On the Need for a Bridge Between Academia and Practice

This image is borrowed from this site — not sure who to credit!: http://www.bj.org/learning/gesher-a-bridge-to-jewish-engagement/

I recently attended an in-service day for all teachers and staff in my district. These in-service days are always fascinating opportunities to get a sense of the pulse and tenor of the whole district. This year, we have used a workshop-type approach, which has provided us with a far greater diversity of offerings, but also a wide range in terms of quality of offerings. (Isn’t this is always the case, though?)

During this particular in-service day, I was reminded once again about the huge gaps that exist between the research being done by academics in the field of education and those educators who are working with kids day in and day out.

It was a session that was introducing a new book study that some staff in the district will be undertaking that my activated my concerns about this well-known and huge chasm between the academy and schools. The subject of this book study is going to be poverty — which is a noble and worth topic to pursue, particularly given the daily realities that exist in the communities that my school district serves.

The book that we will be reading is one that seems to be highly regarded among practitioners, but which I have heard extensive concerns about from two different professors during my time in graduate school. (I guess it wouldn’t hurt to reveal the title of this book — it’s Eric Jensen’s Teaching with Poverty in Mind.) The basis of the criticism that I heard from these professors, one of whom is a neuroscientist, was that the claims made in the book about brain research are taken a bit too far in terms of their implications for practice. Essentially, the book cites numerous studies about the brain — it is, in fact, very well-researched. However, these professors raised concerns because one, it seems like some of the research is stretched in a correlation must mean causation way, and two, because the work revolves around a deficit-based approach to poverty — where these students must be “fixed” due to deficiencies that they possess. Moreover, in a video that we watched about the book, results were promised in “weeks, not months or years.” Such claims to rapid change always raise a red flag for me.

I’ll leave the discussion of the actual book here, because I am not an expert on the subject matter and haven’t read the book myself for a few years and extolling the virtues or shortcomings of this book is not what I want to get at in this post. Rather, I want to discuss how slim the offerings can be for educator-friendly resources that bridge the gap between research studies and classroom practice.

One clear place that could serve as a resource for teachers are academic research journals. While there are a plethora of education journals filled with valuable research, the articles published in these journals rarely make it into the hands of teachers. Access to these journals can be expensive and the language and style of academic articles can make reading them quite uninteresting. What there is a strong need for is people who take the findings of these tremendously useful and interesting research studies and translate them into more succinct and clear bulletins that would be digestible for busy practitioners.

There are authors who do nobly attempt to bridge this gap between the ivory tower and the schoolhouse, but too often, claims are made that something is “research-based” that are really based on stretching the research in a direction that the authors of the study may or may not have intended. And the reason why is clear — what use is the research if we can’t make use of it in some way?

Yet, I believe there needs to be more of an effort to put conflicting views and studies in dialogue with one another.  Too rarely, authors of books ignore or only briefly mention conflicting findings or views that run counter to the one being pitched and presented. This becomes a problem when there are only so many books that attempt to translate research into practice for teachers — these books are skewed and then teachers, with a limited time for reading, do not encounter the whole range of thoughts, opinions, and research on a topic. (This is obviously not just a problem in education!)

Of course, some of the problem also lies with teachers and the education profession in general. Book studies like those done in my district are rare, I think, and in them, teachers are often encouraged to take these books as “the word,” to trust the authors as “experts,” and to assume that what these books say could and/or would work in their classrooms. Additionally, as mentioned before, access to the high-quality research coming from academics is too challenging to obtain and because of its abstract style may seem to be not for teachers. Moreover, because teachers are not often treated as professionals, they are often forced to read certain books, rather than encouraged to choose their own or to seek out books that stand in opposition to one another.

In sum, I think there is a great need for more efforts to bridge that huge gap between the work of the academics and the classroom practice of teachers. Teacher-researchers could be a powerful resource in this area, in addition to those people endowed with the access to academic publications and the ability to skillfully present these findings in an objective, fair, and reasonable way that does more than offer the “latest research-based” panacea to teacher’s problems. In a field where it seems like you can find a research study to back up almost any claim you want to make, it is essential that practitioners have access to as many views as possible and are given opportunities to draw their own conclusions and make their own connections between research and their practice.

