Wednesday, September 26, 2012

All the time in the world.

"It's not fair, it's just not fair" says Burgess Merideth in the classic Twilight Zone episode  He finally has all the time in the world to read when his ability was taken away. I was thinking today about the work I'm trying to do with students developing higher order thinking skills through their reading work and asking myself what do we really need? The answer that first popped into my mind was time... time enough at last.  I am finding that some students need a lot of coaching in thinking about reading, about paying attention to what they're reading as well as remembering what they have read before.  Some students need a lot of help in developing their reading and thinking stamina but all students need more time.  What is the optimum amount of time? Should students have at least twenty minutes of individual reading time each day? How about a half-hour every day?  Should the reading time happen at one time? What if students had a total of forty-five minutes to an hour every day spread out through the day?  If I'm asking students to push their reading and thinking into big ideas, thesis statements and global concepts, do I need to provide more time for that to happen?  I like to use metaphors related to music so I think about the idea of trying to learn a Bach concerto while only practicing fifteen minutes a day.  Are we asking students to do the same thing by not allowing more time for reading, and by reading I'm talking about literature and not the sort of reading instruction that consists of an article prepared for the text book where students are asked to read and look for helping verbs.  That sort of instruction has it's place in understanding parts of speech, but offers nothing in terms of growing student's thinking skills. I'm not sure what the answer(s) will be but I'm pretty sure we're not in the optimum situation yet and so, will we find time enough at last?

Big Ideas, Big Challenges

There's a book on my shelf called Teaching Children to Care and although it's about dealing with conflict and "character education" it could well be the title of my research work into higher order thinking at the moment.  It seems that one of the prime ingredients in having students develop new ideas, synthesize or create opinions is that they care about what they are reading.  I've been introducing "Big Ideas" in our reading work, these are ideas from the reading that you can follow, gathering information as you read to support the idea.  In their most basic sense they could be something like "Maniac Magee is a nice boy" and then cite evidence of him helping young children untie the knots in the shoelaces.  A more global "big idea" might be "In a community it's important to take care of each other" which came from our current read-aloud Number The Stars.  I know that for many children getting to that global sense will be a step, although I believe many can make it.  I'm also realizing that for many students the first step is to care about what they're reading.  As I wonder about what would help a student care about their reading, I think the real first step is to think about what they're reading.  I'm still surprised at the number of students who can't tell me anything about a book they're reading.  What goes on for the student who is reading and not remembering or thinking?  Are they reading at all? Perhaps they are reading, as in de-coding words but not understanding what they're reading.  A major component of most literacy instruction is self-monitoring for understanding, but what if that monitoring is not functioning?  If a book falls open in the forest and no one remembers anything that happened, did it make a sound?
I'm old enough to remember the glory days of television bashing (yes, this was long before video games or home computers) so I'm loathe to sound like my parents complaining about young whippersnappers who can't sit still.  I do have other theories however.  One is that when children are exposed over a long period of time to screen programming (games, movies, etc.) that is mature in nature whether in terms of violence or emotional (romance, sex, family issues) content they develop an ability to accept not understanding what they're seeing but still enjoying the experience because sooner or later something will either blow up or a character will remove most or all of their clothes.  I have no scientific research to back that up, just conversations with students who when asked about what they were reading couldn't tell me anything but could vividly relate the R rated program they had watched the night before, at least in terms of the violent actions, although were unable to offer any thoughts about why the things were happening in the program.
Before we devolve into a wholesale rant about children watching adult content (which I'll probably end up writing about before too long anyway)I'll return to the original idea.  What I'm finding is an important thing to consider in teaching about finding big ideas, ideas that can develop students higher order thinking skills, in reading is that students need to think about reading before speaking, or writing about reading.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Big Questions

