Tag Archives: engagement

Drawing a Lesson: Familiarity Breeds Creativity

Putting herself in an unfamiliar learning setting, Christiane Dufour experienced first-hand what happens in the “making” process when one is unfamiliar with the materials and the techniques associated with them. It brought home what three teachers discovered when they implemented STEAM the Kindergarten Way through Play.
Be sure to scroll all the way down to the video at the end.

I have a confession to make: I envy the creativity and ability of those who can imagine something and then give form to it. Whether they draw it or make it, it seems to spring easily from within to be translated into the medium of their choosing. That’s an illusion of course: they learned their craft through a lot of experimentation over time.

I’ve never experienced that apparent ease. But, as a teacher, I must and do believe that you can learn anything when you set your heart to it. So, listening to the admonitions of the adage that you’re never too old to learn, I decided to take art classes, starting with learning how to draw.

Drawing Materials
Drawing feet by hand (count the iterations!)

Pencils and paper; lots of paper and a good assortment of pencils! I’m in familiar territory. The teacher is great, creative. He has a road map in his head but many ways to take us along. He listens, adapts to our abilities and interests. I’m learning to draw, to manipulate these familiar pencils along with a few other simple tools to create the effects I see in my head or in the models he gives us to reproduce or to inspire us.

Every week, he enriches our toolkit of gestures and expands our capabilities by building on the previous lessons. When he shows us a technique or corrects our work, he tells us what he is doing and, while doing that, he provides us with a language for shapes, forms, gestures, tools, space and more. All good! I’m still in friendly territory. I see where this is going and, more and more, I imagine things that I could do along with an ever greater variety of ways to do them. I think my drawings are sometimes quite nice. It feels good.

After weeks of learning all kinds of techniques and eventually practicing how to draw hands in all sorts of positions, the potter’s hands emerged from my page by bringing together many of these techniques.

Reaching my potential

Setting my skills into motion

Then he throws us (me!) for a loop. He says he’ll show us a technique that will allow us to marry drawing and painting. This time, he proceeds with the lesson in steps.

  1. Apply paint to this canvas. (Voice in my head: is any particular way better than another?) Now wait to let it dry.
  2. Apply this gel to the canvas in this way. (Ok, what does the gel do? Thick or thin coat? What will it look like when it dries?)

    One of the Cheshire Cat’s Dreams
  3. Sprinkle this powder over the gel. The powder prevents the gel from drying too quickly, we are told. (OK, but my brain still wants to know what the powder will look like when gel and powder dry.)
  4. Now take this bamboo skewer and draw by scraping away the gel and powder. (Draw? What, how, why?)

This is not the end of the process; there will be a few other steps to the finished product but I don’t yet know what they are. So I draw the way I do with pencils: lines to create a shape and a few details to give it volume.
I scrape away!
I feel lost.
It doesn’t look like anything I can relate to! I can’t imagine what this will end up looking like. I can’t even think of other things I could do that would give an interesting effect. It just looks like a mess!

I have no idea what I’m doing with these materials!

This is an “ah ha!” moment for me. I feel lost.
I can’t even imagine what I could do because these materials are so unfamiliar. I don’t know what they will let me create.

And, there and then, I’m brought back to what we discovered in our STEAM in K one-year experimentation. Namely, how important it is for children to be given ample time to play with and explore materials, tools and techniques freely and with no end-product in mind. Well, this doesn’t apply just to preschool children, does it? It certainly applied to me! And it’s true for any learner at any level. It‘s true also for anything we learn, from art to coding and for all the other letters in STEAM.

LEARN by doing!

In our year-long project in which three experienced teachers implemented STEAM in Kindergarten, this fact was spectacularly brought home the day clay was introduced in the class. It was a totally new and unfamiliar medium which just shouted to be explored. Their exploration started with the medium itself.

How does it feel? How does it let itself be manipulated? What different gestures can be used to shape it? What can be done with these shapes? Then, what tools can be used to refine manipulation? How do you change its texture? How do you stick pieces together? And so much more!

After having played with clay in many ways and used different tools and techniques over several sessions, the children discovered how this material works and what they could do with the tools. It also gave the teachers time to provide them with the language associated with this medium, the vocabulary of clay, its tools and gestures. Having worked with it many times with no particular goal in mind, the children were finally able to imagine what they would like to MAKE with it AND they were able shape their idea into the clay and obtain an intentional result.

The lesson I draw from this experience is that when we are introduced to new, unfamiliar materials, practices or techniques, we need to be given the opportunity to explore the potential of the materials multiple times before we make something with it whether it be a picture, a “thing”, or a program.

I am reminded that when we observe children inventing and making things with wooden blocks, with LEGO or with cardboard boxes, we tend to forget that they are quite familiar with these materials which have been part of their environment since daycare. They can turn them into any number of wondrous creations or use them in unsuspected ways to serve their goals. Add a few new materials into the mix, such as cars, balls, PVC pipes or cardboard tubes, tape, and they will be able to imagine new things to do and to make.

Without that, we are only following instructions without much understanding or transferable learning, very much like I experienced in my fateful lesson. Familiarity breeds creativity as well as proficiency.

Observe the exploration and creativity that is possible when Kindergarten students familiarize themselves with new materials without having to worry about creating a single product.

Leveraging Fortnite in Education: What can educators learn from games?

Fortnite has quickly become all consuming for many of our youngsters in 2018. They play for hours on end, discuss complex strategies at lunch tables, worship the ritualized character “dances”, will do whatever chores you ask for V bucks, they’ll even rush through their homework so they can join in on the next Battle Royal. What has this video game done to our children? One word: engagement! Fortnite is a 45 million user cooperative survival game which has three elements: scavenging, building and combat. This type of game is described as a ‘sandbox’ game, because gameplay is nonlinear and open-ended, allowing gamers to roam around the virtual world and interact with it and the other gamers that are online. The game design is a survival of the fittest – 100 online players glide into a virtual world and try to survive, by shooting, building and collaborating with each other until the last gamer is standing, winning nothing more than bragging rights.

My burning question has always been… what makes this game such a phenomenon amongst our children? Can we use similar game mechanics in Fortnite to engage our students in class?

It is clear that kids who play Fortnite willingly engage in a complex and many-layered activity for long periods of time. A research group from Stanford pointed out that players are continually practicing  “teamwork, collaboration, strategic thinking, spatial understanding and imagination—and when they lose, they’re highly motivated to try again for a better result.” Wouldn’t that be an amazing learner to have in our classrooms? How do I get one?

The designers of Fortnite are very aware of cognitive structures which make this kind of game so addictive. Its’ mantra, (similarly to online gambling games) “Lose by a little, win by a lot,” is its’ guiding force.  Max Albert explains in How Fortnite Became the Most Addicting Game In History:

  1. If a player loses the game by a little, they can examine the state of the game and note that they were “just one or two moves away from winning! I’ll win next time for sure!”

  2. If a player wins the game by a lot, they can examine the state of the game and note that they “are AMAZING at the game. I’m just going to knock out a few more levels while I’m on this hot streak.”

Have a look at how Candy Crash uses similar design and mechanics as Fortnite to keep players engaged and playing for hours.

