Tag Archives: K-12

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 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.

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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.

 

 

Who needs a 504 plan anyway? Part II

THE SECOND STORY

Which would you prefer to do: memorize a long list of prepositions to then write them out for a teacher or use a list of prepositions to describe your room or your favorite place by writing in a way that the reader can draw that space, including everything in it? Your answer to that question may reveal your preferred mode of learning or teaching, but the latter, when taught with appropriate professional techniques, assumes you understand the former. Never, including in the 8th grade, did my daughter need a 504 Plan. prepostions-complete-1But she did need an awakening of her spirit, that verbal, happy, creative little girl that had acquiesced to a compliant vomiting mouth of information in the 7th grade. You see, in the 7th grade, I encountered my daughter memorizing a list of prepositions. I simply asked her, “What IS a preposition and why do you need to know more of them?” She could not answer, dismissed me brusquely, and stated that the test was to write the first half of the list tomorrow and the next half the next day. I walked away sad and silent.

In the 8th grade, however, my daughter was again studying prepositions, and I asked her the same question. She smiled and said, “Dad, if you’re trying to describe something in relation to something else, you’re always going to need a preposition. Look at my description of my room. I can’t describe one thing in my room in relation to another without using a preposition. My bed is next to my closet. My pillows are supposed to be on my bed, but they are either under it or out of sight!” Yes, you guessed it! I walked out of that encounter beaming with tears of joy! She was back! The humor, the voice, the redundancy and verbosity she so naturally gets from me, LOL! It was there, and all because of one teacher: Mrs. McNeer! Only a week later, I thought my daughter had gone to bed early or was sick or perhaps sad and locked up in her room. I knocked on the door to inquire if everything was OK.

She simply said, “I’m writing.”

Not wanting to pry too much, I said, “For English? For Mrs. McNeer?”

She said, “Sort of! She wrote me all these comments on my papers and said I can revise my writing any time I want. I’m not sure I want to turn it in for a grade, but she said she will always give me feedback about what I write. All I have to do is turn it in to her!”

[Silent, guarded weeping, LOL.] “Well,” I said, “She seems like a great teacher!”

Inside, however, I was screaming, “Did I just hear my daughter- the daughter who was so cynical about English that all she did was what it took to get an “A”??? Did I just hear her say the grade doesn’t matter?!?!?!? [More silent weeping]

ponderingLike Mary treasured in her heart all the angel had spoken to her regarding the Baby Jesus, I basked in the joy that a teacher is reaching my daughter and melting her hardened heart!! I would love to bore you with scenario after scenario regarding Mrs. McNeer, but I don’t want to lose readers (numbers, LOL) and I want you to know the effect she had on my son, as well! And, by the way, I probably wouldn’t bore you if I, personally, learned 8th grade English with Mrs. McNeer, but for now, you’ll have to settle for this ordinary writing style. So sorry!

Now, fast forward three years with my son’s 504 Plan! By the 8th grade, my son’s twice exceptionality and his compensation strategies for them had evolved into a mixed bag of attitude and charm with relatively high “academic achievement” in the form of grades. While he had brilliant ideas, he could not write them down without the help of speech-to-text dictation, which he gladly used when he could. When Mrs. McNeer joined “Team Matthew” to discuss the accommodations, I was confident all the teachers were going to rally as much as they were capable to make sure my son could accomplish as much as possible in relation to his potential.

sloppyI remember seeing my son’s first draft of his first writing assignment for Mrs. McNeer. I thought it was a 2nd grader’s hand-written word list. A week later, he was working on the same thing. When I asked him what he was doing, he matter-of-factly said, “Oh, Mrs. McNeer is going to try to have a conversation with me every time we need to revise so I can talk out my ideas before getting them on paper.” Wow! This one teacher is doing in her class, not as a mandated 504 strategy, the very thing I have been doing with EVERY one of his assignments, facilitating Matthew’s getting his ideas in a communicable format according to each of his different teachers’ expectations. For example, I would be his typist or he would dictate into his phone. She literally, in one gesture, streamlined his thinking and our evening home life! In the next weeks, I found my son on the couch writing on paper AND on his computer. I asked him about it and he said he was writing something else he really wanted to include in his portfolio for Mrs. McNeer’s class, that it wasn’t a requirement, but he had a great idea and he wanted Mrs. McNeer to edit it before he puts it into the portfolio!!!! [Yes, weeping and screeches of joy on the inside, a simple smile of gratitude and satisfaction on the outside.] childwritingWould that EVERY student have just ONE “McNeer” encounter along the journey of becoming a lifelong learner, writer and celebrant! My children carry Mrs. McNeer with them like a tattoo they can never hide nor will they ever choose to!

