Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Thin Line Between Chaos and Genius

Disclaimer: I would never lay claim to the title of genius; however, sometimes thoughtful, deliberate, hard work looks something like genius.

Sometimes trying to pull together lessons that address standards and curriculum mandates while also addressing students' needs and interests often leaves me feeling like I am walking a thin line between barely controlled chaos and carefully orchestrated genius. Sometimes it takes a while to see the connections among seemingly different contexts and goals. Sometimes it all works.

When my colleague Mr. A. stopped by my room recently, he caught me in the midst of planning for writing workshop. I gestured to the piles of professional books, student writing samples, and notes scribbled on sticky notes. "What I have," I sighed, "is either a mess or something that is going to be very cool."
"Oh, it'll be genius," he replied. One of the things I appreciate about Mr. A. is his unwavering confidence.

Usually I think about the most pressing needs in planning, but right now, it feels like there are several things that qualify. It's April, so of course we want to spend some time studying and writing poetry. We've recently returned our attention in reading to informational text and want to try out some techniques we noticed in what we're reading to write some new kinds of informational text ourselves. After looking at the kids' writing, I realized that we needed to learn how to get more detail into our text and illustrations to help readers understand our work. And the research center--how could I forget that after a peek into their observation notebooks, it was glaringly obvious that I needed to reteach what kinds of writing and drawing researchers do.

After a small, private panic attack, I started looking for how all these things might be related. I kept coming back to informational text. There are a lot of poems that are actually informative--quite a lot once you start looking for it. That could tie into noticing and writing and illustrating with detail--essential in poetry. Poetry could be one of the forms we studied as options for ourselves as informational text writers--why not? As for the research center--it seemed that noticing and learning how to draw and take notes would support our work as writers, not just our research work. Hmmm....maybe there is a little spark of genius here. Or at least a clever way to link seemingly unrelated things in to one study.

Here's the planning sheet we used (since he was there anyway, I made Mr. A. help plan). Mr. A. had already begun studying poetry with his kids, so he started with the lessons related specifically to poetry. I had already talked to my kids a little about illustration work, so I started with that. The benefit is that we are tweaking as we go, so each of us gets the benefit of using parts of the unit that have already been field tested.
This is the plan that captured my thinking before I started--some things
have been adjusted as we work our way through this learning.
As I'm writing this, we are about halfway through our study, and I have to say that while I'm hesitant to lay claim to the genius title, this is definitely not chaos. Instead, because I took the time to lay it out and deliberately searched for how these things overlapped, my kids and I (along with Mr. A. and his kids) have been engaged in some very joyful and purposeful learning.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Finding Faith That What We Believe In Will Work

Recently I posted about following the kids' lead but with a plan in mind. In that post I described a study we were doing with maps and how the kids really wanted to work in groups to create something to share what they had learned. At that point, the kids were ready to start their group work. Here a couple of the completed projects (since this past week was spring break, the hall lights were off--if I can get pictures of the rest, I'll edit this post to include them).

As I observed the kids at work in their groups, I realized something. Believing in something isn't necessarily the same as having faith that it will work.

I absolutely believe that I can create an environment where kids share in decision making and are actively engaged and still ensure that we meet the curriculum standards, build on students' strengths, and address their needs. This project is a great example of that. The kids wanted to share their learning about maps, suggested how they could do it, organized groups, and were set to work. I became the lady who was to ensure they had "lots of paper--the big kind" and "those sentence things...and also we need you to get us bigger maps."

And on the morning they were to start work, I realized that while I believe in this kind of environment and learning--that it is powerful and effective--I wasn't sure I had faith that it would all work. That shook me a bit. I was soon to turn 23 first graders loose. In groups they made without my input. To share what they felt was important without my guidance.

I wonder...was it really shaky faith on my part, or a fear of giving up control? After all, faith does require a certain amount of giving-up-control-ness.

I knew that I needed to stay the course, to have faith that the kids not only could work together but that they would. And that they'd figure out what to share and how to share it. After all, this kind of work reflects a lot about what I believe about effective classroom practices.

As I watched them work over the next few days, my faith was rewarded. There were a couple minor disagreements, but the kids figured it out for themselves. They all worked; every child contributed. Groups were discussing and planning and deciding what they felt was important to share about maps in general or what to point out on their maps. They designed their own layouts for their projects and shared the completed work with the rest of the class. I was needed only as a final spell-checker and as the person tall enough to hold up the charts while the groups shared.

This project was not only a great learning experience for my kids, it reaffirmed my belief in certain practices. It also caused me to stop and consider that even when teachers believe something is effective, it may still be difficult to have real faith that it's going to work in our classrooms with our kids. But I also believe that we have to find the faith to try--and to keep trying. If it's what we say we believe, then our classroom practices have to reflect it.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Teaching for Independence

"The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without a teacher."   
                                                                                                                            --Elbert Hubbard

"Ok guys, I've been watching you really closely when you read the past few days. I've noticed that when you try something that doesn't match or make sense, you keep right on going. If I stop you or ask you if it made sense or matched, you go right back and fix it up. As readers, it's your job to notice mistakes and fix them by yourselves."

This was not the first time I'd said this to these readers. And a little voice in my head warned me as we worked through another lesson together that it would not be the last. J. in particular puzzled me. She seemed to have all the tools and strategies she needed to read accurately with understanding. Yet day after day, she made mistake after mistake without slowing down. When I'd slide in to draw her attention to the fact that what she read didn't make sense or match, she'd immediately go back, fix it up with very little effort and move on. On the next page, the same thing would happen. The others in her group would do the same. 

I knew these kids could do it. They were capable of monitoring their reading themselves, but they just were not doing it. A. even commented one day, "yeah, I really gotta work on that!" 

No kidding, I thought, so do I.

When I was being trained as a literacy coach, one of the things that came up time and time again was the idea of teaching for independence. Over and over in training sessions, in readings, and during classroom observations, we were told not to do for the child what he could do for himself (thanks go to Marie Clay for that powerful bit of wisdom). In addition, we grappled with the idea that our teaching should enable our kids to do things themselves--we were to teach them to be independent, not to depend on us. 

Easier said than done. There are a lot of things we teachers do that unintentionally may encourage kids to depend on us, and this is something I've had to learn to watch for in my teaching. Maybe that was part of the problem. Another thing I've noticed over time is that struggling readers often assume they can't do things without help. 

So now what, I wondered. They seem quite able to fix things up once they know they've made a mistake. The problem is getting them to notice that in the first place. I decided that the words I hadn't said to the kids were, "I know you can do this, so I am not going to do it for you. I'll be watching, but you'll have to do the noticing." I also realized that I would need to make sure I was not pointing out errors for the kids--with words or with facial expressions. I had to be willing to let them flounder a bit more so they would know that it was their job, not mine to monitor their reading.

I'd love to say that things changed overnight and that J. and A. and the others nodded their heads, opened their books and monitored for themselves. It wasn't that easy. But over a few days, things did change.

During our reading group Friday, I watched as J. read a sentence, then another....and made a mistake. I held my breath but didn't say a word. As she neared the end of the sentence, she paused and her eyes flicked back to the start. She frowned and then glanced at the picture. Then she went back and reread the sentence, fixing up the error and continued on. I struggled to keep a straight face--after all, I had told the kids that I not only believed they could do this, I expected they would. And she did. All the way through the book. 

As she finished, the book, she looked up triumphantly. "You did it," I crowed, "I just knew you could!" She grinned and looked the others.
"I did it that time by myself," she announced, "I didn't need Mrs. M. to help."