Sunday, 18 November 2012

Notes from an Engineering Poet

Michael Salinger and Sara Holbrook

There's been a bit of a buzz in the 8th grade RLA rooms lately.  The culprits who are causing this buzz are none other than  Michael Salinger and Sara Holbrook, poets working alongside teachers and students during their three week extended authors-in-residence visit.

Last week, the RLA 8 team sat down with poets outside of their busy schedule to discuss poetry in the Middle School.  One of the added benefits of a visit like this (apart from the embedded professional development of watching them in action in the classroom) is the chance to discuss how their work as authors may inform our work as teachers.  But when the teachers asked Michael and Sara what they should be thinking of as they revise their poetry unit, they were surprised at the answer they got.

Instead of lists of essential teaching points and resources, Michael simply said, "Listen, before you think at all about lessons, you need to know why you want to teach poetry.  So tell me, why teach poetry?"

The teachers looked around. "Poetry gives students an opportunity to be better observers," they said.

"Okay," Michael continued.  "Why do you want them to be better observers?"

The teachers looked at each other once again.  "Well, in any job, students will have to observe and use good word choice," they replied.

"And why is that important?" Michael insisted.  

"This experience will certainly help them become better communicators," they said.

"And..." Michael led them on.

"And better communication makes people more empathetic," the teachers added.

"So why is that important to you?" Michael asked once again.

"Because," they said with more conviction, "being empathetic makes for a better world community member."

"So," Michael concluded, "you're teaching poetry to help create empathetic and effective communicators who are integral members of a respectful world community.  And so everything you teach in that unit should help support this goal."

Sara Holbrook working her magic with Grade 8.
What Michael did with those teachers was a technique he picked up from his days as an engineer.  In his own words, Michael told me:

"The Five Why is a problem solving technique developed by the Toyota Motor Company and one I used back when I was a quality engineer. It is a questioning process aimed at finding the root cause of a problem. The point of the exercise is to fix the process in which a failure has occurred not to fix the blame.

The activity is also useful in drilling down to a core principle behind our actions in the classroom. It is a technique familiar to anyone who has raised a toddler - why, why,why, why, why? We start with our primary question of WHY followed by four more iterations of the query - each centered upon the previous reply. Now, number crunching statisticians with much more mathematical proclivity than I have determined that it takes five of these cycles to get to the root cause of a problem or action."

This protocol is a great tool for us when revising our unit plans, especially when we need to clarify what we're doing.  Sure, we rely on our shared professional development from recent years and align our work to the newly articulated Common Core Standards to work towards our institutional commitments of creating a common, viable curriculum and gathering evidence of learning and performance, but sometimes we are so focused on the trees, we forget to see the forest.   Why not start each unit planning session defining our principles of the unit with the Five Why method?  

After talking with Michael this week, I thought I'd try it out.  Instead of using it with teachers though, I wanted to see what my students would say about an activity we were doing.  We just finished our read aloud, Freak the Mighty, and we spent a couple of days watching the movie so we could debate which is better, the book or the movie.

I wanted to see what they thought the reasons for us watching the movie were.  Here's what they came up as answers to the Five Whys:
        • Why are we watching the movie?
          • To see which is better.
        • Why do we want to see which is better?
          • So we can have a debate.
        • Why do we want to have a debate?
          • So we can practice speaking and listening.
        • Why do we want to practice speaking and listening?
          • So when we have to do it in the real world, we're better at it.
        • Why do we want to be better speakers and listeners in the real world?
          • So we can make more of a difference in the world.
Students battling it out using their best debate skills.
Right then, we all stopped and looked around.  In that single moment, it was as if watching this movie meant the world to us.  We all shifted in our seats and sat up a little straighter.  We had made a connection that unfortunately, we don't make often enough.  The work that we were doing wasn't to help get prepared for a quiz or a test.  It wasn't to help "get ready" for the next grade level.  What we were working on was going to help us in life. 

Not only should we be asking ourselves the Five Whys, we should be asking our students them too.  For us teachers, we often seek outside affirmation before looking within.  For our students, we don't allow them to dig deep on why they are learning what they are learning.  What Michael reminded us is that the answers to the Five Whys lie within each and every one of us. And when we can all say why we're spending the time on the learning experiences in our classrooms that we are, I have no doubt that we'll be able to answer to a third institutional commitment, great teaching in every classroom, every day for every child.

