Thursday, March 18, 2010

What's up with the National Common Core State Standards Initiative?

Once upon many months ago, 48 states decided to race for $4 billion in stimulus funds being offered by the Federal Government. To qualify for this "Race to the Top," competitors had to commit themselves to the following areas of reform:
  • Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;
  • Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;
  • Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and
  • Turning around our lowest-achieving schools.
By the time the first race rolled around, 40 states - including Utah - plus the District of Columbia lunged from the starting blocks, and 16 qualified as FINALISTS. After another "heat," which is now underway, winners will be announced in April. Utah was NOT among the finalists, but another run is scheduled for June 1. Feedback from the first race should better prepare the participants for the upcoming competition.

Note: Since this writing, two state winners were announced: Tennessee and Delaware on March 31, 2010. The Salt Lake Tribune also reported that our state just missed finalist status, coming in at number 19. Whether or not Utah resubmits a revised grant application in June has not been determined.

Whether or not Utah qualifies for these stimulus funds, however, the Utah State Office of Education (USOE) is committed to ADOPT the National Common Core State Standards (NCCSS) rather than ADAPT our current state core standards to the national core standards.

For grades 6-12, the standards "define what [these] students should understand and be able to do in each grade and build toward ten College and Career Readiness Standards." The standards' framework focuses upon relevant areas of expertise for reading, writing, and speaking and listening. For example, reading standards focus upon "key ideas and details; craft and structure; integration of knowledge and ideas; range and level of text complexity.:

Writing standards include "text types and purposes; production and distribution of writing; research to build knowledge; and range of knowledge." Speaking and listening center on "comprehension and collaboration; presentation of knowledge and ideas."

Inquiry is implicitly embedded among the readiness standards rather than occupying a place of its own.

How all this plays out as far as its affect upon curriculum and assessment is yet to be announced. A USOE meeting for district English Language Arts personnel is scheduled for the end of March, and hopefully, many questions will be answered then. In the meantime, we can go forth with curriculum mapping, lesson planning, and creating common assessments based upon those Utah ELA standards that align with the NCCSS.

Oh, and by the way, Governor Herbert is scheduled to sign the bill that will eliminate UBSCT for the next two years. MY! What exciting times we live in!

Good luck to us all!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Differentiating Differentiation

Hi all,

Because I just conducted a workshop on differentiating instruction, I wanted to share an epiphany I recently experienced: Differentiating instruction doesn't have to be difficult OR time consuming!

While differentiating curriculum can be overwhelming, I think the variety of differentiation strategies lie on a continuum. At one end are LESS time-intensive instructional strategies such as the ones I'm including in this post. Layered curriculum is located further along the continuum, and near the furthest end is tiered instruction, a more time-intensive differentiation.

The strategies that do not demand an inordinate amount of preparation are also simple to implement, and they support our diversified populations. For example, allowing students choice is not only motivating for adolescents, it is also a form of differentiation. Think of all the ways teachers factor choice into the curriculum; here are just a few.
  • Flexible grouping that includes permitting students to choose their own groups at times
  • Creating a "question bank" from which students can choose to answer a required number to earn needed points
  • Providing prompts to choose from or allowing students to write an original response
  • Allowing in-depth learning of a self-selected topic within unit or theme being studied
  • Presenting options for end-of-unit projects/products
Differentiating activities can be as simple as varying the complexity of a graphic organizer to facilitate differing abilities or readiness concerns. For example, most teachers have access to a variety of graphic organizers, ranging from sequencing to Venn diagrams. Students can read the same text but respond differently, based upon their purpose for reading.
  • Some groups may use a Venn diagram to compare that text to another; 
  • another may use a sequential organizer to list the sequence of events; 
  • a third group may use a describing organizer to enumerate the characteristics of time period
Using the JigSaw instructional strategy, students could reconfigure their groups so that each graphic organizer is represented. The resulting discussion should expose many facets of the topic being studied.

Teachers can also assign students to complete just one section of a graphic organizer and then get into JigSaw groups to collaborate in completing the rest of the parts. 

Another simple way to differentiate instruction is to invite students to respond to a topic or text by using the "Silent Discussion" tool. One way to do this is to list a different statement or question on sheets of butcher paper and post them around the room. Students can rotate from one question to another and record their comments or questions on the papers. They can also respond to one another's responses as well.

I just received an email message from one of yesterday's participants, Cynthia Vandermeiden of Joel P. Jensen Middle. Today she introduced the Silent Discussion with her 8th grade students, and she was thrilled at how effective it was. Cynthia called the experience a "Silent Socratic Circle!" Here are some of her students' reflections about the experience:

I like it because the shy kids we never hear from got to share their ideas.” 
“You can read the dialogue and respond instead of forgetting what someone said.” 
“I felt like it flowed instead of everyone just responding to your question.”

“The assignment was cool, but our ideas were lame.” (Then we discussed how that was out of my control, but how they could change the level of interest...which was fun to point out. ;) )

“It was difficult because people were shortening their thoughts so they didn’t have to write a lot, but then we couldn’t understand their ideas.”  (Open discussion [included] ... how grammar and sentence structure is important in writing).

