Wednesday, September 26, 2007

How we read

I am a reader. I once read a letter from a mother who was concerned that her child read too much. She said he read compulsively --- books, magazines, cereal boxes, toilet paper labels (ok, I added that part. That's probably just me.) I am like that child. I can read upside down and have to force myself not to read things on people's desks when I talk to them. If I have a minute, I will pick up whatever is there, even a magazine on skydiving, and read it.

Unlike that mother, I'm not really concerned about my compulsive reading. I'm a little concerned about my two older children not reading so much, but I try not to obsess on that either. I think reading is important for many reasons, and my sons do read when they need to, but they will probably not get the joy out of reading that I do. Of course, I won't get the joy they do out of video games or movies, either.

In the Minds of Boys, Michael Gurian & Kathy Stevens discuss how boys and girls deal with reading differently. Physiologically, girls are more tuned into words, tones, emotions. Boys focus on action and getting the information they need. This is not to say boys don't enjoy reading, it's just they come at it from a different place.

When I read, ideally and not upside down over someone's desk, I curl up on my bed, in the hammock, or in the bathtub (all no-no's according to the chiropractor) and lose myself in the story. Often, I "hear" the story as I read. It plays like a film in my head. Sometimes I'll start and realize that all of the commotion is only in my mind. I often get personally involved with characters, giving them advice and nagging them when they won't do what I expect. I imagine having coffee with them and talking about their lives. I know, I'm weird.

Gurian tells a story of a woman who started a family tradition of reading with her boys. She said they liked it, but when they got to be 2 or 3, they couldn't stay still. Using an observation by her father-in-law, she started letting the boys draw or play quietly while she read. She said they still got it, but they were able to concentrate on the story and not on concentrating.

I think I'll spend some time watching people read, to see what works for other people. What do you think?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

What Inquiry isn't

It seems that when people --- parents, teachers, community members --- ask what inquiry based education is, they often hear "I can tell you what it isn't." While I think there is an affirmative answer, like inquiry itself, it must be discovered and uncovered rather than put forth as a definition.

One of the founders of our charter school does a wonderful job of showing inquiry. She leads the audience in a mini-lesson which begins with people calling out names of animals and moves through many other steps to illustrate how exploration can be used in all aspects of education. There is the sorting, which can be scientific and mathematical; then the wondering why we picked these animals, which can bring in social studies and self-discovery; then of course, reading about the animals... language arts. My description is clear as mud, I realize. Hmm, maybe we should say, "you have to see it to believe it."

One of the most common misunderstandings of inquiry are that it is dippy "let children do what they want because they are so wonderful who needs manners?" type of method. Some people who believe this actually want this for their children. Fortunately, this isn't what inquiry is. I'm all for conversing with children, listening to their unique view points and watching their little brains work as they are exposed to new ideas. There is something magical about a child carefully explaining some important point to an adult, mimicking his parents' checking strategy: "Do you hear me? What did I say?" But I'm also a big fan of civility. I don't think that a child's creativity or inquisitiveness are stifled by being expected to follow rules, listen to others, not hit other children in the privates.

In fact, inquiry demands a child have self-control (which the teacher helps to develop), independence, and ownership of his/her education process. They have to be responsible. If they are struggling, they need to ask for help. If they are "bored" (a word my children are not allowed to say), they must reach into their inner resources and make their learning experience richer, deeper, and wider. The teachers are there to help, but it is ultimately the child who will be the life-long learner. There will be a learning hum in a classroom, and good noise that means children are interacting and learning. However, respect for self, others, and the world around us are essential elements of our school. Everyone is entitled to a safe place to learn the way he/she learns best. Parents who believe that their child should not be guided to civility, while believing other people's children should bow to their little darlings' needs, are very disappointed. I have two words for them: Home School.

Another misguided view, I believe, is that inquiry is an end all and be all. A teacher of inquiry draws on children's natural curiosity and guides him/her toward discovery. However, the most important thing is that children learn well, and to do that, teachers need to draw on many methods and techniques. As an example, many people are convinced "phonics" is the way to teach reading. At some point, whole word became the darling of educators. The thing is, people learn to read using different methods and strategies. Both phonics and whole word are tools, but not the only tool. Similarly, inquiry is a philosophy, a background for teaching, but the teacher will use many tools to facilitate it. Educators should use what works, not get hung up on labels and fads. Flexibility is expected of children and should be encouraged in teachers.

