Monday, November 22, 2010

Research + Classroom Application = Real Ed Reform

This post is for National Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform.  If you would like to see more submissions here is the site they are posted at Cooperative Catalyst

I think we all agree that it’s about the kids… education reform needs to have a positive impact on the lives of the kids we are privileged and responsible to educate.  When I read or hear about different education reform models that schools and districts have tried I find myself asking the same question every time. Why did they try that? Is there research to indicate that method might work to enhance student learning?  Have education practitioners been allowed to adapt that model to what works best in their own class because it has its own unique background and needs?

If we implement change based on what research says has the highest impact and allow our teachers to thoughtfully adapt that to meet the needs of their own situation, what would that look like? John Hattie did a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses and he ranked contributors that have the most impact on student learning (Visible Learning 2009).  Educators thoughtfully adapt lessons every day to meet the needs of their students and some blog about it so that we can get a glimpse into their classroom.  Below is a description of each of the top ten contributors that John Hattie discusses as well as examples of teachers that are already adapting those strategies in their classrooms in thoughtful ways.  They have been grouped together by area of influence as opposed to rank order.  This is by no means an all-inclusive list… and I didn’t find examples of every contributor in my blog search .  Please add other examples…

Rank #

Contributions from Teaching Approaches:

# 3          Providing Formative Evaluation
Formative Assessments give feedback to teachers on what is happening in their classroom in relation to learning intentions so they can decide where to head next.

Organizations that  have recently commented on formative assessment.
Leadership and Learning Center wrote ‘Formative Assessment As a Process

#9           Reciprocal Teaching  
The emphasis is on enabling students to learn and use cognitive strategies  supported through dialogue between teacher and student as they attempt to gain meaning from text.

While this isn’t an exact example of ‘recriprocal teaching’, Donna Hurst talks about the ‘buzz in the room’ as students made meaning of art through dialogue with their peers and the teacher in ‘Reverse Instruction

#7           Comprehensive Intervention of Learning Disabled Students
A combined direct instruction and strategy instruction model is the key.

Education Week has a post that discusses a model that includes these steps in ‘In Defense of Incremental Change’

#10         Feedback  Feedback from the student to the teacher within the learning cycle is the most powerful form. 

Mary Beth Herts reflects on the power of feedback in her classroom at Effective Feedback

Contributions from the Teacher:

#4           Micro Teaching
This typically involves student-teachers  conducting lessons to a small group of students and then engaging in a post-discussion about the lessons.  They can be video-taped which allows for an intense under the microscope view of their teaching.

While few teachers undergo this detailed viewing of their own teaching practice, many of us do turn the microscope on our own teaching practice to enhance student learning.  Pernille Ripps’s post 'When Learning Fails…’ is a thoughtful reflection on lesson choices.

#8           Teacher Clarity
It is important for teachers to communicate the intent of the lesson  and the notion of what success looks like for these intentions.

In the post ‘Good Writing Teacher- Almost Always!’ Nancy Hniedziejko discusses what went wrong when she didn’t have clarity and how she became clear.

Contributions from the School:

#5           Acceleration Curricula for Gifted Students
Accelerated students outperform non-accelerated students.

#6           Classroom Behavioral 
The argument is not that students should be removed but that teachers should be taught the skills to ensure unnecessary disruptions.

Andrew Marcinek outlines what he did when he realized his class was not engaged in ‘Ten Simple Strategies for Re-engaging Students’

Contributions from the Student:

#1           Self Reported Grades 
Students perform to the expectations they have of their own ability. 

Jeff Delp discusses the need to not give up on our challenging kids and fill the gap of what is missing for these kids because there is good in every student in his post 'A Soft Heart For Challenging Students'

Chris Wejr discusses seeking the strength in his students in 'Give Them Strength to Grow' (Read the comments- the student he mentioned writes about how lucky he was to have Mr. Wejr in his life)

#2           Piagetian Programs
Knowing the ways that students think and how this thinking may be constrained by their stages of development can help teachers plan their lessons.

So I ask you…  Why should you try this? Is there research to indicate these methods enhance student learning? Have practitioners been allowed to adapt these models to their own context?  And the next step… how can we create a culture where this is the norm?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Creating Year Plans

I know its an odd time of year to discuss this, but I will be working one-on-one with a teacher next week looking at the outcomes/standards for Language Arts 9 and helping her create a year plan that really addresses the big ideas.  I have worked with teachers on this in the last year and really enjoy a day spent looking at the big ideas of a course of study.  I am also reading ‘Rigorous Curriculum Design’ by Larry Ainsworth to get more perspective on the process.  Here is the process that I use to organize the standards into units and create a timeline for teaching.

