Saturday, September 24, 2016

I Don't Have a Reading Brain

       I don't have a reading brain.  

       I'm 52 years old and I've never been good at reading.  In fact, I'm constantly telling my children that I was never a good reader so that they don't feel so bad about being bad at reading themselves.  They are always saying, "Why do we have to learn to read anyway?" and even though I basically agree with them, I try to think of times when reading is important such as when they get a text from their friends.

       I really don't feel too bad about being a bad reader because just about everyone I know is bad at reading.  In fact, we are always joking about being bad at reading.  My sister-in-law is a middle school English teacher and every time we go to a restaurant we always make her read the menu to us.  We just tell the waitress to hand the menus over to her and most of the time the waitress sort of laughs in agreement and says something like, "I get it.  I'm a terrible reader too."  And we all have a big laugh.

       People who can read must be really smart.  Everyone knows this.  In school, we always knew who the smartest kids were because they were able to read.  When teachers told me to read, I just tried to memorize the facts that I needed to know to answer the questions at the end of the chapter.  That's what I tell my own children to do because I really can't help them with their reading and they know that I can't really read very well anyway.

       High school reading was the worst.  Seriously, how are normal people supposed to memorize all of those words AND their meanings.  It really isn't humanly possible, except for people that have reading brains--I guess.  


       Does this sound familiar to you?  Are you constantly telling your kids and your friends that you're terrible at reading?  Do you get tense when have to read something?  Do you have reading anxiety?

Who would brag about not being able to read?  Who would ever suggest to their very own children that reading isn't important?  It's absurd.  No adult or parent would openly laugh about not being able to read.

       But, sadly, adults and parents often say these things about mathematics.  Some people actually believe that there is such a thing as a "math brain".  Many people view people who are good at math as being "smart".  And I have often been in a restaurant when my friends and relatives have passed the check to me to figure out the tip--all the while laughing and being very open about their inability to do math.

       What sort of message are we sending to our children when so many adults joke about not being able to do math?  Too many children feel that they are given a "pass" from the adults in their lives to be poor at math.  This leads to a lack of effort in the classroom which leads to a lack of understanding.  Every math teacher has (at some point in their career) said to a parent, "Your child could do so much better in mathematics if he/she put in the effort."

       This is something that we can fix.  This is something that every parent can do to help their child to do better in math.  Stop saying that you were never good at math.  Make sure that your children understand that they can do anything and they can learn anything; but they have to try.  Learning isn't always easy.  No one expects you to "get it" the first time.  It takes effort and mistakes and try, try again.

       Learning reading and mathematics isn't all that different.  The difference is our attitudes toward them.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

My Favorite Teacher

       My favorite teacher wasn't supposed to be my favorite teacher.

       I heard he was tough.  I heard he makes you write a lot.  I heard there was a lot of reading in his class.  One person said he was mean.

       He was my 7th grade English teacher.  I was 12 years old.  When I got my class schedule for the year, I started to ask friends if they knew any of my teachers.  The comments about this teacher (it seemed) were all bad.  Of course, at 12 years old, when I said things such as, "Everyone says he's a mean teacher.", what I really meant was, "The extremely small number of 13 year old boys (3) that I spoke with about this said he was mean."

       But they were my friends and I believed them, so when the first day of school came I was worried about this teacher and this class.  His class was third period and up to that point in the day, everything had gone pretty well.  I entered his class with a more than a little concern.

       He let us sit anywhere we wanted to sit.  He gave each of us a number and then told us to sit at the desk that had that number.  So all of us got up out of our seats (after just two minutes in the class) and moved to a different seat.  After that, he had each of us "meet" the two people who were sitting next to us.  Then we went around the room and each student said something about one of the students sitting next to us.  Then he told us about himself.  But instead of saying how many years he was a teacher and how much he loved English (which is the sort of introduction that most teachers give) he told us that he had three sisters, he weighed 265 pounds, and he liked to go bow hunting for deer.

       I actually remember more about that first class, but the point is his class was all about relationships.  He wanted to get to know us and he wanted us to get to know each other.  Everyday as students walked into his class he would ask us specific questions about things we were interested in and some students would ask him about things that he was interested in.  Our class involved a lot of discussions and he always linked these discussions to something the someone (or many of us) were interested in.  He never made a big deal about grades.  He never put anyone down for getting a bad grade or even for failing to complete an assignment on time.  If students earned a "D" or an "F" (and some did) he didn't get mad at them.  In fact, one student in particular who failed his class seemed to have a great relationship with him.

