Sunday, July 19, 2015

Covering the Curriculum


In a meeting with middle school ELA teachers in Northern New York State, the topic of coverage came up with a visceral passion. Because of new standards, new curriculum requirements, new assessments, and new evaluations, teachers were feeling the pressure to make sure that they covered everything that might be on THE TEST. These teachers participated in several benchmark tests throughout the school year as well as offered multiple opportunities for the students to demonstrate learning through more formative assessments that happened often.

They told me that in the last two years of state testing, their students had performed, collectively, at historic lows and that the average level of proficiency was hovering around 25% for both years, despite the fact that they felt as though they covered everything. They described, with pride, how they focused on on-task behaviors and making sure that they systematically got through all of the standards associated with the new curriculum materials and the testing guides put out by New York State.

To summarize, the teachers covered 100%, or as close to 100% of their curriculum through their detailed daily lessons and unit plans that systematically covered the standards. Their students, after participating in these lessons, scored at a level of 25% proficient.

Now, some caveats. Scoring 25% on the one state test is virtually meaningless. It is a standardized test that is designed to quickly measure what a student knows and is able to do at a specific point in time under specific testing conditions. It is a pulse, not a diagnosis. In this case, it is a potential checkpoint of the impact of teaching on student learning and is not the only factor in the discussion with these teachers. Proficiency on tests like this, and perhaps on just about any assessment, is relative to other variables: readability, fatigue, interest, time, hunger, etc.

We can’t necessarily quantify learning with standardized tests in the same way we can’t weigh a student’s brain before and after learning to see if the new knowledge causes a brain weight gain. It’s imperfect science. It’s just a pulse. Is it nice to know the pulse? Yes. Is it the only diagnostic measure a teacher would use as an artifact of learning? Certainly not.

Besides the state tests, these teachers also told me that the benchmark assessments and many of the formative assessments also showed low levels of proficiency though there were moments of bright spots when the students were really excited or interested in the topic or the engaging ways in which a teacher chose to teach.

Based on what these teachers told me, these were the conclusions that I shared with them:

  • They need to talk about the standards. Which ones fit together naturally, which ones have priority over others based on several lenses: readiness, endurance, leverage, and yes, the end of course assessment.
  • They need to talk about the tests. The tests seem to matter more for teacher evaluation, and, as one Board of Regents’ Member said on CNN, for taxpayer accountability, then they do for actual student performance. If that’s the case, understanding the parameters of the testing lens and having discussions about priorities help them to teach for success no matter the assessment rather than teaching to the test.
  • If they teach 100% but the students demonstrate at a 25% level, what would happen if they teach 75% (based on the priorities)? With time and depth, what positive changes would they expect to see in proficiency?
  • Giving benchmark assessments and formative assessments, but not using the data to inform future instruction despite the rigidity in their lessons and pacing, is like noticing a kid’s shoelaces are untied and rather than stop and tie them for improved performance, forcing them to run even faster down the track, ignoring the tripping and slipping.
  • The detailed lesson plans and coverage mindset is robbing their students of time to think and process, of being creative, of having choices in process and product, and of real learning.
  • Learning doesn’t happen because something is taught. Learning happens when something is discovered.

If we are simply covering the curriculum, or letting textbooks or vendor products divine our practice, how do we really know that students have learned what we intended for them to learn? Deep learning can’t happen with micromanaged details, nor can it happen with our insistence upon covering everything.

Perhaps a good essential question to ask might be, “How can we UNCOVER the curriculum?” Or maybe, “How can we be less formulaic and more exploratory in the learning process?” Now that summer is here and many of us have some time to devote to curricular examinations and upgrades, perhaps these two questions would be good to start a discussion with?

@fisher1000 on Twitter
Upgrade Your Curriculum now available from ASCD.
Digital Learning Strategies now available from ASCD.
Ditch the Daily Lesson Plan coming soon...

Join me and the rest of the Curriculum 21 Faculty for Connect 21 Camp at Washington's National Harbor Gaylord Hotel from August 6-8, 2015! CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS!

Monday, February 9, 2015

#BookItForward with Mrs. P!

Original posting at Learning Personalized:   

We are so excited to share our guest blogger this week: Mrs. P from Mrs. P’s Magic Library!

  Mrs. P Bookitforward-1

Her favorite book is Wanda’s Wart - written and illustrated by Robin Robinson Wanda's Wart is an all-ages indie picture book about the importance of friendship, honesty—and not being afraid to stand out for what makes you an individual.  This story may be a tool for dealing with certain kinds of bullying, and for kids who run the risk of suppressing their interests and talents just to fit in.  I love the message that we could all be a little more fearless about being ourselves, warts and all.  You can enjoy a reading of this story at my free website too.


