A few days ago, both Daniel Willingham and Robert Pondiscio — two thinkers and educators whose opinions I value highly — wrote posts critical of the use (or, perhaps, the over-use) of teaching reading strategies to students. They both suggest that this can result in making students feel bored by reading.
I certainly agree that teachers misusing reading strategies in class can indeed, as Dan Willingham put it, cause “collateral damage.” I’d also suggest that poor teaching of just about anything can have a similar result.
Done well, regular teaching and reinforcing of reading strategies can have the opposite result, and I see it in my classroom, and the classrooms of my colleagues, everyday.
Reading strategies are not just for comprehension — they are also for engagement.
We don’t have students explicitly apply them (or, if they do, very seldom) during their pleasure reading. But for reading text they are unfamiliar with and often, at least initially, not interested in (especially informational text in English and in content area classes) reading strategies like highlighting, visualizing, connecting, asking questions, evaluating, and summarizing provide a tool for students to extend their thinking and also a provide a system for accountability. Explicitly being challenged to ask questions, expand those questions to higher level orders of thinking, and then share them with their classmates agitates everyone to wonder and explore what the answers might be. Some reluctant readers become more engaged when they know they can draw and visualize what they are reading. Pushing students to consciously agree or disagree with what they read and provide evidence for their beliefs helps students develop needed critical thinking skills. And, yes, all that engagement reinforces comprehension, too.
I appreciate Mr. Willingham’s spur to open a conversation about the value and weight of reading strategies in the larger milieu of reading instruction.
For openers, I cannot imagine responsible reading instruction without the teaching of reading strategies, though I too worry about appropriate balance and priority.
Just as teachers of music, dance and sports use exercises and drills to refine, expand and enhance learner skills and technique, so should reading teachers give students’ methods and means for making text more available and understandable, and thus enjoyable.
When I take a tennis lesson, I don’t expect to only play during the lesson… I expect to learn strategies through exercises that will expand my skill set. I also don’t expect to just do drills, as I need to apply my sharpened skills to the larger game.
The same holds for reading instruction. Through strategy work, in appropriate balance with general reading and free reading, we make transparent via modeling and practice varied means of engaging with text in novel and more sophisticated levels of thinking. This expansion of reader tools has the effect of broadening and strengthening students’ reading repertoire. Students are asked to read and interact with text through different lenses and points of contact. This arms students with more tools through which to connect with and enjoy reading. Done correctly, it simultaneously makes text more engaging while sharpening and expanding meaning-making competencies.
Done poorly, indeed it feels monotonous and superfluous, though not a reason to deny expanded and powerful tools from students. That is a teaching problem. Reading strategies are not to be confused with teaching methods, they are learning strategies for student to own and apply as needed with varied levels and types of text. They are also not to be confused with assessment and poorly worded multiple-choice questions testing student comprehension. Such “methods” do not teach reading skill; they only test it, weakly.
Reading strategies are an amalgam of tactics and approaches for making reading more available and understandable, more vivid and rich. As with most teaching and learning challenges, the magic is in the right mix of applied practice and inquiry. More tools, and more understanding of these tools, only enriches the reading and learning experience.
How do you use reading strategies in your classroom?
(see Robert Pondiscio’s thoughtful response in the comments)
In the article, Gawande (who is also a surgeon) discusses how he had felt he had reached a “plateau” in his surgical skill, and looked at other professions which employed “coaches”:
[Coaching] holds that, no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own.
Gawande considers examples of coaching in athletic and non-athletic venues, and writes extensively about the instructional-coaching program run by the Albemarle County public schools in Virginia. There, the program is completely outside the formal evaluation process and completely voluntary.
I’ve written extensively about the coaching program our individual high school runs with Kelly Young at Pebble Creek Labs, and why those two elements — outside the evaluation process and being voluntary — are also critical for its success. I’ll end this post with links those pieces describing what we do but, most importantly, I want to mention that Pam Moran, the Superintendent of the Albenarle County School District, has agreed to answer a few questions I’ve posed to her specifically about the coaching program. I’ll be posting those responses (and possibly thoughts from other staff involved in the program there) shortly, but wanted to get the word out about The New Yorker article quickly.
Free Voluntary Reading (also known as SSR, Extensive Reading, and a number of other terms) is a key element in the English curriculum at our school — and in many others. It’s basically the practice of having students read a book of their choice during a period of time in class, and encourage that they do the same at home (you an learn more about it at The Best Resources Documenting The Effectiveness of Free Voluntary Reading).
In class, especially during two-period double block mainstream and ESL classes, we generally have students read for the first fifteen or twenty minutes. Kelly Young from Pebble Creek Labs, our extraordinary instructional strategies consultant about whom I have often written, is always pushing us to be active and walking around during this time, talking with students about what they are reading, having them read passages to us, asking them questions, etc.
