Classroom Caffeine

A Conversation with Susan Neuman

February 16, 2021 Lindsay Persohn Season 1 Episode 14
Classroom Caffeine
A Conversation with Susan Neuman
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Susan B. Neuman talks to us about a community-based 360 degree view of child development, early vocabulary development through conversation, and engaging young children in their literacy learning by encouraging their interests. Susan is known for her work in early childhood literacy, including early childhood policy, curriculum, and early reading instruction, particularly for prek-grade 3 children who live in poverty. Susan is a Professor of Teaching and Learning at New York University.

Lindsay Persohn:

Education research has a problem. The work of brilliant education researchers often doesn't reach the practice of brilliant teachers. Classroom Caffeine is here to help. Each week, I invite a top education researcher to sit down and talk with teachers about what they have learned from years of study. This week, Dr. Susan B. Neuman talks to us about a community based, 360 degree view of child development, early vocabulary development through conversation and engaging young children in their literacy learning by encouraging their interests. Susan is known for her work in early childhood literacy, including early childhood policy, curriculum and early reading instruction, particularly for pre K through grade three children who live in poverty. Susan is a Professor of Teaching and Learning at New York University. For more information about our guest, stay tuned to the end of this episode. So pour a cup of your favorite morning drink and join me, your host, Lindsay Persohn for Classroom Caffeine research to energize your teaching practice. Susan, thank you for joining me. Welcome to the show.

Susan Neuman:

Oh, it's delightful to be with you today.

Lindsay Persohn:

From your own experiences in education, will you share with us one or two moments that inform your thinking now?

Susan Neuman:

Sure. I think what is most salient to me is an experience I have when I first went to Philadelphia. I was at Temple University. And what I did is I asked parents to walk me to the closest school almost as if they were walking as they would with their child on a typical day of school. And when we walked we passed a great deal of garbage, playgrounds that were put together by the neighborhood because there were no playgrounds. We saw many stores that were closed. And we saw that we would actually have to walk over piles of garbage just to get to the school. And that experience was so salient

to me because I recognized:

What might this mean to a child, if a child had to do this every single day on their on their way to school? What did this mean for early literacy development? What did this mean for a child's sense of hope, aspirations, desire for learning, and that focus and that highlight... the poverty that I saw on that walk became a centerpiece of what I wanted to do what I want to do in terms of transforming reading instruction.

Lindsay Persohn:

I imagine there are many millions of children who live that same experience every day. I know in my local community, I'm a part of a visioning organization. And one of the projects recently for one of our teams was a sidewalk project, to ensure that there were sidewalks for kids within a mile radius of the school and quite a project it became. So that path to school really is important and how how the day is framed and how we see, you know, where the inspiration for learning and how that all takes place.

Susan Neuman:

Exactly. So one of the things that became a centerpiece and something that I think we don't take advantage of enough, is an understanding of the environment and the environment in which a child lives. So for example, I'm not just talking about the parent and the immediate environment of the home, but the community environment as well. And what are the extra supports that that child and that family has, in terms of developing literacy skills. For example, where's the local library? Is their school library? Are their places where a parent could find books? Is their internet access? All of these constraints become constraints on the children when they begin to enter school. They may have less opportunity to have been read to to been talked to, less extra curricular activities, extra bedtime reading... All of these things really make a difference in children's lives. And I think that we have underestimated that environment and what that means for literacy instruction.

Lindsay Persohn:

And I know you've done quite a bit of research in that area. So Susan, what would you like teachers to know about your research?

