Fits and Starts

A personal goal of mine is to learn how to use Adobe InDesign. It is a digital publishing program that allows you to draft visual documents such as flyers and eBooks.

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Photo by Mikaela Shannon on Unsplash

I’ve opened it up several times, played with the tools, will often end up frustrated, and eventually shut it down. Yet every time I open up InDesign, I learn something new. This learning might be small, such as how to find a preferred template online or how to zoom in on a document. Eventually, I will get the hang of this software, as long as I keep trying.

These types of fits and starts are the necessary beginnings for learning anything. If we introduce something new into our lives and it doesn’t change how we think or work, then we likely didn’t grow. The journey toward a worthy goal is paved with trials and mistakes and restarts.

Suggested Reading:

Writing for an Audience by Andi Sanchez (The Reading Teacher, $)

Affinity Spaces: How young people live and learn online and out of school by James Paul Gee (Phi Delta Kappan, free)

We are on spring break, which means a tech sabbatical for me for about a week. No Twitter, no problem! See you in April. -Matt

Writing is Innovation

As an idea, innovation is getting tossed around a lot in education lately.

Anytime I see something accepted en masse, I get suspicious. I find it helpful to go back to the meaning and origin of these concepts. Merriam-Webster defines innovation as “something new or…a change made to an existing product, idea, or field”. The Latin root of innovate is innovatus, meaning “to renew, restore; to change”.

Given this understanding, I believe innovation is used too loosely in the context of teaching and learning. Will Richardson aptly points this out in his article for The Huffington PostStop Innovating in Schools. Please.:

Our efforts at innovating, regardless of method, idea, or product, have been focused far too much on incrementally improving the centuries old structures and practices we employ in schools, not on fundamentally rethinking them.

I would continue this argument by stating that innovation should not be limited to science, technology, and mathematics. We go there, mentally, when we hear the term “innovate”. It’s a misconception that needs clarification.

Consider writing. It is a process as well as an output of information and experiences we have gathered to create a new product. This product – an article, a book, a blog post, a tweet – is almost always an iteration of a person’s prior knowledge. Not a lot new here; mostly remixed. Sound like innovation to you?

Dana Murphy, an instructional coach and a writer for Choice Literacy, offers a visual of the writing process that speaks more authentically to me (also a writer) than anything offered during my many years of formal education.

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Important: Murphy notes that one person’s process for writing (innovation) is likely different than another writer’s process.

Here is what I want kids to know about writing: writers have a unique writing process. All writers approach writing differently. There is not a right way and a wrong way to write. There are many ways—endless ways—to approach the task of writing. The process that works best for you is the right process.

Maybe this is why effective instruction, literacy or otherwise, has taken so long to become embedded in all schools. Teachers have to be prepared for a variety of ways students experience success in the classroom. This approach requires a long-term commitment from leaders to guide a school or district to make instructional changes based on sound beliefs and values. Or, administrators can buy a commercial program, wash their hands of any process or necessary conversations, and call it a day. Innovation stays within the purview of STEM.

Changing curriculum is easy. Changing teacher practices is hard.

It is not just us holding ourselves back. Too many standards, nonacademic demands, and not enough time are a part of our struggle to truly innovate in the classroom. Yet we have to start somewhere. As you think about next week’s lesson plans, where could you include opportunities for student choice and voice? How might you coordinate STEM and literacy activities, and demonstrate for your students that one discipline is dependent on the others? When do you celebrate process in your classroom, instead of only products? I’ll be exploring these questions next week in a classroom. Maybe you will join me. Check out the hashtag #PointerNation for updates on our work.

The visual by Dana Murphy, along with the ideas discussed in this post, are adapted from my new, free eBook titled Looking to the Future: Assessing Innovation in the Classroom

Start with Your Strengths

I wrote this short piece for my weekly staff newsletter. Thought it might work here too. Have a great weekend, -Matt

I thought I was a pretty good basketball player in my middle school days. That is, until I attended my first summer basketball camp. It became apparent that I had been a big fish in a little pond. Several players were taller, faster, or simply better than me.

So I had to rely on one of the few things I could do well: hustle. I raced up and down the court, trying to beat whoever was guarding me, and getting into positions that would allow for easy buckets. Maybe I could not dribble past or outshoot many of my opponents, but I wasn’t going to be out-hustled. Focusing on a strength gave me the  confidence to eventually improve in other areas.

As we continue to explore new ways of teaching literacy, maybe you are feeling the same way at times. My humble advice: do what you do well that is also effective for students while trying one thing at a time. Time, commitment, and an open mind are our strengths.

When Every Day is Day One

Each day we seem to enter a story. The introduction starts when we wake up. What we think and do is a lead into a plot. Yet our goals are too often the same; get to work on time, do my job well, figure out dinner and how to spend quality time with the kids, find some quiet time to breathe, and go to sleep. Maybe read the next chapter in a book if we are lucky.

But a story demands more than a series of events. There needs to be conflict. A plot with an intriguing setting. Character change over time, complex and maybe unexpected. A resolution that does not solve the conflict as much as allow the characters in a story to resolve the conflict and find more peace within themselves. Above all, this story wants the reader (and ourselves) to “stay with it”, if I can quote Tom Newkirk’s book Minds Made for Stories.

Maybe that is why people experience hopelessness and end up turning to less healthy behaviors. They have no story. They aren’t struggling with a conflict that productively challenges them to achieve their inspiring goals. Maybe they have no goals. Instead, they just struggle. They lose more than they win. Defeat becomes the overwhelming setting and context.

