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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Let Students Read Independently - Part Two: My Response To Tim Shanahan's Rebuttal


         What's more controversial than the race for president these days?  Get a group of reading teachers together and you just might be surprised to learn that it's the topic of independent reading. If you have been following my blog, you know that recently I wrote an open letter to educational leader Tim Shanahan who had called a teacher "ineffective" in his recent post due to her desire to foster a love of reading via independent reading time.  His original letter where he argues that research does not support this practice can be found here and my response to his post where I argue that research (both quantitative and qualitative) does support independent reading can be found here.  Recently, Shanahan decided to respond to my open letter on his own blog
          Both blogs sparked quite an uproar on social media websites with passionate educators and literacy authors on both pedagogical sides engaged in thoughtful discussions about whether independent reading should stay or go.  Are we surprised?  I would argue that a large portion of reading teachers became teachers because they both love students and possess a solid passion for reading.  It only makes sense that we would want to ignite that same fire for the written word in all of our students, not just the ones that already come with the spark lit.  Passionate arguments and even disagreements about independent reading occur because we all, hopefully, have the same goal even when we disagree with how to get there:  to increase the literacy skills of our students so that they can become informed readers who not only enjoy reading but enter the world prepared to read and think with a critical eye. 
          After reading Shanahan's response , where I feel some of my ideas and arguments were misinterpreted, I debated about whether or not I should respond again.  Then, as I was  bombarded by emails and comments about my response, I considered the teacher who may only read his one blog post and felt obligated to respond and further clarify my original intent. Since we live in and breathe the Common Core these days, I've decided to utilize a few of the 8th grade informational text learning standards while analyzing the effectiveness of Shanahan's rebuttal.


Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author acknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.

How does Shanahan's argument stacks up against 8th grade Common Core Standard 6?

       Shanahan is successful in relaying his purpose.  His purpose is clear.  His agenda is to stop educators from providing time for students to read independently in schools, a practice he purports to be wasteful.  
       Unfortunately, Common Core Standard 6 requires authors to "acknowledge and respond to conflicting viewpoints." Shanahan does not fully address conflicting evidence.  He claims that research does not support independent reading and that "studies in which DEAR time is provided to some kids but not to others have not found much payoff—even when the non-readers were doing no more than random worksheets."    He neglects to address the large body of research that suggests otherwise.  In a recent blog post, Stephen Krashen (Professor Emeritus at University of Southern California and author of over 250 articles and books on literacy and bilingual education) refutes several key points in Shanahan's original blog post with cited research studies.  Krashen's blog -- which can be read in its entirety here -- refutes Shanahan's claim that SSR does not benefit students by providing the results of a meta-analyses of several studies suggesting that, in fact, independent reading does achieve substantial results for students. He discusses studies that found students made substantial gains on the PIRLS after moving from no independent reading time to an almost daily practice.  
        In addition to the studies suggested by Krashen, other research supports the practice of independent reading.  The Research Journal of the American Association of School Librarians, for example, cites a research study by Ozburn (1995) that found an at-risk group of high school freshman who participated in sustained silent reading along with best practices to earn an average of 3.9 years growth on reading achievement scores. More studies like this one do, in fact, exist.
       Furthermore, in his blog response to my open letter,  Shanahan chooses to disregard the qualitative data I provide, the detailed stories of at-risk students who found their love of reading after being given time to read independently in school.  Because, really, how can you argue with stories of individual success?  
        By failing to present and refute the conflicting body of research presented by Krashen and others, Shanahan's argument falls short in mastering this Common Core standard. I would hope my eighth graders would come to the conclusion that disregarding significant pieces of opposing evidence makes his argument weaker. 
       Since the appearance of my first blog, I've had countless teachers  across the country share similar stories about students who have changed their minds about reading when given time to read quality titles independently. As I said in my first letter, not everything important can be measured by a pen and pencil test.
        The truth is that in education, where a number of variables outside of our control exist, research can be found to support and disprove almost any practice.   What we can't do is vehemently deny the other half of the research exists to suit our needs.  While some would like to believe that teaching is a pure science, I would argue that it is a delicate balance of science (using data and research to drive instructional practices) and art (building relationships with students --ie Hattie's research on visible learning-- while using creativity and passion to deliver lessons rooted in best practice).  

