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28 February 2005: Second Time Around (5 of 6)

It was great fun, really. Short lessons, engaging material, and the best part was that if something went horribly wrong, it would be over very quickly. Then, before the end of my second week, I ran into some planning difficulties.

I found that the second class I taught at each grade level was between one and two days ahead of the other class. Consistently. At first, I tried to ignore it. I made adjustments in my planning to allow for more sponge activities. I planned extra individual work. I carried around a backup plan in the form of a Spanish picture book, word search, whatever.

One day, fifth grade class #2 asked why they always finished projects faster than fifth grade class #1.

I could no longer pretend that I didnít notice the discrepancy. We talked about it for a few minutes. I suggested that once youíve done something, the second time you can usually adjust things that didnít work so well and improve upon the things that did work. For this reason, I explained, they essentially had a more experienced Spanish teacher than fifth grade class #1.

01 March 2005: Second Time Around (6 of 6)

For better or worse, Iím the kind of person that can ignore nearly any uncomfortable reality until the moment when I verbalize it. Once Iíve said it, I have to acknowledge it. You canít put the toothpaste back in the tube.

So, I sit here and I think about the larger implications for my humbling and fairly obvious realization. What does this mean for public education? Am I advocating departmentalization at the elementary level? Am I suggesting that districts and others should invest more in elementary teacher training and retention? Am I criticizing teachers who use their experience to become more set in their ways, rather than more effective?

Well, yes. I guess in the end, I am in favor of departmentalization (which at elementary schools is usually called team teaching), teacher retention and meaningful professional development.

But, more than that, I will not surprisingly take this opportunity to make a point about teacher retention in inner-city schools. It's notorious in my state that the lowest performing schools often have teachers with little experience who are less likely to have professional training or certification. Of course, NCLB is supposedly designed to remedy that, but that's another story.

In the end, it is the lack of experienced teachers that is just one more thing contributing to the dismal achievement of many public schools.

02 March 2005: A Nice Gesture (1 of 5)

On February 23, 2005, the University of Chicago Science Daily published a report by the University of Chicago entitled "Teaching Math Two Ways at the Same Time Boosts Learning." For a link to the complete report, click .

The premise of the study was to determine how teaching math algorithms verbally and with gestures would enhance the learning of third and fourth grade students. But the study wasn't just about teaching with gestures. It was about using gestures to offer a different problem solving method than the one being described verbally.

This is how the mismatched gesture-and-speech lesson worked:

The students were taught to find a missing number in an equation with two separate approaches. For example, the problem 6 + 4 + 3 = __ + 3 can be solved in two ways: either by following the algorithm "add up the numbers on the left side of the equation and subtract the number on the right," or by following the principle "both sides of the equation must add up to the same number."

A child was given the equation and the teacher explained the equalizing principle by saying both sides need to have the same numerical value. But at the same time, the teacher pointed at the 6, 4 and 3 on the left side of the equation and then produced a "flick away" subtract gesture under the 3 on the right side of the equation, which signaled the "add-subtract" algorithm.

The other interesting thing noted by the researchers was that students who were taught both strategies verbally (without any gestures) performed significantly lower on the performance task. Where the "mismatched gesture-and-speech lesson" was given, students averaged three out of six correct answers. Where only verbal instruction was used, students averaged only one out of six.

03 March 2005: A Nice Gesture (2 of 5)

After reading the article a few times, I became curious as to the researcher's background. Sure enough, she's a Psychology professor. It struck me that what this researcher called "teaching with gestures" has a different name in the education community: modeling.

The teacher discribed a problem-solving procedure, simultaneously demonstrating a different problem-solving procedure. Is there a teacher education program on the planet that isn't sold out for modeling? Teacher modeling is often regarded as by far the most effective method for teaching things such as procedures and values.

Some examples from the classroom: Teacher models paragraph organization in front of the class. Teacher models love of reading through sharing books and stories and reading to, with, and in front of their students. Teacher models respect for students by not raising her voice or making derrogatory comments. Teacher models the use of a math algorithm to solve a problem.

Teacher modeling is so central to accepted methodology that even very scripted elementary school curricula have pre-written the strategies teachers are to model!

04 March 2005: A Nice Gesture (3 of 5)

But what about this gesturing thing? Can we talk for a minute about how effective that is? Imagine teaching the lesson described above while using your outstretched arms as a scale. "This side weighs thirteen, but this side only weighs three. What do we need to do to tip the scale and make them equal?" I think in this case a physical illustration of the principles at work would have supported the students' learning even more.

At first glance, it would be easy to say that gesturing is only useful in teaching things that lend themselves to gesturing, such as equivalencies. But in an elementary school classroom, there's almost nothing that doesn't lend itself to gesture.

I had a colleague who taught her students to check for periods at the end of sentences by a swift jab in the air with her index finger and saying, "period." She would do it most of the time when she spoke, read, or wrote in front of the class. Before long, she didn't have to say it, just make the gesture. The students made the gesture as well. Not only did they include periods in their writing, but they included them in their oral reading and speaking.

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teaching quote of the day

Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.

- Chinese proverb

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