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.
She provides many ways to support the development of these goals; however, the three that connect the most with this week’s staff meeting are to be direct and genuine; mean what you say; and use statements rather than questions.
Be Direct and Genuine
Denton states that when trying to get several students to listen to a direction, many of us use the phrase, “I like the way Sam is sitting quietly”; however, statements like these have inherent problems of extrinsic motivation and often do not produce the desired effects. The first problem is that students should not sit down on the rug so they gain praise from the teacher, but should sit down because it’s a time to learn and because they recognise their place in the learning environment. The second problem is that this language actually is “trying to manipulate the the other children to do what [the teacher] wanted without [the children] being conscious of [the teacher’s] control over them (Denton, 15).” In reality, many kids would rather carry on with their discussions than worry about sitting properly so the teacher would praise them. Instead of using this language, gain the attention of the entire class using a common signal and then state something like, “Come to the circle and take a seat now.”
Mean What We Say: Following Through on Our Words
We have to follow through on our expectations. If we expect students to be silent in the hallways, then we cannot permit any talking. If we expect quiet voices, we have to hold them to this expectation. Say only what you can and are willing to follow through on.
10 Rhetorical Questions to Stop Using in the Classroom by Blair Turner
This past week, through the wonders of social media, 10 Rhetorical Questions to Stop Using in the Classroom & 10 More Effective Alternatives by Blair Turner came to my attention. This humorously written article provides many alternatives to the questions we often use with our students after a student has been rude, mean or bullying.
As you read through her list of ten questions teachers should never say, think about how many you might have said (I have said many):
Head to her blog to read about the alternatives. To read more about positive teacher language, here are some other articles and blog postings from The Responsive Classroom website:
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:
Over the past several years, I have been fascinated by the power of our language on our students. While researching articles on learning through play, I stumbled across this article, Why Does Gender Matter? Counteracting Stereotypes With Young Children. The authors, Olaiya Aina and Petronella Cameron, forced me to think about the language I have used with students and how it affects gender stereotypes. They state, “While unintentional, a teacher’s inherent biases can perpetuate unfair stereotypes and may be manifested in discriminatory classroom practices,” (Aina and Cameron, 13). I began to wonder if my classroom environment was becoming like Toys R Us.
What I’m thinking about…
Terry Heick knows a thing or two about good teaching; it’s not what figuring out what kids know, but what they don’t know. He discusses that knowing something is ‘low-level knowledge’ and can easily be stated and distributed while understanding cannot.
“Understanding cannot. Wisdom cannot. These are acquired under a self-imposed cognitive duress. The moment a student can no longer tolerate not knowing, they can pursue an idea. If they do so with curiosity, and in terms and forms they can be playful and confident with, that curiosity can evolve itself to something aggressive.”
“Wisdom, understanding, knowledge, skills–and the pathways between each–are the very core of learning. There is nuance within each of these ideas–critical distinctions that matter. If our fall-back phrasing concerns whether or not they “get it,” we shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t.”
When we think about our teaching, are we focusing on what they know or what they don’t know? And, are we surprised if our students don’t get it?
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.