Brick by Brick

I must confess.  I have been trying to write a book on education for years.  I have actually even put together what “looks” like a book, but if I am completely honest it sucks.  I love to write.  I love to write to discover what I am thinking or wondering about.  I love to play with words.  I love to write but I do not like the voice I put on when I am in book writing mode.  Why?

It dawned on me this morning that I hate what I have written in these books because as soon as I start to write something for the book I put on my slick persuasion blazer and bowler hat and begin the song and dance to show you my “expertise” in teaching and the classroom.  I become the evangelical used car salesperson of education.  I  try to cover everything that I know in order to create the be all and end all, the educational Bible of the century…and ultimately it is a massive failure.  In it I lose my truth, my voice, the essence of who I am which is not an expert of anything, but someone who thinks and wonders and reflects…alongside those I work with.

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So, how can I ask you to come along with me as I shed the slick suit with all the answers and indulge me in some way?  I have so many questions that I would like to explore and yet all of them seem are rooted in the theme of how to make our teaching and our classrooms authentic places where learning can and does happen.  How can we engage students instead of disengage them?   How can we change an entire system?  We can’t.  But perhaps what we can do is shift our thinking about our students, our classrooms, and the systems and begin to view them through a narrative lens.  What are the stories in your classroom?  What are the stories of those students you work with?  What are the stories in your literary life?

Research tells us that 70% of what we learn and remember is through a narrative form and yet 98% of the information we provide to our students is in the form of straight fact.

Elizabeth is a beautiful 7th grade soul struggling with a major disconnect between her Social Studies textbook and her sense of wanting to know and understand.  When I first worked with Elizabeth she took me up to her room and showed me her bookcase and all of the different books she liked to read.  She talked openly and freely and with great fluidity about who she was as a reader, what she liked, what she didn’t like and she laughed as we talked about “fake reading” and how she does it in school and so do all of her friends.  She was animated and those beautiful brown eyes danced with enthusiasm and purpose.

Fast forward to the dining room table 10 minutes later where Elizabeth and I will attempt to tackle her Social Studies homework for the night.  Her shoulders slump as she leans over and pulls out the Mount Everest of Textbooks.  It must weigh at least 5 pounds and it is only one of the many texts that Elizabeth is being asked to shoulder.  She lets it thunk down on the table and the reverberations from that book shudder across the table.  This is a heavy book, filled with endless information and Elizabeth’s long sigh confirms that the drudgery is about to begin.  First I ask her to tell me about the book.  She stops and thinks.  I wait.  I ask her what it feels like to read this book.  She thinks and eventually responds, “It is like reading a brick wall.  I try and I try but it is like I can never get through it.”  I am stunned and rendered speechless at Elizabeth’s ability to create such a powerful image for what this experience is like for her.  She is a deep thinker.  She likes to make sense of her world through simile and metaphor and I am in awe of her brilliance and so I tell her so.  She does not feel this way about herself, however.

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And we then begrudgingly open the monster of a book and begin.  She is reading about Russia.  Ahhh…yes Russia I begin to remember as both of my kids went through 7th grade with this same teacher and her passion for all things Russian in just one year.  The page she opens to is busy with color and information galore.  It is a smattering of information intended to inform, but to me it looks as though someone vomited everything they may or might want to cover in a chapter onto the page.

We begin with the title and I talk to Elizabeth about making these titles into questions.  Her eyes brighten.  She likes that there is something she can actually “do” to begin to make sense of the text in front of her.  We peruse the page and I move her to the bright green box at the left labeled major concepts and key vocabulary in an effort to activate schema and perhaps do some front-loading to guide her through the reading.

We get through one concept and as I try to conjure up as much information as I can about Russia I quickly realize I am as schema depleted as she is. We press on to vocabulary keeping the key ideas in mind as a purpose for our reading…should we actually get to the reading part.  There are 5 words and in each of those words lives worlds of information.  Elizabeth wants to know more.  What is a Czar?  How is that different than a president?  She is inquisitive, engaged and interested.  A half an our of our time has passed and we have yet to actually even “read” anything!  I move us along…feeling the time crushing in on us.

