Thursday, December 12, 2013

Upgrading our Recipes for Learning

Back in the early 90’s, my grandmother taught me how to bake biscotti in a traditional way. She was a baker by trade and taught me about the precision of measuring ingredients to get a perfect dough consistency, how to lay out the initial loaf, cut on the diagonal and re-bake until the cookies reached their optimum crunch.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with the basic recipe, adding additional ingredients, replacing others, trying different thicknesses of the cookie, dipping the cookies in chocolate, etc. My ultimate goal is to get to the cookie, even though my path to get there changes every year.
Around this time of year, I start thinking about the biscotti (and Grandma!), and what I will modify, replace, upgrade, or delete for this year’s batch. Sometimes that decision is based on new ingredients, sometimes on the audience for whom I’m baking the cookies, or the event(s) where the cookies will be shared. There is always a modification to the previous year’s process though the goal is always to get to the cookie.

Biscotti and cookiesI’m using Grandma’s cookie procedure as a metaphor for instructional actions. The end result is always extremely important. The task, the assessment, the demonstration of learning, the product–all of these are the goals of instruction. In this day and age, though, with our new digital landscapes, we have opportunities for replacing pieces of the instructional sequence, invigorating the learning, and producing a better product—a better cookie.
The things we need to do with students, the tasks that we challenge them with, are the important factors here. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know Wordle or Socrative or Wikis or Storybird. It doesn’t matter that Padlet or Today’s Meet or Notepad is part of your everyday practice. It matters that you understand and design instruction around the outcome. The path to that outcome is what we will replace, not necessarily the outcome itself.

Digital Learning Perspectives            
In workshops with teachers, I often try to paint a mental picture of the modern student. I talk about the differences between the world this kid lives in outside of school and the one he or she inhabits in school. There should not be such a wide chasm in decades between the two. I realize that there is at least one, maybe two generations separating students from their teachers, but everyone in the classroom is in the present time. Right?
I discuss how students are used to working and interacting digitally. Sometimes school is a potential impediment to learning when traditional instructional methods are primarily favored. These modern students don’t separate technology from other activities — they don’t think about it because it’s always been there for them, always been available. Except, many times, in school.
These students can find all kinds of information but don’t necessarily know what information is important, why or how they should prioritize it, or how to make connections or creations from it. They are not discerners; they are gatherers. These modern students are not interested, necessarily, in current school constructs for separating Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic. They are looking for integrated and authentic opportunities.
I do realize that in the wake of new standards, new devices, and new ways to interact, teachers are becoming increasingly overwhelmed. So much newness is bogging them down and actually decreasing the professional actions they might ultimately take to improve their practice and work within a modern educational mindset.
That modern mindset is really about willingness, not digital knowledge. It’s about trying new things and exploring new tools and avenues for instruction. It’s about exploring WITH the students rather than FOR the students. The end result is still a cookie, but over time, that cookie gets better and better.
Let’s Take a Bite                
1 plaid cookiesWhen teachers decide to start replacing instructional actions with digital tools, they should do so with the task in mind, not the tool. Let’s take the analysis of text, for example. What does this look like in your class right now? (Aligned to CCSS Reading Standards 7.1, 7.2, and 7.3)
In a 7th grade ELA classroom, a teacher I work with in Lockport, New York wanted her students to consider how Stanley Yelnats and the other characters in Louis Sachar’sHoles deal with justice as a thematic element in the book.
She talked with them about fairness and her ultimate goal: to get them to be able to use textual evidence to write about justice as it relates to the arc of the multiple storylines in the novel. She was really excited about using a collaborative note-taking tool, Padlet, in her classroom, and we had a discussion about HOW she might go about using it.
Initially, she wanted to spend a couple of days teaching the students how to use Padlet and hold the students accountable for the depth of information they shared. She was very concerned that students might share non-instructive comments like, “That was cool,” or “OMG. LOL.” She wanted to use a rubric I had shared with her called Notice, Think, and Wonder (which I recently blogged about HERE) to enable students to think critically about the comments they were making.
I asked her what this activity had looked like in the past. She said that students, individually, would locate moments in the book where they saw incidents of justice in any form: Stanley’s day in court, Kissin’ Kate’s reputation and actions, the Warden’s losses at the end of the novel, and (spoiler alert!) the fact that Stanley is cleared of his crimes in the end.
I reminded her of her ultimate objective, the writing about justice and the connections between the types of justice described in the book. I reminded her that she can’t favor the tool over the task. The kids still had to write about justice and its interconnections and/or its relationship to advancing the plot of the novel.
She decided that short mini-lessons on using Padlet and the rubric for Notice, Think, and Wonder, were better than spending days on either of those things. Students could still collaborate using the online tools, and she would shift her expectations for their writing to include the collective thinking of all of the students and what they assembled on the Padlet Wall as a component of their end product.
In sum, she re-focused on the end-result but replaced some of the instructional sequence with a digital tool that moved what was once an individual exploration or small group discussion to a “group think” model where everyone participates in the collection of textual evidence. This, in turn, gives the students opportunities to understand what their peers believe to be important and offers them the chance to collaborate and communicate around deeper text analysis and negotiate deeper interactions than what she’s done before. She amped up the level of engagement while still holding students accountable for evidence of why they were thinking what they were thinking.
The tool, Padlet, was a new vehicle for better connections and interactions and thinking, but her lesson wasn’t a “Padlet Lesson.” It was still focused on justice as a theme in the novel. The students, in general, provided a more in-depth analysis because they were allowed to see their peers’ thinking in a way they had never seen it before. This led to deeper discussions, deeper connections, and better writing. This teacher changed the recipe and got a better cookie.

