Striving for Slow

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionSummer is winding down and many of you are back in your classrooms and back to the hectic days of fall. In her new post Sarah Cooper invites you to linger in summer for a bit longer and consider what the slow pace of summer can teach you about, well, teaching. “The more time I take, the more sophisticated the students’ work becomes, and the more I understand how they learn,” she writes. Sarah teaches U.S. History at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California and she is the author of Making History Mine.

Striving for Slow

Summer is the land of slow for teachers.

Slow mornings when we have time to sit and read the paper. Slow afternoons when we drink coffee with a colleague and talk in terms of what-ifs, not what must be done, in the classroom next year.

Even those of us who teach summer school, take care of family or attend professional growth seminars find that the days dance to a different rhythm. Calmer. Not dictated by bells or meetings. Subject to more of our control, our curiosity.

The “slow teaching movement” has gained momentum in the past several years, often encouraging us to let go of technology’s grip a bit.

Right now, I’m not talking as much about technology as about time.

As a friend and I commiserate every August, “Why can’t we bring more of the summer pace into the school year?”

We can’t always fight against a schedule cramped for minutes. But we can give our students time within that schedule to think, reflect, and discover themselves as learners.

From the lazy, mellow perspective of summer’s end, I’ll share a few slow stories, two about our students and one about us as teachers.

Story 1: More Research Time in Class = More Fun

Last year, for an extended research project, my eighth-grade U.S. history students did easily 80 percent of the work in class. I kept reserving more and more days in our library computer lab and ended up with ten 43-minute periods, about seven hours total.

With all of this time to work in class, students could:

  • Land on a topic they really cared about, not one they picked because they had to make a quick choice. (“This guy’s last name is the same as my favorite soccer player…”)
  • Find rich sources, not just the first ones they stumbled across late at night while they were also texting their friends.
  • Ask questions about how to do a works cited list and parenthetical citation.
  • Paraphrase quotations thoroughly to ensure they weren’t plagiarizing.
  • Find additional sources once they started writing if they realized their argument needed more support.

This ended up being the most library time I had ever spent on an assignment. I expected that the projects would be better as a result, and they were. The students found scholarly sources, discovered insightful quotations within them, and linked the facts more adroitly because of the extra time.

What I didn’t expect were the comments from students that the project was fun only because they had enough time to work on it, inside and outside of class. This statement, repeated again and again in their written feedback, has convinced me of the power of slow projects to increase engagement.

(Not incidentally, giving time to work in class also meant that students were not distracted by electronic devices, making their focus sharper.)

Story 2: More Writing Time in Class = More Creativity

At the end of a unit on civil rights during the Civil War with “Glory” as centerpiece, I wanted students to follow their curiosity. They could explore any question they had about the topic through a mini-research project.

However, we didn’t have much time: two days in class doing research, and Monday class plus Monday night’s homework to do a 250-word creative or interpretive response.

As students wrote their reflections that Monday morning, many of them were just starting to hit their stride when we had ten minutes left.

I envisioned the homework saga that night: Some students would want to spend an hour finishing but would become distracted or pulled away by other homework or extracurriculars. The final products, hurriedly stapled on Tuesday morning, would seem rushed and unfinished. Oh, and all the eighth graders were going on a class trip on Wednesday.

So I nixed the preview of nuclear warfare I had planned and instead gave everyone the day to work, with the absolute stipulation that they needed to finish by the end of class.

The eighth graders were grateful, and I really enjoyed reading their projects, including one by Wylie that combined visual and linguistic literacy, comparing Navy recruiting posters from the Civil War and World War I.

The World War I poster, featuring a man tinkering with a sub’s diesel engine, “seems more like an inspirational drawing,” Wylie said, “while the emblem and big title on the Civil War poster give it a very straightforward look.”

Story 3: Less is More, Period

Every year I try to do less and make that less count more – by addressing multiple standards and skills through a close reading of one primary source document rather than three, for instance.

Every time I forget to do less – which happens regularly when I hope to cram in one last skill or idea – I end up driving myself and my students a little crazy.

Last month I taught a weeklong summer school English class for ninth graders. We worked with five elements of voice, as described by Nancy Dean in her excellent Voice Lessons.

