Sunday, December 6, 2015

Joy, Purpose, Curiosity, Choice... and the Common Core!

"Noooo!  Just one more page!" my fifth grade kiddos pleaded as I closed RJ Palacio's Wonder to end read aloud for the day.   This was pure joy with reading.

"I really want my parents to understand that my brother needs an earlier bedtime than me.  I need reasons.  I need to come up with specific reasons to persuade them for my letter."  This is an example of authentic audience and purpose for writing.

"I wonder why some parts of San Francisco caught fire and others didn't in 1906 after the earthquake.  Do you think we'll have another earthquake that big again?  What does all that shaking actually feel like?  Who can we ask?  Can we try to simulate that somehow?  Are we safe?" Questions overheard as my students delved in to learn about the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

"Ms. nosek, can you help me decide between these three books?  They all look so good, but for such different reasons- I don't know which one to start reading next!" One of my kiddos on having too many reading choices.

Joy.  Authentic purpose.  Curiosity.  Choice.

These are all conversations and utterances I recall from my most recent year in the classroom as a teacher- it was 2013, I was teaching fifth grade, and we had not yet fully adopted the common core state standards in my school district.  There was ample time for joy, establishing an authentic purpose, encouraging curiosity, and providing students with choice. 

After that year, I left the classroom to give a new role a try- I became a K-5 literacy coach and elementary literacy professional development provider for my school district.  Over these past two school years, things have changed quite a bit.  Our district report card changed to reflect the Common Core State Standards, we took on the Reading Units of Study from Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at The Reading and Writing Project for our reading workshop curriculum, teachers are now trying out different math curriculums to see what will best fit our needs, the Next Generation Science Standards are on the horizon, and basically everything in education seems to require or firmly ask for a measurement, set of data, or an answer to "which standard does that cover?"  Education has changed.  It's changed in a big way.  

All this being said, I'd love to share some wise and relevant words from the  thoughtful Dr. Jeffrey Wilhelm (I'm paraphrasing here)... there is no reason why we can't add joy, curiosity, and citizenship to our classrooms in the era of Common Core.  It's our job to do so. The Common Core is more about learning how to learn than memorizing a set of facts.  It's definitely within our power as educators to make sure joy, curiosity, and creativity are still a part of everyday in the classroom.

The Common Core does not mention joy, curiosity, and choice, but then again, no state standards for education ever did (that I'm aware of).  Just because we have a new set of standards, it doesn't mean we have to abandon all that we know about child development and how to engage kids.

There is room for both.  There is room for measuring growth, teaching to the standards, listening to students read, asking them about their lives as writers, singing, playing, encouraging questions, and finding joy!  We just have to create the space.  We have to make the room for joy, purpose, curiosity, and choice in our standards-driven world.  Yes, our world has changed.  In my view, it's not a negative change at all.  Rather, I think we just have to learn how to adjust our thinking to navigate it.

A couple weeks ago, I had the great fortune of traveling to Minneapolis, Minnesota to attend the National Council of Teachers of English Conference (#NCTE15) and the Conference on English Leadership Convention (#CEL15).  Throughout every session I attended, to conversation in which I engaged, there was a theme:  joy, authentic purpose, curiosity, and choice.  It was certainly not anti-Common Core, rather, it was about the power of the classroom teacher and how we have to ensure that all of our children still find joy and purpose in our new era of common standards, data collection, and constant measurement.

During my first day at the convention, I sat on the floor in a crowded room to learn more from the gurus of K-2 reading, Lucy Calkins, Shanna Schwartz, and Amanda Hartman.  Here are a few gems from their session on primary reading instruction:

Reading is something that we do in order to connect with other people. 

In our early, K-2, classrooms, reading must feel like a social, playful activity. 

It's not about being silent and sustained anymore- elementary reading must be playful, social, and clearly vocal!  

One of the major goals of our teaching is that our children must learn to work without us. Our goal is independence for all of our students.

We must have a focus on growth, not a focus on perfection.

Donalyn Miller joined those of us on the floor 
(the room was packed!) before the presentation.
 It's fair to call me a fan girl! 

Later that day, I found myself sitting on the floor again, this time in an overly packed auditorium and with some of my favorite literacy colleagues from across the country (I'm talking about you, Fran!), to listen to two of my longtime literacy heroes, Donalyn Miller and Kylene Beers.  Donalyn discussed how real readers respond to books- through talking and thinking, deep introspective thinking- not through making silly dioramas or writing tedious reports.  Have you ever finished a book and had a desire to glue found objects into a cardboard box?  Me neither.

Kylene's final slide, and most important message
Then, Kylene took the podium. Her single message has never wavered, and at that session, it sounded stronger than ever: we have to let kids read.  Not only do we have to let them read, but we have to let them choose their own books as well.  Choice fosters joy.  We have to stop over-testing them and let them read.  We have to stop asking them to do silly tasks, and let them read!  We have to ditch worksheets and let them read!  The only way we'll ever get kids to become proficient and happy readers is to just let them read! That's all we need to do.  We have to let them choose what they will read, and then let them read for a good period of time.

Smokey took the entire audience through
a close reading of the four quadrants of
this image.  Engagement was high and
our thinking was challenged! 
After this inspiring session, I found myself in awe again hearing from three more of my heroes- Harvey "Smokey" Daniels, Sara Ahmed, and Stephanie Harvey... pinch me.  Inquiry and curiosity we're the focus of their presentation.  Kids need to wonder.  Kids need to question.  Sadly, wondering and questioning decrease dramatically once kids enter our doors in kindergarten.  Smokey Daniels discussed the power of images to ignite wonder and curiosity in our students.  As educators, when we project an image in class, all kids have access.  This is a powerful notion.  Images not only spark curiosity, but also they spark curiosity in an equitable way.  The classroom implications are endless here.  When discussing anything in class, imagine the immediate access for all students if an image or two are projected? Not only is it immediate access, but more so, it can provide immediate engagement.  We focus so much on close reading of text- what if we start with close reading of an image to provide access to all students and foster engagement.  

Then, Stephanie Harvey boldly took the mic to close this session with a few key ideas:

Inquiry is not about a project, rather it's about living in a way where kids' questions matter. 

We need to view learning and life as an experiment.  We begin doing this when we quit stigmatizing mistakes in school. 

Let's celebrate the questioning and the learning in school rather than the knowing.

The idea of the more we learn, the more we know is fundamentally wrong.  Instead, it should be the more we learn, the more we wonder.  Everyday we must think, "I used to think_____, but now I know____.  This makes me wonder______."

Build in time everyday for kids to inquire and explore something they choose.  Embrace and encourage their curiosity and excitement- don't squash it! 

We can fit it all in.  Joy, authentic purpose, curiosity, and choice all have a strong and solid place in our new era of education.  It's our job to ensure that its there for our kiddos.  

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