Friday, October 9, 2009

Message in a Bottle

Working in education is challenging. It is fulfilling. To put it simply- it is good hard work. However, it is a job that requires renewal and inspiration. Some of us find that renewal in conversations with colleagues, vacations with friends and family, or professional learning. While I am no longer in the classroom, I find that I still crave and require that refueling- almost a "reboot" or "refresh" of the spirit. The following gift has become a touchstone for rejuvenation.

A couple of summers ago I had the pleasure of teaching a science methods course to a group of 60 pre-service teachers. This group ranged from "kids" in their early 20s to experienced adults entering a second (or third) career as a teacher. I was a rookie in the college lecture circuit but I thoroughly enjoyed by time with those adult learners and I worked hard to make them champions of elementary science instruction.

On the last day of class, as I went to turn in grades and clean out my mailbox, I discovered an empty Dasani water bottle tucked beneath some junk mail. Inside the bottle was one long strip of paper wound in an artistic tangle. I gently pulled out the strip of paper, like the NY Stock exchange ticker, and read the following from one of my college students:

Dear _____,

We talk about your class a lot. Everybody loves it. A lot. If Peter Travers from Rolling Stone wrote about your class, he would probably say something like “No class can be a downer that fills you with pure exhilaration. You leave _____’s class with a feeling of the rarest kind; that you’ve just enjoyed a close encounter with an enduring classic.” Seriously, I was talking to different classmates today about how science really isn’t their thing, but they look forward to your class. I kid you not. They also commented about it makes them want to teach science now. During the first class you briefly mentioned how statistically, science classes don’t change attitudes towards science. You definitely are. Your passion and dedication is obvious, you have a swell sense of humor, and your teaching style is contagious. Well, _____, this concludes my ramblings. Keep up the good work.


A Student

That Dasani water bottle currently sits in my workspace. Every couple of months it will catch my eye. I grab it, unscrew the lid, and carefully withdraw that curled strip of paper. The words lift me up and remind me that I am good at this teaching thing. And I question why I'm spending most of my days locked in meeting rooms discussing educational initiatives, visions, missions, and logic models- so far removed from both teachers and students- when I could be out there making a difference for kids.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Too Much Science?

I have a friend who teaches elementary school. His school uses a science specialist model where all students receive science instruction in a pull-out model twice a week. While most of the elementary teachers at this school tend to leave the science instruction to the "specialist", my friend has put a lot of effort into supporting the science specialist by integrating science learning with his reading, writing, and math instruction. He is a dedicated professional with innovative ideas and an unwavering desire to prepare his students for success.

This evening I received a phone call from my friend. He had just heard through the "grape vine" that his administrator on several occasions has complained that he is teaching..."Too much science". I want to let that soak in a second. "Too much science" elementary school. This news was delivered to me in a joking and sarcastic way but his jovial tone was a thin veil for his hurt and anger. How was it possible that the leader of the school, the very person who should be the champion for science instruction, was capable of such shortsightedness? Why wasn't he being praised for his hard work, leadership, and dedication?

Now this is an elementary school (like so many others) where literacy is the focus; where most of the time, resources, PD, etc are dedicated to literacy instruction. Please don't get me wrong here. I'm an elementary teacher at heart and I get it. I want each student to be literate, yet I also want each student to be scientifically literate.

Why do some people possess this idea that literacy and science instruction are somehow mutually exclusive? I'm pretty sure that some of the most engaging and meaningful instruction intentionally integrates reading, writing, technology, math, science, art, and social studies.

I look forward to the day when "too much science" in elementary school is a legitimate concern and not a sad attack on an individual teacher's attempt to do what's best for kids.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Is Fun a Four Letter Word?

It is amazing to me that the idea of having "fun" in a classroom can be so divisive.

A few weeks ago I was reading an article in a local newspaper describing the work of some preservice teachers working in middle school and elementary math classrooms. The article focused on students giving feedback and advice to the up and coming teachers. One of the students made the horrible mistake of mentioning the word FUN! This student had the audacity to verbally state that learning could be (and possibly should be) fun.

Oh no you didn't!

Some of the reader comments regarding the article were surprising to me. People were ranting about the concept of a fun classroom as: a waste of time and learning doesn't happen in a "fun" classroom,

My favorite comment: "Let's get the expectation of "fun" out of our schools. It doesn't exist in the schools where excellence is the standard."

I agree that school should not be a Disneyland of entertainment, but instruction should be engaging for the learner. Isn't this obvious? In my work as a teacher of learners from age six to adulthood, this is a fundamental truth- Making learning fun and engaging will maintain the focus of the learner, increase time on-task, generate more intrinsic motivation for learning, facilitate relationship building, and alter conceptions about content areas (such as science).

I have utilized fun and engagement:
to motivate 3rd grade non-writers to become poets and authors
to motivate and teach non-reading elementary students to become life-long learners
to motivate preservice teachers with an aversion to science to embrace the teaching of science.
to motivate elementary teachers who mess up their science kits and send them back to take a risk and transform their teaching

I would like to know what others think about increasing engagement in our classrooms.