Stop the Stress in Schools: Mental Health Strategies Teachers Can Use to Build a Kinder Gentler Classroom (2014), by Joey Mandel

The fourth in my set of reviews of pedagogical texts.

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.4.

Stop the Stress in Schools

Mandel - StressOne of the real strengths of Joey Mandel’s Stop the Stress in Schools is that Mandel not only underpins her argument with strong theory, but also constructs situational examples with various response options for her readers to consider. Short of actual role-playing (which of course is an excellent way to learn behavioural techniques), this is probably the best way of explaining what she is talking about. Her language is clear, her psychology sound, and the structure of her argument easy to follow. If her ideas were implemented, there is no doubt in my mind that our children would have far more convivial educational experiences. The only problem, and one Mandel herself articulates, is that teachers in our school systems are themselves stressed by (for example) the lack of support for special needs children, large class sizes, and dwindling resources on a number of fronts.

Mandel’s approach in many ways parallels parts of a sophisticated dialectic behavioural therapy program; the ideas of emotional regulation and developing interpersonal relationships are carefully distilled to be understood and internalized by her readers. Her ideas, though, might seem overwhelming to a teacher who reads Stop the Stress in Schools and thinks “I have to do all this to be effective!” Fortunately, while no teacher will be able to do it all, any movement towards Mandel’s ideal educational experience is a step forward. Any little part of the process will benefit students and improve the classroom experience.

The fundamental concept is that teachers and students need learn how to build effective, respectful relationships as a community, and to understand their own emotional responses and behaviours as individuals. Integrating these two forms of knowledge will lead to calmer, more rational responses to external stimuli and thus a calmer, more productive environment. Mandel presents a methodology for teachers to understand and modify their own behaviours; this in turn enables them to facilitate understanding in their students. Awareness and acceptance are the cornerstones of her theories: individuals need to be aware of who they are—their strengths and weaknesses, how stress is manifested in their bodies, what stress looks like in others—as well as accepting what is real in their lives—those strengths and weaknesses, the validity of others’ positions, the need to sometimes adapt. As awareness and acceptance grow, students and teacher alike will be better able to manage the stresses they experience in the educational setting: the final step in the process.

Mandel provides a number of scenarios for readers to consider, as well as numerous worksheets and exercises for teachers to use in their classrooms. Working through this text will enhance any teacher’s knowledge of the relationship dynamics functioning in the classroom (and in the halls, and on the playground), and implementation of any of her ideas will be of benefit to the community as a whole.

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Exploding the Reading: Building a World of Responses from One Small Story, 50 Interactive Strategies for Increasing Comprehension (2014), by David Booth

The third in my set of reviews of pedagogical texts.

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.4.

Exploding the Reading

Booth - ExplodingIn Exploding the Reading, David Booth presents his findings from a significant and well-constructed pedagogical study. His ambitious study looks at different ways of teaching one single story in a multitude of different educational settings, as a way of investigating students’ responses to different methodologies for teaching the text, and the implications for such methodologies in creating a strategy for learning across disciplines, rather than merely the acquisition of literacy.

The text Booth chooses is the selkie folk tale. A significant number of different variations are included, ranging from folk tales from a number of cultures through poems and ballads to modern stories and picture books. In all, Booth lists at least 15 different parallel texts; sadly, there is no definitive list of the versions explored in the study. These texts were taught in classrooms from kindergarten through Grade 12, in “Ontario, New Brunswick, and the Northwest Territories” (7). Booth considers not only how the books are presented by teachers, but more importantly how students of all ages in these various geographical spaces respond to the texts.

The notion of “meaning-making” was explored through ten possible types of activity:

  • Text talk
  • Telling and retelling stories
  • Reading and viewing connected texts
  • Giving voice to words in print
  • Writing as response
  • Responding through the Arts
  • Responding through role-play
  • Research and inquiry
  • Technology and texts
  • Texts as sources of language knowledge

Each method is presented in detail in a separate chapter, with descriptions of teachers’ approaches and students’ responses. Interwoven with the practical application of Booth’s methodology are discussions about the pedagogical underpinnings and implications of the study. One flaw in this carefully constructed study is Booth’s reliance on technology—specifically the iPad application Explain Everything—as an instructional tool. The observation by a participating student-teacher, Elaine Vodarek, that “having an iPad in the classroom has transformed the way students are able to respond to texts” (13) immediately brings into question the applicability of what we might learn from the study, as the idea of “iPads in the classroom” is, for many—if not most—Canadian teachers, an impossible dream.

The study is significant in that it reveals a number of different effective methodologies laid out carefully beside students’ responses. Nonetheless, I found the information difficult to parse, as each chapter is structured differently. I can see why this is perhaps natural, given the different approaches taken in each case study, but it behooves the author, I believe, to enforce a more consistent arrangement to the chapters, so that it is possible to draw comparisons between examples more easily. In the end, I am left with a great respect for the scope of the study, and the pedagogy behind it, but not with a strong overall sense of what the study ultimately reveals.

