Sunday, January 29, 2012

Risk Adversity and Fear of Failure

At Educon's opening panel discussion there was much talk about how our society has become adverse to risk taking, and how that fear of failure has stifled both student learning and reform efforts in our schools.  I've thought a lot about that over the past two days.

The current trend of school districts buying textbook programs with scripted lessons for teachers to follow is a perfect example of how this problem is manifesting itself.  With such lessons you will never get great teaching, but you also (theoretically) will prevent students from sitting through a failed lesson.  Schools are betting that the mediocrity will accumulate over the course of the year so that a high enough percentage of students can pass the state tests, thus preventing the school from being designated a "failure."

Image Credit: renjith krishnan
There are many negative effects of these scripted lessons.  Teachers never get to try new teaching strategies and learn what works and what doesn't.  They never get to learn from failure.  Teachers stop thinking creatively about new lessons.  Since they are being less creative, they are less able to teach their students to be creative.  Teaching becomes a lot more boring when you are simply reading a script, and students learn less from unenthusiastic teachers.

Students are suffering directly from this risk adversity, too.  Lately the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students in my school have been preparing for the school's science fair.  I've asked many of them what experiments they are planning to do.  Every student I've asked has referred me to a book of science fair projects where the procedure, outcome, and explanation are provided.  This is not science, and those aren't experiments.  The thought of our students trying something and failing has become so unpalatable to us that we have reduced science to the same scripted replication our teachers are being forced to follow.

Science, especially at the elementary school level, should be about wondering why things are the way they are, solving problems, trying new things, learning from failure, discovery, and exploring the world around us.  Experiments should be designed because students have a question they are curious about and have developed ways they think they can test answers.  They should be forced to interpret results.  In short we need to put the higher order thinking back into our schools in science and all subjects.  

Fear of failure never led to greatness.  In order for our schools to be great we need to move past our fear and let teachers and students take risks.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Sad, Absurd Contrast

Last night Educon opened with a panel discussion on innovation.  I spent an hour and a half watching and learning from that discussion in Philadelphia with a teacher in Australia through the power of 21st century technology.

Earlier in the day my students used the same technology to spend an hour and a half in front of a computer taking a district mandated multiple choice benchmark exam.

If absurd misuses of 21st century technology such as this continue to be commonplace, should we really be perplexed when our students graduate unprepared for the world in which we will send them?

Educon 2.4 Panel - Photo Credit: Flickr/kjarrett

Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday's Five - Teaching Reading without Putting Students in a Coma

Every teacher has had moments when they realize that their students have a glazed look in their eyes, are drooling on their textbooks and are on the verge of slipping into a boredom coma.  We strive to make our lessons interesting, fun, and engaging, but sometimes we fail.  Sometimes our hands are tied because we have been told by our superiors that we need to use scripted lessons from XYZ Textbook company because such lessons are backed by research, aligned to our state's standards, and helped a neighboring district increase state test scores by 3% last year.

I seem to get that glazed, drooling, semi-comatose look from my students at times when I am teaching reading.  I love teaching math, history, and civics.  I've gotten quite good at ditching the textbook in those subjects, letting students have more autonomy over their own learning, and creating lessons that are engaging.  Reading is another story.  I'm the rare elementary teacher who dislikes teaching reading.  Because of that, I've lacked the confidence to totally ditch the textbook like I do in other subjects.

Photo Credit:  David Castillo Dominici

It's not that I don't believe reading is important, or that I don't like to read.  I do.  My problem is that I've found it difficult over the years to find ways to make the required reading series interesting in any way, and I've had difficulty identifying ways to ensure my students will pass state tests without it.  Lately I've made a great effort to devise ways to both become more textbook free, and make our reading series/textbook tolerable.  I've still got a lot to learn, but here are five ideas that I've used with some success:

