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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Lexiles & Reading Levels: Nothing New

Hand-wringing over Common Core has nearly reached a tipping point. Or so we can hope.

Recently I read a post about how Common Core dumbed down public curriculum, and then I saw a post about how Common Core is raising expectations for student capabilities.

Just for a moment, let's set aside the absurd notion that we should be using standardized tests to determine if a teacher is good at her job. Let's also set aside the ridiculous idea that teacher evaluation can be modeled after the way businesses execute performance and merit reviews. Never mind that such reviews might be done on a quarterly basis rather than an annual basis and that the reviews are based on the employee's performance based on specific goals and tasks associated with the employee's job and job description. Just for a moment, let's think about school reform.

If you will, please, travel with me to MetaMetrics, an educational research and measurement organization founded in 1984. They've been doing studies and research on Lexiles and text complexity for over thirty years. Well before Common Core was even the germ of an idea. Major publishing and educational companies have been using Metametrics' work for reading assessments for decades. And they do work in mathematics, too.

So what's the big deal about Lexiles and text complexity? I'm so glad you asked, but I'm going to focus first on Lexiles, which is only one component of text complexity. It is, however, one that's easily misunderstood. And please, PLEASE, keep in mind that Lexiles and the related research pre-date Common Core by a generation or so.

The Lexile Framework for Reading was designed to help educators match students with texts. I know, this is horrible, but stay with me. The idea, as many reading teachers and reading specialists can attest, is to figure out a student's reading level and match the reading level with the reading level of the books the student is reading. If the teacher knows a textbook, for example, is above a student's reading level, he can figure out ways to provide supports for that student to be successful, perhaps even working with a reading coach or specialist. You know, like we've been doing for a decade or so.

Please keep in mind, too, that MetaMetrics is not a Common Core stooge, though anti-Common Core conspiracy theorists will scoff at that. Keep in mind that reading levels and figuring out factors that can help kids read with better comprehension and fluency has been the stuff of education before educators even had words like "comprehension" and "fluency" to apply to reading instruction.

What MetaMetrics helps teachers (and could help parents and politicians) understand is that there are many factors that influence a student's interaction with a text. That speaks to text complexity and more on that in a different post.

When Harry Potter was all the rage, many of us knew kids who were reading the books who would not normally have lugged around a 700-page novel. The first Harry Potter book measures 880L, so it's an 880 Lexile book. Word frequency and sentence length are two factors that influence that level, but also the content, the age and interest of the reader, and more. Again, those also speak to text complexity.

So what does that mean? As you look at the 2nd column of the chart, you'll see that 880 falls in the 6th grade but is also the leading anchor score for the 7th grade. An overlap makes sense for a lot of reasons. If you look at the 3rd column of the chart, you'll see the target reading levels based on Common Core and you'll note that 880 is in both 4th grade and 5th grade.

Now think about the kids you saw lugging around that first Harry Potter novel. All those 4th and 5th graders. And that was 10 years ago! So those 4th and 5th graders were reading above their grade levels. They were reading at today's Common Core levels! Did they understand every word? Nope. Did they get the general idea of the story? Of course they did. And that is much of what comprehension is all about.

"A high Lexile measure for a student in one grade indicates that the student can read grade-level-appropriate materials at a very high comprehension rate. The student may not have the background knowledge or maturity to understand material written for an older audience. It is always necessary to preview materials prior to selecting them for a student" (MetaMetrics).

Now one more thing from a paper MetaMetrics published for Scholastic, yes, a purveyor of reading materials and reading assessments. The paper was published in 2008, alas, before Common Core was on the scene and making all of those silly references to being ready for college and the work place.

In 2006, the National Association of State Boards of Education had published Reading at Risk: The State Response to the Crisis in Adolescent Literacy. What they learned is that there was a gap between students' reading abilities and the requirements of college or the work place. That meant that students would be unprepared to be successful after they graduated from high school. The study went so far as to measure that gap and, as shown in the chart from the MetraMetrics Scholastic study, identified the Lexile ranges of reading materials at certain levels. Even in 2008, the Lexile range for reading materials at the university level was about 1150 to 1600 with the majority of university-level materials between 1300 and 1500. Go back up to that Lexile chart and see the target reading level for 12th graders in the 3rd column: 1185 to 1385. Just about enough to be successful in college.

From a paper published in 1999, when a construction worker needed to read at a Lexile level of about 1080 and a teacher needed to read at about a 1400, the average high school student read at an 1150. Based on a study conducted of students during the 2010-2011 school year, most high school students were reading at a 5th grade level.

Maybe Common Core isn't the perfect solution to the problem, but if it helps teachers and parents focus on this problem of reading capabilities, then more power to it.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Pedagogical content knowledge redux. Content or teaching? Why choose?

"So my question is this: should the focus be on content or on teaching practices?"

This was a question raised by a frustrated teacher who was grappling with Common Core. Lower your verbal guns. Yes, I know it's easy to take aim at Common Core, but this isn't about Common Core. This is about a teacher who finds herself at a crossroads and is actually asking if it's more important for her to focus on content knowledge or teaching practices.

