Reflective Practice

Sep 5, 2013 by

I’ve been re-reading Scott McLeod and Chris Lehmann’s great book on What School Leaders Need to Know About Digital Technologies and Social Media. (You should really get a copy- it’s even on Kindle!) There is a great section on using blogging in conjunction with the classroom, and how it has helped instill a level of reflection for many students when used in conjunction with other projects.  The interactive nature and the feedback it can offer- not just from peers or a teacher, but from the world at large, seems to inspire more thought and reflection in students than I’ve ever seen with any other traditional classroom practice.

When I went to my first education conference and there were long periods built in for reflection, I wasn’t sure exactly how to use this time.  I had been so used to going from session to session, activity to activity, in school and in life, that having time set aside just to think and reflect and digest information seemed almost foreign.  Yet we know reflection is a way to consolidate learning, and to examine, perhaps in detail, what’s going well and what’s not, which enables us to, in theory, come up with new approaches to confounding problems.  But where do we teach this practice to students?  Do we make time for it in the school day?  Do we make time for it in the classroom?  Is it appropriate to start teaching it, and if so, when?  Is there a developmentally appropriate point to institute reflection in the classroom?

Most of the kids I know basically look at the test, paper, quiz, or project as the culmination of their learning.  Teachers would call this an assessment of mastery, and parents might call it a pain, especially if it involves more than one trip to the craft store.  What happens after the assessment or project is completed?  For most kids, they get their grade, or a paper back, and unless it is meant as a draft, very little review and reflection of the work is done.  The test is crammed into a folder or backpack, or if it’s a really good grade, displayed on the fridge, and that’s the end of it.

The only structured reflection time that went on in most of my schooling was either when I came home with a 90 on the test and my Dad asked where the other 10% was, and I felt dejected, or when I was sent to my room for some infraction and asked to “Think about what you did and we’ll talk later.”  This latter form of reflection merely involved me sitting in my room, reading, playing with toys or otherwise enjoying the quiet from the fight, and perhaps a small amount of time devoted to trying to guess what I had done wrong in my parent’s eyes and guess what they wanted to hear so I could get out of trouble and move on as soon as possible.  I suspect for many of you, this isn’t unfamiliar territory and the story hits pretty close to the mark.

However, after reading about the teachers using blogging in the classroom, I realized how perfect this is to instill reflection into school and learning.  Just as I’m using this post to reflect on my experiences, kids could use a blog, whether classroom or personal, as a more open journaling experience, with a wider (and possibly more accepting) audience.  They can trade ideas, and flesh out their thoughts as they commit them to writing rather than as fleeting clouds across their minds.  It will give extra practice in writing and developing style and voice, in a way that so many other “5 paragraph essay”  assignments just don’t.  When feedback between a teacher and the students is an open exchange, the trust grows, and the dialog is no longer just one on one but communal.

If we want students to truly improve over time, maybe spending time meaningfully not just “going over the test” but to start differentiating instruction and using assessments as diagnostic about what students have mastered and where they need more support would be more appropriate.  Maybe asking students to do small reflections about projects and assignments, giving feedback about what they thought went well, what was harder, and even give them reinforcement for honesty such as “I didn’t manage my time well on this assignment” .  This then allows an opportunity to give the time management  kids additional support or scaffolding on the next assignment, to help them grow until they are ready to fly solo then just blindly expecting them to do “better.”

I think incorporating reflection in a more meaningful way into our classrooms is critical to build the 21st century skills of collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication we all say are important.  The trick is doing it on a consistent basis, and in a way that seems more coach like and less as an additional opportunity to criticize and bash a kid who is already struggling.  That’s why they never want to look at the paper with a sea of red- the assignment is over- it’s time to let the wound heal and try “better” next time.  But they won’t get better unless we can give them the tools hthey need- and they see the point in udsing these tools- to get a different result the next time.

Otherwise, we’re all just living the embodiment of this quote:

“The Definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

Education Reform

Jan 9, 2013 by

I saw the Frontline documentary on Michelle Rhee last night, and it left me with as many questions as answers.

