Action Research and the Art of Knowing Our Students #NCTE15

What happens when student data doesn’t agree with what you think you know, especially about a student’s reading skills and dispositions?

It’s a situation that happens often in schools. We get quantitative results back from a reading screener that doesn’t seem to jive with what we see every day in classrooms. For example, a student shows high ability in reading, yet continues to stick with those easy readers and resists challenging himself or herself with more complex literature. Or the flip: A student has trouble passing that next benchmark, but is able to comprehend a book above his or her reading level range.

Here’s the thing: The test tests what it tests. The assessment is not to blame. In fact, blame should be out of the equation when having professional conversations about how to best respond to students who are not experiencing a level of success as expected. The solution is not in the assessment itself, but in differentiating the types of assessments we are using, questioning the types of data we are collecting, and organizing and analyzing the various data points to make sense of what’s actually happening with our students’ learning lives.

Differentiating the Assessments

It’s interesting how reading, a discipline far removed from the world of mathematics, is constantly quantified when attempting to assess readers’ abilities. Words correct per minute, how many comprehension questions answered correctly, and number of pages read are most often referenced when analyzing and discussing student progress. This data is not bad to have, but if it is all we have, then we paint an incomplete picture of our students as readers.

Think about yourself as a reader. What motivates you to read? I doubt you give yourself a quiz or count the number of words you read correctly on a page after completing a book. Lifelong readers are active assessors of their own reading. They use data, but not the type of data that we normally associate with the term. For example, readers will often rate books once they have finished them on Amazon and Goodreads. They also add a short review about the book on these online forums. The audience that technology provides for readers’ responses is a strong motivator. No one requires these independent readers to rate and review these books, but they do it anyway.

There is little reason why these authentic assessments cannot occur in today’s classrooms. One tool for students to rate and review books is Biblionasium (www.biblionasium.com). It’s like Goodreads for kids. Students can keep track of what they’ve read, what they want to read, and find books recommended by other young readers. It’s a safe and fun reading community for kids.

Yes, this is data. That data isn’t always a number still seems like a shocker for too many educators. To help, teacher practitioners should ask smart questions about the information coming at them to make better sense of where their students are at in their learning journeys.

Questioning the Data

Data such as reading lists and reading community interactions can be very informative, so long as we are reading the information in the right way.

Asking questions related to our practice can help guide our inquiries. For example, are students self-selecting books on their own more readily over time? Also, are they relying more on peers and less on the teacher in their book selection? In addition, are the books being read increasing in complexity throughout the year? All of these qualitative measures of reading disposition can directly relate to quantitative reading achievement scores, informing the teacher with a more comprehensive look at their literacy lives.

Organizing and Analyzing the Data

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Students filling out reading motivation surveys via Google Forms and Chromebooks

I recently had our K-5 teachers administer reading motivation surveys with all of our students. The results have been illuminating for me, as I have entered them into spreadsheets.

Our plan is to position this qualitative data side-by-side with our fall screener data. The goal is to find patterns and trends as we compare and contrast these different data points, often called “triangulation” (Landrigan and Mulligan, 2013). Actually, the goal is not triangulation, but responding to the data and making instructional adjustments during the school year. This makes these assessments truly formative and for learning.

Is the time and energy worth it?

I hope so – I spent the better part of an afternoon at school today entering students’ responses to questions such as “What kind of reader are you?”, “How do you feel about reading with others?”, and “Do you like to read when you have free time?” (Marinek et al, 2015). The information collecting and organizing has been informative in itself. While it takes time, by transcribing students’ responses, I am learning so much about their reading lives. I hope that through this process of differentiating, questioning, and organizing and analyzing student reading data, both quantitative and qualitative, we will know our students better and become better teachers for our efforts.

References

Landrigan, C. & Mullligan, T. (2013). Assessment in Perspective: Focusing on the Reader Behind the Numbers. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse.

