13 May 2012

Back to Basics

Several years ago, I bought Classroom Instruction That Works (CITW). I was a seasoned classroom veteran by that point, and while none of the strategies presented were new to me, what I appreciated about the book was that it validated many of the things I had intuited over the years. My teacher prep program had not been very good, leaving me to use trial-by-fire methodology to learn how to teach. (My poor students, those first few years...oy.) The book was one of the first I'd ever seen that took educational research and presented it in an accessible way. I often shared bits and pieces from the information with parents and students as we talked about learning to learn---not just science, but developing habits for a lifetime of learning.

CITW has been a part of work I've done with beginning teachers---another lifesaver in the pool that they could grab as they started their journey. The book has also been a part of a few of the edtech programs I've been involved with, as we look at ways to integrate technology into instructional practices. For experienced teachers, it has served as a quick reference as they extend their skills into new areas.

You might have seen that there is a new edition of CITW. ASCD was kind enough to send me a copy, and while I'm sure the intention is that I would post a review right away, I really wanted to take the book out for a test drive first. This spring, I have been working with a few groups of rural schools around the state. I've been going out to them to help them engage with some after school PD. The schools take on a variety of forms---from the near one-room schoolhouse (which couldn't host another staff for PD because they didn't have a room big enough for 30 adults), to a district where the teachers are bused/carpooled in every day, to ones with a significant agricultural base (I had a teacher tell me she couldn't stay for the session because she had to help hubby fix the tractor), to ones with no math curriculum. CITW, coupled with educational technology, has been the basis for our sessions together this spring. Every group of districts was offered three sessions based on components from the book: Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback; Cues, Questions, and Advance Organizers; and Cooperative Learning. I'm wrapping up my road show for the year, so it seems like a good time to reflect on the second edition of CITW and its impact with teachers.

I think that one of the most powerful attributes of the book is simply that it isn't new stuff. Perhaps that sounds like a disadvantage or waste of time. What I discovered was that in the simple reminders of what constitutes sound instruction, it both validated what teachers were already doing (and made them feel good about it), and also allowed them to engage in reflection and deeper discussion. In other words, they might not have learned something "new," but this meant our time together could be spent thinking about professional practice in their classrooms and what they'd like to recommit to. Many of these teachers wear multiple hats in their school districts---you might not just be the fourth grade teacher, you may well be the principal and superintendent, too. The plain, but potent, ideas presented in CITW are the right sort of nag about the classroom. You know good questions are important...what reminders would be helpful before meeting with your students tomorrow?

Keep in mind that many of these teachers teach in isolation. If you're the only K - 2 teacher in your school, you don't get the opportunity to talk about teaching with other primary teachers. But CITW provided a common language base so that when these groups of teachers were in the same room, they could move their thinking forward during those 90 minutes: A little prompting from the research presented with time to talk about what works in their own classrooms. It's easy for a lot of us to forget about all the challenges small rural schools have. Teachers there are just as passionate about teaching and learning...and just as overwhelmed (if not more) by the responsibilities posed by their jobs. I won't tell you that a discussion of CITW (or any other book) will change their lives or solve the problems they face, but it does provide a connection with teachers in other places. I have been told that even when "outside" PD opportunities are available, many of these rural teachers do not feel comfortable attending because they think others look down on their job situation (i.e. small school = hick). To have a time and space to safely meet and talk with other teachers is a powerful opportunity for them.

As I've prepared for these sessions, I've had an opportunity to really dig into the second edition of CITW. There are several improvements over the original version, beginning with the simple reorganization of chapters. I like that there is some structure now for learning environments and supporting students to understand and extend their knowledge and skills. I think this would be especially meaningful for beginning teachers who are learning how to put the pieces together and when to leverage particular strategies. The research for this edition of CITW has been updated. For my work with rural teachers, I was able to use Google Scholar to create links to the new citations. Cooperative Learning is not a new idea or strategy, but what we know about how it works in the classroom increases all the time. Fresh eyes are important. I don't want my doctor restricted to using information from 30 years ago...I want him/her to keep current, even if the disease isn't new. I like seeing new references in the educational research. It doesn't mean the old stuff was wrong, just helps us extend what we know. While the first edition supplied more specifics about the effectiveness of each strategy, the second gives better ideas about applying the strategies, along with brief case study examples. This edition even extends the ideas into the realm of technological ways to demonstrate learning. For example, how might teachers and students use blogs in the classroom to reflect on learning goals and set new objectives? I won't claim that the edtech way is better than pencil and paper---you know me better than that---but I do like the acknowledgement that there are multiple ways for students to access and demonstrate learning.

I've had a lot of fun this spring getting to know and learn from teachers all over Washington. We'll also be having 3-day summer events where we will bring many rural educators together for some intensive discussion and work. These are fabulous events. It's so much fun to see them interact with others who really "get" what their classroom world is like. CITW will continue to be a part of the sessions this summer. We'll dig in a little deeper, make more connections with the work they do, and extend it into assessment, grading, and data use. This year, it's all about getting back to basics.

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