Summer Reading, Part 2

About a week ago, I finally finished reading Ellin Keene’s new book, To Understand.  Originally intending to blog about the book as soon as it was finished was in reality impossible to do.  Things that Ellin has to say about teaching, about thinking, about maintaining a balance in education have been turning around and around in my mind for the past week.  One of the hardest ideas for me is to let go of the idea that, full-throttle teaching to the exclusion of any other interests is neither helpful or healthful. It is one of many themes emerging from reading this book.

The frenzy that has been in my classroom for the last two years needs to change.  One of the most powerful ideas that Ellin Keene proposes is developing a culture of calm and quiet.  Giving students the opportunity to practice thinking — the wait time, the expectation that students will take time to form their ideas before sharing them — seems like an idea that my students (and I) need to develop.  So often the pace of the classroom, the frenzy, the multi-tasking, the divided attention, detracts from all of us providing thoughtful commentary. And in listening to others’ commentary and questioning, growth.

Using the Making Meaning materials mandated in this district, our students have begun to learn how manage appropriate discussion behaviors.  Stopping at set points in a text, students learn to share ideas with a partner and report out to a large group.  It has been helpful in guiding students who have little confidence in their discussion abilities nor practice in socially acceptable discussion norms. However, this program has unfortunately taken the choice or what to discuss, the teachable moment away from the professional.  How frequently we teachers find this happening — instead of allowing a teacher to exercise professional judgment, the scripted materials box us into a set of skills that our students may or may not be ready for.  In the climate of high stakes testing and accountability, teachers and administrators often dare not deviate from the prescription for “success” lest their students not meet the predetermined benchmark.

Why I relay this anecdote is to illustrate the overarching theme I believe runs through To Understand.  While we know we must be accountable for certain achievements, skills, standards of education, we need to trust our professional compass. We need to stop at points in a text that will engage our students thinking and that point may or may not coincide with the prescribed prepackaged curriculum.  We need to have the courage to trust what we know about teaching and learning, about curriculum, and about our students to teach with rigor. We need to teach our students to develop their Renaissance thinking.

Summer Reading #1: To Understand

To Understand is author and teacher, Ellin Oliver Keene‘s new book; and it has been on my list to read for several months.  I began reading this book earlier in the school year and adapted Ellin’s idea for Literacy Studio (crafting, composing, individual activities and reflection time) to encompass the teaching day. Defining each of these according to student and teacher/leader responsibilities worked across the curriculum in my class last year. I am anxious to use this model again next school year.

When school demands became overwhelming, I had to put aside reading To Understand and have only recently picked it up to read again.  Keene asserts that we, as educators, need to advocate for what is essential to our curriculum and teach that in depth.  There is so much pressure today to try to “cover” topics that this is hard to imagine.  I find myself easily lured into teaching to a checklist of what someone else has deemed third grade curriculum which leaves little time for developing the fun stuff — topics that the students want to explore, discovery through student inquiry, developing thinking.  It worries me that I am contributing to a culture of fact regurgitation — my students need to develop thinking and discernment skills.  Will my students be part of a “can-do” or “can’t-do” culture?

So as I’ve picked up Ellin Keene’s book again, I’m particularly struck by her words in the chapter about creating “renaissance learners”. We have long been exposing our students to a catechism of learning: ideas and facts that must be committed to memory and then tested and retested to ensure “quality control” of our “product”.  There is no need for creative thinking here — we need to turn out students who can pass standardized tests.  Sadly, not many of the students who are learning under such contraints become “passionately interested” in topics .  To quote Keene:

But in schools, are we set up to create Renaissance kids? I worry that with schedules driven by different subject areas, curriculum created around tests, and a society that demands perfect completion of everything kids attempt, we are unwittingly contributing to the demise of the Renaissance person — creating our own medieval age.

Frightening? Indeed it is.  And Keene continues:

If we live in a society that values Renaissance thinking, but in schools that work against it, is it possible to help young children sustain and older kids rediscover the Renaissance person in themselves? Do all young children come to us with those qualities? Is it possible to devote time to the pursuit of pressing questions on a wide range of topics? Can we encourage kids to wonder, to pursue new ideas through their own discovery and research? And, if we decide that it is important to promote the notion of Renaissance learners, where do we begin, given the constraints of our professional and personal lives?

Many questions, much to think about.

For summer consideration

I find that the longer I am a teacher, the more I am blown away by the intelligence and thoughtfulness of colleagues across the US.  Here is a blog I recently came upon Two Writing Teachers.  Even though the two bloggers teach grade levels higher than my current teaching assignment, the process and their craft as literacy teachers is thoughtful and practical.  Check out the section on mentor texts — I was amazed to find some of the very same texts I use with my third graders mentioned as exemplars for narratives and other genre of writing.

Also within the same blog is an interview with Stenhouse author Mark Overmyer.  Check out Mark’s response to a question about assessment.  God help me if Two Writing Teachers move these links!

Lots to think about and catch up on and summer has just started!