Saturday, November 2, 2013

Anchors, close reading, and a case for problem-based mathematics

Think of the following:
  1. What is/was your grandfather like? (If you are or were lucky enough to have known two, pick one.)
  2. Who was your best friend in college?
  3. Where did you go on your last trip? What was it like?
Sometimes you have an epiphany that seems to connect to so many different parts of your life that you can't wait to share it with the world...and then you realize that - precisely because the epiphany was so tailored to your own experiences, almost designed to fit snugly into your brain - maybe the world won't appreciate how you felt discovering it.

That's not what worries me about this post. What worries me is that the idea behind this is probably something you have all thought of already, and I'm simply late to the party.

Here's the gist: In your life, there are a very few anchor experiences that define key eras of your life. Maybe these moments number in the tens, maybe in the hundreds - but compared to the gargantuan number of memories that we can call to mind when remembering, say, middle school (or the first year of marriage, or your first job, or that house on Garland Avenue, or ages 3-9, or that summer in Argentina, or your maternal grandfather, ...) the number of memories that have come to define the experience is pretty manageable.

These anchors are largely a function of how the mind works. In Funes el memorioso, author Jorge Luis Borges illustrates brilliantly that memory is more about forgetting than about excessive remembering - through a main character who is incapable of forgetting details and is thus entirely unable to generalize (for example, the word "dog" has little meaning to Funes, as there is no unique set of characteristics that all "dogs" share.) As Borges points out, if we actually remembered everything equally, it would be difficult to make sense of anything.

I would guess these anchors are somewhat universal and, over time, become somewhat arbitrary. They're not always the most important memories, and they're not always the most representative of the experience they have, in some cases, come to supplant. When Iyouthought of your responses to the initial questions above, I imagine the same image of your grandfather came to mind that usually comes to mind. To me, the house on Garland always begins with a specific snapshot: Bamboo curtains against a mango-colored accent wall, with the punishing Fresno heat coming through the large sliding glass door. My grandfather always introduces himself to my working memory by blowing a low note on a trombone just above a small child's flapping hair, or leaning back and smiling on a couch in a beach house. Niagara Falls is a view of the falls on my right with my kids playing in the bath to my right. From there, sure, we can imagine a handful of other memories, and push ourselves to remember many more, but the important highlight here is that this one memory often serves as the entry point to all the others.

If possible, think of something new you've learned recently, as we're all famously bad at remembering what it was like to learn something that we now know without thinking. I'll focus on something I started learning long ago (over half my life ago, at this point), so there's a good chance I'll get at least some of this wrong:

Most of my anchors for Spanish vocabulary and grammar came from popular (or once-popular) songs...our teacher enlisted Juan Luis Guerra to teach us about the subjunctive, Joan Baez and Mercedes Sosa for the present perfect tense. In college, I had a professor who emphasized analyzing and memorizing poetry, and for a time I would remember lines of these poems when trying to recall whether a certain object was a masculine or femenine noun. I still remember the line "y caliente...como agua de la fuente" when hesitating for an instant to recall whether to say "el fuente" or "la fuente." What I didn't realize until today was that all of these times when we spent two days on the lyrics to one song, analyzing what the songs meant, we were doing a form of close reading. We were determining the main ideas presented in the song, but we were also internalizing a boatload of vocabulary and grammar in context.

Two weeks ago, my epiphany came during a one-hour discussion about close reading with our instructional leadership team - Rebecca, our principal; Nick, our ELA dean; Chris, our math dean; Dacia, our regional superintendent; and me, our historian (as in history coach, but also as in high school club member who was voted neither president nor treasurer and thus goes home to blog about it on everyone else's behalf.) We talked through a close reading lesson designed around JFK's famous civil rights address, giving our own critiques of the lesson and then reading the critiques by Common Core co-author David Liben and extracting from these some huge lessons regarding Close Reading. These takeaways were fairly life changing:

  1. Yes, close reading is about the text. Specifically, a deep understanding of the central idea(s) of a text should guide what kids do. I'm proud to say I knew this one; I'm more proud to say that my understanding of close reading before today stopped pretty much here. So I learned something from this experience :)
  2. Close reading is also the activity where we get the most traction with metacognition. Generally, I'm not a huge fan of metacognition as a reading strategy, and I think it leads to a lot of wasted time...but in this context, it makes a lot of sense. To me, it sounds a bit like this: "So notice where you stopped there. Why did you do that?...Which of these sentences seems to jump out? Why did it catch your mind's attention? Make a mental note; that's what you can do as a writer to catch your audience's attention...and as a reader, think of where the author is trying to grab your attention and what they're trying to tell you at that moment."
  3. Close reading is one of the best ways to teach and reinforce specific vocabulary.

Points 2 and 3 were new to me, and point 3 had me reflecting on everything I had ever learned, leading to the stream of consciousness you may have wisely abandoned by now. Because when you read a small sample of text over and over again, and focus intensely on its meaning, you are exposed to the same words in the same context to the point where you essentially memorize certain lines of text and their literal meanings. From JFK's speech you may remember "a moral issue" and "a partisan issue" and the amount of time each of these stayed in your working memory while grappling with larger issues...from there, you'll likely associate (at least for some time) the words "moral" and "partisan" with these specific lines.

When I was first learning Spanish (now over half my life ago), I learned through a lot of close reading in the form of listening to the same songs over and over. Juan Luis Guerra taught me the subjunctive and "la fuente" (as opposed to the incorrect "el fuente".) Joan Baez and Mercedes Sosa taught me how to express gratitude while reinforcing what little I knew about the present perfect tense. I was reminded in our Close Reading conversation that repeated exposure to many of these song lyrics led to a level of memorization that allowed me to call specific experiences to mind in order to remember - even at the word level.

In math, this brought me to the idea of a problem-based approach to learning. Sha Reagans, incredible math teacher and current principal of Newark Collegiate Academy (High School), used to teach an 'anchor problem' for every concept, so that students could refer to this problem when thinking through the concept later. From my own schooling, I still remember the "interior angle of a five-pointed star" problem when it seems a situation could become more clear by circumscribing (drawing a circle around) a figure. I remember "Twelve Days of Christmas" and "Snail Climbing a Wall" when thinking about the limitations of discrete functions. This may be another case of me looking for confirming evidence, but this line of thinking leads me to believe ever more firmly in a problem-based approach to math teaching and learning.

Throughout our lives, though we are subconsciously choosing anchors to represent various experiences, these anchors don't always telegraph themselves. That bamboo curtain didn't jump out and say, "Take note: I'm more important than the dusty backyard," but I always think of it first regardless. In school, however, the anchors I remember first when thinking of Spanish or math or chemistry are usually the carefully chosen and designed experiences chosen by my teachers. Furthermore, we didn't simply experience these once and move onto the next thing - we spent time with each to ensure that the memory would stick.

For teachers, I see one clear implication of this idea:

Know what you want the anchors to be, and design students' learning experiences around these anchors. Prioritize the most important content and ideas, and ensure that students have repeated exposure to this content and these ideas. Get the most out of small experiences, rather than simply trying for more experiences.

I'm curious what parts of this do not resonate with folks. Does anybody experience anchors in their own lives differently? How do we reconcile the idea of learning primarily through a small number of well-chosen experiences with the (conflicting?) idea of exposure to a broad base of content, breadth of vocabulary exposure? I'd appreciate any thoughts you have in the comments.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

On chess

In early July, I taught our kids to play chess. Barbara thought it was OK, but Sebastian ate it up. He now asks to play chess all the time and I, of course, oblige. The other day, he asked the esteemed Mr. Pierre to play. See the photo at right.

Here's the problem: I'm not very good at chess. I mean, I know how the pieces move, and I can think a couple moves ahead, but whenever I'm up against an opponent with any kind of chess training, I'm toast. So while I'm consistently beating Sebastian for now (brag!), I'm not really going to be able to help him become great. Because I think, in order to become great, your teacher know a lot about the subject - at least good enough to ask you great questions and push your thinking.

Here's the context for that photo: It was about 15 minutes before our first Achievement First Day of Practice for the year, which is a funny name for a day when all teachers get together for professional development. I've been to a lot of professional development over the past 10 years, most of it actually pretty good (I know this is not typical; I live a charmed life.) None of this PD, however, has been as focused on building teacher content knowledge as this day was. We dove into student work to engage in conversations about how to get our kids closer to excellence. We looked over the upcoming units we were going to teach, making sure we really, really understood the content we were going to teach and how we were going to go about developing it. We had each done several hours of pre-work, mostly in the form of diving into the content we'd be teaching, to make sure we were going into these conversations prepared to discuss big ideas. And at the end of the day, we definitely had a much better understanding of the stuff we were going to teach. 

