Thursday, December 6, 2012


Today as we read and talked about Jerry Spinelli's classic book Crash we were thinking about the changes the lead character has gone through lately.  Everyone agreed that his grandfather suffering a stroke had a huge impact on him and was essential in his transformation into a more caring person.  "It's like his grandfather's stroke woke him up" said Niko.  "Yeah" said Samantha "He was living a nightmare". "He needed to open his eyes to what the world is really like" added Amelia. "He didn't even know he was dreaming" said Chase.  Of course all this happened when we had about a minute before we needed to leave for Art class.  I promised we would continue to discussion and I praised the insights that the students were sharing.  "This is perfect, it's beautiful poetry!" I said.  A part of my mind was delighted in hearing fourth graders explain Buddhism so expertly without knowing that's what they were doing.  I resisted the brief urge to shoot off on a tangent into the life of Siddhartha, the "Awakened One", it was enough that students had come up with startlingly beautiful observations.  Two things I've learned this year are it takes time for a conversation to develop, you have to be patient and sometimes (or even most times) toss a schedule out the window, and when something magical happens you have to celebrate it, you have to name it, you have to stop the presses and make sure everyone knows what happened.  Otherwise it can just pass by like so many magical things in the world around us and we lose an opportunity to learn how great we can be.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Reading and Talking

Without a doubt one of the best times of the day is when I can spend time with a small group of students talking about their reading.  Our class is divided into five small groups for reading groups.  At this point each group is reading a book together, during the year they will also work as  a group when they’re all reading different books as well.  Today I sat with the group who is reading “Bud, Not Buddy”.  As usual, and especially with a historical fiction novel like this one, I ask if they have any questions.  Since the group was shy, I asked a few questions about the time and place where the book takes place.  It was clear that they didn’t know much about the “Great Depression” although all had at least heard the term used.  I gave a quick re-cap of 20th century economics leading up the crash of 1929 and listed some of the details of unemployment figures in the early 30s.  As I shared students started making connections, “Oh, that’s why he was trying to jump on a train.” etc.  Since the group has just started the book and are only about 50 pages into a 200+ page book I like to give them some things to think about or look for.  This time I asked about something in the story that they thought might be important and that they should pay attention to and Chase mentioned Bud’s suitcase.  Everyone agreed that this was something really important.  Sophia said “It’s his treasure chest” and Gracie described it this way “It holds his life”.  For those not familiar with the book, the suitcase can indeed be a metaphor in the story and I was glad to hear that they had zeroed in on that image.  We’ll come back to that metaphor I’m sure in our discussions.  Later in our reading time I had the chance to meet with a group who is reading “Sing Down The Moon” another historical fiction book set among the Native Americans in the south west.  As I asked for their questions and thoughts about the book I was surprised when two students said “I’m not sure what this book is about”.  So I asked for some clarification because it seemed clear to me that the book is about Native Americans, in particular two characters Bright Morning and Running Bird.  ”I mean, what’s the big idea, what’s the message of the book” said Morgan.  ”Is the author trying to tell us something or is it just a story?” asked Madison.  Wow, what a great question.  We’ve spent so much time this year working on big ideas, thesis statements, messages, morales etc. that perhaps they expect every story to have a specific message.  We talked about this for a while.  I mentioned that sometimes there’s a possible message you can take from a book, but that it’s not always right out front and clear.  Sometimes you might take a lesson from a book that wouldn’t connect with someone else.  We also talked about knowing authors and what kinds of books they usually write.  Most students knew author Scott O’Dell’s book “Island of the Blue Dolphins” and this gave them a context for the book – it’s going to be a book set in a different culture, mostly an adventure with a few strong characters.  As I shared with this group, sometimes an author just wants to tell you a story and there may be a message or moral but it’s okay to just enjoy the story too.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Going Fishing

Sometimes, or maybe even most times I’m not sure where our conversations in the classroom will go.  It’s like going fishing, you can pick a good spot and have some good bait but it may take a while and even then you might not get a bite.  We are using the practice of looking for “Big Ideas” in all of our academic subjects, but it mostly shows up in Reading and Social Studies.  As our read-aloud book we’re into Crash by Jerry Spinelli right now.  For those unfamiliar with the book, Crash is a popular middle school football player who along with his friend Mike DeLuca are picking on Penn Webb, a neighbor who doesn’t wear the latest clothes, doesn’t believe in violence (his family is Quaker) and has a perky attitude that drives Crash and Mike crazy.  I began the conversation by re-stating some of the threads we began in our last talk.  What follows is a transcript of the conversation, some comments that simply re-state the last one are edited.

