Thursday, July 21, 2016

Different tools for different students

For a moment, you imagine writing three different lessons each day and teaching each one to the right group of students, but the thought of all that work feels, well, unsustainable at best, especially knowing that any given lesson might miss the mark. How can you make sure your teaching matches your kids?” (pg. 71)

            Differentiation is an overwhelming concept for many teachers, especially new teachers.  “How am I supposed to teach so many different lessons? I don’t have time!” is a frequent misunderstanding of what differentiation entails. The authors remind us that differentiation is not always teaching different lessons, but more often, providing different tools during a lesson.  This means that a teacher need to have a large tool chest of tools, and understand how each tools can support a learner. And, recognize (and articulate to students, parents and administration) that fair doesn’t mean the same, so various students will have different supports. Remember that picture? And, more importantly, once students get to know the tools also, they can differentiate for themselves. This is key – as my teaching motto states, “A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary. (Thomas Carruthers)

            Using the same tools introduced in previous chapters, the authors illustrate how demonstration notebooks, bookmarks, and micro-progression charts support meeting students where they are and helping them push forward.  In the demonstration notebook, the teacher can show (not just tell) students how to get to the next level in their writing or reading.  The strategies provided are drawn from what the teacher observes is a student (a group) needs and focuses on the WHAT and HOW to provide that model. An integral part of this is that the teacher needs to know that students – through conversation, observation and professional judgement, the teacher identifies the needs (not just some random test that is administered at the wrong time).

            Another handy chart introduced was the “If/Then” chart.  The teacher considers some of the problems students might encounter when working on a task and creates an If/Then chart to help them find a solution. On one side of the chart was an If statement, “If you are struggling to find the main idea…”  And, on the other side were some ideas, “Then, read a section, stop and ask yourself, “What is the point of this section?’” Bookmarks can be created of any of these tools and provided to students when they need it as a reminder. 

            But, how do get students to pay attention to and USE the tools provided? In chapter 6, the authors provide some strategies to troubleshoot typical problems with using tools:

  •  Use pop culture to get students to pay attention
  •  Incorporate metaphors to help students relate
  • Write with kid-friendly language
  •  Shake things up sometimes
  •  Include student voices
  •   Intentionally design the room to support student work
  • Schedule time to think about and create the tools
  •   Use design tools to create interest

The tools we make and the way we use them communicate message to our students…we have opportunities to give our students gifts of our knowledge through the handwritten message a tool holds” (pg. 105).  New teachers often fret about getting their classrooms ready and having the money to buy the pre-printed commercial products to stick on the walls.  But, the walls can and should be teaching and learning spaces create by, for, and with students to support their learning.  When I was a new teacher, I shared a room with a veteran teacher who believed that “stuff on walls distracts students.” I disliked teaching in that Pepto-Bismol pink room and I can’t imagine what the children thought (I was too new to realize that it was important as a teacher to listen to my students).  My mentor teacher bought all the cute Back to School pictures and Writing Process charts, but the room was sterile and the students glossed over the glossy print. When I finally got my own room, it was filled with student work examples, charts of graphic organizers, lists of things we brainstormed.   Now, with the knowledge of reading DIY Literacy, I can be more intentional on how I introduce these tools to my pre-service teachers and help them understand the power of making themselves progressively unnecessary.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

#CyberPD Chapters 3-4 - Remember and Rigor

As I sit here writing this reflection blog, I face my home office wall and view my “teaching charts.”

These are the things I need to remember when I sit down to write, grade, email, blog, think, and be the teacher and teacher-educator that I am.  As I am constantly busy, moving from one task to another, these visual reminders help me remember the skills and strategies that are important to my work.  It isn’t that I don’t know HOW to do these things, often I get caught up in the moment, focused on getting a task done, rather than a task done well. My “teaching charts” are my cues to use the practices that lift the level of my writing, thinking, and interacting with others.

