Hitting the sweet spot for learning

In this American RadioWorks podcast, psychology professor Dan Willingham explains the learning "sweet spot."

We all thrive and learn most efficiently when we're presented with the right amount of challenge -- just beyond the point where a task would be too easy and bore us, and just short of the point where it would be too hard and frustrate us. Other scientists might call this the "zone of proximal development," but I think calling it the "sweet spot" makes it a little easier to understand.

Ensuring every student is working in his or her "sweet spot" all the time is, of course, one of the fundamental challenges of education. This is the heart of differentiation. In a classroom full of students with divergent needs and at different levels, how do you meet every child where he/she is and give him/her just the right amount of challenge to push him/her forward?

Interestingly, Dr. Willingham says he more frequently gets questions from educators asking how to appropriately challenge high achieving students, rather than low achieving students.

What are your strategies for ensuring every child is hitting the sweet spot for learning?

Why the ability to read complex texts matters

Families and educators: Partnering for student success

School is in full swing across the country. And we begin a new year with many challenges facing the education system that underscore the need for engaged families, and then some. From the release of the film Fruitvale Station to the release of the documentary, We The Parents, there is a growing sentiment that engaged families still represent a critical component of the three-legged stool to educate young people.

With the onset of Common Core, many continue to share that our children are not achieving, that they simply are not fit to enter the military, go to work or enroll in college. While this may be partly true, we should all be mindful that our young people need us now more so than ever before. The challenges they face coupled with a system sending competing messages about their intellect, can be a recipe for disaster. Left to interpret the policy discussions, conflicting laws and budget woes, families are stuck in the middle striving to do what’s in the best interest of their children.

At one point in society, it seemed pretty straightforward: Enroll your child in the neighborhood school, attend the schedule parent teacher conferences, and talk with your child about their future. That seemed to be an equation for student success.

However, in this day and age, families and educators must think differently about how they partner together to help every student achieve. I intentionally use the term “family” in lieu of “parent” because I’m conscious of the number of extended family members (grandparents/aunts/uncles/siblings) who have picked up the mantle and shoulder the responsibility for ensuring ALL children receive a quality education.

To succeed going forward, our young people need an ecosystem composed of those who embody the ‘and then some principle.’ Today, not tomorrow, our students need educators who arrive early and work late – they need teachers and then some. The leaders of tomorrow need leaders today at the central office and state capitol who are willing to set aside adult issues and allocate, not cut, the resources needed to ensure OUR future. The children of now require families to sacrifice their own goals and lifestyles to enable the achievement of dreams on the horizon.  

The founder of Bethune-Cookman University put it best when she penned these words in 1954: “Our children must never lose their zest for building a better world. They must not be discouraged from aspiring towards greatness, for they are to be the leaders of tomorrow.”

Byron Garrett is among the speakers at the 3rd Annual Scholastic FACE Symposium running Sept. 29-Oct. 1. Several talks from the symposium will be livestreamed here, including Dr. Karen Mapp of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (8 a.m. on Monday the 30th) and Ralph Smith of the Annie E. Casey Foundation (11:45 a.m. on Monday the 30th). We invite you to listen in and join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #ScholasticFACE.

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Cultivating school-to-home communication

I love the energy of the back-to-school season. I love those early days of school when backpacks are still glistening and sneakers are bright white. I love to see the children crossing streets to school with their caregivers, their hands tightly clasped, their eyes shining with the hope that school promises. It is a time of year when children, caregivers and teachers are most receptive to new and innovative ideas. Let’s capitalize on this spirit to invigorate our home-school connection and to create systems for communication that feel easy for both families and teachers to manage.

Establishing a dialogue with families will enroll parents and caregivers as true school partners in solidifying the important practices that you teach during the school day by carrying them forward during out of school time.

I hope we can communicate from school to our families our value of the power of literature, and make sure children are given access to it, a wide variety of it, from classics to contemporary narratives to informational text; that together we value the teaching of writing and make sure children are given abundant opportunities to write across all subject areas; and that as an entire community we can help our children value critical thinking skills, teaching them to go deeper into texts and extrapolate big ideas from them. 

Families are eager to be involved in their child’s school life. They really want to know we all care about their children and that we are all working together to set them up for success. The best thing we can do as educators is to reach out in a way that is most comfortable and accessible for them. Let us give families many opportunities to learn from us and with us, not just when they come into the school building. For example, let us embrace Twitter as a mode of easy and quick communication with our families. Families can get access to Twitter on their phones, which makes communication much easier. Also, a text messaging system can also make communication much easier. Think mobile. Many families do not have access to computers at home, but most do have mobile devices. We can text or Twitter great new book titles, tips on how to read aloud and help with struggling writers. Consider the parent whose reading skills are low. A Twitter message or text is much easier to read and understand. Quick tips on how they can help their child read at home, tips on great read alouds or how to help with homework, can all be shared in this way.

