Tag Archives: learning supports

Review Essay: An Educational Planning Book for Parents, Teachers, and Administrators

As the COVID19 pandemic drags on, I’ve followed with great interest the reported experiences of parents as they work at sustaining their children’s educations while simultaneously dealing with the realities this crisis foists upon us. It’s clear that parents–particularly parents who themselves must work from home–have struggled with figuring out how to contrive a home school, as Diane Ravitch has noted here and here (and by the time I publish this, no doubt, elsewhere as well) on her excellent policy blog.

Extensive reporting on the challenges of distance learning, remote learning, or whatever it is we want to call communicating via screen technology over the internet has, in my view, exposed it as a failure. A friend and colleague in New York reports to me that one of his classes meets for two twenty-five-minute (!) periods a week, and that he assigns one piece of work (again: !) for this class. Under these circumstances, there is richly justified concern that students will fall behind. In fact, from what I hear and see, this has already occurred. All of this results from our schools’ fixation on training students to pass tests rather than to learn to think, imagine, and apply knowledge in real situations.

Ideally, learning, becoming educated, is something a person does every day across the span of his or her life. Every time we read instructions, ask a friend of family member for help with or an explanation of something, or–especially–use prior knowledge to understand something new, we are learning. There is in fact a rich literature on the learning we do outside of our educational institutions. My own teaching practice (by which I aim, among other things, to produce disciplined, skilled autodidacts, and thereby render myself superfluous) has been heavily influenced by Ivan Illich’s book Deschooling SocietyWhile some people might object to the obvious influence of Marxism in its pages, I have also found Paulo Freire’s great book Pedagogy of the Oppressed serves as an explanatory manual for the importance of relevance and application when teaching; Freire’s successes in educating illiterate Brazilian peasants is well documented, and he was amply honored for it. The late Theodore “Ted” Sizer had much to say about learning and school–particularly the frequent and tragic disjunction of theory and practice. I highly recommend his Horace trilogy, which brilliantly exposes the way that our schools have essentially subverted authentic learning in favor of a test-and-punish regime.

To no small extent, the problems in our public schools are the problems of commodification of education and, more specifically, the credentials that education produces. I know, as I hope most parents do, that contractual teacher salaries are often based on credentials. That makes a master’s degree a commodity, another thing for sale in the marketplace. David Labaree of Stanford analyzes the commodification of credentials in his book How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997). As the title indicates, this is a book which describes the manner in which the quest for a credential, a marketable commodity, has replaced actual learning–and actual love of learning that compels learners to pursue knowledge for its own sake and for their own edification. The commodification of education and credentials is intimately connected with the adoption of curriculum produced by large corporate publishers. Again, we teach kids to assume possession of a body of bland, decontextualized facts that they must and will repeat on tests–produced by the same corporations–in order to earn their credential. Through all of this, students really don’t learn to think as much as memorize, they don’t learn to analyze and question so much as repeat and parrot. It is an intellectually deadening process. We should not be surprised that students resent and resist teaching and learning as presently constituted, and that we have such shocking dropout rates in our schools.

Despite the constant fascination with gimmicky pedagogy and electronic gadgets in our schools (an example of which I wrote about here and here, which so offended the administrators under whom I served when I wrote it that I think it may have cost me a job), teaching and learning are well-researched, well-understood, and stable procedures. We can start, as we should, with history’s first teacher, Socrates, that master ironist of feigned ignorance. Socrates asked the big conceptual questions, and he remains relevant to teachers today. Put another way, teachers should understand that in terms of the way people learn, and therefore the way people should be taught, they really must understand underlying concepts and big ideas; we know that little has changed in these procedures since Socrates held forth in the Agora.

