Monday, March 23, 2015

ASCD dispatch #3: Close, careful attention makes things more interesting


Today, bright and early at 8am on the last day of the conference, we attended a fantastic session on a subject near and dear to our hearts, informational text.

In “Teach Students to Read, Talk, and Write about Informational Texts,” Diane Lapp and Maria Grant offered so many wonderful suggestions and ideas.

Here are some of our favorites:

1. We need to guide students with text-dependent questions that force the students back into the text for answers. These questions should always go beyond basic facts and should never be based on recall of information. They should highlight what the text says, how the text works, and what the text means. Students can then stretch to think about inferences about the text and whether they find the text and the text’s argument credible. And, so crucial to our thinking, they can work to shape intertextual connections between the informational text and, for example, a literary text or some other aspect of their content curriculum. The informational text does not need to be a step away from the curriculum; it can be a step into it!

2. If we pay close and careful attention to something, it becomes more interesting. Multiple readings of one text, for different purposes and with different questions in mind, make a text yield more for a reader. Learning to perform that kind of scrutiny with a text should be the ultimate goal of education; students who master that skill will find their reading exponentially more pleasurable.

3. All of our strategies for grappling with informational text, whether the close, multiple-readings strategy explored so brilliantly by Lapp and Grant, or our approach -- focusing on front-loading vocabulary and concepts, supporting with reading comprehension questions, and solidifying with engaging, complex discussion and writing questions that work to connect the informational text with literature or other content area material -- are designed to allow students to build their confidence, competence, resilience, and stamina with complex texts. Support your students with scaffolding and modeling and guide them. Then, gradually release them into group work and some independence. They may need to return to the scaffold and the support; the process is not necessarily direct. But eventually, they will acquire the skills and become strong, independent readers of a wide variety of texts.

4. Choose as your informational text an appropriate companion to what you’re teaching. Don’t make the informational text standard a step away from your curriculum. Make it a step into that curriculum: the on-ramp to more engagement, more purpose, and more motivation for your students. Choose carefully and your informational text will make your entire lesson or unit more productive.

ASCD dispatch #2: Inspiring collaboration, transformational coaching

One of the most amazing things about attending conferences is getting to see the inspiring work of committed, creative, energetic teachers and education professionals being done across the country.

We attended two sessions at ASCD 2015 that exemplified this phenomenon.

In “Collaboration that Works: Science, Literacy, and 21st Century Skills,” Kate Cronk and Hallie Edgerly, two 8th grade teachers in science and language arts, from Adel DeSoto Minburn Community School District in Adel, IA, presented their story of spectacular collaboration across the disciplines.

They spoke about their three-year process (totally self-initiated and self-motivated) of developing a four-week cross-disciplinary unit on inventions. Their students conducted market research, including first-hand surveys, developed budgets, kept logs of their invention timelines, and reflected on their collaborative skills. They used QR codes to link to student-created infomercials about their products. The unit culminated in a visit to a local college and a “Shark Tank” style competition. There is no question that Cronk and Edgerly’s students were developing and using 21st-century skills. Equally impressive, from the many student testimonials they shared, was the pride these teachers took in how their collaborative, cross-disciplinary project fostered their students’ social skills, brought out the strengths of individual students with specific weaknesses, and even reduced bullying.

Cronk and Edgerkly were frank about their own learning process, about how they needed to improve their own interactions with other teachers, how they could involve other teachers even when those teachers were unable to give up classroom time, and how they both grew as teachers from the project.

What’s perhaps most impressive in their work is how it required little administrative or material support (albeit their administrators did not throw up road blocks). Their story was simply the age-old take of two individuals with initiative putting in the work and making a tremendous difference in the lives of the children in their school.

The second session we want to highlight was not about a small or simple intervention. In “Instituting a Culture of Collaboration: The Instructional Coaching Model,” a team from Randolph High School in New Jersey, Adriana Coppola, Ruth Forrest, Julie Green, and Lena Wasylyk, described the impressive model they developed after their district created a space for these four dynamic women to institutionalize instructional coaching.

In this high-energy and interactive session, this team shared the lessons from their three years of working as instructional coaches. Their model works off an entirely voluntary approach: teachers come to the coaches for advice, from where to make copies to how to deal with a difficult class to how to develop a DBQ for a math classroom. The team offers one-on-one coaching, co-teaching, specialized professional development sessions, and so much more.

The keys to this approach seem to be the dynamic team leaders but also the confidential, voluntary, non-evaluative model, in which teachers can seek out their peers for specific, timely support that they need from peers they trust. Kudos to the team in Randolph for their great work and to the administrators for giving this team the support they need to be successful.

And kudos to ASCD for showcasing these, among many examples, of best practices in today’s educational universe.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

ASCD dispatch #1: We need to collaborate

We’ve been enjoying our first day at ASCD in Houston, meeting with interesting and engaged educators from across the country.

