Thursday, November 16, 2017

the Edge of the Sea

Over the past few centuries there have been some books that have greatly impacted America. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Updikes' The Jungle, and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring have each sparked reform. A friend recently gave me The Edge of the Sea, one of Caron's earlier books. This book began its life as a guide to seashore life but morphed into something completely different. While my son has found many happy hours reading identification books and catalogs, this is not my forte so I was slightly concerned about the book. The book is unexpected for the genre.

Carson is a poet who writes in prose. Full of imagery and metaphors, I would love to use sections of this book with students to share how descriptive language can be used. It is a master text. She intertwines this description with geological history and moving depictions of the landscape. Carson shows how the animals are dependent upon the environment. In the 1950s she discusses climate change and how it altered habitats and organism ranges.

Carson's training in marine zoology is seen in every line as she details moving along the Atlantic coast. Not only does she showcase each specimen, she talks about life cycles and interdependencies. She brings this ever changing world to life. A read that not only fuels the mind but the soul as well.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Thank You for Being Late

Thomas Friedman's Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations is his latest book. He continues to examine his theme of interconnectedness and competition and its impact on the world. I was first introduced to Friedman's work when my children were in primary school. Our school superintendent talked about The World is Flat and preparing our children for a changing world in which we do not know the shape of the landscape. Since that time iPhones, iPads and tablets have certainly changed the way we communicate. Immigration has radically changed the faces of our communities- some are frightened by the influx of people from less well off regions of the world, while others see it as the way America became great. The Middle East continues to be a threat to the status quo, but its reach has been magnified. The indisputable fact is that the world is a different place than when my son started school a decade and a half ago.

Friedman identifies three major accelerators to change in our world: Moore's Law, the market and Mother Nature. Moore's Law relates to technology: every two years technology doubles its productivity. The 8K computer of my freshman year of high school was replaced with a 16K machine my senior year. (Schools are not on the cutting edge of technology.) Bandwidth, processors, chips become twice as fast and memory twice as large approximately every two years. The market is what people think of when they think of The World is Flat- the globalization and interconnectedness of the business community. People compete and collaborate across the globe. In the Middle Ages people were bound by their immediate community. In the Age of Exploration they were given the opportunity to escape their communities. In the Industrial Age we saw the movement of goods begin to spread across international borders. In the Information Age we no longer have to go- we send the information electronically. Mother Nature is climate change. No one can argue that we have had several major hurricanes this year- far more than is typical. Nor can they argue the increase in volatility in weather patterns. Global temperatures are warming, the ice caps are melting, and the world is entering its next period of change.

Friedman argues that these three factors combine in ways that mean our world no longer has the expectations it once did. People need to be educated to flex with the rapidly changing world around them. They need to become capable of adapting to information and technology at ever increasing speeds. They need to be able to learn new skills. They need to move forward or else they will be left behind. Trump would argue that to make America great again we need to stem the accelerators. Friedman would argue that you can't and to deny them is to be left behind. He quotes Sondra Samuels say that we need to recognize "the importance of a two generation approach" (p. 434) to build healthy communities in our inner cities. If we remain focused on what can I do today to improve x, we will always fall short of the goal. We need a long range view. The Chicago preschool experiment demonstrated that high quality preschool increased on time graduation rates, employment rates and incomes while decreasing grade retention, incarceration and teenage pregnancy. If you just examine impact within a year or two you miss the richness of the outcomes. We need to take a long range approach, perhaps two generations, to improve the quality of our neighborhoods and the lives of all our citizens. We need to develop an attitude of acceptance of diversity, an importance of education and a standard of excellence.

A world where we live in fear breeds Putin and North Korea. A world where we live in despair and hopelessness breeds Isis. A world where we live in obedience breeds Nazism. We do not want these worlds. We need to spread hope, empowerment and success or we will fall away from greatness. Never has isolationism on our part helped us to compete and remain great. We need to address the concerns of the world's people and raise up everyone. If we focus on keeping "them" down, we hold ourselves back as well.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Disruption and education

Thomas Friedman talks about disrupters in his latest book, Thank you for Being Late. Being in the middle of this text, it was interesting to read Peter W. Cookson Jr’s article in edweek, 10 Disruptions That will Revolutionize Education.  Cookson talks about “moving from distraction to deep learning” as one of the educational challenges we must now address. His disruptions include:

1.       Digital learners rebel against intellectual conformity- Yes, our young people are divided by the digital and physical realm, seeking solutions rather than reflection, but his assertion that they multitask easily is wrong. They multitask, but much research shows that they do this at the expense of everything they are doing. Conformity and standardization are things that people in our country have fought for decades, it is not new as Cookson proposes. Long is the complaint against youth that they rebel against conforming to society.

