In This Issue:
Quotes of the Week
“The best thing educators can do right now is to gather as much information as possible about what students have experienced over the past year – their learning, their worries, and their ideas – and take that data seriously and build on it as we return to in-person learning.”
Joe Heim in “Teachers Tested” in “How the Pandemic Is Reshaping Education”
in The Washington Post, March 15, 2021
“Instead of segregating these children and trying to give them what they didn’t learn, you say to yourself, ‘What must they know in order to stick with their peers and have access to next week’s lesson?’ The key is you’re always asking yourself, ‘What do they need for next week?’ not ‘What did they miss?’”
David Steiner (Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy), quoted in “The Great
Catch-Up: Schools Set to Attack Lost Learning” by Laura Meckler in ibid.
“Anyone who hasn’t already tried to solve their problem is either wise, lazy, or afraid.”
Dan Rockwell (see item #8)
“After all, what does a letter grade tell anyone about a writer’s capabilities and need for improvement?”
Steve Benjamin and Michael Wagner (see item #1)
“Let’s stop pretending that scattershot, half-hearted, and formulaic efforts to teach writing will succeed. In reality, learning to write well is a complex skill that requires focused instruction and frequent practice.”
Steve Benjamin and Michael Wagner (ibid.)
1. New Thinking on Improving Students’ Writing
In this Phi Delta Kappan article, consultant Steve Benjamin and Michael Wagner (Concord Community Schools, IN) describe how, years before, Benjamin panicked when confronted with his first college writing assignment (analyzing key themes in The Great Gatsby) and sought help from his Aunt Elaine, who was three years ahead of him at the same college. “We sat together in the library,” Benjamin remembers, “and she showed me how to identify a workable theme, draft an opening paragraph, and select a few quotes that would support my thinking.” He thought they were done, but Elaine insisted on several more sessions discussing his drafts, rewriting, cutting, adding, and polishing. The final product got an A. “I’ve forgotten most everything about The Great Gatsby,” says Benjamin, “but, thanks to Aunt Elaine, I learned enduring skills and attitudes that made me a better writer.”
The problem with writing instruction in many K-12 schools, say Benjamin and Wagner, is a short-cycle approach: students are given a prompt, in-class time to compose, perhaps some teacher comments in the margins of the first draft, and then the paper is graded. This procedure, they believe, doesn’t give students enough time to develop a piece and limits teachers’ instructional repertoire. The result: a flat trajectory of U.S. students’ writing proficiency in recent national assessments, with few students able to produce the kind of writing that’s expected in college and the workplace.
The good news, say Benjamin and Wagner, is that recent research has identified a number of highly effective practices for developing better writing – and they bear a striking resemblance to Aunt Elaine’s, with one addition:
– Allocating ample time for students to develop each writing project;
– Teachers guiding students through multiple cycles of drafting, reviewing feedback, and revising (the biggest difference between expert and inexpert writers is time spent revising);
– Setting clear and high expectations for the quality of students’ writing;
– Integrating writing in science, social studies, mathematics, and other classes.
If we want to get better writing, say Benjamin and Wagner, teachers have to treat students as “apprentices to the craft of advanced literacy” – teachers model how to do a task and students narrate their step-by-step thinking and repeat the process, explaining what they are doing as they write and revise. Here are some key components to this approach:
• Expectations – A barrier to implementing this process in schools is the low bar for the writing students can and should do. In the lower grades, Benjamin and Wagner believe students can produce much more writing than is currently the case. One kindergarten student, with a little coaching from Benjamin, expanded a single sentence about wanting to live in a skyscraper (accompanied by an artful drawing) to five sentences – a full paragraph! Rather than telling students that a picture is worth a thousand words, he says, perhaps we should be thinking that a thousand words are worth a picture. Benjamin and Wagner also believe elementary classrooms should put less emphasis on personal narratives and more on argument using evidence from read-aloud stories and nonfiction reading.
• Narrow feedback – Another manifestation of low expectations is correcting only spelling, grammar, and mechanics – and sometimes jotting Awk and Run-on sentence in the margins. Feedback is much more helpful, say Benjamin and Wagner, when it addresses “the amount of detail students include, their use of transitions, their use of repetitive or varying sentence structures, the way in which they quote and paraphrase evidence, and their use of descriptive language.”
• Time – Benjamin and Wagner believe the same amount of time teachers are currently devoting to writing would have much more impact if they assigned fewer prompts – perhaps one a month – with a more detailed focus on each one. “In the end,” they say, “students and teachers must believe that working on their work, intensively, is more important than churning out dozens of lightly revised (if revised at all) pieces throughout the school year. In effect, writing instruction should shift from mass production to a small-batch approach, with the aim of creating fewer, better crafted pieces.”
