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.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/gforsythe/42907807575
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

Monday, February 12, 2018

About That Instructional Coach

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about coaching and how a good instructional coach can make a difference for teachers and administrators. It's entirely possible you agree with that but aren't too sure what to do next or that you've had an experience with an instructional coach that wasn't all that positive but your gut tells you to rethink this proposition. Whatever brings you here. let's talk about instructional coaching.

You'd think most folks would understand instructional coaching--what it is and what a good instructional coach can accomplish. Experience tells me that's not the case.

The wonderful image to the left explains a lot of what instructional coaching is all about and one of the most important elements is non-evaluative feedback. One hopes it's on a regular basis, but that can be a challenge. But let me back up a bit.

In 2015, the incomparable Jennifer Gonzalez wrote about being an instructional coach. As she points out, there are reading coaches, math coaches, literacy coaches, and technology coaches. Then there are those of us who are generalists who can and do work with classroom teachers across grade ranges and content areas. My work is about pedagogy and, where it makes sense, an effective integration of technology. Gonzalez interviewed others to get their perspectives on coaching and reports what Elena Aguilar told us in The Art of Coaching: work on the relationship AND listen more than you speak.

I know the teachers with whom I work have expertise and experience. I cannot underestimate that. My job isn't to tell them how to teach; my job is to help them gain perspective on themselves and their students so they can maximize their skills and abilities in the classroom. My job is to help teachers figure out ways to help their students use their natural curiosity to learn how to learn.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron found herself making the transition from classroom teacher to instructional coach, and once that role became a full-time one, she notes she was able to mold the position to meet the needs of her site and her teachers. It's no surprise that the first function she lists is that of mentor. Again, listen more than you speak as you build that relationship. I find the teachers with whom I work often need me to help them filter the thousand-and-one things flying through their heads, and to help them brainstorm and to focus on ideas that they can make work. Unlike Ms. Wolpert-Gawron, I'm not permanently located in a district so my teachers see me once or twice a month. And though I'm available electronically, we make much more use of our face-to-face time.

One of the other roles listed by Ms. Wolpert-Gawron is that of professional development coordinator. When an instructional coach is really listening to a teacher, the coach can calibrate the professional development to meet the needs of a group of teachers or as many teachers as possible. Though we know one-size-fits-all is not ideal, our only option is often meeting with all faculty. So one of the things we need to be able to do is speak generally but engage specifically. In a word, differentiate.

What else do instructional coaches do? Again, Ms. Wolpert-Gawron is spot on: research, curate, and publicize. Most of the districts with which I work have created an email account for me so we can create an internal Google Classroom so I can share resources with teachers. And I can model how to organize and use Google Classroom at the same time! I use Edmodo for another district because that's what we started with three years ago.

I very deliberately called my company p20partners. My original goal was to work with teachers PreK through university level. I've been privileged to work with educators at the PreK through 12 levels, but still trying to break through that resistance at the university level. That's actually irrelevant because the most important part of my company name is "partners." I can't and won't tell a teacher how to do his or her job. I don't know their kids as well as they do and a few observations here or there doesn't give me deep insight into how they teach. HOWEVER, what I do know is that the teachers and administrators with whom I get to work count on me to help them think through their challenges, to come up with tools and resources to help them maximize their time with their students, to be available when they have questions or want to share out ideas via email or text, and to support them through their learning curves without judgment. And when they let me show their kids some new tools and resources to help students and teachers get a sense of the value of that tool or resource, that's just extra chocolate syrup on top for me.

Not too long ago I did a PD session with a group of teachers and we talked for quite a while about the 6 Qs: IQ, EQ, PQ, CQ, CRQ, and IMQ. The 6 Qs have a logical place in the corporate space, but it was clear that the teachers were quite thoughtful about the implications of these Qs not only for them, but for their students. They were particularly interested in the passion quotient and the courage quotient because they struggle with kids who aren't willing to persevere and they wondered if it's because they don't have the courage to fail. Teachers talked much longer than I expected; it was rich and so insightful for me. In fact, that conversation went so well, I'm planning to introduce some administrators to the concepts to see what they think and how the 6 Qs might influence how they interact with their teacher leaders.

I think a key role of an instructional coach is learner. When I have a teacher ask me about something and I get to scurry around the internet looking for resources or crowdsourcing colleagues to see what they know or have used. And then I get to play to figure out what might be best for that teacher and those students. But then I get to share that learning with others who may not even know that's a question they wanted to ask.

