Because we didn’t buy textbooks

Book Worm BotThis time we did something different.

We entered our social studies curriculum adoption cycle and we made a departure from our past practice.  We decided to spend a year focusing on instructional pedagogy before we started looking at all the materials various publishers have to offer.

We immersed ourselves in learning about powerful pedagogy that stimulates student engagement, instruction that evokes critical thinking, and learning structures that support authentic problem solving and exploratory learning and deep understanding and excitement and passion and fun.

And when our state adopted new social studies standards we reviewed them with a critical eye and we still held off looking at materials and we thought about how we wanted to teach to impact student learning. And when we read the research and reviewed the literature, we decided to look at various materials from various publishers and we thought…we’d rather not buy textbooks this time. If we didn’t buy textbooks, we could do something different.

Because we didn’t buy textbooks

we were able to purchase digital tools that could engage students in active, connected learning.

Because we didn’t buy textbooks…

we were able to think about the world as our world geography curriculum and the plethora of information that is ready at our fingertips and a click away.

Because we didn’t buy textbooks…

we were able to think about possibilities that didn’t exist for us because we didn’t have the resources to learn like global citizens


So now….we don’t have text books and we will be sharing what we have instead – and – all the things we are doing to support learning in our classrooms with out them.

National Writing Project – Digital Tools for Change Collection

The National Writing Project (NWP) has created a fabulous resource where teaching ideas, reflections, and stories about writing in our digital, globally interconnected world have been collected and beautifully organized. That resource is a called  Digital IS

One particular section within Digital IS is dedicated to helping teachers understand how youth are communicating and how digital tools can be used to promote social, political, and economic change.  Within their collection site called “Digital Tools for Change” powerful resources are shared in which urban youth and their teachers create digital projects designed “to interrupt and challenge existing structures of domination, oppression, and control that have historically and systemically crippled their communities.”

Digital Youth Network

Bridging the world of school, home, and afterschool activities, the Digital Youth Network aims to engage middle school students and give them access and training in the use of new media literacy tools. DYN creates meaningful activities where students develop new media literacy and critical thinking skills while working towards accomplishing their project goals.  Topics include a 6th grade record label class, a 7th grade digital story telling class, and an 8th grade product design class.

The Council of Youth Research

This partnership between UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access and Los Angeles high school students, provides opportunities for students to actively engage in research for school and community change. Students collaborate with UCLA graduate students, professors, and teachers “to brainstorm, strategize, collect, analyze, and report data to key stakeholders to affect change.”   These student researchers have worked with Los Angeles Unified School District administrators and  Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on various projects and have  presented their findings at several educational conferences to highlight the issues plaguing urban education today.

Youth Roots

Located at Arise High School, Oakland, California, this outside-of-school program incorporates the use of  media production and literacy skills in order to create artistic expressions and cultural critiques.  Youth Roots members get authentic practice in in spoken word poetry, emceeing, music production, graphic design, digital photography, digital video, digital journalism (via podcasting, digital storytelling, and video production), and event production.

Reflections on Schmoker’s Focus with the Traveling Teacher

Focus by Mike Schmoker (ASCD)

Mike Schmoker’s new book Focus came in the mail on a beautiful Saturday morning.  It started off as nice lazy day with no pressing deeds needing to be done, so I started to skim through the pages of the new book and was hooked immediately.

The chapter on science inquiry caught my attention, as I’ve been thinking deeply about science due in part to the dramatic changes the new Colorado Science Standards are having on the sequencing of our district content, and my thinking and wondering about how to best support our curriculum alignment and instructional needs.

It was just prior to the book’s arrival that I was invited to meet with three high school science teachers at one of our local schools.  They weren’t concerned about the new content standards, per se – but the pedagogical components necessary to meet these new learning outcomes.  You see, the science process skills are completely embedded within the three science strands of physical, earth and life science.  Inquiry is the heart of the new state standards – and professional opportunities to support inquiry in their classrooms was their request.

Immediately I started thinking about how science teachers I know might connect with his ideas.  I wasn’t really sure if they would be simpatico.  So, I asked a good friend, prolific blogger (The Traveling Teacher), and science teacher colleague of mine Liz Swanson to tell me her thoughts.

First, I wanted to know about his thinking of hands-on activities.  We do a lot of hands-on activities in our district science classes. We use FOSS kits as a foundation in our elementary classrooms, our secondary teachers design numerous labs and investigations to support a wide variety of learning outcomes.