• The process approach – A major problem, say Benjamin and Wagner, is the 5-6-step charts they see on classroom walls across the nation: brainstorming/prewriting, outlining, first draft, revising, editing, and publishing. New research suggests letting go of this time-honored sequence, allowing students more choice and flexibility, and spending much more time on revising. “For example,” they say, “one student might express an interest in voting rights and decide to gather information before beginning to write, but another student might choose to begin writing straightaway, drawing on extensive prior knowledge and experience before engaging in additional research. Yet another student might choose to edit and further develop an almost-forgotten poem that she has discovered in her writing journal, one that will require some expert advice from her teacher before she can overcome a stumbling block. In short, the writing process shouldn’t be viewed as rigid and linear; it can work in different ways for different people.”
• Teacher training – Clearly, some teachers need to update their repertoires to make this shift – and supervisors need to let go of the process they’ve been expecting teachers to follow for years. One of the best uses of PD time is groups of teachers reviewing samples of student work and discussing what would be the best feedback to give each writer. “In doing so,” say Benjamin and Wagner, “those teachers who struggle with their own writing tend to learn, in a nonthreatening environment, how they can improve not only their students’ writing, but also their own.”
• Grading – “Fewer writing prompts will also mean fewer completed writing projects and fewer grades,” say Benjamin and Wagner, “which may require school leaders and parents to rethink some expectations, as well, especially the assumption that a grade should be affixed to everything students produce.” That also means less teacher grading time – welcome news for English and other humanities teachers. Giving feedback on initial and interim drafts is an opportunity for teachers to provide formative, ungraded comments and suggestions on students’ progress toward specific goals, aligned to a detailed rubric, “rather than constantly trying to figure out what letter grade they deserve,” they say. “After all, what does a letter grade tell anyone about a writer’s capabilities and need for improvement?”
“Let’s stop pretending that scattershot, half-hearted, and formulaic efforts to teach writing will succeed,” conclude Benjamin and Wagner. “In reality, learning to write well is a complex skill that requires focused instruction and frequent practice.”
“Developing Accomplished Writers: Lessons from Recent Research” by Steve Benjamin and Michael Wagner in Phi Delta Kappan, March 2021 (Vol. 102, #6, pp. 44-49); the authors can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. Teaching a History Unit in a Way That Supports Struggling Readers
In this article in American Educator, Jeanne Wanzek (Vanderbilt University) says students with reading difficulties face “incredible challenges” when they’re asked to make sense of information-heavy social studies material, especially at the secondary level. “These students,” she says, “face significant barriers in preparing for college, for careers with livable wages, and for civic engagement.” How can social studies teachers deal with disparities in reading proficiency that can span 70 percentile points – from students who can work independently with complex texts to those who lack the background knowledge, vocabulary, and word-reading skills to make sense of textbooks and primary-source documents?
While those students should get reading support outside content-area classes, Wanzek believes social studies teachers can do a lot to boost skills and understanding as each unit is taught. Here’s what she suggests, using a unit on the Gilded Age as an example:
• Start with a 7-10-minute “comprehension canopy.” At the beginning of a unit, the teacher: (a) sets a clear purpose, (b) refreshes important background knowledge (perhaps by showing a brief video), and (c) poses a well-framed overarching question (for example, During the Gilded Age, how did the economic, political, and social landscape of the United States change?). Students turn and talk, addressing a question that connects the unit to their family history (for example, Who in your family was the first to come to America? Why did they leave their country of origin?).
• Teach 4-5 essential words and concepts. This is especially helpful for students with reading difficulties; Wanzek suggests several steps to introduce each word, using urbanization as an example:
– Give a student-friendly definition – The movement of people from rural to urban areas and the resulting physical growth of cities.
– Provide a visual – An aerial photo of Manhattan
– Present related words and use the word in context – The United Nations forecasts that the pace of global urbanization will continue to quicken, and by the year 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. That’s amazing, considering that in 1900, only 13 percent lived in cities.
– Give examples and non-examples – New York City and Harvard, IL
– Have students work in pairs to discuss and apply the meaning of the word – Tell your partner two benefits and two challenges of urbanization, possibly including economic opportunity, public health, housing, transportation, and environment.
Since students need repeated exposure to new words and concepts to establish them in long-term memory, it’s important to return to these key words throughout the unit, perhaps in warm-ups at the beginning of lessons.
