Sep 29, 2012

Dr. Thomas Armstrong on the heart of learning

 Dr. Thomas Armstrong visits Keys Grade School. Here he is talking to some Kindergartners.

Freshly-posted on Rappler, my interview with educator, author and psychologist Dr. Thomas Armstrong. If more teachers, schools and parents take his advice I think this world will be a much better place.

As word limits are strict in the social news network I work for (stories must be readable on an iPhone screen!) and I have this tendency to be verbose, here's my chance to post parts of our chat that didn't come out on Rappler. 

He even blogged about Keys and Explorations and cited them as Exemplar Schools.

What he says about "creating an oasis of calm within ourselves" is so wise and so true and I have lived it (and the opposite!), I just had to share:

Rappler: In The Best Schools, you say more than teaching-to-the-test children need to learn to love learning, to imagine, create, to think critically. You’d rather have them involved in projects. Less pop-quizzes, more experiences. But then there are those who say, “We want to see test results!” And by the way… “Isn’t academic achievement a good thing?”

Dr. Thomas Armstrong: Yes, it is. In fact, academic achievement is part of the development of the whole person. It’s only when it becomes the main focus of learning that it becomes a problem. A doctor or a pilot should have passed his tests of course, but he should have spent a lot more time practicing his skills, hands-on-training.

Academic achievement is important, but it must stem from a love of learning. We should not destroy this intrinsic love of learning that children are born with. If we create this atmosphere where the test is the most important thing, then we starve their curiosity because they’re so busy studying for those very limited questions to a test. We then we miss the main point of education.

Rappler: The point being, socio-emotional growth along with intellectual growth.  Cater to their curiosity. Tend to their individual needs as learners. I’ve also heard people say, “Schools must be stressful because life is stressful, kids should toughen up, take those stressful tests, even… live with bullying!”

Dr. Thomas Armstrong: In that case, why don’t we all just beat ourselves up every morning? If life is that hard then why don’t we give ourselves a break? Nurturing socio-emotional development means we create an oasis of calm within ourselves that let’s us face stress or difficulty much better. We become kinder… to ourselves, to others. There’s this saying, “life is hard and then you die.” I don’t agree. What kind of life is that?

I always tell parents, discover your child’s strengths, because those strengths will fortify your child through the difficulties of life. If they don’t know who they are, what their capabilities are, then at the first sign of difficulty out in the world they’re going to fall apart.

The rest of the interview can be read on Rappler

Like how he thinks so far? I can vouch for one of his books: The Best Schools: How Human Development Research Should Inform Educational Practice. Not just for teachers, but for parents as well Written with a lot of sense, reflection and Heart.

Sep 23, 2012

A Reading Revolution: Students choose their books

Posting my original, uncut version of A Reading Revolution: Students choose their books, published on Rappler. 

I know education stories can be a hard sell, like this took awhile to publish, but it's finally out there and the response has been good. Geeks do abound in the Internet, yes? And it is good to give a damn about education and ideal learning environments in my book. 

More important than my frustration, here's a tiny sounding bell for better education for all kids. One story at a time. If you like what you read about in Teacher Joe's classroom please share, like on Facebook or tweet my latest Rappler story.  Thank you, blogger friend.

Seventh-grader Bella is reading John Green’s The Fault in our StarsBeside her, Gabbie is reading Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. Isabelle’s book is The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. In another side of the room, there are boys with various Rick Riordan books—from his action-packed Percy Jackson series. Two other kids are reading The Hunger Games.

This is not some random gathering of precocious bookworms. I am in Joe Sibayan’s classroom, where the Readers Workshop approach is used in teaching literacy.

I observe his class during independent reading time, when students bury them selves in their chosen books for 20 minutes. Later, they break up into groups to discuss what they have been reading, book club style. 

Literature circles were formed today according to themes. As it turns out, Bella, Gabbie and Isabelle’s theme is Man vs. Self. In another circle, Miguel is enjoying Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Nikos likes Gaiman too, but his choice is Odd and the Frost Giants. Circle mate Mikko is reading Michael Scott’s The Alchemist. Miguel tells me their theme is Man vs. Society.

If the 21 students in teacher Joe’s class choose 21 different books to read for a current theme, that would be fine with him. That would in fact be the point—giving students the choice.

A student consults with Teacher Joe.

He explains, "part of the education of any reader is developing the ability to browse through books, determine if a book matches your reading abilities and purpose for reading, and to decide on whether or not a book is worth pursuing."

For many of us who went to schools with a strict list of assigned books, this may seem revolutionary—and very new. But Readers Workshop was actually developed in the 1980s  at Columbia University's Teacher's College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP)This reading revolution was started back then by Lucy Calkins, an educator who believed schools shouldn’t be dull and learning shouldn’t be rote.

Literacy Specialist Maggie Moon had worked with Calkins as a Senior Staff Developer at TCRWP. She explains, "many [education] scholars decided it was time to teach reading and writing the way people learn best, by becoming like apprentices to 'master' readers and writers. They wanted to help children develop a life-long love of reading, instead of seeing it only as an academic subject to master."

