Mistakes

I worry that some students might get diminished by any negative observations. There is that theory about building high self-esteem, after all, and I certainly don’t remember my teachers caring about my self-esteem (and I didn’t like it). However, I’ve found (and read) that this approach is ultimately ineffective. Better is having very high expectations of each student. Sure, it is essential to balance positive comments with discussions of areas needing improvement but even this doesn’t quite work for me. What I have settled on for the moment is to care about the student’s work and reflect to them the strengths they’ve displayed and the areas for further work. I’ve tried hard to build a culture of kaizen (constant improvement) and one that accepts mistakes. “Cherish mistakes,” I’ve taught them, “being wrong is on the road to being right.” What I hope and expect will happen is that they will quickly learn they are working in a safe environment where all feedback is positive whether it highlights areas of strength or weakness.

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Authentic vs. Inauthentic Education

Describe the difference between authentic integration of other subject areas into the history state and national standards. How does it differ from inauthentic integration?

The irony of this question is that it is one that doesn’t seem to be asked (or at least taken seriously) too often in many classrooms – or for that matter in the chambers where curriculum, standards, and assessment policy is created.

One of my very favorite quotes on education is from William Butler Yeats, “Education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of the fire.” I think this is as good as any way to distinguish authentic and inauthentic. If we are merely “filling the pail,” we are educating inauthentically. On the other hand, with lessons which “light the fire,” we are teaching authentically.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s say there are two levels to this. First, there is the way the lessons are taught. This is the basic stuff of being a “constructivist” educator, making meaning and showing the students how to make their own meaning. Authenticity is about making the lessons “real” and personally relevant, connecting them to other things in meaningful fashion.

Second, there is the subject matter. One of the struggles we have in many areas of education today is the relevance of what is being taught. From the previously discussed two forms of handwriting (aka the “cursive question”) to learning how to do math manually that can be done on any cell phone (and many watches) to teaching college prep material to non-college bound students, we have to wonder what authenticity there is for the students in these seemingly pointless (or at least wasteful) tasks? The challenge for our school structure here is to come to grips with what actually needs to be taught and why, thus re-truing to relevant, authentic material. The challenge for us as teachers, in the mean time, at the tactical end of this problem is to find authenticity in seemingly irrelevant material. This comes in two parts. First, we must find the intent of the curriculum designers and honor whatever piece this instruction is meant to be in the structure of overall knowledge. Second, we must find ways to relate this material to the students in spite of the burden of initial skepticism.

 

Intrapersonal Intelligence

Which themes and skills reflected in the national and state standards do you consider to be the most vital to teach? Explain why. In which discipline areas does this occur?
Given the list of Ten Themes of Social Studies (National Council for the Social Studies [NCSS], n.d.), I would pick “Individual Development and Identity” as my highest priority.

My goal as a teacher is to both create relevance in the material to enhance learning and to concentrate my time with my students on material that will be of use in their lives.  While everything on the NCSS list is important, nothing will be as valuable as personal identity.  It is impossible to have stable, resilient self-efficacy in the absence of a clear sense of self.  Likewise, it is terribly hard to interact with other humans in community absent comfort with one’s own identity.  Finally, knowing what we do not know is central to both self-knowledge and effective learning.  By giving my students the tools to understand themselves, I am giving them the ability to withstand more easily many of the traumas of youth.  For example, it is not enough to know that Howard Gardner identified multiple intelligences.  The power of that construct is in understanding that we are all differently gifted and appropriately so.  Knowing our own capacities and proclivities with regard to these intelligences is a wonderful gift that will buffer adolescent angst and clear the way for focus and optimal proficiency in life.

In addition, “Individual Development and Identity” is a wonderful place to begin learning the other nine Themes.  This theme’s description directly references two other themes (“Culture” and “Individuals, Groups, and Institutions”).  It also must cover “People, Places, and Environments” and “Time, Continuity, and Change” by way of creating perspective and context for self.  That is half the list right there.  If I only cover that, I feel like I have given my students an enormous advantage as they move forward with their lives.  If one of the main themes of my teaching is personal power, power to build a mindful, joyful, satisfying life, a strong sense of self and a strong sense of one’s relationship to time, space, people, and change is crucial and nearly sufficient to that goal.

References

National Council for the Social Studies. (n.d.). National curriculum standards for social studies: Chapter 2—the themes of social studies. Retrieved January 21, 2011, from http://www.socialstudies.org/standards/strands

Quo Vadimus?

