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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Revolutionizing Social Studies Instruction

Since the release of the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards back in September 2013, social studies teachers in my district have been challenged to restructure their traditional, familiar pattern of teaching to make room inquiry-based learning.  Instead of moving through their curriculum chapter-by-chapter and test-to-test as they have done in the past, several of our teachers have begun allowing students and their questions to drive instruction.  In education, any transformation of this magnitude can often cause stress, and, at times, even fear.  Unless school leaders work to develop a supportive culture for change, teachers will not feel empowered to move beyond their comfort zone, tackle the fear of the unknown, and accept the risks involved in trying new strategies.  Fortunately in my district, because administrators cultivated a supportive climate for change, a revolution in social studies instruction has begun. 

In order to inspire a revolution, there has to be a perceived need for change.  Often, people would rather maintain the status quo than to develop the skills and strategies necessary to bring on a revolution.  It's simply safer to keep doing what we've always been doing—even if we're not really sure why we're doing it. 

Back in September 2013, before teachers officially got their hands on the C3 Framework and were challenged to revolutionize social studies instruction, 7th graders in my district were already knee-deep in their study of Colonial America.  The pressure was on for both students and teachers to race through the content in an attempt to cover early American history from colonization through the Civil War by the end of May.  Within this rushed and hectic classroom climate, I remember walking into a 7th grade classroom at Woodlawn Middle School and observing students busy as work scanning their textbooks, reviewing class lecture notes, and creating travel brochures.  The travel brochures were to serve as advertisements, detailing the specific geographical and industrial features colonist could expect to find in the New England, Middle, and Southern colonies.  Ultimately, the goal in making these brochures was to list the differences between the colonies so that students could easily memorize and later recall these details on a multiple-choice test.

Getting kids to draw colorful pictures, coin clever advertising slogans, and prepare fancy brochures might provide a motivating and engaging activity; however, at the time, I couldn't help wondering what it really had to do with deep learning.  And, to be honest, I think the teacher often wondered the same thing.  But year after year, he continued to assign that travel brochure project.  As a matter of fact, I'm sure most of us remember doing a similar activity during our own study of colonial America back when we were 7th graders.  And, if you're anything like me, you memorized the differences between the colonies just long enough to ace the test, earn an A, and move onto the next unit, but did you learn anything about how to read, write, and think like a social scientist?  I admit, as a 7th grader, it didn't bother me.  This project represents the way I had always been taught—it’s simply the kind of learning we did in a social studies class, and it never occurred to me that it should look any different. 

Now that I am an educator, I can't stop thinking about those travel brochures and the instructional time that had to be sacrificed so that kids could spend the class period drawing pictures and bullet-pointing facts without a context.  Furthermore, how many hours did the teacher spend grading students on whether they neatly colored their pictures and correctly folded their paper into a brochure?  Which historical thinking/content targets do arts and crafts assess?  And, more importantly, what insights could students have gained from a more meaningful learning experience?

According to Hattie and Yates in their book Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (2014), the traditional classroom structure I encountered back in September 2013 (and back when I myself was in 7th grade) involves the teacher imparting knowledge to students in the form of a lecture, explanation, or set of teacher-generated guiding questions.  In the world of content coverage, standing up in front of students to deliver "the facts" they need to pass the test is a quick and efficient way to get the job done.  Instead of slowing down the curriculum to make room for the close reading, thinking, and writing skills involved in the Inquiry Arc of the C3 Framework, many teachers are compelled to push through their content in an attempt to cover the mandated curriculum.  Although the traditional classroom provides students with swift information, it comes at a price.  As Hattie & Yates (2014) point out, by racing through our content "under duress of time pressures," we run the risk of filling up our students with isolated facts (p.14).  And, unfortunately, facts that are not connected to meaningful and compelling questions, such as the facts that are listed on colonial travel brochures, "will be subject to rapid forgetting in the natural course of time" (41). 

