Nature Education with Young Children: Integrating Inquiry and Practice – Meier & Sisk-Hilton

(en español)

Nature Education with Young Children - Meier, Sisk-Hilton 2013We are taking our weekly walk to the library, when Jason, typically a very rambunctious 4-year-old child, suddenly halts in his tracks.  As I’m holding his hand, I stop as well and glance at him quizzically.  He points up at the branches of a tree next to a garage.  He whispers, “Mr. Jeff, a squirrel.”  The whole class pauses and watches in silence as the squirrel hurries along a branch of the tree, jumps toward another tree, and misses, falling to the sidewalk.  Whispered exclamations of “Oh no!” can be heard, along with sighs of relief as the squirrel picks itself up, runs to another tree, scampers up, and successfully leaps to the roof of a house.  Upon arriving at the library, the children are anxious to tell the librarian what they saw.

Anna Golden points out that “It doesn’t take very much wild space to capture the interest of young children” (Golden 2013, p. 124).  We see in this example a group of Pre-K students managing to find the bits of nature that exist on a neighborhood city street, and becoming enraptured by it.  As with the preschool attended by Stephanie Sisk-Hilton’s daughter, “The elevated train tracks and commuter parking lot are more noticeable than anything one might call ‘nature.’  And yet the toddlers and preschoolers who attend this school are deeply connected with the natural world” (Sisk-Hilton 2013, p. 13).

But such spontaneous connection to the wonders of nature can easily fade away in a word full of touchscreens and mobile electronic devices.  As Gita Jayewardene puts it, “young children’s biological attraction to nature diminishes very quickly if significant people in children’s lives do not nurture it” (Jayewardene 2013, p. 100).  Our own squirrel encounter came just a week after having observed a squirrel burying nuts in the park, as I guided them to remaining silent and moving slowly so as not to scare the squirrel off.  The children then began taking notice of the sounds made by squirrels in the treetops, and how the squirrels began making screeches that sounded like desperate calls for help as the autumn weather continually dropped.

Daniel Meier reveals that, “inquiry has the wonderful potential to happen all the time, popping up here and there across the totality of nature teaching” (Meier 2013, p. 32).  As a teacher I nurtured this spirit of inquiry among the students.  Every time the children would pause to note the squirrel behavior, I found myself pausing along with the children to make the discovery alongside them.  At times I would extend the children’s curiosity and pose it as a question to the class as a whole, but often it was enough to simply acknowledge that the question existed, and the children would take the initiative to explore it on their own.  As Meier & Sisk-Hilton state, this is “what really matters in nature education—calling on children’s powers of attention and focus, of wonderment and joy, analysis and reflection, individual exploration and collaborative discovery, and sifting and sorting of information, data, and concepts over time” (Meier & Sisk-Hilton 2013, p. 2).

Following these series of squirrel encounters, we decided to use the sand table to build off of the idea that squirrels bury nuts for the winter.  The original plan was to bury different kinds of nuts, but there was concern about minute nut particles mixing into the sand and causing problems for any future students that may have nut allergies.  However, as Jean Mendoza and Lillian Katz make clear, “There are reasons to be cautious with nature, but fear need not overwhelm understanding and enjoyment” (Mendoza & Katz 2013, p. 168).

With this in mind we altered our plan to use nuts and instead added sunflower seeds to our sand table, remembering the squirrels we had seen stealing sunflower seeds from birdfeeders over the summer.  The children enjoyed pretending to be squirrels and burying the seeds, using the containers that the seeds came in to scoop them up and fill with sand, then dump them out over the seeds or mixed along with the seeds..  As Mabel Young observed, the children “could hone their investigative skills in any indoor or outdoor environment” (Young 2013, p. 78).  When sieves and funnels were added to the sensory table the children explored how to use these new tools to uncover the buried seeds and sort them from the sand.

Brian initially tried picking the seeds out one by one, but Jason was content just filling and dumping the sand/seed mixture.  When he did this into one of the sieves, Maxine excitedly noticed the sand falling out of the bottom.  Maxine and Jason then took the lead in organizing the children at the sensory table to use cups, seed containers, and funnels to transfer the seeds to the sieves, which were then carried to another table where the sorted seeds were dumped out.   Mendoza & Katz reveal that “children become motivated to master basic academic skills, e.g. beginning literacy and numeracy skills, in the service of their intellectual pursuits” (Mendoza & Katz 2013, p. 156), and for my students their fascination with squirrels drove them to master the cognitive skills related to understanding cause-and-effect relationships as well as the mathematical skill of sorting, and nutrition concepts as we later washed, shelled, and cooked the seeds to make sunbutter.

Had the seeds in the sand table activity been introduced devoid of our nature experiences, I can only wonder whether the children would have wanted to “play squirrel” and bury those seeds, or what meaning it would have had for them if they did.  Darcy Campbell and Shawna Thompson state that “The most powerful forms of learning in and about nature are not those in which the learner passively receives a multitude of facts.  Rather, they involve direct contact and connections, in which the learner becomes the protagonist of a story” (Campbell & Thompson 2013, p. 108).  The direct contact with the small animals within our community allowed the children to become motivated to enter into the world of squirrels themselves through their classroom play.

It also gave them a sense of connection with life in general that can be very valuable.  The week after we saw the squirrel with the missed jump Jason discovered a dead bird lying in the grass.  The children gathered around to inspect it further and discovered that the bird had no head.  Jessica suggested that we pick it up and take it to a veterinarian.  While on the one hand I didn’t want to risk exposing the children or myself to any diseases that might be present in the bird’s blood, on the other hand I felt the same obligation that Jayewardene describes when she states that “we should encourage our young students to respect all living things and be compassionate towards them” (Jayewardene 2013, p. 90).  I convinced the children to let me call somebody to get it instead.  The children got excited about the idea of me calling a “bird ambulance,” and listened anxiously to my end of the phone conversation with the city.  Unfortunately, we had to leave before they arrived.

Our experiences with small animals demonstrate that nature can come in all sizes.  While I agree with Golden in that “Ungroomed, wild spaces in particular hold mysteries just waiting for a child to come along to discover” (Golden 2013, pp. 135-136), such mysteries can still come in wild places that have a small degree of grooming as well, as long as teachers do not restrict children’s exploration of the bits of wild that may remain within their urban environments.  In the words of Marty Gravett, “children have an intuitive sense in experiencing nature, a natural approach to the wild that will reveal their understandings if we adults can listen deeply” (Gravett 2013, p. 139).

If there is a book you would like to see me discuss in this blog, please comment on the Recommended  Reading page.  Next month I will most likely be discussing the book Teaching in 2 Languages by Sharon A. Reyes & Tatyana Kleyn (2010).


Campbell, D. & S. Thompson. (2013). Naturally speaking: Parents, children, teachers in dialogue with nature. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 105-122). New York: Routledge.

Golden, A. (2013). Preschool children explore the forest: The power of wild spaces in childhood. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 123-136). New York: Routledge.

Gravett, M. (2013). Putting the forest on the map: Using documentation to further natural inquiry. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 137-152).

Jayewardene, G. (2013). Overcoming our fears: Embarking on a nature journey. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 83-101). New York: Routledge.

Meier, D.R. (2013). Nature education and teacher inquiry. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp.26-45). New York: Routledge.

Meier, D.R. & S. Sisk-Hilton. (2013). Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice. New York: Routledge.

Mendoza, J.A. & L.G. Katz. (2013). Nature education and the project approach. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 153-171).

Reyes, A.R. & T. Kleyn. (2010). Teaching in 2 languages: A guide for K-12 bilingual educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Sisk-Hilton, S. (2013). Science, nature, and inquiry-based learning in early childhood. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 9-25). New York: Routledge.

Young, M. (2013). Promoting nature study for toddlers. In D.R. Meier & S. Sisk-Hilton (Eds.) Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice (pp. 63-82). New York: Routledge.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature – Steven Pinker

(en español)

The Blank Slate - Pinker 2002 I have recently engaged in several conversations with people from outside of the field of early childhood education in which the conversations turned to the topic of nurturing.  These conversations have caused me to stop and think.  What does it mean to be a nurturing teacher?  How does that differ from the role of a nurturing parent?  How does my maleness impact both my ability to be nurturing as well as society’s interpretation of the nurturing role that I play?  What forms of nurture occur outside of the family and instructional environment to impact children’s growth and development?

