Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Disruption and education

Thomas Friedman talks about disrupters in his latest book, Thank you for Being Late. Being in the middle of this text, it was interesting to read Peter W. Cookson Jr’s article in edweek, 10 Disruptions That will Revolutionize Education.  Cookson talks about “moving from distraction to deep learning” as one of the educational challenges we must now address. His disruptions include:

1.       Digital learners rebel against intellectual conformity- Yes, our young people are divided by the digital and physical realm, seeking solutions rather than reflection, but his assertion that they multitask easily is wrong. They multitask, but much research shows that they do this at the expense of everything they are doing. Conformity and standardization are things that people in our country have fought for decades, it is not new as Cookson proposes. Long is the complaint against youth that they rebel against conforming to society.

2.       Learning avatars will become commonplace.- True there is an increase in the use of intelligent programing that adjusts to the performance of the user. The challenge here is that we will still need to balance the idea of mastery versus time. Our students, teachers, schools, and states are measured on how well students to versus a set curriculum. Since all students do not learn at the same rate, at some point we need to make a choice about moving on and achieving coverage (a court case in California ruled that a class of students who did not cover particular material could not be assessed on it by graduation gatekeeper tests) and proficiency.  Further, recent research says that personalization does not actually achieve increased success with material. We really do not know how to utilize electronic platforms to maximize learning.

3.       Participatory-learning hubs replace isolated classrooms- Yes, students are increasing linked to the global universe.

4.       Inquiry skills will drive learning- Tell that to the science teacher community. For the past 30 years they have been supporting this idea, and it has not caught on. Social studies groups promote the concept of doing the work of historians- reading and analyzing primary source material- but we remain testing the dates of the Civil War. While there is an increase in teamwork and cooperative learning, most implementations of these activities enable little real collaboration. This rolls back to assessment- are we going to do easy assessments with "right" answers or are we going to do complex (read expensive) ones that are more subjective?

5.       Capacities will matter more than grades- “Conventional grading is already becoming outdated.” No kidding, but this is not new. Standards based report cards and grading are making strides in some places, but not all. What employers want is a tool to use that says this students is a good bet- they have soft skills like persistence, punctuality, and a willingness to learn as well as hard skills like a basic ability to engage in the three Rs. While capacity to do a job is slowly making inroads into the business community, this is not something we should hold our breath for.

6.       Teachers will become inventors- He talks about social emotional learning here, not inventors. I think he is getting at the link between cognitive skills, social emotional skills and creativity. Teachers have been doing this forever. In 1976 when PL 94-142, the federal special education law, was passed, they recognized these links and included both in the analysis of student skills.

7.       School leaders will give up their desks- Many people love their desks and will never give them up. The amount of paperwork that the educational bureaucracy requires does not lend itself to deskless lives. “Student agency in a culture of mutual respect” is what he proposes here. While many schools and classrooms are student centered, our insistence on standards of learning limit this. Novice learners need guidance and support to learn and push forward. We can argue about the relevancy of trigonometry and algebra 2 all day, but without outward pressure to learn these subjects, few students would ever engage in them and since they do not have real work application for most people, they would go by the wayside leaving our applied math programs like engineering and science at a loss.

8.       Students and families will become co-learners and co-creators- This is an age-old idea, but one that is not shared by many cultures, including those in many low socioeconomic areas and immigrant cultures. Middle class families already are co-learners and have been forever. Engaging the families is not something that will happen on its own but will require careful and concerted effort on the part of the schools.

9.       Formal credentials will no longer be the Holy Grail- Centuries ago being a lawyer meant working with a mentor for a while before opening your own shop. The same with doctors. We have formal credentials for a reason- to offer the public some assurance that the individual has a level of skill. We do not have the skill set to go to the doctor and interview him on his knowledge about medicine. We expect that to be taken care of before we pass through his office door. Although many jobs can be completed without formal credentials, employers rely on credentials for screening purposes. Different types of credentials are becoming the norm- online programs are increasingly able to bring education to a greater number of students, apprentice programs are available in some areas. Some form of credentials, however will remain the norm. Portfolios work in some fields and have for a long time- architects showcase their previous work, authors list their past writings, athletes have records of success- but this will not likely spread to all fields.

10.   Policymakers will form communities of continuous improvement- Really. How does he propose to get the politicians out of education? We are moving in the opposite direction. While there is a group of think tanks that process research and implement new ideas, these ideas are slow to capture our attention. “New math” has been the social pariah for a long time and was passed over at least once since its conception. Convincing the public to allow and encourage innovative educational policy is an ongoing battle.

I guess I am pretty pessimistic about the disruptions that are proposed. Not that many of them are bad ideas, just that the pace of change in the educational world is so much slower than that of the business world. We talk about our children not keeping up with the global community, and in some ways that is true. I think it boils down more to motivation than to activity- to a theory that they should be allowed to "be kids" rather than mini-learning machines. In China or India your choice is education, hard work and success or dirt floors and public well. Many other parts of the world do not even have the option of education.

Disruptions will change  how we educate. Some are bigger forces than others. The bigger mountain, however, is to change society's perception of the role of education. As a country and a culture, we do not have unity on the purpose of education. We are increasingly allowing government to control what we teach and how we teach it. I think perhaps the biggest disrupter will be the people rebelling against the status quo and allowing that a new way of educating might be superior to the one we experienced as youths ourselves.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Friedman's heating and lighting

I was first introduced to Thomas Friedman when my children were small and I attended a board of education meeting for our school district. Our superintendent was talking about the age of globalization and competition, about how the world would be different for our children than it was for us. I tracked down a copy of the World is Flat and appreciated the insights of this author and his message. A couple of years ago my daughter had to read the book for a college class and she too was impressed with the message. Friedman's latest book, Thank You for Being Late, has also captured my attention. His clear and easy writing style explains why he is a successful journalist. Although not far into the book, I have been ruminating on one of the messages of the introduction- he talks about  the role of the opinion writer as being either heating or lighting, an analogy that I think would be good for talking to students about persuasive and argumentative

He proposes that you have two options "turn on a lightbulb in your reader's head- illuminate an issue in a way that will inspire them to look at it anew- or stoke an emotion in your reader's heart that prompts them to feel or act more intensely or differently about an issue" (p. 12). This is the classic logos or pathos issue that Plato described updated to today's language. Friedman argues that ideally an author does both. Friedman's writing style does just that- he bombards the reader with facts designed to showcase certain things and then expresses it in a way that shares why you should care- your heart gets engaged. Friedman tends to be more of an economist than a politician in his outlook. I believe Friedman would agree with Marx in stating that the world is driven by economics rather than by political or social goals. Yes they are intertwined, but the driving force is the economic one.

