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?