Tuesday, April 14, 2015

4th Graders Wanting to Learn More = Productive Learning

I. And What Do You Mean By Learning?

I know the learning is going well when I top the staircase and enter into the hallway and from the distance of a city street I can hear the children's voices in Mr. Watson's class.  As I enter the classroom, this is what I see:
Purposeful Learning in Grade 4

Some students are illustrating myths, others are creating a comic series, Mr. Watson is engaged with a small group, while other students record a myth and on and on and on. The atmosphere in this 4th grade classroom in Newark, NJ is joyful, purposeful, and appropriate for children.

Earlier tonight during a Twitter chat, I had reason to mention Seymour Sarason's book, And What Do You Mean by Learning? Sarason defines learning as either being productive or not.  In the preface of the text, he writes:  
Learning is not a thing it is a process...And by productive, I mean that the learning process is one that engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more. Absent wanting to learn, the learning context is unproductive or counterproductive. Is it not noteworthy that the word or concept of learning probably has the highest of all word counts in the diverse literature in education and yet when people are asked what they mean by learning they are taken aback, stammer or stutter, and come up with a sentence or two which they admit is vague and unsatisfactory? (ix-x)
Mr. Watson reading aloud today in 4th Grade.

The children in this classroom want to learn more and do so.  Mr. Watson, his students, and I are exploring Greek myths by listening to texts being read aloud, reading myths in small (un)guided groups, independently reading written, audio, and visual texts, and doing lots and lots of talking, drawing, and writing. The children do this with and without their teachers. They use resources found in their classroom and at home to deepen their understanding of mythology and often to answer questions they pose as they learn.  I noticed today that squirreled away in their desks are books they are reading about myths, mythological creatures, plays, comics, cartoons, histories and more. Given that we usually work in a 2 to 3-hour block and the children do not seem to tire even a little--I know the work matters simply because they want to learn more. 

II. Reading Greek Myths

For the last week I have had the privilege to teach Dionni, Antoine, Luis and Kamila--all of whom are fourth graders in this public school classroom.  These children, like their classmates, are capable and motivated to read a Nathaniel Hawthorne text as all things Greek mythology are of interest. Their teacher has engendered a desire on the part of the children to want to learn more. There's not a child in the room who isn't turned on. Way turned on.

I like to think of the small group work I do with the children as being (un)guided. I call it (un)guided to suggest that the teaching is neither guided nor unguided, but rather both guided and unguided. I'm always looking for a space in the work we compose where I can bow out and the kids can take over. We shuffle control back and forth as needed. So it's not unusual that earlier today I found myself smiling as I realized I could sit back further in my seat and listen when Dionni said to the other 3 in her group, "There's one thing I've been thinking about that I just don't get. Why didn't Ceres just use her powers to find her daughter?" 

It's the command and tone that lets me know Dionni is on to something she values. We are at the midpoint of Hawthorne's story, The Pomegranate Seeds, which is his retelling of Demeter and Persephone that he published in 1853.  It's a challenging text.  Today it will be Antoine who will help us explore Dionni's question as he uses an example from his Minecraft play to help us contextualize why Ceres' powers cannot help her to find Proserpina.

Antoine tells us:
One time when I was playing Minecraft I used a portal and got transported to the Netherworld.  It's all lava there--like what I think Pluto's Underworld is like.  Anyway, the portal got damaged, it got shot, and I was stuck there for awhile. I had to make do with what was there. I couldn't use anything I had back in my chests. Finally, I  found a way out of the Netherworld by fixing the portal. You see what I mean? That's what it's like for Ceres. Her power works on Earth, but not in Pluto's Underworld. She can't use her powers to find Proserpina. That's why she's so upset. She's pretty powerless.
Dionni who is also a Minecrafter catches on immediately. "I get it.  She can speed up crops on Earth, get the animals to help, but she can't use those powers to help Proserpina because she's already in the Underworld with Pluto. It's like she doesn't have a Portal to get there or to get her power there."

"That's why Hawthorne says she's sad and anxious," says Luis reminding us of a section from the text we had just reread.

"Could you read that section to us?" asks Dionni.

He reads: "And when they saw only a sad and anxious woman, with a torch in her hand and a wreath of withered poppies on her head, they spoke rudely, and sometimes threatened to set the dogs upon her."

"And she's a goddess and she expects her power to work and it isn't," adds Kamila.

"She's so ungoddess-like. The people in the palace want to set the dogs on her. That's not what she's used to," adds Dionni.

"I also notice the poppies which were fresh at the start of the story are now wilted, kind of like her  spirit," I add.

III. Why This All Matters

"I think we should read on," Kamila tells the group and they chat briefly, deciding to read the next few pages and determining a stopping point. They're used to taking charge and do so. A few minutes later, a music teacher arrives and it seems that everyone has forgotten that today is music.  There's a bit of a clamor as the children put away their books, roll up drawings, and leave the classroom. Mr. Watson and I are seated at a table in the room when the one remaining child, Xavier, whom I don't know well, makes his way to the table.

"Hey, you think I could be an expert tomorrow?" he asks his teacher. "I'm gettin' this Greek mythology." 
"Yeah, show us your stuff," Mr. Watson tells him.
"Yeah, I got stuff to show," he says with a certain pride before turning and leaving the room.

The child is fairly new to the city, the school and the classroom and he's got stuff to show. Thankfully he's landed in a place where that matters, where we're not confused about what we mean when we talk about learning.

BTW, I've blogged about this experience in these other two posts: 

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