Category Archives: Teaching; Teachers

Teacher Heart

Anyone else remember this?

Anyone else remember this?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about teacher questioning and class discussion. I’ve been mulling over what it takes to get students engaged in what my literacy textbook calls a “lively discussion” about a text (which, as it turns out, is apparently the best way to enhance students’ reading comprehension). Those thoughts led me down the primrose path to Deep Thoughts about learning, memory, and the conditions required for obtaining new knowledge and retaining it. (I know you can feel your eyes glazing over, but please bear with me! I’m going somewhere good, I promise!)

buellerMy thoughts wandered to my own experiences as a student. I tried to remember if I had ever had a teacher who asked the kinds of questions that aroused my and my classmates’ attention enough to have even a halfhearted discussion about a text, much less a lively one. Lo and behold, I did have a teacher like that–my 11th grade Honors English teacher.

What stands out in my mind today is a vivid memory of discussions about The Great Gatsby–the symbolic meaning of West Egg and East Egg, the literary devices gatsby green light quoteFitzgerald used to foreshadow the disastrous outcome of Gatsby and Daisy’s ill-fated love affair, and what the green light really represents. (In case anyone else is doing the math, I was a junior in high school 24 years ago, so my remembering anything from any class is pretty remarkable.) Other, seemingly unrelated details come to my mind, like where I sat, the color of the louver blinds covering the windows, and the expression on my teacher’s face as she facilitated the discussions.

ad44As I reflected on how she taught, I wondered how she came up with those excellent questions. Back then I was a painfully naive 16-year-old, and I assumed she just dreamed up such wonderful questions on the fly, kind of like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Now I realize that she spent time and effort designing questions with the express purpose of eliciting the kinds of responses that would result in lively discussions.

The thing is–and this is where it gets good, so hold on just a bit longer–this teacher was tina-fey_2more than just a teacher to me. She was the first person in my life who made me feel like a person and not just a dippy kid. She interacted with me in a way that affirmed my hope that I was becoming an individual who could and should make things happen for myself. She asked thought-provoking questions even outside of class and about the trivial details of my life, questions that forced me to begin thinking critically about what I believed in and what was important to me. What’s more, her interest in me seemed genuine, even though she taught 3 or 4 different English classes every day to at least 100 other students.

There’s this quote by Maya Angelou that I keep seeing everywhere, and she says it much better than I ever could: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I guess what I’m saying here is that all the research-proven teaching strategies in all the world don’t mean anything if there’s no heart behind them.

  • Highly recommended, probably required, and perhaps mandatory reading for all who have not, yet: Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco. For the rest of us? The Secret Remedy Book by Karein Cates, delightfully illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin. I hear that with a small modification in paradigm, I can learn how to be that “teacher heart” I’ve mentioned.
  • (Read them! If you’ve already read both, read them again! You can thank me later.)

Posted by Karen Rapier, a senior in Elementary Education at Utah Valley University, in Orem, UT

Don’t Let Core Standards Bug You!

I attended elementary school in the early 80s, and I have been wracking my brain trying to remember learning anything about insects during those years. If I did, I sure don’t remember it now.

insect_wallpaper14

“Take me to your leader!”

Earlier this week when I started thinking about reading and bugs and books and teaching, only the most basic insect ideas came to mind. My brain was bringing up only boring, factual kinds of things, like insects’ exoskeleton, their head/thorax/abdomen body structure, and the six-leg requirement. But as I thought more deeply, it occurred to me that factual lessons about insects (or about anything else, for that matter!) aren’t going to cut it for today’s elementary and secondary students. They’re growing up in a far more complex environment than the one I grew up in.

When I started kindergarten in 1979, a Japanese telecom company began offering analog cell-phone service. That same year, Usenet, a predecessor of the World Wide Web, was born. The compact disc was invented. The Atari 400, an early computer gaming platform, was made available to consumers. (Side note: I’m old!) Fast-forward to today. We carry portable, handheld computers in our pockets. (These computers also function as phones–a fact my teenagers conveniently forget whenever I need to talk to them.) My kids play video games on a system that wirelessly connects to the Internet and responds to voice commands. Old CDs are reused in children’s crafts. The world has changed dramatically since I was a kid, and it continues to evolve at breakneck speed.

Could we have a moment of silence for this now-useless communication device?

Could we have a moment of silence for this now useless communication device?

