EDUCATION OPINE TWO: Why do we send our children to school?

Seriously! What are the reasons we have mandatory, compulsory education laws and laws to by-pass those laws and unions and teachers who don’t agree with the unions they are forced to patronize, etc.? Is it to “pass on knowledge to the next generation?” To “preserve our culture?” To “help our children survive independently when they are adults?” To “get into college?” For me, none of these reasons encompass all of why we spend so much time, resources and soul to get our kids “educated.”

The answer? Simple! We send our children to school so they can become adult life-long learning human beings. Let’s face it! If we as a human race, as a nation, as a family or as an individual stop learning, we start dying. I believe we have drifted far from this overarching goal enough to fuel the race to nowhere, that never-ending drive to achieve for achievement sake, ignoring the collateral damage we leave behind as we step up to receive the next prize. We educators have also lost our ability to judge the difference between genuine interest in life-long learning and high-achieving, prize students…. You know, we correlate the fact that Suzi and Sam have 4.5 GPA’s, the Presidential Award for Service/Volunteer hours, high standardized test scores and more. We also see Pamela and Paul, who simply love to learn, struggle with physical and developmental challenges, work diligently to achieve and merely receive average recognition. Deep down, we know there is something  askew, but we push on in our busy-ness and pressured educator lives. We deceive ourselves if we do not acknowledge that there are two “unmentionable” or neglected cases to consider regarding this push for achievement over learning! First, Suzi and Sam may have “made it to the top” with very little joy of learning or very little independence or initiative to apply what they are learning in order to learn more and integrate into a diverse community. Whether successes merely come naturally or they are tutored or forcefully micro-managed to succeed, they may have achieved the outward accolades and received awards on Awards Day, but their motivation to learn is extrinsic at best and non-existent at worst. Second are Pamela and Paul, students who struggle to learn. She faces challenges with her learning differences or he must work hard to overcome physical or developmental obstacles before succeeding at an academic task. HOWEVER, these students relish the opportunity to grow, to learn, to establish small incremental goals and objectives and work hard to accomplish ultimately sharing their joy of having learned with the community in which they live and serve. So, when they achieve success, they bask in the glory of their accomplishment and the gratitude of having learned… but only for a brief moment. Then, they naturally and enthusiastically step up and ask for more. THIS, is the spirit of an exceptional life-long learner! AND… I believe Pamela and Paul deserve the same kind of recognition at “senior-day” awards ceremonies as Suzi and Sam. At least in rewarding them, the message of what we are trying to accomplish in formal, en masse education is balanced, sane and humane.

The typical “Senior Awards” night praises and rewards students for amazing accomplishments. I am always stunned! Quantitatively and qualitatively the achievements tower over the breadth and depth that other students achieve. Education, however, does not possess the measuring capability to reveal what I believe to be intuitive, good and right… fair, just and humane! Specifically, how can we say that Suzi and Sam have “worked harder” than Pamela and Paul? We educators know students who work hard, know the true essence and purpose of education but do NOT achieve the same successes and sometimes not even in the same categories, the ever-treasured benchmarks that help Suzi and Sam make it to the next level and leave behind all those “average” people. I cringe when our rewards for academic prowess to students like Suzi or Sam send that sad message that Pamela’s and Paul’s accomplishments are unmentionable and unworthy in the context of our culture and civilization.

And, as a side-note, this issue is NOT about judging a student’s efforts! Even though it is difficult to measure, it is necessary to highlight a belief in and application of the true meaning of education… to become an exceptional, life-long learner in order to make this world the best place one possible can, serving the most people with the time, treasure and talent one possesses!

What do you think? In this day and age where “everyone gets a trophy” and opinions rule, why can’t we attempt to award students for their exceptional commitment to life-long learning, and even ear-mark that award for students who must work hard to achieve for any number of physical or developmental reasons and yet STILL exude that beautiful joy and appreciation for learning that we educators know exist inside everyone one of us and our students!

My high school graduation class is doing just this! We have begun a fund to finance AT LEAST two $250.00 awards per year to deserving students who have successfully compelted an IEP or who have had 504 accommodations, all the while demonstrating their exceptional commitment to life-long learning. (Please visit https://www.lancfound.org/fund/exceptional-81/ for more information.) Sadly, as a statement of what our culture values most, this award may NOT be called a “scholarship” but rather a “designated fund” because scholarships must go to an “approved institution of higher education.” While I understand the technicalities of that, consider that policy’s discrimination against Pamela or Paul. First, they will never achieve enough in the “proper” fashion to be considered for such a scholarship. Second, with their challenges, they may not be headed to a State University or a Private Institution for an approved program of study or a “typical degree.” Suzi may need a new iPad so she and it can learn to detect her impeded speech for dictation. Or Paul might have C’s in core classes and score poorly on standardized tests and never get accepted into a college. I hope you can agree with me that the system is imbalanced for atypical students with learning differences and physical and developmental challenges! They, too, deserve to dream of how they might meet their next learning goal.

Please reply to this OPIINE! I need your feedback to channel my enthusiasm in support for and advocacy of these students. If you want more information AND IF YOU WISH TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE FUND, please visit https://www.lancfound.org/fund/exceptional-81/.  The award is described in detail. The contribution is tax-deductible, and as it grows, the Charitable Trust will allow us to make these awards even more meaningful with more impact. Simply go to the website above and click “Donate Now.” Any amount will be greatly appreciated.

In addition, please share my blog with your friends and colleagues. I really benefit from the collegial interaction and inspiration.

Thanks.

Information As Power: Digital Control of Learning in an Era of Superstudents. Or, Tale of Two Eras: Two Stories, Two Generations and Zero Change

1987:  There’s no doubt the learning game is changing, K-16. And the teaching game, in this digital age, is running ten steps behind, as usual. Even 30 years ago, Ivory towers attracted the brightest students. Unknown-1Even in that era students’ acumen threatened a well-established tradition of academia, and professors scurried to ensure their students paid a reasonable price for learning. In 1988 while teaching at a top-ranked university, I designed a scope and sequence of an introductory required Spanish Literature course. After all, I was a curriculum specialist! The course incorporated everything I had learned in my post-graduate work in Education. I wanted to motivate, prepare, teach for retention (in hopes that some students would continue on toward a minor or major). Since these students comprised the top 5% of college-age students, I thought it in their best interest to show them everything I expected of them, including the midterm, the final, the quizzes, an explanation and example of the kinds of papers I would require, rubrics for assignments and criteria for each grade they would like to achieve, the opportunity to submit any work early for my feedback, and much more. Although the course was “transparent,” according to the folder of required submissions of syllabi for every course, mine was more demanding than any other professor’s in the department:  more papers, more difficult criteria for grading, more quizzes and tests, more readings, a “literary theory” portion that is not even included in the course description itself, and more. The students struggled to understand the transparency at first, but as soon as they understood the challenge, most rose to the occasion, and some even submitted their written work to and were published by student publications across academia. As a result, I gave many A’s, and the department immediately chastised me and encouraged me to give less. UnknownSo… I raised the criteria required to complete for an A, B, C, etc., and the students met those expectations as eagerly as the year before. It happened a third year, and my students began to major and minor in Spanish. Unknown-2As they populated the Spanish National Honor Society, they began their own student publication in Spanish. The department, however, never ceased communicating to me their disapproval of my methods and how I am “inflating the grades” and not keeping students in their place by giving lower grades. It was the worst of times!

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2017:  Several of my former high school clients approached me with matching issues. They spent time in high school learning to compensate for their dyslexia and dysgraphia and ADD/ADHD, relying on accommodations but learning to take full responsibility for their work. Every client had gotten into top-rated universities and they embraced the challenges they would be facing their Freshman year. They knew that, given their issues, they must orchestrate their time and resources when asked to read and write. But, all of them at their respective (and respectful? institutions) were struggling with at least one of their courses for the simple reason that the professor placed only the next class period’s readings and assignments on-line, with NO access to the reading material until their PROFESSORS released it. In short, they were finishing their classes, doing regular “college stuff,” and would not receive the next assignment to do until the next day or night before the assignment is due in class. And to make matters worse, they could not start on that assignment until they finished other classes for THAT day. 512718467-anxious-picturesThey had on the average 12-18 hours to read large passages and write large response essays. All of my former clients now lamented poor grades and frustration at not being able to budget their time and practice their compensation strategies that got them into the universities in the first place. It was the worst of times!

