The Role of Shared Thinking in Learning Environment – for EDU 6130

I see rules posted in most classrooms.  In many cases, teachers created these rules based on student contributions.  According to our Internship Performance Criteria (as well as the “State Eight”), evidence of student contributions to classroom norms is part of a “distinguished” learning environment:

5.4 Component 2d: Managing Student Behavior by Establishing Expectations

Distinguished – Standards of conduct are clear to all students and appear to have been developed with student participation.

Inviting students to suggest and modify classroom norms is an excellent way to encourage authentic consideration and ownership of their participation in a learning community.  But student-generated norms will not automatically boost student buy-in, nor do they necessarily reduce behavior problems. The practice has little power in itself, but a humble and empathetic teacher can put it to powerful use.

Hex. Good AudienceMy friend Mr. Hexagon has a unique version of classroom norms posted just above his whiteboard.  It’s titled “Good Audience” and lists five qualities that fit that description. Mr. Hexagon and his students created the list collaboratively, in perfect alignment with criteria 5.4.  But the real power of this classroom management tool, and one reason Mr. Hexagon is a distinguished teacher, is in the way he references the list when problems arise.  This 6th grade social studies teacher doesn’t have to repeat the words, “please be quiet” throughout class, or stand in front with an index finger pinned to pursed lips.  When a member of Hex’s class talks out of turn, he faces them and engages a calm, dignified conversation.

When one student interrupted a peer’s comment with a lively and mildly spiteful, “Whatever!” Mr. Hexagon turned to face him and asked, earnestly,

“Are you being a good audience member right now?”

“No.”  The student replied with thoughtful regret, but not shame.

“What will you do to be a better audience member now?” Hex points to the “Good Audience” poster.

“Not blurt out.”

“Thank you!  Perfect – you can do that!”

And then he’s back with the rest of the class.  This tiny conversation is well worth the time it takes because, for Mr. Hexagon, it isn’t a side bar. If students really are in school to think, and if they really are in social studies to think about the ways in which people affect each other and the world, then a 25-second dialogue about respectful audience behavior is well within bounds.

My friend’s use of community-made norms is an admirable instance of the second basic principle of Love and Logic – “share the thinking” (Fay and Funk, 1995, p. 26).  Mr. Hexagon shows his students dignity and respect when he invites them to think: think about what norms you want to operate by, and think about whether your actions honor the norms you’ve created.

Like Jim Fay and David Funk, Mr. Hexagon is committed to having this personally affirming and dignified method of discipline.  The learning environment he has built reveals his belief that kids will do what’s expected of them when they’re “treated with dignity and allowed to think” (Fay and Funk, 1995, p. 183).


Fay, J. & Funk, D. (1995). Teaching with love & logic: taking control of the classroom.  Golden, CO: Love and Logic Press.


My Assessment Debut – for EDU 6160

I designed an ineffective assessment last week.  Here’s what happened:

My mentor teacher and I wanted to find out (or, my mentor teacher instructed me to find out) whether our 6th grade Language Arts students were ready to move on from the five elements of plot.  Had we spent sufficient time here before moving on to characterization and setting?  Or did we need to spend more time reviewing the basic structure of plot? Did students need more practice identifying these in short stories?

So I set out to design an assessment involving the five elements of plot.  The simplest format would have been to have students diagram the plot of a story we read in class.  But this felt predictable, since we’ve been diagramming the plots of stories for a few days.  If I want to see how effectively they can outline a plot, I can look in their composition books at the work I’ve already asked them to do.  I wanted this assessment to show me something I didn’t already know.  What were my other options… Of course I could have just asked them to regurgitate the definitions of the five elements of plot (you know, exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution), but that wouldn’t have generated the type of data I was after.  I wasn’t trying to figure out if they’d learned the terms, I wanted to see if they could identify the concepts in real literature. An assessment that asked for the definitions would have been too easy.

“Too easy” – that’s part of the problem.  I’m unreasonably afraid of creating something that’s too easy.[1]  So now my goal had changed.  Not only was I trying to figure out how well they understood the elements of plot, I was also aiming to design an assessment that was “difficult enough.”

There’s no such thing as “difficult enough.”

