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MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

Learn like Luke Skywalker

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach was recently cited by a popular website as a Top 50 “Eduprenuer” for “paradigm-shifting professional development.” Through her company Powerful Learning Practice, she and co-founder Will Richardson have prepared and inspired thousands of K12 educators to “make the shift” to 21st century teaching and learning — on behalf of their iGeneration students — by becoming connected educators themselves.

A 25-year educator, Sheryl has been a classroom teacher, technology coach, charter school principal, district administrator, university instructor, and digital learning consultant. She’s a leading advocate for virtual communities of practice as essential components of professional learning in a connected world and the lead author of the Amazon bestseller The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age.

But it’s her commitment to passion-driven learning that often first catches the attention of teachers and school leaders who are drawn to her work. This article — excerpted from a recent essay posted at her blog 21st Century Collaborative — captures her powerful vision of passionate learning.

by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

I am helping to lead an online community of practice initiative in Alberta, Canada. In reading a thread in the community this morning I noticed one of the participants responding to a video someone shared. Here is what she said:

Why does it always get back to what we learned when we were in Kindergarten? Once again I’m reminded of the simple truth that so much that it is important just has to do with seeing someone as just another person like me and then treating them as I want to be treated. So simple and yet hard to do.

Going back to what we learned in kindergarten struck a cord with me. It represents a time when, as learners, we were hungry to know. We still had a sense of wonderment and learned mostly from self driven experiences. Kindergarten educators are typically still willing or free to nurture that sort of curiosity and passion. If we are early-childhood teachers, we let children explore and take control of their own learning. We are willing to situate them in immersive environments that encourage discovery and learning, standing back and watching as they make sense of their environment and the world in which they live.

But for some reason when kids get older, we shift that scenario. Play and exploration are cast aside as not important or controlled enough to result in deep learning. Education becomes something more simulation based, something we develop and deliver. As children progress (is that the right word?) through the grades, learning becomes filtered through teacher and master lenses.

Rather than provide a rich learning environment and then stand back as the young scientist makes sense of their world, we predetermine what it is we feel they should learn and know. We mold, shape and impose rather than letting learners pick and choose what they want to explore and dabble in. We convince ourselves that direct instruction produces better learning. We agree that adults who simply serve as helpers, facilitating a child’s chosen learning journey, are just too laissez-faire. We are certain that we as teachers know what is best for learners and that education happens only when a teacher-student relationship exists. They are kids. They can’t be trusted to know what they need or should learn at this immature stage. Right?

Why do we do that?

Maybe some of the reasons for our need to control learning so tightly are embedded in the fact many of us are educating the masses. When you educate 20, 25, 30, 40 kids at a time, you have to standardize to make certain that things are effective, efficient and flow smoothly. There’s no time to deviate, to explore down roads less traveled, to follow up on interests that one child might have, because everyone is on the same train heading in the same direction and expected to get to a certain destination at the same time.

Imagine what would happen if 40 kids showed up for your biology class and you gave them all bicycles and a bucket and shovel, and let them take off in different directions, rather than everyone getting on your carefully scheduled and organized train. Chaos, right? I mean seriously: how would you control the learning if they were all on their own path? It would be impossible to cover all the content and have them all test well. And therein lies the problem.

What if we restructured a bit?

Just think how deep the learning would be if it was driven by “want to” rather than “have to” motivation. By rocket fuel, not lighter fluid. What if we developed environments that were created intentionally so that they fostered a passion to learn? What if our primary role as teachers was to be a catalyst for learning — always on-hand, answering questions, pointing out exciting things along the way? What if the child’s passion and interest in the materials, the manipulatives, the media and books we provided — what if that directed the learning journey?

What if education wasn’t about efficiency and control, standardization and economies of scale, but was instead about each child’s personal learning journey, steered by the headwinds of wonderment? What if your role was to be a learning travel agent, arranging journeys that ensured each child immersed in your learning trips would not only learn (often very different things) but have a great time doing it? What if their learning was always full of authentic purpose, aligned with personal passion for the topic?

Think about the “Choose your own adventure” books many of us loved as kids. What if your role was to design learning like that? What if — instead of teaching them, you helped them to be fully engaged learners? What if instruction wasn’t  content focused but environment focused, heading off in surprising directions determined by a learner’s interest and choice of content along the way?

Take, for example, my grandson

My grandson is really into walking. Luke Skywalker Walblay (right) turns one next week. And he is REALLY into walking. He has taken lots of first steps on his own for short amounts of time, and we all cheer and he likes it – some. But what he really likes is holding your finger and traveling long distances around the house, yard and driveway. It is his passion, not mine (it is uncomfortable for me to lean over like that for long periods of time).

Because of his intense interest in walking fast and far, he is motivated to do it for long periods of time. When I care for him I have a choice: I can spend my day distracting him so I can do what I want (read books, play on the carpet, swim in the pool), or I can leverage his interest as a means to help him learn new things. I have chosen the latter.

When Luke comes to visit, we walk together everywhere (he is very happy), and I use the opportunity to constantly label, vocalize, and encourage him to repeat sounds and words. I stop on our walking circuit in the backyard to look up in the tree and say “bird,” or on our track in the house where we stop here and there to say: “television” or “cabinet” or “dog.” Luke is moving and mastering his passion while being exposed to lots of learning on the journey. It works. I am respecting him as a learner who has his own desires and interests, but as long as he is interested, I am also sharing what I know with him along the way.

Hungry to learn

Learning is personal knowledge construction, fueled socially as we schematically connect ideas and concepts — as we do things and discuss them with others. Just like we shouldn’t eat until we are hungry, I believe learning should be natural and likewise fueled on demand.

Give children a rich, interesting environment or scenario filled with beautiful literature, authentic problems to solve, and places to explore or create a journey, and you will have kids who are motivated to learn and engage. A steady diet of force-fed content with no authentic and ongoing opportunities for application goes against the natural way we are designed to learn.

The way we learned in kindergarten.

Advice for Passionate New Special Ed Teachers

Elizabeth-Stein-brite-120by Elizabeth Stein

When I became a special education teacher two decades ago, many colleagues told me that my excitement for teaching was because I was new. They sighed, groaned, and said, “Wait a few years.” I remember thinking, what are they talking about? I knew way back then that my passion for teaching and learning would never diminish—it would only intensify. And it has.

It’s a passion for teaching that leaves me raring to go to work each day—even after all these years. What’s my secret? The source goes deep down to my core and vision, and can easily be summed up explaining that I am constantly asking myself: What can I do for children?

This simple yet profound question provides the focus I need when the going gets tough. This question keeps me in the mode of turning my passion into performance. I’m talking about purposeful performance that links my core values with an empathetic awareness of the views of those around me.

Courtesy of Education Week Teacher

Special education teachers have challenges similar to those of their general education peers: mastering content, fine-tuning technique, and collaborating with colleagues. Yet special education teachers face additional responsibilities that include, but are not limited to:

• understanding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA);

• considering accommodations and modifications for learning;

• aligning IEP goals, state standards, and district expectations;

• creating a climate of tolerance for diversity at the classroom and building level;

• researching and applying strategies to help make the general education curriculum accessible for a diverse group of special needs students;

• collecting data to monitor students’ progress of IEP goals;

• apprising themselves of behavior modification techniques.

At a glance (and even when given considerable thought) the job can seem overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be. I think the secret to success lies in building a strong sense of “self,” so that you can focus your energies on answering that question of mine: what can I do for children? This sense of self is an absolute must as the year slowly cranks into high gear.

