Ditch the distractions and listen up!

Several months ago, I was invited to do a radio interview.

"Why do they want you?" asked my 93-year-old mother.

"They think I'm an expert on the topic," I said.

"God help them."

My sentiments exactly.

These days, it's all about "leaning in" to get ahead. But as educator and editor Rebecca Alber notes, "listening up" is just as important.

"Good listeners are both rare and valued in our culture," Alber writes in this Edutopia post, which offers five ways to cultivate listening skills in the classroom.

Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) is the latest poster child for distraction. He learned a valuable lesson on Capitol Hil recently: Don't play smartphone poker during speeches about Syria.

"As much as I like to always listen in rapt attention [to] my colleagues over a three-and-a-half-hour period," McCain told The Washington Post, "occasionally I get a little bored."

He has a point. Who among us hangs on Secretary of State John Kerry's every word—or, for that matter, John McCain's? We can all be a bore. Just ask my mother.

But indulging in continual digital distractions, like so many mouthfuls of virtual candy, is unhealthy, says MIT professor Sherry Turkle.

"People are texting in church, they're texting during corporate board meetings, parents are texting during breakfast with their kids," Turkle said today in a radio interview. "We're intolerant of the boring bits in life."

Why not edit out the boring parts? For one thing, our capacity for surprise is quickly diminishing. So is our ability to listen to and learn from those around us.

"We don't know in conversations when the important moments of revelation are going to come," Turkle says. "In normal human interchange, we find ourselves sparked at moments that are unpredictable."

So put down that gadget and listen up. Surprise yourself.

The Funds of Knowledge: An ethnographic approach to family engagement

The Funds of Knowledge, drawn from the seminal work of language researcher Luis Moll, sound like what they are: substantial, essential, hopeful. And I think of them as our best resource for a promising new school year.

I know the value of home visits, having participated in them with my own students’ families, but teacher-family meetings organized around the Funds of Knowledge represent something quite different. Within each household, family members collectively hold a body of knowledge about wide-ranging ways of living that might comprise cultural traditions, herbal knowledge and folk medicine, gardening and animal husbandry, household and automotive repair, construction and masonry, trade, business, and finance.

The idea is simple yet profound: Teachers visit student homes as ethnographers or social anthropologists, eager to learn about the vast reserves of historical and traditional knowledge that all families represent, and then find ways to build on this knowledge at school.

This might entail inviting family members into the classroom to share their particular expertise for managing a backyard chicken coop, crafting bamboo flutes, or growing a successful family business. It also offers rich research opportunities as you make it possible for your students to investigate the classroom’s collective Funds of Knowledge. Every family goes on record with their particular expertise and make themselves available for demonstrations, interviews and presentations.

While traditional home visits tend to focus on teacher as expert authority by reaching out to each family to share the work and mission of the school, a “Funds of Knowledge perspective” recognizes the abundant social and intellectual resources of each family and the school community beyond and embraces the resources as content worthy of deeper exploration at school.

Perhaps most importantly, it helps teachers approach each student from a position of strength. In other words, rather than focusing on perceived deficits in the child’s home experiences because they don’t align with school-sanctioned knowledge, we discover and build on the impressive strengths and resources each child brings to school. Rather than seeing language disadvantages and deficiencies and approaching our diverse students with lowered expectations, we see rich, abundant Funds of Knowledge that can enrich our teaching, strengthen our students’ learning lives, and create a vibrant culture of learning and achievement that binds home, school, and community.

What do you do at the start of a new school year to get to know your students? How do you tap and build on your students’ Funds of Knowledge?

For more on meaningful ways to form respectful, engaging partnerships with your students’ families, see  Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships and Tapping Student Potential: A Strategic Guide to Boosting Student Achievement through Family Involvement.

Three urban legends about today’s students

Merriam-Webster defines an urban legend as, “an often lurid story or anecdote that is based on hearsay and widely circulated as true.” In this era of rapid change and budding technology, it’s easy to latch onto myths about this generation of learners. Paul Kirschner (Open University of the Netherlands) and Jeroen van Merrienboer (Maastricht University) recently published an article in Educational Psychologist busting three common myths in education.

Myth #1: This generation of digital natives are capable of multitasking and creating meaning from information in the technological world. The authors describe today’s students as “butterflies” on the computer, “fluttering across the information on the screen…unconscious to its value and without a plan.” This builds a “very fragile network of knowledge,” which is perpetuated by multitasking. Kirschner and van Merrienboer believe students lose efficiency and effectiveness when performing two or more tasks at a time. It’s been shown that “rapid switching behavior” causes “poorer learning results in students and poorer performance of tasks.”

Myth #2: Good instruction is tailored to individuals’ learning styles. The arguments against this legend relate to how learning styles are determined. Styles exist along a continuum, and it’s unrealistic to give students one label. Learners generally self-assess to determine their learning style, allowing students to choose the method they prefer instead of the one that might be most helpful.

Myth #3: Students can and should self-educate themselves on the Internet. A wealth of information sources are available today, but “one must be able to search, find, evaluate, select, process, organize, and present information.” This generation needs to be aware of what they don’t know when searching for information on the Internet. Educators play a pivotal role in supporting students in this quest, monitoring students’ learning in comparison with the standards. The authors also believe sharing control by limiting, but allowing student choice, will give learners the autonomy they need.

