Why We Teach, 2019

Only a few years ago, the “office humor” that circulated among educators on the Internet went something like this: “You know you’re a teacher if…” 

The ensuing list of indicators would have made anyone outside the profession wonder why on earth a person would become a teacher in the first place, never mind staying on year after year. The list highlighted job features like these:

  • no social life from August to June
  • high susceptibility to chicken pox, colds, sore throats, and flu 
  • a compulsion to put grades on grocery lists, telephone messages, and junk mail

But office humor these days is dark. It’s more than simple comic relief. Teacher salaries are lower than ever and the workload itself is greater: more students, more classes, more documentation, more standardized tests. Snowplow parents, the glare of the media, and public shaming on Facebook. Fewer substitutes, less funding for programs, and even less money for teachers. All of it is true. All of it is anguishing.

So why in the world would anyone become a teacher? Why would they stay on?

Because there’s another story.

  • It’s the young woman whose resume landed her a full-time job–the resume you gave up your lunch period to help her compose.
  • It’s the math students you’ve driven to Saturday competitions and the art students you’ve entered in contests so they can test their strengths and hone their skills.
  • It’s the “struggler” who didn’t like to read, the one you worried about and stayed after school to help, who finally confessed when he finished a novel you suggested, “This is the first book I’ve ever read cover to cover.  I really liked it, too.”
  • It’s the girl who said, “I didn’t have any friends until I joined your club!
  • It’s the student whose lines you listened to over and over and over again until you could recite them yourself–but the play was a success and the student was a star.
  • It’s the ones you’ve stayed up all night for at the after-prom and the lock-in. 
  • It’s the ones you’ve monitored early in the morning on “study table”–it kept them eligible for sports and it kept them in school.
  • It’s the ones you’ve written college recommendations for and hugged  when they told you the good news: “I’ve been accepted!”
  • It’s the ones you’ve helped in the library when they “couldn’t find anything.”
  • It’s the boy who said, “You made me work.  You taught me how to study–and now I’m going to college!”  This is the boy you agonized about on the weekends and lost sleep over at night because no one at home seemed to be helping.
  • It’s the ones who’ve come back from Middle School to say, “You really did know what skills I’d need in sixth grade!”
  • It’s the children for whom you’ve been a stand-in parent on Family Nights.
  • It’s the ones you’ve taught how to run computer programs–students who weren’t even in your classes.
  • It’s the ones for whom you’ve paid the field trip charge.
  • It’s the ones to whom you’ve given lunch money.
  • It’s the ones you’ve bought winter coats.
  • It’s the children upon whose doorsteps you’ve left holiday gifts–and then driven quickly away.
  • And it’s the light in their eyes and the lift in their voices when they learn how to read, or convert fractions, or understand covalence, or give a speech, or shoot a basket, or play the clarinet, or fix a car’s transmission…  

 Ask any educator: stories like these are the sustaining force in our professional lives, the compensation for those skipped lunches, sleepless nights, constant criticism, and endless piles of paperwork that consume the evenings and weekends. 

It’s the kids.  They’re the reason why we teach and the reason why we stay.

A Harvest of Lessons

It’s harvest time now in the Midwest. Driving across central Indiana and Illinois last weekend, I noticed all the harvesters in the fields, the golden pyramids of corn in the grain carts, the dust that swirled around the car from combines close to the highway. I wasn’t the one driving, so I had some time to gaze into those fields and reflect on some valuable lessons taught to me by my students—specifically, by my FFA students.

I live in a farming community and have taught in the same (at one time, mostly) rural district since the early 1980s. I grew up in the town where John Deere’s headquarters are still located and where J. I. Case, Minneapolis-Moline, and Allis-Chalmers all had manufacturing plants. Moline, Illinois: The Plow City, it was called.

But I was not a farm kid myself. I was pretty ignorant, when I first started teaching in Indiana, not of the importance of farming, but of the realities of farm life.

I learned some important lessons early on.

That very first year I was teaching 8th grade English, and in early May, I assigned a research paper to my students. Our school library was pitifully small; the only non-fiction sources on the shelves were encyclopedias and magazines like Good Housekeeping and US News and World Report. Not likely we’d find information on the various topics I’d asked students to choose from. So I did the logical thing: I required kids to go to the public library. In some cases, that meant as much as 40 miles round trip on a week night.

A dad set me straight right away. His son delivered a handwritten note the very next day (This was pre-email, pre-telephones in the classroom, and certainly pre-cell phones): “Mrs. Powley, This is planting season. My son is needed in the fields. He will not be going to the library after school.”

In my city life experience, going to the library was routine. It had never occurred to me that a family wouldn’t just drop everything at any time and take their son or daughter to town. I can’t remember now if we changed the boy’s topic or if I found resources for him myself or whether I waived the library requirement—but I sure learned something about flexibility from this experience. More than that, I learned how important it was to know and understand my students and their lives outside my classroom. Had I known more about the community I was in, I would have done what I did the next year: I still required the students to go to the public library—but I moved the assignment to March.