We all know that what he’s suggesting is the right thing to do. To be honest, though, for many of us, it’s easy to, instead, use a a portion of that time to get ready for the lesson, answer a couple of school emails, clean-up papers from the previous class, or just take a breather for a minute or two. The spirit is willing, but the body sometimes doesn’t follow.
However, a new study might give all of us a little bit of a push to take Kelly’s words more seriously.
As regular readers of this blog know, every year I have students evaluate my classes and me and post the results — warts and all — here (as well as email them to my colleagues). I think that making the results public, and letting students know in advance that this is what I’m going to do, may help them take it little more seriously than they might otherwise.
I do a different evaluation process for each class, so each year write several different posts. This one is from my double-block ninth-grade English class and from my one-period pre-International Baccalaureate ninth-grade English class.
Another advantage to making these results public is that it makes it a little easier for me to review results from previous years. That kind of comparison can give me more food for thought. You can find all these posts at My Best Posts On Students Evaluating Classes (And Teachers). However, since this is the first time I’ve taught an advanced English class, I don’t have previous evaluations to compare it to, though it can be intriguing to compare the results to my double-block class.
Here are the results (I’ll give the results and analysis for my double block first, followed by the results from my Pre-IB class):
1. In this class, I learned…. 2/3 said “some”; 1/3 said “a lot”; none said “a little” (double-block)
This is the typical response….until the last day of school (which is this coming Friday). On that day, I provide students with an essay they wrote in September and an essay they wrote in May, along with an “improvement rubric.” Students then assess each of the essays and see the dramatic improvement they typical made (you can read more about this process, and the research behind it, here. At that point, I usually tell students I’ve misplaced their evaluation of me and ask them to do it again. Nothing changes…except for the responses to this first question. Then it typically goes to 1/3 saying “some” and 2/3 saying “a lot.” I do this two-step evaluation process as sort of my own “action research” project. I’ll write another post next week saying if this kind of change happens again, or if it does not.
My advanced class rated it as 1/3 “some” and 2/3 “a lot”
Most of the students in this class came in with, and continue to have, a high-degree of intrinsic motivation, so these results are not a surprise (except I did think there would be a slightly higher number under “a lot.”
2. I tried my best in this class….1/3 said “a lot of the time”; 1/3 said “all of the time” and 1/3 said “some of the time.” (double block)
My advanced class rated themselves as 1/2 “a lot of the time” and 1/2 as “all the time.”
Again, they’re pretty intrinsically-motivated to begin with…
3. My favorite unit was…. Natural Disasters came in first and was closely followed by Mt. Everest (double block)
Usually, Natural Disasters and our unit on Jamaica are close, and Everest is typically the least favorite one. Jamaica didn’t even get one vote this year as the favorite, and I’m not sure why. I’ll have to ask students this week. Katie Hull, my colleague, and I both made substantial cuts to the length of the Everest unit this year, and I’m pretty sure that’s a major reason it was a hit. It’s typically an extremely long unit. We used the time we saved to have students create their own units on topics of their choice (which I’ll write about in a post later this week).
My advanced class ranked it the same way — Natural Disasters followed by Mt. Everest.
Again, I think the reduction in time for Mt. Everest paid-off.
4. My least favorite unit was....Latin Studies came in first, closely followed by the one we do on Nelson Mandela (double block)
Latin Studies is heavily literature-based, and includes poetry and a more essay-writing than the other units. It’s typically ranked near the bottom, as is the Mandela unit. I it’s time for me to consult with any of my colleagues who do similar student evaluations (other than my close colleague and co-author Katie Hull) and Kelly Young from Pebble Creek Labs, our school’s outstanding consultant, to see if these low-rankings are typical across-the-board and, if so, are there any changes to the unit we should consider. And if there is enough information to find that they are not typical, then I should probably try to figure out what I need to do differently.
My advanced class ranked it the same way.
5. As a teacher, I think Mr. Ferlazzo is…. 1/3 said “okay”; 1/3 said “good” and 1/3 said “excellent.” No one said “bad” (double-block)
This is my typical ranking. I’ve written a further analysis below.
Half of my advanced class ranked me as “good” and one-half ranked me as “excellent.”
There are basically never any classroom management issues in my advanced class, while it’s not uncommon for a number of students in our double-block classes to be facing multiple changes. Because of that, it’s easier to focus all of my energy in the advanced class into just teaching English, while that’s not always the case in my double-block, where I need to often teach other life-skills. I feel like I constantly work towards being a better teacher but, given the circumstances, I’ll settle for the 1/3, 1/3, and 1/3 ranking in my double-block. I’m going to write more about this topic in a future post.
6. Did you feel that Mr. Ferlazzo was concerned about what was happening in your life? 2/3 said yes and 1/3 said no (double block)
That’s my typical ranking.