I've heard teachers argue that independent reading is wasted time -- a time for teachers to sit behind their desks and grade papers while students stare at the ceiling and daydream.  In this case, I would agree that the practice is ineffective.  Unless any practice is followed with fidelity and delivered in a well orchestrated and engaging way for students, we may  dismiss practice instead of choosing to reflect on the causes behind its failed success.

Common Core Target:

Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; recognize when irrelevant evidence is introduced.

How does Shanahan's argument stacks up against 8th grade Common Core target 8?

 In Common Core Standard 8, students are expected to examine claims made by authors and analyze whether or not they've provided logical reasoning and sufficient evidence to support their claims.   In his response to my argument that independent reading practices lead to students who become life long readers (an idea supported by the research of Pilgreen and Krashen, 1993 as and Greaney and Clarke, 1975 as cited by Krashen), Shanahan writes that "if this practice so powerfully fosters 'a love of reading' among kids that lasts a lifetime, then why aren’t years of it lasting even until kids are 12?"   He seems to suggest here that if students independently read in middle grades, then that should be sufficient to continue their independent reading practices for the remainder of their lives without any kind of support of such practices by future teachers.  This argument falls short in the logic department required of this Common Core Standard.
      Let's say I have an elementary student who struggles with organization.  I may work with him to develop a system of organizing his locker in fifth grade and even check in with him every few weeks to see how his organizational progress is going.  Should I assume, then, that he will have a spotless locker for the remainder of his school career because I've spent time in elementary school developing this practice? Maintaining any practice -- reading including --  especially with students who are not intrinsically motivated by nature to read -- requires ongoing support and dedication by adult role models as well as peers.
Furthermore, to understand why students still need to be given choice of reading materials and the time to read them as they age, we need to consider the developing middle school brains.  Research by James Bjork as discussed by Emma S. McDonald in her article "A Quick Look Into the Middle School Brain" reveals that normal brain development leads teens to "seek activities and behaviors that either lead to a high level of excitement or require very little effort."  By giving students time to read in class, we are making pleasure reading an activity that requires "very little effort" on the part of the students. Once a student is immersed in a good book, he is much more likely on his own to take that book home and continue the story. How do I know this?  As recent as 2014, Scholastic coupled with YouGov conducted research by surveying a national sample of students and parents on their beliefs and practices on pleasure reading.  One of the findings from the study was that "factors that predict children ages 12–17 will be frequent readers include reading a book of choice independently in school, reading experiences, a large home library, having been told their reading level and having parents involved in their reading habits."  Although educators can't necessarily control the reading habits of parents or the size of students' home libraries, one thing we can control is providing students time to read in school.  Why wouldn't we want to give it a go?
       Shanahan is right that different students are motivated by different things.  Kelly Gallagher wrote an entire book about this called Reading Reasons.   The research of Gay Ivey has suggested over and over again, however, that student choice of reading materials is pivotal if we wish to motivate our students.  And again, as I noted in my first post, Dwek's research reminds us that motivation leads to engagement which translates into increased learning gains.  Many of us have experience with students who love to read during class but can't seem to find the time in their overly scheduled lives to read on their own. Other students, who are more intrinsically motivated by nature and may find the time to read outside of school even if they are not provided time in class, still need to be exposed to book-talks and exposure to quality titles that they may not know exist.  Different strokes for different folks.  Independent reading gives students power over their learning in a way many teacher-structured activities cannot.   

Common Core Target:

Craft and Structure:

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.

How does Shanahan's argument stacks up against 8th grade Common Core target 4?

         The second half of this Common Core Target requires students to take specific words and phrases and analyze how they impact the tone of the piece, thus ultimately affecting the meaning.  Shanahan refers to a specific word that I used in my letter to him, "visceral" and says, "I’d rather that teachers reacted intellectually rather than 'viscerally' to questions about instructional practices."  Here he is misconstruing my use of this word.  

