Sunday, June 15, 2014

Read The Book and Find Out

I always react in a puzzled way after reading an Op-Ed that I like, only to find some of the comments disagreeing angrily with the piece. On Friday there was a piece Taking on Teacher Tenure Backfires.  I liked it because the analysis considered the employment life-cycle in the style of Ed Lazear, rather than just considering the immediate consequence of severing a teacher whose students appear to be under performing.  The comments were impassioned but didn't directly address the analysis, which requires some sophistication on the economics.  Instead the comments were about the conditions on the ground as the person understood them, whether an overworked teacher or an angry tax payer, with a tendency toward a single point of emphasis that didn't speak to the big picture.  I thought for a moment to give my analysis, as I frequently do, but the truth is that I'm so removed from this context that my analysis wouldn't be worth a hill of beans.

So instead I thought back to my own time in elementary school and my development there.  P.S. 203 was very good for me.  I had several reasons to recall my experiences there.  One was to find causes for students learning other than teacher quality.  Might it be that the culture and philosophy behind the approach to education matters as much or more than the talent of the individual teacher?  The teacher operates within this culture and philosophy.  I believe certain environments are more helpful for learning than others, and that the current emphasis on accountability is pernicious for learning.  So I wanted to describe the environment I found as a child.  Another reason was simply to express gratitude for the education I got.  I was lucky to grow up in an environment that was so nurturing of me.

A third reason comes from having finished reading Carol Dweck's book, Mindset.  Dweck argues that people have either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset toward their own learning.  The growth mindset is better.  The fixed mindset is ultimately inhibiting, though early on it can be a source of confidence. In the last chapter she argues that the mindset of the child is largely determined by the influence of parents and teachers and possibly others who are important in the child's life. Much of this influence comes in the form of unintended consequence and under the surface theories in action rather than from overtly espoused theories.  The kid picks up on the behavior of the adults and gets a certain message that the adults may not be aware they are sending.  I believe my time at P.S. 203 coupled with my Dad taking me to the Windsor Park Public Library on Saturdays (and a bunch of other things we did that I'm not going to remember here) gave me what I needed to have a growth mindset.

The key was reading.  But not all reading is equal in this respect.  Some of what we did at P.S. 203 was SRA.  That may have helped in the reading comprehension part of the standardized tests, but it didn't promote the growth mindset.  Individualized reading did, as I've written about several times, such as here.  Below, is the salient paragraph from the linked piece that gives some insight into when reading can encourage the growth mindset. 

But Hirsch didn't write at all about individual approaches and letting each student proceed according to their own current capacities and inclinations.  So after reading his piece I did a search on Individualized Reading and read a few pieces (a how to, it's effectiveness, and something of a hybrid, for which you need access to JSTOR to read the full piece).  The conclusion I draw from these pieces is that "part" of what a student learns has to come from the student inserting himself into the activity, individualized reading being such a form of insertion.  This was my conclusion, as well, from reading On Not Being Able to Paint, by Marion Milner, and thus the insertion of self into the subject a way becomes a way to bring in art to what otherwise might seem an arms length discipline.

There is also the matter of giving the kid control as to what to read next, which Individualized Reading does.  Sometimes this choice was driven by finding a genre that was both fun and encouraged learning.  For quite a while I had an interest in American History, which I satisfied by reading biographies and histories about people and things like: Fulton's Folly, Kit Carson, the Monitor and the Merrimack, the Transcontinental Railroads, and a lot more.  But I didn't just stay with a history genre. I read fiction too.  Indeed, there was a breadth of interest that I believe healthy for a young kid.  Too much concentration on a single genre creates a desire for specialization before the kid is really ready for that. So the Harry Potter craze, while useful in getting kids interested in reading, may have also had a downside in getting the kids too narrow too early. 

Coupled with the individualized reading we did book reports that were presented orally to the entire class.  I can't recall whether those were done by a single student or by a small group who had each read the book.  What I do recall is that the first part of the report gave a summary of the book but near the end of the report some mystery would be discussed with its resolution not explained.  Instead, at the conclusion it was said, "read the book and find out."  It became the tag line that all book reports relied on.  It is a testament to the power of peer influences in determining what kids read as well as to the school relying on the kid himself to decide to follow that influence or not.  

The last part I want to mention is the enormous amount of time during the school day that I was given to read things on my own.  This was especially true in 6th grade, when Mr. Sachar was my teacher.  He was also the school Librarian and I got to work in the Library as a consequence.  A Librarian's approach to teaching may be different from other teachers. The Librarian may be more inclined to let the kid explore, with the teaching job simply to show the kid some things to read that might be interesting.  But I also believe I had this freedom in Mrs. Stone's class, whom I had for 5th grade, even if at other times we did ensemble activity with drill (a 5-minute quiz on multiplication every day.)  One of my unknowns about those years at P.S. 203 is whether all kids had this sort of freedom or if only a handful did.  

Somewhere, perhaps even earlier in fourth grade or maybe still earlier, we started to read from magazines as well from books.  I specifically remember both Weekly Reader and Junior Scholastic, though I don't recall whether reading from them was ensemble or individualized.  Later I had subscriptions to several magazines at home.  Sports Illustrated was more like candy but The New Republic and Scientific American did challenge me, as did the New York Times, at least at first.  I can't remember whether I was subscribed to all three simultaneously.  But I recall that between 6th grade and 9th grade I first got these subscriptions and, looking back, doing so appears a consequence of the magazine reading at P.S. 203.

Nowadays we talk about kids reading in terms of test scores, but not about how much they read of their own choosing nor whether they stretch themselves when they do read.  We are so into snapshot measures.  We don't think about growth much at all.  It is a terrible mistake.  When I was a kid at P.S. 203, they knew better.  All these years later I feel so fortunate that I was allowed to develop this way, with me as the driver of much of my own learning. 

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