Monday, May 9, 2016

This post answers the question "What is or is not an essay?" posed by a local bookstore for a contest. I submitted an entry not to win (which I did not), but rather because this question reminds me to re-examine the writing assignments commonly given to students in the US education system. As educators, we must continuously ask "is this (still) working?"  Here's my entry:

"5" is not a Magic Number.

Ever since I learned how to write a 5 paragraph essay in high school I have bemoaned its existence. I wondered about its purpose and its attraction for teachers. Did it provide teachers with a simple answer to give a student when their millionth student asked them about the length and format of their paper?  Did "5" sound long enough but not too long? The 5 paragraph essay includes one introductory paragraph, 3 supportive example paragraphs (which support the thesis stated in the introduction), and a concluding paragraph. What is so magical about this structure? It certainly will not improve the quality of a student's essay.

Currently, most high school students will learn how to write a 5 paragraph essay and will continue writing in this genre if they attend college. However, training students to stick to 3 examples will not prepare them for graduate school or future jobs. Neither require the mastery of the 5 paragraph essay. Students writing process may be affected by their fixation on "3" examples. The fixed and confined structure may affect their research, reflections, analysis, and conclusions. If a student can present a convincing argument with 2 examples or needs 6, why not? How much time do teachers feel they must spend on teaching students this form of writing when this time could be used for other types of writing?

"5" tries to fit student's thinking and writing about a subject into a neat, little box of "5". What a shame to miss out on a student's words because they went over "5".

Thursday, January 7, 2016

This week I subscribed to the digital version of The New York Times. When I logged on, I realized something for the first time about the different categories listed at the top of its home page. The categories include “World, U.S., Politics, N.Y., Business, Opinion, Tech, Science, Health, Sports, Arts, Style, Food, Travel, Magazine, T Magazine, and Real Estate.” I wondered if other major news organizations had similar categories appearing on their home pages. In 2015, “” identified the top 51 online news sources used by Americans per The Pew Research Center website ( I purposely chose a list that includes traditional print sources (which now offer digital versions), TV news organizations, and digital-only news sources because Americans are now using all of these sources to obtain their daily news.

I checked all 51 sources and noticed that many of them share the same categories on their home pages as those listed above. Out of 51, only 1 listed “Education” as a category on their home page ( Very often, the “Education” link is buried inside another link, such as within “News”.

So, what’s my point? In an earlier post I claimed “popular media focus(es) on politics … business … sports … and TV / movies.” These 50 online sources provide an example of Americans favoring certain categories over Education. And, yet, education is the base or foundation for every other category in life. Think about it: even those seeking a career in business or sports receive an education, both in and out of school, to prepare them for their chosen profession.

Monday, January 4, 2016

In previous posts I have suggested specific CPD activities for teachers as individuals, such as learning a second language and keeping a daily journal.  Here, I will discuss another avenue for CPD:  within schools.  Per the literature, teachers complain that most school-based professional development provides information too general for their daily lives as teachers.  However, in “Effective Teacher Leadership: Using Research to Inform and Reform”, editors Melinda M. Mangin and Sara Ray Stoelinga share real-life examples of CPD offered within several US schools.  The CPD was provided by “teacher leaders” who coached teachers in ways to improve their teaching and, therefore presumably, to increase their students’ achievements.  The chapters show teachers leaders succeeding but also conditions which can impede their success. 

For those new to this type of CPD, the book smartly begins with a general definition of “teacher leaders”.  Actually, James Taylor prefers the term “instructional coaching” which he defines as “nonsupervisory / nonevaluative individualized guidance and support that takes place directly within the instructional setting” (p. 12).  Unlike other school-based CPD, coaching is popular because it provides more specific CPD.  Also, it is meant to make up for the teacher’s inadequate pre-service training.  Finally, instructional coaching attempts to spread out the responsibilities of school leadership across individuals. 

