Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"A-A, B-B, C-C, A-A . . ."

I do very little of what some people call "direct teaching," you know that sort of thing you see on sitcoms where the teacher paces at the front of a room of attentive kids delivering a lecture against a blackboard backdrop (I suppose now it's all dry erase boards). For one thing, I almost always sit or kneel while I'm talking to children, but for another I'm typically more inclined to the two-way street of a conversation or dialog.

Even when a kid asks a direct question during circle time, my go-to approach is to first poll his classmates for answers, allowing the children to construct their own learning together, using their own metaphors and language to convey the information. 

Sometimes I have no choice. For instance, there's certain fire safety information the Seattle Fire Department expects me to convey to the kids before we can visit the local fire station. I do the best I can to make it a give and take -- and to their credit the curriculum the SPD provides us does too -- but there's a certain amount of both direct and "intentional" teaching involved as well.

If I don't do much direct teaching, I really don't do much "intentional" teaching, which is when the teacher decides what he thinks the kids ought to know, rather than what they want to know, then attempts to teach it to them. Teaching fire safety isn't so bad, however, because there are few kids who don't already want to know more about fire fighters, but when it comes to things like mathematical concepts, it can be like pushing water up hill. In other words, it can be almost impossible to do and the chances of that water staying up there at the top of the hill are close to nil.

That said, there's one vestige of intentional instruction that remains from my first year teaching, one that I thought was a good idea back then and which I've trotted out to my Pre-K class for over a decade, always will no evidence it's done anything but suck up oxygen. I introduce our Unifix cubes along with the idea of creating various patterns: A-B-A-B or A-A-B-A-A-B or something like that. Then when the kids get their hands on their cubes, even when I'm right there role modeling "A-B-A-B," they say things like, "I'm going to make a rainbow pattern," and proceed to simply start connecting the cubes, usually in what turns out to be a race to see who can make the longest "pattern." 

I've tried coming at it from different angles, but the results are always the same, although I've continued to give it a go year after year. This year I tried to keep it short and sweet. As I spoke I scanned the kids eyes for any sign of comprehension or interest, and I found a pair. One boy was sitting up behind the others, mouthing the letters along with me. I wasn't surprised, frankly. He's a guy with an abiding interest in anything to do with letters and numbers, so it made sense that this merging of the two got his attention.

The moment we sat down with the cubes, he got to work. While the others declared their intention of making "rainbow patterns," or "tall patterns," he said, "I'm making an A-A, B-B, C-C pattern."

He showed it to me, counting it off, "A-A, B-B, C-C," then he added two more cubes, saying, "A-A . . ." then he stopped. "No, I'm making an A-A, B-B, C-C, A-A, D-D pattern!" selecting new colors to represent D-D. Then he added E-E and F-F before returning to A-A. He had taken my intentional, direct instruction to a new place. He later got frustrated with the whole thing and carefully removed all A-A blocks, leaving himself with just a the double-stutter version of his beloved alphabet, making it to about K before running out of distinct colors.

It was all over in about 10 minutes before he joined the other kids in making "long patterns." Still, I guess this moment is why I've persisted in "teaching" this all these years. A little bit of the water stayed at the top of the hill.

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Anonymous said...

So fun. I think there can be a good balance of intentional planning and following the child's lead/interest.
Thanks for sharing.

Enjoy your day!
Cathie J at toddlersthroughpreschool.com

Stephanie Tisdale said...

Hi Tom,

I enjoyed reading you blog post! I liked how you incorporated the use of building blocks into your lesson plan. I think it’s a neat way to approach students on learning the alphabet, even if some students drift away and make “tall patterns”.

Thanks for posting!

-Stephanie Tisdale, EDM310 student

Anonymous said...


You wrote: always will no evidence it's done anything but suck up oxygen.

Maybe you meant: always with no evidence it's done anything but suck up oxygen.

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