Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Why do we read?

I did a workshop today focusing on strategies for struggling readers. I think it's a legitimate topic and I think the workshop went reasonably okay. That's not false modesty; I just know there are some things I want to do differently should I do a similar workshop for anyone.

Anyway, one of the questions I asked is that of the title: "Why do we read?" Not surprisingly, many of the educators in the room seemed perplexed by the question. I mean, it's obvious, right? Sure, maybe, to educators. We read to learn, to be entertained, to expand our horizons, etc. All that good stuff. Yep, I agree.

But here are a couple of follow-up questions: Do our students understand why we are asking them to read? Do they really get why we are asking them to read what we are asking them to read?

I think the answer to both is "no." Too many kids think they are reading stuff in their textbooks because they have to so they can pass a test. And yes, that's true. But that's not learning. That's retaining some information long enough to regurgitate it in some format.

One of the strategies we talked about today is the word knowledge checklist. You can find a version here, though there are other variations. We talked about how students might use the word knowledge checklist along with annotation strategies, and we talked about how students might use the checklist framework for concepts rather than words. Why? Because then students have the opportunity to deep more deeply into the text, to investigate inferences, to think about how text structures and elements of text complexity contribute to or impeded their understanding of the text. And then I suggested how cool it might be if teachers asked kids to think about connections in other content areas with those words or those concepts.

Whether it's a textbook or a supplemental or some other text, students need to learn to appreciate the value of the role of that particular text. Students get certain kinds of information from a textbook that could be illuminated, amplified, supplemented, or maybe contradicted by other texts.

We ask them to read stuff not only so they can learn specific content, but so they can learn how to learn. So they can learn to be discerning. So they can learn how to analyze not only the content of a text, but its caliber. So they can learn how to synthesize a text and find the key ideas as well as see how an idea in one text might be supported, supplemented, enhanced, etc. in a text that has no apparent connection.

If they don't see the value of that kind of learning, the coolest strategies for our so-called struggling readers will not matter one whit.

Having said that, and quite possibly raised a few eyebrows, let me say this. Yes, we have some very real struggling readers. One of the things we talked about today is how we know which kids are struggling readers and how we determine in what ways they are struggling. Or are they really reluctant readers? And do they seem to struggle because they really don't want to read? If so, why are they reluctant? Is it because they don't see the point?

Laura Robb wrote about The Myth of Learn to Read/Read to Learn. The myth is that students learn to read in K-3 and when then reading to learn starts in fourth grade. Except, as Ms. Robb points out, that's a myth. Kids are still learning to read well beyond fourth grade. Do they know how to read graphs and charts? Do they know how to make connections between the reference to the table and the table itself? Can they discern possible reasons for a bar graph being vertical rather than horizontal? The format may mean the data is more readable or its presentation may lead the reader to certain preferred conclusions. Or it could just be a matter of space and paging in the text. Ms. Robb states: "In grades 4-8, expectations for learners dramatically change. Teachers expect students to apply sight-word and decoding skills, supposedly gained in the earlier grades, to new and challenging content-area information. However, many kids need more practice with these basic skills. They also need continued emphasis and instruction on interpreting and comprehending what they read."

To some teachers, that was gibberish because that's not what they tend to have to worry about. But one of the reasons we continue to explore and talk about strategies for struggling readers, or reluctant ones, is that the message(s) of why we implore kids to read will get lost because they don't have proficiency with the skills they need. Once they are more confident in their ability to read an unfamiliar text independently or with little help, they are more likely to hear why we ask them to read stuff. Which, in the long run, is mostly so they can not only survive, but thrive in their futures.

And, if none of that makes sense, read this: Why Read (When We Don't Like It).

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Careening to currency

The conundrum for far too many teachers is trying to do it all and be all things. Absorbing the current expert, the current trend, the current technology, etc.

I suspect too many teachers no longer have a clear sense of their own teaching styles, so they careen from one expert or trend to the other. Many educators want to be on the leading edge but haven't the time nor the energy to do the hours and hours and HOURS of reading required, and then try to figure out how to integrate strategies, philosophies, or whatever else into their teaching.

Terry Heick expresses some of that thinking in "The Best Teachers Don't Do What They're Told." I get where he's going and I understand the frustration that seems to have informed his thinking and his emotions. But I don't agree with him, which is the stuff of potential growth and professional exploration.

I read another article tonight about a professor at St. Norbert College who is on the verge of retirement and who, this semester--his last semester teaching--opted to try a flipped classroom approach. Good for him! Good for him for continuing to learn and grow professionally, for thinking first of his students.