Thank you so much, Mrs. P, for sharing your favorite book and helping us to #BookItForward! If you’d like to see and hear much more from Mrs. P, be sure to visit her Magic Library where you can hear stories, play games, and do lots of fun activities!  

Now it’s your turn!  

What is your recommendation? #BookItForward encourages people to share a book they love with a person they love. It can be a new book, a used book, or a recommendation for a library book!

 Here’s how:
  1. CHOOSE a great book.
  2. GIVE it or recommend it to someone who would enjoy it.
  3. POST a photo of the book tagged with #BookItForward on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.
  4. TAG three people in the post to nominate them to #BookItForward next!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Dorothy I. Height

Transcript of the video (with additional portions):

While in Washington, D.C. this week, I had the incredible opportunity to visit and work in the Dorothy Height building, home to the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women.

I was very much moved by the history of the building and the powerful people who have roamed its halls. I thought about all of the historical conversations and decisions that were made in this place and what an absolute privilege it was to be invited into this energy.

There was a magic in seeing tributes to those that shaped civil rights in our country, including distinguished educators and civil rights leaders Mary McLeod Bethune, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and of course, Dorothy Irene Height, whose office I’m showing you right now.

Dorothy Height, according to her biography on, was a civil rights and women's rights activist focused primarily on improving the circumstances of and opportunities for African-American women. She was a leader in addressing the rights of both women and African Americans as the president of the National Council of Negro Women. In the 1990s, she drew young people into her cause in the war against drugs, illiteracy and unemployment. The numerous honors bestowed upon her include the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1994) and the Congressional Gold Medal (2004), where President Barack Obama referred to her as the “godmother” of the Civil Rights Movement.

While in this office, I was able to see many of the awards bestowed upon her and see the many pictures of Dorothy with the likes of Tina Turner, Maya Angelou, Coretta Scott King, Oprah Winfrey, and many others.

I looked out the window at her view and imagined the thinking that happened in this space and how she was inspired to be both a leader and an activist for equality and justice for all.

My only regret as I view these life artifacts is that I never got to meet her. I was overwhelmed with the presence of the past and thinking about what we, as a country, have learned from the sacrifices of the previous generation. In the 21st Century, how modern are we really and how much do we still need to improve?

I imagine the conversation I would potentially have had with Dorothy Height in this office at this moment, and I imagine her being a woman of just a few, but important words: peace and justice. We are all in a better place because of women like Dorothy Irene Height and I feel so blessed to have been offered this glimpse into the life of such an extraordinary woman.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Advancing Curriculum Mapping: Zombie Edition

I’ve been traveling a lot recently in the car and have had plenty of time to listen to multiple types of media. The last few trips have found me listening to new music, audiobooks, and podcasts from favorite speakers, news and media outlets, and comedians. One of the more interesting podcasts I’ve been listening to on the road is entitled The Walking Deadcast. This podcast is related to The Walking Dead television show from the AMC channel. It’s a show about zombies. It’s also a show about humanity and forgiveness and survival.

It also gave me an idea for upgrading curriculum maps.

The Walking Dead originally was a popular comic book series that was turned into an also popular television show four years ago. There are times when the tv show writers have elaborated on a theme from the comics and times when they stick fairly closely to the written storyline, as they currently are in this season of the show. I’ve been interested in the show since it began, but am only now discovering the podcast.

What struck me about the podcast the most is all the integrated elements. The hosts, Jason Cabassi and Karen Koppett have a natural rhythm to their conversation and set up their shows in a similar format. The format, in general, looks like this:

  • The show begins with their Aha! moments and then the sharing of their top 5 favorite moments from the previous show. They discuss thematic elements, analysis of observations, speculations on what may be coming next, and comparisons to previous shows or thematic elements. All of this is rooted in evidence rather than just opinion.
  • Jason and Karen then look to the masses and share what people are saying through multiple social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, and their own website. Some of this is fluff, but some of it has a direct bearing on either supporting what they discussed already or causing them to think in even more divergent ways. Again, they continually refer to evidence from the show to support or shift their thinking or the thinking of the interactors.
  • The hosts then invite Comic Book experts Erik Feten and Gracie Lou to share how closely the filmed show aligns with the comic book. There is discussion about camera angles and analogous cells in the comic and how the film treatment of the comic, in general, was done.
  • Before the end of the show, they share information from multiple news sources that specifically relate to the show, theories about what’s next, reactions to suspenseful events, and more. All of this information is curated by another collaborator, Jason Walker.
  • Additionally, they’ve had actors and other folks from the show as guests to share their perspectives.

