Tuesday, April 22, 2014

What is Motivation?

What is motivation?

We learned about behaviorist theory in education classes.  B.F. Skinner said we should concern ourselves with observable behavior be it desired, compliant, or disruptive.  Tie those behaviors to extrinsic motivators and classrooms should function perfectly--as long as the motivators are attainable and the desired behaviors are well-defined.  So what happens when neither is the case?  A conversation between a university preservice teacher and a rather astute, urban 13-year old showed who had the greater grasp on the failures of behaviorism.

The middle school student, decidedly ticked off about the point system for behavior, shared she would not have enough points to attend a reward event at week's end.  She continuously ran errands and cleaned the classroom when she would much rather sit quietly reading her book, all in hopes of earning more points towards her goal.  Unfortunately, because the cost of 30 points were beyond her reach, she would not be attending a volleyball game, much less eating popcorn and drinking soda.  In her rant, she drove home three rhetorical points that gave me pause.

1) Students with ongoing good behavior are at a disadvantage.  Teachers expect good behavior from them and unconsciously dismiss their "point-earning" achievements such as walking quietly in the hallway or turning in their homework on time.  She shared the example of a quiet, honor student with only nine points.  Strike one.

2) Students who misbehave regularly get noticed.  Teachers reward their good behavior because they want it to continue.  This reward system reinforces a pattern of bad behavior, improve, reward, no reward, who cares, bad behavior, repeat. Strike two.

3) If teachers create an unattainable reward, it impacts behavior more negatively than if there were no stated reward at all.  Strike three.

Change the participants to employers and employees and we are witnessing a perpetually broken system.

So what is motivation?

This 13-year old could discuss what was wrong with extrinsic motivation because, as an avid reader, she knows what it feels like to be intrinsically motivated.  Her bitter-sweet story continued with the description of a classmate who wanted to read a book after watching the movie based on it.  Encouraged by the 13-year old of this post, the classmate checked out the book.  The teacher, concerned with the book's thickness and the child's reading level, told the classmate to wait until summer and find something different to read.

"If they would only let her try," said the 13-year old, shouldering the guilt of motivating a classmate to reach for an unattainable prize.  "She can't read very well because she doesn't have faith in herself, and now," she continued, "the teachers don't have faith in her either."

Through her tears of frustration, she showed me what motivation isn't.  

I don't know if the quiet, honor student will have enough points to see the volleyball game or if the classmate will be allowed to read the book.  I do know a 13-year old who has lost some of her faith.  It is my hope that the preservice teacher can find a way to restore it.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Shouldering Responsibility for Learning in the Dialogic Classroom

This past year I've learned how to ask questions again. Before being in a doctoral program, it was probably third grade the last time a teacher asked me to pose a research question and really cared about my search and the learning that resulted. The learning. Being in charge of your own learning is a powerful thing and not a responsibility to be taken lightly. Teaching our students how to shoulder this responsibility is not an easy task, either, so what have I learned from my own experiences that might help me in the classroom.

I don't follow easy paths to knowledge. I hit road blocks, take detours, pause and regroup, even travel very indirect routes to reach my destination. For example, I wanted to try data analysis software. There is nothing I like better than to tinker with technology and waste hours to discover more efficient means to work. Yet I couldn't grasp how to navigate any of the different software tools. Frustrated, I stopped trying. I wasn't sure it was worth my time to attempt again, but after several weeks and a brief stint watching tutorials, I finally did. This time, it clicked. Somehow the passage of time helped me traverse the barriers to my learning. I couldn't immediately grasp the concept of organizing interviews in a qualitative data software analysis program; it was difficult enough figuring out that I had usable data. But my professor gave me the time and space to figure it out myself while being supportive of my efforts.

It seems appropriate to continue the road metaphor by describing how wide that research road was (and in many ways still is). In fact, my initial research questions are more comparable to a super highway--the breadth of a topic nearly impossible to cross. And I feel like I'm moving so fast across subject areas that I miss the interesting turn offs on the side. Instead of telling me what was wrong with my research questions, my professors, mentors, and peers posed questions to me. They dug for clarity and conciseness. By letting me talk through the process, they helped me without telling me what to do or how it should be done. 

My friends and I didn't just ask the simple questions. Our professor pushed our thinking, and so we read and responded to text, but we also analyzed and critiqued the values they held for us as teachers, coaches, administrators, and researchers. Our theoretical discussions prompted us to question the political landscape of education. Our data analyses made us question ourselves and our abilities as researchers. Through our dialogic classroom we have begun to find the becoming of something. 

