What I am Reading Right Now: 9/27/14

  • The September 22, 2014 issue of Time

I try to stay up to date on my magazine subscriptions, but I often fall behind once the school year starts. This issue, however, I have made time to read. The cover story “Never Offline” by Lev Grossman and Matt Valla was exceptionally well written. They profile the new Apple Watch within the larger context of how technology is consistently creeping closer toward us as wearables. What’s next? The future is both bright and disturbing. The related articles are also worth reading.

  • The New York Times

I started subscribing back in July. They have an educator’s discount for digital editions Monday through Saturday, and the paper edition on Sunday. The local and state papers were fine, but I felt like I was missing out on a larger conversation, both informatively and culturally.

  • Educational Leadership, “Instruction That Sticks” (October 2014)

To be honest, I have just perused the titles of the articles when time has allowed at school. Every one looks excellent. Another principal in Wisconsin uses grant money to provide subscriptions of this educational journal for all of his staff. I can see why.

  • Teacher Rounds: A Guide to Collaborative Learning In and From Practice by Thomas Del Prete (Corwin, 2013)

This resource provided the template for visiting staff last year when they came to observe our teachers as part of a grant we received. Now I am reading through the entire text, before we move forward with our own teachers observing each other. Getting to this point has been a process, but the destination would not be attainable without building relationships and developing a culture of trust with staff first.

  • The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, 10th Anniversary Edition by Parker J. Palmer (Jossey-Bass, 2007)

Our first meeting for the school year was facilitated by two Courage to Teach trainers. We didn’t look at new curriculum materials, discuss the assessment calendar, or introduce technology into our busy lives. Instead, we gathered at a shelter surrounded by woods and lake, wireless gladly absent, and reflected on why we became teachers in the first place. This led me to start reading the book this program was based on. With everything coming at us as educators, I cannot imagine a better time to remember why we do what we do.

  • Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan (Penguin, 2013)

I wish Michael Pollan cared as much about education has he does about gardening and food. He has a true passion for his subject – he lives it. When he writes about gardening, he gardens. When he writes about cooking, he cooks. Today’s educational journalists would be wise to emulate Pollan’s approach and actually teach a class or two before writing about what it is like to be a teacher.

  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown, 2012)

You may have noticed that I read too much nonfiction. With that in mind, I have decided to try this title and recently read the first chapter. My wife highly recommended it. I can see why. The opening immediately sets the tone for the entire book (I am guessing, anyway). With the movie coming out soon, I will be interested in comparing both versions.

  • Princess Labelmaker to the Rescue: An Origami Yoda Book by Tom Angleberger (Harry N. Abrams, 2014)

I read aloud the first title in this series to my son. What a great story! He has proceeded to read all the subsequent titles up until this one. We were informed by a friend that there is a chapter that has some content that I may want to preview first. My son is only a second grader and reads about grade level, so he might not be ready for this content yet. I’ll have to determine that before letting him move on.

Four Middle Level Books I Read Instead

On the eve of the summer, I posted about four middle level books that I had planned on reading during my time away from the office. I think it is important that all educators who teach and promote literacy know the literature that we are teaching and promoting.

Instead, I read these four books:

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This book was hard to put down. I would read a few chapters aloud every night to my son, but then he would read on after I left. This meant that I would have to quickly catch up the next day! Think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets The Westing Game. This book would be a great recommendation for reluctant readers.

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This informational text was highly recommend by my friends on Goodreads. Moonbird is that rare book that entertains as much as it informs. The author chronicles one breeding cycle of a red rufa knot, B95. He is the oldest known shorebird of his species. The challenges B95 faces, both natural and manmade, bring a lot of suspense to the topic. I found myself cheering for the researchers who kept persisting in their inquiries about why the red rufa knot’s numbers are dwindling. It could serve by itself as the primary resource for a unit of study. You have got geography, history, environmental science, biology…and that is just the content areas.

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My son started reading these books and was constantly giggling. I had to find out what was so funny. A misfit (Dwight) finds his niche when he decides to fashion a paper finger puppet that resembles Yoda. He then dispenses sage advice to his peers through this origami puppet in Yoda language. Or is it Dwight? The main character, Tommy, struggles with this question, as to whether Origami Yoda is actually real and not just a channel for Dwight’s imagination and his desire to be accepted.

Beyond the humor, this book actually has a lot of heart. You can see the characters develop over the course of the book. Themes such as bullying, tolerance, and courage run throughout the story without coming across as preachy. I actually think this would make a terrific read aloud, with the help of a document camera to highlight all the doodles and comments in the margins. It would also serve well as a mentor text when teaching perspective.

imgres-2This story, about a toy rabbit who travels between different owners through a lifetime, will make for a good read aloud in the intermediate classroom. In fact, it is one of the choices for The Global Read Aloud. The themes of loss and love are pretty deep and will require some extended discussions.

