In This Issue:
Quotes of the Week
“Anything high schools can do to increase the amount and the complexity of writing that students do across the disciplines will have an enormous payoff in their college experiences.”
Kim McCollum-Clark in “Making the College Transition” in Principal Leadership,
November 2019 (Vol. 20, #3, pp. 48-51), https://bit.ly/2pSENiG; the author can be
reached at Kim.McCollum-Clark@millersville.edu.
“Perhaps more than any other subject, writing demands a supportive environment, in which students want to become better writers because they love the opportunity to express themselves, and to interact in writing with valued peers and teachers.”
Jill Barshay in “Scientific Evidence on How to Teach Writing Is Slim,” a Hechinger
Report, November 4, 2019, https://bit.ly/2KbKG1g
“The value of individual, job-embedded support for teachers and principals, both novice and veteran, is well established.”
Jackie Wilson and Gary Bloom (see item #6)
“There will always be scenarios in which people simply need to be told what to do.”
Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular (see item #4)
“I have learned that teachers will never ask to be filmed. They will, however, agree to have a great lesson be recorded.”
David O’Shell in “Using Video to Showcase Great Teaching” in Educational
Leadership, November 2019 (Vol. 77, #3, pp. 50-52), available to ASCD members or
for purchase at https://bit.ly/2O5okzu; O’Shell is at David_O’Shell@mcpsmd.org.
1. What is Personalized Learning, and Does It Work?
In this Education Week article, Benjamin Herold explores whether personalized learning is a transformational development in K-12 education or a “billionaire-backed boondoggle, aimed primarily at replacing teachers and extracting data from children.” His questions:
• What exactly is personalized learning? The term is being used to mean “just about anything,” Herold reports. To some, it’s adaptive software that adjusts computer instruction to each student’s current level of proficiency. To others, it’s a way of using digital data to group students and make instructional decisions. To still others, it’s a philosophy of giving students more voice and choice in what and how they learn and demonstrate mastery. It can also be a way to push schools to nurture each child’s social, emotional, and physical development.
• What are the aspirational goals? The big-picture aim is to customize learning experiences to each student’s skills, abilities, preferences, background, and experiences. Many educators have always wanted to do this, and recent developments in digital technology have made it possible to use student data to cater more precisely to individual skills and preferences.
• What are the philosophical roots? One strand is the “engineering” model (think B.F. Skinner), with experts defining what children need to learn, diagnosing their current status, and creating an efficient (often self-paced) pathway to mastery. A competing model comes from the progressive tradition (think John Dewey and project-based learning), with students’ interests, questions, and explorations driving the curriculum. “In both cases,” says Herold, “what is new is the way in which technology – from big data to online collaboration tools to social media – is being used to amplify methods educators have been using more or less forever.”
• Who’s pushing it? In the last decade, personalized learning (in its many forms) has been promoted by the Obama-era Race to the Top legislation, the Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and many states, nonprofits, and advocacy groups.
• What has been the reaction in U.S. schools? A 2018 survey of principals found that more than half saw personalized learning as promising or potentially transformational, and 97 percent said they were using technology to personalize learning to some degree.
• Is personalized learning effective? We can’t get a clear answer to this question, says Herold, because of the myriad ways the concept is being implemented. To the extent that personalized learning involves rapid, accurate feedback to students and meaningful differentiation, there’s solid research support, but on other aspects, results are mixed. “The evidence base is very weak at this point,” says John Pane of the RAND Corporation. And the Summit Public Schools, a California-based charter network designed by Dianne Tavenner to implement the personalized learning philosophy (and supported by the Chan/Zuckerberg Initiative), have declined to undergo independent third-party evaluation.