A Nurturing Family

In his book, The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker argues that there may be no impact of nurture whatsoever on a person’s personality development.  He suggests that “the nongenetic component of personality is the outcome of neurodevelopmental roulette” (2002, p. 397) and that personality is shaped largely by random chance and not by any environmental factors.  While the idea that environment has no impact on personality may seem a bit extreme, Pinker makes the point that we need to view children not as “lumps of putty to be shaped,” but instead as “partners in a human relationship” (2002, p. 399).

Does this mean that we should not nurture our children?  Of course not.  Pinker suggests that a nurturing parental role is an essential part of this human partnership.  As a teacher, I see my students as my family, my children.  I see the children’s parents as extensions of my own personal family.  This bond is so strong that I am still in touch with the families of students even from my first year of teaching, now nearly seven years ago.

Pinker warns that “Family love indeed subverts the ideal of what we should feel for every soul in the world” (2002, p. 245) because “the balancing of competing interests that governs all human interactions does not end at the door of the family home” (2002, p. 251).  But he also suggests that, as with my extension of my students as part of my family, human beings in general have this capacity to widen their circle of definition for family, and that this capacity can ultimately serve a globally unifying purpose.

According to Pinker, “The observation that people may be morally indifferent to other people who are outside a mental circle immediately suggests an opening for the effort to reduce violence: understand the psychology of the circle well enough to encourage people to put all of humanity inside it” (2002, p. 320).  In answer to the question of what it means to be nurturing, I see it as having the emotional sensitivity to widen that circle and provide care for others as though they were family.

The Male Nurturer

With this definition of nurturing in mind, it should come as no surprise that human males have nurturing capabilities, particularly when Pinker points out that “the male of Homo sapiens differs from the male of most other mammals in a crucial way: men invest in their offspring rather than leaving all the investing to the female” (2002, p. 252).  In other words, one of the characteristics of our uniquely human nature is the nurturing capacity of our males.  This would seem to run counter to many of the ways men are encouraged to view themselves.

If asked to list the characteristics of masculinity, most people would probably be unlikely to include ‘nurturing’ on that list, whereas it would likely be one of the first characteristics of femininity.  In fact, if the two lists were to be put in a Venn diagram, the overlapping section would likely have little, if anything, written in it.  The reality, as Pinker points out is actually strikingly different.  “Men and women have all the same genes except for a handful on the Y chromosome, and their brains are so similar that it takes an eagle-eyed neuroanatomist to find the small differences between them” (2002, p. 344).

So why, then, is there a fear of men in nurturing fields?  I have repeatedly been advised to be wary of physical contact with children.  Sometimes it has come in the form of cautionary warnings, and other times it has come in the form of direct mandates not to allow the children to sit in my lap or not to change diapers or assist at potty-time.  It always comes from a benevolent place where they are providing me these cautions “for your own protection,” but I can’t help but wonder what message it sends to the children when the men who care for them are not engaging in a number of inherently nurturing acts that are regularly engaged in by women in the same position.  If people are trained from childhood to view gender roles in this manner, the discriminatory values will be passed on to the next generation.

While I disagree with Pinker on a number of his interpretations of contemporary cognitive theory, there is one point he makes that I absolutely agree with him on.  “One ought not to assume that the default human being is a man and that children are an indulgence or an accident that strikes a deviant subset” (2002, p. 358).  When we delegate nurturing roles solely to females, particularly in a society that, by and large, does not place value in those roles, we are creating a division that promotes discrimination and subjugation.

Next month I will be discussing the book Nature Education with Young Children, edited by Daniel R. Meier and Stephanie Sisk-Hilton.  If you have a book that you would like to see me discuss in this blog please comment on the Recommended Reading page.


Meier, D.R. & S. Sisk-Hilton. (2013). Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners: The SIOP Model – Echevarría, Vogt, & Short

(en español)

Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners - EJust over a quarter century ago, I was attending a grade school which specialized in language instruction.  My sister was in the French track and I was in the Spanish track.  My parents both spoke Spanish, but when I was in third grade my family moved to a different neighborhood, necessitating my transfer to a different school the following school year.  My new neighborhood was predominantly Puerto Rican, and I remember being excited at the start of fourth grade when I had learned that the new school offered ‘bilingual’ instruction.

But the term was a misnomer.  It was unidirectional language instruction for only native Spanish-speaking students learning English.  Native English-speaking students with some Spanish background like myself were excluded from these classes, and my classmates in the non-‘bilingual’ classes did not speak Spanish in the classroom or in the social settings in which I interacted with them.  As a result, my Spanish proficiency suffered.  Jana Echevarría, MaryEllen Vogt, and Deborah J. Short reveal that “students have a greater chance of mastering content concepts and skills when they are given multiple opportunities to practice in relevant, meaningful ways” (2013, p. 175).  My second elementary school denied me such opportunities, and I am now trying desperately to regain the language that I lost so many years ago.

As a teacher I always make an effort to learn some degree of the languages of the students in my classrooms.  While I do not do so with the expectation of attaining fluency before the children leave my care, I feel it is important for my students to have exposure to languages beyond English, and the more I can do to help facilitate children learning the languages of their peers the better.   As Echevarría et. al. point out, “When we know students’ backgrounds and abilities in their native language, we can incorporate effective techniques and materials in our instructional practices” (2013, p. 4).

Of course, as an early childhood educator, I have students that may not have complete mastery over their native language either.  Certain academic terms, such as the days of the week, are still difficult even for native English speakers in my classroom, due to the nature of the concepts to which they refer.  These are some of the items that I focus on learning in the children’s home languages.  As Echevarría et. al. suggest, “if we can give them the gist of what they will be learning in English beforehand through their native language, we can then build on that (new) prior knowledge, and, with careful lesson planning, advance their language skills and strengthen that content knowledge” (2013, p. 47).

Such efforts to learn the students’ home languages have added benefits beyond merely the instructional purposes in the classroom.  Echevarría et. al. point out that “teaching from a culturally responsive perspective is especially important” (2013, p. 66).  By learning some basic elements of students’ home languages I am able to take limited steps toward crossing some of those cultural barriers, and the students’ families certainly take notice, as can be seen in the following reflection I wrote following a home visit with a 4-year-old Vietnamese student:

Jason’s home visit today was a little bit awkward in the beginning.  The language barrier impeded, but his mother’s English skills were sufficient that it wasn’t an extreme impediment.  I think when I used the little bit of Vietnamese that I know (to say the days of the week when I was counting with Jason how long until the field trip) helped her feel more comfortable knowing that she wasn’t the only one who was struggling with a new language.  She was impressed by the little bit that I did know.

For Jason’s family, the fact that I had taken the effort to learn even a small degree of their language made a huge difference in the remainder of the home visit.  However, for this to happen, the challenge arises as to how to learn those bits of the language.  I spoke in my August blog post about my attempts to learn Amharic by attending Ethiopian restaurants.  But sometimes resources can be much closer at hand in the form of co-workers and even students with more advanced English skills.  Echevarría et. al. support the need for “clarification of key concepts in students’ L1 by a bilingual instructional aide, peer, or through the use of materials written in the students’ L1” (2013, p. 157).

The use of written materials is an important element.  Even though my preschool students are as yet unable to read, exposing them to the written forms of their home languages is crucial.  When, in a home visit with Jason’s classmate Jessica, her Ecuadorian mother asked her what her favorite book at school was, Jessica responded that her favorite book was Nieve (Mayer, 2006), a Spanish language book that I had recently read to the class as written while also translating key elements of the book into English for the students who did not speak Spanish.

Indeed, I make many efforts to include books in the classroom that represent a wide variety of languages.  I recall at one point having three versions of Bill Martin Jr.’s Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See (Martin, 1996) in the classroom, including one which had Vietnamese translations alongside the original English (Martin, 2003).

