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.