Ainsworth says there are five foundational steps to creating a strong curriculum foundation.  They are:
1.      Prioritize the Standard
2.      Name the Units of Study
3.      Assign Priority Standards and Supporting Standards
4.      Prepare a Pacing Calendar
5.      Construct the Unit Planning Organizer

Prioritizing standards doesn’t mean eliminating some… it means realizing that some of the standards have more bang for their buck in terms of endurance, leverage and readiness.  These standards are priority and the standards that lead you to those will be supporting.  Many of us naturally prioritize standards as we teach in that we spend more time on some standards and less on others.  We create projects around some standards and use others simply as class discussion starts.  Some of us prioritize outcomes without intending to… if you don’t get to the last unit of study, you’ve prioritized it out of your curriculum.  Having the conversation with colleagues about priority standards helps us be more intentional about which ones we are emphasizing.

Ainsworth discusses that there are three types of units: topical, skill-based and thematic.  A year plan can have any combination of those three.  In working with teachers in the past I find that sometimes it’s nice to flip-flop step 2 and 3.  We didn’t name the units until we ‘chunked’ the standards into units of commonality.  If you struggle to find the relationship between the units you are currently teaching, you might try chunking the standards first and seeing what units you’ve created.  A Social Studies teacher I worked with found that she was able to make more sense of how Athens, Iroquois, Provincial government and National government all tied together when she quit teaching in the order of the textbook.  She was better able to wrap her own head around the big ideas of Democracy and convey them to her students once she decided the groupings of standards for herself.

In order to assign standards to units, I have teachers make a single sided photocopy of the standards and cut them up individually.  We then use a large table and start placing them into different areas of the table according to what fits together.  Teachers who have initially resisted the idea of actively cutting the standards have found value in it once they tried it because it becomes very obvious which standards haven’t been addressed and which units have too many priority standards so will become unwieldy when we try to pull it all together at the end. Having them laid out in front of you allows you to visualize the big picture of how the outcomes intermesh to form your course. You can use colored paper to indicate priority standards or skill-based standards for visual effect.

In order to create a pacing calendar count the number of class periods for the subject. Set yourself up for success, even though you may have 180 teaching days for the year, this needs to be the actual number of periods you will teach the subject (don’t count periods that are used for Christmas concert, field trips etc...)  Divide this number by the number of units you have created.  Now, use your professional judgement and adjust the time according to emphasis. As you can see in the graphic, my unit B will take more time than Units A&C.  Just make sure the total time for all units still adds up to the total periods you said you would be teaching the subject.

 You now have a timeline with the standards that will be addressed in each unit.  From there you can begin to create unit plans… This process I’ve outlined takes several hours.  To really delve into the standards and chunk them into solid units takes time. 

As life unfolds in a classroom, year plans get adapted and changed.  What you create is not set in stone… It’s a PLAN. We need to treat it as such. But if we intentionally create one and intentionally check back in on it as the year progresses, then we can adapt purposely to meet the needs of our students while still focusing on the big ideas of our course of study.

How have you created year plans? How do you ensure that you’re intentionally creating units based on the big ideas of the course?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Making Learning Visible

As I said last blog post, I’m reading 'Visible Learning' by John Hattie… Hattie talks about the need to make teaching and learning visible.  Of successful classrooms, he says:

What is most important is that teaching is visible to the student and learning is visible to the teacher.

To me that sentence is HUGE! How can I make my teaching visible to my students? How can I make their learning visible to me?

I’ve spent this last week really thinking about making the education process more visible.  Having been lucky enough to spend time in discussion with (and in the classrooms of) many teachers K-12 over the last few years, here are what I’ve seen is working to make both teaching and learning more visible.

Lesson Chunking: Breaking the lesson into smaller chunks, not by time but by skill. We don’t learn to ride a bike at once.  We have training wheels or a helpful older person so we can practice one skill at a time: pedaling, then steering, then balancing.  If we do the same chunking in our lessons our students are able to see the isolated skills that come together to form the big skill we are trying to impart. I’ve seen this done well in a Language Arts class where a teacher had students create thesis statements to finish off an otherwise complete introduction paragraph. When they mastered that skill, she reversed it and gave them the thesis statement to create a paragraph around.  She then did similar with the thesis statement versus body paragraphs. Constantly asking herself what individual skills went into essay writing and creating mini-lessons and practice around each of the skills.

