Category Archives: Classroom practice

TRUGS and what it means to “teach reading”?

If I gave you a list of foreign words, taught you the generally applicable rules for decoding those words, then invented a game to let you practice this decoding, would you be able to read a novel written in that language?

Would I have taught you how to read in that language?

How about these words? I’ll teach you how to pronounce every one, then give you a poem written in this language:

noll, fyra, femte, atta, tjugoforsta, tjugo, tolv, arton, tack, hejsan, kvall, nej … and so on

Could you read it?

Or could you just ‘word call’ it – make every word sound just right but have no idea what the piece was about?

In other words, is learning to pronounce single words correctly, without any syntactic or semantic, context really reading?

Of course not!

Reading is about making meaning and without any syntactic or semantic cues individual words have wavering, shifting meanings, and sometimes no meaning at all.

So why is it that a card game that helps children to decode individual words, devoid of meaning or context, called ‘Teaching Reading Using Games’ or TRUGS?

Quite simply it is NOT a reading game. It’s a coding game. And reading is about far more than coding and decoding.

The game is fine, and the ability to decode words through phonemic analysis and the application of grapho-phonic rules is an important skill, but let’s not pretend that playing the game is the same as teaching reading.

In an article in The New Yorker of June 3, 2013, Adam Alter writes:

“These studies suggest a sort of linguistic Heisenberg principle: as soon as you label a concept, you change how people perceive it.”

Names are powerful. The change the way we think.

So please, let’s not call this game TRUGS.

It doesn’t teach reading.

It is a great decoding game.

How about calling it Teaching Decoding Using Games  instead? TDUGS?

You can read more about this here:

http://www.thisisdevon.co.uk/Joanna-sees-passion-reading-royal-seal-approval/story-16716955-detail/story.html#axzz2jPMlX0Wm

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Handwriting – the beauty of variation

Keyboards are everywhere. I marvel at the speed with which my own kids manage to pump out text on a full sized keyboard or with their thumbs on a smart phone. In the USA there is a growing debate about whether or not children need to be formally taught cursive writing. The new Common Core State Standards do not mandate its teaching. In Australia we have seen frequent discussions about the problems faced by final year high school students being required to write extended passages long hand in exams, when they are unused to the practice during their school year. They feel they lack fluency and their hands ache!

For some years now I have been troubles by the weird and wonderful ways in which I see young adults holding pens and pencils. They look awkward and they revert to keyboards as soon as practicable.

When I taught grade one and two children  a major part of my curriculum was teaching them how to hold their pencils efficiently and how to form letters that would lead to fluent, legible, effortless handwriting. The refrigerators in the homes of my students were festooned with examples of their early attempts.

There are those who regard this particular learning process as a waste of time,  as clinging to an old, outmoded technology.

I disagree!

How often do we set things that are essentially different up against each other for comparison and competition?

Which is better, the movie or the book?

Which side of the brain is most important, the left or the right?

Who is smarter, men or women?

Which do you prefer, oysters or chocolate cake?

Which is better, a photographic or a painted portrait?

These comparisons don’t work.

Neither does the question, ‘which should we teach, keyboarding or handwriting?’

There will always be a place for the handwritten, just as there will always be a place for the painted.

Just because a child can easily take a photograph of a tree doesn’t mean that we should not give him the opportunity to draw or paint a tree. There is something about the artist that is revealed in a painting, a personal response to the subject matter and a reinterpretation of the literal truth that comes about when a subject is painted or drawn.

So it is with handwriting.

We know that every person’s handwriting is unique. Why? Because the movements of the pen on paper are influenced by the character and experiences of the writer. They keyboard gives us the vocabulary and the syntax. The pen gives us something of the person. Another manifestation of the marvelous variations between people can be seen in the formal, controlled and perfectly formed handwriting of one person, the tight, tiny, cramped writing of another and the expansive, impetuous scrawl of yet another.

Our handwriting is one of the things that proclaims our individuality.