Whenever I learn something new, I get to think about "my" teachers and who might find what the most useful. I share with everyone, but I might send a separate note to a specific teacher because I want them to remember that even though I'm not always with them, I'm usually thinking about them and I want their very best for their students.

I always tell my teachers that our time together is not my time, but theirs: it's for their learning and growth, it's for their support and encouragement, it's for them to let me partner with them to help find some solutions or help them think through tools and resources that will meet a learning objective or help their students stretch.

Peg Grafwallner, writing for Edutopia, underscored how often the instructional coach provides that opportunity for processing. Just recently I was reminded of the one-legged interview, one of those strategies I'd forgotten--which reminded me of the conversations I often have with teachers who have forgotten effective strategies they used to use because their immediacy was crowded with all the new stuff. So the one-legged interview is called that because the conversations should last as long as you can stand on one leg. The questions are designed to invite teachers to process or to reflect. Non-judgmental; non-evaluative. A short conversation that may remind me of something or spark something for the teacher or lead to a longer conversation that invites more processing and reflection, more opportunities for me to rummage around the internet and find cool stuff.

So when you're thinking about hiring an instructional coach, either full-time or as a consultant, keep these roles in mind: mentor, listener, encourager, researcher, curator, disseminator, PD coordinator/collaborator, partner, and learner. Your teachers will thank you.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Personalized Learning: More than Student Choice?

Before we can assess how well it is working and what changes, if any, need to be made, we have to know what it is. In this case, the “it” is personalized learning and personalized learning has caused educator quite a bit of agita over the years.

In October 2014, Sean Cavanaugh of Education Week attempted to provide some discernment in his article “What is ‘Personalized Learning’? Educators Seek Clarity.” For many, technology provides the fulcrum for personalized learning. Eliot Soloway was quoted as saying “Many technology-based approaches to personalized learning amount to nothing more than tailoring or personalizing the reading of texts to students of different abilities—rather than personalizing a mix of activities that give students a richer and more meaningful educational experience.”

Teachers are often asking about different reading levels or lexile levels. As Soloway notes, they want different kinds of texts for different reading abilities. Teachers seem to conflate differentiation with personalization but that may also be because personalization seems too daunting. So rather than ask what personalized learning is, perhaps the better question is “What is personalized learning supposed to be?”, or, even better, “What could personalized learning be for students and their learning?”.

In 2017, Audrey Watters, she of Hack Education who likes to rattle comfortable ways of thinking, presented at an OEB Midsummit in Iceland and said, among other things, “But I contend you cannot analyze digital technologies and the business and politics of networks and computers without discussing how deeply embedded they are in what I’ve called the “Silicon Valley narrative” and in what others have labeled the “California ideology” – and that’s an ideology that draws heavily on radical individualism and on libertarianism.”

She has a point. Let’s look at who is investing millions of dollars into personalized learning: Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Why? Well, because they can, of course. The more suspicious of us would see marketing opportunities behind the alleged philanthropy. On the other hand, we know that online organizations want access to a lot of our information and they already gather beaucoup amounts of information through every transaction and every click online. Why? In theory so they personalize the ads we’re shown. And they do. It’s eerie, and a trifle annoying. (“Stop showing me ads for stuff I’ve already bought!” I tend to shout at my laptop, when I actually pay attention to the ads, which I rarely do.) Anyway, we can see the direction in which personalization is heading and has been heading, since back in the day when Burger King first started telling us in 1974 that we could have it our way.

Cavanaugh reported that Andrew Calkins, then deputy director of the Next Generation Learning Challenges, asserted that “[t]rue personalized learning calls for a ‘rethinking and redesign’ of schools, which could require them to overhaul classroom structures and schedules, curricula, and the instructional approaches of teachers.” We all know the on-going argument that teachers’ roles much change so they are “more like those of coaches or facilitators than ‘content providers.’” We also know the practical complexities of that model, especially for younger grades.

What we do know is that software is only one component of providing students with a possible pathway for personalized learning. But there is more to consider.

We also know that teachers and administrators still struggle to understand what personalized learning is or can be. Too many think it requires individualized lesson plans or requires 1:1 access for students. Kenya Ransey observes that ‘[l]earning is the primary focus, and technology can be along for the ride—or not. What does it look like when technology is not at the center of a personalized learning experience?” She also asserts that “it’s critical that we realize that once we all consolidate around a standardized definition, it will no longer be personal.” I’m not sure I agree with that, but I’m not yet sure why.