So what other choice did the teacher have?  He had tons of content to cover and a deadline to meet, so he relied on his go-to method.  Year after year, those travel brochures looked great tacked up on the walls outside his room.  Not only that, but they also got the job of memorizing the characteristics of the colonies done in time to take the quiz and move on to the next unit.

Fortunately, with the release of the C3 Framework, this teacher was presented with another 
option— an option that turned his traditional classroom on its head.  In the C3 classroom, the teacher no longer could serve as the "sage on the stage," doling out pre-constructed, textbook driven knowledge.  Instead, students and their questions take center-stage in an unscripted learning environment.  For many teachers, life in the unscripted classroom represents unchartered territory.  If we choose to navigate through these changes, we forfeit the feeling of control over student learning and alter our traditional role in the classroom as the "giver of knowledge." 

Essentially, with the C3 Framework in our hands, social studies teachers in my district have been called upon to break a century-long tradition of teacher-centered instruction in American education.  How do we accept, let alone, cope with such a huge change?  According to Sir Ken Robinson in his Ted Talk Bring on the Revolution, innovation in education means challenging the things we believe to be common sense and changing the mindset of the people who think, "Well, it can't be done any other way because that's the way it's done."  It's tradition for the sake of tradition that compels us to keep doing what we've always done with no other explanation besides, “This is the way it has always been”—which is not a valid reason at all.

So what happened in our district to pull us away from the comfort and safety of our traditional teaching methods?  Here's the answer: our administration freed us from the confines of our memorization multiple-choice exams and told us to experiment with assessment—to "try something new."  We spent time as a department analyzing the C3 Framework indicators, evaluating potential resources, and developing an understanding of what it truly means to read, write, and think like a historian.  With the C3 Framework as our guide, we were no longer focused on the perpetual cycle of content coverage.  We could finally let go of the memorization, recitation, and regurgitation method of learning and begin our work with inquiry.

But that's not all.  We needed more than just a new outlook on assessments—we needed a supportive environment necessary for real change.  True innovation requires experimentation, trial, and inevitably error.  According to Fullan (2001), when we begin changing our practice, we often fall into an implementation dip, which is "literally a dip in performance and confidence as one encounters an innovation that requires new skills and new understandings" (pp. 40-41).  Our administration gave us permission to make mistakes, to fumble through new teaching strategies, and to fall deep into the "dip."  As long as we focus our instruction on the meaningful and enduring skills of historical inquiry, we can feel safe and secure venturing out into unchartered territory.  

Let the revolution begin!

So with the freedom to experiment with inquiry, what happened to those Colonial American travel brochures?  They were sacrificed in favor of more meaningful, deeper learning.  As a matter of fact, the entire 7th grade curriculum underwent serious change.

By following the guidelines of the C3 Framework, 7th grade social studies teachers developed an overarching, compelling question for the year to guide the work of their students: What led our nation to the Civil War?  With this question in mind, students began investigating early American history in order to explore the roots of the Civil War.  This endeavor required so much more of students than simply memorizing maps and retelling information on a quiz.  Instead, students analyzed the maps, determined patterns, and developed conclusions—life-long skill that will be remembered way beyond 7th grade.  According to Wiggins and McTighe (2005), when students have the opportunity to explore "key concepts, themes, theories, issues, and problems" by actively "interrogating the content through provocative questions," they gain deep and transferrable learning that will help them throughout school and in the real world (p. 106).

Analyzing the climate, geography, and industry of colonial America led students to their own compelling question: Were the colonist more united or divided?  Giving students the freedom to explore this question got them thinking on a level the teachers had never anticipated.  Students were delving into social evolution and coming to understand the specific demands each region's physical environment had on the culture of the people living there.  In New England, colonist adapted to the rocky, hilly land and thick forests by building big cities, becoming tradesmen, and making a living off the sea.  On the other hand, Southerners with their fertile land and warm climate, owned large plantations, relying on slave labor to farm their land, earn them money, and build their success.  The Middle Colonies, according to his students, "were like a blur," using their land both for farming and for the development of large cities.  The Middle colonies shared characteristics of both the North and the South, creating a "blend" that would come into play throughout the history of the young nation.  The differences between the colonies don't need to be memorized and displayed in arts and crafts projects.  Instead, they needed to be analyzed, evaluated, and interpreted.  The regions are different and those differences helped to create the conditions that would eventually fuel the Civil War.  

