Marshall Memo 897

In This Issue:

Quotes of the Week

“I believe the absence of math literacy in urban and rural communities throughout this country is an issue as urgent as the lack of registered black voters in Mississippi was in 1961.”

Robert Moses, a heroic civil rights leader who went on to found the Algebra Project,

in his book, Radical Equations (Beacon Press, 2002). Moses died at 86 on July 25,

2021; here are obituaries in the Washington Post and the New York Times.

“Data awareness and data literacy are needed to not only be an effective employee but also function in the modern world… If we do not help students become data literate, they will be vulnerable to people who are misrepresenting issues and data.”

Jo Boaler, Tanya LaMar, and Cathy Williams (see item #5)

“A child who has more to learn to reach a goal needs more time to get there. It takes ample learning opportunities, sufficient practice, and, for many children, additional instruction.”

Julie Washington and Mark Seidenberg (see item #1)

“Owning a personal library is thought to promote a scholarly culture, a set of practices and preferences that are associated with reading development and school learning.”

Susan Neuman, Donna Celano, and Maya Portillo (see item #2)

“Today’s wide availability of digital reading devices and the rich tradition of children’s paper books beg the question of which reading format is better suited for young readers’ learning.”

May Irene Furenes, Natalia Kucirkova, and Adriana Bus (see item #3)

“Summer has always provided me the mental space to play with ideas and mentally wander through possibilities. I know I am firmly into summer break and relaxation mode when the days have blended together and it takes some mental energy to figure out exactly what day of the week it is.”

Heather McKay in Read by Example, July 23, 2021

1. Linguistically Sensitive Literacy Instruction

In this article in American Educator, Julie Washington (University of California/Irvine) and Mark Seidenberg (University of Wisconsin/Madison) share research and best practices for literacy instruction with children whose oral language from home differs from the linguistic structure of their schools. “There is a large and growing body of evidence,” they say, “indicating that language variation impacts reading, spelling, and writing in predictable ways.”

Many black children grow up hearing and speaking African-American English (AAE), and a major task upon entering school is becoming bidialectal in General American English (GAE) – the language of instruction, commerce, and mainstream media. AAE has often been seen as “bad English,” “poor grammar,” and “ghetto” by people outside that community of speakers, say Washington and Seidenberg, and these negative views “sometimes become conflated with the children who speak it, and expectations for them are lowered… The social stigma surrounding varieties spoken by linguistic minorities can be compounded by race and class.” Successfully handling this challenge is essential to closing persistent opportunity gaps.

That’s why it’s important for educators to understand that AAE is equal in linguistic complexity and consistency to GAE – it’s different, not inferior. The main variations are in verb morphology, syntax, and phonology, all of which come into play when African-American children learn to read in school. Here are some of the most common features, with examples for each:

Verb morphology

– Variable past tense – The cow jump over the moon.

– Variable plural – She saw three cat in the window.

– Variable third person – My friend want to buy some candy when he get to the store.

– Variable possessive – I rode in my uncle car. They waitin’ for they car.


– Variable subject-verb agreement – My friends was runnin’ fast to catch the bus.

– Variable inclusion of to be in linking and auxiliary forms – They watchin’ the girls jump rope.


– Consonant cluster reduction – Col for cold, fiel for field, cas for cast

– Dropped g – jumpin, waitin, goin

– Unvoiced consonants – wit for with, wif for with, bave for bathe

– Th- replaced with d – dis for this, dem for them, dat for that

– Consonant cluster movement – aks for ask, ekscape for escape

A key issue for teachers is determining dialect density – the amount of dialect present in a child’s language. This can range from 10 percent to more than 50 percent, and is directly linked to socioeconomic status. “The higher the dialect density,” say Washington and Seidenberg, “the further the child’s speech is from the language used in reading and writing. Simply put, linguistic distance influences how much instruction and practice a child is likely to need to bridge the differences between oral language at home, oral language spoken by the teacher, and the written language of books and other texts.” The key is extra instructional time and sensitivity to the cultural and linguistic issues involved.

Isn’t it more difficult for English language learners than African-American students to become proficient in reading? Not so, say Washington and Seidenberg. They argue that the learning curve of a child who speaks AAE may be steeper: “The subtle transformations between the cultural and the general varieties of a single language may be even more difficult for young children to detect and resolve than the more obvious differences between two languages,” they say. “By design, curricula and instructional activities for children who are learning English take their dual language status into account.”

“Similar to bilingual speakers,” the authors continue, “bidialectal speakers engage in monitoring their own speech to evaluate its appropriateness and self-correct as needed. They may actively avoid speaking in fear of producing non-GAE expressions. They may consciously engage in mental translation from AAE to GAE before speaking, and they may compose utterances to confirm to linguistic expectations rather than speaking freely…Assuming different personas in differing contexts, in this case school and home, creates the ‘double consciousness’ described by sociologist W.E.B. De Bois. Monitoring the presentation of self, which includes language, carries cognitive and emotional costs. Cognitively, it is an additional task to be performed while engaged in other activities (such as reading). Emotionally, it involves continuous self-evaluation, criticism, and correction.”

Washington and Seidenberg have six recommendations for steps schools can take to support and engage African-American children as they become bidialectal and learn to read proficiently – always building on children’s knowledge rather than disparaging it:

• First, enhance teachers’ knowledge of language variation. As argued above, it’s essential for educators to have a non-pejorative understanding of the differences between GAE and AAE, tune in to differences in dialect density among their students, and use effective methods. A key insight for teachers, say the authors, is that “learning more about GAE does not require extinguishing knowledge of AAE, any more than learning a second language requires unlearning the first. Rather, it places AAE speakers on a more equal footing with children who have learned GAE in the home, while still honoring the need, and desire, to communicate with their families, communities, and friends who also use AAE.”

• Second, expand children’s knowledge of language in preschool. “Young children are exceptionally good language learners,” say Washington and Seidenberg. In a high-quality, language-rich preschool, AAE speakers gain knowledge and facility with GAE – and a sense of when and where to use each kind of language – through exposure and daily use. This is enhanced when preschool educators communicate frequently with parents and encourage them to read and converse with their children. A key policy and funding priority, say the authors, is increasing the number of children of color in exemplary preschools.

• Third, use classroom materials and practices that are effective with AAE speakers. Few published curriculum materials “accommodate differences in language background or provide clear guidance about appropriate practices for children who need support to become bidialectal,” say Washington and Seidenberg. That’s why teachers must supplement commercial texts and materials with their own insights on what works for different children. Here are some important areas:

Rhymes are often used by teachers to develop children’s phonological awareness (for example, bear/care), but some rhyming pairs will be confusing to children speaking AAE – for example, thing may rhyme with king or rang, and cold with hole, depending on how students pronounce them.

Phonemic awareness exercises involving final consonants can confuse AAE speakers –for example, the pronunciation of words like cold when the final consonant is omitted. “When children take longer to acquire such knowledge, we should not assume that they are less capable learners,” say the authors.

Phonics involves matching letters with sounds, which is a vital step in decoding, fluent reading, and comprehension. But an AAE-speaking student may be confused when the teacher sounds out the four letter sounds in the word gold. One study found that because of omitted final consonants, children speaking AAE had to do extra cognitive work with half of the words on a list of common monosyllabic words.

Children reading aloud is an important literacy activity, but AAE-speaking children sometimes slow down to deal with AAE-GAE discrepancies (affecting fluency) or make errors in comprehension. “When reading aloud occurs in front of other students,” say Washington and Seidenberg, “the appearance of lower proficiency can be deeply embarrassing and can create aversion to reading.”

“Children who are still learning the school dialect have to focus greater attention and effort on understanding the teacher’s speech,” say the authors, “which can detract from being able to focus on the content.” This is especially difficult in an active classroom, even more so when there are distracting discipline problems. It’s helpful for teachers to provide in writing, or with visual supports, anything important that’s presented orally. And it’s important for teachers to be familiar with AAE to better understand some students’ predictable misunderstandings and confusions.

• Fourth, provide enough time on task. “A child who has more to learn to reach a goal needs more time to get there,” say Washington and Seidenberg. “It takes ample learning opportunities, sufficient practice, and, for many children, additional instruction.” This means rethinking time-honored pacing schedules in the early grades and providing the additional time needed for children to become proficient and confident readers by the time they reach the middle grades. An essential component is supplementing children’s background knowledge from home with plenty of school knowledge, providing “velcro” for new learning.

• Fifth, respond constructively to AAE use in the classroom. Some educators ignore students’ use of AAE in an effort to be culturally sensitive. Washington and Seidenberg believe this further disadvantages African-American students by depriving them of teachable moments on the road to mastering both dialects. At the other extreme is correcting AAE usage in ways that make students feel their home language is “bad.” A researcher observed a teacher repeatedly correcting a third grader in front of his classmates when he read street as skreet (a regional dialect). When the teacher finally stopped, the boy read “haltingly, mumbling, and fearful of saying the wrong thing and being further embarrassed by the teacher,” say Washington and Seidenberg, “making him likely to be more resistant to reading aloud in the future.” A better approach would be for the teacher to note the boy’s pronunciation of the word street (probably there are other children in the class who say it that way) and making it part of an all-class language lesson at another time, without calling attention to the student who said the word in dialect. Similarly, when a primary-grade student says, “This my backpack,” the teacher might say, “Yes, this IS your backpack. Let’s put it away.” Over time, these gentle, respectful transpositions have an impact.

• Sixth, know that becoming bidialectal is a manageable task. The good news, say Washington and Seidenberg, is that, “with few exceptions, AAE and GAE are mutually intelligible. Given sufficient time and relevant experience, bidialectal speakers, like bilinguals, will learn to navigate the two codes in both oral language and print… Teaching children who are becoming bidialectal to read does not require an entirely new, separate theory of reading instruction. The same elements that have been identified for all developing readers to break the code are necessary for children who speak AAE as well. What differs is the delivery of these elements.”

“All children,” conclude the authors, “need to have the skills to make linguistic choices across contexts: formal, informal, home, school, speaking, reading, or writing. Even within these contexts, there are choices that require varied skills, such as writing a report for school, writing a thank-you card for a birthday gift, or writing a text to meet up with friends. Above all, our shared goal should be for all children to become good readers…”

“Teaching Reading to African-American Children: When Home and School Language Differ” by Julie Washington and Mark Seidenberg in American Educator, Summer 2021; the authors can be reached at and

2. Insights from a Book Distribution Program in Philadelphia

In this American Educational Research Journal article, Susan Neuman (New York University), Donna Celano (LaSalle University), and Maya Portillo (Robert R. McCormick Foundation) describe their study of an effort to distribute almost 500,000 books to families in Philadelphia at a total cost of more than $1.4 million. “Owning a personal library,” the authors report, “is thought to promote a scholarly culture, a set of practices and preferences that are associated with reading development and school learning.” The number of books in different homes is directly correlated with family wealth: a 2016 study found that the most economically advantaged children had several times the number of books than the poorest.

Findings like these spurred the Philadelphia program and a number of other efforts to put books in the hands of children, especially those with economic disadvantages. Neuman, Celano, and Portillo wanted to find the most strategic and effective way of accomplishing this, since many well-intentioned programs have been fragmented, poorly targeted, mismatched books with recipients, and have a mixed track record on improving children’s literacy levels. The authors wondered whether there was a causal link between the number of books in the home and children’s reading achievement. Could other factors be the true drivers of growth – family preferences around learning, adults’ educational levels, the amount of time parents spend reading with children? But a 2011 meta-analysis of literacy exposure found that book ownership had an independent effect, setting in motion a “spiral of causality” that boosted children’s oral language, comprehension skills, and school achievement. Other researchers speculated that books in the home might “nudge” children and adults toward productive literacy experiences. So book distribution programs can make a positive difference.

Neuman, Celano, and Portillo conducted focus groups in Philadelphia neighborhoods to gauge the impact of the books families received. Many were thrilled to get books, spent quality time reading with their children, and eagerly looked forward to the next batch. But some parents said they had more books than they knew what to do with – they got books from their doctor’s office, schools, and other programs. There were also comments about getting several copies of the same book or age-inappropriate books; not enough guidance on how to read with their children (some reported that their toddlers were most interested in chewing on the books; others were impatient when older kids peppered them with questions); not enough multicultural and Spanish-language content; not enough books that built school skills; and a feeling of being condescended to with unwanted gifts.

The authors’ big takeaways: fine-tune book distribution to neighborhoods and families according to need (in some cases, middle-class families received books while the poorest families did not); coordinate to avoid duplication; involve families in the program’s policymaking; give parents and kids a choice of books; and provide more support on the finer points of reading with children at different ages.

“Getting Books in Children’s Hands: Creating a Citywide Book Distribution Policy Using a Mixed-Methods Geospatial Approach” by Susan Neuman, Donna Celano, and Maya Portillo in American Educational Research Journal, August 2021 (Vol. 58, #4, pp. 815-849); Neuman can be reached at, Celano at

3. For Young Children, Which Is Better, Paper or Digital Books?

“Today’s wide availability of digital reading devices and the rich tradition of children’s paper books beg the question of which reading format is better suited for young readers’ learning,” say May Irene Furenes (University of Stavanger, Norway), Natalia Kucirkova (University of Stavanger and The Open University, UK), and Adriana Bus (University of Stavanger and ELTE Eötvös Loránd University) in this Review of Educational Research article. To answer the question, they conducted a meta-analysis of 39 studies comparing the story comprehension and vocabulary learning of children ages 1 to 8 reading paper and on-screen books.

The conclusion? “We found,” say Furenes, Kucirkova, and Bus, “that when the paper and digital versions of the story are practically the same and only differ by the voiceover or highlighted print as additional features in the digital book, then paper outperforms digital.” They believe the key factor is limits on children’s cognitive load. “The device,” say the authors, “seems to attract young children’s attention at the expense of attention paid to the storyline, even when the content of the paper and digital books was the same. The parsimonious resources available for processing the main information in picture books – the central narrative – may have been misallocated to the means of achieving it (e.g., point, click, and swipe), thus hampering meaning-making.”

Interactive components of on-screen books can be another distraction from the content – but these components may not be as lively as the computer games children have been playing, further pulling their attention from the content. Of course these problems can be moderated or overcome by the design of digital books – or an adult’s support. If the bells and whistles of digital books are closely aligned with the content, comprehension improves. For enhancing children’s vocabulary, digital books with a dictionary feature that defines and explains difficult words are more effective than paper books, which don’t have a built-in dictionary. But the researchers note that it is difficult for children to juggle using the dictionary at the same time as other content-related enhancements; the dictionary is most helpful when it’s used alone.

