Today’s educator needs a broad repertoire

In a design thinking course just wrapping up, I ran across the term repertoire used in a way that was new to me.

I’m used to seeing the term used to refer to the musical pieces a performer is prepared to play or to the whole catalog of music of a particular type. Less often, I’ve seen repertoire applied to the set of skills needed in a particular field.

In “Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector,” offered on Coursera by the University of Virginia, repertoire was used to refer to an individual’s set of life experiences.

Repertoire includes one’s educational background and work experience, but it’s not a CV. It’s actually a description of the mindset and skill sets a person can bring to a complex problem.

I’ve been thinking about repertoire in this sense for a long time, but I didn’t know that’s what I was thinking about.  (I also recently discovered that I’ve been using single-point rubrics for a half century and didn’t know that either. Shades of M. Jourdain.)

The broader the person’s repertoire, the better equipped someone is to work in an unstable world.  We certainly live in an unstable world.

Ignore (if you can) political instability.

Think about the changes that are happening in the world economy with the increasing deployment of artificial intelligence and robots taking over many repetitive jobs.

Think about the technology that’s increasingly used in education — technology that’s been invented since this year’s high school graduates started kindergarten.

Narrow, specialized experiences don’t help people — or their institutions — cope with an unstable, uncertain environment. A narrow range of life experiences leaves people vulnerable when the world around them changes.

Even more frightening is that when someone with a narrow range of life experiences teaches, that person transmits their narrow mindset to the students they teach.

It concerns me when I read local teachers’ autobiographies and don’t see any of them mention working anywhere other than education. Do they not have work experience outside education or do they have such experience and not value it?

If they don’t have, or don’t value, work outside schools, how will those people be able to teach students to work in a world where every three-to-four years they need to re-skill for a new occupation?

What about you?

Do you have a repertoire that will enable you to survive in the next 30 uncertain years?

Do you have a repertoire that will allow you to teach students to survive in the next 60 years?

 

 

What’s your goal in teaching writing?

Since I missed Tuesday’s #TeachWriting chat on Twitter, I founnd the transcript, which I thought might interest you, too.

Below, compiled and edited for brevity, is the chat’s first question and responses to it.

The chat’s first question

Responses to the first question

If someone had more than one response to Q1, I’ve included only one, usually the first.

As you read, please bear in mind that respondents are a diverse group that, depending on the chat, may include K-12 teachers, college faculty, school administrators, and a variety of support staff. In some respects, their perspectives vary with their positions.

https://twitter.com/KellyTumy/status/905236966723211264

Quantity a top-of-mind goal

Perhaps it was the way the question was worded that prompted so many teachers to respond by framing their goals in terms of quantity.  Researchers certainly have criticized teachers for not having students write enough; however, one might almost conclude from these responses that the teachers believe students learn to write well by doing a lot of writing without the benefit of teaching or coached practice.

I noticed no one mentioned a specific genre of writing. The closest anyone came was a reference to writing across the curriculum, which would suggest expository writing.

A couple of people phrased their goal in terms of how they wanted their students to feel about writing. Affective goals are important, but they respond indifferently to teaching and are nearly impossible to measure. If, like Ben Kuhlman, a teacher wants a student to feel successful at writing, the best way to achieve that goal is to teach the student to write.

A1: My goal never changes

Here’s what I would have given as my response to Q1:

 

Goal: every student writes competently.

For over 40 years, my goal in teaching writing has been to turn out competent writers. I aim for every student who enters my classroom (a physical one or a digital one) to leave being able to write expository nonfiction competently in the situations in which that student has to write.  Depending on the student, that can mean writing in their college classes or at work.

In either case, students expect a quick payout.

To accomplish my goal—all-class competence—I have every student write every day in response to prompts I give them.  Most days we do informal writing about course content other than writing or about some aspects of the expository writing process.  One day a week is used for drafting that week’s formal document.

My students don’t leave my classes on an emotional high: They’re too exhausted for that.

But a significant number leave writing competently, even when the course is as little as five weeks.

PenPrompts: Required course remedy

Teaching required courses at either the high school or college level is often a thankless job.

The classes are usually large.

Student interest is usually modest, as in “I hate [subject goes here].”

Often the course content is prescribed to fit the administration’s desire to make the required course serve the rest of the institution.

