Monday, February 29, 2016

Give ‘em a Choice

A speaker that I heard, early in my teaching career, made an argument to give kids choices.  His idea was that if you frame the choices so that whatever the child chose, you’d be delighted.  Later, I heard the same advice from Love and Logic’s Jim Fay:  give a child two choices, either of which you’d be thrilled for them to choose.  I think that there’s immense power in that idea.

When I taught, reading was the homework assignment of choice… my choice.  Armed with my training in Accelerated Reader (A.R.), students had access to a seemingly endless source of books (5 or 6 bookshelves in my classroom) at their diagnosed reading levels.  In addition, I encouraged a little work in Accelerated Math (A. Math), but didn’t strictly hold students accountable for that as I did for the reading.  For the most part, my students made huge strides as readers in both the volume of reading done and the increasing reading levels they achieved over the school year.  I was proud of my homework assignment because it asked of every students something that they could do at their diagnosed ability level, something that could not be said for the day’s math lesson or the spelling workbook.

Something I read today made me rethink that a bit.  In Daniel Willingham’s Raising Kids Who Read, he makes the point that turning kids into readers requires, among several conditions, reading being a desirable choice to the child.  Children of all ages have many things that they may choose to do with their times, many of them electronic and easy.  Reading, even if it’s at a child’s diagnosed reading level can often require greater intellectual effort than playing on their X-Box.  

So what I’m thinking is that, in assigning homework, teachers might offer a choice of homework, say, using my old assignments, A. Math or A.R.  From the students’ perspectives, they might “feel” more like doing one or the other on any particular evening.  Either one would be skill-building but unlikely to need a great deal of external support to complete, with the bonus that supervision would be easy.  Although A.R and A. Math were tools of choice for me, there are an abundance of other online tools available which would be appropriate to assign and monitor.

What if a child loves to read and always chooses reading?  Is that so bad?  That child will likely use those language skills throughout life.  The same could be said for that child who prefers to do math in the evening.  Perhaps that child is a budding scientist or engineer?  In class, of course, the normal curriculum would move forward with all students being instructed in Language Arts and Math however the teacher determined.  Although it might be likely that a student would always or nearly-always choose one over the other, the important factor would be that the child is choosing to practice a skill that will benefit their development.  It may just be that having a choice might keep the child choosing to do homework instead of choosing to avoid it?

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Learn Like a Baby III

If you’ve already read the immediately preceding posts, you’re aware that I’m focused on what I’ll call “natural” learning, that is, learning that takes place, stimulated by experience, rather than isolated tasks meant to be memorized.  Today, I’d like to throw out an idea that brings together the concept of “learn like a baby” with some of the ideas I’ve discussed with how the brain learns.

It seems to me that it would be wonderful if, beside language arts instruction and math instruction, there was a serious commitment to what I’ll call “general education” in the school.  General education, here, is meant to expand students general background skills and knowledge.  Topics that appeal to me are formal music instruction, applied science, cooking, applied history, computer programming, and construction.  Specific topics would be age-appropriate, and there’s no reason to think that some topics might be eventually dropped in favor of areas more suitable for older children.  Mine is just an “off the top of my head” list.  No doubt you could provide others.  Notice the word applied in a couple of the topics.  What I’m looking for is to engage students minds by engaging their hands.

I’m thinking month-long units, perhaps eight a year, that give students hands-on, in-depth experience developing skills and knowledge which would allow them to reach adulthood with a fuller tool bag of skills and experiences, broadening their ability to function as a grown-up.  Each unit would represent a potential jumping-off point for further independent learning throughout that student’s life.  The suggestion of month long classes is just that, as suggestion.  Formal music instruction might take six to eight weeks, cooking only two.  Over a number of school years, the goal would be to give students foundational skills from which they could go off on their own and explore further.  

One unit that I didn’t mention earlier but with which I am quite familiar is drama.  I produce 8 - 10 student musicals each year on a volunteer basis.  When in the classroom, my classes did three or four musicals a year, though only two went to full production and performance.  When I first tried a classroom musical, my purpose was reader’s theater.  I simply wanted to give my students more experience reading expressively and the music was sort of “candy” on the side.  Quite quickly, it became obvious that the musicals gave my students more than expressive reading skills.  They learned how to memorize a fundamental learning skill.  They developed confidence speaking, and singing, in front of an audience.  Most were willing to challenge themselves in ways that they never did in math class.  To this day, I still see all of that in the musicals I produce.  In eight or nine rehearsals with very little coaching from me, and a lot of personal work by the students themselves, they achieve something that they could not have imagined… and they love it!  In the future, if asked to memorize something or to speak to an audience, they will have the recollection of their previous experience upon which to build confidence.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Learn Like a Baby II

Let’s go on.  I’d like to continue exploring the idea of learning like a baby, this time, using writing as the content area.  During my teaching career, writing was an area of great interest to me.  I’m not too sure why.  Certainly my high school English teachers would never have predicted that.

