Thursday, February 18, 2010
By informed confidence, I mean a series of beliefs. (These beliefs are frequent topics of conversation in education today, and form cornerstone beliefs of programs including KIPP, Teach for America, and now, DC Public Schools.) The series goes like this: 1) Making an impact on the world is important. 2) Academic skills and knowledge help me make an impact on the world. 3) I can develop skills and knowledge through hard work. Building this investment in the long term and confidence in their own potential is critical for students' success, and often doesn't come organically for students in communities which often haven't succeeded in mainstream America.
A student in my own kindergarten class reminded me of this reality yesterday. Aaliyah (pseudonym) presents herself as one of the most confident students in class -- singing, dancing, and volunteering answers with abandon. So I was surprised when yesterday morning she came up to me with a friend and said, "Whitney's so smart. I'm not smart like her." I embarked on a little-kid explanation of plasticity, the simple and increasingly popular belief that people do not possess abilities in fixed measures, but all have the capacity to better those abilities. Adult view of the situation: Yes, Whitney has reached higher success on some traditional measures of achievement, including reading level. But, Whitney came in with a huge store of background knowledge which most of my students don't. I'm pretty sure that if I compare growth this year, Aaliyah has made even greater gains then Whitney -- indicating she is just as able of reaching those same high levels of achievement -- as long as she spends more time working.
If I could contribute one thing to the Work Hard/ Get Smart rhetoric in schools, it would be this: Agency -- not college -- is the end goal. In our desire to give under served students more agency, we often hit them so hard with the college message that little else gets through. Yes, we need to be talking about college from Day 1 so it becomes a living, breathing, absolutely possible entity in our students' minds. But, if we stop the conversation at college, what will they do when they graduate? In the end, college is a means to having more choices -- the choice to earn a comfortable income, or debate policy, or build a skyscraper.
If we believe informed confidence -- or any other "life skills" are important -- we must assess their development in some way. Social and life skills are vulnerable to crowding out of the curriculum because they are so hard to measure. Although I don't have the answer, some organizations have begun to look. Under the new Teaching and Learning Framework, one ninth of a teacher's Teach score depends on "investing students in their learning," including developing the belief that hard work leads to success -- and is possible for every student. If you're curious about how observers go about measuring this, take a look at the Teach 7 section of the rubric. In the rush to move students to the top, how are we valuing the beliefs that will actually help get them there?
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Monday, February 15, 2010
Friday, February 12, 2010
- Explicit, incessant discussion of why content is important. In kindergarten, I give lots of concrete examples of what kids CAN do if they getter better at a certain skill. "If you get better at reading, you CAN read that Harry Potter book in the library." "If you learn how to write numbers, you CAN write your phone number down for your friend to call." As I've found through trial and error, doing this well involves bringing the kids on it. Before kids start independent work, I'll sometimes ask them to explain why it is important. Additionally, I start to build concepts of longer-term benefits (and put in my own plug for social justice) by asking kids what they might like to do and make better in the world, then connecting their learning to their ability to do this. For example, our kids love our playground, and want there to be playgrounds everywhere -- so I explain how to build a playground, you first need to measure spaces and write down your plans.
- Logical consequences, both positive and negative. Logical consequences are matched in CONTENT (as well as intensity and time) to a student's actions. So, if a student works hard on solving a math problem using plastic cubes, she might earn the choice of using plastic cubes AND wooden tiles for the next math problem. And if another student goofs off during his math work time, he might make up the work after school. Part of the reasoning behind this (as I was trained) is that the connection of the consequence to the original behavior reinforces or discourages the behavior more effectively than an unrelated consequence. For example, if students earn extra library time for working hard on reading, when they're in the library with books in hand, on some level they're thinking, "Wow, I like reading." If they are rewarded with a pizza party, they are more likely thinking, "Wow, I really like pizza" -- with no emotional or cognitive connection to why they got the reward.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
- Streamlined technology - Our story starts with a Palm Pilot. When my school began using DIBELS/TRC, each teacher received a Palm Pilot and training on how to use it. When we gave our students the first interim assessment, we recorded each student's answers directly in the Palm as the students spoke. It took a long time to get through all the students on-on-one, but there was a nice payoff: macro- and micro-level details on our students' performance, all neatly organized on the mclasshome.com website. Designed by Wireless Generation, I could (and did) click to see a class-level bar graph of where my students scored on various skills. I could also go through each child's answers to get a finer level of detail on any one student.
- Relevant training - Once we had all this data, we teachers were trained on how to USE it. DCPS and our school leaders arranged (and paid!) for a former teacher/ current DIBELS tech guru from Wireless Generation to come to our school and train us more. (Note: Each of these trainings took TIME. School leaders arranged coverage for our classes so we could be trained for two full afternoons.) It was a big investment of time, but it was worth it. The Wireless Generation trainer hit us right at our Zone of Proximal Development, asking us what we had done and what we knew, figuring out we had mastered the mechanics of giving the assessment, and moving on to how to use the data to plan instruction. She walked us through a process for analyzing the data by prioritized skills, grouping our students into small groups for instruction, and accessing supplementary curriculum resources to meet the needs identified by the assessments. She also left us with concrete tools (planning templates and web site recommendations) for replicating those processes with our students throughout the year.
