What a powerful statement: “The questions a student asks after reading a text are a better assessment than the questions a student can answer.” When I think about David Pearson's quote, I wonder what it means for our classrooms. What does it mean for our assessments? How can this change the roles of the student and the teacher?
When I was a kid in the late 80s and early 90s, Pizza Hut had a computer-based (Apple IIGS) reading incentive program—I just Googled it and it's still around—which offered free personal pizzas if you correctly answered seven out of ten comprehension questions. Well, I was incentivised! Every recess, I sat down at the Apple IIGS and started taking those tests. Well, by the end of Grade 4 and Grade 5, I ate a lot of pizza, but I didn’t read any books. I just kept taking and retaking the tests until I got the questions correct. And, voila, free pizza! No Comprehension Necessary.
Do comprehension worksheets allow for students to share the thinking they had while reading texts? Usually not. Do they celebrate student thinking? Nope. Do they actually keep students accountable? Not really. Do they actually improve student learning? “No. There has never been one study that has ever proven that a comprehension worksheet has ever improved a students’ ability to read" (Steph Harvey). If they are ineffective, what can kids do instead? Read. That’s what kids should be doing, reading! However, the common response is there’s no time. So where do we find the time? By uncovering our benches.
Previously I have posted about Debbie Miller’s analogy in her book No More Independent Reading Without Support that teachers guard benches, and they often hold onto the things they’ve done for years without thinking deeply about the purposes. She relates this to soldiers in Eduardo Galleano’s short story, Bureaucracy 3:
At a barracks in Seville, in the middle of the courtyard of that barracks was a small bench. Next to the small bench, a soldier stood guard. No one knew why the bench had to be guarded. It was guarded around the clock—every day, every night, and from one generation of officers to the next, the order was passed on and the soldiers obeyed it. No one expressed any doubts or every asked why. If that’s how it was done, there had to be a reason.
The bench was guarded for over thirty years without ever knowing the purpose! How many things do we do in schools and have no idea why we do them? When you think about teaching, can you think of some benches we have, things we’ve always done just because we’ve always done them?
Rather than spending hours figuring out different literacy centers activities where the kids produce sheets and sheets of paper that require very little cognitive demand and often ends up at the bottom of a trashcan, perhaps the kids could spend that time reading and writing down their thinking about a story. Rather than having students fill out comprehension worksheets (shut-up sheets), perhaps the kids could be taught the art of discussion and engage in a thoughtful discussion about a story while being videoed so they can reflect on the depth of their discussion and thinking.
Valuing the Thinking of Our Students
Over the past ten years, I have embraced the idea of celebrating kids’ thinking, and I have tried various ways to make their thinking and understanding visible. The ultimate goal of a teacher should be to understand a child’s thinking about a text, and how he or she developed that thinking. As inquiry-based teachers, we should teach the reader, not the reading, so that students can seamlessly transfer the skills, strategies, and concepts of reading from one text to another. So, what does that look like? I walked into a Grade 1 classroom and saw exactly what David Pearson expressed: student thinking being valued while providing authentic assessments of understanding.
The students were sitting on the floor closely clustered around Ms. T who was reading, What Do You Do With an Idea by Kobi Yamada. Teachers and students were equipped with Post-it Notes, clipboards, and pencils. Conceptually, this book is quite difficult; however, what this book does do it push kids to question. In a nutshell, it is about a boy who has an idea that follows him around and grows and grows as the boy’s confidence grows until one day when…(read the book :-))
The students’ questions were exploding out of the room. As Ms. T read, students wrote and drew pictures of their questions, teachers scribed, and everyone turned and talked about their thinking. All thoughts were valued, and the students' thinking showed us their understanding, misconceptions, and overall comprehension.
When you walk into this classroom, you immediately realise that celebrating student thinking is of paramount importance. Kids were learning, thinking, and understanding, and time was not wasted. How can we ensure that what we value are students’ questions rather than those prescribed or ones we think are important, because in reality, they’re not important to the students.
