The Nature of Inquiry: Reflection

THE NATURE OF INQUIRY Reflection

By Sara Krauskopf

A key component to any project is reflection.  Teaching students metacognitive skills so they become aware of their own learning process is where some of the most meaningful growth occurs during the course of a unit.  Reflection helps them become critical thinkers and problem  solvers–skills we all value for the long term and want to build in our students. There are a number of points during a project where it may be appropriate to ask students to stop and reflect.  Longer projects may require multiple reflections, whereas shorter projects just one. This blog entry will provide some examples of ways to have students reflect.

1:  Improve group work. Group dynamics are some of the biggest challenges to project completion.  This is an early intervention which asks students to pause and consider problems with their team.  What obstacles do we already see with our group dynamic and how can we overcome it?  I usually share these reflections with the class so students see multiple ways they can improve their process.

Group Question

2:  Daily check-ins.  Mentioned in my previous blog entry, this is a way for students to examine daily progress within their team.  They can celebrate success, think of what took their work off course that day (positive or negative developments), and decide what adjustments they should make as a result.


Sample Daily Check-in

  • Did we meet our responsibilities for today? Why or why not?
  • What do we need for tomorrow?
  • Do we have homework?

 

3:  Mid-project reflections.  This is a more formal way to consider progress towards the project goal and make mid-course modifications.  Again, this should provide an opportunity for positive reinforcement of current systems and behaviors; or time to make adjustments to get back on track.  This individual writing assignment is turned in, helping me understand where individual students may be having trouble so I can jump in to facilitate changes where they are most needed.  


Sample Mid-project Reflection

Students were challenged to design, build and test a solar box cooker to melt chocolate during a Wisconsin winter.  We stopped to reflect after students tested the first iteration of the cooker.

  • What went well with our design stage?
  • What went well with construction and testing?
  • How well did our team work together?
  • What specific improvements need to be made?

 

4:  Final project reflections.  Never skip this type of reflection.  It is the most important part of the project and helps students review what they learned: not only related to the content of their project, but also about how to plan and implement a complex activity.  This is a formal individual writing assignment given after all of the products are constructed and presentations are given.

If this were a straightforward science experiment I might ask students to reflect on experimental error and to suggest additional investigations they would try to further their understanding of the processes involved.  However, in project-based learning, I ask them to think beyond what they learned from the content.  They consider the impact of their work on others; and most importantly think back on what it took to complete this project and assess what they learned about navigating a complex process.


Sample Final Project Reflection.

For the waste management project discussed in my last blog, students were given this prompt along with a detailed outline of questions to consider.

You just finished an intensive group project to create a solution to the question, “How can we reduce the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill?”

  • What did you do?
  • Why was your project important?
  • How could this project be changed?

 

One of the reasons students at PBL schools get better and better at conducting projects is because of this reflective process.  They learn the importance of planning, the value of good partnerships, the need to stay organized and on task, and myriad other skills.  They are able to transfer those new skills to the next project and to their daily lives; and develop the ability to design more complex projects and solve more involved problems.  

As teachers, we always run out of time on units and need to cut out certain activities, but I strongly believe that you should leave time for reflection.  It is better to cut the project short and ask students, If you had more time what would you have done?  Without giving them time to reflect they will not develop critical thinking and other lifelong metacognitive skills that will help them successfully navigate the world as adults.

Sara Krauskopf is a secondary science and math teacher and educational consultant.  For questions or comments, contact her at sjkrauskopf@gmail.com

 

The Nature of Inquiry: Scaffolding Projects

By Sara Krauskopf

If you have never led an open-ended inquiry or project-based learning (PBL) unit before, it can be an intimidating experience. Diving into the unknown in terms of exactly what students will be working on and what they will produce creates a certain amount of anxiety and presents new challenges to the teacher as a facilitator of learning.  In my last blog entry, I described ways to get students to ask questions and narrow them down to that one “good question” that they will focus on for their project.  Now you are faced with helping a room full of students with different inquiries move through the process of answering their questions. This requires a series of steps and a certain shift in mindset as an instructor.  In this entry I will try to provide some tips and resources for working through facilitation of the planning and implementation of a set of projects.

