When I began this extended parental leave from teaching, I could never have dreamed how much I would still wind up learning even while away from the classroom. How many people would be willing to teach me. How often my thinking would be pushed.
When I share blog posts and articles by others in my PLN on social media, I often include a quote that was meaningful to me. I want you to know that each time I do this, it’s because you’ve taught me, challenged me, and lifted me. And I am so very grateful.
Here are 20 articles that particularly made me think in 2016. Their impact has been such that I have continued pondering them long after reading them. They continue to shape and inspire my thinking, writing, and living. Thank you for making my continued professional learning possible, and for enriching my life in all facets!
“As I reflect on what I call the “transference of learning to application,” I wonder how this works for our diverse learners? Is drill and practice an option? How do the programs you have, work with your students? How do we adapt our lessons to meet their needs? We know one size doesn’t fit all, but where is the “give” that’s okay?”
Readers of this blog know I am a huge advocate for student ownership over learning. To me, Faige’s questions come down to the balance of asserting our timetable over our students’ progress vs honoring their individual pace, development, and interests.
There is no quick, easy answer to this. But I strongly believe that every measure we take to be aware of this balance and to prioritize our students’ needs over external agendas/pressures is worthwhile. Here are 10 strategies I have found to be helpful in this pursuit.
“For example, the inquiry into invertebrates has potential for students to develop a greater understanding of interdependence, cycles, growth and adaptation. Once we are aware of this, we can stretch students thinking beyond the ‘topic’ itself and compare and contrast the learning we are doing in this instance with conceptually similar contexts in the past.”
This helps place skills and abilities from standards into better context as students make connections within broader, more meaningful/relevant scale.
2. Encourage autonomy & metacognition in skills practice. I am a big fan of the Daily 5 routine for literacy skills (& Daily 3 for math) for this very reason–it’s one framework that not only allows students to choose how to spend their learning time, but helps them learn how to discern how to spend their time. In other words, help students stop waiting for you to tell them what skills they need to work on, & start teaching them how to identify that themselves.
3. Use Visible Thinking Routines. This practice helps strengthen metacognition and allows you a way to document thinking in a setting that provides much more student ownership and expression than perhaps a worksheet might.
4. Model reflecting on progress frequently. In the above article by Kath Murdoch, she lists possible questions that might help students to better understand the learning process, such as “What have we been doing to find out about this? What have been some of the most effective resources? How might we go about organizing this information?” This allows students to take greater ownership over the learning process, better understanding when and why practice might be necessary.
5. Make assessments as metacognitive & student-centered as possible. 5th grade teacher Jess Lifshitz shared a phenomenal example of this in the revision process with her students. Their “Revision Checklist” for their fiction writing unit prompted students to examine not just what their writing was like, but the specific reasons their writing improved.
6. Use standards-based grading over traditional grading. Younger grades are generally already good at focusing on the standards instead of grades and averages. But for older students in particular, it’s crucial for them to break away from the mode of doing “enough” for the grade, and that starts with a shift in mindset to the actual progress. An ASCD article entitled “7 Reasons for Standards-Based Grading” gives a great example of what this kind of grading might look like:
7. Keep whole-class instruction to a minimum. Rely more heavily on student conferencing, small group sessions, and, when needed, whole group mini-lessons. You’ll be better equipped both to differentiate and to keep up individual conversations on students’ progress and what practice is needed.
8. Use creative problem-solving to promote student voice & to assess. We have countless digital tools at our fingertips today to help us solve old problems in new ways. A recent example of this was when Taryn BondClegg introduced back-channeling to her 4th graders so they could share and discuss ideas during their read aloud–without actually interrupting the read aloud. She even uses the transcript as a formative assessment of their reading comprehension. An ingeniously authentic way to both ascertain and develop their abilities.
9. Allow students time for personal inquiry. This goes by many names– Genius Hour, 80/20 time, Passion Time. Allowing our students time to pursue their questions gives them the opportunity to practice & build upon many of the skills they are learning in a way that’s meaningful and directly relevant for them.
10. No “Secret Teacher Business.” This is one of my favorite phrases learned from Edna Sackson, and it makes complete sense. We are all be on the same team, and students should be familiar with all the vocabulary, longterm goals, standards, etc. that are in place for their progress and benefit.
Student ownership is key for taking practice from a place of “doing school” to a place of purpose and context in our individual learning journeys.
Professional development meetings are usually an aside, right? We often want to hurry and get them over with so we can get back to our classrooms and students.