The Big Takeaway

biscotti-cup-200The big takeaway here is that the task, the objective, the demonstration of learning remain the priority and focal point of instruction. The strategy, however, can be variable while the end point remains fixed. Vary the recipe but still work toward the cookie!

Teachers need a treasure trove of strategies, a virtual toolbox of opportunities, to meet today’s student where they need to be met. These digital learning strategies don’t require the teacher to be an expert in their function; they only require a willingness to let the students try some new ways of doing things. This is an opportunity to utilize digital tools for the sake of differentiated instruction and divergent thinking, where students construct their own versions of learning and critique the work of their peers.
By the way, you can read my grandmother’s basic biscotti recipe HERE (and downloadhere). I encourage you to try out your own recipe replacements, deviations, and subversions, in the classroom and in the kitchen. This year, as a sneak peek to the reader, I can share that I’m considering some new ingredients including lime juice, cream cheese, and a blueberry/pecan trail mix that I enjoy.
If you’re interested in learning more about Digital Learning Strategies and instructional replacement ideas, my new book will be available from ASCD on December 13th. It will be available in both print and digital editions and is part of ASCD’s new short form texts called ARIAS, meaning that the book is meant to be read in one sitting, perhaps while you’re waiting on that first batch of biscotti to come out of the oven.

Michael Fisher, a former middle grades teacher, is now a full-time author, educational consultant, and instructional coach. He specializes in 21st Century Fluencies, Common Core integration, and all that modern learning entails.
Mike is the author of the new ASCD/Arias book Digital Learning Strategies and (with Janet Hale) Upgrade Your Curriculum: Practical Ways to Transform Units and Engage Students (ASCD, 2012). Find Mike on Twitter @fisher1000 and visit his website The Digigogy Collaborative.

Monday, October 14, 2013

I Want To Be A Teacher

I follow a wonderful Facebook page called Humans of New York. It’s a page that photographer Brandon Stanton put together to curate the images of the incredible cross section of humanity that resides in New York City. He talks to these people and photographs them and shares their stories on his Facebook page. You can access his page HERE.  As you scroll through his page, you’ll notice that on October 1st, he featured our own Heidi Hayes Jacobs, who shared the following:

"There's three things you can do when life sends a wave at you. You can run from it, but then it's going to catch up and knock you down. You can also fall back on your ego and try to stand your ground, but then it's still going to clobber you. Or you can use it as an opportunity to go deep, and transform yourself to match the circumstances. And that's how you get through the wave."

I’m so impressed with what Brandon does. He is visually cataloguing the people of the melting pot in New York City, but he’s also collecting their stories--sharing a positive side of humanity that is so desperately needed in our world today.

Today’s entry involved this young man:

Brandon had the following conversation with this boy:

"Why are you wearing a pilot's outfit?"
"I wear it every day."
"Do you want to be a pilot when you grow up?"
"No, I want to be a teacher."
"Why aren't you wearing a teacher's outfit?"
"I don't have one."

I thought this was a huge message for today’s teacher. We are still inspiring the next generation. We are still solidly having an effect on the future.

In this day and age of educational nitpickery, I think it’s extremely important to look for the bright spots and use them for both furthering our cause and believing that we are doing what’s best for our children.

I was going to write this week about standards based education and how we swim through the hoopla to get to the root of why we do what we do. This picture and conversation changed my whole mindset this week.

