Friday, July 18, 2014

Listening for Learning: A Vernal Pool Romance

So already, I'm having a romance with one of the learning portraits featured in Visible Learners: Promoting Reggio-Inspired Approaches in All Schools. It's called "The Vernal Pool: Seventh-Graders Investigate and Protect a Local Habitat."* It captured my heart last week when I was looking carefully for secondary classroom case studies that Melissa Rivard and I might feature in the "Making Learning Visible in Diverse Secondary Classrooms" workshop we'll be offering next week at the Project Zero Classroom summer institute. I'd read and admired this portrait before, but something about my personal perspective in this moment of revisiting it created an intensified appreciation and admiration. I became enamoured.

It's not my first such romance. Last fall, it was the "Eyes on Engagement: Supporting Student Inquiry in a Fourth Grade Classroom"*** learning portrait that claimed my intellectual and emotional devotion. And in fact, years ago when I was a research teacher with the Teaching for Understanding (TfU) project, I was serially passionate about each of the four TfU framework elements. Based on my TfU experiences, I predict that I'll ultimately conclude that the collectivity of the learning portraits in Visible Learners best conveys the richness of Making Learning Visible principles and practices. Still, it's fun to be so excited by one story of inspired teaching and authentic, engaged learning.

What I was most smitten by was the listening of the two co-teachers, Mandy and Matt. If you've been lucky enough to be near a vernal pool,**** especially on a spring night, you know that there's so much to listen to--an unrestrained, welcome cacophony that brims with the promise of warm seasonal renewal. But I wasn't concerned with how Matt and Mandy listened to the vernal pool; it was their open, careful, caring listening to their students that captivated me. They didn't listen just for the learning their students had and hadn't acquired; they listened for the sake of their students' learning. They listened so that they could design next learning activities, pathways that could lead their students not only to authentic understanding and high quality work, but to a conviction that their learning mattered--to them and to the world. Perhaps they listened for the sake of their students' future learning--the learning they would do in and beyond their seventh-grade classroom, even in and beyond their future classrooms.

In their interdisciplinary science and English language arts unit, Matt and Mandy charged their students with two tasks: to get a local vernal pool--in Greenfield, Massachusetts--certified by the state as an official vernal pool that would then be under state protection, and to produce a field guide that would engage and enlighten others who visited the pool. Collecting the necessary data specified by a Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife***** certification checklist, and coming to understand and appreciate the vernal pool as a habitat, ecosystem, authentic source of wonder, and community treasure required, in addition to classroom study, numerous visits to the vernal pool, some in winter and some in spring.

As various sections of the learning portrait attest, Mandy (no doubt Matt, too!) was an excellent background lurker and eavesdropper--and every good teacher needs to be one to know what and how students are thinking and feeling. After she heard two students conjecture incorrectly about why the pool remained relatively quiet in the morning, but exploded with wood frog love songs in the afternoon--the students attributed the difference to water temperature--she and Matt conferred, as they did daily. They didn't make a plan to "correct" the students; instead, they directed the students to measure air and water temperatures in the morning and afternoon--and gave them the chance to recognize that they needed to develop a new and better hypothesis because water temperature didn't explain their observations.

Similarly, when Mandy overheard a small group of students wondering, "'Why doesn't the pool fill up with leaves?'"(16), she reported their question to Matt. Wanting to help their students answer their question--and also recognizing that the question had just provided them with an authentic opportunity to explore food webs, a topic in the seventh grade science standards, they developed a lesson that they might not have designed had their students not wondered about the leaves.****** Mandy's opening question, "'Because no water flows into the pool, where does the energy come from to support life?'"(17), elicited a quick, correct student response: "'The sun'"(17). But not until each of the students, after some class and group activities, mapped the flow of energy from the sun to the species that he/she was exploring for the field guide could Matt and Mandy be certain that their students understood the energy transfer.

Matt and Mandy designed this project knowing the project destination towards which their students were headed--and they never lost their commitment to having the students create the two final products they believed their students would come to care about genuinely. Furthermore, they were completely curricularly accountable as English and science teachers respectively while remaining flexible enough in their planning to respond effectively to their students' individual and collective needs as suggested by their daily observations and debrief conversations. Together, they managed to be accountable to the state, responsible to their students, and true to the student-centered vision of teaching and learning that they shared.

