Monday, 29 October 2012

Preparing for the Storm

New Yorkers scurry through the streets, rushing to the nearest grocery store to stock up on bare essentials.  Weathermen point to technicolor maps portraying doom and gloom.  Officials flood the airwaves with emergency contingency plans.  The entire city is on edge as they prepare for the arrival of a most unwelcome guest, Hurricane Sandy.

As I made my way to Teacher College's Coaching Institute last week, there's no way I could've predicted that this is where I would find myself by Sunday evening.  Today, I'm hunkering down in my hotel room to see if the brick wall outside my window will budge under the blustery conditions.  As I do, I can't help but think that I've felt the same sense of urgency in my sessions with keynote speakers and staff developers about the current storm looming in education.

The Storm is Looming

In her keynote, Lucy Calkins noted that education is at a major crossroads.  With the advent of the Common Core Standards, one of the "most significant documents in the history of American education," educators are poised to make dramatic change.  The problem is, she added citing her work with Hargreaves and Fullan, the authors of Professional Capital, the pathway to implement change is not so clear.  Some leaders advocate a business approach with an emphasis on short term reforms and cost-saving measures while others push for a professional approach that acknowledges the complexity of teaching and relies on the collective capacity of experienced teachers.  At this point, it is unclear which way education will go.  Meanwhile, the storm is looming.

As if this isn't enough, Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators, stated in his keynote that reformers have it all wrong.  The system of education is not failing, it's completely obsolete.  With the disappearance of routine, semi-skilled jobs and the democratization and commoditization of knowledge, it's time to reinvent how we educate our students.  We need to promote a culture of learning and innovation.  Here's why:

Wagner went on to say how the current culture of school is radically at odds with the culture of learning:

The Culture of Today’s Schooling
The Culture of Learning and Innovation
  • Schools celebrate individual achievements

  • Schools celebrate collaboration and collective achievement

  • Schools honor specialization and becoming specialists (teachers work in departments, students declare majors)

  • Schools promote approaching problems from multiple perspectives and disciplines

  • Schools impose a culture of passive consumption where students are meant to take in and regurgitate

  • Schools seeks ways in which students can create real products for real audiences

  • Schools penalize failure

  • Schools honor risk taking and learning from failure

  • Schools rely on external motivation

  • Schools rely on intrinsic motivation

Clearly, the storm is looming, and it can leave us in a frenzied state wondering how we can prepare ourselves to make a difference.  Just like the people who loaded their baskets with food, water, and flashlights ahead of Hurricane Sandy, we need to take action.  

Preparing for the Storm

So what's in our basket?  The good news is, we already have many practices, routines and frameworks in place as we move forward.  In addition, I offer up these reminders and considerations as we continue to fine-tune our work in and out of the classrooms.

Student Checklist for Opinion Writing
1.  We need to continue to teach with intensity and purpose in our Reading and Writing Workshops.  As I observed staff developers in classrooms on Friday, I noticed how they implement mini-lessons that encourage more student reflection and action.  By continually referring to checklists, writing more "flash drafts," and monitoring their progress throughout a unit, students work actively as they transfer skills across units, increase their volume and develop independent writing habits. 

2.  We need to continue to work collaboratively with our colleagues.  As Literacy Coaches Gina La Porta Roller and David Lowe noted through their work with teachers in Seattle schools, we can pinpoint effective practice, promote areas of inquiry, and calibrate student learning and teacher practice within and across grade levels thereby leveraging our collective capacity.  This is perfect work that some of us are already tackling in our PLCs.

3.  Throughout our work, we should think about how we can integrate and assess the "Core Competency" skills that Wagner states are essential in creating innovative students.   These include:

  • Critical Thinking/Problem Solving
  • Collaborating
  • Adapting
  • Initiating
  • Effective Oral and Written Communicating
  • Accessing and Analyzing Information
  • Developing Curiosity and Imagination

4.  We need to use our time wisely.  Let's face it, time is our most precious commodity, and how we use it both in and out of the classroom matters.  We need to ensure that our students are spending the bulk of the time in our classrooms by reading and writing.  Staff Developer Chris Lehman noted that it takes two hours of reading a day for a struggling student to make up more than a year and a half of growth over time.  To get better at anything, we need time to practice and rehearse.

In addition, Wagner suggests we should make time for play.  He cited the 20% Google Rule as a model that we can emulate not only for our students, but for us as well.  By allowing for time while holding ourselves accountable for exploration through personal passion, we would model risk taking and continued learning for our students.  Who knows, we may be surprised with what we come up with as well.

So in the face of an oncoming storm, things don't always have to be so dreary.  As I watch Mayor Bloomberg and his team conduct press conferences where they explain the choices have made and the plans they have set in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy, I'm inspired by their forethought and insight in seeing this storm through safely.  I believe that we can do the same for current state where we are in education.  So what do you say, are you with me?

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Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Other Teacher in the Room

In one of my recent posts, I mentioned that there are other teachers in the room, and we can use technology to invite them to participate in ways that seemed unimaginable even just a couple of years back.  Of course, these teachers are the students, and they certainly have a  lot to add to every discussion and activity. This week I was reminded of something that I know all too well but forget far too often.  There's yet another teacher in the room, the author.  

Through read alouds, shared texts and independent reading, we sit down with these master storytellers and revel in their work.  We look closely at the choices they make, use them as inspiration, and even try to emulate them in our own writing.  The thing is, with technology these days, the learning does not have to stop with reading their books.  There are countless ways to connect with them.

Email or Skype the Author

Megan, a student of mine, rushed into the classroom during break earlier this week.  "She wrote back!" she beamed.  She was none other than Jennifer Armstrong, author of Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World.  

