29 December 2013

Learning through Travel in 2013

I love to travel and think it's very educational because you learn when you pay attention to your surroundings and are curious on each adventure.  I've written previously about how my husband and I try to enhance the fine public school education our children are receiving.   As we near the end of 2013, I've decided to share five little trips our family took this year.  In no way do these trips represent world-wide travel or extensive excursions to exotic places (out of our current budget range).  Instead, I am sharing these small family trips because trips like these are more doable for an average family, and it's a great way to think about how weekend trips to visit family in another state or activities in a local city can also be a learning experience too.  

 Bob Dylan Concert & a Lego Store

For years I've wanted to see Bob Dylan live in concert, and I know my chances are growing slimmer with each passing year, so when we learned Dylan would be in nearby Cincinnati, Ohio, we decided to check on ticket prices.  Fortunately, there was a special for four tickets at a very reasonable rate.  We thought about finding a babysitter for our boys, but then decided we should take them to the concert because seeing Bob Dylan in concert could be a historical moment in their young (10 & 12 years old) lives.  At first they were not thrilled with the idea, but when we told them we would stay overnight in a hotel and go to the Lego store the next day, they were up for the experience.  There was a moment at the concert when my husband took the boys aside and whispered to them to look on the stage and take mental note of Bob Dylan in his white jacket because that would be a moment for them to remember forever.  Afterwards they both said it was pretty cool to see someone with such history, but then they were ready for the visit to the Lego store the next day.

A Civil War Train Ride and Battle Reenactment

Kentucky has its share of Civil War history, so this year we decided to take the boys on a Civil War train ride in Versailles, Kentucky, a short twenty minute drive from where we live.  The experience was fascinating and informative.  Actors and actresses from children to middle-aged adults rode in the train cars with us and carried on in ways that would have been typical of their class status in the 19th century.  We were victims of a Civil War train robbery and it was all in the name of educational fun.

Museums and Monuments Galore in Washington, D.C.

In the early part of the year, I did some freelance writing and consulting to earn money for a desired family trip toWashington, D.C. during spring break.  I had long wanted the family to make this trip because after all the business trips I took to D.C., I knew my family would enjoy seeing the sites and experiencing the history of the city. We found amazing deals on airfare, so the boys took their second ever airplane ride (though they are too young to remember the first one).  We rode the Metro, we walked until our feet were numb, and we rode in a taxi back to the airport.  I highlight modes of transportation because they were one of the highlights for my curious boys who have always enjoyed playing with planes, trains, and automobiles.  Other highlights of the trip were some of the tourist staples--the Smithsonian Museums, the Capitol, Abraham Lincoln's Monument, and Arlington National Cemetery for the changing of the guard.  Coincidentally, the day we watched the changing of the guard was the same day the high school from my husband's home town (Perry, GA) was there laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.  

Tybee Island Lighthouse 

Since all of our family live elsewhere, the holidays generally mean a trip of some sort for us.  This year, my husband's dad and step mom (who live in south Georgia) decided to rent a condo on Tybee Island for our Thanksgiving weekend visit. We toured the Tybee Island Lighthouse (and yes--climbed all 178 steps) and we took a historical tour of Savannah too.  My oldest son has been interested in the invention of the light bulb since he was a toddler, so seeing the giant light bulbs they used at one point in the lighthouse's history was especially interesting to him.  The wind was strong the day we visited, so we all stayed close to the building when we walked out on the lookout platform.

The trip would not have been complete without our roadside stop to see and touch the cotton remnants in a field.  My youngest was learning about the plantations in the south and the history of slavery in school, so the cotton field brought very vivid ideas to his mind based on the atrocities he studied in his social studies class.

White Squirrels in the Fall and Christmas in Brevard, North Carolina

My parents and all of my sisters and their families live in North Carolina, and generally we visit in the summer for hiking, picnicking, and seeing waterfalls.  This past summer, however, I started a new job and had numerous work related trips and the boys had various summer camps, so we skipped our summer trip to Brevard.  Instead, we traveled to Brevard during fall break and again during Christmas break.  Being in Brevard in the fall is gorgeous because of the mountain views and fall tree colors.  We even saw a legendary white squirrel on our fall visit.

