Thursday, May 21, 2020

Post-Corona Living and Learning

On April 5 I wrote "Wondering about 'normal.'" I wondered a lot because we were early enough in the "unprecedented times" that all most of us could was wonder. I still wonder about a lot of the same things.

I wonder how many of us are and will be more traumatized than we realize as we gauge the distance between us and strangers, as we find ourselves counting cars in a parking lot, as we pause for that split second if we happen to cough to assess how our lungs feel. I wonder how much our social attitudes and behaviors will change and what will really be most important.

I wonder how many of us are thinking about the nature of our relationships and, if we don't have much family, how much we counted on work colleagues and even moderately good friends with whom we used to get together periodically. I wonder how much more effort many of us are making to connect in various ways--social media, texts, email, even letters.

I wonder if we'll be able to see the world differently because the pandemic is affecting the world. I wonder if we'll be able to see beyond our borders differently, if there's a chance we can all be more compassionate or if we'll find that even more of us will be victimized by the power players who think only about the themselves and how much power and money they can grab because of other people's misery.

I want to have faith in people and our ability to connect, be empathetic, be compassionate, but too much of what I read seems to be about those who are grabbing for headlines, grabbing for power, grabbing to shape the world in whatever narrow way they see it, which is one of the reasons I read less news and tend to skim a lot of the stories I read regardless of the source.

I wonder if we really have an idea of what "normal" is or if what we think we want is whatever was before and that we'll consider normal to be whatever comes after, but I wonder if we realize that whatever happens after and whatever we become and do and are after will never, ever be like what was before. That normal will be different, no matter what.

Then in this space, on April 8, I asked why anyone would want to go back to whatever they consider "normal." My focus was on teachers and the incredible work so many were doing to make adjustments. Sure, not all of them were being successful and many parents were still flummoxed, exasperated, and extra-exhausted. 

A friend of mine fumed that her high school sophomore was getting no writing assignments in his English class. I saw an article in our local paper about the parent of a fourth grader was incensed and exhausted that there were multiple assignments in the same subject area due on the same day, and that her second grader was being expected to build a bridge using cardboard, duct tape, and printer paper that could hold a dictionary. The teacher, in this case, blithely assuming, that all of those items would be available in the house.

Sonya Renee Taylor said what a lot of us are thinking. (NOTE: This quote has been attributed to Brené Brown; she has asked any of us using this quote to be sure to attribute it correctly). Having learned more about Ms. Taylor, this quote is even more powerful.

And so I ask again, why would we want to go back to whatever we think was "normal"? Why wouldn't we want to take advantage of this situation, this incredible opportunity to re-invent?

Why wouldn't we want to seek out the possibilities that inevitably grow out these situations of impossibilities? Yes, we discover our weaknesses but we also discover our strengths.

We aren't just stepping out of our comfort zones. We have been picked up and hurled out of our comfort zones. Some of us have picked ourselves up, brushed ourselves off, squared our shoulders and said, "Okay. That's how it's gonna be? Let's do this."

Others of us have curled up and whimpered, begging for what was because we prefer our comfort zones because they were familiar and comfortable. . . to us.

Many of us want to be resilient, brave, inventive, and bold, but have what we consider legitimate reasons, fears, barriers, and challenges for hesitating.

This has to do with recognizing that what was before we locked down, worked from home, and stayed in place was not perfect, not ideal, not comfortable for a great many, not what most of us would really want as "normal" for the world. But it was easier to insulate ourselves from others in myriad ways to protect ourselves, our families, and our friends from whatever foes we believed exist and existed.

Rather than go back, let's redefine what normal could be and here I would want to focus only on schools and learning because I haven't the knowledge nor experience to attempt to address most other issues.

I've been reading what a lot of prognosticators are saying about what school will be or should be, and I'm distilling that mountain of writing to something I can better understand and will share it with you soon.

In the mean time, contemplate what you would like your "normal" to be once we are free to move about the country (with a nod to Southwest Airlines), or even around our neighborhoods. I want to think about how I want to behave when I'm with others at a restaurant, at a movie theater, or any place where there are other people because, in pre-corona land, we also normalized that it was perfectly okay to be selfish and self-centered.

