Hello Again, My Fairer Self

Rebirth

OK, this is difficult to do. It’s like re-introducing yourself to someone you’ve already met several times, or speaking to a family member whose birthday/engagement/anniversary you’ve forgotten. But, in a fashion that characterizes much of my life lately, I am just going to start and rip the band-aid off rather than toying with it.

I am writing again.

Between several of the projects that are all coming due now, some graduate classes I have undertaken, and the mud puddle plodding I do with my kids, it’s been difficult to find not only the time, but also the mental acuity to dedicate to writing. And as I think back over the course of the last few years, there have been only two or three of these type hiatuses (shouldn’t that be hiati?) since I began taking my professional development into my own hands. I was due for a sabbatical from writing.

But, so much has occurred in my own little section of the world and I am feeling the need to reconnect to my network. The writing class that I hatched in my mind is now a reality. We are creating a class that is mandatory, taken by all students from 6th through 8th grade, that is solely focused on writing to learn and the practicing of critical thinking through the use of writing. My scope is limited, but I don’t see too many schools having the faith in their staff to do this, and trust me, when you see the topics that the teachers want to explore it truly brings the need for trust to the forefront:

  • From “Food Wars:”
    • What is the impact of food availability, production and consumption on an individual, a locality, and a society?
    • Why are there chemicals and packaging in my food? What are the effects of these on my body and the environment?
    • How are foods marketed?
  • From “Mental Fitness”
    • What is mental fitness?
    • How do I learn?
    • Am I mentally fit?
  • From “America and Beyond”
    • Is increased life expectancy a blessing or a curse?
    • What are your thoughts on physician-assisted suicide?
    • How has technology affected your generation compared to previous generations?

All questions that I have broached or attempted to broach with students in various ways throughout the last few years, except that was in the confines of a social studies classroom with a predetermined curriculum that I had to follow. This class is devoted to using these questions as framework to help our students critically write and read. I can’t tell you how jealous I am that our students have this opportunity. I thought I’d never say this, but I want to be in middle school again.

A while back, I quoted Wes Fryer’s post about the needs for our curriculum to reflect the following three things rather than what we deem important for success on high-stakes testing:

  1. Remix: Students need to regularly remix their learning to own the ideas.
  2. Deregulation:
    Learners need to be freed to take the TIME required for in-depth rather
    than shallow studies in problem-based, project-based constructionist
    and constructivist learning activities.
  3. Differentiation:
    Learning opportunities, challenges, and assessments must be
    differentiated to meet the needs as well as interests of a diverse
    array of learners.

I am feeling like the work I have talked about doing over the last few years is very close to showing some life. This class is a stab at what our students might benefit most from. As you can probably tell, a majority of my energy has been spent trying to convince and cajole the stakeholders into making this class become a reality. To their credit, the teachers involved have taken a huge leap of faith and risked splintering their department, as we are using English/Language Arts teachers to teach this class. They have created the ideas for the units and are truly beginning to grasp how this class can be successful.

It’s going to be a long summer…

Image Credit: “Rebirth,” from *Solar ikon*’s photostream

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8 thoughts on “Hello Again, My Fairer Self

  1. Been meaning to write for some time and respond to your kind comment a few weeks back about following my posts in New Orleans. Very much appreciated.

    This class sounds like a jewel in the making. I’d love to know nitty-gritty (length? scheduling? vertical alignment?) if you’re willing.

    I wonder this too: it was recently at a meeting of the minds educational panel (2004 NYS Teacher of the Year, 2008 NYS Teacher of the Year, and a former National Science Teacher of the Year) that I heard this put forth as a pedgogical touchstone: “Who owns the question?”

    I thought of this as I read the list of questions your colleagues have drawn up– truly exciting and challenging stuff. Will these ideas exist with the leeway for students to determine their own critical inquiries?

    In otherwords– in your proposed class, who do you think will own the questions? I’d love to know.