But what if we deliberately embraced them as part of our learning process? And no, I don’t mean a general, feel-good, kiss-up-to-the-admin kind of embrace.
I mean, what if we identified one genuine learning moment, and then (here’s the important part) shared that learning with our class when we returned?
It was easy for me the first time I did this, simply because that particular professional development training had been a particularly engaging and enlightening session.
My students had always asked where I’d been when I returned from meetings. But this time, rather than my usual quick response of “meetings,” so we could get back into our learning, I opened up:
(them) “Mrs. Wade, where did you go?”
(me) “A meeting for teachers to learn about how to become better teachers. Did you know we do that? And guess what?! Do you know what I just learned about? Reading workshop! Want to try it?”
My enthusiasm was contagious, and they were instantly curious. I couldn’t have planned a more perfect opportunity to introduce the very concept we’d been encouraged to start implementing.
I continued sharing with them about how I’d learned that we could model reading workshop just like we do writer’s workshop; namely, a mini lesson, guided practice, and wrap up. I shared how I’d discovered that they can make connections during reading workshop that will help them strengthen their writing, and vice versa. And I shared how excited I was because discovering and practicing reading strategies in this way seemed much more interesting than reading comprehension worksheets.
When I asked them if they wanted to give it a shot, they were all-in. And when we actually started, we kept the open dialogue going. I would say things like, “What did you think? How did that compare to the way we used to do that? How could we improve this process?
There was an openness, an energy, and a collective commitment to make this work. And I believe this stemmed from trust. Because the truth was, I was a novice at reading workshop. I had just barely learned about how to implement it. So I know that had I instead pretended to be the expert, rolling it out in a grand introduction of authority, we would have lost that precious element.
When we let our students see our authentic learning process, we build trust and respect and cooperation because they know we’re in this arena, too. And when we let them in on the vision (even if all the little pieces are not yet in place), they are more willing to bring it to life together. Our students need our genuine, messy learning process more than they need a polished and perfect appearance of control.
Years ago, toward the end of the school year, I felt like our class was in a rut. I wasn’t sure what we were missing–Autonomy? Inspiration? Creativity? All of the above?
Whatever it was, I decided to do something drastic. I had recently come across a story online of a teacher who encouraged her students to create videos, and it seemed like a great idea to me.
So the next day, I checked out the laptop carts and dived head-long. I told them they had to work in small groups. I told them they could create any commercial they wanted. I might have had slightly more structure than I can recall, but if there was, it wasn’t much. And I stepped back, awaiting the student-centered magic to come to life.
It was bedlam.
Shocked and dismayed at the chaos and the discord and the aimlessness, I cancelled the whole thing the next day.
Today, a small part of me still wants to leave this experience forever buried in the corner of my memory labeled, “I-can’t-believe-you-actually-tried-that.”
But the rest of me knows that our failures are rich with learning opportunities. It reminds me of a teacher’s remarks during a PD session on inquiry this fall in which she expressed a wish to hear more about inquiry attempts that have crashed and burned. So, having come a long way since then (I hope!), I think I’m ready to finally retrieve that memory from its dark recesses and shed light and learning on it instead.
Here are 5 major elements that I now realize I was missing:
1. Purpose. It’s been so long that I honestly don’t even remember whether the commercials were intended as an extension of a unit. But I do know that a defined purpose and invitation to wonder and explore were missing. My students were eager to try it out, of course, but there was a lot less deliberation, and a lot more mania. Today, I find Kath Murdoch’s diagram of framing inquiry particularly helpful in establishing purpose, starting with “big ideas” and “context for learning.”
2. Metacognition. While I had always wanted my students to take more ownership over their learning, I had never explicitly taught them to consider their own thinking processes. I appreciated Trevor MacKenzie’s (@trev_mackenzie) recent article about bringing inquiry into the classroom in which he describes how he sought out metacognition in the inquiry process with his students with the visual below:
“Students should feel connected to their learning, certain about how to plan their inquiry, and comfortable with its responsibility. The Types of Student Inquiry structure our coursework and learning in a gradual release of control model, one where students learn essential inquiry skills throughout the year rather than being thrown into the deep end of the inquiry pool right away.
Each of my students has a copy of the swimming pool illustration above, and it hangs on our classroom wall.”
I had undoubtedly thrown us all into the deep end without equipping my students with proper ownership over their own inquiry skills/processes.