Mr. Slick: We heard from some people that Crash was being a bully and people said that perhaps people do the bullying thing because they can’t think of anything else to do, they’re narrow minded, they don’t think they have a lot of choices.
Yarahi: Yeah, they don’t know what to do, being  a bully is all they know so it’s comfortable, it’s the only thing they know and they keep doing it even though they’re kind of sad.
Trent: I think the bullies didn’t know how to express their emotions.
Mr. Slick: Do you think that people like Crash or Mike will get it?  Will they learn how to express their emotions? What can you do?
Niko: Maybe you could not be a bully, you could handle it inside
I’m always looking for a possible shift in the conversation that might lead to another idea, to continue the fishing metaphor it’s sometimes like looking for stepping stones to use while crossing a stream.  Sometimes I’ll ask a question, or re-state a point to help things move along.
Mr. Slick: Say some more about that Niko.
Niko: like their emotions inside, maybe they could talk about it
Mr. Slick: Do you think sometimes people need help?
Niko: yeah, like anger management
Yarahi: Usually people can’t do everything by themselves.
Trent:  If they have a counselor they could talk about what they’re thinking, because they might not know how to help themselves.
Mr. Slick: Is this what you’re saying? If someone takes the step and goes to talk with a counselor it’s opening themselves up and saying I don’t actually know everything, maybe I could use some help, Is that what you’re saying?
I feel like we’ve stated a new idea at this point.  We began with the idea that bullies are narrow minded and act the same way out of habit, we’ve now introduced the idea of there being an inability to express emotion and getting help that “opens you up to another possibility”
Yarahi: Crash is narrow minded, he only has one target.
Mr. Slick: One target? Sounds interesting, tell me more.
I’m always listening for some phrase or idea like this.  It’s an interesting phrase and seems like it might have some possibilities for further discussion.  These talks are always about how far can we extend our thinking, how many new ideas can we add to our collection of thoughts on a subject.
Yarahi: He thinks that he’s the only one who matters and that he gets to crash into people, whoever he wants because they don’t look like him, or think like him, he gets to pick on people
I often like to re-state a point to make sure we’re all on the same page, but also to give more power to the thinking.  If the teacher makes a point of re-stating what you just said then it just might be important.  Yarahi is not a regular participant in our reading conversations so I’m definitely trying to build up her confidence here as well as re-stating what I think is a good point
Mr. Slick: What I hear Yarahi saying is that if Crash thinks he’s the only person who gets to crash into people, using that metaphor then he might think that everyone else has to deal with me, everyone has to play by my rules.  What if everyone went around thinking like that?
Yarahi: it would be crazy
Mr. Slick: It would be chaos.
Yarahi: He thinks it’s all about him
Mr. Slick: I wonder if you go around with that kind of attitude you end up lonely because you’re looking more at what’s different between people.
Those are some great ideas there.  These conversations are an important part of our work in the classroom.  We started with an idea of someone being a bully which we’ve talked about before, but you took that and really looked at that big idea, you talked about how a person is narrow minded because they only see things one way and how that cuts off possibilities.  We talked about how if you’re looking at differences all the time you start to separate yourself from others, so you end up lonely.
Here’s another point in the conversation where I re-state what we’ve said so far and remind students that we’re doing valuable work and we’re really getting somewhere.  I think this is an important element of teaching especially when you’re striving for higher order thinking skills.  There may not be a lot of obvious sign posts along the trail to say that you’re making progress, it’s not like climbing a rope in gym class or kicking a football where you can chart your progress in how much further you climbed or kicked today.
Samantha: Crash doesn’t even notice that he’s making fun of people for doing ordinary things, like Penn Webb being on the cheerleading team, boys can be cheerleaders.
Yarahi: I think Crash is trying to make others think like him, he wants Webb to feel bad because he thinks it’s weird, Webb doesn’t think it’s strange at all.
I think he really doesn’t like to be Crash, but he’s gotten himself into that and now he can’t get out.
Mr. Slick: What I hear now is the beginning of a new idea, that bullies can do a couple things, they can try not to be a bully and get help, and change or they can try to make everyone else think like them to..
Zachary: Embrace the bully!
Mr. Slick: Yes, embrace the bully, be like the bully, think like the bully that way you can look around and say “Well, everybody thinks that way”  I hear it in school sometimes when people talk about a TV show or a musical group, someone will say “That show really stinks” and they expect everyone to go along with them.
(several students agree with this)
It seems to me that people want to be in a group where people think the same things as you do, is that true?
Samantha: yeah, nobody wants to be weird.

