A Collection of Astounding Facts

SHYANGLE dalioPhoto via Compfight

So much on my mind these days. The events that have occurred ” inside the dog” of the classroom seem to break into fragments as soon as I place them within the frame of a story1 as if the frame does not hold the story together, but presses it apart into shards that glint and flicker like the flames caused shadows to dance across the wall of Plato’s cave. I suppose that I am that man chained to the floor, the one who cannot tell what is a shadow and what is a puppet.

I think that’s why I have not had a story to tell lately2, but I do have a need to connect things together even if I am suspicious of stories right now.3 So, if not a story, here are some things collected and arranged in close proximity to each other.

Here’s one piece: Mary Lee Hahn’s lovely Poetry Friday post about noticing the small things, the important things (as well as about Mark Strand’s poetry and something as small as the Universe.)

I don’t know that,
but we’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of,
or that floats around in space.

But we’re combined in such a way
that we can describe
what it’s like to be alive,
to be witnesses.
Most of our experience is that of being a witness.
We see and hear and smell other things.

–Mark Strand, quoted in CREATIVITY: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF DISCOVERY AND INVENTION
(Line breaks are Mary Lee’s)

Another fragment tumbled through the ether: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Most Astounding Fact, that not only are we part of the universe, but the universe is part of us: “Our desire is to be connected, isn’t it…?”

And, while splitting wood last weekend, a third bit arrived on the east wind of an overcast day during a break to rest my back: a visceral sense that locked deep within the rings of wood created on one sunny day over 100 years ago was the breath of people and critters who once lived in the place that I inhabit now, a carbon journey that moved in time from these breaths to carbon chains created through a clever bit of chemistry and the Sun’s own energy deep inside the organs of living beings so different than me (plants!), and all this, in turn, from bits of carbon created in the cores of stars many times more massive than our Sun, so ancient as to be unimaginable. Carbon loaned to me in the form of a body today will be somewhere else tomorrow.

Connected, indeed.

Somehow it seems really important that I ponder these things.

  1. For example, our Science engineering unit nearing completion is BOTH a successful attempt to provide space for analytical thinking AND a dismal failure to manage a couple groups who have children with prickly personalities…as well as a few more things I don’t even realize.
  2. Or, rather, I have too many stories to tell about the same event, which may be the same thing.
  3. My suspicion comes and goes.

At the End of First Quarter, a Time to Reflect

grandma

My first quarter of fifth grade is over and it is time to reflect. This is scary because the transition has been difficult for me and I’m afraid I haven’t done all that well. The good part is that there is room for improvement. This post will look at how I have tried to deal with the idea of a single grade report for each “subject.” I hope that this reflection will help me make some positive changes in the future. My next post will talk more about how I have struggled with bells that disrupt thinking, the short learning periods that result, and what I have tried to do to make learning deeper and more authentic.

Grades have been one major bugaboo this year. In elementary school, where I come from, we didn’t report grades, but handed parents a rubric that reported a child’s path toward grade level expectations on a variety of standards. 1 Our middle school uses a Pearson developed web-based Grade Book system. Grades are calculated based on “assignments” entered into the book. There is little or no room for narratives that describe student progress, or for other forms of documentation of student learning. Furthermore, the grade book averages these scores to attain a final grade, which goes against my sense that learning should not have to happen on a time schedule. I do not want to penalize one learner for arriving later than another, nor do I want to send a message to learners that there is a single path to follow or a single destination.

A significant amount of my time this quarter has been devoted to figuring out how I can mesh my values with this system. So, after some effort my esteemed colleague, Heath, and I have developed a rough draft of a standards-based rubric for reading and writing so we can report progress to parents and students. 2 We developed these after looking at the IA Core reading and writing standards, with an eye toward trimming them down to some of the most important ideas within the standards. 3

While just an early draft and still a rubric (see footnote #1 below about rubrics), I hope to eventually move beyond this toward to some kind of challenge-based tasks that are more real and meaningful than simply documenting progress toward someone else’s standards. Both students and teachers could eventually collect these documents and describe the learning that happened and the next steps. Perhaps we could even link these collections and reflections through our Pearson GradeBook site so it would simply serve as just a “shell” to house a link to our real documentation of student learning. 4 I have not figured out what changes I need to request in order to make that kind of linking to happen.

