Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Boys will be boys

I definitely saw the trend during my 17 years in high school. Compared to girls, boys struggle in school. Year after year, the top performers were overwhelmingly females. Here's an article from the Kansas City Star that refers to current brain research that finds that, by golly, boys are wired differently than girls. Here's a suggestion for teachers if they have some over-active boys, and who doesn't?

Gurian urges teachers to allow kids — boys in particular — to walk freely around the room, squeeze stress balls, deliver papers to the principal’s office, build a report instead of writing one, and work often in same-sex groups.

Good food for thought. Giving a little latitude might help some students perform. Of course, in one particular 2nd grade class, (you know who you are!) you might have more traffic than an Indy speedway.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Building Blocks

Kim Marshall has written much about school improvement and has some excellent ideas about the role of the principal in developing more effective teachers. His article, Recovering from HSPS (Hyperactive Superficial Principal Syndrome) A Progress Report, has some excellent insights on that role. Some of you are probably ready to diagnose me right now! His aricle gives some suggestions on walkthroughts that I'm workin on currently. (The biggest change is one I mentioned a couple weeks ago, namely giving verbal feedback within 24 hours instead of relying on written or e-mail feedback).

He also delineates the structures that need to be in place in a school for significant progress to be made. Here are those four elements and a quick assessment of where Halecrest stands (from one perspective, of course :)

Clear grade by grade curriculum proficiency targets

The standards are definitely in place, but I'm not sure we have a definition of what proficiency looks like in every grade level. Our collaborations around student work are getting us closer to being able to articulate proficiency in writing, for example. I see us slowly, but surely building a common understanding as we spend time discussing student work in light of the standards.

Teacher teams that plan curriculum units with an end in sight

This is very much hit and miss right now. Our work last June was a good start at designing a unit of study around the standards at a particular grade level. We as yet have not moved into planning curriculum units on a consistent basis. It would be good to knock off a couple of collaboratively planned units this spring. It wouldn't take much to plan a lesson around writing. We could even use the models in Routman's book as a springboard for those plans.

Teams engaging in Japanese-style lessons study

We have discussed videotaping our lessons for reflection. The ILT sort of volunteered to do that this year, yet it hasn't got off the ground. I think it's time I put my money where my mouth is and jump out there to videotape a lesson. That will be on my short list of New Year's Resolutions.

A power "learning cycle" in which teachers use student work and data to improve teaching and learning

Of all of these elements, I believe we are farthest along on this one. The staff has embraced the use of data to inform instructional decisions. Our recently adapted Learning Cylce Planning Tool is a step in the direction of refining our dig into data to make specific decisions about students and develop SMARTE goals that can be reviewed and analyzed. I'm hoping this will lead us naturally into developing those curriculum units based on our data analysis, which in turn could lead naturally into lesson study of those very curriculum units.

Thinking about these elements of quality schools gives me great encouragement. The work we are doing is not a band aid approach. We are taking the long view of careful analysis of what students need, how we can deliver that instruction, and assessing if we have been successful. I probably need to be reminded of the adage that "Go slow to go fast" more anyone.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Schools make a difference, not demographics

Or, so says Joanne Jacobs, who just wrote a book about a high school charter school in San Jose. Here she talks about some of the lessons learned by that school in its quest to raise the achievement of disadvantaged students. She also writes about successful elementary schools. Here are some of the insights from a study by Stanford's Michael Kirst who interviewed 257 high achieving elementary schools to determine what they do differently.
Effective schools make student achievement the school's top priority. The principal and teachers define plans to improve teaching and set measurable goals for exceeding API targets.

This has got to be our primary focus. At Halecrest, we are still trying to get our walk to match our talk. I honestly can say that we are getting closer to this ideal every day.
At these schools, reading, writing and math curricula are designed to teach the state's academic standards; teaching is consistent within grades and from grade to grade. Teachers don't close the classroom door and do their own thing.

Once again, we are approaching this goal. For the past year and a half, we have been striving for consistency. The collaboration is helping us achieve that goal. The process may seem too slow at times for some, and too fast for others, which means we are probably moving at a pace that is just right for all.
Principals manage instructional improvement with district support. High-scoring schools tend to be in districts that set clear expectations and evaluate principals based on student achievement.

My take on Chula Vista Elementary District is that this describes them perfectly. The expectations and the support are not lacking in the least.
At high-scoring schools, principals and teachers use data on student performance to fine-tune teaching, target help to students who are falling behind and identify teachers who need to improve.

Without this type of approach, all we have are opinions.
Parent involvement programs, strong discipline policies and collaboration and training opportunities for teachers had some benefit, but not nearly the impact of prioritizing achievement, implementing a coherent, standards-based curriculum, using data to improve teaching and providing adequate teaching resources.

It's good not to lose sight of these priorities and it serves as an excellent checklist to make sure that we are on the proper course.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Here I was ready to hit the sack when I come across this tidbit thanks to Joanne Jacobs. It appears the Gates Foundation investment in small schools is getting results in reading and language arts but faltering in math. (I sure hope their technology skills are booming!) Does this sound familiar?
"[W]e concluded that the quality of student work in all of the schools we studied is alarmingly low," the evaluation says. "This is not surprising, however, because students cannot demonstrate high-quality work if they have not been given assignments that require deep understanding" and higher-order thinking skills.

