It isn't just one thing that defines great teachers

We hear about this intangible "it" factor that celebrities have to make them stars. We ask business leaders what their key to success is and parents of amazing kids for a piece of advice on how to raise children. We are all seeking a magic bullet it would seem and in education, we are no different. We yearn for the definition of great teaching and what makes a great teacher. It's frustrating at times because "we know it when we see it" don't we? I think I have one key to unlocking this mystery and it is that there is no one thing. Now, I know this is no surprise to teachers whatsoever because they are experiencing new challenges and teaching new lessons every day. Naturally they do not rely on one skill or attribute. The quote I'm sharing today is a great one when it comes to articulating this reality.

The quote came to us through the research report Primary Sources: America's Teachers on Teaching in an Era of Change, a project of Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In the same report, we asked teachers about the characteristics a great teacher and, you guessed it, they reported a combination of talents as important rather than a singular item rising to the top. Managing the classroom effectively is cited by 100% of teachers as very or extremely important to being a great teacher but then 99% of teachers say the same about creating an environment where students feel safe making mistakes, delivering content clearly, maintaining high academic expectations, and anticipating and responding to student learning needs. Making the contest for the most important skill even tighter, the next three on the list are at 98% and we never go below 83% when looking at the complete list which you can find in the full report downloadable at www.scholastic.com/primarysources. And you'll see items that are not purely academic including being interested in students' lives inside and outside of school which is a reflection of the stat in which 99% of teachers tell us teaching is more than academics; it is about reinforcing good citizenship, resilience and social skills.

When you've experienced great teaching, how did you know? Teachers, how would you define a great teacher?

Children and trauma: a new approach

There's a big difference between normal, everyday stress, which can build resilience in a child, and "toxic stress," which often stems from abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction. Toxic stress can impair a child's mental and physical health—and disrupt the lives of everyone around him, both at home and at school.

"What the science is telling us now is how experience gets into the brain as it's developing its basic architecture, and how it gets into the cardiovascular system and the immune system," Jack P. Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University says in The New York Times column linked above. "These insights provide an opportunity to think about new ways we might try to reduce the achievement gap and health disparities—and not just do the same old things."

Such advances offer hope in the wake of a new report by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. Statistics from the 2011-12 school year paint a disturbing picture of school suspensions and expulsions, even among 4-year-olds in preschool, with minority children faring the worst.

In this New York Times column, author David Bornstein discusses ways that young children who have suffered "significant chronic adversity" are benefiting from an experimental program developed for Head Start Trauma Smart. The program trains teachers, parents, and guardians to respond to anger and aggression with compassion and systematic strategies, like offering "safe corners" and "breathing stars."

Bornstein tells about a 5-year-old boy named "Luke" (his name was changed for the column), whose parents struggled with drug abuse and neglected him. Luke's participation in a program in Kansas City, Missouri, has led to significant improvements in his behavior.

"Before, I was always the bad guy," Luke's grandmother says. "Whenever I made [him] sit quietly by himself, he said, 'Grandma, I hate you.' Now I know that's not what was needed. And he's also able to step back and look. He even says, 'Thank you, Grandma,' and gives me a hug after he calms down. He's a very intelligent person if he can get past the anger."

To learn more about Head Start Trauma Start, click here.

Repeated read alouds may lead to reading success for young children

More than 50 years ago, Dr. Dolores Durkin studied children who learned to read before starting school. She reported that one of the most consistent findings among these children were parents who read to their children regularly during their preschool years. This finding has since manifested itself in the advice we give to parents to read to their children.

Over the years, I have discovered that there is a type of parent-child read aloud experience that seems to be evident when children are quite young: Children have that one special book that they have their parents read to them daily. I have come to wonder if there is something quite powerful about this rereading experience that helps children become readers.  

As a person interested in reading fluency, a foundational reading competency, according to the Common Core State Standards, I have learned that rereadings or repeated readings of texts can lead to significant and generalized improvements in students’ word recognition, fluency, and comprehension. Indeed, repeated readings has become a mainstay of many reading fluency instructional programs.