How many of us hold dear the early attempts of our children to write us notes, the love letters of an early sweetheart or even the handwritten name of a long dead loved one in a favorite book of poems?

We seem to be very good at throwing out our babies with the bath water in education.

Let’s not do it again.

Let’s continue to teach our children the intimate, expressive art of handwriting as well as the efficient, expedient skill of keyboarding.

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The Power of ‘Yet’

I can’t do that.

I’ve never been any good at that.

Nah, its not something I’m any good at.

Too hard. Always has been.

How many times have you said that?

How many times have you heard that?

It’s a cop out!

Carol Dweck, the author of ‘Mindsets’ has described the word YET as powerful.

Every time you allow one of those ‘can’t’ comments to pass unremarked and unchallenged, you contribute another brick to the wall that surrounds and limits human achievement. In yourself, your children, your students.

Every time you add the word ‘yet’ to the statement “I can’t do that”, you remove a brick, you begin to create a doorway, an opening in the walls that hold us all back from achieving above and beyond what our limited expectations tell us is possible.

Make ‘yet’ a powerful word in your vocabulary.

brick-wall-with-sky-showing-thrublog

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The Second Time Around

The upheaval in our politics over the last couple of days, together with an invitation to act as a mentor, have got me thinking. Can it really be “more wonderful, the second time around”?

In the small number of years since I left my role as an elementary (primary) school principal I have frequently thought, “I would be a much better principal now, if I had the chance again.” Why am I thinking this way?

I am an artists as well as an educator. I have an easel in the house and there is usually a painting on the go. I find myself irritated when people stand with their noses up against the canvas, perusing every brush stroke. I like to do that with my work and with the work of others because I am interested in the techniques. But I want people to stand back from a painting and take it in as a whole. As a practitioner I need to understand the bits and pieces that go to make the finished product. I need to understand how colors are laid on the canvas, which ways the brush strokes go, how one area is blended into another. But to really understand the painting, I need to stand back.

So it was with being a principal. To really understand the profession, I needed to stand back. While I was in my school, walking the hallways, sitting in my office, talking with teachers, watching lessons, I was almost entirely preoccupied with the technique. Every day was so full of technical decision making and procedural, managerial necessities – the brushes, the paint, the mixing and the application. Teaching too. I now have the time to read, to explore the reasons for teaching the way we do, time to examine the details of approaches that seem to work better than the ways we have traditionally done things.

We don’t often get a chance to do things a second time around, but mentoring can be a surrogate. I enjoy my work with schools as a consultant because, among other things, it gives me the opportunity to communicate a point of view that isn’t enmeshed in the close up detail of practice. My contribution to a school is firmly rooted in years of experience as a teacher and a principal, but just as importantly it has the added element of having been able to stand back and take in the whole picture. I may not get a chance to do things ‘a second time around’ but I hope this opportunity to stand back and see a bigger picture can be useful.

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Real Men Read

http://www.essentialkids.com.au/preschoolers/preschooler-education/keeping-boys-reading-20130611-2o1uj.html#utm_source=FD&utm_medium=lifeandstylepuff&utm_campaign=boysreading

At my school in the USA I introduced a program that I had also promoted in Australia. It was called “Real Men Read”. Aware of the research that is described in this article in Essential Kids, I had pondered why it was that boys seem to turn off reading. A series of questions pretty much answered it for me.

When do our lifelong habits start to form? When we are very young.

Who most frequently reads the bedtime story or stories throughout the day? Mum.

Who reads the stories at the day care centre? Women.

Who teaches in the first grades of school when children are learning how to read? Mostly women.

So it dawned on me that perhaps boys think reading is really some kind of “secret women’s business” and not really for them.

It was then that I decided to bring men into my school to read books to the kids and to tell them how important reading was to them.

We had policemen, athletes, the mayor, fire fighters, members of the clergy, builders, politicians, school board members, all sorts of men.

