Friday, January 13, 2023

A reflection on learning and engagement, Gen Z, and mental health

 One of the most popular EdSurge stories of 2022 was published on December 13: "Student Disengagement Has Soared Since the Pandemic. Here's What Lectures Look Like Now." I'll set aside for now my frustration regarding the dissertation-like title, although it is missing a colon to be truly dissertation-like. I will, however, reinforce the attention you are already likely paying to the word "lectures." Hold that thought.

We all experienced the pandemic. That is a fact. How we did that, especially as adults, informs our thinking about the pandemic and its impact.

I was visiting a high school before the holiday break and had a flicker of revelation. Habits. How long does it take to break a habit? If it's a bad habit we really want to break, it can take weeks, even months. Maybe never.

I just recently had a conversation with a colleague and we were talking about our college students. His perspective is athletics and mine is academics. In full disclosure, he is a former student. 

After that conversation, I wandered into a faculty meeting in which someone was presenting about how to teach Gen Z students. I listened for a few minutes but because I wasn't required to stay I didn't. And I didn't completely agree with what I heard her say in those few minutes.

The very first thing I wondered is how we define "learning"? That was actually part of the conversation I was having with my former student who is an entreprenuer and coach. We discussed how to encourage post-pandemic students who are in college mostly to play sports to want to learn rather than just get a grade.

In "How Instructors Are Adapting to a Rise in Student Disengagement," author Young relates some of his conversations with students who point out they were forced to figure out how to learn on their own during the pandemic, they've discovered that being in class or learning from home (LFH) might not mean a difference in their grade, they got used to be away from people and sometimes being with strangers is hard, and, for many, the notes and slides are online, so why come to class?

Young quotes one of the professors he interviewed who says, "But I do feel like there are so many people, they don't come for an education. They come for a degree. And that makes me sad because getting a degree is supposed to be all about becoming educated."

In their defense, students have learned throughout their school careers to learn to value the result, not the process. The process of learning is an irritating and necessary evil to getting a grade.

What is also interesting is that he learned that most college students are pro-lecture provided the instructor does more than simply read the slides. Nobody likes that. Nobody. When I'm at a conference and the presenter starts to read the slides, especially those that are posted somewhere on the conference platform, I leave. I can read the slides for myself. What I'm in the room for is that person's expertise, experience, and insight.

I'm mindful of that when I teach. In fact I've been thinking about this as I've prepped for a series of lectures I need to give next week. It's foundational information. Setting the stage. Building the framework. Whatever metaphor you want. I've got slides to amplify the notes document I've created for them because they will have the stuff I want them to be thinking about, a la Cornell notes, in front of them. I've got some videos, some songs, and some other stuff as part of the lecture that are part of the lecture because they are great examples of what I want them to think about. And I will say it's taken me hours to craft these two hours worth of lectures to try to make sure students are engaged.

Will that prove to be time well spent? We shall see.

So thinking about Gen Z students, are they inundated with information? Yes. Do they know how to discern good information from less good and even bad information? No. That's why I'll be inviting students to explore the media bias chart and we'll play the believing and doubting games a few times.

Have they become skilled in skimming for relevant information? (And why were "skimming" and "relevant" in quotes?) No. No, they have not. To skim effectively, students have to know how to use text features--titles and subtitles, things that are underlined or bolded or italicized, they have to know how to process the first and last sentences of a paragraph, etc. But they also have to understand the assignment and too often students don't pay attention to instructions, whether those are written or spoken or both. Not only can they not skim effectively, they too often have no idea how to determine which information is relevant for the task they've been asked to complete.

One of the things the speaker said is that the teachers have to make adjustments to ensure that content is chunked differently. Yes and no. I think good teachers have always chunked information simply because students need time to process what they hear and see. None of us like the "wall of text."

On the other hand, as we think about what it means to learn, students need to learn to make adjustments as well. We know students have to make adjustments between professors and between courses. That is part of learning how to manage their cognitive loads.

I think we might start with smaller chunks and gradually increase the size or duration of those chunks, if you will, to develop their stamina. I'm not saying the so-called chunk should be the full length of the course, but just as athletes learn to build physical endurance, we should help our students build academic and intellectual endurance. That's true for college students and I believe it's true for high school students; I think it could be true for middle school students as well.

One of the points the speaker made is that students don't need adults to get information. That's true. They can find information online. Is getting information the same as learning? No, no it is not.

Will students learn more from a portable device than from a classroom? Maybe. That depends on what they are learning. There is a cognitive bias known as the Google effect. You've probably experienced it. You look something up, get the information you need for the moment, and promptly forget the specifics. Why? Because you can look it up again. As far as you know, Google isn't going anywhere. So they can find information online, but it doesn't mean they've actually learned anything.

Some years ago my friend Keith, an artist, educator, and musician, told me how he had looked forward to teaching his son how to play the guitar. And then one day that son came to him and said, "Watch me!" and proceeded to play a song for him. One was excited, the other was internally devastated. Why? Because Keith hadn't been able to fulfill a dream to share a passion. When he asked his son why he used, yes, YouTube, the son said, in effect, "Because I could watch it as many times as I wanted and it wouldn't yell at me."

The upside? They could share their passion for music from then on and the dad could coach him and show him other techniques. AND they could watch YouTube videos together to discuss styles and techniques. In the end, it worked out for both.

Now, can my college students really learn how to write from a portable device? Can they really learn how to make sense of economic theories? Can they really learn to understand some nuances of historical events? Maybe. But the value of being in a classroom or learning with a group of people is that you aren't confined to the echo chamber of your own mind. You get to hear other peoples' ideas and perspectives. You get to reflect on those and, perhaps, change or add to what you think. You get to make sense of what you've heard, what you've read, and what you thought you knew. That is the stuff of learning: comparative analysis, synthesis, discernment. Which is also the stuff of critical thinking.

What students will NOT learn from devices is how to develop and use their critical thinking skills. They will not learn how to express themselves in ways they can and will be heard.

This takes me back to the conversation I had with my colleague in athletics. As we think about what kids really want, they really want to be heard. They really want to know that they matter. They really want to know that what they are doing in the moment matters, and how.

Here is what else we know: while educators and education have to adapt to Gen Z learners, Gen Z learners need to learn how to adapt. Not everything will be done the way they like it and want it. 

Does Gen Z really have shorter attention spans? I'm not a psychologist or a neurologist, but I don't think that's it. I think that because they are part of the swipe generation, they can swipe if they are not immediately engaged. If whatever is happening doesn't interest them, they move on. And if we're honest, that's true for us as well.

