Rethinking Learning Targets

This week I had the honor of filling in for a primary teacher for about a half hour. We were learning about lions. As expected, several students wanted to share their experiences and knowledge with the class.

One student commented that he went to Africa with his family and saw a lion’s skull during their trip. “Really?” I responded. He went on and explained that they brought the skull home with them on the plane. “Well, that’s something!”

Obviously I didn’t take this information as gospel. Even though his story was interesting, we moved on to the next part of the planned activity. And yet, the creativity in his thinking was something that, if I had more time, I might have encouraged him to put down on paper if he felt so inclined.

There was not a learning target posted for the lesson, but if there was, it would have likely stated something like “I can identify important facts about lions.” That’s great. Kids need background knowledge in order to develop a deeper understanding of bigger concepts that can relate to many areas of life. For example, interaction as a concept that can be revisited over and over throughout a unit of study on biology and the environment. That lens might accommodate more diverse thinking such as the students’ story about the lion skull.

Where do we start? Maybe we can rethink how we craft our learning targets. For instance, what if an “I can” statement became a question? I saw an example of this in a 4th grade classroom (see picture, second target). Posing questions vs. learning statements can invite new ways of thinking while still guiding students to focus on the content or skill to be learned. In my example with the lions, what if we asked, “What is important to know about lions?” Now we could not only build knowledge but also explore author’s purpose and/or generate more questions with students. Engagement goes up, thinking becomes deeper.

My belief about learning targets has changed. I used to think we needed to spell out exactly what we want our students to know and be able to do. “I can” statements are supposed to be in kid-friendly language. Now I’m wondering if in our efforts to ensure students meet standards, we are also diminishing the potential for creative and complex thinking in the classroom. Not so kid-friendly after all.

What are your thoughts? Please share in the comments.

Curriculum Development: Start with Questions (Instead of Standards)

Boredom is a product of ignorance; the more we know about something, the more interesting it becomes.

Kieran Egan

If you could teach your students anything you wanted tomorrow, what would it be? No standards need to be considered. Principals are giving you free rein. What might you learn with your kids?

I would select controlled burns. Why? Because there was one this evening not too far from our home.

My kids had so many questions as we got closer and closer to the “big fire by the high school”. 

  • Why are they burning the oak savanna?
  • I see firefighters by the burn, but they’re not putting it out. Do they want it to burn?
  • Is this safe, so close to our house?

A few of our neighbors, two guys working on a house project, came out and asked me why they chose this evening (they know I am a school administrator). “It’s pretty windy out; was this the best night?” I shrugged my shoulders, not having an answer.

These questions could be an entry event into larger topics of study such as the life cycle or the concept of “change”. Yet our typical approach to preparing for instruction is to first look at the standards, try to determine what students should know and be able to do, and then develop learning targets in kid-friendly language so they know what we will be doing.

While I won’t argue against standards, I believe their role in education has been overemphasized. Kids don’t come to school to achieve mastery in them; they want to become smarter while experiencing joy in the process of learning. By leading with standards, we can turn students off from learning in the process. 

Instead, let’s get more observant about the world around us. We don’t have to look far. Maybe there is not a controlled burn down the street, but I bet there is some history or geography around the corner. How can we look at the ordinary in new and extraordinary ways?

A Preferred Approach

Instead of standards, what if we were to start curriculum development by leading with questions around a subject of focus? The object or idea itself should somehow capture students’ interests and cause them to become curious.

For example, a former art teacher brought in a small loom and placed it on a table. “Kids, let’s gather around and take a look at what I brought in,” she invited. “What are you wondering?” The students had many questions, generally wanting to know what it was and what it did. This evocative object was a springboard for a unit on sewing. Content and skills addressed included mathematics, technology, fine motor skills, and following directions, areas covered well by the standards (and the latter two approved by anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time with five-year-olds).

Questions anticipated by the teacher (essential and guided) and subsequently developed by the students are mirrored by the big ideas of a unit of study. They complement one another as they share a common theme, concept, or issue. As an example, if an essential question for the previously mentioned unit was “What is technology?”, an associated big idea might be “Technology helps people do tasks more easily.” Future instruction would expand on these ideas and inquiries, going deeper into the content and developing skills and strategies to better understand our world.

Maybe the hardest part of this approach for educators is not having all the answers. There is comfort in planning for the next five days. Yet the unfortunate trade-off might be in student engagement. So there has to be a balance between knowing what’s coming and being open to the unexpected.

Exercise: Update Your Consensus Map

Revisit your discipline’s yearlong plan for instruction and reframe them in more interesting ways. This consensus map should list the topics of the units of study which often summarize the major content and performance standards. Everyone in your grade level or department agrees on what should be taught. Consider what our 5th grade team developed when they collaborated on this exercise.