My advanced class gave the same assessment.
7. Mr. Ferlazzo is patient...practically everyone circled “some of the time” (double block)
This is the result that I’m probably surprised with the most. Usually I get a 2/3 “some of the time” and 1/3 “a lot of the time.” I’ve got to think about this one. I like to think I’m a pretty patient teacher.
My advanced class ranked me as 1/3 “some of the time”; 1/3 “a lot of the time” and 1/3 “all of the time.”
8. Did you like this class? 2/3 said “yes” and 1/3 said “no” (double block)
That’s slightly lower than the typical response, but I can live with it.
Everyone in my advanced class said they liked the class.
9. What was your favorite activity in this class? “Working in groups” came in first and was closely followed by “writing essays.” (double block)
Working in groups always comes in first, but I was a bit surprised at seeing “writing essays” being ranked so highly — it usually comes in much lower. My colleague Katie and I worked hard this year and developing and implementing a very scaffolded writing process and, based on my conversations with students, for many it was the first time they have been successful writers.
My advanced class ranked “clozes” (fill-in-the-blanks) as number one and working in groups as number two. None of them ranked “writing essays” as a favorite activity.
I think they really saw the clozes as challenging puzzles (clozes came in third place in the double-block class). I’m going to ask them this week about their low-ranking of essays. I suspect it was because I didn’t do as much scaffolding since we only had half the time.
10. Which activity do you think helped you learn the most? “Writing essays” came in first, and then “practice reading” (when students can read a book of their choice for fifteen minutes at the beginning of each class) and “working in groups” tied for second. (double block)
My advanced class ranked “data sets” as number one, followed by “working in groups.”
“Think Alouds” are an important instructional strategy I use in my mainstream English class and with my Intermediate English Language Learners. I read a passage and make transparent what good readers do, or I’ll write something and model what good readers do. I write about this process in my new book, and you can read more about it at our school consultant’s website, Kelly Young’s Pebble Creek Labs.
One way to address all of these issues is “narrative driving,” in which the adult drives while giving a teenage passenger a play-by-play. Point out examples of unsafe driving, explain why you are changing lanes or slowing down, announce when you are checking the mirrors, and explain how you are reacting to information. Show the prospective driver how you deal with distractions like a disruptive child in the back seat without taking your eyes off the road.
“It’s helpful to talk out loud about what you’re seeing and doing,” Dr. Durbin said. “It sensitizes your teen to the fact that there is a lot more going on up here in the front seat than he thought there was.”
Good teaching strategies don’t have to be limited to the classroom….
This is Your Brain on Shakespeare is a pretty interesting short article on a research a professor did on what listening to Shakespeare did to people’s brain. He found that it can “shift mental pathways and open possibilities” for what the brain can do.
I think the research reinforces the importance of Read Alouds in general. I’ve learned from Kelly Young from Pebble Creek Labs how valuable a carefully selected short passage (that is well-read by the teacher) can have on students. By including a few words that might be new to them and by showing writing styles that they might be seeing for the first time, I could see how good Read Alouds can have an unusual affect on the listener’s brain. You can read Kelly’s description of the Read Aloud instructional strategy here.
There have been a number of reasons for that improvement, including just spending more time on it. There’s one particular area, though, that I think has made a big difference — more explicitly connecting our use of categorization to writing.
I’ve written a lot — both in previous posts and in my books — about our use of inductive data sets in teaching and learning. This tool comes from our work with Kelly Young at Pebble Creek Labs, and you can read his description of it here.
Briefly, it’s a matter of presenting students with numerous short or longer examples of information on a broader topic (called a “data set”) — let’s say Jamaica — and then students need to categorize the information. My books offer numerous examples of its use with English Language Learners and native-English speakers. This activity, and subsequent ones, promote higher-order thinking skills.
In terms of writing, this categorization activity is easily transferable to writing — the categories can then be converted into paragraphs, and students can also easily cite their source. It’s a very accessible process that students can use in writing whatever they need to in any class — even when they don’t actually have a formal “data set.” Instead, when they’re reading a textbook, for example, they just need convert whatever notes they’ve taken into categories.
You may wonder how I know this idea of categorization has been such an important reason behind my student’s writing improvement. Well, I asked them.
On Friday I asked students to respond to this question:
What are things you’ve learned in this class about writing essays that you think will help you in other classes and in life?
They wrote many of the thoughts you’d expect from any English class — thesis statements, topic sentences, “hooks,” etc. Many, though, wrote these kinds of words at the top of their papers:
I learned that you can do categories first and then write your essay from it is it’s easy.
Organizing the categories first and then writing paragraphs from them.
Making categories out of the data sets helps me write essays because it makes the paragraphs easier to write.
Summarizing categories helps a lot.
It’s always nice to see that what we think we teach is what students actually learn….
