I drafted the following list while participating in North Star of Texas Writing Project‘s Inquiry Day in April. It was a powerful day full of affirmations, inquiry, and open sharing among attendees. Meenoo Rami (#engchat), author of Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)invigorate Your Teaching opened the day by sharing her own journey as a teacher leader and change agent. Today, I needed to be reminded of just these things. I came across my notes from that day along with this draft for a blog post. Students may be heading out for summer, but for many of us, we’re in the middle of the next great “now what?” as we prepare for next year’s students and teachers to return to the freshly waxed and polished halls of our schools.
How to be an agent of change when the context you’re working within doesn’t have room for change:
1) Be open to change yourself and intentional about seeking experiences that inspire it.
2) Surround yourself with colleagues, mentors, and thinkers who share your same questions but who also have a host of their own questions to share.
3) Do not close your door. Resist the temptation when met with challenges and dissonance to simply shut your door and do your job. Find a new door to open in a network open to innovation.
4) Be vulnerable. Know that what you have to gain will often be greater than what you stand to lose. What do you stand to lose? Your pride, position, sense of control? Those are all fluid and flexible anyway–cling to them too fiercely and they’ll slip through your fingers.
5) Purposefully lose control. Cast your dice into the wind. Let the chips fall where they may. When we relinquish control, we find new avenues of influence.
6) Be subversive. If the system does not allow you to innovate, use your creativity to wield the system to innovation– sometimes without it knowing it. And, if you really need to, abandon the system. When the results are powerful, share your success.
7) To avoid debilitating frustration, seek the patterns within the system that do work. Working within them, reach for one pattern you wish to influence next.
8) Find your happy place and the people who fill it. Hold it and them near and dear.
9) Cry, scream, storm, and rant when you need to (and return to #1 to try again).
10) Sometimes, it’s true what they say– it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.
Today, I’m adding an additional nugget of Rami’s wise words, “Give yourself permission to do the Work you know to do with students [ and teachers].”
It’s Friday, which means I should be dishing up popcorn for patrons, talking book recommendations to students, and working on my Battle of the Books display and plans for poetry month in April. I should be compiling the social justice web-quest for my English I classes and collaborating with their teachers to talk about scaffolding students’ information literacies through inquiry. I should be checking in on the class that is in the library using our online resources to explore careers. But, I’m not.
Instead, I’m using an entire roll of purple butcher paper (valued at $175) to cover every. single. stack and shelf. in the library, because Monday is the first day of STAAR testing.
It’s not the extra task added to my already brimming plate that’s ruffled my feathers; I can manage my time and make things work. And I will get back to all of those things and more once the transformation is complete.
It’s the principle of the thing.
Why must every book cover and title, poster and sign be covered in preparation for testing in the library? For two reasons:
Reason 1. Students will be writing essays on the tests next week and might get an idea or thought from glancing around the library, and upon seeing a book that they read in the 8th grade, suddenly have inspiration for an example to use in their writing. This would not be fair or a true test of their writing abilities.
“Libraries store the energy that fuels the imagination. They open up windows to the world and inspire us to explore and achieve, and contribute to improving our quality of life. Libraries change lives for the better.” Sydney Shelton
Reason 2. A student in one Texas school may have generative material on the walls that a student in another Texas school or classroom does not have. This is an unfair advantage on the test, where students are expected to write uniformly and predictably to achieve pre-set numerical scores that will accurately then rank their writing ability as “unsatisfactory,” “satisfactory,” and “advanced.” There is no room for “creative,” “inspirational,” “unique,” “authentic,” and “relevant.”
“A public library is the most democratic thing in the world. What can be found there has undone dictators and tyrants: demagogues can persecute writers and tell them what to write as much as they like, but they cannot vanish what has been written in the past, though they try often enough…People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination. If you read, you can learn to think for yourself.” Doris Lessing
The test is a refined instrument that we rely upon as a democratic society to ensure that all students are receiving equitable and comparable education in the free, public system. Apparently, our democratic society feels that thinking for oneself is not a desirable trait in its citizens, nor is the ability to be “immune from indoctrination.”
It’s not just in my library that this is happening today. Classrooms and testing centers all across Texas have sterilized their walls and spaces in preparation for the April testing season. It’s not my campus or institution that sets the context for this irony. We comply, as all others must, in the name of public education, bending a knee to allow the state the measure our students and our work, only to jump back to our feet when the day is over and return to the real work at hand, that of facilitating learning.
