Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Common Language

All I wanted was a washcloth.

After a 19-hour flight from Dallas followed by a full day of sightseeing in the summer Sydney sun, I checked into my hotel, thinking only of how wonderful it would be to wash the layers of sunscreen off my travel-weary face.

My hotel bathroom was well equipped with hand towels, bath towels, tiny soaps and shampoos, but nary a washcloth was to be found. I called down to the front desk, and asked if housekeeping could please bring me a washcloth. The person on the phone, who spoke Australian English, seemed a little flummoxed by my request but said she would take care of it.

About 45 minutes later, there was a knock on my door. When I answered, a hotel staff member handed me a tall pile of hand towels, smiled, and walked off. At this point, I was too tired to think, so I simply assumed that perhaps washcloths aren’t a thing Australians use. After all, it’s surrounded by ocean. Maybe everyone just brings their own loofah with them when they travel.

The next day, I mentioned this confusing incident to some Australian friends at lunch. At my mention of the word “washcloth,” they looked at each other with perplexity. So I did a little charades while describing the item I was looking for. In unison, my friends replied, “Oh, you mean a face washer!”

That night, back at the hotel, I called to request a face washer and within 15 minutes had a supply to last me the rest of my stay.

Sometimes, even in a place where everyone speaks a common language, knowing the preferred terminology for something can make all the difference.   

The same is true in schools. When there isn’t some standardization across the school, we risk confusing, frustrating, or completely losing the students. If a student goes to five different academic classes and several electives in the course of the day and each teacher has a different tardy policy, a different term for the activity the students are expected to be working on as the bell rings, a different policy for late work, a different test makeup policy, a different idea of what note-taking should look like, and a different organizational scheme for notebooks, the student has to juggle six or seven separate sets of guidelines throughout the day.

The power of AVID Schoolwide is that schools establish a common language and present instruction with a unified voice across the school. If the entire faculty of a school shares some basic understandings and terminology—about what the note-taking process entails, how students should organize their materials, where and how students should keep track of assignments and due dates, what a Socratic Seminar or Philosophical Chairs discussion looks like, how students are expected to use academic language, what students should be doing when they read critically in all classes, and how collaborative structures can enhance instruction and deepen student learning—students succeed with fewer impediments.

Imagine a student who experiences three so-called Socratic Seminars in one month of school in three different classes. In one class, the students and teacher arrange chairs in a circle, and the teacher introduces various topics for discussion and debate. The subjects for discussion range from school dress code to the winners of the MTV Music Awards. There is no grade, nor is there any follow-up activity. In another class, the students circle up and discuss a teacher-generated topic about a novel they had been reading. During the discussion, the teacher tallies the number of times each student speaks and assigns a grade determined by “participation and quality of discussion.” In the third class, the teacher gives students an article to read and annotate for homework. At the beginning of class the next day, students in triads generate questions for discussion. Students form a circle of desks and engage in 30 minutes of discussion to deepen the class’s understanding of the article. The teacher only interrupts to remind and encourage students to use the academic language stems they have been practicing in class. The following day, the students begin writing an essay about the article using the notes they took during the discussion to help them.

At the end of that month, if you asked that student to explain Socratic Seminars to you, you’d probably get a muddled answer since the student had three disparate experiences that were all called by the same name. If the faculty at that campus had only had  a shared understanding of the purpose and procedures of Socratic Seminars, students could focus on deepening their skills for rigorous academic discussion rather than learning to navigate the rules in multiple environments.

The AVID Site Team is a powerful force for maximizing the impact of AVID for all students on campus. With members from many content areas, the Site Team can determine what best practices should be disseminated across the campus and provide staff development to help establish a common understanding among the faculty. Having high-impact instructional practices in place for critical reading, note-taking, academic language, content area writing, collaboration, and organization is the passport students need to transfer learning and build overall academic skills throughout the instructional day.  

With a common language for instruction, we can keep students from driving on the wrong side of the road academically. When the academic language barrier is removed, everyone can work toward shared goals that will open doors down the road for success in college and careers.

Monday, April 17, 2017


We’ve all done it. Each one of us is guilty. And some of us don’t even know what we are guilty of.