What’s keeping your kids from making big time gains (that are within our control)?
It seems to me that these are good questions to ask ourselves at this time of the year (or, in fact, at anytime).
I thought I’d briefly share my responses, and invite readers to share yours in the comments section. I’ll compile everyone’s responses into a post in mid-April. Please leave your comment by April 15th. I’ll elaborate more on my responses in that post.
What have you gotten better at this year?
I’ve gotten a lot better at teaching writing; identifying tech-related activities for our mainstream students that bring a value-added (the use of that term for discredited teacher assessments really makes me wary of using it) benefit to their academic work; showing more patience in classroom management; and differentiating instruction for students with challenges.
What do you still need to figure out or work on?
I need to do a better job at “transfer” — helping students see how they can apply what they are learning in our class to others classes and in their lives; differentiating instruction for students who have an appetite for bigger challenges; making relationship-building time for students who seem to be doing well and not have it all eaten up by those with the biggest needs; and I’ve always got to be conscious about talking less.
What’s keeping your kids from making big time gains (that are within our control)?
Our Small Learning Community (twenty teachers and three hundred students) has organized a mentorship program where a number of juniors (most are in my Theory of Knowledge class) are mentors to our ninth-graders. It’s had a tremendously positive impact on our ninth-graders, and I think it would be great if we could figure out a way to expand it in our SLC and throughout the whole school. Our SLC Lead Teacher, Rachel Schultz, has done an excellent job organizing it. Years ago, our school had was called an “Advisory” where we created time for teachers and students to do something like this, but had to end it for a variety of reasons.
Okay, now it’s your turn. How would you answer these three questions?
One of the many reasons I wanted to involve students was to model the importance of accepting critique and working to get better at what we do.
This week, as part of our unit on Jamaica, students needed to compose, and perform, a song using Bob Marley’s music as a model. Two students chose to sing about me. In addition to commenting on the shine of my bald head, they sang about the videotaping experience. The one minute recording is pretty funny, and also shows that you never know what you do in the classroom will really “stick.”
In our mainstream ninth-grade English classes, some of the units we teach including having students review “glossaries” of the slang or language that people speak in the areas we’re studying — New Orleans and Jamaica. We have them do a variety of activities with it, including identifying words they like, writing postcards using the language and developing a dialogue (all this is part of our curriculum from Kelly Young and Pebble Creek Labs). In fact, tomorrow, we’ll be having our students record their short conversations using Fotobabble and post them on our class blog.
Students always love these lessons, and I think parts of this study gives me more insights into their academic value. The study talks about intentionally learning a language, but I would think even a short exposure to one, like we do in our classes, might have some comparable, though limited, benefit. Here are some related excerpts from the article:
As well as learning vocabulary and grammar you’re also unconsciously learning a whole new way of seeing the world,” said Dr Athanasopoulos. “There’s an inextricable link between language, culture and cognition.
“The benefits you gain are not just being able to converse in their language — it also gives you a valuable insight into their culture and how they think…It can also enable you to understand your own language better “
As regular readers know, our school works closely with Kelly Young from Pebble Creek Labs on our curriculum and instructional strategies. One of the Pebble Creek-designed assessments we use in our English classes is having students complete the same two clozes three times each year — September, January, and June — to assess reading comprehension and vocabulary development. In addition, we have students read to two passages for one minute each to us during the same three times during the year in order to measure reading fluency. You can see The Best Resources For Learning About Formative Assessment for more information about these assessments.
But these assessments, especially the one for reading fluency, is about much more than data. Those few minutes are also opportunities for us to check-in with students to find-out how they’re doing. In addition, individual conversations teachers have with each student after the results of the assessments are known are good times to converse about their future hopes and goals (see My Best Posts On Students Setting Goals). These conversations help us connect genuinely useful data to genuine student self-interests. This, in turn helps students develop intrinsic motivation to achieve goals that they set for themselves — with some teacher assistance. I write more about this process in my upcoming book, Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers to Classroom Challenges.
This week I’ve been talking with my ninth-grade students about their fluency scores (next week we’ll be having similar conversations about their cloze assessments, and they’ll be using them to complete goal sheets and actions plans for the semester).
Here is how I talk with them about their reading and their data, especially mid-year — all in short, private conversations:
First, I begin by telling them I’m going to ask them a question, and that I’m going to ask them to answer it honestly. I promise I won’t react negatively to anything they say, and there won’t be any grade consequences at all. “How much time to read each night?” I ask (students are supposed to read for 1/2 hour each night). Almost universally, I’m convinced that students answer candidly.