An important variable is how an adult sitting with a child interacts while a paper or digital text is being read. Some studies report that with on-screen texts, the adult-child conversation is mostly about the device – or the child’s behavior – rather than the story itself. With paper books, on the other hand, the adult talks mostly about the story and provides support and background knowledge that enhances the child’s comprehension.

“A Comparison of Children’s Reading on Paper Versus Screen: A Meta-Analysis” by May Irene Furenes, Natalia Kucirkova, and Adriana Bus in Review of Educational Research, August 2021 (Vol. 91, #4, pp. 483-517); the authors can be reached at,, and

4. How Effective Is Orton-Gillingham?

In this article in Exceptional Children, Elizabeth Stevens (Georgia State University), Clint Moore, Nancy Scammacca, Alexis Boucher, and Sharon Vaughn (University of Texas/Austin), and Christy Austin (University of Utah) report on their meta-analysis of 16 studies of Orton-Gillingham, a popular and widely used approach to reading instruction. Orton-Gillingham is described as a “direct, explicit, multisensory, structured, sequential, diagnostic, and prescriptive” method for teaching children with (or at risk for) word-level reading disabilities, including dyslexia.

The researchers’ conclusion: although the mean effect size (0.22) was positive and somewhat promising, Orton-Gillingham did not substantially improve children’s phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, spelling, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. “Despite the continued widespread acceptance, use, and support for Orton-Gillingham instruction,” conclude Stevens et al., “there is little evidence to date that these interventions significantly improve reading outcomes for students with or at risk for word-level reading disabilities over and above comparison group instruction.”

This finding certainly raises concerns about the fact that a number of states have adopted legislation mandating Orton-Gillingham. “More high-quality, rigorous research with larger samples of students with word-level reading disabilities,” say the authors, “is needed to fully understand the effects of Orton-Gillingham interventions on the reading outcomes of this population.”

“Current State of the Evidence: Examining the Effects of Orton-Gillingham Reading Interventions for Students with or at Risk for Word-Level Reading Disabilities” by Elizabeth Stevens, Christy Austin, Clint Moore, Nancy Scammacca, Alexis Boucher, and Sharon Vaughn in Exceptional Children, July 2021 (Vol. 87, #4, pp. 397-417); Stevens can be reached at

5. What Kinds of Mathematics Do Students Need for the Real World?

In this article in Mathematics Teacher: Learning & Teaching PK-12, Jo Boaler, Tanya LaMar, and Cathy Williams (Stanford University) report on a project that started with a phone call Boaler received from Steve Levitt of Freakonomics fame. Levitt had been helping his own children with their high-school mathematics homework and was struck by what he considered the antiquated nature of the work they were doing. Very little of it, he said, was the kind of math that he used in his professional and personal life.

To check this perception with a wider group, Levitt and his colleagues at the University of Chicago did a survey of visitors to the Freakonomics website asking what kinds of math they used on a daily basis, and 913 people responded. Boaler, LaMar, and Williams saw the results and noticed that almost 3/4 of the respondents were men, so they asked the same questions of education leaders; 427 responded, mostly women. Strikingly, the responses from the two groups were quite similar. Here are the percentages in each group saying they used each kind of mathematics “daily”:

Freakonomics Educators

– Use Excel/Google sheets 66 56

– Access and use databases 42 37

– Analyze and interpret data 31 21

– Visual data 23 12

– Algebra 11 4

– Geometry 4 0

– Calculus 2 1

– Trigonometry 2 0

The percentages who said they “never” used algebra, geometry, calculus, and trigonometry were 28, 50, 70, and 79 respectively for the Freakonomics group and 41, 59, 71, and 82 for the educators.

Clearly these adults don’t use much of the math they learned in school – but they do make heavy use of data knowledge and tools. “For generations,” say Boaler, LaMar, and Williams, “high schools in the United States have focused on one course as the ultimate, college-attractive, and high-level course – calculus. This has led to a heavy focus on algebraic content in the earlier years even though a tiny proportion of students in the school system take calculus. When students do take calculus, it is often taken after rushing through years of content without the development of deep understanding.” And most students who take calculus in high school end up repeating it in college, or taking a lower-level course.

The Common Core standards put more emphasis on data and statistics – but not enough, say the authors, which is why some states, including California, are beefing up data literacy in their curriculum standards. In that spirit, the Stanford and University of Chicago teams joined with colleagues around the world and spent 18 months thinking through what needs to change. “It quickly became clear,” say Boaler, LaMar, and Williams, “that all students – starting from the youngest in prekindergarten to those in college – need to learn the mathematics that will help them develop data literacy, to make sense of the data-filled world in which we all live… Whatever job your students go into, they will be making sense of data… Data awareness and data literacy are needed to not only be an effective employee but also function in the modern world… If we do not help students become data literate, they will be vulnerable to people who are misrepresenting issues and data.”

This line of thinking has spawned an initiative called YouCubed; the website has had more than 51 million visitors so far. It includes a series of “data talks,” which show students a data representation and ask, What do you notice? and What do you wonder? Among the topics: basketball, endangered species, popular dogs, and data ethics. Here’s an example of a middle-school data talk (see the article link below for more). Naturally, Boaler, LaMar, and Williams advocate a K-12 curriculum with an alternative pathway focused on data science and statistics. “Research suggests that the content of such a pathway is much more engaging for broader groups of students,” they say, “providing more-equitable participation in higher-level courses.”

“Making Sense of a Data-Filled World” by Jo Boaler, Tanya LaMar, and Cathy Williams in Mathematics Teacher: Learning & Teaching PK-12, July 2021 (Vol. 114, #7, pp. 508-517); the authors can be reached at,, and

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Marshall Memo 896

In This Issue:

Quotes of the Week

“The Declaration of Independence promised Americans unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If we want that pursuit to bring us bliss, we may need to create a Declaration of Interdependence.”

Adam Grant (see item #1)

“We find our greatest bliss in moments of collective effervescence.”

Adam Grant (ibid.)

“The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories.”

Daniel Willingham (see item #2)

“The most important thing about schooling is what students will remember after the school day is over.”

Daniel Willingham (ibid.)

“You can also read American history in the same spirit, the way you would read a great piece of literature, seeking to understand the complexities and the nuances, the dark and the light, the good and the bad. You can be inspired by the Declaration of Independence, horrified by the expulsions of Native Americans, amazed by the energy of immigrants and frontier settlers. You can understand that the United States is a great and unique country whose values are worth defending – and realize simultaneously that this same country has made terrible mistakes and carried out horrific crimes. Is it so difficult to hold all of these disparate ideas in your head at the same time?”

Anne Applebaum in “Democracies Don’t Try to Make Everyone Agree” in The

Atlantic, June 28, 2021

“You might not feel intimidating, but you probably are.”

Dan Rockwell on how leaders are seen by their colleagues (see item #5)

1. Adam Grant on “Collective Effervescence”

“Most people view emotions as existing primarily or even exclusively in their heads,” says University of Pennsylvania/Wharton School psychologist Adam Grant in this New York Times article. “But the reality is that emotions are inherently social; they’re woven through our interactions… We find our greatest bliss in moments of collective effervescence.”

That term was coined by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim in 1912 to describe the feeling of energy and harmony when people are engaged in a shared purpose. Some examples:

– Sliding into rhythm with strangers on a dance floor;

– At a concert, singing along with a song that everybody knows;

– Engaging in a lively brainstorming session with colleagues and solving a problem;

– Singing in a chorus;

– Stretching in a group yoga class;

– Executing a successful play with soccer teammates;

– Enjoying a religious service with family members;

– Laughing with friends at a comedy show.

Researchers have found that in normal times, people experience this collective joie de vivre quite frequently – once a week, even daily.

But during the pandemic, there was a marked decline of collective effervescence. Negative emotions like fear and loneliness spread from person to person like the disease, amplified by social media, e-mail, and texts. “The number of adults with symptoms of depression or anxiety spiked from one in 10 Americans to about four in 10,” says Grant. He believes that Zoom fatigue is partly the result of “hours of communicating with people who are also sad, stressed, lonely, or tired.” When the pandemic began, there was speculation that introverts would thrive in an environment that limited social contact. But introverts have suffered as much as extroverts during this period of isolation; they, too, missed the joy of sharing positive in-person experiences with others.

As the pandemic wanes and we return to something approaching normalcy, people want to be joyful again, says Grant. He believes this is the perfect time to realize that we are hardwired to experience the greatest happiness with others. “We should think of flourishing less as personal euphoria and more as collective effervescence,” he says. “The Declaration of Independence promised Americans unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If we want that pursuit to bring us bliss, we may need to create a Declaration of Interdependence… Joy shared is joy sustained.”

“The Joy We’ve Been Missing” by Adam Grant in The New York Times, July 11, 2021; Grant can be reached at

2. Daniel Willingham on the Psychology of Remembering

“The most important thing about schooling is what students will remember after the school day is over,” says Daniel Willingham (University of Virginia) in this article in American Educator. But many educators are unclear about how the human memory system works. We wonder why kids remember everything they’ve seen on TV and forget what we’ve painstakingly taught them – even when they seemed to be paying attention. On a more personal level, we forget what we came into the kitchen to retrieve (we knew it 15 seconds ago!), but can hum every note of an advertising jingle from years ago. Educators need a better understanding of the nuts and bolts of memory if students are going to remember what matters in the K-12 curriculum.

Willingham starts with a few misconceptions about improving students’ retention of classroom content:

– Emotions – It’s true that people remember things that are accompanied by strong feelings – a first date, the death of a loved one – but a lot of classroom instruction doesn’t have much affect.

– Repetition – This is helpful, but it’s not sufficient. For example, we’ve all looked at hundreds of pennies, but researchers have found that people are not successful at picking a genuine coin from counterfeits.

– Motivation – It would be great if really wanting to remember something would make it stick. “Sadly,” says Willingham, “memory doesn’t work that way.”

So how does it work? Over the course of evolution, the human brain has come up with a system: If we don’t focus cognitively on something while it’s happening, it probably isn’t that important – so it’s forgotten. If we do attend to something in real time, it’s a sign that it will be important to us in the future – so it’s remembered. In short, says Willingham, our grey matter has evolved to be much more likely to remember what we’ve spent some time thinking about. In other words, memory is the residue of thought.

For teachers, there are two twists. First, schools want students to think about and remember what things mean – not what curriculum content looks like or sounds like or feels like, but what it means. This puts a premium on “message discipline” with each lesson. Second, students won’t remember something unless they’ve mentally focused on an aspect of the fact, concept, or skill that’s most likely to be retrieved later on. Willingham gives the example of quizzing young students on their memory of the word piano when it’s been presented in different ways (a piano being laboriously hoisted up a flight of stairs; a maestro playing with grace and artistry). Students remember much better if the prompt for remembering the word piano is close to the way it was initially taught.

“The obvious implication for teachers,” says Willingham, “is that they must design lessons that will ensure that students are thinking about the meaning of the material.” Here’s a negative example: a sixth-grade teacher has students draw a diagram of the plot of a book they’ve read showing how the story elements relate to one another. Students get engaged in their intricate drawings and lose sight of the plot. A better approach: have students use words and phrases rather than pictures, which gets students focused on how the elements of the plot were connected.

Good unit and lesson plans present ideas coherently, which helps students focus, understand, and remember. Here are some key principles:

• Organize lessons like a story. “The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories,” says Willingham, which is why story structure is one of the most effective way to present lessons. There are four key elements, all beginning with C:

– Causality – Events are causally linked to one another.

– Conflict – For example, the main character is pursuing a goal and can’t yet attain it.

– Complications – These make it challenging to reach the goal.

– Character – A good story is built around strong, interesting people in action.

These elements help students know that events aren’t happening in a random sequence and stay interested because there’s a lot going on. Because students have been thinking about the story and making inferences as events unfold, the curriculum content is more likely to be remembered.

“This doesn’t mean you must do most of the talking,” says Willingham. “Small-group work or projects or any other method may be used.” The key is orchestrating the lesson so the key question is clear, there are conflicts and complications and characters, and students have to do some real cognitive work to arrive at the answer (the point of the lesson). “I sometimes feel that we, as teachers, are so focused on getting to the answer,” says Willingham, “we spend insufficient time making sure that students understand the question and appreciate its significance. To us, the question and its importance are obvious. To them, they aren’t.”

• Scrutinize lessons for what students will think about. Not what we hope they’ll think about, but what thinking experiences it’s impossible for them to avoid. Willingham once observed a high-school lesson on the Spanish Civil War where this didn’t happen. Groups of students got so caught up in the bells and whistles of PowerPoint presentations they were preparing for classmates that there was little attention to the historical content. (After this debacle, the teacher restructured the plan for the following year.)

• Think carefully about attention grabbers. It’s good to kick off a unit or lesson with something dramatic to pique students’ interest, but this gambit can backfire, says Willingham. He once questioned his sixth-grade daughter about a demonstration she had observed in a science lesson on chemicals. “He had this glass?” she said. “That looked like water? But when he put this little metal thingy in it, it boiled. It was so cool. We all screamed.” Dad asked why the teacher did that. “I don’t know,” she said. No doubt the teacher explained what it was all about, but because students were still thinking about the dramatic demonstration, they tuned out the explanation. Kids remember what they think about.

Here’s a more effective attention grabber. A biology teacher asks students to remember the very first thing they saw in their lives. Students mention their mother, the doctor who pulled them out, and other early experiences. “Actually,” says the teacher, “the first thing each of you saw was the same. It was pinkish, diffuse light coming through your mother’s belly. Today we’re going to talk about how that experience affected how your visual system developed, and how it continues to influence the way you see today.” This surprising revelation intrigues students and they’re eager to learn more as the lesson unfolds.

The challenge for teachers, says Willingham, is “how you will draw a connection between the attention grabber and the point it’s designed to make.” In his daughter’s science class, it would have been better for the teacher to explain the principle first, then do the metal thingy demonstration – having first asked students to make a prediction.

• Use discovery learning with care. Getting students to explore objects, discuss problems with classmates, design experiments, and engage in inquiry can be valuable, says Willingham, especially if students have choice and agency and think deeply about the content. But teachers may fail to get their intended learning results if students explore ideas that are not relevant to the lesson – which can easily happen because what students think about is unpredictable. “If memory is the residue of thought,” he says, “then students will remember incorrect ‘discoveries’ as much as they will remember correct ones.”

This suggests a cardinal principle for discovery learning: students must get prompt feedback on whether they’re thinking about the problem in a useful way, and be provided with immediate help is they’re off track. This principle tends to operate well when students are exploring a new computer program or app in an unstructured way: they find out very quickly if they’re not using it correctly. The same would not be true if they were “messing around” with a frog dissection.

