In This Issue:
Quotes of the Week
I would rather them yell at me than yell at my administrative team, yell at the teachers, yell at the nurse, yell at the main office people.”
Aaron Eyler, New Jersey principal, in “Principals Bear the Brunt of Parental Anger, Staff Fatigue as Covid Drags On” by Andrew Ujifusa in Education Week, September
22, 2021 (Vol. 41, #6, pp. 6-7)
“As schools courageously embrace a new conception of rigor that rises above merely a crushing workload, we expect to see both increased student wellness and higher levels of more-meaningful academic achievement.”
Percy Abram and Olaf Jorgenson (see item #1)
“For the rest of your life, you won’t be judged by test scores. You’ll be judged by the kind of human being you are, and the kind of work that you do.”
Ron Berger in “Ron Berger on the Power of ‘Beautiful Work’” by Sarah Gonser in
Edutopia, September 20, 2021
“Learners vary in how well they see, hear, and move. They vary in how well they can remember mathematical facts and their ways of paying attention. Learners vary in their emotional response to mathematics.”
Rachel Lambert (see item # 6)
“If we as teachers can learn more about the experience of students who are at the margins, we can leverage that knowledge to design across differences.”
Rachel Lambert (ibid.)
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
Ida B. Wells, 1892
1. Rethinking “Rigor” in Secondary Schools
In this article in Independent School, Percy Abram (The Bush School) and Olaf Jorgenson (Almaden Country Day School) say that academic rigor has been “catnip” for many parents, “associated with favorable outcomes ranging from high standardized test scores and weighted grades to the grand prize, admission to elite colleges and universities.” But what does rigor mean in the classroom?
The usual association is with difficulty – rigorous classes are hard – and not necessarily that they are intellectually challenging and conceptually deep. Rigor is more often associated with piled-on reading, homework, and assignments that produce anxiety, sleep deprivation, isolation, and emotional fatigue. Rigor-as-suffering harkens back to the Latin derivation – stiffness, rigidity, harshness – and echoes contemporary dictionary definitions – inflexibility, strict precision, exactness, making life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable.
“This is not to suggest that academic achievement, ambition, or aspiration aren’t worthy and noble drivers,” say Abram and Jorgenson, “but there is an argument to be made against unnecessary, unhealthy, and inhumane academic distress – about the peril and the ethics of putting student achievement ahead of student wellness, and the fallacy that the two are competing aims.” The additional layers of stress placed on young people during the pandemic have added urgency to the need to rethink rigor in middle and high schools.
The irony is that parents who push schools to implement the hard-nosed conception of rigor are not helping their children prepare for the “best” careers. Many elite companies are looking for a different set of skills: emotional intelligence, listening and empathy, collaboration, creativity, problem-solving, generosity, and fairness. “Certainly,” say Abram and Jorgenson, “students need exposure to direct instruction, core knowledge, memorization and recall, and automaticity – and some students truly blossom when fed and watered by facts.” But this is only part of what young people require to lead fulfilling lives.
The authors propose a new definition of rigor: The degree to which a student is in equal parts intellectually challenged, engaged, enriched, and empowered. The big idea is challenge, not in the sense of an onerous workload but the “provocative, stimulating, sometimes vexing challenge of grasping complex ideas that make learning meaningful and rewarding (as well as empowering) to master.” And this has to be tuned to students’ incoming knowledge, skills and attitudes, so that work is at the Goldilocks level – not too difficult and not too easy.
“As schools courageously embrace a new conception of rigor that rises above merely a crushing workload,” conclude Abram and Jorgenson, “we expect to see both increased student wellness and higher levels of more-meaningful academic achievement.” They believe that even the most driven parents should be persuadable around the goal of producing graduates who are also healthy, well-adjusted, confident, and happy.
In a series of sidebars, Abram and Jorgenson share steps that several secondary schools have taken to tone down rigor-as-suffering and improve their students’ experience:
– Later start times;
– Block scheduling with fewer, longer classes that don’t meet every day;
– Individualized work-study options;
– Integrating co-curricular programs (versus piling them on top of academic courses);
– Tweaking schedules to allow more unstructured downtime;
– Expanding advisory programs;
– Increasing teacher conferencing time;
– Adding mental health counselors;
– Providing forums for students to discuss their school experience;
– Rethinking homework policies.
– Allowing re-dos of tests;
– Eliminating AP courses and replacing them with honors courses designed by teachers;
– More emphasis on experiential learning;
– End-of-term interdisciplinary, immersive experiences on real-life challenges;
– Replacing final exams with expositions in which students demonstrate their learning.
