Sunday, May 4, 2014

That was Then, This is Now

(thank you, S.E. Hinton for a good book and a title that resonates)

When my dad was a boy in small town Newark, Ohio, the local shoe store had a fluoroscope, a machine that used X-rays to reflect an image of the customer's foot inside a shoe. What a marvelous way to both determine the fit of the shoe, and to soak up potentially hazardous radiation!  I'm fairly sure Mr. Friendly Shoe Retailer meant no harm to his customers, and was hoping nothing more than to prevent aching feet due to ill-fitting shoes.  A shoe shopper today would be more inclined to follow current guidelines.

I put my heart and soul into creating the best environment possible for my children as they were growing up. As one example, our nighttime routine included three read aloud books--so that each could pick a reading for us to enjoy together every single night. My husband and I attended to every need and looked for opportunities to provide a range of experiences beyond what either of us enjoyed as children.  Our home was filled with happiness and laughter.  We made sure our kids knew they were smart and loved.  Wait!   Zzzzrrrrriiippp!  Rewind!

Why did I praise their accomplishments and admire their intellect?  Now it is becoming apparent through the work of Carol Dweck that the way to encourage children is to recognize and celebrate effort, not achievement. All those "encouraging" words that I heaped onto their sensitive souls may have done more to turn them into little perfectionists with clipped wings than fledglings eager to soar.  I should have worked with them to develop more grit, the stuff that's needed in this today's world.  I didn't understand the concept of growth mindset.

Fortunately, kids are resilient. Mine enjoyed their childhoods and are learning to take their place in the world. And I am learning to apply what I now know about mindset to my relationship with my young adult son and daughters.

As educators, let's remember:

1.  That was then.  Some of our less effective practices of the past were our best at the time.

2.  This is now.  More is known about how young brains work, the social nature of learning, and the skills needed for success in jobs not yet envisioned.

There is always a next step for our work.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

We Don't Already Do This

The instructional shifts needed in our classrooms are real.  Hard.  Worth it.  Professional practice in which teachers spend more time planning than grading is easier said than done.  Moving from questions with right answers to questions with no clear answers probably means that our students will be writing more than we want to grade.  We will be giving up some measure of control, which does not mean that classrooms will be chaotic, all answers-accepted-as-equal, participation trophy environments. Student centered classrooms are spaces of complex learning, in which teachers put in place the conditions for needed for student questioning, research, debate, failure + perseverance, productive struggle, meaning-making, and hard-earned growth.

There is a simple truth that we must accept, no matter what well-meaning encouragers tell us:

We don't already do this.

To the extent that we have made some changes we are on the right track.   But we can't settle for a message that comforts us.  As Margaret Wheatley advises, we must be willing to be disturbed.  Not crushed to the point of paralysis, but disturbed.

With everything in motion all at once, why would we engage in these shifts?  Things are just going to change again, as soon as we get used to all this stuff. Maybe even before. Grumble, grumble, grumble...

Here's the thing about change...we couldn't get to these needed shifts without all the work that came before.
The mighty oak was once a seedling.  Our efforts aren't wasted, they bring us to greater understanding and more powerful practices.  Onward and upward!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

What's on Your Screen?

It's Saturday  and we are lounging around in the family room after having been outside in various pursuits in the most beautiful weather thus far this year.  While family time might have once been a comfortable silence around a shared movie on TV, it is in this moment, the comfortable silence of each of us involved in our own on-screen experience.

My husband is combing through baseball data on the old desktop, thinking about his next fantasy baseball move.  I am reading an actual paper and ink book, but have set it aside and picked up the Chromebook to look up job prospects for the next decade on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website, as recommended by the author of the book.  I'll return to the traditional book in a few minutes.

It is a bit harder to surmise what my son and daughter are up to on their iPad and smart phone, so I just ask them.  "Nothing," they say, and I smile as I am immediately transported to their K-12 days, where "nothing' ever happened at school.  

My daughter explains that she is goofing off with SuperWhoLock on Pinterest.  That is, enjoying visuals and commentary from fans of the television shows Supernatural, Dr. Who, and Sherlock.  She skims the visual pins, engaging with accompanying text when drawn in.

My son tells me he is reading about carnivorous plants in South America. (There is no academic paper due here, or deep interest in botany, just an abiding curiosity about everything that was often at odds with school expectations all through his life...but that's another post, or is it?)  When asked what path he took to get to this article, he can only say that he started on Reddit and kept browsing until he wasn't bored.

This is a completely random snapshot of leisure time in 2014 across adulthood from age just-barely-there to close-to-retirement (that would be my husband, not me!) 