Remember when we talked about "pedagogical content knowledge"? It was Dr. Lee Shulman who first talked about pedagogical content knowledge. In 1986. Shulman wrote that pedagogical content knowledge
. . . embodies the aspects of content most germane to its teachability. Within the category of pedagogical content knowledge I include, for the most regularly taught topics in one's subject area, the most useful forms of representation of those ideas, the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations, and demonstrations - in a word, the ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others . . . [It] also includes an understanding of what makes the learning of specific concepts easy or difficult: the conceptions and preconceptions that students of different ages and backgrounds bring with them to the learning (p. 9). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching
Then in 1993, Cochran, DeRuiter, and King offered another view of pedagogical content knowledge
to be more consistent with a constructivist perspective on teaching and learning. They described a model of pedagogical content knowledge that results from an integration of four major components, two of which are subject matter knowledge and pedagogical knowledge. The other two other components of teacher knowledge also differentiate teachers from subject matter experts. One component is teachers' knowledge of students' abilities and learning strategies, ages and developmental levels, attitudes, motivations, and prior knowledge of the concepts to be taught. Students' prior knowledge has been especially visible in the last decade due to literally hundreds of studies on student misconceptions in science and mathematics. The other component of teacher knowledge that contributes to pedagogical content knowledge is teachers' understanding of the social, political, cultural and physical environments in which students are asked to learn. The model in Figure 1 shows that these four components of teachers' knowledge all contribute to the integrated understanding that we call pedagogical content knowledge; and the arrows indicate that pedagogical content knowledge continues to grow with teaching experience. The integrated nature of pedagogical content knowledge is also described by Kennedy (1990).
Oh my that's a lot to take in, so if you've just skimmed past the quote, let me sum up: 1) teachers need to know their content; 2) teachers need to have good ways to present, teach, or make their content accessible to students and need to have a variety of ways to do so; 3) teachers need to know their content well enough to know where there are likely to be challenges for students and misconceptions; and 4) teachers need to be aware of the landscape in which students live and learn.

Sounds easy, huh? It isn't. Imagine a room full of 28 or 35 or 42 different personalities. They have different learning styles, attitudes about school and learning and being, and motivations. Some might love to learn but want to hide it because they don't want to a geek; the educational landscape isn't just about the political and environmental considerations, but the chaos of cultural and social issues that can plague students at school or at home.

Teachers can get lost in all of that, so part of what teachers need to relearn--and what our teacher education programs and professional development need to address--is how to focus on the things that teachers can do best and well. And that too is much easier said than done.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Brick by Brick, Bird by Bird, Step by Step

I saw this post today and reposted it through my Writing Matters account. The post is about a word wall and how a teacher improvised and adapted the use of a word wall and the surprising results.

The post reminded me of one of my favorite books about writing, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. In the book she tells of the incident which gives the book its title.

Front CoverThirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a  report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our  family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen  table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper  and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird."
I used that, among other things, in my freshman writing classes. Too often we are "immobilized by the hugeness of the task." Some tasks are truly huge, and other just seem huge. For freshman writing students, sometimes just writing was huge. . .procrastination aside. The blank page, the blank screen, taunting them.

I know a lot of folks think teaching is easy. After all, teachers have short days and work only 9  months a year. Right? Not so much. Those who really know teachers are quite aware that their days begin early and end late, continuing after the family is fed and the kids abed.

I know a lot of folks think education needs a complete overall, and I'm inclined to agree with them. But so does our tax system, our medical and health care system, and a bunch more. Whether in the camp of those who want radical changes or those who see the need for incremental changes, the fact is that we cannot institute change overnight.

I get to talk to administrators and teachers around the country. I learn so much from them!! But when I asked a group of administrators about priorities, one sighed and blurted out, "Even my priorities have priorities."

And so I swung into gear with my "Choose just one!" mantra. Just one thing. Choose just one thing you want to get done this week. Just one. Choose just one thing you want to get done this month. Just one. Choose just one thing you want your teachers to know or do before the end of the school year. Just one. Choose just one thing you want your teachers to know or do before school starts next year. Just one.

Everything is important but you can do only one thing at a time.

Just one.

Bird by bird.

Brick by brick.

Priority by priority.

Just make sure that each priority, each thing, each activity gets you and your teachers closer to achieving the vision as articulated by your plan. And if you don't have a vision for where you want to be or a plan for how to get there, little of what you do will accomplish much. So if you don't have a vision and you don't have a plan, that's the one thing, the only thing you work on. Right now, for now.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ebooks: Much Ado about Nothing?

Print is here to stay. Hey! It was reported in the Wall Street Journal that print isn't going anywhere any time soon. Nicholas Carr reports
Half a decade into the e-book revolution, though, the prognosis for traditional books is suddenly looking brighter. Hardcover books are displaying surprising resiliency. The growth in e-book sales is slowing markedly. And purchases of e-readers are actually shrinking, as consumers opt instead for multipurpose tablets. It may be that e-books, rather than replacing printed books, will ultimately serve a role more like that of audio books—a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.
I like ebooks in practice and in principle, but I prefer pages. And not just because I can continue to read when the doors close on an airplane, though that has something to do with it. It's so annoying to have to turn off all electronics until 10 minutes after take-off. That's a lot of reading time!

Josh Catone of Mashable reports Why Printed Books Will Never Die but suggests that ebooks have an advantage over print books. We see kids who know how to "page" on an iPad and who try to do the same with actual books, but we also know there is a different kind of interaction in being able to see and hold the whole book. Most of Catone's work is focused on why printed books have advantages over ebooks that we hope those kids will discover.

A lot of us talk about the experience of sitting with a book. Of being able to annotate, even in different colors or with different kinds of lines, or to be able to write in the margins. And there's just something about holding an actual book, the feel of the pages.

Don't get me wrong. I think there's value in the ebook, but I don't think we should rush to say that print is dead or that ebooks are superior. As with anything else, I think we'll find certain situations in which ebooks might make more sense and others in which books are the best option.

As long as people are reading, I'm not sure I care.