I love this development, because you could teacher-move the heck out of a class, but if you don't understand the material, kids aren't likely to get very far. Conversely, when teachers deeply understand the content they're teaching, they can take kids really far. I think of John Rajeski in Atlanta, a professional writer-turned-teacher whose students consistently become solid writers. I think of my high school history teacher Mr. Ethen, who seemed to live and breathe history. Without the deep knowledge that these teachers possess, the ceiling for their students would likely be fairly low. But this doesn't mean you have to be a content expert before you start teaching. If you find yourself in charge of teaching something you don't know much about, you can learn this stuff - it just takes work. And I'm glad that, in the case of our small network of schools, we've decided to make this so important that we're spending a few days outside of school this year exclusively on educating ourselves.

Back to chess. Barbara is starting to come around (see photo), and now I'm even more psyched about our kids getting better at chess. This means, of course, that I'm first psyched about learning a lot more about chess myself. I've been practicing with a good book, but now that I've found Elizabeth Spiegel's blog and corresponding curriculum, I know where I'm going next, and I know it's going to be a lot of fun for everybody involved...much like I know our classes at school are only going to get better and more interesting as we continue to deepen our own content knowledge.

Game on.

Monday, August 19, 2013

That's that terminology I don't like

My face-to-face and phone-to-phone conversations about Achievement First tend to become a love-fest of sorts...there is so much thoughtful stuff going on in our network, plus I love our school, and there's really nowhere else I'd rather be. But there are some things about the ed reform movement at large, including AF, that I'm not a huge fan of. In particular, though I love so much of what we do, I don't always love how we talk. I'm not asking for these things to be changed, and I think I understand the rationale behind all of the terms (and will continue to use many of them when appropriate because I generally believe that alignment is a good thing.) Here is a brief list:

1. Upspeak.   This is where you end every statement with a rising tone, as if it were a question? But what's more annoying? is when it's used? at every natural pause? in a SENTence. (the last word is spoken in a definitive downward-moving tone.) I reckon this is a function of ours being a youthful movement/organization, and that this linguistic feature is merely a mirror of a general shift-at-large over the past 15-20 years. I don't have any philosophical qualms with this one, and I don't believe it belies an underlying lack of confidence (as Taylor Mali posits); I just find it annoying.

2. Scholars.   I had some professors in college who were scholars. There were Biblical scholars, scholars of medieval Spanish writing, scholars of 19th-century Brazil, world-class mathematicians (who are scholars in their own right), and Constitutional scholars. I've heard the argument before that calling ten-year-olds "scholars" belittles the term...and that may be the case, but I know that's not the spirit in which the term is used. It is used to mean "a future scholar", or "one who is studying and working hard, as scholars do." That's cool. I like reminding kids I'm working with that they are on their way to doing great things. What I don't like is the implicit statement that we're not going to treat kids like kids. Rafe Esquith likes to remind us all that kindergarteners barely know where their belly buttons are, and that treating them as if they were already in college is a bit absurd. I think about Barbara and Sebastian, ages 7 and 6, respectively, and it cracks me up to think that they are referred to as "scholars" at school. Yes, I hope they end up extremely well educated, but I'm also aware that they currently enjoy ice cream, have horrible taste in television shows ("Dog with a Blog"), and don't like wearing pants at home (but seriously, who does?) I propose that we replace the term "scholars" with "kids" and, if it helps us keep their potential in everybody's mind, focus on asking these "kids" great (dare I say rigorous?) questions that inspire them to think deeply.

2.5.   KIPPsters.   This one is just pure baggage. In 2009, when KIPP Fresno closed, we had to confront the truth that there would be no KIPP for our kids to come back to. Tying their identity, even tangentially, to a school that was about to close seemed like a bad idea; we preferred, instead, to focus on helping them develop their character regardless of their surroundings. It also reinforced the "you're better than all those other kids" narrative that goes against our overall mission of helping all kids. I'm fine with "this is a special place" and "let's work on going against the norm and becoming extraordinary"; I'm less OK with "you're better because you won the lottery and got into this school." Though I think it's obvious, my dislike of this term has nothing to do with the kids this term is used to refer to. I love the kids I've had the pleasure to teach in Fresno and in Jacksonville, and I've met a lot of amazing kids from KIPP schools across the country. I just don't love the term KIPPster.

3. Rigor (and its derivatives).   Does this mean "difficult"? "At a level that requires application or analysis, rather than simple understanding or recall"? "Scaffolded in such a way that kids can figure out the meaning on their own, but in a stepwise fashion"? When we were looking at some of our mistakes after the Year of Terrible Results (2011, in Jacksonville), we identified "rigor" as a huge gap. What we meant was that we were asking questions that were too easy and that didn't force kids to keep the concept in working memory (in order to apply the concept) long enough for it to make its way into long-term memory. I understand that "rigor", in our case, was a shortcut for this more precise but long-winded verbiage, but it means so many different things to so many different people that it now leads to more confusion than clarity. Let's either have this word mean one thing or take a break from it until we figure out how to dress it up to convey the specific meaning we're going for (e.g. "You should try increasing the Blooms-Rigor of your final question" vs. "Maybe your questions aren't difficulty-rigorous enough.")

4.   The Achievement Gap.   I'm not the first one to publicly dislike this term because it takes "white achievement" as the norm and implicitly accepts that this should be the norm by comparing other groups to white students' achievement.  I'd much prefer to talk about "educational inequity" or "gross unfairness" (which reminds me of Dr. King's quote, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere", indicating that educational inequity is everybody's problem.) Look, I don't have a problem comparing our students' work to that of their wealthy, largely white counterparts, because I want our kids to do as well as possible, and this is the group that is currently doing the best. But let's just name it. We're not reinforcing a standard sense of norm by saying we're comparing our kids to normal kids out there who have regular opportunities; we're comparing our kids to the students who are performing the best. On standardized tests, in writing samples, and the like.

5. Acronyms and ultra-precise terminology for everything.   Last weeks, we sat in an otherwise very good training that took a 3-minute detour to clarify the difference between TDQs and EBQs, how each related to the PBA in its relative need for framing and context vs. contextualization. The point of the session was to learn how to ask better questions - why can't we just call this "asking better questions" and then clarify what characteristics good questions have at various points in the lesson, to achieve different purposes, etc.? I get the need to precisely define terms, but I think we may have jumped the shark here. Some of you may

6. Trite phrases.   There are a host of other words and phrases I think are comically overused, like transformational impact (particularly to describe some good-sized jump on a math test), climbing the mountain to college (which most often runs together as Clem The Man To College), and...

...write your guesses/contributions in the comments :)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Remembering the Gatorade: Reflections on our family trip to Venezuela

I spent about 2 ½ weeks in Venezuela this summer with my wife Maria, our daughter Barbara (age 7), and Sebastian (age 5, then 6). I then came back to a job I love in the US while the rest of my family remained for a couple more weeks. Most people I have seen since returning to the US have asked about the trip, and I have yet to find an answer that really captures an honest answer to the question, “how was it?”

Truthfully, there was some good and some bad, but in the end it doesn’t really matter how it was in some general sense. I tend to polarize my past experiences after the fact, and I often remind myself of this when I’m in the middle of an experience that lends itself to this type of polarization. For college in general, my summer working in Argentina, and a recent trip to Niagara Falls, I remember thinking I would probably idealize the experience ex post facto and – lo and behold – I think back fondly on those times, even though not a lot of dopamine was coursing through my veins at the time. The two weeks my family and I spent together in Venezuela, on the whole, were a great way to spend the summer, and, more importantly, were crucial to our kids' development. As time distances me more from the experience, I’m increasingly seeing things this way, though there was certainly a lot I didn’t love at the time. I call this remembering the Gatorade. Skip to the end if you don't particularly care about the details but still want to know what a sports drink has to do with memory.

If you’re curious about what all happened, here’s a brief list:
  • Our family of four was staying with my wife’s family, which is not without its issues.
  • Venezuela is currently a very dangerous country. One night, we returned to the house at 1am and had to call a friend who was ‘in’ with some of the local troublemakers in order to escort us back home. There’s a lot of stress because of this sense that things have never been this bad – most people we talked to had been robbed at some point in the past year, which can take its toll.
  • Venezuela is facing its worst economic crisis in recent times. When a store receives a shipment of butter, or corn flour, or toilet paper, there are lines down the block. It’s tough to live in a place where you don’t have access to what you need. 
  • I was sick for about half of the trip, which is par for the course. It’s all but impossible to avoid unfiltered water, even with a great deal of effort, and this water has the effect of absolutely wrecking my intestines. Every time.
  • The exchange rate is artificially held low (by a factor of 5) by the government. So the prices are sky-high for people who live in Venezuela, and dirt-cheap for visitors. 
  • Interestingly, we filled up a 30-liter tank of gas for 3 bolivars, which amounts to about 10 cents (at the unofficial exchange rate.) This one cent per gallon exchange rate is the result of exorbitant oil subsidies, which some op-eds in local papers assert primarily help the rich (who can afford cars.) I’m skeptical of this argument, since people who ride buses also end up paying for gas, albeit indirectly. Regardless, that’s some cheap gas.
  • I was on a plane a few weeks ago, and for the entire 40-minute duration of the flight, I was the most scared I’ve ever been. I filed an FBI report about it later, and I’d include the details here, but my sense is that the FBI doesn’t like people blabbing on about things you’ve asked them to investigate.
  • It was absolutely wonderful to spend so much time with Barbara and Sebastian.
  • Though it was a bummer to not be able to walk around Maria’s family’s neighborhood (for reasons of safety), the upside was that I got to read a lot. I read or listened to the following:
    • The Alchemist
    • Moonwalking with Einstein
    • Practice Perfect (again)
    • Antifragile (almost done!)
    • To Sell Is Human
    • The Book Whisperer
    • A bunch of Radiolab podcasts
…And, inspired by Josh Foer, I decided to memorize the only list I had handy, which was the list of 42 “rules for getting better at getting better” from Practice Perfect. Going into PD season, this has definitely come in handy!