• Provide support for critical content readings. The teacher chooses two or three key textbook or primary-source passages, and in the course of the unit does an in-class close reading with the following components:
– The teacher gives a brief introduction to set the context and link the passage to the overarching question – for example, In this reading, we will learn about some of the economic issues facing workers during the Gilded Age.
– Students read the text as a class, in small groups, in pairs, or independently.
– The teacher chooses 2-3 stopping points and checks on comprehension with a quick question – for example, In what ways does the author seem to feel that immigrants were important to the American economy?
– When students are finished reading the passage, the teacher debriefs, making connections to the overarching question, key vocabulary, and previous units.
It’s important that students do most of the reading themselves, says Wanzek, rather than listening to someone else reading: “Students can only gain practice in reading and understanding content-area text independently if they are actually reading.”
• Use teams to monitor content understanding. A couple of times during the unit, students take a short quiz with about five multiple-choice questions that ask them to integrate and make sense of the content and vocabulary learned so far – for example, Which of the following is not a cause of rapid urbanization during the Gilded Age? Students turn in the quiz and then sit in heterogeneous 3-5-person teams (which continue throughout the course) and discuss the quiz questions, using the text and their notes to reach consensus on each question. As students mark their answers, they get immediate feedback (via scratch-off cards or a digital device) on whether their answer is correct; if it’s not, they try again. The teacher circulates, listening for misconceptions and misunderstandings and prodding students to use evidence and critical reasoning. At the end, the teacher notes questions that took teams multiple attempts to answer correctly and plans individual, team, and whole-class follow-up.
• Use teams for a summative assessment. At the end of the unit, students meet in their teams and take part in a problem-solving or perspective-taking activity – for example, Imagine you serve on an advisory committee to a Gilded Age president. As a team, make a recommendation on whether the United States should limit immigration. Provide at least two economic, two political, and two social reasons in support of your recommendation. Each team prepares a written response and teams then report on their conclusions and rationale to the whole class. The teacher highlights effective use of the text to support ideas, prompts teams to use evidence where it’s lacking, and facilitates students’ questions on each presentation. The class then focuses on the overarching question for the unit and brings closure with an assessment of how the group process worked: using text-based evidence, member contributions and listening, critical thinking, and teamwork.
“Unlocking Social Studies Text” by Jeanne Wanzek in American Educator, Spring 2021 (Vol. 45, #1, p. 10-14); Wanzek can be reached at email@example.com.
3. A Workshop Model in Elementary Math Classes
In this article in Mathematics Teacher: Learning & Teaching PK-12, Connecticut elementary teachers Kathryn O’Connor and Emma Dearborne teamed up with Tutita Casa (University of Connecticut) to describe how they used a workshop approach in math classes to teach three important standards:
– Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
– Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
– Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
The idea was to move students away from an “answer searching” approach to math, always looking for the right answer, to taking responsibility for developing their own strategies and achieving a deeper level of conceptual understanding.
O’Connor, Dearborne, and Casa say workshops in elementary math classes are different from reading and writing workshops. “Instead of the usual mini-lesson, guided practice, and independent activities that we are accustomed to using,” they say, “our idea of a math workshop starts and ends with student investigation.” The teacher begins by giving an everyday context for the activity, assigning a challenge, giving students ample time to work independently or in small groups, and then coming back together as a class to discuss students’ findings.
Shifting students from an answer-oriented mindset was not without challenges, say O’Connor, Dearborne, and Casa, and they describe three steps they found were necessary:
• Step 1: Ensuring high-level math tasks – The school district wanted students to be able to perform standard algorithms, but the authors wanted students to go well beyond that and engage in authentic problem solving. Here’s one of their problems:
I need your help to figure out how much I need to pay to buy the juice boxes you all want for our class party. You said everyone should have two boxes to quench their thirst. A carton of 10 juice boxes is on sale for $8.25. Work with a partner to share two different ways to represent the total cost of the cartons I need to buy. Be prepared to convince your classmates why your strategies work.
O’Connor, Dearborne, and Casa created a checklist to evaluate possible workshop problems:
– The task may be represented in a variety of ways, including diagrams, pictures, manipulatives, symbols, problem situations, text, or books.
– Students have time to engage conceptual ideas.
– There’s time for partner/group work.
– Students are encouraged to use strategies that work for them.
– Students’ thinking is pushed through teachers’ questioning.
– Students’ work is celebrated through posters, gallery walks, and conferencing.
– Students create personal math resources when appropriate.
