Sunday, 11 November 2012

Without Any Hiccups At All

Imagine my surprise the other night at the dinner table when Isabelle told me she wrote a Personal Essay in class.  "Really?" I asked, looking up from my plate.  Of course as a parent I was interested in what my 4th grader was working on as a writer, but as a teacher, I was also keen to hear what was happening in the elementary grades, especially since our grade level is currently working through the same unit.

"Yeah," Isabelle went on to say.  "My essay is on hiccups.  You see, I got the hiccups in class, and I was so annoyed, I just had to write about it."  I smiled and nodded my head.  I knew exactly what she meant. "So I used 'boxes and bullets' to organize my thoughts, and I came up with three reasons why hiccups are so annoying."  I looked back down at my plate.  That's the exact same lesson I taught to my 6th graders just days before.

As teachers, our initial reaction to situations like this is "How could they do that?" or "Don't they know that's our lesson?"  I admit it, I felt those reactions bubble up immediately.  It's as if we teachers stake claims to lessons and ideas, and we don't want anyone else to encroach upon our territory.  In this case, how could 4th grade be doing our business of boxes and bullets?

Before we all go berserk, I've come to realize that a "problem" like this is actually a good thing.  Here's why.  Isn't it good that readers and writers are being taught effective skills and frameworks as soon as they begin studying the genre?  In fact, their eventual prior learning  will allow us to push them even further when they do get to our classrooms.  

Not only that, just because a student learns some of these skills and frameworks, by no means is she an expert at applying them fully.  You could argue that continued application of  the skill will ensure mastery over a longer period of time.  That's one of the major benefits of a cyclical curriculum anyways.  And as far as studying a genre again and again is concerned, no way does a writer become an expert just by writing a piece in that genre once, twice or even five times.  Authors spend their lives writing through a single genre, and they still find new twists and turns along the way. 

Another consideration is that with our transient student population, invariably there will be new students who are unfamiliar with workshop and some of these skills and frameworks.  And for all students, new to SAS or not, they continue to use the genres and skills that are dear to them to make meaning of new experiences as they grow older.

Having said all that, it's clear the days of closing our doors and doing our own thing in our classrooms are gone.  And they should be.  According to the 2009 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, one reason why US schools rate lower than their developed nation counterparts is because US teachers spend 93% of their time working in isolation. A related study done by McKinsey and Co. in 2010 found that one common characteristic of schools demonstrating continual improvement in student learning is teachers share and work on their practice together by becoming "learners of their own teaching" (see "Building Capacity to Transform Literacy Learning," NCLE).  In addition, Lucy Calkins contends that you can rate the quality of a school by the amount of meaningful conversations that teachers have about moving their students forward.  

Simply put, we must seek every opportunity to step out of our classrooms and grade levels to engage in meaningful conversations with our colleagues.  Now that our school has worked to implement the Reading and Writing Workshops, the initial years of every teacher trying out the generating ideas lessons or basic craft lessons of a genre have passed.  Our readers and writers are coming up with more skills and experience.  It's as if we were all learning to ride bikes at the same time, and now that the training wheels are coming off, those lessons just won't cut it anymore.  It's time to work on jumps, wheelies, and hard core racing.  In other words, maybe 4th grade should cover boxes and bullets whereas 6th grade can focus on ordering the bullets for effect.

So how do we do this?  

  • Instead of thinking how can I teach "my students" in "my classroom,"  think how can we teach "our students" in "our school."
  • Be active members in PLCs by asking questions not only of the units in our grade levels, but of what is happening in the surrounding grade levels.
  • When planning units, use the Common Core as a resource for writing teaching points.  With its more precise articulation at each grade level, we can ensure a steady progression of rigor as our readers and writers pass up through the grades.
  • Use pre-unit assessments to gauge where the students are in terms of the work each genre requires.  Then modify and adjust teaching points accordingly
  • In mini-lessons, continually call on students to apply previously learned skills and frameworks to their current work.
  • Continue to read and write so that we can better inform our teaching.  By actually doing the work of readers and writers, we can teach from true experience and develop teaching points that come from the heart.
And finally,
  • Don't leave it up to a 4th grader to find out what is happening in other classrooms and grade levels.

If we take on just some of these ideas collectively, we'll continue to grow as a school and provide an exemplary program in RLA without any hiccups at all.

Images from:

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps part of upping the level of our game could be in the subjects that we as teachers encourage kids to write. While I have students writing about shark fin soup, I also have students boldly pushing forward. One student is surveying friends and teachers about the importance of teachers reading the books they give to kids and another is writing about the possible moral decay of society. Pushing kids to explore bigger ideas creates for them the challenge of figuring out how to support concepts that are more abstract and sophisticated.