An English teacher for 37 years, I have taught in secondary schools in Wisconsin, Connecticut, and Indiana. For many years, I served as the English Department Chair at McCutcheon High School in Lafayette, Indiana, and am now an instructional coach for secondary teachers in my district.
Here’s a problem that teachers have to deal with all too often: Kids come to class not having read the assigned text, or chapter, or article. What to do to move forward?
The solution for some has been to do an end run around such assignments by having the students read the piece in class instead. That takes a lot of instructional time and leads to strategies like Round Robin Reading (RRR) and its cousins, Popcorn Reading and Combat Reading.
RRR is not a comprehension strategy; it’s a management tool. Kids keep quiet and listen because they might be called on next. Worrying that they might get called on next means they’re not paying attention to what is currently being read. If the teacher is obvious about who’ll read next, the students know when their turns are coming and are rehearsing while someone else is laboring away at her chunk…
A few of the new teachers I’ve coached this year approached me when school was ending to ask what they should do over the summer to prepare for next year. I started this list with suggestions for their professional task lists…and then I just couldn’t stop thinking about what else I’d recommend. Maybe I was dreaming about what I plan to do?
So first, the professional:
1. Assess your challenges and spend some time learning about these areas of instruction. Is it an aspect of your curriculum—say, grammar—that you’re weak on? Study up on that. Is your repertoire of instructional strategies slim? Learn about some new ones. Try Jennifer Gonzales’ The Cult of Pedagogy blog. Do you need to sharpen your classroom procedures? Read The First Days of School or THE Classroom Management Book by Harry and Rosemary Wong. Polish the procedures you already have in place or think through…
To and for all the amazing teachers I know during this, Teacher Appreciation Week: Our world is better and our students’ lives are richer because you have been a classroom teacher. Thank you for all you do every single day.
It’s fashionable right now to blast educators, to focus on data-specific measures of effectiveness, and to prescribe corporate take-overs for failing schools. The critics say “failing schools,” but that’s code for failing teachers. The critics ought to come with me when I am in a school in my role as an instructional coach.
When I enter my colleagues’ classrooms, I am quickly swept up by the lesson—enthralled by the teacher, captivated by the content, and excited to be on the other side of the desk, learning.
In the past month, here are some of the places these fabulous teachers have taken me:
To Austria in 1877 when two men stole Haydn’s head from his grave…
A few weeks ago, the children who attend McCutcheon High School’s pre-school class (Creative Corral) and the high school students in Computer Repair and Maintenance (CRAM)–the students who fix the computers for everyone else in the school–came together for a morning of activities the teenaged students called “Pre-TECH.”
Mrs. Arrika Yoder’s Early Childhood Education class at MHS meets every day. In the morning, the students work in the pre-school that is housed in the high school building. In the afternoon, they learn about careers in education, plan lessons, discuss issues, and gain as much exposure to the world of education as they can. These students are on track for careers as educators, day care providers, pediatric nurses, and child psychologists. Some will retake the lab portion of the class next year; some will become cadet teachers in our elementary and middle schools.
Mrs. Christina Bennett’s CRAM class meets every day in a classroom that, years ago, was the school’s only computer lab. Hers are the students who repair the Chromebooks and laptops that students at MHS carry with them from class to class and take home at night. The CRAM students are exploring careers in the computer technology industry: They will become our programmers, technicians, and web designers. They will be the individuals the rest of us will rely on to stay connected, current, and cybersafe.
The collaboration between these two groups really began a year ago when Mrs. Yoder asked the CRAM students to show the pre-schoolers how to use the apps on the iPads in the pre-K classroom. This year, the CRAM students, under Mrs. Bennett’s direction, decided to go giant steps farther and set up learning stations—a format the pre-schoolers would understand—to show the children more about technology. Just like teachers would, the CRAM students spent one day each week for three weeks clarifying their learning goals and then designing and setting up their stations.
