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Archive for Teaching and Learning

I teach in a school where I get to see children excited about learning. Every. Single. Day.

Is it always perfect? Of course not.

Do the kids sometimes get frustrated when they’re challenged with something difficult? Absolutely… but (stealing Tom Hank’s line again from A League Of Their Own) the “hard is what makes it great.”

When a child learns something new and rises up from a challenge, they find so much about what’s inside themselves. (We all know this. Should know this.) As a teacher, there’s nothing like seeing the satisfaction and joy on a child’s face when he/she has accomplished something that initially seemed too difficult. I love seeing how motivated my students are about what they want to learn.

Important to note… we don’t do traditional testing. (or grades, or homework, or grade levels, etc.)

This morning, my friend John Spencer shared an article and asked for thoughts: Does Student Motivation Even Matter? 

The article goes on to note that students actually perform better on tests when they are not motivated… as if this information should tell us something valuable. Students who are motivated to learn do not perform on tests as well as their peers who aren’t motivated.

Does student motivation even matter? Seriously

Do you care if kids care about what they’re learning? (Not what the curriculum tells them to care about, but what THEY actually care about.) Do you care if they are bored out of their minds? Do you care if they wake up in the morning and groan about going to school?

Do you care that they forget most of what they have memorized for a test after the test is over?

Do you care that we are producing automatons who have learned more about being compliant and filling in bubbles than about thinking deeply?

Do you care if these CHILDREN are basically little hamsters hopping onto their wheel to perfunctorily execute the “same old, same old” day in and day out?

I care, and I’m horrified. Have WE become those hamsters spinning the wheels in our own lives so much so that we don’t care if we suffer others to the same fate?

The homework battle, the incessant testing… these kids are becoming drones, and does anyone even care?

I don’t want that for MY life. Why would I even think that this would be ok for a CHILD?

Children should be running. Playing. Discovering. Examining. Creating. Singing. Dancing. Making mistakes with the freedom to learn from them… and that won’t go on a record to haunt them from one level to the next.

And for the record, when I write “children,” that doesn’t mean only primary aged kids. Have you talked with a high school kid recently? Some are so serious and stressed out all the time. Why do we do this to them?

As for me, I don’t want the kind of life where I am not learning something new and exciting every single day. I don’t want drudgery. In my current position as a teacher at Anastasis Academy, I’m extremely fortunate in what I get to do. I LOVE going to work every single day. I don’t wake up dreading the routine, because it’s different every day.*

That is what I want for my students… and for all children. I want them to find something that makes them happy. I want them to find and enjoy their calling. Not their job. Not their “have to.” Not their hamster wheel.

Too many kids associate “learning” with “painful,” something they must suffer through. Why have we reinforced this? Why have we allowed people who don’t have an inkling of what true accountability means to define it for us? For our children?

I want all kids to be able to experience learning the way that my students do. I want kids to care so much about the things they learn, that they begin to think deeply and ask questions.  I want all kids to be excited about learning something new and to know that school is a place where that can happen.

So, yes. Motivation DOES matter… but not if you think learning is something you could even begin to measure with a test.

 

 

*A lot of people will argue with me and say that my traditional schooling is what led me to the opportunity of finding my calling. Not true. I was one of those really fortunate kids in school, because I have a freakish memory. School was incredibly easy for me. I was able to learn beyond what was expected of me, because of my freaky memory. While other kids were forced to practice and drill facts over and over again, I was allowed to hang out in the library and read whatever I wanted. I was allowed to create art work for my school. I was allowed to spend time in the music departments learning more about music. As for my work as an educator… I had a lot of UN-learning to do to get to where I am now. An upcoming blog post will delve into this more. 

under: Teaching and Learning

This is part two of a post I wrote about the importance of context in learning.

Last month, my 5 and 6 year old students listened to and discussed “The Dream Keeper,” by Langston Hughes. I wrote it for them on the white board, and we left it up to display for the whole month. We talked about who Langston Hughes was, who might be the voice in this poem, what our dreams are, what our heart melodies sound like to us, and why “the Dream Keeper” would wrap dreams up for someone, “away from the too-rough fingers of the world.” Their responses were typical for 5 and 6 year old children.

One day, we drew what our dreams and heart melodies looked like for us. Each student imported a photo of the drawing into our Explain Everything app, and then recorded an explanation of what his drawing was about. On the next slide in the app, each boy typed the full poem and then recorded himself reading it – this activity was their decision. They wanted to have a typed version of the poem somewhere in this project file.

Somewhere along the way, the boys memorized the poem… completely unbeknownst to me. I only discovered this fact when we went to visit our “grand-friends” to make Valentine’s crafts with them right before Valentine’s Day. I mentioned something about our heart melodies, and the boys started reciting the poem. My jaw dropped! We never practiced memorizing the poem. We never practiced reading it aloud together, and they’re all at different stages in their reading. There are quite a few words in this poem that are challenging for many of them!

