Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Wish to Learn

Today was a normal day in my classroom.  Students read, discussed, self-evaluated, wrote, drew, peer reviewed, conferred, learned and laughed.  As a teacher, I have to step back sometimes and just remind myself how privileged I am to have the opportunity to be invited into this process as the students share their thoughts and work with me.

Like most workshop style classrooms, students were working on multiple things.  Students met in student-led discussion groups to talk about books like Bud, Not Buddy or Johnny Tremain and other coming-of-age stories.  At first, when introduced to student-led discussion groups, most groups focused on comprehension of the story and making sure they talked about all the things they wrote down in their reading response log.  But now, after about seven sessions, the conversations are becoming deeper - why did a particular character react in that manner?  Why is something so important to the character?  How would you deal with this situation?  In addition, students are demonstrating that they are understanding that the purpose of the group is to help them make meaning of the book, not just understand the plot.  Students are becoming more confident in bringing confusions to the group to seek clarification.  At the end of the discussion, I ask students to self-evaluate themselves and specifically, how the discussion helped change their thinking or understanding of a part of the story.  At first, this questions stymied many students, but they now are able to pinpoint a moment of clarification or re-consideration.

In a writing workshop, students worked on several different pieces of writing - each in different stages of the writing process.  Student just finished editorials and have are working on revisions for that.  I was surpirsed at how little coaching students needed in selecting topics for the editorial.  Although the media myth of teenage-hood is apathy, it it just not true.  Every student is passionate about something - I just have to ask enough questions to get to it. 

Today, they learned about political cartoons.  We looked at several examples and noticed how the juxtaposition of a humorous picture with a serious message makes the message stand out more.  Or, the image of something expected next to the unexpected title or text grabs the attention of the reader.  The students were eager to try their own hand at creating their cartoons and the results made me both laugh and cry.  Middle schoolers DO understand irony and can wield it well!

One of the aspects of workshop that I find most valuable is the independence it fosters in students.  Too often students are directed by teachers from 8 am until 3 pm in what, how, why and when they will complete tasks.  With multiple pieces in the works, including projects, reading and writing, students have more choice in the work they do and the topics they read and write.  Again, this was difficult at first for many students to adjust to - with a lot of "What do I do next?" and "Is this okay?"  But, over time, students have become more comfortable with knowing what choices they have and how to arrange their time to fit both their own needs and the due dates given.  I have a quick "status of the class" type conversation at the beginning of workshop time (ie "What are you working on?") and then move about to confer with students about the various pieces they are working on.  In sports-speech - It is so exciting to coach students in the midst of the game, rather than at the end of the game when reviewing tapes of the play.  In other words, it is exciting to see how students adjust their work in the middle of working, rather than waiting until the end and asking them to re-do things.  It is in these daily, one-to-one conversations that the students are constantly improving their work - even though it doesn't feel like revision.

A constant tension for me though is giving both choice and structure to fit the needs of middle schoolers and the needs of standards. The Right Honourable John Lubbock, 1st Baron Avebury, an English Renaissance type man, wrote in his book The Pleasures of Life, "The important thing is not so much that every child should be taught, as that every child should be given the wish to learn. What does it matter if the pupil know a little more or a little less? A boy who leaves school knowing much, but hating his lessons, will soon have forgotten almost all he ever learned; while another who had acquired a thirst for knowledge, even if he had learned little, would soon teach himself more than the first ever knew. Children are by nature eager for information. They are always putting questions. This ought to be encouraged."  My constant goal in the classroom is to help students become independent learners and life-long learners.  Both prospects are hinged on the idea that learning is self-directed, enjoyable, and on-going - elements that tend to be lacking in a lot of schooling endeavors.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

#cebc #ce12 Book Club: The Connected Educator

I just stumbled on the Connected Educators Book Club. The first live webinar was last night, but the archives are posted. Plus, there is a Ning for discussing the books. Being a Ning, I had to create a user name/password, so the discussions are semi-private. After the amazing learning via #cyberPD, I figured I would jump into this one. For more information go to the Club's website:

The first book in the book club is Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach’s The Connected Educator (co-authored with Lani Ritter Hall), “which compellingly lays out a step-by-step path to using online connected communities to become a connected learner engaged in do-it- yourself professional development” according to the website. I checked our university library and will be picking up the book this afternoon, but the first chapter is available at Solution Tree. Bill Boyd has a nice overview at his site, The Literacy Adviser.

Nussbaum-Beach's introduction says that the purpose of the book is to address teachers as learners first and educators second. In other words, the book is to help readers/users learn how to create and maintain personal learning networks (PLN) and communities (PLC), which will then help educators envision how to use them in the classroom. I've been involved in Twitter and the ECNing for a while, but I know I could be more organized and more strategic with my PLN.

One statement that resonated with me immediately was the recognition of the traditional solo learner.  Nussbaum-Beach says, “Yet in most schools, still, the assumptions are that learning is an individual process, that learning has a beginning and an end, that learning happens in schools separately from the rest of life’s activities, and that learning is the result of teaching. Technology is beginning to shift those assumptions and change the way, we, as educators, learn” (p. 10). As I've mentioned before, I struggle with creating “group” projects that require interdependence between students because, being American, I've grown up in a culture of Me-cracy and individual competition. As my mom has often told me, I was a stubborn child and would stamp my feet and say, “I'll do it myself” while she watched in frustration as simple tasks took much longer than necessary. Guess I ignored Vygotsky's theory of learning via the zone of proximal development (ZDP) and the more knowledgeable other (MKO)! I know I need to break my own habits of working alone and create spaces and opportunities for my students (and their parents) to learn how a community of learners is more powerful than learning alone.

I had the great fortune of having a computer-savvy husband/teacher, who took me to the NECC conference for many years, which is now the International Society of Technology in Education conference. Through that experience, I started this blog (see first post) and have been posting intermittently and connecting to others through this blog. Nussbaum-Beach highlights the importance of participating in the cyberworld, which makes sense to me because just being a lurker doesn't provide long-term learning and change. She says, “Becoming a connected, do-it-yourself learner begins with your willingness to be a findable, clickable, searchable-on-Google person who shares openly and transparently. From there we can form a connection, a conversation, a relationship and begin to collaborate” (p. 11).

