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Open a World of Possible
With Independent Reading: The 20-Minute Challenge

Giving kids access to books they love and the time to read them is the best way to help them achieve academic success and lifelong joy.
By Pam Allyn

If you could free up 20 minutes in class each day—no small feat, I understand—what payoff would you need to justify the commitment? Would boosting test scores, nurturing better writers, and creating students with a deep love of learning be enough? If so, then I have a challenge for you. Will you make independent reading a regular part of your school day?

Independent reading time is truly the simplest, most economical intervention we have to transform even the most struggling readers into kids who read with flashlights after their bedtime and who use reading as a tool to change their lives.

Olympic athletes don’t get to the podium because they filled in worksheets about their sport or listened passively to a coach for hours on end. They become strong and skilled through daily practice, through exercising many muscles, and taking initiative. Reading muscles grow strong in the same way, through regular, dedicated practice. It’s been shown that as little as 20 minutes a day of brisk walking provides measurable health benefits. A similar principle holds true for reading. Twenty minutes a day of the kind of reading where children select their own titles and where the time is spent fully engaged in reading will have a big impact and open up a world of possibility for each child. Practice does make perfect. And practice must start from a place of love and passion. There is not one thing you do well that you did not love to do first. We must make space for independent reading time in school because it gives children a chance to actually practice and to fall in love with the work of reading.

The Benefits of Daily, Independent Reading

Independent reading builds fluency, stamina, independence, comprehension, and an increased vocabulary. And, it leads to high test scores. Years of research by renowned experts have proven this time and time again. Richard Allington sums it up perfectly when he says, “It is during successful, independent reading practice that students consolidate their reading skills and strategies and come to own them. Unless children read substantial amounts of print, their reading will remain laborious, lacking fluency, and limited in effectiveness.”

Creating daily regular work around independent reading experiences exposes our students to the three major text types: narrative, opinion, and informational text. Daily independent reading time promotes high levels of critical thinking and comprehension skills. As Nancie Atwell points out, “Students who read widely and frequently are higher achievers than students who read rarely and narrowly.” The independent reading time gives students the chance to read widely—to browse and reread, to read across genres and text types, to read voraciously and to fall in love with authors.

The benefits of reading independently extend to our students’ writing lives as well. Reading is like breathing in, and writing is like breathing out. Allowing students to immerse themselves in authentic texts gives them powerful models to inspire their own writing. It’s no surprise that a universal piece of advice that great writers give to aspiring writers is this: Read often. Ernest Hemingway, when asked how to become a great writer, responded: “Read Anna Karenina, read Anna Karenina, read Anna Karenina.” And he meant it; rereading counts. This is also a key part of independent reading: letting kids love the books they read and letting them read authentically too, which always, for anyone under the age of 12, involves rereading.

The Power of Student Choice

The integral ingredient of independent reading time is student choice. Having ownership of their own reading empowers children to build a strong identity as readers and is profoundly motivating for students, even and sometimes especially for struggling readers who may feel a lack of autonomy in many other areas of their academic learning lives. The 2013 Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report found an astounding 92 percent of kids are more likely to finish a book that they chose themselves as opposed to one that was chosen for them. That is persuasive testimony not only to the power of choice but also to the good decisions children make when they are supported in making them.

Today’s independent reading time should be deeply connected to a child’s ongoing learning and to the learning timeline of the classroom literacy work. A teacher’s role should be to teach into that independent reading time, not away from it. Independent reading should be the fuel for whole-class instruction. For instance, if the teacher is leading a unit of study on characters and themes, the children should be exploring those same big ideas in their own independent reading, whether a child is reading Frog and Toad or The Chronicles of Narnia. Teachers can confer with students individually during independent reading time to discover what parts of their teaching are impacting that child’s independent exploration of texts.

PamallynpressphototwoThe launch of Scholastic’s Open a World of Possible campaign is a perfect moment for us as educational leaders to commit to providing every child with at least 20 minutes of independent reading time every day in every classroom and to commit to providing the kinds of books and texts children will stay awake all night for. Independent reading at home and at school puts the child at the center of his or her own learning, which fosters success and enthusiasm. So there is a new effort among teachers to help children find books to get them excited about stories and information, to link reading to fun, discovery, and curiosity, and to promote the sheer joy that reading can bring. A child with the right book becomes the driving force in his or her own reading, and that is the key to becoming a learner. Open a World of Possible points to independent reading as a doorway to imagination and discovery—a way to motivate children to read and learn and realize themselves.

It’s no coincidence that many of today’s trailblazers and entrepreneurs pinpoint reading and favorite books as the source of their inspiration. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has said that reading Nancy Drew mysteries changed her life and made her want to solve mysteries too, which is what she does today! Lest we think independent reading is supplemental or extra, to be done only on Friday afternoons, let’s think again. Take the Open a World of Possible challenge and put independent reading time at the center of your school community. Let’s leave a literacy legacy for our students they will remember always. Let’s give every child those 20 crucial minutes each day to change their lives.

