“A smartphone is the world in your palm, but it is also a tyrant.”
Penny Kittle in “Let Them Read, Please” in Educational Leadership, February 2020
(Vol. 77, #5, pp. 77-81), for ASCD members or purchase at https://bit.ly/38C6DR8
“Once educators are freed from defensiveness and realize that no one is questioning their intentions, they can engage in the daily work necessary to ensure students of color are consistently treated fairly and with respect, high expectations, and dignity.”
Sarah Fiarman and Tracey Benson (see item #1)
“It is futile for school leaders to seek ‘balance’ or ‘science’ in an approach to reading instruction in the current market because both have been commodified as branded symbols of one side of the reading debate or the other.”
Rachael Gabriel (see item #6)
“Reading is more than mechanics, of course. It’s a venture of the heart and spirit as well. The wrong mix, proportion, or order of attention to brain, heart, and spirit will, for some learners, make things go awry.”
Carol Ann Tomlinson (see item #3)
“Imposing a consistent daily instructional block devoted to literacy sounds rigorous. But what would really be rigorous is if we maximized the amount of daily reading instruction – not worrying too much about when it was delivered or whether it all took place at the same time of day.”
Timothy Shanahan (see item #4)
In this article in School Administrator, leadership consultant Sarah Fiarman and Tracey Benson (University of North Carolina/Charlotte) share uncomfortable moments they experienced as school leaders. Benson, who is African-American, got pushback from an all-white middle-school staff when he presented data showing stark racial disparities in student achievement. “Are you saying we’re racist?” one educator asked, leading Benson to back off and adopt an indirect approach on racial issues in the school. Fiarman describes avoiding discussions about race and racism as a new principal, worried that she would make a mistake and lose credibility “as a good white person fighting for social justice.”
After leaving school leadership positions and beginning to consult in schools, Fiarman and Benson found that uncomfortable moments like these are quite common. “White people fear being called racist and education leaders fear the consequences of that reaction,” they say. “Most of us are stuck in what we’ve come to understand as a binary view of racism… On one side are racists who are bad people with malicious feelings toward people of color, and on the other side are people with good intentions who are therefore nonracists. Within this bad racist/good nonracist binary mindset, racism is something you can choose to be exempt from.”
But research has established that almost all Americans have unconscious racial bias, say Fiarman and Benson, and it influences daily interactions in schools: “who gets called on or gets probed for deeper thinking, who is chosen for a special job or recommended for honors or pushed to improve further in written and oral responses. Bias also influences who is reprimanded more often and who is denied empathetic listening or a second chance.” These small daily events accumulate over weeks, months, and years, profoundly affecting the experience of students of color and also perpetuating biases in white students.
Understanding the pervasiveness of unconscious bias – often counter to our espoused values – is key to reducing racial disparities in schools, say Fiarman and Benson: “Once educators are freed from defensiveness and realize that no one is questioning their intentions, they can engage in the daily work necessary to ensure students of color are consistently treated fairly and with respect, high expectations, and dignity.” They believe that two high-leverage steps by school leaders can make all the difference:
• Normalizing conversations about race and bias. “Few educators in the United States have experience talking about race and racial bias in mixed-race settings,” say Fiarman and Benson. “Many white people don’t have experience talking about or recognizing the impact of their racial identity at all, and some white people still mistakenly subscribe to a colorblind approach.” Everyone needs practice, and leaders should work to create a safe space for these conversations. One caution: too often educators of color are called on to lead this work, which is unfair and emotionally taxing for them.
• Gathering evidence of impact. Effective school leaders “understand that the issue is not whether racial bias impacts their students but where and how,” say Fiarman and Benson. “As a result, they regularly collect, disaggregate, and analyze data. They model taking responsibility for results by asking, ‘What is the learning experience of students of color in my district? How do I know? What do we need to change in our practice in order to get better results? How will we know whether the change is an improvement?’”