“The PL Explainer” by Benjamin Herold in Education Week, November 6, 2019 (Vol. 39, #12, p. 10-11), https://bit.ly/2X8UIW7
2. Knowledge As the Key to Closing the Reading Achievement Gap
In this Education Gadfly article, author Natalie Wexler says it’s problematic to talk about a student reading “below grade level.” Cognitive scientists have established that students’ reading levels depend to a great degree on their knowledge of the topic. One study (which has been replicated many times) found that when seventh and eighth graders were tested on a passage about baseball, students who knew a lot about the game did well and those who knew less did poorly – in both cases regardless of their reading levels. “In fact,” says Wexler, “the ‘poor’ readers who knew a lot about baseball did significantly better than the ‘good’ readers who didn’t.”
But U.S. schools continue to judge students’ reading ability on standardized tests that measure reading skills by having students read and respond to questions on passages on random topics – thus, says Wexler, “unintentionally privileging students from educated families, who are most likely to pick up that kind of knowledge at home.” This approach spills over into instruction, with teachers drilling skills like finding the main idea and making inferences, grouping students by their tested reading levels, and putting together baskets of “just right” books on a variety of topics. All this prevents most students from spending enough time on one topic to master the knowledge and vocabulary that go with it.
The result is a gap-widening snowball effect: students who enter school with more information and words find reading easier and more enjoyable, read more in school and at home, get more out of classroom lectures and discussions, and surge ahead, while the opposite often happens with students who enter school with less background knowledge. To make matters worse, subjects that could potentially close knowledge gaps – including science and social studies – are often marginalized as more time is devoted to building generic reading skills.
Of course some students really don’t have the reading skills to comprehend texts, no matter how much they know. Wexler’s suggestions:
• Determine if the problem is decoding or comprehension. “Standardized reading tests don’t distinguish between decoding and comprehension,” she says, “so it’s impossible to tell whether a low score means a student couldn’t readthe passages or couldn’t understand them.” If the problem is decoding, which should be ascertained with a different type of test, then students need systematic phonics instruction (regardless of their grade level) so they can crack the code and read fluently.
• Give all students access to the same complex content through listening. For most kids, listening comprehension is stronger than reading comprehension through middle school. But the way many elementary classrooms operate, a lot of material is presented in grade-level texts that students are expected to read on their own. “If students are going to acquire knowledge of the world and become familiar with the conventions of written language,” says Wexler, “it’s crucial for them to hear those concepts and conventions in complex text before they’re expected to understand them independently.” Audio books are helpful, as is the teacher reading complex texts aloud and reinforcing the content and vocabulary with questions, discussions, and activities.
• Have students actively grapple with common content through writing. “Perhaps the most powerful lever for building knowledge is to have all students write about what they’re learning,” says Wexler. Writing has students retrieve information from memory and put it in their own words – two sure-fire ways of consolidating and improving knowledge and skills. The key is having all students working with the same content while differentiating the kind of writing they do – essays, paragraphs, outlines, working with sentence-starters.
• Assess proficiency through tests tied to the content that’s been taught. “It can be demoralizing for both students and teachers to have achievement measured solely on the basis of general knowledge of random topics,” says Wexler. She urges schools to follow the lead of Louisiana, which is piloting reading tests geared to the specific content being taught in each grade level’s ELA and social studies classes. Of course at some point students need to have enough general knowledge and vocabulary to make sense of passages on subjects they haven’t studied, as long as the passages aren’t poorly written or too technical. But it’s hard to say when that point will be reached. The challenge, says Wexler, is to get all students to that level.
“To Help Students Who Are Several ‘Grade Levels’ Behind in Reading, Focus on Building – and Assessing – Students’ Knowledge” by Natalie Wexler in The Education Gadfly, November 6, 2019 (Vol. 19, #44), https://bit.ly/2KdnZJZ; another article by Wexler on the same topic, “The Radical Case for Teaching Kids Stuff,” was published in August 2019 issue of The Atlantic, available at https://bit.ly/2K8xYQD; Wexler’s new book is The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System – and How to Fix It (Avery, 2019).
3. Orchestrating an Effective Coaching Plan
(Originally titled “If Instructional Coaching Really Works, Why Isn’t It Working?”)