When I think about our president and his use of rhetoric, it all focuses on the pathos or heating piece of the puzzle with some appeal to the element that Friedman does not discuss, ethos- appeal to authority. Trump uses his role as a businessman and now President to claim he must be right, an argument that Cigna, an insurance provider, takes comic advantage of with it's TV doctors of America ads (see here and here). Trump's favorite bit of rhetoric, however, is the heating business. He wants people shouting, cheering and afraid so that he can manipulate them to support him. We need to teach our young people to be wary of these devices so that they can analyze for themselves the information they receive and make informed decisions, not scared decisions.

Saturday, September 30, 2017


Malcolm Gladwell wrote Outliers in 2008 and the concept of 10,000 hours to excellence was popularized. It is not that we require an exact number of hours in order to become an expert, but we need to dedicate a huge amount of time to practice before we become experts. This holds true for virtually all things. Jerry Rice, the hall of fame receiver, was known for being the hardest worker on his team. That is true of most sports greats. They have natural talent and physical attributes, but to become truly great, they need to spend the hours- consistently over time.

Practice plus talent alone is not enough. There is an environmental aspect to greatness. Part of it is related to learning persistence, social skills and having access to opportunities. If you want to be successful at a job, you need to need to have the social skills to do so. The social skills needed to survive as a Wall Street banker are different than those you need to be a rodeo rider. A neurosurgeon has different social skills than a pediatrician. The skills you need to be an inner city police officer are different than those you need as a rural sheriff. Growing up in an environment where you learn those skills makes it easier. You can learn the skills, but it is a challenge to learn a new culture.

Further, your birthday contributes to opportunities. People who graduated from college in 2007 had a very different experience looking for jobs than those who graduated in 2009 during the great recession. Sometimes this challenge forces people to learn to be flexible and focus on skills that others are not finding profitable which will become profitable in the future. Sometimes it forces people to reside in mediocrity.

One thing that Gladwell discussed are the limitations of IQ as a determinant of success. Once IQ is above a certain point, being higher is not necessarily better. Being from a middle or upper class is what determines the success of the individual more than merely IQ. My husband, an engineer, talks about engineers in the top 90th percentile are able to produce twice that of engineers in the 50th percentile. He is not referring to just smarts, but to problem solving, persistence, and ability to juggle more things at once. To be able to analyze both the big picture and pay attention to the minutia. Not everyone can do this. Without training in how to do it, even the really good engineers do not get there.

So do we resolve to be satisfied that inner city, poverty filled areas are doomed to continue as they exist? NO. We can intervene and change trajectories. We have learned that the greater part of the achievement gap results from the summer slide. Students in well educated environments spend the summer in activities that expand their background knowledge and reinforce their learning. They have ready access to books and shown that reading is not just important but enjoyable. Students in poverty tend to be denied enriching summer experiences. They have much more limited access to books. They have to have parents set the stage, as a recent report illustrates, that emphasizes learning, schooling, and self-confidence in learning.

KIPP schools have been successful because they increase the amount of schooling and school work that students do. It would odd if students who spent 30 more days in school and 2 more hours a day at school could not out perform students who did not. It is not about technology they have access to or the uniforms they wear but the idea that learning is important. Parents who spend the time to research schools and pick the schools that would be best for their children, have children who do better than parents who do not. Parents who spend this time on selecting a school then also spend more time focusing on learning. Even if the parents cannot help their children with their school work, they can find people who can. In Educational Leadership I read recently read about a child who immigrated to this country and did not speak proficient English, nor did anyone in his family. His family did, however, belong to a community where there were proficient bilingual English speakers. They hooked this young man up with other adults from the community who could help with homework. This young man was able to be successful in school in spite of language and poverty challenges. Environment can help kids overcome challenges or can mire them. It is up to us as a community to decide which way to go.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Accessible Algebra

Every teacher who has worked with math has had students for whom math was instinctual- who loved to play with numbers and patterns, who caught on, often before the topic had been addressed in class. Teachers have also had students who found math to be an indiscernible labyrinth- who hated numbers and patterns and just never seemed to get it, no matter how many times it was explained. Unfortunately our culture seems to celebrate the latter and find the former odd. I have a husband and daughter who love math. She was delighted with calculus and worked ahead. Accessible Algebra by Anne M. Collins and Stephen R. Benson is not for those who get it. It is for the rest of us.

As opposed to a book based on theory, Accessible Algebra: 30 Modules to Promote Algebraic Reasoning, Grades 7-10 is a compilation of 30 lessons, complete with worksheets and answers, that can be used out of the box. The book is divided into sections- expressions, equations and functions. The modules contain real examples of algebra, the mathematical theory about the topic, common mistakes and ideas for both increased scaffolding and extensions. I learned some math reading this book, but more importantly, I have been exposed to some ideas about how to make algebra more hands on. We tend to think about elementary school math as being hands on- counters, pattern blocks, geoboards, balances, and games may be found in most such classrooms. As students get older, opportunities for hands on experiences in math diminish, in part because of pacing and time and in part because of the challenge of finding manipulatives and experiences that represent abstract algebraic concepts.

For students who struggle with mathematical thinking, finding ways to visualize and explore concepts is essential. This book provides a wealth of examples of how to incorporate models and discussion into the classroom. It might make algebra a longer course. It might, however, create a class that more students could be successful in. If an algebra teacher only used these 30 modules over the course of the 180- or more realistically 150 school days- students would be better prepared to tackle math. An emphasis throughout is discussion. Students often struggle with describing math. By forcing students to verbalize and write their ideas, both with words and symbolic notation, we help them bridge the gap and be better prepared for assessments that require these skills.

The activities  include a variety of card activities: match the expression with the words describing the math, the graph to its description or sort into function or not a function. We know that hands on experiences increase learning, it is worth trying. Another thing the authors include is a chart for recording student thinking. When students are working collaboratively or independently, you can determine what strategies they use and then encourage using the best strategy for a problem as opposed to a single strategy. You could add guess and check to the strategy column.

Student name
Problem solving strategy
Justifies strategy and solution using accountable talk
Accurate computation

A wonderful text for those trying to help students achieve success with algebra.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The power of the adolescent brain

Thomas Armstrong's book, The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students, examines why so many secondary programs fail students. He starts with a primer on neurobiology and learning. One amazing thing is that adolescent brains respond to stimulus in very different ways than either child or adult brains do. For example, when thinking about actions they might take in a given situation, adolescents use a part of the brain associated with the self-conscious brain whereas adults rely more on self-memories (p. 54). Since the time of adolescences is one of brain refinement- lots of pruning and myelination- expecting teens to react as adults might is unrealistic.