From the last post, I reiterate: Great teachers do not need a 504 Plan to reach every student! Matthew is currently learning rhetoric. When he talks about it, I know he is channeling the ideas, content, spirit and philosophy of Mrs. McNeer. Writing really is thinking on paper. For a twice exceptional student (dyslexic and dysgraphic with high academic potential), the physical act of writing on paper may not reflect the actual depth and quality of the “thinking.” A great teacher does not need a 504 Plan to help students reconcile these issues. Based on how Mrs. McNeer treated my daughter and my son, the 504 Plan was a mere inconvenient meeting to interrupt an amazing teacher’s gift to her students, the gift of inspiration, using English as a simple yet effective conduit! Forever, my wife and I are grateful!

THE ISSUES

-Clearly Stated Objectives: Not surprisingly, this story reintroduces the issue that students perform better and move off task less when they are clear about what they are being asked (taught) to do and why. Memorizing prepositions for the purpose of memorizing prepositions, with no opportunity to practice even the UNspoken objective of writing more clearly with them leaves students anxious with the wrong impressions. Yes, it is possible to memorize anything to regurgitate back onto a test. But, how does accomplishing the memorization task relate to the bigger picture? The students need clear, direct and authentic objectives that focus them toward realizing that bigger picture.

-Too Many Assumptions and Inappropriate Assessment: An issue related to the above is the following. Memorization of a list of prepositions does not help writer communicate more effectively using prepositions. Yet, teachers of every level and every content area make that kind of assumption regularly. Filling in the blank with the proper preposition in a set of cloze sentences (sentences with a word omitted and replaced with a blank) does not make a better writer. What makes a better writer by using prepositions is writing with prepositions. I DO mean to be crass and facetious here. It is the most common and most egregious error teachers make in education today. Easily fixed by proper teacher/lesson planning (one of my favorite and most anticipated blog topics), the blunder is hardly ever addressed at the teacher or administrative level because there simply is no time or expertise or context to offer the teachers the opportunity to change. Much of education is reduced to what Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins (awesome educational researchers, authors and consultants) have coined “Teach-test-hope-for-the-best.” Dump material, give a test (many times not even in the same mode as students were taught) and move to the next “unit” with little or no regard for how the students mastered the material nor how they can transfer knowledge and skills to new and more complex contexts. Certainly and sadly, exceptional students, students with learning differences, cannot make the jump from “list of prepositions” to “write a descriptive essay that describes all objects in your room.” Mrs. McNeer professionally helped the students see the need for precise word choice in the form of prepositions when describing something personal. In addition, she let students explore the use of prepositions with an authentic form of feedback (the drawing of the room) and using authentic content assessment standards. Writers can explore and experiment in a safe, literate context. This issue is explained below.

-Risk-taking, opportunity to practice and fail: There is a reason the legendary 6-point lesson plan had a “Guided Practice” section! [The 6-point lesson plan will be a topic for a complete subsequent blog entry! I can’t wait!] Not only is it fair to the students to be able to practice the material to be mastered with little or no risk, but it makes sense pedagogically, metacognitively, bikeboyriskneurologically, and more. Learners need to rehearse what is expected of them to do with feedback regarding their success and with little interfering performance anxiety. In this story, memorizing close to a hundred prepositions with no idea how they will be “tested” is both stressful and counterproductive.

-Proper feedback: Penalty-free risk-taking and proper boyconfidencefeedback from the teacher interact in a miraculous way to build confidence in the learner. If Sally can’t draw Johnny’s room accurately by reading Johnny’s description with prepositions, then Sally and Johnny can talk it out, using the very prepositions they are studying. The teacher can suggest more descriptive prepositions or even objects of prepositions. The whole time, Sally and Johnny are sharpening their description skills in a meaningful, literate (communicative) context.

-Motivating students without grades: The above issue, I know, is much easier said than done. It takes a great deal of professional training and practice to encourage students by planning respectful lessons that do not depend on grades. There are many approaches to handling students who are accustomed to grades and who refuse to do any practice if it is not graded. motivation_smThe bottom line in this story? Mrs. McNeer assigned meaningful work and practiced the patience of Job. She let the students know she valued their thoughts, that those thoughts would compile a personal portfolio that not only displayed their writing skills, but also their personalities, that is, the part of their personalities they wished to reveal in their writing- their VOICE! Then, with the big picture always in the back of their mind, students took risks, sometimes with abysmal results, but never in a way that discouraged them to try again. For my daughter to get her groove back and for my son to write on his own, proud of his work before, during and after publishing it to his portfolio? Miracles!

