Saturday, July 19, 2014

Lead with a story

Paul Smith is a wonderful storyteller. His book, Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, is a threefold good read. First, it is an engaging read. Over one hundred stories are presented, some inspiring, some more like fables. Second, the stories are about people dealing with business related challenges and describe good business practices. Third, the book details elements of good storytelling. Taking this book intended for the business market and applying its lessons to education made me think of the good and not so good things I know about teaching, teachers and my boss.

One of the story strands was about matching the corporate stories to corporate policy. He told about a CEO who arrived at a door with other upper management and was not allowed in by a young security person.  One of the accompanying managers tried to get the guard to let the CEO in because he was the CEO. The CEO said, "No, he is doing his job," and sent someone to go get his badge so that he would be let in. This story would certainly discourage others from letting people into the building without their badges. Do the stories of your organization talk of special privileges for some people or of everyone following the rules? I had a boss who did not agree with our new punching in policy but explained that she had to do it as well. For someone who often did not start in her primary location, it meant many extra notations because we were only allowed to punch in at our primary location. On the flip side our professional office staff often leave the building and take longer lunches or extra breaks at restaurants that clerical or teaching staff are never allowed to do. As an itinerant teacher, I am booked so tightly that if I were to stop for a drink between locations, I would be late. How demoralizing when my boss comes in to observe me with a fresh coffee from the Tim Horton's on the corner. Her behavior is counter to policy, she gave herself an extra break, but was OK because she was able to leave extra time to get wherever she wanted to go. As an itinerant teacher, I am in the community all the time. Teachers want to be treated as professionals. How professionally should we be taken when my colleagues in the department show up in jeans and flip flops? Professionals do not need to wear suits, but they do need to dress at least as well as the private school dress code for students.

The storytelling advice was useful. The idea of using surprises to capture attention and memory was insightful. One interesting thing he pointed out was a style element. In our age of Common Core we are being asked to teach students to learn to write for college and career. Often this means we teach writing that eliminates parallelism in favor of rich vocabulary and descriptions. While the idea of writing for different audiences is presented, guidelines for some audiences is difficult to locate. For communication that will be shared amongst a group of people, especially, but not exclusively, if it is oral, Smith advocates short sentences with less than 15% of the words being greater than two syllables, writing in active voice, getting to the point quickly and omitting needless words. The average reading level of statements should be about 8th grade. Instead of using powerpoint bulleted slides to make a point, use stories to demonstrate a point. He argues in favor in running written statements through a readability test. Alternatively he presents a clarity test from Effective Writing for Army Leaders: calculate the average number of words per sentence and the average number of words with three or more syllables, add the two numbers together. The target is 30, 20 is too abrupt and 40 too complex (p. 123-4). If we are preparing students for career where presentation skills are important, this is certainly a style of writing we need students to master. They should be able to get the basics down in middle school.

The book is a rich resource of stories that can be used to illustrate points and motivate in times of challenge. Smith encourages us to use and modify his stories to the situations in which we find ourselves. In teaching we sometimes use stories to do this. We should probably do it more often. Good storytelling is inspirational. It can answer the perennial "Why should we learn this?" question. I was working with a seventh grade girl, introducing the concept of volume of a cylinder. I started the lesson this way: I want to bake a cake. The recipe calls for a 9 inch circle pan that is one inch high. I do not have this pan. I do have an 8 inch circle pan that is 1 and 1/2 inches high. Is it big enough to hold the batter? This story seemed like one she might encounter in her life, left her curious and put purpose behind an often seemingly meaningless activity.

Stories can also explain complex ideas in ways that are simpler to our students or make seemingly abstract ideas memorable. I am reminded of my middle school English teacher trying to teach us the helping verbs. She told us of the king AmIsAre WasWere BeBeingBeen and his wife, ShallWill BeBeingBeen who lived in the land of CouldShouldWould. They had children HaveHasHad, DoDoesDid and MayMustMight. They solved problems with words. She said the names quickly really linking them together. I still remember the story and the verbs- 35 years later. I make up the problems because they are lost in my brain but the story made the verbs memorable. It is a way of adding novelty to the information and helps create a foundation for learning- we have structures for learning stories in our brain. If we structure our learning like stories, it is easier to recall.

