Thursday, May 10, 2012

Just the Right Words

I love Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse.  Lilly is one of the richest picture book characters that I know and I am always excited by the depth of understanding that students arrive at when challenged to consider her as a character.  But getting them to this point always takes a bit of nudging because when they start to think about Lilly’s behavior and feelings, they want to use words like “nice” and “happy” to describe her.  I explain to children that “nice” and “happy” just don’t seem to really capture who Lilly is and I push them to think of more specific words that help them to unpeel the layers that compose Lilly’s character. 

When forced to reconsider their ideas at the beginning of the story, they think to call her “enthusiastic” and “excited.” Those are words that do capture Lilly’s essence when she stands on line for the buses even though she doesn’t ride one and the way that she asks for her own set of deluxe picture encyclopedias. As they move to the middle of the story and Lilly gets her movie star sun glasses and fancy purple purse and wants to share them with the class, they arrive at words like “hyperactive” and “impatient” and “diva-like.” They want to call her “anxious” and we get the opportunity to talk about the difference between “anxious” and “eager.” They decide that she is eager. 

When the students see Lilly stick the nasty picture of Mr. Slinger into his bookbag, their jaws drop and they call her “mean” and “disrespectful.” They begin to consider whether she really means this or if she is just being “impulsive.”  The discussion is animated and rich with ideas as well as precise vocabulary. 

In her article, “Advancing Our Students Language and Literacy” that appeared in American Educator in winter 2010-2011, Marilyn Jager Adams wrote, “Words are not just words.  They are the nexus—the interface—between communication and thought.  When we read, it is through words that we build, refine, and modify our knowledge.  What makes vocabulary valuable and important is not the words themselves so much as the understandings they afford.” (p. 8)    As children gaze through the lens of behavior and feelings at Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, words act as this conduit to meaning-making that Adams hints at in her article,  making me understand the shift toward academic vocabulary in the Common Core. New words means new ideas.  

Friday, May 4, 2012

Thinking Intermissions

Every now and then you read a tidbit here or there that resonates.  Last spring, I read Brain Rules (amazon affiliate link) by John Medina and was particularly struck by the case that he makes for exercise.  He points out that “from an evolutionary perspective, our brains developed while working out, walking as many as twelve miles per day.  The brain still craves that experience…” (p.2) After reading the chapter in this book dedicated to exercise, I really began to think about the amount of time we ask children to sit and started to question the harm in quiet, seated children.  I wondered how learning could be different if we invited children to move more often?

Throughout the course of the school year, I have experimented with having students move about the classroom. While the transitions don’t always meet my expectations, the learning outcomes have been impressive. 

Back in 2009, I wrote a blog titled Not-So-Teachable Moments where I reflected on lengthy read alouds, noticing that in spite of my most animated efforts, some children can’t help but drift off when a books exceed their stamina level for sitting or paying attention.  That experience has stuck with me and I’ve since tried to keep my read alouds focused, always cognizant of the how long it takes to read a book. 

One of my favorite books to read is Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes, but if you know this title, you know it’s a little on the long side especially if you want to stop to talk about any number of the teaching opportunities it presents.  This week, while working with a group of third graders thinking about Lilly’s behavior and feelings, I noticed that in spite of being very interested in the story, they were getting a little restless.  John Medina’s words echoed in my head and halfway through the story, I invited them to stand up and join me for a “thinking intermission.” 

I explained to the children that what we needed was a few moments to walk and contemplate our ideas about this story.  The rule was that they had to walk quietly (they had plenty of opportunity to talk and share ideas during the read aloud) about the room thinking about Lilly and their ideas about her character.  When they returned, I asked about their new thinking and was astonished at how many of them came up with poignant new words to describe her behavior and feelings.  The exercise boost their brain power, just like John Medina promised!

In reflecting on this experience, I am forced to think hard about the beliefs and traditions that prevail in education.  I am thinking that “sit still and think” is not the most efficient and effective way to foster new ideas and it makes me wonder, what else do we do that we should be doing differently? 

Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Seattle, WA: Pear, 2008. Print.