Thursday, September 19, 2019

Effective Scaffolding Motivates

“We’re going to do pull-ups,” said the fitness instructor last week. I burst into a peal of laughter that momentarily echoed around the gym. I have never in my life been able to do a pull-up, so that wasn’t even on my radar of possibility at age 54. 

Then she led us to this weight machine that pushes up under my feet with the amount of weight I set it for to assist my effort. It turns out that I CAN do a pull-up—with 95 pounds of help. It was HARD, but I DID it! That felt great! And maybe, with persistence, I could do it with less and less help! However far I get toward doing a completely unassisted pull-up, working on it increases my strength, muscle tone, and bone density—my real health goals at this point in life.

That pull-up apparatus struck me as a great analogy for the scaffolding I need to provide for students as they learn. Everyone knows what the goal is, values it, knows that the scaffolded attempt isn’t the end goal, but IS an important step, both in providing the motivation of knowing what it feels like and in exercising all the muscles needed for the end goal at the level those muscles are currently capable of. And that working toward the goal is the real goal.

What does that kind of scaffolding look like in an English class? Here are a few ideas: Painting the goals of proficiency in reading, writing, thinking, speaking, listening to promote buy-in. Differentiating according to students’ readiness, interest, and learning needs. Providing a lot of time for practice along with targeted instruction and formative feedback. Setting high expectations, with sign-posts of progress along the way for encouragement. 

I still have vivid memories of the President’s Physical Fitness Test from elementary school. I was a tomboy who prided myself on competing with the boys in every way. I played basketball, mastered boys’ push-ups, and grabbed the frogs and bugs out of their hands when they shoved them in my face hoping to see me scream and run away. The only thing that totally defeated me was the pull-up. For the President’s Physical Fitness Test, I had to hang. It’s been this little sliver of hidden shame all these years, finally exorcised by those words, “We’re going to do pull-ups” and the apparatus to help me do it. I love practicing my pull-ups now!

How do you scaffold learning to help students discover joy and motivation in doing things that had seemed too hard?

Saturday, September 14, 2019

How Does Your Brain Grapple with Difficult Text?

Every once in a while I choose a hard book—often a canon classic. I do this for 2 reasons: (1) to continue to be a learner in my field of literature and (2) to understand what I’m asking students to do when I ask them to grapple with texts that are difficult for them. 

Because I love to read, and because I read a lot, I’m a pretty skilled reader. I don't even think about what my brain is doing to make meaning. But many students are not as skilled. So every once in a while it’s helpful to put myself in their shoes, so to speak. To read something that doesn’t naturally capture all of my attention and fully submerge me, until I emerge, blinking, into the real world again, 3 hours later—like the latest Inspector Gamache mystery or Blake Crouch sci-fi thriller. To read something where I need to think about monitoring my comprehension and making meaning from the text. To understand what I am asking my students to do when I ask them to read texts that are difficult for them.

My recent challenge was the Iliad. 

In my class, we talk about 7 strategies of effective readers. They (1) plan and monitor their comprehension, (2) determine importance, (3) ask questions, (4) visualize, (5) make connections, (6) make inferences, and (7) synthesize thinking. What did that look like as I read the Iliad?

(1) Plan and monitor comprehension: I wanted to understand why this text is considered a foundational work of literature to western culture, and to what extent, if any, that is still relevant today. And I want to think about the strategies I use when I encounter difficult text. There are 24 books in the Iliad, and I planned to read 1 per night. Sometimes I realized I’d read several pages and hadn’t really been paying attention. Sometimes I’d go back and re-read it. Sometimes I’d glance over it and decide it was not important to my plan, so I’d just move on. Sometimes (true confessions) I’d check Wikipedia. (Note: I do tell students to feel free to use resources to support your reading—but not to replace it. Decide for yourself whether you need the summary before to have a mental construct for what’s coming, or after to check your comprehension.)  
(2) Determine importance: There are so many characters and so many allusions to other Greek stories—sometimes I’d look them up (see next section) and sometimes I’d just decide all I really need to know about those pages is Hector fights and kills a bunch of Greek heroes—I don’t need to know all their back stories.

