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Parenting News for Metro Detroit Families

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THE WAY KIDS LEARN - Variety is the spice of the classroom!

By Cindy Hampel-Litwinowicz

Spiders can make great teachers. Just ask the Detroit preschool teacher who scrapped her detailed lesson plan when a tiny eight-legged visitor dropped into class.

One of her students saw a spider and called some of his friends to watch as it got closer to the floor, said Leslie Washko, of the Merrill-Palmer Institute of Child and Family Development at Wayne State University in Detroit. Washko coordinates a training program for 36 early childhood educators. One of those teachers reported this incident in her classroom.

The teacher noticed what the children were doing and asked them what they thought about the spider, Washko said. Their opinions: It might be the brother of a spider found earlier in class. It might be hungry. It could be fed to the class turtle. It should be stomped.

The teacher asked the children what they wanted to do with it. Their consensus: First catch the spider, examine it, and then decide.

So the teacher caught the spider and let the children study it with a magnifying glass. The students thought it looked like one they found earlier. The kids said: "This one is bigger, so maybe it's the daddy spider, or maybe the big brother." They remembered what spiders like to eat and wanted to go outside to find a small insect. The preschoolers talked about the spider for 20 minutes, while the teacher quickly pulled spider information from her file cabinet to spur the children.

"The lessons she had planned for the day were put on hold as she let the children's interest lead the way," Washko said. "The next time I visited that classroom, I saw drawings of spiders, spiders made from starched yarn and paper mache, and a story written about the spider who visited their classroom."

This episode reveals how meaningful it is when a teacher lets students use their own interests and learning styles in the classroom.

"Everybody learns in different ways," said Roxanne Reschke, a teacher development consultant for Oakland Schools in Pontiac. "We all have a collection of intelligences, a profile of how we approach learning. Our brains are as unique as our fingerprints."

Howard Gardner pioneered the idea of different learning styles in his landmark 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (BasicBooks). In his book, the Harvard psychology professor identified seven different kinds of intelligence. From additional research, he added two more. They are:

1. Logical-mathematical: The ability to recognize and handle patterns, numbers, order and chains of reasoning. Enjoyment of numbers, collections and record-keeping.

2. Linguistic: Sensitivity to the sounds, rhythms, order and meanings of words. Sensitivity to the functions of language. Ability to enjoy stories, jokes and word games.

3. Musical: Sensitivity to melody, pitch, tone and rhythm. Ability to produce or enjoy musical expression.

4. Spatial: Ability to see the world accurately and to recreate or change parts of that world. Ability to draw, paint, build, and take apart and put together.

5. Bodily-Kinesthetic: Ability to control one's body movements and to handle objects skillfully. Ability in sports, dance, piano playing, mime and surgery.

6. Interpersonal: Sensitivity to people and relationships. Ability to respond properly to the moods, motives and desires of others. Ability to work in a group.

7. Intrapersonal: Ability to use one's own feelings as a way to understand oneself and others. Ability to observe, listen and work alone.

8. Naturalist: Ability to understand the environment, recognizing its flora and fauna and interpreting its processes.

9. Existential-Spiritual: Ability to understand transcendental or cosmic matters.

"I don't think you need a fancy instrument to measure intelligences," Gardner said in an Internet discussion. "Ask kids what they are good in and what they like to do. Pose the same questions to parents and teachers, and so long as they agree, then you have a good rough-and-ready measure of intelligences."

Active learning works

When teachers tailor their curriculum for different learning styles, educators call this approach "active," "open-ended," "constructivist" or "differentiated." Regardless of the name - and anecdotes - does research show it works?

Yes, according to Ann Epstein, director of the early childhood division of High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti. High/Scope works with schools nationally and internationally to promote active learning in classrooms.

"Active learning means students are encouraged to follow their interests, make plans to maximize their learning, investigate and experiment with materials, people and ideas, and reflect on what they've learned," Epstein said. "Teachers and parents actively challenge students' thinking and create a classroom or home environment where children can choose to learn among multiple styles and materials.

"Over 40 years of longitudinal research has shown that when children have choices about how they learn so they can use the methods that work best for them, they are more engaged in learning, have fewer discipline problems, and score higher on measures of academic skills and overall development than when they don't have such choices," she said.

Teachers make the difference

If this focus on different learning styles works in the classroom, are metro Detroit schools using it?

"Most teachers recognize different talents in their students if they've taught them for more than five minutes," Reschke said. "You can see it in individual students and as a group. For instance, one group might love art and another group, music."

One group of preschoolers in Washko's program loved castles, princes and princesses, so their teacher let the group focus on that topic. She brought in castle picture books and fairy tales, and the children built castles with blocks, dramatized fairy tales, drew castle pictures, and recorded themselves talking about castles for parents to hear later.