Pam Allyn is a renowned author of award-winning books on parenting and teaching. She is the founder of LitWorld, a literacy advocacy initiative working nationally and globally to provide literacy to at-risk children.

 

BIGGER THAN WORDS: A Live Webcast with Usher

The best selling musician discusses how kids can open a world of possible through reading.

Thursday, November 6, 2014   
1:00pm ET / 10:00am PT
scholastic.com/usherwebcast

READING OPENS A WORLD OF POSSIBLE with TAYLOR SWIFT

An Exclusive Video. Global superstar and seven-time Grammy® winner shares which books have influenced her, and how reading and writing have opened her world. scholastic.com/taylorswift

Edjourney-pulse

On the Road, Seeking Out Innovation

Author Grant Lichtman on why America’s best schools are adaptable and creative.
by Kim Greene

Grant Lichtman packed his bags, climbed into his 1997 Prius, and embarked on an epic cross-country road trip, at least by an educator’s standards. Over the course of three months in the fall of 2012, he visited 64 schools, from California to New York, public and private, suburban and urban. His goal: to learn what the word innovation means to schools, what obstacles educators encounter, and what successes they have found. His findings form the basis for his new book, #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education. We caught up with Lichtman at his home in California to delve deeper into what the senior fellow with the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence learned while on the road.

Q: Early on in the book, you say change in schools isn’t hard—it’s uncomfortable. How does an administrator create a school culture that embraces change necessary for innovation?

A: The biggest obstacles to innovation and change in all organizations are fear and inertia. These are very much present at schools. Leaders need to have the courage to take risks, primarily to overcome the fear and inertia. Schools have always had a unique and difficult relationship with the idea of risk both as learners and as adults. Yet we know that organizations are not capable of changing unless we do take risks. In a time of rapid change, we have to engage strategies where risk is not a bad word. It’s not dangerous. Actually, the risk to an organization of not changing frequently is greater than the risk of making some changes. The book is full of examples of how school leaders are changing their approach and mind-set to the idea of risk—how they are changing the management structure to create more distributive, creative processes and allowing those processes to happen within their organizations. The real hallmark of innovation is the ability to move quickly, which does not happen when we have rigid, highly vertical, hierologic reporting structures.

Leaders are recognizing they need to value employees with different strengths than they’ve had in the past, rather than just valuing teachers because they’re experts in a particular subject or because they’ve had longevity in the system or because they’ve demonstrated ability to manage a classroom. We place a high value on people who have a willingness and capacity to create something—to collaborate as members of a team—as much as we do knowledge of subject. Those are some of the similarities of schools that seem to be developing a capacity for change.

Q: You spend a chunk of the book outlining the characteristics of an innovative classroom. If we walked into one today, what words would you use to describe it: adaptable, creative, dynamic?

A: I think it starts with those words. Those words are ones that I synthesized from so many schools and so many interviews with so many educators. They tend to be messy, noisy, and slightly chaotic.

I use the word permeable a lot. This follows on the thinking of my colleague Bo Adams, whom I cite in the book. We have to break this boundary between the concept of school and the rest of the world. This means breaching the physical boundary by getting off campus more, even if it’s only a few steps, to use the world as a learning space.

Certainly, teachers are becoming much more nimble and adaptive. They’re changing their curriculum each year, allowing students to help negotiate and change that curriculum, doing that as co-learners rather than as a teacher and a student at opposite poles.

Q: You make the point that innovation and technology are not terms to be used synonymously. Why do some educators think that putting a tech device in the hands of students is instant innovation?

A: We have to look at the history of it. We don’t have to go back more than 15 years—or, for some schools, the last 10 years—to when computers really started percolating into the classroom and school space in a meaningful way. A number of people felt that placing this technology in the classroom would be disruptive innovation that would fundamentally change learning. This included Clayton Christensen, who built a lot of the disruptive innovation idea around the example of computers in the classroom. What we found is that it does in some cases and it dramatically doesn’t in other cases.

I wrote an article for ISTE a year ago (“Take Aim at Innovation,” Learning & Leading With Technology, September/October 2013,) and its punch line was, technology is the bows and arrows in our quiver. Our goal as educators is not about bows and arrows; it’s about training the archer. I think that we’ve seen in the last few years a shift, importantly in the minds of educational technologists. Eight or 10 years ago, they felt what they were bringing to the table was the innovation. Now when I meet with them, many of them understand the shift is in the pedagogy and the learning space, the practice of relationships between teachers and students and knowledge.

Q: It’s difficult to imagine the types of innovations you talk about happening in schools that have so many requirements and regulations. Private and charter schools have more flexibility and, as a result, seem riper for innovation. What changes are necessary to help foster innovation in traditional public schools?

