Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Listening? Listener? Or being a ListenEAR?

"To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only to the 'music,' but to the essence of the person speaking. You listen not only for what someone knows, but for what he or she is. Ears operate at the speed of sound, which is far slower than the speed of light the eyes take in. Generative listening is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow our mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed, and hear beneath the words to their meaning."  —Peter Senge

On Monday evening, I spent time with some colleagues and we were discussing the role “listening” plays in discourse.  Listening intrigues me.  In fact, in Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop, I mention listening well over 50 times.  Listening is something I constantly work on and to be honest, I have to practice it--a lot!  Don’t we all?  Robert Frost once said, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” 

Listening is a complex cognitive process.  “Listening is the language modality that is used most frequently. It has been estimated that adults spend almost half their communication time listening, and students may receive as much as 90% of their in-school information through listening to instructors and to one another.” (NCLRC)  If this is true, it behooves us to talk to our students about the role listening plays in their learning… and to provide explicit and authentic situations in which “listening” plays an essential role! 

My 4th graders and I decided to tackle the essence of discourse this year.  In October, we began our investigation.  We compared the idea of “discourse” with a concept my students deemed “missed course.”  One of my students said, “Part of having meaningful discourse is making sure that your conversations stay ‘on course’ otherwise we might as well call it ‘missed course.” (Clever children, eh?).

We looked at the origin of the word “discourse,” from the Latin “discursis” meaning to move about, to and fro.  Having discourse is not about sitting still, it’s about movement, interaction, flexibility, and creativity in thinking (words students suggested).  We realized that if we were going to take our learning to new depths, we’d have to spend time communicating with words, talk, and communication.  It was then that we began our early conversations of speaking and listening… with in the context of “trust, respect, and tone” (see Conferring, p. 42-50).

And our conversations have continued throughout the year… I’ve noticed my students are able to handle “talk” about learning with each other and with me.  They understand the role “talk” plays in our journey as learners.  They know conversations in reader’s workshop about thinking strategies and what wise readers do lead to deeper understanding.  They know that conversations in writer’s workshop lead to more successful and productive writing lives.  They know that conversations in mathematician’s workshop lead to more commitment to number sense and its application.  They know that conversations in other content areas add another dimension to their growth as learners.  They know that talk… and listening… provides the opportunity to hash out ideas, think critically, and make wise decisions. 

During our chat this morning, one of my students suggested to us, “Sometimes I notice that in the books I’m reading, the problem is caused because someone is not listening… there’s no discourse happening and so a conflict occurs.”
     “Really?” I pondered. 
     “Yes… like in How to Steal a Dog (B. O’Connor), there’s a conflict between Georgina and her mom.  Georgina wants to talk to her mom, but her mom doesn’t have time to listen.  Georgina is just as worried as her mom is, but neither of them has the time to talk and solve their problems.  So Georgina’s mom is struggling and it causes Georgina to plan ways to make money.  They are both worried.”

And my students chimed in with the following titles and the difficulties that might have been resolved with more discourse within the context of the story

  • Waiting for the Magic by P. MacLachlan – the void between the parents and children 
  • Pendragon by D. J. MacHale – the problems between Bobby and Frizzell
  • James and the Giant Peach by R. Dahl – the distance between Aunt Sponge/Aunt Spiker and James
  • The Tiger Rising by K. DiCamillo – the lack of listening between Robert and Sistine
  • The Bronze Pen by Z. Snyder – the lack of trust between Audrey and her mother
  • Rules by C. Lord – the dealings of Catherine and her mother because of her brother’s autism
  • Word After Word After Word – by P. MacLachlan – the lack of time to talk for May regarding the new baby
  • A Nest for Celeste by H. Cole – the relationship Celeste and Trixe
  • Max the Magnificent by T. Wiebe – the wedge between the mother and father
  • The Tale of Despereaux  by K. DiCamillo – the conflicts between Roscuro and King Phillip
  • Matilda by R. Dahl – the hatred between Matilda and Mr. Wormwood
  • Fish by G. Mone – the anger between Scab and Fish
  • How I, Nicky Flynn, Finally Get a Life (and a Dog) by A. Corriveau – the struggle between Nicky and the bully
  • The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester by B. O’Connor – the angst between Viola and Owen (or Owen and Tooley for that matter)

