Why Do We Have to Learn This?

At some point you will hear (or have already heard) a loud refrain from a child in your class:  “Why do we have to learn this?!”

Instinct may make you defensive, but this is a valid question.  And the answer can’t be — because it will be on the test or because I said so.  Students must feel their work has meaning and is valuable to them. If a child struggles to see value, they may go through the motions of the work, but they may not truly learn. The content has to be relevant to them today.why

For example, most elementary students are expected to learn about U.S. Presidents or significant historical dates and places.  Is the objective to merely memorize trivia?  Or are we challenging students to learn about characteristics of leadership, the principles of a Democratic society or how governing decisions affect our lives? 

Instruction of this type can be more than fact-based; it can be an opportunity to instill values (such as tolerance, obedience, leadership, cooperation.)  It can also provide an atmosphere for developing analytical or discussion skills.  (Ask students to compare and contrast political candidates or the impact of a local legal decision.)  

Clearly there are some facts and figures that students just have to learn.  And making it immediately relevant can be tough.  In that case, you can make the work engaging by providing different modes of delivery: books, movie clips, experiments, student-led discussions, etc.

As the teacher you must model for them how to go about problem solving. Navigating a confusing lesson is a problem that must be solved.  Talk through the topic and show your approach: what questions do you ask yourself as you make sense of a difficulty?  Celebrate when they accomplish something, teach them positive self-talk, demonstrate it for them.

Help them see that all learning is an opportunity, not an obligation.  With these tactics in play, eventually the refrain will change from “Why do we have to learn this?” to “When can we learn more about this?”

 

 

Get on the “Write” Track

The writer Donald Miller offers an interesting thought about journaling: “He captures memories because if he forgets them, it’s as though they didn’t happen.”  

Numerous analysts celebrate the power of journal keeping, and its importance is especially critical for young learners.  I believe everyone can benefit from developing a practice of looking inward, recording actions and feelings, and observing their world with a critical eye.  So how do you take journal writing from an assignment to an opportunity?  How do you make it something that kids will look forward to continuing long beyond their time in your class?  Variety and consistency are two important things to incorporate as you move into this with your kids.Train-clip-art-free-free-clipart-images

For some students, the act of writing will be a foreign concept, and providing prompts and assignments can be helpful.  Your journaling assignment could take the form of a daily diary or creative writing.  (See examples below.)  Your students’ journals could be a series of responses to journal prompts, i.e. questions or considerations that ask the student to evaluate their mood, set or reflect on goals or objectives, or wrestle with life challenges and common situations that they might face.

The key is to just get started and encourage, encourage, encourage.  Here is a process you might consider:

  1. Begin the journal process by having students observe you modeling it; writing in a journal either on your ELMO, Smartboard or overhead projector.
  2. Brainstorm a list of topics that you might write about and list them in the front of your journal. Then each day for a week, share examples of how to write about a few of the topics. Go back and edit or revise something you’ve written; add to the topic list based on something you did the previous evening.
  3. After a week or so, have them begin their own topic list and journal writing.
  4. As they progress, conference with them about what they’ve written.  Use the time to nurture their early attempts to craft a story or communicate their ideas.  I would suggest that you avoid “grading” the writing itself.  You can track participation and even make the journal assignment mandatory, but the value of journaling comes more from the act of transferring thoughts into words than from the mechanics of writing.  Accuracy, sentence structure, and clarity aren’t as important as learning to process ideas and take thoughts captive in written form.  When a child begins to make progress in turning a phrase or communicating more clearly, celebrate their accomplishments, and challenge them to go to the next level.
  5. Have them refine their list of journal topics as their interests or experiences change. As the year goes by, model for them how to bounce ideas off each other and collaborate. 
  6. At the end of the year, have the students look back at their early work, and compare the ways they have matured or changed during the course of the school year.

If you choose to prompt your students to try their hand at different forms of writing other than a diary, here are some possible ideas:

  1. Poetry
  2. Photo captions
  3. Thank you notes
  4. Letters
  5. Lists
  6. Short stories
  7. News reports
  8. Biographies of friends or family members
  9. Interviews
  10. Instructions or How-To’s (recipes, playing a game, craft projects, etc.)

The Most Important Times of the Day

With all the pressures of teaching, every minute is precious. But there are two times of the day when you can purposefully set the tone for learning: the first 10 minutes — un-wrap — and the last 10 minutes — wrap-up.

