Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Math-tastic Practices

Holy cow, today was a math-tastic day. Here are five reasons why (and you know they are serious reasons because I'm counting down from ten):

5. Monday began with coffee and breakfast in a middle school math teacher's room: egg-salad sandwiches, fresh fruit, crispy bacon, coffee, tea--a literal buffet of healthy breakfast items set up by one of the kind people from our school's cafeteria and catering group.  Food is not the most important thing, but it sure is a kindness. I did not have to stop along the way to school to purchase snacks for teachers. I did not have to bake items to contribute to the buffet.  We are well cared for here at Singapore American School.  I do not want to take that for granted.

4.  We practiced five practices for math discussion from Smith and Stein's 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussion, 2nd EditionEven though the teacher-coaches at my table processed the answers to the questions we were working verbally, so I didn't have to do the math... I enjoyed a teaching ah-ha moment.

3.  I can adapt and connect the math practices to what I would do in an English language arts class with writers.

Imagine this:
Our goal is to generate toipcs for writing an informational piece. Imagine setting students up for a writing problem or challenge-- you might frame it around recent readings or personal learning about topics of interest. Students get right to talking and writing (on a shared document or on white boards or on chart paper or in notebooks--that how is not as important as the thinking they are demonstrating).   Imagine monitoring how small groups of students used strategies to address the writing challenge. As groups worked on that task I could walk the room, listen in and take note of strategies students were using to meet the challenge. Some students may generate ideas in a list, some may make and reject suggestions, some may use questions from earlier in the unit to guide topic selection, others may talk about a mentor text and connect topics, others may do some sort of mapping (imagine a bubble map or a circle map to borrow language from Thinking Maps). Then, imagine that I want to feature specific strategies in the sharing out. Instead of calling for volunteers, I would make intentional selections so that students could see a range of strategies and hear a range of thinking processes that gets at the challenge. We may even be able to critique each other's strategies and talk about which were most effective for generating ideas. During this sharing process, I would connect what students say to the learning goals for the lesson.

2.  Mind blown. Of course, this isn't really evidence for math-tasticness, but honestly, my mind zoomed to applying the practices in English and in science and across learning contexts. These practices make Yetta Goodman's "kid-watching" more transparent or explicit almost. As a teacher, if I am anecdotally noting which leaners are doing and saying what, then using that data to make instructional decisions on the spot: wow! Powerful practice. For pictures of some of our work and to learn with us, follow Steve Mead and others tagged in his tweet.

1.   Be intentional. Think about where different clusters of learners are and choose a variety of learners to make their thinking visible. Critique and discuss the thinking-- about math, about writing, about book/genres choices.

Simple, right? Maybe I need to start more Mondays with math.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

PLCs Reflections

The table I am sitting at is made up of moveable pieces: one rectangle and two half-moons. The half-moon pieces are pushed up against the short sides of the rectangle, so the table is a long oval. The rectangle table-top has a whiteboard, dry-erase finish whereas the half moons are a beige-y wood-grain laminate. There are seven teachers around the table who teach the same subject at the same grade level.

Here at Singapore American School collaboration is highly valued. PLC groups meet once or twice a week depending on group or division (elementary, middle or high school). Last year, teaching English in the high school, I belonged to three PLC groups: English 9, AP Language and Catalyst (like a senior project for my friends in FL who used to do such things). We met weekly.

This year, I am one of three "teachers on special assignment" working in a gift-funded position on competency-based personalized learning initiatives for the Pre-K thru 12 future. (There is more to the new position, but that is another story.) We've begun by connecting with PLC groups in our respective divisions: elementary, middle and high school.

I love learning in PLC groups. Listening to how teachers facilitate the group's work, address student needs, co-plan... all of it intrigues me. PLCs are complex-- relational and dynamic-- there is more to their work than first impressions would imply. Back to that table, where I'm sitting this morning. I am listening in on a PLC meeting with a group to whom I'm new. It's my third visit.

