Monday, February 29, 2016

NY PTA Leg. Ed. Convention 2016

This year’s New York State PTA Legislative Education Conference provided a wealth of information and opportunities. Always a great opportunity to learn and be inspired, I was again delighted to go and saddened that so few people did with me. The keynote speaker on Saturday was Regent Judith Johnson.

Her introduction included the idea that all movements for change were led by citizens fed up with the status quo. People have used peaceful protest to bring attention to injustice. A country is only as strong as the people who make it up.

One of the challenges currently facing schools is that a school used to lead to an opportunity for economic equality. Now zip code determines educational opportunity and so schools are no longer the tool for economic growth. How do we provide children with equal opportunity to learn? How do we ensure a sound basic education as required by the Campaign for Fiscal Equality lawsuit which wrapped up in 2006? She introduced four priorities of the regents in order to address the needs of students in New York.

Effective teachers and principals. Student funding formulas need to support this ideal. She highlighted that in times of economic crisis, teachers are blamed. She admits that ineffective teachers should be removed. That being said only a small number of teachers are truly ineffective. The number of new teachers entering the field is low- we need to identify how to recruit new good teachers. This can be done through improved conditions. If we have an evaluation system whose purpose is to fire teachers, it strangles teachers. High stakes tests deteriorate classroom performance. Knowing this and knowing the mandate to alter the evaluation system to be 50% test based and 50% observation based, we need to look at the system for evaluation. Our 3-8 ELA and math tests are not valid or reliable for assessing teacher performance. The current moratorium on using student data for teacher assessment does not stop data recording and sharing with the public or the deadline for adjusted APPR. A group of Regents were identified by the others as a “gang” of 6 because they called the regents, education department and the governor on turning a deaf ear to the research and needs of teachers and students. There is no money in the governor’s budget proposal for looking at APPR.

Assessment system adjustments. The United States uses more testing than any other industrialized nation. High performance on state tests is not equal to achievement. Tests do not improve performance. [I once ran into a description like this: if we want kids to jump higher, merely raising the bar will not improve their standing high jump.] Regent Johnson proposed assessment through multiple measures: personalized, competency based tests and portfolios that allow demonstration of problem solving, curiosity, critical thinking, imagination, and respect. We need a research based system rather than parachute decision making- decisions that just drop from the sky. We need to look at reducing the time spent on standardized, multiple choice tests and increase assessment that reflect "soft" 21st century skills- problem solving, creativity, and compassion. She affirmed that throwing out standardized multiple choice tests is not the plan, but balancing them with portfolios and other measures.

Learning Standards- Aim High New York. In the early 1990s Dr. Johnson worked in a district that was involved in an innovative attempt to use increase rigor through higher standards. They learned that this was a long term project in which professional development was included, and collaboration between team members was essential including those related to the arts. Multi-subject projects were a key component of the experiment. The approach worked. Sadly, the Common Core State Standards ignored the lessons learned from that movement.

The achievement gap is a serious concern. It is related to race and economic isolation. Our lowest performing schools are schools in areas of high poverty. Poverty leads to a loss of hope and a feeling of hopelessness. Trauma, and the incidence of trauma is higher in areas of high poverty, results in decreased academic performance. This leads to depressed performance BUT not all poor children are poor achievers. We need to figure out how to make public schools be the tool for economic advancement. In order for this to happen we need to do what the governor’s commission suggested- reevaluate the state standards. Unfortunately, there is no money in the governor’s proposal for this work.

We need academic prompts to be mindful of student lives. We need to acknowledge that trauma and poverty experiences impact mindset. No one wants to be poor. 6 out of 10 children born into poverty are adults in poverty. In the early twentieth century, schools were the cradle of hope. Are they today? Schools are not about passing a test, but about problem solving and preparation for effective citizenship and caring people. We need to ask what kind of people do we want our students to become? What kind of lives do we want them to live and what kind of society do we want them to create. If it is all about passing the tests, it will not be about cultivating common good and adapting to changing circumstances. School is the only dynamic institution that is shared across our country and unites most Americans. It is time to revisit the purpose of public education.

