Thursday, July 28, 2016

In the best interest of children- what's wrong with the standards

Kelly Gallagher's book, In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom, takes time to examine the CCSS. He points out both strengths and weaknesses. Below is a chart copied from the book.

Common Core Anchor Reading Standards
1.       Students are asked to read rigorous, high-quality literature and nonfiction.
2.       Students are asked to determine what a test says, what a text does and what a text means.
3.       Close reading of rigorous text is emphasized.
1.       Readers should not be confined to stay “within the four corners of the text.”
2.       Prereading activities are undervalued.
3.       Recreational reading is all but ignored.
4.       There are no reading targets in terms of how much students should read.
5.       The reading standards may be developmentally inappropriate.
6.       There is a misinterpretation regarding the amount of informational reading.
7.       CCSS is driving an overemphasis on the teaching of excerpts.
8.       The exemplars are problematic in terms of relevance and reading levels.

Gallagher 2015, p. 61

I will address some of the shortcomings. First staying with in the walls of the text. This is preposterous. The Gettysburg Address cannot be viewed without the lens of the Civil War. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a Dream" speech without knowing about segregation and prejudice lacks impact. The manual that comes with your dishwasher might be simple enough for novices without dishwasher experience, but the repair manual is not. A jury is given a brief informational blurb every time DNA evidence is provided so that they understand what is going on. If you are in college, the textbook for the 101 course might have the same reading level as the 305 level, but you are going to struggle to read the book for the 305 course if you do not have the background information. Try to understand the young love concept of Romeo and Juliet without knowing about how loving relationships work-- not going to happen. Utilizing prior knowledge is essential for comprehension. For the CCSS authors to promote isolated reading is preposterous.

Recreational Reading is a cornerstone of few programs, but many programs have seen remarkable growth as a result of independent reading. My favorite was that reading three, self-selected, at reading level books is enough to virtually eliminate the summer reading slide, and since that is responsible for a significant portion of the poverty reading gap, reduces the gap between the haves and the have nots. Self-selected reading is responsible for the vast majority of vocabulary growth, especially as kids get older. Further it develops a love of reading. Call it what you will- DEAR, SSR, SSI- it is reading individually chosen books that are accessible to students based on individual reading levels and interests. Going with this is the idea of how much. Donalyn Miller of Book Whisperer fame, suggests 40 books per year. New York state recommends 25. Importantly, this includes required reading books. So if a student reads 4 novels in English class, that is four you can check off the list. Kids need to read extensively to develop reading, vocabulary and writing skills.

Next is the informational reading split. The CCSS authors recommend that by high school 25% of reading be narrative and 75% be informational. I have argued this point since the standards came out. Do students read outside of ELA? I sure hope so. We spend a lot of money on textbooks for history and science as well as other subjects if our kids do not read them. If you have four core classes that means nonfiction rules in the content area (75% of the classes) and fiction can have a large rein in ELA. We have traditionally taught some nonfiction in ELA- when we talk about American Literature, speeches play a large role. Poetry- found in the 811 section of nonfiction- qualifies. We read or are presented with information about time periods and authors before we jump into Twain, Shakespeare or Orwell. This is the nonfiction ELA teachers present. We do not and should not eliminate fiction from the dominant ranks of  ELA class.

Exlemplars are problematic. They are isolated from the rest of the curriculum. In high school we read A Tale of Two Cities in ELA while we studied the French Revolution in history. They support each other. Much literature supports history in this way and many schools utilize this approach. Students who are learning about the American Revolution are primed to read My Brother Sam is Dead and those reading Animal Farm should have background with the Russian Revolution. Just because someone said this is the type of work we expect does not mean that it is appropriate for the students in front of us. Further the standards ignore the fact that many of our students read far below grade level. The NYS modules for eighth grade included the book Unbroken- the tale of survival in Japanese prison camps in WWII. It discusses bullying in, at times a positive light, and talks extensively about torture. It has a 10th grade reading level. Why is it recommended for 8th grade? This is a stretch text for kids reading slightly above grade level. Take a moment to think about those reading below grade level. This is approximately 1/3 of the average class- not to even think about a class from a struggling urban school. Some of them are reading within two years of grade level. They will not read this material. It is not rigorous- it is impossible. All the scaffolding and previewing (that we are supposed to limit) will only make it slightly less inaccessible. We need different strategies for those kids. Just plopping the book, or an excerpt, in front of them will not make them better readers. More often than not, it turns them into nonreaders.

As teachers we need to embrace the strengths of the standards, but then we need to adjust them or adjust the curriculum to meet the needs of the students in front of us. We have the opportunity to create a generation of readers- let's not ruin it.