When I taught fourth grade, the State expected us to teach students to write summaries, which might be the task on the State writing test at year’s end.  So, teach summaries, I did.  The problem was that what I was teaching, and what my students were producing, were two distinctly different things.  Student summaries typically began with a huge amount of detail about the characters, setting, and beginning events.  Then, students ran out of steam.  Seldom did a summary mention the story’s problem, attempts to solve the problem, or the resolution, the meat of the story.  They just didn’t “get” summary.

My solution:  simplify.  I started giving students three slips of paper and the task of writing one sentence about the beginning of the story, one about the middle, and one about the ending.  We did this repeatedly.  After students developed some skill at this, I asked them to read their three sentences and write a beginning sentence which told what the whole story was about… in one sentence. After they mastered that, I asked them to add a sentence at the end that said what the “point” or “moral” of the story was.  Some students complained that three sentences wasn’t enough to explain what happened in the story.  To those students I gave permission to explain a bit more.  Over time, my students learned how to write a summary.

Brain research tells us that we can only juggle about four things in our working memory at one time.  Fortunately for us adults, thanks to what scientists call “chunking,” many individual things eventually become understood as one to our brain, allowing us to accomplish increasingly complex tasks.  An easy example of a chunk is a telephone prefix.  Where I live, most land lines begin with the prefix “265” and many cell prefixes begin with “477”.  Our brains, knowing the way prefixes are assigned, learn the three-digit prefixes as a single “chunk,” easing the burden of remembering 7-digit phone numbers.  Such is the value of experience.

Babies learn by repeating actions until the routines become known and reliable.  That knowledge, then, becomes foundational for greater learning.  When we ask too great an intellectual load in our assignments, we may produce students who become more adept at following directions, but not necessarily students who are learning or expanding their skills.  We need to allow students time to consolidate experiences into skills at their pace.  Repetition is the mother of learning, I’ve heard.  If we do that, we will develop students who ask to do more… just as soon as they’re ready.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Learn Like a Baby

Learn Like a Baby

Discuss education with me and you’re not going to have to wait long to hear me talk about Accelerated Reader.  Typically, I’m not one to go out of my way to endorse products, but my advocacy of A.R. comes from both personal experience with the program, both in my classroom and as a trainer,  and what I’ve learned about learning through years of professional reading.  Note that I highlighted the words “product” and “program” in the last sentence.  I don’t endorse products, but a program that works for students will get my enthusiastic support.

It’s sad to me that less and less teachers are formally trained in the A.R. program.  So many have been taught second hand, at best, from teachers who may or may not have had formal training in the elements of the program and how those elements fit together to benefit students.  Although I think the most important part of the program is that students read books that are at their diagnosed reading level, I’d like to comment on another feature of the program today:  self-choice.

I’ve known a lot of teachers who’ve given a great deal of thought to selecting and assigning so called “class books” for their students.  Typically, the stories are rich with great characters and content.  They’re the kind of books that the teacher can read annually and for which they can maintain their passion.  There’s just one problem.  The books are seldom at the diagnosed reading level of most of the students in the class.  Consequently, armed with insufficient background knowledge, vocabulary, or working memory to decode complex construction, students drag through the text with low comprehension and likely lower enthusiasm.  What might make a terrific read-aloud book becomes a burden as a class assignment. 

You may be wondering about the title of this piece.  I’m getting there.  Babies are programmed to learn.  They learn with all their senses.  They listen, look, touch, smell, and taste just about everything in their environment.  They throw all they have at each new object and experience.  By the time a child arrives at about third grade, they can decode with some level of reliability and given the opportunity, can experience some the world through books.  Given the opportunity, they can, like the baby, throw all that they have at gaining experience through books.  Clearly, some children have more background knowledge and can read more challenging text, some have more modest reading skills and background.  A.R. helps the child and teacher approximate the child’s ability level, and the teacher must use A.R. reports to make sure that interest doesn’t over-reach ability.  Only the child can decide what is captivating enough to make the effort worthwhile.  Like the baby, the precondition is interest, personal interest.  With the teacher making sure that the child has the ability and the child deciding what is of interest, the child is in a perfect place to learn.

