Students Won’t Read? Start with Their Beliefs

By Dave Stuart, Jr.

For reading in any course to matter as much as it can, the students have to 1) do the reading, and 2) do the reading actively, with care (e.g., asking questions, looking up new terms, taking notes).

Many teachers — myself included — encounter a few common situations in which kids don’t naturally do this with the reading we’d ask them to do:

  • They do it, but barely. Caleb was a locker reader. He’d show up to school each morning, get out the assigned world history reading, and scramble through it during the ten minutes before his first hour class started with me. He did it, but not with care.
  • They don’t do it, but they pretend they do. (Often called “fake reading.”) Kids like Caleb end up in this category when there is no consequence or reward attached to reading. By giving frequent, low-stakes quizzes to my students, I’m able to push Caleb into the “do it but barely” category, and when I slack off on giving quizzes, Caleb and his peers slip into this one.
  • They don’t do it, and they don’t pretend that they do. All kinds of things can cause this, but you know what I’m talking about.

I often see teachers and edu-authors respond to these scenarios by calling for curricular change — Less reading and more doing! Less teacher-selected texts and more student-selected ones! I can empathize with and respect these approaches, but I think they are often founded on foggy notions of what actually makes a young person 1) do the reading, and 2) do it with care. Before we jump to radical shifts, we need to better understand what’s happening in our learners.

These are the five things that determine whether or not a child will 1) do the reading and 2) do it with care in my classroom, and in yours.

Credibility

Does the child believe I am a good teacher? If she does, she’ll be more likely to do what I ask. So if I say, “Hey, work really, really, really hard on your reading,” she’ll be more likely to do that if she thinks I’m a good teacher. Or if I instead say, “Hey, here’s why I’d like you to read this text, and here’s how I’d like you to read it, and now let me teach you how to read in that active and purposeful way that we’re after,” then she’ll be more likely to do those things.

What I’m trying to illustrate with those two examples is that teacher credibility isn’t a magic bullet — it’s only as powerful as the teaching behind it. The most credible teacher in the world who just tells a kid to “work, work, work” isn’t going to get as much long-term flourishing potential out of that kid as the moderately credible one who is exceptionally clear about the What-Why-How of every reading assignment.

There’s no escaping the need to be a fundamentally good teacher. Ditch the distractions and start investing here and now.

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Belonging

Does the child think of herself as the kind of person who reads things like this? If she does, she’ll be more likely to do it. Daphna Oysermanhas a beautiful term — “identity-congruent behavior.” People like doing identity-congruent things — things that line up with their sense of who they are. A good line to use here is, “People like us do things like this.”

Belonging, like all the five beliefs, is hugely malleable, and it shifts based on where we are and who we’re with. This is good news: even if a child hates reading in history class, she need not hate it in English or science.

Effort

Does the child believe that she can get better at reading through her own effort? If she does, she’ll be more likely to do it, especially when her teacher does a good job gradually ramping up reading demands as the year progresses. It’s not just about effort here — it’s about smart effort. Strategic effort. This is where the teacher comes in: “Hey, I’ve read a lot of things. I know how to do this strategically. Let me show you.”

Efficacy

Does she think she can succeed at this? Or here’s an even more important question: can she? The teacher has the tough job of deciding where the line is between challenging and worthy and too hard and a waste of time. In the early years of my AP course, the students read through the whole college-level textbook over the course of the year. It was too much and it was too hard and it was not worthy (because the text wasn’t written in the straightforward, helpful teaching fashion that my ninth-grade students deserved). So, what happened? A lot of kids fake read.

As I learned which content mattered most in getting my kids to mastery of the course material, I started assigning smaller chunks each night, and then I started using excerpts from various texts.

Administrators: This is why you need to do all in your power to let teachers do the same work, year after year. You’ve got to give them the conditions within which to get wise about the work. I understand that it’s difficult and requires out of the box thinking.

Teachers: This is is why we must work so hard to focus, despite the ceaseless distractions that permeate our lives. There aren’t shortcuts — it’s just sustained engagement with the work.

