Innovation in Education

I walked into a classroom that was modeling the story structure process. The teacher had provided one-word sentence starters as a guide. The students were using this structure to organize a personal narrative in their writing journals.

There is little doubt the world has changed with the advent of technology and globalization. It is hard to imagine some of the jobs people have today existing even twenty years ago. Schools are, like any large enterprise, challenged to keep up.

But does that mean we are “behind the times”? What if some of the practices we have utilized in the past are, in fact, timeless? Consider the story structure I saw in the classroom. It is very similar to what Pixar Animation uses when they plan out a movie:

Once upon a time there was ___.

Every day, ___.

One day ___.

Because of that, ___.

Because of that, ___.

Until finally ___.

Pretty innovative, right? Pixar uses a tried and true structure to create some of the most technologically advanced media today. This company has one toe in the 21st century and the other in an abiding idea. Pixar knows it works due to their success both financially and in the awards and the accolades they have received.

Of course, some ideas in education do need to be relegated to the past. That goes for every complex profession. You wouldn’t go to a doctor that continued to use mercury to treat health issues. So we do have an obligation to be critical consumers of instructional approaches, both tried and new. That’s why reflecting on our beliefs and discussing the impact of our practice on student learning with colleagues is important. 

Data-Driven Decision Making: Who’s the decider?

After I shared out my previous post, describing my confusion about making sense of certain types of data, the International Literacy Association (ILA) replied with a link to a recent report on this topic:

It’s a short whitepaper/brief titled “Beyond the Numbers: Using Data for Instructional Decision Making”. The principal authors, Vicki Park and Amanda Datnow, make a not-so-provocative claim that may still cause consternation in education:

Rather than data driving the decision-making, student learning goals should drive what data are collected and how they are used.

The reason this philosophy might cause unrest with educators is that data-driven decision making is still a mainstay in schools. Response to Intervention is dependent on quantitative-based progress monitoring. School leaders too often discount the anecdotal notes and other qualitative information collected by teachers. Sometimes the term “data-informed” replaces “data-driven”, but the approach largely remains aligned with the latter terminology and practice.

Our school is like many others. We get together three times a year, usually after screeners are administered. We create spreadsheets and make informed decisions on behalf of our students. Yet students nor their parents are involved in the process. Can we truly be informed if we are not also including the kids themselves in some way?

To be fair to ourselves and to other schools, making decisions regarding which students need more support or how teachers will adjust their instruction is relatively new to education. As well, our assessments are not as clean as, say, a blood test you might take at the doctor’s office. Data-driven decision making is hard enough for professional educators. There are concerns that bringing in students and their families might only contribute to the confusion through the fault of no one.

And yet there are teachers out there who are doing just this: positioning students as the lead assessors and decision-makers in their educational journey. For example, Samantha Mosher, a secondary special education teacher, guides her students to develop their own IEP goals as well as how to use various tools to monitor their own progress. The ownership for the work rests largely on the students’ shoulders. Samantha provides the modeling, support, and supervision to ensure each student’s goals and plan are appropriate.

An outcome in releasing the responsibility of making data-informed decisions to students is that Samantha has become more of a learner. As she notes in her blog post:

I was surprised that many students didn’t understand why they got specific accommodations. I expected to have to explain what was possible, but didn’t realized I would have to explain what their accommodations meant.

“Yes, but older students are able to set their own goals and monitor their own progress. My kids are not mature enough yet to manage that responsibility.” I hear you, and I am going to disagree. I can say that because I have seen younger students do this work firsthand. It’s not a completely independent process, but the data-informed decision making is at least co-led by the students.

In my first book on digital portfolios, I profiled the speech and language teacher at my last school, Genesis Cratsenberg. She used Evernote to capture her students reading aloud weekly progress notes to their parents. She would send the text of their reflections along with the audio home via email. Parents and students could hear first hand the growth they were making over time in the authentic context of a personalized student newsletter. It probably won’t surprise you that once Genesis started this practice, students on her caseload exited out of her program at a faster rate. (To read an excerpt from my book describing Genesis’s work, click here.)

