Category Archives: Teachers

Teach the students

Teach the students you have

child pedaling a tricycle

not those you wish you had.           

                 girl's multi-speed bicycle

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Create no-bore writing classrooms

Good teaching occurs halfway between being an entertainer

 

juggler keeps balls in air
 

and being a wet blanket.

 

money wet with snow looks depressed

 

Examine the most boring parts of your curriculum for opportunities to introduce something unexpected.

 

woman walks quickly carrying mannequin leg

 

Just because you cannot make learning to write fun doesn’t mean you have to make it boring.

 

woman looks up from computer in pleasant surprise

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Relationships and learning

Since I came across this image in a tweet, I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I agree with the quote, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”

I agree with the @teachergoals that relationships must be encouraged and maintained. I suspect the intent of the quote is to encourage teachers to interact with their students as people instead of as rectangles on a seating chart, which is a worthwhile aim.

What I’m not so sure about is the meaning of a “significant relationship” in the educational context.  (I’m sure, however, it’s not the meaning we occasionally hear about on TV newscasts, in which one of the parties wears a bright orange jumpsuit.)

Who are the parties to a significant relationship in which learning occurs?

In what way(s) must the relationship be significant to impact learning?

Do the learning and the relationship have to occur contemporaneously?

If all significant learning requires “a significant relationship,” is turning students into lifelong learners a pipe dream?

And, last but not least, I wonder if I the only person in the world whose most significant learning came from books?

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Technology and skills: Today’s best BOGO deal

In the lead up to Black Friday, my inbox was full of messages from technology companies that don’t want me to miss out on the greatest deal ever—usually theirs.

Photo of classroom computers overlaid with "Is this technology a good deal?"

To get a really good deal on technology, buy one product that gets you two benefits:

  1. It’s technology you can use now.
  2. It’s technology that will allow you to develop a skill you can use later.

Technology you can use now but which doesn’t help you develop new skills isn’t worth what you’ll pay for it.

And you’ll probably never get around to learning to use new technology for which you have no immediate use, so that’s not worth having at any price.

The buy-two-benefits principle holds whether you’re buying technology for yourself or selecting technology for your classroom.

 

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Foiled by training: Why multi-modal learning materials matter

I rarely attempt a new task without being reminded that not all people learn the same way.  I’ve written about how that plays out on the job here and here and probably other places I’ve forgotten about. This month I’ve been wrestling with a similar problem in the context of trying to master a new piece of software.

I’m in the process of trying to set up a new website to hold content from my old “you can teach writing” site.  I needed new web creation software to replace the Dreamweaver program I’d had since 2001.

I did my homework, tried CoffeeCup‘s Responsive Site Designer and decided to buy it.

I knew it would require some time to master RSD, but I’d learned Dreamweaver, I’ve had plenty of experience with grid-based design, including changing designs to fit various sized pages, so I didn’t think learning RSD would be too hard.

What I didn’t stop to consider was that Dreamweaver provided a book with text and screenshots; CoffeeCup recommended a video tutorial for RSD.

Screenshot of title page of one RSD training video.

For efficient learning, I need fixed text and still pictures.

I watched the first two RSD video segments which showed someone creating webpages.

There was no narrative to explain what trainer was doing. I could see his cursor hovered over certain places on the screen but I couldn’t tell what action, if any, he took.

I watched the videos again.

And watched them again.

And again.

screenshot of part of the RSD control panel

Section of RSD control panel.

After two days of that, I opened the program and tried to recreate what I saw on the video.

I’d watch a few seconds of video, switch to the program and try to reproduce the changes I saw in the page in the tutorial.

Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.

I did the back-and-forth bit for several days and still had no clue how to use the program.

The control panel for the page creation screen has a black background with tiny light gray type. If I zoomed in to see the tiny type, I couldn’t see the page creation screen.

In the last two of the five videos in the tutorial, the action that the trainer took was masked by the Vimeo progress bar.

In frustration, I contacted CoffeeCup support and asked how to open a blank page.

Armed with that information and a rough layout I’d planned using a spreadsheet in lieu of a wire frame, I created a webpage in one afternoon.

My page isn’t great, but it’s not bad either. I’ve seen worse from people who supposedly knew what they were doing.

Take-aways

For me as a teacher and writer of instructional materials, every frustrating experience is a learning experience (after it’s over).

Some notes to myself, based on this experience:

  • Don’t make people feel stupid.
  • If you have something to show, make sure it’s visible.
  • Help people get started.
  • Provide cheat sheets.
  • Don’t assume everyone learns best the way you do.
  • Don’t assume everyone has prior experiences similar to yours.
  • Provide a menu (or other structure) to help people find the most relevant resources at various stages of the learning learning process.
  • If learners segment into distinct groups based on prior experience, consider making different menus for the different groups.

