School Leaders as Readers: Education for Outcome

The following passage is my most recent post I shared in our Goodreads community, School Leaders as Readers. This fall we are reading Mindfulness by Ellen Langer. If you are a school leader, I encourage you to join the group.

“From kindergarten on, the focus of schooling is usually on goals rather than on the process by which they are achieved. This single minded pursuit of one outcome or another, from tying shoelaces to getting into Harvard, makes it difficult to have a mindful attitude about life.” (p 35)

Have truer words ever been written? This is the one of the biggest problems with standards, Common Core or otherwise. They become the product in themselves, instead of a general focus for teaching and learning. Forgive my football analogy, but standards should serve as the yard markers, not the end zone.

I was watching a video today on the Teaching Channel. The teacher had “buckets” on the wall, paint cans that had labels detailing a few words which culminated high school literacy standards. In each bucket were specific skills written on paint sticks related to each standard. The teacher would pull sticks, and this is what the students would focus on that day.

Buckets of standards
Buckets of standards

Source: Teaching Channel (click to watch video)

I almost sent this out to my teachers – mindlessly! – but caught myself. Thankfully I asked, “Is this what students come to school for? To master standards?” Of course not! They come to learn about great ideas, great thinkers, about our history up until now. Sometimes I think they come to get away from all of the connectivity too. Yes, students should also develop certain competencies, but not removed from the context of these big ideas and know-hows.

Langer emphasizes on page 36 that we need to retrain our focus, and that of our students, to asking “How do I do it?” instead of “Can I do it?”. This can best happen in the context of authentic and relevant learning activities. What are your thoughts?

Close Reading is a Conversation

I cannot proclaim to be an expert on close reading, nor would I want to. Although the skill/strategy/idea (?) of close reading is only briefly mentioned in the Common Core State Standards, it has become a staple in discussions among educators. It is listed first in the anchor standards for reading, if that counts for anything:

Key Ideas and Details:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1
Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

I explored this concept of close reading a couple of years ago in ASCD Express, titled “Reading Like a Leader”. You can see from the image shared within the article that what our leadership team read was covered in highlights and annotations. This worked for us, because we passed around one article and relied on asynchronous dialogue for learning.

But what about when it is just you and the author, mano a mano? Should learners highlight anything and everything relevant to their purpose for reading?

This has been a very ineffective strategy for me. When gathering information for my first book, there wasn’t a detail that I did not like. There are entire pages in some of the resources I explored where there is literally more text highlighted and annotated on a page than text left alone. Yet when I tried to apply said knowledge to my book, I found myself going back to those same passages I had so diligently marked up and ended up more confused. My additions to the text were really subtractions to my understanding. I was distracted by my contributions, because they interfered with my comprehension.

I have learned my lesson, so to speak. In my current writing project, I am eschewing all of my previous attempts to “cite specific textual evidence” and to “determine what the text says explicitly”. Instead, I am trying to have a conversation with the author as I read. One thing that has helped me is using Thin Strip Post-it G18044_7675notes. If I find a passage in a text I want to remember, I place the note next to the passage and write either a question or a statement on it. The question is sincere; it is more of a wondering than anything. When writing a statement, I am trying to come up with a sentence that could surround that passage or quote, as a way to summarize it or transition toward it within my own writing.

Below is an example of what I am talking about, from Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (2011):

We make our technologies, and they, in turn, shape us. So, of every technology we must ask, Does it serve our human purpose? – a question that causes us to reconsider what these purposes are. Technologies, in every generation, present opportunities to reflect on our values and direction. (19)

Here is my annotation on the Post-it Thin Strip attached to this passage:

Whenever we add something to our plates, something else is pushed off.

I cannot say for certain if this passage from the text will be a part of the final draft for my project. What Turkle shares is profound, but it may not be applicable. This is one of the challenges of close reading – learners assume that whatever they highlight and annotate must be regurgitated verbatim in their written responses to the text. I know this, because it took me a whole book to realize it. I hope today’s students are faster learners than I am.