In college and in life, they won't always be able to swipe. They have to learn how to tolerate a bit of discomfort and figure out how to fight through the boredom, apathy, or lack of interest to find the nugget. That's on them although, quite frankly, I don't want to be boring. I can't do as much if they just aren't interested in a particular required course. I can only do so much although being aware of their perception matters and can make a difference.

Are they tech-savvy? Let me say this again for those in the back too engrossed in your phones: No. They are not tech-savvy. Nope. They may be tech fearless in that they are comfortable with technology, but they do not know how to use it well.

Even worse, they tend not to be curious about how to solve a problem to get the information they want. That, my friends, is a lack of critical thinking skills.

Are they social learners? Oh yes they are. And again, I think we need to embrace that but we also need to teach them how to be individual learners because they have learning strengths and skills they don't even know about.

I didn't hear the entire presentation so the bit I heard was out of context of the whole, I realize. And I will say some of my thinking about Gen Z is informed by my own experiences and further enhanced by some recent articles I've read. The first was published in eSchoolNews, "Most high school grads feel their skills aren't up to par." Now the focus of that article is that high school graduates didn't feel prepared to make decisions about their career choices or even decide on a major. I'm not entirely surprised they feel that way, and it was good for me to know since I do work with high school teachers.

I think there is a lot going on in that concern, and I think one element is that students aren't given the tools to learn about themselves. There was a time when students took all kinds of test to find out about themselves, and I don't think that happens any more. So it's possible they are too influenced and affected by social media to take a breath and step away to begin to figure out who the heck they are.

But it was the articles about Gen Z and tech shame that really caught my attention. "Gen Z is overwhelmed by 'tech shame' at work" in Fortune and "'Tech shame' is hitting young colleagues the hardest as they try to fix older colleagues' technical issues and their own." These should not have surprised me, but they did.

People make assumptions about what Gen Z can do because people assume they are savvy. They are savvy with some things, but not some fundamental things that might be needed in the work place. I showed some of my freshman college students how to create a table and one student who wasn't paying attention opted to go his own way. When I stopped to check with students and saw he didn't have a table, he was very nonchalant. "Oh, I don't know how to create a table so I did this."

Well, I wanted him to create a table. Why? Because most of the students did not know how to create a table and sometimes a table is one of the best way to present information, whether in Google or in Word.

They didn't know how to change margins. Or adjust line or paragraphing spacing. In Google or in Word.

They didn't know how to set up page numbers. The list goes on and on. Maybe it's because we don't have technology classes any more. Maybe it's because no one demanded or even expected it of them in high school. There are lots of factors, but employers expect them to know how to use Microsoft tools at a fundamental level and that means knowing their way around the tool bar.

And rumbling underneath all of this, murmuring just below the surface is student mental health. Okolo and Merisotis reported in their Higher Ed Dive opinion piece that a "2022 Lumina/Gallup State of Higher Education poll found that 71% of associate and bachelor’s degree students considering leaving college indicated that stress was the reason. . . . Not Covid. Not costs. Stress."

So lectures. If anyone is still lecturing exclusively today, they missed a whole bunch of memos about "guide on the side" that started in the early 1990s. 1993 to be exact when Alison King published "From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side" in College Teaching.

Are lectures occasionally still necessary? Yes. As I noted earlier, I will be presenting a lecture in one of my literature classes during the 2nd and 3rd meetings. I've prepared Cornell-like notes for them and there are points I will invite them to share their thinking and questions. But I know that I have to build a foundation and I won't yet be able to trust them with the trowel and mortar. My hope is I'll be able to let them help towards the end of the 2nd class and throughout much of the 3rd, but I'm prepared to do most of the work even as I try to make sure they are reasonably engaged. These students are, after all, juniors and seniors who should have figured out some of the tricks of being a college student.

But after those classes I won't lecture again. Why? Because I already know what I think. I want to know what they think and why they think it. So I have to give them opportunity to do that in various ways because few will be willing to speak up in class. Not because they're Gen Z but because they're students. And this course is a required gen ed option that is outside of their majors and, therefore, outside of their comfort zones. And they have learned to try to figure out what the right answer might be so one of my tasks is to teach them that learning is not about the answer but about the process of learning.

And that is one of the reasons I'll be teaching my students in ENG102 how to formulate questions and how to challenge their own thinking.

My thinking is that if I can help them figure out how to be better learners, perhaps I can help reduce some of the stress they experience as college students as they balance all that is going on in their lives. Because that's the other thing we don't talk about: how many hours how many of our students work, the demands of athletics, the demands of their major, and the demands of family.

High school and college students alike are in a strange twilight space of childhood and adulthood, and far more parents have greater expectations of how their high and college students will contribute to the family. Is it "fair"? No, but it is a reality for our students.

In the end, for me, the more I know about my students, the more likely I'll be help them navigate the learning experience as a true learning experience. That's my hope anyway.

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Much Ado about ChatGPT: Embracing the Possibilities

I'm chiming in because I do think there is too much ado about ChatGPT. I think there is magnificent possibility in this tool

I teach college freshmen writing classes. You know, those general education classes that students believe they just have to get through so they can get to the good stuff: their major courses.

College faculty have contributed to the perception that ENG101 and ENG102, or whatever your course code, are necessary evils although they are quick to grumble when their juniors and seniors can't write. But that's a different story. Or is it?

I've long thought that we need to redesign ENG101 and ENG102. And I believe so even more fervently in a post-pandemic era of teaching and learning. Many students lost whatever fragile learning skills they had and college can be a very difficult place to learn how to be a learner. I speak from experience.

Just recently administrators at my college shared an article about ChatGPT and some insights. Few of us had experimented with it. It is not benign, but I don't think it is cause for as much hand-wringing as there seems to be.

On the other hand, I teach at the collegiate level and my classes are smaller than the average high school English class. Most of my students mostly want to be where they are even if they don't want to be in my class, so I'm talking now about college writing rather than high school writing.

Quite frankly, I think we can make use of this. We want students to be critical thinkers. We want them to develop and refine the skills of a critical thinker. Now, we may not agree on what it means to be a critical thinker--the internet doesn't. There could be five skills, or maybe there are ten principles. It's confusing depending on the field, but there are some fundamentals upon which most seem to agree. (Oh how I love qualifiers.)

Thadomi Shahani Centre for Management

So analysis, communication, problem-solving, and creativity seem to show up a lot. There are other skills some may want to emphasize depending on their field or discipline, but we could start with this list.

However, the World Economic Forum reported in October 2020 (so the world was still in the middle of a pandemic) that the top skills for 2025 might be as shown in the image to the left. Some of us might argue there is some redundancy, but we might also note the way the World Economic Forum has grouped the skills, which I find interesting.

In this case, analytical thinking and innovation; complex problem-solving; critical thinking and analysis; creativity, originality, and initiative as well as reasoning, problem-solving (let it go), and ideation are part of, well, problem-solving skills.