A: You’re right. Charter and private schools are a legacy of the old laboratory schools of the progressive era. This is exactly what they were meant to do—try new things and hopefully some of those will percolate, and of course did percolate, into the public system.

Public school leaders have to recognize a few things. If public schools do not change to better prepare for the future rather than the past, they’re going to continue to lose students to other learning opportunities. The range of opportunities families have to choose from today is vastly greater than five, 10, and certainly 15 years ago. Because of that choice, families who understand that the traditional method of learning is not preparing students for the world they’re going to inherit will make other choices.

Also, we are trapped in this existential discourse between the role and importance of standards-based learning versus what we could call a more progressive learning style. I do not believe the Common Core de facto is an inhibitor of deeper learning. In fact, I think if people view Common Core as a foundation upon which to build, much of what it outlines allows for these sorts of innovative learning conditions. I think regions, states, and areas that view the Common Core or any set of standards as so vital and so important that they require teachers to take on an ever more rigid, test-focused set of activities in the classroom, are on the wrong side of history.

Finding Excellence

Lichtman says he’s frequently asked to name the most innovative schools he visited. On his list of exemplary schools are these two public institutions:

  • Science Leadership Academy (SLA), Philadelphia: SLA is a public magnet school that faces the same challenges as other schools in Philadelphia’s system, including poverty and funding. Yet the school, which follows a project-based philosophy, boasts that 90 percent of its graduates go on to four-year colleges.

Among the many assets that make SLA successful, Lichtman points to the agility and speed with which the school makes decisions. SLA founder and principal Chris Lehmann told Lichtman, “We iterate fast and we are not afraid of ideas. But we also ‘problematize’ well. We consider the worst and negative consequences of our best ideas, and we do all of this quickly.”

Lehmann does not rely solely on senior administrators to make decisions about innovation. “When we have someone new to the school, we often have to coach them up to this level of decisional empowerment so they will just go and make things happen,” he said.

  • Denver Green School (DGS): DGS is a choice school operated under Denver’s Board of Education.Lichtman says the school has “the most intentional system of distributed authority” of any school he visited. Seven partners (master teachers, of sorts) founded the school and act as the leadership team. They’ll continue to add partners as teachers become interested and committed. With a growing mass of partners, they hope these leaders can then start their own schools with this same management structure.

Lichtman says this innovative management style works because it alleviates the problem of placing a single individual at the top. If that one weak link fails, Lichtman notes, the whole organization is at risk. But with distributed authority, the school has a better shot at long-term success.

Photo Credit: Julie Lichtman

Top Stories for Wednesday 10/29

NYC Teachers to Receive CCSS Training

Benchmark Education is offering NYC Pre-K teachers Common Core training. EdDive

"Ebola Student" Sues School

Child barred from school after traveling to Nigeria. EdWeek

Teacher Tenure Suit: Not So Fast

UFT asking court to drop suit against tenured teachers. Chalkbeat

What's At Stake in CA Supt. Race

Two Dems slug it out over tenure, school reform. Politico

Turnaround or Disaster?

New study details Michigan's attempt to boost low-performing schools. EdExcellence

Games-pulse
Getting Serious About Games

How to ensure the games your students play pay off academically. 
By Dan Norton

Who doesn’t like a good game? From chess to bowling to flapping (possibly even angry) birds, games have permeated our culture. With social and mobile technology infusing every aspect of our life, even Grandma has been known to cultivate a virtual farm or crush some candy from time to time.

For people who love games, this is great news. But now that games are accepted as a mainstream medium, it’s time to see if they can be moved past the point of mere entertainment.

The field of learning games itself has been around for decades, with venerable titles such as Carmen Sandiego and The Oregon Trail blazing the path. But there is new research and products that seek to unleash the power of gaming in your district’s classrooms.

So while mixing games and education is no longer frowned upon, the rules for evaluating whether a game deserves to be part of your district’s classrooms are certainly different from those you use to judge a game you play for diversion. Here are five tips to help you determine whether what you use your classrooms will offer students quality learning as well as fun.

1. Games Are More Than Fun

Yes, games are fun, but that’s just a tiny piece of what they have to offer. When evaluating games for your classroom, look past the amusing story or the pretty graphics and think about what players are actually going to do in the game. The gold standard to ask is, “Does mastering this game mean students will have mastered the targeted learning objectives?”

Great learning games use the natural gameplay cycles of challenge and feedback to ensure players excel, and the progress connects to the learning objectives in an obvious and measurable way.

2. Games Create Context for Content

Games, of course, can hold educational content, but the unique power of quality games is that they create a context to surround the content. This context creates authentic ways of interacting with the content. The gameplay in each game is actually a set of “verbs.” That is, players interact with the content in a way that closely mirrors actual mastery of the objectives.
The context that games create is so powerful that you can use it in classroom activities and materials after the game is done. Drawing on the gameplay experience, classroom activities can also connect related learning objectives back into the game’s story. For example: ”Remember how we grew those plants in Reach for the Sun? How do you think the plants actually turn that sunlight into energy?”

