Learning Spaces that Inspire

During this pre-service week, I have enjoyed taking in and admiring all of the wonderful learning spaces being created in our school.  We have all worked hard to try to create spaces that are inviting and inspiring.  Below are just a few of the many areas in our school in which I believe our children will feel welcomed and motivated.

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Passionate Learning

Every child has a piece of hidden magic—often it is even hidden from themselves.  When we take the time to search for and discover these pieces of magic, we find untapped learning potential.

This year, I worked with an exceptional group of young ladies.  Now, when I first met them and listened to them loudly moan and groan about how much they “hated” reading, did I automatically think, “What an exceptional group of young people”?  Um… not necessarily.  But I did realize that in order to make a positive academic impact with these children, I needed to tap into something deeper.  I needed to connect with them on a level that was personal and meaningful to them.  I spent time learning about my girls, their talents, gifts, cultures, and backgrounds.  All of these factors influence learning, so I knew that the more I learned about them, the better chance I would have of engaging my students in literacy.

Immersing them in reading was not an easy task, as they routinely balked at the idea of reading books, stories, and even electronic literature sources.  I spent time daily trying to break down the walls they would put up.  I knew they each housed pieces of hidden magic and passion, and I was determined to find this in each of them.

Then, one day at recess, I saw them stepping.  They were laughing, engaged in what they were doing, talking each other through the steps, and they were GOOD.  I ran to grab my camera so that I could capture the magic.

We are example-setters.  If we want to lead our students to meaningful learning by igniting their passions, we must first be passionate about seeking our own learning.  I shared my passions with these students– not just great books, but my family, my love of music, and my love of learning new things.  I made sure they had lots of opportunities to share their passions and talents with me.  I learned that they were not only talented steppers, but that they enjoyed mysteries and science.  They loved music (just not country music!).  Friendships and status in the school were very important to them.  It took some time, but I felt us grow into a small community of learners and sharers.

As we neared the end of school, I thanked them for the opportunity to share my love of reading with them.  Then I surprised them by asking them to teach me how to step.  I explained that, although I have never been blessed with the dancing gene, I wanted them to share their passion with me by teaching me.

We discussed the importance of breaking lessons into small steps and the necessity of repetition in instruction when teaching someone a new skill.  I also gave them permission to laugh WITH me, but not AT me. 🙂  After several minutes of pre-teaching (breaking the routine into chunks), they celebrated with me as I began to grasp the step routine.

At the end of the day, we (educators) just want to know we’ve made a difference, that we’ve touched students’ lives or helped them learn.  Without a doubt, tapping into students’ passions will open up avenues for deep and relevant learning, both for students and teachers.

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Students Voice Opinions About Standardized Tests

Me:  “So, now that state testing is complete, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on standardized tests.”

Student: “What does ‘standardized’ mean?”

Me:  “Well, when states standardize tests, that means that each school district receives the same or very similar tests for their students.  Then the state can see how the kids are doing with learning the same material.”

Student: “That’s so stupid!”

Me:  “Why do you say that?”

Student:  “It sucks that they give everyone the same test.  Are they trying to make US all the same?  That’s just stupid.”

BAM!  Out of the mouths of babes, my friends.  This was the beginning to an incredible, insightful conversation with a group of fifth graders.  They were honest, open, and very willing to share their thoughts on teaching, learning, and testing.  They had two requests- first, that I not use their names when writing about this conversation and second, that we have the conversation in a private enclosed area.  So, the group of us ended up in a surprisingly comfortable storage closet.

I probed a bit further.  “What do you mean, make YOU the same?”  She responded, “Well, if the tests are all the same, and they want us all to do the same, then it’s like they want us all to BE the same.”

Me:  “So, how do YOU learn best?  What do teachers to help you learn and make learning fun?”

Student:  “I like it when we play games.”  (All others agreed with “yeas” or nods.)  Another said, “I like projects, you know, when we get to actually DO stuff.”

Me:  “Tell me more.”

Student:  “Sometimes it’s cool , like when we get to do projects and stuff.  But all we’ve been doing is getting ready for the tests.”