Here’s an example of a time I was unknowingly guilty:  My English students were in the midst of a study of Romeo and Juliet. My main goals during the unit were to familiarize my students with the language of Shakespeare and equip them with the reading strategies they could use to analyze difficult poetic text. In a planning meeting, our team came up with an assignment we thought our students would enjoy completing. We provided four options students could choose from:  
  • working with a group to rewrite a scene into more contemporary language and perform their modernized scene for the class
  • illustrating a scene from the play in a comic-book-style format
  • writing diary entries from the perspective of Romeo or Juliet about the events taking place during the play
  • watching or reading a contemporary adaptation of the play and writing an essay about parallels with Shakespeare’s original text
We gave the assignment, the students chose their options, and they set out to work. We crafted a generic rubric that would apply to all four options and awaited the student creativity.

What we were guilty of, even though we had the very best of intentions, was not aligning our assessments with the instructional goals. The goals, as I stated earlier, related to students’ abilities to comprehend Shakespearean poetic language independently. The assessments, depending on what students selected, measured a variety of things. Acting out a modern scene in a group assessed the ability of one person in a group to be able to rewrite a scene from the play and for all the members of the group to perform the script effectively. The comic book tested a student’s ability to draw but not necessarily to have a keen understanding of what the language means, especially if the student paid attention to the scenes from the film I’d showed in class and could render them on paper. The diary required insight into character, an understanding of the plot, and some writing ability. The modern adaptation analysis assessed whether a student could write a compare/contrast essay (or, perhaps, the student’s Google skills).

None of the options we gave our students was terrible. They simply had little to do with the objectives of the unit and were thus not an accurate assessment of student learning. Furthermore, the four assessments didn’t even assess the same skills. A student could strategically select an option that played to his or her strengths and never have to demonstrate actual learning of a curricular objective.  

Every teacher has had a planning brainstorm about something that would engage students and has inserted it into the curriculum without spending the time to think about how the new idea fits with unit objectives. WIth more deliberate planning, however, we can make sure we never commit this instructional crime again.

Two questions developed by WIggins and McTighe in The Understanding By Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units help me think about how assessments align with unit goals:
  1. Could students do the proposed assignment(s) well but not really have mastered or understood the content in question?
  2. Could students do poorly on the specific assessment(s) but really have mastery of the content in question? (p. 53)

In the case of my Romeo and Juliet assignment explained above, I can answer yes to both questions, which isn’t a good thing.  

Yes, a student could give a convincing and impressive performance of a modernized scene from the play without knowing anything about how to read and interpret Shakespearean verse.

Yes, a learner who knows how to read Shakespeare could make a C if she didn’t have the art skills to draw a comprehensible comic book rendering of a scene.

Yes, a student could write an awesome diary from Juliet’s perspective with only knowledge gained from watching the film or reading the Sparknotes online.

Yes, a kid could analyze West Side Story as a Romeo and Juliet adaptation without reading a word of Shakespeare.  

It’s clear that when we were planning this assignment, we were thinking a lot more about activities than we were thinking about understandings. Though our Romeo and Juliet project gave the students choices of several potentially interesting activities, the activities we designed weren’t valid measures of the student outcomes we claimed to be seeking.  

When we string a bunch of activities together to create a unit, we often commit the crime of not having activities line up with unit objectives. Another crime we could be charged for at the same time is lining up activities that do not work together to ensure student success on the final assessment. In an effectively-designed unit, the activities the students do are carefully planned and sequenced to prepare learners to transfer their learning to the final authentic assessment. Anything that is incongruous with the end goal should probably be avoided.  

When we realize we are guilty of misaligned activities, we have to make some hard, sad decisions to say goodbye to some beloved old friends.

I’d have to say goodbye to that AVID assignment where students researched various colleges and worked in teams to create a scrapbook that showcased their findings and “memories” of their fictional first year in college. In reality, a group could get a good grade for putting together an attractive scrapbook and have learned little about college itself; conversely, a group lacking scrapbooking skills could know a lot and not be able to show it.

I would have to sever ties with that day the kids loved when they brought in Greek food while we were reading Homer’s Odyssey because how does making (or buying) a pan of baklava demonstrate any understanding of Greek epic poetry?

I’d bid a tearful farewell to any quiz or test where I asked the students to recall the speaker of a quotation from a novel, short story, or play because I never taught any unit where the learning objective was, “Memorize a text you read once, maybe twice.”

