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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Involving Family Members in Learning: The Past is Connected to the Future

I didn't drive until I was 20 years old.  To most people, it seems like I waited a long time. My reason?  I was too scared to drive. I guess I never do anything until I've studied up on it and I just didn't feel ready.  When I finally decided to transfer to a college located 160 miles away from home, however, I needed to make it official.  

cross-curricular connections, interviewing family, learning connections, comprehension, social studies content, project-based learning, journal activities, family involvement,
Before that though, I got rides everywhere.  Back and forth to work, back and forth to school--if I needed
to go there, someone else was taking me.  One of the people carting me around was my grandpa.  I lived with my grandparents until I was 15 years old. It just worked out that way. Anyway, most of the time after I moved in with my mom and siblings and I needed a ride, he would be there for me.  Even when I needed to commute to and from the small local branch of Kent State at odd hours, he was the taxi.  I miss those rides.  

I saw a tweet recently that got me thinking about how much history I actually learned on those rides.  History about him, and history of the Korean War time was brought to life for me by a person who served in the Navy during that time.  I was taking a class--History of Civilization Part I, I think--which had a great professor and grabbed my attention.  The way Dr. Sosnowski lectured was like taking notes on a soap opera.  He had a real storyteller's way about presenting material from just about every war in history in an engaging way for a 19 year old.  Pretty impressive.  

The thing that intrigues me now is the learning enrichment that I was getting on those car rides to and from school during the Korean War part of the semester.  Grandpa would tell me about being stationed in Korea, working on Naval ships.  He made sure I understood the significance that the 38th parallel holds and the small tasks he was assigned while there.  Nothing combative, but admirable and exciting for me to hear about nonetheless.  To hear these stories from my grandpa and seeing him as a young strong fighter (not just an old, strong father-figure) was so beneficial to my comprehension and to my relationship with him.  Not only did I feel safe enough to ask "silly" questions I wasn't comfortable asking in class, but also I got to know that part of my family that held respect and interest in the well being of our country.  

I wanted to write about this and share it because I find myself considering the powerful instructional possibilities we have as teachers of any grade/ability level to use more project-based learning.  Especially with the common core as the new normal and Student Learning Objectives to track, cross curricular projects hold the potential to unlock engagement and motivation that have been so lacking when students try to communicate their learning to us.  I guess specifically what my experiences with grandpa make me think about allowing students to to is to get their family members' input into their assignments in the form of personal interviews.  I know projects like that already exist in different grade levels and different content areas, but even our youngest of students could be asking questions and reporting them back to their fellow students and teachers at school.  Even something as simple as a second grader reading about Frog and Toad can interview their older sibling about when they read the story and then reread it together. Perhaps the story has a strong problem and solution plot element, and they can ask their grandma when she has ever had to solve a problem with a friend.  

As teachers and administrators we are constantly seeking out ways to involve our student's families in their learning at school.  Instead of just sending a weekly newsletter or having them visit to watch a music program, we can get them to help teach by just sharing about themselves to their children and relating it to content.  For those with a challenging home environment, a trusted adult at school can be their interviewee.  
cross-curricular connections, interviewing family, learning connections, comprehension, social studies content, project-based learning, journal activities, family involvement,Consider adding this cross curricular project type learning just twice a month, or make it a weekly occurrence through family journal activities where students work with parents at home then bring the journal to school to share the next day. Maybe a mom shares how she learned to work out multiplication problems, or an aunt talks about a time when they learned something new about the moon.  The students will value the time and insight into the special family members life and learning, and the family member will feel encouraged to participate in a personal way in school activities on a regular basis.  

When we make things meaningful and personal, we leave this world just a little better than we found it.  When we make connections with other people, it gives us a boost and an amount of understanding that we didn't have before.  Let us foster those relationships with families and connect it to learning.  Let our students be engaged in learning not just content, but compassion and communication as well.  

