Friday, February 20, 2015

Differentiation in Green

Thinking back on 20+ years of teaching, one afternoon stands out as a favorite. I was asked to cover for the special Ed teacher who needed to go home. I was teaching first grade at the time and I had a student teacher that was more than capable of leading my class without me. I said "yes," grabbed a favorite storybook (in case I needed to fill time) and was off.

I worked in a K-3 building at the time and the students came from various regular Ed classrooms to receive extra help in this small group setting.  The students were 5, 6, and 7 years old.  They wandered in and took their seats, opened their desks, got out their folders and began working, hardly even noticing me.  Each student had worksheets designed especially for him/her and it was somewhat amazing to watch how well-behaved and quiet they entered the room and set to work. I wanted to know them and I wanted to introduce myself, so I asked if they wouldn't mind coming to the floor and introducing themselves and listening to a story before they got to their seat work. They all smiled and agreed. After introductions I read to them, Dear Children of the Earth, by Schim Schimmel.  It happened to be Earth Day and I couldn't help but share this beautiful story with them. The students were so drawn into both the message and the pictures that even I saw details and animals I had never noticed before. We discussed the differences between a tiger and a lion and identified all sorts of other animals and images.

By the end of the book, it didn't seem right to simply send the students back to their seats and return to the prescribed worksheets.  I asked them if they had ever gone out on the back trails behind the school (I took my first graders on walks there all the time and it was actually my inspiration for the LHB trails when I transferred to North Shore Elementary). These students had never been out on the trails and were very excited about the prospect.  We decided to go out and look for anything that was green.  It was so fun to see them running and pointing and talking about everything green. We identified all sorts of green things that day and they became something like 'green experts.' We returned to the classroom and I wrote, "green" on the board and we made a huge word web of all things green. When someone said that the trees were green, I asked, "Was the whole tree green?"  And of course, they let me know it was really the leaves that were green.  This little lesson on green had become a vocabulary lesson as well.  Next, I gave them each paper and asked them to get out their crayons and draw, like scientists, what they saw and label each green item in their pictures. One student immediately took out a red crayon and held it in his tiny fingers like a knife. I stopped them all and said, "Silly me!  I forgot one instruction . . . you need to mostly use your green crayon, so get out your green crayon."  That student redirected himself and he and I worked a bit on his pencil grip. Others needed help writing or finding the word on the board that matched their picture as they labeled each item.  One student was clearly a bit more advanced and I asked him to write me a complete sentence to go with his picture.

I was kept busy with the various levels of ability and needs but everyone worked so hard, we just had to share our work with each other. We came back down to the rug and one by one shared our pictures. By this time, there was only half an hour or so left of school and we continued (we were already well off course without any hope of getting to those worksheets).  I brought the book back out and said, "This story is really a letter; it's a letter from Mother Earth to us...what if we wrote a letter back to her?" The students' eyes grew big, "Can we really do that?!"  "Sure!" I said.  "We'll write a letter and it will be from all of us!"  They were so excited!  We looked back into the book for the details of letter writing and we wrote a beautiful heartfelt letter to Mother Earth.

What fun we had that day! The whole afternoon was like the unfolding of a beautiful flower. From then on, if I saw one of those students in the hall or lunchroom, he/she would smile real big and wave or whisper to a friend and point to me and smile and I would do the same. We shared smiles and waves the rest of that year and remembered our quest for green on a beautiful afternoon.  I for one, will never forget it.

Here's what I reminded myself of on that day . . . differentiated instruction doesn't have to mean, every child is working on a small set of prescribed skills.  It doesn't require stacks of individualized worksheets.  It doesn't require detailed assessments to figure out what students know and don't know.  It requires listening to students and it requires instruction that is open-ended enough to let them work and explore and find joy in learning at their own level.  When we do this, students learn something bigger than the color green or the first letter in grass is g.  They learn the joy and wonder of life and learning.