During a recent cross-curricular planning meeting discussing an upcoming unit on the impact of technology on our lives, we began to discuss the concept of censorship with regards to access to information. We questioned our school's policy on internet controls and the filters in place to keep our students "safe". In order to push the depth of our students' thinking we came up with a provocatively debatable question.
Should access to information be controlled?
As Banned Books Week comes to a close, I thought this was quite a powerful and pertinent question; books, once considered one of the highest forms of technology, continue to be censored and banned. But, why?
During our school's past two Teacher Talks, where teachers present workshops on areas of interest, our Deputy Head of School and Junior School Teacher Librarian both alluded to the concept of censorship. Our teacher-librarian shared the amazing wealth of information, access to books and technology, and how easily accessible they all are just from the JS Library Blog.
This past Thursday, our Deputy Head of School spoke about the Self-system Theory, which emphasizes how motivation for students relies on three basic psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
Sitting in the library listening to the teacher talk and looking around the library, I saw how well our library fosters student autonomy. When you walk in, you always see such wonderful displays of books. Recently, I walked in and saw this unassuming collection of books. Within this collection of books, one has been on the American Library Association Top 10 Most Challenged Books across the United States since its publication in 2005. Can you guess which one?
Yup, it’s And, Tango Makes Three. This adorable true story of two male penguins at the Bronx Zoo who father a baby penguin named Tango has been banned not only in countless schools and counties, but in other countries, as well.
But, at Munich International School, And, Tango Makes Three sits front and center asking students to check it out.
Censorship of books is not new and won’t stop in the foreseeable future, but to what degree do we unknowingly ban books for our students? When we’re in the library with our students, do we subconsciously or consciously ban books our students want to read because the books are too hard or too easy or they’ve read those books before or they’re only reading fiction books?
I hope not at all. Libraries should be sanctuaries of freedom, openness, expression, and comfort. If you walk a little further into our library, you’ll see The Rights of the Reader Poster by Daniel Pennac on which he states that every reader has certain inalienable rights.
I’ve been wondering, how do we support these rights? What do these look like in the Junior School? How do we provide choice? How do we foster student autonomy? How often do we allow students to stop reading books? How do we foster a love of reading?
These questions are supremely important because as Daniel Pennac writes, “What we need to understand is that books weren’t written so that young people could write essays [or answer comprehension questions] about them, but so that they could read them if they really wanted to.”
Let’s make sure we’re helping them really want to read.
And, on a lighter note, if you question the technological impact of books, watch an oldie but a goodie:
Welcome Back Sesame Street
My last memories of watching Sesame Street involve me sitting in my friends’ living room silently detesting a show I once loved but now believed was too childish. Big fluffy animals singing silly songs about letters and numbers weren’t cool anymore. I was now eight-years old and the messages being sent abruptly stopped resounding within me.
It’s taken twenty-eight years for me to be reconnected with Sesame Street. YouTube has taken over the world of online videos and finding ways to quietly engage our 21-month old twins has led us to the Sesame Street YouTube Channel. This has led us to creating a playlist of famous musicians rewriting their own songs as“educational." From Usher to One Direction to Elvis Costello, many musicians have performed on Sesame Street. They are cute, educational, and quite catchy. Best of all, my kiddos love ‘em.
One song, however, has deeply reverberated with me, and over the past few weeks I have reflected on its message and connection to teaching and learning. The Power of Yet by Janelle Monae melodically brings up the important message of fostering a growth mindset.
We Often Forget About "Yet"
Mark Hecker, founder of Reach Incorporated, says that we often forget about “yet”. In one of the most powerful TedTalks, he shares how the most disadvantaged have always been judged only by what they have done before and what they cannot do now. Rarely are they ever seen as what they can do or what they haven't done, yet. I began to think about teaching and how often our language focuses on the now rather than the then. How can we shift our language, so rather than saying, “Johnny does not know his 8-times table,” to saying, “Johnny knows his 5-times table and does not yet know his 8-times table?” This minimal shift changes what we are saying to children and parents from what is to what could be.
