Quo Vadimus?

When you begin to burn out on your research topic, where do you think you will move on to?

My focus is on gender and education. I am specifically focused on advocacy for boys in education because it seems to me that is where the biggest damage is being done now. However, of course, I work on gender-based issues and strategies for both sexes. I don’t think I’ll burn out on this until more attention gets focused on this subject or until it becomes clear that I’ve done all I can do. There are some very committed and capable leaders in this area and I do hope we can effect some change.

My second area of interest is expanding the acceptance of John Ratey’s research (see Spark) on exercise and learning. He has some fascinating things to say about the influence of exercise on brain functioning and some very specific suggestions and practical examples on how it can strongly influence educational outcomes. That might be my next focus.

Another subject that hovers in my peripheral vision is SES and education. This is such a very big topic. SES itself is a huge topic and one where open discussion is not very common or safe. However, it seems probable from the reading I have done that much of educational failure is actually and unavoidably caused by SES-related factors beyond the power of any educational system to fix. There is so much to this topic and it is so important because by not addressing it we are condemning millions of people to an unnecessarily difficult life. This would be a sad, dangerous, and challenging subject to pursue. However, honestly, until we stop think of poverty as something to be “prevented,” I think our society will continue to “create” poverty in the name of preventing it.

A safer subject but closer to the “darkside” is the pursuit of computer-driven learning strategies/tools. In a standards-based, standardized testing-based world, it is probably possible to largely replace teachers with very well programmed computers that drill the “essential” information in a fraction of the time. There are interesting questions about whether computers can even create the open-ended learning promoted by art and research and general inquiry. They probably can. Anyway, I am certain there are dark forces moving out there to automate our classrooms. I would be tempted to follow that fascinating train of inquiry, if only to bring “light” to the process.

To conclude, I am always drawn to areas that have big problems that have relatively simple solutions. These “80/20 Rule” situations are among the very few where, I believe, major improvement can be made in the human condition. Until very recently, I wasn’t too concerned about the human condition. Now, however, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what I can do if I put my full effort into making the world just a little bit better in areas where I have some wherewithal.

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Qualitative Research, Part III

What are some strengths and weaknesses of qualitative research?

The primary strength and weakness of qualitative research is its unbounded nature.  From a positive point of view, this allows quantitative research much great flexibility to investigate and illuminate areas, subjects, and situations impenetrable to other research methods.  Qualitative research can tell the reader how people feel, really feel. Quantitative research can record which feeling they checked off in a box on a survey.  However, qualitative research can tell us in their own words, with their own pauses and hesitations, what is passing through their minds at a particular time. It can use these single observations to weave an experiential tapestry, capturing the collective experiences of a time, a group, or an event.  It is modern in the sense that it values the individual and includes our collective humanity, even that of the authors, into the process and results.  It is more sensitive, both in the colloquial meaning and in the sense that it can follow the authors’ instincts to a conclusion or portrayal of life that might elude the more rigorous and arbitrary limits of conventional research.  Done correctly, it borders on great literature, capturing the unique human experiences and holding them still full of life and energy for the reader to see and appreciate.

That all sounds terribly good, and it is in the same way that the best form of government is a benevolent dictatorship.  The problem with all this open-endedness and flexibility is that there are few rules to constrain how they are used, to what purpose, or even where the borders of legitimate science lie.  Worse still, the recent trend is to polarize, politicize, and to turn to deliberate advocacy under the guise of research, “research” which still travels under the concept of science.  I am not prepared to make that leap.  It is one thing for me when a human follows his or her heart to a story of an event supported by the gathered words of the participants.  The Pearl may not be the only way to view La Paz, Mexico but it changes each of us in important ways by evoking facets our shared humanity and human experiences in the lives of the people it portrays.  However, Steinbeck was a writer of fiction and even as such, he cared more for the story than the advocacy.  My main problem with qualitative research is that not only does it have little by way of structures to make sure it follows the scientific demand of impartiality, it is increasingly denying any need or expectation of impartiality.

Instructional Strategies

What criteria would you use to determine developmentally appropriate instructional strategies?

