Saturday, June 25, 2016

An Old Teacher Learns a New Way of Reading

I don’t always read professional development books. In fact, right now I am having one of the most interesting reading experiences of my life.

Every afternoon as I cook dinner I’m listening to the soundtrack from Hamilton the musical, and every evening before bed I read a chapter or so from Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton that inspired the musical. And when I’m listening to the music, I suddenly think, “Oh! That’s what I just read about in the book!” And when I’m reading, I suddenly think, “Oh! That’s what that song was about!” 

And while listening to the music, if I ever think, “I’m sure the Founding Fathers would never have expressed themselves like that!” Then the next thing I know, I’m reading the book and realizing, “They did express themselves like that!”

And while reading the news I think, “The Founding Fathers would turn over in their graves if they ever thought we’d come to this.” Then the next thing I know, I’m reading a quote like this from Thomas Jefferson: “Congress met and adjourned from day to day without doing anything, the parties being too much out of temper to do business together” (326).

The tome—all 800 pages of it—is not something I’d pick up on vacation at an airport (as Lin-Manuel Miranda apparently did, inspiring his writing of the musical). The writing is engaging and elegant but dense. Here’s a random sample from my chapter last night: 
The few unflattering portraits of Hamilton’s personality tend to stem, not surprisingly, from political enemies. Hamilton was a man of daunting intellect and emphatic opinions, and John Quincy Adams contended that it was hard to get along with him if you disagreed with him. Hamilton knew he had a dogmatic streak and once joked, writing about himself in the third person, ‘Whatever may be the good or ill qualities of that officer, much flexibility of character is not of the number.’ (334)

Like I said, I get through about a chapter a night. Last weekend I took a break and read The Drowned Cities in a day. Can’t lose touch with my YA reading, ya’ know.

It’s still possible for a 51-year-old English teacher to have a new kind of reading experience. What kind of new experience are you having in your field this summer?

Saturday, June 18, 2016

How Do We Help Learning "Stick"?

How I combine summer relaxation and professional reading...
In the education wars of whether kids need to memorize facts, procedures, and algorithms or practice thinking creatively and critically, the definition of learning at the beginning of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning is helpful: “acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities” (2). 

A week and a half ago, I’d only just started this book, but I was already using it with students, warning those who walked into my exam early for a little extra study time with a list of vocabulary words and definitions: “Just re-reading is not effective studying. At least fold under the part of the page with the word on it and try to remember it from reading the definition. Brain science shows that quizzing is much more effective—even if you get the answer wrong, but can get immediate feedback. The ‘testing effect’ makes learning more ‘durable,’ helping it move from short-term memory to long-term memory.”

Now I am a week into summer vacation, I’ve finished Make It Stick (along with 50 Things You Can Do with Google Classroom and Teaching in a Chromebook Classroom), started another (Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle), and I’ve been through several scenarios in my head of what impact this book might have on my class next year—and the impact will be different for math, science, social studies, world language, Bible, music, art, technology, PE, or vocational arts, but still, there will be significant implications for anyone, even non-teachers, who might read it. 

I highly recommend Make It Stick to any student, teacher, or life-long learner. The authors include the scientific support, the principles, illustrative examples and stories, all in a framework where method embodies the content. Effective learning strategies employ… 
  • retrieval (quiz yourself, don't just review; fluency with the text is not mastery of the material) that is 
  • spaced (no cramming) and 
  • interleaved (mixed, not massed). 
Additional strategies are… 
  • elaboration (finding new layers of meaning), 
  • generation (attempt a solution before being shown how), 
  • reflection (combination of retrieval practice and elaboration), and 
  • calibration (objective feedback to avoid illusions of mastery). 
There, now you don't have to read the book. Except that you really should—in order to do spaced and interleaved retrieval practice with elaboration, generation, and reflection on the science of learning. 

