telling him what he should do.

As a teacher, and a teacher of teachers, I have been thinking a lot about what happened in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in my basement. When Matthew’s original plan wasn’t working, he made an attempt to change it. When his second plan didn’t get the results he wanted, he changed again. He didn’t complain that Nathan was defiant, hyper-active, ill-behaved, attention deficit, or simply incapable. He realized that the problem was his methodology and HE changed. And then suddenly, he had a successful student.

I think Matthew’s experience as a Dark Arts Instructor holds many lessons for us as educators. While some might attribute his attitude and success to magic (and the naiveté of youth), I think it’s more than that. I call it good teaching.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Taking Notes in Defense Against the Dark Arts

My nine year old son has recently discovered the joy of Harry Potter and has immersed himself in the world of Hogwarts, Harry, Hermione, and Ron. It has been fascinating to watch how this reading experience has transcended the pages of his book to his world of play. He has built Diagon Alley out of Lego, he raided my broom closet for everything with a long handle to play quidditch in the backyard, and at this very moment, he is downstairs pretending to be a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher instructing his brother and friend on how to cast spells against all things evil.

However, school is not going well. The Dark Arts students are revolting. They are seven years old and are being forced to copy notes. My younger son complains, “Matthew, I want to play but it’s the writing I hate!”

I listened as things heated up and decided to seize the teachable moment. I called Matthew upstairs and said, “You know, I think it’s important that you listen to your students. Think about what Nathan is saying to you.”

A tad bit annoyed at my interference, Matthew retorted. “Mom, he’s going into second grade. They’re going to be doing a lot more writing.”

This was a funny moment to me. One of Matthew’s pet peeves is teachers who say “you’re going to need this…when you’re in fifth grade, when you get to the middle school, when…”

And here he was defending his teaching using the exact same language.

There are certain things that we do as teachers that make students groan (writing notes on the board for students to copy and memorize, administering an ELA practice test for the seventh time…). When students ask why, the best answer we can give them is “just because.” We sometimes follow it up with inane comments like “it will make you smarter, it’ll help you on the test, it’s good for you, it will help you when you get to middle school, or you’ll need it next year.” But the bottom line is, sometimes, we don’t have a good reason.

And this is a bad practice.

We need to think hard about what we are teaching and why we are teaching it. Time is one of teaching’s greatest demons and I am sure that any good Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher would insist that if our justification for teaching is “because,” the antidote is simple: Abracadabra, circular file.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Professional Learning Opportunities: Always Available

As recently as three years ago, I was the person who checked email every three days, read books for information, and went to conferences to learn and talk to other teachers.

Little by little, that all began to change.

It started with email. I went from once every three days to once a day.

Then, I got a blackberry.

Now, I check email every ten minutes (or so).

As far as books go, I still read books. I love books. But now, some of them come via Amazon on my Kindle and…I have discovered I can get information—good information---on the Internet.

I joined Diigo.(search litbuilder)

I joined Twitter. http://twitter.com/kimyaris

(I have yet to join Facebook).

And now, I have a constant stream of cutting edge information coming across my desk at every hour of every day.

Some days, I feel like I can’t keep up. The things to see and do and learn online are endlessly fascinating. I start clicking at five in the morning and I look up and it’s noon and I’m still in my pajamas. I’m smarter, but man, when will I have time to do the work I’m paid to do?

As a staff developer, I am often caught in the crossfire between teachers who want more professional development and administrators whose hands are tied because of dollars. I have watched ‘not enough training’ become an excuse for abandoning new ideas and approaches in the classroom on countless occasions. In an age when I am wondering how to scale back my learning because it seems to consume too much of my time, I wonder how it is possible that educators feel like there isn’t enough information to do the job well.

As I mull over my thoughts about this school year, I am thinking about building personal learning networks and harnessing technology for professional growth and development. I have done some of my best learning at home in front of my computer in the company of thousands of like-minded educators. The question now is, how can we help ALL teachers recognize that professional learning opportunities abound, you just need to know how to access them?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Noticing Beautiful Language: A Risk Worth Taking?

A picture of an electrical cord? You’re probably thinking that summer has been just a tad bit slow for me. Au contraire.

I must admit, when I dragged this heap out of the garage, I saw it for what it was: a big, orange tangled mess. In my mind, it would serve a single purpose: power my computer outside so I could enjoy the summer weather while working. So long as I could stretch it far enough to reach the patio table, I didn’t care about the knots. End of thinking about electrical cord.


Matthew came out to ask for something to eat. As always, I held up my pointer finger warning him to hold onto his thought so that I could finish mine. As he waited patiently, he looked down at this jungle of wires and said, “That is so cool. It’s like a roller coaster for electricity.”

At that moment, I looked up from my computer because I had to hear those words again. “What did you say?” I asked. And he repeated his words. “That looks like a roller coaster for electricity.” I watched him as his eyes followed the jumbled mess around imagining what it would be like to be a current pulsing through this unintelligible labyrinth of wire. In that moment, I was reminded of how kids can see things in uninhibited ways, how easy it is for them to access beautiful language, and how easily it all slips away.