We do not have to be the best at writing or creating stories. They are all around us. The internet is a resource that can provide unparalleled ideas. Give credit where credit is due and tell stories.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Eyewitness to the Past

I enjoy history. It is the tale of our struggle to civilize ourselves, human failings and the wonders that can exist. It is the story of freedom and independence and how it stumbles. It is the story of how we can be great, imperfect beings who triumph and fail sometimes seemingly independent of our efforts and  sometimes only as a result of focused perseverative work. Mostly it is stories. In college I did not pursue a history degree, though I did get a minor in it, partly because the AP US class gave me credits in a form of history I had deemed boring. The European and Russian histories fascinated me. As an adult who has read and listened to stories of our past, I have developed a fondness for the American past as well as the colorful past of other continents. When I encounter teachers and students who hate history, I know they have been poorly taught it.

Over the past few months I have read three tomes on teaching history: Lesh's Why Won't you Just Tell us the Answer, Burgess' Teach Like a Pirate, and now Joan Broadsky Schur's Eyewitness to the Past: Strategies for Teaching American History in Grades 5-12. They all address the idea of trying to make history come to life for students and do so in a way that provokes and requires higher levels of thinking than the memorization of lists of facts that comprise some history classes. As a trilogy, these books work very well together. Schur and Lesh wrote their books before the release of the CCSS, so they never refer to it, but both talk of using primary source documents to dig into the subject and require writing.  The standards document lists the main standards as including analyzing how and why individuals, events or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text, integrating and evaluating content presented in diverse media and formats and analyzing how two or more texts address similar themes or topics to build knowledge or to compare the approach the authors take (CCSS. R3 , 7, 9). History class is the ideal place to focus on these activities.

Schur presents six methods of using eyewitness viewpoints within the history classroom: diaries, travelogues, letters, newspapers, election speeches, and scrapbooks. Each is carefully detailed with a general explanation of historical relevancy, her general and then more specific application in a classroom, ideas for alternative time frames to use with the strategy, presentation ideas to share what was done and assessment rubrics. The rich appendixes offer a huge variety of sources for primary documents and tools to help students examine and learn from the documents.

Presenting the study of history as a mystery that needs to be uncovered from the variety of sources, comparing the conflicting viewpoints and writing and publishing the results for the class help bring history to life. It reveals how the individual stories are used to build the greater concept of what happened. Schur does not discount the textbook. She uses it as a source for big picture events. For example, a student may be writing a diary entry about his life as a New York publisher while another as a slave in Virginia, in 1776 and both need to include the minutia of daily life as well as thoughts and opinions about the Declaration of Independence. It is not an activity devoid of learning about the big events, it just frames the big events in meaningful ways. When they make their presentations, they get to analyze how they each address the topic of becoming a free nation. Further, since they only write after reviewing both primary sources such as other diary entries and the textbook account of the event, they ground their understanding in ways that are more meaningful.

This approach cannot be used for every topic over the course of the year, it is too time consuming. It can, however, bring interest and life into critical junctures over the course of the year. If our goal is for students to develop skills analyzing primary sources, develop individual knowledge and form informed opinions about events, this approach is valuable. Alternatively, if all we are concerned about is how many facts we can cram into their brains, the approach will be found lacking.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Teach like a Pirate

Dave Burgess' Teach Like a Pirate: Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator made me think about some of the classrooms I have worked in recently. The science teacher I worked with left late in the year and was replaced with a university professor seeking to re-ground herself in the classroom. She did a fantastic job immersing herself in the activities the students were doing. She was racing around from person or group to person or group, bringing lab supplies, asking questions and helping students participate in the activity. During a video she stopped and asked questions and commented about the content. Immersion is one of the big parts of Burgess' PIRATE program. It was inspiring to be part of an activity with a teacher so immersed in the class.

One place this teacher struggled, however, was with capitalizing on the enthusiasm of the moment. The school we worked in had teachers rather than students moving from classroom to classroom. This meant it was often hard to start the class on time because a teacher had to unpack materials and set things up. Poor technological infrastructure made any time she wanted to show a video a nightmare of trying to get everything going. Wasted time and disengaged students followed. More experience in the building would resolve some of these issues, but they were an impediment to progress. I would step in and wing some engagement questions and discussion, but it was often less focused because I had not planned it. A group without direction is not only gone, but often disruptive.

Burgess established a mnemonic to describe his strategies for increasing engagement
  • P- passion
  • I- immersion
  • R- rapport
  • A- ask and analyze
  • T- transformation
  • E- enthusiasm
These pieces of the engagement puzzle are then described, a mini-chapter to a tool. Having worked with many teachers and students of different levels, this group of ideas seems especially relevant. As shown above, they impact learning.