Exploding the Reading is nevertheless an important addition to Canadian pedagogy, as much—or perhaps more—for its systematic presentation of a multitude of instructional techniques appropriate for all ages as for its findings. Booth is astute in his awareness that “when we help students enhance their reading by activating their own connections, we offer them a reading strategy for life” (25). What Booth advocates in Exploding the Reading is valid and valuable; I only wish it were easier to distill the wisdom from the words.

Writing Power: Engaging Thinking through Writing (2011), by Adrienne Gear

Here is the second of my pedagogical reviews. This was for a system of learning I really admire.

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 17.3.

Writing Power

Gear - WritingI am lucky enough to live in the school district where Adrienne Gear teaches, and to have seen first-hand, from the parental perspective, how her Reading Power workshops and instruction techniques have transformed the way teachers and librarian approach childhood reading. In the same way that Reading Power gave teachers the tools to instruct our children not just in reading but in critical thinking, Writing Power presents a methodology for helping students to understand the integral connection between writer, reader, and text.

I tell my university students that the creation of textual meaning has a tripartite structure: the text is an immutable artifact that connects the writer (who brings his or her own world to the text) and the reader (who reads the text through the filter of the world he or she lives in). Gear replicates this message in a way that even the youngest student can understand, when she states that “This book was designed to promote the idea that writers and readers are intimately connected” (12). In Reading Power, this connection gives power to readers, making them part of the creation of meaning in the text; in Writing Power, students see the other side: they are creating a written work with which someone else will engage. They are not just writing something for the teacher to grade, but recording in words their world such that another person can interpret it, issuing to their readers the “an unspoken invitation to think” (12).

Writing Power is presented in an eminently usable format each chapter consists of short introductions that deliver the essence of the pedagogy at work, followed by a number of comprehensive yet modifiable examples. Teachers can either follow the set outlines and photocopy pages, or adapt the well-explained ideas to fit their own themes.

At the university level, it is expected that instructors help students enhance their critical reading and writing skills. It is remarkable that Adrienne Gear has managed to create a program—Reading Power and Writing Power combined—that delivers this strength of comprehension and communication to our elementary students: children who benefit from Gear’s program are given the tools to live richer, more meaningful lives.

Breathe, Stretch, Write: Learning to Write with Everything You’ve Got (2011), by Sheree Fitch

In addition to reviewing children’s and YA novels and picture books, I have also been assigned pedagogical texts to review for Resource Links on occasion. It strikes me that those reviews are not entirely tangential to the purpose of this review blog, so I thought I’d republish them here. I’ll post one at the beginning of each month until I run out… Here is the first installment.

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 16.5.

Breathe, Stretch Write

Fitch - BreatheSheree Fitch sums up her objective in her preface: “This is a book of common sense […] about retrieving the forgotten givens […]: your brain needs oxygen and exercise to work well and grow strong, and authentic writing is rooted in the body” (6). And so it is. Breathe, Stretch, Write is an excellent description of both the ideologies underlying Fitch’s practices and the exercises that facilitate teachers in implementing them. It is practical yoga for the mind and body of both aspiring and “reticent” writers, who can be “liberated by understanding through their bodies and senses” (10).
Interestingly, this philosophy is exactly what Fitch calls it: “forgotten,” but not unique. It was one of the tenets in the intellectual pedagogy of Amos Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott) as long ago as the 1860s in New England: children—in his case boys exclusively—need to exercise their bodies in order to be fully able to exercise their minds. Alcott was derided for (among other innovative ideas, such as veganism) the inclusion of calisthenics in his curriculum; Fitch has presented a modern, salient argument for an increased recognition of the connection between physical and mental awareness.
The structure of the text is highly accessible: it can be used as a workshop text, reading though each chapter as an exercise to learn; or it can be used as a reference, dipping in to separate exercises that appear to be useful at the moment. For each exercise, there is a description of the three steps: Breathe, Stretch (with a stick-figure drawing to help), Write. The last is, of course, the most important. Each includes a short personal narrative that grounds the practice in the author’s own teaching experience, and connects the first two activities with the mental space of narrative production. “Stand on your Own Two Feet” (22), for example, stresses an “understanding” of important elements in the writer’s and others’ lives; “Opening a Window” (49) asks the reader to imagine looking out of a window into the wider world; “Fish Twist” (65) suggests taking an existing narrative and “twisting” the elements to form a new narrative. There are “Standing Exercises,” “Sitting Exercises,” “Reclining Exercises,” “Moving Exercises,” and “Group Moves.” All of these can be incorporated into personal or classroom activities; this book is not only for the teacher assisting students to write, but for any budding author who wants to engage the full capabilities of the mind–body connection.