Armstrong highlights several risks that adolescents face and the impact that they have on young people.
  • traffic accidents- a leading cause of death
  • violence- another leading cause of death. In a study 40% of males and 25% of females in high school reported being in a physical fight in the past year (p. 21)
  • suicide- another leading cause of death
  • alcohol abuse-over one third of teenagers reported alcohol consumption in the last 30 days. Alcohol consumption inhibits the creation of new neurons and damages areas of the brain including those associated with impulse control (p. 22)
  • marijuana abuse- heavy users have depressed processing speed, memory, flexible thinking, attention and learning as well as decreased motivation. It results in structural changes in the brain including decreased ability of the amygdala to filter incoming information (p. 22).
  • tobacco and nicotine use- more likely to become addicted with use than adults and leads to long term health risks. It causes changes to the limbic system including reduced ability to inhibit impulses (p. 23)
  • mental disorders- The onset of half of all mental health issues begins by the age of 14. As many as 20% experience an anxiety disorder. Eating disorders, school refusals and suicide are often results of mental health concerns (p. 23)
  • Sleep difficulties- 45% of all adolescents experience sleep deprivation. It causes increased risk taking and failures of cognitive control (p. 23). While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends schools start after 8:30 the CDC reports that over 75% of secondary schools do.
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases- Over a third of sexually active females between 14 and 18 carry an STD. (44% of females and 49% of males in this group are sexually active). 
  • Prescription Drug abuse- Adderall, Vicodin and narcotics are the most abused drugs. Abuse of narcotics and Vicodin can lead to coma and death. 4% of males report steroid abuse which causes changes in brain structure and neurotransmitter levels (p.24). Recent research indicates that narcotics overdose is steadily climbing as a leading cause of death for teens.
  • Internet Addiction- approximately 4% of teens (it seems like this number might be low) which reduces connectivity in regions of the brain responsible for learning ( p. 24).
  • Bullying- 20 % of teens reported being bullied in the last year on school grounds. This can result in suicide and an increased risk of psychiatric disorders (p. 24). 
  • Stress- It can contribute to all of the above factors. Chronic stress can lead to anxiety, depression, panic attacks, difficulty concentrating and insomnia as well as high blood pressure and low immune function. Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to stress and its long term impact on the body and brain. THP, a neurotransmitter that is calming in children and adults, is antagonistic to the brain of adolescents (p. 26).
To counter these concerns, Armstrong recommends brain-friendly educational practices: opportunities to choose, self-awareness activities, peer learning connections, affective learning, learning through the body, metacognitive strategies, expressive art activities, and real-world experiences (p. 38).

Armstrong lists choice as the number one brain friendly practice. Often in high school choice of classes is practically nonexistent. Students are required to take English, math, social studies and science. Often mandatory electives are needed: PE, a fine art, and language. The day is full and complete. Back when my sister was in high school, they offered electives in English. Students opted to take a class for a quarter. Options included violence in literature, science fiction, drama, poetry, and Shakespeare and film. They were offered choices that my sister assured me included lots of reading and writing and writing and writing. We could provide these sorts of choices but then English teachers would have to plan extra classes. Instead of four sections of English 9 and two of English 10 it would be 4-6 unique classes. I am sure that open rebellion by the staff brought about this downfall. (Teachers in small schools can laugh- they have all those different classes because they are the English department at the high school and teach all four levels.) I know it is work, but it might help student engagement which might lead to better success on the part of the students.

Armstrong repeatedly emphasizes the role of peers in teenage lives. Peer approval stimulates high levels of satisfaction in the brain and disapproval or lack of acceptance triggers high levels of negative responses. He suggests letting peers critique each others work. I have heard many teachers say they tried peer revisions or editing, the students hated it and were terrible at it so they gave it up. Interestingly if we discover they hate writing or are terrible at it we do not abstain from assigning written work. He quotes Ron Berger,
"In order to create beautiful work, we must be willing to refine. To refine, we must require critique and feedback. In order to critique, we need models and standards. For feedback to be useful to us, it must be kind, helpful and specific." (p. 73)

If we want to use peer feedback we need to teach it. We need to model it. Good job does not provide any useful information- not for what you did well or what you can do to improve. Preferable would be,
  • You identified three quotes to highlight your thesis. What made you choose the second one? 
  • I liked the way you used imagery to showcase the character's delemia in the third paragraph. What made you choose to stop using it after that point?
  • Most of your sentences are a simple subject-predicate form. How can you change the sentence structure around to make the language more interesting to the reader?
  • Be careful with your sentences. While they are full of vivid and specific verbs, they also are often run-ons.
  • I am not sure why you chose to include _____. Could you explain it better or remove it and still make your point?
Modeling good feedback is essential if we want students to demonstrate it. Sentence starters like,
  • I didn't understand it when you ______.
  • I really like the way you _____.
  • I want to know more about _____.
  • I was confused when _____.
  • You evidence here seems weak/strong because __________.
allow students to get a feel for how to go about providing feedback. Rubrics can be useful as well. Allowing students to dissect high, average, and low quality work by comparing it to a rubric can help them learn how to identify areas for improvement. We know that feedback rather than grades results in improved work. We owe it to students to provide as much feedback as we can for them to be successful. Feedback from peers is even more powerful than that from most adults. We owe it to our students to get some high quality peer feedback.

Throughout the book, Armstrong identifies a brain-friendly practice and then provides examples of how to implement them. His writing is easy to read. Each chapter ends with a key takeaway section that summarizes the material. Appendix B contains a variety of specific examples to use each of the ten strategies in each of the core subject areas. A great book that furthers the discussion of brain-friendly learning.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

differentiated literacy coaching

Over the last few years I have delved into the research on literacy coaching and was intrigued to find Mary Catherine Moran's Differentiated Literacy Coaching: Scaffolding for Student and Teacher Success. This book was a dry read. Few examples are found throughout. While resources and handouts are available online, not enough were shared within the text, requiring readers to stop and search for materials that were referenced.

That said, the book has a wealth of information. Moran describes different types of coaching activities: collaborative resource management, literacy content presentations, focused classroom visits, coplanning, study groups, demonstration lessons, peer coaching and coteaching. Coplanning and coteaching are shown as parallels to special ed activities. Two of her key focuses is that coaching works best when teachers are able to self select the activity and that coaches should not be evaluators.

