Monday, October 21, 2013
I've been reading a lot about inquiry learning lately, and the power of letting learners discover knowledge for themselves. This is true for learners of all ages - people from age 2 to 92 tend to remember and understand more deeply that which they had a hand in creating. A first grader who “discovers” that even numbers can be modeled by creating two matching columns of blocks to model a number will have a much deeper understanding than the child who memorizes, “2, 4, 6, 8…” The middle schooler who starts an interest-bearing savings account and the 35-year old who rebuilds his truck engine both learn life skills at a much deeper level than by simply reading a book about these events.
The key to inquiry, however, is struggle, and that something that's very hard for us teachers to allow. Letting a child struggle to accomplish something that we could help them solve with one or two well-placed comments requires patience and trust that eventually the student will master the task. It comes from a misunderstanding of where the learning is occurring - we tend to think the learning happens at the very end, when the math problem is solved, the engine is put back together or the savings account results in a longed-for purchase. But in reality, learning occurred during the period leading up to the final event. Without the struggle beforehand, facts are merely memorized and soon forgotten. No lesson is learned.
I'm reminded of a first grade teacher I knew many years ago while I was a reading specialist. I worked with several students from her class, and they would sometimes say, “Don't give me the fish!” while reading a text. When I asked the teacher to explain this, she told me that every year she would very dramatically act out the proverb “Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day - teach a man to fish and you'll feed him for a lifetime.” She created a story from it, complete with a poor, bedraggled man becoming rich from all the fish he'd learned to catch.
She then connected it to the culture they were creating in their classroom - they promised each other that they would never “Give each other a fish” but instead would find ways to teach each other along the way. She told me the parents had been especially guilty of “giving fish” by providing the hard words during nightly reading, but the students soon put an end to that by teaching the parents to prompt them with strategies.
I've never forgotten that teacher's important lesson to her first graders. I unabashedly stole it to use in my classroom for years afterwards. Those kids knew the power in the struggle. They knew that being given a difficult word or told a math answer took away their right to learn for themselves. Allowing our students to struggle isn't easy, but it's the best way to ensure they truly learn.
Saturday, September 21, 2013
I once had a second grade student – let’s call her Amy – who was quiet and shy, even thoughtful, and not the kind to get noticed. She lived on a farm near the school, and when I came for a home visit, she asked me to bring my mountain bike so we could ride through her cow pastures and see the fish pond. She wasn’t any more animated that she usually was in class, though her quiet pride in her pets, her bike, and her family was evident in every blush and downcast glance.
Amy’s parents were worried because she was quiet and slow to respond in conversations. Her reading was progressing at a normal level, but she read still slowly and shyly, even in one-on-one conferences. To all outward appearances, she was simply someone who liked to think and take her time with it, and in today’s rushed world, she stood out.
I recently read a book that helped me better understand Amy, and myself, at the same time. Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain describes the American admiration of gregarious, friendly, talkative people and its detrimental impact on the 1/3 to ½ of us who are introverts. Our Extrovert Ideal rewards quick action over careful thought and admires charismatic leadership over quiet strength. It explains why Amy’s parents and many others like them worry that something is wrong with their child if she only has a few close friends and prefers to read or play alone instead of attend parties and participate in team sports.
Cain’s book helped me realize that introversion is determined from birth (4-month old babies who were highly reactive to unusual stimuli later turned out to be introverts who preferred the solitude of their minds over the activity of crowds) and that it can be a gift rather than something to be embarrassed about. She describes a number of introverts who pretend to be extroverts for periods of time but who then find quiet times to decompress later. A surprising number of apparent extroverts are really introverts who are faking it for something they love (e.g. radio talk show hosts, beloved professors, presidents). As Cain says, “Sometimes it helps to be a pretend extrovert. There will always be time to be quiet later.” In the next breath, however, she says, “But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is key to finding work you love and work that matters.”
Until I read this book I had no idea how I, too, had subscribed to the Extrovert Ideal to the point of even feeling bad about myself for avoiding small talk and preferring to spend Saturday at home reading a book. I also realized that I’d set up my classroom to promote this ideal by encouraging group work without leaving room for individual projects, and rewarding the quickest and loudest responders in class discussions without leaving sufficient wait time for the more contemplative students.
