Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Teachers are Experts Too

A woman took her 9-year old son to the doctor for his annual physical.  After the usual battery of measurements, pokes, prods, and shots, and after the doctor had completed asking the child about his eating habits, daily activities, and favorite sports teams, the doctor turned to the mother to offer his assessment of the child's health.

"It seems that your son is a wonderful and healthy boy," the doctor began.  "Of course, he should eat some more fruits and vegetables, and we do recommend trying to limit screen time if possible, but he is generally growing exactly the way we would expect him to."

"Thank you," replied his mother.  "What about his height and weight."

"Looking good there as well.  He is 45th percentile in both height and weight, which is more or less consistent with his development until now."

An awkward silence.

"Forty-fifth percentile??" responded the mother.  "I don't understand that.  My husband is over six feet tall and I was always on the tall side myself!  How can our child possibly be below average??"

Taken slightly aback, the doctor tried to allay the mother's concerns: "I wouldn't be concerned at all.  There is nothing in any of his records or tests that would indicate any form of abnormality.  Furthermore, we see many children who have dramatic growth spurts in the early teenage years."

"Are you sure you measured properly?  I mean, you are only seeing him here in the office.  I see him every day, with his siblings and friends, and he certainly doesn't look like below average to me!"

"There really is nothing to be alarmed about," said the doctor, trying again, " He is a healthy boy with good habits who is developing just the way we want him to."

"You know, I have never seen that nurse who took the measurements before," continued the mother, barely heeding the words of the doctor. "Is she new here?  How long ago did she receive her degree?  How do I know that she knows what she is doing?"

End of story

I think that, for most of us, the above story sounds ridiculous.  Yes, people do sometimes seek out second opinions, but probably not about the height and weight of their nine-year old child.  Certainly, we would not expect someone to challenge the medical credentials and abilities of the doctors and nurses who have taken such measurements.

And yet - what if this story was taking place not in a doctor's office but in the principal's office?  What if the issue was not the height of the child but an assessment of the child's academic abilities?  Would we find the story ridiculous - or familiar (not necessarily from personal experience, but perhaps from hearing about someone else who had just such a conversation)?  I think that the answer to this question is fairly obvious.

But why?  Why would people who would never question their doctor's assessment of their child so readily question the assessment of another type of professional?  At some level, I believe that people understand that educators know their business, and that business is mainly understanding children, understanding how children learn and interact, and using that understanding to find ways to best teach that child and foster his growth as a student and as a citizen - and doing the same thing for scores of different children at the same time.  It is a business that requires its practitioners to be part teacher, part psychologist, part peace-maker, part politician, and part-so-many-other-things-that-I-can't-list them-all.  True, teaching relies far more on on-the-job training (experience) than on formal classroom training (you don't need a Ph.D. to teach), but most people don't question their mechanic either and he received very little classroom training for his job.

An interesting thought occurred to me in this vein while reading this article by the wonderful Joe Posnanski, perhaps one of the best sportswriters, and therefore best writers, around today.  In the article, Posnanski asks why everyone cares about baseball players who use steroids, yet everyone more or less knows that steroids are rampant in football and no one bats an eyelash.  His answer, in a nutshell, is that baseball seems to each of us like something that we could probably do, and therefore we are offended on a more visceral level when we find out that someone has cheated.  Football is basically "American Gladiator" - pure entertainment that most of us could not and would not take part in.  But plenty of middle-age men out there are still playing softball every Sunday, convinced that they are one swing away from making SportsCenter.

Teaching seems to me to have some of the same sense of "I could do that" hanging over it.  How many parents were at one time a youth group leader, camp counselor, little league coach, scoutmaster, etc?  They have had experience leading and instructing children!  How different is teaching?  Sure, teachers do it every day and not once a week; and, sure, teachers have to get kids to do sometimes unpleasant tasks like finding root words and multiplication tables; and, of course, teachers have to worry about things like state standards and lesson plans and parent-teacher conferences and report cards; but, at the end of the day, isn't teaching English to 7th grade boys five days a week for a year basically the same thing as coaching them for 10 Sundays in the spring?

Of course it's not.  However, the possibility exists to have such thoughts.  I don't think that taking biology in 9th grade gives me license to question my doctor, and I don't think that one undergrad course in the Constitution makes me Alan Dershowitz.  By the same token, and in the same way that baseball looks doable but is played at a level beyond what most of us could ever hope to do, teaching is a specialized profession performed by real professionals.  Thankfully, most parents do realize that.  Spread the word.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Teaching Text Skills in PBL

Over the past several years, I have had the opportunity to speak to many wonderful educators with an interest in introducing Project Based Learning into their classrooms.  Their sincerity and commitment has been inspiring, and their many and varied questions have consistently pushed me to better define my perspective on PBL and to continue to hone my own skills in that regard.

One question that inevitably arises when discussing PBL in a Judaic Studies classroom in how to teach text skills via this approach.  While we are known as "the People of the Book", we are actually the People of several books, with Mishna and Gemara (Talmud) joining Chumash and Navi (Bible) in our basic corpus and our basic curriculum.  While it is true that instruction in these subjects becomes more theoretical and less textual as the students grow and mature, there is no question that at all levels an inability to decode the basic texts is a sine qua non being able to move forward in one's learning.

But how does one accomplish the goal of teaching text skills in a PBL environment?  Project-Based Learning's entire framework is focused on seeing the learning unit as a whole, determining the Driving Questions which underlie and will thus drive the entire unit, and more or less assumes that students will be able to take the necessary steps to find the materials that they need to satisfactorily answer the Driving Question.  Where in all of that is there room for searching out word roots, acquiring the key vocabulary necessary to follow the give-and-take of the Talmud, or deciphering the strange script in which Rashi and other commentaries are printed?

It's a difficult question.  Without face-to-face instruction and without the endless worksheets that most of us remember from the days when we were acquiring reading skills, how is a teacher to ensure that his or her students are gaining the basic skills that will serve as the foundation for all of their future learning?  To that query, I have at least two suggestions:

1) Separate reading skills from PBL units.  There is no command from on high that every lesson that a person ever teaches has to be part of a PBL unit.  Given the amount of work that goes into creating and managing such a unit, any normal person will likely need a bit of a break between PBL units, and there is a good chance that the students will appreciate a few solid days of gold old, traditional, whole-class learning.  Use those times for skill-building.

2) On the other hand, PBL units could be a wonderful time to reinforce skills (I am not so sure that I would teach basic reading skills from scratch within PBL, but strengthening those skills for students in grades 5 and above could work).  Inevitably, there are students who pick up the skills very quickly and those who need more practice.  In a traditional setting, those students who have quickly mastered the material are often forced to wait until every student has learned the material to a level deemed acceptable by the teacher.  Boredom ensues.

Within a PBL unit, every student, or at least every group, is free to move at their own pace.  I encourage teachers who want to introduce skill-building into the curriculum to place several required exercises into the material.  Have students read required texts on voicethread, ask them to punctuate a sample piece of Gemara, or provide them with a shoresh (root word) hunt/game that will yield some result that is key to their being able to complete a larger piece of the unit.  In all of these ways, and countless others that people will undoubtedly devise, quick moments of skill-building can be introduced as part of the work needed for the PBL unit, and teachers can therefore identify which students might need a little extra face time with the teacher or some eventual additional instruction or activities to continue working on these all-important skills.