Monday, April 18, 2016

Engaging the rewired brain

People who know me know that I am somewhat of a Luddite. (For those who don't remember their high school global studies, Luddites were a group in England during the Industrial Revolution who did not approve of the new technology. Their behavior ranged from refusing to deal with it to destroying it.) I still have my first cell phone, it is over three years old with a 12 button keypad. I do not answer it unless I am expecting a call. I do not carry a laptop as an itinerant teacher. I rarely use technology in my teaching- no internet, no device, no technology.

When I was in high school I took computer programming classes and was one of the best in the class. Now I hate trying to figure out programs. I am completely frustrated by technology that is not intrinsically simplistic and intuitive for a nonuser. I do not have the time or inclination for playing with it all. I am an outlier and know that.

David A. Sousa's book, Engaging the Rewired Brain, discusses the impact of technology on our brains and how it relates to education. The first chapter examines where we are now. It contains a couple points of interest.

First is he documents that students learn more when they take notes with paper than when they use electronics (p. 10). This idea was also highlighted by NPR in a review of psychology research. I also recall a study about usefulness of electronic notes. Students who took electronic notes had trouble finding them again. Further students who sit with their devices open before them do not attend to class well either- they surf the net, use social media and tune out. That being said, Sousa does not see a decline in electronic note taking in our future, so he recommends we look at ways to use technology and increase the utility of this skill.

The second major takeaway I had from his first chapter is that teachers should only use technology if it increases achievement. I have sat in many classrooms with Smartboards. This technology is crazy expensive  ($5000-7000 each plus installation and other hardware, tools like "markers" and software licenses) and has a limited life use. Most of the time I have not seen them used in ways that leverage the tool. They are used to project a page that is to be written on, to link with a computer and project contents, and to show movies and videos- all things a projector can do at a fraction of the cost. They are used to play games like Jeopardy, select groups or take attendance- all activities that are in no way given an advantage over other methods for these activities. In order to leverage the tool you need to do two things- increase responses per student (think clickers and cell phones) or increase reinforcement without being distracting.

Sousa suggests using Kolb's Triple E framework to determine if it is a gimmick to engage or a learning tool- Engagement, Enhancement and Extension. He includes a nine question test to determine if the technology is worthwhile. The Framework includes questions about promoting active versus passive learning, determining if the technology does something that cannot be done with traditional methods, and if it builds P21 skills (skills for the future). This sort of evaluation reveals that most of the time our Smartboards are expensive whiteboards. In an era of fiscal concerns, our money might be better spent on other things. Sacrilege, I know, but as I said I am a bit of a Luddite.

With all this being said, the truth of the matter is that technology is here to stay. We will continue to have new apps, software and devices. Our students will continue to have access to devices and parents will demand that it used. We need to teach students to be smart consumers of technology, teachers to be discriminating users of technology and communities to wise spenders on technology. I am looking forward to the rest of this book to learn what is happening to tech-exposed brains and how we can best facilitate learning in our students.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Strategies for challenging gifted learners

ASCD's Education Update this month includes an article "Six Strategies for Challenging Gifted Learners" by Amy Azzam. As a parent of a gifted child, I read this article with thoughts of her and what I want her teachers to do to help her learn.

Strategy 1- offer the most difficult first. Instead of having students start with the easy practice problems, have them start with the hardest. In math worksheets and textbooks this is usually the last ones. If students can correctly answer the last 4 or 5 questions, they do not need to practice on the others. This is similar to Robyn Jackson's idea of having a red flag. Students who cannot pass the flag mark, need to do the assignment, students who have it, only need to do it if they want to. If students are successful, they could be assigned an alternate assignment. As a strategy, this is easy to apply to math assignments since most are arranged in order of difficulty. Other types of textbooks have a range of strategies for arranging questions. If we know what they are, we can select the ones we want everyone to be able to answer, the ones the struggling students need to use as scaffolds and the ones that are beyond what we expect. Make assignments based on that knowledge. Phrases like, "You need extra practice, so I want you to do questions a, b, and c," and "You don't need more practice with this so a) the assignment is optional or b) do questions c, d, and e."

