Archives For Grant Wiggins

Opening speeches generally start with a “Welcome.”
Lucy Calkins started the 86th Saturday Reunion, March 22, 2014, at Teacher’s College with a conjunction.

“And this is the important thing” she addressed the crowd that was filling up the rows in the Riverside Cathedral, “the number of people who are attending has grown exponentially. This day is only possible with the goodwill of all.”

Grabbing the podium with both hands, and without waiting for the noise to die down, Calkins launched the day as if she was completing a thought she had from the last Saturday Reunion.

“We simply do not have the capacity to sign you up for workshops and check you in. We all have to be part of the solution.”

She was referring to the  workshops offered free of charge to educators by all Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) staff developers at Columbia University. This particular Saturday, there were over 125 workshops advertised on topic such as “argument writing, embedding historical fiction in nonfiction text sets, opinion writing for very young writers, managing workshop instruction, aligning instruction to the CCSS, using performance assessments and curriculum maps to ratchet up the level of teaching, state-of-the-art test prep, phonics, and guided reading.”

“First of all, ” she chided, “We cannot risk someone getting hit by a car.” Calkin’s concerns are an indication that the Saturday Reunion workshop program is a victim of its own success. The thousands of teachers disembarking from busses, cars, and taxis were directed by TCRWP minions to walk on sidewalks, wait at crosswalks, and “follow the balloons” to the Horace Mann building or Zankel Hall.

“Cross carefully,” she scolded in her teacher voice, “and be careful going into the sessions,” she continued, “the entrances to the larger workshops are the center doors, the exits are to the sides. We can’t have 800 people going in and out the same way.”

Safety talk over, Calkins turned her considerable energy to introducing a new collaborative venture, a website where educators can record their first hand experiences with the Common Core State Standards and Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC) or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing.

And, as unbelievable as this sounds, Calkins admitted that, sometimes, “I get afraid to talk out.”
That is why, she explained, she has joined an all-star cast of educators (including Diane Ravitch, Kylene Beers, Grant Wiggins, Robert Marzano, Anthony Cody, Kathy Collins, Jay McTighe, David Pearson, Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and others-see below) in organizing a website where the voices of educators with first hand experience with standardized testing can document their experiences. The site is called Testing Talk The site’s message on the home page states:

This site provides a space for you to share your observations of the new breed of standardized tests. What works? What doesn’t? Whether your district is piloting PARCC, Smarter Balanced, or its own test, we want to pass the microphone to you, the people closest to the students being tested. The world needs to hear your stories, insights, and suggestions. Our goal is collective accountability and responsiveness through a national, online conversation.

Screenshot 2014-03-31 21.56.01 Calkin’s promotion was directed to educators, “This will be a site for you to record your experience with testing, not to rant.” She noted that as schools “are spending billions, all feedback on testing should be open and transparent.” 

Winding down Calkins looked up from her notes. “You will all be engaged,” she promised. “Enter comments; sign your name,” she urged before closing with the final admonishment, “Be brave.”

Continue Reading…

One statement in Grant Wiggins’s review of the survey he gave to 7300 students from middle and high school students nationally was particularly infuriating to me. He had posed the question, “What was the most interesting work/task/project you had last year in school?” In reviewing the student responses, (73 of which were posted on the blog), Wiggins casually noted that  “..almost nothing from English or Math was highlighted.”

How can this be?

English and math classes did not offer interesting tasks or projects? Really? I cannot speak for math, but as an English teacher,  I feel bit defensive. English teachers of the students in this study could not find “interesting” ways to teach grammar or literature or writing skills?

Wiggins does state that the “results do not reflect a ‘normal’ national sample” since the schools that participated were either directly involved with his Understanding by Design workshops or requested to be involved in the survey. Sadly, the evidence from the students posted on the blog does seem to support this point; a class project, a series of responses dedicated to Lord of the Flies, was one of only several English/Language Arts assessments that made the list of the ” most interesting work/task/project you had last year in school?”

Familiarity breeds contempt? Do students enjoy disciplines other than English because these disciplines are more active?

I wonder if this a problem of familiarity. Students are programmed what to expect in English/Language Arts classes, and according to this study, so are the teachers.

Consider that every one of the students responding has had to take an English/Language Arts class for each year he or she is in school. The focus of curriculum in these classes, regardless of grade level, is the improvement of student skills in reading, writing, and speaking. That’s it. Year after year of  reading, writing, and speaking. Yes, the work becomes more complex, but the work in English is fairly routine. Students read. Students write. Students speak.

