Friday, July 27, 2018

From Knowledge Keeper to Learning Model

“This change in roles may be one of the greatest shifts in our profession—from being the keeper of knowledge to being a model for how to learn” (Jacobs and Alcock 35).

This week I finished reading Bold Moves for Schools: How We Create Remarkable Learning Environments by Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Marie Hubley Alcock. The goal of the book is admirable and huge: to sift through all the clamor of new and competing claims in education, pick out the best, and put them together in a way that schools can be getting on with. I particularly liked the first 2 chapters, looking at students and then at teachers. But the chapter on environment overwhelmed me: I can’t begin to wrap my mind around what it would take in planning and training to make flexible groupings for students, teachers, and time actually work. Still, the way the book structured its discussion of the new roles of learner and teacher gave me a new metaphor, it connected to other things I’m learning this summer, and it motivated me to take some steps in a direction I’ve been meaning to head.

The metaphor is learning as navigation. We’re getting swamped in a sea of information; the need is staying afloat, determining a destination, and then using the tools (boat, sails, rudder) and the power (wind, currents) at our disposal to get there. We want students to become self-navigators, so as teachers, we have to be skilled navigators ourselves, as well as skilled at coaching others. “With Internet-based investigation, we are finding students launched into a vast new world without established game or performance rules. They need navigation coaches” (19). One big danger in that vast new world is confirmation bias—that is going to become an important vocabulary word in all my classes this year.

As teachers act as models and coaches (the term at my school is the “living curriculum”), the list of roles for learners and teachers is remarkably similar. For example, the first role for learners is “self-navigators,” and the first role for teachers is “self-navigating professional learners.” See the chart below for the rest:
Jacobs and Alcock helpfully supply action steps for teachers wanting to develop in any of those 6 roles. See below for the action steps for becoming a self-navigating professional learner (Figure 2.3 on page 34).

One of the things I get most excited about as a learner myself, and about seeing students do, is making connections. I’m reaching that “critical mass” point in my summer professional development reading where everything is beginning to connect to everything else. The innovation role of learners and teachers dovetails with Creating Innovators (they even quote Tony Wagner!) and Sparking Student Creativity. The chapter on assessment and curriculum touched on topics addressed in Fair Isn’t Always Equal, In the Best Interests of Students, and the new book I’ve just started, Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning

While I think English teachers have a jump on some of the subject areas as far as being aware that we need to be the chief readers and writers in the room in order to model and coach the developing readers and writers, a lot of us are also challenged by the expanding demands of internet literacy. Reading this challenged me to expand my media involvement by bringing podcasts and videos into class not as “extras” but as texts to study both for content and as models of speaking/presenting. In the Best Interest of Students also emphasized using podcasts and TED Talks as mentor texts for the speaking/listening standards. The first thing I did was look up the Malcolm Gladwell podcast Revisionist History, since AP 11 students are reading Gladwell’s book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants this summer. I’d heard of the podcast, and this motivated me to finally listen to it. I really enjoyed the one episode I listened to, and I need to listen to a few more to find one that will fit well in one of our units. I also scanned through my Pinterest boards to find resources I knew I’d stashed there—Cult of Pedagogy’s8 Great Educational Podcasts for Kids,” “5 TED Talks for the AP Lang & Comp Classroom,” and “9 TED Talks Recommended by Students, for Students.” 

In the conclusion, Jacobs and Alcock challenge the reader to take charge of the narrative about what teaching and learning are. That, it struck me, is exactly why I do this blog—to be a self-navigating learner, a social contractor, a media publisher, an innovative designer (as I reflect on my own practice), and an advocate for learners and learning, as I tell stories about the things I learn, think about, and try in my classroom, to put my two bits into shaping the professional narrative. 

Friday, July 20, 2018

Teaching with and for Creativity

What do these 3 things have in common with a museum display under construction?

Yesterday we visited a museum, my husband and I.
When we entered a new room full of interesting displays with one corner blocked off, guess where he went first? Yep, straight for dividers and tarps to try to see what was being hidden. 

Creativity is something innate in humans which can be leveraged to engage students in learning; at the same time, it is something we can and must teach, practice, and develop to meet the challenges of the contemporary world. Creativity is also something I’ve been researching the last several months, and the more I learn about it, the more it pops up in places I wasn’t even looking for it—like museum visits.