That sounds like something Eldon Anderson has been telling us the last two weeks and it definitely is exactly what Marilyn Burns is saying. Let's keep digging deep into quality math instruction. Our kids will thank us when they reach high school.


Hmmm, one post a month! What does seem to be the problem here?
Since we have been focusing on math instruction this month I thought it interesting to note the connections between the Marilyn Burns article on Math instruction with the Regie Routman principles. Here are Marilyn's 10 Big Ideas for Math. Notice how they dovetail nicely with Routman.

1. Success comes from understanding.
2. Have Students explain their reasoning.
3. Math class is a time for talk.
All three of these reinforce Routman's emphasis on thinking and giving students opportunity to think and discuss before writing.

4. Make writing a part of math learning
I think Regie would give a hearty cheer to this statement.

5. Present math activities in context.
Authentic math activities makes as much sense as an authentic writing activity with a real audience.

6. Support learning with manipulatives.
7. Let your students push the curriculum.
8. The best activities meet the needs of all students.
Whether it's shared writing,independent reading, or conferring with students, Routman always keeps differentiation and individual needs in the forefront.

9. Confusion is part of the process. (No, this is not in reference to one of my e-mails!)
10. Encourage different ways of thinking.

These are a few connections I've noted. Basically, good instruction has many common attributes.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Give 'em the real thing

I've been thinking about our discussion related to isolated skill work compared to the whole-part-whole philosophy espoused by Regie Routman. Years ago I heard someone describe to me how tellers were trained to detect counterfeits. According to Bankers Online training is based heavily on the trainers being able to feel the difference between counterfeit and authentic money. This is the most effective means because the tellers handle so many real dollars day after day that when they feel the fake, it stands out like a sore thumb . (No pun intended!)

I was thinking of this in conjunction with practice exercises that provide errors for students to correct. What evidence is there that this isolated skill practice transfers to independent writing? It makes more sense to me that students will benefit from more time spent immersed in reading. Read alouds, partner reading, guided reading, and independent reading all seem to me to have a greater impact on students' knowledge and facility of language.

I'd love to read the thinking of others on this.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Encouraging Words

Ms. Eilat's 5th graders took the time to write me a thoughtful and kind note on Boss's Day and I thought I would take the opportunity to reciprocate by sharing a letter of gratitude with them.

Dear Mighty 5th Graders,

Your letter on Monday really made my day. I appreciate the thoughts which were both kind and funny! I hope you appreciate the power writing has on people. Your letter lifted my spirits and encouraged me even thought quitting is the last thing on my mind. Working at Halecrest is truly a joy because of the dedicated and inspiring young people, like yourselves, as well as the professional and compassionate staff, like Ms. Eilat. I hope you will continue to develop those outstanding writing skills and use them to write notes and letters to your family and friends who have helped you along the way.


Dan Winters

Monday, October 10, 2005

Great Writing - Go no farther than Halecrest!

Today I had the chance of visiting two first grade classes that had both recently finished a non-fiction writing piece. I was impressed with the variety of writing that the students had produced as well as the detail and organization of the paragraphs. While talking to the students and subsequently, the teachers, I found several elements that contributed to these wonderful examples of independent writing. The teachers had included both fiction and non fiction read alouds or shared reading as a springboard to discussion. Modeled and shared writing was the next step in getting students more experience with the content and language they would need to write on their own. Students then had a chance to discuss what they were going to write before putting pen to paper. All of this prewriting made for some high level first grade writing, including English Learners. Whale Done Teachers and students!

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Do we really have time for all this writing?

That is certainly a valid question. Here are a few thoughts from Regie Routman on the issue.
So when teachers say to me I don't have time to teach writing every day, my response is Yes, you do, if you value it; if you don't have time, you're valuing something else more (perhaps skills in isolation or phonics drills or worksheets). Take a look at your teaching day, and decide what's really most important for helping students to become independent learners. Writing is one of the best ways I know for developing deep thinking, so I make time for it.

I especially agree that writing promotes higher level thinking and reflective learning. If we ask students to explain in writing what they have learned in math, science, and social science, they will understand more clearly what was taught and strengthen those thinking muscles. Write On!

Friday, September 23, 2005

Back from Hibernation

It's been a while since I've been able to post here. Getting the school year off to a good start seemed to be a little more pressing. Well, here's a great article on the 10 myths about reading instruction. This would be a good topic for a staff dialogue. The myth about phonemic awareness caught my eye. I recall my first year in elementary education (last year) asking one of my kindergarten teachers to explain to me what exactly was meant by phonemic awareness!! Let's hope my primary teachers have a better understanding of its importance than I did.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Halecrest beliefs about Writing

A hearty thank you to Sea World, our fine partner, and the wonderful Joy Wolf, as well as Soung Pae who contributed to a fruitful day of learning to kick off the 2005-06 school year. As a staff here are the top seven beliefs about writing that we developed with the assistance of Soung.
We believe...
Reading and writing need to support each other (share literature).
Writing everyday (anytime writing) isessential.
Students should write with a purpose; keep audience/reader in mind.
Authentic and honest modeling and using whole/part/whole methodology is crucial.
We need to have high expectations for writing quality.
We must see ourselves as writers, take risks, and create a safe environment for students to take risks.
Students should talk about their writing with teacher, peers and the whole class.