State Aid. The regents have proposed the need for 2.2-2.4 billion additional dollars of school aid as opposed to the governor’s roughly 994 million dollar proposal. The governor’s proposal does not fund many of the things he wants done. It does include funds for 3 year old preschool, but has not fully funded 4 year old preschool or even kindergarten. It does not include increased aid for struggling schools, especially in the form of professional development. It does not cover the transfer to digital learning, family community engagement, vocational training or multiple pathways to graduation. There is plenty of room available for adjustments in order to meet the needs of our children and society.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Co-Teaching to support ELLs

Co-teaching to support ELLs, an article by Anne Beninghof and Mandy Leensvaart, in February 2016's Educational Leadership (accessible to ASCD members here), discusses effective ways to maximize student learning through co-teaching. The first thing of note was that there was a school wide mandate for the plan. Second, teaching pairs received multiple years of training and coaching which was followed up with administrative support peer observations. This requires substantial commitment and work from the school to instill collaborative structures. They note that,
"examples of poor co-teaching abound. Simply placing two educators together in a classroom does not result in effective co-teaching. When districts have tried this, many found that the classroom teacher ends up in charge while the ELD (English Language Development) teacher is drastically underused, holding up the wall in the back waiting to help out or becoming a 'kid whisperer' for the ELLs." (p. 71)
From the special education perspective I understand that reality all too well. Sitting quietly in a classroom may make the general education teacher comfortable, but does not allow for the specially designed instruction that the students truly need. Unfortunately administration is often more concerned with the mandate being met in word than in deed- make it look good, don't upset the apple cart too much, and they are happy. More than two decades after co-teaching became part of the reality for general education, there still exists huge pockets of resistance. There also are places where collaborative teaching happens regularly. Much of the results is actually based on the personnel having buy-in or not.

The authors do not give much space to planning. They mention a lesson plan design change that includes prompts for learning targets, academic language, and participation structure. Presumably this would be based off a general education lesson plan that was passed along to the ELD teacher or co-planned. I am left wondering what really happens in the school. It also would have been nice to see a sample lesson plan.

They put forward excellent result for their program. I am glad to hear that they are helping their students achieve so well. I wonder about the portability in light of logistic issues  around planning and scheduling time, personnel issues and administrative support. Unfortunately many co-teaching set ups are more the "kid whisperer" version than co-teaching. Consequently, data on the program design tends to be inconclusive. Rigorous well implemented programs may be highly useful.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Social skills picture book

Jed Baker's The Social Skills Picture Book: Teaching Play, Emotion, and Communication to Children with Autism is a useful text for working with children with social skill deficits. It provides a series of illustrated scripts for communication, play and emotional skills. In many ways it resembles Skills Streaming in that it offers simple steps to achieve a goal. Each step is then illustrated with a picture and annotated with thought and speech bubbles that demonstrate the process in action. It also often illustrates the wrong way to complete a step. This does present a black and white view of a social situation which is an obvious oversimplification of any social skill, but it is a launch point for the process.

What I liked about the book is its simple steps for creating your own version of illustrated scripts. Since many people on the spectrum do not generalize well, this could be an important point. I remember creating my own version of going to the dentist script for my son. We photographed him going into the office, going through reception, up a flight of steps, into the waiting room, in the chair, with the bib, and with the dentist. This photo sequence was critical to his acceptance of the visit without outbursts and anxiety.

The book targets elementary students. My preschooler who is not developmentally ready to move beyond parallel play is not going to find the sequence for asking a friend to play useful because he does not want to play with another.  Different skills would be useful for preschool. Different pictures would be useful for middle or high schoolers. The steps and scripts are a useful jumping point. The photo approach could be adapted to other curriculums with relative ease.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

implementing quality schooling for ELLs

Ester J. de Jong authored a chapter, "From Models to Principles: Implementing Quality Schooling for ELLs," in the book, Best Practices in ELL Instruction, edited by Guofang Li and Patricia A. Edwards. In general, this book covers perspectives, strategies and issues related to ELLs. As is common with many books with chapters by separate authors, there is significant overlap in many chapters as the authors introduce ideas and background critical to their topic. This means that someone can pick up the book and read a chapter of interest without worrying about the rest of the text.

Two ideas struck me in this chapter. The first is that although we know that students learn English best when their native language is developed and utilized, we do not often use a student's first language (L1) in school. There are, of course many reasons for this. Some states have outlawed it. Although Spanish is the most common native non-English language, there are hundreds of languages spoken by our students. We might have a critical mass of Spanish but rarely do we have one in other languages, except in small communities where an ethnic group has flocked to en masse. We also do not have bilingual teachers in anything vaguely resembling abundance in this country. Further, many people do not value bilingualism or multilingualism. That all being said, we need to develop ways to educate students in culturally respectful ways that will enhance their language skills.

