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Teacher/Learner

The most powerful way of thinking about a teacher’s role is for teachers to see themselves as evaluators of their effects on students. – John Hattie

Students check out our mastery wall of writing while waiting for lunch. Teacher teams selected exemplary pieces of work at the mid-year point.
Students check out our mastery wall of writing while waiting for lunch. Teacher teams selected exemplary pieces of work at the mid-year point.

Battle of Semantics by Melissa Emler (Connecting to Create Greatness, January 2, 2015)

A former high school English teacher and current education consultant confronts the concept of separating teaching from learning on her blog. “To teach is to learn, and to learn is to teach.” Melissa explores the deeper meaning behind the dichotomy of these roles. For example, she questions the concept and intent of change as a prerequisite for truly becoming a learning professional. “I would rather emphasize growth than change because the connotation is more simply more hopeful.” Melissa rounds out her reflection by observing that our actions speak much more loudly than anything we might say. “Teachers and administrators can use ‘growth speak’ well, but practicing the concepts of a growth mindset is much more difficult.”

Five Questions for Crossing the Threshold by Parker J. Palmer (On Being, December 31, 2014)

The author of The Courage to Teach reflects on the coming of another new year, questioning it’s importance. “The planet on which we’ve hitched a ride has been wheeling through space a lot longer than 2,014 years.” Never one to wallow in despair, Palmer finds wisdom in a short poem about crossing a threshold:

We look with uncertainty
by Anne Hillman

We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for
clear-cut answers
to a softer, more permeable aliveness
which is every moment
at the brink of death;
for something new is being born in us
if we but let it.
We stand at a new doorway,
awaiting that which comes…
daring to be human creatures,
vulnerable to the beauty of existence.
Learning to love.

Palmer passes on a resolution, and instead encourages us to consider our personal inquiries as we prepare for the new year. “If we wrap our lives around life-giving questions — and live our way into their answers a bit more every day — the better world we want and need is more likely to come into being.”

Research Making Its Way Into Classroom Practice by Peter Johnston and Virginia Goatley (The Reading Teacher, December 2014/January 2015)

Two literacy professors from the University of Albany shed some light on the origins of educational research and its relationship with instruction. The two main areas of literacy research, reading and writing, find their roots in practice. Donald Graves (writing) and Marie Clay (reading) conducted many of their studies within actual classrooms.

Not only does this approach appear to have a longer and more reliable influence on collective instruction, it also “offers an agentive role for teachers in generating knowledge in practice”. In other words, teachers can feel a stronger sense of commitment and motivation about themselves as professionals when they are actively engaged in the process of applying knowledge about literacy to their craft.

“Motivating ELLs Through Booktalks and Speed Booking” by JeanaLe Marshall (WSRA Journal, Fall 2014)

The Wisconsin State Reading Association published this action research article from a 4th grade ESL teacher out of Carpentersville, IL. JeanaLe used two protocols to teach her emerging bilinguals to have more authentic conversations with peers about the literature they were reading. While many educators are familiar with book talks, speed booking expands on this activity.

Speed booking is set up like speed dating. Students prepare a brief book talk on paper, gather in two circles facing each other, and then sell a book they recently finished to the other student facing them. After a few minutes, students rotate to the next person. JeanaLe found that by using these engaging activities, many more students stated they enjoyed reading and were able to list a favorite author.

Speaking of reading, are you going to the Wisconsin State Reading Association convention on February 5th and 6th in Milwaukee? If so, stop by the Digital Learning Lounge or one of my sessions and say hi!

Digital Learning Lounge (1)

Extraordinary schooling begins, ends with student work by Josh Thomases (SmartBrief, January 15, 2015)

The Dean of Innovation, Policy & Research at Bank Street Education makes the case that the essential focus of any school should be what students know and are able to do. In order to make this assessment, Josh highly recommends professional teams put student work front and center during collaborative conversations. “An ongoing, disciplined look at student work grounds the public debates — whether celebrating exemplary practice or raising key concerns.”

He describes two situations in which a professional discussion led to changes in his own practice. By comparing his students’ work with the student work of his colleagues, Josh realized that his “teaching and assessment practice needed to shift.” He summarizes what works in his school for conducting collaborative inquiry:

  1. Ensure it is substantial work worthy of investigation.
  2. Make and protect the time to do this.
  3. Use the time well.
  4. Make sure educators feel valued for participating.
  5. Attend to the power and challenges of teams.
  6. Create room for local autonomy.

Putting the pieces together…

This discussion about separating teaching and learning is a hot topic. How can we break down instruction into the essential elements of quality, without losing its “essence”? Then, when things are not going so well in the classroom, what type of feedback system will help that teacher realize these errors and subsequently make adjustments? Of course, the feedback needs to be handled carefully, as practitioners personally attach themselves to their beliefs and practices. All this in the name of accountability, it seems.

