For the New Year: Some Signs of Hope

Crocus in the Snow

It was seven degrees outside when I started writing this, which, with the wind chill, feels like minus six. And while this kind of cold usually sends me into a state of despair, I’m finding myself handling it better than I might because I think I’m feeling heartened by signs that seem to point to a thaw or a shift in the discussion about so-called school reform that has for too long left real educators frozen out in the cold.

The new year, for instance, started out with a bang here in New York City as Bill de Blasio, our new mayor, appointed Carmen Farina as the city’s next School Chancellor. Two of former mayor Bloomberg’s appointees, Joel Klein and Cathy Black, had no experience in public education (beyond that the fact that Klein had attended New York City public schools as a child). But Carmen Farina is one of us. For four decades, she’s worked for the city’s public schools, spending 22 years as a classroom teacher in Brooklyn before Carmen Farinamoving on to become a principal, then a district superintendent, and the deputy chancellor for the DOE’s now defunct division of teaching and learning.

According to Chalkbeat New York, a great site for all city school news, she’s promised “to pursue a ‘progressive agenda’ that would reduce standardized test preparation in classrooms,” and in her own words she’s already talking about the “need to bring joy back” instead of more accountability and data. I know she may have her hands tied a bit by the State’s Education Commissioner John King (whose comments about parents expressing frustration with the State’s Common Core rollout at an Town Hall event rival Arne Duncan’s beyond belief remarks about white suburban soccer moms). But with a vision that she describes as “five Cs and an E“—collaboration, communication, capacity building, curriculum enhancement, celebration and efficiency— it’s my dearest hope that she’ll be able to shift the focus here from assessment and data to instruction and students, which is where it needs to be.

I was also excited to hear the news that Kate DiCamillo will become our next national ambassador for young people’s literature. Of course, the previous ambassadors—Jon Scieszka, Katherine Paterson and Walter Dean Myers—have all been great, but I feel a personal tie to DiCamillo. When my daughter was in fourth grade, the librarian at her school chose to read an unknown book by an unknown author to my daughter’s class based on nothing more than the first page. DiCamillo was the author and the book was Because of Winn Dixie, which my daughter and her friends fell in love with, as so many others after them have. In fact, they loved the book so much, they wrote a letter to DiCamillo and received a long and lovely hand-written reply saying that their letter was the very first piece of fan mail she had ever received.

KateDicamilloAs ambassador, DiCamillo has said that her mission will be “to get as many kids and as many adults together reading as [she] can” because she believes that “stories connect us.” I have to believe than anyone reading this passionately believes that, too, and several new studies have come out recently that demonstrate the quantifiable benefits in reading stories.  A New York Times article, for instance, called “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov” reports on a neurological study that found that people who read literary fiction “performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence,” than those who did not. And teacher Collette Bennett’s blog post on the National Assessment of Education Progress Report for 2012 shows that, across demographics, students who read for pleasure outperform those who don’t on standardized tests. Unfortunately, these studies haven’t managed to change certain Common Core-inspired practices, which include all but abandoning fiction for nonfiction, eliminating or cutting back on in-class independent reading, and giving students a steady diet of excerpts and short texts because that’s what’s on the test. My hope here is that, in her new position, Kate DiCamillo will become the perfect spokesperson for the lasting power of stories and real reading.

idea-and-creative-conceptFinally, I spent much too much time over the break reading blog posts by fellow educators, many by the nominators and nominees of this years Sunshine Awards, which celebrate educational bloggers. That meant I didn’t get any drawing done, but I did find another reason to hope that this year might bring some real change. The richness, diversity and depth of thought I encountered on those blogs is mind-boggling. And I believe that the fact that these educators are connecting with each other through blogs, twitter and websites not only qualifies them to teach 21st century literacy, but it makes them a force to be reckoned with. Additionally, virtually every post I read reflected the very same habits of mind, such as curiosity, openness, creativity and persistence, that the National Council of Teachers of English, the Council of Writing Program Administrators and the National Writing Project have identified as being needed for college. 

Like instruction and stories, these habits of mind have a taken a backseat in much of the current conversation about both readiness and schools—probably because no one has figured out yet how to quantify and test them. But these seem as important to me as the ability to analyze a text or write an argument. And given that we, as teachers, need to be who we want our students to be, these blogs also made me incredibly hopeful—despite the freezing cold!