       We did do a lot of writing and we did do a lot of reading.  It was an ENGLISH class [!].  That's what you do in an English class.  My friends' opinions of what determined "a lot" probably meant that they didn't want to do any writing and reading.  Another thing that he often did was to not accept the first answer or idea that a student put forth.  He wanted many ideas; or he wanted us to be able to expand on our ideas.  The goal in his class was learning.  It wasn't "answering questions".  We didn't earn "points" for cleaning the chalkboard or for not using all of our bathroom passes.  We only earned grades for good writing and good thinking (participation).  This was probably the part my friends referred to as "being mean", since they were generally pretty good at "earning" good grades while learning very little.  Those techniques probably didn't work in his class.

       I didn't refer to this person as "My favorite teacher" until years later--after high school.  And the reason he was my favorite was because he didn't belittle us.  He pushed us to do our best.  Some were more ready for that "push" than others, but all of us knew that we couldn't just slide by and earn a high grade in his class without producing something of quality.

       My favorite teacher wasn't a popular teacher; he wasn't a coach of a sports team; he made us laugh from time to time, but he wasn't known as a "fun" teacher.  He probably didn't care about being liked.  He was firm and fair.  He spoke to his students in pretty much the same way he spoke to our parents.  He knew what he was doing and he had a reason for everything he asked us to do.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Case Against Worksheets

The Case Against Worksheets

       The "worksheet" has been a staple of the P-12 educational experience for students for the past 30 to 40 years--maybe longer.  The advent of the mimeograph machine and then the photocopier made the duplicating of massive amount of worksheets easy, cheap, and increasing common.  Today there are multiple websites with pre-made worksheets for math, reading, geography, science, and just about any other school subject.  Some teachers love using worksheets.  Some use a worksheet everyday or nearly everyday.  In middle and high school math classes, students sitting in rows in the classroom and independently completing 20 or more math problems on a worksheet is an iconic image that many parents remember as a child and still expect to happen to their children today.

       The problem with the massive use of worksheets in today's classrooms is that they represent the opposite of everything we now know about how students learn best and what we hope to accomplish in our schools.  Math worksheets in particular go against many of the tenets of good learning and good teaching.  Here is my short list of why worksheets are a poor choice for today's classrooms:

  1. Worksheets are boring.
  2. Worksheets discourage students from working and learning together.
  3. Worksheets are often very low on the rigor scale.


       I often say to my teachers that it isn't our job to entertain students, but it is part of our responsibility to motivate students to do their best.  The old days of the teachers who basically use the "Because I say so" theory of teaching is over.  Students may do what they are told, but they won't like it.  So the next question is, "Why do we care if the students 'like it' or not."  And the answer is student engagement.  The Glossary of Education Reform says the following about students engagement:

...the concept of "students engagement" is predicated on the belief that learning improves when students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired, and that learning tends to suffer when students are bored, dispassionate, disaffected, or otherwise "disengaged."

       Simply put, there is no educational reason for a student to complete 20 (basically) identical math problems.  If they know how to do solve the problem, then completing about three should provide sufficient evidence that they can do it.  If they don't know how to solve the problem, then they won't be able to solve 20 problems.  Or, they will make the same mistake 20 times and be very upset to discover this mistake the next day when the class goes over the answers.

Students Working Together

       When there are 30 students sitting in class and learning something new, most won't fully understand everything there is to know about the new learning right away.  Some will try to link the new learning to past learning; some will try to memorize the steps or the procedures; some will just take notes and not really understand anything right away.  When the teacher assigns classwork that is meant to be done independently, students have a lot of questions.  Some will ask their questions, but most won't because they don't want the teacher to think that they don't get it; or they don't want their classroom peers to think that they are stupid.  Some students won't even know what questions to ask.

       However, when students are encouraged to work in groups of (say) two to four students AND when they are encouraged to ask each other questions, they are much more likely to ask their question(s) and to help each other.  Each person in the group may understand a different piece of the new learning and together they can help each other.  Additionally, we know that when students can explain what they are doing, they understand the concepts much better than when they merely answer questions or solve problems independently.


