Literacy, Personalized

Lately, I have been exploring personalized learning as an approach to meeting all students’ needs. Personalized learning “places the interests and abilities of learners at the center of their education experience. In personalized learning, educators develop environments in which students and teachers together build plans for learners to achieve both interest-based and standards-based goals” (Halverson et al, 2015). What I am finding is there is no “gold standard” for this approach. Maybe the concept is too big. Maybe personalized learning is too new. Maybe I haven’t studied it enough!

IMG_1789Because I have a focus on literacy and leadership, I thought about what personalized learning might resemble in a reading and writing classroom, specifically. How is it different from what we might expect from a more traditional classroom? Below are the elements of personalized learning as outlined by Allison Zmuda, co-author of Learning Personalized: The Evolution of a Contemporary Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2015): Time & Space; Assignments; Curriculum; Reporting; Feedback; Roles. Next are a smattering of ideas on how personalized learning might apply to the literacy block. If you have more suggestions, share them in the comments.

Time & Space

  • Ensure that enough time is provided daily for authentic literacy experiences, especially independent reading and writing on topics of students’ choice.
  • Provide more modern furniture for students to engage in reading and writing. For models, check out a local library or an independent bookstore.
  • Create natural locations in the classroom for students to share what they are reading and writing. Small tables and mounted counters with stools could work.
  • Audit the instructional day to find more time to read and write, and jettison anything that is not at the same level of effectiveness.
  • Position book shelves and writing materials so they invite students into reading and writing in authentic contexts, i.e. journaling, blogging, book reviews.

Assignments

  • Replace book reports with book reviews. Use digital tools such as Biblionasium for students to post book reviews for peers.
  • Replace book logs with personal journals. Provide open-ended notebooks for students to write about what they are reading so they can share their thinking with peers the next school day (or keep their thoughts to themselves).
  • Cancel the school’s annual subscription to Accelerated Reader. There is no independently-conducted research that shows Accelerated Reader is an effective literacy program. See the What Works Clearinghouse report for more information.
  • Reduce reading projects to the bare minimum with regard to how students are expected to respond to their reading.
  • Implement book talks to replace some of the assessments previously questioned. We can gain more information about a student’s understanding of a text through them sharing what they are reading verbally than from inauthentic assignments.

Curriculum

  • Integrate reading, writing, speaking, and listening into all other curriculum renewal activities. Performance tasks are especially good opportunities to incorporate literacy.
  • Make a list of and provide relevant authentic texts that capture the time period of a point in history.
  • Curate a list of biographies about famous scientists that students might want to research for a written report.
  • Craft big questions that lead students to pursue knowledge online, which will provide opportunities to critically read web-based resources.
  • Incorporate writing into formative assessment points, such as constructed responses and personal reflections.

Reporting

  • Develop rubrics for writing genres with students, after a lot of immersion into authentic texts of the genre to be learned.
  • Teach students how to self-assess writing at every stage of the process.
  • Facilitate monitoring of reading goals through journaling, blogging, and published book reviews.
  • Replace grades for reading and writing with frequent qualitative feedback.
  • Utilize digital assessment tools such as FreshGrade to share student learning results in literacy with family members and colleagues.

Feedback

  • Utilize online writing tools such as Google Docs to facilitate feedback between classmates.
  • Partner with other classrooms locally and/or globally to facilitate feedback between students.
  • Provide anchor papers of past work for students to reference when striving to improve their writing.
  • Meet with students regularly during independent reading and writing to affirm strengths and offer strategies for improvement.
  • Teach students to end a draft of writing with questions they have about parts they are unsure about to guide feedback from the teacher or peers.

Roles

  • Assign one student to be the class notetaker during a demonstration lesson for a reading or writing strategy.
  • Rotate the role of classroom researcher to students. When questions come up during the literacy block, this student is tasked with finding an answer.
  • Set up a website (Google Sites, Weebly) where students can publish their finished pieces of writing as authors.
  • Designate one or more students to write a weekly newsletter, highlighting the happenings in the classroom. Share this out digitally and on paper with families.
  • Put students in charge of the classroom library, after lots of modeling on how to organize the titles and display the covers.