In this Educational Leadership article, Michael Moody (Insight Education Group and Insight ADVANCE) lists some reasons instructional coaching isn’t doing too well in many school districts: poor alignment with district strategy and goals; mismatching coaches and teachers; insufficient contact time with teachers; less-than-effective coaching techniques; weak supervision and support of coaches; significant cost; and underwhelming evidence of impact on teaching and learning. Moody has these suggestions:
• Broaden the definition of coaching. Thinking in terms of one-on-one coach-teacher relationships focused on lesson feedback is too narrow, he believes. Rather, schools should orchestrate a system of coaching designed to support and improve instruction, including:
– Peer-to-peer observations and debriefs;
– Low-key, non-evaluative feedback from school leaders;
– Facilitating teacher team discussions of student work, classroom practices, and lesson study;
– Teachers’ self-reflection.
Moody believes the instructional coach is ideally positioned to coordinate and manage these strands.
• Develop a tiered system of coaching. Teachers should receive the level of coaching – intensive, flexible, or facilitative – that is appropriate to their level of proficiency.
• Involve more people in coaching. “You don’t have to have the word ‘coach’ in your title to be an instructional coach,” says Moody. With the right structure, it’s possible for colleagues, administrators, and aides to help teachers think about improving their practices.
• Use video. These allow teachers to watch themselves shoulder to shoulder with a coach or colleague and get feedback at convenient times.
• Support and manage coaches. “We sometimes forget that everyone in the school building is a learner,” says Moody. Coaches and other support personnel need regular meetings, professional reading, and discussion of effective strategies. And coaches should do co-observations and get frequent feedback on their work.
• Collect data. Teacher surveys and real-time evidence of improvements in student learning can help fine-tune coaching during the year. “Be honest about what needs to improve,” concludes Moody, “then continue to refine the work until it’s having the impact you desire. And don’t give up too quickly… Give the work time to have its effect.”
“If Instructional Coaching Really Works, Why Isn’t It Working?” by Michael Moody in Educational Leadership, November 2019 (Vol. 77, #3, pp. 30-35), available to ASCD members and for purchase at https://bit.ly/2O0JWgv
4. Differentiated Coaching
In this Harvard Business Review article, Herminia Ibarra (London Business School) and Anne Scoular (Meyler Campbell) say managers often need to put on their coaching hats. “An effective manager-as-coach,” say Ibarra and Scoular, “asks questions instead of providing answers, supports employees instead of judging them, and facilitates their development instead of dictating what has to be done.”
There are four different styles of coaching, say the authors, based on how directive the coach wants to be (how much information is put in) and how much energy the coachee takes away from the interaction:
• Directive – This is the mentor role – an experienced and senior manager giving advice to a subordinate, who listens carefully. However, say the authors, because the advice “consists of stating what to do and how to do it, it unleashes little energy in the person being coached…” It may even be demotivating and fail to build organizational capacity. There’s also the possibility that the manager doesn’t understand what’s going on and gives unhelpful or clueless advice.
• Laissez-faire – When people are working productively, the manager doesn’t need to coach or tell anyone what to do; best to leave them alone.
• Nondirective – This kind of coaching involves listening, questioning, and withholding judgment (less information in), and is aimed at eliciting wisdom, insight, and creativity from others so they can solve problems on their own (more energy taken away). This can be “highly energizing for those being coached,” say Ibarra and Scoular, “but it doesn’t come naturally to most managers, who tend to be more comfortable in ‘tell’ mode.”
• Situational – This is the sweet spot, they believe, balancing directive and nondirective styles based on the facts on the ground.
A helpful approach to coaching conversations, they believe, is the GROW model (developed by Sir John Whitmore in the 1980s):
– Goal – What does the person want to get out of the conversation with you right now? The coach might ask, “What do you want when you walk out the door that you don’t have now?”
– Reality – The focus is on the details of the actual situation, asking what, when, where, and who questions, and avoiding why questions, which may trigger defensiveness.
– Options – The coachee may feel stuck or have difficulty deciding what to do, in which case asking, If you had a magic wand, what would you do? can liberate fresh thinking.
