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Friday, March 29, 2013

Can All Kids Learn to Think Critically?

There is no doubt in my mind that there is a special place for all teachers who adapt class activities so that their students can achieve and learn about complex topics.  I am not talking about dumbing down the work, or giving them the answers so they can pass the test, but actually adapting content or delivery, not to lower the bar, but to raise the bar.
Raising the bar goes both ways
There was an interesting discussion on the AASA discussion group on linkedin….”We talk about raising the bar for kids, do you do the same for your staff?” linked to the TregoED leadership blog.   A lot of the points brought out in this blog on staff performance also apply to our students.  Are we creating an environment of support?  Are our expectations clear?  What feedback do we give them?  The blog stated that in the workplace “Only 15% of the time is the problem (poor performance) due to an individual not having the skills, knowledge or capacity to do the job.”  Could that percentage also be applied to the students in our classrooms?
All children can think critically
I do a lot of workshops for middle and high school teachers, there is always an elementary teacher who sneaks in and asks if I think that her kids can use SCAN (a critical thinking strategy embedded in an online tool at TregoED) or other internet tools.  I have to say, if there is a will there is a way!  Many of these teachers take the time to build an environment of support and do amazing critical thinking activities with their students by altering the content, delivery and assessments.  I have written about some of their work in past blogs – The students who did a SCAN session on graffiti in her 5th grade class, the NYC 4th and 5th graders who wrote PSA’s on child labor, or the special ED class in NC that did a full Situation Appraisal on bullying. 
Ask the right questions
Each of those groups tackled very complex topics by looking at the different perspectives that could be viewed on the topic and the particular issues that each point of view might be concerned with.  Being able to identify, explore and appreciate different perspectives is a great way to get kids thinking critically.  They can do it, you just have to ask them the right questions!
One size fits all
Douglass Green asked in the AASA discussion, if the bar was “one size fits all” – suggesting that it should not be for either staff or students (acknowledging of course that high stakes testing is in fact “one size fits all.”)  Does raising the bar mean everyone has to reach the same height? How do you ask your students to stretch their thinking?  

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Give Your Teachers a Hall Pass

I had the opportunity to sit in on some great leadership development workshops last week.  They were taught by a master and the room was filled with bright, engaged administrators.  I could not help but think about how wonderful it was that their district had invested in this time for them to train and work together.  It was a great experience to watch them all, both presenter and participants,  at work.
It got me thinking (here I go again) that there are also great benefits of watching our colleagues at work in the classroom.  I thought about the times that I had sat in on other teacher’s classes (usually because I was fixing their printers) and marveled at some of the techniques they used, how the kids reacted and what they were teaching.  It was eye opening and I was amazed at what went on in other teachers’ classes.

Observation Open Houses
I mentioned this potential value in a twitter chat last night (#NJED) on PD (which someone pointed out should be just called learning and not be relegated to just a time period) and Dan Layton (@danlayton2) mentioned “Observation Open Houses.”  How cool does that sound?  He tweeted that you “gather teachers with similar goals, get subs for them, let them watch each other, have lunch and discuss the way to implement” (another great example of a 120 character tweet that can change a practice in a school).  That sounds like a powerful  idea on two levels:
1.  Besides the teaching pedagogy and the content (both very important), you get to see the other teacher’s routines and structures, set up, transitions, etc.
2.  You may get to see some of your students in a different light – different teacher, different peers and different subject area may allow you to get some insights as to what sparks that child.
      Get a Hall Pass!
There is no doubt that you can learn something just walking across the hall in your school.  Imagine if that learning was focused and intentional?  I have certainly learned from many teachers, administrators and presenters over the years.  Some have had immediate impact on what I do and how I do it. 
What has your experience been?  Are you given the opportunity to observe your peers at work?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Students' Rights: Great Cases to Get Them Thinking