For more on this topic, see Anya Kamenetz’s post on challenging the conventional wisdom of disruption, digital natives, and learning styles.

Quote: The warping effects of repeated failure

This quote is pulled from a thought-provoking article in this month's Harpers (subscription required) about the logic of requiring high school students to take Algebra II -- a subject notorious for frustrating students and turning them off from math for the rest of their lives.

The quote gets to the heart of the helplessness and hopelessness that struggling students often feel -- not just in math, but also in reading and other subjects.

Here are a few thoughts from David Dockterman on how to encourage perseverance in students and motivate students with a history of failure.

(In case you don't subscribe to Harpers, there's plenty of interesting reading out there related to the fear of algebra, including a 2012 NY Times op-ed, and this Washington Monthly post in which this quote was originally posted in the comments.)

Kellogg Foundation announces new investment in ‘family and community engagement’

This week, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation announced a $5 million investment to identify and promote innovative family engagement initiatives that support children’s educational success from birth to 8 years old.

While we know funding is critical, what I find most exciting about this new effort is the definition and approach to family engagement that the foundation is helping to advance. WKKF defines family engagement as “a shared responsibility of families, schools and communities for student learning and achievement. It is a continuous process from birth to third grade and beyond that occurs across multiple settings where children learn."

As Carla D. Thompson, VP of Program Strategy for WKKF put it, “Our goal is to shift the paradigm for people to see that families – particularly those that have been marginalized by racial inequities – possess numerous skills that must be recognized and supported to help children succeed.”

I couldn’t agree more with this statement. Our strength-based approach to family and community engagement at Scholastic is not only about providing access to books and literacy materials but about comprehensively connecting and empowering homes, schools and communities.

As you think about the new school year ahead, what kinds of innovative and systemic approaches are necessary to help make this paradigm shift?

Quote: ‘Kids teach you everything you need to know’

Today is Maria P. Walther's first day of school. Well, her first day of a new school year. This will actually be her 28th year teaching first grade ("in human years").

"In teacher years," she says, the number is much higher.

Why would someone who has earned a doctorate, was named the Illinois Reading Educator of the Year, and is in demand around the country as a motivational speaker, still mark her days in a first grade classroom—in a public school outside Chicago in a town you've never heard of?

"Kids teach you everything you need to know," she says.

She is staying put. Who can blame her? One student called her "a booty queen."

I can imagine local parents' joy upon learning that their child has drawn the Dr. Walther straw of life. High fives. "Yessss!"

When Dr. Walther does venture out on the road, she leaves her class in good hands. Here's what one student wrote about a substitute: "Mr. C. is here because Dr. W. is not here. I like Mr. C. He has white hair, and he doesn't know our names."

A lot of learning goes on in Dr. Walther's classroom, not just through the rich world of picture books.

"We have learned about seven planets, only two more and then we are done," a student named Stephen wrote. "And then something new comes up, like Dr. King or books or food or words. We are always studying something new. It is fine."

It is fine indeed. When I was in first grade, I hated school. Each morning I'd manufacture a stomachache while my two older siblings went off in the neighborhood carpool. Eventually, my mother would drive the few miles with me in the front seat, a frown on her face, a toddler and a baby bundled up in back.

A patient and kind Sister Martina would walk outside to the parking lot, coaxing me in with news that I had outscored the other kids on some test or other that required little to no expertise. By the time I got settled, we'd read about a boy named Jack and his dog.

Afternoons, we sharpened pencils and did addition problems that involved carrying numbers, or "regrouping." Since I often finished first, I'd be given a box of letters to play with and, as a reward, a pale-blue plaque of the Blessed Mother or a miniature statue of St. Joseph, prizes left over from the pagan baby fund drive.

Besides "pagan baby," the most intriguing term I learned in first grade was "mitre box," which was where we put the quarters and dimes we collected. Five dollars was enough to buy a pagan baby, or get it baptized. Buying a baby for five dollars was one thing I couldn't wrap my head around.

Still, I made it through. Good thing, because I can't go back to first grade, nor would I want to. But if I did, I'd surely love to meet Dr. Walther at the door.

To every teacher out there, despite all of the pressures on you, take a page out of Dr. Walther's book: "Slow down. Give children time to ask questions, to wonder, to investigate."

If you trust yourself to do this, I think Stephen would agree that you'll have a "fine" year.

 

 

David and Meredith Liben on addressing the shifts of the Common Core

As part of our Teacher Appreciation Week programming here at Scholastic, David and Meredith Liben from Student Achievement Partners presented to an auditorium full of educators on “Putting the Pieces of the CCSS Together.” Here are some of my take-aways from their informative workshop. 

The Common Core State Standards bring three instructional shifts in ELA/Literacy:

  1. Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.
  2. Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from text, both literary and informational.
  3. Regular practice with complex text and its academic language.

How do educators address these shifts? Through:

  1. Close Reading. Support students in understanding complex text, which will build habit of mind. Focus on the close reading using text-dependent questions, breaking down complex sentences and syntax.
  2. Volume of Reading. After experiencing success through close reading, students are more willing to read independently. Through reading, students develop vocabulary and learn about the world.

The ability to read complex text independently and proficiently is the greatest predictor of college success. Thanks to the Libens for inspiring us to support students and teachers in this endeavor!

UPDATE: Meredith and David Liben's presentation deck has been posted to Scholastic's Common Core website, if you're interested in taking a look.

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