Another year, my teacher was a student who didn’t seem to take my senior composition class very seriously. He was frequently late with assignments and often tardy to my first-hour class. One day, after I’d repeatedly tried to shame him into caring about what I had to offer, he came bursting into the classroom half an hour into the lesson. He slipped into his seat and tried to avoid creating a ruckus, but he was out of breath and his shoes were all muddy. I was on the verge of chastising him once again when he blurted out, “The cows got out!” Suddenly, pronoun antecedents didn’t seem so important, and I learned something about humility. This boy was carrying a man-sized load on his family’s farm. No wonder he was behind all the time. In this case, the office excused his tardy–and I approved.

In another class, another year, yet another student talked to me—talked to the class, really, in an oral report on the pioneers of the West—about the way the soil compacted wherever the wagon trains rolled. The traces of their travel remained, showed up decades later in fields where crop growth lagged in just those places the wheels had turned over and over again. The same is true today when heavy machinery packs the earth—in forests, in fields, and even in sand. In this case, the lesson for me was about variety. Not always doing the same thing I’d done the year before and the year before that. Plowing fresh ground and rotating crops means richer conditions and better yield. The same was true of my lessons, my units, the books we read, the papers we wrote. I stayed fresh and my classes were more engaging for it.

In any community, there are mores and considerations that teachers need to understand in order to serve their students. That doesn’t mean we surrender our authority or give over our instruction, but rather, that we work in harmony with the people we serve. That’s one reason why parent-teacher conferences are important. We learn more about the families in our communities—who they are, what they do, what they hope for and expect from their children and from us. And parents learn about us—who we are, what matters to us, what we have to offer and what we expect from our students. Successful teachers develop partnerships with their students’ parents.

It’s why coaching a sport or sponsoring a club matters. It’s why attending school events registers positively with students and parents. We show we care about our kids and care about community when we show up, give of our time, engage. We build rapport. When we understand the community, we know when to be flexible, when to show some humility, and when it’s time to try something new.

All of these lessons, a rich harvest, taken from the fields and learned over time in my American classroom.

What Teachers Can Do for the Children at the Border

Reporters were let in—but only to a limited area of the Clint, TX facility. No pictures allowed. No interviews with the children being held there. No inspection beyond the prescribed tour route. No visible evidence of toys or books or art supplies or anything to distract children during the day—except one TV in one small area and a basketball hoop outdoors where no children were playing.

But supplies and food—and yes, toothbrushes—were on the shelves in the storerooms the reporters were allowed to see—suggesting, of course, that the children were being fed and cared for.

This facility was designed for 100 occupants for an 8-12 hour stay. Instead, as many as 700 were held at one time and for as long as 30 days. Then, lawyers went public with information about the inhumane conditions.  By the time reporters got in, “only” 300 children were being held there. Shortly after that, 249 children were removed—and then 100 were brought back in.

This morning, another report has surfaced. This one includes interviews the lawyers had with the children, the occupants of the facility. The children verify what the lawyers originally reported: ill-fed and ill-cared for children, filthy conditions, sickness, and neglect. In short, conditions that inflict trauma that will last a lifetime.

The current conditions are deplorable, dangerous, nightmarish. For these children, imprisonment follows the horror of separation from their parents. But even if current conditions are alleviated, these children have already suffered from trauma that will mark their entire lives.  We know from the ACES studies conducted years ago by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and from our personal experience in the classroom with our own students—American-born as well as immigrants and refugees—that childhood trauma impacts learning. It interferes with cognitive processing, provokes inappropriate behavior, results in poor mental health, and leads to medical problems, social problems, economic problems in adulthood. In other words, a lifetime of strains on society. We know from the research on epigenetics that trauma is processed in our genes–and transmitted to future generations. So this nightmare does not end.

When these children are released to their families in America, they will soon or eventually be in our classrooms where we will do what teachers always do: help them, teach them, love them–fiercely. But we will not be able to erase their experience. If they are returned to their own countries, they will be further damaged by desperate conditions that will not have changed in their absence. At Clint, TX and other detention centers in this country, we are creating future miseries as well as current ones for these children.

Perhaps the monies appropriated by Congress yesterday will alleviate this situation and similar ones at other centers. But if our attention is diverted, new situations and new abuses will surface. One bill passed by Congress and one stroke of a pen will not permanently solve the problem, will not prevent recurrence. The money will run out and the outrage will settle down—unless we remain vigilant, committed to righting this wrong, and vocal.

We are teachers. We have experience with childhood trauma. Who better to speak for the children? We must educate ourselves about what is happening to immigrant and refugee children now; send money to organizations working for their well-being when we can; write and call our representatives in Congress with our concerns; reach out to our colleagues, our students, their parents, and our friends; and let our voices be heard—over and over again. We owe it to the children.

Further Reading:

Pitzer, Andrea. ‘Some Suburb of Hell’: America’s New Concentration Camp System. NYR Daily, New York Review of Books, 21 June 2019. 

Romero, Simon. “‘Don’t Talk to Her’: A Glimpse Inside a Troubled Border Station Housing Migrant Children.” New York Times, New York Times.com, 26 June 2019.  

Rose, Joel and Bobby Allyn. Scenes Of Tearful, Flu-Stricken And Underfed Migrant Kids Emerge In New Accounts.” npr, 27 June 2019. 

