Instructional Technology Strategies Conference – Portland – Last Days to Register!

ITSC11I'm pleased to be invited as a guest blogger to the Instructional Technology Strategies Conference (ITSC) Feb 20-22 in Portland, Oregon. More  I'll be there, but you better hurry up and register. Registration closes on Wed 2/16!

ITSC 2011 (twitter/ITSCPDX) is hands-on conference with a focus on the practical use of technology in the classroom – workshops are small sessions led by facilitators, not presenters. Plus, I'm available to lead Portland brewpub tours!

Here's a great "ITSC11" SlideShare by Sacha Chua: "The Shy Connector’s Guide to Getting Ready for Conference Awesomeness"  Hope to see you at ITSC11 in PDX!

Jerry Seinfeld: History Teacher – Observations in the SNL Classroom

Seinfeld-history-teacherCurrently this link works. (9/15/15)

 Last week I used this classic Jerry Seinfeld piece from Saturday Night Live as part of an administrators’ workshop. We had lots of fun. Here’s your chance to borrow the idea.

Goal: I was working with a team of principals and district administrators who wanted to provide more consistency in their teacher observations and look for strategies for using observations to assist teachers in reflecting on their instructional approaches. We first met at district office before going out to observe a few classrooms and share our impressions. I thought it would be useful (and fun) to warm up with Seinfeld’s disastrous history lesson.  

Here’s the process I used:

  1. We watched the video.
  2. A volunteer agreed to take the role of an administrator who just observed Seinfeld teaching. I played the role of Mr. Seinfeld as we both met for a post-observation conference.
  3. I set up a “Fishbowl” discussion group among the remaining participants. Half would pay attention to the administrator conferencing with Seinfeld. They were asked to record two types of admin questions or comments on a T-Chart – either ones that caused Seinfeld (me) to reflect on myself as a teacher or judgmental questions / comments that caused me to get defensive. The second half of the fishbowl group focused on me (Seinfeld). They were asked to record two types of comments I made – either comments where I was reflective on my lesson / teaching or comments where I got defensive / argumentative.
  4. I asked each of the fishbowl groups to compare within their two groups.  We then we shared in a full group discussion.

While there was little positives to find in the Seinfeld lesson – the activity got us thinking about ways in which an administrator can give teachers feedback that is less judgmental and more likely to cause teachers to reflect on their lesson and instructional approaches. 

Sample judgmental admin question: “You say that you want the students to ‘think about history’ and forget about the details, so why did you start asking a series of content questions on material they had already failed on the test?”
Similar theme explored in a non-judgmental, reflective tone:  “What are some of  the methods you like to use to gather feedback on student mastery of content? How do you use the information to design a lesson?”

It was a great icebreaker and loads of fun for everyone. Later in the day we observed some actual classrooms taught by teachers who had volunteered to host us. We came back together as a group and compared our impressions using the district evaluation instrument. We compared our results to calibrate the observation tool. Our final activity was to develop some feedback to give the teachers who hosted our visits. We crafted comments that were more reflective than judgmental. The volunteer teachers’ principal later delivered the feedback to the teachers. 

Everyone thought it was valuable session. I hope you can find some use or ways to modify. 

How to set up a Fishbowl discussion group  Download Fishbowl-discussion 58kb pdf

Eight Look 4s When Observing a Classroom: What the Teacher Teaches – What the Students Learn

School desk I rarely quote at length from a blog or news article, but I think this time I’ll break my rule. I first met Mel Riddile a few years ago when we co-presented at a conference. Since then we stay in touch via Twitter and by following each others’ blogs. Mel blogs on policy and practice for NAASP at The Principal Difference and tweets at @PrincipalDiff

His recent blog post “Tests: Will they improve learning?” is a thoughtful response to the recent Science Journal study that concluded that “practicing retrieval produces greater gains in meaningful learning than elaborative studying.”

Mel does a good job of putting the research into the context of the classroom, but the segment I wanted to quote is his closing section –  ”Look 4s for School Leaders.” It’s a succinct guide for principals, instructional leaders and can be used as reflective prompts by teachers.  Put these in your toolkit and don’t forget they are all critical aspects to Common Core mastery.

(Note: They’re also a great companion to my post “Observing a Classroom? Watch the Students, Not the Teacher“) 