Their shared vision made for a learning environment that, inside and outside of the classroom, featured more student talking and doing than teacher talking and doing. In addition, the learning opportunities they designed frequently yielded products that the students could look at and learn from: collections of data, photos that captured their learning and moments of learning at the vernal pond, food chain maps, sample entries from field guides that they analyzed for what made them boring and what made them interesting, and drafts of their own potential field guide entries. Frequently, the students were involved in conversations with one another about these visible products and representations--what the Making Learning Visible framework calls documentation because the students explored and discussed them to learn further from them. As a matter of fact, there was so much purposeful talk among Mandy and Matt's students that when they were asked to describe memorable elements of their four-month experience, they mentioned "'bouncing ideas off friends,' [and] 'friendly debates'" (14).******* Student talk (not teacher talk!) and student listening were what proved highly memorable for these students.

And the students did come to care about the project, as their teachers hoped they would: the portrait reports that "the seventh graders moved from 'we are going to do field work' to 'we are going to the vernal pool' to 'we are going to our vernal pool'" (19). Curious, open teacher listening paid attention even to the ways students announced where they were going--and thus could confirm the students' transformation from responsible to attached.

Though the Visible Learners book lays out practices and principles that can support a "pedagogy of listening," as Carla Rinaldi calls it in Making Learning Visible: Children as Individual and Group Learners********, I've sometimes heard Making Learning Visible described as being as much a disposition, orientation, or mindset as it is a set of practices around documentation and group learning. There's so much listening in this portrait: students listening to the vernal pool, students listening to students, teachers listening to students, teachers listening to teachers. Clearly, the teachers are completely disposed to listening and to having their students benefit from the multiple powerful roles that listening can play in learning. 

A number of my now former colleagues at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and I have been thinking about the listening-learning relationship for some time. In fact, Rinaldi's various definitions of what it means to really listen********* hang on the windowed walls of the Teachers' Resource Center, where the school's annual teacher-learning exhibition takes place. One of our exhibitions, entitled "Listening to Learn, Learning to Listen," focused on our school-wide inquiry question, which we pursued for more than the year that culminated in that exhibition: "How can listening better improve teaching and deepen learning?" We believed--and I suspect still believe--that we could get better at listening, and that if we did, our students' learning would reflect that. And we also believed--and I suspect still believe--that if we could help our students get better at listening, their learning would become deeper and more meaningful to them.

Finally, there's another reason to love "The Vernal Pool": the students' illustrations of the animals they studied for the field guide are just great, so beautiful that a local first grade teacher has borrowed the guide from the public library in order to "inspire her students to illustrate and draw local wildlife"(18). The learning portrait includes two of the student illustrations: "American Toad" and "Wood Turtle." The wood turtle illustration can also be seen on the Expeditionary Learning web site.**********

Earlier this week, just as I was thinking about writing this blog post and looking at the illustration of the wood turtle, I received my daily "Writer's Almanac" e-mail: there was the word "LISTEN"--always there because one can listen to and read the Almanac's daily poem--and there were the first words of a Mark Doty poem about a wood turtle. The poem, entitled "No," begins with the following six lines:
The children have brought their wood turtle
into the dining hall
because they want us to feel

the power they have
when they hold a house
in their own hands, . . .
Here's to the power of children, the power of listening, and the power of the listening-learning relationship. And thanks for reminding me of all of that, Mandy, Matt, and your former seventh graders!


* pp. 13-19 in Krechevsky, Mara, Ben Mardell, Melissa Rivard, and Daniel Wilson. Visible Learners: Promoting Reggio-Inspired Approaches in All Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013. Print.
*(2) pp. 39-47 in Krechevsky, Mara, Ben Mardell, Melissa Rivard, and Daniel Wilson. Visible Learners: Promoting Reggio-Inspired Approaches in All Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013. Print.
*(3) Wiske, Martha Stone. Teaching for Understanding: Linking Research with Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998. Print. 
Screen shot of page on Expeditionary Learning web site: <>. 
*(4) Screen shot of image<>
*(5) Screen shot of part of home page of the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.
*(6)Screen shot of <>
*(7) The students also mentioned "'lots of revisions,' 'finding critters,' and 'getting to be outside'" (14).

*(8) Project Zero and Reggio Children (2001): Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children. 
*(9) On pages 80-81 of Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners.
*(10) Screen shot of <>. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

My Blog Has a Birthday!

So already, today is my husband's birthday. Twelve cupcakes, one for each letter of his name. 

