Providing Contextualized Learning through Mentorships

A review of Patty Alper’s Teach to Work, reprinted from Getting Smart, December 3, 2017

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Too often school initiatives, whether they promote technology or grammar or social-emotional wellness, are offered up in a void. They have no real context in which to unfold, and they are spooned into the school day like so many doses of cough syrup. Thus, they become all too easy to dismiss, as valuable as they may be, because they offer no real context for learning.

Thus, when I read books like Patty Alper’s Teach to Work, I do a little cognitive dance for the kind of authentic learning that can provide the context students need, while simultaneously offering the chance to hone key skills, such as collaboration and communication, that students must have to succeed in the future.

Why Mentoring Matters

Within the context of coaching students as they develop business plans, make product pitches, and prototype products, Alper offers a framework for developing real-life business projects into school programs. Alper founded the Adopt-a-Class program for the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship and acted as a mentor herself for upwards of fifteen years. She has grounded her understanding of the mentoring process in project-based learning. Further, she has researched a skills-based approach to mentoring that draws upon research and her own experience in the business world.

Alper first makes a strong case for mentoring with an entrepreneurial focus — both from the perspective of growing businesses and benefitting the workforce, but also as a way to unlock the potential of kids who typically receive little exposure to entrepreneurial thinking and problem-solving, the very young people who might see such things as out-of-reach. Apler maintains, “If experts, geniuses and Nobel Laureates benefit from mentors, if it is a model that has stood the test of time, if it continues to be integral in Masters and Ph.D. programs, why isn’t it more pervasive in the tracks of education where students need it most?”

Providing Structure for Authentic Projects

Next, Alper, breaks down the mentoring process into practical steps that give anyone new to working one-on-one as a mentor the kind of practical advice and concrete overview that they will need, from what to say on the first day to how to organize field trips to how to transition appropriately at the end of a school year. Throughout her detailed descriptions, Alper peppers lively examples of her own interactions with students as case studies. In essence, Alper answers any questions, large and small, a mentor might have before taking on a somewhat daunting role that can nonetheless make a real difference in students’ lives. At the same time Alper rightly cautions mentors about the commitments and expectations involved.

Alper is particularly helpful in providing advice to potential mentors who must navigate schools that may not look like what they remember from their own educational backgrounds. She offers advice on communications, procedures, and the realities of students’ home lives and educational experience. In particular, she is sensitive to the respectful relationships the mentor must build with the classroom teacher and with the students themselves.

Agency, Responsibility, Execution

The secret of Alper’s success, however, in Teach to Work lies in her keen understanding of the need for student agency. Again and again, she provides thoughtful commentary on how mentors must listen to students’ stories and dreams, how they should seek to understand kids where they are, how mentors must model shouldering responsibility and learning from mistakes, and how they can ultimately help the young people they work with unleash an internal drive that can propel them into the future. Moreover, when these adults open the doors to a world of possibilities for executing real business projects, they make the kind of difference in students’ lives that usually only receives lip service.

I recommend Patty Alper’s Teach to Work to anyone who wants to take on a mentoring role, start an entrepreneurship program in a school or workplace, or unknot the kinks of a program already in existence. Even if you are just beginning to acknowledge a personal desire for a larger sense of purpose, you can browse the exhaustive list of resources for entrepreneurship programs at the back of the book and surely find somewhere to begin.

Now, if schools could only take a lesson from Alper as well and provide the context for learning that their many well-meaning initiatives require — a context that is grounded in authentic work in a real-world environment that gives students agency to explore — well, then we might be getting somewhere.

Making Their Own Learning: Students Review Two Helpful Apps

 Created by Susan Lucille Davis in Piktochart

Created by Susan Lucille Davis in Piktochart

You’ve no doubt heard grown-ups complaining that teens and tweens waste their time online by getting sucked into the black hole of social media or watching reruns of The Office on Netflix. Yet I’ve known many students who scour the Internet for tools that can help them study and learn.

