Getting Out of Students’ Way!

Instead of thinking that I am “The Teacher” – the knowledge giver who stands in front in total control-instead of that traditional pedagogy, we need a 21st century vision of teaching, where there is less teacher talk, where what I’m doing is thinking about how I am going to pull the most out of these kids; how I’m going to enable these students to be empowered; how I can make sure that I create a classroom that’s free from threat and stress, where they will be willing to take risks.

– Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, The Connected Educator

So how do we get out of our students’ way so they can become independent learners? It is hard to stop being the sage on the stage. Often it is about giving up control and tolerating the noisy, messy sounds of learning. As an educator my ongoing reflections on my own instruction always lead me to “stop talking so much, you lost them.” So being more of a coach and a cheerleader and less of a pontficator is the work of teaching these days. Tending to the delicate balance of crystal clear directions, engagement structures and  routines with the chaos is the work.

If we can help develop in our students:

  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Collaboration and Leadership
  • Agility and Adaptability
  • Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  • Effective Oral and Written Communication
  • Ability to Access and Analyze Information
  • Curiosity and Imagination

Then, we have done our jobs. When they don’t need us, then we can claim success!

May 2013 be the year of the teacher as coach and student as independent learner!

Happy New Year

Lab Classrooms: Going Beyond Drive-By Professional Development

Just like scientists, educators need to rely on hypotheses, experiments and data results to make informed instructional decisions. All too often this work is conducted far from the every day teacher’s classroom.

Sustainable professional development must go beyond the fantastic workshops that excite teachers yet when they return to their classrooms, the learning seems to invariably end up staying on the shelf. Sustainable professional development needs to focus on building leadership capacity at the site level and provide a structure that enables teachers to reflect on and share their new knowledge. To be most effective, professional development must be job-embedded—specific to teacher needs—and presented in supportive, nonthreatening ways. Teachers need learning structures that are empowering and allow them to collaborate with colleagues.

A lab classroom model where teachers can see how things work in an authentic setting will support teachers to put new learning into action.  So how does a lab classroom work? A host teacher works with a facilitator to implement an agreed upon instructional model or new framework, for instance, the new Common Core State Standards. Formative assessment and classroom practices are closely monitored and documented. Data is shared with school site teams and guest teachers are invited to observe the class to see practice in action over time.

In a lab classroom model, an experienced facilitator supports teachers and students through collaborative teaching, lesson modeling, assessment administration, and intervention services. Principals also get support to be instructional leaders, observing teachers, conducting walk-throughs, conferencing with students, and working with groups of teachers during collaborative planning sessions.

The practices developed and honed in the lab classroom are then adapted in other classrooms on site developing the sites capacity to implement new learning sustainably. Schools can team up with other lab classrooms in the district to compare data and problem-solve response to intervention practices.

It’s time for research to live in the classroom and not in books and workshops. When teachers see first hand how a strategy works in their class, with their kids, they are much more likely to internalize instructional changes. Teachers pine for authentic learning just like their students do. Lab classrooms can go a long way to ensuring more authentic learning for teachers and their students.

Is Retention a Good Idea?

In an attempt to address the proliferation of struggling students in our test driven school culture, many school districts have been re-looking at their retention policies. Some argue that retaining kids and having them repeat a grade gives students more time to learn the basics while others argue that retention does more harm than good. Studies show that if a student has not learned to read by the end of 3rd grade they will most likely be a struggling reader for years to come. As the curriculum shifts from early literacy – learning to read, to using reading to learn, many students fall behind. This is often referred to as the “Mathew Effect” or the “4th grade slump.” This phenomenon is even more prevalent for our English Learners who get stuck at the “intermediate plateau,” that is they stay at the Intermediate level of English proficiency for their entire academic career and are sometimes referred to as “lifers.” So is retaining students until they learn to read a good strategy? What about early math proficiency?

The jury is still out but there is compelling information to guide our thinking. Most agree that if you are going to retain a student, do it early. First graders are more flexible and kind to their peers than say fourth graders. The idea is that younger students will experience fewer stigmas than older ones. Students who repeat first grade do seem to become more fluent when given the extra year to catch up. But as students progress through the grades, these same students seem to lose ground. The stigma kids face when “left behind” or “repeating” is very real and can have lasting consequences like low self-esteem and dis-engagement from school. Teacher’s attitudes towards children who are retained, while well intentioned, are often skewed. Teachers often lower expectations for retained students, which contributes to further declines in achievement.

So if we don’t retain children who are behind what can we do? We can differentiate our instruction and target skill development for students who need an extra boost. We can create an apprenticeship classroom where students who are proficient can mentor and model for those who are not quite there. We can use Response to Intervention (RTI) inquiry teams to figure out why some students are successful and develop systems of support so students don’t fall through the cracks.