This will be a work in progress throughout the year, but what a great start we've made!

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Too good to be true?

This paragraph in Chapter 1 of Writing Essentials is one of the reasons why Routman is so appealing to read as an educator.
A major purpose of this book is to help you develop and refine your beliefs and practices for teaching writing effectively and in a way that is sensible and enjoyable. By reducing the clutter in our teaching lives - the overplanning, the unnecessary activities, the paper load, all the "stuff" that takes our time and energy and does little to improve teaching and learning - we bring joy back into our work. Nothing I do in classrooms is difficult or draining. As you read this book and get ideas, you will be thinking, I can do that, too.

I hope you have this intended response as you dig into Routman's book.

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones But Words Really Hurt

As we work to improve our skills in teaching writing, one element that Regie Routman highlights so effectively throughout her book is the central place of the realtionship between the teacher and the student. She emphasizes the need to speak to students in a respectful and kind voice. She also says that teachers should use supportive language in conferenceas and always begin with positive comments. Criticism kills! I think her approach dovetais nicely with the Whale Done philosophy in Ken Blanchard's book. Students will work harder and with greater purpose if they believe that you are for them. It's an old cliche, but full of truth that, "They won't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

Friday, August 19, 2005

Writing to understand

One of the purposes of writing is that it can help one more fully understand a concept or line of thinking. This was illustrated to me while reading Thomas Friedman's book, The World is Flat, a wonderful gift from one of our very kind teachers. Friedman was discussing the genesis of his book idea and said this:
I wanted to drop everything and write a book that would enable me to understand how this flattening process happened and what its implications might be for countries, companies, and individuals.

That really struck me. He indicates that the process of writing the book would better help him understand this phenomenon that he had been uncovering. This underscores the great value in writing across the curriculum. Students should be encouraged and taught to write a summary of a new concept in math or a finding in science. They shuold also be able to write as they explore new ideas. The process of writing will hellp refine their thinking and cement new concepts. This announcement of an NCTE conference gives more food for thought on this topic. Professor Jeffrey Golub says,
We can do so much more with writing than simply use it to show what we have learned. We can actually accomplish the learning itself through writing.

Janet Swenson adds,
These actions are dependent, however, on a student's ability to 're-view' what they have been thinking at a particular point in time--in other words, asking students to write is not always for the purpose of measuring their learning about a particular subject; sometimes it is for the purpose of improving the quality of their thinking.

So, by students writing they can accomplish more learning and improve their quality of thinking, or maybe even write a national bestseller like Thomas Friedman! Let's get to writing!!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Qualities of great schools

I'm always interested to read studies that define the qualities of great schools. This article in the Toronto Star describes the results of a study by economist David Johnson which will be published Thursday by the C.D. Howe Institute. In this study he found evidence that socioeonomic status is not an unbendable influence on student performance. Comparing several demographics across 3,000 schools he uncovered several that outperformed similar schools. He visited 13 of these higher performing schools and found these characteristics.
The teachers worked in teams, particularly in the primary grades. In some cases, schools started preparing children for testing from the time they started kindergarten, but not at the expense of other activities, teachers said.

Higher performing schools had strong extracurricular programs and effectively communicated their expectations about homework and behaviour to parents.

Schools with lower socio-economic data relied heavily on the strong leadership of their principal to provide discipline and communicate expectations.

Except for that last one :), I think we can discuss how those characteristics can be applied to Halecrest. I also like some of the practices of Burnhamthorpe Public School, one of his exemplar programs.
Every month the entire school focuses on one concept that improves literacy. One month the whole school worked on how to phrase a question.

The parent council at Burnhamthorpe puts out a newsletter with articles on how to nurture children's intelligence and improve literacy.

There's an emphasis on the arts that has made for an award-winning choir, visiting opera performers, choral and jazz music. Extracurricular activities range from chess club and math club to line dancing and soccer.

Every Burnhamthorpe student has a T-shirt with the school motto: "Good, better, best. Never let it rest until my good is better and my better is my best."

Definitely some ideas worth thinking about.

The purpose of staff development

I came across this quote in a book by Richard Dufour, The Principal as Staff Developer, and it says better than I what the goal of staff development should be.

The ultimate goal of training programs is not to create individuals who unthinkingly follow a cookbook approach to teaching, but to develop thoughtful professionals who have the ability to assess and revise their own actions in order to improve the likelihood of success for their students.

Quality staff development is about thinking and learning.

Craft - The Missing Link

No, I'm not weighing in on the evolution versus intelligent design debate - at least not yet :) I was reading Ralph Fletcher and Joann Portalupi's book Craft Lessons and noticed the similarity of their emphasis with that of Regie Routman. Here's what they say on pages 2 and 3.

Many teachers show students elaborate prewriting strategies (webs, story maps, time lines, outlines), and expect students to use them. They give students detailed editing checklists to use, either individually or in pairs.
The middle element - craft - gets the least attention. During this part of the authoring cycle, students are left on their own to make a thousand decisions in their texts about leads, voice, structure, supporting detail, setting, mood , character, and so on. This is unfortunate because craft is the cauldron in which the writing gets forged.