3. Scaffolding. Mackenzie’s diagram is a great representation of the scaffolding I was missing; there was certainly no gradual release of control. One inquiry teacher who I find does a great job of scaffolding is Taryn Bondclegg. Her class blog, Risk & Reflect, is packed with examples; a recent instance that stood out was when she introduced back-channeling to her fourth graders. You’ll notice how they “tested out back channeling in a low stakes way” before diving into her ultimate purpose of using it during read aloud time.
4. Questions. Beyond general supervision and feedback, neither my students nor I had any driving questions to help them ponder, fine-tune, or reflect. I now know the critical role powerful questions play during provocations, wrap-ups, visible thinking routines, and just about everywhere else in an inquiry-driven classroom.
5. Skills. We had never made movies in my class before. None of us had the slightest familiarity with the movie-making software on our laptops. And while I have a lot of confidence in my students’ ability to independently figure out much of technology, it was simply too open-ended and complex for my fifth graders to handle, especially when combined with the general lack of structure. Another one of Kath Murdoch’s visuals of the phases of inquiry illustrates many other skills in the inquiry learning process that we neglected: finding out, sorting out, synthesizing, reflecting, and more (I highly recommend exploring her blog and other resources here).
As much of a train-wreck as this activity was, it was the beginning of my journey toward becoming a more inquiry-minded teacher, a journey that I am still on today. The experience taught me that increased student ownership requires much more purpose, structure, and nuance than I had realized. So, however naïve, I’m grateful that I took that first leap, laying the groundwork for more deliberate future attempts.
Do you have any stories of inquiry fails that you learned from to share? Please do in the comments!
Stock photos have always made me giggle a bit. I think that’s why I fell in love with My Imaginary Well-Dressed Toddler Quinoa (I’ve included an example below in case you are not yet familiar with Tiffany Beveridge’s Pinterest wit):
Yet when I first started blogging, I found myself using them because, well, isn’t that what bloggers do?
Thankfully, that ended the day it finally dawned on me that, at best, they were doing nothing for the meaning I wanted to convey (and at worst, they were a possible detraction). This revelation had me ready to ditch featured images in general.
Fortunately, that was around the time I also discovered Death To The Stock Photo, a company committed to sharing high quality, artistic images.
I was immediately impressed. Though (because?) there were no shots of smiling students raising their hands, I sensed an opportunity.
My initial thought was that using these photos would enhance the general aesthetic of the blog. That certainly was an instant effect.
But over time, I realized that something more was happening. I had gone from thinking that posts about classrooms/students required images of classrooms/students, to realizing that when I featured an image that I found genuinely inspiring, it matters.
It matters because it makes me think about making connections that are less obvious (such as this image of a tool display to go along with my post on curation).
It matters because it makes me wonder. Unlike stock photos, each of these images clearly tell a story, and I love imagining what those stories might be (like the image below that I used for a post on refugees).
And it matters because it makes me feel. The photos are no longer filler. They have real soul and significance and authenticity (I really loved selecting this image from the “Tactile” photopack for my post on helping students discover more personal meaning).
All of this makes me consider how we go about teaching and learning.
Are there any practices we do arbitrarily?
Are there ways we can dig deeper to get away from practices that feel too obvious and spoon-fed?
Last month, I followed Pernille Ripp’s 7th grade English class’ progress through a project on refugees. I even pointed to it in a recent post as an example of Twitter’s potential for learning. And on Tuesday, Microsoft shared a beautiful Youtube video of their experience:
After witnessing how all this learning and growing has unfolded, I was saddened to encounter the following comment on the Youtube video:
It’s not the first time we’ve heard this kind of rhetoric, nor will it be the last. The “reading, writing, ‘rithmatic” camp is still alive and well.
However, what those who are of this mindset still don’t understand is that this is English in today’s world.
A world in which current events no longer sit quietly in the morning paper, and instead are loudly debated at all times from the devices in our pockets.
A world in which the negative is amplified and distorted truths go viral.
So when the standards instruct us to “engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners on grade 7 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.1), is it beyond English instruction to tackle an issue that is very much a part of their lives?
Or when we’re to teach students to “Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.3), is it beyond English instruction to seek out civility and compassion to help bring clarity to current events fraught with misinformation?
The truth is, we can’t just direct our students to the encyclopedia anymore. The volume and quality of the information our students receive every day from the Internet is staggering, and we simply cannot pretend that it does not shape their learning process. Especially since with greater global access comes greater global citizenship. Thus, dramatic is the difference between asking a student from 1990 vs. 2016 to “Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.7.8).
In the complexity of teaching and learning today, 21st century educators know that we are tasked to teach our students how to think, not what to think.