Chapter 2 refers to “guidance and support” and Chapter 4 (by Lord, Cress, and Miller) provide examples of delivery methods of this guidance and support from a research study.  These methods included observation, co-teaching, show-and-tell, and one-on-one feedback.  So, regarding chapter order, it would be helpful to follow chapter 2 with chapter 4. 

In Chapter 3, Manno and Firestone discuss a specific aspect of the teacher leader background that appears important:  the level of expertise of the teacher leader in the teacher’s subject area.  Through their research study on 8 teacher leaders, the authors concluded that teacher leaders who were experts in the teacher’s subject area more frequently and easily caught teacher mistakes. 

Chapters 5 and 7 both focus on district-level actions about teacher leaders so I suggest they follow each other sequentially.  In Mangin’s research study (chapter 5), districts differed in how they distributed teacher leaders and some districts spent money on the CPD of math teacher leaders.  In Chapter 7, Camburn, Kimball, and Lowehaupt discuss the district wide implementation of literacy coaches.  The negative aspects of the implementation overrode any benefits:  few coaches, principals using coaches for administrative issues, and teachers complaining that coaches spent too much time out of school for their own CPD. 

I like the editors inclusion of chapters 8 and 9 because these chapters show how staff already working within schools can act as teacher leaders.  In Chapter 8, Supovitz concluded that teachers in his study of high schools mostly sought each other’s advice.  One point of confusion for me:  Supovitz states that the high schools were chosen in consultation with external support providers.  However, why were the high schools using external providers?  Were the providers working in the schools as teacher leaders?  Halverson and Thomas’ case study in chapter 9 demonstrates how “student services personnel” became teacher leaders based on the needs of the organization.  In 1997, the individual with disabilities education act required educators to create annual goals for each child.  Since student services personnel had practice in analyzing student data they were the logical choice to help teachers.  Data could help teachers see where students needed improving.

Chapter 6 should definitely be last.  By placing this chapter last, the book progresses from the individual (teacher and teacher leader) to the organizational (school) level.  In this chapter, Stoelinga considers the organizational factors of schools that affect the implementation of teacher leader positions, such as time schedules, grade level arrangements, and physical plant.  Also, informal teacher leaders can have a great influence on the acceptance of teacher leaders in a school setting.  For example, in 1 of the 3 schools she studied, central staff were the informal leaders and were protective of teacher autonomy, teacher seniority, and union issues.  The literacy coordinator for this school had difficulty gaining access to classrooms because this position contrasted with teacher autonomy.  Stoelinga clearly cautions the reader that the organizational culture of a school with its specific norms, values, and ideals are an important part in the process of integrating, or not, the teacher leaders and their attempts to assist teachers, and ultimately, the students.  Stoelinga effectively supports her conclusions with 3 case studies of 3 literacy coordinators in 3 Chicago public schools.  For me, this chapter resonated with me the most based on my sociology training.

Mangin and Stoelinga comprehensively explore the position of teacher leaders at the individual school, district, and organizational levels.  As such, the editors paint a broad picture of teacher leaders so that the reader can see the complexity inherent in this role and its (sometimes difficult) application in schools. 

(Note:  Sara Ray Stoelinga directs the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago where I am on staff).

Monday, September 14, 2015

In a previous post I mentioned "LifeLong Learning" (LLL), but only in passing. Now I will go into more detail.

In the academic literature, LLL is described as a concept with multiple definitions. I prefer to focus on 2 of the definitions: learning throughout one's life and outside of a school building. When I first read about LLL, I thought to myself "That's what we need to adopt in the USA." Learning, especially over the lifespan, is not valued in the USA.  Americans focus on just getting through school to obtain a job as adults, and try to get into "good schools" along the way for a "better" (i.e. higher paying) future job. Instead of learning, money and entertainment are valued with popular media focusing on politics (money), business (money), sports (money and entertainment), and TV/movies (entertainment). Americans indicate how much they value certain occupations via salary levels. For example: professional athletes, actors, business leaders, and medical doctors receive high salaries. On the other hand, according to the USA Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2013, teachers are not even listed in the top 20 highest-paying occupations. Yet, they are responsible for formally educating each generation of children, who become the adult athletes, actors, business leaders, and medical doctors. I purposely used the word "value" in 2 ways: to suggest the level of importance Americans assign to different occupations and the monetary worth placed on these occupations.

