30 November 2011

A Look into The Purposeful Classroom, Part I

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey’s new book is The Purposeful Classroom: How to Structure Lessons with Learning Goals in Mind, published by ASCD. In this post, I’ll provide an overview and some thoughts on the first three chapters, and follow up with a look at the second half of the book in the next post.

I’ve been a Fisher and Frey Fangirl for a few years now. I appreciate their continuing commitment to walk their talk by staying involved with high school teachers and students. This sets them apart from many of the “expert” voices in education who have either no experience (or, at least, no relevant recent experience) working in classrooms. Fisher’s and Frey’s deep background knowledge shows throughout the book in the form of the personal stories they share. As a teacher, I really connect with that approach.

The focus of The Purposeful Classroom is on creating clear and meaningful purpose statements for students, and then supporting work toward these goals. At first blush, this doesn’t sound particularly new or groundbreaking—let alone deserving of an entire book. But Fisher and Frey take this concept in a direction that may be different for a lot of teachers. We know about standards. We likely encountered Madelyn Hunter’s version of lesson objectives in our teacher preparation programs. Fisher and Frey make the case that standards, objectives, and purpose statements are actually three separate things. Standards are broad and lack specific direction for students (How long will it take to learn the ideas? What will it look like when I’ve learned it?). Objectives are more for the teacher than the student (The student will be able to…). A purpose statement provides students with a clear expectation around “what they are going to learn and how they will be expected to demonstrate their understanding” (p. 6). There are some very subtle differences among the terms. The rubric on pp. 20 – 21 is a tool that PLC groups may find useful for developing and revising purpose statements, but I found myself aching for a checklist, too. I can’t help but think of all of the teachers in our small schools who don’t have a way to collaborate with others very often. A tool containing “look fors” when developing purpose statements would be a very welcome addition here.

In Chapter 2, Focusing on Learning Targets, Not Tasks, Fisher and Frey provide background on developing purpose statements that move student understanding forward by using what students already know. Part of this chapter made me want to cheer (they shy away from “higher order” and “lower order” ranking of skills), but other parts raised a lot of questions for me. On pp. 36 – 37, they state that “In addition to identifying what students already know, teachers have to understand the type of knowledge that students still need to gain.” I’d like to know more about Fisher’s and Frey’s view of both Learning Maps and Learning Progressions. It seems like a natural connection here—tools which a teacher might use to help plot the course, as it were, for students. There is a connection back to this concept in Chapter 3 during a discussion of Pacing Guides. Here again, it is refreshing to see a very common sense approach to using Pacing Guides—one which speaks directly against using them as “scripts,” but as their name suggests, a guide for planning and instruction. I’d still like to learn more about how Fisher and Frey view Pacing Guides vs. Learning Maps.

Fisher and Frey look at content and language components of purpose statements in Chapter 3. Content refers to subject-area knowledge; language the terminology used. I like the attention placed to both of these areas. It elevates the importance of content vocabulary as a basis to understanding deeper concepts. Fisher and Frey advocate for “unpacking standards” in order to look for both content and language components. This can be a great exercise for teachers in terms of identifying what students need to know and be able to do. I was also left hanging, however, waiting for Webb’s Depth of Knowledge to make an appearance during the discussion of unpacking standards. Fisher and Frey use a table to separate the nouns and verbs from some Common Core State Standards. I think this process can be useful for teachers as a way to focus on what a standard includes, but I’m not sure of the reasoning behind separating the nouns from the verbs. The table makes things look like a mix-and-match approach, when the standard is very direct about which verb and noun should be partnered…something more Webb-like. I hope to find out more about the reasoning for doing so.

I recently had a sneak peek at the upcoming revision to Classroom Instruction That Works. “Setting Objectives” is still one of the strategies listed. What I like about The Purposeful Classroom is that it gives time and attention to Setting Objectives (or, in this case, purpose statements). The book is a deep dive into being intentional with the goals we provide for students, something that can only help them in identifying gaps in their knowledge and determining pathways for growth.

15 November 2011


About 6 weeks ago, I started using a tablet. Perhaps "using" is too strong of a word. It might be more accurate to say I have access to one at work. The fact is, there isn't a lot of work that is done on it---mainly because the day-to-day aspects of my job don't fit well with this kind of device. Yes, I have access to a keyboard for it...and I even purchased an app to be able to do some basic work with Word, PowerPoint, and Excel files. But my laptop is just a much more robust tool (and, it's connected to the Internet).

However, the overall purpose is greater than just my personal productivity. I'm also doing a lot of thinking about classroom uses. I've been trying to set aside a certain amount of time each week to review apps and ponder how I would integrate the device and the apps into my teaching. I keep asking myself, If the education fairy plopped you in a classroom tomorrow and all the students had tablets, what would be different for teaching and learning?

At this point, I'm not entirely sure of the answer to that question. Mind you, I never thought much about it with other resources and tools. Replace the term "tablets" in that question with "textbooks" or "calculators" or "coloured pencils" and I don't think the answer would be very different. Maybe it's because the magic that is learning is not dependent upon the stuff---at least not in my mind.

