Archive | February, 2013

The Importance of Failure

27 Feb

The Atlantic Monthly published this article a few months ago on why parents should let children fail.

They identify an interesting key term in the article–“high responsiveness and low demandingness” parenting.  In other words, parents who are quick to intervene, support, rationalize, and fix problems for children, but rarely wait for (or demand that) the child solve the problem for him or herself.

Allowing children to navigate problems for themselves is a tricky business.  We certainly don’t want to be accused of being negligent parents (or teachers, coaches, etc), but it’s hard to overemphasize the importance of children learning how to resolve tough situations on their own.  Not only is practice the only way that children are going to internalize the ability to solve problems, but it also projects a confidence in their ability to do so.  When we swoop in and fix the problem, we’re also communicating the unspoken message, “I don’t think you can do this on your own.”

There’s a parallel situation in education, when we as teachers solve problems for our students.  This comes in a variety of situations–solving social problems, academic problems, emotional problems.   It all contributes to that deadly outcome of learned helplessness for children, where they stop believing they have efficacy or can make an impact on a situation.

So we know that rushing in to solve all of our students’ (or childrens’) problems is ill-advised, but what do we do about it?  It doesn’t make sense to sit back and say, “sink or swim!  Up to you!”

I’ve learned a few things that might help.  I’ll split them into categories (social and academic) for ease of reference.


I message, and Clean up

My grade level partner, Jenny, dragged me kicking and screaming into this one.  Social-Emotional teaching has never been my strong suit, and the idea of teaching children how to voluntarily describe their feelings and needs to each other was about the opposite of what I wanted to do.  After seven years, I finally came around to the idea.


The idea is remarkably simple.  Two posters on the wall share sentence stems for each child–the child who was hurt, and the child who was responsible.  The stems take them through the conversation, from how the hurt child felt, to what they need from people, to how the other child can resolve the problem.  The responsible child takes responsibility for the problem, and lets the hurt child know how they will change in the future.

Simple, no?  It seemed too simple.  Coming from an adult world, the idea that one person would just put right out for the world to see what made him vulnerable, and that the other would take responsibility and “make it right” seemed crazy.  The crazy thing is, it works!  It turns out, children are remarkably open and forgiving.  This has effectively eliminated most of the disputes and hurt feelings that occur on a day-to-day level in my room.  The best part is, my role has pretty much just been to help walk children through the stems–they did all the talking.

One important note: the “I message” part is supposed to be about what the hurt child needs–not about what the other child did.  For example, the child might say, “I feel hurt when people don’t invite me into their games.  I need people to include me and be friendly,” NOT “I felt hurt because YOU were mean and didn’t invite me.  I need YOU to let me play.”  See the difference?  One is universal, the other is personal.  This is biggest change for the way most children communicate.


Strategy work:  praise, prompt, reflect

Guided reading teachers will be familiar with this one.  The idea is that you praise children for being strategic, meaning trying a strategy, you prompt them to try strategies, and later on you ask them what strategy they tried, what helped them to be successful.

The idea is that if children are metacognitive, if they understand that they made choices which led to their success, they’ll be more likely to feel a sense of efficacy and to try something in the future when they get stuck.  The child who understands various decoding strategies, for example, is more likely to proactively problem solve when she comes to a word she doesn’t know.  The child who isn’t aware how she decodes words is more likely to give up.

Prompts for this might look like this:

Praise: You just found a little word you recognized inside that big word, and that helped you to solve it!

Prompt: Look for little words inside the big word.

Reflect: How were you able to solve that tricky word?

The praising and prompting portions help children to name the strategy they are using, so they’re more able to express what they tried when you ask them to reflect.

Praising, prompting, and reflecting also work well for encouraging positive character traits, such as working with children on building their perseverance, organization, etc.

Wait Time

Ruth Ayres just posted about the importance of wait time over at Two Writing Teachers, and her point is well taken in all academic areas.  So often the stress of too many children/subjects/goals and not enough time cause me to rush in to support a child who might not need a savior, just some moments.  I always mean to give wait time, and I usually do…but it might only be 5 seconds.  That feels like a long time when working with a student, but it’s not a lot of  time for them to think.  The moments I’ve been able to let kids think longer, they’ve usually risen to the challenge.  To use a reading example again, I’ll often have a student in my reading group who seems hopelessly stuck on a complex word.  I can feel the concern in me rise as I think, “this may be out of her reach, maybe I need to give a prompt to help her get started,” when low and behold, she does the work herself and nails it.  It’s a great feeling for them and for me, and it conveys the idea that you believe they can do it.