What I am doing with the above example is not documenting my learning, but rather holding on to a new idea. By responding to the text in my own words, I think I am more likely to come back to the reading and response as I am writing. This is how a conversation works: A back-and-forth discussion around topics that are important to both the author and the reader. I have devoted meaning to my responses, instead of assuming that the text will just naturally mean something to me. I am reading this book because I care about the topics and find the text both informative and entertaining.

There is purpose in my Post-its that extends beyond the room to write my thoughts down. By not highlighting and annotating the text itself, I am not smothering the author’s writing with potential distractions for me as the reader. If I want to reread the passage that I responded to, I am now forced to reading a paragraph or two to locate it. Subsequently, I am revisiting the context in which I found the original passage that struck me as important. In other books I have read for informational purposes, I have been gone as far as simply leaving an asterisk next to the passage I found important, with no response. My thinking might change when I came back to it.

As the title states, close reading is a conversation. It is not extracting every essential bit of information from a text, like you were squeezing a lemon to make lemonade. Reading a text closely is about determining why you want to read a text, evaluating whether the text before you is worth your time, and then finding evidence within the text to hold onto for future reference. It is a partnership in understanding and appreciation between the writer and the reader. Anything less is a recipe for reducing engagement in meaningful inquiries.

Dinner Before Dessert? (or, Should We Really Be Pushing for More Nonfiction Reading?)

I was in the staff lounge grabbing a cup of coffee recently. Next to the Keurig machine is a lending library. No one really runs it. People just put books on the shelf, assuming others might want to read what they are sharing. I think there is a decent amount of traffic in what is coming and going.

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Even at a glance, this collection would not be Common Core-acceptable in any classroom. Way too much fiction, and not enough informational and explanatory text.

But before I go back to the lounge and start sneaking in nonfiction books into this library, what do we see here? First, we have a lot of avid readers on our school staff. This alone is cause for celebration. Second, the books here are fairly complex texts, having read a number of them myself. In addition, this activity is independent of any requirements. As the school’s principal, I have not mandated that every staff member bring in “x” amount of books for this exchange. It just happens. It should also be noted that we have a book-a-day calendar next to the Keurig machine, as a daily recommendation for our next potential read.

I share this because of a recent article regarding the lack of nonfiction reading that is observed in today’s students. In this report, students’ reading habits and willingness to tackle complex texts start to decline after 6th grade. The journalist suggests that U.S. students will not be college and career ready at this rate, noting that “a key cornerstone of reading comprehension is vocabulary” and that “words that need to be encountered are in literature”.

What is not focused on in the article are the possible reasons as to why students are reading less once they hit secondary school. Maybe this is too simplistic in thinking, but could it be that independent reading – the time in which students are reading what they want, and often fiction – starts to go away in favor of the more traditional, departmentalized schedule? In my experience, the subject of reading is renamed “English”, “Language Arts”, or “Disciplinary Literacy” once students hit adolescence. Sounds depressing, if you ask me. No wonder kids are reading less.

Instead of assigning fiction with the blame of lower reading scores, what if we reconsider the way we promote reading in general? As an avid reader myself, I find fiction to be the gateway to a host of possibilities for reading in other areas. The thinking required for some of the novels I choose is deep, comprehensive, and often demanding of a second perspective. These inquiries naturally lead to book clubs, where a reader can share questions and become a better reader than they were before. Deep and complex thinking, asking questions, seeking new information…these strategies are the same that we demand of learners tackling nonfiction.

So if fiction is more than fluff, in comparison to the “rigor” of nonfiction, what are the implications for literacy instruction? It is much easier to teach anyone how to do anything when they are engaged in the process of actually doing it. We are giving them a taste of what is possible. Dangling dessert in front of our kids so they will eat their supper might work at the dinner table. But for more complex activities such as lifelong reading, we should reconsider our approach.

