Saturday, April 28, 2007

Reaching Learners Beyond Primary Grades


Reaching Learners Beyond Primary Grades

Americans killing Americans is always a tragedy. Children murdering children is heart-wrenching. The heartbreaking truth is that such aforementioned atrocities are plastered on the covers of our papers and television newsflashes daily—many citizens have become jaded and simple change the channel or turn to the next page. I honestly feel we involved with this blog (and the greater mission of Peace Games) realize this truth and fight everyday for positive change. A quick reference to a popular song, dance, or chant may be all it takes to initially hook a young learner so hope should never be lost.

These days, the message culled from the streets is one ridden with a deep, dark oppression—a suppression of the mind as well as the body. It is not always cool, down, ill, ‘hood, or “real” to be an active learner— a lifetime of first hand experience coupled with observations in classroom settings has ingrained this reality into my consciousness.

The art/craftsmanship of the professional educator is to dig beneath the “shell of socialization” that may pose as a stalwart in this process of cultivation. Many current students within my school community are heavily influenced by the local street culture surrounding them. As a member of the community, I am very familiar with the realities of street violence, socio-economic plights, and “un-traditional” family situations.

The culture-to-content connections facilitated through literature, music, social issues, scientific endeavors, dance, and physical activities within the classroom are no longer “enrichment” or supplemental. On the contrary, across this land teachers must consider these activities as avenues or pathways necessary to reach our youth.

Engage your students with what children know and understand: entertainment. For example, conduct a puppet show, MC a poetry slam, assign a poetry or songwriting task, or allow a traditional or "street/popular" dance to count towards a social studies grade. By no means is this list definitive so be creative! With academic integrity always in mind these "hooks" can snag even the most recalcitrant learner. Good luck!

Cultivating a Love of Learning


Cultivating a Love of Learning

The zealous, seemingly exaggerated pitter-patter and scampering gait of the average kindergartner traipsing through my classroom threshold each day is truly a breath of fresh air for me as an educator. I am able to almost breathe in the excitement of the forthcoming school day that is stewing inside the four walls of my classroom!

When a child has only been on this green earth for five or six years everything around her is illuminated; nearly any seemingly mundane aspect of everyday life could yield a fruitful discussion or mini-lesson. The natural curiously wrought by our youngest scholars is truly a gift—a gift for the students as well as their teachers.

Throughout my years of experience working with our youngest learners (in and outside of classroom settings) has proven to me that no matter where you are geographically speaking children will be there waiting (and always wanting) to learn. From the countryside to suburbs to the heart of the inner city I have witnessed firsthand the tremendous passion for education America’s children edify.

Too often we as teachers look at "areas needing improvement". However, the innate passion of our little ones can always be channeled into a positive learning outcome. Keep hope alive!

Continue the Kindergarten Traditions

Continue the Kindergarten Traditions

As a kindergarten teacher I am able to sing songs, dance, rhyme, draw with crayons, and sketch with markers, chant, and conduct puppet shows while always connecting these activities to daily learning objectives and state/national curriculum standards. I mention this fact because I feel that too often educators are leery to continue to cultivate these types of tactile/kinesthetic activities for our upper grades (middle school, high school, beyond…).

I challenge educators to keep the “kindergarten traditions” alive. All of the aforementioned learning activities can be tweaked, tailored, or altered to fit the needs of older learners. What worked? What did not work?

I can almost guarantee that all learners will find singing, dancing, illustrating, and chanting a breath of fresh air amidst the perpetual grind of assessments, projects, and the like. Let us all know how it went!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Keepin' It Real: An Homage to Kurt Vonnegut

It’s May of 1981, and I’m teaching a developmental English Class (that’s code for “last chance to graduate”) to New York City inner city high school seniors. That year, my second of teaching ever, I was juggling five preps, moderating student council, coaching the track team, running Friday night Bingo and taking evening classes at Columbia University for my Master's.

Sunday mornings after morning prayers, I would get out and walk to fool myself into thinking that I was taking care of me. On one particularly cold February morning, I am walking on the deserted streets of the Upper East Side and Kurt Vonnegut passes me! Eyes down, smoking a cigarette, he was probably coming out of the corner deli from buying his Sunday Times. Just that very week, I was teaching his short story, “Who Am I This Time?” to my seniors. It’s a quirky story about a small town community theatre group that selects shows and casts in the role of the leading man, an introverted, socially maladjusted bumpkin. He transforms and truly becomes the character; Romeo, Stanley Kowalski, Henry IV, etc. It’s a great story (made into a short movie with Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken).
So after reversing direction and stalking Vonnegut for about 7 blocks, I finally get up enough guts to stop him.

