As part of the Building Learning Communities 2018 conference in Boston, I was asked by Bob Greenberg who compiles the Brainwaves Anthology on You Tube, to speak briefly on a topic of my choice. The title of my little chat has a double meaning, which you'll discover if you click on the video.
Dr. Pam Davis is a friend of mine and a consummate teacher. I asked her if she created magic in the classroom and in her blunt straightforward manner she said, "Not really. I just capture the magic that's there!" So I asked her how that happens and her responses are the basis for this blog.
Is magic in the classroom the norm or not? "I think magic in the classroom is overlooked and when it's harnessed that's the exception."
How often do you experience magic in your classroom? "To me teaching and learning are both magical so I experience magic quite often?"
What do you do to make this magic happen? "First, I prepare by deciding how to share myself through the material. For example, I have a natural sense of humor and I love to read and listen to music. If I can find a way to share any of my passions with my students through the mandated content, that's the first step in inviting them into a safe learning space. So when I teach social studies to 6th grade, the kids need to learn about the term, the "golden age." I introduce them to Jill Scott who wrote a song called "Living Life Like It's Golden," which I believe represents a golden age in popular music. Then I invite them to debate the properties of a golden age in history by comparing my generation's music to theirs. This leads to discussions all kinds of golden ages and gives the students ownership of the term."
What do you look for in the material you use to connect to your students? "I have to look for outside material to supplement the mediocre required texts, which gives kids facts but doesn't inspire interest. I can say honestly, that in order to connect to my students and have them connect to each other and eventually connect to the material, I have to be some kind of voice--an author's voice, a musician's voice, an artist's voice that transcends diversities and keys into common humanity."
How have you used the Nonfiction Minute? "When we were learning about the Medieval Period in history, I used the Nonfiction Minute called "Gong Farmers." I then posted the link on my class page with the warning, "Read at your own risk. This is disgusting. I don't want to talk about it."Of course, most of them read it but then I had them lead a small group discussion about some of the pros and cons of the feudal system from the peasants' perspective. And several children brought up the idea of a gong-farmer and explicitly explained what the job entailed while I barely contained my composure."
Pam, you are an exemplar of what I call the "artist teacher." How do you get away with it? "I get criticized by administrators and sometimes other teachers. But parents and students give me consistently high ratings, so I persevere. I get some encouragement from my work outside the classroom. I teach teachers. I evaluate content and even provide really fun robotics to kids facing family trauma. I've never seen teaching as anything but an opportunity to share magic.”
If you are a teacher who has never experienced magic in the classroom, you must first know yourself and be fully and confidently self-expressed. Next you must be constantly on the lookout for excellent content material created by others who are also fully and confidently secure in their form of self-expression. Shared humanity is at the heart of it all.
Excellence. There is no shortage of exemplars. They are athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs, activists, academics, writers. We shower them with accolades and many are rewarded with large sums of money. We call them heroes. Children can name their favorites. But to a child, and to teenagers and even young adults these superstars may as well live on another planet. What is the journey to this pinnacle? Champions come from all walks of life. And many individuals, who are born to wealth and privilege, fall by the wayside. Excellence also shows up in less publicly aggrandized activities. There are short order cooks, teachers, social workers, wait-staff, knitters, who are stand-outs in their less glamorous worlds.
I started iNK Think Tank because I wanted to highlight excellent nonfiction writing for children. Our genre has been a stepchild in children’s literature. For the most part, the nonfiction children read in public schools is from standardized material that “covers” curriculum subjects. ELA classes have a long tradition of teaching classics. There is so much to be mined from their excellence that they need a teacher to help students get more from a book than just the words. Why not expose children to excellence in nonfiction writing where the author’s passion for content shines through the language?
Achieving excellence can be learned. We get there though a concept called “successive approximations.” As educators we recognize and reinforce behavior that is in the direction we want our students to go. Then we have them repeat the process but raise the bar a little higher for the outcomes. It isn’t a linear path. Failure is an intrinsic part of the process. Think how many times the champion figure skater or hockey player must have fallen on the ice in their journeys to the Olympics. The most important requisite knowledge is that it is hard-won. But at some point,individuals gets hooked. They see themselves improving. They understand the kind of work they must produce consistently to graduate from one level to another. They certainly understand it if they play video games and get really good at them. Note that test grades are not necessarily a part of the learning process and sometimes can kill it before it takes hold.