Many positive outcomes can be directly traced to the new Common Core Standards. I applaud its implementation because of this: it forced us to start paying closer attention to the educational needs of the students growing up now. Because of these highly demanding standards, we all started thinking and talking and doing something about what it takes to compete, survive, and ideally thrive in a time of historic technological and social change.

When the students of today become the adults of tomorrow, they’ll need critical-thinking skills to solve problems brought about by climate change. They could develop solutions to solve the mysteries of phenomena such as honeybee colony collapse disorder. They might also be forced to come up with creative food sources (mealworms for dinner, anyone?).

Fortunately for teachers and students alike, authors and illustrators continue to write and publish books that spark engagement and pique curiosity. When combined with careful and focused lesson planning, these titles can provide students with quality learning experiences that will stick with them. Some of the best bug books out there include The Beetle Book, written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins, which can be used to get students thinking about the “jobs” beetles do in different ecosystems, not to mention its abilities to inspire close-up observation and a great deal of scrutiny in telling and writing description! Then there’s The Case of the Vanishing Honeybees: A Scientific Mystery by Sandra Markle, or The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe (from the Scientists in the Field Series) by Loree Griffin Burns and Ellen Harasimowicz, either of which (or both of which) can be paired with other books (or each other), like What Is Pollination? by Bobbie Kalman or What If There Were No Bees?: A Book about the Grassland Ecosystem by Suzanne Slade to introduce a science unit on cause and effect.

The Core Standards definitely require teachers to up their game, but that’s nothing to get antsy about. With the help of quality nonfiction titles like these, it’s hard to go wrong.

Posted by Karen Rapier, an elementary education major at Utah Valley University in Orem, UT

 

Living Green, Teaching Green

A few weeks ago, my seven-year-old daughter had an unusual request: “Can we grow something I can eat?” (This is a child who loves fruits and vegetables as long as they aren’t touching any other foods.) mother-daughter-kitchenI asked her which foods she thought might be good to grow; her reply included carrots, strawberries, and grapes. Here’s my confession: When I asked her the question about which foods we should try to grow, I was buying time and hoping she’d get distracted and forget all about growing food. I didn’t know what to say!

It seems like such a simple request, but just thinking about it makes me feel overwhelmed. I’ve tried growing vegetables once or twice, and it was a bust every time. Who knows why–maybe I didn’t do it right. Maybe I overwatered or underwatered. Or maybe the planets just weren’t quite aligned and karma decided that gardening and me were not to be. Regardless, I’m pretty sure I missed out on inheriting any of my grandma’s talents for growing a healthy, abundant vegetable garden. I can grow flowers fine, A young girl planting some strawberry plants...but my vegetable gardens of the past have looked nothing like hers. Instead they end up looking sad and bedraggled, and my plants develop these tiny appendages that resemble alien babies more than food.

backyard-vegetable-garden

Not really my grandma’s garden, but hers looked a lot like this!

My daughter’s request got me thinking, though, about the food we eat–where it comes from, how it’s grown and harvested, and whose hands touched it before ours did. It’s obvious she’s curious about how food becomes what it is, and it’s important for children to have experiences that help them learn that food grows in the ground before it ever gets to the grocery-store shelves. Here’s a teacher in Arizona who is doing that by growing food with her students (YouTube clip): Teaching kids where their food comes from

While planting and growing a class garden would certainly engage students (dirt! worms! rocks! yay!), it’s a big project that takes considerable planning, commitment, and time. Teaching Responsibility Through GardeningBut you don’t have to grow a garden with your class to get them thinking about sustainability. How about a unit on trash and recycling? Use the book Where Does the Garbage Go? and end the unit with a field trip to clean up a public park. Here’s another idea–in a science unit on sunlight and energy, students carry out an experiment by growing vegetables using varying amounts of sunlight and water and record the results. Once the students have gathered their data, invite a local farmer to the classroom to evaluate the students’ findings and talk about the complexities of growing food for many.

The wonderful thing about designing lessons around sustainability is that the issues are pragmatic and timely. Students are already aware of the importance of conserving resources, and they’re eager to do their part. What’s more, most sustainability initiatives incorporate elements of science, social studies, math, and literacy, providing an engaging, authentic, and memorable learning experience. For my money, it doesn’t get more green than that.

