Thursday, July 13, 2006

showing, not telling: the isi in action

It's the final day of the institute for participant presentations. Patrick is reading from Bird by Bird. Everyone is here--all 20 participants as well as two guests: Mariana Figueroa and her colleague Vivian, both from Christopher ES. Mara begins by reading her multi-genre scribe notes entitled "Notes that put the 'No' in Notes." All the participants follow along as Mara reads, smiling at the in jokes and laughing at what Mara has written and at her wholly animated manner of reading. As she reads "it is the waning of our companion days that make us sad," there is a quietness that settles over the group.

Sandy, who began the institute as an "elective non-writer," reads her scribe notes from memory. She reads "Upon climbing the staircase, we hear the happy sounds of talking in a classroom where people enjoy learning and all the grades are A's. There is no homework. Salivary glands moisten and we are fed rich fruittata, fruit, and pastry. All the food given to us has no calories and we can eat as much as we like. There are no negative consequences. It is a happy place: the table and this room comprise my happy place." Elective non-writer?

After a mandatory break for grazing at the snack table, Nicola begins her presentation on "Strengthening the Trait of Ideas." She comments on how another attendee's comment to her in the parking garage after our session yesterday was especially thoughtful. She's asked us to read Bradbury's "The Long Rain" for homework, and although we frown on such 'added evening assignments' in the summer institute, since they interfere with participants' writing time, it appears from the discussion that follows that almost everyone in the group has completed this one. Nicola was not able to begin her own attendance at the institute until week #2, since she was conducting a field trip to Montreal with her 8th graders during week #1. I can't help but feel that the group's conscientiousness about doing this homework assignment is a form of thank you to Nicola for her contributions to the group--a way of making her feel more welcome.

Karen and I brainstorm on the two topics Nicola has provided: "What does the planet [Venus] look like," and "According to the earthlings, what are some of the things we know about the Venusians?" Karen remarks on how carefully Nicola has set us up for this 'pair-share' by gathering our collective thoughts on the overhead before we begin this brainstorming activity.

Nicola then has us gather together in groups of four, asking us to get out of our chairs in order to do so. "How would the Venusians behave towards their earthling invaders," she asks. "I'd like you to act out your sense of these encounters in the from of a group charade." In our group, Karen notes how strongly she's reminded by the Bradbury story of Grendel rising out of the lake and attacking the 'earthlings' who lie asleep in the Mead Hall. This gives our group the perfect metaphor for our group charade. As I mime the Venusian in attack mode, smelling out his victim, Mariana mimes my earthling victim, and Karen and Vivian mime the arching roof of the Sun Dome. Lots of laughter as the five different groups act out their Venusian-earthling encounters. "I never allow my eighth graders to sit in their seats for long," Nicola explains. "We always have a lot of fun in my classes."

"So what do Venusians look like?" Nicola next asks the group, once again using the overhead to gather our collective thoughts on this quite intriguing subject.

"When my former brother-in-law was attending Union Theological Seminary a number of years ago, he had a professor he claimed looked just like God, only smaller," I observe. "So I think the Venusians look just like me, only bigger."

"I'll let that pass," says Nicola, continuing her instruction. "Think of all the senses," she tells us while giving out sheets of drawing paper. "Think of how the Venusians smell, how they eat, how they wreck the havoc they do on the earthling's Sun Dome. Draw and label at least 10 attributes of your Venusian." It's amazing how well Nicola's 8th grade teacher voice works with all of us. Everyone's busily drawing and labeling their Venusian, just as if we were in Nicola's 8th grade class. I turn from these notes to my own drawing, anxious to finish before Nicola rings her bell to signal the end of this activity.