As we discussed the role of listening in each of the texts and how “talk” and “listening” might have resolved the conflicts in them, we started a conversation of “What does listening mean?”  It was Brooklyn who summed it up better than I ever could, “Mr. Allen, we always talking about being becoming a readER instead of just reading, so shouldn’t we really be talking about being a listenER instead of listenING?  There’s a difference between listening and being a listener!”  These are the statements that came about as a result of talking about being a listenER today (student initials follow each statement)…

Being a listener means:
  • You have the ability to discuss or argue  C.T.
  • You develop an interest or a sense of urgency  C.K.
  • It takes TIME, there’s a bit of slowness and ‘good manners’  D.P.
  • There’s a sense of understanding – it’s about knowing not just hearing  A.L.
  • Independence – there’s a connection between listening and independence  B.L.
  • You get an invitation into someone else’s mind – you hop into a conversation and it gives you permission to share thinking between you and me, me and you  N.W. (I talked about ‘reciprocol’ listening after this
  • Silence is a part of listening – like the three seconds of air space  S.S.
  • You can ‘piggyback’ with a sense of synthesis… you get a sense of ‘extension’ between your thoughts  Z.G.
  • You give or get feed back that makes a connection  L.P.
  • You see body language reactions between you  J.F.
  • There is a ‘clearness’ in your mind—you clearly hear, not like Charlie Brown’s teacher—that makes you understand more  J.M.

So, if we want classrooms in which the power of discourse grows and thrives, we have to talk to our students… and become listenERs!  We don’t have to hold up a hand signal that says “Okay, everyone, active listening…”  If we want to develop effective listenERs with a habit of mind of listening, we have to provide authentic situations for students to talk about the very foundation of effective communication.

That's what I was thinking about today after school as I sit here at the table in my classroom. I’ll close with two quotes:

"Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand."  — Karl Menninger

"No man ever listened himself out of a job."  — Calvin Coolidge


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Patricia MacLachlan Expert

He waltzed into the classroom today, a huge smile on his face. "I got it, Mr. Allen, I got it!  I've been waiting and waiting for it to come... and last night it did!"  He put the shiny new book Kindred Souls in my hand.  "You have no idea how much I've been bugging my mom since I heard about it... Patricia MacLachlan's new book!"  
     I listened in awe as Nolan told me the story of the pre-order, his adoration for Patricia MacLachlan's writing, his constant nudging... It was Valentine's Day and it was obvious he was in love!
     Nolan's adoration for Patricia MacLachlan started early this year.  Three Names quickly became a favorite.  Then there was All The Places to Love and Through Grandpa's Eyes, which I read as a notebook nudge.  Soon, it was his personal copy of Word, after Word, after Word, tabbed with sticky notes (his own choosing) and annotated with thoughts and questions and ah-has (his own choice) that enveloped him, engaging him in the kind of reading we can only hope to watch develop in our students.  Of course, he soon discovered Waiting for the Magic on the shelf and devoured it... it's magical, watching him spread the beauty of Patricia Maclachlan's writing around the room.  It's contagious.
     Workshop, after Workshop, after Workshop, I've watched Nolan breathe his reading life into the words of his new favorite author.  When he has free time, he sits with the "Maclachlan" basket spread around him, looking... studying... searching.  For what?  For words.  For mentorship from another author.  For language.  For the kind of passion that comes from falling in love... with writing!
     Nolan is slowly becoming our resident expert on Patricia's writing.  He knows her.  "I've tried Baby a couple of times, but I don't think I'm quite ready for it."  "I LOVE Sarah, Plain, and Tall."  "Isn't she the most amazing writer?"  What I love is that Nolan has discovered that her words fill his heart and mind with amazing curiosity and joy.  And, he's not afraid to share it with his fellow classmates.
     So, Nolan's become Kindred Souls with Patricia MacLachlan... and she doesn't even know him!  But he knows her... and "what he knows first" he'll take with him forever.
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Kindred Souls is MacLachlan's latest book about Jake and his grandfather, Billy.  It's about growing old... and having someone young with whom to share life.  Haven't we all had that "person" we've wanted to live forever?  Jake does.  I just glanced through Nolan's book today... and now it's on my ORDER TODAY list.  But if I have any questions in the meantime, I just have to ask Nolan.  After all, he's the expert... and he beat me to the punch on this one!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Happy Birthday, Joy! or Happy Birthday Joy!