“I like that we have to connect with everyone’s idea, not just one person’s idea” ([We] compared it to a Socratic seminar)

“I haven’t been in the inside circle, but this gives me a good idea of what I’d need to do when I am.” 
In writing this, I hope you see how much you may already incorporate differentiated instruction into your pedagogy and may have picked up an additional idea or two. In future posts, I plan to discuss layered curriculum and tiered instruction.

Best wishes,

Thursday, March 4, 2010

What Ever Shall We Do with GOOD Readers?

I am very very concerned with struggling striving readers - or whatever the politically correct term is for students who don't read because they are ...
  • hampered with decoding or fluency issues
  • UNengaged
  • UNmotivated 
I also appreciate the focus upon adolescent reading and "the core of reading: comprehension, learning while reading, reading in the content areas, and reading in the service of secondary or higher education, of employability, of citizenship" (Snow & Biancarosa, 2006,p.1). I am grateful for the research and recommendations represented in the Reading Next report, including "The Fifteen Elements of Effective Adolescent Literacy Programs" (p.4). But I have been long concerned about those students who read AT or ABOVE grade level because I know they can lose their enthusiasm for reading and become another of those UNengaged and UNmotivated readers that populate our classrooms.

For this reason, I've been searching for a model that focuses upon students who LIKE to read and who are good at it. In 2007, while attending the Utah Council of International Reading Association (UCIRA), I stumbled onto the World Class Readers Model and liked it VERY much, but I ran into a few challenges.
  1. The model MAY be a copyrighted gifted and talented reading framework, but I haven't been able to confirm or refute that. 
  2. WCR, as developed by Nebo District, focuses upon elementary readers - not a big problem as it can be easily adapted for secondary classrooms.
  3. Other than what Nebo has shared with me, I cannot find any additional informations or resources about this model.
Last fall, I organized an Advanced Readers professional development class that invited secondary teachers to attend with the purpose of earning PD credit while working collaboratively to develop an advanced readers curriculum. Three teachers - Lis Thomas and Barbara Burt of Elk Ridge Middle and Pamela Spitzer of Fort Herriman Middle -   stayed the course, and we created 4 unit outlines based upon the WCR model for 7th and/or 8th grade reading or language arts classes.

We poured over the JSD approved reading list to find books that could both challenge and engage readers. Two are "advanced" books - a memoir and a classic - and two are currently "HOT" reads with controversial and/or compelling content. Those books include the classic Treasure Island and the memoir of Beryl Markham - West with the Night. The two popular novels are Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick and Unwind by Neal Shusterman.

Lis Thomas of Elk Ridge Middle read and created plans for West with the Night. This book shares Markham's adventures as an aviatrix in South Africa during the 30s and 40s. Ernest Hemingway said of this book, "... she has written so well ... that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt I was just a carpenter with words ... . But she can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers." ERNEST HEMINGWAY - mind you!

Barbara Burt, also from Elk Ridge Middle, organized plans for Last Book in the Universe. The Kirkus Review writes of Philbrick's futuristic novel: "Enriched by ... allusions to nearly lost literature and full of intriguing, invented slang, the skillful writing paints two pictures of what the world could look like in the future—the burned-out Urb and the pristine Eden—then shows the limits and strengths of each. Philbrick, author of Freak the Mighty (1993) has again created a compelling set of characters that engage the reader with their courage and kindness in a painful world that offers hope, if no happy endings."

Pamela Spitzer from Fort Herriman Middle created the plan ideas for Unwind, the very popular Neal Shusterman novel. This nail-biting thriller operates on the chilling premise that "life is inviolable from the moment of conception until age 13. Between 13 and 18, however, parents can have their children 'unwound'." The book also gives a new meaning to the concept of organ transplants! 

I worked on the Treasure Island lesson ideas, and along the way, I fell in love with Stevenson's classic. I decided to center the learning activities on the theme of survival, especially the characteristics of a survivor. I was intrigued with how Jim Hawkins' changed because of what he did to survive his adventure and juxtaposed that with Long John Silver's ability to survive his scrapes.

While working on this project, I approached the Jordan Education Foundation to see if we could procure funds to buy the books, thus allowing a "test drive" of our lesson plans. With some luck and good timing, I was able to buy one classroom set of books for each of the participating teachers. Each teacher will use the WCR model to study the novel with their students. They will reflect upon the lessons and make changes to their plans, if necessary. After this process, we will share the plans with other teachers. 

Now here is some pretty good news - NOT great news when compared to all the bad news we've been faced with, but something nice, nevertheless. With additional help from the Jordan Education Foundation, we applied for another grant through QWEST and received enough money to supply each middle school with at least one classroom set of the above novels. IF teachers aren't interested in using those books, they can choose another from the list I am creating from the JSD approved book list.

This "list within the list" will include books we hope are challenging and engaging. We'll look at old and newer classics as well as Lexile levels. I plan to check out availability, summaries and reviews of unfamiliar titles, and then I'll ask you for your opinions before publishing the final Advanced Readers Book List. Does that sound good?

To receive a classroom set of books, you'll be invited to attend an orientation about the World Class Readers Model. If teachers want a set of books off the Advanced Readers Book List, we ask that they develop a unit plan using the WCR Model. Watch here for more information and thanks for all you do for our students!