As I completed this list, I realized that a lot of these literacy activities are what typically happens in the best classrooms for reading and writing. Is it reasonable to think that personalized learning naturally happens in an authentic literacy environment?

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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 6.05.38 PM.png

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.

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.

Classroom Technology for Self-Directed Learning (1).png

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.

Developing a Growth Mindset within a Culture of Compliance

Many studies have shown that when students are engaged in learning, there is little need to bribe students to complete their work. Using external motivators in the name of learning has many critics. There has been no more outspoken critic of grades and test scores than Alfie Kohn. His specific concerns around the use of praise to coax work out of students in the name of outcomes have been substantiated by a body of research, of which he often cites to support his arguments on his blog, www.alfiekohn.org.

For example, in his blog post “Criticizing (Common Criticisms of) Praise”, which was also published in his book Schooling Beyond Measure: Unorthodox Essays About Education (Heinemann, 2015), Kohn reinforces the notion that telling students they did a good job when they complete a task sets up an imbalance of power between student and teacher.

Praise is a verbal reward, often doled out in an effort to change someone’s behavior, typically someone with less power. Like other forms of reward (or punishment), it is a way of ‘doing to’, rather than ‘working with’ people (96).

In addition, when we deliver praise, we are actually taking autonomy of a student’s actions away from them and attributing their efforts to us. The result can be that students become conditioned to want the “attaboys” as a reward for their work, instead of focusing on why the work was successful in the first place.

The effect of a ‘Good job!’ is to devalue the activity itself – reading, drawing, helping – which comes to be seen as a mere means to an end, the end being to receive that expression of approval. If approval isn’t forthcoming next time, the desire to read, draw, or help is likely to diminish (97).

As educators, we too often default back to how we were taught in our classrooms and schools. I catch myself at times with words of praise instead of acknowledgement of their efforts with our students and my own children. It is a hard habit to break. However, this habit is worth changing. Our choices in language create the conditions in which students can or cannot become owners of their personal learning journeys.

Pathways Toward Student Agency

Peter Johnston, literacy education professor and author of Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives (Stenhouse, 2012), offers similar concerns regarding the use of praise in order to motivate learners. When students are rewarded for getting the right answer and completing the task just as the teacher asked, they start to associate success with what the adult deems worthy. They fail to internalize an understanding of good work within themselves.

In fact, if teachers repeatedly offer praise to students, they can reduce the impact of their instruction.

When children are fully engaged in an activity, if we praise them we can simply distract them from what they were doing and turn their attention to pleasing us (42).

So what is the counter to this culture? Johnston suggests agency, or the belief that things such as our intelligence and our life’s outcomes are changeable (27). Agency can be developed in students when teachers offer an environment for students which directs their attention to their own processes and thinking and how their efforts contributed to their success. This concept has been a focus of educational research for some time. Agency is closely related to more readily-known concepts such as “growth mindset”, a term coined by Carol Dweck. However we describe it, the idea is that the language we employ in classrooms has a direct impact on how well students take responsibility for their learning.

The assessment habits we develop as teachers can contribute to or detract from our students’ sense of success and independence. On a positive note, formative assessment strategies offer teachers specific approaches to address includes the clarity of goals and the offer of support through feedback and scaffolding that allows the teacher to eventually release the responsibility of the work to the student. These strategies are best employed in classroom environments that utilize responsive language, structures for collaboration, higher order questioning, and honest celebrations of student accomplishments. These actions can make student agency a reality.

student-growth-640.jpg

This is an excerpt from my new eBook The Secrets of Self-Directed Learning. It is a free resource that offers readers four steps for helping students become more independent learners. You can download this resource by clicking here.

What should you do when students have already read or heard the book?

This seems to be a constant in just about every school: You have that favorite read aloud you have been waiting to share with your students. When you announce the read aloud, students say, “We already read that book.” or “Our teacher read it to us last year.”

_m-drbinfa4-eli-francis.jpg

What do you do? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Read it aloud anyway.

Readers reread books if they were a favorite and/or had something profound to learn. Explaining this to students should help with any disgruntled listeners. A main point of the read aloud is for students to hear the written word spoken. If it is an excellent title, there should hopefully be few complaints. It might be wise to ask first before forging ahead, such as offering a choice between the book they know and other acceptable titles.