First quarter was rocky in part because I developed the rubric as the quarter was moving along. As a result, the rubric did not guide our learning during the quarter (and documentation could only be done by me, and was rarely shared with students…sigh); it evolved as I learned about the constraints of my new situation. To improve, my goal is to present the second quarter rubrics to learners this week. We’ll unpack them slowly together, and brainstorm ways we could document our learning. If I can do this, I imagine it will help to insulate us from having to post and complete numerous “I can…” statements over the course of the quarter. It might also allow us to develop some smaller projects/challenges/inquiries that could provide the context for our learning and our reflection. 5

*     *     *     *     *

I bought a great book recently, Lost in Translation, which contains about 50 words from many languages all that cannot be translated into English. One of my favorite words is the Hindi word: jugaad, a noun meaning (sort of) the sense that the project will get done despite the fact that when the project started, the resources may not have been sufficient to complete the task. I’m thinking that jugaad might be a word I need right now.

jugaad

  1. While standards-based reporting is much better than reporting a single grade for a subject area, I am more radical than most when I rebel against even this amount of “standardization” of learning. I share some of Alfie Kohn’s thinking about some of the problems with standardization of learning. I know. I’m an idealist, but there should be a place in the learning universe for us, too. I will probably always feel a disconnect between my work in public education and what I know about deep learning.
  2. Many thanks to my principal, Leona, for clearing the space for this experimentation. When you hear this from your principal, you know you have a good one: “So what I’m hearing is that you need some time and space to try this, maybe fail, and then try again? You got it.”
  3. Most certainly we haven’t achieved our goal, but we are farther along than if we hadn’t tried. You can see what we have done for writing and reading.
  4. Linking from the Pearson site would be a delightfully ironic twist.
  5. I am learning how the constraints that bells and short learning periods — 43 minutes — influence the kind of thinking that we do together. I have a much greater sense of how important it will be to really engage students in their own learning. Forty-three minute periods have an amazing ability to generate passivity.

Some (quick) Thoughts on Learning and Social Identity

A tweet tumbled through the electronic mail slot this evening, one that sent me on one of those idea-chases that impart some of of the savory taste to life. Maria Popova from the Brain Pickings Project1 pulled a snippet from neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman talking about persuasion:

“You might think that the things that get people to change their behavior are things that are memorable, that they can use their analytical brain to set down a long-term trace, or even just emotional, but surprisingly what we see is the brain regions that seem to be involved in successful persuasion. We can predict who will use more sunscreen next week based on how their brain responds to an ad today. The brain regions that seem to be critical to that are brain regions involved in social thinking, in thinking about yourself and thinking about other people. So this seems to be more about our identity and the identities that we’re capable of trying on. If I can’t try on the identity that you’re suggesting to me—being a sunscreen-using person, or a nonsmoker, or something like that—the ad is much less likely to stick.” (bold is mine.)

Which got me thinking about those reluctant readers and writers I have known over the years and how their inclusion in the world of literate souls really does seem to depend on whether they can see themselves in that literate place, or not. Can I adopt that identity? Can I imagine myself living there?

Which, in turn, helps me to see that perhaps my biggest value as a teacher is not the skills I teach them, or the standards we reach for together, but to be the boatman at the river, the one who readies the ship they might use to sail the self they are now toward the self they might become. To help provoke that fundamentally imaginative exercise: If I were that kind of person, what would it be like?

And, frankly, humans are better at this than robots. Yet another reason to keep the heart and ears open.

A Mesmerizing Contraption
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Leontine Greenberg via Compfight

  1. Thank you, Jan Miller Burkins and Mary Lee Hahn, for turning me on to the website.

Can I create I Can… Statements?

I have struggled with the idea of posting “I can…” statements on the board . To me, statements like this seem dry and lifeless: “I can use the information from my reading and what I know to draw conclusions and make inferences.” A quick (and far from exhaustive) Google search revealed “I can…” statements for all fifth grade subject areas that ranged in number from 86 to well over 100. Divided into 180 days or so, that’s at least one “I can…” statement every day or two.

