Keep ‘Em Busy or Facilitate the Best Busy-ness #TeacherMom

When we are stressed out by our kids’ busy-ness, how do we respond?

My youngest has recently reached an apex of busy-ness I never thought possible from such a small person. The term “relentless” is probably his most readily identified descriptor.

And for the sake of maintaining my sanity, I have definitely been in the camp of trying to keep my own children busy long enough to let me hear my own thoughts from time to time.

With our students, it can become a strong temptation to do something similar — particularly when we are trying to work with small groups.

Norah Colvin’s recent post had me thinking more about this notion. She writes:

“What about a busy toddler? Toddlers are some of the busiest people I know. And they are generally quite joyous in their busyness, demonstrating the true meaning of being in the present moment. For me, being busy is a joy when the activities are of my choice and for my purposes. I have no need to find things to keep me busy. There is more I wish to do than I will ever have time to complete. I resent tasks that keep me busy and away from what I’d rather be doing.”

No matter how much our kids grow, we can help them uncover the busy-ness that will spark that joy within. But not when it’s overly contrived and designed around our agenda — it seems that for whatever reason, even the most engaging endeavors become less so when kids sense there’s an end-game for distraction for grown-ups’ benefit.

For our classrooms full of vastly different, busy students, this means to providing authentic choice. It means teaching them to regulate their own time and interests. It means facilitating the very best kinds of busy.

And for my house that seems to be bursting at the seams with a busy 1 year-old, it means finding ways to just let go and enjoy this crazy ride together.

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The Magic of “You Can”

In an article on TED-Ed clubs this last summer, one tip particularly stood out to me:

“Don’t tell them ‘you can’t’ even if the idea is crazy, tell them ‘you can’ and you will see the magic.”

On the same day I read the article, I had also read about a boy who has invented a small device intended to save babies accidentally left behind in hot cars.

It’s clear from this video that this is a child who is told “you can” on a regular basis in a loving environment. But what if he weren’t?

The naysayers in Facebook comments on this story were abundant, insisting that this idea would just encourage lazy parents, or that it would be futile against extreme heat anyway. And while many of these people are just exhibiting the unfortunate behavior typical of those who don’t see themselves as digital citizens (ie, they enjoying the roles of anonymity, consumption, and sidelines over authenticity, contribution, and involvement), they completely miss the beautiful picture here:

A 10 year-old child has actually devised a prototype in an attempt to better the world around him!

It still makes me wonder, how often do we, as the grown-ups, shut down our kids’ ideas, though they might have potential for brilliance? With my own children, I know I can sometimes have a much greater tendency toward anticipating the mess and the the improbability and the disappointment.

The point is, even if there is validity in our grown-up criticisms (it will take forever to clean up; it won’t help as many people as you think; it will be way slower to do it your way), when a child exhibits any kind of enthusiasm, compassion, and initiative, do we really want to shut that down?

So again, I remind myself:

“Don’t tell them ‘you can’t’ even if the idea is crazy, tell them ‘you can’ and you will see the magic.”

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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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Rethinking Calendar Time #TeacherMom

Counting popsicle sticks. Singing songs about weather. Chanting the days of the week. The Calendar Time routine has become a veritable staple in many PreK-2 classrooms.

Which is why I don’t make this challenge lightly. But between research and my own observations, I can’t help but wonder whether Calendar Time is pulling its weight proportionate to its allotted time/energy.

Research

Calendar Time for Young Children: Good Intentions Gone Awry” (May 2008) by Sallee J. Beneke, Michaelene M. Ostrosky, and Lilian G. Katz raises some important questions with regards to our use of calendar time. The two biggest include:

  • Developmental readiness, especially with regards to temporal understanding (“According to Friedman (2000), the ability to judge the relative time from a past event or until a future event in terms of the calendar year is not in place until sometime between 7 and 10 years of age”).
  •  The skills we work to cultivate during calendar time are often better suited toward guided group/individual work that is more easily differentiated.

The article offers several alternatives that would be more developmentally appropriate and effective for the intended outcomes of Calendar Time, such as:

  • Showing the story of the day’s schedule with a picture schedule
  • Shared photo-journals or artifacts chronicling class happenings
  • Time-linked displays to document learning
  • Project work that brings time-related concepts to a more immediate and relevant sphere

They conclude,

“Teachers who intend to keep calendar a part of their daily classroom routine will be more effective if they develop ways to incorporate the calendar that require little time and reflect young children’s limited development of time concepts.”

Personal Observation

I witnessed just how valuable the alternatives can be in watching my own daughter’s temporal development unfold. When she was about 4 years old, I noticed that she could never keep track of how soon events would occur — life became an endless stream of questioning to find out how many days before _____. In response, I decided to create for her what we called our “week wheel,” on which we stuck pictures of frequent events (which she illustrated, of course). Quite apart from saving my sanity, this handy tool also provided a hands-on method for her to better comprehend what comes next.

More recently, she started asking me what day of the week it was — every single day. For a long time, I didn’t think much of it; I dismissed it as simple curiosity. Until I realized that she was creating her own picture calendar out of the one included in the weekly bulletin at church.

Each day, as soon as she heard the name of the day, she’d dash back in to check what she’d planned for herself for the day, meticulously crossing off the day before. Honestly, I can’t think of a better way for her to learn the days of the week than this kind of authentic, personal application.

Obviously, such strategies become more complex when there are 20-30+ kids in the mix — a whole-group Calendar Time seems sensible. But what seems more efficient isn’t necessarily going to be effective. We can and must get creative to find ways to meet our kids where they are in all their diverse needs and interests.

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How Ownership Can Get Rid of “I Suck at…”

Think having students self-grade and reflect is fluff?

Think again.

Over the course of a 15 year study, John Hattie analyzed over 800 meta-studies to identify effects that have the strongest impact on learning (and he is constantly updating this list through continued studies). Self reported grades is almost at the top of the list of over 150 effects.

It beat out motivation. It beat out home environment. It even beat out “decreasing disruptive behavior.”

The truth is, students know a lot more about their own learning process than we so often give them credit for.

Which brings me to the issue at hand: When a student claims he/she “sucks at ___.”

When I hear that claim, I hear a student that has become convinced that their personal rate of learning is inferior to classmates. That because their progress has not looked identical to their peers, it must mean they are defective. That their learning is fixed, hopeless, and beyond theirs or anyone else’s reach.

Now, discouragement is normal for all learners from time to time. But when said discouragement is also rooted in learning that feels irrelevant or imposed, we’ve got problems.

Enter student ownership.

Any time we empower students with tools to take their learning in their own hands, we are giving them ownership.

Self-assessments are one such powerful tool.

Michael BondClegg recently wrote about giving students the opportunity to write their own report card comments, encouraging teachers to help students identify “ways in which learners can identify their strengths and areas for growth” and “plans for improving.”

This may seem trivial, but really, it turns the whole “I suck at” model on its head.

When a teacher fills out the comments, it perpetuates the whole “this is out of my hands” notion.

When a student is encouraged to fill out those comments in this way, it places the learning back in the students’ hands.

A student in diagnostics mode is student on her way toward a stronger growth mindset.

 

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