About Me

After 23 years as a high school social studies teacher, I have taken a leap into library media.
This blog chronicles my experiences making this transition and my learning in that process.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Overcoming Impediments to Student Close Reading

I was talking with a colleague whose students are engaged in a lengthy research project inspired by Jared Diamond's Collapse. Inspired by this mentor text, students research, create infographics, present to their peers and write about the health and future prospects of our civilization. The problem my colleague was lamenting was that students were, at best, skimming the mentor text. At worst, they were randomly choosing excerpts to share before jumping ahead to the creation portions of the project. Needless to say, without a close reading of Diamond, the final presentations will be superficial and generic. So, my colleague's question was two-fold: 1) why aren't they reading? 2) how can I get them to read?

Here are my recommendations on students and close reading.

For this project in particular I suggested a re-structuring of the student groupings and tasks. As the project is designed now, students work in pairs with each pair presenting the reading about one of twelve different societies. Instead, I suggested, focus only on six civilizations and have four students assigned to a society with two of them responsible for presenting the reading about that society to the class and the other two responsible for critiquing the presentation based on their reading of the same text. They can do this in a fishbowl so the rest of the class is learning the content and how to be critical friends.

Furthermore, I surmised that one reason students weren't reading was because they were given, all at once, the entire scope of the exercise from the initial reading assignment to the final stage that was still weeks away. Students were jumping to the product and skipping the process because they needed more scaffolding. I suggested putting them in groups and giving them the reading assignment as a discrete exercise. Keep their focus in the moment.

Even if the assignment was scaffolded, Diamond's texts have a lexile measure of about 1400. Students need specific support to unpack the text. To that end, I had other suggestions:

Students could keep a dialectical (double-entry) notebook while reading. There are lots of models of these notebooks. Some are basic and have one column designated for student summary of an aspect of the text and the other for student questions based on those summaries. Others give different column headings like "Point of View" or "Comparison" which prompt students to think critically and analytically about what they are reading.

In non-fiction lit circles, students are assigned a focus while reading. They then meet in small groups to share the conclusions they reached given their individual focus and discuss the importance of the reading evidence and insights. Reading roles can be adapted to different texts and types of media. Here are some suggested ones:

  • Questioner: what would you ask the people in the passage if you could? Why?
  • Connector: of what are you reminded when you read this passage? (book, movie, tv, current event…) Why?
  • Wonderer: what do you want to know about this situation? Why?
  • Predictor: what do you think the outcome of the conflict will be? Explain.
  • Passage Picker: select the passage you think is key to understanding the text. Explain its importance.
Partner annotations is one of my favorite tools when a text can be shared digitally. For example, in a Google Doc, two students can share a text and annotate it by inserting comments. When a student highlights a portion of the text s/he thinks is important s/he can add a comment about why it is important, questions it raises, connections to other issues, etc. Paired students can respond to each other's annotations thereby carrying on a dialogue about the text in the margins.

Some of these strategies can be combined to further enhance student close reading. Consider asking students to keep a dialectical notebook using the reading roles as column headings and then bring that notebook to share in a lit circle discussion!

Happy reading!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Teaching students to understand bias

Students frequently ask: can you help me find a source that's not biased? When they ask that question we know what they mean, what it shows us the students need to learn is that 1) there are degrees of bias and 2) everyone has bias, so 3) there is no such thing as unbiased. Instead, we need to teach students to recognize what a text creator's bias is and how or whether that bias negates the usefulness of that source for the student's purpose.

Today we worked with a class of grade 11 students doing research for an in-depth research paper. The focus of the class unit is on the relationship between socioeconomic status and educational experience so this topic will frame the research questions the students are seeking to answer. To facilitate the students' resource selection and understanding of the impact of bias on source credibility we worked with the class unpacking an editorial from the "Room for Debate" section of the New York Times in response to the question: "Is School Reform Hopeless?"

