Meeting in the Middle

Teaching is a game of gaps.  When students enter our classrooms, there is almost immediately a gap: a divide between teacher and student, and a canyon between the known and the unknown. As teachers, it is our job to bridge this gap, but the good news is this:

It’s not as big as you might think.

I recently began a literature unit on signs and stories, and with this endeavor, I’ve welcomed in a brand new bunch of gaps, divides, and canyons — each of which has been excitingly challenging to navigate.  I’ve been lucky enough to partner with an incredible teacher and art historian, and she’s helped to bring in a series of images, intended to help us distinguish between an artist’s technique and the meaning which he or she is trying to communicate.  This has been a wonderful segue way into how authors do a similar thing, only with text.

But actually teaching reading an teaching them to encounter text is hard, because bridging the gap between what students actually want to read and what they actually need to know how to read can be especially problematic.  Kids have to be motivated to read in order to actually get something out of it, and that motivation cannot be forced.  It has to be authentic, it has to be intrinsic, and it has to be nurtured carefully.  This is why emergent curriculum is so important: if the curriculum comes from the minds of the students, then it is much more likely that there will be buy-in.

Garden of Abdul GasaziIt’s much more likely that they’ll care.

So last week, as a part of this unit on signs and stories, I read The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, a picture book by Chris Van Allsburg about a boy, Alan, who loses a dog named Fritz in a man’s garden.  Alan ends up finding the dog with the man, named Mr. Gasazi.  Unfortunately for Alan, Fritz the dog is turned into a duck which then flies away with his hat.  He trudges back to his neighbor’ s house, for he was dogsitting little Fritz, only to find that the dog made it’s way back.  His neighbor confides in him that it was all a trick, but Van Allsburg’s images suggest otherwise, leaving students to wonder whether Fritz was actually turned into a duck or not.

I originally chose this book in an effort to draw special attention to Van Allsburg’s images. He designs them so precisely to accompany the text he’s written.  The story was a provocation, in a sense, intended to spark their interest in stories and to begin to bridge the gap between the known and unknown, especially in regard to author’s technique and topic.

I finished the book, ending on the final page where Alan finds his hat on the front lawn — the same hat with which the duck flew away — suggesting that the dog was, in fact, turned into a duck. As a result, my students erupted in conversation, positing whether or not it was a trick after all.

“I like this author!” said one of my students, smiling.

“Do you?” I replied.

“Yea!” he continued. “I like how he ended the story. I like how we don’t know.”

And from there I had an entry point into the following week’s lessons.  Sure, I had already planned some other stories, but luckily, due to the fact that I plan according to learning objectives, and not according to the text itself, my plans were rather easily changed. This week, as a result of this conversation, I began a book study on Chris Van Allsburg intended to examine his techniques in the context of various topics, and not to worry, I was sure to include the student who had voiced his excitement to read more of Van Allsburg’s works.

Bridging the Gap

The process of bridging the gap between teacher and student, between the known and the unknown: it’s almost like building a suspension bridge. To strike this delicate balance between purely emergent curriculum and purely teacher-directed instruction, it’s important to meet in the middle.  A suspension bridge is built in this way, where the construction starts with a large gap between two separate entities, two separate shores.  Some posts are put up in the middle, and with these structures in place, construction begins from both sides.  Eventually, the two sides meet in the middle, creating a firm structure through which the two opposing shores — formerly two distant bodies — are now connected into one continuous road where thoughts can easily transport back and forth.


And a similar process is true for teaching, as well. True teaching is neither entirely emergent nor entirely prescriptive.  It doesn’t only begin from one side or the other.  Entirely emergent curriculum balances dangerously on a pathless existence, while purely prescriptive curriculum suffocates and hardens learning into a rigid process.  Instead, true teaching — and true learning — is dependent on the relationship between teacher and student. It requires that both the teacher and the student listen to each other, and that this mode of communication goes both ways. It emphasizes the importance of connection, of empathy, and of engagement in a collaborative process.

A process where you can meet in the middle and bridge the gap.  Together.

Framing Learning through Macro- and Micro-cycles

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A visual model of how these relate, inspired by the National Board Architecture for Accomplished Teaching.

Learning is cyclical, and I think you’d have a hard time finding anyone who would argue with that.  But it’s the overlaying cyclicality that makes what educators do every day so tricky.  You see, while learning is cyclical, the cycles tend to overlap upon one other both on a broad and granular scale; either that or the cycles tend to move so quickly from one cycle to the next that it’s really difficult to keep track of where different students are in the cycle, especially when you’ve got a whole bunch of them — all with different needs.