In the mean time, I hope we imagine what we could and should do differently to help make our post-corona worlds better places, even knowing that there are those who will not want change, who will mock us for wanting to improve, and who will insist on doing what they can to halt or destroy any changes.

But hope can lead to opportunities for change as well as the realization that the status quo is in fact best. It takes wisdom to know the difference, as we well know from the serenity prayer, and it takes wisdom and willingness to change to embrace the possibilities for growth and learning.

Let us stitch a new garment.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Keeping it clean. The classroom, of course.

Should we be thinking about how work will work once we can get back to a work space? Absolutely.

I like the concept outlined in this article, which will work for some places but not for many simply because they don't have the space or the kind of business doesn't really allow for 6 feet of separation, and that's not just restaurants. Schools, for example.

Should we be mindful of the possibility of another viral outbreak? Certainly. If nothing else we have learned that not having a plan for containment and deploying resources (and actually having resources) increases the probability of deaths.

It makes sense for any work place to review its HVAC system but also to review how they keep workplaces clean. And requiring people to wash their hands. (I am always surprised and grossed out by the number of adults who do not wash their hands before they leave the restroom.)

Most schools, like hospitals, are already very good at making sure there is sanitizer in and around classrooms. Teachers generally have wipes on their classroom list. I can see teachers adding to their routines the wiping down of handles and lots of other things that they and students touch throughout the day.

In elementary schools I can see teachers making "clean breaks" part of the daily routine--students clean their desks and chairs when they come in; and clean them when they come back from lunch, from recess, from specials, and then before they leave at the end of the day.

I can see adding a cleaning manager to the helpers list so there is someone to help hand out wipes and then bring the trash can around so students can throw them away, but also to help the teacher wipe down various things in the classroom.

I can see custodial routines being changed to include deep sanitizing, perhaps once a month, with essential sanitizing every day and more substantial sanitizing at the end of each week. I'd make that Level 1 for essential, Level 2 for significant, and Level 3 for deep.

Students would have to learn to do their parts to help keep their classrooms and buildings clean, so no casually dropping litter on the floor with the expectation that an adult will clean up after them. Making sure kids of all ages know how to blow their noses--and wash their hands; and cough--and wash their hands.

As for maintaining six feet of separation, that is just not possible in a classroom. But making the routine of cleaning one's space just a part of what happens during a school day and at every grade level is at least a step towards providing some level of containment and protection.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Why go BACK to "normal"?

Reflection is a powerful thing, which may be one of the reasons we so rarely make time for it even though we know it's a good thing to do. And just now there is a lot of time for reflection.

On Sunday, April 5, I wrote about what "normal" means and that I find it interesting that we yearn for a return to whatever normal was for us. But I also wondered if that normal of our recent past was a good thing or if we yearn for it because it's not this terribly inconvenient and difficult time. And just now I'm wondering why we look back instead of looking forward to what could be and can be.

Educators are familiar with SAMR. It was an educational thing that blew through schools and became really popular around 2013 and following. If you're not familiar with SAMR or don't recall it, the model looked like this.
You can find plenty of resources to give you the low-down on SAMR and there are plenty of us who included it in our professional learning events. For a one-stop overview of SAMR and its possible correlation to Bloom's, which is what a lot of teachers wanted, visit Kathy Schrock's Guide to Everything post on SAMR.

However, my point is that a lot of teachers got stuck on trying to move from substitution to augmentation. There were some CTOs and other administrators who believed that nothing short of getting to redefinition was an imperative, though too often they were hard-pressed to tell us what redefinition actually looks like and sounds like. 

Substitution was an easy get for most teachers whenever technology was introduced to their classrooms. Augmentation was a bit harder and each subsequent stage was an even harder or more complex reach for teachers to understand let alone do.
Kathy Schrock also shared the work someone did to align some iOS/Apple apps with the SAMR model. Some of you will see that the differences between each stage are minimal.

Here's where I think the problem with SAMR lies: the stages and lists seem to be created without any specific learning target(s) in mind. Are any of those things listed above meaningful or purposeful tasks that are actual modifications to a lesson that may have been implemented without technology?