  1. Teach non-fiction reading skills in other content areas.  Educational research has shown for decades that students learn best when reading is taught within content areas.  Why school districts are ignoring this research and cutting social studies and science classes in the hope of increasing reading test scores is perplexing to me.  A much better strategy would be to provide professional development to science and social studies teachers so that they can teach reading skills.  I've found that once I get my students engaged with topics in those subject areas, reading information about those topics becomes more relevant to them.  
  2. Let students choose the subject matter of their reading choices.  A few weeks ago I told my students to read the next story in our textbook, which was a narrative about a paleontologist.  Three students looked interested.  Seventeen moaned.  I moaned.  I don't really care if my students know about paleontology, dinosaurs, or anything else in that story.  What I need them to know is how to identify setting, conflict, etc.  Why should I force them to read something that they hate?  I changed the assignment on the spot.  Each student was allowed to pick one of six topics, and I handed them short books on those topics.  They still learned what they needed to and were much more interested.
  3. Don't make students take a test on everything they read.  I read a lot.  If someone forced me to take a test on each article, blog post, book, and magazine I read, I'd probably read a lot less.  I'd imagine our students feel the same way.  It's hard to build a love of reading in our students if we don't allow them to love reading.  Isn't that the reading skill that's more important than all the others?
  4. Use technology to give students purpose for reading.  Writing the main idea of the passage they read in their notebook is not purposeful.  Just typing that sentence makes me one step closer to the semi-comatose state I described earlier.  Let them publish a book review on your class website or wiki.  Let them create a study guide.  Let them share their opinions about what they read in a blog post.  It is impossible to create such things without comprehending what you read.  If students have a purpose they care about for reading, they are much more likely to practice good reading skills like re-reading, deciphering the meaning of words, etc.
  5. Allow students to get creative by incorporating the arts into reading class.  Forced to read a boring textbook narrative?  Ask students to create a comic book representation of the story that includes the rising action, conflict, climax and conclusion.  Have students turn the narrative into a screenplay and then videotape themselves acting it out.  See if students can create and record a ballad that tells the story in song.  Better yet, give them the option to choose any of those three, or another creative way to retell the story.  For informational/persuasive writing, product advertisements, commercials, and pamphlets can be great opportunities for students to get creative. 
The biggest issue I run into when trying to implement some of the above ideas is time.  We are supposed to read one textbook story per week.  Sometimes I feel like I'm not doing my job if we spend three weeks exploring one topic.  I have to remind myself that students are learning more when they are emotionally connected to the material they are studying, and that quality always trumps quantity when it comes to learning.  It would be a lie to say that I don't fall into the trap of "covering" material and topics at times.  Perhaps that's why I find teaching reading more difficult than math and social studies.  I don't find myself falling into that trap as often in those subjects.

What are some ways that you keep students engaged when learning to read?  Have you done any of the above activities?  Do you have suggestions to improve them?  What have you tried that didn't work?  What are some stumbling blocks you face when trying to make reading fun and interesting for your students?  I'd love to hear your ideas.  Please share with us in the comment section below, and pass this post along to others in your networks so that we can get their ideas as well.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Friday's Five - Blogging through Writer's Block

Image Credit: David Castillo Dominici
Sometimes you just don't feel like blogging.  Maybe you don't feel like you have any good ideas.  Maybe you have too many ideas bouncing around in your head and are finding it hard to focus.  Maybe you're just not into writing, or your energy is focused elsewhere.