Saving the Lake

Dear Readers and Followers,

You may have wondered what has happened to me. I haven’t been blogging much this past semester.  My writing energies have been directed toward completing a book I began 25 years ago: Saving the Lake.  I am excited to tell you that it is available now on Amazon. This book is definitely about education, but it’s a very personal education story.  And in this case, my American classroom was outside, in the woods of northern Wisconsin. Here’s what the back cover says:

  A string of freshwater lakes nestled on a 2200 acre woodland preserve in Langlade County, Wisconsin, had been the summer setting for my family for four generations. I wanted to write about this natural environment, weaving experiences from my childhood with knowledge of the natural world, but I was an English teacher and it had been years since college biology. I needed to educate myself.

Armed with identification keys, mosquito netting, a camera and a notebook, I stepped into the Wisconsin woods to learn first hand about the lakes and the forest and to observe the changes in this woodland environment as the summer progressed. But it was grief that powered my quest, and some matter of the heart as much as ecology that I was seeking to understand.

This book is a memoir of family and place, a story of loss and recovery and learning to let go. 

The summer of study and reflection chronicled in this story was funded by a 1993 Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship Award.

If you teach in Indiana, you know about the Lilly grants. Every year, the Lilly Endowment (the philanthropic arm of the Lilly pharmaceutical company) awards grants to teachers so they can pursue a passion that will renew and refresh their spirit. The spillover to the classroom is just that: renewal.  For most people, a Lilly grant is life-changing. It certainly was for me.

My Lilly grant took me both back in time and forward in time. This past September, I returned to the Northwoods with my brother, to revisit the places we had known and loved as children and as adults. Suddenly, there was an epilogue to this story, and I took the manuscript out of the family trunk.

My amazing colleague Amanda Cox, with whom I have collaborated for years on science topics and science writing, urged me to publish the book. She produced the beautiful drawings that accent each chapter and helped me with the technicalities of independently publishing on AmazonHave a look! 

Night in Rwanda

Reading this post again today, on the 25th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, and on the start of the 38th Holocaust Remembrance Conference in my home town,  is chilling. If you are my former student–or even if you are not–what do you see? Do you remember? What can you do? Every voice matters.  https://sarahpowley.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/night-in-rwanda/

 

 

Improve Their Reading While They’re Reading

You’ve set them up to read with understanding, but is there anything students can be doing while they are reading that will help them understand?  A lot of kids just seem to drift away when they start reading…

Students are taught “during reading” practices throughout elementary school. When they get to secondary school, teachers stop using the language of reading and stop reminding students to employ the practices their elementary teachers have taught them. Maybe we should take a step back. Here are several of those “during reading” practices that secondary teachers can encourage, too:

Self-monitoring: All readers need to stay on top of their understanding. Most of us do all right with stories, but when it comes to non-fiction, especially if the text is difficult, we can get lost–or drift away. One strategy that helps is to consciously summarize the text at the end of each paragraph or chunk of text. Many of us do this automatically. A teacher taught us the trick or maybe we learned it on our own.

So it is with students. If a student can’t articulate the main idea of the paragraph, then understanding is incomplete. Coach them to stop, summarize (to themselves) what they’ve just read, and then go on. That means reading will take longer. Tell them that taking longer is okay. Non-fiction, especially, is harder than fiction–words and concepts are new, not as easily assimilated as when you are reading a story.

This lack of understanding is also one of the main reasons plagiarism happens. The student doesn’t understand what he or she has read; thus, can’t summarize. What sometimes is called “laziness” or mistaken for deliberate cheating is really lack of comprehension. Have the student practice summarizing a chunk of reading aloud–as if explaining to a parent–before writing a sentence or paragraph for their research report.

Visualizing. Elementary students are taught to make a movie in their heads. If it’s fiction, they are taught to create a mental storyboard. If it’s non-fiction, they’re taught to diagram, chart, map, or create a mental table as well as storyboard the content. The very popular sketch noting, or visual notetaking, is a variation on this theme. Ask students to draw what they have read and see what happens. Some kids thrive on this way of processing information.

Relate to prior knowledge: When reading an informational piece, ask students to form hypotheses about the text (predict) rather than simply recall prior knowledge. They’ll read with the purpose, then, of discovering whether their hypotheses are correct.  Also, by NOT asking for personal experience stories (elicited by the “Have you ever…” question), their connections will be connections to real content, not just to the mention of a topic. For a really insightful description of this kind of questioning, read The Comprehension Experience. (If you’re local, borrow it from me.)

Make connections to the text as they read: This is similar to the concept of connecting to prior knowledge, but it’s about teaching students to make even more connections while they are reading than they already have. To consider how the idea they are reading is like, unlike, supports, contradicts, etc. something they’ve read, seen, heard, tasted, or experienced before. For example, any cook will tell you that when they read a recipe, they’re thinking not just about the ingredients for the recipe at hand, but how that recipe is a variation on another they know–how the addition of one certain spice and the removal of another will affect a taste they already know.

Recently, I watched a video of a teacher working with her 7th grade class on a percent problem. Before they ever learned the formula for solving the problem, the teacher asked the students to consider how this problem was like other percent problems they’d encountered and how it was different. Later, the students went on to solve the problem, of course, but first they considered “same” and “different” and that helped them make sense of the new problem.

Use text structures to help them understand: In fiction, text structure means the story arc. Students learn this structure from the cradle (if their parents read to them).  As humans, we’re “hard-wired” for story anyway. That means we try instinctively to make a story out of information we receive.

Except for chronological order (which is, of course, related to “story”), the structures of non-fiction aren’t so readily apparent: cause/effect, problem/solution, analysis, order of importance, comparison/contrast. Help students learn the markers for these structures so they can get a mental outline of the text before they start reading. For example, you can augment understanding by simply saying something like this: “In this article, the author discusses two different interpretations of this historical event and gives his opinion on those interpretations.” By outlining the article for the students, you’ve boosted their comprehension of it from the get-go. Probst and Beers eludidate non-fiction structures in their second Notice and Note book, Reading Non-fiction. (You can borrow this one from me, too.)

Question themselves: Do I understand? What can I do if I don’t? Where did I stop understanding? Should I go back? Should I slow down?  (The answer is “yes.”)

When a text is difficult because the content is new, or we’re tired, or too much is going on externally, all of us stop paying attention when we read. This can happen with fiction and non-fiction. Students have been trained to be conscious of having lost the thread. Most know to go back to the place where they last remember understanding and start over at that spot. As secondary teachers, we can remind them of that strategy for recovery.

Be conscious of skimming patterns: What students are liable to do when they first start drifting is to skim; that is, to puddle-jump across the lines of text, one line at a time. Skimming is a perfectly fine way to take in information when all you want is the gist or if it’s the first time through a piece of difficult text.  But all too often, this “academic” skimming turns into Z and F.

Z and F skimming styles are unconscious but entirely natural patterns of eye movement that web designers capitalize upon to ease our intake of social media and website content. Because so many of our students spend so much time on social media, these skimming patterns may have become second nature to them.

The layout of a social media page like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter is an F pattern. Google searches come back in an F pattern. Websites, especially places you want to order merchandise from, are set up to read in a Z. Neither of these skimming patterns is efficient for academic articles or for textbooks, whether print or electronic.

The task for us is to alert students to Z and F so they can monitor their skimming behavior and adjust to the kind of skimming that’s appropriate for academic texts and textbooks, whether in print or electronic: puddle-jumping.

 Reading comprehension is an amorphous, abstract thing. Our ability to understand what we read doesn’t grow in a linear fashion or at a measured pace. It’s hard to pin down–no different than holding on to a cloud. What we do know is this: The more we read, the more we understand; the more we understand, the more we bring to the next text we read. Learning how to help yourself understand what you read doesn’t end after elementary school, and there’s a lot we secondary teachers can do to boost our students’ understanding.

Balancing Act

In view of recent events, a comment on “snowplow parenting”:

In an American Classroom

Earlier in the week, we had sleet and freezing rain; falling temperatures in the early hours of the day created patches of ice on the roads and walks.  Driving to school that morning, I saw a small figure straddling the sidewalk a block ahead of me: a very tiny woman, I thought, trying to walk on the ice.  Her arms were extended parallel to the sidewalk, and they jerked alternately up and down, in the way of someone trying to maintain balance.  She wasn’t making much progress.

But as I drew closer, I realized that the little old woman I was seeing from behind was actually a very young girl.  Her pink cotton scarf was tied babushka fashion, and her snow jacket was too big. She wore a skirt that peeked out from under the jacket and hardly covered her knees. Heavy black boots with thick rubber soles accentuated her thin legs…

View original post 665 more words

Reading Comprehension: Set Them Up to Understand

I’ve been immersed in the world of reading comprehension and strategies for teaching reading for quite a while now. My last post was about reading e-texts successfully, but for the next several weeks I am going to back up and write about reading comprehension itself, especially as it applies to secondary students and teachers. The next several posts are specifically for classroom teachers of all subject areas, but if you’re a parent reading this, the concepts and strategies I outline constitute a significant part of the reading comprehension instruction in an American classroom.

Did this ever happen to you? Your college professor told you to read a huge chunk of text by, say, Wednesday and come to class prepared to discuss what you read.  Because the topic was new to you, it was sometimes hard to figure out what to focus on. You got to class and found out you’d paid attention to things the professor didn’t think were important at all. High school and middle school students have problems like this, too. 

We teachers can set our secondary students up for success in the same ways elementary teachers do.  First of all, we can “preview” what’s important. Here are some ways to do that: 

New words: Think about the important vocabulary that the students will encounter in the reading you’ve assigned. If the words are technical, and they’ll be encountering them for the first time, you can increase their comprehension by explaining those words before they read the text.  For example. You might say, 

“When you read tonight, you’re going to come across these three words: ________, _______, and ________.  They’re really important to understand, so here’s what they mean.“

And then explain. 

When the student encounters these words in the text that night, it will be for the second time, not the first, and they’ll already have a little bit of “prior knowledge.” That will help them make sense of the new term in context. 

Create a Trailer: Alert students to a key scene in a story or a concept in non-fiction so they’ll know when they get there that this matter is important.  Naturally, you don’t want to spoil the suspense or give away so much they won’t read the chapter, but you might say something like “In tonight’s reading, Juliet is going to fake obeying her father. Pay attention to what he does next. It will be important to the rest of the story.”  

You can go farther than hinting at a significant scene and even dramatize an upcoming chapter. You still don’t give the ending away, though. The point of a trailer is to build suspense, not satisfy curiosity.

If it’s non-fiction and the students will be reading about a new concept–say a principle in biology–explain the basic concept first. When they read the details, they’ll already have the main idea and will be filling in the blanks.  

Refresh and Move Forward: Take a minute to summarize the previous day’s reading. That quick summary creates the flow that’s so necessary when you’re working with information that moves from one point to the next. 

Set a purpose: Explain to the students why they are reading something. Understanding skyrockets when students know the purpose and what they are going to be doing with the information. Here’s part of why: The reading method they–or I–employ usually matches the purpose for reading.

  • If I am reading for basic information, I may skim the selection.
  • If I am reading to understand an argument, I’ll read the selection carefully.
  • If I am reading for specific terms that I’ll be expected to remember, I’ll scan.
  • If I am reading to add to prior knowledge, I will make the connections as I read.
  • If I am reading for amusement, I’ll probably read in a comfy chair.

Make an explicit homework assignment: This is related to the purpose. If it’s basic information you’re after, supply a graphic organizer or a guided reading sheet or even a set of questions to direct the reading. Let students know they’ll be quizzed on the material (if they will). Let them know if you intend to go over the information or if you plan to take off from there on the assumption that they understand all the basics. If you’re not going over the reading, but they’re expected to understand it, they’ll read more carefully if they know that ahead of time. 

Even if you do intend to discuss the reading in class, without a task to complete–like filling in a graphic organizer–many students will skim the text, not read with attention. Here are some other ideas for explicit homework assignments.  Notice how differently a student would read a text for each of these assignments.

  • Select what you think is the writer’s strongest argument and explain why.
  • As you read, think of another story (or character, or situation, etc.)  that is like this and explain how they are alike.
  • Keep a timeline of significant events.
  • Copy 5 figures of speech the author uses in these ten pages and name the figure of speech.
  • Write down what you thought was the most surprising part of the story so we can take a class poll and discuss why these parts were surprising.

Make sure they know how to use the tools they have in their hands: Many secondary students still have trouble understanding the function(s) of the parts of their textbooks. They may never have been shown the index, for example, so they don’t know what it’s for. 

Here are the usual parts and common text features of textbooks:

  • title page
  • diagrams
  • sidebars
  • table of contents
  • labels
  • highlighted text
  • headings
  • illustrations
  • italics
  • photographs
  • graphs
  • bold print
  • tables
  • captions
  • color coding
  • charts
  • bulleted lists
  • bolded words

Secondary students generally have the most trouble understanding the difference between the Table of Contents and the Index. If they’ve never used the Table of Contents or the Index in their texts, they will not use these two tools well in a reference book that is NOT a textbook. In fact, they have to be explicitly shown how to use these two aides to understanding. So, if you are sending them off to research something, be sure to remind them that the Index will help them find a specific topic and the Table of Contents will reveal the organization of the book and the main ideas.

When a science teacher (for example) says “Read pages x to y,” many students think “read” means reading like a novel in English class. If you teach a subject that relies on charts, maps, diagrams, tables, and illustrations to deliver information, be sure to tell your students that valuable information is packed into these study tools and that they should pay attention to these parts of the text, too. Once again, the students have to be explicitly shown. 

Finally, obvious as it is to us, many students think the color coding, fonts, and different font sizes in a text are artistic flourishes. Even the text features like these are deliberate keys to understanding. Make sure your students are aware of these text features. 

All of these “before reading” strategies have been taught to students by their elementary teachers, but secondary teachers can learn from them: A little pre-reading instruction goes a long way toward understanding what you read.

 

Reading E-Texts Successfully: What It Takes

  • I’m not tech-savvy
  • I get headaches
  • My eyes hurt
  • Trouble navigating around the book
  • Can’t find the glossary or index
  • Lose my place
  • Forgot what I just read
  • Computer freezing or kicking me out of the program
  • Easily distracted
  • Don’t have Wi-Fi
  • Hit the wrong x and it closes me out
  • Words are too small
  • Flipping pages takes too much time

Sound familiar?  These are among the litany of complaints students have about e-textbooks. Teachers have the same complaints.

More importantly, current research is telling us that comprehension takes a hit with e-texts.  Some of that slippage has to do with navigational issues. For example, research tells us that when scrolling is required, comprehension suffers. When students have to switch screens—as opposed to flipping pages—comprehension takes another hit. Some of the hit is because of visual fatigue or issues with layout. It could be the screen is too bright or that the words are spread too wide across the page.  Fiction is less of a problem than non-fiction, but when an on-screen text exceeds 500 words, for all of us, comprehension generally decreases. Most of us print articles out when the text length reaches some personal threshold. Some people just miss the tactile pleasure of holding a book in their hands and may skim an e-text instead of really reading it.

So why don’t we just go “back to books?”

I’d sure like to—and most of the students I’ve talked to would like that, too. But e-textbooks are economical—ask any school district that has to expend thousands of dollars on textbooks every year. E-texts are cheaper and they don’t get worn, torn, or broken, either.

