Saturday, January 6, 2018

Schmoker's Focus

Watching a webinar led me to a video where Mike Schmoker presented a keynote at a conference. Google will find many of his conversations and presentations for you to explore if interested. His book, Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, was published about the same time as the Common Core standards (CCSS) were. Mike's main thrust is that we need to do less to improve performance. We need to focus on what we teach, how we teach and authentic literacy.

What we teach- He argues that the curriculum is impossibly loaded with concepts and ideas that cannot possibly be taught in a year. In looking at the CCSS, the designers would tell you they addressed this issue. They reduced the number of standards and required more depth in instruction. On the face this is true. At a presentation around the roll out of the standards, I was shown the previous and new math standards for fifth grade, at the elementary level where the most standards had been removed in New York. They removed 10% of the content, but were going to require considerably more depth of understanding. Unfortunately when you look at the international standards that they were trying to emulate, 75-50% fewer standards were present. Schmoker would argue that at least 50% of the curriculum should be eliminated to have room for high quality instruction and focus. At a school level, he would suggest that the staff get together, identify their 50% most important standards by dot voting or another polling activity and then focus there. He proposes that the clear, focused curriculum is essential to achievement. Repeatedly we have demonstrated that merely test practice focused instruction raises test scores so far and then plateaus. What is worse is that performance on international tests remains stagnant in the face of improving local or state scores where this approach is the norm. In order to significantly improve performance, we need to teach fewer concepts better.

How we teach- Mike suggests that literacy pervade every lesson. Reading as the access to material. Writing is a key way to improve thinking and learning. He suggests removing fancy technology lessons, and embedding traditional whole group instruction into the classroom. Going back to Madeline Hunter's plan of anticipatory set, model instruction, guided instruction, independent practice and closure accompanied with frequent checks for understanding provides a framework that dramatically improves results. All too often tech lessons have lots of bells and whistles and engagement, but little learning. For our Smartboards to increase performance they need to do two things- increase opportunities for feedback and increase opportunities to respond. Clickers or other personal response systems are key; without them you just have an expensive projector.

Schmoker presents two lesson templates for instruction:
  1. Interactive lecture- Lecture is used because of its ability to convey lots of information quickly. By itself, however, much goes in one ear and out the other of our students. The key is to make it interactive. Every 5-7 minutes there needs to be a break for student response. It could be a question answered with a personal response device; a request to summarize a key piece of information from the segment either orally, in writing or both; a request to try a problem either in a small group or alone; a request to use a nonlinguistic representation to demonstrate understanding; or another idea. While students spend 3-5 minutes on the activity, the teacher circulates, addressing misunderstandings and planning whether to move on or provide more guidance on the segment of knowledge. 
  2. Authentic literacy- He includes three components to this: close reading/underlining and annotating the text, discussion of the text and writing about the text informed by the text. He suggests preteaching key vocabulary, establishing a purpose, modeling the task at the beginning and gradually releasing responsibility to the students as formative assessments would suggest prudent. He stresses the importance of pair-share activities, group sharing and then quick writing.

Both of these templates can be used in every classroom. It would have been nice for him to include blank templates rather than just describing them.

Authentic literacy- He argues that students should spend at least 100 minutes a day on literacy activities. Students should read for 60 minutes and write for 40 minutes. Since students often do not read at home, this should be reading spent in class. We know that the only way to get better at reading is to read and the only way to get better at writing is to write, but are reluctant to devote the time to this because of all we need to do. I have worked with classes where students are not expected to read- everything is read to them. I know that low level readers are going to be unable to approach texts that are far to high above their reading level. Perhaps what we need to do is pick different texts. Most classics have abridged and lower reading level versions. If we need to provide two separate texts that are readable to the students in order for them to read, we should do it. Simply reading to them does not increase their skill. Having them read along will increase reading skill, but all too often in these classrooms books are closed and students are zoning out.

What Schmoker seems to ignore is classroom management and organization. These two items are critical for any learning to occur. It seems that he takes these items for granted. Unfortunately, like in many teacher prep programs, management is a sidelined item. Discussion requires
that teachers have control of their classes- they can keep students on topic and minimize behavior problems.

Although this book has been around for a while, it is valuable in its insights around how to improve learning and preparation for the future.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The smartest guys in the room

I am about to date myself. I distinctly remember the fall of Enron; not because I was a teenager paying attention to the news, but as an adult, more than a decade out of school. It was a huge event. When I saw a copy of The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, I picked it up nostalgically.