The challenges of Co-Teaching

Inclusion is one setting where a special education teacher’s core teaching values can get lost in the shuffle if we don’t stay completely tuned in to our purpose. In an inclusive classroom setting, the special educator joins forces with the general education teacher. The challenge of implementing well-thought-out lesson plans or finding the co-planning time can become a bit daunting. Over the years, I’ve identified three possible realities that can emerge from the inclusion experience:

1. You find yourself in a co-teaching relationship where instructional philosophies match perfectly. Life is great.

2. You find yourself balancing your instructional philosophy with your co-teacher’s, with mutual respect for each other’s perspectives, roles and goals. Life is good—and balanced.

3. You find significant differences between you and your co-teacher that are not easily resolved. And you become frustrated, quiet, passive, intimidated, and hesitant to set the teacher in you free.

Most special educators would agree that the third option is a shameful situation to be in. I have far too many memories of special education colleagues over the years who have said to me, with a note of despair: “Please don’t let me be observed in my inclusion class—because that is just not me.”

On the bright side, this third option can be avoided. A balance can be found. One sure way to accomplish this balance is to keep your values firmly in place while considering the perspective of those individuals you must collaborate with. Let’s think about this by joining in on an imaginary meeting. Get comfortable and pull up a chair. Here are the points of view you must bring to the table, if you want to be successful:

• First, you will see instruction from the perspective of your students. This view will reveal all of their interests, experiences, thoughts, and needs.

• Next you will see the parents’ view, which includes the hope that their children can become independent and successful.

• Then you will see the perspective of (and the demands upon) your co-teacher. You’ll have a clear view of the curriculum, standards, assessments, and grade book.

Breath deeply and focus on your core values

Take a deep breath. And never forget to breathe out. Take it all in, because you must think about all views as you consider how best to do your job. You must know your students’ needs and goals. You must search for the best possible outcomes for them and their families. You must track students’ progress and provide specific data-based evidence for that progress. You must never, ever become quiet or intimidated. Because your students need and depend on you, you must look your co-teacher in the eye and ask: What can we do for all these children, in partnership?

When we keep in mind the perspectives of all involved in the education of our students with special needs, we can guard against feeding the frustrations that an inclusive setting can evoke. So keep an open mind and don’t forget your core values—they will help you sleep at night.

Let me repeat that for emphasis: A clear understanding of your core values is critical when embarking on a special education teaching career. You will teach alongside many colleagues each day—some who share your teaching philosophy and some who do not. But it’s all about what you can do for your students and how you can guide them to become self-advocates. This sense of values, this mission, becomes your focused strength. When your core values are set, you grow personally and professionally. And your values will evolve as you evolve.

Finally, you must keep expanding your knowledge and skills. Continuing the learning process for yourself helps sustain your passion for teaching and learning. You must always take some time to learn from:

• your students

• the views of everyone around you

• current research and current events

• your everyday experiences

• your significant observations

Our students need us to teach every day to the very best of our ability. We must do everything we can to build the strength and wisdom—and sometimes the courage—to keep our promise to them.

Elizabeth Stein (@elizabethlstein) is a 20+ year teaching veteran, with experience as a special education teacher in both upper elementary and middle school. She’s currently a teacher coach, specializing in coteaching, in Long Island NY’s Smithtown Central School District. Elizabeth is National Board Certified in Literacy and a contributor to Education Week and other publications. She also writes the popular MiddleWeb blog Two Teachers in the Room and co-hosts the Twitter chat #coteachat. She is the author of Comprehension Lessons for RTI (Scholastic).

Note: This article first appeared on the web at Education Week Teacher. Republished with permission of the author.

Photo: Emile Wamsteker, Education Week

Students Can Do Hard Things

Anthony Cody spent 24 years working in Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high needs middle school. He is a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) and a Project Based Learning workshop leader. Visit his website Teachers Lead and follow him on Twitter at @anthonycody.

Since 2007, Anthony’s policy-oriented Ed Week blog Living in Dialogue has become a rallying place for teachers who value their professionalism. He also writes about practice, as this 2007 advice for new teachers indicates.

by Anthony Cody

I recently observed a teacher passing out an assignment to a class of high school English students. “This is hard,” complained one. “No, it’s really not hard, it’s easy!” replied the teacher.

Even though I could recall saying the same thing myself on occasion, something about this exchange bothered me. What can our students possibly learn if we only gave them easy tasks? On the other hand, how can we motivate our students to accept a challenge if they doubt their own ability?

I asked Lynn Scott, an experienced teaching colleague, what she thought. Her reply: “If my second graders say something is hard, I say ‘That’s ok. You can do hard things!'”

To make her case, Lynn talked to her students about hard things they had mastered. They all were born not knowing how to walk. Did they just stand up one day and run around? No, they taught themselves, by grabbing onto furniture and other people, and they gradually learned to walk without falling. They learned to ride bicycles the same way — by hard practice and by sometimes falling down.

Research shows that students who lack motivation are often not convinced that the effort they invest in themselves is going to be rewarded. They simply have not been academically successful in the past, so why bother? Furthermore, their parents may have been ineffectual in school, creating a template for failure easier to live up to than disprove.

So how do we teach our students they are capable of doing so much more than they even realize? This is the true art of teaching. Here are some ideas:

> Keep a portfolio of work, beginning with samples from the first week of school (or any fixed point in time). Then, in November or December, you can take a look at their earlier work, and highlight all the things they know how to do now that they could not do in September. This helps students understand their goal is to improve from their current level, and no matter where they are starting, they can learn and grow.

> Researchers tell us that if you give students a letter grade along with feedback, all they focus on is the grade, and the value of the feedback is lost. Therefore I try to avoid giving grades, especially on first or second drafts. Instead, I try to give specific suggestions to guide students toward improvement. Rubrics that describe your expectations can be especially helpful with this. Look at the path to quality work as a ladder, not a leap, and support them as they climb.

> Sometimes students do not really know what high quality work looks like — or how to produce it. The first time I asked students to do science projects, I was disappointed by some of the work they turned in (apparently assembled the night before with a roll of scotch tape and a magic marker). But when I thought about it, I realized they did not have any clear models.

The next time, when I introduced the assignment I shared some of the better projects I had saved. I also had the students take a close look at the projects and develop a list of characteristics associated with quality work. What do the great projects have? What do less successful projects look like? We took the notes from this discussion and created a rubric the students could use to guide them as they worked. Then the students used the rubric to score their own projects with the help of their peers and make improvements before turning them in.

Anthony Cody

I’ve really come to see the power of peer review after years of practicing this teaching method. When students are involved in reviewing each other’s work using a clear set of guidelines, they not only have a tool that promotes honest and objective judgments, they also become more familiar with the hallmarks of quality, and they can apply that understanding to their own work as well.

Our students can do hard things, but they do not always know that. High self-regard is important for all the kids we teach, but it is not built through empty praise. It grows as the student actually succeeds in creating quality work. True satisfaction comes when we know for sure that we have achieved excellence. Then let the celebration begin!

This article first appeared at Education Week Teacher. Used with permission of the author.

The Homeroom Is a Home

this-is-not-a-test-cvr-194We are more than grateful to middle grades math teacher Jose Vilson for giving us permission to publish this excerpt from an early draft of his book This Is Not a Test, now under contract with Chicago’s Haymarket Books for publication in June 2014 (see our review). A man of many talents, Jose also helps MiddleWeb solve its website conundrums and taught us the word modding. We’re grateful for that, too.