  • Barbara started speaking Spanish with everybody she could find, having extensive conversations about anything and everything. 
  • Sebastian’s last trip to Venezuela was when he was 2. His Spanish isn’t as good, and he was getting really frustrated with the fact that everybody seemed to constantly feel the need to tell him that his Spanish wasn’t very good. His response was to ‘prove’ that he speaks Spanish by rattling off a quick dialogue: “Yo  sabe español. Como estas bien como estas tu bien como estas tu bien gracias.” Sadly, as those of you who actually habla the español already know, this didn’t help his case very much.
  • After I came back, Sebastian had his 6th birthday party, and apparently a good time was had by all.
  • I really enjoyed spending time with my father-in-law. He’s a good guy, and we haven’t spent a lot of time together in the past. My favorite episode on this trip was when he invited himself (and me) to go fishing at 9pm with a fisherman who was going out for his daily catch. They caught the fish; we promptly fried and ate it. 
  • The low point of the trip was at a concert (which was great – Billo’s Caracas Boys, which is still a phenomenal group) when I ran to the restroom, only to find that there was no toilet paper. I ran to another restroom owned by the same locale and again found no paper. I ran out and told the manager there was no toilet paper, and he replied, “That’s correct.” Ultimately some napkins from the bar had to suffice, but nothing can take back the sheer terror of his response.
In the end, though, this trip wasn’t about me having the time of my life. I left for the last two weeks (to come back and work), and my family stayed; by the end of the trip, our kids didn’t want to come back because they were having so much fun with their cousins. Barbara told me she wants to go back to Venezuela when she’s 25. I say that sounds great, as long as the country is less of a mess by then.

So, looking at the above, if all incidents have equal weight (which they don’t; wondering how your kids will do when you likely die in a plane crash isn’t something you cancel out with fresh fish), there’s about an equal ratio of positive to negative comments. That’s nice, as it allows me to choose how I remember the trip. 

For guidance, I’ll go with my natural tendency, but look to Barbara for guidance on what to call this tendency:

Barbara told me something about the trip yesterday that made me think we’re probably doing some combination of raising her right/being very lucky parents and maybe not talking about social norms quite enough. We were walking through the soda/sports drink aisle at Target, with lots of people around, when she loudly broke the silence with: “One day in Venezuela I had really bad diarrhea. I had to eat only mashed potatoes and drink Gatorade all day. It was the best day ever.”

 Let’s coin the phrase “remember the Gatorade” to describe the glass-half-full phenomenon when applied retroactively. So, remembering the Gatorade, it was a pretty good trip. We reconnected with a part of our family we don’t see often, our kids developed a more rounded sense of who they are and where they come from, and we’ve all gained in some way from the experience of truly living in a place so radically different from where we are living now.

Teaching tip (look for this in Teach Like A Champion 2.0):
Use the last 20 seconds of your class to Remember the Gatorade, reminding kids of what a great time you’ve all had, how hard everybody worked, how much they all embraced and learned from mistakes…even if this stuff only happened a little bit. People will remember the end of class positively, and – if this is what you’re doing at the end of class – will, by extension, remember all those positive attributes and come to class tomorrow ready to learn from mistakes, work hard, and have lots of fun doing it.

Monday, July 1, 2013

A Raisin In The Sun

I've spent the last 3.5 days packing up our apartment (to move to a house a couple blocks away), teaching our kids to play chess (while cracking myself up by playing out several scenes of Searching for Bobby Fischer in my mind), running, napping, and reading up a storm. In fact, since Friday afternoon, I've read the following:
The Misfits,
Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key,
Getting Away with Murder (the true story of the Emmitt Till case),
The end of Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls,
Everything Doug Lemov has ever written on the Teach Like a Champion blog, and, most recently,
A Raisin in the Sun.

(all in all, about 700 pages, but, more interesting: Which one of these things is not like the other?)

I saved A Raisin in the Sun for last because I was least excited about it; I'd read it as a freshman in high school but didn't particularly like it. I remember, in fact, arguing with my English teacher about the movie adaptation, me on the side of "Sidney Poitier is totally over-acting this scene", and her on the side of "well, he was nominated for a Golden Globe largely on the basis of that scene so..."

Well, now.
It turns out I see things a little differently at 32 than I did when I was 14. This time, from cover to just-before-the-cover, I found the play profoundly heartbreaking. Not so much because of what math teachers would call the surface features of the play (the plot, for example), but rather because the underlying tension and frustration all but scream at the reader. It all felt very personal.

So, here are a couple takeaways:
1. The backdrop of this play is a wonderfully horrific description of the effects of systemic oppression, and
2. It is really, really hard for 14-year-olds to truly understand literature about the human condition.

Disclaimer re: #1: I haven't ever suffered the effects of systemic oppression directly, so I'm sure a lot of the meaning and connection was still lost on me.

Thoughts re: #2: Just as background knowledge influences literal and inferential comprehension in a big way, so life experience seems to be the driving factor behind emotional reactions to literature. As a teacher, this is a good reminder that some of your kids are going to connect very deeply to some themes, but not everybody really has the experience to get all worked up over a character deciding not to go to work for a couple days. This is why I cry get bad allergies in both eyes when I read The Giving Tree with my kids, while they're just glad we're reading a nice story together.

Bonus thoughts: Reading all of this in such a short time was a good reminder that there is a huge difference between good literature and great literature, and the distinction is just as much in the reader's mind as it is in the text itself.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Ort Report

Last week, our lower school (5th and 6th grades) went "camping" at Camp Jewell, close to the Massachusetts border. We had a fantastic time - we all had one heck of a time: Kids canoed and climbed rocks and swam in the lake and built a fire and went on a nature hike and performed campfire skits and made s'mores and...we learned about ort.

At every meal, our camp counselor would have us sing the "ort report" song and would reveal how many pounds of ort we had left uneaten at our last meal.

As you may be able to see from the bar graph, we steadily reduced the amount of ort left at every meal. That's good - it's generally a good thing to get kids to care about not leaving so much food and drink behind at meals. And all that really happened was this: We got excited to see the number (by doing a quick song and dance), our counselor gave the occasional tip* on how to reduce our ort, and we saw the number at every meal - represented neatly in a bar graph.

*My favorite tip was this: When using milk for cereal, keep in mind that one bowl of cereal takes about half a carton of milk. So you may want to find someone else who wants cereal and just get one carton of milk among the two of you.

I like the ort report for two reasons:

1. It helps kids care about a great cause, and one I suspect we don't talk about as much as we used to - not wasting food. But this isn't the nebulous "kids in China are starving" argument; it's more of a soft sell.
2. The ort report, whose stated purpose is to show how many scraps of food (and drink) were left uneaten (and...undrankened?), also helps foster other great habits: cooperation among table-mates, planning ahead for what you'll actually eat and drink, and erring on the side of taking less food than one may take otherwise. Economists call these other effects 'positive externalities.'

This all got me to thinking: What are the other 'ort report' -type activities that produce positive externalities in schools?

The one practice that comes to mind is the practice of asking students for evidence (usually text evidence) to support their answers. This gets kids to read more carefully, to evaluate each other's answers more carefully, check their own thoughts to make sure they're supported by evidence, and, ultimately, learn to pay closer attention to details in the first place.

Other than that, I'm struggling to find something as useful or elegant as the ort report. I'd love to hear more ideas in the comments...

In the meantime, one positive externality of the fact that this ritual is about ort is that, in reading this short post, you learned a new word exclusively through repeated exposure. Nobody defined ort for you, but, if pressed to define the word, you could probably get pretty close to the dictionary definition. This is the power of embedded, indirect vocabulary instruction. So thanks for reading, and congratulations on your new word - you ort to be very proud of yourself.

Sorry about that last one...

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Should kids read less?

