Sunday, 18 November 2012

Notes from an Engineering Poet

Michael Salinger and Sara Holbrook

There's been a bit of a buzz in the 8th grade RLA rooms lately.  The culprits who are causing this buzz are none other than  Michael Salinger and Sara Holbrook, poets working alongside teachers and students during their three week extended authors-in-residence visit.

Last week, the RLA 8 team sat down with poets outside of their busy schedule to discuss poetry in the Middle School.  One of the added benefits of a visit like this (apart from the embedded professional development of watching them in action in the classroom) is the chance to discuss how their work as authors may inform our work as teachers.  But when the teachers asked Michael and Sara what they should be thinking of as they revise their poetry unit, they were surprised at the answer they got.

Instead of lists of essential teaching points and resources, Michael simply said, "Listen, before you think at all about lessons, you need to know why you want to teach poetry.  So tell me, why teach poetry?"

The teachers looked around. "Poetry gives students an opportunity to be better observers," they said.

"Okay," Michael continued.  "Why do you want them to be better observers?"

The teachers looked at each other once again.  "Well, in any job, students will have to observe and use good word choice," they replied.

"And why is that important?" Michael insisted.  

"This experience will certainly help them become better communicators," they said.

"And..." Michael led them on.

"And better communication makes people more empathetic," the teachers added.

"So why is that important to you?" Michael asked once again.

"Because," they said with more conviction, "being empathetic makes for a better world community member."

"So," Michael concluded, "you're teaching poetry to help create empathetic and effective communicators who are integral members of a respectful world community.  And so everything you teach in that unit should help support this goal."

Sara Holbrook working her magic with Grade 8.
What Michael did with those teachers was a technique he picked up from his days as an engineer.  In his own words, Michael told me:

"The Five Why is a problem solving technique developed by the Toyota Motor Company and one I used back when I was a quality engineer. It is a questioning process aimed at finding the root cause of a problem. The point of the exercise is to fix the process in which a failure has occurred not to fix the blame.

The activity is also useful in drilling down to a core principle behind our actions in the classroom. It is a technique familiar to anyone who has raised a toddler - why, why,why, why, why? We start with our primary question of WHY followed by four more iterations of the query - each centered upon the previous reply. Now, number crunching statisticians with much more mathematical proclivity than I have determined that it takes five of these cycles to get to the root cause of a problem or action."

This protocol is a great tool for us when revising our unit plans, especially when we need to clarify what we're doing.  Sure, we rely on our shared professional development from recent years and align our work to the newly articulated Common Core Standards to work towards our institutional commitments of creating a common, viable curriculum and gathering evidence of learning and performance, but sometimes we are so focused on the trees, we forget to see the forest.   Why not start each unit planning session defining our principles of the unit with the Five Why method?  

After talking with Michael this week, I thought I'd try it out.  Instead of using it with teachers though, I wanted to see what my students would say about an activity we were doing.  We just finished our read aloud, Freak the Mighty, and we spent a couple of days watching the movie so we could debate which is better, the book or the movie.

I wanted to see what they thought the reasons for us watching the movie were.  Here's what they came up as answers to the Five Whys:
        • Why are we watching the movie?
          • To see which is better.
        • Why do we want to see which is better?
          • So we can have a debate.
        • Why do we want to have a debate?
          • So we can practice speaking and listening.
        • Why do we want to practice speaking and listening?
          • So when we have to do it in the real world, we're better at it.
        • Why do we want to be better speakers and listeners in the real world?
          • So we can make more of a difference in the world.
Students battling it out using their best debate skills.
Right then, we all stopped and looked around.  In that single moment, it was as if watching this movie meant the world to us.  We all shifted in our seats and sat up a little straighter.  We had made a connection that unfortunately, we don't make often enough.  The work that we were doing wasn't to help get prepared for a quiz or a test.  It wasn't to help "get ready" for the next grade level.  What we were working on was going to help us in life. 

Not only should we be asking ourselves the Five Whys, we should be asking our students them too.  For us teachers, we often seek outside affirmation before looking within.  For our students, we don't allow them to dig deep on why they are learning what they are learning.  What Michael reminded us is that the answers to the Five Whys lie within each and every one of us. And when we can all say why we're spending the time on the learning experiences in our classrooms that we are, I have no doubt that we'll be able to answer to a third institutional commitment, great teaching in every classroom, every day for every child.

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