The book is divided into three sections: foundations and research, types of coaching and discussion modules. In the first section the author references Gersten, Vaughn, Deschler and Schiller's (1997) guiding principles for researchers to make use of research in their practice (p. 25):

  • Reality principle- is it feasible? Although a program may be highly effective for improving literacy, if it requires an additional hour of 1:1 instruction every day, it might not be the plan to use.
  • scope- scale. If it is only applicable to fifth graders with phonemic awareness issues, it probably does not fit the bill for a general education classroom. Conversely, if it is an entire literacy program that would be in conflict with district mandates, it probably is not right either.
  • technical aspects- is there enough training, support and feedback for teachers to become skilled with the strategy?
  • conceptual aspects- do the teachers understand the significance of the practice? If we increase our focus on fluency or high quality vocabulary instruction, do they see the value?
  • linkages- are there easily identifiable connections with other initiatives?
  • collegial support networks- Are there supports to sustain the initiative?

Later on she highlights that, "As a coach, our job isn't to tell teachers how or what to do..., but rather to help them reflect on their own practice" (p. 42-3). Keeping this in mind provides a purpose for coaching even veteran teachers. It would have been nice if she had added some reflection protocols or sample dialogs to use as a spring board.

The last part of the text is modules with sample staff development activities that would be useful for any stage of the coaching process implementation. They focus on the concept and logistics of coaching rather than specific content information.

Her appendix does include a plan for evaluating coach performance. Since coaching is different from teaching, using a teacher evaluation model such as Danielson's is not a good measure of performance.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Essentials of science, grades 7-12

In Rick Allen wrote The Essentials of Science, Grades 7-12: Effective Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. NCLB was just beginning to be fully implemented. The National Science Education Standards were more than 10 years old. Fast forward to today. We have seen the implementation of the Common Core State standards (CCSS) with its emphasis on reading, writing and math in all curricular areas. We have been weathering the backlash as states look to modify the standards and examine how to evaluate success. We have seen the reauthorization of the education law, now back to the ESSA branding. We also have seen the emergence of the Next Generation Science Standards with its 3D focus: core ideas, cross cutting concepts and practices. With all that change you might think that this text is woefully out of date. Unfortunately not.

He outlines instruction through inquiry, an approach that remains important in the science classroom today. He talks about all teachers being teachers of reading, something that has become increasingly true in this era framed by CCSS.

In the chapter on assessment he provides an overview of formative assessment. His suggestions to improve student performance include (p. 101)
  • Questioning- increased wait time and using responses to develop understanding
  • Feedback- allowing opportunities for revising work based on performance feedback. One of the more powerful tools includes not grading work, but providing feedback on performance.
  • self-assessment and peer assessment- peer judging to reevaluate individual work and traffic light evaluation of understanding
  • Formative use of summative assessment- reflect on what they know using the traffic light technique and allowing students to better understand assessment processes.

A thread that permeates the text is the idea of correcting work. This mastery idea enables students to continue to pursue understanding even after a summative assessment. One suggestion was to submit test corrections- write the correct answer and an explanation of why it is correct for every incorrect question. This reinforces the idea that learning never ends. Further, when a final exam is going to be cumulative, it focus attention on the correct information and allows for additional learning opportunities.

I have recently thought that using a teacher website with links to video snips reviewing each day's learning. This could be teacher podcasts, Khan academy videos, textbook resources, TED talks and other YouTube/TeacherTube links. After viewing this material, students could participate in learning activities to reinforce the learning. If student struggles trigger a need for increased instructional input, student performance should increase.

While this book is out of date, it does provide some useful information about transforming science education for improved instruction.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Charisma: The Art of Relationships

In Michael Grinder's book, Charisma: The Art of Relationships, he employs an extended metaphor to describe people. People's styles are made up of dog and cat components. People are not exclusively one or the other and in different settings and situations may exhibit different combinations of characteristics.

In general dogs like to please. The ultimate dog prototype is the golden retriever. He loves to loved, feels guilty when yelled at, even if it is not his fault, want to be part of the group and have a high degree of accommodation. Cats, on the other hand are more independent. Think Siamese. They want to be respected, don't care what you want, and are highly independent. Dogs are people pleasers while cats are oblivious to pleasing or ruffling feathers. Cats need to be teased into doing something whereas dogs do it to make others happy. Dogs are more in tuned with emotions of the group. Toddlers are like dogs- eager to please and heartbroken when they disappoint- vulnerable. Teenagers are like cats- eager to be independent from you, arrogant about skills and never backing away from conflict- ambitious. Cat people tend to be better decision makers and more apt to climb the leadership ladder. Dog people want the group to be happy and tend to be great information gatherers and followers.

Charisma is achieved by balancing these two forces. Recognizing the characteristics of the group in which one is in and responding by bringing in appropriate skills to appeal to the catty or doggy nature of the group. The book describes how to recognize these traits in others and how to manage them to increase success. Vignettes throughout the text demonstrate the issues discussed. Exercises are spattered throughout to allow readers to practice the skills.

Points of interest.
"In school our 'talented and gifted' pupils aren't interested in studying" (p. 31). Their ambition to achieve has been stifled by the search for "something worthy of their attention" (p. 31). When we look at statistics they suggest as many as 30% of this group are drop outs. Famous ones include Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Grinder has stumbled upon one of the greatest challenges of our American education system- what to do with our brightest kids?

"The goal of winning the match [for the cat] isn't that relevant; your opponent isn't your enemy, but an ally in your quest to improve yourself" (p. 34). Cats want worthy adversaries. In school cats want groups and challenges against well matched peers, not very mixed ability groups. It is no challenge to win the spelling bee against an "inferior" opponent. When working on a project, they want to be pulled up, not have to manage relationships and work to make those weaker better. When we ask students to participate in group work, it is important to give them opportunities to work with similar peers sometimes so that they can feel empowered and grow.

Dog people live by the golden rule- do unto others as you would have done to you. Cat people live by the platinum rule- treat others they way they need to be treated (p. 134-5). Equal treatment is the goal of dog people, but cat people see that equal treatment is not fair treatment. When working with cats it is important to have something they want- perhaps merely novelty, but you must be careful because novelty quickly goes away. Cats need cajoling. Dogs need encouraging.

I am a cat, strongly. This means that if I want to develop more charisma, I need to focus on those doggy skills.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Executive function foundations

The Landmark School Outreach Program has published a language-based teaching series for teachers looking to enhance their skills working with students with language based learning disabilities. Patricia W. Newhall's book, Executive Function: Foundations for Learning and Teaching, looks at executive functioning from a slightly different angle than many other authors I have read.