“Out of the Shadows” by Percy Abram and Olaf Jorgenson in Independent School, Summer 2021 (Vol. 80, #4, pp. 70-77)
2. What Is the Best Way for Teachers to Present New Concepts?
In this Review of Educational Research article, Tanmay Sinha and Manu Kapur (ETH Zurich) report on their meta-analysis of an age-old instructional dilemma: when learning a new concept, should students begin by wrestling with a problem and then hear the teacher’s explanation, or should they hear instruction first and then practice solving problems? Sinha and Kapur summarize arguments for each approach:
• Instruction first – Teachers need to focus students on the critical aspects of the material, provide background knowledge and skills, and decrease the chance of kids making errors and floundering around using trial and error.
• Problem-solving first – Students need opportunities to notice and learn critical information on their own, develop agency in dealing with challenging learning experiences, and engage in “productive failure” in which they use what they know to develop approximate solutions to novel problems, followed by instruction and practice.
What did the researchers find? After reading accounts of 166 comparisons of problems-first and instruction-first pedagogy, Sinha and Kapur report a “significant, moderate effect” in favor of starting with problem-solving, especially for students in grades 6-12. The key factors in successful problem-first instruction at all grade levels were:
– Providing a safe space to generate and explore ideas without fear of failure, and providing support for persistence;
– Presenting rich problems that focus on conceptual features of the learning goal with “intuitive hooks” that engage students;
– Drawing on students’ relevant prior knowledge;
– Incorporating interesting “opportunities for failure;”
– Having students work in mixed-achievement groups that allow for explanation and elaboration;
– Having students explain their ideas, paraphrasing their explanations, comparing and contrasting them, distilling critical features, directing students’ attention to those features, and assembling the core ideas into critical understandings.
“When Problem Solving Followed by Instruction Works: Evidence for Productive Failure” by Tanmay Sinha and Manu Kapur in Review of Educational Research, October 2021 (Vol. 91, #5, pp. 761-798); the authors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
3. Teaching Controversial Issues: Lessons from Three Countries
In this article in Social Education, Judith Pace (University of San Francisco) describes a teacher education class in Northern Ireland in which aspiring teachers were asked to write a controversial issue on a sticky note and place it on a continuum on the floor from “happy to teach” to “wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.” This sparked a lively discussion about whether and how these hot topics should be taught once they were in classrooms.
Pace shares a definition of controversial topics: Those problems and disputes that divide society and for which significant groups within society offer conflicting explanations and solutions based on alternative values. These might include contemporary political issues (climate change, immigration, gun safety) or contested histories (the Dust Bowl, the Rwandan genocide), some of which are settled and some are still open. “Determining the reasonableness of competing perspectives on a particular issue,” says Pace, “is critical to deciding which viewpoints should be ‘given a fair hearing’ in the classroom.”
Why take on hot topics, especially in today’s divided political climate? “Researchers have found that open classroom discussion of issues is correlated with increased political efficacy, interest, tolerance, and knowledge,” says Pace. “Exploration of issues from multiple perspectives is integral to promoting media literacy, civic reasoning and discourse, informed independent thought, and other capabilities of democratic citizens. But teaching controversial issues is highly complex and demanding work.”
Pace believes there is another dimension when it comes to teaching difficult topics: a “civic opportunity gap,” with students in wealthier communities and upper-track classes having more opportunities to engage in important discussions than less-advantaged students and lower-track classes. This may be based on the assumption that the latter groups “cannot handle the intellectual and behavioral requirement of studying controversy,” she says. But research has shown that discussing controversial issues yields great benefits for all students, including opportunities for dialogue among groups, helping students understand structural inequalities, building empathy, and bridging social, economic, and racial differences.
Pace conducted research on teaching hot topics in Northern Ireland, England, and the United States and found that teachers fell into three categories: Avoiders (didn’t take on hot topics), Containers (taught those topics but stuck to straightforward facts), and Risk-takers (dove into controversies with role-playing and provocative resources). Pace believes the best posture for teachers is between the second and third position, which she calls contained risk-taking – tackling hard questions with democratic pedagogies and thought-provoking materials – and skillfully handling interactions with students, parents, and school leaders. She has formulated eight strategies for successfully navigating these tricky waters:
• Cultivating a warm, supportive classroom environment – Teachers affirm students’ ideas, build group cohesion, teach respectful listening, use humor for bonding and trust-building, and engage students in collaborative learning.
• Thorough preparation and planning – This means continuously building content knowledge, being clear on the purpose, rationale, and goal of units and lessons, and crafting learning experiences that build students’ conceptual understanding.