• Organize lessons around a conflict. “There is a conflict in almost any lesson plan, if you look for it,” says Willingham. Students need to find the answer to a key question, and that’s the challenge or conflict. Being very clear about the question provides a natural progression of topics, he says. Take a sixth-grade science standard – learning about the different models of the atom that scientists were debating around the turn of the 20th century. Thinking backwards from the intended learning, the curriculum unit can be structured as a story, with competing scientific models and experiments – and complications – all revolving around an essential question: What is the nature of matter?If this process is handled well, students will come away with an understanding of the big ideas and enduring understandings of the discipline.

• Don’t overdo relevance. Willingham says he’s bothered by the frequent message that teachers need to make the curriculum relevant to students. First of all, he says, a lot of what’s taught is not immediately relevant to kids. Trigonometry? The Epic of Gilgamesh? “Making these topics relevant to students’ daily lives will be a strain,” he says, “and students will probably think it’s phony.” Second, if we’re not successful in convincing students that something is relevant, should we take it out of the curriculum? If we keep trying to build bridges to kids’ lives, doesn’t that convey that school is always about them? Willingham believes there is “value, interest, and beauty” in learning about lots of things that aren’t currently on students’ radar.

“What I’m suggesting,” he concludes, “is that student interests should not be the main driving force of lesson planning. Rather, they might be used as initial points of contact that help students understand the main ideas you want them to consider, rather than as the reason or motivation for them to consider these ideas.”

“Ask the Cognitive Scientist: Why Do Students Remember Everything That’s on Television and Forget Everything I Say?” by Daniel Willingham in American Educator, Summer 2021 (Vol. 45, #2); Willingham can be reached at

3. The Advantages of Having Students Use Handwritten Notebooks

In this Edutopia article, Pennsylvania high-school teacher Benjamin Barbour says that during the 2021-22 school year, he will require students to take notes by hand in paper notebooks. After a year of staring at tablets and laptops, he believes this low-tech approach will “reclaim some balance between digital and analog learning.” Here’s how:

• Organization – When students use an app for notetaking, the technology helps them create and manage their thoughts – but perhaps it helps them too much. “I’ve found that using notebooks places more responsibility on students to find, adapt, and stick to a method that works best for them,” says Barbour. Being able to capture a lecture or presentation in real time, devise symbols and shorthand techniques, and organize information in a way that’s easy to study later on – all these are essential skills for high school, college, and many careers.

• Focus – When students are taking notes on a device, they can’t help but see updates, messages, and notifications and are constantly tempted to browse the Internet. Learning significant content, says Barbour, “requires concentration and deep, uninterrupted immersion in a topic.” Constant interruptions and multitasking produce fleeting attention and superficial learning. Daniel Goleman has said that the ability to focus is more important to a student’s life success than IQ and socioeconomic status. Yes, students can doodle and daydream as they write in their notebooks, but a break from their devices gives them a leg up.

• Learning – Some studies have shown that taking notes in longhand (versus typing) results in better retention and deeper understanding of cognitively complex material. The same benefits may apply to using a stylus to write notes on a tablet or laptop with apps like Notability, Noteshelf, and GoodNotes. But students may be in college classes where the instructor does not permit the use of electronic devices, so being skilled at handwritten notetaking is a skill worth learning.

• Monitoring – “When I review students’ notebooks,” says Barbour, “I can quickly see if they’re following directions and keeping up with the material satisfactorily or if they’re taking disorganized or incomprehensible notes.” When he spots problematic notes, he intervenes and helps students shift to a better notetaking approach – sometimes prodded by points or a grade for organization, legibility, and completeness.

• Creativity – A common misconception is that traditional notebooks limit students’ creativity. Not so, says Barbour, if the teacher has students pause and reflect on what they’ve written and jot big ideas, perhaps using color, images, or a sketch to capture their deeper thoughts.

“One Advantage of Paper Notebooks” by Benjamin Barbour in Edutopia, July 13, 2021

4. Beyond Black History Month

In this article in Edutopia, New Jersey educator Rann Miller says that Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s idea for Negro History Week “was never meant to be a one-off acknowledgement, recognition, and celebration of black history. It was meant to serve as a short period for students to display what they’d learned about the history of black people, as well as their accomplishments and contributions to the United States and the world.” Woodson advocated teaching African-American history every week, and would have seen Black History Month the same way – a culmination of learning that happens throughout the school year and across the curriculum.

What does this look like in the classroom? For starters, it means including people of color in whatever subject is being taught. For example, when an American literature course get to the Romantic period, include writers of color from that era – what inspired them and what connects their work with the social events and injustices of that time.

Teachers can also incorporate African-American perspectives by highlighting the work of scholars, journalists, and artists and what motivated them. “Doing this,” says Miller, “can inspire students to discover their own purpose, which fuels their ambition.”

Finally, Miller urges teachers to invite diverse politicians, doctors, and entrepreneurs into classrooms throughout the year, not only as guest speakers but to partner with students on projects and performances – always putting classroom guests’ work and contributions in historical perspective. “We can do this similarly,” says Miller, “through the lens of the Indigenous, Latino/a, and Asian communities with reference to the American experience and questioning injustice.”

“Teaching Black History Year-Round Requires Rigorous Sight” by Rann Miller in Edutopia, July 9, 2021

5. Managing by Walking Around – Done Right

In this Leadership Freak article, Dan Rockwell says he’s a big fan of leaders spending time out and about, observing and interacting with colleagues face to face. But if this style of management is to be productive, it must be handled with emotional intelligence. Rockwell’s suggestions:

– Show up enough that people aren’t shocked to see you.

– Show up to connect with people, supporting more than challenging.

– Keep visits short; several mini-observations are better than a long visit.

– Give more than you take; listen more than you talk.

– Smile. You might not feel intimidating, but you probably are.

– Demonstrate humble respect; you’re nothing without the people you lead.

– Ask, “What’s working?” and “What do you think?” Listen for people’s ideas and solutions.

“5 Reasons People Wish Lousy Leaders Would Stay Away” by Dan Rockwell in Leadership Freak, July 16, 2021

6. Short Item:

Recommended Reading for Students – These online School Library Journal links highlight high-quality children’s books and include cover images and short reviews:

“16 Must Read Realistic Chapter Books, Summer Reading 2021”

“10 YA Sports Novels That Knock It Out of the Park; Summer Reading 2021”

“Game, Set, Match: Two Picture Books About Tennis Superstars” (Althea Gibson and Serena Williams)

“Summer Reading 2021” in School Library Journal, May 19, May 25, and July 1, 2021

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In This Issue:

Quotes of the Week

“My relationship to deadlines, like that of almost everyone I know, is full of contradictions. I crave them and avoid them, depend on them and resent them.”

Rachel Syme (see item #1)

“This is a fight over how to explain American history, society, and culture to all our children, whom we are counting on to be morally committed to protecting, defending, and perfecting it as adults.”

Robert Pondiscio in “No, School Choice Is Not the Answer to Critical Race Theory”

in American Enterprise Institute Ideas, July 2, 2021 and Education Gadfly, July 8, 2021

“In middle school I learned how to solve for the hypotenuse and identify properties of an atom, but the most enduring skill I picked up was how to gossip.”

Kristen Radtke (see item #2)

“Social media platforms reward our meanest, least empathetic selves and push us toward extreme positions.”

Kristen Radtke (ibid.)

“One giant step to building esteem in our learning spaces would be to reduce the emphasis we place on right answers. When students feel they should know the answers from the onset of a lesson, they engage in efforts that do not promote building their knowledge (an esteem booster) but rather, reinforce a feeling of incompetence (an esteem buster).”

Connie Hamilton (see item #2)

1. Can Deadlines Spur Better Work?

In this New Yorker article, Rachel Syme says that action-forcing deadlines “add both structure and suspense to our lives” – things like bills, tooth cleanings, tax returns. “My relationship to deadlines,” she says, “like that of almost everyone I know, is full of contradictions. I crave them and avoid them, depend on them and resent them.” Syme confesses that she’s a chronic procrastinator, waiting until the last minute and counting on adrenaline and caffeine to get things done on time.

Experts disagree on whether looming deadlines lead to better work; those who wait until the last minute may not leave enough time to produce a high-quality product. One magazine editor tried giving writers a fierce, non-negotiable deadline that was in fact a week before articles were actually needed. This worked quite well, with writers getting serious a few days earlier than usual and articles coming in by the real deadline. The trick was getting people to work like it was the last minute before the last minute.

“If you’re the kind of person who sets the kitchen clock ten minutes fast and still shows up late for dinner reservations, you may doubt the efficacy of this approach,” says Syme. One way to deal with that is to make a group of people responsible for finishing something on time, motivating everyone to do their best work and not let the team down. “In this all-for-one-and-one-for-all scenario,” says Syme, “deadlines aren’t just tools for individual achievement – they’re levers of collective accountability.” An analogy in restaurants and stores is the “soft opening” – launching (or restarting) for friends and family to make sure everything is working smoothly a few days before welcoming the public. Soft deadlines can engender focus, urgency, and collegiality – versus rashness, desperation, and sloppy work.

One danger of deadlines, Syme concludes, is being so focused on finishing a task on time that we don’t look up and see the bigger picture. “Life is one long soft opening,” she says. “We might as well experiment, stumble, fail, and sometimes not even finish… Maybe the thing we’re trying not to look at is the ultimate deadline – the only one that matters, the one that’s coming for us all.”

“Clock’s Ticking” by Rachel Syme in The New Yorker, July 5, 2021, reviewing The Deadline Effect by Christopher Cox.

2. Helping Students Feel Valued and Respected in the Classroom

In this Cult of Pedagogy article, instructional coach/author Connie Hamilton says that early in her teaching career, she had an “amateur diagnosis” of her students’ attention-seeking behaviors. She was correct that students’ ridiculous, disruptive actions showed a need for affirmation and prestige with peers. “However,” she says, “what I missed completely is how and why esteem needs cause students to act in ways that defy what they know is right, to ignore their own strengths and accomplishments, and to restrict their success as a learner.” In the fourth level of Maslow’s hierarchy – esteem – she’s found what she was missing. “If we can better understand how this tier works,” says Hamilton, “we can help our students satisfy their esteem needs in healthy and beneficial ways.”

Esteem is in the first four tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy – physiological, safety, love/belonging, and esteem – all of which are deficiency needs: that is, when people are deprived of them, they can’t concentrate or function at higher levels.

– Tier 1 – Physiological: food, water, shelter, warmth, sleep, clothing; students lacking these basics are not open to learning.

– Tier 2 – Safety: personal security, freedom from fear, health, stability, order; the pandemic deprived many families of these key elements; the return of regular school routines will be helpful.

– Tier 3 – Love and belonging: beyond their families, students can get these needs met at school: the homeroom, friendship groups, clubs, sports teams, and a climate of caring and compassion.

– Tier 4 – Esteem: there are two types: self-esteem – dignity, achievement, mastery, success, positive self-regard; and esteem from others – status, prestige, popularity, reputation, respect from others.

Tier 5, self-actualization, is a growth need: the energy that is presented as anxiety when seeking to meet the four lower levels converts to actions to improve oneself at the top level.

“The need to be respected by others plays a direct role in students’ willingness to take risks in the classroom,” says Hamilton. “If students’ status is vulnerable, they are less likely to engage in activities that will prevent their esteem needs from being met.” Telling students not to worry about what others think of them is ineffective; kids can’t respect themselves if they don’t feel respected by others.

Trying to meet students’ esteem needs with phony praise and participation trophies doesn’t work, says Hamilton. Educators must orchestrate “authentic experiences of knowledge, competence, independence, recognition, and confidence.” Challenge and rigor are essential, as is supporting students through failures and frustrations to genuine accomplishments. That’s how real esteem is built. “One giant step to building esteem in our learning spaces would be to reduce the emphasis we place on right answers,” she says. “When students feel they should know the answers from the onset of a lesson, they engage in efforts that do not promote building their knowledge (an esteem booster) but rather, reinforce a feeling of incompetence (an esteem buster).”

Hamilton suggests three esteem-building strategies that she believes are effective at heading off a lot of disruptive, attention-seeking behavior:

• Give students an “out” up front. Encouraging students to be tentative as they answer challenging questions actually builds confidence. Students might use lines like these:

– I might change my mind later, but right now here’s what I’m thinking…

– I know it’s not — because —

– It’s either —, —, or —

– I’m 80% sure.

– I’m only 20% certain.

• Watch for opportunities to elevate a student’s status. Call attention to contributions students make in class, narrating the positive. Some examples:

– Look at how many people are nodding their heads in agreement.

– It seems your classmates appreciate that you asked that question.

– I noticed Skyler took Alexandra’s idea and built on it.

And here are some ways to solicit peer esteem-builders:

– How did Jordan’s explanation help you understand?

– Who do you want to honor today?

– Take a moment to show gratitude to Stella for…

– How many of you had the same thought as Jay?

• Support positive peer interactions. Classroom culture is a key to individual students’ esteem, says Hamilton. Some teacher moves:

– Establish a compliment board.

– Promote affirmations.

– Praise publicly and encourage students to do so as well.

– Set expectations for acceptance and compassion.

– Provide prompts for students to give credit to their classmates.

– Choose partners and groups based on a variety of strengths so everyone can shine.

“The Importance of Maslow’s Fourth Tier” by Connie Hamilton in Cult of Pedagogy, July 11, 2021; Hamilton’s book is Hacking Questions (Times 10, 2019).

3. What to Say When Students Shine

In this Edutopia article, teacher/author Tarn Wilson says she began having second thoughts about saying “I’m proud of you” when her high-school students shared a personal triumph – making a team, doing well on a test, getting their driver’s license. Why not express pride? Because it shifts attention from what the student did to the teacher’s approval – and also tends to truncate the interaction. “I wanted my students to spend more time basking in their accomplishments and taking ownership for their successes,” says Wilson. Over time, she developed these different reactions:

• I’m so happy for you. Tell me more. “This strategy allows students to relive the moment and magnify their happiness through sharing,” says Wilson. It also lets them decide which details to share.

• Wow, you must feel so proud. “Although naming students’ emotions sounds as if it might shut down conversations, it generally has the opposite effect,” says Wilson. “…Offering them some language can be a powerful opening.” Then it’s important to pause and give the student time to confirm, elaborate, modify, or correct the teacher’s surmise.

• Fantastic! What did you do to make that happen? This prompts students to articulate the choices and behaviors that led to a success. Students who are not self-aware may need some prompting to name the study habits, collaboration with peers, and other factors that worked for them.

• I appreciate… I admire… Following this lead-off phrase with specific actions the student has taken is different from saying I’m proud of you; it conveys the message that pleasing the teacher is not the name of the game; it’s all about the student’s growth and development.

