How we teach an academic subject is important; the social context in which we teach it is equally critical.
One day in early February, Tanya, one of the teachers of the Fireflies, a preschool class of four-year-olds, came into the lounge at lunch time and said: “We have had an outbreak of writing in the Fireflies today.”
“Really, that’s great,” I said. “What do you mean?”
“Well, just that. It was a little epidemic.”
“Huh. Wow. What happened?”
“It happens every year right about this time. You know how we always label the kids’ work? You know how if they make a picture, we ask them about it, and then we write what they say on a strip of paper and put it under the picture when we hang it on the wall? Or if they create something with blocks and want to save it, we make a sign saying: Kaya. Please save? Well, today, when I was starting to do that for Isabella, she stopped me and said, “No, wait! I want to do it.” And she did. She not only wrote “Isabella,” but she also copied ‘please save’ from the sign on another structure. In no time, other kids who were building in the block area saw her do that and wanted to do it, too. They read her sign and then made their own for their buildings. Then Mia, who had just finished a painting, asked for a marker so she could put her name on her painting. It went on like that all day, until about half the kids had at least written their own names.”
Literacy is a natural act for Homo sapiens in a literate culture. Children pick it up like they pick up oral language. It’s not that we don’t have to teach it; teaching is very important, and with different learning styles making sure all the kids learn to read and write is challenging. The students will need to practice, too. No one can achieve mastery right away. But good instruction and student practice must happen in the right context, too.
What are the key elements of that context? Here are seven that are evident from this one incident.
- A general, unspoken understanding that we are all on our way to being educated people and that includes (but by no means limited to) reading and writing in our own language. “High Expectations” doesn’t exactly say it; rather it is taken for granted that we will all be literate.
- Writing is a part of real life, and it’s value and uses are obvious.
- Teachers model the behavior that they want the students to exhibit. (Teacher writes; I want to write.)
- Observant teachers know the children–their interests, their gifts, their quirks, how their minds work, and are watching for learning opportunities.
- A playful, atmosphere where the kids are the origins of activity. (The teachers have carefully created structure which foster this self-directed learning.)
- The social context is safe. An atmosphere in which early mastery is better than late mastery is counter productive for all. Kids are naturally designed to try and fail and try again as long as they can avoid embarrassment.
- There are many ways for kids to show their stuff. The more multi-dimensional the classroom is, the fewer children will have the experience that they are stupid or deficient because they can’t write or read yet.
What about those kids who weren’t ready to write yet? “All in good time,” must be the attitude. Many of the mistakes that adults make with children can be reduced to trying to get “results” too soon. We maximize academic potential when we keep our eye on the long haul and give ourselves the time. Negative side effects attend trying to get results before results can be gotten. Teacher confidence that the children will learn has a powerful impact on the children’s belief that they can learn. It is always a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In education so often it’s not so much what we do. Kids do not expect or need perfection from us. Our mental state when we do it that fosters or inhibits growth like water or drought affects a plant.