Sunday, August 6, 2017

Journey to #bcsdigitalwritingportfolio

This week I begin professional development of our district's Digital Writing Portfolio, unofficially titled: Write What Matters.

While the details of the portfolio are clearly articulated - argumentative, narrative, informational artifacts, etc., the real critical considerations are the ends and the means.

At this point, the ends are summed up as follows: " ensure greater consistency in the quality and quantity of student writing throughout our schools...." Clear enough? Of course, the inferential question is, "greater" than what? Or, where is the justification for this need? The answer for this is based on anecdotal as well as concrete evidence.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Answering Good Questions is Critical Thinking

The first thing to understand is that nothing in teaching is more important than engagement. The analogy I once heard and that I share regularly is, A car does not work unless it is engaged in gear; similarly, the brain won't move unless it is engaged. "Engaged in what?" becomes the question.

It's the big question. How do people choose between right and wrong? How far will we go in taking a stand?* (Think Atticus Finch, Martin Luther King Jr., Vietnam.) What elements of the Greek and American Democracy do we want to include in our school's new constitution? In subsequent years this becomes a shorter study: Do we need to amend our constitution based on academic and discipline data?

It's the smaller questions throughout. Which author of the two articles provides support for Antigone's decision to bury her brother despite the edict? Does the reference to Atticus Finch here strengthen or weaken the author's claim? Based on this text, why did the Greeks include a form of impeachment in their democracy?

It's the follow-up, probing questions: Why do you consider belligerent to be loaded language? You provided several pieces of evidence for your position; if, like Atticus, you were a lawyer, what is your key piece of evidence and why? Who wants to agree or disagree with Zed's analysis here and why?

Simply put: Engaging with and answering good questions based on a deep study of relevant texts is critical thinking.

*Inspired by EL Education Unit

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

What is Productive Struggle?

A teacher and I today were reviewing Student Achievement Partner's Instructional Practice Guide. "Hmm," she said, "Productive Struggle," I like that." I do too. In fact, though I have been hearing the term for some time, it has mostly been in relation to mathematics. Only recently have I begun to consider its implications for literacy. I think it's all-encompassing.

What is Productive Struggle? What does Student Achievement Partners mean in their Instructional Practice Guide when they state that teachers consistently provide and students consistently engage in "challenging questions and tasks that offer opportunities for productive struggle"?

Struggle by itself is rife with negative connotations, and for good reason. According to Marriam Webster it means, "to try very hard to do, achieve, or deal with something that is difficult or that causes problems." Most of us spend our lives working to avoid things that are difficult and especially things that "cause problems." Who wants problems? So it's oxymoronic to couple that with Productive: "doing or achieving a lot: working hard and getting good results; producing or able to produce something especially in large amounts; causing or resulting in something." This is all so good!

Though, so many of us at the top of the mountain, at the end of the race, upon achieving a new degree understand that the most daunting and discouraging struggles can provide our greatest growth. And so shall it be for the students in our rooms.

"Oh, but they are not going to stand atop a beautiful mountain at any point during my instruction." "They don't care enough about school to struggle." "They don't want to work that hard!"

While it is cliche to say that "Every kid can learn" (this is really a No Shit! statement), what we need to know is, "Every kid wants to learn." It's true. Ask any kid if he or she wants to be smart. Most will say yes and the rest are being obstinate.

We all want to be smart. Inside, we all know we have potential. Kids are no different.

And that's why productive struggle has it all. In order to learn, we have to face challenges, move away from what we know to what we don't know. We have to struggle.

In order to reach all kids, however, we have to make that struggle seem worthwhile, meaningful. We have to tap that desire to learn. It has to have value. Of course, there are many paths to this, but for most kids, authentic learning experiences - reading so they can do something, writing so they can convince or entertain, add meaning.

Beyond making it relevant, we have to know our kids. What's a struggle for one is too easy for another. As my friend Kenny McKee points out, we won't get stronger if we never lift heavier than a 2lb. dumbbell. Our work requires that we push each of our students every day.