One might surmise that most of the top skills are necessary for problem-solving. And, if we take a giant step back, most of the critical thinking skills identified in the critical thinking images are, in fact, necessary to solve problems, both small and large, simple and complex. 

Students don't think about managing their time to accommodate work, classes, athletics, homework, and social life as a problem to solve, but time management is a significant problem to solve and is often quite complex. 

Students don't think about completing a school task as a problem to solve, and yet it is.

So whatever we choose to emphasize in our respective versions of ENG101 and ENG102, we all incorporate something about critical thinking and perhaps we need to be more intentional about what that means and how we assist students in recognizing their critical thinking skills and how to develop or refine them.

A colleague of mine and others have offered some suggestions about how to embrace the problem of ChatGPT. You've seen some of these, I'm sure:
  • Require student reflection in their responses so there must be some sort of personal connection (text-to-self)
  • Ensure assignments have some specificity such as including something from specific sources (text-to-text)
  • Have students do some of their work in class and present their work in a portfolio form
I agree with some of this for some classes because I think how an educator responds depends on the content area and depends on the intention of the assignment. 

For me in my ENG102 section this semester, my students will be writing, by hand (!!), in a journal doing a short personal reflection about writing. Think of it as a sort of bell ringer although they may write at the end of class. I will check these periodically, but it's mostly to get them in a habit of reflection. I won't grade this work for grammar or mechanics; it's mostly a participation sort of thing.

I'm going to have my students analyze an AI response to a prompt without telling them it is an AI response. We will have been talking about argument, the rhetorical triangle, cognitive biases, logical fallacies, and analyzing texts along the way. We will have played the believing and doubting games at least once. I think it will be eye-opening for all of us for them to analyze one or more AI responses. What are the strengths and weaknesses? What is unanswered? What isn't included?

After they have written a drafty draft for me, I will invite them to use AI to write a draft. Then they will write a comparison of their work and the AI's work. They will have included, I hope, in-text citations and a Works Cited page whereas, at this point, the AI does not include any references from where or how it gets its information. If they have learned to be responsible skeptics, perhaps they will see some of the potential issues. Although that depends on whether or not they really care.

Given some of the examples I've seen from ChatGPT, I think I may want some students to embrace it as a way to get started. My students often think they hate writing when they don't like the process, they're not confident about grammar or even writing sentences, etc., etc., etc. Or they got turned off of writing because of the kind of writing they did in high school. HEAR ME: I am NOT placing blame on high school teachers because I've done that gig and I know it's even harder to get kids to write in high school.

So maybe we use a sort of portfolio and they begin their work with the AI-generated text and then have to refine it. Then they're brainstorming, if you will, with AI rather than a classmate who may be even less confident about writing than they are.

I think there are similar possibilities for high school students. Look, every student struggles with grammar and mechanics. They struggle with active voice vs passive voice. They struggle with consistent verb tense. They don't know how to use third person. They struggle with formal academic writing because they've written so many personal narratives.

Too many students have to complete performative writing tasks rather than learning how to be a writer at whatever level they may be able to write. Not all of my students are great writers. Many of them are good. And most of them are good enough for what they think they might want to do in the future. Some of them may discover later why writing matters and perhaps they will find ways to build on something that maybe I helped them learn.

I agree with what Sarah Dillard wrote recently in her opinion piece "Schools Must Embrace the Looming Disruption of ChatGPT."
Revising classwork to include ChatGPT could involve students collaborating with the chatbot throughout. In the book review assignment, for example, they could critique ChatGPT’s output and write a reflection on how and why they used the tool and where its capabilities worked and fell short. The key is that the students, rather than ChatGPT, are still in control of the assignment.
ChatGPT has the potential to unlock powerful new learning capabilities. While before, a student could only read other people’s writing, draw conclusions about their techniques and try to apply them to her own work, she can now watch her own thoughts be transformed into prose. This direct translation has the potential to teach students to be better writers.
ChatGPT can summarize complex passages for struggling readers, giving them enough of a toehold to read the original text; rephrase difficult concepts in ways that can help students relate them to their own experiences; and provide a second opinion to students on their written work. With capabilities like these, ChatGPT has the potential to be a tool that finally enables robust personalized learning at scale.

In "The Brilliance and Weirdness of ChatGPT" (Dec 2022) published in The New York Times, Kevin Roose wrote:

Yes, the AI will get "smarter" as it gathers and processes more information. Yes, this is the stuff of Asimov's I, Robot. Yes, there are lessons to be learned and reasons to be concerned and reasons to celebrate.

If we embrace ChatGPT, albeit cautiously, first, we acknowledge the elephant in the room. Second, we can help students develop and refine not only critical thinking skills but help students find ways to better understand the strengths, weaknesses, and unintended consequences of inventions and technological developments.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Reflecting on Learning Barriers

Let's set aside all of the political buffoonery and bilge that is affecting learning. Let's just focus on the certified classroom teacher in the room with students. Okay, well, that won't really work because all of the buffoonery and bilge has a significant impact on how classroom teachers, who may or may not be certified teachers, can and do interact with their students.

Over the past several weeks there have been articles about learning loss, learning recovery, accelerated learning, tutoring, and remediation, at the very least. Lots of folks chiming in with suggestions for solutions which really burns my grits. After all of these years of claiming that one size does not fit all, the reality is that whatever works in one classroom to help those students do what they need to do for their learning may not work in any other classroom with any other students.

That is not to say that valid suggestions and recommendations might exist, but the excessive hand-holding and cover-your-assery of far too many administrators aren't making that work any easier.

I'm going to start this series of rants, I mean, posts by addressing this article about "good teaching." It's true that everyone has an idea about what constitutes "good teaching." Some believe the evidence is in the test scores and that's because, I think, we've developed a culture of thinking that good test scores mean that kids have learned something so the teacher must be "good." Or most of the students are really good test takers and the teacher did a great job of test prep. Or everyone had a good test day and the teacher did a great job of test prep. Or the students learned what they needed to learn and maybe only for the test, and also had the confidence to do well.

If the test scores are bad, then the teacher isn't good. Or some or most of the kids had a bad test day. Or the conditions in the test room made it hard to do well. Or some or most of the kids were hungry or sleep-deprived on test day. Or the content the kids learned wasn't the focus of the test. Or the way the kids learned the content didn't align with the way the test designers write questions and expect answers.

Here's one of the things the two researchers learned as they analyzed elementary school teachers and their math instruction, and watched videos of those teachers: "they didn't find statistical evidence that teachers who spent more time on test prep produced higher scores. High achievement didn't seem to be associated with rote instruction."

