How data are like beets

This is a guest post by teacher Paul Tritter. It originally appeared as part of this newsletter about professional learning in Boston Public Schools.

My first association with beets was borscht from a jar. My mother loved beets, and she made them lots of different ways, but my association was that borscht, and so I left beets alone. Then about 10 years ago I found myself in Avignon, France at a buffet, confronted with an aluminum serving tray piled high with diced beets. France, you may know, has a reputation for making delicious food, so I gave the beets the benefit of the doubt. Good decision.  These were perfectly cooked, just the right amount of snap in the texture, and dressed in a garlicky dijon vinaigrette that perfectly complemented the sweetness of the vegetable. I have loved beets ever since. Roasted, pressure cooked, grated raw on top of a salad, the greens cooked up with some garlic and vinegar. Beautiful. It turns out my mother’s roasted beets are delicious, too. I missed out all those years because of that borscht in a jar.

Oh, I’m sorry. This is supposed to be about professional development?

I also remember the first time I was introduced to the idea of using data in my classroom practice. There were three packets of MCAS data that covered the school’s history for the three previous years. There were twelve of us in the room, and we had fifteen minutes to look at the packets and discuss. We came to no conclusions. The conversation never continued.  Let’s call this borscht.

Later, I had the chance to sit with a group of colleagues and examine a more narrow data set, a student essay.  This one happened to be about the student’s understanding of the role of religion in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.  We used a conversational protocol called the Collaborative Assessment Conference where my colleagues analyzed the work while I remained silent.  Later, we discussed the implications of this particular data point for teaching reading and writing and for understanding our students themselves.

The conversation included big picture thinking and specific next instructional action steps. Let’s call this French beets.

Any teaching and learning endeavor produces some kind of data: a test score, an artifact of student work, a spreadsheet, a story. Any of these could be made into borscht, and any into French beets. It’s what you do with data that matters.

With the right cooks and good quality ingredients you can make something delicious. Ingredients don’t drive the cooking process, but they do play a critical role. Similarly, educators shouldn’t let data, especially any single set, drive their work, but neither can we completely ignore the necessity to seek out and utilize good evidence about our teaching and students’ learning. Don’t let the borscht keep you away from using data, and don’t let the obsessive data hype make you use it the wrong way. Earlier in this newsletter, I plugged the Boston Teacher Leadership Certificate.  The Boston teachers who developed this program understand the value of multiple forms of data. If you are interested in becoming the Julia Child of data, you might want to check it out.

A couple of good recent posts about data have caught my eye:

If you don’t like food metaphors, Texas Superintendent John Kuhn, in his Tyranny of the Datum compares using data to hunting deer.

We are like a hunter who once hunted deer but then got sidetracked by obsessively examining deer tracks. We became experts at deer tracks. Now we hunt deer tracks. We make molds of them. We hang them on our walls. We haven’t seen a deer in ages, and we can’t really figure out why we’re so hungry. But we have a great spreadsheet that sorts our deer track collection by circumference, regularity, and a hundred other criteria. Because deer tracks are important for finding the deer, only we kind of forgot about the deer.

Venison with beets sounds good, no?

In What Role do Hunches Play in Professional Learning Communities?, Bill Ferreiter makes a compelling case for honoring the second-nature knowledge of experienced teachers while submitting that knowledge to regular, purposeful examination and reflection:

As a real-live, bona-fide, full-time practicing classroom teacher myself, . . . I’m sick of being doubted — and sick of the implicit suggestion in every right-wing press release that my choices are failing American children.  I know that my expertise matters and that my hunches aren’t just random guesses about what might work drawn from the professional ether.

But I also know that if we are going to reestablish ourselves in the eyes of our most vocal critics, then we need to constantly document the tangible impact that our hunches have on the kids in our care.  It is our responsibility to prove that the strategies that we believe in and the choices that we are making truly represent best practice — and when confronted by evidence that our strategies aren’t as effective as we thought they were, we have to respond, change direction and embrace something better.

Something better, like French beets.

Paul Tritter is Director of the Professional Learning Initiative, a partnership between the Boston Teachers Union and the Boston Public Schools. He tweets at @btulearns and @ptritter.

36/365 Turning a Snow Day into a School Day (a guest post)

Paul Tritter is a friend and Boston school teacher who found himself up against some deadlines in the wake up Nemo. I asked him to share how he pulled the majority of his students into an impromptu online course to keep momentum moving.