A few years ago, I posted a blog about “5 Apps Your Students Are Using When You Aren’t Looking” and as I expected, I learned a lot from my students about how they independently mine the web for the tools they need when they need them without the assistance of teachers or parents.

I return to this subject with app reviews by two ninth grade students, Danielle Garten and Zoe Osgood, who researched apps for their “Digital Thinking: Apps to Ethics” class at Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills, Maryland, under the direction of their teacher, Renee Hawkins.

As you’ll read below, Danielle has used Duolingo not only to support her academic courses but to pursue her love of learning new languages just for fun, and Zoe has stepped up to create online study groups in Quizlet and then share them with her entire class.

I don’t think these girls are unusual. Like most of us, they depend on word of mouth to discover new tools that can help them learn. If they are like my former students, they are often shocked when teachers suggest online tools or apps. Even now, too few educators work with their students to vet the tools that might accelerate their students’ learning–or at least make it more efficient. So the question that haunts me still is this: Why aren’t more educators involved in guiding their students towards the helpful tools online that will help their students succeed?

If you are a teacher, I have a challenge for you: ask your students which apps they’ve claimed for educational purposes. In fact, I hope you will also take on the challenge of collaborating with your students to curate the best tools for learning in your classroom, whatever your curriculum may be. I’d love to hear from you if you do!

Ooh-la-la-ing with Duolingo

By Danielle Garten

For many of us, learning new languages can be an extremely daunting task, while others of us spend just a small fraction of a day brushing up on a language learned in elementary school. While everyone has a different reason for the new exploration–immigrating to another country, taking a semester abroad, wanting to speak to a distant relative or even a need to support family members–we can all benefit from the popular language learning app, Duolingo, which was created so that everyone can explore a passion for learning a new language without the cost.

Designed for non-native English speakers learning English to apply for jobs, Duolingo benefits any students who want to learn a new language’s grammar or vocabulary. The app and website focus on listening, reading, writing and speaking skills, emphasizing the importance of being able to do all four tasks accurately and confidently. It is hard for someone with even the highest level of language skill to not have a new challenge with twenty-two languages to choose from and hundreds of lessons within each topic. Duolingo presents a type of “game-based learning” which takes keeping streaks, losing lives and leveling up to a whole new standard as it creates an environment where it is exciting and interesting to learn.

However, I believe that it may be incredibly difficult to learn a new language without any accompanying class unless the learner has enormous willpower and determination to stick with the app. Duolingo has thought of having a “Coach” and setting daily goal limits to keep you engaged in learning so much you end up staying up late to try and learn the most you can with the highest scores. After your enthusiasm and energy die down, you may not go on the website for another few months. I know that the time I invested in learning the material was incredibly helpful for re-learning some of the basic words in French that I had forgotten from lower school.

Additionally, a new feature of Duolingo for Schools brings the app into the classroom to create an even more effective environment. At my high school, I do not know any teachers who are using this specific program, but I have been assigned as homework to complete specific sets of problems. I believe that this feature is not as well known, but soon it will become as popular as other learning websites such as Khan Academy or Kahoot.

Teachers can use Duolingo for competitions in class as students can “friend” each other to compete for the most experience points (XP) in a lively and competitive activity. It feels rewarding to receive prizes or bragging rights for your efforts, which makes you even more keen on playing. Students also benefit when studying for tests on the website because they can find levels for exactly what they need to study.


Making the Grade with Quizlet

By Zoe Osgood

As younger generations become more and more exposed to technology, paper resources are becoming exceedingly outdated. When students are asked to create physical flashcards of the material they’ve learned in class, more often than not they lose some or all of the flashcards, leave them at home or end up accidentally recycling them. Studying using online methods wasn’t routine for us, though, until just a few years ago when the idea for Quizlet was developed by a teenager who was having trouble studying on his laptop at home.