3. Games Create Practice With Purpose

Games don’t just create verbs, they create identities that give purpose. Quality learning games make explicit why the objectives matter. Games make heroes out of writers, scientists, thinkers, and problem solvers. Students want to know why learning material matters—and games help paint that picture!

4. Games Explore Systems

Games are, at their heart, simply a set of rules that players inhabit. These rules create a system that players experiment with and try to understand in order to get better at the game. Think of these rules as a simulation, and players as “researchers” testing the boundaries of the simulation through play. This makes games well suited to express complicated, systems-driven concepts that are so often found in science and math.

5. Games Are an Opportunity

When evaluating games, think of them as an opportunity to connect, create context, and inspire your students, not just to entertain or distract. When you evaluate the games you want to put into your classrooms, think of them not as a temporary diversion, but as a powerful new tool you can use to enhance your entire curriculum.

Dan Norton is the chief creative officer and founder of Filament Games. He has designed games about a broad range of topics, ranging from marine turtle ecology to legal argumentation. His games have won numerous industry awards and have been played millions of times in classrooms across the country.

Top Stories for Thursday 10/23

Vision to Learn Expanding to Delaware

Deleware schools will be provided with free eye exams and glasses. EdWeek

Private Money Poured Into Wealthy Schools

Money is disproportionally raised in well off vs. poor communities. NYT

Truth of NOLA’s Charter Revolution

RSD is about recovering a failing school not coming back from Katrina. HechReport

DCPS New ESL Program

A new academy w/in Cardozo Education Campus tackling ESL head first. WAMU

Schools Fighting Ebola Frenzy with Facts

Educators push to inform students about ebola to avoid panic. PBS

Twitter-pulseWhy Your Teachers Should Use Twitter

Powerful PD—one tweet at a time.
By Kim Greene

There comes a point when we have to acknowledge that one-size-fits-all professional development isn’t cutting it. Just as students need to be treated as individual learners, so do the teachers in your schools. And while your district may offer workshops and webinars, there’s another PD resource right at your teachers’ fingertips. It’s open 24-7, connects educators from around the globe, and covers countless topics across grade levels and subject areas.

It’s Twitter.

We know what you might be thinking. There aren’t enough hours in the day to check another social media site. Well, we have good news for you. You and your teachers can spend as much or as little time as you want exploring ideas—wherever and whenever you want. Twitter is a giant professional learning network (PLN) that helps educators step outside of their classrooms and schools. Together they problem-solve, share, and refine their craft.

We’ve assembled a guide for you to share with your teachers so they can make the most of Twitter as a PD tool.

To get the scoop on Twitter as PD, we spoke with two tweeting teachers, Lyssa Sahadevan (@lyssareads), a first-grade teacher at East Side Elementary in Marietta, Georgia, and Allison Hogan (@AllisonHoganEDU), a transitional kindergarten/first-grade teacher at the Episcopal School of Dallas.

For teachers who have never been on Twitter before and have just created an account, where should they start?
Allison: My first piece of advice is to take the time to create your profile. When someone follows me, I look at their profile to see if they’re a teacher, principal, etc. Also, follow people in your school community to see how they use it.
Lyssa: A friend of mine took an online Twitter how-to. She was so overwhelmed! I suggested she just go for it, and that route worked for her.

When it’s time to start tweeting, what’s your best advice?
Allison: Start with a chat in your comfort zone, like your grade level or content area. Move to larger groups once you get the format down.
Lyssa: I started simple with #1stchat (first-grade chat) and just sat on the sidelines!

How do you start to form a PLN out of a sea of strangers?
Lyssa: It all starts with hitting reply. If something speaks to you (and you might not always be in agreement), you reply. A conversation ensues. You retweet them, they retweet you, you ask questions and share resources. You might meet them in person one day at a conference. It’s awkward, but it’s also exciting! You already know you have something in common.

How do you maximize your Twitter time without it taking over life?
Allison:
I investigate topics and lean toward what I will need and what I have to offer. Think strengths and weaknesses.
Lyssa: I often miss my favorite chats because the times do not work, so I devote a little Saturday-morning coffee time to going through the archives. I pick and choose. If I’m working on an improving math workshop, I make time to attend the chat. If there is a conference going on, I try to check in on Twitter or make a note of the hashtag so I can follow.

In terms of social media, do you think Twitter has something unique to offer teachers that Facebook and other platforms don’t?
Allison:
Twitter is way better than Facebook just because of the access—meaning a hashtag can unite hundreds of educators at one time and for a purpose. I can also ask a question using the same hashtag, and it will reach those who follow the hashtag, so more ideas will flow.
Lyssa: The openness of Twitter is unbelievable. The year I co-taught, I posted a tweet asking for tips. At least 10 or 15 teachers reached out to me with advice, special education resources, and blog posts. It was so encouraging! These teachers were strangers who just wanted to help. I had expert advice immediately.
Allison: Once teachers see the effects of Twitter, it will be easy to transition to a class account to share their work and wonderings with the world. I feel Twitter and Skype have torn down the walls of my classroom.