So, did I get any bites on this fishing trip? I think so.  The conversation stayed around the idea of bullying but we approached it from several different angles and talked about some ramifications or those actions and connected the characters in the story to some of the issues and experiences going on in our classroom.  As I shared in a previous entry I don’t put much energy into the old “text to self” connection because it’s usually a dead-end.  That said, I do think there’s value in bringing student’s personal experiences into the discussion.  Edited out of this transcript are several people talking about how they hear people making fun of Justin Bieber or One Direction etc. which took up about a minute of conversation time when I brought up people talking about a TV show or musical group.  I recorded this conversation on an iPod which was handy because it’s small and easy to use but also because it showed that this conversation took over ten minutes.  That’s usually the minimum for delving into the big ideas of our read-aloud books.  It seems to me that if you want to promote higher order thinking skills (which is the goal of the research project I’m conducting this year) then you need time to let the skills develop.  They have to be nurtured and while I don’t have any specific data on this, I would guess that many students are not being pushed to expand their thinking or even just given the time to think in other areas of their lives.  And so every day students in my classroom can expect a few little trips to down to the stream of ideas flowing by to see what we can catch.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Talking About Books And Life

Talking about books and life.

In our read-aloud book discussion we’ve come up with some new big ideas to consider.  To review, the “Big Ideas” are what we’ve called “Ideas from inside a book that can be talked about outside the book”.  In other words, these are ideas that are inspired by something that happens in the book, but involve bigger issues often of fairness, equality etc.  In the book Crash by Jerry Spinelli the lead character, John “Crash” Coogan is talking about a neighbor, Penn Webb, as being strange because he’s a Quaker and doesn’t play with guns and also doesn’t have a lot of expensive clothes or toys. We stated our first big idea like this –“Sometimes people assume that everyone thinks the same way they do and that “different” is “weird”.
Several students expressed sympathy for Penn Webb.  One said “I know someone who surgery and he acted different and people were scared and thought he was weird.”  We talked about how that person might have felt as well as why people might react that way.  Students began to acknowledge that sometimes it’s shocking to see someone who looks different.
One student said “I broke my arm and people thought I couldn’t do anything they assumed that I couldn’t do anything, they didn’t ask.”  This was an interesting turning point in the conversation – it made sense that once someone told the story of their friend having had surgery and people staring at them that other medical stories would follow, but the comment form Cody about the broken arm gave me a chance to steer the conversation in a slightly different direction.  As a teacher and conversation tour guide I’m always looking for how we can go deeper into an idea.  The old stand-by “text to self” connections can be a dead end because in most cases there’s not really much you can say. “Oh, you had a dog just like in Because of Winn Dixie…that’s nice”.  I’m finding that students are often willing to keep going in a conversation with a little guidance, or sometimes a lot of guidance, after all this is very new territory for many of them.
At this point I asked “Is there any problem if people are assuming you can’t do something?” Students responded that in that case they wouldn’t even have a chance, that you should always give someone a chance.  We talked around the idea for a bit and came up with the statement that when you’re prejudiced against someone then you are not allowing them to do everything possible.  I asked “Could we say this? Prejudice destroys possibility?” and everyone agreed that was a good slogan.
We weren’t done with the conversation however, one student noted that in the story Crash was starting to hang out with an obvious bully who he thought was his friend because he liked the same things as Crash.  Chase said “He’s going to get trapped into doing and saying things he shouldn’t because he’s not really paying attention” We circled back to our use of the word “possibilities” and  added another idea to our list, “When you’re not open to possibilities you might end up missing out on a good friend just because they seem different and you might end up hanging around with jerks just because you think they’re really cool”.
I always like to point out to the class the amazing journey we’re taking in our conversations.  We started by noticing an incident in a book, we then took that idea and re-stated it as a “Big Idea” or “Thesis Statement” and then kept on talking and kept on pushing the idea further to see what kinds of doors it would open.  We then walked through those doors like we owned the place, because we do.  Questions are the keys that open the doors and expand the borders, inquiry is the air we breathe and we are all teachers and we are all learning every day.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Stepping Stones

