Archive for August, 2009

Convergences: Catching Fire in a Deluge

This is the first in a series of posts in which Dina Strasser, who blogs at The Line, and I correspond about our experiences using a workshop approach to reading instruction:

I like your suggestion that we use our blogs to compare notes about teaching in reading workshop classrooms this year. I appreciate your observations about how theory rolls out in practice, and I look forward to your feedback on what I have to report. Our readers will also, no doubt, have things to say here and there.

The New York Times did us favor yesterday, highlighting a reading workshop classroom, since it provides us with a starting point for framing this discussion. One of the interesting things about the NYT piece is that it appears as part of a series called “The Future of Reading,” as if giving students a choice in what they read is a new idea, or maybe an old idea that is being revived. Is it? I don’t see much evidence of that now. What I do see is that reading instruction is becoming more prescriptive and more technically oriented at the elementary level. I believe the reform rhetoric is drowning out discussions about engagement and enthusiasm so that old ideas like reading workshop seem new and edgy.

The journalist who wrote the article for the Times sets up a false dichotomy between giving students power to choose what they read, and teaching the literary classics. The naysayers are alarmed. What about the need to maintain scholarly traditions? they ask. The advocates counter, We need to engage kids and motivate them to read; appreciation of the classics is overemphasized, and conventional approaches kill the joy of reading.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how “choice” is celebrated in policy discussions about charter schools, but denounced as potentially destructive to our very way of life when curriculum is on the table. With reading, I don’t see it as an either-or proposition. There may be plenty of room over the course of a school year to offer students choices and also to prompt them to read some of the Great Books. But as I think about this now, I wonder how many truly “great books” there are which a 10 or 12 year old can absolutely not afford to miss. I don’t know, really, but I do know plenty of good books – books that engage kids and get them talking and thinking. I believe, too, that having choices is motivating, especially for adolescents, and that appreciation of classic texts won’t ever happen for someone who has had the love of reading drilled out him at an early age.

Many students are clueless about how to even choose a book because they’ve never actually done it. The Readers in the group read for extended periods without getting up or looking around the room. They know a few authors they enjoy reading, and they’ve heard about some books they might like to read someday. They’ve developed a little of what we might call a sense of taste for what they like. The sad thing, and the main reason I want to do this with my sixth graders is that so many non-readers can actually read. They have the decoding skills, but their vocabularies are limited by their lack of experience with longer, more challenging texts.They prefer too-simple books they can finish in a single sitting or in a couple of days. They are restless and unsettled if they aren’t told what to read and what to do when they’re done reading. For them, reading is first and foremost a chore. They’ve been trained to see it that way.

One of my students has apparently learned to disassociate his thinking from his reading; he can sit and fake-read day after day for 30 minutes without any idea of what his book is about. I discovered this the other day in a conference with him. He read to me fairly smoothly, but without expression. He was on page 78 of a medium-length novel, about a third of the way through. I asked him a simple literal question about something he’d read – something like, “What ticket are they talking about?” He told me that he didn’t know because he wasn’t paying attention. I asked a few more questions and realized he didn’t know anything at all about the book he’d been reading for 3 whole days. I told him that I read Spanish that way, but I wouldn’t want to do it day after day. This student is now one of my “project kids.”

I have two hours a day, right after lunch, to devote to reading and writing workshop. This is one of the advantages of a self-contained elementary school classroom. At this point, I’m working on several goals at once. The main one, now, is helping the reluctant readers learn how to find suitable books that might interest them. This is taking some time. I’ve got about 5 kids in this group, and each one of them presents a special set of requirements. At this point, they’ve been cut off from anything that has more pictures than words, like Garfield, during reading workshop. We may eventually need to form a couple of little reading partnerships to get them moving.

The exciting and very encouraging thing is when a kid lights up and connects with a book. Two boys who weren’t clicking with this business each discovered Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers last week. They’ve each got a copy, now, and they are completely hooked.

There’s plenty more to say, but I’m going to bring this to a close here for the time being.

looking forward to our collaboration in this,

image source: Fire and Water by peasap

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…Or Maybe Heaven After You’re Dead

Aug 26 2009 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,curriculum,education

This seems like a good time to call up this video narrated by Alan Watts, Life and Music, which Artichoke posted many, many months ago. I mentioned it to one of the other teachers I work with as an aside during a presentation on RTI at a staff meeting this afternoon. (AIMSweb is a progress monitoring system based on direct, frequent and continuous student assessment.)

“In music, one doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition,” Watts begins. “What we do is we put the child into the corridor of this grade system with a kind of ‘Come on, kitty, kitty, kitty…’ and now you go to kindergarten, you know. And that’s a great thing because when you finish that you get into first grade. And then, come on, first grade leads to second grade, and and so on….”