This child values our profession. What better validation do we need?

If you’d like to know more about Humans of New York, Brandon Stanton has just released a book about the portraits and stories he’s collected. You can access the link HERE. You can also follow him on Facebook using the link above or ACCESS HIS WEBSITE.

I thought it was important today to remind teachers how much of a difference they really make. I thought it was important to remind you that you are shaping the future outside of the bureaucracy and national fluff movements. You are needed, you are important, and you are incredible. Every President, every engineer, every scientist, every pilot--needs a teacher. It’s just really cool that this little pilot wants to be a teacher too.

Our value has not diminished. Your value has not diminished.

Pat yourselves on the back, teachers. You are still inspiring the next generation.

Follow Mike on Twitter:

Upgrade Your Curriculum, now available from ASCD
Digital Learning Strategies: How Do I Assign and Assess Digital Work? coming this Winter from ASCD

Picture and conversation copyright Brandon Stanton and used with permission.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Notice, Think, and Wonder: A "Close Reading" Upgrade

In the Fall of 2007, a close friend, Nancy Cook, and I wrote a piece for the New York State Middle School Association’s Journal, In Transition. The article, titled “Notice, Think, and Wonder: New Pathways to Engage Critical Thinking” asked the reader to consider using a discussion rubric that Nancy developed to increase the rigor of questions and answers around text. The link is to the entire journal, but the article and embedded rubric starts on page 15.

I still share the Notice, Think, and Wonder rubric that’s in the article while engaging in professional development with teachers. It’s become particularly useful in this age of Common Core standards and increased rigor in instructional activities, particularly around the close reading of text.

I’ve been teaching different versions of “Close Reading” to teachers, evolving over time as I strengthen my relationship with Common Core Reading for Literacy/Informational Text Standard 1: “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and make inferences from it.” What started out as teaching teachers to write text dependent questions evolved into setting strong purposes for reading, understanding text complexity, relating the close reading to personal experiences and world events, and now, coming full circle back to Notice, Think, and Wonder.

The impetus for this blog post began with another blog post around Close Reading, written by Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts, authors of the popular blog, indent. You can read their blog post, The Five Corners of the Text, by clicking this sentence. In the post, they stress the importance of engagement and inviting students’ experiences into the way they think critically about the words they read. What they wrote invited a warmth back into this instructional strategy that was missing from my initial interpretation of the standard.

As I read their blog post and reflected on my current and previous work, it dawned on me that a merger of ideas and an additional instructional strategy around close reading was in order. Hence, I’m revisiting “Notice, Think, and Wonder.” The original Notice, Think, and Wonder strategy asked students to collect details around what they notice in text; what jumped off the page at them. It asks students to think about those details and make connections. Finally, it asks them to wonder about the “what if’s,” the “what next’s,” or the potential additional meaning-making that comes from deep engagement with text.

To use Notice, Think, and Wonder in a way that reflects the close reading of text, one simply needs to tweak the intentions of these areas of interaction. In this upgrade, students should be invited to do the following:

  • What are some of the big ideas in the text that’s being read?
  • What are some of the main points that an author wants the reader to know as a result of reading this?
  • What’s the major message or point of reading what we are reading?

  • Where in the text did we see support for what we noticed?
  • What in our experiences, as related to what we read, make us think of connections to the big ideas?
  • How do parts of the texts explicitly lead us to the major message?

  • What might the evidence we found in the text, as related to what we noticed, mean?
  • What potential conclusions can we draw from the evidence related to what we noticed?
  • Is there evidence in the text or in our connections to the text to support anything we might potentially wonder?

I like believing that students would be engaged by deep conversation about text--particularly texts that they are interested in reading, not just texts that the teacher thinks they should read. I’m reminded of high school, when my teachers were adept at drawing me into a text by both relating to my personal experiences while guiding me through metacognitions that created mental velcro for me. Everything stuck, from the prologue to The Canterbury Tales to my empathy for Benji, a central character in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I want students to live inside texts the way that I was allowed to. I want them to have rich literary experiences that feed their souls for the rest of their lives but also teach them to be evaluative thinkers and questioners of the status quo.

I want students to read voluminously and develop a love of reading that goes beyond the cold and analytical “close reading” and explores what I guess I would call “Close Reading Plus.” Evidence plus experience equals Deep Learning, versus just evidence alone. If we look at the standard and the key words: “close reading,” “what the text says explicitly,” and “make inferences,” then we are doing all those things with this upgrade of Notice, Think, and Wonder. We are also inviting a deeper analysis, a raise in the rigor beyond the standard, which represents the zone to which we should aspire with our modern learners.

