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.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

4 Key Ways to Teach a Concept (Part 2 – Professional Learning)

Recently I was thinking about the four ways of teaching a concept to students and how some of these methods are more helpful than others, when it hit me – these four ways of teaching also mirror the ways we experience learning as adults. And in much the same way as with students, some methods work better than others in particular settings.

As a quick review, the four ways to teach a concept are: demonstration (modeling), guided practice, explicitly telling and showing, and inquiry. As teachers, we may experience demonstration when a coach or consultant models lessons, and we might learn through guided practice as we try a new strategy and receive immediate feedback from the coach. Very occasionally we may engage in inquiry groups. More often, however, professional learning entails “explicit telling and showing” or the “sit and get” model. Each of these methods have very different structures and require different types of thinking from participants. It’s worth thinking about the type of learning and thinking required of each method.

My guess is that most teachers experience “explicit telling and showing” as their main form of professional development. Or maybe it’s more just “telling and showing” without much explicit-ness. These are the after-school faculty meetings when a coach, consultant or administrator shares the latest, greatest method for close reading or word study instruction or whatever new approach has come down the pike. If we’re lucky, we are somewhat active participants and get to try the strategy with a partner, but more often we sit and listen to a PowerPoint being read slide by slide. It brings to mind the viral quote I saw not long ago:

Research shows that simply being told something does not transfer to classroom instruction. And yet, many schools and districts continue this method as the primary form of staff development…

I have found it to be much more effective to provide professional learning in a coaching lab approach, in which I meet with teachers during the school day so that we can work with actual students and try out the methods we’re learning about. We usually begin with theory and discussion about the topic, then move on to a demonstration lesson with students and finally guided practice as the teachers partner up to practice with small groups of students. The feedback I get from teachers afterwards is usually very positive – people enjoy seeing the teaching strategy in action, and after initial trepidation, they really like seeing each other teach – a luxury that is oddly absent in our profession. My sense from talking with teachers is that they’re much likelier to bring the teaching method back to their own classrooms after having tried it with colleagues in the lab.

Another method I’ve found to be very successful is Lesson Study This approach uses inquiry, the fourth method for teaching a concept. Lesson study involves teachers creating lessons to address a common problem of practice, then taking turns teaching the lesson while their colleagues watch the effects on the students. It may be the most nontraditional method of professional development most teachers experience, and it can be very difficult to facilitate, but it often results in deep reflection and feelings of empowerment for the participants.

One final thought about these four methods as they pertain to thinking: over-use of “explicitly retelling and showing” tends to lead to a procedural approach to teaching, a sort of “here’s what you need to know to be able to be successful, just follow these steps or guidelines.” Procedural learning leads to procedural teaching.

In contrast, modeling a teaching strategy, then providing teachers time to engage in guided practice is less about discrete procedures and more about deep processes. These approaches, along with inquiry learning, honor the difficulty of the teaching profession, and invite teachers to engage in and explore the complex choices we must make in the act of teaching. Teaching cognitive processes IS rocket science, and cannot be accomplished by following a series of procedural steps.

There will be times when a concept is simple enough to call for the procedural thinking that comes from “explicitly telling and showing,” but I argue that both teachers and students deserve to experience the process learning that comes with modeling, guided practice, and inquiry learning.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

4 Key Ways to Teach A Concept (Part 1 – students)

Lately I've talked with a few teachers who are confused about the messages they're hearing about current “best practices”. On the one hand, they hear that they're supposed to allow students to struggle and become more comfortable experiencing failure . On the other hand, their principal has docked them for conducting lessons that consist of too much questioning and not enough explicit modeling. How do they know what to do?

As always, Lucy Calkins and her colleagues have words of wisdom to offer. In the “A Guide to the Reading Workshop” that comes with the Units of Study boxed kits, they describe four key ways that we can teach a concept to others. As an example, they describe asking people to teach a partner “how to put on your shoe.” When we teach our partner, we usually default to these four main methods:
  • Demonstration: This involves explicitly modeling the targeted skill or strategy. The teacher should think aloud as he models, talking through the steps and possible misconceptions or confusions along the way. A teacher demonstrating how to put on your shoe would think aloud about the process: “Oops! I need to point my toe more to make sure the tongue doesn't get in the way. Now I'll slide my foot forward…” Calkins argues that demonstration should be included in 90% of our mini-lessons.

