Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lucy Calkins and the Power of Feedback

These are hard times for education, there can be no doubt about that. It seems like everyone is under fire and nothing is sacred, even the legendary Lucy Calkins and her almost-as-legendary colleagues at Teacher's College.

At the recent New York Coaching Institute, Lucy Calkins talked with the group about how Teacher's College has stayed alive in these hard times. She had several suggestions, but the one that stuck out the most to me was her first one because of what they discovered as a result.

Lucy suggested that in order to deal with the current negative culture, we need to cultivate friends who aren't literacy geeks. Talk with them, use them as informants, and ask them, "What should I be reading?" Broadening our friendships helps expose us to the types of thinking we might not otherwise encounter.

That's exactly what she did, and in talking to some friends outside her department, she was told about the work of Geoff Petty. He has been examining the effects of feedback and found that specific feedback has the largest effect size of anything teachers do. Good feedback can add the equivalent of TWO years of growth if done well.

The website above has specific findings (in a very readable format) about how to make feedback specific by including medals (positive statements), and missions (ideas for improvement) based on clear goals. Lucy's commented that the difference between an excellent workshop and one not-so-good is the amount and quality of the feedback.

This makes perfect sense. I think about some classrooms I visit, in various schools, where the teacher may be teaching in a workshop format, but it's fairly obvious she's just going through the motions. The teaching is still very teacher-centered or standards-centered rather than student-centered. The teacher tends to view the class as a group rather than as a collection of individuals.

Lucy asked us to examine our workshops and ask ourselves, "Does it appear that the students know that their writing should be getting better each day? Do they understand that they're supposed to be a better reader in October than they were in September? Do they know that their partner conversations should be improving, and their reading logs and revision techniques should be building upon each other?"

Too many times we aren't explicit enough about how we expect students to learn in our classrooms. We hide the running record from the child and use it merely as an assessment rather than also as a teaching tool. Or we teach a concept without explaining how this will help them as a reader or a writer.

Students deserve for us to help them set honest, specific goals and to help them towards those goals by continually offering feedback on their progress. Wouldn't we all appreciate this honesty regarding our own work?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Leaders of the Free World

When my niece was 5 years old and beginning Kindergarten, her first day of school was the main focus of the extended family. We all had high hopes for her, knowing as we did that she was gifted and precocious, it was just a matter of time before the rest of the world discovered what we already knew - that she was the next leader of the free world.

She did impress her teacher and the other teachers in the school fell in love with her just as we had. But that didn't mean everything was peaches and cream. She'd ruled the roost for so long that following other's rules were a little hard for her to understand. After getting in trouble one too many times for not following directions, my brother sat her down and asked her why the teacher was having to redirect her so much.

"I like school and all," she said, "but really I just want to do what I want to do!" That comment stuck with us and has become an inside joke anytime one of us wants to be headstrong. Isn't that what we all want? Just to do what we want to do?

That comment came back to my thoughts again today when I worked with a second-language first grader during writing workshop. His teacher was concerned that he might be dyslexic because when rereading his writing his words were all over the place. It was almost as if he tossed them up and they stuck where they landed.

So, when Bryan said, "Miss, I've finished my book!" I went over to see, surprised and excited that he'd spent the time and energy to complete an entire story. Sure enough, he had written a story about playing soccer, and the words were scattered about. The cover said I play with friends my but when he read it to me, he read it correctly. He pointed to each word and simply pointed to my and then went back to friends. The same with the next page, which said: game the Me and Ernesto started which he read as Me and Ernesto started the game .

When I talked to him about it, and pointed out how it looked to me, he corrected me: "No, this is how you read it."

"I can see that, Bryan," I said, "but someone else reading it will get confused. You need to write it from top to bottom, just like other books in the library are written. Let's fix it and then see if Ernesto can read the page about him." Bryan erased and rewrote the words correctly, and when Ernesto successfully read his page back to him, his face lit up with a huge smile. Ernesto had read his book!

I think until that particular moment, Bryan had his own personal system of writing. He knew what he wanted to say and how he would write it. He just wanted to do what he wanted to do, by gosh! The thought had never crossed his mind that someone else might want to read what he wrote.

However, when they did, suddenly he was an author. An author with words that others would be interested in. And what we'd thought might be dyslexia simply became what it was - a misunderstanding about the purpose and intent of writing.

I wonder how many kids in our schools misbehave or have misconceptions about school simply because they want to do what they want to do. Kids like this need a certain element of choice in their day. They need to feel empowered. They just need help directing that empowerment in the right direction. Who knows...they might be the next leaders of the free world.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

March Wildfires

For teachers, March is the longest month. There are no holidays and no workdays, our energy is drained, and spring break is beckoning, pulling our attention from where we currently are to where we want to be - on a beach, somewhere, with an ice cold adult beverage and not a single test prep passage in sight. March is the month of doldrums, the month of strained nerves, the parched month of having given every last bit of thought to struggling students who no longer seem to respond and instead seem to taunt us with their ability to remain exactly where they were back in January. March is the month we question our effectiveness as teachers, and dream about retirement.

In this parched landscape, it's easy for a small spark of a careless comment to end up as a conflagration. We're all on edge, our patience has worn thin, and we're all out of ideas. One moment of frustration can mean words are spoken that cannot be undone. In these circumstances, it's really best to withold all judgment until after the spring break rains. What's getting on your nerves right now may look a lot less significant once you're tanned and slathered in oil on the beach.

Remember - only you can prevent wildfires.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Self-fulfilling Prophesies

Years ago I worked with struggling students as a reading specialist in a neighboring school district, and while my main job was to recover them as readers, as spring approached I'd also end up preparing them for the yearly high-stakes exam. One fourth grader (let's call him Mitchell) taught me a lesson about text anxiety that I've never forgotten.