Be generous with your time and willing to try new approaches of communication and how we can all work together for our children, especially when English is not the native language spoken in the home. Once the lines of communication have been established, each child will have the steady, open system of support that he or she needs to become a lifelong literacy learner.

Pam Allyn will be speaking at the 3rd Annual Scholastic FACE Symposium at 8:45 a.m. EST on Monday, September 30th. Her talk, "Getting to the Heart of It: Helping Families Understand the Common Core," will be livestreamed here. We invite you to listen in and join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #ScholasticFACE.

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Toward a “Common Definition of English Learner”

Currently, states and local school districts determine their approach to identifying and classifying students as English learners (ELs). But with 45 states signing onto the Common Core State Standards, there is a need to move toward “a common definition of English Learner.” In August, the Council of Chief State School Officers released recommendations to move towards uniformity. Their guidance addresses four areas:

  1. Identification of potential ELs through Home Language Surveys
  2. Establishing initial EL classification (confirm or disconfirm a student as an EL)
  3. Defining the “English proficient” performance standard (performance level definitions such as Beginning, Expanding, Intermediate, and Advanced)
  4. Reclassifying ELs and determining exit criteria

The organizing framework will establish common ground amongst states and support this growing population of students.

Independent vs. accountable: What’s in a word?

Every school year spawns a new list of educational fads and jargon. This year I’ve heard a new term: accountable reading.  I’m accountable for delivering my income taxes every April 15. I’m accountable for coming to a complete stop at every stop sign.  And yet I had never thought of reading as having to be “accountable.” But as one school district official explained to me recently: “We don’t refer to independent reading. In our district, we’re all about accountable reading.”

To be fair, as independent reading reclaims its essential place in our classrooms, educators are concerned about how to monitor and document the independent reading their students are actually doing. How do we discern the difference between a kid who’s “lost in a book” and just plain lost? 

And, of course, teachers have a responsibility to monitor, assess, and document their students’ independent reading. Knowing our students as readers is essential to our job as reading teachers—so thank goodness for the reading resources that make it easy to do just that; see Jennifer Serravallo’s Independent Reading Assessment and Franki Sibberson and Karen Szymusiak’s Day-to-Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop.

But dropping the independent in independent reading in favor of accountable to me would seem to diminish the spirit of real reading. At its heart, isn’t reading about the freedom to discover and craft one’s own rich and remarkable reading life? All students, within a classroom community of readers, work to find the authors, genres, topics, and themes that quicken their pulse and light their own boundless passion for reading.  To paraphrase Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one bright and precious reading life?”

Consider the intriguing term, ludic reading. Coined by Victor Nell, author of Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure, it’s meant to capture the blissful engagement avid readers experience as they consume books for pleasure. Nancie Atwell calls this pleasurable state The Reading Zone; Penny Kittle writes of Book Love; and Scholastic President Dick Robinson, of The Reading Bill of Rights.

And then there’s Donalyn Miller, who whispers of wondrous reading possibilities as she works to awaken the inner reader in every child. Drawing from Donalyn’s classroom library of more than 2,000 titles (with more stacked outside in the hallway), her students regularly read more than 40 books in a school year and leave her classroom as accomplished readers with a love of books and “reading accountability” that runs deep. 

Following Donalyn’s lead, don’t we want to lure our students into daily, voluminous, lost-in-a-book reading—and trust, with our help, that they’ll be swept away by the magnificence of a story? And moved to tears by the beauty of language? Or, as Victor Nell suggests “…acquire peace, become more powerful, feel braver and wiser in the ways of the world?” And by exercising their independent reading spirit, our students will pick up their next reading book—and their next and their next—the moment they finish their last.

This may well be a false dichotomy: passion and accountability are not mutually exclusive. By providing daily demonstrations of our own reading passion and inviting our students to share theirs we can do both—inspire passion and invite accountability. But by emphasizing accountability in our choice of words, might we not be sending a subtle message that, perhaps, reading isn’t so enjoyable after all?

Language is potent…every word counts. Just as we’re accountable for our students’ reading lives, we’re accountable for the language we choose to use… or as the literary critic and essayist Francine Prose recommends: “Put every word on trial for its life.” One word can change everything.

What do you think?

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