This picture strikes me as much more literacy-based than our leisure time would have been ten years ago. 
And it hits me that the fiction content of our leisure literacy is, in this moment, 0%.  

What are the implications for the classroom?  What kinds of reading and writing should kids be doing at school that prepares them for literacy in the real world?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Curiouser and Curiouser

In the topsy-turvy world  of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, Alice states, "I knew who I was this morning, but I've changed a few times since then."  I have experienced this odd sensation more than a few times this year.

I'm a true believer in the Common Core State Standards.  Here's why:  They are common across districts and states; read: unprecedented collaborative opportunities.  As a small example, Twitterchats would be far less relevant if we were all working toward different standards.

I love that the standards emphasize literacy as the way to access and make sense of content. They do not ignore listening and speaking as foundational to learning.  Writing is back. The standards are laced with technology expectations.  This last is likely the push many districts need to move into the century that is not too far from 15% complete.  (Shouldn't we have entered the 21st century some time ago?)

If the new standards were not infused with digital literacy expectations, would districts feel the need to push forward with technology?  I think districts are getting a nudge (okay, more like a shove) in a direction that is truly needed.

Best of all, teachers get to decide how to teach again!  The standards are silent on HOW to teach, and what materials to use.  Actually, not silent on that point at all!

"Fact: Teachers know best about what works in the classroom. That is why these standards establish what students need to learn but do not dictate how teachers should teach. Instead, schools and teachers will decide how best to help students reach the standards."

So here's the rabbit hole:

Recently, I was working with a group of teachers who began our time together grieving the testing burden on their students because of common quarterly assessments.  When I proposed a plan to eliminate half of these assessments, they decided to keep them all!  Why?  Because we are in a high-stakes environment.


That's why we have to do better for our students than steer them into assessment-driven comas.

Kids can read books that were written in their lifetime.  We don't have to fill in grammar worksheets.  We don't have to issue vocabulary lists.  Everyone doesn't have to read the same book.  Research isn't just for 'after the test' in May.  We don't have to make sure students master writing conventions before they can explore capturing their thoughts on the page or screen. We don't have to define writing assignments as a graded five-paragraph essay on a piece of paper that ruins the teacher's weekend because she has to read the same thing 120 times.  Heck, we don't even have to grade everything!

It's a high stakes environment...We have to pay attention to what we are doing... and if it is mind-numbingly dull, stop doing it!

As a curriculum coordinator, I expected that I would spend quite a bit of time advocating to administrators that teachers should be supported in their risk-taking innovative strategies.  Instead, more often than not I am making the case to teachers that administrators want to see a shake-up in classroom practices.

Things just get curiouser and curiouser.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Choose Your Approach

I've been trying to figure out how to tell this's an old tale, and like many others, the version I heard has an unfortunate cultural stereotype to here is a very generic version with the same great message.

So, there was this guy who is supposed to be a farmer but really he must be some kind of horse rancher,  and he gets the bad news that one of his fences has broken and all the horses have run away.  Although his neighbors and ranch hands are desperately upset about his loss, he takes in all in stride.

Sure enough the next day all the pretty horses return, and in their midst is a mighty stallion who was not part of the group before.  The neighbors and ranch hands are overjoyed because not only did the living assets return, but the added value of the stallion is more than they could have dreamed.

The farmer/rancher guy takes all this good news in stride, without particular jubilation.  Before you know it, his son has been thrown from the stallion's back, and he is laying in dirt moaning with a clearly broken arm.  The workers and neighbors mourn the rancher's terrible luck.  Just when things seemed to be going well, the son is temporarily disabled and the ranch will be harder to manage.

The next day all the kings horses and all the king's men come riding by, announcing that the king has decreed that all able-bodied young men are being rounded up to fight in the latest bloody war.  But of course our hero's son doesn't have to go because of his broken arm.

Is this guy lucky or has he just learned to go with the flow?

Although his workers and neighbors ride an emotional roller coaster of doomsday vs. ecstasy, the farmer/rancher character stays even-keeled through difficult times, knowing that a) it's not as bad as it looks, and b) a bit of relief is just around the corner.

It is tremendously challenging to function in the current educational environment.  It feels like decision makers haven't spend a day in the classroom, or if they have it was a very long time ago.  We jump through inane hoops and suffer all manner of time-wasters.  We are accountable to rules that haven't been written yet.

Have you lately considered the good that is happening?  Teachers are collaborating like never before.   Big sloppy discussions are taking place around content, instruction, and assessment.  These gatherings can be maddening, frustrating, and hurtful, and it would be easier and nicer in so many ways not to have them.  And yet...