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In the 1980’s, my colleagues believed that withholding information about how they assess their students and what content they will address keeps students guessing and “motivated” to earn that grade, with little consideration as to whether they are actually teaching well or their students are learning well. This information became the power to control every student who expressed any desire to earn a good grade. Unknown-3Almost in a childish or evil way, these colleagues seemed to throw out a vengeful assignment or pop quiz or grade papers very harshly, again withholding the proper feedback as to how the assessment was made. After all, these professors a generation ago had experienced the same hazing treatment in their own academic pursuits.

Yet, nowadays, little has changed. In my work with students who struggle with particular learning differences, I have seen the same harsh, unprofessional treatment in the digital age. I am speaking of the practice of PIECEMEAL online placement of content and assignments- such as Haiku, Bright Space, etc. Professors more and more are placing only the NEXT day’s readings and assignments online, leaving students completely unable to work ahead or work slowly and in their own time. Unknown-4While the digital tool is AMAZING, and truly streamlines many logistical solutions to academic needs, teachers use them as a “digital control” of student study habits, as a source of power over how much a student brings to each class. In my personal and professional opinion, professors who do this struggle with the insecurity that their students’ “learning something” too quickly might ruin that perfect teachable moment they had planned. Unknown-5Or, even more cynical, teachers fear being upstaged or exposed for not knowing something. In a world of Google searches, students can fact-check a professor any time. To illustrate, teachers might only post a reading passage and written response essay prompt one or two days before the class period it is due. With such shallow intentions, teachers like this at the very least deny students the opportunity to learn independently and in multiple modes. But, in addition and especially for those who need such accommodations, this “strategy” strips away the ability for students to budget their time appropriately and process things deeply. student-3176407__480And whether we like it or not, whether it is good or bad, the digital age has allowed our students to do more, have access to more information, etc. When students struggling with dyslexia and/or dysgraphia, for example, receive a 20-page article to read and a two-page response to write the day before it is due, they cannot apply the compensation strategies needed to produce quality work with such short notice. Over and over again in my work, my client says, “I’ve got to read this 25-page article for tomorrow and answer these short essay questions, but I just got the article last night. My professor just posted the questions (“prompt”) this afternoon.” And yet, for the last two years these high school clients and I have been emphasizing “working ahead” to make sure their work has depth and quality.

With such limited time and learning issues, my clients don’t know how to ask me for help now that they are in college. I try not to show my Unknown-7attitude and ask them the obvious WTF questions. Instead I focus on what each client can do and needs to do. I might read the article aloud or do a pre-reading focus session to make sure they reconstruct the meaning of the passage in a way that both facilitates retention AND answers the questions efficiently. Sometime, as painful as it is, I ask them to read the passage aloud to ME after I make myself quite familiar with the questions. Then, as they read, I stop them at each juncture that addresses a question. We brainstorm a response on a digital document, and then they keep reading. In short, I maximize the short time they are given to process large chunks of information. Except for those verbally gifted (and usually female) students who can process quickly, this treatment is academic cruelty.

What are those WTF questions?                      Unknown-8

-Why aren’t all the reading passages for the course available from the beginning? Students (busy or with learning differences) can surely budget when they will have time to read.

-Why aren’t the response questions/prompts available at the beginning of the course? That way, students can create efficient ways to reconstruct the passages they attempt and attack them with quality. If a student can (and needs to) budget her time to do work, why can’t she do it with this course?

-Do professors really believe quality reflection can come in writing that is being assigned only days before? It seems pedagogically counter-intuitive.

-Do the professors really believe that doing the work on a limited distribution timeline will make learning “better.” What about the NON-linear learners or the ones that must see the WHOLE elephant before biting off one bite at a time?

-Do the professors believe their students might sabotage the class if too many of them already know what they might be addressing in class that day merely because they have done their reading and understood it profoundly? Does this mean professors are insecure or perhaps ignorant of how to utilize student input while they teach?

-Do the professors really mistrust the students to “dig deep” and therefore make sure students do some sort of busywork to prove they have been inspired by the reading material?

Online placement of content and assignments is an efficient communication tool, and students really do benefit from doing “prep” work before coming to class.

Especially in a college environment where some of the distractions are part of the total experience and classes do not meet daily, students need the autonomy and flexibility to decide how they must study taking into account all they value:  Unknown-9social interaction, learning differences, course load, obligations and other deadlines, distractibility, interest, quality of their work, anticipated grade, and so much more. But here again, just as I have seen in many high school educators, the constant, daily work load with surprise content and even more unanticipated assignments related to that content, discourages students to gage how they should spend their time. When those students (especially those with learning challenges) underestimate the work and time assigned to them, they end up turning in poor quality work or no work at all. Teachers, then, can assess that work with poor grades and blame everything on the students. Surprising students with online assessments, reading materials and assignments strips them of any joy of learning. And, in my professional opinion, the only kinds of students who “succeed” in this scenario are those that boast superb executive functioning skills or who have been groomed to do academic work to the exclusion of everything else (nerds). I encounter so many twice exceptional students every day whoseUnknown-10 intellect shines like the sun. But, the clouds of haphazard assignments over which they have no control to organize block the rays, producing discouragement in very capable students. In addition, outwardly, professors can simply absolve Unknown-16Unknown-15themselves of any professional responsibility by merely labeling such students and their behavior “disorganized” or “lazy.”

The big picture here is that in this current era, educators are using digital information to hold students hostage instead of assessing how students learnUnknown-11 in a digital age. Just like a generation ago, the issue is control. Did controlling students by haphazard grading and assignments, along with the threat of being “graded down,” help students learn best? And, today, does releasing content and homework assignments hours before the assignment is due help students to learn best? If these control strategies continue to be “best practices” at the university and high school levels, Unknown-12they will deflect the Unknown-13professors’ responsibility and place it on the students, allowing that ever UNcollaborative chasm between the ivory tower and student learning.

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The digital age, along with the elearning platforms available, hold amazing potential for all kinds of students. But, these are still the worst of times! Zero changes have occurred between 1987 and 2017. The onus of learning lies on the student only. Professors seem immune to reflection about the effectiveness of their teaching. And, to make matters worse, the current environment merely attracts a population of students more and more homogeneous in the way they learn, slowly matching the information dump, hostage-taking strategies of current age higher education models. While the academic world relishes diversity, they subversively weed out all kinds of learners by their very adherence to a pedagogy of insecurity and pressure. The hyper-organized students and the unidimensional-thinking professor will survive in the current system, but they will both miss out on the beauty and diversity of thought from other kinds of learners. These students have the ability to learn and communicate and contribute ideas to academia, ideas that have passion, compassion, insight, depth, debate, inquiry and more. The “best of times” would embrace both the diversity of student learner and the diversity of instructional strategies. Digitally efficient does not make a teaching strategy effective. Providing all students the time, opportunity and dignity to learn and communicate that learning is possible, even in a digital world.

 

 

The Race to Nowhere: University Years Parte Deux

Now that I have two children accepted into colleges of their choice, I, like many of you, have rehearsed over and over again, “Remember, you’re not trying to get into the BEST school, but instead, you want to apply to schools that are the BEST fit! I’m grateful both my children are mature enough to understand that they will have to imagesfigure out whether their choice of university is the “best fit” for them personally throughout their entire college experience. Even with such a vague definition of “best fit” for them to perform well enough in high school to be accepted into college and even with “sage” parents in the Education field, the Race to Nowhere continues the longstanding tradition all the way through college. My daughter, now a senior at Duke, writes a terrific blog (wordsofhope.com), a small part of which exposes the harsh, psychological realities of living in an environment that has no clue it is even on the treadmill, selling the treadmill, recruiting students who only know how to run the treadmill. We were talking about my former blog post about frogs (please read if you haven’t), and she dropped a bombshell… well, actually, Unknown-1it was just a pithy statement I wanted to use as inspiration for this post. She simply said, “Dad, college success is 80% documenting your past, present and future and 20% learning.” I asked her what she meant, and here are the nuggets of our conversation.

Documenting Your Past?

