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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

My Teacher Said The A-word (and I hope she says it again)

       It is has become the dirtiest word in education.  It is the subject of many heated arguments among parents, educators, and politicians.  Not a day goes by that I don't see at least one angry meme, blog ranting, or Facebook post by a vehement parent who worries that his/her child has been harmed as a result of it.  It is one of major "flaws" in our educational system that homeschooling parents will cite as the reason behind their choice to opt out of public education.  The word, of course, is assessment.  These days many parents and educators alike claim that students currently spend too much time taking "lengthy, meaningless tests"  that encroach on students' time to learn and grow and think creatively.

       Is their argument valid?

       The honest answer is that it depends.

The Purpose of Assessment

       Let's ignore high-stakes standardized testing (like the PARCC or Smarter Balanced) for a moment and focus solely on assessments that are teacher and district created.  We know that in a true professional learning community, lessons are planned with the end assessment in mind. This philosophy is known as backwards planning and helps to ensure that teachers are not simply filling their calendars with activities until after they possess a clear understanding the learning objectives they want students to master.
       Writing that summative assessment prior to lesson planning enables teachers to understand the vehicle that be used to provide evidence that students can in fact master those standards deemed important. In an ideal world, once summative assessments are crafted, teachers can now plan with their students' needs in mind relying on quick, nonintrusive formative assessments throughout an instructional cycle that enable them to make a myriad of instructional decisions:  choosing which lesson is right for which groups of students, determining when it is necessary to switch gears and reteach, analyzing which concepts will take longer for specific students to grasp, and deciding which classroom strategies are most effective for which groups of learners.
           If implemented correctly, formative assessments happen as a natural part of learning and are really the catalysts that change tomorrow's lesson.  Formative assessments need not look like giant paper and pencil tests but should be more organic in nature, taking on many different forms:  individual or group conferencing, exit slips, socratic seminars, and online discussion boards to name a few.  Furthermore, if implemented correctly, assessment becomes a natural, fluid part of the classroom environment (as opposed to a stop and test method) and enables a teacher to determine next instructional steps while also differentiating for the various levels of learners in her class.  Without these types of assessments, teachers would just be lesson planning in a haphazard fashion -- throwing darts at a dart board and hoping one of them hits the target.  Quality assessment is actually what ensures that students get what they need when they need it.  Imagine, for example, that you have a horrible cough that continues to linger and without even listening to your breathing, your doctor immediately writes you a prescription for a medication that worked wonders for the last patient who complained of similar symptoms.  This is what happens if assessment is not a foundational part of our educational system. What works for one student does not always work for the next.  We need to dig deeper into the data to determine next instructional steps.
         If the assessment process follows the prescribed plan detailed above, then the arguments of those condemning the time spent on assessment are completely invalid.  However, if holes in the system exist and assessment is not used to drive instruction, those memes and angry blogs just might have a leg to stand on.   So how do we, as teachers, ensure that assessment maintains its focus on learning and not scoring?

        When using assessment in your classroom, it is important to keep these things in mind:

1)  Pre-Assessments should change what you do in your classroom with specific students.
       When my son was in first grade, I attended his fall conference with his teacher who announced happily that he earned a 100% on both the first two unit pre-assessments in math.  I smiled back, and said, "That's great.  So what did you do differently with him as a result of this data?"  She told me that she did nothing.  My son received the same lesson plans that she had crafted in July prior to giving him this test or having ever met my son.  That the test was just to "measure growth."  Was the pre-assessment a waste of instructional minutes in this case?  Absolutely.  If you are going to take the time to give a pre-assessment prior to teaching specific learning targets, you need to make sure that you look at the data soon enough to do something about it and that you create lesson plans as a result of what you have learned.  Even if my son had only gotten half the problems right on those pre-assessments, am I not learning as a teacher that he might already know some of the skills that I'd planned to spend days teaching?

        This might seem like a no-brainer, but if we give a pre-assessment and then do not get to looking at the data until weeks later or only look for trends and not at the individual student level, there really is no point to giving it.  Save yourself and students the time it would take to give it.   Students will be in another place by the time you decide to do something with it, and the data is no longer relevant. Thus, when you pre-assess, my recommendation is to make the assessment short enough that you can have quick turn around time.
        Rather than looking at a pre-assessment (or any other assessment for that matter) with the goal of deciding how to "score" it, look at it from the lens of "what will I do differently with this child tomorrow knowing what he can and can't do?" If this answer to this question is "nothing" because your lesson plan is already written in ink that won't erase than don't give the pre-assessment.  Additionally, if we pre-assess but continue to deliver a series of whole class lessons, not differentiating for the various needs in the room, our pre-assessment was for naught.