In this article in School Administrator, Muhammad Khalifa (University of Minnesota) remembers with regret how he absorbed certain attitudes when he was a young teacher in Detroit: “Despite being a black man from a socially conscious family, I was guilty of holding a deficit view of black students (and others who are marginalized). When colleagues attributed students’ acting out in class or spoke of apathetic and angry parents, I began to espouse those views.” Maturing as an educator, he learned more about the historical context, and by the time he was a central-office leader, a parent, and a professor, he knew the leadership practices that would turn around old attitudes.
Khalifa had the chance to observe Joe Dulin, an Ann Arbor high-school principal, over two school years. “I was awed by his ability to connect with and encourage students about their college plans while allowing them to retain their community-based identities,” says Khalifa. “Whenever he spoke to teachers, parents, and students, he asked for feedback.” Here were some of Dulin’s attributes:
(Originally titled “Invitations to Read”)
In this Educational Leadership article, differentiation guru Carol Ann Tomlinson (University of Virginia/Charlottesville) says learning to read involves:
“Planning Effective Reading Instruction When You’re Up to Your Neck in 6-Year-Olds” by Timothy Shanahan in Educational Leadership, February 2020 (Vol. 77, #5, pp. 62-67),
In this School Library Journal article, Wayne D’Orio says that a 1946 textbook by Emmett Betts first put forward the idea that students learn best when they read materials at their current reading level. This is usually measured by whether the student knows 95 percent of the words in a text and gets 75-80 percent of comprehension questions correct. “Part of the appeal of matching readers to books on their level,” says D’Orio, “is that it seems like common sense, a Goldilocks fit. Students don’t get frustrated, and they are also more challenged than they would be by a book below their level. It also makes things easy: Teachers and parents don’t need to know all about a book or a student’s likes to suggest a match.”
Betts’s research and other studies encouraged educators and publishers to embrace the idea of matching students with “just right” materials, as measured by the Fountas/Pinnell, Lexile, Accelerated Reader, and other scales of reading difficulty. For example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is at Level V on the F&P scale, 880 Lexile, and 12 AR – appropriate for fifth or sixth graders.
Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan accepted this approach when he was a first-grade teacher, and later taught leveled reading as a college professor. But when he discovered that the research underpinnings of the theory were weak, he became a vocal critic. Here are some of the concerns that he and others have raised:
• Lack of agreement across scales – Although the Harry Potter book mentioned above is in the same ballpark on F&P, Lexile, and AR, other books have widely different levels – for example, Twilight is Level Z+ on F&P (high school) and 720 on Lexile (second or third grade).
• Plateauing – Teachers who don’t assess students often enough may keep students with lower-level material when they could handle something more challenging. Reading expert Paula Schwanenflugel calls this “educational malpractice.”
• Missing factors – Students who are passionate about a subject (baking, skateboarding, World War II) can read books above their level. Especially with strong readers, books’ levels are not what educators and families should worry about.
• Labeling and ranking – Pigeonholing students at particular levels can limit their options when browsing for books, and affect their self-concepts as readers. “When kids come from schools that are highly leveled, they don’t know how to choose a book,” says Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer. “This is a teacher’s tool, not a child’s level.” Fountas and Pinnell agree [see their articles summarized in Marshall Memos 714 and 771].
• The benefits of “desirable difficulty” – A 2010 study (backed up by other research) found that students reading materials two years above their current level made more progress than students with “just right” materials (and also those working with materials four years above their level). Of course scaffolding and support from teachers, librarians, and family members is important when students tackle difficult texts.
• Acceleration – Students who are below level need to catch up, and pushing them a bit beyond their current level seems to work.
• Fluency, confidence, and practice – Reading material below their level can be helpful, but in leveled classrooms and libraries, students may believe it’s not okay to “read down.”