There are certainly plenty of educators who are not fans of personalized learning. Most of that resistance seems to be based on a lack of understanding of what it is and can be; that is, a lack of a concrete definition and clarity of expected outcomes. However, plenty of educators echo Audrey Watters’ concern that it’s simply an opportunity for large organizations to gather information about users for their own capitalistic purposes. Well, there is that and, let’s face it, every edtech organization wants to gather data on students for a range of reasons.

Robyn Howton is one of those teachers who crashed and burned a few times on her way to implementing personalized learning in her classroom. She did research, tried and failed a few times, made adjustments, and kept going. In her ISTE article, she refers to the Rodel Teacher Council Blueprint for Personalized Learning in Delaware as a resource. At the time she worked without 1:1 in her classrooms and realized that she made some errant choices about which technology to use when. Howton had some great a-ha moments when she analyzed her lessons and realized when and how she might have used technology more effectively which helped her determine which tools to use. (She refers to some great tools, too!)

One of Howton’s most important lessons was to give her students choice: “Class often starts with a mini-lesson, which then flows into students making choices about what they need to do next to meet specific learning targets aligned to the standards.

Writing for the Christensen Institute, Elizabeth Anthony notes “the magic of blended learning lies in the instructor’s ability to leverage technology to personalize learning rather than the mere use of certain software programs. A classroom can incorporate technology without actually changing the classroom model and the way students learn.”

What is interesting to me is how often blended learning is mentioned in connection with personalized learning and how occasionally there is reference to competency-based learning in conjunction with personalized learning. We have a lot of trends in education and that causes much of the confusion. Can you implement personalized learning without blended learning? Is competency-based learning an option in personalized learning? Should we be implementing competency-based learning instead of personalized learning?

But wait. This is about personalized learning and trying to figure out what that is and what it means. I don’t mean to oversimplify but I think Robyn Howton found an important key: student choice. Every teacher has objectives or learning outcomes for every lesson. The question to be asked is whether or not students have to demonstrate their learning in the same exact way and if they have to follow the same exact path to get there? If not, students have choice.

I think another challenge is that teachers think personalized learning, like blended learning, needs to be something they do every day for every lesson. That doesn’t make sense. Younger students won’t have the learning tools yet and some high school students may lack the maturity to make good decisions. And not every teacher can implement personalized learning in the exact same way every year. In fact, for middle and high school teachers, they may not implement personalized learning in the exact same way in every class.

I also think personalized learning is an aspiration for some teachers and they cannot be expected to make that transition overnight. That’s one of the reasons I appreciate Howton’s article and her reflection on her transition to blended and personalized learning. In fact, I think she offers something of a template for teachers interested in trying to implement personalized learning in their classrooms.

Teachers should start small, with one lesson. It’s not just teachers who have to learn how to conduct a class using personalized learning. Students will need to be taught to think differently about their learning and trust that it’s okay for them to have choice.

No one should expect dramatic changes overnight. It will take time and patience. And it will have to be okay to blow it every now and then, and then learn from the experience and what students can report from their perspectives. After all, it is about the students and their learning and what makes the most sense for them to be successful.


References
Cavanaugh, Sean. (2014). What is “Personalized Learning”? Educators Seek Clarity. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/10/22/09pl-overview.h34.html?r=2043444587

Christensen Institute (2018). Squaring Personalization and Digitization in 2018. https://www.christenseninstitute.org/blog/squaring-personalization-digitization-2018/. Guest blogger Elizabeth Anthony.
Herald, Benjamin. (2017). The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/11/08/the-cases-against-personalized-learning.html

Howton, Robyn. (2017). Turn Your Classroom into a Personalized Learning Environment. https://www.iste.org/explore/articleDetail?articleid=416


Ransey, Kenya. (2017). What personalized learning is not. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2017-09-01-what-personalized-learning-is-not

Watters, Audrey. (2017). The Histories of Personalized Learning. http://hackeducation.com/2017/06/09/personalization



Monday, August 21, 2017

The Ladder of Inference & Instructional Support

The Ladder of Inference reminds us that we too often fail to reflect on what we observe and what we infer from those observations. We are often unaware that we are too selective of the data we choose to observe or we simply don’t consider any data other than that which we have immediately or presently observed, so that data may be completely out of context. The Ladder of Inference is used a lot in business but also has application in instructional support and coaching as well as other areas of education.
Systems Thinker
It’s important to note that traversing the ladder of inference takes moments so being aware of how fast and how easy it is to move from the bottom rung to the top is important so that we slow down to assess and reflect. That way there is far less risk of any kind of injury.