Instead of reading for four hours a day, I think our kids would be better off reading for two hours a day and consuming carefully selected media (movies, television programs, podcasts, plays, and the like) for the remaining two hours. Here I mean National Geographic specials, Mythbusters, historical speeches, and anything else that meets essentially the same level of criteria we would set for the books and texts our kids read.) Real Housewife fans, sorry for getting your hopes up.

When you're reading, assuming what you're reading meets some minimum bar of quality, you are doing a couple of things:
#1. practicing decoding, fluency, and comprehension skills (i.e. practicing reading), and
#2. learning something about the world that can someday apply to other texts you'll read, or, in a more broad sense, other situations you'll encounter. This means context, content knowledge, and vocabulary.

When you're watching TV, you're not doing #1. Well, you're not practicing decoding or fluency, but you are practicing some sort of comprehension skills. And, unless your decoding and fluency skills are incredibly advanced, you're doing #2 much, much faster. By "doing #2", I mean building context, content knowledge, and vocabulary - not pooping. Grow up.

Just like professional athletes build their football abilities on the field/court/pitch part of the time, and in the weight room the other part of the time, we need to start targeting the knowledge gaps in more efficient ways than waiting for a child to sound out and slog through text he doesn't yet understand. Of course, the underlying philosophy here is that content knowledge (specific "background knowledge" for a given text) is essential for reading comprehension, and matters much more than a more generalized list of reading strategies.

If you're not convinced, I invite you to read the first three paragraphs of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "The Long Winter", a 4th-grade-level book, and think about what circumstances (in terms of applying reading strategies and knowing something about the world) would lead to a middle-school student from New Haven to be able to answer the questions that follow. What would such a student from New Haven have to have experienced in his/her education (or in his/her life) in order to fully comprehend these three paragraphs and accurately answer the questions that follow?

1. What does "corked it tightly" mean?
2. When does this story take place (what time of year? what time of day?)
3. Show me the motions Laura likely used when she "drew up a pailful of water".
4. After Laura had drawn the pailful of water, why did she rinse the jug?
5. What caused the prairie to shimmer? What color is it likely shimmering?

You and your kids can strategize away - good luck with that. In the meantime, we'll be driving to Iowa (hey Trpkosh), following the position of the sun, and handling hot, dark objects while discussing how color affects heat absorption and how evaporation has a cooling effect. Or, at the very least, we'll be watching TV and movies about the prairie, and building our knowledge of the world. You may decode one percent faster from the extra reading practice, but we will have a leg up when it comes to forming a coherent mental model of what we're reading.

As a bonus, here is a video of a 'science walk' my daughter Barbara and I took last week. She undoubtedly grew as a reader during these 45 minutes - more, I'd say, than if we had taken 45 minutes to read about flowers and erosion. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Do Whales Eat Bears?

This is a post about messing around, but it's also about background knowledge, conceptual change, and inquiry. The genesis of this is described below, but the driving force behind the final YouTube video was a chance to entertain Joseph. This one's for you, compadre.

Sebastian (age 5) asked me today, "Daddy, do whales eat bears?" I thought it was an interesting question, and a good opportunity for me to practice building conceptual change. So I failed right out of the gate by not asking him why he thought whales might eat grizzly bears. But then I quickly redeemed myself with the following line of questioning:
Me: Where do grizzly bears live?
Sebastian: Grizzly bears live in caves.
Me: Right; where do whales live?
Sebastian: They live under the ocean.
Me: So can whales eat grizzly bears?
Sebastian: No.
Me: Why not?
Sebastian: Because they don't live in the same place.
Sebastian: Then what does eat bears?
This was fantastic. I asked what he thought, and he didn't know. It turns out I didn't really know, either (my guess was "some humans"), so I asked my good friend Google. Then Sebastian and I read this website together:

Here's a screenshot, so you can follow along:

Here was our line of questioning:

After the first paragraph:
Me: So what eats bears?
Sebastian: Bears eat other bears.
Me: Wow! That's messed up. What else might eat some bears?
Sebastian: [points to the newt from the unrelated picture to the right] This?
Me: Let's go back to the text to find out.
Sebastian: Oh, bears.
Me: Read the first sentence for me again. [He reads it.]
Sebastian: Oh, so tigers eat bears sometimes.
Me: You're right. Do they eat all kinds of bears?
Sebastian: No; they only eat little bears.
I actually think this was the right sequence. Going back to look for evidence is a good place to start, and I'm starting to see, as a teacher, that there is a huge connection between the practice of looking for text evidence to support an assertion and the idea of conceptual change: We're looking to confirm or refute what we believe, and the way to do it is to look at real evidence.

So Sebastian reads me the second paragraph, and we dig into which types of bears are most dangerous to other bears. We have a short conversation about grizzly bears, Sebastian assures me he is not afraid of grizzly bears because he knows Tae Kwon Do, and I remind him that he actually should be afraid of grizzly bears because they are dangerous and will eat you:

Me: If a grizzly bear and a black bear are in the same place, which one might eat the other?
Sebastian: The grizzly bear might eat the black bear.
Me: Why?
Sebastian: That's because grizzly bears are bigger and stronger.
Me: And if, instead of a black bear, a grizzly bear is standing next to you, what might happen?
Sebastian: The grizzly bear might eat me.

Bingo. I don't want my kid going all Tim Treadwell just because he is a yellow belt in Tae Kwon Do. Notice also that we've covered a bunch of topics in some surface-level depth that we will continue to build on in lots of future conversations: Asia, the fact that there are many types of bears, the vague idea that you can't be eaten by something that is far, far away from you, and some sort of a reciprocal relationship between A-eats-B and B-is-eaten-by-A.

Then, in an homage to the great Joseph Yrigollen and Kyle of fame, I wrap it all up with a meta-lesson on Key Points:

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Hard Sell

Imagine two schools:

School #1 has an air-tight system of accountability for students and spends an enormous amount of time and energy ensuring that kids, on the most basic level, follow all teacher directions, complete their homework, and re-do this work when it does not meet the standard.

School #2 invests the same amount of time as School #1, but instead uses this time to develop teachers' ability to plan stronger lessons, manage their classrooms using teacher 'moves', look at and respond to data, and infuse character education into their lessons.

To which school would you rather send your kids?
At which school would you rather teach?

And yes, I will go ahead and acknowledge that this is a bit of a false choice, and that the "so what?" argument applies to both schools - if you plan a great lesson and nobody pays attention, so what? And if everybody pays attention but nothing worthwhile is planned, so what? I encourage you to put these misgivings aside and indulge me a bit here...

For a long time, I thought I would want to send my kids to School #2, and I was certain that School #2 was a better place to work. I had seen a lot of School #1s make the transition to School #2s, and had even participated in a transition a lot like it at KIPP Fresno. I assumed this to be the enlightened path - it only natural to want to go beyond compliance and really dive head-first into better teaching. Besides, I attended some pretty great schools as a kid, and they were all like School #2.

There were a few defining moments that helped change my mind:

1. In 2010, we started KIPP Impact without a well-defined discipline system, and realized within the first week that this would inevitably lead to much less learning, less safety in the building, and, in the end, nothing but frustration and resignation as we watched kids make decisions that were not in their own best interests or in the best interests of those around them.

2. Also in 2010, I began working with a lot of Teach For America corps members who, despite their drive and passion, essentially had no learning going on in their classrooms because they were told to simply plan great lessons. They had not been taught to manage their classrooms, and their kids were suffering as a result.

3. In 2011, my daughter Barbara started kindergarten. I was largely absent from her life during this year and could not read to her and, at the end of her kindergarten year, she was far behind where she could have been in her reading. When I visited the school, many kids, including Barbara, were off task, and very little effort was made to get them back on task.

4. At this point, I've seen time and again the effect of basing a discipline system exclusively on teacher-student relationships, and it appears to be a key point of vulnerability in the design of many schools. One year of high teacher turnover and the school is set back significantly.

So here's where I stand right now:

School #2 can work when the school is staffed by veteran teachers who truly know their craft and have been teaching effectively for 10+ years. Let me add a condition here: This school should have no more than one less-experienced teacher joining the faculty in any given year.

However, any time there are less-experienced teachers involved, I am putting my money on School #1. Because here's the thing: School #3 has an airtight discipline system and puts time and energy into planning great lessons and teaching character and responding to student data. And the only path to School #3 is to start with School #1 (a strong accountability system) and then reap the rewards of time not spent dealing with discipline or making up for class time lost because of misbehavior or inattention.

But WHY?

Premise #1: Let's begin with the premise that kids, much like adults, don't always act in their own long-term self-interest. Then let's remind ourselves that it is our job to act in students' best long-term interest, even when they don't.

Premise #2: Kids learn more by doing than they do by staring out the window, messing with the other kids around them, sleeping, or pretending to work. Yes, they would probably almost always learn more from hands-on activities than worksheets, provided they are actually doing those hands-on activities, and not simply building towers using fraction strips. But worksheets with teacher feedback and opportunities to learn from mistakes are better than window-staring, right?

