Saturday, July 20, 2013

Culturally Responsive Teaching: Maybe I don't "Get it"?

I just finished reading "The Culturally Responsive Teacher" by Ana María Villegas and Tamara Lucas - originally published in the March 2007 edition of Educational Leadership. Though a Google search brings it up here. Anyway, this one didn't really seem to connect with me. In part I'm left wondering if I in fact don't "get it" in terms of culturally responsive teaching. 

It definitely covers an important issue and made good points. However, I was left feeling like ... I don't know ... that for starters it was too stereotypical? Belki is a "competent, responsible, enthusiastic girl" with strong math skills and good english speaking skills, but her closed-minded teachers view her as an "outsider" that was lazy. Curse those teachers! Seemed too artificial...but, I digress as I suppose for the sake of the article the authors had to write in extremes to make a point?

One of the things that has struck me in my years of teaching, particularly the last couple on the EL cluster team, is that what's good for struggling students - be it SPED, EL, or just plain struggling - is good for the whole. I know this isn't some earth-shattering revelation, but I've found it to be very true that the supports provided to struggling students benefit not just them, but most students. Basically, good teaching is good teaching. 

So when the article mentions the import of understanding how learners construct knowledge - yup, that's pretty important to know how our students learn. In some ways they're very similar, in others their wildly different. Regardless, we need to know how young people learn.

When it talks about learning about students' lives - again, you bet that's important! I don't care if it's male, middle class, and white Bob Anderson or not...if I can't connect with you as a student on a personal level, I'm not getting everything out of you that I can. 

Socioculturally conscious? Hugely important. I need to recognize that my worldview is just that - mine. I need to recognize that out of my 110+ students every year that there are 110+ different worldviews that are just that - theirs. We need to coexist, cooperate, learn, and grow together regardless of our backgrounds and views. 

Affirming views about diversity? That's great - as educators we need to know and believe that all our students are capable learners, and they need to be held to high standards all year. 

Appropriate instructional strategies? Or, as I like to think of it - differentiating our instruction so we best meet and serve the needs of all our learners. (Again, good teaching is good teaching.) If that means providing some extra vocab work for a student struggling with the language, then that's what we do. If we need to activate prior knowledge to help students make connections, then that's what we do If we need to provide leveled readings to engage low (and high!) students, then that's what we do. If we need to provide visuals and study aides to help students learn, then that's what we do. If we need to incorporate hands-on activities to help students truly grasp the material, then that's what we do. 

One thing that made me cringe a bit was when the authors write about how students from historically marginalized groups can be engaged. The thought that "Well, I have some students of African descent in my class, so to engage them I'll call attention to their difference by having them examine the chapter on slavery to see if the slave story is properly told...after all, that's your ancestry so you would know!" Yikes. Maybe the authors didn't intend it that way, but it's how it came across to me. But again, why not have all students examine various chapters and look for whose story is and isn't told - after all, that is a huge part of being a historian and "doing history" - analyzing perspectives, gathering evidence, writing "the story" of the past. 

Advocating for all students? Yea...there we go! Finally. That's really what it's all about - advocating for the needs of all students. Recognizing them as unique individuals with their quirks, foibles, strengths, hopes and dreams, views, and challenges. If we as educators (as a society?!) can do that - if we can empathize with one another and make an attempt to "know them" and what makes them tick, to reach out to them and expect the best out o them...well, then if we can do that I think we're making some great progress.

Maybe I'm the one not "getting it" (entirely possible!!!)...but at the end of the day I feel that good teaching is good teaching. Period. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Thoughts on Homework for Next Year

Recently I read a short article titled “Target Homework to Maximize Learning” by Ray Heitzmann. There wasn’t as much theory or discussion about the merits of homework, but rather the article was that targeted and thoughtful homework can in fact “contribute to significant achievement in the areas of knowledge, skills, and values.” Heitzmann notes that “practice” is the most common type of homework that is assigned, and also has the potential to be the most boring and most useless. Rote learning does have a time and a place, but overdoing rote learning can also have the detrimental effect of reducing the love of learning in a student. Though it is important for students to practice certain skills, I do believe that this type of homework should be limited. 

Preparation homework is something that I find myself assigning on a somewhat regular basis in my history class in the form of vocab work or a short reading with some questions. To be honest, the main reason I assign this type of homework (especially the readings) is because we have so much content to cover and I find it helpful to cover some of that content outside of class. Ideally we’d have less content to cover and I wouldn’t have to assign outside readings. One of the problems with assigning readings (or other prep work) is that you know that now all students will do the assignment, so right out of the gate it’s intended purpose isn’t being fulfilled. Beyond that, inevitably there will be a group of students that will complete the assignment, but they won’t “get it”, which again prevents the purpose from being fulfilled. My intent this year is to assign less and less of the "prep" homework.