Susan Neuman:

Well, there are two areas of my research that I'd really love teachers to know. The first is the notion of the environment. And a focus not only on parent involvement, but about community involvement. If I have my wish, I have this notion of a 360 surround. And what I mean by that is, children's education is not just defined by the school, but we've got to think about after school, before school, some of the community partners that we work with that may be very powerful in giving children a sense of literacy. So for example, right now, I'm working with laundromats and playgrounds, and different areas like barber shops to focus on what we could do in these environments to support that kind of literacy development. And what we've done is we've shaped little areas in those community-based settings so that children will see literacy everywhere they go. In other words, whether it's to the grocery store, to the hair salon, to the library, they're going to see a book. And that gives them a sense of motivation and interest in really reading. So that's one of the areas that I really care deeply about and I continue to focus on. The second area that I focus on, is on vocabulary and helping teachers really focus on early vocabulary with their children. So we've done a study, Lindsay, where we looked at how much time is devoted to vocabulary instruction in early education. And we found that very little time is spent in that area. Now, why is this important? Because vocabulary is the key predictor for children's comprehension, learning, and actual success later in schooling, and even in high school and college. So those are the two areas that have really galvanized in support of my motivation and interest in reading

Lindsay Persohn:

From that study of vocabulary in early childhood, what kind of tips or advice could you give to any early childhood educator who might be listening?

Susan Neuman:

Well, one of the things we know very importantly, is that talk matters. So I encourage teachers to talk with children. And to talk not in baby talk. We can use a teacher-ese kind of language where we focus on, you know, making ourselves very clear, using the sounds of language and stretching them out. But at the same time, we need to talk to children in sophisticated language, because that language is important for children to be able to later read and understand important words. So one of the things I say is talk a lot. Be sure to think aloud when you talk with children. Secondly, is to be responsive to those children. So if they come in interested in something instead of your agenda, focus on their agenda. So they have something they want to convey, like I lost a tooth last night, I want to hear all about that. And I want to stop what I'm doing in order to really hear what they have to say. And I want to respond to them after they've told us these wonderful stories in ways that convey that it's a responsive listening on my part, that I've heard what they've said, and I'm continuing the conversation. The third thing I really want to encourage is what we call conversational turns. And what we're learning very much is that if I talk and you talk, and I talk and you talk and we go back and forth like that, it creates a very responsive environment for the child. And they become very engaged in a way that if teachers just doing all the talking that children are just doing all listing, it doesn't create the interactivity that we know is so critically important. So those are some things about oral language development that we really want to encourage teachers to do.

Lindsay Persohn:

I'm aware of several studies that look at the kinds of talk that teachers do with young children in particular. And I'm also aware that many of those studies point to directives as the bulk of that conversation. So what you're saying here, I think is so important for teachers to hear is that this isn't about telling kids to do things and waiting for them to respond whether it's affirmative or the negative, but but really about a conversation. Like you said conversational turns. Just like we're doing here like you would with an adult, right? We sort of put something out there. We wait for a response. And then we're truly engaged in that conversation. And I think there may be misconceptions that young children won't or can't do those those kinds of conversations. But I know in my experience, they love to talk and they love when you hear them and have something, something in response to say, you know, whether it's a funny quip or a question prompting them to think more or tell you more about what they're, what they're thinking or what they saw or what they're learning about. And it seems to me that that's, that is just so so important in early... not only classrooms, but I think even parents of young children can can take this to heart as well.

Susan Neuman:

Absolutely. So meaningful content, interactivity, responsiveness to the child, taking that child's lead and going ahead with it. Also notice that if you're with a friend, you were talking about conversations... if you're with a friend, and that friend goes on, and on and on, you find that you lose interest after a while, right? So in other words, that conversation is very important, like keep it relatively short, so that the child has an opportunity to enter in and you stop, and you think about that. The other thing that we have found is that very often, we can do that in whole group activities. It doesn't need to be one on one. So in other words, we use a strategy we call call on return, or call and response. There are a number of different terms that are used. But basically, we can do something very simple. It's a

dog a pet? Group:

Yes, a dog as a pet. Is a cat a pet? Yes, a cat is a pet. In other words, we can do lots of going back and forth in a group setting where we encourage children to have choral responses all at the same time. And that provides the conversational opportunities as well. So one of the things that we know is that when we do a whole group response, like that, a call and response, it helps our second language learners because it doesn't put them on the spot. So if we're chorally responding as a group, and we're doing it rapidly, the children will just repeat because they hear other children repeating, it doesn't cause them to feel shy or inward. And that's really important as well.