We must make success challenging and manageable.

Value

Does she think this matters to her life? The value belief is my favorite because of the diverse paths through which human beings come to value things. Some are motivated by grades, others by the entertainment value of reading.

What we want is for them to value learning, to value mastery, to value every day of their lives so that they won’t let an assignment become wasted. “Yes, I don’t particularly care about the topic of this week’s AoW, but I care about learning, and I know that Mr. Stuart wouldn’t have given it to me unless he thought it was important, so I’m going to apply myself to this.” Kids who think like that don’t fall into our three problem categories: they do the reading and do it with care because they believe it matters.

The Gist

Before you change the curriculum, analyze the five key beliefs. That way, you’ll make better and more effective changes.

 

Bio: Dave Stuart Jr. has been teaching English and world history for more than a decade. His blog on teaching, DaveStuartJr.com, is read by over 35,000 colleagues per month. His new book, These 6 Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most, aims to help teachers accomplish more with their students by focusing in on six key areas of practice.  Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/davestuartjr.

Media Literacy vs. Fake News

By Meenoo Rami

For most of us, since the election of 2016, we start each day with fear, an almost out-of-body experience predicated on “What else can go wrong?” We stare our screens in horror as each day brings more bad news than the day before. Our body politic is unwell, we are unable to have a civil dialogue, to disagree. We are being further divided by trolls on the internet. As author Michiko Kakutani writes in her new book, The Death of Truth describes our contemporary civic life as “as people locked in their partisan silos and filter bubbles, are losing a sense of shared reality and the ability to communicate across social and sectarian lines’. As educators who have taught 1984  and Animal Farm to countless students, we are even more keenly aware of danger flags that make people susceptible to lies, misinformation, and further divide.

The Washington Post estimates that our president lies on average about 9 times a day.  In these times when truth depends on your filter bubble, it is more important than ever that we teach our students to be critical thinkers. As we look ahead to the new school year ahead of us, the imperative to furnish our students with media literacy skills is stronger than ever. Our students need us to help them gain the skills to analyze, evaluate, and critically examine endless amounts of information that can be easily accessed through the phone in their pocket. If we fail to seize this moment for critical thought, and guarding against anti-intellectualism sentiment that is strong in our country, then we fail our students. We fail them in becoming sharp, independent thinkers who are engaged in the work of caring for the world.

From flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, to armies of faithful ones committed to gospel according to InfoWars, or Breitbart, there are endless examples of lack of understanding of science or inability to adhere to logic creates waves of misinformation that pull others in its tides. Here are two examples to share with students if you want to begin a dialogue about “Fake News” and the peril of forgoing doing one’s own research and fact-checking.

The first example comes from NFL team Seattle Seahawks, when the defensive end for the team Michael Bennett was accused of burning the American flag, while the coach Pete Caroll looked on with glee. The image was photoshopped, yet some chose to believe the lies that a flag burning took place in their locker-room. The  two images are included below for you to share with your students. You can also ask students to identify other examples of “Fake News” that spread via a social network but were later debunked.

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The next example comes from India. In India, nearly 13.7 Billion WhatsApps messages are sent everyday. With cost of smart phones falling and data becoming cheaper, it has become a hub where the second most populated country gathers and chats. During the election cycle it is normal for a typical person to receive 1000 WhatsApp messages encouraging them to cast a vote for a specific candidate or party. When the largest democracy relies on learning about candidates in this way, things can go wrong very quickly as they did in the recent election cycle. The New York Times recently reported that, “Right-wing Hindu groups employed WhatsApp to spread a grisly video that was described as an attack on a Hindu woman by a Muslim mob but was in fact a lynching in Guatemala.”

The work of teaching young people to be independent and critical thinkers is not small or easy, but it is the work of our present times.

How do we begin this work of Media Literacy? Here are some examples and places to begin:

Let me know your thoughts on this post and please share your resources for teaching media literacy in the comments below.

