Is Anything Truly Original?

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For decades, perhaps even earlier as some claim origins dating back to Aristotle’s Poetics, writers, and literary critics have uncovered a finite amount of story plots in fiction. Even the great Kurt Vonnegut argued this theory of story “shapes” in his College thesis that was rejected for its simplistic nature that there were indeed a set of shapes that all writing could be categorized by citing such favorites as Cinderella as a spin-off of the Bible.

What it boils down to is this… there are seven original story plots, Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, Rebirth, etc., and that every piece of fiction is actually a spin-off of the original. Beyond those first 7, no piece of fictional writing is truly original. So should new writing be published? Should new stories be shared?

This year marks my 19th in Education. Shorter than some, longer than others. Most of my years have been as a high school English teacher (thus, the connection to the aforementioned example) and for the past few years as a regional support consultant in the state in the areas of literacy, technology, and school improvement; but I digress.

Because of this, I am going to take some liberties… much of education parallels the 7 original story plots. Things are repackaged, renamed, shined up, fine-tuned, and sent back into the education community as “New” or “Innovative”. In fact, I would venture many seasoned teachers out there would agree with me and have seen the circular nature of programs and instructional strategies recycled and the educational wheel spinning and spitting them back out again when their number is called. Very few things that we as Educators use or do in our classrooms are Original.

I will repeat, you, and I for that matter, are not as original as we think we are.

We are spinoffs from the educators before us. And what we do, say, and use in our classrooms are mostly variations of what has been done before.

It’s a hard pill to swallow, but one that is mostly true, teachers have been doing variations of what you and I have done long before it was an idea in our heads. We are not the first… (fill in the blank…)

Take, for instance, a recent experience I had at Flipgrid Live. The first Day consisted of an Edcamp and a social gathering of Educators at Flipgrid HQ.

Day 2 was much the same. A Student Voice Conference with keynotes and breakout sessions and a sharing of personal stories and ideas to spark change. This was followed by a grand reveal of new updates, modifications, acquisitions, celebrations, photos, videos, singing, and on and on and on all focused on empowering student voice and connected classrooms. To many educators, these events are not considered as completely original or new. Even the new releases, ideas, and social media sharing celebrated variations that educators have been using for decades.

This brings me to my second point, or liberty I am going to take,,, Change, passion, meaningful learning does not take place vicariously. I attended this event as a learner, not a presenter, and while many know my story, the majority at this event did not. I have always been a Student Voice Advocate and Connected Educator. I have connected classrooms around the globe, traveled with kids internationally based off of those connections, connected teachers to resources and communities (in fact, many of you reading this could probably attest to the way I have helped connect you) but I am not the first one to do this. Many educators before me have been working towards similar verbs, connecting, student voice, the difference is this… social media and the desire to one-up each other often times brings out the negativity in people, and flipping through my Twitter feed I found these tweets and educators I respect trying to one-up the celebrations taking place at FlipgridLive.

When I became a connected educator and shared my story I met a wonderful educator named Sean Nash. We were prepping for a conference (Bacon Wrapped Lessons) and getting to know the other educators on the team (I was known as the student voice cheerleader). Sharing my classroom stories about amplification and connection was met with support and enthusiasm from the group. I felt proud and I had passion. Come to find out, Nash had been doing this for years- connecting his kids, traveling internationally, amplifying their voice; but not once did he squash my voice or diminish my experience. My story was not interrupted or replaced by his.

Educators, students, humans need to share their story. It may not be an original, but a spin-off, just as many argue what fiction is, but passion and change do not happen through vicarious circumstances. We are all working towards similar verbs, and as hard as it was for me not to interject my stories and past experiences as a connected educator and student voice cheerleader at the Flipgrid Live event I knew it was essential for their story to be told, the excitement be shared, and I, as a seasoned educator stood next to, not in front of, these educators and helped to lift them up just as so many have done for me. I was not there to interrupt, disvalue, or one-up them on social media that I have been doing it for years… every story should be told,,, whether it is one of the originals or a spin-off, each story adds value to our profession and supports the same passions or calls to actions that many of us support.

Research Isn’t Sexy… But You Need It Anyway!

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For some time now Steven Anderson and I have been reflecting on our own learning and professional development practices, looking for gaps in instruction and aiming to improve our craft. One of our longest conversations has been around research. In the work we do, we are constantly reading and attempting to understand the research behind the popular instructional movements of today. What we find is that much of the educational research available today isn’t used, isn’t cited, and really isn’t sexy.

Take, for instance, literacy instruction.