A few ideas struck us from our first day of conversations:
  • As we get further into implementation of the Common Core, we need to remember the challenge the standards pose to busy teachers. Not everyone has mastered the new standards. And, in particular, we need to help our content area colleagues understand and implement the new Language Arts standards in math/science and social studies.
  • Along the lines of #1, if we, as language arts teachers, take on the entire burden of teaching a science-based informational text unit, we aren’t helping our science colleagues adapt and adjust. Ask your science colleague (start with a teacher you like!) about a unit that the students struggle with (or about one that they find really exciting) and suggest a few informational text connections that you can work on together to meet the History/Social Studies and Science Literacy standards and build (or build on) student motivation and engagement in the content area.
  • Today, we all need to be readers and broad intellectuals. None of us can afford to teach the same old essays and literary texts. And none of us can afford to read narrowly and only in our disciplines. If we are going to teach students to make connections across the disciplines and to be strong readers of a wide variety of complex texts, we need to get out of our silos and be doing the same work ourselves!
  • Along the lines of #3, especially on the secondary level, text-to-text connections are so crucial to education today. Students learning about a concept in physics need to be able to apply that knowledge to a news story about safety issues with roller coasters. Students studying thinking about food safety and the sustainability of our food practices can benefit from thinking about how thinkers have explored these issues in a variety of texts, historical contexts, and genres (such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle).
The biggest takeaway, as is so often the case at these gatherings, is how devoted educators are to their craft and their calling. We have many balls in the air and many demands on our time, but we are in good company as we do this important work!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

PARCC-college alignment could be game-changer

Amid all the drama about the new assessments, there was an interesting tidbit of potentially game-changing information released last week by Education Week. Catherine Gewertz reported that two public colleges in Colorado will be the first to consider PARCC scores in course-placement decisions, joining schools in Washington and West Virginia who pledged to do the same with Smarter Balanced scores.

The Common Core Standards were designed to prepare students for college-level work. The idea is that the standards don’t just ask students to take on more difficult tasks but that the tasks they are being asked to take on are more coherently aligned to the work students will face in college. The shift towards more informational text, for example, represents an understanding that in college and careers, people today need to be able to grapple with a wide range of complex informational text, so the curriculum in high school needs to better reflect that.

The new assessments, then, PARCC and Smarter Balanced, were designed to measure students’ proficiency at those better-aligned skills. And their cut scores (passing/failing scores) were supposed to indicate whether students had achieved proficiency that would equate with college readiness. Previously, states designed their own exams and set their own cut scores, and many, many students who had passed their state high school proficiency exams found themselves dismayed by college placement exams that determined they needed developmental work.

Will articulation between these assessments and colleges and universities really take hold? That probably depends on whether the exams actually do a good job of measuring the skills colleges want to see in their students. The verdict on that is still out, as we await the outcome of this first round of testing and the announcement of the PARCC cut scores.

Still, what most teachers in K-12 want is to be sure that they are preparing students well for their futures. A test that gives teachers feedback on that outcome and allows teachers, schools, and districts to modify their instruction and curriculum to meet that goal will be welcome.

Teachers who teach AP classes work hard to teach to the test and are delighted when their students score well enough to earn college credit. The new assessments have the potential to be a meaningful marker to all stakeholders: teachers and schools will know that they have made good on their promises to their students, and students (and their parents) will know that they leave high school prepared for their lives ahead.

Fingers crossed.

Monday, March 2, 2015

In the final stretch: Preparing for success on the new assessments

For many schools, new testing (PARCC, Smarter Balanced, or other tests) is already underway. For mine in New Jersey, PARCC looms just over the horizon, and my colleagues are worried. We have been scrambling to do everything we can to prepare them in this final stretch before the first round of assessments and will continue to do so in the short weeks leading up to the end-of-year tests.

As instructional coach for humanities and English lead teacher, I have spent significant parts of each day over the last few weeks trying to calm both my colleagues and our students. Yes, the PARCC will be challenging, but we’re doing the right things to prepare. The initial results will likely be disheartening, but we don’t know what “passing” is yet, and it’s just a place to start.

Though we’ve been teaching with the assessments in mind for more than a year, a few things have come into sharper focus in these last few weeks:

It’s critical to help students find solid footing on the writing prompts.

What this means: Make it clear to students that, no matter what texts they are dealing with, the literary and research simulation writing tasks simply ask them to demonstrate that they understand and can articulate the similarities and differences between the texts. If they can do that at least to some degree in an organized way, they’ll be in good shape.

Let’s not kid ourselves: With complex texts, this can be a daunting task, but teaching students to use strategies like SOAP (speaker, occasion, audience, purpose) and to pay attention to textual features (titles, subheads, etc.) can help them get some kind of handle on most texts.

