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How to Pass the Marshmallow Test

3 Oct

Have you heard of the marshmallow test? Psychologist Walter Mischel placed a single marhsmallow in front of 4 and 5 year olds. The kids were told they could eat the marshmallow, but if they waited, the researcher gave them a second.  The test measured willpower and self-control in a fairly literal way – it put something of huge temptation in front of the children and then told them not to give in.

Only 30% of the children succeeded in resisting the marshmallow.  That gooey fluff ball was just too enticing.  You could see the grimaces on their faces as they were attempting to avoid eating it–they poked it, licked it, or just bit off a very tiny piece in their attempts to wait.  They knew waiting was the better choice.  But they just couldn’t help themselves.

We all face marshmallow tests each day, and we fail a lot of them.  Do you ever use your cell phone when driving?  I do.  Stop lights are just so BORING, one little email check (one little taste of the marshmallow) won’t really hurt.

Have you ever cheated on a test?  I have.  I didn’t know the answer, the other paper was right there, and I swear to god my eyes just moved on their own.  It’s like a tractor beam pulled them over to the side.

We know all of these things are bad choices when we do them, but our willpower falls flat shockingly quickly.

What makes these scenarios very difficult is that the temptation to do wrong is right in front of us.  We have to exert a lot of mental energy to keep on the straight narrow.  There’s a common misconception that willpower is somehow connected to virtue, that our ability to will ourselves to do what’s right shows how worthy we are (which must go all the way back to our puritan-work-ethic-predestination days.)  Research has actually shown us over and over that willpower is a limited resource, it’s like a muscle that gets tired over time.  So it’s actually a bit of self sabotage to put temptation right in front of us and then try to avoid it.

Children who did succeed at the marshmallow test used some creative strategies. Some hid their eyes in their hands. Some turned their chairs around so they were no longer facing the mallow. These children instinctively knew that trying to do right simply through the force of willpower was extremely difficult. Far easier to lessen the strain of the task, by providing distraction or creating a barrier between you and whatever it is you don’t want to be doing.

Adults do this too, sometimes in strange ways.  Ever seen someone pour water and salt on their desert in a restaurant?  It looks disgusting, but it’s a way to reduce the need for willpower.  So is giving that food to your friend instead, or asking the waiter to box up half of it during the meal before you start eating.

It’s also important to note that stress is in direct competition with willpower–the more stressed we are, the harder it is to find our self-control.  So the last place we want to have to exert self-control is when we’re frazzled or anxious.  That’s why it’s tough to avoid those m&m’s in front of you while you’re working towards a tough deadline, or to have a difficult conversation with your spouse in a calm, rational manner, after the baby’s been up all night screaming.

Similarly, if we put a child in a stressful situation, it’s hard for them to have the willpower to do right.  For example, when we pass out a difficult test and then say, “don’t look at your neighbor’s paper,” we’ve just created a situation that requires extra discipline and self-control.

We can lesson the need for willpower through simple physical steps.  I don’t use my phone while driving when it’s in my purse, on the floor of the car, out of sight and hard to get to.  Bringing gym clothes in the car, so I don’t have to go home and then will myself to go out again, helps lesson the amount of willpower I need to exercise.

Privacy dividers lower the mental strain on students of not cheating.  Now that it’s not only sheer force of will stopping them from seeing their neighbor’s answers, students can spend more of their energy thinking about their work.

We’ll all fail the marshmallow test at some point.  But we can set ourselves up for more success if we create conditions that lower the amount of self-control we need in a situation, so that we slide into the better choice rather than hauling ourselves, painful step after painful step, there.

How Controversial Should Classrooms Get?

10 Jun

It’s hard to imagine anyone protesting the teaching of Lovings vs. Virginia, the landmark supreme court case that struck down the law making it illegal for people classified as “white” and “colored” to marry each other.  It’s a historical event that marked a major step forward in the civil rights movement and the idea that marriage was a “fundamental right” for people that could not be revoked.

But what if a classroom talked about Harvey Milk, the gay rights advocate who was assassinated 11 months after being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.  That might be far more controversial.

Part of the role of public education is to create an informed citizenry, one educated not just in math and science and history, but in ethics and morals.  That can cause conflict with parents and families, especially if their beliefs don’t match those of the educators or school.  This conflict comes up again and again in education, such as the abstinence vs. safe-sex controversy, or debate about what the second amendment really means, or evolution vs. creationism.  What constitutes a subject that teachers should take on, and when do they overstep their boundaries?

Roy and Silo are two male penguins who raise a chick, Tango, together.