I hope this post comes across as food for thought and not finger-wagging. Additionally, I don’t believe we should stop with our current approaches to data analysis. Our hands are sometimes tied when it comes to state and federal rules regarding RtI and special education qualification. At the same time, we are free to expand our understanding and our beliefs about what counts as data and who should be at the table when making these types of decisions.

Five Apps for Reducing Isolation and Increasing Connectedness

The principalship, as well as other leadership positions in schools, can be isolating. We typically don’t have a team of our own within a building. Even when part of a district, it can be hard to build a professional community with colleagues; competing for limited resources plus the busyness of our days too often keeps us at a distance.

I recommend five apps that have helped me bridge this divide and foster a sense of connectedness with other educators.

  • Google+ Communities – While I know a lot of educators use Facebook groups for connecting with colleagues, I prefer Communities. It feels less like social media and more like a chat room. You can create categories for organizing posts. Being a part of the Google ecosystem is also helpful for sharing content.
  • email – Whether Gmail, Outlook, or Apple Mail, email is still a tried and true method for connecting with others. What I am referring to here is different than work messages. I use email as an ongoing correspondence with close colleagues: timeless technology for writing back and forth with each other. So…rethink email!
  • Slack – I’ve used this communication tool during educational conferences and for technology discussion boards. I find Slack a cross between email and a discussion board. It takes some getting used to but I do like the interface and feel of it.
  • Tweetbot – This app is my preferred Twitter client. I don’t get all of the ads or suggested tweets like I do with the native application. Twitter chats, direct messages, and lists all help me stay connected with other educators. The only part of Tweetbot I find lacking is the inability for group chats in direct messages.
  • Voxer – I’m not a heavy user of Voxer but I do enjoy the back-and-forth you can have with this walkie-talkie app. Communications can be light, mostly chatting about topics that have nothing to do with school. Other times I am reaching out to a principal regarding a prospective teaching candidate or for problem-solving.

Of course, the best app for reducing isolation and increasing connectedness is the physical presence of others. It’s a big reason why I attend educational conferences and participate in monthly regional school leader meetings. But during the in-between, my personal/professional connections mediated online are the next best thing.

What app or digital tool do you prefer to stay connected with colleagues? Why do you like it? Please share in the comments.

Reading Deeply in Digital Spaces

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

For too long, I have deleted all of the blog updates that come through my email. I “subscribe” to other educators and thought leaders who post frequently on their site. Yet it has become my habit to Select All when these updates show up in my inbox and promptly delete. This practice has become a habit, a ritual that in reflection seems silly.

Why do I do this? What is the reason why I am not learning from others through their blogs and newsletters like I used to?

I suspect some of it has to do with priorities. I have prioritized checking Twitter for any interesting bits of information such as news updates, journal articles, and videos. But I tend to stick a toe into these information streams and rarely dive into an in-depth article or post (exceptions include The New York Times and The Washington Post, which I subscribe to both). To reprioritize, I probably need to revisit Twitter lists with more intent to read/view what is shared in their entirety.

Maybe my reluctance is due in part to the assumption that blog posts and other more opinion-based writing may not be as reliable or accurate as the information I read from major news sources. But this assumption is false. What educators and other thought leaders share online is just as “true” as anything a professional journalist might publish. In fact, some of the best content online is often from teachers and principals who reveal the challenges and struggles they have in their professional lives. I need to get back to this frame of mind more often, that recognizes process as just as important as any product.

The world is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s turning us all into amateurs. Even for professionals, the best way to flourish is to retain an amateur’s spirit and embrace uncertainty and the unknown. – Austin Kleon, Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered

Coming back to this idea of reading more deeply when online, I believe the other challenge is a technical one. Most sites are cluttered with advertisements and pop-ups (a big reason why this blog remains ad-free). Even the cleanest sites are still online which gives access to a host of other social media platforms and websites that we could explore instead. There always seems to be something more interesting on the other side of the digital fence. We need to be aware of this mental pull when reading and consuming information online.