And all of that to say that my sense is that a lot of what has happened with this forced shift to virtual learning because of COVID-19 has been all about substitution. In every teacher's defense, much of that has to do with having no choice but to be reactive and having no clear sense of how long schools would be closed.

Most of the teachers with whom I get to work were trying to develop lessons in two-week increments, which makes sense. But once teachers knew that buildings would be closed for more than a couple of weeks, they had the opportunity to do some really creative things. In reality, some felt (and feel) constrained, limited, or even forbidden to do more depending on building and district leadership understanding of remote or virtual learning and depending state Board of Education directives and recommendations.

The challenges administrators and teachers have faced are very real: digital access equity in terms of devices and connection, meals, special needs accommodations and considerations, and more. I have been impressed by so many teachers who have found ways to overcome and manage some of those challenges. They give me hope.

Why go back?
Because one of the things I worry about most is the fact that too many are looking backwards. How can we get back to normal? How can we get back to the way things were? 

Really? Was everything so great that you want to go back? Why in the world wouldn't you take advantage of this huge disruption and think about how you can go forward?

Yes, get through this year however you can. But recognize that precisely because you don't where kids will really be at the end of this school year that you have the opportunity to be really bold and courageous to make changes that will quite literally propel your schools into the future.

This is not the time to talk about what teachers can't do or aren't willing to do because, by golly, they have already proved you wrong.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

No zero policy? Maybe "in progress" instead?
Evan Robb posted this article in LinkedIn with this somewhat provocative question: "A zero allows students to not learn....any thoughts on not learning....not being an option?"

I'm often intrigued by grading policy proposals, so clicked on the link to read the article. My take is that it's not really a no-zero policy but a "I'm giving you a zero until we figure out how to avoid telling your parents you haven't done your work yet." And that's great if the students care about getting their work done and/or if there is someone at home who cares about the students completing their work.

Maybe this works well for most elementary students and even a good many middle school students, but this would be hard sell for a lot of high school students. If we're going to try a no-zero policy, let's go with "IP" the way some colleges and universities do. Let's give them an "in progress" grade.

Now you're wondering how that's any different. Well, how would you feel if you were told you had a zero? Now think about how you would feel if you were told your grade for an incomplete assignment is "in progress."

I can imagine telling a student his grade is "in progress." He would look at me like I'm crazy because we'd both know he hasn't done much more than give the occasional thought to the fact that he hasn't done the assignment. And, if we're really honest, he's mostly been wondering why the assignment matters. Which means he's been thinking about. Sure, not in positive nor productive terms, but he has been thinking about it.

And so, if we're talking about providing opportunity and not shutting down students, I'd give him an "in progress." Then we'd talk about how he might make the assignment more relevant or connected to him, or figure out a way to get the assignment or its equivalent completed so we can all move on.

I can imagine have a conversation with a young lady who has been avoiding me because she hasn't completed an assignment. I let her know it's "in progress" because, again, I know she's been thinking about it. Her friends have been ragging on her for not getting it done or complaining about their own stress. I finally, finally get her to tell me she's having trouble because she has to look after her younger siblings because her mom keeps having to pull double shifts.

Depending on the class, depending on the assignment, depending on the standards, I'd be surprised if we couldn't come up with something that helps her transform that "in progress" to an actual grade.

I can also imagine those kids who try to take advantage of the "in progress" policy. I know. Kids gaming the system? Sheesh. How cynical! Nope, just realistic. So here's how that goes down: Students who try to string me along with their "in progress" grade get a specific amount of time to complete their work. We've had that conversation (see the two examples above) and we've come up with a plan that the student helped design.

They've got to meet their own deadlines. And if they don't, then that "IP" becomes a zero.

I've worked with some teachers who are not allowed to give zeroes. The lowest grade they can give is 59, which is the point of failure. Okay. Fine. If that's the policy, I'll give the 59 instead of a 0, but the point is the work hasn't been completed. But I also know that if a student came to me a few days later with a completed assignment and acknowledged they blew their own deadline, I'd grade their work and change the grade accordingly. In that case, I would not penalize for lateness because they're already penalizing themselves emotionally.