Quizlet, an online learning website and app founded in 2005, is one of the most widely used study platforms among students today. Created by Andrew Sutherland, Quizlet makes learning fun and accessible for my generation. After creating an account, members can create personalized study sets, access sets other users have created and play several memory-based learning games. Users also have the option to upgrade to Quizlet Plus and study without ads, upload their own voice recordings and images into flash cards and gain unlimited access to classes.

Regardless of whether or not you have the upgrade, Quizlet makes it easy to collaborate with classmates and teachers through online classes, which anyone can request to join. The class administrator, usually a student or teacher, then has the ability to grant students access to all of the study sets that have been added to the class by its members. Simply said, classes are a great way for students to organize their study materials.

Along with this, Quizlet’s game features give students a break from generic study methods, forcing you to submit the correct information to prevent an asteroid from crashing into a planet or daring you to beat your classmates in a timed matching challenge. Personally, other than the occasional false information put in a study set by a classmate, I can’t find much fault with this website.

At my high school, I only know of one teacher (my English teacher) who frequently uses Quizlet. My teacher uses the website to create study sets of all the words we have to memorize. The rest of my teachers don’t really care what method of study we use, as long as we actually learn the material. When I was in middle school, my Latin teacher would always insist that we make physical flashcards for each set of vocabulary words. In his eyes, this enforced our memorization of the words. It was always a huge pain to make every single flashcard, complete with a complementing image representing the word and one or two English derivatives. The work was tedious and usually took me about an hour to complete. There was rarely an occasion on which the entirety of my class had their flashcards in hand when the bell rang. Since I have always been plagued with misplacing my flashcards, Quizlet has been a lifesaver.

For those who still believe that writing out material helps students to learn better, I’m going to have to contradict your beliefs. The “learn” feature on the Quizlet app is a phenomenal way to study very similarly to using pencil and paper. If you type in an answer wrong, the program gives you the right answer, but then won’t go to the next slide until you type it up word-for-word. It’ll then take out all of the cards you answered correctly, allowing you to study only the material that you answered incorrectly. It forces you to remember the material in order to finish learning the set. Although this can be frustrating (I often find myself scowling at my computer screen while studying), I’ve discovered that it’s a much more time-efficient and effective way to study.

Using both the website and the mobile app, I can study anytime, anywhere. I never have to worry about losing my flashcards, because the website automatically saves them every few seconds as I create them.

With more than 40 million users each month and 125 million user-generated study sets, Quizlet sets no limit to how much students and educators all around the world can learn.


Mustering Courage for Student Choice: A Review of Amber Chandler's The Flexible ELA Classroom


 Students can choose favorite "sidewalk" poems to share for National Poetry Month.

Students can choose favorite "sidewalk" poems to share for National Poetry Month.

You’ve all heard the “yeah-buts” about differentiated or personalized instruction.

“It’s not fair–how could I possibly assess my students if they aren’t doing the same work?”

“It takes too much time, and I already have so much to cover.”

“I’m overwhelmed already–when am I supposed to find the time to redesign my curriculum to meet the needs of every student?”

“My department/administrators/parents wouldn’t approve.”

“My students just want me to tell them what to do so they can get it over with.”

 

If you hear these comments or complaints from peers, or even inside your own head, Amber Chandler’s The Flexible ELA Classroom will help you find your way towards a pedagogy that you want to believe in–because you are a teacher who has dedicated heart and soul to helping students learn.

Not only that, but Chandler’s empathy for the personal struggles that teachers undergo, paired with the practical advice, organized materials, and effective strategies that can help you succeed, will make the shift towards personalized instruction easier than you think.

The Skinny on Differentiation

Chandler structures her book around her own journey towards deeper differentiation in her classes. The first step: listening to students and giving them options and choice to “have a say in their own learning.” She describes how choice boards and menus in any discipline can allow students to express their understanding in ways that capture their interest or work best for them. Once you’ve gotten your toes wet and start to see the positive impact of giving students agency, you can apply these strategies more broadly by employing choice for action research projects or menus for independent reading–in any subject!

