Tag Archives: literacy

Walls and Boxes

A colleague of mine once said that it was critical for students to write to the same prompt, do the same project (a diorama for you! and you! and you!), take notes the same way to capture the same information, and turn in the same work with only one right response.

Doing so, they said, would teach them what it looks like when work is done, what it means to have work that is done well, and how to evaluate their own work against a set standard – the criteria set forth by a teacher. I saw an article about this somewhere the other day and it noted too that this type of expectation is setting kids up for the real world of adulthood–to be good little worker bees who are able to do what they are asked to do when they are old enough to have a job.

I went along with my colleague’s thinking for a while. I was a newish teacher and wasn’t sure how to prove my hypothesis about why my gut was aching more and more as we moved from unit to unit.

I wanted to see what would happen if we gave kids the opportunity to show what they had learned using a variety of options, each with its own set of criteria but also incorporating a requirement for the same knowledge. One of the things this colleague had noted was that they felt that it was impossible for a teacher to evaluate student learning if everyone was turning in something different–all students had to show the same learning so all students should be doing exactly the same work and then should be evaluated against each other to get a good picture of how the class as a whole was learning. A teacher can’t do that if everyone turns in something different–it all has to be exactly the same.

Almost everything I’ve learned about teaching, I’ve learned from kids. Kids have told me what they need in the past 17 years. And they’ve told other educators for far longer than that. They need, especially in the elementary years, to have opportunities to show what they know in a way that they are confident and able to do it. Some need to tell me what they know in a conversation or a presentation. Others want to sing about it because they can remember things best that way. Some want to draw it out and explain it. Others want to put all of it and then some into a poster and add bling and lights to illustrate the most important parts (the things THEY feel are the most important) and others want to write about it–they want to write about the experiences of people, their thoughts about a particular event, or simply lay out a series of facts. And still others want to recreate something they read about or saw–with a dance or a series of hand movements or by actually making the thing so they can understand how it works.

Kids need choice. They need to choose what they do, how they do it, and all the bits and pieces that go into it. And they need to learn what to do when what they chose doesn’t work out.

A question that came up was how I’ll know if they learned everything if they’re only focusing on something THEY want to share.

I don’t want them to learn everything. There’s a place for regurgitation of facts but I want them to learn enough to be able to connect what they’re learning with other things. They’re capable of finding out when William the Conqueror invaded England. They can google the names of every US president in order or learn the song if it brings them joy, but I’d rather they understand and be able to explain how the awful thing one person did impacted events and other people later on…and be able to connect it all to current and future situations.

A million years ago, when I was little, we learned about Native American tribes in Mrs. Gerlach’s class. I remember using paper bags to make “leather” to create a tipi and writing stories using pictures on the sides using markers, and sugar cubes to create igloos, and learning a little bit about the ways Native Americans used everything in nature to live. It was fun, and I remember that I enjoyed it all very much.

Photo by Jola Kedra on Pexels.com

Here’s what I didn’t learn:

I didn’t learn why they settled where they did or why they didn’t choose to move when the weather was cold and awful or what we’d consider too hot.

I didn’t learn why the Trail of Tears happened or why Native Americans were moved from where they settled first by people who moved here to escape persecution in their home country. And I didn’t learn why people thought that was perfectly reasonable to do.

I didn’t learn how the Native American cultures were the same, or how they were different beyond where they might have lived or what they ate, and I didn’t learn anything about their individual cultures or how their cultural stories connect to stories in other cultures in and beyond the U.S.

And given that I went to a Catholic school, I didn’t learn how their beliefs about God were the same or different than the faith in which I was being brought up. I think that would have been pretty damn important given we were learning how to be good Catholics.

I did learn that my tipi needed to look the same as others right down to how my story looked in pictures and that my igloo had to be shaped just like the other ones. I learned to answer multiple choice questions and match vocabulary words to their definitions.

And now as a grown-up, I don’t remember anything about that content beyond how to make a damn fine piece of paper bag leather and the way that it felt in my hands when it was soft and pliable…and that sharpies work better to draw on it than Crayola markers.

Kids deserve to learn more than how to make paper bag leather tipis. They deserve to be able to explain why they thought it was important to focus on the fact that one Native American culture chose to stay on the Western Slope while others chose to park themselves on the plains. They deserve the opportunity to imagine a life a long time ago and connect to it, comparing the 25-room homes of one culture to the two-bedroom, one-bath house they live in. They deserve to see history, science, literature, and math not as a series of facts to be memorized and spit out when the test day comes but as experiences of real live people who made choices and decisions and had revelations that impact the lives of other real people.

They deserve to get to do the work that generates more “why” questions, more “how” questions, and more “what if” questions.

As educators, we need to look beyond the posters we bought on Amazon or from the teacher store hanging on the walls of our classroom and think beyond the boxes of curriculum that arrive on our tables in August. None of that is learning. Those are resources to help support it. And this is why Joe Schmoe off the street cannot be a teacher–a teacher…a good one…learns over time how to use those resources as something to supplement learning…not to drive it. There’s good stuff in it, to be sure–sometimes there are great questions or ideas that you can steal to make a springboard for kids into a great discussion or great exploration of thought that leads to more questions.

