“Doing” Justice: More than just forms

Donalyn Miller recently tweeted about a recording sheet she uses for the 40 Book Challenge she not only “invented” but practices with her students in her classroom.  As I’ve recently added her book “The Book Whisperer” to the book study portion of a course I’ve developed, Donalyn’s tweet caught my attention:

Screenshot 2017-08-17 20.30.30

My curiosity over why Donalyn Miller would feel compelled to tweet an endorsement of  Debbie Ohi’s collection of forms led me to read this post from August 2014:  The 40 book Challenge Revisited.

Her point this:

… the original thinking behind an instructional idea becomes lost when it’s passed along like a game of Telephone. You heard about it from a 60-minute conference session. Your teammate attended a book study and she gave you the highlight reel. The teacher down the hall is doing something innovative. You should try it. We’ve all seen the quick adoption of shiny, new ideas without a full picture of how these concepts fit into best practices (or don’t).

I’ve frequently heard fellow educators reference that they are “doing” the Daily Five or the Daily CAFE. However, digging in a little deeper, misinformed yet well-intentioned educator’s idea of the “doing” is more likely to be incorporating some of the “centers” (sorry Gail and Joan, I know that’s not what you intended) or using some printable for students downloaded from one of the educator enterprise sites.

The Daily Five practice is based on developing a trusting relationship between learners and teacher. The development of this trusting relationship is every bit as important as the student activities.  A gradual release of responsibility leads to developing students independence and accountability.  Joan and Gail’s commitment to research and development of their own practice is the powerful glue that, in my opinion, holds the Daily Five and CAFE together. This becomes the basis for educator changes that lead to best practice.

Shiny new ideas are terrific, of course. That is the basis of being “green and growing”, as one of my former administrators used to say.  However, without fully understanding a method for management of teacher, the practice become so simplified that it often becomes just another tedious fill-in-the-blank task to keep students occupied.


And that, is not a best practice of any kind.



This wasn’t Mozart, and it ain’t no jungle

My favorite weekend of the year is always the last weekend in July. The Lowell Folk 2017-Jul-29_Folk-Festival-2017_1195_edited-1Festival – a free (!) and frenetic amalgam of music, food, and culture – is worth planning around, which is, exactly what we do.

2017-Jul-30_Lowell-Folk-Fest-2017_1323Over the 31 years that the festival has been here, it seems to me it has developed into a better and better version of itself. This year, with stellar weather, not too hot and most definitely not too humid, was one of the best.

The music is naturally one of the biggest draws. 2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1031Where else can you go to sample everything from Armenian to Zydeco? I mean that literally.  When we first started coming to the Festival, we would carefully plan out which bands to listen to, and that’s not a bad strategy, really. But what we’ve done in recent times is move from place to place listening to music that is not necessarily in our cultural comfort zone. Doing so has been a great way to get some exposure to music we wouldn’t necessarily listen to on Pandora or iTunes.  Great stuff.


Over the years, we’ve also come to appreciate Friday nights, the first night of Folk Festival. While the crowds and 2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1036excitement of Saturday and Sunday of Festival weekend are energetic, there is a different kind of vibe to Friday. There is a goodly amount of community pride when the 6:30 parade kicks off. Representing many – not all – of the cultures of Lowell, it causes this Blowellian to realize what a special community we have here in Lowell. The diverse cultures making up our community fabric is a great source of pride for all of us. Long-established cultures that immigrated here during the hey days of the mills or newer immigrant groups establishing homes – all were represented in the kick-off to the weekend. 2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1039

But there was a little something more this past Friday: there was a feeling of kind togetherness and consideration. A festival-goer, a stranger to me, insisted I take a cushion as I knelt down on the grass of Boarding House Park to photograph the parade. Random concert goers started up and 2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1100_edited-1carried on conversations, enjoying the music and the collegiality.  I think this shift in attitudes must have become contagious. One of the Park Rangers we spoke with on Sunday was delighted to point out his radio had been 2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1153very quiet all weekend because, in spite of large crowds, everyone was well-behaved.

An event of this size takes lots of organization and many, many dedicated volunteers – from fundraisers to recyclers to people who run the cameras for broadcast.  If you were at this year’s festival, you may have run into a few of them from the Bucket Brigade. 2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1111In order to put on a festival of this size, there is a huge financial commitment from community partnerships to donations large and small.  You can continue to donate to the Lowell Festival Foundation’s fundraising efforts and, in doing so, get ready for the next festival.

Next summer, on the last weekend of July, the dedicated volunteers and sponsors who organize Lowell Folk Festival will do it all again for the 32nd time.  I know where I will be, and I hope you’ll join in the fun too.



Is STEM the only thing?

2016-Sep-10_FiddleBanjo2016_1362Is STEM the only thing? I’m asking for a friend.