Echevarría et. al. state that, “Students should be active in developing their understanding of words and ways to learn them” (2013, p. 75).  I decided to take advantage of the classroom’s diverse literature to help build the children’s awareness of language and activate their curiosity and exploration of linguistic features.  We did not have a Spanish version of Brown Bear, but one day as I read the English version to them, I translated as much as I could into Spanish, asking Jessica to help me fill in the names of the animals that I didn’t know.  A few days later, I made an attempt at reading the Vietnamese version of the book.  While I could not understand a single word that I read, I relied on the fact that Vietnamese is mostly phonetic in its written language.  Every time I paused to check my pronunciation, Jason confirmed, amid his laughter, that he could understand everything I was saying.

By engaging in readings in multiple languages, I was helping the students to make associations between their native languages and other languages they encounter in their daily lives.  By doing so in relationship to books that the children enjoy, I was also exposing children to “Authentic, meaningful experiences [which] are especially important for English learners because they are learning to attach labels and terms to things already familiar to them” (2013, p. 43).

Next month I will most likely be looking at The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker (2002).  If you have a book that you would like me to discuss in this blog, please comment on the Recommended Reading page.


Echevarría, J., ME. Vogt, & D.J. Short. (2013). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP® model, Fourth edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Martin, Bill Jr. (1996). Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? (E. Carle, illus.). New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Martin, Bill Jr. (2003). Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? English and Vietnamese Edition. (E. Carle, illus.). London, UK: Mantra Lingua.

Mayer, C. (2007). Nieve: Observemos el tiempo. Portsmouth, HN: Heinemann.

Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Learning About Language Assessment: Dilemmas, Decisions, and Directions – K.M. Bailey

(en español)

Learning About Language Assessment - Bailey 1998As I read my way through Kathleen M. Bailey’s book about assessment (1998), I was reminded of a nightmare I had during my student teaching experience in a multilingual third grade public school classroom:

I was back in Berkeley.  An anti-abortion group calling itself NWEA had called for a protest at the house a teenage girl who had been raped.  This was an organization known for terrorizing not only abortion providers, but people who get abortions as well.  They used strategies that had been developed and perfected by the KKK in the height of the Jim Crow era.  There was therefore a call by others for people to come out and support the family.  I arrived early but didn’t see the house as I approached.  It looked to be a vacant lot between two office buildings, but when I came to the corner of the office building and looked into the lot, I could see the small dilapidated house tucked back and hidden away, blocked from view by the high rises on either side.

Right around the same time as I approached, so too did a parent of a former student who I’m “friends” with on Facebook [someone who I actually never friended on Facebook though I got to know them well from having two of their children in preschool and/or afterschool continuously over the course of about three years] .  The parent was asking me about my Facebook post asking for a pen.  I explained to her that I had posted that several hours earlier in the day and that I had already found a pen that I could use.  It was a friendly exchange, but I noticed that she went to the area that the NWEA members were gathering, so I left her and walked up to the house.

I took my shoes off on the front porch and went inside.  The father was very protective.  He was an African American preacher who spoke with a southern accent.  He eyed me warily as I entered.  I told the family that I was there to support them and asked them what I should do.  As I spoke I saw the expression on the teenager’s face.  It was one I had seen before.  Years ago a co-worker of mine had come in to work with a black eye and bruised all over from having been attacked by a serial rapist, and she wore that very same look for several weeks.  It was a look of fear and dread, but also a look of determination.  A look that said she didn’t know who she could trust and that if it turned out it wasn’t you, then you would live to regret it.  A look that amplified when the chanting began outside before any member of the family could answer me.

I went back out and put my shoes on as I saw two groups of people marching in rectangles across from each other.  One group was chanting, “NWEA, don’t say ‘Nay.’”  As I was contemplating the meaning of that chant, my 6am alarm rang and I woke up.

I woke from the dream with my heart pounding.  I immediately wrote down the dream and considered what my subconscious was mulling over.  Somehow I had transformed a standardized test (the NWEA) into a hate group.  The expression on the raped girl’s face reflected how I expected the students to be feeling about taking all of these tests so early in the year.  They had already done the BAS test, assessing their guided reading level; the BOY test, where they had to figure out a character trait about the narrator in a story about a girl named Jess; and now they would be doing the NWEA literacy test, and all this within the first month of the school year.  Three different tests examining literacy alone.  Just as the girl in the dream was being inundated with so much at once, starting with the horrible trauma and it being compounded by becoming the focus of so much attention, so too are our students being inundated.

Bailey describes a challenging dynamic in which “we are often faced with new classes in which we must use assessment devices to gather information, while at the same time we wish to establish a positive environment” (1998, p. 8).  This is a challenge that must be worked out by teachers in their own way, however, too often teachers are not given the opportunity to work them out in their own way.  Of the three major literacy tests that had been given in this classroom in that first month, only the BAS test had a direct impact on my instructional strategies.  Standardized tests in public schools tend to be used more for funding than for instructional purposes.

This is likely what made the public attention of the raped girl in my dream so salient.  I’m sure the chant that I was hearing at the end of the dream was some bastardization of a chant that I had heard coming from the strike rallies that filled the downtown streets with teachers just a few weeks prior.  The issue of standardized tests that had been such a point of contention in the negotiations and which had raised questions about the legality of the strike is something that affects the children in ways they are likely not even aware of.  Why do school funding and teachers’ performance evaluations have to be based around an arbitrary measurement standardized among a group that may not be well-represented in any given school?

As Bailey points out, “Teachers often see a mismatch… between the skills they address in their classrooms and the material that is covered in exams, especially standardized multiple-choice tests” (1998, p. 148).  She eschews multiple-choice tests in general, though she nonetheless devotes an entire chapter to explaining how to develop one, explaining that, “my goal in discussing the multiple-choice format is not to promote its use, but rather to caution you about the dilemmas presented by this approach” (1998, p. 130).

This chapter was particularly eye-opening for me, as she exposed, and to some degree even seemed to be condoning, some rather insidious test-development procedures.  Bailey reveals that, ”in terms of item analysis, the assumption is made that the student’s total test score on a specific exam is the best estimate of how good a student he is in terms of whatever knowledge and/or skill that particular exam is measuring” (1998, p. 135).  She then goes on to cite research describing how an item that is answered correctly by low-scoring students which is missed by the high-scoring students must be reevaluated because there would have to be something inherently wrong with the question to lead to such a result.

The problem with this perspective is that it assumes that all learners are alike.  By determining that such items must be inherently faulty, Bailey is denying that the so-called ‘low scorers’ may process the information differently and actually hold some capabilities that exceed those of the so-called ‘high scorers.’  The fact that she cites multiple other sources to corroborate this test-refinement technique reveals that there is actually a systematic push to make low-performing students perform even lower.  ‘Low scorers’ end up scoring low on standardized multiple-choice tests because these tests are particularly tailored to make them do so.

This revelation drives home, more than anything else in my mind, the point that, as Bailey puts it, “Important decisions should not rest on simple test scores” (1998, p. 204).  Testing is not the be-all and end-all of education.  In fact, Bailey tells us that “testing often (though not always) lags behind teaching, and is in some regards inherently conservative” (1998, p. 141) and that “While our pedagogic emphases have swung from a strongly product-oriented to a largely process-oriented approach… our evaluation procedures have lagged behind our pedagogy” (1998, p. 186).

In preschool education, most teachers I encounter generally rely on observational assessments as our primary mode of determining our students’ capabilities.  Perhaps this is something that needs to be done to a greater degree in the primary grades as well.  As Bailey says, “there is much to be gained by watching learners learn when they are not being taught” (1998, p. 55).  Perhaps it is time for teachers to take a step back and find out what our students know by just letting them be themselves.

Next month I will probably be examining Echevarría, Vogt, & Short’s, Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP Model (2013).  If there’s a book you would like to see me discuss in this blog, please comment on the Recommended Reading page.


Bailey, K.M. (1998). Learning about language assessment: Dilemmas, decisions, and directions. Cambridge, MA: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.

