Some quick thoughts on reading

I’m at a session sponsored by the American Reading Company, and in the course of their presentation, we’ve stumbled upon some interesting discussions.  The presenter is moving through three of the shifts that the Common Core brings about:

  • Shift I: 80% of our reading is spent on fiction and stories, we need to shift that to 50% non-fiction or informational text and 50% fiction.
  • Shift II: Reading and Writing grounded in evidence from text, both literary and informational
  • Shift III: Regular practice with complex text and it’s academic language

At various junctures, he asks us to think about the changes that each of these shifts bring about for students, for teachers, and for school and district leaders.  The audience, consisting of supervisors of Language Arts, some Principals and Vice Principals as well as some teachers, has hit on the fact that we need more “text” in classes, and by that they have taken to mean that we need more books.  I’m struggling with this a bit.  Here’s why.

When we first got into the room, the presenter asked to list all of what we read in the past twenty-four hours, his point being to prove that the majority of what we read these days is informational text or non-fiction text.  However, as we dove into discussions about these shifts, and heard from folks saying that they see the need for more “texts” for students, it dawned on me to ask the group how much of what you read in those twenty-four hours was on paper?  How much was on a screen?

That’s significant.  The way we access text is different when we access it on a device.  Even a device as basic as a Kindle or a Nook, there are features that change the way we read and how we access text.

Are we thinking about that?

Plus, before we begin pushing more text into the classroom, much thought has to be given to what those texts are.  Looking at the books in the baskets in the front of the room, I see many books that are tradebooks or basals.  I’m not so sure that our diet as readers should consist of all that form.  Personally, I would have gone nuts.  I cut my reading teeth on long-form magazine writing.  Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, and even those wonky J.Peterman catalogs totally saved me from the doldrums of classroom reading.

Additionally (and now this is bordering on rant) one of the issues many districts have in changing the complexity of text (Shift III) is that they rarely have an exact picture of where there students are reading.  Part of the pitch today is the ARC’s IRLA system, which is analogous to DRA2, Guided Reading Level, Lexile, or SRI.  Whichever flavor your school or district uses, having an understanding of where your students can read is so paramount to beginning the work required by the Common Core.  How many of our schools have teachers that have and use this information?  It’s incumbent upon school leaders to make sure this is happening.

A Foray into the Paperless Fray

Today we were fortunate to Skype in Shelley Blake-Plock into a lunch-hour session in our high school.  Blake-Plock, the driving force behind the recent paperless push by educators on Earth Day, spoke to our staff about his classroom design, philosophy, and practice in a 45-minute session today.

When I originally contacted Shelley last week to inquire as to whether or not he would be willing to talk to my staff, he jumped right in, and he didn’t disappoint.  What impressed me most about him as I listened to him describe his practice was his clear vision of what it meant for his students to function in a classroom that he designed: it was about them learning.  He truly designed the environment with their learning–their unbridled learning–in mind.  His decision was not a secretarial one, but rather came from a desire to push students to take control of information gathering, processing, and creating.

At one point, a teacher from our Social Studies department asked about how he assesses his students if he doesn’t give tests or quizzes on paper.  Did he design them through some sort of CMS in the formed of timed essays, or online quizzes?

Shelley’s answer was flat-out brilliant.  He described the manner in which students are required to keep a blog that he is tied into via RSS, and daily they add content to that blog in the form of class notes, personal reflections, or other media.  His assessment then becomes his analysis of their thinking and reaction, and he does this using screencasting (he uses Jing).  This way, instead of notes in the margin that are loosely tied to anchors in the text, he can pinpoint exactly where in the writing he is talking about and offer precise, quasi-one-on-one feedback even though he is not present.  I just dug this.  We often bemoan our students willingness to skip past any comments we make on their writing in their desperate rush to find out their grade, but what Shelley is doing is removing much of that and asking students to take constant feedback and do something with it.  Our teachers have long lamented the amount of grading that has to be done, our parents and students complain about the length of time it takes to get it back, and all research shows that feedback given after a certain point is nearly useless to the student in terms of increasing achievement.

What if they got feedback consistently over time?  Would that change the final outcome (the grade)?  In my follow-up with the staff, I am going to be sure to inquire about that one.  With a budget that includes nearly 60% of supplies being cut, looking at alternative options in terms of assessment–and those options that are grounded in formative assessment–is necessary.