I’d realize I had to let go of most of my artworks depicting scenes from books, artistic vocabulary posters, anything involving paper mache or a trip to Hobby Lobby, and all other activities and assignments that don’t measure skills I have taught or help students develop skills necessary to be successful on an assessment of their skills and understandings.

People who disagree with me on this are probably thinking, “This buzzkill thinks we need to get rid of everything that is actually fun and enjoyable to the kids!” That’s not the case. I’m a firm believer that fun and authentic learning are not mutually exclusive terms. There is fun in discovering a new book, reading it, and engaging in worthwhile conversation about it with another reader. There is fun in exploring a topic in depth, posing student-derived questions about the learning, and seeking the answers. There is fun in learning how to do something you couldn’t do before and using that new skill to solve a real-world problem. There is fun in debating a topic and using logical support to buoy your argument. With careful planning and attention to learning goals and outcomes, you can make learning fun and engaging.

The next time you are planning for instruction, ask yourself those guiding questions to make sure you’re not guilty of a goal/assignment mismatch. Your instructional coaches will be happy to do our best to help you remain least in terms of curriculum and instruction.  

Saturday, April 15, 2017

20 Questions: A Note-taking Self-Quiz

20 Questions  
A Note-taking Self-Quiz
Answer the following questions about your reading and note-taking from a textbook. The “best practice” answer for each question is “yes.” If you’re struggling with note-taking and studying, consider ways you might change some of your “no” answers to “yes.”.  
While reading:   
1. Do you preview the chapter before reading to get an overview of how the author has organized it?
2.  Do you read in an environment that is free of distractions (no television, music, text messages, computer interruptions, etc.)?
3.  Do you think while you read? (You should be actively working to construct meaning and understand as you read.)
4.  Do you leave white space in your notes so you can add more information or make connections later?
5.  Do you abbreviate whenever possible?
6.  Do you avoid writing complete sentences in your notes, focusing instead on phrases, words, or pictures?
7.  Do your notes reflect the organization of the chapter?  Do you write the names of sections?  
8.  Can a person looking at your notes distinguish main ideas from supporting details?
9.  Do you try to see the big ideas in the reading?  Are you thinking about how the author organized the chapter, why the author included specific information, how ideas compare and contrast, etc.?
10.  Are you categorizing the information or grouping the information by theme (ie. social, political, economic; causes, effects) as you read?
11.  Are you avoiding minutia (tiny details or trivia like dates and statistics)?
12.  Do you look for cues in the text (“the most important reason…”, “another cause…”, “three goals…”)?
13.  Do you put info in a chart, picture, or diagram when useful to do so?
14.  Are you thinking about your notes as a reminder of what you learned in your reading rather than as a storage place for information you didn’t take the time to put in your brain?
15.  Do you think about why people, events, examples, etc. are important?
16.  Are your notes legible?   
After reading (steps that lead to long-term learning):   
17.  Do you review and revise your notes after taking them (preferably before class)?  Are you underlining or highlighting key terms? Putting stars by important ideas? Color-coding your notes?
18.  Do you write higher-level questions about your notes after reviewing and revising them?
19.  Do you summarize the notes as a whole after writing questions?   
20.  Can you use your notes to retell the story of the chapter?

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Your Hidden Objectives: Are You Accomplishing Them?

What are you teaching tomorrow? If I asked you that, you might respond in several ways:

“Cellular respiration.”

“Pythagorean Theorem.”  

“Act II of Romeo and Juliet.”

“The French Revolution and the American Revolution.”

“I don’t know yet. I have to make it through today first.”

Maybe answering a question like that makes you uncomfortable. In many cases—perhaps most—we gauge our classroom experiences not by what we are teaching but by what our students are learning or doing. Teachers who want to make the learning clear to students do so by informing them of the learning objectives for a particular lesson or for a unit as a whole. Students like to be told what they’re supposed to be learning or doing so they can figure out whether it’s happening.