Flower Field

Learning by Doing (or What’s Good for the Gosling is Good for the Goose)

Goose & Goslings

I’m a big believer in the idea that what’s good for students is good for teachers as well. If we say, for instance, that students benefit from having choices and a sense of ownership, I think the same should hold true for teachers. If students deserve time to experiment, practice and sometimes even fail as part of the process of learning, then teachers deserve that time, too. And if we think that students learn best when they’re also given opportunities to wrestle with problems in an active, inquiry-based way, then teachers need those opportunities, too, in order to more deeply understand their students, what to teach and how to best teach it.

Supporting and investing in teachers’ ongoing professional development in order to build their capacity as educators is exactly what schools in Finland and Ontario have done to enviable results. And it’s at the heart of two success stories that recently made the news here at home. The first comes from Union City, New Jersey, a community of poor, mostly immigrant families, where three-quarters of the students come from homes where only Spanish is spoken. As reported in the New York Times article “The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools,” Union City made a dramatic turn-around over the course of three years from being a system “in need of improvement” to one whose high school graduation rate rose to a whopping 89.5%, with a vast majority of those graduates going on to college.

Success StoryThe second story comes from New Dorp High School in Staten Island, which again serves many poor and working-class students. As Peg Tyre writes in The Atlantic, New Dorp went from being a school where four out of ten students dropped out to one where 80% graduated by developing an academic writing program. In each case, the change was the result of principals supporting teachers in undertaking an in-depth inquiry into what was holding students back and what the teachers might need to learn and do to address those problems. And in each case, scores of educators have attempted to clone and package what these schools have done–which I think misses the point.

As David Kirp writes in “The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools”:

“School officials flock to Union City and other districts that have beaten the odds, eager for a quick fix. But they’re on a fool’s errand. These places . . . didn’t become exemplars by behaving like magpies, taking shiny bits and pieces and glueing them together. Instead, each devised a long-term strategy . . . [and] each keeps learning from experience and tinkering with its model.”

Similarly, educators Bob Fecho and Stephanie Jones echo Kirp’s sentiments in their response to Tyre’s piece, which was also published by The Atlantic. “When positive change occurs in schools,” they write,

“there is a tendency to want to treat the experience like a controlled experiment in a lab, latch on to the latest innovation at that school, and then market it to schools everywhere. In the case of New Dorp . . . empowering teachers to engage their professional knowledge and intellect and take charge of their teaching and learning is the revelation we see . . . . “

I, too, believe that empowering teachers as researchers and learners is the real secret to student success, whether it’s at the school or district level or, as most happens in my own work, at the classroom, grade or discipline level. And that means that whenever I have the opportunity, I get teachers reading and writing—and talking about their own process—to better understand from the inside-out what they’re asking students to do and how they, as learners, do it.

IRA ConventionThis Friday, for instance, I’ll be in San Antonio for the International Reading Association (IRA) convention, participating in a full-day workshop organized by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris (of the indispensable blog and website Burkins & Yaris) on ways to revamp balanced literacy to better meet the demands of the Common Core Standards. There, Dorothy Barnhouse and I will facilitate a close reading experience for the participants that will allow them to better understand—and to feel—both what it truly means to read closely within a community of readers and how that enables readers to make deeper meaning of what they read.

We’ll do this not by asking a string of text-dependent questions but by inviting the participants to first pay attention to what they notice and then consider what that might mean—i.e., what the writer might be trying to show them through the details and structure he’s chosen. And if this group is anything like the groups of teachers I’ve worked with before, this will be both challenging and exhilarating—or as a high school student said to her teacher after I’d modeled this same process in her classroom just the other day, “That was hard but fun.”

Book with LightAfter experiences like the one we’ll be facilitating at IRA, many teachers have confessed that they’ve never read like this before—which should come as no surprise given all the different paths people take to wind up in a classroom. Many are also amazed and astounded by how much more they’re able to ‘see’ in a text when they’re given a chance, as well as by the variety of interpretations that different teachers developed. And like teacher Jessica Cuthbertson, who wrote a piece for EdNews about an institute Dorothy and I gave last summer, they often leave committed to giving their students this kind of opportunity, as well.

Teachers also come away from these reading experiences with a deeper understanding of what some of the individual standards mean, especially those in the Craft and Structure band, and a better sense what it looks, sounds and feels like to really engage in that work. And all of this means they’ll go back to their classrooms with a much deeper, more complex and nuanced view of what they’re expected to teach—none of which would happen if they were handed a script, even if it was one that was developed by others who went through a deep learning process.