In fact, a number of studies in the past generation or so have affirmed this. Most important among them is the National Research Council’s magisterial and definitive book How People Learn (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2000). Martha Stone Wiske’s (she edited) Teaching for Understanding (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997) predates the publication of How People Learn but demonstrates its principles in action through the related experiences of classroom teachers. Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins’ book Understanding by Design (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005) and its ancillary titles (including the excellent Integrating Differentiated Instruction + Understanding by Design by Mr. McTighe and Carol Ann Tomlinson) are the teacher’s user’s manual for applying the principles of teaching and learning outlined in How People Learn. Over the years, I have relied heavily upon Understanding by Design to create and adapt instructional materials for my students. Indeed, my planning book is rife with typescripts of material from these books.

What all these studies and their subsequent books share is one relatively simple certainty: rather than running students through tedious, decontextualized rosters of facts (then supplying anxiety-producing tests to “assess understanding”), we must teach students concepts that enable them to find the connecting tissue between the facts that serve as manifestations of concepts. Put another way, we must help students gain understanding and knowledge that transfers both within domain-specific curricula, but also across the entire common branch curriculum, by moving back and forth between general (conceptual) understanding and specific (factual) knowledge. Put yet another way, rather than teaching students to pass tests, a rather narrow piece of procedural knowledge, we must teach them an understanding of how to use prior knowledge to understand new material; put yet one more, and final, way, our schools must teach kids to learn how to learn.

For parents at home with their children, particularly parents who in some degree now serve as surrogate teachers, the good news is this: teaching and learning in their essence are fairly simple procedures. To learn, one uses prior knowledge to understand something new, which is then integrated in and with prior knowledge. When we talk in casual conversation about the “learning curve,” this is the process we’re discussing. In an effective learning environment, the teacher’s first task is obviously to locate prior knowledge and establish it as the basis for understanding new things. This is where teaching complicates learning: assessing prior knowledge is a subtle exercise. If it is not done accurately or correctly, learning can falter or even fail. There are a number of ways for teachers to pin down and exploit prior knowledge for learning. Good old Socratic questioning is still one of the most effective ways to proceed. The student’s role in this is to both answer the question and (or) ask the teacher to refine or vary the question in a way that will yield potential results. In the ideal classroom, as students receive and consolidate new knowledge, they themselves begin to ask the kinds of Socratic questions that arouse further curiosity, stimulate inquiry, and activate the will to learn and understand. These Socratic questions become teachable moments and vice-versa. This creates a productive cycle of inquiry and understanding. Thing of Socratic questions as productive questions in the sense that they are likely to produce discourses, not pat answers–i.e. the way understanding is arrived at in scholarly communities.

Which is not to say that every learning opportunity, every teachable moment, occurs in the kind of structure a Socratic dialogue prescribes. I very highly recommend this post on the acquisition and cultivation of soft skills from David Berliner and published on Diane Ravitch’s Blog.

How can parents use the procedures in the previous paragraph to engage the young minds at home because of the COVID19 crisis? First, let’s stipulate that everyday life, especially where and when curious young people are present, offers a plethora of teachable moments. Any time a child observes something, there is an opportunity to ask questions about the thing observed–and any time a child asks a question, there is a teachable moment in play. A couple of fairly simple questions, which can then deepen as a discourse ensues, can keep kids thinking, learning, and therefore in the process of acquiring an education. Fortunately, my planning book contains a set of documents that I’ve accumulated over 17 years of planning instruction for struggling learners and teaching them. All of this material is relevant across a range of abilities.

And now that I’ve bloviated beyond the limits of most the reasonable person’s patience, let’s run through the contents of my planning book in an attempt to help you learn what they are and how to use them. With this material I hope to aid you, gentle parent, in keeping your children learning during this crisis. All of this material has been, I think I should mention, previously posted elsewhere (including the top pinned post during the COVID19 pandemic) on Mark’s Text Terminal.

