Reading Day: Making Time for Professional Development

The past several weeks have been a blur — two November snow days (oh, Maine!), report cards, and the holiday season have kept me in a perpetual losing battle with my to-do list.

It’s this continuous sense of hustle and bustle that has led me to create an intentional shift in how I think about scheduling my time. In an article that I recently read (the author and title escape me), the author discussed how we spend so much time working on things that are unimportant because they come with a false sense of urgency — email comes to mind as the big one for me in this area — or because they are quick and seem easy to get done and cross off our list. What happens as we chase all of these small, urgent-feeling tasks is that we lose all of the time for the bigger, deeper things that we’re always saying we’d like to find the time to do.

For me, the thing that I’m always copying and pasting from one week’s to-do list to the next is professional reading and creativity time for curriculum and activity development. Because it never feels as urgent as my other to-dos, it’s the first thing I tend to push aside, even though it’s the thing that would actually be most effective in helping me to reach my goal of being a real-life Mz. Frizzle, who makes learning an adventure with interesting and challenging activities.

Over the Thanksgiving Break, while I had a few moments to catch my breath, I decided that I was going to prioritize this time for my own professional development. In creating my month-at-a-glance, I scheduled in one school day a week to be my “Reading Day.” On this day, the only thing I can do during my prep or those little pockets of time that crop up during the day (what typically becomes compulsive email checking time) is read and gather ideas for future activities. The time to do this is never going to magically appear and planning to do it only during the summer isn’t practical, as I’d like to be continually refining my practice while embedded in my daily context, not just creating plans during the summer when I’m not in the rhythm of teaching.

Thus far, keeping all of those to-dos away from my reading day has been HARD. Way harder than I expected. I keep having to remind myself that email can wait just one day, that I can catch up on setting up materials tomorrow — I’m having to retrain myself to more accurately judge urgency.

Today is actually my reading day, so I shouldn’t technically be writing this now, but this an idea that I wanted to ripple forward. Now, it’s back to my read for the day — Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager’s work Invent to Learn. Already, in my reading at breakfast and when I first arrived at school, I’m feeling that rush of inspiration that comes from reading about new, exciting ideas.

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Providing Autonomy in the “4 Ts”

Greetings! I’m writing after the second day of a new approach to structuring our mornings in the classroom to be more autonomous and am feeling that mixed bag of emotions that comes along with trying out something new — excitement, uncertainty, confusion, frustration. I’ll share more about the specific changes that I’m making in a future post, once I’ve had more time to observe my Curious Questioners and to reflect on what’s working and what isn’t.

In my last post, I wrote about the research that supports shifting classroom practices to provide students with as much autonomy as possible in the classroom. Specifically, I cited Daniel Pink’s theory about the four components of what he called “Motivation 2.0” — providing autonomy over time, task, technique, and team (Drive, 2009). Today, I’m going to offer some suggestions for small, medium, and large steps that educators may be able to make to provide students with enhanced opportunities for classroom autonomy.

time

Giving students autonomy over time involves allowing them to have more say over what they do when and how much time they spend on particular tasks.

Small Step: Let students have some input in the schedule of your day. Have a discussion with your students about your daily classroom schedule and find out from them what they think is working and what they might like to try altering. One year, my students told me that they’d like to do math first thing in the morning. After making the change, I got far greater engagement during our math activities.

Medium Step: Engage students with tasks designed to last multiple work periods, with parts that can be completed flexibly. Giving students a multi-part assignment with components that can be completed in any order allows students to create a plan for completing the task and the freedom to organize their learning and work in a way that makes the most sense to them.

Large Step: Create a flexible work period, where students are given multiple assignments and a larger chunk of work time in which to complete them. These type of work periods are common in the Montessori approach to education and provide authentic opportunities for students to make decisions and to hone their time management skills. (This is the large change that I’m actively working on making in my own classroom.)

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Giving students task autonomy involves allowing them to make choices about the learning activities in which they’ll be engaging.

Small Step: Give students a 15-minute free period each day to spend on anything that they can relate to learning. Observe students during this time to see what tasks they gravitate towards. I call this time “independent learning time” in my classroom. You can read more about ILT here.

Medium Step: Create two (or more!) different tasks that cover the same learning topic or goal and give students a choice about which one to complete.

Large Step: Have a conversation with your students about a specific learning goal. Explain what learners would need to do to demonstrate their understanding of the concept or skill and offer some suggestions about activities students might do to “show what they know.” Allow students to choose one of your suggestions or to create their own idea for a product or task they can complete to share their learning with you.

