tinker with text
Literacy-Based Maker Education
I thought I had my summer all planned … teaching a course and a workshop, attending a conference, entertaining visitors. Then, one by one, they were all cancelled. Well, I kept busy enough with projects and a “staycation” in my hometown, but I still was looking for a bit of adventure. So, I decided to just go for it and check something off my bucket list. Thanks to my credit card and the internet, off I went to California for surfing lessons!
Lesson #1: Surfing is hard.
There’s a reason why most surfers are athletic, young people. You use every muscle in your body. I almost didn’t go back the second day (or the third) because I was so sore and tired. But I told myself, “Get up! You’re not a quitter.”
Lesson #2: Sometimes there are secondary challenges, such as:
It was so fun to play in the waves though. I don’t think I could have had a wider smile. Did I “get it?” No, but I did it! Afterwards, it really made me think about my students, who struggle with reading. In schools around the world, we ask kids to learn something new for six hours every day. We ask them to try and try and try, even though they may be “crashing” and exhausted. I hope my challenging lessons will make me a better teacher this fall.
When was the last time you did something that took every ounce of your courage and energy? Is there something that you’ve wanted to do for a long time? I’m not encouraging you to do something reckless or terrifying, but you know - that thing that you think you’re too old for or that you might feel silly doing; that thing that you keep talking yourself out of. Yeah, that’s the thing that you definitely should do. Maybe it’s taking tango lessons with your spouse, renting an SUP, colouring your hair, or getting braces. Maybe it’s getting a motorcycle, hiking a famous trail, or learning another language. The possibilities are endless.
But what if it doesn’t work out? What if you suck at it? Well, then you’ve learned something too. The thing is, if you’re a parent, teacher, coach, mentor, grandparent, aunt or uncle, there is a young person in your life who looks up to you. And the next time that they have a hard day at school or fail their driver’s test or don’t make the team, we can say, “I know how you feel.” And we actually do.
My brother used to be a city police officer. However, he sustained a brain injury which forced him to “retire” at a young age. As a result, he has virtually no short-term memory but his long-term memory is intact. Due to this, he often talks about the past and, specifically, his memories of the police force. It turns out that police adhere to codes too. They’re called “10-Codes” and they’re used for relaying messages over the police radio. Each police force has their own list of 10-Codes but some codes are consistent.
We’ve all heard “10-4” (message received) used in movies or TV shows. But do you know what a 10-13 is? It means “Member in Trouble.” Perhaps educators can learn this code and adapt it to our own lives.
You know that staff member down the hall that some people think should "just retire?" She’s trying to learn the latest technology and pedagogy (really!), but her husband has Parkinson’s, finances are tight, and she’s worried and exhausted. Every. Single. Day. She’s a 10-13.
And what about the boy in your Grade 5 class who still struggles with reading and writing? His anxiety is growing, and he is withdrawing from everyone and everything. He stays home from school more frequently now and his parents don’t know what to do. He’s a 10-13.
Then there’s the principal who comes to school every day with a smile on her face and tries to “get everyone on board.” She is trying to serve the school board, the superintendent, the parents, the teachers, and the students, as well as her own family. The stress levels and potential for burn-out are rising every year. Definitely a 10-13.
Draw that circle closer. Are there family members who are 10-13’s? Now widen the circle to include community members. Wider yet … members of the human race. There’s nothing but 10-13 stories in the news every day – some, more alarming than others.
Most educators are masters of the code that we call language. Use your words to reach out with empathy, courage, and inspiration to your colleagues and students. Use your voice to speak up for peace, equality, and social justice. Use language to read, write, speak, teach, listen, learn, act, debate, sing, pray, talk, process, and understand. Together, we can stand up for and with others, and help to build a better world.
What does the word “code” conjure up for you? Secret code, da Vinci code, alarm code, code of conduct, computer code? Last year, we had a “Wonder Wall” in the classroom, which was a big whiteboard where students could write their inquiry questions. One boy was curious about Morse code and we all learned a lot about that topic through his research.
When you build a home, it must be built to code. The city, architect, contractor, construction company and labourers must all adhere to this code to ensure a safe and healthy building. Referee gestures and ship flags are types of code too. Essentially, codes are a system of rules to convert information.
The sound system of a language is a code as well, and can be just as complicated. When we tell a young reader to “sound it out,” this is known as decoding. In other words, it means to undo the mystery by tinkering with the system. The alphabetic principle, phonemic awareness, phonics, and spelling are all part of the code that needs to be understood to read and write.
How do you encourage children to tinker with text when teaching children to de-code?
I know that many primary teachers teach decoding and spelling within what’s known as “Word Work.” Don’t get me wrong ... I love the Daily Five framework and think that it has transformed literacy instruction. However, I’ve started calling it “Word Play.” Yes, it’s just semantics but many words have both positive and negative connotations. Do your students cheer when/if you assign home-work or are you excited about spending all day Saturday on yard-work? Why not choose the word with the positive vibe?
Here’s some things to try when playing with words and tinkering with text:
NOTE: I'm not advertising any of the resources, apps, or programs mentioned in this post. These are just some of the methods and materials that educators may use in literacy instruction. Be sure to tinker with them in a way that helps students learn and fits your teaching style and pedagogical beliefs.
As kids, we would ask Mom where Dad was, and she would invariably reply, “He’s tinkering in the ________.” Fill in the blank with one of three places – garage, basement, yard - and you’d probably be right. And he often was tinkering – sorting, fixing, building, and the like. But wasn’t Mom’s pinch-of-this-and-a-teaspoon-of-that in the kitchen also a form of tinkering? (Excuse the gender stereotypes but in the 60’s, that’s the way it was.)
Do you tinker? I do. I can lose myself for hours in making crafts or editing photos on the computer. It’s that pleasurable way of “putzing around” or “messing about” with stuff. It’s when you are working with materials, experimenting, trying to create something, figuring out how it works, or making it better somehow. It certainly doesn’t sound very technical or academic, and it might not feel productive or like work. But that’s just the point – it’s not a chore or a project with a fixed deadline.
So, why tinker? Tinkering allows the mind to wander, explore, and rest. It promotes the flow of your creative juices. I believe it’s akin to the morning pages that Julia Cameron advocates to overcome writer’s block. Tinkering can also feel like being in the zone or finding your zen. That’s why people enjoy tinkering and lose all track of time. We may think it’s wasting time but as John Lennon once said, “Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted.”
Just as my Dad tinkered with engines and Mom tinkered with recipes, I’m interested in tinkering with text in my classroom … a “workshop” of words, bolts, cardboard, books, iPads, Lego, notebooks, wood, chalk, headphones, stories, magnets, pencils, popsicle sticks, poems, and forts that kids can get “lost” in for hours.
Vicki Den Ouden is an Elementary Reading Intervention Teacher from BC, Canada. She loves to dream, learn, teach, and create.