Things I Know 234 of 365: Testing is killing the curriculum

Too many professors feel right at home talking at students instead of fostering an engaging and interactive learning environment. Students are expected to sit there, take notes, and find some way to stay awake. The suck-it-up-and-endure-a-mind-numbing-lecture mindset is so ingrained in college, schools even assign room names like “Lecture Hall 4”.

– Liz Dwyer

A few months ago, a friend raised an argument to me, “We’re not teaching to the test.”

It was the first time in a while I’d heard someone make this particular case.

The temptation – the overwhelming urge – was to shout, “Of course you are! You are and you have been for years. Mountains of curricular history have been shifted so that exactly what you are doing is teaching to the test.”

Instead, I asked, “I see, then you’re teaching away from it, are you?”

According to Wayne Au of California State University, Fullerton, my initial response would have been the correct one.

In 2007, Au compared 49 studies of how standardized testing had shaped curriculum across 10 different states. He wanted to know what the trends were across studies of high-stakes testing and curricula.

According to Au, “The primary effect of high-stakes testing is that curricular content is narrowed to tested subjects, subject area knowledge is fragmented into test-related pieces, and teachers increase the use of teacher-centered pedagogies.”

Well, there you have it.

But Au found more.

As he began coding the data of his metasynthesis, he found the results breaking down into three categories:

  • subject matter content alignment/contraction vs. subject matter content alignment/expansion
  • form of knowledge changed/fractured vs. form of knowledge changed/integrated
  • pedagogic change to teacher-centered vs. pedagogic change to student-centered

After Au’s data was coded, he started to look for trends in studies that included two or three of the categories.

Were there trends in shifts toward teacher-centered lessons coupled with curriculum contraction.

He found them.

Most frequently, Au found content contraction coupled with a shift toward teacher-centered pedagogy. Teachers, the studies predominantly found, were contracting what they were teaching and teaching in such a way that they were positioning themselves as the sources and makers of knowledge in their classes.

In considering triplets where three of the coded data sets were present in 28 of the 49 studies, the most frequent trio was contracting curriculum, fragmented knowledge and teacher-centered pedagogy.

That sound you hear is the rolling over of John Dewey and Paolo Freiere in their graves.

Au’s reports that some curricula were actually expanding in connection to high-stakes testing was initially heartening. This was short-lived as he wrote that such expansion was often social studies teachers expanding their curriculum to take on those skills tested by English language arts assessments.

Au concludes his report claiming such constrictions were the end goal of policymakers from the outset.

The intent wasn’t to move the mountain. The intent was to chip away, re-shape and grind down the mountain of human knowledge so that students can carry around the pebbles of the human experience as mementos of what once was.

“Given the central findings of this study, however, a crucial

question is raised,” writes Au, “Are test-driven curriculum and teacher-centered instruction good or bad for teachers, students, schools, communities, and education in general?”

Things I Know 192 of 365: There’s Opportunity to Empower Teachers in the Common Core

If we use these common standards as the foundation for better schools, we can give all kids a robust curriculum taught by well-prepared, well-supported teachers who can help prepare them for success in college, life and careers.

– Randi Weingarten

A thought that gets highlighted, underlined and annotated over and over again in its many iterations in Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline is the idea that we cannot expect creative business solutions or creative people if we maintain an education system designed around student compliance.

I’d add to that the idea we cannot expect to move away from a system built around student compliance if we don’t relinquish the idea of teacher compliance.

In a THE Journal interview with Westville, IL School Superintendent Jim Owens I found some hope:

One particularly effective training tool involved flip video cameras and a directive to create a project illustrating the impact that technology was having on the respective teacher’s classroom. This simple exercise frustrated a lot of our teachers, who didn’t know what we wanted from them or what the right answer was. We told them that there was no right answer, that we just wanted them to get creative and share how they were using technology in the classroom. Once they “got it,” the teachers really surprised us by coming up with some innovative ways of integrating technology into their lesson plans.

We did something similar this last year at SLA. Teachers formed their own PLC’s based on self-identified areas of interest for professional development. The areas ranged from understanding the Ethic of Care to exploring issues of education policy.

In the spirit of asking ourselves to do what we asked of our students, These groups were asked to develop a unit/project plan for the semester based on a set number of meeting times and the end goal of presenting to/teaching the rest of the staff.