Wilson says there are moments when she can’t resist saying she’s proud of what a class has achieved, and there are students whose self-esteem is so low that hearing teachers express pride can make them feel “seen, valued, and supported.” But most of the time, she believes the teacher should not become the center of attention – the one bestowing approval. “Instead,” she concludes, “our feedback should be used as a tool to cultivate in our students a healthy self-awareness and self-trust.”

“What to Say Instead of ‘I’m Proud of You’” by Tarn Wilson in Edutopia, June 22, 2021

4. The Role of Gossip Among Students – and Adults

In this New York Times Magazine article, author Kristen Radtke says that in her Catholic middle school, “I learned how to solve for the hypotenuse and identify properties of an atom, but the most enduring skill I picked up was how to gossip.” One of her eighth-grade teachers had no tolerance for the chit-chat and quoted Proverbs: “A whisperer separates close friends.” As a result, Radtke “burned with shame over my recess gossip, fearing that eternal flames awaited me if I didn’t stop.”

Nevertheless, she and her friends continued, and looking back, she understands why: “We were trying to understand things about ourselves, and the tiny world we inhabited, the only way we knew how: by observing one another and making sense of those observations together.” Students found another passage in Proverbs that seemed more relevant: “The words of a whisperer are delicious morsels.”

Radtke has concluded that gossip is simultaneously petty, enjoyable, and an important bond among friends. During her adolescence, it was about “currying favor, remaining on the inside of a group as a pimply teen terrified of being pushed outside.” As a young professional in New York City, there was a similar dynamic. She and her best friend texted each other with tidbits about their colleagues. Her friend felt guilty, saying, “It’s like candy. If you eat too much, you feel a little gross.” But they continued to be fascinated with details of other people’s lives, rationalizing that their chatter wasn’t the same as indiscriminately passing along important secrets. “That doesn’t mean gossip is ever moral or fair or even true,” says Radtke; “it’s just that it can also be an enormous amount of fun.”

The Internet has complicated things, she continues, making it easy to communicate to a wider audience with fewer filters. “Social media platforms reward our meanest, least empathetic selves and push us toward extreme positions,” says Radtke. “In this context, the benign exaggerations of gossip can morph into catastrophic untruths. The Internet also obliterates the privacy of a personal network, undermining in-person gossip’s primary pleasure: in disclosing something to someone one on one, you’re also saying that you trust them.”

“Gossip” by Kristen Radtke in The New York Times Magazine, July 4, 2021

5. A Different Structure for Socratic Seminars

(Originally titled “Socratics, Remixed”)

In this article in Educational Leadership, veteran high-school teacher Henry Seton says that Socratic seminars “frequently fall flat.” Among the reasons: students don’t prepare; discussions lack rigor, go off on tangents, or end in awkward silences; teachers do too much talking; and complex protocols over-manage discussions or don’t provide enough scaffolding. Seton has developed a “remix” of the Socratic seminar that he believes provides the right balance of structure, rigor, skill-building, and joy. He usually uses it in the second half of the year, after students have been schooled in close reading and discussion skills. He departs from it if students are “infectiously and insatiably engaged by a text.” Here’s Seton’s revised Socratic model for a one-hour class:

• Pre-work – Students read an assigned text, perhaps a chapter in a novel or a selection of poems (an example: Act 2, scene 1 of August Wilson’s play, Gem of the Ocean).

• Warm-up (10 minutes) – Students silently read a student’s exit ticket from the previous day and write about what was on target and what needs improvement. The teacher then cold-calls students to share their thoughts, zeroing in on the most important skill. Later in the school year, the teacher might ask students to compare two students’ exit tickets and work on rewriting the weaker of the two.

• Discussion (30 minutes) – Students sit in one, two, or three circles, decide within each group on the most important passages in the homework text, read them closely, and connect them to larger themes. The teacher sits on the outside, taking notes and intervening only to get a group back on track. At the end of this segment, students debrief, guided by the teacher at first, highlighting the most effective discussion skills. (When this version of the Socratic seminar is first launched, the teacher explains the format, reviews key discussion skills, and introduces students to the important skill of identifying the passages most worthy of discussion, one of which will be the focus of that day’s exit ticket.)

• Exit ticket (20 minutes) – The teacher chooses one passage from the homework text and students write a page in which they identify, contextualize, and analyze it, making connections to larger themes. The teacher circulates and coaches writing skills and content, looking for students to identify who is talking to whom, what is happening in the passage, and how this passage sheds light on the text as a whole.

• Assessing and grading – Seton recommends an occasional reading quiz, daily in-class homework checks, keeping track of how much each student participates for a “small classroom grade” every few days, bonus points for guessing that day’s exit ticket passage (his students find this a delightful game), a quick grade or comment on exit tickets (perhaps only once a week), and a multi-day paper as the culminating unit assessment, using a longer passage-identification challenge.

“This revised lesson structure is simple,” says Seton, “but its elements work together powerfully,” integrating what he calls the “holy trinity of literacy skills: reading, writing, and discussing.” Not knowing which passage will be picked for the exit ticket, students are engaged in a high-level guessing game for most of the class period. When they work on their exit ticket, students use notes they took in the earlier segments and draw on what they learned from the discussion.

“While students are initially intimidated by the pop quiz awaiting them at the end of each lesson,” says Seton, “most quickly become fans.” In interviews with several former 10th grade students, he found they remembered this kind of Socratic seminar fondly; they appreciated the “themed potluck” contributions that classmates made during discussions, feeling more independent (like a college student), and the “treasure hunt” for meaning.

“Socratics, Remixed” by Henry Seton in Educational Leadership, July 2021 (Vol. 78, #9, pp. 50-54); Seton can be reached at

6. Fair, Effective Group Work

(Originally titled “Planning for Fair Group Work”)

In this article in Educational Leadership, Amir Rasooli (Queen’s University, Canada) and Susan Brookhart (Duquesne University) say that getting students working in groups can be a positive classroom strategy, but it’s often implemented in unproductive ways. To avoid this, Rasooli and Brookhart suggest the following principles:

• Be clear about why students are working in groups. There are four ways that collaborative work can contribute to positive academic and social-emotional outcomes:

– Each student learns the intended content and skills;

– Each student learns how to work effectively with groupmates;

– Each group’s work product meets standards for quality work;

– Students learn to function well as a group.

These can be assessed at the individual and group level (more on that below).

• Group students heterogeneously, with choice if possible. Rasooli and Brookhart say it’s important for collaborative student groups to have a mix of achievement levels and backgrounds. But there’s something to be said for students having input on which group they join and the role they’ll play in the group’s work; these increase student ownership and may result in better group dynamics and learning results.

• Establish norms to ensure equitable participation. If some group members are slacking off, others will bear an unfair burden and might refuse to apply themselves. Rasooli and Brookhart suggest establishing several understandings up front.

– Respect all group members.

– Include everyone in the group’s work.

– Recognize and appreciate that different ways of thinking, working, and behaving can support successful group work.

– Ask that everyone contribute as much as they would like others to contribute.

Expectations like these should get all members contributing to their fullest.

• Maximize students’ contributions via seating formats and artfully designed tasks. Having each group sit in a circle helps elicit equitable contributions (four students seems to be the best size), and tasks should be orchestrated to get everyone working hard (not too simple and not too complex). Positive interdependence is the goal.

• Separately assess individual learning and group collaboration. Rasooli and Brookhart say the research is clear that group grading is not a good idea: it encourages free-loading, unfairly boosts the grades of students who are not contributing, and lowers the grades of the high achievers who are doing a disproportionate share of the work. The best approach is holding students individually accountable for learning outcomes, with “softer” assessments of group dynamics. It’s definitely important to gather data and give feedback on how well students are working together (from teacher observation and student self-reports), but those assessments are separate from students’ academic grades.

Rasooli and Brookhart give an example of a high-school group project that meets these criteria. It’s on the impact of World War I on the social, cultural, and economic conditions of one region of North America:

– Each group of four students decides which region to investigate and how the work will be divvied up.

– Students draw on multiple sources and collaborate to integrate their findings.

– The teacher shares a rubric that will be used to grade what students produce.

– Each group presents its conclusions in a poster.

– Posters are displayed in a gallery walk, and classmates and the teacher provide feedback on each one.

– Students self-assess how well their group worked together.

– Students write individual essays on the impact of World War I on the social, cultural, and economic conditions of a region of their choice in North America.

– The teacher gives feedback on each essay and assigns grades.

“Planning for Fair Group Work” by Amir Rasooli and Susan Brookhart in Educational Leadership, July 2021 (Vol. 78, #9, pp. 44-49); the authors can be reached at and

7. Texting Preschool Parents: What Is the Goldilocks Frequency?

In this Education Gadfly article, Jeremy Smith reports on a paper published in Education Finance and Policyinvestigating the efficacy of texting preschool parents with reminders and literacy suggestions. The researchers studied three different models (delivered in English and Spanish):

– A text message sent every Wednesday.

– Three texts a week.

– Five texts a week, one for each school day.

The texts included letter recognition, letter sound awareness, beginning sound awareness, rhymes, children writing their names, story comprehension, vocabulary development, and parent-child book reading routines.. The complexity of the texts increased during the school year, with some topics reintroduced for reinforcement. The suggested activities were geared to family routines such as mealtimes.

The researchers used three measures to find the best frequency: assessments of students’ literacy levels, parent surveys, and the rate at which parents opted out of the texting program. Three times a week came through as the strongest model, striking the right balance between too much and not enough information. It may also have done best because it had a balance of actionable tips, general information, and encouragement.

“Texting Parents Helps Improve Student Literacy. But How Much Is Too Much?” by Jeremy Smith in Education Gadfly, July 8, 2021; the full study is “Too Little or Too Much? Actionable Advice in an Early-Childhood Text Messaging Experiment” by Kalena Cortes, Hans Fricke, Susanna Loeb, David Song, and Benjamin York in Education Finance and Policy, April 2021 (Vol. 16, #2, pp. 209-232); Cortes can be reached at

8. Reflections on Teaching U.S. History

In this Education Gadfly article, Georgia teacher José Gregory (who participated in the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s analysis of state standards for U.S. history) shares his takeaways from almost two decades teaching high-school history:

• Students need more time on task. Gregory advocates a foundational survey year at the elementary level, followed by a high-school course more focused on conceptual understandings and sophisticated historical thinking.

• Chronological reasoning and thematic connections can co-exist. Students must know the sequence of events and basic cause-and-effect relationships, but teachers should also make connections across and within periods – for example, the changing role of government in society.

• Breadth and depth aren’t mutually exclusive. In too many classrooms the curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep. Solid content standards are important, and Gregory suggests going deeper on a few well-chosen turning points – for example, the Civil War.

• Content and thinking skills are two sides of the coin. “In fact,” says Gregory, “I’m not sure it’s possible to have a good lesson plan if both of these things aren’t included.”

• Students need to be exposed to diverse perspectives, but… “By definition, the past is what happened,” says Gregory, “while history is our interpretation.” The standard for inclusion in the curriculum is solid historical evidence.

“5 Things I’ve Learned from Teaching U.S. History to High Schoolers” by José Gregory in Education Gadfly, July 2, 2021; Gregory can be reached at

9. Recommended Children’s Books Related to the Tokyo Olympics

This School Library Journal feature suggests books for students who will be following the Summer Olympics:


– She Persisted in Sports: American Olympians Who Changed the Game by Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger, PreK-Grade 3

– Sakamoto’s Swim Club: How a Teacher Led an Unlikely Team to Victory by Julie Abery, illustrated by Chris Sasaki, K-Grade 3

– Simone Biles: Making the Case for the Greatest of All Time by Susan Blackaby, Grade 4-7

– Proud: Living My American Dream by Ibtihaj Muhammad, Grade 6 and up

– Black Power Salute: How a Photograph Captured a Political Protest by Danielle Smith-Llera, Grade 5-8


– The Mystery of the Masked Medalist by Maia Shibutani, Alex Shibutani, and Michelle Schusterman, illustrated by Yaoyao Ma Van As, Grade 3-6

– Every Reason We Shouldn’t by Sara Fujimura, Grade 7 and up

– Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean, Grade 8 and up

– Dive! by Eto Mori, illustrated by Ruzuru Akashiba, Grade 8 and up

“Fun and Games: Capitalize on Olympics Enthusiasm with These Titles” in School Library Journal, July 2021 (Vol. 67, #7, p. 13)

10. Brief Videos on Civics

This series of ten 4-5-minute videos from We the People by Chris Nee, Kenya Burns, Barack Obama, and Michelle Obama covers these topics:

– Active Citizenship

– Bill of Rights

– Taxes

– Three Branches of Government

– First Amendment

– Federal and State Power

– Immigration

– The Courts

– We the People

– The Miracle of Morning

Here’s a trailer:

“We the People” on Netflix by Chris Nee, Kenya Burns, Barack Obama, and Michelle Obama, Netflix, 2021

11. Short Items:

Media Bias Chart – In this article in School Library Journal, Texas educator Maggie Knapp gives a very positive review of the Ad Fontes Media Bias Chart, highlighting the features of the free and professional versions. The SUMMA curriculum allows teachers to adjust lessons on media sources to students’ levels and the time available, focusing on news sources’ language, political position, headlines, and graphics.

“Media Bias Chart” by Maggie Knapp in School Library Journal, July 2021 (Vol. 67, #7, p. 37)

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In This Issue:

Quotes of the Week

“Screw-ups are, paradoxically, opportunities to build trust, so long as you admit error and are clear about what you’ve learned and what you’re doing to change.”

David Brooks (see item #2)

“A major source of stress for many is the pervasive feeling that there is never enough time.”

Dane Jensen (see item #3)

“Beginning in elementary school, we are taught to sit still, work quietly, think hard – a model for mental activity that will dominate during the years that follow. The skills we develop and the techniques we are taught are mostly those that involve using our individual, unaided brains: committing information to memory, engaging in internal reasoning and deliberation, mustering out mental powers from within… The limits of this approach have become painfully evident. The days when we could do it all in our heads are over. Our knowledge is too abundant, our expertise too specialized, our challenges too enormous. The best chance we have to thrive in the extraordinarily complex world we’ve created is to allow that world to assume some of our mental labor. Our brains can’t do it alone.”

Annie Murphy Paul in “How to Think Outside Your Brain” in The New York Times,

June 13, 2021

“There are some things in math that need to be memorized and drilled, such as addition and multiplication facts. Repetitive practice lies at the heart of mastery of almost every discipline, and mathematics is no exception. No sensible person would suggest eliminating drills from sports, music, or dance. De-emphasize skill and memorization and you take away the child’s primary scaffold for understanding.”