       As a literacy coach in a middle school that has worked hard to earn its second National Blue Ribbon Award this year, I come from an environment where we live and breathe data to drive our instructional practices. Due to our implementation of best practices (included but certainly not limited to independent reading), eighty-five percent of our 8th grade students met or exceeded standards on the PARCC exam in 2015, the first year students were exposed to the new Common Core driven assessment. In fact, nearly one out of every three eighth grade students actually exceeded standards on this already rigorous exam. In my world, researched practices are held with the utmost regard, and I don't believe we'd see students surpassing the high levels of learning they do each day without utilization of best practices. I would never advocate for an instructional practice simply because I had a passion for it.

       My original comment, taken out of context, was that "Although I usually value his opinions and have referenced him several times on my blog, I had a strong, visceral response to his latest piece."  This statement suggests that I responded with deep-seeded emotion to the message he was sending educators about the value of independent reading and not that I was going to make my decisions on instruction based on emotion alone as Shanahan implies.  One need only to read my earlier explanations regarding the research supporting independent reading to see that although I feel strongly about fostering a love of reading in students, both quantitative and qualitative research exists to support the practice.

Additionally,  Shanahan analyzes the impact of tone in my own argument when he writes in his rebuttal that "There are many statements here evidently aimed at conveying the idea that I’m rude, that I don’t care about kids, and that I pay attention to numbers rather than stories. "   I think he unfairly misses the mark on this one. No text evidence (CCSS Standard 1) exists in my open letter that would allow a reader to infer that I do not think he cares about students. I would like to think that we can engage in thoughtful discourse with those who disagree with us without getting personal.  I said in my first post that I have the utmost respect for Mr. Shanahan and have used his arguments and ideas often in my own blog and in my professional development with teachers.  I stand by this sentiment and just wish he would reconsider his unwaveringly rigid stance on independent reading as he reaches a wide audience.  And to quote Spiderman's Uncle Ben, "With great power, comes great responsibility."

Finally, if I were to ask my students to analyze the tone of Shanahan's original post to the teacher inquiring about independent reading practices, I would expect them to pull out specific words and phrases as the Common Core Standard Four demands to determine the implied tone in the piece.  Students would most likely find that even the very first line of Shanahan's piece  "I think you sound like a nice teacher, but perhaps an ineffective one" already begins to develop his tone. Suggesting that a teacher is "ineffective" is a bold statement to make especially with conflicting evidence in regards to independent reading.  As Shanahan moves through his claim, he continues to use a condescending tone by using phrases like "If you don’t want kids to love reading, then sacrifice their instructional time to focus on motivation rather than learning" and "use reading to isolate kids."  Words like "isolate" and "sacrifice" have negative connotations and suggest that teachers choosing to independent reading are willingly damaging their students.  Shanahan concludes his piece by saying, "I hope you care so much that you’ll be willing to alter your methods to actually meet your very appropriate goals for them."  The use of the word "actually" in this sentence further develops a tone that one could argue is lofty, at least. I guess my visceral reaction to his first blog came from the message he was relaying (Common Core Standards 1-3) as well as the manner in which it was delivered (Common Core Standards 4-6).  My attempt to mimic his tone in my open letter response was not well received, but revealed an important point: I believe Mr. Shanahan experienced a visceral response.

I leave Mr. Shanahan with one important question:  If you do not advocate for independent reading in classrooms, what practices do you suggest to instill a love of reading in students? How, specifically, do we ensure that our students read for pleasure daily in a world full of distractions and commitments?

 I'm reminded every day as I watch the presidential election draw nearer that it is much easier to shoot down the opposition than it is to reveal a practical solution to the problem.  As a nation, I hope we continue to listen to all sides of an argument with open ears instead of simply waiting our turn to prove ourselves right.   I know that I've learned a lot myself during this dialogue as it has forced me to research more than I would have and ultimately conclude that more research supports the practice of independent reading than I had even originally thought. 