Researcher Dr. Maryanne Wolf emphasizes the concept of “bi-literacy”, in which we take different approaches to read online vs. reading in print. In her recent article for The Guardian (which ~ahem~ I read on my smartphone and discovered via Twitter), Wolf shares studies on how the reading environment itself influences how people learn to read:

We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit.

In other words, if a person’s daily diet of text is comprised primarily of digital, then their capacity to read and think deeply will more likely be shallow and cursory. Wolf notes that this phenomenon can occur at a pretty young age, “starting around 4th or 5th grade”.

Does this mean we eschew all things digital from our instruction? Of course not. There is so much excellent content out there that students and teachers should include as part of the curriculum. In addition, specific skills can and should be taught when reading online. Coming back to the concept of “bi-literacy”, Wolf recommends embracing a comprehensive approach to reading (and writing) for today’s learner.

We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums. A great deal hangs on it: the ability of citizens in a vibrant democracy to try on other perspectives and discern truth; the capacity of our children and grandchildren to appreciate and create beauty; and the ability in ourselves to go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society.

I’ve started doing this for myself with more intentionality. For example, one educator’s blog I subscribe to, Tom Whitby, is clean and uncluttered. Still, for me, there is a need to trim down these posts to text only. I am using a Chrome extension called EasyReader. Select the button at the top right of your Chrome browser after downloading it, select the text you want to read, and you get a text-only interface.

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Before EasyReader
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After EasyReader

Free from distractions (except for that Twitter feed I need to close down), I now have the cognitive space to read this post critically and with my fullest attention. Mind you, no one taught me these types of skills, beyond the wise and generous educators and people online who were willing to share their ideas with everyone. Also, I chose to seek this information out because of my interest in literacies (vs. literacy).

So here it is to you. And what will we do with this information? How can we implement these necessary yet generally unknown reading practices into the curriculum? When will print text no longer be viewed as the only game in town during the literacy block? I believe by sharing and reflecting on our current work, to embrace being an “amateur” again as Austin Kleon recommends, especially when practices aren’t working like it was for me. Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Mindful Literacy Assessment

A teacher came up to me in the hallway, holding printed reports. Her grimace conveyed her frustration before she even spoke. “How can my students have such nice growth from fall to winter, only to see them slide back in the spring?” She was referring to our screener results, the computerized assessments we have our students take in fall, winter, and spring. They are supposed to serve us as initial indicators for which students need more support and which students need enrichment.

Unfortunately, educators too often end up in service to the assessment. For example, the teacher and I discussed the context in which the assessment took place: the middle of May, beautiful weather, and we are asking pre-adolescents to put forth their best effort on a test that has little to no meaning to them. “What should we expect at this time of the year?” I wondered aloud with the teacher. It didn’t resolve the issue, though. We left this brief conversation with more questions than answers.

When we limit ourselves to only one way of assessing student learning, we become dependent on the tools we use. An outcome is usually a number or a level. The assessments that lead to these results are often commercial products with little opportunity for local control. We can blame the tools, but what good does that do?

This lack of agency over the results of student learning could be described as “mindless assessment”. We accept the results as gospel even if they cause anxiety rather than inform our practice. To question them runs counter to the proclamation by the assessment companies that their technologies are “valid” and “reliable” to ensure fidelity within RtI. Yet when you look closely at the research to support some of these tools, many of the studies are self-funded and self-selected. The anecdotal and circumstantial evidence we collect in classrooms is, conversely, often viewed with skepticism.

