Amy Purcell Vorenberg - Mentor Teacher
By: Amy Purcell Vorenberg
Thoughts on Teaching & Learning
About Amy Purcell Vorenberg:
Ms. Vorenberg has a BA from the University of New Hampshire and a MS in EArly Education from Wheelock College. She has worked extensively in independent schools in the Boston area. A special interest is the effects of the media on children. She is a Felton Media Scholar who has made a video program for children "On My Own-Kids Learning Adventures." A Shady Hill School teacher featured in teh video ADHD and the 21st Century, Ms Vorenberg is now the head of the lower school program at Shady Hills School.
What is challenging about working with students with learning disabilities?
Teaching children is challenging, regardless of their learning style. In my first years as a classroom teacher, I struggled to meet the needs of all of my students. Working in a busy classroom, I felt overwhelmed by all that I had to do to be certain that every individual was getting all that they needed. As time went by and I gained experience, I began to understand that there are many excellent ways to reach the broad range of students in class. Rather than developing a class space that was focused on me, "the teacher", I shifted the focus to the students and their interests. I developed curriculum that was multi-sensory and varied. In my third grade classroom, children were able to express their understanding through a wide variety of materials. Paints were on hand, as were color pencils and clay. Science experiments were set up and children drew and wrote their observations. There were tables rather than desks, small and large group meeting areas, quieter spaces. We worked on developing skills through a wide array of activities and experiences. Children who had trouble sitting still or lacked focus were able to move while they were working. My classroom and the curriculum I teach support different children and their learning styles.
How to you begin the school year and get to know your students as learners?
Every year, we begin by working to understand whom we are, as a special group working together as third graders. Our class will be together for one year and we all have a responsibility to make our class work. We build trust and a sense of community at the beginning of the year through our first project, making dolls. Most children have never used fabric, needle and thread before - so they embark on a new learning experience together. Watching the children approach the task, I learn a great deal about their approach to learning. Making dolls becomes a very important assessment tool. Do students listen to the directions? Do they share materials well? Do they help each other or are they focused on only their own work? Do they extend the ideas I've presented and create their own, unique project? Students tell me a great deal about whom they are as a learner as they design their "self-portrait" doll.
Describe how you use "Growing Edges" to help children understand their work as learners in the classroom.
At the beginning of year, we talked together, as a class, about the work we'd do in third grade. I began the conversation by introducing the concept of a "Growing Edge".
"What's a Growing Edge?" a child asked.
I went on to explain. Growing Edges are things that everyone has. All people have them, whether you are a young child or an experienced teacher. None of us is good at everything - we all have an area we are working on; there's always something we could learn more about or improve upon.
The students were listening attentively; even those who hadn't seemed interested at the start of the meeting seemed to sit up a bit taller and leaned in. I explained more about the idea of Growing Edges. We all are getting better at things all the time. There are some things that come easily to us, and we usually enjoy doing these things more than things that are hard for us. Growing Edges are the things that we're working to get better at - we're Growing to the Edge of our comfort level with these things. Some people have a Growing Edge that is connected to their writing - one might be working to have neater handwriting. Another student might be trying to read harder books or do more challenging math problems. A Growing Edge might be remembering to write a name on a paper or sitting still during a class meeting. Children are nodding as I explain, agreeing that might be their own Growing Edge. I go on to talk about my Growing Edge.
"My Growing Edge is learning more about the teaching of reading," I shared. "I love books and I am very interested in reading, but I think there are lots more ways I could improve as a reading teacher." I explained more about my own professional goal of learning more about the teaching of reading this year. I don't want children to think I know it all. (In fact, as the year goes on, some of these children will offer me very direct feedback about how I might improve my teaching of reading, giving me some of the best suggestions I've gotten!)
We are a community of learners - all of us. And we are working on loads of Growing Edges together. We don't tease each other about our Growing Edges - rather, we acknowledge them because they are real, a part of life. Later, when children write to me about their own Growing Edge, they begin to explore their own vulnerabilities. They write that reading isn't easy for them or making friends is hard. We begin the on-going work of supporting and pushing our learning to master our Growing Edges.
Talking about Growing Edges has given me the vocabulary to help children with learning disabilities understand themselves as learners more fully. Instead of a child feeling embarrassed about their struggles, acknowledging that ALL learners have Growing Edges supports each student. The conversations about Growing Edges have been powerful and, at times, touchingly honest. It's language that young children understand and it opens the door to important conversation.
One boy framed it beautifully, "My cousin says he doesn't have a Growing Edge, but his Growing Edge is telling the truth! Everybody has a Growing Edge, and it's important to be truthful about it."
All photos are used with permission.
Amy Purcell Vorenberg (2002)