Sunday, December 8, 2013

Common Core Scripted? Yea, not so much

Oh. My. I should say I don't watch Fox News, but I can't ignore it completely because much of what they purport to be news gets far too much attention. A recent article states that teachers are complaining that Common Common lessons are basically scripts.

Let me take you to school on scripted lessons and "teaching to the test." As I've said before, this is nothing new. In fact, scripted lessons date back as far as 1888. Yep, 1888.

Then in the 1960s Siegfried Engelmann and Carl Bereiter developed the direct instruction method of teaching reading to raise the academic success of inner city children. And it was considered scripted.

There are other programs known to be scripted, including Success for All, Open Court, and others. Want more information on that? You might read Is Your Child Being Taught From a Script or Do Scripted Lessons Work--Or Not?

NCLB prompted a rash of scripted programs. Textbook publishers spent millions publishing teacher's educations of textbooks, which were basically scripts for teaching.

The FACT is that scripted education has been around for over 100 years. You can find more information about scripted education here.

So the educators who are complaining about Common Core taking the joy out of teaching, about not being able to be creative, about having to follow pacing guides, about having fewer choices about resources are probably really complaining about the way their administrators have implemented whatever program or curriculum is being used. Could be Common Core, but it could be anything.

Common Core is not yet an optimal solution. It takes time for any kind of reform to be effective.

What we're learning is that there are many educators who do not know how to teach without a script or without a teacher's edition. That should be far scarier to parents.

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.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

School relevance for the digitally distracted

Howard Gardner, father of multiple intelligences, has written a book with Katie Davis: The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World. And The New York Times recently published a review of said book.

I haven't read the book so I'm not reviewing that, but the review did cause me to think a bit about this digital generation and about the need for digital connectedness. As is the case with so many things, concern about digital distraction is not new.

When I was at the movies the other night, I wasn't really surprised by how quickly those little screens started glowing as people raced to see what they had missed, perhaps to tweet some thoughts about the film. It's hard to know.

When I travel, I'm annoyed by the people who walk through the airports with their eyes glued to their smartphones. I actually laughed out loud when two business people crashed into each other because they'd been looking down at their devices. First they looked anger, and then they were abashed. After awkward apologies, they went on their ways. Only a few steps later, eyes back down. Lesson clearly not learned.

Don't get me wrong. I love technology. New stuff comes out and I start to salivate figuring out if I really need it or just want it. It's usually the latter. Any technology comes with impacts and consequences, many of which we cannot possibly be aware because people are constantly surprising inventors by the way they choose to use a product.

Part of the review reads
How is school still relevant, the young man wondered, when we have devices and search engines at the ready with knowledge and information? If the challenge seemed cocky, beneath it lay a very pertinent question about the ways in which traditional education may need to evolve to keep up with a changing world. But instead of engaging in a potentially fascinating discussion about the philosophy of knowledge and what we truly need to learn to succeed, Gardner shut the kid down by telling him phones contain answers to all the questions “except the important ones.” 
I appreciate the student's question: how is school still relevant? What kids need to learn and continue to learn is that it's not just about the information and that knowledge doesn't come from looking something up on the Internet.

School can be relevant only if teachers--at all levels and in all content areas--are teaching students how to make use of that information, how to assess the veracity and quality of it, how to choose which information is the best information out of all the possible resources available, and more. That all of that work is when learning, practice, and discovery become knowledge.

School can continue to be relevant as students continue to learn what it really means to be a lifelong learner, and that it's more than just having access to information. That knowledge isn't what one looks up, but what one acquires over time as a result of a wide range of experiences, including school.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Serendipity of Learning

I wish I could take credit for this title, but I've swiped it quite boldly from the title of an article of the same title. As I noted when I scooped the article, I love the idea of serendipitous learning.

I came back to this article and this idea with a bit of wistfulness. For the past several months, I've had the privilege of working with educators who are implementing Common Core. Various approaches, various interpretations, various degrees of success. In fact, because of much of the conversation prompted by Common Core, I'm going to begin my own series on Common Core. Stay tuned for that.

One of the topics in the Common Core discussions is "productive struggle." Now I have to say that this is not a new idea. Richard Allington, a long-time educational leader with an emphasis in reading instruction, wrote in You Can't Learn Much from Books You Can't Read (2002) about struggling readers, mismatched textbooks, and encouraging students to struggle but not become frustrated. He repeated and elaborated on some of those ideas in Doing Right by Struggling Readers (2013). Perhaps we haven't always called it "productive struggle," but good teachers have always encouraged students to work beyond their perceived limits.

When I was a kid, I'd ask my mom how to spell a word or what it meant. Her response, "Look it up." Didn't seem to matter if I had no idea how to spell the word. And I remember sitting on the floor with that big dictionary on my lap getting lost in the words. Fast forward to high school and I remember sitting at my desk with the dictionary, just thumbing through it. I'd completely forgotten what I'd meant to look up.

Serendipitous learning. In my mind, learning that occurs unexpectedly in the midst of purposeful learning and which, one might hope, causes a tug of excitement in the student who just learned something through a brief foray down a rabbit trail or by feeling safe enough and encouraged enough to ask one of those potentially weird (aka open-ended, higher-order thinking) questions to which no one in the room knows the answer, but which the student is encouraged to explore. "I don't know, but that's an interesting question. Let's take about 5 minutes to see what we might discover. Maybe we'll see how that adds to what we're trying to learn today."

Right then. Discovery. Collaborating during the excavation and then finding even more unexpected connections. . .that the students make and to which the teacher might contribute.