Today the PLC group is doing a variety of things: checking in around group norms, reviewing a rubric, ordering supplies, planning a goal for the year and reflecting on their PLC.  I am intrigued by the PLC Reflection.

I can see how this tool moves groups forward. It's simple (one page). It invites conversation.

The sequence (noted below the rubric) is sublime. Today, I enjoyed how it invited conversation in the group I'm sitting with--especially when participants differed in terms of levels for specific criteria.
 PLC Reflection

  • Give each PLC participant a copy of the reflection rubric (the entire reflection is linked to the image above) to complete individually without conversation.
  • Share.
  • Pass reflection pages to the PLC leader.
  • Read score levels aloud and/or tally each criterion. 
  • Invite conversation when members score criteria more than one indicator apart.
  • Discuss. 
  • Contribute and commit to PLC reflection level(s).
  • Set goals for future work. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Reading Logs

How can I monitor and keep track of what learners are reading in authentic ways?

I struggled with this question in my own high school English classroom. I struggled with my teacher-need to monitor and assess while at the same time honoring students' process and voice. What's the balance? I wondered how I could keep an eye on readers while staying out their way.

When I think about my reading life, I realize my own reading ebbs and flows with the demands of work and family. There are weeks when I read a book a day and weeks when I dip into many books, finishing none. There are weeks when I have a "consumable" fun read going and I'm reading professional texts for work and I'm dipping into poetry and a bit of the Bible. While my reading rates or books read may vary from week to week, I am always reading something.

But I'm a reader, right? Some of our learners are not. In my high school English classes, many learners were "I'd rather" readers. They could read but they often chose not to. They were, as Donna Alvermann describes,  aliterate. Learners who would rather do just about anything except read.

Perhaps the question is not only what is authentic when it comes to reading, but also how do we engage all of the kinds of readers we have in our rooms?

The kids that are readers already likely do not need to keep track of their reading for the entire year. Of course, I want to assess their reading habits, their interests, the connections they make, the ways they level up when it comes to self-selecting challenging texts. Do I need them to fill out a reading log in order to do that?


More than a decade ago I asked every learner in my class to complete a weekly reading log (*gasp*). I asked students to record the date, the times they'd read, the book title, and the page number they left off on.  As a proud content-creator, I thought kids could use their handy reading log as a bookmark, so I printed three to a page and thought kids could cut them apart or fold them into their books.

One thing I liked about the log was that I could get a picture of what learners were reading across a few months at a time. I got a lot out of the conversations, the conferring, I did with them when I checked-in and graded their reading log.
What was I evaluating with the reading log? Time read? A learner's ability to record? A parents ability to sign off on whatever their child presented to them?

Just a few years later I became that parent. My son is an avid reader. He has had to keep all sorts of reading logs in his twelve years in school. I  have signed (or forged) many a log.  My experience with him and my own professional learning shifted my practice around reading logs (So many mentors) .

Gone was the timekeeping. Gone was the page tracking. Gone was the parent signature. Gone was the daily tracking. Gone was the lock-step weekly due date. Gone was the grade in the gradebook.

Lately the reading records I keep vary.  I learn more about readers during conferences than I usually learn from a log, still I do like to have a record of books learners are reading. The record helps me make recommendations or create book displays that will connect to and extend learners' choices.  I have not totally abandoned all record keeping. I have allowed for more variety though.

We kept records last year on a shared Google Sheet. I asked learners to jot down the titles they were reading each week. Why each week though?

A month into a school year usually shows me which learners in my class are independent readers, which are on the cusp of independence and which need more support. Still, I kept the reading record all year. The reading record gave us a place to gather around titles and talk. It gave us a place to check in with one another about books.

Is it authentic? No, it's record keeping for school. Still... not everything we do in a classroom will be authentic. Practice is not always authentic, but learners need a whole lot of it.