One third to one half of our classrooms are filled with introverts like Amy. How can we make room for them to make the most of their natural temperaments?
Monday, September 2, 2013
I've been thinking a lot lately about teacher empowerment. Various readings and current situations have made me reflect on how terribly important it is for us teachers to 1) feel emotionally invested in the work we do, 2) remain simultaneously open to new ideas and yet confident about our own effectiveness, and 3) be willing to share our beliefs about what works with those who might be seen as more powerful.
Too often, it seems, we lack the courage to speak up about what we believe to be right.
Below is a project I worked on this summer with this in mind. Perhaps it might be helpful for some of you who want your voices to be heard...
(I apologize for the jarring ending - Powtoons automatically adds that unless you pay a fee to join ;-)
Too often, it seems, we lack the courage to speak up about what we believe to be right.
Below is a project I worked on this summer with this in mind. Perhaps it might be helpful for some of you who want your voices to be heard...
(I apologize for the jarring ending - Powtoons automatically adds that unless you pay a fee to join ;-)
Sunday, August 25, 2013
This past week I had somewhat of an epiphany as I was working with a large number of Juniors and Seniors at the College of Education from our local university. They'd asked that I give a three and a half hour overview of literacy, Common Core standards, and anything else they thought might be helpful to kids at the beginning of their careers.
Three and a half hours is a long time, especially to the students who were hearing a lot of information all at once. But I tried to build a foundation from the beginning by starting with educational theory. It was the discussion of theory that led to my epiphany.
My basic approach was to talk about two major theories of learning that teachers tend to have - the transmission theory and constructivist theory. Transmission theory holds that the teacher possesses knowledge that must be transmitted to students, who are simply receptacles. This is also called the banking method - the teacher makes “deposits” in the students' knowledge, slowly adding to their overall understanding over time. The students' job is simply to receive the knowledge and remember it. The problem with this approach is that it views the learner as passive and uninvolved, and doesn't value the knowledge the learners bring with them. It also tends not to stick, because the learner doesn't value or relate to the information. Teachers who believe in transmission theory will often say, “I don't know what's wrong with these kids - I told them what to do and they just won't do it.” The implication is if the students don't learn there must be something wrong with them because the teacher did her job.
Social constructivist theory, on the other hand, holds that learners construct their understandings by combining new knowledge with old knowledge. In order to understand a concept at a deep level, such as how to infer character motivations in a classic novel, the learner must draw from both the text (new information) and previous experiences (old knowledge) to infer, for instance, why Atticus Finch chooses to defend a black man in “To Kill a Mockingbird”. A teacher believing in the transmission model would explain the character's motivations to the students, while those using social constructivist theory would ask students to talk about it, drawing on what they already know about the time period and human nature. Social constructivist teaching takes longer, but it's relevant learning that remains with the student after the teacher is gone.
I'm beginning to realize, as a coach working with teachers and other coaches, that oftentimes what I see as stubbornness or resistance to new ideas is actually a clash between my learning theory and theirs. Underlying all instructional moves, assessment decisions, or classroom management strategies is the instructor's theory, and if I don't first understand that, I can't hope to effect change.
I need to think about this further, but so far I have several things I wonder about:
- Does everyone consciously know their own theory of learning? My guess is they don’t so then, as a coach, how do I help them tap into that?
- Is constructivist theory always best? Are there times when transmission is the preferred method?
- What language can I use as a coach that is the least threatening, and allows people to freely examine their learning theories without feeling defensive?
What about you? What is your theory of learning?
Sunday, August 4, 2013
It's the time of year when students and teachers are cramming in last-minute vacations before the fast-approaching first day of school. If you're a teacher, then most likely you're already dreaming “school dreams” at night and having day dreams as well. I always love the planning part of summer, when anything is possible and my optimist self foresees all my plans going perfectly in the upcoming year. Yep, THIS year I'll be organized, efficient, and downright inspirational to the best group of kids a teacher could hope to assemble in one place. Then reality hits as soon as every kid arrives bringing a bag of notebooks, folders, and reams of paper, none of which have their name on them, and somebody's crying and another one's mom wants to stay for the first 3 hours and my best laid plans are out the window before 8:15.