Surely that’s too much stuff to learn in too short of a time. For instance, “I can summarize grade level text.” takes a long, long time to do well. I remember teaching college students who had a difficult time with that one. If the purpose of the “I can…” statements is to focus the learner’s attention and energy on what really matters, then how much focus can a learner give if that much stuff keeps on coming and coming and coming, day after day after day? Will students even remember what they “could do” a month later? A year later? Do near daily “I can…” statements actually (and perversely) create learner passivity, rather than learners who explore, inquire, create, and, well, learn?

And what might all of those “I can…” statements do to my teaching? Do I begin to see my teaching as a series of little lessons designed to teach over 100 specific skills spread out over the year so that I can fit them all in? For what larger purpose? And is that purpose clear to the children? Are they on board?

All that's left of the black and red raspberry pie that I made the other day.

All that’s left of the black and red raspberry pie that I made the other day. No lard, just butter and vegetable shortening, though, truth be told, lard makes great pie crust and we have it abundance here in IA.

Then an idea came to me while I was sitting around the dining room table eating pie and planning with my teacher friends Megan and Sara. It began with a question I posed to myself: What do I really want the kids to know and be able to do? What if I had only one “I can…” statement, what would it be? What would that single statement do to my teaching? To the kids’ learning? So I came up with this:

I can read attentively, write powerfully, question deeply, think clearly, and act ethically so that I can make a better world and a better me.

This “uber-I can…” begs questions like these: What does it mean to read attentively? How can I read more attentively? How does attentive reading connect with powerful writing? With deep questions? How does attentive reading make me a better person?

How do I write powerfully? What does powerful writing have to do with acting ethically? With creating a better world?

What does it mean to act ethically in school? How does ethical action connect with making me a better person? With asking deep and profound questions? With attentive reading?

Stuff like that. With this “I can…” the year takes on an exegetical feel, one based on a central hope to build a better world and a better me. Which makes me feel a bit better because these questions seem like they are worth pursuing.

Can we learn to write powerfully? Sure. We’ll study the writing of others. We’ll study our own. We’ll write a lot. Why? So we can use it to build something better — a better world, a better me.

Can we learn to read attentively? You betcha. We’ll try very hard to discern the central meanings an author wishes to convey. We’ll understand the power and the beauty that comes from that awesome act of communication.1 We’ll connect it to our writing, to our thinking, to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

Can we come to see ethical action as part of our learning? Yes. It happens every year. Without that, there is no community, and reading and writing and thinking go out the window.

So, maybe this is a way that “I can enter the world of I can… statements?”

  1. I sometimes introduce the act of writing by telling the children the Ojibwe word Mazina’igan, which means “talking paper.” I’ll write a message on a piece of paper, give it to a child, and the class will watch that child do some simple task, all in silence, as a way to show them that writing is an awesome act of communication across distance. A marvelous invention, this written language, and a powerful force that connects people.

Reading, the Thing You Do? or Reading, the Class?

Chat

What will we talk about? And should I share it “on the web?” 🙂

Photo Credit: Hartwig HKD via Compfight

I’m inspired by Tony Sinanis’ video updates about the happenings at his school in Jericho, NY. Yesterday I presented a couple of these videos to the kids and asked them whether they wanted to do such a thing for our classroom. They were very interested! I’m pleased, so we’ll start this week and post to our classroom website.

This weekly review of our time together fits with a more general desire I have to move toward documenting the learning we are doing on a moment by moment basis, which is itself strongly connected to my sense that learning happens when we are mindful of the deeper structures of our lives. I’m hoping that this weekly reflection will turn into a routine and that the kids will begin to document their work throughout the week.

But, like most ideas, the more I think about this, the more I wonder. Specifically (and this is difficult for me to admit) I wonder what the kids will say about what we do during our “reading” class. I love to read, many of the kids love to read (though, like other classrooms, there are exceptions to that rule…); some of the best moments we have in our class happen during the conversation around the books we read. Reading class takes up a large chunk of our day.

