Sunday, December 30, 2012

It is NOT about the test scores!!!!

The title of the article in The Chicago Tribune is "Comics as curriculum." Oy. Diane Rado wrote the article for the Tribune. I can't find much on her online except through the articles she's written, so I can't speak to her qualifications to write about education, but I need to say that I'm really miffed she felt compelled to put the word "common core" in double quotes in her article as though the words are meant to be ironic or slang (please see APA style guide on the use of double quotes if you've no idea what I'm talking about).

The overarching question of the article seems to be the validity of using comic books, aka graphic novels, in the classroom. Sure. Why not? I used them in some of my college classes. Rado seems to be aghast that graphic novels are being used in the classroom when she really should be finding out why classroom teachers are using them. Are they using them so students can compare the voice and style of the work in the graphic novel to that of the original work? Excellent.  If so, what are students learning as a result of that experience?

Are teachers using graphic novels so students can learn about the power, even the possible manipulative power, of visuals? Excellent. And, if so, to what end?

After several inches of text, Rado reports on a presentation two teachers did at a National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference. Students were reading the epic poem Beowulf. Some read the traditional work and some read it as a graphic novel. The students who read the work in its traditional form spent about six hours reading it whereas the graphic novel took about two hours.  It was at this point I started to hear the scary music in the background because I knew nothing good was about to be revealed in print. Herewith.
Both groups took the same 25-question multiple-choice test. Students who read the traditional text scored 81 percent on average compared with 75 percent for those who read the graphic novel.
The teachers' presentation raised the question: Is the score worth the additional time spent by kids who read the traditional poem or "would that time be better spent doing other things?"
So here's the thing. I don't care if kids read the comics in the newspaper or a graphic novel or a translated form (think Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) or in it's full original glory. What I do care about are the learning objectives.

Why have kids read Beowulf? Because it is early literature that reminds us that we are not so different from 10th century poets. Because it is a story of courage. Because, as Robert Yeager writes,
The struggles the poem depicts are of the good against evil: strength of sinew, heart and spirit, truth and light, pitted against dark power that gives no quarter as it shifts from shape to shape. That the darkness (be it Grendel, a dragon, or treachery, greed, and pride) is familiar only renders it more frightening — and the more instructive. . . .

And yet, although the poem ends with the death of its hero and the prophecy of extinction for his people, Beowulf is not a gloomy work, and our experience of it does not incite despair. That is because, like Beowulf himself, the poem never backs away but greets what comes with courage. . . . Students respond to the lack of falsifying sweetness that would gloss over a world that they recognize as basically an image of our own.
From start to finish, Beowulf demands our acknowledgment that sorting out the monster from the hero and the coward is a lifetime’s struggle in the dark. Beowulf joins us to our ancestors — whoever they might have been, in whatever far country — at the top of their game, as we would like to imagine them, and as we dearly hope those who come after will someday envision us.
And reading Beowulf reminds us of the transcendence of these stories, of these characteristics of humanity, and enables us to trace the arc of courage, the battles of good versus evil.  To see how the qualities may be timeless, how they might be recognized in different ages and places. To learn how we can see the world and know that certain things are immutable.

That learning and evidence of that learning does not come from pitiful 25-question multiple guess tests. Evidence of that kind of learning comes from a thoughtful essay or response to a short-answer question.

If students can learn what they need to learn about Beowulf and from Beowulf by reading the graphic novel, then read on because that gives them more time to read more works of literature.

But educators should not waste their students' time with multiple choice tests that prove nothing about what they have learned and nothing about what any teacher might have managed to guide them to learning.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Common Core: The Most Important Thing in the 2013 Classroom

I continue to be astonished by the education community. After all of the years, decades even, you'd think I'd no longer shake my head, but then I have to remember that we are not all fortunate enough to work in particular areas and have certain insight and there are times I, no doubt, sound as ill-informed, even as dumb, as some of the published professionals.