We need to find better ways to meet the needs of all the kids in the room. Retention may temporarily solve a problem and be convenient for grown ups but we need to make substantive changes to curriculum and instruction based on what works for all kids before they get too far behind. To use a metaphor from medicine, we need to stop performing autopsies and focus on preventative care. Big time!

Will the Common Core State Standards Kill Stories?

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) asks students to read fewer stories and read more expository text with a goal of developing their analytical skills through formulating arguments. The CCSS calls for a 50/50 narrative/expository split in early grades and moves to a 30/70 split in later grades. Many educators are worried that this kind of move will deprive students, especially poor students, of the power and legacy of the story. But are these mutually exclusive? Can’t we ramp up student engagement with expository text and critical discourse while still keeping stories alive? I wonder why the conversation seems to be an either or. Isn’t it a both?  The focus on expository and the art of argument is not so much a usurper of the narrative but a response to the reality that students face with college and career expectations. I know a lot of us teachers want to share our love of stories, our passion for the narratives that shaped us, and our life’s work with our students. But let’s be real. How many of our students will go on to be English majors? The narrative has a role in helping students learn about their own lives and the lives of others, but there is so much more out there. As a long-time high school teacher, I found that my students came to me as ninth graders with an intimate knowledge of narrative structures. They can write endlessly about their lives. They really know about stories – beginning, middle and end. However, when I ask my students what research they have done or how many news articles they have read: sadly I hear crickets.  We must utilize a balanced approach to early literacy that uses both narrative and expository texts and related tasks to develop students’ critical thinking skills and build on this foundation as students progress through the grades. When CEOs are asked what they look for, consistently they say they want critical thinkers who have strong writing and presentation skills, and are team players. They need to be able to advocate. New content can always be taught to those who have solid background knowledge and are confident in a variety of academic structures. So will the Common Core State Standards kill stories? Well they may kill some of them but in the end, a balanced approach to stories is what students, especially poor students, need to compete.


Access for All: Using a Universal Design for Learning Approach to Implement the Common Core

During workshops that aim to develop awareness of the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I hear a consistent message from teachers. My students are already behind with the current standards so how will they handle the new, more rigorous standards? This is a valid concern. Often our instincts are to scaffold pretty heavily so students don’t experience too much difficulty. We want them to feel comfortable in class and stay as motivated as possible. In some cases, complex text and challenging math have been systematically removed from the hands of our struggling students albeit with the best of intentions. The consequences are stark. Many students, especially our lower performing students, have become very dependent learners and have not built the intellectual muscles necessary to excel at the table of scholarship.


The key shifts in the CCSS ask us to tackle what I call the dependency cycle by ensuring that students experience complex texts and tasks that require critical thinking and deep levels of engagement. But how will we do this? What are the implications for implementing the CCSS? Publishers and professional development providers are in frenzy as they answer the CCSS call. I recently previewed a major publisher’s CCSS ELA textbook for high school. The thing was so massive that I could barely lift it. Supposedly it will be offered in (2) books so students can actually transport it. But is more really the answer? Will just giving students more to read and more activities to respond to in the textbook address the college and career readiness goals set by the CCSS?


If we are really going to implement the CCSS and tend to depth over breadth, we need to do things differently. Really differently. Universal Design for Learning, based on concepts of providing equal access to persons with disabilities, has a great potential to guide us as we implement the CCSS. Universal Design for Learning asks us to accommodate learning differences by planning in advance and making instruction available for more students, at lower costs, and reduce the need for after-the-fact steps such as intensive interventions and referrals to special education. The Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium and The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) are developing technology-assisted assessments for the CCSS that are informed by the principles of universal design. The principles of universal design require making curricula, materials, and environments accessible to and usable by all students in the building – from our struggling learners, to our highest performers. As educators, we need to craft new ways to make education more convenient for time-pressed students, more comfortable for people from diverse backgrounds, and more flexible for persons with different learning styles.


So what does this look like? One way to look at this is through the lens of Response to Intervention (RTI) inquiry. If we have systems in place where we know students well through data, have systems in place to collaborate about how to address what we learn from data and access to materials that support our plans, we can be better positioned to engage students in the kind of work that CCSS asks us to do. Some students may need to hear a text aloud; some students may need extra language support, while some students may need a graphic to help them learn. All students need to learn how to organize content so they can learn content. We also need to become more culturally competent so we can capitalize on students’ diverse backgrounds to help motivate and sustain students in scholarship and help them find intrinsic motivation for learning. Classrooms need to be noisier with less teacher talk and more co-construction of knowledge with students. We need to move away from our current, antiquated education delivery model that has not kept up with the times and clearly is not working for large percent of our students as seen in the ever present achievement gap and declining graduation rates. We need to invite all students to the table of scholarship and figure out how to keep them there.