I find the “Do-it-yourself learner” term to be quite intriguing. I've been listening to Daniel Pink's Drive:The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and am currently on the chapter on Mastery and Flow. The do-it-yourself learning reminds me of the importance of autonomy and choice. Pink states, “While complying can be an effective strategy for physical survival, it’s a lousy one for personal fulfillment. Living a satisfying life requires more than simply meeting the demands of those in control. Yet in our offices and our classrooms we have way too much compliance and way too little engagement. The former might get you through the day, but only the latter will get you through the night” (p. 112). So much of schooling – professional development for teachers and daily classes for students are about compliance. However, when learners get to CHOOSE what and how they want to learn, they become ENGAGED and enter a state of FLOW. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (in Finding Flow) identified nine elements of flow:
  1. There are clear goals every step of the way.
  2. There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
  3. There is a balance between challenges and skills.
  4. Action and awareness are merged.
  5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
  6. There is no worry of failure.
  7. Self-consciousness disappears.
  8. The sense of time becomes distorted.
  9. The activity becomes “autotelic” (an end in itself, done for it’s own sake).

When I am working with others – talking with student teachers, collaborating with teachers, facilitating a classroom lesson, giving a workshop – I find my flow. Again, that is the power of learning together, rather than learning alone! Nussbaum-Beach says, “The simple truth is that there is a limit to how much we can learn if we keep to ourselves (Fullan & Hargreaves, 1991). By deepening our connectedness to the level of true collaboration, we can best meet the needs of today's students” (p. 12).

I've read many technology for teacher books that insist that they are “interactive” but I have to say, this one is impressive so far. The authors have provided many active links at the publisher's website, plus have “Get Connected” activities at the end of each chapter.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

#CyberPD WrapUp - Growing Our Thinking Together

Like Johnston, Gail Tompkins advocates for the creation of a community of learners in the classroom. In Literacy for the 21st Century: A Balanced Approach Tompkins (2009, p. 17) describes the characteristics of a community of learners environment:
Responsibility - Teachers set guidelines and expect students to be responsible. They also model responsible behavior. Students assume responsibility for their learning and behavior in the classroom.
Opportunities -Teachers provide opportunities for students to read and write in genuine and meaningful activities. Students actively participate in activities, for example, reading independently and sharing their writing with classmates.
Engagement - Teachers nurture students’ engagement through authentic activities and opportunities to work with classmates. Students become more engaged in literacy activities and spend more time reading and writing.
Demonstration - Teachers model what good readers and writers do using think-alouds to explain their thinking. Students carefully observe teachers’ demonstrations and then practice by modeling their thinking for classmates.
Risk Taking - Teachers encourage students to take risks while exploring a new idea and de-emphasize the need to always get things “right.” Students understand that learning is a process of taking risks and exploring ideas.
Instruction -Teachers provide explicit instruction through mini-lessons and provide opportunities for guided practice. Students participate in mini-lessons and apply what they’re learning in literacy activities.
Response - Teachers provide opportunities for students to respond to books they’re reading and to classmates’ writing. Students respond to books in reading logs and grand conversations and listen attentively to classmates share their writing.
Choice - Teachers offer choices because they understand that students are more motivated when they can make choices. Students make choices about some books they read, projects they create, and compositions they write.
Time - Teachers organize the schedule with large chunks of time for reading and writing. Students understand the classroom schedule and complete assignments when they’re due.
Assessment -Teachers monitor students’ learning and set guidelines about how students will be graded. Students understand how they will be assessed and often participate in self-assessment.

For the past year, I've had the honor of visiting two third-grade classrooms with two teachers who worked hard to create a community of learners with their students and I want to share a story of the students' view of this type of classroom.

To help students practice listening to each other and speak to and build off of each other's ideas, the teachers provided sentence starters to help the students develop the language of connecting ideas. The rules of engagement for this particular discussion was that everyone had to speak once before anyone could speak a second time and that the comment had to connect to another student's comment (agree, disagree, add to etc). After this especially intense discussion that included both third grade classes, the teachers asked the students to think about the process and reasons for having discussions. As scribes, the teachers captured the thinking of the students on a chart. The students said:

Growing Our Thinking Together
  • Our thinking grows like a balloon with each comment from a friend
  • It gives us confidence
  • We capture other people's thinking
  • We build on what others say, like knots in a rope (they had studied Quipus (talking knots) of Peru)
  • We cooperate, listen and ask for clarification
  • We restate our ideas
  • Everyone contributes
  • We yield to each other
    • Let less talkative people go first
    • Person with relevant information goes first (valuable)
    • Let the person who is responding to another go first

This metaphor, of growing our thinking together like a balloon, carried over for the rest of the year. If a student derailed a conversation, it was called “popping the balloon.” It was so powerful to hear the students recognize the power their own language had on others.

Like many others have said, I will need to re-read Opening Minds to really let the ideas simmer. It is my goal this school year to create a community of learners in my classroom where I learn along with my students and honor the contributions they provide.

If you would like to join the conversation about Peter Johnston's book Opening Minds:Using Language to Change Lives, check out #CyberPD on Twitter, or this week's host, Carol, at Carol's Corner.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Guided Reading, Or Not

From Mondo Publishing
Mark Barnes has a very provocative blog entry “Top Five Reasons To Eliminate Guided Reading.” In it, he states that “we'd read one novel for six weeks, analyzing every chapter, completing vocabulary worksheets and fill-in-the-blank plot charts. Then, after one truly amazing summer of research, I decided to stop the guided reading madness forever” because: 
  1. Guided reading teaches students to hate books
  2. Guided reading is about teacher control
  3. Guided reading stifles readers
  4. Guided reading work is boring
  5. Guided reading does not teach reading

I've had the fortune to work in schools that haven't had a lot of class sets of books, so I've had the opportunity to form literature circles, partner reads and a lot of individual choice reading. Yet, the stubborn idea of class lists of books continues to pervade the teaching of English. I recognize that many people (parents, teachers, administration and the general public) have a sense of tradition/classics, a passing on of cultural knowledge via books, but what teachers assign students to read is not necessarily read. How important is it that EVERY 10th grader read To Kill a Mockingbird? My nephew informed me that he hated the book so he never actually read it for class. I wonder, will he ever give it a chance later in life, or is he turned off of it forever?