When I’m listening to this, I’m listening for entertainment, yes, but also for transferable skills that represent knowledge building, engagement, learning, and performance. In this collaboratively developed and performed product of value, this is what I’m hearing:

  • They engage in metacognition that values evidence. The hosts of the show as well as the others that contribute are thoughtful about what they say. They continually go back to the show or the comic book to support their reasoning or the reasoning of others.
  • They engage in deep analysis. The question the story arc and how the characters, settings, music, etc. all lead to the development of the plot. They notice and discuss (with evidence) themes and through lines that relate to both the current episode and the series as a whole. They delve into symbolism, patterns, perspectives, and more as they deconstruct the episode for deeper meaning and deeper discovery.
  • They have created a research product. This podcast doesn’t look like a traditional research paper but it has all of the elements. Claims, counter-claims, evidence from multiple sources and people, all in a formatted and well-produced product.
  • Good writing is apparent. In order to pull off this level of professionalism, there has to be some scripting. While some of the dialogue is off the cuff, there are specific elements that had to have been written down: their initial notes, their Top 5 lists with a rationale, what others contributed (even if the original podcasters didn’t write these specifically, they did choose to include some of those contributions. I think of it like quotes in a research paper.)
  • This was a collaborative act. The hosts worked together to provide the bulk of the podcast, but invited multiple people and additional media into the process and product.
  • This represents an authentic product. I think what the podcast hosts did here represents an authentic product that students in classrooms today would be willing to both create and produce but also be engaged enough to learn at high levels the skills that would be necessary to succeed in the world they will graduate into.

What if this is a new product that takes the place of something traditionally ensconced in today’s classrooms? What if this becomes a valid assessment of learning? What if this was the expectation of the creation of performance tasks that allow for true integration and student responsibility?

What if wasn’t just about zombies?

While this blog is specifically aimed at a Halloween audience, there are many podcasts out in the Internet ether to satisfy anyone’s interests. Students could potentially research and podcast just about anything, engaging in many of the transferable skills that we expect them to be proficient in. This podcast was audio only and so I see immediate upgrades to video as well as the production of a series podcasts that demonstrate learning versus more traditional and potentially less engaging demonstrations.

I’m not saying ditch the research papers, I’m saying think about the skills you expect your students to have and be innovative about the actual product that they create. Let them contribute to the design of the product and increase their level of vested interest in what they are producing.

If that product happens to include zombies, then I think that’s awesome.

Keeping curriculum maps living, breathing documents is work. (Much like keeping the humans alive and breathing on The Walking Dead.) Advancing this work is a constant act of rethinking assessments, methodology, and other instructional actions based on multiple lenses that include new standards, newly available resources, new technologies, and certainly, new students from year to year. Innovation and engagement matter a whole lot with today’s students. Being willing to upgrade, or perhaps abandon, traditional strongholds in methodology and/or assessments is a step in the right direction toward modern curriculum design.

By the way, here is the link to the page with the Walking Deadcast podcasts:

You can either subscribe and get the casts on your device or you can listen to a downloadable mp3 right on your computer.

Happy Halloween, all!

Available Now:

Photo credit: purchased from - #69992350 - zombies dawn © stuart

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Connected PD is now an Imperative

I used to sit in workshops that were peripherally, if at all, related to my professional practice. I’d spend hours in a physical face-to-face workshop and leave with maybe one or two ideas that mattered to me. I may or may not have acted on those ideas dependent on how stressed the workshop left me, knowing that I had classroom responsibilities that superseded what some suit was telling me about what should matter.
It was a broken but ensconced system for growing professionally that ignored the fact that there were things that personally mattered to me and the students I taught. I wasn’t asked if the PD interested me; I was just told to go. I received my initial teaching certificate in 1998, a time when I was well aware of the information the internet had to offer. As I started following educators across the myriad social networks I participated in (first with listservs and physical chat rooms), I learned quickly that scheduled and barely relevant PD was too long of a wait to get vital, transformational information.
Unlike traditional and months-in-advance-planned face-to-face professional development, being a connected educator has afforded me “just in time” learning opportunities 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This was even before the popular social networks were entrenched in the fabric of today’s PD landscape. I’ve known for more than a decade the value of socio-technological engagement. No workshop I can attend now is more valuable or offers me more perspective than my online digital professional learning network (DPLN).
I’d like to clarify that what I’m writing about is not necessarily about technologies per se, but about what we’re doing with the technology that matters. I am laser-focused on my objective: How can I grow professionally with a cadre of peers that “gets” what I’m seeking to master?
To continue reading this post and to see the 3 things educators should consider when deciding to participate in connected PD, please view the full post on TeachThought.
Mike on Twitter: @fisher1000
Exploring the Close Reading Standard, eBook available from Amazon

