Putting It All Together: A Reflection on Language Arts in Education
By Chris Hibbard
written in 2007
Putting It All Together: A Reflection on Language Arts in Education
Over the past six weeks, we have studied, with interest, the many uses of language in the classroom. We have examined language itself, language application, and the various ways in which language is incorporated into the daily lives of students. From being unconsciously bombarded by language in everyday advertising to consciously using language skills for reading and writing, it is clear that language plays an integral role in learning. So I could go on for dozens of paragraphs about what I learned from this class, but it would all be somewhat misleading. Likewise, I could insert all sorts of quotes from the textbook and regurgitate notes from my binder, making this an exercise in academia when it started out as a letter to you. I would be doing you a disservice by doing this.
I openly admit that I rarely opened the textbook in this class and gleamed most of my learning from sitting, listening, reading, and experiencing. That is where I am coming from and to pretend anything else would be, in my mind, mere brown-nosing.
So here goes, all the cards are on the table, and I like to think that you Erika, know more about me than I try to let on, and will understand the following pages.
I came into this class knowing all about language and how powerful it is. I am a poet, an author, a columnist and a journalist. Language is one of my best friends, and it is definitely my most powerful tool. What I have learned over the last six weeks then, is how best to use language in a classroom setting – how to teach a love of language to those who are unlike me – those who struggle with language, fear language, despise language. Before this class I had never once thought about the fact that as a teacher in an elementary or junior high setting, I’m going to have to ‘dumb it down’ a notch, in order to start from a base level and work my way back up. Since this is the closest thing to a revelation I have taken from this class, this will serve as my focus.
As teachers, everything we do in the classroom is grounded in a set of assumptions: assumptions about knowledge, about learning, and about what count as ‘legitimate’ forms reading and writing. These assumptions are formed by our beliefs, and our beliefs are largely personal and implicit – ingrained into our very being. Most of us, myself included, operate a good deal of the time from intuition and instinct, knowing what is going on without actively reflecting on the fundamental dynamics and mechanics of our intentions. Simply put, we normally just assume that others are like us, think like us – read and write like us.
These assumptions have now taken on the form of an obstacle that must be overcome. We need to think about what our intentions are, what our tacit infrastructure is telling us, and what our actions and words are really saying to students. In order to accomplish this, we need to be self-critical and engaged in ongoing self-assessment. I need to ask myself: what are my beliefs about learning and teaching? How can I modify them to fit current instructional and curriculum based practices, or better yet, modify the curriculum to fit my style?
Herein lies the proverbial rub: experience is truly the best teacher, and in order to learn useful pointers regarding how best to teach, I need more of it. I need practice. I truly believe that our best learning opportunities come from the most unlikely of places: little comments made in passing, things overheard, the journal entries of others. I need more of these everyday incidents and events that I can incorporate into my own learning. Whether these little things confirm my experiences, or shake them up a bit and force me to reconsider how and why I believe what I do is irrelevant. I need stimuli to make me think about topics and methods I haven’t considered before. I need to know how my individual style works best at the front of a classroom.
I suppose this then is where the skills of journaling and reflection come in the most handy. As I gain experience, I must document it and make my thoughts explicit and put to paper. Otherwise I may just internalize them, incorporating them into my daily routine, or worse, forget them, without ever giving them the respect they deserve. Likewise for students, writing their thoughts and personal stories down is important. Writing forces us to explain ourselves to ourselves. It pries open our hearts and minds and makes us actually inspect the situation. We did a lot of this in your class, and it truly did come in handy. We analyzed ourselves and our own thinking habits by asking ourselves questions like: who am I; where am I from; what do I want and what do I believe.
There is an interesting paradox involved in becoming a teacher. We sit here in the ivory tower of Academia, thinking like the adults and professionals we wish to become, attempting to re-learn how to relate to the young people that we once were. As a teacher, the real tricky business in a classroom setting is that students are learning all the time. Sounds good, right? Wrong. The problem is that while they are learning something, they may not be learning what I think that I am teaching them. They may be learning what they like or don’t like about their teacher. They may be learning how to go best go unnoticed, blending into the desks around them. Students insert a little bit more or less of themselves into every word that I speak, every instruction that I give, and every comment or remark I make regarding their work. This means that when I ask them to: “write about an incident with your family that seems important to you”, they might be hearing just “write about your family” or worse yet, “write about any old incident with your family” – selectively hearing more or less than was physically spoken. Lessons like this example can also make students feel nervous, cautious, and vulnerable, thinking: “what does the teacher want from me? Why does it matter? What’s the point? What if what I write is not as good as that of my peers?”
I suppose I need to learn how to be a more interpretive teacher – filtering through all the incoming questions, feedback, verbal and non-verbal cues in order to know how much more instruction is needed to be given, or maybe just how little it takes to get the ideal response. I need to make my focus on Learning with a capital L – pure and simple – and never forget to create a context which allows learners to make sense of the lesson their own way. Even though we all share this planet, in many respects which each wake up everyday and go to bed every night in our own individual little worlds.