With my work with student teachers and new teachers, one question I'm frequently asked is, “What activities do you have for XXX title?” This is lesson planning based on materials, rather than planning lessons on what students need to learn and know how to do. As Stephan Covey once said, “Begin with the end in mind.” And I believe this is essential when working with students. Isn't the development of skills, thinking, knowledge, and dispositions more important than the materials read? Won't these things be developed more deeply when students get to choose what to read and how to demonstrate their understanding rather than depend on a teacher to tell them when, where, and how to read and demonstrate knowledge?

In the Twitter #cyberPD chat (Archive here), we talked about how to re-envision the classroom to support dynamic views of students, learning and knowledge, but with that, how to help parents re-envision education – the purpose, structure and methods used. As I am now a “veteran” teacher, I feel like I should be able to be pro-active about explaining how and why I do things in the classroom, but I still struggle with articulating this clearly and succinctly for parents.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

#CyberPD Opening Minds Chapters 7-9

One of the things that I have especially appreciated with Opening Minds is that Johnston tackles the most important issue in education – namely, what is the purpose of education? Granted, this issue has been debated for thousands of years, so I don't expect is to be solved in my lifetime, but in just the last 100 years, the purpose of education has become increasingly narrowed. As he highlights in chapter 9, the political purposes of education is the nation's economic survival and global competitiveness. This view had been forced on school systems, parents and the media through the focus on high-stakes testing and global comparisons. However, as the quote illustrates, making a living doesn't necessarily guarantee making a life. This is the ribbon weaving through chapters 7-9 – support for the moral and ethical purposes of education.

Moral Development and Civic Engagement (Chapter 7)

Too often character education is just another class or add-on to the school day. I remember school assemblies introducing each of the 6 pillars of character education with cheesy posters covering the walls and “Catch 'Em Being Good” slips handed out as a reward for acting like a good citizen through being responsible, caring, respectful, trustworthy, and fair. As a kid, I never made the connection that these behaviors were suppose to guide classroom interaction (and ultimately used in real life), it just seemed like something to worry about during lunch and recess – and hope that the teacher caught me being good. Johnston contends that every classroom interaction is a model for moral development and civic engagement – for better or for worse. Students are engaged daily with making moral decisions in the way they treat each other and interrogate ideas. How does my classroom apprentice students into becoming a member of society? Am I fostering intense engagement with texts and ideas or passive acceptance of facts?

Fairness is a huge issues with students, I know. And Johnston highlights a classroom that normalizes the discussion of fairness. Somewhere I once read a teacher's philosophy statement that said something like, “I don't want to treat students equally, just fairly.” I've used that idea with students before, but without the constant conversation about exploration of fairness, it just came off like a bumper sticker platitude. But, I think one of the best illustrations of this ideal is the cartoon about standardized testing. "Everyone is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." -Albert Einstein

A huge part of moral development and civic engagement is the development of social imagination, as mentioned in chapter 6. Not only in taking perspectives, but in recognizing that there are differences in perspectives across cultures and time. In studying history, it is called historical perspective taking or empathy, which is recognizing the social, cultural, intellectual, and emotional differences of the time period and not applying 21st Century mores to it. Much of multicultural education (and world religion curricula) have tried to bridge the similarities to create connections, but this diminishes the understanding of differences and how these differences may lead to diverse moral choices and actions. My classroom instruction needs to help students learn how to explore differences in a non-judgmental way which will lead to more empathy toward others, open mindedness, and a willingness to engage with difference.

Thinking and Working Together (Chapter 8)

“Thinking well together leads to thinking well alone.” (p. 96)

I have incorporated project based learning and cooperative groups in my teaching for years, but every year I have a parent or student who feel, as Johnston pointed out, that group work is unfair to the high-ability students or is in essence “cheating” because students are not working individually. However, in my experience, being involved in a group (like #CyberPD) forces me to individually clarify my thinking for an audience and revise my thinking as it is challenged by other perspectives. However, since most of schooling is based on individual achievement, many students do not know how to engage in thinking together. It is my goal this to help them develop the language and behaviors needed to work positively together and learn from each other. Listening is a major part of working together, as Johnston states, “Listening is the foundation of a conversation and it requires that we are open to the possibility of changing our thinking” (p. 102) Years ago I bought a book 125 Ways to be a Better Listener: A Program for Listening Success by Nan Stutzman Graser. At that time, I had my 8th graders develop mini-lessons for each other bases on the lessons in the book. I might need to break that book out again.

Most years I have my middle schoolers design posters illustrating (in comic strip form) the ideal classroom and the worst nightmare to talk about general classroom behaviors. Johnston suggests having students create “Rules for Thinking Engagement” - to focus on what makes a conversation engaging and productive. This makes thinking together an object of study and allows for review and revision of the process.

Choice Worlds (Chapter 9)

Returning to the big questions – what kind of world am I creating in my classroom through my language and actions? Does my language reflect my beliefs and vice versa? How have my students imitated this? And the biggest question – what is the purpose of education?

Although is seems like the main purpose of education should be academic success, the “failure to attend to children's moral and social development will lead neither to happiness nor to economic security” (p. 114). Yes, I will be teaching English and history content, but I will also be teaching and modeling how to be a member of a community and the broader society. Fair and equitable education is so much more than exposing kids to the same content, or expecting everyone to be proficient on a narrow range of skills. “A better concept of a fair education would be to try to have every child develop as fully as possible. Of course we have no way of knowing what is possible for each child. All we can do is arrange for children to be fully engaged in ways that we know lead to expanded development. . . When children are fully engaged in an activity, they press into service all of their resources and stretch themselves as necessary. Children are more engaged when they have choice, a degree of autonomy, and when they see the activity as relevant.” (p.118). I think this is an outstanding philosophy for a school to embrace!