       Although not always the case, worksheets tend to emphasize low-level, procedural skills such as following steps to solve a problem, or defining a word, or finding a fact from a reading passage.  While we want students to have these skills, I question the need to constantly repeat this (worksheet) activity for the purpose of helping students to gain these skills.  In today's classrooms, we want to emphasize thinking and reasoning and problem solving.  We want students to recognize particular situations that require particular skills or procedures.
  • What formula do I need for this problem?
  • What further information do I need to determine before I move forward?
  • I'm not sure what to do, but I'll try this first and see what happens and progress based on this "first try" experience.
       In the math world, we now use activities called Math Tasks.  (For some great examples, see youcubed, nrich, (also here), and MARS.)  Math tasks cover the same content as worksheets, but they require more than merely asking students to repeat what they heard a few minutes ago when the initial lesson was taught.  Good math tasks begin with some basic information and slowly increase the level of rigor as the tasks goes on.  Students spend the same amount of time in class on a math task as they would on a worksheet, but instead of doing the same thing over and over (20 or more times), they are pushed to think about the new learning in new ways.

       This sort of rigor is better suited for students to work in groups than to work individually.  Group work is more amenable to higher-level problem solving that requires input and ideas from multiple people.  The group members can discuss and debate the different solution methods and (hence) they can gain a stronger understanding of concept or standard being discussed.

        I could go on...

       Worksheets, at their worst, are used to keep students busy during precious class time.  In fact, many students refer to worksheets as "busy work".  Even the students know that (sometimes) teachers are just using worksheets to fill time in the class.  And this is time that could be better spent with student-to-student discourse or whole-class discourse at much higher levels than the simple worksheet could ever achieve.  Worksheets do not promote learning beyond simple recall and following procedures.

       Worksheets are "old school".  Worksheets do not prepare our students for their future.  Worksheets should be (very) infrequently used in today's classrooms if we truly intend to prepare our students for life after high school.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Tale of Two Classrooms -- Rules unnecessary

This is the tenth in a ten-part series based on the poster: A Tale of Two Classrooms.


Rules unnecessary

       Rules govern behavior.  Hence, rules are only necessary when behavior needs to be governed.

       When my child began high school, he was presented with ten school rules.  One of these rules was:
Every student must provide their name when asked to do so by an adult.

This was many years ago, but I still remember it because it seemed like such a strange rule.  I thought, "What student wouldn't give their name when an adult asked for it?"  But I assumed that this was a problem in the school and the school decided that this was sufficiently important of a problem to make the list of top ten school rules [!].  Despite this (disturbing) fact, I can certainly envision a high school that does not have this rule because this sort of behavior occurs so rarely that it doesn't make sense to include it in the official school rules.

       On the other hand, schools certainly have a number of rules that are very necessary because some behaviors may disrupt the learning process, cause harm to students or adults, or are considered unacceptable in a school setting.  These are generally rules that some students and/or adults might not follow if there were no such rules in place.

       Now imagine a classroom in which such rules were not necessary.  Students respect each other; students do their best to learn everyday; students help each other; and adults and students work together to think, reason, debate, create, and learn.  This sort of classroom would have less of a need for strict rules because there is already an understanding of purpose and acceptable behavior.  

       And this really isn't some sort of utopian view of the world.  All of us have had a class in school that we really liked.  Maybe we liked the teacher or the subject or the other students in the class or all three of these attributes.  In this class there was very little behavior that required a recitation of the school rules to address.  When someone did something unacceptable, a peer or leader would speak to that person--or the person would notice the fault on their own--and the problem was over.  More importantly, everyone in the classroom is focused on doing their best and helping each other and making the best use of their class time.

       When school is focused on the needs of the learner and the students understand their purpose and responsibilities, the rules become unnecessary.  This is the classroom that I want to be part of; this is the classroom that I want to lead.  This is the classroom where I can truly learn.

Monday, September 12, 2016

A Tale of Two Classrooms -- One Size Fits Each

This is the ninth in a ten-part series based on the poster: A Tale of Two Classrooms.


One Size Fits EACH

       School is for learning.

       But students learn in different ways.  Some are quick to answer teacher questions, but slow to see connections between yesterday's lesson and today's lesson.  Other students take time to digest new content and (perhaps) need some quiet time to reflect on notes and classwork before they are ready to ask questions about the new learning.  Some students are eager to be pushed beyond their limits and they don't mind if they have to struggle a little bit to understand.  They like the challenge.  Other students feel like they are not smart if they don't "get it" right away.  They don't like to study (or don't know how to study) and they want to understand the new content right away with relatively no effort.