Do the repeated readings that parents often engage in with their young children also have a beneficial effect on children’s early reading development? I think they do. As parents repeatedly read a text chosen as special by the child, the child eventually comes to the point where he or she has the oral text memorized. During most read aloud experiences, children sit next to their parents so that they can actually view the text itself and pictures as the parent reads. Through repeated readings and viewings the child begins to map the words that he or she hears with the words that he or she sees in the text. The sight and sound of the words eventually get locked into the child’s brain. This is the beginning of sight vocabulary and reading itself. More of these repeated experiences at home will lead to the development of a large sight vocabulary and through analysis of the learned sight words, the child will begin to make generalizations about phonics in particular and reading in general.

Given the possible connection between repeated reading in early childhood and children’s positive literacy outcomes it seems that it would not be unwise to recommend to parents that they allow themselves to read and reread favorite books and other texts (e.g. songs and poetry) to their children -- even to the point of memorization. Many children have a natural inclination to one or a few books that they love to hear repeatedly. I am beginning to think that there is something incredibly powerful in children’s apparent and innate desire to hear a story read to them again and again. We should take advantage of this inclination at home as well as in school as we move children ever closer to the goal of conventional reading.

Fisher and Frey on fostering collaborative conversations

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey shared a wealth of knowledge with teachers, leaders, and curriculum developers at the ASCD Conference last weekend. In “Collaborative Conversations: Meeting Anchor Standard 1 in Speaking and Listening,” Fisher began by describing his experience as a student in a graduate-level neuroscience course. One of his main takeaways was that interacting with his classmates kept him motivated, clarified information, and extended his understanding of the brain. He realized he needed time to make sense of the material in his textbooks on neuroanatomy, and collaborative conversations provided access to this complex text.

The speaking and listening section in the Common Core Stand Standards notes the value of collaborative conversations in which students learn guidelines for conversations, use evidence in their arguments, and critically analyze a topic. See anchor standard 1:

Fisher and Frey both recognized the major shift this means for teachers. In the past, it was natural to think students should discuss simpler, easier topics when they didn’t have the support of the teacher. Now, it’s clear that students can have productive group conversations about complex ideas with the right supports. 

To engage in collaborative conversations, students need:

  • Enough background knowledge to have something to say. Supplement with videos and texts on the subject matter.
  • Language support to know how to say their ideas (e.g., sentence frames, vocabulary wall, or peer language broker).
  • An interesting and relevant topic to discuss.
  • Authentic reasons to interact.
  • To understand the expectations of and accountability for the interaction. Establish a culture where students are expected to talk to each other.
  • To feel part of a community of learners that encourages and supports each other.
  • To understand the task (e.g., what to do in a “jigsaw”).

These conversations are key to developing academic language and vocabulary, as well as an understanding of complex texts. Their district in San Diego has set a goal for student-to-student interactions: 50% of instructional minutes. Want to find out more? Check out Fisher and Frey’s website and YouTube Channel.

Technology in remote classrooms: Luxury or necessity?

Can technology become a “great equalizer” for schools? For those with access to the tools, tech opens doors to a mind-boggling amount of resources with just a click of a mouse or a swipe of a finger.

A recent article in Education Week reminded me just how technology can help level the playing field for students who live in the most remote areas of the country. Lower Kuskokwim School District in Alaska, which is home to 4,000 students, is inaccessible to visitors unless they take a plane or wait for the river to freeze. Yet, even in isolation, Lower Kuskokwim students are still receiving a quality education thanks to the power of technology.

Mr. Dan Walker, Assistant Superintendent of Lower Kuskokwim School District, has implemented “distance learning” classes, which use video conferencing tools to connect students with educators in other areas. The district, which is made up of 27 schools, has access to 60 cameras for video conference classes and some schools are now equipped with 1-to-1 laptop or tablet programs. Through video conferencing, students not only attend their core classes, but also have elective options such as digital photography, e-journalism and robotics.

Although many schools consider technology a luxury, for the community of Lower Kuskokwim School District, it’s a necessity. What do you think about classrooms in remote locations using technology to connect? Is it a luxury? A necessity? Something in between? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

Plenty of teaching resources for Women's History Month

We may have passed the Ides of March but there is still plenty of time to celebrate Women's History Month. If you are still looking for resources to help you in the classroom, here is a list for you.