While most groups took the task and ran with it, one or two groups of teachers experienced the same frustration Owens describes. They wanted the right answer.

We’d opened professional development to pure inquiry based on personal interest, basically said, “Learn what you’re curious about and then share with the rest of us.”

I was surprised by the response at first.

As I started to overlay the experience with what happened when 9th grade students entered SLA. The first few months (sometimes the first few years) are spent helping student to stop worrying about the right answer or worksheet withdrawal.

We had no reason to think teachers wouldn’t behave the same way.

Were I to do it again, I’d look more deeply into how or if the teachers saw their practice change and what possible increases of empathy they experienced.

It’s the kind of deeper analysis we’ll miss with the publication of the “publishers’ criteria” for the ELA section of the common core.

In an Ed Week post Friday, Catherine Gewertz wrote, “The impetus behind the criteria, Ms. Pimentel and Mr. Coleman said in a joint phone interview, was to respond to teachers’ requests for support by helping them focus on the cornerstones of the standards and understand how classroom work will have to change to reflect them.”

It’s the problem Owens and the Westville leadership ran into, it’s the problem we ran into when asking teachers to plot their own professional development.

The best possible answer here is simple, “I don’t know. What ideas do you have?”

In navigating the Common Core landscape, lies the opportunity to have teachers experience the kind of high-impact learning the standards are designed to engender.

Instead of guidelines, I’m curious as to the essential questions.

If the DOE can track grantees and how they’re studying the methods and outcomes of teaching American history around the country, surely we can design a program to track, study and better understand the implementation of the Common Core.

Create a transparent, open access clearinghouse of information and ideas. Design grant opportunities that create teacher researchers around the country.

Let the teachers own the process if you want them to own the practice. I know it’s a far cry from how the CC were created and adopted, but there’s a chance to put teaching back in the hands of teachers.

One of my favorite passages in Gewertz’s piece comes from Gates Foundation Common Core Lead Jamie McKee:

[McKee] said that while the foundation “cares deeply about the quality of the [instructional] materials that come from the common core,” it hasn’t yet decided whether it favors a panel or process for validating such materials.

I don’t care.

ELA Common Core lead and Susan Pimentel said, “If we’re asking students to be able to look at text and draw evidence from it, it means they need to be given text, with good teacher support, but without a lot of excessive spoon-feeding up front.”

It’s time to want the same thing for teachers.

An amazing chance to empower teachers exists in how we begin to implement and appraise the Common Core. Handing that process and the design of those systems over to textbook companies and those with little skin in the game isn’t reform, it’s regression.

Things I Know 190 of 365: At the core what’s common are people

They never really sorted out what the subject of these standards is. It’s rather remarkable.

Tom Hoffman

I recently had to help show how the activities of a teacher training program I work with align to the Common Core (PDF) as well as the National Board (PDF) standards for English language arts.

While I respect the general depth-over breadth approach of the National Board standards, the Common Core standards leave me sad and alone like a jilted prom date.

Still, the task at hand was alignment and align we did.

And everything fit.

Every single activity aligned nicely with at least two Common Core standards without any embellishment. Should Congress hold hearings tomorrow requiring me to defend the connection of each learning activity to the standard of English education to which I claim it moves participants, I would sweat choosing a tie more than I would sweat making my case.

By that measure, the program looks beautiful. It looks perfect. It looks complete.

That’s the problem, isn’t it?

We know the program requires refinement. We know work is yet to be done. We know that we must hold ourselves to a higher standard if excellence is to be maintained.

It is a standard specific to our mission and vision in serving the specific population of teachers with whom we work.

As forty-three states raced to the top of something or other, they adopted the Common Core. Along the way, they told those they serve those adoptions would improve education for students in their states.

It won’t.

I rarely dole out definitives.

The standards for teaching English language arts are now and always have been helping students to read, write, speak, listen and think.

Such was the case the day before Utah’s August 8, 2010 adoption of the Common Core or North Dakota’s June 20, 2010 adopt. Such will be the case long after the next go round when they adopt standards that are more common and more core.

It will always be the people that matter. A great teacher August 7 in Utah was a great teacher August 9 in Utah. A horrible teacher was much the same.

A child who arrived at school hungry or abused June 19 in North Dakota was likely still hungry or abused June 21.

In the movement to adopt standards;  in the debate (where time was allotted for one); in the funding to print, promote and publish the standards; a point was missed.

The point was people.