The CalTPA handbook lists a series of developmentally appropriate instructional strategies. They are broken down into age categories: Grades K-3, Grades 4-8, and 9-12. They are included in TPE 6. Here are some examples from the CalTPA Handbook, Appendix A:

Grades K-3

  • understand how to create a structured day with opportunities for movement
  • design academic activities that suit the attention span of young learners
  • instructional activities connect with the children’s immediate world
  • draw on key content from more than one subject area
  • include hands-on experiences and manipulatives that help students learn
  • teach and model norms of social interactions (e.g., consideration, cooperation, responsibility, empathy)
  • educational experiences that help students develop more realistic expectations and understandings of their environment
  • special plans for students who require extra help in exercising self-control among their peers or who have exceptional needs or abilities

 

Grades 4-8 

  • build on students’ command of basic skills and understandings
  • provide intensive support for students who lack basic skills as defined in state-adopted academic content standards for students
  • teach from grade-level texts
  • design learning activities to extend students’ concrete thinking and foster abstract reasoning and problem-solving skills
  • help students develop learning strategies to cope with increasingly challenging academic curriculum
  • assist students, as needed, in developing and practicing strategies for managing time and completing assignments
  • develop students’ skills for working in groups to maximize learning
  • build on peer relationships and support students in trying new roles and responsibilities in the classroom
  • support students’ taking of intellectual risks such as sharing ideas that may include errors
  • distinguish between misbehavior and over-enthusiasm
  • respond appropriately to students who are testing limits and students who alternatively assume and reject responsibility

 

Grades 9-12 

  • establish intellectually challenging academic expectations
  • provide opportunities for students to develop advanced thinking and problem-solving skills
  • frequently communicate course goals, requirements, and grading criteria to students and families
  • help students to understand connections between the curriculum and life beyond high school
  • communicate the consequences of academic choices in terms of future career, school and life options
  • support students in assuming increasing responsibility for learning
  • encourage behaviors important for work such as being on time and completing assignments
  • understand adolescence as a period of intense social peer pressure to conform
  • support signs of students’ individuality while being sensitive to what being “different” means for high school students

Jeepers, Squeepers

Which techniques related to SDAIE could be used with native English speakers?  Explain your answer.

One of my favorite things about this class is there are very few, if any, instructional techniques we are being taught that are not applicable in all instructional environments.  SDAIE techniques are simply educational “best practices.”  Or as Rothenberg & Fisher (2007) said, “Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English (SDAIE) strategies are just good teaching strategies. Sheltered instruction is just good teaching” (p. vii).

My personal favorite strategy is one about which I was initially dubious.  However, over time I have grown to see its brilliance. That would be “SQP2RS” (or “Squeepers” for short, apparently).  SQP2RS is an acronym for:

  • Survey
  • Question
  • Predict
  • Read
  • Respond
  • Summarize (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2008, p. 98)

What I like about this is that it incorporates best practices for reading educational material, powerfully departing from the “read and forget” model so popular in the traditional classroom.  It’s particularly fascinating to me because a similar approach was featured in 1993 “underground” book on being a better student that I follow closely (Robinson, 1993).  Now, nearly 20 years later, this approach is being taught in graduate schools.

Another SDAIE technique I learned in Robinson (1993) is activating prior knowledge (Díaz-Rico, 2008, p. 115).  I think that is a technique that is still too little known and seems to me to be fundamental in anchoring learning and powerfully launching a lesson.

Another technique I discovered elsewhere is Mind Maps (Buzan & Buzan, 1993).  As near as I can tell, graphic organizers are similar, although more basic.  If graphic organizers become successful in my classroom, I would like to add mind maps as well.

I think “Directed Reading-Thinking Activity (DRTA)” (Díaz-Rico, 2008, p. 230) is very interesting as well.  When I read fiction in particular, I tend to try not to look ahead because I prefer being surprised. However, from a cognitive and metacognitive point of view, I think tracking not only what the author is saying but what is being telegraphed about impending content is a very effective way to empower the reader as a reader and model good habits for when that reader writes.

References

Buzan, T., & Buzan, B. (1993). The mind map book. New York, NY: Penguin Books, USA.
Díaz-Rico, L. T. (2008). A course for teaching English learners. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP Model (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Robinson, A. (1993). What smart students know: Maximum grades. optimum learning. minimum time.. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Rothenberg, C., & Fisher, D. (2007). Teaching English language learners: A differentiated approach. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Less Art in the Classroom!

In my view there is too darned much art coming out of kindergarten and 1st grade.  Ok, I am sort of kidding but what I mean is that, as parents, we receive a blizzard of art.  It’s too much to honor or use in a meaningful way.  As a parent volunteer, I find myself in a mad rush to get the students to complete the artwork before the station/center ends.  They get rushed and have no fun and the quality of the art suffers, all to make sure more art is produced.  Anybody else see a problem here?