  • Guided Practice: We provide guided practice by working alongside a student as they attempt the skill or strategy, offering guidance and feedback as necessary. This shifts the responsibility partially onto the student, while allowing the teacher to actively teach. The shoe-teacher would coach the student by giving pointers: “Make sure to hold the back of your shoe while you point your toe.”

  • Explicitly telling and showing an example: I had to really think about how this was different than demonstration. After some thought, I realized that demonstration includes sharing the teacher's thinking aloud about a process, whereas explicitly telling has more to do with simply telling students a procedure. The shoe-teacher might have a chart with illustrated steps, and describe each step without actually modeling the procedure or sharing her own struggle with the process: “First, you should lift up the tongue, next you should point your toe, third you should…” There are times when this method is sufficient, but generally not if the concept is a difficult one.

  • Inquiry: In this approach, the teacher is not modeling at all, but instead asks the students to discover the answers themselves. “How do YOU think we could put on our shoes? Go ahead and discover by trying some different ways.”
A few weeks ago, I realized the subtle differences between these methods when I attempted to teach a group of 5th graders a way to find the main idea by looking for vivid language that revealed the author's point of view. The lesson flopped. Afterward, I realized it was because I didn't strongly demonstrate the key strategy I wanted kids to practice – determining which words in the article qualified as “vivid language.” Instead, I simply “told” the kids the words I was going to highlight: “This word frigid helps me imagine how cold it was, and when the author says the people were bundled up in the cold, that's another vivid word.” I was just telling and showing them the words I would highlight as “vivid” without clearly thinking through what made them vivid.

Instead, I should have been much clearer in my thinking aloud to make it a true demonstration lesson. If I had talked about visualizing the scene, and thought about which words were helping my mental picture become clear (frigid, bundled, miserable) and which were not (Wednesday, temperature, people) then the students might have understood better how to apply this thinking to their own reading. They needed to hear more about the process I used WHILE I tried the strategy, when instead I merely told them what to do.

If you're finding that some of your lessons are flopping like mine did, take a look at how well you're modeling the work you want kids to do. It helps to actually do the task or use the targeted strategy beforehand with an adult-level text while you pay close attention to your own thinking processes. Make sure you're going beyond simply telling.

Open up your head, and let your kids see the processes strong readers and writers use.

Have you tried this before? What works and what doesn’t? Share in the comments below.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Writer's Anxiety OR How a rusty blogger got cranked back up again

Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.”
– Will Durant

Before I started graduate school, I began this blog and I posted entries every few weeks or so about my thoughts. I stopped for the four years I was in school because I was so pressed for time, but I'd feel guilty about not writing about all the new information I was learning.

Now I'm done with my degree, but I am suddenly much more aware of how ignorant I am and how many brilliant people exist in the world. I find myself terrified to write anything. Any time I think of a topic, I convince myself that others have already written about it in much more interesting ways. Or I'll think that I've only learned a little about the topic and will surely share misinformation and humiliate myself. I've found a million reasons not to write over the past few years.

I liked it better when I was less educated and thought I knew more. Ignorance truly was bliss.

I realize there may be many teachers out there who feel like me - afraid to step out on a limb and write about their experiences because of crippling self-doubt. But we all have stories to tell and lessons we've learned (regardless of the amount of bliss-erasing education we've received). If 100 teachers lived through the same experience, we'd have 100 different perspectives and stories about how it unfolded. That's what makes humans so interesting.

So, I've decided to step back out on my limb and begin blogging again. I've come to some realizations about what I need to do to make this happen:

1) understand that blog-writing is not polished writing. I think I've been too worried about making my blog sound dry and professional. Actually, people enjoy blogs that have voice, that sound like real people wrote them. Several blogs I've read recently are humorous and informal, so I need to work at keeping mine the same.

2) live like a writer. I've stopped collecting incidents and ideas throughout my day for the specific purpose of writing about them. Ralph Fletcher says that writers live differently than other people because they file away their everyday experiences for future writings. I need to consciously pay attention to those fleeting thoughts that could become blog entries.

3) sit my butt in a chair and write. I used to have a fairly regular habit of writing each night. I gave myself a small goal - just write a paragraph a night. This was a small enough goal that I was able to keep it even when I felt super reluctant.

I started this blog to force myself to write for an audience beyond myself. I thought having a purpose would help motivate me to get words written. But once I realized some people actually were reading what I wrote, it caused me to freeze in my tracks.

This is my public attempt to un-freeze myself and commit to writing more regularly.

What about you? Do you keep intending to start/continue a blog? Write a book? Start a journal?

What prevents you from writing? What tricks have you found to get yourself un-stuck? Share your ideas below.