I’ll be sharing more about what we can discover, as teachers, when we try to write the tasks we assign to students in an upcoming post. But for now I invite you to also take a look at “Teachers, Learners, Leaders” by Ann Lieberman, a wonderful article about the self-designed professional learning projects undertaken by teachers in Ontario, and to remember these words of the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard:

“To be a teacher in the right sense is to be a learner. I am not a teacher, only a fellow student.”

A Feast of Inspiration: Some Choice Morsels from NCTE

While I couldn’t quite manage to get this out before the turkey was carved, I’d like to give my thanks this week to the amazing educators I had the privilege of hearing at last week’s NCTE convention and to share some of their incredible thinking with those who couldn’t be there. The theme of this year’s convention was Dream, Connect, Ignite, but in most of the sessions I attended there seemed to be another theme lying just below the surface: a dream that by connecting we could ignite a movement to push back against the forces of standardization that threaten to engulf us.

This came through loud and clear in the keynote address by educator and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson, who expanded on the ideas from his famous Ted Talk on “Changing Education Paradigms” (which can be seen in this wonderful animated version by RSA Animates). According to Robinson, our current educational system is not only out-dated, it’s built on three principles—conformity, compliance, and linear thinking—which are diametrically opposed to the very qualities that make human beings vibrant and vital: creativity, diversity, and ways of thinking that are organic and highly personal. And it’s precisely these last three qualities that he thinks schools need to foster and embrace.

Creativity, diversity and personalized thinking were on center stage in a knock-out (and hilarious) session by Kathy Collins, Stephanie Parsons, Matt Glover and Ginny Lockwood, who explored different aspects of choice and ownership. Kathy looked at how, even in an education system narrowed by the confines of conformity, we, as teachers, still have some choice in what we attend to and ask students to do. And Ginny, picking up on that thread, made a passionate plea for choosing to create classrooms in which students are not simply ‘doing’ school—i.e., compliantly completing our assignments—but are truly and deeply ‘being’ in school, with mind, body and soul fully present.

To see what that could actually look like, Stephanie shared clips of her fourth grade students discussing topics of their own choice (in this case, whether money solved problems or made them worse) in what they had dubbed the “Circle of Talkingness”. And she celebrated what she called the “little healthy chaos”—i.e., the messiness that inevitably comes when we choose not to make our students conform to linear ways of thinking. Then Matt shared the amazingly diverse and highly personal ways second grade students incorporated what they had learned from an author study of Cynthia Rylant into writing pieces whose genre they had chosen themselves; and he offered other ways of giving students more choice in what they were going to make within the framework of non-genre specific units. Then the session ended with a rousing reading of my new favorite picture book Prudence Wants a Pet by Cathleen Daly, whose main character, as you can see below, is the epitome of a creative, unique thinker.

I also had the opportunity to hear Randy and Katherine Bomer speak along with professor Allison Skerrett and high school teacher Deb Kelt in a session entitled “Building on Strengths: Teaching English as if Adolescents Already Knew What They Were Doing.” In each speaker’s own unique, diverse way, they shared examples of “appreciative” curricula and teaching, which acknowledges, honors and builds on the experience and capabilities of students, instead of seeing them as deficient because they don’t conform to some norm. Kicking off the session, Randy looked at how deficit language, which sends out the subliminal message to students that they’re lacking or unable, can creep into our teaching talk even when we don’t intend it to; while Katherine suggested a writing conference move inspired by improvisational comedian Stephen Colbert: saying “Yes, and . . . ” to students instead of “No, but . . .” as a way of framing whatever follows around student strengths instead of deficits.

And finally, in perhaps the most subversive talk, I saw middle school teacher and cartoonist David Finkle share a comic strip presentation called “Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain,” which used the scene from The Wizard of Oz to question the bluster and wisdom of the wizard behind the curtain of the Common Core Standards. My favorite part? After hearing the wizard, a.k.a. David Coleman, say that “people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or what you think,” (as he actually did during a presentation to the New York State Department of Education), a puzzled student asks his teacher, “But don’t authors want us to feel something?”

Needless to say, I came away inspired to focus on what both we and the students we work with can do, instead of what they can’t, in ways that push back on the conformity, compliance and linear thinking that this David Finkle cartoon so brilliantly captures. And for that, I’m astoundingly thankful.