I thought what I had to do was make it harder.  I didn’t like that it was easy.  I thought – the way to find out if they really know what I want them to know is to make it harder.  A harder assessment will prove they that can use what they know.  But I was wrong about that.

Making an assessment harder doesn’t make kids think harder, and it doesn’t give me more accurate picture of what they can do.  If I want an accurate picture of what they can do, I need to have a clear idea of what I want them to learn before I start to teach it, then make sure my lessons are aligned with that objective, then make sure my assessments are appropriately aligned as well.

A smarter, more experienced person put it this way:

To construct an individual test, begin by visualizing the performance you expect from your students.  Next, create specific objectives, using Bloom’s taxonomy… to make sure you address different levels of knowledge and understanding.  From these objectives, construct a test blueprint, and then write individual items to address each of your objectives and topics (Shermis, 2001).

The beauty of Bloom’s taxonomy is that is rescues us from the misunderstanding that, in order to reveal important data, a test must be difficult.  Difficulty should certainly be a consideration in creating assessments, but the chief concern should be matching the level of thinking (or the language function) among learning target, practice task, and test item.  That’s how a teacher collects accurate data on what students have or haven’t learned.

The super embarrassing part of all this is that I was supposed to have already known that.  I think I did know it, but I didn’t know how to look for it.  Maybe I will now.

What I finally decided to do was to ask them to identify and defend their identification (hopefully using some piece of the relevant definition) of five different moments in the story.  Also, I would scramble the different pieces from the story, so that their responses to my questions couldn’t just follow the same pattern as the diagram at the top of the page.  I made it harder than diagramming a story, see?  Because I’m so tough.

And then I decided that since my assessment was so tough, I’d start with a blank plot diagram at the top of the page.  I’d ask students to label the five elements on this diagram before moving on to the super tough scrambling stuff I’d ask later.  This was a brilliant idea that I had, both because it would allow most of them to feel successful before they go to the gloriously difficult questions, and because it’d perhaps provide insight into why some of my students would get some of the questions wrong.  I was very impressed with myself.

The assessment was too difficult.  The disassembled story fragments were difficult to place out of order, let alone match with the appropriate vocabulary term.  My supervisor (did I mention that all of this was for the day my supervisor came to observe me for the first time?) said afterward, “I’ll bet that many of these kids would have been able to accurately label the elements of that story if they had seen them in order, or if they could have seen them all at once.”  I considered both of these alternatives when I planned the assessment, and discarded both because they were “too easy.” But level of difficulty isn’t important until I’ve consulted Bloom on the level of thinking.  I’ll remember that for next time.

[1] No one ever made a movie about a teacher whose assessments were easy. 

Course Reflection: EDU 6150 – General Inquiry, Teaching, & Assessment Methods

4.2 Setting Instructional Outcomes

All the instructional outcomes are clear, written in the form of student learning. Most suggest viable methods of assessment.

Program Standard 4.2 addresses the need for educators to plan lessons with clear and definite outcomes in mind.  An effective lesson is built around specific statements of what teachers want students to know or do.  When such statements are strong, they will naturally identify a specific method of assessing student progress toward the instructional objectives. An insufficiently specific instructional objective like “Students will learn to read better,” won’t help an educator select assessment methods.  An objective that is specific and measureable is easier to assess.

This partnership between instructional objective and assessment method lies at the heart of “backward design,” the curriculum planning sequence laid out by Wiggins and McTighe (1998) who have pointed out that “Teaching ‘moves’ must be made in light of our goals and what they require” (p. 159).  In other words, every decision an educator makes about a lesson should be tied to a clear learning objective.

I’m excited about backward design. I haven’t talked to anyone who isn’t.  Backward design is dreamy.  It’s logical and precise; I almost want to call it sleek.  Perhaps the most exciting aspect of backward design is its exquisite usefulness.

Ironically, backward design is also difficult to execute.  It is intuitive, but it is not simple.

During my first attempt to write a lesson, I forgot all about the principles of backward design, and rattled off various practice activities.  Something about that burst of energy induced a miniature post-traumatic stress flashback to a humbling coaching experience.  The short version is that a group of 10-year-old girls’ had to be rescued from my coaching style.  I was all over the place – my basketball practices featured a turbulent assortment of meticulously thorough, but entirely unrelated, drills.  I was trying to teach a comprehensive theory of basketball through repetition of the game’s smallest movements.  It was zero fun.

