Rethinking Learning
conversations about the future of teaching and learning
Barbara Bray
be creative, innovate, take risks, unlearn to learn

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What does understanding mean to you?
By Barbara Bray    April 26, 2008 -- 08:51 AM

In redefining what learning in the 21st century means, I reflected on what learning means to me. I see each day and moment as a learning opportunity. I just came back from a long walk in a beautiful park where the birds were chirping. It was so peaceful and a great place to reflect. I stopped at a bridge over a lake and stood quiet for ten minutes just looking around and taking everything in.

I saw a colorful male mallard duck with his mate. Some questions popped into my head (even though I already knew some of the answers):
  • Why are male birds more colorful than the female?
  • Do ducks fly south in the winter like geese?
  • Do ducks mate for life?
Then I saw a large man-made fountain of water gushing at the side of the lake.
  • Do lakes need a fountain to keep the water moving, to oxygenate the water?
  • What kind of fish live in this lake?
  • Can people fish here?
I kept doing this - questioning - opening my mind to see the possibilities - to try to get an understanding of this world I was visiting. Some of these questions have one one answer but can be prompts to learn more.

If we can only allow our students to take time each day to do this and create a question wall or do reflection pages every morning listing any questions they have. Then sharing one question that is really interesting to them that they would like to do some research about it.

I guess the last few years of NCLB and accountability assumes that we as educators know the questions to ask and there is usually only one right answer. But thatís not what our children need to learn for their future. They need to grasp meaning about something that is relevant to them - that relates to their world.

With standards, I see how we teach in bits and pieces sometimes not even scaffolding on prior knowledge. To really understand something means holding and thinking about that knowledge and relating it to other things or past experiences. Hereís a quote from John Dewey that explains a little about what Iím trying to say:

To understand is to grasp meaning... To grasp the meaning of a thing, event, or situation is to see it in its relations to other things; to note how it operates, what consequences follow from it, what causes it, what uses it can be put to... Things gain meaning when used as a means to bring about consequences ... the relation of means to consequences is the center at the heart of all understanding.

I would like to explore strategies to help educators design curriculum that focuses on grasping meaning. Is any school or district willing to take a chance on mapping the curriculum to embed some of these types of learning experiences so students really understand concepts? Maybe give them a topic from the standards and let them brainstorm questions or problems, have interesting conversations about prior knowledge, and then design how they plan to either do research or find and share answers that lead to more questions.


Categories: "Standards" "Reflection" "Nclb" "Life-long Learning" "Engagement" "Curriculum Mapping" "Conversations" "Authentic Learning" "Accountability"



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Comments:
By small Cheryl Vitali      April 28, 2008 -- 04:23 PM

Barbara,

You are right on topic for the types of discussions that need to be
taking place.  I think of the nature questions you asked and some of
the have been the recent focus of Nature and Nova on PBS, yet do
children watch these shows?  Hopefully next year I will get my
students to actively take control at home in getting their parents to
watch these types of shows with their children.  My special ed.
students often did as I peaked their interest in the natural world
with all I brought in.

I had a real interesting revelation this last week that surprised me.
In researching postings with a colleague who wants to leave the
regular classroom, I saw a posting for a K-5 RSP position at the only
school in my district that is in walking and biking distance of my
home.  Being close to my work is important to me, having commuted for awhile in the beginning of my career.  It was very tempting, but only briefly. In talking with another teacher that afternoon I was able to
readily verbalize my feelings and realized the decision I have made
this year to step back into the classroom, and first grade at that (an
age I never considered when I was younger), is absolutely where I want
to be right now.

I do not want to go back to the known and where my competency has been
been proven even though the need is quite high.  I want to go back
into the classroom and apply what what I believe are best practices
and see how well I can work that into the current constraints other
teachers are facing.  I can only begin to really advocate ideas of
change and application to my colleagues and expect it to have true
validity if I apply it now into what they face day to day.  Maybe then
I can again step out in a year or two to a different position of
leadership and have their perspective more clearly in mind in a way
that they can relate to. I think there is a very real possibility that
I might discover how to have fun in teaching this grade despite all
the barriers teachers currently have that I may not want to change out
of the position and rather continue to expand what can be done with
what teachers are being dealt.

