Thursday, October 15, 2009

Authors, Illustrators, and Teaching: Part 2

Authors and illustrators get treated like rock stars at the National Book Festival. Readers crowd into tents, some literally with standing room only, to see and hear the people behind favorite narratives and artwork. The payoff is worth the effort. Many authors and illustrators are as interesting in person as they are on paper.

In the last post, I discussed three authors and illustrators who provided insights related to teaching. Here are three more who similarly challenged and inspired me.

Sharon Creech was, in honesty, quite different from what I expected. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t an author who would embody one of her characters so perfectly that you felt like you were in theater with an accomplished actress rather than under a tent with a writer. Her editor shared the stage and played a role as Mrs. Creech read and enacted a section from her latest book, The Unfinished Angel. With drama and humor, the two wordsmiths captivated the crowd, even those beyond the tent’s borders. (By the way, for the record, unfinished angels speak in English with an Italian accent and make up words when necessary!)

Drama and humor. Tension and laughter. What a great combination for teaching. When I prepare to teach, do I look for the drama and humor in new material? Do I use these tools to not only keep attention but make material more memorable? Do I go the extra mile to bring such creativity to my teaching? I love this quote from Saul Bellow: “No school without spectacular eccentrics and crazy hearts is worth attending.” Do I allow myself to be the “spectacular eccentric” or “crazy heart” when doing so would promote learning?

Up next, another Newbery-winning author, Kate DiCamillo. I must highlight the perseverance DiCamillo personified. When rain knocked out power to the sound system, she continued to take questions and shout answers to the audience. This sounds less of an accomplishment than it actually was. The tent was jam packed and people wandered through steady rain falling outside.

But it was DiCamillo’s anecdote about the origins of The Tale of Despereaux that captivated my thoughts. A young boy suggested a story about a hero with large ears. At first, DiCamillo didn’t give the suggestion much thought. It certainly wasn’t much to go on when trying to write a whole book! But the idea stayed with her, and about five years later, The Tale of Despereaux was published.

Simply listening to students can sometimes provide substantial professional development! In trying to teach a group new concepts recently, one individual kept asking for examples. Every time I’d thoroughly explain something, at least in my own thinking, I’d get asked for an example—sometimes more than one. Listen to the suggestion, I told myself. Keep it in mind. Use it to improve your teaching. As I responded with examples, I could see the a-ha! moments multiply. The request, when fulfilled, made me a better teacher.

Sometimes a suggestion, even one focused on a hero with large ears, is all the you need to communicate in fresh and effective ways.

Finally, my favorite presentation came from Jerry Pinkney. Mr. Pinkney is a five-time Caldecott Honor medalist, and his latest book, a retelling of the Lion and the Mouse fable through illustrations, should catch the committee’s attention this year.

Mr. Pinkney shared his childhood with the audience. Growing up in the Philadelphia area, his parents, neither of whom possessed artistic talents, encouraged all their children to draw. It was something to do—something to keep the children occupied. While young Jerry manned a newspaper stand, an artist caught a glimpse of his sketches. Impressed, the artist invited Jerry to his studio. Before that visit, Pinkney was unaware that art was something you could do for a living, and oh!, the world of colors and artist’s tools that he encountered for the first time.

One caring adult—that’s it, just one caring adult opened up the world that would become Jerry Pinkney’s focus and passion. There’s a thought for teachers, but that’s not the one that I carried away with me.

Almost in passing, this successful, revered, and award-winning illustrator mentioned that he still takes drawing lessons. “You can always improve some aspect of what you do,” he explained, “and it’s important that you do so.”

While I can’t sign up for weekly teaching lessons, I can seek out professional development opportunities that will stretch some aspect of my teaching. Such continual growth is what Jerry Pinkney claims has empowered his success for several decades. My relevance and influence as a teacher may, likewise, depend on my willingness to continue growing professionally.

Drama, humor, wisdom, and growth. Sounds like a good recipe for teaching. In fact, it’s not a bad recipe for life.

Monday, October 5, 2009

An Educator Races (but not to the top)

The single shot from the starter pistol stirred me out of my pre-race stupor. Here we go, I thought. This is what those early morning runs prepared you for—hopefully. As I started moving toward the starting line of the Montgomery Half-Marathon (it took 27 seconds to get to the starting line!), Paul’s admonishment to run the race set before you infiltrated my thoughts. The race set before you. Reflecting on that concept brought to mind the advice friends had offered. Start out slower than you want to ultimately run. Use your head, especially for the first five miles. Be aware of other runners and avoid impeding their running. Take advantage of every water station. I shook them from consciousness and tried to focus on running my race.

That sounds easy, but doing it becomes much more difficult when you are surrounded by hundreds of other runners. How do you run your race when you are one drop in a moving wave? To be honest, I never figured it out, and for the first three miles I allowed myself to just be part of the wave. At the third mile marker, the wave became more like separated ripples, and I noticed that I was ahead of my target pace. Good news, right? Maybe. My concern then became having the stamina to finish the distance of 13.1 miles.