José Luis Vilson comes from the Lower East Side and grew up in the projects. He teaches today in the Inwood-Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. He’s a graduate of Syracuse University (computer science) and the City College of New York (masters, mathematics education), and a prominent national blogger on matters of education, race, Black Latino culture, life in urban America and, most recently, fatherhood.

A visit to his website/blog The Jose Vilson will be revealing. You’ll find his 2012 presentation on teacher leadership at TEDxNYED here.

This story about how a homeroom became a home likely doesn’t need much context, but you can find out more about Jose’s background at his About Me page and by exploring his many blog posts.

[ © 2012 Jose Luis Vilson, used with permission ]

On the first day of class, I looked at the roster, and I said to myself, “14 kids. Hmm.” I nodded and approved of such a roster, when a little girl with glasses looked up at me and said, “you know it’s not going to be this size forever right?” Scarlett was good for reality checks.

Seventh graders are at the bottom of the theoretical behavior parabola, based on some informal surveys I’ve taken with dozens of teachers (and non-educators) across the country. Upon telling them I teach 7th grade, many of them cringe, sigh, or just pat me on the back and wish me well. My naïveté got the best of me my first year. A pleasant group of 14 students, all nice and quiet and still, nothing like I expected my first day to be.

Day 2 came the rush. After 14 kids took their seats in the first few minutes, a lady walked in with about 16 children, loud and clamoring for lockers while getting their registration cards changed. I stood there waiting for the process to finish, observing a whole period of math gone for no reason. The administrators collapsed two 7th grade classes into one; 14 students became the congress of 30 known as 7H3. Of the three classes on this floor (7H1, 7H2, 7H3), this group was hand-engineered to run me through the rigors of teaching in an urban setting.

I was also assigned two high-level classes, one in the 8th grade (8A4), and one in the 7th grade (7A4). My advanced classes had better levels of student attendance, high levels of parent engagement, and uncanny levels of idiot savants. Only one of my students in those classes achieved the pinnacle of my tough grading policy. For me, 100% isn’t a gift; it’s a hard-earned grade, and I’ve only given this grade out to three people in my entire life. Pury from 7A4, who thought I would settle for her cute handwriting when her math wasn’t on point, was the first to earn a 100. Poor her.

7H3, despite their lack of academic thoroughness, had character. And characters. The loud and secretly nerdy group of Sonya and Salome, who I semi-adopted as my school daughter. The mellow cool of Dalido, Felix, and Rafael H. The young maturity of Bianca, Scarlett, and Josh. The dedication and commitment of Yuleisi, Christina, and JP. The giggly gum-chewers Destiny, Jennifer C. and “just L”. The extra-quiet Thannya with the extra talkative Kelly, and the radiant smilers who frequently came late, Ashley and Amber. The mischievous Jonathan O, the excitable Jonathan P, the beanstalk Jonathan S. And there was the calamitous Alex, whose job it was to make my job that much harder; the introvert Christopher, who just needed a pat on the back every so often; the quizzical Mahaish who always had a round of intelligent questions about everything we did, and Shanaya and Whitney, who snickered their way through every conversation.

They made it really hard to present myself as detached, but I tried really hard to stay as objective and measured with them as possible. I didn’t smile once until December (more on that later). I made them work mightily on almost everything, and chased them down through their English, science and social studies classes. I found out the talent classes they were assigned to, and if I saw them in the hallway, I’d escort them back to where they belonged. I was brutally honest to all of their parents from the first minute I called home.

One time I kept the kids after school because they kept uttering the n-word. Rosa Parks had died the day before, and I got so furious to hear it spoken aloud that I had a tutorial on why I feel the way I do about it. I shut the door, and wrote the word on the blackboard. Silence. “Now, you listen to me. We didn’t fight for you to sit here where you can get an opportunity to do better for yourselves and your communities so you could use this language around each other.” It’s one of the standard diatribes we concerned folk have, and what amazed me was that, soon after, the whole school learned of this lesson. 7H3 spread it. They slapped people’s shoulders when they used the n-word around me. The amount of respect they had for me personally stirred me, even when many of them didn’t try as hard as they could academically. They reciprocated the dedication I had to them two-fold. I was tough but they understood why.

My co-English teacher had exactly the opposite relationship with them. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, with his insistence on his perceived expertise in English-specific pedagogy. What hurt him most, though, was his hatred for the kids. He never had to say it. The students became so aware and in tune with that hate, they would run, scream, and shout to get into my room. In a raised voice, I’d simply look at all of them and say, “WHAT is GOING ON HERE?! Now, you all step back out of the classroom, quietly line up, and try that again.” Later on, they’d try to explain it to me, but I’d already heard the commotion. My wall grumbled from the energies the other classroom gave off.

At some point, a situation occurred between the English teacher and the class that resulted in Sonya, the unofficial spokesgirl for 7H3, bursting out of his room, shaking and in tears. Then the other students ran out, yelling their disdain for this guy, and eventually found their way to my room. One of my coordinators stepped in and asked me to look after Sonya while we resolved the situation. That moment pulled me out of Mr. Vilson mode for the day; I wasn’t taught how to handle these types of situations. In that building, she only trusted me and she wanted someone to listen. It’s a moment that I keep nearby, like a well-worn bookmark, so I can remember my place in this particular story. She called for me.

The horror stories of men getting into trouble for showing any sort of care for a young student made me pensive to cross my professional (read: cold) barrier to help her out. I sat next to her in front of the coordinator’s office in the shorter hallway while she cried her eyes out. She kept saying, “I don’t know why, I don’t know why …” I just sat there. When she exhausted herself, she put her head on my shoulder. I put my arm around her and let her cry as she long as she wanted.

Twenty minutes passed.

“I think I want to go back to class.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. I think I’m done.”

“Alright. Cool.”

“Thank you.”

We walked back to her class. After dropping her off, I sat there in my room and let the walls vibrate, the ring in my ears nothing more than the quiet that occupied the big room.

Without trying to sound too dramatic about it, that was the day I discovered what people meant when they tell you teaching is a calling.

After that, the memorable moments brushed past like looseleaf notes. The surprise birthday party I honestly didn’t know was coming; the afternoons playing basketball with them in the upstairs gym; the faces we made when different assistant principals came in and tried to exert themselves. (“Mr. Vilson, can you tell her to leave us alone please?”) The times when I had to tell boys that there would be other girls who wouldn’t break their hearts.

The times I felt I let them down. One time, I just decided to write all the notes on the board when they totally tuned me out. I didn’t teach or anything. I just sat there and didn’t stop them from doing whatever. A couple of the kids took notes, but the majority of them did exactly what they wanted. They went to their lockers, chatted with their friends, doodled in their notebooks, and didn’t mind just doing as they pleased. It was a huge failure in classroom management. But even more it was a disappointment, a breach of what I thought was a trust bond between that group and me.

After the class was over, I sat there in utter disgust at what just happened, rethinking this teaching business. What the hell was I doing? Did I really want to invest this much of myself on behalf of kids who totally disregarded me on a whim? Did I just need to quit and prove my doubters right?

But the pity party was short. This isn’t how it’s going to end.

That afternoon during homeroom, I sat them all down, their heads hanging and silent, knowing they were going to get the business. Then I had them all stand behind their raised chairs, and I gave them my version of the story you’ve read up to this point. They were astonished and ashamed. I lined them up, as we were wont to do, and dismissed them from the stairs. I looked away from them. I walked down the hallway, past my other classes. I ran into my AP and coach’s office.

