How we stopped using Accelerated Reader

This post describes how our school stopped using Accelerated Reader. This was not something planned; it seemed to happen naturally through our change process, like an animal shedding its skin. The purpose of this post is not to decry Accelerated Reader, although I do know this reading assessment/incentive program is not viewed favorably in some education circles. We ceased using a few other technologies as well, each for different reasons. The following timeline provides a basic outline of our process that led to this outcome.

  1. We developed collective commitments.

The idea of collective commitments comes from the Professional Learning Community literature, specifically Learning by Doing, 3rd edition. Collective commitments are similar to norms you might find on a team. The difference is collective commitments are focused on student learning. We commit to certain statements about our work on behalf of kids. They serve as concrete guidelines, manifested from our school’s mission and vision, as well as from current thinking we find effective for education.

We first started by reading one of four articles relevant to our work. The staff could choose which one to read. After discussing the contents of the articles in small group and then in whole group, we started crafting the statements. This was a smaller team of self-selected faculty. Staff who did not participate knew they may have to live with the outcomes of this work. Through lots of conversation and wordsmithing, we landed on seven statements that we all felt were important to our future work.

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At the next staff meeting, we shared these commitments, answered any questions about their meaning and intent, and then held an anonymous vote via Google Forms. We weren’t looking for unanimity but consensus. In other words, what does the will of the group say? Although there were a few faculty members that could not find a statement or two to be agreeable, the vast majority of teachers were on board. I shared the results while explaining that these statements were what we all will commit to, regardless of how we might feel about them.

  1. We identified a schoolwide literacy focus.

Using multiple assessments in the fall (STAR, Fountas & Pinnell), we found that our students needed more support in reading, specifically fluency. This meant that students needed to be reading and writing a lot more than they were, and to do so independently. Our instructional leadership team, which is a decision-making body and whose members were selected based on in-house interviews, started making plans to provide professional development for all faculty around the reading-writing connection. (For more information on instructional leadership teams and the reading-writing connection, see Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead).

  1. We investigated the effectiveness of our current programming.

Now that we had collective commitments along with a focus on literacy, I think our lens changed a bit. Maybe I can only speak for myself, but we started to take a more critical look at our current work. What was working and what wasn’t?

Around that time, I discovered a summary report from the What Works Clearinghouse, a part of the Institute of Educational Sciences within the Department of Education. This report described all of the different studies on Accelerated Reader. Using only the research that met their criteria for reliability and validity, they found mixed to low results for schools that used Accelerated Reader.

I shared this summary report with our leadership team. We had a thoughtful conversation about the information, looking at both the pros and cons of this technology tool. However, we didn’t make any decisions to stop using it as a school. I also shared the report with Renaissance Learning, the maker of Accelerated Reader. As you might imagine, they had a more slanted view of this information, in spite of the rigorous approach to evaluating their product.

While we didn’t make a decision at that time based on the research, I think the fact that this report was shared with the faculty and discussed planted the seed for future conversations about the use of this product in our classrooms.

  1. We examined our beliefs about literacy.

The professional development program we selected to address our literacy needs, Regie Routman in Residence: The Reading-Writing Connection, asks educators to examine their beliefs regarding reading and writing instruction. Unlike our collective commitments, we all had to be in agreement regarding a literacy statement to own it and expect everyone to apply that practice in classrooms. We agreed upon three.

Beliefs Poster

This happened toward the end of the school year. It was a nice celebration of our initial efforts in improving literacy instruction. We will examine these beliefs again at the end of this school year, with the hope of agreeing upon a few more after completing this PD program. These beliefs served to align our collective philosophy about what our students truly need to become successful readers and writers. Momentum for change was on our side, which didn’t bode well for outdated practices.

  1. We started budgeting for next year.

It came as a surprise, at least to me, that money would be a primary factor in deciding not to continue using Accelerated Reader in our school.

With a finite budget and an infinite number of teacher resources in which we could utilize in the classroom, I started investigating the use of different technologies currently in the building. I found for Accelerated Reader that a small minority of teachers were actually using the product. This usage was broken down by class. We discovered that we were paying around $20 a year per student.