Further, struggle can very easily become unproductive. This happens when the task is unachievable - either because it is so far beyond reasonable or because of a lack of support. This happens because the goal is not clear; because the definition of success or the criteria of "good results" is not defined; or because we don't have check-points along the way to make sure we are on the right track, to make adjustments.

On the other hand being clear about the outcome, defining what a successful close examination of a text will produce, what a high-quality written product looks like, what happens when we work together and think critically to answer a hard question, fosters productive struggle. Demanding high quality work because we believe that the students are up to the task; providing support - by teaching and reinforcing, day in and day out, the strategic steps one takes when approaching a challenging text or writing task; and then constantly stepping up the level of challenge fosters productive struggle. By consistently, both formally and informally, checking for understanding and providing focused feedback and support we make the struggle productive.

Think about it, if every student in our class engages daily in productive struggle, so many things are going right in our class and we will feel our students learn!

Friday, March 13, 2015

What is the most critical element of a high quality lesson?

I realize that selecting the most critical element of a high quality lesson is akin to selected the most important food group (coffee). Each is critical - the lack of any single group leaves us unhealthy (cranky). But to this initial question there is a concrete answer.
Mike Schmoker, in his book Focus, has his answer. When outlining the essential food groups to a high quality lesson he identifies the following: “... a clear learning objective … teaching and modeling, guided practice, checks for understanding/formative assessment, and independent practice/ assessment.” A great list! Of these, however, he refers to “checks for understanding/ formative assessment” as “especially critical” and suggests that until this practice is common all other initiatives should be put on hold. Certainly his insistence on the importance of this step has merit; however, this is not the most critical step.
More important than checking for understanding is knowing what one is expected to understand. Determining “a clear learning objective,” a learning target, or daily learning outcome (whichever term you choose) is absolutely fundamental. The more explicit we are about what we want students to learn, the more likely they are to learn it.
Last week, while working with social studies teachers, I peered over one teacher’s lesson plan at his Daily Learning Target: Students will understand the causes of World War I. Historians have spent careers, and books have been written, on this topic alone. This teacher was expecting his students to grasp this by the end of a single lesson? Never mind that this target screams for a powerpoint and a lecture with the hope that students write down the teacher’s understanding of the causes of World War I, or perhaps, the textbook’s sanitized version of events
This teacher does not need to perform a check for understanding based on this Learning Target because I can already tell him that the more astute students will be able to regurgitate facts he provided them in the lesson or rely on prior knowledge. Most students, however, if asked to articulate their understanding would be at a loss. This target is broad enough to be broken down into several smaller learning targets - measurable chunks, especially when one considers the amount of background knowledge students need for this: Where are the Balkans? (Where is Europe?) What do the terms Nationalism or Imperialism mean? This is information I suspect many of these students do not have. Further, while Schmoker uses the term “check for understanding,” the term understand in a learning target is very difficult to measure.
Let’s consider what some alternative, focused learning targets might look like.  

  • Students will explain one cause of World War I.
  • Better yet: I can define Nationalism and explain how that was a factor in World War I.
  • Or, I can locate the Balkan peninsula on a map and create a key that explains its involvement in the start of World War I.

Now consider the “checks for understanding” for these targets, and consider the literacy- based process in which students could engage to gain this information.
Unquestionably, “Checking for Understanding” should get its just desserts, but before one can even consider dessert, there is the setting of the table through a bite- sized, measurable learning target.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Vision Building through Conversation