Cornstarch and Water by GoodNCrazy (CC)

So, do you agree with Schmoker and his beliefs about hands-on activities?

“I have to say that I agree with him whole-heartedly. [Schmoker’s] not saying that we shouldn’t do hands-on activities but he is saying we need to throw out the “cookie cutter” labs where the results are already known to the kids before they even start. These are not labs, they are just time filler activities. Labs need to be used strategically to discover a concept or observe something that is better observed first through visual means and then through text and discussion. I think he is just saying that science is really about answering questions and we need to use literacy practices and purpose-driven,  hands-on activities to really delve into the answers and in this way, kids can really be doing the “work” of scientists.

Tell me more… I know when we worked together this was a big part of the context of learning you worked to create in your classroom.  What does it mean to you to engage students in the real work of scientists?

“About 4 or 5 years ago, when I was doing … training, I kept hearing [our trainer] say that kids need to do the “work” of real scientists and I was having a really hard time understanding what she meant. I just couldn’t see how [this concept] applied and what the heck the real “work” of scientists was if it wasn’t just doing experiments. Then, I started thinking about myself as a scientist of teaching, and also, I started thinking about my dad…who is a scientist…he’s a doctor.  I thought about my dad and the real “work” that he does is mostly reading. He does spend a huge amount of his time (his words) “up to his elbows in stink and blood!” but really, every night of my life as a child, I saw my dad laying in bed, reading journals. Every vacation, he read journals or medical textbooks. And, every year, he goes to multiple conferences where he always wants to go alone so he can spend all of his free time reading and studying in preparation for the lectures and the practical work. My best friend’s dad is also a doctor, and her life experiences with this were exactly the same. Both of us had homes with stacks of medical reading materials all over.”

Science Fair Wins Ribbons by Oakley Originals

So, real scientists spend mountains of time reading as well as engaging in authentic science inquiry. The theme of reading critical text runs through the entire book.  How did this knowledge connect with your thinking about teaching?

“[D]uring a coaching session… it was literally like a sudden lightning bolt of understanding – I got it….the real “work” of scientists is processing information whether that be through writing, reading, speaking, listening, or experimenting. At that point, I threw out a lot of “labs” that I had been doing that were just leftover in my classroom when I got there and had been doing because they fit the topic but weren’t really “real inquiry” and I started to really think about how I could get kids to need to read and discuss to solve more real-life problems. This has been my little quest ever since.

You know, I never remember seeing the textbook out in your classroom.  What did you think of Schmoker’s praise for using the textbook to such a great degree?

“I was definitely struck by the textbook part though and it really got me thinking about how I can use the textbook in a more strategic way. Because, he’s right, in college, and in real life, we use textbook like text to really learn new information. I always dragged out my old chemistry books to show kids how much annotation I had done in order to learn and how much summarizing I’d done in the margins, but I definitely didn’t do enough of that with them being the readers…something to think about for sure! I hope I have good textbooks in Germany because in England, I had these textbooks that were matched to the national curriculum and so they didn’t go in depth into anything because the next year’s textbook had the same info at a deeper level. So annoying. You couldn’t actually “read” the book for information. It glossed over EVERYTHING! Like “cells” was just a double page spread…not very helpful for real reading. Stuff I taught in seventh grade in the US wasn’t taught until Year 10 & Year 11. It seemed like they saved the “real science” for the exam years.”

So, you wouldn’t advocate the level of “focus” you’ve seen in the UK science textbooks written for students.  What are your thoughts about Schoker’s overall message of “focus” then?

“[W]hen you hired me to teach two subjects at the same time, I really had to think about what was essential. Basically, it was you and a few conversations I had with [others]… where I basically felt like I was given permission to cut down my curriculum to the essentials and big ideas. That’s pretty much what I’d spent the last several years working on – with the Tiger team – being as strategic as possible in what we were going to teach. I think that’s why when the new standards came out…I was pretty psyched, because they made my job a lot easier – they did what I had already largely spent years working on!”

Thanks Liz!  Thanks for being a learning and helping me think through the message of this book through the lens of a great science teacher!!!

Now, I just need to find a math, a literacy, and a social studies teacher to help me think through the other content area….

Anyone want to read this book and chat with me 🙂 ?

Developing a Needs-Based Mindset for Curriculum Funding

Twisted by Li-So

Mindset – the ideas and attitudes in which a person approaches a situation, especially when these are seen as being difficult to alter. 