I didn’t understand what she meant to “document your past,” but I wanted to see into the psyche of a rising college senior who purports, like most students her age, to know it all. Hope (that’s my daughter), told me that since she’s arrived on campus, she has had to make sure she can personally document what others consider necessary for success or inclusion. She’s had to go back and get her former recommendation writers to fill out even more paper work guaranteeing that her resumé is “legit for when [she applies] to all the clubs, programs majors, etc.” She’s had to prove her interest to be included in student organizations and living situations by handing over archives and artifacts and documents and assessments of her opinions and lifestyle. She’s had to show professors and administrators her transcript containing very high grades in two UPPER-LEVEL Spanish classes from another quite prestigious and very competitive university. This was for not for admissions but for professors and administrators in order to be eligible for classes and study-abroad opportunities. Thank goodness she just happened to order several copies of the two-course transcript “just in case” or she would have missed deadlines to go to Spain. Of course, she is my first-born, and, even better, imagesan amazing progeny of my wife. She possesses everything and anything necessary to organize, locate and/or “document” important events. If she needs it, she has it… stored or saved somewhere!

Documenting Your Present?

What? At college, aren’t we by default documenting everything we do? According to my daughter…. NO! In order to be “successful” in today’s “competitive” academic institutions, it is no longer enough to be there “just to learn.” Everything one does on the campus must have a tie to some future payoff, some trajectory, some nebulous trail of completing two majors, two minors, a certificate, graduating with honors, making the Dean’s list and much, much, more. Hope provided me with amazing examples. Students document the worst professors, the hardest classes, the easiest A on campus, and much more, thanks to social media. This, in turn, informs students to take classes in strategic ways so that they can get the easiest A on campus and, hence, the highest GPA. With proper documentation, students strategically delay taking the “harder course that makes one work for an A” and purposely matriculate in an “easier university” during the summer. Unknown-2Many universities allow such “transfer” simply because they do not offer (those strategically avoided) required core courses in the summer. “Who cares about learning and joy, I must get the highest GPA!” Scurrying for a 4.0 is like running a sprint with “record time” but with no finish line in front.

In the present, students must be savvy to organize and document any, 9b8678591b7c4a4a8de63549ef39ab33--reward-charts-for-toddlers-reward-charts-for-kidsand I mean any interaction or accomplishment or achievement they have done or are in the process of doing, in real time, because the race to nowhere throws students off the treadmill if they have not proven themselves or they cannot prove themselves in an instant. The only defense that one measures up is to have documentation of one’s personal value… and to present it to someone who values those documented credentials. So much for the joy of learning!

Documenting Your Future?

Quite similar to any institution of higher learning, the moment students secure some reputable internship or learning opportunity, they immediately push the “accelerate” button on the treadmill. They consider their achievement as helping them “stand apart”Unknown-3from other students, inflating their own egos and resumés, reinforcing the desire to keep running the Nowhere Race. Running faster means you document your future internship and then run even faster to the scholarship application process to make sure you get a reputably named scholarship to fund your travel, expenses, and in some cases, even the internship itself. You see, the scholarship is not just a way to help students financially, but it is another notch in the CV, another resumé-building activity that has no planned end to the construction. In my own sardonic perspective, students won’t wipe a dog’s nose if it doesn’t have a slot on their resumé! For AMAZING ideas to help students think about learning and their own interests, I recommend Katharine Brook’s book You Majored in What?

20% Learning?

Ultimately, Hope concluded that 20% of her time is devoted to studying, applying what she has learned, learning above and beyond what is being delivered in the classroom. Unknown-4Her study and organizational skills make her successful in that area, but, since so many are on the race to nowhere, she feels inferior with an A-! She feels helpless when she compares herself with other “runners” in the race. She loses focus and sight of what brings her joy and what she is designed to do and be! What charges her? Knowing she has something more to contribute to the world to make it a better place, to share with others and grow from a community of other altruistic heroes! What charges most Nowhere racers? Getting the prize before someone else! I can’t help but picture them running and narcissistically hogging the treadmill rails, making it harder for others to run ahead, blocking access for others to “succeed.” I really like this metaphor stuff!

Am I Whining? Isn’t This Just Competitive Academia?

Unknown-5In short, YES! I’m whining! Yes, this is the norm for anyone who needs to or wants to “get ahead.” And, yes, in many or most cases, “ahead” is enough to become another one-percenter! But, remember my son? He, too, has been accepted into an amazing institution of higher learning. And I fear for him! I truly believe it is THE BEST FIT for him! But, the apple does not fall far from the tree! My son LOVES being! Not doing…! He is present in the moments he deems important or meaningful… which are many but not necessarily traditionally academic! He applied to this university bravely revealing his true self in the application process:  academic prowess, stellar community-building skills, intellectual curiosity, independent thinking and… yes… overcoming learning differences that make it difficult to “run their (traditional) race their (traditional) way.” They graciously accepted him. He loves learning and soaks up more than the average information dump…  But, he does not document his life…! Comically, he DOES document his experiences and relationships with Snap-whatever, or Insta-thingy! But he does not behave like he is on a treadmill winning the race to nowhere! He would images-1rather make sure his friends are accompanying him, pulling them up to the front, where he will probably dwell most often merely due to his natural intellect without even knowing or caring that he is “winning.” Is this success? In the world of Race to Nowhere, turning around to help others succeed is a death sentence, a guarantee you will “get behind” or “get left behind.” Will my son have to metamorphose into something he is not merely to “succeed” at his university? He is mature enough to stay true to himself, but is he willing to document his whole life, taking him away from the things he loves and turning him into a competitive, arrogant, scheming, superficial monster? Will this university pose the same challenge/definition of success, upholding standards that don’t allow him and many others to demonstrate their learning? I’m afraid I’m the one worrying about this… which may be evidence that I am part of the problem and not part of the solution, that I want my son to “fit in” and “be successful” like everyone else. It may even mean I do not have faith that he will succeed if he doesn’t continue to go against his nature and run this pathetically exhausting and counterproductive race.

So, yes, I’m whining because I, like every parent, think my son is special. parent-clipart-proud-parents-hiHe may surprise me and jump again into Nowhere Race Training with gusto, just as he had to do for 12 years to get into a school that might bring him joy and meaning. Eighteen years old is too late to change a child or an entire system of Education. I am hoping he will rise above the dehumanizing manner in which academic environments “compete.” I am praying he will remember how to take the knowledge he learns and turn it into wisdom, compassion and servant leadership. I so want him to succeed and be self-sufficient and happy. Perhaps going to college, whether the institution espouses the Race to Nowhere or not, really is about growing up, maturing and becoming comfortable with oneself in an ever-changing society while also learning a “cultured,” predetermined curriculum prepared by an institution of higher learning.

images-2Do any of you have advice for me? Insight into how to guard ourselves and our children from losing their humanity in this crazy treadmill Race to Nowhere? I welcome your comments? I also offer you my own counsel if you so need. Together, we can learn!

Teaching Vocabulary: A Word to the Wise

Vocabulary instruction! That tedious, necessary classroom evil that “promises” to increase SAT scores, create Pulitzer prize-winning writers and equip the best of lawyers and debaters! In teacher certification programs at the elementary level, methods students can learn fun, creative, contextual, meaningful, content/curriculum-related, research-based methods to teach vocabulary words for reading and speaking. And, as you well know, there are many different curricula that purport to teach vocabulary, well packaged into a workbook delivery system, with testing materials and answers to the workbook exercise questions to facilitate grading. One of the most popular of these curricula in independent as well as public schools is Wordly Wise. Now, before I continue, please take a moment, in the spirit of Wordly Wise, and fill in the blank (the cloze item) with the first word that comes to your mind.  Be honest and be prompt; do NOT overthink it.  Ready?  OK….

Fill in the blank with the “correct word”:

How many of you are __________________ enough to admit you love Wordly Wise?

I, for one, can think of nothing more entertaining than doing an entire chapter of such exercises before going to bed!  (I promise there’s no sarcasm here!) What did you answer, however? Here’s a possible word bank!

Brave              Stupid             Unabashed            Enthusiastic            Lazy

Resourceful   Practical         Creative                   Busy                       Honest

Go ahead!  Substitute your word or one of these and read the sentence aloud!