Chandler describes how to teach students how to choose for themselves and the importance of giving them practice in a safe space, and she provides guidance for grouping students into teams for ongoing support, following a passion and probing deeply. She provides thoughtful strategies for vocabulary study, helpful for any teacher who has grappled with the best ways to tackle language acquisition, and uses the confidence students gain from word mastery on their own terms to lead into more challenging independent or group projects.

Chandler ends with a thorough discussion of assessment, a sticking point for many, and some great advice for building family partnerships to help teachers get to know each student individually and thus help them grow as in a culture of learners.

My only suggestions are that Chandler might push her assessments to be even more authentic by suggesting projects that have a real-life or global context outside the classroom, along with including more examples that are not so gender-based (ie., about gaming and directed at boys, or about fashion and directed at girls).

Assessing the Sticking Point of Assessment

Chandler returns to the point, again and again, that teachers should build their assessments around the skills or content that they wish their students to learn. Traditional essays assigned to everyone may be a useful and “fair” way to assess particular essay writing skills, for instance, but they may not be the best or only way to assess a student’s understanding of a literary encounter or theoretical concept.

Chandler also believes that students need to learn a variety of ways to express their learning, including the usual tests and papers that they will continue to encounter in high school and college, along with the digital communications and media they will be immersed in for the rest of their lives.

Yes, This Applies to You

Don’t assume that The Flexible ELA Classroom is not for you just because it is rooted in Chandler’s practice as a middle school teacher of language arts. Her personable and practical approach can be applied to older or younger students, inform a range of disciplines outside language arts, serve the needs of public or private schools and really help anyone who deals in discipline-specific vocabulary, reading, presentations or projects.

Likewise, it gives valuable advice for even the most experienced teacher who understands the need to empower his or her students and to partner with their parents–all in the service of learning. And not only does she give you the detailed scaffolding and planning advice anyone tackling differentiation might need, but she makes additional eResources available to you via the publishers, Middle Web and Routledge, as well as the book’s website.

I feel I have found a kindred spirit in Amber Chandler, and I know I will use her book to improve my practice. It may even become one of those worn resources that I lend again and again to colleagues who are stuck in the maze of “yeah, buts….”

 

The Sweet Spot of Memory and Rigor

Did you know that your short-term memory lasts only 30 seconds to a minute? Unless you intervene and make a conscious effort to move something to long-term memory, poof, it’s gone. This explains a lot about why I have a hard time remembering names when I meet people -- my brain is probably multi-tasking to make sense of things as I also self-consciously monitor how I'm presenting myself.

 Students learn about metaphor: practicing understanding through notebook hacking.

Students learn about metaphor: practicing understanding through notebook hacking.

Short-Term Memory vs. Long-Term Memory

I learned about the shortness of short-term memory from an interview by Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air with Dean Burnett, author of Idiot Brain: What Your Brain Is Really Up To. Here’s a clip:

GROSS: In writing about memory, you write about the difference between short-term memory and long-term memory. And short-term memory really doesn't hold very much. I mean, from how you describe it, it holds less than I even thought.
BURNETT: Yeah. That's sort of one of those mainstream ideas of how memory is structured and works, which is not quite correct - in that short-term memory - you see a lot of films and, like, TV shows. They sort of portray short-term memory as something from an hour ago or, like, that same day. Where it's actually - short-term memory is 30 seconds to a minute. Anything longer than that tends to actually now be officially a long-term memory 'cause it takes the brain...
GROSS: Whoa whoa whoa. Anything longer than a minute is officially long-term memory?

BURNETT: Essentially, yes.
GROSS: That means my long-term memory is worse than I thought (laughter).