Now, I must return to today’s work at hand. Mr. Shakespeare, Maestro Beethoven, and Emperor Napoleon must be tucked into their respectful nooks for the coming days lest some student writer get the wrong idea for his writing.
Find love, for love in a broken world will comfort you. Hold on to hope; it will sustain you. Have faith, for in the end it will save you.
Finally, it’s starting to feel like spring in Texas complete with thunderstorms, 80 degree afternoons, and plenty of sunshine. In addition to pesky spring allergies, however, spring brings with it another pest–standardized testing.
Many of us gear up these final few weeks between Spring Break and “the Test” with test-taking strategies and test plans for our students. “Real” instruction halts…for weeks…with what benefit to our students? One friend posted last night on Facebook that she was sick from the fact that her 3rd grader was experiencing testing anxiety at home over a practice STAAR test. (Sigh).
Many studies have shown that traditional “test prep” leading up to the day of the actual test is actually detrimental to student performance as authentic, engaging, relevant literacy experiences are set aside to practice crossing out multiple-choice options, filling margins with notes, and learning how to use a highlighter “just the right way.” Student anxiety rises, which leads to lower performance. We’ve created a very unhappy, Pavlovian drooling dog. Rather than conditioning students through engaging, rewarding, personal, and powerful literacy experiences to build their confidence and solidify their identities as readers and writers, we’re delivering electro-shock therapy every time they go to read or write in order to get ready for the test.
Thank goodness for teachers who see that the greatest marker of students success is not a snapshot of a quantitative score in a completely unauthentic setting, but rather the greatest marker of success is seeing each student develop and grow in his or her own reading and writing identity. And when the latter is accomplished, the former follows.
One practice that is often first on the chopping block this time of year is independent reading or SSR (Sustained Silent Reading). As you may have already figured out, I am an independent reading champion–especially in the secondary grades. I often hear comments from teachers and administrators such as, “We don’t have time to let students ‘just read.’ We have to prepare them for the test!”
Well, we know from countless studies, teacher and student experience, and good ole’ common sense, that when students “just read” a book of their choice for the sheer joy of reading, they are actually:
1) building reading fluency and stamina
2) developing vocabulary skills and being exposed to thousands of new vocabulary words for their lexicon
3) developing their identity and confidence as a reader
4) becoming better writers
6) practicing close reading (and even analysis!) with texts that are on their appropriate reading level
7) building background knowledge
….the list goes on and on….what I see in this list are the exact goals that I have for my students in the days leading up to the test.
What does it look like in practice?
Rebecca is a first-year English I teacher, who has discovered that a thriving independent reading experience is at the heart of her students’ literacy experience in her classroom. She held fast to her practice, even daring to up the number of minutes spent a week reading books of their choice in her classroom rather than bringing in practice test items drilling test-taking strategies.
When she asked me for ideas for her students to respond to their books and celebrate their reading experiences the Friday before Spring Break, I introduced her to a response strategy from Aimee Buckner’s Notebook Know-How called “lift a line.” In the back of my mind, I knew that Rebecca had been working with her students on creating thoughtful open-ended responses to texts, and I wanted to build upon those skills while providing them an opportunity to celebrate as a community of readers .
After 10 years of experience working with teachers and students on the TAKS short answer question and now the STAAR open-ended response item, I understand that the #1 obstacle students face in scoring higher is the thoughtfulness of their response. Many of them are taught (drilled) the structure of the response through any number of mnemonic devices and acronyms. While many hours are spent in class memorizing these strategies, not much time (if any) is spent on building text-based response skills, which these testing items are designed to measure.
Here’s the difference.
Let’s look at this formula to start:
1+ 3 = 7
Is this a formula? Yes. It has all of the parts of a formula, right? Numbers, computation symbols, solution, etc.
But what’s missing? Reasoning…this formula is not rational. I would argue that this student understands the basic parts of a formula, but the student is missing the mathematical skills to use the formula efficiently to demonstrate his understanding of basic arithmetic.
We do not teach young mathematicians to add and subtract by drilling in their minds the parts of the formula and writing a correct formula FIRST. We teach them mathematical concepts by having them experience and manipulate concrete situations involving these concepts.
That’s what happens when students are taught to respond to a text by working through a formula or rigid strategy, rather than developing authentic responses to the text first, then crafting an effective written expression of their response.
