Homework: Helpful, Harmful, or Otherwise?

As I write this, I am out on our back patio. My kids are in the neighbor’s backyard, flying a kite with friends. They had recently recovered the kite from a tree. This time around, they are staying away from the natural hazard. I don’t know how they got the kite down previously; they had figured it out before I was called to the rescue.

Imagine, instead, if I had made my kids stay in after school to finish their homework.

Four years ago, I shared my attempt at revising our homework policy at my former school. It was more policy than practice – we briefly discussed it, then moved on to something related to literacy, I’m sure. Looking back, it was a topical change at best. My suggestions were within the paradigm that homework was still necessary. We never really delved into the idea of homework as a concept that may be outdated.

I’m torn. Some of the work students bring home can make for an interesting study. For example, my son was recently assigned a family heritage project. He had to locate an item that is a part of our family’s history and culture, learn about its significance through interviewing family members, and then communicate his new knowledge through speaking. Storytelling is a skill they have been working on for a while.

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My daughter has elected to bring home learning. She is participating in Genius Hour in her classroom. This primary class refers to these inquiry-based learning activities as “Wonder Projects”. My wife and I are often recruited to support her most current questions, whether that be taking pictures of her next to enclosed animals (“What animals most often live in a zoo and why?”) or setting up a mini-art studio in our dining room (“What are some famous artists and their artwork?”).

These examples are, by definition, homework. One was assigned, one wasn’t. Both facilitated a unique learning experience in our home. This seems to fly in the face of research, such as John Hattie’s meta-analysis that homework has a negligible effect in elementary school and a significant one at the secondary. To be fair, homework that I just described is rare. The typical fare is worksheetsreading logs, and studying spelling words for Friday’s test. One can understand with these examples why schools are starting to outright ban homework.

These absolute policies also result in absolute thinking.  My post here is not to admonish or advocate for homework. Rather, let’s bring some common sense into the conversation. An instructional coach, Dana Murphy, came up with a novel way for teachers to think before they assign homework.

In other words, if we are assigning homework, is it more important than opportunities for kids to play, read, or spend time with families? If the answer is “no”, then how can we rethink our instructional approach for the 6-8 hours that we do have students in our classrooms?

Gotta go. The kids are burying each other in landscape pebbles.

Tailings (Or: Why This Blog Might Become a Collaborative Space)

In our town, the city department used to lay down a mix of sand and gravel to make the roads safe during winter travel. The material was called “tailings”. It came from the mining shafts, dug up and dispersed once the lead ore had been excavated from deep below. With the closing of the mines, tailings have been replaced with road salt.

This seems like an appropriate metaphor for my current situation with blogging. Right now I am feeling like I am doing more reposting of events from my website (mattrenwick.com) than actual writing. What I don’t want to see happen is for Reading by Example to become the repository for my own writing tailings – the rejected articles and ideas from my other writing outlets. My situation is not a bad one; I’ve found opportunities to write for multiple audiences and get compensated for my time and efforts. I am thankful. Yet this means less time to write in this space. I’ve connected with multiple people who have shared their appreciation for what is posted here.

That’s why now seems like as good a time as ever to open up this blog to other writers who are also literacy leaders – teacher leaders, lead teachers, instructional coaches, prospective administrators, assistant principals and head principals, curriculum directors, superintendents, university faculty, consultants, thought leaders – anyone who has knowledge to share and a story to tell. This could be an opportunity for educators who have not blogged before, who are new to writing online or might like to drive more traffic to their own blog. I realize I am making a large assumption that people would want to write in this space at all. Having over 800 subscribers does help hedge this bet.

I’m not interested in being an editor, but there are some questions I would like prospective contributors to respond to before we agree that this is right for both of us. See form below for more information. Related, the goal of this blog will be revisited. To start, it will no longer be merely my perspective, but one of many. Having a public forum and continuous dialogue about literacy and leadership is critical for schools and their respective students to be successful. I hope that by opening up this digital space for more voices on the topic, we might find it to be a much better resource for all. That’s the plan, anyway. Your comments and questions are, as always, very much appreciated.

