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Field Report Two

The theme of the past month of teaching third and fourth graders seemed to be,

“Teachers can learn a lot from students’ mistakes.”

A good gauge for teachers to know when they are done teaching a concept is when

students demonstrate mastery through error-free practice work. Most students are

expected to make mistakes as they work to put to use a new spelling pattern, grasp

the idea that multiplication and division are related to each other, or mentally sing the

preposition song to help them locate prepositions so they can parenthesis

prepositional phrases.

Seeing errors as a normal part of learning frees classrooms from an unattainable

expectation of perfect student practice work. Practice problems are designed to bring

to light steps in a process that need some clarifying, or times when a multi-sensory

technique will enhance memorization of facts. The secret is recognizing mistakes as

opportunities for the teacher to see which students need a bit of extra instruction, and

to design engaging supplemental instruction.

In recent educational blogs, an emphasis on creating a “positive error climate” in our

classrooms has been receiving attention. A positive error climate is simply the

acknowledgment by the teacher that,

if students didn’t make mistakes, I wouldn’t have a job.

The past weeks, I found myself saying those exact words to my students when they

were a bit sheepish about needing to ask for help or when I brought a paper and my

rolling chair to their desk so we could do some error correction together. I want each

of my students to know it is okay to make mistakes, but it is not okay to be unwilling to

work with me until the underlying confusion that caused the mistake in the first place is

cleared up. On my side, I must be willing to analyze the mistakes until I understand

where the disconnect has occurred and find a fresh approach that will reteach the skill


One incident over the past several weeks illustrates how error correction benefits the

whole class. It came to my attention that I had failed to provide enough practice

opportunities for my students to learn the moon phases, one area of study in the

Science chapter on the moon. The at-home nightly moon phase charting that was

intended to strengthen understanding of the moon phases got out of sync with the quiz

and test cycle during some unexpected days out of school. A quick oral check of

student grasp of the waxing and waning moon phases clearly showed that another

method for identifying those phases was needed. Desks were cleared, and tubs of

Play-Doh were passed out. Smiles broke out all around as step-by-step directions for

dividing the clay into 8 small balls. An replica of the moon phases chart from the

Science book was drawn on the whiteboard, with students giving input about how the

moon phases needed to be drawn. Working as a directed activity, students took balls

of clay and fashioned corresponding moon phases and placed them on their desk to

form their own moon phase “chart.” After all the clay balls were transformed into

moons, we touched and said the name of each phase aloud. Students suggested what

they noticed about the phases’ shapes and we brainstormed ways we could remember

which was a waxing phase and which was waning. While students were at lunch, I

created a sheet of paper labels for the eight phases and laid a set on each desk. As I

read the chapter from our after-lunch novel aloud to the class, students quietly put

labels in the correct positions by their clay moon phases, checking the board chart for

accuracy. At a student’s suggestion, some make the tags into flashcards by drawing

on the back of the tag what that moon phase looked like and orienting it correctly.

Students took the tags home as a study tool. We cleaned up the clay and gave desks

a quick wipe-down before moving into afternoon subjects. About 30 minutes were

devoted to this hands-on learning activity, and the resulting understanding was worth

every minute. What made the clay moon phases “stickier” than a chart in the Science

book? Forming clay into the correct shape for each phase took time, was engaging

and as a group activity, it spawned a class discussion about techniques for

remembering the phases. Simply summarized, the activity caused students to think

longer and more deeply about the information. Leaving the activity to go to lunch and

recess and then coming back to add another layer of understanding further

strengthened the memory.

Expecting students to make mistakes, and paying attention to what holes in student

understanding those mistakes reveal are important. Noticing errors early enough to

provide additional, engaging instruction is the key, not only for dyslexic learners but for

each child in the classroom!

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