Granted, learning is about gaining knowledge and skills to use in practical ways, such as in school and on a job. However, learning can help you take care of yourself and others. Learning may appear threatening because new or other information may counter your past learning. On the other hand, it can also free you from old assumptions and habits. It can show you an alternative way of looking at a topic and then you can choose to follow it or not. I've learned a lot from professors and books but also through listening and observing outside the classroom. Many tools exist to help students earn but I think learning itself can be seen as a tool for improving one's life and the lives of others.

About terminology, I prefer the term "learner" over "student" because the former suggests action whereas the latter suggests passivity. Actually, instead of "learner" what about "explorer"? For someone who is learning something for the first time, they really are exploring something. Also "explorer" suggests curiosity, risk, and adventure.

Friday, September 4, 2015

As an offshoot of my interest in teachers CPD, I am also curious about their professional development in their pre-service days, especially in teacher-training programs.  Having completed several courses in a graduate education program myself, I am interested in the current state of such training.  So, in light of this background, I read an article by Peggy Barmore at The Hechinger Report titled “Teacher colleges struggle to blend technology into teacher training” (  Her article reminded me of a program requirement in my graduate program:  complete a “technology” course in MS Office.  Yes, it was many years ago (in the previous century) so this course may not even be considered a “technology” course today.  However, even then I did not think such a course should be taught and I wondered about the rationale for it since technology was already changing, though not as quickly as now.  Through various jobs, I had already gained the knowledge and skills in MS Office to complete the course without any effort or learning.  Thus, I felt it was a waste of my time and money. 

In Barmore’s article, the teacher Mr. Gilman makes a good point about teaching technology to student-teachers:  “teaching them how to use the devices in the same manner [I do] is a different matter. You can read all about it … You can see things online. But, until you get up there and do it and make the mistakes … it’s totally different. You really can’t teach it.”  I believe that he means he can teach student-teachers the “how to” of using technology but not its application.  Also, an East Carolina University professor states that in their teacher education program, they require students to list their choice of technology and the rationale for their choices within their lesson plans.  I agree with this approach because then learning about technology is embedded within the student teaching and not taught as a separate course, divorced from their actual student teaching. 

Barmore discusses the different approaches taken by teacher-training programs and the struggles they experience in trying to decide where technology belongs in their programs.  For teacher-training programs, it’s about both learning how to use the technology and the rationale for using it.  I think Tony Wagner said it best at a 2012 TEDxNYED talk:  “The world no longer cares what you know but what you can do with what you know.”  To me, the order of technology also matters:  the “what” (am I going to teach) and the “why” (reason for what I will teach) come first and then the “how” (which tools, such as technology, will I use).  

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

In an earlier post, I reviewed Paul Tough's book “How Children Succeed” in which he discusses the importance of children having grit, curiosity, and character to succeed in school. Besides reading about such non-cognitive factors, I am also interested in learning about what researchers have discovered regarding cognitive factors. Thus I read and review here Frances Jensen and Amy Ellis Nutt’s book “The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults.” 

This neurologist (Jensen) and science journalist (Nutt) focus their microscope on teenagers and young adults’ brains. They discuss and demonstrate with detailed drawings the development and functions of the different parts of the brain.  The part of the brain called the “frontal lobe” is used for making judgments, controlling impulses, and applying insight. This part develops last and is still developing during the teenage and young adult years. Based on my personal experience, I believe the subtitle of their book is more realistic (than the title) because it includes the words “young adults”. Though I do not have a “natural” science degree (I have several social science degrees), I have witnessed young adults throughout their 20’s, female and male, who were not able to anticipate the consequences of their decisions and actions.