I do know, however, that however chaotic those first hours are in the classroom, one of the most important things I do during that crucial beginning time is to establish through my words and actions what kind of place this classroom will be for the 25 or so kids and I who inhabit it. Everything I say and how I say it is watched ever so carefully by kids those first hours, and so no matter how messy the pile of notebooks and folders, I have to prioritize and spend time creating community. My actions and words need to communicate that this is the kind of place where you'll be expected to think, where we value what you think even if we don't understand or agree with it, and where it's safe to be different and creative and even wrong.
Something I love to do on the first day, after everyone is settled and I've gathered everyone on the rug to tell them a little about myself, is to share with them an anonymous quote written large on chart paper: “Fair isn't equal. Fair doesn't mean everyone gets the same. It means that everyone gets what they need.” We talk about what this means, and how my job is to figure out what each one of them needs and their job is to help me find that out. Everyone in our classroom is different and has differing needs. One person might need me to help them come up with ideas for writing while another person might have plenty of ideas but need help organizing them. Some of them might love multiplication but need help with fractions, while others are just the opposite. People are complicated beings, which is why teaching isn't easy, but it's always interesting.
As I'm explaining this, all their faces are turned towards me, listening intently, not really sure what I mean. Some of them want to trust me, but if they've struggled in school they may be wary of being the one that's “different,” the one who sits in the special desk or sees the teacher every day for interventions. They don't really trust that I'll treat everyone's needs differently or that I'll ask their opinion about why they feel the need to distract other kids in circle time or that I really do want to hear about the fort they built behind their house during a writing conference. That will come later.
For now, they have homework: find out from their parents at exactly what age they learned to walk, say their first word, and lost their first tooth. We spend the next few days charting these facts so that I can once again reinforce the idea that we're all slightly different, just like snowflakes. And if our bodies grow at differing speeds, reaching these milestones at different times, then our minds and how we think develop the same way: at different speeds and at different times, but we all DID eventually lose our first tooth, right? We all did learn to walk and talk. So too will we all learn the things we're setting out to learn this year, but it won't happen at the same time for each one of us. And that's perfectly okay, because that's only natural.
It's my job to find out exactly what they need as students, and it's our job as a classroom community to help each other get there. It should be what being in school is all about.
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
This is a double-sided post - on the top is my perspective, and below that is Jennifer's take on the same process. That was her cool idea!
Not long ago, a teacher friend of mine, Jennifer, emailed me to announce that she’d just splurged on a new bike for herself. She was excited about the prospect of riding, but hadn’t ridden much since she was a kid, and asked if I’d be willing to meet with her somewhere to go over the basics. She knew I love biking and asked if I could “coach” her into getting started.
Afterward, it occurred to us that this coaching/learning experience could be blog-worthy, and so we each have posted based on our own perspectives. Coaching, it turns out, is not quite as intuitive as falling off a bike, but the parallels between our ride together and coaching in general were difficult to ignore:
1. Market yourself – In this case, Jennifer had identified me as someone who could help with her new-found hobby. I’d “advertised” my passion for riding bikes through Facebook, and so she sought me out. As a coach in a building, only rarely will the Jennifers of the world seek us out – most of the time, we have to look for opportunities to coach. We have to advertise our wares – through weekly newsletters sharing proven teaching strategies, responding to emails to offer specific support, or even drop-in “cold calls” visiting classrooms to listen for teacher frustrations. We need to advertise our passions.
2. Let the student guide you – When we met up in the parking lot, I still wasn’t sure what Jennifer’s previous biking experience consisted of or what sort of help she wanted from me. But a few quick questions helped me know that it was mainly the shifting she wanted explained. If I’d jumped in at a too basic or overly advanced level, I’d have wasted time for both of us, and likely frustrated her as well. Don’t make assumptions – ask questions.
3. Gradual release is universal – No matter the activity, gradually releasing responsibility while simultaneously increasing difficulty is alsmost always successful. In our case, we started off on level ground in parking lots, then gradually meandered around the college campus drive before eventually tackling a dirt road with loose patches of gravel and mud puddles, and finally a rooty dirt path through the woods. Each time we stepped up the difficulty I asked Jennifer if she was game, and she always was – she even mastered the steep downhill with a hidden S-curve over a narrow culvert at the bottom. By then she’d gotten the hang of her overall goal for the outing – to master shifting and knowing when to use which gears. If we’d started out the day on that downhill she could have gotten hurt, both in ego and in body, and the prospect of her new bike would have seemed much less inviting. Start slow, and always stay within the learner’s zone of proximal development.