Extension and Creative homework appear to be the most beneficial and useful types of homework, and they also appear to be the most enjoyable types of homework for students. In my years of teaching these types of assignments (projects, papers, etc...) have been a staple of my class and they’ll likely remain. Not only do these types of assignments challenge students to “operate at a higher level of thought” as they investigate the content, they also teach many of the so-called ‘soft skills’ that we want our students to develop. They will have to collaborate with their peers, think creatively to solve a problem, and efficiently manage their time. One of the arguments in favor of assigning nightly homework is that it teaches time management skills, however I - and many others - find a much more authentic way to teach those time management skills is to assign larger projects.

Ultimately I want to move to more and more projects (PBL?) in my classes, and have the homework be much more authentic and engaging.Going forward I will most certainly continue to think about homework and practice, how much to assign, what type to assign, when to assign, etc...and I’m sure my views will continue to evolve. However, I will try and be more thoughtful and purposeful in what I assign, and in doing so I will also try to minimize the Practice and Preparation homework that I assign and increase the Extension and Creative homework. Additionally, one thing I would like to do is to prepare (or find online!) a “Homework Menu” where students can choose from a list of options based on their ability, skill-set, interest, etc...sometimes they could have free reign to choose, and other times I could limit the choices based on objectives and desired outcomes. One resource that I have already come across is this chart that offers “alternatives to traditional homework” located here.
Student choice is incredibly important, and something that I value in my classroom. While there are times that they do not have an element of choice in the work that they do, I try to make sure that students have that element of choice in most of the projects we do throughout the year. I’ve found that there’s much more buy-in and ownership, and higher quality work produced, when students have choice in what they do to demonstrate their learning. Creating a homework menu seems like a great way to offer that choice to students on a consistent basis. I want to spend some time this summer working with other teachers in my department to develop a homework menu that we can use in our classes this coming school year. It will likely be a work in progress, but it should be a great way to provide student choice, and to make sure that the homework is meaningful and beneficial to the students.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

SMUMN - Achieving Holonomy

Cross-Post for St. Mary's University Master's Program:

Original article: Cognitive Coaching - by Arthur Costa and Robert Garmson; Christopher-Gordon Publishing, 1994

Holonomy is a concept that essentially can be defined as the idea that someone can, and should, act as their own unique individual while at the same time participating in, and contributing to, the greater good of the group. According to Costa and Garsmton, there are five key components to a truly holonomous person - five states of mind - and all must be present. They are: flexibility, consciousness  interdependence, craftsmanship, and efficacy.  Though "consciousness" has been deemed by some as the most valuable of the five, all must be present in a a meaningful capacity for one to truly achieve holonomy. As it is not possible for one to achieve true holonomy without all five states of mind, no one state of mind is more important than the other. All must be present, and in relative balance.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Response to A Response to Five Common Criticisms of Flipped Learning

First, apologies for the wordy title. I struggled to come up with anything original that hasn't already been used in a title to a blog post about Flipped Learning. It's flipping hard.* 

I just read "Flipped Learning: A Response to Five Common Criticisms" by Alan November and Brian Mull of November Learning. I didn't set out today to find this article, but it was presented to me for a class I'm taking right now and I wrote a few thoughts on the article.

I’ll begin by stating that after much reading and discussion on the topic of Flipped Learning I am still firmly on the side of the skeptic, especially for classes like language arts and social studies. I don’t share all the same criticisms as those in the article. For example, I agree with the authors that, if done properly, the Flipped Model does not making teachers less important. Some fear that schools will become labs where students watch videos all day and teachers will be obsolete. Nothing will ever replace live, face-to-face instruction from a quality educator in a caring learning environment. No worries about Flipped Learning there. Additionally, I agree that the gap in technology can be overcome if teachers, schools, an communities make it a priority. There will always be exceptions, but I’m not overly concerned about by this criticism.

What really is a sticking point for me boils down to two (OK, three) key issues. First, there is a huge body of research that calls into question the effectiveness of homework, especially in the younger (pre-high school) grades. Call it what you want, but telling a class of students that they need to go home and read X for 15 minutes or watch Y for 10 minutes, and then submit a reflection and questions and areas of confusion before class tomorrow...that’s still homework. Now, you multiply that 20-30 minutes for science homework to include math, art, and history...and, well, that’s a lot of Flipped Learning homework. 

Second, and tangentially related, is the issue of accountability. The authors of the article idealistically claim that all it takes to ensure accountability on the student behalf is that they are required to post reflections and answers to thought-provoking questions. Just like that, apparently, students will answer the questions and reflections because they’re required to and the questions are thought-provoking. I don’t think I need to go into detail to explain why that’s just a little bit of wishful thinking. The suggestions offered do not offer true accountability. They will inform the teacher about who is and who isn’t doing the assigned work, but that’s no guarantee that students will feel the obligation to do the work.

Lastly, teachers need to be very careful that they’re not simply recording and uploading bad teaching and requiring students to endure outside of the 8 hour school day. Yes, the authors point out that it’s not ideal to record long lectures and have students watch them for the next day, yet many teachers seem to still fall down this hole. It is important that the teachers who choose to go the route of the Flipped classroom take seriously the considerations of why they’re doing it, and what they hope to accomplish.

