skills: postmodern pinocchio
students learn skills when the focus isn't on skills
The teacher asks, “What's a word that ends in a 'lee' sound? I'll give an example. Likely. Quietly. Your turn,” and he pointed to a boy.
“It does, but that's not a suffix.”
“Jet Lee?” he asks.
“Again, that's not working.”
“It can't be a name.”
“I think I see,” he responds.
“Quietly," the teacher said.
Misunderstanding the teacher, the student whispers, “Ugly.”
“Not exactly. I'll give an example, 'rapidly.' Your turn.”
Again, misunderstanding, the student answers as fast as he can, “Funly, standly, movely.” All nonsense words that leave me thinking about language and the danger in teaching every skill in an isolated format.
I know that whole language is a dirty word in the education world. I know that “holistic” conjures up images of kids chasing dandelions rather than learning to read. Still, I have a nagging sense that it should be a paradox. Part expert in one area and part holistic. Skills are necessary, but always within the context of a larger whole.
If I ever go to a heart surgeon, I want an expert on the heart. But I also wanted to be treated as a whole person. If I go to an accountant, I want a specialist, but I also want someone who is wise with money. And when my kids read, I want them to learn isolated skills, but also have a passion for what they read.
* * *Feeling a bit angry, I start to type the following: Eleven men were found missing in action yesterday. They were last seen here in Glendale and apparently they failed to show up to New Orleans. So, if you see a random man dressed in tights wearing massive shoulder pads and a red and white mesh shirt with a number on the back, he's a member of the Cardinals defense.
Until it hits me that none of this matters. I grab the remote, click off the television and remind myself that I won't live vicariously through a quasi-violent sport in the name of city-wide tribalism (which isn't always a bad thing) where we base our success on the athletic prowess of multi-million dollar athletes.
So, I walk outside and Joel is making dust while Micah pushes around his big metal tractor. Joel tells me about the types of dirt in the backyard. “There's the small dirt that turns into smoke. And then there is the thick dirt that is good for digging and hiding things. This dirt over here is hard and it's like the porch.”
He asks me if we can make juice, so we begin to pull oranges. When we begin to make orange juice and Micah asks about shapes. Joel's pre-school teacher had warned about his lack of ability to understand the diamond, so I pull out a pan and move it into the shape of a diamond.
“What shape is this?”
“It's a square.”
“Can it be a different shape?”
“It's a diamond. But a diamond is really just a square that can't stand up straight.”
When I slice the first orange and demonstrate the juicer to Micah, he says, "Wow, it's magic." For the next half hour, he delicately places each orange-half on the juicer and watches the liquid pour out. Joel loses interest quickly and grabs a Dr. Seuss book attempting to prophetically tell my son all the places that he'll go.
Joel asks when we'll do “learning time,” and I want to say, “Now. Always. You were learning when you played in the dirt and you were learning when you started trying to find every letter-Q in the house and you were learning when you made orange juice and when you did geometry with pans.”
I'm struck by the notion that “learning” will gradually grow less holistic. It's for this reason that I am careful not to slam home school parents. While it is not the route we will choose for our children, I understand the desire for a more holistic model of learning. Right now, learning is tactile and abstract; creative and analytical; skills-based and concept-based. Science and social studies and math and language arts connect constantly. Joel learns the basic skills, not through a drill-and-kill approach, but through life.
It's hard to imagine the day when not just school, but learning as well, becomes uncool; when he is just a kid in a row and when he fills out a packet of worksheets to get a rubber stamp grade or a colorful sticker. It makes me sad to think that learning will move to the waste up and then eventually it will go all the way up to his head and even then he will be asked only to use the most analytical parts of his mind.
* * *
I am not against the teaching of skills. What I am against is turning all learning into “behavioral, observable objectives.” If learning is truly cognitive then it cannot always be measured and observed and placed within a systematic framework.
