Sunday, November 27, 2016

Heavens to Betsy (DeVos)!

My paternal grandmother, Eleanor Cunningham Walsh, disdained the use of coarse language of any type. Whenever one of her many grandchildren would do something particularly boneheaded, the most virulent epithet she could muster was, "Heavens to Betsy!" When president-elect, Donald Trump, announced his choice for Secretary of Education, billionaire Betsy DeVos, I must admit that "Heavens to Betsy" was not the first phrase that came to my mind, but on reflection I think it is very appropriate.

DeVos is the ultimate privatizer of education. Not satisfied with using quasi-public charter schools as a way to drain resources from actual public schools, DeVos goes Full Monty on vouchers. She wants to eliminate public education entirely by giving every child a government check to go find the private school or religious school of choice. It is, of course, "the civil rights issue of our time." I have cataloged the danger and false promises of vouchers in this post from a few years ago. It is important to note that the heavily education reform-minded Obama administration rejected vouchers as a solution because it drained public dollars from public schools that were already strapped for resources and because vouchers did not work.

The idiocy and danger of this appointment has been well documented by other bloggers. If you have not done so already, I suggest you read the posts of the always on target Peter Greene here and here and here, Jersey Jazzman's analysis of Devos' husband's charter school fiasco here, and Michigan State University professor, Mitchell Robinson's account from DeVos' home state here. G.F. Brandenburg has pointed out that all that DeVos money comes from Amway Products, the quasi-legal pyramid scheme of a corporation that sucks money from poor unsuspecting would be small business owners in order to enrich the very few at the top of the pyramid. The Badass Teachers Association has also compiled a reading list on DeVos you can find here. 

So, what do we do now? Where do those of us who care about public education turn after years of disastrous leadership in the Department of Education, with an appointment that promises to be even more disastrous?

I suggest we join together to resist. First we need to resist by direct action to try to block this nominee. The Network for Public Education has begun a letter writing campaign you can access here. Better yet, call your senators (who will vote on the nomination) and your representatives (who will advise the senators). Directions for calling can be found here. 

Secondly, we need to resist on the state level. The federal government can and has done plenty of damage to public schools in the last 20 years, but under the new ESSA rules and under the current funding structure for schools, the feds need complicity in the states to make bad stuff happen. So, support your local and state teacher unions and parent organizations that will fight against federal efforts to expand vouchers and charters. Elect pro-public education officials. Go to school board meetings and let your voices be heard.

Thirdly, we need to resist by challenging this false narrative of charter schools and vouchers being the "civil rights issue of our time." Here we can fight back with real documentation. A recent study by Mathematica, a respected research group that generally finds in favor of the privatizers, found, after an extensive study, that the quality of the teacher is not a factor in the different educational opportunities of children. Here is how Mathematica's Senior Researcher, Eric Isenberg, put it 

Contrary to conventional wisdom, we found only small differences in the effectiveness of teachers of high- and low-income students in our study districts. This suggests that the achievement gap arises from factors other than students's access to effective teachers.

My favorite part of this statement is "contrary to conventional wisdom." This is unintentionally funny. It should say "contrary to the conventional wisdom of corporate education reformers who have been clueless on this issue from the start." All the rest of us have always known that it is poverty, inequity, and segregation that are the main contributors to the achievement gap.

Two summaries of the research on vouchers I find helpful are provided by the NEA here and by Keystone Research Center here. The conclusion: vouchers drain money from public schools, fail to expand choice for most parents, fail to improve student achievement, fail to provide safeguards for how the money is spent, and end up costing the taxpayers more. Vouchers, in other words, are a scam of the proportions of Amway. No wonder DeVos is a fan.

So, dear teachers, we must resist. We must resist with our actions and we must resist with our voices. We must help the nation realize, in what promises to be a difficult time ahead, that the real "civil rights issue of our time" is inequity, and that until we get to work on that issue, no scheme to line the pockets of the wealthy with monies intended for school children is going to narrow the achievement gap. Let us all commit to calling that gap what it truly is, an opportunity gap, a gap that the billionaire Betsy DeVos cannot possibly see from the platform of privilege where she has been standing her entire life.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

How Many Days to America? A Thanksgiving Reflection

The title of this post comes from a picture book by Eve Bunting, with illustrations by Beth Peck. Back when I was teaching elementary school, I always read this book aloud to the students around Thanksgiving. The book tells the contemporary story of a family from an unnamed Caribbean island who flee their home by night to escape political persecution at the hands of government soldiers. They board a boat and endure many hardships on a journey that ends with a landing in Florida on Thanksgiving Day. Once safe on land, they spend their first day in America celebrating their freedom and safety with relatives on shore.

