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.




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.

Who’s responsible for teachers’ professional development?

I’ve participated in a few conversations lately about professional development for teachers.

Most folks, including me, say that the professional development opportunities provided teachers by school districts and/or educational institutions are, putting it politely, less than optimal.

(Such opportunities are usually what they want you to have, when they want to provide it, at a level that lets them cross “Teacher PD” off their to-do list.)

Kimo Kippen, Chief Learning Officer of Hilton Worldwide, speaking at a  webinar sponsored by College for America in March, had advice for “upskilling” employees that struck me as being as relevant to education as to the business world.

First, “establish a culture and expectation that individuals take ownership” of their own development.

Second, convince each employee that she or he is the heart of the organization.

Third, make resources available to help employees with their career path.

The third step would be relatively easy within schools.

The first and second take work.

Those steps might require a new mindset among the leadership because, if the teaching staff is to be responsible for their professional development, the leadership has to demonstrate what taking charge of one’s own development looks like.

Moreover, if the leadership is going to convince each teacher to believe and behave as if the school’s success depends on her/his work, the leadership has to make each teacher believe their work is valued.

At the same time, the leadership also has to make sure administrators don’t slack off on training just because they’ve shifted professional development from do-it-to-me to help-me-do it.

Is your school using a framework like Kippen’s?

Would it be useful in your school?

Is it doable?

What are your thoughts on this?

Common Core influence on instruction negligible

In a piece posted at EducationNext recently, Tom Loveless asks whether the Common Core State Standards have had any influence on instruction in the schools.

Loveless examines test scores and studies which seem to show little change in instructional for good or bad since the standards were adopted, with the exception that there is more nonfiction reading material being used today than pre-CCSS.

I came to the same conclusion via a totally different type of evidence: keyword search terms.

Sign: To Teach is to keep learning forever.

In 2008, before CCSS was unleashed on American schools, I began a website aimed at teaching teachers of grades 8-14 how to teach nonfiction writing.  I used keyword search data to determine what kinds of information teachers were looking for. The greater the number of searches for a term, the greater the likelihood that the associated concepts or skills were in high demand in classrooms. The high-demand keywords became pages on

Teachers who visited my site told me about their challenges.

The vast majority of visitors to my site were teachers with at least 10 years’ teaching experience. Few had had any instruction in how to teach writing before they entered the profession. Most said they still felt unprepared to teach writing.

Even English department heads confided that they didn’t know how to teach nonfiction writing to teens and adults and couldn’t help other faculty.

After having the site up five years, I took it down in 2013. (Google was changing its algorithm faster than I could update a fraction of my 400+ page site to comply with the standards of the week.)

This past September while doing keyword analysis for a client, just for kicks I redid the keyword search on teaching writing that I’d done in 2008.

Surprise: The key terms and the number of keyword searches for each term in September 2015 were almost identical to the key terms and search figures in January 2008.

I’ve taken enough professional development workshops to know those PD workshops rarely provide enough help that a teacher can go from to implementing a new practice in her classroom. The teacher usually has to do some more serious study on her own.

The lack of searches related to Common Core emphases such as summarizing, writing in content areas and writing arguments suggests to me that although there may be a great deal of professional development presentations being delivered to support the Common Core, teachers on their own are not attempting to update their skills.

Or, to put it another way, teachers are not taking control of their learning.

And if that isn’t happening, I’d say Common Core State Standards have had very little influence on instruction in the schools.

Do your own PD with other teachers

Edudemic has a useful post this morning about resources teachers can use to take charge of their own professional development. I noted as I read the article that most of the suggestions involved the teacher reading and/or writing.

The idea of taking on the task of directing their own learning on a continuing basis is, I believe, the best way for any person to grow professionally.

I’m also a big proponent of reading and writing as ways of learning; I do both myself.

But as someone who writes instructional materials, I’d be the first to admit that a piece of writing (take that to include digital writing) too often fails to convey a genuine sense of what it is the teacher does. When we write, we edit: We lack the time and the multiple perspectives to explain adequately what makes a lesson work—or not work.

A Mindshift piece by 

In lesson study, a group of teachers collaboratively plan a lesson to address some problem students are having mastering a topic.

Then, in a public research lesson, one of the teachers teaches the lesson to a class while the other teachers observe the class. The teachers watch students—not the teacher—for indications of what and when they understand.

Lesson study accomplishes two things. First, it develops lessons from which all students can learn even if they are not being taught by the very best teachers. Second, it helps make the less good teachers better by the collective observation and analysis of the group.

Rigid school schedules and budgets are unlikely to make lesson study flourish in the US any time soon.

Where administrators are sufficiently flexible and supportive, however, I think lesson study could enable do-it-yourself PD to remake schools.

Using technology to deliver professional development

How to get teachers to use technology in  their classrooms is a major concern of some educational administrators and of almost every instructional technician. The most common approach to the problem appears to be offering professional development training. The training often takes the form of workshops and short courses during designated times.

Many of the PD training program descriptions I’ve seen are for generic presentations designed more to show what the technology can do than to show what a teacher can do with the technology. Teachers complain they have to go back to their classrooms and figure out on their own how to use the technology in their situation.