Why, then, did they memorize this poem? It was meaningful to them. They had some context of what the words meant, why someone might want to protect the dreams of another person, and how the world isn’t always kind. Every single one of them found some connection to this poem and their own dreams and heart melodies. Even now, a month later, they want to talk about that poem.

Did they learn about Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance? A little. Do they know the connection to Hughes’ Dream Variations poetry and the structure of blues music? Not really, although they did notice it “sounded like a song.” Someday when they’re a little older and come across this poem again, they will already have a foundation to build upon. They have SOME context – in this case, an emotional connection – now for some very complex ideas.

Can you imagine what they’ll be able to do with this poem when they’re older?

I can’t always guarantee that each of my students will have an instant connection to what they’re learning. What I CAN do is help provide some context for each student… and that will look different for each and every one of them.

Most importantly, I think, is to remind ourselves (often) that memorization is NOT the most essential aspect of learning. A small step, yes; but as I mentioned in the previous post, a small child can memorize their ABCs. That doesn’t mean they can read or even tell you what sounds each letters make.

I always get a lot of pushback when I bring this up, but I’ll debate this with anyone. Yes, some foundational facts must be memorized in order to move forward with more advanced concepts, but memorization cannot be our only emphasis in learning.

So… in your school, where does most of your students’ time fall? Creating? Discussing? Evaluating?

Or is their time mostly spent on recalling information that someone has told them is important?

We emphasize to our students that which is most valuable by what we spend time doing with them.

under: Teaching and Learning
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It’s All About Context

Posted by: | February 20, 2015 | No Comment |

Apologies to Meghan Trainor and her 2014 earworm… but it really is all about context

Have you ever heard a parent or teacher say something to the effect, “My child/student has regressed in the last 6 months. She knew this stuff last year! She passed tests and everything.”

Learning is fluid. Period. Brains are remarkable and in constant states of learning, unlearning, and relearning.  (Research in neuroplasticity is fascinating, and if you have any contact with kids, I hope you are reading about it.)

But here’s the deal: if your child has truly LEARNED something, she most likely won’t forget it or regress. While there are exceptions, most kids do not forget things they have truly learned.

What is more likely the case is that something was introduced without context. Kids- and adults- forget things they have committed to short-term memory that do not connect to something meaningful and relevant in their lives.

(OR… the context was only briefly visited because there wasn’t enough time to develop a real connection. Mile-wide curriculum that’s about an inch deep doesn’t leave a lot of room or time for context. But I digress…)

I’m on a math kick, so let’s use this as an example.

Young children who learn to count to ten do not actually understand counting. They’re simply mimicking a verbal pattern they memorized. Put 4 objects in front of a child who has just learned to count to 10, and he’ll point to each object, multiple times, and count to 10, not 4. This is a developmental issue, because the child does not connect the numbers he learned to say versus the number of objects in front of him.

If you put 3+2=5 in front of a child, she might memorize it easily, but if you give her the same number of objects to count, can she separate it into a group of 3 and a group of 2?

Children do not have context for numbers in print UNLESS they have something concrete in front of them. Even still, they need more exposure and experience with the concrete long before they begin to comprehend the abstract (number sentences in print).

I feel the same way about teaching music. Children should be singing songs and playing instruments long before they ever learn musical notation. You can memorize where the notes go on a staff and which note’s duration is a “ta” or a “ti-ti,” but if you have not had extensive experience with playing and singing those notes, you have no context for the notation. Some really brilliant man named Karl Orff believed this, too. (My fellow music teachers are laughing at me right now, because Orff is a really big deal).

Think about this: small children learn the alphabet song long before they’re able to make sense of the letters in the alphabet. You can recite the alphabet but not know which letters make which sounds. And you most definitely cannot read simply by reciting the alphabet.

I can sing hundreds of songs in various languages –  Italian, Portuguese, German, etc. – but I did not LEARN these languages. I memorized them and how to pronounce words in these languages. There’s no context there, other than what’s in the songs.

Those in real estate have their mantra, “Location, location, location.”

Educators should add to their repertoire, “Context, context, context.” Context helps kids make connections and move to deeper understanding, even if that deeper understanding happens down the road.

A recent example…

My 5 and 6 year old students have been using base ten blocks to help them think about adding and subtracting larger numbers. They know that, to subtract 35 from 50, they will have to swap out a ten for 10 ones. If I gave them 50-35 and taught them to “borrow,” some of them would remember HOW to do this, but they would not understand WHY. Most of them would not understand how to borrow and would become easily frustrated. Developmentally, they’re not in this place yet, but when working with the base ten blocks… every single one of them knows he has to swap a ten for 10 ones. There’s context there.

When I asked them to help me cover a wall with some paper, we learned that we had to measure the wall first. Our tape measure wasn’t long enough to measure the entire wall, so we measured in two steps. The tape measure ends at 120 inches. The second measurement was 58 inches.