I love this book for many reasons, Bunting's spare, but vivid prose, Peck's wonderful crayon drawings, the joyous ending, but especially because it resonates so beautifully with the experiences of those other Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving - escaping persecution to find freedom and safety in a faraway new land. I would usually back up this reading with a reading of Ann McGovern's classic, If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620, illustrated by Ann Devito.

Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, rolls around this year as the meaning of the recent election begins to be revealed. I find myself thinking about how grateful I am for the diversity of peoples and cultures that make up the American family. This diversity has enriched my life in so many ways, profound and trivial, and I hope that we all can take a moment to reflect on this during this year's Thanksgiving celebration, as it becomes increasingly apparent that not all Americans share in a joyous view of diversity.

Last week in the Food section of the newspaper, the New York Times took a look at the many ways Americans celebrate this holiday. Each of the many cultures that make up the American quilt have contributed foods and traditions that recall home at the same time they celebrate the gifts that life in America has brought. It was compelling to read about these many diverse cultures, all putting their own stamp on the celebration, but all celebrating America as Americans.

As a parent and teacher, wanting to share this sense of "many cultures, one country" with my children, grandchildren, and students, I naturally turn to read-alouds and picture books. Fortunately there are many good books to choose from. In addition to the two mentioned above I recommend the following:

Squanto's Journey, by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Greg Shed.

The Thanksgiving story told from the point of view of the Native American whose actions helped save the Plymouth Colony. An historically accurate, detailed account.

Duck for Turkey Day, by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Kathryn Miller

A young Vietnamese girl worries what her teacher and classmates will think because her parents insist that duck is tastier than turkey and insist on serving it for Thanksgiving.

Molly's Pilgrim, by Barbara Cohen, illustrated by Daniel Mark Duffy.

Recent immigrant Molly helps her classmates learn that it takes all kinds of Pilgrims to make a Thanksgiving. Powerful, classic story with new illustrations.

Gracias, The Thanksgiving Turkey, by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Joe Cepeda

When Miguel's father sends home a live turkey from his job on the road driving a truck, Miguel names the bird Gracias and walks him around the neighborhood on a leash. He then must fret about the bird's fate when his father gets home.

Want more? Here is an online resource for multicultural Thanksgiving Day books.

Happy Thanksgiving. May the holiday bring you together with family and friends and may we all take a moment to give thanks for the diversity that makes us who we are. And also, perhaps, to remember that for many of us, some young ancestor from a far away land likely looked up at his parents and asked, "How many days to America?"

Sunday, November 20, 2016

What Is Research-Based Instruction?

Did you ever wonder about the term "research-based"? We all want to make sure our instruction is research-based. But every commercial program for reading instruction on the market advertises itself as research-based and professional developers always preface their talks by saying their recommendations are research-based. We are told the Common Core is research-based. What exactly does "research-based" mean?

The conventional definition of research-based is instructional practice that is "founded on an accumulation of facts that have been established in research." Let's take that Common Core favorite close reading as an example. Close reading is research-based. It is founded on some things that we know about reading instruction. For example, research shows definitively that reading comprehension and fluency are improved by repeated reading. Research also shows that focusing on vocabulary and sentence structure strengthens reading comprehension. Since close reading deals with these factors of reading comprehension proponents can say that close reading is research-based.

What close reading is not is researched. According to the Common Core's own review of the literature published here, "close reading was not a widely practiced method prior to the adoption of the Standards, [and so] it has not been studied directly through rigorous academic research." There are no studies that demonstrate that close reading accomplishes improved reading. There are no studies that show that close reading makes you more college and career ready. There are no studies that demonstrate that close reading is a better use of time than other instructional strategies focusing on fluency, vocabulary, and syntax.