She broadly defines executive function (EF) as "the brain's ability to coordinate the cognitive and psychological processes needed to initiate, sustain, monitor, and adapt the behaviors and attitudes required to achieve a goal" (p.2). This idea that executive function is the underlying skill that enables one to accomplish something is a common thread. She includes Howard Gardner's concept- the integration of
  • the hill- establishment of a clear goal
  • the skill- the requisite abilities and techniques for attaining that goal
  • the will- volition to begin and persevere until the goal is reached (p.71)
Where she goes off a little is in using Brown's 2007 paradigm in seeing the skills as clusters: action, memory, emotion, effort, focus and activation (p. 4). She sees EF troubles as stemming from one of two points- academic weaknesses that stress the prefrontal lobe so as to be unable to bring to bear EF skills or EF weaknesses that interfere with the brain's ability to learn academic skills. On the surface, a teacher might see a student with little motivation to learn, task persistence, or organization yet deeper study is required to identify the weak points and present instruction in a way that meaningfully improves instruction.

Landmark clearly promotes student centered instruction. Throughout the book references to students self-awareness of what is going on, active multisensory learning and inquiry learning abound. This may be more challenging for some teachers to implement than others. Issues around curriculum pacing, content covered and large class sizes are ignored throughout.

One important detail that she points out is that initiation issues are often the result of emotional motivation concerns whereas persistence of effort more often result from poor goal-orientation. Seeing what behaviors the student exemplifies indicates where the intervention needs to occur.

The book offers some useful worksheets to help students and teachers assess general EF skills and motivation. These are available online in modifiable formats for both younger and older students. The book also offers many strategies to help students be successful. One I particularly liked was her class wrap-up strategy (closure activity). It includes a checklist for what study skills were focused on, and short answer responses to identifying the most important concept and what is desired for review. Using this kind of approach improves metacognition of these underlying skills that we often expect students to have that are trouble spots for people with EF weaknesses. I have previously commented on her inclusion of card sort type activities.

The book includes a series of case studies but leaves the thinking entirely up to the reader. While intro questions are provided, a thoughtful debrief is missing. These vignettes might be useful if the text were used in a professional learning opportunity. Overall a short easy to read book full of good suggestions for both individual interventions and whole class instruction aimed at improving EF skills and academic proficiency.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

student anxiety

I have a child with ASD and its frequently comorbid cousin, anxiety. I worked with a student who could not attend school because of anxiety.  The August edition of ASCD's Education Update includes an article entitled "Helping Ease Student Anxiety" by Sarah McKibben, which talks about anxiety. I have seen extreme anxiety as it impacts students, and this article rings true.

First she says look for clues:
1. somatic complaints- My son could not sleep. He picked his fingertips raw and then had sore hands. Some students have mysterious aches- headache, stomach aches, generally not feeling well. Be sure to rule out physiological problems. A student with a bladder infection needs to go to the bathroom a lot. So might a student with a nervous bladder. Students with chronic complaints should be checked out by a doctor.
2. distorted cognition- preoccupation with failure or perfectionism. Catastrophic thinking. Black or white universes.
3. behavior- mostly avoidance. This could be skipping class, putting a head down, refusing to answer, not attempting assignments or a variety of other things.
Students who exhibit these clues should be suspected of having anxiety. Remember we are lay people not diagnosticians. Suggest it as a possibility to investigate. Keep observing for clues.

She then offers some tips for avoiding or mitigating anxiety in the classroom.
  • Tackle tensions- moving to non-preferred activities can provide a focus on anxiety. To keep kids from becoming disregulated she suggests minimizing downtime and starting class with a soft activity that is more motivating than hard-core. Instead of "bell-work" she suggests a review game or video. This could present a logistic challenge for a teacher who needs a few minutes at the beginning of class to complete administrative tasks like attendance.
  • Cognitive Distractors- Often I see breaks as accommodations on IEPs, but McKibben suggests a wander break may not be enough. Some students will wander the halls or sketch on a pad and dwell on the anxiety trigger, resulting in no behavior change. Data should be kept on whether the structured break provides a reduction in anxiety or not. Instead of merely walking around a school loop, have them sing a favorite song while they walk, complete an unrelated task like Sudoku or hidden pictures, or perform an unrelated automatic memory task- tell me the names of your cousins or about your favorite football team or, for my son, your latest bottle acquisition.
  • Make it manageable- break tasks down and present in chunks to reduce the scope of the project. This is especially true of long term projects, but even a worksheet full of questions can be too intimidating. Cut it into sections and present one section at a time. Instead of three directions, provide only one.
  • Apply a label- Use language to label fears specifically and in detail. This is a great way to approach catastrophic thinking. Professionals who deal with anxiety will use this as a first step in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), the preferred intervention for anxiety.
  • Teach physical signs- controlled muscle tension exercises to identify what physical signs are present with anxiety and tension. Rate feelings on a scale.
  • Help initiate- sometimes the hardest part is getting started. Help students to complete the beginning. I think her idea of having a student start writing in class and stop- midword/sentence- and then go home to finish has merit. Most students can finish a started word. I fear that most would be unsettled with leaving a word unfinished which might elevate anxiety, but it might be different kid to kid.
  • Check in- once you start them off, let them know you will check in at certain points, perhaps ten minute intervals. Working side by side with another peer might be enough.
  • Private praise- while some students love public praise, many with anxiety hate being pointed out. Perhaps ask how they liked to receive recognition. A quiet nod might be what makes one happy while a posted perfect paper is good for another.

Her suggestions are solid from the classroom ideas that might make the difference for some kids. Mostly work as a team to get to know those students and what works for each one individually. Anxiety is more present in schools than ever before. We need to help students deal with it so they are better prepared for the world beyond us.

Executive function- language based materials

Patricia W. Newhall's book in the Language-Based Teaching Series, Executive Function: Foundations for Learning and Teaching, strongly encourages multisensory learning experiences. One strategy presented in the second chapter is manipulative sorting. Several of her suggestions are card sorts and games. While I have used card sorts to preteach vocabulary and games to reinforce concepts and vocabulary, one of her ideas struck me as useful.

She suggests taking quotes from a book or pertinent paragraph, break it up into sentences or utterances and have students sort them. When I was thinking about this, I thought this could be a great tool for helping with understanding classics and created the simple example below for Romeo and Juliet. Student groups get the cards cut up and are asked to organize them in a meaningful way. (You might want to add more quotes- pick the ones that you are focusing on in class.) Chronological order, speaker, or theme are a couple of possibilities.  Then they need to share with the whole group their results. Alternatively they could then be asked to sort by a different system. Both would involve doing, negotiating and thinking, all critical elements for learning. Another possibility for students involved in writing about the text would be to have students sort the quotes, then use them to write about the play.

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she. . . .
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp; her eye in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
O Romeo, Romeo,
wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name,
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you. . . .
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomi
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife. . . .

O, I am fortune’s fool! . . .

Then I defy you, stars.
A plague o' both your houses!
For never was a story of more woe [t]han this of Juliet and her Romeo.
What's in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other word would smell as sweet.
Good Night, Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.

