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.