Given our limited school budget, I asked teachers both on our leadership team and the teachers who used it if they felt this was worth the cost. No one thought it was. (To be clear, the teachers who were using Accelerated Reader are good teachers. Just because they had their students taking AR quizzes does not suggest they were ineffective; quite the opposite. I think it is worth pointing this out as I have seen some shaming of teachers who use AR as a way to persuade them to stop using the tool. It’s not effective.)

With this information, we as a leadership team decided to end our subscription to Accelerated Reader. We made this decision within the context of our collective commitments and our literacy beliefs.

Next Steps

This story does not end with our school ceasing to using Accelerated Reader. For example, we realize we now have an assessment gap for our students and their independent reading. Lately, we have been talking about different digital tools such as Kidblog and Biblionasium as platforms for students to write book reviews and share their reading lives with others. We have also discussed different approaches for teachers to assess their readers more authentically, such as through conferring.

While there is a feeling of uncomfortableness right now, I feel a sense of possibility that maybe wasn’t there when Accelerated Reader was present in our building. As Peter Johnston notes from his book Opening Minds, ““Uncertainty is the foundation for inquiry and research.” I look forward to where this new turn in instruction might lead us.

 

D.E.A.R. – Drop Everything and Reflect

As a teacher, I instituted D.E.A.R. in my classroom: Drop Everything and Read. I joined in on the activity and silently read myself. Sometimes this classroom practice is referred to as S.S.R. – sustained silent reading.

Looking back, I now know I made mistakes in my teaching. I didn’t do anything harmful – I gave kids time to read, which is good. But I didn’t give every student the support they needed while reading independently. I could have been conferencing with students (I taught 5th and 6th grade, mostly). These assessment opportunities would have looked different for each student: personalized and student-driven, based on where kids were and where we wanted to go.

I am not going to engage in retroactive guilt. It’s not worth it. My penance is this post and others like it that I have written previously. Still, I do value some quiet space in a classroom, some time for students to be in their own minds about what they are reading and not worry about what others think.

So what if, instead of “D.E.A.R.” as we have known it, we instituted “Drop Everything and Reflect”? Reflection, the practice of considering our actions through writing or thinking, is not something that is given a lot of time for in classrooms. But we do know how important this is for processing our experiences and digging deeper into learning.

What might this look like in a literacy classroom? A few thoughts:

  • Each student has a reading notebook in which they record the title and author of the book they are reading, as well as write any surprises, questions, and observations they uncovered. They could share their reflections with a peer. Students could also blog about their reading using Kidblog or another digital tool to encourage visibility with our reading lives.
  • If a student is done with a book, they could write a book review (instead of a book report) for the classroom or school library. It doesn’t have to be long; a paragraph might suffice as long as the recommendation entices another student to want to read the book. Biblionasium is a digital platform for this type of work.
  • One student could get together with other students to discuss the books they are reading in informal literature circles. Teachers could limit the amount of time students would have to talk about what they are reading. Roles would be unnecessary. A learning management system such as Edmodo could be utilized to develop online book clubs around a title, series, or author if students wanted to discuss their reading beyond independent reading time.

The purpose of this post is to point out two things: 1) D.E.A.R. and S.S.R. are traditional activities that deserve an upgrade with more promising practices such as independent reading, and 2) students can be offered independence in their reflections on their reading and how they choose to reflect.

If you have traditionally used reading logs and/or emphasized 20 minutes of reading per day, I think you will find these ideas might be a better approach to improving student reading achievement and instilling student engagement in reading for a lifetime.

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Reading and Writing in the Real World

I’ve been thinking more and more about teaching literacy for students today. Digital media has become a primary source of information for many people. Do they know how to read a Twitter thread or write an effective blog post? If someone does not, are they fully literate? I wrote the following piece for our school’s families to start the conversation. I’m sure I will be revisiting this topic again soon.