Lindsay Persohn:

You mentioned those who are acquiring the English language. And of course, all early children are but we're talking specifically about children who may have a another home language or a different first language. What other tips or tricks have come out of your research that teachers might be able to use to support students who are developing their English language?

Susan Neuman:

Well, it's a wonderful question that you ask because every school, regardless of where you are now has second language learners or children who struggle with language delays of various kinds. So there are some common things that we do and have found very effective. One is picture supports. So we use a lot of pictures. Very often, we will focus on a particular picture. We don't use cartoons; we use real pictures, like photographs, and we will show them very closely to the children so that they can highlight and see things. They're seeing and hearing at the same time and that dual coding is very important to them. The other thing that we do and we know is very important, is frequency and repetition. So in other words, these children will need to hear the same things again and again. So repeating in different ways is really important. Sometimes teachers repeat what they've said... "I've repeated these directions" ... but I don't mean that. I mean, something as simple as this. "This is a pony. Can you say it with me boys and girls, pony?" "That's right. A pony has four legs. What what has four legs boys and girls?" A pony. Now, you might think that what I've just done is very boring, but the children don't. They love the repetition. And they love to master the language, and they will use those repetitions. So we've found that you actually needed 28 repetitions before children actually learn those words. So I think that many times we under estimate the we go very too quickly. And we need to concentrate on a few words and teach them deeply so that children understand those words. So those are a couple of the, of the supports that we traditionally give, you know, second language learners, and they found very effective. Another is we use video. Video is a pictorial support that really helps those kids. And if we read a book and have a picture book, or a video of the same story, that really helps them learn those words. So combining video and books very often is a very supportive way of helping those children.

Lindsay Persohn:

There are so many really wonderfully produced videos that match stories. I can envision in an early childhood classroom, first reading the story, but then giving students an opportunity to watch the story again. And I think that that what the other half of that, I think, is that that by reading it with them first, they already know what's coming. So they've built in, you know, that's the key to the repetition, right, is that they can predict successfully. I, you know, I sometimes I see in classrooms that teachers are, let's say, doing a picture walk, and it becomes a guess what I'm thinking or it becomes this convoluted, kind of less than valuable exercise. But I think when students, you know, when students already know what's coming, and are able to successfully predict, it then makes them better predictors for the future as well. Does that make sense?

Susan Neuman:

Very, very much. So. In other words, you know, I would say that I'm not a fan of picture walks. And I can tell you, I can tell you why. Very often children get a misconception of what the story is, and that stays with them. And so we find that an explicit definition of a couple of words prior to ever reading is really critically important. So I'll use like a child friendly definition. "This story is about caves, boys and girls." Notice I'm telling them what it's about. "This book is about caves, boys and girls." And what I'm going to do is, I'm going to say that a cave is a hole in a mountain. A very simple, quick definition but it sets the purpose for what they're about to hear, and makes everybody stay on the same playing field. One of the things that teachers really have to be careful of, is that very often, when we engage children in conversations, those children who are raising their hands, and have the answers are often taking all the noise or all the oxygen in the room, and not giving enough space for children who are not raising their hands to actually think about what they want to say. And so I would encourage teachers to be explicit in their vocabulary teaching and to avoid the kinds of responses where the same children are picked all the time and the other stay silent.

Lindsay Persohn:

What about when young children talk with each other? You know, envisioning a classroom of young kids, there are always the ones who are first to raise their hands and have lots to say. What happens when we then turn the conversation back over to kids rather than leading ourselves as teachers?

Susan Neuman:

Well, I love turn and talk. I think, turn and talk is so much fun. And one of the things one of the reasons that you and I are often in the classroom is that we love our kids, and we love to hear the unexpectedness of what they think about what they do all the time. So sometimes in the early education setting, the turn and talks aren't on point. They aren't. In other words, they all talk about their grandmother coming over, their aunt is sick, you know, off, but that's okay. They're being children, and they're talking, and even that talk and having a conversation with their colleague, you know, what their friends are so critically important for them feeling that they're part of a community and part of a classroom. And so I just love it. I would love teachers to worry less a little bit about their teaching and more about children learning. And I think children are learning in those turn and talks, whether it's on point or not.