Now, I remembered this because it was funny and shocking at the same time. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Terry Gross go “Whoa, whoa, whoa….” like that. But I also thought (my brain doing a little analysis dance), what does that critical jump from short-term to long-term memory mean for education and for teaching? My own whoa-whoa-whoa: How important is that moment? Majorly important.

Who Is Responsible for Rigor?

In the serendipitous way new thoughts evolve, I happened upon some reflections a few days later about that sweet spot of transition from short-term to long-term memory (sometimes referred to as working memory).  It was in a blog post by Sarah Doenmez: “Brain Science Reveals the Learner -- Not the Teacher -- as the Source of Rigor,Independent School Magazine Blog, October 19, 2015.

Doenmez emphasizes how students need “repetitive, challenging tasks” in the form of “practice and do-overs” to strengthen key skills such as drawing conclusions from evidence.” Rigor is not piling on scads of material (how it is seen by some teachers, unfortunately), but rather lies in creating opportunities for students to manage the juncture from short-term memory to long-term memory, whether is it through practice, as Doenmez describes, or through other forms of engagement I could add: tinkering, discussion, reflection, play.

Thus, true rigor lies in the learner’s engagement with the activity of learning -- sometimes provided by the teacher. (The teacher is not the only one who designs those moments -- students do this themselves.) If teachers design activities that shut the brain down rather than rev it up, it’s no wonder that the transition from short-term to long-term memory doesn’t happen. Too daunting, right? The learner must locate that wellspring of motivation in him- or herself that can allow him or her to make the leap of learning ahead. The learner must assume an attitude of engagement and follow through with some effort. But depending on how the student encounters learning (what baggage may exist from the past in this regard, how was the learning structured, etc.), that motivation may be too deeply buried and the effort may just not seem worth it. On the other hand, the learning experience, something do-able yet challenging, just may be the spark the student needs.

Doenmez quotes Andrew Watson as saying, “Rigor keeps the focus on students’ responsibility and authorship of their own neural networks. In other words, teachers can provide the opportunity and structure for students to learn, but only students can engage and manage their brains” (Independent School Magazine, Fall 2015).

I like that. The teacher as architect of an engaging learning space, the student as someone who steps up and engages his or her own brain to learn. So the real rigor is a collaboration to find the sweet spot of learning and make that memory jump together.

A New Blog, a New Place to Learn


 Exploring a lava field on Hawai'i, October 2015. Photo by Larry Kahn.

Exploring a lava field on Hawai'i, October 2015. Photo by Larry Kahn.


This year I reached one of those aging milestones that give one pause. It also happened that I was moving from Hawai'i, where I had lived and worked for two years, back to the mainland -- Fort Worth, Texas, to be exact. Lots to think about. How did I feel at this stage of my life? Was I still having fun? What would my next step be? How would this move affect me? What did I want to do with the rest of my life? That sort of thing.

The result of all that thinking is this blog, a new career path as an educational consultant, and an ongoing commitment to connecting with educators globally and educating for the future. I hope to collaborate with schools and educators to design professional development programs, to re-invent schools and their curricula, and to coach faculty and students as architects of their own learning. Maybe I'll start the young adult novel that has been kicking around in my head. I may resurrect an old dream of collaborating with a dear friend to put together some creativity workshops and retreats. Fundamentally, I plan to keep on learning -- and sharing what I learn with anyone else who wants to join the party.


I plan to keep on learning — and sharing what I learn with anyone else who wants to join the party.

Once I attended a "conversation" about game-hacking at Educon, which is a terrific conference sponsored by the Science Leadership Academy. The student-facilitator welcomed us into his classroom with the comment, "Hi, my name is Zach, and this is where I learn." I'd like to use this blog as my open learning space, to share with readers and learners who want to learn with me. I hope you feel as welcome as I did.

Contact me: susanlucilledavis@gmail.com4016 Pershing Ave., Fort Worth, Texas 76107.  808/724-4434. Twitter: @suludavisInstagram: susanlucilledavis .