Toward the end of Learning By Heart, Roland S. Barth describes the type of vision necessary for schools to flourish. It is a “vital, courageous, demanding, uplifting vision-where most educators and students are familiar with the vision, where day-to-day behavior is constantly scrutinized for evidence of congruity with that vision, and where the school is incrementally approaching that vision.”
Of course the steps toward developing that vision are arduous. First, one must decide who should help design the vision. Then that Blue Ribbon Committee of past, present, and future stakeholders must assemble over the course of several months to painstakingly and agonizingly mince and parse words until they have crafted something that sounds just right. Then, of course, they must present that vision before a district committee who will compare it to the district vision to make sure everything is in accordance. Once the re-visions are made, then it can be presented to the school and voila!
There are protocols and processes that must be followed, because how else could you do it? At least that is how most visions have been erected.
However, even if that process does manage to muster some vitality and courage, how many visions actually manage to remain at the forefront of those working toward it, “... where day-to-day behavior is constantly scrutinized for evidence of congruity with that vision.” Can you name your organization’s vision?
Barth’s vision for vision development is refreshing. The essential piece to his process is in one word: Conversation: “... conversation about practice, reflection and writing about practice, telling stories, sharing craft knowledge, and maximizing differences in order to maximize learning” constitute the most important steps in the process, according to Barth. How refreshing is that!
My teaching career blossomed through this same practice the day I began teaching at a North Carolina New Schools early college high school. I had experienced success prior to this and had generally enjoyed my work. However, teachers in the New Schools model were no longer focused entirely on their class practices and their students  - we were a part of something bigger. We were being charged with the task of redesigning what high school looked like.
Of course, there are plenty of defenders of the current comprehensive high school model, and many students succeed in such a learning environment. Does every child thrive, though? And for those that do fine, is doing fine good enough?
For me, the answer was and still is no. And when I was asked to join the conversation about what could make school better, I changed as an educator. I was more willing to take risks because I knew that might provide new insights. I read and argued with theory and discussed teaching and learning daily with colleagues and with students.
We all took our job seriously, We were being asked to create a vision - what should school look like?
As I work throughout my county as an ELA and social studies curriculum specialist, one of my main goals has been to draw as many voices into a similar conversation. What is our vision of a redesigned instructional model that develops skilled readers, writers and thinkers?
We are developing that vision, we will then check ourselves against it (and check it against ourselves) and work each day to achieve it. And since it will come from the collective conversations of those that carry it out each day, it will naturally be vital and uplifting.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ed. Leadership: Primal or Visionary?

“Primal” is the adjective renowned psychologist and emotional intelligence theorist Daniel Goleman ascribes to great leaders. Their appeal, he posits, is essentially emotional. He cites Shaman and Chieftains as examples. They are the emotional guides, as well as the protectors when trouble calls.
This emotional task of the leader is primal—that is, first—in two senses: It is both the original and the most important act of leadership.”
No doubt, this is absolutely true! Anyone who has read Lord of the Flies witnesses as primal leadership takes over. Ralph lacks Jack’s ability to move others - they lose faith in him and gravitate toward face paint and blood. What could be more primal than that?
But this is where Goleman’s argument falters. Sure, Jack taps the boys’ emotional needs - food, adventure, and the hope for survival that does not rely on rescue. For that, he is awarded their loyalty. And look where that leads.
What Jack lacks, of course, is vision that serves the common good. More important than emotional appeal is this vision.
Consider this in terms of educational leadership. Let’s begin microcosmically - in the classroom. Whom would you prefer in your child’s room - Ralph or Jack? Many charismatic and well-intentioned teachers lead students toward Goleman’s ideal of “higher morale, motivation, and commitment.” (So did Jack - those kids were quite spirited.) But does this mean that students are achieving higher-level learning? Not necessarily. However, a clear vision of learning outcomes and the steps necessary to achieve those will lead there.
Likewise, a principal may be expert at motivating staff to stay late selling concessions or to chair the school safety committee, but without a clear vision for student learning, the school will lack the rigorous learning culture necessary for student success.
And at a district level, lack of vision leads to chaos- hopscotched initiatives, misspent time and money, and silo schools. Vision more than emotion provides direction and leads to broad student achievement.
To be fair, Goleman does imply the need for a vision by suggesting that the primal leader must “driving the collective emotions in a positive direction.” Logically, however, the positive direction must be predetermined and is therefore more important, or more primal, than the ability to move people.
Roland S. Barth, in his 2001 book Learning By Heart, suggests an alternative order for leadership. For him, effective leaders carry a “vision leading to a better way, can enlist others in that vision, and can mine the gold of everyone's craft knowledge to discover ways to move toward that vision.” Here the vision precedes the emotion.
Of course, though, the next obvious question - a question for another day, is where does this vision come from?