Should we level texts for students?

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photo credit: David Kracht via photopin cc

I saw this article shared out a number of times on social media, but never sat down to read it until now. I thought Annie Murphy Paul wrote a balanced story on whether or not text should be leveled to meet the needs of each reader. She highlighted a new digital tool called Newsela that automatically dials up or down the complexity of current events students are reading. The lead provided a good example of how a complex text can be simplified without losing too much information in the process. Both sides of the coin on leveling texts were well represented. I am surprised there weren’t more comments posted.

My big question as I read the article was, “What is the primary purpose for reading the text?” I emphasize “primary” because we should always be teaching reading. At the same time, teaching reading without some type of context can reduce engagement on the part of the reader. My belief is, if it is about conveying content information, then it should be leveled, assuming that essential understandings are not lost in the process of translation. Students should be able to read it independently. If it is about teaching reading, then leveling may not be as effective because we would be working with different texts while teaching one strategy. The text should be at their instructional level, with lots of modeling and scaffolding provided by the teacher.

I remember one year teaching 5th graders U.S. history, specifically the Great Depression. I provided the students with an article that would give them more background information about the topic (we were reading Out of the Dust and they were really interested in this period of time). As they worked through it, I realized that they were not engaged. The students were displaying off task behaviors, and I was becoming frustrated with them. After reflecting on the lesson, I realized that the text was too difficult for independent reading. I should have been reading it aloud to them, and then sharing my thinking at strategic points. My primary purpose was to convey information, not to teach reading strategies, although strategies could have been embedded. Now with the advent of digital media available pretty much anywhere, I might have also shown them primary resources from that period of time using websites like the National Archives, or maybe Skyped in an expert on the topic. This would be an addition to possibly using technology like Newsela to level the same text.

I also like the idea of using eReaders with students when appropriate. Nooks and Kindles “hide” the texts for students who are self-conscious about what they are reading. I had an ELL student using an eReader last year. One day he privately asked me to put titles from the Flat Stanley series on his Nook. There was no way he would have been caught reading that simple chapter book series in front of his peers. In addition, there is recent research that finds students with disabilities do benefit from the format of an eReader, related to the limited amount of text presented, plus the ability to resize the font as needed (Source: http://specialedpost.org/2013/09/22/using-e-readers-helps-students-with-dyslexia/). It is also understated that digital tools are “cool”. Kids would much rather use a tablet or smartphone to help with reading due to various disabilities versus a magnifier or related type of support that draws attention to their disability.

What are your thoughts on the topic? Please share in the comments.

Is Common Core Developmentally Appropriate?

The following is a comment I left on Diane Ravitch’s blog post, titled “Why The Common Core State Standards for Grades K-3 Are Wrong“.

Thank you for breaking this down. The argument presented seems to be more concerned about the assessments that will be used to determine student achievement, and not necessarily the standards themselves. I believe there are two issues here, and they each need a more thorough analysis so these conversations do not devolve into punditry.

There will always be standards. Look at Indiana. They are going to replace the Common Core with standards that are…very similar to the Common Core (Source: http://blog.heritage.org/2014/04/22/indiana-education-standards-common-core-trojan-horse/). What a colossal waste of energy, time and public dollars.

What the CCSS got right was laying out what can be expected of learners at each grade level. We tested this out in our school by focusing on informational writing this year in all content areas. Each grade level built rubrics around that standard, and then provided lots of modeling, scaffolding, and practice for students to attain proficiency.

What were the results? You be the judge: https://www.evernote.com/shard/s55/sh/51185e18-88dd-431d-8aed-638786566303/396f9c4174372f88b54f1fb20396e39a We had each grade level submit two or three pieces of exemplary work (anonymous), along with the students’ reflections. As students now walk the hallway, they can see what is expected of each learner K-5.