Will our students have these same opportunities for time and space in their learning? Will they have peers and teachers who push for greater understanding? Will we honor classrooms filled with questions and discussion? Can our young students meet such high expectations?

My experiences have shown me that I can shoulder the responsibility of learning--as long as I have the help and support of peers and teachers, and the courage to help them, as well. If I can feel empowered by such a journey, how much more might a child who hasn't yet stopped asking questions? A child who has a teacher interested in traveling that road, too?

Here is the link to my test run at creating an audiovisual production on Meta

Sunday, October 20, 2013

National Day on Writing: Modeling

After following the #nctechat Twitter conversation about the National Day on Writing, I wondered how much I model writing for my students.  Modeling great behaviors...that's what teachers are supposed to do, and yet do we always?

A few years ago, my principal scheduled an observation in my classroom as part of the regular schedule he followed to observe all teachers in the building.  There weren't going to be any bells and whistles.  In fact, we kept to our typical routine of writing, mini-lesson, and reading in our literacy workshop.  And, as was also typical, I slid into a student desk during reading time and enjoyed an adolescent book (I believe at that time I was in the middle of the Haddix series Among the Hidden).  Beside me sat a fidgety fellow who had eyes for everything but his book until I settled myself in a desk in the next row.  At that moment, we were all reading.  It may have been the presence of the principal.  I think it had more to do with the presence of my book and my engagement with it.

I have marked the same engagement during writing time over the years.  Nothing screams "busy work" louder than an assignment given while the teacher grades papers or puts grades in the computer.  I found that active writing or whispered conferences with a student about his or her writing encouraged more pen-to-paper action than the words "keep writing" ever did.  Even actively responding on a student's paper offered limited effectiveness because it was seen as "grading."  So, my notebook filled with half-finished fan fiction stories (I really should finish the one I started based on Boo Radley), class ideas, journal entries, and poems.  If my notebook topic du jour meshed with the direction of the class lesson that day, I also shared what I wrote.  I hesitated to do that too often, though, because I tend to philosophize a great deal, which becomes unbearably tedious at times for the students (and others, I'm sure).

Without having a middle school classroom this year, it will be difficult for me to enact a day on writing with my own students.  In my studies at the university, though, I hope I have the opportunity to instruct a class on teaching writing.  This is not so much because I think I have a great lesson to teach, but rather that I have so much more to learn.  My students have taught me about telling stories and about listening to them.  They have also reinforced how important modeling is in teaching, especially in writing.  I'm not sure I'll be able to finish my story if I don't have a classroom of students to encourage me.  And that's when they become models for me.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Authentic Writing...for a 14-year-old

What is authentic writing?  Would you say that it is realistic, real-world writing that might be created in any advertising company, medical facility, auto shop, or grocery store?  Of course it is. That is most definitely authentic writing for advertisers, nurses, mechanics, and clerks.  It's just too bad that I don't have any students who have their professional degrees or licenses.  So perhaps my question should be this: What is authentic writing for a 14-year-old?

I have been asking myself this question and others as a part of my ongoing study into adolescent literacy.  How can I help negotiate or mediate the space between the teacher and the student?  What do I need to know about students and their writing in order to make their classroom learning real for them?  As part of this inquiry, I have taken some time out of the classroom to attend school full time but am currently working on a project with another teacher in the middle school where I have taught for ten years.

In this writing project, students tapped into their identities and drew out the personal inquisitiveness that sparks most young teens' creativity.  Another teacher and I led them on a quest to find out information about their names and how they felt about the name chosen for them.  Using Sandra Cisneros as a model, students created their own writings about their names, themselves, and who they wanted to be.  Even using a prompt, though, students had difficulty getting their thoughts on paper and constantly asked questions about what was okay as an answer.  They were so afraid of getting it wrong that they weren't experimenting with content, much less style.  Writing about themselves instead of an event was new terrain, and they weren't sure how to handle it.

Because of a few frustrating days, I decided to walk the students through several writing prompts.  I asked for honesty as they responded to these prompts after silent reading time:

  • What kept you reading today? Explain in the best details you can. How have you spent the last twenty minutes?
  • What made it difficult for you to complete that writing task?  What are some stumbling blocks you had as you described how you spent your reading time?
  • Think about today and your habits of reading and what you've written.  Now think about the last few weeks and all we have done (i.e. group work, computer time, etc.).  What have you discovered about yourself over the last two weeks? (i.e. as a reader, a writer, a student, a girl or a boy, a sibling, a daughter, a son)  Has there been an event that caused you to see yourself in a different light?  What would you have me believe about you since I am not your classroom teacher and know very little about you?  
  • Imagine a person your age who you have never seen and who you do not know.  What impression would you want this person to have of you?  What do you want them to know?