       When possible, we want the learning, the content, and the level of rigor to fit each student.  When this happens you never have students who are bored because they "get it" faster than everyone else; and you never have students who are frustrated because the class moves too fast for them.  Everyone is learning at their speed and at their level.

       This sounds impossible.  In practice, however, teachers accomplish this feat by teaching one lesson to the whole class, and then separating the class into three or four groups that receive slightly different classwork assignments that meet the students' level of ability.  This can also be accomplished by employing online tools that can provide additional instruction or support to students as they complete an assignment.  Or they can provide a high level of rigor to students who seek a challenge.
       This certainly requires an experienced and well trained teacher.  And it takes some effort and trial and error to find the best way to reach all students all of the time.  But it can be done and it certainly has great benefits for students.


Thursday, September 8, 2016

A Tale of Two Classrooms -- Create

This is the eighth in a ten-part series based on the poster: A Tale of Two Classrooms.



       Should school be a place where students (only) do what they are told to do?  Or, should school be a place the encourages and even requires students to think and hypothesize and create?

       When educators get together to talk about the factors that go into determining a course grade, we sometimes refer to some of these factors as "compliance" grades.  These are things such as: completing homework, completing classwork, following the school or classroom rules, and behaving properly.  While these are certainly going to be a part of the school experience for students, is it appropriate that a student's grade should be based on these "compliance" factors?

       Learning doesn't occur when teachers tell students exactly what to do and what to say.  Learning occurs when students are reminded of past lessons followed by additional information (or "content") and then students are given the task to put these two experiences together to make sense of them.  Learning is demonstrated when students can explain their thinking either orally or in writing (preferably both ways), when students ask questions about the new content, and/or when students take in the new content and find ways to use it to create something new.  The learning process may involve some level of compliance, but compliance alone isn't learning.

       In today's classroom, we want students to struggle with questions that can't be answered with a single word or in a very brief period of time.  We want students to go back to their notes, or the book, or the online resource to recall something they were taught yesterday or last week and to use that information to connect to what they are being asked to understand today.  We want students to understand this process for making connections and extending beyond what the teacher says.  We want students to imagine bigger, to think bigger, and to create bigger.

       The classroom isn't just a place to follow rules.  The classroom should be a place of thinking and talking and reasoning and arguing and offering solutions.  The classroom should be a place of "new" everyday.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Tale of Two Classrooms -- Solve Problems

This is the seventh in a ten-part series based on the poster: A Tale of Two Classrooms.


Solve Problems

       School used to be:

  • Read the book
  • Memorize the facts
  • Recite what you've memorized
over and over and over again.  

       What are the capitals of the states in the United States?
       What year did World War 1 begin?
       What is the formula for finding the area of a triangle?

       Today's learners need so much more than mere memorization skills.  They need to know how to use these facts to make predictions, to see connections, and to find solutions.  The classrooms we need today require students to think and reason and discuss and hypothesize.  We need students who can be presented with a problem and know the tools they need to address the issues involved in the problem; and to find a way to solve the problem.

       Problem solving prepares students for the real world they will encounter beyond high school; be it college or career or relationships or buying a car or choosing a route to a destination.  We need problem solvers.  And the classroom is the ideal place to practice problem solving skills.  It isn't enough to have students who are only good at memorizing procedures or memorizes mere facts.  Anyone can find facts with the click of a mouse today.  Schools have to push students to do more.

       As with any other skill, problem solving takes practice.  Students need to hear from other students in addition to hearing from a teacher.  They need to be presented with problems that are (perhaps) a little bit beyond their reach, yet close enough to their abilities so that they can have ideas on where to begin.  Classroom need to have an atmosphere that respects effort and ideas so that students are free to offer their suggestions.  And we need to understand that problem solving is a slow process.  The quickest answer isn't always the correct answer.  Taking time to think is important.

       We need more and better problem solvers.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

A Tale of Two Classrooms -- The Goal is Learning

This is the sixth in a ten-part series based on the poster: A Tale of Two Classrooms.


Goal is Learning

       Don't get me started.

       The idea that the goal of schools is "Learning" is a major theme of mine.  Last year I wrote a piece called Are Your Students Obsessed with Grades.  In this post I included a list of things that students do that suggest they are more concerned about grades than then are about learning.  Some of these include:
  • They are constantly asking, "Is this going to be graded?"
  • They refuse to do anything if it is not being graded.
  • They ask for "extra credit" or make-up work at the end of the marking term to raise their grade to the next letter grade.
These sort of behaviors from students suggest that we have created what I have called The Grading Monster in our schools.  Grades and grading and Grade Point Averages (GPAs) have grown to oversized importance in the minds of students (and sometimes in the minds of parents) to the point that many have forgotten that the goal of school is learning.