I kept trying to slow myself down. I even found a runner with a watch who was trying to run my target pace. I stayed behind him for a couple minutes, but couldn’t stand it and ended up passing him. At this point it became clear to me that running my race would depend mostly on listening to my body and heeding its suggestions.

I must pause to tell you about the funniest part of this experience. I’m an avid reader of Runner’s World magazine, and 99% of the advice I recalled from its pages proved true during the race. However, the RW writers made drinking from a tiny paper cup while continuing to run sound as easy as walking and chewing gum. As I entered the first water station I knew not to stop. That creates a major hazard for other runners (imagine a car stopping suddenly in
front of you while driving). I knew to hone in on one volunteer, make eye contact, and grab and go. Shouting thanks was optional, but I managed it nonetheless. Now, just get the liquid into your mouth. Easy, right?

I pinched the cup, as I remember Runner’s World explaining, and tried “funneling” the water into my mouth. If the water in the cup had remained calm, all would have been fine. But my running served as a submerged earthquake, creating a tidal wave in my tiny paper cup. As I attempted to pour the water into my mouth, the tsunami continued its upward trajectory, soaking my entire face and adding to the muck on the inside of my glasses. Determined to do it right, I got brave at the second water station and grabbed a cup of sports drink. The same thing happened. My head was now drenched and dripping watery Gatorade. I stuck out my tongue to catch a few drops, laughed at myself, and kept running. It took me five water stations to get the motion right!
Apparently, though my running pace was ahead of schedule, my learning pace was behind.

Somewhere around the five mile mark, I overheard the following conversation:

Runner A: Hey, Bob, I didn’t know you were a runner!
Runner B: I’m not! I just started in March. This is my first race. When I started I could only run 90 seconds before resting. Now look at what I’m doing! It’s crazy!
Runner A: No, not crazy. Awesome!

Like me, Bob was running his race. In six months, he’d gone from being a non-runner to running a half-marathon. What an inspiration!

I must pause to make an observation about people. Specifically, non-runners. Every once in a while, someone would be sitting out on their lawn and occasionally yelling to the runners. (Some might have yelled at us, but I often was too distracted to hear clearly!) I think at least six different people told me, “This is the last hill! It’s all downhill from here!” They were liars, every single one. Others would yell, “Keep going! You’re almost there!” Thanks, but at the four-mile mark of a 13.1 mile race, you’re not even close to being almost there.

However, many people really did provide a lift of spirits. On the campus of Alabama State University, the percussion section of the school’s marching band rhythm-ed us across the campus. In the Colonial Heights neighborhood, a group of neighbors stood at the corner shouting greetings and welcoming us to their home turf. At another point, a family had their car doors open and its radio blasting; the beat of Motown carried us on its waves. A gentleman on a bike showed up at several mile markers to cheer the runners forward. Each of these made me glad to be there. (I had quite the opposite reaction to whomever in “historic Cloverdale” thought it would be funny to cook bacon with all the windows open, but I’ll let that go!) Another activity that upped the friendly factor was the many runners who thanked the police officers and volunteers who made the event safe and smooth from beginning to end. I hope all of them knew the sincerity behind those yelps of gratitude.

Somewhere after the 10th mile marker, I lost track of how far I had gone. Was the next mile marker 11 or 12? I convinced myself it would be 12. Obviously, it wasn’t. I surprised myself by not being defeated or even set back too badly from this miscalculation. Somehow I was able to push ahead, glad to finally know for sure what the next mile marker would be.

And oh, the joy of hitting mile marker 12 and then 13 and noting that I was still ahead of my target pace. It was possible that in addition to finishing I might actually finish in under two hours! (Cue the Chariots of Fire theme!). “Hear those bells?” called a spectator. “They’re waiting for you at the end!” Again, technically the bells were not at the end, but they did pull me forward. In fact, as I rounded the last corner I found a burst of energy and actually sped toward the finish. Recalling Runner’s World’s recommendations again, I tried to ignore the clock and run through the finish so the photos of me would be magazine cover material. Let’s just say that between the Gatorade baths and the fact that I looked like I had just run 13 miles, I won’t be appearing at your newsstand anytime soon. Nonetheless, my wife did capture the moment, providing evidence of the accomplishment.

A few moments of chaos—a man with what looked like a pin-pong paddle stepped forward to scan my timing chip, a volunteer threw a finisher’s medal around my neck, and a couple volunteers offered water and bananas to the weary—and it was over. It was over way too soon. I was just beginning to have fun! There is little that generates more motivation than success.