There are other disciplines that are sequential, a series of prescribed steps that build on knowledge. For example,  a student must understand addition before moving onto multiplication.  The acquisition of reading, writing, and speaking skills, however, is measured differently. A student will encounter the comma long before he or she understands its function in a sentence. A student will decode a metaphor well before he or she knows what the literary term means. A student will decipher the meaning of a word in context in reading without the aid of a dictionary.

English is not really sequential set of knowledge steps but a weave-a continuous layering of warp and woof. Students are initiated in improving the skills of  reading, writing, and speaking in pre-school and continue to develop these skills at each grade level.

Could students simply be tired of the “same old same old”? Do they not appreciate the importance of the skills they learned in the English/Language Arts classroom?

The standards in the Language Arts Common Core follow a sequence of growing complexity, but ultimately is the Kindergarten Standard (K.RL.1) “With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text” that much different from the Grade 12 Standard (12.RL.1) ” Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain”?

These standards require that during a student’s 13 years in education, there must be multiple opportunities to cite, analyze, respond, write, and speak. English/Language Arts teachers must develop assessments that move students to meeting these standards. Other disciplines may assess a student’s ability to build, demonstrate, create, or illustrate with a “hands on” approach. Certainly, English/Langauge Arts can have students build (a character), demonstrate (a vocabulary word’s meaning), create (a film), illustrate (a chapter), but ultimately the student skill assessed is aligned with standards that measure continued improvement on the skills of reading, writing, and speaking. Ultimately the conundrum English /Language Arts teachers face is the skill used is the skill being tested; including a 3rd dimension- engaging in the physicality of English/Language Arts- is not required by Common Core standards. One could simply meet each standard with pen and paper, with “words, words, words”…

Take for example, some of the student responses to the survey’s prompt “what was the most interesting work/task/project you had last year in school?”:

  • Building a house. This was interesting because I had to make something new everyday and the project always had soemthing[sic] to work on and i never got bored.
  • We are currently dissecting a fetal pig in Biology.  It is interesting because dissections are a very good chance to see how an organism works firsthand.
  • A mock trial in my Business and Personal Law course was the most interesting work I’ve had to do.
  • Made a rocket car for Metal
  • The lemonade game in economics. We got to run a sim of a lemonade company.
  • testing the PH levels of water of the pond at our school.
In reading the responses to the survey, students exude an obvious enjoyment that comes from engaging in assessments in which they worked “hands-on”; many times their engagement was physical and interactive. Of course, the lessons learned in English/Language Arts classrooms, the skills of reading, writing, and speaking, contribute directly to success in all other disciplines. But, students do not consider these important skills when rating “interesting work”.
So what can English/Language Arts teachers do to move up on the scale of the most “interesting work” in high school? Obviously, we need to think about making our assessments meaningful beyond the (hand?) printed word. We need to consider how our students will write, read, and speak after high school, and in this relatively new century, digital mediums offer up a myriad of possibilities. Communication can extend beyond the classroom walls, work can be more collaborative, and speech is not limited to reading from index cards at a podium in class. Reading is now done in the “real world” on multiple platforms and support with diverse technologies (text-to-speech, definitions in context, etc) can level the reading in a classroom. Film and audio resources are plentiful for both viewing, but more importantly, for student production. Research can be accomplished without the limitations (24/7 access to material) that have stymied past generations. Simply put, English/Language Arts teachers have the resources to increase student engagement in new ways and to use the digital platforms that are increasingly used for education and business in the real world. If not, the pen is still mightier than the (_____)-you fill in the blank.
Studies in psychology show that on the vast majority of occasions, the less familiar we are with someone or something, the more we are inclined to like them. The “new” is almost always more exciting than the “routine”. So, students may become biased with “familiarity” against English/Language Arts class because they are continuously acquainted with the objectives of improving reading, writing, and speaking skills. Perhaps it is this familiarity that keeps English off the “most interesting work” list as students jettison literature studies, grammar games, and speeches for new experiences in less familiar disciplines.
Regardless, English teachers everywhere can take some small comfort knowing that  there would not be a list at all if it was not for the English/Language Arts classroom…after all, students had to use “word, words, words” to write their responses. If only the students would spell correctly!

The literary canon is good for you.

So is broccoli.

Anyone who has tried to cajole a floret of broccoli into the mouth of a picky toddler can imagine a similar experience in trying to cajole a (male?) 10th grader to read a chapter of Brave New World on his own. “Read about John the Savage; understanding his alienation is  good for you!” a teacher pleads with conviction in an attempt to fatten students with enough prose, poetry, and drama for a lifetime in the perceived literary wasteland of adulthood.

