Sunday, December 30, 2012

It is NOT about the test scores!!!!

The title of the article in The Chicago Tribune is "Comics as curriculum." Oy. Diane Rado wrote the article for the Tribune. I can't find much on her online except through the articles she's written, so I can't speak to her qualifications to write about education, but I need to say that I'm really miffed she felt compelled to put the word "common core" in double quotes in her article as though the words are meant to be ironic or slang (please see APA style guide on the use of double quotes if you've no idea what I'm talking about).

The overarching question of the article seems to be the validity of using comic books, aka graphic novels, in the classroom. Sure. Why not? I used them in some of my college classes. Rado seems to be aghast that graphic novels are being used in the classroom when she really should be finding out why classroom teachers are using them. Are they using them so students can compare the voice and style of the work in the graphic novel to that of the original work? Excellent.  If so, what are students learning as a result of that experience?

Are teachers using graphic novels so students can learn about the power, even the possible manipulative power, of visuals? Excellent. And, if so, to what end?

After several inches of text, Rado reports on a presentation two teachers did at a National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference. Students were reading the epic poem Beowulf. Some read the traditional work and some read it as a graphic novel. The students who read the work in its traditional form spent about six hours reading it whereas the graphic novel took about two hours.  It was at this point I started to hear the scary music in the background because I knew nothing good was about to be revealed in print. Herewith.
Both groups took the same 25-question multiple-choice test. Students who read the traditional text scored 81 percent on average compared with 75 percent for those who read the graphic novel.
The teachers' presentation raised the question: Is the score worth the additional time spent by kids who read the traditional poem or "would that time be better spent doing other things?"
So here's the thing. I don't care if kids read the comics in the newspaper or a graphic novel or a translated form (think Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) or in it's full original glory. What I do care about are the learning objectives.

Why have kids read Beowulf? Because it is early literature that reminds us that we are not so different from 10th century poets. Because it is a story of courage. Because, as Robert Yeager writes,
The struggles the poem depicts are of the good against evil: strength of sinew, heart and spirit, truth and light, pitted against dark power that gives no quarter as it shifts from shape to shape. That the darkness (be it Grendel, a dragon, or treachery, greed, and pride) is familiar only renders it more frightening — and the more instructive. . . .

And yet, although the poem ends with the death of its hero and the prophecy of extinction for his people, Beowulf is not a gloomy work, and our experience of it does not incite despair. That is because, like Beowulf himself, the poem never backs away but greets what comes with courage. . . . Students respond to the lack of falsifying sweetness that would gloss over a world that they recognize as basically an image of our own.
From start to finish, Beowulf demands our acknowledgment that sorting out the monster from the hero and the coward is a lifetime’s struggle in the dark. Beowulf joins us to our ancestors — whoever they might have been, in whatever far country — at the top of their game, as we would like to imagine them, and as we dearly hope those who come after will someday envision us.
And reading Beowulf reminds us of the transcendence of these stories, of these characteristics of humanity, and enables us to trace the arc of courage, the battles of good versus evil.  To see how the qualities may be timeless, how they might be recognized in different ages and places. To learn how we can see the world and know that certain things are immutable.

That learning and evidence of that learning does not come from pitiful 25-question multiple guess tests. Evidence of that kind of learning comes from a thoughtful essay or response to a short-answer question.

If students can learn what they need to learn about Beowulf and from Beowulf by reading the graphic novel, then read on because that gives them more time to read more works of literature.

But educators should not waste their students' time with multiple choice tests that prove nothing about what they have learned and nothing about what any teacher might have managed to guide them to learning.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Common Core: The Most Important Thing in the 2013 Classroom

I continue to be astonished by the education community. After all of the years, decades even, you'd think I'd no longer shake my head, but then I have to remember that we are not all fortunate enough to work in particular areas and have certain insight and there are times I, no doubt, sound as ill-informed, even as dumb, as some of the published professionals.

The object of my frustration today? Herewith: a promising article titled "What High School Students Should Expect in 2013."  Sounds good, right?

According Kelsey Sheehy, an education reporter, students and their parents should expect first and foremost more blended learning. In actuality, I have no grumps with this. In fact, Sheehy makes a really good point when she says educators are, and I hope this is true, going to step back "from 'shiny device syndrome' and evaluate how to best use the technology acquired over the past year."

Technology used to come in waves. Now it seems that new technology is introduced constantly so educators (and everyone else) are barraged by the "latest and greatest." How to choose? What to choose? Those remain challenging questions for educators with limited funds and with limited time to learn how to use those technologies and, most importantly, figure out how to use them effectively in the classroom. Remember laser disks? Anyone? I know educators who scooped those up because of the promise for potential impact. Huge investment. Virtually no return. Educators and their administrators have to be particular about how they invest their limited funds because not only do they have to make sure those new gizmos make a difference in student learning, but they have to be able to explain to parents and board members why they don't if they don't. Never mind that the technology itself never makes the difference; it's always, always, always, always the teacher who makes the difference, even if it's only to give students permission and opportunity to figure out how to use something for their learning because there is learning in that problem solving, which is, by the way, a Common Core thing.  So if the teacher doesn't know how to use the technology effectively in the classroom, then there will be little or no impact.