Available data
As a coach, I have to take into consideration what I observe and experience. Just as the teacher can’t watch all of the students all of the time, neither can I so I have to be careful to sweep the room to try to see what the majority of students are doing. I also need to refrain from making any inferences or passing any judgment until I talk to the teacher and, even better, talk to the kids. Even then, as I’m gathering data from the kids, I have to be careful not to ask leading questions but general questions to get learning context and perceptions from them.

Select data
As a coach, I have to be careful about selecting data. I try to take notes on everything I see and hear, which is another reason I take pictures and video, and another reason I try to be with a teacher from the beginning of the class through to the end of class. When I select data, then, I try to select that which reflects a majority or close to a majority of the students but I might also select something that I was a superb teaching moment or one during which the teacher faltered and struggled to get back on track. Or all of the above because throughout a class period, there are always good moments and not-so-good, even bad, moments.

Paraphrase the data
At this moment in time, I have to pause to think about how I’m filtering what I see and hear. Did I come in with preconceived notions or specific expectations? Do I have some sort of bias about this teacher and, if so, what is it? How do my filters and other white noise influence what I see, hear, and select to discuss with this teacher? This is not about me, but about this teacher and the impact this teacher has on these students.

Name what’s happening
I have to be honest with myself about what I’m characterizing and how, the assumptions I made about this teacher and this teaching, the assumptions I made about the students and their experiences. I have to be crystal clear with myself so I can remove the detritus of my assumptions and filters.

Explain and evaluate what’s happening
Am I making excuses for me? For the teacher? For the students? Am I clarifying the data for the benefit of the teacher? For the benefit of the students? Or am I mentally trying to sabotage something? Is it possible I’m drawing conclusions based on past experience or what I’ve heard from others? Is it possible I’m not giving this teacher the benefit of the doubt because I’ve seen similar behavior and actions in the past?

Decide what to do
This is pretty clear. Once I’ve climbed thoughtfully up the rungs of this ladder, I can make a decision about what to do. I can revisit the data now that I’ve clarified my motives, questions, assumptions, perceptions, expectations, and anything else so that I can have an honest conversation with this teacher.

I can also frame my questions and my observations in ways that are helpful in moving a conversation about this teacher’s growth and success.

Adapted from https://thesystemsthinker.com/the-ladder-of-inference/


Additional resources


Monday, August 14, 2017

For Those Early Finishers, The Power of "What If. . . ? and Other Ideas

Educators talk about them all the time and fret about them nearly as often: what to do with those students who finish their work early.

The TeachThought team came up with 27 ideas and I thought I'd amplify that a bit, but first a bit of time travel to the past.

In the 1950s, a man by the name of Donald H. Parker began the work that became the SRA Reading Laboratory. I'm old enough to remember that self-paced reading program and I remember racing through the readings and the tests that accompanied each reading to get to the next level faster than anyone else.

When I saw the Level-Up suggestion from the TeachThought team, I immediately thought of SRA and that meant I had to do some research. McGraw-Hill is no longer updating SRA, but with a bit more diligence I found a history of the reading laboratory.

The first several pages are fascinating reading but then you must get to the page that Audrey Watters quotes in her 2015 blog post about SRA cards:
Parker went on to state, "To give students still more responsibility for their own learning, I had each one keep a chart of his or her daily progress. When the chart showed that the student was maintaining high comprehension, vocabulary, and word-analysis scores, it was time to move up to a higher color-level."

He further notes that they spent a week learning the system they devised because he gave credit to the thirty-two students who helped him figure it out.

So when you think about planning level-up activities, think first about implementing some sort of a learning portfolio system so students can track their learning and then give them the opportunity to design their own level-up activities.

Some of the TeachThought suggestions are fairly rudimentary and, depending on your students, might work really well. Number 18 is "Beads: Allow students to bead something." I confess that I was dismissive when I first read that, but, as so often the case, I saw it a bit differently when I came back to it to try to figure out why it was included. And then I thought about creating patterns and inviting students to bead those patterns. Or having students create patterns and beading those. Or developing some sort of a class programming language and having students use beads to "write" simple programs. Or. . .  the ideas kept flowing and they will for you as well. Just keep it simple or you'll make yourself crazy trying to gather all of the materials students might need.

Oh, by the way, the class programming language? Personally I think that's pretty genius and in my next blog I'll have some more specific ideas about that. This blog post already has enough rabbit trails.

