A website is not a blog (and neither is a journal)

On Friday, I started putting together my weekly round up of article summaries and analysis. This project began in November of last year, as a way to separate my more erudite posts from my regular ramblings on my blog, Reading by Example. This site would also give me a more appropriate platform to promote my formal work. About halfway through the summary writing process, I stopped and asked myself, “Am I enjoying this?” The answer: Not exactly. 6454543031_ea9e13068c

 photo credit: bis zur antwort via photopin (license)

I do like reading widely and responding to what I have read. It has been an effective method of forcing me to read the many journals that sit on my desk at school and home. Also, I believe the process of reading, summarizing, and reflecting has helped me improve as a writer. However, this process was not serving readers. When I stopped in April to work on my upcoming book, I took a look at the statistics. Views had dropped from November on with each subsequent post. I gained perspective by creating distance between this site and my life. Something to consider as you assess your own level of connectedness.

So that is the thing about blogging. It’s not a listserv, like an RSS feed or SmartBrief, where readers come to expect a regular issue of relevant articles and resources. Blogs are more personal. They have a voice behind them, hopefully a powerful and passionate one. If the writer has a fairly specific focus, they usually speak to you. For example, my blog Reading by Example is focused primarily on three things: Literacy, technology, and leadership. Readers and subscribers come to expect posts that relate in someway to one or more of these areas.

On the other end of the spectrum, blogs are not daily journals or diaries. I don’t post highly personal reflections. My belief is these issues are best kept private. As a blogger, you have an audience. It is not about just you. You can and should be personal in the writing. But if all it amounts to is regular rants that have little relevance for others, then what we share has little chance of making a difference in the lives of others. So why post it online? I have seen fairly prolific bloggers lose sight of this. My theory is they become so involved in the outward experience of writing online, that they feel this need to up the ante on behalf of viewership and publicly share information that is best left private. Just my opinion.

Blogging in education is somewhere in the middle between journaling and publishing, probably a little closer to the journaling side of things. It is an inward and reflective experience to write about what’s on our minds professionally. What pulls the craft of blogging toward the publishing end is your audience. That is why the best blogs are the best: The bloggers consider both audience and purpose as they write. They understand that their site doesn’t live unless someone else reads and responds to what they have to share. At the same time, these bloggers understand why they have regular readers in the first place.

Now back to my original purpose for writing this post. Through this experiment in distance, I have realized that this site is better served as a contact page for me as an educator and professional. Promoting my work here means I can find separation from my ongoing reflections at Reading by Example. Presentation materials and more formal writings will be shared on this site. I plan on continuing to periodically summarize and reflect on what I read on my blog. Sign up to receive a notification anytime I post something. I will do my best to make it meaningful for both you and me.

Theory and Practice, Uncategorized

New Book Project – ASCD Arias

Image used with permission
Image used with permission

Yesterday, I signed a contract with ASCD to write a book for the Arias series. The topic will be about debunking some of the technology myths that seem to linger in education. It is a short-form publication, around 10,000 words, so we are looking at a publication date of August 2015.

4328639481_4e0c36cefeSince that’s only four months away, I am taking a break from writing my weekly summaries and reflections for the month of April. I’ll hopefully be back at it in early May. Until then, check out my blog, Reading by Example. I still plan on posting short topics of interest there when time allows.

Related, my first book, Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment, is now on Amazon for only $9.99. You can also purchase it as an ePub (Nook, iBooks) and a PDF from me by clicking here.

photo credit: Closed via photopin (license)



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.


Benchmarks of Quality

My son, reading without requirement in a Barnes and Noble
My son, reading without requirement in a Barnes and Noble

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

– Excerpt from “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins

Rage Against the Common Core by David Kirp (New York Times, December 27, 2014)

A professor of public policy from the University of California, Berkeley attempts to clear up misconceptions about the Common Core State Standards. He points out that the focus on high stakes testing originated from the federal government’s Race to the Top program, not the Common Core. In fact, when teachers were polled, Dr. Kirp notes 76% of teachers favor nationwide academic standards. Unfortunately, the general public and many in education still lump the standards and testing together. This opinion piece concludes that “the Obama administration has only itself to blame” for the current uproar over the Common Core.

Cultivate Passionate Learners in Common Core Classrooms by Pernille Ripp (MiddleWeb, May 4, 2014)

This is an excerpt from Pernille Ripp’s recent digital book, Passionate Learners. She details her initial struggles as a new teacher, just trying to follow the script laid out in the curriculum guides. After some experience and reflection, Pernille realized that standards are only a starting point, and that we “have to find our own freedom and creativity within them”. One successful strategy she found was determining a unit’s end goal, and then working backwards in preparing instruction.

