BETSY DEVOS? NEED A PENCIL? TAKE A NOTE: We do not teach and learn wisely and well if certain sturdy stances aren’t in our repertoire. This is a Listening-Conversing-Questioning-Routine from “my” high poverty-high achieving school.

Mrs. M: You’re going to write about your grandmother’s kitchen table, Milo?

Milo, his notebook closed, nods.

What’s the memory attached to the table?  (The 5th graders are writing stories connected to important objects in their lives.)

Milo shrugs. Don’t know. He slaps the notebook open and riffles through pages tagged with post-its.

Wow. You’ve marked all your notebook entries that relate to the table. You’ve got a lot!

Milo and Mrs. M go head-to-head and read the entries silently. Mrs. M learns that Milo lives with his Granny and Mom, how the light plays on the table from the window in the kitchen door, about the honey tones of the wood surface, and how Milo always sits at the same spot at the table.

You always sit at the same place?

Yup. He points to another flagged entry. I like how the sun comes in the door window and warms my back.

Cozy. What else?

I watch my Granny cook oatmeal every morning from my seat. Milo looks at his teacher and smiles. Earlier he’d read an entry to the class about how when he was little he could hardly wait for his Granny to finish stirring brown sugar and golden raisins into the thick, bumpy oatmeal. Once he was so excited he’d knocked his chair over.

Are you going to write about the time the chair tipped over with you in it?

Milo shakes his head.

Mrs. M waits.

I sit at the gash.

The gash?

Milo sits straight and points to the pencil groove on the desk. It’s about this long but deeper.

Is it an inlay table–you know with decorative carving on it?

It’s not a design. It’s from the knife.

It’s like Milo has dropped a fishing line into a memory lagoon and snagged onto something he’d forgotten.

It’s from a knife?

The carving knife.

A carving knife?

My Dad had it.

Was he carving the turkey, and it slipped?

Nah. He wasn’t carving no turkey!

What was he doing?

Fighting with my Mom. I was hiding.

Where were you hiding?

Behind the door. It was wide open. I could feel the cold on my feet.

What happened?

He’d burst into the kitchen and grabbed the knife. It was in that wooden knife holding thing on the counter.

Then what?

He chases Mom around the table.

With the knife?

He’s waving it. Mom’s screaming. Milo pauses. Then he sees me.

Behind the door?

I’m peeking. Through the window. On my tiptoes.

And he…?

He stabs the knife into the table. And runs out the door.

So the gash you always sit at…?

Milo nods. I sort of forgot how it got there ‘til now. He picks up his pencil.  I never saw him again. He turns to a clean notebook page. I put my pencils in it now. He makes a margin on the left side of the page. When I was little I stood my Lego men in it.


Note from PATTY:I wrote this in 10/14/12 and feel it would be helpful for the new education czar to learn what it looks like in schools where, despite high-poverty, the students are high-achievers, where the teachers have finely tuned their skills at listening and questioning. You can’t teach a child until you know what he’s bringing to school with him besides his trapper keeper and empty lunch box. Teaching memoir as a genre is one way of helping kids get a handle on who they are and what they’ve got going for them to value and develop. 

Vogel-Wetmore School Closes the Achievement Gap with WordsWordsWords. Another Story from These High-Achieving/High-Poverty Classrooms I’m Watching.

Words for How to Close the Gap: Or How to Talk to the Elephant

FACT:  Within the first four years of life, children from welfare families hear 13 million words; children from working-class families hear 26 million words; children from professional families hear 45 million words.

FACT: Words are the soil for growing knowledge; well-composted soil is going to work way better than thin soil.

FACT: The elephant in our high-poverty classrooms is the WORD GAP.

Since language is the basis of reading and writing, words have star billing in Vogel-Wetmore’s high-achieving, high-poverty classrooms.

I don’t see commercial kits with names like Build a Strong Vocabulary. I don’t see flash cards. I don’t see word lists to memorize.

I do see classrooms where students build concrete vocabulary by interacting with a complex learning environment. I see a wide, rich use of words.

Choral reads, Chants, and Readers Theater: We need to hear a word multiple times to get it into our functioning memory. Rich literature that tickles the tongue and pleases the palate provides enough repetition for the heard words to become reading sight words.

Accountable Talk: I overhear both teachers and students seriously responding to and further developing what others in the group have said. How do you know that? Can you give me some examples? Where did you find that information?  Can you show us which part of the text tells you that info? What do you mean? I know that because it says here…Can you explain that more? Say more about that. Here’s what I heard you say. Is that what you meant?

Labeled Rooms: I see signs on objects. This is the faucet; please keep it turned off to conserve. This is the pencil sharpener; use it judiciously.

I hear teachers read aloud. A lot.

I see teachers write in front of the class and then say, In your writing today, do what I just did to tell more in other words. Some of our students come into reading through the writing door.

Small reading groups meet several times a week. And it’s all about reading and discussing the words.

Students attend to words. Throughout writing and reading, math, and the content areas,I hear kids compare, combine, and contrast words; use more specific words; identify or change a word’s part of speech or tense; use the root or affix; visualize or act out a word.

Classrooms have access to several paperback book rooms.

A new study confirms what these teachers know: Understanding basic words may come from a flash of initial insight more than repetition. But the flashes of insight need the whetstone of a fertile environment. Or retention is nil.

I walk by the book rooms–the doors stay wide open and welcoming; sunlight pours in the tall windows of this ancient building; and I think, This is what it’s all about, creating readers who read, and listen, and talk–and, along the way learn tons of words.

And close that gap.

Patty 9/22/12