  2. Patrick-
    Glad to see you back in the saddle again- I wish I was but, after all, someone has to schedule that wonderful class you created and that someone happens to be me. The class as you proposed it has such wonderful possibilities and our students will benefit for years to come by concentrating on thinking skills. The idea of a class devoted to thinking seems almost redundant and obvious. Of course students should learn how to think in school! It should be at the heart of everything we do.
    What actually happens, however, is that students are asked to think in class but are rarely given the necessary tools to do so in an efficient and organized manner. Things like curriculum and subject specific assessment get in the way. I think that this is were the transfer problems that we hear about all the time occur. Students aren’t transferring knowledge and making connections because they aren’t focusing on the common denominator- the thinking process.

  3. Brad wrote:
    The idea of a class devoted to thinking seems almost redundant and obvious. Of course students should learn how to think in school! It should be at the heart of everything we do.

    Ain’t that the truth!

    I think the single greatest curse of the last ten years has been our push away from free thinking in our classrooms.

    While I’m jazzed that teachers are finally teaching elements of the required curriculum (heck—I’ll admit it: Before NCLB, I wasn’t too worried about whether or not I got through everything in my curriculum), the race to cover everything has pushed out the time I used to spend with my students wrapped up in deeper pursuits of knowledge that mattered to them.

    So, does that mean the only change we would really have to make to NCLB is narrowing the curriculum a bit? Is our real challenge the amount of content we’re supposed to cover as opposed to to the way that content is assessed?

    My mind is cookin’ today, Patrick!

    Glad you’re back….and I’m jealous of your opportunity to plan a course that I’d love to teach and/or take.

    Rock on,
    Bill

  4. Dina,

    I’ve been enjoying your writing for a while, and I am glad you made it here. You asked some great questions in your post regarding ownership of questions that I am already addressing in a follow up post, so I will save that for later.

    The nitty-gritty for this class is great. The students meet 3 out of every 4 days for 55 minutes each time. Class size will be determined later in the summer by Brad, who commented above. This class is being given equal academic footing with the other core subject areas and will be grouped heterogeneously.

    Some things that are proving interesting at the moment are issues of assessment and accountability. We are devising ways for these teachers, who are all Language Arts teachers, to assess based on thinking processes, communication of ideas through text or image, discussion strategies and active listening. We are really beginning to shift our thinking about what it means to assess–it most certainly does not = grading.

  5. Brad and Bill,

    Amen to that too, brother! You both are clear candidates to teach a course like this because of the type of ideas you brought up.

    Brad said that students are expected to think critically in the subject areas but are rarely given the tools or the time to do so. I couldn’t agree more, which speaks to Bill’s point that the time that used to be dedicated to that is now used to “cover” curriculum. What we’d like to see happening is some “uncoverage.”

    It’s all a matter of the “depth v. breadth” issue. What do you choose to uncover, and what do you choose to cover. NCLB, as Bill said, has caused us to explore areas of the curriculum we may never have gotten to, but was there a reason we didn’t?

  6. Uncoverage is a great way to put it- the skill of processing information and then articulating and using that information and making it work for you is the single most important skill we can our children. (aside from how to be “nice” to one another that is) Take, for example, the WEB 2.0 craze. The plethora of tools available to us to use requires us to be able to quickly assess information for relevancy and then pick and choose what we need to accomplish the task at hand.
    This skill does not come naturally, some might be better than others at it but it needs to be nurtured at every level.

  7. This is the second time I’ve got use this statement today: I am just awestruck. This class sounds absolutely amazing and it’s going to be one of those big leaps towards the revision of education. Months ago I would have said that I don’t think those grade-levels could handle questions like that, but I’ve realized I was underestimating my students.

    It would be great to have this group of students publish their learning online, so others can come in a view what is happening, let the students thinking continue the momentum of change. I have considered grading a project or two simply by how well you share and how many you share it with. I like to compare it with the tree falling in the woods; if you think, but no one is around to share it with, is anything really happening?

    Wow! You know it’s a good post when, in typing a comment, you cause the commentor to further delve into his own thinking, causing him to go back to his own blog and start a post that requires him to figure out whatever it was he meant in the comment he was trying to add to your post.

    Good job (you’re making my life more interesting)!

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