Mrs. McNeer? The angel mastermind!

-Learning to write or writing to learn: I want to suggest this issue in this context because minimal lip service is given in Education today to “Content Area Reading/Writing Instruction.” Every discipline has its own writing style, but in every discipline, students learn more of a subject content if they can write about it. The body of research that helps teachers incorporate their discipline’s literacy instruction into the lesson plans is vastly available. Every content area teacher is a writing instructor, but, with pressures such as standardized testing, “English” is now responsible for teaching writing while the rest of the subjects dump information in the form of facts into students’ heads, assuming students will be writing-to-learn-pd-for-staff-1-728able to write coherently about the full breadth and depth of each subject area. Just because I can do a matching test on the dates of a History test doesn’t mean I can write an analysis of the chronological events leading up to the American Civil War. Content and literacy need to interact during every level  of a child’s education, K-16 and beyond. Growth in literacy skills waxes and wanes in life according to how people’s interests grow and change.

THE POSITIVES

  • Yes, you guessed it! Mrs. McNeer rocks! I have told her multiple times, and I have nominated her 3 times for national teacher excellence awards! Every time I’ve had to write an essay to nominate her, and it has never “won!” I’m beginning to get a complex that maybe it’s my writing, LOL. nobelHow does an average writer nominate a great English teacher! I hope this at least legitimizes my expression of gratitude for her service to and compassion for my children!
  • I have not only seen teachers, departments and schools that do what is suggested in this story, but I have worked with traditional fact-dumping teachers who changed their focus. These teachers are set on fire when they realize they can “cover the material” in a way that helps students become “literate,” or at least a bit more literate, in their subject area. I’ve had History and Civics teachers whose students wrote politicians to ask them what their ideas are about Federalism. deltaI’ve had boring Spanish teachers inspiring students to listen to  news broadcasts in Spanish and tweeting what they heard in Spanish. Teachers and administrators can change, but change and this framework of teaching itself are both messy processes. If teachers  are not allowed to take risks, think what it is like for departments, schools and districts!
  • I would be remiss if I did not admit to a documented small percentage of students whose facility with language makes it seem effortless to memorize 100 prepositions and then to use those prepositions when she (and it’s usually a she) writes. I call these students Suzy and Sam Suck-up! The “go-to” students teachers know will answer any question posed in the classroom! All we educators know who these students are. “If only we could have 31 Suzies and Sams in our class, everything would be so much easier,” we silently verbalize to ourselves. To stay true to the “positives,” I’ll just say that my daughter is a Suzy. Mrs. McNeer not only brought my daughter out of the pits of discouragement and apathy from her 7th grade experience, but she taught my daughter the RIGHT stuff in spite of her verbal proclivity. My daughter can memorize vocabulary words like it’s following a waffle recipe. But, when I use big words in conversation with her, words I know she’s memorized for some grade-school teacher or the SAT, she does a double-take, trying to reconcile the difference between the memorization of such words and their use in everyday and academic communication. Mrs. McNeer did not let my daughter get away with a superficial memorization of anything. Whatever Hope learned from Mrs. McNeer was internalized to the point of use in everyday life! Hope still writes a diary, still can self-edit using the 6+1 Traits (a writing curriculum), and still searches for self-expression and deeper learning with everything she writes, including her blog: wordsofhope.com!

THE NEGATIVES

  • In order for a school or department to do what is being suggested here, there needs to be a complete paradigm shift: in grading, in commitment to literacy, is restructuring content instruction, in parent/teacher communication, and much, much mbuttingheadsore. It is possible, but only in an environment that is not constrained by local, State and Federal mandates that transform great teaching into the very antithesis.
  • Teachers like Mrs. McNeer are rare and frequently misunderstood. Parents are looking for a grade or “grammar” mistakes or something traditional. While from my professional point of view, the students benefit well and long-term from such instruction, parents and students may not be ready for such focused attention on such personal student work. This places undue burdens on the teacher tonotmyjob communicate frequently and carefully to the parents and students all along the way, an arduous process. Administrators may laud the efforts of a teacher like Mrs. McNeer, holding her up as an example of excellence in education, but the trickle down effect merely communicates that English teachers like Mrs. McNeer are now responsible for teaching the entire grade to improve in writing. A great English teacher does not absolve the teachers in other departments from teaching content area literacy!