2. Use Creative, Real-World Tasks For an Authentic Audience Whenever Possible
        Tim Shanahan, literacy expert from University of Illinois Chicago, has stated that one of his biggest fears with the backwards planning model that is the backbone of professional learning communities is that he worries that teachers will focus their instruction only on the one task students will need to shine on during that summative assessment and not expose them to other types of tasks that could also potentially hit the same learning target.  Backwards planning design definitely runs the risk of this happening and can be why some students and parents feel that assessment seems redundant and unimaginative.  Nobody wants to feel like their classroom is a clip of the movie Groundhog Day - an identical replication of the day before.  In English class, for example, I know of very few students (even the most voracious of readers and most talented of writers) who can be inspired to repeat the same type of written task for an audience of one -- the teacher-- on a consistent basis.  The first purpose of writing (unless it is private, journal writing) is to communicate one's thoughts with an audience.  If students are constantly only sharing their thoughts with their teacher for school-type tasks, is it a wonder that they are less inspired to revise their work? If I were crafting this blog today knowing that only one other person might potentially read it, I'd probably care less about the words I use, the examples I share, and the message I send.  Students, like adults, need an authentic audience.
         Technology today makes it possible for students to communicate safely with others across the world easily via blogs, websites, and the internet.  Why not link assessment to authentic tasks?  Instead of requiring all students to write the daunting school five paragraph essay about the theme in an author's work for the third time, why not ask students to create their own vlog critique of the author's message and find a safe avenue for students to share their vlog with their peers?  The learning target is the same for both tasks, but one has a more authentic purpose and will most likely glean more interest from students.
       When he grows up, my eighth grade son is convinced that he will become a famous Youtuber (in other words, he plans to live in my basement for the rest of his life).  I'm sure that just by changing the format to a video blog or a website rather than a paper to be viewed only by the teacher, his teacher would definitely see a more engaged student.  And we all know, the research is clear on student engagement:  engagement leads to increased learning.....
       Thus, thinking outside the box in the assessment arena is pivotal to student success.

     3.  Be careful how far in advance you craft your lesson plans  
         In general, as a group of teachers, we are planners.  We like to check things off our color-coded to-do lists and move on to the next item.  It feels good to know that we are prepared.  We can breathe easier knowing we are ready well in advance for all things life might throw at us.  While preparedness is usually a positive trait that yields fabulous results in all other facets of our lives, our tendency to over-plan can also hinder our ability to use assessment data to its fullest.
       When we plan in advance, we tend to put too many things on our calendars.  I've heard many teachers repeat this same statement over and over again the first few weeks -- even the first few days-- into the school year:  "I'm already behind."  What does this mean exactly?  This usually means that when I sat down over the summer or the weekend to plan out my lessons for the month, I've included too many activities.  In my imaginary lesson planning world where everything runs smoothly (i.e. no unexpected fire drills, no behavior management issues, and no instances where any child didn't get what I was teaching the very first time I taught it),  all those activities fit neatly into the twenty minute time segments I've allotted.  Then reality hits and real bodies fill those seats in my classroom and things take longer than I expect them to take and I'm teaching Wednesday's plans on Friday and constantly feeling like I need to "catch up."  Is it any wonder, then, when children in my room need reteaching and when the data suggestions that I will need to differentiate my instruction for various levels of learners in my classroom, that I am now completely overwhelmed with the fact that I just don't have any time?
        If I took a step back for a moment, I would probably see that the burden of feeling behind is 100% driven by my own need to follow my beautifully crafted calendar that may even have worked perfectly last year with a different group of students.  The only problem is that I forgot that student learning is often messy and that the first rule in teaching is to expect the unexpected.  I'm not saying that planning ahead and having goals is a bad thing -- I'm just saying that leaving some days open on that calendar from the beginning and knowing that they will get filled in as a result of formative assessments might be something to think about unless you want to feel like you are constantly "behind."    Nobody likes that feeling.  Especially not the list makers.  By switching your inner dialogue and reminding yourself that the day you spent reteaching in small groups enabled more learners to move forward toward their goals, you will soon realize that you haven't wasted a single moment.  If you took steps to ensure that your learners are moving forward, you can't possibly be behind.
      We need to stop our attempts to rush through curriculum and shift the focus from teaching to learning.  Even when our lesson is orchestrated perfectly and ninety-five percent of our students master a target, let's celebrate but continue to ask ourselves:  what can I do next for those five percent who didn't get it?  What new strategy can I use that might help them join the group of mastering students more quickly?  I bet your colleagues might have a few great suggestions you haven't tried yet.

