Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Love of Literacy

How can a teacher foster the love of literacy within a child?

I once had a student who transferred to my classroom from another school within my district. In my first interaction with him, he told me he hated reading and couldn’t read. Smiling, he said both things with a matter-of-fact attitude. This child wasn’t being difficult- he was very innocently trying to help me get to know him. Honestly I can’t remember my exact response, but I’m sure I said something like, “Of course you can read!” (This is what I always say to any student, ever, who tells me that they can’t read! After all, if you put a McDonald’s sign in front of her, won’t she likely say, “McDonald’s”? Is that not reading, in its simplest form?)  He then began to learn what we do for literacy instruction in my classroom: balanced literacy centers, explicit phonics instruction, writing workshop, and reading workshop. The keys to these models of instruction which I have chosen to implement in my classroom are independence, choice, and differentiation. One by one he learned each of our independent centers, which in summary reinforces previously taught skills at each child’s level. He began to write during the writing workshop, creating books and projects of his choice with individualized conferences to help him understand his strengths and implement the newly introduced craft or mechanic of writing. He learned spelling patterns for reading and writing, with exposure to “grade level” patterns as well as small group work with phonics at his level. He enjoyed fiction and nonfiction stories with our class, subtly absorbing comprehension and decoding skills through modeling, partnerships, and work with appropriately leveled, self-selected books in his very own book-basket.

And so, at the end of the year, this boy came to me and told me that our school was his favorite school of all. I asked him why he felt that way. His response: “Because we have so many books!” I credit his amazing transformation to the keys of literacy instruction: independence, choice, and differentiation.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Brazil, in Perspective

“We have arrived in São Paulo, and amazingly I feel fine, and not too tired. We’ve gone to the market and the museum so far. I had pasteiras grandes caramão.”

That’s all I wrote while I was in Brazil. I fully intended to journal my experiences as they happened, but what I experienced was writers block instead. Following that last sentence, I stared at my iPad for a good long while, listened to our guide, and stared out the bus window. I was overwhelmed. I had no words.

I had no words, and I decided that was okay. Having resolved to take everything in as it came, I packed my iPad away and began the sensory overload.

Our initial bus ride through Sao Paulo was an incredible sight. I’ve been through some seedier parts of New York City, and of course our more poverty stricken areas here in Schenectady (“The Hill”), but never had I seen anything like the atmosphere in our first thirty minutes of driving through São Paulo. Graffiti covered every available wall space. Trash was strewn about the streets, and in one case I believe I saw what may have previously been flaming garbage, but was then smoldering remnants.

I’ll admit this was a bit of a shock. I don’t know what I was expecting, to tell the truth. What I did know immediately was that I had to keep an open mind- based on all of my readings and conversations beforehand, I knew this was NOT all that was Brazil; it was just my first impression, and it was not the whole picture.

Stopping at the Municipal Market I quickly learned that the folks in Brazil are welcoming to visitors. All the vendors we encountered countered the dismal look of the city outside with bright smiles and a vivid welcoming attitude. We were offered delicious and strange looking fruits to sample, and as we finally exited to meet our bus a nice young man teased me with a mischievous smile while holding out some sort of what I believe was probably sea food but really looked like a giant spider (um, those of you who know me realize what I felt like when he held that creature towards my face…).  “Não, obrigada,” I said.

Comfort was creeping into my being, and Brazil was finding a place in my heart. But, we hadn’t even begun our most important mission yet- to see and experience the education of Brazilian youngsters.

Our first experience was at the Escola Alexandre Humbolt, a high school in São Paulo. I immensely enjoyed this experience! The students and teachers were delightfully excited to have us as visitors, eager to demonstrate their culture of dance and their close-knit community, and inquisitive about us as Americanos. They performed several dances for us- outstanding, and impressive to say the least! While their “library” was intensely smaller than even our elementary school library- it was vaguely the size of an average living room I would say, with four (I think) shelves of books and a cozy reading space- it was clear they were very proud to offer these resources to their students. There was a well-kept computer lab, and the classroom in which we observed a philosophy lesson was like many other classrooms all around the world- full of desks, students, a board, an interactive white board, the teacher, and some posters. Students cheerfully filled the hallways and nooks and classrooms wherever we went, and many went about their high school business despite the interruption of about 45 Americans marching through their hallways. Students were engaged.


