Archives for the month of: May, 2012

We need to listen to what students tell us by their actions.

Several weeks ago someone tweeted the question about which students should get priority—the disruptive ones or the ones who want to learn. My response was that we’re asking the wrong questions. We need to ask, why is this student being disruptive? Is this child asking us for help in dealing with difficult situations in his or her life? Is there something we can change about our curriculum and/or instruction that would better meet the needs of this child?

Of course, sometimes the reasons a child is acting out are more complicated and involve factors outside of the school. Still, our response should then be to ask why this child is literally screaming out for our attention.   In a  blog response, Cord Jefferson shares this touching story to illustrate this point:

A kid at her school—a primarily low-income, high-minority middle school serving sixth- through eighth-graders—was acting out. His outbursts were not normal, especially considering how young he was: He was rude, aggressive, destructive, foulmouthed, so angry. I remember my mom saying she was amazed at how much rage could fit into such a tiny body.

At first, the student’s teachers tried putting him in timeout. When that didn’t work, they escalated to trips to the principal’s office. When those didn’t work, he got detention after school. And when that didn’t work either, they started sending him home. But when he’d return from a couple of days at home and immediately start tearing his classrooms apart, the suspensions grew to a week, two weeks.

Still nothing worked, and one day things got scary enough that my mom, accompanied by a police officer, felt it necessary to escort the student home to speak with his parents. When they got to his apartment about a mile away from the school, the weeks of mystery surrounding the boys’ behavior were replaced with instant clarity. His mother, his only guardian, answered the door ashamedly, and out scurried a man, her most recent john.

After some talking and crying, the truth surfaced: The reason the “problem student” behaved so badly is because he knew that if his tantrums were chronic, he’d be sent home. And that was a good thing, because when he was home, his mother couldn’t work as a prostitute. He couldn’t tell any of his teachers this, of course, because then he’d run the risk of child welfare services taking him away from his mother, and he needed to be there to protect her. The boy never hated school, he just loved his mom more. This is how you get so much rage into such a tiny body.

Students act out for reasons: boredom, pain, anger, fear of failure, fear of looking smart, mental illness, learning differences, there’s a whole range of possibilities. Before assuming students are ill-intentioned, we must discover the root cause of student behavior. This is not to say that students shouldn’t have consequences—they should. However, we must remember that students are children, and they’re often sharing information with us the only way they know how. Instead of only focusing on disciplinary action, let’s also take the time to see how we can change the origin of the problem, or change how we’re delivering our curriculum.

We need to listen.


Individualism in Education

I’ve been returning recently to a conversation I had in January when walking to dinner with Steve Hargadon during EduCon.  We were discussing Finland’s high performance on the international benchmarking assessment, the PISA. There was initial puzzlement when Finland was announced as one of the top 5 scoring countries because so much of their educational structure was quite different from the other high scoring countries. What became apparent though is that the one theme the Finnish could agree on collectively was a narrative of equity.

We’d like to believe that Americans could gather around this same call of equity, but in reality Americans prefer a narrative of meritocracy. We tell rags-to-rich stories of folks such as Bill Gates, for example. This so-called poor man who came from nothing and built an empire attended one of the most privileged boarding schools in the nation, the college he dropped out of was a small university– Harvard. Gates had access to a computer when few people even really knew what computers were. The reality of his narrative is really one of privilege, connection and access.

What might be a narrative Americans could rally around? Perhaps individualization is the answer. Somewhat tied to the American focus on meritocracy is our country’s rich history of “rugged individualism.”  Parents certainly want to see each of their children as “special,” so parents will support efforts to a tailored approach to education. As teachers and administrators, we’re moving on a trajectory toward individualization with our shifts toward differentiation and universal design for learning.

What will it take for education reform to rally behind individualization? At the very least, we must shift from being  an educator being “the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.”  Teachers will never become obsolete—this movement is not about replacing teachers with Khan Academy-like videos and gamified instruction. Clearly these are tools that can support instruction. How we teach must change significantly.

In the end though, it’s most often the relationship between the teacher and the student that impacts student achievement. One of the most powerful elements of a move towards individualization is that students will feel increasingly more that their teachers really understand their needs. When students feel that someone cares about them, they begin to care more about what they’re learning.


brain cells

With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), my recent work has focused on literacy across the content areas. As part of this work I’ve been asked to distinguish between content literacy, interdisciplinary literacy and transdisciplinary, so I thought I’d share the definitions I’ve been developing.

Background: The CCSS emphasize the integrated nature of reading, writing, research, speaking, listening, language, and to a more limited degree, mathematics within and across content areas. The CCSS shift the focus from “learning to read and write” to “reading and writing to learn,” especially from third grade forward. In addition, students also write “to persuade, to explain, and to convey real or imagined experience” across content areas. The increased focus on informational text also aligns with a transdisciplinary approach.

In addition to specific grade-level standards, the CCSS argue that college and career ready students also master competencies that transfer across content areas. Specifically, the CCSS Capacities of a Literate Individual posit that students demonstrate independence; build strong content knowledge; respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose and discipline; comprehend as well as critique; value evidence; use technology and digital media strategically and capably; and come to understand other perspectives and cultures. Similarly, the CCSS Standards for Mathematical Practices support transferable practices: students should make sense of problems and persevere in solving them, reason abstractly and quantitatively, construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others, model with mathematics, use appropriate tools strategically, attend to precision, look for and make use of structure, and look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

Historically, content-area literacy has been defined as reading, writing, speaking, listening, and communicating for the purpose of constructing and applying knowledge in the areas of social studies, science, mathematics, and technical subjects. Implied in this definition is the recognition that texts include diagrams, charts, and other non-print, multimedia, and digital texts. With an interdisciplinary approach, the curriculum and instruction are centered on common learning across disciplines.  In this way, the teachers of different disciplines develop a common theme among their content areas and teach those concepts within their respective classes. While interdisciplinary units provide valuable real-life connections, they often lack authenticity, and some topics may feel forced into the curriculum.

A transdisciplinary approach moves curriculum and instruction beyond content-area literacy and interdisciplinary connections.  In full implementation, a transdisciplinary approach involves the organization of curriculum and instruction around authentic student questions where concepts and skills are developed through real-world context.  Inquiry is at the heart of the transdisciplinary approach as students seek answers to the questions raised by the curriculum and themselves.  Because the CCSS are mastery standards, within a transdisciplinary framework students must meet all content areas standards through the course of each year. Direct instruction still plays an integral role; students should not be expected to acquire skills solely on their own. (Transdisciplinary instruction should not be a reincarnation of the disastrous whole language movement.) Given the current structures of schools, a transdisciplinary approach will likely look different at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

A transdisciplinary approach aligns with local, state and national initiatives. For example,Universal Design for Learning principles pervade a transdisciplinary approach in that typically students access multiple means of representation, action, expression and engagement. Traditional twentieth-century skills such as the 4 C’s–collaboration, communication, creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem-solving—are seamlessly embedded in a transdisciplinary approach. Student engagement increases for all students, including traditionally underperforming populations, because learning is relevant, challenging, hands-on, and connected to authentic experiences. Transdisciplinary instruction can also be a more efficient use of classroom time because multiple content areas are taught and reinforced throughout curricula.  Repeated interaction with content and skills move students from exposure to mastery.  Students shift from rote learning to learning for a clear purpose, essentially learning how to effectively apply what they already know and how to find out what they do not.