4.  Know That State Assessments Help Schools Evaluate What Is Working and What Isn't

      If you sat a roomful of parents and educators down and asked them if they wanted students to learn to think and read with a critical eye, to synthesize sources of information and draw their own inferences,  and to communicate coherently in both speaking and writing, would anybody really say no?  The reality is that these are all skills demanded by the Common Core State Standards and assessed on the PARCC (Smarter Balance in some state) exam.   Very few complained about testing when the ISAT test existed,  maybe because that test was of low rigor and students could earn much lower than a fifty percent on the exam to be considered "meeting" on this state exam.   If there was ever a time when people should have been complaining about standardized exams, it was during ISAT testing.  But yet ISAT is gone, yet here we are.
        Now, with the more rigorous tasks and texts on the PARCC exam, a fear exists.  For teachers this fear is often the following:  do I possess the skills needed to help all my students master these more rigorous tasks?  And for parents it should be:   how do I help my child to understand that exams help provide evidence about his/her individual strengths and needs?  If school systems do what they should with the data they receive from these exams, and parents lend their support, the data from standardized tests will be analyzed by district leaders and teachers in order to make appropriate curricular changes and provide professional development for faculty to ensure that all students receive the best education possible.  Again, the time students spend taking the PARCC exam (which is now quite similar to the amount of time it took to take the previous ISAT) is only wasted if parent and teacher support does not exist as this can trickle down to students not doing their personal best. If students don't do their personal best, the assessment won't help schools evaluate their systems.  The choice is in our hands.

Final Thoughts

Assessment is not a big scary monster that is worthy of the intense criticism.  If it is used the way it needs to be, assessment is actually what allows all levels of learners to achieve their maximum potential.  But if this isn't your current reality, use this list above as a tool to reevaluate current practices and you just might be able to cross off a few items on your assessment checklist.

Which practice might you want to change for tomorrow?

What should be added to this list?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.....

Monday, January 4, 2016

Mentoring Passionate Writers: Avoiding the Educational Pit and the Pendulum (Part Two)

What Is The Educational Pit and the Pendulum?

Earlier this fall, I wrote a blog about the educational Pit and the Pendulum where I explored the notion that schools tend to make curricular decisions that vacillate from one extreme to the other, despite the fact that research solidly supports a middle ground approach.  My goal for today's blog is to to focus on narrative writing instruction and how a middle ground approach is essential for developing students who can and (more importantly) desire to communicate articulately and effectively via written discourse.
This November, I experienced life as a NanoWriMo participant for the first time in my writing career. NanoWriMo, which began in 1999, is a web-based writers' group (among other things) that encourages participants to start and finish an entire first draft of a novel during the month of November. The annual contest boasts many success stories via published works that started as NanoWriMo projects, including titles by popular YA authors Rainbow Rowell and Marissa Meyer. Although I didn't "win" the contest as I accumulated only half the required 50,000 words in a single month, I wrote more than I ever had in thirty day's time.  More importantly, I  was reminded of the inspiration that comes from interacting and sharing ideas with a community of enthusiastic writers.  This realization led me to think how every day classrooms across our country have the opportunity to build passionate writers or to cultivate students' misconception of writing as a cumbersome chore.

Hence, I'd like to examine closely some of the obstacles that instructors face when it comes to standardized tests and their potential to negatively impact curricular decisions. 

What Standardized Testing Has Done to Writing Instruction
Let's first begin by assuming best intentions on the part of government officials who have mandated written assessments for students on high stakes tests.  Their reasoning for including written tasks for students is to ensure that all students will be taught how to write fluently and be held to the same standards. I am guessing that anxiety probably plays a role here as well:   if students are not assessed in the area of writing, some schools and teachers may fail to focus enough of their instruction on writing and more on the skills that are being assessed instead.  I'm sure that at least some truth probably exists in this fear, unfortunately.  After all, this is where the notion of backwards planning lives and breathes.

So are standardized tests inherently evil?  No.  While I never really believed in the logic behind the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" mantra as an argument to explain why gun laws shouldn't be made stricter, I think that this analogy makes a lot more sense when we apply it to the relationship between standardized tests and writing instruction.  Standardized tests don't kill students' passion for writing;  however, what educators sometimes choose to do to "ready" their students for these standardized tests do. 

Despite even the best of intentions on the part of the mandators and creators of standardized assessments,  the effects of assessing students on a high-stakes standardized test via a written task often translate into detrimental curricular decisions that influence students daily. By no means am I suggesting we shouldn't assess students' writing.  However, I am suggesting that we need to recognize common curricular pitfalls that standardized assessments inevitably bring about in order to provide our students with quality writing instruction. I don't think anyone would disagree that students need to be solid readers and writers to obtain success in college and beyond.   If we wish for this goal to come to fruition, students must first value the art of writing as a way to creatively communicate their viewpoints to others. In order to help students value writing as an art form, the following potential pitfalls must be addressed.