Marinak, B. A., Malloy, J. B., Gambrell L. B., & Mazzoni, S. A. (July/August, 2015). Me and My Reading Profile: A Tool for Assessing Early Reading Motivation. The Reading Teacher, (69)1, 51-62.


Attending the NCTE Annual Convention in Minneapolis this year? Join Karen Terlecky, Clare Landrigan, Tammy Mulligan and me as we share our experiences and specific strategies in conducting action research in today’s classrooms. See the following flyer for more information.

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“Harvest” a Good Book – the @BookItProgram Principal Challenge #youngreaders #cpchat

Today is November 9, 2015 – the first day of the Principal Challenge. It is part of National Young Readers Week, sponsored by Pizza Hut.

Last year I went “hunting” for a good book. Students gave quick book talks for me, and I documented their suggestions for the whole school. This year, our theme is to “harvest” a good book. Our artist-in-residence is a local author, Lisl H. Detlefsen. She wrote a children’s book about a cranberry harvest, a top industry in Central Wisconsin. Lisl and her family run a cranberry marsh. Her book is accurate, engaging and fun to read aloud.

I started the week off by coming into school with my gardening gear – gloves, seeds, my hat, rake, ho, and some locally grown produce. I referred to myself as “Farmer Renwick”, although the students’ first impression was that I was a cowboy. I’ll have to work on my costuming for next year’ theme.

IMG_3942Once I shared a little bit about my own hobby, I tied it the concept of harvest to a book I read aloud to classrooms. Teachers signed their classes up for half hour slots during the day and met me in the LMC. Each book was selected for its gardening/harvest theme and its age level appropriateness.

Grade K-1 selections:

Grade 2-3 selection:

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Grade 4-5 selection:

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Inviting classrooms to sign up for a read aloud with me for the Principal Challenge had a number of benefits. First, the students got to see me in a different light. I was out of the office, dressed up like a farmer/cowboy, and able to share about a hobby of mine (gardening) that was connected to authentic literature. Second, I modeled instruction in front of my faculty. They observed me teaching their students. They also witnessed me making teaching mistakes during the read aloud and discussions. Finally, we set the stage for our artist-in-residence coming later this week. (Not to be forgotten is also qualifying our school for possibly winning 101 copies of the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid book!)

IMG_3940 (1)Principals: It’s pretty simple to set something like this up for your school. The best part is you have the rest of this week to make it happen!

(Picture: Previewing Time for Cranberries with my son’s 3rd grade class)

Three Books I’m Considering Reading Aloud to 5th Graders

This is one of the hardest parts about reading aloud: Selecting the title! One of the 5th grade classrooms invited me to read aloud in their classroom in November. As a former 5th grade teacher, I’ve scoured past and present titles. Here are my top three candidates, listed in order by author’s last name:

  • The Secret School by Avi (Harcourt, 2001)

This story takes place in a one room schoolhouse in 1925. Fourteen-year-old Ida Bidson wants to graduate from high school. Unfortunately, the teacher leaves and the school is set to close for the remainder of the year. While the rest of the students seem resigned to this fate, Ida’s determination to continue her education takes her from student to teacher, secretly taking over the classroom represented by many age levels and personalities.

Why I’m considering it: School has become an entitlement in the present day. What if school meant more to students that something compulsory? How might students today rethink these opportunities if public education was no guarantee? I would look forward to having these conversations with 5th graders if this book were selected.

  • The Landry News by Andrew Clements (Simon & Schuster, 1999)

A once-effective and now jaded educator, Mr. Larson, is going through the motions as a 5th grade teacher. Cara Landry is not settling for less regarding her learning, so she creates a classroom newspaper that highlights the issues in her classroom. As you can imagine, humor and drama ensue. The principal, Dr. Barnes, looks to use Clara’s reporting as a way to oust Mr. Larson from his current position.

Why I’m considering it: Freedom of speech is at the forefront of conversations today, especially with social media and other ways to communicate online. Tweens and teens need to have deep discussions about the importance of balancing “truth with mercy”. Stories like The Landry News, along with thoughtful questions and a teacher’s guidance, can facilitate this type of classroom talk.

  • Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998)

Joey has ADHD, and his medication isn’t working like it used to. The title for the story reveals an example of his situation: During class, Joey kept swallowing his house key, then bringing it back up via the string it was attached to…until the string broke. Gantos tells this story through Joey’s perspective, which includes living in a single-parent family. His situation at home, including a father who “doesn’t believe in meds”, makes life for Joey a challenge.

Why I’m considering it: As another educator once told me, you could throw a ball in the hallway at school during passing time and probably hit someone with ADHD. But what is school life like for someone with this condition? If I were to read aloud this book, I would look to build empathy and understanding for learners with all sorts of challenges.

Whichever book is selected, I am confident it will be well-received by the 5th grade class. Maybe you can help. Leave a comment on this post that includes the title we should enjoy in November and why. I’ll share your opinion with the class on November 3rd, when we vote on which one to read. Better yet, join us next month by reading aloud the same text to your intermediate/middle level classroom. Maybe we can connect online and share our thoughts with each other as a larger learning community of readers and thinkers.

How to Start an Online Book Club on Goodreads

I write this title to draw in readers with the assumption that I know what I am talking about. Yes, I do know how to start a book club. But to get it going and sustain it for the long run? That will be the topic for another post.

Here are the steps I have taken to get things started on facilitating a book study for a group titled School Leaders as Readers:

1. Get a Goodreads account.

Goodreads is one of my favorite social media tools. It combines my love of reading with the online networking that creates unique connections with other readers. I wish we had something like Goodreads for kids. You can create an account through your Facebook profile, which is what I did. Otherwise just create an account through your email.

2.  Start adding books and bookshelves.

You can categorize books in three ways: “To-Read”, “Currently Reading”, or “Read”. I have several books jockeying for attention in the first two categories. As for the books I have completed, I recommend creating personalized bookshelves. This is a helpful way to curate what you have read for others to reference, or simply for you to reflect on later.

3.  Create a Goodreads group.

While it may seem odd to complete the first two steps before this one, I think it is pretty important. To start a book club online, I believe you need to be seen as an avid reader. It’s not enough to read a lot but are not actively sharing our reading lives. We expect this of our students; why not us?

Starting a group is pretty straight-forward: Select “Groups”, then “Create a Group” on the upper right side of your screen. At this point, Goodreads guides you through the next steps of giving your group a title, adding a book you want to read with your friends on Goodreads (friends will find you or be suggested to you, no worries), invite friends to your group, and then create discussion boards related to the major parts or chapters of the book you are reading.

You will want to keep your book club group’s title and purpose pretty generic, as you will hopefully be reading several books around topics of interest within this online community. Since you are the leader of the group, it is imperative that you start the discussion ball rolling with your own initial posts. Below are the first three I shared for our group’s first book, Mindfulness by Ellen Langer.

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As you can see from my initial post, I really need to read this book.

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I ended up gifting a copy to the librarian, and buying a gift card for the Good Samaritan.

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One thing I have appreciated about this online community is the sense of a “closed space”. I can write what I want to write, and not worry a whole lot about grammar, audience, purpose, etc. Of course, I am attending to those elements of good writing, but I am not worrying about it as much I might with a blog post (like this one) or more formal writing. No responses yet, but we only have six people in our group. If you are a school leader, consultant, or public education advocate in general, I hope you will join us for this initial experience. Click here to access our Goodreads community.

Bonus: Leave a comment on this blog post, and you are registered to win a free copy of Mindfulness by Ellen Langer!

Using Mr. Brown’s Precepts to Engage the School Community

One of my goals for this school year is to be more present in the school. It’s not that I was away a lot. Rather, I am aiming to make my presence more known in a couple of ways. One strategy is through increasing my frequency of walkthroughs and classroom visits. I have a formidable goal of 300 walkthroughs for the year, or around 100 per trimester.