• Thinking through one’s own identity and roles – Teachers need to clarify their own positions on the issues they teach, whether or not to disclose them, and how to be an effective facilitator of inquiry (sometimes a devil’s advocate) so students reach their own conclusions.
• Up-front communication with parents, colleagues, and students – Everyone has to know in advance what will be taught and why it’s important.
• Thoughtful selection, sequencing, and framing of issues – It’s wise to start with less-contentious issues and present all controversies in non-personal terms, promoting understanding of different perspectives rather than debating personal opinions.
• Using creative resources and group activities – Small-group discussions and effective use of curriculum materials stimulate thinking and provide entry points for opening students’ minds – as well as avoiding possible pitfalls of all-class discussions.
• Skillfully steering classroom dynamics – “Questioning, discussion formats, and protocols provide structure to discussion,” says Pace, “which typically starts in small groups and moves to whole-class plenaries,” perhaps including Socratic Seminars or Town Hall discussions.
• Dealing with emotional conflicts – This includes not arousing strong emotions, balancing affective with intellectual engagement, getting students to think metacognitively, and using de-escalation techniques if tempers flare.
“How Can Educators Prepare for Teaching Controversial Issues? Cross-National Lessons” by Judith Pace in Social Education, September 2021 (Vol. 85, #4, pp. 228-233); Pace can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
4. Does Selling Curriculum Materials Online Improve Teachers’ Work?
In this Elementary School Journal article, Catharyn Shelton (Northern Arizona University) and Tray Geiger and Leanna Archambault (Arizona State University) report on their study of 226 “teacherpreneurs” who had been selling curriculum materials they developed on the TeachersPayTeachers website. Only a small percentage of teachers are involved in marketing their materials online, but websites like this one are popular, especially among young teachers; in 2019, TeachersPayTeachers hosted more than 200,000 sellers.
The pandemic boosted traffic on the site, with per-buyer weekly spending increasing 20 percent from the spring of 2019 to the spring of 2020. Other similar platforms – Share My Lesson, Pinterest, Amazon Ignite, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and Patreon – also saw more activity.
Shelton, Geiger, and Archambault were interested in whether putting curriculum materials on an internet marketplace affected teachers’ perceptions of their classroom performance and interactions with colleagues. Here’s what they found:
• Teachers in the study believed that selling their curriculum creations online improved the quality of their day-to-day teaching, irrespective of how much money they earned.
• Teachers reported that selling materials was a valuable way to connect with colleagues, which they believed led to improved performance and self-efficacy. “Because teaching can be an isolating profession,” say the authors, “…Teacherpreneurship may present a novel way for teachers to connect with others that can lead to positive impacts on one’s own practice… When teacherpreneurs collaborate with other teachers and in their work as informal teacher leaders, they may engage more deeply and critically with their own classroom practices. They may then be better positioned to refine and hone their pedagogical skills and materials, which may lead to improved confidence in the classroom.”
• Selling curriculum materials online was an avenue for women to assert leadership in a profession historically dominated by men. It was also a pathway for female educators to enter an entrepreneurial space often seen as male territory.
• Teacherpreneurs challenged the influence of textbook companies on classrooms, say the authors, “potentially allowing for female teacher voices to be heard rather than devalued.”
• Teachers in the study who didn’t have graduate degrees reported the greatest improvements in their classroom practices. “Teacherpreneurship,” say Shelton, Geiger, and Archambault, “may be a valuable approach to improving classroom practice that, unlike formal teacher education, pays the teacher rather than the teacher having to pay an institution of higher education.” Since there’s little evidence that graduate education and traditional PD improves classroom practice, say the authors, developing and selling curriculum ideas online can be seen as a viable alternative to improving teaching practices.
The article concludes with several cautionary notes: “Although teacherpreneurial approaches may represent grassroots and teacher-led efforts,” say Shelton, Geiger, and Archambault, “they still occur within the context of an imperfect capitalist system.” Their concerns:
– While some teachers profit from online sales, buyers are out of pocket for materials that should be paid for by their schools.
– Some of the best-selling online materials are of “moderate or subpar quality,” say the researchers, and the worst may be doing more harm than good.
– Accordingly, teachers need more guidance on how to tell the wheat from the chaff in the burgeoning online marketplace.
– Teacherpreneurs are overwhelmingly white, with teachers of color taking part in much smaller numbers. “Racially diverse curriculum authors are needed,” say Shelton, Geiger, and Archambault, “because these individuals bring valuable lived experiences and perspectives to the design of lessons and materials, which in turn can support students who are traditionally disempowered in schools.”