Monday, July 25, 2016

the Best Interests of Children do not always align with the standards

Kelly Gallagher is one of my favorite ELA writers. His style is easy to read and practical. He gets that good teachers make compromises in the course of their instruction. The premise of In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom is that those compromises always need to favor what is right for kids. When we put teachers in the middle of the standards movement, they may be confronted with mandates to meet all the standards or teach to the tests in ways that do not promote achievement in literacy- both reading and writing. He cites data that since NCLB our students performance on the SATs has gone down. Students who have been exposed to the testing regime of NCLB performed lower on the verbal section than any other students before them
Now we are changing the SAT, and guess what? The test scores rose. For the average student, the new SAT scores are 40 points higher than the scores they would have received on the old SAT. What this truly showcases is one of his main points in the first chapter, that standards are necessary but insufficient. He comments that under NCLB with its mandated or sanctioned move toward proficiency, test cut off scores were reduced. We can indeed make a test that everyone is proficient on. That being said the test itself does nothing to improve skill. State test score proficiency levels rose and international test scores stagnated.

An interesting corollary to this idea. In New York when we adopted the new CCSS and tests, we were warned that test proficiency rates would drop significantly. Only 30 percent of students would "pass." Once the tests were administered and scored this was nearly the exact result. Why? The cut score was determined by the commissioner of education. If I want only 30% to be proficient, I send my psychometricians that goal and the cut score will be adjusted so that the vast majority of students fail, demonstrating that our students are woefully in trouble and we need the new standards to fix education.

Kelly emphasizes that what our focus needs to be is on good teaching- not meeting all the standards, something that would take far more than the 13 years of free public education our average student is expected to receive. He supports standards, but suggests that they fit in around the good teaching, not the other way around. He suggests that we not fixate on the tests but on the instruction. If we want to raise the level of education among our students that is where we must focus.

As another author once pointed out, we do not have students able to jump a high jump better by raising the bar.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Good thinking

Erik Palmer is an excellent communicator. His first book, Well Spoken, which  I blogged about here and here, was well-written and informative. His newest publication, Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning, is similar in its easily accessible style, practical suggestions and informative direction. The book starts with exploring the idea that the Common Core Standards (CCSS) include argumentative writing and reading throughout the grades. We need to persuade people as adults and the CCSS have it right that this is an essential skill students need. Further we need to back up our assertions with support. Now a day does not go by when I do not hear a teacher reference finding evidence to support an assertion. Rarely do they discuss what qualifies as good evidence, just the right or wrong information (afterall, workbooks have a correct answer.)

Palmer argues that one of the first things we need to do is share a common vocabulary.

  • Statement, conclusion, position and claim--> results of thought
  • reasons, premises, warrants --> help lead us to the thought

Palmer uses the term argument to mean the "group of statements that leads to a conculsion." (p 15) Using this defition he then goes on to explore the idea that an argument is cold- it is a detailed listing of inforamtion that lead to a conclusion. Persuasion, however, he sees as hot- it is the manner of presentation designed to get you to agree.

The first section of the book is devoted to argument. What makes a sound argument? He explores logic in depth. The major principle of logic that he uses is syllogism. Teachers of algebra and geometery often teach syllogism. (Think back this is the "If p then q" statements many of us had to work with during our logic unit in high school.) Syllogism is one of the main underlying reasons we want students to take higher level math- they learn logic. Wouldn't it be better if kids didn't need to wait until high school or beyond in order to learn logic. With the push for agumentative writing we can now see this move. Palmer introduces the term, but sadly, never makes the math relate. We use syllogisms all the time without even thinking about it. While we may not structure our statements in the strict logic format, we could.

If you have money, you can buy an ice cream.
You have money.
You may buy the ice cream.

If you behave in the store, you may have a quarter to buy something from the machines outside.
You behaved.
Here's the quarter.

If you revise your paper, you will get a better score.
You did not revise.
Your grade sucks.

We see examples like this all the time. This is logic embodied as a syllogism.

He then extends the syllogism discussion by addressing what is evidence. He describes five types of evidence: facts, numbers, quotes, examples, and analogies. Unfortunately, CCSS tests seem to reduce evidence to merely quotes. We should definitely teach students to identify quotes that support our conclusions, but we also need to teach students to use other types of evidence as well. We could have students examine argumentative pieces and highlight the evidence provided and how they explain it and put it together to build an argument. (This technique then can be used to showcase elements of persuasion and rhetoric.)

From there Palmer moves to discussing persuasion. This would be the ethos and pathos that Aristotle described. He describes various persuasive techniques like bandwagon, loaded words, and plain folks. Then he moves on to other rhetorical devices like hyperbole and rhetorical questions. These devices and techniques abound around us. Examining advertisements is a great place to start teaching these skills. Further it helps our students become savy consumers- another life long goal. Then you could move to speeches and see how these tools are present in what people say. Since we are knee deep in political commentary as the presidential campaign is reving up, many interviews with candidates and their supporters are available. Critically ask students to look at them. See how people use these devices to make their points. Often they either side step the argument/questions; sometimes they use poor logic to make their point. We should use these short snippets to help us teach children to become critical citizens- another life long goal of education.

