I have had the fortune of having Dr. Brian Cambourne read my blog before I make it public. I am truly humbled and honored for his comments on my most recent blog on Engagement.
“Over the years I’ve been privileged to correspond with many teachers from around the world who share with me how they interpret the Conditions of Learning and how they turn them into classroom practice. I’m continually surprised by the range and depth of these interpretations and the wide range classroom practices they generate. After reading and digesting Stef’s piece on Engagement I’ve realised that, just as she learns from her students’ responses, I continually learn more about my own theory from teachers’ many different descriptions of what it means to them.
This phrase from Stef’s piece is an example of what I mean:
“ . . , we started our work creating a community centric classroom with activities that showed concern for others and how our words and actions mattered”.
This is one of the most succinct and accurate summaries of my work I’ve ever read. The descriptor “community centred classroom” is a phrase which captures the essence of the kind of classroom culture that MUST be in place before the Conditions can be implemented as I envisage them being implemented. Furthermore her focus on how “concern for others” in the ways the members of such a classroom culture respond to each other’s approximations captures the critical core of such a classroom culture.
Thank you Stef for helping me understand more deeply how my own theory can “work”.’
“Engagement—Help children become active learners who see themselves as potential readers and writers. Set up a risk-free environment so they can experiment with language and literacy. Provide easy access to paper, pencils, crayons, markers, books, and other literacy materials.”
On the first day of 4th or 5th grade, I was ready for the community entering our classroom. I would have a fun game for students to randomly find where they would sit. Upbeat music would be playing in the background as our class came together to create their unique name tags, while I walked around the room working hard to get everyone’s names within those first 30 minutes of class.
Once our first assignment was done, we would work on creating a community centric classroom with activities that showed concern for others and how our words and actions mattered.
Our day would proceed with engaging reading and writing activities. Out would come Judith Viorst’s “If I were in Charge of the World.” We would chorus read it, standing up during certain stanzas and sitting down during others. We would talk about the funny parts and the not so funny parts and then we’d dream!! What would our world look like? Mine always had a dog and we’d banter back and forth as our worlds always made work harder for the teacher or student depending on point of view. And of course there was a tropical island all over my world creation. And then we would write. . . we wrote about our world and little did they know that while they wrote, I was assessing them. I was looking to see who was reluctant to write, who was writing in their head before putting something on paper, and who was writing something, erasing and trying again. Of course I always caught something I hadn’t thought to look for before.
Learners are so amazing; They constantly kept me engaged! They would provide me with valuable information that allowed me to know more about the writers in my class than any standardized assessment could ever tell me. That information started coming with the first lesson—A lesson that let students know that they would be in charge of the writing they worked on during the year. Writing that they could publish or writing that just needed to be written. All in all that choice was what I knew would best keep them engaged in discovering the power of the written words they were creating.
And of course we read. I started my read alouds with one of my favorites Thank You Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco.
With over 1,000 books of all genres, interests and readability in our classroom library, we were able to look, browse, and talk. We talked about why people read and how they choose the books they read, We talked about how we chose books–what we enjoyed and what we didn’t enjoy. Never did we talk about what level we read at or what our reading score was. I was real, raw and honest with them. All of us were readers with different interests. I shared stories of previous readers like the horse lover who had a solid understanding of a subject I knew little about; Her understanding showed in what she understood in her reading on horses verses my own understanding. She could also pronounce names of horse breeds I couldn’t even sputter out.
And finally we picked our books and read. Once again, I assessed by walking around and looking at who was avoiding, who couldn’t find a book to read, what choices they were making and who knew exactly what they wanted to read. I assessed the kinds of books that caught their eye and chatted with each one to get an idea of what they thought of the choice they had made at that moment. I listened to their responses so I knew where they were and where we could go next.
Not once during the first day or the second or any other day, did I label a student’s reading ability. As a teacher who implemented a reading workshop model, I refused to assign a “reading ability” to a child. In our classroom we were all readers. We were not advanced, proficient, or below proficient. Instead we talked about various skills, strategies, and thinking processes that would enhance our reading processes. Artificial labels restrict literacy achievement and very seldom empower a reader to reflect and grow. But when we’re all readers, the possibilities are limitless. And I still wonder how and who determines what questions are asked on these high stakes tests that determine a person’s reading ability.
I write these memories with such fondness. Like Brian Cambourne has said, all of the Conditions of Learning are interconnected. Students need to be immersed, responsible and constantly using real life opportunities to learn. I needed to model, confer with each student to determine where to nudge them next. I needed to understand who they were as learners and respond to them in encouraging and expectant ways. More important was how they responded to our questions, ideas and new understandings. Kids often asked me a question to which I’d respond that I didn’t know the answer. They were shocked as teachers are supposed to know everything. I, in turn, stated that I didn’t know everything but I knew how to work towards understanding and that is what I could help them with.
A few years back as I was waiting for my oldest to come out of her kindergarten classroom, I spotted a student in an upper grade. I asked her about her first few days of school. She informed me that the first days consisted of MAPS testing, and other beginning of the year tests used to gather baseline data. She stated it was the way for teachers to get it all out of the way. I cringed inwardly as I knew that this was not a solo experience. Instead, I knew this was the kind of first day many kids were getting across our country. I expect the Conditions of Learning are rare in our schools today as policy mandates force teachers to break down learning into minute standards that can be assessed in order to collect data for the powers-that-be. Data that means absolutely nothing. I, for one, am so tired of my child being a data point and would love for all three of my children, on the first day of school and every day after that, to enter into a classroom that is community-driven and engaging. A community-driven classroom that allows the teacher to create ways for all learners to think, understand, explore, fail, get back up, and to be inspired. In that classroom the students, along with the teacher, engage with the world of the classroom as well as the world outside.