While trying to capture the success in student achievement scores in literacy from the research and studies done in the 1980s to the early 2000s the RTI (Response To Intervention) process and framework were created (Vellutino et al.). RTI was developed to help schools replicate the gains witnessed in this research. Today, RTI has morphed into MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Support) but very few districts have seen the increase in student-achievement that was initially experienced.

What happened?

While the RTI framework was adopted and utilized throughout the nation, the actual reading strategies and interventions used to achieve this growth were left behind. Implementing only half of the research (RTI Framework) while substituting different interventions and reading strategies have produced only limited results, leaving many administrators, teachers, and students frustrated. We know what works in literacy, and there is research behind it (most reading research is in the Psychology field) but still fail to dig into it, much less use it. (Kilpatrick)

Education research is vast. It spans disciplines, instruction, leadership, and many other components that contribute to a school. The problem has become that research has been co-opted by publishers, organizations, and individuals to sell one-size-fits-all quick fixes, programs and books. Many will ignore the fundamental findings of the research and insert their own ideas and practices that help these packages fly off the shelf.

With the abundance of research available, why do very few practitioners use it? What barriers exist that slow the transfer into the classroom? And what can be done to support administrators and practitioners in their quest of research-based methods?

We believe that there are 5 Main Barriers that exist which impacts how or if educators use research. While there could certainly be more added to this list, we feel these were the top 5 Problem Areas.

  1. Access and Abundance – Digging deep into research is typically done during college. Free access to databases, extensive libraries, experts for days. But upon graduation access is limited and met with the dreaded paywalls when locating many peer-reviewed articles, journals, and research. On top of limited access, the abundance of research out there is overwhelming. A simple search on Google Scholar with the keywords “Struggling Readers” lists 500,000 results. It is no wonder educators do not know where to begin when sifting through the research.

  2. Lack of Research in PD – There is no doubt the access to professional development is more abundant now than ever before. But that comes at a risk for individual educators and district leadership. We want to provide and participate in high-quality learning, however, much isn’t grounded in any realistic or research-based practices but instead, they are the ideas that someone read about or heard about or tweeted about. Anyone today can learn about innovation, makerspaces, augmented reality, really any instructional practice, create a slide deck and share it with the world. Instructional practices that impact student learning are based in more than tweets and blog posts. As learners and leaders, we have to model and understand where these ideas are coming from and are they based in sound research.

  3. Time – Time is a commonly mentioned barrier for educators. From new initiatives, faculty meetings, lesson planning, and connecting with students; time to do everything well is a deterrent for many educators when it comes to research.

  4. Research is Written For Researchers – Most research is written for other researchers, not necessarily the practitioners in the field. With this in mind, it is no wonder that many educators find it inaccessible because of the jargon used by a specific group of professionals. This jargon is filled with technical terminology that is understood as both a literal and figurative level by the group but leaves the rest of us guessing. (Education Jargon Generator)

  5. Distrust and Disconnect Between Theory and Practice – First, disconnect. There often times is a gap between theory and reality when reading research done by professionals in the same discipline but with little to no educational background. Ideas, studies, and strategies are examined with a skeptical lens and doubt is raised when research seems isolated or without consideration of the whole child or educator demands. What many educators do not realize is the disconnect within education research itself. With no agreed upon definition of research-based, no common training methods for preservice educators, and both qualitative and quantitative inquiries producing complementary but still fragmented results, the disconnect, cognitive bias, and skepticism of authority is not only confusing but creates a sense of distrust among the education community. Educators are more apt to believe other teachers implementing a program or using a specific framework over the years of research with statistics and data.  (D.W. Miller)

Items To Consider

  • Comparing Sources: One source isn’t gospel. Do your homework. Be open to opposing ideas. Don’t be married to an idea because you agree. If the research isn’t there, it’s not there. Be a critical discerner of information and ask lots of questions when you participate in professional development or are in a presentation. Ask where the research is and investigate yourself. Can you draw the same conclusions? Compile a list, according to your discipline, of leading theorists in the field to cross-check what you hear and read.

  • Research-Based Is A Convoluted Term: When designing activities that include techniques or strategies that have been research-proven, you can then call it “researched-based”. Since there are varying degrees of improvement (statistically significant yes, but how much) and are there approaches that work better and have a higher effect size, it is important to have a basic understanding of the research. If there isn’t any then that doesn’t mean you can’t use it. It just means you have to be more skeptical of the results, long-term.

  • Be A Researcher: No, this doesn’t mean you need to know about standard deviations or methodologies. What it means is be a student of your students. Gather data and examine what’s happening with student learning. What does the data show? Are the practices you are using improving student understanding? Are the results what you expected? What went wrong (or right!)? Be a reflective educator.

  • Always Remember To Keep Students First: Even research can get it wrong. You know your students. Always do what is best for them, even when that means going against what others say.