But what will they tell others about our “reading class?”  How can one describe a conversation? An insight? Or, in the other side of the reading class I present to the kids each day, what will they say about the teacher and school driven goals that I and The Reading Program create for them?

001_365_01.01.2013

Why is it that SMART goals never seem all that important to me, but other goals do?

Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Paula Naugle via Compfight

All this causes me to wonder about our “goals” during reading class, and whether they are powerful enough to be memorable, or clear enough to be described.

Which makes me wonder about how to teach reading.

Which makes me question myself, and how I do things.

Which brings me to the “insight” that I had this morning over my cup of coffee in front of the wood stove, always a dangerous and exciting place to inhabit, lost in thought, on a cold wintery morning.

I once asked my nephew when he was going into fourth grade whether he liked reading. He looked at me with this serious expression and asked a question back at me: “Do you mean reading, the thing that you do, or reading, the class?” He went on to say that he definitely liked the one, but not the other. In fact, in his fourth grade mind, it seemed they inhabited two separate realms.

Another story. I feel about teaching reading the same as  I felt when I first taught writing as a US history graduate student at the University of Minnesota during the 1980s. In those days our large teaching cohort (numbering over 100!) had passionate discussions about whether writing was even something you could teach in isolation, as a subject on its own, or if it should be taught across the curriculum as part of the classes in which it was used. An existential crisis for writing teachers, no?

I never resolved that problem back then; I guess some of my doubts linger regarding reading.

Why?

The way we normally teach reading is as a set of mental processes to practice (inferring, visualizing, synthesizing, evaluating, determining importance, etc.); as text structures to recognize (cause/effect, comparison, description…etc.); or thinking processes to complete (evaluation, making judgments, etc…) All these cast reading as a process, which it is, of course. But processes without content are abstract and difficult to learn and subject to the learner creating misconceptions because the context is not clear. Why visualize? Why infer? Why even evaluate or determine if not to do something with the ideas we have?

Here’s a concrete example. As an historian, I gained a greater sense of what industrialization meant in the lives of people. I started with a quite shallow understanding, basically just the knowledge that this word was important to historians. But as I read about the deskilling of workers, the revolts against the machine, the concentration of capital, the rise of an educated middle class, growing waves of urbanization and the decline of the rural landscape, environmental changes and changes to the health of individuals and the planet, I could almost feel a story growing inside me. Soon, what was difficult to understand, now had nuance and texture. New information just added to that richness. Learning history actually gave me something that I can feel.

But reading? The processes I teach the children, if we do that much in the classroom, actually become less known the more we are able to deploy them because these processes become automatic. In fact, when did I become an “expert” at inferring? At what point did my visualizing  achieve “mastery?” The only way to tell is if the things I infer as useful, and the visualizing yields a piece of the intellectual puzzle I’m building.

So, what to tell the kids? Can we report to parents that we have “done” visualizing this week? Is that even true? Can we say that we are “working on” making inferences? That we have almost achieved “synthesizing” mastery? Or do we tell them that we’ve been reading some cool books, name them, and then talk about what we’ve learned from them and from each other? But, if the later, what am I teaching them?

And how can the thought of creating a video update for the parents in our classroom cause me to have an existential crisis?

Probably, a long time ago, I read too much Kierkegaard. Maybe I should just go get another cup of coffee. 🙂

Buddha dog

The balancing act continues.

Photo Credit: Bruce via Compfight

Learners Gain Experience

Here’s a window inside the 4-P classroom. As I wrote about in an earlier post, we’ve been talking about how people learn.

This is a re-blog from my classroom blog.

Jamba on the windshield
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Martin LaBar via Compfight

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been offering the children a look inside their learning brains. No, we haven’t actually lifted up anyone’s scalp to peer inside, but we have explored some of the things I learned about learning while reading Dan Willingham’s wonderful book, Why don’t students like school?

I promised them a look at how people learn so they could be more conscious of the kinds of habits that good learners possess.

First, we started off with this poster that I created (based on Willingham’s book.)

How do we get all that new stuff inside our head?

Our big question was this: How do I get all that new stuff out there, all the way inside my head so I can learn it well?

It turns out that curiosity didn’t kill the cat after all, but it does make us good learners. To even begin learning something we have to somehow experience it. The more we experience, the more chance we have to learn.