Ultimately I think that what Mr. Heick is trying to assert. Know yourself as teacher. Know the likely pitfalls for your students. Know what your students are likely to really need for their professional lives even though there is no way on earth you can possibly teach them anything other than rudimentary survival skills. Know that all you can teach them is rudimentary survival skills, but you can also equip them with what they need to keep learning. Eschew "best practices" because a) there is no such thing as a stationary "best" practice as there is likely to be something better with the next heralded expert and b) there is likely to be something better with the next heralded expert about the time you finish revising your lesson plans. And so, be flexible because it's most important that you now yourself as a teacher, respect your abilities to learn, trust your professional judgment, and think first of your students.

In his TEDTalk, Dan Meyer makes an observation that it's important to be less helpful. He also talks about "patient problem solving." Sure, he's a math teacher so he's referring to mathematics, but the same could be said for a lot of things. Our students need to learn to be patient problem solvers and they need to learn to grapple with compelling questions that demand compelling answers. So do teachers.

Angela Lee Duckworth, in her TEDTalk on grit, observes that students need to learn that "failure is not a permanent condition." So do teachers.

Years ago, Marzano was best known for What Works in Schools. Professional development is too often trying to find a single answer for what works in a classroom. Administrators struggle for continuity and consistency. They implement PLCs, though rarely well, and wonder why scores don't skyrocket.

Just as our students need to feel safe and confident the teacher has their best interests at heart, so do teachers. Teachers need to believe that administrators what all of their teachers to do their best and that those same administrators will provide sufficient support. Teachers also need to believe their colleagues will be collegial and collaborative and that because they are collegial and collaborative, the responsibility for staying current, for knowing and assessing the latest and greatest trend or fad is not every single teacher's responsibility.

How great it is to join a faculty meeting or a PLC to have someone share a new strategy and talk about how they think they can use that strategy in their own classroom, and then have others talk about how they might try it and what they might do differently. And the enthusiasm is to reconnect to compare notes and talk about how to continue to improve.

How great it should be to be a new or a veteran teacher and know the community of educators is there to support every educator who is seeking to learn and grow as a professional, who is seeking compelling answers to the most compelling question for most teachers: What can I do today to help my students learn?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Digital learning and technology trends

February 5 was Digital Learning Day. The mission of DLD is:
Digital Learning Day is about giving every child the opportunity to learn in a robust digital environment everyday, with the goal of success in college and a career. We urge you to make a difference with digital learning in America's schools and take the pledge to support the effective use of technology to improve education for all students.
For full disclosure, DLD is a project of the Digital Learning Policy Center which is a division of the Alliance for Excellent Education, "a Washington, DC–based national policy and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all students, particularly those who are traditionally underserved, graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship."

The key phrase, in my opinion, of the DLD mission is this: "to support the effective use of technology." ISTE has been all about making technology transparent for years and long before DLD was even a concept.

Because of all of the snow days for schools in the Midwest and Northeast, there has been plenty of conversation of making up those days OR how some students have been able to complete their work because of digital access. All well and good as long as the battery lasts if there's no power and no need of the Internet, but I digress. The point for some, however, is that digital learning is already a very real thing for many students.

Anyway, a recent article about technology trends caught my attention, partially because of DLD and partially because of the on-going struggle about technology and what digital learning means, how educators can support and be supported in the effective use of technology, and how we can try to ensure all of our students are ready for success. . .and know how to use the right kind of technology for the situation and do so effectively.

In October 2013, Forbes published an article about the Gartner Symposium, which is geared towards business. You know, where prepared kids are going to get jobs. The focus of that article is the top 10 strategic technology trends for 2014 for businesses and work places.

Forbes also published an article in November 2013 about the Forrester Research technology trends to watch for 2014, and beyond.

Let's remember that a trend is an indicator of what could happen, of what is developing or a general direction in which something is moving. That distinction of possibility is really important.

As I looked at the two lists of top technology trends for businesses and the top technology trends for education, I had a bit of an epiphany but also a confirmation.

Business research about trends and what works in the marketplace is as fluid as education research. Research examines what is and postulates or speculates what could be.

Educators are in the business of educating. Today's first graders, those who started in Fall 2013, will, if all goes well, graduate in Spring 2025. If it's true that "up to 40% of what tertiary (university) students are learning will be obsolete a decade from now when they will be working in jobs that have yet to be created," then it's possible that some percentage of what today's first graders are learning will be obsolete by the time they graduate. (For more on that 40% concept, read this.)

That's daunting for any educator. We know that technology has an alarmingly short shelf life, so technology that kids are learning in elementary school will be obsolete by the time they reach high school, if not sooner. Remember laser discs? Anyone? Anyone?

My thinking is that we examine the trends to make informed decisions about what happens in our classrooms, and acknowledge that what I can do in my school with my kids may not be the same as what any other educator does in his or her school with his or her kids. Why? While digital learning is important, it's the skills for learning digitally that matter, not the tool. While technology trends are informative and help us keep an eye on where and how things might develop, it's what those trends tell us about the critical thinking and problem-solving skills students must have in addition to the practical hands-on skills for using that tool.