Meenoo Rami, author of Thrive, is a national board certified teacher who taught students English in Philadelphia for ten years, at the Science Leadership Academy and in other public schools in the city. The founder of #engchat, an international Twitter chat for English teachers, Meenoo is a teacher-consultant for the National Writing Project and an instructor in Arcadia University’s Connected Learning Certificate Program. Meenoo has also served as a teaching fellow with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she led the portfolio to help teachers refine their practice through collaboration. Currently, Meenoo works as Manager for Minecraft Education at Microsoft where she helps educators, districts, and organizations reimagine game-based learning for classroom practice. Follow Meenoo on Twitter @meenoorami.

 

Shared Experience: A Link to Text

By Kira Cunningham

As a classroom teacher, summer was always my time to let ideas for next year’s units percolate.  Paddling down the Colorado River, I would be thinking about the materials, picture books, and activities that would bring topics alive for my culturally and linguistically diverse group of students.  One thing I wish I had known in those summers was the power of the following three instructional strategies. While not completely new, these tweaks to instruction make an important difference for English language learners (ELLs).  Two years ago, I was privileged to watch a first grade team enact these tweaks. Their classes contained many ELLs including Karime and Aldair, two students who had just arrived in the United States from other countries.

Launch and develop the unit with shared experiences

“…To learn what things mean, then, and what language means- to create meaning – requires immersion in experience.”   (MacDonald & Molle, 2015)

Frequently we plan a culminating experience, such as a field trip to a local mine, to provide an opportunity for our students to see the ideas of a unit in action.  Rather than saving that shared experience for the end of the unit, position these visual and first-hand experiences at the beginning of the unit. When we launch units with shared experiences before launching into content instruction, language learners have “Velcro” to which they can attach new language about the content.  The language and conceptual understandings built during these shared experiences are what students will encounter and use in content-area texts they are reading and writing. As Pauline Gibbons noted in her book English learners’ academic literacy and thinking:  Learning in the challenge zone (2009), “Effective writers…know something about the subject they are writing about.”  

Let me share what that looked like in first grade:

In March, Karime and Aldair’s classes were beginning a science unit in which they would learn how an organism’s physical characteristics help it survive.  By the end of the unit, the first graders would research their own animal, write a book, and craft a multimedia presentation to share with kindergartens and at a community celebration of learning.  To apprentice students into that literate practice of scientific research and writing, they began the unit researching and writing together about trout, a native Colorado species.

To provide all of the diverse learners in their class with equitable access to the content, the first grade team launched their science unit with videos of trout, a song that served as an anchor text, an analysis of many photographs and diagrams of trout, and a field trip to the fish hatchery.

For Karime and Aldair, chunks of language for this unit began to stick to the images and experiences they had.  Fins, gills, on the head, up and down, mouth, black and white, swim in the water, they have gills to help them breathe– the language they would need to successfully read and write in English began to have meaning in context.

As educators, we develop our students’ subject knowledge in many visual and experiential ways.  As your unit ideas percolate this summer consider the tweak of launching and continuing your units with:

  • Field trips
  • Virtual field trips
  • Videos
  • Hands-on investigations
  • Analysis of key photographs, illustrations or diagrams

Encourage students to tap into their home and community knowledge about content in any language.

Students’ families and communities hold a wealth of knowledge and experiences.  As students are developing their deep understanding of a content area topic, encourage students to tap into those resources to add to what they learn at school.

On the translated permission slip for the fish hatchery visit, the 1st grade teachers encouraged adults at home to talk with their children about fish, fish body parts, and how fish survive in their habitat.  The next day, Karime came to school bursting! In Spanish she recounted everything that she and her mother had talked about. I was aware that through that home interaction in Spanish, Karime now had even more hooks for new words and ideas in English.

You can encourage students to tap into home and community knowledge by:

 

  • Sending home a translated newsletter inviting adults to talk about a content area topic with their children in any language.
  • Sending home copies of compelling images related to the topic and inviting students to talk with adults in any language about what they’re learning.
  • Be sure to follow up at school and provide opportunities for students to share what they learned.

