The story behind brown paint

muddy brown

Over the past few months in response to flash fiction challenges set by Charli Mills at the Carrot Ranch, I have been writing snippets from the life a character, Marnie, whose story is beginning to emerge as I respond to the prompts.

A couple of recent prompts had me writing about a particular situation which involved mixing paints in an art class.  While all flash fiction stories relevant to Marnie’s story can be found on her own page, the two specific to this post can be read here and here (scroll to the bottom of each post for the flash fiction).

I was appreciative of the comments on both posts, with those specific to Marnie’s story encouraging me to reflect and think more deeply about the art class situation in relation to both Marnie and the teacher. While I am still mulling over the appropriate response the teacher may make, I thought I would write a longer piece to explore one possibility from Marnie’s point of view. This episode also relates to other flash fiction pieces, but hopefully the longer episode will be strong enough to stand on its own.

Art class

Marnie looked at the paints. The bright colours reminded her of a rainbow, and her unicorn. Her gaze dropped. She needed her unicorn now, but it was up in the office, drying out on Mrs Tomkin’s desk.

“It will be here waiting for you at home time,” Mrs Tomkin had said, smiling. “Okay?”

Marnie nodded, reluctantly, knowing there was no other choice. At least there was only the afternoon session left, and that was art with lovely Miss R.

Miss R. always wore beautiful dresses with colourful patterns. She had long wavy red hair, the colour of Marnie’s and her nails were always painted brightly, sometimes decorated with stars, sometimes with hearts, and sometimes with other patterns. She smelled of paint, and chalk and crayon and other scents Marnie found delightful. She noticed everything about Miss R.; because Miss R. noticed her. Miss R. always had a kind word to say:

“I like the way you used this shade of blue for the sky. I can see a storm is brewing.”

“Tell me about this picture. What’s it all about?”

“I can see you worked hard to get that looking just right.”

Marnie liked it best when she said, as she often did, “I like your choice of colour, Marnie. Your pictures are always bright. They make me happy when I look at them.”

But not today.

Miss R. stopped and looked at Marnie’s work. Her paper was covered in paint the colour of brown mud.  Marnie felt Miss R.’s eyes on her work, then on her. She didn’t look up. She didn’t want Miss R. to see the tears that were threatening to fall, that would fall whatever was said. Her lip quivered.

Miss R. moved on.

“I am not crying. I am not, not, not . . .” but it took all her strength when her insides felt as muddy as the paint on her paper. She felt like mud. Maybe she should look like mud too. She smeared her paint-covered hands on her shirt, and wiped the strand of hair away from her eyes. She wanted to tell Miss R. She wanted to tell her about Bruce and what he had done. But she dare not. Bruce had threatened her and she knew he meant it.

Bruce had tripped her at lunch time and she’d fallen into the puddle. The mud had covered her from head to toe. She’d tried to hold her unicorn high; tried to keep it out of the mud. But it had fallen as she hit the ground. It was all muddy too. Everyone had laughed. Everyone except Jasmine, that is. Jasmine had taken her to Mrs. Tomkin, who had helped her clean herself up and gave her some clean clothes to wear. Mrs Tomkin had said she’d call her Mum, so that was another problem looming. At least things would be okay in art with Miss R.

But not today.

Bruce had pulled faces at her and made threatening arm movements as they lined up. He made fun of the oversized shirt Mrs Tomkins had found for her. Everyone was sniggering at it; at her.

Marnie looked straight ahead, trying to ignore the stares. “I am not crying!”

Then Miss R. was there and she suddenly felt protected, like everything was going to be alright; for a little while at least.

But not today. Today was a bad day, a very bad day. It had been bad in the beginning, and it was going to be bad at the end too. Nothing she could do.

Miss R. handed out the papers and paints. Everyone had their own brush but a small pot of water was shared by four.

Marnie couldn’t wait to get started. She knew what she was going to paint: a rainbow and a unicorn! Maybe a tree and some green grass, with some flowers. She couldn’t have her own unicorn but she could paint it. Miss R. would like her bright happy colours, and her pleasure would make her feel better, for a little while at least.

But not today.

While Marnie was contemplating which colours to mix for her unicorn’s mane, Brucie reached over and snatched Marnie’s brush. With one flourish he had dragged the brush through the middle of each of her colours leaving a dirty brown trail. Marnie had opened her mouth to speak, but Bruce silenced her with a threatening motion of a finger across his neck, as it to slit it open. He stashed her brush on the shelf out of reach, and turned back to his paper, innocent-like. Marnie’s eyes searched for Miss R.’s hoping she had seen and would come to her rescue. But Miss R. was talking to Jasmine and some others at the front, and didn’t see.

