Beyond the Standards

I was in a 1st grade classroom conducting an instructional walk. The students were quietly working on their informative writing projects. They had researched a topic of choice, using strategies to read nonfiction texts. Now they were using their notes they had taken and were applying them to a writing project.

I sat next to a couple of students. One student looked up, saw me and asked, “You know how to write books, right?” I nodded. “I am not sure where to put the end. What do you do?” Honored that he asked me for help, I asked if he would read his writing to me. I listened actively, celebrated his work, then went into a description of my own writing process, admitting that conclusions could be very difficult for any writer. He looked at me, unsure how to respond.

The teacher stopped over by us, checking in on our conversation. After a moment, she stepped in. “I think what he’s trying to ask is where he should put ‘The End’ in his book.” Literally. I laughed, then suggested putting those two words on the back of his last page.

I enjoy talking the writing process, mine and anyone else’s. Each is unique. There are some very general pathways from drafting to done (typically revision is a major part), but the specific journey for each writer is their own. Whatever it takes to get it on paper and get it published.

Reflecting on our chat, I appreciated that our conversation revolved around the writing itself and not on a rubric or a specific standard. Writing, like many crafts, is a messy experience from start to finish. Spelling out what “good” writing looks and sounds like can make the process a bore, seem more like work in its starkest sense.

I’m fine with standards as a part of the educational experience. They give us some guideposts as to where our students should be at in relation to their age and development level. Used thoughtfully, standards can help define a ladder of complexity in what students should know and be able to do.

Yet history is not kind to the standards movement. In an excellent article for Phi Delta Kappan, Gamson, Eckart, and Anderson reveal the reality behind why standards have been introduced into U.S. public education.

In virtually every period of American educational history, but especially in times of national crisis, critics have argued that American students were floundering academically due to intellectually feeble and flabby academic objectives. Time and again, Americans have retreated to the bunker of clear standards as protectors against educational fuzziness.

These “times of national crisis” include Sputnik and the National Reading Panel’s infamous report “A Nation at Risk” (the latter a document I recently discovered and then threw out while cleaning my office). The context for these concerns is competitiveness. In this type of environment, learning is no longer the focus. It is about achievement. Curiosity and mistake-making are seen as frivolous time wasters when standards need to be met.

I understand society’s desire to simplify school outcomes to try and understand the quality of education. Doing so, though, has consequences, one of the most dire being the removal of process as an essential part of the learning experience. When there is no opportunity for people to take risks and pose important questions, such as asking the principal where to put “the end”, there is little incentive to put ourselves in positions where we are vulnerable and open to new ideas. We cannot boil down these necessary experiences to a set of standards. That should tell you something.

Preparing to Teach in the Middle

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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.

Watch and Learn

I was in a 4th-grade classroom, conducting an instructional walk. The class was being led by the teacher in a shared reading of Little House in the Big Woods. While the students followed along in their copy of the text as the teacher read aloud, my mind was tempted to go toward assumptions about whole class novel studies.

  • They are teacher-directed and do not provide for student voice and choice.
  • One common text does not address different reading abilities.
  • Time spent reading together means less time reading independently.

After a few minutes, the teacher paused where she was reading and asked the students to turn and talk about the story so far. Then she walked over to where I was sitting. “We are using this novel to teach students how to have authentic conversations about what they are reading. We are starting with turn and talk. Gradually we will build in roles and strategies.” 

I thanked her for sharing this information with me. Our school goal is “A Community of Readers”. This teacher was taking a current text they use within their study of history and building in discussion strategies that we were learning about during professional development. I added this context to the anecdotal notes I was writing and would eventually give to her.

When principals visit classrooms, the typical stance is to evaluate. To judge how effective instruction is for students. During instructional walks, the goal is to learn. Not just about what is happening in the classroom. To become smarter as leaders as well as to examine our own assumptions. We don’t have to be the most knowledgeable person in the school, but we should be the one most willing to learn. 

The Changing Roles of Educators

 

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My son did not want to practice his trumpet. He was finding anything else to do to avoid this daily task. To be honest, I felt the same way when I was in 6th grade and the novelty of playing the trumpet had worn off after about two weeks.

Knowing his affinity for pop music, I asked him to search online for the trumpet sheet music for “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars (his favorite song). He was excited to find someone had uploaded a video tutorial, a step-by-step visual demonstration for learning to play the melody for this song.