Of course, not every student made the mark at mid-year. We get that and continue to help each learner meet their potential. So why not strive for excellence? When I hear “not developmentally appropriate”, I cringe, because I believe it is a slippery slope toward low expectations schoolwide.

If the argument made here were more about the high stakes tests and how they are inappropriately aligned, administered, and misused, then I would agree 100%. But to lump the CCSS with high stakes tests, or with one person’s decision to cancel a kindergarten play, does few in education any favors.

Making Sense of the Complex

Many public educators are feeling overwhelmed by all the initiatives coming our way. I too get anxious when I think about everything we are expected to do. A conspiracy theorist might suggest that some people in power might want us in this frame of mind, but I try to stay focused on what I can control.

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I am reading a terrific resource titled Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam (Solution Tree, 2011). Here is one of my favorite passages so far:
 
Trying to change students’ classroom experience through changes in curriculum is very difficult. A bad curriculum well taught is invariably a better experience for students than a good curriculum badly taught: pedagogy trumps curriculum. Or more precisely, pedagogy is curriculum, because what matters is how things are taught, rather than what is taught. (p 13)
 
Couldn’t you replace “curriculum” with “standards”? I know this quote helps me keep things in perspective. I don’t know who said it, but good schools are only collections of good teachers. I am happy and feel fortunate that I work in the school that I do.
 

No More Silos

Here is the master schedule I shared with my staff before everyone left for break:

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This is driven mostly by Response to Intervention. Starting December of this year, all schools have to ensure that interventions that may lead to a special education referral for reading or math take place outside of that respective subject area. Where you see “I/E” stands for Intervention and Enrichment. Kids that are either below the line or above the line should receive additional support in their specific area of need. This is based on a template by Dr. Michael Rettig.

I had a number of teachers come down and speak with me after I sent this out. “So, reading and content should be taught separately?” was one of the more common questions. I explained that, no, this is just a schedule that your grade level should do their best to adhere to over the course of the year. Integrating the subject areas is highly encouraged. We only want to ensure that students’ needs are being met through Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions. Scheduling in an intervention block is the best way we know how to make sure this happens. There has been good discourse about this, and we will continue to talk.

Yet I bring this up here because I have concerns. Not about Response to Intervention (RtI). Besides soon becoming law, John Hattie, researcher and author of Visible Learning, has found that RtI has one of the largest effect sizes on student learning. I take comfort knowing that “grey area” kids, those that don’t qualify for special education services because their cognitive abilities are too low, may now get the necessary support. In addition, RtI has been called “the last, best hope” for literacy education by Richard Allington.

No, I am more concerned that all of these initiatives coming at us – Common Core, Smarter Balanced Assessment, and new teacher evaluations based on students’ test scores (on top of RtI, but without the research base) – will further fracture our already chopped up days at the elementary level. Many secondary schools already suffer from this. “They are everybody’s kids”, and therefore nobody’s kids. Leaders thinking in black-and-white terms might start to believe that continuing to departmentalize the core areas will lead to better gains in student achievement. Specific interventions can be used to zero in on targeted literacy and numeracy skills. Words such as “hard” and “rigorous” are often used to describe these interventions.

But this is not what kids, or most adults, comes to school for. They want to be engaged. They want to see the connections between their lives and what they are learning. Making connections throughout the day will only enhance instruction. The thinking required for this type of work comes before the instruction actually happens, as well during the teaching-learning process using ongoing assessments. It doesn’t happen when we are inputting progress monitoring results into a spreadsheet. It doesn’t happen when we are solely aligning our instruction with standards instead of with our students’ needs. It doesn’t happen when we are forced to think about our own livelihoods instead of our students’ futures.

Giving students the best opportunity for success starts with engaging and evidence-based classroom instruction. Separating subjects and skill areas into silos is not natural. The further we pull away for learning as an authentic experience, the more we risk disengaging our students because it doesn’t represent what is real and what is meaningful.