#HASHTAGS

Hashtags are keywords that categorize what you’re tweeting about. For instance, you might use “#edtech” at the end of a tweet about how your students use tablets. You can also search Twitter for a hashtag that you’re interested in. This will bring up tweets from other users who have tweeted about that topic. Here’s a look at some (but definitely not all) of the most popular education hashtags.

General education: #teaching, #teachers, #learning, #k12, #PLN, #edreform, #commoncore, #ccss, #teacherproblems, #edcamp, #globaled

Educational technology: #edtech, #elearning, #edapp (or #edapps), #byod, #blendinglearning, #ipaded, #1to1

Content or grade-level specific:

Literacy: #kidlit, #literacy, #readaloud

Math: #math, #mathed

Science: #scied, #STEM, #NGSS, #scienceteacher

Social studies: #socialstudies, #historyteacher

Arts: #artsed, #musiced

Early childhood: #earlyed, #preschool, #ece

ESL: #esl, #ell (or #ells)

Special education: #sped, #specialneeds, #autism, #dyslexia

Physical education: #PEgeeks

Speech and language: #SLpeeps, #speech

Other hashtags to note:

#tlap: Inspired by Dave Burgess’s (@burgessdave) Teach Like a Pirate

#comments4kids: Denotes when teachers want others to comment on students’ blog posts.

#flipclass: The latest and greatest ideas about flipped learning

CHATS

Educators join up for Twitter chats every day of the week. Moderators pose questions to keep the discussion on topic. Everyone uses the same hashtag in his or her tweets so it’s easy to follow the conversation. (You’ll also find that people use these hashtags throughout the week.) You can search for the hashtag manually on the Twitter page or try programs like Hootsuite and TweetDeck to follow along. Ready to give it a try? Pop in on some of these popular chats.

WHO TO FOLLOW

Companies and Organizations:

@ScholasticTeach: Scholastic’s official account for teachers

@IRAToday: Literacy ideas for all educators

@NCTE: Teaching tips for English teachers

@NCTM: All things math education

@NSTA: Ideas and opportunities in science education

@ASCD: Professional development and educational leadership resources

@NAEYC: News and tweets about early childhood education

@educationweek and @EdWeekTeacher: The latest education news

@edutopia: Inspiration for K–12 educators

@TeachingChannel: Online community of K–12 teachers

@Edudemic: Education and technology

@MindShiftKQED: Trends in education

Educators:

@KleinErin: Erin Klein, teacher and ed-tech blogger

@cybraryman1: Jerry Blumengarten, co-moderator of #edchat

@MrSchuReads: John Schumacher, teacher-librarian and cohost of #SharpSchu monthly book club with Colby Sharp (@colbysharp)

@donalynbooks: Donalyn Miller, a.k.a. The Book Whisperer, and a facilitator of #nerdybookclub

@bradmcurrie: Brad Currie, school leader and #satchat cofounder

@pernilleripp: Pernille Ripp, middle school teacher and creator of Global Read Aloud

@kylepace: Kyle Pace, instructional technology specialist

@Larryferlazzo: Larry Ferlazzo, urban teacher and ELL specialist

@coolcatteacher: Vicki Davis, blogger, teacher, and IT director

@web20classroom: Steven W. Anderson, instructional technology expert and #edchat cocreator

@mssackstein: Starr Sackstein, teacher, blogger, and co-moderator of #sunchat

@pamallyn: Pam Allyn, literacy expert and founding director of LitWorld and LitLife

 

Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong/theispot.com

 

Ebola_pulse
Ebola in Schools

Fear is growing as various districts take different actions to try to protect students and staff from the virus and misinformation.

In U.S., Fear of Ebola Closes Schools and Shapes Politics
NYT: Some school officials take leaves as other schools close for “deep cleaning.”

The Ebola Effect: Schools Shut Down, Sanitizer Sales Spike
ABC News: Domino effect as officials track passengers on plane with Duncan nurse.

Dallas ISD Suspends 2 Over Cleaning at Schools Affected by Ebola Case
Dallas News: Should workers cleaning the schools be outfitted in hazmat suits?

Dallas ISD Schools Under Ebola Scrutiny to Get Fever Scanners
Fox: Scanners will be set up in five schools.

Ebola Anxiety Prompts N.J. School to Bar Students from Africa
N.J.com: Students from East Africa will undergo voluntary 21-day waiting period before enrolling.

Central Texas Schools Closed Amid Ebola Scare Reopen
KXAN: Three schools in Belton reopen after cleaning; students on flight with Duncan nurse will stay home for 21 days.

Dozens Declared Free of Ebola Risk in Texas
NYT: People in contact with first U.S. victim are no longer at risk of contracting the disease.