The second big diff in the classroom for 2013, according to Sheehy, is the flipped classroom. Really? That's got to be because there are so many late adopters who haven't figured out that the flipped classroom party is over for a lot of educators. But then I started doing a bit of research because I don't like to look too stupid this early in the morning. Lo and behold! many recent articles on the flipped classroom.

I confess to being a complete curmudgeon about the flipped classroom, but mostly because it's not really all that new and while there are lots of ways to make it work well, there are as many if not more ways for it to go wrong. Two really powerfully important factors? Parents and an environment at home in which learning can take place. This infographic only serves to support my thinking, but I'll blog about that later. And, as Mark Fydenberg notes, the flipped classroom has gone to be done right to be effective. The flipped classroom is not necessarily better and it sure isn't easier for the teacher.

The third big diff for the 2013 classroom is Common Core. Third. Writes Sheehy, "The Common Core State Standards don't officially go into effect until fall 2014, but districts are already rolling them out and will continue to do so in 2013." Yes, and some forward-thinking districts that understand implementing something of this magnitude takes a lot of time and a lot of work started their efforts two years ago. This school year, 2012-2013, is an implementation year and next school year, 2013-2014, is the transition year so their teachers and their students are ready for the actual implementation of Common Core in 2014. Because the Standards can be in effect now. Today. It's the first Common Core State Standards assessment that goes into effect in 2014 and Ms. Sheehy should know that.

My belated disclaimer: I work for the Center for College & Career Readiness, the non-profit arm of The Common Core Institute. I get to work with schools and districts around the country who are implementing Common Core now or who have been implementing Common Core for a couple of years. And this is what I see: educators who are doing Common Core implementations now also recognize that the flipped classroom is a strategy and that technology can be used in a variety of ways to help students achieve and develop critical skills and proficiency as well as knowledge they need to be successful in college and in the work place.

So while Ms. Sheehy makes some good points, the emphasis, I believe needs to be on the Common Core. Educators at all levels and capabilities need to know about Common Core, need to understand what it is and how it looks and can look in the classroom, as do parents and board members.

Common Core is not the solution to all educational ills, but as I talk with teachers who have been in the classroom for decades and educators who have been working with teachers and administrators and students for decades, one thing I've seen consistently is a burgeoning excitement about Common Core.

My opinion is that if Common Core isn't the most important and significant thing all teachers and students (and parents and board members) see in the classroom in 2013, it should be.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Non-fiction & collaboration: Part of the Common Core Adventure

I'm given to deep sighs when I read articles such as the one titled Common Core: The Non-Fiction Conundrum, and through an organization such as the Association of American Educators, an organization one might think would be better informed.  But at the same time I want to take to task this particular educator, I also applaud her.  Confused?  Read on.

The issue is non-fiction informational texts. Based on the NAEP studies (and regard them as you will) and others, the expectation of the Common Core State Standards is that 70% of students reading will be non-fiction informational text by the time they reach 12th grade. Why? It has to do with college and career readiness. Not a lot of poetry and fiction read in the work place [insert inevitable joke about some business documents here].

Note, please, that is 70% of all reading across the content areas.  So some of that non-fiction informational text is in math, science, music, art, physical education, welding, woodworking, civics, etc. Yes, I mentioned welding and woodworking and I have some teachers in Belen, N.M. to thank for that. I'll come back to that.

First, let's unbunch those undies. We encounter non-fiction informational texts all the time. Textbooks? Non-fiction informational (we hope) texts. Graphs. Charts. Media. Biographies. Editorials. Bills of materials. Blueprints. Architectural drawings. In other words, just about anything that is not fiction could be non-fiction informational text.

Those welding and woodworking teachers were talking about having students create a bill of materials for a particular project, draft a plan for the project, actually build the project, and then document the process. They discussed having students involved in discussions along the way, the kind of discussions a professional contractor might have with a customer. Reading. Speaking. Listening. Writing. All of the critical skills. Boom! And they discovered they could work together (yep, that's called collaboration) in ways they hadn't imagined before. Booyah!

For Common Core, we are talking about literacy skills. We are talking about navigating academic vocabulary as well as domain specific vocabulary. We are talking about making sure that when students are immersed in mathematics, they have the basic literacy skills of mathematics. And yes, those content area teachers might need to learn something about how to help students work on comprehension and fluency as reading teachers understand those terms and skills.

This is the point at which I applaud Melissa, the author of the non-fiction as conundrum post. At the end of her post she writes:
Left with the fact that language arts teachers shouldn't sacrifice teaching literature and that content-area teachers are not the best at teaching language arts, it seems that to properly implement Common Core, collaboration across subject areas is going to become necessary.
The concept of teachers collaborating is not something new. In fact, educators have known for years that interdisciplinary teaching aids both motivation and understanding. Despite the data, up until this point, many primary and secondary teachers still keep strict divisions in the school day for the different subjects.
While teachers have varying opinions on Common Core, it is possible to look at these standards as an opportunity to help transform ourselves into better educators through collaboration.
Yes, the Common Core State Standards are indeed an opportunity to transform to better educators, and collaboration will be a very significant part of that experience.