 And I have you, Mr. Shanahan, to thank for it.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

My Letter To Tim Shanahan: In Defense of Independent Reading

Recently, I read the latest blog post by Tim Shanahan where he provides his strong opinions how giving students time to independently read in class is wasteful.  Although I usually value his opinions and have referenced him several times on my blog, I had a strong, visceral response to his latest piece (which can be referenced here). I felt compelled to stand up for the inclusion of independent reading time during the school day.  Thus, I crafted this letter.  I'm hoping he reads it.  

But, more importantly, I'm hoping that teachers who wish to instill lifelong reading habits in their students do not stop with Mr. Shanahan's advice and consider my perspective and the perspective of others on this important topic.

Dear Mr. Shanahan,

I think you sound like an impolite blogger, and perhaps a misinformed one.  
You've neglected to consider the following important points in your discussion of the value of independent reading.

You claim that time spent independent reading is wasted due to the fact that "even when they have been done well, the "learning payoffs" have been small.  By "learning payoffs," I am assuming that you mean students' progress on standardized exams (typically the way reading growth is measured in research studies) does not increase with the inclusion of independent reading time in schools. 

Some major problems exists with this claim.

Increased reading does lead to increased achievement.

  Research does support the idea that students who typically achieve higher on reading tests are also those who read more voraciously.  Those who score at the lower end usually read less.  Since research also shows that the amount of time middle school students typically spend reading outside of class declines as they grow older, finding time for students to practice reading independently in schools is crucial.  If we do not attempt to foster a love of reading inside the classroom, how will we help students who have not yet discovered the joy of reading on their own increase their reading minutes?  

      For many students, teachers are their only adult role models who read.  As educators, we cannot control anything that happens outside of the school day, but  we can control what happens during it. Your suggestion to "encourage them to build reading into their daily life when away from school" seems an implausible goal.  Giving all students access to quality texts and time to read them while you are with them is the right thing to do.    

       You mention that summer reading programs are also ineffective. I can see how they could be ineffective if teachers do not take the time to instill lifelong reading habits in their students during the academic year.  Why would students read during the summer months when they are not encouraged to read on a regular basis for most of the calendar year?  As teachers, we have nine months to build the momentum inside our classrooms so that the enthusiasm can spill over into the summer months. Building enthusiasm for reading looks and feels a lot different than "requiring" students to read -- one of your arguments for why independent reading can fail.

       This year in our school district, instead of requiring each grade level to read a specific title, we made our summer reading program more open-ended. We provided book suggestions but also allowed students to veer off this list and read what they wanted to read.  We book-talked several different titles and tried to motivate kids to "Read Harder," mimicking the adult challenge placed by Book Riot.  Assignments were not attached to this reading.  Students pledged to read a certain amount of books -- more than they would typically read in the summer months.    
6th Grade Summer Reading Survey

I'm not sure what you consider success to be with a summer reading program, but a portion of the survey results of one of our grade levels is detailed above.  As you can see, one out of three students in sixth grade reported reading more than they normally do each summer.  Many students read multiple titles of their own choosing.  Most importantly, less than one percent of our students reported having read nothing over the summer moths. I would consider this a success.     Perhaps even more telling were the comments from students about their summer reading. Overall, students were thrilled to have the freedom to choose their own books and reported that they read some books that were recommended (but not required) they normally wouldn't have read.  

Motivation and Learning Go Hand in Hand

           I'm sure you are aware that much research exists linking student engagement (i.e. motivation) to increases in learning.  Thus, spending time on increasing student motivation should, in fact, lead to increases in achievement.  You advise teachers that " If you don’t want kids to love reading, then sacrifice their instructional time to focus on motivation rather than learning."  This argument, although cleverly disguised, is a type we would use with students when poking holes in an argument and is a type of logical fallacy.  Your argument seems to suggest that teachers can focus either on motivation or on learning.  Can we not focus on both?  If I can focus on fluency and comprehension in the same class period, surely I can find the time to increase motivation and skills as well.
     Have we forgotten that we are teaching students and not robots? So much research exists about how reading literature can increase a students' ability to feel empathy toward others, for example.  When we are motivating students to read, we are increasing their social emotional skills and focusing on the whole child.   Too many times I've seen the pendulum swing in education from one extreme position to the other when really the middle road is the most logical approach. 

