Theory and Practice

Time and Money

The Art of Giving and Receiving Advice by David A. Garvin and Joshua D. Margolis (Harvard Business Review, January/February 2015)

Two Harvard business professors explore the two roles that often play out in professional settings: Advisor and advisee. This article relates well to teachers, administrators, and instructional coaches. They identify the many hurdles involved in giving and receiving advice, including an inaccurate assessment of one’s own knowledge, dismissing ideas because they don’t fit with one’s predetermined line of thinking, and surrounding oneself with poor advisers.

When you pick your advisers, you pick your advice.

For advisors, the best way in helping those looking for support and ideas is being an active listener. This includes providing ample time to ask open-ended questions in order to determine the role one should play as the advisor. It is ultimately about helping the advisee become independent as a leader in their organization, as the advisor won’t be there forever. Garvin and Margolis provide a good metaphor.

If you are the advisor, think of yourself as a driving instructor. While you provide oversight and guidance, your ultimate goal is to empower the seeker to act independently.

In addition to the practical advice, Garvin and Margolis offer guidelines for each stage of advising, for the person on each side of the table:

  1. Finding the right fit.
  2. Developing a shared understanding.
  3. Crafting alternatives.
  4. Converging on a decision.
  5. Putting advice into action.

One of the main points to take from this article is that while both parties are striving to find a solution to the same problem, their roles and mindsets are very different. “An individual is likely to think idealistically as an adviser but pragmatically as a seeker, even when confronting the same challenge.” A need that both roles have in common is time to have these ongoing conversations.

All the Time They Need by Ellin Oliver Keene (Educational Leadership, November 2014)

“The fact is, if we want students to think at high levels, we’re going to have to give them time. And we’re going to have to get comfortable with silence.” So states Ellin Oliver Keene, literacy consultant and author of Talk About Understanding: Rethinking Classroom Talk to Enhance Comprehension (Heinemann, 2012).

Keene details a demonstration lesson she conducted in a 3rd grade classroom for about 20 teachers. Her interaction with Adyana, one of the students, about a think aloud they just facilitated does not closely resemble the tennis match that conversation too often resembles in classrooms. After posing a question to Adyana that forces her to think more deeply about what she initially shared, Keene allows for silence. She describes the response of everyone in the room.

I can feel the teachers’ eyes on both of us; I can hear a murmur circulate among them. The other children squirm and try to get my attention. But I force myself to wait. Adyana looks at me, her beautiful brown eyes begging to be bailed out. I smile at her. Uncomfortable doesn’t begin to describe what I’m feeling.

Fortunately, everyone does become used to the quiet. This allowed Adyana the time to come up with a thoughtful, deep response to the question. Also, it is noted that the type of question posed is as important as the time that is given to respond to it. Keene follows up with practical advice on structuring lessons to allow for time to think, such as asking “What else?” after one student shares their thinking. “Believe me, there’s always more to say.”

Superintendent: Why I must violate state law to help my students by Valerie Strauss (The Washington Post, March 13, 2015)

Strauss shares a letter written by Dr. Arthur Tate, superintendent of public schools in Davenport, Iowa. Dr. Tate explains to the school community his decision to break state law and dip into their district’s fund balance. He states that this is the only way to make up for the shortfall that the state government has created by not properly funding public education. Dr. Tate recognizes the risk he is taking, but he also understands who he truly answers to in his position. “I care more about our students and their needs than I do about the state law in this case.”

How to Attract Teachers to Poor, Rural Areas by Madeleine Cummings (Slate’s Schooled blog, March 13, 2015)

It can be very difficult to hire highly-qualified teachers in rural areas. High poverty rates, lower than average pay, and professional isolation are often cited. Sam Bruner, an administrator for two schools on a Native American reservation, has taken a different approach to this problem: Offering candidates autonomy in their instruction and the time to develop relationships with their students. He has found some success. “Teachers say a financial incentive, like subsidized tuition or loan forgiveness, might pique their interest. But they ultimately came to teaching—and stayed—for the kids.”

What’s important

We recently surveyed our staff about our professional learning plan, regarding how effective and useful the offerings were this year. Overall our activities, such as technology training and collaborative assessment, were rated positively. Then we asked everyone what we should focus on for next year. The majority of staff requested time to upload evaluation artifacts and student intervention information.

I would like to say this information is surprising. Why select the activities that will have the lowest impact on student learning? However, given the current national climate in education, it really wasn’t. We know that time and money are necessary to engage in powerful conversations, between principal and teacher, teacher to teacher, and teacher with student. Ongoing training in these powerful practices are essential. So when school funding is reduced while more is being added to our plates, I can see why autonomy and time with students has become a recruitment tool.

It’s about more than just time or money. It is about treating educators as professionals striving to always become better in a very complex profession. Only in an environment that honors the nonlinear path that learning sometimes takes can this occur.

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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.