Marnie looked at her palette. “I am not crying,” she thought as she tried to still her quivering lip and stop the tears that would give Brucie so much pleasure.

She looked at him and poked her tongue. He held up a fist.

Marnie rubbed first one hand, and then the other into the coolness of the paint, blending all the colours. It felt soothing somehow, the way her hands slid easily through the paints. She watched each colour disappear into the muddy brown she was creating, wishing she too could slide away and disappear where no one would notice her anymore; where no one would taunt or bully or harm. If they couldn’t see her, if she was invisible, maybe she’d be safe.

She looked at her palms – covered in brown, just like the mud that had covered them earlier. She smeared the paint on her paper, covering it from edge to edge so nothing of it remained. She wiped what was left on her shirt. What did it matter? She couldn’t be in more trouble than she already was. They were already going to kill her. Sometimes she wished they would. Sometimes she wished she’d never been born. Sometimes . . .

Miss R. stood beside her desk. Marnie could hear her breathing; could still smell her marvellous scents above that of the muddy brown paint that was now her camouflage. She longed for Miss R. to paint her life away, to ask her about her work and what it meant. But she willed her not; and it must have worked because she walked away. How could she tell her? Her life was as muddy as the paint and she could see no way out.l

Thank you

 

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. I’d love to know what you think of this as a possibility of Marnie’s thinking.

 

 

 

 

All aboard the early learning caravan!

school cropped

This week at the Carrot Ranch Charli Mills described a century old schoolhouse which adjoins her property. She is hoping that someone will buy it and make it a meeting place for the community, recognising the role it had to play in the education of generations past as well as its contribution to the history of the area. Her thoughts about the schoolhouse led her to thinking of community engagement and neighbourly relationships which, in turn, inspired her flash fiction challenge for this week, to In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about nurturing a neighborly relationship.

I would have loved the little schoolhouse at Elmira Pond as the base for the alternative school I hoped to establish at the end of last century. The schoolhouse has a nice community feel to it, unlike many of the large brick, concrete jungle-type schools into which one can almost dissolve in a sea of sameness. Charli’s schoolhouse/community centre would also be a great meeting place for parents with their young children; a friendly early learning centre for both.

8-12-2013 7-38-33 PM

 

Based on my beliefs that:

  • parents are a child’s first and most important teachers;
  • the most important years of a child’s development are the years before school;
  • children who enter school with rich vocabularies, an interest in the world around them, and a love of books are primed to succeed;
  • children without those experiences are disadvantaged in their learning right from the start and face an enormous challenge in catching up;
  • waiting until children enter school is too late;
  • the best way to minimise or eliminate the disadvantage is by educating parents through programs that model effective parenting behaviours and support them in their interactions with their children;
  • parenting programs offering those types of support would be most effective if begun before birth of the children and continued at least until the child enters school, maybe beyond;
  • most parents want to do the best for their children, many just don’t know how to go about it.

There are any number of birthing classes, but not many that aim to support parents in nurturing their child’s development. In my opinion, investing time and money into developing programs such as these would have enormous benefit, not only to individual children and their parents, but to society as a whole.

I am not talking about programs that place children of increasingly (or should that be decreasingly) younger years into structured and formal “teaching and learning” situations. I am not talking about one-off talks or series of lectures to parents.

Many of the parents of children who begin school with the types of disadvantage I have mentioned are themselves products of similar disadvantage. In a previous post I discussed the roles of “nature” and “nurture” in a child’s development. In these cases especially, it can be difficult to tease out the differences. Many of these parents would not have positive feelings towards schools or any other public institution and may feel threatened, or reluctant for other reasons, to attend sessions in public halls or government offices.

What I am talking about is a program that:

  • goes to the parents and children in their neighbourhoods, meeting in a local park or community greenspace, on regular weekly occasions;
  • invites parents to talk with, read to and play with their children using provided books, games and toys;
  • models positive parenting behaviour, explaining to parents the benefits to their children of engaging with them in activities and discussions;
  • provides suggestions for inexpensive and easy activities to do at home;
  • encourages borrowing from a book and toy library.
Guiding parents in play sessions for parents and children.

Guiding parents in play sessions for parents and children.

I envision the program being delivered by an early children trained educator who is sympathetic to the situations and demands of people from diverse backgrounds, who is warm and supportive with good interpersonal skills with both adults and children, who drives a mobile early learning centre fully-equipped with books, toys, games, paper, pens and craft materials, including items for borrowing and distribution for activities to be done at home.