Just Because Reading Motivation Is Difficult To Measure Does Not Mean It Doesn't Matter

        You claim that the motivational impact of independent reading has been "studied less" and with "less payoff."  Since motivation is a key reason for including independent reading in a school day, the fact that it has been studied less should be a huge red flag in what researchers deem as important.  Let's be honest.  It's probably been studied less, because motivation cannot be measured with a paper and pencil test.  We can't stick a thermometer in a child's mouth and gauge whether he is more or less motivated to read.  We are less concerned with developing life long readers and more concerned with creating strong test takers.
       As classroom teachers, when we spend time instilling a love of reading in our students, we are flooded with qualitative data that is arguably more powerful when it comes to analyzing student engagement.  We might not be able to display our evidence on a pretty graph, but our data provides powerful stories about individual children and their immediate reactions to the books they read.  We witness first hand how reading for pleasure has the power to change lives.

 I will share with you just a few pieces of this powerful data that I vehemently believe outweighs any effect size that you could ever measure with a fancy math algorithm.  I'm sure every teacher has his/her own stories to add to this list.

  • I have witnessed an eighth grade at-risk student who admitted to having never finished a book from beginning to end take a book with her after independent reading time and carry it to each class that day, hiding the book behind her textbooks because she was so engrossed in the story.  And the next day, when that same student who 'hated reading' came running into my classroom with fire in her eyes to tell me she'd finished the book and needed a second recommendation, I considered independent reading a success.
  • I have witnessed struggling readers groan and complain when independent reading time is over, asking for a few more minutes.  You claim that your experience has found that good readers enjoy independent reading time while  "the other kids don't enjoy it much since they don’t read very well" worries me. Is perhaps the self fulfilling prophecy at work here?  Often, when teachers struggle with the delivery of a lesson or do not buy into a philosophy behind an activity themselves, they struggle to elicit buy-in from students as well.  I encourage you to read the research behind Carol Dwek's growth mindset to analyze where your delivery might have fallen short.  Student success is often tied closely to a teacher's belief in them.  If teachers believe independent reading time is only for good readers and that "the other kids don't enjoy it much since they don’t read very well," then of course students who struggle will "fake read" as Cris Tovani has coined it.  But if we instead find clever and creative ways to drum up excitement about independent reading and believe that all students can become life long readers, then all students (even the "other kids" you refer to) will over time develop a love of reading.  
  • In reading intervention, I once had a group of struggling readers get so excited to read the Hunger Games after we had modeled a strategy with the first chapter that they begged me to give them the last ten minutes of class time to read the next chapter independently.  I would love to say that these same students rushed home that evening like the girl in my last example and finished the Hunger Games on their own.  But they didn't.  Life got in the way, and as I mentioned earlier, I can only control the time I have with them. These students did, however, come in the next day begging to read more of the novel.  It wasn't a part of the lesson plan, but I can tell you that I made sure that I fit it in that day in hopes that at some point, a day would come when they would find time to bring home those books and do some reading on their own time.  
  • I have witnessed first-hand students swarm the learning center after school in hopes of arriving before their peers to check out books that have just been book-talked by their teachers.  You might argue that many of these students are already readers.  Perhaps you are right.  But if even one student is a non-reader who has suddenly been inspired to read for the first time,  the time was well spent.

As Kelly Gallagher reminds us, scarier than a world of illiterates, is a world of aliterates.

Not everything can be measured quantitatively.

Teachers:  Please feel free to share your own stories of independent reading success from your own experience.  Thank you for all you do to encourage a love of lifelong reading.  Keep it up!

    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.