When you begin to burn out on your research topic, where do you think you will move on to?

My focus is on gender and education. I am specifically focused on advocacy for boys in education because it seems to me that is where the biggest damage is being done now. However, of course, I work on gender-based issues and strategies for both sexes. I don’t think I’ll burn out on this until more attention gets focused on this subject or until it becomes clear that I’ve done all I can do. There are some very committed and capable leaders in this area and I do hope we can effect some change.

My second area of interest is expanding the acceptance of John Ratey’s research (see Spark) on exercise and learning. He has some fascinating things to say about the influence of exercise on brain functioning and some very specific suggestions and practical examples on how it can strongly influence educational outcomes. That might be my next focus.

Another subject that hovers in my peripheral vision is SES and education. This is such a very big topic. SES itself is a huge topic and one where open discussion is not very common or safe. However, it seems probable from the reading I have done that much of educational failure is actually and unavoidably caused by SES-related factors beyond the power of any educational system to fix. There is so much to this topic and it is so important because by not addressing it we are condemning millions of people to an unnecessarily difficult life. This would be a sad, dangerous, and challenging subject to pursue. However, honestly, until we stop think of poverty as something to be “prevented,” I think our society will continue to “create” poverty in the name of preventing it.

A safer subject but closer to the “darkside” is the pursuit of computer-driven learning strategies/tools. In a standards-based, standardized testing-based world, it is probably possible to largely replace teachers with very well programmed computers that drill the “essential” information in a fraction of the time. There are interesting questions about whether computers can even create the open-ended learning promoted by art and research and general inquiry. They probably can. Anyway, I am certain there are dark forces moving out there to automate our classrooms. I would be tempted to follow that fascinating train of inquiry, if only to bring “light” to the process.

To conclude, I am always drawn to areas that have big problems that have relatively simple solutions. These “80/20 Rule” situations are among the very few where, I believe, major improvement can be made in the human condition. Until very recently, I wasn’t too concerned about the human condition. Now, however, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what I can do if I put my full effort into making the world just a little bit better in areas where I have some wherewithal.

The Trouble with Boys

Can you think of an example of an instructional strategy that would not be developmentally appropriate for a given age group?

There is growing doubt about teaching reading and writing skills to kindergarten boys. For whatever reason, boys lag girls in both verbal processing and fine motor skills by, on average, 1 1/2 years at 5 years old. We wouldn’t try to teach most 3 1/2 year old girls to read and write but have no trouble trying to make boys with the same abilities as those young girls to do the same. This has profound implications. Early difficulties in school can create learned helplessness and a lifelong negative perception of both reading and school in general. It is obviously far more complex than this and boys have significantly more nature-based hurdles in school than just this one. But the effect is clear. I put together a 4 minute, totally fact based and fully referenced video, for anybody that’s interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oybR4PcQ7u8.

There are several solutions to this phenomenon. One is easy: start boys who appear likely to have these issues in kindergarten at 6 instead of 5 years old. There are also a variety of teaching techniques that particularly suit the gender-specific learning needs of students. As just one example, boys do considerably better if their verbal faculties are recruited first through storyboarding or other non-verbal, imaginative exercises.

Cambourne in the Classroom

How may a classroom activity be adapted for students at various stages of language acquisition?  Address evidence of student comprehension and assessment methods.

Many of the techniques that improve outcomes for ELL’s are also good techniques overall.  Echevarria, Vogt, and Short (2008) take Cambourne’s “Conditions of Learning” and apply them to the ELL friendly classroom.  These eight conditions are immersion, demonstration, engagement, expectation, responsibility, employment, approximation, and response (Echevarria et al., 2008, p. 24).  I will briefly describe their application below:

1.       Immersion – Constantly use all aspects of language (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) to practice English language and content concepts.

2.       Demonstration – Show students the core learning in practice and have them model those concepts as well.

3.       Engagement – Create a safe environment, emphasize the relevance of the material, and teach it at appropriately challenging levels of difficulty.

4.       Expectation – Hold appropriate but high levels of expectation for all students.  Look past language challenges to the full capabilities of each student.

5.       Responsibility – Give students choices, encourage reflection, hold students to high standards of independent performance, and encourage critical thinking.

6.       Employment – Allow students to demonstrate the skills and concepts they have learned.  Explain real world context and value of the concepts being learned.

7.       Approximation – Encourage and reward risk taking.  Embrace “approximately correct” answers as stepping-stones to completely right answers.