The authors detail the Enron story with its lead players much like the characters in a Shakespearean tragedy. The protagonists suffer from hubris that brings about their ultimate demise. They blindly followed their greed and allowed their brilliance- yes, these were seriously smart guys- to skirt the edges of legality, often falling off the edge, but obscuring it with confidence and financial maleficence.

What I found interesting is this. The outsiders who profited from the deal were traders who read the reports that were being published, realized they did not make sense, and guessed that the gobble-dee-gook was about hiding the true state of affairs. The big lesson for us today is that we need to be informed and not be cowed into accepting answers that do not actually answer the question. We let our politicians not answer questions all the time and much of the time it is because they do not want to state unpleasant truths. We would be better off if we were willing to swallow bitter pills and not shoot the messenger so long as we had the facts- not alternative facts- just the facts. As educators, it is part of our civic duty to teach this. We need to teach a quest for the truth and a facing of reality. When we make a bad decision, we need to face the music not kick it down the road. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be a part of our national character. We should work to make it so.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Woman who Changed Her Brain

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young's book, The Woman who Changed her Brain: And Other Inspiring Stories of Pioneering Brain Transformation, discusses her life story and captures vignettes of students of her Arrowsmith Schools. Currently there are 32 schools, mostly parochial programs, in the US using the Arrowsmith program. Details about their program may be found at their website. Barbara details her struggles with multiple severe learning disabilities and what she did to overcome them.

Her program is based on training the brain to complete tasks that are in areas of difficulty without using compensatory strategies. Much evidence for this type of approach exists. We know, for example that the brains of novice readers process reading using far larger portions of the brain than experienced readers do. The act of developing proficiency results in neurological changes in the way the way the brain processes text. Research demonstrated that when chimps had fingers sewn together, the brain started to process input and responses for both fingers collectively as one unit. Learning and experiences do change the brain. Further, we know that neuroplastisity exists. People who have had portions of their brains removed have demonstrated an ability to learn motor skills for regions of the brain that had been removed.

I know that as a child, I had abysmal handwriting. I was a good student whose handwriting grades were always U- unsatisfactory. In elementary school we had an activity period during which teachers and parents ran clubs for 5 week sessions. I participated in the "ornamental writing" or calligraphy activity for at least two sessions. While we learned the formation of elaborate capitals for a single script, we spent lots of focused time practicing handwriting. I made rows of circles and zigzags and fat and thin sideways number eights. Then I wrote one letter over and over and over. Using a pen with a nib and dipping in ink I learned about pressure to make the correct effects. This was hard work for someone whose handwriting was often illegible. Ultimately, however, I enjoyed the practice and became good at it. Hours of practice finally paid off and I have very legible writing now. We do not dedicate the time to handwriting practice and guess what- our children do not have good handwriting. Yes, it can be tedious, boring and hard work, that occupies that most precious school commodity-time- but it does pay off. This is the premise of the Arrowsmith program: practice in the area of difficulty in order to improve brain function.

The program begins with an analysis of skills which can be found on their website, cited above. Once the assessment is complete, they compose a report detailing areas of concern such as symbolic thinking, auditory speech discrimination and symbol recognition. These areas are mapped to specific brain sites which are then tasked with completing activities at graded levels of difficulty, often within a timed opportunity. The exercises, some of which are lightly described in the book, focus attention on the primary task of the region of the brain, exercising it to make it work harder and develop more capacity.

It would be interesting to see her list of exercises so that we could try and implement them with integrity. There is a training program that lasts for 3 weeks offered during the summer in Toronto. Rhonda Hawkins wrote a dissertation, which may be found here, reviewing the program and its impact. Many of the improvements were in areas difficult to assess with standardized assessments.

The book is an inspirational read that holds out hope for individuals struggling with significant disabilities. It does, however, put out there that the path forward is intensive practice. Unfortunately many students do not have the motivations to pursue intensive and monotonous practice and schools often do not have time to facilitate such practice that does not directly relate to a content area. Practice tracing and copying a set of simple of Hebrew or Cyrillic letters for an hour a day to develop fine motor and motor planning skills does not fit into the average school day.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Calm Seas

Mental illness is an often negatively stygmatized, undertreated concern that impacts a huge part of our society. I have long felt that if we could remove the stigma and provide early intensive, high quality treatment, our country would have far less trouble from people suffering with mental illness. Calm Seas: Keys to the Successful Treatment of Bipolar Disorder by Roger Sparhawk, discusses one segment of this complex web of mental health. His book is almost bipolar in its nature. Some sections seem to target service providers, offering lots of research and best treatment ideas, where others seem to target patients and their advocates. It is written in a first person format, almost as a discussion with a peer. As such, parts of the book are easier to read than others. Case studies throughout the text showcase discussion points, but the manner in which they are included does not highlight their importance.