Authentic Writing Is Never Timed Whereas Standardized Tests Always Are

Why is this a problem?  Well, if our goal is to develop authentic writers, we are definitely holding our students to a higher standard than we do published authors.  In an Interview with Scholastic, J.K. Rowling, for example, has admitted that the quickest she has ever written a Harry Potter novel is a year.  Of course you might point out that we are asking students to write much smaller pieces than Harry Potter during timed experiences, so comparing a novelist's experience to that of a timed narrative essay isn't necessarily fair. To make it fair, let's examine typical word counts.  Ernest Hemingway, for instance, boasted that he could write 500 words worth salvaging in a day (not, in a timed single hour of the day as expected of students, but in a full day from sunrise to sunset).  My point is this:  if a Nobel Prize winning author could only spit out a meager 500 quality words after a full day's work, why are we surprised when even some of our most talented students struggle to compose a masterpiece in an eighty minute setting?  I know, personally, it takes me at least a few days to map out an idea in my mind before I can even think about sitting down in front of a keyboard.     

Thus, as educators, we need to help students understand that two types of writing exist:  writing for standardized tests and pretty much everything else.  While we need to give students opportunities to practice writing within a strict time constraint so that they are confident in their abilities to do, we need to focus the majority of our time helping them to value that authentic writing involves a process  It is messy.  It doesn't always follow the brainstorm--pre-writing--outlining--first draft--revising--editing-publishing steps as illustrated on those beautifully laminated posters hanging on classroom walls.  It might include throwing out the entire rough draft and starting over, changing the wording throughout a piece to reflect a different tone or mood, or editing a rough draft only to realize that it needs to be revised yet again.  As a first step toward this goal, we need to talk through the pieces we are working on ourselves and detail the struggles we are having.  As Kelly Gallagher often reminds us, we need to show our students that writing is a struggle for everyone.  But that it is also rewarding.  It is not a high speed sprint with the winner being the one to cross the finish line first.  Instead, it is a cross country endurance run with many twists and turns along the way.

Authentic Writing is About Rewriting And Not for A "One and Done" Experience

Just this week, famous YA author Meg Cabot tweeted the following: " Day 2 of the New Year.  Are you a writer?  Do you hate the book you're writing?  Good, that's normal.  Get back to work."  Probably one of the biggest lessons we want our students to learn is that in first drafts never a finished product make. As I write this blog, for example, I am already rearranging sections in my head, knowing that I will have to go back through each portion many times with a fine-toothed comb before I publish it and allow the world to judge the quality of my ideas. In standardized testing situations, students' first drafts are their final drafts. How many popular books or news articles would have never made it to publication if their authors had submitted their first drafts? To quote Hemingway: "The first draft of anything is sh*t." Yet, on standardized tests, we not only expect students to craft exceptional pieces of well organized writing, but we are also sending the unnerving message to students that writing is a one and done experience. If all of our writing assignments mimic the experiences of the standardized tests, students will never learn to internally value the revision component of process writing.  Recently, too many teachers have expressed to me that students these days think that revising is simply changing the font or applying spell check to their writing.  They tell me that when students write their first draft, they assume they are finished; the hard work is over.  Do we own any of this responsibility for their misconception?  I know that in my personal experience with writing that revision is probably the most rewarding part of the whole experience.  It's where the real magic happens.  If students do not currently recognize revision as rewarding, we need to stop and wonder about what we can do to change their mindset.

Authentic Writing Is Written for A Real Audience And Not For a Computer of Scorer                 

Although we write for a myriad of purposes in the real world, we rarely write something that we don't intend to share with others. With the exclusion of journal writing (although I might argue that even this type of writing has the author as its authentic audience), we write to entertain or inform or change the viewpoints of others. We write to communicate our ideas and to help others a glimpse into the way we view the world.  We write to understand ourselves and the world around us. If every time I wrote something my final product was only assessed on a four point scale,  I am pretty sure I would grow to despise the act of writing.  And if I were writing this blog only to know that a computer was eventually going to determine the merit of my words, I definitely wouldn't put my heart and soul into revising.  Thus, the way teachers choose to give feedback to students in class is pivotal.  The reality is that most students will never read those lengthy comments you laboriously detailed onto their essay at Starbucks last Saturday (this should be good news as I have just given you a giant portion of your life back).  They respond much better to small group mini-lesssons and individual conferencing.  Stop and think:  when was the last time you halted class to share with everyone a beautiful line that a student had just crafted?  If you can't remember, do it today.  And tomorrow.  And the day after that.   While students may not remember whether they met or partially met on the PARCC examine ten years from now, they will remember classroom moments like these for a lifetime.

