Friday, September 28, 2012

Parenting for high potential and grit

The September 2012 edition of Parenting for High Potential includes an interesting article called "True Grit: Some New Perspectives on Motivation and Persistence" by Dr. Paula Olszewski-Kubilius. The author discusses grit as the factor that separates star performers from others. She defines grit as the "determination and persistence it takes to reach long term goals" (p. 2). She goes on further, describing the separating characteristic as a level of both stamina and intensity to practice as well as being able to push through adversity.

While Dr. Olszewski-Kubilius is talking specifically about gifted and high ability children, this idea crosses to typical kids very easily. Malcom Gladwell has been frequently quoted about his 10 000 hours of practice to become an expert concept. While 10 000 hours of practice will not make everyone an expert, I for example will never be an expert football player, to become an expert in a field takes many hours of practice, in which failure and frustration will occur. This can be in any activity: video games, musial performance, neurobiology, hockey,... We can all achieve some level of expertise with sufficient focus and experience. The problem is that many people are not willing to devote the focus and time to an activity. Practice is indeed one element of grit.

That leads neatly to the next descriptor- having a growth mindset. Carol Dweck's research into successful people believing that their effort, not their innate ability, is responsible for their success and their higher achievement. To practice for 10000 hours requires effort. You cannot back down because you got to a hard part. Success must be seen as a direct result of work, not merely an aspect of raw talent. When we allow our brightest to achieve in school without effort, we reinforce the wrong mindset. Even though the things that will challenge them will not be on this year's state tests, we need to provide them with meaningful work that requires application of effort, not busy work that they will be tested on but have already mastered. If we do not, we encourage the slide to "I'm bright. I do not need to work."

That leads nicely to resilience. This is the characteristic of being able to bounce back from being down. It is my favorite definition of self-esteem. Self-esteem is more about how you handle doing things wrong than how you respond to success. A person with high and well-developed self-esteem is not killed by the struggle to achieve something difficult, they are invigorated by it. Therefore, it is not praise or success that leads to high self-esteem, it is the perception of being able to be successful with hard work and dedication even in the face of failure. Robert Brooks has done much research into the link between resilience and self-esteem (

In the 1960's Michael Mischel from Stanford performed the now famous marshmallow experiment. Children who were able to delay gratification were more successful decades down the road. This element of grit clearly plays a role in success as well. Delaying the gratification of success empowers them in other things they will encounter in life.

So how do we build grit in children? The author poses a series of suggestions:
  1. Help children acquire strategies to manage moods and anxiety
  2. Facilitate an understanding of learning and working style
  3. Help children be comfortable with the stress and anxiety of challenge and focus on a growth mindset
  4. Help teach how to identify and set both big goals and the small steps to get there 
  5. Model risk taking, goal setting, resiliency and coping skills in  your daily life
  6. Develop passion
  7. Emphasize and reward persistence
  8. Ensure access to challenging learning experiences
(Page 3)

The last one is of especial interest to teachers. We need to recognize that the standard curriculum, even the higher standards of the Common Core, will not be a challenge for some students and endeavor to find ways to offer challenging and enriching environments to our brightest students.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Civil War YA novel: Bloody Times

 I love the school book sales and when my daughter's school had one during open house I took advantage of the opportunity and bought two Civil War books that were specially adapted for young people. Civil War is not a particular interest, but anything that I might use in a classroom is.

Bloody Times: The Funeral of Abraham Lincoln and the Manhunt for Jefferson Davis by James L. Swanson was a delightful find. It could be a mentor text for showing students how to integrate primary documents into a text. Pictures, cartoons, letters, telegrams and other resources are incorporated into the text to support ideas throughout. Common Core Reading goals include:

3. analyze how and why individuals, events and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text,

 7. integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words

11. Respond to literature by employing knowledge of literary language, textual features, and forms to read and comprehend, reflect upon, and interpret literary texts from a variety of genres and a wide spectrum of American and world cultures

The writing goals include:

2.Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
4.Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