The exam was still weeks away, and while I knew much of what we'd learned about reading strategies would transfer to the test, I felt the need to do some specific test-taking strategy work as well. To begin the process, I asked the kids in the small group I worked with what their thoughts were regarding the test. Were they worried or nervous about how they'd do?

Mitchell, who frankly had struggled much of the year with impulsivity when it came to decoding words and comprehending text, surprised me by telling me he wasn't worried at all. This was the first time I'd ever heard a student say he WASN'T nervous, so I asked him to explain.

"My teacher says she's been teaching us all the stuff we need to know for the test all year long," Mitchell stated. "She said she's not worried about the test and that we shouldn't be either. I know I'm going to do a good job, because she's... what's the word? Confident! She's confident in me."

Sure enough, Mitchell exuded peace about the upcoming test. Not over-confidence -- he was still willing to listen to my pointers about test-strategies -- but there was no fear evident in his demeanor over the next few weeks.

It's possible that on the day of the actual test Mitchell did end up experiencing some butterflies and self-doubt. But what's interesting is that the text anxiety that typically can be debilitating to struggling readers did not affect his ability to learn in the weeks preceding the test. All because of the confidence his teacher inspired in his own abilities. She gave him power over his fears by attributing his likelihood of success to his previous hard work. This self-efficacy made him work even harder instead of giving up, like so many struggling students do.

It's an interesting lesson in how powerful our role as teachers can be, and I've never forgotten it. To paraphrase Henry Ford: "Whether your teacher believes you can do a thing, or not, she's right."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Noticing Walks

While at the Coaching Institute in New York recently, our cohort leader, Shanna, led us through classroom walk-throughs after hours. The kids had left and so had most of the teachers, and so we walked the halls like little ducklings behind our mother duck, mainly looking at what we saw on the walls.

Shanna modeled thinking through a two-column note headed “I notice” and “I wonder”. Out loud she’d think, “I notice that…bulletin boards are set up so that each student in the class has their own area. I wonder…why some boards don’t display any work at the moment? I notice…these two bulletin boards have a poster describing the process the students went through to create the work. I wonder… is that something they’re working on as a school?”

She encouraged us to be as specific as possible in our noticings – use numbers instead of generalities (no “some” or “lots of” allowed) and to remove all value statements from what we noticed.

For instance, I noticed that on one 1st grade bulletin board most of the student writing was written in pen and kids had scratched out their revisions and written over them. But when I phrased it that way she had me re-word it to, “I notice…all but one student wrote their letters in pen instead of pencil. I wonder… did the teacher ask the kids to write in pen in order to see evidence of their revisions?” Another coach said, “I notice… all the students’ letters are three pages long. I wonder… were children given choice about the length of their writing and was variance allowed?”

By the time we’d finished, the tone of our noticings created a very data-oriented feel to our observations. By withholding all value judgments and instead framing what we saw as specific observations with related wonderings, the result was very professional and impartial. We didn’t discuss answers to any of the questions we raised, but the questions remained nonetheless, floating in the air awaiting another day to find answers.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Reading Behaviors

So much of reading goes beyond simply teaching skills, sounds, and words. Teaching reading is really about teaching a child to think. And since the results of thoughts are behaviors, we’re really teaching kids how to behave towards text.

The past few weeks I’ve been perusing the latest results of our school’s reading assessment, the DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment). I’ve been looking at each child’s assessment and, particularly for those who’ve fallen behind, tried to get inside their heads to see what’s holding them back. If I think I have a suggestion that might work with a child I leave a sticky note on the folder with ideas the teacher might try in guided reading groups.

With students who are having trouble decoding the words I’ve noticed a few trends. For the most part, the kids who have not made progress are the ones who are not self-correcting their errors. They’re not monitoring their own reading, and the result is either kids who read words that make no sense and yet they keep reading (reading trellis for turtle) or they read words that do make sense but that don’t match the text (reading chick for hen). The former kids aren’t asking themselves, “Does that make sense?” and the latter kids need to ask themselves, “Does that look right?”

Of course, if they’re not asking those questions, then we need to be the one to do the asking. We should be like a broken record, constantly reminding them that reading has to make sense AND it has to match the text. The hope is that with enough reminding, they may begin to hear our voice inside their head as they read and begin asking themselves the questions.

It reminds me of the behavior modifications I used to use with one of my impulsive second graders years ago. His name was Cody (a pseudonym) and he was as distractible, hyper and impulsive as they come. But he had a heart of gold and whenever he got in trouble he was crushed. I could tell that he’d begin the day with the best of intentions, and then suddenly it was as if he just found himself playing with soap in the bathroom or having a pencil “fight” with his best friend. When I scolded him he’d hang his head and apologize profusely, hoping I wouldn’t call his parents.

My plan for him was to interrupt his shenanigans as early as possible and ask, “Cody, is this a good decision?” and help him decide on his own to change his behavior. I said it often enough that by mid-year he began stopping himself, sometimes after the bad behavior had started, with “the question” ringing in his head. He’d cut is eyes over at me, grin, and go back to what he was supposed to be doing. It didn’t happen every time, maybe even most times, but once he started self-regulating his own behavior, I knew he was on the right track.

We want the same thing for our readers as well. We want to prompt them with self-monitoring cues so often that they begin internalizing our voice and hearing it even when we’re not there. Does that look right? Does that make sense? These questions should constantly repeat themselves inside our students’ heads as they read.

These stuck kids aren’t always kids who need more phonics, or more sight words. Many times, they simply need to be taught how to think about text.