– Will – There are two facets: first, asking, What will you do?, followed by On a scale of one to ten, how likely is it that you will do this? Anything less than an 8 response signals uncertainty or ambivalence and suggests the need to return to earlier steps.
Sometimes coaching takes place on the fly, in which case the GROW sequence can be truncated to a question like, What have you already thought of? or What really matters here? The key is for managers to be inquisitive, ask good questions, and implicitly acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers.
In a sidebar in their article, Ibarra and Scoular offer these “Coaching 101” tips for managers:
• Assess whether coaching is called for. “There will always be scenarios in which people simply need to be told what to do,” say the authors.
• Listen. “Here’s a good rule of thumb for most situations,” say Ibarra and Scoular: “Shut up and listen. Absorb what people tell you, and be alert to what their tone of voice and body language convey… Leave room for silence, especially at the end of your conversation. The most important things often emerge from that silence.”
• Ask open-ended questions. Examples: What else? and What do you already know, without being aware of it, that you will find out in a year? The key is conveying an authentic interest and belief in the coachee.
• Practice nondirective coaching. It’s important to have this skill at your fingertips in situations where it’s appropriate.
“The Leader as Coach” by Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular in Harvard Business Review, November-December 2019 (Vol. 97, #6, pp. 110-119), https://bit.ly/2NAbTww; the authors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
5. Paul Bambrick-Santoyo on Small Teaching Moves with Outsize Impact
(Originally titled “What You Practice Is What You Value”)
In this Educational Leadership article, Paul Bambrick-Santoyo (Uncommon Schools) says that for novice teachers, being coached on seemingly minor points – for example, standing still and facing the class when asking students to stop talking and come back together at the end of a turn-and-talk – can be transformational. But for this kind of coaching to work, a school needs a culture that includes a shared language of effective pedagogy and a norm of frequent, low-stakes feedback and practice. “In effective cultures,” says Bambrick-Santoyo, “people use words everyone can understand to describe actions that committed members consistently put into practice.”
Over a period of years, he and his colleagues have compiled a list of teaching behaviors that are granular, observable, and high-leverage. These are skills each of which can be learned within a week, produce immediate improvements in classroom dynamics and student learning, and accelerate what is often a painfully slow learning curve for novice educators. “Rather than wait for years of trial-and-error experience to perfect their craft,” says Bambrick-Santoyo, “new teachers can actually grow quickly, step by step.” Picking up the pace is a moral imperative, he believes; students can’t afford to wait for incremental improvement in teaching, especially in high-need schools with a large proportion of rookie teachers.
Below are some of the action steps in Bambrick-Santoyo’s “Get Better Faster” playbook. They parallel the kinds of small, easy-to-learn-and-practice skills that musicians and athletes learn with their coaches as they rapidly improve performance:
– Use “strong voice.” Square up, stand still, and use a formal tone of voice when getting students’ attention and delivering instructions.
– “Radar” the room. Scan “hot spots” where students are often off-task, and crane your neck so it looks like you are seeing all parts of the classroom.
– Have students write first, talk second. Begin each class with an independent writing task (a Do Now), and before starting a discussion, have students respond individually in writing to a prompt.
– Aggressively monitor independent student work. Walk around to every part of the classroom and look for patterns of student responses, not just compliance.
– Engage all students. Have students turn and talk when pair interaction will maximize involvement and learning.
– Check for whole-group understanding. Poll the room and tailor instruction to focus on patterns of error.
– Narrate the positive. Put into words what students are doing well to encourage those actions and redirect less-productive behaviors; reinforce students’ intellectual progress by praising effort, not just results.
“What You Practice Is What You Value” by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo in Educational Leadership, November 2019 (Vol. 77, #3, pp. 44-49), https://bit.ly/2NCYJ28; the author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
6. Mentoring Versus Coaching of School Principals
“The value of individual, job-embedded support for teachers and principals, both novice and veteran, is well established,” say Jackie Wilson (Delaware Academy for School Leadership) and Gary Bloom (University of California/Santa Cruz) in this article in Principal Leadership. At its best, support improves school leaders’ job performance and retention, and their students’ academic achievement.