I broke down.

Mrs. King (the coordinator for the floor) and Ms. Michel (the math coach) looked on as this young, usually composed gentleman told them the source of this emotional outburst. Then they did their best to make sure another math teacher didn’t bite the dust. I won’t share everything they said, but at the time, their words meant everything. I took the 1 Train to one of my graduate classes, ready to spill my guts about the terrible day I’d just had. My friend Indira, who I was still taking classes with, said it was about time. Most of my fellow Teaching Fellows said they’d had their breakdowns back in November. (One, in fact, had had hers right in front of me.)

Mentally drained, I had a hard time concentrating in my night classes. I wanted to apologize to my professors from throughout my college career. But I never felt inclined to make excuses for my own failures. After getting home at 8:30 pm, I said nothing to my mom about the day I had, only that I was tired and not particularly hungry. But I was. I was hungry for another day to make it up. I didn’t want a mental health break.

I came back the next day, renewed. I’d needed to be pushed to my limits — to find out where and what they were. Reminiscing on that, my UFT chapter leader at the time said in his burly gruff, “Vilson, you’re doing a yeoman’s job.” “Huh?” “A yeoman’s job.” “What?”

“You’re doing a HELLUVA job, Vilson!”

Thanks. Every teaching year undulates in the moments that make them unique, but every teacher’s first year is the foundation upon which we build ourselves forever after. For all the mini-dramas that played out in Year One, I would never trade that experience for any other. They are the stories I love to tell to friends. Those were the kids that inspired me to try for some of my own.

People in my position (along with researchers and experts) like to enforce middle-class values on non-middle class students who already come with a set of values that work for them. We’re well-meaning but we’re off track. We just need to work with what kids bring and use their values to our advantage. My homeroom doesn’t always care to behave well. They’re going to interrupt you, yell at you, curse at you, disrespect you. They’re not always going to walk in formation for you, or do all your homework, or speak in The King’s English. They’re not often going to love your  lectures when you speak firmly to them. If your response as an adult is to highlight how much more perfect your class or culture is compared to theirs, then you really need a warm cup of empathy builder.

First round’s on me.

The kids of 7H3 ended the seventh grade knowing that the next year would begin with new school dynamics. They’d pushed every other core teacher to the brink of retirement or off the deep end by the last day of May. In the process, they’d developed forms of advocating for themselves like petitioning, letter writing, and telling parents to call the school whenever they had issues as a collective. I wasn’t sure about the source of their activist spirit, but I certainly had to respect it. Looking back, I think they were the first to teach me that homeroom classes often become a reflection of deeper truths about teachers — things we don’t necessarily reveal openly to them about ourselves.

Not everyone invests themselves into any set of children the way I learned to do that first year. But when I did, the homeroom became a home. For all of us.

Anne Jolly & Hands-on Science

With support from the National Science Foundation, award-winning science educator Anne Jolly is helping the Mobile Area Education Foundation develop hands-on science activities for the middle grades that will fully integrate with national standards. She talks about that and other current work and her journey from bench scientist to middle grades teacher, Alabama state teacher of the year, school learning teams expert, and all-around teacher leader.

1. Top 10 lists are all the rage. Give us the top 10 milestones in your professional career, with a few sentences about each.

All of my career “milestones” grew out of the following realizations:

I want to be a teacher. That was certainly the major milestone in my professional life. I’d never wanted to be a teacher and had become a biological researcher – a profession I liked. When I moved to Mobile there were no jobs in that area so I applied for a job in just about everything. My first call came the day after school started from the Mobile County School System. Did I want to teach 7th and 8th grade math?  (Sure, how hard could that be, anyway?)  I wound up teaching in four different portables a day in blistering heat with no air conditioning. I loved every minute of it. I knew that teaching was more than my new profession. Teaching gave real purpose to my life.

I need help with my teaching. I picked up teaching certification but didn’t actually learn much about how to teach. I was able to establish good relationships with my students easily, had few classroom management problems, and taught my heart out – the way I was always taught. Fortunately I was entertaining (by this time I was teaching science in another school) and liked doing labs with the kids, but not only were my supplies limited – I was limited in knowing how to really engage the students in learning.

When you put a question on a test, “Explain why the moon causes tides,” and the answers you get back are along the line, “It’s in Chapter 4,” then you know you’ve got problems helping kids understand. The next milestone occurred when a couple of science teachers in another school decided to build mentoring relationships with new science teachers in the system. They certainly expanded my horizons, and I began to build professional relationships with other colleagues in the system.

We (and some other teachers) met regularly. We sent out a quarterly newsletter to all science teachers in the county with ideas and insights. We conducted workshops for fellow teachers. And in the process I got the help I needed. I learned more from my colleagues – even though they were at a different school – than from any other source.

I need to be more involved in the world outside my classroom. Somehow along the way I became the state teacher of the year. This milestone launched me on a whirlwind tour of speaking and meeting folks in government and business, as well as education. At that point I realized that I didn’t know much about the world outside of my classroom, and that world mattered.

The policies and decisions people outside my classroom made affected my teaching, from the amount of money I got for supplies to the curriculum I taught. People in businesses hired my students and needed them to be able to do specific things, like recognize and solve problems and work with others. And I needed to be able to communicate with these people on behalf of teachers. I buckled down and took on a number of roles during that year that involved me with the folks who fund and support public education.

Teachers need a voice in policy making. I didn’t have to look hard that year to realize that the voice of teachers — those most knowledgeable about the classroom — is normally absent at the policy table. So after my teacher-of-the-year stint ended, another milestone was around the corner. I became co-founder and executive director of the Alabama State Teacher Forum, an organization dedicated to getting the voice of exemplary teachers into the policy arena. The A+ Education Foundation hired me for a year to get funding and programs underway for the Forum. We conducted workshops, gave speeches, and established an annual Outstanding Educators Symposium which brought teachers together with other educators, business people, and politicians to discuss education policy issues. There we had structured discussions and informal discussions, and this forum continued for over a decade. We were successfully able to influence some education policy, and some business leaders began to invite teachers to the table when discussing education.

There are serious discrepancies among schools. My next milestone involved an opportunity to work for the State Department of Education among low achieving schools. Mandatory state testing had come into vogue and it was important that all schools score well. Well, I’d had eye-opening experiences, but I never realized how big a difference there was among schools, even in the same school system, with regard to resources and opportunities.

Most of the low achieving schools were in poverty areas. The first school I went to had no science equipment. Not even a beaker. One school itself was so old that the walls in some classrooms consisted of one layer of brick. In another school the library hadn’t been open or used by students in two years and the outdated books on the shelves included a set of 1948 encyclopedias. In every case except one, the schools I worked with were in dire need of resources. I threw my whole heart into helping teachers and kids in those schools.

But in my heart I knew that I wasn’t making the difference they needed. They needed a lot of people to care. (I’m happy to say that, today, while there are still discrepancies among schools in terms of resources, the gap problem has improved.)

Teachers can make a difference at many levels. For several years during this time my milestone included serving on national and state commissions and committees, I served on boards of directors for state organizations and business organizations. I felt that teachers were beginning to be included and teacher voices were beginning to be valued more, especially at the national level at that time. But it was time for me to return to my roots – the classroom. I could make a difference in a number of ways, but I needed to look into the eyes of students again.

