Meandering in Boston

The BFG(!!), Books I can't wait to read, and Pepper the dog!

The BFG(!!), Books I can't wait to read, and Pepper the dog!

This weekend, as part of my current and  somewhat accidental career meandering phase, I’m in Boston for the International Literacy Association (ILA) annual convention. The past couple months, I’ve been toying with the idea of returning to school to learn more about reading, literacy, and curriculum development. But before I do, I wanted to see if it was going to be the right fit. I’m taking an online class (called "Word Study”) to learn more about spelling and reading development, and I’m here, attending this conference, to see if the field excites me. We shall see … 

Just to be clear, I don’t particularly enjoy working part-time. I like doing something useful and feeling competent in return. Though I appreciate having the flexibility to exercise in the middle of the day, go grocery shopping when the store isn't crowded, and the like, I do miss colleagues and a regular schedule. Since March, my work with students has required about ten to fifteen hours a week, which includes prep time, time with students, driving to meet students, and emailing parents. Yet reading for pleasure—either novels absorbing enough to distract me from the miseries of the third trimester or parenting books to feed my obsession—doesn’t confer the same sense of competence and fulfillment as working with kids. 

I would have liked graduate school to work out; once it became clear that it wasn’t going to, I would have liked to get back to full-time work. Only, that wasn’t realistic, given the persistent vomiting that struck around week 5 of pregnancy and continued, with only mild abatement, to the present, at almost 29 weeks. For instance, just two days ago, I started puking while driving—one hand on the steering wheel, the other holding open the doggie poop bag I was lucky enough to have in the front seat with me. 

Anyway, the conference has been useful, albeit unsurprisingly overwhelming, thus far. Yesterday I attended a session about effective word study instruction with Kathy Ganske, a professor of literacy at Vanderbilt. I also went to very disorganized session on teaching nonfiction and a less than useful session on the logistics of implementing a summer reading remediation program. There are few things that puzzle me more than teachers and professors of literacy not knowing how to present information! But, barring a few other annoyances—the most egregious being people taking photos of every single slide in a presentation—I’ve been learning about the literacy field and feeling excited and invigorated about working in a school again. 

When I showed up for a session on phonics at 8 am (quite a feat in my current state), I found the presenter not present! I quickly looked on the conference app for another session to attend and luckily found one nearby about recent findings in dyslexia research. The researchers dispelled some points of contention regarding dyslexia among educators, including: 

  • The idea that dyslexics have special talents in art, music, or related disciplines. There is no research that indicates that dyslexics are any more likely to excel in these areas than anyone else.
  • That 15-20% of the population is dyslexic. Although diagnostic criteria vary widely among districts, states, and countries, the actual percentage of the population that is truly dyslexic is closer to 1-2%. 
  • Finally, the claim that dyslexics require an explicit, systematic, multi-sensory program in order to learn to read. There is no evidence for this. In fact, evidence supports the idea that early intervention, especially phonological instruction, is more effective at reducing the number of children at risk for reading difficulties. 

Yet my favorite part of the conference was the two sessions I attended earlier today with Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. In the first, they talked about lessons they have learned relating to adolescent literacy. In the second, they discussed how to apply John Hattie’s findings about visible learning to literacy teaching. Overall, here are the key points:

Challenging expectations and standards are appropriate. Kids should know that school is supposed to require hard work and effort—it’s not meant to be easy! Fisher and Frey discussed the concept of “rigor” (often a buzzword meaning nothing) and how they came to the conclusion that it is a balance between difficulty and complexity. They define difficulty as the measure of effort required to complete a task and complexity as the number of ways and methods of thinking, action, or knowledge needed to complete a task. They plan to have teachers at their school organize their syllabus and assignments using the following model: 

Student comprehension and collaboration are crucial. 
In their revised take on speaking and listening standards--in which they call for students to build on each other's ideas and express their own clearly and persuasively--they advocate for and actually require at their school that 50% of instructional minutes are spent in collaborative learning. Their research shows that doing so increases student satisfaction and therefor attendance, motivation, engagement, etc. They cited a study by John Hattie in which he looked at 3,000 matched pair classrooms. In low-achieving classrooms, teachers talked 89% of the time, whereas in high-achieving classrooms, teachers talked only 49% of the time. 