Echevarría, J., ME. Vogt, & D.J. Short. (2013). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP® model. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

d/Deaf and d/Dumb: A Portrait of a Deaf Kid as a Young Superhero – J.M. Valente

(en español)

d-Deaf and d-Dumb - Valente 2011Prior to reading his book, d/Deaf and d/Dumb: A Portrait of a Deaf Kid as a Young Superhero (Valente 2011), I have had the opportunity to meet Joseph Michael Valente on several occasions.  I recall attending a roundtable discussion he presented at a conference last year in which he discussed issues related to deaf culture and education.  He spoke of the problems with the IEP process.  He gave life to his frustration with d/Deaf children being labeled as “disabled” (I use the term “gave life to” rather than “voiced” because, as he says, “Voice implies speech is necessary for empowering people, whereas life recognizes the visual culture of deafness and shows deference to lived experiences, frequently overlooked in research on deafness and disabilities in general” 2011, p. 21).  I remember telling him about the fact that, as a teacher in multicultural classrooms, I strive to learn to understand, and to some degree speak, the languages of all of my students, and that this includes learning and using some ASL (American Sign Language) in my classrooms.  Valente pointed out at this point that d/Deaf education is very different than multilingual education.

I didn’t fully understand what he meant by that at the time.  Now, having read his autobiographical book about his life as a deaf child growing up in a hearing world I have a clearer understanding of the distinction.  Valente points out that “The ideological state apparatus sustains conditions of oppression against deaf children” (2011, p. 19).  He speaks of what it was like growing up within this oppressive state: of the struggles and discrimination he faced as a child; of the teachers who punished him for attempting to learn sign language; of the kids who ridiculed him and took away his hearing aids; of the sense of predestined failure he was made to feel that led him to attempt suicide his first year in college.  As he puts it, “For me, the term ‘deaf and dumb’ symbolizes moments in my life, both past and present, where I feel the overwhelming weight of internalized alienation, stigma, and failure” (2011, p. 67).

For Valente, the key to overcoming this feeling of despair came through words.  As a child, Valente wore a cape and imagined himself as a superhero.  The moment he made the realization that “words are power.  Words are superpowers” (2011, p. 5), he gained a level of agency that he hadn’t before realized.  Phonocentric society had attempted to deny him this agency, and Valente reveals that “Many minority culture members have struggled to gain access to and have been punished for a language and literacy that an oppressive majority society wanted to control.  But often the lure of literacy is too much to resist” (2011, p. 37).  He discovered that words can be used for resistance to the status quo.

He found this not only in discovering his own words through distinguishing the subtleties of difference between “bumped” and “crashed” (2011, p. 5), or between “fighting” and “self-defending” (2011, p. 119) but he also discovered the words of others.  Though he had to fight for it along the way, he was able to make the academic world open itself to him, and throughout his book he references the works of writers such as Foucault, Butler, and Freire[1].  He discovered that “theory is not something we should believe in but something we should use” (2011, pp. 125-126).

This strikes a particular chord in me, as I sit here writing my blog about how theory can be used in my own life as a teacher.  I think about the path Valente took to come to this realization.  On the positive end there was Mrs. Kappell, the teacher that stood by him throughout his elementary years and the one he could turn to for support when he needed it, even long after he was no longer her student.  And on the negative end there were the IEP meetings that withheld information from him and told him that it was okay to be mediocre.  But for Valente, “What hurt me so much from that meeting was that I wanted the chance to be smart, and not be just mediocre” (2011, p. 75).

I think back to my own experiences as I was attending college to become a teacher.  I recall observing one parent-teacher conference in which a child was in tears because he was getting a C in math.  The teacher attempted to reassure him that a C was a passing grade; that it was okay to be getting a C; that a C meant that he was a good student.  The purpose of this was to boost the child’s self-esteem, but the child, like Valente, strove to be more than just a C-student.  It wasn’t until the teacher went to the desk and pulled out the most recent homework assignment which hadn’t yet been returned, and showed the child that he had gotten an A on it, that the student looked as though he was trusting the words of the teacher once more.

When Valente had that pain of his own mediocrity revealed to him, he insisted on seeing his IEP file.  It wasn’t until he had snuck into the location it was stored and looked at it himself that he was able to get a real sense of the areas in which he needed improvement.  “I make notes on paper to myself: vocabulary, reading comprehension, writing conventions and more.  This is the night I decide I want to be smart” (2011, p. 74).  Building confidence is important, but teachers also need to be open and honest with our students about their capabilities in order for them to push themselves to succeed.

For Valente, it wasn’t his d/Deafness that was holding him back, it was the educational system itself.  As he indicates, “Schools serve as sites of social formation and enculturation.  Ideology is everywhere; it is embedded in our thoughts and our institutions” (2011, p. 96).  So while I will continue learning and using ASL in my classroom, I must also remember that being d/Deaf is more than just speaking a different language, and that “Being Deaf means I belong to a culture, not a disability category” (2011, p. 143).

If you have a book you would like to see me discuss in this blog, please comment on the Recommended Reading page.  Next month I will most likely be looking at Kathleen Bailey’s Learning about language assessment: Dilemmas, decisions, and directions (1998).


Bailey, K.M. (1998). Learning about language assessment: Dilemmas, decisions, and directions. Cambridge, MA: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.

Valente, J.M. (2011). d/Deaf and d/Dumb: A portrait of a deaf kid as a young superhero. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

[1] Some of these authors’ works are listed in my Recommended Reading page

Making it Happen: From Interactive to Participatory Language Teaching: Evolving Theory and Practice – Patricia Richard-Amato

(en español)

Making it Happen - Richard-Amato 2010Taban came to school on his first day of third grade as the only Amharic-speaking student in a class full of English, Spanish, Arabic, and Tagalog-speaking classmates.  Everybody but him shared the common language of English, and I found myself in the position of struggling to find a way to both communicate with and teach him at the same time.  In her book, Making it Happen, Patricia Richard-Amato states that “If we expect language and cultural minorities to do all the accommodating and fail to reach out to students and meet them where they are, then many of our best minds will be doomed to failure” (2010, p. 155).  I realized that Taban’s efforts to learn English would be best served if I also made an effort to learn his own language.

I didn’t personally know any fluent Amharic speakers, so I sought out language mentors in Ethiopian restaurants.  During the three months that I had Taban as a student, I made numerous visits to two Ethiopian restaurants, getting to know the waitstaff and each time coming with a new list of words that I found myself needing assistance with in order to facilitate communication.  Unfortunately, these limited training sessions were enough only for me to attain some very basic vocabulary, but not enough for me to grasp the language with all its inflectional and syntactical complexity.  Unlike Taban, I was not immersed in a linguistically foreign environment.  I had only one person with whom I was struggling to communicate, while Taban was struggling to do so with virtually every person he encountered at school.  Richard-Amato tells us, “Motivation is an extremely important affective factor.  Without it, learning any language, first or second, would be difficult, if not impossible” (2010, p. 159).  I simply lacked the same motivational imperative driving Taban.

However, I was not the only person in the class making efforts to help Taban to understand the material.  In the beginning of the year there was another student, Alec, sitting at the same table as Taban.  Alec could easily have been considered this class’s resident overachiever.  He was always one of the first, if not the first, to raise his hand in response to questions.  He picked up the material fairly easily, and he took it upon himself to be a mentor to Taban.  I noticed this on the third day of school and made a decision in my reflections that day to encourage such mentorship.  Alec by this point already seemed to me to meet the qualifications that Richard-Amato suggests make for a good peer mentor, “have the necessary skills, enjoy helping others, have a lot of patience, be supportive, and be willing to work hard” (2010, p. 378).

However, there was only one more day of school before the school year was interrupted by the longest teachers’ strike Chicago had seen in a quarter century.  We returned from the strike with both teachers and students exhausted.  The classroom dynamics had been disrupted, and it wasn’t until much later that another student stepped forward in a mentorship role toward Taban.  I discovered over the course of my time in the classroom that Taban’s family also understood Arabic, and one of the Arabic-speaking students, Yousef, found that he was able to hold some simple conversations with Taban.