Their approach proved to be good for academics anyway. The State of New York eventually asked Calkins to roll her program for their school system, which was then suffering from dismal test scores. In time, the project turned things around for the city's low performing schools.

Since then, TCRWP has spread to other parts of the US and the world--including Keys Grade School in Mandaluyong, where Joe Sibayan teaches and acts as one of the Curriculum Coordinators. Maggie Moon flies in regularly to conduct seminars with him, as they both mentor the rest of the Keys teaching staff on how to implement Readers Workshop.

What if all a student wants to read is Twilight?

According Moon, nurturing passionate, analytical readers entails some letting go. Children should be exposed to many types of books, and some you may not consider quality reading. Picking up Gossip Girl or Jekyll and Heide is what teenagers tend to do, but that’s fine. They should find pleasure in reading. They should be allowed to grow into their own idiosyncrasies as readers.

Moon explains, “Strong readers have a specific sense of what they like and don't like. So I want to see kids acting like proficient readers as soon as they can. If that involves some Twilight reading, so be it.”

Bad books can even give good lessons on critical analysis. “Ideally, those kids reading Twilight can form a book club to discuss whether the writing is good, whether the characters are believable, whether the books or movies are better, whether there are other vampire series that deserve more attention, why or why not,” says Ms. Moon.

At their age, it is also more crucial to cultivate the stamina for reading and the habit of it, rather than imposing your choice of literature. This takes time and many books—all sorts and many levels of complexity—from R.L. Stine to Judy Blume and J.D. Salinger to Nick Joaquin.

What Readers Workshop does is expand students’ reading diet so they are drawn to other genres and notable authors. This is why in Keys Grade School, there are Classroom Libraries apart from the School Library.

A reminder from their reading mentor. Poster from a 4th Grade classroom.

Get lost in your book. A reading nook inside a 4th Grade Classroom Library.

There are no textbooks here. 

Sibayan considers them as "artificial collections of text and questions." In classroom libraries, children are given access to authentic published material--carrying a mix of reference books as well as fiction books that can be read for pleasure.

"Steering children away from low quality reading material starts with making sure that the books children have access to in the classroom are all high-quality children's literature," he explains.

Readers Workshop can be implemented in various ways. Some teachers can be more liberal with choice than others. In Sibayan's classroom, students are still required to read certain books. He can pick a canon title for shared reading. Occasionally, he assigns titles or authors to be discussed for book clubs.

Letting children choose books they want to read is only one aspect of the approach. He adds, 'the emphasis is on putting books in children's hands and giving them a lot if time to actually read. Less time is spent on worksheets, written comprehension questions or art projects related to a text." 

Instead of constantly quizzing for dates and names, students are challenged to make connections and find relevance.

Sibayan, for instance, will ask them to examine a book's physical versus its psychological settings. He asks questions like, "What is the relationship of the theme to the book's setting?" 

Seventh-grader Gianinna answers in her reading journal:

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (pages 1-2)

The setting is in the bathroom with blood on the bath mat and razor sinking in a toilet bowl. Cecilia’s mother is screaming and the paramedics are standing, shocked.

The rest of the book takes place in the neighborhood, a normal and ordinary neighborhood. This tells me that tragedy can happen to even a normal place or that beauty is ephemeral when tragedy strikes.

The normalcy of the neighborhood enhances the theme because nobody expects a normal and quiet neighborhood to be hit by tragedy or it shows that there is definitely more than meets the eye.

For today’s Read-Aloud, Sibayan is sharing passages from an assigned book—Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolks. All eyes and ears are on Teacher Joe as he reads with feeling:

“The older you are, the younger you get when you move to the United States. They don’t teach you that equation in school. Big Brain, Mr. Smoltz, my eighth grade math teacher, hasn’t even heard of it. It’s not in Gateway to Algebra. It’s Garcia’s Equation. I‘m the Garcia. 

Two years after my father and I moved here from Guatemala I could speak English. I learned it on the playground and watching lots of TV. Don’t believe what people say—cartoons make you smart.” 

This elicits laughs. A student chimes, “Yeah… TV isn’t always dumb.”

After Read-Aloud, Gabbie makes what they call in Readers Workshop a “text-to-self” connection: “When I was 10, a teacher asked me for a synonym for small. I said miniscule. And the teacher said, ‘Is that a word?’ I learned it from a cartoon.”

She’s no longer in that school. Gabbie likes it better in Keys where she can read Gaiman and Funke and Michael Scott for homework. They are her favorite authors.

“Schoolwork can be really hard, but I like the challenge… it’s the kind that makes me feel good about myself when I do well.” She likes her teachers too. “Teacher Joe is funny. And there’s no boring grammar stuff. You have to get deeper into the books. It’s not about memorizing. It’s about understanding.”

Like cartoons, books make you smart, right? I suspect Gabbie understands this more than the average seventh-grader.