The other way I plan on increasing my presence is through morning announcements. Right now my school counselor facilitates this daily event. This is great, and I am just looking to join her more frequently with some words of wisdom.

IMG_3674My source of wisdom is 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Brown’s Book of Precepts, written and edited by R.J. Palacio. This is a companion to the book Wonder by the same author. In the story, Mr. Brown is a featured teacher in the school where the main characters attend. He has quotes that serve as monthly precepts, or principles, which are shared and posted once a month. In this text, some of the quotes are from historical figures, and others are from the fictional characters within Wonder. Last year, one of my assistants posted selected precepts on our school marquee once a month. The response was positive from the community.

I have taken this idea and applied it at the schoolwide level by sharing a precept or two each week. I will read it aloud two times on one day via our PA system, and encourage the school community to ponder what the precept means to them. I will follow up on another day by sharing my own interpretation of what the message is all about and means to me.

Actions may speak louder than words, but that doesn’t mean what we say, read, and write are any less important. Language can create visuals and meanings for someone in unique ways. Word choice can “ground” an idea and make it more understandable, according to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, authors of Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago, 1980). Analogies and other forms of figurative language provide frames in which we understand the abstract through a concrete lens. We live our lives through words, embodying them in our interactions with others and in our personal habits.

So the school community can visibly see the precepts I share over announcements, I sequestered a bulletin board. Already covered in black paper and a border that represents our school colors, I use a metallic marker to write the precept on the board, located right across from where students line up for lunch. As the year progresses, I will continue to add to our collection and reference them as needed.

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The board title is a take on Lakoff’s and Johnson’s resource. The first of Mr. Brown’s precepts I wrote serves as a mantra for Wonder:

When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.

-Dr. Wayne W. Dyer

This is a quote I referenced in my last post. I imagine we will revisit this precept throughout the school year.

Recommended Read: Schooling Beyond Measure by Alfie Kohn (Heinemann, 2015)

I imagine the beginnings of this book idea came about from a conversation between Thomas Newkirk, editor at Heinemann, and Alfie Kohn, frequent commentator on education, that sounded somewhat like the following:

Thomas Newkirk: Hey Alfie, what are your thoughts on writing another book for Heinemann?

Alfie Kohn: Hmm, I don’t know. I’m kind of busy with public speaking and posting my one tweet per day.

Newkirk: Yeah, I hear you. However, I have this idea where we would just reprint some of your more salient posts from your blog and your articles for Education Week.

Kohn: Really? You can book your blog?

Newkirk: Sure, why not?

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I’m kidding! This jest highlights my one beef with this book, in that there is no new material included in the text. Kohn didn’t even write an introduction for his most recent offering.

However, if anyone’s previous work deserves a reprint, it would be Alfie Kohn’s. He has been the voice of reason for years, combating the negative influences of standardized tests, grades used as carrots and sticks, and classroom motivation tactics. With the current climate in education, Kohn’s book could not have been published at a better time.

Instead of a Reader’s Digest version of this book, I’d like to highlight five of the articles I found that most impacted me as an elementary principal in a high-poverty public school.

The Case Against Grades (Educational Leadership, November 2011)

This article should be required reading for any school or district committee revisiting their grading system. Kohn moves beyond the argument between A’s and B’s vs. standards-based grading, and highlights the problems with the system itself. Specifically, he finds that grades lower motivation for authentic tasks, creates a competitive learning culture, and misrepresents student success when teachers try to quantify achievement that should not be reduced to a number or letter.

A Dozen Essential Guidelines for Educators (http://www.alfiekohn.org, October 2013)

While some might feel that lists are lazy, I couldn’t imagine a better format for identifying the compencies that all teachers and school leaders should be applying to their practice. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Thinking is messy; deep thinking is really messy. Therefore beware prescriptive standards and outcomes that are too specific and orderly.
  • In outstanding classrooms, teachers do more listening than talking, and students do more talking than listening. Terrific teachers often have teeth marks on their tongues.
  • The more that students are led to focus on how well they’re doing in school, the less engaged they’ll tend to be with what they’re doing in school.