In addition, Pernille involves her students in determining how they can show what they know. For example, her class decided to create a documentary video using digital tools as their culminating project for a unit of study on water life. She realized that this type of assessment informs her about student understanding “better than any test”.

Does Common Core Help or Hurt in Creating Avid Readers? (Reading Today, November/December 2014)

Two well-known educators share their differing perspectives to this provocative question. Sarah Brown Wessling, a high school English teacher and Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel, appreciates that the Common Core recognizes that “every discipline has its own literacy”. But she also notes that these standards are limited to how teachers implement them, acknowledging that “a roadmap isn’t the vehicle or the road”.

In contrast, Stephen Krashen, educational researcher and linguist, starts his commentary by mourning the reduced funding that school libraries have seen recently. He then points out that “we are investing an astonishing amount of money on Common Core testing”. Dr. Krashen goes on to state that these national standards “requires far more testing than the amount required under No Child Left Behind”.

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Common Sense for the Common Core by Regie Routman (Scholastic edu Pulse, December 4, 2014)

In this post for Scholastic, literacy expert and consultant Regie Routman provides a concise history and rationale for the Common Core. She recognizes that national standards were essential when it became “blatantly apparent that not all students in U.S. schools had equal opportunity to learn”. However, without school leaders knowledgable in literacy and best practice, anything that states it is “Common Core-aligned” may be used, possibly leading to an inordinate focus on “isolated skills and/or standards”.

Instead, Regie recommends that educators use common sense when applying the standards to daily classroom practice. For instance, professional development offered to teachers should be relevant, aligned with shared beliefs, and ongoing. One day workshops often fail to meet these guidelines. Also, leaders need to read and write extensively. As well, “a culture of trust, inquiry, coaching, collaboration, celebration of strengths, and yes, even joy” should be cultivated within an organization.

Every Child, Every Day by Richard Allington and Rachael Gabriel (Educational Leadership, March 2012)

Although the Common Core English Language Arts Standards are not mentioned in this seminal article, this might be the perfect opportunity to reference it. Allington and Gabriel pull together numerous research studies to support their recommendation of six essential elements that every classroom should provide for students.

1. Every child reads something he or she chooses.
2. Every child reads accurately.
3. Every child reads something he or she understands.
4. Every child writes about something personally meaningful.
5. Every child talks with peers about reading and writing.
6. Every child listens to a fluent adult read aloud.

Even with this knowledge, the authors find that “few students in the United States regularly receive the best reading instruction we know how to give”. They put the onus on every educator to upgrade their instruction. “Adults have the power to make these decisions; kids don’t.”

Digging Deeper…

The excerpted poem comes from Poetry 180, a website created by Billy Collins when he was the Poet Laureate for the United States. His purpose was to provide high school seniors and their teachers with 180 contemporary poems that they could read in one sitting. No questions, assignments, or any other expectations. Just read and enjoy. Collins evokes his feelings about all the required reading in schools within his excerpted poem, which led to the initiative. He suggests high schools read one poem a day during morning announcements or at end-of-the-day assemblies.

It is really too bad that the Common Core has been connected with high-stakes testing, and subsequently with teacher and principal evaluations that use these test scores to measure our effectiveness. This pressure has led to less recreational reading and a lot more stress in schools. Certainly, some of the blame for all of this confusion does rest with the U.S. Department of Education. When well-respected professors like Dr. Kirp and Dr. Krashen cannot even come to consensus on who or what requires these tests, how are every day educators expected to make sense of it all? This should not serve as an excuse, but it is our reality.

What is heartening to see are the success stories that educators are sharing within the “constraints” of the Common Core. The clear examples provided by Pernille Ripp, Regie Routman, Richard Allington and Rachael Gabriel show that what works is possible, and even reasonable to expect in classrooms every day. This can happen when we apply a more systematic process to our work and become more strategic in our preparations. Planning with the end in mind helps remove ourselves, at least somewhat, from all of the politics and punditry that are revolving around the Common Core. With standards held in perspective, they can be used as benchmarks of quality, the original intent.

These past few years, one resolution that I always seem to make (besides getting more exercise and eating better) is to become more mindful as a professional educator. Theory and Practice might have been indirectly born out of this effort. When I sit back, read and respond to others’ ideas and findings, patterns and trends start to emerge. This regular reflection helps me separate the wheat from the chaff. I find it to be a great antidote for countering the misconceptions that seem to perpetuate despite the evidence against them. I hope you will join me in 2015 to continue to become more mindful and better informed.


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.