While he was keeping up with the tutorial, I elected to videotape his performance. This was just me being a dad, documenting him playing to share out later with family and friends. He saw me recording his practice and then asked me, “Could I see how I did?” Sure, I said, and we watched him doing his best to play the song. His nose wrinkled up as he commented on how his attempt was less than what he had expected. “I’m going to try it another time. Record me again?”

With the access people have to learn almost anything at any time from anywhere, how does the role of the educator change?I see two distinct shifts: what we teach and how we teach. This is curriculum and instruction, respectively. Regarding what we teach, the access provided by the Internet to almost any content seems limitless. No one textbook or resource can possibly serve as a primary source of information anymore. Teachers need to be more adventurous and at the same time increasingly discerning. For every excellent Uptown Funk video tutorial, there are many poor examples of similar content.

With how to teach, the Internet comes into play again. People can teach themselves what they want to learn (consider how many times one searches YouTube to repair some appliance). So our role as educators needs to shift from the person delivering the content to a coach or a mentor, providing feedback and offering suggestions when necessary. I didn’t have to say much when my son watched himself playing. He understood the criteria for success (the what) and could compare that with his own visible performance (the how).

These shifts take time. We need to give ourselves some grace and remember that we are doing the best we know how today. Tomorrow will be better provided we are open to change.

The Reason We Don’t Change

The reason we don’t change is fear. The more specific reasons may vary – not sure how to start, concerned about making mistakes, worried about ridicule – but they all fall under the category of fear.

In my own career as an educator, I can think of several instances in which fear was the underlying factor in my decision making. One example that comes to mind is when I first started student teaching. My cooperating teacher expected me to read aloud every day to the 6th graders. He even provided me with a tried and true book (Where the Red Fern Grows).

I resisted this practice initially. I was uncomfortable with being in the spotlight for that long. All those eyes on me made me want to crawl out of my own skin. I do believe my introversion/anxiety led me to be more successful with student-directed classroom experiences such as cooperative learning. However, there were times when I should have been more of the center of attention for demonstrations. My cooperating teacher was often out of the classroom to attend to building leadership duties, so I found reasons to not read aloud: the previous lesson ran too long or I had to deal with a student behavior.

Eventually, I did come to integrate read aloud in my classroom and actually embrace it as a keystone of my instruction. So what changed? Among other things, I remember taking a closer look at reading aloud and trying to understand the benefits of this practice. The research I discovered about it along with the enjoyment I eventually experienced outweighed any anxieties I was experiencing. My fear gave way to the benefits.

To address a fear in order to make a positive change, blogger, author, and fellow introvert Beth Buelow offers a process:

  1. List your fears, uncertainties, and doubts, or “FUDS”.
  2. Perform a reality check.
  3. Realize you have choices.
  4. Choose a prosperity perspective.

I think if I had access to this process, I probably would have started reading aloud much sooner. For example:

  • My FUD was not just being in the spotlight but worrying about what others thought of me as I read aloud.
  • My reality check was that I was more concerned about how people would view me, which was probably not aligned with others’ actual perspectives.
  • My choices were to continue to avoid reading aloud in spite of all the evidence to support it or to create the conditions in which I would feel more comfortable with reading aloud.
  • My prosperity perspective (thinking in terms of “both/and” instead of “either/or”) was to have the students help me select the read aloud so that we would all have ownership in the story and I would feel less anxious about the experience. I also dimmed the lights so it helped everyone, but especially me, calm down during read aloud.

To summarize, I went from actively resisting reading aloud to becoming a strong proponent for the practice, including writing blog posts about favorite books to share with students for the Nerdy Book Club blog. This change came about not by resisting my fears, but by better understanding why I was afraid and then addressing it with strategies.

So what fear are you struggling with that is preventing you from changing? Are you trying to let a practice go and/or adopt a new one? How might this process help? If you have changed, how did you overcome your fear? Please share in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

The Best Way to Learn

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The best way to learn is to be engaged as an active participant in the process. This might seem obvious, that active learning naturally happens in classrooms. Three recent experiences have helped me reflect on why this might not always be the case.

  1. I recently got a haircut at a technical college. The students are enrolled in an 18-month program. Part of their learning experience is cutting and styling people’s hair. Makes sense. After my appointment was over, the student’s teacher came over and offered her feedback on how to improve as well as praise for what she did well. (I am somewhat follicly challenged, so my head is a good one to practice on.)
  2. After my son’s first cross-country race today, we celebrated by going to Culver’s, a local franchised restaurant. The young person taking our order had one of the managers at her side. He provided help only when needed.
  3. Tonight was also our city’s monthly Lions Club meeting. As 3rd vice-president, I had to fill in to run the meeting as the other officers were all unavailable. Now, I’ve been a Lion since 2006. I’ve sat through many meetings over the years but I had never led one. Once we started, I had the club secretary at my side to guide me through the agenda and prompting me when to call for a motion. Like I said, I’ve attended these meetings for over a decade but still needed help leading one.