Every so often, the kids do a “peak” project.  My daughter just made a five foot long stuffed paper dolphin.  She did the dolphin art; parent volunteers cut the dolphin shape, traced that shape onto the back paper, and stuffed the dolphin.  Therefore, the kids did a picture and, really, the adults made the art.  It’s cool and beautiful, but it isn’t completely “hers.”

I am not sure where the mad rush to create disposable art comes from.  It is easier, I suppose, to make disposable art than to work with the kids on truly meaningful art.  And, true, quantity seems to beat quality for many Americans.  However, in my classroom I will try to only do meaningful exercises, art or otherwise. 

Creating a dolphin from start to finish, painting it (two sides, not one), cutting it out (fine motor skills), stuffing it (different fine motor skills plus judgment about how much paper, where, plus – believe it or not – the structural and learning benefits of stuffing them with near skeletally placed and shaped stuffing) all makes for a truly wonderful, memorable, and celebrate-able project that should deservedly be kept and preserved for “the ages.” 

I think teaching quality by taking the time to do art “right” is a far better lesson for the students than, what, churning out high volumes of low quality art?  Really, what is the benefit of rushing through one (or two) pieces of art a day?  Working for two, three, or more days on one fine piece of art is the same amount of art practice as the same hours spent on disposable art.

Sure, there is need for practice pieces to hone cutting skills or drawing skills or color choices or whatever.  Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be better to do those exercises as “practice” so the students truly have the freedom to experiment, make “mistakes,” and build their skills?  Likewise, in practice art, the adult wouldn’t feel compelled to “help” the student do it “right.”

Yes, for me, art will be “practice” work, identified as such and with a particular intent in mind (e.g. cutting), and periodic “peak” pieces that take multiple days and represent accomplishments and even artistic statements of which the students and their parents can be deservedly proud.  

Here’s to less (disposable) art in the classroom!

NCLB and ELL’s

How have changes in the law affected classroom practice in relation to ELLs?

The dominant legal change in recent years is NCLB. NCLB has a number of provisions intended to improve success rates for EL’s. Unfortunately, NCLB’s other requirements end up applying at least as much pressure on ELL’s as it offers help. The biggest problem is that setting high, uniform standards is particularly challenging for students facing the twin pressures of learning achievement and language gaps. The standards themselves are challenging enough for English speakers, but when applied identically to students who are also challenged by language comprehension and fluency issues, these standards can become almost unachievable. Compounding this particular problem is the NCLB requirement that achievement of these standards be tracked across various social and demographics groups of interest, including ELL’s. This creates considerable pressure on the schools and therefore on the students to make Herculean progress under difficult conditions.

Two of additional challenges are worth mentioning. The first challenge is the California law (upheld against legal challenges) requiring that all standards tests be administered in English. So, not only do the ELL’s have the challenge of learning in L2, they have the challenge of being test on that learning in L2. Second, we are in a world of ferocious budget cuts. At a time when the ELL population is growing far faster than the general population and the pressure (as above) to improve results in this ELL subset is growing exponentially, cash available is dropping precipitously. There is some cushion in that many ELL’s are in Title I schools, but even there, and more so across the board, schools and teachers are being asked (demanded) to do much more with much less.

To conclude, the legislative focus on ELL’s is theoretically positive but the practical aspects of the current legal climate are challenging for ELL’s nonetheless.

Cambourne in the Classroom

How may a classroom activity be adapted for students at various stages of language acquisition?  Address evidence of student comprehension and assessment methods.

Many of the techniques that improve outcomes for ELL’s are also good techniques overall.  Echevarria, Vogt, and Short (2008) take Cambourne’s “Conditions of Learning” and apply them to the ELL friendly classroom.  These eight conditions are immersion, demonstration, engagement, expectation, responsibility, employment, approximation, and response (Echevarria et al., 2008, p. 24).  I will briefly describe their application below:

1.       Immersion – Constantly use all aspects of language (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) to practice English language and content concepts.

2.       Demonstration – Show students the core learning in practice and have them model those concepts as well.

3.       Engagement – Create a safe environment, emphasize the relevance of the material, and teach it at appropriately challenging levels of difficulty.

