Below is my response for Larry Ferlazzo’s Classroom Q & A for Education Week. You can view all of the responses by clicking here. Enjoy!
Used smartly and with intent, goal setting can be a game changer in engaging our students in their own learning process. Writing down goals makes them concrete. Sharing goals with peers, teachers, and family members puts more accountability on oneself. Including others in setting the goals provides a support system to help achieve them. Others become invested in their success. When students finally do achieve what they set out to accomplish, everyone celebrates.
So how can we use goal setting with our students? I believe the first step in this process is asking students what they are interested in as well as their needs. In one 2nd grade classroom, one teacher I know (my wife) asked her students questions regarding their interests and needs. One student, who in previous years had significant behavior issues, said he wanted to “build more because I like to tinker”. This information translated into co-developed goals between teacher and student around creativity and the importance of choice in learning. Over the course of the school year, both his behavior and academics improved dramatically. Both the process (choice) and the product (building things) were a part of this example of student-involved goal setting.
Including students in the goal setting process also benefits from making the learning process and eventual outcomes visible. By visible, this means documenting student learning as it is happening and sharing their work for a wide audience. Digital portfolios are an effective way for facilitating this approach. Going back to the previous example, my wife used FreshGrade to capture images and video of her students building during Genius Hour. Families could observe the idea generation, collaboration, prototyping, and collaboration that led to an exciting product as it was happening. By making visible a student’s pathway toward goal achievement, it takes the mystery out of the learning process and celebrates their work.
I recently participated in an Education Week/BAM Radio interview with Larry Ferlazzo, Teresa Diaz and Laura Robb. The topic for our short podcast was metacognition.
Click here to listen to the podcast, and read on for my written response on the topic of metacognition.
Metacognition is defined as “awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes”. Education leader Dr. Linda Darling Hammond describes metacognition more succinctly as “thinking about our own thinking”. The ability to be self-aware and to reflect upon our mental processes is a critical skill that should be taught and reinforced in schools today. When we are intentional about being metacognitive, we are more likely to clear up misconceptions, understand how we operate as a person, and make smarter decisions about the future. However, with how fast paced education seems to be considering all of the curriculum to teach and the standards to cover, teachers can feel overwhelmed to take even more time for this.
This should be a concern of teachers. Metacognition is important beyond the schoolhouse. Questioning and reflecting about our experiences is a cornerstone of becoming a lifelong learner. Consider the most recent presidential election and everything that led up to it. From what I read, most people who made public comments online about the race spoke in absolute terms: “Trump is a narcissist.” “Hillary is a liar.” I did not comment on how true these statements might be when I read them on social media. Yet I did wonder how informed each person who made the statements was about the issues. What types of questions might have been asked to help a person become more aware of what they were saying and why? Would the online conversation have led to moments of reflection? If the questions were not asked, was that the best decision? Critical thinking usually leads to smarter decisions.
When we teach students to facilitate a deeper discourse about their lives using metacognition, we help make the world a better place. Insults are replaced with questions. Criticisms are couched in appreciative observations. People live their lives more informed and more open to the possibilities. As an educator, I cannot imagine better outcomes for our students.
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).
Ask as many questions as you can.
Don’t stop to judge, discuss, or answer any question.
Write down every question exactly as stated.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Use technology when developing units.
Bring student data.
Bring resources about planning and read them ahead of time.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
Regie Routman writes a very pointed commentary about the educational world’s infatuation with standardized tests. She admits that it is possible to raise assessment scores with lots of preparatory work, but the results are “an achievement mirage” which do not truly reflect a school’s collective ability. Routman calls upon school leaders to avoid such an environment, and instead focus on what works for teachers and students and motivates the entire school to make admirable achievements. Developing trust, modeling best practice during staff meetings, advocating for authenticity in instruction, and “focusing on what’s most essential for students” are some of the most important tenets of school leadership. Routman closes our her article by pointing out the contradiction that when “principals and teachers are expected to have a laser-like focus on test prep and raising achievement, they actually teach worse, not better.” This concluding statement should give every principal pause as they start to prepare for the new computerized assessments coming our way.