 

Link the oral language of shared experiences and home/community knowledge to text experiences in the classroom

Students’ work with text takes on new meaning in the context of shared experiences and background knowledge.  As educators, we can help students connect ideas from experience and oral language to text, continue to help students build content understanding through reading, and help students learn about writing the discipline-specific text types by noticing how the authors of mentor text use and organize language.

During the visual and first-hand exploration of trout, Karime and Aldair’s teachers built labeled anchor charts (and labeled body parts in the fish song), read aloud mentor texts and helped first graders notice that the authors wrote multiple sentences about the same body part and organized them on the same page.  Those sentences often described what the body part looked like, where it was located, how it was used, and why trout needed it. As all of the students in the class wrote multiple, related sentences about each body part, so did Karime and Aldair (with the help of sentence frames).

You can help students link oral language to text in the following ways:

  • As you review experiences you have had as a class, attach academic language and text to it.  Add labels, create anchor charts, or participate in shared writing about the experience.
  • Cue students to make connections between shared experiences and text.  For instance, when preparing to read a scientific text about rainbow trout, ask students “Since this book is about trout, what words and sentences might we expect to find?”
  • Help students be aware of the language choices made by authors of the type of text students themselves are expected to write.  Leverage mentor texts and notice and name what the author is doing as a writer.

In these three ways, we can plan units that set ELLs up for meaningful connections to text in the content areas.  Now let those summer ideas percolate!
Gibbons, P. (2009).  English learners’ academic literacy and thinking:  Learning in the challenge zone. Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

MacDonald, R. & Molle, D. (2015). Creating meaning through key practices in English language arts: Integrating practice, content, and language. In L. C. de Oliveira, M. Klassen, & M. Maune. (Eds.) The Common Core Standards in English language arts for English language learners: Grades 6-12 (pp. 39-52). Alexandria, VA: TESOL International.

MacDonald, R. (2017, January). WIDA Focus on STEM discourse: Strengthening reasoning, strengthening language.  Retrieved from: https://www.wida.us/get.aspx?id=2095

Paugh, P. & Moran, M. (2013).  Growing Language Awareness in a Classroom Garden.  Language Arts, (90)4. 253-167.

Kira Cunningham spent 10 years as a classroom teacher and two years as an English Language Development teacher in Colorado elementary schools.  She is currently a Professional Learning Specialist with WIDA, focusing on supporting educators who work with English learners in K-12 classrooms.  Kira lives with her husband in Durango, CO and enjoys paddling, hiking, and biking as much as possible.

Underachievement

by Cathy Amsbaugh

It is mystifying and frustrating when an evidently capable student doesn’t meet grade-level expectations. All too often I also hear that one of those students is bored and it raises my hackles. I’ve made a lot of assumptions about why an individual student doesn’t seem to engage in classroom content or gets lower test scores than expected, but my guessing hasn’t helped me help kids. This year, I tackled the research and professional advice on underachievement, especially regarding high ability students.

When working with parents or teachers who are concerned by a student’s lack of achievement, it is important to start with common understandings. Underachievement occurs when there is a gap between a student’s ability and achievement. If an IQ score indicates high ability, it does not correlate perfectly with high achievement. There are other factors that influence achievement, such as personality traits. Being conscientious contributes to achievement independent of IQ. It may sound obvious, but performance on high-ceiling achievement tests are the best predictor of future achievement.

When a student’s measured ability is consistently different than their achievement, it can be due to a disability, student motivation, a lack of executive skills, or even perfectionism. I’m sure sometimes it can be caused by conditioning. Consider the habits and attitudes a student can develop if he has spent years getting top grades with little effort.

The truth is, there are many individual causes of underachievement. However, I think most of those causes can be categorized in two ways: those who want to but can’t and those who don’t want to. It’s important not to assume either of these cases without serious investigation. It’s also important for teachers not to take it personally if it’s the latter. Everyone wants that sense of accomplishment that comes from hard work. If a student is avoiding hard work, there’s a reason and the teacher can help. Here are the actions that may be effective in supporting the student:
Communicate

Conversations about student achievement can be tricky. Teachers may feel offended when a parent says their child is bored at school. Parents may feel judged if a teacher indicates their child resists challenging work.

