October 9, 2011
Inspiration is found in the quiet corners of the mind. This is what has led to the quiet of this blog this past few months. After the mental stimulus of the ASCD conference and the physical rigors of escorting 90 students to Washington and NYC, my mind and body needed a rest. After the turmoil of a third consecutive school year of upheaval and animosity, my spirit needed a rest as well. More importantly I needed the “think time” to process all the input I had received and emotions I had experienced. The warm days of summer and the joys of a wedding have given me a most welcome respite and I am now back. I have several articles planned, but for now I want to revisit the importance of a basic tool that often is left behind…Think Time…Without this precious commodity much of what we do with our students is degraded or lost. Additionally in this time of tight budgets this tool becomes an efficient vehicle for creating the connections that ensure long term learning. Furthermore think time is the practice field for critical thinking. And yet despite all that we know about think time, so many educators allow but a few seconds to pass before moving on to the next student or calling on the same two or three students who always seem to know the answer. We point to the myriad of standards that be to covered before the state test; the reticence of students to participate; the lack of time we have with students each day as reasons why we need to keep moving…and yet…how far has this approach gotten us?
I decided that this year I would more strategically implement think time. I wanted to allow all students the opportunity to make connections and think critically about the content we were exploring together. I wanted to hear all of my students’ voices. So I started making a plan that would allow me to reach this goal without overburdening me or my students. Here are some strategies I have found to be effective.
1. Intentionally allow for think time and writing before the beginning of a discussion. This could take the form of a quick write or a review of notes or the use of a “think minute”.
2. Allow for practice discussion with a shoulder or table partner. Then there is the silent conversation where students write responses to each other rather than speak them.
3. Let students know that all their voices are import ant. The AVID strategy 1-1-2 Partner Share is a wonderful tool for this. Briefly this strategy has students consider a question (another great place for a quick write) and then take turns listening and repeating back what their partner says before engaging in a two minute pair discussion.
4. Call on all students equitably. For iPhone and iPad users the app Sitck Pick is a powerful tool for ensuring this. It draws on the old popsicle stick idea, but also allows you to differentiate what type of questions you ask each individual student. It even keeps track of the quality of student responses. You can even export this info via e-mail. I find that when I use this app I am also more aware of how long I wait before asking a clarifying question or moving on.
These four simple tools have already improved the quality of discussion in my classroom. They cost nothing, but are priceless. By providing the quiet time to think before a discussion, I am eliminating the quiet that befalls so many classroom “discussions” and allowing my students an opportunity to explore the quiet corners of their mind that I have found so important to my personal exploration and growth.
March 31, 2011
Guerilla Learners: Learning Outside the Box
Monday morning,the last day of the ASCD 2011 annual conference in San Francisco. I scanned my program one last time as I walked toward my chosen 8 am session when my eyes fell on a session I had had not noticed before. I quickly headed off to this new section entitled “Students as Teachers: A Discussion with Quizlet.com Creator Andrew Sutherland”. If you have read my recent post on this site you would know why I turned on my heel in pursuit of this new direction. After all, how often do you get to meet the person whose idea has helped your students be more successful learners?
As I walked into the room I had to smile. The speaker behind a long table next to a very large screen was a young man of 21years. You know those mental images of people you create? Well mine was way off. This was not some seasoned educator as I had imagined, nor was it some veteran digital world icon. No suit, no tie and surprisingly no fancy technology. What stood before me was a young man who at the age of 16 came up with a solution to a problem he had with his foreign language class…guerilla education. He seemed nervous as he gazed out over the partially filled room to begin his presentation, but soon found his stride as he began sharing his reasons for starting the e-flashcard site, Quizlet. Sutherland’s passion for learning and creative problem solving became evident as he became more acclimated to the audience and we to him. Open to questions and ideas he epitomized all that true learning should be. He is a bright spot making his own spot on the education of thousands and perhaps millions of learners of all ages.