It is important to model project design for students and build independence over time.  I often walk students through a behind-the-scenes look at how I planned a unit or set of experiences for them.  Who did I call?  What resources did I gather?  What did I have to test out in advance?  How long did it take me to do each of these steps?  Where did I run into stumbling blocks?  Did everything go smoothly or did I have to make adjustments?  This type of transparency in the teaching process not only helps students gain a great appreciation for the amount of work that goes into lesson planning , but more importantly demonstrates that they need to plan out their strategy and be prepared for it to change.  No projects ever go exactly as planned, and hurdles, failures and re-adjustments are par for the course.

For your first open-ended inquiry, I would suggest restricting the range of projects students choose.  This will help you anticipate the types of resources students will need to complete projects, making it easier to provide a certain set of equipment, limited list of experts and vetted starter informational resources.  Allowing them to work in teams of 2-4 also provides students with built-in support and gives you fewer projects to facilitate as you navigate the changed work load with this type of learning.  With science experiments it is fairly straight-forward to guide students to a narrow, yet original set of project questions (eg.  How can we speed up rates of seed germination?).  As I mentioned in my first blog, my class investigated the question What type of waste does our community produce and where does it go?, and then students designed their own projects focused on the question How can we reduce the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill?  This was a broad inquiry, but narrow enough for me to anticipate a set of community education campaigns, composting experiments, and sewing projects to repurpose fabric.  I did have one group that chose to refurbish an old computer, which I had not anticipated, but they were so motivated that they got all of their own equipment and did not require my assistance very often.

I scaffold my planning process using the attached resource, based on one I received from Valley New School, which does all learning through a PBL model.  Students can complete this individually or in teams.  The planning stage will be the loudest, least organized, scariest part of the process.  Some students won’t know exactly what to do, will argue with one another and beg for your attention.  A few will plunge in, creating a product without planning anything and will need to be held back; others will struggle to come up with a viable idea; some will need help formulating the wording of their problem.  As a facilitator and not a lead teacher, you need to let students struggle.  Many times the groups that have the most trouble at the beginning have the best projects in the end.  They wind up taking more time in the planning phase and therefore everything else proceeds more smoothly.  Certain students also need reassurance that if their original plan does not work out, they will not be penalized.  A project that does not produce the desired results is not a failure, but rather a learning experience and an opportunity to try it another way.

I require students to get my approval of the planning document before they can proceed. Because of this, I expect to be pulled in ten different directions at once as everyone vies for my time and attention.  This is exhausting, but good!  I steel myself for these days and know things will settle down as projects are chosen and planned out.  Once students have created their plan and a tentative calendar, your days will run more smoothly.

Students learn time and task management through PBL.  Once we are in the actual research and action phases of the process, I ask students to do a self check-in and check-out process every day.  What are my responsibilities for the day?  What do we need?  And then, Did we meet those responsibilities? Why or why not?  What do we need for tomorrow?  Do we have homework?  The Buck Institute also provides an excellent set of student handouts to help teams set up their process and keep track of their work.

The hard work now falls to the students, and your job is to check in regularly to monitor progress and help facilitate overcoming challenges as they arise. You are now on your way to open-ended student inquiry!  Next topic, reflection.

Suggested Resources:

  • Short stories about real projects you could analyze with students from beginning to end as an example of PBL:  
    • (2007). Heroes of the Environment!. Harriet Rohmer.  
    • (2004) Voices of Hope (Heroes’ Stories for Challenging Times) (Readings from the Giraffe Heroes Project)

Sara Krauskopf is a secondary science and math teacher and educational consultant.  For questions or comments, contact her at sjkrauskopf@gmail.com

© Copyright Sara Krauskopf 2015

The Nature of Inquiry: Asking Good Questions

questions

by Sara Krauskopf

“There are no bad questions.”  I hear educators say this all the time, but do we really mean it?   What is the nature of a “good question?”  How do we lead students through quality inquiry?  As someone trained in science education, I spent a great deal of time helping students develop “good” scientific questions.  When I formally began teaching with project-based learning (PBL), similar challenges emerged.  How do we help students develop and recognize good questions for inquiry and how do we facilitate them as they investigate the answer to that question?