       Of course, we need a way to measure the degree or the level at which students are learning.  But that method of measuring is not the goal of schooling.  It is the result of schooling.  I wrote a piece called Learning vs. The Appearance of Learning last year.  In this post I talked about the problem of seeking grades over seeking learning.  You might think that they are the same:  If I get a good grade, than I must be learning.  But this isn't always the case.  Grades can sometimes be manipulated to be artificially high--which would give the student (and the parent) the appearance of learning.  And I'm not talking about grade inflation--which is the purposeful and unearned raising of grade.  I'm talking about students who (perhaps) always do their homework and always participate in class and (perhaps) don't do very well on tests and quizzes; but the way the final grade is calculated causes them to end up with a decent grade even though they didn't actually learn very much.

       For many people, the idea of viewing schools as having the goal of learning will require a major shift in their thinking.  However, for individual classrooms and individual teachers this can be accomplished through relatively minor steps.

  • Encourage student discourse - Allow students to ask questions and offer ideas and solutions without judging the "correctness" of these ideas right away.  Allow other students to question these ideas and suggestions.
  • Formative assessments - Exit passes, classwork assignments, activities that provide feedback to students that is not a grade.  Instead the feedback could be teacher (or student) comments relative to the thinking that they have expressed in the assignment and (perhaps) suggestions for going further with that thinking.
  • Allow a little productive struggle and recognize students who tried and didn't get it the first time and tried again.  Help students to see that effort is important in the learning process.  Everything isn't "a grade".  No one expects students to "get it" the first time they are learning something new.
       There is a movement to abolish grades altogether in the effort to help students (and parents) to see the importance of learning.  I don't think that this will come to pass in my career, but if we truly want schools to be viewed as a place of learning, we will see the importance of grades and grading diminish.  This is important in the classrooms that we want to have in the 21st century.

       Learning is key.  Learning is everything.  If we aren't in school for learning, than why are we there?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

A Tale of Two Classrooms -- Kids Think

This is the fifth in a ten-part series based on the poster: A Tale of Two Classrooms.


Kids Think

       It seems crazy to suggest that classrooms in the 21st century should emphasize more student thinking and to imply that this wasn't always the case.  But if you think about the traditional classroom--the sort of classroom that many adults sat in when they were in school--you see a teacher standing in the front of the room and asking a lot of low-level, "recall" -type questions.

       "It's not positive, it's........?"
       "The capital of the United States is........?"
       " The largest planet is........?"

       A student could walk into the classroom after the lesson was taught and still be able to answer these questions.  These are simple, one answer, "just the facts" questions.  They don't require students to think.  Sometimes they don't even require students to memorize anything because the answer to these sorts of questions may be in the book or paper that is lying on the student's desk at the time the question is asked.  I've been in classrooms (today) when a teacher would ask a question and then point to the answer on the screen or the whiteboard and all the student had to do is read the word that the teacher pointed to.  This doesn't require thinking.  Even worse, low-level questions don't promote learning.

         In today's world, we need students who can analyze, evaluate, and create.  These skills are on the highest level of the revision of Bloom's Taxonomy.  These are the thinking skills.  These are the skills that enable students to compare and contrast pieces of information and to draw conclusions.  They help students to learn how to devise solutions to problems and how to come up with ideas and suggestions.  These are the skills that teach students how to learn.

       And thinking isn't supposed to be easy.  Academic thinking takes practice; it takes time; and it helps to have a supportive teacher.  The students with the first answer (the "fastest" answer) may not have the only answer.  Thinking also grows the brain by creating more connection among synapses.  Thinking adds content to students' long-term memory--which is good because more information in our long-term memory allows for more thinking--or more "space" in our short-term memory.  This is the place where we hold on to new information.

       A classroom that allows for a lot of student thinking must also allow for ideas and suggestions to flow without an immediate response from the teacher.  We want students to share their thoughts and ideas and to hear those of their peers without worry about being right or wrong all of the time.  Thinking is hard work; and school is the perfect place to cultivate this life skill.

Public Schools and Choice

       Is it true that public school kids and their public school parents don't have choices?  I'm sure that I will expose my igno...

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