In some ways, I feel a bit paralyzed when recognizing the impact my comments can make on students. The hyper-awareness is a bit daunting – but then I have to remind myself about the lovely word “Yet”.

Johnston's final words, spoken and unspoken, “Well, now you know . . . “ What am I going to do about it? What an exciting challenge to take up as I enter the new school year!

If you would like to join the conversation about Peter Johnston's book Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives, check out #CyberPD on Twitter, or this week's host, Laura at Our Camp Read-A-Lot.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Qualities of Outstanding Teachers - According to Students

Photo from Teaching English
 I stumbled on an article at Edutopia about six outstanding teachers in California who were honored by their former students.  The article ended with the following "Keys to Success".  What I find most interesting is that the qualities that the students valued were not about entertainment or easiness - but rather that they were challenged with high expectations by teachers who were genuinely interested in their students and passionate about teaching and their subject.

I wonder, what would teacher evaluation schemes and professional development programs look like if these "keys to success" were the criteria?  That is obviously a tongue in cheek question, as it would be difficult and disastrous to try and measure these qualities.   But, as a teacher, I should strive to embody these!

Keys to Success

In addition to working in schools with challenges, the winning teachers have many things in common. Tim Allen, Director of the Carlston Family Foundation, interviewed hundreds of students who listed the qualities that make their favorite teacher stand out from the rest of the faculty. Here are nine of the key qualities/strategies that outstanding teachers share.
  1. They show a deep passion for teaching; they love their subject matter and know it thoroughly.
  2. They hold high expectations that are fair, reasonable, consistent and clear.
  3. They are scholarly and love learning themselves.
  4. They hold all students equally accountable and responsible for learning and for their behavior.
  5. They plan every minute of class time; there is never a wasted moment.
  6. They will never leave students behind and will allow other students to help those who have difficulty.
  7. They make the subject matter relevant to the lives of students and their immediate experience.
  8. They have respect for students, are insightful about them on a day-to-day basis, and are non-judgmental.
  9. They are authentic, real and appropriately autobiographical.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

#CyberPD Opening Minds Chapters 4-6

Children collaborating on drawing a picture from
Early Learning Central
A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary. - Thomas Carruthers

Although the titles of this week's chapters seem to indicate they are incredibly different topics, the theme that I found through each of them is shifting the responsibility for learning to the students rather than the teacher. The teacher is still responsible for the creation of a learning environment, and it is through the language that teacher uses (and associative practices) that he/she creates an environment where students learn from each other and individually become active agents in their own learning. This is done through thoughtful use of feedback, the creation of a culture of alternative thinking, and the development of social imagination.

Feedforward Rather Than Feedback (Chapter 4)

If the purpose of feedback is to improve further understanding and build skills while deepening perseverance in learning, than the more appropriate term might be feedforward (creating the worldview of progressing forward, rather than regressing back). Too often schools have focused on assessment (or using assessment as data) as the final hurdle to be jumped in a unit (or year) rather than a part of the learning process. Or, with Generation Me, students are praised with the mistaken belief that praise will increase self-esteem and motivation.

Johnston transforms the purpose of feedback to one that creates student narratives of agency and a dynamic mind-set of learning. He states, “The heart of formative assessment is finding the edges of students' learning and helping them to take up possibilities of growth” (p. 40). This means that feedback needs to focus on process and be non-judgmental, as judgement creates a fix-attribute mind-set. A focus on process helps students imagine and believe in the possibility of change and progress. The alternatives to straight-up praise or criticism is:
  • Talk about cause and effect - “When you did __________ , I noticed ______
  • Be positive (which doesn't mean praise) and notice strategies used
  • Provide alternative ways of looking at the work
  • Notice what is partially correct and work from what the students have shown they know

As teachers, we need to model these ways of providing feedback and encourage students to take up these models in their interaction with each other as peer interaction is the majority of a student's day.

Flexible and Collaborative Thinking (Chapter 5)

In a dynamic-learning frame knowledge is also dynamic. I know this is a radical idea for many people who grew up in a world of fixed-knowledge (Just the facts, Ma'am). When knowledge is dynamic, the construction of understanding is influenced by the perspectives and contexts of the individuals involved. Dialogue is the foundation of building flexible and collaborative thinking and the perception of uncertainty enables this dialogue. This means that we as teachers need to model comfort with uncertainty and expect disagreements but also explanation of personal positions. I have seen the teachers I work with do some amazing things to build knowledge together with their students. When a question comes up that doesn't have an immediate answer, the teacher says, “How can we find out the answer to that?” The teachers I've worked with use their whiteboard and chart papers to record their students' thinking and help them see the connections between ideas.

Social Imagination (Chapter 6)
Learning is fundamentally a social activity. Part of existing as a social being is learning how to read cues from others, imagine the perspectives of others and possible outcomes of actions. Johnston calls the first part “mind reading” - being able to read and interpret body language and cues accurately. Social reasoning is the ability to take perspectives and imagine possible outcomes. By helping students develop their social imaginations, they are also more likely to be able to self-regulate themselves and understand the consequences of their behaviors. Although these skills are not often listed in standards and benchmarks, nor tested, they are essential in building relationships with others – which provides the opportune environment for learning. Teachers can support the development of social imagination by asking students to imagine the motivations of book characters or classmates, posit multiple reasons for incidents, role play how to manage events, and guiding students to problem solve together.

If you would like to join the conversation about Peter Johnston's book Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives, check out #CyberPD on Twitter, or this week's host, Jill Fisch at My Primary Passion.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

#CyberPD Opening Minds Chapters 1-3

“Errors usually happen at the edge of what we can do, when we are stretching into new territory – when we are learning” (Johnston, 2012, p. 3)

I think this is my new motto – giving myself (and my students) permission and encouragement to make errors, because that is a sign of learning. That being said, this blog and this post is an exploration of what I understand from the first three chapters of Peter Johnston's book Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives.

One word changes meaning and can change lives and create worlds. I have supervised practicum students and student teachers for the past four years and often press my students into considering the power of the words they use with students. Throughout their elementary training, they are encouraged to praise and compliment students, but the form of compliment can create a sense of fixed-performance attributes (You are so smart to figure this out.) or dynamic-learning attribute (You worked hard to figure it out.) These are some powerful narratives that students adopt through their interactions with the teacher and their peers – which all hinge on the power of words to create the world the students inhabit.