Want them to write?  Find their passion.
I was recently involved in a #njed twitter chat on BYOD.  A large group of people enthusiastically contributed their experiences and points of view on how a successful BYOD program might look and run and some of the benefits and disadvantages of having students bring in their own devices.  I noticed that there was a student involved in the discussion (how cool is that!) and when asked how she felt about students bringing in their own devices, she responded that”…students who have the devices should have the right to bring their own devices…”
There were two things that were very cool about this whole discussion and her being involved - # 1 she was participating in a great real life authentic critical thinking activity as an equal with adults (how cool is that?) and #2 she was passionate enough to write what she believed to be students’ rights.
That is what I love about young people.  They are very clear and very passionate about their rights!  As we all are!
Try to see it my way…
This passion is something that we as teachers can harness to get kids thinking and writing.  Isn't that what we are trying to do with the CCSS focus on argumentative writing-get students reading nonfiction material from several reliable sources to put together a coherent argument?  This becomes a much easier task when you have (or they have) selected a topic that they care about – whether it be their privacy, rights, or their cell phones! 
Do you own your phone?
The Bill of Rights Institute has a great lesson, Unlocking your Cell Phone – Property Rights in the Digital Age,  complete with downloadable student pages that sets up the issue, gives resources from different perspectives and great critical thinking questions surrounding the recent court decision that makes it against the law to unlock your cell phone so you can utilize another carrier.  Check out these resources that they provide:
A Right to Unlock Cellphones Fades Away
Date: 1/25/13
Source: NY Times
FCC To Investigate Cell Phone Unlocking Ban
Date: 2/28/13
Source: TechCrunch
What’s really happening with unlocked devices
Date: 1/26/13
Source: CTIA Blog

Beyond the Cell Phone
 It turns out there are a lot of good cases, past and present, that our students may be interested in.  Why not have them select one, do a little research and develop an argument for or against the rulings?
Can the principal search the texts and pictures in your cell phone?  And punish you for what they find?
I think that students would find the article on this case relevant and interesting to them.
Have them look at one of these lists and choose which case interests:
Have them look at some of these older cases with some of these interesting examples :
Can a student wear medieval garb for his yearbook picture?
Distribute an alternative newspaper?
Have a grade reduced due to an unexpected absence?
Have them look into some cases focused on students’ rights to free speech.

Using court cases involving their peers can make work relevant, stir their passions, allow them to develop arguments, see different perspectives and learn about their own civil rights.  Seems like a great way to get kids thinking!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Simple Reading Sparks Critical Thinking

I love when all the Cat in the Hat hats come out for Read Across America!  I find myself reciting those Dr. Seuss books….”One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish, this one has a little star, this one has a little car, my what a lot of fish there are!”  “I do not like them Sam I am, I do not like green eggs and ham.”  Funny how those words stick in my brain, while so many others seem to just bounce off!  Dr. Seuss wrote great books to help get kids reading AND they often had a message to get kids thinking.  Why not use those books as a springboard for some great critical thinking?
Here are some resources and ideas:
Developing Questions
As usual, Read,Write has a great 4 day lesson, Seuss and Silverstein:  Posing Questions, Presenting Points, which has students developing their own critical thinking questions and leading class discussion on stories from those authors.   They point out that simple books from Dr. Seuss may address complex themes.
Teaching Philosophy
In my never ending quest not to re-invent the wheel, I found some great philosophical questions about the nature of pride and the nature of compromise for “The Zax”, in this wiki about teaching children philosophy.  There are also some critical thinking discussion questions for “The Sneetches”, about   the nature of prejudice and the nature of differences. includes some great critical thinking questions based on The Lorax which deals with environmental issues.
Writing with Deeper Meanings
Older students might like to take a look at “The Political Dr. Seuss” to see how he started his career in political cartoons and wrote most of his books with a political agenda.  From there  they can pick a political issue and sketch out a children’s story that would illustrate that issue.  They might also find interesting (I did) “10 Stories behind Dr. Seuss Stories” – Did you know that the story “Yertle the Tertle” was about Hitler and that it was controversial, not because of the Hitler connection, but because the turtle burped in the story!  Or that Green Eggs and Ham was written with just fifty words?  Sounds like a great challenge to give any student! (You might want to have them look at some of these 6 Word Stories or have them write their own!
Simple stories can have complex meanings, stimulate critical thinking and be used as reading and writing springboards.  
Do you use simple stories in your classroom?  Please share!