Lindsay Persohn:

Right. It's all language development. Right? And critical thinking and, and like you said, the idea of conversational turns and certainly learning learning how to do that with their peers is such an important skill for their future as well.

Susan Neuman:

Right and learning the social pragmatics. In other words, how do I disagree with someone, but in a nice way, or how to add to what someone else is saying, or extended in creative ways. So that's really about social development, but it's also about language development.

Lindsay Persohn:

Right. And so often we try to parse those things out as if they aren't, you know, one in the same learning learning to talk with each other is yes, language and social development.

Susan Neuman:

Right, exactly.

Lindsay Persohn:

So we know there are challenges in education. And Susan, I'm hoping that you will share a message with teachers today. So given the challenges in today's educational climate, what message do you want teachers to hear?

Susan Neuman:

Well, I think we have a wonderful opportunity in some ways. First thing, I want to praise all the incredible teachers out there. They are hidden stars. No one is paying enough attention to them, in my view. The amount of work and the amount of change that many of our teachers have gone through is just incredible. And yet they persevere because they care so much about children and about what they do. So I want to start by just being in awe of some of our incredible civil servants and what they do every day. I think that one of the things that we're going to have to confront is, especially in early education is learning loss. There has been learning loss, there has been times and it's a critical time for many of us in early education, because this is the time when we encourage children to talk and when we are reading to children, getting them motivated and interested in learning and so it's going to be a hard, you know, a hard bit to try and get them excited, again, about literacy. So I'd like them, teachers to think about couple of things which disturbed me at various times. And I think one of them is that sometimes I go into the classroom and with all the testing, and all the standards and all the other things that they have been confronted with, I think we have lost the joy in some of our literacy instruction. And I think that it often has become very much a task to be gone through, rather than something that is really joyful and interesting and fun to be with. If teachers are having fun, children are having fun. And I think that, especially in early education, everything we do has to be playful, we have to bring the play and the joy back. And so I worry about that. Because sometimes I go into classrooms, and if I'm bored, observing, the children must be bored. And I can tell by their demeanor, I can tell by their posture sometimes you know, like this, or whatever. I'd like teachers to also think about some of the things that we may need to rethink about. And I'll bring up two things that I hear a lot about. One is stamina, the word stamina. And I think there's a belief that we have to teach stamina that we have to teach children to read and read longer and longer passages and challenging texts, we have to read challenging texts. But I know when I read, I read, because I'm interested in something and I want to be engaged and I want to learn more. I'm excited. And so therefore, I think that the notion of stamina should be eliminated, and that we should not think about it. In other words, we should think about why people go to read and support that more. The second thing I want people to think about, and I know this will be controversial, is that I think leveled books have often taken the joy out of reading. That a lot of teachers rely on leveling, and I think leveling is often a pseudoscience. It's a belief that there are different levels or levels of difficulty in text and that if we give children a text that is level to a certain level, then they can read and read on their own. But very often those leveling strategies are only approximations and we can't rely on those leveling things. And so I would love teachers to begin to think about how can we give children opportunities to practice with something that is interesting to them, and inherently important to them? And so I think we need to ask children, what are you interested in learning? Where are you fascinated with? I noticed that, you know, the other day you came with bright bows and your hair, are you interested in fashion or something like that. So in other words, figure out where that child is, and use reading as an opportunity to support their interests, and to extend their interests, rather than have it as a task. Because I can tell you when I talk to children who are tweens and above, some of those kids say, I never read. I never read. And I'll say, "Well, why do you never read?" And you know, the overwhelming I know, you know, the answer what I'm going to say, what they say is, "It's boring." It's boring. So if we teach that reading is boring in the very early on, they're going to be bored later on.

Lindsay Persohn:

Right? And those habits never never grow. For those kids, it becomes simply a school related task rather than a life task.

Susan Neuman:

That's exactly right.