It occurs to me that in the rush to turn out worker bees for business sectors, the focus in education is more than a little skewed in favor of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Yes, these are all important studies and part of a well-rounded balanced education. However, I am questioning that the focus on STEM has over-shadowed other content and curricula that, in my biased opinion, should be equally important.

Because I see education in terms of an avenue toward a pursuit, observing the march of the bureaucrats toward the next great crisis in education is equally frustrating and alarming. Our educational goal should be to “hook” students into becoming life-long students, to foster curiosity and questioning and the drive to know more.

And maybe that pathway toward becoming lifetime learners is through a STEM discipline, and perhaps it is not.

As a student, my personal pathway into learning was through something quite different. I was a more-than-adequate reader, not a particularly skilled writer, and a horribly incompetent math student.  What fired me up to become more disciplined about learning and more successful as a student, was a love and pursuit of music. The irony of this statement is that, as an adult, music has taken a backseat to the very disciplines that catch all the attention today – technology and mathematics.

To me, it is more important to teach students to think critically, to process logically and, yes, even scientifically. Science, math, and technology are important and great ways to get to those problem-solving and thinking skills. But other disciplines can be a means to this end – and toward the goal of fostering and enduring desire to learn – too. And for the student whose interest in learning lies in arts and humanities, exclusion of such pursuits leave them flat.

So while our education policy makers direct a refocus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, I hope there might also be a similar pursuit of arts and humanities. Because, in my opinion, there is a need to balance educational pursuits across all disciplines.

Boomers cutting the cord

IMG_2154About six months ago, Adrien and I came to the realization that, despite 200+ channels offered by our favorite cable provider, we were more often than not finding little entertainment of value on television. Mostly we ended up watching television to “kill time” – not a particularly compelling reason for sitting in front of the tube after dinner.  And then, there was the over $200 a month bill.

So with that realization, we started to become intrigued with the idea of cutting the cord – getting rid of our cable television access. And yes, I do know boomers are notorious for not quite being on the cutting edge of technology. Yet we persisted.

The television we gravitated to really was a short list. Once we started to keep track of what we really wanted to watch on television, it was fairly easy to match up streaming providers (Hulu, Roku, etc.) to our habits. Although we had an older Apple TV, we upgraded so that we could take advantage of DVR capabilities offered by streaming providers like Hulu-live.

What we discovered was that we might lose one of the local (Boston) channels (WCVB). We also let go of local cable access coverage of meetings (yea, I was that person), and watch local PBS affiliate,  WGBH, via the Internet.  By choosing the more costly live-streaming packaged offered by Hulu (Hulu-live) we can still access local sports coverage (Red Sox!). Another advantage is that any changes to account types (i.e., from regular Hulu to Hulu-live) so far do not incur any penalties or change of service charges.

The feature we’ve had to get accustomed to is queuing up programs that we are interested in rather than channel surfing.  Our previously acquired Netflix account is easily accessed through an Apple TV app. Using Amazon Prime is naturally a little more difficult, but with a little more effort (Airplay and playing through an iPad) still accessible.

We kept the same Internet access speed (200 Mbps), curtailed landline and cable. By doing so, our monthly “entertainment” costs are about $60 a month less – nearly $1,000 savings a year. At this point we are still evaluating whether the “live” feature of Hulu-live is worth the $40/month charge; regular old Hulu (with limited commercials) is $12 a month. If we discover that live TV broadcast is not something we regularly watch, we’ll be able to cut our entertainment charges even more.

In my opinion, however, the greatest advantage for us is that when we do sit down to watch television, we’re doing so for a reason or with a particular show in mind. Reading, conversation, and dinnertimes are a lot calmer.  So far, so good.

Are we over-coaching developing readers?

2014-11-25-lincoln-024One of the texts I’ve reviewed for a course I’m leading this summer is Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris’ Who’s doing the work: How to say less so readers can do more

What do you, as teacher, do when a student is stuck in their reading? Do you go into wait-time mode or try to move things along with hints or suggestions of strategies? And if you do either of these, what is the student’s response or reaction?

Sometimes when we think we are moving responsibility for learning to our students, the shift is not as significant as we think. Case in point: when a student successfully uses a decoding strategy to uncover a challenging word, does the student look to you, the teacher, for affirmation.  Surely that’s something I was guilty of doing.

However, when students come to rely on that affirmation and teacher praise as an indication of whether or not the word was called correctly, that is scaffolding that has over-served its usefulness in steering students toward a gradual release of responsibility.  We set the students up for dependency, not independency.

In real reading – the kind that students engage in on their own either in school or later in life as adult readers – what happens when a decoding challenge the meaning of the print breaks down? Will a teacher always be there to nod a yes or to give hints?