Yes, the teacher is keeping a watchful eye on the clock and the day's learning objectives but immediately recognizes that this occasional expeditions of learning make some of the more commonplace experiences look, feel, and sound different. Maybe even better.

Yea, come on kids of all ages. Let's do some serendipitous discovery learning today.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Seeking Genius

My social media colleagues Angela Maiers and Mark Moran started an organization and movement, Choose2Matter.

I've long admired Mark Moran and his work with Finding Dulcinea. Seriously, you need to check out that site. It's one of my favorite resources to share and I've been more evangelistic about it in the past several weeks. Educators looking for well-curated and student-safe resources must use this resource. I'm thrilled that Angela Maiers has recently agreed to be a keynote speaker for the June National Conference on College & Career Readiness.

Anyway, because of their work with Choose2Matter, this idea of everyone being a genius has been rumbling around in my brain. Most of us think of "genius" in terms of intellectual prowess. The definition reinforces that thinking, and with good reason. But look at the second definition: "A strong natural talent, aptitude, or inclination."

If we acknowledge that as a reasonable definition and if we acknowledge that every individual has potential and possibilities, that every individual should be given the opportunity to discover our passions, that every individual should be enabled to discover the essence that defines who he or she is.

There are numerous stories of individuals who started marching down one path for very legitimate reasons, but then arrived at a crossroads or a moment of epiphany and started dancing down another path, the right path, the better path.

So many circumstances often prevent or district us from doing what we love, from what we believe can enable us to make a difference in this world. When we are enabled to do even a little of what drives us, when we have a glimpse of the possibilities of that path, we need to seize on those moments.

And when we see others who are struggling to find that equilibrium or seem to have lost sight of it, we should encourage them to discover and do their best to pursue that which enables them to be their very best selves.

By the way, that's what teachers often do. Every. Single. Day.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Life is not a standardized test

"We are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you-- the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do. They do not know that many of you speak two languages. They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day. They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play or participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school. They do not know that you have traveled to a really neat place or that you know how to tell a great story or that you really love spending time with special family members and friends. They do not know that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try, every day, to be your very best... the scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. There are many ways of being smart."

This was the letter a new elementary school principal shared with his teachers.

Standardized tests have become a means to an end. As is the case with any test, the results are only as good as the test itself.

When I was in high school, my then best friend was in National Honor Society and worked hard; she actually studied. I didn't. I had my reasons including working at least part-time jobs mostly to stay out of the house, but that's a different post for a different blog. But I made perfectly acceptable grades without a great deal of effort and so I didn't really see the point of making much effort. In our senior year, we all took the statement placement test. Within a week or so of that test, another friend of mine took the ACT and the SAT on the same Saturday. After spending quite a bit of time the night before on the roof of her house having beverages for which we were too young and smoking cigarettes. On all of my standardized tests, I usually scored in the 90th percentile for anything related to English, language, or reading. I usually scored in the 70th percentile for anything else. My ACT score was good enough to mitigate my grades and warrant a partial academic scholarship to a major university. 

My point? Taking a standardized test is an art form. There are so many factors that come into play with how a test is scored and even more so with a bubble test because right answers can be scored wrong if the student doesn't complete the bubble with some exactitude. But standardized tests are high-stakes, pressurized multiple choice tests. Every student has a 25% chance of getting an answer right and a 75% chance of getting an answer wrong. And some questions are harder to answer because the descriptors aren't very good or the question isn't very clear or the realistic answer isn't one of the choices.

But here's one of the main reasons standardized tests are ludicrous to measure what students know, what students can do at the moment, and what students might be capable of doing: life is not a standardized test. There is absolutely not one iota of authenticity in a standardized test.

Will other exams be more complex (read: more expensive) to grade? Yes, but there are ways to manage that. And one is to reduce the number of standardized tests we give kids. Another is to trust our teachers and to make sure they get the professional development they need to continue to learn how to do their jobs well.

BTW, if you Google "life is not a multiple choice test," you'll get an amazing number of hits. Why oh why oh why or oh why do so-called education reformers not listen to educators? If I were a conspiracy theorist, I'd wager the assessment companies have something to do that. And so it goes.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Importance of Independent Reading

Kids need to read independently. Period.

What is independent reading? Kids choose their own reading materials and sits down where and when they want to read for as long as they want to read. No one checks for comprehension or for understanding. That simple: kids + reading material = independent reading.

What does it matter? First, when kids read what they want to read, they are more likely to enjoy reading. Second, kids actually continue to learn when they read independently. Research shows students who read independently increase vocabulary and become better readers.

Here's some data on that learning that can happen when kids read on their own.
  • Students who read less than 15 minutes a day are exposed to about 1 million words 
  • Students who read about 65 minutes a day are exposed to about 4 million words
We also know that students who read more and who are exposed to more words score better on standardized tests.

So how do you get kids to read voluntarily and independently? There are a number of ways. You can take them to the public library and let them wander around the children's section to find books that look interesting to them. Don't worry if the books seem "too hard" or "too easy." Kids will gravitate to want they want to read and what they are able to read. They may surprise you.

You can go to the bookstore and let them wander around the children's section to find books that look interesting to them. Again, don't worry if it looks too hard or too easy.

And don't forget the magazine section of the library or the bookstore.

Introduce them to books that you liked as a child and find just 15 minutes to read to them. When they discover what kind of books you liked or like, that may generate new or different interests.

As you learn what your kids are interested in--baseball, dance, art, music, origami, whatever--see what books you can find on the subject. Yep, at the library. Or at the school library. They can request interlibrary loans from other libraries if they don't have the books on the shelves, and that can be pretty exciting.