-Matt

One of my sources of information is Twitter. I follow educators, leaders, journalists, and friends. I also subscribe to a few newspapers, although much of the content I read there is online. As I scroll through articles from a web browser or app, I find I have to work hard to keep my attention focused on the writing. My mind is drawn to the advertisements and other distractions that appear at the edges of the screen.

I share this information, both in digital and in print, for a reason. Mainly, when education is tasked with teaching students to read and write, we can no longer limit our scope to printed text. The advent of the Internet has created brand new literacies. In a connected society, we need to be globally literate, in which we can understand people’s perspectives from other cultures and locations. We also need to be digitally literate. Multimedia messages read and heard online require new strategies to comprehend them.

At a recent strategic planning for the district, a variety of community members got together with Mineral Point School educators to talk about what we want our students to know, understand, and be able to do. After a lot of conversation and debate, we decided on two big goals: community engagement and academic innovation and independence. These are pretty broad. Basically, we want to improve our connections with our local community around the concept of education, and we want to prepare our students for a changing world.

How do we get there? We have already started follow-up conversations at the administrative level. One of the things that we can agree on is for students to be readers and writers in the real world. That means being able to decode and comprehend text both in print and online. That means writing for an audience that could be one person or the world. Speaking and listening also have taken on new purpose when we can communicate with anyone from anywhere. These ideas are both challenging and exciting. I look forward to working with you to help project a course for our students’ futures.

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.

 

 

How to Create a Twitter List of Reliable Media Sources

Twitter has been the primary medium for sharing news regarding the presidential election and transition. This social media tool can be effective for gaining multiple perspectives on a topic or cause. The challenge with Twitter is in how to use it so the information you are receiving is reliable. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff?

My suggestion: Create a Twitter list. You don’t even have to follow people or organizations to put them on a list. Here’s how:

  • Select “lists” within the menu under your Twitter profile picture.

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  • Scroll down and select “Create New List”.

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  • Select a hashtag relevant to the topic of interest, such as #WomensMarch. Find people on Twitter who are reporting information and offering commentary (versus simply stating opinions on a topic).

Often journalists and news organizations will have a blue check next to their profile picture. This means they are verified Twitter accounts and have a broader audience on important topics.

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Once you find sources that are reliable for media coverage, select their profile and add them to a new list. You can create a new list when you start looking on Twitter. There is no need to follow them if you prefer not.

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  • Start reading your Twitter list.

The easiest way is to select the list within your Twitter account and read the feed. When posts are retweeted within the feed by those you’ve listed, this can be an opportunity to add more reliable media sources to your list.

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If you read on an tablet or smartphone, I suggest downloading Flipboard to read your Reliable Media Sources list. This free application offers a more visually appealing way to read tweets. You can still access Twitter through Flipboard.

If all of this is too much, you can also simply follow my reliable media sources list. Click here to follow. One caution: Avoid reading these list feeds constantly. News reports can become all consuming, even when the sources are valid. We need to live in the real world so that we have some grounding in reality and be a part of our communities.

In an age where the credibility of the press is openly questioned, it is more important than ever to know how to navigate the information available and decide which sources are most reliable. Fake news does exist. Yet it is up to the reader to determine what sources can be counted upon for facts. A more informed public is the best way to combat misinformation.

What I’m Reading: December 2016

I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.

-Maya Angelou

  • Allen, N. (November 2016). So Many Literacies. The Council Chronicle (NCTE), pgs. 10-13.

This article summarizes author Lauren Rosenberg’s work developing writing skills with adult learners. Rosenberg questions the label “illiterate” for those who cannot read or write yet.

‘Illiteracy’ suggests illness, and not just individual illness but some kind of social illness. Our culture frames the nonliterate as being lesser. It’s important to get away from the idea that a person who doesn’t have the benefits of reading and writing has something wrong with them.

Her approach for working with adults is to use their personal narratives as a way to develop their reading and writing skills. These students saw themselves not only as victims of circumstance, but also as agents for change. Through their writing, they were able to “re-story” their lives.

It takes us back to an idea that originates in narrative psychology. You can use writing to reexamine and even correct an impression. You can change how you see yourself, and how others see you. You can correct the narrative that’s been used against you and that’s portrayed you in a way you don’t want to be portrayed.