Two books I read on creativity were Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, a national bestseller by Tony Wagner, and Sparking Student Creativity, by Patti Drapeau. The first is broadly inspirational as well as itself using a creative format, integrating videos throughout. If you care about innovation in yourself or others as a teacher, parent, or mentor, this is a good book. But if you’re a teacher, you may want to then continue on to the next book for specific, concrete ideas (vocabulary, strategies, processes, exercises, rubrics) for talking about, teaching, practicing, giving feedback, and reflecting on creativity, innovation, and problem solving.

Wagner captures the stories of young STEM innovators (ch. 3) and social innovators (ch. 4), including interviews with parents, teachers, and mentors. I found the comparison of the 2 categories fascinating, as frequently STEM and humanities are set at odds, but the world needs innovation of both types to create the items as well as the policies and programs that will steward creation and advance justice. (And innovation in one field can inform and further it in another: Wagner introduces us to an engineering undergraduate school, Olin, that requires seniors to do 2 capstone projects—one in STEM and one in humanities!) The theme Wagner keeps surfacing is that play, passion, and purpose are the forces that form young innovators, and he drives us to ask how we can provide that for the next generation.

So what can I do about that on Monday in my already-full 45-minute period? That’s one of the questions Patti Drapeau sets out to answer in Sparking Student Creativity: Practical Ways to Promote Innovative Thinking and Problem Solving. She starts by naming the creative thinking skills: fluency (many ideas), flexibility (different ideas), originality (unlike anyone else's), elaboration (being able to build on and flesh them out). One example of an idea I could easily apply in a secondary English language arts class is to simply use more creative verbs in prompts. For example, ditch the dull "identify" and use “substitute” instead. I could ask students to substitute new nouns for all the nouns in a sentence (a little of Wagner’s play). Or substitute new items of decor to focus on in the description of Arthur Jarvis’s study in Cry, the Beloved Country—and how does that change the characterization? Drapeau gives 40 “Grab and Go” ideas divided among the 7 chapters, from sentence stems for a class working on each of the 4 creative thinking skills (#1) to a “Creativity Self-Reporting Form” (#40). She suggests ways to teach about creativity directly (analyze the process of famous creative people—maybe I should explore more about the creative process of the authors we read) to actually creating products.

Some of the ideas do seem a little over the top. Inventing a device to solve a problem for a character in a novel may work in an elementary classroom, integrating STEM into language arts. But if we’re talking about a secondary classroom with a limited number of minutes in a language arts period, activities like that steal time from my main objectives. However, I can legitimately have students create language arts artifacts—write a paragraph adding backstory to a character you want to know more about; or pick a paragraph, character, event, sentence, or chapter to leave out—how would that change the novel? 

The other night I was playing Bananagrams. I was stuck: there was no letter in a place I could build a new word off of, and I had 3 consonants I needed to use. I felt how stymied I was. I knew I needed to take apart some of those closely packed little words (flexibility) so that I could come up with a bunch of new words (fluency), and what I really needed was a long word (originality) to give me space to build off. It was hard to take the risk of disassembling part of my carefully constructed crossword. I had a moment of panic—What if I can’t think of anything else. And then I did. And it was fun. And I used all my letters. And I used my knowledge of how creativity works in solving problems. And I used it again while writing this post.

P.S. If you’re interested in the idea of creativity as something that can be broken into skills and strategies which can be taught and assessed, but you don’t have time right now for a whole book, try one of these articles. It’s where I started last spring.
  • “Four Myths about Creativity”  (Mitch Resnick, Edutopia, 2017) Do you believe any of these 4 myths about creativity?  This is the shortest article. It summarizes a new book that argues that everyone can be creative—and that creativity can be taught.
  • “Assessing Creativity” (Susan M. Brookhart, ASCD, 2013) We can assess creativity—and, in the process, help students become more creative. This is the longest and most technical article, but you might just want to scroll down to the rubric, see what you think, and work backward from that, if you find it intriguing. 
  • “Cultivating Creativity in Standards-Based Classrooms” (Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Edutopia, 2015) Even in a highly-structured classroom environment, you can foster creativity with strategies like possibility thinking, divergent thinking, encouraging student interests, and collaborative learning.
  • “The Science (and Practice) of Creativity” (Diane Catiergue, Edutopia, 2015) When schools nurture student creativity, they foster inquisitiveness, persistence, imagination, discipline, and collaboration, leading to improved classroom behavior, motivation, attendance, and academic attainment.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Experiencing Cognitive Dissonance by Reading about Standards, Creativity, and ELA

