"God showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand… and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: 'What can this be?' And it was generally answered thus: 'It is all that was made.' It was so small I thought it might disappear, but I was answered... everything has being through the love of God." --Julian of Norwich

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

On Learning

Recently I've been thinking a lot about the process of learning, which is quite a luxurious thing for a frazzled urban middle school teacher to do. What got me started was my friend Nigel's post on praise choruses and worship music in the church. He is putting together a songbook for the youth group at his church and was searching for songs (old and new) that had meaningful theology in their lyrics. He mentioned how easy it is to remember the songs we sing regularly in church, so we ought to take them seriously.

It is an interesting point, because around the same time I attended a professional development for work about using songs in the Foreign Language classroom. I learned Spanish with songs, but as I attended a Christian school, we sang popular praise choruses translated into Spanish. This was especially useful because we had a general idea what they meant in English. But I didn't know where to find "secular" Spanish songs when I started teaching here in the public school. After the PD, I very randomly ran into a young lady who had been in the same session and was headed to the Instituto Cervantes, a Spanish cultural foundation in the city. She told me about the library that they had there, and I asked if I could come along. I found this great book that came with a tape of traditional Spanish language children's songs (I happen to have a good old fashioned tape player at school, thanks to the teacher before me who left it when she retired).

Singing has completely re-charged my classroom. I am having more fun. My students are having more fun. They sing in Spanish. They complain that their friends sing the songs at home without knowing the words. They do the motions and learn vocabulary (yay for kinetic learning). Their parents are amazed to hear them "speaking" some Spanish. Just when I had begun to despair that they would ever be able to memorize vocabulary. It's a beautiful thing!

But what is most interesting to me is that the first time I teach them a song, it is usually a disaster. They complain that they can't learn the words. They fumble everything up. I hear strange phrases repeated from kids who insist they are saying what I just said. They complain that they don't know what the song is talking about. But the second day, it's more familiar. By the third day they're requesting the song. It is the good, old fashioned repetition that cements the song in their minds and helps them to become better Spanish speakers.

I'm also in a Sunday school class right now about Worship and the Prayer Book led by our minister, and it has made me think about how important repetition can be during a worship service as a teaching tool. The prayers and creeds we say weekly as a part of our liturgy teach us to think a certain way about prayer and faith. They, like the songs we sing, are good training. They are what we will really remember.

Of course, this does not automatically mean that we will know how to apply the truths we memorize. If my students thought they were "speaking Spanish" to someone just by singing their songs, a native speaker might laugh at them, or maybe recognize the song and join in. But too many people have rejected the educational value of this "rote" memorization. It is a good, necessary and enjoyable jumping off point. A solid ground to grow in.

Thank you, Thomas Cranmer. :)
"[T]he report found it is important for students to master their basic math facts well enough that their recall becomes automatic, stored in their long-term memory, leaving room in their working memory to take in new math processes.
'For all content areas, practice allows students to achieve automaticity of basic skills — the fast, accurate and effortless processing of content information — which frees up working memory for more complex aspects of problem solving,' the report said. "

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