Thursday, September 21, 2017

The power of the adolescent brain

Thomas Armstrong's book, The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students, examines why so many secondary programs fail students. He starts with a primer on neurobiology and learning. One amazing thing is that adolescent brains respond to stimulus in very different ways than either child or adult brains do. For example, when thinking about actions they might take in a given situation, adolescents use a part of the brain associated with the self-conscious brain whereas adults rely more on self-memories (p. 54). Since the time of adolescences is one of brain refinement- lots of pruning and myelination- expecting teens to react as adults might is unrealistic.

Armstrong highlights several risks that adolescents face and the impact that they have on young people.
  • traffic accidents- a leading cause of death
  • violence- another leading cause of death. In a study 40% of males and 25% of females in high school reported being in a physical fight in the past year (p. 21)
  • suicide- another leading cause of death
  • alcohol abuse-over one third of teenagers reported alcohol consumption in the last 30 days. Alcohol consumption inhibits the creation of new neurons and damages areas of the brain including those associated with impulse control (p. 22)
  • marijuana abuse- heavy users have depressed processing speed, memory, flexible thinking, attention and learning as well as decreased motivation. It results in structural changes in the brain including decreased ability of the amygdala to filter incoming information (p. 22).
  • tobacco and nicotine use- more likely to become addicted with use than adults and leads to long term health risks. It causes changes to the limbic system including reduced ability to inhibit impulses (p. 23)
  • mental disorders- The onset of half of all mental health issues begins by the age of 14. As many as 20% experience an anxiety disorder. Eating disorders, school refusals and suicide are often results of mental health concerns (p. 23)
  • Sleep difficulties- 45% of all adolescents experience sleep deprivation. It causes increased risk taking and failures of cognitive control (p. 23). While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends schools start after 8:30 the CDC reports that over 75% of secondary schools do.
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases- Over a third of sexually active females between 14 and 18 carry an STD. (44% of females and 49% of males in this group are sexually active). 
  • Prescription Drug abuse- Adderall, Vicodin and narcotics are the most abused drugs. Abuse of narcotics and Vicodin can lead to coma and death. 4% of males report steroid abuse which causes changes in brain structure and neurotransmitter levels (p.24). Recent research indicates that narcotics overdose is steadily climbing as a leading cause of death for teens.
  • Internet Addiction- approximately 4% of teens (it seems like this number might be low) which reduces connectivity in regions of the brain responsible for learning ( p. 24).
  • Bullying- 20 % of teens reported being bullied in the last year on school grounds. This can result in suicide and an increased risk of psychiatric disorders (p. 24). 
  • Stress- It can contribute to all of the above factors. Chronic stress can lead to anxiety, depression, panic attacks, difficulty concentrating and insomnia as well as high blood pressure and low immune function. Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to stress and its long term impact on the body and brain. THP, a neurotransmitter that is calming in children and adults, is antagonistic to the brain of adolescents (p. 26).
To counter these concerns, Armstrong recommends brain-friendly educational practices: opportunities to choose, self-awareness activities, peer learning connections, affective learning, learning through the body, metacognitive strategies, expressive art activities, and real-world experiences (p. 38).

Armstrong lists choice as the number one brain friendly practice. Often in high school choice of classes is practically nonexistent. Students are required to take English, math, social studies and science. Often mandatory electives are needed: PE, a fine art, and language. The day is full and complete. Back when my sister was in high school, they offered electives in English. Students opted to take a class for a quarter. Options included violence in literature, science fiction, drama, poetry, and Shakespeare and film. They were offered choices that my sister assured me included lots of reading and writing and writing and writing. We could provide these sorts of choices but then English teachers would have to plan extra classes. Instead of four sections of English 9 and two of English 10 it would be 4-6 unique classes. I am sure that open rebellion by the staff brought about this downfall. (Teachers in small schools can laugh- they have all those different classes because they are the English department at the high school and teach all four levels.) I know it is work, but it might help student engagement which might lead to better success on the part of the students.