Teachers must learn together and learn continually. I took a position teaching science in a new school designed so that teachers worked together as teams with the same group of students during the day. Our team even had a period every day just for team planning. We were so excited about that! At our first team meeting we brought in our notebooks and pencils, sat down with a cup of coffee, looked eye to eye, and . . . . what next? What should we be doing and how should we be planning? What could we do as a team that would make a difference for our students? We didn’t even teach the same subjects.

That launched another career milestone. The next year my principal asked me to work at the school as a professional development director and figure this team thing out. Professional learning communities were barely on the radar, and I knew little about them. I read, studied, worked with the teams in that school and in another school that volunteered for this initiative, and collected data and information. Finally, after a year, we had come up with some processes for working together and assessing our teamwork that began making a difference for students.

For the past 11 years I’ve worked with professional learning teams, and eight of those years I developed, implemented, and assessed them through the SERVE Center at UNC-Greensboro. During that time I wrote a book to describe the process for establishing, supporting, and assessing these teams in enough detail that others could implement them.

Virtual communities provide a base of support and encouragement, and a forum for teacher voices. During my time with SERVE and since, I’ve discovered that through the miracle of the Internet I can talk, grow, and learn with education colleagues. The evolution of virtual learning communities (VLCs) has become a major milestone in my life. I am a member of four teacher virtual learning communities, and I help to moderate two of those. On one of these I am working with fellow teacher leaders (some of us former teachers) to create a new community of exemplary teachers in our state. These VLCs are energizing and informative. They widen circles of collegial relationships. Through these VLCs teacher leaders emerge. Some mentor other teachers and many begin sharing expertise and insights through blogs. VLCs can mobilize a critical mass of teacher voices around important education issues. They can provide a forum for teacher voices as a part of a national conversation.

Students can act as engineers. If this one sounds like it comes from out of the blue – well, it seemed that way to me as well. This milestone circled me around to a student focus again, but in a different way. I now help to write middle school curriculum modules that integrate math and science around an engineering challenge. I’ve learned again that students are amazing. They will take on a challenge that has value for them, and they can solve it in creative and unique ways. I’m also working with Mobile County middle school science and math teachers to help them write STEM lessons, incorporating their course of study objectives, to be distributed and used throughout the school system. These particular jobs take the majority of my professional time presently.

Retirement is a figment of my imagination. I’ve officially retired twice. And I’ve flunked retirement twice. Retirement isn’t real, at least not for me.

2. Over the past couple of years, you’ve been working with NSF grant support to develop a hands-on science curriculum for the middle grades. Please tell us something about the work, why it’s needed, what some of the units/modules look like, and how they might address not only science per se, but 21st century skills.

Actually, I’m working with a team to write engineering curriculum modules that closely integrate math and science – and also engage math and science teachers in working together. This work is done through the Mobile Area Education Foundation and is directed by Susan Pruet. who is in charge of the Engaging Youth through Engineering (EYE) program for the Foundation. Also involved are Carolyn DeCristofano and Deb Dempsey of Blue Heron Education Consulting, Melissa Dean and Judy Duke of the Foundation, and others. With this NSF grant, we are developing, piloting, revising, field-testing, and formally evaluating the impact of nine engineering modules over a period of five years.

These modules are being written, and will be evaluated, based on seven specific outcomes for students:

  • Apply math, science, and technology through an engineering design process
  • Analyze and interpret data
  • Identify, articulate, and solve problems
  • Communicate effectively
  • Work successfully in teams
  • Use the techniques, skills, and tools necessary in the workforce they will enter
  • Recognize the need for ongoing learning and make learning a part of their lives

Here’s the trick: Each module (3 per year for each grade – 6, 7, and 8) is built around the math and science objectives for that quarter in the state course of study and the local pacing guide. So these are really not supplementary to the curriculum. They are the curriculum. They engage students in learning the objectives in hands-on, relevant ways. Students learn more because they have opportunities to experiment and create.

Each module lasts about a week and so far they have been so successful that the school system has incorporated engineering language and objectives into the math and science curriculum. (In fact, in partnership with EYE, the school system is now designing middle school STEM lessons – one per quarter in science and in math – written by teachers.) We involve the business and higher education communities heavily in conceptualizing each module and in helping with the implementation as well.

I should note that implementing these modules involves providing teachers with a full day of professional development for each module. The materials are provided for the teachers during this design and testing period, and several former teachers work with this program in the schools to support the teachers when they implement the modules. Writers observe the implementations to see what works well and what needs revising.

In a watershed module, you would see each team of students designing and building barrier systems to slow the sediment discharge rate from a model streambed. They would test the model, calculate the needed data, and then redesign. Students would compare the data from all classes (via Excel) and determine what barrier properties seem to be most successful.

In a life science module you could watch student engineering teams figure out how to design a model clot catcher that will stop a clot from passing through a model inferior vena cava to the lungs. Again, they would test this system, calculate and evaluate, and redesign the clot catchers to be more successful.

Or, you might see teams of students figuring out how to design a growth system that can be used to produce a maximum amount of plant mass (the output) with minimum amounts of inputs (soil and water). Why? Because they need to be able to transport such a system to Mars to support future colonies that NASA will transport. After making input choices and assembling their growth chambers, students would monitor and record aspects of their team’s plant growth for two weeks. The output data from the growth chambers would be compiled across the grade for analysis and decision-making.

3. You’re the author of a popular (and practical) guide for school-based professional learning teams (PLTs). What’s your analysis of the state of the “professional learning community” movement in U.S. schools? Good, bad, ugly?

Yes to all three.

Good, because collaboration around a common focus is by far the most effective way to engage teachers in ongoing learning about how to address student needs. Some schools are successfully using this approach. (Edenton-Chowan School System in NC for example.)

Bad, when the knowledge and commitment is not there to make this initiative work. Some schools underestimate the time and difficulty involved in growing a faculty into a PLC. The faculty must understand why to do this, and this realization sometimes comes gradually. They must know how to do it – this is a new way of doing business and it’s easier to lapse back into old ways of doing things. They must know how to sustain the momentum. PLCs can be difficult to establish and easy to sabotage (even inadvertently). Some schools are forming “PLCs” because it’s a system mandate. In that case, practically every meeting is called a PLC.

Ugly, in that like many good initiatives, schools may be too quick to say, “Oh, that doesn’t work.” They don’t realize that building the relationships to make PLCs work isn’t instantaneous. So they give up on this initiative. Teacher learning once more becomes a series of spurts and stops, mostly conducted in mass during summer workshops while teachers are away from the real school setting and have no students. In some schools the players are simply not willing to make the commitment to bring about PLCs. They aren’t wiling to commit to providing necessary training and support, needed resources (including time), the incentives, and the school support structures that are needed.

4. If you’re still working some with PLTs, we’d like to hear your take on the value/necessity of teachers developing their own personal learning networks, participating in virtual communities of practice — the importance of “connectedness” with expert/collegial communities beyond school/district. Do you see this becoming more commonplace?

I’m still doing some PLT work. I’m sharing what I know through training sessions, giving schools tools and materials to work with, observing and documenting how the process works for some schools, and developing new tools for troubleshooting the process as needed.

Virtual learning communities are definitely becoming more commonplace for me and many other educators, and I highly recommend them as one method for learning teams to keep their momentum going. Relationships can continue to blossom and grow through online communication, as can learning and planning. Virtual communities can help to keep learning teams on the front burner; to keep the energy going; and to provide ideas and support to team members.