They also observed a weird paradox. "Teachers who delivered more cognitively demanding lessons. . .tended to produce higher math scores." However, "the kind of cognitively demanding instruction we want to see 'can simultaneously result in decreased student engagement.'" Sure, that makes sense.

Over the past few decades, at least, educators have spent a lot of time learning how to make learning fun. We gamify things so students will be engaged. There is nothing wrong with gamification, but too often the game is the focal point and not the learning.

We have managed to teach too many students not to value the process of learning, a lament we've heard for at least those same decades.

Remember the rigor and relevance framework? That was introduced in the 1990s, so we're 30 years past the entre of that thinking. Thirty. Years. Three decades.

We continue to discuss the value of rigor and relevance, and rightly so. We still struggle to understand what rigor is or how we should gauge relevance, but that's okay. As new teachers enter the profession and we continue to examine what we think good teaching might be, we should reflect on these things. 

An outgrowth of the rigor and relevance movement was the emphasis on student choice and its accompanying student voice. And then we tried to create an overlay of Bloom's Taxonomy with Webb's DOK. We emphasized backward design to create options, perhaps using choice boards, that would offer students cognitively demanding pathways to achieve learning outcomes that aligned to standards and tried to encourage, even push, students to move beyond DOK 1 to at least DOK 3. Oh, and we mustn't forget the Danielson Framework for Teaching.

The potential self-sabotage of rigor and relevance and choice and voice is that standardized tests are, well, standardized. Now I would argue, and have long argued, that if we teach our students to be creative and critical thinkers, most of them will navigate standards and standardized tests just fine.

In fact, I submit that if we begin with the end in mind--and that can be harder than we think--and we encourage students to work at more rigorous and, therefore, cognitively demanding levels of thinking and doing, they will do just fine on standardized tests.

However, many of them won't think that learning is "fun" because we have taught them the objective of school is to have fun in the classroom. We have spent less time that learning can often be hard and frustrating, that making mistakes is a legitimate and useful part of learning, that reasonable frustration is when we're more likely to learn the most and when we're more likely to retain what we've learned and even make connections with other things we've learned.

Some of our students approach a lesson with the expectation that they should already know how to complete the worksheet rather than reflect on or tap into the work they did the day before or earlier in the day. We haven't taught them that they need to try to pay attention to and retain the "I do" and "We do" parts of a lesson.

Of the 53 teachers in the study, the researchers found 6 who made learning fun and engaging and had students with good test scores. In addition to active learning with lots of collaborative and hands-on work, these teachers had clear routines and expectations. The researchers noted that any "time that teachers did spend on student behavior typically involved short redirections that did not interrupt the flow of the lesson." 

The teachers also had a good sense of pacing and were intentional about how much time was spent on a particular activity.

I remember working with a group of 3rd and 4th graders. We were doing a math lesson using Dash and basketball hoops kids had built out of whatever, and not just Lego. At first, we used estimates to figure out range and angle to use the launcher accessory. Then one of the students found a large plastic protractor and another found some string and we did some measurements and more estimates, and then more tests. We made adjustments to the robot and adjustments to the hoops.

The teacher and I had figured about 30 minutes for the lesson, but she had to interrupt us so the students wouldn't miss lunch. The majority of them were completely engaged for nearly an hour.

As the students walked to lunch, some of the continued to talk about the math and others talked about the design of the hoops. A few talked about different structures they might design, and others talked about something else completely, of course.

Did we accomplish what we set out to do? Yes, and so much more. What the students learned about themselves and about their understanding of math was significant. Which was more important? Good question.

And therein lies one of the many on-going challenges for K-12 teachers, regardless of where they teach. Parents have certain expectations about their children's grades and what that purports to mean. The state has certain expectations of what comparative test scores mean even though most of us realize those scores mean that kids did well/not well on a standardized test that reflects little or nothing of what they may have retained in any given content area.

And therein lies one of the issues about learning. Everyone wants learning to be engaging by which we mean we want students to be attentive and involved in the process of learning. If they are so engaged, we tend to surmise that learning is happening so we might be surprised, perplexed, and/or frustrated when they have no recollection of said learning on subsequent days, when they are asked to complete any assessments of any kind. 

Because engagement does not equal learning.

When students have learned something, they manage to retain something. They are able to make connections with prior learning. They are able to make connections with learning outside of the immediate content area. 

I don't know why we're so surprised that kids aren't learning. We teach them early on to be worried about the grade. We don't teach them that they will do well on any assessment if they, yes, engage in the process of learning and then retain the result(s) of that process.
We have taught them that learning is disposable like so much else, so they don't understand when we are frustrated and perplexed when they don't retain much learning from the week, month, or year before. They are surprised we expect them to remember prior learning when they've already had the test on it. They take the test and clear their cache.

Dr. David Blazar, one of the study's co-authors, may be one of those who dreams "of developing a 'science of teaching' so that schools of education and school coaches can better train teachers to teach well."

I would assert that most teachers teach well.

I would assert that many teachers do their best in often contradictory and very complex situations, made even more contradictory and complex as parental involvement morphs and school administrators are trying to manage unheard-of outside pressures.

I would assert that we have to stop teachng students that only grades matter, and we need parents and administrators on board with that.

I would assert that we need parents and administrators and colleagues and coaches to see that a standardized test result is a single data point and that when students are encouraged and empowered to showcase the evidence of their learning, they are more likely to have better grades in the long run because they will have also learned to value the process of learning and learned to take pride in their outcomes for their learning.

I saw a post on Twitter the other day in which someone had posted a slide he planned to show his students in the second week or so of school. I liked the idea of stating the purpose of assessment, so this is my first draft of how I would like to explain assessment to my students.

I'll continue to tinker with it because in the science of teaching and learning, experimentation to figure out what works for a particular group of students is imperative as no class is the same as any other. Ever.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Learning about writing from writers: The problem of speculative journalism

This article, published on June 26, 2022, is a great example of what I call speculative journalism. The headline and its snapshot on Yahoo! reminds me when the editor (Scott Glenn) in The Shipping News teaches Quoyle (Kevin Spacey) how to write a headline. Yes, you might call it manipulative and in this world of getting the most clicks, that becomes of even greater importance.

Paragraph 1 begins this way: "A political shift is beginning to take hold across the U.S. as tens of thousands of suburban swing voters who helped fuel the Democratic Party's gains in recent years are becoming Republicans". The shift is stated as fact. It's a great opening sentence/paragraph because it connects directly to the headline and affirms the statement of the headline. Because it seems to be fact, it's also a good hook. It's well within the 35 words most readers seem to allow before deciding whether or not to keep reading, and is emotionally enticing enough that one might continue reading after a mental fist pump for the GOP or a possibly audible groan for the Democrats.

