In defense of messiness

Children are messy. Their work is messy. Their handwriting is messy. Their thinking is messy.

But their enthusiasm, their joyfulness, their energy is wonderful, and so I am ok with a little messiness if it is produced in a rush of eager creativity.

For instance, I have been reading Yours Sincerely, Giraffe by Megumi Iwasa to one of my Y3 classes, and we finished it this morning. It is utterly charming, and worlds away from anything else we have read recently – the simple language and imaginative story remind me a bit of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, while being totally different in setting and characters!

Anyway, we finished reading it this morning, and everyone enjoyed it, so when I discovered that my other planned activity wouldn’t work I threw in something else I’d been thinking about – writing letters like Giraffe and Penguin! I wrote an example on the board, and invited everyone to write a simple letter, using their own name and giving a clue as to what animal (currently proven to be living on the Earth, so no dinosaurs, Bigfoot or dragons) they were. Letters were hastily written, folded up in a variety of ways, then randomly distributed around the room, to be opened upon the count of three. The most fun part happened next, as students read out the clues and made their guesses, some perfectly accurate and others hilariously off the mark. We ran out of time to read out every single letter, but the boys had so much fun, and so loved the little puzzle and the connection to the book, that I have to say it was one of the best things I’ve done with them this year.

Thinking about reading…

I came across this post a few weeks ago, and it has been sitting open in a tab of my browser ever since, while I’ve wondered what I wanted to say about it.

The author, Paige Jaeger, is advocating the rights of children to choose their own reading materials, rather than educators getting hung up on giving children texts that support particular curricular outcomes. Whilst Ms Jaeger is looking at the US context and their Common Core Standards, her points are equally applicable here.

In the classroom, the teacher’s job is to help children make sense of the rules of language, digging deep into grammar, text types, writing styles, vocabulary, and all the other elements that going into developing the knowledge and skills necessary to be literate.

When those children step into the Library, what the Teacher Librarian really wants is to see those children dive joyfully into a wide variety of books and come back up grinning with delight at the treasures they found inside.

Picture taken from the poster of Rights of the Reader

Perhaps this week the theme is to challenge themselves to explore two new genres – the TL will remind the students how to search the catalogue by subject, and suggest more titles that might intrigue them.

Other students are looking for information on their favourite animal, or tv show, or arguing about the status of Pluto – the TL will steer them towards the tools they need to find what they want.

Sometimes though it is a bit trickier – what about the child who at 9 years is still reading like a 6 year old? He needs simple but interesting books that don’t look babyish, because he’s ashamed of how far behind he is and is worried about being teased. Or the child who at 10 years can decode just about any book you put in front of him – he isn’t old enough for the themes in most YA fiction, but the majority of books written for his age group are too easy to engage his attention.

This is where TLs and classroom teachers work together, talking about the needs of their students and looking for books that will help both the struggling and the exceptional students become confident, eager readers who see books as a source of entertainment and delight.

Finally, I think it is fitting to include The Rights of the Reader, a beautiful book by Daniel Pennac, with an equally delightful poster illustrated by Quentin Blake.

The right of the individual to decide how to be a reader – that’s the whole point, really.

Sometimes the simple things…

Sometimes you have a lesson that is perfect just because it taps into the most basic needs and interests of your students. No technology, no complicated set-up, just pure engagement.


Today I taught one of those lessons with my Prep and Year 1 classes. These boys are mostly nice children, although there are a few in there with poor social skills or impulsive behaviour that can interrupt carefully-planned activities. Many of these children are still learning to read with any fluency, and cannot write long pieces of text. Therefore a lot of our response-to-literature activities include drawing, colouring, matching images to words, those sorts of things.

Not today.

Today we were interactive.

Our book today was Donald Loves Drumming by Nick Bland. Young Donald the rhino has a drum kit which he loves to play, but he is just as happy to drum his sticks on any other object available, or to clash cymbals, or do anything that is louder, faster, messier, higher or more dangerous! There is so much boy-focused action in this book that I thought we should have some in our class, and let them get really involved in the story. (I’m sure that wiggly little girls would enjoy it too, but as my school is boys-only, the point is moot for me.)

The Activity:

    I asked everyone to space themselves out further than usual so that there was a little circle of space around each child.

    Every time I said ‘drumming’, the boys had to drum madly on the floor until I said ‘stop!’.