- Planning meetings aligned with training - So after all that good training and test-giving, we had our student data, we had our teacher knowledge -- but that doesn't mean we had the time to use it. By this point in the year, we teachers had done a second round of interim assessments on our students. So, once we had our mid-year student data, our literacy coach worked with us during our planning time. In these meetings, each teacher grouped his or her students as the Wireless Generation training had taught us, using the same tools we had been trained with. After that meeting, I met with my students in different groups, focusing the small group lessons on different skills, since I had more recent data about what they knew and what else they needed. (Note to school leaders: Please use these kinds of planning meetings selectively: planning/prep time in which teacher set our own agenda is also very, very important for successful delivery of instruction.)
- Easy-to-use curriculum and remediation resources - Full disclosure, this is where I think my school and I have the longest way to go. But we have made important strides which I think are worth sharing. When kids aren't getting a key skill, chances are teachers have already taught that skill as their primary curriculum prescribes, but the kids need something more. My school shared two important resources -- http://freereading.net/ and the "What's Next?" section of the mclasshome.com web site -- which provide already-written lessons on skills aligned to the DIBELS data. Although these resources are not perfect, they provided my colleagues and I an accessible starting point for changing our instruction.
- Frequent mini-assessments - Interim assessments often take a lot of time to give and analyze. A strength of DIBELS (and, to a lesser degree, TRC,) are the progress monitoring structures. Progress monitoring is a quick way to collect some of the data from the full interim assessment on some of the students (usually, the students who are most likely to struggle.) Currently, my fellow teachers and I (with a little coaching and pushing from our school and district leaders) take quick, mini-assessments on struggling kids every 1-2 weeks, and can view and analyze the new data on mclasshome.com. Once teachers get good at using data to change instruction and have the time and resources to do it, we want to do it more than once or twice a year. Young children change so rapidly, and we want to meet them as close to where they are NOW as we can -- not where they were two months ago.
So, in the end, what did all this training and planning and assessing look like for students? It looked like skipping lessons in my phonics curriculum that I knew 80% or more of the kids had already mastered. It looked like my assistant teacher and I meeting with the small groups of students who were not making progress 8 times a week rather than 3. It looked like changing the way I was teaching 1:1 correspondence (pointing to words one at a time while reading) because my students were better at it than I thought, they just weren't using it in new situations. And, *I hope* it will look like my students becoming better readers, writers, and thinkers than they would have before these changes in instruction.
YES, BUT — Do some veteran teachers contribute value in addition to student test scores? An effective teacher in her 15th year might contribute significantly more than an effective teacher in his 4th year in terms of mentoring/ developing other teachers, writing curriculum, helping shape school policies, collecting school resources, etc. All of these factors are key in a well-run system, and all contribute to the in-class effectiveness of that 4th year teacher.
As a 3rd year teacher who is relatively effective in terms of student test scores, I know anecdotally that my more experienced colleagues contribute much more than I do to the school as a whole. Veteran colleagues in my school share lesson and unit plans, organize school-wide collections of student learning materials, plan joint field trips, help guide school policy, and advise me on tough teaching decisions. They don't get paid or particularly lauded for any of that; they do it because it's a way to contribute to more students once they've gotten pretty good at teaching their own students. I would love to do that stuff too, but as a newer teacher, I'm just not there yet. Soon. I hope.
To be sure, not all veteran teachers contribute in these ways, but many do, and maybe all should. DC's IMPACT evaluations have some room for this kind of school-level contribution -- maybe that school contribution box should be bigger?
Monday, February 8, 2010
You can tell I like projects. So for once, my teacher heart has been jumping for joy as I read big-name op-eds and non-profit blogs. As many, many bloggers have noticed, people are TALKING about Susan Engel's NYT Op-Ed, "Playing to Learn." Teachers and parents are talking -- often by sharing Engel's op-ed. And policy wonks, researchers, and administrators are talking back -- often by blogging with criticisms of Engel's piece. (Among them are Daniel Willingham, Core Knowledge, Early Ed Watch, and Whitney Tilson.) Both camps make valid points -- but we often seem to be talking past each other.
Any time so many practitioners are so excited about an idea that other "experts" characterize as counterproductive for children, we need to ask ourselves -- Why? Are teachers really so out of touch with what students need to succeed? (If you answer "yes," I urge you to take a few minutes to examine your own experiences with children and your overall faith in adults.) Of course, there are some bad teachers out there, teachers who are out of touch with student achievement. But, I believe, there are many more good teachers who genuinely want children succeed, are willing to work hard to help them, and just need better systems to do it. So -- my answer to the puzzle of why so many practitioners love an idea that often doesn't lead to student achievement: It's the right place to go, we just haven't figured out how to get there yet.
