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Friday, April 3, 2015

What I Know To Be True

Recently, I read some tweets from a high school teacher. In it she shared her lack of faith that engagement and choice were important in the classroom. That discussing classic literature was more important than choice reading, even if students weren’t engaged. Then, I read an article in The Atlantic that implied that motivation really doesn’t lead to gains in the classroom.

To that, I can simply say, “Really?”

Research is important, but I think we can find “research” to support almost any claim you want. There are questions that my friends who read research know to ask – who performed the research, what was control, how large was the study, was it unbiased, who funding it, etc. Those questions are important. But I think also important is what I know in my heart to be true.

Engagement matters. Choice matters. Motivation matters. I see it every day I teach.

Yesterday, my student teacher was observed by her university supervisor. She taught a mini-lesson on inference and then they moved off to read and write independently. While her supervisor got caught up on notes, I moved around the room to check-in with kids, ask them what they were reading and writing, and help a few find books. I then met with her supervisor for a quick meeting before he met with my student teacher.

In our meeting he asked how I saw the kids applying this lesson in tomorrow’s work. I replied that we didn’t have school Friday or Monday, but where I saw it headed next week. He looked at me in surprise and asked when the end of our school day was. I looked up at the clock and replied that we had about an hour left. He looked puzzled and then made a comment that maybe the kids were trying to quickly finish their homework before break, and that was why they had been so hard at work in the independent work period.

I smiled and explained that they had no homework. Jackson was writing a song; Andrew and Isaiah were researching dog breeds; Ethan was working on a poem; Katy, Teya, Preston, and Cal were discussing a series that they were all in different books in; and on and on. I hadn’t assigned any of that. I had simply asked them to read or write what they wanted. So yes, sixty minutes before a four-day break, my students were hard at work. They were engaged, they had choice, and I know how much that matters.

On Wednesday my second period class had the opportunity to Skype with a class of student teachers at a university in Pennsylvania. We were Skyping in to teach these students why picture books matter in the upper grades. I had asked my students for their opinions, we created a top ten list from that, and we began. I started the Skype visit with a few books I have used lately and why, then we shared our top ten, and then the students were going to ask my kids questions.

When we reached that part of the Skype visit, I felt a bit of trepidation. What could they possibly want to know from this group of fifth graders? They asked some great questions, but the one that stopped me in my tracks was, “What makes a great reading teacher?”

My students shot their hands up.

She surrounds you with books.

She writes.

Book talks.

She doesn’t make you read at just one level.

She wants you to read whatever you want.

She cares about what you like to read and write.

She likes graphic novels.

She knows that graphic novels and picture books are “real reading.”

She gives you choice.

She is a reader too.

My heart swelled as I listened to these beautiful kids. And then, one of my kids sitting on the floor by my legs tapped me. I glanced over and she whispered, “She loves us.”

Oh geez.


Looking at these two experiences I saw my students through fresh eyes – they eyes of a university supervisor, and the eyes of these college students. Sometimes it is beneficial to take a step back, especially at this time of year, and see what you have accomplished. Maybe The Atlantic doesn’t think motivation is important. Maybe there are teachers out there who do not believe that choice or engagement matter in the scheme of things. But watching my students, I can tell you with my entire heart that I think choice and engagement are the keys to motivation. And motivation will inspire learning. (So will relationships, but I digress.) J  I wouldn’t want to teach without these beliefs, and I wouldn’t want my children in a classroom with a teacher who didn’t believe this either. You can throw all of the research around that you want, but this I know to be true.