– Online marketplaces foster some teachers’ desire to be “Pinterest-worthy” – possessing the aesthetic qualities to be popular on social media. This may not produce the best instruction for students.
“Becoming a Better Teacher Through Online Teacherpreneurship?” by Catharyn Shelton, Tray Geiger, and Leanna Archambault in Elementary School Journal, September 2021 (Vol. 122, #1, pp. 8-25); the authors can be reached at Catharyn.Shelton@nau.edu, email@example.com, and Leanna.Archambault@asu.edu.
5. Nevada Second Graders Write Up a Storm on Twitter
In this Elementary School Journal article, Holly Marich, Christine Greenhow, Douglas Hartman (Michigan State University) and Diana Brandon (Florida State University) report on their study of Nevada second graders doing short-form writing on their class Twitter account. Up to six students a day could tweet on class iPads (tweeting was encouraged but not required), and family members were admitted as followers, along with other educators and students in the school. Students understood that their tweets could be read by anyone.
The teacher started the year with Twitter basics – followers, hashtags, emojis, likes, retweeting, the 280-character limit, and online safety skills – and went over the writing process (planning, drafting, revising, spelling, punctuation, capitals, and publishing). The point of the Twitter writing, she said, was to improve communication and writing skills and connect with the world beyond their classroom.
The teacher modeled writing tweets, projected short compositions on the interactive whiteboard, and had students read them chorally. Students then used a class “Twitter sheet” to compose their own writing on the day they had access to the iPads:
– Write 2 sentences: What are you learning about? Why are you learning about it? How will you use this information?
– or Ask a question about what you are learning about. Why did you ask this question?
– A reprise of the steps of writing: Plan, Draft, Revise, Edit, Publish.
– Read your sentences out loud and check for the following: my sentences have subjects (who, what); my sentences have predicates (action, what); my sentences make sense; my sentences have capitalization; my sentences have punctuation (.?!).
As the year progressed, the teacher gradually released responsibility and students became increasingly independent tweeters.
How did this experiment work out? Students weren’t especially into the act of writing, say Marich, Greenhow, Hartman, and Brandon, but “were rapturously willing to use the medium through which writing was enacted.” They loved the technology, the playful nature of a lot of the tweets, and the quick responses they received from followers. Students were motivated to present themselves well and connect with their wide audience, and that built their confidence and skill as writers.
The researchers were particularly impressed by how goal-setting – a standard part of the writing process – was enhanced by the Twitter format, with both in-advance and in-the-moment planning (more typically associated with older students). “In summary,” say the authors, “children set goals for managing the medium as they form text online, and the medium itself permits the goal posts for writing to be set beyond the text at hand, toward future aspirations and identities that the writers hold.”
Marich, Greenhow, Hartman, and Brandon also noticed a “network effect” as students wrote their tweets, boosting the academic impact. “The children in our study,” they say, “noted that they were also part of the audience for their own tweets, just as others were. Because of the medium, they could track followers’ responses to their tweets as if they too were a follower, responding to their own tweets and others’ responses to their tweets. As such, the writer simultaneously has followers who follow their tweets (and like them) and is also a follower of their own tweets. Thus, the ‘new’ realization for thinking about the audience for a tweet is a broader conception of the audience, one that includes the author as one of their own followers.”
“Eight Tweeters Tweeting” by Holly Marich, Christine Greenhow, Douglas Hartman, and Diana Brandon in Elementary School Journal, September 2021 (Vol. 122, #1, pp. 26-56); Greenhow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, Hartman at email@example.com.
6. Universal Design for Learning in Math Classes
In this article in Mathematics Teacher: Learning & Teaching PK-12, Richard Lambert (University of California/Santa Barbara) describes three math lessons in which teachers used UDL with inclusive groups of students:
• A kindergarten class gathers on the rug as students prepare to measure a sensory path they are designing in the hallway outside their classroom. After discussing measuring tools and how to be a supportive partner, students team up, gather sets of connecting cubes, and get to work. As they count and measure, the teacher circulates, reteaching and clarifying. Before long a student notices that his group’s measurement isn’t the same as another group’s, and the teacher leads a mini-lesson on accuracy in measurement.
• A fifth-grade class is asked to figure out how a family of eight can share six large burritos in a fair and equitable manner. The teacher gives students a moment to think and then lets them choose whether to work in a small group, with a partner, or independently. Students work with manipulatives and supplies, and when they’re finished, they gather and share their strategies with the whole class. The teacher names each strategy and helps students troubleshoot their solutions.