In a world of fixed-performance, a student is born with a talent or inherently smart. This would indicate that no amount of effort, studying or feedback is going to change the threshold of the student's ability. In this world, the student may fear challenge, refuse practice, feel helpless and have a lot of negative self-talk.

In a world of dynamic-learning, a student can change, grow and has agency. This may be exhibited in greater risk-taking when learning, confidence in ability to learn, and motivation to practice and make mistakes.

One of the most most powerful words in a dynamic-learning world, according to Johnston, is the word “yet” because it creates a sense of optimism and agency, “I know know how to do this yet.”

What type of world would I like my students to inhabit? The answer is a resounding dynamic-learning world. Johnston provides several suggestions on how to create this type of world.
  1. Focus on change (over time) – Look how far we've come!
  2. Focus on process – How did you figure that out?
  3. Normalize making errors – and how to fix them
  4. Respect students by authentically listening to them, giving real choices and appropriate responsibilities
  5. Pay attention to how language molds the world

    You can join the conversation about Opening Minds anytime.  Check out the instructions at Cathy's Refine and Reflect

Friday, June 22, 2012

Book Review: Choice Words

In July, Cathy et al at Refine andReflect are hosting a #cyberPD summer reading discussion based on Peter Johnston's Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives. In preparation (and while waiting for Amazon to deliver Opening Minds), I decided to re-read Johnston's Choice Words. It is a good reminder about the power of teachers' words in designing the classroom environment and creating students' identities.

Johnston begins with quoting Vygotsky (1978), which I think is a very powerful thing to remember, "children grow into the intellectual life around them" (p. 88). What kind of intellectual life am I creating in my classroom? What am I modeling through my words and actions about how to access and create knowledge? These are some big questions to answers - and it goes beyond naming the content and materials of the course. The foundation of teaching is the relationship between teacher and student, and since speech is action (Austin, 1962) teachers have the daunting responsibility of "naming" students - who is a good reader or struggling student? I need to be aware of how my language positions students in my classroom and be intentional in creating positive identities and attuned to how my students are rejecting, accepting and modifying the identities available. Johnston then elaborates in each chapter the power of particular ways of using language in the classroom.

When people are apprentices to an activity, any activity, they have to learn the names of things/actions and the importance of these things/actions. Students in my classroom need to learn the language of classroom activities, ways of thinking and doing, I can't assume they know it. Once something is noticed (and named) it influences the continued perception of everything (ie. I can't "un-notice" something). In the classroom, I need to help my students develop the language and habit of noticing and naming their thinking and actions using phrases such as "Did you notice ... What kind of .... What process did you use to ..."

Teachers have great power (and with it comes great responsibility) in creating identities for children. Naming one child a great writing and another a struggling reader can have long-range consequences. "Building an identity means coming to see in ourselves the characteristics of particular categories (and roles) of people and developing a sense of what is feels like to be that sort of person and being in certain social spaces" (p. 23) Yes, children have agency to reject, modify or accept the identities available, but some do not know how to use their agency. "Teachers' conversation with children help the children build bridges between action and consequences that develop their sense of agency" (p. 30). Agency is easy to feel when there is direct cause/effect, but so much in learning is delayed. Writing a story often doesn't have an effect until it is read by another person, and even then the effect is subtle. I need to help my students create and tell stories (narratives) about themselves that include them having choices, control and positive outcomes. Phrases may include things like "How did you figure this out? What problems did you encounter? What are you going with this?"

In my research and literature review of discussion in the classroom, I have seen that it is still prevalent to have the traditional IRE pattern of discussion in the classroom, which Johnston confirms. The teacher Initiates with a known-answer question, the student Responds with an answer, and the teacher Evaluates the answer and moves on. Whoever poses the questions determines the topic of conversation, and most often, the questions are surface level or shallow. "Learning to act as a recipient of information and to display receipt of information ... [ is not the same as] building on ideas in a shared endeavor [ in which] participants' roles can vary widely, such as leading a shared inquiry, playing around with an idea together or closely following other people's lines of thought" (quoting Rogoff & Toma, 1997, p. 475). Knowledge building requires authentic questions, space for trying out ideas, and ways of connecting ideas together.

Often students are asked to work in groups, not as groups. As I begin designing lessons, one of my goals is to help students learn the skills of creating a community that supports each other and depends on each other, while bringing out the best qualities of each individual. “Democracy is neither a possession nor a guaranteed achievement. It is forever in the making; it might be thought of as a possibility—moral and imaginative possibility. For surely it has to do with the way person attend to one another, care for one another, and interact with one another. It has to do with choices and alternatives with the capacity to look at things as though they could be otherwise” (Maxine Greene, 1985, p. 3).

A teacher's conscious and unconscious expectations of the student in front of them is evident in the way the teacher speaks and treats the student, and students will internalize and act accordingly, either accepting or rebelling against the perceived identities. One question I need to ask myself, and help my students ask is "What image of humanity is inherent in it [this situation]" (Young, 1992).

“I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.” Dr. Haim Ginott

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Book Review: Visible Learning for Teachers

Title: Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning
Author: John Hattie
Publisher: Routledge
Year: 2012
ISBN: 978-0-415-69015-7

"When teaching and learning are visible there is a greater likelihood of students reaching higher levels of achievement" (p. 18).

This seems to be an obvious statement - kind of like the proverb, if you don't know your destination, how will you ever know you have arrived.  However, in my experience, many teachers do not make their teaching expectations and learning goals visible for the students they work with.  I've mentioned before my use of backward design and teaching for understanding, which asks teachers to 1) Describe what understanding looks like in your subject area (and then unit). 2) Plan backwards from the end of the unit (What should students be able to know and do?) to the beginning (What skills, strategies and dispositions to student need to learn and practice to get to the understanding?).  Hattie's book, originating out of  New Zealand and Australia, continues to support these ideas, but goes a step further  - insisting that the largest factor of student success is the teacher.  His book, based on meta-analysis of over 52,000 studies on student learning, elaborates on what he believes are the key moves that teachers can make to increase achievement - and it begins with the teacher's mind set, not with the program or curriculum.