Experience is really important! How do we get more of it??

Experience is really important! How do we get more of it??

As the days went by we talked about how we could make sure we had more experiences so our “bank” of experiences was bigger. We generated a list of things we could do, or ways we could be, that would help us gather good experiences from which to learn:

  • Develop “stick-to-it-tiveness” (persistence / perseverance.) If we stick with something, even though it is hard we might learn new things. Quitting something too early cuts off our experience, and only opens us up to experiences that are easy for us, which usually means we already know a lot about them in the first place. New stuff just is hard. There’s no way around it!
  • Read a lot. We realized that readers can “experience” more of the world than non-readers because they are able to multiply their experiences by all the experiences they have through the books they read. They can learn about things they have never seen, or about things they have never experienced in real life.
  • Travel. We can go new places with a mind that is open to the new-ness of that place. This could be going to some place as far away as China, or as close-by as the creek or Niagra Cave.
  • Try new things. We can search out new things to try. Maybe there is a sport, or a book, or a game, a place, or a person that we would like to get to know better. By searching these out, we can grow our own brains, and become good learners.
  • Build things. We can build things to help us learn how things work. Children talked about Lego-League, or building bridges, or “building” imaginative places around the house or at recess. These are all ways to explore how things work together to make something whole.
  • Develop curiosity. A lot of this comes down to developing a curious and attentive mind. Curious people are good learners.

In the next few weeks, we’ll be talking more about the habits and characteristics we can develop to help ourselves become the best learners we can be. This is a nice start!

In Search of Wholeness

 Autumn in New York
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: blmiers2 via Compfight

Somehow September has slipped halfway into the past and the sun, no longer high in the sky when I return home from school, slices low through the spreading branches of the oaks. Across the valley the trees have taken on that tired-leaf look of early fall. Senescence, at least in the world of trees, can be beautiful.

Which makes me think of how I spend my time.

Among other things, I sketched out plans this weekend for another week punctured by tests.

And as I plan, I think about how I’ve used my “Reading” time so far this year. We’ve spent a lot of time doing shared and independent reading. Very little group work so far. Weather related early outs, tests, and other sundry disruptions have derailed our schedules. However, I’ve listened to kids read, talked to kids about books, and connected kids with books and with each other around the topic of books. We’re reading a graphic novel, Rust, together on the document camera.

The discussions have been ferocious and fun.

I chose Rust because it was a nearly wordless graphic novel, new to me, and I wanted the kids to immerse themselves in thinking about something kind of complicated yet without a lot of words, to see what they could do. I wanted them to think out loud to me.

Rust starts with a prologue that dumps the reader into the past, right in the middle of a war between humans and machines, then moves us to the “present” (although the kids are not at all certain about that present part…), to a farm somewhere in the sepia-colored Great Plains. Roman Taylor, probably the main character, writes to his absent father about the arrival of Jet Jones, a mysterious jet-packed boy (?) who is very mechanically inclined and also chased relentlessly by a two-story robot bent on Jet’s destruction.

Do we trust Roman? Why does he want "the power?"

Do we trust Roman? Why does he want “the power?”

Eventually, Roman saves Jet from the robot, and Jet helps Roman around the farm, which has been faltering because Roman’s dad is somewhere, perhaps another war. Roman’s real passion is building robots, so Jet’s help around the farm is welcome. All seems well with Jet’s arrival, except for the giant robot, disabled and rusting in the field.

But is all well? As Weston, one of the students in our classroom said: “Jet has a secret. And he’s not telling anybody about it.” Nearing the end of book one, we are looking carefully for clues to figure out that secret; we’re wondering whether Jet is as innocent as he looks; we’re wondering where Roman’s father is; and we’re wondering about this war and how it came to the Taylor farm now forty-eight years later.

What secrets are not being talked about? How can the truth make things more complicated?

What secrets are not being talked about? How can the truth make things more complicated?

I’ve toggled back and forth on the screen between reading through the document camera and taking notes about our discussion using a simple Details I notice – Thoughts I have – What I wonder chart ala Vicki Vinton, whose  blog and book, What Readers Really Do have made a big difference in my teaching life. (I’ve altered her What I Know – What I Wonder chart just a bit, probably because of defects in the way I teach, but it makes sense to me!)