I'm doing some research this school year around teaching, improving, prompting higher order thinking skills with students.  When I tell most people what I'm up to they often ask "What's a higher order thinking skill, and how would I recognize one on the street?"  That, of course is a good question and one that is either not easily answered (because you're dealing with something that can be very subjective) or easy to answer (because due the somewhat vague nature of the subject, almost anything can made to fit)
One of my goals in this work is to write more often, so if you follow this blog you'll be able to see my progress on that goal at least.  As far as higher order thinking skills goes I've chosen to base my research primarily in the reading work we do in class.  To get this rolling I've been prompting the class to develop big ideas or thesis statements (if you prefer the fancier words) about their reading.  Higher order thinking is generally defined as creative problem solving where there is no specific solution.  It can also involve creating or synthesizing new or unique ideas from existing material.  That's really just a thumb nail sketch of the concept but it works as a starting place.  For me, the "big ideas" or "thesis statements" are statements that a reader can make about some aspect of the book they're reading, they can then gather evidence to support that statement.  As an example, we're reading Number The Stars by Lois Lowry as a read-aloud and yesterday we came up with this idea; "During war time people are often forced to be more resourceful and creative".  As evidence we noted that the family was sewing, knitting some of their own clothes, they had fashioned a small stove that could fit into their fireplace that would not only heat the room but could be used for cooking, that people shared beds to conserve heat as well.  At the moment, the work we're doing together in the read-aloud time is more sophisticated than what the students are doing on their own and that's one reason why the read-aloud time is so important.  This is the opportunity for the students to interact with quality literature, rich in characters and ideas.  If the only reading going on during the day is from a reading program chances are their won't be much progress in higher order thinking skills.  I would argue you need a higher quality literature to prompt higher thinking, or put another way, you can only think as high as the material allows.  Presently some students are starting to try out developing big ideas to think about.  One student reading Freckle Juice said "My big idea is that this guy really wants to have freckles, he did...(and they listed five different things he had done to become freckled)...and it's crazy." So, they had taken the first step, they had an observation/idea and facts from the story to back it up.  "He must really want freckles, because he did this and that." When talking with this student I asked a few questions about why he would have wanted freckles and she shared that she thought it was because he wanted to look like everyone else, which was crazy.  Right there was a lead in to the next level of big idea - I asked if she'd be interested in adding on to that idea with the question of "Why do people try to look like everyone else?"  At this point we'd stepped into a more global big idea, one that could be discussed outside of the book.  One way to think about this work is that it's about pulling thoughts and ideas out of books and setting them free in the "real world".

Monday, September 24, 2012

History Lesson

In a recent article, the sole surviving member of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd, Gary Rossington said 
that the flag, the old "stars and bars" that often hung behind the band, had been hijacked by racists and, in the process, become detached from it’s original meaning as a symbol of rebelliousness and states’ rights. As a result, he said, he was concerned about the band being associated with the flag lest people get the wrong idea.“Through the years, people like the KKK and skinheads kinda kidnapped the Dixie or Southern flag from its tradition and the heritage of the soldiers. That’s what it was about,” he said. “We didn’t want that to go to our fans or show the image like we agreed with any of the race stuff or any of the bad things.”Better late than never I guess. A better history education would have informed Rossington that the stars and bars stood for racism as much as anything when they used it as a stage prop. The president of the CSA, Jefferson Davis stated that the Civil War was fought to preserve slavery. One would think he'd be an authority on what the flag stood for. The "state's rights" argument has been a paper thin attempt to put a different name on the dispute. The argument grew out of the myth of the "Lost Cause" which was an idea/theory that grew in the early 20th century to explain why the south started and fought the war. It's best seen as an attempt to give some kind of nobility to the horrendous experience including the near destruction of the southern economy. Think about it, if you looked around and saw that your home, your town, your state were almost completely leveled and so many people dead, you might want to think you fought for something grander and more lofty than just keeping people in chains. Even apart from the mis-guided attempts to rationalize the southern reasons for war, if it's truly "state's rights" then the logical next question is "rights to do what?". Are we talking about the right to deny equal rights to all citizens? To the CSA, "state's rights" meant the right to continue slavery. Later, as referenced in the song "Sweet Home Alabama" it meant the right to deny equal voting rights and equal education rights among others. They may have used the flag as a celebration of their heritage and "state's rights" but I would suggest that some parts of our heritage are not worth celebrating and the Confederate flag is a symbol of the worst parts of our heritage.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Whenever I look up at a perfect blue sky, I think about that day.

