Looking Ahead: Family Engagement in Education Act of 2013

As part of the critical effort to provide a comprehensive reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act/No Child Left Behind, the Family Engagement in Education Act was introduced this month.

As a recent article in the Wall Street Journal notes, “The Family Engagement in Education Act prioritizes family engagement by targeting federal resources -- a small portion (.3 percent) of Title I administrative funds -- for state capacity building and the establishment of at least one Local Family Engagement Center to serve the highest-need areas. The legislation would also increase the investment in family engagement locally for qualifying local agencies. With the proper funding and tools, those closest to America's schools would have the decision-making ability to systemically embed a lasting family engagement infrastructure that is research based and results driven, but flexible in its application.”

This is an important step toward providing the increased and necessary investment, funding and tools around family and community engagement.  Looking ahead to the next step, what kinds of innovative and comprehensive strategies do you think will help ensure the most effective use and implementation of resources like Family Engagement Centers?

Defining surroundings, defining learning

Attending the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy last week left my mind spinning with educational ideas and refreshed with fond memories of my best teachers.  This multi-day professional learning opportunity for science and math teachers was such a treat to sit in on and of the many impressions I was left with was a distinct feeling of being completely surrounded by learning - literally.

As I made origami boxes and filled them with lima beans to make predictions and incorporate lessons about means, modes and spatial relationships, not only was I enamored with the feeling of being a student again but I was taken by the room itself. My group was in a conference room with little to no natural decorating but the teachers from Math Solutions and the National Science Teachers Association that were leading the sessions had taken their classroom skills and filled the walls and even windows with learning. Teaching tips, graphs - some filled and some to be filled, metal washers on strings, speech bubbles and more surrounded us. Which got me thinking about how much our surroundings influence us.

If the teams of teachers had simply walked into an empty, undecorated room, would they had been so immediately engaged? The second we walked in the tone was set. We were going to be up and about filling in graphs, we had hints about the topics we would learn through what was on the walls, and everything around us was usable. When I returned my daily office life, I found similar tactics that we all use here at Scholastic.  We are surrounded by primary colors, our desks are filled with books and friendly Scholastic characters - from Harry to Clifford, Katniss to Ms. Frizzle, and the wall art is Scholastic Art & Writing Award-winning art from students. It must be ingrained in our systems from our classroom days and you know what, it is a successful tactic! It is a constant reminder of our mission and how we serve teachers and students. 

Teachers, as you are preparing your classrooms - I'm sure as I write this in fact - how are you planning to immerse your students in learning?  Share some examples with us!


The Having of Grand Conversations

“I like to do all the talking myself. It saves time and arguments.” So declares Oscar Wilde in The Happy Prince and Other Tales—but yesteryear’s teachers, schooled in the art of the quiet, orderly classroom where they talked and students listened, may have embraced Wilde’s quip as the gold standard. Lobbing faux questions, teachers waited for students to swat back the right answers, much like a game of “instructional ping pong,” as Frank Serafini says.

The end result was “sit and get” instruction immortalized in the monotone drone of actor Ben Stein as the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Standing at the blackboard, Stein delivers his dry-as-dust lecture, pausing only long enough to probe for the right answer (“Anyone, anyone?”) before providing the answer himself—while his students, nearly comatose with boredom, struggle to stay awake. 

Today’s classrooms, guided by the Common Core speaking and listening standards, which call for rich collaborative conversation, should be anything but silent. Think Dead Poets Society. The teacher, portrayed by Robin Williams, asks penetrating questions about art, poetry, and life. His students, swept up in genuine intellectual inquiry, leap into the conversation with their own flurry of questions and ideas. There’s no one right answer; everyone’s opinion counts.

Ralph Peterson and Maryann Eeds call this a grand conversation—much like the spirited discussions we enjoy with our friends after we’ve seen a provocative film. Everyone shares his or her own interpretation of the movie, comparing and contrasting it with other films they’ve seen, reviewing memorable moments, analyzing the characters’ motives, arguing over the plot twists, and so on.