Currently a Junior at MIT Sutherland is clearly a life long learner who hopes to use the social attributes of the Quizlet format to reach as many other learners as he can. He does this by making Quizlet free. Doing so circumvents any administrative or organizational obstacles that so often keep effective tools from students…guerilla learning. Sutherland is an example for all learners. His example beckons all of us to be passionate, think creatively, empower everyone to be guerilla learners.
March 27, 2011
Saturday’s ticketed session on developing a thinking toolkit caught my attention for several reasons. First the presenter, Graham Watts, was an educator from London. I was interested in finding how the current state of education across the pond compared to issues facing us in the US. My interest was also peaked by the reference to Art Costa’s Habits of Mind which is one of the cornerstones I use to develop thinking in my classroom. So I was very interested in how Watts went about integrating HOM into his practice. Finally I wanted to gauge the audience to see where their level of familiarity was with the practices of explicitly teaching thinking and of implementing Habits of Mind.
What I observed as Watts worked through the hour using an interactive lecture format was both affirming and startling. Affirming in that I could see a similarity between his use of HOM and mine; startling in that so many in the audience were not acquainted with this powerful tool.
Of interest was his concept of a Student Thinker’s Toolkit in which students gather a series of strategies that they can use to build their capacity to think. The strategies in the toolkit are classified into the four categories of questioning, critical thinking, creative thinking, and metacognition.
Most interesting was Mr. Watts’s inclusion of an approach called 3 C Thinking that functions as a blueprint of how these elements are connected. Simply stated the center of all thinking is inquiry (questioning) about the three Cs of Critical, Creative, and Caring thought. All three components were given equal weight in the visual that accompanied Watts’s description. The role of metacognition encompassed all four of these components as a means to develop within student thinkers the capacity to understand how they created a thinking response. Finally the HOM encircled the entire process. They serve as a tool student thinkers pull out of their toolkit when they run into roadblocks in the thinking process. Here is a visual of this process. The job of the student is to decide which tool to use to shape their learning (literacy,thinking, tech).
As persuasive as this approach is I was surprised to learn that it might become the victim of a reform movement in England. This is so often the case in education. The concern with standards supersedes creativity while the race to high standardized test scores often results in the gutting of higher level thinking. Time to teach students how to think no longer is a priority. One participant gave voice to this concern as she worried about the time needed to teach students what basic thinking patterns like analyze or compare look like (metacognition). She believed that she did not have time to waste on this type of activity. The irony is the lower level thinking involved in a “death march curriculum” is the true waste of time. As educators we must commit to build our students’ thinking toolkits with higher level activities. Only then will content be mastered.
Learn more about Graham Watts at
March 26, 2011
This morning as I headed toward my local freeway on my way to LAX I passed the scrolling message board of my local Continuation High School. Focused on closing the 30 mile gap between home and the airport, I almost missed the red letters rolling by in their series of preappointed dots that read “Whoever dares to teach must never cease to learn”. This is really the motivating force behind conferences such as the one being held by ASCD in San Francisco this week. The opening General Session by professor and author Chip Heath only served to underscore the aphorism on the marquee as he urged us to bring about the change we need by focusing on the bright spots in our classroom lives. Using the metaphor of a tiny rider on an elephant for the analytic and emotional parts of our brains, he encouraged the audience to implement change by providing direction for the rider; motivating the elephant and shaping the path the elephant and rider traveled down. It was an energizing moment for the attendees and myself as we walked out to find and expand upon our bright spots.
March 23, 2011
Year after year mainstream teachers are assigned students with special needs. English learners, Resource students, and students with individual education plans (504s in California) pass through our doors each day bringing with them a set of instructional challenges that a mainstream teacher may not be trained to meet. Unfortunately these same teachers are given little if any support to reach these students and in these stark economic times these conditions are not about to change. This is not meant to be a reflection on the special education staff in any school. The demands on these teachers make such support a difficult challenge to surmount. It is simply the reality that is. Indeed increased class sizes; the complete mainstreaming of all levels of English Learners (including newcomers); and full immersion of all levels of special education students into regular instruction will only enhance the challenges of the educator in a mainstream classroom.
