On Following the Learning (comic book style) #TeacherMom

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.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

4 Reasons We Just Can’t Break Up with Basals (& How to Finally Move On)

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.

In a workshop/units of study model, not only do students develop literacy skills, but they do so with a greater degree of context and response to the ongoing trajectory of student learning.

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

Sources:

1. http://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1507&context=ehd_theses

2. https://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/resources/2/Principal/2009/J-F_p26.pdf

3. http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Basal_readers.pdf

4. http://www.bamradionetwork.com/edwords-blog/3-reasons-to-rethink-your-basal-reader

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Rethinking Calendar Time #TeacherMom

Counting popsicle sticks. Singing songs about weather. Chanting the days of the week. The Calendar Time routine has become a veritable staple in many PreK-2 classrooms.

Which is why I don’t make this challenge lightly. But between research and my own observations, I can’t help but wonder whether Calendar Time is pulling its weight proportionate to its allotted time/energy.

Research

Calendar Time for Young Children: Good Intentions Gone Awry” (May 2008) by Sallee J. Beneke, Michaelene M. Ostrosky, and Lilian G. Katz raises some important questions with regards to our use of calendar time. The two biggest include:

  • Developmental readiness, especially with regards to temporal understanding (“According to Friedman (2000), the ability to judge the relative time from a past event or until a future event in terms of the calendar year is not in place until sometime between 7 and 10 years of age”).
  •  The skills we work to cultivate during calendar time are often better suited toward guided group/individual work that is more easily differentiated.

The article offers several alternatives that would be more developmentally appropriate and effective for the intended outcomes of Calendar Time, such as:

  • Showing the story of the day’s schedule with a picture schedule
  • Shared photo-journals or artifacts chronicling class happenings
  • Time-linked displays to document learning
  • Project work that brings time-related concepts to a more immediate and relevant sphere

They conclude,

“Teachers who intend to keep calendar a part of their daily classroom routine will be more effective if they develop ways to incorporate the calendar that require little time and reflect young children’s limited development of time concepts.”

Personal Observation

I witnessed just how valuable the alternatives can be in watching my own daughter’s temporal development unfold. When she was about 4 years old, I noticed that she could never keep track of how soon events would occur — life became an endless stream of questioning to find out how many days before _____. In response, I decided to create for her what we called our “week wheel,” on which we stuck pictures of frequent events (which she illustrated, of course). Quite apart from saving my sanity, this handy tool also provided a hands-on method for her to better comprehend what comes next.

More recently, she started asking me what day of the week it was — every single day. For a long time, I didn’t think much of it; I dismissed it as simple curiosity. Until I realized that she was creating her own picture calendar out of the one included in the weekly bulletin at church.

Each day, as soon as she heard the name of the day, she’d dash back in to check what she’d planned for herself for the day, meticulously crossing off the day before. Honestly, I can’t think of a better way for her to learn the days of the week than this kind of authentic, personal application.

Obviously, such strategies become more complex when there are 20-30+ kids in the mix — a whole-group Calendar Time seems sensible. But what seems more efficient isn’t necessarily going to be effective. We can and must get creative to find ways to meet our kids where they are in all their diverse needs and interests.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Combating Summer Slide (Without Workbooks)

During our big summer project (building a deck!), I decided to let my daughter jump in with the painting. I thought it would be a simple opportunity for her to experience some ownership over our project. Turns out, it was much more.

For one thing, her questioning was endless. The difference between primer and paint, the purpose of even brush strokes, the relevance to the overall design, and so on.

For another, she identified several valuable life lessons. My favorite was when she told me, “You know, things aren’t always as quick and easy as they seem. I thought I’d finish painting this board in just a minute or two!” It was also wonderful to help her observe the patient, and often tedious, preparation that is required for a job well-done.

As I reflected later on, I recognized the richness of that learning experience. Her critical thinking, reasoning, communication, and comprehension skills were sharpened again and again — with a depth and authenticity that all those summer workbooks can never even come close to matching.

Now, summer slide is a legitimate problem — particularly for children from lower-income families. Take a look at some of the figures:

via Oxford Learning

Our family is certainly fortunate to even have the time and circumstances to have the experience I described above. But as teachers and parents, we would be remiss to assert that the summer slide solution for children from disadvantaged homes would be to load them up on workbooks. The best programs recognize this; as an ASCD Educational Leadership article described,

“In addition to reading and math instruction, Horizons programs give children the sort of enrichment typically enjoyed by more affluent youngsters, such as field trips to museums, camping in the mountains, Broadway shows, and music instruction. Without programs like these, most of our students would be sitting at home watching television while their middle-class peers were off to camp or on a family vacation.”

