Monday, March 29, 2010

Alfie Kohn on "Traditional" vs. "Alternative" or "Progressive" Education

I know it makes me an EduGeek, but I couldn't think of a better way to spend St. Patrick's day than by attending a lecture by Alfie Kohn at Central Michigan University. His talk focused on what he outlined as the three differences between traditional and progressive education:
1. Traditional education has a "right answer" focus. Teachers have the power and the answers and students compete to get the right answer first. This causes many students in a traditional classroom to give up. If they feel they will never have the "right answer" or that they cannot get it fast enough, perhaps they stop trying.
**This point leaves me feeling conflicted. I understand where Kohn is coming
from on the point of competition. I tend to not be as anti-competition as he
is. I have seen, especially in the classes of boys I have worked with, that
competition can be a motivator. I do agree that care needs to be taken that
competition in the classroom doesn't become mean or destructive. On the other
hand, we've been complaining in my building recently that students don't seem
to have the ability to persevere when learning gets tough. Is that partially
because we have been all about getting the right answer quickly?
2. Traditional education is all about facts and skills. Textbooks are the curriculum and teachers often use skill sheets to drill memorization of facts. In progressive education, facts and skills are taught in context, with textbooks, worksheets, and lectures used sparingly.
**This point makes me contemplate something that the math teachers in my
middle school have been saying for the last couple of years; that many
of our students seem to lack number sense. Could this be a function of
our traditional approach, that we aren't asking students to reason and
understand math operations? When they memorize formulas but don't know
why they work the way they do, have the students really learned anything?
3. Traditional classrooms have no real purpose for learning. A student may say she is working for a grade, but she isn't taught to think about her learning. In progressive classroom, learning is done for a purpose. Students know what that purpose is and the focus is on what is learned and on being reflective about learning.
**Alfie Kohn's ideas of progressive education match the philosophy of the
middle school concept; specifically, James Beane's
theories on integrated curriculum. In integrated curriculum, the
driving force is the questions that students have about their lives and their
world. Curriculum and the learning experiences in integrated curriculum are
created by teachers and learners together, motivating them to find answers to
their questions and learning for the sake of learning and not for a grade.

In addition to these differences, Kohn outlined the four main problems of traditional education:
1. The quality of learning is low, creating superficial thinkers who often ask, "Do we have to know this?"
2. There is an increase in the gap between the "haves" and "have-nots", between whites and blacks, etc. in traditional education.
3. There are more behavioral problems in traditional schools/classrooms.
4. As students move up the grade levels in traditional education, there is a loss of curiosity and less desire to learn.

It is interesting to note that what we think of as traditional schooling is not really that old. What we consider elements of progressive education: multi-aged grouping and learning by doing in apprenticeship situations, are much older than our traditional age-based, lock-step approach.

I was very impressed by Alfie Kohn. Although his ideas may seem utopian to some, and he is viewed by many as being "out there," I found him to be very realistic. I had the opportunity to ask him how he has tried to ensure that his own children receive the kind of education he proposes. His answer; that he has always been open to his children's teachers if they were interested in help and that he sometimes had to "hold his nose" and help his children with assignments that seemed pointless or worthless, put him in the context of a real person working for change while understanding and dealing with the realities that parents and teachers are surrounded by daily.

So many of his ideas were confirmed and reiterated for me the following Monday, when on the last day of the Michigan Reading Association's Annual Conference, I had the opportunity to hear a keynote by Jim Grant. But that's another post!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Looking Forward to Summer Even as I Learn!

I have been attending a series of workshops on digital storytelling. I always enjoy learning new things and I am already thinking about how to bring these new skills back to my staff. In our final day today, I created a digital story that is modeled after a lesson being taught in one of the fifth grade classrooms. The classroom teacher is having her students write about their favorite Michigan memory. To give them a focus, they used the book This Is the Tree as their mentor text.

