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Virginia Journal of Education

Using 'R' Power

A Virginia Beach teacher suggests replacing the old 3 R's of education with four new ones

by Karen Drosinos

We’ve seen it, we’ve felt it, and some of us have been a part of it: Powerful teaching. Powerful learning. How does it happen? What does it look like? Let’s compare two classrooms with the same grade level, ability of students, content, resources and materials.

In Classroom A, students are seated in rows, facing front. The teacher is standing in front with a teacher’s guide opened to an answer page. Students are yelling out answers from a completed worksheet, and the teacher is telling them if the answers are correct or incorrect.

In Classroom B, students are sitting in cooperative learning groups generating and discussing ideas in response to questions. The teacher is moving around the room, interacting with some groups, listening attentively to others, and being an equal participant in the learning experience. Which classroom would inspire you? Which gives students the “power” to learn?

The Power of Principles
Education of the past was focused on the 3R’s: Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. But we’ve realized that skill-based teaching doesn’t give our students everything they need. They need authentic learning experiences, where they’re challenged to apply learned skills and materials to new situations. They need learning environments that promote problem-solving, creative and critical thinking, communication and collaboration, along with the integration of technology. How do we take curriculum and transform it to this heightened level of understanding? I suggest replacing the old 3R’s with four new and improved R’s of learning: Rigor, Relevance, Resilience and Relationships. These principles can help strengthen learning experiences and, regardless of who, what or where we teach, they have the power to create a positive learning environment for all students.

 Rigor. We’ve all heard the buzz about making learning more “rigorous.” What does that really mean? In The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner writes, “In today’s world, it’s no longer how much you know that matters; it’s what you can do with what you know.” This sheds some light on a true definition of rigor and challenges the old notion that the more work you give, the more rigorous learning becomes. We need to ask students to show what they know and what they’ve learned. If we challenge them to solve real-world problems and communicate their understanding through the use of materials, written work, collaboration and experimentation, we’re better able to assess for full understanding.

What does rigor look like? An elementary teacher assessing student understanding of the properties of solids and liquids, for example, may present groups of students with a performance task, giving them a choice of how to present their information (differentiating based on the needs and learning modalities of the students). Each group would have to show documentation of their process as well as use a rubric as an assessment of the activity. This teacher could have given a fill-in-the-blank test, but the rigor lies in the way students can apply their understanding to a real-world situation. As they say, the proof is in the pudding.

Relevance. Making content relevant to students only makes sense, right? I believe the key to succeeding in this is to know your students and make each topic appeal to their interests. Engage your students, providing opportunities for them to describe their interests, personal experiences and prior knowledge—this will help them create connections on their path to learning new knowledge. Think of relevancy as a “stew” of learning. Instead of giving students a dividing plate with meat, potatoes and vegetables, and not allowing the pieces to touch each other, combine the meat, potatoes and vegetables together, combining and integrating each ingredient. The flavor of each is apparent throughout the stew. Learning becomes whole when students are able to make connections with what they’re studying.

What does relevance look like? I teach kindergarten and in December my students’ minds are only on toys! Knowing this, we make toys the theme of our work. We become “design technologists” as we build toys, graph toys based on attributes, conduct scientific experiments on the movement and speed of toys, sort and classify toys, write toy stories, research toys by reading non-fiction texts, and explore the social studies concept of wants and needs as a culminating activity. Because this theme appeals to my students’ interest and prior knowledge, I’m able to engage them and provide opportunities to bridge their interests to real-world situations.