Parents: It’s okay to advocate for your child at school. If you observe that your child is doing work that is too easy, or isn’t engaging with content, talk to the teacher and offer your support.

Teachers: It’s okay to advocate for your student. A student’s primary source of value acquisition is the home. Talk with parents about chores, how the child is expected to contribute to the work of the household, and ways parents might model the hard work they do outside of the home. It’s helpful to children to hear parents talk about the satisfaction they feel from the contribution they make in their workplace both to the nature of the business and how their work makes the world a better place.

Always keep challenging

If you know a student is capable of more, support him to do more. Some students may need help with time management, guidance in recognizing the skills they have to be successful, or technology to make a component of the task more accessible (for example, text to speech). Other students need to have choices to make the content more interesting or meaningful to them. Choices in reading materials, subtopic to research, or product of learning can make a big difference to a disengaged student.

It’s natural to feel wary of offering content challenges and choice to a student who has been performing poorly in the classroom. It seems students should meet a certain standard before going beyond. However, if there is already data to show the student has higher ability, what’s the harm in offering challenge? It’s unlikely the student’s grades will decline.Screen Shot 2018-07-02 at 11.31.32 PM
Build a growth mindset

Kids need to know that everyone can get smarter. Those with a fixed mindset tend to think assignments are for proving what they know. They sometimes believe that the kid who has to work hard isn’t as smart. Those with a growth mindset are more open to the learning that comes from classwork and are willing to tackle a challenge.

Teachers need to explicitly create a culture of learning in the classroom by focusing on a growth mindset. Teach about how the brain learns through growing new synapses when a person works on a challenging task, even if mistakes are made (and even if those mistakes are not corrected!). Give specific feedback and genuine, but modest, praise. Students should understand that it is their effort that moves their ability to the next level.
Above all, focus on the relationship

We know every student responds better when they feel understood and cared about. Recognizing a student’s interests and abilities is a big step in that direction. Challenging and supporting children is what teachers do. We can’t give up just because a student resists.

It’s worth repeating: if a capable student’s grades are suffering, we take very little risk in trying to understand why and providing support, yet we have the potential to make a lasting impact on the child’s attitue, engagement and success in school.
Cathy Amsbaugh is currently a gifted specialist working in Summit School District, where she began her teaching career as a 5th grade teacher. She is a board member of TMIRA and a member of the International Baccalaureate Educator Network.

Delisle, J. R. (2018). Doing poorly on purpose: Strategies to reverse underachievement and respect student dignity. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Dweck, C. (2016). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Rimm, S. B., & Rimm, S. B. (1995). Why bright kids get poor grades: And what you can do about it. New York: Crown.

Siegle, D. (2013). The underachieving gifted child: Recognizing, understanding, and reversing underachievement. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Writing Our Way Out

by Stevi Quate

I wrote my way out
When the world turned its back on me
I was up against the wall
I had no foundation
No friends and no family to catch my fall
Running on empty, with nothing left in me but doubt
I picked up a pen
And wrote my way out (I wrote my way out)

Linn Manuel-Miranda, Aloe Blacc & Dave East

As a teenager struggling with an elusive mother and a father living thousands of miles away, I picked up a pen and wrote and wrote and wrote. As a wife in a troubled marriage when I felt like the world had turned its back on me, I opened my journal and wrote my way out of the confusion. As a newly divorced woman, I opened my computer and pounded away on the keyboard, working to understand the new world I found myself in.

Writing was therapy but so much more. Those journal rants led to new understandings; confusion found its way into poems; and writing a short story became a way to navigate a world that I controlled. I wrote my way out of traumatic times and wrote my way into a life of tranquility.

chuttersnap-165289-unsplashPhoto by chuttersnap on Unsplash

But I also wrote my way out of some not so smart teaching moves. Through writing, I reflected on my classroom practices, and through the writing, I discovered gaps between my beliefs and my actions. Through the writing, I came to understand.