Barry Garelick in “What It Takes to Actually Improve Math Education” in Education

Week, June 30, 2021

1. A Historian Reflects on Attempts to Control How History Is Taught

In this New York Times Magazine article, Timothy Snyder (Yale University) describes the famine in the Soviet republic of Ukraine in the early 1930s, in which 3.9 million Ukrainians died as a result of Stalin’s policies. “The Soviet Union took drastic steps to ensure that these events went unnoticed,” says Snyder. Foreign journalists were not allowed to travel to Ukraine. The New York Times correspondent in Moscow followed the party line and downplayed the genocide. Subsequently, Soviet and Russian history textbooks portrayed the Ukrainian famine as the result of administrative errors.

In 2009, Russian president Medvedev established a Commission to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests. Any attempt to revive the memory of what happened in Ukraine, anything that might cause Russians to feel uncomfortable, was deemed divisive, unpatriotic, and criminal. “These Russian policies,” says Snyder, “belong to a growing international body of what are called ‘memory laws’: government actions designed to guide public interpretation of the past. Such measures work by asserting a mandatory view of historical events, by forbidding the discussion of historical facts or interpretations, or by providing vague guidelines that lead to self-censorship.”

Snyder notes the similarity of these memory laws and what happened in the wake of the 1921 Tulsa race riot. “Documents concerning the massacre vanished from state archives,” he says. “Oklahoma history textbooks had nothing to say. Young Tulsans and Oklahomans were denied the chance to think about their own history for themselves. Silence prevailed for decades.” One hundred years after the tragedy, the Oklahoma legislature passed a law forbidding schools to act in a way that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” on issues related to race. The governor of Oklahoma said recently that the Tulsa massacre can still be taught, but educators have their doubts, and the chilling effect is clear. One community college has already cancelled a course on race and ethnicity.

In recent months, dozens of similar bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the U.S. They attack Critical Race Theory and attempt to guide and control the teaching of history in K-12 schools. So far, Idaho, Iowa, Tennessee, Texas, and Oklahoma have passed laws that direct and restrict classroom discussions, and a number of other states are following a similar path. The most common feature of the bills, says Snyder, “is their attention to feelings. In almost identical language, several forbid any classroom activity that would give rise to “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.”

At the center of this activity is the way the word racism is perceived. The traditional understanding is that the term refers to an individual’s irrational beliefs (most often negative) about people of another race. A more recent understanding (included in Critical Race Theory and a number of books and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives) is that there can be racism without racists – that racial advantage and disadvantage can become embedded in economic, social, and political systems and endure for centuries.

Many white people, still thinking in terms of the traditional definition, see talk of “systemic racism” as a personal attack (I’m not a racist!). Taking it a step further, they fear that a detailed study of the nation’s racial history will result in their being called racists and asked to shoulder personal responsibility and guilt because of their race. Of course white people’s perceptions and fears are only part of the story. “What would it really take,” asks Snyder, “to remove ‘discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress’ on account of race from the lives of black people, or from the school days of black students?” He believes that, in an age-appropriate way, the facts of U.S. racial history need to be taught.

“Facts do tend to be controversial,” Snyder acknowledges. “It would be controversial to note, for example, that the Tulsa massacre was one of many such instances of racial cleansing in the United States, or that its consequences are manifest in Oklahoma to this day. It would be controversial to note that racial pogroms, alongside whippings, shootings, and lynchings, are traditional tools to intimidate black Americans and to keep them away from the ballot box.”

But in the final analysis, he concludes, “History is not therapy, and discomfort is part of growing up… My experience as a historian of mass killing tells me that everything worth knowing is discomforting; my experience as a teacher tells me that the process is worth it. Trying to shield young people from guilt prevents them from seeing history for what it was and becoming the citizens that they might be. Part of becoming an adult is seeing your life in its broader settings. Only that process enables a sense of responsibility that, in its turn, activates thought about the future. Democracy requires individual responsibility, which is impossible without critical history. It thrives in a spirit of self-awareness and self-correction. Authoritarianism, on the other hand, is infantilizing. We should not have to feel any negative emotions; difficult subjects should be kept from us. Our memory laws amount to therapy, a talking cure.”

“Forced Forgetting” by Timothy Snyder in The New York Times Magazine, July 4, 2021; Snyder can be reached at

2. David Brooks on Specific Leadership Actions That Build Trust

In this New York Times column, David Brooks suggests nine ways leaders can increase trust within complex and diverse organizations:

• Assume excellence. Micromanaging people makes them feel distrusted and leads them to be distrustful themselves. Once a leader has set the vision and goals, there should be plenty of operational autonomy.

• Be more human. When a group of young interns Brooks was working with asked to spend an afternoon sharing their childhood photos, he thought the idea was ridiculous but said okay. He ended up being pleasantly surprised at how helpful the time was at establishing “new levels of vulnerability and emotional rapport.” Studies have shown that in professional meetings, as little as five minutes of time chatting about nonwork stuff builds collaboration and trust.

• Don’t support backchannel criticism. Brooks condemns the practice of encouraging members of an organization to criticize colleagues online. “Once this behavior becomes acceptable,” he says, “the harshest people in the organization take over and everyone else cowers.”

• Discourage cliques. “A team that has split into different subcultures is bound to become a team in which distrust thrives,” says Brooks. Having people work in mixed groups cuts down on in-group behavior.

• Don’t overvalue transparency. Making an organization’s operations highly visible to outsiders has not worked well over time, says Brooks. Trust comes from competence and results.

• Be honest about mistakes. “Screw-ups are, paradoxically, opportunities to build trust,” says Brooks, “so long as you admit error and are clear about what you’ve learned and what you’re doing to change.” Leaders who preen and self-promote are often distrusted.

• Recognize that you’re not psychic. Lots of people think they know what’s going on in others’ minds, says Brooks, and actually don’t. “People who feel mis-seen and misheard will not trust you.”

• Give away power. A good way to earn trust is to spread authority among your colleagues, which encourages cooperation.

• Answer distrust with trust. If you keep showing up for people even if they seem to have rejected you, advises Brooks, “it will eventually change their lives.”

“A Practical Guide to Building Trust” by David Brooks in The New York Times, June 11, 2021

3. Beyond Time Management

“A major source of stress for many is the pervasive feeling that there is never enough time,” says Dane Jensen (Third Factor) in this Harvard Business Review article. He believes that the conventional advice on time management – work more efficiently, squeeze in more tasks, reduce “unproductive” time – does not reduce overload and anxiety. The pandemic has provided a natural experiment. People had more time because they weren’t commuting and making business trips, and many said they used their time more productively. But it turns out that people worked longer hours, which meant they had less time for the fun activities that increased productivity should have made possible. Why? “As we become more efficient,” says Jensen, “we make room for even more tasks and feel even more pressure.”

As the world returns to something approaching normal, Jensen suggests that we attack the root cause of workplace overload – namely, that there are too many tasks, decisions, and distractions. Here’s his approach for each:

• Reduce the volume of tasks. Every time we agree to do something and add it to our to-do list, there’s pressure to deliver on time. If we can’t meet the deadline, says Jensen, “we add the additional stress of a challenging conversation and the guilt of letting someone down.” When your boss assigns a new task, saying you don’t have time can make you sound uncooperative, like you’re not a can-do team player. An alternative question for your superior: “Where would you like me to prioritize this against x, y, and z?” This shifts the onus of prioritizing and reframes the conversation from you refusing a request to the two of you discussing what’s most important.

For self-assigned or self-imposed tasks, stress occurs when we’re unrealistic about when we can finish and the deadline looms. Jensen believes this happens because we put in our calendar the items that involve meetings, calls, and interpersonal activities, but don’t block out time for work we need to do on our own. The solution: put everything on the calendar, making us more realistic about how much time we have to finish a task.

• Replace decisions with principles. Deciding what to do with imperfect information can produce cognitive overload, says Jensen, and that increases errors and stress. The alternative is to adopt a simple principle that eliminates the need to make a number of decisions. Three examples:

– A person trying to lose weight had decided, I’ll limit my snacking after 7 p.m., which created multiple decisions every evening (a banana? ice cream?). With the shift to, I won’t eat after 7 p.m., things were much simpler.

– Steve Jobs got tired of deciding what to wear every morning and began to wear the same outfit every day.

– Jon Mackey, head of a Canadian company, realized that he was deciding multiple times a day which meetings to accept and which to reject, and wasn’t carving out time for the deep work he needed to do. His solution: no meetings on Fridays. Now he had a full day each week for uninterrupted think time.

• Use structure, not will power, to minimize distractions. Anything that pulls us away from making progress on important tasks has a corrosive effect on morale and productivity, says Jensen, but the usual advice on self-discipline isn’t helpful. “When you try to use willpower to shut out distractions such as social media,” he says, “you are pitting yourself against an army of our generation’s greatest minds.” Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others are brilliantly designed to “steal a slice of your attention.” Similarly, managers with an open door find it difficult to say no when a colleague drops in and asks, “Got a minute?” Three examples of structures that solve these problems:

– Establish a time every day when you turn off WiFi and Internet access to your devices and work without distraction.

– Create a standing 30-minute time when colleagues can pop in to get direction and answers to questions.

– Don’t schedule back-to-back meetings; always leave a 10-minute buffer between meetings for SMORs – small moments of reflection.

“Time Management Won’t Save You” by Dane Jensen in Harvard Business Review, June 23, 2021; Jensen can be reached at

4. Getting Off to a Strong Start in Algebra 1 This Fall

In this Education Week article, Sarah Schwartz reports that mathematics has suffered more than other subjects during the pandemic. Why? Math teachers she interviewed said remote teaching made it more difficult to:

– Show enough visual representations;

– Get students working with manipulatives;

– Have structured student conversations about math concepts;

– Work out problems collaboratively with students;

– Orchestrate student collaboration on whiteboards and informal peer-to-peer help;

– Evaluate student understanding in real time;

– Quickly follow up on misunderstandings, misconceptions, and learning problems.

Teachers said they anticipate that Algebra 1 is going to be especially challenging as the 2021-22 school year begins. This gateway course, often taken in ninth grade, is a prerequisite to advanced math, and passing Algebra 1 is key to on-time graduation and college and career readiness.

“Even in a regular year,” says Schwartz, “…students come into Algebra with varying degrees of readiness. But this year, the range might be even greater, depending on what opportunities and resources they had during remote learning.” The teachers and experts she interviewed had the following recommendations:

– Be explicit about class norms, especially not being afraid to ask questions and make mistakes.

– Set aside time for students to get to know their classmates. This is vital since many students are strangers to each other and will be hesitant to engage in turn-and-talks and group work until they build relationships.

– Teach the on-grade curriculum.

– For each unit, be clear about the prerequisite knowledge and skills.

– Give quick assessments of those items to gauge students’ needs.

– Give a task or mini-lesson to shore up gaps, making clear to students the connection to the rest of the unit.

– Give multiple representations for new concepts – for example, the way a linear function looks written as a mathematical expression, a graph, and an equation, then showing real-world applications.

– Listen to students during group work, ask guiding questions, address misunderstandings, and reinforce the use of mathematical language.

– Get students to practice, practice, practice so they build fluency and confidence.

This kind of just-in-time help is better than remediation, which slows things down and is demotivating to students. The key is diving into on-level material and catching students up as needed.

“Algebra 1 Is a Turning Point. Here’s How to Help Incoming Students” by Sarah Schwartz in Education Week, June 22, 2021

5. Supporting English Learners in the Wake of the Pandemic

Many of the nation’s five million English learners faced especially difficult challenges during the pandemic, reports Ileana Najarro in this Education Week article – limited access to computers, a weak Internet connection, glitches with remote learning, and less time for informal conversations with educators and peers. However, says Najarro, “it’s important to remember that being immersed in their families’ languages and cultures also offered some potential benefits to this group.”

For example, a girl might have helped to prepare family meals, learning a number of recipes, and spent hours listening to her grandmother telling stories in Spanish, boosting her vocabulary and background knowledge. The same girl might also have picked up useful tech skills. “As she steps into a new grade this fall,” says Navarro, “her teachers will have to sort out just how big an impact the remote setting had on her English-language proficiency progress, and how to incorporate the silver linings that emerged over the past year into their teaching plans.”

The experts Navarro interviewed stressed the importance of not making assumptions, implementing language- and content-rich instruction, and not getting bogged down in remedial drilling of knowledge and skills in isolation. Additional recommendations:

– Check in with students and parents on what occurred during the pandemic, which might include economic hardship, illness, deaths in the family.

– Continue to do wellness checks through the year.

– Take time up front to build relationships with students, among students, and with families.

– Look at previous language proficiency assessments, which might date back to 2019.

– Do quick informal assessments of listening, speaking, reading, and writing proficiency in English to see how much catching up is needed, and take note of strengths in the native language.

– A thorough assessment is especially important for students who were newcomers to the U.S. during Covid-time and might not be proficient in reading and writing their native language.

– Set ambitious goals for the school year, with student buy-in.

– Give ELs frequent opportunities to practice their English in class and with peers.

– Provide in-class scaffolding and continuous assessment of progress.

– Provide social-emotional support, with native language speaking staff when possible.

– Continue to use online technology to provide extra support and feedback to ELs.

– Organize summer school, after-school, and tutoring support closely linked to classroom instruction.

“English Learners May Need More Support This Fall. But That Doesn’t Mean They’re Behind” by Ileana Najarro in Education Week, June 22, 2021

6. A1990 Article on the Reading Wars: What’s Different?

In this Education Week article from 31 years ago, Robert Rothman reports on the ongoing debate between phonics and “whole language.” Rothman describes a just-released Congressionally mandated study that seemed to settle the matter in favor of a balanced approach. The report concluded that an understanding of letter-sound correspondences is “of inescapable importance to both skillful reading and its acquisition.” The vast majority of studies, said the authors, found that “intensive, explicit phonics instruction resulted in comprehension skills that are at least comparable to, and word-recognition and spelling skills that are significantly better than, those that do not.” The result of effective phonics instruction: students can read without getting bogged down in decoding. The report said that relegating phonics to “seatwork,” which some teachers were doing, was a big mistake, especially for students entering school without good preschool preparation.

But the report went on to say that phonics-based instruction was not enough to give children the skills and intrinsic motivation they need to become proficient readers. “As important as it is to sound words out,” the report said, “it is important only as an intermediate step. Sounding words out should not be the end goal, but a way of teaching what they need to know to comprehend text. The only reason for reading words is to understand text.”

And that means not postponing reading while phonics instruction takes place. For children who enter school with good skills, that would be a waste of time; for students without a strong literacy background, “the drawbacks would even greater,” said the authors. “These children need to be exposed to meaningful, written text as soon as possible so they will begin to notice and have an interest in reading all of the things that are around them that there are to read.”