“Every student deserves a great teacher, not by chance, but by design.”
There are definitely ways to make this happen! Part of the problem, in my opinion at least, is that not enough people with decision-making powers are aware of the research and are willing to make changes based on it. According to John Hattie’s research, an effect size of .4 represents about one year of growth; therefore, practices that produce less than .4 of an effect size mean that students do not progress adequately, whereas policies that create larger effect sizes produce more than a year of change in one year. Here are the effect sizes for common practices: 

  • grade-level retention: -1.3 effect size
  • ability/group tracking: .12 effect size
  • teaching test-taking: .22 effect size
  • homework: .29 effect size (though homework at the secondary level has a stronger effect than it does at the elementary level) 
  • small-group learning: .49 effect size
  • teaching study skills: .59 effect
  • repeated reading to build comprehension: .67 effect size
  • classroom discussion: .82 effect size (about 2 years of growth for one year of school!) 
  • collective teacher efficacy: 1.57 effect size (for example: PLCs, grade-level teams) 

The final session I attended today was a panel about strategies for teaching nonfiction featuring literacy stars Penny Kittle, Kylene Beers, and Bob Probst. They recommended some nonfiction books, and I look forward to checking these out: 

  • How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything - Dov Siedman
  • Collaborative Intelligence - Dawna Markova & Angie Mcarthur
  • Minds Made for Stories - Tom Newkirk
  • A History of Reading - Albuerto Manguel
  • Far From The Tree - Andrew Solomon  (Quite a tome, yet a fantastic, compelling read!) 

Finally, here are some books I *may* have purchased, am curious about, would like to read, or may recommend to students. Enjoy! 

I Want To Be A Chef

When I went to summer camp as a child, I would eat white bread for two weeks straight. For breakfast, I would mix up the routine with Frosted Flakes or Cheerios, but generally I stuck to processed grains. No weird casseroles, no wings, though potatoes would be acceptable on occasion. 

I am considerably more flexible now, but with certain, albeit illogical, restrictions. I will not eat meat that resembles itself: no fish with heads, no beef tongues, no octopus tendrils. Nor will I indulge in deli meats, hot dogs, or other heavily processed meat-like products. don't want to know how they are made, but if I did, I am sure I would be even more averse to them. I can't stand to eat baby animals either; thinking too much about veal makes the injustice of eating animals is too fresh. Somehow it feels less cruel to eat an adult animal. At least it had a chance to have a (hopefully carefree) childhood! 

We have made eating complicated. The food pyramid I knew as a child has morphed into a plate meant for a child. There are more fad diets than there probably ever have been before. There is more organic food than there used to be, though now we at least now which foods it makes sense to purchase the organic version of and which foods it makes little difference. Unless we simply want to support organic farmers, even if doing so costs us more. There lies the complicated question of the interplay of our values and our budgets. Given that we have the privilege to care and make decisions based on our values, how much time should we invest in figuring out the best way to eat? And how strictly should we stick to our decisions? 

And now on to the actual topic ... 

The Netflix docu-series Chef's Table. I know, I know! I don't even like fancy, expensive food. It usually makes me nervous (because I don't know what it is) or guilty (if it costs a lot). I generally appreciate being able to look at a food and know what it is, with the obvious exception of meat, in which case I prefer that it not evoke the semblance of the animal it once was. That said, the music, cinematography, narrative structure, and of course the chefs make the series exceptional. 

The past two nights we have watched the show: first, we saw the episode with Massimo, of the Italian restaurant Osteria Francescana; second, we saw the episode with Dan Barber of Blue Hill restaurant and farm. These iconoclast chefs revel in their ingredients. They understand the essence of their raw material--food. They teach their employees their methods and philosophies. Their restaurants do not simply treat patrons to one expensive, delicious meal; instead, they transport them (and even distant viewers) to a place in which food preparation constitutes an exalted art form, and eating, ephemeral bliss. Yet the ecstasy of visiting these microcosms should not fade, but swell. As people visit Osteria Francescana and Blue Hill, they glimpse all that food can be, and (the chefs hope) integrate the respective philosophy of food into their daily lives. The chefs show us that you can indeed find sustainably sourced ingredients, eat them in small portions, and savor every bite. But even more, they show us a new, radical ways we can approach eating. 

With their relentless drive and exacting standards, they are trying to revolutionize the way we eat. They employ the best methods they can find and use the best ingredients available--whether reinventing authentic Italian, or building a sustainable farm-to-table ecosystem--and make ideals a reality. With boundless creativity, they transgress the boundaries of what other people think is realistic and even appropriate. 

Call me crazy, but this is how I'd like to build a school someday: Using the most rigorous research, with the most promising conditions, and a crew of like-minded teachers, I'd like to create a place where students' curiosity swells, rather than shrinks, where kids are given choices, respect, independence, and boundaries. This would be a place that worked with families, served kids who learn differently, and taught thinking, writing, and research in all subjects. 

School would start when teenagers are actually awake, teachers would be compensated fairly and would always be learning, and there would be no standardized tests. Students would take courses in rhetoric, reading, cognitive science, psychology, architecture, communication, narrative, politics, the court systems, the environment, and more. We would we beholden to nobody, yet bound by a common drive to provide the very best education possible. 

This is my wildly idealistic vision.