I asked them to add 120 and 58. Blank stares. (Of course)

When I asked them what 120 would look like in base ten blocks (without actually using the blocks), they were able to tell me it was one blue (100) and 2 greens (10). I asked them to pretend the blue one was put off to the side for now. “You have two greens and 58. What does that mean?” They counted 58… 68… 78.

The said, “The answer is 78!” When I reminded them we still had a blue one off to the side, they were able to quickly say, “it’s 178!”

They did all of this in their heads without actually handling the base ten blocks. Because of our previous work with the blocks, they now have context about place value and adding larger numbers. Are they consistently able to do this? No. Not yet, and I want to really emphasize yet. They are 5 / 6 year old kids! But if they are able to get context in everything we’re doing – math and all the other things we learn every day – think about where they can go!

I could share so many more examples, but this post would never end. I will share a “part two” soon, because I have another wonderful example of poetry and context with my students.

under: Teaching and Learning, Uncategorized
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Backstory to this post:

Teaching in an inquiry-based school, we don’t isolate “subjects” as most traditional schools do.  The beauty of this model is that kids really get to make connections. Science doesn’t just happen at a certain time of day, and it usually involves many other content areas as well. I love when my students are able to connect on their own that music is science is math is history is communication… and so on.

Although we don’t teach subjects in isolation all day, we do spend some time looking at content areas on their own for supporting understanding.

Math is a great example of one “subject” in our school that receives some supplemental time. It still looks different, though, because we meet each child where he/she is and help to move more deeply into understanding.

(I started to type “move forward,” but that’s not necessarily what happens, nor should it.)

 

The FOCUS of this post:

The problem with math in so many traditional schools is that there is a push to move kids along, rather than guide them into understanding. If you memorize facts easily, you’re going to do well in math early on. The problem with how math is often taught – and how most people think it should be taught – is that we focus so much on the “abstract” — the written facts. My friend Rafranz Davis says, “experiencing math starts with the ‘why,’ not the ‘how.'” I love this! Multiplication tables and formulas, for example, are the how, not the why.

Because so many of us, educators and non-educators alike, were taught with a focus on the math facts, we tend to forget that the conceptual understanding — the “concrete” and “representational” aspects of numbers — is entirely more important than what we memorize. A lot of students who do well in elementary or primary math classes find themselves struggling in pre-algebra or other math classes that require an understanding of what those facts mean, how numbers are related, the underlying patterns in those facts, and how it all connects. <— The WHY

Flash cards, worksheets, and apps that only focus on drilling facts are not what our kids need. They do not show us what our children have learned and understand about math.

BUT… this is where so much time, effort, and concerns lie. If students do not have their multiplication tables memorized by 3rd or 4th grade, they’re labeled as behind their peers. As a teacher, this frustrates me immeasurably. Yes, we want kids to be fluent in their facts, but the problem is when we assign a date and time to when they must have these facts memorized.

You might have a child who memorizes easily, but doesn’t truly understand what the fact means. I once had a student who knew that 5×3=15, but did not know that 5 groups of 3 items was the meaning behind it. Another one of my students understood that multiplication was grouping, but she could not recall fluently each fact if put on the spot.

Teaching a K/1 class for the first time has reinforced my philosophy of how I teach math- they WHY comes before the HOW. An example from today sealed the deal:

I have four students, all boys, in my class. (I know. Yes, I typed “four.”)

Every one of these boys, ages 5 and 6, is in a different place in his understanding of addition and subtraction facts. Some can skip count by 7s. Some are still struggling with addition and subtraction facts up to 10.

Today, we did some problem-solving with an activity I found on MathPickle.com: Addition Boomerang. (Watch the video – it explains how the boomerangs work. Definitely worth the 5 minutes.)

I started with all 4 of the kids together and demonstrated how the boomerangs work. We started with one boomerang with a +1 to reach the target of 10. Then we changed it to +2 to the target of 10. The boys were seeing this as an easy activity, and liked the idea of going around the boomerang circle.

Next, I changed it to two boomerangs: +3 and +4 with the same target of 10. I asked them to find every combination, both successful and “fails.”

This is what we produced together:

Boomerang1

 

After we discussed other combinations, they determined that they had found all the successful combinations. Anything else we we might try would result in similar fails. This discussion was incredible, because some of them still don’t always remember the commutative property of addition. We often have to review that if 3+4=7, then 4+3 also equals 7. Epiphany moment!

After our discussion, I paired them up and gave them their own boomerangs to solve. One group had to get to the target of 20 with +4 and +5. The other group needed to get to 12 with +2 and +3.

Boomerang3

Boomerang2

Here’s the beauty of what I witnessed today. One of my boys who is very fluent in addition facts well past 10 struggled with this activity at first. He didn’t understand what we were trying to do. After working with his partner, he exclaimed, “Oh! I get it!” Exuberant smiles followed. Those facts he memorized are beginning to come to life for him.