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Providing students with autonomy in terms of technique involves defining a clear objective, but leaving room for students to develop their own way of getting there.

Small Step: Give students the freedom to choose their own art supplies and materials to complete tasks and assignments. I’ve long been a proponent of allowing students to write with whatever tool they’d like — if I’ve got them happily working on a learning task, I don’t need to control what they write with! (I do work with them on recognizing how to make smart decisions about what to use for specific learning tasks.)

Medium Step: Offer students an open-ended task that allows students to show their thinking in more than one way. A simple example: Draw or write about what you think what happen next in the story. A more complicated example: Using a single piece of paper, share with me what you know about nonfiction books. Math problems can also be a great opportunity to open up the possibility of using multiple techniques — manipulatives, drawing a picture, abstract representation, etc.

Large Step: Begin highlighting student work that is “outside the box.” Discuss how using different techniques makes learning more interesting and allows us to learn more from each other. Celebrate creativity and make sharing different techniques and strategies a part of your classroom culture. This will expand your students’ toolkits and ideas about the many possibilities for approaching a learning task.

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Offering team autonomy involves letting students make choices about how they work — individually, with a partner, or in a small team. It can also mean letting students create self-chosen groups.

Small Step: Open up the possibility of students working together on a task. A lot of research indicates that when students work with others, everyone’s performance is ultimately enhanced. Even if students weaker in a particular area rely heavily on their partners in the beginning, having a peer explain concepts can be more effective than listening to the teacher explain something again.

Medium Step: Create “working together” spaces in your classroom. Set up an area where students can voluntarily go if they are seeking an opportunity to collaborate with a peer. Discuss this space with the students and have them provide input about how this space should function.

Large Step: Allow students to design a team project to address a learning goal. Have students come up with a proposal, a plan, and roles. They should also be able to articulate how they’ll demonstrate what they know as individuals and as a team.

*For more about creating effective groups in the classroom, I highly recommend the book Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogenous Classroom by Cohen & Lohan. Available here.


Beginning to make small changes in your classroom practice in even one of these areas will create a path towards greater autonomy for your students. Let me know if you try out any of these changes or if you have other suggestions for increasing autonomy in the classroom.

Making Space for Autonomy

peanuts_essay.jpgOne of my goals for this year is to broaden my focus beyond my single classroom to the bigger, broader picture of education. I’m contemplating what future moves I’d like to make within the education field and am recognizing that I will probably never be content with just focusing the whole of my attention on the group of students assigned to me during a particular year. Taking a course on education last fall and getting to grapple with ideas and research has reinvigorated my desire to enter the classroom each day as a scientist, an experimenter who explores and advocates for ways to transform our traditional model of education.

In my course last fall, we read excerpts from Daniel Pink’s Drive — having read the book before, this offered an opportunity to revisit the text with an education-specific lens. What has stuck with me and perplexed me for months is the emphasis that the text places on autonomy as a critical component of motivation. (Mastery and purpose are the other two legs to the stool of motivation that Pink describes.) I was particularly struck by a passage comparing the difference between “autonomous motivation” and “controlled motivation,” which I’ll share here:

“Autonomous motivation involves behaving with a full sense of volition and choice […] whereas controlled motivation involves behaving with the experience of pressure and demand toward specific outcomes that come from forces perceived to be external to the self” (Deci & Ryan, cited by Pink, p. 90).

When I read this, it seems clear to me that most of what we offer to students of all ages in education is the latter concept, “controlled motivation.” We tell students what to do, when to do it, and typically outline or at least imply what the consequences (punishments) will be for failing to complete the task in a certain way and within a certain time frame. Often, we do these things while claiming to be “student-centered,” arguing that we are responding to our students’ interests and needs while still dictating nearly every moment of their time in the classroom. Or, we give students a non-choice, “Well, you can choose not to do this now, but then x, y, or z.”

While there are probably few circumstances in education where we could offer students complete “autonomous motivation,” I certainly think that there are changes that we can make to at least restore some autonomy back to students. Even in thinking about the non-academic parts of the day in my school, I am staggered by the control the adults in the building exercise in the name of order and convenience. For example, during breakfast in the cafeteria each morning, students must sit by class, their only options for activities are eating or talking to one another, and you have to keep your dirty and empty food containers in front of you until you are given permission to throw your garbage away. Surely this amount of control is unnecessary — I can’t imagine adults agreeing to eat a meal under such arbitrary conditions. And this is just one small part of a school day, a day that I would argue is governed from start to end by similar unnecessary usurpations of  student autonomy.