First, here is a list of ten laws of and three keys to simplicity that is actually on the cover of my planning book. I took this from John Maeda’s book The Laws of Simplicity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006). I use these simple rules to remind me that no matter how grand an act of synthetic thinking, learning, and writing I aspire for my students to do, I must keep their needs in mind–and sometimes, for their needs, simpler is better. These 17 Teaching Tips are of a piece, I think, with Mr. Maeda’s imperatives to simplicity of design, so I keep them together to remind me that no matter the complexity of a topic, no matter how much sophisticated the thinking a topic or issue in the curriculum requires, teaching and learning are at bottom fairly simple and straightforward endeavors.

All teaching begins with a question. The type of question one asks tends to be domain specific in some respects, and universal in others. For the latter, here is a taxonomy of questions from Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership (Roland C. Christensen, David A. Garvin, and Ann Sweet, eds., Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 1991). Just as the document’s title indicates, it taxonomizes questions and gives examples of how to apply the taxonomy to structure questions. I use this document all the time. To complement this taxonomy, here is a list of question stems for structuring the kinds of questions that stimulate thinking–and therefore learning.

As above, I think the best planning framework out there, and the best explained by its authors, is Understanding by Design. So, here are 16 pages of planning materials to help identify big ideas and essential questions from the pages of Understanding by Design. In the time I worked in classrooms, I compiled this list of essential questions I contrived for my social studies and English language arts classes. Essential questions are Socratic questions, and vice versa.

Now that you have some questions to ask, you might want to know how to structure the kinds of activities that will yield results. I have a couple of things that I grabbed from articles in The Cambridge Companion to the Learning Sciences (R. Keith Sawyer, ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006) that might be helpful here. First is this table of activity structures from Janet L. Kolodner’s article “Cased Based Reasoning” which is apparently one of her areas of expertise. From Allan Collins in the same Cambridge volume, this outline of the principles of cognitive apprenticeship explains how that method of pedagogy operates. Cognitive apprenticeship is just what it sounds like–students are schooled by participating in the kinds of scholarly work professionals in a field do. Put another way, cognitive apprenticeship gives both teachers and students a shortcut to the big concepts that inform and connect knowledge within and across domains.

To pull this all together for the children in front of you on any given day, I find this table of cognitive styles from Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Kids Like School (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009) helps me gain insight and understanding on how kids are thinking, and therefore how I can make learning more accessible to them. Also from Dr. Willingham, from his book The Reading Mind (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017), is this table of conclusions with practical implications for reading instruction.

Finally, if you have emergent or struggling readers on your hands, you might find this short glossary of linguistic terms from Denise Eide’s excellent Uncovering the Logic of English: A Common-Sense Approach to Reading, Spelling, and Literacy (Minneapolis: Pedia Learning, Inc., 2011) useful when thinking about how to explain the parts of words to kids.

That’s it. Remember: there are a plethora of situations every day that can be turned into teachable moments by dropping a simple but essential (or Socratic, or productive–you choose your modifier) question into it and thereby beginning a discourse.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

A Learning Support on Note Cards for Research and a Structured Note-Card Blank

Over the years I’ve been assigned to “co-teach” many classes; in New York City, I was a regular fixture in social studies classrooms in which I was charged with supporting struggling learners. In the last school I worked in in the Five Boroughs, I worked with three different teachers with three different approaches to the curriculum. Because the assistant principal in charge of the humanities regularly changed the form and content of the curriculum, my duties required me, as a colleague once put it so cogently, to constantly “reinvent the wheel.”

One of the most contentious, and therefore most subject to change, was the synthetic research paper. One of the teachers I worked with assigned students the task of writing, and turning in for assessment, a set of 3 x 5 cards with sources and notes that would eventually end up in students’ papers. For that reason, I contrived this learning support with examples of note cards for research along with this structured note-card blank to aid struggling learners with this task.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

The Weekly Text, May 15, 2020: A Lesson Plan on the Simple Present Tense of Verbs

OK, I think this lesson plan on using the simple present tense of verbs speaks for itself and therefore doesn’t require much comment.