What Waiting for a Second Marshmallow Doesn’t Prove (Education Week, 2014)

In this article, Kohn takes on the term “grit” and how it has been conflated with other concepts such as “resilience” and “engagement” in educational circles. Despite the research presented by Angela Duckworth and other proponents of grit in schools, the writer finds the results unconvincing. Kohn questions the benefits of delayed gratification, noting that sometimes taking advantage of an opportunity available immediately is the better decision. Also, the author wonders if the researchers took into account the home factors that may impact a young person’s ability to defer something rewarding for later.

Five Not-So-Obvious Propositions About Play (http://www.alfiekohn.org, November 17, 2011)

The author starts this post with two personal beliefs:

  • Children should have plenty of opportunities for play.
  • Even young children have too few such opportunities these days, particularly in school settings.

Kohn goes on to support his argument by debunking multiple myths about play, evoking statements such as “Younger and older children should have a chance to play together.” and “The point of play is that it has no point.” The second statement really seems to run counter to how schools operate today, even though it shouldn’t. Kohn’s rationale rests on both current research as well as classic positions by John Dewey and other pioneers of public education.

Encouraging Courage (Education Week, September 18, 2013)

This article was perfectly positioned to end this anthology. Kohn provides a more positive outlook on the future of public education. He encourages educators to ask reflective questions about their own practice, take responsibility on behalf of the best interests of their classroom, and give ownership of the learning to their students. Kohn’s recommendations rest heavily on what we know to be most effective for students.

He ends his text with a powerful statement against the test-driven standardization of public education in America:

It takes courage to stand up to absurdity when all around you people remain comfortably seated. But if we need one more reason to do the right thing, consider this: The kids are watching us, deciding how to live their lives in part by how we’ve chosen to live ours.

Words to live by.

Writing is One Part Drafting and Four Parts Revision (and other truths I’ve discovered so far)

I think I am finished with an ASCD Arias book on debunking myths around technology in education. After four drafts, I can only hope.

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I’ve written a “real” book this time, according to a close family member, much different than that digital book I wrote last year. 🙂

I’ve realized a few things through this writing process, digital or otherwise.

Writing is one part drafting and four parts revision

This is a very unscientific ratio. I’m basing it on the above image, in which I capture the previous four print drafts of my book for ASCD. It is humbling to think that a manuscript no larger than 10,000 words (roughly 50 pages in paperback) could demand such energy and time to complete. My writing always had room for improvement, and it was largely in the message rather than the mechanics. As teachers, when is the last time we’ve expected the same? To be fair, the stakes would need to be a lot higher for students than a grade, or even a spot on the bulletin board of excellence. At the same time, with digital publishing, there is no reason this cannot be a reality.

Writing is writing

Drafting something for a wider audience to read is special. Whether it be online or in print is largely irrelevant, at least in the mind of the reader. You are giving of yourself to an unknown audience. It’s a personal decision. I believe we reveal much about ourselves through the written word. This is what makes writing both exhilarating and scary at the same time. Remember that when you ask a student to publish a fantastic piece that they may appear to be a little reluctant to share with the world. Writing online, such as on a blog, seems to circumvent this issue, although it may subdue truly honest prose.

Writing is a reduction of our experiences and everything we’ve read

Publishers have a very good method of ensuring that the author produces enough content to work with in the final draft. It’s called a “word limit”. For this book, I was constrained to 10,000 words. 11,500 words later, I am hoping ASCD will reconsider their rules. When we are really passionate about a topic and feel like we have something profound to say about it, there is no word limit that will keep a writer in check. When assigning written work to students, we may want to reconsider our own limits we impose and consider how well they encourage students to write enthusiastically about a subject in which they have immense interest. Revisions they have to make will be out of love instead of compliance.

Please share your own writing truths in the comments!