Our visit at Christmas was momentous because we hadn't seen one of my sisters and her family in over a year since they live in the middle part of the state.  For Christmas though, we were all there with my parents carrying on with family traditions and making memories with cousins playing together in the woods near my parents' house.  

27 December 2013

Please Stop the Test Prep in Our Schools

Several weeks ago I began drafting this post after learning from my sisters that their children's schools in North Carolina would start practicing for the state tests.  After talking with teacher and parent friends in Kentucky and around the country and realizing test prep approaches in schools continue to run rampant, I decided it's time to publish this post because this is my way of opening discussion on the issue and my way of encouraging others to do so as well.

Since before launching Learning to Muse in 2012, I have engaged in various conversations with people from around the country about the need to discontinue the test prep approach to teaching.  (Note:  Most of the hundreds of teachers I know do not prefer this approach but feel pressured by the current system to practice for state tests.)  A long time friend and homeschool educator in North Dakota, Gwyn, and I have been dreaming of alternative forms of education and changing the system for some time now.  Only, Gwyn isn't only dreaming--she's making it happen for her own children.  In my quest to persist with public education, I continue to dream that maybe, one day, the landscape will change. 

My own parental heart sank when I once received an email from my son's school (not naming which son or which school for the sake of anonymity here) stating they would begin test prep too.  Specifically, they would be sending home passages for students to read and then answer multiple choice questions "to improve their reading abilities."

As a literacy consultant and former English teacher, I happen to know that requiring students to read passages and answer multiple choice questions is not the way to improve their reading abilities.  As I wrote in a previous post, this is exactly what I feared would happen upon release of the state standardized test scores. The tests themselves are not the problem nor are new standards the problem.  The problem is using a test prep approach for teaching.  Grant Wiggins wrote about this topic last year when people were blaming the tests for all the test prep in schools. 

In the post "Dear High Performing School District," a principal writes to a school district about his dissatisfaction with all the test prep his own children had to endure.  He clearly articulates the same frustration I feel with the focus on subjects that are tested in a specific grade area, or the continuous skill and drill.  Fortunately for his family, they had options to transfer to a different district that focused less on test prep.  Where I live, where my sisters live, and where my friends live that's not an option. Plus, the idealist side of me continues to believe in public education and the potential to transform learning systems in public education to focus on what all kids need, not just what my own kids or relatives need.

Perhaps it's time for me to revisit some of my own advice in a previous post.  As a parent, I will continue to support my own children and their learning opportunities.  I will support the schools and judge them on factors beyond their test scores.  As Brian Nichols mentioned in his letter to a high performing school district, our aim should be "to create problem solvers who find multiple solutions instead of ones that need answer choices."  Insisting that teachers focus on test prep will not help our children become better readers, better thinkers, or better citizens. 
Teachers interpret CCSS for reading-no test prep!

Think about what can happen when educators take action!  The story of Gwyn mentioned above isn't the only story about educators and parents taking action, check out this article about a school in Colorado that's led by the teachers.  They explicitly state "because several of MSLA's founding teacher leaders held National Board certification, the school focused on more robust forms of student learning, not just quick fixes to raise standardized test scores in short order."  They are emphasizing students controlling their own learning and putting the joy back into learning.  These two examples give me hope that maybe--just maybe--all of our children will go to school to learn, not to prepare for tests.

We must persist with creating learning opportunities that promote critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and problem solving.  Our children deserve it! 

20 December 2013

What My Ten Year Old Reminded Me This Christmas

My ten year old brought home from school a handmade Christmas gift for me and my husband.  His
artwork represented his thankfulness--thankful his mom and dad have money.  Inside I was chuckling to myself--"if he only knew."  After all, we've been living primarily on my educator's salary for his entire ten years of life, plus the adjunct instructor pay my husband receives and periodic consulting or writing work I do on the side or random editing jobs Chris picks up when they are available.   If you know anything about adjunct pay, it's not much.  When Chris finished his PhD a few months ago, I was sure our financial situation would change because he would finally have full time work with benefits (I had plenty to learn about how one finds a full time faculty position--whew!). Many people equate a hard earned degree with a job, but things don't always work out that way.  Well, the job market for people with PhDs in English leaves plenty to be desired.   Needless to say, my husband and I have been just short of wallowing in despair this Christmas because of the ongoing job situation for him. 