Public education is tricky because it’s non-uniform.  School districts vary based on location, funding, resources, demographics- you name it.  As much as we would like it to be standard and consistent, the reality is quite different.  For example, our local middle school is a modern building, with smart boards in every classroom.  Technology  is used in almost every aspect of learning, from a digital grade book to online assessments, to students submitting multimedia projects via email and dropbox. The students come from a wide variety of homes, ranging from kids of professionals to those of migrant workers.  A middle school I visited in North Carolina this fall had almost 100% minority population, where there were 4 smart boards in the whole school, and one cart of laptops that were held for the sole use of Title I students, and as a result, were rarely used at all.   Teachers often did not assign homework, because many of their students were spending the evenings caring for parents and siblings, and legitimately could not be counted on doing work outside the classroom according to the teachers.

In the world of national standards, all the students in both schools are to be held to the same standard of learning, and the teachers to the same level of achievement for their students.  This makes sense, in that once all these students hit the real world, they will all be competing for the same spots in college or the job market with students from more affluent and academically challenging environments.  How do we make sure that the kids in this particular North Carolina school receive an education that will enable them to effectively compete with kids from our local school?  How do we start to attack the problem?

Michelle Rhee, according to the Frontline documentary, found all sorts of problems in the DC schools.  She set a goal of doing what was best for students, and keeping their interest at heart, which ended up involving getting rid of a lot of teachers and principals that were deemed to be under-performing, and closing schools with low enrollment.  Closing schools and consolidating in order to avoid wasting money on building expenses and duplicate resources (including personnel) makes logical sense- especially when it provides additional funds for all the students in the District in the bargain.  That’s simply good management, but it’s painful, since it meant jobs were eliminated and some kids would no longer be going to their neighborhood school.

The Gates Foundation released a report this week addressing what it has found to be potential better metrics for teacher evaluation.   They also have released some metrics on personalized learning, which reflects much of what we discuss here on differentiating instruction:

There is a small but growing effort to rethink fundamental aspects of our current system. The central idea is that the system should be designed not for uniformity, but instead to meet every student’s individual needs.  At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we call this a shift to personalized learning. We are particularly interested in whole-school models that incorporate each of the following principles:

  • Student Centered: designed to meet the diverse learning needs of each student every day
  • High Expectations: committed to ensuring that every student will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards that will prepare them for success in college and career
  • Self-Pacing & Mastery-Based Credit: enables students to move at their own optimal pace, and receive credit when they can demonstrate mastery of the material
  • Blended Instruction: optimizes teacher- and technology-delivered instruction in group and individual work
  • Student Ownership: empowers students with skills, information and tools they need to manage their own learning
  • Financial Sustainability: sustainable on public per-pupil revenue within four years
  • Scalable: designed to serve many more students if it demonstrates impact


It’s clear that effective teaching requires not only a thorough knowledge of the curriculum, but a sense of the students and connecting with them to make learning vibrant and exciting.  That’s not always an easy task.

Even in the after school program where I volunteer, I know that I get better at running my class each time I do it, and that it requires reflection, asking the students about what went well and what didn’t, and considering what to tweek and try differently the next time.  I know that the mix of students I get also changes what I can do and I need to be adaptive to student needs, not just wedded to my idea of a utopian curriculum.  The overall critical points need to be taught, but the order and the method I choose might vary, depending on the day and the mood of the kids, as well as whether all the tech is working properly.  The key, I’ve found, is to use my base knowledge and my general plan as a base or launch pad for the actual teaching that is done, which involves a bit of improv.   From talking with academic full time teachers, they also say that the lesson plan is like any battle plan- it never fully survives contact with the enemy, as they say in the military- the enemy gets a say as well, or in this case, the students get a vote in how the lesson is going to go, and how much of the plan gets executed as written or needs to flex as needed.

This being said, metrics on judging teaching needs to be part “the plan” and another part “the execution” along with outcomes- how well did the kids actually absorb what you were trying to teach them?  How effective are they at applying that knowledge to a new and novel situation?