4.       Expectation – Hold appropriate but high levels of expectation for all students.  Look past language challenges to the full capabilities of each student.

5.       Responsibility – Give students choices, encourage reflection, hold students to high standards of independent performance, and encourage critical thinking.

6.       Employment – Allow students to demonstrate the skills and concepts they have learned.  Explain real world context and value of the concepts being learned.

7.       Approximation – Encourage and reward risk taking.  Embrace “approximately correct” answers as stepping-stones to completely right answers.

8.       Response – Allow for continual constructive and focused feedback from multiple sources, including peers (Echevarria et al., 2008, p. 23).

All of these eight principles do double duty.  Not only do they promote powerful learning in ELL’s (and other students), they create better opportunities for assessment.  By recasting learning tasks away from passive into active learning, students’ proficiencies and weaknesses are more clearly observable and more easily remediated.

Reference

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP Model (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Evaluation?, Part Two

I have been thinking about my post yesterday.  I think it is a mistake for me to shy away from evaluations of my classroom and my teaching. 

I got into teaching to stand for something special.  I will bend every effort to excel and to incorporate the best elements of teaching into my practice. When I am evaluated, some combination of three things will happen.  One, the high quality of my work will be seen. Two, the observer will make suggestions that improve my teaching.  Three, I may meet one of these dogmatists I fear and disagree with some or all of the assessment.  These are all outcomes that can only benefit all concerned.

The tricky one is where there is disagreement.  I have always felt a strong pull to comply with authority out of a desire to be accepted and/or a fear of sanction. However, I have also always had strong analytic skills of my own.  Given that the former instinct usually overrode the later, these encounters would frequently leave me feeling violated and, subsequently, acting out against that authority in some covert (and ultimately self-destructive) fashion.

Being slightly wiser these days, my philosophy is different.  Now, I trust that the best thing to do is to stand for my beliefs, regardless of consequences.  This does not mean being stubborn.  I have a strong intent to be open in all aspects of my life.  However, it does mean that I need to stand for my reasoned beliefs.

I will be respectful.  I will be inquisitive.  I will be open to learning and to improvement  However, if, in the end, I disagree with the advice or assessment, I will stand for myself.  It is possible that this will have negative consequences for me and that is ok.  However, if I am respectful, if I demonstrate a willingness to listen and an ability to change if persuaded, and if my arguments are sound, I am comfortable that these discussions will generally end positively.

Rules in Schools

The idea that if a rule does not merit a major consequence, it does not merit being a rule applies in schools too.  Establishing rules that are not enforced or, worse, are only infrequently enforced is more than a waste of energy.  It’s actually counterproductive, accommodating a certain lawlessness that is ultimately corrosive.

I see this in the “Raise your hand” rule too.  It seems to me that students should not be allowed to shout out answers, except in chorus.  It is much too difficult and takes too much management to allow shouting out of answers sometimes but not other times.  However, rare is the teacher who consistently enforces this rule and, therefore, rare is the classroom where shouting out is absent.

In my classroom, non-verbal symbols will be followed with rigor.  Likewise, shouting out will not be tolerated, rewarded, or even occasionally condoned.  The central rule in my classroom will be respect and major violations of that principle will receive quick, firm intervention.  Minor departures from the principle of respect will not be treated as rules violations.  Rather, they will be treated as teaching moments or ignored, as the case may be. 

What will not happen in my classroom is the proclamation and subsequent ongoing violation of rules.  Any rule discovered to be unworthy of consistent enforcement, will be considered unworthy to be a rule.

Rules

It seems to me, that the breakdown of the non-verbal cue environment is frequently a function of fatigue. 

After a certain period of years or after a certain number of routines are imposed, it just takes too much energy to demand consistent obedience.  Unfortunately, this leaves those routines in a broken state, halfway between useful and purposeless.  The students sense that lack of seriousness and the routines become mere speed bumps, occasional interruptions to be tolerated but not respected.

One of the very first principles we established for raising our daughter was to draw the circle of rules tight enough to cover the major infractions but loose enough to need only infrequent enforcement.  This was based on the observation and belief that kids have considerably more energy to chafe against relatively pointless restrictions than parents have to enforce them.  This leads to the “Don’t, don’t, don’t… ok” syndrome that eats many parents alive.  We try to only establish rules that we are willing to us overwhelming force to enforce.  If it is not worth a major consequence, it is not a rule in our house.