Category Archives: Engaging Classrooms

The Reading Now Network: Redefining value to chart a course to improvement

In Major League Baseball, game data have been a constant, with RBIs, batting averages, and ERAs long-serving as measurements of player and team performance. The end goal for all teams, year after year, has also been a constant: win a World Series championship. What has changed more recently are the metrics: measurements that are used to track and assess the status of progress. Thanks to Moneyball, most of us know the story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics baseball team and their relentless commitment to dissecting player data in new ways, which helped them assemble a low-budget ball club that won more games and eventually entered the playoffs. Since then, many teams across the entire landscape of baseball have changed the way they do business. They’ve found a better way to use data to identify good players who were previously undervalued.

What if an entire region of schools and districts took a similar approach to addressing challenges with early literacy? What would that look like?

The Reading Now Network of West Michigan and its ongoing work on addressing challenges with early literacy could provide a glimpse of what is possible.

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Intentional teaching inspires intentional learning (Infographic)

Why do we have to learn this? Many students challenge teachers with this question and, for a teacher without the answer, it can be mortifying. In an instant, your authority is undermined and your confidence is shattered.

Don’t get mad, get ready! While we could do without the eye-rolling that frequently accompanies this inquiry, the question itself is perfectly valid. We should ask ourselves before every lesson, Why do my students have to know this? Finding the answer is part of being intentional with one’s instruction—and it’s one of three key imperatives for effective teaching, along with being demanding and being supportive, that are discussed in McREL’s The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching.

Being intentional means that teachers know and understand why they are doing what they are doing in the classroom to coach their students to deeper understanding and knowledge.

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Solving problems? Good. Developing problem-solving skills? Priceless

Solving a problem is great. Even better is when solving one problem helps students form a schema that they can use to solve future, more complex problems, McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin writes in his “Research Matters” column in the October 2017 issue of Educational Leadership.

Schema is the researchers’ term for the experience required to innovate solutions to new problems, Goodwin writes, offering two examples of careers that require the instantaneous meshing of learning, experience, and new data: airline pilot and chess master.

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Supporting student creativity, perseverance, and risk-taking (the good kind)—(Infographic)

When I was five, I saw my sisters riding their bikes and thought it looked fun, so I decided I would learn, too. I got on a bike, toppled over, and skinned my knee. My grandpa, who was watching nearby, helped me up, gave me a little hug with some advice on how to keep my balance, and told me I needed to try again. I got back on, determined to conquer the bike, and started pedaling. I could hear my grandpa behind me, encouraging me and telling me to keep pedaling.

Eventually, with my grandpa’s encouragement, I learned to ride a bike. Without that support, I may have given up, feeling defeated and a bit wounded. Students can feel the same way in the classroom when they don’t feel supported, encouraged, and safe.

Being supportive is one of three key characteristics of effective teachers, along with being intentional and being demanding, that are discussed in McREL’s The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching. Being supportive means that a teacher interacts with students and encourages growth in a trusting, nurturing environment.

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Are we thinking about what we’re asking students to think about?

An anecdote at the end of a recent New York Times article caught my attention because it raised the question of what constitutes meaningful student work. For a unit on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, students in a Michigan high school were given a choice of assignments: give a regular class presentation (meh) or use a 3-D printer to illustrate a theme from the novel (super cool!). The teacher proudly Tweeted one such student artifact: a 3-D gavel that illustrated the novel’s theme of social justice.

Amazing!

Or … is it?

Without wading into the thornier issue that the assignment was slyly related to a side business the teacher was running out of his basement (the focus of the Times piece), I had a question about the educational value of the project: What do we imagine students are thinking about when they engage in this sort of exercise?

Learning to use software and a 3-D printer to manipulate shapes and objects is a perfectly valid objective. But this was supposed to be an opportunity to think about themes from the novel. The student who chose the printer assignment probably didn’t put much thought about social justice into the task.

We know from cognitive studies of how our brains process information that we must at some point concentrate on what we’re learning to develop long-term memories. As University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham states: “Students remember … what they think about.”

