In Praise of Teachers

 In anticipation of Teacher Appreciation Week, please take time to read the below post in praise of the life-changing work teachers do each day.

This essay originally appeared on The74Million.org, an educational news site.

If you are reading this, chances are you have been to school. If you have children, they likely go to school. That woman who held the door open for you this morning? She did too. One of few things we have in common as a nation is that nearly all citizens have attended school for part of their lives.
Ask someone about their teachers as children and chances are they remember their names, personalities, and a lot of what they were taught. Based on what teachers do for us, and the deep impact they have on us for our whole lives, the people who bear the great honor of molding the minds of the next generation should be revered, respected and recognized as some of our greatest national assets.
Let’s take some time out of our day to think about, praise and recognize teachers across the nation, especially those in our most underserved communities, as they are some of the most hard working Americans you’ll ever meet. As a literacy consultant, I have had the opportunity to observe, coach and learn from teachers across the country. Whether in sprawling Dinuba County, California or bustling Harlem, New York City, teachers are facing some of the hardest times for their profession in our nation’s history. The people who interact with and shape the worldview of our youth on a daily basis are underserviced, overtested, and underappreciated. It is only until we understand the unique challenges facing teachers today that we can begin to change the collective narrative.
Imagine a doctor working at a hospital asking for an IV for a sick patient and being told that the hospital ran out several weeks ago, and that the patient will have to remain dehydrated until next year. Imagine a construction worker needing asphalt to finish the road she’s working on only to be told that her team has already used its quota and she will have to purchase some more on her own. The premise is absurd and yet, for teachers across the nation, most notably in underserved areas, this is a fact of the job.
In spite of what could be insurmountable obstacles, teachers across the nation are using their ingenuity, their commitment, and their own money to solve these problems. I recently met with a teacher in the Bronx who had requested pencils for her classroom only to be told that there were none left in the school building and she’d have to wait for two months for the next shipment. This, perhaps, wouldn’t have been much of an issue if it was the year 2100 and her students could simply beam their thoughts onto a tablet via neuro-implant; unfortunately, no such technology exists and kids still needs pencils so she went out and bought her own.
A teacher in North Carolina requesting lower level books for his striving third graders was told that there was no way the school could get him these books to use. This teacher went out and bought his own, despite the fact that his state pays teachers some of the lowest salaries in the nation. These teachers are constantly being told that wanting the actual bare necessities for their students will have to wait; that because of the financial priorities of bureaucrats, their children won’t be able to read a book on the appropriate reading level or write that day.
Teachers in underserved environments face a double challenge. As with all teachers, they must ensure that their students are college and career-ready. However, teachers in underserved environments must do it without funding from well-stocked PTAs or the world knowledge that summer camps and extracurricular activities impart. Despite these challenges, teachers dutifully prepare their students for state and national exams, walking the tightrope of including interesting and engaging content while preparing students for assessments that unfortunately, in this moment, often do little to measure actual student knowledge.
Typically, one day at your job does not make or break your performance review. Most teacher evaluations, however, weigh heavily on their pupil’s’ test performance, while doing little to evaluate the teacher throughout the year. Asking students about the teacher, conducting comprehensive observations, or speaking with colleagues are much more comprehensive ways of measuring teacher effectiveness, but are rarely used and when used, do not hold as much weight. Teachers must contend with this overtesting year after year and the best of them do so with aplomb, making up songs, dances, mantras and other teacher tricks to put their students at ease during this high stress time.
Despite the fact that most teachers in our country are on their feet for eight hours a day, work nights and weekends, care for their students deeply and often make a life-changing impact on many kids throughout their lives, the teaching profession is woefully underappreciated. Many young teachers entering the profession must contend with their families’ perceptions of the reputation of teaching. This especially applies to those who work in underserved neighborhoods. These teachers face a unique combination of back-patting, condescension and pity that comes from the media and their own communities telling them what a “good person” they must be to try and help these kids while at the same time insisting that the negative effects of living in poverty mean their life’s work won’t end up making a lick of difference. Moreover, many teachers are vilified in the national discourse for having summers off, for working short days and, of course, for being “those who can’t do…” I encourage us all to speak to a teacher — do they work short days or do they stay late analyzing work, speaking with parents and preparing for the next day? Do they laze about on their summers off or do they often spend weeks planning their next year’s lessons and unit plans? Is this truly how we feel about the people shaping our children’s minds day in and day out?
Any one of these huge challenges would (and do) make anyone rethink their profession. Our country’s best minds, however, are hard at work at this very moment ensuring that our next generation of citizens, professors, lawyers, artists, doctors, politicians, developers, and engineers are thoughtfully prepared for the changing world. With further understanding of the challenges teachers face in their professions, we can begin to see a clearer picture of the kind of steel-minded hero it takes to teach in our schools today.
Let us praise teachers for the physical, emotional and intellectual work they do and the creativity, inspiration and perseverance they demonstrate to our nation’s young minds each day.
Questions? Thoughts? Email Talia.Litlife@gmail.com

Using Augmented Reality for Writing Prompts

Here is a new post from LitLife Consultant Monica Burns.  Check out her book Deeper Learning with QR Codes and Augmented Reality: A Scannable Solution for Your Classroom.