But what if it could be more? What if teachers could position themselves as students of their own practices? One possible example occurred just this week. I was doing an instructional walkthrough in a second grade classroom during independent reading time. I observed a boy reading a title from the Dork Diaries series. I asked him why he chose to read it. “A friend told me about, and it is really funny.” “Was it my son?” I asked him (he is in this class, and also likes the series). He shook his head, shared another student’s name, and continued reading.

While speaking with this student, I wrote our conversation down using a stylus and handwriting app on my iPad. Before I left, I informed the teacher that she has created a wonderful community of readers. It was obvious that she values giving time for her students to talk about their reading with each other in authentic ways. Once I was in the hallway, I emailed the teacher my notes so the feedback was timely. Both the teacher and I can use this informal observation as an artifact to support our professional goals of engaging students with meaningful literacy activities.

Unfortunately, not every school situation takes a partnership approach to professional growth. We separate learning objectives from professional goals, which only seem to benefit those that do not work in our school. This misinformed idea that teaching and learning are separate entities can lead to separation between teacher and administrator, teacher and teacher, or even an educator with oneself. This cannot be healthy nor lead to high levels of student achievement.

Even if a teacher does not have access to others who would support this type of work, he or she can take steps to advocate for themselves. First, take that learning objective and reframe it as a driving, or “life-giving”, question. Second, find support in the work practitioners have completed beforehand. As Johnston and Goatley note, the most influential studies have come directly out of the classroom. Third, conduct action research within your own setting, using evidence-based practices such as discussion protocols. Finally, share your findings with colleagues, in the desire of becoming better and to “take that needed shift”.

In spite of any ill-informed initiatives that may come our way and attempt to distract us, we still have some control over the outcomes in our classrooms and schools. By taking an inquiry stance toward our important work, we can view our practice through more objective eyes. This will lead to improvement, not because someone or some system suggests that we needed to improve, but because we see the need through our students’ point of view.

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8 thoughts on “Teacher/Learner”

  1. Excellent post Matt. I think you hit on an important point in the last paragraph. To paraphrase, despite the political climate, we still have control of the outcomes in our classroom and schools. Much of the fear felt by teachers and administrators as a result of politics could be curbed if the culture allowed for inquiry, but I’m afraid in some places the culture discourages inquiry and focuses on training on the next best thing to cover up and prevent real learning. We rarely seek out the experts in our own systems. External factors don’t encourage internal motivation. We have to stop passing the buck and blaming the politics. We have to start looking within. We have to start learning because we want to learn, and our learning will have an impact on the classroom.

    Great post!

    1. Thank you Melissa. You make a good point, that schools seem to skip along to the next hot topic for their training, instead of slowing down and really developing ourselves as practitioners at one or two skills. And as you state, we often have a lot of expertise right within our own building or district.

  2. Hi Matt, I agree with Melissa that this is a great post. There was quite a bit in it that interested me.
    I was interested to see the quote by John Hattie at the beginning of the post. His work is certainly getting a lot of attention at the moment.
    I was also interested to see the reference to Donald Graves and Marie Clay, both of whom were very influential upon my teaching practices and love of literacy based classrooms.
    You also mentioned an inquiry approach. I’m not entirely sure just how this differs from self-reflection but maybe it is a more structured in-depth approach involving a more meaningful interrogation of practices and their impact upon student learning. As as for the teaching/learning dichotomy, I think the main focus in a classroom must be upon the learning, not the teaching. Teachers need to realise that no teaching actually occurs unless learning does.
    One of the nicest things I read in your post was of your visit to and interaction with students in a classroom, and the feedback you consequently provided to the teacher. i think this is a wonderful way of showing teachers that their work is valued. When they feel valued they will be more motivated to improve practices to enhance student learning. Some of my favourite memories from days in the classroom are of visits by and discussions with the principal. The children’s esteem and learning benefited as much as did mine.
    Thanks for sharing such positive stories about education.

    1. Thank you Norah for your comment. I went way over my self-prescribed word count on this post, so I am glad it still found an audience. My visits with students and classrooms are one of my favorite parts of the day. Capturing this learning for teachers is part of our inquiry approach for professional growth.

  3. Hi Matt,

    Bravo on your “partnership approach to professional growth.” As always, I appreciate the articles you choose and your thoughts on them.

    I’ve been sick all week with a virus/bad cold so got behind–thus the slow response.

    Hope you’re doing well. Regie

    1. Thank you Regie for commenting. I think the “partnership approach” phrase I used in this post could be attributed to Jim Knight’s book Unmistakable Impact.

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