Monday, June 21, 2010

Write Now Read Later

A paper presented at an IRA seminar April 1977 by Dr Marie Clay the developer of the Reading Recovery Programme.

These days reading, or better still the language arts ( now called by a more technocratic title 'literacy') seems to have been taken over by academics who are pushing a phonemic approach onto schools - 'P' Pushers! This is an approach that distorts the organic relationship between experience, oral language, writing and reading - all premised on a need to make meaning and to communicate. The traditional language arts programme has also been distorted by those who are peddling an meta-cognitive approach that sees acquiring reading skills as an end in themselves.Current approaches do indicate a need for using such skills in content areas but the emphasis is on the reading/literacy block; the cart before the horse! Often comprehension skills taught are not transferred and used in realistic inquiry situations by the students. Read through the 'cut and paste', so called, 'research' on display in rooms you visit for confirmation.

In active learning centred (personalised) classrooms the current inquiry study provided the motivation to acquire necessary reading and other such meaning making skills.
If learning is not transferred it cannot be said it has been 'taught' no matter the results on reading tests.

My recent blogs about the work of Julie Diamond have reminded me of what we have lost.

As well even the esteemed John Hattie has written that New Zealand students have not improved their ratings on international tests since Tomorrows Schools .Before Tomorrows Schools New Zealand teachers made greater use of a language experience integrated style of teaching - one integrated with the current study. Time to go back and pick up what we have lost it seems?

While cleaning out my shed I came across a small paper by Marie Clay 'Write Now Read later'. As well a couple of books by Sylvia Ashton Warner and some publications by Elwyn Richardson on junior writing.

All line up with the approach written about by Julie Diamond - indeed one of her inspirations is Sylvia.

To many junior teachers , maybe all primary teachers, do not appreciate the obvious organic link between experience, early writing and reading - in that order. Once , a long time ago, one of my favourite topics I use to present was, 'Before the Word the Experience'. I also found a copy in my shed.In this paper I pushed the need for lots on sensory environmental and personal experiences as the basis to inspire thoughts for children to write about or have scribed for them as first readers ( an idea from Sylvia and Elwyn).The emphasis was on poetic language not acquiring reading skills.

Marie Clay in Read Now Write Later comments that so little is written about children's writing in comparison to early reading. Ever seen a writing adviser? The focus of her booklet builds on the relationship between children's spontaneous writing by untutored children who learnt to analyse their own speech to discover some way to write it down - a form of invented spelling using basic sound letter relationships. Few teachers, she says, know why and how early writing is related to early reading.

Most junior rooms, she says, do encourage some form of creative writing ( creative it the sense they create it )and provide opportunities to say, scan and copy teacher words and sentences. From the understandings gained children learn to write simple sentences of their own.

All too often, in my observations, such teachers writing programme does not encourage poetic or felt responses - the focus is still on reading.

Marie is surprised about how few word children can write who have not made progress with reading. They can copy words but find it difficult to write word they can say .They have not learnt to say the sounds slowly and sequence the visual and the sounds correctly. Children need to develop a kinaesthetic memory to do so. One method to remedy this is for the children to dictate a story which is written for them then they read this. New new words are written on card and traced with a finger while saying it slowly in parts. This is done until the word can be written without looking. It would be important to keep this as a fun practice activity with the real emphasis on be able to write something worthwhile.

My own emphasis would be for teachers to make use of 'scribed' writing to develop the power of writing something interesting -so children see the point and power of writing. Some words could be selected for memory training and kept in a small individual word container for practice?

Clay quotes Carol Chomsky, ' Children who write in this way in their invented spelling receive valuable practice in translating sound to print.This practice and experience with letters and sounds forms an excellent basis for reading later on.' Chomsky believes that by the age 5 many children's ability will already be developed. They can recognise words that begin with the same sound and words that rhyme. It is the teachers role to 'rouse ( this knowledge) to the level of awareness through word play, questioning and talk about sounds'. But, I would emphasize to ensure the the purpose or need to write remains paramount. The children should have fun figuring out words. Through writing teacher introduces personalized approach to reading skills and the more the child can do for themselves the better off they are. Teacher will be are that children progress through a almost uniform stages of invented spelling.

Nothing new in this for most junior teachers. It is the creative emphasis of Sylvia Ashton Warner and Elwyn Richardson in the valuing of children's poetic voice and identity that is often missing. Children creative thoughts and idea should stand out in any learner centred room.

The important thing is to leave the initiative in the hands of the learners. They must learn to trust their judgement - their ability to figure how the word sounds to them and to write it down. Children need to feel that teachers trust them and believe in their sensible beginnings in writing. Most of all teachers must value the voice and creativity of their students.