In my community there is, as one might expect, a significant Spanish population. There are bilingual programs in the city of Rochester. When I was an undergraduate, I did a practicum in one such classroom. I look back and wish I had more training in working with ELLs in school to help me be effective in that environment. Several students that I have run across recently, however, are of Ukrainian descent. In our community we have a Ukrainian church that sponsors a small school. They offer Saturday schooling for local community members where the language and culture are taught to children. In some ways this seems to be a good compromise for the community members. They can develop their home language and English in structured programs. There might only be one student in the school where I am currently providing support. It is logistically untenable to hire someone specifically to be a bilingual provider, but there is some opportunity to support learning outside of school that still values the L1.

The second idea that struck me was an approach called preview-view-review. In it the preview and review portions of the unit are done in L1 but the meat of the instruction is done in English. This approach would develop both languages and promote leveraging of background information from the native language and culture. They suggest finding texts in L1 that could be used. Sources could be commercial, teacher made or student made resources. Some internet sources of parallel texts are here, herehere and here. I could see using this idea at the lesson level as well. Start the day with a short reading passage or question that can be done in the native language. Continue on in English and have some closure piece done in the native language. This would enable development of both L1 and L2 (English), build on explicit instruction, and assist not only ELLs but all students as well.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Engaging beginning ELLs

Jane Hill's article, Engaging your Beginners: Six Do's and Don'ts Help Teachers Engage Students at all Levels of Speaking English-- Including the First Level in ASCD's February 2016 edition of Educational Leadership, provides great guidance on working with students with different levels of language proficiency. These do's include:
  • Consider each language learner's stage of language acquisition- Students with different levels of ability in English need different things from their teachers. Students in the first stage are silent; they need to be allowed to point to correct answers, nod, or draw responses. Students at the second stage can use one or two word utterances and need questions with simple one or two word responses. At the third stage, people have good comprehension  and can give short sentence responses. At the fourth level, intermediate fluency, students make few grammar errors and can give responses that are a couple of sentences long. At the fluent stage, students may still need extra processing time, but can formulate long responses. Being  an English Language Learner (ELL) does not make all kids similar; treat each as an individual who needs a teacher not a slightly more proficient peer.
  • Use tiered questions- Think about language proficiency and match question responses to the level of the student. Early stage students need more scaffolding than more fluent students.
  • Don't expect the same product from each student- Differentiation has been part of the education lexicon for a couple of decades now. We need to modify products to match student ability. Homework can look different for different kids. Programs like,, and Raz kids allow customized assignments. They may not, however, be enough for students in early stages of English proficiency.
  • Engage preproduction students at the same level of thinking as other students. This requires extra work. It can be hard to identify upper level questions for the class. Taking that question and modifying it to be answerable by a nonverbal student is not instinctive for most people. Furthermore preparing adapted materials may require extra planning. If you want a student to determine the advantage that allowed the patriots to win the Revolutionary War, you may need images of the choices. In order to determine whether students understand science lab safety standards may mean pictures of correct and incorrect behavior in which they circle or point to problem behaviors.
  • Don't assess language when you want to assess content. This goes back to differentiation. Oral questioning, picture drawing or selection may be important for some. Word banks and grammar exemptions may be critical for others. Proper grammar needs to take a back seat to information. Instead of complete sentences, a requirement for the class in general, bullets or single word responses might be acceptable. Pictures or mime rather than written descriptions may be necessary. 
  • Be aware of your own language use. Augment verbal language with visuals, manipulatives, gestures, and expression. Slow down speech. Kindergarten teachers are often experts at slow speech, but even they may need to take it down a notch when working with ELLs. One approach, Sheltered Instructional Observation Protocol, SIOP, is one plan for ELL instruction that emphasizes these skills. More can be learned about SIOP here or here.

These guidelines are also useful for my mute student. She needs me to figure out ways to communicate using multiple choice, but I still need to raise the instructional level to incorporate some high level thinking. Getting someone to operate at upper levels of Bloom when she will not talk or compose an independent sentence is one thing. Getting them to do so when she also will not draw, model, or act something out is even more challenging. Sometimes we never get beyond application level work. I need to keep pushing the threshold so that we can work her brain, but it is not a easy task. At least I work with her independently, in a classroom where a teacher needs to plan for typical students as well as ELLs and students with special needs requires support and collaboration to get the job done.