At first glance, it would seem that Yousef is the opposite of Alec in many respects.  Yousef was a rebellious underachiever and often acted as a class clown.  However, a closer examination of Yousef revealed that he and Alec had a great deal in common after all.  They both sought attention, Alec through striving to be the first to answer questions posed by the teacher, Yousef through behavioral antics.  They both cared about their classmates, with Alec focusing on their academic needs and Yousef focusing on their affective needs.  They both put a great deal of outside effort into their classwork, Alec because he wanted to perform above and beyond the work assigned, Yousef because it took effort for him to keep up with the work assigned.  Yousef, it turned out, made an excellent mentor for Taban.

One daily activity we engaged in in the class was to dramatize stories written by the students[1].  Richard-Amato reveals that, “Storytelling, role play, and drama allow students to explore their inner resources, empathize with others, and use their own experiences as scaffolds on which to build credible action” (Richard-Amato 2010, p. 274).  Taban was one of the children in the class who was not required to do the writing homework because he was pulled out for language arts lessons.  However, he nonetheless chose to create stories along with his classmates.  The day that we dramatized Taban’s first story Yousef volunteered to portray the father.

Today is Monday.  I woke up in my bed.  I ate breakfast with my family.  Then we went to school.  In school we played in gym.  I read a book.  I ate lunch with friends.

Taban could be seen with a large grin on his face when he came up to dramatize his story.  He continued to smile the entire time as his written word became transformed into spoken language when I read it to the class, and then to action as he and his peers dramatized the story.  This activity clearly helped to reduce Taban’s anxiety level.  While Richard-Amato suggests that “Whether the anxiety is an aid or hindrance often depends on the degree to which it is found in the individual,” (2010, p. 159), I have personally found that in early childhood it is usually best to reduce the anxiety level whenever possible, and the dramatic writing curriculum accomplished that goal.

Richard-Amato describes one UCLA study which found that drama “encourages the operation of certain psychological factors that facilitate oral communication, heightened self-esteem, motivation, and spontaneity; increased capacity for empathy; and lowered sensitivity to rejection” (2010, p. 285).  In addition to these benefits, it would also seem that it can also aid in written communication skills as well, and Taban’s revised version of this story after peer feedback from the dramatization read as follows:

Today is Monday.  I woke up in my bed.  I ate breakfast with my family.  Then we went to school.  In school we played in gym.  I read a book.  I ate lunch with friends.  I ate pizza and a cookie.  After school I went home.  I played at the park with my friends.  At the park we played boll.  After that I came home.

While he didn’t make any internal revisions to the story, he did extend the story a great deal, using additional vocabulary not included in the original.  The dramatization of the story had revealed some confusion when they were at the gym, so when he added a scene at the park, he decided to expand on the activities for clarification, leading to his one spelling error, “boll.”  This spelling error indicates not only that he was becoming more detail-oriented in his writing, but also that was most likely working independently on this voluntary homework assignment and that he also understands the traditional phonemes associated with the vowels of the English language.

At the time I left his classroom, Taban was making great strides in his English language acquisition, beginning to speak in two-word sentences and moving toward greater peer interaction.  I, on the other hand, am still struggling to learn Amharic, and continue to do so even though I am no longer Taban’s teacher.

If you have a book that you would like to see me discuss, please comment on the Recommended Reading page.  Next month I will most likely be discussing d/Deaf and d/Dumb: A portrait of a deaf kid as a young superhero by Joseph Michael Valente (2011).


Richard-Amato, P.A. (2010). Making it happen: From interactive to participatory language teaching: Evolving theory and practice, fourth edition. White Plains, NY: Pearson.

Valente, J.M. (2011). d/Deaf and d/Dumb: A portrait of a deaf kid as a young superhero. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

[1] for more details on this process see my blog post from April of this year, Literacy Through Play – G. Owocki

Daring to Dream: Toward a Pedagogy of the Unfinished – Paulo Freire

(en español)

Daring to Dream - Freire 2007

Some time after his arrival
the foreigner said to the men in the valley
one dusking afternoon:
Thus far I have spoken to you only
of the songs of birds and
of the tenderness of the dawns.
It was necessary to undertake with you some
fundamental learning:
to feel the uncertainty of tomorrow,
living out the negation of myself,
through a work that is not our own.
Only so, speaking to you would be a form of
speaking with you.
Now I can tell you:
We do not believe in those who proclaim
that our weakness is a gift from the Gods,
that it is in us as the fragrance
or the dew in the mornings.
Our weakness is not the ornament
of our bitter lives.
We do not believe in those who state,
in hypocritical intonation,
that life is really like this
—a few having so much,
millions having nothing.
Our weakness is not a virtue.
Let us pretend, however, that we do believe
in their discourse.
It is important that not a gesture of ours
reveal our true intention.
It is important that they leave happy in their
certain that we are things of their own.
We need time
to prepare our own discourse
that will shake up mountains and valleys,
rivers and oceans
and will leave them stunned and fearful.
Our different discourse
—our action-word—will be spoken
by our whole bodies:
our hands, our feet, our reflections.
All within us will speak
a life-bearing language
—even the instruments that
our hands will use,
when, in communion, we
shall transform our weakness
into our strength.
Poor us, however, if we cease to speak
simply because they can no longer lie.
Therefore, I tell you:
Our liberation discourse
Is not the medicine for a passing illness.
If we go silent as the present lies quiet down,
new lies will appear,
in the name of our liberation.
Our different discourse
—our action-word—
As a true discourse
will be made and remade;
it never is or will have been,
because it will always be being.
Our different discourse
—our action-word—
must be a permanent one.

                       –Paulo Freire 2007, pp. xxxviii-xl

Dear Paulo,

As I read through the poem you had given to Nita, that she decided to put at the start of your posthumous book, Daring to Dream, I found you speaking of creating a new discourse to counteract that which is created by the oppressor and reinforced by society.  You go on to speak of our bodies in relation to this discourse, stating, “Our different discourse / —our action-word—will be spoken / by our whole bodies: / our hands, our feet, our reflections” (2007, p. xxxix).  I can’t help but wonder if you speak only metaphorically, or if you mean to say that our nonverbal communication is a key part of this new discourse, this action word.  Do you mean our individual bodies or the bodies of all of the oppressed standing up to oppression?  What of the implicit metaphor in this statement, that the new discourse, the “action word,” will imbue mere words with the strength of our physical being?

In a talk you gave more than a quarter century after writing this poem, you reveal that “In order to confront the ideological discourse of impossibility of change, it is necessary to create an equally ideological discourse for the possibility of change, but one also founded in the scientific truth that it is possible to change” (2007, p. 84).  It would seem, then, that the body in this sense would represent that scientific truth.  Does the physical self of the poem represent the concreteness of scientific truth and knowledge?

In the midst of your verse, you speak of “our reflections” as being a part of our whole bodies speaking this new discourse.  As I was reading the poem, this line made me pause in wonder.  Are you speaking of a physical reflection such as visible in a mirror or a body of water?  What would such a reflection imply about the discourse?  Once again my mind returned to the thought of the collective bodies of the oppressed.  Here, such a physical reflection would reveal the self in relationship to others, both alike and different in appearance, yet all sharing circumstances of subjugation by a system of domination.  In this case, the reflection would be acting as the educator that you speak of when you say that “in the world there are always hidden things; in life, there are always hidden things, and one of the roles of the educator is to draw attention to those things” (2007, p. 35).  For without the mirror, without the reflection in the water, the image of the self as part of a larger whole remains one of those hidden things in the world and in life.

Or are you using the word “reflection” in a more abstract sense, referring to a metaphoric meaning of the body in this poem?  Are you speaking of reflecting on the words imbued with the strength of the body as representative of action or of science, rather than reflecting our bodies themselves?  Science is by nature both active and reflective.  Scientific theories both require action and reflection on the part of scientists to develop, and also reflect the world in a manner so as to reveal that which is hidden.  Science is the seeking of knowledge to complete our understandings of the world.  You once said, “It is not possible to be unfinished beings, such as we are, conscious of that inconclusiveness, and not seek.  Education is precisely that seeking movement, that permanent search” (2007, p. 87).  This implies a similarity between science and education.  Are the reflections you speak of, then, a form of self-examination, a form of seeking in order to complete our unfinished selves?

