Monday, November 24, 2008

teaching writing

When I was teaching Language Arts to my gr. 8 students, I scoured the book shelves to find sources of inspiration. I toyed with writing a book about teaching! An acquaintance, who writes fiction, rather than my non-fiction, suggested I read Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (1986). Natalie Goldberg. This marvellous book opened up my mind and let my pen fly.

Top of My Lungs
is a book of paintings and poems. It is a beautiful book.

Ms. Goldberg's latest: Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir, looks to be a good one, too.Old Friend

Wild MindBut the best is Wild Mind. It really helped me to teach writing in a better manner than before. Much of our writing as adults consists of reports and business-related writing. I found that it is much easier to teach kids to write about what they know, rather than fiction. Some bright lights will choose to go the fiction route, but most found it easier to write 'how tos' about building a campfire, or making a peanut butter sandwich.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


biggest eraser
I had some marvellous English teachers. I took English Lit. courses in University, as well as a Children's Lit. course - that is when you can really dig into the literature with like-minded spirits.

I love E.E. Cummings' Arch the cockroach, since I was a 'good girl' and with a mother who was a drill sergeant re: punctuation and grammar, he tickled my fancy. Mom was a secretary for a service club (Rotary Club of Toronto) and was kind enough to type all of my high school and university essays for me. The one codicil was that I had to have them in to her 2 weeks before they were due. (It totally made me work ahead and pissed off all of my friends. If it was already typed - i.e., manual typewriter, with carbon paper copies, and an ink eraser for errors..I had to hand it in.)

But I digress!

Tiger, by William Blake inspired a poem of my own. (Published in an anthology onceuponatime!)

When I taught English to students, we had fun reading various genres. The poetry work we did had to take into account the student's interests. I showed them how to write, then parse the prose into poetry. Sometimes I used frame poems, i.e., What If?... and they finished the sentences.

The question arises - is poetry obsolete? I think not. Young kids love the chants, I used them during Hallowe'en, and Thanksgiving.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble

Shakespeare's Macbeth lends itself to such word play. One of my favourite resources was a book of chants. I printed and mounted them on cardboard, then 3 or 4 children would read them aloud, adding sound effects.

Choral reading has been flogged as another play with language. To work your tongue around sounds and syllables helps you digest, absorb and better understand what you read, see and hear.

Of course, rapping has lent itself to the older grades. It is an effective means by which we encourage literacy: reading, writing, speaking, listening.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Math Programs

Over the years, math programs have changed.
No longer were we teaching kids how to do math, we were teaching numeracy skills. There used to be a simple set of review questions, present sample strategies for solving the simple questions, then an increasingly difficult set of questions. Finally, the new skill would be practiced with a number of problem-solving and more wordy questions that demand that the learner apply new skills in the right order, to one and two-step problems.

For example: subtraction

First the students learn the concept with manipulatives and counters on the carpet, on their desks. Once they have achieved abstract cognitive thinking, they are more able to manipulate the number on paper. They are taught the various columns, to give them a common understanding of the terminology. They understand the 10's, 100's and thousands columns. They are assigned a review, to ensure that they understand subtraction. They are taught a process and procedure for regrouping: borrowing from the 10's column, to regroups it into the 1's. The text book was divided up into two pages. The first page, called 'working together' presented sample answers to the target skill. On the 2nd page, they presented increasingly complex questions. I assigned kids homework from this page, did not require them to finish the first page.

Students then work alone, or in pairs. The teacher should take up a few questions to ensure that students are on track. Kids exchange their workbooks, kids are taught to correct their peer's work agreeably. They are invited to put in positive messages and give their peer an idea of where they went wrong, and provide extra support. At this point, some students might quietly approach me and suggest that their peer needs a bit more work on subtraction facts. I would assign the student questions on the 2nd page, with a 30-minute time limit at home to reinforce the skill. That way a student who was struggling could do 5 questions really well, and another student could move form the simple to the complex questions and word problems and each would work at their level of ability.

During the early years of the 2000's, retired teachers (numeracy experts) were hired by publications companies to produce new strategies for teaching math. At that time the 'leading the horse to water' movement seemed to flourish. A constructivist approach, best applied after basic skills have been mastered, did not work for some students. The text books no longer presented simple formats, they reduced the number of questions available for practice. They increased the images and graphics on the pages. They would present a problem, which might involved previously taught skills (or might not) and expect the student to come to an AHA moment and realize they needed to regroup to solve the problem. The texts were written well for deep-thinking, middle class students with a wide background knowledge and strong problem-solving skills. It did not work for ADHD, LD, ESL, or kids with limited knowledge or experiences with limited reading levels.

I found that once these texts were rewritten and flogged by those who were hired to write them, students began falling behind. Parents did not understand 'the new math', and everyone began to flounder. Kids no longer practised their skills. Parents gave up.

While I loathe the 'back to basics' movement, I think we need to redesign the texts to present simple operations and problems. We cannot assume, nor do we have the time to expect that students can reinvent mathematical notions, such as the operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division) or other more complex tasks (elementary algebra, plane and solid geometry, trigonometry) involved in working with numbers. It is much more effective to sit them down, demonstrate the skills, accept other means to solve the problem and work through the skill and then move on to apply it to real life.

I fear for those students, estimated 20 -30%* who cannot read well enough to interpret school textbooks, and fall behind and then fall out of the system. We need them to develop concrete skills and apply them to their lives. Each time a student successfully solves a problem s/he increases the dendrites (brain cell connections) and is able to use these connections to solve other problems.

J. Prenger

Their model of text comprehension describes the complete reading process, from ...texts and the textual meso level of the math text.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Remembrance Day

I look back fondly on all the Remembrance Day ceremonies we had in each school in which I taught. The students were all highly motivated to read, write, interview and discuss what had gone on. My last year on Remembrance Day, my gr. 8 students wrote the most incredible essays on war. We collected a lot of information and put it on a web page for others to read.

I remember kids poking each other with poppies. Losing them on their way to the gym was part of the ritual. But I remember the poems and the incredible stories kids told about their ancestors involved in war. Many of my students had lived through the Gulf War. They fled the violence to come to Canada. We learned much from these young people. Others were Vietnamese Boat people. Their story was covered in the book: The GIFT OF FREEDOM: How Ottawa welcomed the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees
By Brian Buckley

The late Marion Dewar was instrumental in this event.

There are some excellent songs that lend themselves: Francis Tolliver
But I love sitting with books. I went to Chapters ad bought all of the big, picture books i could. There are some that cover various places where war happens. Some based on one particular war or another.

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