Strategy 2- Pre-test. If students are able to achieve a certain score on a test before the unit is taught, they can be assigned a different set of activities. This does require extension activities be available. Students can be assigned deeper assignments. For example, if you are studying the Civil War, perhaps a student could be asked to read a series of personal narratives around an event and write a paper or produce an oral report on the particular event. If you are studying ecology, a student could investigate the Exxon Valdez  and the BP oil spills and compare them in their environmental impact. If you are reading a whole class novel, perhaps the student could compare some aspect of the novel to another novel or movie that requires some evaluative impact. If you are studying how to find volume of polyhedrons a student could be asked what is the effect of increasing the height versus increasing the radius or apothem.

Strategy 3- Prepare to Take it Up. This is about the age old idea of differentiation. Have assignments at various levels for students to attempt. The levels can be student or teacher selected. This is clearly more work for the teacher because multiple assignments are required, but it can lead to more interesting assessment. True having three math worksheets- one with addition of two digit problems, one of three digit and one with four digit problems or one with base ten block images and one without, or leveled assignments from a textbook manufacturer- is easy. They are readily available. Coming up with different levels of an essay may be more challenging- one with graphic organizer scaffolding, one without. NOT ever one is one page and one is three pages. The essay could look at characterization of a major and clearly stated character versus one that uses more indirect characterization. Assignments could be look at just this text versus compare two texts. In New York the engageNY modules include many of these challenging assignments with scaffolding. Scaffolding could be eliminated or reduced. Additional scaffolding could be provided.

I remember kindergarten orientation when they talked about the new full day program. I asked about extending the academic rigor to meet my daughter's needs. One parent got up and remarked how the teacher had kept his child busy teaching other kids. As far as I know my young child had not gone to school to learn how to teach. The article even says, "Don't assume that by making gifted students tutors, you're providing a learning extension" (p. 3). The teacher offered to send home work that would be at her level. Unfortunately my five year old was tired after a day of coloring and did not want to then be stretched. This was not the teacher taking it up. This was me teaching my daughter. If I had wanted to home school her, I could have made that choice.

Strategy 4- Speak to Student Interests. My son's teachers utilized this strategy to engage motivation. His interest is antique bottles. The social studies teachers allowed him to periodically bring in one bottle and tell the class how it related to the time period of interest. Other teachers simply let him have the stage for ten minutes to share about his interest. He was engaged because he wanted that perk. Taylor Wilson, the youngest person to create nuclear fusion (see The Boy Who played with Fusion), talked about the joy of sharing his interests with his peers and with the world on TED talks. Being able to share his special interest validated his research and gave him a purpose for participating in less interesting, "slow-paced" classes that his age-mates were a part of.

Strategy 5- Enable gifted students to work together. My daughter talked about a time in first grade when she was consistently paired with another child who struggled. The teacher paired them up because my child was patient and capable and could help the other one through the assignment. She hated it because she ended up doing the majority of the work. On the other hand, she has participated in Johns Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth program and loves being able to interact with a bunch of kids who think "fast" like she does. They can relate like kids, something she struggles with in our rural school district where there are not many high ability kids in her grade. While our gifted kids need to be able to work with everyone, they need to have a chance to "geek out" with their cognitive peers. We have sports teams for our best athletes and select music groups for our musicians, we need to have opportunities for our academically gifted to work together too. One study I read said that gifted kids are reported to not like group work. In one sense they don't. They don't like being paired with poor performers who they have to teach or do the work for. They enjoy groups with other highly capable students.