Hattie believes that teachers are the major players in the educational process.  Again, this seems like an obvious statement, but more programs and curricula are trying to squeeze out the influence of the teacher with the mistaken belief that the research-based curriculum is the answer to all that troubles schools.    Schools do not have control over student background, prior experiences, or preferences, but teachers DO have control over their own beliefs, commitments, and ultimately, actions. It is the attitude and expectations of the teacher that determines the decisions and actions that happen in the classroom, for both the teacher and the students.

There is a difference between experienced teachers and expert teachers in 5 crucial ways.
1) Expert teachers identify the most important ways to represent their subject (integrating ideas)
2) Expert teachers are proficient at creating an optimal classroom climate for learning (trust)
3) Expert teachers monitor learning and provide feedback consistently
4) Expert teachers believe that ALL students can reach the success criteria
5) Expert teacher believe that they can influence surface and deep level outcomes

All of this happens before the teacher walks into the classroom.  Then, Hattie breaks down the lesson planning into - preparing, starting, flow of learning, flow of feedback and end of the lesson.  Being a meta-analysis, he gives a lot of statistics about the studies he has reviewed but there are some very basic ideas that are important.
*Know the students and begin with what they know
*Focus on creating dialogue (not monologue) in the classroom
*Aim students at the goal (be explicit about what they should do and how)
*Balance surface level knowledge and deep understanding
*Give feedback at multiple places and at multiple levels - including peer-to-peer and self-assessment
*Use errors as growth opportunities to see how students think
*Reflection should focus on the students - their learning and reactions, not teacher action

The last section of the books elaborates on what Hattie calls "Mind Frames" - the kind of thinking and beliefs that schools, school leaders and teachers need to have to promote success for all students:
1) Teachers/leaders need to believe that teaching has an effect on students - therefore, teachers need to evaluate the effectiveness of their interactions with students.
2) Teachers are change agents!
3) Schools should focus more on learning and less on teaching.
4) Assessment should be feedback - not a decision.
5) There needs to be more dialogue and less monologue (in classrooms AND in schools - professional development etc).
6) Teaching and learning is challenging - but this should be supported and embraced, not eliminated.
7) Positive, trusting relationships are necessary to support learning.
8) Teachers/leaders need to teach parents and the community the language of learning used in school and become partners in the learning process.

Appendix A includes a checklist for visible learning that includes much of the a fore mentioned items.  There is an assumption that the school environment supports peer visits etc - which in and of itself, is a good practice.  Appendix B lists the major details of each of the studies the author used to draw his meta-analysis from.

Overall, I can't say this was a fun read, as there were a lot of details of the studies along with effect sizes etc.  However, the major conclusions are significant.  At the last AERA, the theme was "To Know is Not Enough".  We do actually know a lot about what makes learning work, but we are still so entrenched in continuing to do things as they have always been done.  The way we taught 100 years ago will no longer work in an era that creativity and critical thinking is more valuable than following directions and learning one particular trade.  I'm glad I pick up this book (How could you resist the colorful cover?) as it highlights for me the importance of checking my own attitudes and beliefs about teaching and learning before I begin planning for the new school year.

John Hattie's early book, on which this book is based, is Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement.    At What Works Best, Atherton provides a summary, comments and some graphics from the book.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Summer Professional Reading #cyberPD

 I happened to stumble on Cathy's blog Refine and Reflect and found her posting about #cyberPD - posting and talking about your summer reading list.  I liked the idea and posted in her comment section, but figured I should post it here too. 

Opening Minds by Peter Johnston
Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning by John Hattie
The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller
Talk about Understanding by Ellin Oliver Keens
Digital Learning: Strengthening and Assessing 21st Century Skills by Ferdi Serim
Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings by Jeff Zwier & Marie Crawford
Teaching argument writing, grades 6-12 : supporting claims with relevant evidence and clear reasoning by George Hillocks, Jr.

Caught in the middle : reading and writing in the transition years by David Booth
Exemplary instruction in the middle grades : teaching that supports engagement and rigorous learning edited by Diane Lapp, Barbara Moss. 
History and imagination : reenactments for elementary social studies by Ronald Vaughan Morris
Teaching literature to adolescents by Richard Beach et al

And, here are a few other people posting their lists:

And a Google Doc with suggestions: 

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Title: Building Academic Language:Essential Practices for Content Classrooms, Grades 5-12
Author: Jeff Zwiers
Publisher: Jossey-Bass
Date: 2007
ISBN: 978-0787987619
Pages: 320

In the past, a good teacher was one who had solid content knowledge and an understanding of pedagogy (the techniques used to teach). However, recently there has been a focus on instructional use of language and how the use of academic language can enhance or restrict student opportunity to engage with content knowledge and ultimately, determine success in school. In addition, the soon to be mandatory Teacher Performance Assessment (for pre-service teacher certification) has a strong focus on the development of student academic language. All of this has made me consider my own use and planning for the use of academic language in the courses I teach – for K-12, undergraduate and graduate. How have I identified and planned for the language demands of each of the content areas I teach? This question led me to pick up Jeff Zwiers' book.

Students come to school with different social and linguistic capital (Bourdieu, 1986). In other words, the “ways of being” - the ways of thinking, determining values, use of language, use of body language and space, personal style and preferences etc – that the student grows up with produced different ways of interacting with the word. Like currency, some ways of being are more valued than others – and this is very evident in schools. Academic language and ways of being in school tend to match the white middle class culture and capital better than other social, economic and racial groups. There is often a mismatch of home and school cultures and if the student's home culture is not values, this can produce anger, frustration and eventual alienation of the student. Therefore, it is important for teachers to recognize their own social and linguistic capital and the assumptions they make about their students' capital – which may not match their own. When recognizing that school culture and academic language are one of the keys to success, teacher need to both value and challenge the knowledge and language students bring to school.