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Sunday, 11 November 2012

Without Any Hiccups At All

Imagine my surprise the other night at the dinner table when Isabelle told me she wrote a Personal Essay in class.  "Really?" I asked, looking up from my plate.  Of course as a parent I was interested in what my 4th grader was working on as a writer, but as a teacher, I was also keen to hear what was happening in the elementary grades, especially since our grade level is currently working through the same unit.

"Yeah," Isabelle went on to say.  "My essay is on hiccups.  You see, I got the hiccups in class, and I was so annoyed, I just had to write about it."  I smiled and nodded my head.  I knew exactly what she meant. "So I used 'boxes and bullets' to organize my thoughts, and I came up with three reasons why hiccups are so annoying."  I looked back down at my plate.  That's the exact same lesson I taught to my 6th graders just days before.

As teachers, our initial reaction to situations like this is "How could they do that?" or "Don't they know that's our lesson?"  I admit it, I felt those reactions bubble up immediately.  It's as if we teachers stake claims to lessons and ideas, and we don't want anyone else to encroach upon our territory.  In this case, how could 4th grade be doing our business of boxes and bullets?

Before we all go berserk, I've come to realize that a "problem" like this is actually a good thing.  Here's why.  Isn't it good that readers and writers are being taught effective skills and frameworks as soon as they begin studying the genre?  In fact, their eventual prior learning  will allow us to push them even further when they do get to our classrooms.  

Not only that, just because a student learns some of these skills and frameworks, by no means is she an expert at applying them fully.  You could argue that continued application of  the skill will ensure mastery over a longer period of time.  That's one of the major benefits of a cyclical curriculum anyways.  And as far as studying a genre again and again is concerned, no way does a writer become an expert just by writing a piece in that genre once, twice or even five times.  Authors spend their lives writing through a single genre, and they still find new twists and turns along the way. 

Another consideration is that with our transient student population, invariably there will be new students who are unfamiliar with workshop and some of these skills and frameworks.  And for all students, new to SAS or not, they continue to use the genres and skills that are dear to them to make meaning of new experiences as they grow older.

Having said all that, it's clear the days of closing our doors and doing our own thing in our classrooms are gone.  And they should be.  According to the 2009 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, one reason why US schools rate lower than their developed nation counterparts is because US teachers spend 93% of their time working in isolation. A related study done by McKinsey and Co. in 2010 found that one common characteristic of schools demonstrating continual improvement in student learning is teachers share and work on their practice together by becoming "learners of their own teaching" (see "Building Capacity to Transform Literacy Learning," NCLE).  In addition, Lucy Calkins contends that you can rate the quality of a school by the amount of meaningful conversations that teachers have about moving their students forward.  

Simply put, we must seek every opportunity to step out of our classrooms and grade levels to engage in meaningful conversations with our colleagues.  Now that our school has worked to implement the Reading and Writing Workshops, the initial years of every teacher trying out the generating ideas lessons or basic craft lessons of a genre have passed.  Our readers and writers are coming up with more skills and experience.  It's as if we were all learning to ride bikes at the same time, and now that the training wheels are coming off, those lessons just won't cut it anymore.  It's time to work on jumps, wheelies, and hard core racing.  In other words, maybe 4th grade should cover boxes and bullets whereas 6th grade can focus on ordering the bullets for effect.

So how do we do this?  

  • Instead of thinking how can I teach "my students" in "my classroom,"  think how can we teach "our students" in "our school."
  • Be active members in PLCs by asking questions not only of the units in our grade levels, but of what is happening in the surrounding grade levels.
  • When planning units, use the Common Core as a resource for writing teaching points.  With its more precise articulation at each grade level, we can ensure a steady progression of rigor as our readers and writers pass up through the grades.
  • Use pre-unit assessments to gauge where the students are in terms of the work each genre requires.  Then modify and adjust teaching points accordingly
  • In mini-lessons, continually call on students to apply previously learned skills and frameworks to their current work.
  • Continue to read and write so that we can better inform our teaching.  By actually doing the work of readers and writers, we can teach from true experience and develop teaching points that come from the heart.
And finally,
  • Don't leave it up to a 4th grader to find out what is happening in other classrooms and grade levels.

If we take on just some of these ideas collectively, we'll continue to grow as a school and provide an exemplary program in RLA without any hiccups at all.

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