As you and your kids get more comfortable identifying books or magazines they like to read, you may be more inclined to help them buy and download online books.

Keep this in mind. There is plenty of academic research that reminds us that children as young as two and three years old can identify signs, labels, and brand logos. Associating words is a reasonably next step. So exhausting as it might be to constantly respond with words with that small person points, do it anyway. You are exposing your child to words and context and abstract and concrete things, and helping them differentiate and develop in wonderfully remarkable ways.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Close reading, sure, but how?

There are many ways to do a close reading, but it helps to have the overall routine to make decisions about how best to implement a close reading for a particular lesson.

An offering of a teacher's routine is offered by the Arizona Department of Education. Here's another from Davis School District in Utah. And another from Glencoe McGraw Hill. There are many others, but these offer a reasonably good place to start.

Let me say that the word "routine" is misleading. This isn't something a teacher should do every class period. Do a close reading activity when it makes sense, when it will help students achieve the learning outcomes for the lesson. I saw a unit plan which sported the same exact steps of a close reading every day for five days. The first day might have been interesting, but the other four days would have been deadly.

Now let's look at the framework for doing a close reading. First,select a short but meaningful and reasonably complex passage. How short? It depends on the overall text and your learning objectives. Practice activities use the entire Gettysburg Address. Maybe two paragraphs, maybe five paragraphs. Short is a relative term, so the first time you do this activity, start with something literally short--two or three paragraphs. Get your students and you used to the process. See what works and what seems to be clunky. Then revisit the framework to see what you want to change and why you want to change it.What makes it reasonably complex? It depends on the text and your learning objectives. But think about the elements of text complexity and how the task assigned can contribute to the complexity. You might not be able to finalize your text selection until you make some other decisions.

Second, establish a purpose for reading that text. Does it focus on a particular concept you need students to understand? Does it explain something that is critical to the rest of the work and students' abilities to master the learning objectives for the day? Is it going to provide a bridge from the textbook to another resource, or vice versa? Does it establish some foundational knowledge for your students so you can move to the next part of the lesson? You have to have a purpose for investing significant time in this passage, and your students have to understand that purpose.

Third, plan. Determine how often you want your students to re-read the passage, and why. Do you want them to do a cold read of the text? That's no background knowledge, no vocabulary review, nothing. Kids just read. Do you want to read it aloud or have someone else read it aloud? If so, why? Do you want them to paraphrase some or all of the passage? If so, why? And then what do they do with their paraphrases? If you have them read the text on their own the first time, whether you've prepared them in some way or not, do you want them to annotate? And if they annotate, why do they annotate? What are they supposed to look for, and why?

Fourth, as you plan, write down the text-dependent questions you want them to answer and determine how they will answer. Will they write down their answers and then discuss with a partner? Will they make notes or write down full answers and then participate in an instructor-led discussion? Will you give them some number of text-dependent questions but then ask them to come up with their own? Will the discussion be mostly instructor-led or some student-led? Will you use debate or Socratic discussion or some other strategy? How much will you let them struggle and reason and debate/discuss with other?

Fifth, as you plan, determine how you will manage the discussion. If the discussion starts to get rambunctious but stays on topic, how will you transition? What if you get monosyllabic responses and no one seems to want to participate? What if someone suggests something you hadn't thought of and if you don't know is "right"?

Sixth, as you plan, make note to remind yourself and to remind your students that they must support any opinion or any statement with evidence from the text. And that they must respect the opinions of others, especially when they don't agree.

Seventh, have your students reflect on their learning. Have each student write a summary or a reflection in their learning journal. Have groups of students make notes of things they learned and then do a sort of gallery walk. Have a few prompts prepared and have them respond using exit slips or use the prompts to offer direction for writing that summary or in the learning journal. The possibilities are numerous, but you want them to reflect on what they learned, not how they learned. At some point, the how needs to be transparent.

Finally, as you plan, remember that a few dozen or so things may go wrong, but that's okay. As long as you keep the purpose of this activity in mind, your students will learn.

Looking for more information, contact me here.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Reading closely, effectively

The title of this blog post is a nod to the fact that today, September 24, is National Punctuation Day, something of which I wasn't aware until recently. For those of you who might be curious to know more, you can check out Scholastic's Making Your Mark! and the National Punctuation Day web site.

Today's actual topic: close reading. Christoper Lehman, a guy worth following posted Most Fun #CloseReading Post Ever Because Students Are Hilarious And Filled With Rage. (You are welcome to find the mechanical errors in that title on your own; this is the unedited title of the post.) To the freakin' point!

Students can hate a close reading activity when it is not done well. That, my friends, is a tragedy.

Let's start with the obvious question of why do a close reading at all. We can talk about how close reading has become all the rage because of Common Core (I almost feel as though that should be written C****n C**e, expletive deleted). But that would be pointless because close reading isn't new.

Way back in 2006, Linda Elder and Richard Paul wrote a book titled Thinker's Guide to How to Read a Paragraph: The Art of Close Reading. In speaking about that art of close reading, Elder and Paul wrote:
Skilled readers do not read blindly, but purposely. They have an agenda, goal, or objective. Their purpose, together with the nature of what they are reading, determines how they read. They read in different ways in different situations for different purposes. Of course, reading has a nearly universal purpose: to figure out what an author has to say on a given subject.
 The article Closing in on Close Reading reminds us of some fundamentals for an effective and successful close reading. Yes, there are close reading routines and I'll talk about those in a different post, but let's focus on three essentials.

