Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Let's Do Away With Right and Wrong

“I don’t know if this is the right way to do guided reading, but…”
“This is probably wrong, but what I do is…”
“Am I doing _______ (insert instructional approach here) correctly?”

If I had a dime for every time I heard someone say variations on these statements, I’d be able to go on that dream beach vacation I’ve always wanted.

Many of us teachers joined this profession because we were good students – we liked school, we felt comfortable there, and we want to replicate the joy of learning we felt growing up. And that’s a good thing! But being a good student oftentimes means we are people-pleasers who honor authority figures. We want to do the “right” thing the “right” way. Bless our hearts, we believe there actually IS a right way to do everything.

The other day I heard a coach friend of mine laughingly describe her first year of teaching. She bargained with her boyfriend – if he would just stick with her during this difficult first year, she agreed to get married, because after that she would have her first year of plans made and she could fall back on them from then on. Five years into it, her then-husband wanted to know why the heck she was still staying late at school and working on weekends – hadn’t she figured it out that first year or two?

One of the most unsettling realizations we can have as teachers often comes within the first 5-10 years of teaching, when we realize that Teaching Is Not Something You Master. There is never One Right Way to do anything.

Stephanie Jones, professor- and coach-extraordinaire, worked with a group of us coaches several years ago. Among the most impactful concepts she shared was letting go of “Right” versus “Wrong” and instead considering what each decision Allows and Shuts Down. 

Every decision you make as a teacher (as a human, really) allows certain things to happen and shuts down other things. For example, consider the way you set up your classroom. You might push your students’ desks together in groups – this allows for more teamwork and better table-space for project work. But it shuts down some students’ ability to easily see the board (if their back is facing the front) and it might encourage student talk during those times you’d rather they listen to you.

Or think about strategy-based reading groups, which is when you meet with kids reading at different levels and teach them a strategy before conferring with them individually. This approach allows you to provide targeted instruction regardless of reading level, thus giving you flexibility in forming groups. But it might shut down a common conversation that would be easier if everyone had a copy of the same book.

In other words, strategy groups aren’t “wrong,” but they’re not always “right” either. You make your decision as a teacher based on what you want to allow for your students at that moment. The key is understanding that every decision you make simultaneously allows and shuts down certain things.

Unfortunately, we will never Arrive at a point in our careers where we have this thing all figured out. We will never create the ultimate set of plans to save from year to year that will suffice for all students all the time. We will not find the One True Way to teach.

The sooner we realize this and embrace the messiness of working with young minds, the sooner we can be kind to ourselves and find the joy in teaching.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Correcting the Fundamental Attribution Error

It turns out that we’ve all made a critical error. And not just any error, but a fundamental attribution error. If it sounds terrifying, well, that may be only slightly off the mark.

I read about this error in Richard Nisbett’s book Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking  in which he describes “scientific and philosophical concepts that can change the way we solve problems by helping us to think more effectively about our behavior and our world.” It turns out that we are not nearly as smart as we think we are.

Our problem is that we tend to attribute other people’s successes and failures to personal dispositions while we discount the context or circumstances that may have contributed to them. For instance, we might think of Todd as a lazy student, or of our co-worker Susan as standoffish and rude, or of Bill Gates as incredibly brilliant. We don’t take into account the circumstances that may have led to our perceptions. Nisbett digs into the Bill Gates story to reveal that when he was an 8th grader his parents transferred him to a different school because he was bored. His new school happened to be one of the very few schools in 1968 that was connected to a mainframe computer. This lucky break meant that he was able to log time on the computer and even test software for a local company. From there he began sneaking out of the house at 3am to spend time at the University of Washington computer center. If Gates had not transferred schools at that critical time, would he have become who he is today?

Nisbett states, 
“Behind many a successful person lies a string of lucky breaks that we have no inkling about” (p. 35). 

We tend to assume it was the person’s characteristics rather than the surrounding circumstances that made them succeed or struggle.

The kicker is that we do the opposite with ourselves – we, having the luxury of an intimate knowledge of our own circumstances, tend to give ourselves a break when we experience failure. We attribute our problem not to a personal traits, but to the situation. “Well, I would have gotten that job if I had not gotten a cold – I just wasn’t at the top of my game” or “The teacher doesn’t like me” or “The requirements aren’t fair.”

The truth is, contexts and situations have a great deal to do with our behaviors. While we tend to think other people behave the way they do because of some innate characteristic (e.g. laziness, brilliance, greed) the reality is that life is a series of circumstances that make us into the people we currently are.

This Fundamental Attribution Error has huge implications for teachers when we think about how we approach students, parents, and even our fellow teachers. I’ve been guilty of thinking Parent A “just doesn’t care” about their child’s needs in school, or that Teacher X just has a chip on her shoulder, or that my administrator is rude. But if it were me in those exact same circumstances I would cut myself a break by understanding how the current situation is making me appear as if I don’t have time for my child or that I’m too busy to socialize and be friendly with my co-workers or that my fracturing marriage is spilling over into negative interactions at work.  