Armstrong repeatedly emphasizes the role of peers in teenage lives. Peer approval stimulates high levels of satisfaction in the brain and disapproval or lack of acceptance triggers high levels of negative responses. He suggests letting peers critique each others work. I have heard many teachers say they tried peer revisions or editing, the students hated it and were terrible at it so they gave it up. Interestingly if we discover they hate writing or are terrible at it we do not abstain from assigning written work. He quotes Ron Berger,
"In order to create beautiful work, we must be willing to refine. To refine, we must require critique and feedback. In order to critique, we need models and standards. For feedback to be useful to us, it must be kind, helpful and specific." (p. 73)

If we want to use peer feedback we need to teach it. We need to model it. Good job does not provide any useful information- not for what you did well or what you can do to improve. Preferable would be,
  • You identified three quotes to highlight your thesis. What made you choose the second one? 
  • I liked the way you used imagery to showcase the character's delemia in the third paragraph. What made you choose to stop using it after that point?
  • Most of your sentences are a simple subject-predicate form. How can you change the sentence structure around to make the language more interesting to the reader?
  • Be careful with your sentences. While they are full of vivid and specific verbs, they also are often run-ons.
  • I am not sure why you chose to include _____. Could you explain it better or remove it and still make your point?
Modeling good feedback is essential if we want students to demonstrate it. Sentence starters like,
  • I didn't understand it when you ______.
  • I really like the way you _____.
  • I want to know more about _____.
  • I was confused when _____.
  • You evidence here seems weak/strong because __________.
allow students to get a feel for how to go about providing feedback. Rubrics can be useful as well. Allowing students to dissect high, average, and low quality work by comparing it to a rubric can help them learn how to identify areas for improvement. We know that feedback rather than grades results in improved work. We owe it to students to provide as much feedback as we can for them to be successful. Feedback from peers is even more powerful than that from most adults. We owe it to our students to get some high quality peer feedback.

Throughout the book, Armstrong identifies a brain-friendly practice and then provides examples of how to implement them. His writing is easy to read. Each chapter ends with a key takeaway section that summarizes the material. Appendix B contains a variety of specific examples to use each of the ten strategies in each of the core subject areas. A great book that furthers the discussion of brain-friendly learning.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

differentiated literacy coaching

Over the last few years I have delved into the research on literacy coaching and was intrigued to find Mary Catherine Moran's Differentiated Literacy Coaching: Scaffolding for Student and Teacher Success. This book was a dry read. Few examples are found throughout. While resources and handouts are available online, not enough were shared within the text, requiring readers to stop and search for materials that were referenced.

That said, the book has a wealth of information. Moran describes different types of coaching activities: collaborative resource management, literacy content presentations, focused classroom visits, coplanning, study groups, demonstration lessons, peer coaching and coteaching. Coplanning and coteaching are shown as parallels to special ed activities. Two of her key focuses is that coaching works best when teachers are able to self select the activity and that coaches should not be evaluators.

The book is divided into three sections: foundations and research, types of coaching and discussion modules. In the first section the author references Gersten, Vaughn, Deschler and Schiller's (1997) guiding principles for researchers to make use of research in their practice (p. 25):

  • Reality principle- is it feasible? Although a program may be highly effective for improving literacy, if it requires an additional hour of 1:1 instruction every day, it might not be the plan to use.
  • scope- scale. If it is only applicable to fifth graders with phonemic awareness issues, it probably does not fit the bill for a general education classroom. Conversely, if it is an entire literacy program that would be in conflict with district mandates, it probably is not right either.
  • technical aspects- is there enough training, support and feedback for teachers to become skilled with the strategy?
  • conceptual aspects- do the teachers understand the significance of the practice? If we increase our focus on fluency or high quality vocabulary instruction, do they see the value?
  • linkages- are there easily identifiable connections with other initiatives?
  • collegial support networks- Are there supports to sustain the initiative?

Later on she highlights that, "As a coach, our job isn't to tell teachers how or what to do..., but rather to help them reflect on their own practice" (p. 42-3). Keeping this in mind provides a purpose for coaching even veteran teachers. It would have been nice if she had added some reflection protocols or sample dialogs to use as a spring board.

The last part of the text is modules with sample staff development activities that would be useful for any stage of the coaching process implementation. They focus on the concept and logistics of coaching rather than specific content information.