Leave it to a ten year old to remind us of what we have.  We have money, just enough for what we need, and a full-time job for my husband will come along eventually.  We also have so much more--love, family, friends, a home, food, and education--lots of education.

Graduation Day May 2013
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future."                                                 

16 December 2013

Performance Based Assessment in Action

Schools across the country are administering final exams this week, and I am wondering how many of those final assessments are copy cats of the state standardized tests students will take in the spring and how many are more performance based, allowing students to demonstrate what they learned without filling in bubbles on a sheet.

Critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity are generally some of the first items tossed out the window when we think about assessment, but I believe it’s possible to create assessments that include these important attributes.  I’m not talking about traditional bubble assessments here, obviously.  Rather, I’m advocating for more performance based assessments where students can demonstrate learning and mastery of both content and skills and do it all in a more collaborative and supportive environment.

Early last week, I served as a reviewer of student performance assessments in a rural school about an hour away from where I live. I always jump on opportunities to be in schools and to see students in action.  This particular opportunity was even more delightful because it addressed another issue about which I care deeply—assessment (and doing assessment right). Part of my job involves serving on a state work group for performance based assessment, and we are looking at schools piloting Performance Based Assessments (PBA) and also thinking about how to encourage more PBA statewide.  

Some of my favorite PBA examples are interdisciplinary, allowing students to demonstrate their learning for more than one subject at a time.  What I observed last week was an assessment where students demonstrated their understanding of social studies/geography standards and concepts as well as their understanding of English language arts standards.  Eleven year-olds were articulate, thoughtful, knowledgeable, and creative.  Since the beginning of the school year, the young students had been learning what they needed to know to be prepared for their performance event.  This learning, obviously, happened in ways that moved beyond skill and drill/worksheet completion and lower level thinking.  To be prepared for their performance assessments, these eleven year-olds had to speak well, listen to others, collaborate with teammates, research, read, write, and create.

Meeting the students
While I don’t know the tiny little details that happened before I met the students, I do know what they shared with me.  Students were asked to research a different country (the group I worked with had researched Afghanistan), sixth grade students worked in teams of 3-4 to create their own country complete with its own name, geographical coordinates, country, culture, etc.  The bulk of sixth grade social studies standards in Kentucky currently focus on geography—hence this particular assignment.  Their social studies and English teachers worked together to plan lessons that addressed the various components of the project, with the research and writing skills being a focus in ELA class, and the content/geography work happening in social studies class.  They also had to write a paper that created an argument for which country was better and why—the country they researched or their made-up county.  They collaboratively wrote and edited the paper before bringing it to the presentation.  The students were very honest with us about how difficult it was to work in a group; they said at first they argued a lot about their made-up country, and their teacher worked with them on team building skills and helped them understand the importance of collaborating and creating the project together.  

Had they not so honestly told us how they struggled at first to get along, we never would have known.  The day of their presentation, they were united with a plan and presented as a team, supporting one another when another team member faltered.  The day of the presentations, students entered the library carrying a hand created map, their argumentative paper, and their confidence.  We asked students questions about each step of their research process, about their countries (both the one they researched and the one they created).  We also asked them on the spot, to apply knowledge about geographical content to present day situations. For example, we asked students to read a world map, read charts, graphs, and tables and then answer our questions which included lots of inferencing so students had to tell us why they interpreted the map in a particular manner.  

Overall, I was very impressed with the process and the end result, and knowing the school, they will continue to refine the process based on this experience. What's remarkable to note is that this wasn't just the teachers deciding to implement performance based assessments in their own classrooms.  This was school-wide performance based assessments for all courses.  Imagine the impact on learning and teaching when the focus of school-wide assessment is performance based!  I look forward to returning in the spring when they assess students over mathematics and science content in a similar performance based fashion.

02 December 2013

Making & Moving for #Nerdlution

For years I was a maker.