Besides the teachers' informal knowledge of different learning styles, Oakland Schools formally encourages teachers to use different teaching styles in all 28 school districts in the county. It offers classes for teachers that show how to use a differential approach, with instructors modeling the methods in action, said Jackie Moase-Burke, Oakland Schools' supervisor for teacher development.

"Gardner's work is fundamental. We provide information for teachers and strategies to determine the primary and dominant learning styles," said Moase-Burke. "We look at the teachers' knowledge and learning styles, too." But all 28 school districts are "in a different place," when it comes to using differential teaching, she added.

Proof in the pudding

Does this approach work with students even in the face of strong demands from the state and federal government for higher academic performance?

"Active learning helps students prepare for high-stakes tests," said Moase-Burke. "It helps for all students, not just the highly-able students. Especially with the No Child Left Behind Act (a recent federal law), it helps students fully participate in the curriculum if there's differentiating for children with different needs and learning experiences."

Epstein agrees. "There is a dichotomy in our schools between those that use a more open-ended approach, allowing children to follow their interests and make choices with adult support, and those that use a more directive approach, where teachers direct the learning and children follow their lead.

"In recent years, the concern with academics has mistakenly led many people to conclude that only a directive or scripted approach will allow children to master the basic skills they need," Epstein said. "However, as long as teachers systemically and conscientiously introduce a wide variety of content into the classroom and encourage children to explore it in different ways, children will be naturally motivated to learn.

"Teachers can set out materials and encourage children to explore them in different ways. They can also give children the choice of working alone, in pairs or in groups. In fact, by approaching the subject matter with confidence and pleasure in their ability to learn, children are more likely to exhibit sustained attention and mastery of the material."

Students who come here from other countries also can benefit from an open-ended approach, according to Epstein. If the children are accustomed to an open-ended approach to learning, they may lose interest or motivation if they have to follow scripted lesson plans here. If they are used to a scripted approach, the teacher may need to encourage them to show more initiative and independence here.

"However, given the intrinsic pleasure they derive from learning in their own style, children quickly adapt to a more open-ended approach," Epstein said. The choice of learning styles is especially important for children learning a new language. Being able to learn in non-verbal ways while they simultaneously master English allows them to stay engaged and feel confident about their ability to stay connected with their peers.

"In some countries and cultures, China and the Native American in particular, the emphasis is on cooperation rather than individualism and competition. So working in small groups rather than individually is more comfortable for these children. It's also good to foster that collaborative spirit regardless of children's backgrounds. And it enables children to learn from one another, not only from an adult."

The most important way parents can help their children learn is to learn from them.

"Observe and follow your child's lead," Epstein advised. "Rather than imposing your own interests and styles of learning, see what interests your child and how he or she approaches new situations, people and ideas. Provide a variety of materials for your child that engage the different senses - things to see, hear, touch, smell and taste.

"Let your child establish his or her own pace. Some children are fast and enjoy alternating between several activities. Others like to stick with the same thing for a long time. Whatever style or pace children favor, parents can work and play alongside them to show that they value what their child is doing.

Epstein cautions parents to keep it simple when they ask their kids what they're learning. "Don't ask too many questions. Children tend to clam up if they feel they're being grilled. Instead, parents can make comments about what they see a child doing, and then let the child expand on those statements. Sometimes, the less parents say, the more the child is likely to talk."

Notice what interests your child, Reschke advises. If your child likes sports, then sports statistics might help interest her in math. If your child has a clear idea of where he is while riding in the car, he might have a visual-spatial talent. Does your child like sorting out toys according to color or shape? Even in high school, physics teachers can use this information to guide students along in their preferred learning style. What kind of board games does your child like to play? Strategy games? Games of chance? Games with long playing times? Or games that end quickly?

"I encourage parents to note when they see a certain talent coming out in their child," Reschke advised. "Mark it in your planner and share that information with your child's teacher or caregiver. Teachers can use this information."

In some schools, she said, teachers ask the parents directly: Tell us about your child. "But parents are sometimes reluctant to tell teachers what they've observed in their offspring," she said. "Teachers want that information because such details can help in education. Teachers really want their students to succeed."

-Cindy Hampel-Litwinowicz of Royal Oak is a freelance writer and the mother of three sons.

SIDEBAR

How to make the most of the way your child learns

By Erin Gifford

Is your child a Social Butterfly or a Storyteller? A Fidget or a Free Spirit? Chances are, he could be both, or neither. Knowing your child's learning style can help him learn more effectively and put him on the right track to academic success this school year.

In his book, Frames of Mind, Dr. Howard Gardner identifies seven styles of learning. Our children possess varying degrees of each of the styles, but one or two are most dominant to their personalities, which may explain why your child thrives on group projects and his best friend prefers to tackle assignments on his own.

Understanding your child's learning style can help to personalize homework and exam preparation to ensure peak performance in school while building your child's self-confidence. Here is a parent-friendly version of "The Seven Learning Styles," and tips to help your child use his style(s) to his advantage.