“…But we miss the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing, or dance while the music was being played.”

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Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Aug 26 2009 Published by under curriculum,education

Daniel Pink, author of the pop socio-psychology book, A Whole New Mind, which celebrates creativity and innovation as part of a supposedly new ethos in business management, takes up the problem of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation in a TED lecture. He describes an experiment exploring the problem of functional fixedness, first performed in 1945. Functional fixedness is a natural state of mental blockage that keeps us from seeing new ways to solve complicated problems.

Pink recounts various attempts to attach rewards to the solution of this problem, to test the power of incentives – a topic that is or should be considered by every schoolteacher. He tells us that contingent motivators, the sort of “If you do something, then this other something will happen,” kind of motivators we are all too familiar with, work best for problems that involve a “simple set of rules and a clear destination.” For other, more complex problems, people are more effectively motivated by intrinsic rewards. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose, in other words, trump the carrot and the stick when we’ve got important and meaningful things to do. He calls what we see all around us now a “mismatch between what science knows and what business does.”

And me, I’m sitting here at the kitchen table grading student work tonight because people want to see those grades on PowerSchool. It’s still mostly about simple paper and pencil tasks.

[via Susan Ohanian]

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Getting Organized

We’re into the second week of school here this year. I’m still in the early getting-to-know-you period with my class, and we are all more or less on our best behavior, but judging from what I’ve seen so far this is going to be a good year. It’s my 27th in the classroom, and you’d think I’d have it down pat by now, starting off, but I don’t feel that way. I never do things “just like I always do” which would no doubt be boring. Not only that, the kids are always different. I usually map out a general course I’d like to follow and then see how it goes, taking my cues from the group. When I started teaching I imagined that the job would get easier over the years. That was a huge miscalculation. But I don’t mind because it’s also gotten more interesting in many ways.

We’ve got the student website up and running, and the kids started posting things there yesterday. This was the first post to go up:

Yay! We Started!
I’m really happy and excited that we finally started using the website!! Normally I would hate writing ( I guess typing is different) but this is probably gonna be a whole lot more fun!

Short, but sweet. And generally reflective of what else I saw and heard going around the room. A few look like they may not want to have anything to do with writing on the website or anywhere else for that matter (like, they didn’t write anything for 30 minutes) and I’m thinking about what I might be able to do for them. When I taught beginning swimming, there were always kids who didn’t want to get in the water, and I’d praise them for dangling their legs in the pool – taking little steps. It’s the same with teaching.

The kindergarten teacher and I are going to ramp up our buddy-class project and assign the sixth-graders and kinderkiddoes to little “activity groups” that meet once or twice a week. We’ll train the older kids on how to help their little buddies, and then set up a time for them to get together in their groups to work on projects. We want to try and help the kids learn to set goals and make choices with this. It will be a really nice thing to see if it works well.

There were a lot of questions from my students last week about whether we were going to do anything “fun” this year, like go on field trips – especially overnight camping. In my experience, the kids do not enjoy my hardcore ideas about hiking and camping. They imagine sleeping in a small cabin and singing songs around a cozy fire; I imagine teaching them to dig snow caves and practice survival skills. In any case, this kind of thing involves raising money for a bus and food, etc. and I hate fund raising. I told them that I’d give them regular time to have class meetings where they could come up with plans for things they wanted, so they could make their dreams come true. They may learn something about democracy along the way. We’ll see how that goes.

I’ve set up a free and voluntary reading time each day. This was a big hit last year, and the test results for the class confirmed its institutional worth – not that I need tests to tell me it was a good thing to do, but the scores came back mostly real strong. I’ll have more to say about that another time. A new twist on the reading-writing workshop this year is that Dina Strasser and I plan to carry on a discussion on our blogs, comparing notes on our experiences with this method of teaching reading and writing. I’m pretty jazzed about doing a collaborative teacher research project with Dina this way. My next post is going to be the kickoff for that discussion.

One response so far

Hard Luck Creek

Aug 16 2009 Published by under borderland

It’s rained today and yesterday, and the Hard Luck Creek fire has been knocked down. The choking smoke is gone, displaced by a refreshing gray drizzle. What a relief! The fire was mapped at over 13,000 acres, only about 6 miles from where I live (just off the lower right-hand corner of the fire map). It was described as “creeping and smoldering” throughout the week, with a high potential for growth if the weather stayed dry. But since the trees and bushes and are now dripping wet, growth potential for the fire has been downgraded to ‘low.’