When we shift our thinking to what our students are doing, we come up with more thoughtful objectives, and sometimes we see where the weaknesses in our instructional plans lie. Your students might be explaining how their cells extract energy from the foods they consume, determining the length of the third side of a right triangle when they know the lengths of the other two, or comparing and contrasting the French and American Revolutions and using their discoveries to determine features common to all revolutions.
If you discover that all you can say is that tomorrow your students are learning what happens in Act II of Romeo and Juliet, you might consider how you’re teaching it and what you might change to make that learning more meaningful. Perhaps your students could debate whether Shakespeare’s portrayal of the blossoming love between the teens is convincing or ridiculous. Or your students could analyze how Shakespeare uses figurative language to communicate the feelings of the young lovers to the audience and discuss how figurative language might strengthen their own writing.
Whatever your stated objective is, I also invite you to consider something bigger, something I like to call the Hidden Objective.

The Hidden Objective is the overarching transformation you hope will occur in your students because they took your class. It’s the life-altering difference you hope to make in them that will benefit them even if they never take another course in your subject area. It’s something you would probably never overtly tell your students, but it’s something that you would be completely delighted sometime in the future to discover has taken place and that you played a part in it.

Here are some of my own Hidden Objectives from my own teaching of English, humanities, and the AVID Elective:    
  • My students will read for pleasure and will share their love of reading with others.
  • My students will feel confident as communicators who can speak and write powerfully for a variety of audiences and in any situation.
  • My students will be able to form an opinion of their own, back it up, and share it with others in a way that makes others consider it.
  • My students appreciate the arts as a means for understanding others, understanding the world around them, and understanding themselves.
  • My students seek out arts experiences of their own to add value to their lives.    
  • My students use their talents and abilities to make the world a better place for someone other than just themselves.
  • My students will realize that learning doesn’t always have a quantifiable outcome and that the best learning is learning for its own sake.
  • My students will take charge of their lives, advocate for themselves, and not just let life happen to them.

Considering your Hidden Objectives gives you life and direction as an educator. The objectives become a part of your mission, the driving force that propels all your other efforts. Reminding yourself of these objectives and checking in on your progress not only keeps you on track but also gives meaning to the work you do.

If you’re lucky, you’ll run into one of your former students years later, and, in thanking you, that student will let you know what impact you’ve made on his or her life.

It’s not likely that the former student will say, “Thank you so much for being my teacher. Because of you, I know what happened in Act II of Romeo and Juliet.”  The former student probably won’t say, “Because of your class, I can analyze the effect of figurative language on a reader. That has taken me far in life.”

Perhaps—and this will warm your heart when it happens—you’ll hear your former student say, “I write all the time for my job, and I think that I’m good at it because you taught me the importance of always considering how the audience will respond to what you write. I choose words carefully, reread my writing for clarity, and anticipate my readers’ reactions in advance. Thank you for teaching me that.”

Unfortunately, we don’t always get to know about the impact our work has on students. Rest assured, though, that because of our collective efforts and the many Hidden Objectives that drive our interactions with students, we have made and will continue to make differences in the ways they view themselves as thinkers, citizens, community members, readers, writers, problem solvers, mathematicians, historians, scientists, leaders, athletes, performers, scholars, family members, students, employees, team members, listeners, speakers, partners, innovators, caretakers, creators, planners, hosts, guests, producers, and people.

I’m interested in hearing about your Hidden Objectives. If you’d care to share yours, add them to my Google Form here. If I get enough responses, I will share them in a future post. There’s power in seeing the impact we are each making and how it affects the big picture of our students’ experiences.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

If I'd Had a Coach

I wear many hats in my job as an instructional specialist. One of them is the hat of the instructional coach. Despite my best efforts to communicate what I do in this role, I find that the job of an instructional coach is frequently misunderstood. There’s a widespread misconception that instructional coaches only work with teachers who are struggling or are doing an unsatisfactory job (AKA “bad” teachers).. Another “alternative fact” is that I report my interactions to others—that I’m some sort of spy for the curriculum department or the building principal. The truth is that most of the time, the work I do is with some of the strongest and most growth-minded teachers in the district. Furthermore, the work I do with any teacher is between me and that teacher; I focus on helping teachers improve in areas where they want to improve, not on getting teachers in trouble.  

When I had a classroom of my own, I didn’t have access to an instructional coach. Most of my professional improvement occurred as a result work I did on my own. Now that I know about instructional coaching and its benefits, however, I can think of so many ways my life as a teacher would have improved if I’d had a coach.