Tomorrow, I’ll be working toward a higher standard. No state legislated it. I adopted it.

Things I Know 22 of 365: I need my learning to live

Is anybody alive out there?

– Bruce Springsteen

I had an assignment due for my grad class today – the proposal for an inquiry project.

Life has gotten in the way over the last few weeks, and I haven’t had a chance to give grad school my attention. Today, it got all of my attention. ALL.

I wrote 17 pages.

17 pages.

The directions for the assignment lived in one file, the assignment description lived in another file, the rubric lurked in a separate space altogether.

It’s submitted now.

17 pages,

Gone to the ether of online learning, never to be read by anyone.

Except, I’ve made another space for online learning.

So, I’m posting it here, too.

Read it, don’t read it. I’m posting it here because I know it has at least a chance of living here.

The file’s at the bottom. The annotated list of references I’ve pasted here. If nothing else, it can help jumpstart some thinking about reading instruction.


Brozo, W., & Flynt, E. (2008). Motivating Students to Read in the Content Classroom: Six Evidence-Based Principles. The Reading Teacher62(2), 172-4. doi: 10.1598/RT.62.2.9

The authors again make the case for increasing choice as a means to motivating student reading. Though the article is designed to engender motivation for reading in disciplines outside the English Language Arts (ELA) classroom, it’s information stands true. Some pieces act as gentle reminders for common best practices within the ELA classroom, others such as finding ways to connect traditional texts to students’ existing multiliteracies shed new light on possible approaches. The authors argue the need not only for allowing choice, but for providing a rich variety of texts from which to choose. If this project is designed for increasing student readership, then the authors’ point of a diverse, accessible library may prove key. Also suggested is the creation of student-to-student partnerships within the reading process as a key to student motivation. The social experience, the authors argue, can push students to expand their reading horizons. These tactics for motivating readers outside the ELA classroom will likely prove equally helpful and effective within the ELA classroom.

Duncan, S. (2010). Instilling a Lifelong Love of Reading. Kappa Delta Pi Record46(2), 90-3. Retrieved from Education Full Text database

Duncan culls several decades’ worth of research to provide her readership with the basic best practices in helping students become lifelong readers. Of particular note are Duncan’s suggestion of providing students choice of reading materials as a way to help them invest in their own reading. She also calls on the practice of Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) within the classroom as a way of putting a premium on the act of reading. Duncan also unexpected calls on teachers to read aloud to their students beyond the primary grades as studies show this can build motivation to read within students. This source is helpful in listing research-supported approaches to motivating reluctant readers. It also serves as a nexus for follow-up reading on those approaches needing greater clarification.

Flowerday, T., Schraw, G., & Stevens, J. (2004). The Role of Choice and Interest in Reader Engagement. The Journal of Experimental Education72(2), 93-114. doi: 10.3200/JEXE.72.2.93-114

The work of Flowerday, Schraw and Stevens delves more deeply into the realm of choice than simply suggesting choice can have a positive effect on student engagement and reading. Specifically, the authors findings suggest situation choice built on the qualities of novelty, curiosity and salient informational content. The implications of this research suggest that building a classroom practice around student choice should also include some sort of attempt to excite students about the reading possibilities they encounter. In short, an element of play should be curated. For the purposes of this inquiry project this approach could well improve the excitement of reluctant readers around texts that contain familiar words, but speak to ideas and stories those readers have not yet encountered. Taken with other research, this also implies the need to make certain classroom and school libraries are well stocked with book choices that appeal to a wide swath of interests and appear novel.

Gable, C. (2007). The Freedom to Select. American Libraries38(3), 38. Retrieved from Education Full Text database

Gable’s passionate argument for the neutrality of librarians when considering the book selections of their patrons raises important questions for a teacher considering a choice-driven approach to student classroom reading. While many researchers note the importance of students selecting texts that are not too far above or below their assessed reading levels, few speak to the implications of teacher opinion when assisting students with text selection. Mindful of Gable’s argument, I must be careful not to belittle or bruise students’ book choices based on content or authorship. Furthermore, Gable raises an important point when suggesting those who send library patrons the direction of bookstores to find “lesser” titles are ignoring the possible economic limitations would-be readers could face. If moving toward a choice-based system, I must be sure my classroom and the school’s library shelves are stocked with texts representing as diverse a reading profile as possible or risk alienating reluctant readers with the implication the books they’re looking for are not worth reading.