Another one of my boys who is not fluent in addition facts to 10 whizzed through this activity. He was counting so quickly, his partner had to ask him to slow down so he could figure it out as well. I can still ask him, “what is 4+5?” and it will take him as long as it takes to put up 4 fingers followed by 5 fingers. But when I asked him which combinations would work in his boomerang, he amazed me at how quickly he could come up with different combinations, AS WELL AS explain WHY. This is a kid who would fail a standardized fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice math test on addition facts to 10. Give him a method in which to find a pattern or solve a puzzle, and he is able to show exactly what he understands.

When parents have come to me over the years with concerns- or outright nervousness- about where their kids are in math, I have tried to reassure them that a) kids don’t learn at the same pace, b) knowing facts is NOT understanding mathematics, and c) kids need a variety of activities that help them explore the relationship of numbers in meaningful and relevant ways.

Drilling facts, and even emphasizing facts over understanding of the concrete and representational aspects of what numbers and operators mean does a lot of damage to how kids view “math.”

So here’s my advice:

  1. Take a deep breath. Your child’s math progress does not reflect poorly on you as a parent. I promise.
  2. If you have taken your child to a math tutoring business*, remember that it is a business. They will find something (anything!) wrong with your child’s progress to sell you their services.
  3. If you really want to help your child understand the relationship of numbers, find activities that involve, but do not focus on math. Baking, building, measuring, counting, budgeting for groceries– all of these are great ways to involve your child in something that requires some skills and concepts without it being the only focus. Math facts, by themselves, can be tedious and tiresome for a lot of kids (especially for those who have been told they are “behind”).
  4. One of my students can count by 7s because he is a huge football fan. Ask him how many points have been scored with 6 touchdowns… he knows the answer. And he is SIX. Football matters to him, so groups of 7s and 3s are meaningful to him, too. What matters to your child? Build on that.
  5. Puzzles and patterns are fabulous ways to help kids make sense of numbers. If your child loves patterns, but hates “math,” there is a disconnect here. Find puzzles that your child might enjoy and do them together. Be patient, and don’t feed answers.
  6. Do a little research on Concrete-Representational-Abstract instruction (CRA). This has been my underlying philosophy of how I help kids learn concepts in math (and music, for that matter), and I’ve seen kids’ understanding improve significantly. This method connects the HOW with the WHY.
  7. If you’re teaching math, where is your emphasis? I know many of you have pacing guides, material/textbooks to cover, and even scripts you are required to follow… but are you helping your students understand? If yes, please add some of your resources or suggestions in the comments. (Thanks!)

 

I’m fortunate to teach at a school** where we MAKE time for kids to explore and have those epiphany moments, whether it’s in their mathematic abilities, reading, asking questions, creating, building, or discovering their passions. (It’s a pretty awesome place to be a kid AND an adult who gets to witness it all.)

Above all else, I want to do what’s right for each of the children in my care every day. There’s a reason “Drill and Kill” became a thing in describing math practice activities. I don’t have any place for that when I want to help children understand.

(+10,000 points to you if you read all the way to the end. TL:DR is not in my vocabulary.)

 

*”math tutoring business” in this sense refers to corporate and for-profit businesses, not individuals.

**Shameless plug: if you want to witness in person what we do in our school, please join us at 5sigmaeducon.com next month!

under: Teaching and Learning
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I’m Bad At…

Posted by: | July 17, 2014 | 8 Comments |

When I first started teaching over 20 years ago, I remember asking little kids questions like, “Who is a great singer?” Every single one of them raised their hands. For every grade level “older” I asked the same question, fewer and fewer kids raised their hands. The same pattern emerged if I asked them if they were good artists, good basketball players, good dancers, etc.

As we get older, we start to compare ourselves more with the people around us, and that’s a very human thing to do. Eventually, we start understanding what it means to be a good _______, because we have more experience from which to make those comparisons.

Sadly, the trend I’m seeing in the last decade or so is that I see fewer hands raised when I ask those questions of little kids now. When I returned to the elementary music classroom in 2009, I actually had kindergarten students tell me they were bad singers. WHAT!? How does a 5 year old kid think he’s a bad singer?

When I started at Anastasis in 2011, I remember an 8 year old who told me she couldn’t draw at all. When I asked her if there was something wrong with her hand that made it impossible to draw, she laughed a little but then remarked that she just wasn’t good at drawing. We talked about how we’re all still learning and that practice is important, but underneath it all, I wanted to cry listening to this child’s defeatist attitude at 8 years old.

Where is this coming from?

While I’d like to blame Malcolm Gladwell and his pseudoscientific (and factually incorrect) 10,000 hours claim, I can’t. It’s not Gladwell.

It’s all of us.

