Lessons Up Close

– Or everything I know about learning I learned from teaching art and writing.

I have always rooted for the underdog. I empathize with students at risk, having been an outsider during my school years. What I have learned about teaching writing, through the SJAWP, and through my art background, guides my intervention. Responding to my students, instead of to the curriculum, is not a new idea; however, putting principle into action underlies these stories. In general, my students at risk were passive learners who did not listen to one another.  Up until the last year and a half, I had taught every grade except kindergarten.  I’d joked with principals saying I’d do anything except

Scene 1 Kindergarten

I am puzzling over a big packet of worksheets his first-year kindergarten teacher, a neat, proper Asian woman, sent with him, a pile that Erik hasn’t completed. It’s the end-of- year field day and he’s the only kindergartner not participating; too many misconducts. Why should he complete anything at this point? I flip the stapled pile of pages:  Some had boxes, pictures, and alphabet letters. “Erik, do you know what you’re supposed to do with any of these?” I mutter, not really wanting an answer.  I hold a masters of arts in education, but am not making sense of these.  “What’s this picture supposed to stand for?” I wonder.  I’m thinking of pulling out crayons, when Erik points to one page where he has begun cutting and sequencing pictures, so he starts there.   Here’s our story.

Erik is a dark, indigenous Mexican boy with fiery eyes and a somber face who distinguished himself at the outset of kindergarten by poking and provoking other students to play-fight, and by missing the point of doing anything he was told. In particular he seemed not to hear instruction. His mother spoke Spanish only, but always smiled at me when I came in the morning to pick up my group of eight, whom I called “Kinder Buddies.” Eric’s mom wanted him to be good and learn, I could tell.

In the fall, first I wanted to know how to contact Erik.  I remember the first moment during a game I invented called the “Sneaky ABC’s” to enact to and from the pod where my classroom was. We chanted the alphabet slowly and deliberately with stealthy steps until the LMNOP and the WXYZ parts, which we said asfastaspossible running for cover. Erik laughed. The next contact was when I spoke several words from Spanish (je parle un peu le français). Erik noticed. Then I got us into the computer lab, which was something Erik wanted to do. A counselor observed Erik there one day, noting he was respectful and attentive.

Ordinarily kindergarteners progress a great deal midyear. However, Erik was still floating, his gaze often uplifted in group work. He seemed tuned out, dissociated.  He puzzled me.

My job was to reinforce the alphabetic principle and introduce blending and easy sight words. My goal was to employ informational and opinion writing, so I designed a unit modeled on principles derived from the infamous Name Game at ISI.  As ISI 12 participants observed, the learning of names (a difficult task) was uniformly successful because it was:

  1. not simply repetition, but incremental, cumulative
  2. alliterative, deep language knowledge
  3. knowledge everyone wanted and we felt accountable
  4. a clear set of rules that were fun to follow
  5. learning in multiple modalities
  6.  used mnemonics
  7. spatial, using environmental intelligence
  8. priming the pump, lowering our affective filters
  9. visual
  10. metaphorical

And so my Animal Alphabet unit would be these things. I wanted clear routines, multiple modalities, visual learning, and for it to make sense.  The kindergarteners would be active learners. I bought a set of animal ABC cards in the SJ Art Museum gift shop, made Keynote slides, adding a photograph of each animal.  The photo – to inform them about the real animal — was discussed with a partner after the sentence frame call-and-response and definition. The Kinder Buddies began to have more to say, even Erik.

After the cumulative review, the next letter sound brought its corresponding new animal. Then we’d go to the horseshoe table to write that letter and animal in our booklet.  Next, students drew their versions of the animal. This is where Erik scribbled, vigorous lines laid over lines in all directions.

Near the end of the 25-minute focus group, the final task was talk to your partner about your drawing. Erik had little to say, but spoke with prompting.  “So Erik, tell Alex about your picture.”

For a number of sessions, I watched Erik watch me during the drawing.  He had fairly good control over his penmanship and I sensed two things.  One seemed like a challenge, to see if I would correct his style of scribble drawing, which I did not.  My other take was that there was either anger or a story behind it, a feeling beyond the tactile delight of producing graphite marks on the paper.  Usually children get a peaceful sense of engagement as they draw, like HongAn from Vietnam, who knew only a few words in English, but whose pages flourished with butterflies, dogs and children. Erik’s involvement with pencil and paper was physical and forceful.

I began to ask Erik, “What were you thinking while you were drawing this?” I did not evaluate.  He would merely look at me somberly. On Fridays we colored drawings and finally after warthog, Xanthus hummingbird, yellow-billed stork, and zebra, we celebrated the ABC book. Before sending it home, each student chose one animal to write about.  Eric chose the ant.

His drawing had a complex shape in the center [on right] made out of flowing lines elegantly colored. The ant is emerging from the freeform shape, large and clear with a three-segmented body, six legs, plus the head, a perhaps mildly worried look in its eye, and two antennae.

When I gave a writing demonstration for K-2 with my school district, Erik’s was one of the pieces on display.  “I see the ant.  I like the ant. It has 6 legs,” he wrote.  I invited Erik’s teacher to see his work.  She caught her breath, “Is this Erik’s?” saying it like maybe we had the wrong Erik. Image

“Oh yes, that’s his.”

The thinking, drawing, developing, learning, growing — all his

3 thoughts on “Lessons Up Close”

  1. I so loved reading about Erik, the Kinder Buddies, and the Animal Alphabet Unit. I wonder what he is thinking as he scribbles so vigorously as if to challenge you…and I think how perfect that you let him continue without a challenge in return. A somber kindergartener… Hope someday he has someone to trust with his stories…

  2. You are a pretty amazing teacher. I don’t know of anyone else who uses their ability to connect with students to assess their academic needs and then design a fresh, original, research-based curriculum of this magnitude (This was more than one lesson!), nor one who implements it with enthusiasm and fun way you do. I wish you could do a training at my school! Maybe I will have to train myself, and bring what inspires me about your work here to my own classroom…hmm.

    Great job. You deserve a cup of tea!

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