Designing an inquiry project varies surprisingly little from subject to subject when you consider the skills and scaffolding needed for all of the steps of the process.  Obviously, investigating an inquiry into comparisons of insect diversity in different local habitats may require a different set of equipment and data analysis in comparison with a PBL project to start an after school program to keep students out of trouble if noone is at home. But the guidance and skills we would lead students through to design, plan and complete a true inquiry project in either case is very similar.  In this entry I will focus more on developing good questions, in the next installment we will look more to the process of answering the questions.

In science, a “good” scientific question is one that has never been asked before.  It should not be one you can look up the answer to online (What is the melting point of silver?); it should not (generally) be one that someone else has already researched (Do Sandhill Cranes mate for life?).  The question should be creative, yet explorable with realistic constraints.  Ideally, it can be answered through a series of focused experiments or observations.  Of course, as instructors we may still present students with a question with a known response because we want them to figure out how to find the pattern, or we recognize that they will understand the concept better if they run an experiment themselves and analyze the results (How does adding salt to water change the freezing point of the solution?). This is still inquiry and a valuable question to investigate.  It leads the students to discover new knowledge (to them) to discuss the scientific principles behind why something occurs.

Students in the field

The goal, however, of this narrowly-guided inquiry with a known outcome should be to lead students to more open-ended, original inquiries.  For example, after learning that salt water reduces the freezing point of water my students walked to Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin for some water quality testing in winter when the air temperature was below freezing (yes, I’m a bit crazy).  We happened to pick a dock near the outlet where a creek empties into the lake.  Students who had wandered over to the creek noticed that while most of the lake was frozen, the creek was not.  They began to wonder why the creek stayed open and why certain parts of the lake were not solid at this time.  The observation, subsequent questions and possible explanations originated from the students.  They suggested many possible explanations for this:  the water was moving quickly and therefore the molecules could not attract one another, get close enough and solidify; perhaps there was warmer groundwater seeping into this site; or maybe there were contaminants dissolved in the water that were keeping it from freezing.  Testing the validity of any of these ideas is good scientific inquiry.  It is unlikely anyone had tested the chemical composition of the water at that location on that day and an investigation of the water might reveal contamination with road salt, phosphorus, soil or other substances that would prevent freezing.  Did I set students up to ask these specific questions?  Not exactly, but I provided them with enough background knowledge to inquire about what they were seeing and ask good questions to seek new knowledge and understanding.

In my experience, teachers need to ask good questions to get students to ask good questions.  Providing a set of experiences, asking students to make observations of a situation that is somehow out of balance, or the presentation of a troubling scenario via video, guest speaker, or newspaper article are some of my favorite ways to lead students to write good questions for PBL or scientific inquiry.  If students perceive an injustice to a group of people or to a habitat it is easier for them to get involved and ask more questions.  Our students watched “Frogs: The Thin Green Line” from Nature on PBS about research into declining frog populations around the globe.  After seeing in the video that Minnesota students found frogs in a pond with three legs due to pesticide pollution, they wanted to learn more about the situation in Wisconsin.  Groups of students chose to research the status of frog populations in our local area, contacted researchers at the University of Wisconsin and read up on the situation here.

As a teacher at Badger Rock Middle School, we used essential questions to guide students over the course of a quarter or semester.  For example:  What type of waste does our community produce and where does it go?  How can we reduce the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill?   Using that broad, overarching theme, we ran a series of guided field trips and investigations of recycling centers, landfills, compost methods, repurposing waste, e-waste and other topics.  At the end of the unit, students designed their own projects to reduce the amount of waste going to a landfill.  Because they were exposed to such a broad range of topics, they could develop many original ideas to address our unique situation.