Carol Dweck, the guru of growth mindset research and Professor at Stanford University, states that “just the words "yet" or "not yet," give kids greater confidence, give them a path into the future that creates greater persistence…[E]very time they push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brain can form new, stronger connections, and over time they can get smarter.”
When Do We Forget Yet?
At what age do we stop saying, “….yet”? We always say it about babies as I have recently learned in my conversations with other parents that always end with “….yet”.
“Are they sitting up, yet?
“Have they started crawling, yet?”
“No, they are not talking, yet.”
“Are they eating solid foods, yet?”
“Yes, they are walking, but they’re not running, yet.”
“Are they only taking one nap, yet?”
“Have they stopped breast feeding, yet?”
“No, they are not sleeping through the night, yet.”
When and why do we stop asking and answering using, “yet”? We often hear students saying, "I can't..." How can we teach ourselves and our students to say, "...yet." Dweck believes that we can begin by “praising wisely, not praising intelligence or talent. That has failed. Don't do that anymore. But praising the process that kids engage in: their effort, their strategies, their focus, their perseverance, and their improvement. This process praise creates kids who are hardy and resilient.”
Many teachers in Grades 3 and 4 at Munich International School have begun the year focusing on the growth mindset and the power of yet using Jo Boaler's Week of Inspirational Math from Stanford University’s YouCubed Project. Within this week, students learn important growth mindset messages that help them develop confidence, try harder all year, persist with open and difficult problems and embrace mistakes and challenges. "All tasks are low floor and high ceiling – they are accessible to all students and they extend to high levels." This is one amazing example of how we can push our students to recognise the importance of developing a growth mindset. Here is Day 1's video on growth mindset: Day 1 Growth Mindset
I was fortunate to observe several of these lessons and the discussions were extremely powerful. The learning experiences were challenging for all, but the results help set the stage for a year of deep understanding of mathematics. When students begin to think about their understanding of mathematics based on their experiences with it rather than their ability, they recognise that we can all learn not just mathematics, but all subjects. This past week was the beginning of something important. Below are some photos from the week of inspirational math:
Since the beginning of school, I have been a part of many discussions across grade levels about the value and purpose of homework. Using our homework policy as a guide, teams have developed homework that helps consolidate learning, is rooted in inquiry, allows for a degree of choice, and integrates IT in transforming how homework is communicated and completed.
At the end of last school year, I posted about Dan Meyer’s work on how to engage students in inquiry-based mathematics through open-ended problem solving. This past week, the Grade 2 team put this into practice while inquiring into how they can organise numbers by using a big bag of Gummi Bears packets. Following this lesson, they created a video of the lesson and posted it on their blogs to support parents in understanding what is going on in the classroom; allow students to articulate their learning; and create engaging ways to extend learning beyond the classroom.
This led one student bringing in several boxes of Hubba Bubba for the class to explore just as they had with Gummi Bears. Below shows the progression of the lesson they developed using Dan Meyer’s Three Acts of a Mathematical Story:
Act 1: Engage All and Lower Barriers to Entry
They presented the students with a visual that pushed students to question, wonder, and had very few words. It was something that connected to the students and would engage them in mathematical thinking that they might not have thought of before.
Students in Grade 2 were asked to pose questions about this box of Hubba Bubba. Rather than just posing the question yourself, students are able to formulate their own thinking, which also greatly increases engagement.
The teachers then asked students to share their questions and then focused on the question that will help support the standards they are focusing on as a class. “Great. Love these questions. I hope we get to all of them. Here’s one I’ll need your help with first: How many pieces are in the box? Now estimate and give an answer that is too low and an answer that is too high." This allows all students to focus on developing their estimation skills and gives access to all students.
ACT 2: Determine and Overcome Obstacles
Students began to figure out what they need to know and solve the problem. “What information would be useful to know here?" After students have listed all the information they need in order to solve the problem, they document their exploration to answer them.
"How big is a piece of gum?"
"How many pieces are in a pack?"
"How many packs are in the box?"
