Friday, September 26, 2014

Why Are Your Students Reading?

I am lucky enough to be a mentor/curriculum coach for a group of first year teachers. We email each other, arrange group meetings, and share the occasional happy hour. Working with them has been a blast. Their questions and passion challenge me; they challenge me to think of my own practice, especially my teaching philosophy.
First year teachers rarely have a coherent philosophy about teaching grounded in practice, theory, and research. I know I didn't. I just hoped to keep my head above water. Philosophy helps teachers not get bogged down by the small day to day of the job. Which reading strategy to use? How to head a paper? How to collect papers? There are much bigger questions and opportunities for teachers. 
If I can communicate that my decisions are informed by more than survival, I can communicate how important it is for them to develop their own philosophies, to think more big picture.

Recently, I received an email about guided reading strategy. I responded with some of my favorite strategies, gave a few links, and then wrote this at the end.
Then my final bit of advice is the following--Why are the kids reading? What end does it serve them? If they are reading for something, meaning to figure out an engaging, interesting question or to answer a project they see the relevance and are much more willing to by in.
 Those were my exact words. I didn't even edit for grammar.

The next time we met, I wanted to really emphasize this. Students will commit to reading, and see its purpose, if they are motivated. I don't mean by free pizzas or stickers. Students crave relevancy. Students crave purpose. Give it to them.

Make reading part of larger questions and problems. Make reading important to kids. This is the connection to teacher philosophy. Think BIG! Support grand ideas, support passion. Don't assign a chapter so you have a lesson (loosely defined) for the next day. Don't give the section review for the sake of creating homework. Have students read to solve problems, to make discovery, to be part of innovation.

As Seth Godin writes in his great e-book Stop Stealing Dreams, "When we associate reading with homework and tests is it any wonder we avoid it?"

Monday, September 22, 2014

I'm a Competitive Guy, But Not in the Classroom

Sport has been a life long passion for me.

At the age of three my parents enrolled me in gymnastics. There is even tape out there to prove it (working hard to destroy all evidence). My parents claimed it would make me more flexible, more athletic. It was the head start I needed to gain an edge on the competition. You see, I never really had a chance.

When I hit five, almost every weekend was filled with baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey, or football. This really never stopped. I played sports through college. I play sports now. I love sports. I love competing.

Yet, I firmly believe competition in the classroom, and in the education system, is one of the most destructive forces in American schools. 


It would be easy to make a click baiting, top 10 list (trust me I have more than 10) or rant for thousands of words. Instead, I will offer one simple reason.

Competition seriously undermines the stated goal that all students should learn.

Our system of education pits students against one another even though learning is not a sport. When students are expected to compete academically, whether for awards, grades, rankings, or cute prizes, we are explicitly telling students that some kids SHOULD learn more than others. There is a perverse incentive to make sure the student next to you is NOT learning. Learning, in effect, becomes a zero sum game. It is not the learning that matters, but rather the winning. Competition tells students, in a very clear way, that getting ahead is more important than learning. Thus, keeping someone down is just as effective as rising to the top.

There is less creativity, less risk-taking, less cooperation, less vulnerability, less authentic learning. Intrinsic motivation is impossible because students are not trying to truly learn, but instead out-perform, and beat another student, for an extrinsic motivator—winning. If students are only motivated by the extrinsic reward of winning, or gaining a sticker, there is a negative effect on intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the type of motivation one needs to learn for the sake of learning. Intrinsic motivation is needed to develop resilience, grit, and authentic passion. Intrinsic motivation is imperative to developing people who are innovative, who will do more than what the boss tells them or sees them doing.

So how is sport different?

As I grow older, I question many things about competitive sport, but I will save that for a different post. One major factor is choice. Usually, one chooses to play and compete in sports. There are different categories and divisions to ensure fair competition. There is no choice in school. There are very few opportunities to chose the subjects you take. You have very little time to study things you actually enjoy or are talented in. You are not asked to engage in competition, you are expected to do it by the very nature of our school system.