The class lasted two hours each day, with a ten-minute break in the middle. For each 55-minute session, I imagined we would read aloud a piece of literature, annotate it, discuss it as a class, pair up to identify elements of voice, come back together to talk about them, and write individual thesis statements on the passage. And then I thought I’d “fill in” the rest of the time with a ten-minute sponge activity on diction or imagery.

It’s funny, even writing out that entire list makes me tired. And I realized on the first day that, even though a number of kids in the back were restless here and there, we would gain more from staying with a document five extra minutes than we would from a sharp transition to something else.

So we stayed with it.

During pairs work, I took the time to look at passages each group had annotated, asked students to go deeper in many instances, and circled back to check that they had.

During full-class discussion, we looked at several more lines of poetry than I usually would. When arms and legs started twitching, I asked the kids if they wanted a stretch break. No, they said, being polite.

So a minute later, when one student volunteered the word “nonchalant” to describe a poem’s tone, we defined it and then I asked them all to stand “nonchalantly.” After they sat down, full of attitude, we looked at one more fabulous metaphor with new eyes.

Going Slowly Isn’t Easy

It can be easier to assign a rat-a-tat series of activities, as I did for my first years teaching, than it can be to listen to, critique and circle back to students’ ideas. It’s less messy to assign research to be done at home than to supervise it in class, with the inevitable off-task moments and dead ends.

But it’s not less fulfilling. The more time I take, the more sophisticated the students’ work becomes, and the more I understand how they learn.

Now, can someone please remind me about all of this slow summer thinking when the frenzy of October comes along?

2 comments August 21st, 2014

Now Online: Grammar Matters

When it comes to grammar instruction, we know what doesn’t work: isolated, skill and drill methods. In fact, research offers strong evidence that traditional grammar instruction has a negative effect on student writing. We also know that a solid understanding and usage of grammar is essential to good writing. So how best to teach it?

Lynne Dorfman (Mentor Texts) and Diane Dougherty provide the answers in their new book, Grammar Matters. Within the framework of writing workshop and the three text types identified in the Common Core standards, Lynne and Diane guide teachers with specific strategies for teaching writing and classroom management while providing practical, grammar-focused lessons.

You’ll get a plan for the entire year with eight units of study and examples of whole-class conversations about mentor texts, one-on-one conferences, and ways to assess student growth. The appendixes provide numerous quick-reference lists, practical tips, and a “Treasure Chest” of children’s books, annotated to highlight specific grammar and conventions modeled by each.

By using Grammar Matters, K-6 teachers can move away from isolated grammar instruction and instead embed grammar in their daily teaching of argument, informative/explanatory, and narrative writing. Your students will retain their knowledge of grammar and carry it over into their everyday writing.

Preview the entire book online now!

Add comment August 18th, 2014

Explore 6 new Stenhouse titles

Perfect Pairs
Using Fiction and Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K-2
Melissa Stewart and Nancy Chesley
360 pp•$28.00•Available late August•Preview now
Perfect Pairs, which marries fiction and nonfiction picture books focused on life science, helps educators think about and teach life science in a whole new way.

Grammar Matters
Lessons, Tips, and Conversations Using Mentor Texts, K-6
Lynne Dorfman and Diane Dougherty
344 pp • $24.00 • Available late August • Preview now
Get your kids excited about learning grammar through conversation, conferences, lessons, and mentor texts. Includes an extensive list of children’s books that fit naturally into grammar instruction.

Reading Wellness
Lessons in Independence and Proficiency
Jan Miller Burkins and Kim Yaris • Foreword by Christopher Lehman
Grades 1-5 • 232 pp • $21.00 • Available early September
An essential tool for developing a love of reading in your students, this practical book offers a series of classroom-tested lessons that help children read closely and carefully while honoring their interests, passions, and agency as readers.

Revision Decisions
Talking Through Sentences and Beyond
Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean
Grades 4-10 • 200 pp • $24.00 • Available late October
Engage your students in the tinkering, playing, and thinking that are essential to clarify and elevate writing. Focusing on sentences and mentor texts, the book’s narratives, setup lessons, and templates show you how to move students toward independence.