But I feel a sense of foreboding, and it’s not just about Jet Jones’ secret, or the sepia world he inhabits.

This will be our first year with a reading series and I got my first, dreaded email this week that we teachers are expected to display “fidelity to the program.” I’ve worried about this in the past. Not that I’m one who habitually lacks “fidelity,” it’s just that programs are not what I feel married to.

I’ve loved the immersion in the graphic novel (some readings-discussions have lasted 30 to as many as 45 minutes), the questions that have come from this depth of immersion — the inferences, the way we’ve identified important parts of the story, and how our understanding of what is important has shifted as we learn more about what is going on. That’s cool. And oh so not “gradual release of responsibility.” More like sudden release. My main role has been to read and make sure I turn the pages very, very slowly. 🙂

The reading program (which is better than some!) teaches one metacognitive skill at a time: questioning, inferring, determining importance, etc. using the “gradual release of responsibility” method. In fact, during our before school training, the instructor warned us that we needed to keep our instruction moving, moving, moving, so our mini-lessons would be short, focused on a clear, single-issue think aloud, so the children could experience that responsibility we were about to release. If this week’s topic was questioning, we had to get them asking questions. We didn’t have time for answers, said she.

So, now that September has slipped halfway into the past and the thirty days allotted to set up our classroom routines (and relative freedom from the skill lessons) is nearing the end, I wonder how I’m going to spend my time next month AFTER the leaves have turned golden then dropped from the trees.

After reading Rust with the kids, where many are already inferring, questioning, determining importance even in this first month of school and at a pretty high level, and the kids are lined up to read the second book in the series, I wonder whether I can be faithful to the practice of teaching a single skill, and completing ALL of my mini-lessons in ten minutes. Some? Sure. All?

And questions without answers?

I hate feeling unfaithful. Really. I do.

About Jungles and Maps and How we Learn

Railroad weeds
Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley via Compfight

After a slow, hot start our year is picking up some momentum (if not speed). If you were to observe a year in our classroom you would notice that it is not much like a train ride, all clearly marked, well tracked, and powerfully focused. No locomotive of learning surges ever forward following the straight track of knowledge.

Rather, our classroom might have a jungle-like quality, much like what I imagined while listening to an audiobook this summer called The lost city of Z: A tale of deadly obsession in the Amazon. Z is a fascinating tale of late 19th/early 20th century explorers, in particular one named Percy Fawcett, who literally hacked their way through the jungle, tripping over roots, re-routing ’round rivers, and dealing with all the sundry obstacles that stood in their way (there’s some fascinating description of the numerous insects that find human blood delicious, for instance!)

Another day in the jungle
Photo Credit: Thomas Frost Jensen via Compfight

Our learning year is probably more like that jungle! Tangled and slow.

So, knowing that about myself as a teacher — my preference for immersion over toe-testing; of wholeness over  the”part-ness” of things, of the tangle over the path — I figured I needed to provide the students with some simple models to ground the work we would do throughout the year.

One model I thought might help was a model of how our brain learns new things. I figured that if they knew that, if they knew the big picture of learning, then it might be easier to understand their current position in the jungle. Sort of the way a map provides context and direction.

Which brings me to another book I read this summer, Dan Willingham’s Why don’t students like school? I’m a fan of books that describe how the brain works: How we decide and Thinking, fast and slow are two that made an impression on me. Dan Willingham’s book helped me see how learning happens because it happens to be about learning.

So, this summer, I created a simplified version of Willingham’s model for the students. I suppose it is also for me, to serve as a reminder of what I shouldn’t forget. My plan is to hang it on the wall, refer to it often, and see if it helps the kids learn how to learn.

Here’s how I introduced it:

Learning is a complicated process that happens inside our brains. What’s too bad about learning is that it’s kind of hard to do well. It can sometimes take a lot of effort. What’s cool about learning is that you get to create your own smartness. Also, learning can be really fun. That means if you want to learn a lot, you can! And by learning a lot, it makes it easier to learn more stuff. Learning is kind of cool, that way.