Her appendix does include a plan for evaluating coach performance. Since coaching is different from teaching, using a teacher evaluation model such as Danielson's is not a good measure of performance.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Essentials of science, grades 7-12

In Rick Allen wrote The Essentials of Science, Grades 7-12: Effective Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. NCLB was just beginning to be fully implemented. The National Science Education Standards were more than 10 years old. Fast forward to today. We have seen the implementation of the Common Core State standards (CCSS) with its emphasis on reading, writing and math in all curricular areas. We have been weathering the backlash as states look to modify the standards and examine how to evaluate success. We have seen the reauthorization of the education law, now back to the ESSA branding. We also have seen the emergence of the Next Generation Science Standards with its 3D focus: core ideas, cross cutting concepts and practices. With all that change you might think that this text is woefully out of date. Unfortunately not.

He outlines instruction through inquiry, an approach that remains important in the science classroom today. He talks about all teachers being teachers of reading, something that has become increasingly true in this era framed by CCSS.

In the chapter on assessment he provides an overview of formative assessment. His suggestions to improve student performance include (p. 101)
  • Questioning- increased wait time and using responses to develop understanding
  • Feedback- allowing opportunities for revising work based on performance feedback. One of the more powerful tools includes not grading work, but providing feedback on performance.
  • self-assessment and peer assessment- peer judging to reevaluate individual work and traffic light evaluation of understanding
  • Formative use of summative assessment- reflect on what they know using the traffic light technique and allowing students to better understand assessment processes.

A thread that permeates the text is the idea of correcting work. This mastery idea enables students to continue to pursue understanding even after a summative assessment. One suggestion was to submit test corrections- write the correct answer and an explanation of why it is correct for every incorrect question. This reinforces the idea that learning never ends. Further, when a final exam is going to be cumulative, it focus attention on the correct information and allows for additional learning opportunities.

I have recently thought that using a teacher website with links to video snips reviewing each day's learning. This could be teacher podcasts, Khan academy videos, textbook resources, TED talks and other YouTube/TeacherTube links. After viewing this material, students could participate in learning activities to reinforce the learning. If student struggles trigger a need for increased instructional input, student performance should increase.

While this book is out of date, it does provide some useful information about transforming science education for improved instruction.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Charisma: The Art of Relationships

In Michael Grinder's book, Charisma: The Art of Relationships, he employs an extended metaphor to describe people. People's styles are made up of dog and cat components. People are not exclusively one or the other and in different settings and situations may exhibit different combinations of characteristics.

In general dogs like to please. The ultimate dog prototype is the golden retriever. He loves to loved, feels guilty when yelled at, even if it is not his fault, want to be part of the group and have a high degree of accommodation. Cats, on the other hand are more independent. Think Siamese. They want to be respected, don't care what you want, and are highly independent. Dogs are people pleasers while cats are oblivious to pleasing or ruffling feathers. Cats need to be teased into doing something whereas dogs do it to make others happy. Dogs are more in tuned with emotions of the group. Toddlers are like dogs- eager to please and heartbroken when they disappoint- vulnerable. Teenagers are like cats- eager to be independent from you, arrogant about skills and never backing away from conflict- ambitious. Cat people tend to be better decision makers and more apt to climb the leadership ladder. Dog people want the group to be happy and tend to be great information gatherers and followers.

Charisma is achieved by balancing these two forces. Recognizing the characteristics of the group in which one is in and responding by bringing in appropriate skills to appeal to the catty or doggy nature of the group. The book describes how to recognize these traits in others and how to manage them to increase success. Vignettes throughout the text demonstrate the issues discussed. Exercises are spattered throughout to allow readers to practice the skills.

Points of interest.
"In school our 'talented and gifted' pupils aren't interested in studying" (p. 31). Their ambition to achieve has been stifled by the search for "something worthy of their attention" (p. 31). When we look at statistics they suggest as many as 30% of this group are drop outs. Famous ones include Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Grinder has stumbled upon one of the greatest challenges of our American education system- what to do with our brightest kids?

"The goal of winning the match [for the cat] isn't that relevant; your opponent isn't your enemy, but an ally in your quest to improve yourself" (p. 34). Cats want worthy adversaries. In school cats want groups and challenges against well matched peers, not very mixed ability groups. It is no challenge to win the spelling bee against an "inferior" opponent. When working on a project, they want to be pulled up, not have to manage relationships and work to make those weaker better. When we ask students to participate in group work, it is important to give them opportunities to work with similar peers sometimes so that they can feel empowered and grow.