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Demanding the best from your students, and helping them believe they can achieve it (Infographic)

Back when my daughter was in high school, she professed to me that she didn’t like one of her new teachers, Mr. Bagley. He’d sent an e-mail to students before the first day of school, telling them to review the syllabus and be prepared to take a quiz on the first day of class, which she didn’t think was fair. During the first class, he told them that his job was to help prepare them for college-level work, so the learning, assignments, and tests in his class would be like college courses. From the start, he helped them set goals, encouraged them through the process, and clearly explained the requirements to be successful in his class. They knew exactly what he required and the high expectations he set for every student, every day, with every lesson.

Being demanding is one of three key characteristics of effective teachers, along with being intentional and being supportive, that are discussed in McREL’s The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching. Being demanding is not about being a no-nonsense, authoritarian teacher. It’s about having high expectations of your students and, just as importantly, helping them gain confidence in themselves and encouraging them to take on more challenges than they previously thought themselves capable of handling. The 12 Touchstones book gives four key things for teachers to think about within the be demanding imperative.

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The Reading Now Network: Growing a moral purpose

Four years ago, a group of district superintendents in West Michigan gathered for their quarterly regional meeting. As they trudged into the room, they picked up a familiar agenda, one they’d seen in countless prior meetings—facility updates, regional events, and teacher negotiations—really, nothing new. Outside, nearly 5,000 third-graders in public schools across the region … their students in their region … were demonstrating below-proficiency achievement in reading.

After the first few announcements, a bold voice spoke up:

Why don’t we use this time together to do something meaningful? Why don’t we solve a real problem? We are the leaders of the schools. Less than half of the kids in our schools are not learning to read and write like they should. If we are not talking about that every moment of our time together, what are we talking about? What could be more important?

What could have been a snooze-fest instead brought an entire region together around solving a problem. An inside-out approach to improvement began.

In the years that followed, a network of learners, known today as the Reading Now Network, grew up devoted to collective action. Among its accomplishments, the network has written formal commitments among superintendents and resolutions to be adopted by boards of education; undertaken inquiry-based action research field studies within member schools; and provided myriad professional learning opportunities emphasizing early literacy research.

In addition, the network supports literacy coaching opportunities for principals and teachers; a classroom library initiative; and a customized instructional rounds practice providing contextualized assistance, one school at a time.

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Does your school have a guaranteed and viable curriculum? How would you know? (Infographic)

A few months ago, we began working with a new principal who was in the process of getting to know her school. She knew that students came to school ready to learn, teachers were prepared to teach, and families were supportive of their school. The school was a welcoming place that served as a focus for community activities. But despite these positive supports, she explained, students were not meeting learning expectations. Academic progress in both English language arts and mathematics were below the state average, and she was concerned that families might soon lose confidence in the school’s ability to prepare students for the next level of learning.

During our consultation with this principal, we asked her if she knew whether the school has a guaranteed and viable curriculum (GVC). She wasn’t sure how to answer, so she responded with a question, “How would I know if the school has a guaranteed and viable curriculum?”

To determine whether a school has a GVC, we must first describe it. A “guaranteed” curriculum is often defined as a mechanism through which all students have an equal opportunity (time and access) to learn rigorous content. This requires a school-wide (or district-wide) agreement and common understanding of the essential content that all students need to know, understand, and be able to do. The word “all” needs emphasis; a guaranteed curriculum promotes equity, giving all children equal opportunity to learn essential content, and to provide this opportunity, curricular materials and instructional approaches must be grounded in research, implemented with fidelity, and must include vertical as well as horizontal alignment.

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Differences, not disabilities

Students who learn differently from most have often been defined as having disabilities, which has a profound effect on their experiences in school, their relationships with others, and even their sense of identity. But a growing movement is seeking to shift the paradigm from learning disabilities to learning differences—recognizing that no two students learn exactly the same and that all students deserve an education based on their strengths, not their deficits.

In the April issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein examine these differences through the lens of learning styles, which focus on the ways students gather, process, and evaluate information—and how that can inform curriculum, instruction, and assessments.

Learning styles have been around for decades, the authors explain, but little hard evidence proves their existence, let alone their impact on learning. However, the concept continues to influence educators. The Every Student Succeeds Act, for example, calls for states to apply the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)—a framework for developing flexible learning environments that accommodate individual learning differences—when planning assessments and instruction. Why?

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