We scaffolded this exercise to help students begin to understand their own biases on this topic and how their bias will influence how they understand what they read and how they convey what they ultimately write. We selected one of the editorials and provided the students just the conclusion to that text. We selectively removed words from the paragraph and asked students to replace the blanks with whatever word they each thought would best convey the meaning of the paragraph. When they completed this exercise individually, we asked them to work with 2 or 3 other students in the class to compile their words on one document and compare how they each completed the paragraph and how their choice of words changed the meaning of the paragraph. The pictures below are of the excerpted paragraph with the students' words on post-it notes.


Here is an example of a phrase with blanks to be filled:

...too many are climbing stairwells with broken handrails and missing steps, tripping and falling as they ________ to keep up, while others are _________ up on elevators...

In one group students said:

  • struggling to keep up, while others racing up
  • trying to keep up, while others rising up
  • attempting to keep up, while others moving up

The students were able to see that racing implies competition, rising implies progress and maybe increase in status, while moving is more passive. They were surprised that none of those were the words that the author used but they couldn't think of another word to use.

The actual sentence is: "...too many are climbing stairwells with broken handrails and missing steps, tripping and falling as they work to keep up, while others are zooming up on elevators..."

Certainly working implies a conscious sense of purpose and purposefulness to the effort that is not reflected in struggle, try or attempt. Work may also imply a degree of success and ability absent in those other terms. Zooming also has a very different connotation than the words the students chose, particularly in contrast to working. So, we asked students to compare their bias with that of the author and consider how differing opinions might influence their assessment of the source's credibility.

For the next phase of this exercise, we provided the students with the rest of the editorial where we had highlighted words or phrases and added questions to invite students to discuss the writer's choice of word and how those words affected the meaning of her editorial.

Here is an example paragraph:
"In addition to attending to these basic survival needs, schools have to attract experienced teachers and leaders with the right sensibilities and training to educate youth from diverse social and cultural backgrounds. Successful school districts also enhance youth development through extracurricular activities and additional enrichment. When families cannot afford costly after-school programs, personal tutors and experiential summer vacations, effective school-communities invest in programs to offset these opportunity gaps." 

Here are the questions we posed corresponding to each of the highlighted phrases:

  1. What does this phrase imply? (basic survival needs)
  2. What do you think these are? (right sensibilities)
  3. How is this different than education? (youth development)
  4. What other gaps have you heard of? (opportunity gaps)

As they shared their conclusions and questions the students raised questions like: what does equity mean? One student said it meant equality. At that point, we directed the class to the Allsides Dictionary. Here is how Allsides describes their dictionary:


Click to see how Allsides defines equity and the cartoon they use to distinguish "equity" from "equality". We think this resource is incredibly valuable to students as they learn to navigate the information they encounter and develop information literacy -- particularly in the face of fake news!



Carter, Prudence L. “Poor Schools Need to Encompass More Than Instruction to Succeed.” The Opinion Pages: Room for Debate, New York Times, 14 Sept. 2016, www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2016/09/14/is-school-reform-hopeless/poor-schools-need-to-encompass-more-than-instruction-to-succeed.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Do you have the time?

Image Credit: NasimAhmed96$, CC BY-SA 4.0
commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44772050
Time. A highly valuable human intangible. We cherish good times, lament bad times, wish for more time. Lately I've been pondering the allocation of time during the school day.

Yesterday we had teams visit us from a couple of other local districts. One of the side conversations at the beginning of the open house was about schedules. The concept of a block schedule was tossed about in comparison to a rotating, eight-period day. The participants in the conversation seemed to agree that the block was the preferred schedule and discussed the two models as though those were the only allocations of time.

As I eavesdropped on that conversation it reminded me of an initiative being undertaken in my previous district: a review and possible revision of the daily schedule. Now in my 24th year as an educator I need both of my hands to count the number of times I have participated in a committee that was charged with reviewing and proposing revisions to the daily schedule. Each committee worked in the same way: what are other similar schools doing? what are the costs/benefits of those types of schedules in our school? How can we tweak our schedule a little to make apparent improvements without really upsetting the apple cart. Ultimately, changing very little in terms of the quality of teaching and learning vis-à-vis the allocation of time.

