Wednesday, May 20, 2015

King for a Day

Reading Hamlet during my freshman year of college I felt like I was deconstructing a skyscraper by hand--rivet from steel, brick from mortar, nail from wood--and sorting all of it into piles just to make sense of it.

The vocabulary was too difficult.

After twenty years as a teacher, I have little faith that any vocabulary series or program alone would have prepared me for my first encounter with that specific text. On several occasions I have read and heard in workshops that it takes being exposed to a word 20x or more for it to take root within us.

This doesn't mean reading a word to oneself 20x in a row: lithe, lithe, lithe, lithe... It means 20 different and fresh encounters. Perhaps the first two would be on the Word Wall in my classroom over two consecutive days. A third might come (hopefully) from a reading. A fourth from a rereading of the same text. A fifth arrives the next day in class when the student sees the Word Wall. A sixth might come from a writing prompt in another content area. A seventh might be the student adding it to their notebook Word Wall. 

And so on.

Making vocabulary stick is a recursive process, much like writing. We return to an idea again and again with a fresh set of eyes in the fresh light of a meaningful and fluid circumstance. It frustrates me when we invest money and time into vocabulary programs which neither work in conjunction with the texts the students read nor work in conjunction with much of the content in a student's day.

I do not hesitate to add that the reason for the success of some vocabulary programs and disposal workbooks is because they make a teacher's work easier rather than provide the best instruction for growth in vocabulary. Vocabulary programs and workbooks are fine for crunching words in preparation for the SAT, but they do little to bolster the everyday literacy of most students.

If I were King for a Day, and I could improve vocabulary instruction in middle schools, this is what I would do:

  • Word Walls in every classroom based on current content area texts--which models what students should keep in their notebooks
  • Word Walls in every notebook--modeled on the teacher's Word Wall, students develop vocabulary lists based on in-class texts, out-of-class assigned texts, and their self-selected, independent reading...which means students must be reading engaging texts in order to develop vocabulary.
  • Team "Words of the Week" included on our teacher/team word walls
  • Writing across the content areas to engage higher-order thinking and to engage creativity.
Although I am not King for a Day, I am King of my blog and so I will end by repeating myself: students must be reading engaging texts in order to develop vocabulary

As opposed to furiously completing exercises in vocabulary workbooks for a very short-term, disconnected, experience. An exercise in learning how to know something just long enough to remember it for the test.

If you are stuck with a vocabulary program or workbook the best gift you can give your students is the gift of self-selected, independent reading. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

We Get What We Emphasize

I caught a Tweet this morning that struck me: "It's not about the app. It's not about the device. It's about the process."

Applying this logic to the English classroom, would these also be true: 

"It's not about the classroom novel. It's not about the classroom library. It's about the process."

"It's not about informative, argumentative, or narrative writing. It's not about the five paragraph essay. It's about the process."

I'm sure others can turn a phrase more powerfully, but what struck me is how focused we can become on the concrete. Which novel should we teach? Which type of writing should we emphasize? And now, many schools are on the hamster wheel studying which device would be best. Classroom teachers continue to pick each other's brains for a can-do, magical app.

We often forget the process is what matters most. The process gets lost in conversation. The process is often overlooked in professional development. At best it is on the docket, but never quite takes center stage.

Why does "process" get pushed off on individual teachers to figure out in isolation?

Answer: because there is no one process. For every child in our classroom, we have the potential for variances of brilliance within individual processes. Teaching and emphasizing process takes time and empathy.

And process doesn't test well...at least not in our current state of testing.

The tweet struck me and it continues to turn the cogs in my brain. It struck me that we are stuck in education. We are indeed stuck on "device" and "app" and any number of fixed, standardized modes of content.

Device. App. Informative Writing. Tom Sawyer...et al. None of these are unnecessary conversations, but they seem to be the only conversations.

I learned very early in my coaching career--and it is so true for education--we get what we emphasize.