Educational technology in the literacy classroom can take many forms. There are tools helping students collaborate with peers and ways for students to publish writing to share with the real world. Technology can also inspire writers by providing engaging and unique experiences.

Augmented Reality (AR) is a technology experience where users have a tablet or smartphone loaded with an AR app. When the AR app is held over a special piece of paper, also known as an AR trigger, an image pops off of the page. There are lots of ways to incorporate AR triggers into learning spaces. For example, in a LitWorld library space families can scan AR triggers posted on bulletin boards and these posters connect families to sing-a-long videos, read alouds, and information about the books in the library.

Many teachers have used augmented reality to inspire writers by providing students space to create. Coloring book pages from the app Quiver are a great example of what students can do with both iOS and Android devices. Students can color in a page at home or in school and scan it with the Quiver app. When they scan their picture with this AR app their drawing will pop off the page.

Here are a couple of writing prompts you can use with the AR app Quiver:

  • Tell a story about the character you created focusing on setting. Where do they live? What season or time of year is your story set?
  • Use colors that are not normally associated with the animal you’ve chosen, like a neon green shark. Tell a story that shows how their life would be different if they looked this way.

Augmented reality can be used in conjunction with skill-based instruction. You might incorporate AR-inspired writing prompts into descriptive language lessons or to help students collect adjectives related to an AR image. The picture on this page is from the Quiver app, but there are other fun ones to check out including Crayola Alive or Chromville. However you decide to incorporate augmented reality into your classroom, make sure that you are putting the learning objective first.

Volunteerism Boosts Company Morale and Exposure

MLK Day of Service, 2016: #rockthosereads

Working for an organization filled with back-to-back meetings and constant deadlines, it may seem impossible to find time to get out of the office and volunteer. However, clearing just a few hours of your staff’s schedule may yield more benefits than you realize.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the LitLife Staff and LitWorld team joined forces with Total Equity Now for a day of service. Huddled in small groups along 125th street, our clusters passed out flyers containing information on local public libraries and books targeted toward children and young adults. With the goal of promoting literacy and reading in the Harlem area, we were able to dedicate a few hours of our day to education, communication and personal engagement.

Hitting the pavement allowed us to do four key things:

  1. Get our name out there
  2. Network
  3. Apply our company’s mission
  4. Enjoy time with teammates

Get our name out there:

Neighborhood folks couldn’t help but wonder why we were standing outside on an unusually chilly Monday. Red lights and crosswalk chats not only allowed us to provide valuable information on reading resources, but also briefly explain the work of both LitLife and LitWorld to the community. Since we are located in the Financial District, this word-of-mouth engagement helped us spread our purpose to many Harlem residents.

Network:

With a turnout of over 60 individuals, the members of our offices volunteered alongside employees and educators from a variety of organizations. Engaged in similar work to our own, these philanthropists will grow and strengthen our network; either working alongside us or promoting our services to those they think we might serve.

Apply our company’s mission:

Mirroring the beliefs of Martin Luther King Jr., LitLife and LitWorld felt it necessary to dedicate our day to action in the service of education. Knowing that one more child or family has information about local literature-based resources means together we physically made an impact in our environment. Spreading literacy to students and families is seminal to our work at both LitLife and LitWorld.

Enjoy time with teammates: 

Breaking up the predictability of a day at the office is beneficial to the spirit and morale of your entire working community. We were able to get out together and do something that made us feel great as a team. Our staff has a shared experience that we will be able to leverage professionally and socially.

The next time you find a holiday or simply a few hours to spare, consider spending it in service of others instead of in another meeting. It’s just plain fun!

Erica Freedman

Questions/Comments? Email Erica.Litlife@gmail.com

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Powerful Assessments for Innovative Instruction

It’s an exciting time in literacy education.  Schools are trending toward skills-based outcomes that better prepare students for a future where innovation is valued more than simple knowledge. Classrooms are humming with hands-on, inquiry-infused literacy experiences that ignite deeper thinking about texts.  Students are solving problems, creating new understandings, collaborating, questioning, researching and exploring technological tools.