First -- why are projects, play, and process the right place to go?
- Internationally competitive student achievement: As Nancy Flanagan writes in a thoughtful post on this topic, process-based, interest-fueled work teaches students to think critically and perform independently in real-life situations. This level of rigor will position American students to compete successfully with other countries in the 21st century, not just pass our own, lower-level tests.
- Student buy-in: Done right, inquiry and interest-based projects are ways all students can and want to learn. When we cram one definition of knowledge down the throats of students from every background in America, no matter how clever we are with our in-class marketing, some kids don't buy it. Kids who don't buy in tend to drop out or get kicked out.
- Teacher retention: This is a more challenging, exciting way for students to study and for teachers to teach. In my third year of teaching, I already feel pretty good at -- and bored with -- the components of direct instruction in my day. What keeps me excited as a professional is the knowledge that there are more difficult, but ultimately more successful, ways to teach my students. The further I dip my toe in the waters of project-based learning, the deeper I want to swim -- and the longer I realize I'll have to stay in the water. What I naively assumed to be a swimming pool has become an ocean. And that keeps me, and many other teachers I know, coming back for more.
Second, and probably stickier -- how do we get there?
The short answer is, I don't know. As I said, I'm just learning to swim these deeper waters. But, there are people who do know. So, with the full knowledge of my novice-ness, here are a few first attempts at answers:
- Study and utilize teachers who are experts in these approaches. As Flanagan and Willingham attest to, they are out there! So let's make them teacher leaders on a national scale and help other teachers learn what they know.
- Share tools for increasing efficiency and rigor in these approaches. Although every interest-connected classroom will look different, there are certain tools and processes that most teachers can use over and over. See, for example, the "Evaluation Checklist for PBL Units" by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach on this Project-Based Learning Wiki. (Thanks to bjnicols for sharing this on Twitter.)
- Up the rigor of teacher development. No matter how good the tools, teachers need to be good at this -- and it's hard to do right. As Willingham notes, the twin principles of "authenticity" and "student choice" in these kinds of learning make a teacher's job much harder.
- Recognize that *interest* and *content* can drive each other. As Flanagan notes, "well-done inquiry learning is centered on, reinforces and integrates the acquisition of useful knowledge." I stand by the claim that my kindergartners will never REALLY learn about weather when I announce, "Ok kids, it's time to learn about weather" and roll out a mass produced, pre-planned unit -- but will when I watch their interests, and give them the structured space to conduct informed inquiries. When kids are bursting with enthusiasm over last night's foot of snow or today's first flowers poking out of the beds we planted, they are excited about weather, whether they know it or not. And when I tell them they need to state and write clear questions before we go explore the garden (processes which I choose because of their alignment with state standards and more mature cognitive development,) they will do it, and do it well, because they are so interested in those flowers. We need to get better at harnessing student's interests to help them learn carefully prioritized content.
We know using projects, play, and process to achieve rigor is the infinitely rockier path. But the smoother, more predictable road of narrowly defined, direct instruction will not take us where we ultimately want to go. From Nancy Flanagan:
But--as with many things in life, just because these models are tough to do well
doesn't mean we should never encourage discovery, inquiry or project-based
learning. After all, lots of direct instruction (teacher explains/kids
listen/tests measure recall) doesn't stick to student brains, after the
all-important quiz. Genuine content mastery depends on use--the things we're
good at, and understand deeply as adults, comes from "content" we've applied and
practiced, in a variety of ways.
Sunday, February 7, 2010
I had started following about 10 interesting teaching policy and practice blogs and organizations, mostly off and on. I found myself inconsistently flipping back and forth between sites from memory and favorites lists, and it got confusing. Tried stacking them all as homepage tabs, and 10 was too many. A total newbie, I started with Twitter, thinking I could get updates from all sent right to me. Not quite so simple. So, I signed up for Blogger ... and here we go on my Dashboard, all the blogs I want to read, all in one place. Lovely. Ask and ye shall receive.
Yet -- it still feels unfinished. Where are my updates from Zero to Three, from NAEYC, those great groups that don't have blogs? Where is the meaningful integration of teaching PRACTICE with these awesome articles on policy and research? To fill the void, I'm thinking of using this blog and my Twitter (UseSerendipity) as places to round up education blogs, studies, and articles which particularly resonate with me, share my comments, and spark those of others. Most of all, I hope this can be a place where the voices of practitioners are heard clearly amongst those of researchers, administrators, and policy wonks.
I am still finding my way through the ever-growing tangles and fruits of our digital jungle. Maybe there is a place for me in the world of blogs. What do you think? We'll see ... stay tuned.