“Eat your canon!” …literally.

Perhaps English teachers see the canon as a means to provide students with a common language in order to understand cultural comparisons to a “Scrooge”, a “Frankenstein” , or a “Mr. D’Arcy.” English teachers know the value in having students recognize the characterization of the human spirit as seen in the camaraderie in the relentless hunt for the white whale, in traveling west on Route 66 in a 1949 Hudson, or in the imagining the filth of the trenches in Paul Baumer’s no-mans land. English teachers firmly believe that students should know how the characters of Huck Finn, Hester Prynne and Gatsby reflect the tumultuous history of our nation, a nation students will inherit.

But perhaps English teachers need to go on a diet. While there are arguments to stuffing students full of great literature before sending them out into the real world, there is also an argument for allowing students the opportunity to bring their choices to the conversations about literature. The recent survey results from Grant Wiggins , co-author of Understand by Design, of 7300 high school students  indicates that English Language Arts is near the bottom in the ranking of “favorite” classes. Many students complaints were directed at the literary canon:

  • The books chosen have no true connection to my life.
  • I do not like to read the books given
  • Because the books do not interest me and I feel like we never learn anything applicable to the real world
  •  do like reading. I don’t like reading books that I am not interested in and we have to read books and stories that I don’t like.

The literary canon is not fixed nor limited to yellowing copies of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (admittedly, my least favorite) or Drieser’s An American Tragedy. The canon is a living body of writing, continuously  replenished with contemporary stories with unforgettable characters: Lt. Jimmy Cross (The Things They Carried), Sethe (Beloved), Abaline Clark (The Help), and Hazel (Watership Down). Moreover, what spoke to one generation, may not speak to another. A body of great literature is on the increase, and some English teachers need to open the door even wider in order to include student choice. The banquet of traditional literary offerings must be limited as a matter of practicality; we simply cannot teach everything.

One way to combat the complaints about “books I don’t like” while including more texts is to offer satellite texts which are linked thematically to a whole class read. Perhaps a survey of student interest in themes or genre could determine the course of study, for example, a unit on monsters in literature could include a wide range of materials from picture books to JK Rowling’s characterization of  Voldemort to  the more complicated stories of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Gardner’s Grendel.

English teachers should not feel the overwhelming responsibility for the selection of all class materials when so much literature is available today in so many different formats. Students should begin to take responsibility for contributing (appropriate) materials for their own interests or to share with others. Even a simple addition of a weekly SSR period to include student selections would counter the arguments that all books read in high school are boring. With ownership in selection, students could be more invested.

Back in 1999, several teachers and I attended a Broadway performance of Death of a Salesman with Brian Dennehy.  During the intermission a man, obviously moved by the production, stood several seats away sloppily wiping his eyes with a handkerchief. “I know this play,” he was repeating to himself trying to grasp at some memory that was buried long ago, “how do I know this play?”

Of course he knew the play, we scoffed!  We envisioned the high school English teacher who years ago had probably forced him to read a part of the drama in class. Maybe the man read the part of Biff or Bernard as the teacher would have had difficulties in providing access to a performance, live or taped. The man may have done well on the final test; he may have relieved when the teacher unit was over. The problems of Willie Loman probably were “boring” or seem distant and trivial to the man, a teenager in high school back in the 1960s.

Years later in the plush seating of the mezzanine on a Friday night performance, the language of Miller’s drama, long ago buried in the man’s brain, suddenly rushed  into the his consciousness. His visceral reaction to the production was enhanced by this recollection, but most likely, the man was finally at the age where Willie’s dilemma made sense to him. By the end of the play, the man was sobbing quietly, a testament to Miller’s ability to produce a catharsis.

This incident reinforced my belief that the literary canon is a lifelong experience, not one stop at the “all-you-should-eat”  high school buffet  and that maybe English teachers should stop panicking that students will never be exposed to great literature in their lives after high school. Quite frankly, the man would have sobbed with or without us.

Most teachers of English recognize the importance of the literary canon as record of experience handed from one generation to the next. But we need to be judicious and select those works that will engage students while meeting our criteria of preparing students for the real world. And in this digital age of multiple media platforms, we also need to let the students share what matters to them. This could be a frightening proposal for some of us as there is risk and uncertainty as to how implementing choice and moving away from the canon could be perceived by stakeholders. For others, however, student selection could be a natural part of the progression in education today. Our standards should be our belief in the stories we teach, our passion for their message, our knowledge of these texts.

In including the students in their education, how will the increase of student choice  be accessed? Along with student selection should come the implementing of meaningful, authentic assessments which Wiggins discusses at length in his survey findings.  I will address these in my next posting,”Why Don’t They Love English Like We Love English?” Part III.