You point out that teachers must “take a stand for themselves as political beings, that they discover themselves in the world as political beings, rather than as mere technicians or persons of knowledge” (2007, p. 60).  When I was a swimming instructor (an act that, more than a classroom teacher, has the potential to be seen as a mere technician), a supervisor gave me a blank journal and recommended I use it to reflect on my swim lessons.  This practice has stayed with me as I moved into the classroom and continues to stay with me to this day.  When I engage in personal reflection, I find myself able to recognize to a greater degree when elements of power, particularly those that comprise the political landscape of my community and society at large, are influencing the classroom and my teaching.  I find that I see my students and myself in a much greater light.  Is your use of the word “reflections” in this poem, then, suggesting that reflective discourse can make it possible for teachers to see the politics inherent in our classrooms by allowing us to become more than mere technicians?

This is the sort of thing you talk about in some of your other work that I’ve connected with.  In fact, I featured some of your work in a recent talk I gave about the value of teachers engaging in reflective practice.  The teachers there were interested in the idea that teachers must recognize ourselves as learners too.  I think these teachers would probably agree with your statement that “The educator’s biggest problem is not to discuss whether education can or cannot accomplish, but to discuss where it can, how it can, with whom it can, when it can; it is to recognize the limits his or her practice imposes” (2007, p. 64).  For all teaching practice holds limitations, but through reflection we can acknowledge these limitations and find ourselves pushing the boundaries of such limitations.

Thank you,


The style of this post was inspired in part by the book, Dear Paulo: Letters From Those Who Dare Teach, edited by Sonia Nieto (2008).  Next month I will be discussing another Freire-influenced book, Making It Happen by Patricia Richard-Amato (2010).  If you have a book that you would like to see me discuss in this blog please comment on the Recommended Reading page.


Freire, P. (2007). Daring to dream: Toward a pedagogy of the unfinished. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Nieto, S. (2008). Dear Paulo: Letters from those who dare teach. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Richard-Amato, P.A. (2010). Making it happen: From interactive to participatory language teaching: Evolving theory and practice, fourth edition. White Plains, NY: Pearson.

Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution – Morris, Collett, Marsh, & O’Shaughnessy

(en español)

Gestures - Morris, Collett, Marsh, OShaughnessy 1979fWhen TLCThinkLiteracy suggested that I write a blog post about common gestures and their meanings in different languages, I excitedly rummaged through my gesture literature to find the most-cited book dealing with this topic.  That book is Gestures: Their origins and distribution by Desmond Morris, Peter Collett, Peter Marsh, and Marie O’Shaughnessy (1979).

Gestures - Morris, Collett, Marsh, OShaughnessy 1979b

20 Emblem Gestures

This book is primarily an anthropological analysis of emblem gestures used throughout Europe.  According to the authors, “Emblems are actions which replace speech and can act as substitutes for verbal statements” (1979, p. xx).  Illustrations of the emblem gestures they used for analysis were printed on the back cover of the book, which I have scanned here.

I am currently in the process of analyzing video data that I recorded of eight of my students as part of a research project examining what children’s nonverbal communication reveals about their developing understandings of gender concepts.  Out of 422 gestures I recorded, only 11 of them were emblems.  The most common emblem, comprising nearly half (45.5%) of the emblem gestures used by these children, was the raising of a hand to get a teacher’s attention.  Perhaps because this particular emblem would seem to be one that would tend to be restricted to classroom environments, it did not become part of Morris et. al.’s cross-cultural analysis of middle-aged European males (1979, p. xviii).

Blocks are O.K.

The only gesture which I recorded that was discussed in this text was the “thumb up” (#16 in the illustration), the primary feature of this gesture being that “the clenched hand is extended, with the thumb vertically erect” (1979, p. 186).  In my videos of Tanish (age 4 years; 4 months), I noticed that this gesture was used once by Kimberley (4;10) while she was playing with Tanish, then once a week later by Tanish himself when he was playing alone.  In both instances the child making the gesture was working on building something out of blocks, and the gesture was made just after a previously precarious block was made to balance so that it would not fall down.  The similarity between these two instances leads me to wonder whether this is a common gesture used by the children in block-building, or whether it was an example of delayed imitation on the part of Tanish.

If it is true that this gesture has become common to block-building, then the gendered implications of Kimberley’s usage of this gesture is significant.  Often teachers consider block play to be the domain primarily of boys, but we see in this instance that not only is a girl engaging in block play, but her gesture usage in such play demonstrates that this is not an isolated instance but rather that that she has internalized a gesture associated with this type of play.

It is possible that the gesture is not common to block-building, but rather that Tanish was engaging in delayed imitation of Kimberley.  Perhaps he was creating a personal association with the gesture and block-building such that he repeated the gesture even when Kimberley was not present.  In this instance, we again we see a gendered significance.  This is an example of a boy choosing to imitate the behavior of a female peer.  Another common view held by teachers is that children tend to prefer play with children of their own genders, but the fact that Tanish internalized a behavior demonstrated by a peer of a different gender indicates that his interaction with Kimberley meant more than just the single instance of block play caught on video.

The meaning of this gesture in both of these instances would seem to be consistent with the “O.K.” meaning of the gesture as identified by Morris et. al. (1979, p. 186).  This meaning is used in every area studied by the authors, though in the Greco-Italian region the usage was less common.  In Greece, Corfu, and parts of Sardinia, it is likely that the reason it is not as common with the “O.K.” meaning is because the gesture also holds an alternate meaning of an obscene insult.  The authors point out that “although both the insult meaning and the O.K. meaning are present in these countries, in southern Sardinia and northern Greece the obscene insult is dominant” (1979, pp. 195-196).  As for the rest of Sardinia, Sicily, and mainland Italy the lack of usage is probably related to the fact that “the O.K. ring [#9] is more popular in Italy” (1979, p. 195).  In mainland Italy in particular, the thumb up was considered to be more tied to American culture.  “At every location we visited on mainland Italy, at least one person identified it as ‘The American O.K.’” (1979, p. 193).

Other meanings for the thumb up gesture, which did not hold significant frequency in any region, were the number one, hitch-hike, and indication of direction (1979, p. 195).

Spiderman called you a cuckold

Though none of the other emblems discussed in the text appeared in the video data of my gesture research project, I do occasionally notice children in my classrooms making a gesture which resembles “the horn-sign” (#10 & #11), in which “the hand is [held up/pointed forward] with the forefinger and the little finger extended [vertically/horizontally].  The other two fingers are held down in a bent position by the thumb” (1979, p. 120, p. 136).  This gesture tends to occur when children are engaging in superhero play, specifically with regard to Spiderman.  In the 2002 movie starring Tobey Maguire there is a scene in which Spiderman experiments with different hand positions for shooting his webs, and one of the positions he tries is the vertical horn-sign, before finally discovering a similar hand position, in which the thumb is also extended while the hand is held palm-up horizontally.  This is the hand position typically recognized as being used by Spiderman to trigger his web-shooter.

I recall at one point overhearing a conversation between a young 4-year-old boy and his mother in which the child modeled both the thumb-extended versions of the Spiderman web-shooting gesture along with an upside-down version of the horizontal horn-sign as a thumb-retracted version of the web-shooting gesture.  He explained to his mother that girls use the thumb-extended version while boys (including himself) use the thumb-retracted version.  Personally, I’ve noticed that it tends to be younger children, regardless of gender, that use the thumb-retracted version, while older children, regardless of gender, tend to use the thumb-extended version, which requires greater fine-motor coordination.  The child, however, was projecting his own preferred method onto his same-gender peers.  In preschool classrooms, both hand formations have come to be emblematic of Spiderman.

Out of curiosity, I consulted a comic book expert known as TheDissilent, who helped me to skim through the first seventeen years of Spiderman comics (from when it began in 1962 until 1979, when Morris et. al. published Gestures) to see what hand positions Spiderman was depicted as using when shooting or attempting to shoot his webs and how frequently Spiderman was depicted as using the thumb-retracted horn-sign in such a context.  Of course, the large majority of the time he used the thumb-extended version of the gesture (61.9% of left-handed webs; 65.6% of right-handed webs).  It turns out that he positioned his hand in the true thumb-retracted horn-sign only about 3.4% of the time with the right hand and about 3.9% of the time with the left hand over the course of this period.  The highest frequency use of this form occurred in 1973, when the right hand used it 23.1% of the time and the left hand used it 25.0% of the time.

