Theory and Practice

Trouble the Image


Engagement in practitioner research is one way to trouble the images held by the education community, the policy community, and the public. – Nancy Fitchman Dana

Kimberly Schools Create Award-Winning Literacy Model by Jen Zettel (Appleton Post-Crescent, December 16, 2014)

A Wisconsin school district was profiled for their efforts to improve student literacy achievement. Using a common instructional framework and existing resources, the K-4 staff carved out 30 minutes of their school day for intensive learning support for students. They worked on “a variety of skills, including sentence structure, descriptive words and spelling”. Kids are flexibly grouped based on current assessment data and progress.

To prepare for this type of instruction, teachers used collaborative planning time to make responsive decisions, as well as to “exchange ideas, offer feedback and set strategies”. While the district has observed increased student achievement, “the most important thing is we’ve already come back now twice and refined what we’ve done.” Continuous professional growth is as much a driver as is student achievement.

Building A _____ Learning Movement by Carri Schneider (Getting Smart, December 15, 2014)

The director of research and policy for Getting Smart highlights the confusion in present-day discussions about innovation in teaching and learning. There are many “movements” circulating the various educational conversations: blended learning, competency-based learning, digital learning, personalized learning, and online learning. Schneider explores “how dots could connect and lines could intersect”.

What she has discovered is all of these movements have a similar focus on developing “deeper learning”, with an “emphasis on core academic content, critical thinking & problem-solving, collaboration, effective communication, academic mindsets and self-directed learning”. Schneider encourages all educators to become more active in seeking alignment about best practice, and add their thinking to the conversation.

Mark Pocan calls for federal review of Wisconsin voucher program by Jessie Opoien (The Capital Times, December 19, 2014)

School vouchers, which allow families to attend private schools using taxpayers’ dollars in the name of school choice, is an increasingly hot topic in Wisconsin and throughout the nation. The most recent focus involving vouchers is a push by legislators for private schools who accept public dollars to be held accountable for student achievement and growth.

Specifically, Representative Pocan and colleagues are requesting a federal review regarding “academic achievement, student demographics, financial accountability and transparency, student turnover rates and service of students with disabilities”. Also of concern is the current federal investigation regarding “whether private voucher schools in Wisconsin were denying admission to or properly serving students with disabilities”.

9 Ideas Education Is Having Trouble Responding To by Terry Heick (TeachThought, December 16, 2014)

Heick, a former English teacher, shares his provocative thinking about how education is changing in light of the advances in technology and connectivity. He is surprised that digital learning is still playing second fiddle to other topics of discussion in educational circles, such as assessment and PLCs.

His subsequent points serve to make his case. Some of his statements find broad agreement, such as “Students have real options”. Others, such as “Digital media is more engaging than non-digital media”, are more controversial and invite discussion in the comments. Heick closes out his commentary by calling on public education to “compete with other possibilities that are frankly more compelling, creative, and social than marching through indexed curriculum”.

The Power of Digital Story by Bob Dillon (Edutopia, December 15, 2014)

This director of technology and innovation from St. Louis highlights the importance of narrative in the process of learning. Telling a story is an effective vehicle for acquiring knowledge, skills, and dispositions. It is also “a powerful force in shaping mental models, motivating and persuading others, and teaching the lessons of life”. Dillon sees digital tools as a way to complement and enhance narratives, such as using audio and video, as well as providing two-way communication between home and school. He lays out specific steps for creating digital stories:

  1. Create Space for Listening
  2. Persuade with the Head and the Heart
  3. Lead with the Narrative
  4. Amplify with Images
  5. Nurture the Process
  6. Understand the Tools

Dillon saves the discussion about digital tools for last, noting that they “quickly become relics” and therefore should not lead the learning. He has found that “story inspires story”, and that “best practices in education will grow and scale whenever we all release trapped or siloed wisdom into the system”.

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Analyzing the data…

Every month, our school staff hosts a monthly meeting in one teacher’s classroom. Before we start the meeting, that teacher’s grade level or department showcases a practice or activity with everyone. At our last meeting, a grade level team shared how they are using a different language and spelling program during their literacy block. It applies new findings about language acquisition, such as spaced learning. When they were finished, a colleague asked the presenters an important question:

How will you know that this program is effective?