You might have heard that we had a little snow storm up here in Boston last week.  I love snow. Nothing creates neighborhood camaraderie quite like the morning shovelling after a big blizzard, and as a teacher, I love a snow day or two. The unexpected time to relax (i.e. catch up on grading and planning) is always welcome. School was cancelled Friday, and the call came Sunday that we would be out Monday as well (eventually we missed Tuesday too). At my school we have half-days scheduled for Wednesday and Friday, and school vacation is next week. Lots of time off.

As any teacher knows, this is a little bit too much time off.  Momentum in a classroom is hard to develop and maintain, and all of this stopping and starting is not going to be much help.  This interruption is going to be felt most acutely by the seniors in my IB Literature course. Those who are familiar with the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme, will know that students in the second year of their literature courses are about to run up against a series of internationally determined deadlines for various rather high-stakes assessments. The dates won’t change, and I’ve just lost three days.

In my class, the students are preparing for the sin qua non of IB assessment, The Literary Commentary.  For this assignment, students are given a poem with which they are familiar, but that they have not studied in depth during class time. They do not know exactly what poem they will be given until they arrive in a room and are presented with a stack of envelopes each containing a different work.  The student is given precisely 20 minutes to prepare an 8-minute commentary (known in French as an explication de texte) on the poem. The commentary should have a central argument that is more than just an interpretation of the poem.  Students must walk through the poem identifying and explaining the various literary devices, authorial choices, and writer’s moves, explaining the effect of each, and discuss how it contributes to the overall meaning or effect of the poem. The 8-minutes is followed by two minutes of Q&A and then a 10-minute conversation about another work that we have studied in the course.
The commentary is conducted one-on-one with the teacher, recorded, and sent to IB for external assessment.
It’s stressful, and it’s hard.

The primary aim of my teaching in the unit leading up to the commentary is to get students to unlearn one of the nasty habits of reading poetry, reflexive interpretation. In the commentary, and in reading poems in general, it is important to first focus on the literal, to be able to notice and articulate what is on the page, that which is indisputably true.  There is a temptation to make the first question after reading a poem, “What does it mean?”  But in an exercise like the commentary, and really in developing any good reading of a poem, the first order of business must always be to ask, “What is there?” or “What do you notice?” This way, students are asked to slow down their thinking and make clear what precisely in the poem leads to their overarching interpretation of the piece.

There are lots of ways to get at this particular skill of noticing, but nothing so effective as consistent practice, and all of these schedule interruptions are not going to be helpful in this process.

So I had an idea. I would try to get together an impromptu online class for my students on the snow day.

While shovelling, I checked in with some high school kids in my neighborhood who told me that they would probably not participate in such a thing unless there was extra credit involved.  I usually have a “no extra credit” policy, but I was kind of curious to see what this would look like.

I posted a note on our class edmodo site offering the bonus and asking for interest.  Twelve of the nineteen students in the class expressed interest.  Great! But I hadn’t really thought through how I would go about running the class, and as I continued to think about it, I came up with more and more problems.  Here are the main ones:

  1. I needed a free or cheap platform through which to conduct the class.
  2. The work and learning of the class needed to be completely extra-curricular. Because this was optional and dependent on using technology that all students may not have readily available in their homes, I couldn’t assign any of the material that would be required for my class.
  3. The learning needed to be meaningful, but the agenda not overly ambitious for an experimental venture.

Solution #1:
Through a quick tech consult with Zac, I decided it would be best to use a hangout on Google+, even though they are limited to 10 participants.  I would livestream the hangout for overflow participants and set up a backchannel for chatting and linking. While this was not ideal, it would work well for the experiment. I would use a google doc to capture the student work.

Solution #2:
I had planned at some point to read this article about poetry and meaning with my students.  In it, the writers examine an example of found poetry created from Craigslist Missed Connection posts, and essentially provide a commentary on the poem. It is to some extent a professional model of the work I am asking students to do. With the condensed schedule, I wasn’t going to be able to cover it in the depth I wanted to, or do the activity I was planning, so I decided to use its premise as the basis for the lesson. I figured that students sitting at their computers during the lesson would have ready access to source material to turn into found poetry. It occurred to me that I should not ask my students to go onto Missed Connections, so I had them use their own Facebook and Twitter feeds as source material.