Lapp, D., & Fisher, D. (2009). It’s All About the Book: Motivating Teens to Read. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy52(7), 556-61. doi: 10.1598/JAAL.52.7.1

Lapp and Fisher discuss a classroom setting incredibly similar to the object of the inquiry project. Their use of framing thematic questions provided their students with anchor points to which they could return to examine how what they were reading related to what they were attempting to learn. The authors also present the idea of having students choose from a list of books for independent reading and combining that with texts read in small groups. This idea of choice within a framework points to the idea of creating greater student investment in their reading. Also of note is the idea of teacher read-alouds and think-alouds to model positive reading practices to underdeveloped readers. These tactics could certainly prove useful within my own classroom to help whet the reading appetites of those students most uncertain of how to approach new texts. Most importantly, the authors surmise their students became more willing to read due to peer support, and they believe that support led their students to seek even broader reading options.

Lu Ya-Ling., & Gordon, C. (2008). The Effects of Free Choice on Student Learning: A Study of Summer Reading. School Libraries Worldwide14(1), 38-55. Retrieved from Education Full Text database

Though centering on a summer reading program, this study notes the difficulties of engaging low-achieving student in reading. A key element of note was the summer reading program’s voluntary status. Perhaps, these same tactics of choice and project-based learning surrounding student reading would prove more effect during the school year given the structure of a classroom environment. Also of note were the reservations of participating teachers around the idea of both student choice and students reading for pleasure. It points to the need within this project to be aware of how colleagues may react negatively to more creative and progressive strategies for improving the readership of reluctant readers. Though this study was not keenly focused on the subject of this project, some of the findings reflect possible elements to be considered as the inquiry progresses.

Mertzman, T. (2007). Interruptions and Miscues: How Teachers Interrupt During Reading. Journal of Reading Education32(3), 20-7. Retrieved from Education Full Text database

Mertzman’s study focused on primary grade reading and writing instruction. Specifically, the study reviewed the types of interruptions made by teachers when students exhibited miscues in their reading and writing. While this is not entirely aligned with the purposes of this inquiry project, one element of Mertzman’s findings is worth noting. In comparing teachers’ professed reasons and beliefs for the outcomes of their lesson plans to the pedagogy underlying their interruptions, Mertzman found the two to be at odds. Frequently, teachers who professed a strong belief in pointing out students’ positive work would interrupt to point out negative aspects of miscues or poorly used reading strategies. In my own practice, I must be certain that my approach aimed at increasing reader engagement do not work at cross purposes with my goals of building stronger proficiency regarding my students’ reading. One possible carryover from Mertzman’s work is the idea of interrupting good reading to recognize and name it. This could prove a strong factor in improving the motivation to read.

Ratcliffe, A. (2009). Reading For Pleasure? What A Concept!. The Education Digest74(6), 23-4. Retrieved from Education Full Text database

Ratcliffe’s Reading Round Table approach encourages student choice in the same manner other authors do. One difference within Ratcliffe’s approach is the one-on-one connections between students and reading. While others encourage the literature circle approach with 4 or 5 students interacting, Ratcliffe provides students with the opportunity to have more intimate discussions of their reading. She also opens up the reading prospects by allowing her students to select any book within the library. While others suggest students selecting from a list, Ratcliffe’s approach gives students greater and arguably more authentic choice in their reading. Her estimation of 85% reader engagement falls short of the goals of this project, but still speaks to the program’s effectiveness in moving students to read. One minor point that proved interesting was Ratcliffe’s acknowledgement of the dryness of some opening chapters and her setting the goal of at least 25 pages for her students before they decide whether they will continue with a book.

Tomlinson, C.A. (2005). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Tomlinson’s work on the impact and need of differentiation in the classroom relates strongly to the idea of changing strategies to excite and engage all students in reading. Her insights around planning for differentiation will likely prove key if practices are to be changed and greater student choice is to be encouraged. For student choice of texts, Tomlinson’s guide to differentiated assessment will prove particularly helpful in collecting data on student learning from reading varied texts. As a teacher used to facilitating class discussion around a shared text, I will use the author’s notes on the role of the teacher in a differentiated classroom as a guide for changing my conceptions of who I am and what I am to do as a teacher. Additionally, Tomlinson’s descriptions of the operations of a differentiated classroom will prove helpful in visualizing the flow and function of a reader-empowered space.