Next, I take one of three tacts — depending on their fluency scores (of course, it’s not always as clear-cut but, for the sake of this post, you’ll get the idea):
IF STUDENTS HAVE NOT MADE MUCH PROGRESS: When this is the case, almost always students have answered my question by telling me they don’t read much. I tell them that it shows in their scores. They’re going to have to do a lot of reading in high school, and it’s going to be hard to keep up if they can’t read faster — homework will take a lot longer. The student and I might take a few seconds to calculate how much faster they could read a text if they are able to increase their reading by ten, twenty, thirty and even forty words a minute, and how much time they would be able to save. I know the interests of each student, and what they say they want to do after high school, so I might ask them how much reading they think they’ll have to do to study for that profession or to actually do the profession. I’ll ask if they are having a hard time finding a book they find interesting, and we’ll discuss ways to find one. I’ll end my asking them to think about what they want their fluency goal to be at the end of the year so they can be prepared to complete their goal sheet next week, and ask them to think about specific things they can do to achieve it.
IF STUDENTS HAVE MADE GOOD PROGRESS, BUT ARE STILL NOT READING AT THE LEVEL THEY NEED TO BE: When this is the case, I’ll tell them that the average student increases their reading fluency by ten words per minute in a full year, and that they’ve exceeded that goal in five months. After that pat on the back, I’ll say something like, “Boy, if you were able to make that amount of progress in half a year by reading _______ minutes each night (whatever amount they told me initially), imagine the progress you could make if you increased that amount — even a little bit — or read a little more challenging book?” Then we’ll have a conversation similar to the one I recounted in the first instance — doing a little calculation, talking about it’s impact on their future, asking them to think about their goal and action plan.
IF STUDENTS HAVE MADE PROGRESS & ARE ALREADY READING WELL: When this is the case, I’ll tell them that I’m going to be honest with them — they’re doing fine and will do fine in school. I’ll also ask them if they want to settle for “fine” or do they want to go for “great”? We’ll then have a conversation about their hopes for the future. I’ll tell them that one thing they need to remember, though, is that it can sometimes take more work to go from reading 190 words per minute to 200 than to go from 100 to 110. It’s like a competitive runner — it can be harder for someone to go from running a four minute mile to someone running a 1:55 mile than someone going from a ten minute mile to running a mile in nine minutes. A person might go from 100 to 110 words per minute reading a Goosebumps book for 30 minutes a night, but it’s unlikely someone is going to go from 190 to 200 by doing the same thing. They’d need to look at reading more challenging books and for reading for a longer time.
The backdrop for these conversations are multiple life skill lessons we’ve done (and which you’ll find in my book) on the effect of learning on the brain, how perseverance and self-control affect future success, and on the importance of taking personal responsibility. Of course, another key element is the relationship I’ve built with each student.
Contrast how we use data with students — authentic assessments, personal conversations & relationships, connections to student’s future hopes, and self-selected goals — with how data might be used in schools. In fact, I’ll end this post with a video showing one of those other ways.
But before you watch it, please take a minute to think of any suggestions you might have on how I can improve the quality of my “data-informed” conversations with students. I’m all ears….
Last year, two very talented educators — Ted Appel, the extraordinary principal we have at our school, and Kelly Young, creator of much of the engaging curriculum we use at our school through his Pebble Creek Labs — brought-up the same point in separate meetings with teachers at my school: The importance of not being “data-driven” and, instead, to be “data-informed.”
These conversations took place in the context of discussing the results of state standardized tests. Here’s the point made by Ted:
If schools are data-driven, they might make decisions like keeping students who are “borderline” between algebra and a higher-level of math in algebra so that they do well in the algebra state test. Or, in English, teachers might focus a lot of energy on teaching a “strand” that is heavy on the tests — even though it might not help the student become a life-long reader. In other words, the school can tend to focus on its institutional self-interest instead of what’s best for the students.
In schools that are data-informed, test results are just one more piece of information that can be helpful in determining future directions.
Since that conversation took place, I’ve written several posts about the topic. I thought it might be useful to bring together several related resources.
Here are my choices for The Best Resources Showing Why We Need To Be “Data-Informed” & Not “Data-Driven”:
The cartoon reminded of what the New York judge said earlier this month when he ruled that the School District can publicly release the names of teachers and their “Teacher Data Reports.” Here is what the judge said (and I kid you not):
“The UFT’s argument that the data reflected in the TDRs should not be released because the TDRs are so flawed and unreliable as to be subjective is without merit,” the judge wrote, citing legal precedent that “there is no requirement that data be reliable for it to be disclosed.”
An article in Educational Leadership is a year-old, but it’s new to me and certainly worth sharing. It’s called The New Stupid, and has the subtitle “Educators have made great strides in using data. But danger lies ahead for those who misunderstand what data can and can’t do.” It’s written by Frederick M. Hess.
…the key is not to retreat from data but to truly embrace the data by asking hard questions, considering organizational realities, and contemplating unintended consequences. Absent sensible restraint, it is not difficult to envision a raft of poor judgments governing staffing, operations, and instruction—all in the name of “data-driven decision making.”
