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Direct Instruction? Sure, If You Don’t Want Einsteins!

We can't just box students in with direct instruction, yet some need to be taught how to explore!!
We can’t just box students in with direct instruction, yet some need to be taught how to explore!!

I get a bit hot under the collar–okay, a lot hot under the collar, when I read posts like this:

What Can We Learn from Direct Instruction and Siegfried Engelmann?

Don’t get me wrong. The blogger has definitely pulled together some key data on the benefits of direct instruction, where teachers demonstrate “how” and students then practice for mastery, for children in poverty. There are key reasons to use direct instruction.

But…not all students from poverty have the same learning needs. And this kind of instruction is what made Einstein and Edison drop out of school. And here’s my big point:

It isn’t EITHER Direct Instruction OR  Student-Centered Instruction. It’s both. 

Sorry to shout. But either/or thinking won’t work on this issue. Here’s three big reasons why.

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Caution: Use as Directed!

Me, a lover of Shakespeare, at the site of the original Globe Theater
Me, a lover of Shakespeare, at the site of the original Globe Theater

I was just 10 years old when I attended my first Shakespeare play, The Taming of the Shrew. My guess is that buying a ticket for me was cheaper than hiring a sitter. There I was, though, up in the first row of the balcony of Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater with one of my big brothers, watching Shakespeare.

I didn’t understand a single word of the first scene. I was not some sort of geeky, born-to-love-Shakespeare genius. I was truly wondering if staying awake was going to be worth it.

And then—something clicked in my brain. The language, the gestures, the plot, even the humor made sense. Katherina, Petruchio, Gremio, Bianca all came alive. It just took awhile for me to catch on.

My point? Shakespeare wrote his plays to be watched, not read.

When they’re well acted (huzzah for Kenneth Branagh and St. Crispin’s), students can enjoy them as intended. On paper, the words are foreign, stilted. Spoken, they can work their magic. Listen to a couple of examples of how Shakespeare sounded in the original to see what I mean!

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If the Common Core Devalues Narrative Writing, Who Are We Devaluing?

L Superior 2011-08-20 199Last week I voiced my concerns about decreasing the emphasis on narrative writing in schools, with more effort going to evidence-based argument and other skills that business and colleges say are essential.

Could we think beyond the needs of business for a moment?

My first reason for wanting to do so: Could we think of other cultures? And the high value placed on story as one conveys values, truths, societal norms, warnings, rules, wisdom and so much more through narrative? I’ve done some work with schools for Native American children, for example. In a powerful book, Our Stories Remember, James Bruchak says this about the use of narratives.

What is the place and purpose of stories? What is their proper use? Stories were never “just a story,” in the sense of being merely entertainment. They were and remain a powerful tool for teaching. Lesson stories were used by every American Indian nation as a way of socializing the young and strengthening the values of their tribal nation for both young and old (p. 35)

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Why Narrative Writing is Crucial For Students: A Warning for Common Core Implementation

Narrative within professional development nonfiction: Readers kept going past midnight, telling me, "I had to find out what happened to Josh!"
Narrative within professional development nonfiction: Readers kept going past midnight, telling me, “I had to find out what happened to Josh!”

As 46 states implement using the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), one big change is from the traditional amount of narrative writing students do to far more analytical and argumentative writing. As someone who knows and uses the power of narrative techniques in a considerable amount of business writing, this has me worried.

Susan Pimental, one of the primary authors of the standards, explained that the reason for the switch is

to reduce writing “opinion untethered to evidence” and “decontextualized” writing—writing not based on the reading of a text—in favor of writing that requires students to read, comprehend, and respond to text, grounding their interpretations in evidence found there. That shift reflects what young people can expect in college and work, she said. “In faculty and employer surveys, the kinds of skills that score high are the argument and evidence-related skills, developing ideas with relevant details and reasons,” Ms. Pimentel said. “Telling stories scores very low” (Gewertz, S11).

Really? Really? I can only guess that these employers and professors equate narrative writing with “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essays. REAL narrative writing is every bit as complex and every bit as crucial to businesses as “argument and evidence-related skills.” I’m not saying instead of. I’m saying both narrative AND evidence-related writing.

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New Teacher Goals

In my last blog, I discussed how my experiences with coaching myself as a cyclist parallel my most effective strategies for coaching teachers.

Setting individualized goals is a key component. When I first tried out my biking shoes, I aimed for my husband’s goal: clip in as much as possible. After the second fall, I changed my goal: clip in wherever it is safe. I unclip on any stretch of road or trail that might bring surprises.

Often, new teachers—or their mentors—assume that a strategy needs to be implemented just as other teachers use it. They end up either biting off more than they can chew at first, or struggling inordinately with something that looked so easy when modeled by a teacher with very different strengths. Think for example about ways to develop student responsibility for materials. A new middle school teacher wanted to use a colleague’s chart for tracking which class had the highest percentage of students who came each day with pencil, notebook, and homework.

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