• Variety – Shanahan says athletic training offers a useful analogy: runners, for example, take short and long runs and work out with weights. “Kids should read a wide range of texts…” he says. “They should read easy books to things that kick their butt. The variation of difficulty does matter.”
If librarians are asked to level and label their collections, Miller advises the following approach with administrators: “Here’s the research informing my decision not to level the school library. I know you want research-based practices in the school.” He suggests this American Library Association link as a resource: www.bit.ly/2T5SAOP.
“Where Did Leveling Go Wrong?” by Wayne D’Orio in School Library Journal, February 2020 (Vol. 66, #2, pp. 22-24), https://bit.ly/31XWFHr
(Originally titled “Leadership for Literacy”)
“It is futile for school leaders to seek ‘balance’ or ‘science’ in an approach to reading instruction in the current market because both have been commodified as branded symbols of one side of the reading debate or the other,” says Rachael Gabriel (University of Connecticut) in this Educational Leadership article. Nonetheless, she believes well-chosen questions can guide principals and their leadership teams as they observe instruction and work with colleagues. “Leaders do not need to have all the answers about literacy instruction across grades and content areas,” she says, “if they have the right questions.”
• Are students reading, writing, and talking in every period of every day? This is just as important in math, science, social studies, and the arts as it is for ELA, says Gabriel: “Even if students may seem to grasp a concept in a lab or during an assignment, without written or oral language attached to this emerging understanding they will not be able to demonstrate their knowledge to anyone who is not present to see them at work. They are also unlikely to retain, extend, or solidify their knowledge independently outside of class.” Gabriel suggests that supervisors watch for reading, writing, and discussion during classroom visits and ask students during classes, and teachers afterward, about the purposes of the reading and the audiences of the writing.
• How are students engaging with text? “The texts of each discipline are the maps of the work of that discipline,” says Gabriel, “and they should be used to represent the knowledge and ideas that are generated, shared, and critiqued within that community.” When school leaders question students and teachers about texts, they invite thoughtful reflection on the purpose and hoped-for outcomes of each lesson.
• What is the plan for adult learning? Gabriel suggests using students’ writing to spark discussions in grade-level, department, and other team meetings, and also kicking off faculty meetings by having teachers look at texts being used in different subject areas. More broadly, leaders should get colleagues talking about what they are reading, writing, and discussing, and reflecting on how they can “select, support, and use more texts more powerfully.”
“Leadership for Literacy” by Rachael Gabriel in Educational Leadership, February 2020 (Vol.
In this All Things PLC article, Luis Cruz says that in his 30 years as a public school teacher, administrator, and consultant, the vast majority of colleagues have been dedicated, caring professionals. And yet when he’s seen resistance to positive initiatives, it’s come from adults, not students. “Why would hardworking educators who care deeply for the welfare of their students resist the changes needed to help more students be successful?” asks Cruz. He’s found there are two reasons:
• Rational or logical resistance – This is when educators don’t understand why a particular initiative is needed, lack important implementation details, and/or don’t trust the leader. Here are some possible manifestations:
• Irrational or illogical resistance – Educators in this camp aren’t motivated by concerns about rationale or implementation details but by “the intrinsic desire to refute change for the sake of refuting change,” says Cruz. He believes it’s a big mistake for leaders to ignore or avoid dealing with such recalcitrance, and suggests the following steps (acronym RESIST):
In this Education Week article, Heather Hill (Harvard Graduate School of Education) expresses skepticism about the widespread practice of teacher teams analyzing interim assessment data. “This practice arose from a simple logic,” says Hill: “To improve student outcomes, teachers should study students’ prior test performance, learn what students struggle with, and then adjust the curriculum to offer students remediation where necessary. By addressing the weaknesses revealed by the test results, overall student achievement would improve.” Driven by this logic, “data-driven instruction” is now a cornerstone of teacher meetings across the country. It’s also become a billion-dollar business, with products offered by McGraw-Hill, NWEA, Achievement Network, commercial test-item banks, and others.