One of the reasons I started "Friday's Five" is to force myself to blog at least once per week.  I wanted to make sure that I meaningfully self-reflected, thought about hot issues in education, or examined pedagogical practices at least that often.  Today, though, I had a tough time deciding on what I wanted to write about.  One of my colleagues suggested writing about ways we (or our students) can overcome writer's block.  Here are five ideas:
  1. Read other blogs.  Often my first action when I am struggling to find something interesting to write about is to open up Google Reader and see what other people are saying.  Many times I stumble across a post that gets me riled up or thinking about things in a different way.  The Education Section of the New York Times gives me inspiration at times as well.  If our students are stuck we can encourage them to read blogs from their friends or others their age from around the globe who may have written posts on similar topics.
  2. Relate other interests to the topic of the blog.  When I was with my family at Walt Disney World in November, teaching was not at the forefront of my mind.  My post that week was on great educational opportunities in Disney World.  It turned out to be one of my more popular posts, and I got a great deal of enjoyment searching out experiences at Disney I otherwise may have passed over.  Our students would benefit from relating that which they are interested in with what they are learning in the classroom as well.  
  3. Talk to colleagues, co-workers, friends, etc.  As I mentioned above, this is how today's topic came about.  Think about conversations you've had with people lately.  What have they been about?  Maybe there's something in those discussions that will motivate you.  If your students are having trouble, often asking a friend for writing subjects can lead to great ideas. 
  4. Take a break.  At times everybody gets burned out.  Your brain just doesn't work.  A short break of mindless activity can be just the refresher you need to get it working again.  Do something you enjoy for a bit, and then come back to the computer.  Often you'll find that your block has lifted and the ideas flow more easily.  Our students need this break at times, too.  Let them take 10 minutes to read, play a game, or talk with a partner about a different subject.  They may just come back to work with better ideas. 
  5. Just start writing.  Even after doing all of the above, sometimes I'm still stuck.  At these times I just start writing whatever comes to my head, even if it's not any good.  I may have to delete or edit it later, but at least I'm getting ideas down.  Some of my most successful posts have been the result of this kind of "braindump."  After a few sentences are down I'll often find that my ideas are starting to gel into pretty good thoughts.  If students are not intimidated by failure, this strategy can work well.  Tell them it's OK not to have great ideas all the time.  They might just find that some of their perceived "lousy" ideas are inspirational to others. 
How do you get over writer's block?  What strategies do you use with your students when they are having trouble getting a blog post written?  Please share with us in the comment section below, and share the post on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Plurk so that we can hear ideas from others as well.  To see a list of past topics, please take a look at the Friday's Five Page

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Grading is Making our Schools Dumber

Yesterday I re-read Alfie Kohn's article "From Degrading to De-grading" in preparation for a class I was teaching on assessment and grading practices.  Kohn shows research and makes the case that grades reduce student interest in learning, reduce student preference for challenging tasks, and reduce the quality of student thinking.  It's definitely an article all educators should read.

Photo Credit: UGA Admissions Blog
After teaching the class I started thinking about our schools, and how we are using standardized test scores to grade them.  It's pretty obvious that the same case can be made that our schools are suffering from the negative effects of being graded. 
  • Schools are less interested in being innovative, professionally developing their faculties, and "learning" better ways to teach because they are so focused on getting a good "grade."
  • Schools shy away from challenging tasks that might benefit our students because such focus would take time and resources away from test preparation.  Schools do not attempt challenging reforms because they are afraid their "grades" might slip.  The status quo looks pretty good, as long as your funding isn't getting cut and you've got a passing grade in the local newspaper to show taxpayers.  Schools are focusing on ways to keep that status quo as long as possible with the least amount of resources possible. That's a recipe for stagnation. 
  • Most importantly, the quality of thinking in our schools is suffering.  Teachers aren't expected to think about ways to improve their lessons.  Instead, schools are buying scripted textbook lessons that are "proven to increase test scores."  We are replacing any hint of innovative practices inside our schools with "standardization."  In short, we are focusing all of our energy on winning the game of standardized testing, and no energy on ensuring our students are actually learning.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Learning, Teaching, Leading: Creating a Toolbox for Today

Over the past few months I've had the great experience of teaching a 3-credit equivilent graduate course for my school district to other teachers who were interested in learning ways they could teach 21st century skills.  Each of the 10 sessions was on a different aspect of teaching and learning, and each provided me with the opportunity to collaborate, teach, and learn.  We found many great resources along our journey, and since I'm sure there are others who could benefit from them, I'm sharing them here.  Embeded below is the Livebinder of the resources, videos, and information we used during the class.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday's Five - Pre-service Teacher Education