Readers Writing
Lessons for Responding to Narrative and Informational Text
Elizabeth Hale
Grades 3-8 • 208 pp • $21.00 • Available late October
Provides 91 practical lessons for helping students of all ability levels go beyond summarizing and use readers’ notebooks to think critically, on their own, one step at a time, while developing key comprehension skills.

Go Figure!
Number Sense Routines That Build Mathematical Understanding
Jessica Shumway
Grades K-5 • 99-min. DVD + viewing guide • $150 • Available now
Building on her book, Number Sense Routines, Jessica Shumway invites you and your staff into three elementary classrooms for an in-depth look at how these short warm-ups help students internalize and deepen their facility with numbers.

Add comment August 13th, 2014

Sustaining Engagement: One School’s Attempt to Develop Lifelong Readers

We last checked in with Matt Renwick, an elementary school principal in Wisconsin, just as school was wrapping up in June. Now that school is about to start again, Matt talks about how his school sustains the reading program he and his staff launched in an effort to create lifelong readers.

As I was getting myself a cup of coffee in the staff lounge this spring, I noticed these posted on the wall:



Staff members had taken their favorite recommendations from a book-a-day calendar and taped them to the wall. Inscribed on many of the sheets were short comments about the title, which briefly explained why they liked it and why you should read it.

While I waited for the Keurig machine to finish brewing, several questions popped in my head. Who started this? Why is it sustaining itself? Where will this lead? These inquiries led to more questions about how it relates to our school in general. How do we get all of our K-5 students to this place, where they see responding to reading as something enjoyable? Is this an idea our learners would naturally come up with as a way to connect with others? In other words, how do we transition our students from formalized literacy instruction to lifelong reading?

This year, we attempted to answer these questions with the advent of an after school book club. We hired two advisers to facilitate an intervention that would no longer be referred to as an intervention. Although our lowest readers received special invitations, we encouraged all of our intermediate students to join us in developing this new community of readers.

Before we got the club started, the advisers and I sat down and went over some ground rules:

  • No quizzes
  • No reading requirements or logs
  • Let them read just about anything they want
  • Let them talk to each other about reading
  • Give them opportunities to share their reading lives
  • Provide just enough structure for these activities to be successful

These ideas, deriving from literacy experts such as Gay Ivey, Peter Johnston, and Donalyn Miller, seemed counter to everything we thought we knew about school. But for at least a few of our students, more of the same would not have served them well. If any one of us were asked to extend our own school day, how would we like to spend it?

The advisers, both avid readers themselves but not classroom teachers, could hardly contain their excitement. After some heavy recruiting, they got almost 20 students to initially enroll in the club. One of their first activities was for each student to bring in a favorite title, throw it in the middle of the table, pick a new one, and try to guess who originally submitted it.

This was actually a pre-assessment. Not of their reading levels, but of the level of enjoyment they experience as readers. Questions that were answered for the advisors included: Who knows who as a reader? Which genres, authors, and titles are the kids into right now? How comfortable was each student in being seen as a reader? This activity led to many more activities, such as hosting personal interviews with each other, facilitating book talks, reading aloud, and lots of independent reading.

Due to budget constraints, the book club could only meet two nights a week after school. This meant that they had to extend the day in ways that were meaningful for the students. One tool they used was Kidblog. Each student was given access to a blog in order to reflect on their reading as well as comment on others’ thinking. In addition, students were given access to eReaders that contained many titles of their choosing, all within one device. Through these activities that helped them connect with others, students could see that reading did not have to be sequestered to the literacy block.

We did not expect our students to make substantial gains from two and a half hours of extra reading practice. Our goal was to develop lifelong readers. With anything, people will engage in something over and over if they find joy, success, and recognition for their work. That is why the advisers and students culminated their time together with a readers theater performance. The play itself came from our school’s anthology series. This was okay, because the kids selected it.

After many re-readings and rehearsals, they were read to present in front of the entire school.

Someone could say that the activities these students engaged in – peer discussions, blogging, readers theater – are not interventions that have evidence for improving reading in students. But I think these people are looking at reading only through the lens of the act itself. We can quickly forget that reading is just as much an emotional endeavor as it is a cognitive one.