If a paragraph were broken into sentences, students could be asked to organize it into a meaningful manner. This could be based on content area review- take the a summary of a chapter and ask students to organize it so that it makes sense. It could also be a writing exercise- use information about topic sentences, concluding sentences and transitions to create the reconstruction and then write a paragraph using similar transitions.

Other suggested sort activities involve:
  • words- definitions- images
  • put in chronological order- either historical/literary events, steps in processes or numbers
  • questions and answers.
These ideas are great ways to involve students in activities that, hopefully, could involve total participation, a key feature for increasing achievement. They also reduce writing load- students do not need to rewrite the material. For students who struggle with academics, writing is often a four letter word. Providing opportunities to sort and tape means the students have the material without the frustration that comes with writing. Further if the sort takes place in a group, often other group members can fill in executive function weaknesses for each other. They can reinforce focus, task initiation and completion so that the work, and learning, occur.

Looking forward to the rest of the book...

Monday, August 14, 2017

Parent's guide to children with Executive function disorder

Rebecca Branstetter, book, The Everything Parent's Guide to Children with Executive Functioning Disorder, is an easy to read book that focuses on presenting strategies to help children who struggle with executive functioning to learn skills and become more successful. The book has four main sections:
  • introduction- what is executive functioning (EF), how does it develop and what disorders are commonly associated with it
  • discussion of each area- 10 chapters focusing on different skill sets and strategies to help develop them
  • home life- what can you do at home- routines, advocacy, parenting and self-assessment
  • appendix- checklists of strategies for each skill area.

Branstetter divides executive functioning into ten areas: task initiation, response inhibition, focus, time management, working memory, flexibility, self-regulation, emotional self-control, task completion, and organization. She discusses two important issues. One, while some specific disabilities are often characterized as having some executive function issues, not all EF occurs with a disability. We all know someone who is chronically late, or whose room/office/desk is always a mess or who frequently puts his foot in his mouth, who has no disability. It is important to normalize these concerns. That being said, they are skills that can be improved through instruction or compensated for through actions. Two, EF skills are highly heritable and environment can reinforce good or bad EF skills. Often parents struggle with the same skills that their children struggle with and parents who are working to improve problem areas are modeling self-improvement and development in a healthy manner.

Another key idea of Branstetter is to limit focus. We cannot solve the problems of the world in a day, nor can we take a child whose life is a chaotic mess an expect to improve every aspect in an afternoon. Select one thing at a time and expect to spend some quality time on it. Do not get frustrated because initial attempts are not successful. Not all strategies work for all people. My daughter's method for getting homework home, completed and back to school would make me nuts, but it works for her. Some people respond well to word based checklists, but others need more detailed picture cues. Some need a break from school before they start in on homework while others need to keep going in the academic vein. Know your child. Children with EF concerns need to find the methods of support that work for them, not ones that work for the adult. That being said, it takes longer for these kids to learn and internalize these skills. You can collect data on progress- number of late homework assignments per week, number of prompts needed to get a room picked up, or number of tantrums per week. If a strategy is showing improvement, then stay with it, if not, modify it. We need to provide support for learning these skills as if for a much younger child. Reducing support too early will result in a backslide. Other authors suggest it takes children with EF weaknesses perhaps three times as long to learn the skills as other people. That means you are in it for the long haul.

One thing Branstetter comments upon is taking care of you. As the supportive adult to a child with EF challenges, you are in it for the duration. This is especially wearing. Find time for yourself. Enlist family members or friends to take over for child care for a while, hire tutors to take over homework monitoring or academic support, take a walk, find someone to help with housework. You may not need to do these things on a regular basis, but once in a while they are essential for maintaining sanity. Further, the self-care you do today may be very different from that you do tomorrow or that which you did last year. Just remember to recharge your batteries so you can be the best parent you can be.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

How to teach so students remember

 I placed a book order including Marilee Sprenger's How to Teach so Students Remember. When it arrived it seemed familiar and when I opened it up to scan the text I knew I had read it before. I searched my blog- no reference there. Clearly I did not learn the material well enough the first time through so I read it again. Some of the material that had not previously resonated with me clearly did this time. We want students to reread. We reread old favorites. This is why.

Marilee studied under E. Jensen, an educational specialist who looks at the implications of brain research on learning. She idenitifes a series of steps required to learn that she calls a memory cycle:
  1. Reach- students must be involved in the learning. Passive students do not learn.
  2. Reflect- compare what you know to what you are learning. What questions do you have about the material? Students may be asked to visualize, restate what they learned, made sense of confused. Explain what they just covered to a peer. As a teacher, this is part of my observation process.
  3. Recode- reorganize the information. Graphic organizers come into play. Presenting information is through different learning styles- act out the scene from the play, chemical action, historical event; produce a newscast of the activity; explain to your parents; create a metaphor...
  4. Reinforce- Feedback. Without feedback we do not grow. Malcom Gladwell spoke of 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert, but that is practice with feedback. How do you do better? Are you still confused about some areas? Are misconceptions still present in your understanding?  
  5. Rehearse- rote practice (flashcards, singing the alphabet song, answering questions using programs like quia, quizlet or StudyBlue, or IXL) and elaborative practice (apply, analyze or create using what you know) both play an important role in learning. This puts things into long term memory. Getting enough sleep is a critical component of this step. Sleep enables the brain to process information.
  6. Review- retrieve and manipulate information. More types of practice in a structured way. In order to get the material to be "remembered" it must have spaced review. That good old little bit of study each night rather than cramming is true. Cramming might get you through the test, but results in little real learning over time. Periodic spaced review enables long term learning.
  7. Retrieve- use the material over time in assessment situations and practice sections. For example after learning the parts of the cell, students move to learning about cellular processes. Throughout this second unit, they must use the first information.

When I think my students I break this into fewer steps- the cycle of reflect and recode. Reflect at first and get feedback about how you're doing with knowledge. It could be through a homework assignment, class activity, computer practice or independent activity like self-quizzing. Take the stuff that you struggle with and recode it: transform a chart into a paragraph, use a graphic organizer, make and explain a metaphor, classify pieces of information or ideas, craft a song, poem or video about the information, try to teach a friend using your resources, ... The list goes on. Then reflect again- how's the information gauge now? Self-test and assess. Repeat as necessary. As more information is added to the pile of things one must know, incorporate old learnings into the review process to ensure learning.