Following the high school experience was the Escola Henrique Dumont- an elementary school. My excitement at meeting little children much like the ones I have the privilege to teach every day was immense! This was a school of six to ten year olds, with thirty-seven teachers and 734 students. I was so pleased to discover that in advance the school had separated our large troop into smaller groups in order to move us around the school in a center-style orientation, complete with pre-printed and color coordinated nametags. (How very elementary!) After having been so incredibly “wowed” from the first school, I had no idea what a tremendous experience we would have at this school!

In each and every classroom the brave Brazilian teachers modeled teaching. Despite the language barrier, the power of the lessons was evident. The power of the student engagement was evident. A love of learning was evident. I wanted to spend all day there. (I wanted to spend a week there!) All that I saw impressed me: students moving about freely between classrooms, students collaborating on a computer, students interacting during a math game and taking mutual responsibility for each other (“Quem está dormindo?- Who is sleeping?”, said jokingly when someone didn’t realize they had the answer), students singing and dancing during physical education. That was perhaps the most incredible lesson I saw during the trip. This physical education teacher sang, danced, taught both physical education as well as social studies, and kept his entire class engaged. Then he included the Americans and we all partook in a circle of physical education. I had so much fun! It was obvious the children did, too. Singing, dancing, music, and social studies during one physical education class. Wow.

And then we went to the garden. In the garden we had the opportunity to help the children plant seedlings, which would eventually grow, be harvested, and included in the meals served to the children. Need I say more? (Okay, one more thing: as all the little boys were lined up and making muscles at the various photographers surrounding them, one little boy began to sing, “Macho, macho man!”)

It can’t get much better than that, right? Wrong. The next day we visited the Meninos do Morumbi Project. I think perhaps a switch got flipped in my being that day. This project, begun by Flávio Pamento, incorporates courses such as painting, computers, English, dance, and music for children of all backgrounds in São Paulo. Words cannot express the joy I felt at watching those children perform feet in front of us. The children’s faces were bright with energy and pride while they danced, sang, and worked the musical instruments.

We visited two other schools as well- another high school and a middle school. In every school, every teacher, every guide, and every child I encountered I felt the same thing from them: pride, welcome, and a love of education.

It’s been several days since our return to the United States, and I still feel like I am processing all that I took in during that nine day trip. If I had to summarize in one word what I found to permeate through all the experiences I had in Brazil it would be this: identity. It seemed to me that the people of Brazil were strong in their sense of identity. It’s difficult to describe how I think this is so. Except, it simply seemed so. All of the students seemed to have a strong sense of culture and who they are. Perhaps it is nurtured in the physical education classes of music, dance, and history. Maybe it’s the community responsibility in growing and eating your own food when you are six years old. Perhaps it is the dances- the samba, and the capoeira (dance/martial art) - that every child learns and connects them together. I don’t know, but it seemed so.

Or maybe it’s the soccer- I mean futbol, of course. Serendipitously the Confederations Cup was taking place simultaneous with our trip. I was out souvenir shopping during the game against Uruguay. Every shop owner and every person seemed to be watching the game- it almost made me feel bad to interrupt with checking out my souvenirs. Further, clearly every person in a vehicle was listening to the game, as was evidenced by the triumphant honking of every passing car when Brazil scored against the opposing team. And if that is not enough, the very next morning when I went to breakfast in the hotel and sat down with my back to the television- which was replaying the game from the night before- the waiter immediately came over and very courteously and with concern told me I could switch my seat to see the game better. He was very concerned that I could not see the game.

In whatever way it happens, it seems to me that Brazilians have a strong sense of identity. Which leads me to my questions: Do my students have a sense of identity? Is there something we do that binds them together as a culture? If there isn’t something we already do, what can I change to create that sense of culture? What I wrote in my notebook during one debriefing session is this: Identity through Community, and Community through Identity.

While there are many other anecdotes and experiences from Brazil stirring around in my mind and trying to break free as I write this blog, today I end here. I have learned so much. The children of Brazil have taught me. The teachers of Brazil have taught me. The people of Brazil have taught me. My lessons are still ripening, but first and foremost I am now in search of identity.