Personally, I get wonderfully charged when I teach or observe others teach elementary grade children vocabulary! What better privilege than to orchestrate amazingly meaningful opportunities, activities, lessons etc. for kids to expand their speaking vocabularies AND their reading vocabularies both independently and jointly! In the context of learning to read and write, students can experience joyful encounters with understanding and communicating more and more sophisticated meaning. Throughout my graduate school education, supervising teachers and consulting with schools and teachers, I have seen teachers truly make literature and content/subject matter alike “come alive” in a way that students embrace new words, express them, ask for them, celebrate them! Whether the elementary “lessons” were from teacher-created materials or from packaged materials like Wordly Wise, I have helped many a teacher transform a scripted curriculum into vibrant, meaningful lessons that promote developmentally appropriate literacy in the context of vocabulary acquisition. And, yes, the lessons complemented professional, “best” practices from the field of Elementary Education! (For amazing research and support, I must shout out to Dr. Dixie L. Spiegel and Dr. Jill Fitzgerald,  both at UNC-Chapel Hill, who taught me more about teaching reading than they could EVER know!)

ww3000_4th_covers

But, I have also experienced teachers and entire lower schools who embrace the “workbook curriculum” as merely one more thing to cover in a typical elementary school classroom… Accelerated Reader, cursive, Math facts, and Wordly Wise, for example. Moving through the material is the goal, nothing else, nothing more. Teachers, departments and even schools assume that if students have made it through 2nd grade Wordly Wise, then they will be ready for 3rd grade Wordly Wise, and, whenever the sequence finishes, they will be linguists and scholars and spelling bee winners and writers and orators, and more.  These educators assume that students can use these words in everyday and academic writing and speech without having practiced it in a relevant manner or context.

 

Case in Point:  Another Personal Story!

My son and a friend were in an elementary class where the entire school praised Wordly Wise. As the entire class went through Chapter 1, my son and his friend quickly stood out as already knowing the majority of the words in that chapter, and the next, and the next. In September, I discovered that the two boys were told to stop raising their hands to answer the questions from the exercises that the whole class was doing at the same pace at the same time:  section A on Monday, Section B on Tuesday, Section C on Wednesday, Section D on Thursday and the Chapter multiple choice test on Friday.  I suggested that my son already knew the words and that the two boys could help do supplemental videos and presentations for the class, presentations that put the words into relevant, age-appropriate contexts for all. With the amazing technology the school boasts, the boys would get to write and “speak” the words in an enjoyable way with skits, news broadcasts, interviews, etc.. The teacher did not respond, offended that a parent would tell her how to teach. The Division Head said she liked the idea, but she needed to know that the boys “already knew the words” before they could be allowed to do “NON-workbook exercises.”

I recommended designing an entire Wordly Wise curriculum and instruction “packet,” divided by thematic unit/chapter with lessons in the form of a “template” of how this might be done. I would offer my services for free! The Division Head asked me to put it in writing for her. I did. She received it and did not address me or the issue again until JANUARY!!! 

Here is what I suggested could be done FOUR months prior to this response. My son’s teacher would give the entire class the Wordly Wise PRE-test- really just the chapter test as a diagnostic to see which students knew most of which words. Then, for day 2, she could let the small group of students (those missing 3 or less from the 25 words for the week) work on learning the ones they “missed” on the pre-test. Then, during days 3 and 4, that group could work on a skit or a video or whatever else would communicate the 10 most frequently missed words out of the rest of the class as assessed by the Monday diagnostic. In the meantime, the rest of the class did the doldrums of discreet point workbook exercises C and D. Friday, the small group could present its work to the rest of the students to “prime” them for the “post-test,” ensuring one last time that the weaker students would see and/or hear a meaningful use of the most unknown words. I designed the “packet” for the Division Head, as the teacher was getting a bit annoyed at the fact that I was calling attention to the travesty that my son and his friend were told to read or sit in their seat and NOT volunteer to answer question from September until January every time the whole class did Wordly Wise exercises! (Which was every day!)

AGAIN……   

The Division head responded to my curriculum proposal in two ways.  YOU can determine the appropriateness of her responses. First she told me she was going to “deliver” the curriculum packet to Matthew’s teacher as if she, herself, had thought of the idea. She wanted me to delete all reference to me, my son, etc. and make it “generic” since it would not be well-received coming from a parent. I obliged the next day. Second, after another 6 weeks not responding, she called me and told me that my ideas were not working because everyone was studying the vocabulary on the weekend so they could get a good grade on the pre-test and not have to do anything else with Wordly Wise for the rest of the week! (overt versus covert curriculum?!?!) The teacher had not even tried to implement the application activities of writing and presenting original works with the words. She merely told the students if they scored well, they would get to read or sit quietly like Matthew and his friend! The Division Head told me she had a terrific solution for the teacher and was merely calling me to tell me she had “solved” the issue! When I asked what that solution was, the Division Head proudly stated, “I just told the teacher the kids can’t take their Wordly Wise workbooks home with them on Fridays. That way they can’t study and they won’t know all the words!!!!!”

FOR THE THIRD TIME….   

I was at CVS at that moment, and I cried publicly as I hung up the phone. The next day, I arranged for alternative instruction in Language Arts for my son during the regularly scheduled time. It was April by then, and my son had done literally nothing in Language Arts class but sit quietly, and, “read” for 7 months! If you follow this blog, he is twice exceptional. Does he migrate to “reading” anything on his own? NO! He is dyslexic. Was he given enjoyable things to do with his “reading?” NO! His reading vocabulary almost matches his above average speaking vocabulary if/when the words are pronounced to him once. Could he, along with the classmates who had already “mastered” a chapter’s thematic set of vocabulary, have presented their classmates with enjoyable, meaningful ways to acquire new vocabulary? Absolutely!

The Issues

Yes, this one is personal! After all, this blog is called MY education education. The issues have had 8 years to settle. So, in honor of Wordly Wise and all those teachers I know who use curriculum materials as TOOLS and not the curriculum itself, and to those teachers who may not be at a place to see the issues surrounding the use of such an AMAZING curriculum as Wordly Wise, here are some of the main issues I see in this “story.”

NOTE:  I can discuss many issues related to this story. Therefore, in honor of my trying to learn to be briefer in this blog medium, I will not elaborate much. Hopefully, this will encourage you to ask questions and/or reply to the blog!

  1. Over-Reliance on Curriculum Materials

Curriculum packages always reflect pedagogical, philosophy and psychoeducational assumptions that may or may not be accurate or appropriate. They are, in short, convenient! Using these packages as they are scripted without allowing students the dignity to see their relevance or to help transfer the knowledge and skills to real-life contexts is a crime against the students and their families.

Related issues:

Parent or supervisor fear or inability to challenge a teacher mid-year

-Over-commitment to an approach and long-term plans (unwillingness

to change)

-School’s unspoken “rule” that parents may not interfere with a teacher

  1. Supervisory Weakness and Insecurity

When parents complain to a teacher’s supervisor after they have gone civilly and pleasantly to the teacher first, and when the complaint is as egregiously in conflict with the entire school’s mission as this one, a supervisor must take the strong stand and go to the teacher with support. If the supervisor does not have anything to offer the teacher to resolve the situation and feels insecure or threatened (which is very often the case), is it the student who must suffer almost 8 months of zero growth? Where is the humility to admit the need for a solution and perhaps ask for help? Or, does the supervisor actually believe her “solution” of keeping students from “learning” a system to get out of busy work is quality instructional advice? IDK. YOU be the judge!

Related issue:

Teacher’s/Administrator’s/School’s fear, embarrassment or intimidation (or anger?) that a parent (albeit, a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction) might know more than they

-As a corollary, is this not just an example of educator arrogance?

  1. Differentiated, CREATIVE instruction is not that hard for small classes!

Is it that hard to manage a few kids in a class of 18 and who happen to have an already strong background knowledge of the vocabulary (or any curriculum for that matter) in a way that challenges that few to grow and integrates their work into the life of the whole class and in a way that helps ALL students? Isn’t that differentiated instruction? Isn’t that the essence of designing creative lessons for an individual class? The research is there! The training is there! ONLY IF THE HUMILITY, ENTHUSIASM AND PROFESSIONAL INTEGRITY ARE THERE, TOO!