* The Fidget

Meet a toe-tapper and a hand-waver. A Physical Learner, can hardly sit still. He just thinks better when he is moving his body. You may find that he enjoys sports, building models, and dancing. He learns best when engaging in role-play activities, manipulating objects, or performing movement exercises.

To help The Fidget become a successful learner, parents may want to:

* Encourage him to study in different positions (e.g., sit in a chair, on the floor, at a table, etc.).

* Take short breaks with him, even just stretching, after 10 minutes.

* Allow him to walk around while studying for a test.

* The Free Spirit

This one marches to the beat of her own drum and may be considered shy. An Intrapersonal Learner, she isn't anti-social, she just thinks better when she works on her own. You may find that she enjoys writing in a journal, exploring the Internet, and setting goals for herself. She learns best when working on independent projects, conducting research on her own, and taking on self-paced activities.

To help The Free Spirit succeed in school, parents may want to:

* Encourage her to motivate herself to excel on exams and assignments.

* Allow her to work at her own pace when preparing for classes.

* Urge her to work independently, enabling her to solve problems on her own.

3. The Social Butterfly

Here's is a helper and a team player. An Interpersonal Learner, he is at his best when he can bounce ideas off of others and help friends solve problems. You may find that he enjoys team sports and group discussions. He learns best when working with a partner or as part of a small study group, conducting research with others, and playing cooperative games.

To help The Social Butterfly excel in school, parents may want to:

* Encourage him to join or start a study group to prepare for exams.

* Urge him to take on leadership roles in group projects and activities.

* Discuss with him his thoughts and ideas on subjects covered in his classes.

4. The Storyteller

Got a wordsmith who always knows what to say? A Linguistic Learner, she expresses herself through reading, writing, and telling stories. You may find that she enjoys giving speeches, writing poetry, and reading books. She learns best when reading textbooks or notes taken in class, writing reports, listening to lectures, conducting interviews, and reading and writing.

To help The Storyteller get good grades in school, parents may want to:

* Purchase a tape recorder and encourage her to record notes in her own voice.

* Read key concepts and review questions aloud with her.

* Urge her to recite aloud key terms and facts when

studying.

5. The Quizmaster

This child is a game-lover and a rule-follower. A Mathematical Learner, he thinks logically and relates to the world through reasoning, numbers, patterns, and sequences. You may find that he enjoys counting and sorting objects, making timelines, and solving brain teasers. He learns best when performing scientific experiments, following step-by-step instructions, and working with mathematical calculations.

To help The Quizmaster do his best, parents may want to:

* Work with him to follow step-by-step calculations to solve problems.

* Encourage him to establish order and structure in his studies.

* Urge him to create timelines for all of his homework assignments and exams.

6. The Musician

Meet a hummer and a shower-singer with an ear for music. A Musical Learner, she has an innate ability to respond to melodies. You may find that she enjoys listening to songs, playing instruments, and singing. She learns best when writing song lyrics, playing music to accompany her work, and developing multimedia projects.

To help the Musician excel in her classes, parents may want to:

* Allow her to have music playing in the background while studying.

* Urge her to make up songs to aid in memorization of key facts.

* Encourage her to incorporate rhythm and music into completion of her assignments.

7. The Artist

Here is a doodler with a flair for color. A Visual Learner, he has an artistic sense and relates to the world through pictures and images. You may find that he enjoys painting, sculpting, and creating graphs. He learns best when drawing diagrams, reading flowcharts, creating maps and performing demonstrations.

To help the Artist be a success in school, parents may want to:

* Keep highlighter markers on hand to help him liven up notes and study materials.

* Urge him to pay close attention to maps, graphs, charts and pictures.

* Create flash cards to help him remember facts.

-Erin Gifford is a freelance writer.

How the brain develops

Now that you can identify your child's unique learning style, you may wonder, "How did he or she get this way?"

Local early development guru Joan Lessen-Firestone, Ph. D. of Oakland Schools, has some thoughts on the subject. A national expert on young brain development, she explains and advocates for positive early learning practices in a lecture available on CD, Building Children' Brains. The Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health, the Michigan Council for Maternal and Child Health, and the Michigan 4C Association are using the CD to alert policy makers to the importance of brain development in very young children.

Copies of the CD are $2.50, plus $1.50 shipping. Order through www.mi-aimh.msu.edu or contact Deborah Kahraman at The Guidance Center, 13101 Allen Road, Southgate, MI 48195, (734) 785-7700.

Dr. Firestone's message in a nutshell: For countless generations, young children have cuddled in their parents' arms, grabbed and explored interesting objects, and bounced and crawled as soon as they were able. While such behaviors are tolerated and often encouraged, only recently have we begun to understand their critical importance in building children's brains.

 

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THE WAY KIDS LEARN - Variety is the spice of the classroom!

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