Trudel, H. (2007). Making Data-Driven Decisions: Silent Reading. The Reading Teacher61(4), 308-15. doi: 10.1598/RT.61.4.3

Trudel continues the theme of the importance of student choice in developing a lifelong attachment to reading. She takes the research a step further, though and looks at the implications of where students read. Specifically, Trudel points to the effects of silent sustained reading on varying aspects of students’ reading profiles. She also points to the need to add structure to the freedom inherent in silent sustained reading. Trudel’s suggestions are of particular value in consideration of the objectives of this project. Her note that students should participate in reflection on their selections is a natural fit with the core values of my school and provides and element of accountability that will help to determine effectiveness of the time spent reading. Trudel’s suggestion of a structured independent reading model seems more in keeping with the needs of my students and accounts for a greater range of collaboration around the texts being encountered.

Worthy, J., Patterson, E., & Salas, R. (2002). “More than just reading”: the human factor in reaching resistant readers. Reading Research and Instruction41(2), 177-201. Retrieved from Education Full Text database

Patterson and Salas present an interesting, though not surprising, argument for the importance of personal interaction in the development of reluctant readers. In their research, the authors found the tailoring of reading instruction to the unique needs and interests of each student helped to pull that student into greater connection to reading. When taken with an understanding of the importance of student choice and the research behind silent sustained reading or independent reading, the authors’ work points to the importance of helping students select texts in which they can see themselves and find specific relevance to their own lives. Additionally, any writing or discussion of the texts outside of that reading should include a driven attempt or opportunity for students to make specific detailed connections to their own interests and lives. This research proves extremely relevant to the topic of inquiry being considered.

Wutz, J., & Wedwick, L. (2005). BOOKMATCH: Scaffolding book selection for independent reading. The Reading Teacher59(1), 16-32. doi: 10.1598/RT.59.1.3

Focusing their study on primary classrooms, the authors still encounter and elaborate on ideas of relevance to those teaching reading at the secondary level. While other researchers are looking to the role and importance of student choice in reading engagement, Wutz and Wedwick discuss a systematic framework to matching their students with appropriate and engaging texts. The BOOKMATCH system uses a series of threshold questions to help students select texts that will be positive fits for their abilities and interests. What’s more, the author’s illuminate the idea of posting guidelines for selecting texts in the classroom. This not only frees up teacher time, but it allows students to gain access to assistance without requiring them to open themselves up to feelings of inadequacy when asking for assistance. Furthermore, this approach could be helpful within a secondary classroom by helping students to build their vocabulary around aspects of text they encounter or seek out when selecting new reading materials.


Things I Know 17 of 365: Preaching doesn’t convert

I can’t believe I’m saying this, Mr. Mali,
but I think I’d like to switch sides.

And I want to tell her to do more than just believe it,
but to enjoy it!
That changing your mind is one of the best ways
of finding out whether or not you still have one.
Or even that minds are like parachutes,
that it doesn’t matter what you pack
them with so long as they open
at the right time.
O God, Lilly, I want to say
you make me feel like a teacher,
and who could ask to feel more than that?
I want to say all this but manage only,
Lilly, I am like so impressed with you!

– Taylor Mali, “Like Lilly Like Wilson

I spend the bulk of my day attempting to draw out, negotiate and refine discussions. It could be between people and people. It could be between people and texts. It could be between people and themselves.

Asking my students to consider their questions and then find answers to those questions affords me multiple moments of mindchange.

Being worth my salt requires me to keep my hand in the game as well. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by colleagues keen on elevating discourse. Each idea runs through the pasta maker of dialogue, elasticizing my thinking.

A few weeks ago, I read this blog post regarding what Lynne Munson believed to be the common flaw between former D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee and newly minted head of NYC schools Cathie Black.

I took issue with the following:

Topping Black’s list of work she wants to get done: “[R]ethink[ing] the standard model of a classroom so we can teach 21st Century skills in innovative and engaging ways.” 21st century skills is not a curriculum. It is a fad.

I tweeted my discontent. Debbie Schinker asked if I would be commenting. I said I would.

I haven’t yet.

Reading the four comments already posted, I’m not entirely sure how much my contribution would move the conversation. Munson seems fairly comfortable in her rightness.

Mary Worrell summed up my concern best, “Sometimes it’s so hard to even try to break the ice on stuff like that. Then again, maybe we shouldn’t just preach to the choir.”

