Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Following the Child: What Does that Look Like?

David
Last week my post, Follow the Child, Not the Program,  discussed the importance of taking our cues from the children we are teaching and not sticking slavishly to a program. This week I got an object lesson in just exactly what this means from my 14-month-old grandson, David. I had the opportunity to babysit David while his mom and dad were working and, it being one of the first really nice days of the spring in these parts, I decided to take him to the playground.  So off we went, car seat, diaper bag, snacks, and water bottles in tow on our little adventure.

Being a life-long teacher and not one to leave things to chance, of course, I had a lesson plan. I had been to this playground before with David's big sister, Schuyler, and I knew that it had a small sliding board that I thought would be just right for David. My plan called for me to introduce David to the sliding board, show him how to safely climb up on it, there were only three small steps, show him how to sit at the top and then guide his practice by helping him down and catching him safely at the bottom. Assessment would be based on the squeals of delight he would surely emit at this great pleasure his grandfather had introduced him to.

My plan broke down when David would have none of it. He did not like sitting at the top of the slide and shook his head, "No!" when I eagerly encouraged him to slide down. No amount of encouragement, cajoling, or insistence would sway him. David rose from his seat at the top of the slide, walked down the steps, indicated something he found interesting he saw off in the distance and toddled off away from me.

I was left to literally "follow the child" off into the field. What had attracted David was a clump of dandelions growing, bright and yellow, in the warm May sunshine, about twenty yards beyond the wood chip pit of the playground equipment. David sat down in the middle of this floral display, pointed to the flowers and said something that sounded like, "See this?" Well, I did see this and our sliding board lesson morphed into a science lesson on the color, shape, smell, construction, taste, and life cycle of the dandelion.

As I sat with David, we talked of yellow flowers and green stems, He tasted the flower, determining he did not care for the taste. I showed David a cottony dandelion gone to seed and how a puff of air made the seeds fly off in all directions. David thought this was terrific and I heard the squeals of delight as he blew on one puff ball and scattered the seeds willy-nilly.

In the end, David had a pleasurable learning experience with dandelions and his grandfather learned again that following the child leads to the most meaningful instruction.

But the classroom teacher can't just follow every child across the dandelion field. Lessons need to be planned and kids need literacy instruction. What does following the child look like in literacy instruction?

Following the child in reading instruction means assessing where the child is in the literacy learning process and then providing the instruction, guidance, prompting, questioning or resources needed by the learner.

So when I worked with struggling first-grade reader, Ryan, who informal assessments had shown me could identify no letters and only knew how to write his own name, and the words mom and dad, I did not start by introducing a letter of the day. I started with the letters r, m, and d in words he already knew how to write and which had special significance for him. Soon we added "t" for his brother Tommy, and then used the first letters of names of his classmates to teach other letters.

One place to follow the child is when we listen to children read. While reading children tell us what they know and don't know about words. As we follow their reading, we learn where to help and where to let them do the work. When readers get stuck we can use prompts to help them use the information available to decode a word. In Reading Recovery we called this "prompting at the point of difficulty" and it is a powerful way to help readers grow more proficient in their decoding. I discussed prompting in this post earlier this year.

One time I had a lesson planned for a guided reading group on a nonfiction book about the Statue of Liberty. Since the school where I was teaching was about 10 miles from Liberty Island, the home of the statue, I assumed the kids had a good deal of background information about the statue. I planned a quick introduction, but as I was presenting this brief introduction, it become apparent that the children did not know what I was talking about. I thought my lesson would founder if the students had so little prior knowledge, so I stopped the lesson and found a brief video online that filled in many of the knowledge gaps I thought the kids would need to read the text successfully.

Sometimes following the child means finding the right resource for them. When I was teaching seventh-grade, I had a reluctant reader named PJ. PJ was all freckles, red-hair, and smiles, until it came time to read, when the smile turned to a scowl and his freckled arms were crossed on his chest in defiance. I spoke to PJ about this. "I really don't like to read," he said.

From my assessments, I knew that PJ read on about a fifth-grade level. I asked, "What do you like?"

"My dog."

"Tell me about your dog."

PJ launched into an enthusiastic exposition of all the great things about his dog, about the fun they had together, about how he had to walk him when he got home form school and how he was responsible for cleaning up after him and feeding him and giving him fresh water every morning.

I walked PJ back to our classroom library. I pulled a copy of Sinbad and Me, by Kin Platt, off the shelf, showed PJ the cover with a boy and his English bulldog, Sinbad. I told PJ a little about the story. Steve and Sinbad were best pals and Sinbad helped Steve solve a mystery, while they got into all sorts of mischief themselves. I said, "Why don't you try it? Let me know what you think?" A week or so later PJ came to me, held up the book and asked, "Do you have anymore like this, Mr. Walsh?" It so happens I did.

Following the child can take many forms. What a teacher needs to do is keep her eyes and ears open. Ask questions. Give kids opportunities to talk. Watch them work. Listen to them read. If we get too tied up in our lesson plans and programmed learning, we may be missing the teachable moments children present to us every day.