In his 1905 book The Nature-Study Idea, Liberty Hyde Bailey answered the question, "What may be the results of nature-study?"

"Its legitimate result is education-- the developing of mental power, the opening of the eyes and the mind, the civilizing of the individual.  As with all education, its central purpose is to make the individual happy; for happiness in nothing more nor less than pleasant and efficient thinking.  It is often said that an ignorant man may be as happy as the educated man.  Relatively, this is true; absolutely, it is not.  A ten-foot well is not so deep as a twenty-foot well; and although the ten-foot well may be full to the brim, it holds only half as much water as the other."

We are called as educators to help students dig their wells deep, to find joy in learning and to remember that happiness is the real root of education.  When we do that, our joy is also deepened --how could it not be?  Happy learning and living!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Transformational Education

Bat Stars
"Silently I sought and picked up a still-living star, spinning it far out into the waves.  I spoke once briefly, "I understand," I said. "Call me another thrower."  Only then I allowed myself to think, he is not alone any longer.  After us there will be others. . .  I picked and flung another star.  Perhaps far outward on the rim of space a genuine star was similarly seized and flung.  I could feel the movement in my body.  It was like a sowing -- the sowing of life on an infinitely gigantic scale.  I looked back across my shoulder.  Small and dark against the receding rainbow, the star thrower stooped and flung once more.  I never looked again.  The task we had assumed was too immense for gazing.  I flung and flung again while all about us roared the insatiable waters of death." 
-- excerpts from Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley

A friend of mine, Erik Mollenhauer, (from the Monarch Teacher Network) shared the story Star Thrower with me last summer, the above quote is a small section of that story.  I've read this story in its entirety a few times since and pondered on the message and the beauty in Eiseley's words.  It is a story of transformation.  The main character transforms, not by logic or through formal education . . . he transforms by walking a beach and observing a man throwing starfish into the sea.  He begins his journey "inhumanly stripped . . .without voice, without hope, wandering alone upon the shores of the world. . . devoid of pity, because pity implies hope. . ."  The story ends with a renewed love for life, . . "I would walk with the knowledge of the discontinuities of the unexpected universe.  I would walk knowing of the rift revealed by the thrower, a hint that there looms, inexplicable, in nature something above the role men give her.  I knew it from the man at the foot of the rainbow, the starfish thrower on the beaches of Costabel."

As teachers, we are called to be transformational.  It is a new buzz word with its own "Instructional Matrix."  I love this 'new' emphasis and perspective and maybe it's because I've always thought our vocation called us to be transformative in the lives of students and in the world.  What a privileged and noble calling. However, saying it and even trying to define transformation, doesn't make it happen. After years of struggle and often failure, here is what I think . . . transformation is really hard to capture in a definition or a pedagogy or a style. Transformation is emotional. It is taking knowledge and learning into the recesses of our emotions; into our hearts. Sometimes, it is as simple as kind words of encouragement or a smile shared with a student that can actually transform that student's outlook on school and learning.  Maybe, it is a teacher who sets high expectations for a student who never had anyone believe in him/her before. Perhaps it's a shared love for equations or books or science.  Sometimes it happens when you least expect it, like requiring a student to write a poem and transforming a reluctant writer into a poet.  I think that sometimes I was transformed by a teacher and didn't know it until years later. Transformation is, by definition, very personal and specific to the individual learner. It is illusive and yet so life-giving. I'm glad we are talking about transformational education, it really is a noble calling, but I hope we never package it up into a quantifiable and measurable object. That will never do.  We cannot strip it of its most important qualities...the human, subjective and emotional ties that pull us into a love for learning and a quest "too immense for gazing."

The Star Thrower story holds the beauty of transformation.  It is not about the science of it all, it's about "the discontinuities of an unexpected universe" and the love of it all.  "Call me another thrower...  [We are] not alone anymore.  After us there will be others."

Peace, Love and Transformation.