But there are two quite different ways of providing support, one of which has much greater potential for positive impact:
• Mentoring – An informal relationship, usually between fellow principals, with the mentor often having more seniority and a track record of success. Meetings are driven by the mentee’s need of the moment, often occurring on the phone, online, or off-site over coffee. Mentors are expected to be nurturing and supportive, and are usually volunteers, with duties added on to their day job. The district makes little or no financial commitment.
• Coaching – A formal relationship between a client (the principal) and a coach selected and trained for the role (often a retired successful principal, not necessarily senior to the coachee, sometimes from a different district). Meetings are scheduled and are usually on-site, including classroom visits and debriefs. Coaches provide candid feedback and challenge their clients to improve performance in ways that may push comfort levels. Coaches have a formal role and are compensated for their time, which involves a financial commitment by the district.
Wilson and Bloom have found that mentoring can be helpful but is often sporadic and has a mixed record of helping principals grow and improve. Coaching is more systematic, hard-hitting, and effective, provided that coaches are chosen well and supported as they work with principals. Support includes supervision, regular meetings of coaches, and accountability. Using the analogy of golf, mentors are like an experienced friend who provides you with a few tips while playing 18 holes; a pro meets with you regularly, is committed to your growth, and has a deep understanding of the coaching process.
“In working with hundreds of principals and coaches,” say Wilson and Bloom, “we’ve had the opportunity to observe the professional growth that can occur when a principal is paired with a coach who has been trained to listen and ask the right questions.” Coaching can be facilitative – helping principals develop habits of mind and internal capacity (most helpful for novice principals); instructional – sharing expertise, advice, and resources; and blended – supporting the development of positive dispositions and emotional intelligence.
“Mentoring Versus Coaching: A Distinction That Matters” by Jackie Wilson and Gary Bloom in Principal Leadership, November 2019 (Vol. 20, #3, pp. 38-41), https://bit.ly/2K7t5r1; Wilson can be reached at email@example.com.
7. What Is Shakespeare’s Place in the Modern English Curriculum?
In this article in Education Week Teacher, Hawaii high-school teacher Christina Torres says that for the last few years, assigning Shakespeare to her high-school students has been “tinged with guilt.” She heard about Yale students’ 2016 petition to “decolonize” the university’s reading lists, in part by removing the Shakespeare requirement, and about other suggestions that the English curriculum is too dominated by white, male, European authors. In addition, some of Shakespeare’s work has been criticized as perpetuating outdated and problematic ideas about women and historically oppressed cultures. Torres wondered whether the Bard was relevant to her students and whether they deserved to study more works that “represent and validate their experiences and cultures.”
But she also grappled with the downside of eliminating Shakespeare: “His work is referenced in novels, movies, Levi’s commercials, and board games. If I remove Shakespeare from my students’ experience, I remove access to cultural capital that could help them understand some aspects of American society.” She knew that, like it or not, her students would enter a world “permeated with Shakespeare’s language and stories.” And Shakespeare in the only author named in the Common Core ELA standards.
Torres’s post-guilt position is that her students should study Shakespeare, not because they need to be exposed to “classic” literature, but for them to take a critical look at why this man has had such an outsized impact on the American zeitgeist and form their own opinions about his work. “Students can better disrupt the narrative of Shakespeare as inherently good, classic literature,” she says, “if they have some knowledge of his work and the history of his influence.”
Torres does believe that many schools overdo Shakespeare – for example, having students read one of his plays every year from sixth grade to senior year. In her own school, she plans to advocate cutting down from three to to one or two Shakespeare plays from grade 9 to 12. Torres also suggests taking a critical look at the balance between the Bard’s works and those of James Baldwin, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Toni Morrison, and Gabriel Garcia Márquez. And she wants teachers to use Shakespeare’s work to discuss important social issues – for example, toxic masculinity in Romeo and Juliet, anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice, racism in Othello, colonialism in The Tempest, and misogyny in The Taming of the Shrew.