Poverty and Education

The holiday season is officially upon us. And, at our school, this tends to mean that our student population is fluctuating as winter arrives and families struggle even more to make ends meet. I got my first new student last year at this time and, like clockwork, a new student arrived in my room just a few days before the Thanksgiving break. I continue to see new faces in the cafeteria and others that I recognize are here one day and gone the next.

The arrival of my new student coincides with the first time this year that I have to send out student report cards. And, as I look over their performance in the first half of the year, the pattern is pretty predictable: the students who are advanced are generally those who come from supportive, better-off families, and those who are struggling come from less-supported, more financially-unstable households.This is not to say that I’m not working with all of my students. I am, of course, and all of my students seem to making positive forward progress.

However, as a teacher, I’m told by the media and pundits that this “achievement gap” can and must be closed. The rhetoric about “equal opportunity” and examples of charter and other types of  schools that are educating all students suggests that schools and educators ought to be able to “fix” poverty and the difficulties and instabilities that it brings for students.A new book on the subject seems to come out every year, each operating from a deficit-perspective that focuses on solving the problems that students bring to school and making up for their deficiencies. This climate puts exceptional pressure on teachers, who have to deal with the daily realities from which those who espouse policy and these lofty goals are often so far removed.

I’d challenge anyone who thinks that schools alone can fix poverty to spend a day in any classroom in a public school. These days, I’m not sure it even matters whether that school is in a rural, urban, or suburban area — the suburbs are actually where some statistics suggest that poverty is growing most rapidly. Take my student, for example, she has been in three different schools this year — less than a month at each of the first two. Essentially, she has missed all of the first part of second grade. While I am sure that she will be able to make progress, it is highly unlikely that, despite my best efforts, she will be able to finish the year on par with the students who received a full year of uninterrupted instruction.

By saying this, I’m not trying to do what some policymakers accuse teachers of doing — making excuses to justify their own incompetence in providing instruction. And I’m certainly not saying that I’m throwing in the towel on my students who come from difficult circumstances. I strongly believe that all children can learn, and that doesn’t change if I assert that other factors than mental hardware alone influence educational outcomes. Nor am I blaming my students’ families. Having met all of them, I can attest that the vast majority are hard-working parents who are dedicated to their children. In many cases, they themselves have suffered at the hands of the education system, stymieing their options for making a sustainable living.

What I am saying is that it seems, (to me, at least), like schools will never be able to solve the “poverty problem” (as many pundits call it) alone. I can be providing the best instruction in the entire country (and I’m not, by the way), but it doesn’t matter if my students aren’t available for instruction because they missed the bus and their family doesn’t have a car, or they have to move for the third time that year, or they come to school hungry and worried about what’s going to happen when they get home from school that night.

Don’t get me wrong — schools can and must do a lot to help accommodate and ameliorate what they can about their students’ situations. But, without systemic, societal interventions that go hand in hand with quality schooling, I think I’m going to keep seeing a certain pattern on my report cards regardless of the quality of my instruction.

Nancy Lett’s 2013 piece in the Huffington Post speaks to this issue. You can read her thoughts here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nancy-letts/its-time-to-change-the-conversation-about-public-education_b_3112801.html

Student-Led Conferences: Signs of Student Ownership

This past week was a long one — I think that I spent more hours at school than at home. I am feeling fortunate that the Thanksgiving holiday break is upon us (just two more school days to go!) because I am definitely in need of an opportunity to recharge my batteries.

But, the extra time that I put in this week was so rewarding. This week, my school held our parent-teacher conferences. These conferences, however, as I described last year (http://cultivatingquestioners.com/2013/11/17/parent-teacher-conferences-and-parental-expectations-for-children/) are not of the typical variety, where the parents and the teacher sit down together to discuss the child. Instead, these conferences involve the parents and the student and, in my version at least, the student takes the reins for directing the whole conference.

I was a bit nervous about this year’s conferences. They really snuck up on me and I didn’t have much time at all to discuss them or what the expectations would be for them with my students. In retrospect, I am actually glad that I didn’t have time to prep them on what to do — watching their conferences unfold without my explicit instruction about what to do was far more insightful and interesting from my perspective.