First, use a short text. Trying to do a close read for the entirety of a chapter in a textbook or a novel or anything else is impractical. Select a passage that has a key idea, seems to emphasize your learning outcomes or one of your essential questions for your lesson plan, or that just seems like a cool or pertinent passage. One or two paragraphs tops. Remember that you have to have a purpose for doing a close reading of that particular passage.

Second, ask good questions. Refer to your learning outcomes and essential questions. What is it about this passage that is important or significant? What is it about this structure, this content, this style of writing that will contribute not only to what students need to know, but to their development as skilled readers? Refer to Bloom's Critical Thinking Cue Questions for some prompts of those higher order thinking questions. Remember: ask questions that not only help develop your students' skills as readers, but help them think on deeper and more strategic levels about the text. And if you're worried about them offering an answer you're not sure is "right," then you have a couple of options. Make sure students can support their answers from the text. "Show me the evidence!" Another option is to ask the class what they think about the answer. You have to establish a safe environment that permits dissent and different ideas, and you have to be able to manage the debate that is likely to ensure. But you'll also enable your students to participate in the determination of the "rightness" of the answer--all with evidence from the text--and provide them with opportunity to listen and to speak.

Third, details matter. One possible component of a close reading activity is to have students paraphrase some portion of the passage. As with anything the details you have them observe, find, support, and/or infer must be supported by the text itself or by supplemental texts. Let me complicate things here just a bit by reminding you that "texts" might not be just words on a page, digital or print.

So as you're thinking about the possibility of using a close reading activity in your classroom, do so with purpose. Just as you would any strategy to help your students become more critical, thoughtful, and skilled readers.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Common Core Can Unite Us

I'm sure you're first thought at that title was that I've officially lost my mind. Not really. I do think it can unite us, but in a really wonderfully, delightfully unexpected way.

Someone shared a post with me: Top Ten Professors Calling Out Common Core's So-Called College Readiness. I'd never heard of any of these professors, so my top 10 is likely different from the blog posters' top 10. I get that.

Here's an interesting twist on college professors and their response to Common Core, their disdain for this movement and their pedantic observations. In 2012, there were a series of articles about college accountability, such as this one from The New York Times. (I can put together a full literature review, if you'd like so my sources aren't skewed nor prejudicial.) There have been murmurings of something akin to Common Core for colleges and universities for a couple of years now, though that's gained no traction. And then in August 2013, President Obama made a speech about college affordability and, yes, accountability. (Again, I can do a full literature review so my sources aren't skewed nor prejudicial.)

The ACT 2013 results are out. You can read The Reality of College Readiness report and view the scores. From this page at the ACT site:
Of the 31 states where 40% or more of their 2013 high school graduates took the ACT, in only 2 states did more than half of the graduates meet three or more ACT College Readiness Benchmarks. In another 8 states, 40%–49% of graduates met three or four Benchmarks.
In 16 states, 30%–39% of graduates met three or more ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in 2013, while less than 30% of graduates did so in 5 states. In no state did more than 56% of ACT-tested graduates meet three or four Benchmarks.
Common Core is not a perfect solution. Some veteran teachers see it as an antidote to NCLB.

Common Core could be a very small step towards education reform. Rather than bash it, often reflexively, perhaps we can use Common Core as the beginning of a conversation about real education reform.

What we want is kids who can think critically; reason analytically; and write, speak, and listen well, using evidence appropriately and effectively.

But however we approach education, perhaps with a single national voice enhanced by the harmonies of individual states, we have to work towards making sure our K-12 and college kids are not educated for a world that no longer exists, but educated to think and learn independently so they can build and improve the world in which THEY will live and love and hope and dream. And if we can get them to like, even love, learning, well, so much the better.

After all, education is about the kids. It's about the kids. It's always, always, always about the kids.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

What an exemplar isn't

An exemplar is not a mandate. The word "exemplar" comes from the Latin "exemplum." An exemplar is an example or model, but we use "exemplar" much like a superlative. If you're looking for a really good example or an ideal model, you look for an exemplar. But there is still no "Thou shalt" attached to the example.

Apparently some educators have confused the purpose of an exemplar and understood it as a mandate. Apparently some legislators need better briefing not only on what an exemplar is, but on what it really means to be an educator.

In a recent story, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye has become one of the current battlegrounds for Common Core.

It's as though legislators hadn't heard of an exemplar before Common Core and now, because they are such credentialed experts in the field of education, they are making grandstanding pronouncements about texts identified as exemplars and obfuscating reasonable conversations with staged outrage designed to do something--I'm not clear what--but nothing that really helps educators or parents or kids.

If we separate the political agenda from The Bluest Eye, we see a story of a young African-American girl trying to make sense of the world in which she lives, trying to understand the violence she experiences and who cannot help but wonder if this is "normal." Morrison's book is one of several listed as 11th grade exemplars:
  • William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
  • Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
  • Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Saul Bellow, The Adventures of March
  • Cristina Garcia, Dreaming in Cuban
  • Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake 
I doubt the legislators and the so-called conservative commentators have a clear rubric for assessing the quality of a book, for determining why or why not any particular book may be a good choice for a group of students to help the students themselves better understand the world in which they live and in which they will be growing up, to figure out what doesn't work and what they might hope to change to improve the quality of life for all people.