Mike on Twitter: @fisher1000

Addendum (10/3/13)
I thought about this a little more and decided to add some additional information to this blog post in terms of extending Notice, Think, and Wonder to writing about evidence and connections.

For one thing, the “Wonder” could include a question about claims, such as, “What claims can you make about what you read? or “What do you wonder about any bold statements that the author made in the text?”

The answers to those questions would be an excellent jumping off point for writing about claims and evidence, engaging both the Reading standards around Key Ideas and Details as well as the Instructional Shifts around Writing from Sources and Text-Dependent questions.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Niagara Frontier Reading Mini-Conference

Join the NFRC in kicking off our professional development series
for the 2013-2014 school year with our first “Mini-Conference”
ever! Not only will you receive membership in the Niagara
Frontier Reading Council and the New York State Reading
Association, you also will be treated to insights from Kathleen
Ferguson, 2012 NYS Teacher of the Year. She will inspire us to
strive for excellence in teaching and motivate us to meet the new
school year’s challenges with renewed vigor and enthusiasm!

The NFRC Fall Mini-Conference also will include the launching of
the NFRC Professional Book Club! Your registration fee includes a
FREE copy of the book, which retails for $29.95! You won’t want
to miss this event! Register today!

See the Flyer for the event HERE.

Registration Form HERE.

Visit the NFRC webpage here:


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

An Open Letter to the NC GOP

An Open Letter to the NC GOP:

You have failed the children of your state.

This is not meant to be just a dramatic sentiment that pulls the heartstrings of the reader. It is meant to remind the people who put you into office that you are incapable of doing what is best for children.  

With your new budget, you have effectively dismantled the education system in your state and sent a clear message to all of your teachers. That message is: get out while you can.

Who among you in the legislature wants to feel devalued in their profession? Who among you would like to better themselves professionally at your own expense without seeing the rewards of doing so? Who among you would like the rug pulled out from under you every time you turn around? Who among you would like to lose their job when a poorly constructed performance evaluation indicates that you are terrible at what you do though the parameters of the evaluation are, in large part, beyond your control? Who among you qualifies for public assistance as an educated and employed professional?

A decade ago, there were projections being made about the number of teachers that North Carolina would need in the coming years. At the time, back in 2003, it was tens of thousands. Because of the populations of students in some of your neediest areas, teacher turnover was already excessively high, and that’s before factoring in class sizes, high-stakes testing, and low pay. Exclusive of teacher assistants, NC has approximately 90,000 teachers teaching approximately 1.5 million students. That’s a ratio of about 1 teacher for every 17 students, a generalization that doesn’t factor in geography, population concentrations, content area numbers or grade level numbers. That generalization also doesn’t factor in which of those 90,000 teachers are Special Ed or intervention level support. We do know that class sizes are already too large in many cases and they are about to get larger.

The legislature has paved a road of inequity upon which a mass exodus of teachers in your state will walk.

When you planned for the gutting of education in NC, did you also plan for the consequences; the ramifications of your actions? What will this mean a year from now? 5 years from now? 10 years from now? Is public education blatantly being sidelined in preparation for the privatization of learning, a step that will reward the haves and punish the have nots? Did you plan for who will ultimately clean up the mess you’ve created, which, in the long run will be potentially more expensive than justly funding education in the first place?

I’m ashamed of your willingness to make your constituents feel abandoned and hopeless. I’m sad that the pervasive mood going into the next school year is one of defeat, anguish, and despair. I’m deeply troubled that students will ultimately be the ones affected when the quality teachers move on to greener pastures.

The only hope I have is that those NC Teachers going back into their classrooms this Fall will teach civic responsibility, community values, and critical thinking like they’ve never taught them before, so that this generation doesn’t grow up believing that public education is an undeserving budgetary castaway. I hope that NC Teachers will teach how deeply we must know our elected officials and what they stand for and what they won’t stand for.

I also hope that your children, especially those in public schools, have what they need to be prepared for college or careers in light of the extraordinary obstacles you have placed in front of your state’s teachers.

I stand in solidarity today with my educator brothers and sisters in North Carolina.

Mike Fisher
Former NC Teacher

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Dealing with the Random Standard

I’m largely okay with the Common Core Standards.

Anyone who reads me regularly already knows this. There are limitations, sure, but by and large, they are better than previous individual state standards that, for the most part, prepare children for 1992, but aren’t so great at preparing them for 2025.