The object of my frustration today? Herewith: a promising article titled "What High School Students Should Expect in 2013."  Sounds good, right?

According Kelsey Sheehy, an education reporter, students and their parents should expect first and foremost more blended learning. In actuality, I have no grumps with this. In fact, Sheehy makes a really good point when she says educators are, and I hope this is true, going to step back "from 'shiny device syndrome' and evaluate how to best use the technology acquired over the past year."

Technology used to come in waves. Now it seems that new technology is introduced constantly so educators (and everyone else) are barraged by the "latest and greatest." How to choose? What to choose? Those remain challenging questions for educators with limited funds and with limited time to learn how to use those technologies and, most importantly, figure out how to use them effectively in the classroom. Remember laser disks? Anyone? I know educators who scooped those up because of the promise for potential impact. Huge investment. Virtually no return. Educators and their administrators have to be particular about how they invest their limited funds because not only do they have to make sure those new gizmos make a difference in student learning, but they have to be able to explain to parents and board members why they don't if they don't. Never mind that the technology itself never makes the difference; it's always, always, always, always the teacher who makes the difference, even if it's only to give students permission and opportunity to figure out how to use something for their learning because there is learning in that problem solving, which is, by the way, a Common Core thing.  So if the teacher doesn't know how to use the technology effectively in the classroom, then there will be little or no impact.

The second big diff in the classroom for 2013, according to Sheehy, is the flipped classroom. Really? That's got to be because there are so many late adopters who haven't figured out that the flipped classroom party is over for a lot of educators. But then I started doing a bit of research because I don't like to look too stupid this early in the morning. Lo and behold! many recent articles on the flipped classroom.

I confess to being a complete curmudgeon about the flipped classroom, but mostly because it's not really all that new and while there are lots of ways to make it work well, there are as many if not more ways for it to go wrong. Two really powerfully important factors? Parents and an environment at home in which learning can take place. This infographic only serves to support my thinking, but I'll blog about that later. And, as Mark Fydenberg notes, the flipped classroom has gone to be done right to be effective. The flipped classroom is not necessarily better and it sure isn't easier for the teacher.

The third big diff for the 2013 classroom is Common Core. Third. Writes Sheehy, "The Common Core State Standards don't officially go into effect until fall 2014, but districts are already rolling them out and will continue to do so in 2013." Yes, and some forward-thinking districts that understand implementing something of this magnitude takes a lot of time and a lot of work started their efforts two years ago. This school year, 2012-2013, is an implementation year and next school year, 2013-2014, is the transition year so their teachers and their students are ready for the actual implementation of Common Core in 2014. Because the Standards can be in effect now. Today. It's the first Common Core State Standards assessment that goes into effect in 2014 and Ms. Sheehy should know that.

My belated disclaimer: I work for the Center for College & Career Readiness, the non-profit arm of The Common Core Institute. I get to work with schools and districts around the country who are implementing Common Core now or who have been implementing Common Core for a couple of years. And this is what I see: educators who are doing Common Core implementations now also recognize that the flipped classroom is a strategy and that technology can be used in a variety of ways to help students achieve and develop critical skills and proficiency as well as knowledge they need to be successful in college and in the work place.

So while Ms. Sheehy makes some good points, the emphasis, I believe needs to be on the Common Core. Educators at all levels and capabilities need to know about Common Core, need to understand what it is and how it looks and can look in the classroom, as do parents and board members.

Common Core is not the solution to all educational ills, but as I talk with teachers who have been in the classroom for decades and educators who have been working with teachers and administrators and students for decades, one thing I've seen consistently is a burgeoning excitement about Common Core.

My opinion is that if Common Core isn't the most important and significant thing all teachers and students (and parents and board members) see in the classroom in 2013, it should be.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Non-fiction & collaboration: Part of the Common Core Adventure

I'm given to deep sighs when I read articles such as the one titled Common Core: The Non-Fiction Conundrum, and through an organization such as the Association of American Educators, an organization one might think would be better informed.  But at the same time I want to take to task this particular educator, I also applaud her.  Confused?  Read on.