But these cycles can be simplified — and not for the purpose of simplifying the learning process, but instead, these cycles can be simplified for the purpose giving teachers a triangulated framework in which to ground their planning, preparation, and instruction.  Take these two examples, for instance.  Within each of these, you’ll notice all three pieces of this framework:

Macro: Katy is planning an interdisciplinary unit on cell biology.

Over the course of 6 weeks, Katy wants students to identify the parts of a cell and explain how they work together over time.  She also wants her students to be able to identify the main idea of a text (RI.4.2) and explain scientific concepts (RI.4.3) specifically through access to nonfiction text.  In order to determine the success of her students, she will create a series of formative assessments that determine the knowledge her students have ascertained over the course of a few weeks, specifically asking students to identify cell parts and explain their function.  She will also create decontextualized reading assessments that ask her students to identify the main idea of a text, giving them multiple tries over the course of the six weeks.  She will use the assessments to help guide future instruction and instructional groupings.  She will also create guided reading groups based on the results of the assessments.  For the science content, she will use a mixture of videos, informational text, and modeling to help students see how the parts of a cell work together.

Micro: Katy is planning a lesson as a part of her interdisciplinary unit on cell biology.

The objective for her lesson is two-fold: (1) Students will be able to identify the main idea of a 1-2 paragraph text using text features and non-fiction strategies; (2) Students will be able to identify the cell membrane and explain its function.  In order to teach this, Katy has planned an interactive activity.  She will engage students with membrane provocations using plastic bags and water, videos that discuss the importance of the cell membrane, and pictures of cells whose membranes are in tact and broken to help students infer the importance of the membrane.  In guided reading, Katy has been focusing on main idea, specifically in the context of cells, so in order to both assess students’ understanding of cell membranes and main idea, she will create a formative assessment for her cell membrane lesson that requires her students to read a short text about cell membranes (1-2 paragraphs), identify the main idea (RI.4.2), and explain the function of the cell membrane after reading the text (RI.4.3).  She will then use this information to determine how to support students in subsequent lessons.


Our brainstorm for Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction.

Note that in both of these examples, there are three elements: curriculum, assessment, and instruction.  And due to the fact that all of these three elements are present, both the macro-cycles and micro-cycles involved in the planning process are aligned to each other: the macro-levels of curriculum, assessment, and instruction align well with the proportionally smaller micro-levels, creating a well-balanced and supportive learning experience for students.

Also note that, within this loose curricular framework, that there is plenty of room for student choice, for students to ask questions, and for the educator to take the lesson or lesson sequence where she sees fit.  This is, by no means, a rigid lesson plan; instead, it is a strong framework that allows for a triangulation of the three most important components of planning and preparation in the classroom: curriculum, assessment, and instruction.

Can Video Games Teach Us How to Read?

Teaching reading is an art filled with limiting factors: motivation, vocabulary, decoding, and comprehension are only a few of the comprehensive skills or traits that students need to be able to comprehend text, making the subject of literacy, in particular, difficult to teach.

video gameYes, there are ways to garner student interest, especially when it comes to interacting with text, but in a society that is becoming increasingly visual and dependent on instant gratification, the delayed gratification of interacting with text can be far less enticing to our little ones. And for this reason, it’s important to help them see that interacting with text can be just as gratifying as watching a movie or playing a game.

But this is not a simple task. Not simple at all.

Luckily, the teaching profession is one of innovation, and teachers are ceaselessly experimenting with ways to use innovative practice to help kids learn how to read. Recently, I’ve learned that some teachers are even using games to teach reading, arguing that these interactive video games provide the same skills that students need to be able to read. And they’re right, video games do help to teach critical thinking, creativity, making connections, and many other skills that can contribute to and support effective reading skills. Likewise, there are now texts on these games like how-to guides, and interesting projects where students create stories about the content within these games.

However, much to the our chagrin, this high-interest method still isn’t fully teaching the art of reading in and of itself: what you’ll see is that these games rarely mention the “text” at all, despite the fact that they possess a great ability to foster creativity, imagination, and lateral thinking.  At the end of the day, kids still need the basics — they still need the text — and many of these strategies, while supportive of the reading process, are only band aids unless we get to the root of a child’s issues with reading.

So how do we find the root? How do we help kids access these skills and traits?

While there is no one “correct” answer – as every child differs – removing text from our students and putting band-aids over the problem is certainly not the way to go. Richard Allington, author of What Really Matters for Struggling Readers states that in order for struggling readers to catch up with grade-level peers, they need over double the amount of time with text than an average performing peer would need to make the necessary gains in reading. And as teachers, it is our job to give them that time and to help them thrive. Playing games, no matter how enriching they are for other skills, are not going to give most children this oh-so necessary time with text.