Similar to a gambling game at your local brasserie, Fortnite makes it easy to keep trying after failure, the phenomenon known as Failing Forward, discussed by Avi Spector here, and Catherine Boisvert here. In a nutshell, here are the features that make Fortnite so motivating:

  1. Small wins keep motivating players – Failing Forward
  2. The comic-like aesthetic removes any sense of reality, mitigating the violent content
  3. The simplicity of play allows for incremental successes
  4. Players experience a profound sense of belonging to the game’s community.

Kids don’t talk on the phone to each other, they talk on the Fortnite platform. Also, because the virtual world is relatively small it forces encounters between players more rapidly, thus more action. The turn around between kills is super fast, so there is never much waiting. The immediacy keeps the engagement high, and makes for getting back up after failing painless.

Fortnite is a gaming MASTERPIECE that belongs next to the Mona Lisa in the halls of history.

Perhaps the biggest and most popular feature is the ability for players to collaborate and strategize with other gamers while playing in real time. It is not uncommon to hear players helping and supporting each other during a game, saying things like, “watch out, he’s right under you,” or “I have a great shot gun for you, come see me, you can have it” even “You lure him this way and I’ll wait inside the barn – you get him from the outside and I’ll attack him from the inside.” This collaboration is not limited to the game itself, players share Youtube videos, study game-play tactics, discuss strategies, create user materials all to make the playing community better.

Looking at the engagement loop from a gaming viewpoint, it clearly shows “the motor of gamification” on a continuum. This means that ones’ improvement never ends, learning how to win never ends, and giving up is never a question. How can we as educators leverage the intrinsic motivation found in games like Fortnite? I brainstormed and came up with the following key elements:

  1. Provide opportunities for lots of student choice & voice
  2. Value finding different solutions to the same or similar problems
  3. Allow for lots of try-overs
  4. Embed ongoing collaboration in learning
  5. Establish a system for immediate feedback (or as quick as is possible in a school setting)
  6. Start small with quick activities
  7. Help students develop a variety of strategies when “stuck,”
  8. Make sure students can see their progress

Leveraging game mechanics in your classroom is an effective way to get more engagement in your class. If students are engaged they will be more likely to realize learning is an ongoing event in the real world and the virtual Fortnite world to boot.

 

******

Fortnite: Schools ‘could Learn Lessons from Gaming’  by Bethan Lewis  – https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-44871124

Stanford Experts Provide Guidance For How Parents and Teachers Can Navigate the Fortnite Craze by Julia James -https://ed.stanford.edu/news/stanford-experts-provide-guidance-how-parents-and-teachers-can-navigate-fortnite-craze

How ‘Fortnite’ Hooks Your Kid, And Why Experts Say You May Not Need To Worry by Justin Kaplan – http://www.wbur.org/commonhealth/2018/08/24/fortnite-habit-kid-problem

Parenting the Fortnite Addict by Lisa Damour – https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/30/well/family/parenting-the-fortnite-addict.html

A blast from the past or back to the future?

Some time ago, my past caught up with me and it was both a pleasure and a shock.

In 1968, at the ripe young age of 22, I was a chemistry teacher to a group of Secondary IV students. Teaching was how I paid my university fees.

It turned out to be a very special group, mainly because these young people were interesting, curious, and antsy yet mature for their age. There was also a very special dynamic in the class that year because the students were assigned to groups which meant they shared all the same classes. This helped create cohesion and a wonderful sense of community that we don’t see as much in today’s teaching environment.

They had, among other things, decided that they needed representation and so, proceeded to elect a very competent president and vice-president. They then took the initiative to publish a class newsletter called “D’un bureau à l’autre” which I printed for them on a good old copy machine. I think that only baby boomers remember this machine which always left your fingers blue with ink and smelling of alcohol!

This part of the story is particularly important because what was printed in one of these newsletters with that machine came back to haunt me after all these years.

Recently, one of my students decided to plan a 50th anniversary reunion in September 2018. He was intelligent, resourceful and hyperactive fifty years ago; he hasn’t lost anything with age. Together with a few of his friends, he managed to retrace all their classmates: thirty, young, 65 year-olds!

Polycopier
Polycopier

But there is more. He had kept a copy of ALL their class newsletters, including the very last issue published after a long weekend spent at a camp in Mont-Rolland, an outing which these very resourceful students had organized for themselves and by themselves. At the time, they needed an adult presence, and so, as their home room teacher, I accompanied them. I admit that I don’t really remember much about it, but I do remember that I was more a willing participant than a chaperone. You can imagine the pleasure I had when I re-read that newsletter and rediscovered all that we had done together! But I had forgotten that I had contributed a text, an op-ed of sorts, to that issue, and it’s what I wrote 50 years ago which surprised me the most.

At age 22, I was an inexperienced teacher but I was already feeling a discomfort with teaching as I saw it then practiced. This is what I wrote:

Impressions

Trying to describe and report on the experience that some of you have been fortunate enough to live would reduce to its simplest expression a complex set of facts, relationships, and friendships. Such a simplification could never account for the richness of this extraordinary weekend. So I prefer to let each one enjoy his or her personal experience. What I can only try to do here is put on paper some of the thoughts which it inspired.

For me, the most unforgettable result of this weekend is the collapse of two images reflecting a very specific type of relationship, that of “the pupil” and that of the “teacher”.

D'un bureau à l'autre
D’un bureau à l’autre

The free, cheerful yet serious relationship that developed during this long weekend contrasts strangely with the distance that characterized our school year. One may ask “Why the change?” Why had the questions that you asked about life, its meaning, and its purpose, not been discussed before? Why did your organizational skills and your varied interests not manifest themselves in the classroom as they were manifest this weekend?
(ED. Today I would nuance this by saying “manifest themselves as much”)

Will you tell me that in class “it’s different”, that it’s about “school subjects”, that there are exams, and that you have to “pass your year”? On this point, I couldn’t contradict you but, on the other hand, I have to ask whether “school subjects” and exams have meaning in and of themselves? What is a “school subject”? Should not all science and philosophy that we study be, above all things, the science and philosophy of life without which they are just sets of meaningless concepts?

I have bitterly felt that we all put our lives on hold while we are in school not because learning, knowing and understanding are of no interest to us but, to the contrary, because this interest, this curiosity is starved by what awaits us at the end of the semester or the year: the exam that must be passed.

The teacher then becomes the purveyor of what is required to pass the exam and not the one who, through his experience and knowledge, satisfies your desire to know and understand the world in which you live. All that remains is the “stereotyped” teacher standing before a mass of students no less anonymous, without singular personalities, whose only purpose is to pass the exams. This may seem exaggerated to one who has not lived what has been for me a genuine relationship between equal and autonomous individuals. But if that person should take the time to think about it, he will certainly be able to see, as I do, that all else is, by force of circumstance, fake and artificial.

-Christiane Dufour at age 22

So, I leave you with this question: is our teaching still driven by exams or have things fundamentally changed since then?

P.S. In contradiction to my statements above, their Latin teacher (yes, in 1968 they were taught Latin) was an exception to this rather dark vision. He did not so much teach them Latin, as discuss with them, through the great classics, important issues of our humanity. They remember it and him still.