I still plan on reading the middle level books I had initially listed before the summer. But I have learned that while we should pick the books we want to read next, sometimes the books pick us.

Digital Walkthroughs: Use Skitch to Capture, Advance, and Celebrate Learning

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School leaders: Every time we enter a classroom, we don’t have to sit down and commence with a ten minute formal walkthrough. Instead, consider using a photo app such as Skitch to take a picture of best practice. I like Skitch because I can annotate the image with feedback, email it to the teacher, and save it to their digital portfolio in Evernote. This opportunity to celebrate what they do so well can take place in less than five minutes.

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I share the teachers’ notebooks with them, giving he or she access to these artifacts stored within Evernote. Later, they can put artifacts of their own in this notebook, as well as pull pieces out to upload to their teacher evaluation platform. To organize the notes, use the tagging system to categorize artifacts based on elements from teaching frameworks, such as Charlotte Danielson’s.

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If your stretched for time (and is there any school leader who is not?), when appropriate consider using a mobile device, Skitch, and Evernote to capture, advance, and celebrate learning.

Moonlighting as a Teacher

After seven years, I am back in the classroom. Well, sort of.

At a recent mass, our priest made an appeal to the congregation asking for volunteers to teach religious education on Wednesday nights, also known as CCD. I would already be there, dropping of and picking up my son, so I volunteered to be a catechist.

I had everything I needed: A teacher’s manual, textbooks and activity books for the kids, a roster, and a template for preparing lessons. The lesson plan framework was pretty specific. It was suggested that we detail the pages to be read, activities to design, what types of discussions to facilitate, and any assignments I might want to have my students do as homework.

As a beginning teacher, these would be very helpful. I was appreciative of having all of the material ready for me ahead of time. But prior to becoming a principal, I was an intermediate teacher for seven years. As an observer and evaluator of instruction in classrooms for an equal amount of time, I have come to the belief that the lesson plan is more than a series of steps. There is a flow to a great lesson. It considers how to engage the learners. An excellent plan of instruction considers what should happen, but also considers what might. The plan always is steering toward that essential understanding or skill, but is able to change directions or provide multiple pathways to get there.

That is why I use the simplest framework I could think of: BME, or “Beginning-Middle-End”.

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I have no idea if someone came up with this before me, so if I have replicated anyone’s work, my apologies.

When I prepared my lesson (the concept was “faith”), I thought about how I would want to begin. What would capture their hearts and minds – a question, a quote, or maybe sharing an interesting piece of information? How I did elect to start was directly related to the concept. However, I did not post the learning target on the board and point my finger at it, saying, “In today’s lesson, we are going to…”

As I developed the meat of the lesson – the middle – I described the activities I wanted the students to participate in, but not too specifically. I wasn’t 100% sure how the beginning was going to play out, so I wrote a few instructional strategies to consider once we got started. It was during this time that I specifically pointed out what we were learning.

In the end, my plan was to have the students motivated enough to find the answers to their questions that they couldn’t help but share with the class with the help of the text. I modeled how to organize our information around the concept of faith using a Frayer model. I demonstrated this first, and then stood by and wrote their responses on the easel paper where the organizer was drawn out. Students who felt comfortable writing their responses independently were handed the marker. I closed out the lesson by commending everyone for such thoughtful responses and being active learners. We went through each response together to review our thinking before we left for the night.

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To be honest, we didn’t respond to every question in the activity book, nor did I take their workbooks home to check their answers. If I gave my students a test on the content from the textbook, they may not pass. I guess that is something to be aware of for next week. On the bright side, I felt like we had a better understanding of the concept of “faith”, and how it applies to our own lives. I also feel good about giving the students a few learning strategies while attempting to understand the content. I’d like to think it was integrated, authentic, and meaningful.

I hope through my experience as a teacher again, however limited, that I will keep my instructional skills sharp, develop a better perspective about the role of the teacher in today’s educational climate, and try out some of the great strategies I see my own staff using every day.

Is an Adonit Jot Stylus for the iPad Worth the Money?

In a previous post, I share my thoughts about using a stylus to digitally handwrite text. There were numerous benefits noted, including students being able to have more precision when using apps and administrators writing observations during walkthroughs.

I am starting to have second thoughts.

My biggest concern is with the stylus produced by Adonit. Previously, I had purchased their Jot Pro per a recommendation from a colleague. This is the stylus with that clear plastic disc on the end.

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photo credit: mango_207 via photopin cc

While it was precise, the disc caused a clicking sound that was distracting to students. Plus, the discs fell off sometimes. It was recommended to me to be sure to clean the discs regularly by the company. Who has time for that?

I was reading the Steve Jobs biography at the time. In it, Jobs discouraged the use of a stylus, suggesting that we have ten already (our fingers).