First, educators should be wary of allowing data or research to substitute for good judgment. When presented with persuasive findings or promising new programs, it is still vital to ask the simple questions: What are the presumed benefits of adopting this program or reform? What are the costs? How confident are we that the promised results are replicable? What contextual factors might complicate projections? Data-driven decision making does not simply require good data; it also requires good decisions.
He describes a class of antipsychotic drugs, whose effectiveness was demonstrated by several large clinical trials. But in a subsequent batch of studies, the therapeutic power of the drugs appeared to wane precipitously.
This is not an isolated case. “But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain,” Lehrer writes. “It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable.”
The world is fluid. Bias and randomness can creep in from all directions. For example, between 1966 and 1995 there were 47 acupuncture studies conducted in Japan, Taiwan and China, and they all found it to be an effective therapy. There were 94 studies in the U.S., Sweden and Britain, and only 56 percent showed benefits. The lesson is not to throw out studies, but to never underestimate the complexity of the world around.
“It’s amazing how much it’s possible to figure out by analyzing the various kinds of data I’ve kept,” Stephen Wolfram says. To which I say, “I’m looking at your data, and you know what’s amazing to me? How much of you is missing.”
This is the last paragraph of Robert Krulwich’s article at NPR, titled Mirror, Mirror On The Wall, Does The Data Tell It All? In it, he compares authors of books, one by Stephen Wolfram, creator of a the Wolfram search engine, and Bill Bryson, author of a biographical account of growing up in Iowa. The column, though not specifically about schools, hits a “bulls-eye” on our current data-driven madness.
It’s encouraging that thoughtful data scientists like Ms. Perlich and Ms. Schutt recognize the limits and shortcomings of the Big Data technology that they are building. Listening to the data is important, they say, but so is experience and intuition. After all, what is intuition at its best but large amounts of data of all kinds filtered through a human brain rather than a math model?
At the M.I.T. conference, Ms. Schutt was asked what makes a good data scientist. Obviously, she replied, the requirements include computer science and math skills, but you also want someone who has a deep, wide-ranging curiosity, is innovative and is guided by experience as well as data.
David Brooks, who generally loses all coherence when he writes explicitly about education issues, has just written an eloquent case for the importance of being data-informed, and not data-driven. Read his column titled What Data Can’t Do. Here’s an excerpt:
At the risk of being accused of taking a “cheap shot,” I just can’t resist embedding two segments from The Colbert Show about the now well-known mistake by the two economists whose work has been cited endlessly to support austerity. And I can’t resist adding it to this list:
Kelly is our school’s consultant, and who has been leading the videotaping effort of teachers that I’ve been writing about. So, you can now read about my perspective, my student’s perspective and, now, the perspective from the person who was actually doing the videotape and critique.
I know the title for this blog post — How I Milked A Lesson For Every Last Ounce Of Learning And Why I’m An Idiot For Not Thinking Of It Earlier — is a long one, but I couldn’t think of any better way to communicate the essence my topic.
This post is divided into two parts. The first will recount a lesson I did yesterday. The second section will share how I plan on implementing what I learned then in the future, and how I think other teachers might be able to do the same.
I also want to preface this piece by saying that, for all I know, many teachers out there are already doing what I’m writing about here. If you are, I hope you’ll share your experience in the comments section.
WHAT HAPPENED YESTERDAY
My double-period ninth-grade English class, which I love teaching and which includes a number of students that face many challenges, had been having a bad week. Though the urge to punish is certainly there, I’m finding that each year it’s easier (most of the time ) to push those thoughts aside as I try to figure out more positive ways to respond. Thursday night, it came to me.
This is the class that I had videotaped, and where I had Kelly Young, our school’s consultant, come it to critique my teaching. Earlier in the week, my article describing that that experience had been published at Teacher Magazine and The Washington Post. Why don’t I have students read what I wrote?
I’ve published many articles, books and posts over the past few years but, except for a chapter in my upcoming book, Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers To Classroom Challenges, that I shared with my International Baccalaureate Theory Of Knowledge class (a topic for a future post), I’ve never had students read any of them. Students in my classes, and throughout the school, certainly access my blog and website for the learning resources all the time, but not to read any of the reflective pieces I’ve written (see The Best Reflective Posts I’ve Written About My Teaching Practice — 2010)
So, I printed out copies of my piece from Valerie Strauss’ “The Answer Sheet” blog at the Washington Post using Joliprint (which is unquestionably the best way to print online materials for students — paste in the url address of what you want and you get a clean, well-displayed, ad-free, copy) for each student and prepared this hand-out.
I began the class by announcing matter-of-factly that thousands of people had been talking about our class this week. That sure got their attention. Then I reminded them about the day we reviewed the videotaope, and that there was an article in The Washington Post about it this week. I asked how many knew what the Sacramento Bee (our local paper) was, and then told them the Washington Post was much, much bigger.
