The Goldilocks Zone

Lately I’ve been thinking about how to find the balance of material that is within the children’s grasp, but that stretches them–material that is masterable, but appropriately challenging.  

goldilocksA few of the educational terms that come readily to mind with this discussion are the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) and “scaffolding.”  

“The zone of proximal development is the gap between what a learner has already mastered (the actual level of development) and what he or she can achieve when provided with educational support (potential development)…. In a classroom setting, the teacher is responsible for structuring interactions and developing instruction in small steps based on tasks the learner is already capable of performing independently — an instructional strategy known as scaffolding.”   -Heather Coffey (http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/5075)

For another good read on understanding scaffolding, check out this previous post.  

Now, this is all well and good when you’re in the classroom with your students and planning learning activities and objectives for next week after having observed how they’ve done this week.  Or if you’re an experienced teacher who knows second graders pretty well because you’ve been teaching a batch of them for years.  But that’s not always the case.

Precise estimation of a group’s ability is key, and when you haven’t met the group yet (as first year teachers haven’t) such precision in estimation seems almost unfathomably difficult.  Not to mention it’s an oxymoron…

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If you underestimate their abilities, the students will be underwhelmed and bored.  They may also read your estimation as a limitation on their capacity. Their self-perception of their ability could diminish and they could stop trying.  

On the other hand, if you overestimate your students and have unreasonably high expectations, they may get disheartened and give up.  

Erring on either side could have detrimental effects on your students’ achievement.
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I’m finding myself needing to gauge the choral potential of a mixed group of third through sixth graders without having met the students.  My plan as of right now is to solicit advice from my colleagues and mentors and have enough pieces in my repertoire to adjust as necessary once we get rolling.  I imagine this is a hurdle most first year teachers face, and I welcome any discussion on the matter.

The Wisdom of Age

Both my grandfathers are medical professionals.  My mom’s dad, Grandpa Gary, was a neuropathologist (now retired) who taught at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.  My dad’s father, Grandpa Laurin, had his own dental practice for decades and now teaches pediatric dentistry at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Their credentials speak for themselves, but suffice it say they are both highly educated.  They are also the men who raised my parents and I value their opinions.

Recently, in conversations with them, they each validated my career choice in a meaningful way.  Seeing as this is for other future teachers out there, I thought you also might appreciate how the wisdom of age condones what we do.  Disclaimer: as the music teacher on the writers’ panel, this is pretty music-centric.  

imgresGrandpa Gary is a very talented pianist.  He went halvsies with his dad to buy a piano when he was young and has been practicing ever since.  Last week, my family drove out to Virginia to celebrate his eightieth birthday with him.  One evening, while the rest of the family was lighting the bonfire, Grandpa and I found ourselves in his parlor with his nine-foot, concert grand Bechstein piano.  I knew he’d been working on a Rachmaninoff concerto, so I asked him to play it for me.  Hearing live music reminds me why I love music, and why I’ve chosen to become a music teacher.  Listening to my grandpa play was no exception.  After the piece, we talked about its beauty and complexity and he played a few of his favorite parts for me again.  Then we walked outside to join the rest of the family in the backyard.  I will always remember our conversation that evening.

“Isn’t music wonderful?” Grandpa mused.

“Yes.  It truly is,” I agreed.

“If only I’d been smart and starved and done music.”

“Really?” I knew he loved music, but I hadn’t expected that. “So, if you could go back and do it all again?”

“In a heartbeat.” He didn’t even pause.  A cousin came and diverted his attention and I was left pondering my own path.  Here I am, nearing the end of my college days and the beginning of my teaching days, and so far all the days I can see in either direction are full of music.  I had thought it was a pretty good gig and Grandpa’s affirmation sealed my opinion.  Point for the aspiring music teacher.    

On our way home from Virginia, we drove through Wisconsin. (I know, not exactly en route, but why not, right?)  We stayed with my dad’s parents.  Grandpa Laurin will tell you he doesn’t have musical talent.  He sings emphatically and on pitch during church, I know that much. And he plays CDs virtuosically.  Early in our stay this trip, I followed the sound of Italian arias into Grandpa’s study to find the empty CD case for Italian love arias atop his CD player.  A couple days later, Grandpa asked me about my classes this fall.  I told him I’d be taking music history, vocal pedagogy, pre-student teaching, singing with BYU Women’s Chorus, and starting up a children’s choir.  My music-dominant schedule inspired an impromptu reminiscence about his music teacher in school.  imgres

“She sang opera and played the piano to accompany herself during lunch.  She made us listen to arias and Negro spirituals.  I thought it was dumb.” Grandpa got a little choked up.  “I thought it was dumb, but now my favorite music is aria and Negro spirituals.  Where did I get that?  It was from her.”  My tough-as-nails grandpa who never cries got a lump in his throat and paused as he recounted how he’d tried to find his old music teacher to thank her, but she’d already died.  Both our eyes were glistening as he regained composure by focusing on the computer problem my dad was helping him solve.

As I’ve been mulling over these two episodes, I’ve felt very blessed to have grandfathers who value music and education the way I do.  The seal of approval means a lot coming from two college professors with a more than a few decades each of life experience. Not to mention they’re my two favorite old guys around.