Every teacher knows what it’s like to have “that one class” where all the time-tested disciplinary techniques fail to produce results—the class that seems to last forever, tries your every last bit of patience, and populates your nightmares. If I’d had an instructional coach, I could have reached out for help with my classroom management woes. The coach could have observed my class, documented student behaviors and my attempts to refocus them, and helped me come up with a plan to minimize disruptions so that learning could occur. The coach would have been able to help me pinpoint the root of the problem and what I could do to fix things. The coach could schedule a follow-up visit to take more data to see whether the problem was solved and offer more assistance, if needed.

I’m one of those educators who gets unusually excited about the things I learn at professional development. For instance, after I attended a district-sponsored training about encouraging self-selected reading in English classes, I rushed back to school enthusiastic about implementing reading workshop in my classroom. For several weeks, I bounced ideas off of coworkers, friends, family members, and unsuspecting strangers in the checkout line at Kroger. If I’d had an instructional coach, I could have called on my coach to help me identify how to bring my ideas to life successfully in my classroom. We could have met to brainstorm and troubleshoot, and the coach could have offered useful professional resources to help me realize my vision. Once my reader’s workshop was up and running, the coach would returned to see how things were going and to help me tweak the procedures to continually improve my results.  

In a district with a common curriculum, I sometimes found that there were lessons or units that made better sense to me than others. Despite my best efforts to study the curriculum online, at times I worried I was missing something that would be helpful to me in delivering the highest quality instruction to my students. An instructional coach could have met with me to talk about how to implement the district curriculum with my students. After all, our curriculum provides valuable direction for a teacher but isn’t intended to be a rigid, inflexible script. In our meetings, my coach could have helped me customize the lessons for my teaching style and the unique needs of my students without sacrificing the integrity of the unit design. If I were struggling with a particularly tricky lesson or concept, the coach might offer to model the lesson with my students or co-teach the lesson with me.

Research shows that teachers don’t always have a clear picture of what’s really going on in their classes. I always thought I was doing a pretty good job of putting the workload on the students so that they were doing more talking than I was. I suspect, though, that I did a lot more of the talking—and thinking— than I was aware of. If I’d had a coach, I could have asked the coach to video record one of my classes to help me see what was really going on. After watching my video (as soon as I recovered from the natural awkwardness of seeing and hearing myself), I would have conferenced with the coach to see if I was satisfied with the level of student talk in my classroom and, if not, make a plan to improve it. It’s likely that watching the video would have made me aware of other pressing issues I wanted to work on, and the coach would’ve be happy to help me by offering suggestions, guidance, training, encouragement, and support to reach my self-identified goals.

Our district’s teaming approach presents its own set of challenges. One of them is actually sitting down to plan with a team. WIth busy schedules, time constraints, and ever-increasing demands on teachers, efficient planning is both a challenge and a necessity. In my own past experience, planning sometimes involved thoughtful contemplation of learning goals and the alignment of instruction and assessment, but more often it entailed one of the team members handing everyone else a calendar and doling out responsibilities for getting copies made, tests numbered, and materials distributed. If my team had met with an instructional coach, the coach could have helped us refine our planning practices so that our time spent as a team was productive and instructionally useful. The coach could have worked with us to learn how to unpack curriculum documents, thoughtfully align lessons, deliver instruction with intentionality, and develop a unified vision for our team. Effective planning benefits teachers and results in better learning for all students. I can think of a few planning meetings in my past that would have been much more productive if we had asked an instructional coach to join us.

I’m a little sad that I didn’t have access to an instructional coach to help me be a better teacher when I was in the classroom. Now that I have the opportunity to help other teachers, I hope I can do something to alleviate frustrations and feelings of helplessness and assist teachers in continuing to improve the learning experience for their students. I dwell in the world of teacher success and stand firmly rooted in my belief that teacher success leads to student achievement. If you’ve read this and anything sounds appealing to you, I encourage you to contact a coach or instructional specialist to work with you.  I don’t want you to look back in regret someday that you didn’t.  