This is the first of an ongoing series of articles about tools mainstream educators can utilize to reach the needs of these students. Each article will have a different focus and will offer educators several resources that can be used to create a toolkit to address the needs of students who may struggle with our content.
2 Tech Tools
Quizlet- free online flashcards.
What It Is
Not the only option out there, but it’s the one I currently use for several reasons. First students find it easy to use and it does not require them to register in order to access a set a flashcards. This year Quizlet has added a voice option that reads the word or definition when a speaker icon is clicked. This is especially helpful to those students who struggle with the pronunciation of new words. The option to print the words and definitions as flashcards is also a plus since it allows offline access by those who may not have a computer or internet connection at home. Another advantage is the option to include images on the cards. The Quizlet site also engages learners with games such as Space Race. Additionally I like the site’s ability to generate tests from the cards. This feature allows me to easily check for understanding. It also allows students who may struggle with tests to practice in a less stressful more engaging environment.
Why It Matters
Students who struggle in a mainstream classroom can benefit from this tool because it allows them to move away from lower level thinking tasks such as copying to the actual manipulation of the knowledge. This is turn creates memory and allows the student more time to process the content. Additionally the use of sound and visuals as well as the interactive nature of the activities empower the students to access challenging verbal linguistic content in a manner that may draw on one of their learning strengths.
There are several many of these out there in App world. Here is the one I use.
I like this App even at its price of $3.99 on itunes because it offers a choice of voices. The speed of these voices can be easily modified and there is even an option for spelling! Easy downloads from cards on Quizlet is an added plus. As we upgrade our ipods touches please consider donating yours to a school so more students can access learning tools such as these.
February 26, 2011
The Power of Collaboration
Exciting things are happening in my AVID class of late. The change arose out of my desire to increase student ownership of their twice weekly tutorials where trained college aged tutors facilitate small groups of six students as they help one other discover the answer to a problem each student has identified from their classes or homework.
I had been concerned that some students asked multiple questions of the student who was presenting, while others seemed content to take a back seat. I was also dissatisfied with the quality of my students’ tutorial notes and reflections. Although I had tried speaking to individual students and even addressing the group and class as a whole I saw little had improvement.
That’s when I happened to stop by the office of an AP at my school. He and I somehow began talking about an experiment a college professor he knows conducts in his classes. He offers his classes the option of group or individual grades and although no class has chosen group grades the professor commented on the quality of the discussion as students were deciding which option to take. Furthermore the professor pointed out that research indicates that the achievement of all students increases with the group option.
This last comment is the one that sparked my interest. It stayed in my mind throughout the day and rumbled around in my head all evening. Eventually I made a decision to revamp how I graded the AVID tutorials. Students would continue to receive the grade they earned, but they would also earn the lowest grade in their tutorial group. So if someone earned a 38 and the lowest score for their group was a 30 that individual would receive the average of 34. I presented the new approach to tutorial grading to the AVID students and tutors. I pointed out that the power of a tutorial lies in the involvement of everyone in the process. A good tutorial I underscored was present when everyone did well. We discussed the idea that each group member in a tutorial has a responsibility to the other group members. I asked them to think about their role in making sure that everyone in their group was successful.
It has been six weeks since our first “All for one and one for all!” tutorial and the results are in. On average tutorial scores have risen 10% over the scores prior to the scores when every student received just their individual grade. More encouraging is the lack of outlier low scores where students earn less than a B. Indeed the class average is now at an A-. Students are more engaged and the discussions are becoming more complex. This is definitely becoming a routine of success.
Here is a link to the AVID Tutorial Worksheet we use.