Later that evening, Nathan, my other son, also said something inspiring. It was something that I liked the sound of, but sadly, I didn’t take the time to linger like I did with “It’s like a roller coaster for electricity” and now his words escape me.

If we want kids to learn to see and hear the cadence and rhythm in their own words, we have to celebrate language. We need to stand up and take notice. When we meet amazing language in books, we need to stop. When poetry is spoken from the lips of students, we need to stop. If we don’t, the language is lost and we run the risk of perpetuating an insidious cycle of uninspired word choice and exile ourselves to page after page of It was fun. She wore a pretty dress. Ugh.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Student Blog Experiment Update: Week One

We are one week into the summer and I have been watching the “blog experiment” from afar. I wanted to step back and see what Matthew would do on his own so I have made a conscious effort not to harp on it and say stuff like, “hmmm, I notice you haven’t blogged lately.” I wanted to kind of assess where his head is at with it and what place writing has in his life.

So far this week, Matthew has made two posts on his blog—a “cheese” about what’s doing with Lego Harry Potter and a “whine” about a family fight. (If you’re interested in reading and commenting on his thoughts you can check him out at http://www.whineandcheesewithmatthew.blogspot.com/) Even though he hasn’t written since then, he has talked a lot to me about what he could blog about. Among the things he has mentioned being blog worthy: the wooden sword his grandfather made him, the tortoise we saw at a flea market, the waterslide that drops out into an eight foot pool, seeing plants like mandrake root and wolfsbane (both mentioned in Harry Potter) at a science museum apothecary in Syracuse.

One of the important things I have been learning by sitting back and observing Matthew as a writer is that he thinks about writing a lot more than he actually writes. I’m like that too. Last Tuesday, I sat down to rewrite the “About Us” section of the website. I couldn’t do it that day. I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I needed some time to incubate my thoughts. A week later, I can say that I feel ready to compose.

So often during writing workshop, I expect students to write “on demand.” I teach my lesson and I say, “Okay, everybody, now your turn. Get busy writing.” When kids don’t write, I call them “off task” and tell them to “get to work.” When I have that moment of intuition that alerts my sub-conscious that maybe this kid needs time to think, I dismiss it and tell my head to shut up because we have too much to get through. There just isn’t time to think.

This is a problem. How can we reconcile giving kids the time they need to think and reflect and learn with our long list of curriculum “to-dos?” Does it really count as teaching if we can tick it off our list?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The READING Checklist Manifesto

A couple of weeks ago, I shared that I was looking for something non-teachery to jumpstart my summer reading. The book I settled on was The Checklist Manifesto (Amazon Affiliate Link) by Dr. Atul Gawande. The beginning read like some of the action packed scenes I’ve seen on Grey’s Anatomy and ER. I felt queasy after reading about some of the operating room emergencies he described but what I really liked about this book was that in the cracks of what was primarily a book about medicine, was careful reflection that could be applied to all professional disciplines. In the early chapters, Gawande wrote:

“Here, then, is our situation at the start of the twenty-first century: We have accumulated stupendous know-how. We have put it in the hands of some of the most highly-trained, highly skilled, and hardworking people in our society. And with it, they have indeed accomplished extraordinary things. Nonetheless, that know-how is often unmanageable. Avoidable failures are common and persistent, not to mention demoralizing and frustrating, across many fields—from medicine to finance, business to government. And the reason is increasingly evident: the volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, and reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.”

“Avoidable failures are common and persistent, not to mention demoralizing and frustrating.”

These words inevitably bring me back to education. I think about reading and the oft talked about failure of schools to effectively bring all students to an acceptable level of reading proficiency. How is it that so much has been researched and written about teaching kids to read, yet, education consistently fails to meet the needs of some students?

In The Checklist Manifesto (Amazon Affiliate Link), Gawande told the story about being part of a multi-nation team sponsored by the World Health Organization to devise a cost-effective way of improving surgical outcomes. After many meetings and much research, they devised a simple, two-minute, nineteen item checklist to be completed during the course of surgery. In their clinical trials, using the checklist caused the rate of major complications following surgery to fall 36% and deaths to decrease 47%. Those are significant results and because of what—a checklist?

This has got me thinking a lot about what we in education can do “to increase our outcomes without necessarily increasing our skill.” If something as simple as a checklist has made such a significant difference in efficiency and effectiveness in something as complicated as an OR, should we be considering it in our classrooms as well?

Gawande and his team took a lot of time to devise and refine the checklist that is now being used in operating rooms across the world, but off the top of my head, some of the things I would be considering for my checklist to improve daily reading instruction would include:

_____ALL students have spent no less than thirty minutes reading independently.
_____ALL students are reading books during independent reading that match their ability level.
_____I have checked in with my neediest, most struggling readers in either a small group or one-on-one conference.
_____I have delivered whole group, small group, and one-on-one instruction.
_____ My whole group, small group, and one-on-one mini lessons were derived from the observed needs of the children in my classroom.
_____I have read aloud to my students today.

This is where I’d start. As I continue to think about developing this list, I’m curious to know what you think. Does anything on my list seem unreasonable? What else should be on this list?