Authentic reasons to write are the key interspersed with appropriate conversations about writing conventions and sound letter relationships. It is all about purpose - their purpose not ticking off genres covered because of some teacher plan. Lots of opportunities abound for an alert teacher - environmental studies, sensory awareness activities, personal events in their own lives, science experiments, pets, cooking, maths activities and exciting class studies.

Children in such a 'rich' environment naturally begin to read their own writing. Teachers can put together big books to later read with the class. In a way, Marie writes, 'they are less fearful of reading their own writing. They learn to respect their own stories and their own kind of thinking'. They are writers and readers in their own right. Standard spelling finds its way gradually into children's writing as part of an active process of self discovery far beyond any rules teachers can provide. Children Marie writes 'have a real understanding only of that they invent themselves, and each time we teach them something too quickly we keep them from inventing it themselves'.

Any help provided must not destroy the self confidence of the learner to work things our for themselves and with such confidence reader can go from print to meaning because they have been able to work our sounds previously in their writing.

Failing readers are usually unable to analyse words into sounds and will need special help but not at the expense of their own sense of agency.It is all too easy to turn children off writing unless that 'see the power' involved in writing.

The recommendation is recognising the insight that it is easier if you know sound segments or letter sounds to read if you start with a powerful personalised writing programme. The challenge is to get young children to want to hear sound segments in words and to search for these on their own initiative.

And , remembering Ashton Warner and Elwyn Richardson, to ensure the whole point of writing is to express personal meaning - poetic or scientific.

Reading and writing are both means to an end to express, communicate and to understand -something a number of current 'best practice' literacy advisers would do well to remember.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Time for new thinking

Charlie Chaplin recognised early last century in his film 'Modern Times' that there were faults in the mass production dream of the industrialists. Now is the time to reject the Henry Ford standardisation of Mrs Tolley ( 'Tolley's folly') and begin to imagine what a personalised education system might look like; time to replace Henry with John Dewey.

'The Answer to No is Yes' is the title of an interesting new book by Peter Block a business philosopher.

Block believes we have become obsessed with a 'how to' mentality with its basis in efficiency and rationality and, in the process, avoiding the more important issue of purpose. Managers who keep their heads down, stick to the rules and get sidetracked in amassing doubtful data and evidence lose their souls and never have the courage to voyage into uncharted waters.

I would place a number of managerial type principals in this category

Peter Block challenges us to say 'yes' and then have the faith in our ability 'to work it out as we go along - there are no right answers'. He believes we have the leadership and the ideas within us; all we need to do is to affirm our idealism and let our values guide our actions. Block asks us to 'live like artists', to 'find our voice', 'to choose freedom over safely' and use our combined talents 'to question and confront those who would impose their ideas on us'.

And the doubtful National Standards fit into this category and so do those 'mad Hatties' who see teaching based on testing rather than insight and imagination.

In his book, Block says we have been led for too long by the 'economists' and the 'engineers' and that this has limited our potential. The strategy of the 'economists' and 'engineers' is to control, to set goals and targets, to measure and predict. They love efficiency, competition, standards, performance indicators and feedback.Sounds familiar!! This is the technocratic mindset of those in the Ministry - including those recently converted like apologist for the standards Mary Chamberlain. Integrity is for sale these days.

One voice, Block believes, that has been ignored in the past, is that of the 'artist'. Artists are ideas people and are unhappy in a too ordered world, often feeling like outsiders. They are into personal meaning and depth and seeing things with 'fresh eyes'. Many 'artist' teachers feel like outsiders. Many have left.

A fourth group, Block writes, offers real hope of synthesizing the energy of the 'economists' and 'engineers' and the creativity of the 'artists' - the 'social architects'. An architect combines beauty and practicality; aesthetics and utility, serving the soul as well as the market. 'Social architects', Block believes, work with others to develop common visions and values, integrating in the process individual and collective possibilities. 'Social architects' are concerned with purpose and the realization of the talents of all citizens.

As educators we are 'social architects'

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Schools should embrace fun and active learning - not National Standards .

Maltese students actively involved in science meets history study.

Educators should teach students how to think, not what to think writes a former principal of a primary school Salvina Muscat in Malta. Advice our technocrats in the Ministry should be taking if we want to ensure our new curriculum is to work. National Standards are a destructive diversion.

I liked what Salvina Muscat wrote so much I have copied her article from the Malta times. Ms Muscat now works in the Malta Education Department. We need people like her in New Zealand.

