25 March 2012

ASCD 2012: Ride for the Brand

This post is my 1600th to this blog. It's a milestone that I thought I would reach long ago, but I've been plugging along the last few years as other demands in my life have taken over. There's been a lot of change in this space over the past 7+ years, and I am always grateful for the way this corner of the Internet gives me a reason to pause, reflect, and reassess.

Atul Gawande was the keynote speaker this morning at the ASCD annual conference. Gawande is a storyteller...a man who follows his own questions and curiosities (e.g. How do we get good at what we do?). While I collected plenty of sound bites of wisdom in my notes throughout his talk, there was one idea in particular that I found myself thinking about afterward.

You see, I've been pondering how to "ride for the brand" recently. If you're not familiar with the phrase, it's a cowboy term that refers to your loyalty and commitment to the ranch/organization. When you sign on to work a ranch, you ride for that brand. Your actions should align with the goals and ideals of the outfit. To ride for the brand is about integrity.

Gawande used an analogy of Cowboys and Pit Crews to illustrate the type of values required in a school or other organization to be successful: communication, discipline, and teamwork. If he really knew anything about cowboys, he would have used "Lone Ranger vs. Cowboys" as his analogy, but I'll forgive him for the stretch because it doesn't change the values he details. 

As an educator, do you ride for the brand? How many of us even know what the "brand" is for our schools and districts (and agencies)? I have no doubt that we each have our personal brand---the reason we get up and teach every morning. Does that make us Lone Rangers? What happens when our views don't align with one another, let alone the organizations we represent? If, as Gawande suggests, it is the smallest of adjustments that bring us closest to success, then how do we get there when we even haven't taken the biggest step to identify why we're on this ride.

And so, on the occasion of this 1600th post, I want to thank the readers who ride for What It's Like on the Inside. Whether you stop by and lurk, skim posts in your RSS aggregator, comment or add a link to your own blog, or think and pass along the ideas, I salute your discipline in continuing your learning, your efforts to communicate ideas, and the kind of teamwork that exists only in a web 2.0 world as we connect across time and space. I wish you much success as you ride for your brand, wherever that may be.

24 March 2012

ASCD 2012: What Are Your Schools Like?

I'm a virtual attendee for this year's annual ASCD conference. Today, I sat in on three sessions...starting at 5 a.m. (PT). On a Saturday morning. Hardcore, I'm telling you. But I appreciate the opportunity all the same. ASCD is my favourite conference. It is the only one I know of that celebrates such a diversity of ideas and people---all around a common goal of making learning happen for kids.

The first session, Creating the Opportunity to Learn: Moving from Research to Practice to Close the Achievement Gap (book) with Wade Boykin and Pedro Noguera, was phenomenal. I can't tell you that the main points were new, but I have rarely heard them presented with such passion and compassion. Some highlights from what they shared:
  • NCLB said--for the first time--that the problem is not the children. 
  • There has been a normalization of failure. We have to change the culture around that belief. If you can't change the culture of a school, nothing will change.
  • We can't ignore social needs, but solving these will not mean that problems in education are automatically resolved.
  • Implementing something (longer school day, new curriculum) makes it easy to say that something concrete has been done; but, we need to make transactional changes between teachers and students.
  • We need high quality preschools. This is the biggest difference between the US and other industrialized countries. Invite preschool providers to all of your PD events. You will eventually have the children they serve in your classrooms.
  • We can find football players anywhere, because we are willing to cultivate that talent. We need to cultivate intellectual talent in the same way. 
  • We are the professionals. The onus is on us to build the relationships with students.
  • The job of the educator is to create the opportunity to learn. The best teachers don’t expect students to learn the way they teach, they teach the way students expect to learn.
  • We punish the children with the greatest needs, often because we aren’t meeting their needs. The role of discipline is not to teach children to avoid punishment, but to do the right thing—even when we aren’t looking.
  • Children who don’t believe they can learn are the hardest to serve. If the children can’t do the work, then we are in the wrong work as educators.
  • We will know we are succeeding when race, SES, culture is no longer a predictor of achievement.
Toward the end of the session, Noguera made an analogy between homes with plastic covered furniture (only removed for special guests) and schools where students are kept from interacting with content and background knowledge. What are your schools like? Are they only for special guests? Or does every child feel like they can be at home there?

If you ever have an opportunity to see these gentlemen present, take it. You will not be disappointed with the way they make you think and reflect...and inspire you to make a difference.

Next up, Robert Slavin from Johns Hopkins and Success for All Foundation with a session on Tech and Talk: Multimedia and Cooperative Learning Team Up.

Not too much to share from this one. Most of the session was devoted to modeling a classroom activity. I have no beef with these sorts of things---it can be very useful to walk through how a situation in the classroom would play out. I do think the format would have been better served to explore it through an adult lens (not ask participants to play the role of students). In my experience, it's far more powerful to either see examples of teachers working (and reflect on those) or allow teachers to apply the information to their own context. Just my $.02.