Solution #3:
The focusing question for the lesson was: What makes a poem a poem?

Here were the basic steps.

  1. Students would look through their social media feeds and find one post (ideally fewer than 50 words) that was striking or interesting in some way and paste that post to the google doc I had set up for the class.
  2. We would scroll through the document and have each student read his or her post and say why they picked it.
  3. Students would make a second copy of the post and, without changing any words or punctuation, turn it into a poem.
  4. Students would read their poems, and then verbally and in writing explain what they did to turn the post into a poem.

The idea was to get students to notice and articulate the choices they were making that made their selected post become a poem. My thinking was that if they could see themselves turning everyday prose into poetic language, they might be more attuned to the types of moves that poets make in the texts we will read in class.

What happened.

The biggest challenges ended up being the technical ones. I am not in the habit of making friends with my students on social media, so I created a new Google+ account just for this purpose.  Students had trouble finding it, and some of those who had not used the site before found it confusing and less than user-friendly (I am with them on that. I never use my Google+ except for hangouts.)  By the time we were ready to get started, 11 of them had found and added me and two more were trying to.

I decided not to spend a lot of time delaying the hangout to deal with these difficulties because it was, after all, an experiment.  By the time we really got started, I had eight participants. Good enough.

The real problem was my computer. For some reason, I was unable to get my microphone to work. I unmuted everything. I tried the built-in and an external mic, but no matter what I tried, I could not get my students to hear me (What else is new?). I debated cancelling the session, but instead decided to press on using the chat feature in the hangout.  This was slow-going, but I was able to copy and paste some of the notes I had written in my rough lesson plan, and one of the students kept reminding the others to look at what I was typing. It was not ideal, but it went well.  This created the most problems near the end when I was trying to get students to clearly articulate their rationales and begin to develop interpretations of their poems. It was just taking too long to type everything.

When all was said and done, we had been on the chat for nearly two hours. Though I think the work could have been a little bit better in quality, it wasn’t bad for a snowday lesson under technical duress.  Some of the student observations included:

  • I found two words that rhymed and put them at the ends of lines.
  • I put a word by itself on a line to add emphasis.
  • I put the word “small” by itself on a line to be a physical representation of the meaning of the word.
  • I added line breaks where I thought the tone of the original changed.

(Note:  Once I get all of the students’ permission, I will post the document we created.)

These comments and others were exactly what I was after from the lesson. Had we had more time (or any audio) I might have encouraged them to develop more complete interpretations of their poems, but I was happy with these outcomes.  Students were articulating the types of features that make poems poetic. Now we’ll see how this transfers to our actual classroom work and whether, having created poems themselves, the student will be more attuned to the choices of the poets we study.

Here are some of my takeaways from the experience:

  1. Despite the hassles, the students thought it was fun.  Several said that they wish we could have online class more often.  I think it was critically important that this was an interactive forum rather than the one-way types of online courses that pervade. We learned together.
  2. I spent a lot of time setting this up.  In the future, I might make the basic setup of a system like this a part of my beginning of the year routine. That way, when such a situation arises again, I won’t be running around the internet like a chicken with my head cut off (or a teacher who forgot to make copies).
  3. Not being able to talk is not the worst thing in the world.  One of the main goals in my practice this year is to talk less in classes and have students talk more.  I’ve been doing a pretty good job of it, and this was a natural extension of that work.
  4. Pedagogy matters more than technology does. A lesson has to be uniquely tailored to the students and the context. This was an Arthur C. Clarke experience, and I think I’m safe for now.

Questions that remain (and I’d love to hear your thoughts):

  • Has anyone else had similar experiences?  I’d love to hear your stories.
  • Which platforms might be better for something like this?
  • I have heard and read several news stories of teachers and districts doing similar things. Should this become a regular practice in our schools? If it does, how do we account for the lack of access to technology in many of our students’ homes?
  • A pedagogical question: I considered asking the students to choose source material that they found poetic even though it was not a poem. I opted to simply have them choose any post they found interesting on the theory that any interesting text has some qualities that could be considered poetic and thus be enhanced by the poetic form.  My concern was that by introducing the idea that the the language should be poetic too early in the process, they would later be less aware of the specific choices they had made to turn it into a poem. Would this alternate phrasing of the original task have changed the final outcome?  If so, how?

Thanks for reading, and thanks Zac for the forum.

Paul tweets at @ptritter.