'In making laws which bind parents to an education system, we collectively assume a huge responsibility. And yet, for a high percentage of students, the school experience is not a good one.

In the early years of education children seem eager to learn; they are lively and happy. Generally, the classroom provides an atmosphere of spontaneity in which children are encouraged to explore, discover and create.

However, large numbers of students leave school feeling bitter and defeated, not having mastered basic skills society demands from them.

For teachers of unhappy children, the school experience is generally also an unhappy one.

The temptation is to go on the defensive and claim the students are stupid or that their social background is to blame.

It is not always so easy to draw this line. We must reflect on the teaching approach used.

Does this trigger in children a love for learning? How has teaching changed in comparison to the massive flow of information available as a result of the progress in technology? Are we teaching for dynamic learning or superficial knowledge?

In their book, Cognitive Process Instruction: Research On Teaching Thinking (1980), Jack Lochhead and John Clement assert, "We should be teaching students how to think. Instead, we are teaching them what to think."

Very often, education consists of transmitting subject content to students. In most cases, this is done in an excellent way; however, we fail to transmit to students the skill to think effectively about the subject matter - namely how to properly understand and evaluate it.

We need to find a solution to the fact that a majority of school-leavers feel like 'failures'. All children need to feel safe to learn in a manner which best suits them. While they are learning they are liable to make mistakes. This means they need to take risks and at the same time feel safe to take such risks.

Hence, schools need to create a positive environment which makes children feel respected and valued for who they are. Children learn best in an atmosphere of warmth and acceptance. Learning can be fun, or rather should be fun. Thus, it needs to focus on presenting children with enjoyable experiences.

These experiences need to include a variety of activities. In this way, children get more involved in learning about themselves, other people and other environments.

Activity while learning does not necessarily mean taking children out of the classroom every so often, or using teaching time to carry out unrelated activities.

Learning needs to focus on more interesting and better-prepared learning programmes which help children participate actively. This allows them to develop skills and competencies at a rate that is appropriate to their level.

Every person is unique, has different abilities and ways of memorising; each brain is uniquely organised. The same learning method will not be equally successful with all children. Learning needs to take the form of play so that, while it is enjoyable, problem solving skills are improved.

Scholars like Kim Tegel agree that play caters for many areas of development as it involves making decisions, group management, cognition and hypothesising, creativity, physical skills, aesthetic development and language development.

Play is open-ended and helps all children. How can a teacher make this a reality in the classroom with all the constraints?

In their publication, Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom, Chet Myers and Thomas Jones define active learning as "talking, listening, reading, writing, and reflection through problem-solving exercises, and other activities, all with the objective of requiring students to apply what they are learning".

A great deal of research supports active learning exercises. There are findings that students who are actively involved in the learning process are more likely to retain information, understand subject content and maintain overall interest in their study.

The benefits of a student-centred active learning approach has been well-documented; it serves students well when they enter their ever-changing fields of employment and need to adapt to change, think critically and work both collaboratively and independently.

As educators, our role is to facilitate learning for all children. If we need to tap different minds to be active participant learners we need to use a creative learning approach to teaching, supported by the use of resources.

The more senses (seeing, touching, tasting, hearing and smelling) are involved, the better the learning. The mind learns by association; in short this means we relate the unknown to the known. We need to explain the 'why' of a thing or an action.

In teaching, one needs to be flexible and able to adapt plans to the needs that may crop up as the learning is in progress. While talking about caring for plants, students need to experience planting a seed, and caring for the seed while it grows. When we discuss airplanes or any other means of transport, we can use a video and discuss parts of the machine like the steering wheel, or brakes, relating this to the car their family may own.

Children require immediate recognition of efforts made. They need to have the opportunity to discuss the results of their work and plan improvements.

Finally, it is essential to provide children with an experience of sharing their efforts. It is highly motivating if children can present their efforts to the class or in an assembly when a project or piece of work is accomplished. Evaluation is a necessary tool both for teachers and students as it is a measure of clearly defined goals set prior to initiating the task.

In this busy, fast-changing world, educating children for the future is the real challenge. Children need self-confidence, to be adaptable, to utilise their natural creativity, to understand their strengths and weaknesses, to be increasingly self-aware emotionally and intellectually, and to be capable of building relationships quickly, effectively and often virtually.

Entrepreneurship will be a vital tool for their success and for our economy's future stability. Perhaps we should encourage teachers to provide a variety of learning experiences which address different sorts of desirable outcomes.

There is a great need to teach beyond the curriculum. If we do not want change in education to remain cosmetic, all teachers need to be well-supported through training in active teaching approaches. They also need free use of resources to support their teaching. Success depends on the coordinated efforts of all.

