Saturday, January 15, 2011

How will they learn... not how will I teach...

One of the best parts of teaching is the learning. The learning by the students, of course, but also the learning by the teacher. There are always tales of teachers who have file cabinets full of lesson plans organized by week, that they pull out year after year, believing that what worked yesterday will work today as well. I don't think I actually know any of those teachers, at least I hope not! That would never work for me, and that is perhaps why I loop. Moving back and forth between first and second grade every other year keeps my mind fresh and forces me to think about my teaching. With two years between lessons, there are many changes to consider. Who are the children sitting in front of me now? What are their interests? Where are they in their learning? What do they need next to move on? What new strategies and teaching ideas have I acquired? The last question is so important. Teachers must never allow themselves to become stale. The world around us is changing constantly and those changes are obvious in our students. To ignore that and pull out a 20 year old lesson plan would serve to frustrate both the students and the teacher. Even more importantly, it would probably not result in the learning that the teacher had envisioned. Although I began my teaching career late in life (at 40), I have now been teaching long enough to have memories of "the way we used to teach". I am not unlike the students, however, in my need to keep learning fresh and relevant. I crave the creative challenge of exploring new things and seeing where they lead.

In the past two weeks, I reached a new understanding of a thought I read recently. We need to focus not so much on the teaching, as on the learning. The internet is full of lesson plan sites. Think of a topic and you can find an almost unlimited number of ways to teach it. How do you go about selecting the perfect lesson plan to add, perhaps, to your file cabinet of lessons for the first week of January? (Sorry, I couldn't resist!) What if instead of looking for a way to teach, you spent time thinking of ways a child would learn? It took me some time to sort out the difference and really understand that concept. It became pretty clear in the last two weeks as I approached something I have taught many times from a new direction.

Teaching students to become effective writers can be challenging. There are many programs available to guide teachers through the process and our district has a program as well. The program has excellent skills, goals, samples, and rubrics to assist a teacher in developing writing skills in students. it certainly is a way to teach writing. But something is missing for me in following a commercial program day after day. I shouldn't use what we call the "b" word in class, but simply teaching the same way day after day has a tendency to become "boring" for both the students and the teacher. I am constantly on the lookout for new ways to approach the topics to keep my teaching alive as well as the students awake. It was in that spirit that I realized the difference between thinking of "how they will learn" rather than "how I will teach". We had been working on descriptive writing and the kids had reached a plateau. I wanted them to move on and continue to develop more skillful writing. In the past I have used poetry to inspire more creative description, so I decided to do that again. Now there are many ways to approach poetry and I have tried a variety of things in the past. This time, however, I tried something new. I recently acquired a set of wireless mice and several hubs for connection to a PC. Using a free Microsoft download called Mouse Mischief and PowerPoint 2007, I created a lesson to teach my second graders about poetic devices. The writing devices were not new. I taught them about alliteration, simile, personification, and onomatopoeia as I have often done in the past. The difference was in the approach. I have never taught all of those at one time before. That is quite a lot for a seven or eight year old to grasp in one sitting. Especially when a teacher is lecturing and explaining while a child is expected to listen and learn. But... when I put them into a power point lesson that allowed the students to interact by moving and clicking their own personal mouse from their seat, they were suddenly playing a game, not hearing a lesson. They were engaged, noisy, and actively involved in learning. It took exactly one lesson for mastery of the poetic concepts. After we put the mice away, I covered a table with photographs I had taken in my backyard of winter animals and snow covered plants. The kids selected pictures and put their new learning to work in a magnificent way as they wrote poems filled with our new poetic devices. There was not a single child off task or unsuccessful. In fact, it was one of my struggling writers who became the star of our poetry writing. We uncovered her creative side as she easily saw similes and connections to apply personification.

The magic of the lesson was the "game" approach. In 2011 much of the play our students engage in involves technology. That is reality. Ask them what they like to play. Most will say video games. If we want them to learn, we need to engage them in ways that captivate their attention. The student that had the most striking success for me was the one who would have shut down if asked to watch and listen. She would never have gained the understanding of the lesson without the active involvement that putting the mouse in her hand created. It invited her to listen and participate and discover a success that she will not soon forget. You can lead a kid to a lesson but you can't make them listen... but just try to get them to keep their mouse still for a second!!! It wasn't the lesson I was teaching that made the difference, it was approaching it in a way that kids learn.

Here are some of the poems my students created after one lesson:

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