This is the type of deep learning that can't be tacked on the walls outside our room.  By allowing kids to ask questions, this teacher forged an apprenticeship with his students, established a purpose for their learning, and mentored them toward becoming masters in the art of historical thinking (Lesh, 2011).  

Think about why kids love social studies?  Do you ever hear your students claim, “I love reading my 800 page textbook day after day, taking notes on each chapter, and memorizing 'facts' to later recall on a multiple choice exam”?  Instead, when I talk to students about why they love social studies, they tell me how much they enjoy learning about the past, finding out why things are the way they are, and using this information to help explain present-day issues.  They fall in love with the content when they are provided the freedom and the guidance to ask questions and pursue the answers to those questions.

The Inquiry Arc of the C3 Framework presents teachers with a profound moment—a choice—in how we structure our classrooms: Do we keep plugging away at our textbooks in a cycle of fact memorization, information regurgitation, and rapid forgetting? Or, instead, do we allow kids to ask questions, pursue inquiries, and develop deeper learning? 

The only way this can happen is by releasing us from traditional assessments and giving us the freedom to follow the guidelines of the C3 Framework—not as an extra task to add to our already overburdened curriculum.  But, instead, as the backbone of teaching and learning.

Do we choose to transform our teaching?  Bring on the Revolution!

Bring on the learning revolution! (n.d.). Retrieved December 15, 2014, from

Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Fullan, M. (2002). The change leader. EducationalLeadership,59(8), 16-20.

Hattie, John, and Gregory Yates. Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. London & New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Lesh, Bruce A. "Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer?" Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse, 2011. Print.

Swan, K., Lee, J., & Grant, S.G. (2014). C3 Instructional Shifts. C3 Teachers. Available online:

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandra, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