Resource/Reading List:

Assistive Technology to Support Struggling Readers Including Dyslexia: Microsoft Learning Tools for the Win!

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As one whose passion is blended between literacy and technology, I seek out the best EdTech resources to share with educators to support literacy in their classrooms. Most of my teaching and learning experience involves both Google and Apple options, but recent investigation and application allow me to say, without a doubt, in the area of Assistive Technology to support struggling readers in the classroom, Microsoft Learning Tools wins, hands down, and offers students a comprehensive option.

Adolescents who struggle with reading face multiple challenges throughout the school day. They are constantly confronted with a text they cannot read in almost every discipline, motivation and peer acceptance play a major role in identity and self-esteem, diagnostic tools to pinpoint exact deficits are difficult to locate, and many of their teachers have had little to no training in foundational skills of reading. While many adolescent readers may have difficulty in comprehension and vocabulary, a rising number of older students are diagnosed with Dyslexia and experience decoding issues.

Dyslexia is not a visual issue; kids don’t see letters and words backward or in reverse. Dyslexia is a specific learning disability in reading; which impacts learning, not intelligence. It’s mainly a problem in reading accurately and fluently.  Decoding issues are a sign of dyslexia and direct instruction beginning with letter-sound correlation is often needed, but there are immediate things all teachers can do to help students, even if they have no understanding of how to teach phonological awareness, phonics, and fluency. This support can come in the form of Assistive Technology. “In a broad sense, assistive technology (AT) is any device, piece of equipment or system that helps a person with a disability work around his challenges so he can learn, communicate or simply function better.” (Understood.org)

As previously stated, I believe that Microsoft Learning Tools provides students who struggle with reading, including those with dyslexia, a comprehensive set of free tools to support their daily literacy needs. If the goal of AT is to provide students tools for independence, I recommend all teachers become familiar with the top 5 ways I see these tools helping students:

  1. Text to Speech – Text to Speech provides both the visual and audio needed to support fluent readers. By seeing the words and hearing it read aloud, students are not only able to access text that may have been too difficult to read independently but are reinforcing vocabulary and fluency.
  2. Display Controls – Display Controls allow students to customize their reading experience by font, size, color, and language. But, Microsoft Learning Tools takes it a step further, allowing students options with spacing, syllables, and parts of speech.  There is also an option to mask part of the screen minimizing distractions and focusing on the line read. (Slideshow below highlights options available)

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  3. Annotation Tools – Many struggling readers often use all of their cognitive energy decoding text and can’t remember what they had just read. Annotation tools allow students to take notes as they read. simply by switching browsers, students can use Microsoft Edge to annotate and save images directly from web pages into their OneNote Notebook. While there are many annotation tools out there, this one was so simple, streamlined and provided many annotation options! Plus…
  4. Optical Character Recognition – Microsoft also allows students to the option to capture text from pictures and pdf when shared to OneNote. So not only can students annotate digital text, they can save their notes, share them, and then extract the text in the image to customize with text to speech or display controls.
  5. Dictionary – Finally, Microsoft Learning Tools allows students to learn unfamiliar words with the built-in dictionary. Not only does the dictionary define the word, but it also provides a picture and an audio clip to hear the word.

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All students should have the tools and resources needed to access content in the classroom. Microsoft Learning Tools allows students to not only access information but provides customization, annotation tools, OCR, and a visual and audio dictionary for FREE. The beauty of these Learning Tools is the ease and compatibility they have to work together. Supporting struggling readers in multiple areas not only supports their literacy development but provide options for future learning that they do in and out of school.

Strategies to Help Students Unlock Poetry

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Kids hate poetry. Well, not all kids, but by the time students entered my 9th Grade English class their feelings for poetry were typically between the levels of nonexistent to complete disdain. Students think poetry is difficult to understand, not relevant to their lives, or in a form that is not what they normally read or write.

Poetry depends on the effort of the reader.

Unlike a lengthy novel or even this blog post which allows me to write, explain, and use as much space as needed, poetry is intentional, compact, and demands an enhanced awareness from the reader. Educators can help students unlock the meaning of poems, which I believe, helps to change the negative perception of poetry into a positive one.  

Before Reading:

  • Notice the poet and title – what clues do they provide to help the reader understand the poem?
  • Identify form or visual clues – how many lines does the poem contain? (14 lines and looks like a square it is probably a sonnet) Is the structure familiar? Punctuation, font differences, stanzas, line placement (does the poem have a shape?) How could the form relate to the content?

