Monday #30: New York State of Mind

Some folks like to get away,
Take a holiday from the neighborhood,
Hop a flight to Miami Beach,
Or to Hollywood,
But I’m taking a Greyhound,
On the Hudson River Line,
I’m in a New York state of mind.

No, I did not see Billy Joel and, OK, it was a Transbridge bus.  And it wasn’t Chinatown but it was Riverside Church.  This past Saturday was the 80th ‘Saturday Reunion’ sponsored by Teachers College Reading & Writing Project (TCRWP) at Columbia University.  For one day in March, thousands of teachers from all over the mid Atlantic descend upon the campus for a fast and frenetic day of about a hundred or more sessions given by faculty on the Project.  This was my first time and I’d heard it was hyper but you really have to see it to believe it.

If you’re coming from any distance, you pretty much need to get up in the middle of the night to get there and get in before the keynote, which starts at 9:00 sharp.  There’s no “registration,” it’s just a mad dash. People map out their choices and make every effort to get to where they want to be before the class gets closed.  Some of the instructors allow for sitting on the floor but others do not.  If you get to the class and it’s closed, you’ll have to go to your second choice–but this could also be closed and then you’re off to the next one as the clock ticks off.  One of the funniest things is to see all these teachers behaving badly and not following directions.  There’s more than a little bit of pushing, shoving and line-cutting in the hallways and I watched in amazement as throngs of teachers jaywalked, even as the TCRWP staff stationed at every point along the path were shouting at them to use the crosswalks.

And, to tell you the truth, given the creative mystique that surrounds anything Calkins, I was a little disappointed that the offerings for “creative” writing were so, so lean.  There was little more than a handful of sessions that really catered to the kind of expressive writing I believe gets kids engaged with the writing process, and the ones I attended were, I felt, actually quite short on creativity (“You can just have your kids write poems about the stuff on your desk!  Like a stapler!  Or a paperclip!  OK, everyone let’s try it…go!”).  Much of what I saw and heard confirms my personal belief that we, as grownups and educators, are dealing with a generation that is so transitional –mainly because of the internet and social networking– that many of us still don’t really understand how to get them excited about learning.  We know about testing and evaluating, and teaching through the STANDARDS rather than implementing instruction that is organic and student-driven (and for which outcomes are not always measurable).  We know that we are required to pay close attention to data-driven methodology but we often forget what is known by anyone who has spent a few years in any classroom: the wisdom of practice.

I know I say this all the time but I’m gonna say it again because I didn’t make it up, it’s real brain science.  The hippocampus.  It controls long-term memory and cognitive mapping.  But, you gotta have fun to switch it on and, here’s the best part: you don’t have to be a kid to make it work.

So, later in the afternoon, I reflected on the conference with my friend and colleague, Deb Barends.  We went to Lidia Bastianich’s restaurant, Becco, on 46th Street.

OK, there was lots of good food and some wine, but it was a professional discussion, I can assure you!  Deb said what we all say when we attend professional development: “If I can take just one thing back to my classroom that works, it was worth it.”  She’s right (even if I think that one thing just isn’t enough).  And she knew I’d have to blog about it today, so she suggested I go back over my notes and rediscover what I gleaned.  So, even though I started off with a little grousing, here are some of the best things I took from the day:

Opening Keynote Speaker, Jon Scieszka (“SHECK-sa”): All around awesome writer, author of The Stinky Cheese Man and other hilarious books, creator of the Guys Read web site, former classroom teacher and storyteller extraordinaire.  I loved, loved, loved  his keynote, which was very funny, and took lots of good notes:

“Teachers are the experts on teaching.”

“Teaching is not a business, it’s an ART.  Teachers are ARTISTS.”

“If you explain everything (to children) and always show them what they need to know, they will only learn that one thing and become bored.”

“Stop talking so much to kids, stop asking them so many questions and give them time to talk.  Let a kid pick what they want to read (even if it’s a “fake” choice) and don’t give them a test or a page of questions about it.”

“Embrace technology.”

Session on Syntax and Sentence Structure (TCRWP faculty):

“It’s easier to talk about writing (with kids) if you can refer to the parts of speech.  Even cursory knowledge is adequate.”

“Fragments and run-ons, once understood, can be used to craft beautiful and dramatic sentences.  Picture books can be used in upper grades to illustrate this point.  Students can learn to read meta-cognitively to appreciate stylistic writing techniques that they can try in their own writing.”

Featured Speaker, Kathy Collins: Project faculty, former classroom teacher, author of several books on reading instruction, and a hands-down, amazing speaker and storyteller.

“One of the best things we could do is to ask ourselves, every day, ‘what did we laugh about today?'”

“Music and song in the classroom helps kids become discerning listeners.”

“Jokes and riddles teach schema, prediction and envisioning, memory and understanding.”

“Every classroom teacher needs to read the book, PLAY, by Brown and Vaughn.”

“During a book talk, let the kids come up with the ideas for a focused discussion and allow them to stay on the topics that are important to them, not you.”

“When you call on a kid and they say, “I forgot,” ask them, “Well, if you did remember what would you say?”” (Collins says this works 80% of the time!)

“Find out what the random comment means instead of glossing over it or suggesting it become an entry in writer’s notebook.  Sometimes you are missing an opportunity to make a connection for a child and, most importantly, you are not honoring what the child thinks or says.”

Closing Keynote Speaker, Linda Darling-Hammond: Her credentials and accolades are too many to list.  She is an author of many books on education, was a candidate for Obama’s Secretary of Education and is an iconic advocate for teachers across the country.

“More children are in poverty than ever before.”

“Our country is now home to ‘Apartheid Schooling,’ whereby our top schools score in the highest place of all the schools in the world and our lowest schools score at 50th place and below.”

“We are still operating our schools based on a factory model despite the fact that 70% of the country’s jobs are knowledge-based jobs, not labor-based.”

“We incarcerate more people than any other country.  Eight states currently spend more on corrections than education.”

“Teaching is a profession where we have a moral commitment to do what’s right, to have a shared knowledge base and a focus on what is best for the child.  Teachers need to continually build this profession together.”

Well, I’d say I took more than one thing from my day.  Have a terrific week, everyone.

TRY THIS WEEK: Take note of all the good stuff.


About Dar Hosta James

I am an artist living in New Jersey. I write and illustrate children's books, paint, draw, blog, coach, teach and speak about creativity.
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