Theory and Practice

Connected Collaboration

Permit yourself the luxury of doing just one thing.

-Lao Tzu

3rd graders read aloud their written descriptions of their totem poles they created in art class.

Using Professional Learning Communities to Bolster Comprehension Instruction by Katherine A. Dougherty Stahl (The Reading Teacher, February 2015)

This associate professor from New York University shares some insights on how to develop collaborative learning experiences around reading instruction. She suggests past “Research into Practice” columns from The Reading Teacher for possible article studies, organized by grade levels/departments and topics. Dougherty also offers specific literacy-related areas of focus within professional learning communities, such as read alouds in the primary grades and emphasizing disciplinary literacy.

Introverts, Extroverts, and the Complexities of Team Dynamics by Francesca Gino (Harvard Business Review, March 16, 2015)

Gino, a professor of business administration at Harvard, found through her own research that different leadership personalities are better suited for certain organizations. Extroverted leaders thrive in situations that are highly structured, with more passive employees looking for someone to tell them what to do. In contrast, introverted leaders find more success with proactive employees and a working environment that demands complex thinking from many within the organization.

As an example, Gino highlights Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. “Every meeting begins in total silence. Before any conversation can occur, everyone must quietly read a six-page memo about the meeting’s agenda for 20 to 30 minutes.” Also important to note is that the agenda is written in narrative style, to provide a familiar and relatable structure to the meeting. This quiet, reflective time allows more introverted employees to gather their thoughts and their courage to make significant contributions to future discussions.

How One Urban District Designed STEM for All by Anne Jolly (MiddleWeb, March 15, 2015)

This education consultant and author poses a question: “So, how do you design a program that allows all students access to STEM, not just the kids who seem obvious choices for a handpicked class?” STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) courses have picked up steam in recent years as schools and districts focus on what the future holds for student employment and job creation. Her role is to guide teacher teams toward a more integrated and authentic curriculum.

Instead of selecting instructional resources to purchase and implement, the school Jolly worked with started by defining their beliefs about STEM instruction.

All students need to know how workers in industry tackle real problems by designing technology-based solutions. They need to recognize the value and power of math and science in those solutions.

After focusing on this curriculum initiative and intervention for seven years, the staff realized a number of benefits from their collective efforts.

  1. Students experienced a seamless integration of math and science.
  2. Math and science teachers increased their content knowledge in joint professional development.
  3. Students developed high interest in and positive attitudes toward STEM.

Achieving schoolwide success in these content areas, along with an increase in engagement among their most disenfranchised students, did not come easily for the staff. It was about more than just the time and effort involved. “This complex intervention is, by design, disruptive to school-as-usual.” Beliefs and practices were altered in the process, seemingly for the better.

I’m Sick of SMART Goals by Dan Callahan (dancallahan.net, March 29, 2015)

A former classroom teacher laments about education’s infatuation with SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) goals, connected with new professional evaluation systems. Callahan refers to this yearly process of developing and monitoring educational outcomes as “evaluation theater”. He believes teachers go through the motions in this area. His biggest concern is the arbitrary timeline and less-than-aspiring objectives that SMART goals create. “It (teaching) is the work of years, and I don’t think I’ve figured it all out yet, but I know I’m not very interested in playing it safe.”

Learning Should NEVER Be Lonely by Bill Ferriter (Center for Teaching Quality, March 17, 2015)

Ferriter, a middle school teacher and author, shares his slides from a recent presentation regarding personalized learning. He expresses concern about the overuse of technology to give every student what they appear to need, while potentially removing the essential connection between peers, the teacher, and the world.

In my worst nightmares, I see rows of quiet kids sitting behind computers in quiet classrooms clicking away at keyboards as they work on individual tasks that are “customized to meet their unique sets of strengths and weaknesses.” I see principals reveling in “the responsiveness of their classrooms” and teachers relaxing because there’s nothing to grade.

Time to reflect and connect…

Our school has had a focus on writing, in some form or another, for the past five years. Five years! Here is the kicker: It wasn’t until recently that we started to feel like we have a good handle as a faculty in teaching this discipline at high levels across the curriculum, grades and departments. The integration of art and literacy you see in the above image is a telling artifact.

At the same time, I don’t think anyone on our staff would say that we have it “figured out”. For example, when we collaboratively assessed student writing in the fall, we determined that while their work was technically very good, it often lacked voice and personality. Our leadership team has responded by giving staff time to share lesson plans and subsequently spread creative writing ideas throughout the building.

Organizational learning is all process, with brief yet important points for assessment and celebration. Goals help us stop and take stock, even if they are developed arbitrarily through the SMART framework. Are we too focused on literacy in our PLCs? Should we expand our perspective, and start integrating STEM topics into our literacy instruction with more intention? What we focus on is probably less important than the fact that we are all focusing on one thing.

We find our answers through deep discussions, quiet reflection, and strong decisions regarding next steps. Our schools’ stories are being told by everyone-educators, students, parents-involved in their perpetual outcomes.

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Theory and Practice

Reader/Thinker

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Students write their favorite quotes from a book they are reading independently on this board. The teacher noted that they love using the metallic markers.

People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy. – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience)

The Relationship of Print Reading in Tier 1 Instruction and Reading Achievement for Kindergarten Students at Risk of Reading Difficulties by Jeanne Wanzek et al (Learning Disability Quarterly, August 2014)

The title for this study clearly describes the inquiry these four researchers explored. They observed over 100 students at risk of reading difficulties from 26 different kindergarten classrooms for this study. Here is what they found:

  • Core classroom instruction is students’ first line of response for reading instruction.
  • On average, students were actively engaged in the act of reading print for just over 1.5 minutes (90 seconds) during a 90 minute literacy block. This finding is consistent with related studies.
  • Choral reading accounted for 90% of all print engagement during the literacy block.
  • The instructional quality of the teacher was not correlated with the amount of time students were actively engaged in the act of reading print.