The bottom line is that we need to give each other a break. It can be hard to catch yourself doing this but, fittingly, it’s easier to catch someone else in the midst of committing the Fundamental Attribution Error. Once you begin to see it in others, you can notice it in yourself.

Does this strike a chord for you? Do you notice yourself doing this with others? Have you discovered ways to catch yourself in the act of judging others and halt the judgment? Share in the comments below.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

We're Never Using Scissors Again...

The other day I was working with a group of Kindergarten teachers, otherwise known as the saints of the teaching world, when a second-year teacher gave me some words of wisdom that I think God intended me to hear. She lamented that the first time she tried to have her students use scissors it was a disaster. So much so that she went home and told her mom, a retired Kindergarten teacher, that they were never using scissors again. Ever.

Her mom gave her some advice, which has been reverberating through my mind ever since: The first time you do ANYTHING with Kindergarteners, it’s a disaster. Just expect it. And know that it will get better the more you do it.

I think that advice may not be just for Kindergarteners. It may apply to any person, or group of people, no matter their size.

I think about the first time I tried to ride a Razor scooter – I’m lucky I didn’t end up at Urgent Care with a tree-shaped dent in my forehead. Or the first time I modeled a lesson in front of a teacher – the lesson went too long, I hadn’t planned out EXACTLY what to say during the think aloud, and the kids left the lesson confused and befuddled.

I brought up this scissors story to a different group of teachers during a lesson study in which we decided to try revision stations from Kate Messner’s Real Revision . We planned each station, prepared the materials, and tried to anticipate students’ confusions. But the teachers were still worried that it wouldn’t work. Well, guess what? The first time, it probably won’t! It might even turn out to be a complete Kindergarten-Scissors disaster. But that doesn’t mean there’s not value in the attempt.

If we gave ourselves room to have a nuclear-meltdown disaster every time we tried something new, and just expected it to not go well, then I’m guessing we might be pleasantly surprised at least half the time. And that’s a WAY better feeling than the anxiety and frustration that comes with expecting perfection and not getting it.

Some might think this is a pessimistic way to look at things, but I actually think it’s the opposite. It’s giving yourself permission to flop at something the first few times you try it, to expect it to be less than perfect. And to be optimistic that it will improve a little, with every future attempt.

Expecting disaster could make us more daring and willing to try a new strategy. And in the process we might end up being kinder to ourselves.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Which Matters More -- Type or Amount of Scaffolding?

When reading with a student, which matters more – the amount of support you give the child when they encounter a difficult word, or the type of support you give?

The answer might surprise you. In an article in the March/April issue of The Reading Teacher, Emily Rodgers describes her study of 10 Reading Recovery teachers and the level and type of scaffolding they provided students as they read. They separated the teachers into two groups – teachers who tended to have results above the national average for Reading Recovery and teachers who tended to have results below the national average.  To assess the level of support they evaluated teachers’ use of Wood’s (2003) tutoring rule: “When the learner runs into difficulty, the teacher should increase the amount of help provided, and when the learner experiences, success, the teacher should decrease the amount of help” (Rodgers, 2017, p. 527).  Rodgers found that there was no significant difference between the two groups of teachers. All teachers adjusted the level of their instruction appropriately about 61% of the time.

Rodgers did, however, find a very significant difference between the two groups of teachers regarding type of support they provided. Students (and all readers, for that matter) use three cueing systems as they read: meaning, structure, and visual cues . Proficient readers simultaneously use multiple cues, while struggling readers tend to overuse one or two cues, often due to the instruction they’ve received (Schwartz, 2005).

Rodgers found that high-performing teachers were eight times more likely to intentionally vary the type of support they gave in response to students by prompting them to use the missing cueing system. In other words, if a student over-relied on meaning cues (by misreading pony for horse or swing for playground) then these teachers prompted them to use more visual cues. If the reader overused visual cues (by saying visually similar nonsense words such as payund for playground, for instance) then the teachers prompted them to attend to meaning. This attention to the readers’ MSV errors and intentionality about their teaching response resulted in much higher success for students.

It seems simple, right? Simply notice what the student is not doing, and prompt them to do it. But Rodgers cautions that we tend to find our “favorite” prompts and reuse them over and over again without regard to the child in front of us.

She also cautions that just because there wasn’t a significant difference between the amount of support provided by the two groups of teachers doesn’t mean that we should stop adjusting how much support we give. All students in the study made some progress, and that could have been due to the teachers’ varying amount of support. Of course, if we don’t vary how much support we give, we will likely cause frustration in the student, which can be detrimental.

I found this interesting, because I’ve written before  about amount and type of teacher scaffolding, but this study forwards the notion that tailoring our prompts for students to the quality of their miscues is by far the more important to attend to.

What about you? Does this change your thoughts about how you confer with your students? Or how you work with small groups of students? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Freak Factor

I just finished a really interesting book by David Rendall, a speaker I heard at the ASCD 2017 conference. His book, The Freak Factor argues that your mother's advice to work on improving your weaknesses is entirely wrong. Instead, we should think of our weakness as uniqueness and flaunt it.