I was fortunate to attend a writing workshop this week that was geared
down to K and 1 yet still was encouraging pushing the envelope. I was
able to take back some ideas the next day and applied them in my small
groups with their writing. I was trying to get them to tackle
something that is very hard for them and I am working with the lowest
students in first.  It really helped to break down the task so the
children were not overwhelmed and were still tackling a really
challenging task of a descriptive narrative essay on topic that used
both factual and fictional details with a strong topic sentence and at
least 3 descriptive supporting sentences (I may try to add a
conclusion as well, yet this is really pushing them).

I have used my recent trip to Maui for creative purposes with them and
added in our travel buddy, Phokey the California sea otter they adore.  It was so cute seeing some of the students get up and look at the
world map I have up and actively discuss and mention the various
oceans and other details (mind you this wasn't part of what I was
directing) yet they are making applications across.  I always try to
use books, both factional and fictional, that have a lot of natural
history in them and I like to get the ocean in as we are not close to
it and I want the students to get that perspective early on of a world
beyond the narrow experiences many of them have had.  They are
learning how to make it relevant to their experiences, they were able
to think about how sand feels between the toes, how the ocean wind
might feel, and so on. Of course I have brought in things to help them
see this including a snorkeling mask and flippers and a flip chart of
fishes, and so forth.  I manage to get this rich, deep, exploration
into the context of their reading and writing that I align with grade
level standards and set the bar at the high end of the grade level,
not the low, as my objective in the long run is that this group will
reach the proficiency standards of a 3 or higher in their writing
sample in a few weeks, and over 16 and 18 in reading. Some may not, I am dealing with four first grades, yet I am optimistic that the
majority might. Who says that it can't be interesting in the process?

Have a great Sunday,

Cheryl Vitali
Reading Recovery Teacher (until June)
Former RSP, future first, then?

Time to take a Sunday walk... the day beckons..



Reply to Cheryl Vitali

By small Roxanne Clement      April 29, 2008 -- 05:26 PM

     I have lived in my home for over 20 years and I have not truly taken full advantage of nature calling me right outside my door...until recently. I began walking with my husband two blocks to a walking path that skirts the bay and we walk for about an hour or so (or as much time as my work-a-holic nature will allow). We both agree that we had forgotten where we live and what we could do here since our kids were little and we took bike rides on weekends together. We recently took the ferry over to San Francisco, ate dinner, returned on the last ferry, and walked back home, all within a 2 1/2 hour time frame. I am really loving it......and yet....I find myself feeling guilty for time spent..."just being."

    Somewhere along the way I have lost that knack of "just being". I used to do this with my family every year before my Dad died...my sister's family, mine, and our Mom and Dad would rent a place in the Tahoe Keyes for a week and spend the entire time "being" together. Now, with the kids grown, and Dad gone, it isn't the same, and we haven't found a way as a family to make it work again...yet.
    I realize I am going to have to actively schedule this time for it to work. I have already begged off some of the walks, some of  that "being" time...even  stalling off finishing New Earth . I need to reclaim that time to be. I miss it.
    Some of the best ideas for my teaching come to me when I can be reflective. There aren't enough of those moments scheduled in my work day.  I also find that in my Media Center when I step back and let the students go....when the activites are focused around questions, and even better when the focus is on their questions, that the knowledge, understandings, and meaning gained are so much deeper than I would have ever gotten from a textbook lesson. 21st century students can access information online 24/7 and through interactive websites students are learning in so many ways. I've started developing online content, gathering websites, placing them within safe online environments for further study and discussion, and establishing online space for student reflection, input, feedback, interaction, and publishing. I've started searching out online tools that will support this effort. I know that my students are more excited, participating online with me at all hours and any day of the week, asking deeper questions....it's a good start.

And....I'm going to stop right now, go home, and take that walk.




Reply to Roxanne Clement



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