Sunday, October 11, 2009

The day I learned to read

It's a funny thing to think that there was one day when I became a reader.  However, this is the task I was given last week.  This is is what I came up with.

A sense of humor, properly developed, is superior to any religion so far devised.
 -Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume.

It makes me smile remembering Maggie Mackin telling me, "Oh, man, ya gotta read this.  This guy has written a bunch of great books, but Jitterbug Perfume is the best!"  I was in my second year at college and Maggie had just arrived on campus from a year abroad.  Maggie was an artist, cute, funny, and a world traveler.  I thought if I read the book and could talk to her about it, I might sound really impressive.  Sadly enough, this reflected my sole motivation to read the book.

In turns out I loved the book! I mean I really loved it.  Not just the story, but the characters, the voice I could hear from the author, the feeling that I could write like that someday (oh the naiveté!), the passion, the way the author wove multiple segments of a plot together in the end - that was both obvious and terribly clever at the same time.  This book started my reading career and when I was offered the opportunity to reflect on the time when I became a reader, this is the memory that instantly sprang forth. 

Jitterbug Perfume provided me, for the first time in my life, the passion and craving to know more, and understand that books could be used to satisfy my desire.  Slightly embarrassed from starting so late, I was able to develop a sense of urgency to explore the world of written expression since then.  This passion has only increased over the years.  I cannot image my life without the hundreds of books I have read.  When I meet people, I always want to hear about the books they have read. I read over 2000 books to my son - before he entered kindergarten.  My wife laughs at me because I keep a list of all the books I have read.

Robbins taught me the incredible freedom that fiction provides. Barbara Kingsolver has made me smile, laugh, cry, rage and marvel at what can be learned and expressed in a book.  Noam Chomsky has opened my eyes to the power of documentation and that critical research-based analysis that can diminish the affects of the powerful propaganda machine that surrounds us. Thich Nhat Han has written words on a page so simple in form and so profound in meaning.  And to read Jack Kornfield makes me think it is possible to gain enlightenment and finish my laundry all in the same day.  Joe Simpson and Shackleton propelled my idea of what adventure could mean.  Anne Rice convinced me that she has been a vampire!  The Lovins, from the Rocky Mountain Institute, taught me that we already have the technology we need to save our planet and His Holiness the Dalai Lama taught me that doing so might be a good place to start.

These words have opened up new worlds to me and I know my life is profoundly richer because of the efforts of others to inform, create, entertain and provide a medium for connecting all of us to them, and them to us.  Part of my joy of reading (and writing) comes from the fact that neither has come easy for me.  I suspect that I would have benefited from support that recognized that I have a minor form of dyslexia.  This challenged manifests if I am tired or if I lack concentration when I am reading.  Spelling has also provided me a great opportunity to learn and grow.  Until I took ownership of my reading and writing, my relationship with books, reading and written expression reflected the challenges and failures that I experienced throughout my elementary and secondary education. 

As an educator, I hope that others can better themselves and create more love in their life from their relationship with reading and writing.  Having had the challenges of reading and writing provides me a valuable perspective to address all beginner students and finding the joy within reading and writing allows me to give voice to the motivation that others can benefit from.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Weekly Reflection : My week as a student teacher

The highlight of this week was feeling more comfortable at school with the kids.  I feel a bond forming that seems to be the result of the time spent working with the kids.  They are starting to trust me.  I can see how important building trust is when working with people, at any age.  In the future, I will spent time with my kids at the beginning of each year constructing a plan with them in an effort to clarify expectations and to start building trust with my students.

This week I spend more time during Writers Workshop working with students as they developed their individual stories.  During one of these conversations I asked the student if they knew what the purpose of a paragraph was.  After a long pause he said, "I don't know".  I said, "Good answer, thank you".  After he had time to process this idea, he interrupted me and said, "It was good that I didn't no know the answer?"  I explained to him that his answer was the most appropriate and honest and therefore the best answer.  His smile reflected both the cleverness of the statement and reviled the positive affective conditions created for both the teacher and student.  It was just a moment, but creating this positive atmosphere will impact his future relationship with my class and his ability to learn.  When people (kids included) feel safe in being wrong, they will try to learn.  Scared people will do the opposite.    
This week I visited a classroom in Santa Ynez where I watched a fifth grade teacher seemingly perform magic.  What some could consider an illusion, mature educators would recognize as trust and respect between this teacher and his students.  I spent the whole day with this teacher and he never raised his voice.  Any corrections he made was either inaudible to other students or said with such firm kindness that any ill affects seem to be non-existent.  Yet, his students remained engaged and joyful the entire day.  When he said good morning to the kids their happy replay was "good morning Mr. teacher!"  At one point during a transition he said calmly “ok, ill choose the quietest group to start”.  Within three seconds (I counted) the room was near silent and almost all twenty kids had their fingers in the air.

When ask how this alleged magic can take place, this seasoned teacher talked about the importance of building trust and bond is with each student.  He starts his year building that base of trust and consistently delivers what he promises to the kids, expecting the same from them.  Clearly, they seem to respond accordingly. The pledges they created together are listed on the bottom of this sheet.

In my classroom this week I ran a simply lesson on synonyms and antonyms.  It was my first chance to work with a formal plan working in language arts. All students could easily grasps the concept and give good examples of both, meeting all the assessments I set for this lesson.  I did learn the importance of having good handouts to work from and how visuals learners may suffer from poor ones. 

I made two observations during this lesson. The first was that kids who are below average at reading and writing excelled at finding a different word that shared the same meaning.  I believe the reason for this is that kids who struggle with words have to develop a different strategy with forming and understanding words.  Fore example, if one is unable to spell “somersault”, one might substitute the word “roll” in it place.  The result of this process would be an increased understanding of vocabulary.

Another note I made was with my student who is studying English as a second language.  She had had, by far, the fastest answers to the synonyms and antonyms questions.  She exhibited the most flexible understanding of what word could mean than any of her peers.  For example, many students had a hard time producing the synonym and antonym for the word “play”.  (Perhaps this is because work and play are still so linked for kids at their age.)  This student however, quickly found alternatives her peers were unable to find.  I am assuming this skill is a result of her understanding of language, in which she has twice (or more) references of words than her peers.  She has developed a deeper level of ambiguity in her understanding of language that allows her to see other possible connections to words. 

We also finished the math section and finalized our assessments for them.  It is such a powerful tool in math to ask the students how they arrived their answers.  Knowing what processed they used reveals so much about their level of understanding, that in some ways, seems as important as the correct answer. 

On Wednesday we enjoyed a class field trip to the Sea Center, which went swimmingly (not literally).