As the African proverb goes, "Tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it."'

Ms Muscat is assistant director in the Human Resources Department of Education. She was the principal of St Margaret's College, Vittoriosa, when it was in the pilot stage, and holds a Masters Degree In Parmary Education.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Real literacy -the medium for 'seeking, using and creating'.

Julie Diamond -author of 'Welcome to the Aquarium'.

As well known American educator Deborah Meier writes on the back cover, 'A rare and special pleasure to read -capturing as it does why it is that some of us can never get enough of teaching.' Seems to me the our current Minister, her reactionary National Standards, her tame 'experts' like Mary Chamberlain, John Hattie, the Canadian woman 'expert', the phonics 'experts' ( Dr Tom etc) waiting in the wings, and all the new literacy advisers ( mercenaries) will make the joy of teaching extinct with their formulaic, anti creativity, 'best practice', 'cherry picked' research, imposed standardized and moderated approach.

Julie Diamond is breathe of fresh air - it is back to the future for me. The technocratic present is so depressing. The creativity of our schools, teachers and students is at risk.

At a creative school oral language, thinking, questioning, drawing and writing are at the heart of the 'emergent' inquiry programme.

And as Julie writes, 'the juice of real experience colours children's writing about real things. Their writing is informed by deep feelings, because the connections they have forged are unique and passionate. As they write and read about real things - not just about themselves - their writing takes off....When children study real things, their own interests and passions dominate their approach to the subject.'

And this writing ,assisted by the teacher, is the beginning of reading. This was once called the language experience approach, or 'whole language'. Julie sites Sylvia Ashton Warner and her vocabulary ideas as an important influence . Writing( and in turn reading) must have 'intense meaning' wrote Sylvia. This is also the approach of the Italian Reggio Emilia Schools Julie also follows.

Real experiences creates the need for focused writing and the search for the best words to use as they stretch their thoughts about the topic in hand. It is the 'lived experience that gives writing energy and muscle, style and personality.'

Forget working your way through genres - a programme based on real experience takes care of such things. Julie spends lots of time asking her students questions as and 'scribing' their thoughts. Such a lot of current classroom writing is lacking in depth. School language not real language.

Literacy develops in a culture that values the 'voice' of the students. As writing is developed Julie introduces knowledge of letters and sounds. Students remember word pattern through association. Julie sees her job to , 'introduce children to reading not to teach it.I encourage the acquisition of reading and writing but I don't push.I've seen too many children who weren't ready to read, pushed by parents or academically orientated pre-schools'. And now, in New Zealand, we have academics waiting to peddle their phonics approach on teachers demeaning meaningful experience in the process.

Julie believes in making children's first readers from their own thoughts ( a Sylvia idea) and once again encourages word attack strategies as part of the process of developing meaning. Her central goal is to ensure her students gain confidence.

During the year writing and drawing folders are developed - writing about authentic studies and experiences. Students needs dictate the appropriate feedback and help given to each student. This is a personalised classroom. Students are not herded in a 'four groups fits all approach' -an approach characterized by lots of children filling in time waiting for their group to get to the teacher.

Dictation of stories is a powerful tool and such dictation is at the level of each student - the deliberate teaching of word attack skills and conventions are introduced as individually appropriate. The 'artistry' of the teacher determines the level of help. Without instruction some children will be unable to progress but the point and purpose of reading must aways be kept paramount. Children need to become aware of Sound letter relationships and alphabet tasks in context and should build on and utilize what the students already know to maximize active rather than passive reading.

As writing skills become more sophisticated teachers should highlight writing conventions and teach techniques, and genres, to children who are ready to utilize them but this, Julie writes, should always be tied to actual purpose. High frequency words need to be available and increasingly learnt through use.. Instruction should aways support reading and writing - children genuine wish to communicate something that matters to them.

Julie resists the use of the term Literacy Block, preferring the term Language Arts, because classrooms dominated by literacy have little real time for the experiences that give children something to write about and supplant the richer multi disciplinary curriculum for mechanical seat work. All too often in such classrooms lessons are based on programmed sequences narrowing the professionalism of teachers. Jolly phonics come to mind!

Purpose for writing, and reading, comes when the children have a genuine purpose - it is as simple as that. Any explicit help should relate to the children's experience and need. Once again this points to the need for teacher artistry. In New Zealand much of the literacy block is spent by children rotating around literacy tasks at the expense of real learning

All this was once bread and butter for progressive junior teachers in New Zealand.Such teachers always considered what children needed to complete worthwhile tasks not to tick off checklists of standards or arbitrary levels.