 

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Grade incentives for learning that don’t suck

Andrew Miller posted a piece on Edutopia almost a year ago titled “When Grading Harms Student Learning,” which he ends with “an essential question to ponder: How can we grade and assess in a way that provides hope to all students?”

By the time Miller’s post showed up in my Twitter feed this week, it had drawn 31 responses.

Polar positions on grading

As you might guess, the comments on Miller’s post ranged from a recommending that grades be eliminated entirely saying indirectly that grades—or at least the standards they seem to represent—are an essential part of the school’s role in preparing students for life after school.

Mark Barnes takes the first position:

“Have you considered eliminating all number and letter grades? Is it possible that if a child does not complete an activity, there’s a problem with an activity? Number and letter grades lie about learning. Learning can never be measured.”

Mrs Hitchcock, an 8th grade science teacher from Eagar AZ leans, somewhat reluctantly, toward the tough love approach:

“On the one hand, our kids are more than just grades. On the other hand, we ARE still trying to teach kids to be responsible adults…Compliance is a HUGE part of being an adult, and public school is the only place a lot of kids will ever be held accountable for anything.”

Her sentiment was echoed by Kimberly Livaudais, who has taught 7-12 and at the college level.

“[college] students are so used to being able to turn work in late or re-test that many of them fail their first year when they have that rude awakening.”

Grades aren’t going away

I see no chance that schools will get rid of grading systems any time soon: They are too convenient.

(Convenience is one of the most desirable characteristics of 21st century products and services)

Nor do I see large employers abandoning grades as a hiring consideration, even while deploring the fact that grades are meaningless.

As an employer who also worked in human resources, I know employers who need staff ASAP are not going to look through electronic portfolios at least until they’ve narrowed the candidate pool to between three and five people: Portfolios aren’t convenient.

I also don’t see digital badges gaining traction among employers hiring for low-end, no-degree-needed jobs for the same reason: convenience. Employers hiring for those jobs aren’t going to click a half-dozen links to see what Josh’s badges mean.

And a surprising number of employers who ask applicants to email a letter of application don’t know those blue underlines in email messages indicate a clickable link.

My position on grading

My own position on grading sits somewhere between the two.
Don Doehla stated my position better than I can:

“We should have grading systems which honor growth, which empower, and which help support reflective practices.”

Such grading systems would accomplish Miller’s goal of providing students with hope that they aren’t doomed to a life of failure without encouraging students to think effort is the same as accomplishment.

Iteration is key to deep learning

I decided 40-some years ago that grading systems “which honor growth, empower, and support reflective practices” are incompatible with teaching content by units and with arbitrary marking periods. Even semester grades are a stretch for many subjects.

The most important concepts rarely can be mastered within a single unit: Important concepts are important because they apply to a great many specifics and have wide applicability.

Students need to be exposed to multiple examples of a concept and often need to be exposed to the concept in multiple ways. Squeezing a half-dozen examples shown via a half-dozen techniques into two class periods is not nearly as useful as spreading the material out in smaller doses over a period of weeks.

Teaching important skills requires even more iterations—which means a longer time frame—than teaching concepts.

The total amount of class time required for iterative teaching can be less than the time required for the concentrated focus, but is may very well need to extend over several marking periods.

Ditch the unit mindset

Shaking off the unit mindset allows teachers to work in environments employing procedures and processes such as:

  • annual outcomes
  • competency-based learning
  • mastery learning

I suspect many teachers would have no trouble getting rid of units if they could figure out how to grade a student’s achievement on a particular annual outcome when learning activities aimed at helping students master the outcome extend over months.

I do a couple of things in first year college English classes that may offer some insights.

My practice for grading

I set as my writing goal getting every student to write nonfiction competently. I call that C-level.

All topics that need to be covered in the curriculum are evaluated by means of written (“essay”) tests done in class.

All of the formal writing and informal writing (ungraded) assignments are about communications topics in the curriculum.

I evaluate each week’s formal writing—one paper is required each week—in terms of a list of characteristics of C-level writing. I word each characteristic so a student’s work can be assessed as meeting or not meeting the standard.

I tell students that once they reach C-level, I will drop all their grades to that point, even if they had straight F’s to that time.

Empower growth

With students writing just three days a week, I know it’s probably going to take a full semester before most students get to C-level.  That long slog is discouraging, so I provide a way for students to see measurable progress in one area that will contribute to their overall grade: writing mechanics.

Every student in the class has the same number of specific errors to master (usually three; never more than five),  but each student has his or her own list of habitual, serious errors in their writing to master during the course.