Were the classroom just a little bit more dedicated to children pursuing their learning and a bit less dedicated to teaching to the dictates of whole-class materials, I think students would take more from their school day on a regular basis.  

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Music To My Ears

Quite likely you’ve heard, somewhere in your teaching career, that music stimulates the brain.  The “research” on this comes from a magazine article that was published quite a long time ago.  Classical music, in particular, was said to enhance learning. Collections of classical music were marketed to both teachers and parents who wanted to give children a head start to the genius level.  The “news” was given wide distribution in the press and was quite a sensation.  What’s less well known is that in the very next issue of that magazine, a serious critique of the research was published, leading the author of the original article to disavow the findings of his own article.

What is less well-known and supported by quite a bit of research (Brain Rules, John Medina:  Brain Rule #10) is that music instruction really does have several benefits.  Of interest to education is that there is a relationship between formal musical instruction and language arts skills.  Students with musical training have been shown to develop vocabulary and nonverbal reasoning skills more quickly than peers who have none.  They listen and hear better and have a greater working memory.  They also tend to be better speakers.  Both effects seem to come from a heightened sense of auditory discrimination.

Also of interest interest is that people of all ages with formal musical training seem to demonstrate a few prosocial skills to a greater degree than their peers.  First, they are more able to understand the emotional states of others.  Again, this is thought to have something to do with auditory discrimination and a heightened ability to hear the emotional tone of people’s voices.  They demonstrate greater empathy than their peers.  Formal musical training, mostly with singing and banging on rhythm instruments has even been demonstrated to show measurable improvement in the the emotional makeup and nonverbal learning of infants compared to infants who only had classical music played to them. 

Medina is clear that these observations, though confirmed by multiple studies, have never been tested in a large research project, say by a school district committing to longterm musical training for all.  Though it’s unlikely that research data like this will loosen up the purse strings of our legislators to bring widespread music instruction into the classroom, it is should be interesting to both parents and teachers who have the opportunity to communicate with parents.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


I learned something new today and I can’t wait to pass it along to you.  I learned that if you are trying to get someone else to learn something, the way you introduce it may make all the difference in whether it is learned or forgotten within hours.  

Picture two lessons.  The first, a writing lesson in which you want students to understand the order of a paragraph.  You begin by setting the topic, let’s say, “My Favorite Food.”  You ask students to talk with their neighbor about their favorite food.  You invite students to share with the class about their favorite food.  You ask each child to draft cluster about their favorite food.  Finally, you remind them that you want a topic sentence, at least three major details, and a conclusion.  The second lesson, let’s say a science lesson on magnetism in which you want the students to understand the idea of polarity.  You begin by bouncing two circular magnets on a pencil.  You follow that with a chain of 10 bar magnets which you swing back and forth.  Immediately after, you chase one magnet around on top of an overhead projector with another.  Finally, you put a piece of glass over a bar magnet and pour iron filings on the glass.  You explain that each magnet has two types of charges and that while the two different charges want to join together, two of the same charges want to stay apart.

Which lesson is more likely to achieve its purpose?  Though with students there are no guarantees, I’m guessing that the second lesson has a far greater chance of succeeding because it’s introduction was aimed at the instructional goal.  Students might remember the first lesson, or at least know more about their or a classmate’s favorite food.  They’re not likely, however, to understand anything more about the structure of the paragraph, even if they worked hard to write a good paragraph.

Why?  This is what I learned today.  The brain encodes information in the same places where it first goes to make sense of it.  In Lesson 1, the brain is going to access the “food memories” places.  Any information about paragraph structure will probably get lost and languish there.  In Lesson 2, the brain will perceive the demonstrations, attempt to understand them, and encode the explanation, all in the same place.  Consequently, if the student wants to retrieve her understanding of polarity at a later date, that understanding will occupy a discrete and substantial place in the student’s brain.

Pretty cool, huh?  In all my years of teaching writing, I bypassed the need for a memorable introduction to get students to focus on the “meat” of their topic.  Major details and elaboration were everything to me.  I’m now thinking that those examples and elaboration may have been misplaced.  What do you think?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

“I’ll Show Him”

Ever have a student who just didn’t seem to want to do his work?  If you did, did you ever try to do something about it, like maybe keep him in for recess to finish an assignment?  The book I’m reading right now, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, states unequivocally that there are no major studies which support punitive actions if support of learning.  

I can’t know about you, but I know that I did that frequently and consistently.  Sitting with the advantage of hindsight, I can’t say that it was very effective.  In fact, even if I achieved my immediate goal of getting the student to do some work to avoid my punishments, the research implies that I have done more longterm harm than good.