Christiane Dufour at age 72

Vestige du passé ou retour vers le futur?

Il y a quelque temps, mon passé m’a rattrapé et ce fut à la fois un plaisir et un choc.

En 1968, j’enseignais la chimie du haut de mes 22 ans à un groupe d’élèves de Secondaire IV. C’est ainsi que je payais mes études universitaires.

C’était un groupe hors du commun, principalement parce que c’étaient des jeunes allumés, intéressants, curieux, à la fois grouillants et matures malgré leur jeune âge. Cette année-là, les groupes étaient stables, affectés à un local de classe avec des enseignants qui se déplaçaient de classe en classe. C’est une des choses qui a contribué à créer une cohésion et une complicité que l’on ne retrouve plus si souvent dans l’environnement actuel. Ils avaient, entre autres, décidé qu’ils avaient besoin de porte-paroles et procédé à l’élection d’une présidente et d’un vice-président très compétents.

Ils ont ensuite pris l’initiative de publier un journal de classe, « D’un bureau à l’autre » que j’imprimais pour eux sur une bonne vielle machine à copier Gestetner. Je pense que seuls les baby-boomers se souviennent encore de cette machine qui laissait toujours des traces d’encre et des odeurs d’alcool sur les doigts ! Cette partie de l’histoire est importante car c’est ce qui a été imprimé dans une de ces éditions avec cette machine qui est venu me hanter toutes ces années plus tard.

Un de mes élèves de l’époque a décidé de planifier une réunion du 50e anniversaire en septembre 2018. Il était intelligent, débrouillard et hyperactif il y a cinquante ans; il n’a rien perdu avec l’âge. Avec quelques-uns de ses amis, il a réussi à retrouver tous leurs camarades, une trentaine de jeunes de 65 ans! Mais il y a plus. Il avait gardé une copie de TOUS les journaux qu’ils avaient publiés, y compris le numéro publié après un long week-end passé dans un camp à Mont-Rolland, une sortie que ces étudiants très débrouillards avaient organisée pour eux-mêmes et par eux-mêmes.

Polycopier
Polycopier

Comme ils avaient besoin d’une présence adulte, en tant que leur titulaire, je les ai accompagnés. J’avoue que je ne m’en souviens pas vraiment mais je me souviens quand même que j’étais plus participante qu’accompagnatrice. Vous pouvez imaginer le plaisir que j’ai eu à lire cette édition du journal et à redécouvrir tout ce que nous avions fait ensemble. Mais j’avais oublié que j’ai contribué un texte à ce numéro, et c’est ce que j’ai écrit il y a cinquante ans qui m’a le plus surpris.

À l’âge de 22 ans, j’étais une enseignante inexpérimentée, mais je ressentais déjà un malaise avec l’enseignement tel que j’observais qu’il était pratiqué. Voici ce que j’ai écrit:

Impressions 

Tenter de décrire et d’inventorier l’expérience que quelques-uns ont eu la chance de vivre serait réduire à sa plus simple expression un ensemble complexe de faits, de relations et d’amitiés. Une telle simplification ne pourrait rendre compte de toute la richesse de cette fin de semaine inoubliable. Je préfère laisser à chacun le soin de vivre à sa façon cette expérience. Tout ce que je peux tenter de faire ici est de lancer sur papier quelques réflexions auxquelles je suis arrivée.

Il me semble que le résultat le plus inoubliable de cette fin de semaine a été l’écroulement de deux images, reflet d’un type de relation particulière, celle de « l’élève » et celle du « professeur ».

La relation libre, gaie mais très sérieuse qui s’est établie durant cette fin de semaine contraste étrangement avec les distances qui ont caractérisé l’année scolaire. On peut se poser la question du pourquoi de ce changement. Pourquoi les questions que l’on s’est posées sur la vie, son sens, son but, n’avaient-elles pas été posées avant? Pourquoi vos aptitudes à l’organisation et vos intérêts ne se sont-ils pas manifestés en classe comme ils se sont manifesté cette fin de semaine?
(NDLR : aujourd’hui je nuancerais en disant « autant manifestés »)

D'un bureau à l'autre
D’un bureau à l’autre

Me répondrez-vous qu’en classe « c’est différent », c’est de la « matière scolaire », il y a des examens, il faut passer son année? Sur ce point je ne puis vous contredire mais, en revanche, je vous demande si la « matière scolaire » et les examens ont un sens en soi ? Qu’est-ce qu’une « matière scolaire » ? Est-ce que toute science ou toute philosophie que l’on étudie ne doit-elle pas être avant tout science et philosophie de la vie sans quoi ce sont des ensembles de concepts vides de sens ?

J’ai ressenti avec âpreté que nous mettons chacun notre vie en suspens durant le temps passé à l’école, non pas parce qu’apprendre, savoir et comprendre ne présentent aucun intérêt pour nous mais bien au contraire parce que cet intérêt, cette curiosité est brimée par ce qui nous attend au bout du semestre ou de l’année : l’examen qu’il faut passer.

Le professeur devient alors celui qui dispense la connaissance qui permettra de passer l’examen et non celui qui, par son expérience et ses connaissances, satisfait un désir de connaître et de comprendre le monde dans lequel on vit. Tout ce qui reste, c’est le professeur « stéréotypé » devant une masse d’élèves non moins anonymes, sans personnalités propre et dont le seul but est qu’ils passent leurs examens. Tout ceci pourra sembler exagéré à celui qui n’a pas vécu ce qui a été pour moi une relation authentique entre individus égaux et autonomes. Mais si cette personne se donne la peine d’y réfléchir un peu, elle pourra certes constater avec moi que tout le reste n’est, par la force des choses semble-t-il, que faux et artificiel.

Christiane Dufour à 22 ans

Je vous laisse donc avec cette question : les examens dictent-ils encore notre enseignement ou est-ce que cette réflexion n’est plus pertinente aujourd’hui?

PS. En contradiction avec mes affirmations ci-dessus, leur professeur de latin (oui, en 1968 on leur enseignait encore le latin) était une exception à cette vision plutôt noire. Il ne leur a pas tant enseigné le latin que discuté avec eux, à travers les grands classiques, des grands enjeux de notre humanité. Ils s’en souviennent encore et se souviennent aussi de lui.

Christiane Dufour à 72 ans

Curiosity in the (Science) Classroom

3131886424
Photo by Damon Styer

How do you foster true curiosity in your students? Tell us below or by tweeting @learnquebec.

In a recent professional development session, our team of online teachers were learning about and discussing inquiry-based learning. One of the characteristics of an inquiry-based activity is that it begins with the curiosity of the learner. As a group, we spent some time that day discussing this characteristic: how to effectively engage the interest of our students and the challenges of balancing student curiosity with the realities of covering the curriculum.

Researchers from the University of California recently conducted experiments to discover what curiosity does to our brain activity.   They found that “people are better at learning information that they are curious about” and “memory for incidental material presented during curious states was also enhanced”.

