What I'm Reading

What I’m Reading: September 2015

Always the beautiful answer

Who asks a more beautiful question.

-E.E. Cummings


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.


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.


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.

Theory and Practice

Rethinking Engagement

“Children are always on task; the important question is, what is the task?” – Peter Johnston

For Millennials, the End of the TV Viewing Party by Alex Williams (New York Times, November 7, 2014)

With the advent of the smartphone, landlines are starting to become a thing of the past. But what about television? Williams provides a close perspective of how millenials are moving away from the community screen. In its place: Laptops and tablets. Media is consumed via subscriptions and one-time purchases within this format. While some lament the lack of physically being with fellow viewers, others note how socialization still occurs in the privacy of our own screens. For example, many fans of popular shows such as “Scandal” connect with each other via Twitter, commenting on each episode while it is live.

Creating and Composing in a Digital Writing Workshop by Troy Hicks and Kristin Ziemke (Digital Writing, Digital Teaching, November 5, 2014)

This collaborative post was written in response to a piece by highly respected literacy expert Nancy Atwell. She referred to iPads in the primary classroom as “trendy” and “a mistake”. Troy’s and Kristin’s response is thoughtful, balanced, and convincing. They do recognize the importance of moderation with technology in the classroom. However, the number of examples they list that incorporate digital tools effectively is impressive. For example, Kristin’s students use the app Book Creator on iPads to create original eBooks with audio narration. They can be stored in the device’s iBooks library, which stand side by side with other titles from major publishers.

Effects of Classroom Practices on Reading Comprehension, Engagement, and Motivations for Adolescents by John T. Guthrie and Susan Lutz Klauda (Reading Research Quarterly, Fall 2014)

This research study conducted through the University of Maryland wanted to determine the correlation between classroom supports, student motivation, and informational text comprehension. Guthrie and Klauda specifically looked for outcomes related to the presence of student choice, conveying the importance of reading, collaboration, and perceived competence in the classroom. They facilitated these elements of instruction within the Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction framework. History at the secondary level was the context in which this study was conducted. The researchers found that when students were provided with these specific supports, they better “persevered in unraveling complex texts”. Students also increased in the amount of value they attributed to “the importance, benefit, and usefulness of reading”. Comprehension was subsequently stronger when compared to more traditional instructional methods.

The Social Side of Engaged Reading for Young Adolescents by Gay Ivey (The Reading Teacher, November 2014)

Dr. Ivey, a literacy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is an acolyte of John Guthrie. In this summary of her own research on student engagement, she set out to determine how to normalize an authentic reading culture within a high-poverty school environment. The teachers in this study put few requirements on their students regarding their reading – just read high-interest texts, talk about their reading with peers, and then read some more. What they found was students not only became better readers, they also became better people. Through the world of fiction, students learned about “working on relationships, both with others and themselves”. They also discovered the skill of “taking up perspectives” and residing within the characters in their books. This led to students increasing their capacity for empathy. Where as some educators might worry about the accountability of students not being required to complete a reading assignment, Ivey found evidence to support the notion that students looked “to further complicate” their thinking by asking questions of peers and demonstrating reading comprehension. Students “turned toward each other” in their learning.

The Mindful Educator by Sarah McKibben (ASCD Education Update, November 2014)

Mindfulness, or the purposeful act of being present, has been a hot topic in education lately. McKibben highlights the research that suggests using mindfulness strategies, such as breathing techniques, can “improve cognitive performance” and increase “resilience to stress”. Educators profiled for this article acknowledge the resistance that parents might have with these practices. They suggest family education prior to implementing mindfulness activities schoolwide. Also important is that educators teaching students how to be more present in the present should model these strategies themselves in their daily lives.

Connecting the dots…

The image at the top of this post is of my son and some of his classmates celebrating a reading activity. Where are the books? you might ask. They just finished a project for the Global Read Aloud, an online literacy event created by Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp). They recently read the book I’m Here by Peter Reynolds. Motivated by the theme of friendship in the text, they made “friendship planes”, which contained original suggestions by the students on how to be a good friend. Attaching their learning to a meaningful concept helped the students connect their reading to a bigger idea. What made the kids’ day was the author himself commented on the classroom blog that contained this image.

In my humble opinion, this is a wonderful example of engagement. The teacher captured their hearts and minds by appealing to something important to her students (friendship). She then connected this concept to reading and writing in authentic and meaningful ways. There was a tangible impact on their lives, both socially and emotionally as well as cognitively. Later on, my son and his classmates may not recall the exact text they read during this event. However, it is more likely they will remember how it made them feel and how this experience helped each of them become a better person.

Without tapping into the emotions and excitement for the subjects we are teaching, our instruction will fail to meet its learning potential. We can require work as much we want, but if our students are not engaged in the learning, what they produce is more likely a result of compliance. It’s one thing to point to the board and read aloud the learning target at the beginning of the lesson. It’s another thing to present a thought-provoking video or image, or to ask a provocative question that forces learners to think deeply. This type of engaging instruction creates its own sense of mindfulness. Technology can help make these types of activities possible, but only as a way to support the learning and not lead it.

Digital experiences are not a panacea for all that is lacking in education. Nothing can replicate the face-to-face social experience. Technology is only a tool, albeit a powerful one, for learning in the classroom. At the same time, we should not deny the impact that it has on learners. To dismiss this influence would reflect our ignorance of these possibilities, instead of a broader understanding of its impact on our students’ learning lives. In our upgraded roles as teachers in the 21st century, we would be wise to regularly rethink how we are most effective in engaging our students in new learning possibilities.

