Thursday, February 22, 2018

Total literacy tools

Having read Total Participation Techniques (TPT) by Persida and William Himmele, I was familiar with their focus on increasing student response rates within the classroom. This website has some great summaries of the techniques. I delayed  reading their new book, Total Literacy Techniques: Tools to Help Students Analyze Literature and Informational Texts, coauthored with Keeley Potter. Adapting the TPT to literacy activities did not seem that big a leap so as to need a new book. This book is not a recap of their old one.

One of the early concepts they discuss is the difference between academic vocabulary and academic language. On page 9 they quote a student, "Books carry truth, whether truth be light or dark; and by reading these books, we build our hearts out of words." This sentence contains only tier 1, common vocabulary. It is not a sentence whose language is tier 1. This sentence has a complex deep meaning that, if read quickly by an unsophisticated reader, loses its depth. It highlights an aspect of level of meaning that all our reading level measures miss. The language is put together in a way that is beautiful and complex. Lexiles would not recognize it as challenging as it is. When I look at leveled books I often think that the people who assessed the challenge level missed something. We cannot assume that students can read something because of its Lexile number. Part of literacy instruction is to examine the language and understand the author's meaning, not merely the literal meaning of the words. To be able to understand the multiple connotations and denotations of a word in its application.

Another of the big ideas of this text is that free choice reading is critical to literacy development. Our spoken language reveals a fragment of our vocabulary and verbal complexity. When we read we are exposed to new words, different sentence structures and purposes, and topics of interest. This winter a student looked at me and said, "I hate to read and so do all students." Yes, other students protested that reading was not the evil empire, but she was merely expressing a feeling shared by many of her classmates. Years ago I worked with a student on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He shared that he did not know why the author used the language he did because, "No one talks like that." Students need to be read interesting stories, poems and articles, not for analysis, but simply to be exposed to vocabulary and language outside of their norm- this is academic language and vocabulary. Don't get me wrong- I believe that students need to dig into literature they would not personally pick up and learn to analyze the human condition and universal truths, to understand rhetoric and how it impacts meaning, and to develop cultural norms, but they also need to read "easy" books that are at their level that interest them. Graphic novel, joke book, identification book, biography, fashion magazine, poetry anthology, novel, whatever- they all share the virtue of being reading. This is part of the balance of reading essential to student development.

One tool from their chapter that I like is collecting words bookmarks (p. 31). Students read and collect new words. Later look up their meaning and share them. This reminds me of a strategy- words in a jar- where students were asked to record interesting words and put them in a jar. Periodically they would be shared with the group. Whether it is the sound or meaning, it expands exposure to words that hold personal meaning to students.

Another great tool the authors shared were prompts for analyzing literature and informational texts. They suggest posting and/or sharing with students the list of general prompts so that during discussions or quick writes or reading responses students can learn to use the questions to guide deeper thinking. Questions like How does the author use metaphors to develop the story? or What specific words does the author use to make a case for, and against, certain characters? lead to deep thought (p. 48). They also introduced a relevance wheel. An example is below.

One thing that I was expecting was some discussion of total participation techniques. They discuss bounce cards which I have read about elsewhere. These are sentence starters that require students listen to what is said and then move the conversation forward. Some examples of bounce cards are here, here and here and a video math lesson using them is here. One TPT they suggest is that on a smooth top desk you can write with a dry erase marker. Students can use their desk rather than a  white board to write responses. One example of a type of response would be a fill in the blank idea such as complete the analogy:
  • white is to black as (concept under discussion) is to ___________________.
  • three is to four as (concept under discussion) is to ___________________.
These could become:
  • white is to black as Eliza's external appearance at the beginning of Pygmalion  is to Eliza at the end of Pygmalion.
  • white is to black as Northern pre-Civil War industry is to that of the South.
  • three is to four as glacier is to sediment.
  • three is to four as parenthesis is to multiplication. (Order of operations)
Students could quickly record their ideas and erase them.

The chapter on informational texts contains one of the best descriptors of concept mapping I have encountered. Concept mapping allows students to explore the connectedness of various concepts. Students could be given a set of cards, sticky notes, or a sheet with the cards ready to be cut out and be asked to arrange them by category and relationship. Once that was done they secure them to another sheet and write explanations of how they are connected or related. Portions that might be used are shown below:

                        w/ all parallel sides                                      w/ all equal sides                    
Quadrilateral---------------------------> parallelogram --------------------------------> square

                    is splitting                                  and can be a form of
Mitosis -------------------------------> cells -----------------------------------------> asexual reproduction

The words between the arrows would be the ones students were given to use and those above the arrows were added to show connections. Students might arrange them differently, but if their description of relationships is correct, then they should be accepted. Teachers can look for deeper connections with probing questions.

