Sunday, February 28, 2010

the process of processing

Last Thursday I read a book about why people read by Todd Parr, and asked the primates to illustrate and write an answer to the question, "why do we read?" (A colleague asked us to do this so their work can be displayed at a local teaching conference.)

I read the story to the whole group on the rug, after lunch & recess, so it was quite.....let's call it, 'exuberant' on the rug as I read...very interactive. The primates loved the colorful, bright, child-like illustrations, and delighted in reading the various signs, labels, words embedded in the illustrations. I wrote the question, "Why do we read?" on the white board and asked them to think about it as I read the story. After reading, I asked the question again and instructed them to draw & write their answers.

I noticed several primates wrote the question on their paper preceding their answer. This is interesting. And is not the first time I've noticed it. I suppose this is an instance where it is as important to notice what they do without being told vs. what you've directly asked them to do.

As a teacher influenced by MI vs. general intelligence theory, (and just a note--general intelligence--what traditional education including standardized testing is based on, IS in fact a theory with far less scientific evidence behind it), noticing this spontaneous occurrence reveals something about process and processing.

The primates who wrote the question, 1. heard me ask it, 2. read it on the board, 3. wrote it down, in their process of processing what I asked. Their answers were on topic, thoughtful, and creatively illustrated. One example: the primate wrote:

"Why do we read? Because it helps us use our imaginations."
**I substituted dictionary spelling for inventive...we are beginning writers!)

And drew a picture of a mermaid sitting on rocks above crashing ocean waves, reading a book.

Another wrote: "Why do we read? To learn and discover and to read signs."

This primate's drawing was a boy reading a book and sitting in front of a red stop sign with the word 'stop' written inside.

I hypothesize that added step of writing the question provides more time, more depth of understanding to the primate, thus resulting in a truly authentic answer to the question that shows what they really know. Now what I find most interesting is that I never asked them to write the question--they did it naturally. However, we do a lot of reflective writing where I ask a question for them to answer in words & pictures, and I always include the question I asked--usually printed on a label. Did their idea to write the question down sprout from this practice? Maybe they did it because I wrote the question on the board? I can't be sure...maybe something else entirely.

I think this is an important skill, though....and to put it in terms of MCAS, they are learning to really THINK about the question being ask before formulating their answer--a strategy many primates seem to lack when answering MCAS questions. hmmmmm, I'd like to think about this more.....

I do think this is important to recognize...and it makes me also think about how to individualize observational assessment--in a way that works with 22 primates in a class. A kind of "learning portrait"...what I notice about how they solve problems and what products they create....and their work as evidence of this......

Thursday, February 18, 2010

what's important

Each session I ask the primates a question in small groups, record their responses, and post them on the bulletin board outside my room in a speech bubble next to their photograph. Visually, it is quite are the responses! Primate responses reveal:
- how they are thinking (critical, concrete, higher level)
- what they are thinking about (personal associations they make with the ?)
- how they respond to others' responses (i.e., some repeat answers, some incite giggles or additional comments)
- how verbal linguistic they are (short-n-sweet vs. really looooooong answers!)

Plus it is a great community builder as we share our answers together and with the school community by posting it outside the classroom.

This year the focus of my questions has been on MI:

Session 1: How do you solve problems?

Session 2: What products do you like to create?

Session 3: What problems and products matter to you?

I'm phrasing the questions around Gardner's definition of intelligence (simplified): the ability to solve problems and create products that matter to society. This last question really illustrated how truly important semantics become when trying to assess what a primate knows--or in this case, thinks. No one had a response to this question, which I asked as a whole group since we were so short on time this session(see last post as to why!). In the moment, I realized I better rephrase quickly or I'd lose them, so I restated the question as: What things are important to you? This yielded beautifully revealing responses, posted below. If a primate doesn't connect easily to a question, they can easily get lost in A.) trying to figure out what you mean or B.) trying to figure out what you want them to say. The specific words we use are critical to drawing out THEIR thinking, and not what they think you want to hear...or what's right or wrong.

This in itself is a distinguishing characteristic of MI teaching from traditional teaching: The traditional teacher knows what s/he wants to hear-- there is a pre-determined "right" answer. Sometimes there is....although shouldn't there ALWAYS be room for different perspectives, alternate interpretations, outside the box thinking? The MI teacher spends time developing the question--making sure the semantics will inspire thoughtful answers that truly reflect what the primates think. Maybe there are no wrong answers, just different interpretations? Is that so bad in a world made up of unique individuals coming from diverse backgrounds? Doesn't that provide more learning opportunities for all as horizons are broadened?