At the core of our reading/thinking/talking about/writing about work is the practice of growing big ideas.  Anything that grows needs food and the food for our big ideas includes paying attention (to everything), believing your ideas are valuable, being willing to graft your ideas on to someone else's and time, precious time.  The best ideas usually come about five to ten minutes into a discussion.  This is worth noting because it takes patience on the part of a teacher to allow the conversation to wander a bit before finding an interesting path to follow.  Also many reading programs focus on predictions and inference which are usually noted on a graphic organizer and are essentially closed conversations.  "I predict that Gilly's mother will take her home",  or "I infer that Gilly is mad because she's always sighing",end of comment, end of conversation, end of thinking.  Our talks are less like filling in the blank spots on a wall and more like throwing stones out ahead of us to walk on, the path is always forming in front of us.
Today's conversations began in morning meeting as we sang the song "Love Makes A Family".  We always sing a song to begin the day and students take turns choosing the song. The lyrics describe various family types, adopted children, separated parents, same sex parents, multi-generational homes etc. and all are called a family because of the love that is present.  The students all agreed that families can look many different ways from the outside, and that love does indeed make the family.  Alayna suggested then that "The whole world is really a family, because if we all loved each other then we'd really be a family".  Others agreed and talked about how you can go back in history and somewhere along the line we'd all have to be related.  Later in the day when we were discussing our read-aloud book "The Great Gilly Hopkins" by Katherine Paterson the students were noticing that Gilly had really changed since the beginning of the book.  She was no longer selfish and rude, but now a caring member of her foster family.  Chase suggested that the change started happening when the others were sick and she had to do more work to take care of everyone, that having more responsibility made her a nicer person.  Jocelyn said that "Gilly had changed her perspective" and now "She saw things in a new way".  I asked the class what might have caused this change in perspective (and also congratulated Jocelyn for added a great word to our classroom vocabulary).  Isabelle said she thought the pivotal moment was when Mrs. Trotter, the foster mother, had called Gilly her own child.  "That's when the family was made" Isabelle said, and of course someone else said "Love really does make a family".  I felt like we had uncovered some great new ideas and gathered a few  new stepping stones to continue our conversational journey.  

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Once within a classroom weary, while my eyes were tired and bleary...