Significantly, research suggests that making autonomy-enhancing changes in school would be worthwhile, as numerous studies demonstrate that the more autonomy we can give to students, the better the outcomes. In a synthesis of the research, Pink concludes that increased autonomy “promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, [and] enhanced persistence at school” (p. 90 – 91). There is also a citizenship argument here as well, articulated well by my favorite educational contrarian, Alfie Kohn, in an article called “Choices for Children” (1993):

“One is repeatedly struck by the absurd spectacle of adults insisting that children need to become self-disciplined, or lamenting that ‘kids just don’t take responsibility for their own behavior’ — while spending their days ordering children around. The truth is that, if we want children to take responsibility for their own behavior, we must first give them responsibility, and plenty of it.”

It seems clear that preserving students’ autonomy at all levels of schooling is a noble goal — one that is worthy of deeper exploration. This month, I’m making restoring as much autonomy as possible to my students my main focus for experimentation. In Drive, Pink argues that there are four components to creating an environment where autonomous motivation can flourish — providing autonomy over “what people do (task), when people do it (time), how they do it (technique), and whom they do it with (team)” (p. 94-95). In a post later this week, I’ll be exploring some changes that could be made to restore autonomy to students in each of these areas. I hope you’ll join me in thinking critically about ways to promote autonomous motivation in our schools.

Work Cited:
Kohn, A. (1993). Choices for children: Why and how to let students decide. Phi Delta Kappan: September 1993.

Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.

Vacation Reading

I’ve spent my week off from school doing something that I’ve gotten a lot better at during my second year of teaching: taking some time to take care of myself, too. As a result, I actually relaxed and feel rejuvenated and prepared to dive back into school on Monday.

One of my main hopes this vacation was to spend time reading and I did. I finally got around to reading Quiet by Susan Cain, which discusses introversion and the ways in which these traits, often devalued by society at large, are often linked to personal and professional success. It was fascinating to hear introversion discussed in this way and validating as an introverted person to not be encouraged to “speak up” or to adopt a different disposition.

I’m posting Susan Cain’s TED talk here; it provides a nice overview of the book.

Another interesting book that I read this week was John Hunter’s World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements. This work details Hunter’s experiences playing the “World Peace Game” with his young students. This game simulates global power politics and asks students to assume roles as negotiators and leaders as they strive to resolve a plethora of conflicts. Reading this work reminded me that our students are often so much more capable than we might give them credit for and that students can rise to the occasion when given motivating opportunities to do so.

Hunter also had a TED talk, which discusses the game. He strikes me as such an excellent educator!

So, with one day of vacation left, I am feeling ready to return to school and excited about beginning my favorite unit of the year, which revolves around Dr. Seuss, poetry, and environmentalism. I’ve memorized The Lorax to share with my students and can’t wait to perform the story for them!

Wrapping Up 2014

I can hardly believe that 2014 is coming to an end. It’s been a good year for me, particularly professionally, as I completed my first year of teaching and dove into a second with much greater confidence. I’m hard at work now thinking about what my aspirations for 2015 might be. It is definitely going to be a year with a lot of changes for me, personally and professionally, and it is difficult to envision what the year might hold in store due to the uncertainty surrounding those changes.

But, for now, I’m content to merely reflect on the last year. When 2014 began, I compiled a reading list that I hoped to tackle during the year and, for several months at least, wrote about the books that I had read here on this blog. My intent in reading these books was to try to maintain a connection to the broader world of education beyond my school and classroom and to become more informed, inspired, and more critical in my practice. While I fell off the bandwagon in terms of providing updates about these books, I did read all of the books on my list, except for one. In so doing, I definitely achieved my goal of becoming more informed about the world of education and keeping my finger on the pulse of what is happening in the field. Additionally, a number of these books inspired me with a profound vision of the classroom that I want to continue to work towards this year — a classroom with meaningful, relevant curriculum that helps my students become savvy and considerate citizens.

I’m copying my reading list here and am annotating it for anyone who might be interested in reading one of these books!