All of that said, I do believe that there can be a place for a Flipped type of model. So much of social studies is the “doing” of History or the “doing” of Geography, which is much more than watching content. However, in math in particular, and to an extent some sciences and the arts, there are opportunities to use the Flipped model. On occasion it could be useful and wise to have students view materials about graphing linear equations, for example, before coming to class so the teacher can work on specifics that students are struggling with. However, some of my previous concerns are still there. Another way I see the use of video being used best is not so much as a Flipped model, but more of a support. 

Teachers can have videos (and other materials) available for students and parents to consult when struggling on their homework, or when reviewing for an exam, or working on a project. They can record videos and materials of their own, or they can (additionally) locate other materials online for students to use. I do believe that using video and the “Flipped” model in this way is ultimately more supportive of student learning. I myself have recorded dozens of these videos for my students to use to review, and the feedback from my students (and if YouTube comments are to be believed from students all over the world) has been generally positive.

So, yes I’m still skeptical. I haven’t completely written off the concept as I see the possibilities and the value. However, I have a ways to go before I’ll be firmly in the “supporter” camp of Flipped Learning.

*Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Screencast Your Sub Plans

I don't need to tell any of you how big of a pain it is to be gone from class for a day (or more) and all the reasons why it's such a pain...but there's one thing you can do that will ease some of that pain and streamline the process of being gone for the day. The process is pretty straightforward - Screencast you your sub plans for the day.

If you're like me your sub plans fall into one of two categories - those that are done half way with some filler activity because it's quicker and easier for you to prepare, or those that you spend copious amounts of time writing out in excruciating detail so that any sub can follow what you expect them to teach. Option one isn't great because of a loss of valuable learning time, and option two isn't great because of the time factor. I present option three - which is really option two, except you record yourself to be viewed by your students, rather than write it out for your sub to deliver.

There are a variety of tools out there that you can use to record a screencast, but my go-to is Screencast-O-Matic as it is free and it runs right in your web browser. I've learned that on a Mac you do need to update Java and use Safari or Firefox - on the Windows side, any browser will do. Also, if you want to add a personal touch you can enable your webcam and have your face visible to your students (Note: The webcam might not be desirable when recording sub plans at 3AM after yakking up your dinner). There are other, paid options, that you can check out...but so far, Screencast-O-Matic has done all that i need it to.

Toss together a couple of quick slides that include whatever you want - specific directions, learning targets/objectives, question prompts, etc...and start recording! The first time through some security popups about Java might arrise, clicking "allow" will get you on your way. I still leave a formal note or two to my sub, but it's basically just telling them to watch the video, and show it to my classes, and maybe a couple other directions and pieces of helpful info. Much, much less than I used to write.

After you've finished you can publish directly to YouTube or you can export it as a video file. With a "Pro" account ($15/year) you also have editing options, the ability to draw/zoom on your screencast, and more upload options (Drive, Dropbox, etc...). However, you can easily accomplish what you want with the free account. Then, just email/leave the sub a link or directions how to  access your video and you're good to go!

Below is an example sub plan I used earlier this year. Because of the style of the lesson for that day the middle part (0:50-7:35) is part lecture, part question and discussion where the sub would pause the video to facilitate a discussion. Feel free to watch the intro for the Calvin and Hobbes reference, and then skip ahead to 7:35...or watch the whole thing...or none of it.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Bottom Up or Top Down?

Should pedagogical decisions be made from the bottom up, or the top down? Should what and how we teach be based on the demands of the "next level" - be it the next grade, college, a career, or anything else? Who should conform to who? Is the job of an elementary teacher to prepare their students for middle school, and a middle school teacher to prepare their students for high school, and a high school to prepare their students for a career or college?  

If college demands loads of outside homework and reading, and no re-takes on assessments, shouldn't high school follow suit? And if high school has to demand loads of homework, no re-takes, penalties for late work, then shouldn't middle school? If middle school is to prepare students for the demands of high school, shouldn't elementary schools reflect middle school?

In the world of education who is the driving force? Who should be? If we're sending our students off to college woefully unprepared - lacking in strong critical thinking skills as a product of over-testing, then what happens when we send these same students to college expecting flexible deadlines and the chance to retake tests and redo papers for full credit? 

Will colleges conform, or will our students struggle to adapt as they accumulate debt and spend more and more time in their pursuit of a degree? Will workplaces adjust as workers come in expecting more lax deadlines and second chances?

If we know that what we are doing as classroom teachers is best practice and what is truly best for the kids, but at the same time we know it's not fully preparing them for the 'next level', are failing our students? Should we sacrifice some of our beliefs about best practice if we know that those practices won't actually have them ready for the next level? Or, if we are doing what is best for the kids, regardless of the 'next level', then maybe we shouldn't worry about what happens 'next'?