  1. False Advertising

This is just a pet peeve of mine! If a school, such as a “grammar school” or a very traditional boarding/prep school, proudly advertises the kind of instruction that is merely to beat discreet point information into the heads of kids and then testing and micromanaging students to “succeed,” then I have absolutely no grounds to complain here! As it goes, however, my son’s school boasted instruction and resources such as state-of-the-art technology that would help teach the “whole child” 21st Century skills in a “hands-on” environment with small classes and personalized attention and a commitment to let the students express their creativity in plastic and performing arts. Blah, blah, blah, blah! This is, indeed, why my wife and I chose the school! I, as a professional educator, believed this to be the best environment for my children. So, are prescribed curricula even to be a part of such an advertised “promise?” I could hire a college freshman to “homeschool” my children with such materials for a much lower cost.

  1. Overt Versus Covert Curriculum

When supervising a student teacher, I love to challenge her to ponder the difference between what SHE THINKS her goals and objectives are (overt curriculum) versus what her STUDENTS THINK her goals and objectives are (covert curriculum). There is a delicate, negotiated blending of overt versus covert curricula. Students are notorious for practicing what I call LAW (Least Amount of Work)! A teacher may BELIEVE she is teaching vocabulary and inspiring erudite dialogues, sophisticated, academic conversation! But students’ LAW practices reduce the teacher’s efforts to the bare minimum. In this case, the students just wanted out of tedious, boring, routine exercises, so they memorized the definitions of the word. In addition, they wanted “free time,” which is “leave-me-alone” time.

  1. Misrepresentation of Learning Differences

Matthew knew the words, but needed ways to “read” and “speak” them that would solidify his giftedness in the right way. Many dyslexics are labelled as “lazy” because they do not choose academic work for pleasure and, at times, find it hard to follow the directions and sequences of traditional methods, seemingly distracted and wandering lazily. Matthew’s teacher’s solution to “let him read” left him to his own devices with no accountability. His only directive was NOT to bother the others in the class. So… he learned laziness… a laziness that says “If I do not bother you, I deserve to do nothing. I don’t need to develop any more academically since I already get it.” Nothing could be farther from the truth! But even today, we battle with our son’s initiative to “make his thinking visible.” (See Ron Richhart, Mark Church and Karen Morrison). Teaching to learning differences should synergize into instruction that encourages all students to achieve, not encourage poor or even stereotyped habits in those who may struggle or who may be academically gifted!

Positives

-I was able to teach my son academic reading comprehension strategies using a college remedial reading textbook! (Yes, I’m bragging!)

-I was available to step in where he was slipping and where he was being neglected! Not all dads have that luxury or that ability.

-I kept my cool from September to April! For those of you who choose to intervene with your child’s education/educators when it is necessary, you know it is difficult to exercise patience. For me, I credit my amazing wife to helping me be calm and collected.

-I wrote a really great curriculum guide to use the already awesome Wordly Wise curriculum! So much work and attention had gone into the final draft of that specific personal curriculum guide, and, in the hands of a competent teacher (or a dorky, overzealous word snob and curriculum specialist such as myself), the curriculum plan includes an abundance of creativity that can draw on all the students’ strengths while energizing them to work on understanding vocabulary in context. The strategies suggested for each of the thematic units I designed are based on sound pedagogical principles and adaptable to any schools’ overall curriculum. If you’d like to hire me to consult on how, give me a message.

Negatives

-You can’t get those 7.5 months back at a crucial time in habit and intellect development.

-WHY DO SCHOOLS BUILD SUCH CLOSED COMMUNITIES?

-Why do parents have to take extreme measures in order to help their child in a school?

-What would have happened to my son if his entire 4th grade Language Arts was a vacuum? A student can go 7.5 months doing nothing in class, his parents can approach the teacher, the Division Head and the Principal about it and it raises no red flags nor changes? And, think about it! If Matthew had been in a public school, he would have been delinquent from school while I taught him myself; there would have been no option to pull him out for better instruction. He would have been condemned to the same professional negligence for rest of the academic year.

-Why don’t (can’t?) teachers ask for help?  

-Why don’t (can’t?) administrators listen to parents (especially those in the business)?

-Why don’t (can’t?) administrators help teachers who are experiencing a glitch in what they’ve laid out for the academic year? We all know things don’t always go swimmingly as planned from the beginning to the end of the school year?

-Why are teachers and administrators so committed to “academic freedom” that they protect, promote and even perpetuate practices (and even support teachers) that are not educationally sound?

-MOST IMPORTANTLY, we may only fight this battle in the elementary grades. After that, the practice of, not the research on, mindful vocabulary teaching in the middle and high school level is almost inexistent. Teachers in the middle grades and above rely solely on the vocabulary list at the end of each chapter of their textbook to “teach their students what they need to know.” The enhancement of literacy skills in a respective discipline never appears in the lesson plan. Content Area Reading Comprehension Instruction is absent completely.

CONCLUSION

I so enjoy helping teachers design creative, meaningful and “literacy-oriented” vocabulary instruction, in English as a first language or in any second language! With the proper context, students naturally fall in love with words, including understanding and expressing clear, sophisticated ideas and meaning. A small percentage of the population (Suzy and Sam Suckups, see prior blog post) will easily apply the most boring of instruction in vocabulary to their own verbal inclination. But, almost all students will benefit from vocabulary instruction that is based on a broad and deep application of pedagogy! And from Kindergarten through College! Someone, whether teacher, supervisor or other administrator ought to have the courage to challenge the blanket and uninspiring/uninspired delivery of a scripted vocabulary curriculum, or any curriculum for that matter! Be brave! Reach out! To me or any other capable professional who can put you on the right path. Let me hear from you!

 

Frogs on a Treadmill? The Race to Nowhere or Does Perspective Really Help Us Live Full Lives?

Imagine a sac of frog eggs in a pond, the kind of frogs that lives their “adult lives” on land. Toads? frogeggsI forget the difference. tadpoles-in-eggsAnyway, the tadpoles in the eggs grow, they develop, they hatch… into the water. Again, they grow, they develop, they absorb their tails and climb OUT of the water. They know the water! They jump into it. They play in it! They procreate in it! They know how to USE the water for their own good, but, their expertise of water comes from having lived IN it and having looked AT it from dry land. tadpole-with-tailTheir perspective from the water is just as valuable as their perspective from dry land. frogjumpingTheir goal in life is NOT to stay in the water thinking that the water brought them out of the eggs and gave them a pretty good life with a tail. Their goal is not to look incessantly for more water, better water, or the water most popular with all the other frogs! In fact, without the perspective of stepping out on dry land, the frogs would never know how to distinguish better water. They would not be able to respect those who have come from different waters. They would not even know that more water existed, and they certainly wouldn’t see that, in general, they are responsible to live their own life “happy,” not the life of other frogs. The distracting search for bluer water limits our capacity to grow into the frogs (or toads) we were meant to be. After all, a frog’s goal is “relationship” with other frogs in an exciting world into which we frogs may bravely step (or swim).

unknown-1Now, what does this have to do with My Education Education? Everything! Allow me to analogize. We Americans are born into a pond of free and democratic education. Like for tadpoles, our “eggs” are short-lived. They are called Kindergarten. Now, I wanted to say “the Elementary Grades Years,” but, truthfully, the innocent shell that protects young lives with humanitarian, humanistic “play” and natural, meaningful and authentic learning dissolves and breaks even EARLIER than Kindergarten. That is, the “baby tadpoles” have very little time to “develop” their “tadpoleness” in the egg before the egg is shattered for more “water”- the water of Outcomes Based Education, or “academic readiness,” or “customized curriculum” or higher ERB scores. Our tadpoles stay too briefly in the haven of “play is our work.” In the short-lived life in their shell, our children must learn what it means to play TOGETHER, to play SAFELY, to play ALONE, to SHARE, and many more things that seem like natural human behaviors for which any curriculum of their interest is a secondary excuse. Teachers and “better waters” will not ever be able to “dump” these kinds of lessons into children in such a short time!frogs-playing

Would we ever think of ejecting the poor tadpoles from their shells before they were ready to take on the “water” of education all by themselves? Certainly not! But we DO push elementary school children to read by grade 1, to write and spell with little meaning or purpose. We push them to get into the highest level of classes for which the school system has a label: AG, HAG, Explorers, Robins, etc. Parents begin to push their children to accomplish MORE Accelerated Reader stories. Instead of wondering why Johnnie can’t pay attention along with his advanced Math peers, his parents get him a prescription for ADD/ADHD medicine. Could it be Johnnie’s brain is fried? Could it be Johnnie’s teacher is not allowing him to process the Math in a developmentally appropriate way? unknownSo human tadpoles are pushed into the water (and out of their shells) way too soon and are literally and figuratively flooded with more and different and “better” water:  the next trend in Education promising the get the youngster “ahead.” Parents are told this new water is better. Their children will swim to the front of the pack if they just drink from the chalice of this next curricular or extracurricular panacea! chaliceAnd only the tadpoles at the front of the pack get to jump into the next best body of water, where the population of tadpoles is smaller and more “competitive.” This poses a threat to parents, as the tadpoles in this new body of water can all swim as fast as or faster than their own children. And so, parents help the tadpoles find more water to jump into, to “distinguish” their children from the others at the front of that pack. Some push the tadpoles to do sports, music, online classes, tutoring, “enrichment,” and more. So, our tadpoles never learn the world of any body of water because we parents are trying to push them through and out of one body into the “next best.” And then, by the time parents figure out their tadpoles are just like the other tadpoles even though their children had worked so hard at standing out, the tadpoles begin to lose their tails!