Academic language is not just particular vocabulary, but it includes the functions and features of language, according to Zwiers. Functions include describing complexity, higher-order thinking and abstraction. The features of language that allows it to function include figurative expressions, being explicit for distant audiences, using models, qualifiers, and intonation. The grammar of academic language also differs significantly from everyday language. Therefore, teachers need to model and scaffold academic language and thinking in ways that encourage students to use and make the language and thinking their own. Each subject area and discipline has it own particular ways of thinking and speaking, so it can't just be the English teacher's job! When teaching history, the teacher needs to be explicit about how to think, speak and write like a historian et cetera.

Discussion is a way for students to work with information and knowledge (Mercer, 2000) in ways that allow them to manipulate and make it their own. However, deep and productive discussions in classrooms need thoughtful planning and awareness of the academic language demands. Supports need to be provided to model the functions, features and grammars of the discipline using various graphic organizers or discussion formats. Zwiers provides a multitude of examples of these supports for reading, writing, speaking/listening for each of the big four content areas – English, Math, Social Studies, and Science. I was familiar with a lot of the examples Zwiers provided, as I am a firm believer that learning is a social activity and a proponent of discussion-based learning. However, there were ideas that I haven't tried yet!

Additional Resources:
Here are some resources that I've given to my student teachers to support discussions -

Here is a nice summary of Zwiers' brick and mortar words metaphor from Houston Independent School District's Literacy Support Network Wiki -  Academic Language - Bricks and Mortar

Friday, May 25, 2012

Book Review: The Art of Slow Reading: Six Time-Honored Practices for Engagement

Title: The Art of Slow Reading: Six Time-Honored Practices for Engagement
Authors: Thomas Newkirk
Date: 2011
ISBN: 978-0325037318
Pages: 224

Two dear teaching friends recommended this book to me. They have been completing a collaborative study of the book together and found a lot of “meaty” ideas in this book that have translated into their own teaching practice and then their articulation of practice. Using a reading workshop approach in their classes, these teachers have slowed down to read with their students and incorporated the six time-honored practices that Newkirk advocates. As I browsed through the table of contents, I can't say I was surprised by his suggestions of how to slow down and appreciate reading and learn more from reading, but like Burke's Reading Reminders and Writing Reminders, it is always good to be reminded of good habits!

Why slow down? The first part of the book makes the case for slowing down our reading to hear the author's voice, focus on single ideas, be in dialogue with the text/author and do more than just comprehend the text, but internalize and act on text. Newkirks traces the history of our current reading curriculum that values “fluency”, otherwise known as fast reading, over expressive and aesthetic reading. “To read a book . . . is an act of perseverance” (p. 36) in that the reader has to attend to the words, plot and context over time. Too often, we have a dueling consciousness – awareness of the time we are in while thinking about the time we are planning to be in. We have become so accustomed to the time pressures of school – timed tests, unit plans etc. - that we accept is as part of life along with the underlying ideologies that faster is better and the Bell Curve of ability. However, “being slow means that you control the rhythms of your own life” (p. 24 quoted from Carlo Petrini of the International Slow Food Movement) and it allows readers to get aesthetic appreciation and personal pleasure and connections from their reading, rather than a process of retrieval of information. Newkirk than re-animates six time-honored practices of slow reading.

Performance - Oral storytelling has been the foundational method of teaching and learning throughout the world and ages. Even with the advent of writing and the printing press, texts were still often read aloud and reading was a truly social event with essays, poetry, and readings being a highlight of any party. Silent reading is a relatively new phenomenon. O'Brien (1922) identified three types of readers – motor, who physically formed the words; auditory, who mentally imagined the formed words; and visual, who imagined the content of the words. The visual reader was more efficient, which began the movement to silence vocalization of reading. Efficiency was then linked to measurement (timed tests and DIBELS) and a belief the meaning is inherent in the text. However, Newkirk argues that it isn't the technical qualities of texts (like structure, thesis and transitions) that engage readers, it is the voice of the author. To slow down and focus on this voice, performance of reading needs to be re-introduced.

Memorization – Memorizing a passage or poem allows the reader to mediate on it and it becomes part of the reader. Most religious traditions take advantage of this method to help the novices think deeper about religious texts. Newkirk provides several examples of classroom lessons focusing on memorization through repetition by researching family proverbs/sayings or by encouraging students to learn and tell jokes. From my own experience, I would have to agree with Newkirk that there is value in memorizing texts that are personally meaningful. When I was in Army Basic Training, it shocked me how I was able to recall the things I memorized during childhood and this sustained and supported me through 10 mile hikes and 5 am PT runs.

Annotation – By annotating and marking up a text, the reader is taking responsibility for determining the meaning of the text. Writing is an intentional act with cues given in the title, openings, scenes, descriptions and subheadings. As readers, we need to pay attention to the cues. But, texts are not determinate – we will not get the exact intention of the writer, who may have had multiple intentions. Different readers find different patterns of significance (p. 117). Making the text your own by marking it up, allows the reader to have this dialogue with the writer. In educationese this is often called “active reading”.

Problematizing - “I am convinced that a crucial measure of intelligence – and by extension, reading – is the ability to work through this initial discomfort of situations that don't make sense, when our habitual patterns of understanding don't do the job” (pp. 119-120). When a reader gets to a difficult text, there are generally two choices – give up or struggle and find a solution. When a reader has learned to be helpless – ie the problem is a deficit in me, this deficit is unchangeable, and it is global – then, often the reader will give up. However, with a mind-set that intelligence is not something you have, but something you do then difficulties are opportunities to stop, reassess, and employ strategies for making sense of the problem.

Reading like a Writer – “Writing is, after all, an act of slow reading” (p. 10). Writers tend to be slow readers, like Francine Prose and her wonderful book, ReadingLike a Writer. Writers will savor and then deconstruct a great text to find out what makes it work. Again, Newkirk gives a few classroom examples of lessons. For example, giving students a text full of voice and de-voicing it (making it ordinary) or re-writing but just changing the punctuation.

