Notice and Name

This post is from my weekly staff newsletter. Maybe you will find it useful as well! -Matt

“The 3rd graders noticed you were reading a book while walking down the hallway.” The teacher had stepped out to let me know this. I had been walking upstairs with my nose in a professional resource, on my way to help supervise recess. I could see the 3rd graders smiling at me through the open door.

My first reaction was guilt. Maybe I should have been paying more attention in the hallway and not modeling the potentially unsafe behavior of reading while walking. The teacher continued, “We thought it was neat to see the principal also as a reader.” This led to me stepping into the classroom briefly, sharing what I was reading (a series of essays by Alfie Kohn) and letting them know that I thought the books they were holding in their hands looked more interesting.

I’ve always been a “sneak reader”, using downtime to pull out a book or article. While in school, this led to some mild redirection from my teachers, they themselves probably not sure how to manage the dilemma of attending to their instruction while not wanting to dissuade me from reading independently. Maybe that is where my initial feeling of guilt arose from when the 3rd graders noticed me in the hallway.

As we continue to shift our instruction toward more authentic literacy practices, there might be some similar issues we experience. For example, allowing students to read independently while we confer with an individual may feel odd at first. We should be teaching and similar thoughts may arise. But teaching is not exclusive to standing up in front of a group of students and modeling a skill. Bringing students in as part of instruction, providing just enough scaffolding for guided support, and releasing the students to practice independently are just as important to the process of learning.

When I visit classrooms daily and provide feedback about our work, I learn more and more that today’s lesson started before I arrived and will continue after I leave. I want to point out what is happening in the classroom so that you feel affirmed in your efforts to try something new. Also, I like to notice and name tried and true practices that you might be taking for granted. I had forgotten that reading a book in front of others can be a positive model for students. Reading aloud in the classroom may have become routine in a classroom, yet the students notice. When we are in the midst of instruction, it can be hard to take a step back and appreciate our work. We should!

(Re)Defining Student Engagement

“The best evidence for student engagement is what students are saying and doing as a consequence of what the teacher does, or has done, or has planned.” – Charlotte Danielson

This past week I conducted instructional walks in ten different classrooms. Using only paper and pen, I wrote observations describing ten distinct teaching styles. These initial visits have confirmed what I have known for several years of experience as a school principal and teacher evaluator: Engagement in learning happens most frequently and deeply when students are actively involved in instruction.

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photo credit: IMG_6414 via photopin (license)

Engagement (student involvement in instruction) can be described in a variety of ways. I think too often engagement is exclusively predefined by educators as “hands on”, “students doing more talking than the teacher”, or “active”. These descriptors may all be key indicators of engagement. But the definition should not stop there.

For example, I was the fortunate observer of a math lesson that would seem to run counter to this pattern, at least at first glance. The learning target: Demonstrate multiple ways to solve multiple digit addition problems. The teacher, who already modeled a few problems by working through them in front of students on the document camera, asked if there were three students willing to show their peers one of three ways to solve a given problem. Several hands shot up. Once selected, the three volunteers headed to the board.

The rest of the class was directed to also try one of the three methods at their desks. As some students completed the problem before others, the teacher, who was roaming around the room doing spot checks and providing quick feedback, announced, “If you solved it one way, why not try it another way?” Every student who was ready took her up on the challenge. This option gave other students more time to work.

Once the students at the front of the room were done with their work, they went back to their desks. Their faces beamed with pride. The teacher went over the process with the whole group: “Yes, you regrouped here…the place value alignments are accurate…” The teacher also asked the rest of the class to show their work on their dry erase boards with their partner sitting next to them. “Did your method work just as well as your partner’s? Talk about that.” They did.

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photo credit: UF Keene-Flint Classroom Desks Windows via photopin (license)

We in education talk so much about engagement in concert with terms like “collaboration”, “technology”, and “passion”. Is this where the best learning takes place? Sometimes, maybe even often, but certainly not always. For example, I can have passion about something, but if I don’t put the necessary time, thought, and energy into developing the skills and understandings related to it, then it is merely a hobby and possibly not worth knowing well. One passion of mine is writing. If I didn’t sit down and “do the work”, I’d have nothing but half-developed ideas floating around in my mind.

It’s important that we take the concept of engagement and rethink its meaning, as it has been defined within the context of today’s classroom. Consider:

  • If students had been left to their own devices and allowed to work in loose groups, what guarantee would the teacher have that everyone was developing a better understanding while this collaboration was happening?
  • Speaking of devices, kids could certainly have seen some worked problems online prior to class, and then provided more time during class for the teacher to work with students who needed the support. But could we be assured that every student watched the recorded instruction actively and without distraction?
  • As a former middle level mathematics teacher myself, I know how challenging it can be to instill a sense of passion for the subject. By including the students in the instructional responsibilities, everyone had a stake in the process and the outcomes. Passion is then connected with purpose and community.