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Critical Look At The "Close Reading" Standard

“Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.” — English Language Arts Standards » Anchor Standards » College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading » 1
mfisher-164by Michael Fisher
Close reading is not a thing.
It is not a skill. It is not a big idea. It is not new.
It is an iteration of New Criticism in a new Common Core chrysalis. The caterpillar—traditional literary lenses, among them Formalist criticisms, Reader-Response criticisms, and, perhaps, Structuralism—went through a transformation and have emerged as a new butterfly of comprehension and evidence.

Let’s read the close reading standard more closely

If we look at just the words read closely in a contextual way, what do you think the relationship is to the remaining words in this anchor standard? When these two words are separated from the remaining 29 words, a misinterpretation of the standard emerges as a potential separate skill, though other necessary skills here are more distinctly apparent and important (if one closely reads the standard):
  • determine what the text says explicitly,
  • make logical inferences,
  • cite textual evidence,
  • support conclusions.
boy-magnifier-book-trimReading closely then is the magnifierto ensure the suite of four related skills in this standard are achieved. In other words, close reading serves as a magnifying glass strategy.
If we want to dive into a specific portion of text (or comparison of texts) with a purpose, everything that is viewed through the magnifying glass deepens students’ development of the entire anchor standard’s learning expectation.
Using the magnifying glass is not a skill to be learned, it is simply a tool to amplify this standards’ priorities.

Reading closely is never mentioned elsewhere

Consider this: the anchor standard is the ONLY place that the phrase “read closely” is mentioned; it is not used again in any grade-specific reading standards.
When we focus on only a portion of a standard or decide to agree with what vendors tell us, then we lose the intention of the standard. The intention of this standard, and all of the other reading standards, is for students to comprehend what they read. Reading closely is great, but that is not the objective. Reading comprehension is the objective.
In order to get to comprehension, the focus should not necessarily be on all the ways students could closely read a text, but on the evidence students provide for thinking what they think. Perhapsmetacognition could be the real focus. The important words in the standard are not necessarily “read closely…” but rather “…what the text says explicitly.”

The expectations change in sixth grade

ExploringCloseReadingStandard-cvrThe grade level standards are pretty clear about what students need to know and be able to do. At the lower grade levels, they must be able to ask and answer questions about specific details in the text. Then in sixth grade, the verb changes.
In sixth grade, the students have to “cite evidence” that supports their thinking, which becomes sophisticated over time depending on the best evidence to support their thinking and evidence across multiple texts.
These growing expectations can be met through close reading (as a label for textual analysis) and also through new questioning habits that focus on the details. This can be done whether we are developing “close reading” lesson plans or not.

Let’s put “close reading” in its place

Close Reading is a lens through which we view the multiple ways in which we analyze text. Close reading is about the way we use evidence in text and the way we engage with the text when we ask and answer questions about it. Close reading is primarily about developing better comprehension habits.
What do good readers do when they read? They examine. They connect. They decode. They acquire. They discover. They think. They annotate. They visualize. They comprehend. They uncover.
These are the verbs. These are the skills. These are what really matters.
For more about Mike Fisher’s stance on Close Reading, his new eBook, Exploring the Close Reading Standard: Ideas and Observations, is now available on Amazon Kindle ($4.99).
sf114045bMichael Fisher is a former middle school teacher and digital learning consultant who writes frequently for MiddleWeb. He is acontributor to the new Solution Tree series,Contemporary Perspectives on Literacy, which tackles global, media, and digital literacy. In addition to 2012’s Upgrade Your Curriculum, written with Janet Hale, Mike is the author of the 2013 ASCD/Arias book Digital Learning Strategies: How Do I Assign And Assess 21st Century Work?  Find Mike on Twitter @fisher1000 and visit his website The Digigogy Collaborative.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Exploring the Close Reading Standard

As an experiment, I published a new book around one Common Core Standard, what I call the "Close Reading" standard. In this book, I share practices from the field around my thinking and how I think the standard itself has been somewhat misinterpreted. If you're interested in checking it out, please click the pic!