(3) Ask questions: There were factual questions for comprehension: Who are these various people and gods? How are they related? Which side are they on? Half the time, at first, I didn’t know whether I was reading about who I’ve traditionally thought of as the Greeks or the Trojans—Danaans, Argives, Achaeans are all synonyms for Greeks. Then there were the bigger questions: What is honor? What is worth fighting and dying for? What is winning? What are the women, the ordinary citizens of Troy, and the Greek families left behind for 10 years thinking? How much agency and responsibility do people actually have? How do humans and the divine interact?

(4) Visualize: The descriptions of armor, fighting, and killing are pretty vivid and pervasive. Sometimes I’d stop and search Google Images for things like “greaves.” This is going to lead right into connections….

(5) Make connections: After visualizing many Homeric battle scenes, I came in my daily Bible reading to the death of Saul, and suddenly I visualized that scene in a way I never had before. The Philistines even stripped him of his armor, just like the Trojans did Patroclus, though the Greeks finally reclaimed Patroclus’s body—as the people of Jabesh Gilead did with Saul’s (1 Samuel 31).  

(6) Make inferences: I really don't like Achilles. He has anger issues and no respect for women. (Not that any of them did--especially Agamemnon. Seriously--he offers to return #1 prize woman, plus the pick of the top 12 women of Troy when sacked, plus the hand of any 1 of his 4 daughters in marriage!)

(7) Synthesize: The gods make even the worst interpretations of the God of the Old Testament seem...trustworthy and comparison. They bicker, compete, play favorites, make intentionally misleading promises, and just plain manipulate people for the sake of their own Olympian politics.

All told, I'm just really glad I didn't live in that world--it wasn't much of a Golden Age for men or women. But I am glad I read the book. I felt immersed in the world, culture, and values distant from me in time and place for the month it took me to work my way through it. It has enriched the way I think about any related story, concept, or allusion.  

Plus, it feels really cool be able to say, “Yes, I’ve read the Iliad.”

How does your brain grapple with difficult text? Why is that important?

P.S. The last time I blogged on my reading of a difficult text was with One Hundred Years of Solitude. Here's what I learned then

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Sharing Faith-Full Living and Learning

Living the faith generationally: my sister, daughter, grandson, niece, and nephew

Don’t worry about writing about your faith. Live your faith, then write about life.

Gene Luen Yang, artist/author of American-Born Chinese, the first graphic novel nominated for the National Book Award, and of many other graphic novels since then, addressing the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in 2014, shared the wisdom one of his teachers had shared with him. That stuck with me, because I think it’s true of teaching as well. How do I share my faith with students? Live my faith, then teach about life. In fact, live my discipline, then teach life.

It’s the same good teaching strategies that engage students in deep learning about science, English, math, and music that engage them in deep learning about faith. 
If math and social studies are just school stuff that doesn’t connect to life outside the classroom, and if Bible is just another thing to learn at school, it will connect to life in exactly the same way. If, on the other hand, our subjects connect to life—how we communicate, make decisions about health and stewardship, evaluate the news, appreciate beauty and patterns around us, spend our leisure time, and use our knowledge and skills to love and serve our neighbors—then Bible class and the faith that it nourishes will also connect to life. 

Here are some strategies I’ve found helpful in making life connections for students with my subject area and, consequently, with my faith:

Stories: Stories engage many parts of our brains from the logic of cause and effect to the sensory experience of visualization and also stimulate emotional responses. As a result, stories result in durable learning. 

Heart: The stories that come from my heart show that I’m fully here, and invite students to explore the subject and their own hearts in the same way. I used to be afraid to show how much I cared—about students, about the subject, about faith—because it felt too vulnerable. If it were rejected, it would be a rejection of me. But the current phrase I’m seeing frequently really is true: “Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” I attend games and events to see students shine outside the classroom. I greet them before class. I share things just for fun, like pictures of my grandkids. I share books I’ve enjoyed. And I share how reading and writing help me process my struggles, like balancing the sadness of death with my hope in the resurrection (see my blog about my mother’s death, “Processing Death through Reading and Writing”).  

Application: Sometimes those heart applications just happen, and they happen more often when I plan for them. How do I plan for them?

Reflection: Applying learning to life takes deep thought and reflection, which takes time. How do I encourage reflection? 