I open this lesson with this worksheet on the homophones who’s and whose. These two words (well, a contraction and a word) are quite easily confused, so the explanation for their use is extensive. Students will walk away, after completing this, with a page from a grammar and usage manual. In the event the lesson goes into a second day, here is a Cultural Literacy worksheet on the term and concept expletive.

This scaffolded worksheet is the centerpiece of this unit for students. You might need this word bank to support completion of the worksheet. Finally, here is the teachers’ copy of the worksheet to make getting through the lesson a little easier for you.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

A Sample Outline and Structured Outlining Blanks

For ten years, I worked in a school in Lower Manhattan that assigned synthetic research papers to students who lacked basic writing skills. And that issue was one of many at that school where writing assignments were concerned. Over the years, I fabricated a lot of learning supports on the fly, including this sample outline and these structured outlining blanks.

At one point, in the social studies classes I co-taught, students were required to submit outlines in the run-up to writing their actual paper. I suspect I prepared the documents in this post to support students in drafting their outlines. At least that’s what these supports look like to me. Of course, you can use them however you see fit. As always, these documents are in Microsoft Word, so they can be manipulated for your students and circumstances.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Research Topics Explained: A Learning Support

Here is a learning support on topics for research that I wrote to support students in a college writing course I co-taught several years ago. I’m all but certain I’ve posted this elsewhere, probably in combination with some other materials on synthetic research papers. Here it is as a stand-alone post.

If you find typos in this document, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Use the Active Voice

[If you want a copy of this text as learning support in Microsoft Word you’ll find it under that hyperlink.]

“Use the active voice.

The active voice is always more direct and vigorous than the passive:

I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.

This is much better than

My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.

The latter sentence is less direct, less bold, and less concise. If the writer tries to make it more concise by omitting “by me,”

My first visit to Boston will always be remembered,

it becomes indefinite: is it the writer or some undisclosed person or the world at large that will always remember this visit?

This rule does not, of course, meant that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.

The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed today.

Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the restoration.

The first would be the preferred form in a paragraph on the dramatists of the restoration, the second in a paragraph on the tastes of modern readers. The need to make a particular word the subject of the sentence will often, as in these examples, determine which voice is to be used.

The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action, but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.

There were a great deal of dead leaves lying on the ground.

 Dead leaves covered the ground.

 At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard.

 The cock’s crow came with dawn.

 The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired.

 Failing health compelled him to leave college.

 It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had.

 She soon repented her words.

Note, in the examples above, that when a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is the by-product of vigor.”

Excerpted from: Strunk, William Jr., and E.B. White. The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition. New York: Longman, 2000.

Make the Paragraph the Unit of Composition.

[If you want this quote as a learning support in Microsoft Word it is under that hyperlink.]

Make the paragraph the unit of composition.

The paragraph is convenient unit; it serves all forms of literary work. As long as it holds together, a paragraph may be of any length—a single, short sentence or a passage of great duration. If the subject on which you are writing is of slight extent, or if you intend to treat it briefly, there may be no need to divide it into topics. Thus, a brief description, a brief book review, a brief account of a single incident, a narrative merely outlining an action, the setting forth of a single idea—any one of these is best written in a single paragraph. After the paragraph has been written, examine it to see whether the division will improve it.

Ordinarily, however, a subject requires division into topics, each of which should be dealt with in a paragraph. The object of treating each topic in a paragraph by itself is, of course, to aid the reader. The beginning of each paragraph is a signal that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached.

As a rule, single sentences should not be written or printed as paragraphs. An exception may be made of made of sentences of transition, indicating the relation between the parts of an exposition or argument.

In dialogue, each speech, even if only a single word, is usually a paragraph by itself; that is, a new paragraph begins with each change of speaker. The application of this rule when dialogue and narrative are combined is best learned from examples in well-edited works of fiction. Sometimes a writer, seeking to create and effect of rapid talk or for some other reason, will elect not to set off each speech in a separate paragraph and instead will run speeches together. The common practice, however, and the one that serves best in most instances, is to give each speech a paragraph of its own.