But if games aren’t the solution, what are some of those ways to get to the root of the problem? Try these out:

Assessment. One of the biggest misconceptions about standardized assessments is that they are simply a way to label children through a rigid system of objectives and goals. This, however, is not true. Rigorous standardized assessments allow for rich data collection so that teachers can provide students with exactly what they need — and exactly at their level. Giving them materials that are within their respective zones of proximal development positively affects their perceptions of themselves, helping them to have a “can do” attitude when it comes to reading.

Vocabulary Popplet

A Vocabulary Popplet: Inspired by the Frayer Model.

Targeting vocabulary. One of the biggest limiting factors for reading comprehension and literate success is vocabulary. Vocabulary is like a series of interwoven puzzles, and when the puzzles are solved, students flourish in their own success. Kids, as a whole, are enticed by puzzles, and giving them targeted strategies that help them to unlock the code that vocabulary holds is one of the best ways to help them feel the success necessary to become resilient readers.

Fluency. Reading can become laborious because of processing speed. And that’s one reason why kids love videos so much. Kids think in images, and videos help kids process at a rate that gives them the instant gratification they so desire. If students have a low reading fluency, they’re likely to suffer the frustrations that may accompany reading. The more they read – and the more they read texts at their level – the more fluent they will become.

GASAZIStructure. The structural components of text are often ignored, but these structural components, just like the puzzles that make up vocabulary, can help to support reading immensely when understood fully. A structural understanding of text can help provide a foundation for prediction and, in turn, metacognition. It gives kids something to expect; it gives them a reference point. Just the other day, one of my readers said to the whole class, “I know that sometimes at the end of stories authors do this, and it makes me think I need to go back in the text,” when referring to the odd conclusion of the Chris Van Allsburg book “The Garden of Abdul Gasazi.” While rudimentary, her intuitive understanding of the structure of stories supported her comprehension and, ultimately, her success.

Innovation and creativity in what we do with our students is the driving force of education. Kids now are different than kids were even ten years ago. However, there are certain things that don’t change, and there are certain foundational skills that support reading in the same way it supported reading ten, twenty, or even one-hundred years ago. We can’t lose sight of that, and we can’t forget about the basics — no matter how fun and engaging they may seem.

While these tricks of the trade may give us some hope when working with students, tricks fade.  True success resides in a student’s ability to feel good about themselves and conquer difficult skills in the right way.  I fear, at times, that some of these modern methods only help children to avoid the beautiful struggle that comes with comprehending text.  But the way to provide them the support them with this important struggle is by sticking to the basics, but building up the basics in a successful way.

Because the basics give our students a firm ground upon which they can plant their feet and succeed.  And isn’t that what we want for our kiddos?

Lost in Translation

Parents, students, and teachers bustled about my classroom on Friday in celebration of our research projects.  The beautiful chaos of serendipitous collision of students with parents created a wonderful energy representative of what learning truly should be.

However, this beautiful chaos — just one week prior — was not quite as beautiful. In fact, it was simply chaos.

“Everyone,” I called to the class, “we need to meet on the carpet.”

All of the students came over, sitting on the perimeter of our blue and white patterned rug.  They sat tentatively, because I didn’t have to say anything for them to know how I was feeling.  It seemed that, in the process of communicating this project, the original intention had been somewhat lost in translation, and we needed to get back on track. Stat.

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 11.39.25 AM“Boys and girls,” I said, “we have a bit of a mess, here.”

My blood pressure slowly started to lower as we reconvened.  I paused.

“And that’s okay: sometimes things get messy, but what do we do when we have a mess?”

“Uh, keep working?” one student replied.

“We could keep working!” I said in response.  Not quite the answer I was looking for.  “What else?”

“Clean it up!” another student retorted.

“Exactly,” I replied.  “Sometimes, when we have a mess, we just have to clean it up, so here’s what we’re going to do.”

I continued on, helped them set some firmer deadlines, gave some clearer constraints, and sent them off to work with some more structure.  I felt better, they seemed more industrious, and our class seemed to finish the day with greater purpose.  And exactly one week later, I saw the fruits of our discussion drop into the hands of the parents, students, and visitors that viewed our projects.

It’s funny: we want our students to get lost in the process of learning, and we want them to know what it feels like to get into a “flow.”  It’s tricky, though, because if we lose sight of the product and if the delicate balance between process and product becomes broken, the process, in turn, fails as well.  Kids need constraints, they need structure, and they sometimes need someone to help them clean up the messiness that is learning.

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But the best part is, this isn’t entirely a bad thing.

