The Quest for Knowledge

Most weeks, as part of their reading class, my students complete “Word Wizard” worksheets. To successfully fill these out, students must pick a word from the text (hopefully one they don’t know), write down the context they found it in, and then look it up in the dictionary for the official definition. Most of the students really like these sheets when they come to that page in their larger packet. Why? Because they are easy. They don’t require much thought. They are especially easy because the general practice is to write it down and then raise their hand to ask, “can you help me find this in the dictionary?” Some will bemoan their inability to locate the word before even opening the reference book. Nearly all whine about the tiny text and convince themselves that their word simply isn’t listed in the dictionary so it cannot be defined.

I was flabbergasted by this when I first started, as using the dictionary was one of the first things that we were taught as elementary school students. Rarely would our teachers define or spell a word for us without a trip to the dictionary ourselves. We kept a small box full of index cards that listed all the words that we had looked up. Every time we looked up a word, we filled out a card with the word on the front, the part of speech, definition, and an example sentence on the back, and stored them in alphabetical order in the box. It became a mini-dictionary of your personal vocabulary. The idea that third graders have no concept of how a dictionary works, or how to go about alphabetizing beyond the first letter of a word, is truly confusing to me. Worse, this situation is not limited to the dictionary. Perhaps one or two students in my class had ever heard of a thesaurus when we started this year, and none seemed to have any idea that the pristine set of World Books filling space on the shelf had any actual purpose.

So, I searched the common core standards for mention of the word “dictionary”. From second grade on, the only mention I can find is under English Language Arts – Language Acquisition and is some minor variation on this:

“Use glossaries and beginning dictionaries, both print and digital, to determine or clarify the meaning of words and phrases.”

This seems a bit lacking to me, but I recognized the common core standards are meant only to define what a student should know, not how they should come to know it. Then I looked up “reference”. This led me to the overview of what a student who is “College and Career Ready in Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening, & Language” will look like after they achieve all of the standards. Here it clearly articulates that independent learning is desirable, and that students should “become self-directed learners, effectively seeking out and using resources to assist them, including teachers, peers, and print and digital reference materials.”

Clearly, we can see the importance of obtaining knowledge for oneself, and yet we seem to assume that skill will come naturally. While you could argue that students obtain this skill passively over the years of exercises like “Word Wizards,” that argument diminishes the importance of the information gathering skill and implies that all students will have teachers who push them to actually use the dictionary.

Almost daily I read opinions either bemoaning or lauding the overwhelming access to information in today’s world. This plethora of content is only growing, and the best thing we can do is to give our children the skills to mine it efficiently and effectively. Everything they could ever want to know in the world will soon be at their fingertips (literally: at our school, every student in the fourth grade has their own iPad) but without the strategies to access and understand that information, what good does it do? If instead of picking it up passively, students learn to use these informational sources in the safety of their classroom, a teacher can guide them to the most accurate definition or most valid website. This approach will leave students much farther along in their quest for college readiness with skills that will serve them magnificently well along the way.

We’ve all heard that knowledge is power. But we might be teaching our students that knowledge is power that other people have (i.e. teachers, parents, etc.), rather than something that everyone can gain.

How Long Do I Have for This?

To a facilitator, the title question can be as grating as asking a professor how many pages a paper must be, or if they taught anything important in class today. As I facilitated workshops for college students, I quickly learned that being specific about time (except for a start time) was a recipe for disaster. I abandoned timed agendas, ignored questions about “how long are we going to do this?,” and adopted vague approximations like “a while,” and “a few minutes” as a preface for most activities. Why? Because college students, like most people, can be hyper-focused on time. I found it extremely frustrating to have groups rush through an activity, worried they wouldn’t have enough time, only to sit with nothing to engage them for five minutes after they were “done.” Worse were the students who would worry so much about keeping me on schedule that they failed to engage in the activity at all. I found both of those problems nearly disappeared if students were never given a time limit in the first place. Plus, this approach allows for infinitely more flexibility. If a great conversation were happening but taking longer than planned, I would be the only one who knew that any adjustment was happening.

Naturally, based on this experience, when I saw the daily schedule written on our whiteboard in my third grade classroom, I had some concerns. The schedule accounts for every minute of the day and includes no breaks between subjects, even the ones we have to travel to. I asked my teacher if this ever caused problems with the students anticipating the end of things or becoming nags, and she shrugged and said, “not really.” So far, she’s mostly been right. Occasionally, a student will try to use the schedule to their advantage to get out of work, but most of them don’t seem to know it at all. On the whole, the few students in our class who struggle with anxiety find great value in having an idea of when the next transition is going to happen, and that benefit has far outweighed the minimal distractions of posting the schedule.

