Grand Day is one of my favorite events at school for so many reasons, not the least of which is seeing the pride of students, teachers, and grands over the accomplishments of learning and friendships. Beyond that, listening to grandparents talk to each other about what they perceive as happening with and for their grandchildren allows me to see what we do with fresh eyes. I don’t know if it is the wisdom grandparents have earned over time or an appreciation for fundamentals now overlooked, but grandparents seem to recognize the implicit learning objectives built into our teaching as readily as they see the obvious, stated objectives. One grandparent stopped me to ask if we have always given the students “jobs” in the classroom. I thought, “Yes! We vertically align learning objectives and facilitate interdisciplinary experiences to deepen student understanding while empowering them with skills and strategies all of the time. Thank you for noticing.” I did not say that. After I explained the jobs chart, he was so impressed with the idea of developing academic skills while promoting a sense of personal responsibility and community. But, I wonder if we think about the depth of learning that will occur each year when those charts are set up. Or, have we done it so long that we just know “jobs” are what we do?
I have enjoyed the work we do as a professional learning community analyzing our curriculum and teaching practices to consider how we can get better. One of the things I have tried to do is bridge the perceived gap between early learning objectives and those of more advanced grade levels. On the surface, there may seem to be little connection between the tactile table and essay writing or color sorting and algebra, but foundational knowledge and skills are critical for future academic success. Is the connection difficult to see because we focus on the activity/lesson and not the why behind it? In his book, Start with Why, Simon Sinek says, “It is not just WHAT or HOW you do things that matters; what matters more is that WHAT and HOW you do things is consistent with your WHY. Only then will your practices indeed be best.” Are we starting with WHY when we plan our lessons? How might that look?
- Why: We believe students need a firm foundation of early literacy and math skills and habits that include conceptual understanding as well as procedural knowledge.
- What: We build number sense and phonological awareness while emphasizing strategies, communication, and flexible thinking.
- How: Daily lessons include number talks with subitizing activities and differentiated small groups during literacy block.
One might argue that it doesn’t make a difference where you begin if you end up in the same place. Only, I don’t think we always end up in the same place when we begin with the activity or lesson rather than with the WHY. So, I will continue to bridge the gap by pointing out the connections between early learning and upper grades, and highlighting how our WHY is the building of foundational skills/strategies for later success. I will always work to see what we do with fresh eyes.
Sinek, Simon. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York: Portfolio, 2009. Print.
I have watched this TED Talk by Rita F. Pierson several times, often thinking about the teachers and community members who were champions for me. I do not know how I would have made it through challenging times without them. More recently, my perspective has shifted to thinking of my responsibilities as an administrator charged with championing the causes of both students and teachers. Ms. Pierson’s insistence that we must actively love and support even the most difficult children is so motivating, I believe the talk should be on a continual loop in schools everywhere.
Even if you have seen this TED Talk before, I hope you’ll watch it again and ask yourself the following questions:
Who has been a champion for me? How would I have ever made it through that difficult ________ (behavior, learning challenge, home situation) without them?
When have I seen that a child needs a champion and stepped up? Is there an opportunity right in front of me now?
Math is a language we all use but at various levels of complexity and confidence that are likely linked to our early math experiences in school. Research shows that early math understanding is critical to ongoing engagement and success with higher level concepts. Specifically, the development of number sense, or the ability to think flexibly about quantity, is a key foundational skill on which algebraic thinking is based. Math Professor Jo Boaler of Stanford University says, “When students fail algebra it is often because they don’t have number sense.”
Like reading skills, mathematical understanding begins developing at a very young age. In order to build the foundation our students need to be successful mathematicians throughout life, we must consistently provide them with rich, engaging, and developmentally appropriate experiences that nurture healthy attitudes as well as strong skills and practices. Beginning with our youngest learners, we are thoughtfully utilizing our knowledge of child development, content, and best practices to achieve the following overarching goals:
- Students will have a growth mindset about mathematics in which they believe everyone has the ability to become good at math by learning strategies and developing skills.
- Students will have a firm understanding of mathematical concepts while developing procedural knowledge and fluency.
- Students will understand that there are multiple ways to solve problems, look for different approaches, and be able to explain their thinking to others.
The beauty of teaching is the ongoing need to learn. As we look to develop these foundational skills in our students, we are reexamining and deepening our own understanding of what it means to learn math. It has been fascinating and fulfilling to be a part of our productive struggle. I created a Storify to curate and make our progress visible.
There is a difference between wondering and seeking to understand, even though they both involve questioning. When my daughter was very young, she made an observation about who appeared to be homeless. She asked about a pattern she felt she recognized and wondered about why that might be true. After acknowledging how important it is to notice things such as that and encouragement to always ask those questions, I began to talk to her about how we could learn more about homelessness. But, her mind had moved on to other thoughts and ideas. She wasn’t truly seeking to understand. She was wondering about an observation. For someone her age, even noticing and thinking to question something so complex was impressive. Certainly, my goal as a parent and educator is to develop her wonders into a curiosity that drives her to not only observe and question, but to search for understanding and act on what she learns.
Seeking to understand is about more than asking questions or getting to answers. It is about asking questions and pursuing answers to the point of creating ideas. As adults, how often do we wonder or question without pursuing answers? How often do we accept an answer without enough understanding to take action? In the book A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger says, “ambitious, catalytic questioning tends to follow a logical progression, one that often starts with stepping back and seeing things differently and ends with taking action on a particular question.” He goes on to describe how we lose the innate desire to question that we are born with, and he then outlines how we can reclaim this skill.
I see this problem from a slightly different perspective (possibly just a difference of thinking whole:part rather than part:whole). I would ask… Is the problem that we aren’t asking enough questions? Or, is it that we don’t always have the drive to take action? What tempers that drive?
As I reflected on the past week, I thought of two notable situations where teachers pursued the art of questioning for the purpose of taking action. One involved a student’s behavior and another involved curriculum. They both likely began out of frustration with questions such as, “Why is this child behaving this way?” and “How are we supposed to make this work?”, but developed into truly earnest inquiries that led to productive action. What made these teachers invest the time and energy to pursue understanding? Why didn’t they stop at wondering? I believe there were three ingredients that fueled their drive:
- Devotion – The definition of devotion is attachment, loyalty, and affection. A person must have a level of investment in an idea, place, people or situation in order to pursue understanding. At Trinity we have worked intentionally on developing relationships between the adults and children in our community, seeking to build connections. Our teachers care about each other and our students.
- Belief – If a person feels his or her efforts will be futile, there is an obvious negative impact on motivation. One must believe in their own abilities (growth mindset) and in their ability to influence a situation (power) in order to move forward and take action. It is a part of our mission and vision at Trinity to develop knowledge, skills, habits, and attitudes necessary for success in learning, including a growth mindset and the development of personal empowerment. This sentiment extends to the faculty and is facilitated through professional development, practices, and policy.
- Resources – Having the people and tools available to support an effort is critical. When a person is motivated and empowered, but lacks the necessary resources, they will work outside of the existing systems to seek understanding and solutions. But, when a person is motivated, empowered, and has a team of people ready to work with them to seek understanding and solutions, great things happen. Trinity has tremendous resources in a faculty that is knowledgeable and skilled. Each person brings unique interests and strengths that they make available for the community.
There is a difference between wondering and seeking to understand. At Trinity, we seek to understand. As a leader, I aim to intentionally promote seeking for the benefit of our students and the professional growth of our teachers. I believe in the possibilities. The possibilities are endless, if we seek to understand.