Sunday, August 17, 2014

Time on the Bike: An Analogy for Teaching and Learning

This summer has just been amazing. I attended several professional development trainings and had time to read several books. I’ve done a LOT of processing and thinking and re-thinking, but one analogy described at a particular training has stuck with me.

Nancy Motley, an amazing presenter and also the author of Talk Read Talk Write, came to speak to us about acquiring academic language and to describe the techniques provided in the book 38 Great Academic Language Builders. Although her entire presentation was fabulous and filled with great information and strategies, her introduction made my wheels turn. It all had to do with riding a bike.

To give you the most authentic experience with this analogy, because I’m obviously not her, I’m going to speak to you directly just as she spoke to us that day. I am also not a mommy, so this will obviously not be my voice. 

So here we go.

When it’s time for us to teach our child how to ride a bike, we do not sit the child down on the sidewalk, get on the bike ourselves, ride around for a bit and say, “Ok, watch mommy. Do you see how I’m moving my feet to pedal? Are you watching me? Do you see how I’m holding the handlebars and using them to steer? Watch me. Do you see how I have to keep myself balanced on the seat? Are you watching? Ok, now here. You try it!”

(end Nancy voice) :) 
Of course, that is not how we teach a child to ride a bike. Riding a bike requires practice. We put the child on a bike with training wheels first so they get the feel of being on a bike and learn to pedal and steer. Then we take off the training wheels but we hold on to the seat as they ride to guide them if they start to sway. Then, eventually, we run beside them as they ride, not holding on anymore, but still right there ready to intervene in case they start to fall. To learn to ride a bike, the child must spend lots of time actually ON THE BIKE.

This is a direct analogy to teaching and learning.

So, thinking about this analogy, I thought: How much time do I give my students to actually “ride the bike?”

Nancy did an activity with us that really brought this idea home. Would you play along with me for a minute?

Ok, grab something to write on- anything- and something to write with. On the left hand side of the paper, list the four language domains: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. It doesn’t matter what order. 

Ok, now imagine a student in your classroom. Not just any student, but the student who struggled the most. That one student that no matter what they did, they just didn't seem to get it. Get a picture of that student in your head. Got it? Great. Now, thinking about THAT student only, beside each of the language domains write the percentage of time during a typical class period that THAT child would spend writing, listening, reading, and speaking. Be honest. Also be sure that your percentages all add up to 100. To get the most out of this, really put yourself in that student’s shoes.

I’ll wait. :)

How did it go? How do you feel? Any aha’s!? Which domains had the highest percentage? The lowest? 

Let me tell you, when I did this activity my heart completely sank. It was embarrassing how little time that child had opportunities to write and speak- the two expressive domains.

Here’s the takeaway for me. Acquiring new language, just as learning to ride a bike, requires lots of practice. I’m great at providing opportunities for students to listen to me talk about the new language or read about it, but I need to provide more time for students to speak and write and really interact with the new language. They need more time ON THE BIKE.

The two trainings I attended this summer that Nancy presented on were fabulous and provided lots of strategies for giving students more time “on the bike.” 38 Great Academic Language Builders is great for any grade level. Her book that she wrote called Talk Read Talk Write is a lesson structure designed for secondary students but is also applicable to elementary students as well. I highly recommend both of these books if you are looking for ways to increase the amount of time students spend “on the bike.”

This sign is going to hang on my cabinet in my classroom as a constant reminder to myself when I'm planning:

Have a great Sunday!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Why I Don't do Classroom Themes

The beginning of a new school year is an exciting time for me. I love re-organizing my classroom and preparing for a new set of students that I get to learn about and love. But there is one thing that I do not do each school year. I do not have a classroom theme.

Before I get too much farther, let me start with a little disclaimer:
            I have no problem with classroom themes and I’m quite impressed by the creativity of many teachers. This is simply an explanation of why I choose not to have one. If you are an adamant classroom “themer,” please do not take offense! This is simply my lowly opinion.

When I read Debbie Miller's Teaching with Intention this summer, I was thankful that my philosophy lines up with hers. She says:

I couldn’t agree more.

I feel the pressure every year of making my room “cute.” I feel the pressure of coming up with a theme for my classroom and making everything match. These are things that I just simply do not want to spend my time doing. I just don’t. I use the same bulletin board border year after year because it’s functional and I like the color. Simple as that. My walls are mostly bare and will stay that way until my students and I share an experience that is worth documenting and taking up wall space.

I also don’t want to spend the money it takes to have a theme. Classroom d├ęcor is not cheap and definitely not something I want to have to keep shelling out dollars on year after year. Not to mention the time it takes to print, laminate, cut, or put up all of those decorations. If it comes to choosing between Mr. Sketch markers or a new welcome sign, markers will win every time. No question.

Does this make me a bad teacher? I don’t think so. If the overall goal of having a classroom theme is to establish a classroom culture or a feeling of comfort, then I take solace in the fact that those things will come through the procedures I put in place the first few weeks of school. We become a unit together, with all of our personalities intertwining and our classroom becomes a reflection of us, not me.

I hope that when my students leave my classroom they love learning, they love reading and writing, and that they have an insatiable curiosity about the world. I hope they remember our classroom not because of how cute it was, but because they have been a part of a learning community and are forever connected to people who will support them for the rest of their lives.

So, as the beginning of the year inches closer, I will enjoy these next two weeks and actually relax. My room may look bare and my room may seem “unfinished,” but I know my purpose and my kids will too. I’ll spend my time (and money if necessary) focusing on the things that will impact them the most this year—my expectations, procedures, and most importantly, the learning experiences I will create for them.

When they come to our room for the first time, they will see this note on the board-

Although our walls may now be bare,
soon they will be full
of all the things we’ll learn and share
together here at school!

I can’t wait to start!