I am a firm believer in individuality and independence, critical thinking and originality. While this would seem to fit under a categorical heading of “learner-centered education”, I can not subscribe to a notion that any interference in student work is wrong, for otherwise what is the point of instruction. I should not intervene in a student’s personal style, beliefs, or feelings, but I should not accept all incoming journals, assignments, or stories simply because they are turned in. Teachers are responsible for creating a safe environment that offers many opportunities, but still with some subtle (if not invisible) constraints. To me, this means that I should give a lot of preliminary direction, enough to set things in motion until I can step back and watch the learning take over. Then all that is left is to monitor their reactions, keep them interested, follow their progress, and assist them when they are having difficulty.
I should not expect students to come up with MY meaning – for my meaning is likely not the RIGHT, or ONLY, meaning. Instead, I should merely push a little, so that my students sort out the value and meaning of the lesson, what it means to them, all on their own. In doing this, I allow the students to learn the way that they learn best. This keeps my treasured spirit of individualism strong, but still accomplishes the learning goals.
To this end, instead of delivering lessons in a formal and structured way, I need to “go with the flow” (to use an appropriate cliché), and find a delicate balance between being proactive and reactive. I need to expect one thing, but be prepared for the whole lesson to go off in a completely different direction. I need to offer choices in activities and how to accomplish them. I have already learned that lessons in language happen when we least expect them, and so in many ways, the students should really be the ones who are leading the lesson. The teacher is just a facilitator.
In this class we have looked into many different facets of Language in the classroom. Reading, writing, visual learning, language in Science and Math, language in music and art. From all of these small units, I have learned the following juicy tips:
If reading came naturally, teaching would be a much easier job. Children would learn to read as readily as they learn to speak. All a teachers would need to do would be supply the books. But children don’t learn to read just from being exposed to books. Reading must be taught. For many children, reading must be taught explicitly and systematically, one small step at a time; from phonemes and simple sounds, through nouns and adjectives, into Subject-Verb agreements and complex compound sentences. If reading came naturally, it would not statistically be a challenge for nearly 40 per cent of kids.
Unfortunately, I’ve also learned this semester (though not necessarily in your class per se) that the older a child is, the more difficult it is to teach him or her to read. There seems to be a window of opportunity that closes by fourth grade for most kids. This means that if a child can’t read well by the end of third grade, the odds are that he or she will never catch up. From what I imagine, the effects of falling behind the rest of your peers and feeling like a failure can be devastating and long-lasting. Couple these thoughts with another statistic I found that implies that most parents who have noticed reading difficulty in their children wait over a year before notifying their child’s schools, and it’s a wonder that the 40 per cent figure isn’t substantially higher. But thanks to a few of the aforementioned units in this class, I feel slightly more confident in how to catch them when they’re young, before they go off track – and better yet, maybe even catch them after it’s too late – reeling them back in.
This can be accomplished easier now than in previous generations I think. With the new prevalence of technology in our society, there are numerous ways in which a Language Arts teacher can incorporate computers, SMART Boards, and the Internet into language lessons. Teachers can easily create visual aids for teaching, using programs like Inspiration and Powerpoint. There is a whole world of literature out there just waiting to be explored, and much of it can be easily ordered in via the Alberta Library Network. Teachers can integrate audio and video right into their lessons now, broadening and strengthening their choices for how to present a lesson. This is a definite plus, provided of course, that the teacher is familiar with said technology.
I’ve also learned this semester some tried and true methods, ones that will likely be as effective 100 years from now as they were in the days of Socrates or Jesus.
Like it or not, boring as it seems, another key to most education, especially language education, is repetition, reinforcement and practice. At the time, it may feel like there is a drill sergeant making you shine shoes for hours on end, but when the time comes to slip on them shiny shoes, they sure feel good and fit right. The challenge for me and my fellow Education students will be in finding ways to turn repetition and ‘forced’ practice into activities that kids actually want to participate in, rather than tedious and draining shoe-shine sessions.
I think one of my major strengths will be in simply sharing my love for language with my students. I’d like to read aloud to them everyday from a variety of materials, and have them do the same with me and their peers. I’m looking forward to using crayons and colours and clay to reinforce and represent some of the readings done in class. I’m looking forward to making language lessons dramatic and fun – so memorable that when the buzzer rings for recess, they choose to stay inside and keep reading. Last but not least, I’d like a classroom that no word is too big or too difficult to be understood, if we all work as a team to figure it out. Sure, there’s no reason to try and teach Onomatopoeia to a class full of six-year-olds, but if they hear it somewhere and want to know what it means, we’ll decipher it together and think of fun words that fit it: words like Buzz, Meow, Growl, Chirp, and Purr.
In closing, I ask myself, “have I put it all together”, as the title of this essay would imply? Of course not. I doubt that even experienced teachers who have been in the business of teaching for a half century and are on the verge of retiring still don’t have it all put together. If you have Erika, then I am most suitably impressed, for I doubt – and I hope – that I never will. If I reach perfection, I have gone too far, for with perfection there is nothing left to learn – and consequently, nothing left to teach.