Leaving Behind an Immense Responsibility

This week I told my students that I will not be returning next year to teach them. It was a tough conversation, one that I had with each of my four classes as well as with the movie club that I sponsor. Each discussion garnered a variety from responses, ranging from sincere disappointment to superficial concern about the whereabouts of the couch next year. I explained to them that I am going back to school to study how to teach writing to students whose brains work like theirs do. 

My Classroom This Year

To say I am ambivalent would be to deny the gravity of my decision to move onward. To say that leaving is bittersweet would be to conceal my actual feelings under a cliche--something I've discouraged students from doing for years. Perhaps I could say that I am conflicted, though that, too, undermines the certainty I feel about moving on. If there is ever to be a good time to leave behind my duties, and my identity, as a teacher, now is that time. I am tired, but not so tired that I am not teaching well; disillusioned by the disparity between what I want to be able to do and what I cannot do, yet not in despair over what remains impossible; sufficiently disturbed to take action, and experienced enough to know what action needs to be taken; frustrated with the state of education, yet hopeful enough to make improving it the purpose of my career. 

I introduce myself as a teacher. In return, I receive compliments, scorn, condescension, and admiration. Most frequently, however, I am greeted with amazement. How do you deal with kids every day? Teenagers, oh my! Something about these responses conveys the belief that some kind of magic, some enigmatic ability, exists within each teacher; it's as if there's something bewildering to observe in someone who has the skills--gained through years of experience--to instruct children day after day. But it's not magic, and it's not a mystery. It's a lot of dedication, and patience, and continual learning. It requires thinking about thinking, and doing so anew each day, with each kid. 

To introduce myself as something else will feel odd at first. It is who I have been for what feels like so long, but isn't actually that long. Every day, I feel the pressure of making a positive impact, and I worry about saying the right thing at the right moment in order to affect each and every student in the way that I think will help them grow and learn the most. I never know if a flat-out "no" to an answer is going to hurt someone, or how much a word of encouragement can mean. It is, of course, impossible to know, and it may seem silly to worry so much. But when I hear stories from my students of being insulted or demeaned by former teachers, I realize that they remember what people tell them, sometimes for years. I will miss this immense responsibility and privilege, and I hope I will not forget how challenging it is to perform, instruct, confer, create, and inspire. 

Learning To Write

What do you remember about learning to write? 

Here's what I remember: 

  • extensive checklists 
  • "playing" with margins 
  • bibliography rules and regulations 
  • art prompts 
  • "take a side" prompts (for example, Is the death penalty acceptable?) 
  • college-ruled paper 
  • diagramming sentences 
  • The Little, Brown Handbook 
  • Times New Roman 
  • multicolor uniball gel pens 
  • losing 20 points for a comma splice 

Apparently, these are the things I thought about when I was in school. If there were graphic organizers in existence, I never saw one. There was no such thing as dictation. I don't know any teachers who care about the size or lines on a student's paper. The "Add Comment" option had just recently been made available in Microsoft Word. I wrote on an actual keyboard, not a laptop keyboard and definitely not an iPad keyboard, if it's even fair to call it that. 

A slew of graphic organizers, courtsey of Google Image search. 

A slew of graphic organizers, courtsey of Google Image search. 

I am assuming that because I was an avid reader and did what I was told in school, I eventually figured out how to write grammatically correct sentences. I have no recollection of doing any informal or personal writing after 8th grade. I don't remember revising anything, ever. If, as Daniel Wilingham says, "Memory is the residue of thought," then, well, that is rather unfortunate for me. Does that indicate that uniball gel pens consumed my mental energy? That I was so preoccupied with what I was going to write with, that I completely forgot what I was supposed to write about?  

In chapter 3 of Why Don't Students Like School?, Willingham explains why students remember the joke you made or what you were wearing but often don't recall what they were supposedly learning: 

"To teach well, you should pay careful attention to what an assignment will actually make students think about (not what you hope they will think about), because that is what they will remember." (54) 

And then there's this, which makes perfect sense: 

"Whatever you think about, that's what you remember. Indeed, it's a very sensible way to set up a memory system. [...] When we're talking about school, we usually want students to remember what things mean. Sometimes what things look like is important--for example, the beautiful facade of the Parthenon, or the shape of Benin--but much more often we want students to think about meaning. Ninety-five percent of what students learn in school concerns meaning, not what things look like or sound like. Therefore, a teacher's goal should always be to get a student to think about meaning." (61) 

If only it were that easy! So the question is: How do we get students to think about the actual act of writing when there it involves so many complex cognitive processes? If just one of those processes doesn't function in a typical way, then writing becomes a tremendous ordeal. Writing is hard enough for neurotypical kids, and extraordinarily difficult for those with impaired working memory, handwriting, reading skills, phonological abilities, etc. What is one to do? There is hardly any research on teaching high school students with LD to write. A recent article published in Remedial and Special Education found only 14 studies from 1965 to 2011 that explored the use of interventions to improve writing among students with disabilities. And in those 14 studies, only 51 kids were involved! 