The bottom line is this: an exemplar is a model. One that an educator may choose to use, or not. What the educator needs to understand are the qualities of the text that promote the learning skills and proficiencies a student can develop and hone as a result of working with that text. If an educator believes that text might not be the best resource for his or her students, then that educator can use the professional judgement and skills she or he has to determine a different work that enables his or her students to learn and demonstrate the proficiencies necessary for that grade level.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Wonder vs. rules

As I've said before, I "get" to work with educators around the country. And I do mean that I get to; it's a privilege to be with a group of educators, most of whom are still dedicated to and passionate about their work, who are still interested in improving their skills and in learning new things. These lifelong learners appreciate what it means to be a student and seem to think about their students constantly; in fact, they often seem to put themselves in the seats of their students. That's a keen educational ear. Those are the teachers who get it done.

I've been reviewing some of the work we do, some of the conversations we have about Common Core and College & Career Readiness. I know there's a lot of muck out there about Common Core and I know there are plenty of educators who are being very rigid as they try to implement Common Core. That saddens me because Common Core really is about freeing educators to use their professional judgment and be more creative in their classrooms, to teach more organically and individually, and to know their students and themselves well enough to know when and how to make the kinds of adjustments that need to be made so their kiddos can actually learn.

So that got me to thinking about a conversation we have with educators as we ask them to think about the qualities and characteristics of the college and career ready high school senior. The answers are somewhat typical:
  • critical thinking skills
  • good writing skills
  • good speaking and listening skills
  • self-motivation
  • time management
  • self-discipline
  • technology skills
It's interesting to watch some of them be a bit flummoxed when I ask what they mean by "critical thinking skills" as that's a phrase we use and I'm convinced most of us don't really know what we mean by it. But that's a different post.

Anyway, we also ask about qualities and characteristics of the college and career ready 8th or 5th grader, and then of the kindergartner. Sometimes their eyes open a bit wide, but then they settle in with some confidence and shrug that the answers are the same. After all, we want to start developing those qualities and characteristics for that high school senior when they're in kindergarten.


In only one group did any educators talk about kindergarten kids using such words and phrases as these:
  • creativity
  • sense of wonder
  • sense of exploration
  • unaware of what they can and cannot do
I really like those answers. It has occurred to me more than once that many university faculty and many employers are frustrated by students' and employees' inabilities to be creative or to have a sense of wonder or exploration. While we need folks to have some sense of what they can and cannot do, you have to admit, even a little bit, that it can be very refreshing to have the student or employee who expresses some concern or doubt about being able to accomplish something but also expresses the willingness to try, to push beyond that individual comfort zone.

Perhaps as more teachers feel more confident to use their professional judgment and creativity they will be encouraged to invite their students to use their student creativity, to express that sense of wonder or exploration or discovery, and to poke at the perceived limits of their capabilities.

Friday, August 16, 2013

What it means to be ready

In my job, I get to spend a lot of time with educators around the country. Small districts, large districts; rural, urban, suburban. You name it: the diversity of demographics is there. I'm with those folks because they are seeking professional development for Common Core or for College and Career (work place) Readiness.

Because of our high-stakes testing mentality, we worry about the test scores. Is the ACT score high enough to get into college? Is the GPA high enough to graduate with honors? Are there enough passing credits to graduate? Is the reading or math or science score high enough to keep us out of hot water with whatever agency is overseeing us? How do we rank against other schools in the district or, as a district, against other districts in the state?

And if our scores are high enough, our kids must be ready for college.


Every classroom teacher was once a college student. Every classroom teacher knows there are good professors and bad professors; they are even GREAT professors and terrible professors.

Anyone who has worked in a job knows there are good bosses and bad bosses, even great and horrible bosses.

So what does it mean to be "ready" for college or the work place? It's not just the grade or the score. We know that, but we can't forget that. We can't forget that fundamental skills in speaking and listening are critically important. Students must be able to express their ideas, provide rationale for their opinions or positions. I'm sure there is a list somewhere, but what we know is that employers are looking for people with good communication skills, the ability to reason analytically and critically, the ability to solve complex problems and to work as part of a team or to be sufficiently self-motivated to work alone. These are important life, college, and work skills.

It won't hurt if kids know how to be on time, know how and when to ask follow-up questions and that it's absolutely perfectly okay to use those office hours to get clarification on an assignment or to share an idea or to ask for some help or to ask an opinion or just to talk about the content. It won't hurt if kids know how to be respectful of others' opinions and ideas and to know how to say "please" and "thank you."

When we think about what it means to be ready for college or the work place, what we're really talking about, in my opinion, is what it means to be getting ready for life.

I've said before that a very wise administrator once said that university is not a parenthetic; it is not that "between time" that serves as a bridge from high school to the "real world." It can be a significant part of the growing up and character-building experience. In that sense, students are NOT ready for college in many ways and it behooves university professors to remember that they can be part of the growing and developing process, and that it can be an honor to make that kind of difference in a young person's life.

But it also falls to university faculty, in some ways, to help ensure that the growing up and developing does occur, that university faculty hold students to higher standards of expectations in the ways they comport themselves as persons and as students, even as scholars.

I'd also like to note, though, that we're never really ready. Not if we're lifelong learners. We leave high school with a certain set of proficiencies, capabilities, knowledge. We leave college with more of the same, we hope, and more. We enter the work world with more than we had and with less than we need. We proceed through the work world, perhaps into our chosen careers with more than we had and with less than we need.

As lifelong learners, we're always "getting ready" for the next big adventure in life, in work, in learning.

Monday, August 12, 2013

What teachers do best?

"The idea is to free up teachers for what they do best, not replace them, advocates insist, though many people are skeptical." That sentence came from an article titled "In higher education, the Great Recession's unlikely impact: an innovation revolution."