• A ninth-grade class continues its multi-day exploration of functions as two quantities with a relationship. Some students graph data from a video of their classmates throwing balled-up paper into a trashcan. Others graph problems on the online program Desmos. The teacher works with a smaller group doing a paper-and-pencil graph of a function. Near the end of the lesson, the teacher calls the class together, reminds them of the big idea of the day (Functions have multiple representations), and asks, “How did that idea emerge in your work today?” Several students respond, and the class wraps up with students doing a self-evaluation of their work.
The key element in each class was that the teacher’s lesson plan made learning accessible to a wide range of students, including those with disabilities. “Learners vary in how well they see, hear, and move,” says Lambert. “They vary in how well they can remember mathematical facts and their ways of paying attention. Learners vary in their emotional response to mathematics.” The key insight of UDL, he says, is that by planning skillfully around the needs of students with learning differences, teachers can meet the needs of the whole class.
UDL lessons are built on empathy for students’ experiences, says Lambert, with the aim of all students succeeding and becoming expert, strategic, and lifelong learners. He recommends conducting “empathy interviews” to better understand what makes students tick and identify barriers to their accessing learning. Lesson design especially benefits from an understanding of marginalized students – understanding issues around disability, race, gender, language, and other social positionings. “If we as teachers can learn more about the experience of students who are at the margins,” he says, “we can leverage that knowledge to design across differences.”
The researchers who developed the UDL framework proposed that lessons should be designed to target three domains:
• The why of learning – Presenting lessons so learners get engaged and stay challenged, excited, interested, and motivated; key elements:
– A supportive classroom environment: Do students feel safe enough to take risks? (This means deemphasizing speed and accuracy.) Are students building relationships in and through math?
– Meaningful mathematics: Is the math relevant, engaging, and culturally responsive? Do students regularly work in groups and engage in sense-making?
• The what of learning – Presenting information and content in different ways because students differ in how they gather facts and categorize what they see, hear, and read; key elements:
– Focusing on core ideas: Do unit and lesson plans guide students to understand and remember fundamental math ideas?
– Multimodal: Is math content accessible? Can students choose how they solve problems?
• The how of learning – Differentiating the way students show what they have learned; key elements:
– Equitable feedback: Does feedback help students grow as mathematicians? Is assessment appropriate for all learners?
– Understanding oneself as a mathematics learner: What do students learn about themselves as math learners? How do lessons support that development?
“The Magic Is in the Margins: UDL Math” by Rachel Lambert in Mathematics Teacher: Learning & Teaching PK-12, September 2021 (Vol. 114, #9, pp. 660-669); Lambert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
7. Questions and Answers on ESSER Funds
This Education Week article by Mark Lieberman and Andrew Ujifusa provides comprehensive information on ESSER I, II, and III funding:
– Why did schools get so much federal money during the pandemic?
– How much money did my school district get?
– Why did some school districts get so much more or less than others?
– What’s the difference between the three federal relief aid packages? What does that mean for my school district?
– What should I call the three sets of federal relief?
– How long does my district have to spend the federal money?
– Can my governor or state lawmakers influence how my school district spends federal Covid relief?
– I know the federal government passed Covid-19 relief for schools months ago. Does my school district currently have access to those dollars?
– When does my district have to decide how to spend the funds? Can it change course after making plans?
– I’ve heard that districts have to spend 20 percent of stimulus funds on helping students recover from learning loss. What does that mean?
– Is there anything my district isn’t allowed to spend its federal money on?
– What happens when the money runs out?
– How will the government hold schools accountable for how they spend their money?
– What are the odds that the federal government approves another Covid relief package for schools?
“Everything You Need to Know About Schools and Covid Relief Funds” by Mark Lieberman and Andrew Ujifusa in Education Week, September 22, 2021 (Vol. 41, #6, pp. 12-13)
8. Online Practices from the Pandemic That May Continue
This “Up Front” feature in Independent School reports on the percentage of private school leaders who say they will continue certain Covid-era online practices going forward:
– Parent-teacher conferences – 77%
– Virtual learning for students who are ill – 77%
– Professional development events – 72%
– Board meetings – 71%
– Parent town halls – 70%
– School tours and admission events – 66%
– Alumni events – 50%
– Faculty/staff meetings – 49%
– Hybrid learning options – 37%
– Fundraising events – 37%
“What Stays?” in Independent School, Summer 2021 (Vol. 80, #4, p. 3)
9. Short Item:
A New Website with K-12 Resources on Climate Change – The Subject to Climate website has a wide variety of free, carefully curated lesson plans, videos, and other materials on climate change, geared to Next Generation Science and Common Core standards. For more information, contact Margaret Wang at email@example.com.
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