Unlike my third graders, I often find that having things timed so carefully stresses me out. I think this stems from my integration into a world that encourages people to be punctual, when our class is often not. But mostly it comes from the fact that I don’t know exactly what each day’s lesson plan entails. On some days, if I’m fifteen minutes late bringing them in from snack, the math lesson would be impossible to accomplish; on other days, it would make no difference. I hate the idea of putting my lead teacher in a situation where simply being flexible is not enough to get everything done. If I knew exactly what I needed to accomplish — as I did in the workshops I facilitated — I imagine my dependence on time would revert to its “when it happens” state.

I learned this relationship with time as a Montessori student. From first grade on, we were responsible for scheduling our own work using a template that looked something like the image to the left. New Work PlanAt the beginning of the week, we would figure out what we needed to do (usually some number of things from each subject) and insert them into our weekly schedule on whatever day we felt it fit best. From there, our only job was to complete it. We were not expected to estimate how long it would take, or to make sure that each day was scheduled to exactly fill our time at school. Work time was broken into several-hour chunks, and students were expected to use their plan and work on each item until it was complete, regardless of how long that took. We were allowed (and encouraged) to work ahead if we did complete all the work we had planned for the day. And if that situation became a recurring theme, our teacher would encourage us to plan more from the get-go in upcoming weeks.

This approach allowed for highly-focused work without much concern for time. Of course, as the end of our work block neared (usually at lunch or the end of the day) we quickly learned to choose activities that didn’t require as much time or concentration so we wouldn’t be interrupted. Any lessons given by the teacher to the whole class were scheduled for the same time each day and as a part of the class routine, not an interruption to your work flow. These lessons, meal breaks, and special occasions were the only time of the day that anyone dictated how you spend your time. In my current classroom, I constantly see students dragged through the end of an hour-long lesson on a subject that hasn’t grabbed their attention or they’ve already mastered; or worse, a student forced to disengage from a flow merely because it’s time to switch to grammar.

On top of the clear benefit to the learning process, the skills I learned in elementary school from scheduling and managing my own time are skills that I depend on daily. I see them emerge not only in my approach to facilitation, but in my approach to life, and particularly when motivating myself to achieve large tasks. I will be re-taking the GRE in a month, which I’ve known since early August. At the outset of this task, following my personal commitment to actually study, I laid out a plan (using Trello to manage the details) that set a small task to do each weekday. I knew I would need weekends to catch up on what I didn’t get done when life got in the way during the week. Moreover, I knew that simply saying, “I will study for two hours each night,” would last for about two days. Some nights take longer than others, and I try to work ahead when I can — but just as in the Montessori days, I know that completing the task is more important (and in this case, effective) than adhering to a specific timeline.

Books, Books, Books

In third grade, when you are not following rules, learning multiplication, or navigating social situations, your primary responsibility is to read. At our school, as at many around the country, we use the Accelerated Reader (AR) program to encourage kids to read and read for comprehension. Many a night, our students’ homework consists solely of reading for AR points.

ReadingWhile I see the benefits of encouraging kids to read (and rewarding them for doing so), I have always had some qualms with AR. It’s onerous and turns a leisure activity into graded assignment (in kid speak, code for “not fun”). Our class has a few students who approach AR the way I did, as a byproduct of the reading they would be doing anyway; each of them far surpassed this quarter’s quota of 12 points for weeks ago. The other students use that bar more as a ceiling than a floor, and that is where I see the most flaws. Some of our kids reconsider picking up a new book after getting their 12 points, acknowledging that they should save those points for the next quarter so they aren’t “wasted”. But the worst (for me) are those who find the AR requirement so daunting that they struggle to pick up a book at all. Some of them have realized that they struggle with comprehension on the test at the end, so they won’t choose anything worth more than half a point (think Berenstain Bear books).

The point struggle has also trained them to be incredibly wary of new books. I am an avid reader and have a hard time putting a book down once I’ve picked it up, regardless of whether I actually like it. I found the first 100 pages of The Casual Vacancy relatively painful and kept setting it down for months at a time. Nevertheless, I finished it eventually even if it took me 18 months. My students, likely realizing that their test scores are lower on books they didn’t absolutely love, won’t pick up anything they aren’t sure they will like. During library class, I fantasize about having the time to systematically read every book on the shelves so that I could have a good recommendation for every student who jolts me out of my daydream, asking for a book that is “funny, action-packed, short, on my AR level, and worth a bunch of points.”

Though I find their unwillingness to try new books fills me with despair, I revel in the changes tBookshat I see in a student who finds a book they enjoy. I managed to find a skateboarding adventure book (sadly the only one of its kind) for one of my most particular boys. For weeks, he avoided reading at all, preferring to draw silly faces or search for Waldo. Recognizing the need to complete his AR points, he bemoaned to me that the library had nooooo good books. Naturally, I countered his assertion and promised him we would look for something together. Since checking out this book, I find him regularly reading during free time in class. At the library yesterday he found a new book and excitedly came to tell me about his discovery. Today, he spent a full five minutes of his free time telling me about the story. While I have no delusions that I have shifted his true love from football and lacrosse, it fills me with great joy to know that I played some small role in helping him enjoy a book.