Premise #3: Though we don't always make rational decisions in the long run, we are remarkably consistent at making rational decisions in the short term (see Freakonomics.)

So the key, then, is to provide short-term rationale that help students lean towards what is actually in their best interest in the long run. If you don't do your homework, you will have to stay in from recess tomorrow. Though it may be more fun to mess around in class than to do your work, you really don't want the teacher to call home about your choices. The social capital you stand to gain from talking back to your teacher is not worth staying after school all week. And making the positive version of all of these choices, as it turns out, helps you and all the kids around you in the long run...even if that's not why you're making these choices.

Underlying all of this is Mike Goldstein's idea of the "misbehavior tax" (which he refers to here), which undercuts learning more than just about anything else in the classroom. This is not behavior for behavior's sake; it's behavior for the sake of work for the sake of learning.

Added benefits of the hard sell

I've met a lot of teachers who want their classroom to be an egalitarian haven, where kids and teachers make every decision together, nobody has power over another, and positivity and kindness are the teacher's only tools to combat the negative effects of society. Ironically, these teachers' classrooms tend to be the places where kids are most cruel to each other, and where the teacher's own misgivings about being an authority figure have actually led to significantly less learning (and thus far less empowerment of students down the road.)

But the real world doesn't work like this. Even the children in your classroom who grow to become entrepreneurs will likely work for somebody else along the way and, even when they're independent, they'll still have to follow laws and pay taxes and, ideally, treat others with respect. Instead of teaching our kids to navigate a fantasy world in which nobody is in charge, let's teach them to deal with rules - even rules they may not like - and to work within those rules. (Note: This is not the same as 'the world is unfair, so let's be unfair', nor is it the same as 'you'll have homework in high school, so you need homework now'. This is more along the lines of, 'Show me a successful person, and I'll show you someone who grew up with rules.')

Where can this go wrong?

If the school has a poorly defined curriculum, then a strong accountability system is only as good as individual teachers' ability to create, find, or modify great lessons. To all you new school leaders out there: Pick a curriculum from the beginning and go with it - I recommend something well-defined that makes sense to you.

If individual teachers are in charge of every part of this, i.e. if there is no administrative support structure, teachers will have no time to plan lessons, grade papers and give feedback, or sleep. The leadership of the school needs to take on the majority of the burden here.

If the school focuses on an air-tight accountability system but does not have a strong structure for supporting teachers with lesson planning and teaching, this could easily turn into the "everybody's working, but on nothing" scenario. Nine hours a day of intensely focused handwriting practice is probably not going to help kids get ahead in the world.

If the school never helps kids evaluate the choices they're making, so that they can make connections on their own between short-term desires and long-term rewards, the kids could have an adverse reaction to a lack of structure down the road, much like kids whose parents forbid drinking alcohol then go to college and indulge in binge drinking. Note what happens when we extend this metaphor: In many classrooms, teachers are trying to fight binge drinking in college by letting ten-year-olds drink as much as they want.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Text Selection Matters, or STOP WASTING TIME

Let me start by saying that I believe very few things more strongly than I believe what I am about to write. I've been wrong in the past - A LOT - but I would be shocked to find I am wrong about this one.

In my last post, I posed the following choice:

a) You could ride bikes together, encounter something interesting, and have lasting memories of the day.
b) You could ride bikes together, encounter something interesting, and instantly forget the experience.
Option b) describes much of our current reading instruction, and we absolutely must change this. In this metaphor, the skill of riding bicycles symbolizes the skills of decoding and making meaning of printed text, commonly grouped together and referred to simply as reading. The experience itself, and the knowledge to be gained by riding the bicycle, refers to the content of what is read. Let me start by describing a practice that we see in many reading classes:

1. The teacher talks about a reading skill that students should practice, such as finding the main idea or making inferences or identifying and interpreting examples of figurative language. In the best of cases, this takes less than 10 minutes.
2. The teacher then puts a text in front of students so that they can practice this skill. This text is not connected to anything the students have learned previously, so that the teacher can be sure the students are using today's strategy and not simply making connections to what has been previously learned.
3. The students answer several comprehension questions about what they have read, and answer questions directly related to the day's aim, to ensure they are practicing applying the correct metacognitive strategies they are supposed to be applying.
4. At the conclusion of the lesson, the teacher never speaks of the passage, or its contents, ever again. Students are not expected to remember what they have learned and, due to the desired novelty of each subsequent practice passage, they are passively encouraged to forget what they have read. the debrief inevitably focuses on the strategies students used, and make it clear to students that they are not expected to take any knowledge away from the passage. The words students have read are simply a vehicle for practicing today's skill.

To see an extreme version of this, pay attention to the "test prep" that is done in reading classes. Students across the country read disjointed passages and answer comprehension questions about them. At its peak, this practice takes hours away from other potential activities every week.

First, to the idea that kids need to be ready to read things they have never heard of, let me ask you how often you really read doctorate papers in physics (no cheating, cousin Sarah!) or how often you read just one academic paper on a totally unfamiliar topic. You don't, right? If you really care, you try to build a base of knowledge before diving into something so technical. And you can understand newspaper articles about things you don't know because the authors can assume some level of general knowledge, and fill in the rest of the gaps for you.

I'm not going to spend the next three hours ranting about the relative merits of skills-based reading instruction. Instead, I want to make a couple of simple propositions:

1. Increased knowledge of the world will allow you to understand more of what you read.
2. Reading skills aside, education should be biased towards knowing more things, rather than less things.

#1 is really the point here, but even if you don't believe it, #2 is a nice backup.

Back to the original bike-riding choice, this time framed in terms of reading:

a) You could read something, learn a few interesting facts, and have lasting memories of the material (which would positively affect your ability to read future texts about a similar topic), or 
b) You could read something interesting, encounter a few interesting facts, and instantly forget what you have read.
Absurd as it sounds, we often make choice b. We put material in front of our kids and all but instruct them to forget what they have learned, all because of our notion that what students read doesn't matter - based on our actions, only how they read seems to matter. I don't buy it.

Text selection matters. And it matters even more when taken cumulatively. Even if we still focus on skills (which, I'll admit, I think is largely a waste of time, compared to the opportunity cost of learning material that will allow students to acquire new vocabulary much faster, and recognize all of the information that writers assume they already know), we at least owe it to our kids to use the time they spend reading to also build a coherent body of knowledge.

Let's be much more intentional about the things our kids read. Eventually, we'll become much more aware of what core knowledge we're helping our kids develop, and we'll align this with the most frequent assumptions authors make, using, oh, I don't know, the Core Knowledge sequence, or something similar. But a necessary first step is a recognition that time spent reading material we don't actually want our kids to learn anything from is a terrible use of time. Even in fictional works, there is always something to be learned. Meaningless, disjointed texts are not only taking all of the joy out of reading; they are also taking away most of the learning.

As I read this, my 5-year-old son is sitting next to me reading about sharks and keeps shouting things like "Daddy! Sharks don't have bones!" and "their skin is like SANDPAPER! We used sandpaper before in my class!" Looking backwards, it's a good thing his teacher thought it was important that he use sandpaper;
otherwise the reference to a shark's "skin like sandpaper" would have been lost on him. Looking forward, he will be in better shape next time he reads about marine life, not because we have practiced making inferences about sharks, but because he is beginning to grasp predator/prey relationships, variety within a species, and the vastness of the ocean. We'll build on this the next time we read about the ocean, or about other predators, or the next time an author compares a character's motions to those of a shark, or the next time someone is called a remora, and so on...

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Getting Less out of Bicycle Riding

On this beautiful spring weekend, you could choose one of the following ways to spend a morning with your child:
a) You could ride bikes together, encounter something interesting, and have lasting memories of the day.
b) You could ride bikes together, encounter something interesting, and instantly forget the experience.

Now suppose you have this forced choice every weekend. Or every day. Would you choose for your child and learn something new from every experience, or simply to practice riding her bike? Without a doubt, riding a bike is a good thing to spend time doing. Practicing this skill will make your daughter more proficient at a skill that is useful for fitness, transportation, and both personal and fossil-fuel based independence. But wouldn't it be nice if you were actually riding somewhere, or at least noticing new things along the way, or, I don't know, learning something about the world?
to practice riding her bike

What current, near-ubiquitous educational practice am I describing here? 

There are certainly many right answers; I'll share my take on this soon.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The First Rule of Songfest

At KIPP Fresno in 2004, we wanted to start a Friday tradition that had enjoyed some success at other similar schools, so we started Songfest. We copied the lyrics to songs that had meaning, and prepared to sing them together. Our first song was Lean On Me, followed by We Are Family, then Patience (by Guns 'n Roses.) After that, I'm less sure. There was "It's the End of the World as we Know it", likely with more consistent capitalization, but it all became a blur pretty fast.