The end game for reading instruction is to enable a reader to develop so that he or she knows that to do when confronted with reading challenges.  Instead of leading a student through the use of a specific strategy (get your mouth ready, think about what makes sense), what if the prompts from a teacher were more open-ended:

What do you notice?

What can you try?

There are undoubtedly times when explicitly teaching strategies for decoding and comprehension are not only appropriate, they are essential. How else would a reader learn about them? But once the strategy has been introduced, practiced and become part of a reader’s repertoire, shouldn’t we, as coaches, allow the reader to decide what to do?

Over coaching developing readers is something I became aware of as an active and as a retired teacher.  More open-ended questions and less controlled coaching not applies to reading. Think of the implications for problem-solving in math.

So I ask: are we empowering our students to truly be independent? Or, as Yaris and Burkins point out, are we creating learners who are dependent upon our affirmation and approval? Are we allowing students to be independent learners?

The promise of “yet”

2017-Jan-12_winter2017_birdyogaWords have lots of power.

How many times have you, as learners, encountered can’t statements? Can’t as in “I can’t do math” or “I can’t draw” or “I can’t” just about anything. I think it was my grandmother who used to say “can’t never did anything”.  And she was – and still is – right.

I was thinking about the power of “can’t” during yoga practice this week. It used to happen that when I was in a public class and a balance pose as simple as tree pose was called, my whole body would break into an anxiety sweat. I can’t balance on one leg, I would tell myself. I’m too clumsy, too old.

Then, one day, I switched the narrative to add in the word “yet”. I can’t do this… yet. Through those 3 letters, I could feel my attitude changing. “I may fall out of tree pose today, but some day I will nail it.” In fact in time, that’s exactly what happened.

When I was actively teaching, students often would say “I can’t” to everything from a writing topic to division. Adding the word yet to their statements – I can’t do this yet – often made a difference for them too.

Three letters. Those three letters can make all the difference for every student.

Meanwhile, back at the DOE

10012015FrenchStThis past Tuesday, June 6, 2017, Secretary Betsy DeVos gave testimony in front of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies. An overview of Secretary DeVos’ testimony can be found on mlive here.

The presidential version of the 2018 budget details a whopping $10.6 Billion in cuts to programs supporting students of all levels.  Last week, I posted what the effect of cuts to three Federal grant programs might be on Lowell Public Schools. Using a back-of-the-envelope estimate based on the FY2018 school budget proposal, Lowell Public Schools would be out close to $3 Million in funding for 21st Century Schools, Title II (Teacher Quality) and Title III (ELL support).

Layering on the devastation caused by a (state) Foundation Budget that is severely out of whack and underfunded, the fiscal future for urban districts such as Lowell does not look very bright. Several superintendents ago, the Lowell Schools had a Superintendent who told staff that “less is more”. Well, in this case, less is actually less, and our students are going to bear the brunt.

During her testimony in front of that Senate subcommittee, Ms. DeVos stated the need to cut Title funding (i.e., nearly everything funded through the Department of Education with the exception (so far) of Title I).  As usual, making up facts that fit a narrative for redirecting federal funding was evident:

“This budget does so by putting an emphasis on programs that are proven to help students while taking a hard look at those that are well-intended, but haven’t yielded meaningful results,” she continued.

Where are the reports and research that back this up, Ms. DeVos?  Are we to believe that providing students from higher poverty/economic need districts such as Lowell with after school and summer activities doesn’t yield anything “meaningful”? What exactly does constitutes meaningful for you? A higher test score?

I most vehemently disagree with that statement by Secretary DeVos.  In a Gateway City, such as Lowell or Brockton, or any number of cities across the US, there are many families living in poverty and struggling. And despite many challenges, sometimes overwhelming challenges resulting from poverty and trauma, our Gateway cities strive to provide a comprehensive, adequate and free education to every student.

Allowing students the opportunity to participate in and explore activities beyond the school day gives these children a safe and supervised environment and their parents the peace of mind knowing that their child(ren) is well cared for during the time between the end of school and suppertime. I would call THAT meaningful, yet apparently Ms. DeVos would not.

But back to the federal budget that was the overarching topic of discussion during Ms. DeVos’ testimony.  As Michigan billionaire and school privatization champion Ms. DeVos, is okay with cutting or eliminating funding of some of the more substantial federal grants. Using the theme of giving parents “choice” of school settings, the Secretary of Education intends to funnel the funds eliminated or cutback into a voucher program. funding religious and private schools. DeVos intends to implement a voucher program without guarantees that would protect vulnerable students’ rights or ethical oversight of for-profit education management firms even when federal funding is involved.  For more on that, read Valerie Strauss’ June 6 Answer Sheet analysis. 


In place of “less is more”, I am more inclined to agree with this assessment of the federal education budget proposals from Senator Leahy:

“The Department of Education budget can summed up very quickly in one word: ‘abysmal,'” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Abysmal it is. And abysmal it will be for our students.