Here’s why I enjoy working with the students and teachers at my public charter school in the Bronx: The school’s pedagogy, including its unusual materials and techniques, sparks the kids’ intellectual excitement and investment, with minimal input from the teachers and surprising output from the students. I’m fortunate because as staff trainer, I get to work in many classrooms from kindergarten through 5th Grade. I’m often stunned yet invigorated by what I see the children doing when the teacher sets up the situation carefully.
Here’s an example from a 2nd Grade classroom today. While most of the class worked on independent assignments at their seats, the teacher (let’s call her Ms. X) and I took a small group of students to the room’s back wall, which was covered with 20 large color-coded word charts. Each chart has from 20 to 30 randomly placed words. Charts 1-10 show vocabulary with more conventional spellings (pat, pot, tip, home, egg, same…) while Charts 11-20 contain many words that show how wacky English spelling can get (isle, aisle, amoeba, rhythm, tough, cough, bough, through, sword…).
The words are color coded in that the same color = the same pronunciation. For example, the letter e in he is colored a bright red, as are the ea in eat, the i in khaki, the ey in key, and the oe in amoeba. This frees the students to use their sight to decode new and unusual words on the charts, like conscientious. They can work almost independently of a teacher.
Ms. X’s students had recently decoded the word adjective and they seemed to know its meaning. So I introduced this game. With a pointer, I tapped out the following phrase on the charts:
Today I feel very __________ because…
For the blank, I merely tapped an empty space on the wall above the charts. I asked the students to finish the first part of the sentence (the blank) using an appropriate word from the charts, then finish the “because…” part with anything they wanted.
They supplied, orally, a few examples like Today I feel very fantastic because it is a summer day and Today I feel very capable because I wrote two pages in my notebook.
Then I upped the ante. I said (1) they had to use words from Charts 11 – 20 for the blank, and (2) they each had to write down their sentences in their notebook.
Here’s where it got interesting. Four of the students (let’s call them Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel) individually searched the advanced-level charts, found appropriate words, wrote sentences, and chatted about whether a particular word was an adjective or not. They were having fun. Some of their early sentences:
- Today I feel very quiet because I want to play with my family and elephant.
- Today I feel very courageous because I got 100% on my spelling test.
- Today I feel very awkward because I got fired from my job.
- Today I feel very bored because I didn’t get any work.
- Today I feel very poor because I lost my house.
- Today I feel very capable because I did a handstand.
- Today I feel very tough because I beat my sister up.
- Today I feel very awesome because I had a good lunch break.
But a fifth student (Cher) looked unhappy. She said she was upset because she didn’t know what an adjective was. She seemed quite distraught. So Ms. X and I took her to a separate desk and had her open her notebook to a fresh page. I wrote on it:
I am a ___________ girl.
I asked her to write a word in the blank to make a good sentence. She wrote happy.
Then I said, “Write another word below happy which would also work in the sentence.”
She wrote tough.
I asked her to now make a list of words below happy and tough, all of which would work in the sentence. She worked slowly and still seemed nervous, but ended up with this list:
I wrote a second sentence:
Right now I feel very ______.
She wrote the following list of words that would work in the blank. (Some of the spellings were later corrected.)
I circled both of her lists and said, “All of these words are adjectives. You use them all the time. You already know them.”
Ms. X and I told her to turn to a new page and write new sentences using these adjective words. We left her alone.
Back at the charts, Fred, Ethel, Lucy and Ricky had written many sentences and were looking for more adjectives. They came across the word conscientious which they quickly decoded because the colors allowed them to. This was one word they didn’t know the meaning of, so I gave them an example.
Each student ended up writing a page or more of great sentences. Here’s a slew of them (with minor spelling corrections for things like tic-tac-toe):
- Today I feel very special because my mom made me soup.
- Today I feel very exhausted because I played all day.
- Today I feel very different because I never cried before.
- Today I feel very capable because I robbed a bank.
- Today I feel very courageous because I’m going to do a backflip.
- Today I feel very awesome because I got a hundred on my test.
- Today I feel very bored because there is nothing to do.
- Today I feel very dumb because I got 0% on my test.
- Today I feel very tough because I beat my sister at tic-tac-toe.
- Today I feel very conscientious because I helped my sister clean her room.
- Today I feel very exhausted because I played all day.
- Today I feel very different because I turned ten.
- Today I feel very dizzy because I hit my head.
- Today I feel very awkward because I got interested in a girl.
- Today I feel very special because my mom loves me.
- Today I feel very special because I have special clothes.
- Today I feel different because I turned nine.
The four had worked with incredible joie de vivre on this.
When Ms. X and I got back to Cher, we saw she had written and numbered the following sentences:
- I feel very anxious because my birthday is today.
- My mom is taking me to the park and I am glad.
- I am very small because I am one year old.
- I was brave and fought the monster in my sister’s closet.
- I am mad because my brother gets all the credit.
- I am embarrassed because at school I got teased.
- I feel fantastic because I got a 100 on my test.
- It was very awkward when my brother’s pants fell down.
- My dad is very tough. He picked up my mom’s couch!
- I am sad because my bike broke to pieces.
- I am sick because my nose caught a cold.
- I am scared of going by myself in the dark.
- I am healthy because of eating all my fruits and vegetables.
For me, this was a great day to be in 2nd Grade. Why? Because Ms. X and I did very little, while the students did a lot. Four of the five ran with the task, and the fifth needed just a little help to get over an obstacle. She ended up writing some powerful sentences that seemed to tap into her inner world, and at the end of the class she seemed calmer for it.
I left the room amazed at the powers of these 2nd Graders and their output. It was a rush for me, which is why I’m writing about it here.
I call it “Life Without Parkinson’s.”