Today after the class gathered for our morning meeting time I read The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe.  I had primed the pump somewhat by reading ghost stories all week and so when I said I had something I wanted to read to them, they were ready to tune in and listen for anything scary.  I prefaced the poem with a few historical notes on Poe and his times as well as the poetic style of The Raven.  I read with all the dramatic flair I could muster and would sneak a glimpse over the top of the book from time to time at the faces staring back at me.  When I finished the students asked questions, "Who was Lenore?" "Could the Raven really talk?" "What does it mean that his soul will rise Nevermore?"
We've spent a lot of time this year building the notion that anything we read can and should be talked about, and anything we read may just be the jumping off point for another discussion prompted by a word or phrase from the text and today was no different.  I did have a feeling of delight however that was different than the usual enjoyment of hearing the creative wheels spinning.  The conversation was spurred on by a poem first published in 1845!  Students were bravely going beyond their comfort zone in language, trusting there own understanding and capabilities to find meaning.  I believe it's well worth our time to make sure young students hear the classics.  There's usually a reason why certain poems and stories have stood the test of time.  We are, after all, a nation of ideas.  Our country was founded on an idea of freedom and democracy, the words that make up our best loved poems, songs and stories have woven the fabric that holds the country together and are just as vital as the ones that were inscribed on the founding documents.  We owe it to the students to share excellent writing.  We owe it to ourselves to have faith that they will gain something.  It may not always be clear what is gained, and it may not show up on the next standardized test but why not believe in possibility?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Above and Beyond or Off We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder

I've begun to craft lessons to stretch students thinking as I engage in a research project to promote higher order thinking skills.  The results have been exciting and diverse.  There are a lot of articles about education that celebrate 21st Century Skills and while just what those skills are or how they will be obtained is somewhat vague there is a surprising amount of agreement.  There's a premium placed on creativity, on students being able to work on problems that might have more than one solution (a recognized trait of higher order thinking) as well as students being able to make connections between seemingly disparate ideas or subjects.  Another thing that the writers of said articles seem to agree on is that these lessons or projects need to be diverse and not tied down to a simple set of solutions that can be easily tested.
The work I've been doing with the class has centered around our reading work primarily as we develop "Big Ideas", what might also be called thesis statements or literary essays.  We've pushed past simply predicting what might happen to Annemarie, the hero in Lois Lowry's Number The Stars to talking about whether or not her experiences during the Nazi occupation of Denmark and helping to smuggle Jews to Sweden has made her a better person.  Students have begun to think about, talk about and write about whether adversity can be a powerful motivator for good along with other ideas of that expansive and thoughtful nature.  This week we sang and read Woody Guthrie's famous song "This Land is Your Land" and students began talking about the "No Trespassing Sign" verse and seeing the sign as a metaphor for life's challenges.  You can read more of their comments as well as notes from the lesson on our classroom blog.
All of this work seems to fit right into 21st Century Skills and as excited as I am to be a part of such interesting and thoughtful discussions I am, from time to time, pulled back into a realization that in our current test heavy school culture we're living and working more in the 19th Century.  Especially as new laws come on the books where a teacher's continued employment may be determined by student's test scores, how many educators will feel comfortable trying for something that is creative and dynamic but might not measure well on a multiple choice test, a test which might count for 50% of your own "grade" as a teacher?
I also wonder if it makes sense to try to develop higher order thinking skills if the gold standard remains standardized tests which do not measure those skills effectively.  At times it feels like trying to teach students to paint like Michelangelo when they're being measured on their ability to draw a straight line with a ruler.  I might ask if it's worth it, but listening to kids pouring over Woody Guthrie's words and finding meaning in their own lives through a seventy year old song I know the answer, but I do wonder if others see it that way.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Time Enough At Last (Not Quite)

In a previous post I was thinking out loud about the need for time in our reading work, and just how much we might need.  This past week I've pushed the envelope a bit on how long we can stay with a book talk topic and the results have been equally exciting and discouraging.  Exciting because after continuing to ask follow up questions for ten minutes on a "big idea" topic from our read-aloud book we got to some great connections and students were beginning to expand their ideas and really build on the thoughts others were sharing.  Discouraging because I wonder if I can do this every day.  For one thing, the schedule in any elementary school is packed with lots of great activities and so we may need to leave to go Science Lab, or the library or Art or Music etc.  I also wonder if we'd be able to have such in depth conversations every day, or even if we need to do that.  Another question/observation is that in elementary schools we ask kids to pay attention pretty much all day long either to lecture type instruction, to reading, to each other in sharing and so forth, do we over-load children with "paying attention?" I wonder how many people in their work day are as focused as the average student all day long? I know for myself, that only when I worked in radio with a major network, producing college football games did I experience the kind of extended attentive, focused work that goes on in schools every day.
So my first questions about how much time is needed for quality book talks seems to be answered with "A lot".  How often will that be possible and how much should we attempt in a day or week is part of the on-going process of discovery.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Literal Truths Changing Literally All The Time