My own reading life didn’t begin until 3rd grade. That was the year my teacher read aloud Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. The rest, as they say, is history. It is not to suggest that I received poor instruction in my K-2 years. I just hadn’t developed an affinity for reading yet. I had the skills, but lacked the engagement.

Gay Ivey noted at the 2014 Wisconsin State Reading Association convention that readers don’t read to accumulate a required number of minutes or to fill out a reading log. They read because they love reading. The minutes and logs that we demand are a result of this engagement. In an educational world that highly values the scientific side of literacy, we need to continuously cultivate a community of connected readers and engage them in a lifelong and joyful journey of learning.

digitalstudentportfoliosMatt Renwick is a 15-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he served as a junior high dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary school leader in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt blogs at Reading by Example, tweets @ReadByExample and writes for EdTech magazine. His book Digital Student Porfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Improvement will be published by Powerful Learning Press in July.





2 comments August 11th, 2014

Now Online: Perfect Pairs

Perfect PairsHands-on science lessons are great for teaching many science concepts in the primary grades, but when it comes to life science, you need more. Award-winning science author Melissa Stewart and Milken Educator Nancy Chesley share an innovative way to bring a whole world of plants, animals, ecosystems, and natural processes to life in their new book, Perfect Pairs.

By pairing the very best nonfiction science books with fiction picture books, Melissa and Nancy build the kinds of “minds-on” learning experiences that appeal to a wide variety of students while supporting the latest science and English language arts standards.

The heart of the book presents 22 engaging and easy-to-implement lessons categorized by grade (K, 1, and 2) that use pairs of fiction and nonfiction books to teach a wide variety of topics such as what animals eat, how a plant’s parts help it survive, habitats, biomes, wetlands, and more. Each lesson invites students to wonder about a life science idea and uses the books to guide the class through an investigative process, encouraging students to draw conclusions.

Perfect Pairs will change the way you teach science and leave a lasting impression on your students. You can preview the entire book now on the Stenhouse website.

Add comment August 6th, 2014

Using real-world prompts in teaching writing

Take a bite out of the Better Answer Sandwich with this article from author Ardith Cole, who argues that “sugar can be found inside the Common Core State Standards” and shares her ideas for teaching students to write authentic, real-world responses. Her book, Better Answers: Written Performance That Looks Good and Sounds Smart is full of methods, references, prompts, and other resources. The Better Answers process is easy to grasp and uses a gradual-release instructional framework that begins with teacher modeling, invites increasing amounts of student participation, and eventually moves students into independent response writing.

Turning Lemons into Lemonade

Is it possible to eliminate our national testing system? Maybe. In the meantime, let’s find some sugar and make lemonade!

Believe it or not, sugar can be found inside the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). For instance, ELA guidelines say response writing is a needed skill. Is it? Students do need response experiences to participate in a democratic society, don’t they? After all, if we eliminate all experiences in response writing, we’ll contribute to silencing our next generation’s voices. Why not replace testing’s lifeless prompts with authentic living prompts. Don’t even mention the word tests until an important one is looming!

Consider this ELA guideline: “Standards call on students to practice applying mathematical [or scientific, artistic, literary] ways of thinking to real-world issues and challenges.” Standards such as this one feel less fake, more akin to the “organic sugar” that we’d prefer to use. When curriculum is organic, it doesn’t pollute the classroom or the world. However, it does have the potential to effect change.

So let’s do it! Let’s invite students into projects where they will use written response inside an authentic task. My book Better Answers: Written Performance That Looks Good and Sounds Smart, Second Edition (Stenhouse, 2009) was initially developed by referencing those living responses and their prompts. The accompanying CD is full of such references, live links, methods, and structures. You’ll find prompt-and-response examples from newspapers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ira Flatow’s NPR interviews with scientists, World Wildlife Fund’s website, and so many others. Wouldn’t Common Core want students to make those inspiring world connections?

It’s good to know that the organizational structure of Common Core’s Writing Standards is in synch with my book’s protocols, steps, and lesson plans. Yet missing from Common Core, but included in Better Answers, are an abundance of explicit methods, strategies, and examples.

My book even offers a key prewriting step that CCSS omitted! It’s a step that those of us inside the real world—including most employees—know is an absolute must. I discuss that overlooked step at the end of this article.

