Monday, October 24, 2011

The Blame Game

Yesterday I checked in to the Hilton in Rye Brook, New York for the New York State Reading Association’s annual conference.  When I arrived, I checked in at the front desk and then proceeded to lug a duffle filled with clothes, a suitcase of AV equipment, and a couple of errant bags through the elevator and maze of hallways to finally arrive at my room.  Ready to lighten my load, I eagerly took out my key card and stuck it in the door. 

The yellow light in the middle lit up. 

Desperate for a green light that signaled entrĂ©e into my room, I took the card out, and put it in again. 

Again, a yellow light. So I tried a third time. 

While famous for my technological ineptitude, I figured after three failed tries, the problem wasn’t me.  So I loaded up all my stuff and headed back down the hall to find a phone to call the front desk. 

A short while later, a man in official looking hotel attire showed up to let me into my room.  We exchanged niceties and viola, I was in!  Let the conference begin!

After trolling the exhibit hall and greeting colleagues whom I haven’t seen in a long while, I returned once again to my room to freshen up for dinner.  When I arrived, I put my key in the door and guess what?

Yellow light. 

Fortunately this time my roommate was there to let me in.  She had two keys that seemed to work so I took one and once again, my key issue seemed to be resolved. 

I left the room, checked to make sure that the key would let me back in and joined friends and colleagues for a lovely dinner with the folks from Scholastic.  When I returned at nearly 11:00 PM, I put my key in the door and need I even say?

Yellow light. 

I trekked down the hall once again to the community phone and called the front desk and this time they sent security.  When the hotel representative arrived, he took my key and looked at it, then he looked at me, and then he tried sticking it in the door.  Yellow light.

At that point, he turned to me and said, “When you left the room, did you slam the door?”

I couldn’t believe it.  Was he insinuating that it was my fault the door didn’t work?  I explained that this was the third time today that this had happened and that generally I don’t slam doors when I leave rooms. 

Then he inserted his specially programmed, ultra powerful, get into any room key card and unlocked my door.   He jiggled the lock on the other side and said, “See, this wasn’t all the way over, that’s why you couldn’t unlock the door.”

As I got to thinking about this incident, it made me think a lot about teaching.  My son told me last week that he asked a teacher a question and was told, “You should have been paying attention.” In the same way that the security man made me feel responsible for the problem, my son’s teacher made him feel the same way.  When children have questions, it could be because they weren’t paying attention but it could also be that the directions weren’t clear or the child is not an auditory learner and can’t picture what the teacher is talking about. No matter what the case, if there is a problem, we need to quickly assess and evaluate and troubleshoot to solve it.  To take the extra step to blame or pass the buck is just that: an extra step.  It is neither efficient nor EFFECTIVE.

I’m old enough and experienced enough to know that if I have another problem with my door, I will continue to seek the help I need to fix it.  But I wonder about my son.  The next time he has a question, will he ask it? Or, will he blame himself and stay stuck?  

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Deeply Reading a Diorama

On Sunday, I took my children to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  As we wandered the halls of the Asian Peoples exhibit, my eight year old son stopped to peer at a diorama of an ancient group of Syberian people.  As I looked over his shoulder at tiny little figures pulling a whale on a handcrafted sleigh and another group of men pointing swords at a wolf, he exclaimed, “That’s cool!”  I was excited that he was excited but I wanted to know more, I wanted him to know more, so I asked him, “What is this about?”

I can bet any amount of money that you know what he said when I asked this question because his response was the knee jerk answer to probing questions that we hear from children on a daily basis: “I don’t know.”

I prompted him to look again and this time, to look closely at the diorama in small chunks.  He began by peering at the whale being hauled on the sleigh.  His first musing was that the whale was hurt but after some consideration, he decided that the men had gone hunting and that this would be their food.  He guessed that the whale was very, very heavy because there were five men pulling it.  He guessed, too, that it must be very cold there because the men were wearing heavy parkas and boots.  

After looking at this section of the diorama he moved on to the wolf.  I wondered out loud if the wolf was a religious symbol in this culture because in the center of the diorama was a large pole with two wolves hanging.  My son quickly discounted this theory because of the way in which the men had gathered around another wolf with swords, ready to kill.  His thought was that because this was such a cold place, they needed to gather every bit of food that they could.  He hypothesized that the other wolves were hung so high on the stick so that other animals and predators wouldn’t come in to the village and steal their food.

As I think about this learning experience, I realize how at the beginning of this exchange, my son was looking closely but not thinking critically about what he saw.  On the heels of a symposium on the Common Core in Baltimore, I can’t help but think this is exactly what the Common Core aims to change.  In the same way that my son got very little from his first encounter with this diorama, children get very little from their first encounter with difficult text. It requires looking at text in small chunks and close reading and re-readings that force children to actively engage and think about what is at work with literature.  When we take the time to do this, we realize that what makes something “cool” is not simply the words on the page, but the meaning implied and derived from those experiences.  Close reading is about active, critical thinking and until we train children to manage complex text, their response to the question “What is this about?” will always be the same: “I don’t know.”

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Teachers: What Kind of Cook are You?

When the weather begins to cool and the leaves begin to change, I find I become a different kind of cook. I bring my big pots and pans out of storage and carefully select ingredients that will make a delicious soup or stew and fill my house with the aroma of warmth and comfort.   I pluck the last of the basil from the garden and instead of mixing it with oil and vinegar to marinade chicken breast that I will cook on the grill, I stir it into a pot of ripe red tomatoes and mix in oregano and garlic and watch carefully as bubbles begin to erupt on the surface. As I stir and watch my creations simmer on the stovetop, I begin to think: cooking and teaching have a lot in common.

As a cook, I have choices about the way in which I will deliver my food.  Will I mass produce it and slop it onto a paper plate? If I do this, people may accept this meal and politely push their food around to make it look like they ate but they will leave the table dissatisfied. And I can’t be surprised when I meet the eater who rejects this food altogether.  Who wants something prepared with so little care?  If I can’t be bothered, why should they?

That’s why I try not to cook like this.  I want each meal to be an unforgettable experience so I begin by considering my diners.  Who will I be cooking for tonight?  What ingredients will tantalize and awaken their palates?  How will I prepare this meal so that each bite is delectable and savored like a culinary masterpiece that keeps them thinking about this food long after the last morsel has been eaten?  What special ingredient can I add to not only make them want to eat, but crave this food with insatiable desire?

Cooking is rooted in eating. It is about nurturing a basic human need.  It is about feeding people and like teaching, it can be done in a way that merely gets the job done or it can be done in a way that is unforgettable.  The only question left to consider is this: What kind of cook are you?