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Sarah's Notes


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    Minerva Louise

    October 29, 2006

    Friday we do several things in my classroom. We assess, we reassess, we meet and fix things (Fix it Friday), chose the Student of the Week and give the lucky good example for all to see a Beanie Baby, have Food (usually related in some tangential way to the week's lessons) and if I can figure it out… come to some kind of end so the next week we can come to a beginning.

    This past Friday I started the morning telling my class about the bird that had flown in the classroom Thursday after they were at home. It wasn't interesting at all to them in a busy morning to listen to this story so I restarted my story 10 or 11 times, competing with the Principal on the loud speaker; a mom that wanted my attention; a phone call; a child with a story about a Halloween costume; a child that lost a baby tooth right then needing me to get a plastic bag, tissue, and to hold on to her for a minute and put the tooth sticker up on the tooth chart; my teacher friend Heidi popping in upset and in five seconds relating a whole story about a child and parent making her life miserable; running outside to a quickie flag salute I'd forgotten about.

    Then. there was the coming in and sitting back down on our Apple carpet--only to be distracted from my "tell" by a book that, if you push the buttons, makes a hooooo sound. In short my story was completely last in room priorities right after putting a finger in your ears. . . . Finally, finally, if only through the power of my desire to insist on it, my 1st graders allowed me the time to tell it.

    As I was talking, I was relating to them that the poor little trapped bird didn't know what a classroom was. I think it saw the lights as sky. I had to turn the lights off because it was crashing into them. Often a first grader will follow a disclosure like this with "Why?" So of course Gabriela led those choruses. Even though I had stated the "Why," I repeated, "I think the sky is where the light is. And that's what the bird thought was going on."

    It went round and round like this. I said the little bird would only stop on the paper edges of their portraits which are hung up high in the room, I think, because they were loose like leaves. So they said, of course, "Why?" Then I said I think the bird was getting exhausted from flying for two hours bashing things, because its beak was open and it was so still finally. And they said, "Why teacher? Why? Why? Why?"

    It went on this way a good while with lots of repetitions, where I searched for an alternative route to understanding and re-explained. Whether this is a second language issue, the nature of 6-year-olds, or within my relationship with these children, I don't know totally. But I was tiring and so I suggested we "move on" to the lessons of the day. Since I am expected to roll out the lessons of the literature basals I got out a story in the big Houghton Mifflin book called Minerva Louise Goes to School.

    In the story a chicken that is very naïve goes walking from the barn over the fields and into a school. We'd done several days of work on personification or anthromorphizing kinds of talk as the last several phonics stories had confusing realistic fiction, fiction, fantasy labels and cartoonish characters (called 'real' by the book) with a great deal of problematic genre categorizing. I'd taken on deeper issues related to things that are at times difficult for 6-year-olds related to author "intents." Also the use of characters to relate constructs of deeper meaning, fictional characters that teach "truths." These notions of stories that teach lessons and talk of how some ideas are at times more adequately conveyed fictionally can be rough going with young kids, but they are understandable. It's how people work. It's how we work.

    If you want to teach a rule to kids, there is nothing quite so real as fantasy. It's like Mark Twain said, we need fiction to be plausible, as real life isn't. Anyway, we are also working on my fairy tale and nursery rhyme theater in "sneak" time away from our scripts so this is a part of my "purposes" there too. To talk about genre and develop children who have the sound of these types of literature in their mind and understand well their purposes. Much is done with these devices.

    One of my talking points is, "Is this a lesson story?" or "Is this a story from a pretend world? Or is this a time when something "very different" must be "going on?" But in the end building the vocabularies around genres is something done far more effectively in thematic and literature based instruction. It's way harder in a set of fox, lox, box, pig, dig, fig, Sam Cat stories, and that is what I'm supposed to be using. It's a very difficult thing to explain but sounding is a piece of a puzzle in learning, but only a piece.

