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My Top Five Books That Made Me Think This Year

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAccording to goodreads.com (join me there—it’s great for keeping track of what you’ve read) I finished 117 books in 2013. I read just about anything, for if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that ideas, and new knowledge, and “aha’s”, and creativity, and laughter, and profound insights, can come from the strangest places. Here are five books that kept me thinking long after I closed the covers.

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. The author, a pottery artist, traces the history of Chinese figurines he inherited from an uncle, and thus learns of his Jewish ancestors’ rise to the very top of Parisian and Viennese society, their fates during World War II, and how they rebuilt their lives. I constantly found myself thinking, “How would I have handled both the triumphs and the tragedies? How would my family talk about it all?” If you decide to read it, I’d suggest

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The Right Kind of Lazy for Math

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Is math a chore or a fun puzzle?

What if students approached math problem sets as if they were fascinating puzzles rather than boring worksheets? And did great work while being lazy? Sound crazy? It’s not–and there’s a neuroscience connection!

Quick–multiply 19 x 24. Are you reaching for paper and pencil? Or a calculator? That’s what students (and adults) trained in algorithms do. My colleague, Dr. Dario Nardi, has gathered EEG images of dozens of college students solving such problems. Those trained in algorithms use just a couple areas in their brains for calculations. The good news is that they solve these problems quickly and accurately. The bad news? They don’t access the part of the brain used for skillful working of unusual problems.

Instead of reaching for paper or calculator, did you say to yourself, Well, I can make this easier and do it in my head…20 x 24 – 24. If so, you used more parts of your brain, connected with understanding the steps in a process, rotating images, and viewing things holistically. And, if you learned to use  strategies such as “friendly numbers” in collaborative groups, you also activated the speaking and listening areas of your brain. You did less work and fired more areas of the brain, creating new synapses for later, even more complex mathematical thinking!

This is the right kind of “lazy” for math.

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Any Initiatives Not Working?

P6141528Three times this weekend, friends relayed tales of woe regarding initiatives, strategies or decisions that aren’t working. All in casual conversation.

  • An accountability test for science is given to students with disabilities via computer voice. The computer mispronounces words such as “wind” and “lead” so that question meanings are changed. And students can’t adjust volume once it is set, even though portions are so loud that they pull off their headphones
  • Late in the year, teachers are asked to add a specific read-aloud to their curriculum to prepare for a school-wide event. Not only will it keep some teachers from finishing key curriculum units, but as they preview it, several do not believe it is age-appropriate
  • District-wide cuts in school office staff hours are made without consulting office staff workers. Turns out, several key personnel will not be in the office during the traditionally busiest weeks of the year.

All three of these situations are the result of two common leadership imbalances:

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Intellectual Persistence? Let’s Model It!

Yesterday, I completed a whopping one page in my newest book project (more on that later). Today I wrote an entire chapter. Same amount of time, different results. What happened?

Well for one thing, I wasn’t preoccupied with national elections. More importantly, though, I made myself plan for being as engaged and productive as I knew how to be. For writing, that means removing myself from the temptation of organizing my office or doing laundry (far more attractive than deep thought on a complex issue!), getting a good dose of exercise, and enhancing my environment with motivating music or other sensory touches.

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Aren’t Math Mistakes Beautiful?

It’s official. Here’s the research: having students analyze how math mistakes were made is more powerful than having them solve equation after equation.

I often show math professional learning communities a great film that Lucy West provided to me. Picture an 8th grade math class in an urban school. One girl explains the equation she developed to describe the number of tiles that surround the edge of a swimming pool. Her equation is correct, but instead of saying, “Right!” the teacher says, “Thank you for sharing. Who has a different answer?”

Another boy comes to the front, places his equation and diagram on the overhead projector and says, “After hearing her answer, I think I’m wrong, but I can’t figure out my mistake. Who can help me?” And the other students, not the teacher, analyze the two threads of thinking and determine not just which is correct, but how the second student got off track. The teacher intervenes only to help the students make their diagrams clearer and ask for reasoning.

Powerful, isn’t it.

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The Benefits of Working With PLC Styles

Last week I introduced four professional learning community (PLC) styles that provide a framework for deep collaboration.

  • Pragmatic PLC: Teachers who prefer this style want ideas and resources they can use tomorrow.
  • Supportive PLC: Teachers who prefer this style are looking for modeling, co-planning and expert advice.
  • Collegial PLC: Teachers who prefer this style love to share ideas and strategies while retaining some freedom to be creative and put their own stamp on their classrooms.
  • Intellectual PLC: Teachers who prefer this style enjoy delving into why things work, the research and theory behind new ideas, and how they fit with what they already know and do.

You can read about the styles

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What’s Your Professional Learning Community Style?

 

Contrasting Styles Add Spark!

What do you want out of collaborative time? Has your team ever discussed the best way to use that time? One method for understanding each other’s wants and needs is to explore four overall styles that describe different ways that teachers

  • Learn
  • Communicate
  • Value forms of data
  • Benefit from support

While all of us can flex, and benefit from learning in different ways, collaboration is more effective for everyone if no one is constantly left out. 

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Does Your Professional Learning Community Have a Coaching Culture?

If your PLC is endeavoring to go beyond data analysis to deep collaboration that has an impact on student learning, establishing a coaching culture creates the necessary trust. What is a coaching culture? Here are some key markers, available as a handout at the Solution Tree site for my book Creating a Coaching Culture for Professional Learning Communities. Which apply to your team?

  • Members welcome diversity as a tool for making better decisions and use a common framework to communicate more clearly and understand other viewpoints
  • Members can ask questions, share beliefs, challenge ideas, and disagree with each other as part of their mutual commitment to adult learning and improved student achievement;
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Are We Open to Finding Answers?

Before you read this, read Bill Ferriter’s great recent blog, Are We Asking the Right Questions?  He is spot on about the dangers of focusing too much on “right answers” when asking questions about what is and isn’t working in schools. “Why did this student answer this question wrong?” is a far different question than “Can this student use what we’ve taught to innovate in some way?” Bill points out,

Phrases like “what would happen if” and “why should we believe in” that play a regular role in the language of innovators and entrepreneurs are replaced with phrases like “do you know how to” and “what do you remember about” which do nothing more than emphasize the skills required to find the right answers to someone else’s questions.

As an outside consultant, I’m often struck by how reluctant or even afraid professional learning communities can be to raise, and then seek answers to, questions involving anything but instruction and testing these days, even when finding answers might improve student outcomes. !

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