I’ve been thinking about what happens when knowledge coalesces. You know—like when you learn a word you never heard before, then suddenly it pops up everywhere. Like this year, my 5th time through The Scarlet Letter, students asked about a word I didn't remember ever encountering before: nugatory. Last night it popped up in a Jeeves and Wooster video I was watching with my husband. (I almost missed it, because in a posh British accent it sounded like "nuga tree.") Sometimes those connections are easy, magical, and exhilarating to discover, and sometimes they take a lot more work. That's how my professional development reading has been this week.  

First, if you are a 5th-12th grade English language arts teacher and you have not yet read Kelly Gallagher’s book In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom, run out and get it now. If you haven’t read him before, it is a great introduction to all the rest of his past books, and if you have, it is just as important—adding new ideas (specific assignments as well as philosophical developments) while reviewing old ones. Definitely motivated me to add his new book out this year (co-authored with another of my ELA gurus, Penny Kittle) to my to-be-read list. It seems most of the rest of the online ELA community is reading this summer, but I think that will have to wait until next summer while I give this one some time to work its way into my pedagogy. Gallagher begins and ends with the title, traveling in between the themes of what is good about the current standards and where they fall short, encouraging teachers to stay true to “what works” in growing students into mature readers, writers, speakers, and listeners by supplying many examples from his own (continuing) classroom experience of 30 years, informed by his continued growth, plans, and adaptations to circumstances.

After my last several professional development books on broader topicsinstructional coaching, standards based grading and assessment in the differentiated classroom, and creativity—all important and stretching topics—this was like speaking my mother tongue again after traveling to exotic lands and wrapping my tongue around learned sounds and syntaxes.

A little metacognition here—I think it is important to watch myself encounter some cognitive dissonance as I evaluate, synthesize, and apply some texts that both reinforce and counter each other--because it's exactly what I hope my students experience in my classroom. That happened for me with the book on standards-based assessment in the differentiated classroom that I responded to last week here, and 2 new books—Gallagher’s specifically on ELA teaching, and Tony Wagner’s 2012 best seller Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World

Standards are important, but none will be perfect, and they will come and go, so don’t get too attached. Gallagher gave me official permission to use what is helpful about the current standards, and to go beyond, when that is in the best interest of students. That freed me from a guilt riptide of standards adherence and documentation I was feeling from Fair Isn’t Always Equal. On the agreement side, Fair Isn’t Always Equal also emphasized articulating the goals and providing a variety of ways for students to get there, and to ascertain that they have. (Gallagher suggested 4 alternate, “In a perfect world” standards for reading, writing, speaking, and listening. His standard for reading is “What percentage of your students can walk into a bookstore [or visit] and know where to find books that interest them?” [188]). The book on creativity intersected with both the book on standards-based assessment and on what works in the ELA classroom in several ways, including the question of how to create standards, rubrics, and assessments for creativity, and what that looks like in the English language arts classroom. Wagner addresses that in chapter 5, “Innovating Learning.” Here are 2 places where Gallagher directly addresses those concerns: 

“It is through literature, [Judith] Langer notes [in Envisioning Literature 1995], that ‘students learn to explore possibilities and consider options; they gain connectedness and seek vision. They become the type of literate, as well as creative, thinkers that we’ll need to learn well at college, to do well at work, and to shape discussions and find solutions to tomorrow’s problems’” (59).

“Standardization rarely leads to excellence. When the curriculum is narrowed into a sameness, when we adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach, creativity suffers and students whose talents are not valued by the tests risk being marginalized. At a time of globalization—when it is crucial that we nurture creativity and intellectual risk taking in our students—this latest round of tests is having the opposite effect by standardizing our students. Instead of ‘racing to the top,’ our students are traveling in herds” (187). (I am fortunate to teach at a private international school where standardized testing of the standards is not mandated, but where PSAT, SAT, ACT, and AP scores are still a currency that makes college more accessible.)

So I am still working on synthesizing all these thoughts about the role of standards in nurturing creativity as well as the skills of reading, writing, speaking, and listening in the English language arts classroom. But life is growth, so it’s good that I’m still growing. And it’s good that there are a few more weeks until I need to work this all back into my classroom. 

How are you making connections and growing this summer?