He highlights a few points. First is the importance of accurate diagnosis. Bipolar disorder responds very differently to interventions than unipolar depression, even though they share the affect of depression. He also notes that long term bipolar disorder's symptomology becomes increasingly similar to that of unipolar depression. Since there is usually a large gap between onset of symptoms and initiation of treatment, a thorough history is required to identify episodes of mania.

Second is the existence of sleep disturbances. People with untreated bipolar disorder have disruptive sleep patterns. In depressed times people sleep more than 10 hours a day and during manic times they sleep less than 5. Patients that present with sleep disturbances should be identified and interventions attempted. This could be adjusting medication times to be more at night so that they do not encourage daytime sleepiness, implementing good sleep hygiene, and/or adding sleep aid medications. When people have the correct amount of sleep they are significantly more likely to have better mental health.

Third is medication. Antidepressants help very few people with bipolar disorder. Older mood stabilizers have a far higher rate of successful results. These include lithium. People with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder should actively discuss medications with providers. Those unwilling to consider maintenance with mood stabilizers should raise a red flag.

Fourth is a concern about other tier one concerns: Organic brain syndrome, schizophrenia, substance abuse and severe anorexia. All tier one concerns need to be addressed in treatment if there is to be success. Since patients often self medicate mental health concerns with alcohol and other substances and often do not report use of illegal substances, careful consideration needs to be given to them. Comprehensive, multipronged therapy is effective whereas single issue therapy is doomed to failure.

Finally acknowledgement needs to be made that bipolar disorder is a life-long diagnosis. Monitoring and treatment need to continue for the long haul. Patients need to be aware that although they can be treated they cannot be cured. Comparing with a medical diagnosis like diabetes might be helpful. This book is an interesting read, but be prepared for lots of medicaleze intertwined with highly readable portions.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Math and Movement

Research has shown us that movement increases mathematical achievement and understanding. Eric Jensen's Teaching with the Brain in Mind discusses this phenomenon. Other researchers concur. (for example see here.) Lynne Kinney has lots of materials that integrate learning and movement, often with song. We know this has an impact. Suzy Koontz with Laura Gates-Lupton wrote Math and Movement Training Manual for Elementary Schools to demonstrate how this might look in a classroom. Koontz's business has a website with video samples, practice activities and shopping.

Koontz presents a highly readable and searchable set of activities designed to get kids moving and learning. In our current era of increasing obesity and decreasing physical activity and elevated level of concern about math performance, it makes sense to see what we can do to incorporate movement into learning. Koontz's ideas for skip counting could be adapted to other subjects as well. Getting students up and making Macarena motions as they chant a definition or fact helps get their brains oxygen for learning while increasing the number of neurons triggered during the learning. Further it gives those antsy kids in our rooms some legitimate movement so they can develop self control about their energy levels.

I would recommend this book as a topic of discussion in any elementary program. Asking grade level teams to develop an activity using these ideas and seeing how students respond would enable groups to implement a low cost and potentially high value measure to increase achievement. Older groups would need to be more creative in developing use activities, but students up and moving with their hands are not using their cell phones. It could help with focus for these older students as well.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Open a World of Possible- Read

I recently was asked to write a blurb about what reading means to me, perhaps discussing a favorite or pivotal book. That task was totally aligned with my current read, Open a World of Possible: Real Stories About the Joy and Power of Reading, edited by Lois Bridges. This book contains a collection of short essays- 1 to 3 pages- by a variety of people ranging from authors like Jon Scieszka and Pam Muñoz Ryan to poets like Kwame Alexander and Georgia Heard and to renowned people who have written and taught about teaching reading from Richard L. Arlington to Thomas Rasinski to Kelly Gallagher.

These authors talked about growing up. Some as English language learners and immigrants. Some as poor rural children or children of the inner city. Some as wealthy or middle class citizens. Many mentioned the importance of libraries and librarians to their love of reading. Others discussed the influence of families reading to them. Many mentioned encyclopedias- they had them, often at great hardship- and they read them. Some books were referenced repeatedly like To Kill a Mockingbird, Dr. Seuss and The Outsiders. Frequent allusions were made to Dick and Jane.

My concern around this book is that many of these things are threatened. Some politicians and citizens would argue that libraries are no longer useful- we should spend our money elsewhere. Electronic sources do not need a brick and mortar structure. How wrong they are. I have an eReader but still relish the feel of a book in my hands, in fact, I prefer it. Good Reads and Amazon may have book reviews to examine, but an expert in books otherwise known as a librarian will lead you to a book that might captivate a young reader's attention or help you efficiently wade through the vast collection to find the information you are looking for. Libraries also provide safe havens for youth who have no one home after school or who live in areas where safety might be a concern or who do not have access to internet or English literate adults in their world... Libraries are essential.

