Sunday, November 27, 2011

Early Childhood Development in Real Time

I was a stay-at-home mom for twelve years and still consider myself lucky to have had the time for this important work, especially when so many must work full-time and raise children simultaneously in order to afford a house, food, etc.  Raising children is hard work.  The need for consistency is what wears most parents out since children are always testing the fence line.

I still consider my time away from teaching as an intensive course in Early Childhood Development.  It lasted twenty-four-hours-a-day for twelve years.  As a teacher, I found my own children's development fascinating--particularly language acquisition.

Now I have the chance to observe the next generation of children up close and personal: my three (soon to be four) grandchildren.  Here is what I am learning in real time.

Most Important Lesson of All: standardization in education seems like a really stupid idea after spending any amount of time around kids.  They show up in the world with totally different sets of priorities and motivations.  Our one-size-fits-all education system seems hopelessly out of date.

For instance, grandson number one is highly physical.  He literally throws himself at the world, leaping off of steps, climbing anything that is handy, shouting "Bam! Bam!"--his chosen expletive when he is either frustrated or successful. At two he can independently use all of the playground equipment he can reach, including hanging upside down from monkey bars. He runs and kicks a ball.  He manipulates objects, builds and destroys in nanoseconds, and goes full tilt until he collapses from exhaustion.  After all of that dashing around, it is possilble to convince him to sit in a lap and listen to a story.  Thanks to his mother who has made reading a daily end-of-day routine, this boy will probably excel at both sports and school.  But I'm thinking the long days in a desk are not going to be easy for him.

Granddaughter number one is thoughtful, orderly and reticent.  She does not warm to strangers and even takes many minutes to acclimate to familiar places, including her grandparents' house where she spent the first six months of her life.  She loves books and often removes herself from a room crowded with adults to read quietly (in the way that a three-year old reads: turning pages and reciting what she remembers).  She has spent many long periods pulling blankets and towels out of our cedar chest and arranging them in neat squares on the floor.  Similarly she likes grouping objects, putting small objects inside of bags and other containers and carrying them around.  All of these activities seem to please her in some way. When she found one of my ubiquitous journals and a marker, she began to make a "list" (deftly picking up the marker with her left hand and writing right to left) with a line for every person named (mommy, daddy, Marnie, Pee-Paw). When she ran out of names, she thought for a moment and then began to name things she likes (popcorn).  She'll certainly be a reader, but does the strong interest in patterns show a mind for math?

As I watch the two of them and their obviously varied strengths and tendencies I can't help wondering: how do you design a school that capitalizes on their separate potentials?  How can we use student autonomy and natural curiosity to catapult learning to where it matches the growth in knowledge and technology we face in the coming decades?

Interestingly, both grandchildren love the ipad we have stocked with books and games.  (They fight over it.)  Both seem to enjoy the mastery they have over choosing activities and switching back and forth between games, puzzles and stories.  Manipulating virtual objects with a finger is highly engaging, as most adults can probably testify.

Both of them like to bake, decorate, and "eat" a cake (in CakeDoodle) and paint in Art Set.  The grandson prefers Thomas the Train Engine for his story, puzzle, and matching game fix.  Granddaughter tends toward the Disney book where she can dress up a variety of Princesses.  They both think the game of tossing tires with "Mater" from Car Story is the funniest thing they've ever seen.  I fail to grasp the joke, but they think its a hoot.  Maybe it's the sound effects.

Watching children this way makes me think that teachers should be developing skills and knowledge in order to set the next, appropriate learning tool or activity in front of a child.  In this view of education, teachers would be adept "kid watchers" who are extremely knowledgeable about a variety of teaching strategies that all aim for the same objective, or leapfrog over objectives, to match the student's current need.  It has been said elsewhere: we need an Independent Education Plan for everybody.

I'm betting that my two, bright grandchildren will show up in kindergarten already reading- or close to it - given their rich upbringing.  In the current system, that might mean three long years before something new and exciting is introduced.

We need to work on this.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fake Writing

This week Jay Matthews of the Washington Post drew attention to the problem of teaching writing in our public schools.

It's awful.  That's the consensus.

His argument was sparked by a commentary earlier in the week by Paula Stacy in Education Week where she bemoans the lifeless writing products which pass for good thinking when students arrive in colleges and universities.

She's right, you know.  In the main, writing instruction, when it is addressed at all, is horrible.