My biggest initial take-away: I no longer feel bad about not being a consistent enough hitter to give my volleyball players massed practice on digs. I naturally give them interleaved practice! Next take-away: I'm going to be more intentional and transparent about structuring class and assignments to not only use these strategies, but so students know why they're doing what they're doing.  

Connections that have popped into my head since I started reading the book:
  1. Spaced and interleaved retrieval: First I thought, “Yeah! I’m going to make all my vocabulary tests cumulative!” And then (reading another book about writers’ workshop which I am still in the middle of, but where the author says she does not do specific vocabulary assessment because there isn’t enough time in the period to do everything one “should”) I re-thought that the point of my vocabulary program is not so much to memorize these 120 words in a year as to raise awareness of the coolness of words and pay attention to a few of them so that students will continue to learn as they come across those words—and other unknown, cool words—in the course of their reading. The interleaved practice is noticing other places they recur. (I’m feeling particularly smug about the words chosen by my AP English course as I’m coming across what feels like one per page as I read Alexander Hamilton.) Now I’m thinking I will use frequent quizzing for strategies and procedures—from ways to begin/end a piece of writing, to reading or discussion strategies, to grammar terms for syntax variety: low-stakes, frequent, class-beginning quizzes. 
  2. Elaboration: This is what reading strategies call “envisioning images” and “synthesizing and extending thinking.” I now have another word for it, and another way to connect what we do in English class to the brain science of learning, and to other subject areas. It’s also what we do on grammar and literary terms as we discover terms learned in one work occurring in another mentor text.
  3. Generation: Earlier this year a math teacher in a book discussion of Understanding by Design set a goal of starting a unit with students trying to solve an end-of-unit problem. She was really excited about the results—now I know the brain science explanation! What might this look like in English? Maybe students reading a book of their own choice this summer and posting a review on Then we can discuss in the fall how they tackled that task—what old learning they used, and what new learning might be helpful.
  4. Reflection: This is another big current trend, which I am more and more sold on the more I do—both for my students and for myself (after all, that’s what this blog is!). Now I know WHY it works: combination of retrieval and elaboration. Simple. 
  5. Calibration: Another hat I wear is School Improvement Coordinator (interpretation: the person who runs the accreditation stuff [groan from the audience] every so many years). Calibration is a necessary objective check on an internal assessment. Think: the airplane pilot who is sure his instruments are the problem, not his gut sense, and his voice on the recovered black box is the last we hear of him. That’s what accreditation is: calibration. To avoid the illusion of mastery. It’s also why students need to see what they read as mentor texts.
If you haven’t already read this book, I highly recommend it for your summer reading. If you have already read it…you might want to read it again (I’m pretty sure I will at some point). And let me know how it was significant in your teaching or learning. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Summer Professional Reading Goals

Let the summer and the summer reading begin!

I just love the endless possibilities of the beginning of the summer--for the purposes of this blog, I'll confine myself to books, and for this particular blog post, I'll share the professional reading I'm thinking about doing. Later I'll share other reading lists. (If you don't want to wait that long, find me on Goodreads.) 