  • I ask questions. Then I wait—my students need time to reflect. (Sometimes, waiting is a challenge!) Then I listen in order to understand my students—not primarily to respond to my students or as a platform to say something.
  • I structure my course around 4 essential questions (Who am I? Who is my neighbor? What’s wrong with the world? What is the significance of language?). And I structure each unit around essential questions: What is human dignity and why does it matter? What is the connection between the individual and the community? Why is empathy important?
  • I have students journal on an essential question at the beginning of a unit so they can compare their view at the end and see what they’ve learned.
  • I encourage students to come up with their own questions (see “Nurturing Questions”).
  • I give students time periodically to reflect on what they are learning in relation to schoolwide student objectives (see “Not ‘What Am I Teaching?’ but ‘What Are They Learning?’”)
  • I model my own reflection, sharing my journal, blogs, and other writing (like “Audience and Purpose in Writing: My Mom’s Eulogy”). I do this, in part, because I want to provide a classroom environment where the teacher (me) is the chief inquirer, modeling what it means to ask questions in subject area, in life, and in faith.
Keep on keeping on: tell your stories, share your heart, apply what you know, and reflect deeply. Live your faith and teach your life, wherever you are, and whoever you are with.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Relationships Aren't the Frosting on the Cake of Education

An infant possesses a tractor-beam gaze that finds your eyes and locks into them, compelling connection. I remember that with my first-born, hours after birth. And this summer I was reminded of it with my first born’s second born (see photo above). When the interactive smiles and cooing start, they only strengthen the attraction. Humans are hardwired for connection. 

For Christians, this comes as no surprise, knowing we are made in the image of a God whose very being is relationship among three persons: “Let us make mankind in our image” (NIV, Genesis 1:26). And after proclaiming each act of creation good and very good, that trinitarian God declares something in that beautiful paradise not good—a person alone (Genesis 2:18). When God became human and walked among us, Jesus focused his most powerful teaching on individuals in relationship (see "What Does It Mean to Teach Like a Disciple?"). 

The significance of relationship in teaching is corroborated by science. Jeff Myers summarized the findings in his book Cultivate: Forming the Emerging Generation through Life-on-Life Mentoring (30-31): 

  • Students’ sense of being liked, respected and valued by a teacher predicted whether they would value the subject matter and expect success.
  • Students who believed their teacher cared for them believed they learned more.
  • Students’ feelings of being accepted by teachers were significantly related to emotional, cognitive and behavioral engagement in class.
  • Teachers who expressed greater warmth tended to develop greater confidence in students.
  • Teachers’ nurturing behaviors were related to students’ adoption and internalization of teachers’ goals and values.
  • Teachers’ interpersonal relationship skills were significantly associated with students’ achievement motivation and self-esteem.
If a warm relationship between students and their teacher is that significant, I cant ignore them. I can’t just say, “Well, some teachers are gifted interpersonally, but not me. My gift is intellectual grasp of my subject.” Or “I’m an introvert—relationships aren’t my thing.” (Seriously, this gets personal. My lowest rating on student surveys tends to be in the area of students not being fully persuaded that I care about them.) What, then, can I do to meet this student need for connection?

Current pedagogy recognizes the importance of knowing students as individuals in many topics including differentiation (knowing students’ interests and skill levels in order to better connect them to the learning that happens in the classroom), restorative discipline (based on the idea that the biggest issue with behavior is not that a rule has been broken but that relationships have been damaged), and social and emotional learning (where teachers are prime models as well as explicit instructors of relationship building). (See below for recommended books on these topics.)

In addition to reading up on the topics mentioned above, here are some things I have found helpful:

(1) Beginning of the year activities. Right now the my Pinterest and Twitter feeds are awash with such activities. Alternatively, I just Googled “get to know students” and came up with 2.6 billion results in 0.5 seconds, like “Getting to Know Your Students” (TeacherVision). In case you’ve missed the first day, you still have time: see “The First Six Weeks: Getting to Know Your Students” (TeachThought). Think this is just for elementary students? Here’s advice to college professors at Carnegie Mellon University: “Get to Know Your Students as Individuals.”

(2) Questioning and listening strategies that demonstrate my own curiosity about and value for students’ thinking, including open-ended questions, wait time, and follow-up exploration “What makes you say 
that? For more on positive questioning and listening, see “Weaving SEL into our Classroom Questioning” (MiddleWeb).