  1. Edudemic highlights the incredible list of this year's honorees from the National Women's History Project under the theme of "Celebrating Women of Character, Courage and Commitment." No shortage of role models here.
  2. The Library of Congress is the host of many resources including ready-to-use lesson plans, primary sources, activities, guides and more.  
  3. Fellow blogger Suzanne has a nice round up of resources as well which includes activities and a text pairing.  
  4. Finally, Scholastic.com features articles, unit and lesson plans, book lists and more.

Tell us what you are doing in the classroom this month to celebrate women's history.

 

How to foster student aspirations

At the ASCD Conference on Sunday, Russell Quaglia encouraged hundreds of teachers and administrators to listen to and learn from their students. In his presentation, Moving Forward with Our Greatest Resource: The Students, Quaglia emphasized the importance of helping learners develop aspiration—the ability to dream and set goals for the future while being inspired in the present to reach these dreams. To experience academic success, students must believe in their ability to be successful. Quaglia shared three guiding principles for helping students reach their full potential:

1.    Self-worth

Students need to feel valued, which begins with a notion of belonging—feeling as though they’re part of a community but still an individual. Be aware of “nothing/nowhere/fine” responses from students, and challenge yourself to wait for a response after asking a student, “How are you?"

2.    Engagement

Engagement, a delicate balance between interest and opportunities, is key to cultivating a desire to learn new things. Quaglia highlighted the importance of making learning fun by nurturing natural curiosity and creativity.

3.    Purpose

Students must develop a sense of purpose to take responsibility for who and what they want to become. Quaglia encouraged the audience to ask learners, “Who do you want to be when you grow up? What kind of person do you want to be?”   

Quaglia’s call to action for teachers is to listen to and learn from students. Student voice can be an instrument of change, and bring our hopes and dreams for them within reach. 

You think pi is cool? Try phi!

No offense meant to pi (especially on Pi Day!), but here's a number I think is way cooler: phi.

You might have heard of it by one of its aliases, like "the golden number" or "the golden ratio" or, simply, 1.618. It's got its own fanclub/website too. Like pi, phi is derived from a special geometry-based ratio. And it also has a relationship with the Fibonacci sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc). Take any number in that sequence and divide it by the previous number and you get a value very close to phi -- and it gets closer and closer as the Fibonacci sequence gets longer.

What's really cool and incredible about phi is how it shows up in nature, music, architecture, art and in many other ways throughout the universe.

In architecture, it shows up in the triangular dimensions of the Egyptian pyramids, the rectangular dimensions of Greek buildings like the Parthenon, and in modern architecture as well.

You can see the ratio in nature -- in the spirals of sea shells and in the arrangements of plant branches and flower petals.

It also shows up in music -- from Beethoven and Mozart to Pink. (See video below about the golden ratio and music.)

I'm only scratching the surface here, so to find out more just fire up the Google machine and you'll stumble upon plenty of resources.

Math friends: What your favorite fact about phi?

Is recess the key to success?

Seeking to increase instructional time for students, many schools and school districts are considering lengthening the school day and year. In New Jersey, for example, Governor Chris Christie has asked for $5 million in an effort to do just that. 

Adding to the typical 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day and 180-day school year may not seem too unreasonable, but consider this: Finnish 1st-graders are at school only 4.5 hours per day.  And of those 4.5 hours, only three of them are spent in the classroom, leaving the remaining 1.5 hours for recess.  Yes, that’s right, recess.

According to the article, Finland’s Latest Export: A Novel Approach to Recess,” even with time for unstructured play Finnish students have continued to meet and surpass the required scores on assessments for math, reading and science.

The reasoning behind a shorter school day with generous recess time: “Kids are built to move. Having more time for unstructured outdoor play is like handing them a reset button.”

As we know, research shows that when kids exercise it improves their concentration and ability to absorb new information.  It is proven that exercise can actually increase student performance in the classroom.

As states across America continue to evaluate the school day, perhaps they will consider the benefits of unstructured play and make time for student to “reset” with recess.

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