Is this a distinction without a difference? I don't think so. Let's look at an instructional strategy that has been proven to improve reading comprehension - reciprocal teaching. Reciprocal teaching is an integrated strategy approach where students are taught to use several reading strategies within a small group discussion environment to process their understanding of the text. Like close reading, reciprocal teaching combines several well-researched reading comprehension strategies for improving comprehension, in this case summarizing, question generating, clarifying, and predicting. Like close reading, reciprocal teaching focuses on vocabulary and comprehension. Unlike close reading, however, reciprocal teaching itself has been subjected to rigorous research and has been found to be effective in improving student use of reading strategies and improving comprehension.

So, as teachers, we are faced with a dilemma. Do we spend scarce instructional time on a research-based strategy like close reading that is being heavily pushed by Common Core proponents and perhaps by the administration of our school or do we focus on a researched strategy like reciprocal teaching as the more likely to get the results we want (improved comprehension, vocabulary, sentence level understanding) or do we do a little of both?

To help us make a decision we can take a look at what the literacy experts say. In any research-based sales pitch we must always be aware of who is doing the selling. Common Core proponents support close reading, but these people are not literacy specialists. The leading researcher on reading comprehension in the country, P. David Pearson, has some concerns about close reading. Pearson has critiqued close reading's emphasis on text dependent questions and tasks as too narrowly focused and too dismissive of student background knowledge. Another researcher, John Guthrie is concerned that close reading ignores the importance of student engagement in the reading. Snow and O'Connor have suggested that close reading works against the valuable outcomes that come from discussion and argumentation, because students are limited to only what is in the text (Pearson & Hiebert, 2015).

So, when we see the term research-based we know as teachers that we need to dig a little deeper. If the proponents of the Common Core were devoted to the research, they might well have wanted to highlight reciprocal teaching as a strategy to be supported and spread through every classroom in the country. But as is true with many things in literacy instruction, the Common Core was driven by a political agenda (college and career readiness) and proponents found the research on which to base their recommendations for meeting that agenda. As teachers in classrooms full of real kids with real learning needs, we need to do better.

Embracing research to guide our work is a good thing. But teachers must be wise consumers of that research. Teachers must surely make decisions on the basis of research, but just as surely on the basis of the particular needs of the children in front of them. Close reading may well be a valuable instructional strategy, but based on the lack of research, the jury is still out. We may want to include close reading in our instruction, but we certainly would not want to do so to the exclusion of strategies with a stronger research base.

Here are some questions that may help you be an informed consumer of research.

  • Who paid for the research?
  • Who stands to profit from the research?
  • Who conducted the research?
  • What particular theoretical/psychological construct seems to underpin the research?
  • Has the research appeared in a peer reviewed journal?
  • Does the research square with my own experience?
  • Has the research stood the test of time and been replicated by others?
  • Does the research square with what we know about how children learn language?
  • How well does the population studied in the research match with my own students?

Work Cited

Pearson, P.D. & Hiebert, E.H. (2015) Research-Based Practices for Teaching Common Core Literacy. NY: Teachers College Press.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Purposeful Reading: Engaging Students in Content Text

I had the opportunity to observe a guided reading lesson in a second grade class last week. The children were reading a book called Wonderful Worms, by Linda Glaser. The teacher did a fine job of introducing the book to the children and worked hard to set the purpose for reading. The teacher said, "I want you to read this book to find out why the author named this book, Wonderful Worms." As purpose setting questions go, this is a good one, because it was general enough to allow the children to think about the whole story and specific enough to allow the students to focus on the main message of the story. As Tim Shanahan has pointed out here, when purpose questions are too specific they may take student attention away from a fuller understanding of the text. The teacher added to the purpose setting by asking the students what questions they had about the story. These questions tapped into the students' own curiosity on the topic and so were also helpful in setting purposes for reading.

Despite these fine efforts by the teacher, not all the students in the guided reading group were buying into it. One boy sped through the pages very quickly and when the teacher went to his side and asked that he read aloud, his oral reading showed lots of speed, but little meaning making. The overall impression was that this child's purpose was to get through with the task as quickly and as painlessly as possible. He wanted to be done with the exercise and comprehension be damned. All the good work of purpose setting was lost on this reader.