A million or so years ago I was angling for a job that required me to know how to use a MagCard typewriter. I said I knew how to use one; I didn't. But I knew how to use a typewriter and I wasn't afraid of learning or figuring something out. I spent about 30 minutes going over the thing and skimming the manual, probably one of the few times in my life I've reviewed a manual. Anyway, after that, it was like I was an expert on the thing.

Transferable skills is a key component of digital learning. Whether we're talking about the internet of everything, APIs as digital glue, gamification, or any other technology trend, we're really talking about transferable skills. And whatever we do in our classrooms to help kids master those critical thinking and problem-solving skills for practical application, will prepare them for whatever technology trends emerge by the time they need to know it and use it.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

What is effective professional development?

This is a question for the ages, isn't it? Check out this 2010 interview of Dr. Kylene Beers and Dr. Bob Probst.

What Dr. Beers and Probst say is true. If you haven't time to watch the video (or can't just know because of where you are), let me sum up and amplify a bit.

First, effective professional development means the educator is thinking continuously about his or her profession. And as educators think about their profession, they think about what they can do differently. Dr. Beers makes mention of other professions to which we also refer as "practice." Lawyers and doctors have a practice. Most professions have on-going certification expectations or expectations that those in the profession will continue to do research, read research, participate in conferences and other opportunities to learn more to improve and increase what they know and how to apply that learning. Why? So they can do a better job for their patients or their customers. They need to be as current as possible.

When educators go to conferences, they self-select the sessions they want to attend. One of their objectives is to learn something they can use in their classrooms, schools, or buildings. They want something practical and applicable, perhaps based on theory but most certainly borne out in practice. They want to leave each session with "stuff"--lesson plans, guides, materials, links, whatever. Something usable. Immediately. Now. Something that can help them make a difference with their customers: their students.

Second, drive-by, one-day inservice events are generally of little use. I say "generally of little use" because if the events are well-planned and fit within the context of other work the district is doing, those days can make a difference. Much depends on the communication between customer and presenter, between the individual coordinating the PD and those who will participating in that event.

I've done stand-alone PD events after solid communication with the customer. I do my homework, ask the right kinds of questions of the customer, and do quality preparation and presentation, most of the folks who attend that event, much like those who attend a single session at a conference, will learn something they can use. But I also know that if my event is part of a year-long plan and each single meeting builds on prior meetings and prepares the way for subsequent events, better things might happen in classrooms, schools, or districts.

I've done stand-alone PD events after less-than-solid communication with the customer. That usually means a lot of on-the-spot adaptation by me to make sure that the participants can walk away with something other than aggravation about a lost day.

Third, effective professional development demands accountability. What happens after the event ends? Does the whole group then split up to work with its grade-level team or PLCs or department or team? Does each individual make a list of specific next steps with an understanding of why those next steps are important and with deadlines attached? And do they review their next steps with someone else as an accountability partner? In other words, how will anyone know if that professional development experience has made one iota of difference? How will the participant herself or himself be able to explain how attending and engaging in that PD event shifted any thing in his or her practice?

Fourth, reflection is a key component for change. In 1995, Dr. Stephen D. Brookfield published Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. That was one of the best books I've ever read on the topic. Though targeted for post-secondary teachers, much of what he wrote is applicable to any teacher. Brookfield notes that the "goal of the critically reflective teacher, for Brookfield, is to garner an increased awareness of his or her teaching from as many different vantage points as possible. To this end, Brookfield proposes four lenses that can be engaged by teachers in a process of critical reflection: (1) the autobiographical, (2) the students' eyes, (3) our colleagues' experiences, and (4) theoretical literature." You can find more by reading the book or get an overview of each lens here. You might read more on reflective practice here.

The point is that good reflection can't come from just one vantage point. We can't see ourselves clearly, and not just because the angle is often awkward, but it's hard to be objective. But thoughtful and intentional reflection can serve to help us continue to improve what we do and how we do it.

Finally, it needs to support the teacher. I've worked with some groups who have rejected pretty much anything and everything because I wasn't meeting their needs. Sure, sometimes that can be the teachers are just being recalcitrant. But sometimes it's because the content or the application or the resources or something just doesn't fit. What works in one school might not work in another and for a whole range of reasons. So, again, the more homework I do to understand the needs of the teachers, the demographics of the school and district, and more, the better able any presenter is able to tailor the event.

At the end of the PD day, it is about making sure that educators learned something that makes a difference in how they see themselves, how they view and change or modify their practice, how they continue to reflect on themselves and their practice, and how they continue to try to improve to make sure their kids can be as successful as possible.

Effective professional development is not about the teachers. It's always, always, always, always about the kids and their learning. The better educators are at their practice, the more they know about themselves as learners and teachers, the better the learning experience will be for their students.