Creative teachers respected their children's' 'voices' and stayed true to their beliefs - integrity rather than compliance is important. Such teaching put teachers professionalism central. Read, as a comparison, the technocratic jargon used to describe the current National Standards or levels

We need to honour the creativity and lived experiences of our students not supplant them.

It is all about respect and integrity and the valuing of children's' ideas. As Julie Diamond writes, 'The classrooms can then tap the raucous intelligence and the comparing, arguing and questioning that are normally heard outside school walls.

Monday, June 14, 2010

.. Literacy and inquiry -all part of the same learning process.


Putting critical  information literacy skills into action - use them or lose them

Inspired by a display following a visit to a museum to study the land Wars. To make good use of such an exciting experience students need a full range of literacy, numeracy observation , inquiry, and expressive skills in place. Real literacy requires a context, or need, that students can see the point of acquiring such vital skills. Literacy and numeracy are all about gaining meaning and power.

Exciting studies provides the context for such learning. The trouble is, these days, classrooms seem to place emphasis on literacy and numeracy as stand alone subjects and, by doing so, lesson students engagement and ability learn deeply about whatever the class is studying.

The first term ought to have been the opportunity to ensure the appropriate learning 'how to learn' skills are in place through reasonably guided studies. And the success of such studies will depend on how well a wide range of literacy skills have been implemented. By now teachers will have a better idea of what they need to focus on to ensure in depth understanding and presentation of whatever the current inquiry topic is. Students need to comprehend, pick out key points, learn to write persuasively about questions that they have chosen ( with their teacher's help), and to present their ideas through a range of media.

Such learning is based on a vision of what inquiry ought to look like appreciating that a powerful inquiry topic provides the context for acquiring required literacy skills.

The following components of an inquiry study are:

1 The need to immerse students in the topic to be studies to invite curiosity and wonder. A good way to start is to make a display around the study to capture the students interest. Literacy time is vital at this immersion stage. Students need to be helped to define study questions, consider their prior knowledge, and to explore background content material. During literacy time students can undertake guided reading of well chosen experts, and illustrative material, related to the study. Through such focused literacy activities students gather ideas to answer their chosen study questions. As well a range of presentation techniques ( including information media) can be introduced for students to make use of as their study progresses. Some of this material can be added to the original teacher display.

2 From the initial immersion students need to be helped to develop open questions, to search for information and to discover answers expressing their own 'voice'. All this can be done during literacy time. Students can work individually or in small groups exploring aspects of the chosen study. And during this time teachers can help their students learn how to source, and refer, to information using book resources the web, or through first hand experiences. Perhaps the most important role of the teacher is through dialogue with their students to ensure they are gaining in depth understandings and to ascertain what skills their students might need - diagnostic teaching.

3 From the above students need to be helped to pull together the information they have been exploring to ensure focused learning. Whatever is expressed should be referenced to sources or state that it their own view or opinion. It is important that students appreciate that quality of thought is more important than quantity - the idea of digging deeply into chosen aspects rather than 'cutting and pasting' ideas glibly.

4 Finally students need to demonstrate their understandings and share their learning. This can be done in a number of ways each way requiring its own subset of skills to be learnt. They can create well presented booklets withe well chosen illustrations and diagrams, charts, websites, blogs, articles, videos, PowerPoint's, parent evenings ... Much of this work can be added to the display, or presented for viewing on the classroom walls with suitable headings. A class evaluation of the study can be added as well. Students need to reflect on what they have learnt, what new skills they have gained and areas to work on for their next study.

Literacy and inquiry -all part of the same learning process.

After an in-depth study you would expect to see:

Some imaginative language based on the study.
Research writing ( not 'cut and paste') based around 3 or 4 chosen study questions
Illustrative art featuring aspects of the study ( or included as part of student research)
Creative art based on the study.
A wall display with: a heading (as provocation), key questions and or agreed tasks, prior ideas about chosen questions, examples of creative language, research findings, models, appropriate mathematical data/graphs and diagrams associated with the topic,imaginative art and possibly a final class evaluation about main ideas learnt. Even ideas for further research.

Each study should result in three or four specific outcomes ( selected from above) and each outcome will need to have skills in place - or to be introduced during the study time. It is such skill development that ought to be the focus of the literacy time. Preparing simple research report needs several skills to be in place to achieve quality learning - persuasive writing, how to focus on answering questions using their own 'voice', how to reference material, how to layout/design the work, how to introduce illustrations, how to design a cover ,if one is requited, and none the least handwriting skills if not using the computer.

