Every teacher knows that there is more to teaching than giving kids information to fill in the right bubbles on a test. A lot more goes on in a classroom than that. It’s not talked about much these days. Actually the mention of it probably makes some education reformers cringe. But all day teachers are instructing kids in the untestable: respect, tolerance, curiosity about the world around them. They are also teaching students about the world and culture of books, words, images and the imagination. Not the bubble facts. Not the essay template. But the world and culture of literacy that does, and will shape how they move in the world and define what kind of people they will be. Today’s post in the Teachers in Their Own Words series by Tomasen, “The Power of Modeling, Connection, Trust and Play,” explores this culture of literacy and the obligation of teachers “to show students first hand that literacy is not about school, it is about life and how we choose to live this life.” A lover of books and words, of reading and writing, Tomasen was a classroom teacher, grades 3-6, for 13 years in New Hampshire. Presently she spends her days happily (and the happiness comes out in her piece) working with teachers and students in New Hampshire and Maine in the “Learning Through Teaching” model of embedded professional development through the University of New Hampshire’s English Department. You can read more about her work on her blog http://conversationeducation.wordpress.com/ where this piece originally appeared.
The Power of Modeling, Connection, Trust and Play
When my daughter Emma was three, she was playing happily in her corner of the kitchen where I had created her own little “house” complete with a wooden hutch, oven, highchair and cradle for her own dolls. She spent hours creating her own reality of being a Mom. One day I was about to wander in when I stopped and peered around the corner (yes mothers do spy!) and as I watched her rock her baby and look into her eyes adoringly, one of those warm washes of love and perfection poured over me. It was a moment that I wanted to sink into and enjoy.
Emma took her baby, placed her into the high chair and began feeding her and gently said, “Eat, dammit. Eat your food, dammit.”
I stood there in horror, unable to move and continued to watch. After the lovely meal, Emma placed her baby into the cradle and in a very nurturing way, covered her up with the blanket and said, “Now time to go to sleep, dammit.”
Again, that word hit me, smacked me right across the face and left a sting. What had happened to my perfect mother moment?
“Emma”, I asked, “What are you doing?”
“Putting my baby to bed. She is tired.”
“I see that. I heard you use a “D” word that I was wondering about.”
“A D word?” she contemplated. “Oh, Dammit?”
“Yes that is the one.”
“Oh, that is my baby’s name Momma.”
The power of modeling…
I have been known to tell this story when working with teachers to show how modeling is one of the most powerful tools we have and that we can use it to show our literate lives for our students every day. It is what we do, not just what we say. We need to talk about what we read, write and wonder; to show them first hand that literacy is not about school, it is about life and how we choose to live this life. When students see that we are interested in writing, reading books, articles, blogs, on-line periodicals, newspapers etc., they can “see” how we live each literate day. When we talk about a great book we found at a used bookstore or bring in our favorite children’s book, they can catch a glimpse of our lives beyond the four walls of school. And they begin to consider theirs as well.
Bridging the gap between “school” reading and “life” reading is critical. As an instructor in the English Department at the University of New Hampshire’s Learning Through Teaching professional development program, I have the privilege of going into classrooms and supporting teachers in their coursework. Every time I enter a classroom I have my Writer’s Notebook and other sundry of books with me. It could be a couple of children’s picture books, the current novel I am reading, or more recently my Ipad. Kids ask me about the ever-present essentials (appendages?) that I carry with me. They are curious and I can open them up and share small pieces of myself with them. It is an entry point for conversations about reading and writing.
When I am modeling a lesson for a teacher or group of teachers, I start by talking to the class about my passion for reading and writing; my excitement over a new author I have found, what I am working on myself in writing or how a word looks or sounds. And it is authentic. I love words. I love to read and write and when kids feel that from me, they too want to be a part of that energy. It is infectious and it is not hard to get them to buy in as I ask them to repeat a word with me, a nice long juicy word like onomatopoeia, that they can take home with them and share with their families. “There is a world in a word,” Lev Vygotsky wrote and it’s up to us to open up those worlds.
Toting Libba Moore Grey’s, My Momma Had a Dancin’ Heart under my arm, I entered Emily Spear’s wonderful and familiar first grade classroom where I was greeted with hugs and an offer for one of those famous birthday cupcake that are handed to you with great love and grey grubby hands. I received the confection’s love, knowing it would never get eaten and smiling at the gesture.
I settled into the comfy rocker and had a brief time to reconnect as they told me about their latest ventures in writing. Voices rang all around me as they shared their latest “sound” words. Three little girls got closer and asked about the pink necklace I was wearing twirling it in their hands and marveling when I told them it was a crystal. “ooooh…you must be rich!”. I explained it was a gift from my sister and that SHE was the rich one because she had ME for a sister. They giggled.
Taking this time to connect with these kids is a critical part of the modeling process. It only took a few minutes, but in that time my words and actions showed them I was interested in THEM. This gives me an advantage because I have re-established our working relationship and can then move into our writing time together. I am reconnecting and we are exchanging trust in these small moments.
I read aloud, knowing that I wanted to model Moore’s use of playfully hyphenated words as a craft the kids could name and experiment with. I stopped and wrote some examples on the white board:
We talked about these words and wondered why the author would use the hyphen. They quickly identified that it made it into one word, made the reader say the word more quickly and created rhythm. For each dance in the book I asked for a volunteer to get up and “perform” each season’s ballet. They were eager to move and the movement brought this story to life for all.
We then brainstormed a name for these words and the list consisted of
2. two words in one
3. DASH-ing words.
It was democratically decided that DASH-ing words described them most accurately because of the dash (hyphen) and use of the suffix ”ing” on the end of each word. And while some may be thinking this is not correct it is playful and something the kids will remember. Let’s just call it poetic license! Next, I asked them to go and try out some of the DASH-ing words in their own writing.
And the play began. Some kids came up with what we called Double DASH-ing words such as tweet-tweet-tweeting. Morgan, who I thought was struggling was left to her own thinking for some time and arrived at my side with this incredible poem:
Against the long
But the world
Is not always white
Wow! I just love the image of the long white world…
We all came back to the carpet, shared our DASH-ing words and created a chart with all of the examples the kids had come up with, creating a classroom “model” that they could refer back to and add to.
I left the room, again humbled at the brilliance of these kids and just what they can do if given the time, space, place and a model of what is possible. Trusting our students. What a concept and something we can all do, Dammit!!