Having completed my exceptionally clunky drawing, conscientiously labeling all 10 of the attributes of my Venusian, Nicola asks volunteers to 'share out.' Children's-book-author-illustrator-by-night/first-grade-teacher by day Leah is the first to share. "My Venusian has several tentacles which also serve as his feet: two of his tentacle-feet have Scottish ghillies on them," she explains as she holds up her drawing. "But he also has shoes for moving fast, a Stewart Dress Plaid tie to trick us into thinking he's professional, many arms for multi-tasking, a laptop that he uses as an earthling tracking device, an 'attack bell' for calling us to attention, special vision goggles, super water-resistant hair, and he's 20 feet tall!" Lots of laughter as Leah holds up her strikingly professional drawing and explains the attributes of this unusual vision of a Venusian.

Because Nicola gave a short workshop just yesterday to the participants in our open summer program on vocabulary, and because I asked if she might give a short precis or this workshop today, she spends the final 30 minutes of her allotted 90 minute time slot introducing us to the "vocabulary games" she uses with her 7th-8th graders in her French classes. True to form, the participants launch into playing Nicola's "Fact Review/M&M Game," her "Vocabulary Square Race" and her 'Solitaire Flashcards" without skipping a beat. After we write our evaluations--appreciations really-- of Nicola's back-to-back workshops, a number of participants cluster around Nicola, thanking her and asking her to augment the brief descriptions she provided of her vocabulary games.


Next up, Grant, a participant who is just beginning a second career as a composition instructor at the college level, has us debrief and synthesize what we've learned over the past four weeks. We start by getting in grade level groups and writing down the one teaching practice we want to 'take with us' from the summer as we head back to our school year classrooms, writing these ideas on sheets of easel paper with sticky backs.

We them perform a 'carousel' activity, moving from one easel sheet to the next, providing comments, queries and augmentations on what each of the other groups has written on their particular sheet. When we return to our initial places in the classroom, Grant gives us our instructions.

"Discuss your different 'must do' teaching ideas with others in your group," he tells us. "Then, on a clean sheet of easel paper, come up with a way of representing your particular 'must do' teaching practice with a visual symbol. Finally, after discussing your different visual symbols with one another, come up with a central visual symbol that represents what your three or four different 'teaching strategy symbols' have in common."

After the initial required period of confusion, questions, and puzzled looks, each of the groups bends to the task Grant has set for us. Twenty or so minutes later, six visual posters are on display on the chalkboard: a game maze, a flower, a closed fist, a heart, a 'safe box,' and a multi-feathered poultry animal mark the central visual symbols on each these posters. When Grant asks what unifies these posters, Karen responds "We're all committed to multi-modal instruction and we should start our own k-college charter school together!"

John speaks of institute participants' "collective refusal to accept the constraints we face in our schools today,'' while Sandy talks about the poster activity itself as an example of the power of supported learning in a safe environment. "This is the sort of activity we just could not have completed, either individually or collectively, at the beginning of the institute." she muses. "It's yet another example of why this model of learning--working together on activities that are various, challenging, and fun--is such an important aspect of what we've learned this summer."

"Aren't we all artists of instruction?" Marie asks.

"We have to be," Nicola concludes.


Catherine said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Catherine said...

For the record, I pressed "enter" not realizing that that would post my message unedited and unfinished. When I have railed away about test scores to my engineer husband, he has pointed out that you can not improve what you can not measure. It is not always possible to measure the progress of a chld. Maturity, confidence, friendships, satisfaction, can not be measured but if they are not in place, the student will not score well and will not be able to learn anything.
Many of us (teachers) have been distracted from teaching the themes we genunely want to teach because we have been persuaded to believe that if it is not on the test it doesn't matter. Watching myself from the side, I noticed many things that will influence teaching. I need to move around and talk to others in order to truly formulate ideas. I can be prodded into writing with short but provocative prompts. I share more ideas and take more risks when I'm with a small group within a group (my writing group) than with the general group. Friends are important to learning and teachers can play an active role in creating an environment in which friendships are formed and nurtured. I'm interested in knowing what people are going to do in order to keep the spirit of the institute alive in the onslaught of the coming school year?

John said...

Catherine raises what I think is the bar--and a key question: how to talk to people trained to believe all growth worth emphasizing in school is worth measuring?