4. Be aware of the curse of knowledge – This idea comes from Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Made to Stick” and has to do with our tendency to forget just how hard it was to learn something once we’ve mastered it ourselves. I found myself having to think through processes and steps (down-shifting gears before an uphill, using both brakes on a downhill) that I’ve done so often I’m unconscious of them. As a coach, it can be very easy to make assumptions about prior knowledge – I sometimes think assumptions are the curse of coaching – and so we inadvertently leave out crucial, basic information. In coaching, step back, empathize, and empty yourself of what you know. Make yourself conscious of everything involved.
5. Be a learner – Donald Graves once said, “The teacher is the chief learner in the classroom.” As a coach, I try to model constant learning, mainly because life is more fun that way. On my ride with Jennifer I came away with a bit more knowledge about hybrid bicycles and their surprising capabilities, but I learned much more through our discussions about popular blogs, her possible dissertation topic on social media as professional development, and the surprising fact that she used to race cars! This she told me after the S-curve culvert incident, which totally explains why she didn’t crash.
In reality, coaching is simply one adult sharing ideas with another and, ideally, vice versa. In the best coaching situations, both participants get fed. People shouldn’t leave the interaction feeling demoralized, angry, or tempted to give up, but rather empowered - and perhaps a little sore around the edges from stretching beyond their normal range of motion.
Me....after just one lesson! Okay...not really.
Heather is working on her Ph.D. and has been in a coaching position with our county for several years. I've always enjoyed her relaxed manner with the students as well as the teachers I've seen her work with. So from the get-go I wasn't too nervous about our meet-up even though I knew she was light years beyond me in biking experience.
Having joked about this experience being great fodder for a blog I couldn't help but draw comparisons between our “lesson” and those that we face every day in the classroom.
First of all, I sought out the help of someone I knew had already mastered the content. How many times in our classrooms do we squelch conversations without realizing that our students are actually seeking help from their more experienced peers?
As we unloaded our bikes Heather assessed my experience level with one question, “So, when’s the last time you rode a bike?” I reassured her that I knew that I could ride a bike, but it was “that gear-shifting stuff” that had me worried. Plus, I was concerned that my bike, having been assembled by an unknown person in the backroom at Target, could possibly have been put together backwards and I wouldn't know it until a wheel fell off.
Heather chose the local college campus which was a great area for our initial ride. We were able to start out on level pavement so I could practice shifting gears. She gave me simple, short instructions as we practiced - basic things that I could have read about or Googled, but that were easy for me to grasp with an expert by my side.
We made several laps around the campus on pavement. I had to stop a few times in the beginning to get my seat height worked out. Heather was quick to lend a hand, tightening a screw that I had no idea existed. Already this free lesson was worth gold to me! She also pointed out that I should take my bike to a real bike shop after a few weeks to have everything tightened up and checked. I never would've thought to do such a thing, but it made total sense, especially given my paranoia about the initial assembly of the bike.
We chatted about school and our possible dissertation topics as we cruised around. All the while I became more and more comfortable shifting gears and braking without throwing myself over the handlebars. When Heather suggested trying out a trail I was confident in her experience as my coach that I would be able to manage whatever she led me through. How many times have we been told that trust is critical in student-teacher relationships? Because I trusted her, I had confidence in myself.
The trail was great fun! I’d never ridden off pavement before and although my hybrid was not as adept as her mountain bike at handling mud, I made it through without incident. Again, as we navigated puddles, gravel pits, roots, etc. Heather provided concise tips when I needed them. How often do we front-load students with all the instructions for an activity only to find ourselves repeating information later? No one wants to eat a steak in one bite. It's much easier to digest information one bite at a time.
After an hour we returned to our cars and parted ways. We’d rode about 6 miles which was great for me as a beginner. I’d come light years from where I started an hour earlier thanks to Heather’s support. This experience further cemented my belief in programs like The Daily Five and C.A.F.E. by The Sisters. Students learn by doing.
Heather could’ve met me at a coffee shop and we could’ve talked about biking. She could have explained how to change gears and maybe even presented a PowerPoint about proper bike assembly. I bet she could’ve found a worksheet online that would’ve quizzed my knowledge of how to shift gears and adjust my seat.