I wonder if a more useful and cost-effective program could be developed using technology to deliver the professional development to teachers in their classrooms at times when they need it.

One technology that might be used for professional development on a small scale is a wiki.  Suppose a school working at implementing Common Core standards in its classes were to allow teachers to create an discipline or area-specific wiki to which all teachers in the school have access.  Having representation from teachers of, for example, math K-12 would allow teachers to see how one years’ program can be made to build on the previous years’ instruction.

Another way to offer PD on a small scale is to using a free services to embed a live chat feature into the webpage of the school’s IT program. Instead of teachers having to figure out on their own how to use a technology for their needs, they could simply join an online chat with the IT person.  Those same teachers might see the value of putting the same feature on their webpages so they could provide outside-class help to students or meet with parents whose schedules don’t permit them to attend conferences. [The chat service I initially suggested, Wibya, is no longer available. has a chat service for collaboration and another designed especially for support desks. A free, one chat channel is also available from Embedded Chat.]

How about instead of saving those slide shows for big presentations, the IT people make less sophisticated resources for teachers, such as a set of slides about 5 free ways to make copies of an assignment available 24/7 to students? That PD could be made available to teachers 24/7 via one or two of the technologies described in the slides.

Other more ambitious uses of technology might be workable in some situations.

Suppose a school district or a group of schools or districts were to offer a professional development program on the order of the Homework Hotline where kids call in with questions and a teacher talks them through the solution.  Instead of live video on cable TV, teachers could join the PD Hotline by going to an online meeting site.

Different discipline areas could be available different days with facilitators sharing responsibility for responding to teacher requests for help with particular classroom problems.  Having directed a distance learning program, I know it would be challenging to find and train people to facilitate a PD Hotline, but the results might be worth the effort. Among other things, the program might use a great teacher to teach the most difficult-to-teach students but also give that great teacher opportunity to teach the brightest and best: your faculty.

Some PD Hotline sessions might be designated for cross-pollination across disciplines:  English language arts teachers might be joined by the fine arts faculty, for example, or the social studies faculty joined by the foreign language faculty.

Use of meeting technology would permit all PD Hotline attendees at a session to suggest options.  Additional resources should be provided via services the instructional technologists want teachers to use: a public folder in Dropbox for documents, Slide Share presentations, etc.

I know none of theses ideas would achieve 100 percent participation from faculty.

I know none of theses ideas would result in seat-time records so important to state education departments.

The ideas might not work at all. I probably have 6 or 8 ideas that don’t work for every one that does. I’ve never found that failure rate any reason to stop thinking.

What do you think?

Photo credit: Help Me 🙂 uploaded by djayo

[Links updated 2014-04-01; Lin repaired 2016-01-22]

Support for first year teachers

SchoolAs experienced teachers retire and faculty ranks swell with teachers with little experience, administrators need to find ways to support beginning teachers—not an easy task as school budgets shrink.

I ran across two suggestions from experienced teachers last year that school administrators might find worth consideration.

One suggestion from veteran teachers was that administrators give beginning teachers advanced students, not beginners to teach. Their reasoning was that advanced classes are similar to courses the novice teachers had been taking. Thus the novices would have minimal difficulty adjusting to the course level, which would free them to concentrate on other aspects of teaching. This suggestion would not strain school budgets, though it might be unpopular with long-time teachers who feel they deserve to teach the more advanced students.

Another suggestion from experienced teachers was that administrators give beginning teachers one less prep and have them use that time to observe other teachers, co-teach, and engage in other professional development activities within their school settings. This suggestion has merit, but it also presents challenges.

Lighter loads for beginning teachers have little appeal to administrators trying to control costs. And asking experienced teachers to help train newbies when they are already carrying full loads is a tough sell in many schools.

Developing a school culture that emphasizes collaborative, in-house professional development could go a long way toward overcoming the challenges inherent in both suggestions from experienced teachers. However, development of such a culture won’t happen overnight. But budgetary constraints and replacement of veteran teachers with novices aren’t going away overnight either.

Photo credit: “School”  by TheMAXX81

Klout’s in minds of Tweet readers

The first thought that went through my mind as I woke up Thursday was, “I wonder if there is a special name for the whiskers on a catfish.”

Normal people do not wake up wondering about catfish whiskers, but I’ve been a writer and writing teacher all my life. Wondering about stuff is what I do.

A couple hours later, someone whose name I had not noticed in my Twitter stream before, posted a clever math comment:

@ronkowitz There’s a fine line between numerator and denominator. (BTW, it called the vinculum)

Not only is that a good pun but also a new word for my vocabulary. I retweeted the comment and asked the author if he knew the proper name for catfish whiskers. In under 5 minutes, I had an answer—and a connection to someone with stimulating, eclectic interests.

I began using Twitter a bit over a year ago. It quickly became a must-have tool for my work—educators’ call it professional development—and my water cooler for casual chat when time permits.

Like many other educators on Twitter, I scanned the Education Next  list of the “Top 25 Educator Tweeters” to see if they’d picked my personal favorites.  There were names I knew, some whose Tweets I follow, but relatively few with whom I’ve had any interchanges.