My Jerry McGuire Moment On Independent Reading

            Over the weekend, I was flipping through channels and inadvertently stumbled upon the movie Jerry McGuire where Tom Cruise has his famous epiphany:  less clients, more personal attention (much to the dismay of his company who immediately hears this message as less clients, less money).  A few minutes into the movie,  I had what I considered to be my Jerry McGuire moment in education.  
          Rewind to last spring whenI was fortunate enough to attend a professional development day in a neighboring school district where Dr. Tim Shanahan was the lead speaker.  Not only was I able to hang on his every word all morning, but the icing on the cake occurred when I also got eat lunch with him and a group of my colleagues during the break.  In the off-chance that you are not the huge literacy geek I am,  let me contextualize this event for you:  dining with Tim Shanahan would be like a Chicago Bears fan having the opportunity to catch a touchdown pass thrown by Jay Cutler (or so I am told by my building principal as I admittedly know close to nothing about football).  Close to nirvana.
             Listening to Dr. Shanahan that day describe techniques to help students meet the demands of the Common Core Standards was more than inspiring.  In fact, his discussion of the ACT research and how text complexity and not an isolated skill deficit is what causes the vast majority of students to struggle on these assessments actually led to a full blown "Think Tank" style discussion that week back in my school building analyzing how we should instruct and assess students on the Common Core targets.  It was because of Shanahan's poignant explanation of how the Common Core was organized purposefully that ultimately led us to restructure our pacing guides and revise our rubrics to ensure that best instructional practices could be implemented in the classrooms each day.  Needless to say, spending the day with Shanahan was an amazing experience.
             Fast forward a few months, I found myself watching Jerry McGuire late that night, replaying the lunchtime conversation with Dr. Shanahan  in my head, and having my own personal Jerry McGuire epiphany.  I recalled having asked Dr. Shanahan to share his views on independent reading,  a concept I have always regarded with passion and enthusiasm.  His response was clear: devoting classroom time to silent reading is not supported by the research.  What about all the research that demonstrates that simply more time in text leads to gains in student reading? I had fired back at him.  Shanahan's response was simple.  The research that the experts use to support their claim that independent reading causes gains in comprehension really isn't substantiated.  The effect size is so small, he said, that it is hard to justify instructional time being spent pleasure reading when an expert is available to instruct students.
           Well, then that's that.  Right?   I felt defeated.  After all, in a world where education in America wholeheartedly embraces data analysis to drive all instructional decisions,  Shanahan had laid it on the line for me.  How could I possibly advocate for independent reading without solid data supporting my beliefs?  But, on the flip side, how could a part of literacy that I felt so passionately about be perceived by leading literacy gurus as a waste of instructional time?   But then I started thinking.....not all data is quantitative.
             In these first few weeks of the new school alone, I have collected my own qualitative data to prove that fostering a love of reading in students is beneficial.   I've witnessed more times than I can recall students anxiously flying into the learning center first thing in the morning, wide-eyed, hoping to grab the sequel of Divergent that they had stayed up all night reading the night before.  And when I think about the students whose  expressionless faces become instantly animated when I informally ask them about he copy of the The Fault In Our Stars they have sitting on their desks, I have collected data.  And how about the students who bring their books to the lunchroom and read through chaos because they just have to know what happens next?  Isn't it important for us to continue to feed this passion for students who have already found a love for reading before their crazy, fast-paced reality of rushing from activity to activity makes the act of reading for pleasure something these students "used to do when they had the time."
            But, for me, the most important data I've collected comes from  the students who claim to hate reading, the ones who struggle to make it to school each day and have never finished a book in years.  It is when these students, who would rather eat mealworms than be forced to read anything suddenly find themselves reprimanded for reading in other classes because they have finally found a book that has hooked them that I want to remind all educators of the role motivation plays in our schools each day.   Would these once reluctant readers have found this perfect book if it hadn't been for the time devoted to book talks, independent reading, and the knowledgeable guidance of their teachers and learning center staff?  One only needs to collect some data on the percentage of students who read nothing outside of their school day (a very disheartening number) to determine the answer to this one.  It is especially for these reluctant readers and their friends that I will continue to be a solid advocate for independent reading in schools.
When I think of these stories and how they might not exist without independent reading,  I have to stand up to the educational world of today and in  true Jerry McGuire Fashion declare:   Let kids read in school!   Not every success story can be measured quantitatively on a standardized test.  Luckily, as teachers, we already know that (even if we don't stand on couches to be heard).
            In all honesty, this blog was probably one of the most difficult for me to write and the one whose final product I feel least satisfied with because even now as I am about to publish it, I don't feel the words truly encapsulate the passion I feel for cultivating a love of reading in all students we teach.   It is also the first blog I have written, rightfully so, that is not flooded with statistics and research to support my arguments.  Although I am definitely a proponent of using data to drive decisions and advocate for using solid logos and ethos when crafting a strong argument, I am also an advocate for helping students grow as life-long readers and -- most importantly--as people.  Providing students time to choose and read books they wouldn't have found on their own, discuss this quality literature with their peers, and reflect on how the texts affect them personally is crucial.  With these activities we are ultimately helping readers uncover the mark they wish to leave on our world:  a worthwhile endeavor for all of us, no matter how old we are.  Steven Layne, in Igniting a Passion for Reading, argues that our educational system has ignored reading motivation and attitude for too long simply because these areas are less measurable and that "if we continue to ignore [motivation] and teach only skills, without the desire to use those skills, where is the benefit?" (13)

     And if this blog entry wasn't corny enough for you, I leave you with a video that I found on you tube that lays out all the amazing ways teachers touch students lives each day.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Time Vs. Content Coverage--the Epic Battle

As I was thinking back to my high school days and on my own experiences learning history, I recalled an episode from one of my favorite shows of all time: Beverly Hills 90210.  In this particular episode, Brandon Walsh (the main character) who usually loves American history complains to his friends that Mr. Danzel (his teacher) has ruined history class.  By assessing students through impossible, factual-based quizzes, Mr. Danzel has reduced the study of history to little more than memorizing "a bunch of facts."  Some students at West Beverly High, including Brandon himself, feel so much pressure to pass these quizzes they are willing to cheat.  When Brandon confronts Mr. Danzel with his concerns over these quizzes, Danzel defends his teaching methods, arguing that "memorization lays the foundation for a college education where [students'] ideas can be more fully examined."  In response, Brandon wonders who will fully examine these ideas--"A group of kids who have never been challenged to think?"