Leading students through a “think, pair, share” brainstorming process brings out a plethora of ideas for student projects.  To accomplish this I will either present a scaffolded set of open-ended questions or create a Frayer model. This will help students summarize what they already know about a topic and sets them up to generate questions they still want answered or describe possible solutions to the problems they encountered during the first part of the unit.  The Frayer model divides the paper into four boxes with a central theme.  In one box I might ask them to list the locations we visited and activities we did in our waste unit, in another list all the types of waste generated in our community; in the third box, describe the weaknesses in the systems we investigated, and in the fourth, write down ideas they have to reduce waste going to a landfill in our community.   I always ask students to complete a Frayer model or answer brainstorm questions on their own first or in pairs rather than completing it as a group right away.  It takes more time to do a “think, pair, share”, but you get many more ideas and the activity becomes far more inclusive.   Students spend time writing on their own with no restrictions.  I assured them there were no wrong answers for final suggestion question, and for the most part, the ideas pour out without hesitation.

Frayer Model

Adapted from the Frayer Model of Concept Learning
Dr. Dorothy A. Frayer

The next hurdle was whittling down ideas.  Students shared ideas in a small group, round-robin style.  They were only allowed to listen or ask clarifying questions, not comment on the plausibility of any idea.  From there we asked them to choose an idea that they might want to tackle.  Each group chose their favorite two or three ideas and shared them with the larger group while I kept a running list on the board.  Again, no critiques were allowed during brainstorming, only clarifying questions.

At this point I asked the students to list and consider some constraints.  What is their time frame for conducting the project?  What types of resources will they have at their disposal (money, space, human capital, equipment, etc)?  Can they complete this activity at school?  If they want to leave campus, do they have an adult available who can help them?  This helps them decide if this is a “good question” to investigate.  They came to realize there are practical constraints that make for a good question.  Their job then was to frame the actual problem they wanted to solve.  A few sample questions our middle schoolers decided to investigate included:  How can we help students at our school put waste in the correct bins?,  What would it take to refurbish a computer to reduce e-waste?  How do we make new items with old clothes to repurpose the fabric?

As an educator, do you have to plan in advance to have good inquiry?  No! Be spontaneous.  Sometimes the best questions arise from the news, a student experience on the way to school or something discovered on the playground.  Are you abandoning your curriculum if you let students pursue this spur-of-the-moment question?  Perhaps.  But will students learn and retain more if you let them investigate what they find engaging? Yes. It’s important to find the right balance.  It is our job as educators to champion good questions, but also to help students focus on taking the time to uncover the answers to their inquiries.  We can let them investigate whatever they want, or we can narrow the focus and target their inquiries within topics of our choosing.  It depends on your comfort level as a facilitator how far “off the mark” you are willing to go.  Be honest with them about what makes a good question and what constraints guide your decisions, and that will help students guide their own.  Encourage curiosity and creativity and those “good questions” should start emerging in your classroom.

Suggested resources:

  • NSTA Statement on Scientific Inquiry  
  • Galileo network:  A good explanation of inquiry with classroom examples in many K-12 subjects
  • Unboxed” A journal containing reflections and project ideas primarily from teachers at High Tech High, the school featured in “Most Likely to Succeed.”

Sara Krauskopf is a secondary science and math teacher and educational consultant.  For questions or comments, contact her at sjkrauskopf@gmail.com

© Copyright Sara Krauskopf 2015

Creating KTEC: Kenosha School of Technology Enhanced Curriculum

Creating KTEC: Kenosha School of Technology Enhanced Curriculum

The mission of Kenosha School of Technology Enhanced Curriculum (KTEC), a preschool – eighth grade charter school that engages all students in an innovative learning environment, is to prepare students through academic excellence by the use of 21st Century skills and technology integration. Students at KTEC are participants and collaborators in engaging lessons that integrate technology into all curriculum areas to ensure learning and higher order thinking skills.