These three recent events were good reminders for me that instruction is most effective when students are actively involved. Of course, there’s time to teach. But whatever time we use to model and demonstrate is time students are not engaged in trying out the skills and strategies themselves.

Dr. Richard Allington studied exemplary reading teachers in six different states, spending at least ten days each in 1st- and 4th-grade classrooms. (Click here to read his classic PDK article on this topic.) One trend he noticed in his observations was how much time these teachers provided for students to practice reading and writing with authentic texts.

These teachers routinely had children actually reading and writing for as much as half of the school day – around a 50/50 ratio of reading and writing to stuff (stuff is all the other things teachers have children do instead of reading and writing).

Less effective teachers did not have this same ratio.

In typical classrooms, it is not unusual to find that kids read and write for as little as ten percent of the day (30 minutes of reading and writing activity in a 300 minute, or five hour, school day). In many classrooms, a 90 minute “reading block” produces only 10–15 minutes of actual reading, or less than 20 percent of the allocated reading time is spent reading.

As we settle into our classroom routines, it might be wise to examine how we use our own time. Video record a lesson or have a colleague observe us. Analyze the results. Where and when can we shift the work?

Let us know how it goes!

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Professional Learning: The Gift of Time

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The week of getting ready for the first day with students has come to a close. This time of year is typically one big rush to “get things done”. Bare bulletin boards call for welcoming messages. Schedules are updated continuously, rarely due to a school’s priorities. Enrollment and ordering resources become mini-emergencies instead of part of the daily routine. ‘Tis the season.

This year our faculty was provided with the gift of time for a day. (Due to a scheduling conflict, we had to reschedule our speaker’s second day to later in the year.) Once this day opened up, my initial/habitual reaction was to cram in as much literacy and PLC content into the day, topics we had initially prepared to address in September. We resisted this impulse. Instead, we spent the morning exploring reading instruction and the afternoon attending sessions on the topics of community engagement and academic innovation. Our agenda listed ideas and relevant topics instead of stuff.

Next are some of the outcomes from slowing things down and better appreciating the gift of time.

Faculty Viewed Professional Development Positively

Certainly, the content and planning for our time together contributed to the positive feedback our leadership team received. Being intentional about what we were learning together cannot be minimized. But it needs to be pointed out that allowing for more time for conversation and for the exploration of ideas during professional development decreases the anxiety of trying to get through everything we think needs to be accomplished. We had an agenda, yes, but it was minimal and allowed for flexibility.

Idea: If we feel like we have too many tasks planned for a professional learning experience, then we probably do. Push back some content to a later date, or even completely cut it out. If it is not essential to a school’s goals, then it is expendable.

Teachers Facilitated Professional Learning Experiences

When we learned that we had a day now open for building-level professional development, my first thought was, “I cannot do it all.” Fortunately, I work in a school with many talented individuals, so I didn’t have to. I reached out for help, asking several faculty members to lead afternoon sessions on mindfulness in the classroom, personalized learning, designing local curriculum projects, and healthy habits for educators.

Idea: To better know our teachers’ interests and specific talents, get into classrooms on a daily basis. Experience classroom visits as a learner instead of only an evaluator. Have real conversations with faculty and students. We can lead side-by-side.

Frame Professional Learning Time as an Investment

If all we do is learn together without seeing the results of our work, then professional development becomes routine and starts to lack meaning. There needs to be some level of connection between our self-improvement efforts and student outcomes. If teachers don’t see our time spent together as valuable, then it is perceived as wasted. For example, I shared with the faculty that our below basic scores on our state reading test have gone down 9% in the last two years. This is likely a result of our focus on embracing authentic literacy practices and a more data-informed approach to Response to Intervention.

Idea: Create visual representations of your assessment results and share them with faculty. It saves time in analysis. Point out the positive results first, then focus on the next steps. Celebrate, then educate. For us, we need to address our more advanced students’ needs who are already successful but may not be growing as much as their peers.

How do you as a literacy leader best utilize the gift of time for professional learning? Where do you struggle? Why? Please share in the comments.