Meeting Students Where They Are: Building Lessons Around Student Thinking

Last year, I had the privilege of working with a wonderful teacher named Keren who taught fourth grade at a small, progressive school in New York City. Every year, students engage in what the school calls a “Big Study”: an inquiry into a topic that was both engaging and broad enough for every child to find a focus of interest. And for several years, the fourth grade’s Big Study was the Middle Ages.

Keren had shown me the illustrated nonfiction books her students had created the year before—and they were absolutely stunning. Last year, though, she was a little worried, as this class was different than the one she’d had before. Reading level-wise, they almost spanned the alphabet. And they were a fidgety bunch who often interrupted each other. They had, though, seemed engaged with the handful of picture books she’d shared to launch the study. But she feared they wouldn’t grasp the big ideas around power, values and beliefs the way her last class had—and when she’d asked them to write about who they thought had power in the Middle Ages, many of the responses were like this one from a child who seems to have superimposed her own beliefs on a far different era:

“I think people had the power. They believed that wherever they went. This is what was going on with the power.”

My hunch is that many of us have experienced this before: What worked well with one group of students doesn’t really fly with another—or it works for some but not the rest. And when this happens we need to make some decisions. We can continue full-steam ahead and follow our lesson plans and pacing guides. Or we can keep scaffolding until the students get it (which, if all else fails, means telling them what we want them to get—then feeling relieved when they parrot that back.)

But if we truly believe it’s our job to teach students, not curriculum—and we take full responsibility for our students’ learning—we have to be willing to rethink what we’re doing and consider different ways of making big ideas and content accessible to students.

To do that, I asked Keren to gather all the work her students had done so far in the study and bring it to our next meeting. Our job would be to look at the work to see if we spotted any signs or glimmers of emerging understands that we could build on. And we hit the jackpot when we looked at the notes Keren’s colleague had taken during a read aloud of Bonnie Christensen’s I, Galileo, a picture book biography of the medieval astronomer who discovered that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe—and was condemned for that.

By that point in the year, the class was quite used to sharing their thoughts and questions in a read aloud. And as you’ll see below, after hearing the opening pages, they had lots of questions and lots of strong reactions to how Galileo was treated:

  • Just because you don’t understand another person’s ideas, it’s not right to shut them down and dismiss them.
  • Was he in prison in the beginning? Was it a “figurative” prison because he was blind? Or was it the kind of prison they put people in in those days?
  • Why did they treat someone who has good ideas, who’s clever and a hard worker who can figure out the “mysteries of life” so badly?
  • Does this still happen today? Do we treat people badly for ideas other may not understand?

Looking at these notes, Keren and I recognized that the children’s reactions were directly connected to their own beliefs and values, and we began to brainstorm how we might use these responses to first help them see how very different medieval values and beliefs were from their own and, from there, consider the role of power.

To begin with we decided to make a chart that captured some of the children’s thinking, which Keren would use to explain how hard it can be to understand people who lived in a very different time because they didn’t always see things the way we do. And we also decided to record the students’ thinking through a three-column chart that would help consider what they valued, what they thought Galileo valued, and what they thought people of the time valued.

Based on their first discussion about the book, they could easily identify what they valued—and were pretty sure Galileo valued those things, too. But before we tackled the final column,  we read a few more pages from the book. And when we paused so the students could talk, the conversation took an interesting turn: they tried to wrap their minds around the perspective of a person in the Middle Ages:
  • I wonder why at the time they thought the Earth was in the middle?
  • It might have been hard for them to believe something else, because look at the sun, and the moon- it seems like they’re moving.
  • Yeah, they didn’t feel themselves moving, so they had no evidence.
  • And it probably seemed like a crazy idea to think that the sun was the middle of things.

Once that discussion ended, we asked the students to get into small groups to look at a packet of pages we’d printed from I, Galileo and Peter Sis’s book on Galileo, Starry Messengerwhich we thought would push their thinking.

One of the things many of them noticed was a quote from the Bible beneath this illustration in Peter Sis’s book:

“God fixed the Earth upon its foundation, not to be moved forever.”

Many also noticed—and were struck by the fact—that the Church did not pardon Galileo for what they considered to be his crimes until 1992.

And when we came back together again, they had much to say about that:

  • I don’t think they valued what can be seen with their own eyes- only the word of God.
  • I think people valued other people who had the same ideas.
  • Just who shared the same beliefs- they didn’t value those that didn’t share their beliefs.
  • The Church wanted their beliefs be what everyone believed.
  • It was only like 25 years ago when the Church finally pardoned Galileo and admitted his ideas were correct. I find that shocking.
  • It seems what was valued was more the words of old history. They used the word “tradition” everywhere.
  • It was traditions, because maybe they were scared of change.
  • Change wasn’t something they valued- it was disbelief basically. I mean Galileo proved it, but they still didn’t believe him.
  • Yeah, people weren’t believing Galileo-they held on and valued old traditions.
  • Maybe it would embarrass the Church so they decided to burn people at the stake who had other ideas about the Earth not being the center of the universe.
  • Maybe they thought it would disrespect God. So they couldn’t allow it.