In the original version of the article, the second paragraph noted that 1 million voters across 43 states switched to the Republican party, which is a significantly different number than “tens of thousands.” In fact, "more-1-million-voters-switch" is part of the link to get to this article. Yet in the version of the article currently linked, we read that voter switch has occurred in 31 states.

In paragraphs 4 and 5 an individual from Colorado is highlighted and quoted. Now we learn his shift was reluctant and after he changed his registration first to libertarian, then, more recently, to the GOP.

In a previous version of this article, paragraph 6 reported that the political data firm, L2, is the source of the AP’s work and now they’ve identified “nearly 1.7 million voters who had likely(emphasis mine) switched affiliations across 42 states” so the number of voters has inched up while we lost a state. What this paragraph also tells us is “[w]hile party switching is not uncommon, the data shows a definite reversal from the period while Trump was in office, when Democrats enjoyed a slight edge in the number of party switchers nationwide.”

In the next two paragraphs, the lesson on organization and information control continues, but I'll highlight only a couple of things:

  • Paragraph 8 begins with the word "But" which is always a signifier. Think about the way we use the word in conversation. It is almost always to indicate something to the contrary or in opposition to what was just stated.
  • It is not until paragraph 9 we read this: "The migration of hundreds of thousands of voters, a small portion of the overall U.S. electorate, does not ensure widespread Republican success in the November midterm elections. . . "
  • The next paragraph begins with the word "Still" which is another signifier. There is an insistence with the use of this word, especially at the start of the sentence. It's as though the writer is waving away whatever objections you may be thinking to convince the reader this is an issue of some significance. It may very well be, of course. It could be good news for the Republicans, but it might not be bad news for the Democrats. The end result of the voter switch is unknowable.
Because this post isn't about the voter switch, it's about the writing and what I might want my students to learn about writing from this article. I'll note four more things before that lesson.

First, the number of registered voters in the United States is 168.31 million. Yes, million. So "nearly 680,000 voters" is around .004 of the voting population. Barely a blip. But the number sounds big and that's the point.

Second, if you scroll down to the end of the article, there is a clarification that the article was updated on July 7 "to correct the number of voters who have switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP based on voter registration data."  Then there are a couple of lovely passive voice examples 
when the publication is basically shrugging its shoulders and saying "It's not our fault." 

The last sentence of the clarification/disclaimer is my favorite: "The story should have been more clear about the distinction between the two types of information about voters." Not "The writers should have checked their information before we printed this." Not "The writers and the editors should have been careful to fact check themselves before we printed this." No, a nice distance as though the story is at fault.

Third, how we see an online article is different from how we see a digital version of a print article or a print article. It's not just the ads. One thing my students struggle with is that most online articles have many one-sentence paragraphs. Those are confusing because the sentences often take up more than one line and they have, I fear, learned to equate a line of text with a sentence. Ahh, punctuation. Anyway, because of the way online articles are presented to the reader, students struggle with understanding how an introduction and a conclusion work because they are battling their ways through unlearning the five-paragraph essay, which, in my opinion, should be forbidden past the 5th grade, maybe 6th grade at the latest.

Fourth, along with grammar and mechanics, structure and organization matter. Sure, writing for AP or any other publication, print or online, typically has different rules than writing for college or even for work. However, structure and organization do matter. 

Every writer has to have a strong introduction with a good hook that encourages if not compels the reader to keep reading. How many sentences or paragraphs does that introduction have to be? As many as make sense for the purpose of the writing and the intended audience.

Every writer has to have a strong conclusion although online articles often simply just end because of the way they are reporting information. So these journalists aren't always worried about a thesis or making sure it is supported throughout the paper. They aren't concerned about having a call to action or clarifying their argument or any of those things students are often learning in school.

Further, journalism has different expectations for space and content. Journalists often think in column inches so they may have repetitive information from past stories or other filler to get to those column inches. That's one of the reasons my college students are told their papers will be as long as they need to be. I don't want to read filler or dreck just so a writer can get to however many pages.

There are more lessons about passive voice and style, but I want to go back to that first sentence that is stated as fact. This is the crux of speculative journalism, to me. Is there a political shift taking hold? Maybe. I don't think the writers proved their point if this is, in fact, their thesis. If this was the first sentence and paragraph of one of my student's papers, my comment might read thusly: "This could be true and you will have to provide evidence to support this assertion throughout your paper. You will have to have evidence to support your statement that there is a political shift that seems to matter and that it is among suburban voters who are changing their party affiliation. You will also have to make clear why the suburban voters seem to matter more than urban and rural voters given that your emphasis is on suburban voters."

What I need my students to understand and learn is that speculative writing is not a good source for a college paper. Sure, a student might use this article as a springboard to find other articles and information to support or amplify what is said here, but this, even though the original article is from AP, is not a good source for their academic work.

Write on.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Transformational coaches and why they matter

I've been listening to a lot of podcasts the past year or so. One that has particularly intrigued me is Against the Rules with Michael Lewis. The second season was about coaches. The first season was about referees, which was also interesting. I recommend the podcast. Period.

But for this blog post I want to focus on the last episode of the second season, "Aim Higher." And not just because he interviews Bette Midler and Emily Blunt, although that is a bonus. As Helen Zaltzman of The Allustionist podcast might say, there is a Category A swear. 

Yes, you should listen to the podcast yourself, although not right now. Or you can bop over to a Medium article that gives you a generalized synopsis of the entire season and the coaching stages I'm discussing from a specifically educational perspective.

For example, at the very beginning, Lewis notes that he's learned a couple of things about coaching because of the series. First, good coaches can make an impact. Please note the adjective "good," but also note that there might be an implication that more of us need coaches. If you listen to any of the other episodes, that will become clearer although I will go on record here that in a prior episode Lewis seems to imply that anyone can be a coach and I might dispute that.

The second thing he learned is that the "people who get the best coaches aren't always the people who need them the most."

I will also note that, to me, this is the most self-indulgent of the episodes but I appreciate that Lewis puts himself through the coaching process with conflicting emotions. In my work as an instructional and administrative coach, I think there are many who have a similar sense of conflict in that they feel like they don't really need a coach so they put up with the process.

So keep that in mind: he put himself through the coaching process with some reluctance as much to be coached as to explore the process and his own response to it. As a coach, I got some really interesting insights.

A little more context: Lewis chooses to work with a voice coach and not just any voice coach, but someone who has worked with people like, well, Better Midler and Emily Blunt. Eric Vetro. Why? Lewis perceived a weakness he knew he could not fix on his own. 