I’m going to help you figure out how the brain learns things so you can control your own learning better.

So here’s the question, kids: There’s a lot out there that happens in this big old world of ours. Interesting stuff. Important stuff. Hard stuff. Easy stuff. How do we learn about it? How do we put that new stuff in our memory so we’ll remember it for a good long time? How do we change our own brain so it can keep getting smarter and smarter?

Then I showed them a diagram of the question and promised we’d fill in the blanks eventually. But, it might take awhile. We’ll linger on the steps so they really sink in.

The big question: How do we learn?

The big question: How do we learn?

We talked a bit about that problem: How do we get something that’s completely outside yourself far enough inside yourself so that it becomes a part of you, so you really, really know it? We explored how they learned things in the past to the level of being pretty expert at the activity: throwing and catching a ball; talking; walking, then running; math facts; riding a bike…lots of things.

At the root of all of those learning experiences was exactly that: experience! A learner has to experience something in order to learn it, which brought up the second poster.

It all starts with experience!

It all starts with experience!

So, it all starts with experience. If we don’t experience something, we can’t learn it. Even though there’s more to learning than just experiencing something, without experience there can be no learning.

What does this mean for us as learners? What are the implications? We explored this for awhile.

We need to cast our net widely to gather up as much experience as we can. There are lots of ways to do that. We gave examples from our own lives about how we helped ourselves experience more things: we went interesting places; we asked questions when we didn’t understand; we tried things we didn’t know how to do; we sought to gain courage from others and from inside ourselves to do those things that are difficult.

We talked about attitudes that help us to experience more things. For instance, being curious about all sorts of things allows us to explore and experience more. Being open to failure and what it might teach us might keep us from too quickly saying — “I’m not good at that, that’s why I don’t do it.” — an attitude that closes us off from experiences that might be difficult but important. Reading a lot, or watching the news, opens us up to experiences that we don’t have directly.

As an example, I asked who knew about Diana Nyad, the swimmer who swam from Cuba to the US? Two kids had heard of her and could fairly accurately explain to the others what she had done. I asked the children if they had been there, actually experiencing Nyad’s swim. They laughed and said, of course not! But they had heard about her swim on the news and were curious enough about it that they watched and listened and learned.

I told them about how I learned things from books and the news all the time. I learned important things about the world around me; about life and how to live it well. I told them that people who read a lot make themselves smarter because they are able to add many, many things to their bank of experiences, things they never would have been able to experience in any other way.

I know we’ll explore those issues as we continue to explore why people read.

So, we’re part-way into our exploration about how people learn. We have a couple more steps to go, but already I’m seeing that this exploration might be able to ground our discussion about how learning is helped by growth-oriented attitudes toward learning, attitudes like curiosity and wonder, perseverance, accuracy and exactness, the ability to listen, and to regulate oneself. I’ll introduce these in the next few weeks and we will explore these habits as the year goes along.

Machetes ready? Into the jungle we go.

Habits for STrong Learners_poster

Seven Touches to Save Education

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Photo Credit: Agustín Ruiz via Compfight

The narrative, the story line, for education reform is pretty familiar by now. It goes something like this:

  • Identify the problem (insufficient test performance, achievement gaps, poor teaching, etc.);
  • Describe the problem as a “crisis” that requires immediate action;
  • Propose solutions designed to sort and weed (evaluations based on standardized test scores, graded schools),
    • presented as carrots (performance pay, bonuses, graded schools, increased funding to those who comply),
    • or sticks (performance pay, graded schools, firing educators, decreased funding for those who are non-compliant.)

The mechanisms for these changes share a common top down, almost surgical, metaphor: change will come when the bad is discovered (through objective standardized tests) and cut out (through sanctions or punishments), while the good is adopted and performed (through rewards for good behavior.)

Mother and child
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Robert Parviainen via Compfight

So it happened that I read Atul Gawande’s recent New Yorker piece, Slow Ideas, which asks the question: What causes some good ideas to be adopted quickly and others to be adopted slowly? His piece explored the adoption of anesthesia and antiseptics in surgery, simple (low tech) cholera treatments, and the BetterBirth project to lower global infant mortality rates through simple techniques like kangaroo care for newborns.