On the appointed morning, the preschoolers, accompanied by Mrs. Yoder and the Educational Careers students who are their teachers, filed into the CRAM room. Tables had been set up for snacks, and various computer parts—a motherboard, a flash drive, a keyboard, a chip—were used as table decorations. As the children munched on their snacks, one boy explained the function of each computer part. “The motherboard is the heart of the computer,” he told them, and encouraged the preschoolers to play with the decorations. They immediately picked the items up and began manipulating them.
One boy transferred the keyboard directly to his lap right away. He began moving his fingers across the keys in imitation of what he’d undoubted seen adults do. “What are you typing?” I asked him.
“My password, “ he replied knowingly.
He didn’t share it with me.
After snacks, the students rotated through the five stations: Coding, Virtual Reality, Fiber Optic Cabling, Repair, and Customer Service.
At the Virtual Reality station, students donned 3-D viewers to experience 360 degree vision. The CRAM students in charge of this station had found a Virtual Reality roller coaster game for the students to view and play.
At the Repair Station, the pre-schoolers used screwdrivers to remove the computer cases. At Customer Service, they learned how to check in a computer for repair and then to check it out again.
For the Coding Station, the CRAM students had gone to Code Academy to find a game that was user-friendly for pre-schoolers, age appropriate, and still would teach the children the fundamentals of coding. What they found was a game that used blocks. Using a simple set of instructions, the children moved the blocks around on the computer screens.
Most complex of all, though, was the Fiber Optic Cabling Station. There, the pre-schoolers encountered plates of jello squares with cookie cutters beside them. The CRAM students illustrated the way light travels through a cable by directing a laser light through the jello. When the pre-schoolers cut the jello squares, the light was trapped by the twists and turns of the shapes. Even a knife mark on the jello altered the line of light. The effect was even more pronounced when the youngsters entered a tent set up under the table. The pre-schoolers were intrigued. They understood that a straight, stable cable with no impurities or kinks was needed to transmit information. They also noted that the orange jello worked the best, the green not so well.
Before the morning was over, the CRAM students conducted a mini-evaluation of their learning stations, asking the pre-schoolers to rank order the Pre-Tech learning stations. The Virtual Reality Station came in first: The pre-schoolers thought it was the most fun. The jello station came in second; Computer Repair, third.
During their time in the CRAM room, Mrs. Bennett took a Polaroid photograph of each pre-schooler in a photo booth that was decorated with discarded CDs. As they were leaving at the end of the morning, each child received a bag of favors. Mrs. Bennett had saved the anti-static bags in which computer parts are transported; these became the treat bags. Inside, each pre-schooler found his or her photo glued to a discarded floppy disc, a computer coloring page, 1 big marshmallow and 8 little ones (1 byte = 8 bits), licorice ropes to remind them of cabling, and a few other clever souvenirs of all they had learned that morning. Undoubtedly, computer talk dominated dinner table conversations that evening!
Later, when I interviewed the CRAM students, I asked what they had learned from the experience.
Zach told me that he was surprised by how much the pre-schoolers already knew about technology. I smiled, remembering the boy who had so quickly put the keyboard in his lap.
Nikaya was amazed at the children’s reactions to the laser light. “They were so excited,” she said. “I was not expecting that.”
Malachi said he had learned how to interact with kids, and that prompted a discussion about the emphasis Mrs. Bennett has put on learning how to talk to people with different levels of understanding of technology and with people of different ages. “Your audience could be anyone,” she tells her students. “You have to be able to communicate with people with all different levels of experience in ways they’ll understand.”
Mrs. Yoder said that her high school students, who spend a lot of time designing and sequencing instruction themselves, were impressed with the lesson planning the CRAM students had done.
Mrs. Bennett confirmed that and summarized the experience for the CRAM students this way: “They had a great time because the kids did.”