Authentic Writing Exists For a Variety of Purposes Whereas Standardized Tests Too Often Assess the Same Task Again and Again

To me, this is probably the most disconcerting worry when it comes to standardized testing. With the shift to the Common Core, the PARCC exam now assesses narrative writing very differently than the Illinois Standardized Achievement Test had previously. In the past, when the state actually had money to include and assess a written task, the ISAT test would ask students to write a personal memoir that focused on one specific moment in their lives. Often, the ISAT may have required students to describe a moment when they learned a lesson from recent experience they had. With a shift to the Common Core, the narrative task is now exclusively assessed in conjunction with the fiction texts that students read. The actual sixth grade narrative task from last year's test was released by PARCC and required 6th graders to write the following after listening to an audio recording of part of Alice and Wonderland: "Imagine Alice has returned from her journey down the rabbit hole and is retelling the events to her sister. Write a story from Alice's point of view, in which Alice explains what happened to her after she reached the bottom of the rabbit hole. Be sure to use dialogue to show how Alice's sister responds to the story. Use details from the audio recording in your response."
This is where the educational Pit and the Pendulum again chooses to rear its ugly head. I would vehemently argue that both types of writing tasks are essential to a students' growth and success with written discourse. The ISAT prompt asks students to delve into the world of personal memoir, to write from the heart, to reflect on one's own life experiences and to detail these experiences in a creative way that intrigues others.  Speaking from personal experience for a moment, the year 2015 has been one of my toughest yet.  I've learned lessons about myself and human behavior that I probably should've learned sooner.  And creative writing became the vehicle through which I learned these things.  I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be in the place I am today if I hadn't allowed my writing to take me there.  We need to show our students how creative writing can be therapeutic and lead them toward self discovery.  Reflecting on our experiences and thoughts enables us to grow in ways that we wouldn't be able to do so otherwise.  Therefore,If you've allowed the pendulum to swing fully in the direction of PARCC-like tasks, only asking students to craft writing attached to texts, your students are missing out.
Similarly, if your students only spend their time writing based on personal choice and their own life experiences, they are also missing out. The PARCC task is just as valuable as the previous ISAT task for different reasons.  The PARCC task requires students to read as writers, examining the craft and style of a mentor author.  Students must imitate the setting or characters developed by the mentor and incorporate them into their own piece.  By mimicking the style of expert writers, students continue to add new techniques to their toolboxes and understand the texts they've read on a deeper level. In his books, Kelly Gallagher describes several tricks to help students utilize mentor texts to grow as writers.  A great place to start if this is a new concept for you.
So if standardized assessments test essential writing skills, what is the problem? The problem occurs when we make curricular decisions based solely on the latest standardized test and ONLY asking students to do one type of task or the other. Let me ask you a question:  if you were an educator in Illinois prior to Common Core, did you require students to write to tasks similar to those on the PARCC? Or were all of your students' written experiences more personal or openly creative in nature?   Similarly, if you are teaching now in the age of the CCSS, how many opportunities have you given students to write about their own life experiences, to create their own characters and worlds, or artistically express themselves via the written word? How many opportunities do your students have to dabble in poetry writing?  In blogging about topics they love?   Students need  a myriad of experiences, and we cannot let the task of a standardized assessment dictate our every curricular move.
 I would further argue that those creative opportunities for students to craft memoirs and their own short stories are probably the most essential types of tasks. After all, what is the first piece of advice given to aspiring writers by the experts:  write about what you know.  Since all of our students are diverse and bring unique experiences to the table, they will not necessarily see themselves reflected in the characters inside the stories they read in class.  Writing about themselves gives them an opportunity to share their culture with others and learn about themselves while doing it. It is where student engagement is alive and strong.  By including creative writing into your curriculum, you are developing a student's passion for writing.  We know that research supports the idea that the engaged student achieves higher.  Thus, creative writing is definitely not a waste of instructional time by any means because it engages students in the art of writing.
To illustrate my point, consider the following scenario.  You are about to travel cross country with a toddler and desire to get there as soon as possible.  You know that stopping to have your toddler use the bathroom and gather up his favorite DVDs and toys for the road will delay your initial departure. You also know that this is time well spent as it guarantees that you will have to stop less frequently along the way and avoid many hours of incessant whining that might result if you didn't take the time to grab that Despicable Me DVD on your way out the door.  Such is the case with creative writing.  Yes, it will take initially take time away from some of your curricular objectives, but in the end, students will arrive at the final destination and objective mastery sooner, and they will have had a much more pleasant experience along the way.

How Do We Avoid the Educational Pit and The Pendulum and Allow Students' Creative Talents to Flourish?

