The VARK: Teaching first grade to college students

Learning about learning, Part I


I know my VARK

and where I fall on the inventory of learning styles: Visual. Auditory. Read/Write. Kinesthetic.

Someone recently asked me if I remembered Amy Grant’s song, “Every Heartbeat.” My reply: “Yeah, that’s the song where she’s wearing that cute polka dot dress and big sunglasses and there’s a dog. Like, she’s trying to be Taylor Dayne, but without sex.” Clearly, I am not an auditory learner even though I suffer from severe blabbativity and motor-mouthedness.


I type super-duper fast, and I suffer from a rampant twitch-speedery that developed over years of living online as a digital immigrant, so one might mistake me for a kinesthetic learner. Digital natives tend to be visual and kinesthetic learners, and my preferences for those channels are equally strong these days…typity type type type…Stereotypity type.

My digital life began textually, though, and not graphically.

I’m a read/write learner.

I learn best with written words.

I have a Ph.D. I’m a professor. I profess. Like many professors, I believed students learn best the same way that I learn best: reading and writing. I’m self-centered that way. Teaching to myself is a hard habit to break.

There’s debate about whether active learning works better than traditional teaching. I don’t know the answer. I know that I didn’t earn my Ph.D. by coloring or using legos. I also know that I’ve listened to stultifying lectures by other Ph.D.s in the past year where I’ve been unable to concentrate because I was bored even though the material was of interest to me. During those times, I thought to myself that if I were a student and I had the luxury (or chutzpah) to skip, I’d certainly be at a coffee shop.

Learning about learning, Part II


All I really needed to know about the VARK I learned in first grade. What I mean to say is that I learned more than I realized when I embarked on my short-lived stint as a first grade teacher and trained with the Teach Baton Rouge program. (Oh, Lordy, what a story, that…)

I learned that “manipulatives,” or things you can manipulate, are great fun. Manipulatives are generally used to teach math. I remember gnawing on math manipulatives, specifically Cuisenaire rods, in elementary school – early proof that I was an oral learner. Today, teachers use sandpaper letters to teach kinesthetic learners the ABC’s. Kids trace the letters with their fingers. I get that. It’s as satisfying as clicking a mouse. I bring as many manipulatives into college classes as possible. Sticky notes sticky notes sticky notes. They are the best word processors ever.


I learned that visual organizers are great fun. I learned the KWL and I use it over and over. The KWL looks like this:

It’s a great way to structure a lesson, lecture, or discussion, and the L can provide an excellent informal assessment or moment of feedback to close the lesson.


Another thing I learned about through Teach Baton Rouge and first grade teaching is “transitions.” Transitions are the time children need to shift from one activity to the next. Children need help collecting their thoughts, elbows, tongues, and eyes in order to focus on the next task. Teachers often use songs for transitions. Synchronous, focused, psychomotor tasks work wonders for transitions. In first grade, I learned that “transitions” are hard. In fact, “Transitions are hard,” is a direct quote from my teaching mentor, and it was accompanied with a wise, sympathetic nod, along with the subtext of “this job is not a good fit for you.”

Adults have the life skills to manage themselves through task transitions, usually. An unruly class of hormonal college students can put this to the test. A long time ago an artist (James Surls) told me that when you put a name on a thing, you have something to hold the thing with, like a handle for a hot frying pan. “Transition” is the best way to handle a “hot frying pan” classroom situation. After learning how to manage first graders and their transitions, I can handle transitions in college quite nicely.

Understanding transitions is useful in teaching if you use group work or kinesthetic learning activities such as coloring or playing with legos. Unlike those students who had the chutzpah to skip or fall asleep in class, the energetic and engaged students can be tough to settle down, particularly after something that enlivens them. Getting a handle on their need to transition can help you manage class time more smoothly. After all, even college students have thoughts, elbows, tongues, and eyes that need focusing for the next task.

Learning about learning, Part III

Learning that others don’t learn the way I do has forced me to seek other strategies to engage Millennial students. These strategies – manipulatives, sticky notes, KWLs, focusing on transitions, keep me as engaged as my students. The constant reinvention to meet their needs keeps things fresh and lively. Thank goodness it’s not all about reading. As much as “reading is fundamental,” the vibrancy of class is what makes it worth going to work.

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