I see the centre as a brightly painted caravan with doors that open wide to display a colourful and engaging assortment of resources to delight the interests and eyes of young children and their parents.  As the caravan travels into each neighbourhood it would play music to signal its arrival (think of the old icecream vans!) inviting parents and children to come, investigate, and join in.

caravan

Thinking about the excitement that such a program may stimulate in a neighbourhood, and the sense of community and belonging it may encourage, led me to write about it for my response to Charli’s prompt.

I hope you enjoy it.

The caravan

Children waited anxiously at windows and front garden fences.

Mothers and fathers hurried to complete the last of their chores.

Others, already at the park, were unable to wait.

Ears strained, listening for music signalling, “It’s time!

Suddenly “Girls and boys come out to play!” announced the arrival of the brightly painted caravan.

“Come on!” urged children, tugging at skirts, trousers and hairy legs.

“Come on!” chimed parents, downing cloths and brooms. Clasping small hands they whisked them out.

Everyone watched as the doors of the caravan opened; ready for fun: stories, games and much to explore!

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction.

What measure success?

 

A+

I have often expressed concern about what I consider to be an over-emphasis on standardised and national testing and the pressure it puts on students to achieve. I explained some reasons for my misgivings here and here and here, for example.

As a parent and a teacher the most important thing I want for my children is for them to be happy. After that I wish for them to be healthy and successful. But what is success? In a recent post I referred to a seventy-five year study conducted by George Vaillant who came to the conclusion that success means leading a happy life and that “warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction‘”.

bee 5

Last week I wrote about spelling tests and spelling bees and the effect that doing well, or not, might have upon a learner’s self-esteem as well as attitude to self as a learner, attitude to school, and to learning in general. While writing it I was not aware of an article written by Kate Taylor and published in the New York Times on April 6 2015: At Success Academy Charter Schools, High Scores and Polarizing Tactics.

I discovered the article via a series of stepping stones from Lloyd Lofthouse to  Diane Ravitch to The New York Times.

Taylor opens the article by describing how the struggles of students to learn are made public, for all to see; posted on charts in hallways and reproduced in class newsletters. To see one’s name at the bottom of the list in a red zone, clearly showing that year level expectations have not been reached seems to be rather harsh, and humiliating for the child. Perhaps even more so if the teacher considered the student was just not trying. The teacher, it is reported, had difficulty watching the child take the tests for fear she would be upset by his mistakes. Months later the child scored 90% and was warmly congratulated.

Taylor goes on to say that the school, which has mostly poor black and Hispanic students, outscores many students from more affluent areas with results much higher than average on the state wide tests. I know that everybody loves a winner and that we all want our students to succeed, but at what cost? The article describes the school as being very rigid with a competitive atmosphere that requires strict adherence to rules.

Last week in my post A sprinkling of semicolons I shared an article by Ron Berger who talks about regular students whose “teachers have helped them develop the skills and mindsets necessary to produce work of exceptional quality, and have built classroom and school cultures in which exceptional work is the norm.” He says that most of the work comes from students in low-income urban schools.

I suddenly became fearful. Were the students and schools described by Berger similar to those of the Success Academy schools as described in Taylor’s article?

In both cases the students were from poor areas and they achieved remarkable success with most attending college. Austin, as described by Berger, made six drafts of his butterfly drawing before it was considered to be “scientific” enough. I wondered how much, if any, duress he had been under.

The article described Berger as the Chief Program Office of Expeditionary Learning Schools. I followed the link to discover a little more about Expeditionary Schools, checked with Wikipedia and other sites that came up in a Google search, including Open World Learning which says that expeditionary learning (EL) “fosters curiosity about the world by creating learning situations that provide something important to think about, time to experiment, and time to make sense of what is observed.” It also says that EL schools “promote rigorous and engaging curriculum; active, inquiry-based pedagogy; and a school culture that demands and teaches compassion and good citizenship.  EL schools are based on the Outward Bound model, which starts with the belief that we learn best through experience.

This all sounds wonderful and praise-worthy, and I was feeling a little happier about what I had shared. However, if there’s one thing I have realised after a lifetime involvement in education is that the written statements of any educational institution sound wonderful and praise-worthy. It’s the way the principles are applied in practice that makes the difference.

I didn’t like what I had read about Success Academy Charter Schools in the New York Times, so I thought I’d better check out their website to discover what philosophy and principles guide them. First thing I spotted was a letter from a parent responding to the article in the New York Times! The parent, Polina Bulman, painted a very different picture of the school from that offered in the Times.