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Dismayed, I continued searching. Or, rather, wilfing. I stumbled upon a book called Best Practices in Writing Instruction. I downloaded the book in epub format for not-so-instant reading and eventual disappointment. (Note: Adobe Digital Editions, which purports to be an e-book reader app, barely deserves the 1.5 stars it has received on the App Store.) I've read parts of 3 chapters so far; little enlightenment has resulted, though it does make some decent points and provide some reasonable reminders about best practices. 

From the chapter on planning, I learned to see planning as beginning in either one of two ways: a top-down approach where students plan prior to writing and a bottom-up "discovery" approach wherein writers discover new and important ideas while they write (169). It's clear that teacher modeling of either planning process is helpful to students, but it's not clear how to best model planning or pre-writing, or how to convince students that it's worthwhile, especially because "many developing writers are simply unable to plan because of the complexity of the demands of the cognitive processing tasks" (171). Futility, indeed. 

The chapter on revising makes it clear that self-regulation and metacognitive skills are required for this part of the writing process. It provides some insight into useful classroom practices. One example involves teaching students how to evaluate the work of their peers, and then pairing them up to evaluate each other's work. Even thought this is something I have done with students before, it's good to see that there is a legitimate reason for doing it. Another point the authors make is that the criteria for revision need to be specific rather than general. In other words, huge tables that provide generalizations about what constitutes a high score, don't actually help students revise because they aren't specific. Here's an example of one of those unhelpful rubrics from the Common Core

Actually, it's not really fair to say they aren't helpful at all, because they can be, if used as a starting point for feedback, or if students make them. They could even be useful for teachers as a starting point or as a reminder of standards, as in the case above. 

The last chapter I read, on sentence construction, is probably the subject that I know least about of the three. It turns out that writing a sentence demands a considerable amount of brainpower (210). All of these cognitive tasks are required: 

  • formulate an idea 
  • retrieve words to match the idea 
  • mentally arrange and rearrange words 
  • turn those ideas into a readable structure 
  • manipulate text to make the ideas precise 

Teaching sentence combining skills is the best way, according to the author, to teach students how to improve their sentence construction. But to learn how to combine sentences, one must first understand the parts of sentences and the ways those parts work together. 

I wish I could teach an entire course on how to write a sentence, or that I had the time to confer with each student prior to having him or her organize ideas in some kind of planning document or graphic organizer. I know that they should be devloping rubrics with my guidance based on what they observe about their own and their peers' writing. I wish I could convince them that revision is an integral part of the writing process, which itself is a term I kind of despise because it has been co-opted by well-meaning teachers to indicate something other than the organic, self-motivated, reflective process it is supposed to be.

I think that graphic organizers, had I been forced to use them, would have stymied my thinking in the same way that they do for some of my current students. However, I know that had I been taught more writing skills more explictly and in a way that invited me to think about what my writing meant--rather than what color and type of pen I wrote it with, what font it was in, or whether I had a comma splice--I would have not only expanded my sentence-construction repertoire and expedited my revision process, but I also would have found my thinking liberated and my mind poised, ready to examine anything from a text to the world in a different, more flexible way. 

The Invasion of the Dragons

Or, pre-teaching The Battle of the Cowshed in Animal Farm

On Monday, I started class by playing epic battle music to pique the students' curiosity. I had them grab a piece of construction paper or open to a drawing app. Then I led them, step by step, to draw their home, its surroundings, invading dragons, and their familes' defense against the dragons. 

They could not believe they were drawing dragons in English class. Fair enough. I then had them share their strategies (which I later referred to as "tactics") for defending their home from the fire-breathing or otherwise generally terrifying dragons. 

These were their tactics: 

Then they predicted what might happen in Animal Farm (the invasion of the humans), and they began to read. While they were reading and listening to the chapter, they generated a list of all the elements of the battle. Then, they attempted to diagram the it. Marla found this activity, and it was fun for almost all the students and required them to pay very close attention to the book. 

There are so many elements to this book; I think I could teach it for six months and not run out of material. There are all the basic reading habits and self-monitoring strategies, plus inferential comrehension and indirect characterization, coupled with remembering all the animals, and then of course understanding the Russian Revolution and the ways it does (or does not, according to Orwell) allegorize the proletariat uprising and its aftermath. 

I often don't know what is working and what isn't. Or, I don't know what they know and what they don't. I don't know if it makes more sense to present them with content and have them engage with it or to have them discover the material for themselves. I hope that by providing scaffolding, creating an engaging atmosphere, and requiring students to make their thinking visible, that they will internalize both the reading strategies and the content we practice.

Whatever they spend the most mental energy thinking about is what will stick. I want them to remember how to read closely--not just the day we drew invading dragons in English class.