Students should feel , at the conclusion of the study, that they have only scratched the surface of the topic.

Bruce Hammonds .Reflecting on what it has been all about.

Sometimes when you feel at the edge of things, as I do these days as my teaching career is coming to an end, you wonder if anything you have done makes any difference at all.

This is quite a devastating thought considering most of my teaching career has been as an adviser. Thankfully most of it was as an Education Board Adviser working alongside teachers over a long period of time not ‘delivering’ short term contracts as is the case today. As well, in those earlier days, advisers were specialist teachers whose role was to assist teachers who might not have had such expertise. We actually took lessons. Things have certainly changed over the years and not always for the best.

When I started, way back in the 60s, specialist teachers (as we were called then) were selected during their last year of teacher training and given a further year to hone their skills. Every Education Board had its own team and each service met regularly to share ideas. In our small Board we had three art specialists, three nature study specialists (changed to science advisers), three Physical Education specialists and, later, a music adviser, junior school and a rural adviser. Things slowly changed and reading and mathematics advisers were added to the mix and the earlier advisers’ numbers slimmed down. The future, it seems, will be populated with literacy and numeracy advisers peddling official ‘best practice’ and ‘cherry picked’ research.

In those early days advisers worked with teachers to develop curricula and resources. In our Board we worked together to develop integrated in-service courses that ran over several days. A lasting influence on my philosophy was working with the art advisers, under the leadership of National Art Adviser Gordon Tovey. Any success we had was dependent on the creative teachers in the schools. I remember the excitement of a teacher developing the first ever integrated unit based on an ecological study of a local stream – an approach we all take for granted today; even if I have doubts about the depth of many current studies. Pioneer creative teacher Elwyn Richardson and his philosophy provided inspiration for us all. His book ‘In the Early World’ became our ‘bible. Elwyn’s book, recently reprinted by the NZCER, is more relevant than ever with the increasing press to standardize learning. All schools ought to have copy as an antidote to current political populist policies. I guess behind the scene was the progressive influence of Dr Beeby, a previous Director of Education, who would be appalled by current developments.

Then came Tomorrows Schools; self managing schools; endless compliance requirements; advisers attached to Colleges of Education; with ‘advice’ ‘delivered’ by contracts with short term timelines; and with advisers employed by contract as well. And of course ERO!

There is no doubt that most of what I hold precious I learnt in those early days. It was a privilege to observe and work with the gifted teachers in our area. They in turn valued ‘our’ assistance. Working alongside such teachers allowed me to see in action teachers at work and, in turn, to share their ideas with others by running local courses. In my role as a science adviser I helped teachers with their field trips and ecological studies and in planning their science programmes. To this day I believe the most powerful professional developmental is gained by visiting other teachers. And, equally importantly, it places classroom teachers as key players not outside ‘experts’.

My most powerful role in the 70/80s was working with a small group of Taranaki teachers developing what became known as the Taranaki Environmental Approach. It is my belief that any real lasting change takes time and those involved need to be totally committed to the task. We all met regularly, often informally to talk over ideas. We also published material to share with others. I think it is fair to say that my itinerant role was a key factor to the group’s unity and such a ‘critical friend’ role is a viable possibility in the future as schools, once again, begin to work together. The work we began in Taranaki has changed over the years and today the area is known for quality learning but now features whole school development rather than the previous emphasis on individual teachers. This is a healthy development.

The future demands a greater emphasis on school creativity to balance the formulaic ‘best practice’ teaching that is being ‘delivered’ to schools resulting, all too often, in a sense of conformity and standardisation in schools.

Schools need to claim back their leadership role and resist the ‘state approach’ to education that is becoming the norm.

One thing I have learnt over the years is that making lasting change is not easy. Students, teachers and schools have to want to change, not just because of political edict or compliance requirement.

I hope there are people who feel I might have helped them over the years.

In recent years the only real effect I feel I have had is when schools have committed to make use of my services a week a term over a year or more. And in such situations, I have learnt, it always gets worse before it gets better! Some call this the ‘implementation dip’! In other schools, with one off assistance, any I ideas I might’ve shared often get lost in all the other competing influences. The status quo and innate teacher conservatism are powerful reactionary forces.

One of the difficult questions is, when asked, to give my impression of a school when it is obvious the school only wants confirmation. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘telling the truth makes you unpopular at the club’. I have found it is only those who value the insights of others who are able to change – that is if they agree! This is particularly hard if you are seen as a friend; schools don’t need reassurance from friends but honesty from ‘critical friends’.