What I’m Reading: March 2017

Professional Resources

Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson (Teachers College, 2009)

An essential resource for thinking about and discussing technology in education. The authors provide a thorough history of what has come regarding schooling and how it is not a good fit with our knowledge society. This book is not outdated; the concepts and critiques are just as relevant today.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire (Bloomsbury, 1970, 2000)

I took on this classic in order to better understand critical literacy and its foundations. I will be honest: this was a tough, slow read. However, it might also be an essential text for any educator looking to understand the importance of being literate in a changing world. I’m glad I finished it.

 Personal Reading

The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth (Vintage, 2005)

The premise of the novel is Charles Lindbergh is elected president, denying Franklin D. Roosevelt a third term. The famous aviator arrives at the White House on a singular promise: to avoid going to war with Germany. His isolationist platform is in contrast to FDR’s growing concerns regarding anti-Semitism spreading across Europe. Lindbergh’s affinity for the Nazi party comes to light more and more as the story progresses. This piece of fiction is based on the events of this time, told through the author’s perspective as a Jewish child growing up in New Jersey. It almost reads like a memoir with all of the details.

The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin (Ballantine, 2016)

An excellent way to close out this sci-fi/literature trilogy. Epic in its scope yet manages to find a balance with small moments. For me, The City of Mirrors stands alongside The Stand by Stephen King and American Gods by Neil Gaiman. My only regret is that I read each of the three books when they came out. The amount of time between books made it a challenge to remember all of the details from previous stories.

Children’s Literature

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires (Kids Can, 2014)

A thoughtful and humorous picture book about the design process. The story’s message of kids needing opportunities to be challenged with personal inquiries is well heeded. A perfect read aloud for teachers getting started in Genius Hour or Makerspaces.

Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce (HarperCollins, 2005)

The unique idea behind this story (boy finds a quarter million pounds before England changes to the Euro) makes for an excellent study on values and our choices. The author does not try to preach about the ills that money can bring to our lives. Instead, he lets the well-drawn characters reveal themselves in the situation presented. The ending is satisfying even though the author does not wrap things up in a nice tidy bow. Highly recommended read aloud for intermediate/middle-level classes.

We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen (Candlewick, 2016)

It had to have been hard for Klassen to follow up on his first two pictures books, I Want My Hat Back and This is Not My Hat. Yet the author succeeds. Two turtles find one hat. They both agree that it is a nice hat. So how do they reconcile this situation? The illustrations tell as much of the story as the text.

The Connection Between Reading and Writing

Not that long ago, I was struggling to write, digital or print. To be fair, my time was committed to formal projects. Reading also took a back seat. Was there more to it? I have heard of this reluctance to write as “the resistance”. This invisible force throws up mental roadblocks whenever we see a blank piece of paper or an untitled document. It can happen for all learners. A strategy I learned for this type of situation was suggested by Regie Routman at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention.

If a student is having a hard time getting started with their writing, ask them what they would like to read.

This advice was excellent. It felt unexpected at first but now makes so much sense. By always “doing” – working, talking, traveling – but not taking the time to read and reflect, we struggle to write. We know that reading and writing are connected. So why do we still silo these two disciplines in our instruction and in our lives? Reading is the foundation for much of what we write. Writing is how we make visible all that we have read, experienced, and reflected upon. One does not exist without the other.

Tomorrow I fly out from the ASCD convention in Anaheim to home in Wisconsin. I could certainly get a lot of work done during layovers. But I kind of hope the wireless will be spotty. The opportunities for some quiet time to read in a connected, constantly in motion world are hard to come by.

 

 

Cajun Dancing

“Would you like to go Cajun dancing? It’s for my friend’s birthday.” I have to admit: at the time that I heard this request from my wife, I might not have been attentively listening. If I had, I imagine I would have asked a series of questions.