This is the theme of chapter 3 – how tools can help students remember the skills and strategies that have been introduced in lessons.  As the authors state, “There was a palpable tension between the sheer volume of information the student encountered in a day and the assumption of quick recall and application” (pg. 38). Whether in kindergarten, grade 12, or at the college level, students are constantly bombarded with “lessons” from instructors, tugged into social media or social interactions, and mired in their own personal issues.  To help them refocus their thoughts, and increase the level of thinking, tools such as repertoire charts (reminder of past lessons), personalized bookmarks of strategies that work, or micro-progression charts (that show increasing sophistication of a process) can be useful. These tools, being co-created or co-constructed with students, enable the students to review and re-interpret their understanding of the strategies.

In today’s test-focused policies, rigor tends to mean that everyone must hit the same high standard, but the authors break rigor into two parts 1) The difficulty of the task and 2) a description of a behavior of performance (the work or effort). Rigor, using Carol Dweck’s growth mindset, means, “becoming is better than being” (pg. 54). In other words, “students seeing themselves as always working toward a new goal” (pg. 54). 

However, to be able to reach for the next goal, students need to see what the goal is and envision the steps toward achievement. There’s a famous quote of Jerry Sienfield, from his 1993 book SienLanguage, about teachers giving feedback:

“I always did well on essay tests. Just put everything you know on there, maybe you’ll hit it. And then you get the paper back from the teacher and she’s written just one word across the top of the page, “vague.” I thought “vague” was kind of vague. I’d write underneath it “unclear,” and send it back. She’d return it to me, “ambiguous.” I’d send it back to her, “cloudy.” We’re still corresponding to this day … “hazy” … “muddy”…”

Using the tool of a micro-progression chart, students can see the progression from a low level of performance to higher levels of performance.  Basically, it is creating the criteria for a rubric, with specific examples, to show students how their work can become more sophisticated with the addition of different strategies and skills.

Currently, I’m the edTPA coordinator for a small liberal arts college. The edTPA is a performance-based portfolio assessment for pre-service teachers. Although there are many issues with using this assessment as a high-stakes test, there are a few redeeming features of the process. In this assessment, student teachers need to complete three tasks – Planning, Instruction, and Assessment. The student teacher plans, teaches and video records 3-5 lessons, analyzes student work, and writes commentary using standardized prompts to show their thinking about how and what they taught.

One of the characteristics of accomplished teaching, according to edTPA, is student-focused instruction. In other words, modeling what students need to do, supporting their practice to help them achieve independence in using the skills or strategies.  In lessons, students need to be doing the work of learning, not the teacher.  As the authors refer to Carl Anderson, “if we [the teachers] are tired after class and the kids are rested and relaxed, having not done much, there is something off” (pg. 69).  Hopefully, one positive influence of edTPA will help change traditional school culture that emphasizes the teacher as “sage on the stage” and encourage more consistent, active engagement of students in their own work.

Another feature of the edTPA assessment is the use of rubrics to score each of the tasks. Now, I recognize that there are some issues with the overuse of rubrics, (see my article about 6-TraitsWriting Rubrics: Things That Make Us Smart Can Also Make Us Dumb), but having clear indicators of levels of performance can help students (and student teachers) envision what a strong performance looks like. The Micro-Progression Tool, as an interactive, co-created chart, helps students see the increasing complexity of work. When working with the teacher and their peers, each student can see that he/she is capable of the highest level of work. And, they then have the language to articulate how hard they want to work on future projects.

With edTPA there is a similar structure – the rubrics in the Subject Area Handbook and a separate Understanding Rubric Progressions. This second document shows student teachers what a level 3 performance might look like as compared to a level 5. Within the rubric, the additional levels of complexity are bolded to show the difference. For those student teachers who need to be concerned about achieving a passing score on their edTPA, this “micro-progression chart” is a valuable resource. It can also show new teachers the importance of helping students understand what a rubric really is – not just a grading tool, but a tool for students to see the progression of complexity in a task or assignment.