For me, this does not come as a huge surprise.  I have seen firsthand that piquing students’ interest about a subject before teaching them something new will make them more ready to learn, will allow them to learn more deeply, and will help to engage their prior knowledge. However, it is not always easy to do this. Not all students are naturally curious. Some students get very anxious when there is a high level of uncertainty. As well, we are given a fairly rigorous curriculum to follow and it can sometimes be difficult to find the time to build students’ curiosity about particular material.

Since the PD session, I have done some reflecting on my own teaching practice to see where I’m encouraging student curiosity and what I can do to further expand on it. Here are three things I have realized through my reflections:

In order for students to ask questions, teachers need to create an environment where they feel safe to do so.

In Fostering Curiosity in Your Students, Marilyn P. Arnone suggests: “Create an atmosphere where students feel comfortable about raising questions and where they can test their own hypotheses through discussion and brainstorming. (Not only does this foster curiosity, but it also helps to build confidence.) “

At the beginning of the year, I find that many students are hesitant to ask questions. They are concerned about how their peers will react and they are worried that I will get upset that they are asking questions that could derail the discussion. My classes are online, so fortunately my students have the ability to send me private messages (which are only visible to me and that student). Through this feature, I am able to address student concerns in a private manner or talk about them to the class without identifying who raised the question. As time goes on and we have established a culture of questioning, I find that students are more confident to ask questions publicly. Sometimes we are able to investigate the question further as a class and sometimes we set that aside for offline interest.

Essential questions get students thinking about how what they already know fits into the main ideas for a unit of study.

Last year, I started using essential questions at the beginning of a unit to pique students’ curiosity right away. Essential questions “provide the fundamental organizing principles that bound an inquiry and guide the development of meaningful, authentic tasks”. Such questions help to identify common misconceptions and allow students to engage their prior knowledge.

For example, one essential question that I presented to students when I was starting a Physics unit on motion involving constant acceleration was this: “What automobile controls can cause a change in acceleration?” Most students could already tell me that the gas pedal could cause a car to accelerate; pressing it would cause the car to speed up. Some would also identify that the brakes would cause a deceleration; engaging them would cause the car to slow down. By asking this question, I was able to get students curious about what they didn’t already know about acceleration. As we worked through the unit, students would add the steering wheel to the list of controls that would also cause a change in acceleration (since this caused the car to change direction).

Sometimes, instead of providing students with an essential question at the beginning of a unit, I will give them time to brainstorm their own instead. My Chemistry students, when starting a unit on Reaction Rates, came up with this question: “How does the size of a loaf of bread affect the time that it takes to rise?” Some of them had personal experience with baking and knew that a larger loaf needed more time to rise, but they were eager to learn the “why” behind it.

Allow students to investigate new relationships before learning about them from time-to-time.

As Ken Elliott wrote in last month’s blog post, many traditional science classes involve executing well-defined lab investigations to support material that was previously taught in class. While it can be argued that these experiments were designed to give students a deeper understanding of the content, it certainly takes some of the inquiry part out of the equation.  Students are not curious about the relationship between an unbalanced force, mass, and acceleration if they have already been taught Newton’s Second Law (F=ma). This year, I have made a conscious decision to flip my activities around so that students are doing labs earlier on in the learning cycle, with an emphasis on discovery.

My parting challenge to you:

Have I piqued your curiosity about curiosity? Read one of the articles below to find out more about how it enhances student learning and add a comment to share something you have learned!

Why Curiosity Enhances Learning
http://www.edutopia.org/blog/why-curiosity-enhances-learning-marianne-stenger

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
http://www.edutopia.org/blog/children-succeed-sel-elena-aguilar

Just Ask: Harnessing the Power of Student Curiosity
http://www.edutopia.org/blog/just-ask-power-student-curiosity-nicholas-provenzano

Fostering Curiosity in Your Students
http://www.educationoasis.com/resources/Articles/fosteringcuriosity.htm

Curiosity is critical to academic performance
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111027150211.htm

How curiosity changes the brain to enhance learning
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-10/cp-hcc092514.php

Curiosity: It Helps Us Learn, But Why?
http://www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2014/10/24/357811146/curiosity-it-may-have-killed-the-cat-but-it-helps-us-learn

Curiosity Prepares the Brain for Better Learning
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/curiosity-prepares-the-brain-for-better-learning/

 

 

 

 

 

Authentic experience: Students writing for real audiences

http://www.flickr.com/photos/theparadigmshifter/470341923
CC BY-NC 2.0

I was a first year teacher writing on the chalkboard, simultaneously trying to keep an eye on a room of rowdy secondary 2 students.  Suddenly, I heard the words that always  make me shudder.  “Sir, you spelled a word wrong”.  The implication of this phrase is that I, the teacher may not be all-knowing; a fact I was trying to keep hidden until later in the year.

The word in question was learned and my student, a young man of Jamaican heritage, shook my confidence by telling me the correct spelling was “learnt”.  Standing in front of 20 students, I was unsure what to do.  On one hand, I was fairly  confident I spelled learned that way for my whole life.  But on the other hand, “learnt” looked strangely correct.  Needless to say, the whole issue was dropped when I asked him to look it up in one of our dusty dictionaries.

But I was shaken.  After class, I looked up the word and learned/learnt that both spellings are correct.  The British use learnt and Americans, learned.  Being Canadian, we were free to vacillate between the two.

I tell you this story to underline how authentic experiences cement knowledge and competency.  I certainly won’t forget what I learned that day.

Reflecting on that experience got me thinking: in what ways can teachers allow students to have authentic writing experiences, where student work culminates into something that is actually read by people other than just their teacher?   If students are writing for an authentic audience, will it increase engagement? Will it change the way they write?

There are two Quebec examples of students writing in English for an authentic audience that have recently caught my eye.  Secondary 1 and 2 students at Metis Beach school were given the opportunity to produce a special edition of the Heritage-Lower St Lawrence newsletter. HLSL is a community organization dedicated to serving the English population of their region. I invite you to click on the link and observe the quality of student writing.  Highlights include a history of the school and community, an article about bullying and a feature on a class project inspired by the “freedom writers”.  It quickly becomes obvious that the students worked hard to write, revise and rewrite compelling and clear articles because they knew their words would be read by the community and beyond.  Their teacher, Erin Ross, said her motivation in setting up this opportunity for her students was feeling that it was ”important to have my students have a new learning opportunity in their English class.  It is all about the process and showing them that they have a voice.”

I spoke to Melanie Leblanc, the Executive Director of Heritage Lower St Lawrence and she raved about the student-produced newsletter for her organization.  She said members “loved knowing what was going on in the school” and noted that since the newsletter was published, the community has an “increased sense of belonging to the school”.

A second example of authentic writing comes from the infamous GrEAU project.  GrEAU is a hydroponic based agricultural business founded and run by a group of students from Mecatina School, located in La Tabatiere (a village on the Lower North Shore of Quebec)  The project is a sight to behold, in part because of the authentic need the business is fulfilling along with the strong marketing and communications website.

The students involved in the project worked collaboratively to develop a very clear website to share information about how the garden grows along with recipes to get the most out of the fresh produce. The students also had numerous opportunities to be interviewed on CBC radio and Radio Canada communicating clearly in English and French.

