In this teacher-to-teacher blog, I reflect on best practices in the classroom--ones that have worked, ones that I should have tried, and ones I'm learning about as a student.
Saturday, April 14, 2012
Close Observations, Picture Books, and the Challenging Class
What happens when what works for all other classes just doesn't work for that one? I change the seats, they yell across the room. I teach differently in this one class than I do in all the others. How does that odd combination of students make such a difference? The trimester format doesn't help the situation because not being bonded with students from day one keeps those stronger relationships from forming. I'm not even sure that is the reason we struggle together, but struggle we do. I don't have the answer for that because I'm probably not asking the right questions. But more on that in a moment.
This week I took Ralph Fletcher's advice (A Writer's Notebook) and helped my students make close observations. He wrote about an old vw bug, overturned and rusted in a nearby field that he had never noticed until his son's babysitter commented on it. I want my students to observe closely. As Fletcher says, I want them to do three things: 1. Pay attention, 2. Write down what you notice before you forget, 3. Later, go back and reread your entry. See if you might want to write more about it. They even wrote these three steps in their writer's notebooks (or because it's nearing the end of the year, scraps of paper found in the bottom of their backpacks or paper grabbed from my stack).
With these three steps in our notes, and Fletcher's story fresh in our minds, I took my students on an observation walk, which was quite an experience in itself. They noticed things they might not have noticed before. I don't think I ever noticed the wind chimes hanging between the front doors of the school. Still yet, some classes see differently than others and definitely act differently. In my most rambunctious class two students found a dead frog and found a teacher to pester, which certainly added unexpected excitement to our walk. As the day stretched on, I laid out different rules before the walk around the school building began. I always allowed students to keep out their digital devices though. Some students recorded, took notes, or snapped pictures of what they observed. On a side note, as one teacher watched us exit the building, he asked why my students had their phones out. Why indeed? Why not? Is it not okay to capture experiences with cameras and digital notes? Although I am concerned about possible YouTube videos documenting our mini adventure, I let the practice continue. So far I haven't been called to the office, so we might be okay.
We captured pictures and notes, and yes, even the dead frog with our digital devices and notebooks. We returned to our observations in the following days while also making new ones. I encouraged this same level of observation as we read Coretta Scott by Shange. The students did not dissappoint as they pointed out subtleties in the pictures that I hadn't previously noticed. Picture books that use powerful images and poetry are like that...so rich that they beg for multiple readings and multiple viewpoints. In Shange's book, an image of the crescent moon appears at the beginning of the book, which contrasts with the harvest moon at the end. I wonder if this means newness and the harvest of hope and possibilities--a student said this, not I. And with silhouettes, as with the image on one page of people marching, one cannot distinguish white from black. These kids get that. They make these observations. I don't have to point out the deeper meanings if I ask the higher questions.
I asked those questions to the challenging class. They observed. They wrote. One student wanted to share his written observation. He said, "The first moon, the crescent, could symbolize the few freedoms that the black people had. The moon is at its smallest and the black people had very few rights. The harvest moon at the end is full like the freedoms that these people achieved." Aha. Yes. Very interesting. And another student pointed out that there were only the images of faces (Coretta Scott and her two siblings) and only a solid yellow, dusty-colored background on the page that said "the face of danger." This is a tough crowd, but they know how to think.
Picture books. The interplay between words and pictures, sounds and symbolism, meaning and the interpretation of meaning. Don't put away the picture books when the kids grow up. Let the words and pictures ask the questions that you didn't think to ask. And let the students answer...they may have a better answer than you do.