One student’s individual mastery plan might look like this:

  • put comma after introductory element
  • separate clauses in a compound sentence with a comma
  • distinguish between its and it’s

Each student gets a percentage of the paper’s total grade for having no more than X total errors of the types listed in their IMP.

I don’t grade informal writing, but I sometimes give bonus points—I call it an easy A—to  students who do all the informal, in-class writing every day they don’t have an excused absence from class.  For struggling students, the prospect of a few extra points may be enough to get them to engage with the informal writing, which will have more impact on their grade than the bonus points.

Hold students accountable

Students are responsible for mastering their own habitual errors. I have students graph their progress in eliminating their errors, and I keep track both of each student’s writing grade for the week and the part of the grade that is represented by the writing mechanics.

Once students see that their writing mechanics have improved enough that they could get higher than a C in the course, they are motivated to keep plugging away on the writing.

In my classes, no student ever fails just because of errors in writing mechanics, but no student gets higher than a C on a paper with more than the acceptable limit of errors from their own IMP.

Honor growth

When a student has performed at C-level or higher on three formal weekly papers in a row, I consider that student competent.  I strike through all previous grades and let the C stand.

The C represents what the student learned in my class. All the earlier F’s were for what the student learned in other teachers’ classes.

If they are happy with a C, students can stop turning in formal writing and still have a C for their grade.

Nobody has ever stopped working after earning their C.

For the final grade, I average the last three weekly papers, which approximates their performance level at the end of the class.

What’s your grading practice?

Have you found some ways to assess and grade without falling into the twin traps of giving away grades or punishing students for their prior teachers’ failings?

Please share.

 

 

 

 

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A new way to think about literacy

Literacy = reading and writing, right?

Technically, yes.

But suppose we broadened the skills that we include under the literacy umbrella to include speaking, listening, and thinking.

Then we’d have a suite of skills that people use to learn complex material.

Broadening the definition of literacy is where Mark A. Forget begins teaching any subject, from the humanities to vocational courses.

 Red umbrella labeled LITERAACY over 5 gears labeled reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking

An expanded definition of literacy facilitates teaching in the content areas using both reading and writing.

Skill acquisition during content learning

Forget (pronounced forzháy) stumbled over some good ideas that he later built on, drawing on research into how people learn.

Forget flips the classroom, using the class time for reading text material that typically is assigned for homework and giving as homework activities that encourage higher order thinking about that same content.

Forget uses textbooks the school provides as the reading material. Students acquire reading skills in the process of reading those texts strategically and collaboratively discussing their reading, defending their interpretation of it by reference to specific passages in the text.

Forget teaches strategies that students can use for the rest of their lives.

Forget varies activities to prevent boredom. He  has about two dozen activities that he picks from to accomplish specific objectives, such as learning to preview text, for example. Having those choices lets him insert some variety into the classes without changing his overall procedure.

Forget uses in-class writing every day. Usually the writing is informal (i.e, ungraded), a tool to help students “generate ideas, become engaged through concrete commitment, clarify their own thinking, or otherwise organize ideas in useful and meaningful ways,” Forget says.

MAX teaching strategies

After testing the procedures for years in a variety of school settings and in many different disciplines, Forget wrote Max Teaching with Reading and Writing: Classroom Activities for Helping Students Learn New Subject Matter While Acquiring Literacy Skills¹.  The “MAX” in Max Teaching stands for Motivation, Acquisition (learning that happens without instruction), and eXtension.

Forget does for reading what I attempt to do with writing: Use it as a tool for teaching content and developing the skills Forget includes under the literacy umbrella: reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking.

What makes Forget’s method brilliant is less his originality than his consistency: He figured out how to teach so that students learn subject matter content and acquire literacy skills—reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking—and he stuck to doing that class after class, week after week.

I don’t recall who recommended the book to me, but I wish I did so I could thank him or her.  If my colleagues in other disciplines used Forget’s methods, teaching writing to their students would be a piece of cake.

I’m sure I’ll be writing more about Forget’s ideas as I work through the rest of the book.


¹ I got my copy of Max Teaching with Reading and Writing through an independent bookseller at Alibris.com

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My students explain

While looking for some papers I needed, I ran across a folder of items I’ve culled from student writing over the years. Here are a few  of their observations to remind you why your work is so important.
Pencil with slogan "student expectations"Students know what they expect:

I expect my instructor to follow the KISS formula: Keep It Simply Stupid.

Can you do that?
Pencil with slogan "good writing"They may not be good writers, but students know what good writing is.

In a place of business, writing effectively means coming to a clear and concise point in as few words as possible in order to prevent wordiness.

Writing can also produce an emotional response.