The responses:
*please note I record responses as spoken by primates--grammatical errors and all.

"I think nature is important because if we didn't have nature we wouldn't have some types of food, and we need water and we need food.

"I think nature is important too. Building is important because we wouldn't have houses."

"Animals and children. I think water and plants are important because they help the environment and without water we would be suffering and everything would be dried."


"Plants are important."

"I think science is important."

"I think friends and family are important. Trees because trees give us oxygen and without oxygen we won't be here."

"Important to me is my baby brother."


"I know this is weird, but playing with Q and Z everyday after school."

"I think math is important."

"I think earth is important because we actually wouldn't be able to be in a comfortable school if there was no earth!"

"I think that pets and family are important. I think parents are important."

"I think music is important because I really like to sing."

"I think recycling is important."

"I think friends are important."

"I think houses are important because if we didn't have houses when the rain keeps falling you would get really wet and sick and you might dies. I think water and food are important because if we didn't have them, we could get really sick and you could die."

"I think that a school is important because then we wouldn't study wheels and we wouldn't have cars."

"Love--it's because my dad says it's the most important thing in the world."

"I think the sea is important because without the sea those animals in the sea wouldn't be alive because they need water to breathe. And I think air is important because air helps us breathe and because without air we wouldn't be able to breathe."

Me: "Finding out what is important to my students is important to me."

ending on a good note

wow....I can't believe it's been so long since my last post, and I wholeheartedly blame the testing mania that suffocated the last few weeks of school prior to vacation. It's extremely discouraging to waste time on testing methods that are clearly out-dated and provide no valuable information on student learning. I used to hold a more politically correct stance that there is some, limited value in standardized testing, but really, honestly, there is not!

**I promise this post ends on a much more uplifting note!

I was mandated to administer a mid-year math exam to 6 and 7 year olds that was heavily literacy based--ie, if you can't read, you can't do the test independently...and if you are a beginning reader (which most are at this age), it is not appropriate to be expected to use reading as a tool to figure out other problems--the problem beg readers are focused on is reading!!! So I--one human being--had to read directions one by one to almost half the class. Having said that, even my fluent readers did not perform well because the test also included mostly "trick" questions--inappropriate because primates who have only been introduced to new material within a few months prior do not possess a deep enough understanding of the content to think about it flexibly enough to answer "trick" questions. And finally, a word about multi-step directions--it is not developmentally appropriate to expect children at this stage of development to first complete an incomplete chart of data (that has no personal relevance), analyze the data, and then answer three wordy questions about the data. Did I also mention the test included a fill in the bubble for the correct answer question? And that the answer to the question (which was about completing a pattern--circle, triangle, square, circle, triangle, square--the correct answer being circle--so most of them colored in the circle rather than the bubble next to the circle.

So my question is, if we all can at least agree that the validity of information these types of standardized tests is limited, then why are my primates and I forced to sacrifice so much valuable learning time to prepare for, administer, and then correct these tests? And even better, I can look forward to even more wasted time "analyzing" this inaccurate data so it can "inform" my instruction. Give me a break!

OK, testing frustration aside...because there really is nothing I can do about it and probably shouldn't be blasting it so openly, but some truths just cannot be silenced!...I got a lovely e-mail from a primate's mom today. They took a family trip to the American Textile Museum today and got to work on big looms, learn how fabric is made, and the mom also mentioned that her child spoke very eloquently about our weaving project--using vocab learned in class. Really wonderful to hear about this family's interest in our project & how they are extending the learning outside the classroom into the real world. Despite the hopelessness surrounding bus availability (and affordability), I am going to look into a possible trip to the museum with the primates. It would be a wonderful extension of the project--if it doesn't happen, though, I strongly encourage a family trip! I plan on making one with my family!

New Survivor began last week, so I'm taking a break from my obsession with the Winter Olympics (has it been fabulous or what?!) for at least an hour tonight.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

what I've learned

When I wrote the grant for this weaving project, my goals were centered around the primates learning to weave and using their own handwork as the basis for a writing project, therefore motivating them to improve their writing skills. very MI, I thought, as this is a great example of offering multiple entry points into writing. And those are still my goals, and it is a great MI-ism.