Dog people live by the golden rule- do unto others as you would have done to you. Cat people live by the platinum rule- treat others they way they need to be treated (p. 134-5). Equal treatment is the goal of dog people, but cat people see that equal treatment is not fair treatment. When working with cats it is important to have something they want- perhaps merely novelty, but you must be careful because novelty quickly goes away. Cats need cajoling. Dogs need encouraging.

I am a cat, strongly. This means that if I want to develop more charisma, I need to focus on those doggy skills.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Executive function foundations

The Landmark School Outreach Program has published a language-based teaching series for teachers looking to enhance their skills working with students with language based learning disabilities. Patricia W. Newhall's book, Executive Function: Foundations for Learning and Teaching, looks at executive functioning from a slightly different angle than many other authors I have read.

She broadly defines executive function (EF) as "the brain's ability to coordinate the cognitive and psychological processes needed to initiate, sustain, monitor, and adapt the behaviors and attitudes required to achieve a goal" (p.2). This idea that executive function is the underlying skill that enables one to accomplish something is a common thread. She includes Howard Gardner's concept- the integration of
  • the hill- establishment of a clear goal
  • the skill- the requisite abilities and techniques for attaining that goal
  • the will- volition to begin and persevere until the goal is reached (p.71)
Where she goes off a little is in using Brown's 2007 paradigm in seeing the skills as clusters: action, memory, emotion, effort, focus and activation (p. 4). She sees EF troubles as stemming from one of two points- academic weaknesses that stress the prefrontal lobe so as to be unable to bring to bear EF skills or EF weaknesses that interfere with the brain's ability to learn academic skills. On the surface, a teacher might see a student with little motivation to learn, task persistence, or organization yet deeper study is required to identify the weak points and present instruction in a way that meaningfully improves instruction.

Landmark clearly promotes student centered instruction. Throughout the book references to students self-awareness of what is going on, active multisensory learning and inquiry learning abound. This may be more challenging for some teachers to implement than others. Issues around curriculum pacing, content covered and large class sizes are ignored throughout.

One important detail that she points out is that initiation issues are often the result of emotional motivation concerns whereas persistence of effort more often result from poor goal-orientation. Seeing what behaviors the student exemplifies indicates where the intervention needs to occur.

The book offers some useful worksheets to help students and teachers assess general EF skills and motivation. These are available online in modifiable formats for both younger and older students. The book also offers many strategies to help students be successful. One I particularly liked was her class wrap-up strategy (closure activity). It includes a checklist for what study skills were focused on, and short answer responses to identifying the most important concept and what is desired for review. Using this kind of approach improves metacognition of these underlying skills that we often expect students to have that are trouble spots for people with EF weaknesses. I have previously commented on her inclusion of card sort type activities.

The book includes a series of case studies but leaves the thinking entirely up to the reader. While intro questions are provided, a thoughtful debrief is missing. These vignettes might be useful if the text were used in a professional learning opportunity. Overall a short easy to read book full of good suggestions for both individual interventions and whole class instruction aimed at improving EF skills and academic proficiency.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

student anxiety

I have a child with ASD and its frequently comorbid cousin, anxiety. I worked with a student who could not attend school because of anxiety.  The August edition of ASCD's Education Update includes an article entitled "Helping Ease Student Anxiety" by Sarah McKibben, which talks about anxiety. I have seen extreme anxiety as it impacts students, and this article rings true.

First she says look for clues:
1. somatic complaints- My son could not sleep. He picked his fingertips raw and then had sore hands. Some students have mysterious aches- headache, stomach aches, generally not feeling well. Be sure to rule out physiological problems. A student with a bladder infection needs to go to the bathroom a lot. So might a student with a nervous bladder. Students with chronic complaints should be checked out by a doctor.
2. distorted cognition- preoccupation with failure or perfectionism. Catastrophic thinking. Black or white universes.
3. behavior- mostly avoidance. This could be skipping class, putting a head down, refusing to answer, not attempting assignments or a variety of other things.
Students who exhibit these clues should be suspected of having anxiety. Remember we are lay people not diagnosticians. Suggest it as a possibility to investigate. Keep observing for clues.