I guess it is over to others to assess ones worth but as I reach the edge of my career I have been thinking about it. My most impressive feedback ever was from a girl I taught when out of the blue when she sent me an e-mail last year;

‘I hope you remember the ten year old because you are indelible in my ten year brain as the person who showed me how to feel, see and say... I am sure the reason I am an artist today is because of you…you taught me about the trees and their Maori names…and whenever I create something I go back to the ten year me to find that centre - the opening and questioning ten year old me.’

I believe strongly in a creative education that is premised on developing the talents and gifts of every student.

I believe equally strongly that any real lasting innovative change only happens when creative schools take the initiative for change and, better still, when groups of schools work together.

And I believe strongly that now is the time, with the imposition of National Standards, for courageous school leadership. Or is it too late?

'In a time of dramatic change learners inherit the world; while the learned
find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer

Eric Hoffer

Friday, June 11, 2010

Finding a real curriculum

A creative interpretation of a six year olds pet cat arising from a class study of cats - cats are amazing creatures with impressive adaptations to survive in the wild and as a pet.Students also researched their cats wilder, larger, more famous relatives. How much do you know about your cat?

This is another blog based on my reading of Julie Diamond's book 'Welcome to the Classroom - a year in the lives of children'

Julie writes that 'by the age five, when children arrive in elementary schools, they have evolved definite selves.....the have their passionate interests, concerns, topics,humor; a style that is theirs'.

In other words their own personal curriculum for teachers to tap into , amplify and challenge. Unfortunately, even from a very early age this curriculum is subsumed by topics teachers want to study with their class. Nothing wrong with this but it ought not be at the expense of children's interests and concerns. Eventually teacher imposed curriculums lead to the disengagement of many older students.

Julie lists a wide range of topics arising from the children's own environment and the questions and concerns they have .Children are curious about whatever attracts their attention.They are, Julie writes, 'incessant investigators, particularly about real things in the world.Teachers do not have to wait for questions to arise, but can initiate studies'. I like the quote from Jerome Bruner who says teachers need to 'practice the canny art of intellectual temptation.' Julie writes, 'we can find and display resources - real objects, books, photos - that will pique interest. When a study begins with something that is already part of the children's world, their involvement can be immediate.....Children invest certain topics with meanings that resonate for them at a certain age' She mentions: blood, injuries, dinosaurs, animals and pets.

Teachers just need to ask the students what they wonder about? what worries them? and what they would like to learn more about? A curriculum will 'emerge' and 'evolve'. Julie refers to the exciting Reggio Emilia approach - an approach similar to language experience idea of earlier decades.

Children learn best through first hand experiences. She writes ( referring to John Dewey) ' children learn through their senses; they look closely at things, poke at them, smell them, and shake them to see what sounds they produce'.

Observational drawing are vital for Julie ( she calls them science drawings) to help them investigate and observe closely. During the drawing process Julie encourages her students to tell her what they notice, their questions and thoughts thought.

This is the beginning of literacy - thinking, writing and reading. As studies evolve ideas are documented, photographed and displayed to show the children's learning journeys. In this way students insights and thinking is valued.

The key to such teaching is the teachers conception of the teaching role. Trust in kids is not easy, she says, and it is hard for some teachers to avoid being didactic. Julie values her children's theories and carefully elicits her children's ideas. New Zealand teachers may recognise this as co-constructivist teaching.

If we really value children's understanding we must value their 'prior thoughts and help them clarify and expand on them. It is this approach Julie outlines as her theory of instruction. Questions and answers both provide insight into children's thinking. In the term of the New Zealand Curriculum this is about children 'seeking, using and creating their own knowledge.

Children's questions and studies lead students naturally into the Learning Ares and disciplines. The teacher, Julie writes, 'acts as a bridge between the reality of the children and the logic of adult disciplines'. In this she one again quotes John Dewey who wrote that' eduction is rooted in the child's psychological reality but headed towards the logical reality of adult knowledge, the seeds of disciplines are implicit in children's curiosity about interactions with things in the world.'

Teachers need to know when to step in and assist children in their learning - this is the 'artistry' of being a teacher. They have to notice what is being learnt and what is not being learnt. Julie quotes Eleanor Duckworth. 'the essence of pedagogy is giving children the occasion to have wonderful ideas'. This means teachers 'need to take their students thoughts seriously so as to help them pursue them in greater depth and breadth'.

All this doesn't mean that teacher cannot provide information to students when required.

One idea I liked in Julie's book was that every Friday she gets her students to dictate a letter to her to send home to their parents about the weeks learning events.

