Monday, April 21, 2014

R: is for Keepin' It Real!

If you were to walk into almost any classroom in North America, you would find a plethora of textbooks, teaching manuals, instructional binders, sets of guided readers and the like.  There is a wealth of material produced each year by educational publishers aimed at providing teachers with the resources they need to thoroughly instruct their students.  These publishers make lots of money selling these resource packages to School Boards who, in turn, spend lots of money holding professional development workshops for teachers on how to use these resources.  The education publishing industry is Big Business for all involved.  But, for me on the front lines, it makes not one bit of impact at all.........none!

I regularly use only one textbook and it is a Math series entitled Jump Math. Jump Math was developed by a man named John Mighton who believed that all students have the potential to be Mathematicians but were being held back by a curriculum that didn't actually follow the basic principles of Math. So, for example, Jump Math focuses a lot, initially, on number patterns and recognizing the organizational structure of numbers. Once the inter-connectedness of our number systems become known, it is like unlocking a secret code and then, everything else that follows is much easier to grasp and, more importantly, extend.  John Mighton contends, and I agree, that there is a poetry to Mathematics and that the beauty of a good mathematical proof is comparable to the exquisiteness of a Shakespearean sonnet. I use this resource because it helps my students at a conceptual level and is geared to whatever intellectual level any child may possess.

Aside from Jump Math, I do not use a textbook, teacher's manual or resource binder of any kind in my daily instruction.

Here is how I go about my job:

We read every single day.  We read as a whole group. We read in small, guided groups.  We read as individuals.  But, everyday, we read.  My job, as a teacher of reading, is to instruct students on the mechanical nature of decoding words.  I, also, help them develop their comprehension skills so that they understand the words they are reading.  Finally, one of the most important aspects of this job is to provide instruction while, at the same time, nurturing a lifelong love of reading for pleasure and for knowledge.
The resources I need are not found in binders and manuals, the resources I need, quite simply, are good books.......and, lots of them!   My classroom is, in many ways, a satellite library.  By having a wide range of books, at reading levels that are appropriate for my students, there is plenty of personal choice available to the kids.  There is, also, a balance of opportunities for them between explicit instruction from me and quiet reading time for them.  I always build time into our daily schedule for each child to read for pleasure, unencumbered by the need to turn that reading time into a product in the form of a summary or a character sketch.  That reading time is theirs. It is when the seeds of lifelong readership are sown. The best part for me is how quiet the room becomes as the children disappear into the worlds of their books and how "spent" they appear fifteen-thirty minutes later when I ask them to put their books down.  The books absorb their minds and their thoughts.  There are no classroom management issues during reading time.  My young readers have placed value on this exercise and, for them, reading has become real for each child.  And, I don't require textbooks to accomplish this.

When children are read to daily and exposed to good quality literature, the structure of stories becomes engrained in their minds, rich vocabulary becomes common and the desire to express a point of view becomes familiar and welcome.
We write every single day.  We write on classroom-wide themes or tasks. We write together in small guided groups. We write daily as individuals.  My job with written expression mirrors my job in reading; I offer explicit instruct in the mechanics of it all: the grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, parts of speech, etc., to the whole group. I, also, help them to learn how to take the images and ideas in their own mind and use enough detail for the reader to get the same sort of picture in their minds, too.  I, also, make time in our daily schedule for personal writing time.  This can be creative story writing or informational research or else, maintaining a journal or blog that they share with me and, in doing so, we strike up a correspondence that is functional and personal and based upon things that are specifically important or relevant to them.  In doing so, writing becomes a meaningful tool in their inventory of skills.

I could go on and on through all the subject areas and tell you similar tales of how teachers can make school subjects meaningful without being forced to use expensive pre-made resources. But, instead, I shall leave you with the following example that shows how learning can come alive and be connected to the real world that our students will soon be joining.

I have always used the journal format in writing as a way of having the students produce meaningful writing. As the times have become for technological, paper and pencil journals have given way to electronic blogs, much like the one you are reading right now!  So, we now blog on a regular basis, particularly when I have slightly more proficient writers (grades 3 and up).  Anyway, here is my school blogging story.......

It begins with me and my own writing. When I first started my own private blog and was looking for opportunities to write for an audience, one of the first sites I stumbled across was the Trifecta Writing Challenge.  As I began entering the weekly challenges, I slowly honed my skills and, in doing so, developed  many relationships that I maintain to this day.  The Trifecta writers were people from all around the world who all shared a love of good writing and a commitment to supporting each other. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have "grown up" as a writer in their protective embrace.
Well, one week, the challenge prompt happened to be personification.  Coincidently, I was working in a Grade 5/6 class and we were working on personification at the very same time.  I became super excited, in a very nerdy way, and asked my Trifecta buddies if they would be willing to let my students read their finished work so they could see personification being used in the hands of masterful writers.  Over 60 Trifectans agreed.  But, it went further than that. The editors made my students an offer of submitting their own writing, should they feel brave enough to do so.  Suddenly, the daily blogging that this class was doing took on a whole new meaning.  The Editors of Trifecta said that, as long as the students were adhering to the rules of the weekly challenge for any given week, they were welcome to join the group. The students were excited but, intimidated, at the same time.
Over the course of the remaining months of the school year, three girls stepped up and submitted work.  In each case, they were warmly received and showered with comments from real writers around the world. They were critiqued as writers and welcomed into the fraternity of writers at the same time.  One such student was a young lady named Cheyenne.  An example of her writing, and the responses she received, can be found here.  The link is still active so, feel free to leave a comment yourself if you are so inclined.  Olivia's story can be found here and Hayley's writing can be seen by clicking the link right here.

If I had been bound to following manuals and textbooks, opportunities for my students to experience meaningful educational moments would probably not have happened.  Sometimes, the best teaching moments are the least planned moments. They are those times when a student makes some amazing personal discovery and the whole lesson focus changes on a dime and we all take the journey that was meant for us at that time, instead of being slaves to the schedule.  Each child who walks through my classroom doorway has a Life journey that they are making.  It is my real job to prepare them for that journey as completely and as thoroughly as I can.

And, I don't usually require any textbooks to do that.

Do you have any memories from school where you participated in some really cool activity that was not textbook-related.   What aspect of your educational experience helped forge the connections and attitudes that have helped you most in real life.  Did you ever have a teacher who "threw away the manuals" as it were, and made your school experience super interesting?  If so or, if not, please let me know in the comment box below.  Thanks, as always, for taking the time to follow me on my journey.  I appreciate the company. :)