After collecting initial thoughts based on the “Before Reading” preview of the poem, students should:

  • Read the poem multiple times
  • Read the poem out loud – your ears will pick up more than just reading it in your mind, does sound play an active role in the poem’s meaning?
  • Marginalia – annotate and make notes in the margins

During Reading:

  • Look up words that are unknown – every word that is in a poem is meant to be there. If a student does not know what a specific word means to have them look it up. Why did the author choose that specific word? How does knowing the definition of the word change what I am thinking?
  • Identify the speaker and situation – The speaker of the poem is not always the poet. What do I know about the speaker of this poem? Situation deals with time, location, and event. While a reader may not be able to identify all parts of the situation, the more one can identify aids into the understanding of the poem as a whole.
  • Identify tone
  • Notice rhythm and rhyme scheme – how is understanding enhanced?
  • Identify figurative language – imagery, metaphors, enjambment, slant rhyme, alliteration; how does the poet play with language and how does it enhance a reader’s understanding?
  • Notice the structure – Does the poem tell a story? Ask and answer a question? Structured like a speech or letter?

After Reading:

  • Reread margin notes
  • Reflect on notes, sound, information about the poem
  • Shared inquiry discussion with classmates

Providing students guidance and modeling on how readers unlock a poem’s meaning is a daunting task. Students should not be required to analyze and interpret every poem they read. Sometimes it is best to just read poems aloud to students, allowing them to appreciate the sound and interpret the poem holistically. In my own classroom, I would model these strategies of interpreting poetry for students before expecting them to do them on their own. We would read, write, and listen to all types of poems, some to unlock the meaning, others because I wanted them to hear some of my personal favorites. We would discuss poetry’s relationship to their lives, parallels to music, or current books they were reading all in verse. I wanted to reawaken their love of poetry, or at least open to giving it another chance.

When students become aware of intentional writing in poetry it enhances their awareness in the world. They begin to notice small nuances in what they see, read, watch, and hear and how these noticings amplify understanding of the world around them.

Climate Change: Teach Students How to Think, Not What to Think

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This blog post is part of the CM Rubin World Global Search for Education which poses a question each month to leading educators for reflection and sharing. This month’s question is Taking Climate Change seriously in our schools, what are your best tips for teaching about climate change.”

April 22, 2018, is recognized as Earth Day, a global event which began in 1970. Today, close to 1 billion people in 192 countries take part in the largest “civic-focused day of action in the world.” (Earthday.org) From endangered species to climate change, Earth Day campaigns are vast and span a wide-range of political, religious, and debatable topics. Students across the world will likely learn and partake in activities around these campaigns in celebration of Earth Day, like planting trees and taking care of gardens. Cleaning local parks, walking to school instead of driving, or raising money for the White Rhino; on April 22, many students will be helping to make a difference in the world.

BUT…

I challenge educators around the globe to think differently this Earth Day. Whether it be endangered species or climate change, our job as educators should not be planning activities for students to participate in or bestowing information upon them about the destruction of the planet; instead, on this civic-focused day, educators around the globe should focus on creating advocates. Our world needs young people who have the skills and resources to objectively look at an issue, evaluate and analyze multiple viewpoints, and articulate their own opinion.

We need to teach students how to think, not what to think.

The depletion of natural resources and climate change impact every human being on this planet, but it is also a political and religious topic which has multiple viewpoints. Doing a quick search on the internet provides users with hundreds of articles, videos, and advertisements aligned to both sides of the issue. There are as many experts claiming global warming is real as there are “experts” claiming that it is a hoax. Where does this leave educators and students?

First, I believe that technology has not only changed the way we communicate but also the access to information individuals have at their fingertips.

Second, because of this, it is imperative for educators to equip students with skills to swim in this digital sea of information with a degree of healthy skepticism.

Third, so that we help to create an empathetic global generation that can advocate for themselves and others.

So instead of having students walk to school instead of drive on Earth Day, teach them how to evaluate and analyze the information they find on the web about climate change (both sides of the issue). Answer questions such as: Is this a reliable source? What is the author’s bias? What evidence is used to back their claim? Can I find this information multiple places? What do I think?

Flood their environments with examples of advocacy campaigns, multiple modes of communication, and experts to get advice from. Answer questions such as: Now that I have my opinion and the evidence to back it up, what are my next steps? How do people take an idea and create a movement? Which forms and modes of my message will be best to use? How can one person be an advocate for themselves and others?
And support action designed by students. Earth Day, activism, movements that transform the way our young people think rarely are a direct result of an event that the teacher planned. To empower student advocates, efforts must stem internally and be supported by the adults they are surrounded by. Student action that will carry over into their adulthood must be a process that they experience from the start, what do I think? and why does it matter? to the very end. To have students participate in events on Earth Day on a deep and transferable level, we must teach them how to think, not what to think and empower them to create the movement.