Monday, February 9, 2015

Are We Shifting?

We all know by know that the Common Core State Standards place new, steep demands on students. So steep, in fact, that parents whine about it for their children, and the same legislators and activists that once bemoaned the sorry state of US Education are harkening for the good old days when kids could get an A for effort.
To deeply understand increasingly complex texts, to synthesize and transfer that understanding, and to “ analyze, critique, communicate [and] present arguments with evidence” are literacy demands the Common Core places on students, according to Berger et al in Transformational Literacy.
Of course, almost any reasonable adult would admit that these are the kinds of things we want from our students - logical reasoning, using evidence to back up their thinking, the ability to read critically and write convincingly. What could be wrong with that?
Well, for many, this represents both a theoretical and practical shift in practice. What Mike Schmoker coined as “The Crayola Curriculum,” in his 2001 Education Week article by the same name is unfortunately not yet an anomaly for many students and classrooms despite his “enormous hope for dramatic, near-term improvements at every level of education.” Of course Schmoker’s optimism resides in the adage that “Acknowledging the problem is half the battle.” If students’ spending too much time on ancillary activities rather than the actual practice of reading and writing is the problem, then too many teachers are still stuck there.
Perhaps what Schmoker failed to recognize is the enormity of it - the other half of the battle. There are teachers everywhere! If the problem was as pervasive as he indicated in his article, then what solution could be as pervasive?
The Common Core, of course. Place higher demands on students and teachers will rise to the challenge.
Convincing all of these teachers, however, that their high-engagement, text- to- self activities are flawed is a theoretical battle in and of itself. Convincing hard- working diligent professionals that creating pictures representing the meaning of a short story or poem is wrong-headed, that assembling students into groups to create a collage of theme is ineffectual, that spending time on activities that don’t directly measure growth is wasted time, is a gigantic task.
Once that task is accomplished, however, then the “third half” of the battle begins: Teaching teachers how to make this shift, how to coach students to the higher demands, how to turn each moment into a productive moment of learning. And in truth, much of this will be in teaching English teachers to be reading teachers, as ironic as that sounds.
So where are we in this process?
In my most recent observations and conversations with teachers, some are earnestly in the midst of shifting. They are buying the vision laid out by the architects of the Common Core and such theorists as Schmoker, Berger, and Richard Allington - intensive focus on text as the centerpiece of a lesson, reading for 60 to 90 minutes per day, reading a high-volume of independent-level texts as well as struggling through teacher-directed close reads of complex materials.
Other teachers are asking questions: Where’s the fun in that? How do I engage students in this? Why should I believe them this time? They are venting frustrations: So much for the love of reading when all we do is focus on skills! My students no longer enjoy my class and neither do I! I want to transform lives, not just readers!
Their basic question is not where are we are on the shift, but is this a shift I want to make?
So, this is where we are. Working to convince some that these shifts are worth it while building capacity in those who are ready. Of course, test scores and data might compel some toward change, but a change of heart will have a deeper and longer lasting impact.
And as so often is the case with life, the skeptics are so critically important. Their questions will cause us to think deeper, to make sure that we are, in fact, on the right track. They will cause us to look not just at test results and growth data, but at the students behind the numbers. The reluctant among us are demanding proof of another sort - that this shift to a more rigorous, more academic curriculum can be made without sacrificing what we all came here for - the child.