Here's the other reason. If I know why the work wasn't completed in the first place, it's not that hard to confirm that information and to find out if the student is faced with an on-going situation and to try to work things out with the family. Why? Because finishing school is going to be a big step forward for some kid. And that kid who is helping babysit siblings while her mom pulls a double is going to be modeling something extraordinary if she perseveres and gets her work done, even if it's late.

And if that young man who just didn't want to do the work because he didn't see the point does the work, he learns a little something about negotiation, about completing the stuff you don't like doing because it needs to be done and maybe gets you to the stuff you'd prefer to be doing a little faster.

I remember telling a student that I really like to cook. I am not happy about cleaning up the mess I make when I cook, but I appreciate the results of my cooking. . . most of the time. Not everything is a stunning success. But I clean up my kitchen because it makes it possible to do one of the things I enjoy doing.

We have to remember that some kids think one of the greatest things in the world is to be an adult and make their own decisions. We were all there once. And we know that adulting is hard and one of the hard parts of adulting as teachers is remembering that sense, that belief that once we're adults we won't have to do all the crap that other people ask us to do. We also know that's not true, but we've learned how to manage the tasks we don't like to do and don't want to do.

That's one of the things I think "in progress" can help students learn. They can learn that not only is their work in progress, but so is their becoming an adult and learning how to manage tasks, time, and even people. In the longer view, perhaps they also learn to be less quick to give up on themselves.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Does a mistake have to be an "epic" fail? Or does it just feel like one?

I've been thinking a lot about failure. There's no need to suggest an intervention of some sort. It's just that I've been paying particular attention to all of the things that educators should be doing, or ought to try or implement in their classrooms. It's exhausting. I mean, it's only the beginning of the year and already educators are getting pressed to try or read or do something new. There are just so many lists out there!

I wrote recently about failing forward and whether or not that was truly a thing in education. I'm not sure we really believe that failing forward is okay or that FAIL is the "first attempt in learning." Yes, some teachers do and do that well, encouraging their students when they make a mistake, helping their students that a mistake was not the end of their learning or personal universe, etc. And through that encouragement, and through teachers modeling how to behave when they make a mistake, is helping students learn how to fail.

It amused me that after I published my blog, there were other considerably better known educators and bloggers who published about failure, so clearly I was channeling something, and it caused me to reflect more on how we see and respond to "failure." I put the word in quotes quite deliberately because one of the things I muse on in my other blog is the difference between making a mistake and actual failure.

Apollo 13: Launching "Failure Is Not an Option"
Museum of Flight
The movie Apollo 13 was released in 1995. It was, and is, a compelling film. From that, thousands, maybe even millions, of people adopted the famous phrase "failure is not an option." Now, in the film, failure really wasn't an option, not if they wanted to get the crew back to Earth alive. Those were very distinct and important parameters, and there were very clear implications and consequences if that engineering team failed or if the crew failed to implement the solution successfully.

After the film there were movements in leadership and in education about failure not being an option. Go ahead and Google "failure is not an option" to see the numbers of books and articles espousing that very idea. Among those books was Alan Blankstein's book, Failure is Not an Option: Six Principles That Guide Student Achievement in High-Performing Schools. I have issues and not just the qualifier of "high-performing," though I should note the title changed in the 3rd edition to "highly effective" schools.

Based on an account of his ASCD presentation, the first three principles Blankstein espoused are not unfamiliar: 1) Teachers pursue a clear, shared purpose for all student learning; 2) teachers engage in collaborative activity to achieve that purpose; and 3) teachers take collective responsibility for all student learning." Yet, that's all about the teachers and what they do. What about the students?

Oh it certainly didn't help that schools were shamed when test scores weren't good and browbeaten when test scores were failing, and then teachers were equally shamed for "teaching to the test" which they really had to do to make sure their test scores were good even though most competent human beings know that standardized tests aren't necessarily equivalent to measuring actual learning or that they measure actual learning that is worthwhile.

Why "epic" fail?
I know "epic" is a cool descriptive, but in the part of my mind that is a pursed-lip, frowning language pedant, I'm troubled by the overuse because then what do we use when something is truly epic? You know, something amazing and truly heroic? I don't mean something that makes you look like a fool because you tried a trick on your skateboard and fell without managing to do serious harm to yourself.

But hold on, there's some learning to do here.