Encyclopedias. Growing up we had two sets. We referenced them for school assignments. When my mother required that we be able to share one thing we had learned at the dinner table each night there was a mad dash for the volumes before dinner. We even read them when we were bored, skimming through pages looking for something to catch our interest. Random information like Millard Fillmore's birthday- January 7, or the capital of Nepal- Kathmandu, or that a group of turkey vultures is called a murder were all shared. When you need to type what you are interested in learning about into a search engine- it is not the same. The browsing concept is missing. So too is the idea that my family sacrificed to buy this set so I need to use it mentality. You might not be able to learn everything about a topic from an encyclopedia, but you can learn that the topic exists. Organizational structures are not available for children to explore- alphabetical, similar types of entries had a pattern. Encyclopedias are not even printed any more. Such a loss. Ebay has an assortment available for those who do not remember these sets.

Classics. Classic children's books abound. Many of these books are still beloved favorites still found on our shelves long after the authors have died. Margaret Wise Brown, Dr. Seuss, Longfellow and Asimov all have permanent spots on shelves, even as they are joined by new friends like Pam Muñoz Ryan, Suzanne Collins. Some would say we should let the classics go and focus on new literature that touches children. All literature can touch people- that is what makes it a classic. We need to read like we are touched and changed by what we read. We need to teach that.

Dick and Jane. Often maligned characters that hundreds of thousands of children learned to read with. The uninspiring story lines and closely regulated vocabulary were companions of learning to read. Sight word reading has its limitations, but it did lead to some level of fluency. While the vast majority of people need phonics to learn to read, there does exist a small subset that will only read through sight words and sight words are essential for fluency. See Spot run. Run, Spot, run did enable most children to read. If only we coupled this instruction with captivating stories, intriguing nonfiction pieces and phonics we might have had a formula for greater love of reading. That said- most young people do not read beyond what is required of them by school. All of our pushing for nonfiction reads and rigor leave little motivation for leisure reading.

An interesting assignment might be to read a couple of examples to class and then ask them to write about reading. It would provide great insights into our children, what they enjoy and hate about reading. Such an assignment could help us understand our role in readicide or bibliophilia and give us an opportunity to alter that path. Charles R. Smith, Jr. put it lovingly in verse:

     So many sights and sounds
     that I can write down
     of the live that I've lived
     from the books that I found
     filled with words
     that planted the seed
     of dreams for me
     when I chose to read. (p. 179)

We need to make sure that we plant the seeds of dreams through words.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Disrupting dyslexia

One common myth about reading is that if kids don’t read fluently by the end of third grade, they never will. The truth is that these kids can learn to read, but the energy and time required to remediate poor reading skills goes up exponentially with every year. By the time they reach high school, it is hard to motivate these students who know they are so far behind their peers and have such uncomfortable memories related reading. It is also hard to find the time to do it.

New research is coming to the forefront to indicate how we can best intervene in dyslexia. Eleanor Chute’s brief article, "How Schools are Disrupting Dyslexia," found at discusses some of this information. The key really is early intervention. Screening kids in kindergarten to assess their reading knowledge and skills and using that assessment to inform targeted instruction. Effective interventions at the kindergarten level might only need to be half an hour daily whereas at the high school level they might need to be two hours per day. Knowing the school system, finding a half hour for intervention is far easier than two hours, especially at the high school level. If you look at staffing needs, it is far more efficient to intervene at the elementary level. A kindergarten teacher working with daily half hour blocks might get 5 or 6 groups of five kids in a week and be able to provide effective, evidence based instruction that will get those kids to reading at level.  A high school teacher working with two hour blocks might get three groups of 5 students to provide effective, evidence based instruction that will get those kids to reading at level.  That is 25 or 30 students per staff member compared with 15.

Kindergarten screening should include assessments in language, phonological awareness, and rapid naming. While many kindergarteners are screened on these skills, their ability to name a few letters or write their name may be seen as a sign that they are not at risk. Also knowing if there is a family history of reading challenges is important since dyslexia does have a genetic component. For student who struggle with these screening tasks, interventions may mean the difference between learning to read effectively and years of special education and frustration with reading. Details about screenings may be found here.
Response to intervention, RTI, programs are able to provide some interventions at this level without access the special education system. In fact, they might actually prevent the need for special education in the future. If we embrace the information we have access to, screen our kids early, provide daily rigorous intervention in small groups, we might be able to increase the number of readers we have dramatically.​ That is good for all.