Sometimes I wonder if we're watching Pinocchio in reverse. Like one of those disjointed postmodern narratives, students begin as whole learners. What happens, though, is that we cut up the context and slowly a child transforms from a human into a bit of a puppet. They learn to dance on a string and smile at the right time and they fill in the bubbles and complete the packets and all the while they master the observable skills and they lose something deeply human in the process.
At some point, teachers seem shocked that Pinocchio wants to be a real boy. The packets fail to inspire and by junior high many of them already hate math and reading and begin to hate science and social studies. I get it, though. Gepetto is under a ton of pressure to make Pinocchio dance and there is fear that, if the strings are gone, the real boy might stop dancing altogether. Or run away. Or stumble around on the real legs and fail to access the proper dancing skills. It's best to keep the strings, because the real
Pinocchio might wander into dangerous caves and the light might seem to flicker out entirely and if Brad is right, that parenting is a crap shoot, Gepetto might just want to keep his boy as a puppet.
* * *Abandoning Postmodern Pinocchio can feel scary at first. Even in teaching computers, I am nervous about focusing on thinking rather than skills. I set up an initial Skills Inventory and then we focus on our projects. At times, students grow edgy. The most I offer is a five minute tutorial on a program for students who absolutely need it. By the end, however, students have learned each skill. Many of them fail to grasp this reality until the final portfolios are due.
I point this out to Javi and he tells me that it can be almost painful to let go. “It feels like I'm teaching less when I do that. I know that they need to read more. They need to read for longer blocks of time and we need to spend less time learning how to read. However, when they are low, you want to step in and show them more coping strategies. You want to fix a problem.” However, when he abandons some of the graphic organizers and note-taking and margin-writing and students read for longer stretches, he finds that their fluency and comprehension improve.
“It's not that I avoid the skills,” he explains to me. “It's just that we deal with them as we go. There is a whole picture.”
They ask me to teach an intervention class for the Bubble Kids. Our school is obsessed with Bubble Kids. We might as well be bubble-wrapped. So, I begin by analyzing the test. In some cases, the issue is vocabulary. Students couldn't access the academic language. In other cases, the issue is that students lack the critical thinking necessary for difficult questions.
People expect me to teach to the test. Instead, I choose some high-interest passages and ask students higher-level thinking questions. I feel as though I am cheating. I should be going over the test-taking process and showing students how to eliminate answers. I should be asking students to complete test-taking packets.
We begin with “A Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes. I ask students to predict the meaning, define vocabulary and then read it silently. We hit the skills of pre-reading and we discuss the metacognition of what strategies we use during reading. Still, the focus is not on the skills. Even in the rare moments that I model the thinking process, the goal is to make the poetry relevant.
As we analyze the poetry, students give honest answers. “My dad had a dream of playing football. The dream is like he described. It's bitter. He's bitter and angry and it festers and runs just like that.”
Another student points out, “I think explosion could be positive or negative here. It could be an explosion of violence and it could be an explosion of hope. It could be that it reaches a critical mass.”
I ask them to create their own similes. One boys says a dream is like a tree that you nurture and eventually it grows into a reality. “But some people are just screwed. Some people will face a drought or will have bad dirt and so dreams just never come true.”
Another student compares it to football. “You have to make forward progress. There is the End Zone and you want to get there. If you do nothing, it's a delay of game and you'll end up with a safety. And even though safety sounds good, it really means you lost. Some people stick to it, because it sounds safe, but doing nothing might be the most dangerous thing.”
“Excellent point,” I add.
“I'm not done. So, there are the people who want to smash your dreams. They are like the defense. And there are the people like teachers who want to help you reach the end. They are like your offense, your team, you know. Sometimes the hardest thing is letting go and giving the ball to someone you trust.
Sometimes you get scared that they'll fumble it.”
Finally another student speaks up. “You have it all wrong. This poem is about our dream. It's about the dream of Civil Rights for a group. We are all looking at it individually and missing the context. Right? Isn't that the word you taught us? Context?”
A month later, the students learn the skills and actually do well on the test. When I focused less on the skills and less on the test, the students learn something relevant and in the process they gained the skills they needed.