My grandpa passed after an illness in February of 2012.  I am very grateful that before the had to go, he got to see me become an educator, and he got to know my daughter.  Most of all, I am grateful for all those rides back and forth to work and school, and for the opportunities he gave me to learn and to grow into someone who not only loves learning, but also loves and respects where we have been and where we are headed.


Sunday, June 9, 2013

Why? Because I have the Capacity and no Alternative

The incredible Maya Angelou sat down with Oprah on Mother's Day to promote her recent book and to share the wisdom that naturally emanates from her.  Among the topics were her mother-- whom she describes as a terrible mother to young children but a wonderful mother to a young adult, her grandmother-- the woman she and her brother famously went to live with as young children in Stamps, Arkansas after Maya went mute at age 7, and also a bit about her uncle, residing with them in Stamps.  

The uncle part was new to me. One of the things that draws me to watching something on Oprah's OWN network is that I agree with her philosophy of learning from all that we do: "Treat your life like a class...", she can often be heard reciting.  Because I so emphatically agree, I often watch Masterclass on OWN (new episodes air Sundays at 9) which sits down some type of celebrity that has made an impression on the viewer, the industry, or the world and allows the to speak freely about the road they've traveled to become accomplished and wise (the series began with an hour discussion with rapper Jay-Z and has included the likes of Tom Brokaw, Jane Fonda, and Morgan Freeman). 

When I first saw Maya Angelou's Masterclass, I remember how awestruck I was, just sitting in my living room after putting my daughter to bed hoping for an hour to relax. I absolutely adored her from the moment she began speaking. She is a person that exudes joy with her looks and her thoughts. She sings, writes, teaches, and speaks-- all admirable doings.  I heard her tell the story of her youth on Masterclass that quiet night, and knew I must read her books right away.  This was a woman that could add to my life's class.  This was a woman that even though I would never get to know her, she could teach me a lot about myself.  


I decided to read the infamous "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings", Maya's first book.  Sure enough, I found some inspiration within the first three chapters when Maya is telling an anecdote about her Uncle. She and her brother learned all their times tables "without understanding their grand principle, simply because we had the capacity and no alternative." She described how her Uncle Willie would sit and threaten them punishment if they answered incorrectly or hesitated too long. But that phrase: "capacity and no alternative" struck me.  
It is because phrases like that one exist in our students' minds each day at school that I feel so strongly that we must teach purpose.  Someone as inspirational and intelligent and kind as Maya Angelou grew up thinking she was only learning times table because she could.... Not because knowing them would serve her in any way in her extraordinary life.  Of course, we know the truth: she was learning her times tables so that she could efficiently solve the math that she would learn after and become proficient in using fractions and measurements and data analysis and probability.  However, the fact that she herself didn't not see any meaning in what she was learning beyond that she didn't want to be punished for getting a wrong answer, is a costly error made by her dear Uncle Willie as the teacher.  

With the Common Core State Standards emerging and being implemented, teachers will have to use Student Learning Objectives to present and track information about student learning.  It will, in a sense, force teachers to spend the time looking closely at content they may have been teaching for years and ask themselves the question: how can I teach this so kids will learn?


It's not like in college when you had a four page lesson plan document to turn in before you were observed in your student teaching and they just INSISTED you have a clear objective. As a college student with huge dreams, it was nearly impossible for me to get that specific.  But with CCSS AND SLOs the purpose will have to be well defined.  Students are no longer expected to be able to answer what a synonym for 'big' is-- they need to know that a synonym is a word that means the same as the given word and that they are useful in your own writing to make it interesting and in reading to help edit another persons work.  The way I think about it is, why am I teaching the kids this? And whatever reason I come up with, (I have to teach it so that they are able to ________) I give that reason/objective purpose to them. 

By the way, next time I am making notes for a post, it just might be from a new smart phone, since my upgrade approaches this month :) 
A shout out to Randy's Gadgets Blog for helping me in my decision for what to get next!