My Bookshelf

Thursday, September 17, 2015

5 Reasons Students Need a Constructivist Educator

Way back in 1993, Alfie Kohn wrote a book, Punished by Rewards, which made a case for educators to eschew behaviorist approaches to teaching and learning and essentially embrace a constructivist mindset. Unfortunately, despite Kohn's powerful prose, pockets of draconian educational leaders and "If you don't eat your meat you can't have any pudding" educators still exist in 2015. Behaviorist ideals (often couched under the guise of "rigor") fuel their approach to teaching.  Needless to say, I've been reflecting upon these two approaches to pedagogy and in this blog post, argue five reasons why constructivism is a rigorous, complex, and essential approach to PK-16+ classroom instruction.

5.  Scaffolding:  Constructivist educators scaffold the learning.  Before engaging novices in a task that is new or complex, the teacher models for the students how to complete it while slowly handing over the responsibility to the learner.  Scaffolding is essential not only for successful accomplishment of a new task but necessary for inducing risk taking in a safe, non-threatening environment.  Most learners (depending on the task), from preschool through college, benefit from this sort of teaching.

4.  Knowledge Co-construction:  Constructivist educators root their beliefs in the idea that deep knowledge is constructed when social language mediates cognition.  Critical thinking and idea exploration are at the heart of this sort of teaching and learning.  Dialogic discourse environments are prevalent in these constructivist classrooms.  In such environments, students talk more than the teacher, the talk is utilized to advance the understanding of complex concepts, and discussion isn't a hand bidding war.  Educators who operate from a behaviorist perspective employ lots of hand bidding because knowledge is viewed as correct or incorrect.  There is only one right answer and that can be found in a textbook or somewhere in the mind of the teacher.

3.  Rigor:  This buzz word kind of annoys me, specifically as it relates to education.  However, for the sake of argument, I suggest that constructivist teaching is inherently rigorous.  Does that mean that mountains of homework is given or that students must sit in rows while the keeper of knowledge imparts their wisdom on the empty vessel?  No, not at all.  In a constructivist classroom students must negotiate deep understanding, engage in learning tasks that are complex, demonstrate accountability to their thinking, and reciprocate with the academic community. It is therefore, no surprise that constructivist teaching is hard-work. Educators must be comfortable with silence and wait time, must know how to scaffold and conduct effective think-alouds, must establish healthy emotional learning communities, and above all must differentiate to meet the vast needs of every learner in the classroom.

4.  Intrinsic Motivation:  Recently, a colleague shared with me a Ted Talk by Daniel Pink on the role of extrinsic motivators in the workplace.  Echoing Kohn's work from 20 years ago, Pink argued (with credible research to back him) that extrinsic motivators are useless.  In a constructivist classroom, the goal of the learner isn't the grade - it's the learning - it's critical thinking.  Hence, students seek understanding because they are driven to do so and their curiosity is embraced. However, when pedagogy is rooted in behaviorism, the goal of school is to get a good grade, please the teacher, and unknowingly become a bullet point on a school-wide "data wall".

5.  Relationships.  A culture of caring is at the heart of constructivist ideology.   Students are respected, valued, and appreciated for the knowledge and experiences that they bring with them to the learning environment.  These experiences are leveraged and honored as important tools in the learning.  As Nel Noddings so beautifully put it, "The student is infinitely more important than the subject matter".   Constructivist educators recognize, and more importantly, embrace the power of these words.

In closing, this blog post is meant to be a simple and straightforward commentary on why constructivism matters.  By no means is the depth of either constructivist or behaviorist approaches to teaching represented in these few words, yet hopefully, the soul of the subject matter is.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Dipthongs, Digraphs, and Blends...Oh My!

So this past week, my pre-service teachers began learning about various concepts associated with teaching word identification: phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, phonics, etc.  As we moved deeper into some of the phonics terms, students seemingly entered a bermuda triangle of confusion, intermixing dipthongs, digraphs, and blends.  This isn't the first time these concepts have caused trouble so I thought I would write a blog post to help clarify the individual differences present in the world of clusters, vowel and consonant.  For educators who must take the Foundations of Reading Test, these terms are important to know and understand as they will invariably be referenced on test questions.

Let's begin with a basic overview of definitions:

Consonant Blends - consonant pairs in which each consonant sound blends together:

          b+l = bl (two sounds in the blend /bl/  b and l)

Diphthong (a type of blend) – vowel pairs in which two vowel sounds blend together to make a unique sound (the vowel version of consonant blends) (note: y can act as a vowel as in oy)

          o+i = /oi/ two vowel sounds, o and i are blended together to create a unique sound; you can                 detect elements of each vowel in the dipthong

Vowel Digraphs - pairs of vowels that make only one sound (no blending of sounds present):
          ea = one vowel sound /ē/ represented by two letters

Consonant Digraphs are clusters of consonants that make only one sound (no blending of sounds present):
          /sh/ – one sound /sh/ represented by two letters

Here's a graphic representation:

Vowel Digraph
Consonant Digraph
Consonant Blend
How many letters?
Vowels or consonants?
How many sounds are present? (is the resulting sound a blend of two sounds or considered only one sound?)

Create your own examples:

Another trick that may help you distinguish digraphs from dipthongs and blends is to notice how your mouth moves when you pronounce them.  When you vocalize a digraph - your mouth doesn't need to move. However, when you vocalize a dipthong or blend, your mouth slides from one sound to another in order to blend them together.  Place your finger on the corner of your lip and notice how digraphs keep the mouth in place while dipthongs and blends make it move.  Try it and see!

Now that you've practiced understanding the difference between these terms, see if you can explain why the "ow" in show is considered a digraph but the "ow" in sow is considered a dipthong.  If you can answer this you're well on way to understanding the clusters discussed in this blog.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Book Review: The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo

Ohhh, I love the month of September.  Everything feels new again and I am typically hopeful for a positive and healthy new school year.  To be honest, this past summer, I did only a bit of professional reading and not nearly as much as I would've liked to. And like many of you, I really needed a hiatus from an uber stressful school year that I couldn't put behind me fast enough.  And so now I am off to new beginnings; refreshed and loving my job once again.

Today, a book arrived in my mailbox titled the The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo. Having been a big fan of Serravallo's text, Conferring with Readers, I was thrilled to see she had published a book about teaching a diversity of strategies to wide variety of readers.  Within this text, Serravallo has included a whopping 300 strategies to teach readers and writers at all levels, from emergent through proficient levels.  The content is diverse with skills and strategies for book handling, word recognition, fluency, comprehension, partner work, stamina, and on and on.

What differentiates this text from many other well meaning teacher books is that Serravallo's lessons are straightforward, clear, and and realistic to implement.  Intentionally brief, each lesson is approximately a page in length, matched to a reading level and genre, sites the skill that is the focus, and contains helpful teaching prompts for instruction.  Teachers who utilize frameworks like The Daily Five or Reading Workshop can really depend upon this text to facilitate whole group lessons, strategy groups,  and conferring.

Lastly, what is especially cool about this text is that each lesson includes a corresponding anchor chart or student work example.   I admit, I am an anchor chart junkie and this text will come in ridiculously handy for ideas.  The anchor charts Jennifer provides are simple, facilitate academic language, and you don't need an art degree to reproduce them.  Most importantly, they are useful and can facilitate growing readers and writers.

All in all, I highly recommend this book for both pre-service and practicing educators.

Happy September!
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