Dum, da, dum dum…

17 Feb

CHreportcardsReport cards are here…<sigh>.  There’s nothing more tedious than filling out approximately 700 little numbers of grades, and then the overwhelming prospect of writing individualized write-ups for all of the subject areas for 30 children.

This is where I look at the high school teacher’s job–one grade per student, no comments–and feel a tremendous sense of jealousy and envy.  Normally, there’s nothing I envy about a high school teacher’s grading life.  Until I get to report card season.  Then I long for their computerized, automatically calculating spreadsheets in an entirely unhealthy fashion.

When I was in school, way back in the 80’s, our report card comments went something like this: “Elizabeth is an active and enthusiastic learner.  Great work!”

That was it.  Short and sweet, but admittantly, with very little information parents can use.  It’s possible we have now swung in the other direction, with too much information, and too much jargon.

Teachers at my school have talked about changing ours to a bullet point list.  One list for strengths, one for areas for growth.  The idea is that it would provide more clarity for parents, rather than requiring them to search through a long narrative.  I do like the idea for ease of use, but it also feels like it might be a little cold, like we’d be taking the life out of the reports.

I’m sticking with narratives for now.  I hate the process, but I do enjoy handing out a lengthy write up to parents.  It reminds me that students have learned a lot, and I’ve learned a lot about them, over the course of the trimester.  There are some ways to make the process easier though.  I’ve found that sentence stems for each area are great to remind you about details you want to discuss.  I’m attaching a few here, one I found from the Internet, and one I created over the summer when I was anticipating report-card dread.  I hope they make your life a little easier too!  If you have resources that have helped you, I’d love to know about them as well!

Report Card Comments

Student Strength & Improvement

Intel 2012 Science Fair Champion

12 Feb

Jack Andraka won the Intel science fair in 2012 for inventing a cheap, fast, non-invasive, sensitive and accurate way of detecting early pancreatic, breast and lung cancer.  He gave a speech at San Jose Tedx about his process.

He says a few interesting things.  His research was started with simple google and wikipedia searches.  Wikipedia–usually held up as the poster-child for unreliable information.

He also ends his talk with the comment, “When I started, I didn’t even know what a pancreas was,” as proof of the power of real wondering combined with hard work.

Along the way, he also makes some not-so-positive remarks about his high school biology class, calling it, “the absolute stifler of innovation.”  I had mixed feelings about that.   I’m sure for Jack, a traditional biology class did feel stifling.  For a child with a homemade particle accelerator in his basement, a 50 minute per day period must be constraining.  And it would be amazing if every child had the opportunities that he did, with a family that had the time and ability to support his investigations.  At the same time, not every child is successful with a pure inquiry, go-where-your-wondering-takes-you approach.

I’m glad Jack found the support he needed to succeed.  And in later articles, there are plenty of positive scenes about his school, and in particular, his science classes.  But I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy for his high school biology teacher, who is probably working hard to provide the best, most inspiring class, that he or she can.

Community and Democracy

10 Feb

A Year at Mission Hill, a ten part video series that was produced by Sam Chaltain, chronicles a year in the life of a successful Boston public  pilot school.  The school was started by Deborah Meier (of Central Park East Schools and McArthur “genius” award fame), and value community and democratic values on par with academic achievement.

Way back in my undergraduate days, I took a course called “The History of Education in America.”  The course was dry and dusty, with a professor who liked to talk in a slow and monotone cadence for three hours, but I found the material fascinating.

Education in America, originally, was about educating citizens.  It was about creating an electorate who could run this newly democratic society and make educated, informed, decisions.  Of course, that was when “electorate” meant “white, property owning males,” so it wasn’t exactly utopia, but it feels like we’ve lost much of those original values of schooling.