Student purposes and teacher purposes are often in competition in a reading assignment. Very often students who are asked to answer questions at the end of the chapter will ignore the reading of the chapter altogether and just search the text for the answer to the question. The students' purpose here is similar to that of the second grader in the lesson above - not to learn the information - but, as Shanahan suggests, to complete the task in the most efficient way possible.

To understand why, I think we need to look at the reasons adults read and then see how we can apply this understanding to young readers. I read for many reasons every day. I read to stay informed, I read for entertainment, and I read for work. To stay informed, I read the New York Times. I read the Times selectively, skimming headlines to see which articles I want to read more fully. Everyday I linger over the obituaries, which I consider a kind of daily history lesson, the opinion pages, as well as movie and theater reviews. If an article relevant to education pops up, I read it closely, sometimes even leaving a comment.

For entertainment each day I read a poem. I enjoy poetry, perhaps because I have a short attention span, but also because I enjoy the interplay of words at which poets are so adept. I look for this word play and I also look for insights that illuminate the human condition. Finally for work, I may take an entirely different approach to reading. Recently, I have been creating power points for a graduate class I am teaching. This requires reading large amounts of research and theory and translating that into pithy power point slides. This is a very different kind of reading that has me focusing on key points to share with my students.

Each of these kinds of reading has a specific purpose and requires a specific kind of reading. The key is that I, the reader, determine the purpose and that that purpose fulfills some need, personal or professional, in my life. What I am doing is purposeful reading and what we want to foster in our students is not a teacher determined purpose, but a condition that sets them up to do purposeful reading.

Literacy researcher, Nell Duke says that we need to create classrooms where students "read informational text as often as possible for compelling reasons." What are some ways we can foster compelling reasons for reading?

Reading as inquiry - students who are curious about a topic have a genuine purpose for reading. Teachers can foster curiosity through setting up conditions where students observe phenomena and then seek information to explain it. Raising butterflies or tadpoles or having an ant farm in the classroom may pique student interest. Simple experiments (Duke suggests evaporation or magnetism) may send students off to find information to explain what happened. Skillful teachers help students activate curiosity and then point the students to books, articles, web sites they can read to quench that curiosity.

Reading to share - Research shows that when students are asked to read something so that they can share that information with others, they read more strategically and with greater comprehension (Guthrie , 2003). One way to set up a reading share is a jigsaw activity. In a jigsaw, small groups of students form a home group. Each member of the home group is assigned to an expert group where they will read one chunk of a longer piece of informational text. The students read and discuss what they have read with their small group of other experts and then are responsible for sharing that information with their home group. In the home group, experts on different parts of the text share what they have learned.

Reading to write - Duke suggests that reading to write can also increase authenticity. If reading on pollution is paired with the goal of writing letters to the community regarding recycling practices, the purpose of the reading becomes more clear. The same may be true for reading about a particular country that culminates in a travel brochure. Purposeful writing tasks make can make for purposeful reading.

Anticipation/prediction guides - Anticipation/prediction guides are a good strategy for helping students activate background knowledge and generate curiosity about a reading. To make an anticipation/prediction guide the teacher chooses a passage and determines what key ideas the author is communicating. These key ideas are then expressed in simple declarative sentences and arranged in a yes/no, agree/disagree, true/false format. Students predict whether they will read that these statements are true or false according to the author. An important aspect of the anticipation/prediction guide is the discussion generated by student choices prior to reading. You can learn more about anticipation guides here. Below is an example of an anticipation/prediction guide that has the student revisiting the predictions after reading.

The research has long been clear that reading with a purpose improves comprehension. What has also been clear is that no matter how hard teachers work at creating purposes for reading, student purposes may not match teacher purposes. Working toward developing curiosity and real reasons for reading may lead to the kind of purposeful reading that is engaging and which fosters use of reading strategies and improved comprehension.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Racist Genie is Out of the Bottle (again)

Like many teachers across the country, I walked into my classroom for the first time after the election with a sense of trepidation. I teach a college freshman class focused on reading improvement. The class is quite diverse, about 55% African-American, 30% white, and 15% Hispanic. I planned to address the election because I knew it would be on the mind of all my students. I planned to show them the video of President Obama’s post-election speech from the White House lawn. The President, following the tradition of Presidents before him, sought to ensure a smooth transition and articulated a hope that all American citizens would work together for the success of a Trump presidency. I told the students that the President was trying to show us the best way to respond to surprising and perhaps worrying change.