In my community, the public library, local schools, and local university all offer programs designed to help kids access authentic learning experiences. And it is delightful to watch that access grow all the time.

Whatever our circumstances, we should always be on the lookout for experiences that will help our children make connections and cultivate skills — and no matter how simple, personal interactions go a long way.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

The Myth of the “Recipe for Success”

Faige Meller, a friend in my PLN recently wrote about mindsets:

“One of our teacher mindsets has been to follow rules. We ask kids to follow the rules, because that’s what we as teachers do. We might not like to admit that some of what we do is part of the recipe of schools; schedules, routines, classroom design, classroom rules, administrative directives and so on and so forth.”

Reading this instantly took me back to a memory early in my first year of teaching. During a teacher education course, I had been given a piece of advice from a professor: “At your first job, ask for the standardized testing data right away. Your principal will love you!”

Wanting to make a good impression, I did just that — before the students had even arrived for the first day of school, I asked my administrators for that data. And like magic, it worked. They seemed pleased.

But I couldn’t shake an unsettled feeling. Faithful to the “recipe for success” I’d been given, I did indeed look over the data — but it turned out that it didn’t tell me much anyway. What was more troubling, however, was the fact that I knew I hadn’t engaged in any sort of authentic relationship-building. I had simply demonstrated that I was willing to be a compliant hoop-jumper.

Don’t get me wrong — willingness to be a “team-player” has its place in any work setting. However, it seems that too often, we’re willing to stop there. As long as the job gets done, why go further? Why bother with real relationship-building? Why push the status quo? That advice I had been given as a pre-service teacher definitely promoted that mentality.

Maybe it’s because we don’t want to give advice that has any degree of uncertainty to it. But John Spencer illustrates the role of that uncertainty well:

by John Spencer

If we’re always “sure this will work,” we choose the comfort of certainty over the messiness of opportunities.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

How Our Desperation for Results Skews Process: Potty-Training Edition #TeacherMom

Potty training. I doubt I’m alone when I say it’s the bane of my parenting existence.

Because it’s not just the task at hand — with a child that’s highly suspicious of toilets, at that.

It’s the pressure.

Pressure to prepare the child for “what’s next” (ie, places where diapers are frowned upon. Like junior high school, for instance).

Pressure to keep the child from falling behind peers.

Pressure to be reminded that on average, those kids in Japan are getting potty trained way earlier than kids in this country.

Teachers, sound familiar?

As parents and teachers, we all set forth with ideals to cultivate empowered, autonomous, thriving kids. But as the pressures rise like flood waters seeping into the bottom of a boat, we start to bail out everything to do with process in a desperate frenzy to get results.

And that’s generally when treats, bribes, and punishments start taking a more prominent role.

The biggest concern with this isn’t that we’re trying to help our child make progress in their development. It’s that we start working from a place of fear instead of understanding. When we’re driven by fear, we no longer start with the individual child and his needs/readiness. We instead start with ourselves: our timetables and our pressures. We listen less and dictate more.

We can start with the child while still inviting him to move forward in his progress. But whether it’s potty training or reading or multiplication facts — be sure to reflect & check that fear at the door!

featured image: Mark Michaelis

Mistakes & Trust, Expectations & Understanding #TeacherMom

Close the door behind you. Use both hands to carry things that might spill. Keep your voice down when baby is sleeping. Eat breakfast in a timely manner. Shoes off in the house. Toilet lid closed. Coat hung up. Mess cleaned up. 

The list goes on and on and on. And then these small humans go to school with a similar, but separate list.

With lists that long, mistakes are inevitable. The question is, what becomes of trust?

As usual, Brene Brown nails it here. As parents and teachers, we have a precious opportunity to teach children what it looks like to “make amends, stay aligned with our values, and confront shame and blame head-on.”

We can model to them what we do when we make mistakes to try to forge trust in our relationships, as well.

But of course, when backpacks get left on the floor again, or when the milk glass gets spilled again, it’s easy to let frustration take the driver’s seat and throw all trust and understanding out the window. It’s also easy to feel like they should know that expectation by now, and to show understanding would be to void responsibility.

But if we do that, we leave no room for trust, for opportunity to “make amends” and try again.

So instead, choose trust.

Give them a chance to clean it up.

Work together to build greater mutual understanding.

Exemplify vulnerability and the messy, hard work of relationship-building.

And while we’re at it, print off this Engaged Checklist, also from Brene Brown, and keep it posted in a handy spot…

  featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto