Sunday, August 26, 2012

Engaging Students with High Yield Teaching Strategies and Technology

“Our students must learn not only how to use current technologies, but also how to evaluate which ones work best for particular tasks or projects,” write Howard Pitler, Elizabeth R. Hubbell, and Matt Kuhn in their latest edition of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd Edition. In the digital age, that is the crux of our instructional problem: how do we give students the experiences with digital technologies that make them effective consumer-users? And, how do we do this without being technologically-tool centered, when the tools so rapidly change? Pitler, Hubbell, and Kuhn offer one effective approach: focus on the instructional methods that work, and then engage students in using technology while employing those research-based instructional strategies. Using the high-yield instructional strategies found in the book Classroom Instruction That Works, the authors show how technology might be employed in the service of using each of these instructional strategies:
  • Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback
  • Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition
  • Cooperative Learning
  • Cues, Questions, and Advance Organizers
  • Nonlinguistic Representations
  • Summarizing and Note Taking
  • Assigning Homework and Providing Practice
  • Identifying Similarities and Differences
  • Generating and Testing Hypotheses
Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works takes readers through each of these high-yield instructional strategies and then points out specific kinds of technologies that lend themselves to helping teachers engage in those teaching strategies. For example, Identifying Similarities and Differences is a strategy that research says brings  the highest levels of gains in student achievement. Pitler, Hubbell, and Kuhn’s book gives educators ideas on how  to engage students in the use of this instructional strategy through the use of different categories of technological tools. At the same time, the authors offer readers many examples of how practicing teachers are using those technologies in the manner they describe. The categories of technologies these authors focus on include:

  • Word Processing Applications
  • Organizing and Brainstorming Software
  • Data Collection and Analysis Tools
  • Communication and Collaboration Software
  • Instructional Media (Learner as Consumer)
  • Multimedia Creation (Learner as Producer)
  • Instructional Interactives
  • Database and Reference Resources
  • Kinesthetic Technology

Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works is not a "how-to" book when it comes to employing technology in the engagement of instruction. Rather, it is a "big-picture" book that surveys the field of technological tools and helps the teacher connect with the kinds of technology she might wish to use in the classroom. Educators in the classroom up to district leaders, who are interested in what kinds of tools teachers and students can use with research-based instruction, will find this book quite useful.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Core Six: 6 Essential Teaching Strategies for Excellence

What if you only had time and money to use and purchase six tools to teach your entire curriculum? What would those six tools be? Authors Harvey Silver, R. Thomas Dewing, and Matthew Perini seem to do just that in their book The Core Six: Essential Strategies for Achieving Excellence with Common Core.

Many of us are right in the midst to implementing the Common Core Standards, whether we philosophically agree or disagree with the need for their existence. School leaders and teachers are scrambling to find and create tools for implementation, and the massively growing number of new books and materials about the Common Core aren’t making this task any easier. However, there are few that focus on the “essentials” to the degree that The Core Six does. This concise volume (it’s only 78 pages) lays what it calls “Six Core Practices Students Need to Cultivate to Become Independent Learners.”

According to this book, "The Core Six” are strategies that foster college and career-readiness, and at the same time, address the Common Core Standards. These six strategies, according to Silver, Dewing, and Perini are:
  1. Reading for Meaning: This strategy helps students develop the skills to be proficient, effective readers and make sense of text.
  2. Compare and Contrast: This strategy teaches students to conduct comparative analysis, thereby getting them to learn content at a much deeper level.
  3. Inductive Learning: Inductive Learning as a strategy helps students see patterns and structures in content by using inductive processes.
  4. Circle of Knowledge: Circle of Knowledge is a strategic framework for planning and conducting engaging classroom discussions that get students to think deeply and communicate thoughtfully.
  5. Write to Learn: As a strategy, Write to Learn gives teachers a way to integrate writing into daily instruction and use writing skills to develop students’ ability to write in the “key text types” that they need to be college and career ready.
  6. Vocabulary’s CODE: This “strategic approach” to vocabulary instruction gives students the ability to retain and use academic vocabulary.
Because of its straightforward, here-it-is style, The Core Six: Essential Strategies for Achieving Excellence with the Common Core is far from being what I would call “engaging read.”  It’s strength, however, lies in this straightforward review of these six solid research-based teaching strategies.

With each of the “Core Six Essential Strategies” the authors begin with a brief description of the strategy, then they provide a quick list of reasons to use that strategy. Next, they describe the research supporting each strategy and provide the principles of implementation. They end the review of each "Core Six Essential" with some classroom examples of implementation, and things to consider when planning to use the strategy. This formula of presenting each strategy makes it quite easy to take what is learned back to the classroom.

If you are on a quest for a simple, straightforward book that gives teachers high-yield teaching strategies for the Common Core implementation efforts, then The Core Six: Essential Strategies for Achieving Excellence with the Common Core is a solid choice.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

North Carolina's NCLB Waivers: Recipe for Educational Disaster

A veteran teacher once told me in the early days of my career as an educator, "Be careful what you wish for. When federal and state agenices do away with one policy, they almost always come up with something much worse." In my naivete, I obviously did not believe that. I still had an unwavering faith in the system, and that those who make the rules always mean well and often know more about those things than I do. Now, 20 some years after that conversation, I have to admit, my old friend had many things right. When our policymakers and politicians do reform, revise, revamp, or scuttle an education policy, the result is always something much worse. Our current example of this? The Obama administration's transformation of No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top and the whole series of waivers states can apply for to escape the sanctions of NCLB, which most everyone agrees is a bad law, but a paralyzed federal government can't agree on how to fix. Take North Carolina as an example.

My state won a waiver from the Obama administration from the sanctions of the No Child Left Behind law. Under No Child Left Behind, our schools were on the same precipice many schools were: we were approaching that impossible 100 percent proficiency mark, and all the sanctions in the world weren't going to fix that. So North Carolina applied for its pardon from the US Department of Education so that our education system did not have to drive off that cliff. Instead, we chose another cliff, one that states like Florida have already plunged over. In the process of getting its respite from NCLB, North Carolina policymakers have instituted a series of "reforms" that are certain to destroy public education in our state. Here are two of the most heinous of these measures.
  • Every subject in school, from art to Physical Education, grade K-12, will now be tested. Our state has carefully called these "Measures of Student Learning" but lets not be stupid here. They are "Tests" and changing their name does not change what they are and what they do. We will basically be adding an endless list of tests.
  • Teachers and principals will be evaluated in part based on test scores. Those "Measures of Student Learning" which are really tests, will provide growth, value added data, to determine whether I and the other educators in North Carolina are doing our jobs. North Carolina now treats its children like raw materials running through factories where the job of teachers is to "add value" to them. Test scores will become the focus, and the education of children will become secondary.
Just these two measures betray the shallow and sycophantic thinking of North Carolina education policymakers. North Carolina has cowardly bowed to pressure from the Obama administration and instituted reforms that fly in the face of common sense and sound education policy. 

People far removed from the classroom who still hold the antiquated factory model view of education are pushing the same, tired ideas we've seen for years. Instead of focusing on educating kids, we climbing on board the Obama administration's train, headed for a massive train wreck.

Sure, North Carolina has received a reprieve from the Obama administration when it comes to No Child Left Behind, but we're in the process of implementing even worse policy, a massive increase in testing that is sure to make "Teaching to the Test" our priority. North Carolina once had the phrase "First in Freedom" on its license plates. Perhaps now we can put "First in Testing" because we have now made a commitment to subject our children to even more testing than ever before.