I stopped to think about the number of times I’ve apologized to my students or my own children before doing something that I wasn’t really great at doing. There are too many examples.

cc licensed photo by anna gutermuth

cc licensed photo by anna gutermuth*

Whenever I’ve gone up to the chalkboard or whiteboard to draw a diagram or an image, I have apologized to my class before: “Sorry, I’m not a great artist, so this won’t be that good.”

I’ve just set them and myself up for judgment about what is good, and I’ve also given them an example of an adult who is so insecure about drawing that she has to apologize before she even starts.

Additionally, I’ve put a poor value on something that might be better than what my students might have drawn. If I say “this is bad,” then what does that mean to a kid who might not have drawn as well as I did?

“Wow, Mrs. B must think my drawings are REALLY bad then.”

I’ve stopped doing that.

And now I think about all the images and statements we unknowingly pass along to kids:

  • I’m bad at math.
  • Ugh. I hate my body. I’m going on a diet!
  • Karaoke? No way! I can’t carry a tune in a box!
  • I wish I could play tennis as well as Serena Williams, but I can’t… so I don’t even try.

I’m sure there are many more we could add to this list.

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect about certain things in the last week, and I’ve come to some very sad conclusions:

  1. My fear prevents me from doing things that I would probably really enjoy.
  2. If I’m not good at something, I don’t do it.

I love to sing and I was a voice major. I love singing karaoke with my friends, because it’s fun… not because I want to show off. However, it’s also a comfort zone. I’m not afraid to get on a stage and sing, because I’ve been doing that almost my entire life.

It really bothers me when I hear people say that they can’t sing. Of course they CAN, they just don’t think they’re any good at it. So, I encourage them… karaoke isn’t about who is the best singer; it’s about having a good time and enjoying yourself.**

I’m such a hypocrite.

My husband wants us to play tennis. I really, really suck at tennis. REALLY. So, I’ve been balking at the idea. When I finally told him that I’m afraid to play because I don’t know how, he just said, “So what. Let’s just go have fun.”

Permission to not be an expert and to just have fun. 

That’s incredibly freeing.

Hmmm… giving kids permission to try, not be perfect, and just have fun with it. I SAY that to kids all the time.

But I don’t DO it.

We all need to be better models for our kids, and DOING is more important then SAYING. We know that.

Time to walk the talk.

Time to stop saying, “I’m bad at...” and start saying, “I can’t wait to try (or practice)… and just have fun!

This doesn’t mean we should take away anything from people who are truly gifted in specific areas or erase competition from everything. Competition has its place, although I’ve written about its overemphasis, too. There is a need for expertise and talent to be recognized. However, there’s also a need for encouragement to SIMPLY TRY, and then practice to improve if it’s something you’re interested in improving.

ACTION:

  1. What things have YOU said, “I’m bad at…” to other people or kids?
  2. What steps can you take to eliminate that negative self-talk, whether you’ve been saying it aloud or just in your head?
  3. What would you like to try, but your fear has been holding you back from doing so?
  4. What can you do to start trying?
  5. How will you change your approach with children?

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.

 

*photo credit: CC licensed photo by anna gutermuth, “124/365

**While I know karaoke might be a bad example (lots of “not great” singers get up to sing, usually after some form of liquid courage), singing is a great example. Singing is very personal, and I notice that, in the US especially, very few people in the crowd ever sing the national anthem at sporting events anymore. There’s always some professional at the microphone, and everyone else just listens. In Canada, I’ve noticed more people tend to sing along with their anthem. When I went to a Denver vs Australian Army rugby game a few summers ago, the Australians in the crowd were singing along, quite vigorously, with their anthem. So, is this just an American thing? Are we more insecure in the things we’re not great at than other nationalities? Maybe the Star-Spangled Banner is a bad example, because it truly is one of the most difficult songs to sing, but I still think there’s something about insecurity here that prevents people from singing.

 

under: Teaching and Learning
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Summer Learning

Posted by: | July 15, 2014 | 6 Comments |

As an educator, I’ve heard people discuss the “summer learning loss” since my first ed methods courses. For that matter, I remember adults talking about it when I was a kid, too. As a kid, I couldn’t figure out what they meant, because I learned all summer long… it just looked different than what it looked like in school.

If we look at learning as facts to be retained indefinitely, then summer learning loss is a concern.

However, if we realize that learning is fluid, that we often temporarily forget concepts, skills, and procedures when we don’t use them regularly, then summer learning loss shouldn’t be a huge concern. When we assume kids should all learn certain concepts by a certain age and then retain them forever, we do a disservice to those children – and it also means we don’t really understand LEARNING.

(How many of you remember every theorem you ever learned AND can use them right this minute with no review? How many of you took a second language and can still speak fluently if you rarely or never used that language again after you graduated?)

I’m worried about some of the articles and posts I’ve read recently about what kids need to be learning over the summer. Many of these posts contain lists that stress more drill including math facts and reading strategies, such as practicing affixes, etc.

“Hey, kids! Let’s have some fun today! We’re going to practice AFFIXES!” [cue kids cheering]

(I wish someone would hurry up and create that sarcasm font we’re all needing.)