This is the very aim of modeled and shared writing. Students need to be given explicit examples of a writer making those myriad decisions (modeled) as she writes, then provided the opportunity to join the teacher in creating a product (shared). Having taught 9th grade English over 10 years ago, I wish I could go back and try it again. I'm afraid those poor students received very little in the way of modeled or shared writing.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

We don't need no stinking writing program!

That's a take off from some bad movie, I think. Regie Routman would agree that there is no perfect writing program that is waiting for us to discover it. We need to develop into a team of excellent writing teachers.
Ms. Routman provides a summary of the main components of a writing workshop:
1. Establish a genuine purpose and audience for all writing
2. Start by demonstrating (writing aloud, shared writing, sharing exemplary writing).
3. Gradually release responsibility to students (a samll group or partners conversing before writing or writing together, sustained writing with your guidance).
4. Celebrate, respond, evaluate, teach, amd move forward (have conferences with students).

We will be focusing our staff development this year on the second and fourth items on the list, but I think the first one bears constant attention. Students will genuinely be excited about writing when the writing has a real purpose and a clearly intended audience.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

From the Mouth of Babes

Here's a little piece of authentic writing from my house this summer. I just got through scolding my boy for messing with his sister and I noticed that he was over in the corner concentrating on something. As I got a little closer, I noticed that he was writing a note for a very real audience - me - with a cryptic message.

As it turns out everyone except me had been ill the last couple days and Phillip thought now was as good a time as any for me to take my turn. More evidence that with the right motivation students will write without even being "prompted". We celebrated our little tyrant's note and searched his backpack for arsenic.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Lasting Change

Regie Routman describes what happens when a staff of committed professionals work together to produce lasting change.
Change happens one person at a time, one school at a time, but when it's lasting change (not the fake kind that comes from a teaching-to-the-test obsession),change brought about by hearts and minds working together as knowledgeable, caring colleagues, it has a very large ripple effect. When our work gains credibility in the eyes of our colleagues and the public, excellent teaching becomes the norm rather than the exception.

My wish for Halecrest is that we will become such a school.

Write to an Audience Every Time

Or so says Regie Routman over and over again in her fine book Writing Essentials. In fact, the first of her 12 Writing Essentials for all grades is...
Write for a specific reader and a meaningful purpose. Write with a particular audience in mind (this may be the author herself or himself) and define the writing task.

Throughout her book she provides clear rationale for this idea and myriad examples of outstanding student writing motivated by a real audience. This goes to the heart of why I have enjoyed reading Routman's books. Her ideas are full of common sense and they work. I can see our students developing a procedural handbook for classrooms, lunchroom, playground activities and much more (p 113). I'm eagerly anticipating the collaboration among our staff around her strategies and thinking. I'm with Regie encouraging our teachers to...
Imagine happy and energetic students and teachers, quality writing, and high-test scores! That's what happens when the writing program is all about excellent writing for genuine purposes and real audiences.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Celebrating excellence or just plain mediocrity

Here's an excellent post by Joanne Jacobs on the celebration of mediocrity. It made me think once again about our Recognition Assemblies. What message are we sending to student and parents about what we value?


Here's an idea to get some focus on math and community service as well. The St. Jude Children's Research Hospital Math-a-Thon helps raise money for child cancer research and builds math skills.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Joseph Marsh, great American revolutionary

So, you've never heard of Joseph Marsh? Well, don't be discouraged. I only stumbled upon him recently reading David Mccullough's book
John Adams. It appears that young John Adams ran into a lackluster "churl" of a teacher early in his educational life and told his dad he wanted to be a farmer. Dad decided to switch schools and Adams came into contact with the aforementioned Joseph Marsh. The change was immediate and powerful.
John made a dramatic turn and began studying in earnest.

What a wonderul illustration of the power of a teacher. In this case we observe the power of a poor teacher to nearly kill the spirit of an obviously capable young student as well as the power of an outstanding teacher to re-ignite interest and enthusiasm toward learning. A salute to all the teachers who have paved the way for great achievements of their students both past, present, and future!

Thursday, July 07, 2005

To worksheet or not to worksheet

I got through a couple pleasure books these first two weeks (I highly recommend the Circle Trilogy by Ted Dekker), and finally picked up Regie Routman again. I came across this tidibit on page 142 of Writing Essentials that is worth thinking about.
I have not been able to locate any research showing that worksheets or drills carry over into students' successful application of skills in authentic reading/writing contexts. In fact, decades of research show that drills do not improve student writing. Much like passing the Friday spelling test, students can perform the skill in isolation, but they don't apply it in the course of daily writing and reading.

She goes on to explain that the skill we want students to master islearned best in the context of a meaningful piece of writing where the student can see how the skill being taught makes the writing clearer and more understandable to the reader. Food for thought as we consider purchasing a truckload of workbooks for our literacy program.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Blogs Take Over the World

OK, maybe I got a little excited after seeing a trailer for War of the Worlds and reading this article. The potential for increasing communication and immediate feedback certainly exists with this medium. I'd love to see a few teachers start a blog with their classes. Already one of our future 3rd graders started a blog this summer. It's all about reading and writing and instant feedback. Join the fun!