There is at least some research done with high school students that demonstrated that teachers trained in building closeness with their students had a measurable positive impact on those students.  The pearl in that oyster is that the results didn’t show up immediately.  The results, instead, began to show in the year following.  That study didn’t consider the opposite case, that is, a campaign of power and coercion, and what longterm impact it might have on student achievement and attitudes about school and learning, but I’m guessing that the statistics might not be so positive.

This reminds me of Jim Fay’s stories (see about how important a positive approach is for successful relationships.  One case in particular, a teacher who was given the very “worst” students to teach, who was successful in getting her students to engage because her primary emphasis was to build a strong personal relationship with each child. 

I’m thinking that the “reality therapy” part of student failure to engage is the honest reports home and, of course, low, even failing, grades. But I’m also thinking that under-performing students might respond to their reality more positively if they’re not actively fighting a teacher’s power moves and instead, feel that their teacher really wants to help them, not as a “student,” but as a real person.

Certainly, what I’ve said above falls into the category of, “Do as I say, not as I did.”

A Tiny Voice for Education

I've already changed my mind about ending my blog posts.  Although it appears that there's not an audience for the discussion of some of the ideas I've shared, it does seem that there was a small audience for the posts and the ideas contained therein.  

AND, ever-so-important, I've discovered that I enjoyed composing the posts and missed writing them, clarifying ideas as I wrote.  Consequently, I'm doing an abrupt turn-around and deciding to post at least once a week, perhaps more often, to share ideas stimulated by my reading.  Judging from the stack of books on my end table, I won't be stopping any time soon. :)


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Teachers' Turn To Learn

“… if you want to be a better teacher, you cannot be satisfied simply to gain experience as the years pass. You must also practice, and practice means (1) consciously trying to improve, (2) seeking feedback on your teaching, and (3) undertaking activities for the sake of improvement, even if they don’t directly contribute to your job.”

Willingham, Daniel T. (2009-06-10). Why Don't Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (Kindle Locations 3238-3240). Wiley. Kindle Edition. 

The above quote caught my attention this morning because it addresses what this blog is all about.  It is my goal to bring to teachers insights from my reading that may help teachers be more successful in their classrooms.  Willingham says that the research on teacher improvement is not flattering to teachers.  According to his reading of the research, teachers grow most quickly in their first few years in the classroom.  Using scores on standardized tests as a measure, teachers show significant growth in their first five years.  What’s alarming is that a 20-year veteran of the classroom posts results no better than a 10-year veteran.  He says that teachers, though more experienced, produce no better measurable results from what he calls the “self-serving bias,” the habit of seeing what happens in their classrooms in a light favorable to themselves, with problems blamed on external forces.  While I suspect that a failure to improve is not in the least limited to teaching, I think that teachers, in particular, should strive to go beyond the “self-serving bias” if they can.

We ask our students to come to school and grow every day.  We expect them to work hard, focus, and learn new information, habits, and skills.  We know that children pick up attitudes and behaviors quite uncritically from their families, as in “…the apple don’t fall far from the tree.”  Is it not reasonable to expect that our behaviors and attitudes have a similar effect on our students?  That is, if they see and hear us trying new things, being willing to do poorly at first, even asking for their impressions of the new things we’re trying, is it not possible that that spirit of improvement might rub off on our students?  I particularly mention the openness to use our students as coaches for our improvement because coaching is one thing that Willingham says is important for learning.  Feedback, even if it’s painful or frustrating at times, is what elevates experience to genuine practice and defeats the impulse to sum up “the same old thing” with a cheery, “I think that went well.”

In his book, Willingham offers a 5-step plan for using video and partner teaching to study, ciritque, and enhance teaching skills.  I encourage the reader to look up Willingham’s book for that and many other fine ideas.  What I’ve said covers points (1) and (2) above.  About (3), Willingham offers a metaphor.  He mentions athletes who lift weights to get stronger, even though weightlifting isn’t directly related to the athlete’s sport.  For the teacher, I would suggest that extensive reading in areas that support curricular areas as well as titles in psychology, technology, and even business might qualify as those outside pursuits which might enhance teaching skills.  There are also numerous blogs written by teachers which might stimulate new ideas in the classroom.  One that I’ve been following lately, Ditch the Textbook, is a model for a teacher looking to improve classroom education by adapting relevant technologies to the task of educating children being raised in an era of rapidly-changing technology.  Just a word of caution about technology.  If technology is used to deliver the “same old” message, that is not innovation.  I suspect that the best uses of technology will be those which allow students to get quicker and more effective feedback.