The following is drawn from elements presented at a Regional Literacy Conference for educators.  I started by reading The Three Questions by Jon J. Muth.  Based on the work of Leo Tolstoy, Muth’s brilliant picture book tells the story of a young boy trying to be the best person he can be.  In it the boy asks:


When is the best time to do things?

Who is the most important one?

What is the right thing to?


These questions get to the core of what we must do as educators.  Bombarded with an onslaught from publishing companies, purveyors of professional development, State Education Department Officials, colleagues, parents and others who search for a way to make sense of the Common Core State Standards, where should one turn first?  If we attend to the fundamentals of sound instructional strategies that are borne out of decades of research into what learners need, then we will be successful in reaching the young minds and hearts who sit before us in any 21st century classroom.


To establish a strong foundation for engaging learners- even in the digital age look no further than Brian Cambourne’s conditions for learning.  Though his work is focused on early childhood literacy acquisition, the elements he describes become essential elements of practice that is at the heart of a solid core to any learning process.  Cambourne describes the elements which require us to immerse the learner in language, provide demonstrations through modeling, engage them in a risk free environment, set realistic expectations, give the learner responsibility for their own learning, allowing the learner to make approximations and mistakes, use the learning process for authentic applications, and at all times be responsive by listening (not talking to) to the learner. 


Richard Allington also provides compelling evidence as to what effective literacy instruction looks like.  Not surprisingly there is no evidence that “test-prep” will advance the ability of our students to do well and become literate adults.  I take strong exception to the profiteers and charlatans as well as some publishing companies who hawk their wares in the name of promoting what it takes to “meet the Common Core.”  We know what it takes- a dedicated, thoughtful, articulate, and reflective practitioner.  It takes teachers who hone their craft and direct their energies to meet the needs of individual students.  For English language arts, it takes teachers who will become literacy experts; for mathematics, we must become expert mathematicians; and for any discipline, it is always about being experts in the art and science of teaching and learning.


The success of any teaching/learning experience is not a matter of purchasing an expensive program.  It is, in part, a matter of every teacher living by the credo so eloquently stated by Dr. Haim Ginot in his landmark book Between Teacher and Child.  This struck a chord within me as a student teacher and stays with me to this day as a school superintendent.


“I have come to a frightening conclusion.  I am the decisive element in the classroom.  It is my personal approach that makes the weather.  As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.  I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.  I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.  In all situations it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or dehumanized.


Many teaching problems will be solved in the next few decades.  There will be new learning environments and new means of instruction.  One function, however, will always remain with the teacher: to create the emotional climate for learning.  No machine, sophisticated as it may be, can do this job.”


These words still ring true.  Successful teaching is many things, but at its core it will always be about that chemistry between the teacher and the taught; the emotional response within the learner that bonds an idea to what is retained, and even a physiological affect that also occurs within the learner — an aha moment, if you will.  Learning may be arduous for some and come easily for others, but essentially it is growth.  That which a teacher does to cause a learner to grow will not take place without attending to a core set of traits and dispositions.


Essentially we teach children first, followed by subject matter.  Our responsibility begins with the disposition to meet the child where he or she is and leverage the process of teaching and learning to obtain the best result possible for each, individual student.  If we are challenging students of all levels to succeed, it comes at least in part from the disposition that we take as a learner ourselves in a quest for greater understanding.


I am not trying to minimize the challenge of meeting the needs of a diverse student population at a time of decreasing resources and increased demands from all quarters both inside and outside the educational community.  I am not opposed to the concept of promoting a framework that attends to standards of excellence.  I am, however, arguing that practicing the fundamentals will always be at the core of any effective teaching/learning situation.  I am also a strong proponent of seeing that our professional practice is at its core built upon a foundation of trust and respect. The culture of any organization or enterprise - large or small – will always dictate a way to lead a community towards greatness.


If we answer Jon Muth’s three questions, we will be on our way to meeting the Common Core. 


When is the best time to do things?

Who is the most important one?

What is the right thing to?


In the story, Muth concludes with the following:


“Remember then there is only one important time, and that time is now.  The most important one is always the one you are with.  And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.”


Keeping our agenda simple is not suggesting that our work is easy.  One should never confuse hard and complicated, or easy and simple.   I believe this work is hard, but we must strive to render the agenda simple and clear, not cumbersome and complicated.  Someone once told me that “doing 100 push ups is hard, but building a rocket ship to go to the moon is complicated.”  Asking the right questions is where wisdom is born; this is the hard work of teaching and learning.


Let us have the courage to resist the temptation to see the Common Core as a tool to divide and separate the process of quality and standards through a set of false metrics that hold out the promise of improvement for all.  Countless examples of educational systems that have progressed towards an enlightened understanding of improvement exist the world over.  They resist calls for increased testing, endless purchasing of products, and misplaced pressure to enforce improvement by the heavy hand of a top down-command structure reminiscent of those that were more evident during the early 20th century.  Rather, they find the elegant elements of successful design that we must champion at all times.  They form habits of mind and body that honor the human experience – trust, respect, creativity, passion and love.

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