I spoke to Ben Collier, one of the founding members and he agreed that collaboratively developing the website allowed him to learn how to present scientific findings and better understand how to communicate what was accomplished.  I asked Ben about the editing process and he laughed, remembering how in normal school projects he did not always proofread assignments before handing them in.  But with the GrEAU project there was no leniency for errors, the group wanted to make sure everything was perfect.

These two examples show the potential of developing authentic writing opportunities with students.  If you are inspired to co-develop opportunities for students in your own schools, please share the results.

If you want to learn more about authentic writing contexts for students, I encourage you to check out a new resource site from the MELS called Literacy Today QC. It includes positive evidence of integrating authentic contexts in your curriculum and examples of authentic classroom activities.

Follow me on twitter @ELA_LEARN

La ludification d’une classe de FLS

graffiti
photo by Mocks 108 CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

L’autre jour, j’écoutais un baladoweb de la série Freakonomics au sujet de la motivation, plus précisément, au sujet de comment éduquer les gens à faire des bons choix en terme de santé et d’obéissance aux lois. Ce n’était pas une émission du domaine de l’éducation, mais plutôt du domaine du marketing. Mais le marketing et l’éducation sont des cousins assez proches — les deux visant principalement la modification de comportements des gens à qui ils s’adressent. Ce billet se veut donc un hommage à l’espèce humaine, cette espèce qui est telle qu’elle est, peu importe les théories idéalistes sur lesquelles on s’appuie souvent pour l’expliquer.

Au printemps 2014, j’ai présenté dans un billet mon entrevue avec Avi Spector au sujet de la ludification (gamification) en apprentissage du FLS. Ce qui suit est mon entrevue avec Catherine Boisvert, l’enseignante qui a expérimenté cette approche dans sa classe de français, langue seconde entre janvier et juin 2014. La ludification, selon Avi et d’autres, c’est l’utilisation de stratégies et d’approches qui sont propres au domaine des jeux, incluant les jeux vidéo. Ça ne veut pas dire qu’on joue à des jeux en classe, mais plutôt qu’on puise certaines approches ou structures de jeux connus pour les mettre au service d’un contexte d’apprentissage. Le projet d’Avi et de Catherine avait comme fondements les 6 principes suivants :

  • Les notes : les notes sont structurées en fonction d’un gain de points et non la perte de points;
  • L’appropriation du parcours : il y a une transparence quant au programme et les élèves ont le choix des parties du programme qu’ils vont travailler. Les élèves connaissent d’avance les travaux à remettre et peuvent choisir l’ordre dans lequel ils les font;
  • L’échec vers l’avant (failing forward) : l’échec est perçu comme façon de progresser;
  • La rétroaction : une rétroaction ponctuelle et fréquente est donnée à l’élève pour lui permettre d’ajuster ses démarches, ses stratégies et ses travaux.
  • La différentiation : les élèves peuvent choisir différentes démarches, différents outils et différentes façons de démontrer le développement de leurs compétences, selon les aptitudes de chacun;
  • Les défis sur mesure : dans une classe individualisée, l’élève progresse à son rythme et ne progresse qu’après la réussite d’une cible d’apprentissage. Les nouveaux apprentissages se construisent sur des bases solides à chaque étape. Dans les jeux vidéo, on appelle cette démarche  « levelling up ».
C_Boisvert
Catherine Boisvert, CQSB

Enseignante : Catherine Boisvert, CQSB
Contexte : classe individualisée de FLS en éducation aux adultes (16 à 24 ans). Les élèves sont de secondaire 1 à 5 dans une même classe.

Qu’est-ce qui t’a amené à expérimenter la ludification dans ta classe de FLS?

Avi a déjà travaillé avec moi. Il cherchait un cobaye pour voir comment la ludification pouvait se dérouler en classe. Moi, personnellement, je préfère appeler ça de la « gamification » parce que mes élèves, ce sont des « gamers ». J’étais aussi à la recherche d’une façon d’essayer de jazzer un peu mon cours. J’ai un petit groupe et on est dans un petit centre. J’ai des élèves récalcitrants, qui se mettent des étiquettes, qui commencent leur première journée en disant : « Ah, non, mais moi j’suis pas bon en français. » Je voulais qu’ils aillent chercher cette espèce de combativité qu’ils ont avec les jeux. On a parlé des jeux auxquels ils jouent. Je leur ai demandé ce qu’ils font quand ils ne réussissent pas un tableau dans Candy Crush Saga. Est-ce qu’ils se disent : « Ah, non, moi j’suis pas bon »? Comme si c’était un jugement, comme si c’était fini, une sentence. Au contraire, ils essayent encore et encore! Ce qui m’a attiré vers cette approche de gamification, c’est ce qu’on appelle en anglais Failing Forward (l’échec vers d’avant), cette espèce de persévérance, qui fait que les élèves puissent se dire : « C’est pas grave, je me relève puis j’essaye une autre stratégie ». Je voulais qu’ils s’amusent dans ma classe, qu’ils essaient, qu’ils se disent : « Je me suis planté, c’est pas grave, je me relève puis je continue ». Je trouvais que la gamification était une façon d’amener cet aspect-là dans ma classe.

Explique-nous un peu la logistique de ton approche.

En éducation aux adultes, on fonctionne avec le Programme de formation pour le premier cycle du secondaire et avec le vieux programme pour le deuxième cycle du secondaire. On est en train de vivre la réforme un peu en retard. Donc, il y a 4 compétences pour le FLS au deuxième cycle. Chaque compétence fait l’objet d’une SAÉ — les élèves sont évalués en fonction de chaque SAÉ qu’ils me remettent. Les SAÉ sont évaluées avec des étoiles. Une étoile, c’est le minimum pour passer, c’est l’équivalant de la note C. Deux étoiles, l’élève est capable de réaliser la tâche sans problème. Trois étoiles, l’élève va au-delà des attentes. Pour chaque compétence, il y a la possibilité d’avoir jusqu’à trois étoiles. Je n’ai jamais, à date, reçu un travail qui ne méritait pas au moins une étoile. Pour passer à une prochaine étape (l’idée du Level Up) et pour ainsi accéder à l’examen d’étape, il faut avoir au moins 8 étoiles, sur un total de 12 étoiles possibles. Le jugement de l’enseignant entre aussi en jeu. Le but des élèves est de terminer leur scolarité au secondaire le plus rapidement possible. Donc, ils peuvent passer des examens d’étape ou de fin d’année en tout temps. Je veux par contre m’assurer qu’ils ne vont pas échouer les épreuves, donc le système des étoiles fonctionne bien pour concrétiser le cheminement des apprentissages. Les élèves peuvent voir s’ils sont prêts à tout moment. Le parcours est transparent.

J’ai choisi de fonctionner avec des SAÉ, même avec le vieux programme. J’ai vu que mes élèves en secondaire 1 et 2 étaient plus actifs et que le programme leur était plus pertinent, donc plus motivant. Ils étaient plus engagés dans les tâches. Mon but est toujours d’accroitre la motivation des élèves. Ce que je trouve le plus difficile, c’est de travailler sur les savoirs essentiels dans ce contexte, parce que les élèves trouvent des façons d’atteindre leurs buts qui peuvent des fois contourner les savoirs essentiels. Dans le fond, ils arrivent à travailler des stratégies de communication sans le savoir, mais pas forcément ce que je veux qu’ils travaillent. Je trouve aussi qu’ils ont une réflexion métacognitive quand ils argumentent pour avoir plus d’étoiles : « j’ai été capable de comparer — regardez, j’ai écrit plus quemoins que et après ça j’ai écrit autant que ».

