Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ensuring Learning for All Students Conference (May 22, 2013)

Sitting in the back row of Lit 342H – Harlem Renaissance, I yet again make use of Windows 7’s nifty dual snap screen feature to simultaneously type lecture notes and check emails. Hmm, something from the SOE (School of Education). Let’s ignore it for n–wait, a conference?  

“Ensuring Learning for All Students: Sharing Successful Practices for Students Who Struggle,” I quietly read to myself as I add another bullet point to my notes.

“May 22 from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Pace Graduate Center in White Plains.” This semester-from-Hell will be over by then; I’m sure I’ll be fully immersed in nothing-doing.

“... geared toward K-16 teachers, pre-service teachers (hey, that’s me!), students, educational professionals and parents of students who struggle . . . blah, blah, blah,” I continued muttering as I forgo pretending to take notes.

“. . . provides real, practical, evidence based strategies that can be immediately applied to the classroom, with a special emphasis on struggling students.” Sounds good. 

 “. . . renowned academic literacy specialist Dr. Kevin Feldman.” Renowned, is he? Probably worth listening to then. “Meaningful Engagement: Every Student, Every Lesson, Every Day.” We could hope.

“Cost is $75.” Crap.

As a Pace University student in the School of Education, I’ve had the following drilled into my inner being: “reflective practitioners who promote justice create caring classrooms and school communities and enable all students to be successful learners.”
So, I had really wanted to attend the conference. $75 was just a little more than a college student who’s living on cup-o-noodle and Starbucks can afford, though.
Fast forward to a few days before the conference and I receive another SOE email. I nearly pressed my mental IGNORE button, but the subject, “Discounted Tickets Available for SOE 5/22 Conference: Ensuring Learning For All Students,” made me pause. How discounted are we talking about, SOE? I thought as I clicked the email. Apparently, it was $10 tickets kind of discounted. NICE! And so, I emailed and squeezed in time to drop off a check. (It was my second time writing a check ever; I felt just a bit more adult.)