This book offers helpful minilesson ideas across multiple subject areas and grade levels. Most teachers could pick it up and find easy ways to integrate his ideas into their curriculum. The importance in teaching logical thinking cannot be underestimated. This book demonstrates how it can be done, not as a stand alone unit, but as a component of units that you already teach.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Differentiated Coaching

In Differentiated Coaching: A Framework for Helping Teachers Change, Jane A. G. Kise uses the Myers Briggs personality type framework as the lens through which coaching can be viewed. She views the personality types as a view point for assessing communication styles. According to her thesis, only by understanding the communication styles and preferences of others can you design coaching to meet the needs of each teacher. When there is a mismatch between presentation of information style and individual, poor outcomes result from the professional development. People can coach others with whom they do not share personality styles, but the coach then needs to adjust to meet the needs of the individual.

First a quick down and dirty summary of Myers-Briggs style. This format has been used by the business world for decades. The book goes into some detail about personality style, but an interested party should pursue more detailed information from the website above and other sources.  Myers and Briggs identify people as belonging to one of each of the following groups:
  • Judging (planning) v. Perceiving (open and flexible) --> J or P
  • Extraversion (energy through the outside world and people) v. Introversion ( reflection and solitude) --> E or I
  • Sensing (information, facts, details) v. Intuition (open-ended, creative, big picture) --> S or N
  • Thinking (decision making through logic) v. Feeling (decision making through emotions and personal impact) --> T or F
People then are identified as one of 16 four letter styles that highlight how they like to interact with the world. Although the author correlates framework with other learning style and personality style systems, such as Gardner's multiple intelligences and Gregorc's Mind Styles Model, the links are tenuous at times. The common thread could be that our inborn traits determine who we are and what we excel at as well as areas where we struggle. While research has shown that attention to multiple intelligences does not improve academic results, it may be true that communication style differences do.

One useful feature that I found was her chart on different coaching styles. Pages 146-8 detail four types of coaching preferences and how individual needs can be met. Below is a summary of the chart.

Want a coach as a …
To meet their needs
useful resource
·         Hands on relevant lessons
·         Provide evidence of effectiveness
·         Provide easily customizable examples
·         Listen to concerns
Encouraging sage
·         Provide encouragement, clear goals, and concrete tasks
·         Join in the classroom and highlight the good, suggestions for trouble spots
·         Limit the number of choices
·         Model one strategy at a time, document success
Collegial mentor
·         Conversation to engage creativity
·         Demonstrate concrete examples of abstract concepts
·         Step by step assignment procedures and graphic organizers to keep everyone focused
·         Classroom management support
·         Talk through the scenarios before choosing a strategy
·         Provide credentials and references- be able to answer their questions
·         Balance theory with hands-on experimentation
·         Allow them to question and improve upon ideas
·         Provide evidence and data

I am a T person with a mix of S and N. When I was at a workshop and the three questions I asked were not only unable to be answered by the presenter, but she did not go find the answers for me. I was very unsatisfied with the program because she did not meet my need to have an expert in the subject material present information to me.

Some of the type information that I found intriguing included:
  • SP students who struggle in school tend to test and enjoy the discomfort of teachers that results Gifted students tend to be N, perhaps as a result of testing bias
  • Teachers tend to be INFJ, INFP, ENFP, ENFJ or ENTJ. Those with different types may struggle to fit in well with their peers.
  • American culture tends to prize J, but that is not true of all cultures. Cultural preferences tend to be overrepresented in the population.

This book presents an interesting viewpoint on learning. While it does present ideas for large scale initiatives and incorporating them in light of personality types, it does not in any way discuss implications of the Common Core Standards on classrooms. The author's view on how instruction has shifted in light of CCSS adoption and how personality styles are addressed would be interesting. One shift in the mathematics realm, for example is an increased emphasis on understanding and articulating the why of a solution or algorithm. This will appeal to the J, S and Ts but could be a challenge for the P, N and Fs.

The book includes a fantastic appendix which describes each personality type, their general strengths, stressors, what they are best at in the classroom, their needs during change, typical areas for growth and suggestions for a coach to meet those needs. Understanding myself is, perhaps at least as effective as understanding the needs of professionals with which I work. Knowing that professional development (PD) that does not meet my needs for clear connections between current and new practices, information to answer all my questions, careful attention to details, time for reflection, and opportunities to provide influence is likely to not be well received means I need to adjust and seek out the opportunities that I do need. I am unlikely to respond favorably to PD that does not meet my needs, but I am not everyone. It does explain my thirst for details and knowledge as I approach new experiences.