“What is ‘Cajun’ dancing?”

“How much does it cost?”

“About how long do we have to stay?”

My inquiries would have been more about my desire to avoid this activity than any interest in dancing. Alas, the day came and I had committed. At the very least, we could connect with friends and have a night out.

We got to the dance hall and checked in. The instructor called us to the middle of the floor for the lesson before the dance. After a brief introduction of the style of music, we got started. “Okay, we are going to start with the basics. Three steps to the left, lift foot and dip, and then three steps to the right, lift foot and dip.” She modeled this with a partner plucked out of the circle at random. Then we tried it.

My wife and I only got to briefly dance together during the lesson. The men were moved one partner to the right after each bit of new instruction. I could tell which partners were as new to this as me by the mutual sweat in our palms. Those more veteran to Cajun dancing were unfiltered in their feedback. “Be sure to put your hand on the blade of my shoulder, not the side.”

Having adequately introduced ourselves to just about everyone in the hall, the instructor transitioned our music from a CD to an actual Cajun band. They needed to do a soundcheck before the official dance began. Feeling good about our progress, our instructor announced, “Okay, don’t worry about being perfect. The most important part about Cajun dancing is to…have fun!” The band started playing and we danced.

The beginning was rough. We bumped into other couples. I lost my step count more than once, even though I was counting under my breath. “Are you leading me, or am I leading you?” my wife quipped with a smile. Yet for all my initial fumbles, I finally found my rhythm, more or less. Counting steps gave way to spins and turns.

This new learning experience revealed missing elements in too many classrooms. When was the last time we as educators kept reading and writing instruction to the bare minimum? What would happen if we positioned our students as teachers and learners for each other more often than not? How would our student respond to the announcement, “Don’t worry about being perfect; just go have fun!” after a brief writing demonstration? Yes, some students would flounder. But not for long.

In an educational world where accountability as left no lesson untouched, the victim of standardization is engagement. We have lost faith in our students’ natural abilities to learn. Our fear of mistake-making has squeezed out some of the joy that should be a by-product of this process.

Let’s get our kids out on the dance floor as soon as possible. Yes, we should teach strategies, offer feedback, and provide assistance when needed.  But is achievement without engagement an education worth having? 


I am currently scheduling one- and two-day workshops for this summer. Topic: How to use classroom technology for developing self-directed learners.

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Educators participating in this workshop will become more confident and fluent in using digital tools in the classrooms. The goal is to identify practices and technologies that can nurture self-directed learners. This professional learning experience will be student-centered, engaging, and relevant for all educators, K-12.

Click here to request more information.

The Thin Line Between Critical Literacy and New Literacies

This is another reaction I wrote to assigned reading for the graduate course I am taking through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Technology and School Leadership. Enjoy!

Critical literacy is an instructional approach that “advocates the adoption of ‘critical’ perspectives toward text. Critical literacy encourages readers to actively analyze texts and offers strategies for what proponents describe as uncovering underlying messages” (Wikipedia). This approach asks readers to investigate why the author wrote what they did, what writing tools they used to convey their ideas and why, as well as to investigate underlying messages within the text.

Also important regarding critical literacy is exploring multiple perspectives by reading various texts to understand what concepts a writer left out of a piece and why they might do that. Critical literacy’s roots are founded in social justice. It “requires imagining others’ intentions, adopting multiple perspectives, and imagining social arrangements that don’t yet exist” (Johnston, 73). People from both affluent and non affluent backgrounds benefit from instruction that helps them take another person’s perspective, as well as to have the tools to lift themselves out of poverty.

The question then is, What does critical literacy have to do with new literacies, which “include the traditional literacy that evolved with print culture as well as the newer forms of literacy within mass and digital media” (Jenkins, 19)?

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Quite a bit.

