The Letter of the Day

Creativity and excitement about learning are so innate in children, so how or why is it that we, as educators (present company included), can do or say things – usually inadvertently – to stifle it?

Thanks to my two year old daughter, I have had Sesame Street’s “Letter of the Day” song stuck in my head for weeks. If you aren’t familiar, click here (Warning: It’s really catchy!).  For the record, when we hear the song in my house, the letter of the day is always “M” because we only watch one episode over and over again. The girl is 2 and she likes what she likes. (I’m sure parents can relate)

At the risk of sounding like an overly proud parent, I must preface this blog post that my daughter recognizes all of the letters of the alphabet, knows their sounds, reads them when she sees them, and is a very clever witty little girl. Because of this, she can and has  made a joke of the aforementioned “Letter of the Day” song. How?  Sometimes when my wife or I sing the song to get her to choose a letter and when we get to the part where it comes time to say that letter, she looks at us with a frighteningly deviant smile and yells “CRANBERRY” (which is then followed by hysterical laughter).

Why have I shared this? As I use my winter break to regenerate for the next part of the school year, I began thinking about that awesome learning innocence in children, my own included, and their willingness to take risks, experiment, or answer a question without fear of ridicule or rejection. In their minds, the possibilities of what an answer can be or what something can do is limitless. There is no worry about logic or reason, they just want to share what is on their mind, ask a question, or make (what they believe is) a really funny joke/play on words.

Unfortunately, as we grow older, the social acceptability of these healthy risk taking behaviors seems to diminish; however, the innocent love of learning and creative thinking should remain strong, and, as educators, it is important to do what we can to keep it that way by remember a few ideas. They are this:

Learning is collaborative. We learn from others. Though the “copy cat world” is discouraged, a variation on something someone says or does turns out to be revolutionary (beg, borrow, steal, right?). The wheel has really never been reinvented (still round), but the right tire treads make a difference on a snowy road.

Learning is messy/loud. When I taught general music, some of the very best learning activities for my students came from stations (workshop). I would have students creating patterns on tone bars, composing on keyboard instruments, reviewing fundamentals with percussion auxiliary, and learning theory through music games. There were days when a cacophony of sound would echo down the hallway and it was by most accounts, anything but musical. Students experimented, tried new things, succeeded and failed, revised ideas, got frustrated, asked endless questions, and when it came time for summative assessment at the end of the unit, they demonstrated the knowledge and skills and I had hoped they would acquire.

Great learning is organized chaos (and fun). With learning stations or any project based/group task, there is weeks of preparation training students on how to work in groups. There are hours spent designing supports that ensure students are able to manipulate resources so when they are in those stations, they can focus on the content and not just the tasks. The classroom environment itself will be respectful and conducive to learning, but despite all this, there will STILL be times when it will seem crazy because of the excitement about learning.

It’s tempting to tell kids to be careful, to tell them to be quiet down when they get loud (learning noise!), or to be nervous about them failing. Get over that. Often times, what a teacher thinks is a disaster (because it feels like chaos) is the best day for students because they were able to let loose and engage in an authentic learning process that was FUN.

Learning requires good feedback. This is key. I will say it again: This is key. How we set up the activity, outline criteria, and respond to our students when they have questions and working sets the tone for learning. Asking questions that require an explanation of thinking and help students arrive at an answer (even if it is wrong) without explicitly giving it away is important.

A student can’t just hear, “that’s good,” or “try agin, ” because those phrases don’t have context or meaning. Feedback has to be meaningful and specific so that it guides students through the learning process. Explain what is good and why it is good or why a student needs to try again. One of my favorite questions that I see on many math classroom walls/anchor charts is: Does your answer make sense? If a student is multiplying whole numbers and the product is smaller than the multiplicand and/or multiplier, clearly some re-thinking needs to occur. We learn through constant feedback. If something goes well, we continue on. If something goes poorly, we learn more through solving problems and trying new things.

So let me ask…

What are your “Letter of the Day” moments with your kids (students or children)?

What will you do next time when someone answers “CRANBERRY” and gives that overly complex answer (that might look like attention seeking in a classroom, but shows a lot of thought behind what is said).

What will you do to make sure you continue that natural flame for learning and spark creativity? Are you doing all you can, in action and words, to encourage and not stifle?

 

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Dance far away.
Now clap your hands.
To the letter of the day. Clap, clap.
What’s the letter? Clap, clap.
What’s the letter? Clap, clap, clap, clap.
What’s the letter? (4X)
The letter of the day is…