What can we do inside our classrooms to ensure that students write for more than a grade on a rubric?  How do we develop that passion that we have about writing?    
      Find opportunities for students to write about things that matter to them by giving them choice and options in their writing opportunities.
      Explore all types of writing with students (blogs, poetry, advertisements, wikis, websites, infographics, fanfiction etc) with "scholastic writing" being just one type of writing students do.
       Make sure that students have ample time and opportunities to revise pieces that matter to them. 
      Prior to revising give them time share them with others, and teach them how to give feedback to their peers. 
      Have them reread their first draft and final draft days after completing the final draft and reflect on the effectiveness of each.
      Create a classroom environment where students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and collaborating with classmates. 
      Provide meaningful feedback to your students.  Spend time talking to them about their writing rather than marking their papers up with comments (Isn't this one liberating????)
      Invite published writers into your classroom via email, twitter, skype, or author visits.  Ask them about their writing practices.  Ask your students about their own.
      Yes, give students timed experiences periodically to relieve their anxieties on standardized test day, but explain to them why they are being timed and that they can always go back and revise after time is up.
       Become a writer yourself.  You cannot teach something that you do not fully understand.  Start projects and set your own deadlines.  Share your successes and stumbling blocks with your students.
      *  Join twitter and follow the famous authors you enjoy.  Look for contests and other opportunities for students to share their work publicly and we awarded for their efforts.
      Most importantly, MAKE.  WRITING.  FUN. ( Otherwise, instead of a bunch of happy Despicable Me watching minions frantically waving their final drafts in your face, you could end up with a bunch of disgruntled Calilous on your hands.  Don't say you weren't warned)
                   I leave you with a true story that occurred last year while I was administering the PARCC examine to a group of 7th grade students for the first time last year.  The narrative writing task had just ended, and a student who I had only met that day came up to me with a look of intense passion on her face.  She told me she had just written the best story of her entire life.  She desperately wanted to save the story to share with her teachers and friends.  Since saving work is against the standardized testing rules, I had to deny her request with a heavy heart.  However, had I been her classroom teacher and had she had just written a story in  a class setting with that same passionate reaction, I would've reconfigured my lesson plans on the spot and found a way to provide this student with an audience for her new found passion.  Be on the lookout for little moments like these and capitalize on them.  Your test scores will thank you.  

Friday, October 23, 2015

Say What? Speaking and Listening Boot Camp

As a student, I rarely spoke in class. I was simply too afraid to share my ideas in what I perceived as the hostile environment of my classroom. What if I was wrong? Would the teacher embarrass me? Would another student challenge my answer? I’m pretty sure during a typical week of school, I could go from Monday to Friday without uttering a word in class. As an adult, I’ve gotten better about voicing my ideas. I’ve picked up on some key “conversational moves” through my day-to-day adult interactions, such as navigating through heated discussions with a coworker, working out a compromise with my husband, or negotiating curfew with my daughter. But, to be honest, my conversational moves are not very smooth. And when I think about all the time I spent in class watching my teachers prompt and pull kids through a series of prescribed questions for which there were one right and several wrong answer, I can’t help but wonder if my moves could have been better had I practiced the art of conversation in the training ground of my childhood classrooms. Unfortunately for me, there was never time for authentic, student-centered discussions in my classes. As a student, I was simply too busy taking lecture notes, listening to teacher talk, and freaking out about being called on to really notice that something big was missing from my life at school.

In his book In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom, Kelly Gallagher urges educators to place our students’ needs rather than test preparation at the forefront of our instruction. Gallagher argues that “hitching instruction only to what is being tested can be harmful to the overall development of our students” (161). In the previous years of No Child Left Behind, speaking and listening skills have typically been neglected from high stakes exams, leaving many teachers to place little emphasis on them in their classrooms. But talk matters in education and in life. The Common Core State Standards recognize the need for students to “have ample opportunities to take part in a variety of rich, structured conversations—as part of a whole class, in small groups, and with a partner—built around important content in various domains” (CCSS). They’ve dedicated an entire strand of standards to Speaking and Listening arguing firmly that “high school graduates will depend heavily on their ability to listen attentively to others so that they are able to build
on others’ meritorious ideas while expressing their own clearly and persuasively” (CCSS). Nevertheless, whether or not speaking and listening skills are valued in the Common Core State Standards matters little to Kelly Gallagher. He has chosen to place more emphasis on speaking and listening in his classroom “because these skills are foundational to becoming literate human beings” (161).

Talking Helps us Learn

The person talking is the person learning. As Bryan Goodwin’s research confirms, students who participate more frequently in class are more likely to be high performers, and those who remain quiet (like elementary school me) tend to do less well (2014).