The Way We Were…

For the last don’t-know-how-many-years, curriculum adoptions in our district have been pretty cut and dry. Each year, there has been about the same funding earmarked for new materials. Every 8 years a content area like science or social studies would have funding allocated for materials refurbishment. The division of the funds was based on a formula on the percentage of students involved in the course and the length and depth of the course itself.  Typically, more funding was set aside for math, literacy, science and social studies.  Less funding was set aside for art, music, physical education, languages, and career & technical education.  Our mental mindset to curriculum adoption was pretty much set. There were some pretty clear expectations as to the funds that were available. The organization maintained a sense of stability since the funds that were available were pretty much the same funds that were available in the past. Until the last several years.

Early Stages of Shifting Mindset

The first signs of pressure on our system stemmed from increased costs of materials as offered by publishers and vendors. Coupled with flat funding, this meant that a typical adoption would provide fewer resources.  In many cases, this meant instead of buying a text for each student, a classroom text was purchased instead.  This pressure was pesky and bothersome, but it didn’t cause us to shift our adoption mindset.  We just bought less and grumbled more and tried to figure out why weren’t getting any more money to buy what we thought we needed.

Additional elements of pressure began when the nature of materials began to shift from paper to digital formats, thus impacting the types of curriculum materials needed. Pre-engineering labs, graphics labs, streamed content, internet or server-based interventions.  All these required curriculum dollars be spent on hardware and software and technical support. The mindset shifted; the types of materials a district could purchase with what was essentially considered previously a textbook adoption cycle.  With more and more resources flowing to non-textbook purchases, flexibility in thinking about how to use the available funds increased. However, some of the purchases made for specific content areas required yearly allocations for content subscriptions.  This was troublesome for the existing curriculum adoption system.  As annual commitments to certain programs increased, the number of dollars for new cycle purchases decreased. These annual commitments began to impact the total amount of funding available for each subsequent adoption.

At the present, we are facing some of our greatest challenges.  Decreased state revenue has in turn decreased school district funding allocations.  Last year our district switched from an incremental budget to a zero-based budget. Instead of being presented with a total amount of funds that could be spent on the upcoming adoption, we were asked to present our materials needs in advance of the budget being funded.  The 2010-2011 year was the social studies adoption year.  A curriculum gap analysis found that the greatest need was in the 6th and 7th grades where the new state standards were vastly different from our current curriculum.  A plan was drafted to meet the needs in these courses and funding was allocated to a greater degree for these grades than other grades.  We took a giant step towards a needs-based mindset. But, we still grumble a bit because it just doesn’t seem fair.

The Way We Need to Be…

As we enter our 2011-2012 school year we look to our adoption cycle that was set over eight years ago.  According to this document, it is now science, physical education, and career and technical education’s “turn” to refurbish materials.  With more cuts likely, it seems unlikely that we will be able to fund these content areas with dollars equal to the previous adoption cycle.  Many district’s like ours have put their entire adoption cycle on hold until funding streams get back to normal.  I’m not so certain we will ever get back to normal.  Normal funding or normal adoptions.

The New Normal

A needs-based curriculum adoption is inherently different from an incremental based adoption cycle.  It necessitates that systems and structures are in place to effectively analyze the needs based on learning in the 21st century. They understand the current state of curriculum materials that include Open Education Resources (OER), hardware, software, subscription-based content and paper-based materials. The supporting materials must align with the student learning outcomes that elevate problem-solving, information literacy, global connectivity, productivity, and inquiry learning. These are areas of reflection for our P-12 Content Councils and our overarching Curriculum Improvement Council as much as they are for our entire district and the community we serve.

Moving forward into the 2011-2012 school year, we have identified our greatest curriculum gap in science.  This means that we will likely not fund adoptions for physical education, health and career and technical education this coming year.  We may have some funding to sustain programs in these content areas, but we will use greater amounts of funds to address the gaps that are present in science.

We will explore the current research related to science learning and science education.  We will look to our colleagues in higher education, business, and the field. We will reach out to those in our community to help us reflect upon our current state of science instruction and materials and we will identify needs with a critical eye knowing that we will have to make difficult decisions with the resources available to us.

Boys, held back for life?


Yesterday I was scanning my NYTimes feed and stopped when I read this title, “Delay Kindergarten at Your Own Peril.” As an educator, a title like that begs to be read. I stopped mid-swipe, clicked and read the provocative opinion penned by researchers Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt who provided detailed research explaining why “redshirting” your child could be dangerous.

