Sunday, January 9, 2011

Purposeful Teaching

Everything we do in a classroom must have purpose. If there’s anything I’ve learned from years of teaching, it’s that we can’t afford to waste a single minute of learning, and that it’s fairly easy to fill every one of those classroom minutes with something meaningful.

Sharon Taberski, author of “On Solid Ground”, says that the day should make sense to kids. For instance, rather than chopping up “reading” into a whole group time, small group time, independent reading times, grammar time, etc., we should subscribe to the workshop approach which involves teaching kids a little something and then sending them off to try it. Within that time we get most of those other goals accomplished. It makes sense to kids and makes sense to us because it resembles what reading looks like outside of school, in the real world.

After hearing Sharon mention that at a workshop years ago, I worked to make my classroom time make sense. I examined everything I did and asked, “What does this look like in the real world? Why am I teaching this and what will kids eventually do with this knowledge?” From those questions evolved a version of math workshop, so that my kids were working first on problem solving and second on algorithms and content knowledge. In Social Studies, it caused me examine our government standards from the point of view of a third grader and realize that to make this meaningful we’d have to act it out in our classroom over several weeks. For writing workshop, I realized that publication, in its various forms, is the ultimate purpose of working long and hard on individual drafts, and so I tried creating more authentic publication options and asked kids to choose writing partners with whom to discuss their progress.

The one area I had some difficulty connecting to the outside world was grammar. Who do I know who discusses past tense verbs over dinner or argues over sentence fragments with friends? After careful consideration, it seems the only good that comes from knowing grammatical terms is the ability to quickly identify the problem within a grammatically incorrect sentence. Whereas my grammar-phile friends quickly realize the two verbs in the compound sentence don’t match tenses, someone without that knowledge mostly just senses that it’s wrong. By knowing how it’s wrong, we can more quickly fix it.

However, doesn’t it seem that the ability to label the parts of written language should come after you’re fluent with the act of reading and writing? We wouldn’t teach a kid all the intricate parts of a bicycle and train them on maintenance and upkeep before ever letting them get on and ride. No, instead we let them enjoy the act of riding, get comfortable riding in circles in the cul-de-sac, brave the world without training wheels, and maybe even take off through the bushes on an off-road excursion before pulling them aside for a basic maintenance session. Actually, that session usually occurs out of necessity after the first mechanical problem renders the bike unusable.

It seems the same process should happen with grammar. Let kids enjoy writing, become fluent with it, and even begin to experiment with writing off the beaten path. They’ll gain real-world knowledge about what writing is for; experience the joy of communicating emotions with peers until WHAM! – They experience a mechanical problem and suddenly the need for grammar is obvious, even to them. They’ll be ready to try out more specific nouns, interesting verbs, and purposeful sentence fragment because the ultimate goal of writing – to communicate with others - will make sense.

And shouldn’t everything we do in the classroom make sense?

No comments: