Thoughts on Reading from @roddreher

I’m currently reading How Dante Can Save Your Life by Rod Dreher, which is a super compelling read. Great story-telling and wonderful personal insights into struggles that I’ve sort of had, but in a much different way.

From an educator’s standpoint, one quote stood out completely.

Books, even works of fiction, can be do it yourself manuals for people searching for the wisdom to fix their lives. Some of the best self-help books are not shelved in the self-help section. But don’t think that reading is the same thing as doing. When thinking about action as a substitute for taking action, reading is an obstacle to getting better. Reading a recipe and learning it back-to-front is not the same thing as baking a cake. Read certainly. But make sure you take time to contemplate in stillness and prayer (if you pray) what you have read and implement it in your life. The best books offer a window into life and truth, but their lessons only become alive and true for us if we take them into our hearts and by force of will turn them into action. The key is to know when to turn off the analytical mind and when to engage the will. (From about the 3:49:00 mark of the audio book version (sorry. I don’t have the page to reference.)

I suppose this quote resonated with me because from the time I was a young professional I wanted to improve my teaching and there are many books that I’ve read about it. I know many people like me who have used a similar strategy. But I suppose that I need to be reminded that you don’t get better simply by reading. You get better by reading, taking a moment to still your mind and contemplate and pray. Then making a choice and implementing through force of will (as Dreher puts it.) “Force of will” is an important phrase here because there’s always inertia that makes it easier to keep doing what you are doing, even if you know there’s a better way.

But keep reading and keep encouraging your students to do the same. But don’t think that you are naturally improving anything simply by the act of reading. Once you’ve read, what are you going to do next?

If you want them to read…

People (generally) like doing what they are good at. So they get better at it because they are practicing it more.

People (generally) don’t like doing things they aren’t good at. So they don’t get better.

Teachers have to figure out a way to strike the balance. We like to let kids do what they are good at (because they tend to engage more enthusiastically and produce more satisfying products). We also need to compel students to do the things they are not good at (because they need to get better at those things.)

So, adding tools to your tool box that can help students engage the things they are find interesting can take (sometimes) take the sting out of the fact that they are being asked to do something they aren’t very good at (like read… or solve math problems.)

One suggestion I had for the literacy side of this was The Literacy Shed. Here’s another. Check out Episode #14 of “Instructional Tech in Under 3 Minutes” on Wonderopolis. Wonderopolis is a site that allows the students to ask what they wonder. And what they’ll find is a diverse variety of articles developed around some of the most interesting “wonders” you can think of.

Check out Wonderopolis and consider what adding it to your EdTech toolbox could do for your students.

 

Morning reading – The Loudest Sound in the World

From the physics department, I started my morning with a fascinating bit of reading from FiveThirtyEight.

They hooked me with the intro line:

The questions kids ask about science aren’t always easy to answer. Sometimes, their little brains can lead to big places adults forget to explore. With that in mind, we’ve started a series called Science Question From a Toddler, which will use kids’ curiosity as a jumping-off point to investigate the scientific wonders that adults don’t even think to ask about.

You want to capture my attention? That’s a pretty good way to do it.

What follows is a really approachable discussion of sound energy that is designed to be understandable but doesn’t skimp on all the science-y goodies to do it. It also doesn’t shirk on the drama.

A sound is a shove — just a little one, a tap on the tightly stretched membrane of your ear drum. The louder the sound, the heavier the knock. If a sound is loud enough, it can rip a hole in your ear drum. If a sound is loud enough, it can plow into you like a linebacker and knock you flat on your butt. When the shock wave from a bomb levels a house, that’s sound tearing apart bricks and splintering glass. Sound can kill you.

Go ahead and give it a read. I’d consider using it in a high school physics course. Although, full disclosure: I can’t universally recommend FiveThirtyEight since I know they also write about a lot of other topics and not all of their writers stick to basic school-appropriate rules, like no swears.

It also mixes in a bit of history (some nice story-telling on the eruption of Krakatoa) and some nice unit discussions (hertz, decibels, some prefixes get in the mix, too.)

All in all, definitely an article worth checking out.

Mathematical Reading – Wrapping my thoughts up.

I have spent the last couple of posts discussing the value, need, and potential of considering mathematical reading an essential learning target in all math classes.

Typically, this isn’t a tough sell in the elementary world because elementary teachers are teachers of all things anyway. They teach reading, writing, science, math, (and in some cases, art, music and phys ed, too.)

Secondary folks, on the other hand, tend to exist is a more compartmentalized world. This is largely a product of the increase in sophistication and depth of the content as the public education sequences progresses toward graduation. It is simply unreasonable to expect educators to have a teachers-level knowledge base of biology, economics, civics, algebra, and literature, as would be required if freshman year structurally looked like first grade. Compartmentalization (or silos as is becoming a popular term) has downsides as well. And many of those downsides can be wrapped up in the all-too-often uttered phrase “It’s not my job.”

And in my years in education, I’ve heard “it’s not my job to teach reading” from math teachers many times. And I forgive them for saying it. Math is a world that communicates differently. Graphs, charts, symbols, equations… we do that stuff so that we don’t have to read.

And they have a point. Consider these mouthfuls:

“The sum of the squares of the legs of a right triangle is equal to the square of the hypotenuse”.

“The slope of a linear function is the coefficient on the independent variable when the function is written in slope intercept form.”

There’s a reason people (both mathematicians and students, mind you) look to use notation to represent those two statements. it is quite a bit easier for a student to say “well, y = mx + b… slope is the m.” And what’s more, that statement will work effectively more often than not. So what’s the problem?

Through the lens of solving math problems on a test, there probably isn’t much of a problem. But consider reading to be an essential problem-solving skill, then there’s a risk to consistently easing the reading burden. We might be navigating our students strategically away from something they’ll need.

And while this thought process was instigated by the releases based around the redesigned SAT, I wouldn’t simply use the test as the primary motivator for updating our math classes. I would prefer to examine what message the College Board is trying to send by insisting that their materials insist on such a high degree of literacy for all subject areas, even considering that they have a reading and a writing test already.

And the message might be worth listening to. And possibly not. Remember, the very first post in this 5-part series started with the words, “This post has questions. No answers in this post. Just questions.”

Now it’s on all of you to help answer my questions and there was a lot. Ready? Go!

The Math Reading Classroom

In my previous post, I make a case for reading becoming a necessary component of the math classroom.

It’s interesting to consider what would it look like to integrate “the reading of mathematics” into a secondary math course as an essential learning target. “Essential” in the sense that we explicitly teach it, assess it and report out student status on it.

You’d start by creating a learning objective (or borrowing one that’s already written). Then you create some success conditions. Then you create an assessment (or series of assessments) so that you have a tangible experience in your mind when you are designing the learning activities.

In my mind, reading would need to be treated like one of the Common Core’s Standards of Mathematical Practice. It isn’t math content. The reading experience would be designed to a certain grade level, but in order to properly assess the reading, you have might need to back off the intensity of the math.

Obviously, word problems are nothing new. But this would be a different kind of word problem. Using the word problems as a READING assessment instead of a math assessment is not something I’ve seen before… or done before. Reading assessments look like a reading passage with some strategic follow-up questions designed to examine a student’s reading comprehension. Seems like a word-problem-esque scenario could take on that feel.

I imagine something like this:

“Danny and Sandy both collect bottle caps. Whenever they get together, they bring all their bottle caps with them. Danny has four Coke caps, three Sprite caps, five Mountain Dew Caps, and a Faygo cap. He’ll have more Mountain Dew caps when the 12-pack that his mom bought is gone. Sandy has nine Coke caps, five Pepsi Caps, and nine Mountain Dew Caps. Sandy wants more Pepsi caps, but that will have to wait because her Dad came home with a Pepsi 12-pack of cans yesterday.”

Okay, this is not perfect and people who write test questions for a living would probably come up with something much better. But, this a fairly standard word problem set-up. So, what questions would we ask if what we’re really trying to do is assess a student’s ability to read instead of assessing his/her ability to do compute? Maybe questions like these:

From the evidence, which of the two do you suspect drinks more pop? Why?

How many more bottles of Mountain Dew do you think are left to drink at Danny’s house? Why?

After Sandy finishes the 12-pack of Pepsi that her dad just bought, how many Pepsi bottle caps will she have? Explain how you know that?

The reading passage is written at about a 6th grade level, depending on which index you use. The math in the questions is probably first or second grade. So, giving that passage and set of questions to a seventh grade class would only be valuable as a reading assessment. How well are the students comprehending the details of the situation? Details like Danny’s 12-pack of Mountain is eventually going to yield 12 caps and he’s already 5 caps into it. Sandy’s 12-pack of Pepsi will yield zero caps because the pops are all cans.

Asking those questions gives you a window into the ability that each student has to comprehend the text. But considering the possibility of assessing our students in this way leads to a couple of confrontation points.

First, I don’t know of any math teachers who have learning standards written for mathematical reading. Those would have to be developed. That’s not a small or insignificant step. We don’t want to get in the habit of assessing without clearly defined learning targets.

Second, our students usually skip word problems in their practice sets. We would have to build in structures that change that. Whether it’s taking some pages from the #FlipClass playbook, or using some cooperative learning structures, somehow the attitude around word problems would have to change. We don’t want to get in the habit of assessing things that we know the students aren’t practicing.

Third, if a student begins to fall behind, or regularly is assessing at a low level on the math reading assessments, most math teachers are not well-equipped to provide appropriate curriculum-based interventions in the area of reading. These exist, but math teachers are typically not trained in their use. We don’t want to get in the habit of asking teachers to do things they aren’t trained or equipped to do.

Confrontations aside, there’s a lot of potential here. Potential for student growth. Potential for interdepartmental collaboration. Potential for more holistic math classes. But as with all updates, redesigns and revisions, it needs to be done strategically, thoughtfully, and with the best interests of the teachers and students in mind.