Living in the mess and being lost can be really good, and messy learning can be even better — as long as it’s done right.  Learning doesn’t come from simply sitting in the mess; instead, learning comes from recognizing the mess, using is as a learning experience, and cleaning it up, as a result.

Not only do I feel like my students learned something from this messy and complex process, but I did, too.  I learned that too much freedom and not enough structure is actually counterproductive to the learning process; I learned that overvaluing the process and not helping students see the end product provides too much ambiguity for them to feel safe; and I learned one more thing, too, that I keep learning over and over again.

Learning is messy, and cleaning up the mess makes us better at what we do.

When Creativity Speaks

I was able to see the Keith Haring exhibit at the DeYoung this weekend.  I was moved — not only by his story — but by his seemingly instinctual ability to remain present and communicate both the lessons he’s learned and his direction of discovery through only one piece of art.  It showed that creativity cannot be forced, and that creativity cannot always be manifested outwardly. Instead, creativity is both an internal and external process, constantly modulating and oscillating between the internal to external.

photo (19)In moments of internal creativity, which I’m certain Haring had, our hands and our voices may be silent, because the creative process is a mere mix of ideas and stimuli — thoughts provoking thoughts provoking thoughts — with no clear beginning or end in sight. This creative process can neither be measured nor quantified, but it’s process is still intricate and growth-oriented. In these times, however, it may seem that our minds are silent, that our creativity is silent, even though quite the opposite is true.

Much like a cake in the oven, slowly baking and mixing, eventually the intricate mixture of ideas and stimuli coagulates and creativity becomes external. Our internal and silent dialogue visibly manifests itself in the form of a product, and as a result, we have something to show for it. While we may be inclined to see these products as achievements, they are not. Instead, they serve as artifacts for unique moments that can never be recreated.

In fact, that was one of the most moving things about Haring’s work.  He wasn’t focused on the products that are now able to fill an entire museum; on the contrary, Haring was focused on the creative process, and his relics were mere artifacts of that process — communicative stitches in the tapestry of his mind.

Haring showed that true creativity and true discovery are not achievements necessarily; instead true externalized creativity is the manifestation of synthesis. It’s the concrete representation of a lesson learned, a moment in time, and a piece of our individual stories that will only propel us further.

To create is to discover; to discover is to learn. And I think we can all learn something from Haring, especially in that sense.

The Process-Product Dilemma

I think one of the biggest struggles a teacher can undertake is the art of lesson planning.  And I’m not saying this because it’s detail-oriented, tedious, or time-consuming.  Instead, I’m saying this because all planning and all preparation operate off of one assumption — an assumption that can be quite absolutist and extremely dangerous.

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A student absorbed in the process of learning how to spell by applying his strategies for trying words out.

And that assumption is that you know what is going to happen in your classroom.

Anyone who has been teaching for more than 10 minutes can tell you that the classroom is a place of uncertainty and unpredictability.  In fact, I’d go as far to say that almost none of the lessons I plan progress in exactly the way I anticipate.  Kids ask questions, they make interesting connections, or they fail to synthesize the content in the way I’ve planned.  And while this can be frustrating, it can also be utterly enriching.

I remember one time, specifically, after reading a non-fiction article on the viral “Gangnam Style” a few years back, my students and I began to learn a bit more about Asian culture since students were interested.  We specifically read an article on Daoism, and while reading, one of my students noticed a reference to the yin-yang, posing this question in class:

“I’ve seen that before!  What does that mean?”

I explained my background knowledge on the yin-yang, but there seemed to be more interest, and as a result, we dove deeper into the content.  We found some other resources on our iPads and developed an understanding of the concept together.  For the remainder of the year, this symbol became a staple in our classroom and our discussions.  We’d refer to the “light in darkness” constantly when reading stories or when coping with our own personal struggles.

The interesting thing about this whole scenario, though, is that I never intended to teach my students about the yin-yang, or about Asian culture for that matter.  Instead, I made a rather cheap attempt to garner their interest by reading an article on that oh-so popular song.  And while I could go on about the importance of student questioning and teachable moments, within this experience lies an even deeper question — a question deeper than best practices for planning and preparation, a question deeper than student engagement.

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 7.07.59 AMIn these moments — in this series of lessons in my former classroom — my students were engrossed in the process of learning.  Natural curiosities and the combination of 27 different children’s signal experiences combined together beautifully to create a group inquiry that propelled us further into this mini-study — a study that really had no end in sight. It had no true product and therefore, little intention, especially when it came to the content of the articles.

On the other hand, pragmatic and intentional teaching is essential to being an effective educator, in some capacity, and there is a great demand for it.  Parents want to know that our teaching is intentional and that we are providing students with skills necessary to succeed in life.  Additionally, they want their children to love learning, and they want them to be encapsulated by the process of learning so that they become learners for the rest of their lives.