With all these ideas, they were ready to add their thoughts to the final column of the chart:

From there it was an easy step to consider who had power in the Middle Ages. All it took was a little innovation to plan a learning opportunity that began with the children’s own thinking— and a classroom culture that valued students’ feelings, opinions, reactions and thoughts.

To read more about looking at student work to consider a child’s understanding and thinking, see https://tomakeaprairie.wordpress.com/2016/09/18/determining-next-instructional-steps-looking-at-student-work-through-an-improving-stance/

The Beliefs Behind the “Shoulds”

what-do-you-really-believe

It was so exciting to see the responses to The Teacher You Want to Be, the soon-to-be-out collection of essays that are all connected to the Statement of Beliefs drawn up by the Reggio Emilia study group I participated in. Matt Glover and Renée Dinnerstein arranged the trip, and if you want to learn more about the Beliefs before October 22nd, I urge you to check out Renée’s wonderful blog Investigating Choice Time, where she recently shared all thirteen beliefs and regularly writes about early childhood education in ways that will inspire and warm the heart of all of you committed to student-centered learning.

Looking at them, you’ll probably be struck with how rare it is to see beliefs stated so explicitly—and even rarer, perhaps, to see connections made between beliefs and practices, as in “If we say we believe this, we should being doing this.” More frequently instead what gets articulated is what we should or must do—as in have students read shouldsmore complex nonfiction or write more arguments. Sometimes we’re offered reasons to support these ‘shoulds’—like the need to remain globally competitive or close the achievement gap—but usually they’re not explicitly connected with any sort of larger vision or system of beliefs. I do think, though, there are beliefs hidden behind those ‘shoulds,’ and I can’t help but wonder if the kinds of conversations we have about education would be different if we tried to flush them out and put them on the table to look at.

To show you what I mean, here’s two “We should” statements that seem to reflect very different visions and beliefs. The first comes from our soon-to-depart Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, while the other comes from Canada’s Michael Fullan, whose work as a Special Advisor to the Premier of Ontario helped make Ontario’s schools among the best in the world. I invite you to read them thinking about what beliefs about teaching, learning, children and the purpose of education itself each one seems to reveal (and, if the spirit moves you, to share what you think by leaving a comment).

Arne Duncan Quote

Michael Fullan Quote

For me, Duncan’s statement reflects the belief that the purpose of education is to get everyone to the same pre-determined goal at the same pre-determined time. And it also reflects what’s often called the factory or assembly-line model of schooling, with the teacher cast in the role of the foreman whose job it is to ensure that everyone is moving forward as planned. Fullan’s, on the other hand, seems to suggest that the purpose of school is to help students develop a love of learning—and that teachers and students jointly hold and share the responsibility for that.

Duncan also seems to believe in the power of extrinsic motivation—as in shaming or frightening students to get them to work harder—while Fullan seems to believe that if we design experiences students find engaging, they’ll be intrinsically motivated, which is critical if we want students to become life-long learners. Duncan’s statement also seems to reflect a binary fixed mindset, as in you’re either on track or you’re not, versus a growth mindset, which seems to be implied in Fullan’s emphasis on designing versus assessing learning.

These two are clearly extreme examples—and I’d be willing to bet a whole lot of money on which set of beliefs readers of this blog think we should embrace. But I think that beliefs are hidden beneath practices that we take for granted. As I wrote in my essay for The Teacher You Want to Be:

In America, we say we value independence, freedom, and innovation; yet too often in schools we engage in practices that seem to promote quite the opposite. We give students prescribed formulas for writing, for instance, which invites, if not enforces conformity and limits innovation. We ask them to use sentence starters, templates and graphic organizers that can box in thinking instead of open it up, as well as foster dependence. And much of the work that happens in reading supports one-right-answer thinking, which is exactly the opposite of what’s needed for innovation to thrive.

values_actions_alignmentThat’s not to say that students don’t sometime need support. But I think it’s worth considering what unspoken beliefs might be hiding behind some of the classroom practices we engage in—and whether we really believe them or not. What, for instance, does it suggest we believe about the purpose of education and learning if we regularly ask students to assess themselves using Standards-based checklists and rubric? That we actually believe what Duncan does? And if not, perhaps we need to rethink the way we ask students to reflect on their learning and establish goals. And what does it say if we’ve institutionalized certain supports as “just the way we do things”, like accompanying every lesson with modeling before we see what students can do? Might it be because we don’t think students can do much without us showing them how? And if not, perhaps we need to better align our practices with what we believe.