When we serve as thoughtful facilitators of classroom talk, demonstrating the quality comments that reflect critical analysis, and provide the space and structure that invite our students to share their own thoughts and questions, we move away from a mind-numbing IRE discourse pattern (teacher initiates, students respond, teacher evaluates) to an invigorating interactive pattern best characterized as I-R-R-R-R, where our opening remark is then followed by a series, or chaining, of student responses.

This is the power of collaborative conversation. Students learn to delve deep into intellectual inquiry: to explore issues, share interpretations, and build on each other’s evolving meanings. As Hilda Taba once wrote, it’s the difference between “covering the curriculum and uncovering the curriculum” (for more on Taba’s work see: http://www.rfwp.com/samples/conceptdevelopmentp1-15.pdf )—or ping ponging across pages of text versus challenging students to wrestle with the meaning of a passage, consider alternative interpretations, and generate new questions that will open up new lines of inquiry.

As you work to spark collaborative conversations with your own students, what techniques and structures do you use to assure your classroom sounds more like Robin Williams’s and less like Ben Stein’s?

For more on the nature of interactive talk, text, and teaching, check out Maryann Eeds and Ralph Peterson’s Grand Conversations: Literature Groups in Action and Frank Serafini’s book, Interactive Comprehension Strategies: Fostering Meaningful Talk About Text - both available through Scholastic.

Quote: Pay attention to the details

Many Common Core discussions center on how students should read a text. No wonder. The gauntlet is thrown down in the first line of the first Anchor Standard for Reading: "Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it."

What types of text? With the Core's emphasis on "informational" reading, might we drown kids in a sea of legalise and lifeless prose?

The ability to digest and synthesize reams of data is critical in today's world. We would do students a disservice by not preparing them for what lies ahead. How many of us actually understand, for example, the online user agreements we routinely "accept" at our peril?

It would be immoral, however, to rob young people of the fictional works we were nurtured on. What teen wouldn't thrill at the sight of a kindred spirit in The Outsiders, a stunning coming-of-age novel that was written by a teen?

Despite the Core's prescribed fiction-nonfiction percentages, we will likely arrive at a productive split through trial and error. For now, look to CCRA.R.1. Have students plumb the depths of whatever they read—a poem, a Supreme Court decision, or a memoir—and consider the meaning and intent within "the four corners of the text."

Whether kids are reading War and Peace or a picture book, the same principle holds. As Sue Pimentel, a lead writer of the ELA Standards, told us, “The observation skills that it takes to look at a picture and to find out what’s going on in it are some of the same skills we’re asking students to do in close reading. We’re asking them to pay attention to the details as you would in a picture, and also for students to be able to express what’s going on.”

“Pay attention.” It sounds simple. But it’s not. That’s why I heard the phrase 3 million times when I was a kid. Invariably, it was followed by an exclamation mark.


What are an educator's indispensable tech tools?

A couple of recent blog posts I’ve read have me thinking: What are an educator's indispensable tech tools?

Peter DeWitt writes here about how Twitter has become such a valuable tool for networking and bonding with other educators. And Glenn Wiebe blogged about the essential tech in his “travel bag” and what he says are tools a social studies teacher can’t live without. The list includes services like Dropbox and Facebook, sources of content like the Library of Congress’ website, and a texting service for messaging students and parents.

For me, many things are a given (laptop, smartphone for remote access to email and social tools, Microsoft Word and Excel, and others). In addition, I’d have a hard time doing my job without an RSS reader. I currently use Feedly (now that Google Reader is gone) to stay on top of the news and conversations about education, teaching and learning. Tweetdeck is also indispensable for me since I keep an eye on several Scholastic Twitter accounts.

For the educators or school administrators out there: What are YOUR indispensable tech tools? Essential devices? Sources of incredible content for your students? Is there a tool you use in your classroom that you simply couldn’t do without?


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