I've been thinking about the recent comments from Representative Paul Broun that "evolution is a lie from the pit of hell", the most recent in a long stream of attacks from the so called religious right against science, education and knowledge in general.  At first I wondered, as I always do, what is it that scares people so much about evolution since there's absolutely nothing in Darwin's theory of evolution that precludes the existence or creative powers of an omnipotent being.  I would like to ask Mr. Broun if he has some kind of mistaken idea about evolution.  Having never met him I can't say exactly what he believes, but from reading his comments he does appear to believe in a "literal" reading of the Bible, that God (as in the Jewish-Christian-Muslim one) created the universe in six 24 hour days about nine thousand years ago.  If this is the case then he must also believe that the sun revolves around the earth since the Bible is pretty clear about this.  If he truly reads the Bible literally then he must believe that everything Jesus spoke of has already come to pass since in Matthew 24, verses 33-34 he says that "This generation will not pass away until all these things are fulfilled".  Later in the Pauline epistles there are other references to the notion that those who are hearing Paul teach will see the second coming, and he speaks of "Those of us who alive will be caught up".  Surely if the words are to read literally then they clearly mean that the generation who was alive when they were spoken saw the coming of the kingdom of God, the second coming and other events foretold.  The Bible also says that believers will be able to handle dangerous serpents, so does Mr. Broun believe this as well?  My experience has been that every person who claims to read the Bible literally has to make exceptions and allow the beautiful metaphoric language to be interpreted by the reader.  Once you make that exception and say "What that really means is..." then you have to allow anyone else to do the same.
Returning to my original question as to why scientific discovery is so challenging for some people it appears that the problem is due primarily to people trying to use the religious, spiritual life lessons of the Bible as some kind of owners manual for the universe.  Personally I see no conflict between the Bible and science because I do not look to the Bible to explain the mysteries and wonders of the natural world and I do not study quantum physics to reflect on how to treat my fellow humans, or how to regard my mortality.  I don't consider myself to be especially wise, and I can't be the only one who understands this relatively simple concept.  To my mind using the Bible to explain science is like using the rules of baseball to explain astronomy.
After much thought the feeling I'm left with is a sadness that borders on anger.  I'm willing to accept and even support everyone's right to believe what they will.  I realize, however, that I have little to no patience for statements like those from Rep. Broun.  It is his position of power within The United States House of Representatives where he sits on the science committee that is especially obscene.  Again, I support polite discourse but there are limits.  I don't think it's an overstatement to say that if you have regard everyone's opinion on any subject equal time and consideration regardless of their capacity to craft a coherent argument then you do great disservice to learning and knowledge itself.  Mr. Broun's beliefs, along with creationism do not belong in schools under the guise of science.  If they belong in the public discussion at all it's in the realm of people's personal beliefs and they would be welcome to preach to any who would listen.  Hell and salvation are constructs, beliefs that cannot be proven or dis-proven by scientific method while evolution is something that has been proven by scientific study and so the two topics cannot really even be discussed together by an enlightened audience.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Modest Proposal with apologies to Swift

Talking with my colleague Charlie Garcia yesterday about the recent presidential debate he suggested a plan that might improve the quality of the candidates responses, a perfectly reasonable proposal which I think deserves our consideration.  Instead of the oral arguments/stump speeches that are delivered give the candidates a written test.  Questions are submitted and the candidates write their responses.  The major difference and dramatic change would be that answers that went "off topic" would be returned to be revised.  We talked about how in our work as elementary school teachers we teach students how to stay on topic and completely answer the questions because on the typical standardized tests students loose points for not answering all aspects of a question.  In the parlance of presidential debates, not answering a question completely and going off topic is called a "pivot".  When the candidates have written, revised and edited their questions to the point that they answer the questions and provide enough evidence to support their positions they could read their answers on the air.  Having worked in broadcast media myself I realize that the networks may fear losing viewers but this might prove to be a ratings bonanza.  I would suggest making the process into a reality show, where you could follow the teachers as they grade the papers, the students/candidates as they pull all nighters trying to complete the answers before their next fundraiser.  I've got a big batch of red pens ready to go and would be glad to spend some time helping the candidates stay on topic, answer the questions and maybe even learn something in the process.  It's a modest proposal that could have some enlightening and possibly entertaining results.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Learning How to Not Learn