8.Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

9.Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

All of these goals can be addressed using this mentor text to show how a published author performs. Be careful not to teach too many concepts at once. That would overwhelm students and result in less learning. Think about focusing on one or two CCSS goals. Students may notice other things for another lesson, but maintain focus for the duration of the present lesson.
 The book's presentation of comparisons between Lincoln and Davis is intriguing and would be wonderful to analyze. The book lists the guided reading level as X and the Lexile as 1010L. This puts it as a middle school text. Students who have not read material that switches timelines may be confused by the structure and need support to identify the parallel story lines. For some students, reading parts of the text to them may be all that is needed. For higher level readers, independent assignments based on the reading could be completed while others worked with the teacher to learn skills need to conquer the reading.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Mistakes or Errors

The smartest student in my Trig class missed getting a 100 on the Regents exam because he multiplied 2 time 3 and got 5. He made what we infamously refer to as a stupid mistake. He knew how to solve the problem, but made a mistake. When it was pointed out that he had gotten the problem wrong, he looked at it and immediately was able to pin-point his mistake and correct it.

My son received a low grade on a Trig exam and was asked to correct the mistakes and return the test for a new grade. He protested that if he could do the problems right, he would have. He did not know how to do the work, could not correct it and the request was preposterous.

How often do we ask student to correct their work with no further input? They can correct the mistakes, the things they know, like the student in the first example, but when they do not know how to fix them, they are errors. The students cannot correct them on their own. If we grade their corrections, we are giving these students a double whammy.  In September's Educational Leadership's "Making Time for Feedback," Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey point out this difference between mistakes, when you know the answer but were careless or tired and messed up, and errors, when you don't know how to do the problem. Asking students to correct mistakes does not improve achievement and students cannot independently correct errors so the task also results in no increase in learning.

Fisher and Frey point out that teachers often spend large amounts of time correcting student work. Unfortunately this is often a case of working hard, but not smart. If students are given the answers, they probably won't learn anything from the process. The further the assignment is from receiving the feedback, the less valuable it is. Students need teaching to respond to feedback and anyone who has seen students look the grade and then throw the papers away, knows that much of the effort teachers spend trying to give feedback is disregarded. We want teachers to spend time reviewing student work, but we want the time to be meaningful.

The authors of the article recommend completing an error analysis. This is something that special ed teachers are trained to do, but many general ed teachers are not. We need to look at the work, determine why the errors were made and then provide an intervention. Clearly not every error can be taught immediately, but we need to systematically address mislearning and non-learning. Daunting? It can be. Fisher and Frey, however, recommend an interesting way to evaluate student work to use it formatively. They propose selecting a few skills you want students to be able to perform. The authors' example is skills for understanding a primary source document: skimming and scanning to preview text, sourcing, and drawing conclusions (p 45). For a writing assignment it could be: using  the standards of written English correctly and meaningfully, organizing material to enhance meaning, using appropriate vocabulary, and demonstrating appropriate voice. For a math test on area it could be: knowing the formulas, applying the formulas correctly and multiplication. A science lab could be evaluated on: correct format, using the tools correctly, and drawing appropriate conclusions. For all of these examples additional or different criteria could be identified. A chart is created with the classes and errors are compared. Student initials or tallys are used to chart errors when grading. The chart is used to identify interventions to the whole class or groups that may be appropriate.

Targeting instruction to small  groups is something that elementary teachers do with reading groups, but often ends when students enter middle school. Curriculums are too dense to reteach or get stuck on something. Teachers are, after all, being graded on how their kids test. If the entire test content is not covered, it reflects badly on the teacher. Think of this paradigm instead. If we only cover 85% of the curriculum for 85% of the class (the 10 % at the top get enrichment to extend throughout the entire curriculum while the 5% at the bottom are pulled from class, experience absences or do not have the foundations to learn it at this time) and we teach it well, they learn it thoroughly. Students will do very well on the test AND retain the information for next year. Less review will be required at the next level and more time can be spent on new content. The common core has embraced the idea that we need to narrow the curriculum. (I will argue that their inch wide and mile deep is really a yard wide and a couple of fathoms deep, but that is a topic for another day.) We need to teach well so that students learn the material, not cover the material so that students experience surface learning so they can perform on the test and forget it the next day. Targeting instruction on the errors is one component of this idea.