The ability to form text-based inferences is not a strategy; it is a habit of mind. Therefore, it takes lots of modeling, scaffolding, practice, and extensions with increasingly more and more complicated texts.
Buckner’s “Lift a Line” allows students to practice beginning with a line from a text that speaks to them for whatever reason and then responding to it in their own way.
At the end of the independent reading time, Rebecca invited her students to choose a line from their books that stands out at them for any reason at all. Write the line at the top of the page and then spend 5-7 minutes writing about their thoughts, questions, connections, wonderings, confusions, etc. Anything that comes to mind.
Modeling this step when first introducing this strategy is paramount so that students see and hear how you as a reader respond in different ways to things that you read.
After writing in their notebooks about their line, Rebecca invited students to think about what they wrote and then illustrate the line on a piece of paper so that we can see some of their thoughts visually on a page.
By beginning with students’ reflective responses as readers, Rebecca scaffolded their reading experience to move them to a deeper level of interpretation. In order to respond to the line and then illustrate it, students had to think analytically to draw new meaning.
What did this accomplish for students in the weeks before they take their STAAR test?
1) students celebrated their reading experiences as a community, which builds their identity and confidence as readers
2) students drafted, revised, and published a creative, thoughtful response to a text
3) response skills were reiterated and extended in an authentic setting
4) they had a positive literacy experience where they were engaged and HAVING FUN!
This was a success in Rebecca’s mind because she had been carefully scaffolding and integrating powerful reading and writing practices in her classroom all year, not just in the days leading up to the test.
From here, students have a terrific foundation build on authentic response to create a full-fledged open-ended response-style paragraph complete with their own inference for a topic sentence that they formed from their line (textual support) and a conclusion or connection they drew. Niiiiiiiice!
Still not feeling ready to “drink the cool-aid” so-to-speak when it comes to independent reading?
You might visit my series on independent reading in high school. Leave me your thoughts, questions, and experiences!
The librarian went to Algebra I class today, and I learned so much! Not only am I now solid on identifying inequalities on the coordinate plane, but I also understand much more about the importance of technology tools applied in authentic learning experiences.
As the campus Library Media Specialist, I am extremely lucky to have such powerful professional and personal relationships with faculty across all content areas. Technology integration is scary and make-me-want-to-pull-my-hair-out frustrating at times. Our professional relationships are an integral lifeline when seeking to innovate any instructional context–but especially when integrating technology.
Our principal began the year with three very specific instructional expectations for our campus:
1) Engage students in learning.
2) Seek to integrate technology in instruction.
3) Design lessons using the VESTED format (a sheltered instructional model developed by the Kolak Group)
As a campus and as individual teams we’ve faced many obstacles to meeting these goals–especially with technology integration. These barriers seem to stem–ironically– from technology, in particular our infrastructure’s capacity to support wireless connectivity for 30+ devices in a classroom and our very tightly-woven internet filtering software. When faced with these barriers, many teachers understandably quit. Those who are adaptive and responsive to these barriers, often find the support and creative solutions they need to innovate instruction through professional relationships and collaboration.
One such collaboration that has taught me tremendously has been with our Math Department Chair and Coach. Wendi and I share a platform of trust, which is paramount in any professional relationship. She and I also share like-mindedness when it comes to engaging students in learning. We have different levels of comfort and experience with technology integration, which allows for a dynamic relationship. I know next to nothing about math and instructional methods for teaching math to teenagers; she feels that she knows next to nothing about using technology when teaching math to teenagers–our collaboration is founded on reciprocal teaching and learning from one another as colleagues.
Wendi’s spark of innovation appeared in one of her own children’s Language Arts assignments that came home one day. The teacher had used QR codes to teach students about synonyms and antonyms. Wendi was so impressed with the basic premise of the assignment and her experience as a parent supporting her young learner through the assignment, that she made immediate connections for adapting it for an upcoming lesson with her Algebra I team.
She showed me the assignment–a simple table with 9 QR codes that linked to a website students used to respond to the prompt. We started by talking about her content goals for her Algebra I studnets first.
Whenever I collaborate with teachers on integrating technology with learning, I ALWAYS start with the content and expected learning outcomes. Integrating technology is not about finding ways to use iPads or QR codes in the classroom, but rather integrating technology is about identifying what tool best supports students’ learning in a given context. (p.s., sometimes the solution has nothing to do with technology!)