The first rule of songfest may very well have killed the whole thing: Everybody must sing.

At the time, this seemed reasonable enough. If the goal is for everybody to feel the power of this positive music, everybody should participate. We couldn't, in good conscience, let a kid opt out of something that was going to help her. We wouldn't let a kid opt out of learning to read, or learning multiplication facts, so it seemed natural that a child should not have the choice to avoid all of the positive benefits of singing your heart out as part of a wonderful group of enthusiastic young people.

The results were mixed, at best. A lot of kids sang and had a good time, and there was some level of joy in the room. There were also a lot of kids choosing to opt out, leading to a lot of frustration from us - the adults in the room - who were trying to make sure that everybody sang.

In 2012, human genius Joseph Yrigollen, this time at KIPP Jacksonville, came up with something much better: A class vs. class game of "don't forget the lyrics." You have likely never seen a group of young people more enthusiastic than the 5th and 6th graders of KIPP Jacksonville singing their hearts out to "We are Young" and "Someone Like You" (by Adele, not Rod Stewart.) I recently brought Joseph's innovation to our school in New Haven, Elm City College Prep, and our kids' rendition of Taylor Swift's "We are Never Getting Back Together" (like, ever) still ranks as one of the highlights of my (our?) year. 

Let's say there are three goals of songfest:
1. Foster a sense of team and family
2. Have fun
3. Share the positive messages of the songs

Our original forced-singing approach may have had an edge in #3, but even that was too often obscured by the First Rule of Songfest. For goals #1 and #2, the Yrigollen method was a clear winner. And, though you may laugh, I think there is something to learn from Taylor Swift's steadfast resolve to not make the same mistake again, Adele's soulful decision to find her happiness elsewhere, and Fun.'s, well, Fun.

Song selection might have something to do with the relative success of Don't-Forget-The-Lyrics: We have recently chosen songs that many of our kids already know, and these are songs that many of our kids are choosing to listen to outside of school. There is also less teaching involved here, as we're not intending to teach the lyrics or the message explicitly. Still, I think the biggest difference is in the setup. I try to imagine applying the First Rule of Songfest to our game of "don't forget the lyrics", and I see it falling flat. The biggest difference is what Rafe Esquith calls the "soft sell."

The soft sell is pretty straightforward: Don't spend so much time and effort making people do something they don't want to do. Instead, spend time and effort getting them to want to do it. Rafe doesn't make his kids come to school at 6:30 for math club, but within the first month of school he usually has 100% of his class coming to math club daily. He doesn't force his kids to take guitar lessons with him during recess, but most of his kids take him up on the offer. Rafe is a master of convincing kids that they want to do what is good for them. How does he do it?

1. For anything that he is going to soft sell (which, for Rafe, is most things), he makes sure it is clear that this is not mandated. As soon as the First Rule of Songfest is put into place, it automatically becomes something that kids want to do less. Being told you don't have a choice is often the best way to turn people off to an idea. Though it is essentially the opposite of our approach to homework, Rafe's soft sell is extraordinarily effective - you don't have to read tonight, but if you do, a lot of good things will happen. Looking back at how painfully we learned this lesson, the new First Rule of Songfest should probably become "Don't talk about Songfest."

2. Rafe builds a strong in-group bond between the kids in his class. The implicit message is that those of us in this room are special: We love to learn, we are nice to others, we are going to college, and we will become extraordinary. This develops the kind of positive peer pressure that allows wonderful things to happen.

3. Drawing on Kohlberg's six levels of moral development, Rafe consistently talks up his kids' small choices and makes them feel like heroes for choosing to do hard things on their own. This is tough to celebrate when your only real choice is "do this thing" or "detention."

In my next post, I'll explore the opposite of the soft sell, and explain how an airtight homework system and certain heavily influenced decisions have helped to build strong habits and solid academic skills. In the meantime, what are some examples you have seen of the soft sell, or places where you have seen it fall apart? Let us know in the comments!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

CPAC Apology - First Draft

CPAC organizers: Feel free to copy/paste and distribute. You may want to clean up the final edits, though:

We, the organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference, wish to strongly, and in no uncertain terms, condemn the attitude of conference attendee Scott Terry, who in one breath implied that slaves should have been grateful for the food and housing provided by their masters and in the next suggested that our country return to a policy of racial segregation. Furthermore, we in no way share his view that those of his "demographic" - [presumably straight] white men - are being "systematically disenfranchised." We recognize the sad irony in him lamenting his current level of rights and privileges while deigning those of a slave to be worthy of extreme gratitude, even at a conference designed to heighten our already obscene levels of privilege. promote the universal values of equality and respect for all straight white men.
We are embarrassed that Mr. Terry's comments have been attributed to the CPAC and wish to clarify, in no uncertain terms, that we do not support or share in his views. We are truly sorry for all of the unnecessary grief that his outburst has caused, and, in the future, we will try to invite only attendees who will better represent our vision of how to get minorities to vote for us. openness and inclusiveness.

Here is the story, in case you missed it. The good news is, if you watch the video, you'll see that the majority of the audience didn't sit there and nod, "yes, absolutely, this guy has a good point...finally, somebody who gets me..." I especially love what looks to be the press in the front row, visibly dumbstruck by what is going on - probably the best instance of cognitive dissonance I've seen in a long time.

But seriously, CPAC. I mean, really. If you want to be really clear that this isn't what you believe, then maybe, you know, clarify what you believe. Because as of right now, it looks like what you believe is the opposite of what I believe.... Did I miss the apology? Was I asleep at the part where somebody with actual conservative credentials stepped forward and called these guys to task? "Hey all you super-racist, smug ignorant guys who think slavery was awesome and rape can't get you pregnant and can't wait to enlighten the world: Please shut up so the rest of us can have some credibility left when we try to convince people that we shouldn't spend money we don't have. And stop trying to speak of all of us. You're wrong."

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Academic Dean SMaC Down

Jim Collins is the lead author of Good to Great and Built to Last. Some people I know and respect a lot (I'm looking at you, Dave Levin and Chi Tschang) talk about these books all the time. These two tomes form the basis for a lot of really smart thinking: The Hedgehog Concept, the Flywheel of Success, Clockmaking vs. Telling Time...It is from these books that I have learned the lessons of Admiral Stockdale and, I'm sure, other important concepts that I refer to often. The thing is, though, that I've never actually gotten all the way through either of these presumably great books. I am ashamed.

But Collins's latest book, Great by Choice (synopsis here), is different. Once I popped the cover - to my disappointment, inaudibly - I couldn't put it down. Nonetheless, I had to temper my excitement to make myself stop to reflect on how what I was learning about applied to my own life and work. What I found was that this book could have been called Greatest Hits of Things that Have Plagued Hawke Throughout his Short but Action-Packed Career, except that's tough to fit on a cover, so I can see why Collins chose Great by Choice instead. 

A lot of this book came down to the idea that the most successful organizations in tumultuous environments succeed because of their consistency.

One thing I have failed at in the past is the Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs principle of conducting small-scale experiments before diving headfirst into a new project. Our school now does a great job of this, and Someday I'll write a follow up to Teachers Falling Down to highlight some of the other principles in this book (The Twenty Mile March; Fire Bullets, then Cannonballs), but today I want to focus on the SMaC recipe, specifically as it applies to my job as Academic Dean (which involves a lot of monitoring of student learning, setting the direction for parts of our academic program, and - my favorite - coaching teachers.)

SMaC stands for Specific, Methodical, and Consistent. These are the relatively few ultra-specific things that a company decides to stick to in terms of standard operating procedures. Southwest Airlines, for example, chose to only fly one model of airplane, so all of their pilots and all of their equipment would be compatible with every one of their airplanes. Here is the draft I came up with for my own job,  I'm posting this so you can offer feedback and suggestions. Please do...I've been doing this particular job ( for about eight months, and I could use your help and advice regarding the things I should stick to. I should also say I'm currently at about 70% on sticking to these...this is not a reflection of what I currently do, but rather what I think I should probably do.