– The teacher acts as a facilitator.
• Step 2: Keeping teachers’ one-on-one and small-group conferences focused on students. O’Connor, Dearborne, and Casa created a set of possible prompts for teachers to use as they circulated and conferenced with students during the workshop time:
Work in progress:
– How did you decide where to start?
– Are you finding this strategy helpful? What else could you do?
– What other strategies have you tried?
– Why did you find this strategy helpful?
– Why does this make sense? How did you know that?
– Why did you do that? Can you explain more?
– So is this what you’re saying?
In need of assistance:
– How can I help you? What are you struggling with?
– What’re you working on? What’re you trying to do as a mathematician?
– Does this remind you of other problems you’ve worked on?
– Can you explain to me what you were thinking here?
– How do you know you are done? Can you explain everything on your final product?
– Does this make sense mathematically?
Preparing to present to others:
– Can you explain the process you used to solve this problem?
– What do other people need to know in order to follow your reasoning?
– How will you explain your thoughts? How will you convince your audience?
– Where might your audience get confused when looking at this?
– Will this always be the case? How did you know?
– Everyone can explain the strategy.
– Asking one student if they agree with another’s ideas.
– Leaving students with a task.
Am I done yet? A checklist for students to use on their own, covering the same items.
• Step 3: Promoting productive mathematical discourse. The authors suggest a key question: “How do we empower students to articulate their ideas clearly, actively listen to one another, and respond to their peers’ thoughts?” In other words, how could they make the math workshops truly student-centered? They decided on a set of “talk moves” including: rephrasing (So you said…), agreeing/disagreeing and why, adding on/elaborating (We did the same thing, but then we also…), wait time (Don’t feel like you have to answer right away), and equitable participation (Can you let them have a turn because they haven’t shared yet?).
“Inquiry + Math Workshop Model = Success!” by Kathryn O’Connor, Emma Dearborne, and Tutita Casa in Mathematics Teacher: Learning & Teaching PK-12, March 2021 (Vol. 114, #3, pp. 187-195); the authors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, DearborneE@newlondon.org, and email@example.com.
4. Applying the Dunning-Kruger Curve to Equity Training
(Originally titled “The Illusion of Equity PD”)
In this article in Educational Leadership, Nicole Tucker-Smith (Lessoncast and Jumpstart PD Network) says that an equity PD workshop can appear to be effective but actually isn’t. “It can receive rave reviews from participants,” she says, “but leaves individual biases and systemic barriers unchanged.”
To explain how that can happen, Tucker-Smith introduces us to the Dunning-Kruger curve, which plots perceived ability on the vertical axis against actual knowledge on the horizontal. A novice driver, for example, is in the upper left of the graph, with high perceived ability (I’m a terrific driver) but low actual knowledge – “the peak of ignorance.” After an accident, the driver plunges to the “valley of humility” in the middle of the graph, and is ready to learn skills and gradually send the curve up to high knowledge and perceived ability.
In schools, all too many people believe they are not prejudiced and unfailingly treat all students equally, but actually have low levels of cultural competence and limited awareness of students’ cultural assets (the peak of ignorance). An ineffective equity PD session can send participants back to their classrooms and offices excited about a superficial understanding of implicit bias and equity – but without coming to grips with their own shortcomings. “Getting to this place of humility,” says Tucker-Smith, “where one can recognize that assumptions and perceptions are illusions of expertise, is a process that begins by exposing gaps in knowledge.”
Unfortunately some equity trainings take people to the valley of humility and cause such upset and recriminations among participants that leaders abandon them, leaving schools in worse shape than they were before.
Truly effective trainings provide the skills and knowledge to send the Dunning-Kruger curve upward after people recognize how much they have to grow. They move people from saying, I’m not biased against anyone to I understand my unconscious biases to We need to examine our curriculum to ensure that diverse perspectives, cultures, and authors are represented. Effective training (which takes time, hard work, persistence, and leadership) gets educators asking How might we questions: How might we identify bias in learning materials and classroom interactions? How might we learn from the experience of successful schools?
“Effective equity PD fosters a growth mindset among educators and includes structures to help teachers refine application until the changes become daily habits,” says Tucker-Smith. “Equity PD that works empowers school communities to answer the question: What does equity best practice look like here – in our classrooms, hallways, front offices, and meetings?”
How should schools evaluate equity professional development programs? Not by how people feel immediately after a session, says Tucker-Smith, but on actual results as measured by key indicators like curriculum inclusiveness, the composition of special education and gifted programs, discipline referrals, and students’ learning outcomes.