Speaking of computers, Julie Smith shares her perspective on schools migrating student work and information to cloud-based servers. She acknowledges that reduced budgets are a main driver in moving toward online providers. The question still remains: How does this impact student learning as well as the bottom line? One major school district, Indianapolis Public Schools, has merged all of their student information systems into a unified cloud. Student data, lessons plans, and completed homework are a click away. These capacities can lead to improved access to content and more responsive instruction. Other districts, including mine, have embraced Google Apps for Education for their email and document storage. However, risks are inherent when using third party applications. This is a reason why the state of Illinois has created the public-controlled IlliniCloud, which allows for more of a walled garden.
In this very accessible article, Grierson interviews social scientist Ellen Langer about her past and current research on how environment and mindset can impact not only a person’s attitude about themselves, but also their physical health. In an earlier study, Dr. Langer had several seniors spend a week in a residence that was retrofitted with reading materials, television shows, and everything else a home may have had 22 years ago. Oh, and the participants had to pretend it was that period in time. After one week, her team recorded marked improvement in many areas of their subjects’ health, such as blood pressure and dexterity (confirmed by the fact that the seniors broke out into a game of touch football on the last day). It appears that a person’s mindset may impact not only their brain, but also their body. What is Dr. Langer’s next inquiry? This coming spring, she plans on replicating her earlier work, only this time taking cancer patients to a remote tropical area and housing them in an environment that predates their initial diagnosis. I look forward to reading the results from this study, and hoping that the subjects find positive results from this provocative experiment of mindset.
In an equal impressive commentary from the same issue of Education Week, Andy Hargreaves echoes Regie Routman’s assertions that trust and lifelong learning are the cornerstones of a successful school. Focusing on the individual teacher from a statewide-perspective will not improve learning. Instead, “organizations need more and better leadership that is responsible, inspiring, and effective.” Hargreaves has profiled many successful organizations in and out of education. The common thread he has found is what he calls “uplifting leadership” in these organizations. “These leaders uplift the opportunities or quality of life of the people they serve.” The four trends teased out from his observations of these organizations – a strong mission, an original focus for their work, collaboration, and meaningful data – have direct applications to schools.
In a recent post on my original blog, Reading by Example, I shared that I did not have the words to respond to Time’s cover article about getting rid of bad teachers by removing tenure law. Luckily, we have Mark Barnes. He sounds off on many of the less-than-sound arguments made by Time journalist Haley Sweetland Edwards. Barnes accuses the magazine’s cover of being misleading, notes the cherry-picking of the bad classroom practices as examples for needed reform, and derides the poor choice of profiling a Silicon Valley millionaire as the next great leader in educational change. Campbell Brown and Nancy Gibbs attempt to mediate the uproar with follow up statements, but admit little to no fault with the original report. Certainly, there is a need to improve classroom instruction so there is better consistency from school to school. But as a principal, I can attest that getting rid of tenure will do little to make that happen.
To Sum Things Up…
The image of the changing leaves can be a powerful metaphor for our lives in education. From buds, to green leaves, to full color, to falling on the ground, and repeat. We seem to keep coming back to original mistakes that we have made, and obviously not learning from them. Now in my sixteenth year of working in public education, I have been around long enough to see ideas cycling back. What Regie Routman and Andy Hargreaves propose are not new. They have been pushing these sounds ideas of effective school leadership for many years. That their messages might seem new to certain readers says more about the reader than anything the authors propose.
The topic of environment specifically related to one’s mindset is critical. As you read in Dr. Langer’s study, what a person perceives as reality can literally become their reality, both emotionally and physically. These findings have strong implications for the classroom. How do your students feel about themselves as learners? Are they excited to come to school each day? Are we? We cannot change the circumstances that inhabit our students’ homes, nor significantly alter the tired political conversations promoted by questionable sources such as Time. But we can impact each child every day, through the joy and engagement found with exciting and thoughtful instructional preparation.
Our season of change also seems to be accelerated with the influx of technological “solutions”. We may be experiencing faster-than-normal cycles due to the steeper learning curves with digital access. But the cloud-based learning examples reported by Ed Tech Magazine are still in development. Despite what technological or political factors may come our way, we still have the control, as well as the obligation, to provide our learners with the skills and dispositions necessary to be successful today and in their future. I doubt that what we elect to focus on will be outdated any time soon.