Three years ago, my first blog post was about my sister, Joy.  It was called "I Know a Lady" and it was in celebration of her 80th birthday.  Well, today she turns 83.  I called her earlier to wish her "Happy Birthday" and since hanging up I've been thinking about...  

Joy.  What a great name!  In Luke, the angel said, "Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people."  Joy for ALL the people.  What a grand statement.  In fact, the NIV version of the Bible has 244 instances where joy is mentioned (155 in the King James Bible); how many times is your name mentioned?   

Joy.  Defined it means, "a source of happiness or a deep feeling of happiness or contentment."  And, at 83 what else can you be besides content?  Knowing that you've done your best... that you've shared so much of yourself with those around you.  That's exactly what Joy has done, she's so smart!

Joy.  Henry James said, "The joys we've missed in youth are like... lost umbrellas; we mustn't spend the rest of our lives wondering where they are."  When I talked to her this evening, she didn't dwell on the past.  She said, "My mind is still 25, but my body just isn't remembering how young I feel!  I wish it was cooperating a bit better."  We always laugh when we talk on the telephone. 

Joy.  Joy in learning matters.  Donald Graves reminded us to find joy in learning.  I love my conversations with Joy about learning... she's a learner for a lifetime.  She said, "If everyone would read a book every week, the world would be a better place!  And, their minds would stay young."  And she reads PLENTY, her house is full of great books and she can talk to you about them with clarity and understanding that can only come with wisdom and sincerity. 

Joy.  Did you bring joy?  Good question.  Usually it's a question someone asks at family get-togethers, "Are you bringing Joy?" or "Who's bringing Joy?"  But, today it's about the 83 years of the joy she's brought to others... which hasn't always been easy, she's worked hard!  Joy is the ONLY one of my nine siblings who can tell me stories of my Grandmother, Jennie Bell Bloomer Allen.  Joy tells me stories of quilting on Jennie's lap and her stories can take her back to the time she was three when Grandma told stories of pioneering in Kansas.  Joy's our family historian! 

Joy.  On Amazon there are 42,223 books with the word "joy" in the title.  But, I only think of one thing when I hear the word.  My sister.  We are the bookends.  A thirty-one year span between us.  We have a private little joke about that, but that's a story for another day.  For today, it's all about Joy.  And I just wanted to say, "Happy Birthday."  

Find time today for a little...

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Put Thinking to the Test - Revisited

“At one time, the purpose of the public schools, at least theoretically, 
was to educate children; now it is to produce higher FCAT scores, 
by whatever means necessary.  If school officials believed that ingesting 
lizard meat improved FCAT performance, the cafeterias would be serving gecko nuggets.” 
Dave Barry, Miami Herald, August 4, 2005

This is one of my favorite quotes from Put Thinking to the Test a book Lori L. Conrad, Missy Matthews, Cheryl Zimmerman and I wrote a few years back (Stenhouse, 2008).  Writing a book with three trusted friends and colleagues was one of the highlights of my teaching career.  Honestly, the four of us had a grand time writing the book. 
     As a team, we'd write... sometimes together and sometimes separately... and then gather to revise and "put the pieces together."  We'd laugh (a lot), cajole, debate, respond, question... all in the spirit of collaboration and friendship.  We'd share a glass of wine and a light snack.  We'd talk about our frustrations or share our quandaries about our own writing.  Our process was to put a chapter together then read it, out loud, listening to the rhythm and flow of the words.  We must have read the book ten or more times to one another... listening carefully as each friend took the prosodical role as reader for the day.  Taking the writing risk with three people whose opinion you value was such a blessing... and a truly humbling experience.  I wouldn't trade that time for anything (click here for a podcast).
     Our goal was simple:  to write a book that addressed high stakes testing through a thinking lens.  We weren't out to write a "test prep" book.  Instead we wanted to share the ways in which we infuse our work with the thinking behaviors.  We knew that all learners ask questions; create mental images; draw inferences; synthesis new learning and ideas; activate, utilize, and building background knowledge (schema); determine most important ideas and themes; and monitor for meaning and problem-solve when meaning breaks down.  We knew that, "Strategic, active, flexible thinking occurs as learners make specific decisions to understand--especially when they negotiate the particular demands imposed by high-stakes, standardized tests" (p. 4).  Put Thinking to the Test was and is about: 