She then offers some tips for avoiding or mitigating anxiety in the classroom.
  • Tackle tensions- moving to non-preferred activities can provide a focus on anxiety. To keep kids from becoming disregulated she suggests minimizing downtime and starting class with a soft activity that is more motivating than hard-core. Instead of "bell-work" she suggests a review game or video. This could present a logistic challenge for a teacher who needs a few minutes at the beginning of class to complete administrative tasks like attendance.
  • Cognitive Distractors- Often I see breaks as accommodations on IEPs, but McKibben suggests a wander break may not be enough. Some students will wander the halls or sketch on a pad and dwell on the anxiety trigger, resulting in no behavior change. Data should be kept on whether the structured break provides a reduction in anxiety or not. Instead of merely walking around a school loop, have them sing a favorite song while they walk, complete an unrelated task like Sudoku or hidden pictures, or perform an unrelated automatic memory task- tell me the names of your cousins or about your favorite football team or, for my son, your latest bottle acquisition.
  • Make it manageable- break tasks down and present in chunks to reduce the scope of the project. This is especially true of long term projects, but even a worksheet full of questions can be too intimidating. Cut it into sections and present one section at a time. Instead of three directions, provide only one.
  • Apply a label- Use language to label fears specifically and in detail. This is a great way to approach catastrophic thinking. Professionals who deal with anxiety will use this as a first step in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), the preferred intervention for anxiety.
  • Teach physical signs- controlled muscle tension exercises to identify what physical signs are present with anxiety and tension. Rate feelings on a scale.
  • Help initiate- sometimes the hardest part is getting started. Help students to complete the beginning. I think her idea of having a student start writing in class and stop- midword/sentence- and then go home to finish has merit. Most students can finish a started word. I fear that most would be unsettled with leaving a word unfinished which might elevate anxiety, but it might be different kid to kid.
  • Check in- once you start them off, let them know you will check in at certain points, perhaps ten minute intervals. Working side by side with another peer might be enough.
  • Private praise- while some students love public praise, many with anxiety hate being pointed out. Perhaps ask how they liked to receive recognition. A quiet nod might be what makes one happy while a posted perfect paper is good for another.

Her suggestions are solid from the classroom ideas that might make the difference for some kids. Mostly work as a team to get to know those students and what works for each one individually. Anxiety is more present in schools than ever before. We need to help students deal with it so they are better prepared for the world beyond us.

Executive function- language based materials

Patricia W. Newhall's book in the Language-Based Teaching Series, Executive Function: Foundations for Learning and Teaching, strongly encourages multisensory learning experiences. One strategy presented in the second chapter is manipulative sorting. Several of her suggestions are card sorts and games. While I have used card sorts to preteach vocabulary and games to reinforce concepts and vocabulary, one of her ideas struck me as useful.

She suggests taking quotes from a book or pertinent paragraph, break it up into sentences or utterances and have students sort them. When I was thinking about this, I thought this could be a great tool for helping with understanding classics and created the simple example below for Romeo and Juliet. Student groups get the cards cut up and are asked to organize them in a meaningful way. (You might want to add more quotes- pick the ones that you are focusing on in class.) Chronological order, speaker, or theme are a couple of possibilities.  Then they need to share with the whole group their results. Alternatively they could then be asked to sort by a different system. Both would involve doing, negotiating and thinking, all critical elements for learning. Another possibility for students involved in writing about the text would be to have students sort the quotes, then use them to write about the play.

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she. . . .
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp; her eye in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
O Romeo, Romeo,
wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name,
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you. . . .
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomi
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife. . . .

O, I am fortune’s fool! . . .

Then I defy you, stars.
A plague o' both your houses!
For never was a story of more woe [t]han this of Juliet and her Romeo.
What's in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other word would smell as sweet.
Good Night, Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.

If a paragraph were broken into sentences, students could be asked to organize it into a meaningful manner. This could be based on content area review- take the a summary of a chapter and ask students to organize it so that it makes sense. It could also be a writing exercise- use information about topic sentences, concluding sentences and transitions to create the reconstruction and then write a paragraph using similar transitions.

Other suggested sort activities involve:
  • words- definitions- images
  • put in chronological order- either historical/literary events, steps in processes or numbers
  • questions and answers.
These ideas are great ways to involve students in activities that, hopefully, could involve total participation, a key feature for increasing achievement. They also reduce writing load- students do not need to rewrite the material. For students who struggle with academics, writing is often a four letter word. Providing opportunities to sort and tape means the students have the material without the frustration that comes with writing. Further if the sort takes place in a group, often other group members can fill in executive function weaknesses for each other. They can reinforce focus, task initiation and completion so that the work, and learning, occur.

Looking forward to the rest of the book...