THE CONCLUSION

My hope is that in this blog, important issues have surfaced whether the “Story” has been an auspicious one or a story not so propitious in nature. While I have not even begun to develop the numerous planned topics, I can already see how every story cast in a “positive” light will begin to reveal the profile of educational “greatness” or “excellence.” Likewise, the overlap of issues in every story, good or bad, indicates that even though there are pockets of “good” or “great,” improvement and change are slow. This is yet another reason to ensure each post has a focusing topic. In these last two blogs, we have learned how 504 Plans done well merely look like “great teaching.” I have consulted with families where schools and teachers have failed the student in implementing the 504 Plan. There is much to learn for everyone. The players involved in a student’s 504 Plan can be her saving grace or her fall from grace. Please let me know what you think.

 

 

Who Needs a *504 Plan Anyway? Part I

*504 Plan described in next section.

In my experience, GREAT teachers do not need a 504 Plan to target appropriate instruction to the different students who land in their classes. In order to honor my daughter’s request for a “positive” story, I’d like to tell two! But, in my education education, I have learned it best to frame multiple stories with a theme or a “hook” that helps the reader or listener internalize or reconstruct important and meaningful ideas. So, the next two blog posts will tell a story of two teachers for whom I am deeply indebted. My stories will never give these teachers the amount of praise they deserve for how they model and inspire everything great in education! And I realize their greatness depends a bit on their relationship with MY children, and not every teacher reaches every student in the same inspiring way. There is, however, a great deal to learn about these teachers in the realm of individualized instruction and 504 accommodations.

PART I:  THE FIRST STORY, THE FIRST TEACHER… MR. B.

My son is what the Education field labels “twice exceptional” or “2e.” He struggles with processing speed and attention (due to dyslexia, dysgraphia and ADD) but also is quite academically gifted, easily bored and quick to learn. The first child psychologist to diagnose him, Dr. Dianne Mitchel, will forever have a special place in my heart! The teams of educators from both schools he has attended have been understanding and supportive. His academic advisor for High School, especially, is the strongest advocate for someone who is not even her own child! We are blessed, and my son is a flourishing student… for now! There are no guarantees ever when it comes to learning differences! The nature of his issues allows him to have a 504 Plan. That’s Education ease for a list of accommodations that will help my son have the best chance in the least restrictive environment to learn up to his potential and express that learning in the most effective manner. This plan requires a meeting with all of his teachers to inform them of his issues and to review the accommodations they might need to implement in their instruction while he is their student.

unknownIn his 10th grade year, we signed Matthew up for Photography simply because of his interest. After the first month of classes, my son’s advisor was ready to call a meeting with all the teachers to discuss his 504 Plan. Since my son had been diagnosed at such a young age (7 years old), we have been able to help him internalize compensation strategies and advocacy skills regarding his learning differences. This regular, semester or annual meeting for his 504 Plan helps my son communicate with his teachers about what he needs to demonstrate he is learning their material. The meeting took place after school…. Enter Mr. B., the photography teacher! Everything was going swimmingly. My son’s advisor articulated each and every struggle my son experiences and the possible accommodations that teachers might do to help him learn more effectively. Then, Mr. B. spoke up!! The essence of what he said was this:  “I just don’t understand this plan like I think I should. Matthew does fine in my class. I can tell you that he understands everything I tell him to do, and he ends up hardly doing anything I tell him. (Out beams a sheepish grin!) But, his work shows me he completely gets everything I’m trying to teach. Matthew does great work, and it reflects a real mastery of the material in my class. I like his work, too.” In my unknown-3“fatherly” heart of hearts, I was weeping with gratitude! (I held it together, though… I get weepy a lot lately. This happens when  you have a heart attack!) Someone “gets” my son and does not punish him for learning things on his own terms. With my “education professional” lens focused, I realized that what Mr. B. said is the essence of a GREAT teacher! Specifically, great teachers know what they want to teach and what skills and objectives they must teach. They have multiple ways to communicate with the students regarding how to achieve such objectives. But, they also know how to let students “claim” the skills and content as their own (experiment and fail), often times ignoring their single, planned form of assessment that might discount or ignore a student’s genuine, authentic understanding of the content, allowing for multiple modes and opportunities to prove students have learned. They have “learned” their students so well that they know if, when, and how well each of their students has mastered the material, providing feedback when necessary and letting go of the reins when necessary or when possible. Mr. B. “got” my son! The 504 Plan helped him understand why my son needed to take a picture of the notes on the board. It helped him understand why he couldn’t find the flash drive with the entire set of pictures he was just editing 5 minutes before. But, he didn’t need the 504 to treat a student with common dignity and grace. My son is unique in many ways! Some good, some not so good! For example, Mr. B. did not need an official document to ask my son to justify orally his choice of subject or light or whatever. Mr. B. did the job of teaching photography while communicating SO much more to his students and their parents!