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


Based on nearly every interaction I have had with a human being in the last two weeks, I’d conclude that February is a terribly abusive month. Thank goodness it’s over. In schools, especially, stress is thriving. Students are getting antsy and are feeling the academic and personal pressures that always come with the spring semester when they’re ready for everything to be over but can’t quite see the still-distant end. The honeymoon period wore off months ago, and now students and staff are wondering if divorce is an option. Teachers seem buried in mounds of grading and paperwork. Open house, field trips, TELPAS samples, make-up work from illness outbreaks, required professional development, and oppressive pollen counts have turned normally cheerful and upbeat teachers into grumpy zombies. At an Ed Camp event last week in our district, the most highly attended session--with standing-room-only crowds of teachers spilling out into the hallway outside the packed room--was the one on Stress and Teacher Self Care.  Staff, students, paraprofessionals, and administrators all seem to be competing against one another in a giant game of Wheel of Unfortunate. Everyone is overwhelmed.

It’s time for us all to take a moment to breathe. Stop what you’re doing. Forget about the e-mails, the voicemails, the stack of papers to grade, the lesson plans, and the disciplinary referrals. Don’t worry about your to-do list. It’ll get done. Just breathe. Breathe deeply. Close your eyes if you’d like (though that’s going to make reading the rest of this a bit of a challenge). Try doing nothing but concentrating on your breath for a full minute. When you’ve mastered that, try two. Think of it as a service project; you’re creating carbon dioxide for the plants and flowers that are trying get us out of this wintery, brown funk. Relax your jaw. Let the tension out of your forehead. Simply breathe.

There. Feel any better yet? Sometimes, taking that time to slow down and take care of ourselves by filling our needy cells with restorative oxygen makes tensions seem less tense.

Image result for breathe

The O in AVID’s WICOR acronym stands for organization. We teach our students to organize many things: their binders, their time, their study routines, their writing. Isn’t it equally important for us to teach them to organize the clutter that is swirling around in their brains and causing stress and tension? Organizing one’s inner life may even be more important than organizing one’s exterior self because once we are facing the world calmly, we can put things into perspective much more clearly and focus on what needs to be accomplished.

Consider what you can do to help students calm the turmoil in their lives. For one thing, you can begin by acknowledging and normalizing the stress they are feeling. So often we feel that we are alone in our feelings and that everyone else must be navigating life much more skillfully than we are. Maybe my opening paragraph above made you feel better knowing that the stress you are feeling right now isn’t atypical. Talking about stress and anxiety and allowing your students to talk about them lets students know they aren’t alone.

We shouldn’t stop, though, with merely acknowledging the existence of stress. The next step is to teach some ways to cope. One of the easiest, as you may have realized, is breathing. On days of particularly stressful tests and exams, I often asked my students to take a moment at the start of class to breathe together, to slow down, to clear their minds of stress, and to tell themselves that they could succeed. I shared my confidence in them and asked them to believe in themselves. The change in the stress level in the room was palpable. Students went into the test with a newfound tranquility and renewed focus. I don’t have empirical data to prove that their test scores improved, but I think my students would tell you that the extra oxygen helped them think a little more clearly.

I think it’s so important that we, in our highly influential roles as educators, provide our students with every tool for success in life. The ability to recognize their emotional stressors and to try to combat them is a skill that will help them forevermore. We need to remember, though, that it’s tough for us to teach what we don’t practice ourselves.

It’s really hard to teach self-care, however, if we don’t practice it. Before we can extol the virtues of stress management, physical activity, getting plenty of sleep, downtime, adequate nutrition, and positive peer relationships, we need to experience those ourselves.

With Spring Break looming just around the corner, I invite you to take some time to recharge yourself. Leave your work stresses behind for a week and practice self-care. Breathe a lot. And even when the break has ended and it’s time to return to school, continue to take care of yourself as needed so you can be the best you can be for your students. They need you more than they will ever admit.

And don’t forget to breathe. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

Problems Waiting for Solutions

Some problems don’t have answers...yet. But I’m a firm believer that in education, much of the innovative progress we make comes from first identifying a problem that results in a shift of our philosophical stance on the issue.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean.

I have a problem teaching literature.  I have decided that I am opposed to most quizzes and tests used to measure students’ reading comprehension. The way we have traditionally attempted to check student reading is problematic, and I am not okay with it. I’ve been pondering my stance on this for a while and made up my mind last week after a conversation with a few 10th grade students.

In a Spanish classroom I happened to visit, I met a young woman; let’s call her Fred for the sake of anonymity. I noticed that Fred had a copy of Charles Dickens’s often-reviled-by-high-school-students novel A Tale of Two Cities among her possessions and that this particular copy had a bookmark situated about two-thirds of the way through the book. Endeavoring to offer some hope and encouragement to this sophomore, I remarked, “I see that you’re on the home stretch of the book. Impressive!”