2.       Learning avatars will become commonplace.- True there is an increase in the use of intelligent programing that adjusts to the performance of the user. The challenge here is that we will still need to balance the idea of mastery versus time. Our students, teachers, schools, and states are measured on how well students to versus a set curriculum. Since all students do not learn at the same rate, at some point we need to make a choice about moving on and achieving coverage (a court case in California ruled that a class of students who did not cover particular material could not be assessed on it by graduation gatekeeper tests) and proficiency.  Further, recent research says that personalization does not actually achieve increased success with material. We really do not know how to utilize electronic platforms to maximize learning.

3.       Participatory-learning hubs replace isolated classrooms- Yes, students are increasing linked to the global universe.

4.       Inquiry skills will drive learning- Tell that to the science teacher community. For the past 30 years they have been supporting this idea, and it has not caught on. Social studies groups promote the concept of doing the work of historians- reading and analyzing primary source material- but we remain testing the dates of the Civil War. While there is an increase in teamwork and cooperative learning, most implementations of these activities enable little real collaboration. This rolls back to assessment- are we going to do easy assessments with "right" answers or are we going to do complex (read expensive) ones that are more subjective?

5.       Capacities will matter more than grades- “Conventional grading is already becoming outdated.” No kidding, but this is not new. Standards based report cards and grading are making strides in some places, but not all. What employers want is a tool to use that says this students is a good bet- they have soft skills like persistence, punctuality, and a willingness to learn as well as hard skills like a basic ability to engage in the three Rs. While capacity to do a job is slowly making inroads into the business community, this is not something we should hold our breath for.

6.       Teachers will become inventors- He talks about social emotional learning here, not inventors. I think he is getting at the link between cognitive skills, social emotional skills and creativity. Teachers have been doing this forever. In 1976 when PL 94-142, the federal special education law, was passed, they recognized these links and included both in the analysis of student skills.

7.       School leaders will give up their desks- Many people love their desks and will never give them up. The amount of paperwork that the educational bureaucracy requires does not lend itself to deskless lives. “Student agency in a culture of mutual respect” is what he proposes here. While many schools and classrooms are student centered, our insistence on standards of learning limit this. Novice learners need guidance and support to learn and push forward. We can argue about the relevancy of trigonometry and algebra 2 all day, but without outward pressure to learn these subjects, few students would ever engage in them and since they do not have real work application for most people, they would go by the wayside leaving our applied math programs like engineering and science at a loss.

8.       Students and families will become co-learners and co-creators- This is an age-old idea, but one that is not shared by many cultures, including those in many low socioeconomic areas and immigrant cultures. Middle class families already are co-learners and have been forever. Engaging the families is not something that will happen on its own but will require careful and concerted effort on the part of the schools.

9.       Formal credentials will no longer be the Holy Grail- Centuries ago being a lawyer meant working with a mentor for a while before opening your own shop. The same with doctors. We have formal credentials for a reason- to offer the public some assurance that the individual has a level of skill. We do not have the skill set to go to the doctor and interview him on his knowledge about medicine. We expect that to be taken care of before we pass through his office door. Although many jobs can be completed without formal credentials, employers rely on credentials for screening purposes. Different types of credentials are becoming the norm- online programs are increasingly able to bring education to a greater number of students, apprentice programs are available in some areas. Some form of credentials, however will remain the norm. Portfolios work in some fields and have for a long time- architects showcase their previous work, authors list their past writings, athletes have records of success- but this will not likely spread to all fields.

10.   Policymakers will form communities of continuous improvement- Really. How does he propose to get the politicians out of education? We are moving in the opposite direction. While there is a group of think tanks that process research and implement new ideas, these ideas are slow to capture our attention. “New math” has been the social pariah for a long time and was passed over at least once since its conception. Convincing the public to allow and encourage innovative educational policy is an ongoing battle.