Within this classic episode of 90210, Brandon and his teacher find themselves engaged in the great debate over depth Vs. breadth in the teaching of social studies content: do we expose our students to as much content as possible to help them know the facts, or do we take Brandon's advice and slow down our teaching to provide opportunities for deep learning of less content?

Throughout my teaching experience, most of the social studies teachers I've met love their content.  They have study it, analyzed it, and have worked hard to become experts.  To know their facts.  And year after year, these teachers are forced into the perpetual battle, pitting time against coverage, often feeling pressure to rush their teaching in order to get through their district mandated curriculum.  Not only is this battle exhausting, but it also does little more than to promote surface-level learning--learning that is subject to rapid forgetting over the course of time.  Students might retain the information long enough to circle the correct answer on a multiple choice test; however, as Brandon points out to his teacher, students will not acquire the deep learning of content material that allows them to reflect upon, connect, and integrate knowledge.  Ironically, it is the very thing we and Mr. Danzel do to “get through” the curriculum that inhibits deep learning.  Our love affair with the content and our honorable mission to impart historical knowledge might be sabotaging the learning of students--students like Brandon who might eventually grow frustrated and fall out of love with history.  This certainly is not the intention of Mr. Danzel or of any social studies teacher engaged in an all-out content coverage battle, but it could very well be an unfortunate side effect.

In the book Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (2014), Hattie and Yates reviewed a study examining time’s role in promoting deeper learning.  In this study, the same eighth grade curriculum was taught in four different ways--as a full 12 week period or as a cut-down form in either 9 week, 6 week, or 3 week versions.  In all four versions, the same four topics were covered; however, the time allocated to teach each topic was dramatically reduced.  According to the results, this reduction in time made very little impact on multiple choice exam scores.  However, on written tests that assessed the depth of learning, students in the classes with reduced time for learning were unable to pass.  These students, like 90210's Brandon, who received the abridged version of the curriculum could not make connections or integrate ideas across the four units.  Just as Brandon had warned, rushing through the content forced teachers, like Mr. Danzel, to limit opportunities for students to engage in a variety of meaningful and enriching activities that would have promoted knowledge building.  

Think about how many times we as teachers have been forced to cut short a class discussion in order to quickly lecture through the material so kids “get what they need” for a test--and get it fast.  Or think about the teacher who is forced to cancel the class debate, skip an inquiry-based learning experience, or cut an analysis of a primary source document simply because she’s “a week behind” the other social studies teachers battling the content down the hall from her.

When we remove these powerful and engaging learning opportunities in favor of teacher lectures with PowerPointed quick-and-easy summaries of important historical events, we reduce our practice to nothing more than pre-packaged knowledge handed over by an authority figure--or as Steve, the class clown from Beverly Hills 90210, describes it: "a fossil in a suit." Yikes!  We might be able to progress through more material at a faster rate, but are the kids really learning? Could Brandon be right about his assessment of Mr. Danzel's teaching:  Can kids "dig deeper into the broader historical context" if we don't promote their historical thinking skills? 

Hattie and Yates (2014) refer to Mr. Danzel's style of teaching as the recitation method.  Using this method, Mr. Danzel might provide a lecture as described above, or he might interact with the class by inviting students to respond to teacher-initiated questions.  When a student responds, he evaluates the response before moving on to his next question.  This series of questions and answers is typically carried out in an orderly fashion, with the teacher highlighting what he perceives to be the key points of the curriculum.  Unfortunately, these teacher-generated questions are usually low-level and factual, requiring simplistic answers.  Typically, only one student at a time is active while the majority of the students watch and listen--or simply appear to be listening.  Overall, the “conversations” involved in this method are predictable and unengaging.  Students show up to watch the teacher work rather than actively participating in their own learning.