For the most part, I was really floored by the students during their conferences. I had given them a list of things they might consider sharing and talking about and gathered up a lot of their materials from the classroom so that they would have it at their fingertips. What amazed me most was how accurately they described what we are doing in our classroom — rarely did I have to interject to clarify something. Additionally, the enthusiasm that my students showed when talking about their work (especially some of the students who display negative attitudes toward classroom tasks of any stripe) truly surprised me. In fact, one of the students who I have been struggling to figure out actually stayed for more than an hour, showing his parents literally everything he has done since September. It was so validating to hear my students speak so proudly about what they’ve accomplished since the beginning of school.

Perhaps even more valuable than watching my students share their work was observing the interactions between my students and their parents and their parents’ reactions to what was being shared. Unlike last year at this time, I hadn’t officially met all of my students’ parents, so being able to do so really helped me to gain a better understanding of where my students are coming from. I give many of my parents so much credit for making the time to come in for these conferences — they are balancing so many things at one time, from school to financial struggles to multiple children — that it’s pretty astounding that they made the time to come in for their second grader to tell them about their work. I think that, as educators, it is often easy to want to blame the parents for student issues (and in some cases, there may be specific things that do clearly stem from parents), but, the more time that I spend with families in my community, the harder I find it to think that the challenges that lower-class children exhibit fall squarely on the shoulders of their parents. That’s one reason why I think it is so important to hold conferences and why I love that the students attend ours — parents love their kids and it is no more clear than when they sit through their child reading and sharing every paper they’ve done all year.

Overall, despite the late nights, conferences were a wonderful success this year. What do conferences look like at your school or in your community?

Two “Snow” Days and The Joys of TA-ing a College Education Course

Today marks the second day of school that we’ve missed this week — the first due to a wild Maine blizzard that knocked the power out at the rural schools that make up my district and the second due to a power outage just at my school. If this is any indication of how the winter is going to go, I’m going to be in school until July!

This post seems like a good opportunity to write about something that I have been doing this fall — serving as an informal teaching assistant (TA) in a senior education seminar at my alma mater. Initially, I was quite anxious about this role, because I felt like I wouldn’t have much expertise to share with students who are just three years younger than me. I needn’t have worried, however, because it turns out that I do actually know quite a lot about being out in the world of American public schools. My role has sort of blossomed into that of a “real-world reality-check” provider. As someone who shares many of the lofty ideals about social justice that the students in the course hold, it is beneficial, I think, for them to hear about the ways in which their paths will not always be easy, the hard choices that they will have to make, the balance they will have to strike between mandates and their own desires. In other words, I’ve fashioned my role to position myself as the person that I would have benefitted from hearing from when I sat in their chairs, about to embark upon the world of teaching for the first time.

The whole experience has been so engaging and enriching. It’s much more effective than any other professional development experience in which I have participated. The students ask the hard, meaningful questions that often are not asked in my school or district, and it has really led me to re-examine the reasons why I am doing the things that I do in my own classroom. In contrast to other professional development experiences, which are usually not about overarching philosophy, but about the latest fad strategy, being a teaching assistant has forced me to really hold a mirror up to myself and check whether what I am doing in the classroom really aligns with what I believe and who I aspire to be as an educator. It has not been an easy process, but I know that I am going to come away with some things that I need to change to re-orient my classroom practices, and that making those changes will help me get closer to being the type of educator that I want to be.

Additionally, I always find it so rewarding to be in a situation where everyone is thinking critically and deeply at every turn. Those spaces often seem rare in our society, where quick-fix solutions and the stresses of daily life are huge barriers to that type of slow, methodical thought process. I hope that I can keep seeking out these types of settings, because they, more than any others, seem to lead to real growth and seem, to me at least, like the best arena for developing ideas that will be truly transformational.

School, Costumes, and Halloween

Here in the US, Halloween is nearly upon us. My students have been excited about their costumes and the whole event for weeks — ever since they remembered that Halloween is in October!

This has meant, predictably, that it has been increasingly difficult to get my students to focus this week — something that I completely understand, because Halloween is a really exciting holiday for kids.

Last year, my school did several Halloween events — we had a costume parade, a small party in our classroom, and I also did a lengthy Halloween logic puzzle on the day of Halloween where my students had to use deductive reasoning to figure out who had “stolen” our candy.