Topic/Strand Theme Title
Citizenship Citizenship/Community Our Place in the World
Political Science Rights & Responsibilities Voices and Choices
Geography Culture/Geography Oh the Places You’ll Go
Diversity Tolerance & Equal Rights A World Without Borders

As you go from left to right, you can see how they thought about their instructional plans in new ways. They haven’t changed the content as much as altered how their students might perceive the curriculum. By combining these topic revisions with big ideas and essential questions, the rest of the unit maps will more likely flow toward learning that is deemed lifeworthy by all learners.

Preparing to Teach in the Middle

Photo by Tim Wright on Unsplash

When I was a 5th- and 6th-grade classroom teacher, my lesson plans primarily consisted of the following: the learning objective and how I would assess student learning. Little time was spent thinking about strategies and practices that would guide students to new understanding.

As a principal for the last twelve years, I can see now how limiting this approach to lesson preparation was. Teachers are wise to spend the majority of their time planning instruction in-between the two.

During a recent classroom visit, a teacher was focused on debate skills and how to make a persuasive argument both in writing and verbally. There was a learning target posted and an assessment planned at the end, yet the majority of the time was spent in the middle of the lesson.

  • They connected this work to how an attorney might have to take on a case in which they disagreed philosophically with the position.
  • Clear criteria for success were provided, including steps they should follow to develop their position for the upcoming debate.
  • The teacher shared the stage with another student to demonstrate how a debate might proceed. They discussed what the student did well and aligned their thinking with the goal of the lesson.
  • Students were placed in groups based on the issue they would debate, such as cell phone use in school, and partnered with someone who had their same position (for or against).
  • The majority of the lesson was spent with students working with peers to collect evidence, outline their argument, and share their ideas. The teacher walked around and conferred with groups when support was needed.
  • They finished this lesson, a part of a larger unit on persuasive writing, by practicing their debate skills in front of peers. The teacher video recorded them. She would later share the footage with each student so they could self-assess their skills and compare to the success criteria.

If I went back into the classroom, learning targets and summative assessments would not be a priority. The messier process of teaching and learning, with all of the interactions that occur in the middle, would be my focus. If we can get that part right, the results will take care of themselves.

Literacy Leaders: You can’t name it if you don’t know it

Without a synergy between literacy and leadership and a committed, joint effort by teachers and principals, fragile achievement gains do not hold.

– Regie Routman, Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success

In a primary classroom today, I was observing the teacher reading aloud a picture book about penguins. The students were active participants, answering questions about the main character and offering their theories about what might happen next in the story. “Could anyone else share their thinking?” invited the teacher, after affirming one student’s response with an objective “Mmm-hmm”.

After writing down my observational narrative (instructional walk) of the read-aloud experience, I gave the teacher my notes while commenting publicly about the lesson in front of the student. “Wow, I could tell you all understood the story well. You made predictions about what would happen next, using details from the book.” The class then shared that tomorrow they would be reading a nonfiction text about penguins online.

By sharing what I observed with the class, I did more than recognize the teacher for her efforts in being intentional with her read aloud. I also named the strategies – making a prediction, using details for support – as a reinforcement of their thinking. Students heard the point of the lesson from two different adults. My presence was value-added; I didn’t distract from the lesson but instead became a part of the learning experience.

My formal educational background is not literacy-rich. While I enjoyed reading as a student, my college studies were more focused on mathematics and middle-level philosophy. When I became an elementary principal, I had limited background knowledge about promising reading and writing practices. Thankfully, I had literacy leaders in my prior school who kindly yet firmly encouraged me to participate in our professional development focused on literacy. My first visits to classrooms were as a learner more than a partner, but eventually I felt competent to engage in the process.

Educators enter the world of leadership from many backgrounds. Some involve reading and writing instruction; some do not. Regardless of our backgrounds, we have an obligation to know literacy through formal and informal professional learning experiences. It’s a continuous commitment as new forms of literacy are growing in the information age. Lifelong learning gives me the language to engage in literacy conversations with faculty, an essential trait for sustainable student success.

Literacy Instruction: Experiences Instead of Stuff

Photo by Marius Ott on Unsplash

Our family tradition during Christmas, an idea we borrowed from somewhere else, is to have a “want”, “need”, “wear”, and “read” gift for each child. The idea is to limit the present buying and make sure we are focused on the reason for the season. However, in the past I found ways to sneak in a few extra gifts, thinking “What’s the harm?”.

This year we really stuck to it. What’s interesting is our kids shared that this was “the best Christmas ever”. That was a pleasant surprise. Maybe because we more thoughtful about what to give due to operating within our self-administered limits? Or, could the decrease in things have allowed for more time to experience the holiday break?

Research has come out that supports this idea. In an article for The Atlantic, James Hamblin shares the results of a study in which subjects reported much higher levels of happiness, excitement, pleasantness when purchasing an experience such as a vacation vs. something material.

Experiential purchases like trips, concerts, movies, et cetera, tend to trump material purchases because the utility of buying anything really starts accruing before you buy it.

It’s the anticipation of the experience as much as the experience itself that is beneficial.

A common thread throughout this topic seems to the social aspect of experience and the opportunity to connect with others before, during, and after that seems to make the event special. This gift of time is less concrete than an item, say a smartphone or a car, yet it remains on our mind in anticipation, in the present, and in our memories.