We are all familiar with this routine.  Think back to your own high school days when the teacher would ask the class a question (a factual question with a clear right or wrong answer rather than a thoughtful-provoking question that would elicit a back-and-forth student discussion).  A few students--usually the same ones every time--would raise their hands to answer the question.  After a while, we all began to figure out the kids who get it and the kids who don’t.  I didn’t get it, but I sure learned how to become invisible during those “discussions.”  If I moved my head into just the right position behind the kid in front of me, I could hide out and never be noticed.  Unfortunately, this trick didn’t work in all my classes.  Every once in a while, I would get the teacher who would ask a question, but instead of engaging in the back-and-forth exchange between the smarty-pants sub-group of kids who love to answer these teachery-type questions, he would purposely call on the kids trying to hide out and act invisible.  In these classes, I spent so much time worrying about being called upon that I had no energy left for actual learning.  

Why do teachers hold onto these routines?  Why does this type of teaching persists in so many social studies classrooms despite decades of criticism and attacks from expert educators?  

Simply put, we and Mr. Danzel teach this way because we are forced to battle the clock to cover the content.  The recitation model is swift, easy, and creates the illusion (the feeling) of teaching.  Content coverage is the worst type of nemesis in our curriculum battle because it manipulates us into thinking we’re doing what’s best for kids.  Mr. Danzel and the other history teachers engaged in this battle truly want students to love the content, to know their facts, and to understand the history of their world.  We want to share our knowledge with them; however, brain research tells us that exposing students to high levels of information presented through lectures and teacher-talk overloads the wandering mind of an adolescent.  All those facts we want kids to know and to love simply don’t stick for most learners.

So what can we do?  First, we need to focus on depth rather than breadth.  

1.  Search for the essential questions or big pictures.  According to Bruce A. Lesh in his book Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer? Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12 (2011), the teacher's role in helping students develop as historical thinkers is to provide students with context and historical information that will allow them to address powerful and thought-provoking questions.  Organizing student learning around an "essential question" rather than a list of content standards compels students to explore the past.  The new C3 Framework for Social Studies States Standards supports the use of compelling and supporting questions as the central element to the teaching and learning process.

2.  Don’t just teach the fact, but give kids time to apply this knowledge.  Simply spending more time on an activity doesn’t improve learning unless there is guidance, instruction, feedback.  Lesh argues that "to fully promote a study of the past, students must be taught and provided the occasion to engage in the development, defense, and revision of evidence-based historical interpretations" (21).  Teachers need to work with kids on both content and process if they are to provide a comprehensive study of the past. 

3.  Create opportunities for quality student talk.  We can’t just put students in groups and encourage them to talk.  We need deliberate strategies to structure these discussions.  Try using the structured Paideia model or or even Socratic Seminar.

In the following example, 7th grade social studies teachers at Woodlawn Middle allowed depth to trump breadth.  For this activity, the teachers shared an image depicting an historical event and asked students to scan the image and circle anything they see that helped them determine who created the photo, when, and why.  At first, teachers guided students through the activity, modeling their thinking as they analyzed the picture.  Eventually, they handed over the analysis to the students, providing time for students to collaborate before writing their analyses.  See below:

The Golden Spike—Primary Source Analysis

 Scan the image below carefully from left to right, top to bottom.  Circle anything you see in the image that helps you determine who created this photo, when and why?   Label each item you circle with a short bullet point/jot dot describing what it tells you.  Once you’ve completely analyzed the image, answer the question that follows in a well-written paragraph. 

This image clearly relates to one of the historic movements that helped to shape American culture.  Which movement does it relate to and how do you know?