When it comes to academics the primary skills are literacy-related as defined in the Common Core Standards as listening, speaking, reading, and writing. The problem, as I see it, is that the standards come divorced from content, particularly content that may be of interest to students. If motivation is the key to learning, and let’s say, one kid is fanatically interested in some arcane subject matter, like wolf spiders in Australia, academic skills can be acquired in the process of learning about that subject. Yet all too often, we rush children through the learning ropes without considering the built-in motivations that come with each individual.
This is the concept behind the Nonfiction Minute. Children are being introduced to a diversity of topics, written by a diversity of authors who have achieved excellence in their writing from a diversity of pathways. Literacy skills are likely to be acquired much more rapidly if they must be used in pursuit of knowledge that fascinates a child. They can be the key to starting their own academic journey into content that resonates with them.
Karen Sterling’s brilliant Transfers to Teaching (T2T) helps them on the way to higher learning and academic achievement.
II hope you understand how we are trying to get to the heart and soul of the learning process that has been hijacked by to many misguided cooks in the education pot.
Full disclosure: I am about to review a book that is a collection of Nonfiction Minutes, which have been published on the Nonfiction Minute website. This is the second collection of Minutes published by Seagrass Press Imprint, Quarto Books, pub date: April 3, 2018. The first one, 30 People Who Changed the World was named a Notable Social Studies Trade book by the NCSS and the CBC. iNK Think Tank, the nonprofit company I founded in 2009, has the mission to bring high-quality children's nonfiction into the classroom so that children and teachers rediscover the love of learning. So obviously, I'm giving this book high marks. Let me give you five reasons why:
1. It's a PRINT book, beautifully illustrated and formatted, with suggestions of links and other books to follow up each selection. Books have a sense of permanence that shows in the care the publisher took to make something you want to pick up. It's an honor to see that others validate our work and our mission. So thank you to our far-seeing publisher, Josalyn Moran, who had the vision and creativity to take a piece of the Internet (where publishing costs nothing and writing is ephemeral) and turn it into something familiar and established but with a new twist. It is astonishing to see how much format contributes to value. And hats off to our intrepid editor, Jean Reynolds, who has pulled together a disparate collection that makes cohesive sense.
2. Students are being overwhelmed with Too Much Information. It's positively numbing and eye-glazing. The bite-sized essays in 30 Animals that Share Our World are true hors d'oeuvres. Delicious, unique, a lot of what you didn't know you didn't know. Yes, it's a book but you don't have to read it from beginning to end, you can skip around, put it down, pick it up. No rules. Lately, when I go to a restaurant, appetizers are my dinner. Yum!
3. We learn from many voices. Fourteen authors, all iNK members, created these Minutes. We all have different passions and we filter our writing to create memorable presentations of content.
This is not the sterile, everything-you-need-to-know encyclopedic treatment of information. It is not the once-over-lightly, cover-the-subject with the obvious and mundane. In rereading these Minutes I learned about a fish that sees red, many instances where wild animals ask for help, an animal that is now sadly extinct and another that has been saved from extinction. Make no mistake, this is a book about LIFE and DEATH writ large.
4. Revealed humanity is behind all good writing. When a fiction writer grabs your attention, you make note of the author's name. In fiction, the author's name is his/her brand. All of an author's books are shelved together. Nonfiction is cataloged and shelved by topic. We're all over the nonfiction part of the library. So when a student returns a book he/she liked and asks for another one like it, librarians usually pull out another book on the same topic. It seldom occurs to give them another book by the same author. We're hoping you rethink that. In colleges, the most popular professors' classes are standing-room-only, regardless of the subject.
5. And finally, when it comes to food, an appetizer is supposed to get your digestive juices flowing for what is to follow. 30 Animals that Share Our World is a like dazzling tray of culinary morsels, and maybe one of them is soooo good you'll run to the library to dish up more.
Last Chance to Join Our Spring Fling--a Free Opportunity to Have Your Students Ask Authors Questions Live!
We're making history! This is the very first time we've tried a Spring Extravaganza where you and your students get to ask questions of authors right after you've read a Nonfiction Minute by them. It's also FREE. We are using interactive video conferencing in a whole new way so that you see the connection between good writing and good writers.
So make your plans to come to our Zoom Room next Tuesday, March 20, the vernal equinox, to dust the winter cobwebs out of your brains and be challenged by whole new ways of thinking. There is no better thing you can do to prepare for the upcoming Standardized Tests--After all, the testing companies excerpt our books for the tests. We oughta know what we think when we write, no? (If we don't, then no one does!)
It's NOT TOO LATE to sign up. Go to this website: Center for Learning and Collaboration. There are some classes who are spending the WHOLE DAY with us. How 'bout that!!!
*Award-winning author of more than 90 nonfiction books for children, mostly in science.