Bulman describes the decision-making process she went through in choosing the Success Academy for her five year old daughter. She shares what had concerned her and explains how those concerns had been answered. She describes her daughter’s happiness at school and the progress she is making in all areas of her learning. She has nothing but praise for the school, and concludes her letter, which she shared on Facebook, with these words:

“I was so touched by the warm and welcoming atmosphere. I had a chance to hang out in the hallways, listening to what teachers say to students as they pass by, and watching what teachers and staff members say to one another. I saw so much collaboration and kindness, so much teamwork. The best thing is that as a parent I feel like a part of this team and am proud of it!”

These words are in quite strong contrast to those of the New York Times.

The “Approach to Learning” statement of the Success Academy explains that students are engaged in only 80 minutes of direct instruction each day and that the rest of the time they are engaged in small group instruction and hands on learning.

 

So what does all this mean?

For one thing, just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge a school by its policy statement.

For another, you can’t believe everything you read, even when the source seems trustworthy, you must question the author’s credentials, viewpoint and purpose in writing, “What barrow are they pushing?” (I’m upfront about my biases!)

And mostly, question, question question.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

These are important lessons for readers of any material and of all ages. I have talked about the importance of developing critical literacy in a series of posts about using “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” in the classroom. No, definitely not in science lessons, but in lessons to discuss those very points discussed above:

Don’t believe everything you read

Check an author’s credentials and purpose in writing

 And question everything.

While I applaud the end result of Austin’s butterfly drawing, I question what the process may have been. We are not privy to that, though the supportive voices of students in the video do give us an inkling. I hope for the sake of all students that it was one of encouragement and support rather than pressure. Additionally I hope that the report in the New York Times got it all wrong. But if that is so, what is Taylor’s agenda and why would she attack these particular schools so fiercely?

Note: I wrote this article a couple of days ago and upon re-reading it now I have a couple of further thoughts re my advice to check an author’s credentials and purpose in writing. I have not followed my advice. I failed to check out the author of the NY Times article. However I think it is fair to say that Lloyd Lofthouse and Diane Ravitch are both anti the emphasis on standardised testing; and the Success Academy is probably reliant on the tests to measure its “success”.

There is no black and white truth. There are only shades of grey.

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post.

A sprinkling of semicolons

wordle semicolons

This week at the Carrot Ranch Charli Mills is talking about semicolons; but not the little squiggles on a page, the semicolons that are sprinkled liberally through life as new beginnings. Sometimes we see them and grasp the opportunity for renewal, other times we ignore them and miss the chance to revitalize. Sometimes we get pushed down and it takes all our strength to pull back up, grasping onto the semicolon as if it was a dragon’s tail.

Charli was inspired by Project Semicolon that provides this explanation:

“A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence if your life.  Project Semicolon exists to encourage, love and inspire.”

Every day can be a new beginning in some way. With our thoughts, words and actions we can change our own lives, or the lives of others. The impact may be deliberate or unintentional. We may be aware of the effects, or we may never know the consequences.

Without wishing to diminish the importance of helping those “who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction and self-injury”, which is the focus of Project Semicolon, my focus as always is on education and the importance of maintaining curiosity and an interest in and love of learning.

jimmiet, A colourful monarch butterfly   https://openclipart.org/detail/19002/monarch-butterfly

jimmiet, A colourful monarch butterfly https://openclipart.org/detail/19002/monarch-butterfly

What better analogy of a semicolon of life than the transformation from a caterpillar in a pupa to the beauty and flight of a butterfly. An inspiring teacher can mean the difference between full stops and semicolons in learning.

To illustrate this I refer a post called Deeper Learning: Highlighting Student Work written by Ron Berger and shared on Edutopia.

In the article Berger discusses his obsession with “collecting student work of remarkable quality and value . . . the work of regular students in typical schools around the country . . . (whose) teachers have helped them develop the skills and mindsets necessary to produce work of exceptional quality, and have built classroom and school cultures in which exceptional work is the norm”.

Berger discusses ways of engaging students in authentic work, work that can have an impact on their communities and on the way they see themselves as learners. I remember Charli Mills telling me about similar work that her children were engaged in when they attended The School of Environmental Studies in Minnesota; and I shared some of Chris Lehmann’s work at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia here.

Berger says,

“Once a student creates work of value for an authentic audience beyond the classroom — work that is sophisticated, accurate, important and beautiful — that student is never the same. When you have done quality work, deeper work, you know you are always capable of doing more.”

Semicolons in teaching and learning, all.

As with the three cited above, the situations referred to are often of teenagers in high schools. I am an early childhood teacher and, while I find the work exciting, I sometimes struggle to see the relevance to my situation. However, in this article Berger shares the work of Austin, a year one student from Boise, Idaho doing a project about a tiger swallowtail butterfly.