But these two philosophies, in a sense, have some different implications and operate under different assumptions.  One operates under a process-oriented assumption, while the other operates under a product-oriented assumption.  Teaching with an intentional product requires students to set a goal, hold true to that goal, and assess their progress along the way, while teaching with the process in mind involves provocations (that are still intentional and well-planned) that are only intended to jumpstart students on their own learning trajectories.

But where is the line?  Where does process end and product begin?

Overemphasizing the product could potentially lead to pressure, unrealistic expectations, and shameful feelings when they’re not realized, while a lack of goal-setting and assessment (while allowing for process-oriented learning), often leaves children directionless and confused.  And herein lies the process-product dilemma.

At first glance, it might seem like it’s impossible to teach for both the process and the product simultaneously.  But it’s actually quite the opposite, and it merely takes an analysis of your own values, expectations, and daily intentions when you stand in front of your class.  My lesson on “Gangnam Style” was, of course, not intended to teach about the song itself; instead, it was to read informational text, find the main idea, and analyze the structure of the article itself, as was the intention with the articles that followed.

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 7.21.29 AMIn this lesson series, in particular, I had a very clear intention in mind: I wanted my students to comprehend the literal meaning of an informational text, meanwhile analyzing the structure.  I was able to achieve this intention, not by rigidly controlling and planning each and every stimulus weeks in advance, but instead I was able to achieve this because I kept that product in the back of my mind while delicately balancing the process of learning by responding to their questions and helping them find more resources in the moment and finding more resources on my own for future lessons.

If nothing else, this series of lessons taught me something about the process-product dilemma: instead of process and product having clear endings and beginnings, perhaps process and product are merely the ends of a continuum or two perpendicular axes on a grid, and each and every one of our lessons lies somewhere in the gray area that fills the hours of our classrooms every day.  Perhaps it’s not important which is process and which is product.

Perhaps it’s just important that we have both.


The Art of Misconception

Data-driven instruction has become quite the buzz word in modern education.  In fact, in any of the teacher interviews I’ve sat in on, most prospective teachers mention this.  But when they mention using “data” to inform instruction, most of the time they see this data as quantitative–as numerical in nature–and that these numbers will be the only means through which they’ll develop their instruction.

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Something as simple as a wrong answer can be valuable data.

This, however, is not the case.

In fact, in many cases, this data comes in the form of misconception–misconception we don’t necessarily uncover through a score out of ten, but rather through anticipating the misconceptions and asking the appropriate questions to uncover them.

Recently, my class has been learning about health and wellness: we’ve recorded data from our diets, analyzed the data, and even burned certain foods in order to determine just how much energy is inside the foods we eat.  Naturally, I saw an opportunity for math instruction within this unit, specifically in the form of fractions.  Students have been able to look at portions of their diets in the context of their whole diet, specifically learning about the portions of their diet that should be in each of the four food groups.  In one lesson, in particular, a health and wellness specialist came in, and she taught us how to divide our plates into fractional pieces, showing that one-half of our diet should be green vegetables, while the other remaining fourths could be fruits, grains, and/or protein.  Knowing the average fourth-grade student, I posed the following question:

If I add one half, one fourth, and one fourth, how much do I have?

I was taken aback at how counterintuitive the child’s answer was, even with a visual staring back. But I was simultaneously unsurprised, as the child clearly lacked a conceptual understanding of fractions.  Three-tenths was the answer that I received, as opposed to one whole, and it was with this little misconception–with this invaluable piece of data–that I was able to tailor the lesson on the following Monday to that very misconception.


This visual is incredibly valuable in helping a student see his or her misconception.

Through posing this question, the children were able to identify the student’s method, which was simply adding up the numerators and denominators, respectively, to reach a new numerator and denominator for the sum.  In response, I was able to show them, using the very plates from the preceding Friday, that three-tenths of the plate was actually far less than the three pieces (the two one-fourth pieces and one-half piece) added together.  As a result, I was able to teach about the importance of common denominators when adding fractions.  Suddenly, because I had built on a misconception, the lesson not only had relevance; it had the inertia to carry the lesson through to a meaningful and resilient completion.

Oftentimes, we make the mistake of looking only for correct answers. In reality, though, a classroom full of correct answers is not a classroom at all: it’s a classroom of rote memorization and regurgitation.  Instead, the true power of teaching and the complex nature of synthesis hinges on the teacher’s ability to capitalize on errors.

In essence, a teacher’s artistry relies on misconception and the ability to turn something unknown into something known.