I happen to love both the literary canon AND broccoli, so when I am confronted with someone who does not like either, I do my best to cajole them into trying “just a bite.” Sometimes a taste is convincing; sometimes it is not. However,  I will not stop trying offering because they “don’t like it”.  I know the value of both.  I also know that many an adult broccoli eater started out as a fussy toddler.

A recent post (11/17/11) on the “Granted, but…” blog by the Understanding by Design guru and co-author Grant Wiggins discussed a survey that received 7300 student responses from middle and high school students nationally. “I am a big fan of student surveys,” notes Wiggins, “How can we achieve educational goals without the student’s perspective? We cannot.”

Wiggins organized the survey “to be instructive for readers to see the results from our study of student academic experience, conducted for the past year.” The alarming results should put English teachers everywhere on alert.

While math was both the most favorite and least favorite subject on the list, English Language Arts “fared poorly overall: not near the top of favorite subjects and second to last in least favorite.”

English was NOT a favorite subject?
English is a LEAST favorite subject?

Wiggins does point out that the results do not reflect a “normal” national sample. “All the responses came from schools with which we either had a past or working relationship; or with schools whose educators heard about the survey in workshops and asked to participate. As a result, the sample skews toward schools doing some amount of reform work, toward suburban rather than urban, and has no schools represented from the Pacific time zone.”

Gender was also a factor. Boys voted English as a least favorite more than girls.
Moreover, the gender gap in English was worse than the gap in math.

However, English teachers should take note.
English is NOT a favorite subject.
Actually, English is a LEAST favorite subject…further down on the survey than math.

Thankfully, Wiggins notes that the survey indicates that teachers are not the problem. For example, one comment is indicative of student opinion, “I was just never really interested into it. The subject does not appeal to me which makes it boring to me. I love the teachers just not the subject.”

Hmmm. So what are we English teachers doing wrong? Wiggins posts many of the survey responses to give teachers a general idea of how students feel. Reading and writing were the targets of student ire. Wiggins posted a plethora of student responses in the survey; I chose a few samples.

Complaints about reading summed up in student responses:
We don’t get to pick the books we read.
It is boring because all we read is boring books.

Complaints about writing summed up in student response:
Way too many essays

And the for the heart-breaking coup de grace:
I find it unnecessary for us to continue to take english (sic) classes all the way through high school because at this point we have learned everything that is required of a non-english (sic) major.

Well, he/she may be right…with the exception of knowing how to capitalize.

English teachers may or may not agree with these statements, but these sentiments do reflect the attitude of many of my students (grades 7-12) in a small rural school in Connecticut.
English is not their favorite subject either.

* sigh *

After reading student responses, Wiggins suggests, ” if you like the topic and are good at it, you like the subject.” In middle school and high school, English classrooms are staffed by those who had been successful readers and writers as students. However, a teacher’s comfort level with a discipline or a even teacher’s passion for a subject may not be enough to engage students, and the survey suggests that students dislike English because of the teaching, not because of the teacher.

So what might be the problem with the teaching?

  • English teachers may teach the way they learned (considered “old school”);
  • English teachers may love the literary canon (maybe too much?);
  • English teachers feel may compelled to correct (and correct and correct…);
  • English teachers feel obligated to quiz/test every book (was it only Sparknotes?);
  • English teachers may have too few “authentic” assessments.

Maybe the pressure of standardized testing is a factor? In Connecticut, our students write to a series of prompts after reading a non-fiction piece in Grade 8, and respond to a short story with four essays in Grade 10; this represents four years of preparation for state testing. We prepare for the test knowing-teacher and students alike-that writing these essays is formulaic. There is little that is authentic about this testing. For example, no business/industry will have employees read a non-fiction or fiction piece and respond with a timed drafted essay, beyond an interview, anyway. Similarly, the SAT has students draft a essay response to a prompt. Unfortunately, many colleges admit they do not consider the written portion of this exam. Students then wonder why they bother?

Wiggins suggests that “English teachers need to face some cold, hard facts as well: the work they assign is not of interest to most students, even good students – and, especially boys.” I do not need a survey in my school to confirm his findings about boys; I have lots of anecdotal information that confirms his results at every grade level, 7-12.

I will be looking more at Wiggins’ survey in my next blog and considering methods I might employ to help English claim a more favorable position in my own school. I know the importance of employing English skills in the real world today, and so do the other English teachers on my faculty. We need to discuss and determine how to get students to understand the vital importance of English without killing the love of English.