That didn’t surprise me.

The tweeter with a gazillion followers isn’t going to have rich, personal relationships with many of them. I’m cool with that. Even as a newspaper reporter, I preferred chatting with the guy who was installing a manure storage tank to interviewing the governor who was going to feed me his scripted comments.

I was amused, however, by the uproar from Tweeters who were incensed that their favorite education Tweeters were not in the top 25.

Bill Ferriter, over at his blog The Tempered Radical, posted the most sensible response to the Education Next list of the “Top 25 Educator Tweeters” that I’ve seen. [Bill moved his blog and the link I had no longer works.]

Bill says the value of Twitter for educators is that it encourages each of us personally to attend to tweeters who are talking now about topics we are interested in now. When our needs and interests change, our personal list of who is influential also changes.

I think Bill’s got it right.

Social media mimics socialization that’s not technology mediated.  Changes in your life—from a new job or new baby to a sump pump failure—bring you into contact with people who have a similar focus. When your circumstances change, the degree to which you interact with a familiar group of people may change, too, whether you are online or off.

Twitter has become my go-to place because it has such a diverse community of people I can tap when I need suggestions, links, encouragement, or the odd fact.  If you are missing Twitter, you’re missing easy access to professional development.

And you probably aren’t having much fun either.

Just for your information:

  • Bill Ferriter Tweets as @plugusin.  His new blog is
  • According to @ronkowitz, the side whiskers on a catfish are maxillary barbels.
  • The photo of catfish is by Bubbels
  • Education Next’s Twitter handle is @EducationNext

Hands-on learning is not just for kids

I attended a local school board meeting a few weeks ago at which a team of teachers gave a presentation about a survey they had conducted on bullying. The report was to have been presented months earlier, but the team had difficulties collating and analyzing the data.

One of the teachers said the team had not realized they needed to ask all participants the same questions in order to be able to compare answers given by different groups of stakeholders.

I came home wondering why such a small survey in a restricted setting was so difficult.

And don’t most people know about what happens when you compare apples to oranges? Basic survey design is a skill that the NCTE/IRA standards say students should develop before high school graduation.

Why did these women trained in education have so much difficulty handling what to me are routine information analysis tasks?

The first reason is that they studied to become teachers and I didn’t. Teacher education coursework at the bachelor’s and master’s degree level typically doesn’t include instruction in how to do original research, whereas my undergraduate psychology program required a course in statistics and a senior research project.

Two young men working in office side-by--side, one on phone

But I probably would not know much more about research than the teacher team if it weren’t for my work experiences.

In college, I was a reader for a visually handicapped student with whom I took several courses. Instead of reading her the statistics book with its diagrams and formulas, I took her to the chemistry lab where there were chalkboards on three walls. I taught her the material, writing everything on the board in letters big enough for her to read. Tutoring her, I learned how to think in terms of usable data.

Much later at Syracuse University, I was graduate assistant for William E. Casey Jr., who is now vice president for special projects at the Wall Street Journal. Students in one of his newspaper classes conducted phone interviews for a political polls using questions developed by professional journalists. I helped key in the results. From that experience, I learned not only about wording questions, but also about how to organize a survey project.

I needed that knowledge when I and a colleague were assigned to develop election polling for The Journal, in Martinsburg, WV. She and I developed the questions, designed the sample, trained interviewers, and wrote the news stories while continuing our regular work and meeting our daily deadlines. My colleague was Marcia Langhenry, now with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, who was a team player before the term became a buzz word.

My work experiences—from cleaning rat cages to developing instructional packages for the pharmaceutical industry—are where I got my real education, the knowledge and skills I use every week. (They are also where I began developing a network of professional contacts outside academia.)

Perhaps preservice teachers need more hands-on experiences early in their academic careers to give them a context for their classroom experiences.

Perhaps in-service teachers need hands-on professional development opportunities in the form of sabbaticals working in jobs other than education.

I even go so far as to recommend ELA teachers find summer work as a way to find out what actual skills entry-level employees must have.

Photo credit: Business contact! by Wagg66

What’s professional development for?

June 16 at the Bainbridge-Guilford school board meeting, a panel of teachers recommended that the board bring in an outside consultant at a cost of $7,000 per day to teach the school staff to deal with bullying.

William Tammaro,  Delaware-Chenango-Madison-Otsego BOCES superintendent, said if BG could get another district to join in the training,  the $7,000 cost could be covered by BOCES aid. BOCES aid means taxpayers would fund the training from their state taxes instead of their local property taxes.

One of the teachers had attended a seminar led by the consultant the team recommended. She gave a glowing testimonial to the value of the seminar information to classroom teachers.

Some things about this proposal puzzle me.

If there is a teacher on staff who has been trained in procedures for countering bullying, why is it necessary to bring in an outside consultant to share that information with the staff? Isn’t taxpayer-provided professional development for teachers supposed to enable them to teach others?

Of course, it is possible that the teacher could not learn all she needed to learn in one session. Would putting all teachers in the school district through one session of training have better results?

That’s the $7,000 question.