Authenticity around independent reading happens at the bookstore or in the library or in front of the bookcase when I'm recommending a title to a friend. Authenticity happens when one reader talks books with another reader-- in conversation, in book clubs, online, over snacks or dinner.

I must say that authentic conversations about books did bubble up in our classroom when we noticed titles on our reading record that others were reading that interested us, but still... I've got some thinking to do about the why and where and to what extent learners need to be documenting their reading lives.

Thanks to the team at Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life Story Challenge each
Tuesday during the year and daily during the month of March. 


Alvermann, Donna (2005). "Literacy on the Edge: How Close Are We to Closing the Literacy
Achievement Gap?"Voices in the Middle, 13(1), 8-14.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Planning for Transparency

Learners need to know what we want them to learn. The clearer teacher-me can be about the what (and how to get there) the better students understand.  If learners don't know or don't understand the expected lesson or task outcomes they may miss the mysterious mark. Demystifying the learning goals and the thinking processes for how to reach them is key.

Early in my life as an English teacher I defined what I taught by work or by book. Surely we've all said at one point in our teaching lives, "Our next unit is on [insert name of literary work]."  I taught Beowulf, then Grendel, then Canterbury Tales, then Hamlet,  then Romantic poetry and the list of works goes on. Then, I was teaching works. I was teaching the reading not the reader. In the late nineties the what I taught began shifting from works to standards. My lesson plans began to evolve. I still created units around whole-class, anchor texts, but the focus was on strategies and skills students could transfer from unit to unit, class to class or class to world. Where I worked or in what department dictated what I needed to include in my lesson plans (Planning for Practice).  I've written my thinking about planning for the what here and about unit versus lesson planning here.  I'm a planner, I admit it. While I linked to learning activities and assignments, I wonder now, how or if on those early plans, I made the assessment sequence clear to learners. Or did that sequence, that assessment cycle get lost in the mix of too much or a lot of other information?

The last time I wrote about transparency (here) I was writing to making my thinking visible. This time I'm thinking not only about how what I do in the classroom and behind the scenes makes learning (or assessment and or thinking) visible.  I'm also thinking about how you align such a process across departments, PLCs, or divisions of a school.

My current school, Singapore American School, is in the process of shifting from standards-based instruction to competency-based instruction. One goal is to de-couple age and stage from skill or competency in order to give students opportunities to pursue learning on their own terms. A learner's personalized educational future is already here. We see that in the virtual learning world with platforms like Crash Course or Khan Academy or the Global Online Academy  Crash Course, Khan Academy and other such platforms deliver content. They mostly leave assessment to teachers in schools.

Still, those content providers allow learners to choose their paths. That is one step our school wants to take too. Some teachers in our high school are already doing it with digitized content that flips and blends learning. Performance assessments is where we are beginning across divisions.

One school goal this year is for PLC teams to create an embedded performance assessement. As reDesignU defines it, this assessment plan is a a student-facing document that details the formative thru summative assessments students will experience. These student-facing plans may, one day, enable students to self-pace in a course.  Some say they are one key to the customized pathways of personalized learning (Bray and McClaskey;  Rickabaugh). 

We may debate the format. We may debate the contents. We may debate the look or the layout or how such assessments are different in a science class or a visual arts class.  We might even debate the benefits, but I know one thing. Being transparent with leaners creates clarity. Teaching students the thinking behind the doing builds understanding and can lead to transfer.

Beyond that, sharing an assessment plan with the learners establishes purpose. It points learners toward a goal and gives them a map to get there.

I can't wait to see what we discover as we do this work together.


Bray, Barbara and Kathleen McClaskey. (2015). Making Learning Person: The What, Who, WOW, 
Where, and Why. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Rickabaugh, James. (2016). Tapping the Power of Personalized Learning: A Roadmap for School Leaders. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Thanks to the team at Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life Story Challenge each
Tuesday during the year and daily during the month of March.