A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Hope For Education in the Primary Grades

I recently had the great privilege of working in a kindergarten classroom that reminded me, once again, of my conviction that most of what remains best about education often occurs in the primary grades. I often wonder what happens between 1st and 4th grades, a period which has been receiving increasing scrutiny nationally, with an achievement gap that remains a continued source of backbiting and recrimination, leaving some environments toxic wastelands.

During these transitional grades, students are often shifted away from learning to read in a multi-dimensional fashion, as they were in Christine's and Mrs. N's kindergarten classroom, where I saw consistent evidence of students developing phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension within a balanced literacy program. Students in this classroom are read high quality children's books, such as The Three Silly Billies, and related books within the Fairy Tale genre, plus nursery rhymes, as well as non-fiction genres. Here, the emphasis seems to be more on concepts developed broadly rather than overwhelming learners with boring and unrelated details. I suspect that since students remain fully engaged throughout the entire day, and since the learning is so connected by design, I suspect that her students have a far better recall of the details than the norm even in her hallway. I would love to do a longitudinal study of comparing students in Christine's and Mrs. N's classroom versus other students in the same hall.

A somewhat arbitrary shift to reading to learn occurs, supposedly, in 3rd grade, when students, teachers,  principals, and entire school districts are held accountable for every student's ability to recall nitty-gritty content on high stakes tests, without any regard for socio-economic factors, vast differences in the amount of time parents spend talking with their children from birth, not to mention the number of students who speak a second language at home. Vast differences in background knowledge that are not easily glossed over by those with a political agenda, as opposed to those who have studied the research and and have invested real time in the classroom. During the transitional phase, the preparation seems to begin in earnest to prepare students for "jobs," jobs that may not even exist when these young children graduate from high schools. For the 30 % who become disengaged entirely, those who become high school dropouts, I am not alone in suspecting that many of these are being lost during the transitional years.

It take me an instant to size up a classroom, consistent with Ray Kurzweil's great insight that our minds are built for anticipation. From the moment I entered Christine's room, I knew I would be enjoying an amazing day (and leave chock full of great classroom management ideas that I will apply once I get a classroom of my own). Christine and Mrs. N's classroom is a print rich environment, where concepts are developed broadly, multi-dimensionally, in a totally connected fashion. Manners, too, such as how to say "please" and "thank you" are explicitly modeled, practiced, and reinforced at every opportunity, even in the cafeteria. Every thing done in the classroom has a clear purpose. Even the game Candy Land has been adapted to become a game for practicing sight words, along with Sight Word Bingo. Similarly, environmental print is incorporated into the class "store," where students practice using money to purchase "real" items.

A standard component of Responsive Classroom is the interactive morning message, (I love Responsive Classroom Schools, not so much Positive Behavior Intervention Schools). One element that I had difficulty with as a rookie teacher with no prior knowledge of Responsive Classroom was the daily choice; I struggled with knowing how to integrate the daily choice within the interactive whiteboard message format. Christine does it differently than I was taught. She separates the daily choice from the daily message, and places a journal outside her classroom door; students respond to simple questions, often yes / no, sometimes with a preference of one or another, and other times with how they might feel in general, or how they might feel about something specific. The questions are not particularly profound, but they are easy to manage, and do send the message that student response is important.

I play close attention to book choices. What the teacher stresses is critically important for children, i.e., what they want for students to "walk away with" from the experience, speaks volumes about the teacher's philosophy of education. Christine wanted me to engage in a little comparative literature, so I compared the original with the updated version of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. Before reading, therefore, I encouraged students to share what they remembered about the original version and to make some predictions. At the climax, once again, I left the students hanging, wondering what would happen next, before I sent them off to do their independent reading, and only returned to read the conclusion to launch writer's workshop. The ending was surprising, with a modern twist.