“The Illusion of Equity PD” by Nicole Tucker-Smith in Educational Leadership, March 2021 (Vol. 78, #6, pp. 72-75); Tucker-Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
6. Accelerating Elementary Students’ Post-Covid Achievement
This open-source Thomas B. Fordham Institute paper by Barbara Davidson and Greg Woodward (with input from numerous educators, including Kim Marshall) has 129 pages of suggestions on how elementary schools can address unfinished learning in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The table of contents:
– School Culture and Climate: Positive school culture; adult mindsets; professional learning; safe and supportive climate; family engagement.
– Curriculum: High-quality, knowledge-rich curriculum; reading; writing; mathematics; science and social studies; social and emotional learning.
– Instruction: Instructional strategies; assessing student progress; supports for students with disabilities; supports for English learners; supports for low-income gifted and talented students.
– Recovery: Targeted help and high-dosage tutoring; expanded mental-health supports; implementation.
“The Acceleration Imperative: A Plan to Address Elementary Students’ Unfinished Learning in the Wake of Covid-19” Version 1.0, edited by Kathleen Carroll, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, March 23, 2021
7. Lesson Ideas for Supporting Students During and After the Pandemic
In this article in American Educator, the Share My Lesson Team suggests the following resources for addressing the emotional needs of students who have experienced trauma over the past year:
“Caring for Grieving Students and Families” by the Share My Lesson Team in American Educator, Spring 2021 (Vol. 45, #1, p. 3)
8. Pushing Back on Workplace Harassment
In this letter to The New York Times, Susan Clark Behnke (of Alexandria, Virginia) says that when people get unwanted personal questions in the workplace, it’s helpful to have responses at the ready. Some strategies: Act as if you don’t hear it; act confused; take the high road; establish a clear boundary; be explicit; leave. Suggested wording:
– What did you think of the report presented at the meeting today?
– I’m a little confused. What does this have to do with work?
– Oh, I keep my private life private.
– Your questions are making me very uncomfortable. Let’s change the subject.
– Let’s focus on doing the people’s work.
– Stop (holding up your hand like a crossing guard). Your words are making me uncomfortable. Did you have questions about work?
– Your words are unwelcome/inappropriate. I’m going back to my office now.
“This may not solve the problem,” says Behnke, “but it could defuse the situation. And you will have empowered yourself to speak up for yourself and delivered the right message from the start.”
“You’re Being Harassed. Here’s What to Say” by Susan Clark Behnke in a letter to The New York Times, March 17, 2021 [See article #2 in Memo 760 for detailed suggestions in the same vein.]
9. How to Respond When You’re Asked for Advice
In this Leadership Freak article, Dan Rockwell says that when someone wants to know what we think they should do, it’s flattering and we’re inclined to share our wisdom. Instead, Rockwell advises, we should tap the brakes and follow these steps:
– Ask questions to see what’s really going on. “Anyone who hasn’t already tried to solve their problem,” says Rockwell, “is either wise, lazy, or afraid.”
– Paraphrase and check for understanding: Here’s what I hear you saying. Do you think I understand the problem?
– If the advice-seeker is seeking to change someone else, shift the focus back to the advice-seeker.
– Keep asking questions to maximize the chance that the person will take ownership and solve the problem themselves: What do you want for yourself? What do you want for others? What do you want in this relationship? What have you tried? How did it work?
“Skillful advice-givers accelerate the trajectory of individuals and teams,” concludes Rockwell.
“The 4 Unbreakable Rules of Giving Advice That People Actually Respect” by Dan Rockwell in Leadership Freak, March 16, 2021; Rockwell can be reached at email@example.com.
10. Children’s and Young Adult Books About Periods
This School Library Journal feature lists eleven recent books on menstruation; see the link below for publishers, brief descriptions, and recommended grade levels.
– Go with the Flow by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann
– The Moon Within by Aida Salazar
– Revenge of the Red Club by Kim Harrington
– The Places We Sleep by Caroline DuBois
– Lobizona by Romina Garber
– Blood Moon by Lucy Cuthew
– Little Miss P by Ken Koyama
– Red Hood by Elana Arnold
– I’ve Got My Period. So What? by Clara Henry, translated by Gun Penhoat
– Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement by Nadya Okamoto
– Period: Twelve Voices Tell the Bloody Truth edited by Kate Farrell
“Period Power: 11 Books That Destigmatize Menstruation” in School Library Journal, March 2021 (Vol. 67, #3, p. 44)
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