I wrote my way out personally, professionally time and time again.

In my professional development world, we talk about parallel pedagogy: using the pedagogy with teachers that we would hope they would use with their
students. And so I use that concept of parallel writing pedagogy to think about students. Do they get that opportunity to write their way out of anything? Do they get that chance to use writing to ponder an event, to celebrate a moment, to question an action, to discover and to find joy? Do we invite them to use writing to explore, to meander, to deviate from the expected? Do we invite them to pick up a pen or open their computer and write their way out? Do they know that “when the world turns its back on me” or when you’re “running on empty” and “nothing is left in me” that they can pick up a pen and write their way out?

Stevi Quate consults locally and internationally.   She is a former middle and high school teacher, codirector of the Colorado Writing Project, President of the CLAS and CCIRA and state literacy coordinator for the Colorado Department of Education. Find her on Twitter at @steviq.

Project Based Learning

By Catherine Shaw

Project Based Learning (PBL) is the latest trend in teaching. You may be new to teaching or a veteran teacher but chances are you have heard of this method. Since we are striving toward meaningful, engaging and relevant learning, PBL offers an exciting path.

I am not an expert, but when exposed to this way of teaching, I was excited.  I have always tried to encompass many subjects into a unit of study. Seeing the big picture and wrapping the learning around a central idea was easy for me to grasp. It just made sense since in the real world people have jobs and they perform many different, yet related tasks to master that job. They write reports, read documents, apply skills, report to a boss, work on a team and produce a product. To me it just seemed obvious that this is a terrific way to set students up in a real world scenario.

As our school really began to dig into PBL, we had to learn the difference between Problem Based Learning and Project Based Learning. This was a huge Aha moment for many of our staff.

A combination of ideas works for Second Grade, which we have explored for a number of years now.  One thing we discovered was having a good Driving Question will make all the difference in the world. Just taking an Essential Question is not enough to drive the learning and motivation. When students have an excitement about the question and gather ideas about how to answer that question, they are more willing to engage in the process. Another idea is to have the question impact a community in and around the school. Here are few of the PBL Driving questions we have had: “How can we inform new families to the school what kind of severe weather to expect and how to stay safe?” (Weather unit) “How can we explain to someone how to get to our house from the airport?” (Geography unit with How to writing-landmarks) “How can we convince our parents that we would like something?” (Economics unit) How can we explain to students what goes in the Recycle Bin? (Earth Day).Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 7.03.17 AM

Over the years, we have had different members of the community come in to ask the questions or lead the kickoff. This was very authentic as they charged the students with the learning and were part of the outside community. They had a deadline to meet just like the real world.

The learning starts with a kickoff. The “Guest” asks them to provide them with a product for their use. The Guest can be someone from the community, another teacher from another school, a professional in the community or a parent from the school. Teachers can write a script for the “Guest” in order to help them facilitate the Driving Question. Next, students dialogue about what they know, what they may need to know and pose questions about the subject, and how they are going to learn about the topic in order to answer the question. Categorizing the questions and areas they see that would go together organizes the work. Students can work in groups, setting agendas and checkpoints for their learning.

The Buck Institute for Education has a multitude of Rubrics www.bie.org/resources along with suggestions for ways to get started. This is authentic learning at its best. The whole day is used for learning instead of dividing learning into compartmentalized subjects. All disciplines are woven into the design of a PBL unit. The best part about PBL is that students learn beyond the standards. Students learn life skills like collaboration, respect, responsibility, perseverance and critical thinking. The teacher sets checkpoints along the way help to monitor work and hold students accountable for work.Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 7.03.32 AM

Writing time includes working on notes, collecting information, gathering materials. Reading has much more interest when it is student driven. Math is used
along the way as students may have to calculate the cost and needs of
materials and put together proposals for funds.

Students have a feeling of pride and accomplishment when the work is completed. They have made something for the community, or school. Their work is not lost as just another assignment and they have seen a meaningful and challenging task to completion.  Presentations are shared with community members or parents.