According to Fisher and Frey, the amount of student talk directly correlates with their achievement. For example, in a study of classrooms with high-achieving students, teachers talked through about 55 percent of the instructional minutes; whereas in classrooms in which students were identified as low achieving, teachers talked through 80 percent of the instructional minutes. If we aren’t giving students opportunities to talk and think, then we are essentially asking students to sit back and relax as passive observers in their learning. We all know the traditional game of school in which the teacher asks questions to which she already knows the answers, kid answers the question, and the teacher evaluates the response as either right or wrong. In this learning environment, “discussions” simply devolve into question and answer session involving the recitation of facts. Thus, people like me learn to accept the role of quiet observer, fearing the public humiliation of getting the wrong answer.

But think about those classroom discussions that weren’t simply conversation with the teacher, but instead gave students a chance to co-construct knowledge, to think critically and collaboratively (Fisher & Frey). During these discussions, students listen to and react to each other’s ideas and further contribute to a group’s reasoning. “Quiet” classrooms don’t mean good classrooms anymore. Teaching and learning hinges on productive student talk.

So Why Aren’t Students Talking?

Breaking away from the well-established, traditional roles of teachers and students can be scary. The teacher feels as though she is giving up some of her control and, to a greater extent, her valuable class time, and students, to be honest, haven’t developed the conversational moves needed to engage in productive classroom discourse. In other words, classroom conversations can be painful experiences for both teachers and students. So we might have good intentions when we engage students in a graded discussion or a Socratic seminar. We might even circle up the chairs and throw out a deep-thinking, juicy question—a question that kids would need to talk over, chew on, and work out an answer together. But, unfortunately, these discussions often get us nowhere because we’ve neglected to teach effective speaking skills first. We assign speaking, but we don't teach speaking.

If we expect students to learn to speak, we need to teach them how. This requires teachers to provide daily opportunities for students to speak, combined with explicit instruction about the “conversation moves” good speakers make as they talk.

Speaking and Listening Boot Camp

At Twin Groves Middle School in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, Communications teacher Mark Weiland has developed a speaking and listening boot camp where students learn, develop, and practice the conversational moves needed to initiate a discussion, build off the ideas of others, provide feedback, and assert their own opinions. As every teacher knows, getting kids to engage in productive talk is not easy. Nevertheless, through trial and error and lots of research, Mark has transformed his room into a training ground where productive and “accountable talk” is the norm (Fisher & Frey 2012).

Mark’s Boot Camp Routine

Provide Meaningful Tasks:
When we began training students for structured class discussions, we quickly realized the importance of choosing meaningful, interesting, and relevant topics for discussion. We didn’t want to overwhelm students with new content during the beginning stages of training, so instead, we focused on questions that would get kids talking without the fear of getting a “wrong” answer. To facilitate these discussions, we turned to Dr. Spencer Kagan and his research on cooperative learning. For the past couple of years, our school district has begun implementing Kagan’s cooperative learning structures to help increase student engagement and promote a deeper understanding of content. As part of this program, teachers are encouraged to provide opportunities for team building to help create the “enthusiasm, trust, and mutual support” needed for effective collaboration (1999, p. 3). To help facilitate our team building activities and get kids talking, we used several of Kagan’s higher-level thinking questions designed to “stretch students’ minds” and “release their natural curiosity about the world” (1999, p. 3). Using the cooperative structure of Fan-N-Pick, we prompted groups of four to take turns asking and answering these higher-level thinking questions. For this structure, Student #1 fans out a stack of question cards and asks Student #2 to “pick a card.” Student #2 picks a question cards and reads it aloud to the group. Student #3 takes a few seconds of thinking time and then answers the question. Student #4 praises and paraphrases the thinking that went into the answer. After each round, the students switch roles so that everyone has the opportunity to answer questions and respond to each other. Some of the questions that we use for this training activity include the following: If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, whom would you choose? What qualities do you look for in a best friend? If you could travel to any place in the world, where would it be and why?

Not only do students enjoy answering these questions, but the questions also provide an opportunity for students to learn more about each other. After a few rounds of this getting-to-know-you style Fan-N-Pick, we brought the full class back together again and began integrating explicit teaching of a key speaking and listening move: respectfully disagreeing.

Explicitly Teach Conversation Moves:
According to Fisher & Frey (2014), in highly productive student-led conversations, “members make claims, offer evidence for those claims, seek clarification, offer counterclaims, and reach consensus or identify points of disagreement.” When students work together on a task or to solve a problem, they are going to disagree; nevertheless, we can teach them to disagree respectfully, or in other words, to “disagree without being disagreeable” (Fisher & Frey, 2014, p. 21).  For this task, Mark brainstormed with students a list of sentence starters that students could turn to when they needed help framing their ideas in a less negative and more inviting way. For example, instead of simply telling another student that his ideas are wrong, a student could show that he is willing to listen and learn more about the issue by stating, “I see your point, but please provide another example to help me understand” or “While you make an interesting point, I have another way of looking at the situation. Let me explain . . . .”