The Kenosha School of Technology Enhanced Curriculum (KTEC) serves the needs of students in preschool through eighth grade.  KTEC opened with 325 students in the fall of 2007 and now is at capacity with 471 students and over 300 on a waiting list.

We all know that technology has revolutionized how people around the world work, play, and communicate.  Studies show that the meaningful integration of technology into the curriculum can enhance student learning.  Integrating technology in the curriculum also helps students improve the skills that are necessary to succeed in a future dominated by technology.

The IES (Institute of Education Sciences) Practice Guide, published by the U.S. Department of Education, presents evidence-based advice to practitioners working to encourage girls in mathematics and science. The Guide provides five recommendations for encouraging girls in mathematics and science, including the level of evidence to support each recommendation and guidance for carrying out each recommendation. These recommendations include the following:

  1. Teachers should explicitly teach students that academic abilities are expandable and improvable in order to enhance girls’ beliefs about their abilities.
  2. Teachers should provide students with prescriptive, informational feedback regarding their performance.
  3. Teachers should expose girls to female role models who have achieved in math or science in order to promote positive beliefs regarding women’s abilities in math and science.
  4. Teachers can foster girls’ long-term interest in math and science by choosing activities connecting math and science activities to careers in ways that do not reinforce existing gender stereotypes and choosing activities that spark initial curiosity about math and science content.
  5. Teachers should provide opportunities for students to engage in spatial skills training.

KTEC is headed in the right direction, utilizing the IES recommendations for the future of their students. According to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, in the next five years, STEM jobs are projected to grow twice as quickly as jobs in other fields. While all jobs are expected to grow by 10%, STEM jobs are expected to increase by 21%. Similarly, 80% of jobs in the next decade will require technical skills. The US Department of Labor claims that out of the 20 fastest growing occupations projected to 2014, fifteen of them require significant mathematics or science preparation. The U.S. will have over one million job openings in STEM-related fields by 2018; yet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, only 16% of U.S. bachelor’s degrees will specialize in STEM. As a nation, we are not graduating nearly enough STEM majors to supply the demand. To put these numbers into perspective, of the 3.8 million 9th graders in the US, only 233,000 end up choosing a STEM degree in college (National Center for Education Statistics).

One of the major tenets of KTEC is that staff members need to have training that fits the school’s mission as well as their own professional needs and interests. Dr. Angela Andersson, Principal of KTEC, is a leader who believes in shared governance and empowering staff members and parents to take the necessary steps to continue forward progress. As an example, staff members Michelle Zazula and Sarah McMillian have had ongoing national training in STEM practices and Project Lead the Way and are now training not only staff members in their own building but educators across the state and nation.  Scott Hodges has also been trained in myriad STEM approaches as well as Lego Robotics and uses his expertise to offer training across the nation as well.

In partnership with the Wisconsin Innovative Schools Network, KTEC staff have been sharing their practices with educators across the state and continue to do so with planned visitations and collaboration days throughout the 2013-14 school year. You can find out more by visiting InnovativeSchoolsNetwork.com or KTEC.kusd.edu.

It Takes Courage

Painted on the wall at WISN partner school’s Milwaukee College Prep’s (MCP) Lloyd St. campus is the following quote by Andrew Jackson: One person with courage makes a majority.  In my recent visit to MCP’s campuses on Milwaukee’s north side, the depth of compassion, collaboration, and community among their staff and scholars (students) emanated at every turn.  MCP takes Malcom Forbes’s stand that when you cease to dream you cease to live and they live this with their students every day.

Chief Operations Officer and Talent Recruiter, Dr. Kristi Cole, believes that an uncompromising K-8 education is the difference between dreams realized and dreams denied. When asked what the most important quality is that she looks for when hiring staff for MCP, she responded, “Without a doubt, it is professionals who believe in the hope that we offer our scholars.” It sort-of made me want to camp out there for the week.