E-texts are portable and the content is accessible across devices. This is about the only thing most students do like about their e-texts. They don’t have to lug heavy books around all day and back and forth from home to school. In a pinch, they can even access the e-book on their phones.

E-texts are far more environmentally-friendly. Trees are our renewable resource, paper manufacturers like to say, but it takes an awful lot of trees to manufacture one textbook in the quantity needed by schools across the country. Here’s a shocking statistic.

E-texts can do things paper books can’t. E-texts offer interactive features such as pop-ups for vocabulary; pop-outs and mouse-overs for explanations of, say, features on a map; audio/video players; guided reading questions; additional problem sets; flashcards, highlighters, and other study tools.

In short, for all these reasons, e-texts have their merits—and their supporters—no matter how much students and teachers complain, no matter what the research says about comprehension.

So what’s a teacher to do?

One of the concepts I gleaned from a semester of reading original education research, magazine articles, academic websites offering advice to students, and books (in print) is this: When students read an e-text, each of them creates a unique reading pathway. The figures, tables, and charts they look at, the hyperlinks they click on, the order in which they click on those links, what searches they conduct, what options they choose from drop-down menus, whether they return to previous chapters and charts, consult the index or the table of contents, use the audio player or avail themselves of the study tools the text provides—all of those actions fall within their control. In a print text, the options are limited and students are accustomed to starting at the beginning and reading to the end. In an e-text, they’re in the driver’s seat.

It stands to reason that we should teach them the rules of the road.

My colleague, Mrs.Tasha Ploss, who teaches Honors Chemistry, and I set out this past semester to do just that.  We set out to learn what it takes to read an e-text successfully.

We classified what we learned about effective and efficient e-text reading into three categories:

  • Know Your Device
  • Know Your E-textbook
  • Know Your Mind

Know Your Device: We were shocked to discover how many of our students didn’t know some of the basic functionalities of their devices—in our district, those devices are Chromebooks.  

Many of the students’ initial complaints were about eyesight issues and headaches.  On a pre-instruction survey, 67.7% indicated they did not know how to invert the color on their screens—to make the print white-on-back (“night vision” as Mrs. Ploss calls it).  She showed them. There was an audible response from the students when the colors inverted right before their eyes. Fewer students—24.6%–didn’t know they could adjust the brightness levels on the Chromebook.

From conversations with the students, Mrs. Ploss also determined that many of the students simply could not remember quick keystrokes such as screen shot, using ctrl + “F” to find a word on the page, and select/highlight the full text.  A whopping 58.5% did not know how to split their screens—a move that would allow them to view two pages consecutively, two pages from separate sections of the text, or even the text plus Google docs for the purpose of notetaking. It isn’t that students haven’t been taught many of these skills somewhere before, but kids forget. I forget a keyboard stroke or shortcut I haven’t used in a while. It’s natural that kids would, too.

Mrs. Ploss taught or reminded students of all of these keyboard strokes and many more. That helped—and students reported that once they learned these “new” moves, they began using them in other classes, with other e-texts.

Know Your E-text:

The e-textbook Mrs. Ploss uses for Honors Chemistry has many bells and whistles. The study tools section includes, among other things, premade flashcards for academic vocabulary, keyed to each chapter. Skill builders and problem sets, answers and explanations for those sets, pop-ups in the text for vocabulary, figures and diagrams and charts hyperlinked internally, built-in highlighters—all were among the features she pointed out or demonstrated for the students.

To teach these to the students, she had to learn how to use them herself. And that’s a key point about e-texts. Just as teachers need to point out the location and function of the features of a print book—the table of contents, the glossary, the index—and what the text features—colors, font, size of text—mean, so in an e-text, the teacher needs to be familiar with the features and know what each of them does and how to find it or activate it. And then show the students how that particular e-text “works.”

Although her text has built-in notetaking and highlighter tools, Mrs. Ploss taught her students how to take notes using Google.docs with the split screen option.  She walked them through the process of accessing Add-ons like the highlighter tool so they’d know how to do that when faced with an e-text without so many tools.

Know Your Mind: This lesson was really all about metacognition. To be a successful e-reader, a student needs to consciously think about or monitor what’s happening in his head as he’s reading. So, Ms. Ploss told the students, “Remove the distractions: Put the phone away, close any irrelevant tabs, and pay attention as you read.” Metacognition is important in print reading, too, of course, but the distractions presented by a screen call for extra alertness to stay on task and process information.

Should you be skimming, scanning, or reading?  Many students didn’t remember the differences among these three strategies for accessing information: Skim to get the gist, scan to find a discrete piece of information, read to understand. Students are taught in elementary school, over and over again, to be conscious of their purpose in reading and then to choose to skim or scan or read accordingly. They need to be reminded of purpose and different reading strategies when they’re in high school, too.

We also taught the students to beware, when skimming, of using Z and F skimming patterns. These are natural skimming methods that web designers take advantage of to design web pages and social media. These patterns permit rapid assessment of content, but they’re poor substitutes for the kind of skimming called for in a textbook–puddle-jumping across the page and through each line of a paragraph. We taught the students about the Z and F patterns and asked them to consider whether they are using either of those patterns when they skim. Many discovered they were.