Educator Linda MacNeil wrote, "Measureable outcomes may be the least significant result of learning." This may be a good quote to slip in conversations like the one Catherine described with her husband. Inviting the "others" to reflect on what qualities make a relationship (and therefore most careers) successful might be another. As Catherine's examples make clear, few if any of these qualities are measurable. Yet many of them are prerequisites for effectiveness and success in life every bit as much--and in many cases even more--as the skills we can (arguably) measure.

My thought is that it's better not to waste too much energy fighting the measuring mentality in a materialistic culture showing few signs of major progress soon. Better to combine our visions of how --and for what purpose--we best learn, with our practical classroom experience and work in our classrooms and schools to create pieces of a parallel "leg" of curriculum. While, in practice, this "personal leg" intertwines with the "measurable" academic leg, I think we ought to conceive it as an independent entity keyed to students' levels of inter-personal and intra-personal development (grade levels). Better to create learning sequences that help students discover themselves though what we might call "purposeful reflection," reflection on learning experiences designed to help students realize what most matters to them at any given level of development.

Because such qualities--maturity, confidence, friendships, satisfaction (Catherine's examples)--don't lend themselves to unobtrusive measurement, it's best to assess by demonstration, attempting only loosely if at all to quantify.

But to return to the point, those in education who work for testing and standards, and believe in them, ought not to be wrenched from them. Let's keep these folks busy and happy, as we create another leg devoted to the unfolding of our students' personalities.

jonathan said...

John's comment above is a post rather than a comment. That is, it uses the occasion of Catherine's comment on what was not included in "the isi in action" to make the case, quite clearly and concisely I'm pleased to report, for what he terms a "two legged curriculum."

A post, or blog entry, makes an argument or offers a reflection that's sufficient unto itself. A comment responds to this writing.

Least that's how I see it, and since this is my blogspot, those are the rules we'll play by.

Where does John's comment belong? At our newly created "ISI 06" blogspot, of course. Check it out at, and sign in as a contributor, following Todd's very helpful instructions.

John said...

Leave it to me to post when a comment would do. Happy to redirect, but don't see Todd's instructions on the ISIblog. Any tips?

Catherine said...

Our discussion wound on beyond Nicola's comment and I was not fast enough in formulating my thoughts to respond to John's comment about. "Yes, we teach the standards, of course we do, but we also need to help develop the "self" in the students. Forgive me, I am paraphrasing - - badly.
In a capitalist country where the merit of any endeavor is measured by profit, it is crucial that people be equipped to think independently, critically. In many ways the preoccupation with testing has derailed these attempts to help students define self and will, over time, lead to a country of citizens who are hopelessly externally motivated. Their entire definition of who they are, now being measured by a handful of test scores will be measured by what they earn, own, and where they live.
9:09 PM

Catherine said...

Jonathan, I certainly didn't mean to point out what had been left out but I did feel that some valuable points happended after the recording ended, it happens.

Whether Jonathan's post was a comment or not, it is a sound, upbeat approach that threads the needle between the needs of test makers and those of test takers.

jonathan said...

Dear Catherine,

I acted too hastily in my response to both you and John and I apologize.

The truth of the matter is that I'm still trying to figure out what I'll call the 'etiquette' of postings and comments on a blogsite, and the comment I made to your comment was written too precipitously. What I was thinking about at the time I wrote my response to John was that blogs invite participation from a wide range of potential responders, not just those who have attended the summer institute. The comments on two of my earlier blog entries by Don Rothman and by "Posthipchick" serve as a window on this larger audience.

So it just makes sense to me to keep one's comments to the text as written, if only to make sure that these other non-institute participants feel included.

On the other hand, I found what you had to say, especially in your second comment, extremely provocative, and made a point of including a reference to your comment in my next blog entry on learning from Ray Bradbury.

So I guess the bottom line is that I'm still undecided on what should distinguish a "post" from a "comment," at least for the purposes of clarifying these practices on this particular blogsite. It's probably best just to remain flexible and to 'listen' to what actually happens once these 'side bar discussions' get going.

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