Instead, we biked.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Several years ago I went to New York for a week-long conference at Columbia University. I was really excited, but also a little nervous because I was going by myself and I wasn’t sure how I’d spend all the off-time. “Surely I’ll meet other people to have dinner with,” I thought. “I can’t be the only person going by myself.”
Well, I was. Or at least it felt that way. Somehow when we formed smaller groups, the people I was with didn’t exude the Southern charm I’m used to. My comments about our projects were met with silence or sometimes covert glances and raised eyebrows. My questions about local school acronyms were ignored. When I called to take one of them up on a dinner invite, it seemed she was staying in that night instead.
I spent the better part of the week wracking my brain trying to figure out how I’d offended these people, what I must have said in the beginning to turn them off. Later, a friend of mine suggested it was probably my Southern accent – they just assumed any idea I had was the equivalent of a trailer park tattoo since most likely their only exposure to Southerners was as reality show purveyors of moonshine.
Perhaps something like this has happened to you – people pass judgment on you and you then spend an inordinate amount of time wondering what you’ve done wrong. The episode in NY made me feel insecure and unsure of myself, but why is that? Why didn’t I just blow it off and stay confident of the strength of my ideas? A great book I’m reading right now explains my reaction to this whole episode. Carol Dweck has written “Mindset”, about fixed and growth mindsets, and one tiny section caught my eye because it rang so true for me.
Women, she says, are used to being fed positive feedback as children. Generally, girls are treated somewhat gingerly by teachers, parents, and each other. “You’re so helpful!” we hear, or “I think your dress is pretty.” Boys, on the other hand, are often treated rougher and told to “buck up” and not cry. They easily call each other “slob” and “moron.” Girls, on the other hand, don’t call each other names (at least within hearing distance).
The result is that boys learn early on to brush off others’ opinions of them because so often they’re done in a teasing manner. Girls, however, learn to trust other people’s estimates of them. So much of what we hear is positive or at least very likely true (we hope), that we end up very vulnerable to other’s opinions. As Dreck says, girls think “Gee, everyone’s so nice to me; if they criticize me, it must be true.”
What’s the lesson here? It’s certainly not for girls to begin calling each other names in an effort to grow tougher skin. But perhaps when we’re faced with unfounded negative comments we can take a page from the boys’ playbook and practice some positive self-talk. In New York, I should have re-centered myself, been a bit more assertive about my ideas, and perhaps even asked what they felt I’d done wrong. At the very least, I shouldn’t have let it discolor my week the way it did.
Half the battle is simply being aware of the social patterns that impact our perceptions. The other half is in our response.
Monday, May 6, 2013
How does a teacher early in her career decide who she’s going to be? My first year I had grand ideas of changing the world, but quickly learned it took all of my time just to keep my head above water. I kept telling myself, “It’s ok. I’m only a first year teacher.” And later, “It’s alright, this is only my second year.” But by the third year, I was really beginning to doubt myself, and definitely by the fourth year I was pretty sure I was irreparably damaging the tiny souls in my care. “What’s wrong with me?” I’d silently scream to myself. “It’s already my fourth year and I still don’t know what I’m doing!”
Fortunately, sometime during that fourth year, an experienced teacher at a county-level meeting reassured me this was completely normal. No one else had bothered to explain that self-doubt comes with the job. Instead, when I looked around me I saw what appeared to be confident, organized, experienced teachers who never doubted their next steps and always had their plans ready for next week. Granted, their plans involved basal texts and grammar worksheets, but at least they left on time on Fridays and could joke around with the principal. “Maybe I should just be the kind of teacher who pulls the same Leprechaun file out for March each year,” I thought. “Just go ahead and buy the polyester pantsuit and a pack of red pens."
After recently talking with young teacher also caught in the 4th-year slump, I’m beginning to think this is a natural stage creative teachers must go through. Perhaps it’s an identity crisis, a search for your true self, which occurs when you realize that it’s not easy to become the larger-than-life teacher you’d set out to be when you were a wide-eyed undergrad. You wonder: if that remarkable teacher you intended to become hasn’t arrived yet, maybe it won’t ever happen, and instead you should begin to look around to find another model to settle for.