In the end, it all boils down to what we believe our role is in preparing students for college and beyond by asking ourselves what we really want students to get out of our class.  Do we want students to memorize the facts, or do we want them to be able to apply historical thinking skills?  After reflecting on Brandon's critique of his history class, Mr. Danzel had a change of heart.  At the end of the episode, after handing out the dreaded mid-term exam, he asks students to tear up the test.  Instead of regurgitating facts on a test he has given year after year, he tells students he wants to "know what [they] think."  He asks students to write a thoughtful response to the following question:  "Using examples from history and your own answers, what do you think our government should have done in the 19th century to save the American Indians?" Brandon, the last student to turn in his response, walks up to Mr. Danzel and says, "That was a hard question, but a good hard question."  In the end, Brandon's love of history is reignited, and Mr. Danzel embraces the challenge of teaching his students to think.  Perhaps in our own battle against the clock, we can remember Mr. Danzel's struggle and let go of content coverage in exchange for deep and meaningful learning.

Works Cited:

"College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards." National Council for the Social Studies. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2014.

Hattie, John, and Gregory Yates. Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. London & New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Lesh, Bruce A. "Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer?" Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse, 2011. Print.

Star, Darren. "Higher Education" Beverly Hills 90210. Fox. 15 Nov. 1990. Television.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Equity in the Classroom: Building Background Knowledge

       The bell rings to begin fourth period and seven students slowly trickle into the reading intervention classroom in Anywhere, USA.  Their hands are shoved into their pockets.  They've brought no supplies. Despite the look of complacency on most of the students' faces,  the teacher begins with a warm smile and cheerful disposition and welcomes the new students to the first day of class.  "That doesn't mean we are going to actually read in here, does it?"  asks a student who is slumped so far down in his desk, his face is barely visible:  "I hate reading."  And so begins another teacher's mission to assist those who struggle find books they love while simultaneously building literacy skills and background knowledge.  This scenario depicts the daily battle that many teachers of mainstream classes and intervention classes alike must overcome in schools across America.  Luckily, we have many fantastic educators who are up for the challenge.
      At a 2012 conference on reading that I attended, Kelly Gallagher plainly stated: "You have to know stuff to be able to read stuff."  In other words, students must possess background knowledge  in order to be able to comprehend and analyze material on related topics.  Background knowledge can be developed in many ways, but the best source of background knowledge, of course, comes from first-hand experiences and wide reading.  Is it any wonder, then, that study after study reveals that students who come from families who struggle financially often possess less background knowledge than their grade level peers?  When parents are working two grueling jobs and struggling just to put food on the table, can we fault them for failing to find the money or time to bring their children to pricey museums and week-long ski trips?  Can we even fault them for not having the energy to sit down and read with their children at the end of a sixteen-hour work day? 
         The reality is that many students across the nation will come to us with limited background knowledge, thus complicating their ability to understand what they read.  Since we cannot take students on daily field trips across the globe, we must instead find ways inside our classrooms to increase students' world experiences.  In their article "Building And Activating Background Knowledge,"  Douglas Fischer and Nancy Frey remind us that "comprehension strategies cannot compensate for missing background information."  In other word, using best practices to explicitly teach students solid reading strategies will do no good if we don't couple our instruction with helping kids develop background knowledge.  I think this message bears repeating. 

You can be the best teacher on the planet, using best practices daily, and if you do not help students to build background knowledge, some will never succeed.

 So how do great teachers help build background knowledge so all can succeed?

Ways to Build Background

1)  Explicitly Teach Vocabulary --  Heather Haggerty reminds us that "Background knowledge plays a key role in a student's ability to learn new information, and vocabulary is a key component to accessing background knowledge.  The words students have to describe their experiences with a  concept will give teachers great insight into what students actually know before the lesson starts."

Studies have shown that little time is actually spent in older grades explicitly teaching vocabulary.  Although many teachers instruct students on how to look up words in a dictionary and how to use context clues, little time is spent formally teaching new words to older students.  However, the research is clear:  if teachers take the time to pre-teach academic words in all content areas, those students with limited background knowledge will be more equipped to tackle texts containing these words than if no time is spent explicitly teaching words.  In order for vocabulary instruction to be effective teachers should provide students with repeated exposures to the same words, allowing students to create connections between the new concept and their prior knowledge whenever possible.  Using the words in discussion, demonstrating which contexts the words should be used and providing a visual picture of the new words are all strategies that will help students to own the new word.   Additionally, short video clips, labeling photographs, and word webs are additional ways to study words while building background simultaneously.