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We start with our questions to read with a purpose and not three words into her reading there is a vocabulary word that she is stumbling over.  She looks up at me and I continue on to the end of the paragraph. I ask her if she understands what she is reading. She shakes her head no.  We talk about stopping and thinking about her understanding and stopping at that point where nothing makes sense anymore.  She goes back and stops at the third word.  It is the same word that she looked up at me on.

We talked about how readers think about their own thinking and how knowing when to stop was as important as knowing when to read on.  I pointed out to her that she “knew” when she didn’t know because she looked up at me.  I want Elizabeth to think about her reading and her understanding as she moves through the text and to stop when she knows she has lost meaning.  She stops at a heavy-hitting vocabulary word, not identified in the neat green column that the publishers deemed as vocabulary.  I help her break down the word and ask her to think of what it reminds her of.  Together we make sense of the word and then she reads on.

And so we work and trudge on as far as we can together in this text knowing that IF Elizabeth is going to actually “get” anything out of this text then we must continue at this snail’s pace to ensure understanding.  It is a process that I am engaged in alongside her as I too question and attempt to make sense of the listing of facts and how they do or do not connect.

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There is no narrative in this text.  Nothing for us to grab onto in this endless sea of facts that now seems to weigh heavily on both of us.  And so I attempt to shorten her assignment, knowing she will not get to the questions she has to answer by the end of our time together, but making the choice to allow Elizabeth some true understanding, taking time “out” of the text to Google and get a sense of story that is so lacking in the text.

Who were this Czar and his crazy wife?  Why do they just mention these people in a list of others without letting us know why she was crazy?  And so we Google again and go deeper.

It is hard work.  And I have to question why so much is assigned in one night, but my questioning does not change the fact that those questions are due tomorrow.  She stops and flips through the pages ahead to see how much more she has to read for this one night’s assignment and a heavy groaning sigh escapes her mouth as she rolls her eyes to see we still have 6 more pages to go through.  I look at her and say, “Brick by Brick is all we can do here so let’s just keep keeping on.”  She rolls her eyes again as fatigue begins to move in and we press on.

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So how do we challenge this idea of more is better?  Do we want our students going nearly an inch deep and miles wide or do we want to advocate for depth over breadth?  Are we giving our students enough time and the right kind of books to gain a true understanding of whatever it is we are teaching?  Or are we more interested in coverage and checking things off a list?  Do we realize that each time a student comes to a text that is their FIRST reading and that the knowledge we have comes from numerous readings, rendering it much easier to understand?  Are we aware of what it is like for our students?  Are we thinking about that and what that assignment “looks” like for our kids at home?

Less is more.

And in my attempt to write “the” book I realize this too was my problem as I tried to cover everything and rarely went deeply with anything.  And so now I write this blog where I find myself going more deeply with my thinking.  I threw the book out the window because I realized what I was trying to do in all of those attempts was to cover EVERYthing and to do it from an all-knowing omniscient voice.

I do not know everything.  In fact there is so much more that I do not know than I do know.  Living in this information age, information is cheap, but connecting it and making sense of it is priceless.  And so in the name of less is more I write  to wonder, question and begin to figure out my thinking.. brick by brick.  And don’t we want the same for our kids?

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4 thoughts on “Brick by Brick

  1. As a classroom teacher I need resources. A book about teaching writing I will not read, but a book that has quality ideas day by day, week by week, and what to expect from children might help. I am tired of being told what to teach, if I could teach what my students need to learn and want to learn my job would be joyful.

  2. Thomason-I would like to thank you for this blog. I, myself, as a young learner had great difficulty with text books. It is because of this as a teacher that I use a text completely different then I was asked to as a child. We only use the text in class and it is read as a whole group. We are lucky to get through one or two lessons because we spend so much time breaking down the information and bringing in a real life connection to what they are learning (and you know how I love to share stories). Most of the time the book is open and I am interpreting the paragraph in my own words instead of reading it. When the students read we are constantly stoping to make sense out of the text for them. You have reinforced that I am doing something right.

    Now about you writing a book…. I think you should take all of your blogs and put them into a book and call it Conversation Education!

    • Thanks so much Myra. And aren’t kids just brilliant? For her to come up with the brick wall just amazed me and now every time I see kids reading in a text book I think of those many walls they are trying to get through. Love that you move in and out of the text and make it real. YOUR stories are amazing and what keep them engaged. So great to hang with you! Love to you and yours.
      Tomasen

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