THE ISSUES

My daughter is correct. It is therapeutic and hopeful-inspiring to dwell on a positive story. Mr. B.’s reaction to my son’s 504 Plan is the stuff about which heroes are lauded! So, what are some of the issues on which we can elaborate in order to learn from this story… and the one to follow?

 

-504 Plans are a necessary evil:  While the “great” teachers out there may not need reminding of simple things like, “Don’t bark 3 directives in a row while the kids are packing up to move to the next class in the next 5 minutes,” many uninformed teachers do. Some teachers neither understand nor are willing to accommodate a student with differences. It is unfortunate, but it is the law:  a 504 Plan guarantees a student’s teachers will attempt to abide by the plan if/when necessary. I must say my son’s twice exceptionality makes him more unique than a simple gifted student or a student with a clearly low aptitude…

-“Average is average”:  On a related note, twice exceptional students who have learned to unknown-1compensate for their academic struggles can perform at the “average” level, or “C” level with absolutely no accommodations (and probably no effort). The fact that these students are labeled “twice exceptional” means their potential for achievement is quite high. Uninformed, busy and/or lazy teachers typically crank twice-exceptional students through their classes, oblivious to the fact that a “C” for a gifted student is probably due to any number of variables NOT related to ability and academic achievement. Teachers usually blame “average performance” on laziness, “irresponsibility,” athletics, etc. It has taken two amazing teams to help my son reach amazing heights in his academic achievement.  Yes, his handwriting still looks like a 6-year-old’s. But, yes, he can write (speak/dictate) amazing analyses of the content he is studying. Average is NOT average for 2e children. A 504 Plan can encourage higher achievement in students with learning differences.

-A knowledgeable and professional advisor:  The key to helping my son make his transition from his 9th grade school to his new 10th grade school was his advisor…. HANDS DOWN! During the 504 meeting, my son’s advisor truly educated the teachers present (not all of his teachers were!) about the kinds of struggles my son experiences because of his twice exceptionality. I was so grateful (not just with Mr. B.’s comment) to see the light bulbs go off in his teachers’ heads. In the meeting, a different teacher even suggested another accommodation we had not listed, one that has proven to be helpful in all of his classes since!

-Individualized instruction:  Whether it is extra time on tests, minimal copying or whatever, these simple accommodations are only the beginning of how teachers can individualize instruction and maximize learning for any and all students.

-Teaching with clear objectives:  When teachers have clear, professional objectives as the center of their lessons and the students are aware of those objectives, teaching any material with any accommodation is much easier.

-Experimentation, practice and failure:  For so many reasons that are sure to be addressed in this blog in later entries, many teachers and perhaps even many discipline areas do not allow students to experiment and fail without serious consequences- to their grade, to their personal motivation, to their attitudes, etc. Mr. B., I believe, allows students to take multiple shots or attempt to take shots of many different subjects one time for the mere practice and experimentation of the skills he is teaching. In teaching his students to edit, he is also giving them feedback about if and how well they have actually learned the photography skill. Brilliant! A safe and encouraging way to help students learn without penalizing them for trying and taking risk! As a professional teacher educator, I see that very rarely in today’s classrooms.

-Authenticity:  The student work in Mr. B.’s class is displayed authentically in galleries in the school and sold to the public to benefit the school. What greater reward (or learning experience) for budding photographers to have peers reviewing the work done in photography! Mr. B. also hounded my son to submit a photograph in the Scholastic competition, having to remind him over and over to turn it in in the right form and in the unknown-2appropriate time. I am so grateful that, because of that hounding, my son won a Silver Key for that photograph, something that has continued to make him smile with confidence that he really did learn something! Enough said!