In February 2018, I wrote a blog post about instructional coaches. At the end I remind folks to look for these qualities in a consultant/coach: "mentor, listener, encourager, researcher, curator, disseminator, PD coordinator/collaborator, partner, and learner." Most of that remains the same although I might put less emphasis on PD coordinator/collaborator unless that's what's important to the teachers and the school. I think it's imperative that whoever is a consultant/coach is also a learner. 

Let me note here something about transformational coaching. The model may have first been popularized by Elena Aguilar, author of The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation (2013). Aguilar's model focuses on three domains: beliefs, behaviors, and being. She offers strategies to help the client understand his or her own sense of being--non-verbals and emotions are key indicators. She includes strategies to help individuals understand their behaviors, how they affect others, and what might need to change. Throughout, the transformation coach assists the client in a clearer sense of their being--who they are and who they want to be. Aguila stresses the importance of a coach being a non-judgmental mirror.

In the first 90 seconds, we learn Lewis's strategy has been to hide his weakness. Huh. Now, some of us might say that means we are trying to work to our strengths. But what if our weakness matters? What if that particular weakness interferes in some way with our ability to do our jobs or to pursue our passions? Depending on the weakness, a coach may be the way to rectify the situation OR to find better ways to manage the weakness. Just food for thought.

While Lewis's journey is an interesting one, what I found more interesting is that he identified five stages of being coached.

Stage 1: Mutually beneficial

Vetro won't take someone as a client unless he believes he can help them. Would that be true if he were at the beginning of his career? Based on Vetro's own story, I think so. And based on Vetro's telling of a person with whom he chose not to work, I think that if he believed he could not help someone achieve what they needed and wanted, he would choose not to work with that person. So despite Lewis's self-deprecation, a self-defense mechanism many of us use, Vetro was willing to see Lewis again. And even though Vetro is an amiable and easy-going guy, he has expectations and will hold Lewis accountable.

But here is something else I noted. Vetro gently pushed Lewis to identify what he wanted to accomplish and why. Because Vetro is an experienced coach, he knew there were certain things they needed to do and Vetro likely does with all of his clients. We heard something similar in other episodes as coaches asked a lot of questions to get to the heart of what the person really wanted to accomplish, really wanted to do, really wanted to learn.

So yes, the experience must be mutually beneficial, but if the coach doesn't listen well and doesn't ask good questions and keep listening well rather than mentally crafting a solution, the coachee, the person being coached, is not going to benefit.

Stage 2: The coach gradually takes control

In education, the coach-coachee relationship has got to be a partnership. The classroom teacher has more expertise about what's going on in her classroom than I do because she's with those students every day. And if she's an elementary school teacher, she's with those kids all day every day. The building administrator knows far more about his building than I will ever know. Unless he is new to the district, he knows the history of that building; there are influences affecting him that he doesn't even realize. Yet. The superintendent quite possibly spent her entire career in that school district. She may have taught in one building or even in more than one. She may have been an assistant principal in that or a different building. And so on. She knows something about every single building in her district. She has stories. She knows stories she's forgotten she knows. As a coach, I know what I see and hear from that teacher or administrator or what I observe based on the day or few days a week or a month I am able to be on site, if being on site is even an option.

If my coaching is completely virtual, my only lens may be that person and that person may not be completely honest with me. The dishonesty is typically unintentional for so very many reasons, so my job is to ask questions and to listen very, very carefully. All. The. Time.

At some point, however, the coachee recognizes the partnership and trusts the coach really does have his or her best interests at heart and in mind. Any time there is a need for a courageous conversation, the coachee knows that the coach is pushing for the coachee's best.

In the podcast episode, Vetro sounds a bit exasperated when he asks Lewis why he's still drinking carbonated beverages when Vetro has told him not to. Lewis deflects and tries to joke about it, and while Vetro goes along with joking, it's possible to hear how serious Vetro is. Maybe it seems stupid to force a grown man to stop drinking carbonated beverages as part of his journey to become a better singer, but is Lewis really going to argue with all of those stars who have worked with Vetro?

While the Medium writer identifies this as "controlling behavior," I see it as the coach forcing the coachee to make a choice. 

You want to improve at this thing. You have entrusted me to help you. I have some expertise and I see what you cannot see about yourself, so you have to trust me when I say to stop (or start) doing this thing.

And that will eventually lead to Stage 3: Buy-in

At some point, the coachee decides the coach really does know what he or she is doing and really does have the individual's best interests at heart. If there is more than one coachee in a building or in a district, they will talk among themselves. When they learn the work of the coach is not boilerplate, there will be even less resistance because they realize the coach isn't working with Emily exactly the same way she's working with Bette.

Coaches have to understand that getting to Stage 3 will take time. It is rare that a coachee welcomes a coach with enthusiasm, but it does happen. Whenever the buy-in happens, there will be a noticeable shift in attitude and behavior because the person being coached now gets it and is further invested. It's also possible the coachee will push for more and other because they will have captured a vision of the possible; they will have seen how they might transform and how it will benefit their students.

Stage 4: Connecting to Your Center

In the podcast, Lewis notes that this is the stage at which there is a shift to wanting to be sure the coach isn't disappointed. That is true in some fields and disciplines, but I think less so in education. When the people I coach see me as a partner in their work, they trust me to hold them accountable and, by the same token, they are willing to hold me accountable or challenge me if they think they need to be pushed more. Of course, I'll also hear about it if they think I'm asking too much of them and that's a different conversation. I have to keep in mind that their reasons and expectations for being coached are ultimately about their work with students. This has nothing to do with a spotlight center stage.

Stage 5: Wandering About

Lewis notes that an outcome of a good coach is the coach can persuade the coachee to shift the focus on their attention so they are exploring "who [they] are or might be" (41:00-41:18). 

In the episode, Lewis talks about wandering about after a lesson and that he just keeps singing. That's not really an option for educators, but reflecting on what they've done, what their students have done, and what they all might do differently could be a form of wandering about, at least in the teacher's head. Reflection on a "performance" matters. Reflection about what worked and what didn't and why it did or didn't work is movement towards change and improvement.

Why transformational coaches matter

At some point, an educator recognizes the power of the coach as a mirror, as a trusted partner, and as an accountability partner. Teachers who want to improve their craft are just like any other professional who might get coached to improve their craft or to adjust something in how they do what they do. Think about golfers who have swing coaches and putting coaches. Every sport has multiple coaches for positions and for specific functions of the game.

Teachers are lucky if they have access to one instructional coach once a month. Good coaches know that there may be a list of things that could be changed or improved or eliminated, but it may be that only one thing will help transform how the educator perceives her work, her craft, and her students. So the coach works to get to that one thing even if it takes all year and they touch on other things along the way. Even a small step forward is still a step forward.

Anyone who has done coaching has stories of those who are just going along for whatever reasons and those who are genuinely interested in improving. 

