blog post, What I'm Reading

Raising an iGen

I wrote this post for my school blog yesterday and thought it might work here too.

Have a nice weekend! -Matt

In an article for The Atlantic, professor of psychology Jean Twenge offers some stark information about the effects of smartphones on our youngest generation. Referring to this group as “iGen”, these teens and preteens have lived their lives largely with the inclusion of mobile devices available everywhere. Here are a few statistics Dr. Twenge shares from her generational study:

  • Since the release of the iPhone (2010), rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed.
  • Young people with smartphones hang out less with peers, instead choosing to message each other via social media and texting.
  • Young people are more likely to feel lonely and left out, possibly due to seeing peers posting images and video of themselves having fun online.
  • They are getting less sleep, and less good sleep, especially if their phones are in the bedrooms. This is likely caused by the constant buzzing and pinging from incoming messages from peers.

The writer concludes that, in general, the more time a child spends on a screen, the more likely they are to experience these negative side effects. As a father of two children on the cusp of adolescence, I read this information with worry. I don’t want my kids nor yours spending the majority of their time on a screen. But I also take a critical stance with a single study.

Specifically, I wonder: Is all screen time created equal?

Our house has a cornucopia of devices. My experience is likely similar to yours. For our kids to have this much access to technology could be a cause for concern. That is why we have done our best (and by best, I mean far from perfect) to a) monitor our children’s time on screens, and 2) monitor what our kids are doing on these screens.

For example, we provide a time limit for how much screen time they have at home. They get a little bit more during the weekend. This does not account for school screen time, which we expect to be more educationally-focused, such as watching a movie based on a read-aloud book on a warm Friday afternoon.
 

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Can you guess which book these 4th graders read?

Also, my wife and I know what our kids are watching. We might even view the show or play the app with them to ensure it’s appropriate. Additionally, we have resisted (so far…) any requests from our kids for a smartphone. When they do get to an age where a mobile connection makes sense, we may be opting for texting as the only function available beyond making phone calls. We’ll see. As well, we have guided our kids to be creative with the technology available instead of always consuming, such as watching endless YouTube videos. Minecraft is one application that our kids enjoy, building new worlds and working together in collaborative online spaces.

I hope this post doesn’t come across as a “do as we do” statement. We don’t always make the best decisions. When errors are made, we see it as an opportunity to have a conversation as a family about the issue of ubiquitous technology. It’s an opportunity for learning instead of a negative event. If you find the information from the linked article helpful and you have adolescents in your home, I encourage to share this information with them. The best we can do as parents are to raise this generation using new knowledge and common sense.

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What I'm Reading

What I’m Reading: March 2016

In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs.

-Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

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School conditions matter for student achievement, new research confirms by Alex Zimmerman (Chalkbeat New York, March 24, 2016)

Matthew Kraft, an economics and education professor at Brown University, studied what conditions positively impacted student learning in schools. Kraft and his team found four attributes identified in schools that experienced consistently high achievement:

  • School safety and order
  • Leadership and professional development
  • High academic expectations
  • Teacher relationships and collaboration

Specific professional learning offerings for teachers include one-to-one instructional coaching and school leadership opportunities. Teacher retention and higher test scores have been the result of these efforts. Notes one of the teachers at a school participating in the study:

The teachers are more experienced, they’re more experienced with our particular population, [and] the curriculum gets stronger each year. Our retention of teachers has gone through the roof compared with prior years.

Lifeworthy Learning by David N. Perkins (Educational Leadership, March 2016)

Perkins, education professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, highlights the always increasing repository of knowledge in our world. He advocates for teachers to take a different approach when designing curriculum for our students. This starts by asking the question, “What learning really matters for today’s learners?”

Educators can start reimagining instruction by asking ourselves what learning we experienced in our school careers that truly mattered in our lives. This reflection can lead to finding topics and themes from our current curriculum and assessing how well they fit within this mindset of lifeworthy learning. Four tenets of big understandings – opportunity, insight, action, and ethics – can serve as gatekeepers in this process.

The author also encourages us to rethink past topics of instruction and decide how necessary they truly are. Mitosis and quadratic equations are two examples mentioned that may be irrelevant for many of our learners. Perkins closes this piece of identifying three national agendas (achievement, information, expertise) that may have had too much importance placed upon them.

For more on this topic, check out my review of Perkin’s book Future Wise for MiddleWeb.