  • Read aloud parts of the book.

Selecting some passages to share with students who have already heard the book offers multiple benefits. First, it is a nice compromise with the kids. We can show that we are listening to them and value their opinion. Second, reading aloud selected passages is an opportunity to notice author’s craft. Teachers can point out what made the author’s writing so good and worth reading again. Finally, it is an opportunity to…

  • Select a new title to read aloud.

Excellent titles that would make for great read alouds are published every year. By being open minded about what books to share with students, we discover new books together.

If you would like a book that is similar to the title you had planned but the kids already heard, check out Amazon. Put in the title into the search bar, and Amazon will share other books readers have purchased in addition to the one you listed. For example, when I looked up Charlotte’s Web, Amazon suggested Stuart Little (also by E.B. White), Pippi Longstockings, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Mr. Popper’s Penguins. These are all classics for a reason.

(Note: Whenever possible, avoid Amazon and buy local. Click here for reasons why.)

You can also connect with your school’s library media specialist (and what a crime if you do not have one). Going with the Charlotte’s Web example, he or she would likely steer you to titles of the same genre and topic, such as Babe: The Gallant Pig and Owls in the Family. Your library media specialist may also suggest newer titles such as Flora and Ulysses and The Cheshire Cat: A Dickens of a Tale.

If you do not have library media specialist (again, a crime), check out the E.B. White award winners for best read alouds from each year. You can also purchase a copy of The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. It was my go-to guide when I taught 5th and 6th grade. I have the last four editions, as Trelease would update the treasury of book lists. He also offers suggestions on his website.

An essential element in reading aloud is what you choose to read.

-Jim Trelease

Whatever approach you take when kids have already heard the story, the more important point is reading aloud to your students every day.

Learning Management Systems: Who are they for?

A learning management system, or “LMS” is defined as “a digital learning system” that “manages all of the aspects of the learning process” (Amit K, 2015). A teacher can use an LMS for a variety of classroom functions, including communicating the learning objectives, organizing the learning timelines, telling the learners exactly what they need to learn and when, delivering the content straight to the learners, streamlining communications between instructor(s) and learners, and providing ongoing resources.

An LMS can also help the learner track their own progress, identifying what they have learned already and what they need to learn (Amit K). There are many options for learners to share their representations of their understandings within an LMS, including video, audio, images and text. In addition, discussion boards and assessment tools are available for teachers and students in most systems.

This definition and description of your typical LMS leads to an important question: Who is the learning management system for?

If an LMS is for the teacher, then I think they will find the previously listed features to be of great benefit to their practice. As an example, no longer do they have to collect papers, lug them home and grade them by hand. Now, students can submit their work electronically through the LMS. The teacher can assess learning online. The excuse “My dog ate my homework” ceases to exist. Google Classroom, Schoology and Edmodo fall into this category.

Also, teachers can use the LMS tools to create quizzes that could serve as a formative assessment of the lesson presented that day. Data is immediately available regarding who understands the content and who needs further support. This quick turnaround can help a teacher be more responsive to student’s academic needs. There are obvious benefits for a teacher who elects to use an LMS for these reasons.

If, on the other hand, an LMS is for the students, then we have a bit more work to do. With a teacher-centric LMS, not much really changes regarding how a classroom operates. The teacher assigns content and activities, the students complete it, and the teacher assesses. The adage “old wine in new bottles” might apply here.

With students in mind when integrating an LMS in school, the whole idea of instruction has to shift. We are now exploring concepts such as personalized learning, which “puts students in charge of selecting their projects and setting their pace” (Singer, 2016), and connected learning, which ties together students’ interests, peer networks and school accomplishments (Ito et al, 2013). In this scenario, it is not the students who need to make a shift but the teachers. Examples of more student-centered LMSs include Epiphany Learning and Project Foundry.

The role that teachers have traditionally filled looks very different than what a more student-centered, digitally-enhanced learning environment might resemble. I don’t believe either focus – the teacher or the student – is an ineffective approach for using a learning management system. The benefits in each scenario are promising. Yet we know that the more students can have ownership over the learning experience, there is an increased likelihood of greater achievement gains and higher engagement in school.