This book was an unexpected read with some great ideas. It provides some nice examples of their ideas and shows how literacy techniques can be used in classes other than ELA. Their focus on vocabulary is a boon to English language learners and students with disabilities alike.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Mentoring for the gifted

In K-12 education, we often think of mentoring as a tool for struggling learners and those living in poverty. In February's Teaching for High Potential, Hollis B. Bell's article, "Starting a High School Mentoring Program for the Gifted: Opportunities and Challenges," proposes that this strategy be used with gifted populations. In many ways it makes sense. We know that as many as 30% of our gifted students drop out of school and that many experience social struggles. Providing gifted students with mentors helps them with improving their self-concept and develop positive adult relationships (Little, Kearney & Britner, 2010), as well as developing their creativity (Sahin, 2014), leadership and achievement potential (Aorman, Rachmel, & Bashan, 2016). Clearly mentoring has a role with our brightest students.

Bell points out the challenge of gaining administrative support for mentoring programs focusing on the gifted. When many administrators fail to see the point in any programing for the gifted, this is an obstacle that is difficult to overcome. Showcasing the problems of gifted children in their ability to connect to with peers and develop positive relationships might help. Bringing in mentors who can identify the virtue of such programs and highlighting the research on positives might help as well.

Finding mentors is always a challenge. Parents, seniors and members of service organizations like Rotary and Kiwanis might all be sources for mentors. Outreach is essential in securing people committed to working with these children. They also need to be trained and made aware of their role, strategies for dealing with challenges and desired outcomes.

Coming up with ways to help our gifted children maximize their opportunities serves us as a community. We need to do what we can to help them develop into the best they can be.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

A curious history of mathematics

Since the release of the Common Core State Standards, a move to find nonfiction materials to read across the subject areas began. Reading in math has always been a challenge. Math textbooks are remarkably challenging to read. Many students are turned off by the mere mention of math- mathphobia being the most common content area avoidance in schools. The reliance on symbology stymies some students. The requirement to learn from worked problems demands dramatic slowing of the reading process in a way many are uncomfortable. Vocabulary that is rarely used outside of math classes confounds many. Sidebars are common, but students often skip over these text features. Concept density is a huge upward battle. For more about reading math texts and their challenge see this passage from chapter 2 of  Literacy Strategies for Improving Mathematics Instruction by Joan M. Kenney, Euthecia Hancewicz, Loretta Heuer, Diana Metsisto and Cynthia L. Tuttle. Finding accessible and interesting math readings remains a challenge.

Joel Levy's book, A Curious History of Mathematics: Big Ideas from Primitive Numbers to Chaos Theory, is a readable tome about math. He has 2-4 page sections about key mathematician and concepts. It is written as a narrative as opposed to a expository text which makes it easier for students to digest. While it contains outlines of mathematical concepts, it focuses on the key players in math, an approach that may make it more interesting to students as well. This book could be used to introduce concepts. For example, in the section titled "The Life of Pi," estimates for pi from different cultures, notably Egyptian, Indian, Greece, China and Italy, highlights the contributions from around the world to math, something rarely seen in our Eurocentric math curriculum. It also presents challenges like how many decimal places do we need for pi? While generally not appropriate for the average student to read through cover-to-cover, the book is approachable by middle school students as excerpts related to content being studied. Mr. Levy takes a somewhat humorous view and presents many remarkable facts which had me talking with my family:
  • Euler was the most prolific mathematics author of record. How many books did he publish? (If compiled, between his books and papers, his 856 pieces would fill between 60 and 80 volumes.)
  • What US president devised a unique proof of the Pythagorean Theorem? (Garfield)
  • Cicadas breed in prime-number intervals.

A fun book that recommend, even for the non-mathy folks out there.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Helping anxious students move forward