September Journal 
By Kevin Slick
© 2001

There are so many pictures frozen in my mind.  A family album that doesn’t have to be opened to be re-lived.  There was that perfect autumn blue sky, just so blue, so blue that it almost hurt to look at, that perfect blue with a jagged grey cloud ripping across the middle of the sky, like a gash in the atmosphere, a hole in the universe.  There was the man covered in dust standing next to me at the 14th street subway station as we waited to see if any trains could still run over to Brooklyn.  And there in an abandoned lot off Atlantic Avenue, a homemade American flag nailed to a piece of wood in the afternoon sunlight welcoming me home.  But the image that always comes back first is the light coming through the window of my classroom after everyone had left as it gently floated through the window onto the newspaper that was lying on my desk, filled with words that no one would remember.  And I stood there to try to understand that moment when all those words would be re-written and this day would have forever a new meaning.  I stood there trying to understand, but couldn’t.  I could only live in the moment, and so walked outside and headed south toward that ragged tear in the sky.

I bought a newspaper on the way to work this morning.
I thought I would talk with my class, fourth grade at P.S. 116, about the primary election for mayor.  After all there would be people in and out of school all day since it was the polling place for the neighborhood around 33rd and 3rd.
But we didn’t talk about the election.
The voters left early, if they came at all.
By three o’ clock in the afternoon I was alone in my room.
Sunlight was coming in the window at an autumn afternoon slant
Dragging long shadows across the front page of the newspaper,
Still lying where I left it on my desk.
No one will ever remember the stories from the front page of today’s paper.
No one will ever think of this day and talk about the election
Or any one of ten other stories that were worthy of the front page of the
New York Times on September 11th, 2001.

I walked downtown
Smoke arched across the sky
People’s faces; grim, vacant, worried.
We talked to each other like people at a funeral;
“How are you doing?”
“Are you okay?”
The streets, a constant stream of fire trucks, ambulances, police cars.
Police on every corner
Crowds gathering at the hospital a few blocks away.
And the people’s faces, unbelieving
I can’t believe it.
(how many times have I said “ I can’t believe it” when I could have said “that’s surprising” or “ I didn’t expect that”)
Now, I really can’t believe it.
Tell me again,
They’re gone?
Those two buildings are gone?
The two buildings I see from my window every day?
The two buildings I rode past this morning on the train?
I saw an old man walk out onto 3rd Avenue and stop traffic because some people were walking up to a hospital helping several others who appeared to be bleeding or injured in some way.  It was perfectly normal, and all the cars stopped. 
He said that it was what he had to do.  That’s what we were doing there that day – “what we had to do”
When I returned home to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn the man who owned the middle- eastern restaurant on the first floor called me “brother” and offered food.  I joined others from the street and we ate in silence together.
Later I heard someone say “There are no words” 

The next day.
Everyone is in motion today.
On Fulton street the sun is shining and the streets are full of people.
Loud dance music rips out of a store selling stereos.
A man is begging on the corner, shaking a cup full of coins endlessly. 
Now he switches hands and adjusts the volume on his Walkman.  He’s looking all around and no one is looking at him.  He looks around some more and drives his electric wheelchair away.
The other people on the corner just keep talking and ignoring the place where he was.
It seems like this city is too big to slow down, even with the heart torn out, the body is still going through the motions.  If you chose to ignore media and not look across the river you could pretend nothing had happened.
I want to believe that nothing has happened.
This morning I work up and prayed for it to have all been a dream.

The sky is still so blue today
Only that one line of grey
Grey smoke to the south that lays across the sky.
It looks like rain clouds,
Long, low rain clouds
But it’s too sunny for rain.

There’s a cool breeze
Like the best ocean breeze on the last day of summer
It’s such a beautiful day
Such a beautiful day.

Is it nature, or God
Trying to say that life goes on?
Is this a day to help us heal?
Is this a day that covers the terrible with beauty?

This beautiful sky lies across our lives
We are held together under this sky
Held together by each other
By our heartbeats
Our footsteps
Beating out a rhythm together.