You see, I really love basketball; so I like the fundamental pieces of basketball, too.  I can enjoy drills without having any particular goal, without motivation, even without fun.  Unfortunately for an anonymous group of middle school students, I love language arts even more than I love basketball, and am likely prone to the same manic style of instruction I exhibited in the gym.

Before I received some very helpful feedback, my Mid-Quarter Lesson Design featured a two-pronged learning target which failed to indicate a specific task, let alone particular form of assessment.  But somehow, every “practice activity” field was filled in.  Somehow, I wrote out some different things for students work on without knowing what I wanted them to work toward.  My process was nothing like the dreamy backward design I’ve described above.

My first stab (and I do mean stab) at lesson planning has dramatized and reinforced the cornerstone of backward design:  effective lessons are built around clearly defined instructional outcomes.  Writing a solid learning target (or the central focus, or essential questions, big ideas, etc.) is the necessary first step because every other element of the lesson must directly support the objectives specified in the learning target.

Work Cited:

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J.  (1998).  Understanding by design.  Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Course Reflection: EDU 6918 – Introduction to Teaching

This class has covered a huge assortment of information.  Our content ranged from the huge questions, such as “Where does knowledge come from?” and “What is your vision for education?” to smaller and more practical questions like “What does OSPI stand for?” and “What should I wear to work?”

Why such an outrageous range of topics?  Not surprisingly, effective educators are expected to know lots and lots of things.  That’s probably part of the common misconception that every great teacher is a Renaissance type.  Teachers are supposedmary-poppins-practically-perfect-in-every-wayto be exceptionally knowledgeable as well as exceptionally patient, interesting, diligent – the list goes on.  No wonder
friends and family give me a glossy-eyed look when they learn about my professional aspirations.  People believe that all teachers are just like Mary Poppins.  I have mostly believed that in order to be a great teacher, I’ll have to be “practically perfect in every way.”  So I had planned on pretending; I would just pretend to know and be everything.

I was relieved to find the following quotation, from Parker J. Palmer’s The Courage to Teach, projected in enormous letters on our first day of class:  “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”  Parker goes on to explain that, “Identity and integrity have as much to do with our shadows and limits, our wounds and fears, as with our strengths and potentials.”

Parker Palmer and the work of this course recommend the opposite of pretending; this quarter, we have practiced a two-fold method for improvement: humble self-assessment and collaboration.

One assignment through which we were able to humbly confront what Palmer has called our “shadows and limits” was the Disposition Self-Assessment paper.  We rated ourselves on teacherly dispositions, such as compassion, attentiveness, and professionalism.  And then we had to write a paper about it.  Parker Palmer loves this stuff, but it’s hard for me.  I have never thought of myself as “professional.”  As far as I know, no friend or colleague has ever described me as such.  This section of the disposition self-assessment, as well as our eighth program standard, gave me a bit of a rash.

8. Professional Practice The teacher participates collaboratively in the educational community to improve instruction, advance the knowledge and practice of teaching as a profession, and ultimately impact student learning.

Developing proficiency in this standard requires Parker Palmer’s notion of integrity, not Mary Poppins’ measurement of perfection.   In order to engage the educational community in a meaningful and collaborative way, I can’t pretend.  My contribution is only as good as what I actually know, and a humble awareness of the gifts I bring to my community.  In other words, professional collaboration begins with honest self-assessment.

Unfortunately, my first stab (and I do mean “stab”) at reflection on my dispositions yielded more fretful self-consciousness than productive self-awareness.  I stayed up far too late writing what was more or less an apology to myself, and submitted this about a 80 seconds after it was due.  That’s when the a slightly more authentic reflective thought occurred to me – what have I just turned in?  Was all that navel-gazing what my professors had in mind when they designed this assignment?  Do I reflect in a way that will make me a better teacher?  Or do I mostly scrutinize myself, stew about the fact that I’m not Mary Poppins?

During the next class session, we had an opportunity to talk through our strengths and weaknesses with our classmates.  While it seems like the added social factor would make this experience much more unnerving than the process of writing a paper alone at my desk, I found that the opposite was true.  It was only after I spoke with my peers about our self-assessments, that I able to accurately evaluate my own dispositions.  In the context of academic community, my self-conscious inner monologue became a focused and profitable self-awareness.