In moments like these, I think about what I’d hope my students to choose in their best moments, and then I do that.

As enough preaching has happened and I’m genuinely interested in building my understanding, here’s the comment I’ll be posting:

Ben and Lynne,
Who decides the necessary information, and what’s the process there? I see the point about the importance of knowing things. At professional conferences, my ability to reference any number of authors acts as my entrance ticket to conversations. At dinner with new friends, whether or not I’ve seen Mad Men or Dexter – my pop culture fluency – can determine my social stock value. How, though, does one extrapolate those facts necessary for inclusion in curriculum?
If knowing facts can be quickening and enlightening and no real way exists for the teaching of all facts of possible relevance in the lives of our students, does it not seem prudent to help students navigate the structures (formal and informal) for the procurement of facts as needed?
Be certain, I include facts as a component of any conversation I have with my students. I’m able to shore up arguments and illustrate examples of otherwise out-of-reach ideas because of the knowledge I’ve gained. I certainly see the worth of this. Still, I recognize the absolute worthlessness of these facts in situations I’ve not anticipated. So, turn to the scientific method – a key 21st Century Skill – as a model for uncovering the facts my students may need and I can’t provide.
What do you think of the idea that championing the teaching of facts and labeling 21st Century Skills as a fad sets up a counterproductive falsely dichtomous mutual exclusivity?

That’ll do.

Hi, you’re doing it wrong: Chat/Discussion

As I’ve explained, I started my master’s program a few weeks ago. Through an online program, I’ll have a Master’s of Teaching and Learning in Curriculum and Instruction in 14 months. It’s my first time in an all-online learning environment. They’re doing it wrong.

As I’ve mentioned, my course requires participation in three online chats throughout its 8-week run. I missed the first chat as I was in a tiny town in a small town outside East London in Eastern Cape, South Africa, and the Internet was spotty.

Wednesday, I returned to the States.

Wednesday, our second chat was scheduled.

After two days of travel involving 3 continents, I had my sister pull over on the drive from O’Hare back down to Springfield, IL and I signed on sitting in supremely busy McDonald’s of Pontiac, IL. (If you don’t think there’s a global information divide, compare that last sentence to this situation and get back to me.)

No matter the free Internet juice my MacBook was sucking down, it just couldn’t talk to the chat room.
As had happened during my first go, I’d log in to the WebCT chat room, one person would send a line of dialogue and the infinite pinwheel of death would appear.

This happened across Firefox, Flock and Chrome.

After 30 minutes of trying, I e-mailed “Education Specialist” to say I wouldn’t be making it to the night’s chat.

Here’s what happens if you miss a chat:

After missing the last chat, I opted for the second choice. I’d intended to go with the first option, but the transcript never got posted. I inquired about it on the discussion board. But, as I’ve now learned, “Education Specialist” doesn’t so much use the discussion board.

I in my e-mail explaining my absence from Chat 2, I said I’d keep an eye out for the transcript. Subtle, I know.

Chat 2’s questions for discussion were:

Some potentially beefy material.

Before I read the transcript, I checked back to see what the requirements for participation were…non-existent.

On the other hand, I found this:

While no set requirements for participation exist, we are to write a synopsis of what we’ve learned in the chat and copy and paste it to our “Chat Log” along with our compiled responses to the weekly discussion forum.
I’m a bit worried that option 4 here runs in contrast with option 2 for those who missed the chat. Seems even if I opt for option 2, I’ll still need to include option 4 which is the same as option 1 above.

Here’s where I’d normally make the argument for putting all information in the same place, but I don’t have it in me right now.

Baffled, I’ve turned to the transcript.

Here’s how the discussion began:

The response to that one was kind of ugly.

The answers, by the way, Active Learning and Classroom Management. The first one makes me chuckle every time.

Then “Education Specialist” said:

But not everyone had finished typing the first strands, so it was a mix of strands  in what was an actual request to repeat specific information back to the instructor.

In the middle of it all, someone asked a question about an upcoming assignment and received the reply:


It was difficult to read the rest of the transcript. “Education Specialist” would yell each successive pre-announced question and my peers would type their responses back to “Education Specialist.”

Here’s the only feedback I could find:

Warms the cockles, no?

Forty-seven minutes in, and it was over.