Theory and Practice

Risk and Reward

“The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again.” – Steve Jobs, in his 2005 Stanford University graduation speech, about being fired from Apple

My wife and daughter ride a zip line across my physical education teacher’s pond.

High-achieving teacher sues state over evaluation labeling her “ineffective” by Valerie Strauss (Washington Post, October 31, 2014)

A New York City educator with an impeccable teaching record was recently given a low rating by the state’s evaluation system. The reason for the discrepancy appears to be the use of value-added measures, or VAM. They compare this year’s standardized assessment results with past year’s students, as well as other grade level learners. The article notes that this method of evaluation is less than reliable, a position supported no less than by the test developers themselves. In the past, other quality educators have received low ratings with VAM. The difference here is both her prinicipal and superintendent wrote letters in support of this teacher and questioned the validity of the results. The outcome of this lawsuit may have a large effect on other states also using similar evaluation models.

Take Notes From the Pros by Laura Pappano (New York Times, October 31, 2014)

One of the latest industries popping up in the higher education setting is the selling of lecture notes. Students have leveraged technology to distribute their work for a small fee, usually around $10. While having detailed notes have been correlated with increased achievement, current research is showing that the professor is still the best source for this information. In a study conducted by Dr. Kenneth Kiewra, a professor at the University of Nebraska, he found that “groups that reviewed instructor notes performed best.” If the professor isn’t sharing his or her lecture notes, a recommended strategy is to paraphrase what is being said, instead of writing it down verbatim. This method of summarization promotes deep thinking, which helps retention. The article reminded me of a short video about visual note taking shared by Crista Anderson (@cristama):

Charter School Boasts Big Pay and Big Results by Leslie Brody (Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2014)

The title for this article immediately caught my attention. A charter school in New York City has observed marked improvement in their students’ tests scores, primarily in mathematics but across the board in all core academics. The set up is nothing if not interesting: few administrators, teachers getting paid over $125,000, and daylong auditions for teaching candidates looking to land a job in this school. The faculty also participates in peer observations weekly to get feedback on their performance. So what’s the catch? There are larger class sizes to allow for more professional development time. Also, the staff is expected to work longer hours, which most teachers already do. I think the biggest red flag for me was the fact that this school has a 47% attrition rate. After reading this article, I felt there were too many variables to determine what really led to improved student achievement.

Dynamic Versus Static Dictionary With and Without Printed Focal Words in E-Book Reading as Facilitator for Word Learning by Ofra Korat et al (Reading Research Quarterly, Fall 2014)

In this study, researchers analyzed the impact that eBooks with visuals and built-in word supports might have on students’ understanding of key vocabulary. What they found was students benefited the most from words that were noted and attached to dynamic (animated) visuals. The researchers, from Israel, provided necessary background knowledge in the published study about cognitive load. Readers struggle to comprehend the text if there are too many pieces of information to attend to. The results shared here are worth disseminating to classroom teachers, as they consider apps and eReaders for the classroom. Does the technology get in the way of the learning, or does it augment the experience?

Designating the MVP: Facilitating Classroom Discussions About Texts by Carolyn Strom (The Reading Teacher, October 2014)

This article was selected for a close reading with my entire staff during a recent professional development day. It describes a protocol that teachers can use with students to find the main points (M), visualize (V), or find a phrase that stays (P). The acronym “MVP” provides a nice association for students who are familiar with its more common usage in the sports world. After our day of learning, multiple teachers let me know that they found the strategy described in this article to be very applicable to their areas, whether primary, intermediate, or as a specialist.

In summary…

When my wife and daughter decided to ride the zip line across my physical education teacher’s pond, there was some decision-making that occurred before they hopped on the rope. For example, would the thrill of the experience outweigh the possibility of falling in the water? Obviously, they said yes. But their was safety in this risk. The water was determined to be fairly clean. People were on both sides of the pond, ready to jump in should trouble arise. Safety precautions were reviewed beforehand. The environment created for this experience made it that much more likely that my wife and daughter would participate and be successful.

My purpose in telling this story is to explain the conundrum education currently faces with these new teacher evaluation systems. Yes, every student should have access to a great education, every year. Systems should be in place to help ensure quality. But is assessing a teacher’s effectiveness by using test scores and value-added measures the best way to do this? I say no. Beyond the fact that the results are unreliable, when we publically rate teachers, we create a climate of competitiveness instead of a culture of collaboration. Will professors, and K-12 educators in general, be open to sharing their coursework with students and the world? Will teachers be willing to apply the MVP stategy in their classrooms, knowing that their initial efforts may not pan out as expected? Will teachers experiment with different reading experiences on tablets and eReaders, and risk the time and possible loss in instruction inherent with action research?

We should not stifle creativity in the name of accountability. Our efforts to control the outcomes with education can often detract from the very same results we look to improve. At the same time, creativity and accountability do not have to be mutually exclusive. Steve Jobs did not get fired from Apple because of his lack of knowledge, or an inability to create a great product. His initial failings had more to do with his lack of trust he had in his colleagues. When he came back to Apple, he was more inclusive in acknowledging others’ ideas and gave top performers some latitude and leadership roles. Not that he wasn’t still obsessive about the products produced. He just learned to hire great people and allow them to reach their own potential.

How can we create learning environments where risk is rewarded? That is the essence of research. Disappointing results can be just as helpful as a study that leads to success. But when our students’ test results are tied to our evaluations and even our pay, little innovation is possible. The outcome will be instruction that lacks the essential elements necessary for learning to occur – time, trust, relationships, and connectedness. With that, one of my most important roles as a school leader is to create a learning environment with soft landings, lots of supportive people, and permission to innovate. Only then are the rewards attainable.