Teachers don’t graduate from school with all these skills in place.  They need on the job mentoring, and continuing education.  They need a place where they can ask questions, share tips and tricks, and engage with colleagues in a safe environment, where they can admit what’s going well and where they may have challenges, without always feeling like their job is on the line if they admit any weakness.  But at the same time, kids deserve to be taught by someone who knows what they’re doing, just like every patient deserves good medical care, even from a doctor who just finished their residency.  We know these teachers and doctors will get better the more experience they have, but helping them learn to be better requires acknowledgement they aren’t perfect, just like no student or patient is perfect as well.

I admire Michelle Rhee for making some tough decisions and not running a popularity contest.  I admire her for putting kids first, but part of that is also treating the adults in charge of the student’s learning with compassion and  guidance as well as consequences for non-performance.

Teacher’s unions have often defended teachers who have been shown to be ineffective, based on longevity, tenure, or other reasons, and that’s clearly not always appropriate.  Michelle Rhee’s monetary incentives to teachers and schools for achievement improvements may very well have lead to cheating, in order for the  adults in the game to profit from those outcomes.  Yet if the incentives were placed differently- instead of cash bonuses in every teacher pocket, could the incentives be more “team based” in terms of more resources for the students and schools for higher achievement?  Could the incentives be placed in such a way everyone in the school benefitted instead of just the teachers or administrators, especially since it was based on student achievement and what the students themselves accomplished?  I think you might still find teachers willing to tamper with results if it meant a laptop for every student in the school, but probably less frequently than if it meant an extra $8,000 in their paycheck.

We ask much more of teachers now than in the past.  Some teachers have even lost their lives protecting their students, and if we’re going to ask for that level of commitment, we had better learn to respect them and compensate them for that difficult work.  The perceived harshness of Michelle Rhee, even in the name of progress and reform, caused as many problems as she tried to solve.  Perhaps working with appropriate carrots and sticks is really the best way to work towards education reform, rather than taking a slash and burn approach, no matter how much we may all need a real wake up call.

And for the rest of us out there, including myself, who assume we know everything about education because we went to school ourselves, we have to be patient and realize that solving the education issues in our Country may be much more personalized per school, per district, and per state than pushed down in a top down approach from the Department of Education.


Watch the Frontline special below:


Watch The Education of Michelle Rhee on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Differentiation is Doable

Oct 10, 2012 by

When I speak with teachers about starting to incorporate differentiated instruction and personalized learning into their teaching, some often look at it as something that seems logical and looks good on paper, but they are overwhelmed with incorporating it into their teaching, aren’t sure where to begin, or that the effort will be worth the results.  As I’ve been thinking about how to make this easier for teachers to understand, I’ve been trying to make analogies that make the process easier to understand.

Let’s take medicine as a comparison.

Each patient a doctor sees is an individual.  They need care based on whatever their current disease or problem might be, when they walk in the door, taking their history, current medicines, family history and other things into account, including the patient’s level of compliance with past treatments, when offering new therapies or treatments, especially for chronic conditions.

A doctor may order a bunch of tests for the patient as well.  These tests spew back a bunch of numbers, but unless they are put into context  based on previous test results, along with  where the numbers fit into a general range  considered Normal, the numbers themselves have little context and meaning about whether a patient is getting healthier or sicker.

Doctors learn in school how to treat disease, and that the human body, on the whole, tends to “break” in predictable patterns.  There are anomalies and rare diseases of course, but most of the time, illness follows a fairly predictable course, and standard treatments work well for the majority of patients, but certainly not all of them.  This is when personal history, family history, sensitivities or allergies to certain medicines and the like come into play, and if not taken into account, normal treatment can have disastrous outcomes  for that individual.

Now let’s compare this to teaching.