  • Responding to the high-stakes testing environment in a professional, forward-thinking way;
  • Understanding the kind of thinking our students need to do well in any learning setting;
  • honoring our own professional inquiry and integrity.
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     It's that time of year again here in Colorado.  We're gearing up for the CTAP (formally the Colorado Student Assessment Program, now the Colorado Transitional Assessment Program) season and once again we're developing a hankering for gecko nuggets.  All across the state, I'm sure teachers are swallowing hard and saying, "What'll it be this year?" or "Transitioning into what?"  I'm sure it's the same in every state.  That's why I had to pick up our book this past week and reread it... to remind myself not to get consumed by fear (read Cheryl's brilliant essay "Education Fear Factor Style" on pages 5-6).  As I reread, I found myself being drawn back into the writing process with my friends and realizing that I had to bring thinking back to the forefront of my work during "hunting season."  What did I discover?  It's a wise and practical book.
     On pages 13-14, I shared a letter that was originally an exchange between my daughter, Anneke, when she was in fifth grade in her "Nothing Book," a back and forth journal between home and school, "ostensibly designed to extend the famous questions-and-answer exchange between parents and children everywhere: 'What did you do in school today; dear son/daughter?' 'Nothing, Mom/Dad.'"  
     I reread this letter and it reminded me about what's really important:

Dear Mom and Dad,
     How was your week?  Mine was good.  In math, we’re still doing CSAP practice; it’s giving me an aching headache!  Also we’re doing time tests every day.  In reading today [Friday], we had a Read-a-Thon to celebrate Read Across America.  In writing, we’re also doing CSAP practice, it seems like everywhere I turn, I hear, or see the horrible, haunting word CSAP.  Aaaaagh!  I’m in Mrs. McKee’s group for CSAP writing.
     In history we’re studying about colonies, and maps, and slavery.  On C-track we got a mailbox so now I can write letters to my friends.  I don’t have to deliver them, so they stay a surprise.  I’ve gotten four letters and written two. 

Dear Anneke, 
     CSAP, CSAP, CSAP . . . as Aunt Randi would say, “Oy Vey!”  I agree that it’s haunting—isn’t that just terrific!  Wouldn’t you rather be haunted by the sound of beautifully written text, the thrill of closing a novel with a tear rolling down your cheek, or learning about how Cynthia Rylant or Jonathan London or Eve Bunting use writer’s tools in their work.
     What’s better than sitting in a group talking about A Taste of Blackberries, On My Honor, or Prairie SongsWhat’s more important—learning to question text, to create sensory images, to infer—than learning about how readers comprehend?  What’s better than filling a notebook with dreams, and wonders, and memories?  What’s better than hearing a beautifully written poem, a laughing poem, and a poem that touches your soul?  What’s better than exploring your passions, your life topics, or just something you’re interested in?  What’s better than “real” writing?  I can’t think of anything!
     Anni, I honestly despise what we’re doing to learning in the name of CSAP.  Is accountability important—certainly?!  Should we measure growth—certainly?!  But what are we doing to you—the learner?
     Poor teachers—we’re under such pressure and we’re throwing out research and the orthodoxies we hold dear with “the baby’s bathwater!”  And so, we see the joy of learning turned into hours of “stuff” just to “raise” scores.  Sad.  I guess I need to speak up as a parent—write to our fearless leaders and say, “Enough is enough!”
     As a teacher, I feel nervous and jittery and nauseous at this time of year . . . and I know your teacher must be feeling the same way.  As a parent, all I can say is “Do your best!”  “Eat a good breakfast,” and “Show what you know!”  Mostly, I want to tell you I’m sorry!