Teaching has always been harder than it looks because the really good teachers make it look easy. I think teaching is just going to get harder and for far too many reasons that don't matter to this particular blog post.

But the teachers and administrators who are willing to try, willing to get coached,  and become willing to participate in the process, will understand how a good transformational coach can help transform at least one thing they do in the classroom. And then they have something on which to build so the transformation can continue.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The Inner Game and the Educator

Most educators and parents are familiar with negative self-talk: that inner critic whose voice is constantly demeaning, undermining, and otherwise self-sabotaging, though sometimes attempting to excuse an expected poor performance. We can all be victims of negative self-talk.

Teachers are often combating student negative self-talk, and I think there are times they say something without realizing the damage it's doing to them. I had a student who, at the beginning of the school year, would preface every comment with "This is probably wrong, but. . .". Was it wrong? No, it was his opinion and perspective? Did that perspective sometimes need more evidence? Sometimes, but his thinking was "wrong."

Students learn to say "I'm so stupid" when they struggle with something. Is every student adept at math? No. Does that make them stupid? No, it makes them less adept at math than the person who thinks calculus is amazing. Is every student a great writer? No. Does that make them stupid? No, it might mean they haven't figured out they should take that time to go back to proofread their work to fix those fragments or they haven't taken the moment to learn how to recognize a fragment. A student's struggles with something in a content area doesn't make them stupid or bad at that thing, it just means they are struggling to learn that thing and that they're probably putting too much pressure on themselves because they are also comparing themselves to parental expectations or their friends or the teacher isn't very good at coaching or the student hasn't focused enough on learning that thing or. . . . the list goes on and on and could be a combination of a bunch of things. But being stupid isn't one of them.

The other day I listed to a podcast episode about the inner game, which led to how an entire industry of inner mind coaching has developed to combat the inner critic but also just to help people learn. Because the original focus on the inner coach seemed more about focusing on the learner than the instructor.

Tim Gallwey seemed to be a typical tennis instructor when he first began. As I listened to the podcast, I was reminded of my experience with a golf instructor. 

My somewhat short aside. The first time I played golf I was in college and went out with two of my roommates, one of whom was at USF, Tampa on a golf scholarship. We were just out. I was doing okay although I have zip recollection of the score; we were having fun. Somewhere on the back 9 a guy on a golf cart shouted out a pointer or two. The rest of the game was less fun for me. Fast forward some years later and a friend of mine and I would go to the driving range; she had base privileges at the time at Patrick AFB in Satellite Beach, FL. I think she actually played golf, but I was fine going to the driving range and whacking balls as hard as I could and as far as I could. Fast forward some more years; I was (and am) living in IL. Another friend of mine and I decided to go to the driving range; she actually played occasionally as part of a foursome and wanted some practice. I'm in my happy place of whacking balls as hard as I can as far as I can. It's a good stress reliever, that. Then she suggested we take lessons. Okay. Sure. My first lesson the golf instructor was on and on about my head, my chin, my hips, my knees, and I don't even know. But I do know I left that day with blisters, in spite of the golf glove, and incredible frustration. I haven't touched a golf club since.

However, as I listened to the podcast, I also reflected on my approach as an educator and as a coach. I'll just say there were some revelatory moments.

The Coach in Your Head is a really good episode, although it does come with a language warning. And there were some bits I will fast forward through when I listen again as I, personally, didn't find the on-demand coaching bit all that helpful. However, the parts with Lewis's daughter I found really interesting.

You might also watch this MasterClass with Tim Gallwey or this TED Talk with Brett Ledbetter who interviewed 15 coaches who had over 8,700 wins and 21 national champions among them to learn that  "they focus less on the result, more on the process, but they recognize that character is what drives the process which drives the result"

In fact, in distilling Gallwey's work, one of his primary points is that individuals should not focus on the result or the outcome, but on the process. There's a great example in the podcast of Gallwey working with a professional tuba player. It's wonderful and perfectly illustrative. Lewis asserts that maybe that means that everyone can be a coach, and maybe everyone can be a mind coach, but probably not. ;)

The example with the tuba player, with Lewis' daughter, with others is that they were focused on the outcome: being able to make a particular sound, being able to clear the bases, etc. That's outcome. Gallwey's point is that we need to focus on the process first and there is clearly considerable support for that.

So when a student struggles with calculus, it may be partially because that's a level of math in which they're not really interested, but it could also be because there are details and nuances of the process to solve a particular problem they just don't understand. When my students tell me they are terrible writers, well, honestly, that could be true but that's focusing on the outcome not on how they approach any given writing project. Often those students compare themselves to others for whom writing is easier or who just write differently. 

When teachers gush over the student who writes in a particular way, those who don't write that way feel stupid and incapable. But the student I'm thinking about preferred shorter and sparser sentences, akin to Hemingway. So write shorter sentences, I told him. There is no rule that says all essays have to have compound-complex sentences or that an essay that is only compound-complex sentences is better than anything else.
I have several points:
  • We do a disservice to our students when we model something and say something like, "See how easy that is?" It may be easy to us but it may still be opaque to some of our students. We need to be mindful not to give more fodder to their inner critics.
  • We need to help students focus less on the outcomes and more on the process. That's an uphill battle for many of us because of benchmarks and testing, but we all know in our teacher hearts that if students learn the process of solving that particular calculus problem or if they really understand the events that informed a particular historical event or if they have developed strategies to recognize active voice and identify rhetorical choices, the outcomes of their work will be fine. AND, even more important, they will have established a foundation on which to continue to build as they continue to build.
  • Because learning should be, I think, about the process of learning.
  • As we continue to help them develop those skills and strategies and figure out the process, we can also help them learn to quell their inner critic.
For me, this is also a matter of being more patient with students. Just as I do with coaching a teacher or administrator, I have to listen to the student. I have to pay attention to the words they are saying, but also all they are not saying that is expressed in their facial expressions and body language.

At some point, I think I also have to be honest with them they have to do their part as well. I've told students I'm willing to work them but they have to work with me. I know I do them a disservice when I find ways to enable the process so they get the outcome they want. And we all know that helping students to unlearn the value of the outcome is hard work.

If we can help students focus not on the outcome but on the learning and the process to achieve the outcome, they are more likely to achieve the outcome for which they have capability and capacity, which might not be an A or a home run or whatever they think measures their intelligence or worth.

I have one last story (at the moment, for this topic). I was working with a second-grade teacher in a school with a lot of challenges. A second grader was trying to complete a math worksheet in a workbook, so they could look up information or look at examples if they needed. She threw down her pencil with disgust and said to me, "I don't know how to do this!". And when I kneeled down and told her the point of this activity was to learn and reinforce learning, she clearly did not believe me. When I helped her find what she needed in the workbook so she could reason through the problem and solve it, she still wasn't sure. When she checked with the teacher, she decided I wasn't lying to her. When I talked with the teacher, we both realized that even in second grade, students had developed an expectation that they were supposed to know stuff they had not yet learned. That they were already focused on the outcome rather than the process of learning.