The issue is non-fiction informational texts. Based on the NAEP studies (and regard them as you will) and others, the expectation of the Common Core State Standards is that 70% of students reading will be non-fiction informational text by the time they reach 12th grade. Why? It has to do with college and career readiness. Not a lot of poetry and fiction read in the work place [insert inevitable joke about some business documents here].

Note, please, that is 70% of all reading across the content areas.  So some of that non-fiction informational text is in math, science, music, art, physical education, welding, woodworking, civics, etc. Yes, I mentioned welding and woodworking and I have some teachers in Belen, N.M. to thank for that. I'll come back to that.

First, let's unbunch those undies. We encounter non-fiction informational texts all the time. Textbooks? Non-fiction informational (we hope) texts. Graphs. Charts. Media. Biographies. Editorials. Bills of materials. Blueprints. Architectural drawings. In other words, just about anything that is not fiction could be non-fiction informational text.

Those welding and woodworking teachers were talking about having students create a bill of materials for a particular project, draft a plan for the project, actually build the project, and then document the process. They discussed having students involved in discussions along the way, the kind of discussions a professional contractor might have with a customer. Reading. Speaking. Listening. Writing. All of the critical skills. Boom! And they discovered they could work together (yep, that's called collaboration) in ways they hadn't imagined before. Booyah!

For Common Core, we are talking about literacy skills. We are talking about navigating academic vocabulary as well as domain specific vocabulary. We are talking about making sure that when students are immersed in mathematics, they have the basic literacy skills of mathematics. And yes, those content area teachers might need to learn something about how to help students work on comprehension and fluency as reading teachers understand those terms and skills.

This is the point at which I applaud Melissa, the author of the non-fiction as conundrum post. At the end of her post she writes:
Left with the fact that language arts teachers shouldn't sacrifice teaching literature and that content-area teachers are not the best at teaching language arts, it seems that to properly implement Common Core, collaboration across subject areas is going to become necessary.
The concept of teachers collaborating is not something new. In fact, educators have known for years that interdisciplinary teaching aids both motivation and understanding. Despite the data, up until this point, many primary and secondary teachers still keep strict divisions in the school day for the different subjects.
While teachers have varying opinions on Common Core, it is possible to look at these standards as an opportunity to help transform ourselves into better educators through collaboration.
Yes, the Common Core State Standards are indeed an opportunity to transform to better educators, and collaboration will be a very significant part of that experience.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Test, test. This is should not be the test.

In August 2011, we learned that 28% of high school students weren't ready for college.  In September 2012, we learned at that "[m]ore than half our nation's 2012 high school graduates who took a college entrance exam did not have the skills they'll need to succeed in college or in a career, according to recent reports from the SAT and ACT."

We also learned that 43% of the students who took the SAT had a sufficient "level of academic preparedness associated with a high likelihood of college success."

That's not good information.  Nearly 60% of college-bound kids aren't ready for college.  And we already know there is a 41% dropout rate of those students who have to take remedial courses.  And we already know we don't have enough students going into science or mathematics, never mind technology and engineering.  And we already know that one of the reasons students struggle with science and math is because they struggle with reading.

But here's something really fascinating.  As we are wringing our hands over students' lack of preparation, skills, and capabilities, over 800 schools, including some big deal liberal arts Ivy League and Ivy League-ish universities, are no longer requiring the SAT or ACT.

Say what? Well, hold on to your hats because this is an alert of one of the worst kept secrets in education: standardized tests are not helpful in measuring what students really know and what students really can do.