So what can we move toward as a profession assessment-wise that can give back some control over the outcomes of learning to students and teachers? I don’t prescribe one approach over another. Rather, I would direct our attention to more mindful literacy assessment. The concept of mindfulness has been heavily researched with positive results. One scientist, Dr. Ellen Langer, defines mindfulness within her book of the same title as:

  • continuous creation of new categories,
  • openness to new information, and
  • aware of more than one perspective.

Mindfulness is about being more aware of the present and worrying less about the past or the future. When people are mindful, they notice what is happening right now with an objective point of view. They resist judging, although they do question sources of information from a place of curiosity. As I read Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018), I couldn’t help but notice all of the connections between mindfulness and the authentic assessment practices she describes. In the rest of this post, I categorize some of these ideas within the context of mindful literacy assessment from past, future, and present perspectives.

Forget the Past (at least for a while)

One of the best aspects of a new school year is the opportunity to begin again in our learning journey. Students have a new teacher who knows little about them other than what might be passed up through the faculty grapevine and reputation.

Instead of reviewing their assessment data from the previous years, what if we came into a new classroom with expectations that all students will be successful? Could we hold off on passing judgment about a kid until we got to know them a little better?

Regie advocates for this. In the very first section on engagement, she calls for teachers to build trusting relationships as a priority during the first days of school. It isn’t about just literacy. “We simply cannot underestimate the power of positive relationships on the health, well-being, and achievement of all school community members” (10). For students to be able to learn, their basic needs have to be met. A strong relationship between student and teacher and as a classroom community are essential.

But what about all the time we are losing by not addressing reading and writing from day one? I hear you. What is being asked – slowing down and getting to know one another – seems contrary to the norm. Yet to be open to new ways of seeing each other, ourselves, and the world (the essence of mindfulness), this time in developing trust and relationships has to be a priority. The assessments will be there waiting.

Keep the Future in Perspective

The discussion described previously between the teacher and me is one example of the larger concern about student evaluation in general. I see a pattern where the further the assessment is removed from the context of the classroom, the less accurate yet more anxiety-producing them become. This is largely due to the desire of outsiders to publicize school report cards that are dependent on standardized tests. As Regie notes in her book, what information these scores reveal is limited at best.

We knowingly ignore the wide body of research that confirms that test scores primarily reflect family income. (312)

I have studied this phenomenon myself in my state of Wisconsin and I can attest to the accuracy of Regie’s statement. She offers sage advice for educators who worry too much about ensuring that their students reach expected goals and outcomes (318):

If we focus on the process, the product will improve.

This process that Regie speaks of suggests practices that help teachers focus on the present.

Be Present

Easy to say, hard to do. I know. I am in classrooms regularly and I can confirm the challenges inherent in moving toward more mindful and authentic assessment practices. Classroom routines, room arrangement, and a strong community with a focus on student independence are a prerequisite for this level of practice.

Once these conditions are established, ongoing formative assessment can begin. Assessment for learning (vs. “of” learning) is always mindful: it resists categorization, it is open to new information, and it can guide teacher and student to consider multiple perspectives. Results are typically qualitative and anecdotal. Formative assessments don’t serve as the total answer to the assessment conundrum but rather as an important piece within an evaluation framework.

Triangulation within RtI

Conferring notes are one such example of ongoing formative assessment. Teachers can use technology, such as a stylus, an iPad, and a notetaking application such as Evernote or Notability. One of our first-grade teachers uses Notability to not only write information about each reader and writer but also to audio record the students reading aloud an independent text or their own writing. Students can listen to themselves reading and then self-assess their fluency.

Paper and pen/pencil are a tried and true technology. Another one of our teachers uses different colors of ink for every time she confers with her readers and writers. This gives her and her students a visual way of distinguishing the conferring notes.

 

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Done systematically, conferring notes and other forms of ongoing, formative assessment can serve as a counter to the sometimes anxiety-inducing interim and summative evaluations. They breathe life into what can be a stagnant process. More responsive assessment practices conducted during instruction provide a richer picture of students, helping teachers see each kid as a unique individual. In addition, formative assessment guides instruction in response to each learner needs. As Regie notes, “quality formative assessments have the potential to create equal opportunities to learn for all students” (314). I would add that it also helps everyone be more mindful of what’s most important.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

Fits and Starts

A personal goal of mine is to learn how to use Adobe InDesign. It is a digital publishing program that allows you to draft visual documents such as flyers and eBooks.