Through this very personal literacy experience, students were also able to build their reading and writing skills.

  • Hogan, J. J. (December 2016). Troubling a “Cultured Hell”: Empowering Adolescent Voices through Youth Participatory Action Research. Voices from the Middle (NCTE), 39-41.

Jamie Jordan Hogan is an instructional coach and former middle school English teacher. To engage her students, she guided them to conduct action research on a topic they were passionate about during their research writing unit. No topic seemed to be off the table; students elected to research race, class, sexuality, and immigration policy, as examples. Hogan questions why teachers do not embrace this approach in English classrooms.

The burning question for us as educators: What are we so afraid of? Is it a fear of a personal conflict? A fear of judgment? A fear that we may be obligated to confront our own individual prejudices and biases?

The teacher applies the steps of action research, including developing a driving question, creating an action plan, facilitating data collection, and presenting their findings. Students used a variety of digital and traditional tools to conduct their research. Face to face communication, such as peer dialogue and interviews, were critical for success. The outcomes, beyond their final products, was a feeling of empowerment as learners.

Students do not want to be mere passersby in their own education. They want to make their mark and have an active voice in the communities in which they live.

  • O’Byrne, W. I. (November/December 2016). Scaffolding Digital Creation. Literacy Today (ILA), pgs. 14-15.

A literacy professor offers three steps for moving students from consumers to creators of digital content. O’Byrne sees many educational activities today positioning students in the former role. However, to be able to truly understand the web, he feels it is critical that students understand how content is created as well as the active role they might take.

For students…their ability to best use these literacies is central to our collective future. Educators should continue to show that they can work with students to understand and prepare them for these digital spaces and beyond.

The pathway of consumption to curation to creation is one way teachers can provide the necessary support for students to build with and use digital literacy applications. Voicethread, Pinterest, and Hypothes.is are three tools referenced in the article.

  • Souto-Manning, M. (2016). Honoring and Building on the Rich Literacy Practices of Young Bilingual and Multilingual Learners. The Reading Teacher, 70(3), 263271.

Similar to the first article in this review, the author points out the negative connotations of referring to students with labels couched in deficit-based foundations, such as “English as Second Language (ESL) learners”.

All of these labels—LEP, ESL, ESOL, ENL, and ELL—have one thing in common: They position children as being inferior or having deficits.

Souto-Manning prefers the term “emergent bilingual” to describe students who are already fluent in one language and learning English – an additional language – in school. Through this mindset, these students can now be seen as having an advantage. A powerful strategy for incorporating students’ different backgrounds within instruction is ensuring literature that is read aloud and available in classrooms represents a diversity of cultures.

Literacies, Reframed

So much of our literacy curriculum in schools today is focused on skill development and strategy acquisition. Do students have the ability to decode unfamiliar text? Can they use context clues to understand a new word? Are students able to organize their ideas from what they have read and what they know into a cogent article or essay? All are important to know and be able to do. Yet they are not the function of reading and writing. They are the tools that open the door to literacy. But an open door is only the beginning.

The purpose of reading and writing can be broken down into one of two main purposes: to entertain and to acquire and transmit knowledge. Often (at least for me anyway), I read and write for a mix of both purposes. For example, when I read a work of excellent fiction, I usually end the book with a better understanding of myself and others. Likewise, when I write pieces such as this, I am frequently considering my audience and how I can keep them engaged in reading to the end (you are still with me, right?).

All of these articles summarized here promote literacy as more than just learning how to read or write. These practices can be life-changing. Illiterate adults learn to reframe their identities through writing. Adolescents discover the power of language to explore wonderings relevant to their lives. Students start to see themselves as producers of knowledge instead of merely consumers. Immigrants are positioned as experts within the context of school, seeing their bilingualism as an advantage instead of a deficit.

These topics are often explored in the current literacy journals and published research. I subscribe to many of these resources because the standards do not adequately address them. By becoming more knowledgeable, we can serve our students even better.

 

 

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