Education in Zion

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“Since the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830, education has been vital in the endeavor to become a Zion people—a people who are pure in heart and mind and live together in peace and unity.” – C. Terry Warner

“Our education must never stop. If it ends at the door of the classroom on graduation day, we will fail.” – Henry B. Eyrin

“Education is the power to think clearly, the power to act well in the world’s work, and the power to appreciate life.” – Brigham Young

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“It is so important that you young men and you young women get all of the education that you can. The Lord has said very plainly that His people are to gain knowledge of countries and kingdoms and of things of the world through the process of education, even by study and by faith. Education is the key which will unlock the door of opportunity for you. It is worth sacrificing for. It is worth working at, and if you educate your mind and your hands, you will be able to make a great contribution to the society of which you are a part, and you will be able to reflect honorably on the Church of which you are a member. My dear young brothers and sisters, take advantage of every educational opportunity that you can possibly afford…”  – Gordon B. Hinckley

As Church leaders throughout history have affirmed, education is one of God’s priorities for His children.

Modern revelation makes our Heavenly Father’s opinion even clearer,

“And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom.

“Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;education-OaksGrad-ressurection-lf

“Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—

“That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you” (D&C 88:76–80).

For me, the realization that all things pertain to the kingdom of God and are therefore expedient for me to understand was a humbling moment.  In order to be an effective servant in my Father’s kingdom, I need to learn everything I can.

imagesGiven our recent celebration of Pioneer Day, I wanted to highlight the way our ancestors have focused on education and learning by putting in a plug for BYU’s Education in Zion exhibit.  Located in the Joseph F. Smith building, the permanent exhibit features quotes, stories, videos, and artifacts documenting the Church’s history of education.  One of my mentors at BYU suggested that we, as future teachers, visit the exhibit once a semester to renew our perspective and recommit to our choice to teach.  I haven’t always gone that often, but I’ve visited it many times and definitely feel like a more purpose-centered educator for having gone.  It’s on my list of top five things I would encourage everyone who visits BYU to see. So if you haven’t been, or if you have but it’s been awhile, consider this an invitation to learn and be edified.

In the words of Brigham Young, “A good school teacher is one of the most essential members in society.”  So it’s quite appropriate that at a university bearing his name, we have this unique opportunity to learn about our role in the society of the Saints.

http://educationinzion.byu.edu/

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Scheduling Our Schooling

In about a month, hundreds of students and parents will be flooding the stores for the annual ritual of back-to-school shopping.  When they get home, houses will abound with the smell of blank paper and the sound of shrink-wrapped folders being opened. The old school crowd (like me) will convert brown paper grocery bags into book covers for history, math, and biology textbooks. I still remember the excitement of walking into class on the first day of school (wearing a carefully chosen outfit) with my brand-new, freshly sharpened pencils at the ready.  The crisp autumn breeze would dismiss the lazy days of summer and declare the beginning of a new school year.  Even the symbol of an apple for the teacher hints at the agrarian calendar on which most of our school systems are based.

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But is the traditional school schedule, nine months on, three months off actually ideal?  I’m not really sure.  (You may have guessed by now that I often enjoy playing devil’s advocate with these ideas.)

Some of the arguments in favor of year round education (YRE) include:

  • Frequent breaks provide students and teachers opportunities to recharge and return to school refreshed and ready to learn and teach.
  • Having a series of shorter breaks rather than a 3 month break in the summer
    may improve retention of the material studied throughout the year.  Without a huge gap in which students forget everything they’ve learned, they don’t need to spend as much time reviewing and can therefore spend more time learning new material.
  • YRE schools can accommodate more students by placing different groups of kids on different tracks.
  • Families with kids on the same track often develop a strong bond and rapport with the teachers on that track.
  • Breaks scattered throughout the year can be convenient for family vacations.

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On the other hand:

  • What if families end up with kids on different tracks? Not so convenient anymore.
  • Having more student traffic throughout the school year increases maintenance costs.
  • Teacher collaboration opportunities could be limited when teachers are on different tracks.
  • The lack of an extended summer break closes the door on some summer camp and teen employment opportunities.
  • Teachers pursuing continuing education/training efforts often offered in the summer would need to find other opportunities for further training–that scheduling could get complicated.

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The YRE issue is one without a clear best option.  In reading up on it, the general vibe I’m getting is that if it were to be successful, it would have to be a universal undertaking.  If only a few schools opted for the YRE route, they would be out of sync with the rest of their districts and conferences for things like sports and festivals.  If elementary schools were on board, but high schools weren’t, families with students in both schools wouldn’t have many opportunities to travel because someone would always be in school.

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Personally, I’d like to see how this arrangement would work if everyone gave it a shot.  Doing things the way they’ve always been done for the sake of tradition when the cause for doing things that way has expired doesn’t seem like a compelling enough argument.

As a teacher, I’d like to see the time spent in the classroom utilized to maximum effectiveness.  The last few weeks of school before summer are typically thrown away because the teachers are tired and daydreaming about summer just as much as the kids.  The energy and resolve that characterizes the beginning of the school year often wanes before the first break comes along.  I think the much needed recharge for students and teachers by having more frequent breaks outweighs the maintenance costs and scheduling inconveniences.  Teaching is a high energy job and learning is a high energy endeavor.  In the marathon of a child’s education, it seems intuitive that a more consistent schedule would be a more enjoyable experience that would also yield more lasting results.  It’s almost like a tortoise and the hare story–sprint September to May and sleep June through August or progress steadily all year.

School-Calendars

I am a product of the traditional school schedule and it definitely worked for me.  I LOVE summer and probably would have thrown a fit if my summers had been threatened by educational activists who thought they knew what was good for me. So maybe it’s just my experiemental mentality that wants to see this in action, maybe despite having grown up where the grass is green, I can’t help but wonder how green it actually is on the other side.  By the end of summer break, I was always so ready to jump back into school–maybe that motivation would wane if kids were in school all year.  Like I said, I don’t have the answers.  But I’ve shared my ideas.  And as always, yours are welcome here.