Guest Post: “We’ve Got the Greener Grass”

What’s the answer to America’s educational woes? Two Harvard PhDs suggest that American public schools are the answer to Japan’s economic woes, that American schools are the gold standard when it comes to graduating innovators and risk takers. I edited the dissertations of these two Japanese scholars ten years ago. Both argued that Japan couldn’t extricate itself from ten years of recession, then known as the Lost Decade, because its school system didn’t produce the creative class that America’s schools did. Since then, there’s been another ten consecutive years of recession. These scholars noted that America enters and exits recessions. They attributed the exits to America’s creativity and they credited America’s schools for engendering that creativity.

There was a recent article in the New Yorker where Chinese people wondered why China hasn’t been an innovator for thousands of years. They recognized that China is quite clever in copying Western inventions, but bemoaned the lack of homegrown innovation. I urge you to look at the list of things invented in America at Wikipedia. It’s a staggering list. The Egyptians beat us to paper because they were around four thousand years ago and we weren’t, but the vast majority of the things that constitute modern living were first made in America. If those two Harvard PhDs are right, then America’s push to standardized testing and standardized schools could eventually be our economic undoing.

I’ve had the privilege of interviewing hundreds of people who collectively oversee millions of American workers. One is an M.I.T. PhD graduate who works at I.B.M.

“Whom do you hire?” I asked.

“I’m not real concerned with GPAs,” she replied. “I look for people who can recover from failure since 95% of what we do at I.B.M. is fail.”

I’ve had other corporate executives tell me that they too don’t chase those with high GPAs, for they’ve learned that many of them are grade chasers, avoiding the tough courses and the possibility of failure for the luster of a number. These executives told me that they look for someone who took the tough courses. If a candidate earned something other than an A, but took another hard course, that person is that much more attractive.

Executives also tell me that they need people who can collaborate, that “the systems and challenges are so complex that no one is brilliant enough to work alone anymore.”

So, if we’re to prepare our students for the professional challenges that await them, rather than chase higher test scores, we should continue to nurture creativity and provide opportunities to collaborate and fail. “Fail” might seem harsh, but failure sets up the opportunity to rebound from failure.

Lastly, the PhD at IBM, a woman who oversees 800 employees and has hired scores of them, said that if she had to choose between hiring a software engineer with a full focus on software engineering and a software engineer with an art minor, all other factors being equal, she’d hire the engineer with the art minor. “That engineer is more likely to consider a problem from a different perspective.”

Looking across the Pacific, the grass of higher test scores seems greener to America’s politicians who determine pedagogical policy. However, the view from Asia is one of a lush and creative America, one that extricates itself from recession again and again through the verve of its creative graduates, and one that has leveraged diverse education into world class innovation.

Katie McKy might just be the most booked children’s book author for school visits in the upper Midwest. She visits about 100 schools a year and has taught and entertained more than 300,000 children in the last decade. She also writes for many business magazines and so has had the opportunity to have CEOs, VPs, and COOs go off the record and truly say what they like and don’t like about America’s graduates. Read about Katie at http://www.katiemcky.com.

Word Work vs. Spelling Packets

(I was asked by another building administrator my opinion regarding using word work in classrooms rather than tedious spelling packets. Not having an extensive reading background, other than I taught reading at the elementary level for seven years, I try to tread lightly when giving my opinion in this area.)

Tedious spelling packets are just that, tedious. In Chapter 4 of Teaching Essentials (Focus on Meaning First), Regie Routman stresses making curriculum and standards relevant and authentic. I cannot think of anything more irrelevant or inauthentic than a packet of worksheets. Word work such as word sorts are the opposite. They are visible everywhere, in the Jumble puzzle in the daily paper to board games such as Scrabble. Today, they are fun apps to play on mobile devices such as Moxie and Words with Friends, all using the framework of sorting letters to make words. People pay money and spend hours doing word work (including me). Would anyone buy an app or a board game that asked them to complete worksheets?

The thinking required to complete worksheets is pretty low level. Read the question, find the correct word on the list, write the word in the appropriate space, repeat. Word work, on the other hand, encourages students to compare/contrast, categorize and make new connections with word patterns, all on the upper level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Word work may not be limited to the 10-20 words given to the student in a spelling packet, none of which are chosen by the student. As well, word work promotes independent learners, another focus of Regie’s, because they depend on the student to create the words, not the worksheet. Students working on spelling packets are compliant but probably aren’t as engaged.

I could go on, but it would be me just venting because I used spelling packets almost exclusively for seven years as a teacher. I think I knew better at some level, but I never took the time to reflect on my own practices and ask, “Why I am doing this?”.

The caveat is, if the district expects teachers to use spelling packets because it is part of the board-approved language arts program, then spelling packets should be used in classrooms. They are not terrible, and probably do help students at least remember and maybe apply the word pattern of focus. That said, could they be taken home for parents to do with their child? Done together on the document camera? A workaround like this could allow the teacher to use better practices such as The Daily Five during the literacy block.

Speaking of which, there a number of good resources out there to help teachers develop more effective practices when teaching students spelling and vocabulary. Besides The Sisters’ resource The Daily Five, I recommend having a copy of Teaching Kids to Spell by Gentry and Gillet on your shelf. Although it is almost twenty years old, it contains some creative ideas for differentiated spelling activities to use with students. Janet Allen talks about work banks for older students in her book Yellow Brick Roads. Debbie Diller’s resource Literacy Work Stations has an appendix thicker than some novels filled with reproducibles for word work stations. What is a favorite word work resource of yours? Please share.