That’s the wonderful thing about this uncommon interdisciplinary collaboration: Not only was this a great learning opportunity for all of the students–the Educational Careers students, the CRAM students, and the pre-schoolers–it was a whole lot of fun as well!
• Lesson planner
• Gradebook (or PowerSchool)
• Google Suite
• Pencils, markers, pens, and paper
• Whiteboards and dry erase markers
• Access to a copy machine
• Books—classroom sets and single copies
• Tables and desks and chairs
• Bulletin boards, construction paper, thumbtacks
• Instructions for what to do in the case of a fire, a tornado, a lockout or a lockdown
Here’s the drill:
Begin with the objective: What is it you want your students to know or be able to do? To write an objective, start with a verb provided by Bloom (6 levels) or DOK (4) and follow the verb with a direct object. Think about what the students will be doing to demonstrate understanding of the objective. So, for example,
• Analyze a story
• Solve an equation
• Perform an experiment
• Write an essay
• Move the nation
Consider what the students need to know before you begin the lesson and what prior knowledge they may have that will inform the ease with which they will grasp and be able to complete the task. (You may have to scaffold the lesson for some students; for others, you may need to let go.)
Of course, assessment is required, so you need to be clear in advance (for yourself and for the students) just how you will assess their work, what will constitute attainment of the objective, and to what level of attainment they may strive.
• Emma Gonzales
• Yolanda King
• The 11-year-old with the haunting eyes and the wisdom of age
• The boy from Parkland with his Marco Rubio tag: $1.05
• The girl from South LA who learned to dodge bullets before she learned to read
Now think about the instructional methods you will use so that students will be able to demonstrate their understanding of the objective. Perhaps you will organize group work such as a jigsaw activity; that is, the students each share a piece of the story, together creating a whole understanding. Or you might design a reciprocal teaching task, where together a group will read a text and puzzle out its meaning from individual perspectives.
Maybe you will set the students to an independent task, one in which they’ll rely upon what they have read, what they have experienced, and their own wits, should they still have them.
• Their passion
• Their voices
• Their vision
• Their presence
• Their command
• Their poise
• Their resolve
Unafraid and unowned.
We can no longer shield them. They have learned too much.
We cannot restrain them. They have too much strength.
We should not impede them. Their promise is too great.
They do not need rubber bands, paper clips, staplers, scotch tape, glue sticks, meditation, long walks in the early morning light or summers to renew and refresh.
Or instructions on writing objectives.
What they need are not the lessons of the classroom. These they have learned.
But they do need us: Behind them, not before them. Supporting them, not instructing them. Letting them go and letting them lead.
I’m not an artist myself, but I’ve always been drawn to the colors and textures and weave of fabrics from around the world. I like designs on cloth and clothing design. I used to quilt, and once upon a time, I sewed my own clothes. So, on a recent trip to Philadelphia, when I learned about The Fabric Workshop and Museum, I was eager to visit. What I stumbled upon there was a retrospective exhibition of 40 years of fabric art, all works completed on the premises by visiting artists. Some of them—like Faith Ringgold and Louise Nevelson—I recognized; the others were new to me. The exhibition—which runs until March 25, 2018, if you happen to live in Philadelphia—is named: Process and Practice: 40 Years of Experimentation.
The first “piece” I encountered was a box of loosely arranged fabric, raw on the edges; pencil drawings; a map; two kinds of cord; a color wheel made of fabric bits, lengths of watercolor on silk; color swatches drawn as tiny skeins–all of it arranged pleasingly, invitingly, in a glass display case. The assemblage was striking, beautiful all by itself.
I came upon another box, and another, and then some finished pieces on the wall.
And then I saw that the finished pieces were composed of the items in the box; that is, each box contained the working material of the art on the wall.
A colleague was with me, and together we spent quite a bit of time matching the items in the boxes to the creations on the wall. It was like working through a puzzle or deciphering clues to solve a mystery. We saw, in the notes and drawings and material, each artist’s mind at work—their ingenuity, the choices they made, the juxtapositions that, by chance or design, resulted in the finished piece.