Posted by Karen Rapier, an elementary education major at Utah Valley University in Orem, UT

Demystifying Dyslexia in Literature and Life

Henry Franklin Winkler is not only a well-known American actor (The Fonze, from the hit comedy, Henry_Winkler_Fonzie_1977“Happy Days”), producer, and director, but he is also the author of a critically acclaimed series, Hank Zipzer.  Collaborating with Lin Oliver, who is a writer and producer of movies, books, and television series for children, Henry Winkler has written HankZipperSERIESa series of 17 children’s books about a 4th grade boy who is dyslexic. Winkler, a dyslexic himself, delights his readers in the escapades of his hero, Zipzer, who always manages to get the last laugh. The “world’s greatest underachiever”,  Zipzer  gives those who struggle with reading a reason to laugh at themselves and to find solace in a character in whom they can relate. Shouting loud and clear is the core message that everyone can succeed no matter what obstacle may be in there way.

Winkler himself did not realize he was learning disabled until he was 31 years old when his stepson was tested and diagnosed. This revelation brought him both ahas and relief. Dyslexia was an unhappy part of his childhood, and it was nice to get a label for the difficulty he had in learning when he was otherwise a very bright and intelligent child.  HWtodayMuch like his main character, Hank Zipzer, Henry Winkler is smart, funny and resourceful. Even though fonzauthorhe can tout such tributes as having a star on Hollywood Boulevard, being presented the Order of the British Empire by the Queen of England, and having the jacket he wore as the Fonz in Happy Days hanging in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., he will tell you that his proudest accomplishment is writing the Hank Zipzer series.

I am a dyslexic. Shoot!  Like Henry Winkler, I didn’t find out I was until I was an adult.  I was in a doctorate program where the science of reading was my focus.  I know, a dyslexic studying the science of reading, seems a little out of place, right?  Right! I was explaining to my professor how I read and she quipped, “That’s not how it works!” What? Yes it is. At least that is how I read.

The conversation wasn’t a complete disaster because it ended up being somewhat life changing. That dear knowledgeable professor promptly led me to Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz.  overcomingDDid you know it comes in an audio format? I purchased the audio tapes and “read” the book going and coming from my home in Las Vegas where I was pursuing my doctorate, to my home in Salt Lake.  As I read I came across a list of clues for dyslexia describing typical behaviors of a dyslexic. I was dumbfounded. I demonstrated all of them. Not one or two, not most, but ALL. I rewound the tape and listened to it again. I got out my printed copy of the book and read, underlined, and flagged the page. THIS explained so many things.

Listen to this! Dyslexia is not just a reading impairment.  It affects the ability to spell (I love spell check!), to retrieve words, spellingto articulate words and to remember certain facts. Impairment is not intellectually based. Just the opposite, those impaired are highly intelligent. (That last part I really like!)  Up to now I had wordsassumed that I just wasn’t as smart as everybody else. I was a hard worker, and I was positive it was my work ethic, not my intelligence, that got me to where I was. My memory was a disaster, especially for proper names or proper terminology.  I was always saying things like the thing-a-ma-bob, or that thing on the you know what, or I can’t remember what it is called but you know… Well come to find out, this tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon is a symptom of a phonological weakness on the left side of the brain we laymen call the language center.  Who knew!

You see, good readers have highly interconnected neural systems that encompass regions in the back and front of the left side of the brain. Most of the reading part of the brain is in the back. brainIn contrast, dyslexics show that their back of the brain has faulty wiring. Neural pathways for them are under activated. This causes them to use other parts of the brain not necessarily equipped well for the reading task. Therefore, they find themselves needing to subvocalize as they read, slowing their reading rate way down. They don’t process words as deeply and as clearly in their lexicon (a fancy word for an internal dictionary of stored words). These poor quality representations make it hard for dyslexics to retrieve words when speaking or to recognize words when reading.

Knowledge is power, and we can take this scientific information and use it to help. So the good news is that the brain can actually be rewired.  Hard to believe but it is true.  Researchers using a functional MRI scanned the brains of struggling readers as they were reading both before and after instructional treatment. What they found is that when dyslexic students were given explicit, multisensory reading instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics that those highly interconnected neural systems start ed lighting up! EUREKA! How exciting is that? Well to me, and the one-in-every-five children who struggle with reading, it is life changing.

As Dr. Sally Shaywitz expresses in her book, dyslexia is no longer a faceless beast causing havoc in the lives of its victims. We now can see the “face of the beast”, and we arewell on our way to taming it and taking command!