“Mr. Vonnegut, I’m a teacher in Harlem and I’m trying to make your short story 'Who Am I this Time?' relevant to my students. Can you give me some pointers?”

I’m fully ready for him to invite me into his house for a pedantic review of plot and character development. I’m fully ready to invite him into the nearest diner for discussions of theme and overarching social implications of the piece. He stops, looks at me as if I am truly a nut, then smiles. He shifts the newspaper under his other arm and puts a hand on my shoulder and says: “Tell them it’s a real story, because it is. Now start to figure out what real means and you’ll do a great job teaching that and everything else you might end up teaching.” And he walks away, touching the wallet in his back pocket to make sure it’s still there.

And that really has been the touchstone of so much of my pedagogy and classroom planning; trying to figure out what’s “real” from the students’ perspective and teaching accordingly.

That’s a real story, whatever “real” means.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Irksome Behaviors

I co-facilitated a training last week for staff in an afterschool program for middle school students. The stated topic of the training was about using classroom meetings to facilitate a more "democratic" classroom, the kind of space in which students have a voice and can exercise some control over their environment. Creating this kind of a classroom, of course, can lead to an increase in the potential for chaos. After all, choices and voices can make for a very clamorous classroom.

Our way of addressing this was first to highlight those things that students do that "irk" us the most - snapping gum, sucking their teeth, telling us how boooooooring we are - and then take a closer look at ways that we can address these behaviors effectively by sharing some best practices.

We explained the activity, put up a piece of posterboard, and handed out post-its to everyone and had them write one "irk" per post-it. For three minutes, the room was completely silent while everyone rushed to fill their post-its. There was no hesitating to think about it whatsoever, and when time was up the poster was filled with yellow post-its. And the range and specificity of things listed was remarkable:
  • clustering together when I ask them to stand in a circle
  • audible sighing
  • slumping down in their chairs
  • "...But I wasn't talking!"
  • accidentally on purpose bumping into each other
  • slam-dunking the door or ceiling beams
  • mysteriously not understanding what a circle is supposed to look like

And many, many, many more. I read them out loud and told people that if they heard one they forgot - or that really resonated with them - to feel free to go ahead and shout out an, "Amen!" Of which there were several, mixed in with a healthy dose of knowing laughter. The whole experience was so liberating.

To an outsider, it might have seemed like we were trash-talking our students, but it was actually more like a catharsis and renewal. Afterwards, one of the women in the training explained that it was the most enjoyable part of the afternoon, because it was a chance to give voice to the things that they all go through in a room full of people who understand each other and each other's jobs. And that even though they can list their students' most irritating behaviors without hesitation and with lots of gusto, that does not mean that they love those students any less.

The practical what-to-do-and-when section of the workshop turned out to be a good discussion, but it was most likely less important than the collective release and shared laughter that prompted it.

So, accepting that it does not make you any less of a teacher for saying so, what are those most "irksome" behaviors that get under your skin most? And how do you prepare yourself for or respond to them? What advice do you have for your peers?

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Sharing Power in the Classroom

Starting a classroom meeting means making space for student voices in a way that we cannot always control and that may lead us in some surprising directions. Some years ago, I offered a workshop on starting classroom meetings with a group of teachers who were largely reluctant. What turned the tide for one teacher was a lesson on adjectives - or "describing words" - with her second graders.

She had a posterboard with several different categories of describing words - colors, size, shape, character traits, and so on - and she asked her students to generate a frenzy of examples in each category. When they got to character traits, the ideas came easily: happy, sad, angry, tired, bored, surprised, excited, and on and on. It was an intoxicating kind of momentum that can generate lots of free associations and new ideas. So when one student offered "bossy," another was quick to chime in, "That's you, Ms. P!"

Children are more honest than adults give them credit for, often brutally so, and for the teacher this turned out to be a bit of a wake-up call. She smiled and dutifully added "bossy" to the poster and finished the lesson, but her student's assessment lingered. Later that day, we spoke about it. She explained that she wanted her students to see her as someone they could trust, someone who did not wield control so unilaterally. She wanted to learn how to share some of her power and let her students make some of the day-to-day decisions. We agree to start a weekly classroom meeting the following week and see how it goes.

Many wonderful references exist for starting classroom meetings. Start with this article about morning meetings by Roxann Kriete.