2)  Choose Reading Material Wisely -- With the Common Core pushing teachers to build skills in literacy across the content areas, it is important that teachers choose carefully the texts they will use with their students.   Since we are thankfully no longer an educational system that values regurgitation of random facts above the acquisition of those skills that would enable students to independently navigate difficult texts, choosing texts that will help students to better prepared to make sense of the world in which they live is key.  Although beginning with a high interest topic on celebrities or pop culture might be a place to begin instruction of a difficult learning target, eventually the texts and tasks teachers choose should help students should help to build background.  Prior to reading Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, for example, teachers could expose students to texts about post-Civil War America and school segregation.  Not only can these texts serve as a vehicle to teach new literacy strategies, but teachers and students can also breathe a sigh of relief that engaging texts can replace the forty-five minute lecture that did little but cause students to tune out and  teachers' voices to go hoarse.

3) Avoid Boxed Reading Materials Programs  In her article, "Seven Ways to Kill RTI,"  Brandi Noll reminds educators that research supports the idea that " commercially produced programs sporadically improve isolated skills such as alphabetics — students’ ability to read words in isolation — but most fail to improve real reading."  This should be good news for educators, since these programs are costly yet unnecessary.  The sad truth, however, is that many systems choose to forgo quality professional development for the easy packaged program.  To add fuel to the fire is the fact that these packaged programs were created without any knowledge of the specific students who will be receiving the intervention.   It is the highly qualified teacher taking the time to know his or her students on a deep level who is able to help students build background knowledge, brush up on reading strategies, and ultimately come to enjoy reading.  Instead of packaged programs, why not ask students to complete interest surveys or anticipation guides as a way to find out what they already know about, what they want to know about, and what they need to know about to be successful with the texts they'll be encountering?  Allowing student choice leads to increased motivation leads to increased background knowledge leads to increased learning.  Find me a child that is intrinsically motivated by the worksheets and quick reads of which many pre-packaged programs are comprised, and I will show you a parent who enjoys who enjoys watching his child strike out at a baseball game.

4) Teach Thematically --  If you browse many of the existing units that claim to be Common Core aligned, one of the first similarities you will probably notice is that they all begin with an essential question.  In a 2012 Conference, Jeffrey Wilhelm suggests starting any instructional unit a thematic question.   This question increases student motivation because students are better able to see a purpose for their reading and exploring of texts.  Wilhelm identifies a good inquiry-based question as one that is enduring, engaging, at the heart of a discipline, and in need of uncovering.  In other words, the question shouldn't be one that is easily answered.  It shouldn't have one correct answer.  It should be debatable.  What makes a good friend?   Is perfection an obtainable goal?    Is war a necessary evil?   Teaching thematically with an inquiry-based question guiding the work helps to build background knowledge because students are able to make connections between the readings.  They may start with little background knowledge on a particular subject and through the unit accumulate a wealth of knowledge that will enable them to be able to read more texts on similar topics with ease.

5) Allow Time For Turn and Talk  --  When building background knowledge, it is important that students have time to discuss and share their ideas with others.  Giving students a few minutes to discuss in pairs or small groups allows them to explore new ideas, share new insights, and make sense of information before being asked to share their thoughts in a whole group setting.  Additionally, by embedding "turn and talk" practices into a classroom routine, the teacher is ensuring that all students have an opportunity to discuss key information as opposed to only a select few students who may choose to participate in a larger group setting.  When time is tight, the "turn and talk" is usually the lesson component that is the first to be cut.  Unfortunately, it is the most needed component to ensure that all can succeed.

         Thankfully, building background does not mean formal lectures given by teachers with little student interaction.   I am sure you have heard before that teachers should never be doing more work than their students.  Turn and talk requires students to take ownership of their own learning.   Giving students opportunities to discuss new vocabulary terms and the texts they read about timely topics on a thematically based unit will work wonders for all.