His argument was pretty convincing, once I took the Freak Factor test he includes in the book. He demonstrates that every strength we have can also be perceived as a weakness: someone who is organized can also be seen as rigid; spontaneous people can also be too impulsive; creative people are often disorganized, and so on. My test showed that I am reflective and thoughtful, but that can come across as quiet and shy. I am analytical and rational, but that also comes with being critical and judgmental. I'm patient and cautious, but that is also the same as being slow and indecisive.

Rendall's point is that if someone who is creative (and also disorganized) tried to work on becoming more organized, they'd be undoing the very thing that makes them unique. This is because their creativity is inextricably linked to disorganization. Altering one alters the other.

Instead of trying to change ourselves, we should embrace our true nature, take the good with the bad. Rendall tells quite a few stories of people who tried unsuccessfully to go against their nature and ended up unhappy and in unfulfilling jobs. He argues that we should avoid the things we hate and find someone else who enjoys that task to do it instead. Just because you hate that task doesn't mean everyone hates it. Pay attention to what you procrastinate about - it's a sure sign that's not your strength.

Overall, the book has me thinking about how to be happier in my life and stop fighting my own nature by trying to be something I'm not.

Thoughts on what you feel like your strengths and corresponding weaknesses are? How might you embrace those?

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Stress and ADHD

That title may make you think of teacher stress as a result of kids having ADHD, however I'm really thinking about a comment Eric Jensen  made at the 2017 ASCD conference in California. His session was filled with rich nuggets of information, more than I could process at once, so I'm thinking his newest book will contain most of the information he covered.

One particularly fascinating piece was about how the human body responds to stress. Chronic stress, the kind that comes from stressors occurring again and again (think about soldiers in a battle, or kids who are abused or beaten) creates not only physical changes to the brain due to high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) but also behavioral changes. Kids will generally respond to stress one of two ways: 1) hyper-vigilance or 2) apathy. Kids will either “blow up” at very little provocation, or seem very unmotivated and as if they don't care. It brought to my mind the parents at high-poverty schools who can be extremely difficult to deal with, seemingly quick to anger and “go off” on the principal or teachers. Jensen explained that this hyper-vigilant behavior is an effort to control situations in a life that often seems out of control. If your world is crumbling around you, and it has been for a while, it makes sense that you do your best to take control the best (or only) way you know how.

But Jensen also made another provocative comment: this hyper-vigilance due to chronic stress can look like distractibility, impulsivity, and hyper-activity. In other words, it looks just like ADHD. How many of our poverty students are being diagnosed with ADHD (or being blamed for having untreated ADHD) when in reality they may be under chronic stress? Are we treating the wrong problem?

Eric has several recommendations for addressing student stress in schools:
1. Relationship building
2. Giving students more choice and control
3. Teach stronger coping skills
4. Learn to manage your own stress (as teachers)

Would we have fewer students with ADHD in high-poverty schools if we followed these recommendations? What are your thoughts? Add your comments below.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Helping Students Read Closely in Authentic Ways

Are your students struggling with deeply comprehending nonfiction texts? Have you heard about ‘close reading’ but aren’t sure what it is? Or have you been turned off by the plethora of professional books and workbooks that seem to teach close reading in overly procedural, basal-like ways?

If this describes you at all, I can’t emphasize enough how much you will enjoy Kylene Beers and Bob Probst’s book “Reading Nonfiction: Notice and Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies.” Kylene and Bob pull up alongside you, the reader, and provide just enough research, sprinkled with humor and stories from the classroom, to keep you turning the pages and believing that from now on your students will be masters at comprehending nonfiction.

They begin by outlining three questions to teach students to ask themselves as a way to develop a questioning stance every time they read nonfiction:
  1. What surprised you?
  2. What did the author think you already knew?
  3. What changed, challenged, or confirmed what you already knew?
Kylene and Bob then reveal the research they compiled about “signposts” that appear in nonfiction text to help students think about the Big Questions with more specificity. After reading about these five signposts I even find myself reading Time magazine and online articles differently. The five signposts are:

  1. Contrasts and contradictions (e.g. phrases that use key words such as however and on the other hand)
  2. Extreme or absolute language (e.g. words or phrases such as everyone on Earth or totally and always)
  3. Numbers and stats (i.e. Ask yourself – why did the author include these particular numbers?)
  4. Quoted words (i.e. Again, ask yourself – why did the author choose to quote this person?)
  5. Word Gaps (i.e. help students become aware of gaps in their understanding of vocabulary – oftentimes, these gaps are Tier 2 words used in unfamiliar ways such as an electrical charge or waves triggered by an earthquake).
Finally, Kylene and Bob share seven strategies students can use before, during, and after reading to help clear up comprehension confusions. For instance, Syntax Surgery prompts students to draw arrows connecting confusing information such as vague pronouns to the supporting information elsewhere in the article. Another strategy, genre reformulation, encourages students to synthesize information after reading by recreating the information they read into an ABC book or a cause/effect sequence patterned after If You Give a Mouse a Cookie or Brown Bear, Brown Bear.
Overall, this book is one of my absolute favorites, both for the richness of the ideas it contains as well as the comfortable, genuine style in which it is written. Teachers of students 2nd grade through high school should have this book on their nightstand.