They explained that they have to present their findings to the district’s board of education later in the school year.

This question and response is important for two reasons. First, their colleagues and our school community are observing how we as educators are holding ourselves accountable for how well our students are learning in school. This is a smaller but similar process the Kimberly School District has engaged in, called action research. While the achievement that Kimberly chose to measure for literacy are more outcomes of good instruction, they do have a process and a plan in place to continue to improve their practice.

Second, and this is very similar to the first reason, when we make visible the process of learning for a broader audience, both what works and what does not, we “trouble the image” of people’s perceptions about what school is and can be. The picture of my school at the top of this post says little about what is happening inside. It is good to be connected (I shared that image out on our school’s Twitter account), but just posting surface-level information does little to shift the paradigm that the public may have of schools, from brick-and-mortar institutions to dynamic learning environments.

As you prepare for winter break, take some time to reflect on the authentic and meaningful learning experiences occurring regularly in your classroom, and then ask, “How will I share this?” Start by developing your personal learning network and engage in conversations about topics such as the deeper learning movement. Challenge the thinking of those making provocative statements, not to prove them wrong, but to increase that community’s collective intelligence. Have your students share their learning using digital storytelling tools. Heck, tell you own personal learning story with a blog.

5th graders helped me create a video newsletter with the app Touchcast. We shared our good news with the school community.
5th graders helped me create a video newsletter with the app Touchcast. We shared our good news with the school community.

Because to not share the important work you are doing creates a void in the conversation. It permits those who have a different agenda to speak their own truths about programs that can be harmful to education, such as vouchers. Even if what they have to share is false, who is going to be there to refute it? It has to be us. We are the closest to the source (the classroom) and have all the necessary tools at our disposal.

So what is stopping you? In other words, how are you going to trouble the image?

(Please note: There will not be a post next Saturday due to the holiday season. Have a safe and joyful break!)

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Theory and Practice

Beyond Technology

The medium is the message. – Marshall McLuhan

Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 6.54.50 PMNew York City libraries will soon let patrons “check out the Internet” by Nancy Scola (The Washington Post, December 4, 2014)

New York City residents can now check out an Internet hotspot to use in their own homes. This normally monthly financial obligation is available to any patron with a library card and are currently enrolled in a community-based program, such as citizenship classes. This is in response to a University of Albany-SUNY study that found that “in 2011, nearly 30 percent of households in New York City were not subscribed to broadband at home”. It is part of a broader initiative by the city to close the digital divide. A related program includes turning city pay phones into WiFi hotspots.

Critical Digital Literacy Explained for Teachers (Educational Technology and Mobile Learning, December 2014)

This website highlights a framework developed by Juliet Hinrichsen and Anthony Coombs from the University of Greenwich. Their purpose: To provide a conceptual understanding of how we read in the informational/digital age.


These five domains and descriptions may be a departure from our current understanding of literacy. For example, learners need to “develop familiarity with the structures and conventions of digital media”. This standard would likely include the use of hashtags and the difference between saving and publishing. In addition, educators should understand the “issues of reputation, identity and membership within different digital contexts”.

Maryanne Wolf: Balance technology and deep reading to create biliterate children by Joan Richardson (Phi Delta Kappan, November 2014).

In this interview with literacy researcher Maryanne Wolf, Richardson investigates the current status of deep reading in the age of digital texts. She also inquires as to how educators might want to change their instructional approach. Dr. Wolf shares from her findings that reading an eBook, such as on a Kindle, does not adversely affect comprehension when compared to reading in print.

At the same time, Dr. Wolf recognizes that learners need to be taught how to select the format of text based on the purpose for reading. She highlights her own experiences in reading on a screen. “I become more like the medium: I read for speed and immediacy.” The interview is concluded by Dr. Wolf proposing a new term for the educational lexicon – “biliterate”, or the ability to successfully read both in print and online – to describe the new expectations for learners in the 21st century.