My (draft) Specific, Methodical, and Consistent recipe for Academic Deans:

  1. Plan Your Time: Hold a consistent 45-90 minute weekly meeting in which you define priorities,  script out the critical moves for the week, and translate the priority plan for upcoming months into calendared actions. Once a month, spend 60 minutes updating your priority plan.
  2. Do your research: Before opening a blank document, spend at least 10 minutes searching for something to modify and build from. This applies to curriculum, lessons, and systems.
  3. Focus on developing teachers and leaders: Spend at least ten hours per week (approximately 20%) interacting directly with teachers, either in coaching meetings, real-time coaching sessions, modeling, or PD. Model for teachers at least an hour a week  (2%)- this can be in Morning Meeting, a sample lesson, or via a video in the memo.
  4. Stick to two essentials per person at a time: Limit my coaching conversations to two essentials, not moving on until they are mastered. Ground every conversation in long-term outcomes for kids, and conduct observations and debrief conversations with the relevant Essentials in hand.
  5. Feedback is a Gift: When given the choice between giving or holding back feedback, always give feedback. In-person feedback is better than hand-written, which is better than e-mail. Regularly ask for feedback from others and narrate how you are incorporating feedback.
  6. Monitor Student Learning: Every fall, ensure that each teacher has a proven method for monitoring individual student learning between IA cycles. Check in on this system at least once a month.
  7. Push the rigor of every lesson to meet the needs of the highest-performing students in the class.
  8. Five at a Time: Keep a list of experiments running at any given time; this list should not exceed five. When beginning an experiment, calendar a time and date to evaluate the experiment's effectiveness and determine at what scale to apply the results of the experiment.
  9. Set the Tone: Smile, give Precise, Descriptive Praise, and engage in practical conversations about teaching as often as possible.
  10. Walk the Walk: Perform every duty you expect others to perform, at least once per grading period, so you know what is involved and what you are asking people to do. This includes lesson planning, unit planning, duty coverage, grading, re-do system filing, teaching, etc. This will maintain the empathy and understanding you brought with you when you entered this role, will lead to more thoughtful decision-making, and will help build your credibility.

What do you think? What would you add? What would you subtract, modify, or combine? I would love to hear from teachers, Deans, Principals, people in other roles inside and outside of education...Any help you can provide would be really helpful!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Speaking of Basketball

Speaking of basketball

As I was leaving our school today (at 5:30), I was gathering my things and overheard our principal talking to a group of parents in the next room over. It sounded like they were having the time of their lives - this was a group of parents that had just come in to meet with the principal and talk about the school, and I'm sure they shared plenty of things that we could do better. But this particular part of the conversation was focused on our girls' basketball team, who just last Saturday clinched the city championship with an absolute wallop of the other team. You can probably imagine how the conversation went:

"You should have seen those girls..."

"...swish! I was so proud!"

"Those girls really showed a lot of hustle out there."

"...represented us well."

...except that the conversation went nothing like that. Instead, it was focused on how proud we were that our girls had worked hard enough in class to maintain academic eligibility: "No teacher in this school gives away As"..."our girls work so hard for eight and a half hours a day that practice is a breeze"...

I love several things about this:

  1. Our parents and our principal are having a great time talking about the school and some of our kids.
  2. Our girls won the city championship, and the main topic of conversation is how hard they are working in school and how much they are learning.
  3. This type of interaction is fairly commonplace at our school - we have a school where people just feel good about being there. I know this is not the norm at every school across the country, and I know firsthand what a challenge it is (mostly by failing spectacularly the last time I tried) to build and maintain a positive culture for everybody in the building. This is a real tribute to our principal, our fabulous operations team, our leadership team, our teachers...everybody

Some other things I have loved about our school this week:

  • Monday, in preparation for our first state tests, we had our first (annual?) Orange Crush Day. I'd say about 70% of our kids wore orange. I'm looking at you, Jamie Irish.
  • Yesterday, the day of our state-mandated writing exam (I'm not supposed to discuss it...have I said too much already?), a handful of our literature and writing teachers shared their 'elaborations on a [Dunkin Donuts] Munchkin.' The kids and adults were equally amused, entertained, and inspired.
  • Most of the ongoing Fountas and Pinnell testing happens in the office where I work, and I get to watch kids learn - and promptly celebrate - how much they have grown in reading, every day.
  • Yesterday, I swapped writing samples with a couple of our teachers, and today I shared nerdy ruminations about using a version of "guess my number" with complex numbers to introduce the skill of finding the midpoint of a line segment. 
  • Despite the fact that our school was highlighted for having the highest level of growth among African-American students in the state of Connecticut (on state tests...I know...), the general sense among all of us is that our kids deserve much, much more than we are currently offering. We don't beat ourselves up about it; instead, we practice and work and refine and try our best to get better.
  • This was a couple weeks ago, but, when 38 inches of snow fell and school was cancelled for a week, our teachers decided it was best to hand-deliver packets of homework (rather than mailing them) so they could check in with kids and families. A handful of teachers, who bike to work every day, delivered these packets by bicycle. All across the city. Through tunnels of snow.
So yeah, I work with a pretty incredible group of people.

Look, guys - I know a lot of schools are no fun to be at, especially around 'testing season', and I know not everybody gets to work with a group of people this wonderful...and I know the nature of these things is not constant, that there will be bumps and more lows and more highs on the way. But if you're at a place where you don't feel things are going well, or you feel a strong dislike for the environment you're in, just know: There is something better out there. It's real. I wish everybody got to work at a place like this, and I wish every family and every child had a school like this.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Teacher Performance Pay

Right now, just about the most contentious issue in education circles is that of teachers' pay being based on their students' performance on tests. People on both sides of this issue seem to have a special kind of contempt for one another. Let me help the situation by unfairly caricaturing each side:

Pro-Performance Pay (PPP): "I love teacher performance pay" zealots have never set foot in a classroom and have utter contempt for teachers. They assume that all teachers are lazy, and would like to see all of education transferred to private companies, who - unlike teachers - actually know how to run a decent business. The PPP camp puts their trust in the almighty test as a tool to determine how much "real" learning happened in a classroom in any given year, ignoring the fact that the test happens somewhere past the halfway point of the year and is a total joke in terms of measuring essential critical thinking skills, not to mention kindness, worldly knowledge, and the ability to work well in a global society.

Anti-Performance Pay (APP): These are masses of lazy teachers who hide behind their unions to avoid doing any real work, fearful that a new law will actually make them get out from behind their desks and teach, which will only happen if their pay depends on kids learning something.

Overwhelmed by Performance Pressure (OPP): These are school administrators whose jobs depend on hitting student achievement targets set under No Child Let Behind and who, as a result, focus all of their (and their teachers') energies on  hitting these targets and almost none on other worthwhile endeavors such as building meaningful relationships among the school community. Progressive Ed Reformers Naughty by Nature described OPP thusly: "There's no room for relationships; there's just room to hit it [the student achievement target]."

Because this blog has, as of right now, about one thousand pageviews, I doubt there is more than one degree of separation between you and me. So, dear reader, a) I like you, and/or b) we both like some third party. I hope this (admittedly harsh) caricature above doesn't change that, because I would really like you to keep reading, understanding, reflecting, and sharing your thoughts. Most people I've talked with about this are very rational, but every time I read a story about performance pay, I see otherwise rational viewpoints comically distorted. I was going to link to some such stories, but it is just SO HARD TO NARROW IT DOWN TO A FEW LINKS because there are so many mind-numbingly alarmist or ignorant stories to choose from. It's either "the test is imperfect --> the test is evil" or "there are some bad teachers --> every teacher is lazy".* I should share at this point, maybe so you can decide if you want to keep reading or whether I represent all that is wrong with the world, how I feel about this myself: I think performance pay by itself is seriously flawed, but I do think it will help more than it will hurt.

Where are you going? Come back!

First, here's how I feel about teachers:
I am the Lieutentant Dan of teachers. My mother is a teacher (hi, Mom!), my grandmother was a teacher, and her mother before her. I grew up grading tests (hello, child labor!) Most of my friends are teachers. I am where I am today because of an improbably good run of great teachers I had in my own childhood.** Oh yeah, and I'm a teacher. I honestly believe that the way to do the most good in the world is to become a great teacher, which is why I'm still trying to become a great teacher.

(Full disclosure: I'm currently not teaching full-time, and for the last few years and the foreseeable future, you would probably consider me an "administrator" - though I really dislike the word - an Academic Dean, Principal, whatever. I love that I get to teach other teachers, but my dream job involves getting back into the classroom full-time. Also, I work for Achievement First, which is working on a system for teacher compensation that involves something like performance pay.)

Now, for a little balance: In terms of overall effectiveness (not just measured on a test, but in as broad a sense as you would care to define), teachers are all over the map. I think the distribution looks somewhat like this beauty I cooked up using Desmos and MSPaint:

The first thing you'll notice about this graph will probably depend on your background. Whereas math teachers will be bothered first by the fact that the axes aren't defined, most English teachers will probably be instantly put off by the fact that the fonts don't match or my all-or-nothing approach to capitalization. This symbolizes the greater issues surrounding this debate, in whi...just kidding; it's just a graph. What I really want you to notice is the fact that there are a whole lot of teachers doing great work - the entire part of the graph you don't see to the right of the screen predicts there will be truly outstanding teachers out there, which there are. But notice also that the graph does not stop at 0 educational value. See there, on the left, how the line continues? Yes, it's possible to add negative value to students' lives, and not just the "negative value, considering there could be a truly amazing teacher in my place" of every teacher's first year or two or ten. I mean negative value as in the teacher who watches a child smash sand into another child's eyes and says nothing because it's not her job, or the teacher who lets kids practice math the wrong way because he can't be bothered to get up from his desk, or the teacher who seems to do little but to reinforce the crippling fixed mindset her kids used to have only in small doses.