Resource for 21st Century School Leaders Who Are Instructional Leaders

No one argues any more that principals must take on the role of being an instructional leader in their schools. It is widely accepted, but often having credibility in that role is difficult when principals do not have experience teaching, or don’t really understand what being an instructional leader means. Author of the book The Principal as Instructional Leader: A Practical Handbook, Sally Zepeda points out that, “Principals who are instructional leaders ‘link’ the work of leadership and learning to everyone in the school.” Furthermore, these school leaders are charged with building an instructional program that “links the mission and vision of their schools to:
  • supervising instruction
  • evaluating teachers
  • providing professional development and other learning opportunities for teachers
  • modeling proactive uses of data to make informed decisions that positively affect student learning
  • promoting a climate of instructional excellence
  • establishing collegial relationships with teachers.
With this list of charges to principals as instructional leaders, it is easy to see why leading instruction in a school is a daunting task, and that does not even consider all the other roles principals assume, from facilities management, budgeting, to public relations and customer service. But for 21st century school leaders, being an instructional leader is not an add-on role any longer, it is at the core of transforming schools in 21st century institutions with learning at the center. Zepeda’s book The Principal as Instructional Leader is a hands-on guidebook for the school leader as instructional leader taking on this role.

The Principal As Instructional Leader: A Practical Handbook
Book Cover

The Principal as Instructional Leader: A Practical Guidebook is just as its title implies, a practical guidebook to instructional leadership that avoids becoming entangled in all the theories of learning,curriculum, and instruction that other books on instructional leadership often do. It provides principals, potential principals, and teacher leaders with comprehensive but concise information needed to tackle those things instructional leaders must tackle to improve student learning.

Often, books on instructional leadership get enmeshed in theory and rationale and never recover enough to rise above “textbookese” to give school leaders the tools to take on this most important role. This book does that. It relentlessly focuses on the practical side of supervising instruction. Readers are provided with an overview of what instructional leadership is, what the process looks like, and then given specific tools to carry out that role  in their schools or educational institutions.

After Zepeda briefly describes what instructional leadership is, she then ties that role to the vision and culture of the school. She also includes a complete overview of the instructional supervision process, and provides an extensive list of observational tools as supplemental downloads. These downloadable tools give principals the means to walk into classrooms and observe specific instructional elements such as “Beginning of Class Routines” or “Using Bloom’s Taxonomy and Levels of questions.” Each of the downloads are observation instruments to gather data regarding specific aspects of classroom teaching and student learning.

The Principal as Instructional Leader: A Practical Handbook is a definite reference book that every school leader, from teacher leader to district superintendent needs to have in their school administration library. I have read other books on this aspect of school leadership, but Zepeda provides the most no-nonsense approach to instructional leadership yet. Definitely an excellent addition to your reading list.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Wunderlist: Easy to Use Anytime-Anywhere To-Do List App for Educators

Recently, I installed the Wunderlist app to my desktop and my Android tablet. I have used Evernote for my To-Do Lists for sometime, but after reading this article, I decided to give Wunderlist a try. It is an excellent app educators and anyone who needs a simple tool to track their tasks. Here's some reasons it makes an excellent choice as a task management solution for educators.
  • Wunderlist has multiple versions of its app for multiple devices. You can download it to your desktop, Android tablet or phone, iPad or iPhone, or use the web version.
  • Anytime---anywhere access. Because Wunderlist has apps for multiple devices, you can get to your To-Do List any time you need to. You can access it on your Android device, Mac or PC, Web, or iPad/iPhone.
  • Sharing Task Lists. Wunderlist gives users the ability to create task lists and share them across devices. This means users can create those project worklists and share them with their other team members. You create the list, then send them an email invitation to join you in using that list.
  • Easy to use. There are a number of To-Do List apps out there, but Wunderlist is quite easy to use. Adding task lists and tasks are easy. It syncs automatically across devices so you only need add a task once. Sharing a task list with others only takes clicking an icon and typing in an email address.
  • It is free. The apps for Wunderlist are all free. Obviously, for many, nothing else need be said. Wunderlist is currently free so that of course makes even more attractive to educators.
Wunderlist Desktop App Screenshot
Wunderlist Android App Screenshot