In 2018, A.J. Juliani, an educator and blogger I follow and for whom I have great respect, published a blog titled "My 2018 Failing Report." That's pretty innocuous, right? In it he has a great image of the difference between one's plans and the actual reality, which serves to remind us that most things don't go as we plan. In the blog he talks about the "epic fail board" and his mantra, "Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn." In the blog he goes to talk about what he believes constitutes his failures; for example, he wanted to create a number of videos but created only two. He explains that he learned through the process of creating videos and how those worked with his blogs. My favorite part of this blog is this:
Failing, it seems, is part of the job. Admitting that you’ve struggled is one thing. Sharing how you’ve struggled and learned is what I’m aiming for with this post.
Then I read about an Epic Fail Board at Northern Arizona University, it's focus on mental health. As I read this article, it occurred to me that "epic" is a matter of perspective.

In the moment, a mistake can feel like an epic--as in colossal, life-changing, horrific, death-defying--failure.

We've all had those moments and, later, when the emotion has ebbed away, realized the situation wasn't as dire as all that. Though, yes, it certainly felt epic until it didn't.

How to fail successfully
Way back in 1982, Jill Briscoe published a book titled How to Fail Successfully. Briscoe is a Christian writer and appealing to Christian readers and I seem to recall some kerfuffle about the title, that maybe some people wouldn't want to read the book because of the word "fail" in the title. And yet the Bible is filled with individuals who failed and her point is that they needed to fail to be successful or that they were successful in spite of or because of their failure.

Just reflect on that for a moment because you know it's true. We do learn through mistakes and often learn more and better because of mistakes. And if you don't believe me--and you have no reason to do so even if in your heart of hearts you really do--you can believe these folks who tell us that learning is optimized when we fail 15% of the time. It's also called the Eighty-Five Percent Rule for Optimal Learning.

How do mere mortal teachers measure that on a day-to-day basis? Hey, they know. They know which kids are breezing through their work and so not really learning anything new. They know the kids who are making mistakes and gutting it out to figure it out. They know the kids who are making mistakes and believe their lives are over and the kids who just don't care. Apathy is a completely different topic, and that blog post is to come.

Now I circle back to those teachers who encourage their students through their mistakes, who help them understand they've made a mistake and it is not the end of the world. They are the teachers who permit students to retake a test or redo an assignment because the teacher's emphasis is on the learning, not on the grade.

The colossal and complex challenge for teachers and students alike is that we send mixed messages to and through the classroom. Yes, we want you to learn to learn and we want you to learn through your mistakes but we have a curriculum to follow so fail faster and learn faster and make fewer mistakes or just accept your crappy grade and get left behind. And that, of course, helps contribute to apathy because if the teacher doesn't care, why should the student?

Learning from business, and wrapping this up
Business coaches, leaders, and other gurus all are about failing forward. John Maxwell built an industry around the concept.

Failing forward is about learning from mistakes and intuitively recognizing that making mistakes comes with innovation, comes with ideation, comes with learning. We know the 409 and the WD-40 stories, all the quippy and emotional stories of those who were deemed failures or had failures and became success stories. Most of us just want our students to understand place value, be able to capitalize words correctly, and know how to use a period. Even so, we can learn something from business.

Pulling from The Ten Most Important Tips for Failing Successfully, I think we might encourage our students to think about learning, making mistakes, and failure thusly:
  1. Go ahead and be upset, angry, or whatever you feel. Feel the feels. And then move on.
  2. Move on because that mistake or failure of that assignment or test does not make you a failure. You had a bad day, you didn't prepare, you couldn't remember something. Figure out what went awry and figure out how to do better next time.
  3. Let it go.
  4. Don't try to blame the homework or the test or the temperature in the room or your computer or your pen or pencil or that low-level hum that comes from somewhere or anything else. See #2.
  5. Ask for help if you think you need but only after you're sure you can't figure it out on your own or with help from friends. Some teachers call this some variation of "Three, Then Me." 
I had students who would not ask for help because they thought I would think less of them. When I approached a student who was failing and told that student to come to me so we could figure out how to help him succeed, I thought he was going to keel over. From that moment on, I told students that asking for help was a sign of true intelligence--at least by my definition and in my mind--because it indicates when we're aware of our limitations and it indicates a willingness to learn.