NOW, the parents must push their adolescent tadpoles even harder since the “teens” are now more interested in the tails of other tadpoles and even their own, again, literally and figuratively! parentpunishingchildIf you know anything about these creatures-adolescent tadpoles, that is- they stop eating and literally digest their own tails while they “go through the changes.” frogwithtailSo, in reality, adolescent tadpoles actually ignore the water in which they live and focus on “more important” issues. (Wouldn’t it be nice to navigate through FAMILIAR waters during this period instead of hopping into new waters every 3 to 6 months? In Middle School, we may as well say the same thing. Middle Schoolers stop feeding on the “water” of Education and focus on what they were put on this planet to do:  you fill in the blank here… individuate, move into Formal Operations Thinking, pick at their acne, develop a secure identity, etc.  Whatever it is, adolescent tadpoles need time to grow into their own bodies, lose their tails and connect with fellow tadpoles to muster the strength for their upcoming leap OUT of the water, physiologically able now to manage a bigger world with legs, breaking apparatus, new and stronger muscles, etc. Biologists say that it is usually hunger that drives a tadpole adolescent out of the water. Think about the “water” we humans dump on our adolescents, like drinking fire-hydrantfrom a fire hydrant! More classes, more tutors, more “extra-curriculars,” camps, etc. How often do we even know if our children are “hungry” for the water we pour down their throats? And, by this time, some of our adolescents have become quite skilled at a few things- through practice, drill, opportunity, privilege, self-motivation, parental threat, etc. frogsplaying-out-of-the-waterThere may or may not be the joy of jumping into the water like a young adult frog experiences or even the sense that frogs can and should hang and swing with other frogs with joy and by nature, but at least our children can jump into some of the “better waters” better than other frogs. Suzuki violin, the School of Science and Math, UNC School for the Arts, Governor’s school, “gifted” programs, rounding out our resumé to be eligible for the “best” schools and scholarships! Some of our young adult frogs can play in some really awesome water where others can’t. imagesAnd this pushes the parents and now the frog itself to seek out newer… but related… waters, a process which has now formed into such a rigid formula, neither froglings nor parents can see any other approach to going through life’s waters. You see, now, we don’t want to push the frog too much into new waters where she might get caught up in a relationship with the other frogs at that level, or, heaven forbid, she might disregard jumping into the other waters that now define her as “distinguished.” Pushing the young frog even harder distracts him until he can be pushed into the next best body of water. Ultimately, these frogs only know the waters because they have merely lived IN them. Without the perspective of living OUT of the waters, the only path of “life” for these frogs is to paddle in the water with a “select” group of other frogs who believe they are just as superior. Even though the analytic capacity is limited for the frogs who only live in/on the water, their own community of “fast paced” frogs considers them to be “the best.” At the very least, having a perspective outside the waters gives a frog a broader and more accurate assessment frogwithfingerand analysis of self and the world. Remaining on the treadmill for so long sometimes makes the frog lift that special middle finger in rebellion to the very academics that the community believes will bring him the best success and say “that’s enough” or even worse!

I’m sure you can finish the analogy all the way up to Post Graduate University level waters or Education. I’d like to, but my blogging coach tells me my posts are too long. The fascinating thing?  When during any of this process do we humans get out of the water with the goal of evaluating whether it is the right LIFE to live: constantly in the water with nothing to define us but the water itself and in constant, insecure comparison with others. We are not the water into which we were born, but this process, what educators so beautifully call “The Race to Nowhere,” ends up stripping us of our humanity while at the same time breeding a cruel arrogance, jadedness, blindness and even an obsessive/compulsive sense of entitlement in student, parent and academic/educational institutions. In short, we confuse the “best education” as that one and only tool that defines us rather than seeing an unknowneducation as ONE of many tools our children may use to live the happy and upright life they are uniquely equipped to live.unknown

I’d love to read your comments, reactions, and stories. I not only need to learn how to step out of the water (or off the treadmill) for my own children and the children and parents I serve, but I believe we can reconnect with our humanity by sharing our own stories. In my consulting work, I see administrators, teachers, parents and students alike who perpetuate… no, depend on… the race to nowhere totally blinded by the fact that they are even running! I, too, have found moments in my parenting when I realized I was on the treadmill and merely justifying my own circumstances and imposing an impersonal value set onto my child. This, like

images-1

HUMBLE!

any parenting commentary or recommendation, provokes resentment and defensive behaviors. Humility and transparency are in short supply in most of my educational consulting experiences. But, in an anecdotal contrast,

images

TRANSPARENT!

I had clients whose son would have been Valedictorian of his class if he had NOT taken band. He had played the game well and “won the race.” But, the parents and the boy battled whether it was worth it! He LOVED playing his instrument, but Band was not an honors class in this county. He truly wanted to take Band, not just because his best friends were there, too. His band director was an amazing role model for the boy. He and his parents chose to take band, and he was Salutatorian. What say you, readers? brokentreadmillDare we drop our guard, our pretense… and share? From pre-school to the finest of Ivy Leagues, we educators are ALL guilty of tuning the treadmill for the next wave of tadpoles! Which of we educators will be the first one to pull the plug!

 

 

“The 6-point lesson plan is a joke”: Lessons from Keith, Kristen and Kathy

In honor of the October, 2016 issue of Educational Leadership (Powerful Lesson Planning), I present you this blog! ASCD has terrific material that many times gets dismissed because it is poorly implemented and/or arrogantly scoffed as too formulaic. Read this issue before or after this blog! WWW.ASCD.ORG You will know my attitude about how and why lesson planning forms the basis of any content Methods course!

STORY

Meet Keith, a very bright pre-service, undergraduate French Teacher Education student! His mastery of the French language is superb! When he arrives in my Methods of Second Language Instruction class, it’s clear that his understanding of teaching is limited by what I have termed FTS: French Teacher Syndrome. FTS is that subtle attitude that learning French is for the intellectually superior, and it permeates every decision made during instructional planning. Learning French is merely when the teacher france-flag15blesses the students with the right vocabulary and understanding of grammar rules to justify a “native-like” translation in speaking, listening, reading and writing. In clinging to this traditional approach to language learning, Keith struggled to understand and apply the most current and comprehensive theories and practices of Second Language Acquisition.

Meet Kristen, an enthusiastic young lady with a limited mastery of Spanish. She, too, is in my undergraduate Methods class. My first impressions are that developmentally, she may not be able to handle the abstraction of the theory in this class, but she will be able to bearovercome it when she has the opportunity to put principles into practice, such as her practicum in the Methods class or her student teaching. She is idealistic and loves to have fun with children. Her lack of metacognitive ability/understanding (the ability to understand the process of understanding) made it difficult for Kristen to plan anything but “fun” activities and tests for her students during Student Teaching.

Meet Kathy, an accomplished public school Spanish teacher with 5 years of experience who was required to take my Graduate Methods class in order to prove she is making progress toward official teacher certification. Of course, her youth and experience communicate that she knows it all, and her Spanish is only fair. The graduate class has as its focus the teaching of reading comprehension and writing skills in a second language. knowitallKathy is grateful to be taking the class, as she is going to be teaching “upper levels” in the coming year. For several years, veteran teachers and her colleagues have been telling her, “The 6-point lesson plan is passé. Just make sure you follow the book and get through it by the end of the year.” She doesn’t feel the need to hear about how to design a “lesson,” because all she has to do is “cover the material.”