I call on all school leaders, myself included, to put aside our biases and misconceptions regarding student engagement, as we engage in our own learning experiences during our frequent visits to classrooms. When classrooms that are set up in rows of desks are described as “tombstones”, we make unfair generalizations of a teacher’s abilities to educate their students. When we document the lack of technology integration in a lesson that has no need for it, we show our bias toward a maximalist approach to digital learning. When we find a quiet classroom, it may be inaccurate to assume that learning isn’t occurring. Let our student actions and dispositions guide our professional assessments.

What question(s) do you ask yourself before integrating technology into instruction?

I asked this question in a Google+ Community I created for my book last year.

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Here are some of the responses from members of this community.

The question is whether the goal + technology (strategy + technology, experience + technology, assessment + technology) is better than any of those things without the technology. Perhaps the question is… What does this strategy + technology add to the learning situation that a strategy without technology doesn’t add?

– M Millen

I appreciated this response. There is a contrast created between having the technology and not having the technology, and what the difference might be.

I think one of the most important first questions is: “How does this change or enhance the learning experience for the child?”

– T Maki

Great point, that takes the first comment listed here and centers instruction back to the students in the classroom.

I think there are several steps involved…number one is, what systems are in place that support my teaching and student learning? Also, how can I leverage what we have to enhance my teaching and engage students? Sometimes we have things right in front of us and don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

– E McCarthy

Also a great point, because I think we tend to assume that we need more things – devices, dollars, time – when support for a teacher can be a simple as an extra person in the room to help facilitate a new project that involves digital tools.

I wonder if the technology will help the students feel connected and thus inspired to learn from one another. I also hope the new technology will help students feel valued by others and in return they will gain new perspectives and other creative ways to solve a problem.

– D Hunt

This is where I also see the biggest benefits of enhancing instruction with technology. The idea that you can bring in a broader audience with instruction is incredible. These “new perspectives” that can be gained by Skyping or blogging with another classroom is unparalleled in its authenticity and immediacy. So powerful.

The “PC” answer would be I don’t separate the two. When planning instruction I reflect on the goal, tools, resources and strategies need to reach students. Sometimes I have technology because it is what is needed to move the lesson forward, other times technology doesn’t. I work on broadening my pool of technology resources. I want to make sure what I am using is the best fit. There are so many choices. So the struggle is to make sure the resource changes the lesson, that w/o it my goal of the lesson would change or not be met.

– Z Brown

Being discriminating about technology is essential in today’s connected world. We can get bogged down in always thinking every lesson needs to be “digitized”. Focusing on how “the resource changes the lesson” is a struggle that I imagine many teachers deal with regularly.

What can I do to get students to be more active in their learning? What can I do to make this lesson more fun? What can I do to make student learning more visible?

– J Gauthier

I often forget about this aspect about technology, especially as it has become almost ubiquitous – it’s fun! Making students’ learning visible is also something very possible in today’s highly connected age.

What do you ask yourself before integrating technology into instruction? Please share in the comments.

Swimming Without Water

This weekend my family and I went to our weekly swim date at the Y. Unfortunately, I left my trunks at home, so I was relegated to sitting on the sidelines. As I sat back and watched my wife play with the kids in the pool, I wondered what it would be like to teach someone how to swim without water.

That’s weird, right? Why would anyone try to show someone how to swim without actually being in the pool? Yet this type of instruction takes place every day in classrooms. Instead of taking authentic literature and creating a reading lesson that fits with it, students are handed worksheets or a disconnected text that uses contrived language for students to work on, sometimes before they were even taught the concept. Many literacy programs purchased through district acquisition do not allow for reading and writing to occur in their native environment.

Students need to be able to wade into language and play. This require lots of books in classroom libraries to try out their developing reading skills and have fun. Richard Allington found through observing successful schools for a decade that students should be actually reading and writing 50% of the school day. He emphasizes the word actually because he doesn’t include the before and after activities associated with reading, although they can be important. This means that a lot of the activities in science, social studies and mathematics should also be incorporating reading and writing.

Kids learn how to swim in the water. Swimming instructors don’t lecture out of the pool; they bring the kids into the water to model a skill, guide and give feedback, and then allow the students to try it on their own when deemed ready. They are side by side with the students, sometimes taking their hands and making the motions for them. The students are not spending a lot of time talking about swimming with each other. They are not watching a video the previous night about swimming and talking about it the next day. They are not watching someone else swim the majority of the time with only a little bit of time to practice. The students are swimming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Matt