First, both new literacies and critical literacy demand a context within the broader society. Because of its foundations in social justice, critical literacy may ask students to closely read multiple pieces of work on a relevant topic in order to understand how some writers might exclude certain perspectives in order to better persuade an audience. Likewise, with the new literacies everyone can be an author who brings a specific perspective. People’s positions and experiences described on websites and blogs matter as much as the accuracy of the information presented. “We might well find that much of the meaning to be made from the content has to do with who we think the blog writer is: what they are like, how they want to think of themselves, and how they want us to think of them” (Lankshear & Knobel, 4).

Second, students in both instructional approaches are expected to be participants in the learning. Whether a dialogue about what is read and what is written happens online or off, learners should have opportunities to engage in dialogue about information. This includes actively listening to someone else’s point of view without immediately disagreeing, and reconsidering one’s beliefs in light of new information presented. Critical literacy applied in this fashion better prepares students to be college and career ready.

New literacies, with their dynamic capabilities, invites a response from an audience. For example, when someone posts on their blog, this published piece is sometimes the start of a conversation rather than finished work. Within the comments and the sharing via social media, followers and connected educators can engage in a dialogue around the ideas initially shared. The participatory nature of online learning helps ensure that those who post have at least some level of reliable rationale to support their positions.

These similarities beg a follow up question: are the new literacies merely critical literacy adapted for a more connected world? Adages such as “Today’s students require tomorrow’s literacy skills” (Forzani, 2) might still apply. Yet the common threads between critical literacy and new literacies are hard to ignore.

References

Critical literacy. (2016, May 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:00, October 25, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Critical_literacy&oldid=720298766

Forzani, E. (2013). Teaching Digital Literacies for the Common Core: What Results From New Assessments Tell Us. Storrs, CT: University of Connecticut.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Johnston, P. (2012). Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2007). A New Literacies Sampler. New York: Peter Lang.

Innovating Inside the Box

This is a reaction paper I wrote for a course I am taking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Technology and School Leadership”, facilitated by Dr. Richard Halverson. Enjoy!

Government, philanthropists and investors consistently come up with grand ideas and approaches to fixing education. Standards-based reform, new evaluation systems and 1:1 technology initiatives populate the school landscape. Yet there is very little to show for these efforts in terms of improving student outcomes.

One approach heralded by reformists is the charter school movement and offering school choice for families. The original intent of this movement was to free educators from the constraints of local bureaucracy and accountability measures “so schools and teachers can try things” (Kolderie, 10). Unfortunately, when results showed that charter schools were not seeing better results than traditional schools, the accountability pieces were brought back. Many charters now languish in corporate-run organizations with little personal investment from the higher ups. This is compounded with charters having to deal with poorer public perception. 

So what is the solution? Kolderie suggests bringing charters back with their original intent and positioning them as parallel programs. He refers to this as a “split-screen strategy”. “It is time to run both improvement and innovation simultaneously, side by side” (14). The idea is, while traditional public schools can work on continuous improvement, charter schools can serve as research and development arms of education. Eventually, Kolderie predicts, the traditional schools will adopt the strategies of the chartering organizations.

Innovation is critical for the success of American education, and chartering remains the states’ and the nation’s best strategy for innovation—for introducing, quickly, the new approaches to learning now possible. Innovation is chartering’s comparative advantage (30).

I would agree with Kolderie that innovation is critical for American education. Where I diverge philosophically from him is: why do we need charters to innovate?

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As a school administrator going on ten years, I see few roadblocks in offering parallel programs within one school or district. Certainly, there are test scores to worry about, although if innovation is truly happening, we are building on what we are already doing and making it better. For this to work, school leaders need to support these efforts. Permission alone is not enough.

In addition, these efforts to innovate through the use of pedagogical approaches and technologies should not have to be an either/or proposition. For example, could one school offer two learning pathways in their building, with one option the traditional model and the other a more innovative concept? Families, educators and students (yes, students!) can determine which is best for each child. The innovative concept can start small and then grow as demand grows with it.

