Monday, May 23, 2016

Twigs, Branches, Trees and Forests

There is a saying: “Study a tree to learn the forest.” By digging deep into one area of learning, say spelling for example, a child can learn a great deal throughout their language system, strengthening other areas of learning. Thus, in our example, if spelling is studied in a meaningful way, it will also strengthen vocabulary, grammar, writing, and even reading. Fertilizing one root improves the sap that flows to other areas—especially when we practice consolidating related skills in an explicit, organized manner.

Yet there is another common tree idiom: “Don’t miss the forest for the trees.” In other words, we can’t be so focused on details that we lose sight of the big goal.  This is what I see happening around me in education when a skill becomes the goal. On the Ohio tests, fourth graders are expected to type five-paragraph essays, even though they don’t yet understand a thesis sentence, nor how (or even why) to provide supportive evidence, nor, let’s be honest, how to type well enough to generate their best writing! Young children are being taught advanced writing structure before they have a chance to appreciate writing. Likewise, there is emphasis on analyzing text through “close reading” at an advanced level, but with younger readers who should be simply enjoying stories. 
When we focus on an end goal, rather than the learning process, we risk stripping trees bare of all that is green and lovely—all that produces fruit and provides shade.

I have a metaphor for language being like a tree with four branching trunks: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Like all trees, it has many entwined roots, the foundational skills that manage sounds, symbols, grammar, vocabulary, and so on. The language system also has a complex canopy of higher-level thinking skills, such as considering the listener’s (or reader’s) perspective, understanding symbols and main ideas, organizational thinking, etc.

I help all students, but especially those with reading and writing weakness, to fortify their language roots and canopy, then to use their now-sturdier skills in language arts assignments. It is a model of support and consolidate.
It is a model I hope to share in this blog. I want young saplings to grow and flourish--protected yet strengthened.

~Rita

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