We will not be able to teach the same thing to every class every year, but we will have more learning come out of the process. We will have the first student who experiences frustration because of his stupid mistake and focus it into an intention to be more careful, not my son who was turned off and became a behavior problem, missing the next lesson as well.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Using CCSS for ELA with Gifted Learners

Using the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts with Gifted and Advanced Learners edited by Joyce VanTassel-Baska is the companion booklet to the Mathematics one that I have discussed earlier. Although there is some duplicated material, it is not as much as I feared and it is a good reminder. This book was spearheaded by National Association for Gifted Children in response to the release of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

The ELA book offers more sample questions for implementing a differentiated curriculum than the math book- offering one for grades 3, 5, 8 and 11/12 in each strand, but considering the breadth of the challenge of teaching ELA standards across the many curricular areas that CCSS encompasses, it only brushes the surface. A great deal of programmatic development needs to occur when dealing with advanced learners. We need to thoroughly understand the stretch of curriculum so that when standards are mastered earlier or "practiced at higher levels of skill and concept" (p. 49) we know how to develop activities to continue to push learning. The appendix provides a variety of resources are provided to pursue existing curriculum and methods of differentiating material.

I liked the way the authors identified different needs across the stages of development. For early learners, they comment that "grouping of gifted learners early is a spur to their developing abilities and interests in verbal areas" (p. 39).  This runs counter to heterogeneous grouping lovers, but for children who enter school able to read, it is essential that they are clustered for meaningful instruction and have a peer group with whom to share their learning in a meaningful manner. In the middle years, the authors point out the importance of "reflection on one's potential talent fields and a clear assessment of one's own strengths and weaknesses in the talent area [to] provide another basis for judgment about how interested an advanced learner may remain in a worthwhile domain" (p. 40). This self-reflection should not be solely encouraged in advanced learners. All learners need to step back, evaluate their skills and interests and what it will take to pursue their dreams. Weaknesses do not prevent goal achievement, but they may make it harder to reach. Realistic analysis is important to show the level of work and motivation required to attempt the desired goal. Students who cannot realistically say they will put in that kind of effort should be encouraged to explore other options that may not rest so much on their weaknesses. As children grow into adolescents, the role of self-assessment becomes even more critical. Independence requires serious, unbiased self-examination. Students who want to pair their college and program of interest to their personal profile need to be able to make use of self-knowledge.

Knowing that advanced learners require more from their schools than many programs traditionally provide, what do we do? First we need to have schools answer the question: Will "they become important brokers and facilitators of talent development, or do they become barriers to it by imposing cumbersome rules and regulations that block advanced learners from their upward trajectory of progress in a talent area?" (p. 41) Some will say that this is harsh and too black and white. While there will always be irregular implementation of whatever choice is made, overall, schools do make a choice. Some will also argue that of course they will facilitate progress, it is what they do for all children. If they only do the same thing for all children, they fail and are barriers. An example of this is seen in the idea that students are "prisoners of time" (p.42). If students are locked into a program of study without opportunity to compact curriculum, to accelerate at a personally reasonable speed and are discouraged from going outside for academic advancement, we are keeping them prisoners and likely to diminish or extinguish their thirst for knowledge. Instead of nurturers of excellence we become bearers of oppression. Individualizing instruction is not easy. If we want to promote excellence, however, some level of individualization is essential.

CCSS are not the end, but the beginning. We need to take the framework they provide, deeply understand the objectives and understand how to take it farther for our advanced learners.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Using CCSS for Math with Gifted Learners

One of my concerns regarding Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is that as they roll out and school staff tries to understand them, the brightest students will be left behind. I imagine many responses to questions about educating our brightest learners. Some will be told that the new standards are deeper and require more from our students so that differentiating up is not necessary. Some will say that they will try and fit in expansion of the curriculum as needed, but never have the time or resources to do so. Other places will have the few resources available to our brightest further stretched because of the new standards and budgetary limitations on professional development leading to weak piecemeal approaches. While there will be teachers and places that are successful, I fear that CCSS will be a huge stumbling block for our advanced learners over the next couple of years.

Using the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics with Gifted and Advanced Learners edited by Susan K. Johnsen and Linda J. Sheffield, is a booklet aimed at providing guidance to schools to help prevent or limit the problem. The National Association for Gifted Children, National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) collaborated to produce the material. The booklet is more of a you need to do this directive than a how to manual. The resource section is extensive and useful, but this book does not offer enough to go on by itself.

This is the first place where I have seen the admission that the curriculum is not shrunk by much. While the CCSS say they are not an inch wide and mile deep, the authors of this book seem to disagree. Problem solving may be renewed in focus but that just makes it more challenging material. It took centuries for the best mathematical minds of civilization to come up with the ideas of statistics. We cannot expect our students to figure them out on their own in the 13 years we expect them to be in school. Just problem solving and inquiry will not be enough- direct instruction will be necessary as well.

