Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Power of the Read Aloud Goes Way Beyond the Primary Grades

During the 2004/2005 school year I had the extraordinary opportunity to meet and hear the world renowned illustrator Wendell Minor speak to the 6th graders I was teaching. A dear friend and colleague organized his presentation at the school. Having a passion for and deep roots in the arts I am always drawn to beautifully illustrated books, but this was the first time I was to hear in person, from the primary source, what the process was like to bring words to life. What I took from this experience was nothing short of an epiphany.

Like many teachers, I came to the profession with a desire to smooth out the bumps I felt as a student. I have learned through my own academic challenges, that one of my strengths in life is having some insight into how people acquire knowledge. Having struggled to learn to read myself, and figuring out how to harness my own hyperactive idiosyncrasies, I have found it easy to empathize with others. When I heard Wendell speak he seemed to be speaking to me as a learner not an educator. Ironically, that year  and this experience happened when I was home in Rhode Island, teaching in the same middle school I went to as a 6th grader. I was miserable as a student there, but found myself as a whole person there while I taught. Things do really come around full circle.

Wendell Minor's message to the students was persevere. He overcame a learning disability to become the successful man he is today. A boy who grappled with dyslexia made his mark on the literary world as an adult. His message to the teachers - Wendell credited his teachers who read aloud to the class. He related that by listening to the stories, he knew that even though he didn't feel confident he could read those books on his own yet, that other worlds, adventures and knowledge awaited him when he could.

Reading aloud is profoundly beneficial to kids of all ages, even in high school and beyond. It takes the pressure of performing off  for a little while and allows them to fully enjoy a great story. The conversations that will ensue will bond you, deepen your understanding of the literature and each other.

One of my proudest moments of teaching was having a bunch of rough and tough 6th graders, already jaded by hard lives, cry and laugh with me through reading Old Yeller. They broke out into round of applause when I turned the last page. I know only a few of them had ever finished a novel before that.

Thank you Mr. Minor and Donna Berg for facilitating and deepening my love of the read aloud!

A Different Lesson from the Lorax

"UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."
Spoken by the Once-ler in the Lorax by Dr. Seuss.

These are words I live by and every time I read the book aloud choke me up. Our society as a whole today promotes individuals to complain, but doesn't encourage them enough to be the change they seek. It is frustrating sometimes to feel as though you are looked at as a radical for simply stepping up and speaking out. It is a fundamental value I hope to instill in my children. That being said I noticed something the other night when my toddler son pulled the book of the shelf and asked me to read it. Like all good Dr. Seuss books, I read the story with an animated voice rolling with the cadence of the playful rhymes and poetic licence that only he could produce, BUT I found that I did not thoroughly go through the pictures on the pages discussing and labeling the characters and scenes as we do in other books. I realized, the reason I didn't was I knew the pictures would drastically change from a happy Utopia to a wasteland of sorrow and regret. This content is too heavy for a little boy. I wanted the book to remain as light hearted and silly as One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish or Hop on Pop. I do not want to put the weight of the world on his still developing shoulders. He's not ready for that and neither am I.

We need to allow our children to be children. Preserve their innocence. I thought we were doing that in our house by not owning a tv and sheltering him from the graphic displays and candor on the evening news. I was surprised to find that weight in a book that has such a powerful and positive intent.

Like the Loony Tunes cartoons, many picture books aren't intended for younger audiences. This is the perfect kind of story for an early teen, who's horizons are broadening and is searching for a little meaning in life and is developing a greater conscience.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