Roy and Silo are two male penguins who raise a chick, Tango, together.

The trouble is that the line is different for everyone.  Case in point: And Tango Makes Three, a nonfiction story about two male penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo who formed a couple and were given an egg to raise, has topped the list of banned books for years.  Critics argue that it promotes the idea that homosexuality in animals is normal, and thus acceptable in humans.  Some schools have banned the book outright, or moved it to restricted sections of their library where only parents can check a text out.  On the other hand, supporters of the book say it shouldn’t be censored because it’s telling a true story, and it supports the idea of strong family bonds.

One way we to look at potentially controversial topics is through the lens of tolerance.  Schools have a responsibility to keep students safe–emotionally as well as physically–and part of that responsibility is played out in how we treat one another.  From kindergarten through high school, we teach children that you have a duty to be kind and respectful to all people, whether you like and agree with them or not.  Books like And Tango Makes Three help promote tolerance.  All schools have children who live in alternative families–two dads or two moms, grandparents as the primary caregivers, single father, etc.  It’s important that those students both feel connected to school and that other children are respectful of their home lives.

The hot-button issues may change, but the question of what schools should teach our children will remain controversial.  And teachers shouldn’t have total freedom in what they teach–just look at what happened in a 4th grade science class when this teacher was allowed to impose his or her own views:


But for some controversial topics, we should look at the outcome of education and say, “Will this lead to a more tolerant and kinder classroom and school?” If the answer is yes, let that be our guide.

Evaluating Performance When You Don’t Work With Widgets

31 May

teacherEvaluationChecklistA student is not a widget.  They don’t come down an assembly line, perfect duplicates of each other, and they don’t live in neutral environments, so we can’t approach them all the same way.  Calls to evaluate teachers on their students’ outcomes are problematic because they assume that a strong enough teacher can combat all negative influences–poverty, hunger, lack of school resources, parental education level, etc.  The idea that teachers alone can be the deciding influence on a child’s success–positive or negative–is frankly ridiculous.

At the same time, we want all students to experience a high degree of learning and educational success, despite their disparate backgrounds and personalities.  How do we hold fast to the belief that all students can achieve, but not punish teachers who work with the neediest and most difficult populations?

Ben Spielberg, a math coach in San Jose Unified, suggests we focus on inputs rather than outputs.  Teachers can’t control what their students come to them with, but they can control how they respond.  A teacher’s use of high leverage teaching practices can be observed and evaluated more fairly than whether or not their student scored proficient or advanced on a state test.  Spielberg uses Nate Silver’s example of poker players–they can only control how they play with the cards dealt, not what cards they get–as an example.  A poker players goal is to get the best outcome possible with the hand they are dealt–which doesn’t mean they will automatically win the tournament.

I’d also add that it’s tricky to know what a best teaching practice is.  You can find research to support essentially every kind of teaching there is–whole class direct instruction, small groups, project-based learning, etc.  One study will find that program produced MIRACULOUS results, and the next study will report it being a complete failure.

What most of these studies fail to investigate is the level of proficiency a teacher displays.  For example, the workshop style of teaching, where teachers teach a short lesson and then spend the majority of class time working with small groups or individual students, allows teachers to differentiate for different children and builds in a high level of engagement.  It incorporates assessment, differentiation, direct instruction and modeling–all high leverage teaching practices.  However, workshop done poorly results in a chaotic classroom with low levels of performance and achievement.

Tim Shanahan, a professor emeritus of urban education at the University of Chicago, recommends organizing instruction around learning goals rather than activities, which would be a step towards solving the “what is a best practice?” problem.  Instead of instruction being decided by a specific curriculum or philosophy, it would be decided by what a child needs.  So, for example, if a child needs comprehension work, you might choose a different learning activity than if a child needs decoding practice.

To the outside observer, this might look obvious.  But to a profession that has been inundated with “Fix-it” programs that might design a day like this:

  • 10 minutes of choral reading for fluency
  • 15 minutes of direct vocabulary instruction
  • 5 minutes of phonics review
  • 20 minutes of silent reading

…and so on, the idea that we base what we teach around student needs rather than a group of activities is revolutionary.

This, incidentally, seems like the heart of best teaching practices–using observation and assessment data to determine needs, and then basing your teaching moves on those needs–rather than following a specific program.

So what if we evaluated teachers on their inputs instead of their outputs? In other words, what if we judged people based on what they have control over, versus random variables?  Of course we want to make sure those inputs lead to positive outcomes.  We want to make sure our best teaching practices correlate with student growth.  But I’d like to see teachers graded on what they do, not on what they are given.


