Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Community of Learners

This weekend I feasted on learning with others. First, on Friday after school, my daughters and four teen-aged friends, another mom and a super-patient and wonderful beading enthusiast met together around my dining table and learned bead-weaving. Having never even strung beads together to make a simple necklace, I was the most beginner member of this gang, but we were all starting together to learn the peyote stitch. The first hour or more was filled with whining, moaning, under-the-breath cursing and a few exclamations of, "I've got it!" During the second hour, most of us had finished taking our piece apart repeatedly to start again and actually understood how it worked, and by the third hour, we were hooked! The ones who "got it" were able to help the rest of us, and our instructor stayed with us until we felt confident, and the stories and jokes and tidbits we shared made the time fly. I felt so fortunate to get to stick with it until I got it, rather than to stop after the first 45 frustrating minutes - which made me think about what it's like for our students when the class has to stop one thing to do the next. The teenagers kept going until after midnight, but I couldn't. I slept well knowing that I had been a part of something exciting to all of us!

Usually, I look forward to "sleeping in" on Saturdays- not quite the glorious treat it was before I became a mom, but if I'm lucky, I can stay asleep just past 7am and if I read in bed for awhile, I feel pretty decadent just the same. But, yesterday was the Teacher's College 80th Saturday Reunion of Reader's and Writer's Workshop teachers and the three of us who teach combined 4th and 5th grade classes decided to attend together. We were all up bright and early enough to meet at the 6:40 train and enjoy watching a nearly full moon set as the sun rose over the Hudson River.

We arrived at Riverside Church in time for John Scieszka's hilarious opening address. His stories of his life growing up in a household of six boys included enough urine and wrestling to make it clear that his first mostly-female faculty meeting when he became a teacher must truly have been culture shock and his irreverent gift of his book "Knucklehead" to then-President George W. Bush plainly illustrated his ability to say what's on his mind, no matter who's around to hear.

After John Scieszka's address, many thousands of teachers paraded across Broadway to Teacher's College where four hours and a huge selection of workshops awaited our free participation. Choosing where to go was tough, but I was delighted with the rooms I crammed into. Lucy Calkins talked to us about the need for children to read more difficult books and to read them with deeper comprehension. She identified a few specific skills, such as retelling, prediction, envisioning, empathy, reading like a writer and interpretation and she talked about how to help kids begin to improve them. Another time, I'll go into more details about some of these because they were enormously interesting and will help greatly in class.

Then I jogged and jostled my way into a talk about inquiry based learning with Stephanie Harvey and then fairly flew up four flights of stairs and through many winding halls to a talk about using blogs for reading logs -- all fascinating and full of things I can use immediately, which is important to most teachers who attend workshops.

The closing talk was given by Linda Darling-Hammond. For an excellent article about her views on the current administration's approach to education, you can follow this link. She told us how with 5% of the world's population but 25% of the world's inmates and more than 25% of our children living in poverty, the US is choosing incarceration over education. She encouraged us as teachers to stand up for our profession and to stop others from dictating what we must do in the class, as we really know perfectly well what works and what doesn't work. In countries such as Singapore and Finland, teachers are part of a system which supports good teaching, won't allow children to be hungry or homeless, and values the professionalism of teachers.

As I listened and scribbled some notes - the best chance my memory had these days is if I scribble some notes! - I realized what a rare atmosphere I was breathing in. Not only was I seated in the balcony of a gorgeous church, modeled on a thirteenth century Gothic cathedral and featuring huge stained glass windows and soaring wide ceilings , but I was surrounded by thousands of teachers whose commitment to teaching and learning brought us all together in one place to listen, reflect, laugh, take notes, ask questions and return to our classrooms renewed and recharged. This was a crowd I had more in common with than any other random crowd at a concert or shopping mall and it felt great just to look around, eavesdrop soak it in.

Maybe I could have learned the peyote stitch from a computer - I won't say it's impossible - but it wouldn't have been as fun! And how would the computer know when my mistakes were bad enough to require a restart and when I could keep going? From what I can tell so far, although there were plenty of tech-savvy speakers and audience members at the Readers and Writers Reunion, there has been no attempt to try and bring this day of workshops to us digitally, and for that I am grateful. I prefer the experience of learning with others and digital learning just can't replace the experience of learning in a live community.

P.S. I have been so focused on blogging that I just burned the black beans! Here's a perfect time to be on-line instead of in my kitchen. . . You aren't having to smell the beans!

1 comment:

  1. Well, Jan, I just want to say thank you for writing. It's a pleasure to read your thoughts on teaching and learning. I feel so strongly that you are on the right track with community and trust. I am not an educator by profession, but have always thought each of us has a responsibility to impart knowledge and information as the opportunity arises. To me it is the surest way to enrich our lives. Technology is teaching us how to do some things quicker, but rarely do I see products of technology that I would consider better. Unfortunately, computer use does have an impact on the way we think, write and respond to our fellow human beings. This influence isn't always good and we will be sorting out the pros and cons for a long time to come. Keep writing and I will keep reading. Thanks. Chris