THE SECOND STORY
Which would you prefer to do: memorize a long list of prepositions to then write them out for a teacher or use a list of prepositions to describe your room or your favorite place by writing in a way that the reader can draw that space, including everything in it? Your answer to that question may reveal your preferred mode of learning or teaching, but the latter, when taught with appropriate professional techniques, assumes you understand the former. Never, including in the 8th grade, did my daughter need a 504 Plan. But she did need an awakening of her spirit, that verbal, happy, creative little girl that had acquiesced to a compliant vomiting mouth of information in the 7th grade. You see, in the 7th grade, I encountered my daughter memorizing a list of prepositions. I simply asked her, “What IS a preposition and why do you need to know more of them?” She could not answer, dismissed me brusquely, and stated that the test was to write the first half of the list tomorrow and the next half the next day. I walked away sad and silent.
In the 8th grade, however, my daughter was again studying prepositions, and I asked her the same question. She smiled and said, “Dad, if you’re trying to describe something in relation to something else, you’re always going to need a preposition. Look at my description of my room. I can’t describe one thing in my room in relation to another without using a preposition. My bed is next to my closet. My pillows are supposed to be on my bed, but they are either under it or out of sight!” Yes, you guessed it! I walked out of that encounter beaming with tears of joy! She was back! The humor, the voice, the redundancy and verbosity she so naturally gets from me, LOL! It was there, and all because of one teacher: Mrs. McNeer! Only a week later, I thought my daughter had gone to bed early or was sick or perhaps sad and locked up in her room. I knocked on the door to inquire if everything was OK.
She simply said, “I’m writing.”
Not wanting to pry too much, I said, “For English? For Mrs. McNeer?”
She said, “Sort of! She wrote me all these comments on my papers and said I can revise my writing any time I want. I’m not sure I want to turn it in for a grade, but she said she will always give me feedback about what I write. All I have to do is turn it in to her!”
[Silent, guarded weeping, LOL.] “Well,” I said, “She seems like a great teacher!”
Inside, however, I was screaming, “Did I just hear my daughter- the daughter who was so cynical about English that all she did was what it took to get an “A”??? Did I just hear her say the grade doesn’t matter?!?!?!? [More silent weeping]
Like Mary treasured in her heart all the angel had spoken to her regarding the Baby Jesus, I basked in the joy that a teacher is reaching my daughter and melting her hardened heart!! I would love to bore you with scenario after scenario regarding Mrs. McNeer, but I don’t want to lose readers (numbers, LOL) and I want you to know the effect she had on my son, as well! And, by the way, I probably wouldn’t bore you if I, personally, learned 8th grade English with Mrs. McNeer, but for now, you’ll have to settle for this ordinary writing style. So sorry!
Now, fast forward three years with my son’s 504 Plan! By the 8th grade, my son’s twice exceptionality and his compensation strategies for them had evolved into a mixed bag of attitude and charm with relatively high “academic achievement” in the form of grades. While he had brilliant ideas, he could not write them down without the help of speech-to-text dictation, which he gladly used when he could. When Mrs. McNeer joined “Team Matthew” to discuss the accommodations, I was confident all the teachers were going to rally as much as they were capable to make sure my son could accomplish as much as possible in relation to his potential.
I remember seeing my son’s first draft of his first writing assignment for Mrs. McNeer. I thought it was a 2nd grader’s hand-written word list. A week later, he was working on the same thing. When I asked him what he was doing, he matter-of-factly said, “Oh, Mrs. McNeer is going to try to have a conversation with me every time we need to revise so I can talk out my ideas before getting them on paper.” Wow! This one teacher is doing in her class, not as a mandated 504 strategy, the very thing I have been doing with EVERY one of his assignments, facilitating Matthew’s getting his ideas in a communicable format according to each of his different teachers’ expectations. For example, I would be his typist or he would dictate into his phone. She literally, in one gesture, streamlined his thinking and our evening home life! In the next weeks, I found my son on the couch writing on paper AND on his computer. I asked him about it and he said he was writing something else he really wanted to include in his portfolio for Mrs. McNeer’s class, that it wasn’t a requirement, but he had a great idea and he wanted Mrs. McNeer to edit it before he puts it into the portfolio!!!! [Yes, weeping and screeches of joy on the inside, a simple smile of gratitude and satisfaction on the outside.] Would that EVERY student have just ONE “McNeer” encounter along the journey of becoming a lifelong learner, writer and celebrant! My children carry Mrs. McNeer with them like a tattoo they can never hide nor will they ever choose to!
From the last post, I reiterate: Great teachers do not need a 504 Plan to reach every student! Matthew is currently learning rhetoric. When he talks about it, I know he is channeling the ideas, content, spirit and philosophy of Mrs. McNeer. Writing really is thinking on paper. For a twice exceptional student (dyslexic and dysgraphic with high academic potential), the physical act of writing on paper may not reflect the actual depth and quality of the “thinking.” A great teacher does not need a 504 Plan to help students reconcile these issues. Based on how Mrs. McNeer treated my daughter and my son, the 504 Plan was a mere inconvenient meeting to interrupt an amazing teacher’s gift to her students, the gift of inspiration, using English as a simple yet effective conduit! Forever, my wife and I are grateful!
-Clearly Stated Objectives: Not surprisingly, this story reintroduces the issue that students perform better and move off task less when they are clear about what they are being asked (taught) to do and why. Memorizing prepositions for the purpose of memorizing prepositions, with no opportunity to practice even the UNspoken objective of writing more clearly with them leaves students anxious with the wrong impressions. Yes, it is possible to memorize anything to regurgitate back onto a test. But, how does accomplishing the memorization task relate to the bigger picture? The students need clear, direct and authentic objectives that focus them toward realizing that bigger picture.
-Too Many Assumptions and Inappropriate Assessment: An issue related to the above is the following. Memorization of a list of prepositions does not help writer communicate more effectively using prepositions. Yet, teachers of every level and every content area make that kind of assumption regularly. Filling in the blank with the proper preposition in a set of cloze sentences (sentences with a word omitted and replaced with a blank) does not make a better writer. What makes a better writer by using prepositions is writing with prepositions. I DO mean to be crass and facetious here. It is the most common and most egregious error teachers make in education today. Easily fixed by proper teacher/lesson planning (one of my favorite and most anticipated blog topics), the blunder is hardly ever addressed at the teacher or administrative level because there simply is no time or expertise or context to offer the teachers the opportunity to change. Much of education is reduced to what Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins (awesome educational researchers, authors and consultants) have coined “Teach-test-hope-for-the-best.” Dump material, give a test (many times not even in the same mode as students were taught) and move to the next “unit” with little or no regard for how the students mastered the material nor how they can transfer knowledge and skills to new and more complex contexts. Certainly and sadly, exceptional students, students with learning differences, cannot make the jump from “list of prepositions” to “write a descriptive essay that describes all objects in your room.” Mrs. McNeer professionally helped the students see the need for precise word choice in the form of prepositions when describing something personal. In addition, she let students explore the use of prepositions with an authentic form of feedback (the drawing of the room) and using authentic content assessment standards. Writers can explore and experiment in a safe, literate context. This issue is explained below.
-Risk-taking, opportunity to practice and fail: There is a reason the legendary 6-point lesson plan had a “Guided Practice” section! [The 6-point lesson plan will be a topic for a complete subsequent blog entry! I can’t wait!] Not only is it fair to the students to be able to practice the material to be mastered with little or no risk, but it makes sense pedagogically, metacognitively, neurologically, and more. Learners need to rehearse what is expected of them to do with feedback regarding their success and with little interfering performance anxiety. In this story, memorizing close to a hundred prepositions with no idea how they will be “tested” is both stressful and counterproductive.
-Proper feedback: Penalty-free risk-taking and proper feedback from the teacher interact in a miraculous way to build confidence in the learner. If Sally can’t draw Johnny’s room accurately by reading Johnny’s description with prepositions, then Sally and Johnny can talk it out, using the very prepositions they are studying. The teacher can suggest more descriptive prepositions or even objects of prepositions. The whole time, Sally and Johnny are sharpening their description skills in a meaningful, literate (communicative) context.
-Motivating students without grades: The above issue, I know, is much easier said than done. It takes a great deal of professional training and practice to encourage students by planning respectful lessons that do not depend on grades. There are many approaches to handling students who are accustomed to grades and who refuse to do any practice if it is not graded. The bottom line in this story? Mrs. McNeer assigned meaningful work and practiced the patience of Job. She let the students know she valued their thoughts, that those thoughts would compile a personal portfolio that not only displayed their writing skills, but also their personalities, that is, the part of their personalities they wished to reveal in their writing- their VOICE! Then, with the big picture always in the back of their mind, students took risks, sometimes with abysmal results, but never in a way that discouraged them to try again. For my daughter to get her groove back and for my son to write on his own, proud of his work before, during and after publishing it to his portfolio? Miracles!
Mrs. McNeer? The angel mastermind!
-Learning to write or writing to learn: I want to suggest this issue in this context because minimal lip service is given in Education today to “Content Area Reading/Writing Instruction.” Every discipline has its own writing style, but in every discipline, students learn more of a subject content if they can write about it. The body of research that helps teachers incorporate their discipline’s literacy instruction into the lesson plans is vastly available. Every content area teacher is a writing instructor, but, with pressures such as standardized testing, “English” is now responsible for teaching writing while the rest of the subjects dump information in the form of facts into students’ heads, assuming students will be able to write coherently about the full breadth and depth of each subject area. Just because I can do a matching test on the dates of a History test doesn’t mean I can write an analysis of the chronological events leading up to the American Civil War. Content and literacy need to interact during every level of a child’s education, K-16 and beyond. Growth in literacy skills waxes and wanes in life according to how people’s interests grow and change.
- Yes, you guessed it! Mrs. McNeer rocks! I have told her multiple times, and I have nominated her 3 times for national teacher excellence awards! Every time I’ve had to write an essay to nominate her, and it has never “won!” I’m beginning to get a complex that maybe it’s my writing, LOL. How does an average writer nominate a great English teacher! I hope this at least legitimizes my expression of gratitude for her service to and compassion for my children!
- I have not only seen teachers, departments and schools that do what is suggested in this story, but I have worked with traditional fact-dumping teachers who changed their focus. These teachers are set on fire when they realize they can “cover the material” in a way that helps students become “literate,” or at least a bit more literate, in their subject area. I’ve had History and Civics teachers whose students wrote politicians to ask them what their ideas are about Federalism. I’ve had boring Spanish teachers inspiring students to listen to news broadcasts in Spanish and tweeting what they heard in Spanish. Teachers and administrators can change, but change and this framework of teaching itself are both messy processes. If teachers are not allowed to take risks, think what it is like for departments, schools and districts!
- I would be remiss if I did not admit to a documented small percentage of students whose facility with language makes it seem effortless to memorize 100 prepositions and then to use those prepositions when she (and it’s usually a she) writes. I call these students Suzy and Sam Suck-up! The “go-to” students teachers know will answer any question posed in the classroom! All we educators know who these students are. “If only we could have 31 Suzies and Sams in our class, everything would be so much easier,” we silently verbalize to ourselves. To stay true to the “positives,” I’ll just say that my daughter is a Suzy. Mrs. McNeer not only brought my daughter out of the pits of discouragement and apathy from her 7th grade experience, but she taught my daughter the RIGHT stuff in spite of her verbal proclivity. My daughter can memorize vocabulary words like it’s following a waffle recipe. But, when I use big words in conversation with her, words I know she’s memorized for some grade-school teacher or the SAT, she does a double-take, trying to reconcile the difference between the memorization of such words and their use in everyday and academic communication. Mrs. McNeer did not let my daughter get away with a superficial memorization of anything. Whatever Hope learned from Mrs. McNeer was internalized to the point of use in everyday life! Hope still writes a diary, still can self-edit using the 6+1 Traits (a writing curriculum), and still searches for self-expression and deeper learning with everything she writes, including her blog: wordsofhope.com!
- In order for a school or department to do what is being suggested here, there needs to be a complete paradigm shift: in grading, in commitment to literacy, is restructuring content instruction, in parent/teacher communication, and much, much more. It is possible, but only in an environment that is not constrained by local, State and Federal mandates that transform great teaching into the very antithesis.
- Teachers like Mrs. McNeer are rare and frequently misunderstood. Parents are looking for a grade or “grammar” mistakes or something traditional. While from my professional point of view, the students benefit well and long-term from such instruction, parents and students may not be ready for such focused attention on such personal student work. This places undue burdens on the teacher to communicate frequently and carefully to the parents and students all along the way, an arduous process. Administrators may laud the efforts of a teacher like Mrs. McNeer, holding her up as an example of excellence in education, but the trickle down effect merely communicates that English teachers like Mrs. McNeer are now responsible for teaching the entire grade to improve in writing. A great English teacher does not absolve the teachers in other departments from teaching content area literacy!
My hope is that in this blog, important issues have surfaced whether the “Story” has been an auspicious one or a story not so propitious in nature. While I have not even begun to develop the numerous planned topics, I can already see how every story cast in a “positive” light will begin to reveal the profile of educational “greatness” or “excellence.” Likewise, the overlap of issues in every story, good or bad, indicates that even though there are pockets of “good” or “great,” improvement and change are slow. This is yet another reason to ensure each post has a focusing topic. In these last two blogs, we have learned how 504 Plans done well merely look like “great teaching.” I have consulted with families where schools and teachers have failed the student in implementing the 504 Plan. There is much to learn for everyone. The players involved in a student’s 504 Plan can be her saving grace or her fall from grace. Please let me know what you think.