Or, as Pernille put it so well herself at the onset of this project,
“My job is not to make you think a certain way, my job is to make you think. So whatever your opinion may be, all I ask of you is to have one based on fact, rather than what others believe. Keep your ears open and ask a lot of questions. That is the least you can do as the future of this country.”
Keep up the great work, Pernille, and all other teachers dedicated to helping their students make sense of this dynamic and exponentially shifting world!
I recently started reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. Two quotes stand out sharply to me. The first:
“I believe that this corporate machinery of scripted programs, comprehension worksheets (reproducibles, handouts, printables, whatever you want to call them), computer-based incentive packages, and test practice curriculum facilitates a solid bottom-line for the companies that sell them, and give schools proof they can point to that they are using every available resource to teach reading, but these efforts are doomed to fail a large number of students because they leave out the most important factor. When you take a forklift and shovel off the programs, underneath it all is a child reading a book.”
“I am a reader, a flashlight-under-the-covers, carries-a-book-everywhere-I-go, don’t-look-at-my-Amazon-bill. I choose purses based on whether I can cram a paperback into them, and my books are the first items I pack into a suitcase. I am the person who family and friends call when they need a book recommendation or cannot remember who wrote Heidi. My identity as a person is so entwined with my love of reading and books that I cannot separate the two.”
The best literacy teachers I know of are these kinds of readers. And they do it without the “corporate machinery” of literacy instruction.
It’s obvious why, isn’t it? For one thing, they are able to give timely book recommendations tailored to students’ needs and interests; their kids don’t need those drill-and-kill comprehension worksheets when they are already talking excitedly about that book you helped them find! More importantly, these teachers have thoroughly shaken off the hypocrisy of teaching students to embrace something they themselves do not. They keep literary enthusiasm front and center, regarding books as familiar friends, rather than as benchmarks to “pass off.” They are the embodiment of those “not the filling…a pail, but the lighting…a fire” (William Butler Yeats). Our literacy teachers should be the best readers around.
Yet, for me personally, I admit that I have felt overwhelmed by these prodigious teacher-readers. I love reading, but I have limitations that make me worry that I wouldn’t be able to meet my students’ needs as well as they can.
For me, those limitations here boil down to problems: #1) I’m a slow reader. #2) I have a terrible memory for book titles.
Enter Goodreads. Though I’ve had an account for years, I’d always considered it to be too cumbersome to use regularly. But the two features below have at last shown me how my efforts there can be richly rewarded and magnified to meet my students’ and my own reading needs.
Problem #1: Slow reading
I don’t read the volume of books that these teacher-readers that I admire do. Without that volume, it’s difficult to offer suggestions that sufficiently meet their needs and interests. But as I sort books that I have read into custom digital shelves on Goodreads (see below), it generates recommendations based on the genres/levels of those shelves. This allows me to leverage the reading/reviews of millions of other readers to help me get that perfect book in my students’ hands.
Problem #2: Memory for titles
For the still-many books I am able to read, the titles tend to swirl together over time, making it difficult to pull one out for a timely student recommendation. Goodreads solves this problem by allowing me to sort and “shelve” these books into a personalized library with custom categories.
To an outsider, my many shelves may seem like madness, but for me, I know they will help me pick out the trees in the forest, so to speak. Some of my current shelves include:
5th grade: Friendship (titles like Wonder, Flora and Ulysses, The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or the Three Magical Children and their Holy Dog, Three Times Lucky…)
5th grade: Other-Worldly-Whimsical (The Magician’s Elephant, The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, The Wild Robot)
5th grade: Overcoming Odds (Rules, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, Holes)
Picture books: Challenging Status Quo (“In Mary’s Garden,” “Rosie Revere, Engineer,” “Cinder Edna,” “Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music”)
Picture books: Loss and Emotion (“The Heart and the Bottle,” “Boats for Papa,” “Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgois”)
Picture books: Unexpected Endings & Humor (“Stuck,” “The Skunk,” “The Wolf’s Chicken Stew”)
Bonus feature: Integrate your search with your local library’s database!
Today, I added a button to my account that takes me from a book page on Goodreads directly to the book on my library’s online catalog. This allows me to check availability and to place a hold that much more easily! Here’s a link to help you learn how to add the button. If you run into any trouble, just contact Goodread’s customer support and they will add your library for you so you can select it from their list! 🙂
Whatever your strategy–whether through Goodreads or more regularly scheduled library visits–our students will reap the benefits when we choose to commit to move toward greater authenticity as readers ourselves.