I then asked the students to write in their interactive notebooks in response to this prompt: What are some of your worries and some of your hopes as we look forward to a Trump presidency? The students wrote for about 15 minutes and then I invited them to share. More hands went up than at any other time in the semester. Worries, for the most part followed a familiar pattern. Students of Hispanic descent cited fear that they or their friends and relatives would be targeted for deportation. Some students worried about the hateful targeting of their Muslim/Hispanic/African-American friends. Many students expressed surprise that so many women had voted for Trump in the wake of his sexist statements and behavior. One student worried that the election would further divide the country, while another student offered that he thought the campaign had divided the country long before the election took place and he blamed both candidates for taking the low road. The students were thoughtful and articulate and impassioned.

One student offered the hope that Trump would moderate his attacks on people of color, Muslims, immigrants and others now that he had won the election and realized he had to serve all of us. I said I thought we could all agree that this was greatly to be hoped.

And then it happened. Something I was not expecting, but something that brought great clarity to what this election really means to many of the young people in my classroom.

A normally quiet young woman raised her hand and said, “It is not so much Trump I am worried about, but his followers who now feel free to act out all their feelings towards minorities.” The young woman then went on to tell about three separate incidents of intimidation and bias that had been directed at her, on campus, to her face, since the election. The young woman, who is Hispanic and born in this country, was asked if she was ready to be deported now that Trump was elected. Other taunts of the “we are going to build that wall and send you back where you came from" variety came a little later and she reported them to campus authorities, all of them written down on her phone so she could get the language verbatim.

Another young woman raised her hand to report on a tweet she received that stated, “If my president can grab your pussy, then I can, too.” Other young women reported receiving the same tweet. Another student reported on a tweet she received saying that, “At last we won’t have to put up with those ‘things’ coming over the border, cause Trump is going to build a wall.” Several students reported on racist tweets that were circulating since the election. Another student said that friends reported to her that they had voted for Trump because every time they saw a Muslim on the street they were afraid and Trump was going to kick them out.

Trump’s campaign of hate has let the genie out of the bottle. The racism that is never far from the surface in America has been unleashed, has been made acceptable and has empowered the most bigoted in our society to own their bigotry as a weapon against all people they identify as the “other.” I talked briefly, trying to give all this context, about Germany in the 1930s and how the politics of fear can unleash the most horrific perversions of human behavior.

A young man raised his hand. “I am scared, and all my friends in the LGBT community are scared, too. We don’t know much about Trump’s position on LGBT rights, but we know all about his Vice President, Mike Pence’s, positions on gays and transgender people. I fear that since Trump doesn’t have any experience in governing, he will listen to people like Mike Pence.” The emotion in the young man’s voice was palpable. His classmates offered support, and I lost it.

“Look folks," I said. "This is not OK. You need to know that this is not OK. If any of you at any time are subject to any of these attacks, tweets, Facebook posts or just campus innuendo either because of your race, your gender, your sexual identity, please report what has happened immediately. If you are afraid to report it to the authorities on campus, come to me and we will do it together. This must stop now.”

It was a highly emotional classroom. We never got to the planned essay reading for the day. Class ended in hugs and attempted reassurance. When I got home and shared with my wife, she told me about news reports coming in from around the country of similar types of intimidation and race baiting in schools and public places.

This morning the New York Times published an editorial asking that the President-elect directly and immediately denounce the hate and let his supporters know that this targeting behavior is not OK. But once you let the hate genie out of the bottle, it is devilishly difficult to put it back in. Racism, xenophobia, and misogyny are never far from the surface in this country and when these baser instincts of humans seem to have the imprimatur of the leader of the country, it may take a lifetime to tame them.

As teachers, we need to be on guard and vigilant. We must re-double our efforts to make sure the classroom, the hallways, the cafeteria, the locker room, the campus are safe for all people, including Trump supporters, who will almost certainly be the targets of backlash as well.