In some cases, photographs and artifacts from the original installation, impossible to recreate, were mounted on the wall above the corresponding box.
The pieces on the wall–or on the floor, or suspended from the ceiling–were stunning.
But so were the boxes.
And then, because we are teachers, my colleague and I began to imagine what could be done with this concept in the classroom, what kind of curation task we could set our students to.
Clothing design, interior design, art itself—these are obvious. But what about these:
A social studies box: Choose a period in history and assemble or recreate artifacts that helped you understand significant events or persons or issues during that time. Include, perhaps, excerpts from texts you read, photographs, maps, timetables, music, art pieces, the bits from your research that informed your impression of that time period. The project could culminate in a poster or a Powerpoint.
A literature box: Choose an author and a characteristic work. Include for the box a picture of the author, of course, and the text itself. But also slip in pictures or reproductions or even real objects that inspired the writer. If they’re available—as they sometimes are online—earlier drafts of the story or poem you selected, the writing utensils likely used, the correspondence between the writer and his or her muse or spouse or editor. Into the box with whatever informs your understanding of the author and the text you selected. And then, how about a book (or story or poetry) talk for the class?
A science box: Choose a disease for which a cure needs to be found, or an environmental issue, or a specific engineering problem that needs to be solved. Find or create the elements that inform the search. Include drawings of cells or elements or photographs of physical locations, maybe a picture of the lab where the work is being done. Add in printouts of data, tables, charts, diagrams, journal articles you consulted, Petri dishes, microscopes or other lab equipment—or photographs of same—relevant to the search and then create a poster or prepare a Ted Talk synthesizing what you learned.
I am not talking about random artifacts collected to symbolize a writer or a time period or a scientific inquiry. I am not talking about the sort of project students are often asked to do because they are hands-on learners–like, say, a diorama. I am not even talking about “finished” boxes in the way that the artist Joseph Cornell created art inside of a box.
I am talking about an assemblage of items that informs a conclusion, a final product, an enduring understanding (to use Grant Wiggins’ term), or a final takeaway.
I’m talking about, well, a tangible bibliography.
The box would represent the student’s choices along his journey to understanding: “Here are the items I consulted when I did my research. I may not have ‘used’ all of them in my presentation, but all of them were a part of my research.” Indeed, it seemed to me, residing in some of the boxes at the Fabric Museum’s gallery were items that the artist did not incorporate into the final piece but that had, at some point and in some way, suggested themselves as possibilities. The artist made a conscious decision not to use that particular item, but the item was as important as a discard as other items were as selections.
What the box did was make thinking visible.
So, we might say to the student, expose your peers to your process as well as your product. Let them see what you investigated and how you learned and how your final product came into being.
Because, recreating the process of thinking will help them understand how you came to your conclusions. (In fact, this act of metacognition will help you understand your own thinking!)
Because, recreating the progress of your thought will also help me, the teacher, understand how you got from here to there.
Because, jumbled and messy and fragmented as it is, the process of learning is as intriguing—and as beautiful—as the final product.
Because, process deserves as much space—and as much attention—as product.
As educators, we need to make sure we honor the process. That’s how our students learn.
Without process, there is no product. Without process, there is no art.
Without the journey, we can’t reach the destination.
This one is for parents: Why you should do this, even if all is well.
Face it: When Parent Conference Night rolls around, we’re all tired. I’m tired from a long day in the classroom; you’re tired from your day of work, too. Frantically eating dinner, remaining dressed up, and driving to the school (perhaps for the second or third time that day) may seem like a lot of effort for a minimal return.