Check out the website of Lewis Elementary (mentioned in the above article). This is a model of the type of website I'd like us to create here at Halecrest.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Math instruction and differentiation

I was recently reading an article by Marilyn Burns on teaching for understanding in math. You can catch lots of useful articles and ideas on the Eisenshower National Clearinghouse site. Her emphasis on teaching for understanding instead of just memorizing skills and facts was reinforced by an example of learning stations found on pp. 62-65 of Carol Ann Tomlinson's book. The 4th grade example has stations that include:

Teacher Direct Instruction where the teacher gives min-lessons to small groups.

Proof Place where students use manipulatives and drawn examples to explain their answers.

Practice Plaza where students practice difficult concepts and reflect on their work.

The Shop where students apply math concepts to help Mr. Fuddle run his store or shop for items.

Project Place where students use math and connect it to a larger world that includes topics of high student interest.

There is a lot more detail provided in the book as to the specifics of organizing these stations. I'll just emphasize that these stations not only provide lots of opportunities for giving students work at their readiness level, but they present math problems in a variety of contexts which truly builds understading.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

If a tree falls in the woods...

I'll be posting comments throughout the summer if for no other reason than to clarify my thinking as I take in new ideas about literacy. I'd love to hear from any of you who are reading this blog or reading something else of interest. If you find the comment section too daunting to overcome, simply send me an e-mail ( and I can post your comment from the e-mail. Or, if you don't want the comment posted, just let me know and I'll save it for my reading pleasure.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Spelling differentiation

Carol Ann Tomlinson provides an example of a 6th grade class differentiating a spelling activity (p. 52). Students are pretested and given words at the apropriate level. These color coded levels are then the basis for their work with spelling words. Students do a variety of excercises to learn the spelling words and are tested. Any words that are misspelled are added to the new list. In this way students are continually challenged at an appropriate level.

How does this compare with the spelling programs at your grade level? Is every student on the same page of lists? How do you account for individual differences in ability?

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Planning with the end in mind

Carol Ann Tomlinson elaborates on the subject of having clear objectives for a lesson. She states:
During planning, a teacher should generate specific lists of what students should know (facts), understand (concepts and principles), and be able to do (skills) by the time the unit ends. Then the teacher should create a core of engaging activities that offer varied opportunities for learning the essentials she has outlined.

This idea of backwards planning is one that we will be engaging in as we begin to map out our Language Arts block on June 20. It's an excellent practice that can be applied on a teacher, grade level, or school level.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Great teachers can make anything interesting

We're back to Carol Ann Tomlinson's book The Differentiated Classroom again and here's a quote from Paul Fleischman who wrote Dateline: Troy, which illustrates the events of The Iliad with headlines from contemporary newspapers. I think his thoughts are right on the mark.
My real hope is that teachers will be inspired to do what the best teachers have been doing all along-making seemingly remote subjects real and relevant to their students...I think that showing them meaningful links to their own lives will make real readers of them, rather than takers of tests and memorizers of facts. This applies to every subject in the curriculum. Why else did I get a D in trigonometry? I was unconvinced that mastering sines and tangents was interesting in its own right or of any practical value to me. I'm confident, however, that the right teacher could convince me (p. 41).

Aint that the truth. I still vividly remember the great teachers in my life. Through their creativity and passion, they ignited a thirst to know more about the given subject.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Product modifications

Ms. Rogers gives us one more area that can be modified for GATE students.
Product modifications can include transformations, real world problems, and real audiences as the ways students might use or demonstrate what they have learned.

I think this is one of the most doable modificatinos that can take place for GATE students. These students will thrive if given the opportunity to apply what they are learning in real world scenarios. Looking for ways to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in unique and creative ways will keep them hooked and cement their learning at a much deeper level. Can you think of an assignment that is coming up in the next couple weeks where this might be possible? How about giving it a try.

Process modifications

Karen Rogers goes on to explain the second element of instruction that can be modified to differentiate:
Process modifications can include adding (or substituting) higher-order thinking, open-endedness, group process, freedom of choice, proof and reasoning, pacing, and flexibility.

Think about a specific lesson that is coming up soon. Now, how can you adapt it to allow for some of these elements? Can you incorporate higher order thinking opportunities for some students? Is there a place where you can leave things open ended? Is it possible to have students working on this in a group? Are there elements of choice that can be exploited for the benefit of gifted students? What about allowing for acceleration for some students? These are good principles to keep in mind as you consider the effect of the lesson plan on gifted students.

Content modification

Here is the first possible modification that would benefit gifted students - for that matter - all students.
Content modifications can include adding (or substituting) abstractions, complexity, variety, organization, study of people, methods of inquiry, and a variety of forms of subject-based acceleration.

Notice the emphasis is not on quantity, but on variety and depth. Gifted students can take an objective to a new level. Instead of tutoring the struggling student, they should be given an exciting and challenging alternative. Here's a challenge. Pick a large assignment that you are going to give before the year is out and make a concerted effort to make sure that your gifted students have a choice from one or more of the options above. The results will be exhilarating for the students and teacher alike.