This would place Marvel Comics’ prime use of the gesture about halfway between when it was first introduced to rock music culture by the band Coven in 1968, and when Black Sabbath popularized the gesture as representative of heavy metal culture in 1979.  This use of the gesture in popular music probably stems from its meaning as a form of protection or a curse, in which the horns are acting “as symbols of power and aggression” (1979, pp. 128-129).  Prior to 1979, however, this usage as protection or curse was very minor, even in the parts of Italy, Malta, and Yugoslavia in which it was found.  Instead, Morris et. al. documented the gesture’s primary usage to be “the sign for a cuckold.  Its message is: your wife has been unfaithful to you and has given you the horns of a cuckold” (1979, p. 120).  They found that for the cuckold insult “as a commonly used gesture, we found it restricted today largely to Portugal, Spain and Italy” (1979, p. 129).

This meaning of the gesture has particularly interesting ramifications with regard to gender roles in society, and even this highly gender-biased study finds itself looking at rape culture as a major factor in this gesture’s history.  For they deduced that “we are dealing with a gesture of declining popularity” (1979, p. 129), and in seeking out the reason for this decline they found themselves examining the relative seriousness of the crimes of adultery and of rape throughout history.  At a time when the objectification of women was much more overt in society, in that women were viewed more as property of men than as individuals, adultery was a much more heinous crime than rape.  “The reason for being more lenient with the rapist was that he had only stolen the woman’s body, while the adulterous seducer had stolen both her body and her mind.  This attitude is based on the theft of the husband’s property – his wife – rather than on any consideration of the woman’s feelings” (1979, p. 131).   The authors attribute the decline in use of this meaning of the gesture to a waning view toward women as property, resulting in lower stigmatism toward adulterers and greater stigmatism toward rapists.  Unfortunately, nearly 35 years after this book was published, women are still being objectified and we continue to live in a rape culture.

There are some areas where the gesture is used as simply a general insult, not specifically associated with cuckoldry.  The authors point out that, “This is rare… but we have included a map of it because there is one site – Yugoslavia – where it becomes the dominant meaning” (1979, p. 134).  The horizontal horn-sign has one additional minor meaning not present in the vertical gesture, in which “it is also employed as a savage threat, with the meaning ‘I will poke your eyes out’” (1979, p. 143), but this meaning seems to be restricted mainly to just northern France.

This book analyzes another seventeen gestures not addressed in this blog post, and I would be happy to answer any questions readers have about the origins or distributions of other gestures depicted in the illustration.  What gestures do you find yourself or your own students using?  How has the meaning of these gestures changed over time in nearly 35 years since this book was published?  Please feel free to comment on this post with your responses or questions of your own.

Also, if you have a book that you would like to see me discuss, please comment on the new Recommended Reading page.  Next month I will be discussing Daring to dream: Toward a pedagogy of the unfinished by Paulo Freire (2007).


Freire, P. (2007). Daring to dream: Toward a pedagogy of the unfinished. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Morris, D., P. Collet, P. Marsh, & M. O’Shaughnessy. (1979). Gestures: Their origins and distribution. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Stein and Day.

Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope – bell hooks

(en español)

Teaching Community - bell hooks 2003 “No one is born a racist.  Everyone makes a choice.  Many of us made the choice in childhood.”

-bell hooks, 2003, p. 53

Racism is an issue that permeates society, and, as much as teachers may wish to make them so, our classrooms are not immune to the effects of such a society.  In her book Teaching Community, bell hooks tells us that “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination” (2003, p. 36).  It is not enough to create classrooms in which we seek to avoid dominance, but rather we must create spaces in which to actively counteract questions of bias as they situate themselves within our environments.

Every classroom I have worked in has had varying degrees of diversity.  In all my years as a teacher I have never worked in a classroom in which all of the children had similar cultural upbringings.  I recall one primary school classroom in which, in addition to the four other languages spoken in the classroom there was one particular student who had recently emigrated from an eastern African nation and, unlike the other students, didn’t speak any English at the start of the school year.  As I struggled to learn his home language, he struggled to learn English and to cope with the drastic cultural and racial differences that existed between him and his diverse classmates.

These differences led to conflict, at one point even escalating to a physical brawl involving multiple children when another child made fun of his appearance.  hooks reveals that “this is a looks-oriented culture, from grade school on we know how much looks determine whether individuals will be treated justly, respectfully” (2003, p. 113).  Whether a child wears glasses, is a darker shade of brown, or happens to be a boy with long hair, without guidance children will find ways to ridicule and ostracize someone who does not conform to the dominant appearance within the classroom.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the way things have to be.  hooks indicates that “the presence of conflict is not necessarily negative but rather its meaning is determined by how we cope with that conflict” (2003, p. 64).  She suggests that teachers can create an alternative environment by promoting and modeling caring situations.  “The loving classroom is one in which students are taught, both by the presence and practice of the teacher, that critical exchange can take place without diminishing anyone’s spirit, that conflict can be resolved constructively” (2003, p. 135).

In order to be able to resolve those conflicts constructively, children, particularly younger children must feel that they are in a safe place.  They must feel that the classroom is a place where love is greater than anger.  hooks states that “Love can bridge the sense of otherness.  It takes practice to be vigilant, to beam that love out.  It takes work” (2003, p. 162).

This is something that I strive to do in my classroom.  I greet every student in the morning with a hug as they enter the classroom.  When a child is crying, whatever the reason, I make an effort to comfort them, even if the reason they are crying is because they had just gotten in trouble.  I don’t believe in using ‘time-outs’ or exclusion in general.  The only time I will remove a child from the group is when that child is demonstrating a desire to be removed.

I have heard it said by some teachers that the ‘time-out’ serves the purpose of allowing the child to be alone in order to calm down.  But I find that when a child is angry, a hug often serves a calming purpose to a much greater extent than the ‘time-out’ would.  While there are occasionally children who prefer to be alone at times, usually they prefer the hug to the isolation.  Even children with sensitivities to physical contact still tend to prefer the presence of another person to separation, and comforting gestures can take a form as simple as offering a hand to hold or a tissue to dry the tears.  This seems to me to be a very human reaction.  In classrooms where I have been able make this a regular practice, the children take up this mantle of caring, and will themselves go to offer comfort in the form of a hug or a tissue when they see another child in need, even if it is a child with whom they will at other times enter into conflict.

Starting from this place of caring, it then becomes possible to address conflict in differences from an open place.  As hooks says, “Caring educators open the mind, allowing students to embrace a world of knowing that is always subject to change and challenge” (2003, p. 92).  Children come to learn that, despite differences, all of us have commonalities, and that those differences can come to be celebrated.  They also learn to look beyond the physical differences to discover that we have differences in personality that are much more significant and make for a more engaging and interesting environment.  As bell hooks puts it,  “finding out what connects us, revelling [sic] in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community” (2003, p. 197)

I welcome and encourage comments and discussion on this post.  What ways do you bring love into your classrooms or life?  Do you feel that time-outs or hugs are an appropriate way to give children space to calm down, or is there another alternative?  What do you believe is the best way to help children look beyond physical differences and come to appreciate diversity?

If you have a book that you think would interest me and would like to see me discuss in this blog, please feel free to comment with your recommendation.  Based on a suggestion by a reader, next month I will be discussing Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution by Morris, Collett, Marsh, & O’Shaughnessy (1979).


hooks, b. (2003). Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope. New York, NY: Routledge.

Morris, D., P. Collett, P. Marsh & M. O’Shaughnessy. (1979). Gestures: their origins and distribution. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Stein and Day.

Literacy Through Play – G. Owocki

(en español)

Literacy Through Play - Owocki 1999This month I read the book Literacy Through Play by Gretchen Owocki (1999).  Of course, there is already a wealth of information in the early childhood field on the topics of play and of literacy, as well as the relationship between the two.  Owocki’s statement that “In a developmentally appropriate classroom, play time is teaching time” (1999, p. 29), seems to be reflective of the attitude of nearly every early childhood educator I meet.  While play would seem to be universally utilized to some degree in virtually all preschool classrooms, primary classrooms are often not so fortunate.  I will therefore be discussing Owocki’s text in relationship to my student teaching experience in an inner-city third grade classroom.