Quelle a été ton expérience avec l’idée de l’échec vers l’avant?

L’échec vers l’avant, c’est intéressant. Les jeunes qui jouent à des jeux vidéo, quand ils sont confrontés à un échec, ils recommencent en se disant : « qu’est-ce qui a marché? Qu’est-ce que je peux refaire? » Dans le fond, l’aspect ludique des étoiles que j’ai utilisées, comme dans Angry Birds, ça semble avoir un effet dédramatisant. Les tâches que l’on fait servent d’évaluations formatives. L’idée est que les élèves sont tout le temps en évaluation, à tous les jours. Donc, quand arrive une formation sommative, les élèves sont habitués et ils sont à l’aise. J’ai aussi remarqué qu’ils savent aussi à quoi s’attendre. Je les sens outillés, et ILS se sentent outillés. J’avais des élèves qui ne fournissaient pas tellement d’efforts et dans une classe individualisée, chaque élève est responsable pour lui-même. Donc, si je ne faisais pas la police, ces élèves ne faisaient pas grand-chose. Une fois que j’ai commencé à expérimenter avec la ludification dans ma classe, ce sont ces mêmes élèves qui étaient presque tannants tellement qu’ils me demandaient si j’avais corrigé leur travail! Là, j’avais le problème de ne pas fournir moi-même assez vite! J’avais jamais eu autant de correction à faire, mais en même temps, j’étais contente parce qu’ils venaient me voir pour me demander combien d’étoiles qu’ils ont eues. « Hein, comment ça, deux étoiles? Ok, alors je vais le refaire! » Ils ne voyaient plus ça comme des évaluations. Ils ne se voyaient plus comme des étiquettes qui leur collaient dessus. C’est comme s’ils prenaient le contrôle, qu’ils sentaient ce « sense of agency » dont Avi parlait.

Selon toi, quels ont été les principaux succès du projet?

Les élèves savent mieux ce qu’ils doivent atteindre en français, ça représente le QUOI. Ils savent ce qu’ils doivent être capables de faire en français. Ils savent mieux lier des savoirs essentiels à des situations. Ils ont plus de choix — au lieu de suivre un courant. Ils peuvent se dire : « je vais montrer cette compétence de telle façon ». Ça leur offre un contexte plus ludique — la perception qu’ils jouent à un jeu. Ça rend la communication plus naturelle, comme des enfants qui jouent et puis qui apprennent en jouant. Je sens que les élèves ne voient plus de barrières, qu’ils perçoivent les buts à atteindre pas comme une note, mais comme être capable de faire quelque chose. Dans le fond, la note, c’est pas aussi important que d’être capable de communiquer en français, surtout à Québec, où j’enseigne. On travaille des situations concrètes, issues de leur vie, comme par exemple, échanger un appareil qu’on a acheté. C’est aussi beaucoup moins dramatique. Je sais que j’insiste beaucoup là-dessus, mais je crois que c’est l’aspect le plus important de la gamification/ludification des apprentissages en FLS. Si un élève est habitué de penser à l’évaluation comme étant une chose punitive, une sanction négative, il va éviter de s’investir dans son apprentissage pour ne pas vivre trop d’émotions lors de l’échec éventuel. « Tu ne peux pas dire que je suis pas bon, j’ai même pas essayé. »  L’idée du Failing Forward, de l’échec vers l’avant, rompt ce cycle de démotivation. Dans un contexte individualisé comme celui de l’éducation aux adultes, c’est très facile de ne pas se rendre compte qu’on fournit pas le même effort qu’un autre, parce qu’on n’a pas les mêmes tâches. Mais avec un système de gamification en place, les élèves peuvent comparer leurs efforts de façon très concrète — « t’as combien d’étoiles? T’as combien de tâches de faites? » Et enfin, être bon en français, langue seconde, ce n’est pas nécessairement très cool. Il faut lui ajouter du cachet, pour que les élèves fournissent l’effort requis — ce projet a contribué à rendre le FLS un peu branché dans les yeux des jeunes.

Quels ont été les principaux défis pour toi et pour tes élèves?

J’ai découvert que pour certains de mes élèves qui venaient d’autres pays, l’école c’est supposé être sérieux. Donc s’ils s’amusent, ils ne sont pas en train d’apprendre! J’ai dû confronter cette idée-là — on a tous grandi et découvert ensemble. De plus, c’était difficile d’instaurer le nouveau système et de faire embarquer tout le monde au mois de janvier. Dans le fond, commencer dès le début de l’année scolaire fonctionnerait beaucoup mieux. J’aimerais consolider et développer le projet pour qu’il soit prêt pour le mois d’aout et pour que tout le monde puisse commencer avec une plateforme comme Edmodo. De plus, je suis dans un contexte d’apprentissage individualisé, dans lequel j’ai les cinq niveaux dans une même classe, donc je me sens des fois comme un gardien de but — celui-ci a une question, l’autre à besoin d’explications… Même avec la gamification, j’essaye toujours de trouver des moyens de composer avec cette réalité.

À quoi réfléchis-tu présentement?

J’ai des élèves qui parlent français comme moi, mais qui ont plus de misère à écrire, d’autres élèves ont des troubles d’apprentissage comme la dyslexie. Ces jeunes doivent alors travailler des stratégies de lecture. J’aimerais trouver une façon de jumeler les élèves afin que les forces de chacun puissent venir aider avec les faiblesses de l’autre, peut-être avoir certains élèves dans le cadre d’une même SAÉ travailler des compétences différentes. J’ai des élèves qui s’expriment très bien en français, presque comme des francophones et j’ai aussi des élèves qui viennent d’autres pays et qui ne parlent que très peu et pour qui le français est la 3e ou 4e langue. Souvent, ils viennent d’une culture d’apprentissage très traditionnelle, dans laquelle il y a beaucoup de répétition et de pratiques écrites, mais très peu de communication spontanée à l’oral. Donc, j’aimerais les jumeler avec mes petits Québécois « slackers ».

Dans le fond, je veux amener les élèves à déployer cette même combativité que je les vois déployer quand ils jouent à un jeu. C’est sûr que c’est plus facile si la tâche est aussi liée d’une certaine façon à leur vraie vie et non pas juste « conjugue-moi 20 verbes ». Le jeu à lui tout seul, c’est sûr que ce n’est pas assez. Mais, c’est le jeu qui soutient l’apprentissage et qui ajoute à leur motivation. Il est certain que je dois adapter les SAÉ pour qu’elles soient assez ouvertes pour qu’un élève puisse se retrouver dedans. Un élève qui tripe sur la planche à neige pourra mieux écrire un texte explicatif sur le « snow » que sur un truc scientifique qui ne l’intéresse pas.

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Avez-vous des questions pour Catherine Boisvert au sujet de son expérience de ludification? Utilisez les commentaires pour lui en faire part!