In this course, we’ve read (or were assigned to read) multiple chapters about making learning active, moving from a teacher-centered approach, making learning authentic and multiple modalities.

Then, in one of the 3 times we’re all in the same “room,” it’s straight-forward teacher-centered call and response. Desperate for any actual evidence of, you know, chat, I took a tally.

In the discussion that took place before “Education Specialist” left the room, peers responded directly to one another a total of 5 times. Those responses were generally along the lines of “I have used that tool and find it very helpful as well in the math classroom.”

Hardly the free, open and democratic exchange of ideas I work to facilitate in my classroom.

Chat can and should be a much more powerful tool for facilitating learning from varied geographic areas.

Election Night 2008, I sat in Chris’ living room with my laptop, logged in to a moodle chat room open to all SLA learners for discussion of the history that was being made. People were throwing out commentary, questions, answers, tips for the channel with the best coverage. When it got down to the wire, a rich conversation started about how some news outlets were calling the election whilst others were not.

No pre-fab discussion questions were needed. Something interesting to talk about and learn from was happening and so we got together to explore it.

This week, seasoned educators from around the country were asked “What techniques do you utilize to manage classroom behavior?” and 3 people responded with 10 lines of text.

Every second of the 47 minutes that chat was being facilitated could and should have been dedicated to just that question. Teachers from multiple disciplines talking about what they do to set and maintain the climate of their classrooms, and we spent maybe 5 minutes.

This isn’t active learning. This isn’t inquiry. This isn’t constructivist. This isn’t, well, it just isn’t.

Better than this.

Hi, you’re doing it wrong.

Could you do this? Making music tell a story

The Gist:

  • Students in my Storytelling class are now working with music.
  • What we’re doing isn’t explicitly stated in the state standards.
  • No part of me believes this project isn’t helping them to be better readers, writers and thinkers.

The Whole Story:

Looking at the syllabus for my Storytelling class, I noticed I’d planned for poetry to follow our short story unit. Taking the temperature of the students, I decided a course adjustment was in order.

Instead of poetry, we’re working with music-without words.

To start things out, I needed to stand their expectations on their ears.

Everything was to be cleared from their desks. I distributed blank paper.  Crayons, colored pencils and markers laid sprawled on a central table.

“I’m going to play 10 stories for you,” I said, “You need to draw or write the story as you see fit. You’ll have 30 seconds between each story to finish before we move on.”

Papers were folded, coloring utensils collected and chairs situated just so.

I pressed play.

“Kyrie” from Mozart’s Requiem wafted from the speakers.

“I’ll let you know when there’s one minute left of each story,” I said.

They started drawing and writing the stories they heard.

When all was done, we’d listened to:

“Kyrie” from Mozart’s Requiem

“Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copeland

The theme from the 60s BBC show The Avengers

Verdi’s “Grand March” from Aida

“Heart String” by Earl Klugh

“Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

The tango from Scent of a Woman

Apotheosis’ take on Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna”

The theme from The Rock by Hanz Zimmer

The theme from Pirates of the Carribean, also by Hanz Zimmer

Thirty seconds after the last story, I told the class the story of riding in the back of my mom’s Nissan Pulsar when I was in first grade and we lived in Kentucky. When we’d drive back to Illinois in the middle of the night for holidays, each song that was in heavy rotation on whatever light rock station she was listening to was burned into my memory.

I played “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears and explained, for me, that song was about being 7 and riding from Kentucky to Illinois more than it could ever be about John Hughes’ 16 Candles.

Then came the assignment. They’re to re-tell the stories they wrote after the first day of class as a non-vocal musical track. They may compose something original or remix and mash up other tracks.

The only allowable vocals are unintelligible words like Orff’s Latin lyrics in “O Fortuna” or something along the lines of a doo-wop riff.

I’m excited to hear what they create. My hope is this assignment will stretch their thinking. I’ve tried it, it’s tricky.

Nowhere in the Pennsylvania English Curriculum does it direct students to be this kind of writers. Nowhere does it ask them to read texts as music. For that matter, the draft of the Common Core Standards doesn’t include anything like this.

I could massage a few of the standards into place, but either the assignment or the standard would end up inauthentic.

That said, I have no doubt what my students will be doing is a valid, challenging, authentic form of consumption and creation. They’re reading, writing and thinking in a way no test could measure or equal.

It’s going to be difficult, messy, frustrating and beautiful.

I can’t wait to hear what they create.