Thursday, April 18, 2013

Analytical Thinking

This week students are taking the ELA tests.  It's grueling for them and stressful for the teachers.  As I was proctoring the exams, I began to consider what, exactly, could help these students.

Middle school, before the state tests became an annual event, is full of difficulties.  Students have body changes, their hormones pull them off center, their friendships can undergo change as a result of these changes thereby creating self-doubt and the need to be popular.  None of those things are part of what we test or measure for intelligence.  Adding to the stress of change, middle school is where students are asked to move from rote thinking to critical, analytical reasoning.  Sadly, some students, despite all the changes they are experiencing, are simply not ready to do the analytical thinking.

What's a teacher to do?

One of the lessons I teach helps students -- even those who are not quite developmentally ready to do analytical thinking -- think beyond what is in front of them.

Middle school students enjoy children's books.  When a teacher reads one to them, they sit with rapt attention eager to hear more or to relive a favorite.  I like to bring that feeling into the room.  My favorite book to teach to middle school students is Dr. Seuss' The Lorax.  I read the story to students and ask just two questions:  What is the story about?
                                             What does the story mean?
Even my less confident students can answer both questions.  The lesson for me is that, given the correct lesson brought in at the correct level, all students can do the analytical thinking when presented with material they can easily comprehend.  It has been my experience that when students see what analytical thinking is, they can apply those lessons beyond children's books.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Philosophy of Education

I have been asked a couple of times what my philosophy of education is.  It would be so easy if I subscribed to one pure philosophy, but, like learning styles, there is not one belief to which I could wholeheartedly adhere.

My philosophy is this:

All students have the ability to learn.  Regardless of learning style or ability, students have talents.  While some talents do not necessarily translate to success in school, all students can do something well. If the student knows what talent he possesses, I believe the teacher should try to work with that talent.  For example, if I have a student who is a pianist and I am teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, I could research famous pianists of the times (both when the book was written and when the book took place) and play that music at the beginning of class.  While it doesn't help the student learn the themes of the book or offer lessons on characterization, it does make an effort to help a student become interested.

Teachers need to care.  Students want someone who genuinely cares about them.  Teachers should not be wooden people in the lives of their students.  We are human.  We make mistakes.  We tell stories.  We mean well.  All of that makes up a good teacher.  I like to tell stories.  While my stories are related to the lesson I am teaching, I use them to get students interested.  By telling stories of my life, I am modeling how students can relate their life events to the material at hand.  So, even if I'm teaching sentence diagrams, I can get kids interested by telling how I had trouble with them when I was in 8th grade.  And then tell them how when I was a first year teacher a parent suggested I teach sentence diagrams to her son to help him learn grammar.  I was scared, but I tried it and my student learned grammar.  I also show students I care when I use them as examples in the sentences I write for diagramming.

Students do not need to know a lesson's objective; students need to know how the lesson will apply to their lives.  While my students have never celebrated lessons on grammar, I have been able to show them how the building blocks of language will serve them in any avenue of life.  We need to communicate clearly to excel.  Grammar is but a step on that path.

Teachers need to do their part.  They need to come to class prepared and provide feedback in a reasonable period of time.  Students should not have to wait a month to get a graded essay back.  Students should know immediately if they are on track or not.  I believe teachers need to look at the accuracy of homework -- even if we do not grade it -- to ascertain if the material is being learned.  If students are having difficulty, the teacher should make him or herself available to the students.

Students need to do their part.  I will work in an environment where students are not required to do homework; however, they must work in the classroom.  Becoming a better reader takes practice.  Becoming a better writer requires practice.  Learning and mastering skills requires work.

Every project we assign should have a piece that requires reflection.  All students should be taught how to reflect on the work they do.  All teachers should have the opportunity to reflect on the work they do.

Good teachers are willing learners.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Three Rs

Back in the day middle school students pretty much studied the three Rs -- reading, writing and arithmetic.

I think maybe we need to get back to that if we are to grow.

As a middle school English teacher, the biggest issue for 7th and 8th grade writers is their ability or inability to do the analytical thinking necessary to do a good piece of writing.  For the most part, this dividing line is a result of maturity in thinking, not a deficit in intelligence.  By extension I think the same reasoning can be applied to all areas of learning in the early grades.

When my fourteen year old son was three, he attended a private school where he learned Spanish and French.  While he did not study the grammatical structures of the languages, he was exposed to the sound of the language.  The kids sang songs and could label things.  Now that he is in 8th grade, my son has a much stronger talent in language than his sister who did not have the exposure he had.  Exposing kids to more difficult features of learning is a good idea.  Expecting them to understand the fine nuances of such learning seems over reaching.

I would like school reform to focus on those things that make kids prepared.  They need a solid understanding of reading and writing and arithmetic before they can be expected to master the more difficult tasks.  When students reach high school with a reading level below 6th grade, we are simply ensuring their failure.  Let's give kids a chance.  Keep learning at their level BEFORE we set them on the high school track.

Let kids read for enjoyment.

Let kids write some silly things -- poetry, letters and stories.

Let kids solidly understand their math facts so math can be fun when they arrive at the more analytical maths.

Give kids a chance.