(3) Other good ideas? See “33 Ways to Build Better Relationships”  Here are my favorites:
  • Know your children well and allow them to know you well [see the following paragraph on Brene Brown]
  • Every child (and adult) needs a champion [see the final paragraph on Rita Pierson]
  • Healthy relationships are built on high challenge and high support 
  • Create a sense of belonging
  • Catch ‘em getting it right more than you catch ‘em getting it wrong
  • Magnify strengths rather weaknesses and focus on gifts rather than deficits
  • If you’re not modeling what you’re teaching, you’re teaching something different
  • Listening is what you do to understand, not time spent simply waiting to reply
(4) Learning how to be brave and vulnerable myself from reading Brene Brown’s books Now she has a free online resource to help teachers implement her principles for students. It's called Daring Classrooms. She says, “We must be guardians of spaces that allow students to breathe, be curious, and to explore the world and be who they are without suffocation. .... And what I know from the research is that we should never underestimate the benefit to a child of having a place to belong—even one—where they can take off their armor. It can and often does change the trajectory of their life.”

Educator Rita Pierson in her TED Talk “Every Kid Needs a Champion,” says, “[O]ne of the things that we never discuss or we rarely discuss is the value and importance of human connection. Relationships.” What will I do today to cultivate relationship with the kids in my life—whether students or grandkids—who I want to become the confident, competent, curious, collaborative, creative divine image bearers they were created to be?

Friday, August 23, 2019

Review of All Learning Is Social and Emotional

“Why does he look like that?” my 3-year-old grandson asks, pointing to a picture of the Lorax in the book we’re reading. 

I respond, “I wonder…maybe he’s sad…or maybe he’s frustrated. Which one do you think he is?” 

“I think he’s sad.” And we talk about why the Lorax might be sad and what he can do about it. And I hope that maybe, just maybe, my little grandson will be a little more sophisticated at processing his emotions the next time his mom asks tells him it’s time to clean up his toys… Well, that’s one way I’ve been applying my recent reading.

All Learning Is Social and Emotional: Helping Students Develop Essential Skills for the Classroom and Beyond is a great book—I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and would love to read it again, slowly, in a discussion group, to thoroughly process and embed in my classroom all the fantastic ideas it contains. It is engaging, clear, challenging, and full of concrete applications to all grade levels and content areas.

First, what’s your response to that phrase "social and emotional learning" (SEL)?

  • What is it? It’s learning how to recognize and regulate one’s thoughts and feelings in order to attain goals, solve problems, build and repair relationships, and contribute positively to the larger community.
  • Does it belong in schools? We are teaching it, whether it’s intentional or not. If we make it explicit, we can be sure we are teaching what we want, what kids need, and doing it as intentionally and effectively as possible.
  • Doesn’t it take time away from content learning? Actually, these skills will not only make students better at mastering content material
  • Isn’t this just for students who come to school deficient in skills that should be taught at home? This will level the playing field for students coming in with gaps, but it isn’t only remedial. It’s the same skills adults are buying books on—Brene Brown, anyone?  And it’s the skills we want the inhabitants of our future world—whether they’re our kids, our students, or ourselves—to have.
These issues and more are addressed in the first chapter (you can read it here).

So what are skills are we talking about? According to this book’s authors, the 5 skills, outlined in the 5 chapters 2-6, are as follows: 
  • Identity and Agency: Identifying strengths and setting and attaining goals
  • Emotional Regulation: Identifying, responding to, and managing one’s own emotions (essential for the impulse control that not only sustains stable relationships, but also enables the famed ability to delay gratification) 
  • Cognitive Regulation: Paying attention, organizing, and solving problems are all school skills in this category, which starts with metacognition, or the ability to “(1) recognize one’s own and other people’s thinking, (2) consider the actions needed to complete a task, and (3) identify the strategies one might use to carry out those actions” (69-70).
  • Social Skills: Sharing, teamwork, relationships (communication, empathy, repair)—many of the 21st Century skills employers are valuing now.
  • Public Spirit: “Taking action to contribute positively to one’s family, classroom, and larger community” (121).

