With as much wonder as a new city provides, you can bet that an inquiry into the concept of cities would lead into a rich discussion about culture, change, growth, community, and more. Check out these resources for a broad concept-based provocation to stir up your students’ thinking!
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.
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
The attention-grabbing headline pulled me in, but nothing seemed terribly unexpected as I scrolled through the article. I nodded through passages like, “hanging out alone in her room with her phone…” “dramatic shifts in behavior…” “proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent…”
Until I got to one phrase that made me stop short.
“I call them iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones.”
It was the identification of my own child, born in 2010, as a member of this iGen group.
In a brief episode of primal fear (after all, this article says the iGen are in mental health crisis), my mind flicked through every contact my child has ever made with a smartphone, like some kind of frenzied mental Rolodex.
But as I slowed, regrouped, took a few deep breaths, I remembered something: exposure is not the issue here. It’s connection.
This, of course, requires purpose, balance, and prudence on adults’ part. And with the very real and weighty issues presented in The Atlantic in mind, I would like to share 5 ways we can cultivate a sense of opportunity over fear as we teach our iGen kids digital citizenship.
#1: Recognize that their childhoods won’t mirror ours — and that’s ok.
As some neighborhood kids recently got together to play in our backyard, I noticed them huddled around a smartphone:
If I were to share such a photo without any background, people might jump to the same conclusions they did when the photo below was shared of kids in a museum (ie, “Kids these days!!” or “Look at them glued to those devices!!”)
But the context they’d be missing would be that this is what it looks like when digital citizenship becomes woven into the fabric of daily life. Right before I snapped the photo, these kids were darting around the yard creating a stop-motion movie of their make-believe play (and the context of the above tweet is that these kids were using an interactive museum tour app).
Of course, this can also be what zombie-land phone addiction looks like, but that’s why it’s so important to seek out and be aware of context.
#2: Model appropriate balanced use.
There are those who feel the need to altogether keep devices out of their young children’s physical sight-lines — and while this may be a temporary solution, it removes the opportunity for open dialogue with our children about how we use our devices. They need to hear not only what we do with our phones, but what strategies we employ to keep obsession at bay, especially in the face of social media.
#3: Make the good you do with your device louder than the bad they hear about.
Speaking of modeling, educators Edna Sackson and George Couros have inspired my thinking time and again about this concept:
Cyberbullying, white ribbon week, internet safety — these are all good and important concepts to cover with our children. But if they are exclusive, then we are missing a huge opportunity.
#4: Emphasize creation over consumption.
Videos like the one below help convey the incredible ways we can view, express, and share the world around us.
And resources like this might help them comprehend the sheer creative potential they hold in their hands (and to appreciate how far we’ve come in a short period of time):
Of course, consumption has its place and we should have honest conversations about our sources and habits there, too. But an important part of citizenship in general is that in a community, people need to both give and take.
#5: Emphasize the personally meaningful ways you are using tech to enhance relationships.
This “Dear Sophie” video inspired me so much back in 2011 that I decided to do the same with my own kids. This is a beautiful example of how we can leverage the technology to connect with our loved ones in historically unprecedented ways.
Our iGen kids are part of an exponentially shifting period of history — and of course, this is just the beginning. Our best bet for helping them navigate safely is to embark on the journey together.
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?
Where do we find inspiration? Why is that that one moment, ideas seem to sweep us away, and the next, they feel hopelessly out of reach? I’ve shared other provocations on finding wonder and inspiration before, but it’s such an essential flame to keep burning that I’m sharing another!
“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:
If we’re always “sure this will work,” we choose the comfort of certainty over the messiness of opportunities.
As parents, we tend to expect that our kids will pick things up from classmates at school.
Like comparing who has seen what movie, who can afford some new gadget, who is allowed to have a phone, or even who knows what swear words.
But I never fathomed that rape might join the list of discussion points among first graders.
I stopped in my tracks and turned to face her, asking her where she had heard that term.
She told me that before school had gotten out a couple weeks ago, she heard another student dare a kid to rape a classmate.
She had also heard the word used by the Witch in a song in Into The Woods, so we added alliteration and non-literal word usage to our list of sophisticated topics of the day (thanks a lot, Stephen Sondheim).
Once I recovered from the initial shock that I was having this conversation with my 7 year-old, it wasn’t as difficult as I would have imagined (had I actually been able to anticipate that conversation to begin with, of course).
And I realized that there were some important lessons to be shared as both a teacher and a parent when it comes to these “unexpected extracurriculars:”
#1: Keep the communication channels wide open at all times. This advice shows up in the parenting books so often that there are probably readers out there rolling their eyes right now. But let’s get a little more specific with this.
Had my response to questions about sensitive subjects in the past been met with embarrassment or shame, I seriously doubt my daughter would have been willing to ask more.
We also needed time together when she felt comfortable striking up the conversation — for some parents, that’s in the form of a bedtime routine that includes specific questions like, “What made you feel happy today?” or “Was there anything that made you feel confused?”
#2: Build off your child’s existing schema. Part of me wondered, is now the time for the talk? But I knew I did not want her introduction to the topic to revolve around sex at its very worst.
So, instead, we built our discussion around concepts with which she was already familiar. In this case, I focused on the notion that we have always taught her that she is “the boss of her body” (meaning that no one has the right to touch her body without her permission). Thus, the information came across as a more natural next step in an ongoing discussion, rather than an onslaught of bombshell-style information she may not have been ready for when she asked her innocent question.
#3: Revisit the idea of safe adults.This entire facet of our conversation reminded me just how complicated it can be to ask our children to talk to adults when someone says or does something that makes them feel uncomfortable. What if it’s a friend who says it? How do we know when we should just walk away, or when we should get help? How do we tell if what they are saying is actually threatening people’s safety? Who are the safe adults at school we should talk with?
These and other questions are essential and not nearly as straight-forward as we would hope. But as long as we keep it an ongoing discussion, we can hopefully increase the odds of our child learning to correctly discerning the answers.
As we become more aware of the unexpected lessons our kids and students face, we will be better equipped to help them navigate them. Please share ways you have approached these kinds of lessons with your kids at home and/or in the classroom.