Common Core State Standards Initiative: Stealth Federal Takeover or Movement Towards Consistency and Coherence?

There has been a lot of chatter about the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Many educators have expressed everything from “finally!” to “here we go again.” The latest bit of criticism of the CCSS is centered on the notion that adopting national common standards will be a threat to state’s autonomy and has sparked fears of a federal takeover that will stymy local innovation. Education chief Arne Duncan’s staunch support of the CCSS has intensified this fear and some states, including South Carolina and Utah have even taken steps to revisit their decision to adopt the new standards.

It is fascinating how the CCSS has now become part of the political issue of state’s constitutional rights. The CCSS will have a common assessment and is being supported by the current federal administration especially in the context of Race to the Top. Adopting the CCSS looks good on the application. But do the CCSS reek of nationalization of curriculum? My understanding after digging into the standards is that the CCSS are not a curriculum but a set of learning expectations that act as guidelines for curriculum implementation. Yes, states will have to sacrifice or change some of their previous standards. Yes, change is hard. But CCSS as federal education takeover? Really? Have we all forgotten the wide reaching effects of previous national movements like No Child Left Behind (NCLB)? NCLB has been dictating how we do education for over 10 years! It turned us all into bean counters as we waited with baited breath for our test scores and graduation rates to see if we made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). We had those moments of, yikes, our graduation rate dipped by 3% even though all of our other numbers have increased so we won’t make our AYP. Again. Program Improvement status became an under-performing sentence with seemingly no way out. I remember being at a conference with NCLB folks and asked them, “What happens in Program Improvement Year 5?” They didn’t have an answer. Still don’t.

At the end of the day, doesn’t the benefit students will receive from experiencing coherent, consistent standards that are aligned to the demands of college and career and the global economy outweigh any perceived threat to state’s autonomy in educational decision making? Is the autonomy that states covet even real? More of a concern and worthy of our energy is how the CCSS will get implemented and what role the ever-present influence of test makers and textbook publishers will have. Textbook adoptions and testing are wildly expensive and resources are scarce. No curriculum or set of standards will ever please all. However, we do know that consistency and alignment with 21st century expectations are an improvement on our antiquated system and the CCSS are a good step in this direction.

I dream of a time when knowledge is free and how we ask students to demonstrate what they know and are able to do will be an authentic experience that actually monitors their progress and informs our instruction. Go figure?

Onwards and sideways,


Common Core State Standards and the “Third” Language: The Importance of Building Students’ Academic Vocabulary Across Content

I have so many thoughts on academic vocabulary across the content commonly referred to as Content Area Literacy but I will try to offer some focused ideas and resources here today especially in light of the new Common Core State Standards conversion. For many students “academic” language is a second or even third language that they must learn in order to be successful readers and writers of content. Students need to not only remember and understand key concepts but also have a working understanding of what to do with the content. We often ask students to summarize or analyze but rarely do we spend time explicitly teaching them the moves of scholarship.

Teach Both Content and Academic Skill Words

Some of the big ideas here are that content area teachers (including us English folks) need to teach not just the tried and true vocabulary from the content often highlighted in the textbooks and lectures, but also on the words students need to know to work with (talk about, write about, take tests about, etc.) the content. These words are commonly known as academic skill words. Blooms taxonomy emphasizes these “skill” based words as essential to teaching and learning and Coxhead’s academic word list organizes many of these words for us by their frequency (see Resources). Expert Isabel Beck in her book, Bringing Words to Life even uses tiers to illustrate this concept. Basically you have the words that kids know, and the words they don’t know. From the words they don’t know we look at Content Words – graph, triangle, photosynthesis, metaphor, etc. and Academic Skill Words – summarize, describe, identify, explain, etc. See the t-chart that I often use with my students and at in-services with teachers below that further illustrates this point.

Students also need to not just memorize the definition of academic skill words but be provided models of what an analysis or summary looks like. The more we explicitly teach students the how, in context with the what, the more they will be successful with our content. This constant connection between reading and writing is cornerstone to academic language development.

We Can’t Teach Them All: Utilizing Criteria for Selecting What Vocabulary to Explicitly Teach

Another big idea is that teachers have little guidance about what words to teach outside of what the textbook offers or perhaps anticipating which words students won’t know. This is often a good start, but we have to be strategic especially when working with students who are below grade and/or are English learners. And when I say teach, I mean spending instructional minutes with students to help them understand a word. I usually brainstorm with teachers about how they go about choosing words to teach. Often they say “words students don’t know” or “words bolded in the textbook” or “I just teach words as I go and then put them on the test”. I use criteria for choosing words that keeps me focused and purposeful. I choose words that are key to comprehending the material, that are high utility words students will encounter and that will insure that students are successful with my assessment. Sometimes the words I need to teach are not in the text but essential conceptually to understanding or are those academic skill words I discussed earlier. A coherent focus on root words and affixes also really prepare students for content area learning and help students “chunk” words so they have a plan when tackling difficult words as the read more complex texts.