It’s critical to talk to your content area colleagues to identify essential understandings.

Based on its own claims and the sample test items it has released, it’s clear that PARCC will feature relevant reading passages on the tests, rather than the often very obscure and esoteric texts students have often faced in the past. However, I have also observed that even these relatively interesting and relevant texts require significant background knowledge to access them fully.

For example, based on the PARCC practice tests, I would bet money that the PARCC research simulation tasks for multiple grades will include excerpts from Supreme Court decisions. With this thinking I shared an excerpt of the 1920 Supreme Court decision on prohibition with my sophomores, in conjunction with our study of The Great Gatsby. Before doing so, I forwarded the excerpt, which I had edited and annotated with discussion questions, highlighting key vocabulary, concepts and text features, to my students’ social studies teachers to see if they might have an opportunity to connect with or simply reinforce the concepts and/or content we would be discussing. I ended up having a very useful conversation with one of them who shared the essential framework that he teaches students to use in interpreting a Supreme Court decision. He reminded me that students first need to understand the role of the Supreme Court, which is to determine constitutionality rather than guilt or innocence. (We can’t assume that students will know this.) Then, they need to understand that a Supreme Court decision is always answering a question (e.g., is prohibition constitutional?). I realized that these two understandings are essential to my students having success with the decision we would be discussing and any that might be thrown at them on the PARCC assessments.

It’s critical to give students ample practice on the test format.

Run through each of the available practice tests for the grade level below your class to give your students explicit practice in manipulating the online testing interface before having them do a “real” practice test that you might grade or at least score. The drag-and-drop test items are particularly tricky. You don’t want your students’ success on the tests to be diminished by technical issues. And even though you have likely asked them the same types of questions in your classes, students, as we well know, often fail to recognize that they do understand a question just because it’s presented in an unfamiliar way.

That said, it’s critical to tie this work back to your existing curriculum.

Don’t spend all your time between now and testing on practice tests. The skills the assessments are asking your students to demonstrate are important. Students should be reading critically and using evidence to support their thinking and writing about the texts they read, and the texts they read should be challenging. But the time you devote to test preparation – mandated by your school/district and/or your own conscience/anxiety – doesn’t have to and shouldn’t happen solely with materials developed by PARCC or Pearson – for a number of reasons.

I had a conversation with one of our English teachers who was frustrated that her students didn’t seem to be taking the practice tests seriously. After mulling over how the students were acting and various strategies we could try, we realized what was shutting them down. It was too much. They were struggling not only with the readings (including the syntax, the vocabulary, and the background knowledge needed to access them), but with the wording of the questions themselves as well. We decided to backtrack. Rather than forcing the students to deal with new complex texts and challenging questions on top of operating the unfamiliar testing interface, we decided to return to articles they’d read previously and give them practice on PARCC-style questions on those first, so they can get a clear handle on the task (see above) before returning to the more challenging, unfamiliar texts on the practice tests. 


Whether your students are struggling with the practice tests or soaring above them, there’s no need to abandon your curriculum in favor of test prep. They are not mutually exclusive. Whatever great works you’re studying, tweak the materials you’re using (or find new ones) to give your students more or less explicit practice on the types of questions they’ll see on the new assessments. That way, you can get back to the rich content in your curriculum while knowing that you’re preparing your students for success in the best way possible, by having them read, think, and write deeply about works worth reading, thinking, and writing deeply about.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Etiquette and being a good neighbor