As a rule, begin each paragraph either with a sentence that suggests the topic or with a sentence that helps the transition. If a paragraph forms part of larger composition, it relation to what precedes, or its function as a part of the whole, may need to be expressed. This can sometimes be done by a mere word or phrase (again, therefore, for the same reason) in the first sentence. Sometimes, however, it is expedient to get into the topic slowly, by way of a sentence or two of introduction or transition.

In narration and description, the paragraph sometimes begins with a concise, comprehensive statement serving to hold together the details that follow.

The breeze served us admirably.

He campaign opened with a series of reverses.

The next ten or twelve pages were filled with a curious set of entries.

But when this device, or any device, is too often used, it becomes a mannerism. More commonly, the opening sentence simply indicates by its subject the direction the paragraph is to take.

At length I thought I might return toward the stockade.

He picked up the heavy lamp from the table and began to explore.

Another flight of steps, and they emerged on the roof.

In animated narrative, the paragraphs are likely to be short and without any semblance of a topic sentence, the writer rushing headlong, even following event in rapid succession. The break between such paragraphs merely serves the purpose of a rhetorical pause, throwing into prominence some detail of the action.

In general, remember that paragraphing calls for a good eye as well as a logical mind. Enormous blocks of print look formidable to readers, who are often reluctant to tackle them. Therefore, breaking long paragraphs in two, even if it is not necessary to do so for sense, meaning, or logical development, is often a visual help. But remember, too, that firing off many short paragraphs in quick succession can be distracting. Paragraph breaks used only for show read like the writing of commerce or of display advertising. Moderation and a sense of order should be the main considerations in paragraphing.”

Excerpted from: Strunk, William Jr., and E.B. White. The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition. New York: Longman, 2000.

A Lesson Plan on the Possessive Case of Nouns

Last but not least this morning, here is a lesson plan on the possessive case of nouns. I open this lesson with this Cultural Literacy worksheet on the grim reaper, a subject which rarely fails to elicit student interest right at the beginning of a class period. Here is a learning support on this area of grammar and punctuation. This scaffolded worksheet is the centerpiece of this lesson; finally, here is the teacher’s copy of the worksheet.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Elementary Principles of Composition: Choose a Suitable Design and Hold to It.

[If you would like this passage as a learning support in Microsoft Word, it’s under that hyperlink.]

“12. Choose a suitable design and hold to it.

 A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. Writers will in part follow this design, in part deviate from it, according to their skills, their needs, and the unexpected events that accompany the act of composition. Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur. This calls for a scheme of procedure. In some cases, the best design is no design, as with a love letter, which is simply an outpouring, or with a casual essay, which is a ramble. But in most cases, planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing. The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape.

A sonnet is built on a fourteen-line frame, each line containing five feet. Hence, sonneteers know exactly where they are headed, although they may not know how to get there. Most forms of composition are less clearly defined, more flexible, but all have skeletons to which the writer will bring the flesh and blood. The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better are the chances of success.”

Excerpted from: Strunk, William Jr., and E.B. White. The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition. New York: Longman, 2000.

A Lesson Plan on the Compound Noun

Alright, moving right along, here is a lesson plan on the compound noun and its use in declarative sentences. I open this lesson with the Everyday Edit worksheet on National Public Radio (and as I will never stop saying every time I post an Everyday Edit worksheet, the generous proprietors of Education World will let you walk away from their site with a yearlong supply of these worksheets free of charge). This scaffolded worksheet at the center of the lesson will take most of your time in helping students master this point of grammar and usage. I made this teacher’s copy of the worksheet to make sure I taught the material consistently. Finally, here is the learning support, a word bank, to help move the work along.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.