THE POSITIVES

I’m in such a good mood! A positive story and a mention of the positives about Mr. B.! Remember, as a focus, I want to communicate some of the positives as they relate to 504 Plans. But, this is MY blog about MY Education Education, so I can do what I want, LOL.

  • Mr. B. rocks! I’ve told him that, I will continue to tell him that, and I will continue to get weepy when I talk to him or about him or experience my son being so critical of my own photography, LOL. My point? WHEN YOUR CHILD’S TEACHER IS GOOD, TELL HIM! WHEN HE IS GREAT, TELL HIM! TELL HIM SPECIFICALLY WHY! TELL HIS SUPERVISORS! In my experience, professional and personal, it rarely has a productive or expedient outcome to tell a teacher or administrator she is falling short with your child, no matter how palatable you might make it. It sometimes takes more orchestrating for something to change positively. Teachers are human; they need encouragement, too. Know that your encouragement makes a difference. I have told both Mr. B. and the teacher in my next blog post how amazingly great they are! They both consistently downplay their greatness. I am weeping writing these words, knowing that they (and including my son’s advisor) entered my children’s lives and lifted them to greater heights, yet they still don’t want the credit! HEROES!  THAT’S ALL I CAN SAY!
  • I hope this post helps some of you readers to see the benefits of early diagnosis and formulation of a 504 Plan. My son’s psychologist, Dr. Dianne Mitchell (yes, this a plug, but she sadly is retired!), was the first “villager” we invited into our lives to help support him. With her care and compassion, when our son was 7 years old, we were able to help him with tried and true compensation strategies that continue to benefit him now. As with anyone with exceptionalities, his performance is inconsistent, but the teams that have formed around his 504 Plan have been his cheerleader, guidance counselor, thinking partner, and more. The key? Start early and be consistent!
  • Administrators especially, please take note of the positive outcomes that occur when students are allowed to experiment, practice and take risks without the fear of “failure” in the form of a low grade, punishment, more work, busy work, etc. This, in my view, is a positive example, applicable to any and all subjects and disciplines, not just in the context of accommodations for a 504 Plan in Photography class. The research bears this to be true, but other forces (to be addressed much in other blog posts) make the positive practice almost invisible or impossible to achieve.

THE NEGATIVES

At the end of a positive educational story or experience, the negatives are difficult to see. Every negative I can contrive is easily diluted by the positive and professional treatment of my 2e son. Here are few nit-picky items:

  • I am grateful that the homework and assessments in Mr. B.’s class were not only “fun” and authentic, but were also a natural extension of what my son already does with a camera in every day life. His issues make our evening life quite painful, as it takes him more than twice as long to do any “short” assignment his teachers may assign. Our only two strategies to keep our son on task in Photography was to ask, “Do you have an assignment in Photography?” every day AND to remind him to bring his regular camera and not just his phone with him during his regular, daily activities. Homework, an issue to be the center of an entire subsequent blog entry, has destroyed our evening and weekend family life significantly.
  • One negative, and a reason I am writing this blog, is that parents, professionals and advisors are not always as sharp and primed as I to jump to the rescue of children with learning differences, especially twice exceptional. I cannot imagine what our life would be like if my son’s first psychologist did not indulge my concerns for my son at such a young age. Nor could I imagine the academic abyss my son would be climbing out of if he had not been given a supportive team at his first school and an even more supportive academic advisor in grades 10-12. Yes, I am weeping again! This happens when you have a heart attack and realize that human compassion is not as prevalent as one might think and that being surprised by such grace OUGHT to be moving, at least to a point of gratitude! My advice? LEARN, yourself, what it takes for your child to succeed! Know what that is and advocate for it on every level possible! Imagine if I had merely said to the psychologist, “OK, let’s wait until he’s 9 or 10 years old.” He would NOT have gotten early intervention in the form of Orton-Gillingham instruction! He would not have his 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-grade teachers on board with helping him compensate for his learning differences. He would not have been encouraged to be creative or a leader at a young age, because he would have been safely “average.” All children deserve to reach the highest potential they can in the safest and most dignifying environment. I made sure this was so, but it has taken a great deal of time and effort in our family to do so!