In Alfie Kohn’s recent article entitled Encouraging Educator Change, he states, “We have to be willing to fight for what’s right even in the face of concerted opposition.” I believe that Dr. Cole and the teachers at MCP show a great deal of courage every single day. They take all students who apply contrary to what people may believe about Milwaukee charter schools. They offer significant staff development around their educational model for their teachers. They communicate deeply with the families of their scholars. Standing up and showing courage in a difficult system is no easy task.

Educators across our state and nation are showing courage every single day. The recent example of hundreds of Florida teachers who returned their ‘pay for performance’ checks is a goose bump-inducing example of such courage. It takes courage to enter into shared governance models and democratic decision-making. It takes courage to create and implement innovative models of instruction. It takes courage to stand up and speak out against high-stakes testing. It takes courage to teach.

Dr. Heather Terrill Stotts, Executive Director

Conquering the Testing Monster

Testing. Take off the -ing at the end and you have a dreaded “4 letter word”. We shouldn’t feel that way about testing as, of course, as educators, we know that the collection of relevant data helps us inform instructional practices.  However, the phrase “relevant data” is really important here.  This is talked about everywhere and I love this piece below that addresses this very issue.

The following is a post from Diane Ravitch’s Blog on June 17, 2013 titled First Grade Teacher: How I Conquered the Testing Monster 

In response to the question, “Can You Do the Wrong Thing in the Right Way?,” this teacher responded with a fascinating account of how she conquered the testing monster in her first-grade classroom.

She writes:

I’ve been thinking about testing too. A lot. I teach first grade. My students arrive at the tender age of 5 or 6 and exit at 6 or 7. I give my students 6 benchmark tests a year, 3 in literacy and 3 in math. This past year, 4 more tests were added to the roster – this time on computer. That adds up to 10 – yes 10 -multiple choice tests every year for children who still cry for their moms, pee on the carpet, fall asleep spread eagle on the floor, and poke, prod, tease, and growl at each other. Oh –did I say that the children can’t read, at least for the first third of the year –the first 3 or 4 tests?

I am told the tests are to help inform my instruction. But I know the truth. The tests are there in first grade to get the kids ready for the tests in second grade –the tests that really matter – the tests that will count on the schools’ API and AYP reports. (California tests 2nd grade).

As a pragmatist, I’m efficient, organized, hold traditional values, and like rules and order. I know how to do what is expected of me and how to show results. So I reasoned I could use these structural strengths to get the tests over with, show the expected results, meet the smart goals, so that I could move on to the creative part of teaching –the part that cannot be quantified– the part of teaching where I get to interact with the children I am charged with developing academically, I get to know their passions, fears, ideas, the part of teaching that educates children – where there are no borders between painting and reading and playing basketball and building towers and writing , the part of teaching that is magical, that combines knowledge of standards, expertise, and passion on the part of the teacher with excitement, willingness, surprise, and vision from children.

But that is not what happened. Every breathing space I created for myself and my students by my efficiency got filled up with another expectation. More students – 18 one year, 20 the next, 24 for a few years, then 26; a new policy of all-day, full inclusion of special needs children in the general education classroom; a neighborhood impacted by the housing market decline and its resultant mobile population – causing more to move in and out of my classroom during the year; a school in program improvement – in effect designated as failing, and the resultant punishments – more administrative scrutiny, narrowing of curriculum to math and reading, canceling of arts programs during the school day; flight of families to school with better scores; and noisy classrooms in buildings without connecting walls.

So I got tired. I got beaten down. I got discouraged. And if you think I had it bad, think of the kids. Imagine a teacher for them who is always cross, always serious, harps about the test, never takes the time to ask them how they are doing, is too busy to tie a shoe lace or rub a boo-boo. That is me. I cringe as I write this.

Standardized tests don’t just stop my students from thinking, they teach them not to think. Imagine a 5 year old child who doesn’t read, and may not even speak English. They look at an 8 by 11 inch white paper devoid of all but one or two sketches. They listen as I read the question to them. Then I read the 3 or 4 choices. They pick the choice and fill in the bubble. Imagine the time I spend teaching them how to find the question, scroll with their eyes through the 4 choices, all while listening to me drone on and repeat the question and the choices until all 26 of them have bubbled something in. Imagine that this one test has 8 pages of questions – 15 or 20 questions in all. No wonder I’m cross. No wonder their eyes are glazed and they are growling.

