Friday, May 14, 2010

The View From Here

Seymour Pappert has a favorite phrase: Learning is Hard Fun

This has been a year of learning, for the most part learning by doing.  I would not be a writer, and I would not be a teacher who I can respect, if I did not find value in this. The hard part has been the exhausting pace of this year.  The fun things have been the learning and the teaching. This is a good time for reflection. So, what have I learned by taking on a new teaching assignment, with younger students, with a team that was in crisis, with a new principal, with a new superintendent, with a new state and local focus on standardized test scores, and with old friends leaving and new young folks on board?

  1. 1-1 contact and communication is primary.  In my case, it means making time for 1-1 with colleagues and with every student I teach (and many I casually contact).  The most important benefit is to me - when I greet kids and contacts with a smile, I am ready to be an educator.  Too bad the rest of the world does not work this way. 
  2. Yes, digital skills of students are changing how I do what I do.  1-1 with students is often also via email - at all hours (whenever I check it).  Asynchronous contact happens with blogs and wikis in my class - no problem.  In fact, when "laptop show and tell" happened, I did not have a show - online work is so casual that my kids don't see it as a "project" - Web 2.0 is part of class.  This makes my life different, more fun.  It has changed the way I assess students by allowing me to focus on the actual purposes of an assignment and on the ideas that are contained in student demonstrations of learning - not on the "red pen" errors.
  3. Co-teaching is a good choice - I know this from way back, but this year I have been co-teaching LA in 2 of 5 cores.  Suddenly, in January, I had my own preps (lit circles) plus 2 more preps because there was a co-teacher I had to mentor and work with. They had goals and units of study that I had to work with, work around (in one case, the class was split), and support.  It was a new model for all of us - the learning continues, and it has been fun.  
  4. Learning by doing only works if the challenge is new and the bar is high. To put it more directly: don't lower the bar, just make it more twisty and in constant motion so that it is both fun and hard to get over it.  Purists would shout "not fair!" at this, but middle schoolers would say - interesting - at last.  We underestimate and under challenge our students.
  5. It is possible to address teaching toward standards (which really means to testing) without stressing. In many ways, the models for integrating technology (true assimilation integration) are also models for integrating standards-based instruction.  From my point of view, a teacher needs to spend time really "eating the standards" - then spend time aligning student achievement levels to standards (our NWEA testing does some of this for us, but we will also be using 1-1 reading assessments for the lowest tier of students) - the, with this background in long-term memory, just teach and enjoy it.  It works, it is sensible, students enjoy and feel confident about the class.
  6. Kindles are super.  I have and am constantly using 8 Kindles (about 16 titles on them), and have just gotten a grant to purchase 7 more.  At the most basic level, they motivate.  Non-readers are now reading - and enjoying it.  I wish I had a Kindle for every student.  
For the two novel units, I abandoned the notion of the all-class novel. As an active participant in the English Companion Ning, a reader of many teen/YA book blogs, and as a questioner and listener in the classroom, I have a pretty good handle on what 7th grade every day students find interesting. I have a pretty good handle on this:  In a class of 20, students clump into 3 groups:
  • identify as a non-reader but will read realistic fiction if it is about my life in some way and if it moves in a straight narrative path - like the lowly character to gain the upper hand
  • love fantasy or dystopian SF and want to read about alternatives to this dull reality
  • love to read about the complexities of this reality I am living now - pain, angst, humor - love to see the views of multiple characters
I approached the units in two ways.  First we did formal, time-line and goal-directed groups - formal reading groups.  This worked great and every student read a book of choice that was a match for his/her reading level.  I did spend quite a bit of my own salary on multiple copies, but it was worth it.  For the next round, I allowed students to morph into informal groups - some students read one book, many read two or three.  Within each class, students wanted to read what their peers had enjoyed - "The Lovely Bones" and "Unwind" were very popular.  Some students formed a group of 1, which was really a group with me.  In fact, I am currently co-reading a new novel with one girl and holding informal discussions with a few of my favorite books with several other students.  This is true "reading by choice".  Only one student failed to read a 2nd novel (he is now failing the class too).  

This last round, I have decided to push students to think more deeply and complexly about texts by returning to all-class texts. I have prepared them for this with a short, intense unit on modern poetry. In small groups, individually, and as a class we have read, annotated, imitated, and analyzed many great poems. Students are building their own annotated anthologies - and writing one longer analysis.  It is a measure of my success this year that, to a student, this is FUN.  Hard Fun.

One group (perhaps 2) nagged me into reading "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (in a version newly edited and annotated for grade 7 by my husband, John McIlvain, because I did not have the play!).  Two groups will read a difficult and dark classic fantasy, "The Dark is Rising."  In both cases, we will rely on more traditional methods of guided reading instruction to make meaning and appreciate the text.  If we don't finish - OK.  But I am betting that every student will like what is going on.  As for me, I will be trying something a little different - I am going to do the assignments and join the class, as well as guide it.  Students who want a challenge will be teaching for a day (supported by a wiki for each class).  It is going to be another extension of my learning.

Summer is going to be boring!

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