I still think we need to do a better job of crafting assignments and assessments that allow for failure, maybe even encourage failure, though that's probably going too far. Even so, growth mindset reminds us that failure isn't a permanent condition. It seems clear that failure is an option for optimal learning.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Failing forward. Do we really mean that in education?

In education we talk a lot about encouraging students and teachers to take risks. We pontificate on the value of learning through failure. We try to model what failure and learning through failure look like whenever we make a mistake. We talk about developing grit, promoting perseverance, and building stamina even though nearly everything in our educational culture, at least in the United States, screams that failure, and even error, is nearly catastrophic. That made me think about how we need to design learning experiences that optimize error and even failure. And then I got to thinking about the differences between making a mistake and actual failure.

Teachers make mistakes all the time. Teachers make mistakes while teaching, when they type up assignments, when they assign stuff, etc. They recover by saying, "Oops. That's the wrong web site." or "That's the wrong page number; I meant to say. . .". Students simply adjust to the mistake and the correction. There is no red pencil swooping down to mark a big X on the teacher's forehead. There are no points taken off that teacher's teaching grade for the day.

Kids make mistakes on homework all the time. Some are unintentional; some are because they don't know or don't know any better. However, for the students there IS a red pencil (or its stand-in) swooping down to mark a big X next to the error and to deduct points. In some cases, students are allowed a do-over; their own version of "I meant to say. . ." or "I meant to do. . .". In many cases there is no opportunity for correction. And so students are then penalized for their mistakes.

And that means they learn that mistakes are bad. They learn they lose points for mistakes. Mistakes that may have been unintentional, or mistakes they made because they did not know or did not understand. They are penalized for the error as well as the lack of information or knowledge or the lack of understanding. And what do they learn from that? Especially if there is no opportunity to correct the error, to clarify or correct their learning, to fill in the gaps? They learn that making a mistake makes them a loser of sorts. And they learn that not only from the big X next to each error, but they learn that from their classmates who gloat when they made few or no errors and from the shame of their classmates who have done as badly or worse.

Sure, those mistakes could be viewed as failures: failure to remember, failure to understand, failure to express themselves correctly, failure to parrot the correct answer, failure to complete, failure to. . . . Will students view those failures, especially a series of failures in the same or different content areas as FAIL: first attempt in learning? Or will students view one or more failures as an indictment of their abilities as students, as learners?

I've seen middle and high school students exhibit no interest in retaking a test or redoing a homework assignment. When asked why they won't take advantage of the offer, they usually shrug. I've taken the shrug to mean one of several things, and typically along the lines of "What's the point?" If I were able to sit with any of those students to ask more about their reluctance, I bet I would hear a litany of penalized mistakes--bad test scores and marked up homework--from preceding school years, all of which leads to believing there is no point in trying and there is no point in trying again.

After years of failure, students see themselves as failures.

After years of marked up mistakes and low grades, students see themselves as stupid or incapable or dumb. They don't see the point and they don't believe the teacher who tries to tell them otherwise because they've been hearing differently for years.

This article about the key to optimal learning reinforces so much of what I believe to be true. I need to contextualize this with two anecdotes. The first is about a second grader who got so frustrated by her inability to subtract two-digit numbers that she threw her pencil, slumped her head in her hands, and muttered, "I'm just stupid." Second. Grade. I retrieved her pencil and put my head down close to hers and told her that no one expected her to come to second grade already knowing how to do this math. I explained to her that the purpose of school is to learn to do things like subtract two-digit numbers. She looked up at me with a thin veneer of belief that maybe, just maybe, I spoke the truth.

Please note that I had to explain to her that she was in school to learn. 