In 1992, Rodney King, the African-American victim of a brutal police beating in Los Angeles asked, “Can we all get along?” Apparently not, Rodney. Not yet, anyway. There is still a lot of work to be done.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Can Fiction Save Democracy?

By many accounts this is the most contentious presidential election ever. There seems to be genuine fear that our democratic system of government, built on the ideals of the rule of law, an honorable and peaceful political process, and the ability of elected leaders to compromise in the face of difficult decisions, has devolved into warring camps on constant attack. These camps then use a variety of media outlets, which often seem more like political arms of the dueling parties rather than journalists bent on informing the public, to push their point of view down our throats.

How are teachers to respond to this? Our educational system was built on the ideal that a thriving democracy depended on an informed, educated citizenry. What is our responsibility as teachers in the face of the growing polarization of the parties and the overwhelming amount of propaganda parading as information bombarding our students?

Some educators are arguing that what we need is to help children develop news literacy. The News Literacy Project defines news literacy as the ability to discern between reporting that seeks to present information fairly, accurately and contextually from reporting that is rooted in opinion, rumor and disinformation. You can learn more about the news literacy approach from The News Literacy Project web site and the Center for News Literacy, both of which are developing lesson plan ideas for teachers.

News literacy is a worthy and necessary goal, of course, and it has the advantage of slipping nicely into place alongside the Common Core State Standards' call for the reading of more nonfiction text in school and for the critical analysis of that text. But I would like to focus on one way we can address the threat to democracy that may not be as obvious, and that seems to be downplayed in the Common Core, but is nonetheless vital if our country is to survive. I want to suggest that reading fiction is the best hope for our current and future democracy.

Why fiction? I believe that our current state of political affairs is the result of an increasing inability to see another person's point of view as legitimate. I am talking here about empathy. The ability as the songwriter Joe South put it, to "walk a mile" in the other guy's shoes. Our increasing isolation as a country, the diminution of community spirit and the increase in the politics of me, has sneaked up on us. It is in part the result of technological innovation including the automobile, the television, and the internet.

It is ironic that the internet, with its promise of opening the world of knowledge to us, has instead become an echo chamber where we only really hear the voices that agree with us. The victim of this isolation has been our ability to empathize with others. This growing isolation is one way to explain the vitriol directed at immigrants, the increased racial segregation 60 years after Brown v. The Board of Education, and the stark division between red states and blue states. Other factors are at play of course, but empathy is one that we can address in school.

It is well documented that fiction helps individuals develop empathy (Mar, Oatley & Peterson, 2009). Several studies have shown that reading literary fiction, as opposed to non-fiction or formulaic fiction, helps develop what researchers call Theory of Mind. According to Kidd and Castano (2013) "Theory of Mind is the ability to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one's own beliefs and desires" (page 337). Kidd and Castano found that reading literary fiction helped readers develop Theory of Mind. A study by Vezzali, et al. (2014) found that reading Harry Potter books (with their depiction of prejudice against Muggles) reduced racist attitudes of high school students. Vezzali says that when you read fiction, you don't just learn a new way of interacting, you actually put yourself in the place of the character.

And that is what we need to be doing at this critical time in our history - putting ourselves in the other guy's place. One of the first great, long novels I ever read was The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. This book helped me develop an understanding of people that were far out of my own suburban Philadelphia experience, but who I could see were real, hard-working, very American people trying to make a go of it in a world that was conspiring against them. The words of that heroic Everyman of the novel, Tom Joad, resonate in my ears to this day. 

And then, in the height of the Civil Rights movement, I read To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. After reading that book, I wanted to become a lawyer. I wanted to right wrongs. I wanted to be a better person than I was. Atticus Finch is still an important model for me in trying to be a good person and a good father. In college, I read Bang the Drum Slowly, by Mark Harris. I was and still am a huge baseball fan and here was a book that used baseball as the backdrop for a very human story of an unlikely friendship between an educated, erudite star pitcher and a slow-witted, uneducated, third-string catcher. That book opened my eyes to the basic humanity in us all, no matter how limited or humble our background, how unhappy our circumstance, or how limited our prospects.