Despite all of my university courses stressing the importance of play throughout the entire early childhood span of birth through third grade, in my midterm competency appraisal for my student teaching experience my university supervisor declared standard 4Bb, “Plans and implements a curriculum that incorporates play” (NLU 2012, p. 26) to be “Not Applicable” to the third grade public school classroom I was assigned to.  But as Owocki points out, “Play allows teachers to respond to children’s ideas, to help them elaborate on their thinking, and to help them see the world of literacy through many lenses” (1999, p. 39).  I therefore made efforts to incorporate play into my literacy curriculum.

This was not an easy task, as I received pressure from the public school to conform my curriculum to that being taught in the other third grade classrooms.  However, with the benefit of my experience as a preschool teacher, as well as support from my university supervisor, I found myself with surprising freedom when it came to teaching writing.  With the understanding that by the end of my unit I would have covered the same topics that other third grade classrooms were covering, I was given the freedom to stray from the prescribed curriculum to some degree and teach those topics in my own way based on a teaching method I’d found particularly successful in preschool.

Owocki indicates that “If children do not understand that reading and writing serve important functions, then there is little reason for them to read or write” (1999, p. 56).  She additionally states that “Developing a clear message for an audience is fundamental to effective communication” (1999, p. 21).  I strove to make literacy meaningful by providing the children a greater understanding of audience.  I did this by incorporating drama into the writing curriculum.  The sequence for the unit was as follows:

  • Week 1 – Story Dramatization – Students learn to retell a familiar story by acting it out.
  • Weeks 1-2 – Writing Dramatizations – Students learn to incorporate peer feedback by dramatizing and discussing as a class their written stories.
  • Week 2 [Math] – Making Change – Students learn to make monetary change by ordering DVDs of their dramatized stories.
  • Week 3a – Character Traits – Students learn to describe characters by discussing the character traits of the roles they are portraying when dramatizing each others’ stories.
  • Week 3b – Guest Speaker: Editor-in-Chief – Students learn about the process of editing from the editor-in-chief of a local university newspaper.
  • Week 4 – Setting – Students learn to visualize and describe a setting through the use of props.
  • Week 5 – Chronology – Students learn to describe a sequence of events in their stories.
  • Weeks 5-6 – Spelling – Students learn to use accurate spelling to improve readability.
  • Week 6 [Social Studies] – Election – Students learn about the upcoming election by voting on the title and cover illustration for a class anthology.
  • Week 7 – Punctuation – Students learn to use periods, capital letters, and quotation marks to improve readability.

Throughout the seven weeks of this unit, the children dramatized stories on a daily basis, transforming their writing into play.  Of course, some teachers might say that dramatization of written stories may not be considered play in the fullest sense of the word, but I would argue that it meets Owocki’s criteria for the most complex form of play, in which, “Dramatic play is characterized by the mental transformation of objects, actions, and situations” (1999, p. 11).  In my student teaching the children were able to mentally transform themselves and the various props that were provided into fictive elements developed from the children’s own imaginations.

Owocki reveals that “Play allows teachers to respond to children’s ideas, to help them elaborate on their thinking, and to help them see the world of literacy through many lenses” (1999, p. 39).  In my writing curriculum I was able to utilize the play to provide a forum for discussing important topics in relationship to writing.  With the exceptions of Week 2 [Math], Week 3b, and Week 6 [Social Studies], each topic was discussed in direct relationship to a specific story or stories written by the students and dramatized during that week.  These play-fueled discussions helped to build the type of social community that Owocki is discussing when she states that “all of the children within the social community activate zones [of proximal development (Vygotsky 1978, p. 87)] all over the classroom as they play, talk, and share their understandings of the world” (1999, pp. 50-51).

By using the children’s own stories and play as the driving force behind the curriculum, I engaged the children in writing in a way that enticed them to enjoy the task.  As Owocki says, “Through stories, children experience imaginative ideas, new possibilities for doing things, and diverse ways of thinking and living” (1999, p. 62).  Children’s excitement about the idea of bringing play into the third grade classroom in this way was evident even before the process had begun, as can be seen in the following excerpt from my student teaching journal:

As the last few children were finishing up their character webs, I made a big show of setting up the projector.  The children were curious and asked me all sorts of questions about what we were going to do with it, during which I remained silent and allowed their imaginations to compound their curiosity.  Finally, I responded to the most persistent child, Yousef, who was at this point asking if we were going to watch a movie, to which I told him that we would, but that it would be a very short one.

This got many of the children excited and on the edges of their seats.  The stragglers for the character webs went to the task with renewed vigor, anxious to finish so that they could see what I was going to be showing them on the projector.…  I quickly finished setting up the projector and I showed them a single short clip that I often show in workshops I give on the topic of story dictation and dramatization.  I introduced the clip by telling the children that, just like we dramatized a chapter from Horrible Harry (Kline, 2000) yesterday, I often had my preschoolers dramatize stories that they created.  I explained that the preschoolers didn’t know how to write yet, so I had to write the words for their stories, but the children created the stories and then got to act them out.

The entire clip was a minute and ten seconds, and the children had their eyes glued to the screen with excitement throughout.  They laughed and enjoyed watching the preschooler’s story dramatized along with the children in the video.

After the clip was over I then told them that, just like the children in the video, that we would get to dramatize their own stories.  I asked them to think about this as they did their stamina writing.  The children got very excited by this prospect, Pierce and Joseph in particular.  So much so, that when I had to stop them during their stamina writing because one of the children got distracted, the children got upset and demanded that I let them write more.  I did, and they went even longer, which surprised me since they didn’t have a break between the two attempts.

Nor did this enthusiasm for writing die down over the course of the curriculum.  In fact, it actually increased, as can be seen in this excerpt from my final reflection on the unit:

I have them hooked.  I’ve introduced writing in a way that has the children engaged and excited.  As I’m transitioning to get the children back on the same page as the rest of the third grade writing curriculum, I have been teaching the same writing lesson that the other third grade teachers are doing this week.  We’ve given the children scarves and told them to pretend that they are magic scarves that give the wearer superpowers.  They are to write stories based on the superpower their scarf would give them.…

Pierce tends to take a little bit longer at tasks than most other students, but the same enthusiasm I saw at the beginning of my writing program was still there when he told me that he wasn’t quite done [with his superscarf story] as we were getting ready for recess today.  I started to tell him that he could finish it over the weekend as he worked on his second draft, but he cut me off to tell me that he wanted to stay and work on it during recess.  I then made it clear that he didn’t have to do that and that he could do it over the weekend, but he still insisted on staying during recess.  It took him about five minutes to finish before he went outside.…

While I am not happy to see the children missing out on their time to engage in play, it excites me that the children choose to use their free time to work on writing.  As the writing curriculum prior to this week is the only part of my curriculum that has not been already shaped by the third grade team, this gives me a sense of satisfaction that I’ve done something right.

In my opinion, it is the desire to write more than anything else that is the greatest thing a literacy program can help cultivate in children.  Style and mechanics will all eventually come if they have the motivation to pursue them.  In the words of Gretchen Owocki, “Once children have a reason to use print, they naturally explore its features” (1999, p. 25).

I welcome and encourage comments and discussion on this post.  Also, if you have a book that you think would interest me and would like to see me discuss in this blog, please feel free to comment with your recommendation.  Next month I will be discussing the book Teaching Community by bell hooks (2003).


hooks, b. (2003). Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope. New York, NY: Routledge.

Owocki, G. (1999). Literacy through play. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kline, S. (2000). Horrible Harry moves up to third grade (F. Remkiewicz, Illus.). New York: Penguin.

National-Louis University (2012). Early childhood education undergraduate and graduate student teaching handbook. Online:

Vygotsky, L.S.  (1978 [1930-1935]).  Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes.  (M. Cole, S. Scribner & E. Souberman, Trans. & Eds.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.