Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Learning as Whirligig

I ran across this recently in an essay by Erica McWilliam titled, "Unlearning How to Teach."  In introducing her topic, she writes about Daniel Pink: Pink defines “high concept” abilities as those that focus on creating artistic and emotional beauty, detecting patterns and opportunities, crafting a satisfying narrative and combining seemingly unrelated ideas into novel inventions... These skills, he argues, when combined with interpersonal “high touch” abilities to empathise, understand the subtleties of human interaction, and engage others in a powerfully positive way..., will be a winning and increasingly essential combination. 

This is tough text, a wonderful puzzle for the reader to solve.  What I make of it is this:  Today's educational gurus are totally wrong to place the core of learning on information - informational texts, informational writing, informational presentations, informational testing - all within the world of "self and teacher" or "self and test."  Where is the beauty in that?  No wonder we are burning our kids out before middle school.  

My non-reading boys want LA to be more hands-on.  That's what they say.  What I observe is that the "hands-on" they love contains lively and far-ranging dialogue (we spent half an hour on the metaphor of the circle - every which way and in every context), role-play, text-based challenges - it's all about connections - making mental whirligigs. When writing provides the challenge to connect, they can excel. When reading involves the challenge to connect, they can be voracious.  When media-making is pattern-making, they make beauty.

How do teachers learn to be more than guides - to be agents of connection?  What I am envisioning goes beyond the artificial and limiting constructs of connection so beloved by literacy and reading teachers:  text-to-self, text-to-text, text-to-world.  I think more along the lines of a free-form, individual whirligig that is constructed and reworked by the student as part of the learning process, as the key element in all reading, listening, viewing, and writing.  Teachers need to be more informed themselves - not of processes and skills and standards, but of bits and pieces, odds and ends. 

I am spending my summer dreaming and informing myself.  I have read over 20 YA novels, picture books, and related books so far - a book a day is my goal (if you follow the link, notice that one novel is called Whiligig - I strongly recommend it for middle school).  I am not making lists of characters and character traits, settings, plots and stylistic devices. I am not marking pages to read-aloud.  I am not creating graphic organizers.  I am day-dreaming about how these texts might connect to each other and to the worlds of my kids.  I am the Ferdinand of FMS, the Frederick of RSU5. 

When September comes, I am going to have an even deeper and richer bag of bits and pieces to share with my students - some of these they will use in making their own learning whiligigs.  Making the connections and adding pieces of their own will be their jobs. Providing a starter set of bits and pieces, a beginner's model, is my job. 

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