Daniel Learned ALL About Audiences Yesterday by Bill Ferriter (Center for Teaching Quality, December 11, 2014)

Bill Ferriter, a middle school teacher, shares his frustrations with regard to a series of negative comments his students received on their blog. Mr. Ferriter and his class are actively involved in sharing information about the negative affects of sugar on human health, using the hashtag #sugarkills to connect their thoughts. One commenter pointed out the possible errors in the students’ thinking, apparently unaware of the effect his negative responses had on the students. Mr. Ferriter deleted this person’s comments, and lamented on whether providing a global audience for his students is worth the risk.

The Mismeasure of Boys: Reading and Online Videogames by Constance Steinkuehler (Department of Curriculum & Instruction/Wisconsin Center for Education Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison, July 2011)

This working paper describes a study conducted three years ago, regarding the connection between reading and videogames. Dr. Steinkeuhler points out the decline of males pursuing post-secondary degrees, as well as the increased likelihood that boys are being diagnosed with ADHD. Dr. Steinkeuhler also questions the negative perception of video games, and how many assume that this activity takes away time from boys actually reading.

Instead, “for many young people, reading is not an activity replaced by videogames, but rather it is an integral part of what it means to participate and play”.  This theory is supported by her findings, that when motivated to achieve the next level in a video game, the participants were able to read six grade levels above their current reading level. Dr. Steinkeuhler concluded this study by stating that “the findings about videogames can be viewed as one powerful solution to—rather than a cause of—the problem of adolescent boys and reading.”

Searching for trends…

I hosted my second Professional Learning Communities (PLC) Twitter chat on Thursday night. We use the hashtag #atplc, a community supported by Solution Tree, publisher of many PLC resources. Our topic for discussion: Beliefs and Values. We tried something different that night. Instead of our regular Q and A, I posted a Google Form to survey the participants on their own beliefs about PLCs. Out of seven statements, we found total agreement on one. I shared out the results to the participants, which then directed our subsequent discussion in the chat.

From the moment I shared out our beliefs survey and started watching the results, the Twitter chat stopped existing as a Twitter chat for me. It became an authentic examination of our beliefs as a community of practice. The technology faded away as I shared out the final results, read the participants’ responses, and followed up with questions that would help the discussion reach deeper levels of learning.

It is in times like these that I realize technology is more than just a tool. Just like the professor who assumed the role of a student from a previous post, I have found that technology is a context for learning and not merely another tool for instruction. The chat I just described would not have occurred without the affordances of what is possible online. To designate digital access as anything less than this may reflect a lack of experience or understanding in the possibilities. I have been guilty of this misconception in the past.

The five highlighted articles here all have one thing in common: The discussion is not about whether technology is necessary, but about how technology can best be applied to the context of learning. Sometimes this context may need help to be realized, such as allowing library patrons to check out WiFi hotspots, or exploring the effects of video games on boys’ reading comprehension. But the more technology becomes an integral part of the learning process, the less it feels like technology at all. It is often simply how we learn.

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Beliefs and Values

My neighbor gave me these perennials a couple of years ago. I planted them in the back of the house. What’s pictured here is last summer’s growth.

Leadership is 90 percent pulling weeds and 10 percent planting seeds.- Austan Goolsbee

Common Core Reading: Difficult, Dahl, Repeat by Cory Turner (nprED, November 15, 2014)

National Public Radio profiled a fifth grade classroom and their use of Common Core-aligned texts and practices. Turner described one lesson on close reading, with the teacher getting the students started by asking them a text-dependent question (“Are all of these native peoples nomadic?”). The reporter documents that a lot of the students participated in the learning, “combing the text, line by line” for evidence to support their response.

The teacher acknowledges that this is “tiring work”. She balances the exertion required of close reading with leveled books and the classics. It is worth noting that this article garnered almost 300 comments by readers, either extolling the benefits or admonishing the change of instruction initiated by the Common Core and, by default, the high stakes tests that assess students’ performance on these standards.

How and How Not to Prepare Students for the New Tests by Timothy Shanahan (The Reading Teacher, November 2014)

This retired professor from University of Illinois at Chicago provides a straightforward approach to preparing for the upcoming computerized assessments:

  • Read extensively within instruction,
  • Read more without guidance or instruction,
  • Make sure texts are rich in context and sufficiently challenging,
  • Have students explain their answers related to the text and use evidence to support their responses, and
  • Write about the text, and not just answer multiple choice questions to assess comprehension.