The December 2017/January 2018 edition of Educational Leadership includes an article by Jessica Minahan, "Helping Anxious Students Move Forward," that suggests implementing strategic accommodations in order to help anxious students be successful. A quarter of teenagers suffer from some anxiety disorder, with less than half being identified and receiving treatment (see here). This means our schools are full of students struggling to handle day to day existence.
Minahan identifies four common executive function  skills that students with anxiety often struggle with: accurate thinking, initiation, persistence, and help seeking. She then suggests some interventions that might help these young people become more successful.
  • Accurate thinking- virtually all people with anxiety disorders and depression suffer from issues around accurate thinking. It may range from all-or-nothing thinking (ex. either I am a star or a failure) to catastrophic thinking (ex. I don't know the answer. I am so stupid I will never graduate.) to just constant negative thinking (ex. I cannot be successful, complete the project, have a friend...). The trick is to work at transforming this maladaptive thinking into accurate thinking. Possible interventions include
    • rating a task before and after completion and comparing ratings.
    • charting the aspects of a task and categorizing the elements as neutral, like or don't like (writing a paper- using proper capitalization, spelling, discussing the idea with someone, completing a graphic organizer, typing, writing in complete sentences...). Students can be shown that while there are aspects of the task that are disliked, it is not all bad.
    • reframing language- It is "I cannot do this yet" or "I need help to know where to go" or "Everyone needs help with ___ at first."
  • Initiation- I like the comment that she uses on page 48, "It isn't realistic to ask negative thinking, anxious students who lack initiation skills to begin work independently." We need to get these students started. If we assist within 30 seconds of assigning materials, it can dissuade negative thinking. Admittedly, with a class of  25 kids, 8 or more of whom are anxious, this is a challenge, but small groups, partner work and using co-teachers, paraprofessionals, and volunteers effectively can help. Students can preview assignments with teachers earlier in the day or the night before. Chunking material- one page at a time, limiting the number of problems, sheets with some problems already complete rather than totally blank- can help. Provide sentence starters to get them off and running on a writing assignment. Whiteboards to make it not a permanent feature. Ask for help to start. Skip the problem you are stuck on and move on. Change seats to limit distractions. Positive self-talk- if I work for 3 minutes I can take a break, do the first five problems then take a break, I can do this.
  • Persistence- The author suggests using the Dweck statement, "Every time you push out of your comfort zone to learn hard things, your brain grows new connections and you get smarter" (p. 48). Some useful strategies for developing persistence include:
    • skipping the hard problems and doing the easy ones first,
    • working with a classmate,
    • check the problems that are completed,
    • take a quick break,
    • pair the task with something pleasant (ex. comfy chair, soft pleasant music),
    • picture the completed project, have a checklist to mark off the completed portions of a task (children with executive function challenges often have difficulty with visualization so model projects, papers and assignments can help them to approach the task),
    • set a reward for completing a task (Grandma principal- do your work then have a cookie).
  • Asking for Help- So many kids struggle with this. They may not recognize the need for help early enough, they may feel stupid if they ask for help, they may not have enough initiative to ask. Normalize the request process- everyone gets a red cup (I need help) and a green cup (I'm good). Provide options for asking- raise a hand, show a card, catch an eye and nod,... Then require a specific ask. Not I need help, but I cannot find the answer to number five, or I do not understand what the question is asking for when it says____, or I do not remember the formula. Often merely solidifying the question can lead them to being able to solve it themselves. A teacher can also respond with strategies to help answer the questions. Where did you find the answer to question four? It should be after that. Look at the subtitles. Do they give us any clues? What part of the question is challenging? Let's look in the glossary/dictionary for what that means and see if we can figure it out. Where is your formula sheet? I bet it has the one you need. This takes more time than- on page 76 halfway down, it is asking you to tell all about the three branches- what does the legislature do? the judicial? the executive? The formula is f=ma. Some students will need a check in. They may show a pattern of not following directions so have them restate them. They may need reinforcement after each section or activity. Let them ask for a check-in to see if they are on the right track. Reinforce common strategies like raise your hand, ask three then me (peers may be easier to ask than adults), hand the teacher a note, look in your notes/notebook/binder/book for help, ask to work with a classmate.

Provide a  self-monitoring sheet with strategy options. This helps with preventing dependence. Teaching strategies and self-monitoring is an essential step toward independence. Specifically labeling challenges and identifying interventions helps avoid all or none thinking. Prompting to refer to a checklist might be enough to get the child going.

In reading we talk about independent, instructional and frustration level material. In many ways this applies to all academic tasks. If students are being asked to work at an independent level when the demands of the task are at their frustration level, the result is not going to be pretty. If the reading to too challenging (Common Core rigor can be to challenging for some) student will not be able to independently use the material. If his writing skills are at a second grade levels, asking for a five paragraph essay is beyond his independent ability. If you want students to work independently, they need to be doing tasks they can complete independently. If they need check ins then they cannot perform independently. If it is crazy beyond their capacity, they need alternate work (ex. draw a picture of what happens, do three paragraphs not five, use a video rather than a text, do two digit multiplication rather than 3), modified materials/responses  (ex. chunk the reading into smaller sections, larger font/fewer questions on a page to make it less distracting and appear easier, audiobooks, voice to text technology, oral reports, sentence starters, multiplication charts, lower reading level texts), or lots of scaffolding and support. These strategies and others are often used to help students with learning disabilities. They also can help those with mental health issues.

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.