The TeachThought team had some other ideas related to chatting, texting, reading jokes, journaling, or troubleshooting. The chatting corner leads to too much noise simply because kids are kids. Texting could be a problem because of school or district policy. Reading jokes could lead to noise as could designing a game. Journaling is a good idea but kids will want ideas for a journaling topic. Troubleshooting and planning for a new level could also be good ideas though kids will need and want more direction. So let's say the noise issue isn't an issue; there are ways to manage that anyway.

For example, one of "my" teachers has a counter bell in her room. When some students are still working and the chatter volume gets a little too loud, she taps the bell and the volume falls immediately. That's all she does: reach out and tap the bell. Now she had to train her kids to respond to that bell, but she told me it didn't take long for her 4th graders to learn that responding positively to the bell had positive results for them.

Maybe you have an erasable board on which students are able to keep a list of topics in which they're interested. Maybe it's something they pull from newsela (Gr 2-12), Student News Daily, PBS Newshour Extra (Gr 7-12),  CNN Student News (Gr 6-12), and others.

The students can use that board as idea starters for writing jokes, writing stories, designing games, etc. Or, if they want to chat but you're worried about noise, have them table top text. This is a strategy I learned through Discovery Education. One student writes on one side of the paper and the other student writes on the other. They can use different colors of ink. They can pose and answer questions. And, hmmm, it's possible that their table top texting could become the basis of an interview for a PSA or the PSA itself, or a script for a readers theater, or. . . .

Letting early finishers try something in which they're interested and covertly using strategies that might help them learn something they don't realize they're learning can most definitely lead to something powerful, profound, and positive.

By the way, though the SRA Reading Laboratory became something that educators seem no longer interested in buying, you have to admit that there is something to the basic premise. And maybe, just maybe, your students can use the basic idea to create something for themselves, their classmates, or maybe their younger siblings. You just never know what might happen when you let them pose and try to answer, "What if. . . ?".

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Teachers Who Saved Us

I was one of several consultants conducting district workshops on a Saturday; I was with a group of teachers who weren't very happy to be there. Maybe because it was a Saturday; maybe because the topic was something with which they already felt somewhat familiar.
I just wrote about Angela Duckworth's research on grit and some of the responses to her research and her book. I'm not alone in finding this a topic worth discussing. Well on this particular Saturday, one of the videos in the deck was Duckworth's TED Talk. I had to be a bit gritty to show the video to that particular group of predominantly African American teachers whose students often arrive at school hungry and whose lives outside of school are, at the very least, difficult.
Yesterday I read a story about a New York principal who showed some grit when she was inspired by one of her own students. The New York Post article is here, but you can also find two 2015 versions of the story by The Atlantic and by PBS. Let me tell you: that's one amazing woman, and she has grit. Yes, she has talent, but there is one line in The Atlantic video that made me catch my breath. "I tell my teachers all the time that we are chosen to be here because we're supposed to transform a community that doesn't believe in themselves."
To do that work day in and day out, especially without the spotlight of television cameras or the attention of journalists and daytime talk show hosts, requires grit. But here's a bit that's lost in the story about Ms. Lopez: Vidal Chastanet. Yes, that student got a scholarship, but that might not have happened were it not for the chance encounter that prompted him to answer a question about who has influenced him the most. As Ms. Lopez says in The Atlantic video, Vidal could have named a family member, but he chose to name his principal.
When I was meeting with those teachers on that Saturday, and we were talking about grit, about helping kids become #futureready, about how important yet hard it is to create a safe space for kids knowing the situations from which many of them come and to which many of them return. We know we can't do much for them outside of the time they are in our care, but during that time. . . 
And so we talked about the teachers who saved us and how rare it is that those teachers ever know. An astonishing number of us grew up in abusive households. Many students survive varying levels of poverty, chronically difficult family situations, and more. Those of us who manage to get through school, even go to college and carry on to have reasonably productive lives can probably point to an educator and say, "That teacher saved my life."
In my case, there were a few teachers. Miss Gibson, my 4th grade teacher, who took no nonsense and insisted we take care of our things, but had a heart-gripping compassionate side to her. I remember the day she came to my house after I'd gotten sick. I distinctly remember being awed that she would bother to do that for someone like me. Then in 7th grade it was Mrs. Moen whose influence continued into 8th grade. In high school, probably when I needed them the most, again, it was Mrs. Hawkins and Mrs. Gamble. They each invested in me in different ways, but they invested in me and clearly believed in me when I did not or could not. My life out of the classroom didn't enter into anything because the classroom was the only space they could influence. And they did so by insisting I be my best self, and then helping me, in ways they cannot imagine, to become my best self.
Here's an example. Mrs. Hawkins, one of my English teachers, returned a paper to me. She put it on the desk and tapped it with her finger as she looked at me until I looked her in the eye. Then all she said was this: "I know you can do better than this."
Daniel Engber of Slate titled his review of Duckworth's book "Is 'Grit' Really the Key to Success?" I was intrigued by Engber's closing remarks as well as his initial question.
In education we talk a lot about student success, but we are terrifically inconsistent when it comes to offering any clarity about what we mean by "success." Grades? Proficiency or mastery of the standards? Creativity? Collaboration? Critical thinking? Problem solving? What if I'm a student with loads of creativity, can demonstrate mad problem solving and critical thinking skills but barely push past a C. Am I successful?
Duckworth offers some steps for exhibiting grit successfully, and it is these to which Engber alludes in his closing sentences: "If you want to win forever on the football field, or join the military, or write a book about a big idea, then it might be best to stay on target, compete in everything, and finish strong. But others find their path through mindful wavering and steer away from simple answers." Sweet bit of snark in that last phrase, by the way.
So here is my big takeaway from Duckworth's TED talk: "Failure is not a permanent condition." Sure, I got a D in Foundations of Math I in college and I got that D because, once again, a teacher invested in me and coached and coaxed me across that finish line. I was never so proud of a grade because yes, I stayed focused and finished strong, so I did well enough to pull my grade up to a D. What's so amusing is that many years later I taught math. Because I am a reformed mathphobe and because I'd done poorly in college (and high school) math, I understood my students' anxiety.
Teachers saved me. In every sense of the word. And they saved me because they believed in me, because they saw something I couldn't, because they would not let me quit. Because they coaxed, encouraged, and sometimes even badgered me into keep trying and to try harder. They willed me to be gritty. 
I learned valuable lessons from those teachers, the least of which is the importance of not giving up and that failure is not a permanent condition. Was I successful with that D in college math? You bet I was.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Focus. I can. . . squirrel!