I guess I am pretty pessimistic about the disruptions that are proposed. Not that many of them are bad ideas, just that the pace of change in the educational world is so much slower than that of the business world. We talk about our children not keeping up with the global community, and in some ways that is true. I think it boils down more to motivation than to activity- to a theory that they should be allowed to "be kids" rather than mini-learning machines. In China or India your choice is education, hard work and success or dirt floors and public well. Many other parts of the world do not even have the option of education.

Disruptions will change  how we educate. Some are bigger forces than others. The bigger mountain, however, is to change society's perception of the role of education. As a country and a culture, we do not have unity on the purpose of education. We are increasingly allowing government to control what we teach and how we teach it. I think perhaps the biggest disrupter will be the people rebelling against the status quo and allowing that a new way of educating might be superior to the one we experienced as youths ourselves.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Friedman's heating and lighting

I was first introduced to Thomas Friedman when my children were small and I attended a board of education meeting for our school district. Our superintendent was talking about the age of globalization and competition, about how the world would be different for our children than it was for us. I tracked down a copy of the World is Flat and appreciated the insights of this author and his message. A couple of years ago my daughter had to read the book for a college class and she too was impressed with the message. Friedman's latest book, Thank You for Being Late, has also captured my attention. His clear and easy writing style explains why he is a successful journalist. Although not far into the book, I have been ruminating on one of the messages of the introduction- he talks about  the role of the opinion writer as being either heating or lighting, an analogy that I think would be good for talking to students about persuasive and argumentative

He proposes that you have two options "turn on a lightbulb in your reader's head- illuminate an issue in a way that will inspire them to look at it anew- or stoke an emotion in your reader's heart that prompts them to feel or act more intensely or differently about an issue" (p. 12). This is the classic logos or pathos issue that Plato described updated to today's language. Friedman argues that ideally an author does both. Friedman's writing style does just that- he bombards the reader with facts designed to showcase certain things and then expresses it in a way that shares why you should care- your heart gets engaged. Friedman tends to be more of an economist than a politician in his outlook. I believe Friedman would agree with Marx in stating that the world is driven by economics rather than by political or social goals. Yes they are intertwined, but the driving force is the economic one.

When I think about our president and his use of rhetoric, it all focuses on the pathos or heating piece of the puzzle with some appeal to the element that Friedman does not discuss, ethos- appeal to authority. Trump uses his role as a businessman and now President to claim he must be right, an argument that Cigna, an insurance provider, takes comic advantage of with it's TV doctors of America ads (see here and here). Trump's favorite bit of rhetoric, however, is the heating business. He wants people shouting, cheering and afraid so that he can manipulate them to support him. We need to teach our young people to be wary of these devices so that they can analyze for themselves the information they receive and make informed decisions, not scared decisions.

Saturday, September 30, 2017


Malcolm Gladwell wrote Outliers in 2008 and the concept of 10,000 hours to excellence was popularized. It is not that we require an exact number of hours in order to become an expert, but we need to dedicate a huge amount of time to practice before we become experts. This holds true for virtually all things. Jerry Rice, the hall of fame receiver, was known for being the hardest worker on his team. That is true of most sports greats. They have natural talent and physical attributes, but to become truly great, they need to spend the hours- consistently over time.

Practice plus talent alone is not enough. There is an environmental aspect to greatness. Part of it is related to learning persistence, social skills and having access to opportunities. If you want to be successful at a job, you need to need to have the social skills to do so. The social skills needed to survive as a Wall Street banker are different than those you need to be a rodeo rider. A neurosurgeon has different social skills than a pediatrician. The skills you need to be an inner city police officer are different than those you need as a rural sheriff. Growing up in an environment where you learn those skills makes it easier. You can learn the skills, but it is a challenge to learn a new culture.

Further, your birthday contributes to opportunities. People who graduated from college in 2007 had a very different experience looking for jobs than those who graduated in 2009 during the great recession. Sometimes this challenge forces people to learn to be flexible and focus on skills that others are not finding profitable which will become profitable in the future. Sometimes it forces people to reside in mediocrity.