This year, Halloween falls on a Friday and on a day when my district has a half day. So, as a staff, we made the tough decision to not have the kids wear their costumes to school, because we won’t have time to do any of the events that we did last year because of the crazy schedule we have here on Fridays.

This doesn’t mean that we aren’t doing any holiday events. Tomorrow afternoon, my students are involved in a Halloween concert, where they will be singing spooky songs for the younger students. They will get to dress up for this event, but most likely not in the costumes that they have been preparing for the actual holiday. Then on Halloween, there will be a PTO (parent-teacher organization) event that the students can come to for a small fee — which will involve, of course, a costume contest. I am traveling this weekend, however, so I unfortunately have to miss that event. I do plan to do the sprawling logic puzzle again this year, but it will be missing some its magic, I think, if my students aren’t in their Halloween finery.

I am feeling a little disheartened that I won’t get to see my students’ costumes this year. While I am not a huge fan of Halloween, it does seem like a great opportunity to see my students in a different light and to get to be a part of something that they are so jazzed up about. I dressed up with them last year, and it was one of the best days of the entire year. I remember, in particular, having a great conversation about gender stereotypes and Halloween costumes. It was an opportunity for students who didn’t have costumes to spend some time making them at school, which absolutely delighted them.

I sometimes worry that as schools become hyper-focused on test scores, standards, and achievement, some of the events that lead to happy memories and good times are being pushed to the wayside. My students will only get so many times to revel in the pure joy of being children at Halloween and I wonder how many of them will get to have a Halloween celebration or have the chance to attend the event here at school. Kids do need to be kids sometimes!

That said, I’m certainly not advocating for “cute” curriculum, for spending huge chunks of time doing holiday-related stuff, but I do think it’s important for students to have a space to think about and participate in these traditions in an educational environment. I plan to spend the month of December, as I did last year, doing a “Holiday and Traditions” unit, where my students will learn about what holidays and traditions really are, why we have them, and how widely they vary around the world.

What do you think? Should holidays come to school?

Tuned In and Fired Up

After a rough week — well, two days — in the classroom (long weekends and missing school for conferences just seems to yield classroom discombulation), I am really happy to find myself reading a light, but inspirational book to prepare for the class that I TA on Monday evenings at my alma mater. I actually read Sam Intrator’s Tuned In and Fired Up while I was a student in the same course with which I am now assisting. I remember really liking the book when I read it three years ago, but I think it resonated with me more now that I am in the real world of teaching.

The premise of this short book is that Intrator observes a stand-out high school English teacher for one year and seeks to understand what drives the extraordinary moments when students are “tuned in and fired up.” I was particularly appreciative, however, of the realistic tinge to the book: Intrator is very explicit about the fact that these moments are rare. And that in itself, I think, is a valuable message — teaching is clearly a marathon, not a sprint, yet I do sometimes find myself frustrated when each day doesn’t go smoothly and when something that I thought would create a magical moment just flops.

Anyway, this was a wonderful little book to read as the second month of school draws to a close — it was just the boost of inspiration that I needed to head back to the classroom this week with a smile and a revived sense of energy.

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Draw a Scientist 2014

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One of the primary  goals that I have for my second graders in rural Maine is to become more aware of the world around them. As someone who is interested in social justice, I also aspire to have them recognize injustices and to envision a different world than the one that we currently inhabit.

I try to educate my second graders about stereotypes throughout the duration of the school year. The first lesson that I do on this topic coincides with our study of science beginning in earnest. Prior to beginning our first science project, I ask my students to pause and to picture what they think a scientist looks like and does in their heads. I then ask them to draw that image and collect and display their images in a “scientist gallery” for everyone to see.

Once the images are hanging, we have a discussion about what we notice about our images — how they are similar to and how they might be different from one another. This leads into a discussion about how the stereotyped image of a scientist — of a crazy-haired, older male chemist is, in fact, just one narrow version of what scientists actually do.

This is the second time that I’ve done this lesson and I was pleased when I saw that this year’s bunch had much less stereotyped versions of scientists, at least around gender. In a class with more boys than girls, there were 7 pictures featuring female scientists and 7 pictures with male scientists. This was significantly different than last year, when only my drawing and two others featured females, even in a class heavily dominated by girls.