Once Mark familiarized students with examples and models of how to disagree respectfully, he put students back in groups of four to practice their new conversational move by once again using the Kagan cooperative learning structure of Fan-N-Pick. For this session, students follow the same format as before; however, instead of having Person #4 praise and paraphrase the thinking that went into the answer, Person #4 must respectfully disagree with the answer by using one of the sentence starters. For this activity to be most effective, the question cards should include topics that lend themselves well to a debate. Here are some of the questions we used: Should students get paid for getting good grades? Should cell phones be allowed in school? Should the school day be lengthened?


Another critical conversational move is the ability to agree with someone while keeping the conversation moving along. Through his past experience observing student-led discussions, Mark noticed that often when students agree with each other, their conversations simply come to a halt. For example, when discussing whether or not students should get paid for good grades, a student might claim, “Giving kids money for grades ruins their motivation to do well.” In response, another students might simply nod his head and say, “Yes, I agree,” offering nothing more to advance the conversation. This student has essentially killed the discussion because he lacked the conversational moves necessary to helped him build off an idea, ask probing questions, or elicit further evidence. These are skills that require some serious finesse; nevertheless, with practice kids can get there.

Again, Mark worked with students to brainstorm a list of sentence frames to help scaffold their responses when agreeing with another student and furthering the conversation. Here are some of the sentence frames we used:

I was thinking about your idea that _______, and I was wondering what if _____

I agree with your idea that ________, and I would like to clarify by adding…

What you said about ________ made me think of…

Mark turned to the Fan-N-Pick cooperative learning structure once again to give students an opportunity to practice their new moves. For this session, Student #4 had to agree with the ideas of Student #3 and keep the conversation flowing.

The Fan-N-Pick cooperative learning structure helps students to develop the habits of effective speaking and listening—but it does so with a heavy amount of teacher scaffolding. As Mark’s students began improving their moves, Mark began weaning them off of the teacher scaffolds by changing up the cooperative learning structure to allow for more student-controlled interaction. For example, using the Kagan cooperative learning structure of Talking Chips, Mark had students engage in a small group discussion in which teammates place a “talking chip” in the center of the team table each time they talk. Students may not interrupt each other and therefore must practice how to listen respectfully. Once students run out of chips, they may not talk again until all teammates have used their chips. This structure regulates discussion, holding all students accountable for participating while keeping at bay those students with the tendency to dominate the conversation.

Use Fishbowl Discussions:
Through Mark’s careful planning, modeling, and scaffolding of speaking and listening moves, students graduate into fishbowl discussions in which an inner circle of students works together through a topic or question while an outer circle of students observe, listen carefully, and offer feedback. For these discussions, Mark uses many of the suggestions from Paideia Active Learning, which promotes Socratic seminars, such as Mark’s fish bowl discussions, as a rigorous approach to instruction “designed to improve students’ critical thinking and communication skills.” Before each fishbowl discussion, Mark pairs a member of the fishbowl with a partner from the outer circle. The partners help each other prepare for their discussion by sharing their questions, thoughts, and evidence and bouncing ideas off of each other. During the discussion, the outer circle partners jots down comments on a list of discussion look-fors, such as making sure students talk directly to other students rather than the teacher, stay focused on the discussion, invite other people into the discussion, and share air time equally with others.  After the discussion partners, have time to reflect with each other on their speaking and listening moves, using the look-for sheet to help guide their debriefing.

Build a Speaking and Listening Community:
The students in Mark’s communication class have developed some pretty smooth conversational moves. This is due in part to Mark’s explicit teaching of speaking and listening skills but, more importantly, because he built a speaking and listening community in his classroom. Students soon realized that they were all responsible for helping each other become smooth talkers. If one student struggles with a move, the class works together to help guide that student as he masters the new speaking skill. Unlike my elementary school experiences, the students in Mark’s classes don’t compete with each other to get the right answer, raising their hands for the teacher’s attention while secretly hoping the kid who does get called on gets it wrong (we all have to admit to resorting to this type of behavior at some point—we can’t help it! Most traditional classrooms promote a competitive climate). If I had the opportunity to work on my conversation moves through the guidance and support of my teachers and fellow students, I think school would have been a much different, more engaging experience for me.


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Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2014). Speaking Volumes. Educational Leadership, 72(3), 18-23.
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2012). How to create a culture of achievement in your school and classroom. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.
Gallagher, K. (n.d.). In the best interest of students: Staying true to what works in the ELA classroom.
Goodwin, B. (2014). Research Says Get All Students to Speak Up. Educational Leadership, 72(3), 82-83.
Kagan, M. (1993). Higher-level thinking questions: Personal and social skills. San Clemente, CA: Kagan.
Paideia. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2015.