Why I Told My Students I Hated Science

I hated science as a kid. I got tangled up in all the instructions. I could never seem to keep all the “-osis” lingo straight. My biology course was the worst grade I received in college (though I still blame that on my husband since that was the semester we met…). Most of all, I just found most of it to be, dare I say it, boring.

Then, I became a fifth grade teacher. Our science curriculum included chemical/physical changes, geological changes in earth’s surface, genetics/adaptation, magnetism, and static/current electricity.

And for the first time, I LOVED it.

I geeked out over our chemistry experiments.

I discovered just how unique the geology of our state is and told my students that geologists all over the globe are jealous.

I played with our magnet sets.

I found myself fascinated by the survival traits and adaptations of animals everywhere I went — actually paying attention to those little plaques at zoos and aquariums.

I started thinking about lightning and static-y socks in terms of electrons.

The very thought of my students missing out on the wonder of it all was more than I could stand. So I shared that wonder every chance I could; but I also told them it wasn’t always that way for me. Why?

Because I wanted them to understand that love of learning is intentional. I wanted them to see what a shift in mindset looks like. And I wanted to let them know that if they found the subject matter dull, we could uncover the wonder together — because I’d been there, too.

Ultimately, helping our students connect with curricula is as much a matter of vulnerable relationship-building than anything else. We need to help them see us in our honest learning journeys if we are to show them how to navigate theirs.

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4 Reasons We Just Can’t Break Up with Basals (& How to Finally Move On)

The typical basal-reading program lesson frequently boils down to something like this:

  • Assigned shared text read aloud.
  • Definitions of carefully-bolded vocabulary words copied down.
  • Comprehension worksheets filled out.
  • Students and teachers alike feeling bored to tears.

The truth is, putting kids through this kind of soul-less exercise will produce authentic readers no more than the mastery of connect-the-dots sheets will produce artists.

And we know it. Master teachers refer to the need to “finesse and hybridize” basals to make sure they’re effective. ¹ (which also makes basals’ claims at “research-based effectiveness” shaky since there’s real possibility they take credit for master teachers’ adjustments).

There are so many other ways to help our students develop the reading skills they need while protecting and nurturing their love of reading. Here are a few of the messages I believe we keep getting from basal program companies to convince us otherwise.

#1: Inexperienced teachers need me!

Basals assert that new teachers won’t be able to navigate the waters of literacy instruction without their careful direction. However, if our solution for offering literacy support to new teachers is to let them muddle through a sub-par program, we’re doing a disservice to both our teachers and our students.

Furthermore, even with all the details of a basal program (many of which supply ideas for differentiation, activating background knowledge, etc), “only a well-trained teacher can make the multifaceted decisions involved in developing such instruction”² anyway. Outsourcing this training to a one-size fits all manual is simply inadequate.

P.S. Going basal-free doesn’t mean you have to/should abandon a framework. One phenomenal example is a a workshop framework by Pam Allyn that I reviewed a couple years ago.

#2: You can’t be sure students will develop skills without my guidance.

In a workshop/units of study model, not only do students develop literacy skills, but they do so with a greater degree of context and response to the ongoing trajectory of student learning.

Meanwhile, basal programs tend to spend disproportionate amounts of time drilling specific skills, such as the ones involved in reading comprehension. Consider this:

“It is critical to note that these and other reading programs allocate as much or more actual time to rehearsing comprehension skills than they allocate to teaching any other element in their language-arts program…In reality, when children experience problems comprehending text, it is much more likely due to the child’s lack of knowledge of the subject matter…The notion that we can teach students a set of skills that they will be able to apply to new and unfamiliar texts or situations is a process that cognitive psychologists call “skills transference.” This is regarded as an inordinately difficult task for our brains to pull off and, therefore, is not a practical educational goal. But it is a goal set forward by every major reading program on the market.”³

In addition, even if students develop said skills, if they never apply them because all those basal worksheets suffocated their love of reading, what’s the point? As educator Ross Cooper wrote, “First and foremost, we must promote a love of reading, not a culture of literacy-based micromanagement.4

#3: You won’t have ready access to ability-appropriate text!

Twenty years ago, this may have been the case. But just consider this small sampling of today’s possibilities:

  • Shared texts via projectors/document cameras
  • Newsela (engaging, level-able text at the click of a button)
  • Wonderopolis (text based on “more than 90,000 Wonder questions submitted by users” and differentiation features such as selected-text-to-audio and hover-to-define-vocabulary)
  • DOGO (kid-friendly news that’s also leveled at the click of a button and includes assignments, vocab, and Google Classroom integration)
  • Savvy multimedia librarians that can help identify/pull relevant texts during the immersion phase of units.

#4: You won’t have as much time without me to meet students’ individual needs!

Basal models assume that most kids’ learning takes place right at the top of the bell curve, with “differentiation tips” for the few kids on either side of the curve. But the truth is, every journey is unique. The sooner we disentangle ourselves from all the micromanaged requirements of a basal, the sooner we can spend our time where it really counts: 1-1 conferences, responsive mini-lessons, mentor text studies, student ownership/agency, etc.