     In a few weeks it’ll be over—until next year.  Then you can get back to the real joys of learning, of being a child.  It goes by so quickly, childhood.  I want you to read, to write, to learn... and to enjoy being eleven.  ‘Cause someday you’ll turn 42 and feel the same tug in your heart that I am feeling writing this note to you... I just hope it’s without the word CSAP haunting you!
     I love you!  If you score a partially proficient or advanced, you’ll score what you're meant to score.  Frankly, your score is not what matters to me.   In the meantime, read a poem, sing a song, share a great story with a friend—let those be the things that haunt your childhood.  We’ll stand up and handle the rest!
      Well, that was written ten years ago.  Anneke is now a senior in college majoring in Applied Physiology and plans to become an optometrist.  She's grown into a fine young woman... independent, wise, thoughtful, charming.  Sadly, her childhood is over (heavy sigh), but she's got lots of fabulous adventures ahead of her.  And, though she still takes a test periodically, my hopes and wishes for her remain the same... to read a poem, sing a song, share a story with a friend (she's actually spending time this evening with several of her good friends from high school sharing a bit of laughter I'm sure).  Oh... and I can barely remember what her fifth grade CSAP scores were... and to think there was such pressure on her at the time!
     So, as you begin testing season, perhaps you'll pick up your copy of Put Thinking to the Test and reread it.  I did.  And, I think I'm all the better for it.
Just a note:  On pages 159-60, we ended the book with a brilliant essay, "Passing the Tests That Matter," by Dr. Carol Wilcox of Carol's Corner.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Learning with a Friend

I woke up today with a headache.  Jet lag, perhaps?  Flying to Atlanta and back within 24 hours can't help but cause one, but it's worth it.  Yesterday, Cris Tovani and I presented to a group of teachers in Auburn, Alabama for their reading association's  "February Fling."  It was my first trip to Alabama and the people in Auburn were gracious and smart! It was a pleasure meeting them.  And, it was a pleasure getting to talk and listen to Cris, she always makes me think (and laugh).  I'm so glad we didn't reschedule our trip because of the snow!
     I always learn so much from Cris.  Listening to her share her beliefs about teaching and learning yesterday made me think so much about my own teaching.  She talked eloquently about strategy instruction, accessible/engaging text, formative assessments, and systems/structure/planning being the strongholds in her work with learners.  She's so wise as she works with students.  It's always gratifying to hear her talk about the students with whom she works.  She's willing to dig in and say, "What do these kids need?  How can I best meet them where they are and move them forward?"  And, she's willing to ask big questions. 
     Cris works with many students for whom school has not been as joyful as we all hope it is for our students and thankfully she takes up the reins and says, "Whoa..."  And then she guides them as much as she can in the short time she has them.  Personally, I think Cris's gifts are blessings bestowed on her students.  They know that she truly cares about them and their learning.  She works with some tough kids.
     The funny thing is, we all ask those same questions in our classrooms every day.  It was ironic that both of us talked about the practices that we hold at the pinnacle of our instruction, the ones that we are willing to fight for because we know they work with our students.  In Conferring (and during my presentation), I shared the two guiding questions that Randi Allison challenged me to think about as I was writing Conferring: The Keystone of Reader's WorkshopWhat are your guiding principles?  What are you willing to fight for? 
       Cris and I both talked about the inane things we do TO children instead of with children; things that don't move them forward toward a goal, a target, or a love of learning.  So often we let a "program" or "programming" guide our interactions with children.  Instead of taking a look at a learning target or a standard and asking, "How might I weave this into my instruction?" or "How might this play out in our current context?"
    We often fall back on methods that include no discourse, no relevance, and no thought about the very students with whom we are working.  Teaching transactions often dictated by someone who sits outside our classroom or our building.  What would you put on your list? (Dare I say, your "stupid" list?)  Things you do that you know aren't "best practice," but you do them because... because... because you've always done it that way?  I've started compiling mine...

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  • An added note:  If you haven't purchased Cris's latest book So What Do They Really Know? get it today!  It's a fabulous look at ways to "assess" students thoughtfully and wisely!  Cris and I were talking about our top ten professional texts at dinner... my list would have to include one of her three books!
  • By the way, the picture I added to this post is a doorway on William J. Samford Hall.  Cris challenged me to find a keystone arch in all the cities I visit to present... so I'm going to try!