They call it multitasking. It isn't. It's being distracted.

A lot of us joke about. . .squirrel! It's funny, but not really. We all suffer from it. We're Pavlovian in our response to the ding, chirp, or ring tone that signals a new message. It could be important and I have to know NOW.

When I'm trying to focus, to really dig in and get work done, I turn off any chimes, dings, whooshes, chirps, or other noises that will notify me of some message. . . on Facebook, on Skype, on LinkedIn, on email, on Twitter, on anything. I must disconnect to focus.
Important research compiled on the effects of students multitasking while learning shows that they are losing depth of learning, getting mentally fatigued, and are weakening their ability to transfer what they have learned to other subjects and situations.
In that same article (May 2013), educators recognized the double-edged sword of technology in the classroom. It's a useful tool, but it's a distraction. But one teacher also acknowledged that it's likely "that many students aren't being challenged and engaged enough to stimulate their brains in class." She wonders what would happen if teachers were "given more leeway at all levels. . . to teach important concepts in-depth, students would find the learning we are doing more intriguing and would be less likely to head to Facebook for a distraction."

She raises a good point. And the teacher who wants her students to boldly take risks without technology underestimates, I think, the importance of students knowing how to use their technology most effectively as they take those risks. Let's face, the Internet makes one heckuva discovery tool.

But the concern for learning to focus is, as noted in this article, "Age of Distraction: Why It's Crucial for Students to Learn to Focus," well, crucial.
The real message is because attention is under siege more than it has ever been in human history, we have more distractions than ever before, we have to be more focused on cultivating the skills of attention,” said Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and other books about social and emotional learning on KQED’s Forum program.
There are two things in this article that seem particularly alarming. First, the relationship between concentration and empathy. “'The circuitry for paying attention is identical for the circuits for managing distressing emotion,' Goleman said. . .This is also the part of the brain that allows people to control themselves, to keep emotions in check and to feel empathy for other people." I can infer that those who have little ability to focus will have little ability to manage their emotions and to feel empathy for others. The consequences of that are stupendous.

Dr. Goleman goes on to say that the ability to focus "is more important than IQ or the socio-economic status of the family you grew up in for determining career success, financial success and health” and teachers observe that "students are unable to comprehend the same texts that generations of students that came before them could master without problems." Now, some of that student comprehension could be the students, could be the materials, and could be the teaching and/or the teacher. But, for the sake of argument, let's say it's true that students have more difficulty comprehending texts and partially because they struggle to focus.

The implications for teachers and education are profound; the implications for our future is even more profound.