I made
podcasts with my sons
video clips of my sons narrating their Lego projects

I even soldered tiny solar panels and made random household items with my invention-crazed young son who has always loved making and inventing things.

...and then...I stopped.  I stopped making because, well, because life caught up with me and I no longer prioritized making things.

Even though I have been trying hard to resist it, #Nerdlution has inspired me. All during Thanksgiving break I followed the tweets and read the blog posts by all the people who succumbed to the twitter peer pressure, and I told myself I would not be one of those people.  Guess I need to eat my words because the blogs have been too inspiring, and the twitter feed too amazing to resist.  Like many people who have shared their nerdlution, I also want to read, write, and exercise more each day.  I also decided I need to make again.  Therefore, for the next 50 days, I commit to making each day, and since it's more about the creative process of making than it is the product, I might work on the same thing or just mess around with making, and that's okay too.

 If you have no idea what I'm talking about, check out the super helpful (and happy) blog post by Christopher Lehman to learn more.  You can also follow this hashtag (#nerdlution) on twitter to find many more blog posts and inspiring tweets about how people are coming together in an online community to support one another in achieving goals.

23 November 2013

For the Love of Social Studies!

“As long as I don’t have to miss social studies” was the reply from my ten-year-old son when I told him the school interventionist was going to start pulling him for extra help with reading two times per week.  Really, I couldn’t agree more with him.  You see, my ten-year-old loves history, and has loved history for most of his elementary school aged years, but this year (5th grade) is the first year he has had regular social studies instruction.

Fortunately for my son, he also has a 5th grade teacher who happens to love history too.  She is a National Board Certified Teacher who is dynamic, reflective, thoughtful, and purposeful with instruction.  She also understands the importance of kids moving, exploring, and learning in non test-prep ways (in most of Kentucky, public schools only teach social studies in 5th grade because that’s the year it’s tested for the state testing system).  This is wrong, and even slightly illegal, given that the state has required social studies standards for every year of a child’s elementary grade.  Unfortunately, schools feel pressured by the high-stakes testing and accountability system, so most schools in Kentucky only teach a subject if it’s tested that year  (they only teach science during 4th grade—the year it’s tested, much to the dismay of my older son who loved science and only had it one year grades K-5).

I have written about this frustrating system and approach in previous posts and have shared ways my husband and I have worked to supplement our sons’ public school experiences.  Rather than make this post another soapbox post about how much I want the system to change, I’ve decided to focus on Isaac’s love of history and the great year he’s having because he’s receiving excellent social studies instruction—something that really interests him. 

Isaac says his teacher makes history interesting because she has students role-play, debate, ask lots of questions, read and write (all called for by the Common Core) and explore artifacts she’s collected and keeps in her room.  She also enriches standards based classroom instruction with games and field trips.

On a recent field trip to Fort Boonesborough, the students dipped candles, learned about blacksmithing, heard about Daniel Boone, and very impressively--discussed with one another primary and secondary sources and historical artifacts. They knew what they were talking about, and they were curious, bright-eyed, and attentive as they walked from cabin to cabin.

Not only does Isaac's teacher provide explicit and purposeful social studies instruction, she also supplements the history standards that are part of her fifth grade curriculum with social studies issues related to present day, and she recommends books to children based on their interests.  For Isaac, her recommendation included Kate Messner’s Capture the Flag, set in Washington D.C. (specifically Regan National Airport). This was perfect because Isaac had the requisite background knowledge since our family flew into this airport for our Washington D.C. trip during spring break last year.

 She’s also currently working children’s rights into her instruction and having children learn about Malala and watch clips from the film Girl Rising.  These issues are pertinent to children having a global perspective about the world in which we live.  Even though the standardized test children will take in the spring is focused on early American history, this teacher understands the importance of children learning about the bigger world in which we live.  She purposefully works into instruction issues and topics relevant to current political events as well as historical events being remembered

I decided to check out what the National Council for the Social Studies has to say about learning social studies in elementary school.  Turns out, they have plenty to say about “powerful and purposeful teaching of social studies in elementary schools.” They share links to research and documentation about how the subject has been marginalized in the years since No Child Left Behind was passed.  One of the many important quotes from their site--

teachers should ensure that the social studies experiences woven throughout the curriculum follow logical sequences, allow for depth and focus, and help young learners move forward in their acquisition of knowledge and skills. The curriculum should not become, in the pursuit of integration, a grab bag of random social studies experiences that are related marginally to a theme or project. Rather, concepts should be developed to assure coherence and meaning.”