But “rigorous empirical research doesn’t support this practice,” says Hill. Why would this seemingly commonsensical practice not improve teaching and learning? Drawing on research and her own observations of teacher teams, Hill cites several ways that data-analysis time can be unproductive:
In this article in AMLE Magazine, Maryland educators Peter Crable, Casey Siddons, and Robby Dodd describe how they tackled two problems that many students encounter when they transition to middle school: negative attitudes toward classes and disengagement from learning. Their solution: keeping sixth grade homerooms with one teacher for half the school day. The initiative was dubbed Project SUCCESS: Student Unified Curriculum Combining English, digital literacy, Science, and Social Studies. According to the authors, the program has had a significant impact, boosting reading achievement, eliminating SES opportunity gaps, and reducing racial achievement gaps – all for no additional cost.
What explains these gains? “The teachers who instruct Project SUCCESS,” say Crable, Siddons, and Dodd, “are more interested in what students want to learn, more invested in helping students with personal/social problems, and less concerned about grades for the sake of grading. Student climate survey data indicate that students value their peer interactions more, are more oriented to mastery goals, and are significantly less concerned about academic comparisons than their peers.” Classes feel more like family, which goes a long way to smoothing students’ transition from their elementary schools.
When the idea was first introduced, there was pushback on two counts: how different it was from the standard departmentalized structure, and the additional workload involved in teaching four different subjects and creating interdisciplinary links among them.
Implementing the program successfully involved finding teachers who were willing to work with a very different program, figuring out the schedule (the authors say it has worked in traditional and block-scheduled buildings), and providing several key supports for participating sixth-grade educators:
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About the Marshall Memo
Mission and focus:
This weekly memo is designed to keep principals, teachers, superintendents, and other educators very well-informed on current research and effective practices in K-12 education. Kim Marshall, drawing on 50 years’ experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, writer, and consultant lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
To produce the Marshall Memo, Kim subscribes to 60 carefully-chosen publications (see list to the right), sifts through more than a hundred articles each week, and selects 5-10 that have the greatest potential to improve teaching, leadership, and learning. He then writes a brief summary of each article, pulls out several striking quotes, provides e-links to full articles when available, and e-mails the Memo to subscribers every Monday evening (with occasional breaks; there are 50 issues a year). Every week there’s a podcast and HTML version as well.
Individual subscriptions are $50 for a year. Rates decline steeply for multiple readers within the same organization. See the website for these rates and how to pay by check, credit card, or purchase order.
If you go to http://www.marshallmemo.com you will find detailed information on:
• How to subscribe or renew
• A detailed rationale for the Marshall Memo
• Publications (with a count of articles from each)
• Article selection criteria
• Topics (with a running count of articles)
• Headlines for all issues
• Reader opinions
• About Kim Marshall (bio, writings, consulting)
• A free sample issue
Subscribers have access to the Members’ Area of the website, which has:
• The current issue (in Word and PDF)
• All back issues (Word and PDF) and podcasts
• An easily searchable archive of all articles so far
• The “classic” articles from all 16+ years
Core list of publications covered
Those read this week are underlined.
All Things PLC
American Educational Research Journal
American Journal of Education
ASCA School Counselor
District Management Journal
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis
Elementary School Journal
Harvard Business Review
Harvard Educational Review
Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy
Journal of Education for Students Placed At Risk (JESPAR)
Kappa Delta Pi Record
Literacy Today (formerly Reading Today)
Middle School Journal
Peabody Journal of Education
Phi Delta Kappan
Reading Research Quarterly
Responsive Classroom Newsletter
Review of Educational Research
School Library Journal
Social Studies and the Young Learner
Teaching Children Mathematics
Teaching Exceptional Children
The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Journal of the Learning Sciences
The Language Educator
The Learning Professional (formerly Journal of Staff Development)
The Reading Teacher
Theory Into Practice