Just a few days before, Megan handed in her letter to Armstrong as a reading response for my class.  She wasn't too optimistic that she would hear back from her, but she was glad she tried.  She came up with the idea of writing to Armstrong when I showed the class my letter to Goodreads about possible interview questions for Lois Lowry on her new book, Son.  Asked how she got the author's address, Megan answered,  "Simple.  It's online."

But then Armstrong's reply came, and it made all the difference in the world to Megan. In it, Armstrong elaborated on how she came up with the topic and how the publication of her finished product was pure serendipity as it coincided with a nationwide exhibit on Shackleton's trip.  Check out Megan's response to Armstrong's letter:

On lucky occasions, email may lead to something else.  Last year, I was fortunate enough to collaborate with Katherine Schlick Noe, author of Something to Hold. In a culminating activity, my classes skyped her and asked her questions about her book and her writing process.  During the interview, they showed her their extension project work as well.  While some authors may not be as willing to communicate with their readers, you'll never know if you don't ask.

Check Out Blogs and Websites

Nowadays, authors are asked to maintain an online presence.  Whether they're blogging about the books they read and schools they visit like Linda Sue Park or writing some brief photo essays like Debbi Wiles, authors are showing their writing in new ways.  

What better way to get to know authors before reading a book club book or read aloud novel than checking out their websites.  They may even have some hidden treasures there.

In this week's Mock Caldecott meeting, Nancy reminded us of this when we talked about Laura Vaccaro Seeger's amazing book Green.

On her website's link for educators/kids, Seeger showed images of her sketchbook and explained how the ideas for this book grew from the very first seeds.  After reading it, I appreciated the book on a whole new level.

Watch Book Trailers and Related Videos

Another exciting possibility is the book trailer,  Based on movie trailers, these short videos are the book talks of the 21st Century.  And with a potent mix of sound, images and video clips, it's no wonder they are a hit with readers of all ages.  It's not surprising that teachers and students are getting into the mix as well by creating their own book trailers.  Check out these Book Trailers of some popular titles:

But good videos about books aren't limited solely to book trailers.  The other day I was visiting Nancy and Brian M.'s class, and they had just shown this video about Iqbal as a final point of reflection after having read the book aloud in class.  

Log on to Goodreads

Many of our Grade 7 and Grade 8 classes are logging on to  I'm starting to understand why.  After rating twenty books or so, users get recommendations and notifications of new releases that match their profiles.  Not only that, goodreads sends out invitations to participate in author interviews and live chats.

In fact, if you've read The Future of Us or Wonder, there's a live chat with the authors coming up on October 23rd.  Click here to find out more.

These ideas may just be the tip of the iceberg, but my point is this:  there is no doubt that learning about an author can go well beyond that page or two in the back of the book.  As readers, we need to check out what else is out there.  When we do, that other teacher in the room may quite literally come to life before our very eyes.

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Sunday, 7 October 2012

Making Claims and Providing Evidence

Something amazing happened this week.  Unfortunately, it wasn't a peace deal in Syria, or an end to the global economic down turn.  No, what happened was that Big Bird may have finally been put on notice.

If you weren't one of the 70 million plus viewers or a contributor to the 10.3 million tweets, you may have missed the US Presidential Debate on Wednesday night.  Regardless of political affiliations, many analysts, pundits, and viewers alike attribute Romney with winning the debate.  He "emerged from the fog" as David Brooks wrote.   And while some reported that the debate lacked a bit of luster, I was blown away, not necessarily at what the candidates said, but on how people reacted.

At one point during the debate, Romney said, "I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS.  I'm going to stop other things.  I like PBS.  I love Big Bird.  I actually like you, too (Jim Lehrer).  But I'm not going to--I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for."

Instantly a flood of reactions hit the twittersphere peaking at 140,000 tweets per minute.  The next day, the CEO of PBS was interviewed on Nightly News, and since then even young viewers voiced their opinions.  Not all reactions were negative though.  Ari Fleischer tweeted, "Big Bird needs to ask Dora the Explorer how she manages 2live without tax payer money.  Try it Big Bird.  You'll be just fine."  Unfortunately for Romney, he just can't get his claims to come out right.  Remember the 47%?  And this time, his claim on stopping spending got lost in a cloud of yellow feathers.         
My point is, we're reacting to claims more than ever before. As soundbite scavengers, we look for simple take-aways that make lasting impressions.  For better or worse, political campaigns are built on this, and so too is our 24 hour news cycle society.  Claims are captured, replayed, and double-checked more than ever before.  It seems like the term "fact check" appears in the news daily now, and there's even an organization dedicated to it,

It's no wonder then that the Common Core emphasizes the teaching of making strong claims and supporting them with valid evidence so much. 

The words "claim" and "evidence" only appear a couple of times in the Common Core, but  if you look across the standards in reading and writing, it's everywhere really.  In the following charts, I pulled the standards for Grade 6 and turned them into claims that I want my students to be able to make or do.  For each claim, there is accompanying evidence that students need show or use to support their claims.

I may have gone claim crazy, but I used this framework when I had my students set goals for reading and writing.  I told them that a goal is just a claim that you want to be able to make in the future.  The steps to achieve the goal, I told them, will become the evidence you accumulate along the way to prove that you achieved the goal.

In today's world, we can't avoid making claims nor should we.  Being part of a democratic society depends on it too much.  What we should do is teach to it more directly.  Students need to state strong claims and provide supporting evidence often.  They need to notice when others state claims and ask whether the evidence is valid or not.  In doing so, they'll become more effective communicators and critical members of society.  That's my claim, now prove me wrong.

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