The Disposition Self-Assessment, and this course, has effectively replaced my most troubling misconception about becoming a teacher – that it’d require me to feign perfection in order to be professional.  As it turns out, professional practice isn’t about perfection. Professional practice is developed by taking humble and well-informed steps, in the context of educational community, toward the goal of positively impacting students.Dispostions Evidence

Course Reflection: EDU 6132 – Learners in Context

3. Differentiation – The teacher acquires and uses specific knowledge about students’ cultural, individual intellectual and social development and uses that knowledge to adjust their practice by employing strategies that advance student learning.

I’ve spent summer chasing a bright thread through all these theories.  Piaget called it “cognitive conflict,” information processing theory urges educators to orient students within their “current semantic networks,” and Vygotsky has named it the “Zone of Proximal Development.”  While stage theory, information processing theory, and Vygotsky’s Sociocultural theory each emphasize their own favorite aspects, they all agree that students need to be challenged appropriately.  Visit any childcare provider and you’ll likely see the same principle at work – adults teaching a child to walk will often place a toy just beyond his current reach, to motivate his development.  Oddly enough, you might not see principle at work in schools; students are often bored by work too easy, or frustrated by instruction or assignments they can’t begin to understand.

I arrived at Learners in Context with three years of experience in schools under my belt.  Much like the hypothetical day care provider, I had the intuitive sense that kids are motivated toward progress when they can see that the goal is just beyond their current reach.  However, looking back on my work as a paraeducator, I often neglected to consider what precise amount of support would be most motivating for my student; I was more concerned with what made the most sense on my side of the interaction.  I know from personal experience that while the concept of ZPD makes so much sense it feels intuitive, it isn’t necessarily easy to use.  Pressley and McCormick (2007) have pointed out, “Scaffolding demands much of teachers, and for teachers to work that hard, they must care about their students” (p. 166).

I have always made it a point of honor to care about my students, but Vygotsky’s interactive apprenticeship model, which emphasizes modeling, coaching, and scaffolding, invites me to a more precise and deliberate type of caring.  While the sociocultural learning theory clearly emphasizes student-teacher interaction, this theory requires a teacher to facilitate her students’ interactions with the content, not with herself.  This means that what I can do in 55 minutes is not as important as identifying what students can do in that time.  When I design lessons, student progress toward the next cognitive post must be paramount.  I’ll need to systematically assess student understanding, so that I will know what that next post is, and what types of models, prompts, or cues will help students struggle toward it.  I’ll also have to keep in mind that sometimes the best thing for a student is for their caring guide to decrease or remove support.

Pressely, M., & McCormick, C. B. (2007). Child and adolescent development for educators. New York, NY: Guilford Press.


Cognitive Development and Instructional Practice: Two Big Ideas

Every student’s development impacts their learning, so awareness of development needs to inform classroom practice.  I’ll focus on two big ideas I’ve encountered over the last four weeks, and the ways in which each will impact my instructional style.

The first big idea I’ll examine comes from Jean Piaget, whose insights are helping me put some useful name tags on some of the behaviors I’ve observed in middle school classrooms over the last three years.  I’ve often seen students’ frustration upon their introduction to new (or sometimes old) concepts that do not match their present way of thinking. Piaget calls this disequilibrium, which is more technically defined as “the realization that two ways of thinking about the world contradict each other, and thus both can’t be true” (Pressley & McCormick, 2007, p. 67).  A student experiencing disequilibrium, to a certain degree will be motivated to resolve this perceived conflict via accommodation, Piaget’s term for the modification of existing cognitive structures in response to environmental stimuli (Pressley & McCormick, 2007, p. 90).  When the new structure is accommodated, the student achieves a new and more sophisticated equilibrium.  This cycle of disequilibrium and equilibration is a central and repetitive aspect of every student’s progress toward their potential.

I hope to plan and execute an English Language Arts curriculum that invites students to confront the uncomfortable distance between what they thought was true and what they’re trying to understand.  By offering activities that are just beyond their present reach, I’ll aim to spark a healthy rhythm of cognitive conflict through which more and more sophisticated levels of equilibrium are attained.  This kind of planning will require me to know where my students are so that I can meet them there – what misconceptions can be pointed out in order to facilitate movement toward a new level of competence?  Knowledge of the “big ideas” in cognitive development can only get a teacher so far without considerate and astute knowledge of the students she teaches.