References

Amit K, S. (2016). Choosing the Right Learning Management System: Factors and Elements. eLearning Industry. Available: https://elearningindustry.com/choosing-right- learning-management- system-factors-elements

Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., Watkins, S.C. (2013). Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Media and Learning Research Hub. Whitepaper, available: http://dmlhub.net/publications/connected-learning- agenda-for- research-and-design/

Singer, N., Isaac, M. (2016). Facebook Helps Develop Software That Puts Students in Charge of Their Lesson Plans. The New York Times. Available: http://nyti.ms/2b3LNzv

Virtual Learning: Benefits and Challenges

I find it interesting that for the course I am taking, Technology and School Leadership, I drive two hours round trip once a week to participate in the learning. Technically, we could facilitate the course through the learning management system (Canvas). Online collaborative tools such as Google Docs and Skype could be utilized to work on projects from afar. Yet I don’t mind the drive, as I look forward to engaging in class discussion for the topic of the week based on the offered readings and content available online. Physically attending class has also broadened my personal learning network. The connections I make in person could lead to future collaborations down the road.

My personal example is worth noting as we are starting to see from the research coming available that the results of virtual learning, in which students engage in primarily online- mediated learning experiences, are mixed at best. For example, evidence from the Florida Virtual School program shows students did as well or only nominally better than their peers who did not participate in the virtual learning program (Chingos & Schwerdt, 2014). In fact, when comparing students from less affluent backgrounds with students from more affluent backgrounds, the use of technology for online learning can widen the achievement gap (Toyama, 2015). Some of these results are due to the varied levels of effectiveness that a virtual learning experience might offer. For example, how engaging and effective a virtual learning program can be may be contingent on the learning trajectories/projections developed that anticipate learners’ needs during a unit of study or module (Daro, Mother & Corcoran, 2011)

This topic comes back to a traditional aspect of school: the relationships and discussions that can be facilitated within a physical classroom. One might ask why education would want to replace the rich dialogue that occurs in classrooms with a learning management system, in which every student is looking at a screen instead of looking at and listening to each other? These instructional approaches are traditional in the best sense. Dialogue with others we respect and trust is how people have learned for thousands of year (see Socratic seminar for an example). There is robust evidence to support classroom-mediated conversations and the relationship-building as an outcome. John Hattie, in his seminal resource Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, sifted through fifteen years of research on many instructional practices. The results of his meta-analysis revealed that the effect size of developing teacher-student relationships and facilitating classroom discussions is 0.72 and 0.82, respectively (Hattie, 2012). In other words, teacher impact can be doubled.

There are times in which virtual learning is a necessity. For example, if there are no highly qualified teachers available, or if a brick-and-mortar school did not offer a specific course, then it would make sense to offer online instruction for students. Virtual learning also has promise in the area of self-organized learning environments, or “SOLEs”, developed by Sugata Mitra. Mitra prescribes that learners within a SOLE a) develop a big question, b) conduct research, and c) discuss findings (Mitra, 2016). SOLEs happen collaboratively, both offline and online, or exclusively online. This type of learning, however, is highly student-directed with minimal influence from a teacher or from formal instruction. This leads me to wonder: Is virtual learning as currently conceptualized in education merely old wine in a new bottle? It seems to depend on the purpose for learning.

References

Chingos, M. M., & Schwerdt, G. (2014). Virtual schooling and student learning: Evidence from the Florida Virtual School. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Kennedy School. Retrieved November 7, 2016.

Daro, P., Mosher, F., & Corcoran, T. (2011). Learning trajectories in mathematics: A foundation for standards, curriculum, assessment, and instruction. CPRE Research Report #RR-68. Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education. DOI: 10.12698/cpre.2011.rr68

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York: Routledge.

Mitra, S. (2016). “How to run a SOLE session” School in the Cloud. Website. Available: https://www.theschoolinthecloud.org/library/resources/running-sole-sessions

Toyama, K. (2015). Geek heresy: Rescuing social change from the cult of technology. PublicAffairs.