The Thesis is Dead. Long Live the Thesis.

I have learned a great deal from my monthly meetings with the English department: how to lead, how not to lead, how to completely miss the mark on what teachers need, and how to recover beautifully from missing said mark.  However, one of the simplest things, I have found, you can do for teachers to aid them in their professional development, is to listen carefully and then deliver on what you hear.

On Wednesday, all of the above situations played out.  We have often discussed having an expert voice come speak to us to help us drill deeper into an element of our craft.  A while back, I  came across an article by a Duke University professor, Dr. Bradley Hammer (who is how at UNC), that dealt with the shifts that were taking place in student writing in the “academy.”  The title of the article spoke volumes: “A New Type of University Writing.” Now, my English department already thinks I have a massive case of technophilia, and inviting this professor who believed that college writing, long believed to be the epitome of thesis driven argumentative writing, was now transforming into another piece of the digital landscape, was a risky move.  But, after talking to him on the phone in September, I knew he would make some waves of the good kind.  And did he ever.

The teachers were very interested in hearing about trends he saw in student writing, in essence asking for feedback on what he thought of Freshman entering the program.  Dr. Hammer didn’t disappoint in his response.  Most of his work, he stated, is deconstructing what the students come in with.  For example, he stated that 15 years ago, it was common for students to arrive at the college campus with very poor argumentative skills: weak ability to write strong theses, very little support for arguments in their writing.  Now, they all arrive knowing how to “do the essay.”  Formulaic, straightforward positions, support at all the appropriate turns, and of course, an adherence to the five-paragraph format.  His work is to get them away from “doing the essay,” to caring about the essay.

His work is about teaching students to deconstruct their own biases in their writing so that when confronted with a traditional topic (he used abortion in our our conversation as an example) the students would begin to generate questions about the factors that define the topic rather than automatically deciding which side of the argument to sit on.  For the students in his writing class, it’s not about whether or not you can convince someone of something, but rather that you get an understanding of yourself through an issue presented to you. His greatest line, by far for me, was this:

High schools train students how to argue–they need to learn how to ask questions and interrogate ideas first.

As soon as he said it, I immediately began running thumbing through my mental Rolodex to try to remember how many times I have heard that in my reading over the last two years.  It just rings.  Whether it’s been caused by federal mandates or by our poorly thought out responses to them, we’ve underestimated our students ability to be meta-cognitive about the writing process.  It’s more about the process rather than the product, when we truly break it down to it’s smaller parts.  Is it really imperative that little Suzy write her essay in five standard paragraphs with a neat little thesis hook at the end of her first paragraph?  Or would we rather see her wrestle something down to it’s bits in the pre-writing and research stages and produce something in three paragraphs?  I’ll take the scrapping any day.

What was great for me, aside from the fact that it was a meeting where I did very little direct talking, was the dialog that sprung up after our call ended.  Some of those in the room were in agreement with Hammer; we should be focusing more on the meta-cognitive processes of writing.  Others asked if the reasons Hammer and his colleagues are able to do the deconstruction with students and push them in the direction they do is because of the argumentative underpinnings that high school English teachers provided them with?  Can they get to B without having gone through A?  Others asked if there was a way we could see products of the freshman Hammer worked with; we wanted to see what inquiry-driven writing looked like in the end.

The most challenging element about working with the four departments I do is trying to find something for each of them to sink their teeth into, and this did it for the English teachers.  My own personal belief about what compositional writing should like look at any level is very simple: writing should demonstrate your ability to think, and your ability to convey those thoughts succinctly.  My answer to the departmental question about whether or not we should be doing the things that Dr. Hammer does in our classrooms is undeniably yes.  But, like anything, let’s allow the students to determine the level to which they can successfully do it.  Just because they are 16 doesn’t necessary preclude them from inquiry, and the same can be said in reverse for some students.  Push where needed, pull back when necessary.

All in all, a great meeting.

Image Credit: “Me & teh thesis” from doryexmachina’s Photostream

Meme: Passion Quilt

El Corazon

It’s a fickle thing, our relationship to words, so when Bach tagged me for this meme, I immediately conjured up images Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam. Not because of the topic, but just that word: Passion. There probably is some little known codicil of blog etiquette I am breaking here by comparing a serious topic to cheap club songs from previous topics, and I do apologize for that, but the thought process just happened. I am over it now.