Professional learning teams (or communities) are vitally important. Isolation can take you just so far – you can’t move beyond the confines of your own thinking if you listen to and learn from no one but yourself. Building collaborative relationships with colleagues matters and it matters a lot. PLTs (PLCs) provide teachers with opportunities to study and learn together in order to become better teachers, in areas where their students need them to be better. They provide opportunities to do this in the context of the school day. So the changes they make in instruction are based on real students in their real school setting.

5. What are 4-5 changes you’d like to see over the next 10 years that you believe would make schools better places for kids to learn and become caring and capable citizens?

Avoid keeping high stakes testing as the driver for improving schools. It isn’t.

Become more collaborative – focus on building strong teachers and keeping them current.

Find ways to restructure schools to provide time for teachers to be what they need to be and what they want to be — the best teacher possible. Not necessarily the best lunchroom watcher, bus loader, and hall watcher possible. The best teacher possible.

Change the way students are taught – give them access to technology and the Internet, and incorporate these tools into their learning seamlessly. Give students relevant curriculum that prepares them for ongoing learning in the workforce.

Make school less hectic for students – slow down the pace and create time for more in-depth learning in needed areas. Offer curriculum that will help those entering the workforce from high schools to secure high-tech jobs. Give more opportunities for positive interaction, expect positive interaction, and practice techniques for working together and for learning together.

6. What’s next for you?

I have a philosophy by which I’ve always operated. I walk through open doors and I find myself in amazing places. I still use that philosophy. So my upcoming possibilities:

I may be writing another book.

• I may be working with a new school system to help them with a dynamic learning design for students and teachers.

• I will continue moderating some VLCs. I will also continue to help with the “birth” of a new state VLC and will advocate for teacher’s voices as the most important part of education reform.

• I continue to work with the STEM initiatives by writing middle school engineering curriculum and working on the board of directors of the Alabama Mathematics, Science, Technology, and Engineering Consortium.

• I continue to lead PLT conferences and work sessions.

• I am heading up the effort to convert an old armory into an energy efficient, state of the art library/community resource center in the small, underserved community where I now live, and to involve other small communities around us in that effort.

Oh – and I also plan to keep reading. Just finished the Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick, The Black Hole War by Leonard Susskind, and I’m now reading The Uranium Wars by Amir D. Aczel. Love that Nook!

Photos: Education Week Teacher, MAEF, Learning Forward.

You can follow Anne on Twitter @ajollygal

Student Web ID: 5 Big Ideas

Jenny Luca is a middle grades teacher and librarian currently working as Director of Information Services at Toorak College, a secondary school in Mt.Eliza (outskirts of Melbourne) Australia. She’s an internationally respected education blogger at Lucacept: Intercepting the Web. This post originally appeared at the Powerful Learning Practice group blog Voices from the Learning Revolution. She presented on this work at the ISTE 2012 conference in San Diego.

by Jenny Luca

I work in an Independent School in Melbourne, Australia, and this past year we made a commitment to help our students (grades 7-12) create ePortfolios, using an Edublogs campus as the platform. Here are 5 reasons why we are making student blogging and portfolio development a high priority.

1. Positive digital footprints

These kids need to establish a positive digital footprint. Without question, it will be the norm for these students to be Googled when they begin to seek employment. Even employment of the part time variety! They need to cultivate their personal brand, and we can help them by encouraging them to post about the great things they are involved in at school. This can reflect what they are learning in their classrooms, or it can be a discussion of the co-curricular activities they enjoy. We want our students to understand that they can control the message about them that exists on the Web, and they can point prospective employers, colleagues or university admissions officers towards a digital footprint that they themselves have created when the time is right.

2. Communicating with digital tools

We want our students to have a handle on how you use digital tools for communication purposes, and not just through networks like Facebook. Plenty of our students are Facebook users, but there is a higher order skill set required to maintain consistent posts in a blog. We’ve taught our students how to set up categories, add widgets, use the HTML editor to embed code, and even how to tell the difference between a legitimate comment and someone who is spamming you. As our world moves ever more closely towards the Internet as the main vehicle for communication, we feel that we are helping our students understand the language they will need to navigate this new territory.

3. Transparency for parents and family

Our curriculum is becoming more transparent for our parent population. As our students write more and more about their learning, we now have a means for our parents to feel more connected to what happens at school. Where once a child would write for an audience of one – their teacher – now they are writing for a potentially much larger audience that includes their immediate and extended family. When you see a grandparent leave a comment on a child’s blog, it brings a bit of a tear to your  eye!

Just think, these students will have a digital archive of their learning, but not only that, they will have comments from friends and family members that they can revisit in years to come. Their access won’t be limited to the box of cherished school records and momentos at the top of the bedroom cupboard. For these kids, an internet connection will enable them to pull up their account from anywhere and revisit their childhood and adolescent school years.

4. New ways of thinking about Web tools

We need a digital space to demonstrate new methods of learning using Web tools. Already this year, our student ePortfolios have been used to embed Slideshare and Google Docs presentations, Glogsters, podcasts created with Garageband, Google MyMaps, Prezi’s and links to Wiki pages they have edited for differing subject areas. Just having our students understand how to hyperlink to other people’s content, and the potential this opens for two-way conversation, has been eye opening for them. These spaces have helped provide even more reasons for our teaching staff to utilize Web based tools and teach themselves new skills in the process.

5. Effective digital citizenship

The ePortfolios support our commitment to assist our students with the skills they need for effective digital citizenship. We are having the conversations we need to have about how you conduct yourself in digital spaces in the context of our curriculum, and not in isolated lecture style presentations that may hit a chord with some students, but miss the mark with others. When I talk to my 7th grade students, they can clearly articulate why it is we are using these ePortfolios. It makes sense to them, and they know it is important for their future lives. Believe you me, when a student tells you they need a really good digital footprint, it makes you feel like you’ve earned your keep that week!

Amazing or what?

I know I said I’d give you 5 reasons, but I can’t resist adding a very important 6th. For many of our students, their world view is changing as a result of posting in public spaces. Many of them have embedded clustr maps into their sidebars, and they can see where people are visiting from. Recently, one of our year seven students posted about the effect this global audience has had on her.

“Okay- so this is amazing.

I’ve used this blog since March 30th and so far it’s been a great resource and an amazing display of some of my work this year. It hasn’t just been my teachers, my classmates, my family and I that have looked at it- as of August 6 my blog has had 533 visits worldwide.

Amazing or what? WOW.”

Wow indeed.

photo: pixelsrzen, CC

Learn with Storyboards


Get Graphic! Using Storyboards to Write and Draw Picture Books, Graphic Novels, or Comic Strips
by Mark Thurman and Emily Hearn
Pembroke, 2010 – Learn more

by Laura Reasoner Jones, NBCT

As a person who works with upper elementary students to both organize their written work and to use photography and video to create stories, I was eager to see this book, and I was not disappointed.

As most teachers and parents know, getting a child to sit down and plan before starting a project is usually more difficult than getting the project completed. This book, with its entertaining style and engaging graphics, can lead a student through the planning process easily and thoroughly. Each chapter opens with a short guide for adults, and then talks directly to the students.

Get Graphic! begins by encouraging the student to read and discover what she likes, so that her creation will be pleasing to the future reader. Most kids will skip over this, of course, but it is there for their perusal and for the adult working with them. Then the authors jump right into plot development and art, illustrating how to show emotion with stick figures and facial expressions. And then they recommend (shocker!) research, under the guise of making the characters and backgrounds more believable.