What did I especially love about this book?
  • Integration: Rather than proposing a separate SEL curriculum (there are many on the market already), it advocates and empowers integrating those skills throughout the school. There are many examples from all grade levels and subject areas to show what this could look like.
  • Teacher’s role: A clear emphasis on teachers intentionally modeling and identifying strategies, teaching students tools, and structuring classroom routines and assignments to give students practice using the tools and helping each other use them with growing independence.
  • More books: The appendix may be my favorite 21 pages of the book—literary recommendations for picture books and chapter books related each of the 5 competencies, with fictional and nonfictional characters who exhibit the skills we want students to master.
  • Restorative justice: This approach to school discipline in integrated into the chapter on social skills. For more information I highly recommend the book Hacking School Discipline: 9 Ways to Create a Culture of Empathy and Responsibility Using Restorative Justice.
  • Outward focus: In all 5 components there is a focus on using learning to help others, from the first one on Identity and Agency (“individual persistence and grit aren’t enough; they should be leveraged to better the lives of others.” 3rd grade teacher, p. 34) to the last one on Public Spirit. Public Spirit includes respect for others (“seeing worth and value in every human life, regardless of differences….true empathy lies in carefully listening to others in order to hear their thoughts and feelings” [121]), courage (“Courageous acts include speaking up o behalf of others and making unpopular choices that are nonetheless ethical” [124]), ethical responsibility, civic responsibility, social justice, service learning, and leadership.
The final chapter provides strategies and tools for bringing this approach to SEL to your school. 

I want my grandkids, my students, and the inhabitants of my future to have identity and agency, emotional regulation, cognitive regulation, social skills, and public spirit. They will be effective students, healthier and happier people, and aware and active citizens. As the authors sign off, they liken teaching these skills to planting a tree: “It’s been said, ‘The best time to have planted a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is today.’ What tree will you plant? And when?” (156).

Friday, August 16, 2019

Using Picture Books in the Secondary Classroom

Shh, don’t tell! I got my grandson a book for his birthday. I know that’s no surprise, but it’s such a cool book, I want to share it with secondary English students in Japan as well as with my 3-year-old grandson in America. (Spoiler alert: I’ve figured out a way. And it's not just me--there are many advantages to using picture books with older kids!) 

The title? Take Me Out to the Yakyu by Aaron Meshon. It’s a really cool picture book about a little boy going to a baseball game with one grandpa in America and with another grandfather in Japan. The pictures use vivid colors, and the story goes through the day of the game point by point on each two-page spread, from the trip to the ballpark to bedtime, comparing what it’s like in America and what it’s like in Japan. Sometimes there’s a difference, like the meal (hot dogs and peanuts vs. soba noodles and edamame) or the pitcher. (“In America, the pitcher throws a 95-mile-per-hour fastball. In Japan, the toushu throws a 153-kilometer-per-hour sokkyu.”) Sometimes there’s a similarity, like asking, “Are we home yet?” 

I hope my grandson enjoys it and learns a little bit about the culture of Japan, where his mother grew up and where his parents met—about similarities and differences with his own home culture of the US. 

My secondary English students in Japan would also love this book. When you live in Japan but study in English, you see little of your own exact experience in what you read. I think they’d be tickled pink to recognize some of their own experiences, so I’d have their attention. And while I have it, I could teach a killer lesson on comparison/contrast structure: This one is point-by-point. How else could we organize the information? What would it look like to group all the American information and all the Japanese information? What would it look like to group the similarities and the differences? Which is the most effective for the picture book audience and purpose? What would be another audience and purpose, and what method of organization would work best for it? Maybe secondary students could write their own picture book text comparing/contrasting another activity in 2 cultures they are familiar with. The possibilities are endless for deeply embedded understanding of comparison/contrast.

Using picture books in secondary EAL is a thing now. It offers an accessible entry into a topic (like The Butter Battle Book for the arms race), content (like Are You My Mother? for irony) or a skill (like the one in this blog). While they’re particularly helpful for English language learners and students who learn differently, they also add a sense of play for all students. They are short—perfect for using in a mini-lesson or with a text set. Also perfect for diversifying classroom literature without devoting the time for a whole novel. Workshopping the Canon, the professional book I read earlier in the summer, includes picture books in all its sample text sets. (I blogged on participating in the book's Facebook discussion here and Twitter chat here). Here’s a blog from another secondary teacher about using a picture book. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for more as I read to my grandson over the next year of sabbatical. 