In terms of what the scientists were doing, however, “potions” continues to rule the day. My students had 9 scientists using potions and 6 doing “something else,” with some of those something elses being awfully close to the lab scientist image. Hopefully we will expand on these notions of “what scientists do” by the end of the year.

I follow up this activity by reading aloud “Me…Jane” by Patrick McDonnell. The students are always captivated by this charming text and it really helps to affirm that stereotypes are narrow and often limit our thinking about what the possibilities are for ourselves and those around us.

A New Look for My Students’ Blog

I’ve spent a good chunk of time this evening working on revamping the layout for the blog that I maintain with my students. Specifically, I’ve been creating a new header image for the blog, which will be the first thing that all visitors see when they visit our site.

Originally, I intended to teach my students a lesson about what murals are, invite them to create their own, and then have them vote for which drawing would represent our classroom on the blog. However, after all of my students were captivated by my Prezi on murals and spent a sustained amount of time working on their own, I simply couldn’t resist incorporating them all. I also love how including something from each of the students reflect a cohesive classroom culture.

Here’s the result:

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I cannot wait to share this with my students when we update our blog this week. I know that they will be so thrilled to see their artwork displayed so authentically.

We haven’t updated our blog too many times yet this year, but I have found introducing blogging to young kids to be so magical. They are amazed that they can write something and have it be published and shared. Our blog was one of the greatest successes (and most frequently student-cited favorite parts) last year, and I am expecting even better things this year. Right now my focus is on trying to get parents to check our blog regularly — it is such a powerful tool for sharing not only what is going on at school, but allowing parents to see student work. I also want to work towards having my second graders have greater autonomy over posts — toward the end of the year last year, students were typing the posts, but I am hoping to find ways to have them generating content more independently this year.

Do you blog with your students? How do your students like the experience?

The Power of “In-Context” Learning

As I worked on approaching my second year in the classroom, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to create more authentic learning experiences for my students. Last year, the richest experiences in my classroom were, by far, those instances where my students were able to see the relevancy of what they were learning by having an experience where they could apply their learning to the real-world.

To that end, I’ve been working on brainstorming authentic projects for my students — the first major one will take place in November, when we put our map and interview skills to use to create a guidebook for our school. Later in the year, in our advertising and money unit, my students will develop, create, and market an invention to “sell” during an invention fair with their parents.

These activities do involve a lot of effort on my part, but the rewards are well worth it. I was reminded and re-motivated in this area last Friday, when we went on a field trip to a local agricultural fair. I put three students in my group who I felt I hadn’t connected with on a personal level yet. One of these students is a learner who has long struggled in school. During the trip, it was fascinating to spend time with him. While he is usually reserved in our classroom and rarely volunteers (and is sometimes prone to misbehavior), on the trip he was engaged and very expressive. His vocabulary as we walked through the animal barns blew me away — I had no idea he had such an expansive grasp of language. Even more impressive were his actions toward his groupmates — he was keeping an eye on them and making sure they didn’t get lost. At one point, he even held their hands to make sure they stayed together in a particularly crowded section of the fair.

This experience led to me seeing my student in an entirely different light and allowed me to see him exhibiting skills that no typical classroom experience was likely to draw out of him. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can provide these types of experiences to all of my students — I know that, for many students, the classroom can be a threatening place in its traditional form, with its emphasis on a single correct answer and rote-type activities. I really think that by giving authentic, “in-context” learning opportunities, more of my students will rise to the occasion. It seems like a way to truly illustrate a belief that I so strongly hold: that all students can be successful learners when given the right tools and motivating activities that allow them to apply their learning and skills in a “real” way.

Fellow teachers, what types of authentic learning activities do you do with your students? I would love to hear about any projects that have proven particularly motivating and effective!

A Personal Interlude

I’ll be back with a post about my classroom next week — about the power of “in-context” learning and my hope to keep providing more and more of these types of learning opportunities for my students.

But, there’s no time to post this week because it has been a very busy and exciting week for me personally…I got engaged on Wednesday evening and could not be more delighted! My fiancee and I are spending today figuring out everything that we need to figure out so that we can start planning our wedding. It’s all very exciting! Hopefully I will able to successfully manage organizing a classroom and a wedding at the same time — I expect it will be an exciting adventure!