A second big idea I’d like to address is the distinction between declarative and procedural knowledge.  Pressley and McCormick (2007) point out that “All procedural knowledge starts as declarative knowledge” (p. 107), which will be a guiding factor in coaching students in their writing.

The writing process is definitively procedural: pre-writing, drafting, editing, revising… But each step of the process (and each feature of the essay) constitutes a concept, a piece of declarative knowledge.  As a teacher, I’ll need to strategically distinguish concept from procedure, at least in my own planning, to facilitate proceduralization, the process by which declarative knowledge becomes procedural (Pressley & McCormick, 2007, p. 107).  I’ll build units that introduce concepts, and then gradually – through explanation, modeling and guided practice – coach students toward increased procedural knowledge of writing.

Pressely, M., & McCormick, C. B. (2007). Child and adolescent development for educators. New York, NY:Guilford Press.

Observations of a Middle School Paraeducator

What I’ve learned so far about adolescent development hasn’t come from books or research.  I’ve spent the last ten years alongside adolescents in a variety of capacities – as a paraeducator, coach, and YoungLife leader.  Here are a few amateur observations I’ve made working at a public middle school over the last three years, and the ways in which these observations impact my interactions with students.  Since my job duties didn’t include classroom instruction, I’ve included my own philosophies of student support and a few comments on the instructional styles of certified teachers I’ve observed.

  1. Middle and high school students seem to be interminably hungry and tired. For many adolescents, school is just one piece of tackling a full schedule on an empty stomach.  They are easily, and understandably, distracted.  As a result, an adolescent’s attention must be earned through powerful, student-centered instructional techniques.  Teachers who keep this in mind implement creative pace-changing elements in their lesson plans, such as short bursts of physical activity or opportunities for students to turn and engage their seat partner.
  2. Many high school students seem to live for peer approval; middle school students seem more torn between pleasing their parents and pleasing their peers. I wonder if this indecision about whose approval they want leaves them with a sense of not living up to anyone’s  An important part of my approach to students is positivity; I want to make sure students know I’m happy to know them and happy to help.
  3. Gender has a peculiar, highly varied, and fairly significant impact on the social-emotional landscape of a middle school. Middle school students’ approach to members of the opposite gender range from indifference to obsession.  A comprehensively compassionate classroom culture requires an educator’s empathetic awareness of the interactions – or in many cases, separation – between boys and girls.
  4. In addition to the social and emotional impacts it can have, gender comes with some distinct biological and behavioral implications. There seems to be a belief among educators that boys are still in elementary school and girls are adults.  At times, I’ve been troubled by the ways some educators have incorporated these perceptions into their classroom management, particularly when it comes to discipline.  I’ve also seen a few teachers hold boys to lower standards of behavior and achievement than they do girls.  I look forward to learning more about the research related to gender in education and to hear from expert teachers on their instructional philosophies.

Characteristics of an Effective Educator

Effective educators are empathetic experts.  The order is paramount:  empathy comes first.  Empathy is the means by which an expert earns the right to share what they know with students.  In other words, passion for students is the necessary first step toward sharing a passion for content.  Students will encounter a variety of obstacles with content – disinterest, fear, embarrassment – until teachers communicate their willingness to be with students in the difficulty:  You can do this.  I’m with you.  I’ll help if you get stuck.

Empathy is communicated in atmosphere, words, actions, and reactions.  Empathetic educators will create a welcoming environment where students feel comfortable to ask questions and make mistakes as they confront new content.  Empathetic educators will remember more than just the names of their students; they’ll take pride in adapting a lesson for a specific kid.  Empathetic educators will respect even disrespectful students, will persistently treat everyone like they can learn.  This all-encompassing empathy is built with care and persistence.

Empathy continues and meets with expertise in the next phase where content is communicated.  An expert educator is intimately familiar with both their audience and their subject.  He or she can deftly field the questions of the intellectually curious, as well as break down material for the students who have yet to taste success.  At every step, each student is more important than the lesson or the content.