Yes, let’s just make summer about killing the joy of learning, just like we have to do during the school year. (I use the word “we” here as a generality. I don’t think all of us have to do that during the school year, and I know for certain that our school, Anastasis Academy, is about bringing back the joy in learning. But that’s not the focus of this post.)

What if, during the summer, kids had the option to learn in a manner that is natural for them?

cc licensed photo by Lotus Carroll

cc licensed photo by Lotus Carroll*

  • running
  • riding bikes
  • swimming
  • playing in the yard or park, running through sprinklers or around the fire hydrant
  • pretending (we spent more time as kids playing Charlie’s Angels than anything else over the summer)
  • neighborhood/street games with no adult intervention

Those 6 things help kids learn a MULTITUDE of important skills, including setting boundaries or rules for games, problem-solving, and being creative just to name a few. The physical activity alone is enough to warrant hours and hours allotted each day for these physical activities. Kids should NOT be sitting around all day, and most especially not during the summer! Sitting has shown to be incredibly harmful to our bodies.

For shorter periods of time during the day, kids should be allowed quiet time to read. The most important part of silent reading time is that the kids have choice to read what they want.

As an adult, when I walk into a bookstore or a library, I feel like a kid in a candy store. That’s because I LOVE TO READ. I love to read, because I had a LOT of choice as a kid. We went to the library often every summer.  My mom didn’t force me to choose books that were at my lexile level, nor did she tell me I shouldn’t choose a book because it was too easy for me. It was always MY choice.

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed some of my students love to read fiction. Some love to read non-fiction. Some love to read magazines about animals. Some adore comic books. Some kids will read the boxes of anything in the room, if they’re allowed. (I remember reading every cereal box we had on the table at breakfast!)

If we want kids to read (and write) better, we need them to be reading MORE. Kids will read more when they’re interested in what they’re reading. The more choice we provide, the more likely they will want to read something different AND will eventually trust us when we do recommend something specific. Summer reading should be an extension of just that… allowing kids to choose what they want to read.

As for math facts and problem-solving skills, of course those things are going to fade over the summer. These are conceptual facts, not just something we memorize and ultimately understand. Kids need practice, but they need practice in context. Flash cards might help SOME kids memorize these facts, but why not provide something real for kids to do?

What if, instead of carving out an hour a day for drill practice, we asked kids to build something that required measuring, adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing? What if we baked or cooked together with kids? What if we gave them a box of craft materials or recyclables that are just going to be thrown out and asked them to invent something? What if we asked them to create a work of art, compose a song, or write and perform a play? All of these activities involve math concepts, among many others, even if those are not directly articulated to the kids.

Now stop and think about all the kids who may not have (safe) access to a library, a yard with grass or trees, or other neighborhood areas that are conducive to the type of play I mentioned above. Should they be limited to “drill and kill” activities? The majority of “summer learning loss” articles I’ve read say that children living in poverty need MORE drill and practice in academic-specific skills (usually math and reading/writing) over the summer. I disagree.

“Welcome to summer, James. You are already behind in school due to factors that are beyond your control, so let’s just make your summer seem like you’re in a prison, too. We’ll start by practicing your multiplication tables for the first hour, and then I’m going to ask you to read something you have absolutely no interest in for the next hour. After that, even though you’re probably already feeling like a zombie in the first 2 hours, we’ll continue to have you suffer through more drill and kill activities for the rest of the day. You’ll be SO ready for school in the fall!”

Again, I disagree whole-heartedly and believe that all children need safe and convenient access to play and pretend opportunities, with physical activity options and music and art. How do we ensure this happens for ALL kids?

KIDS NEED TO PLAY.** Period. They need to be silly, laugh, pretend, and they need to MOVE. When we dismiss the benefits of play for children, we do more damage to their eventual “academic” learning than we realize.

Alfie Kohn has already written more about this than I can even begin to attempt, but here’s a great example of his opinion on summer learning loss: Lowering the Temperature on Claims of “Summer Learning Loss.”

As a parent, I understand the worry that your child might be falling behind in school. Since my children have grown into adults, however, I regret that I worried too much about their academic progress when they were younger. I didn’t worry enough about their happiness, their physical activity, and their growth as complete individuals who would become happy and successful adults.

What do you REALLY want for kids?

 

*photo credit: CC licensed photo by Lotus Carroll, “Summer Essentials: Sprinkler Karate

**Articles on benefits of play

under: Teaching and Learning
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Have you ever read If You Give A Mouse A Cookie?

Sometimes, that’s what learning is like in an inquiry-based school. And I LOVE it! Kids follow their curiosity into amazing areas of learning.

Today is April 1st. I really detest April Fool’s Day. (such a bah humbug!) I wonder if, in addition to the day after Halloween, this day ranks low on many teachers’ scales of great days. I was determined not to be a crankypants for my kids, though, who were waiting for me with huge grins on their faces. They were definitely up to something, and I had been warned they had a great prank all ready for me.

