Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Putting the Fun and "Play" Back into Learning

Well, I'm now another year older and hopefully wiser! I am hopeful that my 27th year will be the best yet, both in and out of my classroom. And yes, I did finish my marathon to end breast cancer on Sunday, and my right foot is still complaining (I'm afraid I may have some form of plantar fasciitis and am trying to rest and use ice baths!). Being forced to not run has given me the opportunity to put some long hours back in my classroom this week and really think about the idea of learning -- and how to make it enjoyable, fun, and worthwhile again for my middle school students.

Thanks to the T440 alumni listserv from Harvard, I am sent many ideas and reflections on learning, teaching, and questioning students regularly. One such email reached my inbox a few days ago, where a fellow alumnus had discovered a very intriguing and well-written article from The New York Times from earlier this month. Always a fan of insightful Op-Eds, I read and surprised myself at what I came away with.

Basically, the article stated that to truly motivate students, we have to incorporate the idea of "play" again into their learning from a young age. And no, that should not stop once they enter kindergarten and become swamped with endless state and national tests every year. While it is refreshing to see that the Obama administration is wanting to overhaul the way we measure schools' success and how federal money is allocated, the emphasis still needs to be on providing the right resources to underserved students and training our teachers to be the best educators possible for their learners. As we approach mandated state testing early next month, many of my colleagues are at the breaking point with stress and frustration levels as they try to "cram and cover" everything in their subject area's voluntary state and county curricula. Why the stress? Teachers have become "test-obsessed" while students continue to be bred as "testing machines." Where, I continually ask, has all the fun gone in their learning??

In her article, Susan Engel writes that we are strangled and confined with our current state of teaching and learning -- and the testing that drives it. This testing obsession completely undermines the developmental needs of students and prevents them from learning early on what truly matters: developing ways of thinking and behaving that will ultimately lead to valuable skills and knowledge in their adolescence and beyond.

It is next to impossible for educators today to envision any classroom free from the exhaustive list of objectives and skills confining students and teachers and devoted instead to a few key, prioritized goals and outcomes. From a literacy standpoint, Engel writes, "A school day where every child is given ample opportunities to read and discuss books would give teachers more time to help those students who need more instruction in order to become good readers." In this kind of alternative, student-centered classroom, students would write about subjects that had real meaning to them and thereby learn to use writing as a meaningful means of communication rather than an activity focused on "getting the A."

Alongside this invaluable engagement with literature would be the opportunity for teachers to work with small groups of students to further probe their thinking. Students would be asked to critically think about their learning with open-ended and analytical questions that would invite rich discussion and active connection with the material. Could such activities be meaningful? Of course. Connected to the right kinds of learning goals and outcomes? Yes. Fun and enjoyable for students? Absolutely. In fact, I would argue that this kind of direct engagement with texts and critical conversations could be considered "play" when used effectively with collective student buy-in.

I think Engel would agree. As she articulately states, "Research has shown unequivocally that children learn best when they are interested in the material or activity they are learning. Play -- from building contraptions to enacting stories to inventing games -- can allow children to satisfy their curiosity about the things that interest them in their own way." This kind of "play" also promotes the acquisition of critical thinking skills that will prepare students to be skilled communicators, learners, and leaders of society as adults.

All too often, I see my students not knowing how to listen or communicate respectfully to one another. Incorporating student-led groups, discussions, shared inquiry circles, and writing centers allows students to learn the value of peer-to-peer discussion and feedback in a safe and supportive environment. The foundation of trust and respect, however, does not come overnight and must be daily modeled and supported by the teacher. These are communication skills that cannot be measured by a test score but certainly can help students perform and learn better in ways that fully challenge and engage them. After all, don't we want to raise critical thinkers and communicators, not testing machines?

1 comment:

  1. We are using the reading/writing workshop model in our classes as of this year. I love that it allows my students to choose their own books, write about what is important to them and work on the skills they need to work on. Lately we've been test-prepping and I wasn't really able to work that into the workshop model and now I miss it and can't wait to get back. 2 weeks of testing and then a big sigh of relief. Congrats on the marathon!