CONCLUSION

This story inspires innately, and I in no way want to stretch it into something pedantic and contrived! But, as can be intuited from volumes of educational research, great teachers organically differentiate instruction, accommodate for student exceptionalities and connect students’ strengths and interests to the overall objectives for the class. A teacher can learn to be great! It is the essence and joy of the work I do, to inspire a teacher that is full of humility, passion and enthusiasm. There are so many research-based teaching strategies that individually or collectively help all students learn better while helping the teacher streamline instruction! The conflict always surfaces when a student begins to “slip” or “fail” or “not reach her potential.” Educators and parents alike must work together to reconcile observations of a struggling child, her/his potential for achievement and what can be done to help that child progress happily, healthily and heartily.

BTW:  The moment my son walks across his high school stage, I will edit this post to reveal the names of Mr. B. and Matthew’s guidance counselor… They deserve so much more credit than this blog could ever provide!

 

 

 

 

“What works for me”: Words to live by, words to cringe by

THE STORY

For my very first blog post, I thought I would select a topic that might resonate with many teachers and administrators at many levels and in many different subject disciplines. I am speaking specifically of the collective wisdom I have gained in attending and presenting at professional conferences regularly since 1983. Whether at local, state or national conferences, I must first tell you that World Language educators are the most vibrant people with whom I have ever collaborated! At every teacher conference, the sponsoring professional organization schedules time slots for teachers to gather and share “What works for me!” The itinerary reads, “Learn the strategy today and take it to the classroom tomorrow!” In my 30 years of teaching and consulting with Second Language teachers, I must admit I have both presented strategies and benefitted from others’ strategies, but always with a critical eye. The ideas are numerous; the creativity is inspiring! The “packaged product” is welcomed relief for these tired but still enthusiastic teachers. Some teachers take the “lesson” straight to the classroom, and it fails miserably. Others experience moderate success. Even an untrained eye can speculate as to why “what worked” for one teacher may not work for another, but few teachers and administrators ask the more important questions. Why does the “lesson” work at all? Why does the lesson NOT work? What is the proper “adaptation” from one successful teacher another teacher that will ensure success for her/his students? Is this something I need to be doing in my class at all? Let’s examine some of the issues.

THE ISSUES

In this blog, I do not want to contrive issues within the context of “The Story,” nor do I want to elaborate on every issue contained therein. As stories unfold in this blog overall, there will be great overlap, an encouragement that many problems are solvable and related! So, what are some of the most salient issues I see in this “story?”

Eclecticism. Every, and I mean every, teacher with whom I have ever worked has told me along the way they “take a little from here and a little from there… whatever works ‘best.’” While it is quite a sophisticated skill to integrate and deliver such curriculum and instruction, it is also very dangerous for various reasons. First, most teachers and administrators do not agree with or do not know what “best” really means. The World Languages field is not the only one guilty of migrating to trends and easy instructional approaches in hopes that more students will learn more “stuff” in less time. Most fields cannot even agree on what “stuff” is necessary.

Confusing Success. Strategies and “lessons” work for a reason. The success may or may not overtly reflect the pedagogically sound, research-based effective instruction on which the entire lesson or approach is designed. So, successful teachers may naturally execute a lesson in the most effective way and not know it, but another teacher may “do the same thing” and not ground her/his instruction in a professionally appropriate manner. Even more disconcerting is that teachers and administrators may find a “technique” that “works for them,” but in accomplishing such “objectives,” students are no closer to the ultimate goals and objectives that have been professionally designed, adopted or assumed on a large-scale basis. This splinters the curriculum, making lessons piece meal- a formula for student metacognitive disaster. For example, at a professional conference “what works for me” session, a World Languages teacher finds a terrific pneumonic to help students learn the difference between preterit and imperfect. S/he gives the students a test after the lesson and “everyone succeeds.” S/he then moves on the subjunctive. “Success” in this case does not reflect the overall goals and objectives of World Language instruction: to produce (speak/write) and comprehend (listen/read) the target language. Does an “A” on the preterit/imperfect test indicate students’ ability to narrate a story in the past? This more professionally based objective is not only more difficult to teach and assess, but messier in all aspects.

Integrated Curriculum and Instruction. Finally, there are many issues related to how the approaches, techniques and lessons from these eclectic sharing sessions fit into the rest of the school and its curriculum. Are the teachers going to “What works for me” sessions learning the bigger picture curriculum and instruction items for creating a self-sustaining, synergistic program at the departmental or school level? Does the instructional approach reflect the school’s mission and purpose? Are other disciplines aiding and abetting the superficial nature of instruction by adopting similar piece meal, eclectic instructional methods? How do the methods and the content (and the goals and objectives) relate to each other within the school? These questions cannot be answered if the teaching staff continues to cling to “what works for me” without being given time and resources to explore the “why.” Sadly more often than not, administrators do not have the pedagogical expertise or jurisdiction to help their teachers professionally develop in a way that answers these questions. While the research exists to help schools, departments and teachers streamline an effective instructional program, it remains hidden in data bases and other ivory tower stores.