Austin was to illustrate his project with a detailed scientific drawing of the butterfly. His initial drawing was what I would consider to be fairly typical of a year one child. However he received feedback that was specific and not mean from follow students; and through a series of six drafts finished with a drawing that was much more sophisticated and demonstrated more careful ‘scientific’ observation.

Berger also shared work by year two students at another school, demonstrating what can be achieved “when students are allowed, compelled and supported to do great things”.

 

Last week Charli’s flash fiction challenge “the day the earth turned brown” prompted me to write about a student mixing all the colours together to make one muddy brown. The teacher paused before responding. There are many such pauses, (semicolons) in a teacher’s day. The teacher knows the power of every remark and must consider the impact that a response may have.

If you had provided each child with a palette of primary colours and black and white expecting them to mix a variety of colours and shades and tones to create an interesting picture; then found that one child had mixed them all together to make one muddy brown, how would you respond?

There were a number of comments on the flash including one from Geoff Le Pard  who said that there were “So many questions as to why the little girl is making muddy browns and lathering them everywhere.”

So true. The teacher’s response would be influenced by knowledge of the child’s background, interest in art, and behaviour that day, among other things.

Charli Mills said that “It could mean many things and nothing!” She recalled, “mixing paints as a child hoping to create a vivid new color and (being) disappointed to end up with mud.Anne Goodwin agreed, saying that “mixing paints to make a muddy brown, (was) a distinctive childhood memory”.

In my experience there was usually one child who ended up mixing all the colours together, often for no other reason than to see what happened. Sometimes the process of discovery gave as much pleasure as would a colourful painting of a house a tree and a sun.

house and sun

However, there might be more to it than that. Charli Mills sympathesised with the teacher, saying that “So much is put on the teacher to figure it out.” She thought that the child “might be disturbed, highly imaginative or confident enough to experiment”.  Sherri Matthews suggested that perhaps the child was “troubled . . . living in a dark, mixed up world, but . . . trying to find their way”.

So much to consider. So powerful the response. Will it be a full stop, or a semicolon?

This is my response to Charli’s challenge to In 99 words (no more, no less) write a renewal story that proclaims, “This isn’t the end; I will go on.

muddy brown

She paused. The muddy brown extended beyond the paper virtually cementing it to the desktop. The palette too was brown with little trace of the beautiful primary colours she had prepared. Looking from desk to child she observed two large smears adorning the shirt. A bruise-like smudge on the cheek showed where an intruding hair had been brushed away. “Oh!”

She breathed; she counted to ten; and back again; “Breathe,” she told herself. “Why?”

She moved on, observing the assortment of smiling suns, houses and garden paths, but her mind was on the mud; the child . . .

What would be the appropriate response?

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction.

 

Spelling tests – How well do you score?

ABC

Familiar to most will be the weekly spelling test held on a Friday morning after a week’s practice at learning a list of words. Some will have dreaded the test fearing they may forget the “i before e”, “silent” letter or double letter rules, for example, their inadequacies made all too obvious by the large red crosses. Others would have relished the experience, requiring little effort to learn words they already knew, seemingly by osmosis, with the expectation of large red ticks and 10/10.

Spelling test

I dare say that most of you reading this blog are of the 10/10 variety. Just to be sure this is so, I have set you a little spelling test to do before you read any further. Please get your pen and paper, finger and notebook, or keyboard ready, then press PLAY to take the test.

So how did you go?

I hope you could see from that exercise that knowing how to spell has a lot to do with meaning. In fact the spelling of many of our words in English has more to do with morphology than with sound, and although sound can be helpful there are often many different letters or letter combinations that can be used to represent the same sound, for example:

eye

According to the Bullock Report, published in 1975:

“For 6092 two-syllable words among the 9000 words in the ‘comprehension vocabularies’ of a group of 6-9 year olds, 211 different spellings of the phonemes were needed – and these spellings required 166 rules to govern their use! Even at that, 10% of the words had to be left aside as ‘exceptions’; which means that ‘even if a young child memorised these rules while learning to read he would still encounter hundreds of words not governed by them.’”

Lists of words, such as spelling lists, provide little support for learners, rarely providing context or meaning which might help them remember the words, or choose the correct meaning and therefore spelling, as shown by the spelling test exercise given above.

Alphabetical

In his book “Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story”, Michael Rosen explains that transmitting meaning is the reason for writing, for having an alphabet.

