Wednesday, July 08, 2009

"Carol, March Madness is one of the things you did that I'm going to keep next year. Those kids were learning and didn't even know it." My consultant teacher, Melissa, was reassuring me about the value of my '08-'09 lessons.

It was true; several times kids would see what time it was and tell me, "Wow, class is over already?" or "This class is always over before you know it," or, "I wish all my classes went as fast as this one." They had been discussing two poems during my March Madness segment. They had been using tactful sentence frames, respectful ways of stating agreement or disagreement, frames to guide them to support their statements with text evidence. They had continued their discussions after the minilesson was over, after the heads-down voting, right into workshop time.

They learned without even knowing they were learning. Isn't that the way it's supposed to be? Don't we enjoy those experiences where we lose ourselves in a topic or a hobby or an interest? I know it happened for me last night when I played the bass and sang blues tunes with a drummer and a guitar player in my living room. I hadn't dusted off my bass amp since March; it was a transcendent, healing experience long overdue. The songs poured out of my heart and I loved hearing what came out of the speakers, loved hearing the drums underneath, the guitar riffing away from the melody.

And what about that half hour of weeding after my walk and before I got in the car to drive to Cortland on Tuesday morning? Nothing else was in my mind except finding and grasping each tenacious weed and flinging it out of my sodden garden plot. I heard birdsong, smelled damp earth, felt mud and cool air...and thought nothing. A pleasant, though soggy, half hour passed.

And what about the hours I had spent on the Jersey shore, umbrella up, sunglasses and sunblock in place, book in hand, lost in a story? All that time, I was adding to my working vocabulary, to my knowledge of syntax, to my repetoire of voice and cadence...and following the plot, getting emotionally lifted and suspended and dropped, again and again...and when I looked up it would be time to leave the beach, shower, and find some seafood for supper.

That quality of getting lost in learning, or of learning as playing, is not present in our classrooms enough. We have made it too true that it is the "job" of a student to go to school. School is an onerous job, not a lively pursuit of our curiosities, varied and personal. Yet we know that what is learned out of love is learned well. How can that playfulness be brought back from yesterday's kindergartens (I suspect that today's kindergartens are too tinged with academic goals and assessments: perhaps I should visit some lest I misjudge)? How can our public schools be suffused with the intellectual freedom and curiosity and passion that at various points in history led to inventions, revolutions, innovations? Some might say that free minds, curiosity, and passion led to the establishment of the United States of America.

Okay...well...maybe I'm getting a little carried away.

So what other lessons did I have this year that took kids out of themselves into that zone, that happy place where learning happens almost invisibly, despite their best intentions to resist it?

Last June, '08, my students had to work in pairs to create little skits in which the author of, or character in, one student's favorite book met with and talked to the author or, or character in, their partner's favorite book for the year. Those class sessions flew by for many kids.

The Scrabble tournament: a game at every table, every day, even as official games are played in a single elimination tournament for each section of ELA 8. Winners get to play Ms. Mikoda at lunch or the day before vacation. Those sessions, where dictionaries flew off the shelves, and much discussion of words ensued.

The science newspapers were the culminating projects in science 8 after the state assessment was over in May. Partners wrote articles in which science concepts played an important role, many teachers were exploded or had accidents, fictionally, and solid understandable writing resulted. An otherwise difficult time of year went by almost painlessly, according to my colleague, who worked with me to develop this activity.

Individual students experienced this flow-that-one-can-get-lost-in quite often, resulting in novels that they finished reading and written pieces that were satisfyingly rendered in final copies. Reading workshop, two segments each week, and writer's workshop, three segments each week, were reliable structures that ensured that this would happen. I have no data to support this; just anecdotal remembrances of seeing this student hard at work, head down, oblivious to what was going on at the next table or across the room, until the bell rang.

Sometimes the evidence was a poem, typed and published on a piece of construction paper, with a related picture taped next to it, and posted along the tops of the lockers in the hallway near my room. I could tell a story about each one, each year, over the past 14 years.

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