What do these three have in common? They all three scoffed at the 6-point lesson plan when I addressed it in class. None of them accepted that the 6-point plan was based on Ausubelian Theories of schema development or of Gagné’s teaching principles based on neurological models of memory. They all said it was outdated. Even when we discussed newer approaches to lesson planning such as backward design or cognitive mapping strategies, they ignored the similarities (the rich research base and professional standards) and ridiculed the need for such anal planning. Kathy said her supervisor just wanted to see the topics she was “covering” as her lesson plan.

I truly prefer Wiggins/McTighe’s Understanding by Design (UbD), a very comprehensive approach to plan the most effective instruction taking into consideration the most important variables in the process. I have friends and colleagues that say UbD is too dependent on the “public school” mentality. In my experience, however, many educators who criticize research-based lesson plan paradigms are simply compensating for the fact that they do not have formal training in the actual psychology, pedagogy and other research-based bodies of knowledge on which most instructional planning is based. Sometimes, I encounter teachers (old or young) who are not cognitively capable of comprehending the abstractions necessary to plan satisfactory lessons. Just to be sure we are on the same page, then, I’d like here to elaborate on the 6-point plan, saving UbD for later posts, LOL.

team-lesson-plan-template-5195176

OBJECTIVE: Every lesson plan should have a clearly stated objective that is behavioral in nature (say, write, design, list, compare, analyze, etc.) and not just “know” or “understand” the material. The objective should reflect in some way big or small the overall goals for the students, keeping in mind what it looks like for a student to be academically literate or competent in the content area.

STEP ONE: Focus and Review-  The teacher helps students recall any background they may need or were studying that is necessary for students to have success in accomplishing the new objective. This includes personal experiences and schema and anything that will help students succeed.

STEP TWO: Statement of the Objective- Students’ attention is drawn to the objective that is stated for them clearly in behavioral standards.

STEP THREE: Presentation of the “Stimulus,” any new information and skills needed to accomplish the objective. (This can be done in many ways, “fun,” logically, video, examples, hands-on, etc.)

STEP FOUR: Guided Practice- Students watch modeling of new behavior and practice the objective with teacher feedback.

STEP FIVE: Independent practice- Students attempt the objective on their own.

STEP SIX: Relevant assessment/Closure- Teacher asks the students to demonstrate mastery of the objective, and teacher frames the new knowledge with applications to and from other knowledge and skills from students’ background.

Back to the “story”…  What else do these three Methods students have in common? During my observation of Student Teaching, all three of them designed lessons that flopped miserably. These lessons completely confused the students because the teachers didn’t understand what the objective was nor how to get students metacognitively from point A to Z.

For example, Keith wanted to teach a group of 3rd graders the colors. These students had never had French instruction except the day before, 25 minutes with him, the typical “Bon jour” and “Je m’appelle X.” Keith’s VERY first question to the students in French, during the “focus and review” stage, was, “What color is this?” Case in point:  he was “teaching by assessing” instead of considering what input the kids needed before they were able to communicate (describe orally) using the colors.

Kristen wanted the students to be able to describe 6 different animals- their color, the number of “feet” or paws they have, and the patterns (e.g., striped, spotted, multicolored, etc.). She brought out the stuffed toy animals and asked in Spanish, “What animal do I have here.” Again, these 3rd grade students, like Keith’s, had had 25 minutes experience with Spanish before that. There was no consideration of background knowledge, etc. Although the objective was clear, the path to learning was ill-considered.

Kathy had just finished hearing me lecture about how teaching reading comprehension strategies is NOT asking comprehension questions, but finding meaningful, developmentally appropriate ways to use a reading passage as a way to promote language acquisition while at the same time teaching enjoyable techniques in meaning reconstruction. In fact, as a class, we even experienced the creative and meaningful exercises suggested here using the very academic articles for which the Methods students were responsible, as a “meta-lesson” in how to teach reading comprehension. When it was her turn to do the same with a literary passage, she handed it to the class, told them to read it and then asked them to answer comprehension questions. No objective for understanding the passage! No understanding of what it will take for us to successfully understand the passage! No activation of background knowledge (schema) that might help the readers to reconstruct the meaning! No regard for “guided” practice! Half of us (the class) did not even know Spanish, and another did not even know the author or the historical context in which the passage was written, ALL of which would have helped us reconstruct the meaning with more success and more language acquisition than getting 5 of the 10 questions correct on the post-test by recognizing foreign words and patterns that are similar between question and answer.

My point? With the simplest of lesson plan formats, I was trying to help pre- and in-service teachers realize that to follow a developmentally and professionally appropriate objective through to students’ successful accomplishment is QUITE complex and requires a great deal of thought and practice. Teachers whose lessons fail almost always lack two things:  a clear objective and poor planning (a lesson plan that moves students intentionally and consciously through the 6 stages of learning as represented in a 6-point lesson plan, for example).

UPDATE:  I would love to say I have “followed up” with these pre- and in-service teachers to see if they have seen the light. Only one of them is still in the teaching profession as far as I know. I do know this! All three of these teachers, although frustrated at the beginning improved their ability to take their students on what I call a “planned metacognitive journey.” Whether it’s a 6-point plan, a 4-point plan, backward design, etc., these teachers learned that having and making a plan does NOT stifle creativity (one of the main criticism of planning rubrics)! Assessment is a complex part of a lesson but not an actual complete teaching strategy. Having a plan always reaches more students than not and helps students accomplish more substantive and professionally based objectives rather than just “having fun.”

ISSUES

Content versus Pedagogy- There is a fine balance between content expertise and pedagogical expertise. Too much of one and/or not enough of another encourages bad choices in instructional planning and delivery. Teachers may seek to entertain the students with a “hip” activity to the detriment of learning the content and objectives assumed by the curriculum. Or, teachers might think their knowledge base of the content is presumably larger than the students’, that students naturally want to know more from such a teacher, and that all the teachers have to do is tell their students what they know or what the students “need to know.” Or, on the other hand, teachers may educationscalebe excellent, natural motivators of people, but their content expertise is so superficial, students and teachers alike cannot focus on “big picture” goals and objectives. This does not even consider how ignorant administrators could be of the content area teaching methods and/or the content itself! (I once conducted an entire lesson criticizing the principal’s clothing choice while he was observing me. He complemented me on how much the students were enjoying my lesson!) This dichotomy surfaces all too often in the Second Language Teaching field. When the standards for World Language Instruction has as its base that the teacher is one of the primary sources of comprehensible linguistic input as students acquire language in a natural manner, like they acquired their first, it behooves the administration to know how to distinguish a language instructor with native or near-native proficiency and one without! This is very similar to the “nice” Math teacher that reads the textbook to the class and cannot clarify any student confusion beyond a Google search or a YouTube video suggestion. Another example is a native speaker that speaks the language well, but has not learned how to design professionally appropriate instruction.

The role of assessment in the instructional planning and delivery process- It seem SO simple! If you plan your instruction with a CLEAR objective and deliver that instruction with proper planning, the “independent practice” part of the plan should look just like the “assessment!” But, students and parents say all too often, “Mr. Jones just made us memorize a bunch of words for Biology and told us stories about when he worked in a pathology lab. But THEN, his tests asked us to write an essay comparing and contrasting plant cells and animal cells, making sure we used at least 10 of our words. He didn’t even give us a word bank.” This is a clear example of when instruction happens without having (and without the student’s knowing) the objective for learning. But, it also demonstrates how “the teacher didn’t teach us the same way she tested us.”