"How can we easily organize these to count?"
"How else can we group these?"
Students then took time to organise their mathematical thinking on paper.
ACT 3: Resolve Conflict and Extend
The students then were shown the original box, again and discussed and reflected on how they solved the problem. Whose estimates were the closest? How did they figure out their estimation? How did students solve the problem? Are there any other questions that weren't answered?
"Yes, you can each have a pack of gum." :-)
This week, I wanted to share the work of Harvard Professor, Bruno della Chiesa, an educational neuroscientist. His presentation focused on how neuroscience is dispelling many of the ingrained myths we believe about learning. He spoke about the perpetuation of these myths due to the environments in which people live and the perspectives of those cultures. He calls them neuromyths – false beliefs about how the brain works and how people learn.
Problem Solving in Mathematics
Recently, the teachers at MIS watched a TedTalk by Dan Meyer on teaching mathematics: Math Class Needs a Makeover.
Over the past several weeks, the math curriculum team has been working to put together guiding principles for how we teach mathematics based on much of his work of focusing on teaching math reasoning and patient problem solving. While researching, we came across some more of Dan Meyer’s work on engaging students in inquiry-based mathematics.
He has developed a model that he uses with students in Grades 5-12; however, it could be adapted to the younger grades. He calls it the Three-Acts of a Mathematical Story.
Act 1: Engage all and lower barriers to entry.
Present a visual that pushes students to question, wonder, and has very few words. It should be something that connects to the students and will engage them in mathematical thinking that they might not have thought of before. Students are asked to pose questions based on these visuals. Watch this Act 1 using what we all love to pop: Bubblewrap, and allow your brain to wonder.
After watching, ask students to share their questions. Then focus on the guiding question on the standards you are trying to accomplish. “Great. Love these questions. I hope we get to all of them. Here’s one I’ll need your help with first.” Tell students you hope we’ll get around to answering all the questions on their list.
Act 3: Resolve the conflict and set up a sequel/extension.
Show the students the answers. Show the same visual but now with the answer. Ask students to see if their questions were answered. Whose answers were the closest? How did they guess? Allow time for discussion and reflection. Here are the videos below revealing the answers to the large and medium sheets of bubblewrap:
Dan uses these bubblewrap sheets during breaks for himself and believes they’re soothing. He has developed these problems for high school and middle school students by examining the world through mathematical glasses. There are many other examples that involve Starburst (candy), caffeinated drinks, taco carts, sugar in soda, cutting Lucky Cow cheese evenly, which are all part of his Bank of Lessons from his blog: Dan Meyer Blog.
Where can we find more examples like this for Junior School students where students can engage in authentic, real-life inquiry? And, can we make our own?
All resources retrieved from Dan Meyer's Blog and used through his Creative Common license agreement. blog.mrmeyer.com/
YouCubed: Mathematical Fluency Without Fear
Over the past several years, Jo Boaler, Professor at Stanford University, has developed YouCubed, a website dedicated to promoting inquiry- and concept-based mathematics instruction. In her most recent publication, Fluency Without Fear, she posits that a focus on fluency in mathematics is important; however, fluency is often misinterpreted as rote memorization of math facts without any number sense.
Hear Jo speak about the importance of conceptual-based mathematics teaching and learning for all our students, particularly with our students who struggle the most.
How can we create a bubble of wonder in our classrooms? Thanks, Kath!
How do inquiry teachers teach? In Kath Murdoch's blog posting, she shares the attributes of effective inquiry teachers. As we know, Kath brings a sense of wonderment in everything she does. This posting reiterates how we good teachers, teach. Take a moment to read the entire posting; it won’t disappoint you: How Do Inquiry Teachers…Teach?
She defines twelve attributes of effective inquiry teachers.
Nell Duke, professor of language, literacy, and culture at the University of Michigan, helps articulate how informational texts can and should be used in elementary schools. In her Educational Leadership article, The Case for Informational Texts, she states that the seven things that are seen in primary classrooms that are effectively using informational texts to help students learn to read and write.