Torres is considering having her students watch the NPR “Code Switch” episode in which Ayanna Thompson says that three Shakespeare plays are “toxic” and “resist rehabilitation and appropriation.” Students would then study one of the plays, decide if they agree, and possibly recommend a less problematic work. “Students deserve to interrogate, disagree with, and even dislike Shakespeare’s plays,” she concludes.
“Why I’m Rethinking Teaching Shakespeare in My English Classroom” by Christina Torres in Education Week Teacher, October 1, 2019, https://bit.ly/32E7I7p
8. Nine Questions for a PLC Data Meeting
In this sidebar in All Things PLC, Robert Eaker and Janel Keating suggest an agenda for a grade-level teacher team looking at the results of an assessment given to all students. They suggest about five minutes for each item, with more time for two toward the end:
– What are the “power standards” or learning targets measured by this assessment?
– In what areas did our students do well?
– What instructional strategies helped our students do well?
– What skill deficiencies do we see?
– What patterns do we see in the mistakes, and what do they tell us?
– Which students did not master essential standards and which need additional time and support?
– What interventions will be provided to address unlearned skills, and how will we check for success? (20 minutes)
– Which students mastered standards and what is our plan for extending and enriching their learning? (10 minutes)
– Do we need to tweak or improve this assessment?
“Team Analysis of Common Formative Assessments” in All Things PLC, Fall 2019 (p. 35); these questions come from Every School, Every Team, Every Classroom: District Leadership for Growing Professional Learning Communities at Work by Robert Eaker and Janel Keating (Solution Tree, 2012)
9. Recommended Nonfiction Books with Latinx Authors and Topics
This School Library Journal feature by Katy Hershberger highlights high-quality nonfiction books for Hispanic Heritage Month – and the whole year:
– Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano with President Lincoln by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López (S&S/Atheneum, 2019), preschool to grade 2
– Soaring Earth: A Companion Memoir to Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle (S&S/Atheneum, 2019), grade 7 and up
– Todos Iguales/All Equal: Un Corrido de Lemon Grove/A Ballad of Lemon Grove by Christy Hale (Le & Low, 2019), grade 3-6
– We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults by Susan Kuklin (Candlewick, 2019), grade 5 and up
– The Far Away Brothers (Adapted for Young Adults): Two Teenage Immigrants Making a Life in America by Lauren Markham (Delacorte, 2019), grade 6-9
– The Key from Spain: Flory Jagoda and Her Music by Debbie Ley, illustrated by Sonja Wimmer (Kar-Ben, 2019), grade 2-5
– Voces Sin Fronteras: Our Stories, Our Truth: True Comics from the Latin American Youth Center by Latin American Youth Center writers (Shout Mouse, 2019), grade 7 and up
– The Other Side: Stories of Central American Teen Refugees Who Dream of Crossing the Border by Juan Pablo Villalobos (Farrar, 2019), grade 7 and up[Recommended Young Adult books next week]
“Literatura Latinx: Books for All Ages in Honor of Hispanic Heritage Month” by Katy Hershberger in School Library Journal, October 2019 (Vol. 65, #9, pp. 50-51),
10. Short Item
A scientific literacy curriculum – “Resisting Scientific Misinformation” is available free at https://tumblehomebooks.org/services/resisting-scientific-misinformation/. Authored by Andy Zucker and Penny Noyce in collaboration with WGBH Nova in Boston, it’s for grades 6-12. There are five lessons, a teacher’s guide, handouts, and brief videos. The lessons: Misleading Advertising; “The Science is Uncertain;” Asking the Right Questions; Understanding the Scientific Process, Part I; and Understanding the Scientific Process, Part II.
“Science Fact vs. Science Fiction” by Andy Zucker in Education Week, October 30, 2019 (Vol. 39, #11, p. 20), https://bit.ly/32zi8oz
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