At the high school level, required courses are often assigned to the less experienced teachers, as if teaching required courses demands less practice than teaching electives.

At the college level, required courses often are taught by adjuncts who lack resources — time, supportive colleagues, professional development, office space — to teach as well as they’d like.

All those negatives were on my mind when I decided to create a new website, PenPrompts.

Partially open laptop with surprint "Lift the lid on learning"
The stripe reminds me of an Oxford-cloth button down shirt; very preppy.

PenPrompts is now live.

Many readers of this blog knew me when I operated a website called you-can-teach-writing.com, a website for people who teach writing to teens and adults. PenPrompts recycles a small part of that content for a different audience.

PenPrompts is designed for teachers who are looking for help teaching  high school or college required courses.  On the PenPrompts site, I call these folks liberal arts teachers, which isn’t entirely accurate but serves to distinguish them from teachers of career-specific courses.

Liberal arts teachers’ general education courses are supposed to teach “every student” about something, such as art, rather than to teach a few students to be something, such as an artist.

Regardless of what subjects these liberal arts teachers teach, their central task is to help students develop the knowledge and skills for thinking critically and for continuing to learn after their exit from formal education. They use their subject as a tool for accomplishing that task.

If they help a few students discover they are interested in the course subject as a career or avocation, that’s a like getting a free upgrade to the Ritz-Carlton from Motel 6.

PenPrompts’ mission is to help those teachers do their job.

PenPrompts mission is goal achievement
The PenPrompts mission is goal achievement.

The solution I propose to help these teachers fill their supporting role well  is instructor-crafted expository writing prompts that:

  1. Ask students to explain something in writing, and
  2. Include all the information students need to start and to finish writing, having meet all the requirements.

In preparing PenPrompts, I envision its users as classroom veterans — most visitors to my old site had 15 or more years’ teaching experience — who are unhappy with the results they are getting but remain convinced that students need to have a basic understanding of their discipline.

I’ve tried to provide teachers with the least information they need to know to craft and deploy writing prompts.

I haven’t figured out how to get submissions to the newsletter signup to populate the subscriber list automatically, but the contact form works, so if you visit the site you can say hello.

 

Schools’ role: enable teachers to teach curriculum expertly

America's oldest wooden schoolhouse,
America’s oldest wooden schoolhouse, St. Augustine, Florida

Every so often I run across something that makes me think there may be hope for American education yet.

Robert Podisco’s piece  “Time to Connect Professional Development and Teacher Training to Curriculum” at EducationNext earlier this month was one such encounter.

Podisco writes:

Slowly, slowly, a small but persuasive body of work is emerging which raises curriculum to an object of pressing concern for educators, and expresses long overdue appreciation for the idea that the instructional materials we put in front of children actually matter to student outcomes. A welcome addition to this emerging corpus is a new Aspen Institute paper by Ross Wiener and Susan Pimentel, which makes a compelling case—equally overdue—that professional development and teacher training ought to be connected to curriculum. A primary role of school systems, states, districts, and charter-management organizations, the pair write, “is to create the conditions in schools through which teachers can become experts at teaching the curriculum they are using and adapting instruction to the needs of their particular students.”

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I think making sure teachers are experts at teaching curriculum is long overdue.

And I’m sure the English teachers with 15 or more years experience who tell me they’ve never had any instruction in how to teach writing will agree it’s time to shake up teacher preparation and professional development.

It’s time to move to a new schoolhouse model.

Read the rest of Podisco’s piece at EducationNext.

 

 

 

Technology and skills: Today’s best BOGO deal

In the lead up to Black Friday, my inbox was full of messages from technology companies that don’t want me to miss out on the greatest deal ever—usually theirs.

Photo of classroom computers overlaid with "Is this technology a good deal?"

To get a really good deal on technology, buy one product that gets you two benefits:

  1. It’s technology you can use now.
  2. It’s technology that will allow you to develop a skill you can use later.

Technology you can use now but which doesn’t help you develop new skills isn’t worth what you’ll pay for it.

And you’ll probably never get around to learning to use new technology for which you have no immediate use, so that’s not worth having at any price.

The buy-two-benefits principle holds whether you’re buying technology for yourself or selecting technology for your classroom.

 

Reading, readiness, and unreadiness

I sat down to write a bit about three nonfiction books I’m reading.