These, in addition to other questions, may have been too guided, but the students needed guidance at this point. They could see what Cisneros was doing in her writing but not how they could duplicate the effect. They were also unsure of themselves as writers and not sure what counts as writing.  After responding, they marked phrases, sentences, and passages in their notes from this day and previous days in the unit that tied together and could say something about them.

I then switched gears to get a general sense of what these students were understanding about the legitimacy and authenticity of writing.

Sparked by this article that described a 10th grader who wrote pages and pages of a game walk-through (see "The dumbest generation? No, Twitter is making kids smarter"), I asked the students about their writing outside of the classroom.  What a discovery!  Almost every student in that class has a twitter account, and at least half of the students post daily.  One student said he posts at least five times a day. This is the same student who had written very little on this project over the last few weeks, and I told him so.  I knew it was a mistake pointing that out to him when his comeback was that he had written a lot today.  Indeed, he had.  With guidance.  And purpose.

Most students (over 70% by a show of hands) have blogs. At least half of these students post or comment on a blog at least once a week.  A few students have tried writing video game walk-throughs themselves.
It was the question I asked next that was most telling.  I asked students to raise their hands if they thought this game walk-through writing was real writing.  Maybe they were worried about being wrong, or maybe it seemed odd that I would ask that question, but only a few students raised their hands; an additional few others raised theirs only half way.  I asked the same question about blogs and blog comments and received similar responses.

My next question:  How can we as educators work to see these other types of writing as legitimate while also helping the students see all of their writing as real? 

The question I am afraid to ask:  What writing do students see as real?

I promised their writing for this project would be real and posted here for comments.  Hopefully, I can make that happen in the near future as they send me digital pieces.  I look forward to reading what these certified 8th graders have to say.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Close Reading and Socratic Seminar

When a colleague first mentioned Socratic Circles, my thinking was that these seminars would be similar to Accountable Talk and the discussion I regularly encouraged in my classroom.  How different could it be from asking higher level questions and engaging students in a conversation about a text?  I found that there is a difference, but more importantly my students discovered that difference as well.

With my students, I use the term "Seminar" rather than "Circle" because, being the cheeky middle schoolers they are, they pointed out that my desks weren't in a circle but rather a rectangle.  Seminar seemed more sophisticated to them, so we went with it.  But our first seminar was a fail.  We had an excellent text--Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.  Students had listened to the text, read it in small groups, looked for allusions, alliteration, repetition, metaphors, and similes, and prepared questions for the discussion.  Unfortunately, we took very little time for the actual discussion, shortchanging the seminar learning experience.  The class needed to "move on" to other topics.  I witnessed the kind of work we needed to put into the texts, but had not allowed it to come to fruition.  With this, I learned how we needed to structure our seminar day before we tried it again.

The next two texts we read were the short story excerpt "Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored" by Clifton Taulbert (excerpt from the book by the same name) and the poem "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes.  We began the week with small groups reading the short story.  With everyone having read the story, we discussed reporter questions--who, what, when, where, why, how--and which ones were more difficult to answer.  Reading standard 1 asks students to determine the meaning of a text--the "what"--so we thought about "what" questions about the story that we could add to our notebooks.  In a class whiparound, each student shared a question, even if it duplicated another student's.  What is a minstrel show?  What is ice delivery?  What is the relationship between Ma Ponk and Cliff?  A few questions I noted, and we closed for the day without delving into answers.

The next day, I asked students to find 4-6 words they thought would help them better understand the text.  Additionally, I had a Wikipedia article about minstrel shows and a blog entry about ice delivery in the 1950s (which I found was actually rare).  The small group of students divided tasks among themselves with the expectation that one student would read about minstrels, one student would read about ice delivery, and the remaining students in the group would look up the vocabulary words.  All the students reading articles worked together to become experts so they could report their new understandings to their groups.  By the end of the class period, students had more questions to add to their notebooks, which they shared with the class.  How come the author talked about ice during the whole story and then shocked the reader with a whole different story?  Why did that event happen to Cliff and his uncle?  Why did African-American people want to attend a minstrel show if it was intended to insult them?