This has actually been sitting on my GTD list for a few days now, moving between Today and Next depending on my level of commitment to the writing process, which has been low. We have a delayed opening due to weather this morning, and what better time to devote to this while everyone sleeps in a little.

Here are the rules:

  • Post a picture or make/take/create your own that captures what YOU are most passionate about for kids to learn about…and give your picture a short title.
  • Title your blog post “Meme: Passion Quilt” and link back to this blog entry.
  • Include links to 5 folks in your professional learning network

I’ll tag the next five people:

Image credit: Untitled from Mirissa’s photostream

The Major Disconnect

I had such selfish reasons for choosing to do this workshop at Franklin Lakes School District today; not only was it a great opportunity to talk about some really fun topics and make some extra money, but Alan November was the keynote. Alan’s message conveys a sense of urgency like no one else I have ever seen, and I always leave feeling recharged.

Today’s presentation by Alan centered on student content creation, much like the last one I saw, but this was the first time I was able to see him interact directly with a small group. His ideas, juxtaposed against the usual smattering of teacher doubts, really resonate with “no excuses.” Counterpoints to every dissension. Creation in the face of doubt.

When I think of my own practice, I wonder if I am doing enough creating of community. Darren Draper posted about bloggers who create community, but focused on the online environment. How do I do it in my buildings? Alan talks about allowing students to create material that is public, debatable and viewable by people from a global environment. I was twittering about the amount of teachers in a room here that do not have Google Accounts, or how few of them have heard of RSS feeds, and wondering to myself whether or not I could say the same for my district where I had worked on this for almost two years. What have I done to create the sense of urgency that Alan does?

This is perfect fodder for thought as I enter the week before EduCon, and I hope I’ll be able to gather some resources for this there.

Looking back over the course of the time I have spent at Tech Coordinator and now as Director of Curriculum, I don’t think formal professional development worked to the extent that I expected it would. I taught classes which were not well attended, or attended by the same group of people. I held in-service days where teachers were exposed to applications and strategies to help them implement social technologies in the classroom. But where did it get us? Sitting here, listening to Alan push these teachers, a very receptive bunch no less, I can’t help but place myself in a daydream where this is my district. How many of my teachers would know what RSS means? How many would have a Google Account? Did I make a difference, or did I just keep the same model that has not worked and made it look nicer?

I am feeling the need to break the mold, to present a shift so sudden yet so necessary that teachers would look at it with both fear and longing–saying “I want to do this for my own development!” or “This has to happen!” But what it looks like is escaping me. How do you make someone feel like they need something?

My Thoughts on Mr. November

Friday, at TechForum New York, the keynote speaker was Alan November, of November Learning. Alan is someone whom I have read much about via other’s experiences in meeting him, attending BLC, or hearing him recently in Shanghai, but never really did any focused research on myself. Who was this guy, and why did he always leave behind a wake?

His bio in the conference program started off with a great piece of information: his first professional gig was that of an oceanography teacher at an alternative high school in Boston Harbor. Where can’t you go after that?

Needless to say, I was impressed, and tried to take notes on his presentation, but when your network shows up, it is difficult to stay focused on much other than your twitterstream. Also, however, I find it hard to take notes any more unless the speaker is talking about something other than tools. Thankfully, Alan seemed to care less about the tools, even at one point, throwing a jab to the aggressive vendor crowd assembled.

What he did give me was this:

Turn your fears into goals.

That sounds simple enough, but let’s put it into practice for a minute. Here are a list of fears/obstacles that I often hear when working with staff:

  • I am not technologically savvy.
  • There is no time to implement this into my curriculum. I am held to state standards on tests like Regents/GEPA/HSPA; I need to focus on that.
  • The students will not take this seriously.
  • They (the students) just copy and paste everything anyway.
  • I can’t add one more thing to my list of responsibilities.

And as Alan was speaking, he impressed me less with his rehearsed ideas, but more with his spontaneous addressing of crowd concerns, taking direct questions from several people who iterated some of the same fears/obstacles above. Looking at that list, I can do that. Here is my revised version:

  • I will become comfortable teaching in a manner that appeals to the learning needs of my students.
  • I will use resources contributed by teachers who are using technology to help students reach state standards on tests.
  • I will create lessons that matter to my students, ones in which they will work on without realizing it as work.
  • My assessments and assignments will be authentic, so that students cannot merely take the work of others and pass it off as their own.
  • I will focus on adding one new method to my teaching repertoire this year.