Just sit with that for a moment as you reflect on your preparations for the upcoming school year, whether an administrator or a teacher. I know I've revamped lessons four times as I keep thinking about my expectations for my students and my purpose in being their professor in whatever class I'm teaching.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Students and their voices

We've been talking about student voice for several years now. You can find all kinds of blog posts and articles about student-centered learning and helping students find and use their voices. But I have a question: Do we really want kids to find their own voices?

Please don't get huffy. Not yet anyway. I know the answer most teachers have: "Of course we want kids to find their own voices!". Yes, but we also want and need degrees of compliance. I think one of our challenges is allowing students to find their own voices and yet do so within very specific parameters. I think part of teacher resistance is about grading. I think another part of teacher resistance is about benchmarks and standards. And I think another part of teacher resistance is how to make sure students stay within the parameters and constraints defined by the learning objective(s), standards, etc. 

But compliance within parameters (number of minutes, style of work, expectations, etc.) and constraints (specific amount of time, assignment criteria, etc.) is possible and can allow for students to make choices and experiment with different modalities, or voices. Hold that thought, please.

I've gone back in the digital archives to find what we've been saying about student voice and choice over the years. There has been a lot so what I share with you is, admittedly, selective.

In 2014, Rebecca Alber published in Edutopia and gave us five ways our students might have more voice and choice. Keep in mind that student voice and student choice have been inextricably linked when talking about student-centered learning. 

Let me address those ideas of voice and choice. In student-centered learning, it makes sense to give students options; that is, choice. That is one of the advantages of choice boards; however, it is important to note that students are given choice within certain parameters. That makes sense to me because I know the learning objectives and the standards. Even if my older students know both of those things, the objectives and the standards may matter less to them unless I can craft them in a rubric, perhaps a single point rubric that guides students in making their choices. Some of this is the spirit of contract grading, which can also make sense for older students providing their parents are on board.

Voice, then, should be a natural extension of choice. Too often teachers and students think that voice means that students choose to use a different form of technology to showcase their learning. I get that. Teachers have to figure out how to grade student assignments and do so reasonably equitably. That's where the single point rubric comes in. Students know the criteria against which their work is being assessed, and so do parents. However, we also know that such assessment can be subjective so students might think they do superior work when they have not.

On the other hand, if the students can express or somehow explain what they learned and why it matters to them, that voice may be significant in helping them, their parents, and the teacher understand if the work is representative of compliance and learning, or just compliance. Have the students stayed within the parameters and executed those well? Or has the student been messy about meeting those prescribed criteria and yet can express what, why, and how that student learned?

Then comes the question of what is most important and that may be dependent on the content and the grade level as well as many other things. Is it most important for the student to stay within the lines of learning? Or is it most important that the student has begun to figure out how he/she/they learn? There is, I suggest, no simple answer to those questions.

Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey developed a "Continuum of Voice" that was then modified in 2018 by Barbara Bray as the "Spectrum of Voice." In her post about this image and her thinking on the topic, Bray included an Alan November quote: "Who owns the learning?" That may be one of the most important things November has ever said.

Yes, who owns the learning? Not the teacher. Not the parents. The student. That has led to all kinds of research and publishing about student autonomy, student engagement, and authenticity. And in the back of the room, that small voice whispers "But what about compliance?" To which I ask, "Compliance to what?"

Let's fast forward to 2020 and 2021, the Years of Disrupted Learning. On February 4, 2020, Jethro Jones was the guest poster for Ditch That Textbook and Jones wrote about ways to increase voice and choice in the classroom. One of the things he pointed out is that students need to learn that learning is about the work and not about the grade, so what if part of what we do is about feedback rather than grading? Yes, I'm a fan, but I have to make sure parents understand what that means because they are often very much about the grade.

John Spencer has a whole collection about empowering students as he addresses what it means to make a shift and provide for student agency, student choice, and authenticity in learning. Spencer notes that compliance isn't always a bad thing. I realize that if we want students to learn the value of learning and to want to engage in the process of learning, we have to help them understand the difference between compliance and being empowered, and we have to provide them with the opportunities, the lane markers, or whatever else makes sense for them to realize when they can be empowered to work outside of the lines and when they must comply.

When I think about authenticity or engagement or empowerment for some of my students, I realize that very little of what I teach in 11th grade English may seem authentic for any of them and they may feel they have little opportunity to be empowered. 

The kind of writing my AP Language students have to do is authentic insofar as it prepares them for the AP Language test which is not remotely authentic beyond that test experience. However, I know I am not limited to making sure they know how to do that kind of writing so I have the freedom to help them learn to write in other ways and, I hope, understand the differences in those types of writing.

I'm making adjustments in the second semester for my English III students in that I will give them a lot of choice. Overall I need them to read, to learn or to practice critical thinking, and to be able to express their thinking. I need them to be able to express their thinking in writing and realize that could be a script for a podcast or a storyboard for something they choose to do graphically. We will start the semester reading the same book, but they will have choices in how they interact and engage with that text. This gives me a way to show them how this might be done while providing some lane markers by using only one text.

Then they will choose their own texts for the balance of the semester with periodic whole class work with a short story or an article or a poem. I will have a hyperdoc or choice board for all of these assignments. You might think that insane, and it might be. I'll have a specific choice board for the whole class work. For the text choices, I'm starting with a generic choice board so I can determine how best to modify it based on the text choices students make from the curated list. I'm gambling a bit on some significant text choice repetition. I'm allowing students the option of choosing books that are not on the curated list, but they have to write a justification for that choice so there is a possibility that particular choice won't be an option.
Here's the thing: we want learning to be a process, and preferably a tidy process. But learning is messy, and there's been plenty of research on this topic as well.

I don't think learning is linear whether it's math or science or history or anything else. I think some learning requires some specific foundations, but even as we continue to learn we go back to and reinforce parts of our foundations. And real learning requires consistent and constant feedback, which is a different post. Starr Sackstein wrote about the importance of feedback, among other things, in 2015

So, yes, when I try to help my students find their voices and use them, it will be exhausting and frustrating and patience-testing. . . for all of us. They will be resistant and suspicious. I may get a few phone calls or emails from parents.

However, at the end of the semester, if they've learned a little something about their learning and if they've learned a little more about their approaches to reading and thinking and writing, I'm okay with that. I hope their parents will be. I hope they will be. Even that will be their choice.

Choice board resources

Single-point rubric resources