That led me to wonder if there is a word that means the state of having started, but not yet finished, reading a book.  Unreadiness gets things wrong end round; nonreadiness is no better.

Probably the Germans or Japanese have a word for it that an alert reader will share.

But I digress.

3 books: Why Rural Schools Matter, The Physics of Business Growth, Max Teaching with Reading and Writing

Books I’m reading

The nonfiction books I’m reading are

  • The Physics of Business Growth: Mindsets, System, and Processes by Edward D. Hess and Jeanne Liedtka,
  • Why Rural Schools Matter by Mara Casey Tieken
  • Max Teaching with Reading and Writing: Classroom Activities for Helping Students Learn New Subject Matter While Acquiring Literacy Skills by Mark A. Forget.

Despite their quite different subject matter, they have a few common elements. Each is

  • written by people who write well
  • written by people who have lived the subjects they write about
  • written with the expectation that readers will do something based on their reading.

That last point is what’s keeping me from finishing them.

Why I’ve not finished

When I get to the end I’ll need to do something with what I’ve learned, something that’s likely to be uncomfortable, possibly difficult.

I’m ready to learn about.

I’m not ready to go try.

This is the central problem of professional development for educators: Moving from readiness to learn to readiness to apply.

My students explain

While looking for some papers I needed, I ran across a folder of items I’ve culled from student writing over the years. Here are a few  of their observations to remind you why your work is so important.
Pencil with slogan "student expectations"Students know what they expect:

I expect my instructor to follow the KISS formula: Keep It Simply Stupid.

Can you do that?
Pencil with slogan "good writing"They may not be good writers, but students know what good writing is.

In a place of business, writing effectively means coming to a clear and concise point in as few words as possible in order to prevent wordiness.

Writing can also produce an emotional response.

I feel that one main characteristic of writing is the ability to convey ones message in a way that capsizes the audience.

Pencil with slogan "thesis statements"

Students have had the importance of a good thesis statement drilled into them for years:

A thesis sentence or statement is one or two sentences giving the reader information, a brief interdiction of what you are about to read. A thesis sentence is essential for the following reasons: so the reader will know what the paper is about, let’s a reader know what your poison is on the paper and when this is provided a reader will have some idea as to whether or not to contuse reading that paper.

Pencil with slogan "student weaknesses"Getting started writing is hard for many students:

It is hard for me to begin writing my assigned papers even after I have an idea. I guess you might call me a procreator.

Finishing on time is hard, too.

Due to some insinuating circumstances this weekend, I will not have my first paper ready.

Pencil with slogan "students learn"It can be hard to believe, but students are learning.

I see now that the brain is a mussel, the more you use it the stronger it gets.

Pencil with slogan "teachers matter"Your work is valued by your students.

Teachers are put on a much higher pedistool than other professionals because they are taking care of our children and, they should be.

Have a great year, good students, lots of chuckles—and don’t fall off your pedistool.

Summer teacher improvement programs

For teachers, summer is not just the season for vacations. It’s also the season for workshops and conferences, for reading and reflecting.

Many summer teacher activities show up in my Twitter feed.

I’ve been struck in the last couple weeks by what kinds of things teachers are learning about in their organized professional development activities.

Most of the teacher training sessions seem to fall into one of two categories. Either they focus on

  • tools (typically technology tools), or
  • on what might be termed “soft pedagogy skills.”

Soft pedagogy skills are such things as flipping a classroom, teaching mindfulness, or helping students develop grit.

I don’t see many teacher summer activities directed toward developing better

  • teaching objectives
  • teaching skills
  • teaching materials
  • teaching strategies

for specific subjects.

I find that troublesome.

From an economic standpoint, I understand it’s more sensible to offer programs that draw 150 people than programs that will draw only five when you’re hiring presenters who charge $3,000 a presentation.

From an education perspective, however, I wonder whether teachers might not have a greater impact on student learning if a few people who teach the same subjects at the same grade level were encouraged to work together on shared problems.

The small group could draw on local people as resources for such things as workplace uses of content from the teachers’ subject area.

The group could also invite teachers in training to participate, which could be good for the trainees and might also help the local school attract new teachers.

Anyone have a program such as I envision in their school or region? Please share your experience in the comments.