So many of our teachers graduate from college and enter our schools woefully unprepared for the challenges and demands that come with the job.  I'm sure this is one of the reasons that 46% of teachers who enter the profession leave within 5 years. During this Tuesday's edchat on Twitter there was a discussion of how we could reform pre-service teacher education.   For the past few days I've been thinking quite a bit about my own undergraduate education, the discussions I've had with student-teachers with whom I've worked, and ways we could better prepare teachers before they are assigned their own classrooms.  Here are five ideas.
  1. Show pre-service teachers the benefits of professional networking.  Most schools have some sort of mentoring system for new teachers.  It's fantastic to have someone to go for when you need support and answers to questions that arise.  Unless you have a lousy mentor.  Wouldn't it be better to give our new teachers a network of thousands of educators who are happy to share, encourage, support, and collaborate?  How to build and collaborate within a Professional Learning Network (PLN) should be explicitly taught and modeled early on and encouraged throughout the teacher training process so that its utilization is second nature when new teachers are hired.
  2. Elementary education majors need more training in the understanding of math.  We do a great job of teaching kids ways to "do" math in elementary school, but we don't always do a great job of teaching kids to understand math.  Unfortunately, a lot of elementary teachers aren't comfortable with math.  It's not uncommon to hear the words "I could never pass the 5th (or 8th) grade math test" uttered in an elementary faculty room.  There is something very wrong with that.  Nobody would approve of a teacher who couldn't read on a 5th grade level teaching reading to our young students.  Conceptual understanding of math can't be taught at the elementary level unless teachers have a conceptual understanding of math. 
  3. Technology needs modeled and used within the learning process.  If we expect new teachers to teach 21st century skills using 21st century tools we need to create learning environments within their pre-service programs that allow them to experience what learning this way looks and feels like.  Nobody learns how to teach from a textbook.  Replace them with Livebinders, wikis, and other collaborative on-line tools.  College classes should have backchannel discussions going on, which are saved for later reference.  Students from different areas of the country (and world) should be collaborating on projects using technology.  If our pre-service programs were technology rich and brought into the 21st century it would be much easier for our new teachers to build learning environments that promote 21st century skills.
  4. Students should learn how to collect and use the data that matters to improve student learning.  This doesn't mean standardized testing data.  Standardized test scores come to us months after students take the tests and give little insight as to how to individualize instruction.  We need to train our new teachers in formative assessment techniques.  They need to know how to diagnose student learning within lessons and then use that data to guide their teaching.  Continually using formative assessment to identify what students have mastered a concept and using that information to find ways to help those who haven't has been proven to be one of the most effective ways to promote student achievement.  Teachers need to have this ability when they enter a classroom. 
  5. Replace student teaching with a medical style paid multi-year internship.  The current student teaching model allows for two 6 week placements and less than much less than 10 weeks of actual teaching.  It is impossible to learn enough in that time to be prepared for a profession.  New teachers should spend a minimum of two years practicing and learning to teach under the supervision of a master teacher.  They should get constant feedback and support.  These years of learning would benefit our new teachers as well as our students.
Do you think that your pre-service program prepared you for teaching?  If so, what components of that program were most effective?  If not, what would you change about it?  What strengths and weaknesses do you see in teachers entering the profession today?  Please share with us in the comment section below and pass the post along to others on Twitter, Plurk, Facebook, and Google+ so that we can hear many different opinions.  For an archive of past topics, check out the Friday's Five Page.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Protecting My Children from Grading

Yesterday, Joe Bower put up a post on his blog entitled "Opting out of Grading" in which he listed his reasons for requesting of his child's future teachers that her "learning would never be reduced to a symbol." Here is the letter that he posted that he intends to give to his daughter's teachers:
Dear teacher, 
Kayley loves to learn and is very excited to start school this year.  
Because the case against grades has a wealth of anecdotal evidence and scientific research, I am requesting that Kayley's assessments and evaluations only include formative comments. This means that Kayley's learning would never be reduced to a symbol (such as a number or letter). This includes individual assignments, quizzes, tests and her report card.
As a family that plays an active role in Kayley's learning, the best feedback we can receive about Kayley's learning is to see her learning. No reductionist data is required.
 If you are interested in learning more about the case against grades, I would be happy to provide you with these resources, and if your school's assessment and reporting policies make this request problematic, I would like the opportunity to discuss this further. Feel free to e-mail me at
I look forward to working with you to support Kayley's natural intrinsic desire to go on learning. 
Joe Bower
I've admired Joe's position and research on the harm that we do to students with our "assessment" and grading procedures.  I also can very much relate to the uneasy feeling that comes from worrying about your children having the intreage, wonder, and creativity educated out of them by our school system.  I worry about that for my own children often.  It's one of the reasons that I've started my 3rd grade daughter blogging about things she finds interesting.  She's a smart girl and gets very good grades, but I'm hoping to promote a love of learning for learning's sake instead of for the praise that comes from teachers and parents for getting an "A".  I've seen her creativity decrease as her desire to achieve good grades has increased. 