    Or as I found out a week or so ago, you end up labeling a story with a Pig putting things in a box "realistic fiction" because a box can hold things, overlooking the pig wearing the wig and a tan fox in its little hoof.

    Anyway, as we started this new big book story I asked the children to listen to the story of Minerva Louise carefully. I hadn't read it before, because I was behind in my prep work last week after my daughter was home with a kidney stone and my own health flagged with more gastro bleeding and chest pressure and pain--my daily life issues. So I was listening to teach it.

    In the story the chicken "sees" school as "another barn." It's kind of like an Amelia Bedilia tale, loads of mis-cues. Each thing Minerva encounters, she interprets and relates to what she knows. So the kid cubbies seem like hen boxes, the ball and glove in one cubbie to her is just an egg and nest. She mistakes pencils for nest materials. Eventually kids pick up on this--or my class did, probably ahead of me--and they announced in a satisfied way that Minerva thought she was "in another barn." So I pulled their trick and said, "Why?" Because "she doesn't really know, teacher, what a school is."

    Now this alone is a really good experience. We were relating and discussing how the chicken was personified, how the chicken mistook things for farm things, when Gabby La La yells out, "ITS JUST LIKE YOU, TEACHER."

    I have to say that when Gabby makes a connection, it's going to be a public moment. So I asked her to explain, though clearly we were going there anyway. She said, "You knows the birdy that was here yesterday night that was on our pictures and flying and hitting the lights because it was the sky was just like Minerva Louise."

    "Oh," I said. "You are so right Gabriela. The chicken and this bird were experiencing the same thing. They were seeing an experience through their own lens of perception." To which Gabriela said, "What is a lens?" I then said the way we see things is from what we know, to which she giggled.

    Kids are kind of smarter than they used to be. I was lucky to figure out basics like the chicken crossed the road. At 6, it wasn't within my understanding to flashback, debate fictional constructs, relate life through literature, in part because I had almost no literature experiences and just a Dick and Jane reader. . . no TV much except My Three Sons and Lucy and not really a vast set of references. I wasn't far however from nature and I spent a great deal of time in forests and fields acting on things. My lens was experiential. So I found it very interesting to have our long sustained conversation on the perceptions of bird and chicken about their way of looking at things.

    I decided to try something else. I asked my class if they thought Minerva Louise, who doesn't ever figure out she was even at a school, was "changed" or in some way affected by going there. I asked if they thought the little bird in our room had some kind of new way of looking at things, and one of my kids, a rather shy boy generally, said, "No I think that they just tried to see it their old way. It's not like they had a change like the Grinch in the Christmas story or like people have that learn something new and then do something. . . like you know. . . like you learn about Jesus so then you are trying to be a person who is being kind. I think this story is just about the chicken and the bird staying the same and not understanding."

    Well Sarah made a "connection" Friday too. I can write the why and how of this over the next few times I attempt writing again. What I think is happening at my school site in current reading instruction with things driven by NCLB and used here in southern CA is an Amelia Bedelia- or Minerva Louise-like experience. It's a giant miscue. A miss. It's a birds beating around inside a school and trying to see it like the trees and sky or a chicken reading the class as a barn. But it's not, as my child said, an epiphany perception. Or new way of looking. It's a way of going in with your set of glasses and going out still seeing what you wanted to see. And that's really too bad. What I saw FRIDAY was a group of children who took a story and used it to filter and understand something that was going on within our lives, within our experiences, and they used this to gain insight and depth in understanding.

    And seeing this, I realized my role, for the first time in a longtime, realized once more my position in the dialogs. I'm just the witness. I get to answer and ask a few questions and witness the process that is the understanding gained in classroom contexts from children working together to fit a whole lot of pieces together so that they can "change and grow." So they can not just be another Minerva Louise.

    If you want to build a ship don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

    —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

    But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?

    —James 2:20, King James Bible

    2006-11-15 02:05:51


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