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