In terms of classroom methodology, the report recommended that teachers use writing and spelling to reinforce knowledge of spelling sound patterns and help students get a deeper appreciation of a text’s meaning. It praised Reading Recovery, which had been recently introduced in the U.S., for its balanced approach to phonics and “the reading and appreciation of informative and engaging texts.” The report also highlighted the role for parents: “The single most important activity for building the knowledge and skills eventually required for reading appears to be reading aloud to children regularly and interactively.”

The report’s closing plea on the phonics/meaning wars: “Isn’t it time for us to stop bickering about which is more important? Isn’t it time we recognized that written text has both form and function? To read, children must have both, and we must help them.”

“Balance Between Phonics, ‘Whole Language’ Urged” by Robert Rothman in Education Week, January 10, 1990

7. Jay McTighe on Putting Lesson Plans in Perspective

(Originally titled “For School Leaders, Reviewing Isolated Lessons Isn’t Enough”)

In this article in Educational Leadership, backwards-planning guru Jay McTighe says that when principals and other supervisors look at teachers’ lesson plans, they risk missing the forest for the trees. The forest is the curriculum unit plan, whose key elements, ideally, are big ideas, anticipating misconceptions, essential questions, skill and knowledge outcomes, transfer goals, formative assessments, and performance tasks. All this is “too complex and multifaceted to be satisfactorily addressed within a single lesson,” says McTighe. “For instance, essential questions are intended to be explored over time, not fully ‘answered’ by the end of one lesson.”

There’s another reason for looking at curriculum unit plans as part of teacher supervision, says McTighe: the lessons a principal might observe at different points in a unit serve quite different purposes:

– An opening lesson will feature a “hook” to engage and focus students on the new topic, assess students’ prior knowledge and skills, introduce key vocabulary and the essential questions, preview the summative assessment, and share success criteria.

– Lessons in the middle of a unit should systematically build knowledge and skills, use a variety of instructional strategies and checks for understanding, and gradually release responsibility;

– Lessons toward the end of a unit should prepare students for culminating assessments and presentations, with opportunities for students to self-assess and reflect on what they’ve learned;

– The final lesson should include a celebration of worthy achievements and a preview of the next unit.

In short, says McTighe, it’s vital for supervisors to review the big picture of the curriculum unit before observing a teacher in action and spot-checking the plan for that lesson.

“For School Leaders, Reviewing Isolated Lessons Isn’t Enough” by Jay McTighe in Educational Leadership, July 2021 (Vol. 78, #9, pp. 26-28); McTighe can be reached at

8. Ways to Understand Very Big Numbers

In this New York Times article, Aiyana Green and Steven Strogatz (Cornell University) says a lot of us have difficulty making sense of very big numbers – whether it’s the price tag on federal budget items or the wealth of the richest Americans. The trick to getting our arms around trillions and billions and millions is to relate them to something more familiar. An example with elapsed time:

– A million seconds from now is about 12 days.

– A billion seconds is 32 years.

“Suddenly the vastness of the gulf between a million and a billion becomes obvious,” say Green and Strogatz. “A million seconds is a brief vacation; a billion seconds is a major fraction of a lifetime.”

An example with physical distance: in Ithaca, New York, there’s the Sagan Walk, a scale model of the solar system at one five-billionth of actual scale. The sun is the size of a serving plate, the Earth a small pea, Jupiter a brussels sprout. The distance from the sun to the Earth in this model is a few dozen footsteps, the distance from the sun to Pluto is a 15-minute hike across town. Experiencing distances in this way, say Green and Strogatz, “Your body grasps it even if your mind cannot.”

To help people understand large sums of money, they scale the U.S. federal budget to the expenditures of a family whose total annual income is $100,000. A few proportional expenditures:

– Social Security – $28,654

– Medicare – $18,352

– Medicaid – $13,680

– Department of Defense – $17,130

– Education – $2,463

– Homeland Security – $1,251

– Justice – $846

– NASA – $594

– EPA – $268

– The family’s total spending – $144,011 (a deficit of $44,011)

– Interest on the debt – $7,307

“Who’s Afraid of Extremely Large Numbers?” by Aiyana Green and Steven Strogatz in The New York Times, June 22, 2021; Strogatz can be reached at

9. Recommended Children’s Books on the Middle East and North Africa

In this article in Social Studies and the Young Learner, Ilham Nasser (National Arab American Women’s Association) recommends “high-quality, unbiased, and non-stereotypical portrayals” of the people of the Middle East and North Africa. Click the link below for the cover image and short review of each book.

Picture books for Pre-K-Grade 2:

– Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns by Hena Khan, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini

– Laith the Lion Goes to Palestine by Jameeleh Shelo, illustrated by Sara Mcmullin

– Let’s Paint the Arabic Alphabet! by Sidrah Abdul

– P Is for Palestine: A Palestine Alphabet Book by Golbarg Bashi, illustrated by Golrokh Nafisi

– Sitti’s Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

– Sitti and the Cats: A Tale of Friendship by Sally Bahous, illustrated by Nancy Malick

– Tunjur! Tunjur! Tunjur! A Palestinian Tale by Margaret Read MacDonald, illustrated by Alik Arzoumanian

Grades 3-5:

– Farah Rocks Fifth Grade by Susan Muaddi Darraj, illustrated by Ruaida Mannaa

– Ibn Al-Haytham: The Man Who Discovered How We See by Libby Romero

“Picture Books That Bring Arab Voices and Middle East and North African Culture to K-6 Classrooms” by Ilham Nasser in Social Studies and the Young Learner, January/February 2021 (Vol. 33, #3, pp. 17-19); Nasser can be reached at

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Marshall Memo 893

In This Issue:

Quotes of the Week

“We can try to return to the pre-pandemic status quo, or we can decide to do better. Let’s choose wisely.”

Kevin Gannon (see item #4)

“What we’ve seen is that when we try to meet kids where they are, we never build a bridge to where they should be. We just stay where they are forever.”

Bailey Cato Czupryk (quoted in item #2)

“Until we reach the day when intrinsic motivation is enough to get most kids and teenagers to prioritize their schoolwork (in other words, never), or when we’ve transitioned to a system focused on mastery, we’re going to need grades to get kids to put in the necessary effort.”

Michael Petrilli (see item #1)

“You can’t assess the brain without first passing through the heart of a student.”

Laura Chang (quoted in item #3)

“Administrators who have made the most meaningful organizational changes have the greatest potential to upset people.”

Jeffrey Ratje (see item #5)

“The person who does a few quick things before beginning an important thing spends their best energy on low-impact activities.”

Dan Rockwell (see item #7)

1. Michael Petrilli on Covid-Time Ideas We Need to Kiss Goodbye

In this Education Gadfly article, Michael Petrilli says the pandemic we’ve just experienced “can accelerate changes that were already underway but otherwise would have taken root much more slowly,” including:

– Parent conferences and PTA meetings via Zoom – a boon for working parents;

– Using online curriculum materials instead of hard-copy textbooks;

– Highly effective teachers recording lessons that can be used in multiple classes, freeing up teachers to provide support and one-on-one instruction.

But some K-12 Covid developments should be dumped, says Petrilli. Here are his top nominees:

• Simultaneous roomies and zoomies – Teaching half a class in person and the other half remotely is not “humanly possible,” said AFT president Randi Weingarten. Petrilli agrees, saying hybrid instruction meant huge amounts of stress for teachers and less-than-ideal learning for students. Petrilli does think it’s workable for a few students to watch a class remotely if they need to be home or are doing an in-school suspension in another part of the school – as long as it’s clear that the teacher is not expected to actively engage them. Longer term, interactive remote teaching may also be feasible for medically fragile students, and to replace snow days, but the key is that remote classes have the full attention of their teachers.

• Waiving seat-time requirements – Petrilli likes the idea of competency-based education, with students demonstrating mastery of content versus putting in a certain number of hours in classrooms. But he says not so fast to continuing pandemic-era seat-time waivers without putting good summative assessments in place and guaranteeing that students are having robust learning experiences.

• Asynchronous days – During the pandemic, the Maryland district that Petrilli’s two sons attend made every Wednesday an asynchronous day, with custodians doing deep cleaning and all students at home working independently (or getting remote one-on-one help from teachers). “I don’t think I’m ratting out my sons by reporting… that very little independent work was happening on Wednesdays,” he says, “beyond some regular homework that would and should be expected any day of the week.” Petrilli likes the idea of innovative scheduling at the high-school level, with time for rigorous project-based work and internships, but he cites a recent report on lower student achievement in districts with four-day weeks [see Memo 890]. “There is no reason to keep asynchronous learning days once the pandemic is over,” he concludes.

• Grade inflation – When schools first shut down in March 2020, many districts decided it would be unfair to apply normal grading standards, and used students’ previous grades or shifted to pass/fail. This was a necessary emergency measure, says Petrilli, but when it was continued over time, kids got the message that they weren’t accountable for paying attention and doing the work. Petrilli’s conclusion: “Until we reach the day when intrinsic motivation is enough to get most kids and teenagers to prioritize their schoolwork (in other words, never), or when we’ve transitioned to a system focused on mastery, we’re going to need grades to get kids to put in the necessary effort.”

• Graduation standards – Petrilli is deeply concerned that many districts have graduated thousands of students from high school – and boasted about high graduation rates – without those students passing key courses or exit exams. Waiving requirements during the pandemic was understandable, he says, and of course, “helping more students graduate high school is an urgent goal. But it is also urgently important to make sure they graduate well prepared for what’s ahead.” In other words, a high-school diploma must signify real competence in reading, writing, math, and other key areas.

“Five Pandemic-Era Education Practices That Deserve to Be Dumped in the Dustbin” by Michael Petrilli in Education Gadfly, June 24, 2021

2. How Will Acceleration Work This Fall?

In this Education Week article, Stephen Sawchuk and Liana Loewus report that many schools are planning to deal with students’ unfinished learning by teaching on-grade material while providing “just in time” supports and scaffolds to help students catch up. “But what about an entering 1st grader who’s only learned phonics lessons on a computer screen, or in-person through masks?” ask Sawchuk and Loewus. “Or a student navigating the rocks and shoals of freshman-year Algebra I who still has difficulties plotting points on a graph?” Or a class of English learners who are at many different proficiency levels?

In a three-part report, Education Week picked those three examples because they represent points in the K-12 continuum where acceleration is especially challenging. Time-honored advice to teachers is to meet students where they are, but that won’t work with those who have missed large chunks of instruction. “What we’ve seen,” says Bailey Cato Czupryk of TNTP, “is that when we try to meet kids where they are, we never build a bridge to where they should be. We just stay where they are forever.”

The summary just below addresses the challenge for first graders. Next week’s Memo will cover what can be done for ninth graders learning Algebra I and English learners.

“Understanding Learning ‘Acceleration’: Going Slow to Go Fast” by Stephen Sawchuk and Liana Loewus in Education Week, June 22, 2021

3. The Daunting Challenge Awaiting Next Year’s First-Grade Teachers

In this Education Week article, Madeline Will says many students entering first grade this fall will have significant learning deficits. “Kindergarten is typically where 5- and 6-year-olds learn how to be students,” says Will. “They learn how to regulate their own behavior and their emotions; how to raise their hands and listen to the teacher’s instructions; and how to take turns, share, and work together with their classmates.” They also acquire important knowledge and skills in reading, math, and other subjects.

Remote instruction was more challenging for kindergarten teachers than other grades, says Will, because most kids that age aren’t schooled in paying attention, working independently, or using a keyboard. Teaching through a digital keyhole was especially difficult because it lacked the kinds of hands-on, over-the-shoulder work that builds reading and writing skills. On top of that, kindergarten enrollment was down in many schools, meaning that a fair number of students who are old enough for first grade won’t have had the kindergarten experience at all.

All this means first-grade teachers will be dealing with a wider-than-usual variation in students’ academic and social skills, including:

– Children whose parents kept them from interacting with children outside the home;

– Children who had poor Internet connectivity and missed a lot of instruction;

– Children whose parents worked with them throughout the school day;

– Children who had the advantage of being in a learning pod with other families;

– Children who lost family members to Covid-19 or dealt with illness;

– Children whose families experienced economic hardship, perhaps violence;

– Children who sat out kindergarten.

“The hardest part will be the variability,” says Deborah Stipek of Stanford University. “Some of the kids will be gung-ho and ready for 1st-grade curriculum as planned, and others, both academically and socially, are going to be clueless.”

Drawing on interviews with almost a dozen experts, Will summarizes their advice for first-grade teachers:

• Make sure students feel safe and supported. A foundation of strong teacher-student relationships will be essential to academic learning. “You can’t assess the brain without first passing through the heart of a student,” says Michigan educator Laura Chang.

• Spend time building interpersonal and non-academic skills. This includes getting children accustomed to not having a parent at their elbow and learning to share, work in groups, take turns, raise hands, use manipulatives, hold a pencil, and handle scissors.

• Find out what students know and don’t know. This includes quick assessments of decoding skills, number sense, recognizing quantities and numerals. Teachers may be pleasantly surprised by unexpected strengths. “Students might have done more cooking with their parents this year,” says Will, “and learned about numbers that way. They might have learned about the world around them through family walks or outside play. Or they might have learned vocabulary or other skills from watching educational TV programs like Sesame Street.

• Create dual-purpose lessons. Building science and social studies knowledge and vocabulary can go along with standard reading and math lessons. In addition, lessons should include as much social interaction with classmates as possible. That’s especially important for English learners, who might have heard less English during remote schooling.

• Monitor for disabilities. Learning problems may have gone undetected during remote kindergarten instruction (or with children who were out of school), says Will. The challenge is distinguishing a genuine disability from trauma, undeveloped social skills, behavior problems, or gaps in learning.

• Don’t forget joy. Students won’t thrive in a humorless, driven classroom. One Chicago parent said she was looking forward to her son getting away from passively looking at his laptop screen. “I’m looking forward to him having a little more joy in his learning,” she said, “and not being so stuck with the limitations he’s been under.”

• Surround first-grade teachers with other supports. This includes robust summer school programing, intensive tutoring, professional development, time for team collaboration, and, if possible, smaller class sizes.

“The Tough Task Ahead for 1st-Grade Teachers” by Madeline Will in Education Week, June 22, 2021

4. Rethinking Instructor Evaluation in the Wake of the Pandemic

In this Chronicle of Higher Education article, Kevin Gannon (Grand View University) explores the implications of Covid disruption on faculty evaluation. Some universities are pausing the “tenure clock” (the countdown for a tenure decision) to compensate for the impact of the pandemic on instructors’ productivity. But there’s been pushback on equity grounds: did the disruption disproportionately affect those who shouldered child care and had to supervise children receiving remote instruction?