Fred looked a bit confused and then examined her book more closely. “I guess I am,” she replied, with a bit of pleased surprise in her voice.

“How are you enjoying it?” I queried.

“You know,” she said, “it’s not so bad. It’s actually getting a little easier and more interesting. I kind of like it.”

I commended her on her hard work and made some chitchat about the book. Our conversation was overheard by another female student sitting at a nearby table. Let’s call her Buddy. Buddy interrupted us to boast loudly, “I haven’t read any of that book.”

We looked at her in surprise that she was so delighted by her admission. “And,” Buddy continued, “I made 100 on both of the quizzes over the book just by reading Sparknotes!”

Fred frowned, looked down at her book, and said quietly, “I made an 80 on my quizzes.”

I tried to buoy her spirits by reminding her of how much she has grown as a reader who can handle challenging texts, but I could see that Fred was a little disappointed at the amount of effort she had expended for a payoff less impressive than that of Buddy, her corner-cutting classmate.

That, I decided, is what is wrong with reading quizzes. If some students are not rewarded for reading while others achieve success without doing the very thing the quizzes are intended to measure, something is not right. The students’ teachers have  reinforced the idea that having the right answer--however you come by it--is more important than developing reading skills.

The obvious solution (we’ve all done it) is for teachers to read Sparknotes themselves and construct a quiz or test that is Sparknote-proof. That way, students who take shortcuts won’t be rewarded. The problem with that, though, is that students like Fred who are conscientiously reading (and struggling because Dickens is hard) may still have difficulty answering the new, super-specific questions. This solution reinforces the belief that the important thing about reading a book is to pay attention to and memorize trivial details--the color of the beggar’s scarf, the speaker of a fairly unmemorable quotation, the name of the footman who brings in the letter.

We want to reward the readers and trap those who don’t, but our efforts still punish and reward the wrong things. We seek accountability, but we can’t always be certain that our results measure what we think we are measuring.

So I have decided that I am officially opposed to such quizzes.

The problem is that I don’t have other options readily available to me. Although I know what I don’t believe in, I don’t exactly know what to do instead. What I do have is a list of criteria for the solution I seek:

  • I want to be able to reward Fred for her hard work, perseverance, and growth.
  • I want Buddy to want to be more like Fred by actually reading the book so she, too, can grow in her reading abilities.
  • I want my assessments and grades to align with the goals of the unit and the lessons I am teaching to help students reach those goals.
  • I want to motivate all my students to read, to challenge themselves, to gain confidence, and to take risks academically.
  • I want it to be okay to struggle in my classroom and not always be punished for it.
  • I do not want to be the teacher who is constantly in “gotcha” mode.
  • I want students to see the worth of reading rather than dread it.

My list of criteria will help me figure out a solution that works. Perhaps I will decide that I just need to get over the whole “hold their feet to the fire” mentality and quit giving comprehension checks altogether. Maybe I will change the nature of my comprehension checks to a format that allows students to explain what they do understand instead of asking them to recall facts I think they ought to remember. I could also direct my efforts to creating a classroom environment which encourages students to engage with the content in such an exciting, authentic way that they want to read so they can be a part of what’s going on.

Ideally, I can find some colleagues who are wrestling with the same problem and start some meaningful, solution-oriented dialogue to come up with innovative solutions. In a world that is changing as swiftly as ours, it’s a shame to hold on so tightly to the traditions of the past and continually think inside the box.

I suspect that you can identify some significant problems of your own, problems without easy solutions that warrant further exploration. What is going on that you are not okay with? Maybe these problems are at a campus level: engaging certain populations of students; keeping kids in class and out of the halls; rampant absenteeism; student apathy; ineffective homework practices, inequity in enrollment in advanced classes, cell phone use spiraling out of control. They may also be problems particular to an academic team or unique to you as a teacher.

I encourage you to take some time to identify a problem, explore its scope, identify criteria for an acceptable solution, and then find some people who will engage with you in some extreme visioning. Maybe you could even bring students into the decision-making process; after all, they’re the consumers here.

And if you want to help me brainstorm ways to solve my anti-reading-quiz dilemma, let me know. I welcome the opportunity to dream big with you.