 

 

To Tweet or not To Tweet? Twitter in My Classroom

Twitter for me? Twitter for my classroom? Is it really possible? I mean Twitter is for finding out what Justin Bieber eats for breakfast or which NHL hockey players are injured for the next game. Or so I thought… Four years ago, I attended the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference. The theme was “Exploring Excellence”. One of the workshops I attended changed my whole outlook on social media in the classroom. The workshop turned out to be extremely overwhelming—hashtags, retweet, twitter handles, follow, #ff, and much more. But there was one statement that caught my attention. “You make it what you want to make it. Follow your interests and your passion.” My passion is teaching. I am a math teacher. I teach secondary 4 students. My goal as a teacher is to provide opportunities for my students to be active in their learning. Math is not a spectator course and I feel students have to express their thoughts about their trials, their errors, and their celebrations. I am continuously seeking ways to help teenagers become comfortable, confident and I want to instill a love for learning. That summer, after the conference, I lurked. I became comfortable with Twitter. I learned the language. I discovered a tremendous amount of resources I am now using in my classroom and I made connections with the most inspiring educators on this planet. And so, –three years later—yes, I tweet with my students.

Why I think Twitter is a powerful teaching tool Often, teenagers feel their voice is not important. They feel they are not contributing anything worthwhile. To them, their thoughts are unimportant for their teachers and their peers. A hashtag I created, #mystrategy, was to prompt the students to share what makes them successful when they are solving a math problem. One of my students tweeted

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And I responded.

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If the students feel their input is valued, they will feel they have a voice.

How I set up our class Twitter account First, we have a class discussion. What is Twitter? Every year, I discover not many students have Twitter accounts, nor do they know how to use Twitter. And they do not really know how we will use it. So, I start with a definition. Then, we discuss, “Why will we use Twitter?” We discuss how valuable this tool can be for their math learning. We exchange ideas on the importance of collaboration. We talk about leaving a digital footprint and the importance of being careful about what we share on the internet. After our discussion, I provide the following slides:

Slides my students will see

  Examples of tweets/hashtags

For the first three months, students do not know what to tweet. It is important to create prompts. Here are some examples along with some student tweets: The students tweet about math “Make a statement about the graph”

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The students share happy moments

“What was your happiest learning moment this week?”

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The students share what works for them when using a math concept

“What steps must I be careful with when using the quadratic formula?”

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And the students become very creative:

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The students encourage each other before an evaluation

“How will you prepare for the evaluation” or “What will you put on your memory aid”

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The students have conversations:

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The students share their questions, thoughts, ideas, and words of encouragement.

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And there are many other hashtags we use.

#INTU (I need to understand)

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#trianglepictures

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And I tweet.

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Here is a voicthread. You will find out what my students think of twitter.

What my students say

 

As a teacher I have gained so much on Twitter. My teaching practices have changed because of the ideas that are shared by my Professional Learning Network. (PLN) Here are a few awesome educators that have had an impact on my outlook on what it means to be engaged, connected and collaborative in a classroom; @cybraryman1, @c_durley,@ShellTerrell, @coolcatteacher. And the most inspirational person for me is @angelamaiers. On the last day of school, I tweeted the following. It was inspired by Angela Maiers’ popular hashtag, #youmatter

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Online PD: Tasters and Takeaways

 

F2F Robotics Workshop with Christiane Dufour

In early October, I blogged wistfully about my experiences as an online grad student and highlighted a spanking new teacher PD project that we were initiating at LEARN: Web Events.  Each month, an educational topic, tool or approach was presented via ZenLive (our online platform), to intimate groups of interested folk from Quebec and beyond. Following each live event, an archive of the session, as well as many supplementary resources were made available to all. We did indeed have some very thoughtful presentations and engaging discussions around a wide variety of topics: from blogging in the literacy classroom, to the creation of visual journals, to the use of some really cool online tools in the social sciences, to flipping the class, to the impact of la féminisation in the teaching of FLS. These “tasters” allowed for teachers to get…well a taste…of each of the highlighted themes, as well as suggestions of avenues for further investigation, potential implementation and possible community building.

Screen shot 2013-05-22 at 11.48.37 AM
Online Robotics Workshop – Using ZenLive

One very interesting (and promising) offshoot of our monthly web events, was the creation of the web series. This emerging PD model currently involves taking a hands-on workshop, which would traditionally occur f2f over much of one entire day, and breaking it down into more manageable chunks (1 to 1.5 hr), which are then delivered at a distance using widely available online technology. Needless to say, I wanted to be a part of our inaugural sessions and signed myself up as both a behind the scenes supporter and a participant for We Can, WeDO & We Will! Robotics in the Kindergarten Class with Christiane Dufour. Christiane is a veteran educator, who has been providing teacher training and professional development in the integration of technology for learning since 1985. For the past few years, with her LEARN consultant hat on (just one of her many!), she has been giving f2f workshops to kindergarten teachers on how to implement a robotics program in the classroom.

In my previous blog post, I suggested that in order for PD (of any permutation or combination) to be effective it had to meet the generally accepted benchmarks of quality. I interviewed Christiane last week and asked her how she felt her kindergarten robotics web series had done just that. Have a listen to what she has to say…some genuine nuggets about the planning, implementation, successes and challenges of providing good online PD.

How were your sessions content or subject-matter focused with an understanding of student learning needs?

How were you able to provide opportunities for active learning around authentic tasks?

How was collaboration encouraged?

Tell us how you organized the sessions over time?

How did you allow for feedback and follow-up?

What about continued support?

As evidenced by Christiane, the delivery of this type of PD should not be undertaken by the faint of heart. For the animator, it clearly involves a great deal of planning, preparation, persistence & follow-through. But what of the participant…did these sessions meet the needs of the individual, positively impact on practice and improve student outcomes? I am happy to report that we have the anecdotal traces to answer yes to the first two of these important questions, and I look forward to hearing more from you in response to the third and as part of a continuing conversation. Please feel free to leave your feedback or suggestions below.

The Power of Poetry

(c) haley8 under CC License
(c) haley8 under CC License

Crowded Tub

There are too many kids in this tub.
There are too many elbows to scrub.
I just washed a behind that I’m sure wasn’t mine.
There are too many kids in this tub.

– Shel Silverstein
© Shel Silverstein, reprinted from A Light in the Attic published by Harper Collins

 

For the past couple of years now, this is the poem I use to start my lecture on teaching poetry to my second year elementary pre-service teachers at McGill University.  Reason being….it makes me laugh and I can recite it by heart with lots of emotion.  It is then followed by a couple more silly ones such as this gem.

 

Falling Asleep in Class

I fell asleep in class today,
as I was awfully bored.
I laid my head upon my desk
and closed my eyes and snored.

I woke to find a piece of paper
sticking to my face.
I’d slobbered on my textbooks,
and my hair was a disgrace.

My clothes were badly rumpled,
and my eyes were glazed and red.
My binder left a three-ring
indentation in my head.

I slept through class, and probably
I would have slept some more,
except my students woke me
as they headed out the door.

– Kenn Nesbitt
©
Kenn Nesbitt, reprinted from If Kids Ruled the School published by Meadowbrook Press.