The Better Answers protocol supports writers who are responding to a friend’s request for directions, an opinion on a blog site, their boss’s e-mails, an Amazon book review, dissatisfaction with merchandise purchased, as well as test prompts. Do any of those writing experiences sound familiar? Many of us compose some kind of response several times a week! So why not begin right there? Use a real response that you or one of your students recently needed to write.

Suppose you’ve been asked to write a newspaper ad for your local community garage sale or maybe an ad to encourage adoption for a homeless dog. Would you know where to begin? What would you say? Would you worry about how it would be perceived by friends and family? What would you do first?

I’d ask myself, “Now where would I find this kind of written response? What does it sound like, look like?” It seems best to experience one. Brain researchers say that’s how we learn: we mirror. Whose real-world responses would you like your students to mirror? You’ll find some inside Better Answers. Share some of those text-based and self-based responses with your students using my book’s CD. The Internet, too, overflows with examples—but select carefully.

Common Core’s Writing Guidelines suggest we teach informative, persuasive, and opinion texts and writing. Better Answers shows how. For example, to begin a response, CCSS advises writers should “introduce the topic or text . . . and create an organizational structure.” This CCSS structure matches that of the Better Answer Sandwich, whose first step (the top bun) is: “Introduction: Restate the question or prompt and add a gist.” Restating guides students toward a prompt’s acceptable answer. The gist sums up the details into one main idea. Those details are explained in the middle layers of the sandwich. This structure helps writers to assemble the pieces of their thinking into a cogent whole.

The Better Answer Sandwich


For their next step, CCSS says response writers need to “provide reasons that support the opinion [or gist].” Accordingly, Better Answers directs writers to “provide detailed evidence for your answer.” This section describes how to do this.

CCSS tells writers to “use linking words and phrases to connect” sentences and paragraphs. My book and CD have charted lists of all the transitional or linking words/phrases (e.g., conjunctions). The handy Transitions Sandwich even groups these linking words to their most appropriate placement within a response structure. For example, some transitions call the reader into the introduction (e.g., first, a major factor, in the beginning). Others connect the middle layers more fluently to one another (e.g., next, then, whereas, on the other hand). Still others transition the reader of the response toward a finalized-sounding conclusion (e.g., finally, therefore, in conclusion).


Common Core’s final suggestion for informative, informational, and opinion writing is to “provide concluding statement or section,” which is identical to Better Answers’ bottom bun. Lesson plans for all sections are included on the book’s jam-packed CD. PowerPoint slides, visuals, lists, and other references support teachers and their students along the way.

CCSS does add one more genre, narratives, “to develop real and imagined experiences.” Some parts of Better Answers will be applicable to some narratives—for example, narrative nonfiction. Within this subgenre, “research, real world, and review all come together perfectly” advises Lee Gutkind. However, narratives often involve a more creative approach in which writers follow their imaginations rather than a map or a tight structure.

And what of that newly soured subject, assessment? Better Answers includes that, too. It offers assessment rubrics with easily understood descriptors, as well as student/writer self-assessments, such as Sign-off Response Checklists for each response section. It also has Class Monitoring Spreadsheets, indicating whole-group progress in each area. And the entire implementation is steeped in group and partner sharing—and remains rooted in the real world.

Responding to teachers’ cries for help, I’ve added an entire section to the books’ second edition, aptly titled “What to Do When . . .” So if you run out of support ideas, try this section.

Now, what about that important piece CCSS omitted? Marsha Ratzel, a middle-grades math and science teacher who reviewed Better Answers, Second Edition for the Teacher Leaders Network, described it this way: “Here is where Better Answers really shines. Students in the first step tear apart the prompt so they can figure out what it is asking . . . This step transforms the prewriting stage into an analysis stage that helps students understand what kind of response they need to produce and gives them strategies for crafting the beginning part of their answer.” Whether it’s an e-mail from our boss or a challenge from our teacher, we should always do one thing before beginning our response: analyze the prompt. It’s so crucial for response success that I devote an entire chapter to it.

