Summer…and Inspiration

I have started this post so many times over the past several weeks. I get about halfway through, and decide that no…that’s not really what I want to say. So it sits as a draft here, waiting for something to put me back where I was when I began writing. That’s what writers do though…start some pieces, finish others, and tie a few together.

I toured a local university’s physics labs this evening with colleagues. When I attended there, the building housing the labs didn’t exist, 3/4 of the buildings on campus didn’t exist and those that did had no air conditioning or too much heat or none at all, and grassy areas were non-existent. As I sat outside waiting for the others, I thought about the classes and professors I loved, those I loathed, and those I wanted to be when I grew up. I don’t use Chaucer in my everyday life (English majors unite!), but it’s a great example of what college is for a lot of us…what school as a whole is for a lot of us. The things we learn in school aren’t really applicable to anything…until they are.

I have always believed that we go about education all wrong. We say we want to grow critical thinkers, writers, mathematicians, historians, scientists, artists, engineers…but then we talk about how we teach subject areas: math, language arts, science, history… We have the opportunity to change how we think–we teach children how to be thinkers, writers, artists, etc. We NAME blocks of time by subject area because it’s tradition. Every subject area should bleed into every other one because they are all connected. Kids should experience math in science, writing in history, reading and spelling in technology, math in art, technology in theater, and reading, writing, and communicating in language studies.

Here’s where the inspiration comes into play.

Let’s reset and reimagine what we want school to look like for our kids. We have endured the most difficult school year that many of us have ever experienced. The kids we serve deserve to experience school differently this coming year.

They deserve to experience physics and explore it, not simply listen to us talk about it or read a textbook or articles about it. They deserve to explore the insides of a worm and compare it to the insides of a human (even if it’s done in a virtual way to save both the worm and the human). They deserve to understand how and why playwrights write and how their work reflects the time they live in, how journalists research the connections between events and people, and the ways that scientists record and reflect on data. They deserve to experience math as a concept that has a practical purpose before an equation or a rule. They deserve to explore, to discover, and to experiment. Their classrooms shouldn’t be so rigid that there is always only one correct answer–sometimes the wrong answer leads to the right answer for a different question.

They deserve to know how what we’re asking them to do applies in real life.

“You’re going to create a diagram in your notebook of what you see today because scientists record their observations in particular ways, with diagrams and written descriptions, to ensure that other scientists can learn from it.”

“You’re going to write about an event, noting the who, what, why, where, when, and how of the event using this organizer to help keep those pieces straight, and then the article you’ll create once you’ve made your initial notes will include specific details to tell your reader the story of the event because that’s what journalists do.”

Let’s think about what and how we assess. If you’re asking a child to write a description of what they see in a microscope, focus on the content of what they write and not their handwriting. Notice their handwriting and make a mental note that you’ll need to address letter formation and appropriate size, but let that go when you’re assessing how well your scientists or journalists can describe what they see. There should never be one big assessment at the end of a unit without lots of smaller, formative, informal assessments beforehand. You should be able to predict how your students will do on the common assessments you and your colleagues give…and should have addressed issues early on with additional practice, changes in how you’re teaching, and clearing up misunderstandings to ensure that all your students do well. And those assessments should be authentic application of what the kids actually learned, not just paper and pencil tests or Google quizzes with multiple choice and matching sections.

Think about how we present information to our students and support their learning. Do we rely on PowerPoints and slides to teach or do we allow kids to explore and discover and discuss before we clarify or explain? Distributed practice works. Inquiry works. Worksheets don’t grow dendrites. (Some famous researcher wrote a book about that…so I know it’s true.) Vocabulary should be explored and sprinkled throughout lessons and discussions. A list of words and definitions never inspired critical thought or wonderings.

Think about how we give feedback. Do we tell kids what they’ve done wrong, or do we ask them questions to better understand their thinking and help them see where the mistakes are or where revisions should be (and WHY they should be)? Is feedback clear and kind? Or is feedback insulting and punitive? Does our feedback encourage learning?

For our youngest learners, there are some things that simply have to be taught in a specific way. Reading is one of them. But there isn’t any reason for kids to miss out on exploring words and sounds and letters while they’re learning.

We have the opportunity to advocate for the kids we serve this coming year through our own actions. How will you reimagine your practice to benefit your kids?

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