And that is just three books for me. In the classroom, I have seen students transformed by the insights they found in characters in picture books like The Other Side, by Jacqueline Woodson, or Fly Away Home, by Eve Bunting; by novels like The Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Patterson; Freak the Mighty, by Nathaniel Philbrick; The Giver, by Lois Lowry; The Man Without a Face, by Isabelle Holland and so many, many more.

So the answer to what is ailing the country is right there on the shelves of our classroom library - good fiction. Now the job remains to make sure we connect the kids with these books and that that connection leads to a life of reading that fiction and nurturing that empathetic soul that resides in us all. Only by seeing the other person as one with us in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness can our ideal of a democratic nation survive.

So, I ask you to go out and vote for the candidate you think best represents the kind of empathy that is the American ideal and then come home, pour yourself a glass of wine, and open a good book.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Professional Development: Committing to Continuous Improvement

My life outside of my home and my family is animated by three passions: teaching, writing, and acting. I have been pursuing each of these passions for more than 50 years. Despite this long pursuit, I will freely confess that I have never taught the perfect lesson, written the perfect book, article, or blog post, or given the perfect stage performance. Perhaps this is because I am a slow learner, but perhaps it is also because my three passions are my three passions precisely because they require a constant pursuit of a perfection that remains tantalizingly beyond my reach.

The one thing I have done is continuously strive to get better. In writing this has meant seeking feedback from other writers, reading what other writers have written, and practicing daily in search of that "just right" sentence that rarely comes. In acting that means seeking opportunities to act, participating in acting workshops, and attending as many shows as possible to watch great actors. As for teaching, trying to get better has meant continuously reading the books and journals of my profession, listening and sharing with colleagues, attending conferences, and seeking out professional development opportunities.

I have always disputed the common assertion that teachers tend to peak in their proficiency after about 4-7 years. It certainly took me four years to become any semblance of a good teacher, but since that time I feel I have only gotten better, if also grayer and more weary. I started professional life as a secondary school history teacher and twenty years later became an elementary teacher. I often say that it took me 20 years to get good enough to teach elementary school. See - slow learner.

This continuous improvement is not easy, however. It requires a commitment to professional growth that can be hard to maintain at the same time as we are working full time in a classroom full of children, all with their own needs and demands and while trying to meet the often changing and confusing demands of administrators, state overseers, parents and the public. It is difficult, but it is necessary and if there is any place for a "no excuses" policy in schools, it is in the area of our professional commitment to get better at what we do.

Like you, I have often been required to attend professional development trainings that were mind numbingly dull and which had little apparent relevance to my immediate needs as a teacher. Like you, I have witnessed colleagues talking in the back of the room, texting on their phones, grading papers, or sleeping, while some hapless presenter in the front of the room tried to share some information. I have also been that hapless presenter in the front of the room watching teachers doing everything but attending to what I was trying to say. When this happens, I take it as a sign that my presentation needs to be more engaging, but I also take it as a sign that some teachers are not as committed to continuous improvement as I would hope.

I can tell you honestly that over a 45 year career I have attended more professional development presentations than most people reading this blog and I have never walked away from a session without learning something useful. Bold statement? Not really. Any professional development opportunity is a two way street. Much depends on the presenter, but just as much depends on the attendee. Teachers who commit to finding the laudable nuggets in any presentation will find them. I know; I have. At any rate, common courtesy dictates that we don't subject a guest presenter to behavior we would not allow from our own students.

How does a teacher make a commitment to continuous improvement? Here are three ways I would suggest.

Professional Reading: One of the things I like about my cardiologist is that whenever I have a question about my treatment, he begins his answer with, "You know I was just reading in my medical journals about recent research on this medication...." The guy is current; he is a reader; his continuous learning inspires confidence. Just as we would not want to go to a doctor who has not read a medical journal in 20 years, we would not want to have children in a classroom where the teacher is not up to date on the latest research. This means that teachers must be avid readers of the professional journals. For me the go to journals are The Reading Teacher, The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Reading Research Quarterly. These journals along with The Marshall Memo (a digest of current publications), the multiple blogs that I follow, and the latest releases from Heinemann and the International Literacy Association keep me hopping, thinking, and informed.