“Lack of consensus on how to evaluate faculty work during this unprecedented year, however, should not mean inaction,” says Gannon. “The challenge for institutions and their decision makers is to discern varied and flexible solutions that benefit individual candidates for contract renewal, tenure, and promotion as well as institutional well-being.” Here are his suggestions for evaluating faculty work during and after the pandemic:

• Acknowledge that the past 14 months have been difficult for many colleagues. “As seductive as ‘back to normal’ sounds,” says Gannon, “we cannot pretend that trauma isn’t part of the institutional landscape that we all now occupy. That recognition should inform all of our post-pandemic practices.”

• Leverage that awareness to evaluate existing policies and practices. Gannon suggests this might be the time to put more emphasis on advising and mentoring colleagues and students, which has often been undervalued as “women’s labor” in the past.

• Understand that “equality” and “equity” are related but not synonymous. A single mother is simply not operating on the same playing field as an instructor who lives alone, says Gannon. “The goal of our contract and tenure processes is a fair evaluation of a faculty member’s performance and future contributions to the institution. To accomplish that goal, we cannot apply the same criteria to both of those hypothetical cases after a year of Covid.”

• Be as flexible with junior colleagues as you’ve been with students. “Compassion,” “empathy,” and “grace” were the watchwords as students struggled in the early weeks of the pandemic. “We need to recognize that what happened to our students this past year also happened to us, collectively,” says Gannon – and much more acutely to some.

• Evaluating flexibly and compassionately doesn’t mean weakening standards and accommodating the less deserving. Faculty evaluation still needs to be rigorous so that all students will receive effective instruction, says Gannon. But he believes we should use this “hinge moment” to apply what we’ve learned during a year of profound disruption – flexibility, empathy, innovation, and experimentation – to reshape how educators are supervised, coached, and evaluated. “We can try to return to the pre-pandemic status quo, or we can decide to do better,” says Gannon. “Let’s choose wisely.”

“Faculty Evaluation After the Pandemic” by Kevin Gannon in The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 25, 2021 (Vol. 67, #21, pp. 42-43)

5. Getting the Most Out of a Comprehensive Performance Review

In this Chronicle of Higher Education article, Jeffrey Ratje (University of Arizona) says that an administrator’s evaluation often involves a written self-assessment shared with a number of colleagues; an anonymous 360-degree survey of leadership given to the same people; a committee reviewing responses and submitting a report; and an “after-action review” with the administrator. Having recently gone through a process like this, Ratje has several observations:

• The committee chair – Having a chair who is fair and thorough is key to getting helpful, accurate feedback on your temperament, humility, communication skills, equity efforts, and results.

• The self-assessment – Ratje suggests taking this exercise seriously and communicating the full scope and complexity of your job. “The people reading your self-assessment need to know that big picture,” he says. “They want to see how you defined a problem and found its solution; how you led change and what was the outcome; what you honestly think worked and didn’t work, and how you view your personal growth as a leader.”

• Positive feedback – There’s a tendency to dwell on criticism and become defensive, says Ratje. “Instead, plan to celebrate the praise and recognize the positive impact you’ve had and the strengths you possess… If 15 percent of the comments were negative, don’t give them 90 percent of your attention.”

• Sharply critical comments – “Administrators who have made the most meaningful organizational changes have the greatest potential to upset people,” says Ratje. That might be a reason to take hurtful criticism with a grain of salt. But the nastiest comments might also point to important shortcomings. In a recent evaluation, Ratje was accused of being aloof and not connecting with colleagues, which he took to heart as he rethought his approach to leadership.

• Supervisors and mentors – These are the best people to help a leader process criticism on unpopular but necessary decisions and focus on what’s been accomplished. They are also best positioned to hold the leader’s feet to the fire in cases involving serious errors or misconduct.

“Getting and Surviving an ‘Administrator Review’” by Jeffrey Ratje in The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 25, 2021 (Vol. 67, #21, pp. 46-47); Ratje can be reached at

6. Using Music to Explore Three Kinds of Patriotism

In this article in Social Education, Sarah Nielsen, Karen Washburn, and Andrea Hawkman (Utah State University) suggest a secondary-school lesson plan that uses the C3 Inquiry Arc and music to teach about three kinds of patriotism. Some key questions:

– What does it mean to be patriotic?

– How does music help us understand American patriotism?

– How have displays of patriotism changed through U.S. history?

Students start by exploring what they know about patriotism, sharing examples from their own experience, current events, and the past – for example, flying an American flag in one’s yard, family members voting in local and national elections, taking part in a city council meeting, Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem.

Drawing on this discussion, the teacher defines three types of patriotism – authoritarian, democratic, and critical – and has students work in groups to research slogans and descriptions for each. Some possibilities:

• Authoritarian patriotism – Slogans: My country, right or wrong. America, love it or leave it. Ideology: the superiority of one’s country; unquestioning loyalty; allegiance to land, birthright, and legal citizenship; unconditional support of leaders; uncritical of shortcomings; dissent seen as dangerous and destabilizing.

• Democratic patriotism – Slogans: Dissent is patriotic. You have the right to not remain silent. Ideology: the nation’s democratic principles are worthy of admiration and respect; condemning the nation’s shortcomings; respectful of dissent.

• Critical patriotism – Slogans: Dissent is an essential part of the nation’s history. Ideology: Deepening one’s understanding of history; critiquing discriminatory systems and working to change them; resisting injustices; loyalty to equality and justice over the status quo; commitment to egalitarianism.

Students then choose a historic era (e.g., Reconstruction, post-World War II, Civil Rights, Vietnam, post-9/11) and use the Internet (including the Library of Congress’s “Thinking About Song Lyrics” worksheet) to identify two songs that exemplify different types of patriotism. Some possibilities:

– My Country ’tis of Thee by Samuel Francis Smith – authoritarian

– Ragged Old Flag by Johnny Cash – authoritarian

– America the Beautiful by Homeboy Sandman – democratic

– A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke – democratic

– The Land of the Free by the Killers – critical

– Americans by Janelle Monáe – critical

Students read the lyrics and analyze the songs’ historical, social, and political context and the role they played in that time period.

Finally, groups present to the whole class what they learned about patriotism from the songs and the era they studied.

“Patriotism in Music Across Eras: Building Critical Media Literacy in U.S. History” by Sarah Nielsen, Karen Washburn, and Andrea Hawkman in Social Education, May/June 2021 (Vol. 85, #3, pp. 148-154); Hawkman can be reached at

7. Dealing with Procrastination

In this Leadership Freak article, Dan Rockwell has these pointers on the perennial challenge of procrastination:

• Do the hard things first. “The person who does a few quick things before beginning an important thing spends their best energy on low-impact activities,” says Rockwell. “It takes courage to stop doing the next thing so you can focus on important things.” In the words of Brian Tracy, Eat the frog.

• Don’t let perfectionism keep you from starting. “Something done imperfectly is better than something not done at all,” says Rockwell. “You can always improve something after you do it imperfectly.”

• Use your calendar. “The ability to manage your calendar is the ability to manage your life,” says Rockwell. Schedule important items a week ahead to keep lower priority items from filling up the time. And block out free time. “The procrastinator in you loves to see free time on your calendar.”

• Make it easy to do the things you tend to put off. Rockwell has a set of dumbbells near the door of his office and is reminded to use them regularly.

• Don’t waste energy on guilt. “Don’t beat yourself up for procrastinating,” says Rockwell. “You’re less likely to solve a problem when guilt and shame dominate your thinking.”

“How to Procrastinate Successfully and Defeat Pointless Procrastination” by Dan Rockwell in Leadership Freak, June 24, 2021; Rockwell can be reached at

8. Recommended Elementary and Secondary Books on Race Relations

This Social Education feature spotlights the Carter G. Woodson awards for 2021 – books that explore and uncover issues related to racially minoritized groups and race relations.

Elementary winner and honoree:

– William Still and His Freedom Stories: The Father of the Underground Railroad by Don Tate

– The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by John Parra

Middle level winner and honoree:

– Black Heroes of the Wild West by James Otis Smith, introduction by Kadir Nelson

– Dream Builder: The Story of Architect Philip Freelon by Kelly Starling Lyons

Secondary level winner and honoree:

– Lifting As We Climb: Black Women’s Battle for the Ballot Box by Evette Dionne

– Dragon Hoops, a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, color by Lark Pien

“The Carter G. Woodson Book Award, 2021” by The Carter G. Woodson Committee in Social Education, May/June 2021 (Vol. 85, #3, pp. 159-162)

9. Recommended Elementary and Secondary Books on Women in History

This Social Education feature announces the Septima Clark awards for 2021 – books that describe women’s experience through history. Click the link below for cover images and short reviews.

Elementary winner and honoree:

– The Only Woman in the Photo: Frances Perkins & Her New Deal for America by Kathleen Krull

– Shirley Chisholm Is a Verb! by Veronica Chambers, illustrations by Rachelle Baker

Middle level winner and honoree:

– Finish the Fight: The Brave and Revolutionary Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote by Veronica Chambers and the Staff of the New York Times

– Breaking Through: How Female Athletes Shattered Stereotypes in the Roaring Twenties by Sue Macy, foreword by Muffet McGraw

Secondary level winner and honoree:

– Jane Against the World: Roe v. Wade and the Fight for Reproductive Rights by Karen Blumenthal

– Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks

“Septima Clark Book Award, 2021” by The Septima Clark Committee in Social Education, May/June 2021 (Vol. 85, #3, pp. 163-166)

10. Short Items:

a. Rating States’ Civics and U.S. History Standards – This report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute provides an evaluation of each state’s (and D.C.’s) curriculum standards for U.S. history and civics. Five were rated “exemplary” in both subjects: Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia. Ten states were “good” in both subjects. Fifteen were deemed “mediocre” in at least one subject, and 20 states were “inadequate” in civics and U.S. history.

“The State of State Standards for Civics and U.S. History in 2021” by Jeremy Stern, Alison Brody, Jose Gregory, Stephen Griffin, and Jonathan Pulvers, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, June 23, 2021

b. Fractions Assessment Questions – This EDC website has sample probes for one-on-one interviews with students to assess their understanding of fractions. The website includes number-line graphics and two videos of students talking through their answers with a teacher.

“Formative Assessment Probes” from the Education Development Center, 2020, spotted in “The Power of Interviewing Students” by Theresa MacVicar, Amy Brodesky, and Emily Fagan in Mathematics Teacher: Learning & Teaching PK-12, June 2021 (Vol. 114, #6, pp. 436-444); MacVicar can be reached at

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In This Issue:

Quotes of the Week

“Classics for whom? Who decides something is a classic?”

Donalyn Miller (quoted in item #2)

“Are your students the readers, writers, and thinkers you want them to be?”

Angela Peery (see item #3)

“Learning how to express ideas, take risks in sharing perspectives publicly, and collaborate with peers has enormous social, cognitive, and economic value over time and is therefore central to high-quality education.”

Kristie Ford and Kendra Welling-Riley (see item #1)

“When you allow students to have the agency of knowing that history is not always as authoritative as we tend to imagine, it actually invites them to establish a deeper intellectual relationship with the past.”

Jarvis Givens (see item #4)

“Many of us were taught that dogged, singularly focused practice is the way to mastery, and our belief in this runs deep. But research indicates that gains during interleaving promote longer-term skill development and retention, plus more seamless transfer to other contexts.”

Meg Riordan, quoted in “How to Use Interleaving to Foster Deeper Learning” by

Hoa Nguyen in Edutopia, June 11, 2021

“Honestly? I’d rather we didn’t have to talk to kids about explicit media, and I wish pornography weren’t, for so many, their first encounter with human sexuality, that it didn’t arrive so early to hijack their imaginations with its proscribed fantasies. But given all that, parents and educators need to work together to help kids develop a critical stance – to help them understand what’s untrue and what’s missing from those images – to ensure that, here in the real world, they proceed with consent, mutual respect, and authentic intimacy. Awkward as it may be, we can no longer afford the luxury, or the false comfort, of silence.”

Peggy Orenstein in “Ignoring Pornography Won’t Make It Go Away” in The New

York Times, June 15, 2021

1. The Link Between Classroom Talk and Equity in Detroit Science Classes

In this article in The Learning Professional, Kristie Ford and Kendra Welling-Riley say that despite decades of progress in U.S. schools, there are still “stubborn patterns of inequity in graduation rates, grades, test scores, disciplinary actions, and access to extra- and co-curricular activities. These patterns exist across urban, suburban, and rural schools, and even within schools.” With the implementation of Next Generation Standards, they say, science has been especially challenging from an equity standpoint.

As district science leaders in the Detroit Public Schools, Ford and Welling-Riley are working to close achievement gaps, with a special focus over the last two years on students’ verbal participation during instruction. That’s because the students who are typically talking least in classrooms are English learners, students of color, and students with disabilities. Verbal discourse – between teachers and students and among students – plays a key role in equitable learning outcomes because:

– Student talk helps them process information.

– It helps students create connections between and among facts and concepts.

– It facilitates reasoning and problem-solving.

– It solidifies science vocabulary, content, and conceptual understanding.

– It helps move ideas from working memory to long-term storage.

– Students who participate substantively in class have fewer disciplinary referrals.

– Verbal facility in science is vital to progressing in science, math, engineering, and technology courses beyond high school.

“Apart from STEM ,” say Ford and Welling-Riley, “learning how to express ideas, take risks in sharing perspectives publicly, and collaborate with peers has enormous social, cognitive, and economic value over time and is therefore central to high-quality education.”

In Detroit schools, implementing rigorous science standards has unfortunately led to certain classroom dynamics becoming even more entrenched: teacher lectures, only a few students being called on or speaking up, lots of worksheets, and classes hurrying through the required curriculum – with highly inequitable student outcomes.

That’s why Ford and Welling-Riley worked with colleagues to launch a science initiative focused on breaking down the standards and getting teachers to plan lessons around experiments, hypothesis-development, debates, and problem-solving activities that get more students talking. Some key training topics in their PD monthly meetings:

– Integrating science standards into units and lessons;

– Writing unit and lesson plans around open-ended, authentic prompts;

– Instructional materials that involve inquiry, problem-solving, and discussion;

– Creating questions that provoke three-minute student debates open to all;

– Writing short formative assessments to check for understanding during lessons;

– Creating posters with student-talk scaffolds;

– Posting essential questions to get students thinking and talking about central concepts.

Instructional coaches observed lessons and gave teachers feedback afterwards on how these elements were working out.

An important focus of the initiative has been changing teachers’ expectations of students and convincing them of the importance of getting more students talking during lessons. “Teachers have to believe in the power, agency and resiliency of their students as they puzzle through understandings with greater depths of knowledge,” say Ford and Welling-Riley, “which is often captured by student discourse. In short, we want to help shift teacher mindsets from getting through content to understanding how students grow their skills and knowledge to become adept STEM thinkers.”