Gifted students and differentiation

One of our more involved parents shared with me a book she has been reading called Re-Forming Gifted Education by Karen B. Rogers, Ph.D. Her own children are gifted and she is educating herself on what she can do and what schools should provide in the way of educating gifted children. Her interest in the welfare of her children is well founded. Plenty of research shows that gifted children can easily be neglected. Halecrest's proud history of GATE education is not something that should be quickly dismissed. Teaching gifted children well is no small feat. Is it possible that some of the negative aspects of that program have led us to go to an extreme where our gifted students are now being neglected? We will definitely be digging into this topic in the years to come. Meanwhile, I'll be posting a few thoughts from the aforementioned book to highlight some of the same thoughts that we've been considering from Tomlinson's book. Your comments on GATE education at Halecrest today are quite welcome. If you still can't navigate the blog comments, feel free to e-mail.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Challenging struggling students

Here are a couple quotes from Ms. Tomlinson that are worthy of consideration:
Through increased understanding of both psychology and the brain, we now know that individuals learn best when they are in a context that provides a moderate challenge.

Searching for the perfectly moderate challenge is the quest of the differentiating teacher. Will the assignment be so hard that frustration overwhelms the student? Will the assignment be so easy that boredom seeps in? Here's how Tomlinson says it:
Put another way, students who consistently fail lose thier motivation to learn. Students who succeed too easily also lose their motivation to learn.

She also challenges teachers to never give up on any student:
It is unacceptable for any teacher to respond to any group of children (or any individual child) as though the children were inappropriate, inconvenient, beyond hope, or not in need of focused attention.

We all would benefit from checking our assumptions at the door. I know I've been guilty of giving up on students. Let's hold each other accountable to find a way to reach every child.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

How well do you know your students?

The discussion on readiness is only one part of three elements that Carol Ann Tomlinson mentions as important factors to consider when modifying the content, process or product of a particular lesson. She also mentions student variability in the areas of interest and learning profiles. It's imperative that the teacher knows intimately the interests and preferred mode of instruction for each student in order to tailor lessons to those findings.

She goes on to provide a chart that describes the general principles of differentiation such as respectful tasks, flexible grouping, and ongoing assessment and adjustment. She then lists a range of instructional and management strategies to accomplish this task and heeeeeeere they are:

multiple intelligences
taped material
anchor activities
varying organizers
varied texts
varied supplementary materials
literature circles
tiered lessons
tiered centers
tiered products
learning contracts
small-group instruction
group investigation
independent study
varied questioning strategies
interest centers
interest groups
varied homework
varied joural prompts
complex instruction

More detailed discussions will follow on some of these strategies. Suffice it to say that the options are plentiful.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Advanced learners need ...

Our last strategy in this series deals with what to do for advanced learners who already know the skill, already have the understanding, or are able to grasp the concept quicker than others. Here's what Tomlinson says should be done:
Activities and products that are quite complex, open-ended, abstract, and multifaceted, drawing on advanced reading materials; or
A brisk pace of work, or perhaps a slower pace to allow for greater depth of exploration of a topic.

It's easy to see how organizing lessons with these things in mind will build on the strengths of these students and allow them to go deeper, increasing their learning and maintaining their enthusiasm. Compare that response to the reaction one has when facing a page full of exercises created for practice of a skill that has already been mastered.

After reading through all these strategies and feeling a little overwhelmed by the complexity of the teacher load for differentiating lessons, I was encouraged by this timely reminder for balance.
However, you need not differentiate all elements in all possible ways. Effective differentiated classrooms include many times in which whole-class, nondifferentiated fare is the order of the day. Modify a curricular element only when (1) you see a student need and (2) you are convinced that modification increases the likelihood that the learner will understand important ideas and use important skills more thorougly as a result.

What a relief! Teachers must pick and choose those activities where differentiation will meet the identified needs listed above.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Don't beat a dead horse

Our conversation on readiness will now move over to advanced students. What adjustments need to be made for them? Here's the first strategy advocated by Carol Ann Tomlinson in her book The Differentiated Classroom.
To skip practice with previously mastered skills and understandings.

The questions that need to be asked about practice and homework are, "How much is needed to reinforce the concept?" and "When are they ready to move on." Boredom will set in if students are doing endless practice when they have already mastered the skill or objective. These students will benefit from the suggestions in the next two strategies.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Go slow to go fast

Strategy #4
A more deliberate pace of learning

This one also has a great deal of common sense. It's just not possible, nor productive to keep plowing ahead for the student that is not ready. The trick is how to manage the class for those students that need more time to absorb a difficult or new concept. Extended day clearly meets that need. What are some other ideas out there? Does anyone have some strategies that are effective in carving out more time for the struggling student?

Friday, April 22, 2005


Strategy #3
Activities or products that are more structured or more concrete, with fewer steps, closer to their own experiences, and calling on simpler reading skills.

Logically, the struggling student will not do well with abstract concepts. Chunking is a term I've heard a lot, meaning breaking down complex objectives into bite size learning steps, and it's another way of describing this strategy. What are the classroom management obstacles that need to be overcome to make this happen? It wuold be great to share ideas and observe one another in action right here at Halecrest to support one another in pulling this off successfully.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

What makes a successful program?

Joanne Jacobs highlights two schools from Milwaukee where stark differences in student achievement exist. This underscores a discussion I had recently with some colleagues who were saying that the program doesn't make the differnce. The key is the implementation which hinges on teacher ability, coaching, a collaborative culture, and administrative, support.

Not ready? How about some direct instruction?