Here are a few soundbites from the presentation part of the session:
  • Classroom technology doesn't do cooperative learning well. 
  • Cooperative learning works well when there is a group goal and individual accountability.
  • To get the most out of technology, we must partner it with a classroom system that works: instruction, practice, assessment, celebration. Each step can be enhanced using embedded technology.
I selected this session because I'm working with some rural schools on integrating technology with strategies from Classroom Instruction That Works. Our next session is on cooperative learning and productive group work. I'd really hoped for some good things to share from this session...but I think I'll have to keep looking.

Although I'm sad not to be at the actual conference, I have to say it was a beautiful afternoon for PD. My view for the final session of the day:

Tide's out, so you can have a view of the shellfish beds.
The Olympics in the distance.

Okay, so moving on to the final session of the day: Finding Each Student’s Sweet Spot: Optimizing Engagement and Learning with Martha Kaufeldt and Gayle Gregory.

This was another presentation which didn't have a lot of new ideas to offer me, which is not to say that others wouldn't have found some good things here. A few of my notes:
  • Their definition of the Sweet Spot is a "combination of factors resulting in a maximum response with a given amount of effort." The presenters believe that by using brain-friendly strategies to reduce stress and increase engagement in the classroom, each student can find a way to create that maximum response.
  • I really appreciated their example of a visual agenda (as opposed to just text).
  • They also offer their materials in Spanish---the first presenters I've ever seen who have made the effort. Kudos.

My big takeaways from today:
  • Most presenters struggle with a large group. They don't know how to adjust their material for a large audience. Those who do are worth watching...and learning from.
  • I would love to give every slide deck I've seen today an extreme makeover. (Call me!)
  • A lot of people are parroting the ideas developed by others in their presentations, without adding anything to the conversation. Makes me appreciate those presenters who think deeply about what happens (or should happen) in a classroom all the more.
I'll be back tomorrow. For now, it's time to celebrate all of this good learning with a beer and something fun to read. Spring rains will be back tomorrow. Might be my last chance for awhile to enjoy a sunset like this:

23 March 2012

ASCD 2012: Pajama Party

Personal circumstances have kept me from attending the ASCD's 2012 Annual Conference this year in Philadelphia. However, I will be engaging in the ultimate "Pajama PD" this weekend by being part of the virtual conference. ASCD is streaming two sessions during each of its workshop time slots, Saturday - Monday, and I am excited about sitting in on a variety of them. Here are the ones I am most looking forward to:


So, put on your comfy weekend clothes and join me here. I look forward to sharing what I learn with you this weekend. 

Speaking of ASCD, I need your help. I just finished drafting an article to submit for an upcoming issue of Educational Leadership. I have someone lined up to help with copy editing, but I could use a couple of volunteers to give me some feedback on the content of the article. The topic is how to use data visualizations as feedback in the classroom. If you have time to read (~2000 words) and provide me with some reactions ("I don't get this part...", "Add more here...", "Take this out...", etc.), I can offer you my undying appreciation in return. (Wow! What a deal!) If you're willing and able, contact me at the_science_goddess[at]yahoo[dot]com or @ me on Twitter, and I will email you a copy. My deadline is pressing, so I would need your comments no later than Tuesday, March 27.

15 March 2012

Read All About It, Part III: So What?

I've been thinking about digital texts and sources---in particular their differences from print texts and what student skills are necessary to comprehend them. I think conversation about this is long overdue...and, unfortunately, too little too late. Some will cheer on the "disruptive" nature of mobile devices, but if we can't teach kids how to read with these...what's the point?

Most of the current arguments for replacing analog texts with digital versions are stupid, pandering to the lowest level of reason.
  • Print text is old. In general, the lack of updates is not a problem. Hamlet hasn't changed in hundreds of years...2 + 2 is still 4...and even in those areas which change (e.g. the sciences), almost none of the advancements are at an entry level for student learning. I agree that updating texts is infrequent...and recent mergers of book companies have done nothing to improve quality. But assuming that digital will automatically be better because "It's new!" is faulty reasoning. There's no guarantee that a digital text will be better written or designed than an analog book.
  • Books are heavy. Um, yes and duh. However, this says nothing about the quality of the content or their value to learning. If you hear someone in edtech say that the change in the weight of a backpack is the argument to sell parents on buying an iPad, run in the other direction. Anyone who insults the community like this deserves to be tarred and feathered. If you don't have a reason why the digital text will improve student learning, then stay out of the conversation until you have something intelligent to add.
  • Digital texts are more engaging and have more advantages than print alone. So far, the research isn't showing that having the ability to click here, there, and everywhere is positive for student learning. As we saw in the last post, comprehension of digital texts requires more skills than for print. While not an insurmountable or inappropriate issue to address, it's naive to assume that digital is just a sub for print. Meanwhile, distraction while reading is not a positive thing. (see Willingham's recent post on Ereaders and distractability for research.) Can I also say that I hate the implicit suggestion here that analog books are boring...or that we all had a shitty education because we were limited to print materials? (Poor us!) Finally, at this point, several informal studies indicate that college students might try digital books---but end up wanting print versions (also see Etextbooks: Students are not loving them). My interpretation on this is that (a) if you only know how to use a print book, you're not going to have all the skills necessary to transition to digital, and (b) digital texts currently do not come with features students want...just what designers thought they could do.
All this being said, digital texts and sources are going to play a larger part in the classroom from now on. Common Core State Standards, now adopted in 46 states, include the use of digital media---but not a single reading skill specifically related to reading online. Big. Freakin'. Mistake. And I would be willing to bet that not one of the states that has elected to add content to the standards has picked online reading skills as a piece.