The second anecdote is personal. I was one of those students who grew up believing I wasn't "good at math." My mother also said she wasn't good at math, even though she was a very good cook and baker, and she was the one who managed the household finances. Apparently none of that is math, but I believed her and didn't see the obvious at the time. It wasn't until much, much later when I was thinking about a Master's in computer science (to legitimize the near decade I already had as a software engineer/systems analyst) and I was taking a course in differential equations, a course I ended up not needing. I found myself intrigued by the mathematics and, as an English major, I was a bit horrified. I felt like I was being unfaithful to myself. And then later when I was teaching basic math to college students, I realized that their journey had been much like mine in that we had failed to realize we were in school to learn the things we didn't know or understand as well as the things we thought we loved and about which we wanted to learn more.
As a learner, the thing to focus on is to make sure you’re pushing yourself and getting into this region of intermediate difficulty where you are making mistakes and getting things wrong and accepting that’s part of how you learn.
In the article about optimal learning, Robert Wilson, a researcher at the University of Arizona, speaks of accepting that getting things wrong is part of how we learn. He goes on to say that "We reward perfection maybe too much. . . Errors and mistakes are just a part of life and as we’ve shown here, a crucial part of learning."

If we--educators and others--truly believe that failure is an integral part of learning and doing, we need to build assessments with that in mind; we need to create learning opportunities with that in mind; we need to allow space in our work environments with that mind.

We need to be crystal clear about the parameters for that failure, for that risk, for those errors and mistakes.

We need to be crystal clear that while errors and mistakes are indeed part of learning, there will come a time when errors cross the threshold of acceptable risk, which means we have to be crystal clear about what we mean by "risk" and what constitutes acceptable risk, whether in learning or anywhere else.

And if we mean that failure is an integral part of learning and doing, and if we build that way of learning and doing into our day-to-day teaching and students' day-to-day learning, then they will be more willing to embrace what they learn through failure and become more attuned to what failure and error and risk actually mean.

And that will be worth the risk.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Hacking learning, again? Meh. Teach on.

Just before Thanksgiving there was a #HackLearning Twitter Chat. I did not participate but I did see the questions, obs or they wouldn't be included in this post.

And I mean no offense to the #HackLearning team, but I was a little hacked about these questions, and not the kind of hack to which these folks referred--and can I tell you how over I am "hacking" pretty much anything?

Let me speak first about my understanding of English Language Arts. I know that ELA has experienced a lot of changes and certainly many were informed by our venture into Common Core. The key to ELA is the phrase "language arts" with the emphasis, I think, on the word "arts." What are the arts of language? Reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

To the first question: What are the challenges of integrating English Language Arts in the content areas? Huh. You mean making sure that students can read, write, speak, and listen in math, science, social studies, art, music, PE, health, consumer science, etc.? Um, shouldn't that be happening by virtue of the fact that students are in each of the classes?

Okay, I'll stop pretending I don't know what they're talking about because they're talking about the likelihood that all of those non-ELA teachers don't have reading and writing strategies in their teacher toolboxes. Fine, but that's really easy to rectify. I'll come back to this.

To the second question: What are the advantages of integrating ELA in the content areas? I won't be quite so snippy because there are some interesting textures in this question. One of the first advantages is that students will stop thinking that reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills are the sole domain of ELA class and begin to realize that reading, writing, listening, and speaking are important in everything and all the time. However, it is important for students to recognize that reading strategies may be different in non-ELA classes just as writing strategies may be different.

The last question is a bit perplexing: What are some ways we can find time and resources to integrate ELA into other content areas? I think this third question is inextricably connected to the first. I don't think it's really a matter of time. I do think it is a matter of resources just as it is also a matter of inclination for non-ELA teachers in middle and high school who believe their tasks are to teach their content areas even as they are possibly complaining that students don't know how to read and write in their content areas.

A sidebar. When I taught ENG 101 at the university level, I had some colleagues who complained bitterly that their students didn't know how to write for their respective content courses. We'd already seen a wave or two of writing across the content areas which was exhausting for most freshman writing teachers who found the first thing we had to do was un-teach the five paragraph essay and help students understand the value of specific writing rules, like punctuation and capitalization (I kid you not). Weary of colleagues who gently berated me for frittering away the 15 weeks I had in ENG 101 and clearly not using that same number of weeks wisely in ENG 102, my writing colleagues and I had a little symposium with our non-writing colleagues. We had them review some freshman papers and score them using our rubric. The numbers were, as expected, all over the place. Interesting conversations ensued and a modicum of understanding might have been achieved. That didn't stop them from complaining because they knew they didn't have the skills to help students correct their writing in their classes and didn't want to spend any of their precious 15 weeks providing any kind of instruction for writing correctly in business or science or whatever. Stalemate achieved.