Gender and Sexuality:

  • The Second Sex – Simone de Beauvoir (Not explicitly about education, but I found this book to be such a powerful mediation on what it means to be female. Fortunately, some of the conditions de Beauvoir reports have been improved, but so much of what she said seemed relevant today, decades after the publication of this seminal work.)
  • Real Boys – William Pollack (The male counterpart to The Second Sex; more information here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/453/)
  • From the Dress-Up Closet to the Senior Prom – Jennifer Bryan (Without a doubt, the most comprehensive and relevant book for educators on gender and sexuality that I’ve encountered; more here: https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2014/07/25/reading-update-2/)

Language and Literacy:

  • Literature as Exploration – Louise Rosenblatt (An excellent read for English nerds — an apt summary of the work Rosenblatt did in advancing her transactional view of reading; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/502/)
  • The Experience of Reading – John Clifford (A collection of responses to Rosenblatt’s work; see same link as above.)
  • Mosiac of Thought – Ellin Keene and Susan Zimmerman: (A practical text advocating for the teaching of reading comprehension strategies as a means for attaining higher-level thinking; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/647/) 
  • Readicide – Kelly Gallagher: (A brief but powerful text advocating for a return to reading for pleasure, for the use of powerful and relevant texts, and a turn away from the skill-and-drill reading associated with standardized tests.)

Instruction:

  • Teach Like a Champion – Doug Lemov (Going to try to read this later — when I am in a mindset to reflect on my practice as a whole. I’ve also heard mixed things about this volume recently…)
  • Make Just One Change: Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions – Dan Rothstein (A highly readable text that shows you how to encourage higher-order thinking by having students create their own questions, rather than respond to the ones that we develop for them; more here: https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2014/07/25/reading-update-2/)
  • Invent to Learn – Sylvia Martinez (A down and dirty guide to the “Maker” movement, which encourages students to tinker and create as a significant piece of the learning process; this book captures and projects a vision for what I think is the greatest potential for using technology in the classroom.)
  • Place-Based Education – David Sobel (A brief but lovely book that outlines an ecological, relevant, and community-centered approach to education. This book stuck with me all year and inspired a year-long, nature-based, writing project that we are working on in my classroom; more here: https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2014/05/11/place-based-education/)
  • Real Talk for Real Teachers – Rafe Esquith (Rafe Esquith is one of my heroes — hearing him say that he has bad days in the classroom was incredibly grounding for me. This book has tips for everyone, from novice educators to seasoned veterans.)

The Broader World of Education:

  • Reign of Error – Diane Ravitch (An intelligent and searing indictment of the problems with contemporary education policy in the United States; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/471/)
  • The Smartest Kids in the World – Amanda Ripley (A fascinating and readable examination of education in Finland, South Korea, and Poland; more here https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/647/)

  • The Death and Life of the Great American School System – Diane Ravitch (Highly recommended for those wanting to understand the roots of current education policy — this was the book that we read in the course that I TA-ed this fall; more here: https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2014/05/11/place-based-education/)
  • The Flat World and Education – Linda Darling-Hammond (My first encounter with Darling-Hammond; this book is an examination of the how the achievement gap and inequities play out across the many different domains of education — student outcomes, teacher preparation, school resources, etc.)

Inequality, Diversity, and Multiculturalism: 

  • Teaching Toward Freedom – Bill Ayers (This book profoundly inspired me and pushed me to return to the essential questions about why I teach. Highly recommended and a quick read!)
  • Rethinking Multicultural Education – Wayne Au (Rethinking Schools) (I love anything Rethinking Schools offers. This book did not disappoint — it was full of articles and ideas for incorporating multiculturalism into the classroom.)
  • Open Minds to Equality – Nancy Schniedewind and Ellen Davidson (Rethinking Schools) (My favorite book of the year — this volume is chock-full of ready-to-implement lesson plans that all revolve around social justice and activism; more here: https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2014/02/09/open-minds-to-equality/)
  • The Skin That We Speak – Lisa Delpitt (An edited volume examining language politics, practices, and identity. Essential reading for those interested in literacy and social justice; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/509/)
  • Multiplication is For White People – Lisa Delpitt (An excellent work from Delpitt, advocating for high expectations for all and proffering ideas about how to prevent an “opportunity gap from becoming an achievement gap.”)
  • The Price of Inequality – Joseph Stiglitz (An economics text that may not be the faint of heart; for those seeking sobering information about the wealth gap in the US, this book will lay it for you very clearly; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/647/)
  • There Are No Children Here – Alex Kotlowitz (Recommended reading for all human beings — Kotlowitz brings a Chicago project to life in vivid detail; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/659/)

What books did you read in 2014 that are worth sharing? I’d love to hear about them!

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.

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.