April 18, 2014

Skinny Solutions in the Classroom

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Before you begin reading, take a moment and meet fourteen-year-old Suvir Mirchandani. 

What began as a traditional, sixth-grade science project for fourteen-year-old Suvir Mirchandani resulted in findings that could save the federal government millions of dollars in just a few minutes! Mirchandani found that by switching government documents from Times New Roman and Century Gothic, serif fonts which are standard on all government documents, to Garamond, a non-serif font, the government could save $136 million dollars. Similarly, his project could save state agencies $234 million, and even his school $21,000.

We love such “skinny” solutions, or simple solutions to tricky problems. While reading The Four Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss didn’t exactly deliver the promised reduction in work hours, it did, however, lead us to look harder for these “skinny” solutions. They are the practical side of the adage “Work smarter, not harder.” We bristle when we hear people say this, because usually it is an administrator saying it to a group of hardworking teachers as he/she gives them some new paperwork from the central office.

There is some truth, however, to the idea of thinking about a task before jumping into it. Now, we are more likely to set a timer for getting a task done and plan our daily schedules based on chunks of work we plan to accomplish. As we work in schools and visit classrooms, we always appreciate the ingenuity of teachers, who find elegant skinny solutions for the everyday challenges of managing 20+ children every day. From systems for getting everyone to the bathroom while sacrificing the minimum in instructional time to instructional strategies that are easier to teach and easier for students to practice, teachers are the “skinniest” and the smartest people we know.

We would love to hear about your “skinny” classroom solutions. What task or routine have you figured out by working smarter, not harder?

Keeping it Real: Making Professional Learning Relevant

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Feedback from Ellicott City MD PD

After a recent day of professional learning in Ellicott City, Maryland a teacher wrote us the note above. Such feedback moves us because the heart of our work right now is helping educators meet the demands of accountability without sacrificing their highest ideals for teaching and learning. The professional learning day in Ellicott City included several of the lessons from our new book, Reading Wellness (Stenhouse, summer 2014), which ends with the following excerpt that captures our intent.

“While many of us fight to preserve instruction that is rich and deep, we cannot escape the details of measures and the public pressures of others. We are overwrought by rubrics. We are in a quandary over questions that are essential. Rather than deciding not to believe in anything, we find points of instructional meaning, even when the directives we receive make little sense. We continue to read beautiful books, ask questions that don’t have one answer, and show children ways to think about tremendous and transformative ideas. But we feel pressure to teach as if we are preparing for some timed physical fitness test on live television, rather than continually working toward more and more wellness. We sometimes find it hard to think about anything else. This might please the others, but it doesn’t do much for the boys and girls, or the teachers.” (Burkins and Yaris, 2014, epilogue)

In the process of writing Reading Wellness, we have centered our work around four intentions that help us stay true to what matters most to us as teachers. We use these four intentions to guide our planning when we develop lessons and to evaluate these lessons after we teach them.

Intention 1 is alignment, not to standards or accountability measures, but to our inner teachers. This means that our highest priority is to consider the ways the work within our lessons furthers our goals helping children become lifelong learners.

Intention 2 is balance and is the counterpoint to alignment. While we are guided by our inner teachers who speak to us about teaching for lifelong learning, we know that our instruction must also align with standards. This intention reminds us to balance these two demands.

Intention 3 is sustainability. This intention focuses on lessons that teach strategies and processes rather than discreet content.  We work to develop lessons that help children extend their own learning and that transfer to other learning experiences.

Intention 4, possibly the most important intention, is joy. With the heavy demands of accountability and constant political pressure, too many teachers speak about teaching in places devoid of happiness. Intention 4 establishes our commitment to engaged, joyful learning.

We are sharing some of the lessons and ideas from Reading Wellness during an all-day, pre-conference institute at IRA in New Orleans on May 9th. The institute is titled “Aligning to the Common Core Without Sacrificing Your Inner Teacher: Joyful Lessons that Support Independence and Proficiency with Complex Texts.”

We would love for you to join us! We promise to keep it real and relevant, filled with practical lessons and ideas that you can use immediately! Namaste. :)

College and Career Readiness: What Else Matters?

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At the heart of the Common Core standards is a mission that has become as well known as the standards themselves: College and career readiness. No matter what your position or belief about this rally cry, most educators agree that the purpose of education is to serve students in ways that help them find success after high school. While surely sound instructional standards contribute to this goal, every skilled educator knows that success in not incumbent upon standards alone, leaving us to wonder: What else matters?

To help us think about this question, we turned to some of history’s most successful people to see what they had to say about success:

Albert Einstein: It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.

Thomas Edison: I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Robert Kennedy: Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.

Abraham Lincoln: Always bear in mind that your resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.

As we look at these quotes, we notice a thread of commonality amongst them that seems to suggest that mindset is an important factor in success.

Cognitively challenging work evokes a myriad of responses from students ranging from “This is hard.  I can do this” to “This is hard. I’m not even going to try.” No matter how wonderfully we align a lesson to standards, when students decide that they “don’t know” or they’re “not very good” at something, we/they make little progress. We have to explicitly address the issue of embracing problems and the relationship between effort and success or there’s very little room for great teaching to prevail.

In the chapter titled “Be the First Penguin” in his book The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch wrote about repeatedly saying to his students that “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” He wanted to remind them that “failure is not just acceptable, it’s often essential” (p. 148). To help students understand this, at the end of each semester, Pausch rewarded risk-taking by handing out “The First Penguin Award” to the team of students who failed to achieve their stated goals but demonstrated outstanding out-of-the box thinking.

In thinking about our original question–What else matters?–we believe that working to create classroom learning cultures that laud effort, celebrate failure, and promote perseverance is another important factor to consider when reforming education.

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