No matter what promises are made to the contrary, we need to remember that “there’s no simple solution, no panacea, or miracle cure for reading. The range of ways to solve reading achievement challenges is as broad as the range of student profiles.”²

Sources:

1. http://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1507&context=ehd_theses

2. https://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/resources/2/Principal/2009/J-F_p26.pdf

3. http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Basal_readers.pdf

4. http://www.bamradionetwork.com/edwords-blog/3-reasons-to-rethink-your-basal-reader

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Choosing Courage Over Fear

It’s now been over three years since I’ve been in the classroom. Three years. And while I miss being in the classroom, I can honestly say that thanks to the many incredible teachers in my PLN, not a day has passed that I haven’t learned more about how to return to the classroom a better teacher.

A powerful example came recently when I read this thought-provoking post from my friend Abe (@Arbay38). One of his comments perfectly articulated one of my fears of shifting toward more student voice, choice and ownership:


The rest of his post greatly assuaged this fear, but I’ve continued to reflect on this question over the past couple of weeks. But then, he shared something else on Twitter — something so profound, that I think I can finally put this fear completely to rest:


This child has reminded me once and for all that the bottom line is doing what’s best for kids. Withholding opportunities for autonomy now for fear of future constraints is like refusing to build the ship for fear of future rough waters.

Isn’t the possibility that they may not experience this kind of autonomy in future classrooms all the more reason to help them cultivate it now? To help them reflect now why it matters, and how they’ll respond to its absence in the future?

Our students deserve the very best we can offer right now. And as we regularly ask them to choose courage over fear through risk-taking and the growth mindset, we can be the first to model that back: choosing courage over fear.

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Thinking About Those Reading Minutes & Logs

I recently came across a tweet via Mr Moon on “Why Your Child Can’t Skip Their 20 Minutes of Reading Tonight:”


And I promise that MOSTLY, I agree with the conclusion here. EXCEPT…

…what if James’ 28,800 minutes came kicking and screaming (or even just half of those minutes)?

…what if the reason for Travis’ scant minutes is that he got burnt out by the end of 2nd grade from having to log them, day in and day out?

I’m not saying that Travis is better off here. Obviously, he’s going to get behind.

What I’m saying is that when we rely too heavily on those minutes, we might miss the bigger picture: cultivating the kind of authentic love of reading that will benefit them over a lifetime.

Pernille Ripp has written some excellent posts on the topic, encouraging teachers to be conscious of open communication with students and parents, differentiation, and promoting the intrinsic value of the reading itself over extrinsic motivators.

I have spoken with parents who have expressed concern that their child used to love reading, but that the daily fight brought on by marking minutes and titles and signatures had left  in its wake resentment and avoidance of reading. Of course, this is the worst-case scenario outcome — but as one who once assigned reading logs myself, it does make me wonder: are reading logs worth that kind of risk?

So yes, do what you can to help your child pack in those precious minutes of reading. But do it with care to ensure they stay a treasure to our readers.

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4 Questions To Help You Inventory Your Classroom Wall Space

Every day of 4th grade, I stared at the gigantic poster stretching across the top of the whiteboard: “Common sense is not so common.”

I had not the slightest clue what it meant.

Other than a back-to-school lecture, my teacher never referred to it directly (or perhaps she did, but because of the above-mentioned non-comprehension, it probably just didn’t register).

I spent the year wondering about it to the point of distraction. I sensed that it was important to my teacher, so I spent time trying to crack its cryptic riddle. “Sense. Sense that is common. I think a sense is what you use to smell and taste and stuff. And common means a lot. So smelling and tasting that happens a lot? That doesn’t seem right. Especially since it’s also not common, somehow…

Today, I look back at this memory and chuckle at the sheer bafflement I experienced that year. But as a teacher myself now, reflecting on this does provide a bit more than just a laugh. It makes look inward to examine what kind of experience [intended or not] my walls have given my students.

In my first classroom, the teacher before me had left behind all sorts of posters on the walls, including posters on 6 traits of writing or motivational quotes.

But as the months moved on, I realized that they may as well have been wallpaper for all the benefit my students were getting from them. I did not integrate them in any meaningful way, and eventually, we decided we’d rather make room for student work.