The third notion of inquiry, that makes me really angry, is that inquiry is only appropriate for upper middle class children (probably white, but the critics won't say that.) All children, no matter what their background, are curious explorers. Some have it beaten (figuratively if not literally) out of them earlier than others, but all have the spark. Children can learn when they are a part of their education, are taught the way they learn, have relevant curriculum, and are respected as learners. And even when the spark has been smothered by years of factory-based education, it can be reignited by caring, patient, and respectful teachers. We have seen it happen.

Our school emphasized a child's role in his/her education. The students see themselves as writers, scientists, readers, social scientists, and citizens of the world. They have the tools to learn no matter where they go. Their strength comes from their rediscovered inner resources and not outside props. We are young and still learners ourselves. There is far to go, and mistakes have been made. But like rational, civilized people, we have learned from our mistakes and seek to improve. And like rational, healthy people, we recognize the strengths and great things that have happened and are continuing to happen.

Public education is extremely important to the health and well-being of our society. I believe it's important to have educated, rational, civilized innovators as our current and future citizens. And I believe inquiry-based education is the way to get that.

Monday, September 17, 2007


In the first post, I forgot to mention that the song my son sang is sung by John Mayer. Mea culpa. I've put the official website in the link list to make up for it. It said it was official, anyway. Who knows?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Good morning

My son, who is nine years old and brilliant, came in my room after watching the news.

He said, "I understand what that song we are singing in Mr. Chris' class means now."

"What song?" I ask, turning the page of my book.

"It goes: And when you trust your television /What you get is what you got /Cause when they own the information, oh /They can bend it all they want."

He went on to tell me that he watched the news and he could tell they weren't saying everything they knew. They were just telling us what they want us to hear.

I put my book down and looked at him. Wow.

I asked what he would do about this. He's thinking about it for now.

It's ok. He's nine and he's already figured out something many adults haven't gotten yet. He can have a little time to work on the solution.

One solution is the internet. It provides a forum for all sorts of ideas, factoids, rants and philosophical discussions. It's not perfect. Some believe that we tend to become more narrow minded when we are faced with too many options. We become confused and shut down, going for the familiar and safe. After all, who knows if what is on the internet is true? Any moron with a computer can have a blog (hence, the Matriarch's Corner).

How do we know what is accurate and what is fair? How do we know if something is an honest attempt to open a discussion or a come on for some nefarious purpose? Those of us who are honest and open tend to fall into traps because it doesn't occur to us that anyone would be dishonest. I have been hurt very badly recently by someone I believed was a good friend deserving of my loyalty, who turned out to be a pathological liar* who tried to ruin my reputation. I am more wary now, but still trusting, fool I am.

So what's the point?

This blog is an attempt to open discussion on all sorts of topics. I am most interested in education right now. I have helped to start a child-centered public charter school for K-5. The teaching method is inquiry-based, and as I said child-centered, which means, using children's natural curiosity, they are taught in the way they learn best, encouraged to explore, and given responsibility for themselves as readers, writers, scientists, mathematicians, and citizens of this state, country and world.

It is a wonderful school, diverse in the way Columbia, SC is diverse, with students from a broad range of economic, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. The difference between our children and the children in other public schools is that every single child has a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, brother, sister, guardian or whatever who decided to take the initiative and submit an application. At that point, the student body was chosen by lottery. These are some of the best kids (and families) I've ever met, which is not to say that kids in the other schools aren't great. One purpose of a charter school is to try innovative teaching methods to determine if they will succeed in a "regular" public school setting. We would like for more schools to use our methods, but we haven't proven ourselves yet. We will.

I will be writing more about this school, our trials and victories, as well as about other issues that are important to me. I would like a discussion, but I ask that it remain civilized and respectful of all people. That is what makes a democracy work.

*I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist and this is not a clinical opinion.