I heard a woman say
That the most important thing in the world
Was the smell of her daughter’s hair when she hugged her.

I can see the sun as a fuzzy white ball in the grey, cloudy sky.

In Union Square there are huge crowds
Gathering around signs, candles and pictures
Offerings, gifts people have left.

Behind me, a group is singing “America The Beautiful” some of the crowd, however are only singing the first line of the melody, having forgotten the rest I guess. 
The result is an edgy harmony as one group repeats the same line over and over.

People have written poems
And the word “Love” appears over and over again.
I’ve been writing what I see and feel, waiting for words to have some meaning again, but I can’t find the meaning. 
I’m living on faith that the meanings will be revealed sometime, maybe someday. 
But I see that I’m in the midst of a living poem, the voices, the pictures, the streets themselves, the city itself is singing.
Whitman was right, this is America singing, the varied carols I hear with melodies hard to understand and words that tear and strain to rhyme but still singing.  The music is un-planned, improvised, ragged and beautiful.
Why are we all here, right now, at this moment?  How did we get here?
Maybe we’re all here just to be next to other humans

Every sound is muffled, like a church
This seems like a sacred site.
The stained glass windows have been replaced with
All those pictures
Thousands of pictures.
This whole city has become a photo album
A large family photo album.
Walking down the streets, I feel like I’m leafing through memories
Memories shared with strangers.
Back yard picnics
I’m looking for my family here
Looking for faces I recognize
And I realize I know every one of them.

I can’t sing
I want to sing, but I can’t find a song to sing
Not one song
Not one song I can sing
But all songs
I have no song to sing
Unless it’s all songs

I try to speak but I have no voice
Only all voices

I’m calling on God
But I think God will only answer
To all his names
To all her names
Spoken as one.

One sky
One blue, heavenly sky
Covers us like a prayer shawl.
I want to wrap myself in the sky.

I wrap myself in these pictures
These words
The quilt of life
Of lives sewn together on the streets by broken hearts seeking peace.

I stand with others, with everyone
In search of release.
My feelings pour out on the names
On the faces
And I think all my feelings have gone out of me
But new feelings appear
Like waves on the ocean, endless
The best I can do is open my heart to the emotions
The way a rose opens it’s petals to drink the dew
And I release those feelings
Like the rose gives up it’s petals.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Accidental Learning...On Purpose.

Last school year I started a research project teaching students how to use the iPod Touch and various flip cameras to shoot videos and then iMovie to create and post videos online documenting their learning.  I originally thought that parents or family members might enjoy watching their kids at work in science, math, social studies or reading.  I soon discovered that as students spent time editing and preparing their videos they were engaged in higher level thinking as they debated what footage to include to best explain the concepts they were learning about.  Students who had previously found it hard to edit and revise their written work were engaged in editing for content, talking about how to create the best video they could make.  I began the project with an idea of what the benefits and outcome would be and what happened was something different, and perhaps better.  This year I added a Twitter account to my classroom's online presence.  Once again, as I began I thought that perhaps parents would want to tune in and follow what we're doing in the classroom.  This year already I'm finding many different learning possibilities beyond my original ideas.  I've had students acting as classroom reporters photographing and tweeting about what they think is important in our learning.  We're starting to look at issues of communication and broadcasting to the larger world, we're talking about what's the best way to show what we're learning, thinking about what are the most important things we're doing.  The biggest difference this year is that I'm expecting to learn things that I hadn't counted on.  I'm approaching this learning experience in a different way.  I've begun to see my work as setting up situations that are filled with possibility and following the paths of learning that pour out of the situation.  It makes me think about all the learning we're engaged in during the school day.  How much of the work we do with students is narrowly focused on delivering information with a specific result in mind?  How open are we to student's learning taking off in different directions than what we planned for?  A lot of school curriculum is presented as being able to deliver a particular result, and there's many times when it makes sense to learn a specific skill, for example how to multiply two digit by two digit numbers.  What I'm learning to appreciate is that there is often a lot more learning that goes on outside the confines of "What we're supposed to learn" and just as important is "What we might learn that we haven't even imagined yet".