Seeing with New Eyes: First Impressions of Reggio Emilia

Reggio Emilia © 2012 D.A. Wagner, http://dawagner.com

A few days before David and I left for Italy, he sent me a quote he’d stumbled on from the writer Marcel Proust: “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Of course, having a new landscape doesn’t hurt—especially one as stunning as Italy—nor does having time freed from the usual constraints of work and other obligations. It also doesn’t hurt to be surrounded by colleagues who came to Reggio Emilia, as I did, to look and listen and learn, and who, through untold conversations and encounters, helped my eyes to see as I embarked on an amazing voyage of discovery.

I’m still processing much that I saw on this, my first week back (having been stranded in London for a week because of the hurricane that devastated parts of my beloved city), but I’d like to share here a few ideas that grew out of what my new eyes saw. Again and again in presentations and school visits, I saw children rapt and deeply involved in whatever it was they were doing. In one classroom, for instance, I watched a young child study a pomegranate her teacher had arranged on a few leaves of lettuce in order to paint it in watercolors. The concentration she displayed was more sustained and focused than what I often see in classrooms, as was the passion and energy another group of children brought to a rousing discussion of negative numbers (in which one student, trying to articulate the relationship between positive and negative numbers, described zero as “il cancello dei numeri,” or the gate of numbers).

Watching those students talk and work, several of us found ourselves thinking about how different that sustained concentration was to the way we tend to talk about stamina and the need for children to build it. We talk as we’re preparing students for an endurance test, something that’s arduous and beyond their ability without weeks and weeks of training. The students in Reggio, however, hadn’t ‘built up stamina’; they were simply deeply engaged with what they were doing. And they were engaged not because the teacher had hooked them with something fun or diverting or offered them a reward, but because they were eager to wrap their minds around whatever problem the teacher had invited them to consider through either the arrangement of materials (in the case of the girl with the pomegranate) or an intriguing, provocative question (in the case of the negative number group).

I’ll share more about what teachers do to promote that deep concentration and thinking in a later post, but here’s something else many of us noticed. There were none of the kinds of charts we tend to see in U.S. classrooms—no list of the behaviors or strategies of good readers or reminders of how to choose a just right book. Instead the rooms were filled with what in Reggio they call documentation: photographs of the children at work alongside transcripts of their thoughts and discussions, some compiled and created by the teachers and some by the students themselves.

Noticing this, we found ourselves thinking about the intentions and purposes of each. Here, at home, for instance, we make charts for a variety of reasons: to create a print-rich environment, help students ‘hold on’ to their learning, and demonstrate to the powers that be what’s going on in our rooms. The charts in Reggio, however, seemed to have different functions. They captured the work the students were doing; celebrated and honored the process, not the outcomes; acted as formative assessments that helped the teachers determine their next steps; and helped students reflect on what they could do, not on what they should do or know.

Once again, my new eyes prompted me to question practices I took for granted—and not just about the dubious idea of putting up charts to impress evaluators. I thought of all those times I’ve seen students answer questions by spouting off the words on a chart without really understanding them. Those students can seemingly talk the talk, but not walk the walk. And this, in turn, begged another question: Have students really learned something if their hold on it is so tenuous that they need constant reminders? And if, as I suspect, the answer is no, won’t they learn better by having additional opportunities to discover and experience what those charts say readers do instead of relying on written reminders whose meaning they haven’t yet felt?

The practices that support Reggio children to deeply engage and understand are directly related to the school community’s belief that children are born with an innate curiosity and desire to understand the world around them and are capable of figuring things out as they try to make sense of their experience. These beliefs and the practices they spawned developed out of years of public discussion—of the sort we rarely have here—between educators, families and city officials. But if we look at many of our practices, such as the ones noted above, they seem to reflect almost the opposite belief: that children are passive and not terribly capable of figuring things out for themselves without us pushing and prodding and holding them accountable—which my new eyes suddenly saw in a more negative light, as yet another measure we put in place because we don’t really trust that learning will happen in any other way.

At some point during the week, our Italian colleagues shared this quote by the great developmental psychologist Piaget who said, “What we see changes what we know. What we know changes what we see.” I felt the truth of that in Reggio, as did my other travelers, and many of us have pledged ourselves to write about our experience in order to open up those larger conversations about what truly constitutes knowledge and how children best learn. I hope that blog readers will join that conversation because the more voices and eyes we have, the more we can see and come to know. In the meantime, I return to work curious to see how what I now know changes what I now see.

Open Window in Florence © 2012 D. A. Wagner, http://dawagner.com