As I approached them to head upstairs, they all started staring at me, quickly raised their hands in the Hunger Games Katniss salute, and then they whistled/sang the four-note tune that was a signal between Katniss and Rue. It cracked me up. (Have I mentioned before how much I love these kids?)

After they all had a good laugh and we walked upstairs, we plopped ourselves into a room. They started chattering about good April Fool’s Day pranks, but then started discussing the difference between a harmless/fun prank and a mean-spirited prank. I loved hearing examples that they shared – some they had pulled on siblings, some that had been pulled on them. It was a fun discussion.

In any other school, it might have ended there. But not ours. One kid wondered what was the best April Fool’s prank of all time– which led to another asking how long April Fool’s has been “celebrated”– to another asking where it all started. If you give a mouse a cookie… 

I asked them if they wanted to find out more, and they did. So then I asked, “where should we start?” They threw around words like history and origins. We had found our key search terms.

Within ten minutes, my students had found very few answers.  They were able to find some traditions that dated back to the 1500s with mentions of England, Scotland, and France, but no definitive origins. I showed a video that explained that no one really knows where April Fool’s actually started, but there are several theories. Within the theories presented, the kids recognized a few stories from their research this morning. Their favorite was the story of the rural French citizens who were never informed about the 16th century calendar change from Julian to Gregorian. They were ridiculed with fish slapped on their backs  et voilà! Poisson d’Avril!

If you give a kid a question, she will want to find some answers… but then will ask more questions.

After the laughter about a fish being slapped onto someone’s back, somebody asked, “What’s a Gregorian calendar?” My standard response in this case is, “I wonder how you could figure that out?”

Cut to kids looking up information about the Gregorian calendar. And the Julian calendar. And the Roman calendar. “Wait! There were only 10 months in the Roman calendar?!”

[Me] “What do you notice about the eighth month?”

“It’s October. Hey… OCTOber. OCTO means 8!”

[another student] “And SEPT means 7… and NOV might be 9… and DEC is 10!”

If your class of kids pranks you on April Fool’s Day, you can have meaningful discussions about word origins relating to an ancient calendar. 

Hmmm… that sounds about right.

 

From our @TeamBaldwin tweets today (first tweet is at the bottom):

AprilsFools2

AprilFools1

under: Teaching and Learning

Struggling vs Suffering

Posted by: | March 18, 2014 | 1 Comment |

No parent wants to see their children suffer. We want to surround them, protect them, and help in any way we can. I’m a parent. I get this.

However, there’s a really big difference between a child “suffering” and “struggling.” Struggling is a necessary part of learning. When we learn to walk, we struggle. We fall down. A LOT. We keep pushing ourselves past that point of frustration in order to take those first steps. It’s natural. It’s developmental. It’s necessary.

Struggling is nature’s way of helping us move along to the next level. It’s gamification (I really don’t like that term, but that’s another blog post) in reality. If we didn’t have to struggle to learn something, there wouldn’t be the sense of accomplishment we gain in order to want to keep improving. Struggling helps us move beyond the need for instant gratification.

When we protect our children from struggling, we deprive them of a very important step in the learning process.

I watched the movie Ray again over the weekend. In one scene after Ray has just lost his sight as a child, he falls off a chair in his childhood home. His cries for his mother are heartbreaking. She stands there silently, tears streaming down her face… and she doesn’t help him. As much as she wants to go pick him up and console him, she doesn’t move. Ray wasn’t hurt, and he wasn’t in danger. He struggled to pick himself up, walk around his home, and learn how to navigate using his sense of hearing, smell, and touch. After a few minutes, he stops crying, and he begins to smile. He walks around his home, and you can see that the struggle is fading… the accomplishment is clear. Soon, he senses his mother standing nearby. He speaks softly to her and says, “I know you’re right here,” pointing directly at her.

This scene really stuck with me. I know Hollywood took quite a bit of license here, but I also know that Ray Charles often spoke about how his mother, Aretha Robinson, really taught him to fend for himself. To be independent. She didn’t enable him when he lost his sight. She knew he would have to learn to function differently.

How often do we allow our children to struggle? How many times do we swoop in and rescue kids who don’t really need to be rescued?

Please don’t misunderstand me as write this… there are a lot of kids suffering in situations where learning has become painful. Where life in general is painful. Those kids need rescuing.

There are, however, a lot of kids who are never allowed to struggle, and we are doing them a huge disservice. They need to fall down. They need to learn how to pick themselves up again. They need opportunities to struggle in learning without fear of great penalties.

Struggle is important. Without it, are we truly learning?