High Leverage Instructional Strategies

I usually recommend that teachers use lots of graphic organizers (vocab rating, concept diagram and knowledge charts that are included in my Strategy Toolkit). Students need multiple opportunities to visualize, write, and discuss key vocabulary. I also encourage teachers to have students sort, categorize and match vocabulary as much as possible. From my experience, having students engage in activities that develop their ability to categorize, make connections and comparisons independently really aids retention of essential vocabulary. I recently did a demo lesson using a word sort with very positive assessment results (even after a 3 day weekend). It really is powerful stuff.

Cultural Relevance

Using a personal dictionary and thesaurus where students have an opportunity to record and think about vocabulary in their own way on their own terms is also highly effective. It is essential to validate home language and culture by inviting students’ voices into the classroom and legitimizing this work through providing consistent academic routines that include their personal connection to the words they are learning while developing a strong awareness of the words they already know. Utilizing personal understandings and connections to home language and culture is an under-used valuable resource. I have done it successfully for years with my students and work closely with teachers to help them develop tools to help students create personal bridges to academic vocabulary. Through these personal bridges students can learn strategies to tackle new words independently when they encounter them.

Onwards and sideways.

Until next time.


Common Core State Standards: Key Shifts and Lessons So Far


The new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia and represent the work of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in collaboration with educators across the country. The CCSS have a clear focus on what students need to know and be able to do in order to be successful in college, careers and beyond. The CCSS call for a shift in what and how we teach students to better align with the demands of the global economy.

Key Shifts for English Language Arts:

One key shift for English Language Arts is more of a focus on informational text that is seen to help build background knowledge and is better aligned with higher education and career expectations. By high school, the CCSS asks students to be reading 70 percent informational texts. Another key shift is a greater focus on text-dependency.  That means that students must cite evidence from text to develop effective, well-written claims.  Another way of thinking about this is that students need to engage with prompts and tasks that are embedded in text and not just from experience or prior knowledge. The CCSS also emphasize the idea of text complexity. The CCSS give specific guidelines to educators on the level of complexity a text needs to have at each grade level so students can progressively tackle more difficult texts and academic vocabulary as they progress through schooling. As a way to prepare students for more complex texts, the CCSS requires students to from text to develop effective claims. Coherent Learning progressions are also emphasized. While most CCSS standards remain the same K-12, what students are asked to do with the standard becomes more complex emphasizing depth over breadth.  Another big change is the standard requirements reach across content areas and include Literacy in History/Social Science, Science & Technical Subjects and requires a more shared responsibility for literacy development.

Key Shifts for Math:

The CCSS math standards also emphasize depth over breadth and narrow and deepen the focus so students can get a solid foundation as they progress through the grades. Applied knowledge, procedural skill as well as conceptual knowledge with a focus on problem solving are cornerstones of the CCSS for math. Another shift is coherence across grade levels and within the grade level. Discrete concepts and skills are connected and extend previous learning.  In order for students to experience coherence, they need to experience rigor.  Applied knowledge, procedural knowledge and conceptual knowledge need to all be focused on equally so students can move beyond viewing math as mnemonic devices, build accuracy with calculations and apply math in multiple contexts.

Planning & Implementation – What I have learned so far:

After providing professional development for hundreds of teachers, leaders and community members, it is clear that planning and implementation has challenges. Many folks I have worked with express uncertainty about how students will take up the CCSS especially those who are academically behind, whose first language is not English and for students with disabilities. These are real concerns. That said, I am really excited about the CCSS because I have a firm belief that all students can learn at high levels given the right amount of support and expectations. Having a coherent, common set of expectations and a clear roadmap of support can help us move towards providing a rigorous education for all students. I have also found that once folks wrap their heads around what the shifts are in the standards and gleam some understanding of how the assessments will look, they get excited too. We need to come from a “universal design” perspective in order to bring the standards to life for all kids. Many components of English Language Development and Special Education can be utilized to make the standards a reality for all students. I hold the strong conviction that if we do this CCSS thing right, we can go further in closing the achievement gap, as we have never been able to do before. So many students are yearning to be challenged, and now it is time to step up to this challenge. I have many ideas on how to get this done. I prepare educators to invite all students to the table of scholarship without leaving who they are behind by utilizing students’ culture, home language and diverse learning styles as bridges to academic rigor.  My work is located in a leadership capacity building model where clients learn how to facilitate their ongoing learning independently. Go to Services for more information about how I can support your CCSS efforts and leave a comment about what you know or want to know about the CCSS.

Onwards and sideways,


Also see Resources for more on the Common Core State Standards