It's not that I don't see certain advantages with the tablet. One tablet weighs a helluva lot less than a bunch of textbooks. (Tablet = 1, Scoliosis = 0) In terms of science and math, there are a lot of tools that I wouldn't have to spend precious dollars to buy/replace: e.g. stopwatches, graphing calculators, measurement tools. There are additional ways for students to capture content. They can take a picture, capture video, or sync audio to notetaking. A classroom calendar could easily be synced with a student's personal calendar to track assignments. Certainly immediate access to the Internet could be a plus (and a distraction).

But in the grand scheme of things: So what? If kids can do all of the same things in the classroom without a tablet---why bother? It's a lot simpler to pull out the container of stopwatches for a lab than to sort through the various apps to find the best option. I have to say that searching for and testing out apps is a major time commitment. I don't have to plug in and sync textbooks (and kids have a far easier time annotating print). I know that I'm not the most knowledgeable person around when it comes to careers, but I can't think of any that exclusively use tablets. (We'll get into the whole issue of student choice for product/output in the next post.)

I know that some out there will argue that this isn't the point. A tablet is a Disruptive Technology, therefore we won't understand it's potential and uses from the get-go: Users will define those within the learning environment. Maybe there's some truth in that, but I would be willing to bet that what we will see is a bunch of tablets pushed into schools and instruction will continue pretty much the same way it always has. If you want to blame lack of PD for that, feel free. But I think it's more than that. I think it's a fundamental disagreement about how teaching and learning occur.

However skeptical I am at this point that tablets will revolutionize the classroom, I'll keep poking along with my own explorations. I'm willing to be convinced.

And with that in mind, here is my first list of apps to share. These are just for organization. I don't know or care if these are available for iPad. If you're a droid person, however, you might want to check these out:
  • AudioNote allows you to take synchronized audio and text notes. It's not as good as a LiveScribe pen, I have to say, but for brief events that you want to capture, it's a nice tool. There is a Lite Version, which is free.
  • Schedule St. is geared more toward students. It's a dayplanner/agenda app, with to do list integration. I like this one because you can easily categorize and sort the "to do's." So far, this is the best agenda/planner app that I've found.
  • Bluetooth File Transfer is a nifty way to move files and apps between devices. One of the greatest advantages of the droid platform is the freedom you have with your devices and apps. You never have to use iTunes. Sharing and syncing with bluetooth means you can be cable free.
That's all for this update. I'll keep exploring and sharing ideas now and then. Have recommendations? Leave them in the comments.

13 November 2011

You've Got Questions? I'll Get Answers

One of the sessions I enjoyed most at this year's ASCD conference was one presented by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. Their books have had a place on my shelf over the last few years and it was great to hear them share ideas in person. I always appreciate this sort of "unfiltered" opportunity---no editor, just a direct transmission from the expert.

I've been looking forward to seeing Doug Fisher present again at next month's WERA conference about the new book he has written with Nancy Frey: The Purposeful Classroom.

Better yet, ASCD sent me a copy to review and I plan to chat with Doug Fisher about some of the concepts in the book. Why don't you join me? Right now, you can read sample chapters of the book for free online. Have a look and see what sorts of questions it provokes for you. Then, either post your questions in the comments or send me what you would like to ask Dr. Fisher. With the impending shift to CCSS for most of our states, now is a great opportunity to think about how these will translate into classroom goals, as well as any issues associated with transitioning to these new standards. Read a chapter or read the whole thing. Ask your questions and I'll work on getting the answers.

11 November 2011

It Goes Both Ways

Recently, Good held a contest for a report card redesign. Here was the winning entry, by Polly Avignon:

While it was obvious that none of the candidates applied best practices for grading and reporting to their entry, as Susan Brookhart recently pointed out for ASCD, I have to say that we educators also deserve some of the blame. We might know a thing or two about grading and reporting, but we've had decades to redesign report cards to reflect those practices and have not stepped up to the plate. I'm sure that information designers look at our paltry efforts and say the same things about our design knowledge that we point out about their understanding of grading practices. At some point, we have to stop throwing stones and step up to learning how to communicate data both accurately and using the principles of good design.

We don't all have to invent new report formats, but we should not be afraid to ask for better from the companies which push software into schools. This includes not only those who sell gradebooks, but also those which supply benchmark and formative assessment materials. Shall we look at a few that are used heavily in Washington?

Up first: DIBELS (graph from here)

This has to be one of the ugliest colour combos around. I'm all for the "stoplight" approach to formatting data, but there are better shades than these. And there's the weird thing going on with the labeled ranges along the bottom. Thousands of teachers are handed these charts (or review them online)---all trusting that this is good design.

How about AIMSweb, a Pearson product?

Probably good information here, but who can tell? Is this really the best we can do to give teachers an at-a-glance view of student performance?

And, finally, MAP from NWEA:

The yellow is attention-getting, for sure (original here). But again, we're lacking in representing the data in a friendly way.

And so, my fellow educators, it's time to stand up against bad design---not just bad principles communicated through good design. Tell software companies that it's time to give us the kind of reports we and our students deserve. Start taking two minutes to clean up the charts and graphs you produce. Find a design scheme that works for you and stick with it. Remember that responsibility goes both ways.

Have you visited Excel for Educators recently? You missed these posts: