Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Wish to Learn

Today was a normal day in my classroom.  Students read, discussed, self-evaluated, wrote, drew, peer reviewed, conferred, learned and laughed.  As a teacher, I have to step back sometimes and just remind myself how privileged I am to have the opportunity to be invited into this process as the students share their thoughts and work with me.

Like most workshop style classrooms, students were working on multiple things.  Students met in student-led discussion groups to talk about books like Bud, Not Buddy or Johnny Tremain and other coming-of-age stories.  At first, when introduced to student-led discussion groups, most groups focused on comprehension of the story and making sure they talked about all the things they wrote down in their reading response log.  But now, after about seven sessions, the conversations are becoming deeper - why did a particular character react in that manner?  Why is something so important to the character?  How would you deal with this situation?  In addition, students are demonstrating that they are understanding that the purpose of the group is to help them make meaning of the book, not just understand the plot.  Students are becoming more confident in bringing confusions to the group to seek clarification.  At the end of the discussion, I ask students to self-evaluate themselves and specifically, how the discussion helped change their thinking or understanding of a part of the story.  At first, this questions stymied many students, but they now are able to pinpoint a moment of clarification or re-consideration.

In a writing workshop, students worked on several different pieces of writing - each in different stages of the writing process.  Student just finished editorials and have are working on revisions for that.  I was surpirsed at how little coaching students needed in selecting topics for the editorial.  Although the media myth of teenage-hood is apathy, it it just not true.  Every student is passionate about something - I just have to ask enough questions to get to it. 

Today, they learned about political cartoons.  We looked at several examples and noticed how the juxtaposition of a humorous picture with a serious message makes the message stand out more.  Or, the image of something expected next to the unexpected title or text grabs the attention of the reader.  The students were eager to try their own hand at creating their cartoons and the results made me both laugh and cry.  Middle schoolers DO understand irony and can wield it well!

One of the aspects of workshop that I find most valuable is the independence it fosters in students.  Too often students are directed by teachers from 8 am until 3 pm in what, how, why and when they will complete tasks.  With multiple pieces in the works, including projects, reading and writing, students have more choice in the work they do and the topics they read and write.  Again, this was difficult at first for many students to adjust to - with a lot of "What do I do next?" and "Is this okay?"  But, over time, students have become more comfortable with knowing what choices they have and how to arrange their time to fit both their own needs and the due dates given.  I have a quick "status of the class" type conversation at the beginning of workshop time (ie "What are you working on?") and then move about to confer with students about the various pieces they are working on.  In sports-speech - It is so exciting to coach students in the midst of the game, rather than at the end of the game when reviewing tapes of the play.  In other words, it is exciting to see how students adjust their work in the middle of working, rather than waiting until the end and asking them to re-do things.  It is in these daily, one-to-one conversations that the students are constantly improving their work - even though it doesn't feel like revision.

A constant tension for me though is giving both choice and structure to fit the needs of middle schoolers and the needs of standards. The Right Honourable John Lubbock, 1st Baron Avebury, an English Renaissance type man, wrote in his book The Pleasures of Life, "The important thing is not so much that every child should be taught, as that every child should be given the wish to learn. What does it matter if the pupil know a little more or a little less? A boy who leaves school knowing much, but hating his lessons, will soon have forgotten almost all he ever learned; while another who had acquired a thirst for knowledge, even if he had learned little, would soon teach himself more than the first ever knew. Children are by nature eager for information. They are always putting questions. This ought to be encouraged."  My constant goal in the classroom is to help students become independent learners and life-long learners.  Both prospects are hinged on the idea that learning is self-directed, enjoyable, and on-going - elements that tend to be lacking in a lot of schooling endeavors.

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