I’m not sure what brought me out of that slump – it’s been too many years ago to remember the details – but I do think it might have had to do with a change of scenery. I moved schools and separated from my more traditional teammate. I also joined some county-level committees that gave me a wider perspective, but more importantly allowed me to see even experienced teachers were still struggling to nail down this profession. And probably most importantly, I found an unofficial mentor, a neighboring teacher who was ten times more creative than me. Sherry gave me someone to emulate and motivated me to become more than who I was. She served as my “mentor text” and reaffirmed my budding beliefs in student choice and active learning that had almost gotten squashed during my earlier years.
Perhaps you’re a new teacher hitting that identity slump, wondering if you’ll ever be the teacher you’d aspired to. Or maybe you have passed that rough patch and feel fully vested in the identity you’ve carved out for yourself in this difficult profession. In either case, reach out to each other. Lord knows we all need support.
Saturday, April 27, 2013
Recently I overheard a coach conferring with a teacher about a lesson the teacher wanted to see modeled. “What I’d really like to see,” she said, “is how to work with my stronger readers on the reflection and interpretation questions similar to those on the DRA. Could you work with a guided reading group on that?” The coach agreed and set a date for the lesson.
I waited for more conversation to happen, but none did. I thought the coach might probe for what specifically the kids were having trouble with, or she might think aloud about how she could address these higher-order skills in a guided reading group, how she might model thinking aloud to the kids or think through which book to use. But none of this happened – the conversation moved on to other kids in the class who struggled.
Perhaps this coach and teacher will meet again before the modeled lesson, but it made me realize that one of the hardest parts of coaching, especially when we’re new to coaching, is remembering that we’re not there to teach the students. We’re there to make our teaching moves explicit to teachers. We have to make the implicit explicit, and that’s not always easy.
Many of us are “unconsciouslycompetent” – we’ve been teaching effectively for so long that we’re no longer conscious of why we do the things we do. We teach like we drive – automatically, effectively, and unconsciously. Perhaps one solution is to practice narrating our driving on the morning commute: “See what I did just then? That truck up ahead put on its blinker to pull into the deceleration lane, so I automatically glanced in my rearview mirror. I need to know how close someone might be following me before I apply the brakes.”
In the classroom this might mean saying, while modeling a reading conference, “At this point, I’m deliberately ignoring the minor oral reading errors I hear in order to keep the focus of the conference on comprehension. Otherwise I run the risk of overwhelming the student with too many teaching points.” These types of automatic, subconscious decisions are what highly-effective teachers do, but if we don’t lift them to a conscious level then some teachers may continue to be left in the dark.
Effective coaching makes implicitly good teaching explicit. It’s about sharing our thinking in the midst of the acts of teaching. That includes sharing the thinking that goes into planning instruction, the myriad small moves that happen in the course of a lesson, and the reflection after a lesson is complete. As coaches, we must move beyond unconscious competence into becoming reflectively competent.
Sunday, April 21, 2013
It has been entirely too long since I’ve written a post. I can whine and complain about how complicated my life has been, but the reality is that writing is like exercise – difficult to get motivated about starting, but surprisingly cathartic once I’ve taken the plunge.
Recently I was at a seminar where one of the round-table discussions centered around writing strategies. Most interesting to me were the strategies people use to convince themselves to write. One lady always stopped writing in the middle of a sentence, so that she’d have a thought to begin with the next time. The man beside me said he always goes somewhere across town to write – a coffee shop or a park – because once he’s there he can tell himself he has to keep writing to make the trip worthwhile. The woman leading the session rewarded herself for writing by bribing herself with Solitaire games – for every page or so written she’d allow herself to play three games.
It’s interesting, I think, that we must entice ourselves to write. I don’t hear people talk of strategies to get started with reading, or ways to manage reading a book so you’ll pick it up the next time. Even when you’re reading for an assignment, it’s much easier than writing one. Is it because it’s a type of Breathing Out that requires us to actively produce thought rather than merely absorb another’s ideas?
At any rate, I’m going to work at playing games with myself to be a more active writer. One idea I liked from the round-table discussion was not writing every day – maybe just every other day, the ones with the letter T in them. I’ll promise myself that I only need to write one paragraph, and if I write more then that’s just icing on the cake.