Julie's book is about authentic learning - around tasks children have initiated for themselves or assigned by the teacher - learning that is congruent with children's intrinsic motivation, their intense desire to learn, explore , and make things. One indication of authenticity is the degree of energy invested by the children.

This is an approach that begins with their responses, respects their thinking; it is an open ended approach. The belief is that high quality work results when children's intentions and ways of thinking are respected.

Our job as teachers, Julie writes, 'is to see that children's feelings of intense and personal connection are maintained and extended....teachers ensure that a curriculum provides a multiplicity of approaches, children can make their own sense of a topic, and such a topic is likely to appeal to more of them. Their discoveries and conclusions, their idiosyncratic juxtapositions, their eccentric observations and conclusions, and even the public challenges to what we know to be so, add unplanned dimensions layer, and extensions to a study'.

And all this constructing of knowledge leads into authentic reading and writing. In too many New Zealand classrooms literacy and numeracy have all but squeezed out the kind of authentic personalised and creative learning Julie writes about. There was a time when this wasn't the case.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Looking at Art -Julie Diamond

I thought I would share a few ideas from Julie Diamond's book 'Welcome to the Aquarium' -the story of one year in one year one class. It was refreshing to enjoy the reality of life as teacher that Julie expresses so well. And all the more since it so much aligns with what I believe. I guess we both developed the basis of our philosophies in the heady days of the late 60s. Her classroom is a truly personalised one - not a classroom full of students developing ideas provided by the teacher.

Julie makes it clear she wants the students to 'feel- in their bones- this is their room'. The classroom is to be a 'place for children's work; that's the message'.the goal of the classroom is 'the development of children's intrinsic interests.

'Traditional education', she writes, 'pictures children as the slates, teachers doing the writing.If we are receptive- to children, to what they bring to school- the relationship is reversed.' This is in contrast to teacher dominated ( no matter how friendly)many classrooms I visit are.

Julie writes, 'I want children to take from this year an attitude of respect towards their own capacities for having purpose, for making things, for thinking.I want children to take themselves seriously while having fun.''By the end of the year I want them fully engaged'.

I was interested to read her views about the importance of art, being an ex art adviser. All too often art is used as a a means to 'decorate' the room rather than express individual children's idiosyncratic expression.

She writes, 'A critical component of art an acceptance of the unknowability of the end product....I have had to learn that mistakes are not only inevitable but necessary and useful, and that dealing with them - untangling some knot- takes us somewhere unexpected.' Once again in contrast with all the 'intentional teaching' now seen as 'best practice' in our schools resulting in a conformity of product devoid of personality. And as well the importance of art as a form of expression is demeaned.

'Teaching art has to do with the difference between trusting children and believing you must teach them everything about a subject or they won't know'. This brings in the role of the teacher. Julie writes that teachers must leave space for their work - children must make the decisions, do the thinking, use their imagination, and take responsibility for their own work. Teachers must be careful not to impose their ideas on students.

Julie writes that teacher's role is subtle. Explorations can be guided, parameters set but still open enough 'to permit each child's experience and unique preferences to inform' their work. 'The aim is help children to develop their abilities, to see, design, use colour, to help them extend their visual vocabularies, to help them gain clarity and conviction, while making something that is authentically theirs'.

'I aways put the children's expressiveness first.Art activities were valued because the class environment was rich in art, part of all content areas, they illustrated poems, drew the classroom animals and plants, printed with the leaves we'd collected in the park, and made collages to illustrate children's information about the animals they were studying. They used maths material to make elaborate and beautiful patterns'.

When involved in real life investigations Julia is influenced by John Dewey who believed children learn best through concrete experiences; that they learn through their bodies and their senses; they look closely at things, play with them, smell them,and shake them.

Julia involved her children in what she calls 'science' drawings. Children had lots of experiences in drawing a range of things from the nature table. Drawings were dated and stamped and Julia would ask the children what they had noticed about the object being drawn and she would write down what they said.

Science drawing, she instructed her children, is a different kind of drawing from other more expressive drawings. Expressive art arises out of observational work.Science drawing is a means to investigate some phenomena. When they draw in this way they notice more; the swirl in a shell or the jagged edge of a nut. Such drawing gives children a sense of ownership of the object being drawn. Drawing in this way is a valuable tool of investigation is natural for young children. The teacher actively helps a child look at an object to be drawn. By displaying drawing children's thinking was made public Photos also documented the work of observation. Work collected creates a record of the development of children's observational abilities.

In Julia's classroom children communicate with ease in making and thinking about art both expressive and scientific..

My kind of classroom.