Resilience. This principle, important in both learning and life and to young people and adults, is one of the most difficult to create. How do we create an atmosphere of learning that promotes resilience? One of the first steps is to be able to differentiate instruction. When learning is presented at a level at which students are overwhelmed or disengaged, they become frustrated, so it’s imperative that every learning experience is differentiated in order to best meet the needs of each student. It’s also important to emphasize the process of learning, not always the product. Students need to become a part of their learning, and it is not a one-way street. We need to create opportunities for them to be able to look at their learning as a “work in progress” and to be able to edit, revise and reflect on their own learning. Students need to feel that it is expected that they make mistakes, so it’s how they improve that’s most important. The popular idea that “practice makes perfect” needs to be replaced with “practice makes progression.” It’s how students progress, how they move through their learning that should matter most. We want our students to improve, and we need to provide opportunities for them to understand that each of us shows progress in different ways, different increments, and at different times. It’s also important to model resilience by making mistakes ourselves and showing how we can make mistakes meaningful by learning from them and moving forward in the learning process.

What does resilience look like? In a classroom where resilience is practiced, students are encouraged to make decisions about their learning. They understand what’s expected of them, and what’s needed to accomplish a task, but each is moving at different rates and in different ways. One of the first things I do with my students is to remove all negative or unhelpful words from our classroom with the help of our puppet friend, “Take-Away Tom.” As a class, we generate a list of words that may stifle our learning (“I can’t, I won’t, I don’t know how”…) and we feed these phrases to “Take Away Tom.” He “eats” those words and they are forever removed from our learning vocabulary. Another way to promote resilience and alleviate the pressure of making mistakes is to have an “eraser-free” classroom. Removing erasers from pencils and replacing them with artificial flowers (for example) helps make mistakes an acceptable part of the learning process. When a mistake occurs during paper/pencil tasks, encourage students to circle it. This not only helps them overcome the stress of making mistakes, but it also provides you with valuable information about the thought process of your students. And let’s remember that we are members of the learning environment and make mistakes ourselves. Sometimes the best teaching moments come from students “catching” a teacher’s mistake. Maybe we ought to (purposefully) make more!

 Relationships. The previous R’s help students with content; this R stands out because it helps students to relate to others. There are three important relationships in the classroom: teacher-families; teacher-students; and student-student. Let’s take a closer look at each:

• Teacher- Families. This relationship is foundational. We need a partnership with the families of our students to promote the importance of the home-school learning process. We need to create reciprocal relationships from the start of school. The parents and families of our students are vital participants in the academic success of our students; our students need the partnership we create with those most important to them. Frequent e-mails, phone calls, positive notes, updates to classroom websites and the encouragement of active involvement can provide a forum for effective communication and partnership.

• Teacher- Students. To promote the success of every student, we need to know them, to create a positive relationship and establish trust. If we’re to develop rigor, relevance and resilience with students, they need to be able to see us as facilitators in their learning and sources of support and encouragement. When students know that you believe in them, they’ll begin to believe in themselves and to take risks in their learning. By greeting and welcoming students daily, establishing a weekly response journal, or offering frequent affirmations of successful learning, teachers can build those important relationships.

• Student- Student. Through collaboration and teamwork, students begin to establish relationships with each other. It’s important to provide opportunities for students to work together, in pairs or groups, to improve their abilities to communicate and listen to others. Peer relationships are the key to creating an environment where cooperative learning can succeed and where students can be challenged to think creatively and critically by sharing ideas. By modeling, creating “collaborative work contracts” in which students generate ideas of how to work together, or having a “compliment corner” where students can write and post positive statements about a peer, teachers can foster positive peer relationships.

A Fifth R
There is a fifth and final R that ties together the first four into a neatly-completed, continuous circle of learning: Reflection. I challenge you to remember this last step as you look back and reflect on what you did today in the classroom: what worked, what needs to be refined, and what needs to be celebrated. Careful reflection ties everything together and leads to the purposeful integration of these principles. We can transform skill into application (Rigor), content into experience (Relevance), mistakes into meaning (Resilience), relationships into responsibilities (Relationships), and Reflection into results.

Drosinos, a member of the Virginia Beach Education Association, teaches kindergarten at Pembroke Elementary School. She was Virginia Beach’s 2011 Teacher of the Year and one of Virginia’s 2011 Regional Teachers of the Year.



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