Another factor is fairness. We all go to school and are pretty much lumped into class by age, grade, and location. There are almost no other considerations to sorting. You have to compete against the people you are assigned to. No questions asked. It is akin to a 120 pound wrestler squaring off against a heavyweight— without choosing to do so. Any sports enthusiast would consider such a match-up ludicrous. No matter, we host similar mismatches in school every day. Situations like that are rarely positive, just like competition in school.

So how can we act differently?

I will throw out a few suggestions, but would rather hear from the crowd. Leave a note or write a response. How could things be different?

For one, de-emphasize grades. Either a student understands a concept or standard, or he/she needs improvement. What does knowing something 81.45% mean anyway?

For two, build formative assessment and check-ins into the learning process. We can talk to students, repair understanding, and learn together. We can build in mini victories rather than making learning all about the big game (a final test/exam).

For three, emphasize effort and perseverance. Scaffold meta-cognition and model learning to learn. We can show that those who ask for help are actually the strongest. This would build collaboration into the process. Without someone to beat, students could take the time to work together and see that learning is a lifelong process.

Monday, September 15, 2014

What Did you Create Today?

I remember as a kid my mom always asked, “How was school today?”

I was lucky my mom asked. Not everyone has parents who check in regularly with their kids. A simple question like this is actually quite meaningful. But I digress.

I usually replied, “Okay.”

She pressed on (thanks again mom), “What did you do today?”

I would name a few standard school exercises, “Did some math problems, answered some questions.”

“Did you learn anything interesting? Do you have any tests tomorrow?” she continued.

My reply might have been something like this, “We did chapter 5 in Math and have a quiz in section 3 for Literature.”

Let’s stop the conversation.

Let’s replay the conversation.

What did you learn?

Chapter 5

Do you have a test?

Section 3


How does one learn Chapter 5? How does one have a test on Section 3?

Learning is a whole lot more than naming the chapters you completed in a book. A test or assessment should be about concepts and ideas, not a section. How disconnected was I from actual learning?

This was —and is— school for most people. Students don’t dive deep into concepts; they aren’t given the chance. Students don’t even realize what they are learning. They go through the motions. One chapter, one section at a time. This type of routine is encourage by standardized test and rote curriculum. Learning is measured not by passion, but by how far one gets in a textbook.

What would have happened if my mom asked, “What did you create today?”

I couldn’t tell you.

I can tell you this is the question we should be asking our children, our students. This should be the expectation. We learn when we create. We learn when we are engaged. We learn when we see that education is more than a chapter in the textbook.

Let’s start a new after school conversation, “What did you create today?”

Friday, September 12, 2014

The 'R' Word

Synonyms include:


What popular education word am I referencing?

Its starts with a 'R' and ends with a igorous.

The word makes my ears scream and my body convulse. Okay, I am being a little dramatic, but I seriously loathe the word rigorous.

On any given day, I read numerous articles, talk to education stakeholders, and hear numerous influential people constantly reference the 'R' word.


Look at what the word really means. Please. Please. I beg of you. These are not words I want describing education. Yet over and over we hear how kids need rigorous instruction, rigorous curriculum, rigorous standards, rigorous teachers, rigorous schools. No where is the word rigorous more exalted than in urban schools, often those in lower socioeconomic areas. If we are harder on these schools, on these students, on these teachers than all will be well.

I know most people use 'R' word with great intentions. They want the best for students and schools. I get it. But please look closely at the adjectives you use.

There are better ways to describe a high quality education. In fact why don't we start there? Why not focus on high quality curriculum? High quality instruction? High quality schools? Another word we might use is relevant. Heck, let's combine the two: a high quality, relevant education.

Words have meaning. Using combative, repressive, and commanding words evokes a certain mood, a certain emotion. It makes one automatically turn to the negative, even if that is not the intent. This is why I push to stop using the 'R' word.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

QWERTY, Tell me what that means to you?