Strategy #2
More opportunities for direct instruction or practice

This one is a no-brainer. The key, of course, is giving them instruction and pratice that is right at their ability level. Practice is only beneficial if they are getting practice and being successful. More direct instruction is the big winner. How can one organize the classroom to allow for direct instruction for these students? I've seen plenty of research that confirms the fact that struggling students benefit most from direct instruction. The Standards Plus Curriculum that we invested in this year is a useful tool for that purpose. We are trying it out in some of the Extended Day programs, but it could also be used as an intervention in your classroom. Let me know if you want to take a peak.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Ready or not, well not exactly

Readiness, along with interest and learning profile vary with each student depending on the skill being taught, says Carol Tomlinson. Over the next seven days, I'll be posting Tomlinson's strategies that can be applied for students with less developed readiness along with reflective questions on how that might be applied at Halecrest. Feel free to jump right in any time. :) Strategy #1
Someone to help them identify and make up gaps in their learning so they can move ahead

OK, I can hear you all crying out from the depths of primary to the heights of upper grades, "See, we've been telling you all along that we need more help." Remind me to put that on the agenda when we look at proposed budget for 05-06. Seriously! But first, how can we align the personnel resources that we now have to help students identify and make up gaps in their learning? Are our instructional assistants being used in this way? Do our current assessments give us appropriate data to know where student gaps are? I'm very encouraged by the Everyone a Reader training scheduled for April 21. The volunteers that come out of this program should be able to move children forward by addressing their reading gaps. Thanks a million to Barbara and Linda for their persistence and determination to bring this to Halecrest once again.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Clarity leads to differentiation

Carol Ann Tomlinson reminds teachers that articulating what's essential for learners to recall, understand, and be able to do in a given domain helps students focus on what's important. Here's what she says about teacher's clarity on these issues:
The teacher's clarity ensures that struggling learners focus on essential understandings and skills; they don't drown in in a pool of disjointed facts. Similarly, the teacher ensures that advanced learners spend their time grappling with important complexities rather than repeating work on what they already know.

Looking at the extremes might be a good way to evaluate how your students are doing. Think about those struggling learners. Does it appear that they are focused on essential understanding and skills or drowning in a pool of disjoinged facts? How about your advanced students? Are they grappling with important complexities or repeating work on what they already know? Food for thought!

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Carol Ann Tomlinson in The Differentiated Classroom quotes Seymour Sarason who says

"Any classroom efforts that aren't powered by an understanding of what keep schildren eagerly pursuing knowledge are doomed to fail.

Here's some advice a colleague of hers once gave to a fellow teacher who was struggling with students who were drifting away.

Forget all the books and manuals for a minute. Go back to what it was that used to make science magic for you. Think about what it used to feel ike to do science. Then assume the kids you teach will only have your class to learn about sciene. It's their only science class-ever. What do you need to teach them so they will love science? Thnink about that for a minute. Then change one part of what I just asked you to do. Assume you only have three kids to teach: your own three children. And assume that at the end of the year, you will die. What would you teach them about science in that year?"

OK, so that's a little dramatic, but it gets at the heart of the matter. The best learning we have experienced in life has us filled with a sense of wonder and discovery. How do we create those types of experiences for our children every day? Quite a challnge!

Saturday, April 02, 2005

The hope of research based practices

This article by Debora Stipek, dean of the Stanford University school of education provides some excellent recommendations and cautions about the potential benefits and pitfalls of pursuing research-based educational practices. Here are some samplings:
They (US Department of Education) recommend, for example, research that is embedded in practice and that involves collaborations between researchers and practitioners. Unlike the traditional linear model of “research-into-practice,” their view of productive research and development involves moving back and forth between research and practice. Innovations are developed by researchers collaborating with practitioners. They are tried out in classrooms, refined or developed by practitioners in their schools and classrooms, and then systematically studied by researchers. The link between research and practice is assumed to be complex, reciprocal, and dynamic.

Wouldn't it be great to have a partnership with a local university school of education that is keen on working with us here at Halecrest to develop and study promising practices. All we need are a few more Chilis retreats and we can get this one rolling. :)

Practitioners’ decisions are based primarily on their own intuitions and experience and occasionally on advice from colleagues, principals, or workshop leaders. The idea of basing decisions on research findings or even data collected at the local level is not part of the culture of teaching. New technology and the push for data-based decisionmaking and evidence-based practice are beginning to change the situation, but basing decisions on research and data is a new concept. Both the desire to consult research and the skills to interpret it will need to be developed within the teaching community.

I think this paints a good picture of the educational community. There exists a slowly growing trend to pursue research-based practices but on a superficial basis, I'm afraid. We need time to study programs and interventions in order to make reasonable and informed decisions. Generally, I think the "Accountability Movement" for lack of a better term, has been very good for education, however the one downside are unrealistic timelines for improvement and change that lead to hasty and faulty implementations.

As a consequence, teachers need to have a deep understanding of the innovative methods and programs they are asked to implement. This requires far more time out of the classroom than they have available during the workday, and more training and support than most schools are organized to provide. Without these, however, the instruction that is actually implemented may bear little resemblance to the instruction that research demonstrated as effective.

Here's another plug for more time for collaboration. This is priority number one!