The biggest indictment of our schools is not their failure to raise test scores by Scott McLeod (Dangerously Irrelevant, March 16, 2016)

In this brief post, Scott McLeod shares a visual representation (below) of the most recent Gallup poll with regard to student engagement in schools.

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The graph says it all. McLeod adds a brief commentary about these results.

The biggest indictment of our schools is not their failure to raise test scores above some politically-determined line of ‘proficiency.’ It’s that – day in and day out – they routinely ignore the fact that our children are bored, disengaged, and disempowered. We’ve known this forever, but we have yet to really care about it in a way that would drive substantive changes in practice. The disenfranchisement of our youth continues to happen in the very institutions that are allegedly preparing them to be ‘life long learners.’

Why I Don’t Like Play-Based Learning (Happiness is Here blog, March 20, 2016)

A blogger, who goes by Sara, takes issue with people’s perception of what play-based learning should be. She believes this approach should not be adult-directed. Play-based learning should allow for the students to explore their passions and interests without an outcome necessarily in mind. “Play is not something you do to a child. If you have an agenda, if you are requiring them to do it, if you have to make it ‘fun’ to get them to comply, if they are not free to stop at any time, then it is not play.”

Sara offers four criteria for defining play-based learning in its truest form: Play is self-chosen, enjoyable, inherently valuable, and unstructured. The blogger is an advocate for unschooling, a concept where children are allowed to teach themselves by interacting with the world around them. With this in mind, she is aware that there should be some room for structured activities for young learners. “I’m not saying don’t play with your kids, don’t make suggestions, or don’t set up things for them to explore.” However, there is a thin line between the two approaches. When setting up play-based learning, “be mindful of your agenda.”

Reading Assessment: Looking Ahead by Peter Afflerbach (The Reading Teacher, January/February 2016)

A professor of education at the University of Maryland, Afflerbach attempts to paint a broader picture of reading assessment in K-12 schools. He highlights three components that comprise effective assessment practices (p 413):

  • Educators must have and understand a detailed model of reading.
  • Educators must design assessment materials and procedures that yield valid and reliable information.
  • Educators must be able to make sound inferences with the assessments results.

Afflerbach transitions from describing quality reading assessment practices to the “insidious nature” of reading tests. Past mandates from the federal government, such as No Child Left Behind, have left residual effects on today’s literacy instruction. Curriculum has become narrowed, scripted programs are becoming commonplace, and instruction becomes too focused on the skills and strategies of reading.

We do well to not underestimate the pervasive influence of testing on reading instruction.

The solution, Afflerbach offers, is to 1) balance formative assessments with summative assessments, and 2) design assessments that measure the affective side of reading. Using formative assessments, teachers can start to better understand how students are progressing toward essential knowledge and skills. With regard to student dispositions, when we take time to assess their levels of engagement with reading, we place value on an often neglected aspect of literacy in the classroom.

Engagement and Learning

During spring break, our kids built an amusement park in our home. The weather outside was typical Wisconsin (cold and wet), so they entertained themselves by developing different rides and activities within all corners of the house. Cardboard boxes and duct tape were scavenged from the basement and my tool area. They even created a map of this new experience, which I used as they guided me through “Fun Play Land”.

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I have to say, I was pretty impressed with their ingenuity and creativity. They also played together without arguing – a celebration is in order!

The one challenge I had during this process was to not offer advice or suggestions. My wife and I are both educators. It’s second nature for us to step in and give feedback about our students’ progress. When every assessment in school is treated as a direct reflection of our instruction, it is a hard habit to break when we encounter student-driven learning experiences. Fortunately, I was able to bite my tongue throughout this process.

As educators, we leave our fingerprints on almost every learning opportunity offered to students in schools. This is primarily for two reasons: One, it was how we were taught. Two, the level of accountability placed on us to increase student achievement and close the gaps leads us to direct almost every aspect of the learning experience for students. Both of these realities make a shift to a personalized learning environment very challenging.

In each of the articles shared and summarized here, the common thread I found is the need for student-driven learning in today’s classrooms and schools. A change like this has to come from the ground level as well as from the top. Teachers in classrooms should be writing and sharing about their experiences with makerspaces, genius hour, and inquiry-based learning. District leaders and legislators have to provide a level of autonomy in schools that will allow them to take risks and innovate. It’s a collective effort.