As I ready myself for a switch in job titles (more on that as the time nears), these type of semantic shifts are things I want to embrace. I have long thought that leadership determines institutional attitude more than any other component. My experience in the schools I have worked in bears this belief out. If I am to be someone who expects change, pushes innovative measures through, and enlists the creative forces of my staff, then I have to able to transform negativity into a goal-setting mentality like Alan prescribed.

This is the first in a series of posts I am generating from his session, and from the subsequent round tables and discussions from Friday.


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So you are into technology, now what?


An insane two weeks of connectivity, and I am on the more moderate side of things, has left me wondering where this is all heading. So many new tools that shorten the distance between worlds and worldviews have popped up. Twitter has just blown holes in my ability to disconnect. Now it’s even infected my iPhone, keeping me glued to the action in any setting (is there a hack to install twitterific on the iPhone?). Whether it’s uStream, Operator11, or even plain old Skype, our ability to teach and be taught on the spot by anyone who is willing is really throwing wrenches into my ability to filter out what matters and what doesn’t.

Stephanie Sandifer, who just seems to be driving a lot of my thinking lately, rattled off this great post on Friday, which contained the following push:

In a comment or on a blog post on your own blog — take some time to reflect on and address the following questions:

What? (…is going on with our work, with our blogging, with our exploration… OR …new tools are we discovering, playing with, trying to find classroom uses for?)

So What? (Who cares? Why is this important? Why is this not important? What does it matter? Will it ever matter?)

Now What? (What do we do NEXT? What kind of gameplan do we need? Do we need a game plan? Do we collaborate, start over from scratch, quit doing whatever we are doing altogether, or disappear somewhere deep in Second Life? Seriously — WHAT NOW?)

much in the same way Steve Dembo dropped this on us Friday afternoon after the previously mentioned week of interconnection:

Time for Friday afternoon reflection: Share something you learned this week. (No websites or tools. Something new you actually LEARNED)


My reactions to these questions are below, but I before you read mine, I encourage you all to think along these lines as well. In the past, when we introduced new ideas into classroom pedagogy, we had the comfort of knowing that there would be ample time before the next “big thing” would come along. Now, do we have that time?

First, in reverse order, my response to Steve was as follows:


Learned that our best assets in the classroom are still our teachers who have vision and the guts to follow it.

By this I was referring to the meetings I had with teachers this week, all who wanted to push themselves and their students beyond what was required of them. I think I am fortunate to work in two buildings where things have really caught fire in terms of expanding the walls of the classroom. Our teachers want to be involved in creating with their students, and want to reach students in meaningful ways, and the explosion of collaborative technology truly augments their desire. The fact that they are becoming more adventurous each day makes me excited to be a part of the process.

Stephanie’s post is slightly more difficult as it is truly forcing me to analyze where I am going.

What: When I answer this question, the first thing that comes to mind is our stated goal of trying to expand our learning time to outside of the 40 minutes we see the students. Our first steps involve getting teachers to use collaborative writing tools: Google Docs, wikispaces, 21Classes, etc. As far as some of the tools I mentioned in the opening, those tools are going to take time to trickle into the classrooms, but that “seep time” is so dramatically shortened by the situations our teachers are creating. One teacher wanted her students to create a news broadcast for a mock trial and I immediately thought: Ustream!

So What: What’s important to me is that our teachers have begun to see that their learning cannot stagnate; if I can get around to it this year, I am going t really push for the creation of PLE’s for our teachers. The translation to the students will be immediate. Case in point: we gave tablet pc’s to nearly 80% of our high school staff, and the students in those classes are being exposed to resources that those teachers were privy to, but did not know how to translate them into the classroom. The level of transparency is unprecedented.

Now What: Our big focus, in my humble opinion, is to keep asking this question. Tools are not what we need to focus on, but the teaching is. If our teaching does not match our technological abilities, all we have is a digital dog and pony show. When we stop looking at these tools as a means to an end, then we have failed our teachers and our students.

The best meeting I have had this year with a teacher did not involve my laptop or discussion of tech, but rather a discussion of pedagogy and the Socratic Method. As tech coordinators and technofiles, we bridge a gap between teaching and technology. We cannot afford to be lacking on either side of our expertise.

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Image credit: Bridge Suspension, from Jeff Epstein on Flickr