This past week I had the opportunity to sit in on part of a 90-minute block 9th grade English class taught by one of my colleagues at University Academy Charter High School. I was particularly eager to visit her class because I knew she was planning to use materials from our Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird unit on etiquette and gender roles.
The teacher began the class by leading the students in briefly reflecting on the previous days’ discussion on what it means to be a good neighbor. They had used the graphic organizer from our unit on Roosevelt’s inaugural address to reflect on which characters in the novel exemplify “the policy of the good neighbor” that Roosevelt references in his speech.
Until that moment, I had never realized how well that activity would segue into the unit on etiquette, which I had perceived as applying particularly to chapters 9 or 13 in connection with Scout’s dealings with Aunt Alexandra and especially to chapter 24 when Scout attends the missionary circle meeting.
But now I saw how she had hit upon a great thematic connection central to the novel and very relevant to her students’ present-day lives: social expectations (particularly of women) and how we get along with one another. The often-unwritten social values and expectations a community holds in common and how they influence the way people interact with and perceive each other is a strong current throughout the novel and one that persists to this day. And so I was especially eager to see how the class would proceed.
The teacher began with one of the media clips we suggest – a funny 1950s instructional video on dating dos and don’ts available on YouTube – in order to hook the students' interest. (There was a funny moment when the teacher at first accidentally clicked on the next video in the playlist, a 1950s instructional video on “How to Undress in Front of Your Husband”!) The students were amused by what they perceived as the relatively stiff and formal behavior of the teens in the dating film and compared the etiquette of the dating process as depicted by the film to how teens interact with each other today. While they observed that the dating process is far more casual now, particularly as facilitated by social media, they also acknowledged that women today still face sharp judgments based on how they act and dress and whether they are perceived to “respect themselves.” However, the female students also emphatically stated that anyone they might date would have to accept them for who they are,
The teacher used the students’ comments to segue into the essential question of the etiquette unit: Does a girl have to be a lady? The students offered their definitions of what it means to be a lady. The teacher then asked if they knew what etiquette means. One of the female students was able to make sense out of the term by describing her experience attending a cotillion.
The teacher then introduced the excerpt from the etiquette guide, explaining that it had been published not long before the time in which Mockingbird is set. She read aloud the introduction to the excerpt and drew the students’ attention to the discussion questions alongside the reading, explaining that the questions should signal to students how and when they might need to adjust their rate of reading to make sure that they fully understand the text.
Unfortunately, at this point, I had to leave to teach my next class. But the teacher later showed me the students’ annotations and comments they had written alongside the text in response to both our guided reading questions as well as their own discussion. It was gratifying to see that the students had engaged so deeply with the text – and made so many meaningful connections between Mockingbird and their own lives – with their teacher’s excellent guidance.
In our conversation following the class, the teacher said she appreciated the flexibility of our units: activities for each informational text that can be undertaken at any point in the study of the novel or in relation to particular chapters that are directly relevant. This flexibility allows teachers to move back and forth between Mockingbird and the different units. Indeed, my colleague said she planned on going back to some of the other activities on the good neighbor and etiquette as the class gets further on in the book. Meanwhile, the discussions the students had this week laid valuable groundwork in terms of allowing students to make insightful connections and build background knowledge; they are ready for chapter 24 when they will see how Scout has to negotiate both the prescribed gender expectations and rather un-neighborly behavior by some of the ladies at the missionary circle meeting.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Don't miss 'Our Mockingbird'!

On February 3, 2015, PBS’s “America Reframed” aired Sandra Jaffe’s “Our Mockingbird.” If you missed it, the film is available on the web. Watch it now!

The film is several stories at once.

First and foremost, it is the story of two high schools, one black and one white, in what the students themselves identify as our still somewhat segregated America. They come together from two high schools in Birmingham, AL -- Mountain Brook High School and Fairfield High Preparatory School -- to put on a musical version of Harper Lee’s novel.

The film is very much interested in the students’ apprehensions. They are nervous around each other: unsure what to think and how to act, anxious about how they are perceived. The white students, for example, notice the lack of space and money for drama at the predominately African-American school; they also worry about being perceived as rich and stuck up.

As the group rehearses, however, they clearly bond over what Mockingbird means to them individually and collectively and how it remains relevant today. They realize how, all these years after desegregation, they live in separate worlds and rarely have to interact with people outside their racial comfort zones. With the enthusiasm of the young, they welcome the opportunity the production allows them to do so.

The film doesn’t highlight any of the internal dramas of the troupe (what high school theatrical production is without drama, regardless of the racial mix?); instead, it celebrates the coming together of these talented and thoughtful young adults. We seem them chatting, hugging, and, in one scene, reflecting on the fact that they can be together in public, black and white, arm and arm, without fear of reprisal. It’s irresistible. And who can disagree with the teachers when they suggest that this experience will be life-changing for the kids involved.

In addition, the film focuses on Alabama and its Civil Rights history, fleshing out the places and events so important to the world in which Harper Lee lived when she wrote her story: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the 1963 Children’s Campaign, and Kelly Ingram Park, where police used fire houses and dogs on young protesters. The student actors visit these sites and the film shows them learning and digesting their local history and the context of the text (and of Lee’s writing of the text).

Finally, the film includes a variety of notable voices reflecting on both our Civil Rights history and on the impact of Mockingbird, including Doug Jones, the former U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing; various southern writers and journalists including Diane McWhorter, Rick Bragg, and Cynthia Tucker; Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center; Mary Badham, who played “Scout” in the original film; and former Attorney General Eric Holder. 

So, watch this film. Watch it for inspiration as we see amazing educators transforming the lives of these young people and carrying on the legacy of their Civil Rights predecessors in Birmingham. This film should raise any educator’s spirit in these days when it isn’t easy to be a teacher.

And use this film. Instead of sticking in the film version of Mockingbird as a treat after students have read the book, use this documentary to drive home the point of why Lee’s novel mattered and continues to matter. Your students will be transported by Jaffe’s amazing film and the amazing work of these educators and young people.