When the benefits of a school experience designed with students in mind outweigh the costs of giving up some control over how schools are held accountable, only then we will realize the true purpose of school for our students.

What I'm Reading

What I’m Reading: September 2015

Always the beautiful answer

Who asks a more beautiful question.

-E.E. Cummings

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photo credit: What is this key for? via photopin (license)

Early Literacy Research: Findings Primary-Grade Teachers Will Want to Know by D. Ray Reutzal (The Reading Teacher, July/August 2015)

The Dean of the College of Education at the University of Wyoming addresses the most commonly asked questions in his experience with teacher colleagues. Here are a few of those questions, along with what research is telling us in response.

  • Handwriting: Who needs it these days?

Apparently, everyone. Reutzal found several studies that confirm the many benefits from teaching this traditional practice: Writing fluency, better note-taking skills, the quality of texts students produce, creativity of thought, organization and coherence of ideas, and even improved keyboarding speed. “The takeaway message is clear: Handwriting needs to be returned to the elementary language arts curriculum” (p 15).

  • Do students need to be taught concepts about print beyond kindergarten?

Defined as text awareness and concepts, such as knowing that words are to be read from left to right, concepts about print (CAP) is expected of every student before they enter 1st grade. But that doesn’t mean it happens. Elementary teachers would be wise to continue using shared reading experiences, such as interactive read alouds, to ensure that all students have a deep understanding of text structure. CAP is foundational information before students become independent readers themselves.

  • Should we be teaching reading and writing strategies before kids know how to read and write?

Unequivocally, yes! Understanding text structure and how we pull meaning from various forms of texts should be a focus of school from early on. Students’ listening (and thinking) skills are at a much higher level than their reading or writing abilities. For example, if a student cannot read a picture book, they are often capable of understanding character, setting, problem, and solution found in narrative texts. Teachers can help students build a deeper understanding of text structures by giving them time for purposeful talk around a story read aloud.

Making Questions Flow by Dan Rothstein, Luz Santana and Andrew P. Mulligan (Educational Leadership, September 2015)

The authors of Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions join Mulligan in explaining the keystone of their text, the Question Formulation Technique (p 70).

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Don’t stop to judge, discuss, or answer any question.
  3. Write down every question exactly as stated.
  4. Change any statements into questions.

The authors apply this technique within real classroom contexts, such as increasing student engagement for a unit on African history and formatively assessing students after a mathematics lesson on volume. Their framework provides the necessary structure to help students become better inquirers and deeper thinkers.

Multi-generational digital literacy approach offers hope for the future by Kevin Rocap (SmartBrief, September 9, 2015)

Rocap, the Executive Director of Strategy & Development for the San Francisco Unified School District, joined colleagues to explore how providing students of low-income families with greater access to books via mobile devices might improve their literacy skills. First grade classrooms were assigned a set of iPad minis and access to thousands of digital books with built-in scaffolding and supports. Families had to attend several workshops in order to learn how to use the tablets (they received an iPad for completing the training course). This program is funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

It’s Time to Get Rid of Education’s Sacred Cows by Angela Minnici (Education Week, September 8, 2015)

Minnici, the director of the Education Policy Center at the American Institutes for Research, calls into question three traditionally accepted beliefs that she feels needs a closer look:

  • Education is local.
  • Almost anyone can become a good teacher.
  • American schools have traditionally done a great job of educating all kids.

The writer provides brief rationale supported by compelling evidence to suggest these “truths” should no longer be held in such high regard. In order to make gains across all schools, Minnici suggests that “we in the field have to budge first, questioning what has too long gone unquestioned and dispelling what we know to be untrue” (p 22).

Why Curious People Are Destined for the C-Suite by Warren Berger (Harvard Business Review, September 11, 2015)

Berger, author of the excellent book A More Beautiful Question (the title derives from the quote listed at the beginning of this post), explains why leaders who ask questions are often the most successful.

They continually examine and re-examine their own assumptions and practices, asking deep, penetrating ‘Why’ questions, as well as speculative ‘What if’ and ‘How’ questions.”

He provides clear examples of well-known leaders asking questions that lead to better products and service. For instance, Jack Dorsey, one of the founders of Twitter, wondered why a friend of his (an artist) could not make a big sale because he didn’t have the capacity to process a credit card. This question led to the creation of Square, a credit card mobile application + reader often used by smaller businesses.