    We practiced drumming and stopping a couple of times, with lots of reinforcement of great listening.

    I told the children that we were going to have a lot of fun with this, but that we could only do the drumming if everyone followed the rules.

    I read the book to the class, putting plenty of emphasis and expression into every ‘drumming’, and using very sharp and clear ‘stops!’.

    The boys were thrilled with the chance to get really physical and a bit noisy with the story, and loved the challenge of stopping exactly on my command.

    As the story went on I introduced some other actions, such as wiggling fingers to show rain, a falling sound or hammering sound to match events in the story.

The Result:

I am really pleased with the way this lesson turned out. We didn’t have any cute pictures to take home for the fridge, and I am kicking myself for not thinking to set my iPad up to record the sound of their drumming, but that wasn’t the aim. I wanted the boys to recognise their role as participants in the story. Given that these boys are 5, 6 or 7 years old, a really physical activity is a beautiful match for their stage of mental and social development.

Although this lesson required no technology, I think it demonstrates why things like iPads are so exciting for children. They are still learning about the world by physically manipulating it, or by moving their bodies or making a noise, and activities that reward those kinds of behaviours will be more interesting to children. When we give children access to technology, we need to make sure it matches their needs and abilities in a rich way. I think that my classes had morefun today drumming on the floor than they did in other lessons when we manipulated an ebook app on the IWB.

I know I did!

Moments of Discovery

I had some Year 6 students today who were working on a wiki that I asked them to create based on a Tectonic Plate webquest. Mostly they were doing okay with finding basic facts (eg what does a seismologist do?) by themselves, and very keen on finding relevant YouTube videos (they knew that irrelevant videos would not cut the mustard). It was interesting to me to see that my most important role was in prompting them to take the next step in putting together several pieces of information and articulating the new idea that created. For instance:

  • a student found maps showing the tectonic plates of the Earth’s crust, the distribution of earthquakes around the world and the active volcanoes around the world. I asked him to look at the dots of the volcanoes and earthquakes and how they followed the lines of the edges of the tectonic plates, and asked him what was the next thought he could say about that? To begin with he could only put the first two ideas together, but with some prompting he was able to say that perhaps the three things were related. It hadn’t occurred to him to put three pieces of pictorial information together that way.
  • a student playing the part of astronomer has found an interesting diagram about Mars’ magnetic field, but couldn’t explain it. He and his partner went back to the website and read through the notes to discover that putting the written information together with the diagram they could visualise and then explain the concept – he was so pleased to be able to see it clearly in his head and say it clearly on his astronomy page!
  • a student looking at biology had found information about the Tasmanian Beech, a native deciduous tree, that was supposed to be significant in supporting the idea of Continental Drift, but when I asked him to explain he merely demonstrated his great skill at reading the copied-and-pasted text. So I asked him what was important about that tree, what was so strange?? This was where environmental factors made it harder for him to get the point – Hobart is full of buildings and parks and gardens built and established in the earliest days of European settlement of Australia so – unlike most of mainland Australia – spring is heralded by flowers and new leaves on bare branches, and autumn is glorious with gold and red leaves heaped in piles under liquid ambers and stone fruit trees. We had a chat about Australian native plants usually being evergreen, how our winters simply aren’t harsh enough or long enough to make hibernation a necessity, and suddenly the lightbulb went on! Why was this native tree deciduous?? A flurry of typing altered his original entry to reflect his new understanding.

This turned out to be such an exciting pair of lessons for me! These groups had had a couple of lessons using their wikis, and had gotten past the initial confusion and messiness of trying a new technology, and were able to concentrate on understanding the purpose of the task. From trouble-shooting the ‘what am I doing?’ and ‘how do I xyz?’ questions we had moved on to constructing personal meaning  – not bad for a total of four lessons!

Reading back over the above examples, I am also struck by the information skills required – one student needed to compare sets of visual data, the next had to put text and visual data together to grasp the concept, and the last needed to take text and visual data and compare it to pre-existing general knowledge in order to make an important discovery! I think that if I take a moment to look over the NETS for students, or 21st Century Learning Skills, I would find that the types of thinking being used by some of my students today are part of a suite of metal tools that many consider will be necessary to equip them for life in a digitised future.

Now if only I could replicate this for every class I teach…

1 2