Look 4s for School Leaders

    • Closure and Learning – The focus of instruction is not what teacher teaches but what the students learn. The close of every lesson should focus on what the learner has learned not what the teacher has taught. The question is how does the teacher know that the students have learned and mastered the lesson unless there is some type of formative assessment–quiz, test, or activity.
    • Remembering – The only evidence of learning is remembering. When observing a lesson ask yourself how does the teacher know that students will remember what they just learned?
    • Checks for Understanding – Teachers should pause frequently during a lesson to check for understanding. How frequently? As a rule of thumb, teachers should check students understanding approximately every fifteen minutes, which approximates the attention span of the average adolescent. According to the Science study, one of the most effective checks for understanding is the quiz used as a formative assessment. Teachers can pause and ask students to write a summary or take a brief quiz on what they just learned. Immediately re-teaching a concept to a classmate may also be used to test practice retrieval.
    • Timing is critical - When it comes to recall, tomorrow is too late. Teachers need to check for student understanding before students leave the classroom each day.
    • Feedback – “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” Unless students practice recall (retrieval) and get immediate feedback they will not remember.
    • Defined Instructional Practices – Some students absolutely need a highly structured classroom room environment characterized by identifiable instructional practices, smaller units of instruction, more frequent assessments, coupled with frequent and immediate feedback. However, students who can function equally as well in low or highly structured classrooms are not penalized in any way by the use of structure. In other words, when in doubt, use a more structured approach.
    • Formative Assessments – How often should students be assessed? How frequently students are assessed or asked to practice retrieval depends on their familiarity with the content and the student’s level of mastery. When students are introduced to new content or when they are struggling with a particular concept, they should be assessed more frequently. For example, the skills of proficient and advanced readers need only be assessed annually, while students reading at the basic level or below basic need to be assessed regularly. Frequent assessments mean more feedback. A quiz or summary essay at the close of a lesson will do more for student recall than extensive homework assignments.
    • Mapping – Instructional strategies like “concept mapping” are effective, but they work better if they are used as part of “practice retrieval.” The act of creating a “concept map” in and of itself does not improve learning unless the student makes use of the map as a part of the “practice retrieval” process. Teachers should show students how to use the concept maps to review for a test and not assume that the students know how to do so.

Image credit flickr/mecredis

Revising Advanced Placement: Will Thinking Beat Memorizing in the New AP Tests?

The NY Times recently showcased the proposed revamping of the AP program and testing – “Rethinking Advanced Placement” (1/7/11)

“A preview of the changes shows that the board will slash the amount of material students need to know for the tests … The goal is to clear students’ minds to focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking. … Trevor Packer, the College Board’s vice president for Advanced Placement, notes that the changes mark a new direction for the board, which has focused on the tests more than the courses. …’We really believe that the New A.P. needs to be anchored in a curriculum that focuses on what students need to be able to do with their knowledge,’ Mr. Packer says.”

Thinking In recent years, many high schools have stopped offering AP courses, and a growing number of universities have raised AP score requirements or no longer award credit for the test. Memorization might have been a valued skill when AP testing began in 1956, but today many AP courses have become little more than relentless test prep.

As the College Board phases in the new courses and tests over the next few years, more teachers will feel free to restructure courses to support greater depth and student-centered inquiry. I urge teachers to forge ahead courageously. My experience teaching AP in “seminar approach” back in the 1990’s convinced me that advanced placement can be much more engaging than memorizing loads of information for an exam.

I was fortunate to have been mentored in that format by senior members of my high school social studies department – a hat tip to Brian Bell, Jim Wittig and Pete Crooker who pioneered the seminar approach used in our AP social studies classes. BTW – Our students scored very well on the AP exams.

Class size typically ran between 24 – 36 students. All students in the class would meet one day per week in a large group session. This might be used for unit testing, or to introduce or conclude a seminar with a lecture or full group discussion. The large group was also was divided into 4 seminar groups of 6-9 students. They would meet with me one day per week. Thus each student met one day per week in seminar and another day in large group. During the remainder of their week they worked independently or with their seminar group in preparation for the upcoming assignment. Today, we would call that “flipping the classroom.”

Of course, there were many weeks that were modified because of vacations and other interuptions – but you get the idea. Our high school was on traditional 8 period schedule. These AP classes were taught in a double period configuration of about 95 minutes for either the seminar classes or large group sessions.

My first experience was teaching one semester of AP US History while one of my colleagues was on leave. I focused on essential questions that fostered greater depth and relevance. Thus the typical question – “Should the Constitution be ratified?” became “How powerful should the national government be?” Anyone following the reauthorization of NCLB or the proposed health care legislation knows the enduring relevance of that question. For more on that approach, see my post “Essential Questions in American History: The Great Debates.” 

After my semester of APUSH, I settled into my primary AP assignment – one semester classes in AP American Government / Politics and AP Comparative Government. There I used the seminar approach to give students guided experience in research, critical thinking, collaboration and presentation. 

Visualize the typical American government lesson. Teacher standing up front asking students to follow along as they go over the diagram of “how a bill becomes a law.” Contrast that with an outline of one of my AP US Gov seminars on the same topic.

Congress and the Lobbyists
This extended seminar will investigate the relationships between Congress and the lobbyists. You will develop an investigative report which will ultimately answer the question “Does Congress represent the needs of its public constituency (the electorate) or its financial constituency (its contributors)? Weekly seminar abstracts will be used to prepare Tabloid TV-style PowerPoint report in support of your investigation. To see the full seminar assignment click here.  

Students were assigned a member of Congress who sat on one of the major committees. Their task over the next few weeks included researching and developing the following:

  • Demographic / political profile of their legislator’s elective constituency.
  • Profile of their financial contributors.
  • Committee jurisdiction and major lobbyists.
  • Voting record on legislation of interest to their elective constituency and financial contributors.
  • Their answer to the seminar question with supportive reasoning.  
  • Presentation and reflection

The latest word from the College Board says that they plan to delay their implementation of the new AP US History until 2012-13 See: “New Advanced Placement Biology Is Ready to Roll Out, but U.S. History Isn’t“ 
I hope that won’t delay teachers from realizing that they can get students prepared for the AP exams without resorting to a force-fed test prep model of instruction.


My SlideShare of DBQ resources / strategies for students historians

“Think” image credit flickr/Stig Nygaard

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