Since then, I’ve found other messages and resources worthy to go on my walls that are the few exceptions to my student-created-only rule. But now I filter them with a mindset that wall-space is valuable real estate; tenants had better pull their weight. I’m not currently in the classroom, but plan to be back in a few years, so meanwhile, here are questions I ask myself as I bookmark, download, & log away ideas for future wall content:

  • Do I find this personally and genuinely inspiring? Some of you may be thinking, wait, aren’t we trying to inspire the kids, here? True. But I’ve found that displaying personally enlightening messages to be much more valuable than any cute monkey-face “you can do it” sign. Here’s why: If it causes me to elevate my practices, and if I regularly communicate to my students how and why it does so, it ultimately inspires students because I’m modeling to them ways I’m trying to become a better teacher for them.  I shared a few examples here, but Brene Brown print-outs are always my favorite:
Via www.BreneBrown.com
  • Is there a trace of lecture involved? If looking at a quote even faintly makes me wonder, “What’s the deal with kids these days!” (ie, the “common sense is not so common” poster) most likely, a) it’s not going to help my students as much as I think it will and, b) it runs too high a risk of damaging relationships with students.
  • Is it an intentional, interactive display designed to help students see themselves as authentic readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, etc? This one is a little more abstract, but luckily, I found the perfect example last week on Nerdy Book Club. It’s bookmarked, tweeted, and had better stay in my memory for when I return to the classroom.
via NerdyBookClub by Jillian Heise
via NerdyBookClub by Jillian Heise

This particular display is meant to share progress on Donalyn Miller’s fabulous #BookADay (also see #ClassroomBookADay) challenge. To me, this isn’t just a bragging-rights kind of display–it’s also a beautiful and handy way to recall individual reads throughout the year that have been meaningful and instructive.

  • Does it bring some rapport-building humor to the mix? In the middle of a grammar unit? This kind of light-hearted and memorable fun would be a must-share.

Whatever you display, remember that there’s a reason that the physical classroom environment is called the “third teacher” — decide now what kind of teacher you want it to be!

What about you? What are your requirements for what goes on your classroom walls? Please share!

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The Power of One Young Digital Citizen–Again

I started off my daily Twitter review yesterday with a post from @Sue_Crowley with several intriguing comments:

and


I decided to check it out. It appears that source of all the hubbub centers on phenomenal new customer service rep managing the Southern Rail UK Twitter account. His name’s Eddie, and he’s a 15 year old receiving some work experience

Not only did he do a fabulous job fielding ordinary customer service questions, but he interacted with customers in a way that definitely caught Twitter’s attention. And young as he is, several interested parties already appear to be trying to poach him for their organizations:

This is definitely one young digital citizen that has his 4 C’s down: communication (fielding hundreds of comments), critical thinking (figuring out helpful responses), creativity (engaging with people in a fun way that got the attention of thousands), and collaboration (working with Neil).

Ultimately, this thread brought me back to reflecting on digital citizenship and literacy yet again. While we know that the jobs of the future will little-resemble the jobs of today, we still often treat the very devices and platforms that will carry our students toward that future — as nuisances. Banning phones, blocking Youtube, insisting on a single way of note-taking.

But here, we have an example of what happens when our students are given authentic opportunities to engage with those devices and platforms and audiences instead.

The fact is, digital citizenship empowers students to amplify their voices for good. Shunning it for fear of the distraction, cyberbullying, etc. perpetuates the very mentality that encourages abuse of these resources: namely, that they are not part of the “real world” and are therefore relegated only for entertainment purposes.

So next time you encounter a blanket ban of a digital resource that seems to favor adult convenience over student ownership, here are a few questions you might ask:

  • How might teaching digital citizenship help students treat the resource with more responsibility?
  • What are alternative courses of action to remove the nuisance factor?
  • How often do you personally treat this resource as an opportunity to create, share, and connect, vs. simple entertainment?
  • How often do you share with your students the ways that you use this resource to create, share, share, and connect?
  • How can you re-envision my students using this resource in a powerful, meaningful way (both now and throughout their lives)? How can you help your students see themselves using the resource in that way?
  • Will this ban help or hinder students in their development of the 4 C’s of 21st century learning?

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The Myth of the “Recipe for Success”

Faige Meller, a friend in my PLN recently wrote about mindsets:

“One of our teacher mindsets has been to follow rules. We ask kids to follow the rules, because that’s what we as teachers do. We might not like to admit that some of what we do is part of the recipe of schools; schedules, routines, classroom design, classroom rules, administrative directives and so on and so forth.”

Reading this instantly took me back to a memory early in my first year of teaching. During a teacher education course, I had been given a piece of advice from a professor: “At your first job, ask for the standardized testing data right away. Your principal will love you!”

Wanting to make a good impression, I did just that — before the students had even arrived for the first day of school, I asked my administrators for that data. And like magic, it worked. They seemed pleased.

But I couldn’t shake an unsettled feeling. Faithful to the “recipe for success” I’d been given, I did indeed look over the data — but it turned out that it didn’t tell me much anyway. What was more troubling, however, was the fact that I knew I hadn’t engaged in any sort of authentic relationship-building. I had simply demonstrated that I was willing to be a compliant hoop-jumper.

Don’t get me wrong — willingness to be a “team-player” has its place in any work setting. However, it seems that too often, we’re willing to stop there. As long as the job gets done, why go further? Why bother with real relationship-building? Why push the status quo? That advice I had been given as a pre-service teacher definitely promoted that mentality.

Maybe it’s because we don’t want to give advice that has any degree of uncertainty to it. But John Spencer illustrates the role of that uncertainty well:

by John Spencer

If we’re always “sure this will work,” we choose the comfort of certainty over the messiness of opportunities.

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