Each student (and teacher) are individuals.  Most kids learn how to read with standard curriculum, but some students, based on the way their brains process sound/symbol relationships, struggle more with learning to read- we often call this dyslexia.  However, we also know that some reading programs, like Orton-Gillingham based programs, do a great job teaching kids who have struggled learning to read, truly master the skill.  Orton Gillingham and its approach to helping students learn to read require a bit more one on one or small group instruction, but this approach and customization for a few students of the whole group teaching, means the difference between success and failure for these students.

Likewise, there are students in the classroom, who, based on prior knowledge and family background, have a wider set of experiences and may breeze through certain lessons, yet struggle in others where they have no such background to draw from.  These students can look brilliant one day and dull the next, yet their response to the teaching in the classroom that’s often one-size fits all varies dramatically based on what they bring to the table already.

Test scores, whether we’re talking about State and national tests or the results of the last spelling quiz are data points that help make up a larger picture of a child’s growth and development.  While the answer to each question on a test is like your Hematocrit, White Blood Cell Count or Creatinine score on a blood test, the answers all together, especially when compared to the results from prior tests, tell a larger narrative of how that child is learning and progressing, as well as what areas might need more support or attention.

Differentiation in the classroom is about giving kids what they need, when they need it.  It’s about being responsive, and maybe even a bit intuitive about a kid’s needs, and it does place a burden on really getting to know the kids on the teacher.  It’s also about spotting trends in a kid’s learning, having a sense of when they might struggle a bit more and encourage them to practice just a bit more in that area.  It’s about knowing when to let them go and explore, trying new things, and when to scaffold certain skills a bit more, so they are ready for the next challenge.

None of this is expensive, or requires special tools or even special training- It’s what we might just refer to as basic good teaching and mentoring.  But let’s not white wash it either- it does require engagement and investment of time.  It does require teachers to track students and look for patterns in their learning, even year to year.  Knowing that Carol or Bob seem always to have a slump in mid-November, for example, night help next year’s teacher prepare for that, or be more sensitive if they know this is the one month out of the year when the child’s Mom or Dad is always away from home, and they need a little more attention and encouragement.  Tools and apps that make keeping records easier, ranging from e-portfolios to apps that that teachers make notes during the day on a student’s performance, can certainly be helpful and help folks spot trends in the data.  What’s even more powerful is sharing that data with students and parents, so they know when to look for rough patches and how to prevent them, or prepare to spend a little more time to get through to the next level.

We expect doctors to be able to treat humans and patients as a group, but still make allowances for individuals and provide prescriptive care.  Quick check ins with students for a minute or two, even once a week,  sends a message that the teacher cares, and that, in and of itself, goes a long way for a student that may be feeling lost or alone or not understanding what the big picture might be.  A few minutes being treated as the only student, where they can be heard, goes a long way towards fostering student engagement the rest of the time.  It’s like having those few minutes alone with your doctor, where you can tell him more about what’s going on in your world, that can make all the difference in how you are treated and understood.

Don’t our students deserve this care?  Don’t you want to be the person that makes them feel valuable and worth while, even if it’s only every so often?  These small moments where we feel we matter sustain us through all those times we feel we’re just another number in life.

While much of making differentiation a reality also involves setting tasks and projects that let a student demonstrate their true mastery of their learning, the most important part of differentiation is the personalization portion- where each student feels like a valued member of a learning community, where they have something to contribute, and it’s up to teachers, as leaders of that classroom, to set this tone.

You can do it.  Other professions do it every day- doctors, lawyers, hairdressers, even your dry cleaner- you can, too.  Kids are people, not widgets on a conveyor line, and needed to be treated as unique, not uniform, to truly thrive.

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Understanding Differentiation

Jul 28, 2011 by

Differentiated Instruction has a mixed reputation.  It’s seen as potentially transformative, allowing all students to learn and understand the lessons and materials in the classroom.  It sounds like a great philosophy and ideal, almost like the dream of a perfect school.  Yet the devil is in the details- how do we make this dream a reality?  How can I start to differentiate in my class?  Where do I start?

