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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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.