Strikingly to me, this is the first time I had heard any argument against this practice. In fact, holding younger children back to enter kinder the following year, is such a common practice where I live and work that when you hear about it, you don’t even blink.

Teachers may encourage redshirting because more mature children are easier to handle in the classroom and initially produce better test scores than their younger classmates. In a class of 25, the average difference is equivalent to going from 13th place to 11th. This advantage fades by the end of elementary school, though, and disadvantages start to accumulate. In high school, redshirted children are less motivated and perform less well. By adulthood, they are no better off in wages or educational attainment — in fact, their lifetime earnings are reduced by one year.</blockquote

In my community, redshirting is much more common for boys than girls. Reading this opinion piece troubles me because I, along with others, have been assuming that this practice is actually benefitting our students. Wang and Aamodt go on to share how an intellectually demanding environment actually increases skills and abilities as well as motivation.

These differences may come from the increased challenges of a demanding environment. Learning is maximized not by getting all the answers right, but by making errors and correcting them quickly. In this respect, children benefit from being close to the limits of their ability. Too low an error rate becomes boring, while too high an error rate is unrewarding. A delay in school entry may therefore still be justified if children are very far behind their peers, leaving a gap too broad for school to allow effective learning

It strikes me that we tend to redshirt our boys more than we do our girls, and I’m wondering if this connects to the higher rate of boys we have who become identified as learning disabled, at-risk, and trouble-makers who are suspended at a higher rate that girls. I also think about the persistent gap that exists in many of our community schools between boys and girls in reading and writing. I wonder if we decreased the practice of redshirting if we would narrow these gaps.

Building a Better Teacher – NYTimes gives me restless nights

Ever since a colleague emailed me the link to NYTimes  Elizabeth Green’s “Building a Better Teacher” I’ve been spending an inordinate number of minutes and hours thinking about the implications and multiple things worth thinking about. I almost which wrote 3 articles instead of the mammoth one.

Sill, the Lemov’s accomplishments regarding his quest for the essential traits is elusive.  After nearly 20 years in education (I can’t wait until I can truthfully say, “I’ve been an educator for over 20 years.” I’ve been dreaming of this moment!) I too hold that same inquiry question.  What is it?  I think I know –  but do I really know?  What evidence do I have that what I think qualifies teaching excellence truly is so?

I think about reading this article with friends and coming up with our own list.  Would it be – wait until the class is focused on you before you begin speaking?  Or would it be such a beautiful strategy that the message gets lost in the simplicity of the technique?  I think about the countless hours spent developing my self and others to learn to execute 9’s on a scale of 10 of instructional strategy acrobatics, perfecting the perfect writer’s workshop, facilitating the literature circle, and inviting inquiry in a socratic seminar.  I’m certain that those strategies are still quite important, and maybe I’ll see them in Lemov’s list when I get time to peruse his ideas.

But right now, I just sit and reflect on what I think I know and I dwell in the luxury of thinking and dreaming and wondering.

Book Chat: Leading for Equity

Reading Leading for Equity: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Montgomery County Public Schools by Stacey M. Childress, Denis P. Doyle, David A. Thomas, and David Gergen almost feels like cheating. I am so grateful to these authors for capturing the story of the Montgomery County Public Schools and sharing it with practitioners who need a little bit of inspiration. 
This winter break, this book was my inspiration.  I devoured it on my flight back from Chicago just a few days ago and still my mind is churning.  I look forward to reading it again at a slower less consuming pace. Leading for Equity connects with those of us wake every morning  trying to do better for the children and the community we serve. 
Creating a powerful vision, relentlessly focusing on student learning, and facing the facts and truth about race and poverty, and artfully distributing “real” shared decision-making allowed this district to make dramatic achievement gains for all student populations in all sectors of their county.
As a director of curriculum and instruction, I was keen on their work to create world class expectations and their ability to backmap pathways to rigorous learning outcomes. Their approach to analyzing their data  made me think about all the possible research questions I have and how I might go about uncovering meaning in my own midst.
Of course, Montgomery’s ability to reframe thinking of equity of opportunity rather than equity of resources is the magic that allows the work to happen. I’m certain that this shift in understanding occurred through a delicate political dance.  However, it is these kinds of moves upon which many districts stumble while trying to manage resources in an accountable manner. 
I recommend this book for any person interested in school reform efforts, educational case studies, district leadership, and practitioners of systemic thinking.