Some of that same sugar we constructivist teachers have used for decades to sweeten our curriculum can be found in the CCSS Standards. So let’s continue to invite small groups and partner collaboration, project learning, writing for a variety of purposes, reading all kinds of exemplary writing, and researching exciting ideas—but let’s use living prompts from the real world. I bet CCSS would celebrate right alongside us as students self-publish, offer passionate responses to leaders, present TED videos, and even use this genre to submit successful patent grants. It’s amazing what we can learn from our students themselves! Let go and invite the kids into the real world of prompts and responses. Let them help sweeten those sour lemons we’ve been handed.


1 comment July 30th, 2014

Nonfiction writing teaching tips from Adrienne Gear

Writing a story is very complex…you need to have the character, the setting, the problem, the solution, the beginning, the middle, the end—it’s a complicated structure. But nonfiction writing is so much easier to do. It’s so much easier to teach, and it’s a lot easier for children to feel success in.

Adrienne Gear, author of four books including Nonfiction Writing Power, offers a useful analogy for teaching paragraph writing, explains how to tie your writing lessons to two key goals, and shares a tip for elevating students’ nonfiction writing vocabulary in these two short videos:

Add comment July 29th, 2014

Stenhouse Editorial Director Philippa Stratton Steps Down

July 15, 2014 — Philippa Stratton, co-founder of Stenhouse Publishers, announced today that she will be stepping down as editorial director at the end of the year and assuming a new role as special projects editor and editorial advisor. Bill Varner has been promoted to managing editor for literacy and Toby Gordon has been promoted to managing editor for math and science.

Stenhouse also announced that Tori Bachman will be joining the editorial staff as an acquisitions and development editor focusing on literacy. Tori comes to Stenhouse after 15 years at the International Reading Association, where she held managerial positions in both the editorial and marketing departments.

“There’s no way to replace Philippa and all that she brings to the company in terms of editorial vision and knowledge of the field—not to mention energy and humor,” said Stenhouse President Dan Tobin. “We’re happy that she will continue to work with us on special projects. And we feel fortunate to have such an incredibly talented and experienced group of editors, led by Toby and Bill along with Holly Holland, Maureen Barbieri, and now Tori. Tori brings a wealth of connections and tremendous creativity and enthusiasm.”

Stratton and Tom Seavey co-founded Stenhouse in 1993 as a subsidiary of Highlights for Children’s Education Group. In 2010, Philippa was named Outstanding Educator by the National Council for Teachers of English for the pioneering work she has done in publishing practical, research-based books for teachers.

“Philippa and Tom founded Stenhouse with a strong vision of promoting excellent, innovative teaching and active learning,” said Kent Johnson, CEO of Highlights for Children. “We are very proud of the way Stenhouse continues to build upon that vision and to attract some of the best people in educational publishing—including editors, authors, production, and marketing professionals.”

Varner joined Stenhouse as an editor in 2001 following eight years as an editor at Heinemann. Gordon joined Stenhouse in 2008 following 20 years as an editor at Heinemann and publishing director at Math Solutions.

2 comments July 15th, 2014

Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute Wrap-Up


Thank you for spending the last four weeks with our Summer Blogstitute! We hope it was a great way to get some PD into your summer break! In case you missed a post, here are all of them in order:

Aimee Buckner on Teaching Grammar
Shirl McPhillips on Poems Waiting to Be Found
Dorothy Barnhouse on Closely Reading Our Students
Jeff Zwiers on Academic Language and the Common Core
Kassia Omohundro Wedekind on Being a Mathematician
Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz on Teaching For and Through Discussion
Laurie Rubin on Nurturing Future Stewards of the Earth
Sue Kempton on the Importance of Play in the Classroom

The winners of our weekly drawing for eight free Stenhouse books are: Patricia Maia, Terri R., Alex Fausett, and Amber Garbe. I will be getting in touch with you all!

Thanks again and have a happy summer!

2 comments July 14th, 2014

Blogstitute Post 8: Play: Creating Time and Tools for Children to Synthesize and Integrate Concepts

Here we are, at the very end of our Summer Blogstitute with an amazing and inspiring post from Sue Kempton, author of Let’s Find Out: Building Content Knowledge with Young Children. Through the story of one little boy in her kindergarten classroom, we get an insight into the tools Sue uses to build content knowledge with her students and how she tunes in to each child’s individual learning style.

