Sunday, January 23, 2011

Different Paths

I’ve been reading Georgia Heard’s “A Place for Wonder” about reading and writing nonfiction in the primary grades, and in the latest section she’s had the 1st graders brainstorm things they wonder about and then sort them according to whether they’re “research wonders” or “heart wonders” (meaning it’s more opinion-based, such as “What makes a best friend?”). She recounts her conferences with various children and the few questions they’re not sure how to categorize, or which they categorize differently than an adult might. For instance, one little girl puts the card for “How do oceans get made?” into the heart pile, and when Georgia asks why, it’s because to this little girl the ocean is an enormous place of mystery and she has no concept of the scientific aspects of it. Different than many teachers would, however, Georgia and her co-teacher Jen don’t correct her, realizing there’s time later on for this child to discover the potential of research to re-categorize it on her own.

It didn’t matter whether the distinctions were exact but rather that the children understood that there are various ways to go about exploring questions.

(p. 69) That’s a very “free-ing” statement, one that I remember feeling quite often as I read books from the various New York teachers connected to Teacher’s College or Denver’s PEBC – things like, you don’t have to complete a picture book all in one sitting, or it’s ok not to have literacy centers, or think of your day as a menu of options rather than a to-do list. Too often, nowadays, it seems teachers don’t hear enough free-ing statements, and instead feel more tied down by regulations and expectations.

Heard’s quote above caused me to think about my work as a coach as well. In the same way that she and Jen didn’t worry about the correctness of their students’ responses right away and instead gave them room to find them on their own, as a coach my concern should not be that teachers correctly implement a teaching strategy right away as much as it should be about giving them room to think about and explore it on their own. Coaching is more about the conversations we have about our teaching, not a search for one correct way of doing it. If these first graders had the freedom to grow their own confidence in their abilities as researchers, then shouldn’t teachers feel that same freedom to explore what works with kids? I did that for years as a teacher in a school without a coach, and the role I’d have liked the coach to serve would not have been as “fount of knowledge” but rather sounding board for successes and failures; a conversation partner about teaching.

There’s never only one way to do something. As coaches we should be able to encourage teachers to take different paths to common outcomes.

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