Sunday, May 30, 2010

At last - a book by an inspirational teacher.

Someone recommended that I ought to acquire and read this book and, in March, through the magic of Amazon , I bought myself a copy. All I can say - it was a great buy. A book that every beginning teacher should read, even just for the honesty about the real life of a teacher. All teachers also would enjoy it as it reflects the reality of teaching - a a change from the academic 'experts' who seem to fly at 30000 feet above schools dropping down their 'researched' advice unable to see the very different experiences of the teachers who have to comply.

This book , written by Julie Diamond, is what it's subtitle says - 'a year in the lives of children'. As reviewer, American Educationalists Deborah Meier, writes . 'A rare and special pleasure to read - capturing as it does why it is that some of us can never get enough of teaching'.

For me it stands alongside another wonderful book, Elwyn's Richardson's 'In the Early world' ( still available from the NZCER). Elwyn's book cover his experience teaching over a number of years in the 1950s. Julie's book, in contrast, focuses on one year in the life of a year one class ( in the USA a kindergarten class).

'Welcome to the Aquarium' is a compelling personal account of teaching full of wise advice on how to set up and maintain an effective and caring classroom. I can't think of any recent book which talks about teaching through the eyes of a teacher. It is wonderful change from the dry academic books on education that are more commonly available;books that develop their 'wisdom' from a safe academic distance.

This is a real story -about the ups and downs, the fun and frustration, of being a teacher working with a range of very different individuals. In such a dynamic environment, as teachers well know, there can be no 'best practice' that can be simply implanted in their rooms.

Julie Diamond is a New York teacher writing her book after twenty five years in a classroom. Some of this time was spent teaching in an alternative school and she has also supervised graduate students in their training. On top of all this she is a writer and an artist. Julie is no Ivory Tower expert -she is the real thing.

It has been a sad comment on education , these past decades, that the wisdom of creative classroom teachers has not been shared with other teachers. Instead schools have been flooded with 'expert' advice 'delivered' by those with, all too often, little knowledge of the real lives of teachers. This book is a wonderful antidote for such thinking.

Real teachers know that each class develops its own personality and that this grows as the year unfolds. Teaching needs to be seen as the ultimate creative activity - a creativity that is dulled by school and Ministry compliance requirements.

Julie's school is called PS 87! 'Primary School 87' with over a 1000 students. Only in America.

Julie states that, for her children, her ultimate 'purpose is to recognise the worlds they live in and create.' She hold a progressive approach to teaching and says 'learning is something a learner does, not something done to the learner.' She want her room to be 'informed by the lives of the children' and a 'place for children's thinking and stories; celebrating their real lives.'

Julie's influences make sense to me. She was impressed with the creative British Primary Schools of the 1970s (as was I) ; the Reggio Emilia schools of Milan, the writings of John Dewey and NZs Sylvia Ashton Warner.

It has not been easy holding true to her beliefs in a system increasingly being standardised and tested. Older creative New Zealand teachers will know the feeling as we have followed the technocratic, and now failing, approaches imported from the UK and the US.

The book's chapters follow Julie and her class through the year beginning even before the children enter her room.

One chapter covers beginning the year where she wants her children to 'feel in their bones it is their room'. She discuses how to set up her room as a 'laboratory workshop' to be 'based around children's intrinsic interests'.This is to be the 'stuff' of her 'emergent' curriculum.

Another chapter covers the need for routines and rituals and developing class expectations, in the children, that they are to be trusted within agreed expectations. Her aim is to develop personal responsibly and accountability - the beginning of class democracy. Important to Julie is knowing when to intervene.

Included is organising the flow of the day.

Another chapter covers the importance of art which Julie values because it develops a child's identity and also that there is no right or wrong answers. Developing each child's personal interests and individuality is an important aspect of Julie's teaching - not covering set curriculum's.

Developing authentic studies covers a further chapter and here she emphasises first hand experiences, children's questions and valuing their own ideas. This is a chapter about inquiry learning. How to help children investigate and represent their findings- and the idea of an 'emergent' curriculum arising from her children's interests. She covers the essence of her pedagogy, her theory of curriculum development, basically the philosophy of co-constructivist teaching. And also the importance of feelings in learning. Evey Friday she sends a letter home to the children's parent outlining all the learning they have done. She also writes insightfully about how she manages to work within the standards imposed on her -a debate New Zealand teacher will becoming aware of! She worries about casualties of the quest for accountability where everything is sacrificed in the name of test scores. She believes we are 'manufacturing problems'. That we are creating school failures.

There is a valuable chapter about literacy and the construction of knowledge. Literacy is woven into her authentic studies; reading and writing emerge from such activities. Literature themes are important to her. She refuses to rename her language time as as a literacy block!! Older New Zealand teachers will see this as what was called a language experience / centre of interest approach. She outlines her approach base on the writings of Ashton Warner. Writing linked to early reading are vitally important. All very reassuring.

One interesting chapter covers 'midwinter doldrums and quarrels' and talks about moments when the class loses focus and how to recover.
Her take on the positive results of conflict is interesting. She writes in this chapter about how to manage a class and about how to develop the authentic authority necessary to being a teacher. This is all about the need to value childhood and the faith needed to believe all children can learn once the right relationships have been established.

Another chapter covers the dilemma Julie faces with a 'problem child'. Teachers with similar children will find this chapter really personal.Problems where no 'expert' seems to have a right answer - it can only be worked in cooperation with the child and parents.And parents aren't always a help, she writes,contrary to current wisdom.

The book includes a chapter about about the end of the year where Julie reflects on the development of her class into a community of confident learners. She talks about the highs and lows, the breakthroughs, and the ambivalent feeling about leaving her class - children that have by now become an important part of her life. All teachers will know this feeling.

The final chapter, a postscript, talks about being a teacher. The feeling about doing something important; the excitement and challenge of being a teacher.

The postscript too full of wise words to summarise. This really applies to the whole book. She writes about the testing ethos and standardized teaching that is taking over teaching in the USA. Such teaching and testing cannot, she writes, reflect the vital aspects of human potentialities; it is, she says, distorting teaching.

She pleas for creative teacher to network with each other, to share their creative ideas, to develop means to challenge the technocratic nonsense that schools are having to face up to.

A great book. It is all about developing a creative culture - one that has implications for the wider society.

It is time we started to value the creativity that lies within our teachers - or to value the creativity within every one of us. The 'experts, have had their day.

Check it out at Amazon.

Better still write your own book.

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