That is learning.

Conference Season, Part Deux

February is when the rest of the annual conferences are scheduled. One of my favorite conferences happens in February, CCIRA.

CCIRA is a literacy organization a friend introduced me to years ago. Their conference is one of the largest in the country, and it often has big names in literacy education speaking either as keynotes or in smaller sessions. It’s a little like Comic Con for Language Arts teachers. This time, I ran (literally) into Gerry Brooks, saw Mark Overmeyer coming to breakfast, had Dr. Bob Seney sit in one of my sessions right up front, and though I missed Tina Boogren, I knew she was there–I felt it. (The self-care energy is great with that one…)

What I love most about it though is that so many of the speakers are local educators. These are the people doing the work in their classrooms every day with kids and they are willing to take two days out of their time with kids to come and share their own learnings with the rest of us.

I’ve presented at this conference twice. This year, they picked up both my proposed sessions and I felt incredibly nervous about them both, despite the fact that I’ve presented both more than once. I met with a friend to chat about how to become more of a dynamic presenter and I spent several hours tweaking both presentations so that they’d be just right for the audiences I’d have, which almost always include people with very little experience in teaching our tall poppies.

So many buildings use basal readers–those big classroom textbooks with a smattering of re-written and simplified stories and non-fiction pieces for students to read and answer questions about. Most programs have a small group timed schedule that looks like this:

Day 1: Teacher reads, vocabulary instruction, skill introduction

Day 2: Popcorn reading, vocabulary review, skill practice with text

Day 3: Partner reading, more vocabulary review, comprehension practice

Day 4: Independent reading, skill and comprehension practice

Day 5: Test, which is almost always a mixture of multiple choice, matching, vocabulary, and if you’re lucky, a short answer or two requiring information that’s right there in the text.

Then the next week they begin again with a new story or non-fiction piece.

Teachers work hard using a system like this to support their readers, providing really intentional instruction in both skills and content. And most basal programs aren’t all bad. For a typical learner or one requiring lots of repetition or specific supports, this type of learning situation can be a good thing, providing explicit instruction in specific skills. They do level the playing field, incorporating instructions for support and accommodation, but what’s provided for “enrichment” usually doesn’t follow gifted best practice. For a gifted learner though, this is a recipe for disaster and kills a love of reading fairly quickly.

One of the things I’ve learned in my years of teaching is that kids, particularly gifted ones, need to read genuine, original literature if they’re to learn how to comprehend text. They need to learn how to work their way through a complex sentence or paragraph, go back and reread a difficult piece of dialogue to figure out who the heck was actually speaking, and they need to learn to muddle through longwinded descriptions of paths lined with trees. The author had a purpose in including that part, after all. More importantly though, as readers, we want to connect with the pieces we read. When we choose books, we look at the first few pages, the cover, the back cover, read the recommendations of others, and then decide if we want to commit to it. We want to know the characters personally by the end of a story, and when reading non-fiction, we want to get our questions answered by the end of the piece, so we choose what we read intentionally. Kids don’t always get that choice, so it’s up to us to help create some connections for them. And that requires going beyond the basal text…

One of the sessions I presented was all about making connections to text. I used a short piece from a well-known author, a woman of color. I was introduced to it not in school, but in a conference session presented by a friend of mine who has far more years experience teaching literature than I. As our intimate group chatted about the piece, ideas began to spring into my head about how I could use this with kids, and how I’d like to see them respond to it.

He helped me create connections to the text by asking a few very deliberate questions. I was looking through the eyes of my students as I read, thinking of all the things beyond the words on the page that I saw in it.

That’s reading. That’s practicing comprehension. That’s exploring vocabulary and sentence structure.

That is the work of readers.

This time, this particular session went very well, and the energy in the room was high, people were engaged, and like when a lesson goes the way I picture it will, I moved on to my next session a little high on excitement.

The people in the room were probably excited to learn a new way to help their kids learn to read literature, but I suspect they left even more excited having had the opportunity to remember what it was to be a student and experience learning in a way that allowed them to remember what it felt like to think and make connections.

We don’t do that very often anymore as adults–we let the news tell us what we need to know, flip through stories on facebook or twitter, read professional books for specific purposes (to get that ONE kid to finally show what they know…) or learn new strategies to help us be more successful, or sometimes slip into a mindless read to downshift into a world of someone else’s making.

This week, I double dog dare you to read something for the sake of creating a connection. Let yourself explore the words, allowing them to roll around in your mouth and wonder why the author chose those words in particular to use to describe something. Allow yourself to step into the shoes of a character or person in a non-fiction piece and think about what their world is really like beyond this one snippet of text. Think about the possible connections that might exist to your own world, that of your kids, current events or past ones. And consider the author’s purpose in writing it…and for whom it was written. Bonus points if you chat with another person about what you are thinking…

There’s no fear that your tongue will stick to a metal pole in this challenge, but you might grow some dendrites and remember what it was to think for yourself with no fear of judgment…