Although educational practices are hugely influenced by products developed in the private sector, objective evidence on the effects of these products on student learning is rare. Until recently, there have been no incentives for carefully designed studies because buyers haven’t asked for evidence, and no outside agency has monitored the quality or even the existence of evidence.

This is very true. Our recent decisions to invest in Tungsten and Successmaker are based mostly on word of mouth testimony and data compiled by the companies themselves. Independent research would add credibilty and confidence to schools who are making such substantial commitments. Until that happens, it behoves us to design sound evaluations of these programs to document success or failure.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Survey results on working conditions

A recent survey by the Southeastern Center for Teaching Quality in Noth Carolina and South Carolina uncovered some results that are worth thinking about for any school. Here are some of the samplings of their findings.

Teachers said that time for teaching, planning, paperwork, and empowerment contributed the most to student performance.

Favorable working conditions also contribute to teacher retention. Teachers in both states overwhelmingly said that having a collegial atmosphere was the most important factor in deciding whether to stay in their schools or look elsewhere. (emphasis added)

Some teachers also say that while they want flexibility in the classroom, it’s also important to them that their administrators see what they’re doing.

Elementary teachers, though, are generally more positive about their working environments than those who teach at the secondary level—an outcome that Mr. Hirsch largely attributes to the more collegial atmosphere in what tend to be smaller elementary schools.

Overall, there are some important factors to keep in mind as we work toward student achievement.

Halecrest in the news

You may have missed this, but Halecrest's efforts to raise funds for tsunami relief made the papers recently. This is data that demonstrates a healthy amount of learning beyond what can be measured on standardized tests. Congratulations on your work to motivate our students to act with compassion.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Digging into standards

The current issue of Elementary Ed's Newsletter, a publication of ACSA's Elementary Education Council has a brief article by Michael Bossi of the Pleasanton Unified School District. He describes a process of analyzing each key standard and developing performance expectations for those standards:

A school staff CAN answer all these questions by committing itself to establish performance standards for each of the essential/key/power standards. The professional dialogue, collaboration, and sharing of practice and knowledge that will emerge from the quest to establish performance standards and common assessments WILL bring the staff to new heights and learning for students to new levels of achievement.

We will be using a similar process during our buy back days in June and August (Ideed one or two grade levels will begin looking at the standards this spring!). We will not only define the expectations of students for each standard, but we will also select materials and resources that will best address the specific standards.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Hallmarks of Differentiated Classrooms

Carol Ann Tomlinson's book The Differentiated Classroom will be the subject of numerous posts as I encounter applicable points of discussion. In the first chapter, she summarizes some of the hallmarks of differentiated classrooms. Below she talks about one of the byproducts of creating an atmosphere where every student is challenged and suppported appropriately.

They (teachers of differentiated classrooms) work diligently to ensure that struggling, advanced, and in-between students think and work harder than they
meant to; achieve more than they thought they could; and come to believe that learning involves effort, risk, and personal triumph. These teachers also work
to ensure that each student consistently experiences the reality that success is
likely to follow hard work.

Now, imagine the students in your class. How many of them are challenged by the work at just the right level of difficulty so as to achieve success through just the right amount of effort - not needing to exert so much effort that they get frustrated and not needing to exert so little effort that they get bored? And, how does one skillfully manage assessment, diagnosis, curriculum, instruction, and time to make such an environment possible?

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Teaching Writing

Patricia T. O'Conner's book Words Fail Me is an excellent work on the craft of writing. She starts out with a criticism of schools in her introduction.

Computers haven't made us bad writers. We write badly because we don't know how. For many years, our schools have done a rotten job of teaching writing. Asking students to write without showing them how is like expecting them to drive before they've had a lesson.

Her criticism is a gross generalization and worthy of debate, however it got me thinking about our instructional focus of writing. The point of having an instructional focus is that we become experts at teaching something - in our case - writing. I think we can all agree that we have not yet achieved that status. Our students will reap great rewards as we gain new insights in our role as teachers of writers and maybe, just maybe,someone will write a book in the near future about the renaissance of excellent writers coming from our schools.

Monday, March 14, 2005

March Madness Elementary Style

Who says learning math basics and state test preparation can't be a little fun? Kay Luzier at Palm Desert Elementary in Florida has her own version of March Madness. She has developed excitement and enthusiasm around mathematics at a low performing, high poverty school. What wonderful strategies to cement those math facts and create some memorable events.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Ownership of student success

In the March 2005 issue of Educational Leadership, Dick Corbett, Bruce Wilson, and Belinda Williams report on a recent three-year study of urban schools. They found many differences between the successful and unsuccessful schools. Here is what they say:

But the most telling difference was that in these two schools alone, every teacher we talked to (and we interviewed almost all of them) asserted that he or she was responsible for student success. The qualities that made their school different from the others, they attested, derived solely from their desire to act on this belief. LIke thier highly effective colleagues scattered throughout the two districts, these teachers argued that they could not alter conditions outside school that impinged on student performance, but they could affect the conditions in their classrooms. Using best practices alone was insufficient; effective teaching meant giving students no other choice but success.

I think this attitude is very strong at Halecrest. Teachers here take it personal when student don't succeed. As we seek to serve an ever-changing student population, we must continue to focus on the things that we control - and there are plenty of those, and not wring our hands about those factors that fall outside our sphere of influence.