It’s eight years since I left that school district and I understand that the program has continued. In fact I was surprised a few years ago to discover that someone was making money out of it. They had turned it into a commercial success, of course with no reference to the person who started it all. Another good educational idea turned for profit!

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Through the Rear View Mirror

Every new medium that comes along takes time to find its feet. At first we just see it as a better way of doing ‘business as usual’.

When the movies took off, at first they looked an awful lot like stage plays on celluloid, or they made our novels visual. It took time for film makers to work out what they could do that live theatre and the printed word could never achieve.

Television began as a way of bringing the movies and plays into the living room. Newsreaders sat in front of the camera in sharp suits and did the equivalent of reading the newspapers to us. Today TV news is instantaneous, right in the middle of the action and all over the world in an instant – something only TV could manage. 

Electronic communication began as a wave of emails – old fashioned letters in a new format. Today we text, send instant messages, videos, instagrams, we tweet, we blog and we facebook. We are beginning to use electronic communication for its own sake, making the most of the new things it can do that older media never could.

That’s why many schools are having a hard time incorporating these new technologies. The media and the devices haven’t settled in yet. We haven’t fully recognized what they can do that is different, that they are not just the same things from the past in a new wrapping.

Ipads are still being used as a natty new kind of text book. Kids and teachers are using them as a substitute for pen and paper, sharing homework assignments and submitting written projects. They use them as dictionaries and as encyclopaedias, but they can be so much more. We are still looking at the new media through a rear view mirror, as Marshall McLuhan would have observed.

The trick is to ask yourself ‘what can this device and its software do that only it can do?’

Once you work that out, exploit it to enhance learning. Projecting a twitter feed on a classroom screen gives everyone immediate access to the insights of the whole class. You can’t do that with a pen and paper. Skyping a classroom half way around the world (if you can fiddle the time zones right) and watching what they are doing, can’t be done with a conventional phone. Every kid can find his own TED video to watch and then share what he has learned by building a Prezi.

It goes on and on – so many things to be done with an ipad that are not simply new ways of using books or pen and paper.

It will take time. That’s inevitable. But eventually we will find ourselves using electronic technology in ways that amaze us, because we will discover how to get the technology to do what it does best.

The big question to ask is “What can this do that nothing else can do?” rather than “How will this help me do what I have always done better?”

 

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The Power of Metaphor

The neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran in his fascinating book “The Telltale Brain” describes the uniquely human capacity to create metaphors. It requires a sophisticated ability to juxtapose two seemingly unrelated concepts because they have some point of similarity at a deeper cognitive level.
An unopened bud is an evocative metaphor for a baby. Not because babies are green and grow on bushes, but because as babies grow they open up and reveal themselves, often revealing unexpected delights and great beauty.
To create or appreciate a metaphor we need to get below the obvious and the literal. We need to think in depth and to integrate our understanding and create links between previously disconnected bits of information.
In McREL’S ‘Classroom Instruction That Works’ we explore the powerful learning strategy of looking for similarities and differences. When we sort through new information and compare and classify it, we are making sense of what we are learning and finding sensible ways to connect this new knowledge with what we already know about the world.

The interpretation and, even more powerfully, the creation of metaphors, takes thinking to a different level of abstraction. It encourages students to look beyond the literal, to become more subtle and nuanced thinkers, There in lies the power of the metaphor in learning.
Which brings me back to an earlier blog about poets and about Einstein.
Where is our richest store of metaphor? In poetry. And how prominent is poetry in your curriculum? Is the focus on informational text relegating poetry to an optional extra?

Poetry has been a common thread running through the heart of every enlightened society. Not only because through poetry we are often able to touch the otherwise ineffable, sense the fleeting, more insubstantial but nonetheless essential aspects of lives. Poetry is the means by which we can learn to think beyond the literal and dig deeper into experience and our conceptual understanding of the world.

We deny our children much if we fail to foster their understanding of and love for poetry and metaphor.

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