One really important thing that Marilee stresses is that kids don't know what they don't know. I remember graduating from college and thinking I knew it all. It was a rude shock to have people present information that I knew nothing about when it came to teaching. Now, nearly thirty years later, I know a lot more and will tell you I feel very ignorant because I know how much I don't know. Kids do not have the metacognition to answer an "Any questions?" response. They need to learn how to self-test and evaluate so that they can see where their strengths and weaknesses are.

Sprenger created the following chart that I have slightly modified to include extra details to showcase the next step (p. 167). I particularly like the recall verses recognition part.

If a student cannot recognize the material
Go back to reach- reteach the material in a different way. The flipped classroom may offer the opportunity to revisit information but if the student is not engaged or does not understand your explanation, the material needs to be presented a different way
If a student cannot put the facts, concept or procedure in his own words but can repeat yours
Go back to reflect- give more opportunities to wrestle with understanding the material. Perhaps more vocabulary front loading is required. Perhaps more support in going through the process of thinking, more time to process or more feedback about success.
If a student can’t recall during a review
Go back to recode- interpret, exemplifying, classifying, summarizing, inferring, comparing, explaining and using nonlinguistic representations are all possible parts of recoding. Provide better feedback about previous attempts or ask to recode in a different way.
If a student cannot recall on a practice quiz (name the steps of the scientific method, reduce the fraction, explain what genre this passage represents, identify the major battles and their significance)
Give a recognition quiz (multiple choice, true false, matching)
If a student can recognize but not recall
Go back to recode- try a new recoding process
If a student can recode but has difficulty with rehearsals
Go back to reinforcement and offer developmental feedback
If a student can apply, analyze and evaluate
Go to rehearsal and add creativity or another level of complexity; or review, assess and move on

For many of my students that is where they fall down. Teaching them to practice how they need to produce is important. If all you need to do is recognize the correct definition for the vocabulary word, flashcards will get you there. If you need to select the correct word to complete a novel sentence, recall is required. This level of skill is required. If students need to be able to draw and label the map they need to be able to do that in practice. Students who must be able to read a passage and identify implied character traits have a different challenge than being able to regurgitate a class discussion. If a graphic organizer was used to recode, but the test requires paragraph writing, the student needs to be able to use the organizer to write a paragraph. We must identify the demands of the assessment and provide instruction on the memory skills to that point, and perhaps beyond.

Overall Sprenger reinforces the idea that students need increased self-awareness of the process of learning and memory so that they can independently perform the tasks required for cementing things into long term memory and getting them out again. This helps them to have the motivation to put in the effort it takes to truly learn material.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Memory at work in the classroom- literacy orientation

Francis Bailey and Ken Pransky's book, Memory at Work in the Classroom: Strategies to Help Underachieving Students, originates from their experience working with English Language Learners, a traditionally underachieving group. Their insights are true for many underachievers, especially those who have language weaknesses, regardless of whether they are language learners or not. In the opening of their book they discuss core social learning concepts: memory is socially and culturally constructed, there are two distinct communities of learners and quality learning interactions are predicated on mediated learning experiences.

Their idea of two distinct learning communities is an intriguing one. They group learners into literacy and non-literacy oriented. Literacy oriented ones usually come from families with more formal education. Schools are designed to work with these students and consequently they tend to be more successful in schools. Non-literacy oriented communities also want their children to do well, but tend to fail to support their children in as productive manner when it relates to school- they use less academic vocabulary and sophisticated grammar structures commonly utilized in school settings. They present the slightly modified chart below to highlight the differences between the two orientations (p. 29-30).

Non-literacy orientation
Literacy orientation
Limited ability to independently use written texts, such as dictionaries, references and subject matter texts to mediate their own learning
More ability to independently use written texts, such as dictionaries, references and subject matter texts to mediate their own learning
Limited metalinguistic awareness, especially at younger ages
Greater metalinguistic awareness, especially at younger ages
Limited ability to independently use genres of economic, etc literacy- academic,.
More skillful at independently using genres of literacy
Limited ability to independently and skillfully use a variety of written texts
Able to independently and skillfully use a variety of written texts
Often less willing to independently persevere in learning challenging content that is not seen as valuable or of immediate personal interest, especially as students get older
More apt to independently persevere in learning challenging content that is not seen as valuable or of immediate personal interest, especially as students get older
Smaller and less sophisticated knowledge of vocabulary (for ELLs this includes in their native language)
Larger and more sophisticated knowledge of vocabulary
Less developed grammatical complexity in oral and written language (for ELLs this includes in their native language)
More developed grammatical complexity in oral and written language
Typically less confident as an independent, self-directed learner in academic settings, needing more teacher direction
Typically more confident as an independent, self-directed learner in academic settings, needing less teacher direction

The authors fail to recognize the types of settings and skills in which non-literacy oriented students may be more successful. These might include greater social skills, community awareness and an increased ability to be successful when perfect performance rather than graduated performance is correct.

Obviously these children struggle in schools; their foundation in the art of doing school is remarkably less well developed. That does not mean they cannot be successful, rather that they need increased support to reach the same point because of their different orientation. Some of their general strategies to help them succeed include: developing relationships, increased vocabulary focus (not the present 20 words on Monday and test on Friday variety!), increased chunking and supported practice, more concrete and visual basis for learning, teaching weak executive function skills, and increased discussion and reflection time. Every classroom would benefit from these adaptations- not just ones with students with disabilities or non-native speakers. By increasing awareness of the challenges that orientation present, a teacher can modify instruction to develop and increase motivation as well as make explicit the keys to learning.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Memory at work: Attention Span

We've all had them: the students who have attention spans of gnats who need constant stimulation and still struggle with attending. Last year I worked in a preschool where morning circle was punctuated with a couple of students inevitably getting frequent redirections and reprimands to pay attention and keep their hands to themselves. At the time I postulated that the 45 minutes of circle was to blame, but as a guest in the classroom, was hesitant to comment as "my" student generally was on target with his behavior. Now I have research to use to help with this assumption. Francis Bailey and Ken Pransky wrote Memory at Work in the Classroom: Strategies to Help Underachieving Students. On page 87 they posit several rules of thumb for attention span:
  • age +2 minutes
  • 3-5 minutes per each year of age
  • adults have 20 minutes
That rule of thumb is complicated with interest. If someone is very interested in something, they have a longer attention span than if they are not interested in it. This explains why those darlings with ADHD might be able to play a video game for an hour without a break, but can only work on a math worksheet for 3 minutes before getting wiggly.

I really like the age + 2 plan. Some of those preschoolers were deeply engaged in morning circle which included calendar, weather, singing group songs, reviewing the day's agenda and a story. Some were not so deeply engaged. They were not the one checking the weather and need prompting to sing the "What's the Weather" song. Bland readings of stories without exciting previews, engaging voices, and teacher enthusiasm were less engaging to many. Collectively students needed more action- songs with motions and movement- and more hype. One challenge to teaching this age group is the constant need to be enthralled with whatever is going on regardless of how routine it is. These kids needed an activity change at least every 6 minutes and without it, were behavior problems.