If we were really serious about knowing what students know and can do, we would do a lot more project-based learning and we would do a lot more with portfolios.  That whole senior recital and senior project approach in college has some merit.  There is no good reason a similar model can't be implemented in high school.  Especially if we're serious about this whole college and work place readiness thing.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

There Will Be Writing

I used to teach freshman writing.  Loved it.  LOVED IT.  Would do it again in a heartbeat.  College kids are challenged by writing for a lot of reasons.
  1. They associate ENG101 with dreaded grammar.
  2. They don't think they are writers.
  3. They know they don't know how to spell very well.
  4. They got bad grades in English in school.
Some of those are legitimate reasons for being concerned about writing, but everyone is a writer.  Not everyone is a good writer, but by virtue of putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, thumbs to smartphone surface, everyone is a writer.

But here's the thing about most writing in college: papers of assigned word length and page length.  Seriously?  To anyone paying attention: stop it.  Just stop it.  I told my students that papers needed to be as long as they needed to be.  If they needed to write 20 or so pages, I'd read them all.  If they thought they could address a topic sufficiently and achieve their purpose in a few pages, so be it.  Hey.  That's what revisions are for.

I could write a lot about writing, and I will write more posts about writing, but my purpose just now is to spend a smidge of time addressing writing and Common Core State Standards.  And here it is: there will be writing.  In fact, there MUST be writing.

As a quick sidebar: I'm consistently astonished by the number of educators who spent a lot of time yapping about the Common Core State Standards and yet have never actually read them.  Please.  Let's talk about evidence-based argument and opinion.  Curious about the ELA standards?  Go here.

Check out page 7 of the ELA standards.  See?  Notes about reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language.  Fundamental literacy skills.  For anyone.  I know this isn't easy to read, so it might be better to go to the source anyway.  Hint, hint.  Look at that third paragraph that students are able to "respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose, and discipline."  That's the stuff of almost any writing class.

And I'm sure you can pick out the subheading that students can "comprehend as well as critique" and that students "value evidence."  This is good stuff.  Stuff that makes sense.

And now look at page 18: the anchor standards for writing.  Some of this could come from a college writing class syllabus.  There is nothing outrageous or unsettling here.  At least, it shouldn't be.

I could do a short history of writing instruction here, and might do so in another post, but the point is that people write all of the time.  Sometimes we write well; sometimes we write badly.  Most of us have no idea when or how to use an adverb; that is the stuff of a different blog, Writing Matters.  We know, however, that writing and writing well is important.  We also know the danger of the misunderstood email, the misintentioned email, the slip of the thumb of a text.

Writing is critical not only to K-12 education as a function of literacy and learning, but it is critical to success in college and success on multiple levels in the work place.

Writing instruction can be challenging, I won't deny that.  For the college writing professor, part of the challenge is that every other college professor believes that writing instruction is not part of his or her job.  That mindset is often prevalent in K-12 classrooms, but, the reality is--and the Common Core State Standards reinforce this--writing instruction is the responsibility of every classroom teacher because literacy is the responsibility of every classroom teacher.

Where to start?  Start with the anchor standards for writing  Then go check out the writing standards for K-5.  Even if you teach middle or high school, look at the K-5 writing standards.  That is the foundation of what kids will be learning and doing before they get to your classroom; those are the benchmarks for instruction and learning.  And then review the writing standards for 6-12.  Take your time.  Underline. Highlight.  Write questions in the margins.

Even if you're only worried about writing, go back and look at those reading standards.  In fact, print out the anchor standards for writing and the anchor standards for reading.  Analyze those texts.  Compare them.  Contrast them.  Think about what you see.  Think about what you already do in the classroom and what works.  Think about how you can build on those successes to help students continue to refine and improve their skills, their thinking, their literacy.

See?  That wasn't so hard.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Rigor and Relevance: The Stuff of Common Core

If you're in education, you've heard of the Common Core State Standards.  If this is new to you, well, wow! you had better get on board because this train is coming!

This blog will host a series of posts about Common Core.  Some by me; perhaps some by others I can recruit who know more than I do about Common Core. 