Blaming outside factors for this malaise can only go so far. If there is a predisposition to mental health concerns, that certainly needs more outside support. For everyone else, maybe we forgot the importance and the enjoyment of a story. How might we place ourselves as the protagonist in our personal journeys? We need a goal that we desire to reach, an objective so important that we are willing to struggle through the struggles to achieve it.

Everyone wants to be inspired. We look to movies, to books, to other people’s lives for examples of who has overcome obstacles to realize their dreams. I have no problem with that. My concern is that if we only live vicariously through others’ experiences, their personal goals and journeys can become a substitute for our potential. Maybe we are susceptible to forget what we were passionate about… We need to start our own stories. Stories that other people will want to read about and be inspired by in their own personal journeys. Stories in which we are the protagonist, seeking success.

Think Time

I recently read aloud Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farm by Jon Katz (an excellent nonfiction picture book) to 1st graders. After the story, we discussed possible writing ideas inspired by this text. One student raised his hand.

I called on him.

He thought.

I waited.

He thought some more.

I waited some more.

Finally, he shared an idea based on the book plus his own experience with pets. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and then showed everyone.

In the past, I would have likely told that student that we could come back to him later. After reading an article about think time, I have changed this practice. Here is one line from the article: “The students never disappoint. They trust that smart things will pop into their minds. And smart things always do—if we give them time to think.” Without reading, watching, and reflecting upon excellent instruction, I would never have grown.

 

Reading and Writing in the Real World

I’ve been thinking more and more about teaching literacy for students today. Digital media has become a primary source of information for many people. Do they know how to read a Twitter thread or write an effective blog post? If someone does not, are they fully literate? I wrote the following piece for our school’s families to start the conversation. I’m sure I will be revisiting this topic again soon.

-Matt

One of my sources of information is Twitter. I follow educators, leaders, journalists, and friends. I also subscribe to a few newspapers, although much of the content I read there is online. As I scroll through articles from a web browser or app, I find I have to work hard to keep my attention focused on the writing. My mind is drawn to the advertisements and other distractions that appear at the edges of the screen.

I share this information, both in digital and in print, for a reason. Mainly, when education is tasked with teaching students to read and write, we can no longer limit our scope to printed text. The advent of the Internet has created brand new literacies. In a connected society, we need to be globally literate, in which we can understand people’s perspectives from other cultures and locations. We also need to be digitally literate. Multimedia messages read and heard online require new strategies to comprehend them.

At a recent strategic planning for the district, a variety of community members got together with Mineral Point School educators to talk about what we want our students to know, understand, and be able to do. After a lot of conversation and debate, we decided on two big goals: community engagement and academic innovation and independence. These are pretty broad. Basically, we want to improve our connections with our local community around the concept of education, and we want to prepare our students for a changing world.

How do we get there? We have already started follow-up conversations at the administrative level. One of the things that we can agree on is for students to be readers and writers in the real world. That means being able to decode and comprehend text both in print and online. That means writing for an audience that could be one person or the world. Speaking and listening also have taken on new purpose when we can communicate with anyone from anywhere. These ideas are both challenging and exciting. I look forward to working with you to help project a course for our students’ futures.

Are We Talking About the Same Tree? (the Importance of Clarity)

The following is a crosspost from my school blog. I thought it might be relevant here as well. Have an excellent Labor Day weekend!  – Matt

Two members of the maintenance team stopped me in the high school hallway.

“Are you good with us taking down the cedar tree in the front of your building?”

When asked, I was 98% sure which tree they were referring to. Steve, our building custodian, and I had discussed last year about removing the tree. It had outgrown its space. The branches had now extended above the walls at the second level. It hindered the maintenance crew’s efforts to remove the snow from that upper area.

Still, I wanted to be sure that the tree they were talking about was, in fact, the same tree.

“Let me go back to school, check out that tree, and confirm with Steve.”

Yes, it was that tree.

 

Was it necessary for me to go back and confirm this, even though I was 98% confident? What’s the worst that could have happened? They could have cut down the wrong tree, I guess.

With teaching and leading in a school, it is even more critical that we are all on the same page. Clarity is critical for trust. Without clarity, we make assumptions about people’s beliefs and actions. For example, if we had different understandings of what it means to teach “the whole child”, our school might have different expectations and approaches in our work with kids. Some of us might not value the social and emotional needs of students as much as others. That is how we end up with inequity in our schools. Student placement in classrooms becomes a lottery system in which some kids get a considerably different educational experience than others.

Our faculty is engaged in the journey of knowing which tree we are talking about. Our “tree” is literacy. Specifically, we are focused on the connection between reading and writing. We are meeting monthly during professional learning communities to watch expert instruction together via video, have professional conversations about what we saw, and then try out the instructional strategy in the classroom. Celebrations of our efforts and student learning results happen regularly. Through these activities, we are achieving clarity about promising practices for reading and writing instruction. We are on the same page which helps ensure students are receiving equally effective instruction.

This is not to say that teachers don’t have some latitude in how they facilitate learning in their classrooms. The neat thing about this work is that it can be applied to many different resources and units of instruction. I’ve heard the phrase “This is common sense!” when teachers have engaged in learning about effective literacy instruction. As Regie Routman, the developer of our professional resources, notes, “When has common sense not been acceptable in schools?” As we have found agreement about what is important for all students to experience, we have collected these beliefs as statements and made them visible throughout the school.

 

As a school, we will continue this work of not making assumptions about our teaching and learning philosophies. We will continue to examine our instruction, our students’ results, and our beliefs about literacy. Even when we might be 98% sure about our work, we will strive to be on the same page, 100%.