Of note is the fact that the authors do not discriminate between gifted and advanced learners. Gifted is a title that is some circles has a bad rap and has a specific educational definition. Advanced learners is far less polarizing and easier to identify. Many school districts fail to provide any assessment with which to give an official label of gifted, but every teacher can identify their advanced students. I have personally avoided identifying my daughter as gifted because a) I have not had her formally tested at my expense, and b) it offends some people.  Label or not, these kids need more support to advance to their fullest potential. While many, if not most, teachers and administrators will say that heterogeneous grouping does not hurt the top and benefits the bottom, research has shown that the top does not proceed at the speed and depth they are capable of, are less likely to pursue advanced classes and have the same social issues regardless of placement when they are heterogeneously grouped (Colangelo, Assouline & Gross, 2004). If we want our brightest to be the leaders of the future, we cannot provide them with what they perceive to be a watered down curriculum.

NCTM is quoted by the authors, "Without properly motivating, encouraging, and intellectually challenging gifted students we may lose some of their mathematical talent forever." The National Science Board confirms that our system "too frequently fails to identify and develop our most talented and motivated students who will become the next generation of innovators" (p. 8). Clearly the professional boards at the top levels understand the resource that we are given to squander or develop. Merely giving them the same program or asking them to teach/tutor the ones who do not get it, is not enough to grow their skills and talents.

We know that "intellectually talented youth achieve at an impressively high level if they receive an appropriately challenging education," and "accelerated students clearly excel in subsequent math courses and perform better than their equally able nonaccelerated peers" (p 49). This tells us that addressing the needs is an imperative, not an option. The book contains some examples of how to differentiate within a class. The examples are however, quite limited. Clearly a teacher will need to spend time developing the alternate questions/assignments. This does not mean doing more work, it means doing different work. For example, let students opt into the more challenging assignment by answering the last four questions correctly. The dozen questions for the assignment can be either group a or group b, with group a having more scaffolding, less processes to integrate, lower on Bloom's Taxonomy or simply easier problems. This gives students a chance to practice material at a level appropriate for the individual.

The last critical point that I will mention is the idea that it takes a village. All kids need deep support, even gifted ones. The  authors identify five partners in the process: content experts, parents or families, outside entities, special population experts (special ed, ELL, SLP,...), and administrators. I would argue that there is a sixth partner in the process- the child. He needs to be empowered to say I am bored and not expect to be ignored, have to teach others or just get extra work; he needs to say where his interests lie and what might be doable for him; he needs to indicate his motivation and interest in various optional activities and so much more. The key for everyone is to systematize "an educational program that can provide progression within the disciples for talented students" (p. 63). It is not enough to address of the squeaky wheel parents' children; parents should not have to be squeaky for their children to be properly educated. As a system, we need to do better.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Reciprocal Teaching

Lori Oczkus's Reciprocal Teaching at Work: Powerful Strategies and Lessons for Improving Reading Comprehension, Second Edition provides both an overview of the strategy of reciprocal teaching and specific implementation ideas. Reciprocal teaching is a multistrategy strategy developed originally for use with struggling middle school readers. It involves teaching four major components of reading: predicting, questioning, clarifying and summarizing within the context of reading. For her it is essential to model and teach the components together so that students can begin to understand that readers do these things together. While lessons may focus on a particular skill, students are expected to incorporate all the parts.

She has a wide variety of reproducibles and posters throughout the text that can be utilized as reinforcement of ideas, checklists of stages, and evaluation of process. A teacher can easily find the things that would work best in his or her class and use that material only.

Although the text is geared to the K-12 market, I think that primary teachers would need to incorporate more support and secondary teachers might need to be prodded to incorporate this concept. If a school or district decided to utilize the approach, it would be easier. Common Core State Standards, with their emphasis on reading in the content areas, could be facilitated by this approach which focuses on comprehension.  Still, I think many high school teachers need to continually be pushed to teach reading in their classes.

Of interest is her reminder that this is only one strategy and not a comprehensive reading program. Reciprocal reading is primarily focused on comprehension with some vocabulary/ language issues being addressed. Students need instruction in phonics, phonemic awareness and fluency as is appropriate to the grade level and student skills. While significant reading gains have been documented when utilizing the program, it is not a self-contained out of the box approach. Teachers are respected as bringing lots of knowledge and skill to the table. They should not ignore what they know works, what students have previously been taught and what their personal expertise is.