The next day, I receive an email from Pat, the super lady in charge of the Teacher Opportunity Corp of which I am a part of. IGNORE. IGNORE. Even though the subject said “ensuring learning conference,” I knew Pat was always looking to inform her TOC students of endless opportunities (i.e. giving us more work). But I could never ignore Pat, so I clicked the email and braced myself. Lo and behold, Pat was offering a way to get into the conference for free in the guise of volunteering! While a 10 dollar discount had sounded good, a free dollar discount sounded a whole lot better. “Sign me up!” I replied.
* * *
It’s May 22nd, 5:45am. While Mr. Sun remains sleeping, a 21-year-old Bronx native knocks her phone off her nightstand table in her blind attempts to shut off the alarm (her head, as well as the rest of her minus one arm, remains firmly snug under her comforter). Dammit, dammit, dammit. It’s summer. I’m on vacation. Va-ca-TION! I overslept. Missed my train? Came down with a cough? The flu! No, I can’t flake out. Falling out of bed, she drags herself to the shower and gets dressed, to the train station and onto the train without mishap.
That girl was me.
Arriving at the conference, my first order of business was to find Merrill and offer my services . . .  for a fee. Before I could work, I needed to know the location of the Coffee. ASAP. After coffee, I did some random errands that aren’t interesting enough to tell about here. Let’s move on to the actual conference!
The first presentation was by the aforementioned renowned academic literacy specialist Dr. Kevin Feldman. His presentation, Meaningful Engagement: Every Student, Every Lesson, Every Day, was meaningful and well, engaging. It was also informative and insightful. Here are some of the goodies I took away:
·        He defined “LITERACY” as reading, writing, speaking, and listening. In other words, it’s not just reading and writing, it’s all of these things; it’s the art of THINKING. Then, he went on to explain that being ”literate” meant different things in different contexts or content areas because each had its own unique “lexicon” or “words used by word-using human beings” (his words, not Webster’s. Webster’s were a bit dry: “the vocabulary of a language, an individual speaker or group of speakers, or a subject.”) His suggestion for teaching literacy? “Students need to be linguistically engaged.”
·        Next was assessment. Shocker! Not. It’s nearly impossible to gather a bunch of educators in this climate of reform without assessments being mentioned. Feldman’s stance reflects my own. Assessments are pretty much asinine. The paper they’re printed on is more useful than they are for evaluating learning. (My words, not Feldman’s.) Feldman says that “we do not use assessments in real life; most of life is PROBLEM SOLVING.” By focusing on assessments, we aren’t preparing students for tasks in the real world, which require that individuals are actively involved and expressing themselves effectively. Here’s where Feldman’s focus on engagement in the classroom comes into play.
·        FELDMAN SAYS: “Engagement is not a CHOICE; it’s the way we play the game. Don’t ask, just do it! In other words, teachers cannot ask students to be engaged but must force them to be so. Why? Because many students are willing to float around in the ZME—Zone of Minimal Effort. “I won’t bother you if you won’t bother me,” and they simply coast through, not really there in your classroom. That is NOT okay, not for you as a teacher and definitely not for the student.
·        How do we know when students are engaged? No worries, Dr. Feldman to the rescue with a definition: 
      “Engagement is observable evidence of a learner’s interest/active involvement in lesson content/tasks with clearly articulated ‘evidence checks’ of concrete, productive responses to instruction (i.e. VISIBLE EVIDENCE).” 
      But, then what counts as visible evidence? SAYING (oral language), WRITING (written language), and DOING (pointing, touching, demonstrating etc). Oh, and both quantity and quality are vital. And what’s a teacher without his rules: Feldman's  RULE is to never allow more than 2 to 10 minutes to go by before observing a visible evidence of engagement.
·        Some more goodies:
o   True-ism: Impossible to improve student achievement unless we improve our teaching because “how well we teach = how well they learn,” from Dr. Anita Archer.
o   “We can press RESET at any time.” I thought this was particularly powerful statement made by Feldman. For a pre-service teacher like myself, this statement was reassuring. Instead of being scared pants-less, I am merely terrified of entering my own classroom because I know I can keep changing for the better, keep trying until I get it down. Knowing that that’s what expected from professionals, that they expect teachers to mess up and not get the results they want, as long as they use that failure to improve? Like I said, reassuring.
After Dr. Feldman’s amazing presentation, attendees broke into sessions and went to various workshops. For session #1, I attended the workshop on Learning Cultures—A Model for Success at High School for Language and Innovation. I was drawn to this workshop because it’s a high school in the Bronx and I’m always interested in new schools in the Bronx and what they’re trying to do.
The workshop itself was a little disappointing because the presenters didn’t seem particularly prepared. The information wasn’t conveyed as effectively. The only things I got out of it was that 1) they are a school that caters to students learning English as a Second Language, which I found fascinating and 2)they conduct their classes based on a Cooperative Unison Reading model, which consists of a) a group of students reading aloud in sync, b) one or more of the students breaching or stopping the group when they have something to say or are confused, and c) Being promotive, or promoting/increasing understanding of the text. While this method sounds interesting, I couldn’t gauge its possible effectiveness or how smoothly it would work in a content area classroom. I wondered how often this model is done in the classroom. Every day for every class? How is is integrative into content area lessons?
The next workshop I attended was called Monolingual Teacher, Multilingual Students. As a child of immigrant parents, I have a special affinity for ESL students and I hope to work with that population in particular in the future, so I was drawn to this workshop. The presenter was Ruth Aman from Columbia’s Teacher’s College and the guiding question was “Can and should teachers effectively utilize their student’s L1 (first language) to support L2 (second language?” I’ve always thought Yes, of course, but I looked forward to seeing what Aman would reveal about the topic.
·        Some reasons for why TRANSLATED writing is stronger: academic English acquisition takes about 5-7 years, anxiety of learning a new language, motivation, and identity.
·        Writing Between Languages by Dangling Fu (to be added to “to-read” list)
·        Fu’s Stages of Writing Acquisition (Non-Linear):
o   Native Language Use Only
o   Using Both Languages (i.e. using native language in place of mysterious English words for first drafts)
o   Inter-language English with Native Language Syntax
o   Standard English
·        Separating language objectives from content area objective. I thought this was particularly important and vital for ESL students because the two are often not one and the same.
The last workshop of the day was “ELLIS Outlines and the Struggling Writer—The Taster’s Choice Activity.” The presentation was an introduction of ELLIS outlines, which allow students to have the content info down before focusing on writing. They can be performed in a short amount of time, address difficulties in organization and working memory and can be used across curriculum/content courses and as effective study guides.
Check out the ELLIS graphic organizers here:
I’ve always liked the ideas of graphic organizers to scaffold student note-taking or organization in writing. However, my concern is always that they force students into boxes—literally. I remember myself as a student: I loved outlining, probably one of the few students who did, but I hated being given an outline. Why? The chances were 8/10 that the outline wouldn't exactly fit my thinking or logic and I would feel the need to change my thinking to fit the outline because that must be what the teacher wanted. As a future educator, I want to avoid evoking that kind of feeling in students. It may be doing something as simple as avoiding heading on outlines, or sitting students down at a computer to create and print their own outlines, or providing students with several outlines to choose from. All to ensure that they are THINKING on their OWN, making DECISIONS about their writing on their OWN. That’s what is important to me.
After that, I tried sneaking out and running to catch an earlier train home, but I got caught and needed to help take signs down and collect supplies. I didn't really mind. All in all, the conference was a valuable experience for me. Despite waking up before Mr. Sun that morning, I was more than glad to have had the opportunity to attend.