Rosen describes the alphabet as “a stunningly brilliant invention. We could call it a ‘cunning code’ or a ‘system of signs’ whereby we use some symbols (letters) to indicate some of the sounds of a language. … Though it is wonderful, there are some snags for users …” including:

  • letters and letter combinations do not represent the same sound each time they are used (e.g. ‘c’ in ‘cat’ and ‘city’)
  • letters represents different sounds according to regional accents
  • a particular sound is not always represented by the same letters (see the ‘eye’ example above)

He says that “Becoming or being a reader of English involves absorbing all these variations and then forgetting that they exist.”

a phonic's teacher's lament

He explains that the alphabet is more than a system of sounds and syllables and that “Our forebears devised alphabets so that they could store and retrieve meaning … over time and/or space”.

While not speaking specifically about learning spelling words, in his book “Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How The Mind Works and What It Means For Your Classroom” (referred to in a previous post here), Daniel T. Willingham consistently refers to the importance of meaning when acquiring knowledge. He says,

“Teachers should not take the importance of knowledge to mean they should create lists of facts . . . some benefit may might accrue, but it would be small. Knowledge pays off when it is conceptual and when the facts are related to one another, and that is not true of list learning. Also … such drilling would do far more harm by making students miserable and by encouraging the belief that school is a place of boredom and drudgery, not excitement and discovery.”

When a child scores poorly in a spelling tests and their errors are marked in red they see themselves as bad spellers, lose confidence in their ability and have a defeatist attitude before they even try.

Why is spelling important?

Standard spelling is essential to ensure the meaning of the message is transmitted correctly from writer to reader. While readers may very quickly notice spelling errors in text they are reading, these few errors, when embedded in meaningful text, rarely inhibit the transmission of meaning. However if the bulk of the text is in nonstandard spelling, the message would be virtually indecipherable.

How do we learn to spell?

The most effective way most of us use to learn to spell is reading. While reading we are exposed to a large number of correctly spelled works in context. If we read often enough, we see words frequently and learn to recognise them. We notice when they are misspelled and so recognise how they are spelled.

The importance of spelling correctly is relevant to and a tool for our writing. The learning of particular words is best done in the context of writing.

These are some strategies that can be used with beginning writers:

  • Model writing for them, let them see you write for real purposes, think out loud so they can see what you are doing, for example: “I going to write a . . . I’m going to start … I need to write … ”
  • Encourage them to write for self-expression, to share ideas, to tell a story . . . sustained and uninterrupted writing without the fear of a red pen anywhere.
  • Encourage them to listen to the sounds in the words and write any of the letters they know (Beginners usually start with the initial consonant, then perhaps the initial and final consonant. Vowel sounds are the most difficult to hear and differentiate and are irregular in how they are represented.)
  • Respond to their writing with written comments to their messages, modelling the correct form, for example: If the child writes “I wet to the bich on the weced” you could reply with “Did you have fun when you went to the beach on the weekend?” This enables the child to see the importance of writing for communication, demonstrates the correct spelling without being “corrected” and provides a model which can be used in future writing.
  • Encourage children to proofread their own writing by circling words they weren’t sure how to spell. Don’t always expect them to discover the correct spelling. Being able to recognise when a word is or is not spelled correctly is a first step in developing competence.
  • Notice and comment on any development that can be seen in the child’s spelling ability, for example: “You have written the word ‘kitten’. You have written the ‘k’, you know that it begins with ‘k’; you have written the ‘t’ you can hear in the middle and the ‘n’ at the end. You have listened very well to the sounds in the word.”  
  • If you want to give a child a list of words to learn, use words that have been misspelled in independent writing. Independent writing provides you with information about what the child wants to write about.
  • As they begin using technology for writing, show them how to use the tools available for checking their spelling.

bee 5

As a final note, in the Conversation this week was an article by Nathaniel Swain, entitled Spelling bees don’t teach kids literacy, or much else. The article discusses a soon-to-be aired television show that pits nine to thirteen year old children against each other in a spelling competition.

Swain says,

“How would you go spelling feuilleton, stichomythia, cymotrichous, or appoggiatura? More importantly, do you know the meaning of these words, and could you use them in a sentence?

Challenging and insightful, or obscure and essentially pointless? Spelling bees encourage endless memorisation of complex but low-frequency words – and are a distraction from the core of literacy education.”

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post.

 

 

 

A palette of colours

I think few of us would deny that each of us is unique, or question the importance of an individual’s interests and abilities to learning. Much has been written about learning styles, multiple intelligences and differentiation of instruction.