If you have not tried creating a unit using Project-Based Learning, I would highly encourage it.  I have found a new energy and love for teaching as I have explored this methodology. You may have to let go and let students take charge of their learning with help along the way. Isn’t that what all educators hope for?

Euler, Grant., Cole, Lindsey., Lin-Jeffrey, Sharon. (2017) Project-Base Learning
Progression Workshop, Jefferson County School District.

Catherine Shaw is currently a Second Grade Teacher at Bradford K-8
South in Littleton, CO and is a board member of JCIRA. She has
been teaching since 1992 starting as a Paraprofessional and then as a Licensed
Colorado educator. Shaw earned her master’s degree is Reading and
Literacy in 2008.  From the time she was in fifth grade, Shaw knew she wanted to be a teacher and has been living that dream for the last 20 plus years.  Catherine.Shaw@jeffco.k12.co.us

Blogging as Professional Learning

By Amy Ellerman

Writing is a tool for thinking. This is something we tell students, but I wonder how often it is something we actually do.

When I think about the learning experiences that have challenged me the most, the experiences that have led to the most significant growth, they have all involved writing in some way. For me as a learner, writing IS a tool for thinking.

When I craft a blog post, for example, I almost always work my way to a new understanding through the process of writing. I’ll have some ideas to start with, but my true aha doesn’t come until I’m deep in the muck of drafting. When I blog in this way—to explore or grow an idea rather than to “explain” a fully formed idea to others, my own learning happens through the act of organizing words on the page.

As a learner, I’m making choices about what’s most compelling to explore. The motivation is internal—I’m trying to figure something out. Usually, I’m in pursuit of a question or challenge, something I’m wrestling with in my work with students or teachers. I seek out resources to support me in this quest—blogs, books, podcasts. This research is relevant. Necessary.

Having an authentic reason to articulate what I understand (or am trying to understand) challenges me to question, clarify, support, and reflect on my ideas. Making this thinking public, by publishing it on a blog, is a way to add my voice to the larger conversation. Ideally, I can get feedback from fellow educators. But even if I share a post and no one comments, I’m still contributing; I’m authentically participating in a kind of learning and collaboration that didn’t exist a decade ago.

A decade ago, I might have read a professional book and been inspired to talk about it with a teammate. I might have attended a class or conference and then tried out some new practices or strategies. There is something different about blogging as professional learning—because that is the best way I have found to describe what this process is: blogging as professional learning.

If you’re reading this, you are undoubtedly wise to the wide array of professional blogs on the internet, a plethora of resources for today’s educator. We all consume content on professional blogs; we know how valuable it can be to find an educator thinking and writing about what we’re trying to learn. But—and here’s what I’m trying to think through in this post—how many of us also regularly produce content? What might we learn if we did? What might we be able to contribute, and how might the act of contributing shift the energy we get from professional learning?

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There are so many amazing examples of this type of blogging-to-learn available. Morgan Davis at itsaboutmakingspace.wordpress.com is a colleague and long-time mentor for me in this department; she blogs about instructional coaching and about her writing life. Sarah Zerwin at thepapergraders.org is someone I’ve only recently discovered; her series on a high school writing teacher’s journey to stop grading is fascinating and so authentic. Sometimes, like in the case of George Couros and his The Principal of Change blog, this type of blogging leads to the publication of a book; his spectacular Innovator’s Mindset came out in the past year. However, I would be curious to find out from these bloggers if a traditional book was ever the point. My guess would be that their need to take their thinking public was more about their own learning process than any specific end goal.

At a recent workshop, Scott McLeod, co-author of Different Schools for a Different World, said something that I can’t stop thinking about. He quoted Mitch Resnick, Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab: “We wouldn’t consider someone literate if they could read but couldn’t write. Are we literate if we consume content online but don’t produce?” This is such a compelling way to think about how we define literacy in this digital age. It’s such a different mindset from expecting all creators to be “experts,” tapped by the publishing gods as worthy of being produced. It’s not the way the world works anymore.