Time is a resource like computers, classrooms, athletic equipment, staff members, etc. While it may be intangible, it still should be considered in the same way other resources are considered: what are our educational priorities and how do we allocate our resources to maximize fulfilling those priorities? It was the focus on that question that set the current initiative in my previous district apart from any other schedule revision I had experienced. The process began with the faculty discussing and determining what their educational priorities were. These priorities were then separated into categories: which were non-negotiable and which were secondary drivers?

Consider this list of priorities:

  • one-on-one meeting time with students
  • minimizing interruptions to instructional time for "special events"
  • PLC or other meetings of faculty instructional teams
  • genius hour, passion projects, etc.
  • advisory program
  • flexible instructional minutes
  • maximizing the number of courses a student can take
  • study halls, extra help OR maximizing course enrollment and minimizing study halls
  • capping class size

How might time be sliced, diced, and served if these are the criteria that determine the best schedule? What secondary benefits does this allocation of time create? What costs are associated with this schedule? Ultimately, does satisfying the non-negotiables make paying the costs a worthwhile trade-off? If not, were you honest about your priorities?

How is the schedule that emerges different if these are the priorities:

  • all classes meet everyday
  • changing district test scores
  • aligning with assessments for AP, IB or other standardized curricula
  • ease of moving students from one section of a course to another
  • ease of accommodating students new to the district into the course offerings

Return to the same reflection questions: how must time be divided to satisfy these requirements? what other benefits will the school realize because of this allocation of time? What costs are associated with this schedule? Ultimately, does satisfying the non-negotiables make paying the costs a worthwhile trade-off? If not, were you honest about your priorities?

Just a little food for thought to start the new year!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

ISTE Standards for EDUCATORS... another infographic

Standard, standards, everywhere! Whether we are developing curricula, teaching, or assessing with Common Core, C3, Next Gen Science or some other set of standards, our focus is on standards for student achievement.

What I don't see or hear discussed as much, are standards for educator achievement, and lately I've been thinking a lot about ISTE's standards for teachers. (See infographic below.) I envision professional development that focuses on these standards. Teachers can self-assess with these standards as a measure in order to suggest learning that they need. Developing sessions in response to such reflection means the PD is self-directed and standards-based.

On a related ISTE note: my library partner, @mluhtala, and I just heard that our proposal to present at #ISTE17 was accepted -- so please come see us on Sunday, June 25 to discuss Libraries in Transitional Times where Kids Love to Learn!


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Stanford Report as an infographic: Student Vulnerability to Fake News

The Stanford Graduate School of Education Study recently released its report, Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning. Their findings in this two-year study about students' ability to critically interpret information they encounter online are frightening.

There has been abundant media coverage of this issue and the SHEG study by PBS News Hour, NPR, and The Washington Post, among others. Here is my unpacking of that report in an infographic:


Monday, December 19, 2016

Using Question Stems to Spark Inquiry

As I am working with students on research exercises I am working to find ways to help them with the development of their research questions. The scope of their research and the means by which they explore what they learn are all products of a well-crafted research question. I am observing that students can ask very narrow questions that begin with "what" and very broad questions that begin with "why." Without prompting, they get stuck here: too narrow or too broad. To help them expand their inquiry strategies I have begun using these question stems to push their thinking:

Which?  This stem helps you to collect information to make an informed choice. For example: Which Twentieth Century president did the most to promote civil rights?

How? When you seek to understand problems and perspectives, weigh options, and propose solutions, try starting your question with this stem. For example: How should we solve the problem of water pollution in Long Island Sound?

What if? Your question can change history! Use the knowledge you have to pose a hypothesis and consider options. For example: What if the Apollo 13 Astronauts had not survived?

Should?  A question can invite self or community examination. Using this stem, you can make a moral or practical decision based on evidence. For example: Should we clone humans?

Why? Understand and explain relationships to get to the essence of a complicated issue. For example: Why do people engage in human trafficking?