A great deal of time in spent on drawing—the part most kids want to do. And this book with its many clear explanatory drawings makes that part seem simple, which is great for our reluctant artists. Thurman and Hearn make drawing scenes from different points of view look easy, or at least easier, to this non-artist. I particularly like the manner in which they give the theory behind the different points of view for drawings. For example, close-up-views are the most emotional part of the story. They also help us understand how to portray action and perspective.

Slow Down and Organize

As they guide the student through the creation process, the authors emphasize organization and creating drafts, traits we all want to see in our kids. They provide storyboard examples and templates that made me want to get out some markers and start something—very tempting! In my experience, storyboarding is one of the hardest things for elementary students to do—they want to rush to the end and see the finished product, and they are invariably disappointed. This book can go a long way toward stemming those impulses as it encourages and rewards carefully planning and execution while keeping interest high.

Other chapters in the book include detailed instructions on how to assemble books, making and using collage illustrations, using collages of letters and finding and using patterned papers, styles of lettering and making covers. I also appreciated the vocabulary pages titled “The Way an Artist Speaks”—we always need this but seldom find it in books for both teachers and students.

Writing the story comes last, as it should in a well-planned student effort. By the time you and your students have worked your way to this point, writing is almost effortless—all the planning and preparation is done.

As a technology specialist and elementary teacher, I would highly recommend Get Graphic! for all K-12 students—in content areas, art, and in supplemental programs using technology to create visual products.

And most of all, who could resist a book that has as its very first chapter title “Read, Read, Read!”

Laura Reasoner Jones is a National Board Certified Teacher in early childhood education and also holds a master’s degree in library media. She is a technology specialist in a northern Virginia public elementary school and also supports STEM careers clubs for girls.

Hungering for a Better World

Bill Ivey is Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Greenfield MA, where he also teaches Humanities 7, French I, and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands — and co-teaches ESL Humanities. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program.

Stoneleigh-Burnham School is a small independent school for girls in grades 7-12, founded in 1869. Bill is a bit younger than that. He was a charter member of our MiddleWeb e-listserv community, back in 1999, and helped organize several face-to-face gatherings of participants in that group. He continues to be active in its successor, AMLE’s MiddleTalk. This post first appeared at his school’s blog A View from the Nest.

by Bill Ivey

For those unfamiliar with it, The Hunger Games is a book by Suzanne Collins that describes a dystopian future wherein children representing their geographical district, known as Tributes, fight to the death for the (sarcasm on) entertainment (sarcasm off) value. There are three books to the series, and of course, the eagerly anticipated movie “The Hunger Games” was released this spring. As a middle school teacher who follows members of the #nerdybookclub on Twitter, I couldn’t have missed the release date if I tried. Many of my friends were braving the masses at midnight showings, which were as crowded as they were festive.

But as the release date drew near, an unexpected and disturbing dynamic arose. “I was pumped about the Hunger Games. Until I learned a black girl was playing Rue.” “And for the record im still pissed that rue is black…” “EWW Rue is black? I’m not watching.” (tweets quoted in “Racist Morons React to The Hunger Games: Rue is Black“)

Amandla Stenberg as Rue

Yes, Rue is Black. The 12-year-old Tribute is so described in The Hunger Games on page 45: “She has dark brown skin and eyes…” (Collins). That so many people missed that altogether might be perceived as a hopeful sign we are nearing a truly post-racial era, were some of people’s subsequent reactions a little less, well, racist. But even in a positive context, it would seem to suggest that assuming white skin as a default is such a strong instinct for some people that even when evidence to the contrary is presented, they still miss it. That in itself reveals a certain systemic racism and privilege even among some of those people of good will who are sincerely committed to being anti-racist.

And so, on discussion boards, blogs, Tumblrs and other sites, the Internet (became) populated with comments left by people who were infuriated by the racism… of people pointing out instances of racism. “There are more blacks that are racist than white because they have the feeling everyone owes them something.” wrote Kay in commenting on a blog that (middle grades math teacher) José Vilson wrote for CNN, titled “My View: Are we doing enough to make sure our kids aren’t racist?” Later on, WCT wrote, “People who complain about racism are the ones who are only going to perpetuate it. As long as somebody is going to continue to complain about racism it is going to continue to exist. If you want racism to stop just shut up about it…”

Right. Because historically, ignoring prejudice has worked so well.

Facing up to reality

In point of fact, I would argue, the most positive changes have been made by people willing (and/or forced) to face up to reality. It is easy to decide you are or want to be anti-racist. It is much harder work to act in a truly anti-racist fashion. You have to acknowledge that you see race, examine the assumptions you make so quickly you might not even notice them if you weren’t looking, and then work both to excise those assumptions from your thinking and to, very deliberately, avoid acting on them.

Stoneleigh-Burnham School 7th & 8th grade students

One of the most moving comments on Mr. Vilson’s blog came from a 15-year-old named John, who wrote: “i am a 15 year old boy and i have struggled with racism for a while. im white and was grownup with a fine family. but my dad being racist rubbed off on me. same with his brother my uncle who is around. it has taken me nearly a year now to fix my racism problem… now that im way less racist i hate people who are open about it. i hate my old self…” As much courage as it took to write that, it was probably less than it took for him to face up to the problem in the first place.

Therein lies my hope that one day we can, as Mr. Vilson put it in a companion blog to his CNN piece, “The Dreamer, The Believer [The Race-Man Cometh],” “create new [realities] where we can simultaneously love one another and recognize that we’re the same and different at once.” My hope grows as I see my Humanities 7 class sharing knowledge about and a deep sense of sadness tinged with anger at the death of Trayvon Martin, as MOCA agrees to propose dedicating a day in support of Trayvon Martin, and for that matter as MOCA discusses the Day of Silence in support of LGBT people.

Those new realities of which Mr. Vilson and I — and most, if not all, of our students — dream won’t just happen by themselves, though. You have to build them slowly, moment by moment.

How to Stop Wasting Minds

Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can Do About It
Ronald A. Wolk
ASCD, 2011 – Learn more

by Renee Moore, NBCT

In a wonderfully well-timed blessing, I received a copy of Ronald Wolk’s important book about American education policy, Wasting Minds. Wolk is the founder and former longtime editor of Education Week and Teacher Magazine. His well-grounded and thoughtful reflections on the condition of U.S. education, and most important, the change in direction needed to insure a better future, echo those of many others who believe the current reform agenda is misguided. This growing consensus, small though it is at present, bodes well for our nation and our children. Without a vision, the people perish.

Wolk’s contribution to this discussion is particularly helpful because it is so succinctly and directly stated. He divides the book into two parts: faulty assumptions and new visions. He begins with a highly accurate analysis of the problems with our current systems of education, based on his long history of documenting education reform efforts. Wolk rightly notes that because of our tendency to switch too quickly from one reform attempt to the next, we have very little longitudinal information on the outcomes of these prior efforts.

His primary assertion, and one with which I strongly agree, is that “we will make real progress only when we realize our problem in education is not mainly one of performance but one of design” (p. 25). In the current education reform push, we are trying to put better “parts” into an archaic machine engineered to produce what is no longer needed.

Furthermore, education inequality is not just a byproduct of this system but is, in fact embedded, into its very structure. Failure to recognize this has led us to this dangerously circular reasoning: That we can close achievement gaps or significantly improve the quality of education for historically underserved populations of students without completely redesigning the school systems that serve them.

Wolk cites numerous court cases from around the country and the Supreme Court that have declared, “If students are required to meet high academic standards to be promoted or to graduate, then public schools are obligated to provide them with an education that is adequate for them to accomplish that” (p. 89).

