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.