Some people would argue that we shouldn't create a system that burdens everybody because of a handful of rotten apples, but we also shouldn't let these rotten apples keep teaching our kids. I agree with those people.

The question is, then, how we can get this distribution of teachers to shift to the right, or perhaps to stretch upwards.
The distribution stretching upwards means there are more of the 'average' teachers, more slightly below average teachers, and more slightly above average teachers. It also means that there are relatively fewer really bad teachers, as well as relatively fewer really great teachers.
Shifting to the right means each individual teacher is becoming, on average, a little bit more effective.

APPs tend to think performance pay will cause the distribution to stretch upwards and shift to the left, meaning every teacher will become a little less effective and more tightly clustered in the 'new average' range. PPPs tend to believe performance pay will make teachers work a little harder, with the added incentive of increased pay, which they believe will shift the curve slightly to the right. Personally, I believe performance pay will shift the graph ever-so-slightly to the right, and will stretch it upwards just a bit. This is also the part of the debate where we need to address what we actually mean by effectiveness, and how we should measure this.

This is where the debate gets silly, and both sides act as if each caricature actually represents the majority viewpoint on the other side. I don't think it does, but I am really worried by the public discourse about this, based on the following talking points that seem to pop up far more often than they should.

Talking points I never want to hear again

PPPs sometimes say:

  1. Teachers won't work hard unless they have a (monetary) incentive to work hard.
  2. Education is no different from any other business.
  3. Blaming (meaning, here: mentioning) poverty or incoming levels is just an excuse.
  4. Charter schools: Look, they're awesome! If they can do it...
  5. The test tells you everything you really need to know.

APPs sometimes say:

  1. Every teacher is already working as hard as she can!
  2. Basing teacher pay on a test isn't fair because kids start the year at different levels.
  3. I am/was a teacher and my kids' parents don't/didn't care, so this won't work. Q.E.D.
  4. They just want teachers to "teach to the test."
  5. This measures how kids did on one day of testing, which can't possibly reflect all of the important learning that has happened over the course of the year.

My own talking points

Value-added measures look at where individual kids start, relative to the overall population, and see where they ended up, relative to the overall population. Some teachers' kids will advance more than others'. So the criticism that "my kids started out at a lower level so of course they won't perform as well", and its corollary, "nobody will want to teach in underperforming schools", are actually the opposite of what I consider somewhat valid criticisms - it's much harder for kids at the 99th percentile to show growth, so teachers who were in this merely for the money would be better off serving kids at the 25th percentile, where it's relatively easier to help your kids pass a lot of other kids in terms of test performance.

The biggest issue I have with value-added measures is an issue of sample size. This is an extension of APP Talking Point #5, but much more nuanced: On an individual level, sure, a kid could have a bad day (or - and this matters, though it's rarely mentioned - a great day.) But when you're looking at hundreds of test scores, say, to evaluate a school's effectiveness, you will get a pretty decent picture of where kids are performing on this particular test, by virtue of the law of large numbers. Now look at a teacher who teaches 30 students. Maybe two of them came from another state, so you can't compare their new state test scores to last year's state test score. And maybe three of them take modified assessments, which can't be easily compared from year to year (due to a larger issue of sample size for the norming group.) So you now have 25 students whose score on this test, this day, will determine how you are doing as a teacher. I'm not really comfortable with this, because there's still a good deal of variance. Bump this number up to 100 students and I'm a little more comfortable...which would mean, in practice, that looking at four years' worth of data should be enough to get a decent idea. This also smooths out the (overwhelmingly negative) effect of a teacher's first year, and should be enough to show some clear, statistically valid, trends.

I also think basing everything on one test is more than a little narrow minded. At Achievement First, we look at test scores, parent surveys, student surveys, peer surveys, two formal observations, and a catch-all "general" observation based on dozens of informal observations over the course of a year. I don't think we have a perfect system, but I do think we have a comprehensive system that tries to find the balance between trusting that people in the building know greatness when they see it and somewhat objectively measuring the degree to which kids actually learned the stuff they were supposed to be taught.

But perhaps the thing I like most about basing evaluations, at least partly, on students' test scores is that it is an attempt to do something to address what I think is the biggest issue of all. The old evaluation and pay-for-years-of-service system tells everybody, from the sand-in-the-eye-is-OK teacher to the transformational superstar, that they're satisfactory. There is little recognition of greatness, and less knowledge of how one is actually doing, in the grand scheme of things. This exists within a system in which teachers are observed maybe once a year and, if they're lucky, given access to a coach who will give them a journal article to read or send them to a highly informative blog about teaching or, if they're really lucky, actually sit down with them and help them improve once a month.

The tests are more narrow than we'd like, yes. But the newer tests coming out, those aligned to the Common Core, seem to be closer to what we're looking for in terms of rigor and complexity. There are good tests for growth in music, art, and the like, which we should be using for these subjects. No, they don't have to be paper and pencil, but they should be standardized so there is some basis for comparison (plus the added bonus of seeing who is doing the best job teaching which aspects of your curriculum, so you can learn from them.) I hope that, as a country, we can continue to get smarter about what we measure and how. But the point is that we're not getting anywhere by deciding that we're better off not measuring anything at all.

An important word of caution to everybody who would comment on this: What I'm saying here is based on a pretty broad look at some great schools, some decent schools, and some schools that I wish no kid had to attend. The issue I take with so many APP's arguments is that they somewhat naively assume that most teachers are just like them, much like the issue I take with so many PPP's arguments that most teachers are on the low end of the spectrum in terms of effectiveness and/or drive. We hear a lot of excuses from some of the worst teachers (it's just poverty! snow days! i taught a child to love basketry!) and, ironically, a lot of the same reasons from some of the best teachers (Poverty can be a legitimate barrier to learning, e.g. when a child has to move every two months; Our kids spend snow days feeding the homeless instead of practicing long division; My kids have gone on to greatness because I have been able to individualize what I teach to meet their needs and dreams), but rarely with the acknowledgment that there are really all kinds of teachers out there, and not all of those kinds of teachers should really be recognized as "excellent", or even "adequate". Your experience is not everybody's experience.

For the truly great teachers, I don't see performance pay having much of an effect. They will go from being underpaid to still being underpaid. They won't like this new performance pay system, much like they haven't liked just about any top-down change in education for the past 30 years. Much like other educational fads and innovations, they will likely ignore it, because great teachers are total badasses who tend to go against the grain anyway.

For the truly awful teachers who aren't actively trying to get better for your kids' sake, please find a profession that will make you happy and where you can do something positive for society. The world needs more producers of great cat videos - perhaps this is more your thing? Whatever you do, please don't blame your lack of effectiveness on external factors without first doing everything you can to improve. This is a hard, thankless job, and not everybody wants to do it. If you don't want to do it, please don't.

Also, in general, we should be paying teachers a lot more. It will make teaching a more desirable profession, and will rightly reward people for doing some of the best work around. This will also improve morale and finally end the nauseating response of "what do you expect? I only make $X" to any suggestion that we could perhaps do a little better in some area.

It's worth mentioning here that I plan to refine my opinions on this over the next several years. What I've written here is a snapshot of what I think right now - here, as in so many other areas of life, we'll have a better dialogue - and ultimately arrive at a better understanding of the issues - if we give ourselves permission to change our minds. I invite you to change your mind at some point, too: It removes the burden of having to be right all the time.

In the meantime, I am accepting any and all comments that acknowledge (implicitly or explicitly) this is not an issue where one side is so clearly right and the other side is so clearly wrong, and that add to our collective understanding. I know for a fact that at least two of the teachers I am so thankful for feel very strongly that performance pay is a truly terrible proposition, and I know of at least one who I believe thinks it is generally a good thing. In the end, whatever we decide to do as a country, I hope it helps more kids learn more, and I hope you hope for this, too.

These are footnotes.
*or, on rare occasion, "he looked at you --> you looked at him --> you knew right away --> down with discount."

** In particular, thank you to the following:
Mrs. Ross (K)
Mrs. Lin (4)
Mr. Greene (5)
Coach Withrow (5ish?)
Mr. Jost (6)
Mr. Faggionato (7)
Ms. Robinson (7)
Mr. Pearson (7-8)
Mr. DeWitt (7-9)
Mrs. Waters (8-12)
Sra. Witherow (10-12)
Mr. Ethen (9-12)
Coach Lucido (9-10)
Mr. Harmon (9-11)
Coach Hull (9-12)
Coach Martin (11-12)
Prof. Gildea (13)
Prof. Albin (14-16)
Prof. Salas (13-16)
Chi Tschang (19-27)
...there are many more but, in some cases, my fear of spelling somebody's name wrong has kept them unjustly from this list.