Tag Archives: teachers

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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Teach for America/Australia is the equivalent of rice and fresh water.

I try not to be controversial. Today I will fail.

I have just read this in one of the more respected Australian newspapers:

“The government is also planning to increase the number of Victorians in the Teach for Australia program, which accelerates non-teaching graduates into disadvantaged schools.”

This is a spin off from the American program “Teach For America” and it has siblings in other countries around the world including the UK.

This initiative takes high performing graduates from pretty much any discipline and places them in disadvantaged schools after a six week orientation course during the summer. The idea is that they will teach from the beginning, but under the guidance and support of more experienced and highly skilled teachers.

We all know that disadvantaged schools could benefit from more teachers, smaller classes and more individual attention, so what’s the problem?

Well, look at it this way. We have long waiting lines in many hospitals for orthopaedic surgery, so maybe we need to fast track some surgeons. Give a high flying archaeology graduate a six week crash course in hip replacement and a mentor to provide a bit of pre and post op advice and we’re hunky dory. In some communities there is a lack of police, so let’s get an A grade English student, giver her six week’s training, a gun, a set of handcuffs and a police car and the community will be safe. Can’t find a mechanic to fix the electrics on your car? We need to fast track a few Fine Arts graduates. And so it goes.

If this sounds crazy in each of these professions, why is it OK for teaching?

To make matters worse, these graduates are placed in disadvantaged schools, where teachers are already under extreme pressure simply trying to keep up with the academic, social and emotional needs of their students. Additionally these schools are often under resourced with top notch teachers. The best teachers have the choice of the best schools. I have had first hand experience of how hard it is to attract first rate teachers into a super challenging school environment.

We know from experience in the USA that Teach for America graduates tend to burn out fast. Their initial contract is for only two years and there is frequently a high turnover as they return to their original career paths, fortified by the experiences they have gained in these low income, disadvantaged, struggling schools. One of the greatest advantages of this fast turn over is that school districts save money because they avoid the salary increases that come as employees attain greater seniority.

Teach for America, Teach for Australia and all the other manifestations of this short cut to teaching are dismal examples of our lack of understanding about what quality teaching needs. They demean and undermine the profession of teaching in a way that would never be countenanced by any other profession. It grows out of the misapprehension that since everyone has been to school, everyone can teach, as long as they are smart enough.

If a six week trained teacher in a disadvantaged school is getting better results than a fully trained teacher then I suggest we need to look closely at the fully trained teachers. A starving child may do better on some rice and fresh water, but that doesn’t comprise a balanced, healthy diet. A balanced healthy education needs teachers with the full range of skills and knowledge, just as a balanced healthy diet needs the full range of proteins, fats and carbohydrates.

Teach for America/Australia is the equivalent of rice and fresh water.

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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 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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Education Bingo!

I may find myself ‘hoist with my own petard’ if someone at one of my PD sessions calls out ‘bingo’, but it’s worth a shot!

When I was a school principal I found myself in the company of a bunch of realists who could easily become cynics when faced with yet another departmental briefing meeting. We would remain relatively polite, waiting for it all to end so we could get back to something useful.

One of our group introduced us to Buzzword Bingo. That had the potential to change everything.

Of course, being teachers at heart, we are all softies and never want to hurt anybody – something that bedevils the profession when principals have to deal with non-performing teachers. So we would only ever play this game with the best of intentions.

All you need is for someone to create a bingo sheet containing all the anticipated buzz words – the words you just know you will be hearing, given the topic and the speaker. Distribute them surreptitiously to the audience and wait for the first person to call “Bingo!”

Of course, if this does happen in one of my sessions, I will know that the audience must have been well prepared because I had used some sort of advance organizer to prime them for the content, and I was thoroughly on topic because I used all the words the topic demanded.

Here’s one to get you started.

Buzzword Bingo

21st century

strategies

high-order

value added

authentic

accountability

inclusion

schema

rubric

framework

outcomes

fluency

diversity

research

technology

metacognition

whole child

engagement

Hands on

differentiation

life-long

benchmark

scaffolding

choice

mindset

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Digital Etiquette

“It’s out of control and it’s scarey!”

That’s how many parents and even teachers feel about technology and their kids right now.

I visited a primary school recently and the kids had ipads and iphones on their desks. And yes, they were connected to the net. The teacher expected her students to make use of the resources available. “Don’t forget to use your online dictionary if you are not sure of a word. And remember the web sites we bookmarked in case you want to check up on some of the information.”

Many of the children had brought their own devices from home and others were using the ones provided by the school. A BYOD policy made best use of limited funds. The goal in this school is to embed the technology in the children’s learning to such an extent that an ipad is no more remarkable than a book or a paper and pencil.

A few nights later I attended a forum on children and cyber safety.

I could feel the fear.

A big subject was sexting – kids taking photos of their ‘girl and boy bits’ and sending them to each other. Some kids, particularly girls, had suffered excruciating embarrassment and humiliation thanks to this practice.

The technology is dangerous, right? This proves it.

No, it doesn’t prove anything. Kids have written obscene notes about one another and circulated them for generations. We haven’t blamed the paper and pencil. Rumors have been whispered and spread about sexual behavior and many an innocent kid’s reputation has been damaged thanks to the malice of a few bullies. We don’t ban whispering.

OK. But they spend hours staring at the screen and firing away with their thumbs on the keyboards. They even bring them to the dinner table, have them when we go to visit grandma and when we occasionally take them out for dinner. They never talk to us.  They are always texting their friends.

Really?

Well, I remember my parents telling me it was not OK for me to kneel on my chair at the dinner table, that I could not walk around the house eating a bowl of spaghetti, that I should finish up my phone call because dinner was ready and that I was to get my ‘head out of that book’ when I came to the dinner table.

These technologies have roared out of the woods and taken over so much of our lives so quickly that we haven’t learned how to deal with them. Our lack of good manners and decent behavior isn’t the fault of the technology.

We haven’t had the time yet to develop a digital etiquette.

So let’s get started.

Sexting isn’t the fault of the smartphone, Twitter, Facebook or the digital camera. It’s the kids who are sexting. It’s the kids we need to talk with because the problem is their behavior. Until someone explains to them clearly what the dangers are, they will continue to get themselves into trouble. And it’s bullying we really need to deal with, not sexting.

My parents taught me how to behave when I was around other people. I didn’t always get it right, but there was no way in the world I would have been listening to my transistor radio or Walkman when I was sitting at the dinner table.

There is a small restaurant I frequently go to for lunch. Orders are taken at the counter and there is a sign that explains, “Please be polite enough not to talk on your cell phone when you are giving your lunch order.” I like that sign.

I’d like to see a small basket on each table in restaurants with a notice explaining “We know how you love good conversations. Please place your phone in here until you have finished dining with your friends.”

We all need a bit of help developing our digital code of behavior, our set of good manners, our digital etiqette.

 

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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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