With access to today’s tech tools, we can all be producers and collaborators. All voices matter—and that is so empowering. Producers learn from the process of creation. It’s not about learning something to some perfect level of mastery and then sharing it; it’s about leveraging the authentic process of writing to understand and collaborate as a vehicle for learning even more deeply. It’s about the thinking work that happens while we create; that’s where the magic happens.

Our students are natural producers, because the tools to create and share have always been at their fingertips. Their definition of “authentic” is quite different from our own. Students today expect to collaborate; they demand relevance. I would argue that this is something adult learners crave as well. Our traditional models and systems of professional learning just haven’t always tapped into this very human need.

We (all too often) expect to be “trained” or have learning that is provided for us. We attend classes where the role of learner is relatively passive. Sure, there might be turn and talks and small group discussions, but ultimately, participants aren’t in the lead of their own learning. As a result, there is a fair amount of compliance, as opposed to pure engagement.

This should ring familiar when we consider how learning experiences for students have often looked in the past—teacher designed, teacher controlled, with students as compliant participants.

We all know this has been changing.

Today’s educators have been challenged to up the ante for our students. We are shifting the cognitive load, designing learning experiences that are more relevant, rigorous, and engaging. Hopefully, by this point, we have seen evidence of the power of the shift in our our students’ learning. We have embraced the call for authentic learning because our young learners deserve it, to use an expression echoing through the Twitterverse, thanks to leaders like Todd Nesloney and Adam Welcome. (If you have not yet checked out their new book, Kids Deserve It! Pushing Boundaries and Challenging Conventional Thinking, you should add it to your TBR list.)

The question I would pose is: Isn’t authentic, compelling, relevant learning something teachers deserve as well? And if this is not the kind of professional learning being “provided” for us in our schools, what are some ways we might seek it out for ourselves?

I know when I’m deep in a blog post and I reach that place where I can see the sun, where my questions and ideas are coming together into an insight that’s clear and ready to share, it is so motivating. When it’s an understanding I’ve worked hard to reach, it feels different from simply finding and taking in information from another source. There is something electric about doing the thinking work of questioning, analyzing, synthesizing, reflecting. . . For me, engaging in this higher level thinking work is energy-giving. This is the kind of learning I’m desperate to talk and think about with my colleagues (and PLN)—not because I’m an expert who has figured it all out, but because I know the questions they will ask or the feedback they will share will continue to push me forward.

So, again, I would make a comparison to our students. Consider the palpable change in the energy in the room when our students are invested in something relevant and compelling. . . As we are challenging our students to engage in inquiry-based learning models that require higher levels of self-direction and proactivity, it makes sense for us to jump in beside them so we can understand what’s so hard about it. We need to experience this shift in learner ownership for ourselves. What might we learn from these students who crave taking the lead? What might we need to learn from these students in order to reach them? These shifts in how our students think and learn should inspire us to shift the ways we think and learn as adults.

Blogging as professional learning is just one of many ways for educators to take the lead of our own learning. I would argue that if we are going to shift to (or maintain) a side-by-side stance with our students, we need to understand what it feels like to be creators. We need to have empathy for the vulnerability it requires to put ideas out into the world for authentic audiences and to collaborate outside our own classrooms and buildings. Just like a teacher of writers should be a writer him or herself, a teacher of young people today should be engaged in professional conversation/learning in similar ways that we are expecting our students to engage.

I’m challenging myself in the coming year to engage in more blogging as professional learning. What might you challenge yourself to try?

Amy Ellerman is an Instructional Coach at Maple Grove Elementary in Golden, Colorado. She is passionate about teaching and learning in a workshop model—any content, but if she’s being honest, Writing Workshop will always be her favorite. Exploring authentic and innovative models of professional learning is another area of intense study at the moment. Amy blogs at www.smallwritersthinkingbig.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter @sanderling12. Amy chaired the 2018 CCIRA Conference (Literacy Renaissance: Invention, Intention, and Close Study) and is currently President of CCIRA.