At first I felt a moment of warmth and fuzziness. Then I started to wonder what exactly teachers do best, realizing the context is higher education but wondering, too, if that thinking might start to roll down towards K-12. And that forced me to return to the text and re-read what preceded that sentence:
What does this wave of educational innovation entail? To be sure, it includes the MOOCs and all sorts of “adaptive learning” software that promises to teach and measure some things better and more cheaply than a human teacher.
Adaptive learning. Is that like differentiated instruction? Or maybe it's more like project-based learning. How would software measure student learning better than a teacher, especially as we think about the performance tasks that are dominating educators' psyches as they contemplate Common Core? And how would software measure student learning in a project-based learning environment, which may be the most adaptive sort of learning? Even in higher education, would software truly be able to differentiate nuances of learning, styles of learning, styles of responses and approaches to articulating learning? I'd surmise the answer is "no" as there is much subjectivity in the world, and the work place.

Read on a bit further and you will encounter "We’ve been here before. Every new technology promises to transform education."

People. I'll say this again: technology does not teach; technology does not transform education. It is a tool and the transformative experience is because of the way a teacher or a student or both choose to use that technology in the classroom.

That exercise bike or treadmill or fancy elliptical machine in your house doesn't transform your workout. Nope, you've got to get on the thing and use it for any sort of transformation to occur. Otherwise it's just another place to hang stuff. Same thing is true with technology in schools and classrooms, whether smartphones, student response systems, interactive white boards, tablets, or web-based resources.
The consumer, after five years on a tablet and five years on an iPhone, is just sick of being told ‘You can’t do that,” says Brandon Dobell, a partner at William Blair & Co., an investment bank and research firm based in Chicago. “I can do everything else on my phone, my tablet. Why can’t I learn as well?
 You can learn, Mr. Dobell. There's no doubt that online learners do most of the work themselves to learn. Some observations: 1) most online learners self-select and tend to be good time managers and are self-motivated to do what needs to be done; 2) all online learning experiences are not the same; 3) not all teachers are good online teachers; 4) to date, MOOCs don't have great completion rates among their students; and 5) adults approach learning differently.

So what to teachers do best? Good teachers design excellent lessons so students can discover learning in unexpected ways. Good teachers recognize capabilities and find ways--sometimes conventional and sometimes not--to motivate, encourage, and challenge students to go beyond their own expectations and comfort zones. Good teachers pay attention to a catalog of non-verbal cues to determine how to direct, redirect, coach, question, challenge, and more. Good teachers do that dozens of time each class period and with each student, and every day. Good teachers, especially K-12 teachers, know they are helping their students develop learning skills that will prove useful beyond the K-12 classroom. They are helping students find, develop, and strengthen their learning legs.

Good teachers use technology and other resources in this exploration and adventure in learning, but they never forget their students are human beings.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

CAEP + NCTQ = A True Measure of Teacher Preparation Success?

I get to do research and write research-related emails for my company, and yes, I said "get to." The emails are sent out to our customers as a service. One of the recent emails provided some highlights of what might end up being a really interesting confluence of events.

Not too long ago, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) published a report on teacher preparation that caused considerable controversy, and not just because of the content of the report but perceptions of the research and reporting methods used by NCTQ. NCTQ claims its report is "an unprecedented evaluation of more than 1,100 colleges and universities that prepare elementary and secondary teachers. As a consumer tool, it allows aspiring teachers, parents and school districts to compare programs and determine which are doing the best--and worst--job of training new teachers."

Let's assume the report has validity. Potentially, school districts have more information about the likely quality of student teachers, which is valuable information when a school administrator has to decide whether or not to accept student teachers from a particular university. Program that don't fare well in the report will find it difficult, if not impossible, to place student teachers for their student teaching. The implications for the university, the program, and the students are profound.

But this brings me to the second event. Universities routinely go through different kinds of accreditation. Education programs were accredited, until recently, through NCATE. The process can be daunting for many programs and is exhausting for the team putting together the accreditation materials. I've been on both sides of that process and I must confess that being an NCATE reviewer can be as difficult. But that whole accreditation process is about to get. . .harder.

CAEP is the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, and CAEP has introduced some new standards with new requirements with what some say are more rigorous expectations. The CAEP standards are in five broad categories: 1) equipping candidates with content knowledge and appropriate pedagogical tools; 2) working in partnership with districts to provide strong student-teaching practice and feedback; 3) recruiting a diverse and academically strong group of candidates; 4) demonstrating that graduates are successful boosting P-12 students’ academic achievement; and 5) maintaining a quality assurance system. Programs will be expected to provide evidence of compliance, to trace graduates into the field and measure their success in the field as a measure of the success of their preparation, by extension, as a measure of the success of the program.

Let's assume the accreditation process brings clarity to the expectations, specifically what constitutes evidence. And let's assume that teacher education programs get specific reasons for success as well as failure with specific suggestions of ways those programs might improve to excel.

What I imagine could be downright amazing is if NCTQ took those CAEP standards seriously and collaborated with CAEP to build a rubric or used the CAEP accreditation rubric as part of its comparative reporting process to show explicitly and specifically what a successful teacher education program looks like, and how those teachers are being prepared to succeed in their classes and in their student teaching as well as the adapting and evolving classroom of tomorrow. Now that would be some education reform.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Work Place Readiness for Today's Teachers?

I was working on a proposal for a conference tonight, casting about for an idea that might warrant being selected for the conference and I landed on an idea that's been rolling around in my head for a while.