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In Summary

I’ve had parents and community members ask me about the Common Core State Standards. When they bring this topic up, they are almost always “against” these standards. When I offer to share Common Core documents that clearly show what they entail, they always refuse. “I know what they’re about. I’ve researched them.”

If politicians and pundits had not helped to create this controversy, most parents and community members would not even be aware of the standards. By creating a frame in which people think they understand the Common Core, people view the standards as an either/or proposition. Nevermind that schools have almost always had standards, or that having consistent expectations across the nation regarding quality student work might help to provide equity for all students.

Teaching students to question their current reality, formulate inquiries, and pursue knowledge that would confirm or refute their beliefs is an essential skill in the 21st century. Given the amount of information available online, plus how easy it is to follow the digital crowd, it is hard to disagree.

What I'm Reading

What I’m Reading – May 2015

My Favorite Teachers Use Social Media: A Student Perspective by Katie Benmar (Education Week, April 21, 2015)

Student voice is so often missing in conversations about education, that it is almost a surprise when we hear it above the din of educators. Katie Benmar, a high school student in Seattle, shares both the benefits and the struggles of being a connected learner. While she laments about the internal pressure students feels regarding their profiles and updates on Instagram and Facebook, Katie also believes that teachers who leverage these technologies can increase their impact on student learning. She provides helpful suggestions for educators on connecting with their students using social media.

What Research Says About Text Complexity and Learning to Read by Richard L. Allington, Kimberly McCuiston, Monica Billen (The Reading Teacher, April 2015)

Discussions continue in education regarding whether students should be tackling more challenging texts in order to make greater gains in reading and meet the increased demands of the Common Core State Standards. Allington and colleagues search through the literature of what research says about this issue. Their findings: Students need to be reading books that are at their level, and of their choice and interest the majority of the time.

We contend that in order for students to become proficient readers who are engaged in text while self-regulating and building vocabulary knowledge, the text must appropriately match the student’s reading level. We fear that the push from the CCSS to promote the use of more complex texts will result in decreased reading engagement and less time spent reading, with a potential decline in reading achievement the ultimate outcome. We recommend that elementary-grade teachers continue to adhere to the traditional oral reading accuracy criteria of instructional texts that can be read at 95% accuracy or higher until the outcomes of research on both issues is available.

Their conclusion is consistent with what Allington has long preached on the topic. Complex texts can be useful, but only when lots of scaffolding, small groups, and a highly trained instructor are present. There are also implications for classrooms at the secondary level, which are rife with textbooks written at only one reading level.

Practiced Avoidance by Lori Sabo (The Daily Cafe, May 22, 2015)

In this Tip of the Week from The Two Sister’s website, Sabo uses the analogy of avoiding physical therapy due to a recent shoulder surgery to motivating reluctant readers. She laments the absence of a friend or another person to push her to participate in her required daily band stretches. Sabo finds parallels in working with her students, who demand regular check ins about what they are reading and specific strategies taught to them that address their needs.

Planning for the Planning by Elizabeth Moore (Two Writing Teachers, May 11, 2015)

June is a popular time for teachers to get together, reflect on their school year, and start preparing for instruction that starts in September. Through the lens of putting together units of study for writing, Moore offers five suggestions when planning for this professional time:

  1. Use technology when developing units.
  2. Minimize interruptions.
  3. Bring student data.
  4. Bring resources about planning and read them ahead of time.
  5. Set publishing dates for when units of instruction should be completed.

For this last suggestion, Moore recommends having “publishing parties”. Students take their writing to final draft for an authentic audience and celebration.

Connecting the dots…

The common thread I have found through these four articles and posts is voice and choice. In the first article, we hear from a high school student expressing her desire for her teachers to start using social media with purpose, such as posting daily assignments. “Meet us where we are at,” seems to be the message conveyed by Benmar.

Allington would most likely concur, at least related to the texts that teachers provide for their students. Reading should also be an enjoyable experience, not something that is made needlessly complicated by poor interpretations of literacy standards that have little to no research to support the rationale. In fact, I was surprised Sabo didn’t list “choice in what to read” and “providing access to lots of interesting books to read” as necessary strategies for reaching reluctant readers.

Voice and choice should also be applied when school leaders are allocating resources for their teachers’ professional learning opportunities. I think the joy that Moore exudes in her post is largely related to the autonomy and support provided to her by her principal in their instructional preparations. This concept of voice and choice is a practice all educators can apply in their contexts.