I admit that I’m fascinated by Gawande’s work, especially his desire to figure out how to make systems function better. In this case, the answer to his question was simple: Ideas get adopted when the people who adopt them change, often in deep and profound ways. And the best way to make these changes happen is through the careful, slow work of human-to-human contact. For Gawande, that means change agents living and working in communities, building relationships and trust — the rule of “seven human touches” that overcome resistance, and support deep and lasting change.

As Gawande notes, critics of this approach say it isn’t “scalable”, and often identify the problem as too dire for such a time intensive method. But if a better outcome requires a change in routine, in habit, in thinking, or in identity, there really is no other alternative that can create deep and lasting change.

I’m heartened to see a counter narrative similar to Gawande’s forming in response to the corporate reformers who believe reform can happen at a distance. A recent article in The Answer Sheet about Scotland’s reform shows a country exchanging the quick fix methods that the United States has adopted for a model of slow and deep cultural change at the institutional level. Michael Fullan and Richard DuFour have written in a manner very similar to Gawande about how deep and lasting change must be driven by building the capacity of educators to make better and better decisions on an system-wide level. This is also the approach that Pasi Sahlberg has said for years was at the root of Finland’s remarkable educational performance. Finally, in the United States, folks like the Center for Teaching Quality have long advocated for the slow but steady reform of education through tapping the leadership capacities of teachers themselves.

Gawande tells the story of an experienced nurse who was visited by a younger and less experienced BetterBirth Project nurse-trainer. The more experienced nurse rejected the ideas of the younger nurse at first. Even though she knew the ideas to be sound, the older nurse had many reasons why they could not be implemented in her setting. But the Project nurse stayed around and over time built a relationship with the older nurse, one not based on a judgmental stance at a distance, but through close-by human interaction, through the seven touches method.

After some time, the older nurse began to adopt the techniques as her own and began to teach others around her. The ideas spread and stayed long after the nurse-trainer had to leave. Some might argue that the needs are too great to take this kind of time to make change. But others, like me, argue that it is precisely because the needs are great that we must invest the time and effort into changes that go deep, that touch the heart of the matter.

I find this growing movement for deep change to be very hopeful. How do you think deep and lasting change happens?

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Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig via Compfight

Ten Expectations for School Learning

I’m putting the finishing touches on my last classroom newsletter, getting the last of the math tests graded and recorded, getting ready to make videos of the monster stories we wrote, and figuring out what in social studies and science we’ll be able to finish and what we won’t before the year ends in just over a week.

While I’m tired from a year of learning, I’m also a bit wistful about what I could have done better. Do you spend at least some of the last bit of time left in the year dreaming about what could have been? I do. And I make plans for the next year starting now. Next year, I believe, will be even better.

When I saw this video linked by George Couros, it made me think about my goals for myself next year. What can I do to fulfill these expectations for learning in my classroom next year? And since I am a learner, too, how can these help me to create my own learning this summer and into this fall?

Here is the video.

Here is a list of the expectations and some questions that came up for me as I was watching the video. These will keep me busy this summer as I plan for another year of learning.

Relationships — How can I help students create meaningful relationships with each other and with the larger world?

Relevance — How can I incorporate student interests? Teach students to follow their interests? How can I help them see the relevance of their learning?

Time — How can we slow down enough to really learn? Do we have enough time for things to really soak in? For exploration?

Timing — How can I make sure that my students get what they need, when they need it so there is less “one size fits all?”

Play — Can we explore more? Play more? Relax and marvel more? Wonder more?

Practice — How can I help students develop a growth mindset? Not fear failure, perhaps even learn to embrace struggle?

Choice — How can I plan for choices, passion, interests? How can I help students see time as something to use for their own learning?

Authenticity — What can I do to make their learning in the classroom as authentic as possible? How can I adapt, or alter the learning that is required to make it more authentic to them?

Challenge — Can I support appropriate challenge? How?

Application — How can I help my students see their learning, already just in elementary school, as having some application to the world around them? Can I help them see the importance of their learning for their entry into that larger world?