The authors make the case that the brain still has “plasticity”, i.e. it is still malleable in the teenage and adult years, as long as it has not been damaged by alcohol, smoking, and drug use. Since the emphasis in the general press has been on early childhood, Jensen and Nutts’ research will reassure educators and parents that they can still positively affect the development of the minds of young people at this later stage. 

Jensen and Nutt warn parents (and educators I would say) that after a teenage or young adult learns about this late development of the frontal lobe, they may claim that something is not their fault.  However, Jensen and Nutt suggest this response:  “Your brain is sometimes an explanation; it’s never an excuse” and “[you] have the capacity to modify and the responsibility for modifying [your] own behavior” (page 82). How? By reminding and explaining to them again and again!  With teenagers and young adults you appeal to their interest in what’s going on in their bodies. This reminds me of an article I recently read about a school district providing professional development to all adults who came into contact with students, even bus drivers. In this professional development course, a bus driver learned that students of the 21st century ask for reasons instead of just following instructions like she did as a child. Once she gave them a reason for the requested behavior, they usually cooperated. Same with presenting “science” to teenagers and young adults because that way they will not just think that mom or dad is asking them to do something just because of a personal preference.

I disagree with Jensen and Nutt on two issues.  They believe it's best to study in the same place but I think it depends on the student. Also, even if the student studies in the same room (their bedroom) with the same furniture (their desk, chair, and lamp), it will not look exactly the same wherever they take an exam because even though they will be sitting in a chair and at a desk it will look otherwise different (other students in the room, details of the room, different desk and chair).

The second issue about which I disagree is sleep.  Jensen and Nutt provide scientific evidence that students at that age have different sleep and wake cycles than their parents.  Though I have read other publications about these different sleep cycles and that some schools start later in light of such sleep research, I wonder if students will just stay up even later since they know that they have a later starting time?  Will it really work starting the school day later?  Again, just like where to study, I think it depends on the student (their daily schedule, their responsibilities, their stressors, their physical environment). 

My conclusion:  great read for parents, educators, and anyone else interested or responsible for the care and education of teenagers and young adults. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Most academic books I choose to read focus on education or sociology or both because education and sociology are two of my professional fields of study. I recently finished reading the book "Emergency Management and Social Intelligence: A Comprehensive All-Hazards Approach" by Charna Epstein, Ameya Pawar, and Scott Simon. The authors skillfully connect education and sociology and deftly apply them to an on-going contemporary social issue. Before reading it, I never considered applying "social intelligence" to emergency situations and knew nothing about the field of emergency management. This book corrects my oversight and lack of knowledge. The authors' define "social intelligence" as "a method by which emergency management gains critical situation awareness of a community in relative real time. This is achieved through a process of leveraging existing data, information, social capital, and preexisting conditions to develop a composite understanding of what is happening in a community. Making sense of preexisting conditions requires gathering intelligence ..." (p. xix). In other words, emergency management personnel need to educate themselves by researching, studying, and reflecting on information about the immediate and surrounding communities to better prepare and respond to these social disasters. The authors list past disasters such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and oil spills. They discuss each disaster, the immediate aftermath, the long-term situation, and how things could have and should have been done differently by organizations responsible for providing assistance, assuming they had applied social intelligence before the disaster struck.

This book also supports a broad approach to education in which I am particularly interested: lifelong learning. People in general, but especially professionals in the field of emergency management, must embrace and follow the concept of lifelong learning by learning about the communities for which they are responsible. Lifelong learning can be viewed as vital for one's professional advancement but also out of care and concern for human beings. The authors show how a lack of social intelligence led to certain statements, assumptions, and actions (or not) on the part of professionals. For example, during Hurricane Katrina, the Director of FEMA stated that victims shared some responsibility for their suffering by not adhering to the mandatory evacuation order. Had he done his homework, he would have known that some residents were so poor they did not have cars, gas for their cars, another place to stay, and / or credit cards at their disposal.