Here are some of the things I have learned in the high stakes environment:

  • My students accelerated their learning when I stopped making excuses for them.
  • My colleagues have strengths that complement my shortcomings, and their push is good for me.
  • Restless preoccupation with what isn't working is different than feeling constant incompetence.
  • I need to both keep an open mind and find my voice when things get too ridiculous.
  • Some of what I prefer to do isn't as intentional as I like to think, and needs to be reassessed.
  • I can't be effective if I let myself feel beat up.
  • Judging doesn't work--it is backward facing.  What's Next?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Four Things to Love about Next Generation ELA Assessments...(and one thing to hate)

I had the good fortune to attend the PARCC ELC meeting in Chicago on October 8-9, and here are my takeaways about the upcoming ELA assessments.

What to love:

4.  Practice with question stems won't help.   My former teaching partner used to say, "Once January hits, every learning resource in the classroom comes with a staple."  It's true, too often teachers faced pressure to spend an inordinate amount of time on practice tests, practice question stems, practice answer documents, practice test the exclusion of authentic and engaging learning tasks that did not come fresh from the copier with a staple.  The best preparation for Next Generation Assessments is rich and varied reading, writing, listening, and speaking tasks, such as authentic research, Socratic Seminar, student presentations, debate, and crafting digital presentations.  Do the good stuff with a clear conscience right up until assessment day.

3.  Spelling lists and disconnected vocabulary lists also won't help much with test prep.  Vocabulary is tested, but the words chosen will be words that are central to the text, and contribute to deep comprehension of the author's purpose in writing the text.  So, toss out the old test prep lists, and instead, choose text worth reading to put in front of students.  Choose fewer vocab words, but make those choices count. Teach students how to understand words in context--a generative skill that can be used to understand any text.  And, know that there is a spell checker available to every student taking the PARCC NGAs, along with other accessibility tools. Does this mean we don't teach spelling patterns and strategies?  NO.  Does this mean that writing instruction is more than grammar and conventions, with a focus on crafting clear and coherent pieces?  YES.

2. Ollie Ollie In for all content areas.  Social Studies, Science, Music, Art, Business, Wellness, World Languages and all the other content areas have meaningful contributions to make to the literacy of our students.  The ELA assessments award points for reading comprehension, written expression, and language and conventions.  These are the "ins" to student learning in all disciplines, especially when taking a broad definition of texts, including multimedia, artwork, music, blueprints, business plans, and the whole gamut of what college and career ready students need to be able to read and write.

1.  The assessment itself promises to be a learning opportunity.  Gone are the days of the random ordering of random questions about random details from a random story.  The texts chosen are always of high thinkability, and sometimes texts are paired to provide deeper thinking.  The order in which short answer questions are presented scaffolds students up to the final task of writing an essay by providing the impetus to read the text closely for deeper comprehension--during the assessment itself.  By the time the student gets to the writing of the Prose Constructed Response, the meaning of the text will be more apparent than it was after the first read, intentionally helping the student to plan the writing.

...and one more thing, to hate...
Well, hate is a strong word, but it is very difficult to be in this period of transition.  The intent of next generation assessments is to bring authentic teaching and learning back!  The more closely we cling to our powerful new standards, the more comfortable it will be to work on developing real readers, writers, and thinkers, without the distraction of hoop jumping for test preparation.  It is hard to be patient while waiting, but more information is available almost daily on
The changes we seek are consequential, and making the incremental march toward them sometimes seem maddeningly slow, but staying the course for the long haul is worth it.  When you have moments of doubt, reread Ohio's New Learning Standards to remind yourself of the good outcomes we are seeking.

Brass Tacks

Did you ever have the good fortune to attend a presentation that resonated far beyond its intended focus, its message rippling outward in ever widening circles?  Bruce Taylor, arts education consultant for the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute and author, presented a session on the Arts and Common Core at the PARCC ELC meeting yesterday that was so masterful, it pushed my thinking far beyond its topic.  One image that he shared (and I've now stolen to head this post) kept me awake into the late night, pondering how to get to the brass tacks of some issues that are scratching at the surface of life, including this blog.

Although I am sure that the idea What's Next? is the unifying theme in my life and my work, I have been struggling with the purpose of my writing here. And, to get down to brass tacks,  I am a Curriculum Coordinator.  I am no longer a classroom teacher or a literacy coach (each a difficult role to give up) I want to get better in my role, and writing forces reflection and intentionality. I can't write as teacher-to-teacher or coach-to-coach.  My purpose in writing is beginning to crystallize. I want to make sense of the jumble of often wildly disconnected tasks to which my attention is directed over the course of a day, a week, a month. I want to work out the thorny issues involved in setting conditions under which teachers thrive.