Thanks for joining us for this year’s Blogstitute. Please leave a comment or ask a question from Sue for a chance to win a package of 8 free Stenhouse books!

Play: Creating Time and Tools for Children to Synthesize and Integrate Concepts

It’s two days prior to the end of our kindergarten school year during choice time, a predictable forty-five-minute block carved into our afternoon schedule where children are free to play with various materials in the classroom. Given the close proximity to the end of the year, our rich choice areas have narrowed from the painting easel, water table, workbench, observation of classroom animals, weaving, and “The Denver Hospital” to blocks, Legos, computer, and the marble shoot. One student, Mareng, smiles proudly as he sits in an oversized chair he independently constructed with big blocks.

Two sets of 11-x-11-inch hollow maple squares stacked on top of one another form the rectangular base of this large throne, while four rectangle blocks (11 x 22 inches) stand on end and flank the sides. They serve as armrests. A ramp measuring the same dimension as the rectangles rests on top of a square with the tapered end pointing toward the sky, creating a majestic backrest.

“What did you build, Mareng?” I ask.

“I built a Lincoln Memorial chair,” he says matter-of-factly.

“Really?” I question, surprised at his response. “Wow! Can you stand up so I can see this important chair?” Mareng nods gently. His eyes light up and a bright smile spreads across his face.

“You built a chair that looks the same on one side as the other!” I say. “That’s sss . . . ,” prompting him to apply the mathematical term we have used all year.

“Symmetrical!” Mareng responds with enthusiasm.

“Yes!  Whatever block you put on one side, you placed on the other side,” I say.

“That’s a pattern!” Mareng declares.

“You’re absolutely right! Can you show me the line of symmetry with your hand?” I ask. He places his arm vertically down the center of the chair, demonstrating his understanding. “And I really like your choice of shapes and how you arranged them. I love the rectangles as armrests, and the ramp for the back of the chair—that’s so cool!” Mareng smiles proudly. “Do you remember the person who sat here?” I query. He stares at me and is quiet. I can almost see the wheels turning in his head. Intuitively, I know he needs a bit of prompting. “It was for Aaabra . . . ,” I begin.

“Abraham Lincoln!” he confidently responds, filling in the rest of his first name and recalling his last.

“Yes!  Do you remember who he was?” I query.

Mareng quickly responds with confidence, “Abraham Lincoln was the president.”

“Yes, absolutely! Do you remember the important thing he did for our country?” I ask, not knowing if he remembers this significant detail.

“He freed the people.”

“Wow . . . you do remember,” I say, amazed with his recollection. “What people?” I ask.

Mareng pauses and looks toward the stack of books I’ve read aloud; they’re standing upright in a tub labeled “Read-Alouds” next to my chair. Depending on our discussion, I frequently revisit content by rereading snippets of these texts, or refer to the illustrations, throughout the year. Repetition of language and concepts helps to anchor existing schema (background knowledge) for children.

Wanting to empower him, I suggest he find the book I know he connects to—that moving illustration of a plantation owner gripping a long black whip behind his back, while African Americans—grown men, women, and children—hunch over rakes tilling the soil. This emotional image is significant for him. I know that, by looking at this picture, he will recall the people Abraham Lincoln affected.

Sure enough, he returns with speed to the same illustration, spanning two pages, in Young Martin Luther King, Jr. by Joanne Mattern (Troll Communications, 1998). “The slaves,” he responds solemnly. “I don’t want that to happen again—I don’t want people to be slaves.”  Mareng’s reflection is powerful and moving.

“I don’t either—that should never happen,” I respond, shaking my head. And, yet I can’t help but think of the horror that is presently occurring across the world. His innocence is piercing.

As he holds this simple text I use to introduce the civil rights movement, two black-and-white laminated photographs fall from the inside cover. One shows the Lincoln Memorial lit up at night with a silhouette of our sixteenth president positioned between the center columns. Small images of people are dotted across the front steps of the monument, creating a realistic comparison for this expansive sculpture. The words “The Lincoln Memorial” are written at the bottom for reference.

The second photograph is a close-up of Abraham Lincoln, sitting majestically in his stone chair, with his full name below. Both of these visuals were continually referenced when we discussed the chronological history of the civil rights movement before the time of MLK Jr. I bend down and pick up the photos, giving him a chance, once again, to articulate his learning.