Finding a To-Do List app has become an ordeal with all the choices available for users. I'll make that choice much simpler for you. Wunderlist is an excellent app for educators and anyone else who need a technological solution for managing their tasks. For more information, check our Wunderlist's web site here.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

5 Things Teachers (And Administrators) Can Do to Make Learning Real in Their Classrooms

To paraphrase Marc Prensky from his collection of essays From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom: Hopeful Essays for 21st Century Learning: “The easiest, executable solution to our education problems today “is to change what goes on in our classrooms.” We need to move from teacher-centered and teacher dominated learning models to more personal, student-centered learning models. In the process, we will do what Prensky calls “Making Education Real” for our students.

Enough of the rhetoric and cheap talk. What does it really mean to make education and learning real in the classroom? In his essay, Prensky offers “5 Things Teachers Can Do at the Beginning of the Year to Make Education Real for Their Students.” I am going to modify that just a bit a here to capture what I think are the “5 Things Teachers Can Do to Make Learning Real in Their Classrooms.”
  • Get to know your students. And this does not mean their proficiency levels and past test scores. That information is important, but if you want to make learning real for your students in your classroom, you better connect with them. Connecting means learning about what they are passionate about. It means learning who they are as persons. It means connecting with them on a personal level. For learning to be real in your classroom, you have to see students as real people, with real passionate interests and needs. No room for standardization here.
  • Reduce the amount of time you spend “telling” in your classroom and engage students in more “partnering activities” that allow students to pursue their own passions. Granted, it is a challenge when there are “Adopted Standards” waiting to be tested, but so many students don’t learn at all, much less deeply with lecture and “sit-n-get” modes of instruction. As Prensky notes, “Capitalize on students’ 21st century abilities to learn on their own.” Give them opportunities to engage in the kind of learning they are wired to do instead of forcing them to learn in an incompatible manner.
  • Facilitate learning by guiding students through their learning. Teachers can help students focus on what’s important and what’s next. They can help them make the most of 21st century learning tools to engage in content and skills. This means stepping out from the front of the classroom and standing beside or sitting with students as they learn. It means letting goal of being the center of the classroom.
  • Foster global connections with peers and experts. Teachers should assist students in connecting with other students globally. They should help students connect with experts that can help them learn. In effect, teachers should help students create their own Professional Learning Networks (PLNs). Then, they should help students care for and grow that network according to their learning needs.
  • Motivate students by allowing them to use their 21st century devices in their learning. This means setting aside the impulse to block the use of cell phones in the classroom. This means providing students with wireless access in the school building in the form of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiatives and 1:1 Technology initiatives. It means engaging students in the use of social media and other technologies rather than blocking them on school networks. We can make learning real by simply allowing students to use the devices of learning they use outside our school walls.
If we really want to change education and learning for our students, let’s change what is happening in classrooms, and our buildings. Let’s make education real for our students by moving from “Telling” classrooms to “Partnering” classrooms that enable students to engage in learning.

3 Things School Leaders Can Do Now to Revolutionize Education in Schools and Districts

“The educational improvement efforts now in place are aimed at bringing back the education that American offered students in the 20th century (with some technological enhancements,” From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom: Hopeful Essays for 21st Century Learning by Marc Prensky

Do Americans really have the stomach to “reform their schools?” Looking at the list of reforms in vogue today, one can only wonder whether reform is really the goal, or as Prensky points out, “Reform efforts are more about bringing back the education system that was,” instead of creating an education system that truly meets the needs of 21st century students. We continue to strangle our education system with accountability and testing, standardization, and general neglect, and yet, we are surprised that our students are still dropping out and still not achieving.

If we truly want to change education in our country, then perhaps we really need what Sir Ken Robinson calls an “education revolution” instead of reform. The truth is, we’ve been reforming education for years. When I left college for my first teaching job in the late 80s, the dust was still flying from frantic reform efforts to address the “issues” identified in the Reagan administration’s report A Nation at Risk. Career ladder programs were attempted to provide teachers “pay based on merit.” Standardization of education was afoot through standards implementation at the state level. Politicians were hung up on national test scores that signified “the educational apocalypse on the horizon.” And, the predominate mantra was, “Throwing money at our educational problems won’t fix them.” These ideas offer absolutely nothing revolutionary. They, like many of our reforms now, simply tweak an education system that is in need of a revolution. As Prensky points out, “However well meaning those who proposed and fund today’s educational reforms may be, their aim is generally to improve something that is obsolete.”

I actually think Prensky is being too kind. Those pushing some of the reforms today are not “well-meaning at all.” They have political and cultural agendas that actually do not want to see public schools thrive. They want to see an end to all public schools, or at least a marginalized public school system that is much weaker and irrelevant. These are the same individuals and groups that turn our schools into places where culture wars are fought and political points are scored.

The truth is, to revolutionize the education our students are getting, there are three things school leaders can focus on immediately, and none of them are magical or new. According to Marc Prensky, “Lots of money is being spent on trying to fix the educational ‘system.’ But what the reformers have haven’t yet understood is that it’s not the ‘system’ that we need to get right; it’s the education the system provides.” Let’s focus on the education our children are receiving and not the “system.” Here’s 3 things for considerations for starters:
  • Make learning authentic. Let’s engage our students in the kinds of learning that is based in the real world. Project-based learning and problem-based learning ask students to engage in real learning tasks. Even making our classrooms more real-world like makes learning more authentic. Getting students out of rows of desks and at tables or even seated in huddles on the hallway floors. There’s nothing authentic about sitting in desks carefully placed in rows, or working on questions in at the conclusion of each chapter in a textbook. Teachers standing forth lecturing and directing all student learning is also inauthentic learning. Teachers still practicing in this manner, and principals/school leaders who support this kind of teaching are guilty of malpractice. It takes authentic learning experiences to revolution the learning and education of our students.
  • Foster a school culture of support and personalization. Most schools I’ve worked in are still hard at work forcing students to fit into them rather than changing the school to fit the needs of its students. Schools can focus on the education of children by simply becoming flexible agents that bend and twist to meet the needs of students. For example, schedules do not have to be same every year. Why can’t the class schedule be revised to fit students’ needs instead of fitting students to a class schedule?  Schools must become personal places where all students are known for who they are, not by simply whether they scored “proficient on the latest test,” or by their student number. A school that truly personalizes education for students will not allow students to slip away into the anonymity of numbers. They know their students for who they, and they adapt and find ways to support and personalize education for all students.
  • Allow students to engage in using 21st century tools. Far too many schools, and their administrators, are still fighting to keep technology out. If we want to revolutionize the education our children are receiving, then let’s give them the technological tools they need to access the wealth of information online. Let’s give them opportunities to use those same tools to create content, and connect with others globally. School administrators can begin revolutionizing the education students in their schools by embracing Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies, 1:1 technology initiatives, and by becoming technology users themselves. Still school administrators need to be cautious and remember: the success of the education the students are receiving through technology is not measured by the number of iPads or laptops purchased. The success is found in the classrooms where teachers engage students in using these devices, not as tools “assist them to teach as they’ve always done.” But as a means to challenge and disrupt both teaching and learning.
Reform efforts abound. Just ask any politician and I’m sure you will immediately get a long list of “Things-I’m-gonna-do-to-reform-education.” Most often, this only translates into trying to turn schools into what they once were, or into what that individual would like them to be. As school leaders, we can revolutionize the education our children receive if we focus on that education and not the system. If we simply emphasize the importance of authentic learning, foster a culture of support and personalization, and give students 21st century learning experiences with 21st century tools, the education revolution will begin in our schools.