Sharing Outcome/Standards and Student Self-Reflection
Rick Stiggins speaks of the need for our students to have clear, unmoving, targets. When you were growing up did you ever play a game of pickup soccer/hockey? I remember playing against another team that said I didn’t score because the ‘goal’ wasn’t where I thought we had decided it was.  I was angry and frustrated the rest of the game.  Our students feel like that if we’re not clear about their learning goals.  If they don’t know what they need to do to be successful they aren’t always willing to play the game.  Sharing outcomes/standards can come in the form of ‘I can’ statements posted on the board for the day or on the first slide of our lecture notes.  I’ve also seen them at the top of assignment sheets so students can be reminded of the goal of their work.  I love learning targets with pictures of the learning goal in them for lower grade levels.

While sharing the outcomes/standards naturally causes some of our students to self-reflect on their progress toward the goal, some of our students need more guidance. Later, in high school, I played defense in soccer and I prided myself on the fact that I knew, without looking, exactly where the goal posts were at all times (no one was going to trick me again!)  I felt like I had good situational awareness on the field.  Many of our students don’t have that ability yet, they get in the middle of their learning and lose sight of the learning goal.  Guiding their self-reflection can help them gain better awareness of where they are in relation to the goal.  

I use a student goal sheet in my class that has all of the outcomes/standards for a unit listed in a column. To the right of that is a column that says… How I learned this… In this column my students are expected to explain to me what they did to learn each outcome.  They write things such as took notes, did a lab, quizzed with my mom, watched youtube videos.  I’m not concerned with the actual learning strategy the student used to learn the material, my goal is make sure they know it was their job to learn it.  They were responsible for their own learning. I’ve seen teacher tape a learning target on each of her grade 1 student’s desks and she would periodically ask them to put their finger on the part of the target they thought they were at.  This comes after practice and modeling but it’s time well spent since the students can begin to take more ownership of their learning.

Reflection and Collaboration
Part of the process of making teaching and learning more visible is taking the time to reflect on and grow from based on what we see.  As the lone Physics teacher at my school, I didn’t have anyone to discuss content with on a regular basis but I was more than lucky because I had Terry Kaminski and Jared Nichol in the building with me.  On a formal and informal basis we discuss the skills we need to master in order to be the most effective teachers we can.  Content becomes secondary in those types of discussions because we share the same language of visible teaching and learning.  These conversations allow me to reflect on the learning (or lack of it some days!) that takes place so that I can adapt and change to the students needs in my class.

I've read enough of the book to make sure this post isn’t completely off base but I'm no where near finished and I definitely didn’t hit on all that Hattie includes as effective ways to make teaching and learning visible.  What other things do you think are part of ‘visible’ learning? What are some examples you’ve seen that help make teaching visible to our students and their learning visible to us?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Raising Student Achievement

There is so much talk of the reform ideas that are being implemented to raise student achievement: charter schools, integrating technology, creating benchmark tests to be used throughout the school year… but let’s take a minute and focus on the goal of raising student achievement.  Let’s not jump straight into ‘what tool can we use?’  We see that all the time in our own practice when we look at an outcome/standard and immediately think of a cool demo/activity that we think will be good to teach it.  If you’ve learned about backward design lesson planning (‘Understanding by Design’ Wiggins and McTighe) then you know we seem to be skipping some steps if we jump straight to the tools.

I feel like we’re skipping these same steps in education reform.  Student achievement is such an abstract term.  We need to deconstruct that goal.  What I see is that we want to increase student learning.  In other words we want to increase the amount/depth of concepts/skills that we are able to help a student attain during their time with us. In other words, aren’t we all just trying to increase the effectiveness of classroom instruction?

This word difference seems to matter to me, it’s been stuck in my head lately…  We have control over increasing classroom instruction. Yes, other factors come into play in student achievement, but I have no control over them. I need to focus on what I do have control over.

I’m just starting to read ‘Visible Learning’ by John Hattie. He does a crazy big meta-analysis on what research has proven will raise student achievement.  (I am very excited about the book- as excited as I was the first time I heard about Inside the Black Box by Black and Williams, 1998.  I can’t wait to reflect on what has been proven to work in the classroom and how I can apply it to my own context.)

I think the book will show that some of the tools being used in education reform are helpful in increasing classroom instruction but let’s be clear… no house was ever built by amassing tools.  Student achievement will not be raised if we only focus on which tools we think will be helpful.  We need to use a blueprint and skilled workers to actually raise the roof!!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reflecting on Student Engagement in my Class

Through the power of twitter I volunteered to help Amy Cosgrove (@Teacher_Chic) with an assignment for her Master’s program.  Amy sent me a series of questions about student engagement.  This self-reflection was very beneficial because it prodded me to contemplate what works and what I would improve in my own practice.  Below are some of the questions with my responses.