Many teachers assume that DI is impossible, because they assume it will require essentially individualized lesson plans for each kid in the classroom.  When it’s often difficult to make sure kids with IEP’s get the accommodations they need, how would this work if every kid had their own plan?  It’s enough to make anyone crazy.  But let’s take a moment and look at another profession where people need to be treated as individuals, but without a group template or process, it simply wouldn’t work at all- Medicine.

My husband’s an OB-GYN.  He knows how the whole process works, from conception to delivery and beyond, and generally what tends to go wrong in between.  He needs to be a good diagnostician, which means being able to tell when a patient is progressing according to the general plan, and when their condition deviates from the norm and needs special attention.  He has to recognize some problems before they occur, and prescribe treatments to prevent conditions, as well as treat problems when they come up.  This is taking a basic treatment model for a condition- “pregnancy” and applying it to all different people, of different ages, races,  with pre-existing conditions and more, and tweeking it just a little to make sure the outcome is the best it can be for two patients- Mother and Baby.

If we apply this same template to teachers, teachers have to know how a normal student progresses through the year.  But then the teacher has to look for warning signs of a kid being in trouble before they actually get there, and do what’s needed to prevent problems before the occur.  They also have to know how to help kids who are really struggling, and know what tips or alternatives to use to make sure that child gets what they need as well.  That’s differentiating.

In our book, Jenifer and I discuss the hierarchy of needs in the classroom, based loosely on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  We made the following chart:

When students are in the classroom, they need to have their basic needs for “food clothing and shelter” met before they can really concentrate on the bigger things they need to concentrate on, like learning.  This means one of the key, foundational elements any teacher can do is create a classroom environment where kids feel safe and welcomed.

If you’ve ever wondered why we insist kids have a good breakfast every morning, it’s in part to make sure they have the energy to learn, but it’s also so they are not distracted by worrying about being hungry.  Some teachers I know even keep a box of snacks in their classroom- packets of goldfish or other things- to help make sure any hungry child has something to eat.  It makes the children feel more secure, and it makes the job o teaching just a little easier for the teacher as well.  Some other teachers keep a few hoodies or big sweaters from a thrift shop in the classroom, in case a child is cold for the very same reasons- when a child has a basic comfort need unmet, the chances they will concentrate on the business of the classroom goes down.

This is why the first step to creating a great classroom, even before we start talking about other steps to differentiate instruction,it’s about creating a classroom where you and the kids feel comfortable. Maybe even like a “third period family” for the time they are with you.

The more the kids have a sense of what is expected, that you will be fair, and that they are expected to respect each other, the more willing they will be to take risks and make mistakes when learning.  They’ll be more willing to go try a problem on a board or work in a group if they feel comfortable and that they won’t be humiliated or singled out for sharing their ideas.

By understanding a bit about Maslow’s hierarchy and how it effects a student’s motivation to learn and willingness to take risks, it will be easier to start thinking about ways to meet the individual needs of the students in your classroom.  And just like a doctor, the changes will often be changes that apply to many kids, not just one, and the small tweeks to head off problems in advance will serve everyone in the classroom well.

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Podcasts for Education

Jan 26, 2011 by

A great way for many children to learn is through audio.  One of my son’s really got excited about the prospect of reading after we started listening to audio books in the car.  It helped him bridge that gap between his current reading level and his interest and comprehension level.  With the development of podcasting, there are many great (and free) opportunities to listen to great material on the go- from stories through sites like StoryNory, fairytales, classic stories and fables read by Natasha, a former BBC producer , to information and writing tips from Grammar Girl, to the fun science podcasts put out by the NSTA called Lab Out Loud.  Here’s a great example (available in video and audio)

Ben Goldacre Talks Bad Science from PopTech on Vimeo.

Here’s a link to a great list of over 80 podcasts that would be great for education, the classroom, or just to help enrich your own children or yourself during your commute.

Think about the use of audio to help students who may struggle with reading, for students who have an auditory learning style preference, or just to change up lessons or give students another choice. There are tons of resources- free resources, available both for download on ipods and other mp3 players, or streaming over the web, for learners of all ages.

Please add your favorite resources in our comments!

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