One of my favorite comic strips is Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy. Clueless dog Satchel, delusional cat Bucky, and somewhat-socially-awkward bachelor Rob make up more of a hilariously dysfunctional roommate scenario rather than a pet/owner relationship.
With more advanced humor and vocabulary than I’d expect my 7 year-old to be able to catch, I was hesitant when she asked to borrow a copy for her bedside shelf. But holding true to the belief that we should never stand in the way between our kids and a good book, I agreed.
Despite my skepticism, I wasn’t too surprised when she fell in love with the book — after all, the pictures alone provide plenty of humor she can relate to. But what did surprise me was in-text learning she was reaping.
Where I thought she’d gloss over enigmas like idioms, proverbs, and cultural references, she instead started asking me to fill in the blank. I found myself explaining:
the history behind “Houston, we have a problem” (because of the day Bucky applied Nair all over his body in order to compete with a furrier cat and Satchel said, “Houston, we have a Persian.”)
the meaning of the phrase “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime” (because of the day Satchel had a hungry dog friend over that wanted Rob’s nachos, and Bucky observed, “Give a dog a nacho and he just eats for a day, but if you teach that dog where to buy nachos, you’re stuck with it for the rest of its natural life.”
the iconic reference to the old comic strip, Garfield: “I hate Mondays” (since Bucky was having a tough day with stale food, sat-in tuna, and a non-tasty bug in his water).
Overall, this is was a good reminder to me that when we follow our kids’ interests, the learning follows, even in unexpected circumstances. We’re so tempted to instead start with the long checklists of content so we don’t “miss” anything. But there is rich abundance of learning to be had when our children take the lead in their learning, if only we’re willing to trust them to uncover it.
And as a bonus, big sister now spends bedtime giggling away with her little brother as she shares comics with him, too.
With as much wonder as a new city provides, you can bet that an inquiry into the concept of cities would lead into a rich discussion about culture, change, growth, community, and more. Check out these resources for a broad concept-based provocation to stir up your students’ thinking!
The typical basal-reading program lesson frequently boils down to something like this:
Assigned shared text read aloud.
Definitions of carefully-bolded vocabulary words copied down.
Comprehension worksheets filled out.
Students and teachers alike feeling bored to tears.
The truth is, putting kids through this kind of soul-less exercise will produce authentic readers no more than the mastery of connect-the-dots sheets will produce artists.
And we know it. Master teachers refer to the need to “finesse and hybridize” basals to make sure they’re effective. ¹ (which also makes basals’ claims at “research-based effectiveness” shaky since there’s real possibility they take credit for master teachers’ adjustments).
There are so many other ways to help our students develop the reading skills they need while protecting and nurturing their love of reading. Here are a few of the messages I believe we keep getting from basal program companies to convince us otherwise.
#1: Inexperienced teachers need me!
Basals assert that new teachers won’t be able to navigate the waters of literacy instruction without their careful direction. However, if our solution for offering literacy support to new teachers is to let them muddle through a sub-par program, we’re doing a disservice to both our teachers and our students.
Furthermore, even with all the details of a basal program (many of which supply ideas for differentiation, activating background knowledge, etc), “only a well-trained teacher can make the multifaceted decisions involved in developing such instruction”² anyway. Outsourcing this training to a one-size fits all manual is simply inadequate.
P.S. Going basal-free doesn’t mean you have to/should abandon a framework. One phenomenal example is a a workshop framework by Pam Allyn that I reviewed a couple years ago.
#2: You can’t be sure students will develop skills without my guidance.
Meanwhile, basal programs tend to spend disproportionate amounts of time drilling specific skills, such as the ones involved in reading comprehension. Consider this:
“It is critical to note that these and other reading programs allocate as much or more actual time to rehearsing comprehension skills than they allocate to teaching any other element in their language-arts program…In reality, when children experience problems comprehending text, it is much more likely due to the child’s lack of knowledge of the subject matter…The notion that we can teach students a set of skills that they will be able to apply to new and unfamiliar texts or situations is a process that cognitive psychologists call “skills transference.” This is regarded as an inordinately difficult task for our brains to pull off and, therefore, is not a practical educational goal. But it is a goal set forward by every major reading program on the market.”³
In addition, even if students develop said skills, if they never apply them because all those basal worksheets suffocated their love of reading, what’s the point? As educator Ross Cooper wrote, “First and foremost, we must promote a love of reading, not a culture of literacy-based micromanagement.“4
#3: You won’t have ready access to ability-appropriate text!
Twenty years ago, this may have been the case. But just consider this small sampling of today’s possibilities:
Shared texts via projectors/document cameras
Newsela (engaging, level-able text at the click of a button)
Wonderopolis (text based on “more than 90,000 Wonder questions submitted by users” and differentiation features such as selected-text-to-audio and hover-to-define-vocabulary)
DOGO (kid-friendly news that’s also leveled at the click of a button and includes assignments, vocab, and Google Classroom integration)
Savvy multimedia librarians that can help identify/pull relevant texts during the immersion phase of units.
#4: You won’t have as much time without me to meet students’ individual needs!
Basal models assume that most kids’ learning takes place right at the top of the bell curve, with “differentiation tips” for the few kids on either side of the curve. But the truth is, every journey is unique. The sooner we disentangle ourselves from all the micromanaged requirements of a basal, the sooner we can spend our time where it really counts: 1-1 conferences, responsive mini-lessons, mentor text studies, student ownership/agency, etc.
No matter what promises are made to the contrary, we need to remember that “there’s no simple solution, no panacea, or miracle cure for reading. The range of ways to solve reading achievement challenges is as broad as the range of student profiles.”²
The attention-grabbing headline pulled me in, but nothing seemed terribly unexpected as I scrolled through the article. I nodded through passages like, “hanging out alone in her room with her phone…” “dramatic shifts in behavior…” “proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent…”
Until I got to one phrase that made me stop short.