Bailey and Pransky suggest both classroom and individual strategies to address the executive function of sustained attention (p. 90). From a classroom standpoint:
  • Preferential seating- surround with good attenders, away from distractions
  • discuss distractions and suggestions for dealing with them
  • explicitly teach what paying attention and listening are and what they look like
  • be intentional about time chunks
  • include more steps to help break up longer tasks
  • have part of the instructions for the group include specific training in behavioral expectations.
  • use total participation techniques.
This is not just for our classic struggling students- the ones with IEPs and 504 plans or ADHD diagnoses. Many students without diagnoses benefit from these strategies so teaching the group makes sense.

Some students need more than the instruction for the group. Their strategies need to based on each child. From an individual standpoint:
  • have a signal for redirecting students- with my preschooler, I used the sign for look
  • establish a self-monitoring checklist
  • utilize metacognition- when can the student focus, how does it feel, how can that information be used in the classroom
  • have the student have a signal for waning attention: perhaps a break card
We can help our students develop better attention, but we need to start where they are and teach skills. While some students may need medication to help them learn these skills, medication only opens the door. They need instruction to teach them to step through. This is especially true as they age and have learned habits of inattention which must be broken before they learn skills of attending. A difficult task, but well worth the investment.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Getting things done

When I drive long distances, I like to listen to audiobooks. Over the years we have listened to a variety of works. While it is more challenging to listen to many nonfiction titles, I enjoy putting them on anyway. Over my last trip I listened to David Allen's Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, an abridged version of the book. Allen is a personal productivity guru. He supports organizations and executives to help them become more productive.

One of his underlying assumptions is that most stress is caused by open loops in your life. Open loops being incomplete things that are in your mind. This could be the result of over-commitment or poor organization. One of his primary activities with people is to gather all things in an in box and then begin sorting. First they should be sorted into action or no action.
No action- trash (throw it away), maybe someday, reference (file)
action- can be done in two minutes or less (do it now) or put next action on the calendar.

His key focus is to determine what the next action is. Any project (something with more than one action step) needs to be broken down into the next action. His insistence that you determine next actions helps facilitate activity and avoid procrastination. Critical is breaking projects down by next action. Going out to dinner with your spouse requires many  actions: select a day and time, select a restaurant, get phone number, make reservations, select an outfit, clean the car, go out... You just need to do the next step. When you break things down into the next action, not worrying about all the subsequent steps it helps you to move on a project.

Interestingly, this fits neatly into my executive function research. Many of my students struggle with projects. They need help breaking down projects into manageable steps, much like the executives Allen works with. Being able to draw this comparison may help to normalize this activity for my students.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Dare to be different- differentiation and gifted children

When my daughter was in primary school her principal told me that no kids was teased or bullied because he or she was smart. I was too stunned to contradict him. Really. Kids will select any difference as a rallying point for teasing. As a bright child I was teased about my smarts, especially in elementary school. That some deny this happens is disturbing because it can deny a key feature of some children's experiences. Trudy H. Saunders's article, "Dare to be Different: How Teachers Can Eliminate Social Stigmatism While Differentiating Instruction," in the August edition of Teaching for High Potential, tackles the concept of stigmatization due to ability.

Before talking about what works in terms of differentiation, she talks about what doesn't- extra work and peer tutoring during academic time. It made me angry when I was looking at how my district worked with high ability kids and a parent stepped up to talk about how great his daughter's teacher was- she sent home the work at her level so that the child could do it with mom and dad during her free time. My nephew's teachers had him write longer reports- not different in any way other than increasing the length requirement. I talked with one parent whose child got to teach the struggling kids in class- this was a 2nd grader. How is that child really helping those struggling learners? How is it expanding his learning? My daughter talked about being paired up with a struggling learner on a regular basis because then the work would get done- yes, my daughter did it all. None of these showcase any skill in meeting individual student needs. They mostly constitute busy work.

So what should be done? Differentiation is a tool that Carol Ann Tomlinson promotes to meet the needs of diverse learners. I caution anyone against using one strategy for all kids, but done well, differentiation does meet the needs of most kids. Done well is the key term here. Saunders points out the consequences of poorly executed differentiation: academic stagnation, boredom and hiding. When my daughter's eighth grade English class tackled To Kill a Mockingbird over the course of three and a half months my daughter was not just bored and not challenged, but not learning. She read the book in under a week and then had to dabble through the curriculum with the class. Yes this was challenging reading for most of her classmates, but no allowances were made for her. A big move of CCSS has been close reading of challenging material. She was expected to annotate material, especially things that were confusing. When there is nothing there that you struggled with, forced annotation makes a student want to never read again. She could have been given a separate charge that required a deeper level of understanding. Parallel reading, research in lieu of work comparative character analysis all would have been ways to increase the challenge and maybe provided some learning opportunities.

To do differentiation well, Saunders makes a few suggestions: flexible grouping, learning stations, learning contracts and tiered lessons. A common myth is that gifted kids don't like group work. The real truth is they don't like group work where they have to do all the work if they want a good grade. They thrive on group work with their academic peers. Homogeneous classes, intentional clusters and pull out enrichments are all strategies to meet their need for cognitive challenge. Interestingly we have no trouble having varsity sports teams where the best players are with JV, modified and club teams for other levels. We would scream blaspheme if someone were to suggest a no cut everyone play rule for football, but that is totally what we do in academics. We grow in a skill set when the work is just right and our peers are there. Gifted kids also like interest based groups. This provides a central idea around which ideas can develop. Learning to work with diverse is important, and pulls our struggling students up, but too much destroys the educational opportunities of our brightest students.

Learning stations are common in elementary classes but far less prevalent as students get older. Stations can require that students work on material at their individual level with particular materials, be highly individualized, like computer based instruction, or enable students to stay longer at stations where they need extra help or show extra interest. They can be combined with contracts or tiers to meet student needs. I read about one teacher who had three levels of material at each station- and coded them with skiing terms for level of difficulty. Anyone could attempt material from higher levels but some students were required to work at certain levels to meet their needs. This could mean there were readings at different reading levels, higher level thinking questions at some levels, more or less nice to know information at some levels.

We need to teach our gifted kids to be proud of their skills. They need to learn how to work with challenges. They need to not try and hide their success because it leads to more boring work, constantly being paired up with struggling learners or teasing. Teachers first need to be aware of the stigmatization that these kids experience, then they need to figure out how to meet the needs of these difficult to educate kids.