THE POSITIVES

I am, by nature, slightly pessimistic and cynical, and my daughter, who writes a blog, herself, has challenged me to remain positive. (Her blog is wordsofhopeblog.com if you are so inclined… yes, this is an advertisement, LOL.) So, let me enumerate some of the positives here.

First, most teachers that attend a “What works for me” session” demonstrate a genuine enthusiasm for helping students learn, attempting to find ways to make it easier for students to learn and easier for the teachers to save everyone, including themselves, time and energy. They are, in short, amazingly resourceful. So, when I hear the words “What works for me,” I celebrate the teacher!

Second, while ivory tower critique of lesson plans serves the very necessary purpose of streamlining education and educators, zealous teachers are the ones doing the teaching “in the trenches,” and they really do know “what works.” In addition, in my experience, any teacher willing to inconvenience her/his already busy life by attending a professional development conference will benefit also from learning and applying sound professional methods, approaches and techniques while at the same time learning how to mold the overall instruction of the whole “department” into a cesspool of best practices! This, in the long run, helps the teacher avoid burnout and inspire others.

THE NEGATIVES

I reiterate my praise for World Language educators as the most enthusiastic, most resourceful group of teachers with whom I have ever worked. In my work and life, however, I have always found it easier to identify the negatives (especially when I have already studied the bigger pictures in depth) and then to create solutions (potential for hope) for those negatives. So, when I hear the words “What works for me,” I cringe! Here are a few negatives regarding this “story” and its related issues.

First, because of human and organizational nature, teachers of ANY discipline neither have the time nor the inclination to explore why something works or not. They are rarely held accountable for reflecting professionally (and accurately!) on their performance, either because the administrator/supervisor is incapable of it or because they, themselves, like all of us, think what they are doing is perfectly acceptable already! This makes it quite difficult for anyone with knowledge or expertise to intervene with professional wisdom. (And, quite frankly, it explains why teachers migrate to “what works for me” seminars.)

Second, until the teacher, department and school coordinate articulated goals and objectives, students will be collateral damage. Students and parents alike will see the curriculum as irrelevant. Large discrepancies will exist in “mastery” of the content. (“Mastery” will definitely be one large can of worms I will be opening at some time in another blog post!!)

Third, whether it is time, logistics, resources or philosophical differences, parents, teachers and administrators are ignorant of the already existing professional reserves that can turn “good” instruction into “great.” As stated above, it is quite messy, especially when change is involved- change in attitude, resource allocation, parental education, externally validated measures, supervisor roles, and much more! The resistance to change is so great! I have, for example, consulted with a school whose resources were completely in place for creating a state of the art instructional program in a certain discipline area. They brought in national experts to evaluate the program and make recommendations of changes. Seven years ago, they had everything in place to make minimal changes to curriculum offerings and minor adaptations in instructional approach and staffing to become one of the most stellar programs in this content area with which I have ever worked. Today, they have changed nothing but adding one staff person who espouses the proper instructional approach. Change is hard, but denying teachers and students the access to the professional knowledge and practice that inspires and empowers is, in my opinion, a travesty, a waste of educational effort.

THE CONCLUSION

One story, MY story of attending professional industry conferences since 1982, has within it the traces of everything education. I still use many of the techniques and “lessons” I presented and learned in those “What works for me” sessions. It wasn’t until I studied Education at the graduate level that I began to realize exactly why I succeeded in some lessons and failed in others. In addition, I learned that succeeding in some lessons was not an end to a means, but vice versa, a means to a much bigger and professionally appropriate end. It wasn’t until I served on national committees to evaluate university Education programs that I began to see how interconnected every issue is in Education, but, specifically in this case, how teachers graduate from their IHE (institute of higher education) lacking professional expertise, relevant and sufficient experience and ability to reflect on bigger picture issues in their own field and in Education as a whole. Their only recourse is to survive, to find “what works for them.” Dare we blame the teachers? Certainly not! Dare we blame the administrators? Certainly not! Dare we blame the parents? Certainly not! Dare we blame “the system?” Certainly not! Dare we accept that change must be systemic in and for all of us, embracing what we know to be effective and appropriate? Certainly yes!