Monday, November 29, 2010

Teach them Well

Left to their own devices, my boys, aged 10 and 7, would grunt hello in the morning, leave their pants of the floor for me to pick up, and command me to fix them a snack when they were hungry. I find these behaviors rude and appalling and work very hard to correct these obnoxious habits. When they bark orders, I remind them to say please and thank you. In spite of their angry protests, I make them clean up the bits of construction paper they sprayed all over the floor in the great confetti experiment. They are responsible for putting their clothes in the hamper and their dirty dishes in the sink and as a result, people often tell me how polite and pleasant my boys are. I am always flattered and hear myself saying, “yes, they are such good boys,” as if their affability were innate and had nothing to do with me at all.

I recently visited a first grade classroom and modeled a lesson about how to help children recognize words they don’t know in their reading. Following the lesson, the six year olds in this class grabbed their book baggies, found their cozy spot in the classroom, and read for fifteen minutes. There was a quiet buzz in the classroom as children spoke softly into their whisper phones or shared something too good to be missed with a friend sitting near them. The tenor of this independent reading period was focused and productive. When I complemented the teacher on the efficacy of her reading workshop, she smiled and said, “It’s because I have such a good group this year.”

It surprised me to hear her say this. Implied in her comment was the notion that what I saw might not be possible with a different group of students. In the same way that I attribute my own children’s pleasantries to something they were born with, she saw her success as a workshop teacher as dependent upon her students. I quickly reminded her that while it’s always nice to work with a “good group,” our successes as educators are directly linked to what we know about best practice and the daily decisions we make about how to implement this knowledge. While “a good group” might facilitate implementation, what I saw was directly linked to good teaching.

As educators, we need to think hard about educational responsibility. When things go well, it is not just because our students are “smart” or “working really hard.” It’s because we are doing something right as teachers. In the same sense, when things are not going well, it’s not just because children are “difficult” or “come from poor homes” or “distractible.” It’s because we need to do something different to reach those students. While it is easy, and arguably natural, to attribute both positive and negative learning outcomes to children, there is really but one direction to point the finger for the success and failure of our students: at ourselves. What students learn and how well they learn is dictated by the quality of the person delivering the instruction: children’s educations are our responsibility. The more we know, the better we teach. The better we teach, the better they learn.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thanks for the Stories

With Thanksgiving on the horizon, this is the time of year I find myself thinking about all of the things for which I am grateful. As I started to write this blog, I made a list that included things like:
  • Collaboration
  • Questions
  • Thoughtful Discussions
  • Reflection
And then I moved to things like

  • Inquisitive children
  • Quiet time to think
  • Blank pieces of paper

And then, I found myself jotting down:

  • Books
  • Interesting illustrations
  • Poems

And it got me thinking a lot about children’s literature. I love children’s books. My own personal collection contains over 3,000 titles that have enchanted my family, my students, and myself. Authors and illustrators are the truest champions of literacy. Without them, there’d be no books. Without books, our children would not read. So, for this year’s Thanksgiving post, I would like to share my tribute to children’s authors. I am grateful for the amazing work of the legions people who write books that children want to read and want to personally say, Thank You to all of them.

Once upon a time,
Someone sat
Characters like
They sat, they dreamed, they wrote,
Of magic tree houses,
     magic school buses,
          magic castles,
To capture the
               And awe
Of a child.

To any person who has ever written for a child, thank you. With each book and illustration, another reader is born.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Better than the Best

In the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (Amazon Affiliate Link), Chip and Dan Heath share a story about pro golfer Tiger Woods. As they tell it, eight championships into his career, Tiger Woods decided that his swing needed an overhaul. For the typical lay person or spectator, it’s hard to imagine that Tiger had anything to improve, let alone the swing that had earned him countless trophies and prizes. One might ask, if something is working, why change it?

As a teacher, I think about this question a lot. Do we really need to change things that are working? I think the answer is no, we don’t need to change them. What we need to do, however, is think about them. If we aim to duplicate or amplify our successes, we need to ask why. Why does what we are doing work? And then we need to ask what. What can I do to make this better?

When Tiger Woods set out to improve his swing, I don’t believe that what motivated him was a notion that he was swinging the club wrong or badly—he simply believed that he could do it better. At the top of his game, Tiger positioned himself as a learner. Since then, he has gone on to win over thirty-five more championships and titles. Why? Because he wanted to be better than the best.

From time to time, we all need a little push to rethink our best practices. Today I am asking you to think about what you are doing that works. Why does it work? What can you do to make this better?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Say a Little Prayer

My computer is dying. As I write this blog (by hand, on a yellow legal pad), I am sitting a prayer-filled bedside vigil as my husband, the computer tech, is desperately attempting to resuscitate Windows which seems to be lost somewhere on the hard drive.

I fidget as I contemplate what the loss of my seven year old laptop may mean. All of the things that I do with ease and automaticity will now be so…complicated: checking my email, tweeting, pulling up a PowerPoint for Tuesday’s afterschool workshop, writing this week’s edition of The Boost.

The gravity of this situation is hitting me hard.


With my computer on life support, I digress from my normal musings about all things literacy. I apologize for the lapse and promise to share something meaningful as soon as I resolve my computer issues. In the meantime, say a little prayer for my ‘puter.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Message from Space

One day, a couple of weeks back, I visited a fifth grade classroom during independent reading. I was on a quest to lift the quality of student thinking through conferring. One-by-one, I made my way around the classroom and eventually, I came to this reader.

Look for a moment at this picture. What are your first thoughts? How might your conversation with this reader begin?

The first thought that I had when I met this child was engagement. His chin sits on the desk and he isn’t touching the book. I immediately drew the conclusion that he wasn’t reading. And if he was, no way was he really into his book.

My objective, as I mentioned a moment ago, was to lift the quality of student thinking. I was wondering how I would do that with a child so clearly disengaged in reading. So, rather than try to go somewhere I doubted would be successful, I introduced the elephant in the room. I said, “I notice you sit differently than other kids sit during reading time. Tell me about this choice.”

I expected that he’d shift in his seat, extend his arms to touch the cover, and initiate a transformational posture change because of what I implied in my opener. But that isn’t what happened at all.

He looked at me and said, “I’m not comfortable sitting at a desk and reading. This is the only way it feels good.”

He went on to tell me about the characters in his book and shared some of the questions he was grappling with. He was clearly not disengaged as I had first thought. He was just uncomfortable.

I have spent a good part of the beginning of this school year thinking about environment. What should a classroom look like? How should a classroom be laid out? At the beginning of the year, it feels like these are aesthetic choices. However, as the year wears on, we are reminded that the choices we make about how to organize our classroom space reach far deeper than aesthetics. Environment establishes the parameters for learning and communicates what we value.

It is now November. Stand in the doorway of your classroom and take a good look around. What message is your space sending?