1.       What is your definition of engagement? 
I googled student engagement to make my personal definition is in sync with what the pedagogical pros are saying and I found that technically ‘engagement’ is about being on-task. And while that may be true to an extent, I think it should be more than that.  When students are thinking and feeling and questioning the subject- that’s engagement!  To me engagement is about students taking ownership of their learning- no matter how big or small that learning goal is. If they are the one in charge of making sure they’re getting it and are striving toward the goal- that’s engagement, to me.

2.       What are some of your practices that you find most engaging for students in your class?
That’s a tough question I think because it’s so subjective.  My students did a lot of inquiry based learning.  I found that they understood the content so much more when it was approached this way and they developed the skills they needed to be successful with the curriculum. Another practice is that my students sat in group of four and used mini-white boards to answer questions that were dispersed throughout a traditional lesson.  I found that they were more successful with this approach, partly because their level of engagement was much higher when they were expected to interact with their peers within the context of the lesson.

3.       What methods do you use to encourage disengaged students to become engaged?
I break one larger task into smaller more manageable task with check-in points along the way.  I found much more success with projects when I started chunking the process and having brainstorming session and peer reviews along the way.  I also really encourage small successes so that the students know what praise and responsibility feel like so they’ll want more.

4.       What questions (if any) do you encourage outside of the curriculum for students who are either disengaged (and need connection to class work) or engaged (where they’d benefit or enjoy new knowledge or skills beyond provincial/state requirements)?
I think that if our classroom lessons are centered around the skills of the standards and we use the knowledge to give context to those skills then we can make small adjustments to meet the needs of our students.   When we are asking our students to make connections between two or three big ideas and relate them to their own reality, it helps meet the needs of both groups of students.

So... How are you reflecting on your own practice to become better at engaging students? What is your definition of engagement? How do you encourage it? 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The wheelbarrow of learning

Today I decided to tidy up ‘the yard’ (it’s about  an acre and a half)  so I started out by grabbing the wheelbarrow and moving from spot to spot, picking up branches that I saw.  In no time I had finished the task and headed to put them in the limb pile.  After I finished the yard and dumped the wheelbarrow full of limbs, I noticed that I had missed a branch.  I set the wheelbarrow down and went to get it.  Upon close inspection, I realized I needed to redo the entire yard. This time though, instead of walking around with my wheelbarrow in hand, hoping to spot the fallen branches, I needed to periodically set the wheelbarrow down and go seek out the limbs that weren’t obvious at first glance.  I ended up re-doing the entire yard with this process and eventually filled another wheelbarrow full of limbs. 

This reminds me of how we teach.  We know we need to gather the students and take them to their destination (learning the outcomes/standards) so we walk along with our wheelbarrow gathering students as we go.  But the point isn’t for us, the teachers, to get to the destination.  The point is for the students to get there as we facilitate their journey.  Today, I could have grabbed the wheelbarrow and headed straight to the limb pile without looking for any limbs.  How often have we done that in class when we need to ‘cover’ a vast amount of material in a short amount of time? I’ve been guilty of that more than once so now, when I create my unit plans, I intentionally create times to re-teach/enrich big ideas.  I may not know exactly which topics this particular group of students will struggle with but I know that I need to build in the time because the point is for them to reach the destination, not me.

Today I wasn’t able to successfully notice all the limbs until I periodically set down the wheelbarrow and purposely sought out the less obvious limbs.  How often in a class are we setting down our lesson plans and actively seeking out those students that aren’t understanding? I know I’ve gotten better at that with experience, but I still need reminders so I embed ‘Check for Understanding’ questions within my notes in order I remember to set the wheelbarrow down and go gather more students.

Some of the branches were easy to pick up and some were entangled in undergrowth and took more ingenuity to get into the wheelbarrow.  Are we taking the time to coax out our students that are reluctant learners? Are we handling with care the ones that are entangled in misconceptions?  Differentiated instruction is a mindset. It’s those small thing we do on the fly to make sure we know which kids aren’t quite getting it and those quick course corrections in our lessons to facilitate their learning. It can be small group help, one extra guiding question, a word of encouragement.

Today would have been more efficient and enjoyable if I had taken the time to truly make sure that I was checking for all the fallen branches the first time instead of having to do the job again a second time.  Teaching is like that.  When we incorporate Assessment FOR Learning strategies into our teaching style and differentiation becomes our mindset, then we start to seek out the not-so-obvious students that are struggling to get into the wheelbarrow of learning.  The purpose is for all of our students to get to the destination of achieving the outcome/standard, not just the ones that are obvious at first glance.

What are some things that help you ensure all students are able to make it to the destination of achieving the outcome/standard?