But let's take a step back. The majority of reading and writing in non-ELA classes is termed "non-fiction." So we're talking about students knowing how to use text features: titles, subtitles, graphs, charts, etc. Some ELA teachers spend a bit of time on such things, but quite possibly not enough although elementary teachers could fairly easily incorporate some coaching in their non-ELA blocks of the day. Non-ELA teachers assume students know how to read graphs and charts which they could have learned in elementary school, but might not have done.

Well, we need to take a further step back because my question to non-ELA teachers is this: what skills exactly do you need of your students in the areas of reading, writing, listening, and speaking? Or, let's focus just on reading and writing. And, I put it to you again, what exactly do you need them to do? Yes, you need them to read the word problems and take the time to read them. There's no special strategy for that though you could practice a variation on a close reading strategy to see if that helps because you need to help them understand the importance of content area fluency and comprehension which isn't just an ELA thing but a human being thing.

You need them to write in complete sentences and, because you're not an ELA teacher, you're not comfortable being the grammar and mechanics police. Well, if they're in middle school or high school, they should know better; however, if they have time and opportunity, they could do a quick check of their work using Grammarly. What I don't like about this kind of a tool is that they don't learn what they did right and what they need to learn how to correct.

There could be ways for students to keep track of what's corrected by Grammarly and, perhaps, in collaboration with the ELA teachers in your building find a way to create a writing workshop time or study hall. It would have to be by choice. Depending on your classroom and technology situations, there are ways way to gather this information so ELA teachers will have more targeted information and, perhaps, find ways to bring non-ELA texts into their classrooms.

As a matter of fact, that is one of my favorite things. Maybe every two weeks, the students work from their math, science, social studies, or other texts in their non-ELA classes. They use those texts for their independent reading. Wigs kids out a bit, which is fun for the teacher for a little while, but also reinforces that reading and writing skills are important. Period.

I think finding the time isn't an issue, not really. I think figuring out how to create assignments or think about student work is how and where language arts skills practice and development can be reasonably integrated into any other content area.

If you are looking for more concrete resources, you might check out Reading Non-Fiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies by Drs. Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. They quite literally wrote the book on the subject.

You might also watch this video focusing on teaching non-fiction, which is a significant clarification about "non-fiction" and what it is.

As you continue to think about language arts skills in content areas, it can be easy to be dismissive or distracted by so many resources that seem geared towards elementary classrooms. For example, in an Edutopia article published first in 2010 and then updated in 2014, some of the strategies might seem inappropriate for AP Physics or Math III or even high school social studies classes.

But here's the thing: you don't have to do those exact strategies. For example, the "stop and jot" strategy is one that is often overcomplicated, in my opinion. Sure, you might use some sort of a graphic organizer or worksheet for younger students, but for older students--middle school and up--just have them write in their journals or wherever. They write for 1 minute or 30 seconds or 42.3 seconds or whatever and they write to secure what they've just been hearing. Maybe they end up jotting down two things they remember and a question. Great! We like questions because questions help us know what kids are really getting, what they're really understanding, what they're thinking about, what kinds of connections they're making.

By having them write down what is essentially a learning summary, they are creating a hook to what they've heard and what they're retaining. They are creating what could become a framework for study and review.

Can you build on that? Sure. Use Wheeldecide or some other approach--craft sticks with a student's name on each stick works--to pull a random name or two. Don't belabor it, but doing a quick check also helps ensure that most students stay focused. And by chunking it with lecture or discussion or reading, and then a "stop and jot" periodically, students are more likely to be able to sustain and retain.

Here's another thing. You can start your chunking by talking and them jotting every, say, 7 minutes. Do that for a week or so. Then chunk for about 10 minutes, then let them jot. After a couple of weeks, chunk to about 12 minutes, then let them jot. I honestly wouldn't go much further than that just for retention and comprehension purposes, but by slowly extending the amount of time they go between jots, you are also helping them build stamina. Sneaky, huh?

So are some of these suggestions hacking learning? Or just some recommendations for helping students learn? You decide, and teach on.