By now you may be wondering what this has to do with education. After all, that is the focus of this blog. To make some connections, let me share some questions that I’ve asked myself:

  • Do I recognize that my students must each run his/her own race to learning—that learning is always an individual act? How am I creating the conditions that allow each learner to find their way to new understandings and abilities?
  • How do I lift the spirits of learners who find the going difficult? Do I toss easy lines at them? or do I encourage them with honesty while running along side them to help them progress?
  • Do I allow and help my students to laugh at themselves? Failure combined with self-anger is a sure road to defeat. Do I model resilience? Do I help my students develop resilience?
  • Do I recognize that what I think will be easy may be a challenge for students? Do I plan sufficient practice and feedback to support students as they move toward mastery?
  • Do I celebrate students’ success? Do I create conditions that give students a feeling of accomplishment? or am I so preoccupied with the next thing that celebrations get left out? How motivating do I allow accomplishment—true accomplishment—to be?
These aren’t new ideas or the roadmap for major educational reform, but their potential power and influence are more significant to me than ever before. I may not have raced to the top (I finished 203rd), but running my own race proved to be an effective dose of professional development.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Authors, Illustrators, and Teaching: Part 1

Authors and illustrators recently challenged my thinking about teaching.

The National Book Festival is an annual event held on the Mall in Washington, D.C. This year my wife and I attended for the first time. As I listened to various children’s authors and illustrators, I was struck by how much relevance the ideas they communicated had for educators.

First up was Charles Santore. Mr. Santore has illustrated several well-known children’s books, including The Camel’s Lament and versions of classics, such as the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” and the fantasy The Wizard of Oz. He also illustrated this year’s National Book Festival poster.

Because he moved from advertising illustration to children’s literature, many of Mr. Santore’s comments contrasted the two. For example, in illustration, Santore explained, you have to synthesize all the ideas into one, attention-grabbing illustration. However, in illustrating children’s literature, the artist can attend to pacing, even drawing “quiet” pictures that allow the reader to pause and ponder.

This pacing, giving the reader time to imagine and think, mirrors a pace the brain needs for optimal learning. Often called “down-time,” the brain needs to process new content in manageable chunks.1 A teacher who lectures for 45 minutes straight promotes less learning than a teacher who presents information for 10 minutes, engages students in processing new material, and then resumes presenting information for another brief period. To learn, the brain needs to pause and ponder—it needs the story of learning to include “quiet” illustrations.

Up next was one of my favorites: Nikki Grimes. Miss Grimes has authored several of my favorite children’s books, including The Road to Paris. With gifts in both poetry and prose, Miss Grimes captivated the audience with a colorful, poetic journey through several of her works. I cannot explain this sufficiently to help you appreciate it. She used poetry to introduce a color and its affective associations, then illustrated the concepts with passages from her writings. She created a hush in the tent and no one wanted her to stop.

What does this have to do with teaching? It made me think about how little thought I often give to my actual presentation of information. Sure, I think long and seriously about the activities I use to introduce or engage students in processing new information, but Nikki Grimes put that kind of thought into how she actually presented the information.

Hmm, how could I simulate this? Could I combine communication forms to better articulate critical concepts for students? Would a poetic journey through the Pythagorean theorem promote better understanding? One thing is certain: by challenging myself to consider the approach, I’d think more deeply about how I would actually explain the concept, and that would likely improve the words and phrases I used to teach it.

Finally, for this first of two posts, we heard and observed illustrator Kadir Nelson. Without exaggeration, Mr. Nelson is an artistic genius as evidenced in all his books, including the recent Testing the Ice.

A quiet individual, Mr. Nelson let his pens do most of the “talking.” He called two children up to the stage and recreated one of his illustrations with the children filling the roles of the original characters. Two young girls became Jackie Robinson and Yogi Berra, and their faces lit up with excitement and recognition. He actively involved the children, taking their minds to the scene he wanted them to imagine. Wow! In one illustration, he captured an entire narrative—a narrative to which two young girls could emotionally connect.

Narrative is a powerful teaching tool. Stories frame experience. Mark Turner suggests stories are actually fundamental, organizing structures: “Parable is the root of the human mind—of thinking, knowing, acting, creating, and plausibly even of speaking.”2 Neurologist and author Alice W. Flaherty agrees, suggesting metaphors, such as stories, contribute to memory formation and understanding:
…metaphors are cognitively useful because they rephrase an abstract concept in more physical terms. This engages the cortex with its visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory maps, and the limbic system with its emotional charge…[Metaphors] create a sense of understanding by an analogous mechanism. By giving abstract concepts tastes, colors, smells, and emotional resonance, metaphors fix them in our minds and make us feel like we understand them.3
The human mind frequently thinks in terms of stories, communicates in stories, and converts new learning into stories. By framing experience, stories provide a structure for exploring and making sense of experience. Can I structure any of my teaching as narrative? Again, just challenging myself to try will likely improve my teaching.

Pondering pauses, poetic presentations, and narrative frames can inspire and inform my teaching. What I learn from authors and illustrators can become personal professional development if I’m willing to accept the challenges their ideas present.

In Part 2, insights from authors Sharon Creech, Kate DiCamillo, and illustrator Jerry Pinkney.

  1. Sousa, D., How the Brain Learns, 2nd ed., (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc., 2001).
  2. Turner, M., The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), i.
  3. Flaherty, A. W., The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 230.