Wendi’s goal for her students: Identify inequalities on coordinate planes.
How would students demonstrate this skill to her? By correctly identifying a shaded graph with it’s symbol.
I heartily agreed that QR codes could be an effective tool to support students with these goals.
Wendi worked over a weekend to collect images of shaded graphs, and then we sat together to put the assignment together, which involved troubleshooting certain technological barriers.
Barrier 1: QR codes needed to link to images; however, Google Images as well as photo hosting sites such as Flickr and Tumblr are blocked by our filter. We needed a place to house the photos online that students could access through our network.
Solution: We created a folder in Google Drive, uploaded the images to the folder, changed the sharing permissions for the entire folder so that anyone within the district’s Google domain could access the link, and then used the shared links for the images to create QR codes.
Creating the assignment once we had all the images took about 20 minutes. I then showed Wendi how she could make a copy of the assignment’s Google Doc to use as a template for future assignments, saving her time in the future with formatting.
Wendi shared the assignment through Google Drive with her Algebra I team and scheduled the cart of iPads for each teacher.
We were excited to see how students and teachers responded to the activity.
The day of the assignment, Wendi and one of her teachers came to me with our next unforeseen barrier.
Barrier 2: When using the QR scanner on the iPad with the devices connected to the student wi-fi network, the links were blocked–even though they linked to the district’s own Google Drive (exasperated sigh). Wendi and her teacher could have given up then and there. We had less than 20 minutes to find a solution.
One of the most important traits of a 21st Century teacher and learner is the ability to adapt and problem solve.
Solution: …I may have found a loophole to the wi-fi issue, which I cannot entirely disclose…let’s just say I applied a little creative compliance to find a network solution…
I asked the first teacher to try the activity with students if I could stay and help support her and her students. That way I could be available to trouble shoot anymore barriers or obstacles that may arise. Since we were using the district’s Google Drive domain, it was necessary for one student to log in to Google Drive the first time they scanned a code, which they adapted to very easily.
The QR activity followed a quick introduction, which drew upon students’ prior knowledge of inequality symbols. The teacher displayed a visual with four coordinate graphs and their corresponding symbol and asked students to talk to their partner about what they noticed.
As I walked through rows of students observing, I heard responses such as “if you notice where the lines are located …” and “in general, when the shaded area is beneath the line…” By inviting students to note patterns first, the teacher placed the learning experience in the hands of students rather than delivering content knowledge. What I really appreciated about this was how natural it came to students. You could tell by their willingness and openness to share their thinking out loud that this type of discourse was a regular part of their classroom experience.
She then asked them what they noticed, “Why are these two lines dashed and these two solid?” By utilizing higher-level questions to guide them to justify their responses, the teacher drew upon students’ ability to think metacognitively. Learning was happening at higher levels before technology was even introduced.
Students then received directions for the QR activity, and I walked them through scanning and identifying the first coordinate graph to ensure all devices were working appropriately and students felt successful using the iPads as a learning device.
The teacher and I walked around, actively supporting students if they had any issues with the QR code or device, and observing students’ conversations with their partners as they scanned and worked together to determine the correct symbol. The initial visual remained on the board for students to use as a key.
All students were engaged in the activity as academic discourse flowed throughout the room. As partners completed the assignment, I reminded them to check to make sure they signed out of Google Drive on the devices and cleared the scanning history in the QR reader app. I chatted informally with groups of students about their reactions to the assignment. All but one student reported that they felt they understood more about inequalities on coordinate planes after using the iPads than if we had provided the images of the graphs on the paper. The one student who didn’t feel this way said that the experience would have been the same for her without the iPads. All students reported that they felt confident in identifying the correct symbol for an inequality and commented on how fun class was that day.
Learning did not stop when the devices were dark. Even when the activity was over, I heard pairs talking about the graphs they had discussed. One pair in particular was pointing to different QR codes, recalling the differences and similarities between the graphs they linked to and the inequality symbol they recorded. Even though the visual was no longer in front of them on the screen, it was painted on their mind because of their experience with the learning task. When looking at a QR code, they still saw the graph it represented.
Without the collaboration of the team, my relationship with Wendi, the Department Chair, and the adaptability and resiliency of the classroom teacher, this lesson may have never been actualized.
How can we ensure that teachers have the collaborative relationships and support they need in order to experiment with new technologies and innovate learning for their students?