Most teachers try to incorporate a variety of experiences into their programs in order to maximise learning opportunities in the hope that, if students don’t “get” it one way, they will “get” it in another. The imposition of national standardised assessment makes doing this a challenge for teachers. The increased requirement for the implementation of particular approaches to teaching makes it even more so.

To say that I hold fairly strong views about learning, and the differences I consider there to be between education and schooling is perhaps an understatement, but it wasn’t always so.

My memory tells me that, while I probably didn’t “love” school, I probably didn’t “hate” it either. It was simply something that I had to do. I didn’t question it. I did my best to be a “good” girl, do what was expected of me, and conform. All of which I think I did pretty well.

The questioning came later and had more impact upon my teaching and parenting than it did on my own schooling. I came to view schooling as something that is “done” to us, and education as something that we do for ourselves. That is not to say that no worthwhile learning takes place in school, for it does, but education is a whole-of-life experience and schooling is but one small part of that.

Education is a whole of life experience

However, if the importance of schooling, and here I mean learning of particular content by particular ages, is inflated and rated more highly than children’s natural curiosity, interests and abilities, then the consequences to individuals and the community in general can be more negative than positive. One consequence may be that children don’t enjoy school; another may be the view that only school knowledge is important; and yet another may be that children are turned off learning all together.

My first conscious discomfort with what, for convenience, I’ll call a factory model of schooling (children go in one end, have things “done” to them, and come out the other end all the same) was as a young teacher when all five year two teachers were expected to be doing the same thing at the same time. That imposition, along with other inadequacies that were beginning to become apparent, set me on a quest to learn more about learning and education. My quest has never ceased and I am still searching for answers.

Recently I read a book by Daniel T. Willingham entitled Why Don’t Students Like School? The title had instant appeal, of course, and I thought I’d recognise a few of the reasons at least. My initial expectation was of reading views similar to those of authors like John Holt, Ivan Illich, A.S. Neill and John Dewey whose books I had read in the 70s and 80s; but a closer look at the subtitle told me I was in for more: “A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How The Mind Works and What It Means For The Classroom”.

The book is a wonderful read and I’m certain to share many of Willingham’s ideas with you in future posts. I enjoyed it because, in almost equal measure it reinforced, challenged and extended my thinking about many aspects of learning and how best to provide for and stimulate it in a classroom setting.

Sometimes Willingham would make a statement with which I agreed, and then go on to explain the faulty thinking behind it. Sometimes his statement would seem to completely contradict what I think but his explanation would show that we simply had different ways (mine perhaps inadequate) in explaining it.

What I really appreciate about the book is that Willingham carefully translates what has been learned from research into practices that can be implemented in the classroom to enhance student learning. Often research seems only to tell teachers what they already know from experience and observations, or provides information in such an abstract way that nothing of practical use can be gleaned.

The section of Willingham’s book that I refer to today is “Chapter 7 – How Should I Adjust My Teaching for Different Types of Learners?” Willingham opens the chapter with the words “All children are different.” He says that some learn visually, some auditorily; that some are linear thinkers and some holistic, for example, and that

“It seems that tailoring instruction to each student’s cognitive style is potentially of enormous significance”.

The important word in that sentence is “seems”. He talks about the differences in the way that hypothetical Sam and Donna might learn and says that “An enormous amount of research exploring this idea has been conducted in the last fifty years, and finding the differences between Sam and Donna that would fit this pattern has been the holy grail of educational research, but no one has found consistent evidence supporting a theory describing such a difference.”

He states that the “cognitive principle guiding this chapter is:

“Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.”

That statement really made me sit up and take notice: “Children are more alike than different”. But it turns out, those words are not the most important ones in the sentence. The most important ones are: “in terms of how they think and learn.

He goes on to say that, “the claim is not that all children are alike, nor that teachers should treat children as interchangeable. Naturally some kids like math whereas other are better at English. Some children are shy and some are outgoing. Teachers interact with each student differently, just as they interact with friends differently; but teachers should be aware that, as far as scientists have been able to determine, there are not categorically different types of learners.”

He also talks about it in this video:

Willingham acknowledges that students differ in their cognitive abilities and styles. What he does in the chapter is “try to reconcile the differences among students with the conclusion that these differences don’t mean much for teachers.” In reading these words one might expect that Willingham is proposing that differentiation is not an important part of classroom practice. But such is not the case, as stated in this video:

In the book he writes, “I am not saying that teachers should not differentiate instruction. I hope and expect that they will. But when they do so, they should know that scientists cannot offer any help.” According to Willingham, scientists have not identified any types of learners or styles of learning.  He says, “I would advise teachers to treat students differently on the basis of the teacher’s experience with each student and to remain alert for what works. When differentiating among students, craft knowledge trumps science.