School Choice: A Bittersweet Dilemma

Having worked in Title 1 (low-income population) schools all but 2 years of my teaching career, I've seen first hand amazing teachers move to other schools to leave the stress of the abused test scores, the anguish of loosing sleep night after night trying to solve a problem for a child that isn't even school related. I've seen classrooms inspected to make sure the right posters for the reading program are up on the walls. I've seen teachers have to parent first before they can teach. I've seen them stripped of the autonomy and tools that work for their students because the school isn't making AYP. I've seen phenomenal teachers quit teaching all together because they can't handle the feeling of never being able to do enough. I've seen schools where the Parent Teacher Association was only comprised of the teachers. I've seen schools have test week pep rallies to "promote" success on the assessments only to add more weight and stress on the students. I've seen canned reading programs where sixth graders never open a real novel, schools trying so hard to scramble to meet the "mark" in SBAs that they don't teach social studies or science. I've seen and been responsible for students test scores who have been in 4 or 5 different schools before my classroom. I've seen students who have only been in English speaking schools for 3 years forced to take the same test as the rest of the kids and held accountable for it. I've seen kids withheld services because the SPED department is the category "bringing the school" down from making AYP. I've seen gifted students held from gifted schools because they lifted the test score average of a school. When I started teaching and NCLB was being put in place I thought these were just dooms day predictions conjured up by those at the extremes. Today it is pure reality.

While people often blame the left for being bleeding hearts and the right for corporate ambition, the bottom line is if you believe in the American Dream, if you believe in Capitalism and the idea that if you work hard your reap the benefits... then the education for ALL students should be equal. Education however is not a capitalist's market. The economic growth model that NCLB is based on does not fit, with all the variables that exist in this realm. The irony is that if you want Capitalism to work you need a little socialism. Like a good education you can't be taught in only one way to have a comprehensive understanding with which to go out and be fully successful in the world. If you are only taught reading through phonics you miss the meaning. There's a balance. We need to find it.

Charter Schools is a hot topic in Congress today, as is the voucher system. A love/hate relationship is what I have with Charter schools. Here are some of the pros and cons about the system as it exists today:

Charter School Cons:
  • On one hand they are seen as public funded private schools for the students of typically educated, and usually middle-class families and up. 
  • Very few charter schools cater to underpriveledged populations. 
  • Usually they require parents provide transportation, or students to take the city bus as opposed to the school bus (kind of an imposing idea for a kindergartner). 
  • Another stipulation that many charter schools have is mandatory parent involvement. This sounds great but rather difficult for parents who work 2 jobs each and may not speak English. 
  • Simply knowing these charter schools and choices exist is an obstacle for many parents. School districts don't tend to want to divert students away from their neighborhood schools for fear of the added costs.
Charter School Pros:
  • Parent Choice
  • Ability to choose the right program for your child's learning style and family's belief system.
  • Fostering innovative thinking in teaching staff
  • Providing testing grounds for best practices
The Voucher Option - is a hot topic as well. This is where the government provides financial assistance for parents to send their children to private, non-government schools. All of the same pros and cons that deal with charter schools apply here.
    My personal dilema - already the toddler parents I see on a regular basis are starting to chatter (our kids don't even start preschool until next year) about where they want their kids to go. They are packing up their houses and moving to neighborhoods with better schools, they are sharing info they've heard about charter schools. The anxiety over getting their kid in through the lottery system is already giving them goosebumps. I want my kid to go to my neighborhood school, even though it is a Title 1 school, serving both my neighborhood and the trailer park near by. I want my child to understand diversity in not just race, but economic status. I grew up a "poor" kid in a wealthy ocean side New England town. BUT I want choice too. I don't want him to be taught through the canned Houghton Mifflin Reading Program the district mandates teachers in Title 1 schools teach with "fidelity." I want to know that there are great teachers that come back to the same school every year and that it isn't just a constantly new crop of rookies because once the teachers get their foot into the district they move on from that school. I want my child to be part of a school with a clear and vibrant vision.

    Monday, September 5, 2011

    Project Wild & Project Learning Tree

    These are two of the finest environmental education programs around. Trainers are located all over the country that can help you tailor the lessons to your neck of the woods. I had the pleasure of participating in the training for both Project Wild and Project Learning Tree (PLT) 10 years ago when I was completing my internship and the program has only gotten better since then. One of the things I love about this programs is the user friendly materials they provide educators and the activities they have designed full engage all of the multiple intelligences. These aren't just lessons, they are games and hands on experiments to fully engage students from kindergarten through high school. Here in Alaska the program is sponsored by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the http://www.dnr.state.ak.us/ .

    PLT even offers trained teachers grant opportunities for up to $1000 to plan service projects!

    Project Learning Tree Environmental Education Activity Guide Pre K-8 (2004)Project WILD K-12 Curriculum and Activity GuideProject Wild Aquatic: K - 12 Curriculum & Activity Guide