“Mareng, what’s this?” I ask, pointing to the memorial.

“The Lincoln Memorial,” he says, smiling.

“And this guy?” I ask, pointing to the enlarged sculpture.

He giggles and responds, “Abraham Lincoln.”

Mareng entered kindergarten at the beginning of the year with no preschool experience. He couldn’t identify any letters of the alphabet or recognize his name. He was a quiet child and needed lots of prompting to engage in discussions and express his thoughts. He sat close to my feet in group so I could easily prompt this engagement and support his academic needs.

His parents came to the United States from Sudan and raised most of his brothers and sisters here. Mareng’s primary language was English, spoken by his father, although he spent quite a bit of time listening to his mother’s native tongue, Sudanese Arabic.

I’m reminded of a quote by Nicole Strangman and Tracey Hall I referenced in Let’s Find Out! (Stenhouse, 2014). It expresses that, for children to fully understand, they need time to assimilate and accommodate new concepts. This echoes my belief that children also need different avenues to express learning in order to integrate new material into their lives.

Children process information in different ways. Some need to talk before writing, some need solitude, some need to draw, and some need to build and manipulate objects. We need to provide multiple outlets in our classrooms for self-expression so children can demonstrate understanding.

Mareng, being one of my least experienced children with school, was frequently on the periphery and observed the constructions in small and big blocks. He would then join the other children in their play after it was completed. I have found this is the progression children take when they are inexperienced with materials (e.g., blocks). They observe before they risk constructing something independently or collaboratively with others.

Looking back on the course of the year, Mareng experimented with balance, symmetry, and patterns in Legos and blocks, and learned vicariously from his friends as well. One of the first constructions he built was a symmetrical horse in big blocks, a day after observing Jacarri and Xavier construct one. Two days later, all three created a horse and the room was filled with yahooing, cowboy hats, and twirling pretend lassos!

The boys needed a way to safely mount their stallions and, with prompting, figured out how to make a set of stairs. I reminded them of Trinity, Niehma, and Mya’s idea to layer 5 1/2-x 11-inch rectangles (one to four blocks) in a growing pattern to form steps going up and down to their elevated walkway that stretched from one side of the room to the other. They immediately sought the girls’ support and took their advice.

In Let’s Find Out! I discuss specific “tools” I use to build content knowledge with young children —for example, literature, visual aids, repetition, manipulatives, song, and dramatization. Tools are added sources for developing background knowledge. The richer our schema, the more options we have for comprehending talk, writing, and reading—even play—across all content areas.

Tools can also be used to demonstrate understanding. Mareng could have written a story about our sixteenth president, or painted or drawn him freeing the slaves, but he chose to build a “Lincoln chair”—a symmetrical construction, involving math concepts, that represented freedom for the slaves. He further demonstrated his understanding through a poignant illustration of a time in history, and through talk.

I never knew the depth of Mareng’s understanding of the beginning of the civil rights movement. Dealing with slavery and the role Lincoln played in history was additional content I covered, because it came up contextually, and it was not intended to be understood by all.

What struck me about Mareng’s experience was the depth, and demonstration, of learning that happened just days before the end of school. His learning came together as he integrated social studies content (studied months prior) with math and literature, and independently built a chair that had meaning for him.

Children need time to apply tools to synthesize learning. Play is a young child’s most natural context to integrate concepts and to explore what is meaningful to him or her. It is during this open, flexible period in the day that great artifacts are created, and they have lasting meaning and memory for children. Play is also a critical time for teachers to facilitate concept and language development, nudging children to expand their learning possibilities.

Every child has a discovery inside to be made, and it doesn’t matter when it happens. It could be at any point in the school year: the beginning, the middle, or the very end. Learning shows up in different ways and different contexts. To serve the needs of children we need to listen intently, be present, and ask questions, so we understand the significance of children’s play and the artifacts they produce.

Time and again, I’m amazed at the thinking, planning, and creativity involved in children’s creations. If we encourage expression of ideas in a multitude of contexts, all children can demonstrate understanding in their own unique way.




7 comments July 10th, 2014

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