On June 30, when I posted my last blog entry about watching Freedom Summer on the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, I noticed in the "Blog Archive" section on the right side of the page that I'd posted twenty-five entries in 2013, and another twenty-five already in 2014, the fiftieth being the one about Freedom Summer and the need to educate American students for both global competence and national competence. True, not every entry has been my writing--I've posted autobiographical pieces by my father-in-law Burk Ketcham and good friend Meg Anderson; a drawing by my now former student Elizabeth Chavez; and literary-personal essays by my now former students Klara Kaufman, Samuel Mazer, Rachel Ruwe, and Solomon Abrams.  But I've posted faithfully if not always confidently every month, and much of what comprises my blog are my own writings, random in many ways, linked in others.

Looking back at the beginning of my blog to remind myself of its precise beginnings, I saw that I posted for the first time on June 30, 2013. My introduction proclaimed my intention to blog hopefully--and I guess I have, even though confusion and doubt have nipped at my heels along the way. Meanwhile, the separated, repotted Christmas cactus plants that provided me with my initial metaphor for my constricted, pre-retirement self are now thriving. A long winter-spring season of budding and flowering, one that began tentatively but then exploded with magenta confidence, has led to definitive summer greening and leafing out. I haven't yet asserted myself with comparable purpose and force, but I just may. Presently, I feel neither constricted nor constructed. And, happily, I am feeling less anxious.

The Seine at Dusk from Île de la Cité
Interesting that the imminence of this blog milestone and its significance didn't at all occur to me until I traveled many miles to celebrate another milestone: the thirty-eighth anniversary of my college choir's European tour. My ten-day visit to France completely changed the focus and activity of my days--and in so doing, provided me with a new, needed, liberating perspective. My inner me not only didn't need the routines, commitments, and concerns of home to feel intact and whole, but seemed to revel and strengthen in their absence. Pleasure, friendship, music, and exploration motivated all. Since returning, I've been dreaming more and remembering my dreams. I've been reading with greater concentration and listening to music with more happy immersion. I now fully appreciate the wisdom of my retired colleagues who advised me to take a trip early in my retirement in order to create a real separation, a true delineation, between the old, familiar, and routine, and the new, experimental, and yet-to-unfold.

Meanwhile, among my fellow singers were some who already knew about and read my blog and others who, hearing about it for the first time, wanted to know how I'd come to start it, what it was about, how long I had been writing it, who I thought read it, etc.. As did all of us on the tour over the course of our reunion weekend, I had more than one opportunity to try to say who and what I was*, who and what I had been, what it was I was trying to do, and how all of it felt. As I spoke to my old singing friends, I realized that I had kept at my blog, had become more comfortable with writing what could be shared and read by almost anyone, and couldn't imagine my blog's not being varied and random in content at this point. That didn't mean that there weren't sensibilities, values, and purposes evident across its posts, the randomness of which felt authentic and necessary.

As I realized my blog was "something"--not just random posts, but a collection of random posts, I found myself thinking back to favorite stanzas of Louise Gluck's poem "Nest," found in her collection of poems called Vita Nova:

Early spring, late desolation.
The bird circled the bare yard making
efforts to survive
on what remained to it.
It had its task:
to imagine the future. Steadily flying around,
patiently bearing small twigs to the solitude
of the exposed tree in the steady coldness
of the outside world.
I had nothing to build with.
It was winter: I couldn't imagine
anything but the past. I couldn't even
imagine the past, if it came to that.
And I didn't know how I came here.
Everyone else much farther along.
I was back at the beginning
at a time in life we can't remember
The bird
collected twigs in the apple tree, relating
each addition to existing mass.
But when was there suddenly mass?**
I have always loved that the word "mass" is italicized here. Those italics lend a certain heft that exerts authority. And how do we build anything at all--deep understanding, sand castles, layer cakes, strong relationships, discernible personalities--without "relating/ each addition to the existing mass" until the construction becomes dense, weighty, and defined enough to have an integrity of its own?

In talking to my college friends, and hearing from other friends that they looked forward to reading my blog posts, I realized my blog had "mass," even if I couldn't discern or envision my future. But notice that I didn't say that I was struggling "to imagine the future." Somehow I'm feeling calmer; if this blog is my nest, I have a vantage point at least. 
A Village in Alsace
And as I peered out my mind grew sharper.
And I remember accurately
the sequence of my responses,
my eyes fixing on each thing
from the shelter of the hidden self: 

first I love it.
Then, I can use it.

More italics; more deliberate italics. For years, I've loved the last two-line stanza--and understood it very differently at different times. Tonight, I'm again not sure why Gluck has so ordered its two lines. But I am sure that my "hidden self" is going to keep blogging in my not-so-hidden blog. Happy birthday, "So Already . . ."!

* Screen shot of <>
** Screen shot of <>