If you ever had to evaluate a raft of these so-called papers, you too would bemoan the state of writing in the United States.  The papers are wooden, lifeless, replete with errors, and simplistic in their thinking.

In short, they follow the process steps outlined in various formulas (like the dreaded five-paragraph essay).  Teaching formulaic writing is similar to teaching dance by pasting the silhouette of footprints on a dance floor and asking the dancer to follow the prescribed steps in some semblance of a rhythm.

And we all know what that looks like: rhythmically-challenged white guy trying to boogie.

Having read my fair share of five-paragraph essays, it's clear an instructor barely has to read in order to make an assessment since the path the student is taking is telegraphed in the thesis statement.  No surprises.  No turns of thought.  Just scan down the page and see if paragraph one matches their first point, with some evidence; paragraph two should follow suit, and so forth, until arriving at a conclusion that restates the thesis (again, dear idiot reader, in case the point isn't clear yet through mindless repetition).

Poor Montaigne.  How he must roll over in his grave.  His "essai"--meaning attempt at understanding, often without a neat conclusion, sometimes even with more questions than answers--has come to this: all problems solved in three easy steps.

Writing has long been a neglected art in all of formal education.  Why?  There are a number of reasons, but first and foremost is the lack of attention and time spent understanding the craft of writing or using writing the way it is intended--as a tool for further learning.

The inattention to writing has been perpetuated for generations.

Poor writing instructors teach the next generation what they were taught and those hapless students grow up to teach the next class and so forth.  And now districts can buy all the easy answers in a box, hand them out to teachers, ask them to spend an hour or two on writing twice a semester and feel smug in having resolved the writing problem.  (Starting to see the danger in the "three solutions to every problem" thinking we've structured for ourselves?)

Teachers, like most of the adult population, are insecure in their own writing (having either hated it, been chastised for poor spelling, commas, what have you, or convinced that writers spring fully formed from the mind of Zeus and cannot be shaped by instruction.)

There is one group that has championed good instruction in writing for more than 30 years: The National Writing Project. This, one of the true academic communities in existence today--modeling learning through inquiry even beyond the level of most academic communities in our universities--brings teachers together to share best practice in both teaching and using writing.

In its often-heralded capstone professional learning program -- the Intensive Summer Institute-- the National Writing Project insists that teachers write, for themselves but also for their students.  When the teachers return to their schools after the institute, they are often the oddball down the hall who is doing something weird with their kids--and getting results.

Teacher Consultants trained through the Writing Project write with and in front of their students modeling the messy, recursive process of composing a thought into the clearest expression possible.  From invention to publishable quality piece, writing project teachers show their students where an idea comes from, how it is developed, how an audience shapes a message, how writing helps clarify thinking, and that anyone can be a writer--one who makes meaning from experience.  Most TCs look for real-world writing opportunities for students, journal regularly, give students latitude in choosing topics, and infuse writing into every subject area.

The problem with writing in our schools is that it is treated as a separate discipline, when it should be a part of every subject.  The irony in today's current instruction is that we assume that a child can sit down and produce a piece of writing that reflects their thinking without having been provided ample opportunity to first think independently.

Writing should inform every subject with students writing to themselves first. Even a kindergartner can ask "What do I already know about the changing seasons?"  Students can collect their own data: What did I see on the way to school today that helps me understand how the earth rotates around the sun?  What questions do I have about how the world works?  What are my strengths?  How do I know when I'm competent?  What have I done that I am proud of?  How did I do that?

These are real questions of inquiry that students can wrestle with in their own language and are a necessary step in learning any subject. Writing is a separate form of thinking wherein the writer comes to know his or her own mind.  It is a necessary step in understanding and retaining experience.  It is a record of where the mind has been.  Oddly, after composing a true inquiry, the writer, rather than the reader, is the one who knows the subject best.

And, when used in this context, writing ISN'T about correctness.  It is about thinking.

Our kids write poorly because they are asked to write what they do not know.  And adults who have survived this method of formulaic composition do the same--and then act accordingly--finding repetitive, simplistic answers to weighty and complex problems.  We cannot afford to perpetuate three-answer-group-think in a world with increasingly complex, global problems.

By the way--The National Writing Project-- probably the most under leveraged tool for improving instruction in our nation's school, repeatedly held up as the gold standard for professional development, and among the cheapest (the budget for the entire nation was only 22 million) was cut from the Department of Education budget last year.

Oh, well.  That leaves 22 million more for multiple-choice testing.

At least those tests give you four choices instead of three.