This week’w Guest Blogger, Dr. Ann Sharp, teaches literacy in the School of Education at Utah Valley University, Orem, UT.

ann sharp photo

Jumping on the POETRY bandwagon…

I’m not really one for jumping on the bandwagon of national-this-or-that days, weeks or months. I promise…  I don’t even do much celebrating of less-than-national days, such as my grown kids’ birthdays (I live in shame for this), my own anniversary national-poetry-month(I go to therapy for this), or  National Day of Prayer (I go to church for this). However, there is one month-long celebration that I’m all in favor of. I go to great lengths to celebrate this one: National Poetry Month. As a passionate proponent of “doing” poetry with children in order to convince them that words are their friends (and very playful ones, at that), and as a “Ralph Fletcher convert” to poetry writing that every child can do (love, LOVE his book, Poetry Matters: Writing a Poem From the Inside Out), poetry mattersI simply cannot resist building my own “bandwagon” and inviting my students, my family, my friends, and you, Dear Reader, to jump onboard!

Here are three elementary-teachers-should” truths that I know about …poetry cover1.   Elementary teachers should  have favorites – favorite poems and favorite poets.

2.     Elementary teachers should collect brief, clever, and delightful examples of poetry with which they can delight and entertain their students.

3.     Elementary teachers should nurture the natural poets children are, rather than assigning poetry.

Here are three elementary-teachers-shouldn’t” truths (I know these truths, thanks to Mike Tunnell & Jim Jacobs):

1.     Elementary teachers shouldn’t force and over-do poetry memorization & recitation.

2.     Elementary teachers shouldn’t force/assign all students to write poetry (particularly with rigid parameters, no matter how many lines or syllables called for).

3.     Elementary teachers shouldn’t force/assign heavy-duty analyzing of poems for their structures and meanings.

And finally, here are three elementary-teachers-can” truths that I know about poetry:

1.     Elementary teachers can  entice children with contemporary poems with humor and some sort of rhythm and rhyme.

2.     Elementary teachers can  empower children with writing poems when they demand fewer conventions and permit “poetic license.”

3.     Elementary teachers can inspire children as poets when they show them that (Ralph Fletcher’s idea here) writing a poem for someone is like giving blood.  It goes from the heart of the giver to the heart of the receiver. (I know, isn’t that brilliantly poignant?)

Are you ready to put your own poetic license“Poetic Teaching License” to work? Needing ideas for some fresh poetry to delight, entice and empower your students?  mooseThe scope of this blog post cannot include everything I wish teachers could know, understand, and do about poetry.  But I cannot resist an opportunity to unload a few things from my bandwagon, and leave them with you for yours:

Check out the Classroom Bookshelf Blog  and scroll through everything you will need, including book reviews, teaching ideas, and supporting resources.  Be sure to “search” the archives for the many new and wonderful poetry books they have included on their site!  Then…  well, in the words of Beatrice Schenk de Regniers,

“Keep a poem in your pocket and a picture in your head and you’ll never feel lonely…”PocketFULofPOEMS

Posted by Nancy Peterson, Ed.D., Professor of Elementary Education at Utah Valley University, and Co-Chair of “For the Love of Reading” conference. 

Meet Steve Sheinkin… next year!

Because we want to give this year’s audience attending UVU’s Forum on Engaged Reading, a preview of next year’s program, I want to introduce you to Steve Sheinkin, SteveSheinkinone of the Keynote Presenters for UVU’s 2014 Forum on Engaged Reading.  I “found” Steve on Ink Think Tank itt-logo — a great website that is a true “think tank” of nonfiction authors.  In Steve’s bio, he confesses to being a recovering textbook author… whose mission is to simply prove to kids that his­tory is actu­ally cool.”  You’ll probably recognize a couple of his books:  The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story About Adventure, Heroism, and Treachery (Square Fish Publications, 2013) and Two Miserable Presidents: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About the Civil War (Roaring Brook Press, 2008).

Notorious Benedict2MiserablePres

Whether or not you recognize those books, you’re sure to be interested in his most recent one, Lincoln’s Grave Robbers (Scholastic, 2013), and the one just before that (a Newbery Honor Book), Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon BombBook(Flashpoint Publications, 2012). These books aren’t “your mother’s nonfiction” — these are “thrillers and adventure stories first” so that Sheinkin’s readers will want to read them!

 lincolns-grave-robbers

Since the Common Core State Standards have shifted the focus of teaching comprehension and writing of complex nonfiction, it’s refreshing to find authors like Steve, who lure kids (and their teachers) in to the wonderful world of facts and details that make history come alive.

