By Kim Cottini
It is difficult to determine and define when you truly learn something new. Sometimes the “new ideas” have been presented before but for whatever reason, we only hear what we need to hear when we are ready to hear it. I have been interested in learning how to infuse aboriginal content in Math as well as working on student collaboration and student “talk” in classrooms. At the beginning of May I attended the SUM Conference in Saskatoon. Who knew that these ideas could be fused together from different sources at one conference in new ways?
Prior to the conference, Dr. Lisa Lunney Borden offered a session about her experiences as a teacher with Mi’kmaw students in Nova Scotia. She is currently an Education Professor at St. Francis Xavier University. Although cultural differences are evident, I found many similarities in her stories to my experiences as a teacher in Saskatchewan. She consulted elders from her community regularly and they fed her thirst for knowledge. She asked how to say various words in their language and found that some things simply cannot be translated. For instance, when she asked the names for numbers, the response was a word meaning enough or not enough. Which makes sense. As traditional people, when they needed to hunt and fish, they wouldn’t bring back ten fish, they would bring back enough fish to feed the people. It also depends on what you are counting in Mi’kaw – numbers are verbs in their language and need to be conjugated to the situation. Which I then started to understand what she was talking about when she said that the word Mathematics is not an English word but a borrowed word. Math is not a verb and yet we do Math. Aboriginal languages are verb-based languages and yet in English, we make processes things in Math. The ways we think are embedded in our language. As an English speaker, it is as difficult for me to wrap my brain around thinking of Math in a different way as it is for students to wrap their brains around thinking of Math in my way in my language. Dr. Lunney Borden also shared an interesting thought; it is a false assumption that because someone speaks English, that they think English. She had 3 key pieces of advice – know your kids, know your community and know your kids can learn. She expressed the importance of learning from her students and listening to her students to understand their thinking.
The SUM keynote was Steve Leinwand and his message echoed the message of Dr. Lunney Borden but from a different context. Steve Leinwand is a Principal Research Analyst at the American Institute for Research in Washington, D.C. His articulate and passionate keynote focused on kids and learning. It’s about finding the best way to help kids learn. It’s about looking at test scores and talking about the issues. We need to ask ourselves: what are we teaching? How well are we teaching? How well are we doing – what does the data tell us? How do we use data to change what we are doing? He doesn’t claim this to be easy, but it is necessary. If what you are doing as a teacher isn’t working, you have got to change. He suggested working with colleagues and going into each other’s classrooms to learn from each other. Find something in my lesson that you will try in your next lesson and when I observe you, I will be looking for something I can try in my classroom. You have got to know your students and you have got to know your students can learn (hmmm…sounds familiar). He encourages kids to collaborate, he wants to hear how kids learn by asking kids to explain their thinking. His message – “tell me how you know” – “convince me of your thinking” – was repeated throughout his sessions. These are powerful statements in a classroom and provide insight to how kids learn.
When I prepare a workshop or lesson, my intent is to provide an opportunity for growth. I want people to walk away with a new thought or idea. And in reality, sometimes these thoughts stay in our minds and are not acted upon immediately. So what does all of this mean to me? I learned from Dr. Lunney Borden that aboriginal content does not mean counting buffalo but being culturally aware by listening to our students and learning about how they think. Understanding how our students think is so much more than determining whether or not a student found the right answer. Sometimes the answer is irrelevant; the answer may not reveal the learning but the way a student convinces us of the answer can reveal the learning. We are often so busy in our day to day lives and the busy-ness of a classroom that sometimes it is difficult to really truly be in the moment to listen and hear what a student says. So it is important to carve those moments into the lesson plan. Mr. Leinwand reminded me to take time to listen to students. Make time to take those pieces of information that students give us and respond accordingly. What can I learn from the students in front of me in the moment and how can I respond in the best way to meet their needs? And maybe as I ask kids to convince me of what they know, I can convince students of the importance of the current lesson in addition to the importance of life long learning.