Along the way, education became about economics and stratification rather than citizenry.  As schooling became the pathway to higher wages and professional jobs, the upper middle class demanded more schooling to keep themselves in the “elite” category.  We think of education as the great equalizer–education is a pathway for success for all citizens, rich or poor, immigrant or native born.  The reality though, is that educational demands often keep everyone in exactly the same strata to which they were born.  The meaning of “well educated” has progressed from high school diploma, to college degree, to post-collegiate work.  America is educated for more of its citizenry than we did 100 years ago, but we also demand a much higher level of education to consider our children successful.  The carrot is moving ever farther away.

Which brings me back to Mission Hill.  Besides what seems to be a caring, and attentive school, what Mission Hill has brought back is the sense of education for democracy, education for citizenship.  The school is a community where teachers, parents, and students, have a say.  The curriculum is geared towards the idea of participation, in terms of thinking and doing.  It’s a nice change.


Do You Speak Math?

4 Feb

You can always count on Calvin and Hobbes to illustrate  how mystifying some schoolwork can be to children.  Take this one on math:


Math truly is another language for children.  If your kids are English learners, it can feel like a double whammy–new math words, explained in a difficult language.

My first few years of teaching, I dealt with math vocabulary by ignoring it.  Denominators became “the bottom number” of fractions, the word “quotient” was nonexistent.  I thought I was making math accessible, but I was really denying my students any chance of becoming mathematically literate.

Now, I make sure I use the official terms in every lesson.  My class is comfortable using official terms when they talk about math.  I feel pretty confident in how I’m incorporating vocabulary into the subject.

Sort of.

But math talks need some more work in my room, as illustrated by a recent test on fractions, when multiple students weren’t sure what “equivalent fraction” meant.  We’d been using the word in lessons, it had been an official “word of the week,” and I thought it was one of the clearer terms (it has the word equal in it!).

What I was reminded of, is that me saying the word, or even having students repeat the word and use it in a sentence, isn’t enough for full comprehension.  Children need to say, read, and write words in context to help them solidify their understanding.  Even better, they need to make connections between words.

There are some graphic organizers and activities that can help children to make these connections.  Some of these I was already familiar with, and some I found after some research.

The Frayer model is one organizer I’ve mentioned before:

Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 7.17.11 PM

You can also use a Venn Diagram for making connections in math:

Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 7.16.55 PM

Or a web:

Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 7.17.52 PM

Or concept circles:
Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 7.21.32 PM

These organizer examples are available at this PDF site, along with blackline masters that you can print.

These organizers all help children to understand how vocabulary words are related and organized.  You can also get a lot of bang for your buck just by asking children to write how they solved a problem, using vocabulary words and some friendly sentence frames.  For example, I asked students to write how they knew that one fraction was larger than another during a compare and contrast lesson.  They could pick from a word bank of words, “greater than, less than, numerator, denominator, half.”  It was a challenge for many, but when they wrote, “I know 3/5 is greater than 2/8, because 3/5 is more than half, and 2/8 is less than half” I could tell they had a firm understanding of fraction size.

Choice Words: How You Say Something Matters

3 Feb

Let’s go back to my post a week ago about growth mindset and agency.  People who feel like intelligence is malleable and can increase are more likely to choose and persevere at difficult tasks than people who feel like intelligence is fixed.  Add on to that some theories on agency–that people with a high sense of agency attribute success to their own hard work and people with a low sense of agency attribute success to luck–and you have the makings for two very different kinds of learners.

Adults can help children develop a growth mindset in how we talk to them, and we can also help them to develop an “internal locus of control,” or high sense of self-agency.  Nancy Frey and Doug Fisher wrote a nice article that articulates some of the ways we can praise and question children to help develop these skills.

They’re simple techniques, but they can feel awkward to implement the first few (or ten) times that you try them.  It’s not the way most of us experienced praise or reinforcement growing up.  You’ll also have the experience of asking a child, “Wow, I see you persevered even when it was difficult.  How did you do that?” and they’ll stare at you blankly and say, “I don’t know…” but it’s new for them too.  After a while, if you keep at it (and teach in to ways we can persevere, or be kind, or try strategies, etc) kids will grow more metacognitive and be able to respond with some thoughts about how or why they were successful.




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