Another critical feature of reciprocal teaching is teaching social skills appropriate for groups. Since much practice is likely to be in groups, students need to be taught group social skills. These skills include, but are not limited to: looking at the speaker, being polite, disagreeing appropriately, staying on topic, piggybacking comments (add on comments), not interrupting, helping others, praising, and participating (see the observation sheet on p. 203). This is especially important to students who struggle with social skills, like those with autistic spectrum disorders and nonverbal learning disabilities. These students may need extra focus, practice and reinforcement to be able to interact effectively and meaningfully in the group. Expecting students to use appropriate group skills without instruction is a doomed proposal for some. Even at the upper grades, these skills should be reviewed and assessed. If there is a problem, it should be addressed with teaching not punishment.

I liked how the author integrated literature circles with reciprocal teaching. Literature circle jobs are described and options for modification are discussed. These jobs flow nicely into Socratic seminars. If you teach students to actively read, work cooperatively in groups and be responsible for moving conversation along, they will be ready for seminars.

Overall the book serves as a nicely organized resource. The table of contents and index facilitate its use as a refernce manual. The online support will appeal to many. The sample lesson plans are designed to be genric so that any reading material may be supported using the plan. The reproducibles are varied and helpful for both the teacher and the students.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Essential Readings on Fluency

Fluency has been identified as one of the five components of effective reading instruction: phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension and vocabulary. While the last decade has seen an increase in focus on fluency as a result of NCLB and Reading First, research indicating its importance has been around for a long time.

In Essential Readings on Fluency complied and introduced by Timothy V. Rasinski, articles from the last three and a half decades of Reading Teacher are reprinted. This book is one of a series of reading topics by IRA available at  Although the articles are not recent in origin, their material is valid to teachers. The focus of instruction for the the authors is elementary and middle school. Each article is followed with a couple questions for reflection, a useful focus for PLCs or book clubs.

The primary methods endorsed by the authors to improve fluency specifically and reading in general are repeated readings, paired readings, timed readings and Reader's Theater. When trying to scale these approaches to the high school student, creative teachers need to think about how to meet the curricular needs of the individuals as well as the reading needs.

Teaching fluency requires material at the individual's instructional reading level. This means that low level texts or support materials must be sought out so as to support the student's curricular needs as well as work on reading instruction. Low level texts, however, are notorious for being far less information dense than standard texts and should not be used in isolation with students who need to be able to pass grade level tests. Publishers have produced a variety of low level texts and texts from lower grade levels may be used if funds are limited. has a list of sources of low level text material.

One concern cited by the authors is that focus on speed alone does not increase reading skill. While there is a strong correlation between correct words per minute read and reading skill, they are not synonymous. Students need to expand their vocabularies and improve their comprehension as well. Being able to read quickly will not necessarily result in being able to understand what is read, especially if a language disability exists.

In spring of 8th grade, students at the 50th percentile (%ile) read 151 words per minute (wpm), while students at the 90th %ile read 199 wpm. That reflects more than a thirty percent increase in speed for the students. Students at the 10th %ile, however, read only 41 wpm. That is a two-thirds reduction. So a student at the 50th %ile reads for 15 minutes, at the 90th %ile reads for 10 minutes and the at 10th %ile reads for 25 minutes. When we consider how this might impact students, we must consider how reading tasks may be very time intensive for our lowest level students resulting in them being least likely to read the material because of the time required to complete the task. Simply reducing the reading load, however, means that they may not achieve progress desired. One approach may be to limit non-core readings to allow a focus on reading core material. If the non-core material, however, is highly motivational this may not be a good option either.

A difficulty with fluency is that norms do not exist for students above 8th grade. As the spread between highly capable readers and struggling readers widens in high school, expectations become increasingly difficult to meet and hard to measure against standards. The push to Common Core State Standards may result in push back from struggling students who feel even more incapable of achievement. They may drop out, increase in disruptiveness, and/or cheat at increased numbers. Targeting middle school for trying to improve fluency may be very important for high school success. Developing innovative ways to target fluency at the high school level and disseminating them through the core teachers will be a challenge of the future.