We took a slightly different approach with "Mother to Son."  I gave each student the poem on a small piece of paper (the poem was short enough to print four per page), which they taped into the center of their notebooks.  I reminded them of reporter questions and how they should first just think about the "what" while they annotated their individual copies of the poem.  After reading in a moderately-believable Southern dialect, I asked them to write "what" questions in their notebooks.  What is a crystal stair? What are the bare spots? Each student shared a question before we moved on to the second reading of the poem.  With the second reading, I attempted to deliver the poem with even more of the South, slowly emphasizing the emotion that could have been behind the words this mother spoke to her son.  Students began scribbling questions before I finished reading--they already knew which reporter questions to ask. Why has her life been so hard? Why does she give her son this advice?  Before closing, I asked them to think about a question that might connect the two texts.  In a whiparound, they quickly shared one question from their notebooks.

We allotted 10-12 minutes for the inner circle to discuss and the outer circle to record points for their partners.  After switching, the new inner circle initially worried that their questions had already been "answered," but they should not have been concerned considering the quality of discussion they were able to maintain.  What may have made a difference was the students' familiarity with the questions that had been shared several times during the week.  The principal joined one class to observe and has remained blown away by the student who he thought would be the last to participate.  This student contributed in both asking questions and discussing possible take-aways.  I wasn't surprised.  I just wish I had given him more opportunities to shine like he did that day.

Today, we tried to hold a Socratic Seminar with new texts introduced on the same day.  After such success with two previous seminars, students indicated they wanted to try discussion with less preparation.  Out of a total of eight inner circle discussions (two per class), only two groups were able to partially dig into the depths of the poems.  One student, who typically offered insightful questions to investigate, stayed silent until the very end when she said, "This is hard without writing the questions."  Even when I prompted a few later classes to write questions as I played the song or read the poem, most comments coasted above the surface of the poems and did not dig into their core, which leaves me with some thoughts to ponder.  Do we always have the time to plan for a one-day discussion?  But let me also ask this--why read in class the same way students read outside of class, one time and done?  Our classrooms should be where students learn different approaches to reading, the connections that texts can make to our lives, and the importance of listening to each other's ideas.

A student asked me the dreaded "why" question the other day.  "Why do we have to read this, Mrs. V?"  Why indeed?  History class provides the names, dates, and events.  In my class we explore the why--the story behind history.  Pace carefully and read closely, and students will discover the why--especially when they can discuss the questions they've had time to think about.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Argument, Close Reading, the "Who" and the "Why"

We all have our favorite authors, whether we are recalling our youth, enjoying our limited free time as adults, or furthering our professional learning.  For most of my life, I have thought about authors in terms of novels, and with professional reading I thought about topics or themes.  It has taken until now to recognize that the quality of the source can be found more in the works cited than in the table of contents.  I am finding that the "what" of the book is becoming outranked by the "who" and the "why."  Additionally, I advocate reading professional articles, books, and other resources to stay connected with the "who" and the "why" of our disciplinary fields.  If we only focus on the topics in the table of contents, we lose sight of our educational vision.

When I re-entered graduate school two years ago, I still researched by using key terms.  Yes, to me the topic was the most important aspect of the research.  Over the last two years, however, it has become clear there are hallmark voices in the educational profession whose words continue to speak from the pages of theory, research, and practitioner volumes.  The keywords on theory in my research have evolved to include the names of Vygotsky (zone of proximal development), Bakhtin (dialogic discussion), Dewey (inquiry), and Guthrie (reading motivation).  Applications of these theories in the classroom include my searches for Beers and Probst (tools for reading motivation and teaching reading), Harvey Daniels (teaching writing), Nancy Steineke (reading/writing strategies in the classroom), Smith/Wilhelm/Fredrickson (teaching modes of writing).  The lists are far more extensive than this, though, since these authors are also cited by a number of other writers in the field of literacy education.

So what do we do with this information?  
The shift in my thinking came while exploring the historical frameworks of different classroom strategies.  By reading the theories and research studies I gained a grasp on why some classroom practices work and some...well, do not.  Is it any coincidence that the new Common Core invites students to research topics in answer to a question and come up with their own questions?  Inquiry as a method for learning has been suggested by theorists and researchers in a number of publications and studies notably John Dewey, Jeff Wilhelm and Michael Smith.  Reading complex texts with productive struggle suggests that reading a text multiple times for multiple purposes will enrich a student's understanding to a greater degree than cursory readings of multiple texts.  New interpretations and understandings emerge with each "conversation" with the characters or components of the text (Bakhtin). This close reading stance has been taken up most recently by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst in their new text Notice and Note that I am eager to read.  But right now, John Dewey and his Child and the Curriculum is taking my full attention because he is the center of a current book discussion group.  I want to know how he developed his theories on inquiry and why so I can apply this framework to future searches for classroom applications.