Strategy 6- Plan for tiered Learning. Again this is differentiated instruction. It may involve questioning at different depths of knowledge or providing different ranges of scaffolds to achieve a goal. Tomlinson talks about planning the lesson for your brightest student and then putting in place the strategies to make it accessible to the other learners. This might involve grouping for extra instruction, providing graphic organizers, vocabulary lists, leveled readings, text to voice or voice to text technology, or various other supports.

While many of these strategies fall under the differentiated instruction category and do involve extra upfront work, there are multiple pluses: students will be engaged if they have work at an appropriate level, they will feel respected for their unique abilities, and they will be learning- a right all students have. One of my favorite assertions is that "All students have the right to learn something new every day, whether they are in regular classrooms, or in special education, language acquisition, or gifted programs" (p. 4). We often forget this when we have the mindset that gifted students will get it and don't need to extra support or that it is unfair to enrich their education with extensions off the regular curriculum. It is no more unfair to do this than to have cut athletic teams or special ed support. We need to meet the needs of ALL our kids. This includes our gifted learners.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The fatal flaw of educational assessment

Long have I recognized the problem with New York's testing regimen. It seeks to use the tests in an invalid manner. Test validity is a term from our educational and psychological assessment classes that means the test measures what it purports to do. If I want to know your blood pressure, a cuff will appear; I do not pull out a thermometer- it would not give me the information I need. The same goes with educational tests. If I want to measure how much progress a student has made, I use one sort of test and if I want to compare him to students across the region, state, country or world, I use a different one.

In New York our tests are to measure where students are in comparison to other students. We know this because they use complex analysis to tell us how the individual is compared to others like him across the state. We also compare him to all others within a school. Cut scores are determined after the test is given and based on the idea that a certain percentage of students should be at various levels. The idea that all will be above a score is crazy because they are going to report results in a bell curve type of distribution.

New York state tests are also used to measure if a student is in need of support. Students who perform poorly or are at risk of performing poorly are supposed to receive additional educational support. This could be in the form of additional small group instruction, prescriptive educational programs, before/after school tutoring, computer based instruction or any number of other models.

New York state tests are also used to evaluate teachers, schools, and districts.  While there is currently a moratorium on using student test scores in teacher evaluations, the information is still being collected and could be reported to the public. Schools that do not improve their results or those that consistently demonstrate low performance may be taken over by the state or given over to receivership.

Unfortunately the only thing that our New York state tests measure very well is socioeconomic level. If you are a poor school, your results are likely to be poor. If you are a student in poverty, you are likely to not do well. Furthermore, since test scores do not come back to the school for four to five months, and do not include detailed analysis of performance, they cannot be used to facilitate instructional decision making.

W. James Popham, one of my favorite educational psychologists, wrote a commentary for Ed Week entitled The Fatal Flaw of Educational Assessment. He talks about the purposes behind assessment and how important it is to match the intended purpose of the test to the uses of the data. We need to decide what we want our tests to measure and use tests that do that. While we need to use data to inform decisions, we need data that is valid for the decisions we are looking at. Numbers, in and of themselves, are not useful for anything. 30-24-30 could as easily be a geographic location as a woman's measurements as the last three scoring records from a hockey team. We need to know what they refer to before we make any decisions.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Book Whisperer

When I was in elementary school, I was not a reader. My ADHD and LD made it challenging to learn to read. I was the epitome of a struggling reader. In fourth through sixth grade, my mother bought me a subscription to the Scholastic book of the month club. She continued it because those were the only books I read. Scholastic had hit upon a winning formula for me: a mix of fiction and non fiction selections that were short so I could read all the material in a month and feel like I had accomplish something. Even that did not make me a reader. It wasn't until the summer after seventh grade that I discovered reading as a way to escape the chaos that characterized my childhood home.

Fast forward to my adulthood. When my son was an infant I read books of nursery rhymes and poetry. I set a goal of memorizing two a day. My current repertoire is huge. As he grew we read constantly. I had a rule where I would read a book only once a day. Then once a week. We read as many as twenty books a day sometimes for as long as 45 minutes at a time. He loved being read to.  When he was 3 he could recite all of Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel as well as dozens of other books.