 

And then, very quietly, I change the slide and start to recite another poem. The boisterous and giddy group suddenly, as if by magic, simply stops chatting and laughing and moving around in their seats.  You can actually feel the mood change in the large auditorium.  I swear it almost even drops a degree or two.  And as they sit and listen, you can see them deep in thought.  Many of them transported to another time and place.

 

On Turning Ten

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.

Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

– Billy Collins
© Billy Collins Included in the book, Sailing Around the Room: New and Selected Poems.

 

And when I read Billy Collins’ final line, the sad, sorrowful stillness that hangs heavy in the air is broken only by a sigh or two as the young soon to be teachers consider the power that his words hold.  It is at that moment they begin to understand that there is something so special about this genre.  This is important since “poetry—merely whispering its name frightens everyone away.” They start to see and feel that poetry can affect a person and touch their very inner self in a way like no other form of writing can.

Kenn Nesbitt, the great children’s poet whose poem you read above has written five reasons why he believes that poetry is important and should have a central place in our classrooms.  Here is my take on how we can use these reasons as springboards for classroom practice.

Good poetry always makes you FEEL something.

“A good poem will give you goose bumps or butterflies in your stomach, or it will make you cry, or it will make you laugh. Or a good poem will make you feel better when you are sad or grieving.”

As a teacher, consider poetry as medicine for the soul. What ails your class, or a particular student? There is probably a poem or a poet that will help open your students to the emotions that they keep to themselves. Or maybe you want your students to become passionate or empathic about something – like peace or the environment – or make others passionate about something. Reading and writing poetry about the things that move us allow us to move others.

Poetry has power.

“How many people remember, to this day, a poem they learned as children? Well, imagine if your children became little poetry sponges. What would stick in their brains? New vocabulary. New ideas. What would be the result? A bigger imagination. More fun reading. Possibly a lifelong addiction to books. Possibly a desire to write.”

No doubt, poetry has sticking power. The sheer joy of reading poetry aloud, and of reading it well, of feeling the rhyme, meter, alliteration, rhythm wash over you, is equaled only by its ability to stay in your head. Reading poetry to your students, or allowing them to read powerful poems and learn them by heart, are the pathways to a multitude of  personal poetic experiences.

Poetry is intimate.

“With poetry, you can express your love, your disgust, your giddy elation, your mild bemusement, your wild imagination or any other feelings you have roiling around inside you.”

After a disaster or other tragedy, teachers all over the world reach for poetry and the arts as a way of getting students to come to terms with what they have experienced. Unfettered by sentence structure and punctuation, poetry allows for the immediate release of pent-up words. Writers at all levels can write out their feelings in a way that resonates with them, and share with others something deep without worrying so much about form.

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Poetry is something you can share.

“Sharing poetry doesn’t just mean reading it aloud together either…A poem you wrote can make a better gift to a friend than just about anything money can buy.”

As learners discover the poems that move them, they can share these poems with each other, and with others in their family. The Poetry Foundation’s Record-a-poem initiative asks people to record themselves reading their favourite poem, paying hommage to the idea that poetry is meant to be shared as a way of providing insight not just into the heart and meaning of the poem, but also insight into the reader who made the choice.

Poetry will get your kids reading and maybe even writing.

“You see, kids don’t just read poetry once. They read it again and again and again.”

The immediacy and ease of writing poetry (at least, that is what it can be, if you present it as such) can lure reluctant writers into the realm of words. A gateway to self-expression with words, poetry will appeal as a genre for both reading and writing. Poems can be short, but loaded with meaning, and thus appear non-threatening and manageable.

 

The discussion in my class then goes on to recalling the way that so many of these bright eyed future teachers were they themselves taught poetry when they were so young and impressionable.  Sadly, many of them share that they were instantly turned off of this beautiful, rich genre because all they were ever asked to do was to deconstruct the poem to discover the hidden meaning.  They became so sick of this procedure, especially because they were often told time and again that their interpretations were wrong, that they simply didn’t want to ever consider bringing this delightful form of literacy learning into classrooms of their own.   I reassure them, and tell them that I understand why they feel the way they do.  I then recite for them Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, a classic from my grade 5 years that I as a student had to pull apart line by line.  They sit and nod empathetically, and then I put up this poem

 

After English Class

I used to like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
I liked the coming darkness,
The jingle of harness bells, breaking—and adding to
-the stillness,
The gentle drift of snow. . . .

But today, the teacher told us what everything stood for,
The woods, the horse, the miles to go, the sleep—
They all have “hidden meanings.”
It’s grown so complicated now that,
Next time I drive by,
I don’t think I’ll bother to stop.

– Jean Little
Hey World, Here I Am! published by Kids Can Press

Another burst of laughter and then we talk about how traditionally, poetry was introduced by analysis, and interpretation of the poem; that this dissection of the poem’s meaning and structure was meant to provide insight.  Unfortunately, we know it only alienated many people from the world of poetry.  Famous children’s poet Lee Bennett Hopkins has explained that he hated poetry in school because he was taught by this same method that he refers to as the DAM approach: dissecting, analyzing and meaningless memorization.  So many of us were taught to question why did Robert Frost stop by the woods on a snowy evening and why then did he write a poem about it. Well, who cares–the only one who knows why is Robert Frost. What’s important is that we bring our own experiences to the poem. The real question is, what does the poem mean to you?–not what it meant to him.

The first step in getting your students to read and write poetry is to choose and read poems that are immediately accessible, non-threatening, and relevant to the students’ lives.  The goal is to ensure that every one of your students has a positive successful experience with poetry.  Do not begin with the most difficult poems but rather select poems that show a range of emotions and a variety of subjects so that your students will get a sense of poetry’s possibilities.

I always end  my poetry lecture with the story of a thought-provoking piece by Shirley McPhillips where she discusses an interview of poet Robert Bly. In it, she points out that cultures other than ours have found ways to weave poetry into the fabric of both daily life and ceremony. She shares how Bly was fascinated with the little school children in Iran who would stop by the grave of the famous 14th century poet Hafez and sing his poems to him.  He then mused why we didn’t do this here.  Why we don’t bring the poets into our hearts as opposed to bringing them only into our heads.

Messengers

There is a country
where children kneel
at the graves of lost poets.
In the morning they come
to the tomb of Hafez
and sing his poems back to him.
In this way, they get associated
with the heart early on,
breathing in messages.

The pull and tear
as the outside world stirs
the linings of some inside sky,
growing orbits of fuel
and fire, outvoicing words,
they become messengers
to the world.

– Shirley McPhillips

This is the power of  poetry. This is why it needs to be in each of our classrooms; so that each and every one of our students can for themselves experience what only poetry is capable of doing to our mind, our heart and our soul.  It is indeed something to be celebrated and cherished as part of our daily lives…rather than a chore that must be endured.

 

For further reading/viewing:

A Note Slipped Under the Door: Teaching From Poems We Love by Nick Flynn and Shirley McPhillips
available from Stenhouse Publishers – http://www.stenhouse.com

Bill Moyers interview with Robert Bly –  http://youtu.be/e9by9LB-tqY

The Poetry Foundation’s Learning Lab – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/