The shift toward this type of instruction is positive, but it’s only part of the puzzle. A shift to assessment techniques that marry well to this style of literacy instruction is also needed. Literacy curriculum and assessment must be a package deal. Traditional assessment techniques like grades and overvaluing of summative data can adversely affect or even eclipse progress students make toward mastery of modern skills.

-What reading and writing assessments are useful for this fresh type of teaching?  

-What are the best assessments for 21st century skills-based literacy outcomes?  

-How can we ensure data encourages the skills we want our students to develop?

Consider these five tips….

Design assessments that highlight valued behaviors

Traditional grading was created to encourage retention of content.  Today, students need more.  They need the ability to question the status quo; to develop and communicate their own opinions and solve problems based on the information they read and the experiences they have.

Because units and lessons should focus more on skills than content, assessments should, too. When planning, ask, “What do I want my students to be able to do?” rather than, “What do I want my students to know?”  These skills should be the basis for both formative and summative assessments and feedback. Design tasks along the way where you can observe and assess these behaviors in action.  

Use assessments to motivate

Grades do not motivate all learners. Students tend to identify as either “smart” or “not smart” upon seeing grades and often develop fixed mindsets in this system.    

At the onset of every unit of study, provide a rubric or checklist that clearly states the desired elements and expected skills and behaviors in the unit.  Take class time to go over the desired outcomes and discuss the work that will be required to get there.  Provide exemplary examples and allow students to observe and talk about them prior to beginning the work.

Provide feedback that is ongoing, specific and helpful

Students need constructive feedback often, and they need it while working toward their goals.  Formal conference sessions are good, but don’t wait until then. Take observational notes on your rubrics.  Roam the room regularly and give out quick instructional sound bites (or notes on a feedback “tickets”) about what students are doing well and what they might try differently. Give plenty of opportunities for informal peer feedback too.  Use a tool like Google docs to “be present” in your students’ work and make regular comments. Be specific and coach toward behaviors that will carry beyond the assignment itself.

Give opportunities after feedback to demonstrate mastery

In a traditional grading system, students receive grades after an assignment is complete.  This gives no chance for students to adjust their approach and work toward mastery.  Students need time to digest feedback and put it into practice.

Regular formative feedback helps give students the opportunity to adjust as they go.  If a summative assessment is used (chapter test, final product score), plan time after it to allow students to review their results and reflect. Give students time to make changes and to make plans for future application of those skills.     

Free students from the shame of failing

Failure is an important part of learning, yet it has become stigmatized in schools.  Babies fall down many times before they become competent walkers.  Students need a sanctuary for making attempts and failing—often!

Make sure students know that you value attempts at new things (like reading a new genre), taking risks (like writing a heartfelt piece of poetry), and perseverance (as when applying complex grammar rules).  Praise these behaviors when you see them.  Value them much more than you would an “A.”   Let students see you fail, too. (Share your editing and revision processes as you write.)

A liberated approach to teaching requires an assessment plan free from the burdens of a traditional system.  This is a tall order, but these considerations can help lay the foundation for an effective plan.

– Post by Debbie Lera. Questions/comments? Email DebbieL.LitLife@gmail.com or respond below. We’ll always get back to you!

Congratulations to Community Roots Charter School and co-directors Alli Keil and Sara Stone!

Community Roots is the winner of a 2015-2016 Blackboard Award for Outstanding School! LitLife has loved working with Community Roots over the years, and we’re joyful to see their success and hard work honored. Read about the school’s educational philosophy and accomplishments on New York Family’s website.

Your 2016 Story

“In my life, the stories I have heard from my family, my friends, my community, and from willing strangers all over the world have been the true source of my education.” – Holly Near

Human beings are natural story tellers. From the first time hunters and gatherers sat by a fire, they immersed themselves in their personal stories, their neighbors’ stories and their stories of shared heritage and history. This year, use the power of stories to build trust, community and empathy.  Below, I have written some tips to help you invest in your own story, your colleagues’ stories and in your students’ stories. Each day, people tell their stories in big and small ways in the hopes that someone takes notice. In 2016, take notice.

Your Story

  • Tell your story to yourself
    • By telling yourself your story to this point, you illuminate your priorities and what you like to spend your time doing. Keep living those priorities.
  • Write out what you want your story to be in 6 months
    • Commit to spending a little bit of time 3 days/week to make it happen
  • Write a short note in a journal or in an emailing detailing what you’re most proud of in 2015
    • By telling yourself and others your accomplishments, you are more likely to repeat them and allow them to help you in the future.

