Archives For Catherine Flynn

Last month, I travelled to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to attend the 2015 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Convention with two fellow teachers to participate in poster sessions under the topic Digital Pedagogies and Approaches to Media. 

One of the poster session was titled  “Every Picture Tells a Story”  and offered by Catherine Flynn, the Literacy Specialist at the K-8 elementary school in Sherman, Connecticut. Her presentation promoted the use of art as a literacy strategy in English/Language Arts classrooms as well as other content area classrooms. She offered examples of lessons on using art to enhance academic background knowledge at multiple grade levels. Background knowledge is critical to improving literacy since students who literally have  “pictures in their heads” of an idea, time period, or event are better able to comprehend the pictures created by words in a text. Flynn illustrated how abstract concepts of point of view, context, and perspective can be made understandable by using art to engage students in conversations across time and place. She also provided viewers with research that supports the use of art  to improve student inferential skills and in analyzing interpretations. Her materials can be accessed on this Google Doc and she can be contacted through her Twitter:@flynn_catherine and her excellent blog

The other presentation was offered by Caitlin Pinto, a 7th grade English Language Arts teacher at Harry Bailey Middle School in West Haven, Connecticut. I had already posted about Caitlin’s presentation at Here We Go, Pinto. Her lesson had students respond to reading on social media platforms or using social media templates to develop many of the skills that we want our students: analyzing, summarizing, researching, and making text to text connections. The social media platforms she uses are familiar to students who can transfer the strategies of each and apply them to the more traditional roles in literature circles. Her Twitter handle is @cpinto_iteach.

Over 30 educators stopped to speak one-to-one with Catherine or Caitlin, and the conversations about the different lessons they taught were each several minutes long. Both were engaged sharing with peers for the entire 90 minutes.  Moreover, as an example of the effectiveness in using social media, a tweet I posted about Caitlin’s use of showing how she uses the Twitter format for some roles in literature circles has been viewed 1,677 times (see below).

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A poster session is not given in a dedicated room. The number of people who stopped to talk, however, exceeded expectations. At each display, we received more response from attendees than several of the 20-minute presentations held elsewhere during the convention. In this context, poster sessions were great way for these new presenters to become comfortable and network personally with other teachers.

I have written about the word context and this convention in a previous post where I mentioned that the etymology of the word context comes from the 15th C. Latin contextus meaning “a joining together”. The word context was originally the past participle of contexere, which means to “to weave together,” from com- “together” + texere “to weave, to make”.

The poster sessions are an example of how teachers “join together” in opportunities to show how they “make” lessons that help students improve their literacy skills. Catherine’s lessons using art to improve student inferential skills and in analyzing interpretations and Caitlin’s lessons using social media to help students with analyzing, summarizing, researching, and making text to text connections are both evidence of how best practices can be shared peer-to-peer at the NCTE convention.

NCTE poster sessions = contextus=an example of joining [educators] together.

Late August and early September means back to school for all students. Many primary school teachers are pulling out the traditional “apple” unit to welcome their students. Many of these teachers will be ready with “pumpkin”, also a fruit, for the following month of October. During the school year, teachers of all grade levels might find out that a lesson turned out to be a “lemon”, or one that is “not worth a fig.” Educational stakeholders can “cherry-pick” data to see if the efforts of a teacher “bears fruit”, while the focus on data-driven instruction can drive some teachers “bananas”.

Fruit metaphors are plentiful when discussing education, and a recent post by a friend and literacy specialist, Catherine Flynn, explains a possible reason. Consider that fruits, although uniform at first glance are, upon closer inspection, very different. Fruits flourish in different environments, and fruits require different nutrients. Fruits require different means of harvesting, and fruits ripen at different times.

blackberriesThis ripening was the point of Catherine’s blog post in her response to the Slice of Life blog challenge, a weekly prompt organized by Two Writing Teachers. Catherine’s response to their prompt on her Reading to the Core Blog was titled Ripe Blackberries.  Since she lives in a rural area, she had the opportunity to consider the ripening blackberries on a bush near her home:

 Each morning as I walk my dog, I notice that some of the fruit is deep black, as ripe as it’s going to get, while others still have just a hint of red. Why such variation on one bush? Each blackberry has gotten the same amount of rain and sun. Each one has the same genetic make up. So why are some ripening faster than others?

There are many forces in nature that cause the variations that Catherine noted as she admired the blackberry bush. These forces dictate the time for harvesting those blackberries, but this fruit is never uniformly ready for harvest at the same moment. For example, the advice for picking berries on several websites suggests that to “ensure that none of the fruit gets too ripe, berries should be picked every two or three days.” Berries are not the only fruit that may require a second or third harvest, and pinpointing the exact moment of any fruit’s maturity is a combination of science and practiced guessing.

In contrast to how nature influences fruit to ripen and mature, our educational system requires students to be “ripe” collectively at the same time, regardless of the variations in age, race, or gender of the students. The educational system measures how well a student meets a pre-determined standard through tests given on a prescribed date, picked perhaps years in advance. There is no accounting for arbitrary changes that may have happened in a school system, perhaps changes in staff, facility, or materials. There is no accounting for the arbitrary changes in a student’s personal life. Rather, there is a standardization for elements in our educational system that defies the individual nature of each student.

In her post Catherine notes:

Within every classroom, there will be a variety of strengths, abilities, and weakness. Students will arrive at school with a vastly different amounts of background knowledge and interests. Despite these differences, in the hands of a caring, knowledgable teacher in a supportive, nurturing environment, almost all children will learn and grow. Not at the same pace, and not to the same degree, but they will learn, just as most of the berries on those bushes will eventually ripen.

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Teachers see the differences in the nature of each student: the emotions, the ability, and the interests. Teachers see each student as more than a data point in achieving instruction, and teachers know that each student is more than what a test score represents. As Catherine suggests, in the hands of a caring and knowledgeable teacher, each student will learn and grow.

Yet, countering the forces in the nature of each student are the forces of educational reform that are increasing testing at every grade level. Tests focus on a limited range of skill sets with little consideration for other student aptitudes. To determine each student’s preparedness, students are bunched together by a “date of production” or birthdate, not when a student is “ripe” or cognitively mature.

Therefore, trying to compare student cognition through collective testing on any given day is the final metaphor of this post. It is like comparing apples to oranges. Yes, they are both fruit, but they are very different. So are our students.