And I've already ordered a second copy of Take Me Out to the Yakyu for myself!

Doing field work to discover new picture books!

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Review of Upgrade Your Teaching: Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience

“I don’t know!” my nearly three-year-old grandson whispered, his little body tense on the edge of the couch, eyes sparkling.

The setting for this anticipation? I was reading him "The Lorax," which he has heard many times before. When we caught our first glimpse of the Onceler in his lerkim on top of his store, I wondered aloud, “Who do those green arms belong to?” 

Why does my grandson claim he doesn’t know, when he certainly does? Why is he so excited about finding out what he’s pretending he doesn’t know?

I suddenly remembered the explanation in the professional book I was reading about how our brains are wired to seek patterns, and when we match a new experience to the pattern we had predicted it would fit, it sparks a dopamine release. In small children, this looks like the joy they get in matching each newly experienced reading of the same book to the pattern they’ve come to expect. 

It will take more variation from the original pattern as kids get older, but the same behavior and response is definitely there. In literature I recognize it in the shock of pleasure as I recognize foreshadowing, a word I’ve just learned, the revelation of something I’d suspected, a connection with something I’ve experienced, or the perfectly appropriate conclusion. In writing it happens when I find just the right idea, word, phrase, sentence, quote, example, or organization to communicate what I want to say—and especially when I get a response from a reader confirming that it was, indeed, just right.
The marvelous thing about this dopamine shot is it's a 3-for-1 when it comes to learning. Not only does it make learning fun by giving immediate pleasure and satisfaction, it also sets the brain up for more learning by making the brain want to repeat the experience and by creating an even more conducive state for learning: “Concomitant effects include enhanced attentive focus, motivation, curiosity, memory, persistence and perseverance” (10). And who doesn’t want that in their classroom?

That’s just one example of the insights in Upgrade Your Teaching: Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience by Jay McTighe and Jury Willis, M.D. There are many more where that comes from. Having read and discussed the original Understanding by Design several times and helped with the revision of two schools’ curricula based on the model, and being aware of some of the new brain research coming out with specific application to learning and schools, I was really interested in seeing how this book would bring the two together. It was well worth the read. 

In fact, if you haven’t read Understanding by Design, you could read this instead—then you’d get an introduction to both. The first two chapters are an overview of neuroscience and Understanding by Design (UbD) respectively. Chapters 3 - 6 go into more depth about using the UbD framework to plan curriculum, assessment, and instruction that fit how the brain works best. The curriculum chapter focuses on goals both for and by students; the assessment chapter on both formative and summative assessment; and the two instruction chapters on teaching for memory acquisition, meaning making, and transfer and on lesson planning. The final chapter adds to the topics previously included in UbD to include how it and brain science address recent discussion of the social and emotional factors that affect learning (SEL) in “Creating a Brain-Friendly Classroom Climate.” All of the chapters feature not only clear explanations but also specific examples of how to apply the principles. 

The first chapter’s neuroscience overview is important because it sets the stage for the rest of the book. All subsequent chapters reference how the elements of UbD and SEL address and utilize the brain’s wiring to enhance learning and minimize interference. Topics the first chapter introduces are the brain’s attention filter; the amygdala; fixed/growth mindsets; pattern-seeking; dopamine; neuroplasticity; short-term, long-term, and concept memory construction; and the video game model. The video game model is a brain-based explanation for why kids find this kind of learning addictive: video games provide desirable goals, achievable challenges, constant assessment with specific feedback, acknowledgement of progress and achievement. The rest of the book applies this content to teaching vis a vis UbD.  (You can actually read chapters 1 and 3 from this link.)

I love learning why the things that work well in my class do, and how to intentionally do them better and more. I could also add after reading this book, I love the dopamine dose that comes from encountering a new lesson or student issue, recognizing how it may fit a pattern I’ve encountered before, and experiencing success in my response. In fact, now that I think about it, I’m sure it was a little dose of dopamine that caused the joy I felt in recognizing my grandson’s response as an example of what I’d just read.