If you join us (UVU’s Forum on Engaged Reading) in October of 2014, you’re sure to become a Steve Sheinkin fan, as I have. SteveSgiving.talk In preparing for this blog post, I read a blog post by Sheinkin, himself, where he refers to his writing as detective work.  “… a nerdy kind of detective work,” he says, “but still… My job is to find stories, and I read books to look for clues, follow leads, gather evidence.” Wow, what an example for our students!

I’ll end this blog with just a bit of serendipity: at the end of Sheinkin’s blog post, author Jim Murphy makes a comment…  and guess what?  Jim Murphy is Keynoting this year’s Forum on Engaged Reading (Sept. 19 & 20, 2013).  So, Dear Reader, I hope you have become a believer: our conference — “For the Love of Reading” — is just a gift that will keep on giving, to you and to your students!  See you there!

Posted by Nancy Peterson, Professor of Teacher Education at Utah Valley University, and Co-Chair of UVU’s Forum on Engaged Reading

I was attracted to the book because of its title: Creative Power: The Nurture of Children’s Writing, by Ronald L. Cramer. That title makes me wish had written that book!  I bought it and read it, and I keep going back to it… Would you believe, Cramer actually tells his readers that if we are unable to “hear” his voice in this book, to lay it aside and pursue some other enlightening activity!  I’m telling you, his book renews my courage for making bold statements such as…

Thinking is part of writing, and writing is thinking.

Children come wired for writing.  

Our job is not so much teaching writing as it is discovering children’s writing ability.

Cramer isn’t afraid to say it, and does so right up front, in the beginning of his first chapter:     “Writing emerges from the crib with the first thought, the first sound uttered, the first mark scribbled.”

             Cramer goes on to make a wonderful case about the fact that “writing facilitates thinking,” and as such, it is “the supreme intellectual achievement of humankind” (p. 2). And then he presents five characteristics of writing that influence thinking:

1.    Writing is visible.  This means it can be manipulated to help us discover relationships among ideas we might have missed if thought depended only on verbal expression.

2.    Writing is permanent. While oral language un-captured is soon forgotten, writing “leaps the bonds of time and space.”  Cramer says writing gives “eternal life” to our words and ideas.  He says “Writing is the repository of humanity’s accumulated knowledge.

3.    Writing is active. Cramer says it is a “search for meaning” requiring the fullest possible use of mental capacity.  It requires physical action, including “handwriting, spelling, punctuation, depressing keys on a typewriter or computer, erasing, crossing out, rereading, rewriting.” 

4.    Writing is precise. While it is not inherently precise because of how it is subject to the actions and understandings of the sender and the receiver, it does “discipline the mind into precise formulation of its thoughts.”

5.    Writing focuses thinking.  Cramer says that the writing process “enables us to summon thoughts out of darkness and into light.” 

 

“Language is a miracle…” says Cramer (p. 5) and as a pivotal event in a child’s life, the acquisition of it cannot help but make us want to know how it happens. And, he spends the rest of his first chapter briefly reviewing how the major theorists of child development and learning back this up.

I was so enamored by these lofty ideas that I had to find out more about this author, Ronald L. Cramer.  I googled him.  (Yes, really! And I found a photo, plus a long and distinguished list of his credits).  He is impressive, as the documentation of his career shows, but I found the best indication of his “teacher-heartedness” and proof that we are kindred spirits when I went back to the preface of the book I have discussed in this blog.  I may be in trouble for quoting so much of his preface, but I’m telling you, my heart just sings when I read his words:

I believe children are creative; I believe that creativity is as natural to children as breathing. I also believe that its manifestations are often kept under lock and key, that children are reluctant to exhibit their creative instincts if they suspect their gifts will not be well received, it they sense hostility, if they sense indifference.  Good teachers strive to unlock children’s creative potential; they understand that the mind and spirit of a child is as fragile as it is malleable. Children are artists of language, not language scholars. They use language not to impress but to express. Given a little fall of rain from a fine teacher, children can make the flowers grow (p. xiv).

Doesn’t that just make you want to be a “fine teacher”… one that can offer a “little fall of rain”?  Here’s more:  All children possess creative potential; it is resident in them from the beginning, but too often it is creative power unrealized. Someone has to tell them; someone has to apprise them of their ‘wonderful ideas.’ Someone has to entice talent out of the closets of children’s minds (p. xiii)

 Well, he had me back at “the mind and spirit of a child is as fragile as it is malleable.” But here’s where I leave him with you:

And who might that someone be? Teachers, parents, peers, but especially teachers. It is our mission; it is our sacred duty (p. xiii).  Amen!

Posted by Nancy Peterson, Professor of Teacher Education at Utah Valley University.