So, what's a teacher to make out of all of this?
  • New standards will require students to be fluent with digital media.
  • Reading print and digital text requires different strategies. Don't assume that your students understand how to apply their reading skills to digital text.
  • Be intentional about showing students different formats (blogs, wikis, search results) and how to read them. Take the time to teach students to be critical users of this information.
  • Be aware that comprehension decreases with screen size (and reading time increases). The "Bring Your Own Device" revolution will not all be all unicorns and rainbows when it comes to student learning.
  • Digital sources will provide students with multiple ways to engage with content, but that does not mean they know how to choose or make sense of that information. Only you can help direct and coach them to success. New technologies do not negate the role and responsibility of the teacher.
I'm sure I'll come back to revisit this topic as more information becomes available. And, pending certain events in the next few weeks, I plan to make this a focus at next year's conference circuit. If you have resources to add, questions to ask, or criticism to consider, leave it in the comments.

12 March 2012

Read All About It, Part II: Skills for Digital Texts

In the previous post, we started thinking about whether or not reading a digital text is different from a print text. (It is.) Part of that difference is due to how the reader interacts with the text. Print typically has a linear, page-by-page tour for the reader; digital texts require the reader to find the path.

Unsurprisingly, there are more differences. Some of these are due to the kinds of reading online environments for which there is no analog model. For example, think about a list of search results.

This is not a table of contents. It's a bit like an index, but the reader will never know the rules (algorithms) behind its generation (e.g., it's not alphabetical). Search results are their own unique type of reading. There's different colours, font sizes and emphases, data (dates, number of authors), descriptions. A lot of stuff. Let alone what happens when you merely reorder the search terms.

Think about all of the dynamic content associated with digital environments. The books on my shelves never shout at me with ads or have a list of the most related chapters along the left side of each page. When we move students to digital media, there is a need to explicitly teach these new types of text. Students can transfer the skills associated with reading itself---phonemic awareness, vocabulary, phonics---but that does not mean that comprehension is automatically developed.

Research in this area points to the need for more complex skills with digital text. Consider the table below:

from Coiro, J. & Dobler, E. (2007). Exploring the online reading comprehension strategies used by sixth-grade skilled readers to search for and locate information on the Internet. Reading Research Quarterly, 42, 214–257.

In moving to digital texts, students need to apply a layer of comprehension skills in three areas: prior knowledge, inferential reasoning, and being able to self-regulate the reading process. The middle column of the table has a description of the ways print and digital texts are similar, with the righthand column showing the additional skills required for digital texts.

Further investigation into the strategies associated with comprehending online text have revealed that reading online is a lot like doing research:
New literacies of online reading comprehension are defined around five major functions: 1) identifying important questions; 2) locating information; 3) analyzing information; 4) synthesizing information; and 5) communicating information. These five functions contain the skills, strategies and dispositions that are both distinctive to online reading comprehension while, at the same time, appear to somewhat overlap with offline reading comprehension. What is different from earlier models is that online reading comprehension is defined around the purpose, task, and context as well as the process that takes place in the mind of a reader. Readers read to find out answers to questions on the Internet. Any model of online reading comprehension must begin with this simple observation.
---Leu, et al., 2007, p 10.

Each of these has a subset of associated skills, including identifying accuracy and bias. Many of these subskills are the kinds of things we say are important, but assign little time and attention to in the classroom (see Life's Little Mysteries post).

Comprehending digital texts also involves visual literacy: how to read charts, graphs, maps, photos, and other types of visualizations. While aspects of visual literacy have long been a component of informational text, in a digital environment where students can search whole collections of graphics and images (or easily create their own), there is an additional need to "read" items which may have no text at all. Inferential reasoning skills are critical here, just as they are with text.