Teaching Character Analysis Through Disney’s “Frozen”

10 Apr

I finally watched Frozen last week.  After having my fourth grade students repeatedly sing and dance to Let it Go at every lunch, I had to see if it lived up to its hype.

It was pretty cute, I enjoyed it.  My husband, who usually hates musicals, won’t stop imitating Olaf (should I be worried that he identifies most with the talking snowman?) and he actually watched the Youtube version of Let it Go where singers from different countries are dubbing the song in their own language.

So it really has a broad appeal.   But enough of the free Disney advertising–how can we capitalize on Frozen‘s popularity to teach kids some complex literary analysis skills?

Frozen is practically shouting for us to do some character analysis.  So many of the character’s outsides (looks and actions) contradict their insides (thoughts and feelings).  Just read the character descriptions from Disney

  • Elsa – From the outside, Elsa looks poised, regal, and reserved, but in reality, she lives in fear as she wrestles with a mighty secret.
  • The Duke of Weselton – What he lacks in stature, he makes up for in arrogance and boasting.

Queen looks confident and mature, but she’s actually lonely and frightened.  The Duke of Weselton acts like he has power and influence, but there’s not much evidence he actually does in the film.  Plus his small physical presence makes his oversized ego all the more ridiculous. Not to mention Prince Hans, whose good looks and Prince Charming manners hide an inner villainy.

Students in upper elementary reading levels need to start recognizing that what a character says doesn’t always match what he or she is really thinking or feeling.  They need to be on the lookout for inconsistencies in what they know about a character, and then evaluate what they think the real truth is.  Frozen is a perfect opportunity to do some of this analysis using exaggerated characters and events, before students move on to more subtle literature.

How can we help them see the contrast? We could do a simple three column chart, with character appearance, actions, and thoughts/feelings in each column.

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 8.10.50 PM

If your students need something more visually concrete, you can create “inside/outside” pictures, which contrast what a character looks like on the outside, with what they might look like if it reflected their inside.  Disney actually has the perfect model with Elsa.  Contrast her appearance in the beginning, when she’s feeling isolated and repressed

Elsa’s coronation [Frozen] by DarikaArt from Flickr

to how she’s portrayed when she decides to revel in her abilities. from Flickr from Flickr

I can imagine students coming up with amazing posters, like this (with adjectives at the bottom to help them use more specific, true words in their discussions and writing):


Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 8.29.40 PM

It could be a lot of fun, and it’s an accessible way to introduce students to some of the more complex character work we want them to dive into.

Preschool is too late: how families can alleviate the word gap

5 Apr

The news that children of low income families have often developed a significant word gap by age three when compared to their wealthier peers brings up the role of the family.  Parents and caregivers matter.  A lot.  Just like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone started with baby college–or school on how to be a parent–helping all children to reach their full potential needs to involve the family.

Let’s look at Hart and Risley’s three key findings.

1. The variation in children’s language abilities is relative to the amount parents speak to their children.

2. Children’s academic successes at ages nine and ten are attributable to the amount of talk they hear from birth to age three.

3. Parents of advanced children talk significantly more to their children than parents of children who are not as advanced.


Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. “The Early Catastrophe” (2004). Education Review, 77 (1), 100-118.


Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. “The Early Catastrophe” (2004). Education Review, 77 (1), 100-118.

There’s not a lot of room for interpretation here.  Oral language interaction impacts children’s language, literacy, and even their IQ scores.  Studies also point out that this language interaction begins from birth–parents respond to their infant’s noises by cooing and making nonsense noises back.  You don’t have to wait for a child to start talking to begin to develop their language centers.  This is surprising news for some, and as a new parent I can see why.  When a baby is barely tracking you with her eyes, it’s hard to imagine that she’s processing any part of what you’re saying!

Parent education and training is important.  While studying child-directed speech, Meredith Rowe, an assistant professor from the University of Maryland, found that “the relation between socioeconomic status and child-directed speech was mediated by parental knowledge of child development.” In other words, low-income mothers didn’t talk as much to their children because they didn’t know it was important, whereas middle and upper middle class mothers were more likely to be informed about the latest in child-development research and respond accordingly.

How to help inform parents?  It’s a tough challenge.  LENA (language environment analysis) provides a pocket recorder that sits in a child’s clothing and records their language interactions over the course of the day.

0000192_300The tool has proved to be a powerful motivator for families.  Just seeing the print-out each day creates an increase in language directed at a child, because parents of non-judgemental, visual data of what they are saying.  LENA functions a lot like a fitbit–just knowing how many steps you take (or words you say) motivates you to do more the next day.

Providence, Rhode Island is also beginning a new program about creating family conversations, where home visitors will work with families to create more verbal interactions with their children.  The will visit families once per month, review the LENA data, teach families strategies for increasing verbal interactions with their children, such as how to read a book together, or tell your child about your day, and then set goals with the family for the next month.

With children’s language centers developing from birth, early intervention with those who spend the most time with a child is key.



TCRWP Ideas for Teaching Into Higher Level Comprehension

5 Oct

Poking around the TCRWP site I found this collection of videos aimed at helping teachers work on higher level comprehension.

They’re all worth investigating, but the last video, of Mary Ehrenworth presenting to school leaders, gives ideas after idea for how teachers can address the Common Core reading standards that focus on higher level comprehension.  I struggle sometimes to figure out how to break down some of these complex standards for students, and teach them in a concrete way, and the way Mary presents each cluster of standards using current books kids are reading (like The Lightening Thief and Twilight) brings them to life.

Some ideas she shared that resonated were:

  • Look at themes from books and think, what other books have these themes?  For example, in Because of Winn Dixie, we see that one child can change a town and community.  Read that book in conjunction with a book like Freedom Summer or Wringer, or Hoot.  Tease apart how the characters and themes are similar, and different.
  • Around minute 20 she begins to address literary traditions.  The idea that Harry Potter connects to Narnia, which connects to Lord of the Rings.   Or that Twilight is really a modern, vampire-influenced Romeo and Juliet.  Children can look at a book as being a part of a literary tradition and again compare and contrast how the book carries on traditional themes and plots, and how it subverts them.
  • Series, especially series at around a 5th and above reading level, allow readers to synthesize over hundreds of pages and see characters change.  Artemis Fowl is a fantastic fantasy series for seeing a character develop.  Katniss approaches the second Hunger Games differently than the first.
  • Finally, at the end, Mary puts all the ways of thinking about books together to analyze Brave Irene with the group.  It’s always fun to see how you can do this kind of deep thinking work with picture books that every student can access!

Predicting Based on Characters’ Past Actions

5 Oct

By fourth grade, students are often proficient at making predictions about what will happen at the end of a book-general thoughts like, “the hero will defeat the bad guy,” or “she’ll make the team and help win the game,” based on how books usually go.  That is, they understand that their characters will go through hardships and triumph in the end.  What they aren’t as used to is making small predictions–close predictions–thinking about  how a character might respond to the next big event or interaction based on how that character has responded in the past.

The BBC’s Teaching English channel has a lesson that uses Mr. Bean to teach prediction that can help launch this kind of thinking.  Mr. Bean is a great character to use for prediction work, because he has a very clear M.O.  He tries to solve his problems in ways that fix the immediate issues, but miss the main point.  For example, in the short clip, “Packing for a Holiday,” Mr. Bean manages to fit everything in a suitcase, but he does so by making the items useless, like packing only half a shoe.

We watched about half of the clip, and then we began to stop to predict how Mr. Bean would solve his next problem.  After watching him squirt out half his toothpaste and pack just one shoe, students were eager to predict how he would ruin his pants to fit them.  “He’ll cut just one leg off, to match his one shoe!” some offered, while others thought he’d cut them off at the knees.  Everyone agreed he wouldn’t choose to just fold them.

When we got to the moment where he thinks about his teddy bear, we had a new twist.  A surprising number of a students (about a third) were familiar with Mr. Bean already.  They offered the insight that he really loved his teddy bear–he thought of it as a friend and person.  So we posed the question: if Mr. Bean tends to ruin things when packing them, but he really loves his bear, how will he handle packing the bear?  Now we had two pieces of information to take into account when predicting what he would do next.

“He’ll cut the bear open, take out the stuffing like surgery, and then later sew him back together,” offered one student.

Another suggested, “I think he’ll keep just the head, because that’s what’s important.”

“He’ll stuff the bear under his shirt instead of packing it so he can keep the whole bear, but it will look silly,” said a third.

Mr. Bean eventually chooses to just pack his whole bear, but we stopped to think about the idea that sometimes you have multiple sources of information about a character that you have to take into account when making a prediction–not just past actions, but past thoughts and feelings.

We ended with the idea that just like they used everything they learned about Mr. Bean to make predictions about what he would do next, as readers we constantly used everything we knew about characters–their past actions, thoughts and feelings–to predict how they might react to the next event or problem in their story.

There’s actually an entire channel devoted to Mr. Bean on YouTube, and I can imagine a lot of gems for teaching tucked away in the clips!



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