At present I work for the Center for College and Career Readiness; I say "at present" because I've been informed my status will be changing from full-time to contractor in the near future, so I'm anticipating further changes and possibilities, including the possibility of independent consulting. But I mention the Center because all day long we think about and talk about what it means for students to be college and career ready. Much of the work we do is professional development focusing on helping districts and schools implement Common Core Standards or, in those states where "Common Core" is verboten, College and Career Readiness.

K-12 educators are worried about student reading levels, math skills, literacy capabilities, and more. And with good reason. Expectations are raised with Common Core. 

I'm going to address Lexiles, but only at a very high level. Lexiles. Lexiles are a quantitative measure of reading. Each reader can have a measured Lexile or reading level; each book can be analyzed to determine
its Lexile level. For teachers, the sweet spot is matching the reading level of the reader and the book. You
can get a lot more information at the MetaMetrics site, but I want to focus just a bit on what's causing so much consternation among K-12 educators. As you look at the chart, you'll see that, for example, 1010L is the top of the Lexile band for 8th grade. With Common Core, 1010L is the top of the Lexile band for 5th grade. Big difference, so it's fairly to understand why teachers are so anxious. If they currently have a 5th grader reading at a 3rd level, it's entirely possible that once Common Core is fully implemented, that student will be reading at no more than a 2nd grade level.

Educators are talking about being ready for the gap--that mythical space that exists with the change in Lexile levels. And yes, teachers need to get ready for that gap. As they implement Common Core, their incoming students could start two or three reading levels behind where they were at the end of the 2012-2013 school year. So educators have to plan for the gap, and how they are going to help students read at the grade-appropriate level.

Now, for those of you huffing and puffing about the change and how unfair it is, let me send you
here and show you the following chart. You'll see the Lexile levels for textbooks along the y axis. The pink or fuschia color represents 8th grade textbooks. Based on this chart, 4th grade textbooks are at about a 750 Lexile, which is fine for today based on the Lexle chart. But 4th grade textbooks used to be at a nearly 900 Lexile.

There could be a lot of reasons for the drop, but Common Core or College and Career Readiness reading levels are being pushed back up to where they were between World War I and the end of World War II.

That's not even the idea that's been rolling around in my head for a while because I've been working with educators on these very things of text complexity and Lexile levels for about a year now. Here's my big "uh oh" question: What if classroom teachers are feeling so much concern and even downright panic because they cannot read well at the new Lexile levels? We've all seen letters from educators with terrible spelling and horrific grammar errors. We know there are teachers who seem barely literate and probably are barely literate. But what if part of the problem for us being able to make sure our students are college and career ready is that our teachers are not?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Value of Leadership, Part I

It is not possible to underestimate the value of leadership. Real, actual leadership. This is as true in school districts and buildings as it is anywhere. "In fact, research has established that leadership is second only to teaching among school-related factors as an influence on learning" (Educational Leadership, Apr 2013, p. 23). Forests have been decimated in the pursuit of the secret to leadership success.

A blurb on leadership at Psychology Today reads
Peter Drucker famously stated that "management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things." Great leaders possess dazzling social intelligence, a zest for change, and above all, vision that allows them to set their sights on the "things" that truly merit attention. Not a bad skill set for the rest of us, either.
I've been thinking a lot about leadership in education, especially in K-12 education. I think it's true in any organization and in any business area that the higher one goes up the ladder, the easier it is for other people to think they can do a better job. Potshots from the ranks are not that unusual unless, I suppose, the person at the top really is a good leader.

There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of books and articles on the specific number of steps to be successful as a leader. When I have a whole bunch of time I don't know how else to use, I'm going to do a literature review of those resources and all the other literature reviews that have tried to narrow the field of success formulas. But first I want to share a bit of perspective based on this recent article titled "7 Things Successful Leaders Do Differently."

Thing 1: Relationships first. I remember being profoundly affected by a pastor who managed to focus on the one person to whom he was speaking and be genuinely engaged in that conversation. People loved him for that and it was one of his best strengths.

Thing 2: Meaning matters. People talk about giving back in meaningful ways. The cover article in the recent issue of Time magazine was about service, a concept applicable to everyone. Schools scrambled onto the service learning bandwagon for a while. The Peace Corps struck a powerful chord in people in the 60s as have organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels, Big Brothers & Sisters, and hundreds of other local, national, and international organizations. Not only do leaders understand how their work fits into a broader context, but there are mechanisms in the work place to enable their employees to discover the same.

Thing 3: Humor. This is a balance thing. I can choose to be angry, depressed, and anxious or I can choose to see the brighter side. That's not be delusional or in denial, but it's choosing to use humor to smooth the edges and gain some perspective.

Thing 4: Strengths. This is another balance thing. I have certain strengths that I should maximize to do my job well. When I'm fortunate, I have colleagues whose strengths support mine and whom I can support with my own strengths. We need to be honest and self-aware of our strengths, skills, and talents, which means we also need to be honest and self-aware of our limitations.

Thing 5: Pessimism. The upshot is focus, "embrace the suck," and compartmentalize. I focus on that which is mine to manage and control; I acknowledge that things are going to go sideways sometimes and that's just reality; and I don't let bother in one area impede another.

Thing 6: Be grittier. Proceed with passion. Don't back down from challenges. Don't allow failure to define who one is. Don't quit.

Thing 7: Manage energy. This doesn't mean starting the day with some energy drink or taking a bump or two in the afternoon. It means knowing the ebb and flow of my body to know when to take a break and when to take advantage of that natural high performance state.

What's interesting to me about these 7 things is that none focus on the actions of the leader in leadership. All of them focus on the leader and the sorts of qualities and actions of the leader to be a leader. Which suggests that being a leader is, in fact, being a leader.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Work place readiness skills

You have to love Yahoo! for its insightful and incisive news. Okay, maybe not, but I do commend them as an aggregator of some interesting, even useful, news.