But here's what I've learned, and these are goals I never considered:

* I see the primates differently. It really is happening--the primates who struggle with traditional academic activities are leaders in weaving. I've read about this, I've aspired to this, I've probably even experienced it before...but this time it's different because I am reflecting on it, and this reflection will drive my instruction in a very real way. This project is providing opportunities for primates to genuinely feel successful in school. Weaving is valued by our class community as an important skill to learn. We are creating products that matter to our society.

* I'm not doing as well as I had imagined at teaching the primates to weave. But I'm OK with that because I realize there is a much deeper lesson happening: you need to work hard, make mistakes, solve problems, and practice in order to learn something new. This lesson transcends any traditional academic content or skills. In this way, our weaving project may be an entry point to multiple areas of learning for the primates.

* I'm not sure I can measure progress or the overall success of this project in a way that could be considered equivalent to a test score in a psychometrician's eyes. Actually, I want to change that to "I'm not sure how" to do it. This is where my focus should be now.

really good stuff

This is my first attempt to add a link in my blog, and being the Internet newbie that I still think of myself as, I have no idea if this will work, but it's a great article and I urge you to check it out some other way if this doesn't get you there. Also,

more good stuff, although, while I support the encouragement for parents to talk to teachers and principals about testing, it's not up to us. We are expected to follow directions we are given by lawmakers. Contacting your local politicians would have a far greater impact. They are the ones calling the shots, and voters are the voices they listen to--not teachers and principals.

teacher evaluation

well, this is actually going to be a very different post than I originally thought as I fumed home from work today, but I am really proud of myself for keeping to my goal of trying to stay positive this year and not get bogged down in ed drama.

So, you may not be surprised that this has been another dreadful week. yes, I say ANOTHER because so far 2010 sucks--and I apologize for not having a better way to say that. But it is what it is.

However, that is not the direction I will go tonight because I am instead thinking of two things that happened this week that have me all teary and sentimental about being a teacher. First, I had a lunch date with a former primate of mine from many years ago. He's been struggling and I've known about it for awhile. But it is impossible to remain deeply involved in every former student's life, so I heard the stories from other staff and felt bad. Last week I decided to take action and spoke with his current teacher. A different colleague suggested I have lunch with him, so I invited him for this past Monday. Nothing earth-shattering, no "Mr. Holland's Opus" moment, and I have little hope that re-connecting with me will have much impact on this primate's daily struggles....but that speck of hope resulted in a really pleasant, sweet, and memorable lunch. I felt that sappy, sugary, some may say naiive, sense of making a difference in another person's life that you see in those goofy teacher movies--only it was real, and I was the sappy star of the movie feeling like the pebble I'd just thrown had made a ripple. Sharing lunch with this young man who only a short time ago was clutched to my leg because someone stole his blue crayon, made me smile--a true, genuine, deep smile. The rest of the day continued with the dark cloud of doom hovering over my head, but that lunch made a real difference for me, and I think it was nice for the primate as well. We made a pact to meet once a month for lunch, just to connect, and I look forward to getting to know him all over again as a young man. Maybe it will make a difference for him too.

SO my other sappy moment this week was Tuesday, 3pm-ish. Another former primate who now attends a different school has been visiting me 2-3 times a week on her way home. She is a special case (really, they all are-and I'm not just saying that--it's something I think only a true teacher can understand...the ways each child who passes through your life adds a little, takes a little, and leaves you with an altered perspective on humanity because they've taught you something new---and they all really do that, it's just not often we have the time to sit and reflect and really appreciate it) anyways, this primate has allowed me to take the moment, reflect, and feel good about her desire to stay connected to me. She's been borrowing books from me--returning them all!!! And I'm proud of the fact that she is seeking out books we read last year. I made an impact! I made an impact! Our educational journey together resonates with her and she is compelled to revisit these experiences a year later.

So while I have the pleasure of constantly living in a work world where we are mandated to go against everything we believe about teaching and learning (i.e., the data collection frenzy that has a choke hold on American public education), I submit the above two stories as evidence that I'm doing a good job--and test scores have NOTHING to do with it!

**Please note this post is dedicated to all the policy makers out there committed to reducing teaching and learning to psychometrics.