Want to see some of these skills in action? Have a look at the Videos of Three Online Readers. The page is three years old (and unfinished), but the videos give a glimpse into how students navigate online resources and tasks. Audio quality is not good, but there is not much of it. At the beginning, the researcher goes over the task with the student, then you have 30 minutes of watching the student's screen as s/he completes the task. What do you notice about where students click and how they search? What thoughts come into your head as you watch ("Why did they do that?" or "Don't they know they could...?")? What might this mean for your classroom and the way you address the use of digital texts.

In the final post in this series, we'll take a look at the "So what?" We know digital texts are different...we know that they require new skills...but is that really such a big deal?

Selected Sources
Coiro, J. & Dobler, E. (2007). Exploring the online reading comprehension strategies used by sixth-grade skilled readers to search for and locate information on the Internet. Reading Research Quarterly, 42, 214–257.

Fisher, D., Lapp, D., & Wood, K. (2011). Reading for details in online and printed text: A prerequisite for deep reading. Middle School Journal, 42(3), 58-63.

Leu, D. J., Zawilinski, L., Castek, J., Banerjee, M., Housand, B., Liu, Y., et al. (2007). What is new about the new literacies of online reading comprehension? In L. Rush, J. Eakle, & A. Berger, (Eds.). Secondary school literacy: What research reveals for classroom practices. (37-68). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

The Teaching Internet Comprehension to Adolescents (TICA) Project Web site

10 March 2012

Read All About It, Part I: Is Digital Text Different?

I've always loved to read...and I have to admit that even if a lot of my writing occurs online, I am still an offline print aficionado. I still enjoy reading and collecting "analog" books. I look forward to the arrival of magazines I subscribe to. But, I also have a small digital book collection for reading on my phone, netbook, or tablet when I travel. I have lots of RSS subscriptions and do almost all of my news reading online. As an adult...and as a reader with good skills...I make choices about format based on my purpose for reading.

But what if you're a student learning to read? Does it make a difference if the material is in print or digital format?

I've long suspected that the push to digital texts was going to coming with some baggage about how we teach reading. Reading print is not the same as reading online...or so most adults will tell you, even if they can't tell you how it's different. After all, the basic mechanics of reading are the same. But there is something about the experience of being online that is not like the other. With the advent of Common Core State Standards (and their inclusion of digital texts and multimedia) and the increase of mobile devices (tablets, kindles, phones...), I've finally been poking around in the ed research to answer my questions and concerns: Is reading online really different...or am I just projecting my own experience? If digital text is not like print, how is it different...and what does that mean for teaching and learning?

First of all, I'm finding that this is not (currently) a robust branch of reading research. I do wonder if some of that is just the length of time it takes for peer-reviewed research to happen. With IRB approvals (we're talking young human subjects here), the journal submission and review process, and so forth, we're not talking quick turnaround times for research with devices that change every year. This makes me want to sneak into an International Reading Assn conference and see what people are talking about, but not printing. But beyond that, there isn't much in the trade journals. Even ASCD has an entire issue devoted to reading this month---and not a single article examines what is needed in an online environment or how to support kids learning to read and use digital text. However, we shouldn't interpret this lack of attention as meaning that there is no difference between analog and print; because the ed research that is available supplies a big fat "Yes, it is." to the question of whether reading a digital text is different for students.

For example, when you read a print item, your path is pretty linear. If you're reading a narrative piece, you read until you run out of words, then turn the page. With informational text, you might have more options. Authors will use text features (bold, italics, headings) to cue you about the organization of the text, important points, or graphics you should review. I used to always tell my students to remember that they were in control of their reading. Just because the author had "See Figure 2.1" in the middle of the sentence didn't mean that they had to stop and look at the figure at that time. Tell the text, "You're not the boss of me." and choose what makes sense for you.

For digital texts, this concept of the reader being in control is even more important. Digital texts---even narratives---are not linear. The reader can click on hyperlinks to take them to a dictionary or a related page/text/graphic. Visuals have a much bigger role in all digital texts. The research describes this collection of pieces as an "external text" that the reader builds while s/he reads. The path every person takes through a text---what they click on, which order they look at information---is different. In essence, each person will have their own experience with the text...their own version to work from and create as they read.

What does this mean for students? It depends. In the absence of specific instruction about digital texts, all of the possible outcomes have been seen. Some good readers of analog texts have a smooth transition to digital sources, but some do worse. Some struggling readers have better comprehension using digital text (even better than good analog readers), but some do poorly with both formats. In general, ELL students do not do well with digital texts, because the close-reading strategies we teach them don't work well in an online environment to create an external text.

Are there other differences between analog and digital text that challenge students? And can we adapt our teaching strategies to help students make the most of digital texts? Stay tuned for the next post on the skills required for digital texts. In the final post, we'll put together the "So what?" of using and teaching with digital texts.