Thursday, January 3, 2019

Online Pre-School

If you are like me, you will have a knee-jerk reaction to the concept in the above title. A while ago, I was reading a tweet from Royan Lee, and over my morning tea skimmed the article he had linked to. I believe I also offered a comment on the topic. My first thought was that this was a pedagogical travesty of the highest order! But then as I contemplated the article during the course of the day, I thought I remembered a mention of Utah.
And that made me reconsider my original opinion.
Readers, have you ever been to Utah?
Although I am not that well-travelled, I have visited this state. It is right at the top of my list of the most spectacularly beautiful places on earth.
It is also filled with great big areas of absolutely nothing. We once got lost in a huge expanse of desert for about an hour-and-a-half, while attempting to follow an incorrect map leading from a National Monument to the Interstate. It was so hot we couldn’t take the dog out of the truck to pee in the middle of the day because he would burn his feet. The only person we saw while lost was in a grader moving drifts of sand off the gravel road. The only wildlife we saw was a herd of deer motionless beside a small mud hole. The only reason I didn’t panic is that we camp in the back our truck so we had shade and accommodation at all times, not to mention a large water container.
So, when it comes to pre-school in this part of the world, I can only imagine that there are many families for whom an online option would be helpful. I am also sure the good parents of Utah would happily take their kids to a face-to-face pre-school if they had one close by. But in the meantime, kids could go online for all kinds of activities and interactions.
I also started thinking about the launch of Sesame Street, and wondered if it had been whole-heartedly approved back in the day. In fact, it was not. The Wikipedia article on the iconic educational kids’ show says, “According to writer Michael Davis, Sesame Street is ‘perhaps the most vigorously researched, vetted, and fretted-over program’.[1] By 2001, there were over 1,000 research studies regarding its efficacy, impact, and effect on American culture.”
Without doing any extensive research on online pre-school, whether mandated or optional, I am still interested in the topic, and feeling positive about its application in rural and remote areas. And maybe I should add “northern” to that list…

Modern Learning

This term has been used quite widely to describe educational goals during the past few years. I think the first place I saw the term was in some great resources published by York Region DSB. Usually when people describe their big goals as Modern Learning, they are trying to avoid the use of other terms such as “21st century learning” (used a lot by the Ontario Ministry of Education, back in the good old days when the ministry was open-minded and forward-thinking. Oh, did I say that out loud?). Michael Fullan has given us another suite of terms such as “New Pedagogies,” “Deeper Learning,” “6 C’s,” and more.
My personal favourite is 21c Learning. It is short and to the point and I don’t mind that we still use it when we are well into the 21st century.
But my main objection to the term “modern learning,” is that the word “modern” has a pre-existing definition. My knowledge of this was hard-won, and I am loathe to give it up!
When I started university, I did not do well in first year English. This was a big crisis for me, as I love literature, reading and writing and was an English major from Day 1. Mid way through semester 1, I realized that my casual and colloquial definitions of words such as “modern,” “medieval,” and “romantic” were part of the problem. I literally had no idea that in many fields these are technical terms with very defined meanings. I vividly remember going to the library at the University of Windsor. Lacking the Internet and Wikipedia, I took down a volume of an encyclopedia and turned to the section on Literature, and found part of my answer.
For example, the Romantic period of literature refers roughly to writers and their works from 1790-1830, and the Modern, 1910-1945. There are many views on these exact dates, but nevertheless… I learned that the same kinds of terms apply in art and architecture. What a world of understanding opened up to me as a result of half an hour with the encyclopedia!
Three years later, in grad school, I met my friend Robin who had joined us from Scotland. I found out that throughout his high school years, the eras of literature were broken down and taught grade by grade. I was so upset that in Ontario that was (and is) not a part of what we learn.
But having learned first-hand the importance of the terms, I am reluctant to abandon them! So I am all about “21c learning,” thank you very much!

Saying “No” to regular full-group discussions

Well, I have argued with the best over this one! I am talking about exemplary and well-loved teachers and program consultants, literally the best colleagues I and our students could ever ask for. But I still feel I have to speak up on behalf those who are a) gifted, b) hyper, c) visual learners, and likely others.
The trend over the past few years towards group chats and activities ranging from Number Talks to Gallery Walks, has the potential to alienate learners, and in my view, goes against the imperative for differentiation.
As a learner, I have a bit of a), b) and c) above, and spent the vast majority of my elementary school years trying to avoid going there, and hating it while I was there. From story time on the carpet, to oral reading where the teacher called on everyone in order to read a paragraph, this was the stuff of nightmares for me. Literally.
The crippling boredom combined with the threat of dire consequences fill these years with bad memories… and stomach aches:)
I know we no longer threaten our students, but I wonder about the long-term impact of the constant re-direction of the same students, day after day, for these activities.
My first discussion on this topic occurred quite a few years ago when, as a Grade 8 teacher, I was invited to a math curriculum meeting on the subject of Number Talks. It was before the term was popularized, but that was the gist of it. I simply could not believe that after enthusiastically honing my DI skills for the previous several years, that I would be asked to do this group activity. In my naivety, I asked the consultant if there were groups with different, related questions. No! He was horrified. He then swore that all students of all abilities would relish the presentation and discussion of a wide variety of solutions and ideas.
I have to say now (though I held my tongue in the meeting, as I was obviously the odd one out), this is complete and utter hogwash!
In our fictional Number Talk, there will always be a sub-set of students who have instantly seen and processed every single option within one minute of the task being assigned, and for whom the remaining allotted time is both wasted and disliked. This is especially true in primary and junior situations where the prompts are often quite closely defined. For these students this occurs every single day, all year long. We cannot fool ourselves. For these kids, that period of time is dreaded.
As is a read-aloud, as is shared reading, as is a gallery walk with an extended discussion of what was observed.
I am certainly not blaming teachers for following a recommended strategy, and for excelling at it. And the benefits for some students are real.
But I also see small reading groups formed to scaffold the skills of readers at similar levels. How humane. How effective. Why have we rejected this approach in other subject areas?
In the meantime, we need to ask ourselves about negative behaviours that we see and respond to on a daily basis. And take steps to make learning a positive experience for all.