And finally, the hyperlinks. The Honors Chemistry book is a “closed” environment. All of the hyperlinks connect to locations within the book. Some students had never clicked on links that would have been helpful; others were distracted by clicking when they didn’t need to. On the Internet, an “open” environment, hyperlinks are a much more difficult problem. It’s easy to “rabbit hole” (as anyone who’s ever visited YouTube can tell you),  so Mrs. Ploss created a flowchart to help students stay on track: Have I read the whole article? Will the hyperlink expand my knowledge or sidetrack me? Is the link reputable?

Most importantly, part of what makes e-texts so difficult is that every reading and study skill students have ever learned carries over to reading on a screen. If you’re a poor reader to begin with, the problem is only exacerbated by the panoply of additional skills needed to read efficiently and effectively.  

Here’s a list of those skills—and we’ve probably missed some. It’s a miracle that anyone ever learns to read in the first place (just read Maryanne Wolf’s book Proust and the Squid if you want to be awed); the list of things you need to know to read an e-text well is daunting.

Helping our students become successful is our mission. That’s exactly what Mrs. Ploss and I have tried to do by teaching students how to navigate their e-texts and reminding them of strategies they may not have been taught or may have forgotten that will help them be more successful e-text readers.

We have not created a magic bullet for reading e-texts. Reading comprehension is way too complicated for that. Our goal was to help the students be more successful than they were.

Mrs. Ploss surveyed her students at the end of the e-text reading lessons. She asked if they felt they could read their e-texts better after all the instruction.

91.6% said they could.

That’s a win.

 

For further reading:

Business Insider:A new study shows that students learn way more effectively from print textbooks than screens”

The New Yorker: “Being a Better Online Reader”

Tim Shanahan “Is Comprehension Better with Digital Text?” (blog post)

Z and F patterns: “How to Use F and Z Patterns in Your Landing Page Design”

Building a Workforce for the Digital Age

21st Century skills: What are they? How can we prepare our students for the workplace of the future? Guest blogger Nathan Hartman, the Dauch Family Professor of Advanced Manufacturing and Head of the Computer Graphics Technology Department at Purdue Polytechnic Institute, gives us some insight on the path of manufacturing education from the Industrial Revolution to the present day and shares his assessment of the tools students will need for the future.

Full disclosure: Nathan Hartman is one of my former students. Working with him on this blog post has been a distinct pleasure. Welcome back to my American Classroom, Nathan!

According to several studies, somewhere around the year 2025, the typical U.S. worker will have around 20% of the information they need to do their job created and delivered to them by a machine, likely some type of computer. Near that same time period, the world will experience over 35 billion connections to the Internet. Living in such a connected world will no doubt have an influence on how people work, as well as how they are prepared for such work. A very good example of this playing out before our eyes today is in the U.S. manufacturing sector.

Nathan Hartman and his Purdue Polytechnic student, teaching and learning for the future

According to many of those same studies, by 2025, the U.S. will have likely experienced the creation of roughly 3 million manufacturing jobs that do not exist today and will still have roughly 2 million unfilled jobs that have been digitally transformed to require a new skill set. This scenario will create even more strain on an already burdened labor market in manufacturing. Couple that strain with new models of working, such as a borderless workforce and non-hierarchical organizations and the design and manufacture of wearable products and continuously connected devices, and one can see that an entirely new ecosystem of work is developing. One for which our current education systems and methods have but minimal preparation. Current life expectancies in developed countries point to a person born today living to be nearly 100 years old. How do we educate a person born today to exist in a world where they not only change jobs multiple times but potentially change careers multiple times?

By most accounts these days, the manufacturing sector in the U.S. is doing well, even with the recent downturn in the automotive industry. However, it is difficult to pick up a newspaper without reading something about the challenge companies are facing in hiring. According to numerous recent studies by the likes of Gartner, Deloitte, McKinsey, and others, the current manufacturing output is high, but the future looks a bit bleak. Not necessarily due to competition with low-labor-cost countries or some governmental policy per se, but to a lack of a skilled workforce coupled with rapid technological change. Most authorities peg the shortage between 2 million and 3 million manufacturing workers by 2027. Regardless of the cause, even if the worker shortage is “fixed,” it will not likely address a more fundamental trend in the U.S. people choosing other career fields over manufacturing. But before diving into a discussion about education and workforce development, let’s look briefly at the technological transformation at the heart of this predicament.

Most of us grew up learning about the Industrial Revolution – the mechanization of work to ease the load on human beings and to increase their efficiency. However, what many people may not be aware of is that we have had several industrial revolutions over the last two hundred years. Industry 1.0 began with the mechanization of work, which led to the electrification of work during Industry 2.0 in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the early 1960s with the rise of personal and industrial computing, electrification of work gave way to the automation of work to create Industry 3.0. And as those technologies became commonplace and we saw the uses of data expand, we have arrived in the 2010s at Industry 4.0 – the digitalization of information to support the automation and computing backbones that already have been built. Not only are we on our fourth industrial revolution, but the elapsed time between the revolutions has been substantially decreasing.