As you can see, kindergarten students at risk of reading difficulties received lots of instruction in how to read, but few opportunities to actually apply these skills. This occurs in spite of the wealth of evidence that there is a “significant positive correlation in time actively engaged in reading and all three major measures of reading achievement (letter-word identification, word attack skills, passage comprehension)”.

One surprising correlation the researchers found was the amount of time spent in authentic whole classroom instruction, such as think alouds with authentic texts, and increased engagement in reading print. Conversely, small group learning had a less positive association with engagement in reading print. The researchers suspected that while the teacher was meeting with one small group, the rest of the students were doing busy work such as worksheets so he/she could teach.

Wondering + online inquiry = learning by Diane Carver Sekeres et al (Phi Delta Kappan, November 2014)

Four university professors offer a clear framework for scaffolding inquiry-based units and assignments in online spaces. They suggest using a gradual release of responsibility when teaching students how to find, curate, and synthesize information from websites and resources beyond their classroom: Modeled inquiry, structured inquiry, guided inquiry, and open inquiry.

By using structures and scaffolds, several benefits are realized. First, students are given more choice and voice in their school work. Second, teachers are better able to assess whether students are learning and how deeply they have learned the content and skills. Third, families have more access to their child’s progress and final products. Finally, by posing questions as checkpoints along students’ learning journeys, thoughtful reflection can be nurtured and taught when exploring online resources.

Reading in the Wild: Learning from Lifelong Readers by Donalyn Miller (Keynote given at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, February 5, 2015)

This curated list of tweets documents the important points made by Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. She spoke passionately about the essential elements needed to grow lifelong readers in schools today. Here are a few of the more popular statements, based on the number of favorites and retweets.

Assessing Literacy Assessment by Peter Afflerbach (Session given at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, February 6, 2015)

This presentation by a professor of literacy and assessment at the University of Maryland questioned the usefulness of assessments for promoting deep reading habits. Standardized tests and test prep were specifically targeted as having negative influences on reading achievement during Dr. Afflerbach’s session.

Finding Joy in the Quiet Moments by Michael Perry (Wisconsin State Journal, February 1, 2015)

Perry, a self-described “author, humorist, and intermittent pig farmer”, describes the sounds and setting of a day in his life. His youngest daughter was not feeling well. With a pile of books and a box of Kleenex on hand, the rest of the family did their best to go about their day quietly while attending to her needs.

The sounds are backdrop and domestic, deepening in this feeling that in this moment we – the family – are in communion despite our silence.

He concludes his commentary by admitting that there was nothing profound about this “most unassuming sort of evening”.  Perry also finds that slowing down and appreciating the present can bring about unique insights.

Joy is elusive, and joy is fleeting. And yet – and this may be the premise of the riddle – those who chase it rarely catch it.

Taking time to reflect…

In public education, there is a strong demand for accountability. Just like in the article about online inquiry projects, there is this need to know what the students were learning and how. On the other end of this spectrum is what we know about learning: that the results of our efforts don’t always appear on a predetermined date. This is especially true when we apply practices that don’t initially appear, at least to the uninformed, to be making an impact on student achievement, such as sustained silent reading.

This practice of allowing students time to read and think about a text of their choosing may go against the grain of what we may believe about education. “If I am not teaching, then the kids are not learning.” It is true that teachers are the most important factor in a classroom. Yet students learn independently all the time. An example is video games. The manuals that come with the games when purchased are sparse and provide the most basic amount of information. The game designers know that much of the learning will happen while the users are actively engaged in playing the game itself.

The same thing often happens when students are independently reading. Given the proper amount of instruction, choice in what to read, access to lots of interesting texts, and time to read and think about their reading, students can often teach themselves how to navigate texts.  It can happen even when the comprehension waters get a little choppy. This type of reading environment, so well described by Donalyn Miller, also is a benefit to teachers. It reduces stress, puts more responsibility on the student, and helps the teacher focus on the reader instead of just what they are reading.

The question still remains: How do we know students are making gains and improving as readers when we give them time to read? Too often, classrooms overuse choral reading so teachers can hear the progress students are making, especially in the primary grades. There is also the all-too-real pressure of the looming standardized tests. Based on what I heard at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, these tests are an incredibly poor tool for assessing student and teacher performance (no surprise). And yet, we still use them.

So what is the solution? For teachers, I suggest blocking off at least 20 minutes, and preferably 30 minutes, for uninterrupted daily free choice reading. If your principal questions this, share the research highlighted in this post with him/her. I also recommend checking out publications by Stephen Krashen and Richard Allington. For principals, be thoughtful about scheduling. Give teachers time to allow for these extended periods of silent reading. Reduce or even eliminate announcements. Above all, limit test preparation to the bare minimum.

Michael Perry didn’t provide a quiet environment for his ill daughter because someone told him he should. He did it because it was the right thing to do. We also know what the right thing to do is in our classrooms and schools. By giving students the space and place to be the readers and thinkers they want and are meant to be, we prepare them not only for the test but to be lifelong readers. The 4th graders shared their favorite book quotes on the graffiti board not because it was required, but because the teacher provided them with the time, texts, and permission to do so.