As promised in a previous post here comes the all-out rant against "kids these days"... actually not.  I did mention some ideas that I've been thinking about for some time in a previous post about how kids learn to accept not understanding what's going on and so I thought I'd write some more about that.  Actually, the more I look at my work and my thinking about my work I realize that I'm mostly working with questions.  Sometimes the questions change direction or become better questions as more information comes in but it's rare that I can say there's been a definitive answer.  With that in mind, here's some observations and questions.  For many years now I've noticed that some students will be reading a text and when you ask for their opinions, ideas, predictions etc. they can't tell you anything, or they choose not to tell you anything.  This makes me wonder "When did 'I don't know' become an acceptable answer? or perhaps more accurately, when did it become the default answer, acceptable or not?" In these situations I've tried to get into the thinking of the student and find out if there are parts of the text they don't understand.  I've found in many instances that a student will say they "Don't get it" or "Don't understand" the text.  The fact that students might not understand a text is not surprising, indeed much literacy education revolves around what to do when you don't understand something.  The surprising element has been that many of these students would just keep reading a book day after day without having a clue about what was going on.  It's possible that they understand more than they're admitting for some reason, but I worked under the assumption that students were telling the truth when they appeared to not understand the text.  I wondered how it was that they could sit with a book open in front of them and turn pages, reading words but not notice that they didn't understand the story.
In many interviews with students I found that a lot of them watched several hours of TV and movies every day on top of a few hours of video games.  When asked about what they were watching many students reported watching movies and TV that would be rated R or playing games designed for mature audiences.  Getting more specific with kids about the shows or movies and asking them to explain what was happening in the programs the responses indicated that the primary allure was either violence or sex.  I haven't found any of the nine or ten year olds I talk with that can explain the nuances of a romantic relationship with an abusive partner who is cheating on their spouse with a heavily armed secret agent who blows up tanks, buildings and people for a living, but they sure seem to like the explosions and the promise that sooner or later someone will be taking their clothes off.
These experiences lead me to ask questions.  For example, if a child is watching programs on a regular basis where the plot is obviously aimed at an adult and would require an adult perspective to understand the motivations behind the actions, can they become used to not fully understanding the "text" which in this case is the plot, the dialogue etc.?  After all, for the child who enjoys that sort of thing, there's often a big pay-off in terms of some ripping action.  Could it be that this kind of experience tells a child, "It's okay to not understand why people are acting this way, and it's okay to not really grasp the emotions behind an adult relationship, you'll enjoy watching the amazing special effects explosions and the sex"?
If that sort of thing is going on, and the self-monitoring part of their learning brain is switched off then teachers face an uphill battle to say the least.  This doesn't even get into the possible impact of this kind of media diet on the student when faced with the typical books they will encounter in school.  For many years I've worked with fourth or fifth grade students who are reading at approximately a second grade level.  Often these are students who a regular consumers of adult oriented programming.  Imagine the shock when you go from James Bond to Cam Jansen or Nate The Great which would be books on the level that these students could reasonably read independently.  How boring is Encyclopedia Brown with not even a hint of romantic intrigue with Sally Kimball and not an Uzi in sight?
My goal in asking these questions is to gain some understand for myself as a teacher in how best to work with students who are dealing with these challenges as learners.  Perhaps one of the first steps is to recognize that it is a challenge.  Obviously, I can't say that there's a direct correlation between adult themed TV, movies and video games and an apathy towards understanding, or inability to recognize when something doesn't make sense, but I think it's an important question to be asking.  What does go on? How is it that some students seem to have learned how not to learn?

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.