Since I wear several professional hats--high school English teacher, curriculum coordinator, and school improvement coordinator--I'm interested in teaching reading and writing, in pedagogy in general, and in educational leadership. So some of the books I'm hoping at this point to read are as follows: 
  1. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Peter C. Brown. Actually, I'm nearly done with this excellent book, requested by some other faculty during a recent professional development meeting when a blog I had people read linked to this book as a source. (Stay tuned to future blogs...)
  2. Formative Classroom Walkthroughs: How Principals and Teachers Collaborate to Raise Student Achievement, by by Connie M. Moss and Susan M. Brookhart. Recommended by a good friend and colleague at a different school--same for the next book.  I did walkthroughs of all secondary classrooms several times this year, and I'm excited to read this book to make them even more purposeful and helpful next year.
  3. The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners, Carol Ann Tomlinson. Recommended by a good friend and colleague at a different school. I'm at a small school with limited support for struggling or advanced students. Looking for ways we can make a difference for those students right in our classrooms.
  4. Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners, Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison. Recommended by a colleague at an AP seminar last summer. (Or else Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform our Schools, also by Ron Ritchhart. This is the recent book by the same author, which I've seen recommended several places. Which should I start with? Do I want to focus on classroom pedagogical strategies or on shaping school culture?)
  5. 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know, Jeff Anderson. I ordered all of his books about 2 years ago, and have made a little progress on authentically integrating grammar instruction into writing, but need to make more.
  6. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark. This got a lot of recommendations on an NCTE thread earlier this year, so I ordered it, but never got around to reading it during the year.
  7. Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing, Penny Kittle. Read and loved Kittle's Book Love 2 years ago, and ordered this one on writing and started it last summer, but never got around to finishing it.
  8. 50 Things You Can Do with Google Classroom, Alice Keeler and Libbi Miller. Since my new school uses Chromebooks and Google, and since I set up a Google Classroom at the beginning of this year and never used it, when I saw this somewhere, I got a free sample on Kindle. If that looks good, I'll purchase the book.
  9. Teaching in a Chromebook Classroom, Barbara Sweet (on Kindle). See above for why I was interested. Got this during the past year--I think it came up as a special recommendation on my Kindle at some point for a great special price. 
  10. The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High Quality Units, Grant Wigeons and Jay McTighe. I facilitated a book discussion this year of Understanding by Design by the same authors for a few colleagues, but it's really big and long. Looking for something shorter for more people next year. I was considering Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding (same authors), but then found this one and thinking I might check it out.
Yes, I know I'll never get through all those books. But it's fun to think about!

What professional reading are you doing this summer?

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Helping Students Become Adults Who Read

Does Steph Curry play basketball too much?”

That’s how I told my daughter, who is also an English teacher, she should have responded to the student who told her she reads too much. Yea, well, I always have great comebacks for other people’s lives. I’m not nearly so clever in real time.

Still, the point here is I want my students to read not just under duress and when assigned, but to grow into adults who read. (If you’re wondering why, see here, here, and here.) How can I scaffold a bridge for that gap?

Let’s start with this question: What do adults who read do? 

Here are a few answers to that question: They have lists of books they want to read, they have ways of adding to those lists, and they talk with others about what they read. One way this adult has been doing those things increasingly in the last year is via the Goodreads web site

I connected with a few friends who do a lot of reading—I can see the list of books they want to read, and their ratings and reviews of books they finish. I keep a “want to read” shelf. I post brief (usually, sort of, at least that’s what I tell myself to psyche myself up) reviews of the books I finish. And I joined the Goodreads reading challenge, where you set a goal for the number of books you want to read in the calendar year, and Goodreads will keep a running tally (see photo). It also gives me recommendations based on what I’ve read and rated.

So what happens if I get students on Goodreads? My rising 10th and 11th graders are going to have to do it for their summer reading—so I’ll keep you posted on how that goes. (It just seems to me that instead of just posting 5 “want to read” books and 1 book review on a class Google Doc like they did last year, posting the same to Goodreads is an easy way to give students an audience beyond just school.)

Here’s what happened in the half a class period Friday that I gave my out-going 11th graders to play around on Goodreads, asking them to at least set up an account and post 5 “want to read” books (I really have no grade leverage here as it was our last class period of the year, and I don’t have them again next year). They were fully engaged. They were remembering books they’d read in school in previous years (“Oh! Remember Where the Red Fern Grows!”), rating and shelving them as “read.” 

I noticed one student’s screen displayed Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. I said, “That’s a great book,” just as he clicked on the next page, but then he went back for another look. 

Another student said, “Wonder keeps coming up.” I walked over to my basket of books, pulled it out, and handed it to her. Another student then went over to my basket and found The Fifth Wave, which he asked if he could borrow. 

To yet another student I handed Half the Sky—her neighbor said, “Oh, that’s a really good book.” She answered, “I have this in my car.”

I think they’ll read this summer. I even think they’re becoming adults who read.