Image: AP

Mooc_pulse
Learning by the Thousands

Can high school students learn in MOOCs?
By Wayne D’Orio

In less than four years, massive open online courses have been hailed as the next big thing to hit education—and disparaged as an empty promise where very few of the students complete the courses they sign up for.

You’re probably aware of the basics about MOOCs: After more than 150,000 students signed up for Stanford University’s first course in 2011, companies such as Coursera and Udacity, which pair with universities or other companies to offer content, seemed to sprout up overnight. MIT and Harvard, later joined by other universities, then created the nonprofit edX to offer classes for free. Today, more than nine million people take MOOCS, choosing from more than 1,200 courses.

Most K-12 administrators have been able to ponder the merit of MOOCs from the sidelines, as these classes have mostly involved college or post-secondary students. But with edX’s recent announcement that it will offer 27 courses next fall specifically for high school students, the question has landed right on administrators’ doorsteps. They have to wonder, will this work for my students, and if it does, how will it change how we educate our kids?  

Students are ready for it, says Anant Agarwal, edX’s CEO. The group surveyed high schoolers and found that 95 percent of them asked for advanced courses. Indeed, 150,000 of edX’s current 3 million students are in high school, he explains.

But that isn’t the only reason edX is expanding. Agarwal knows that many high school graduates aren’t ready for college, having to wade through remedial classes at university prices before they start earning credit. “We want to fix that,” and the courses offered should help, he says. edX will start by offering 15 AP classes among its 27 courses for high schoolers. It hopes to add 100 more high school courses in the next few years.

Another reason for the expansion is that a disproportionate number of edX students are teachers themselves. “It turns out that teachers want to know other ways of teaching a course,” Agarwal says. If a high school chemistry teacher can watch a Georgetown University professor teach chemistry, why wouldn’t they, he asks.  

The courses are all free, but for a varying fee, students can earn a certificate, Agarwal says. Of course, students in AP classes can sign up to take the AP test in the spring.

The certificate is also an answer of sorts to the conundrum posed at the start of this story. If course completion rates hover around 4 percent, as a study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education showed, are MOOCs worth it? Yes, Agarwal argues, because when students are asked to pay between $25 and $100 for a verified certificate, the completion rate jumps to 60 percent. (edX’s general completion rates are 7 percent, Agarwal says.)

Students are using certificates to help them get accepted to college, while teachers use them to get continuing ed credits, he adds.

In the end, though, “you can’t judge a MOOC by the same metrics” as a regular college class, says Agarwal. “If you pay $50,000 to attend college, you’d better pass. MOOCs are free. A lot of people take classes just to learn something new.”

Image: Spanic/iStockphoto

SLO_pulse
Lessons Learned: Launching a SLO Initiative

By Jo-ne Bourassa

In Georgia, as in many states, approximately 75 percent of teachers teach subjects that are not assessed by state tests—for at least part of the instructional day. To meet the student growth and academic achievement component of Georgia’s Teacher Keys Effectiveness System, teachers of these non-tested subjects must implement student learning objectives (SLOs) to gauge student growth.

As one of the original 26 Race to the Top districts in Georgia, Bibb County School District jumped in early on to launch a SLO initiative. In the first year of the pilot, during 2012-13, the Georgia Department of Education required that 52 SLOs be given. To help districts prepare for this, the DOE provided training in assessment alignment and SLO creation.

In Bibb County, we decided to use a pre-test/post-test format to determine student growth over a semester or school year. Several challenges became apparent during year one.

Year One Challenges

To start, we faced a steep learning curve and a massive amount of work. As part of Georgia’s system, student growth and academic achievement are measured by student growth percentiles in tested subjects, or SLOs in non-tested subjects. Only 25 percent of our courses provide growth percentiles through Georgia’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Testsin grades 4-8, or end-of-course tests in high school. That meant we were now responsible for creating and administering SLO assessments—and arriving at SLO scores—for 75 percent of our courses.

To save time, we initially used public-domain SLO assessments created by other districts. This, unfortunately, meant our teachers felt no ownership of the materials. In addition, the administration and grading of the 52 pre- and post-tests caused almost all other activities to come to a halt. The tests took two to four days to administer. All were done via paper and pencil, which consumed our paper and copying budgets. The student scores (about 52,000 scores) were collected by hand on an Excel spreadsheet and sent to the central office for summarizing.

Mid-Year Changes

By the end of the first semester in year one, it became clear that teachers, students, and parents did not take the SLO assessments seriously. They even joked and complained about students taking “SLOW” tests.

So, in December 2012, we decided to change our SLOs to GLOs — growth learning objectives. We also switched out the labor-intensive assessments for instruments we already had for PreK-3, including AIMSweb for reading and math in grades 1-3; district writing assessments for English language arts in grades 1-3; Gkids portfolio pieces for kindergarten ELA, math, and reading; and Bright from the Startportfolio pieces for PreK literacy and numeracy. We had to live with the assessments in the other grade levels until we could write our own.