Thankfully, my son’s teacher practices purposeful instruction and keeps Isaac’s love of history alive each day ensuring he experiences coherence and meaning with what he learns.  We are grateful beyond belief for this excellent teacher and the fabulous year Isaac is experiencing.

17 November 2013

Musing on Classroom Discussion Methods

In my third high school in as many years, I was not a vocal participant in class discussions.  However, when my English teacher said our grade for the Lord of The Flies unit would depend upon how much we participated in class discussion, I decided not to let my reticence hinder my grade.  Each night I would read the required chapters before the next day’s discussion and then I would read the Cliffs Notes for ideas about what I would say when the teacher started asking us questions.  Since we sat in rows and I sat in the back, the teacher had no idea my insightful remarks were actually not my words or my insights. 

Flash forward six years to my senior year of college and a poetry seminar where my reticence once again threatened to take hold.  This time, however, I did not turn to cheat sheets or someone else’s ideas because our professor took a different approach to our class discussions—an approach that required us to dig deep and to think critically and carefully about what we were reading.  We typically sat in a square facing one another, so hiding behind rows of students was also not an option. Fortunately, this professor did not just expect us to read carefully, he taught us how by modeling it, and by asking careful, prodding questions about each line of the poems we read.  This is the same professor who introduced us to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature by way of asking us to take a quiz on the characteristics of a good reader, emphasizing the importance of re-reading texts for deeper understanding.

It’s this quest for deeper understanding I aimed for when leading my own students through complex texts during class discussions.  Without experience or strategies, facilitating classroom discussions with teenagers was challenging.  I gave it my best shot, modeling what my professor did when he led discussion rather than what my former high school teacher did.  Still, I struggled for the structure some classes of teenagers need, and I also struggled with strategies for ensuring students like me were participating.  The same few students typically had the most to say while others sat quietly.

Enter Shared Inquiry and the Great Books Foundation—my school received a grant to participate in trainings using the Shared Inquiry discussion method.  We learned how to facilitate discussions that were student centered and focused on deeper understandings of text.  We also learned how to establish procedures for ensuring all students participated.  From the beginning of our grant, I was a huge fan and later an advocate of Shared Inquiry because I saw the difference it made in my teaching and in my students’ understanding of the texts we discussed.   

Years later I had an additional opportunity to participate in a Paideia Seminar training.  Paideia and Shared Inquiry share several of the same goals and operate very similarly, except with Paideia you are not focused on a set curriculum like you are with Great Books/Shared Inquiry  (Honestly though, I used the Shared Inquiry method even when I wasn’t using the Great Books curriculum).

Here’s what I like about both discussion methods.

o   You focus on deep understanding of a text (print or non-print)
o   You let the students do the talking
o   You encourage everyone to participate by facing one another with name placards posted, and you (the teacher) join the circle, sometimes drawing out students
o   You have students set personal goals and have the group agree on a group discussion goal as well (e.g. refer to the text when talking, everyone speaks, build on the ideas of others, ask clarifying questions, use names of classmates etc.)
o   You map the discussion for use during reflection (see picture below)

o   You complete the bulk of your work pre-discussion when you create open-ended opening questions and possible questions to use if/when the conversation is dragging
o   You end the discussion on a high note—leaving students to want more
o   You encourage participation without requiring hands to be raised to speak
o   You allow silence and don’t try to fill it—you wait for students to speak (can be really tough and uncomfortable for everyone at first—but it’s great!)

Discussion of Autobiography of Malcolm X w/pre-service teachers

The best part of both discussion methods is that you never grow weary or bored, and you always look for opportunities to participate or facilitate discussions because the more you participate, the better you become at facilitating the discussions too.   Just last week I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion when I visited a history class at a local high school—a highlight of my week, for sure.

What about you—What are your favorite discussion methods?