“I call them iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones.”
It was the identification of my own child, born in 2010, as a member of this iGen group.
In a brief episode of primal fear (after all, this article says the iGen are in mental health crisis), my mind flicked through every contact my child has ever made with a smartphone, like some kind of frenzied mental Rolodex.
But as I slowed, regrouped, took a few deep breaths, I remembered something: exposure is not the issue here. It’s connection.
This, of course, requires purpose, balance, and prudence on adults’ part. And with the very real and weighty issues presented in The Atlantic in mind, I would like to share 5 ways we can cultivate a sense of opportunity over fear as we teach our iGen kids digital citizenship.
#1: Recognize that their childhoods won’t mirror ours — and that’s ok.
As some neighborhood kids recently got together to play in our backyard, I noticed them huddled around a smartphone:
If I were to share such a photo without any background, people might jump to the same conclusions they did when the photo below was shared of kids in a museum (ie, “Kids these days!!” or “Look at them glued to those devices!!”)
But the context they’d be missing would be that this is what it looks like when digital citizenship becomes woven into the fabric of daily life. Right before I snapped the photo, these kids were darting around the yard creating a stop-motion movie of their make-believe play (and the context of the above tweet is that these kids were using an interactive museum tour app).
Of course, this can also be what zombie-land phone addiction looks like, but that’s why it’s so important to seek out and be aware of context.
#2: Model appropriate balanced use.
There are those who feel the need to altogether keep devices out of their young children’s physical sight-lines — and while this may be a temporary solution, it removes the opportunity for open dialogue with our children about how we use our devices. They need to hear not only what we do with our phones, but what strategies we employ to keep obsession at bay, especially in the face of social media.
#3: Make the good you do with your device louder than the bad they hear about.
Speaking of modeling, educators Edna Sackson and George Couros have inspired my thinking time and again about this concept:
Cyberbullying, white ribbon week, internet safety — these are all good and important concepts to cover with our children. But if they are exclusive, then we are missing a huge opportunity.
#4: Emphasize creation over consumption.
Videos like the one below help convey the incredible ways we can view, express, and share the world around us.
And resources like this might help them comprehend the sheer creative potential they hold in their hands (and to appreciate how far we’ve come in a short period of time):
Of course, consumption has its place and we should have honest conversations about our sources and habits there, too. But an important part of citizenship in general is that in a community, people need to both give and take.
#5: Emphasize the personally meaningful ways you are using tech to enhance relationships.
This “Dear Sophie” video inspired me so much back in 2011 that I decided to do the same with my own kids. This is a beautiful example of how we can leverage the technology to connect with our loved ones in historically unprecedented ways.
Our iGen kids are part of an exponentially shifting period of history — and of course, this is just the beginning. Our best bet for helping them navigate safely is to embark on the journey together.
Supply and demand. Anyone who took basic high school economics probably recalls this handy chart:
What I didn’t realize was that apparently, babies are also in-the-know. At least when it comes to mealtime in the highchair:
See, here’s what happens. Even if I know he’s hungry and even if it’s food I know he loves, when I load up his tray with large quantities of said food, it promptly lands on the floor or (more frequently) the dog’s belly.
↑ supply, ↓ demand
But when I give him just a few manageable pieces at a time, he usually eats every bit himself, even with a begging pup at his side.
↓ supply, ↑ demand
The more I’ve observed this fascinating phenomenon, the more I’ve wondered about its application to (where else?) the classroom.
Do I ever “load up” my students so much that they shut down (too many instructions, information, etc. at once)?
When I’m trying to get through a large amount of material and overload my students, is it still about the learning? With the supply/demand principles, does it even end up as efficient as I’d hoped?
When does overload actually work, and how does it differ from the above scenario (immersion, etc)?
My not-even-one-year-old baby seems to grasp that he should give a scarce supply greater attention — and I’m pretty sure it’s because he’s onto the fact that the scarcity is because I’m giving him greater attention as I sit close, notice, and adjust to his needs over the course of meal time. And if my baby is onto me, I’m pretty sure my students usually are, too.
When zoomed in close to the content of our required curricula, an inquiry into music may seem like the least relevant provocation for the typical busy classroom (unless, of course, you’re doing a unit on music). But, as always when it comes to inquiry, when we zoom out and identify the broader, over-arching concepts of our units, we find common ground that will makes our that content more rich, relevant, and memorable.
It’s now been over three years since I’ve been in the classroom. Three years. And while I miss being in the classroom, I can honestly say that thanks to the many incredible teachers in my PLN, not a day has passed that I haven’t learned more about how to return to the classroom a better teacher.
A powerful example came recently when I read this thought-provoking post from my friend Abe (@Arbay38). One of his comments perfectly articulated one of my fears of shifting toward more student voice, choice and ownership:
The rest of his post greatly assuaged this fear, but I’ve continued to reflect on this question over the past couple of weeks. But then, he shared something else on Twitter — something so profound, that I think I can finally put this fear completely to rest:
This child has reminded me once and for all that the bottom line is doing what’s best for kids. Withholding opportunities for autonomy now for fear of future constraints is like refusing to build the ship for fear of future rough waters.
Isn’t the possibility that they may not experience this kind of autonomy in future classrooms all the more reason to help them cultivate it now? To help them reflect now why it matters, and how they’ll respond to its absence in the future?
Our students deserve the very best we can offer right now. And as we regularly ask them to choose courage over fear through risk-taking and the growth mindset, we can be the first to model that back: choosing courage over fear.