Me:  “So, do you think SOL tests (Virginia’s state Standards of Learning Tests) make learning different?”

All (very emphatically):  “YES!”

Me:  “Wow, OK… so tell me how.”

Students:  “We have to learn the same things over and over, like every day.”  “Instead of tests, there should be projects.”  “Teachers get stress over the SOL’s and then we get stress.”  “We only learn this stuff for the test and that’s it.”

Me:  “So, now that the tests are over, do you remember the information and skills that you learned to help you do well on them?”

Students: “No.”  “Not really.”  “Maybe some but I don’t think so.”

Me:  “Tell me about how these tests affect teaching.  Have you seen a difference in your teachers because of the tests?”

Students:  “Sometimes, yeah.”  “They’re really stressed out.”  “It’s like we have to do the same stuff every day because they want us to do good on the tests– it’s just boring.”  “We learned some stuff back in the fall and now we’re learning it again- COME ON!”

This conversation continued for quite some time.  We moved on to different topics such as the best color schemes for classrooms (they like blue and green) and technology (they want to tear out smartboards and get individual laptops instead).  We talked about the best setup for desks (they all agreed that a large “U” shape is much better than small groupings of desks, which surprised me).

Overwhelmingly, these students (who are all considered “at risk” due to academic struggles or socioeconomic status) agreed that state standardized tests aren’t fair to students OR teachers.  I was taken aback by how much they seemed to empathize with teachers about these tests.  They understood that teachers are often under stress because of these test outcomes.  THESE are the kids that need to be heard.  THESE are the kids whose success in school is often directly affected by standardized testing.  THESE students are the reason we need to create more authentic and meaningful means of assessing learning, such as portfolios or expeditionary year-long, goal-driven projects.

Federal funders and test creators, please do NOT try to standardize our students.  They have so much to give and they deserve so much more.

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The Pygmalion Test

Sometimes reflective thoughts find us while we are exercising, or cooking dinner, or while we are trying to go to sleep.  And then, on occasion, they come from out of nowhere and slap us in the face.

I have been “Ann’s” reading teacher for several months.  She has quickly proven to be an excellent reader and a voracious learner.  After breezing through a book that is leveled for her grade, I placed Ann in more challenging text.  She is currently reading (or should I say “devouring”) a book that is approximately two years ahead of her grade level.  When discussing this with a colleague recently, she was shocked to hear about Ann’s success in reading, explaining that Ann has required reading intervention for the last few years.

My initial thought was, “Wow, Ann really has come a long way.”  Then that face-slapping reflection hit me.  If I had known that Ann came to me as a “struggling reader”, would I have unintentionally taught her differently?  Would I have taught down to her instead of up to her?  Would I have assumed she was not capable of handling the high level work she was now so successfully completing?

I vaguely recalled a research study done decades ago about the Pygmalion Effect (self-fulfilling prophecy).  In this study, teachers in a failing school were given names of students who proved through testing to be “bloomers”, identified as children who demonstrated strong intellect and academic aptitude.  Low and behold, at the end of the school year, each of the “bloomers” was succeeding, while their peers continued to fall behind.  It was at that point that teachers were informed that the project was fabricated– a myth.  The real goal of the experiment was to examine if teachers’ preconceptions and expectations would affect student success.  And they did.

We can reflect on the following questions throughout the school year to test our own Pygmalion expectations and assumptions:

  • What expectations do I have of this child?
  • Am I focusing on the student’s strengths (not weaknesses)?
  • Am I listening and paying close attention to this learner?
  • Do I emphasize his/her worth?
  • How am I communicating my expectations to this child through both verbal and non-verbal cues?  Do I set an encouraging mood by nodding, smiling, and giving sincere attention to this child?
  • Am I encouraging this learner to ask questions?
  • How is this child adjusting him/herself to my cues?
  • Am I calling on each learner equally (and not only on the students who I know will quickly supply the desired answer)?
  • Am I demanding high levels of thinking from all students?
  • Do I notice this child behaving or performing as I originally expected?