Collegial Sharing: One of the more heartening developments that I have seen coming out of reform efforts in the past few years is the Professional Learning Community (PLCs). I know that many teachers have had bad experiences with these when they are poorly implemented, but I do believe that rightly done, these PLCs offer a good opportunity for teachers to take control of their own professional learning. And that is as it should be. Professional learning is best when it is rooted in the reality of the classroom. One of the problems that I see with PLCs is that they have been co-opted by the accountability movement. When the standard for excellence in teaching is tied to standardized test scores and spurious schemes like student growth objectives, it is going to be difficult to get teachers to buy in.

Ideally, PLCs are driven by teacher's agendas rather than national, state, or education reform agendas. What would this look like? In my mind a high functioning PLC would have the following characteristics.
  • Teachers gathering together to look closely and critically at a common "problem of practice."
  • Teachers sharing the research and their own ideas around this problem of practice.
  • Teachers deciding on a few approaches to instruction that would address that problem of practice.
  • Teachers observing each other implementing the instruction and giving feedback to each other on what they have seen.
  • Teachers examining each approach to the problem of practice by looking at student work across classrooms.
  • Teachers deciding to adopt instructional practice that seems to be most effective for the particular problem.
  • Teachers continuing to look at student work to ensure that the newly adopted practice is working.
This type of PLC requires committed teachers and cooperative administration. It requires time and resources. It will be difficult, but it is our best hope for continuous improvement of practice. My thinking here is based in part on the concept of instructional rounds, but in this case, put in use by classroom teachers, not administrators. You can read more about instructional rounds here

Professional Development Opportunities: While fully embedded professional development such as that described above is the best model for professional learning, it is often necessary to seek the advice of outside experts as well. Again, these models work best when teachers have a voice in the professional development and some choice in what professional learning opportunities they receive. One way to ensure choice is by attending local, state, and national conferences. Attending these professional conferences was critical to my own development as a professional. Attendance allowed me to increase my understanding on a broad array of literacy instruction issues, to hear the most up to date research delivered by the researchers themselves and to network with people with similar interests and concerns. A truly committed professional attends professional conferences when possible and a truly committed school district administration makes sure that such attendance is encouraged and supported financially.

Sometimes it is more efficient, financially and practically, to bring the outside expert into the building to share expertise with the entire staff. This type of professional development has rightly been criticized as being ineffective "one shot" experiences that do little to change instruction or improve the outcomes for children. But there are better models to follow. In my own consulting over the past twenty years, I have recommended the following model for professional development.
  • Administration and staff decide on a goal for professional development for the school year. For illustration purposes let's say the school decides to work on improving guided reading instruction in grades K-3.
  • The teachers and administrators put out a Request for Proposals to consultants who are invited to submit proposals on how best to help the school meet its goal.
  • The Request for Proposals requires the consultant to follow a protocol for delivery of the professional development. The protocol includes the following:
    • One or two days of training in guided reading
    • Opportunities for every teacher to observe the consultants doing guided reading in the classrooms with the students and then to discuss what they have observed with the consultants.
    • The consultant observes every teacher implementing the guided reading instruction and provides individual constructive and non-evaluative feedback to the teacher.
    • A few weeks aftrer providing initial feedback, the consultant observes the teacher again to see how well suggestions have been implemented
    • A final full-day workshop brings all teachers together to discuss progress and continuing concerns and to set goals for the following year.
  • The teachers and administrators determine which proposal to accept and schedule the professional development.
This model follows what we know about good instruction. A goal is identified and clearly articulated; information on how to achieve the goal is provided; methods for achieving the goal are modeled by an expert; guided practice is facilitated by the expert and then independent practice is initiated and assessed.

Part of being a professional is a commitment to continuing growth. As teachers we need to be constantly working to improve our practice. This work can be facilitated by thoughtful and supportive school and school district policies and practices, but ultimately it is up to the teacher to push for and participate fully in the kinds of professional development that will be most productive. 

And when the professional development we are offered falls short of these optimal practices? Then common courtesy and professional behavior demand that we try to make the most of it and find that one nugget of knowledge that is waiting for us in every professional development session.