What do those letter stand for?

A vision chart?

A revolutionary acronym?

No and no. Take a look at the first row of your computer keyboard. Go ahead, I will wait. Reading on an iPad or iPhone? Pull up your keyboard. It still works.

You should see Q W E R T Y, exactly in that order. Ever wonder why those letters appear like that on the keyboard?

Let me inform you real quick. In the early stages of the typewriter the keys used to jam frequently, especially if commonly typed letters were located next to each other. The solution then was to separate common letters. Easy fix.

I hope this question popped into your mind--then why did we keep it like this?

Great question. It didn't take long for the jamming issue to be corrected, but we insisted on keeping Q W E R T Y. People complained the social cost of switching would be too high. We already learned to type a certain way, and if we switched people would lose the skills they learned. Although it might make sense to have a keyboard where the most commonly used letter are together, we bucked the 'rational' thought because we didn't want to change what we were used to. As Seymour Papert (1980) wrote, "preserving practices that have no rational basis beyond there historical roots in an earlier period of technological and theoretical development."

So what does this have to do with education?

Papert used Q W E R T Y as an analogy to how we use computers in the classroom. Although children can use computers to create, build, program, imagine, and discover, we use them for outdated pedagogy like drill and kill. We want the computer to do something to the child. We want the computer to make the child a better reader, a faster multiplier, a quicker memorizer. We have this backward.

Here's one more interesting question--when did Papert write the above points?

34 years ago in the year 1980!!!!!!

This is why I recommend his classic book, Mindstorms. It may not be the most flashy book or even the easiest to read. There are some parts that feel outdated and some sections are admittingly a bit tough to get through. But the overall message is extremely important to educators today. Computers can unlock powerful ideas, inspirational learning, and ultimate creativity in children. Children can use computers to be scientists and programmers, inventors and tinkerers. Children can learn how the world works through discovery and exploration. Children can learn skills like persistence, collaboration, and 'de-bugging'. Computers can make learning participatory and exciting.

Yet education technology and the way we use computers in the classroom smells a lot like Q W E R T Y. The pedagogy is outdated and we make computers fit that historic pedagogy. For what reason? The reason is we feel very comfortable and we really don't want to change what we are used to. Even if what we are used to makes no sense today. I think its time for that to change.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Just a little switch...

About a month ago I had the pleasure of leading a few sessions at a technology conference in Los Angeles. I chose to speak about Project Based Learning and how this type of learning is aided by technology. 

Teachers worked in teams to change typical assignments into projects defined by engaging, relevant, and inquiry based driving questions. Most were shocked that simple changes to promote exploration and open-endedness could trigger such inspiration.

Check out some of the driving questions/challenge statements brainstormed by teachers

Solar System:

-Design a city environment that would support life on planets farthest or closest to sun
-Create your own galaxy
-What does it take to survive on a planet? Create a survival kit for life on a planet

History and Social Studies:
-What is the cost of inaction? Recreate a the history and consequences of a event if a people or group had not acted
-Recreate the mission system from the POV of...
-What might they say? Create a blog or video blog from the POV of native Americans during the mission period?
-Should missions be funded as state parks?

State Reports:
-Who’s state? Develop a commercial /print/social media campaign for or against admitting your state to the union from the perspective of multiple groups (i.e. Native Americans, Hawaiians, northerners, southerners)
-Create an ad campaign to increase tourism in your state
-Create your own state

Book Reports:
-Who's story? Retell a story from a character’s POV
-Create an app that would change the plot of a book
-How do you create interest in literature? Create a book commercial or trailer
-How do turning points affect a story? Create a choose your own adventure/ending to a book that changes at main points in a classic story

-What do family trees look like today? Create a digital family tree
-How are building made? Create the tallest skyscraper out of block or legos-OR-Make structures that can hold your textbooks

How can my school get (or upgrade) their WiFi?