I decided to write my own and create a digital story to share with the students. This way, I could model that the adults in the building are writers and I could begin to plant the seeds of using digital storytelling. I ran into one major issue. My daughters narrated the story for me and I used audacity to record their narration. When I added the narration in PhotoStory3, it automatically faded out the narration in each picture. Because the girls aren't here with me, I went ahead and rendered the project, but my plan is to go back and re-record the girls right in the PhotoStory program. Maybe at that point I'll repost. But I think you can get a good idea anyway. Here it is:

Monday, March 8, 2010

Reading Sparks

Back in December we ran our first SPARKS classes of the year. They were a hit and we wanted to offer these exploratory opportunities to our students again. Sometime last year, one of our language arts teachers suggested that we do a SPARKS that might be more academic in nature, offering sessions that would all somehow involve reading. With that idea and with March is Reading Month close at hand, the language arts staff decided to run with a second SPARKS session of the year.

We are holding out Reading SPARKS on each Friday of the month of March from 2 to 3pm. The offerings are quite diverse. Students could choose to read about hunting and game management, to create their own teen 'zines, to learn how to create and keep their own blog, to research and plan their dream vacation, to study their family history and create their own heralds, and so many more. The three most popular offerings among students were learning about and hatching out baby chicks, reading and solving a spooky mystery story, and reading about the creepy crawly bugs that live on our bodies and that people around the world actually eat. And we had a huge number of students who just wanted the opportunity to get comfy with a good book!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

Developing a love of reading and writing is so crucial in our schools today. Strategies should be in place all year long to foster this love, but in March, many schools place an extra special emphasis on the importance and love of reading. Our staff has always celebrated a Reading Week during the month of March. Every year we would also talk about having an author come to visit our school, and we finally decided to stop talking and make it happen. The process of selecting an author was tedious, as we believe in all staff having input in our decision making. Lists were drafted, books were bought and read, research on the cost of various authors was conducted.

The author we chose was Sue Stauffacher. No-one on staff had heard of her before our research began, but based on the fact that we could afford her, and the fact that her variety of published work would appeal to all of our students, fifth through eighth grade, we decided she was the best choice. Her books Harry Sue, Donuthead, and Donutheart have become very popular in our school!

I don't think anyone was as excited as I for this author visit. Authors are like rock stars to me. Even though I know it makes me sound incredibly geeky, the fact that I have interactions on Twitter with authors such as Laurie Halse Anderson, Neil Gaiman, and Meg Cabot is something I find incredibly cool and exciting! I wait in line at the Michigan Reading Conference every year to meet authors and have books signed. Now I was going to have the opportunity to spend the whole day with one!

A schedule was created so that Sue would present to our students in two different large groups. Her first presentation was to our 5th and 6th graders and then she repeated the presentation to 7th and 8th graders. Using a power point slide show that was mainly pictures, Sue had the students choose from different "chapters" of her presentation to allow students to determine the order of the information they heard. This kept her presentations very spontaneous and interesting.
In the afternoon, Sue led a small group of 20 students in some story brainstorming and prewriting. Sue also spoke with this group about where ideas come from. Many of the happenings in Sue's stories are snipped right from the headlines and she explained to students that "truth really is stranger than fiction." Sue also talked about the importance of revision in writing. She shared a scrapbook that has some of her prewriting for an upcoming picture book:And she shared her first hand-written draft of her novel, Harry Sue,as well as her a typed manuscript with the revisions suggested by her editor.

All of our students were gracious and kind. It was a fabulous day for us all. But it was an extremely special day for me. As lucky as I am to have the job I do, it is perks like this day that make me pinch myself sometimes. As hostess for the day, I had the pleasure of taking Sue to lunch and introducing her to a tiny glimpse of our local Amish culture. Sue is such a joy to spend time with, and we became so lost in our conversation that we were nearly late returning to school for her afternoon session! What had begun for me with a feeling of awe ended with the feeling of having met a true friend.

As an author, Sue writes books about characters that seem so real. Her stories are touching and sometimes a bit sad, but with just the right amount of humor that you know the characters are going to be ok, despite their troubles. Her writing style doesn't condescend to kids, but rather, it communicates to kids that they are capable and mature. This style also comes across in her presentations and in her face to face interactions with students. I could not have imagined a better experience.