Maybe I should have heeded this advice, but I gave Adonit another shot when it came out with the Evernote Edition Jot Script. Now battery powered, this stylus connects with your iPad via Bluetooth.

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photo credit: kiyong2 via photopin cc

It worked great…when it worked. Unfortunately, leaving the battery in this stylus for even a short time depleted it to the point where it would not work anymore. The advice from the company was to use a lithium battery to ensure a long life. Unfortunately, these are more expensive and not what we stock at school. Because I have grown tired of accommodating the limitations of the company’s products, I plan on giving both away.

For those in the market for a new stylus, consider holding off on the Adonit product line. They are very innovative, but their products have yet to deliver on their promise, especially considering the high price. Their newest stylus now has a rechargeable battery, but you need a USB connection to do it. Not real conducive if all you have is an iPad. For a better value, check out the Ampen hybrid stylus with a mesh tip, or just go with a Bamboo. The technology should not get in the way of our purpose for using it.

Articles Worth Reading This Week

As my Twitter handle and blog title denote, I like to read. Reading regularly and widely might be the most essential habit I practice as a school leader. Beyond books, I subscribe to a number of feeds and periodicals. I am a smarter person because I am willing to consider many perspectives.

Here is a rundown of the articles I read this week, ones I would recommend other school leaders check out for themselves.

Dispelling the Myth of Delayed Gratification by Alfie Kohn (Education Week)

I always try to read Alfie Kohn’s commentary through the lens of someone who is fairly distant from the classroom (he is not an educator). However, this article really resonated with me. He revisits an oft-cited research study – the Marshmallow Experiment – and basically debunks the whole concept of “grit” and “resilience”, buzz words in education right now. If you read one article from this post, this is it.

Boosting the Power of Projects by John Larmer (Educational Leadership)

This past summer I participated in a Project-Based Learning training, facilitated by a Buck Institute in Education trainer. John Larmer is the editor in chief of this organization. What I appreciate about this article and BIE’s mission is they are so willing to share their ideas with the world. They just want to see great instruction happening in every classroom. This article highlights the main steps in creating a highly engaging learning experience for students.

Have You Tried Making Common Core Lemonade? by Amber Chandler (MiddleWeb)

The teacher’s voice is too often missing in the debate about the Common Core State Standards. This 7th grade teacher shares both the benefits and her concerns about aligning her instruction with both the CCSS and her students. It’s a very honest and informative reflection.

For dyslexic students, are smart phones easier to read than books? by Ruth Tam (PBS Newshour)

I shared this article with one of my special education teachers. This led to a good conversation about how we might introduce these practices for our students, at least on a small scale initially. Anytime an article can prompt this type of discussion is worth recommending.

Activist warns about Common Core consequences by Melanie Lawder (Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune)

I actually sat in on this presentation which was covered by our local newspaper. While Dr. Pesta was an excellent speaker and made some good points, any credibility he might have gained was offset by his questionable sources and his obvious self-serving efforts for his private school business. I thought the reporter nicely represented both sides of the argument.

5 Ways to Help Your Students Become Better Questioners by Warren Berger (Edutopia)

After reading his book A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger has become my new hero. I regularly reference his “Why? What if? How?” protocol for developing better questions during webinars and presentations. Learning how to be better questioners is a critical skill for the 21st century.

Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent by Nick Bilton (New York Times)

I have no idea why this article was buried in the Fashion & Style section. It is one of the most balanced pieces I have read about the amount of technology we should allow our kids to be exposed to in this digital age. I shared this piece out on our school’s Twitter account for families to read.

Happy reading this weekend!

Capturing and Advancing Student Learning: Three Types of Student Portfolios

In Schools That Work: Where All Children Read and Write (Allyn & Bacon, 2007), Richard Allington and Patricia Cunningham recommend educators use different types of portfolios for different assessment purposes. Combining this information with Evangelina Harris Stefanakis’s resource Multiple Intellgences and Portfolios: A Window into the Learner’s Mind (Heinneman, 2002), I drew this chart that visual summarizes their thinking, plus a little bit of my own:

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I have a similar chart in my book Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment (Powerful Learning Press, 2014). Actually, I shortened it down to just progress and performance portfolios, for sake of brevity.

Now that I have had a few months to reflect on what I wrote, I am not confident that this is how assessment really looks like in the classroom. Teachers don’t naturally parse out these different methods. The classroom is too kinetic and dynamic to allow the teacher to separate the three. 

A more realistic approach to using digital portfolios in the classroom may look more like this:

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It’s the process that helps students make progress toward optimal performance.

Putting the different portfolios within the context of a learning progression makes more sense. This does require that teachers spend more time on preparing for responsive instruction, and subsequently giving up some of the planning for activities that have little to do with essential understandings.