This reflection has led to my realization of the importance of knowing our children before we know their data.  In our data-driven society, the idea of beginning the school year “blind” of our students’ score reports may not be overly popular, but I wonder how many students’ potentials have not been met due to silent limits set by the teacher who, with all good intentions, didn’t want to push a “struggling” child too hard or too far.

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Defying the data

“At this point, we (the professors in the education department) believe you may want to reconsider your decision to pursue a career in education.”

This was the final statement in a letter I received my freshman year of college, after earning a C in Education 200.  I was one of many recipients who received this discouraging notice, which was given to all students who earned a C or below in this first education course.  No thought was put into the people who would open this letter.  No thought was given to the fact that this course was taught by a professor who spent every class session droning educational theory in monotone read directly from the text.  Thought was only given to the data.  If you got a C, BAM!  You got a letter.

After reading the letter over and over, I considered giving up my teaching aspirations.  I considered majoring in psychology or sociology.  I considered pursuing news journalism.  I considered transferring.  Then finally, I considered the idea that they (the education professors) were just plain wrong.

The next fall, I was the only recipient of that letter who showed up in the first class session of Education 300.

Fast forward three years.  Two weeks before graduation, I was in attendance at the annual celebration held by the university’s education department for all graduating newly licensed teachers.  Towards the end of the evening, the director of the department announced that it was time to present the award to the “New Teacher of the Year”, who was elected annually by the professors.  I was honored and humbled when my name was called as the recipient.

The next day, I knocked on the department director’s door in the Education Department.  She greeted me with a smile, a hug, and a hearty congratulations.  I handed her the letter I had received three years earlier.  She read it, and looked at me with wide-eyed surprise.  It warms my heart to say that, beginning the next semester, the education department ceased sending those letters.

As I reflect on this experience, I realize how close I was to allowing one piece of discouraging data define my future.  As educators, it is our responsibility to believe in our students and show them that we know they can succeed.  Have you ever heard a teacher say, “Oh he can’t read that, he’s a level ‘C’ ” or “I can’t do this project with this group because it will only frustrate them– they’re too low.”  Are we limiting our students due to a couple pieces of data?  If you think you’ve done a child a favor by holding them back from trying something new and challenging, think about it from their point of view.  As a young adult, I almost let one letter shortchange me from my future as an educator.  Are we inadvertently doing that to our students?  Think hard.  Yes, let’s look at the data.  And then let’s agree NOT to define our students by it.

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“Drowning in shallow water”: How can we deepen literacy instruction?

“If we teach students like they’re morons, then that’s exactly what we’ll get.”

We are educators in an age of accountability that presents itself in the form of test data.  Students can unintentionally be viewed as data-makers and teachers, under incredible pressure, can too easily fall into “drill and kill” method of teaching in the hopes of creating an upward trend line.

Don’t get me wrong- I am a believer in the importance of accountability.  However, as the pendulum swings to one far side, we risk getting caught up in the detriment that is caused by those who value data and trend lines over the child himself.  The focus on standardized testing is so prevalent that teacher education programs are morphing to it– http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/standardized-tests/experts-detail-how-to-overhaul.html.  NCATE is currently calling for a major overhaul in teacher education programs– one that will turn the programs “upside down”– in the hopes of developing teachers who are able to instruct deeply without focusing on the shallow methods that often prevail due to multiple-choice driven assessments. http://www.ncate.org/Public/Newsroom/NCATENewsPressReleases/tabid/669/EntryId/125/Panel-Calls-for-Turning-Teacher-Education-Upside-Down-Centering-Curricula-around-Classroom-Ready-Training-and-Increasing-Oversight-and-Expectations.aspx

Kelly Gallagher, author of Readicide, takes a hard, honest look at today’s reading instruction.  He states, “Students immersed in massive test preparation classes receive massive amounts of shallow instruction.  In the quest to raise scores and make teachers and administrators look good, our students are paying a price.”  This form of instruction– driven by multiple-choice, surface information, look-and-find answers– is creating a generation of children who are being encouraged NOT to think deeply, NOT to analyze, NOT to synthesize information.  Our students are “drowning in shallow water” because they are not being allowed to swim.  “In an era in which our students will be competing for jobs in a global marketplace, our current approach to teaching reading promises long-lasting, deleterious effects on both our children and our nation.”