I love the idea of abolishing grading in my classroom.  I hate the fact that I have to reduce my students to a number on tests and report cards, and I clearly see how much more they benefit from meaningful feedback.  I love the idea of opting my children out of the grading system in our schools.  I haven't done either yet, although I give it much thought.

Kudos to Joe for having the moxy to do away with grades and having a plan for his own child.  I have great admiration for the way he follows his convictions and shares with the rest of us through his blog and his twitter feed.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Friday's Five - Diversity and Understanding

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

I love that Mark Twain quote.  Being open-minded, leaving behind one's own ethnocentric biases, and experiencing another culture is by far the best way to understand others and their points of view.  Unfortunately, it's not possible to travel with our students in a way that would allow them to have those experiences.  Many of my students growing up in rural Pennsylvania will go their entire childhoods without even visiting New York City or Philadelphia, both of which are a two hour drive away.  With school budgets being cut, even local field trips are becoming a thing of the past.  Certainly a class visit to a totally different country and culture is out of the question, and seems even ridiculous to mention.  

The challenge for us is to find ways for our students to interact, be exposed to, and appreciate the differences of other cultures. It's exceedingly difficult to do in a country where 95% of the news coverage is about domestic matters.  With the increasing bullying problems we seem to be having in our schools and online and the seeming lack of acceptance of anyone different in our society, finding ways to understand others is of increasing importance.  How, then, can we travel, meet others, and learn from them without leaving our classrooms?  Here are five suggestions.
  1. Virtual Field Trips - While it doesn't allow you to interact with others, virtual travel is a great way to experience other locations without spending any money or travel time.  As an added benefit, you aren't limited to the present time.  If it fits your studies, you can visit Ancient Rome or Colonial Williamsburg.  There are many resources out there that will allow you travel virtually.  A few weeks ago someone shared a "List of 100 Incredible and Educational Virtual Tours You Don't Want to Miss."  That's a great place to get started.
  2. Find a class in a very different culture and connect as pen pals.  Up until the past decade, this would have been an expensive and time consuming option.  Now, with the technologies available to us, the cost of postage and the time it used to take to send letters is no longer an obstacle.  Use e-mail, Google Docs, a wikispace, or some other technology to instantly communicate with other student around the globe.  Exchange pictures of schools, classrooms, and pets.  Discuss upcoming holidays and favorite dinners.  Share family traditions.  Talk to your students about how "different" doesn't mean "wrong."  Your students will start to see that while many of the things that people do around the world may be different, we have a lot more in common than many people realize.
  3. Videoconference with other locations.  If your students are studying King Tut, who better to conference with than an expert in Egyptian Archaeology who is currently digging in Egypt?  If you are discussing addition and subtraction, why not Skype in with students from Europe who learn to add and subtract from left to right and ask them to explain why that makes sense to them?  If we want our students to think about solutions to problems from many points of view, we need to expose them to many points of view.  Videoconferencing makes that easy and fun to do.
  4. Collaborate with students from other cultures on a project.  The number of web 2.0 tools that make it easy to collaborate is exploding.  Instead of only using those tools to allow for in-class collaboration, connect with other classes in foreign locations and collaborate with them.  If you are studying the rainforest, maybe you can connect with a class in Brazil and figure out how you can work together to make a difference to save species.  If your class wants to know the effects of climate change on glaciers, why not connect with a class living in the Alps, Rockies, or Himalayas and study it with them?  We don't know a lot about the future world we are sending our graduates into, but we do know that it is getting smaller and that global collaboration is becoming more important.  It's important to give our students opportunities to practice those skills in school.  
  5. Model the skills you want your students to have.  How can you find classes, experts, students, and teachers in other cultures and countries?  Build a global professional network of educators with whom you regularly collaborate using social networking sites like Twitter, Plurk, Facebook, and Google+.  Regularly seek out different ways to do things and be open to change.  Share new ideas that you stumble upon with your students.  If you want your students to be life-long learners, model for them what it looks like.  
Now it's your turn.  How do you teach diversity and understanding in your classroom?  How do you connect with other cultures?  What tools have you found most helpful for collaboration with others around the globe?  How have you build your Professional Network, or what difficulties have you faced in doing so?  Do you find that your students are lacking understanding of other cultures?  Please share with us your ideas and pass the post on to others using Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Plurk so that we can hear their ideas as well.