I feel that one main characteristic of writing is the ability to convey ones message in a way that capsizes the audience.

Pencil with slogan "thesis statements"

Students have had the importance of a good thesis statement drilled into them for years:

A thesis sentence or statement is one or two sentences giving the reader information, a brief interdiction of what you are about to read. A thesis sentence is essential for the following reasons: so the reader will know what the paper is about, let’s a reader know what your poison is on the paper and when this is provided a reader will have some idea as to whether or not to contuse reading that paper.

Pencil with slogan "student weaknesses"Getting started writing is hard for many students:

It is hard for me to begin writing my assigned papers even after I have an idea. I guess you might call me a procreator.

Finishing on time is hard, too.

Due to some insinuating circumstances this weekend, I will not have my first paper ready.

Pencil with slogan "students learn"It can be hard to believe, but students are learning.

I see now that the brain is a mussel, the more you use it the stronger it gets.

Pencil with slogan "teachers matter"Your work is valued by your students.

Teachers are put on a much higher pedistool than other professionals because they are taking care of our children and, they should be.

Have a great year, good students, lots of chuckles—and don’t fall off your pedistool.

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Which is easier: teaching or learning?

student before classroom world map. Overprint with quote "I love to teach," Angela said. It's easier than learning."

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June 24, 2016 · 2:45 pm

A response to “How-we-make-teaching too hard for mere mortals”

Robert Pondiscio’s article “How We Make Teaching Too Hard for Mere Mortals” caught my eye this week. In it, Pondiscio summarizes the Rand Corporation research showing most American elementary and secondary teachers use “materials I developed and/or selected myself.”

photo of teacher and students on cover of Rand report

Teaching is tough

I agree with Pondiscio the quality instructional materials teachers are given to work with stinks. (Pondiscio phrases that more delicately than I.)

In my teaching emphasis (secondary and post-secondary writing),  free materials available for selection are presentations for lessons or units on various topics, not aids for year-long distributed practice.

I agree, too, with Pondiscio that expecting all teachers to be expert at both instructional design and classroom teaching is expecting far too much.

I also agree with Pondiscio that American education is “making a serious mistake by not paying more attention to curriculum, classroom materials, and instructional design.”

What I do question is Pondiscio’s

  • equation of teacher-designed materials with pulling materials from the Internet
  • divorce of instructional design from instructional delivery

Developing beats downloading

Downloading worksheets and lessons from Teachers Pay Teachers is far different from teachers developing materials for their students.

The first just looks for something on a topic to fill the class time and justify accepting a paycheck.

The second recognizes the inadequacy of the existing materials to move students toward meeting standards.

Although both may be equally good/bad at enabling learning, I’d far rather have the teacher who develops his/her own materials: That person is committed to teaching.

Teachers aren’t waiters

Pondiscio says expecting a teacher to design instructional materials and teach is ” like expecting the waiter at your favorite restaurant to serve your meal attentively while simultaneously cooking for twenty-five other people—and doing all the shopping and prepping the night before.”

That analogy has one problem: The public doesn’t regard waiters as professionals.

The public does expect the restaurant professional—the chef—to produce meals for 25 people at a time and to do all the planning, shopping, prepping, and kitchen management.

The public also expects the chef to be fully prepared to do all that from day one: That’s how the public defines a professional.

(That the public may be wrong is a topic for another day.)

Mere mortals do instructional design

Instructional design is not difficult conceptually: It is difficult operationally.

It requires enough understanding of subject matter so that the instructor can reverse engineer instruction from the goals/outcomes, such as those specified in the Common Core State Standards.

Instructional design requires enough knowledge of the subject and enough observation of learners to determine:

  • what’s hard to understand
  • what’s hard to learn to use appropriately
  • how to help individual learners relate something in their experience to the subject matter material to be learned

Instructional design often comes down to figuring out what can be omitted from instruction so that more time can be devoted to learning.

I learned instructional design conceptually as an undergraduate psychology major; I did more study in instructional design as part of a master’s program designed to prepare school public relations staff.

I learned instructional design operationally by designing materials for teaching writing, observing how well they worked, and tweaking them to work a bit better the next time.

Is off-the-shelf  best?

I see the attraction of having curricular materials ready-made for teachers. (And I’d love to get in on the money that’s going to be made doing that.)

I do not, however, see how developing materials that meet standards will produce better results faster than teaching teachers how to design their own materials so they don’t need to select lessons from Pinterest.

If it were necessary to be a polymath to do instructional design, I would not have been able to do instructional design in fields ranging from education to engineering.

Simply being competent is good enough because, as  Pondiscio’s instructional design expert Marcy Stein says, instructional design is iterative: Teachers get more than one chance to improve their curricular products.

 

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