Year Two Revisions

For 2013-14, our district was required to have at least one growth measure for every certified teacher from pre-kindergarten through grade 12. This included P.E., fine arts, and career, technical and agriculture education (CTAE) teachers, as well as any class for which a teacher did not have an existing GLO or student growth percentile. This necessitated the creation of 100-plus additional GLO assessments.

We knew this would be a nearly impossible task without technology. So, after issuing an RFP and evaluating several systems, in January 2013 we selected the SLO Module from Performance Matters, along with the company’s assessment and data management system. Then, from February to July, we revised and developed 100-plus GLO assessments in ELA, math, science, social studies, P.E., fine arts, and CTAE.

In June and July 2013, we conducted training on the Performance Matters platform for our administrators and testing coordinators. Then, in August, we administered the GLO pre-tests in all 41 schools via plain paper scanning and online testing. Instead of having to collect the pre-test data on a spreadsheet, the results were automatically available in the company’s system, which also made it easier to send to the DOE. In addition, our teachers could now see the baseline assessment results and growth targets for each student. This allowed them to more easily monitor students’ progress toward the growth target during the school year, and identify what their students needed and which standards they needed to focus on to reach that target.

We went through the same process to administer the post-tests. Even though we were now administering twice as many assessments, we saved a significant amount of time and energy over the previous year, when we had to gather and analyze the data by hand. Our teachers and administrators could now access the target score and the results data from the pre- and post-assessments for each student under each SLO. With the SLO Module’s automatic calculations, teachers could see whether or not each student met the SLO, as well as the overall percentage of students achieving the SLO by class or by course. In addition, school leaders could use the data to group teachers into the appropriate ratings category—exemplary, proficient, needs development, or ineffective—on the SLO portion of their annual evaluations.

Lessons Learned

Here are some key takeaways from our successful launch of an SLO initiative.

  • Develop clear and concise test administration instructions to guide school testing coordinators and teachers through the pre- and post-test process.
    We created a spreadsheet with “administration notes” for each course. These notes instruct testing coordinators and teachers how to administer and score each test, which eliminates confusion and ensures consistency in each course.
  • Form two teams of teachers to develop SLO assessments—a team of writers and a team of reviewers.
    Having a team of writers and a separate team of reviewers not only improves the quality of the assessments, but it also encourages teacher buy-in since they are actively involved in the test-creation process.
  • Train teachers on test development and assessment alignment.
    Within each course, teachers should be able to determine which standards are most important for students to master the course and prepare for the next grade level. They should be able to plan what percentage of course time should be spent on each of these “power standards,” taking into consideration the percentage of the test that will cover the standard. They should be able to dissect each standard and identify exactly what students must be able to know, understand, and do to demonstrate mastery. They should also be able to articulate the depth of knowledge of each standard, so the assessment item can match that level of cognitive complexity.
  • Allow at least six months—and a large team of teachers — for the development, review, and input of the SLO assessments.
    It is also important to gather input from teachers of English-language learners and students with disabilities who can provide insight into what, if any, modifications might be required to meet specific needs or individualized education plans.
  • Create an item template to ensure consistency.
    Instead of purchasing an item bank, we collected items from a variety of sources, including state-released tests, or we developed our own. Each item was created using a template, which included the following fill-in-the-blank components: question number, DOK level (1-4), curriculum code, question stem, answer choices A-D, and correct answer. Having this template made it much easier to review and vet the items, before we put them into the assessment and data management system.

When we launched our GLO initiative more than two years ago, we had no idea how much work it would be to create and administer the assessments, and then crunch the data for each GLO to determine if students achieved the academic goals set at the beginning of each course. The use of technology has allowed us to automate and streamline the GLO process and ensure more accurate calculations for effectiveness ratings for our teachers. It also gives our teachers easier access to the data they need to inform their instruction, so they can meet the primary purpose of the SLOs — to improve student learning in the classroom.

Dr. Jo-ne Bourassa is the Race to the Top coordinator for the Bibb County School District in Macon, Georgia.

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Black-teachers

The Keys for Empowering Black Male Learners

How to make the best use of the federal My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

 By Baruti Kafele

Whatever other gains have been made in American education in the past decade or two, there is a continuing crisis when it comes to young black males, who graduate at a rate of just 47 percent. I believe the biggest challenge for American education is motivating and inspiring black males to strive for academic excellence. I also believe this is attainable, and the federal My Brother’s Keeper initiative is one step toward this vision. Below, I’ll outline how a Young Men’s Empowerment Program, such as ones I’ve created in previous schools, must be a key component of My Brother’s Keeper initiatives.