8.       Response – Allow for continual constructive and focused feedback from multiple sources, including peers (Echevarria et al., 2008, p. 23).

All of these eight principles do double duty.  Not only do they promote powerful learning in ELL’s (and other students), they create better opportunities for assessment.  By recasting learning tasks away from passive into active learning, students’ proficiencies and weaknesses are more clearly observable and more easily remediated.

Reference

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP Model (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Little Johnny Could Care Less

There is one thing that has been bothering me for several weeks.  As an enthusiastic adult, I am excited to be in the classroom working with the students on the subject of the day.  However, the reality is that the school work itself is frequently so boring that were I not on the teaching end of the project, I would run screaming from the room.  That’s what occurred to me and it has bothered me ever since. 

There’s a gap in the meta-cognition between students and teachers.  We adults know why we’re in the classroom and we know how important it is that little Johnny  learns to count and read.  Little Johnny, on the other hand, could care less about all that.  In kindergarten or first grade, Johnny and his fellow students simply don’t have the development to operate on such abstract incentives.  Even for older children, who may have the mental development, there may remain a lack of faith in these abstract goals.  All too often, children fail to believe how costly and limiting a weak academic background can be.  Finally, there is frequently a maturity gap between what children know they should do and what they want to do.  Deliberately doing something horribly unpleasant is generally an act that requires a deadening of the soul that only adults have achieved.

The reality is twofold:  One, boring lessons place a tremendous burden on the willpower and developmental level of the students.  This burden falls hardest on those with the weakest motivation and the greatest need.  Second, it is crucial to remember that while school is “for the students own good,” it is rarely considered so by the students.  Anything teachers can do to make every aspect of school work entertaining and relevant is a giant step towards helping our students succeed.

Being a “Charismatic Adult”

Brooks & Goldstein (2001) talk about the need for a “charismatic adult” in each child’s life.  They quote Julius Segal, defining a charismatic adult as “a person with whom children ‘could identify and from whom they gather strength'” (Brooks & Goldstein, 2001, p. 88).  They later quote Segal again, saying that “in a ‘surprising number of cases that person turns out to be a teacher'” (Brooks & Goldstein, 2001). This charismatic individual can be the difference between a resilient child who succeeds in spite of difficult circumstances and a non-resilient child who does not.

I think it’s easy to forget that the classroom just might be the best, safest part of a child’s day.  It’s easy to forget that many students are struggling in school because they’re not getting the right kind of support at home.  Going that extra step and the one after that might just make all the difference in a child’s future.  Teachers cannot save every child that passes through but they will not save any if they do not try.

Reference

Brooks, R. B., & Goldstein, S. (2001). Raising resilient children : fostering strength, hope, and optimism in your child. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Sullivan, R. (2001). What Makes a Child Resilient?. Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,999479,00.html

Discipline, Part Four

If we think of a child as starting the day with a certain self-esteem level, our goal as teachers should be to find a way to send those same children home with more self-esteem. That is so hard for me. I am wired to expect good behavior and punish disruptive behavior and/or inattentiveness. I’m not a disciplinarian and I hold relationship with the class, even in corrections, but I still work from that instinct. Fortunately, the teacher I work with is a model of positive reinforcement. She is constantly scanning the room in order to find a student “doing something right.” It works. Our class is orderly and quick to settle down. Perhaps more importantly the time and stress of strict discipline is avoided. The children, even the boys, feel loved and appreciated. Even the boys with higher natural physicality, lower maturity levels and bigger cognitive deficits feel taken care of and safe. It’s rare and wonderful.

I took a class from a wonderful student of matters educational, Gary Benton. His argument is that at a minimum, children need to receive three positives for every negative. With troubled children, his ratio goes to seven to one. I remember him saying that, if the situation is challenging enough, it may be necessary to say something like, “that’s great, I really like the way you threw yourself against the wall.” Obviously, that’s an extreme, but his point is that almost any positive becomes a way to slowly walk the child back from the self-destructive cycle of punishment and failure. I believe he’s right.

Having said that, I guess it depends on what a teacher sees as his or her role. I see my role as bringing out the best in each and every child. And I believe each and every child wants success. Maybe I need to think of praise as praising their aspirations AND their behavior at the same time. Anyway, I’ve seen how well it works and I want more of it.

References

Benton, G. (2004). Fire spitters: a workbook for parents (and others) who want to successfully deal with a difficult and angry child. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford.

Benton, G. (2008). Succeeding with the difficult young child (preschool – second grade). Bellevue, WA: Bureau of Education & Research.