In parallel with the technological gains in efficiency, accuracy, and sustainability that it is experiencing today, the manufacturing sector is struggling to transform its workforce. For every industrial revolution the world has seen, there has been an accompanying educational revolution. In the U.S. and Europe, those transformations came in the movement away from the master/apprentice model (Education 1.0) to the movement around Manual Arts and Industrial Arts (Education 2.0), which focused on basic job skills for the growing mass production economy. Over the 20th century, we saw the move towards Technology Education, with its focus on domain-specific content areas and a systemic view of technology as a discipline in and of itself (Education 3.0). The current education transformation relative to manufacturing is now focused on design thinking and a ‘system of systems’ view (Education 4.0) of developing and implementing technology and using digital data to assess, diagnose, and implement solutions to problems.

Yet, if we have had parallel revolutions between industry and education, why does the manufacturing sector find itself with such a shortage of skilled workers, and how might we begin to address this shortage? How we can adapt our Education 4.0 revolution to better address the needs of the manufacturing sector of our economy? The dawning of technologies such as additive manufacturing, high-performance computing and data analytics, generative design, and artificial intelligence means that humans will no longer have the cognitive playing field to themselves. Machines will be able to process more quickly, more cheaply and with fewer errors than their human counterpart, at least in some activities. That could make the hollowing-out of human tasks, now cognitive as well as manual, far greater than ever before. So what do humans have left? What should we prepare our students for?

Project-based Learning offers students opportunities for critical thinking, creative problem-solving, communication, and collaboration: all, 21st Century skills. This picture is from the Purdue D-Bait project at McCutcheon High School, reported in a previous blog post, It’s Not about the Lure

Demand for skills of the head (cognitive) have dominated those of the hands (technical) and to a lesser extent, those of the heart (social) over the past 300 years.  In the future, a tighter coupling will need to exist between a person’s cognitive knowledge and their technical and affective knowledge. During the first three Industrial Revolutions, the skills workers needed to keep ahead of the machines were largely cognitive. Machines were doing manual tasks and cognitive tasks were the exclusive domain of humans. However, with the rise of social networks, artificial intelligence, and the digitalization of information, Industry 4.0 threatens to change the balance of power in what had been exclusively the human’s cognitive domain. Students must be exposed to and become proficient in multiple modes of problem-solving; that is, they will need an education that prepares them to perform cognitive tasks requiring creativity and intuition. They will need to solve problems whose solutions require great (but logical) leaps of imagination. There will remain a demand for skills to program, test and oversee machines. Personalized design and manufacturing will become more common as the information needed to customize products for individuals is more readily available. A student’s ability to use social skills to execute, and when necessary, lead initiatives that require emotional intelligence rather than cognitive intelligence alone. Preparing graduates solely for cognitive skills will not be enough for the 4th Industrial Revolution.

We must build upon the traditional literacies of reading, writing, and mathematics. Students still must be able to take in information, assimilate it with what they already know, and form a conclusion. They must still be able to understand the physical and temporal phenomena expressed by modern mathematics and science. However, we must move them past simply assimilating and synthesizing information and towards interpretation and systematic decision making based on that information synthesis. New types of literacy might include:

  • Data literacy: the ability to read, analyze and apply information. Advanced data gathering and analytics tools will increase the quantity and quality of information available to people, and use contextual cues to help them in understanding what is presented to them. It will be incumbent on our students to know how to apply that information to their problem and to be able to discern accurate and useful information from that which is not.
  • Technological literacy: coding and engineering principles. Technologies have been created and used since the beginning of humankind, which is arguably one of the things that separate humans from their ancestors. Yet this new incarnation of technological literacy will enable our students to incorporate factual and procedural, process-oriented information into the physical tools and objects they design and build, thus creating a more “intelligent” products.
  • Human literacy: humanities, communication and design. Our ability and willingness to connect to fellow human beings through, and in spite of, our technologies will become increasingly important. Solving complex problems will not only require the rational theorems and postulates of our mathematical techniques, but the empathy that comes from being human, as we have yet to develop a computing technology with the human capacity to assimilate, interpret, and feel.

Finally, as we develop in our students these higher-order literacies based on digital tools and information, we must also move them towards higher-order mindsets and ways of thinking about and viewing the world. We must encourage them to embrace systems thinking, not necessarily the abstract mathematical representations of it, but the Gestaltist view that yields the ability to view an enterprise, machine or subject holistically, making connections between different functions in an integrative way. Entrepreneurship will become increasingly important, although not in the economic sense per se, but in the application of creative thinking to solve problems and take risks in implementing those solutions in our social institutions. Our students must also become culturally agile as physical, geographic borders become less and less relevant in an age of global commerce and the economic viability of singular customers. And we must encourage and challenge our students to embrace ambiguity as a fact of life and to employ critical thinking as much as possible. The habits of disciplined, rational analysis and judgment will serve them well in a world that increasingly relies on digital information and the accompanying networks to disseminate it.

The manufacturing sector and the education system that supports it cannot hide from these technological changes. It would be like trying to away from a tsunami: We will eventually be overtaken. As an educational community, we must embrace these changes, engage with the manufacturing sector, and adapt our respective curricula to meet the needs of a future and a transitioning workforce. By doing so, we can provide the manufacturing sector with the workforce it needs, and we can provide the manufacturing workforce pipeline some sense of stability in an otherwise rapidly advancing future.