February 13, 2011
Apples to Apples
Let’s compare apples to apples. This is what I think whenever I hear one of those dire comparisons between the public schools in the United States and India…or China…or Japan…or Finland. Without exception the US stats pale in comparison. But are we comparing the same populations? Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit a high school in Shanghai. It was impressive. I observed diligent students in well run classrooms; computer use by all students; high college entrance rates. Definitely this was a high performing public school. Or was it something else? As I passed other schools in Beijing where students hung out of third story windows cleaning the outer panes, I wondered would these young people soon be in high schools. The group I was with did not visit these schools, but I learned through conversations and observation that they would not. I learned that the school I observed in Shanghai was more akin to a prep school in the US than it was to any American public high school. Not only were young people winnowed out of schools into the workforce as early as middle school age, entrance into elite public high schools like the one I saw in Shanghai required a substantial payment. Yes there are scholarships available to needy students, but the majority of poorer students will enter the workforce or attend inferior high schools that limit college opportunity. In more ways than one they were being hung out to dry. How many of these students were included in the PISA and TIMSS results? How many of these students took the test.?
American schools educate the entire population into high school. There is no active institutional winnowing into career paths. American schools educate the entire barrel of apples. We do not hand pick a few golden ones. And yet the beauty of educating everyone through high school is also our greatest challenge. Meeting the needs of a diverse population; ridding our system of the passive filters that limit opportunities for some while enhancing opportunities for others; developing competent and passionate educators with high expectations for all; achievement gaps; digital gaps…the challenges are many and in these economic times they might seem insurmountable , but it must be achieved if this democracy is to remain vibrant.
I am proud that we educate all of our students. I am proud that anyone at any point in their life can reenter our educational system. I embrace our “all apples” approach and as an educator I am determined to address the challenges educating everyone poses because the alternative of education for a select few is the true danger to us as individuals and as a society.
Jay Mathews of the Washington Post has a recent article that addresses a similar idea. It is an interesting read.
What are your thoughts?
February 6, 2011
Families are often microcosms of the general population. Any family gathering I attend shares the same spectrum of political and religious views that any poll seeks to quantify. My family also has an unusually high number of educators in it ranging from classroom teachers …to professors…to consultants. So when someone who is not an educator brings up the topic of “what’s wrong with our schools” the “discussions” are always interesting and often heated by the passion of belief. Too often though the results are confirmation of everyone’s personal beliefs and a deepening of the divide that threatens to shatter our schools and our nation. Such was the climate of a recent family gathering.
Now I am a strong advocate of following one’s passions. Such passion is the energy that fuels my 36 years in the classroom. However when that passion stops fueling positive results and is instead used to build filters so we process only those ideas that fit our own paradigm passion becomes an accelerator for destruction rather than the a fuel for growth.
The fundamentalist who shuts out or hates the person who calls God by a different name is one example. Whether that person is the Egyptian Muslim being interviewed by Christiane Amanpour or a fundamentalist Christian protesting a burial, the message is the same. I unconditionally can not hear you because your ideas do not meet my passion filter. When this happens respect vanishes and without respect no growth can occur. Stalemate or destruction are the only options available.
The same is true lately of discussions about education. So too will be the results. The casualties will be our children. As a person who believes in the power of positive passion I have been recently contemplating and reevaluating my own personal perspectives. I have considered steps I can take to ensure that I at least do not add more accelerator to the bonfire of public discussion on the state of our schools. I know that I can only change certain things, but that even a pebble can have a widening effect.
Here are some of my thoughts as of now…what are yours?
- There are poor and excellent schools in all systems from public to private to charter to home schools.
- There is room for improvement in all systems of education.
- There are effective and ineffective educators in all these systems.
- The beauty of educating everyone through high school is also our greatest challenge.
- Unions vs school districts …we need to lessen the vs.
- If we as educators want to be considered professionals, what are our responsibilities?
- Data is needed, but is only a piece of the puzzle.
- We must stop using data bites to fuel the debate on education…whether that is a case of inappropriate instruction or an improper use of a test.
- Listen as Socrates would and question to learn, not to defend.
- Be open to acknowledging a viewpoint that differs from yours. There may be more than one road to excellence.
- If it doesn’t benefit the students it doesn’t belong in education.
- Get used to change…it is an affirmation of life.
I am not quite sure where my ruminations will end up, but I know that I do not want to have my passion for learning transformed into a fuel that will in the end destroy that about which I am passionate.