Christmas Cards for Teachers’ Parents

My first reaction to hearing Todd Whitaker (@toddwhitaker) propose that principals should send photos of staff working with kids to the staff members’ parents was, “Who has time for that?” After actually sending out these photos and reflecting on the feedback I received, I now think, “That time was well spent.”

After attending the administrator conference where I heard this idea, I started using Twitter to collaborate with colleagues (thanks go to @PrincipalJ and @WiscPrincipal for presenting about this useful tool). I asked other principals online if they had done this, or what they thought about the idea. Many had not tried it, but most thought it was worthy of my time.

With help taking candid pictures of staff members in action, uploading them to an online printer and collecting staff members’ parents’ addresses, this project did not take as much time as I feared. In fact, my biggest concern was how the teachers and aides plus their family members would react to the principal sending out Christmas cards with photos to them. I did not know who they were, nor did they know me.

The feedback could not have been more positive. During break, I received four emails from staff and one email from a parent of a teacher, all thanking me for taking the time to recognize their efforts. I even had a grandparent of one of my teachers stop me after church, thanking me for sending the photo of their granddaughter to their son.

When I got back to school after the New Year’s, several staff members stopped me in the hallway to thank me personally for the card and photo. One of my teachers has a sister who teaches in the Fox Valley (Wisconsin). She said her sister gave the card and photo to her principal, requesting that he do the same thing next year. I also had two parents of teachers write me a personal thank you card. One parent’s message was especially touching; this teacher’s mother stated she was feeling lonely during the holiday season, until my card showed up in the mail. Seeing her daughter working with students made her day.

I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone a little in order to share my appreciation for my staff with the people who care about them the most. My only concern now is: Do I do this every year? Will it become trite or expected? Any comments or questions you may have would be appreciated.

Teachers Required to Submit Lesson Plans? Here’s a Win-Win!

In my district, teachers who are not tenured are expected to submit lesson plans to their principal for review. To be quite honest, my likeliness for reviewing their plans has about the same chance as Prince Fielder staying in Milwaukee as a Brewer. I just don’t have the time to delve into the weekly plans of my probationary teachers, plans that are submitted the Friday before the lessons start and won’t reflect how their instruction has changed due to a one day lesson that lasted two days.

The solution? After observing my probationary staff for the first of two times this fall, I am requiring each of these teachers to submit five lesson plans to me between now and spring, when I will observe them for a second time. They get to pick the lessons, with the caveat that one of their lessons showcase an excellent example of instruction, and another lesson reflect a lesson that they know needs improvement. The other three lessons can be anything they want. For all five lessons, they have to reflect on how it went, what was successful and what they would do differently if they could reteach it.

I haven’t tried this yet. I don’t even have the template selected for the teachers to use. So why do I think it will be successful? Thinking as a teacher, I would find it more beneficial to take a lesson I actually employed, reflect upon it and evaluate the effectiveness of my instruction. This type of thinking requires much higher level thinking compared to the alternative. As a principal, I can see through their lessons how the teachers are growing as professionals, especially in their reflections. This information should be very useful to me when I observe them again in the spring.

What are your thoughts? Have you tried something similar? I’d appreciate your thoughts.

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UPDATE: As my brain was still going while trying to get some sleep last night, I remembered a conversation I had with one of my reading teachers that day. We are in the process of planning the implementation of iPads with teachers, in an effort to provide tools for reading and math intervention in the classroom. She is the ying to my yang; I want to get devices in the hands of kids right away, while she cites studies about the danger of too much technology. These are good discussions. One thing she mentioned that stuck with me is the F pattern people use when reading text on the web. In a study by Jakob Nielsen in 2006, he found that people will read the top two lines of a website, then go down the left hand side of the screen to try and read the rest. This reading pattern is roughly in the shape of an F. The thinking is there is just too much information online for anyone to follow it all. Plus many web advertisements are located on the right side. Web readers are scanning information for what’s important and avoiding the ads on the right.

So how is this related to reflective lesson plans for probationary staff? Mainly, these teachers are all in their twenties and are digital natives (I am an immigrant, digitally speaking). They have grown up reading on screens. Also, they may use the F patterns when reading not only websites but other text as well. Because I want them to type these lesson plans up on a computer so they can be dropped in a digital file, my theory is they will be more comfortable adding their most important thinking (their reflections) on the left hand side. When they go back to reread their reflections before the second observation in the spring, the template will reflect what their eyes prefer. As a bonus, the reflection box runs along all the steps of the lesson plan, so they can reflect even as they teach the lesson, or at least make notes in the part of the lesson they reflected upon.

Maybe I am way overthinking this, but I think it was worth trying out. Take a look at the template I made at https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B9IW4q_SnPUwZjZlOTZjM2EtYTE2OS00MTM3LTkxMmQtMGVkYjFjZTMwZmU0 and let me know your thoughts. The probationary teachers I shared this with really liked it, but I’d probably say that to my boss too! Also, here is the link to the research about the F pattern when reading online: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/reading_pattern.html

-Matt