I really liked his description of passion. He explains that we all have favored and less favored things to teach, but the critical point is to teach them all with passion. If that means bringing in your personal hobbies to link to a less preferred activity, do it. If it means faking it- do that too. We can all be actors at times. If we want students to be engaged and invested, everything we do with them must be enthusiastic and passionate.

Another area of the text that I relished was his idea that success encompasses failure. Great teachers fail and adjust. They learn from their students of the moment what works. Monitor what you are doing and adjust. Decades of teacher preparation have taught that concept, but sometimes we forget and plow ahead because there is so much to cover. Part of what monitor and adjust means is that we do not just dust off previous lesson plans, but we adjust them based on what we know about our kids, what their baggage of the day is, and how they grasp what we are teaching. Great teachers will never take a packaged program and deliver it verbatim. They will say, "I cannot do that because Johnny and Susie needs to build prerequisite skills and I know that my three soccer players will respond better if I include an analogy to the game. I have a mute child who cannot participate in a verbal discussion so I need to ensure that she can draw her input,... " Half way through a preplanned lesson, they will skip ahead or come up with more examples because the students' responses tell them that is the direction the lesson needs to go.

The transformation section hit a chord as well. I really liked his idea of write a letter from a fictional student describing what is great about your class- how you want your class to be viewed. This then is the goal of how you need to evaluate what you are doing.

I really like coming to your class because I always know what I will be asked to do- you tell us. It is safe and I never feel like you are going to ask me to do something that I cannot do. It may take me lots of tries and hard work, but you will be with me through it all, explaining as many times as I need it and encouraging me when I am ready to give up. You never let me give up. I know that I will learn new things and you will help me feel proud of my accomplishments.

This is the sort of thing that I hope my students can say about me. It took lots of thinking to verbalize what I want students to get out of being in my class. This is more than just learn or have fun or pass the class. The exercise showcases your best class, not the class in which you sometimes fumble because you are as imperfect as the rest of the world. It is a great exercise because once you know your goal, everything you do needs to take you closer to that goal. For me, when I am working with students in a resource room, I spend as much time or as little, going over a concept so that I am sure the student has it. I document success and share it with students. I can explain things 101 different ways and know that sometimes I will need to figure out explanation 102.

This book is an engaging and easy read. It highlights some of the best engagement techniques. Some people may be challenged to frame his examples in their classrooms, the majority of his examples are secondary historical ones. Making yourself think about how the concepts- for example, how do you build enthusiasm and passion into every lesson? How do you mix it up so that blood flows to the brain? is important to personalize the information. While on teacher can do it all at once, every teacher can tweak something to make it better.

I was at a Paula Kluth workshop. She made us chant "novelty" and "joy" in rounds and according direction to remind us that these are the key items to make our brains turn on and remember. Burgess may not put it that way, but much of what he shares is about novelty and joy. Judy Willis, a neurologist, author and teacher, has produced a number of webinars and videos about this topic here and on ASCD here as well. His work is grounded in research, even though he does not frame it as such. If we want to have our kids really learn and remember, we need to increase engagement so that their brains will attend and learn for the long term.

Center for Talented Youth observations

Over the weekend, my husband and I dropped off our daughter at Johns Hopkins College Center for Talented Youth Program (CTY). This program was one that I discovered when trying to meet her needs in school where she has been perpetually bored. (Our rural school district does not provide much in the way for services for bright students in grades K-8. I know my district says it differentiates the instruction and meets the needs of all students- that is bull. Differentiation down happens- it is mandated; there are staff and funds to do it. Differentiation up only happens when parents firmly advocate for supports and the teacher has the time and support (from our one district enrichment coordinator) to increase the rigor of the work. )

In order to access the CTY program, students between the ages of 12 and 15 take the SAT. If they score high enough, they earn access. She took the test, scored well, and we enrolled her in the program. Hopefully it will be as exciting as anticipated. We brought her to Baltimore. I was amazed as I looked around. The demographics were unusual. Our district is over 97% white. I know this is not representative of the US and enjoy exposing my children to people from other backgrounds. At CTY it looked like about 50% or more were Asian Americans. This intrigued me. Asians make up only about 5% of the American population. Why are they so heavily represented at this program? Giftedness is not racially determined or inclined. CTY has scholarships to increase attendance by African Americans and Native Americans as well as students with economic limitations. Is the educational focus of Asian cultures so much stronger than other ethic groups? Are some communities better at disseminating information than others?