Lindsay Persohn:

And, Susan, everything you've just said, reminds me of a conversation I had with Jim King in the the second episode of this podcast, and and he contends that, if you keep kids at the forefront, everything else resolves itself. And I think that that really speaks to what you're saying here that, you know, if you ask a kid, what are you interested in? What do you want to learn about? And that doesn't mean that you know, it doesn't map on to standards-based teaching and things like that. But whenever we find the content that really drives kids, then there there's interest in the skills that support learning how to digest that content.

Susan Neuman:

Exactly, exactly. So we always talk about content rich instruction, because what we want to do sometimes children don't have interest, and we have to engage them in ways. So we have, for example, little unit that we teach. I work in in New York's Bronx, one of the boroughs in New York. And one of the things that we talked about with children's wild weather. Now, you may not think, you know, whether it's kind of boring What if you think about, you know...

Lindsay Persohn:

I am in Florida. Weather's no t boring here.

Susan Neuman:

That's right. But when we began to talk about wild weather... Oh, my gosh, they get so excited. We were talking about blizzards, and volcanoes, avalanches, and all of a sudden, you can see their eyes lighten up, you know, like, all of a sudden, they were thinking of all the bizarre weathers we can have. And we took a very boring, what can be a very boring topic and engage them in ways that that drew their interests.

Lindsay Persohn:

And wild weather certainly is a great topic for creating some interest. It actually conjured up a mental image for me the first time I saw hail and thought "What in the world is going on here?" But you know, now we have so many really interesting tools to bring that to life thinking back to, you mentioned earlier picture cues, photographs and videos, you know, we can pull up a video online of something like hail, or an avalanche and show what that looks like.

Susan Neuman:

Exactly. And that makes it all come, you know, alive to these children. And that you would never say, if you said to them, today, we're going to talk about avalanches.

Lindsay Persohn:

Wah wah wah.

Susan Neuman:

Exactly. But then I want to show you something that is dramatic and can happen. Oh, you'll see their eyes lighten up, and they get all excited. And so one of the things that we do a fair amount is focus on science. Because for young children science is so interesting. It's not just about facts. It's about knowing about your world.

Lindsay Persohn:

So let me ask you one more hard question.

Susan Neuman:

Sure.

Lindsay Persohn:

What do we do in the content isn't interesting? When we know we have something we must teach and we're not sure how to connect that with a student's interests. How do you navigate that?

Susan Neuman:

Well, I think one of the beauties about children is that almost anything can be made interesting, almost anything.

Lindsay Persohn:

Because it's all new, right? It's all new information.

Susan Neuman:

It's all new. And there was a famous study done by Deb Stipek. I love this, I quote it, but when children come in the very beginning and early years to school. And this, these researchers ask them who is the most important, who's the smartest person in this class. And the child at the kindergarten level said, "It's me. It's me, I'm the smartest in this whole class." Then she asked fourth graders, and fourth graders, she asked the same question. And fourth graders said, "It's them." In other words, they no longer had the the sense of self or the confidence that they once had when they first went to school. So I know that I can teach phonics in a way that excites children, I can, even though this is the most boring thing, you could say, I'm going to say I, it's not too exciting. But I say to the children, you know what, I'm going to teach you a skill, and you're going to be able to use that skill all on your own, in order to be able to read, and that's really exciting. So I'm going to teach you something, it's gonna be tough, but I think you're up to it. And, and we can do it in such a way that we give children purpose for what they're doing. But for example, I went into a classroom, and no mean point intended, but I went to a classroom and the teacher said, "Today, we're going to learn first, last, and, and middle. And we're gonna learn those words. And these are called signal words. The word, it signals because they're signaling certain things." So then she had them do close reading and find the words that I just described first, last, in between whatever. And then, at the end of this long language arts period, she had them go back in and look at their workbook and find the word and underline it. And then before lunch, in order to get an exit ticket out of the classroom, they had to identify one of the signal words. And throughout this event, I stayed there the whole morning, throughout this entire event, I never heard her say, why she was teaching it, what those words could do for the child, how that might help them read easier. Never. That was it was just let's sit down, find the words. And I think, again, I, you know, I don't want to say anything about a particular teacher but my point was that I think often we don't give children the reason why we're doing these various things, even when they're boring. And because the boring can be made interesting. It's just a matter of how.