And what about the students in our classrooms?
It's time for students to examine who is writing the articles, short stories, novels, blogs and whatever else we are reading.  I knew this at some level when I was a younger student, but I continued to cite the sources that said what I wanted them to say.  It did not matter to me who said it.  But it does matter.  The director of the Holocaust Museum will have something very different to say than a one-time visitor or perhaps even a person who denies the Holocaust.  To do this we have to select complex but reasonably accessible texts and devote the necessary time to analyze them.  With the Common Core's increased attention on argument, both analyzing and writing, students should be given the time to dig deeper into what they are reading, why it was written, and, yes, who wrote it and the investment that person has in the topic.  So slow down.  Keep the educational vision by looking at the big picture--more rigorous does not mean just more of everything (remember quality versus quantity).  This 2 1/2 minute video by America Achieves says it well.  Take the time to find out who is speaking and maybe our students will find their lost voices in the process.  Let's give it a try...for our students' sake and for ours.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Classroom and Content Management Learned at a Conference

I recently returned from the National Writing Project annual meeting, Literacy in the Common Core working meeting, and a day of sessions at the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention--all in one weekend in the desert town of Las Vegas.  It will take some time to process all the information that was generated or gathered at those three events, but I did make a few observations about content delivery that I can apply to my classroom immediately.

First and most pleasantly, the best presenters used humor.  With a witty comment or a comical picture, we could laugh in spite of the talk that centered around assessment and standards implementation.  Sometimes the presenter used himself or herself as the target of the joke.  Perhaps we should be able to laugh at ourselves and help students see events from a different, lighter perspective.

These presenters also acknowledged that the space and environment was not conducive to working in groups but that we were going to do it anyway.  Fortunately, my desks are easier to move than the convention center seats.  I currently have six rows of four desks in my classroom.  Two rows face one direction and the other four are perpendicular to those two.  There are also two tables.  The desks are large and difficult to arrange in very many configurations.  As much as it may surprise my coworkers, I prefer these row arrangements simply because it is easy to arrange into different group variations.  We can quickly do an elbow partner share or turn four desks together for a small group discussion.  It is also nice to begin the class with independent work, notes, or writing, which seems to work best in rows (in my classroom, anyway).

Most helpful was the fact that before each think-pair-share or small group activity, presenters gave clear directions and time limits for the tasks at hand.  Each task was small and manageable in a short time frame.  There is a fine art to giving directions for small group work.  Does the teacher provide instructions, then groups convene, then repeat instructions? Remarkably, there is little need for repetition if the directions are short and simple.  And when the group is finished with the task, it is actually possible to pinpoint the transition moment by the short lull that occurs in the conversation.  If the teacher can bring the class together at that precise moment, there may not be the need for raising voices or clapping.  But sometimes signals are still necessary (clapping worked nicely for one presenter).

Finally, I learned that it is sometimes okay to stand and deliver.  If the content is narrative in style with accompanying pictures that enhance the story, then don't be afraid to be that sage on a stage if it is appropriate for the situation.  I listened to a teacher of the year tell her story and inspire me with her message.  She made us laugh with the pictures she chose for her visual accompaniments.  I had no desire to think-pair-share or work in small groups to discuss anything.  I listened; I smiled; I enjoyed.  It was also possible to listen, smile, and enjoy because she spoke for only twenty minutes.  So I am writing a note to myself:  Don't be a sage for too long or the audience will stop smiling.

As I begin to process the information I was purposely seeking at these big events--research on teacher efficacy, the benefits and disadvantages of teacher autonomy, effective professional development, student achievement in writing--I will begin applying this knowledge to my research and to my classroom.  What I have learned in observing presenters at this and other conferences, though, is more classroom management and content delivery than I had to go on the first few years or so of my teaching career.  So here is another piece of advice:  Find opportunities to attend professional conferences--local, state, or even national conventions.  Sites affiliated with the National Writing Project provide several of these opportunities every year at mini-conferences with additional institutes offered during the summer.  At the very least you will see other teachers in action.  Bonus if you learn new content!  You will be glad you did.