The point…when we prepare instruction for our students, are we planning for experiences? If not, what are our students doing? My regular walks in classrooms lead me to believe that we are frequently providing our students with memorable learning opportunities. Just this week, I walked into a primary classroom where students were reading aloud their own writing in which they described their favorite part of the holiday break. “They almost always describe experiences instead of presents,” the teacher noted. In a classroom on the upper level, students were learning how to write readers responses to a self-selected book. The experience was memorable for all as the teacher first modeled a response for a book she read. 

If you are still skeptical that we are at our best when we create learning experiences for students, think about a positive memory from your own school history and why you treasure it.

Teaching Literacy During the Holidays

It’s that time of year…the red and green butcher paper rolls are shrinking, the Grinch makes a school visit, and concerts have replaced athletics as the main evening events. The holidays offer opportunities for celebration as well as distractions. Kids get off of their routines or the classroom curriculum is not aligned with the seasonal activities and, as a result, our plans too often take a backseat to festivities or classroom challenges.

I won’t get into the religious aspect of celebrating the holidays, especially in public schools (check out Teaching Tolerance for more information on this topic). Instead, I thought I would share as well as request ideas for integrating promising literacy practices during the holiday season.

  • Service learning projects – This time of year can be stressful for some families living in poverty or just find this time of year hard. Teachers can develop extended lesson plans that involve students writing letters to individuals in assisted living centers and then hand delivering them, or creating original multimedia content to raise money for organizations in need.
  • Learning about our culture – Why do we celebrate some holidays and not others? How does where we live influence what holidays we choose to recognize as a community? These big questions can guide students to research their traditions in order to better understand their past. What they learn can be written as a report and then presented to peers and families using a digital tool of choice.
  • Exploring themes of the holidays – When we study a topic and look at multiple perspectives, trends and themes may present themselves. If holidays as a study are a staple in a school, it might be interesting to facilitate literary analysis and have students explore various texts to understand the larger ideas that are connected to the many known and unknown holidays. The idea of “text” can be expanded by incorporating podcasts, art, and other nonconventional mediums.

I realize this post comes at the tail end of the holiday season. Yet now might be a great time to reflect on our current practices and how they might better incorporate literacy for future instructional planning. How do you authentically integrate reading, writing, language, speaking, and listening with your teaching at this time of year? Please share in the comments.

Beliefs and Practices: Embracing Failure and Supporting Each Other

It’s one thing to have a belief in an approach for teaching or leading. It’s another thing to apply those beliefs to our practices. The distance between beliefs and practices is a group’s willingness to embrace failure as an opportunity for collective learning. 

Today, I facilitated a professional learning session with teachers about reading comprehension. We started by celebrating our growth as a faculty. Important to stress was how our positive school report card was a product of our shared beliefs about literacy. We are on the same page.

But being on the same page philosophically does not necessarily translate to practice. Teachers are at various stages of expertise, often varied in different areas with each teacher. To relate, I shared a story about how I was recently reading aloud to 1st graders, and it didn’t dawn on me to stop and take a moment to explain challenging vocabulary until one student asked, “How can you sow (sew) seeds?”

My personal example of failure led to a short exercise. Teachers were provided a matrix. On the left side were our literacy beliefs we currently shared as a faculty, translated into teaching practices they represented. At the top were four columns. Each heading described a level of progression along a learning continuum. I won’t spend time or words trying to describe it: you can click here to download it or view it below.

Teachers were provided time to reflect on where they were on the learning progression spectrum with regard to each literacy belief in action. (Our beliefs derive from Regie Routman in Residence.) Then they shared with a trusted colleague which practices they felt effective with and with practices they believe they needed more support.

“Do you want to collect these?” asked a teacher. “No, I want you to keep this reflection tool for future use. Maybe you might want to explore a practice more deeply through instructional coaching or peer observation.” Next, I asked if any teachers were willing to share their reflections with the whole group. No one spoke up. To follow, I asked those who rated themselves as unconsciously effective (become second nature) in every practice to raise their hands. No one did, although I noticed many smiles on teachers’ faces.

Later in the professional learning session, teachers were having conversations within self-directed study groups about their selected professional resources. I sat in on one group. As teachers went around discussing their work, one teacher announced, “I have a failure to share.” She pulled up her phone and displayed a picture of a student’s novel filled with sticky notes. “He has a Post-it note for every page!” shared the teacher, which led to laughter and more honest conversations about their own challenges, along with ideas for how this teacher could use the Post-it note information to guide future instruction. 

If schools are ever going to grow collectively, we have to start being honest with ourselves about our practices. Teaching and leading in schools is incredibly complex work. People outside education rarely understand this so we cannot expect them to adequately address the issue. By being open and vulnerable about where we struggle, it gives others permission to divulge their own failures and challenges. These confessions are the seeds for true growth as professionals. It starts with leaders – not just principals – speaking the truth about our challenging, rewarding work.