I like these stems because students can decide on the purpose of their inquiry and use the stem best suited to that end. They also are versatile and can be used in any discipline. What is really key, is they push students away from bias confirmation, from the tendency to ask questions to which they believe they already know the right answer. By using these stems and asking many questions about the same topic, they are pushed to think critically about the subject of their research and remain open to a range of evidence and perspectives before developing their thesis.

Here are examples of the stems being used all about the Civil War:

  • Which Civil War general was the best military strategist?
  • How did King Cotton affect the Confederacy’s waging of war?
  • What if General Lee had better intelligence at Gettysburg?
  • Should Confederate symbols be used in official state flags and logos today?
  • Why did Great Britain favor the South during the Civil War?

And here are literary examples focused on Shakespeare's plays:

  • Which of the characters in Henry IV has the most relevance for today’s politicians?
  • How does Hal’s ascension to the throne affect perceptions of his father’s coup?
  • What if Brutus had made the final funeral oration in Julius Caesar?
  • Should Hamlet have minded his own business?
  • Why does Shakespeare use so many references to the natural and unnatural in Macbeth?

I have used these this year with grade 11 students researching the relationship between socioeconomic class and opportunity in modern America. These stems helped the students focus their topics under the umbrella of the unit essential question.

Today I will use them with grade 10 students. Their essential question is "What should be America's response to the current refugee crisis?" Imagine the research possibilities with each of these stems: Which country has a fair, enforceable policy in this current refugee crisis? How does US response to Syrian refugees compare with US response to Holocaust / Bosnia / Vietnam refugees? What if the US reinstated quotas like those of the 1920s? Should the UN establish and monitor camps for the refugees? Why did the French respond to the Calais Jungle as they did? Using these question stems, the students can focus their research on the aspect of this issue that is most interesting to them, and the teacher can engage with the students about content that the student has chosen so the curricular experience is personalized. Ultimately the students will be writing Op-Ed pieces and they range of issues and perspectives considered will read to rich classroom discussion and mean the teacher is not reading twenty five identical papers. A win-win exercise!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Creating a Vision to Guide 21st Century Teaching and Learning

Without a definitive vision statement and mission schools lack a guide for decision making. How do we know if what we are doing is working if we don't first have a statement of purpose against which to measure the outcome of our efforts? The library is a vital component to the development of a school’s vision because the library faculty are:

  • Co-teachers with the whole faculty
  • Curriculum development partners
  • Professional development facilitators
  • Resource curators
  • Information literacy instructors

As more and more schools invest in and adopt 1:1 or BYOD initiatives, a rationale for those programs -- something more than “so we can teach with technology” -- is essential to progressive pedagogy and transformative teaching and learning. Of her own epiphany regarding the meaningful, purposeful integration of technology into learning opportunities, Jennie Magiera said, “I would have to be willing to depart from what I had always done or always taught. I needed to create a blueprint for a fresh classroom design with the power of my new tools in mind. By setting aside my preconceived notions of how my classroom ‘should’ look, sound, and feel, I was able to transform my practice from the ground up.” There are educators like Magiera reinventing themselves as part of maintaining the relevance of their pedagogy in a dynamic technological world. But this world requires whole schools, whole systems, to undertake this renaissance not as random individuals but as systems. Most teachers can explain their rationale for why they do what they do. Systems need a purpose (which is much more than a rationale), and educators need support and continual learning opportunities to evolve in pursuit of that purpose.

When the leaders of a technology implementation initiative are asked to evaluate the effectiveness of a new device roll-out, what should be the instrument of measure? Well, I think, the vision statement. The investment of time, finances, and human power in the tech initiative should have been made as a step toward fulfilling the mission, achieving the vision. So the vision is the measure of how well the initiative is going.

The unexamined life may not be worth living, but don't save the examination for the deathbed. We want students to be reflective learners and we, too, must be reflective practitioners. And schools and districts must be reflective planners. Act with purpose: common, examined purpose in order to transform classrooms into the constantly evolving learning spaces 21st Century students (and teachers) need.

Magiera, Jennie. Courageous Edventures: Navigating Obstacles to Discover Classroom Innovation. Thousand Oaks, CA, Corwin, 2016.