The story that caught my eye is "4 workplace skills you need right now." From a writing perspective, that's a deliciously provocative headline designed to do what it did: get my attention. As for the skills, well, they're kind of interesting.

The first skill listed is coding. Because it's first, one might assume it's the most important and/or valuable. As a former computer programmer and systems analyst, I had to raise my eyebrows at that one. But I read further and thought more reflectively and critically as I read, good Common Core skills, by the way. Because of our increasingly digital dependence, I suppose knowing how to code in HTML makes sense or at least being familiar with HTML, what it does, what it can do, where and how it's used now. I suppose I'd go a bit further to make sure individuals had a passing knowledge and understanding of XML as well as Java because of their ubiquitousness in our digital world.

The second skill listed is data literacy. We've talked about data in education for a very long time. For several years one of our prime directives seemed to be data-driven decision-making. Every PD company worth its salt made sure to offer something related to data-driven decision-making. Educators at all levels learned to aggregate and disaggregate data and oh how we gathered data! But part of data literacy is knowing what data you need. Figuring out how to gather it, report it, and analyze it--to find the signal in the noise--are completely different components of data literacy.

The third skill is social media savvy, which should come as no surprise to anyone who hasn't been living in a cave for the past several years. That savvy means being aware of the trendy new social media outlets that are more than fads--those channels that seem to have some reach and staying power: Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Learnist, and dozens if not hundred of others make social media savviness a challenge.

The last skill is empathy, and this one is not to be underrated. I can offer the best possible service and skills, I may know more than anyone else about a particular thing, but if I don't have any empathy for the people with whom I'm working, I'm not going to be effective. No way, no how. Personally, I think this is a shadow side of social media savvy because there are plenty of folks who are personable and affable on social media but have too few or no personal relationship skills.

I completed a survey the other day and a lot of the questions were related to how well I connected to others, what I think is important in a leader, if I believe myself to be a good listener, if I think it is more important to be respectful or collegial or some other things with colleagues, etc. So many of those skills are related to empathy and yes, there's a lot to be said about the value of empathy in the work place.

For those of us in the business of thinking about what it means to be college and career ready, these skills are something to consider. Perhaps not in a direct sense--I don't recommend we all go out to learn how to code. But I do recommend that we consider being mindful of some of these possible technological and collegial shifts and expectations.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A little more MOOC madness

For now, MOOCs are mostly in higher education. But virtual schools are eyeing the concept for growth possibilities, especially in elective courses. And I’m detecting a ripple of conversation about MOOCs as a means of offering professional development.

Right now the majority of MOOCs are offered for free; I just signed up to take a course through MIT or Georgetown, maybe it was Harvard. I’ll complete the assignments, take the tests, and, if I pass, I’ll get a certificate with my name on it and the name of the sponsoring university. That has some cache. If universities figure out to monetize a MOOC, there could be some interesting movement. And what if those Stanford humanities graduates who become high school teachers are able to do so through a MOOC or through a model like the $7K computer science degree through Georgia Tech? Yes, Georgia Tech. Some of the “what if” scenarios are a little dizzying if we take a few minutes to contemplate the impact of that route of alternative certification.

edSurge published some opinion pieces recently about MOOCs. I was at an event at University of Illinois at Chicago recently and the topic of MOOCs came up at lunch. Some professors were skeptical; a couple were intrigued, even enthusiastic to try.

In his piece "How a MOOC could be a faculty's best friend," Dr. Joshua Kim states "The best thing about a MOOC is not what it does for the learners engaged in the course, or the faculty member teaching the class, but what the MOOC does (or should do) for every course on campus." Dr. Kim believes that MOOCs focus on teaching.

Another opinion piece wonders if MOOCs are truly the future of higher education and if they might end up collapsing the professorate. The author of this piece is Cathy N. Davidson, author of Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. Davidson writes,
In the present mood of high polemic, hyperbolic promise, and hysterical panic, it is almost impossible to sort out the questions, let alone the answers to these questions, on either a national or international level: Is now the time to reject or embrace massive online learning? Do MOOCs yield improved learning and free and open access to those who have been excluded from higher education—or are they yet another cynical attempt to defund the public and extract profits from tax payers and diminish the value of what virtually all universally claim to be the public good of higher education? 
Because Dr. Davidson is a researcher and an educator, she's offering a course in January 2014. As she continues to examine MOOCs and understand them better, she is blogging about her experience and what she is learning. The MOOC experience itself will be, for her, a means of examining that much more closely the pros and cons, the affects and effects of a MOOC. To that end, she'll be teaching an on-site, face-to-face version of the same course. A truly mixed method research approach.

I think there is much ado about MOOCs, and considerably more to learn and know about MOOCs before we start declaring the sky is falling, before we determine if there is or isn't value, before we pass judgment.

I'm going to be one of the thousands who sign up for Dr. Davidson's course in addition to my other MOOC. I want to be part of this grand experiment, be part of the conversation these students and educators have about the MOOC experience and its value.

Educators have been debunking online education since the mid-90s, declaring that its model is spurious and proclaiming the imminent demise. Given the rise of social media and all things digital, I don't think online learning is going anywhere. The longer we do it, the better we get at it. The more we learn about learning and what we need to be teaching and ways that students CAN learn, not just how student do and should learn, the more likely we are to create models and environments of teaching and learning that are, in fact, relevant, meaningful, purposeful. Provided, of course, we are willing to embrace those changes.