Taking Out the Trash

This blog entry was written by Janet Adams MA, Special Projects Coordinator for Continuing Education at FPU.

Simple Encouragement

Up in my attic I found boxes of paperback educational-type books that I had quickly stashed away when I changed jobs.  I decided it was time after their two-year storage in the dark to dust them off and place them in a respectable shelf in the garage.  One of my all time favorites was Getting to Got ItHelping Struggling Students Learn How to Learn, authored by Betty K. Garner.   A book written in the educational genre for teachers, counselors, and administrators.  But I think this book would be fabulous in the hands of moms and dads as well.  Before I share my favorite part, “taking out the trash”, here is an overview.

When we meet our students for the first time, like the first day of school, our assigned students all bring a wide-variety of background experiences and a skill set unlike any of  their fellow classmates.  How do I begin to help them move forward as they step through my classroom door and for the next nine months?  Betty K. Garner states, “Helping students develop the cognitive structures they need will help them “get it” when we teach. Hmm, there is more to this than meets the eye. Getting to Got It! is neatly organized in chapters with headings so I can flip to a chapter and read about a key cognitive structure.

Conservation of Constancy
Spatial Orientation
Temporal Orientation
Metaphorical Thinking
The Spiritual Dimensions of Learning

She also states that learning is more than just cognition.  Making meaning involves more than the brain; it also involves issues of the heart, the soul, and the spirit.  These kinds of interactions and relationships we all have with our students determine whether or not students will trust us, believe us, and accept what we offer.  When students are struggling, it is essential that we take into account the intangible factors that influence how they see us, themselves, and the world.

Some students have developed cognitive structures and some have not. The so-called “smart” students are those who have received a wide variety experiences from their home.  They are encouraged to visualize and reflect from an early age.  Students who appear “slow” due to underdeveloped cognitive structures may have grown up with little encouragement for reflection and visualization.

Now, here is the chapter that I actually experienced the “ah ha” moment.  This chapter was labeled, Classification.  I bookmarked it right away and thought, “Marzano’s Nine High-Yield Instructional Strategies lists this attribute as one of the highest percent gains in learning through identifying similarities and differences.    I have to read this.”

The book is full of anecdotal stories and examples of each of the eight structures.  Here is one from the Classification chapter that is a great example about a struggling student.

“Jeremy, please take out the trash.”

A mother had listened to one of Betty Garner ‘s seminars.  “After we had completed the classification activity,” Kathy said, “I just realized something!  My 3rd grade daughter is doing well in school.  My son in 5th grade is struggling.  You know what?  My daughter’s jobs at home are setting the table, emptying the dishwasher, matching socks from the laundry, and things like that.  She’s classifying!  My son’s jobs are picking up the yard, feeding the dog, taking the trash out.  I am going to switch their jobs and see what happens.” Kathy quickly changed the chore assignments in their home and waited to see if Jeremy’s cognitive structure expanded any through his efforts with the “classifying chores”.

I had to read on to see if there would be a noticeable change in Jeremy by flipping his chores.  Could taking out the trash, feeding the dog, and mowing the lawn really inhibit a child’s cognitive processes?    I created monthly chore charts for years and I was not thinking how classification-type chores would help them process information and change understanding to create learning.  I wanted the chores done and that was about it.  Let’s return to Kathy’s story.

“You’re not going believe this,” Kathy said.  “But when I switched the kids’ jobs, my son could not match the socks!  It took him more than 45 minutes to figure out which ones went together.  I really had to work with him on classifying things.”

Time had passed and Betty Garner had not heard back from Kathy for over a month.  When she came by for a Parent Conference meeting,  Kathy showed her Jeremy’s report card and pointed out that he had brought up all his subjects one grade level.  “It works!” she said.  “And if I hadn’t taken that class.” she added.  “”I would never have thought about how I could help my kids develop cognitive structures at home!”

Can it really be that simple?  Of course it can.  What about organizing the junk drawer, the garage, the attic, closets, planting flowers by criteria in the garden?  Taking out the trash is still a great chore but it’s time to give sorting and classification chores a higher degree of importance.  Classification involves identifying, comparing, and ordering information or data to create meaning based on relationships of parts to each other and parts to the whole.

She also lists meaningful and thoughtful set of points that teachers can do to help students develop their cognitive structures.  Betty Garner  shares that if you want to raise test scores, we only have to teach what is tested.  If our goal is create learning, we will use lessons designed to develop the cognitive structures that equip students to visualize, create, and change.

The following is an excerpt from the Classification chapter. Betty Garner explains her meaningful process by helping a struggling student.

Podcast Story:  Greg, Making Shapes His Own  (8 minute conversation with Greg, a 6th grader, with Betty Garner discovering meaning through classification.  Read by Janet Adams)

Greg’s Story with Classification

‘qtd.in.”‘Garner, Betty K. “Getting to Got It!”. ASCD. Alexandria, VA, 7. 66-69. Print

Content Strategies

Teachers can help by encouraging students to develop cognitive structures by looking at their lessons and building in time for meaningful dialog, discovery, and sensory visualization.  For example:  (With suggested Common Core Standards)

English Language Arts
Effective instruction:

“What do you notice about how the book (text, data, information) is organized?”  or “Why do you think the information is classified this way?”
Give students a text and have them find punctuation patterns and generate rules based on classification of the data.  Students create meaning for themselves, changing their understanding of content and learning when, where, and how to use punctuation correctly rather than just memorizing rules and completing worksheets.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.7 and .9
Effective instruction:

In preparation for an experiment assignment give students the materials and safety instructions and encourage them to notice and document their observations as they collect and classify the data for analysis and interpretation.  They will build their cognitive structure of classification if they come up with the criteria by identifying the relationships of parts to each other and parts to the whole.

Effective instruction:

Have students work in small groups to make cards with note shapes, note names, symbols, staff positions, rhythms, keys, scales, intervals, chords, etc.  Have them organize and reorganize the cards into categories and explain why they grouped them together.

Homework for Parents

Take the time and look around your home, apartment, and garage.  Help your child develop the tools they need to gather, organize, and make sense of information.  The trash will always need emptying but add value to a chore by taking time to sort and organize a drawer together.