To conclude, when we take the approach that schools need to be fixed, and we never question the questioners, it builds on a deficit model. I understand the need to upend some outdated practices, especially when modern resources are so readily available for schools. Instead of “How do we improve schools?”, what if we supported schools and allowed them to improve from within? This is a strengths-based approach that taps into the existing knowledge within an organization. “Research and development should focus on what works for whom, when, and in what contexts” (Dede, 22). We have had a high stakes environment for the entire 21st century. It hasn’t worked. A level of autonomy along with the time and resources might prove to be the better strategy for change.

References

Dede, C. (2014). The Role of Digital Technologies in Deeper Learning. Students at the Center: Deeper Learning Research Series. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.

Kolderie, T. (2014). The Split Screen Strategy: Improvement + Innovation. Edina, MN: Beaver’s Pond.

Life-Ready: An Alternative to College and Career Readiness

In my former administrative position, I was assigned to serve on the district’s career and technology education committee. There was a lot of talk about “college and career readiness”. Most districts and states have had the same conversations.

One part of this dialogue that rubbed me the wrong way was how school counselors were being tasked with helping students discover possible career opportunities to set goals around. This discussion did not hit home until I realized that my son, now a 4th grader, was so very close to taking part in this initiative.

At that point in the committee’s proceedings, my mind was flooded with a series of questions:

  • How can some of our students possibly know with any certainty what they want to do once they graduate high school?
  • How can any educator make even a general determination as to the life trajectory of a child? What information are they using to make this assessment?
  • Why are we so focused on the future of a child and yet often oblivous to the present, especially when equity is not being achieved for all students in every classroom?
  • Who are we as educators to propose to a student’s family the possibilities of what we believe awaits their son or daughter?

Being the new member of the committee, I bit my tongue and did my best to listen without judgment.

In reflection, I think this eduspeak about “college and career readiness” brought up some personal baggage I have with my own experiences with education trying to make decisions for me about what I would do in the future. For example, I remember taking the Myers-Briggs test, a personality profile tool that categorizes people based on whether they are extroverted or introverted, are more inclined to use their senses or intuition, and so on and so forth. Once you land in one of sixteen categorizes (I was/am an ISTP), a series of careers were suggested for you that “fit” with your personality.

Unfortunately for me, being an educator was not one of those suggestions. I gave engineering the old college try (literally) and found it to not be something I was passitionate about. Police work was out of the question. The Myers-Briggs assessment tool itself did offer some helpful insights, but only from what seemed like a cognitive standpoint.

Today’s focus on college and career readiness has good intentions. Some kids may benefit from learning what’s out there and then set goals to achieve their dreams. But how do we find this to be true when economists are telling us that half of us will be freelancers by 2020 and we will soon be switching jobs every three to five years? This information would seem to conflict with what we are espousing in schools today.

Why should all students have to meet the same goals?

-Susan Brookhart, assessment expert and ASCD author

Instead, I offer an alternative to the college and career readiness talk: Preparing students to be “life-ready”. What do these competencies look like? Given the unpredictability of future work and frequent changes in occupations, it would seem to come down to some of the noncognitive skills:

  • Critical thinking
  • Work well with others
  • Imagination and innovation
  • Problem finding and creative solutions
  • Empathy and ability to take others’ perspectives

So how do schools teach these skills? In my opinion, through the curriculum that is already established and being developed at the school level. This integration increases the relevancy of student learning and makes the connections for students across and within disciplines. David Perkins offers a sound proposal for developing this type of “lifeworthy” curriculum in his excellent resource Future Wise.


At the ASCD Author Retreat I attended last week, we were asked as educational experts what success might mean for our students. Here were our responses:

For all of our expertise, how we defined student success varied considerably as you can see. If our collective thinking can be so diverse regarding one question, what that says to me is student success can and should also look very different depending on the needs and interests of our kids. Defining student success as merely “college and career readiness” seems to narrow the possibilities. Being life-ready might better honor every student’s potential.