Your Students’ Stories

  • Allow your students to tell each other their stories
    • have students turn and talk, tell each other who they are as a ____ (reader, writer, mathematician, student, sister, brother, daughter, son) Allow them to explain who they are now and who they’d like to be at the end of this year or school year
  • Use your story when teaching
    • By telling your story as a learner/ reader/ writer/ sister/ brother/ son/ daughter/ drummer, you allow your students to connect with you and take examples from your life.
  • 5 minute quick write
    • Let’s give our students 5 minutes of precious time to write their story to give to whomever they choose. Perhaps they’d like to keep it for themselves or give it to their mother, father or grandparent as a meaningful present.

Your Colleagues’ Stories

  • Create life maps with your colleagues and share them over lunch
    • By listening to the important moments that got your coworkers to where they are now, you are validating their journey and learning more about their perspective. Not bad for a lunch break!
  • Profile a colleague in the company newsletter
    • In an office where colleagues know each other’s stories, they are more likely to trust each other, collaborate with one another and have a higher rate of job satisfaction.
  • Ask a colleague how he or she learned a particular skill
    • The story behind the skill will validate your colleague’s effort and teach you something new.

 

By giving yourself, your colleagues and your students the chance to tell their story, you can learn valuable lessons, build trust and community in your classroom or office and become more connected with the people that surround you. Now that’s something worth telling.

 

What will your 2016 story be?

 

Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning

This week we celebrate the publication of Katie’s book, Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning. The book reminds us as educators that stories surround us, support us, and sustain us. We see and hear stories when walking down the street, as we scroll down our digital newsfeeds, in our interactions with one another, and in the ways our students play. In her book, Katie offers a broad definition of story urging us to notice the ways literature, poetry, music, images, multimedia, and dramatic works all reveal stories.

Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning
Written by Katie Egan Cunningham
Foreword by Linda Rief
Published in 2015 by Stenhouse Publishers
ISBN: 978-1-62531-024-8

Below Katie describes why she wrote the book and how it can help educators to reclaim story as the heart of their literacy instruction:

I wrote Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning because across classrooms and communities, I see students of all ages at their most engaged when a powerful story is shared. I have found as a classroom teacher, literacy consultant, and teacher educator that the sharing and creating of powerful stories deepens literacy learning in a way that strategy instruction alone can never do. When captivating stories are shared, I observe students who lean in to catch a closer look at an illustration because the artist and the story compel them to do so. I hear the pleadings of whole classrooms as students beg their teachers to share one more page.  I witness students drawing on what Brenda Miller refers to as “inky courage”—bravely telling everyday stories from their lives and stories from their imaginations. And, I notice the ways stories are evolving from the printed page to the digital world impacting the ways our students have access to seemingly unlimited stories as well as endless possibilities for creating stories of their own. While some argue that we are living in an information age, I believe we are living in a narrative age—a time when we have never had more access to the streaming power of stories.

In Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning, I wanted to compel us as educators to ask crucial questions: Why do stories matter? Whose stories count? Where do stories live? How do stories come alive? How do we build stories? How do we talk about stories? And why does this work take courage? The book chapters are organized according to these questions that anchor us as educators as we plan our literacy instruction across a year, within a unit, and as we interact with students each day.

Throughout the book, I share a myriad of ways to create classrooms of caring and inquisitive readers, writers, and storytellers. I explain specific ways to build a classroom library that reflects our diverse society through rich, purposeful, and varied texts so that all students see themselves in stories and recognize humanity within stories. I argue that the spaces where stories live should always help our students continue to explore their place in a complex world system—whether they are moved by characters in a book, an image on a screen, or the experience of hearing someone’s words. Building on the groundbreaking text set work of my esteemed colleagues andClassroom Bookshelf co-authors, Mary Ann and Erika, I provide numerous examples of multigenre and multimodal text sets from children’s and young adult literature, poetry, songs, journalism, and multimedia. Each chapter ends with a practical toolkit to help teachers make stories come alive in their own settings.

In an age of accountability where testable skills have become the measure of literacy success, you may feel as I do that, in some schools, stories have come secondary to mastery of discrete skills. Yet, I know of no better way to support the students in our lives to become empathetic, caring people, and more committed learners than through the sharing of stories. Throughout the book, I position story as alive and vital to the work we do with young people for them to read and keep reading stories in print and digital spaces, to find their own inky courage, and to be wide-awake to the stories and issues around them. I highlight the value of different genres to shape our students’ understandings of story to counter the artificial separation of literary and informational texts that currently pervades the discourse within the field.  I emphasize the power of narrative to support our students to lean in, take notice, wonder, dream, and come to new ideas about who they are, where they are from, and who they want to be. My hope is that as a field, we reframe what counts in the human communities we construct with our students. After all, to know your story is heard is in many ways to know you count, you are heard, you are loved.