Friday, April 24, 2009

Letting Go

It is with some regret that I am migrating away from my .Mac/.Me blog. I was fond of its look and enjoy the Mac-enabled way that iWeb integrates with other iLife applications. But it has become too frustrating to have publishing blocked by our in-school filter; as much as I love writing in my sunny new kitchen, I want to be able to publish as soon as I have completed composing. I could go on for some time about how filtering interferes with optimum use of our laptops - uses that are good for education (and for students), but not now. This post is about letting go of the old - or is it about opening up to the new? (image source)

I am feeling the thrill of exploring a new platform, of designing a new look. I am, without losing my roots in the classroom, realizing that my thinking is not always about my classroom, but about educational strategies in a laptop classroom, in a laptop state. It's time for a change.

Not all change is all for the best, of course. I gain the ability to label posts, but I do not have the flexibility offered by edublog accounts: tag clouds, categories, lots of templates with multiple options and widgets, pages as well as posts, a forum.
Blogger, however, offers me hundreds of Gadgets, so I can spread my seeds further out if I elect to do so. The important point is that I had multiple blog hosting options from which to choose, and this is empowering and interesting - an important thing for teachers to remember and learn from. For now, I am going with the KISS solution. It feels good to let go of iWeb.

Let's think now about what happens when teachers begin to Let Go of curriculum and methods. For example, next year I will move into grade 7 language arts - a new assignment for me here at FMS. This will mean new literary and non-literary texts, and - for the first time in over 20 years of teaching - an anthology. What a great opportunity this is to re-assess the weights and values of texts! What a great opportunity for me to introduce new learning strategies!
It looks like the time has come for a class read-aloud session to begin each class. It looks like the time has come to deal with the gap my students have in their exposure to "classic children's stories" - fairy tales, mythology, tall tales. There is a natural fit between the strategies and the goals. But it will mean letting go of some good texts that have been in the grade 7 curriculum for years: The Dark is Rising and Dragonwings (remaining as a choice texts), a Longfellow unit, and probably Poe stories (also remaining as part of a literature circle, however). I will open up the curriculum to some old texts so that I can also let in some new ones, such as Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the Native experience in literature and non-literary texts, and Criss Cross (multiple-perspectives).

But how much do I need to let go of my conviction that today's students need the old stories? Will a taste be sufficient, or do they need to be immersed? Can students read Haroun without also reading Alice and The Wizard of Oz? This is where I have to trust my own root stock, and where I have to trust my own ability to guide students through my own letting go and spreading out.

I want to be able to distribute stories, to create a classic story circles. This is going to be scary stuff for my students, who are used to all reading the same thing at the same time. When I let go, they have to let go too. The problem is: how do I pull the students back to a central purpose, given the wide range of (related) readings they will be doing?

Some direction can be had from the elementary teachers who have documented their reading journeys. Begin simple and focus on purpose: everyone does read the same text initially, so that everyone reads text the same way. Practice reading, responding, and discussing. Practice seven times (that's my system).

But I have also learned that while practice makes for individual learning, it does not build collective learning. If my goal is for students to be able to learn from each other, I have to facilitate this for them. We, of course, have the other perfect tool for this (the 1st perfect tool is the face-to-face classroom): the laptop enabled digital environment. In my last post, I wrote about using a digital notebook to guide and organize the many elements of next year's curriculum, letting go of paper journals or notebooks altogether. Using this notebook should become part of the seven practice sessions. Students are, from the first laptop class, using an essential organizational tool. As I noted previously, letting go of paper notebooks is very hard for students - and very hard for parents. I specifically did NOT require a notebook this year; I specifically required that no work go home. But notebooks gradually began to appear in my classroom. Drafts left the classroom. Parents and tutors edited. ARGH. Next year, the NoteShare process will begin on day 1.

What might the first literature section look like? Assuming that we begin with myth review, then fairy tales, students will be reading texts both in book & picture book form and online, summarizing, sharing/discussing, and entering their final revisions of (handwritten, rewritten, rewritten) summaries into notebook page(s). These pages form a personal learning journey. The group learning begins when we build a shared product. One product will be on the bulletin board - we are a middle school after all. But an equally important product will be online. It is for me a toss-up at this time between a wiki (on our Apple server) or a web notebook. Both alternatives require that the students let go of their close control of their own learning and writing - this will be a new experience for our 7th graders, and for their parents, who tend to confuse "web safety" with "publishing for learning."

At any rate, I don't envision difficulty with the process of pulling class learning threads together into a larger learning picture. It will be refreshing to watch students learn about story patterns, the relationship between culture and story, and the permutations of story-over-time not from me, and not from each other, but from a pool of understandings. And this pool could, should, include parents and other students.

I am ambitious. I would like my students to become teachers too, to let go of seeing themselves as passive learners. I will need to partner with an elementary level classroom. But what a thrill it would be for 7th graders to both read and teach a fairy tale to a 2nd or 3rd grader! Or to teach the mythological references in The Lightening Thief to 5th grade readers. If the filters allowed it, we could video conference. But we can use our tools to film ourselves and distribute the film - a sort of WeTube.

Why should letting go be less than gaining more?

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