Lindsay Persohn:

I agree with you totally. I can remember when I used to teach kindergarten. And, you know, if I had something that I knew is going to be challenging for them, I would always preface it with something like, you know, I have this word that I think there are a lot of fourth graders who don't know it. Do you guys want to learn this word? And of course, yeah, yeah. Yeah, you know, of course, they want to learn this word that makes them smarter than the kids down the hall. You know, but but you can take, take a topic and jazz it up a bit. And it's not a false excitement, I don't think but instead, it's that curiosity and that engagement with learning something new. So finding, I think, first away for us, ourselves as teachers to get interested in it. And then to pass that enthusiasm on to kids is so important,

Susan Neuman:

Right. And you've gone into rooms where you've

Lindsay Persohn:

And you know that that reminds me of seen that done, and you just say, this is this is alive. Very often I call it you know, one of the things I love is I call the eye to eye instruction. And I see that teachers will work with children and their eyes will sort of connect with the children. And then I know it's happening, it's happening. It's not just a task is that there's a kind of what we call intersubjectivity going on, an understanding from the teacher to the child, that I'm really connecting with the content. something else that that we talked I talked about with Cara Lee in a previous episode... this idea that the some of the best things in education, you just can't buy, right. This has to do with a teacher's personality. This has to do with the energy that's infused in the classroom, and it doesn't come in a prepackaged curriculum.

Susan Neuman:

Right. Oh, you're so right. I mean, I see an awful lot of teachers and I will sometimes say to the teacher, "I want to be in this room. I want to be with these children. Because you're so energized and so excited about working with these children." And, and I think that one of the delights of highly diverse classrooms, which I'm blessed with in New York, is that the mixing and matching of cultures and languages and ideas just make the class a real experience. So I think that we're very lucky when we talk about the increasing diversity in our culture, in our country, and how it supports children's learning.

Lindsay Persohn:

And seeing that as an asset in schools, I think is is often lost as well. So so thank you for saying that. Because certainly diversity is one of our greatest assets in schools, diversity of thinking, diversity of voices and backgrounds. Well, Susan, thank you for your time today. Thank you for your ideas. And thank you for your contributions to education.

Susan Neuman:

Oh, well, that's wonderful. It's wonderful to have a conversation about this. I could talk about these ideas forever. So thank you, Lindsay for the opportunity.

Lindsay Persohn:

I could too. Thank you, Susan.

Susan Neuman:

Okay, take care.

Lindsay Persohn:

Dr. Susan B. Newman is well known for her work in early literacy, including early childhood policy, curriculum, and early reading instruction for pre K through grade three children who live in poverty. She has served as the US Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education under President George W. Bush. In her role as Assistant Secretary, she established the Early Reading First Program, the Early Childhood Educator Professional Development Program, and was responsible for all activities in Title One of the Elementary and Secondary Act. She served on the International Reading Association Board of Directors, now known as the International Literacy Association, and other numerous boards for nonprofit organizations. She co edited Reading Research Quarterly, IRA is a flagship research journal for nearly a decade, and has served on the boards of the Reading Teacher and the Journal of Literacy Research. Susan has received two Lifetime Achievement Awards for research and literacy development and is a member of the Reading Hall of Fame and a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association. She has written over 100 articles and authored or edited 11 books, including the Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Volumes One, Two, and Three with David Dickinson, Changing the Odds for Children at Risk, Educating the Other America, and Multimedia and Literacy Development. Her most recent books are Giving our Children a Fighting Chance: Poverty, Literacy and the Development of Information

Capital, and All About Words:

Improving Vocabulary in the Age of Common Core Standards, Pre K through Grade Two. Susan is a Professor of Teaching and Learning at New York University. For the good of all students, good research should inform good practice and vice versa. Listeners are invited to respond to our guests, learn more about our guests' research, and suggest a topic for an upcoming episode through this podcast's website at classroomcaffeine.com. If you've learned something today, or just enjoyed listening, please subscribe to this podcast. I raised my mug to you teachers. Thanks for joining me.