That said, there are places where the standards are either inconsistent, out of order, or blatantly strange. This blog post is about the blatantly strange. This blog post is about Reading for Literature, standard #6, for grades 9 and 10. Here’s what the standard says explicitly:

Image: @Janet_Hale from her web app

Everything up to this point in the 6th Reading for Literature standard, and in the standard after, are all dealing with Points of View (or perspectives) on a sophisticated level from one grade level to another. Then, in 9th grade, we drop the “outside the United States” part in there where it hasn’t been seen before and won’t be seen in the 11th and 12th grade. Random. Random. Random.

However, random or not, we still have to deal with it.

My colleague Janet Hale, who brought this standard’s specificity to my attention, and I had an in-depth conversation about finding appropriate middle-school and high-school works from a “wide range of world literature” given that the works cannot be published in America, even if the story focus is from another country (The Kite Runner, for example).

We were struggling to come up with quality texts that were both worthy of cross-cultural analysis and had analogues or comparative universal themes. We wanted to attend to the capacities around global perspectives without being U.S.-centric while also attending to the valuing-evidence and critical-thinking capacities.

After continued discussion of the implications of this standard while considering curriculum design, we decided that it would be advantageous to tweet out about our thoughts and leverage our digital learning network to find world literature (especially short stories) read by middle-school and high-school students in other countries that American students can read via an English translation. Not an easy task, but we started getting titles from around the world.

Why does this matter?

Let’s take a look at the Grade 9 unit from Engage NY, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”  Here are the standards addressed in this unit:

Image: Engage NY, screenshot from Grade 9 unit

Notice that the Reading for Literature standard number 6 is an anchor standard (RL.6) rather than a grade-specific standard (RL.9-10.6). Using the grade-specific standard would necessitate a work of literature from outside the United States as well as an American-published text, keeping in mind that analysis is also part of the standard.

To be fair, a key design feature of these Odell Education’s materials is adaptability--the ability to use some of the strategies and supports around a different text. This is important. Because Odell chose to focus on the anchor standard, they are maintaining the spirit of “point of view” and “perspective”, which is one way to deal with what may appear to be a random standard.

Is it okay to always revert back to the anchor standard when a grade level-specific standard is difficult to address? Not really, though it is dependent on several factors, primarily on whether or not the standard addresses content that will be frequently assessed, has leverage in other content areas, or is a lifelong skill that students will need. Another dependent factor is readiness. Previous to the 9th grade standard, there is no mention of texts outside the United States, but it doesn’t mean the support in previous grade levels should be ignored. The College and Career readiness capacities, which I see as the umbrella of the ELA standards document, demand that students who are college and career ready “come to understand other perspectives and cultures.” Even if not specifically in the standards, we can apply this capacity to instruction in both planning and action.

While there are teachers who may have flexibility concerning which grade-level standards get a stronger emphasis, what about those teachers who must adhere to the letter of the grade specific standard versus the spirit of the anchor standards?

This question brings us back to our digital learning network’s collaborative Google doc. We need resources to be able to engage this standard and we need a worldwide cadre of educators to connect and discuss with. We don’t yet know if all of the recommendations are appropriate (e.g., text complexity, rigor) given that they are new texts to us, some of the intended rigor or complexity may be subjective, particularly if they are being used based solely on quantitative measures (Lexiles). Through reading and analysis of qualitative measures and reader/task considerations, conversations around these international texts could yield wonderful opportunities for classroom use or possible unit substitution as a resource. (Janet and I also love the idea of having international students Skyping with American students during and after they read one another’s text based on deep understanding of the text, universal themes, and subsequent analysis found in both texts.)

So, in a nutshell, let’s recap how a teacher might deal with the random standard:

  • Revert back to the anchor standard, the “spirit” of what students need to know and be able to do.
  • Address the standard specifically with new resources and collaborative curriculum design. (Perhaps even have conversations about scaffolding in previous grade levels for the sake of readiness to meet the standard where it lives in a particular grade level.) This attends to the “letter” of what students need to know and be able to do.
  • Be mindful of how the random standard relates to the College and Career Readiness capacities and plan accordingly. This attends to a more overarching vision of college and career readiness that is perfectly appropriate to consider when planning and delivering instruction.

The blatantly strange standards sometimes give us great launching points for collaboration, global conversations, and shared resources, as it has in this case. If you’d like to continue the discussion, please comment below, contact me or contact Janet, or contribute to the Google Doc yourself.

Upgrade Your Curriculum, now available from the ASCD Bookstore.