IF YOU ASK DR. McCUNE
About Learning From Your Students
In every course that I teach I ask
my students to find a child to observe for 6--10 weekly visits
during the semester. When they ask what to look for, I tell
them to use their human radar, perhaps think about what we
are studying (how children learn…their
attachments to adults, etc.). Rather than an observation protocol,
I believe that attending carefully and sensitively to a student
and thinking about the child’s experience is an extraordinarily
enriching process. I ask the students to write about each observation…not
taking notes during, but rather after their time with the child.
This helps them to focus on what they notice. At the semester’s
end they write a brief (2--3 page) “Reflection Paper”.
For this assignment I ask them to address a theme that has
emerged from the observation process.
This fall I learned something new
about this assignment from my students. Stacy Konar from
the Edison, NJ school district emphasizes group and independent
work in her first grade class, with centers devoted to writing,
reading, drawing, math, etc. She forms groups of four students
and teaches them to work together, keeping the classroom
active. This semester she chose to observe one group carefully
for the assignment in my class: Kyle and Dan, both of whom
wanted to “be in charge”,
Jane who was behind these boys academically and “lost
in the shuffle” in the beginning, and Toni, who was an
English language learner, and spoke very infrequently. Conflict
between the boys almost led Stacy to re-group, but she kept
the children together for the duration of the assignment. She
wrote, “After I saw how much they had changed within
a short time, I was glad I kept them together. They began to
realize that other group members were necessary for success
and began to treat each other differently.”
Her extra eyes on the group allowed
her to foster blossoming trends, such as each of the boys
taking Jane under their wing when the group broke into twos.
The variety of centers led the children to rely on each other
for help in specialized areas. They all knew that Toni was
the better artist, so they learned from her. Jane and Toni
became close, helping Jackie to blossom as a leader and develop
her own opinions in the classroom. She saw initial help of “telling the answer” shift
to helping the other child find the answer. By the end of the
semester all had grown socially and academically. Group learning
had increased self-reliance in some, developed the value of
cooperation in others.
Gloria Melendez of New Brunswick
visited a 4 and 1/2-year-old preschooler who had been her
student at age 3. She saw the same behavior problems, lack
of cooperation, and acting out that she had noted when he
was her student. It was difficult not to focus on the negative.
In beginning of the observation she decided to check out
health records—they were fine—and
then focus on the positive. What does he do well? What does
he do when given opportunities to choose? She writes, “I
became aware of D’s strength in recognition of the alphabet.
He had no problem spelling his name. I discovered that D was
interested in numbers and in counting…he was planning
and building elaborate block structures.” His rebelliousness
and unwillingness to clean up and to follow routines had made
it hard to see the underlying strengths. Appreciation for his
abilities increased his confidence, and tangible rewards helped
him to voluntarily enter the classroom routines successfully.
I learned that for talented teachers, observation is a primary
route to good teaching, but all of you teachers may have known
Dr. Lorraine McCune is a professor at the Rutgers University
Graduate School of Education and serves as advisor to educational
toy company, General Creation.