What Willingham says is of most importance for a learner to learn is background knowledge. If a student does not have sufficient background knowledge to understand the content or concepts which are presented, learning will not take place. This supports the advice that I repeatedly give to parents: read to your children, talk with them, and provide them with a wide range of experiences and activities. The same is true for teachers: ensure the students have sufficient knowledge on which to build the new work you are expecting them to grasp.

This week at the Carrot Ranch Charli Mills has thrown a prompt with which I have struggled: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about the day the earth turned brown. I always like to tie my responses to the educational focus of my blog and this one had me stumped for a while. A mind journey following various twists and turns, retracing well-worn paths, and hitting many dead ends, finally led me to an oasis in the parched brown earth: the uniqueness of each of us; the amazing potential of each new child to create possibilities beyond our imagining; and the contrasting effect of a narrow test-driven school system that attempts to reduce each to the sameness of minimum standards and age (in-)appropriate benchmarks. A paint palette seemed a suitable medium for the story.

For those of you who have been following Marnie’s story, I apologise. She makes no appearance this time, though I have not ruled out the possibility with student M. I’d be pleased to know what you think.

palette

Palette potential

She walked between the desks admiring their work. From the same small palette of primary colours, and a little black and white for shades and tones, what they produced was as individual as they: J’s fierce green dinosaur and exploding volcanoes; T’s bright blue sea with sailing boat and smiling yellow sun; B’s football match . . . At least in this they had some small opportunity for self-expression. She paused at M’s. M had mixed all the colours into one muddy brown and was using hands to smear palette, paper, desk and self . . .

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction.

 

 

Learning without knowledge

First birthday

First birthday

Earlier this week the television was on as I was getting ready for work. I wasn’t taking much notice as the voices droned on. I was lost in my thoughts of what needed to be done, what I’d be doing at work, which illustrator I’d choose to win my design contest, what I’d write about next, what I needed to get at the shops on the way home from work . . . the usual clutter.

Suddenly the words “they don’t even know they are learning” drew my attention to the television. I paused to see what they were talking about. The image showed children of about three years of age in a child care centre. The children were counting as they walked along stepping stones laid out in a path!

Kids' Work Chicago Day Care

Kids’ Work Chicago Day Care

Remarkable? I didn’t think so.  Children were happily engaged doing what comes naturally to them: playing, having fun, making sense of the world around them. Pre-school children will naturally join in the fun of counting and learn to do so without structured lessons, with just an attentive adult who encourages it incidentally in daily activities. I have made a few suggestions here and here.

Easter Egg Patrol

Easter Egg Patrol

What I think is far more remarkable (worthy of discussion) about those words is the insidiousness of the thinking that underlies them and what that thinking implies.

“They don’t even know they are learning!”

This to me implies that learning is something that:

  • children don’t want to do but “we” expect of them,
  • children won’t do unless it is “hidden” in sugar-coating,
  • must be planned for in a structured program and done to children by adults,
  • fits into a narrow band of skills and abilities with easily identifiable criteria that can be measured, and
  • is definitely NOT fun!

Perhaps more insidious is the implication that it occurs only in those situations.

CoD_fsfe_Checklist_icon

Children are born to learn. Their every waking moment is spent figuring out how the world works and what they can do to have their needs met. They are born scientists. They have an innate desire to know. Why one should think it remarkable that children are learning, but they don’t even know they are doing so, boggles my mind.

Anyone who has spent any time with young children know that learning is what they do. They can spend hours absorbed in a particular activity figuring out how something works, how things fit together, what happens when and if …

As soon as an adult intervenes in an attempt to “teach” something that seems appropriate and important to the adult, the child switches off, disengages and chooses another activity.

That’s not to say that the adult shouldn’t intervene to support a child’s learning, but the adult needs to be sensitive to the child’s needs and responses and to not force the situation to one in which the learning may be more important to the adult than the child at that moment, when the child is doing very well on its own, thank you very much.

The article I refer to was broadcast on April 1st. An April Fool’s Day joke? Sadly, not. But if we fail to honour children’s natural curiosity and desire to learn and continue to value only that which can scored on a test, I fear we will develop a multitude of fools.

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post.

First birthday: http://www.flickr.com/photos/34547181@N00/6979867095; http://photopin.comhttps://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Kids’ Work Chicago Daycare: http://www.flickr.com/photos/130419557@N06/16158455502; http://photopin.comhttps://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Easter Egg Patrol: http://www.flickr.com/photos/98856605@N00/250708277; http://photopin.comhttps://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/