Obviously I think our gifted kids need special educational attention and programs. I do not think any single program such as differentiation meets the needs of all kids. As far as our nation goes, we need to address our economic future by stimulating and advancing our best students to be the leaders of the future. By allowing limited information distribution and overrepresentation by particular groups, we are neglecting to properly educating other groups. I know that CCSS is supposed to increase opportunities for all. I am afraid that it simultaneously limits opportunities for some.

What are we doing to meet the needs of our kids so that the faces in our gifted programs look like the mix of faces across our country? It is not unfair to offer advancement opportunities to these bright kids, it is unfair not to.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Bright not Broken

Diane M. Kennedy and Rebecca S. Banks with Temple Grandin wrote, Bright Not Broken: Gifted Kids, ADHD and Autism: Why Twice-Exceptional Children are Stuck and How to Help Them, to explain their views on the challenges of labeling and providing an education to children with these three identifiers. Primarily they assert that labeling as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and/or autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) tends to interfere with addressing giftedness even though there is significant overlap in characteristics. They identify remarkable similarities between the core deficits and symptoms of these three labels- for example, all tend to involve intense interests and poor social skills. Since there is overlap, diagnosis for these children is often in flux, starting with either giftedness or ADHD and progressing to ASD. If giftedness is identified, it often interferes with appropriate education.

I have struggled with RTI and its implementation. In spite of documentation from the Department of Education, I have seen RTI used as an excuse to not test or delay testing of students. I have also witnessed a moving of the bar to receive services. Special Education was formed to provide appropriate education for students to help them meet their potential. With the advent of RTI, however, the goal has shifted to preventing failure. This means that a child who is gifted and able to function at a barely passing level may get no support for his learning disability, mental health issue or autism. The guideline has shifted from achievement in line with cognitive expectations to passing, a much different bar. The authors acknowledge this trend, but see more hope than I see in the field. Struggling students are not being deemed eligible for special education because their cognitive strengths enable them to pass. Access to special education has traditionally been achieved through failure, I am afraid current trends are making it worse not better.

The authors propose using a whole child approach to dealing with students who are twice exceptional (2e)- look at their strengths and support and extend them, rather than remediate their weaknesses, teach compensatory strategies. The idea of addressing the strengths is supported by the gifted community and Temple Grandin, a prominent autism advocate. Whole child education is the goal of the educational organization, ASCD, as well. I believe that advocating for merely compensatory strategies, however, is not adequate, especially for young children. Yes, we need to acknowledge that our students have unique interests and we need to incorporate them into instruction- they provide a hook without which we might never gain access to the child. We need to encourage advancement in areas where it is appropriate. NO child should be subjected to endless practice of known material- especially truly gifted children for whom, research demonstrates, extra practice decreases performance. We also need to teach foundational skills. Students need to build on these for success later on. These are not just academic foundations, but social foundations as well. Students need instruction and skill development in any area of weakness, be it academic, social or physical.

The authors propose an individualized approach to teaching students who are 2e. One that recognizes the multidimensional nature of children, highlighting strengths to build on and weaknesses to build. They see specific IEP's as the tool to achieve an appropriate education for 2e students. One logistical challenge is that when we talk about interventions we often talk about things that take time out of the day. Pulling for direct speech services, the ideal way to provide initial instruction in social skills for students with ASD, takes time away from classes. Providing OT interventions to meet sensory needs takes time away from classes. Providing PT to address the gross motor needs and poor coordination many on the spectrum possess takes time away from classes. Finding time to enrich, something that is rarely and often poorly done for gifted students who do not have special needs becomes a challenge. Deep understanding of student abilities and school curriculum need to be coupled with planning time for teachers to plan and implement the kind of individualized support and intervention plans that 2e students require.   Kennedy and Banks also see a need for training general education teachers in the nature of gifted, ADHD and ASD. This way the front line teachers can recognize and provide daily support as needed.

The beginning of the book is a description of our system not labeling our children correctly and why. Their anti-DSM commentary is extensive. The last three chapters are where the meat of the book lies and where practitioners will get the most value.  It would have been helpful if the authors had included some case studies about effective plans rather than only comments about how ineffective things were for individuals. By focusing on the negative impact of labels on education, they missed an opportunity to truly add to the discussion with concrete ideas of how to meet the needs of 2e children in the classroom. This book's target audience is discontent parents, not teachers, so going into specifics of how to teach might be beyond the scope, but without concrete examples of how to implement the suggestions, it does a disservice of providing too little information which ultimately may result in frustration. We can, however, certainly agree on the overall arching theme: only by celebrating their strengths can we truly appropriately support our learners.