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Photo by Mikaela Shannon on Unsplash

I’ve opened it up several times, played with the tools, will often end up frustrated, and eventually shut it down. Yet every time I open up InDesign, I learn something new. This learning might be small, such as how to find a preferred template online or how to zoom in on a document. Eventually, I will get the hang of this software, as long as I keep trying.

These types of fits and starts are the necessary beginnings for learning anything. If we introduce something new into our lives and it doesn’t change how we think or work, then we likely didn’t grow. The journey toward a worthy goal is paved with trials and mistakes and restarts.

Suggested Reading:

Writing for an Audience by Andi Sanchez (The Reading Teacher, $)

Affinity Spaces: How young people live and learn online and out of school by James Paul Gee (Phi Delta Kappan, free)

We are on spring break, which means a tech sabbatical for me for about a week. No Twitter, no problem! See you in April. -Matt

Writing is Innovation

As an idea, innovation is getting tossed around a lot in education lately.

Anytime I see something accepted en masse, I get suspicious. I find it helpful to go back to the meaning and origin of these concepts. Merriam-Webster defines innovation as “something new or…a change made to an existing product, idea, or field”. The Latin root of innovate is innovatus, meaning “to renew, restore; to change”.

Given this understanding, I believe innovation is used too loosely in the context of teaching and learning. Will Richardson aptly points this out in his article for The Huffington PostStop Innovating in Schools. Please.:

Our efforts at innovating, regardless of method, idea, or product, have been focused far too much on incrementally improving the centuries old structures and practices we employ in schools, not on fundamentally rethinking them.

I would continue this argument by stating that innovation should not be limited to science, technology, and mathematics. We go there, mentally, when we hear the term “innovate”. It’s a misconception that needs clarification.

Consider writing. It is a process as well as an output of information and experiences we have gathered to create a new product. This product – an article, a book, a blog post, a tweet – is almost always an iteration of a person’s prior knowledge. Not a lot new here; mostly remixed. Sound like innovation to you?

Dana Murphy, an instructional coach and a writer for Choice Literacy, offers a visual of the writing process that speaks more authentically to me (also a writer) than anything offered during my many years of formal education.

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Important: Murphy notes that one person’s process for writing (innovation) is likely different than another writer’s process.

Here is what I want kids to know about writing: writers have a unique writing process. All writers approach writing differently. There is not a right way and a wrong way to write. There are many ways—endless ways—to approach the task of writing. The process that works best for you is the right process.

Maybe this is why effective instruction, literacy or otherwise, has taken so long to become embedded in all schools. Teachers have to be prepared for a variety of ways students experience success in the classroom. This approach requires a long-term commitment from leaders to guide a school or district to make instructional changes based on sound beliefs and values. Or, administrators can buy a commercial program, wash their hands of any process or necessary conversations, and call it a day. Innovation stays within the purview of STEM.

Changing curriculum is easy. Changing teacher practices is hard.

It is not just us holding ourselves back. Too many standards, nonacademic demands, and not enough time are a part of our struggle to truly innovate in the classroom. Yet we have to start somewhere. As you think about next week’s lesson plans, where could you include opportunities for student choice and voice? How might you coordinate STEM and literacy activities, and demonstrate for your students that one discipline is dependent on the others? When do you celebrate process in your classroom, instead of only products? I’ll be exploring these questions next week in a classroom. Maybe you will join me. Check out the hashtag #PointerNation for updates on our work.

The visual by Dana Murphy, along with the ideas discussed in this post, are adapted from my new, free eBook titled Looking to the Future: Assessing Innovation in the Classroom