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: )—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?

What's the difference between Otolaryngology and Education?

Otolaryngology is easily my favorite medical discipline. Or at least my favorite one to say. You non-medical geeks out there might know otolaryngology by its more common name, the "ear, nose and throat" field.

So what's the difference between this esteemed medical discipline -- or any medical discipline for that matter -- and education? One thing that jumps out is the speed with which research and evidence can swiftly and effectively change practice.

Let me elaborate. In the medical world, research translates very quickly into changes in practice. If a pioneering otolarnygologist develops a new technique that shows great effectiveness in correcting the scourge of pollen allergies, that study would be published in the New England Journal of Medicine, read by other otolarnygologists around the country, and (if truly effective) would be adopted over a 2-3 year period into mainstream medicine.

Let's contrast that with education. There is plenty of significant research (and more coming every day) clearly documenting "what works" in moving the needle on student achievement and improving school performance. Yet the rate at which these insights translate into mainstream education practice is much slower than in other professional fields such as medicine, law, or accounting.

I recently spent the day with a former principal of a comprehensive urban high school in the northeast U.S., and her story illustrates this point. Over a 10 year period, this principal and her staff fundamentally changed the performance of this school, moving it from one of the worst in the state to one of the best. This has led to national recognition for the school, and extensive research from major universities describing in great detail what the staff did to transform student achievement. All of this documentation makes two really important points very clear. First, this was no "flash in the pan" -- achievement has continued a steady upward progression for over 10 years. And second, the strategies -- a school wide focus on literacy achievement and a rigorous focus on implementation- are easily repeatable in other schools and were implemented at extremely low cost.

Yet, despite the national profile of this school and the ease with which these strategies could be repeated, very few other schools across the country have adopted this blueprint. Most notably, not even other schools within the district have adopted these strategies. In fact, the performance of the elementary schools in the district has continued to decline even as the high school continues to have excellent performance.

So why hasn't the heavily documented example of this school caught on like wildfire and translated to mainstream practice? There are numerous reasons for this, but I think some of them include:

  • A pervasive belief that research results are district-specific and aren't able to be easily replicated in "my" school.
  • A lack of "user-friendliness" of educational data findings, and a need for more teachers and leaders to have the data analysis skills necessary to draw insights from research and efficacy studies.
  • A culture in our national education system in which, for many teachers and leaders, a commitment to traditional teaching methods (e.g. "how we've always done it") trumps the power of evidence and research.

None of these issues have quick fixes, but for the quality of education to continue to advance we need to have a national conversation about how we address these issues and speed up the rate at which research and evidence translates into practice.

How To: Motivate kids to read during the summer!

What makes long summer days (that somehow seem too short!) so special?

Beach. Parks. Barbeques. Community and City Festivals. Road Trips. Adventures. Campfires. Block Parties. Day Camp. Movies. Books. Sharing old and new stories with family and friends.

For educators and parents out there, it’s important to remember: All of these activities and moments are inherently connected in one way or another to Literacy. Research shows that reading during the summer is critical. It is estimated that the "Summer Slide" accounts for as much as 85% of the reading achievement gap between lower income students and their middle- and upper-income peers.

So, let’s get to it! 

How to motivate kids to read during the summer:

  1. Make it fun--because it is fun: Summer brings out a child-like curiosity in all of us. And it offers relaxed settings for connecting learning and reading to fun, enjoyable moments. Encourage and help your child find the answers to their questions in books. Get lost in a story together. Allow your child to choose their books on topics that are interesting to them. Play word games. Sign your child up for the Scholastic Summer Challenge. Sing and make up songs together. Don’t make it “homework”, make it “funwork”.
  1. Literacy is all around us: Whether you’re using print or technology, summer adventure requires us to gather information. Take the time to enjoy these moments with your child. Find the best route for that family road trip, look up bus or train schedules together, read magazines and brochures to look for free summer activities. What a great time to celebrate reading in our everyday lives—we would literally be lost without it.
  1. Read aloud and share aloud: Whether it’s in our home, down the block or at a park—summer activities bring family and friends together. This makes it a perfect time to enjoy the magic of sharing stories and reading aloud. So, bring a story or poetry book to that next family gathering. Those young and old are sure to bond as they hear their voices lift the words from the page.
  1. Be well-read and they’ll want to read too: Hopefully, summer means some extra down time for you. And they’ll model what you do with that time. So, whether it’s a novel, the newspaper or a magazine, let them see you enjoy reading! And, remember to share the new things you learn, too.
  1. Write: An important way to develop good reading skills is to write.  Encourage your child to start a summer journal so they have a fun record of their adventures and new memories made. Take the time to sit with them and write to family and loved ones. Turn everyday chores into writing activities—like the grocery list or what you have to pack for the picnic or family vacation. The list goes on and on because summer gives us so many things worth documenting!

These are just a few “how-to’s.”  Here are some additional resources and ideas.

And, encourage your child to sign up for the Scholastic Summer Challenge, where they can log the minutes they read, play games and earn prizes!  What else do you do encourage summer reading?


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