In the first 10 minutes, students need to know that you’re glad they are at school and happy to see them. Stand at the door 10-minute-clock-300x300and welcome them to class; make small talk with them; ask about the previous afternoon — inquire about a game they played in or what they did. Have an activity on the board or on their desks for them to plunge into; you need to create a sense of purpose to begin the day.  This could be an academic activity that encourages them to interact. Whether you do this or not, students will find ways to talk and socialize.  If you give them constructive opportunities to do so during un-wrap, it’s easier to engage them academically when necessary.  (Note:  I wouldn’t do this the first week of school. The first week or two should be completely orchestrated by you.) The morning arrival time needs to be structured, and it’s best to have a writing/drawing prompt or interest survey waiting for them.

We all like to prepare for the day ahead, and students are no different. Giving your students an agenda during un-wrap can help prevent the nagging questions they’re prone to raise throughout the day.  (What special do we have today; what’s for lunch; what are we doing in math?)

The last 10 minutes of the day are equally important.  Begin the wrap-up by recapping the day:  highlight what happened and emphasize key accomplishments. You should model this recap for them early in the year, but eventually turn it over to them. Give them an opportunity to identify what was fun or what they learned.  Encourage them to verbalize something that was difficult.

Other topics for wrap-up include a preview of tomorrow’s activities, which gives them something to anticipate. (Keep it positive.)  Provide a topic or question they can ask at home to keep parents involved.

You should not only talk about the academic side of things but social topics too. Students are very aware of what goes on in the class socially, e.g. who’s friends with whom, who got in trouble, who was mean to them, etc.  By talking about these things before students leave, you can put it in context, and prevent a simmering pot from turning into an explosion at home.  Often a child will suppress their feelings about a conflict or incident at school until a parent or sibling prompts them at home.  The sudden attention can result in an emotional (and often inaccurate) memory of events from the day.  Using wrap-up time to diffuse these emotions can head off angry phone calls from parents.

This reflection time is an important skill for students to learn so they can evaluate their day on their own and learn analytical and self-assessment methods.  It also provides insight to you about the efficacy of your  lessons; something you thought went well may not have had the same impact on students. Early in the year, wrap-up time can give you a chance to remind students of any materials they’ll need for homework or tomorrow’s assignments.  As time goes by, they will be doing this themselves; it will become a habit. They’ll learn to check everything before they leave and you won’t get the email or phone call saying Suzy left her book at school and couldn’t do her homework.

Reflecting and Adjusting Behaviors

As adults we ‘reflect’ on events and situations all throughout our day.  Sometimes we do so without even realizing it:  burning our tongue on a hot beverage causes us to adjust our behavior.  We blow into the cup or let it cool before sipping again.  We reflect and adjust in traffic — getting a speeding ticket makes us reflect on our behavior — and we drive a little slower (for a while.) mirror

Reflecting and adjusting is the essence of the learning process. If we don’t reflect and make adjustments we’ll continue to make the same errors time and again. Through years of experience we’ve learned to reflect automatically on some things but have to make a conscious effort for others.  When we see red brake lights ahead of us on the road, an experienced driver doesn’t consciously apply the brake.  It’s a reflex.  A student driver’s response to red is much more conscious, and in some cases, the adjustment is too severe (they slam on the brakes.)  If that student failed to hit the brakes and rear-ended the driver in front, there’s a good chance they’d learn the lesson of adjusting.

If you’re trying a new recipe for home baked chocolate chip cookies, the reflect-and-adjust process is top of mind.  “Will the oven temperature be accurate?  How long should the cookies bake?  Are the eggs in the fridge fresh enough to use?”  If the cookies burn, you’ll approach the task differently the next time.  Does the recipe need to be changed?  Or is it the over temperature that’s at fault?

When we reflect on what went wrong, we evaluate each aspect of the process and try to find the cause of the error. From the example above, we can’t say that the cookies are just bad-tasting cookies. An adjustment needs to be made.

In his article, Mark Clements sites the classic example of a hot stove:  if I touch the burner and hurt my hand, I immediately reflect.  If I’m reflecting properly, I’ll change my behavior (by quickly removing my hand from the hot burner.)  And then I adjust for the future; I won’t simply assume that all stoves are bad; it’s just the ones that are hot that should give me pause.

In learning environments, students must have reflection time in order to assess their errors and determine how to fix them.  Reflecting on success is also important.  The student should analyze their results and capitalize on the “win” so they can build on it. If a student performs poorly on an assignment, and the teacher just hands it back without an opportunity to reflect and make corrections, progress is halted.   For real learning to occur, students need to understand their mistakes and have a chance to correct them.

In the classroom, reflection is not a default skill for most students.  It must be taught and encouraged.