One why to help your students work harder is to make sure they know exactly what it means, and what it looks like, and how to reach for high performance. You can take the mystery out of the vague commend to work harder. You can show them the way” (pg. 69).

Monday, July 11, 2016

#CyberPD - DIY Literacy - Why tools?

One of my favorite teaching quotes is “A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary” attributed to Thomas Carruthers.  In the classroom, whether it is PreK-12 or higher education, it is my goal to help students become, as Kate and Maggie state “DIY warriors of their own learning” (pg. 2). Like the authors of DIY Learning, I believe that introducing various tools to students allows them to “do more, better work on their own” (pg. 2).  This is why I’m looking forward to reading DIY Learning with the community of #CyberPD so I can learn about new tools that I haven’t used to introduce them to my own students. 

Several years ago, I took a graduate course entitled “Tools for Thought” and it focused on the use of tools for thinking. One of the first tasks we had in class was to define a tool.  This isn’t as easy as you would think.  Try using a Frayer Model to complete this task. Think of all the various tools you use in everyday life and fill in the graphic organizer (which, BTW, is a tool).
Frayer Model
               ToolsEssential Characteristics
Non-Essential Characteristics

As a class, we spent most of the semester grappling with how to define a tool.  Tools generally help people accomplish tasks, such as a ruler measuring an object more accurately than eyeballing it, or a ramp allowing a person to place a heavy object at a higher level. When thought about in this way, almost everything could be categorized as a tool.  The definition of a tool that I finally arrived at is this:

Tools are objects, ideas, beliefs, institutions and/or processes that are designed, adapted or utilized - which allows one to accomplish a task faster, easier, better, or more reliably than doing the same task without the tool.  

But we mostly tend to think of physical tools such as a hammer or paper clip.  There are also tools for thought.  These tools allow people to remember, compute, reason or create ideas. So my definition of a tool for thought is:

Tools for thought are objects, ideas, institutions and/or processes that are designed, adapted or utilized - which allows one to recall, reason, create and/or communicate in ways that are faster, easier, better, or more reliably than doing the same task without the tool.

DIY Literacy is all about teaching tools that “help kids work hard and do better” plus, “help kids meet and match our deepest hope for them” (pg. 3). In addition, the tools should help organize and bring clarity to all the various reading and writing strategies that are introduced to children.  The authors state that they feel that using tools help learning stick because the tools are 1) Visual, 2) Making the abstract more concrete, and 3) Encourage repeated practice. 

In chapter 2, the authors categorize their tools into various categories:
·         Teaching Charts
·         Demonstration Notebooks
·         Micro-progressions of Skills (I would call this a Storyboard)
·         Bookmarks

As a classroom teacher, I’ve used several of these tools with my students and found they are useful. I have posted charts of graphic organizers, how-to directions, and illustration of process. My middle school students frequently used the bookmarks to prompt their thinking when reading and reacting to their independent reading. With my undergraduate students, I use presentation software, rather than a notebook for demonstration, but the idea is the same.  I believe in the power of tools.

Have you ever checked out the professional bookcase of a teacher? I wonder if you would agree with my observations. I have found it interesting that I can estimate how long a person has been teaching based on the books in their bookcase.  A novice teacher tends to have more workbook-like books that will provide photocopy-able versions of the bookmarks, strategy lists, and graphic organizers.  A teacher in their 3rd-5th year tends to start collecting books like the ones mentioned in the Bonus Chapter – books with more narrative and DIY-style practical suggestions that are meant to be contextualized. 

One of the things that I am appreciating with DIY Literacy is that it is bridging the path from “I need a solution NOW” with the “I can mine my own work for strategies.” As a veteran teacher and teacher educator, I’m using the ideas to re-think how I’m working with pre-service teachers and how I can better illustrate my own thinking as a teacher to new teachers using some of these same tools.