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom

We know as adults that we attain mastery at different rates because of our interests, readiness, and preferred learning styles. So we try to offer students differentiation in content, process, and product according to those proclivities. But when it comes right down to it--to the test and the report card--how does one make it work in an effective and ethical manner?

Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom by Rick Wormeli is an important tool in the answering of that question. It assumes familiarity with differentiation, though the first (and shortest) of the 3 sections does review “Differentiation and Mastery” in 30 pages. The bulk of the book is about assessment (ch. 4-10) and grading (ch. 11-20). (To get that background, I highly recommend How to Differentiate in Academically Diverse Classrooms by Carol Ann Tomlinson, 2017—I facilitated an optional book discussion on it last year, and our entire faculty is reading it this year.)

This book I picked up because a friend (our small school's elementary principal) was ordering it for herself, and I said, “Get me one, too.” (I figured in my role as curriculum coordinator, it would be a good conversation piece. Learning point: read with friends. It will push you beyond your comfort zone, and give you comfort while you go.)

The middle section on assessment is where I am right now in my development as a differentiating teacher. At the end of the book, author Rick Wormeli gives the reader five suggestions for getting traction on the content of his book. I can commit to at least 1, 3, and 5:

  • “Really get to know your students, and look at your lessons in light of that knowledge. Do they respond to what you know about your students” (279). I’ll start by revising my beginning of the year survey to include a few more of the “Sample Individual Characteristics of Students to Consider When Planning Instruction” in Figure 7.1 (79-80).
  • “Read two or more other books on grading besides this one to find elements that speak to you and your classroom situation” (280). Out of the 16 listed, 2 by Susan Brookhart caught my attention: How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students (2017) and How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Your Classroom (2016). (Though I may not get to them until next summer!)
  • “Choose any three elements of assessment and grading in the differentiated class described in this book and try them out in the next two months. Be sure to give them your full focus and to ask students to help you reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and what you’d do differently the next time you try it” (280). I’ll have to extend the time span given that it is currently summer, but I definitely want to commit to a few things:

Descriptive Feedback and Student Self-Assessment (Ch. 5): Wormeli issues the following challenge:  Ask a colleague to walk into your classroom and interview your students by asking two questions:
  • What are you supposed to be learning here?
  • Where are you right now in relation to that goal? (51)
I’ve been thinking of that ever since I read Formative Classroom Walkthroughs several years ago. I think I’ll take the plunge and ask my peer coaching partner next year to go ahead and ask students that during the observation. So I’d best be sure that I build my lessons so students can answer.

Tiering Assessments (Ch. 8): Tiering has always been the most daunting tool in the differentiation toolkit for me. But I will here commit to tiering the major 1st quarter essay.  I’m also intrigued by education researcher Frank Williams’ Taxonomy of Creative thinking (given that I’m concurrently reading Creating Innovators and last year participated in a book discussion on Making Thinking Visible—how do Williams’ 8 levels of creative thinking interface with the list of thinking elements currently posted in my classroom?) The first 4 are cognitive: fluency, flexibility, originality, and elaboration. The last 4 are cognitive: risk taking, complexity, curiosity, imagination (97).

Rubrics (Ch. 9): I have several rubrics (writing, discussion, presentation). I want to explore how I can simplify these to make them more use-friendly. I was really excited about Wormeli’s not just permission but advice: “Don’t write out every level of descriptors for most assessments” (117), but focus on the “exemplary” descriptor because it’s the default target for students, and easy to assess for the teacher. 

I have come to a deeper understanding of assessing and grading in a differentiated classroom as a result of reading this book. I’m more equipped to take the steps I’m prepared to take, more open to and prepared for discussion of standards-based grading, and more cognizant that neither can be adequately “policy-ified.” Simply mandating that all assessments can be retaken as often as requested ends up with students playing both ends against the teacher’s middle. Some students will wait to study until after they take the first test. Others will wait until the end of the grading period. Students will be de-incentivized to understand. There must first be deep cultural change: the final assessment (or a version of it) made available from the beginning with everyone intrinsically motivated to attain mastery throughout the unit.

I expect I will return to this important book for several iterations of my grading policy. For now, I am happy to be further along my journey than I was 2 weeks ago, before I read it.

What is “fair” in your classes—for assessment and grades?

(This is the second book on my summer professional development reading list. See here for the complete list and here for the first book.)