Teachers usually depend on teaching the same way they learned and/or were taught- I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this underlying issue. I once taught a college course in boringteachan Education Department called Content Area Reading Instruction. Although it was a two-hour course, I put my heart and soul into teaching it. Many students deplored it, as it was a bit of an overlap from their Methods Course. What fascinated me was that all the Biology Education students stormed my office hours, hungry to learn more, asking for more techniques and examples of how to teach content area literacy. What I discovered from them is that the Biology Methods Teacher’s approach to Biology instruction was to make sure everyone knew how to classify living things: species, family, genus, etc. It was merely a rehash of how the Field of Biology is organized, not a way to TEACH Biology or promote Biology literacy in young adults. Knowing the Methods teacher well, I know confidently two things. First, she believed that this WAS learning to teach Biology and second, she, herself, had fallen in love with Biology because she so easily succeeded at it from her High School teacher, who taught with the same approach. For these students in my Content Area Reading Instruction, they were inspired to create lessons that helped students read and write Biology better. Keith learned French from a teacher suffering from FTS (see above), and Kathy learned Spanish in College from traditional grammar/translation professors, but only minored in Spanish. Their lessons reflected the traditional “information-dump-from-the-one-who-knows-better” philosophy. Kristen learned Spanish by having a Latino boyfriend. boredShe just wanted to “chat” and have fun. All three ended up “teaching” as they were taught and the way they “learned.” To have learning like they did has left them struggling to make the paradigm shifts necessary to deliver state-of-the-art instruction. Many if not most teachers in most disciplines are affected by this same phenomenon.

The attitudes of teachers and supervisors toward planning effective instruction, OR “How many excuses can you have for not planning effectively?”- Many teachers have Kathy’s attitude toward planning elaborately. They complain about many things:

-Planning takes all the creativity out of teaching: NON-SENSE! With a clear objective, teachers can be as creative as they wish!

-Planning takes too much time: CORRECT, as teachers begin to learn to do it well! Then, when they understand the metacognitive component of planning and creating PROPERLY DESIGNED objectives, the planning time (learning curve) becomes shorter and shorter. Are teachers willing to put in that time? Are supervisors prepared to give “extra” time and resources to help teachers plan pedagogically, developmentally and professionally appropriate lessons? Are supervisors capable of equipping their teachers to do so? I know of many schools where supervisors, department heads, principals, etc. do not have the expertise to help teachers plan more effective instruction. They have their own set of excuses for why teachers are not effective.

-We don’t need to plan because the textbook has done that for us. All we have to do is cover the material. HOGWASH! ALL capable, honest educators know that proper planning is required to help students master material at more than a discreet point level like merely passing a standardized test. This requires taking the textbook material and giving students real-life goals and objectives with which students can relate.

The list of excuses could go on and on, but the trend is there. The single mitigating factor that is present in all these excuses is the ignorance behind proper planning- its origins, its purpose, the research base, the supervisory expertise for improving instructional planning which includes providing teachers models and options for improvement, and more.

THE POSITIVES

Some teachers have an innate understanding of the teaching/learning process that translates to successful lessons. My 6-year-old niece, one day while I was babysitting, wanted to play “school.” She set up a “classroom” and delivered a lesson that truly followed the six-point lesson plan beautifully. Many teachers can deliver this sort of lesson when the material is quite familiar or when the students actually request such a lesson. The stages of learning naturally fall into place. I would, however, warn, as I do often in this blog, that perhaps the objective inherent in the “unplanned” childteachinglesson does not align necessarily with the overall professional objectives in the field or the school or what is best for the students. It is quite possible to deliver a well-constructed lesson with a success that does not match the “exit” criteria assumed by the course, unit, etc.

Many very sharp curriculum generalists and specialists exist to coach teachers through this resistance. In my experience, a successful paradigm shift (for a teacher, department and/or school) requires several things. First, teachers must be equipped with substantive training. Second, they must be given the freedom to risk and fail in developing more effective instruction. Third, teachers need time and resources to build effective lessons and units. Fourth, teachers need humility! (For more on the courage and vulnerability to face our shortcomings, please see my daughter’s blog wordsofhopeblog.com.)  Fifth, outside feedback, including that from other teachers, administrators, students and parents, is necessary for in-service teachers to continue sharpening their teaching skills.

THE NEGATIVES

distracted-studentOld habits die hard. Teachers insist and assume that their teaching is purposeful and effective. When I observe teachers, a portion of my attention is always noting if and how students are aware of WHAT they are doing and WHY? This allows me to experience the lesson in a way that I can sift through the assumptions that teachers make and compare those with what the students actually believe the purpose of the lesson/activity to be. The contrast, when extreme, is so apparent to the students and usually invisible to the teachers. With proper planning, a few seconds of remarks in each transition may be the only thing necessary to bring more students on board, improving on-task behavior, etc.

We are our best and our worst critic. While we teachers can see when students don’t learn, we can look back at the executed plan to see how WE can improve OURSELVES, or we can sit back and complain how the students and parents are to blame. While both may be true, we cannot control the latter until we clean up the former. Students who drift in a lesson or unit because we are not clear with our follow-through of a clear, professionally and developmentally appropriate objective will not achieve high standards without a fight. The confusion drives them to criticize the teacher to other students and to their parents. The parents become defensive, balancing the need for their student to survive in the class and for their student NOT to become discouraged by such poor quality instruction. bullyThe resulting “guessing game” makes the teacher out to be the typical “witch” who lords the grade over the students’ heads. THIS is not quality or effective instruction. In fact, in a subsequent blog, I hope to equate this sort of behavior to academic BULLYING!

CONCLUSIONS

The amount of research that has been invested into effective instruction is broad and deep. Each strand of Educational research is like the spoke of a wheel. We know how to keep students on task more. We know how to increase retention. We know how to reach more students more effectively than ever before. We know how to link teaching, learning and assessment in the most effective ways. We have National Standards that are based on scientific research in each content area. We have psychometrics that help us group student appropriately or that help us provide remedial or differentiated education, and much more. We have bodies of research conveniently packaged and amazingly articulated to the professional world, researchers like Charlotte Danielson, Carol Dweck, Understanding by Design, Carol Ann Tomlinson, Harvey Silver (my personal hero) and more. And what is the hub of this wheel of so many spokes? What is it that allows each spoke to work together, that synthesizes every type of psycho-educational research? Into what does each spoke insert itself to become the best possible instructional delivery? The teacher’s lesson plan, of course! Every type of research, if it cannot be placed in the structure of a well-designed lesson plan, is useless to teachers and students alike. If we do not consider first what the research says about effective instruction and second how teachers incorporate such findings into a real-life, well-constructed lesson plan, then teachers will simply rely on methods of teaching and learning that will waste student and family home time. Great teaching ought to be done primarily in school. Fair teaching relies on many assumptions of how students learn using potentially useless strategies with “practice” happening at home. In my experience, personally and professionally, this sort of homework many times is where teachers unconsciously rely on students and parents to LEARN/TEACH the material at home respectively, fearing that if they do not, the students’ grade will suffer. In my professional work, I have seen teachers have fun with students, test them inappropriately on the ACTUAL material, and students and parents scurrying to personal OUTSIDE tutors, afraid to tell the teacher or administration that their child is seeing a tutor. Parents and students fear backlash if the teacher discovers they are using a tutor to survive the tests, and the teacher naively concludes, then, that the student was ill-prepared by the former teacher or that the student is just not “capable” of understanding the material. Or worse, when the tutor is the one to teach the material for success on the inappropriate test, teachers begin to believe their instructional methods and strategies are working just fine. This conclusion brings up more issues than it settles! I feel so strongly that the lesson plan is the most crucial component, holding the rest of effective instruction together. Hopefully, in this blog, we can begin a professional conversation about how to resolve such issues.

PS:  I have just finished reading Making Thinking Visible:  How to Promote Understanding and Independence for All Learners, by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison. I truly don’t believe teachers can benefit from the ideas in this book if they haven’t mastered the art of planning. makethinkvisibleTeachers must consider “thinking” at every moment of instruction, and making it visible blends assessment, feedback, and developmentally appropriate instructional strategies into effective, memorable lessons. I highly recommend the book AND the accompanying video.

 

 

Lesson Plan Rubrics: Who needs ’em?

Hello, I hope you are enjoying MyEducationEducation.com  Next month I had planned to launch a blog about lesson planning, but the Educational Leadership October 2016 Edition has come out with “POWERFUL Lesson Planning,” timely research and helpful hints regarding the same topic. So, to get even more out of my Blog Post this coming Monday, read one or two selections from the Educational Leadership journal! It’ll give what I say even more punch, more charge for your reading effort! The journal can be downloaded at http://www.ASCD.org.  Just a heads up… Monday….  “The Six-Point Lesson Plan is a Joke!” Wait ’til you hear the stories! #alwaysmoretolearn.