Sunday, October 24, 2010

Watching Their Eyes

In the first two days of school, I noticed something interesting about C.'s eyes. They didn't land anywhere for more than a few seconds at a time--not on the faces of people speaking to him, objects in the classroom, or even things outside our huge windows. I started timing him. Ten seconds. That was the longest he seemed to visually focus on anything...and what he focused on seemed pretty random, as if he wasn't in control.

C. wasn't alone--there were several other kids whose eyes moved like dancing bees. It probably won't surprise you to hear that these kids made up the majority of kids in our room who were struggling. The important thing is that it caught my attention and made me think about why it was happening and what to do about it.

I started watching more closely, trying to notice when their eyes did land on something for longer times and where the eyes went when they were engaged in tasks that they perceived as difficult. Patterns emerged pretty quickly.
  • The kids's eyes stuck with things that they found interesting--and when I was doing most of the work of the task. Read alouds. That's when their eyes stuck with the task and they were engaged and thinking.
  • Their eyes rarely stayed focused on tasks where the kids were doing more of the work--instead they were almost continually looking to another student, more likely, to me. Often this occurred before they even gave a first glance to the work they were doing.
  • It was almost like they didn't know they could choose to look at something or to look with purpose. It seemed like it was up to chance whether or not they looked to something that might help them figure something out or recognize something they know.
 In professional reading, learning at conferences and training sessions, and in conversations with colleagues, I had heard over and over that many children who struggle have to learn to look at print. I agree. But in watching my students, I think there is another piece that we have to consider. The children I was observing did look at print when someone else was doing most of the work. But when it was up to them, most of the time their eyes wandered before they even attempted to figure something out. It was almost as if they didn't know they could figure it out or that to do so required looking at what they were doing. This was happening even when the kids appeared to be interested in the topic or task.

So now what? The most direct thing seems to be to tell them. Teach them to look and most importantly, start sending the message that they can figure it out.
"You can figure this out. I'll show you. First, keep your eyes here [point]."
"Let's look here [point]. We can figure this out."
"Put your eyes here [point]--what do you see that can help you figure that out?"
"Where can you look to figure that out?"

It's not going to stop there, but it's a start. What I had noticed was that instead of making attempts or engaging in work themselves, it was almost like these kids had a default setting that caused them to first look to others--their seemingly more capable peers, me, their parents. More than teaching them to look, I need to teach them that they can do something when presented with a task. Peter Johnston calls this having a sense of agency--having a sense that one can do things to affect outcomes or figure things out or complete tasks.

I think that it's important to teach kids things like how to look at print, but I think that we also have to pay attention to whether or not kid see themselves as capable of not only doing that, but using it to figure things out for themselves.

So what about C.? He still has a long way to go, but in reading group the other day, he eagerly reached for the new book and began reading. On the very first page, he came to something he wasn't sure of. I watched closely--his eyes paused and he started to glance up at me...but before he made eye contact, he pulled his eyes back to the page, looking at the picture, then back to where his finger lay under the print. He leaned in closer to the book, looking again at the words, then the picture.
A grin broke across his face as he correctly read the rest of the sentence, turned the page, and kept on reading.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Ruth, this is a powerful post. You are such a purposeful teacher and your post inspires me to be one too. How often do we notice something, maybe even mention it to a colleague, but we never "follow-up" on it. You don't let go of those things that tug at your attention, instead you ask: Why? And then teach into it. I can't wait to read your next post.

    -- The Other Ruth