As for our new incoming Secretary, the former controversial New York State Commissioner of Education, John King: What does he say we should do that speaks to his deeper beliefs? Here’s a glimpse. In a speech the great educator and author Pedro Noguera gave shortly after King became Commissioner, he shared this anecdote about King. Noguera had visited a charter school King had founded, and he’d noticed that children weren’t allowed to talk in the hallway and were punished for the most minor infractions. And so he asked King a question, which revealed both Norguera’s and King’s beliefs about children and the purpose of education:

“‘Are you preparing these kids to be leaders or followers? Because leaders get to talk in the hall. They get to talk over lunch, they get to go to the bathroom, and people can trust them. They don’t need surveillance and police officers in the bathroom.’ And he looked at me like I was talking Latin, because his mindset is that these children couldn’t do that.'”

I’ll save other comments about King for Twitter. But do consider what might be behind the practices you implement as a matter of course. And if they don’t align with your real beliefs, think about what else you could do that reflects what you truly believe in.

Should:Could

On Beliefs, Books & Being True to Yourself

What Needs to Happen

From Read, Write, Lead by Reggie Routman

While preparing for a leadership workshop I led this summer for a district embarking on a new literacy initiative, I dipped into Regie Routman‘s great book Read, Write, Lead and discovered this nifty chart which captures what she thinks often happens when we try to implement change at a district, school, or even classroom level. According to Routman—and seen first-hand by me—districts, schools and sometimes teachers themselves often begin discussing change by exploring resources. And that Read, Write, Leadoften leads many to gravitate to programs that promise things, such as alignment with the Standards, increased student achievement, research-proven practices or ease of implementation. Every resource, in turn, comes with its own prescribed practices, whether it’s lists of text-dependent questions to ask (along with the answers to look for), scripts of mini-lessons to follow or protocols to use for instructional approaches like reciprocal or guided reading.

Rarely she notes, though, do we think about change by first defining for ourselves what we believe—about children, how they learn, what it means to be literate and the purpose of education itself. And this is critical because as Routman writes: “Practices are our beliefs in action.”

I share this story for two reasons. First, in an age where everyone seems to be clamoring for quick fixes or some magical way to reach unrealistic (and sometimes questionable) goals, it reaffirmed my own belief that for practices to be truly effective, they need to be The Teacher You Want to Berooted in some deeper understanding about children, learning and reading and writing. And secondly, it seemed like a nice way to announce that while my book on reading is still being fine-tuned, I’ll have an essay in another book coming out this fall from Heinemann called The Teacher You Want to Be: Essays about Children, Learning and Teaching.

The book grew out of the study tour I went on to Reggio Emily in 2012 (which you can read about here, here and here). Our ostensible aim was to see what we could learn about the teaching of literacy from their world-renown schools, but we came away with a much larger mission: to publicly share what we’d seen and learned in order to promote serious conversations about the state of education here at home.

To begin that work, we collaboratively created a Statement of Beliefs, a document that captures a baker’s dozen of tenets that reflect the group’s jointly held beliefs about how children best learn and how, therefore, teachers and schools need to approach teaching. And as you’ll see in the example below, for each of these thirteen beliefs we provided a more in-depth explanation as well as a description of practices we currently see in many schools that reflect a very different—and we think problematic—set of beliefs. Then with the help of Heinemann, we invited educators and thinkers from across the field to write essays that would in someway connect to one or more of these beliefs.

Reggio Belief #13

As will appear in a slightly different form in The Teacher You Want to Be, coming from Heinemann in Fall 2015

The book that resulted is edited by Matt Glover and Ellin Oliver Keene, and it’s graced with a forward by one of my personal educational heroes, Alfie Kohn. Some of the essays were written by study group members, such as me, Kathy Collins and Stephanie Jones; some are by those who couldn’t make the trip but were there with us in spirit, like Katherine Bomer and Heidi Mills; while others come from great educators and thinkers who saw their own beliefs reflected in ours, such as Sir Ken Robinson, Peter Johnston and Tom Newkirk. And while we’ll all have to wait till October 22nd to get our hands on the book, I’m sure you’ll agree that’s quite a line-up.

I also suspect that many of you will find your own beliefs reflected in this book. While for others it may be an opportunity to clarify and define what it is you believe or to consider how your beliefs (may or may not) align to your actions and practices. And for those of you who know what you believe but often find yourself teaching, as I write in my essay, “against the backdrop of a system I often feel at odds with,” I, along with Matt, Ellin and all the essay writers hope you find in this book the strength, support and inspiration to keep your teaching true to those beliefs—and to be aware of when your practices are out of step with what you believe.

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