I told them I was going to give them the article, which was three-pages long, and that they were to read it in partners. I hand-out the instructions:
1. Take turns reading each paragraph aloud to your partner. Write a summary at the end of each column – two sentences for each page.
2. Fill in the blanks: After reading this article, I think people are saying “ ___________________________” about this class because _________________.
3. Is that what you want people to say about this class? Why or why not?
4. What can you do to help make this class like the one in the article everyday?
5. What can you do to help your classmates everyday act like they were described in the article?
They were eager to go, and very, very focused. In the article, I used pseudonyms for the students I quoted, and they had a fun time figuring out who was who in the article.
Some students shared their responses to the whole class, I collected them, and we moved on. They clearly were very conscious of wanting to be conscientious and serious the rest of the class period. Here are some of their responses:
After reading this article, I think people are saying “positive things” about this class because “we went from a bad class to a college-prep class.”
After reading this article, I think people are saying “positive” about this class because “that’s what we are.”
After reading this article, I think people are saying “they’re confident and honest” about this class because “they say what they are really thinking.”
After reading this article, I think people are saying “we are the best” about this class because “they want to be like us.”
After reading this article, I think people are saying “that our class is a high-class class” about this class because “we had resolved our issues and were not just trying to see what was wrong.”
After reading this article, I think people are saying “we are good kids” about this class because “we was serious about learning.”
After reading this article, I think people are saying “that we are learning to be honest with the teacher and becoming smarter” about this class because “we have learned how to have expectations about what our teacher wants and what we want.”
After reading this article, I think people are saying “that we were right about Mr. Ferlazzo talking too much” about this class because “they were saying that Mr. Young was saying that, yes, Mr. Ferlazzo, you talked too much.”
Is that what you want people to say about this class? Why or why not?
Yes, I do because it makes our class sound smart and like we are learning more than what our expectations are.
Yes, because everybody is learning and doing something.
Yes, because this article can help out other teachers by giving out the idea.
Yes, because it can help other teachers to become better teachers.
Yes, because it makes me think that I’m doing a good job.
I do want people saying this because it makes me, my classmates, and my teacher feel good.
I want people to say how good we do.
Yes, I want people to know we can all improve.
What can you do to help make this class like the one in the article everyday?
Do more work and stay on task.
We could remind Mr. Ferlazzo not to talk so much and let us do the work.
Be prepared and have the tools of a scholar.
Take serious at all times.
By leaning in and using the tools of a scholar.
By doing what we did in the video.
What can you do to help your classmates everyday act like they were described in the article?
Maybe telling them and helping them think they should stay on task instead of messing around.
Help everybody pay attention in class and remind them about how they were in the movie.
Help them in whatever they need help with.
I would remind them what they need to act like.
To tell them to pay attention, and remind them to tell Mr. Ferlazzo when he is talking too much.
Certainly, having it appear on the Washington Post website made them feel like it it was more prestigious. But I think we can all get a similar results in a different way….
HOW I CAN APPLY THIS IN THE FUTURE (AND HOW OTHERS CAN, TOO)
In thinking about yesterday, as I mentioned, having it published by The Post helped. However, I think the fact that students were reading something that I wrote about them and shared with the world might have been the key element for them. It was a clear indication that I really did think about them when I wasn’t in school, that I valued what they said and thought, and I was proud and wanted to tell others about them.
I’ve written other pieces, like Teacher Eyes On The Wrong Prize, which I could also share with my students. And I can easily write similar pieces in this blog.
Any teacher with a blog can do the same, and build a lesson around what they wrote.
I could have done this anytime over the past four years of this blog’s existence, and that’s why I’m an idiot for not thinking of it earlier. I’ve had a narrow vision of who my audience could be for my reflective pieces. Obviously, not every thing I’ve written about my teaching would be appropriate, but some would fit the bill. And, now that I’ve come to this realization, I can be more intentional and strategic about writing one now and then.
How about you? Have you written reflective posts and had your students read them? How did it go?
I have no objection to scores from existing standardized tests being a part — a small part — of those multiple measures. If present efforts to create a “new generation” of state assessments actually invite teachers to work with them and develop more accurate performance-based assessments, I would have no objection to their proportional weight being increased — a little.
Accomplished California Teachers (of which I am a member) published a report earlier this year that I think accurately reflects my thinking on teacher evaluation:
To support collaboration and the sharing of expertise, teachers should be evaluated both on their success in their own classroom and their contributions to the success of their peers and the school as a whole. They should be evaluated with tools that assess professional standards of practice in the classroom, augmented with evidence of student outcomes. Beyond standardized test scores, those outcomes should include performance on authentic tasks that demonstrate learning of content; presentation of evidence from formative classroom assessments that show patterns of student improvement; the development of habits that lead to improved academic success (personal responsibility, homework completion, willingness and ability to revise work to meet standards), along with contributing indicators like attendance, enrollment and success in advanced courses, graduation rates, pursuit of higher education, and work place success.