 

UPDATED: I just read an article today: 5 Things Teachers Wish Parents Knew: Your Children Can Do More Than You Think. There are a couple of sections in there that complement the idea of “struggle.”

under: Teaching and Learning

Attribution

Posted by: | January 29, 2014 | 4 Comments |

A couple of days ago, someone shared an image of an anchor chart (for lack of better term) for questioning levels. I thought that my kids could really benefit from it, but I wanted an illustrated version. So yesterday, I spent about an hour making my own version of the poster on chart paper. This is what I made:

4LevelsQuestionsIllustrated

 

As I started to write the original “creator’s” name at the bottom, I realized I didn’t know who had shared it. I spent a couple of hours (yes, hours!) looking for it and could not. The best I was able to find was a couple of teachers who had shared the item via Pinterest.

Still… no attribution.

I don’t believe in using other people’s work without giving them credit. My friend, Krissy Venosdale, has had her share of issues with that lately.

So here’s the deal… teachers love to “steal” each other’s work. We joke about using that word, steal. I have no problem with doing that as long as we also share the credit.

If you know whose original work THIS is, please let me know so I can properly credit him/her. Thanks.

Original4LevelsQuestions

 

under: Teaching and Learning

Reinforcing Our Philosophy

Posted by: | January 15, 2014 | 2 Comments |

At our school, Anastasis Academy, we offer CRAVE classes to our entire school – we meet once a week for an hour for about 7 weeks.

CRAVE is an opportunity for teachers to offer something different – perhaps an experience kids might not have the opportunity to explore during our “regular” class time. We share a list of options with the kids, and they choose what they are interested in exploring. Any student can sign up for any class with any teacher, grades K-8. Our CRAVE classes are always mixed ages.

Some of the options we’ve had in the past are healthy cooking, hockey, clothing design, coding, ball sports, crocheting, nature inspired art, junk sculptures, chess, iPad rock band, DaVinci inspired art, and build your own instruments. (this is actually a small sample of the offerings)

The emphasis is that the kids are able to choose something that interests them, but also something that they might not have realized they could be interested in learning. CRAVE helps kids explore different areas to expose them to something new. Each class is based upon areas of passion or expertise by the teachers who offer them.

 

As I was trying to decide what I should offer this session, I thought, “Hey! I’ll crowdsource some ideas! Brilliant!” So, I sent out the following tweet:

CraveTweet

 

 

Some really helpful people responded with wonderful suggestions:

  • Coding
  • #GeniusHour
  • Let them explore their individual passions/ Ask the kids what THEY want to learn (MANY responded this way!)
  • How to value their authentic self
  • Recording music
  • Build a catapult
  • Build something
  • “Hack the classroom style” learning
  • Research and design
  • How to research
  • How to share what they’re learning
  • Problem-based learning

 

As I read the incoming tweets, I often responded, “We do that already on a daily/weekly basis.”

And then I continued to respond the same way again and again.

When it was time for lunch and tweets continued to roll in, I left the building to grab something to eat and realized something that I have started to take for granted:

What we do as a rule at Anastasis is an exception almost everywhere else. 

  • Our kids have choice to follow their passions DAILY.
  • What some schools do in their #geniushour or 20% Time (or whatever they rename it) happens every day at our school.
  • As a teacher, I am not stuck in a lesson plan or canned curriculum. When my kids make decisions about what they want to learn, it’s my job to ensure they also pick up skills and concepts they’ll need to know along the way.
  • Our “regular” class time doesn’t look the same as other schools.
  • In my class, we regularly make time to tinker, explore, share, and value each other and ourselves.
  • Our classes are maxed at 12 students per class – the time the students and I have together to really get to know each other and personalize our learning options is invaluable!

 

By no means is this post meant to be a “thanks, but no thanks” to any of the suggestions I received today… and I hope it’s not reading as arrogance, either.

Two and a half years ago, I picked up and moved from Omaha, Nebraska to Denver, Colorado because Kelly Tenkely  and Matthew Anderson decided to start a school. Every day, I think I’m lucky for being able to be a part of this incredible experience, these amazing families and kids who make up our community.

Today, I remembered just how lucky I am. I believe our philosophy at Anastasis is truly best for our kids. All the suggestions reinforced how we operate.

And today, I also wished that every student had the opportunities that our kids have. 

If you sent me a tweet today… thank you. I’m grateful for the work you do for kids and your willingness to share your passion and suggestions with others.

A few notes:

  1. If you’re curious about what we do at our school, I’m glad to share our story with you over a cup of coffee, a Skype/GHO call, or whatever you decide. You can also read our class blog at http://architectsofwonder.edublogs.org
  2. One of the ideas I had been juggling around in my mind for CRAVE – in addition to something music-related (I’m a Music teacher by trade), photography, or crocheting – was centered around “super challenges.” Our school has held an all-school marshmallow/spaghetti tower challenge as well as the Rube Goldberg machine challenge on #dayofplay. I decided after reading all the great responses today that I would go with the Super Challenge Power Hour. Each week will have a new challenge. Stay tuned for updates!

 

under: Teaching and Learning

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