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.