Folks, there is a reason why there is still a national achievement gap in reading.  The joy of reading is being slaughtered.  If the development of test-takers is valued over the development of readers, the achievement gap is guaranteed to not only exist, but to expand.  If students are taught only how to take tests, they will never be successful in reading and writing.  “A terrible price is paid when schools value the development of test-takers more than they value the development of readers.”  What a paradox it is that teachers are judged by these tests that measure students’ ability to take the tests rather than their ability to actually read, interpret, and analyze information!  When students are drowning in test preparation through skill sheets and multiple choice assessments, they are not being given opportunities to become readers.

So, how can we fix this?  We’ve admired the problem for way too long– let’s get to fixing it.  One thing is true about reading- if students spend more time reading, they will improve in it.  Sounds simple, right?  Unfortunately, student silent reading (the type of reading in which the student CHOOSES the book and has the opportunity to enjoy it without having to answer questions about it or map it on a graphic organizer) is all too often cut out of the school day.  Studies have demonstrated that schools in which Sustained Silent Reading exists produce stronger readers AND higher test scores.  Think about your school– is SSR a priority?  Is it the first thing to go by the wayside when the teacher is short on time?  Has it been canceled completely because it is “not a good use of instructional time”?  Gallagher has traveled across the country to examine schools’ reading programs and found that “one of the casualties of this testing era seems to be the death of sustained silent reading”.  Students are simply not doing enough reading in school.

Gallagher points out that another way that reading instruction is killing the joy of reading is that, in an effort to cover as many standards as possible, books are often “overtaught”.  See his recipe for the Kill-A-Reader casserole:

  1. Take a novel and dice it into as many pieces as possible.
  2. Douse with sticky notes.
  3. Remove book from oven every five minutes and insert worksheets.
  4. Add more sticky notes.
  5. Baste until novel is unrecognizable, far beyond well done..
  6. Serve in choppy, bite-size chunks.

Think about the last book you read for fun.  Now imagine if someone was looming by, forcing you to stop on every other page to answer questions, make notes, or complete a character analysis.  Would you enjoy the book?  I vividly remember hating The Red Pony and To Kill a Mockingbird as a student for this very reason.  However, I loved Bridge to Terabithia because I was trusted to read large chunks of it at a time.  So, allow me to propose a new recipe- one that just might lead to reading instruction that students will devour.

My Create-a-Reader casserole:

  1. Be a book lover and model that for your students.  Read aloud to them, yes even to high school students, and model questioning and deep thinking.  As the teacher, you are the best reader in the classroom, so demonstrate what that looks like.
  2. Surround your students with a huge variety of reading materials.  If your classroom library only consists of core program materials, I can promise you that the love of reading will not occur within your four walls.  Stock up on fun, popular trade books, magazines, newspapers, and have computers or Ipods available for students to access online sources.
  3. MAKE TIME FOR SILENT READING A PRIORITY.  Think about the length of a standardized reading test.  If we only give our students short passages followed by questions, not only are they learning to hate reading, but they are not building stamina.  Reading stamina can only be developed by silent reading–reading that is not interrupted every three minutes with questions and worksheets.
  4. TRUST STUDENTS to read large chunks of text at a time.
  5. Frontload your reading lessons by discussing any vocabulary words that students may encounter in their reading that might cause confusion.  Preteach any themes that you would like students to focus on- this offers a frame to the reading and allows students to recognize the theme as they are reading it.
  6. Steer clear of programs that offer extrinsic awards for reading.  If the joy of reading is not intrinsic, it is not lasting.

For now, standardized testing is a reality.  However, it should not the be only reality.  If students are taught to read deeply and devour books, they will become a society of readers, thinkers, and analyzers.  Oh, and… they will pass the test.

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