But parents should always attend conferences—even if the teacher says they don’t need to. Here’s why:
For the teacher, you are more than a visible presence that night, more than a momentary reminder that your child’s progress in school matters to you. When you show up at conference time, I have you in the back of my mind all the rest of the year. By meeting you, I get a rounded picture of your child and develop a clear sense of obligation to you as a family. It isn’t that I don’t pay attention to the kids whose parents don’t come to conference. I do. In fact, the most frequent lament about conferences that I voice—and the one I hear the most often from other teachers—is that the parents who most need to come, don’t.
It isn’t that I cater to your child, either—because I don’t.
Here’s the secret not a lot of parents realize: Attendance at a parent conference—or an open house—is not a perfunctory exercise. Parents and teachers form relationships because of these interactions, and the parents who do attend conferences become a sort of litmus test for the ideas we invent, for the questions we have, for the quandaries we’re in. What would Sally’s parents or Joe’s parents think of this idea? This method? This idea for a field trip? This expectation? Could they be a resource? Would they chaperone? Is what I am expecting, reasonable?
Knowing you broadens my perspective. Your responses factor into my decision-making.
And just as I develop a rounded picture of your child when I meet you, you have a better picture of me when you come to the conference: not just what I look like (though that helps when you’re reading an email from me or speaking to me on the phone), but my demeanor, the intensity in my voice, my facial expression when I talk about your child. All of those little clues inform your response to me—and that could be important at some point during our year together.
Bottom line: when you come to the conference, you open up that line of communication between us. There’s a problem I should know about? Something’s come up? It’s easier to call me or email when you know who I am—and it’s easier for me to approach you if we’ve already met.
When you come to the conference, you learn the details behind the grade on the report card. Not just the standardized test scores, though you’ll learn those, too, and you’ll have an opportunity to have them explained. But you’ll also find out what you may not know: that your child is a good listener or a respectful group leader or needs help with understanding figurative language or doesn’t take notes or doesn’t take advantage of extra help or checks out more books from the library than anyone else in the class or went out of his way to help someone else. When you come to the conference, you’ll find out I know a lot about your child and I care about him, too.
Go to the parent conference so your child has concrete evidence that you care, so he or she knows that you will always go to the parent conference, good or bad. If you only go when there is a problem, that will communicate the wrong message. After the conference, let your child know how proud of him you are and how much you appreciate his teacher and the chance to meet with her. Make him think parent conferences are cool because parents and teachers get to talk together about the one person who is at the center of the universe: him. Make your child proud that you attend the conferences. As he grows older, there will be plenty of kids whose parents don’t, and you will want your child to think your attendance is cool, not dumb.
By going to the parent conference, you’re reaching out across the generations. Children watch everything their parents do. Because you went to school to meet their teachers, they will show up at their children’s conferences. It’s all about modeling.
It’s also a chance—and here’s a shameless plug for all the hard-working teachers I know—for a parent to thank the teacher for all he or she does–teachers need pats on the back, too, so a thank you is a boost, and a positive conference is just as important as a problem one, even if it does take up a few minutes when we’re all tired and ready to go home.
And let me add this before I move away from the subject: For the most part, I really enjoy parent conferences. When I open my classroom door and parents drop in, I feel like I am inviting them into my home. In some ways, I am. I spend more awake hours per week at school than at my home, and I do “clean house” for my visitors: I wipe down the tables, clean the boards, tidy up for the occasion. I stop short of cookies and tea (although that might not have been a bad idea for sweetening a couple of the conferences I’ve had in my career).
Many of the parents I see are like family. I’ve taught all of their children—or more than one of their children—and I’ve even taught some of them. Sometimes they’ll stick their heads in the door and wave at me even though I no longer have their children in my classes. If I’m not in conference with someone, they’ll come in to chat, bring me up to date on the kids who are now in college, or grad school, or having babies, or farming, or working in Indianapolis, or traveling somewhere in the world. That means a lot. I’ve invested time, energy, and yes, love in their children, and I really do want to know what is happening in their lives and how they’ve fared in the wider world.
So go to the conference–all the way through high school. Even if all you do is stick your head in the door and wave.