Detroit’s science initiative is piloting TeachFX, an app that automatically measures the amount of teacher and student talk during lessons, as well as questioning techniques, think time, equity of voice, and lesson design. The app provides data to teachers – but not to their supervisors – which encourages teachers to take risks, try new strategies, and reflect on results without fear of negative consequences in their formal evaluations. Data from this app has been a wake-up call for many teachers. “The very first time I used TeachFX, I was amazed at the amount of time I was talking,” said one.

“Teachers can triangulate data from TeachFX, student work, live coaching feedback, and summative assessments to calibrate their own instruction and learn from peer educators,” say Ford and Welling-Riley. “By anonymously analyzing discourse patterns by student group, grade level, and content area among volunteer teachers, we can see where we need to better support teachers to make science talk more equitable.”

Feedback on Detroit’s science initiative has been encouraging so far. More than 300 teachers have used TeachFX or attended PD workshops on teaching in ways that increase student talk. Among teachers experimenting with the app, there has been a 45 percent increase in student talk. Teachers say they have a better grasp of science standards, are developing their skills, and are more frequently sharing ideas and techniques with colleagues. One teacher said, “I like the idea of building on questions from one to another to add depth to the classroom discussion and the engagement of the students.”

“Student Talk in Science Class” by Kristie Ford and Kendra Welling-Riley in The Learning Professional, June 2021 (Vol. 42, #3, pp. 58-61); the authors can be reached at and

2. A North Dakota District Thinks Through Its Secondary ELA Curriculum

In this article in The Learning Professional, Aimee Volk, district curriculum coordinator for English in the West Fargo Public Schools, describes the district’s journey toward more-inclusive literature options for secondary students. It started when Donalyn Miller, a visiting speaker, was asked where the classics fit into the curriculum. “Classics for whom?” Miller responded. “Who decides something is a classic?” This got Volk thinking about several other questions:

– What is the purpose of requiring all students to read a specific text?

– Do the same texts need to be read across a grade or course to ensure equity?

– When does text uniformity help and when does it undermine equity?

– Why are so many middle- and high-school students turned off reading, especially the less-advantaged students?

Committed to implementing a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” built around rigorous curriculum standards, teachers and administrators had a series of meetings to decide what students at each grade should know and be able to do, vetted classroom resources and a number of texts, and continued the practice of allowing teachers to choose the texts their students would read.

Strong disagreements emerged. “Some educators spoke passionately about including more relevant and diverse texts and offering more student choice,” says Volk. “Others felt their current instructional practices and beliefs were being challenged.” She realized they needed to slow down, build trust, and think more carefully about the deeper purpose. Volk asked English teachers to think about three questions: Who are you as a reader? What is your reading life story? When did you fall in love with reading? Some teachers said they’d always been readers, while others remembered they had been nonreaders until a particular book ignited their passion. This exercise got teachers thinking about how they could get more of their students engaged in reading. They embraced the metaphor of mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors: books in which students could see themselves or identify with a main character or experience; books that helped students relate to the experiences and perspectives of others; and books that made students want to vicariously take part in the experience of a story.

“Next,” says Volk, “we focused on the components that needed to be present in the books we chose.” They wanted identity development, skill development (which had been overemphasized in the past), intellectual development, and criticality; books that would build students’ self-efficacy, agency, and identity.

What emerged from all these discussions was a compromise between books read by all students in a grade or course and student choice:

– An anchor text that would be a shared classroom experience, to which teachers and students would refer through the year;

– A mentor text that illuminates an author’s craft;

(All students read the anchor and mentor texts, which are chosen to be engaging, diverse, relevant, and offer different perspectives.)

– Book club books that students read in groups and that include different perspectives, reading levels, and formats;

– Classroom library books with a wider variety of topics, experiences, and reading levels;

– The media center, with an even wider range of choices.

As this policy was implemented, not all stakeholders agreed on what was appropriate for each grade level: Is this a social studies or an English class? What standards are you teaching? Why are you teaching politics? This led to further discussion and teachers providing a rationale for their choices to colleagues and families, pointing to specific state standards: reading and writing skills, content knowledge, and critical understandings of themselves, their community, and the world. Students whose parents disagreed with a reading selection were offered an alternative text.

“Teachers have been passionate about this work,” concludes Volk, “and eager to incorporate more relevant and diverse texts to add to our district resources. Still, there has been much debate about the importance of whole-class reading, teaching the classics, and how to ensure that our texts are complex enough.” Even so, the most common reactions from students and teachers have been positive: students saying they loved reading for the first time since third grade, eagerly looking forward to literature circles, and showing improvements in classroom engagement and reading achievement.

“Reading List Rewrite” by Aimee Volk in The Learning Professional, June 2021 (Vol. 42, #3, pp. 66-69); Volk can be reached at

3. Conducting a Schoolwide Literacy Check-Up

“Are your students the readers, writers, and thinkers you want them to be?” asks consultant/author Angela Peery in this Cult of Pedagogy article. After visiting hundreds of classrooms in recent years, she’s concerned about:

– A paucity of authentic reading and writing activities;

– Cut-color-paste activities masquerading as literacy instruction;

– Low-level worksheets;

– Disparities in the content taught by same-grade and same-course teachers;

– Teachers calling on students who raise their hands while other students are inattentive and bored.

The pandemic has challenged teachers, students, and families and sparked many creative efforts, but also led to passive screen time and too many YouTube videos without thoughtful follow-up discussions.

As schools return fully to in-person instruction, Peery believes that literacy is, more than ever, a civil rights issue. Without key skills, knowledge, and habits of mind, she says, K-12 graduates “become prey to misinformation and economic manipulation… will earn lower wages… and risk living a life devoid of the beauty and power of literature.” She suggests that schools and districts should conduct a literacy check-up to fill gaps and fine-tune the K-12 effort. “What gets monitored gets done,” she says. “It’s time to refocus.” Some key areas:

• Defining good literacy instruction – A starting point is being clear about what it means to be well-prepared, literate high-school graduates. They:

– Choose to read independently and can tackle complex texts in all disciplines;

– Can speak and write well, share information effectively, defend their positions with evidence, and collaborate;

– Can think critically, analyze and synthesize, and take into account the credibility of sources;

– Seek out information about their interests and find answers to meaningful questions;

– Are global citizens who embrace diversity and seek cultural understanding.

All this prepares graduates for success in the years ahead.

• Whole-school environment – A team might conduct a building tour looking at literacy displays in common areas, hallways, and classroom doors, including:

– Students’ responses to what they are reading;

– Students’ writing;

– Displays of books students are reading;

– A sign on each classroom door saying what book the teacher is currently reading.

“Displays don’t have to be elaborate or time-consuming,” says Peery. “Encouraging and celebrating all things literate throughout a school sends a clear message to students and families that literacy is valued.”

• Classroom libraries – In addition to the school library, all students should have ready access to books in the rooms where they spend most of the school day. Some look-fors:

– A robust collection – about 30 books per student;

– A mix of fiction and nonfiction, including reference books;

– A range of readability levels – at, above, and below grade level;

– A multicultural mix with plenty of recent books;

– An organization system;

– Books displayed in an inviting manner.

Classroom libraries should have their own area in the classroom and lend themselves to browsing, so groups of students can find related books to read together.

• Reading instruction – For building tours by administrators and peers (a.k.a. instructional rounds or learning walks), some look-fors in the elementary grades:

– Interactive readalouds conducted by the teacher;

– Direct vocabulary instruction (versus video);

– Analysis of focus words and explicit connections to word meanings and context;

– A word wall with sight words and academic vocabulary, frequently referenced;

– Effective lesson execution, including clear objectives, success criteria, background knowledge activated, checks for understanding;

– Minilessons and modeling, guided practice, and independent practice, with gradual release of responsibility.

For middle- and high-school classrooms, some additional look-fors:

– Clarity on lesson intentions;

– Direct teaching of key vocabulary;

– Activating background knowledge;

– Direct instruction of new content/skills, checks for understanding, then gradual release of responsibility;

– Text-based, higher-level questions;

– Reciprocal teaching, jigsaw;

– Time for independent and self-directed reading;

– Instruction in note-taking, summarizing, annotating, and other study skills.

Big-picture objectives in the upper grades: increasing student independence and motivation.

• Writing instruction – Elementary students need to be able to “express their ideas with correct spelling and fluent, legible handwriting,” says Peery. “They need lots of opportunities to write in order to become both more competent and confident.” Some components:

– Orchestrating whole-class, small-group, and independent writing work;

– Handwriting instruction, modeling, and practice;

– Spelling instruction and practice;

– Direct instruction and practice with language conventions;

– The teacher using shared and interactive writing;

– The teacher reading aloud and discussing mentor texts and sentences;

– Using exemplar texts and explicit instruction about a certain type of writing;

– The teacher modeling/demonstrating the writing process;

– Minilessons focused on a need that has arisen as students write;

– Students holding peer conferences, conferring with the teacher, and sharing their writing.

In middle- and high-school ELA and content-area classrooms, Peery is concerned about what she calls “fake writing assignments” – students making posters and writing reports with lots of material pasted in from websites. “Students do these assignments,” she says, “with little conversation among themselves and with very little initial direction or ongoing feedback from their teachers.” Many of the secondary-level look-fors are the same as elementary, with these additions:

– Writing as an integral part of content courses, including note-taking and entrance and exit tickets;

– Clear directions for the current writing assignment;

– A word wall with domain-specific terms for the current unit;

– Dictionaries, atlases, encyclopedias, displays, and print material from the library;

– Exemplars of writing appropriate to the discipline;

– Rubrics or proficiency scales;

– Teachers modeling and using think-alouds and exemplars;

– Teachers conferring individually and with small groups.

“Does Your School Need a Literacy Check-Up?” by Angela Peery in Cult of Pedagogy, June 14, 2021; Peery can be reached at Her book (with Tracey Shiel) is What To Look for in Literacy (Routledge, 2021).

4. More on What It Means to Be an Anti-Racist Educator

In this Vox piece, Sean Illing interviews Jarvis Givens (Harvard Graduate School of Education), focusing on the current debate about how U.S. schools should handle teaching about the nation’s racial history. Some excerpts:

• What is the historical context of anti-racist teaching? “We’ve been talking about it in public as though it’s this novel thing,” says Givens, “and perhaps it’s because so much of this discussion is about how to teach white students, but for well over a century, black teachers have been modeling an anti-racist disposition in their pedagogical practices. They recognized how the dreams of their students were at odds with the structural context in which they found themselves. And they had to offer their students ways of thinking about themselves that were life-affirming, despite a society that was physically organized in a way that explicitly told them they were subhuman.”

• Does anti-racist teaching have a political agenda? “Any approach to framing history is going to have some political commitments baked into the narrative,” says Givens. “The choices we make about what to highlight or omit, all of that reflects certain values and biases… The best educational models can teach us to recognize injustices, and they can cultivate a commitment to resisting those things, but equally important – and this is something black educators have done for a long time in their own communities – is modeling other ways of being in the world, other ways of being in relationships to the world.”

• Can teachers find the right balance? “If you’re striving to create more justice in the world, you can’t do that if you’re only focusing on the things you’re trying to negate,” says Givens. “You have to have some life-affirming vision that you can hold on to, a vision that’s more meaningful and points us in the direction of a better world… Absolutely, there’s injustice. This is a part of the story, part of our story, but black life is much more expansive than that. It always has been… Our strategy can’t be just about proving injury. At the same time, the public has to stop denying that harm and violence has been and continues to be done. Both of these things are challenges before us.”

• What was the role of the Brown decision? The U.S. Supreme Court ruling was vital to dismantling de juresegregation, with schools for African-American students systematically underresourced, says Givens. But before Brown, many black teachers were providing first-rate schooling for the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and Angela Davis, not to mention writing textbooks challenging distortions of black history in the standard curriculum and setting up organizations to advocate for black educators and students. “This is all to say, we can hold both things in our minds,” says Givens. “We can talk about the violent resistance against black educational strivings and the intentional underdevelopment of African-American schools, but we also have to rigorously account for the things black folks were doing on a daily basis to make meaningful education possible despite the neglect.”

• Can individual teachers make a difference? “One of the best things my high-school U.S. history teacher did for me,” says Givens, “was help me understand that no history is an exhaustive representation of anything. She made me aware of silences. When you allow students to have the agency of knowing that history is not always as authoritative as we tend to imagine, it actually invites them to establish a deeper intellectual relationship with the past.It allows us to think about why certain scholars might have chosen to represent certain aspects of the past in ways that they did.”

• What does it mean to be an anti-racist teacher? “A lot of the conversations around anti-racist teaching are directed at white teachers and white students, without actually being named as such,” says Givens. “This is obviously very different than talking about how black educators engaged black students in the Jim Crow South, or even my own experience growing up in Compton, California, where I attended majority-black schools with mostly black teachers… A fundamental part of being a critical educator, an educator committed to justice and equality, means being committed to reckoning with the history of racial injustice and trying to teach students in a way that supports the development of a critical awareness of the past, which includes acknowledging how that past continues to structure the ways in which we’re in relationships with one another in the present.

“It means recognizing that many of the institutions we have inherited have very long roots in this history. There’s a moral imperative for all teachers who choose to face those realities of history and own it in the present. Being an anti-racist teacher in this moment means to honor the depths of human suffering reflected in that history by telling the truth about it. But then again, that’s what anti-racist teaching has always demanded of those educators who chose to teach in a manner that was disruptive of the racial inequality in our society. We can’t look away from it because it’s in every direction you turn. I do recognize that learning the truth about our histories as different racial groups, and as a country, can be difficult. There’s going to be some level of discomfort, and we have to be real about that.”

• How much discomfort can we handle? “One thing I do know,” concludes Givens, “is that there are some people in this country who never had the luxury of not facing this stuff. And they’ve always encountered a lot of discomfort. It’s not comfortable for black folks or Native American communities to think about this history of land dispossession or slavery or Jim Crow or lynchings, and how the legacy of these things persists today… So now we’re in a place where we’re trying to figure out how to be more intentional in acknowledging our history and its consequences, and that means that discomfort is going to have to be shared in a way it hasn’t been up to this point.”

“Is There an Uncontroversial Way to Teach America’s Racist History?” An Interview of Jarvis Givens by Sean Illing in Vox, June 11, 2021; Illing can be reached at The stimulus for this interview was Givens’s May 2021 article in The Atlantic, “What’s Missing from the Discourse about Anti-Racist Teaching.” Givens is the author of Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching (Harvard University Press, 2021); he can be reached at

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