He concludes his piece by noting that the solution is not “having students practice items like those you will find on the PARCC and SBAC tests, but by teaching students to read.”

Why Change Management Fails by Ray Williams (Psychology Today, November 27, 2014)

Williams summarizes the current research on organizational change in this article. He starts by noting what doesn’t work, such as addressing change as “an outside-in process, moving about parts of the organization, rather than an inside-out process which focuses on change within individuals”. Williams also clears up misconceptions about change in organizations, such as “Leaders and change managers are objective”.

This article then delves into what does work when trying to help a larger group of people move forward collectively. First of all, individuals in the organization need to change their “thinking, beliefs, and behavior”. They have to “think differently about their jobs”, as well as consider “fundamental changes in themselves”. Just as important is that leaders “act as role models for change” through strategies such as aligning the change individuals are experiencing “with their own life purposes”.

Do Schools Really Need Principals? by Peter DeWitt (Education Week, November 30, 2014)

Former principal Peter DeWitt poses this provocative question on his regular blog Finding Common Ground. His rationale for raising this issue seems to stem from a lack of school leadership, such as “principals who don’t provide much feedback, don’t seem to know a great deal about learning, and focus on test scores more than anything else in the school”. DeWitt highlights specific schools that are led by teacher leadership teams. In these buildings, staff members divvy out different administrative responsibilities. One of the benefits is a “powerful normative structure” that puts peer pressure on low performing teachers to improve.

Letting learning technology flourish in schools by Tim Goral (District Administration, December 2014)

Goral interviews Scott McLeod, Founding Director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE). The topic of discussion revolved around how schools need to adapt to an economy that is knowledge-based, in comparison to the industrial model of school in the 20th century. While McLeod is pro-technology, he doesn’t believe putting digital tools into a classroom is all that is needed, noting that some schools “are proud because they are 1-to-1, but they are not really using it to best effect”.

Instead, McLeod believes leaders are the key in ensuring that schools and districts are using technology to our advantage. He acknowledges that there are obstacles in the way, such as standardized testing and a lack of knowledge in how educators employ digital tools in the classroom. A key is to get everyone on board with what school can and should look like today, including policy makers and board members. Until then, collective change is not going to happen.

Bringing it all together…

I have a healthy respect for perennial plants, such as the false sunflower and bee balm that you see in the image above. Regardless of how harsh a Wisconsin winter might be, they come back every year. One of the most impressive things about perennials is their root system.

Switchgrass (Source: Wikipedia)

As you can see, their taproots can go down several feet into the soil. This allows the perennial to access water and minerals that annuals cannot. Also of interest is that perennial root systems die back a little bit each year. This allows for new root growth the following year.

Perennials serve as a good metaphor for the beliefs and values that a learning organization owns (or lacks). When a group of educators come together to examine their instructional beliefs, it isn’t just about adding something to their value system. It’s about getting rid of outdated practices, as well as finding consensus regarding what works for student learning. Like the switchgrass pictured above, we should be shedding what’s unnecessary in order continue growing. There is difficultly in the process, but the end results show it is worth it.

To use another analogy, sharing the good work schools are doing is as much about writing obituaries as it is about developing headlines. Once schools have a set of shared beliefs, just about anything can infiltrate a school’s collective practice. As you read in the first article, close reading and leveled texts can become a way teachers do business, instead of just a few strategies in a teacher’s instructional toolbox. We become forgetful about the harm that test prep can have on our students’ learning and their well-being in the long run, even if we might see short term gains.

When schools have a set of shared instructional beliefs that aligns best practice and professional values, teachers have a basis that drives their actions and guides their decision-making for selecting resources. In my experience as both a teacher and a principal, knowledgable and level-headed administrators are critical to schoolwide success. These types of leaders are able to direct the energy that exists within an organization and allow new leaders to bloom and flourish. This instructional foundation can withstand almost anything negative that comes a school’s way that is not aligned with a school’s beliefs and values.