But right now my big concerns about the Gates Foundation efforts are how I fear they might be minimizing two key tools that can have a huge impact on improving teacher effectiveness — videotape and student surveys.
Contrast that way with how videotape is being used to universal acclaim at our school (led by principal Ted Appel) where a talented consultant (Kelly Young at Pebble Creek Labs), who has been working with us for years, meets with us to review an edited version of a taped lesson, with us initially giving our own critique and reflections followed by his comments. This process is entirely outside of the official evaluation process, and is focused on helping teachers improve their craft. It has been one of the most significant professional development experiences I’ve had. At my request, Kelly and I subsequently showed the video and shared our critique with my class, which was a transforming experience for all involved. Teacher Magazine will be publishing my account of that class period in early January.
I’m a huge fan of getting student feedback. In fact, I’ve posted My Best Posts On Students Evaluating Classes (And Teachers). To help students see that I take their responses seriously, I always reprint the results in this blog (you can see them and the questions at that “The Best…” list) and email the results to teachers and administrators at my school.
But I want to know more from students than what Gates is asking. I want to know if they think I’m patient and if they believe I care about their lives outside of school. Yes, I certainly want to know what they think I could do better, and I also want to know what they think they could do better. I want to learn if they think their reading habits have changed and, for example, when I’m teaching a history class, are they more interested in learning about history than they were prior to taking the class. I want to find-out what they believe are the most important things they learned in the class and, for many, it might be learning life skills like the fact their brain actually grows when they learn new things or the fact that they had in them the capacity to complete reading a book or writing an essay for the first time in their lives. And, in the discussion that follows (one thing I learned as an organizer is that a survey’s true use is as a spark for a conversation) we discuss all these things and many more, including the differences between what might be what we like to do best and what we learn the most from.
By trying to connect videotaping teachers to anonymous checklist evaluators and test scores, and doing the same to student surveys, I fear the Gates Foundation may succeed in framing the public conversation about these tools as just a means to one end — better scores on assessments that don’t accurately measure learning.
This minimizes these potentially powerful tools, contributes toward seeing both teachers and students as replaceable widgets, and unfortunately reinforces a school reform debate where many worship at the alter of multiple choice test results.
Using videotaped teacher lessons and student surveys for the primary purpose of connecting them to teacher evaluation by test scores is like using a Stradivarius and a Grand Piano to play “Mary Had A Little Lamb” to evaluate the musician. In both instances, the tools have far more value to everyone if used in more expansive ways.
They both talk about a Gates Foundation-funding effort to videotape teacher lessons and then have them evaluated by people who have never visited the school nor have any kind of relationship with the teacher, and rate them using checklists.
Here’s a criticism voiced in the article that I agree with wholeheartedly:
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which has several affiliates participating in the research, also expressed reservations. “Videotaped observations have their role but shouldn’t be used to substitute for in-person observations to evaluate teachers,” Ms. Weingarten said. “It would be hard to justify ratings by outsiders watching videotapes at a remote location who never visited the classroom and couldn’t see for themselves a teacher’s interaction and relationship with students.”
I’d call this a wrong way to use videotape of teachers.
Our school, led by principal Ted Appel, has begun having Kelly Young, an extraordinarily talented consultant on instructional strategies who we have been working with for years, videotape our lessons (I’ve written much about Kelly in this blog). He then meets with us to review an edited version of the tape, with us initially giving our own critique and reflections followed by his comments. This process is entirely outside of the official evaluation process, and is focused on helping teachers improve their craft.
This process has been universally acclaimed by teachers so far, and it has been one of the most significant professional development experiences I’ve had.
As I mentioned in that previous post on my videotaped lesson, I had suggested to Kelly that we show the video and discuss the critique with my class as an experiment.
We did this a few days ago, and it was truly an amazing one hour.
I’ve written an article for Teacher Magazine about what happened, and they’ll be publishing it after the holidays. After reading it, I think you’ll agree that there are far better ways to use videotaped lessons than what the Gates Foundation is planning.
Recent research has found that “high-power poses,” including leaning forward, can increase a person’s sense of feeling powerful (as measured by self-reporting and chemical tests). “Low-power poses,” including looking downward with hands on one’s lap, can increase a person’s sense of powerlessness.
You can images of the kinds of poses they’re talking about, along with greater details about the research, here. TIME Magazine has a similar report.
The results reminded me of why Kelly Young at Pebble Creek Labs reminds teachers at our school, and we remind our students, to “lean in” as one of the instructions we give when dividing students into small groups.