One thing that Gladwell discussed are the limitations of IQ as a determinant of success. Once IQ is above a certain point, being higher is not necessarily better. Being from a middle or upper class is what determines the success of the individual more than merely IQ. My husband, an engineer, talks about engineers in the top 90th percentile are able to produce twice that of engineers in the 50th percentile. He is not referring to just smarts, but to problem solving, persistence, and ability to juggle more things at once. To be able to analyze both the big picture and pay attention to the minutia. Not everyone can do this. Without training in how to do it, even the really good engineers do not get there.

So do we resolve to be satisfied that inner city, poverty filled areas are doomed to continue as they exist? NO. We can intervene and change trajectories. We have learned that the greater part of the achievement gap results from the summer slide. Students in well educated environments spend the summer in activities that expand their background knowledge and reinforce their learning. They have ready access to books and shown that reading is not just important but enjoyable. Students in poverty tend to be denied enriching summer experiences. They have much more limited access to books. They have to have parents set the stage, as a recent report illustrates, that emphasizes learning, schooling, and self-confidence in learning.

KIPP schools have been successful because they increase the amount of schooling and school work that students do. It would odd if students who spent 30 more days in school and 2 more hours a day at school could not out perform students who did not. It is not about technology they have access to or the uniforms they wear but the idea that learning is important. Parents who spend the time to research schools and pick the schools that would be best for their children, have children who do better than parents who do not. Parents who spend this time on selecting a school then also spend more time focusing on learning. Even if the parents cannot help their children with their school work, they can find people who can. In Educational Leadership I read recently read about a child who immigrated to this country and did not speak proficient English, nor did anyone in his family. His family did, however, belong to a community where there were proficient bilingual English speakers. They hooked this young man up with other adults from the community who could help with homework. This young man was able to be successful in school in spite of language and poverty challenges. Environment can help kids overcome challenges or can mire them. It is up to us as a community to decide which way to go.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Accessible Algebra

Every teacher who has worked with math has had students for whom math was instinctual- who loved to play with numbers and patterns, who caught on, often before the topic had been addressed in class. Teachers have also had students who found math to be an indiscernible labyrinth- who hated numbers and patterns and just never seemed to get it, no matter how many times it was explained. Unfortunately our culture seems to celebrate the latter and find the former odd. I have a husband and daughter who love math. She was delighted with calculus and worked ahead. Accessible Algebra by Anne M. Collins and Stephen R. Benson is not for those who get it. It is for the rest of us.

As opposed to a book based on theory, Accessible Algebra: 30 Modules to Promote Algebraic Reasoning, Grades 7-10 is a compilation of 30 lessons, complete with worksheets and answers, that can be used out of the box. The book is divided into sections- expressions, equations and functions. The modules contain real examples of algebra, the mathematical theory about the topic, common mistakes and ideas for both increased scaffolding and extensions. I learned some math reading this book, but more importantly, I have been exposed to some ideas about how to make algebra more hands on. We tend to think about elementary school math as being hands on- counters, pattern blocks, geoboards, balances, and games may be found in most such classrooms. As students get older, opportunities for hands on experiences in math diminish, in part because of pacing and time and in part because of the challenge of finding manipulatives and experiences that represent abstract algebraic concepts.

For students who struggle with mathematical thinking, finding ways to visualize and explore concepts is essential. This book provides a wealth of examples of how to incorporate models and discussion into the classroom. It might make algebra a longer course. It might, however, create a class that more students could be successful in. If an algebra teacher only used these 30 modules over the course of the 180- or more realistically 150 school days- students would be better prepared to tackle math. An emphasis throughout is discussion. Students often struggle with describing math. By forcing students to verbalize and write their ideas, both with words and symbolic notation, we help them bridge the gap and be better prepared for assessments that require these skills.

The activities  include a variety of card activities: match the expression with the words describing the math, the graph to its description or sort into function or not a function. We know that hands on experiences increase learning, it is worth trying. Another thing the authors include is a chart for recording student thinking. When students are working collaboratively or independently, you can determine what strategies they use and then encourage using the best strategy for a problem as opposed to a single strategy. You could add guess and check to the strategy column.

Student name
Problem solving strategy
Justifies strategy and solution using accountable talk
Accurate computation

A wonderful text for those trying to help students achieve success with algebra.

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.