Back at work in meetings all week, with the fire activity so close to home, I couldn’t help but make connections between NCLB and natural disasters. Like the “creeping and smoldering” trend in federal education policy, the fire was at the very least a distraction from other important things I had to think about as we began preparing for the new school year. Instead of talking about learning and curriculum, these days, we’re discussing testing and intervention. We’re locked into a defensive posture anticipating possible accountability measures that might be imposed on us. And rather than wait for the hammer to drop from the State, the school district administration is making a big push to create it’s own defensible space by setting up a Response to Intervention framework for elementary programs, going back to the middle school concept at the junior high level, and establishing small learning teams for the high schools. None of these are bad ideas. In fact, they all have the potential to be very good. But after listening to a presentation on RTI, delivered by a guy from Tennessee, many of us had a strong sense of being sold a bill of goods.

This is where top-down management always goes wrong. A destination is identified, and a course is defined. Everyone is mobilized and told they need to get with the program and stick together. But when we get down to business, those of us closest to the classroom see that the plan on paper won’t take us where we need to go, and there may be a better way to get there. Compliance and control then become at least part of our discussion, along with much data-driven anguish and conflict. To their credit, our administration has been responsive to teacher input, and I hope they continue to listen because some of the stuff being proposed now is just wrong.

We were told that we’d be getting rid of DIBELS testing, and I was optimistic that rationality was returning to our school until I learned that the district will be using AimsWeb, a slick DIBELS techno-clone that generates all manner of data based on reading rates and other measurable abominations. We were told that we’ll need to find some half-hour blocks where we can do “interventions” with groups of students who are not making adequate progress on the one-minute reading “fluency” tests, and that fidelity to any adopted programs will be critical to student success. This did not play well with veteran teaching staff who question the aims and practicality of this approach to reform. While I am in favor of formative assessment, I do not believe we should confuse reading rate with reading fluency, and I hope we do not make reading rates a district-wide instructional objective at the elementary level.

I ordered Richard Allington’s book about RTI, No Quick Fix when I got home from work after this meeting. I also found an audio file in which he talks about possibilities for RTI beyond those that were proposed for us. It is good, I think, to work on getting better at what we do. But that effort falls apart when it’s presented as a simple matter of following the “one best way” to get the job done. I know that there are a lot of people elsewhere who have experience with RTI, but this is our first taste, and I’d like to know what it might look like from more than one angle.

These sorts of initiatives serve a constructive purpose when they get us talking to one another and trying new things. But when our practical knowledge is discounted, incoherence is sure to follow. We need to build capacity for teachers to exercise professional judgment, and not simply train them to follow a manual.

6 responses so far

Where There’s Smoke

Aug 07 2009 Published by under borderland

valley smoke

valley smoke

We got back from a fishing trip to Valdez two days ago, driving through fire smoke most of the way. It’s very bad here. There’s a new fire – about 6,000 acres right now – just over the hill, about 10 miles away. They’re calling it the Hardluck Creek Fire, which sounds about right. There’s a meeting later today down at the community center with the fire management people. I suppose we’ll discuss evacuation procedures. It rained a little bit yesterday, which was good. But the weather is supposed to turn warm again, which is bad.

We’ve got the windows closed, and we’re filtering the air inside the house. We’ve been talking about what we’ll take if we have to start loading the trailer: dogs & dog houses, important papers, computers, a few pieces of furniture, clothes and kitchen stuff. The kids want to know where we’d go. We don’t know; we’ll figure that out when the time comes.

I took the photo this morning, looking out toward the creek valley. It’s real quiet; there’s not much going on except for the firefighters’ pickup trucks running up and down the main road.

Teachers report back to work on Monday.

9 responses so far

Getting Comfortable with Gravity

Aug 01 2009 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,science

While wildfires burn hundreds of thousands of acres near here, and we choke on the smoke, I’ve been out cutting winter firewood. It makes sense, in a way, since it has to be done before winter, and the smoke makes every other kind of outdoor activity a lot less fun. It’s hot, heavy, work.

While I was out in the woods working, I was thinking about this video that John Connell posted in which the narrator and chief engineer of a monumental stone-moving project, Wally Wallington, declared, “I try to do this without any mechanical machinery at all. I use mostly sticks and stones for my equipment; no pulleys, no hoists, no metal levers – just try to use gravity, too – I believe it’s my favorite tool.”

Building Stonehenge – This Man can Move Anything

Wallington is a retired carpenter. And now, thanks to the internet, he’s a physics teacher. He has his own website, The Forgotten Technology, where he shares some of the theory behind his project idea. He claims to have moved a 30′ X 40′ barn 200 feet, by hand.

Watching him lift and move those heavy concrete blocks made my woodpile seem small, even though my sore back and tired legs tell me otherwise.

2 responses so far