For readers unfamiliar with My Brother’s Keeper, it is a White House initiative to “address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential.” The President’s Task Force is working to identify programs and policies that work in our communities to help young people reach the following six milestones:

  • Entering school ready to learn
  • Reading at grade level by third grade
  • Graduating from high school ready for college or career
  • Completing post-secondary education or training
  • Entering the workforce
  • Reducing violence and providing a second chance

The reality is that in the academic realm, we typically discuss the plight of black males within the context of the overall achievement gap. In doing so, we’re addressing this as an academic problem, which it is not. When we analyze the national achievement data of black males, it becomes glaringly clear that this gap in achievement occurs in virtually every district in the country and across rural, suburban, and urban areas. There are deeper issues that often go unaddressed in schools.

Peer pressure and gangs are the two biggest challenges I’ve witnessed affecting my students (and these are by no means unique to the communities I’ve served). The feeling among so many black males is that it is uncool to be smart and that succeeding in school means they’re “acting white.” This results in black males coming to school wearing invisible masks and thereby adhering to this black male code of conduct, academically speaking. Teachers all too often attempt to teach to the mask rather than the student because they do not realize that he is wearing a mask.

I have contended for many years, based on national data that shows upwards of 70 percent of black children are born into a household where there is no father present, that this is a crisis. We are asking black males to perform proficiently in the classroom when far too many of them are struggling with home issues that start them off on unequal footing. Due to the lack of male role models in their homes, schools, communities, and even the media, they are confused about their roles as young men.

To address the challenges that arise from a lack of black male role models and to help young black males gain an understanding of who they are, I launched the Young Men’s Empowerment Program in a middle school where I was principal, and then brought it with me to Newark Tech High School when I became principal there.

The purpose of the YMEP is to teach my male students about both manhood and their history. The overall development and leadership of the program was, and is, a sustained collaboration between my staff, community partners, and me. The community partners contributed greatly to the overall climate and culture of the school and to the academic, social, and emotional growth and development of not only my black male students but to all of my male students. The YMEP components include:

  • All-male empowerment assemblies/meetings with black guest speakers (Power Mondays)
  • All-male empowerment classroom meetings with black guest speakers
  • Small-group and one-on-one mentoring sessions led by men of color
  • Opportunities to meet and spend time with black male college students, successful black males in their work environments, and men of color in political leadership roles
  • Dress for Success days
  • Father-son programs
  • Positive Rites of Passage programs

School counselors play a crucial role in making this program work. They identify and locate the role models who come to the school to work with students. Staff members can reach out to local organizations, neighborhood associations, religious institutions, and even individual community members—we have found that there are many men who would love to come into their local schools to speak to or mentor students but have never been approached. Before this occurs, however, a committee of staff members should conduct a needs assessment of their male population. The following questions should be raised:

  • How will we go about bringing men into our school to speak at our empowerment meetings?
  • What kind of follow-up will we have for the speakers to engage in?
  • Will the meetings be comprised of single grade levels or will grade levels be combined?
  • How frequently will the meetings occur, during what time of day, and how long will they last?
  • What do the girls do during the male empowerment meetings?
  • Which staff members should be involved?
  • What topics will be discussed and what activities will we engage students in?
  • What are the goals of the male empowerment meetings?
  • How will we measure the success of the program?
  • What are the possibilities of partnering with corporations, businesses, and other agencies?

Our YMEP was rooted in what we coined “Power Monday”—a day to focus on empowerment. All male students were required to wear a shirt, tie, slacks, shoes, and a belt. The intent was for them to look empowered and ultimately to feel empowered. For the actual empowerment program, we had a meeting with one grade level on the morning of each Power Monday. These meetings typically lasted for two hours. I, along with other male staff members and men from the community, would engage the students in a wide variety of discussions pertaining to the many facets of manhood. I wanted the students to be exposed to men from all walks of life, so I went into the community and literally recruited men to be a part of what we wanted to accomplish with our male students.  

As our test scores began to rise to a level of national recognition over the six years that I was principal of Newark Tech, it was clear and evident that our YMEP, with a concentration on Power Monday, was making a tremendous difference in the lives of our young men. If similar programs become a part of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative across the nation, more schools can experience this success.

For more information on the public and private sector groups that have pledged time and money to recruit mentors, share information, and more, look at the My Brother’s Keeper Fact Sheet. To find out more about becoming a mentor and bringing change to your community, check out serve.org.

Baruti Kafele is an award-winning educator and best-selling author of Closing the Attitude Gap: How to Fire Up Your Students to Strive for Success (ASCD, 2013) and Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School and in Life (ASCD, 2009). Under his leadership, Newark Tech High School in New Jersey went from a low-performing school in need of improvement to being recognized as one of America's best high schools in U.S. News & World Report.

On this new episode of ASCD’s Whole Child Podcast, Baruti Kafele and ASCD’s Sean Slade discuss how knowing your students, intentionally creating a positive school climate and culture, and making learning relevant set the stage for student motivation and achievement. They’ll pay attention to how making meaning for students is an underutilized, but effective, strategy.

Listen to the episode:

 

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