The conversation about Common Core isn't new.  There are rafts of blogs and articles about Common Core, so this is simply one more resource.  Perhaps I can provide some service by consolidating, analyzing, summarizing, and other Common Core-like activities.

Rigor and relevance.  These are two of the topics discussed almost any time someone mentions Common Core.  Why?  There are lots of statistics that point to why, but let's start with something more engaging.

So that's a perspective on rigor.  What does it mean?  It means that a lot of educators struggle to understand what rigor is and what it looks like in the classroom.  I like to ask teachers what they think teaching with rigor feels like, which puzzles them.  I want to know if they think "rigor" means "more strenuous."  Most educators know that rigor doesn't mean more pages, more work, or more problems, and most educators realize that rigor requires more complexity, more time, and more critical thinking.  What they don't know is how to make that happen.  Ahhh, that would be strategies and different ways of looking at instructional practice and different ways of thinking about student learning.

What about relevance?  Well, there are a couple of ways to look at relevance.  Let's start with another example that might be more engaging.

Now you may be wondering why I insisted on italicizing the word "engaging."  I did it because we use that word a lot and, as we learned in Princess Bride, we have to be sure the word means what we think it means.  We want students to be engaged in their learning, but just because a lesson seems interesting, even entertaining or just because students seem to be focused or busy doing something does not mean they are learning.

You might now be wondering what rigor and relevance actually are and how that might look in a classroom, what that experience might be or seem like from a teacher's perspective.  And that's what I hope to begin to pursue in the next blog post.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Teacher's Editions: The Dumbing Down of Educators (reprise)

Once upon a time, teachers were given a textbook, perhaps a few other resources including a grade book, and given the responsibility to determine how best to teach the content, in what order, with whatever resources, etc.  Some did excellent jobs; others were journeyman teachers who plodded through the textbook one chapter at a time and bored their students in the process.  I've heard stories of teachers who read the textbook to their students, which numbs my brain just thinking about it.

Over the years, reform-minded people, some of whom were even educators, came up with ideas for "improving teaching."  Some ideas were even reasonably useful.  And then one day, one bright star came up with the idea of the teacher's edition.  The textbook itself would be the student's edition, you know, the book the students used.  And the teacher's edition would be the student textbook but with the answers to the questions at the end of each chapter or at the back of the book, and pointers for teaching the content.  Eventually the teacher's edition included scripts so teachers would know what to say when.  The advantage, of course, is that it would be easy for substitute teachers, even if they were administrators, to teach on a day if a teacher had to be absent from school.

And then something strange happened.  Because teachers had that wonderful teacher's edition that told them what to say and when, that gave them the answers to the questions to the problems, that offered notes about how to teach the content, teachers just flat out forgot that they needed to know something about teaching to help their students learn.

So you see, you could walk into any classroom in America in which teachers clasped their teacher's editions as they prepared to teach and you could hear a Stepfordian presentation of, well, I'm not quite sure what.  The best way to describe might be the publisher's idea of how the content should be presented to students.  Presented, not taught.  And not provided in such a way that kids might actually learn.

Now we have teachers who might have no idea what to do when in their classrooms without a teacher's edition.

There are some who have broken free of the tyranny of the teacher's edition.  Long ago they managed to to release their grips on the book and realized, some even remembered, what it was like to actually know the content they were expected to teach, and they remembered what it felt like to help a student through productive struggle and exert themselves in the process of learning through discovery.  And they realized it was pretty darned fun, and that kids actually learned.

The Common Core State Standards will make it hard for teachers to use a teacher's edition.  Really hard.  And I celebrate that.  Teachers are waking up to a new and somewhat terrifying morning when they have not only responsibility for teaching, but the freedom to teach in ways that makes sense for their students.

It is my hope we will see the eventual eradication of the teacher's edition and it is my belief that then we will begin to see a reversal of the dumbing down of our educators.  When that happens I believe we can be more hopeful about the educating up of our students.