When my daughter was in kindergarten she was assigned the task of counting all the books in our house. She is a rule follower; her teacher said all, we had to count all. I taught her about multiplication. I figured the teacher's goal of practice counting would be achieved by counting all the books on one shelf and then counting all the shelves. We missed some in the basement and kitchen and ended up with nearly 5000. I read. A lot. And I like to own the books I read.

Donalyn Miller's Book Whisperer blogs and articles have intrigued me because I see her as a kindred spirit. Her book, The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, has been on my to do list for a while. Over break I finally read it. Mrs. Miller teaches sixth grade in Texas. In her class, she devotes time every day to free choice, independent reading. Her results are that every child in her classes passes their state tests. Even the struggling students. She perceives her job is to develop a community of readers, of individuals who enjoy reading. She sets a goal that each student reads 40 books a school year. This is an ambitious goal that not all students reach, but every student reads more in school with her than they did in previous years. Most read more than they have ever read before.

She acknowledges that students come to her as a variety of reader types: developing readers (struggling readers), dormant readers (reluctant readers) and underground readers (want to read but do not do so in school). She uses these labels because they are less negative than the more traditional ones. She surveys students at the beginning of the year to identify reading behaviors and interests so that she can point students towards books that might interest them. Her classroom is full of thousands of books, most of which she has purchased herself. She takes the surveys and develops preview piles for each student. As she gets to know her students better, she continues to refine the idea and encourages her students to build preview piles themselves. This means that Mrs. Miller has read all these books and works to ensure that students are presented with ones that are likely to inspire. This is a monumental task.

Back when I was in college the big movement was whole language reading instruction. I thought this movement had two challenges. One, most teachers did not independently know the scope and sequence of reading phonics and skills to teach a cohesive plan- especially new teachers. Two, most teachers had not read enough books to be able to identify stories that would be good representative of the key ideas they were trying to teach. Unfortunately I was correct. The pendulum swung and we moved back to an eclectic style of reading instruction. Guides were produced by major publishers to highlight their books and sequences of instruction. I see Mrs. Miller's  approach as one that many cannot follow for similar reasons. Unfortunately too many teachers do not spend time reading so they can make recommendations to students about book choices.

The author talks about closely examining traditional teaching moves and determining if they suit the purpose they are designed for. One example is reading logs. Getting parents to sign off often means parents do nothing about monitoring and ensuring home reading, but sign where their child tells them to. Students who do read are often frustrated by the accountability attempts. After all, as adults how often do we record the amount of time we read or how many pages? We read in bed and not with paper and pencil for recording purposes. We read while waiting for something and are happy for the stolen moments of reading.

Another example she dislikes is the Accelerated Reader program that many schools use. Her argument is that while there is some level of choice, it is very structured- it needs to be at their level, on the list of books the school has tests for, and requires a limited recall of details to demonstrate comprehension. This goes hand in hand with extension activities that follow a book. Make a diorama of a pivotal point, make a poster of important people, a song about the story,... Her preference is to teach a skill- find examples of indirect characterization, imagery, theme in your book as a check for reading. Her move is always to ask if the activity will improve reading more than reading itself. Worksheets and vocabulary activities do not generally rise to this bar.

This book is an easy read with straightforward advice. She anchors her ideas in research and experience. This is not just about her one class. This is about her philosophy- get students to read and enjoy it. Read like adults read. Develop reading skills and vocabulary by reading.

The appendixes are wonderful. They include guidelines for a classroom library, a collection of surveys she uses and a book list from her students. While she acknowledges that any booklist is out of date as it is published, it is a place to start. She encourages exposure to great books off the Newberry list but does not nix novels that many would perceive as junk. Graphic novels are seen as just as valuable for developing reading habits and skills as award winning texts. Once students start reading books they enjoy, they are more likely to read more of different types of books. The key is to get kids to read more.