Wolk also points out that as we have pushed further and further into reliance on standardized testing, we have moved farther from what knowledge students actually need to succeed in modern life. Employers, as well as colleges, are increasingly pointing out that the skills they need public school graduates to have are not the ones we are measuring in the current state standardized testing. What the expanding role of testing has done is suck tremendous amounts of much-needed resources from school systems. Wolk cites two major studies that put that cost nationally between $500 million and $22 billion.

A realistic view of teaching’s place in ed reform

Wolk’s bold questioning extends to another almost religiously held view in today’s reform conversation: putting a highly qualified teacher in every classroom. He calls this goal good but impossible. His logic is that in a field as large as teaching, there will continue to be a range of quality, and although we should work harder to eliminate those who clearly do not belong in a classroom, the rest should not only be distributed across schools but, more important, receive ongoing support toward continuous improvement.

Despite some misconceptions about the reach of collective bargaining agreements, Wolk correctly observes that teachers actually have very little control over most of the key aspects of our classroom work and school operations. He asks, “How can anyone believe that the goal of placing a ‘good’ teacher in every classroom can be achieved without changing the conditions in which teachers work—the way schools are structured and operated?” (p. 62). The sad truth is if we did have a highly qualified teacher right now to put in every classroom in the United States, many of them who don’t quit or aren’t run out for refusing to toe the standardized line may well end up burned out, frustrated, and mediocre.

Summarizing the paradox that has plagued teaching in the United States throughout its history, Wolk concludes, “Although we refer to teaching as a profession, not much about the job is professional. Professionals like doctors and lawyers set their own performance standards, hold their members accountable for meeting those standards, determine to a large degree . . . their own working conditions, and receive compensation perceived to be commensurate with their professional contributions to society” (p. 59). These professional characteristics are denied to the vast majority of U.S. schoolteachers.

Wolk’s solution: a system redesign

Most impressive, however, are Wolk’s suggestions about what we need to do to correct many of these problems, and primary on that list is a compelling argument to redesign education around more individualized student learning. This closely parallels the vision of my teacher leader colleagues in our book Teaching 2030.

Teachers will more and more become what Wolk calls “advisors who guide students in educating themselves” (p. 101). On the surface, this seems like a radical, and to some even irresponsible, conception of teachers’ work. In reality, students and their families are already rapidly moving toward a much more personalized approach to shaping their own learning. Certainly, the incredible growth and influence of social media tools is one driving force in that shift. Another is the growing realization that children do not learn all things at the same pace and in the same way, and that we do them a great disservice when we try to force them into such fast-food-style learning patterns.

Of all Wolk’s recommendations, the idea of letting students (and their parents) direct their own learning is the one that may make some in education and policy most uncomfortable. An important aspect of system redesign that would support this is greater use of performance-based assessments. He lists several of the most common reasons more schools and districts have not embraced such assessments. Curiously, two that he does not mention are the higher cost and the more insidious philosophical view that education really should be indoctrination (and that view is held on the left and the right of the political spectrum); therefore, assessment should simply be regurgitation.

In line with his vision of the future, Wolk argues as I have, that we need to do away with the practice of dividing children by age into grade levels, making our learning systems truly integrated and seamless from prekindergarten through college.

Ronald Wolk may prove to be one of many prophets crying in the wilderness of education reform, but as Barnett Berry notes in his prologue to Teaching 2030, “We cannot create what we cannot imagine.”

Renee Moore is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network, a Milken National Educator award winner, and a former Carnegie Fellow & Mississippi Teacher of the Year. She blogs at TeachMoore.

RTI: Instruction First

Enhancing RTI: How to Ensure Success with Effective Classroom Instruction & Intervention
By Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey
ASCD, 2010Learn more

by Elizabeth Stein, NBCT

It’s easy to get lured into Enhancing RTI: How to Ensure Success with Effective Classroom Instruction and Intervention, by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey.

Within the first few pages, the reader is asked to “choose an adventure” that begins with a brief profile of Adam, “a fifth grader in a public school somewhere in the United States.” His educational experience is put in the hands of the reader, as we decide which learning conditions will serve Adam best. It isn’t too difficult to figure out — so long as the reader has moved beyond the traditional teacher-centered, “students as passive learners”, mentality.

Authors Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey combine their expertise to share knowledge and practical ways teachers can plan the learning experience within positive cycles of instruction. “This cycle—from assessment to instruction—enables teachers to observe students’ responsiveness to the targeted interventions and to proceed with instruction that is supported by ever-evolving performance data.”

Throughout Enhancing RTI, the authors make a clear and comprehensive case for the value and necessity of not only adopting an RTI mindset, but a strengthened model of RTI, so students can succeed. And their backgrounds and in-depth experience in the area of literacy add to the book’s practical approach.

One of the many valuable points the authors make clear is the distinction between intervention and instruction. As I read, I was reminded of the many discussions I’ve had with colleagues who have felt that RTI is all about providing interventions to those students who struggle. This book reminds teachers that the thrust of RTI is really all about high quality core instruction at the whole class level before students struggle.

The authors introduce readers to a powered up model of RTI that shines a spotlight on formative assessment and high quality core instruction. The focus is on effective whole-class instruction that can minimize the tendency to fall back on various layers of intervention. The authors call this more unambiguous model of RTI, “Response to Instruction and Intervention.”

They suggest that teachers should not wait to see if students will eventually respond to intervention; they must first become aware if students are responding to everyday classroon instruction. I think this distinction is critical for teachers who may not have a clear understanding of the premise of RTI. The authors include the following components for their strengthened model of RTI:

Making sure that the core instruction (at the Tier 1 level) is responsive, standards-based, and data-driven;

Making sure that Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions provide a continuous flow of instruction that is aligned to the core instruction;

Analyzing instruction around a three-way feedback loop that incorporates formative assessment results that inform the teacher and the students;

Making sure that collaborative efforts are established so educators and families work together successfully.

Each of the eight chapters is like a rung in a ladder leading to complete awareness of the RTI framework. Some chapter topics include:

Defining and refining the RTI process
Quality core instruction (Tier 1)
Supplemental Interventions (Tier 2)
Intensive Interventions for high risk learners (Tier 3)
The role of assessment and necessity of progress monitoring
Progress monitoring in action

Each chapter ends with a summary, or what the authors call “the takeaway.” This takeaway allows the reader to validate his or her reading of the text and begin to build a deeper understanding of what it takes to apply the comprehensive cycle of instruction described here.

After reading this book, the reader is ready to implement RTI with a clear focus and understanding that high quality core instruction is at the center of it all. The authors provide instructional planning tools, assessment rubrics, and pacing guides that are sure to make readers confident and ready to apply concepts right away. This book is perfect for those with and without a prior understanding of RTI. It will deepen any reader’s understanding and ability to implement the instructional cycles that define the RTI process.

The close of the book also brings to a close the particular adventure the authors have encouraged their readers to take. Adam, now entering 6th grade, has developed into a confident student. Adam’s story serves as an apt metaphor for the deep learning that can take place for every student when a school’s mission becomes aligning instruction, assessment and intervention to drive the learning process.

Elizabeth Stein is a National Board-certified special education teacher in the Smithtown Central School District on Long Island, N.Y. She also teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in special education and literacy. Among her published articles is this advice for new special education teachers. She also reviewed two books by Rick Wormeli that she says helped her make a mid-career shift from elementary to middle school.