Writing about Text - “We rarely simply comprehend, a word with root meanings of “grasp” or “hold. We act on it in some way – we explain it, teach it, quote it, perform it, evaluate it, analyze it, allow it to call up associated experiences and ideas. We create alongside the writer” (p. 170). Writing in response to reading fills in the white space between the words – that empty space that is filled with what the reader brings to the text. Newkirk evokes Johnston's (Choice Words,2004) prompts that extend thinking:
  • Alternative thinking – What else? What other ways?
  • Empathizing – How do you think she/he felt?
  • Causation – Why?
  • Hypothesizing/speculating – I wonder … What if?
  • Comparing – It's like …

When it comes down to it, we read for pleasure and meaning. Everything else - testing, career or global competitiveness etc. - is tangential. However, when those other things become the focus, the meaning and pleasure of reading is discarded. Which results in a situation where, “If we teach a child to read, yet develop not the taste for reading, all of our teaching is for naught. We shall have produced a nation of ‘illiterate literates’–those who know how to read but do not read” (Huck, 1973, p.305).

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

QR Codes - A New Horizon

As you can see from the last post, I'm dwelling on 21st Century Learning.  Part of this, of course, is because of the Teachers Teaching Teachers Technology Conference and my attendance in various sessions about technology. 

I attended an interesting session yesterday about using QR codes in the classroom given by Jennifer Shafer Wyatt  (Twitter ID: @jen_librarian).  When I gave my poster presentation at AERA, I included a QR code to link to the paper, but I now realize how much more I could have used it for - to link to video or pictures to extend the poster with multimedia.  I definitely want to explore this idea more in future presentations.  But, I began to see the usefulness of QR codes in my own classroom  - to link student created podcast reviews of books to the book itself (with a bookmark & QR code) or to have station work that is linked to media and instructions via QR code which would reveal the information when the students were ready for it.  Jennifer provided several videos that showed ways to use QR codes and this is one of the better ones -  Black & White and Scanned All Over.

  I did some other looking and found a neat one about using QR in Elementary - what is especially interesting is that the video is narrated and designed by the students.

Now, QR codes aren't a new idea, but schools have been slow to catch on, mostly because student cell phones are generally banned. Here is a great blog from 2010 about using QR Codes - implications for teaching and learning.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Book Review: Literacy is Not Enough

Title:Literacy is Not Enough: 21st Century Fluencies for the Digital Age
Authors: Lee Crocket, Ian Jukes, Andrew Churches
Publisher:21st Century Fluency Project with Corwin Press.
Date: 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4129-8780-6
Pages: 232

As the title states, literacy is not enough. Literacy, in the traditional definition, means the ability to read and write. According to The World Fact book, which uses this most basic definition, the United States has a literacy rate of 99%. That sounds really good. However, according to the latest International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), between 21% and 24% of U.S. adults performed at the lowest level on three literacy scales: document literacy, prose literacy and quantitative (number) literacy – which leads to lower salaries and work hours and greater rates of incarceration and use of food stamps. But, the authors highlight other issues – even routine cognitive work is being outsource (ie reading MIRs and other medical diagnostics). To continue to be competitive students need to learn to be problem solvers, creative, analytical, collaborative, communicative, and ethical and the authors propose a focus on five fluencies rather than literacies to guide long-term planning in education. In other words, “We need to rethink what our definition of literate is, because a person who is literate by the standards of the 20th century may be illiterate in the culture of the 21st century” (p. 57).

Here is some interesting food for thought:
“How we teach problem solving in classrooms today isn't really working for us. Presenting a problem, then giving students the answer by showing them how we got it, and then repeating the process over and over by giving them a series of similar problems to solve doesn't cut it. When we do this, we aren't teaching them anything other than how smart we are. We are cultivating dependency, not independent though and the ability to analyze and solve problems.” p. 23

So, the authors present 5 Fluencies and their components skills:
Solution Fluency
  • Define the problem
  • Discover the context of the problem and availability of information
  • Dream about solutions
  • Design a plan
  • Deliver the plan
  • Debrief about process and results
Information Fluency
  • Ask good questions
  • Acquire multiple sources and types of information
  • Analyze, authenticate and arrange the information
  • Apply knowledge
  • Assess the process and results
Creative Fluency
  • Identify problem
  • Inspire yourself through seeking information, ideas, connections etc
  • Interpolate (find patterns) in the information
  • Imagine what is possible
  • Inspect idea – evaluate and assess
Media Fluency
  • Listen
    • To the message – verbalize and verify
    • To the medium – the form, flow and alignment
  • Leverage
    • The message – content and outcome
    • The medium – audience, ability and criteria
Collaboration Fluency
  • Establish the group, norms, roles, responsibilities, etc
  • Envision the purpose and outcome
  • Engineer the steps needed
  • Execute the plan
  • Examine the process and outcome

The authors draw from Daniel Pink (2006), who concluded that often education is the process of teaching us what we can't do. Which, I think, does happen in too many classrooms, because proficiency is celebrated with grades and recognition, but risk-taking and trying yet not completely succeeding is avoided (by both teachers and students).

Beyond the Fluencies, the authors discuss Global Digital Citizenship. Since “we stay so connected to our friends [across time and space] it's like we have one long conversation that never ends; it just has some very long pauses” (p.79). In other words, whether we like it or not, we are all global citizens, because the daily events and happenings from around the world are deposited into our consciousnesses through social media and commercial media instantaneously and steadily. This requires teaching students to have particular awareness and responsibility to:
  • Respect themselves
  • Protect themselves
  • Respect others
  • Protect others
  • Respect intellectual property
  • Protect intellectual property (p. 81)

Most schools and businesses require users to sign an Acceptable User Policy (AUP) for the computer network. However, the authors argue that most of these policies for on the restriction of use, rather than supporting and teaching responsible use of technology. They provide a Digital Citizenship Agreement, that could replace the AUP using the foundations of respect and protect

The last part of the book has some unit plans for various grade and subject areas with a focus on developing the various fluencies through real-life simulations and project-based learning, along with a short discussion about assessment with more formative, self and peer assessment and reflection being key.

So, what is the essential pedagogical guidelines for 21st Century Learning? Velcro Learning!
  • Make it sticky 
  • Draw from the past 
  • Repeat - often 
  • Give positive feedback - frequently
Here are some online resources: