Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Channel-Talk for The Learning Classroom

From: Debbie Huberman (debh@mindspring.com)
Date: Sun Sep 28 2003 - 21:25:14 EDT

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    Session Activities IV.

     2. There was a time early in my adolescence when my intellectual abilities were far ahead of my social and emotional development. This affected me in many ways. I felt lonely and isolated at school because I did not know how to interact with children very easily. I had grown up as an only child and so I lacked social skills in many areas. I was also lacking in my ability to make emotional connections with other children. My parents got divorced when I was nine years old. I was so devastated that I withdrew and became depressed. Gangs of girls saw me as a victim because I was in so much pain and so they used to beat me up regularly after school. I did well academically because I enjoyed learning and I liked to read but I had many emotional and social difficulties and I struggled in making friends and I did not know how to set healthy emotional boundaries.

    I really needed a teacher to intervene and to stop the abuse I endured for years. It would have been helpful to have an emotional support group for children from divorced homes. I really needed to talk about my feelings with other children in similar situations. Unfortunately when I was young, divorce was not very common. At that time teachers were not as involved in the lives of their students outside the classroom. I am not sure how common this is today either but I feel that at least the teacher needs to make a personal connection with each student by building trust. In this way the teacher creates a safe environment. Later on when a student is having personal difficulties of an emotional or social nature, he or she would then feel comfortable talking with the teacher about the problems. Teachers should also talk about emotional and social problems in the classroom in a developmentally appropriate manner. Topics such as death, divorce, violence, etc. can be addressed through stories at a young age and by open-ended discussion during adolescence. The more comfortable a teacher is with these topics, the better they can help their students.

     Ideally, I believe that all teachers should make a commitment to their own emotional healing process. Most people have experienced loss, fear, anger, shame, and embarrassment. However, not all teachers take the time and make the effort to get counseling or experience group therapy in order to heal their emotional wounds. Unless this is done, teachers can unknowingly pass their hurts on to their students.

      My Response to the reading:

     I agree that instruction must be aligned with children's developmental needs. I have strong feelings about the way many schools are incorporating more and more academics at younger ages. I do not feel it is appropriate for children under age 7 to be involved with computers and higher level thinking skills. I agree with David Elkind that we are hurrying our children through these developmental stages. I think that in kindergarten, children should focus on imaginative free play activities. I feel that children who are not encouraged and allowed to have time to develop their imaginations suffer later on in life. I have seen many high school students at my school who do not understand the value of imagining things and I see this as a great loss. Without imagination, life lacks meaning and it is impossible to be creative. I do not understand the emphasis on using computers and reading prior to first grade when their visual skills are still so underdeveloped. I think this can also hurt their vision. Many children have vision problems because of the overexposure to computers, tv and video games as young children.

     I also feel that learning at all ages needs to incorporate more cooperative group activities rather than competitive ones. Our educational systems are so competitive and I feel that they underemphasize the importance of cooperative learning.

     I would like to see more emphasis placed upon helping children who have visual, social and emotional problems. Intellectually we may agree that children develop at different stages and have different needs at different times. However, public education is quite homogenous in the way it treats students. At my school if a child has a social or emotional problem that affects their learning, I rarely ever see it addressed. Many of these children come from poor families. They often witness or are the victims of abuse. Some of them run away from home at the age of 16 or 17 to live with friends. Teen pregnancy is a major problem also. It is hard to learn when one has so many personal problems. The national news used to be written at an eighth grade level. Now it is down to fifth grade. This is a problem. If a child has a vision problem that is not addressed they can become depressed and angry. I have seen students try repeatedly to pass the Ohio proficiency tests and fail them. I have also seen many of these same students try to read. They complain of blurry vision and eyes hurting or skipping lines when they read. These problems affect every aspect of learning. In a way I see that public education is stuck on these issues. Unless they are willing to look at these problems, many students will continue to fall through the cracks.

     How People Learn - Chapter 2 "How Experts Differ from Novices"

     On the topic of what makes someone an expert, I have some strong opinions. Several years ago, I completed one-year of a teacher-training program in an alternative educational system called Waldorf Education. I fell in love with this educational program because this creative style of teaching does produce expertise and virtuosity in its students. We tend to think of experts as being extremely knowledgeable in one narrow field of study. Waldorf education is so integrative in its approach that students become "experts" in many areas. They are also fluent in what they know because the foundation for this expertise is built very early in their lives. In kindergarten, children are allowed a great deal of time for free imaginative play. They play with only natural materials (wood, glass, cloth, stone). They are taken on nature walks. They hear stories and have circle time every day where the teacher leads them in singing and rhythm games. There is a rhythm to the day that is kept alive in each activity. All activities flow seamlessly into each other. The teacher sings little songs to the children to give them directions (ie. clean up song, eating song). All children in Waldorf schools learn to knit in first grade. Knitting is an extremely integrative activity involving both sides of the brain, dexterity, math skills, visual tracking left to right to prepare for reading, and creativity. Many activities in Waldorf classrooms involve simultaneous physical and verbal skills. I observed a second grade class once where the children took turns walking backwards on a low balance beam while balancing a bean-bag on their heads and reciting their multiplication tables. At other times they do these activities while reciting poetry or singing songs. The physical aspect of the activities always involves symmetrical and/or balancing movements coordinated with verbal skills.

     The other thing students do in Waldorf schools is to have actual experiences where they get to apply their knowledge. In third grade, children study about different types of homes. They actually design and build a small house on the school property (with help from parents). They must use math and they see immediately how math helps them to build something concrete. Later on, students learn to use tools to work with wood in a variety of ways to make objects that are both beautiful and useful.

     Math in Waldorf schools is taught with music during the early grades. So multiplication tables are sung for example. All children also study recorder every day throughout elementary school. Learning to read music reinforces their math skills. In addition, when they teach math they do not teach the summation of individual units as most of us learned. So instead of learning that 2+2+2+2+2 = 10, they first look at 10 and then think of all the ways you can make ten. This is a profound difference. The whole is always understood first and then the parts are examined. This is true with every subject in Waldorf schools. In science they study the entire body as a whole before they study individual organ systems. So the arts are totally integrated within each subject. There are also no textbooks in Waldorf education. They children create main lesson books for each subject. These books are works of art. They include summaries of lessons with colorful drawings on each page. They are required to make them colorful and beautiful.

     Waldorf students do not undergo standardized tests and they typically do not receive grades until high school. These children often transition into regular public high schools and college. They do as well or better than traditionally schooled children. The real difference is in their ability to think creatively. Their capacity for higher-level thinking is tremendous. I believe it is because of the deeply integrative nature of Waldorf education. When you teach children that all things are connected you are helping them to establish fluency of knowledge. When you teach students a subject by first showing them the whole and establishing the meaning of the whole before you examine the parts that make up the whole, then you have solidified the idea that everything has a broad concept and each concept contains various aspects.

     I raised my now 18-year-old daughter with this approach and she has excellent higher level thinking skills. Her mind thinks creatively and she is gifted in the areas of art and has strong singing, acting and public speaking skills. She is an honor student and has won many awards for her art and her writing abilities. Teachers always told me the same thing at all of her parent-teacher conferences - "Lisa is so fascinating. She is the most interesting student I have ever had."

     I do not feel it is rocket science to educate children to be experts, however public education will need to modify its approach to incorporate the arts in all subject areas, to get rid of textbooks, and to teach the meaning of the whole before the parts. Music, art, theater, and movement are not luxuries, they are necessary requirements that all children need in order to appreciate the meaning of things and to think in a more creative and integrative manner. Until public education decides to study educational systems such as Waldorf education seriously, they will not even know what they are shooting for in terms of a goal. I agree with all the observations stated in this chapter about the capacities of experts, however the author is still looking at the parts of the issue without understanding the whole. What does an integrated, creative, higher-level thinking person look like? This reminds me of the way doctors are educated to know what diseases look like and how they develop but they do not study health so it is typically hard for traditional medical doctors to know what a healthy person looks like. In this way doctors have trouble teaching people how to be healthy because they are so busy studying disease and cures for illness. Public education is ill and I see most educators talking about the illness and its symptoms instead of studying a healthy school.

     The author also talks about how experts have the ability to relate concepts to each other for rapid retrieval of information. Again, Waldorf students do this naturally and fluently. I see this as the ability to think in a non-linear manner. Western education is obsessed with linear thinking and is only beginning to appreciate the value of non-linear thinking. Progress is not a straight line. Many roads lead to the same place. Therefore there can be many answers to a question. It is the question that is important. Can children ask good questions? When we test children to death and make them memorize facts without understanding the broad concept first and helping them to find meaning in the whole concept before we sling facts in their faces, and when we deprive them of avenues for creative expression, children lose interest in learning. Once a child loses their interest in learning it is near impossible to teach them anything. Waldorf education also does an excellent job of emotionally engaging students. The teachers are more like storytellers. They memorize stories and tell them to the students every day. The teachers know how to bring the stories alive and keep the students emotionally involved. Then the children draw scenes from the story in their main lesson books and write about it. These tasks seem so simple but they are quite deep because the children love the stories and they do not even realize they are learning. I find it quite beautiful.

     So in summation, I feel that we have a poor understanding of what the word "expert" means and we cannot understand experts just by dissecting their thought process. We need to understand why these people became so good at higher-level thinking. How were they motivated to learn. I think when we become more involved in what motivates students to learn we will find the answers to this question.

     Debbie Cogan

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