But it gets worse. I am complicit in this next part. Standardized tests actually make students stupid. Yes, stupid. Not only are the kids not thinking, they are losing the ability to think. In my zeal to get administrative scrutiny off me and my students, I mistakenly thought that if I give them the test results they want, then I could do what I know was best for my students. To that end I trained my students to do well in these tests. I taught them to look for loopholes; to eliminate and guess; to find key words; to look for clues; in short, to exchange the process of thinking for the process of manipulation. I capitalized on my knowledge of young children, and the fact that they want to please adults and like to get the answer “right”. I justified my actions by saying that I had no choice, that the consequences of low test scores at my school were too dire to contemplate, and I wasn’t willing to put myself in professional or financial jeopardy. Clearly, testing made me stupid too.

I can’t speak for all my fellow teachers at my school, but I suspect many of them would, at the very least, recognize similar behaviors in their test-teaching practices. So, when despite our best collective efforts at raising test scores failed and my school entered 2nd year program improvement, I surrendered my stupidity and started speaking up, and eventually speaking out. I read research, blogs, government publications, and journals. I read widely from educational, historical, economic, pediatric, and psychological literature. I challenged administrative authority at my school to do the same – read, think, debate, discuss, and much to my surprise, did not get rebuffed. Astonishingly, I got ignored.

At about the same time I woke up out of my testing-induced nightmare , I started to notice the monster I had helped create. My students were only happy when they got the answer right. For many years my collegues and I had noticed a trend in young children – a trend toward passivity in learning. We had theories – all the kids had TV’s in the bedrooms, they had far too much screen time – computer, games, cells, TV’s in cars, lack of adult supervision and interaction, lack of conversational models at home, lack of social models at home, the list went on. But what wasn’t on the list was what I was culpable for – I had become about the right answer. They wanted to please me. They knew that if they waited long enough I would help them find the right answer. And I did.

One day, during small group math rotation, I put up privacy boards during the practice part of a lesson on math reasoning. The story problem went like this: There are 10 buttons on my coat. 6 are red and the rest are blue. How many are blue? We have worked on these kind of problems frequently, and the children have seen them in test format. Using connecting cubes as buttons, the children had to make a model of the problem. Three kids cried that day. The stress of thinking for and by themselves got to them. You see, many of the children had become expert at copying – watching what other children did in the group to get an answer and then providing “their” answer a nanosecond later. The children did not trust themselves enough to even attempt an answer. Their discomfort was palpable, and I was appalled.

Crying notwithstanding, I continued to use privacy boards. I also started to coach the kids about my belief in their abilities. I found that as they worked out a math problem using manipulatives to represent objects, I could lean in and coach them, one to one. Then, when they all had their answers, we pushed down the privacy boards to explore what we had all done. Ever so slowly, over many weeks, they started to regain their confidence.

You might wonder why I had not been doing this kind of teaching all along. I had, 11 years ago, pre-NCLB. Testing, along with the breadth of the standards and the resulting mountain of material to cover, much of it developmentally inappropriate, slowly eroded my professional judgement. Pressure to produce results through collaboration and mind-numbing analysis sapped my energy. A constant barrage of media stories about the ineffectiveness of teachers, some of it supported by leaders at my own school, drowned my spirit. Then I heard you, Diane, speak as a guest of my district and union. I started to read your work and have never looked back.

So thank you from the bottom of my heart. You are truly brave. You inspire me to speak up and speak out. You remind me that knowledge is power –I had forgotten. Now I get my ducks in a row, collect my facts, back up my intuition and experience with research, and speak up without fear or rancor. And in the process of speaking up for myself, I speak up for my students. And ever so slowly I start to rebuild my confidence too.