Who Is Really Responsible For The Summer Slide?

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground guest blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

School let out in the Chicago suburbs just over a week ago. While I have never been a proponent of the “last days of school countdown” and much prefer Twitter movements like #lastbell, I must admit, I like the time off. I appreciate waking up in the morning without an alarm and drinking coffee from a real mug.

Similarly, my children (ages 11 and 8) have enjoyed sleeping in and playing outside. It wasn’t until day 6 of our time-off together that we did something “educational.” We visited the library where we greeted by a large poster reminding us to read and avoid the dreaded “summer slide.”

What is the summer slide?
The summer slide refers to the phenomena of lost academic growth by students over the summer months when they are not actively engaged at school. On average, students lose one to three months of learning during the summer, with students from low-income homes being disproportionately affected (ASCD).

There are a plethora of recommendations for minimizing the impact of the summer slide. Most suggestions, including those listed in a recent article in Forbes Magazine, focus on two aspects of the slide, one preventative and one reactionary:

  1. what parents/guardians can do to avoid the summer slide

  2. what educators can/need to do to fix the damage done over the summer when school resumes in the fall

Why are we placing the burden of preventing the summer slide on parents?
As an educator, I have insight into what my children should be doing over the summer and I have the luxury of time-off to do things like read with them. Yet, to be honest, I don’t assess whether or not our activities help their retention nor do I want to do so. This leads me to wonder about the majority of parents who aren’t trained educators or who don’t have time-off from work. Are they really the right party to rely on to prevent the summer slide?

There are people, like Geoffrey Canada, who say the idea of no school in the summer is asinine altogether:

“every 10 years they reproduce the same study. It says exactly the same thing: Poor kids lose ground in the summertime. The system decides you can’t run schools in the summer…who makes up those rules? — I went the Harvard Ed School. I thought I knew something. They said it was the agrarian calendar, — but let me tell you why that doesn’t make sense….anyone knows if you farm, you don’t plant crops in July and August. You plant them in the spring” (Ted Talk, Our Failing Schools. Enough is Enough, 2013).

However, considering that a systemic change (like mandated year-round school) could take years to legislate, we ought to focus less on what parents and students should do to prevent the summer slide and focus more on what we (educators) can control.  The questions we should be asking ourselves are:

  1. What are we doing during the school year to ensure that the growth our students make is permanent?

  2. What are we (inadvertently) doing to make students resistant to learning in the summer?

And, I propose that the following practices (or lack thereof) are unwittingly contributing to our students’ summer slide:

Reliance on Bells and Schedules
During the nine months we have students in our classrooms we consistently send them subliminal messages that learning is fixed and structured, rather than fluid and ubiquitous. This is not malicious, but true nonetheless.

We offer our students instruction in the form of “periods” or “blocks” which typically rely on bells to indicate when learning starts and stops. Students learn reading from 8-9, and then they learn science from 9-10. And, while many schools claim to teach literacy in all classes, or engage in interdisciplinary learning, on the whole, these connections are not clear to students. Students struggle to transfer information learned in one class to another class, let alone from one year to another.

What we need to do is recognize, vocalize, and celebrate the fact that the content, skills, and concepts we cover in our classrooms just scratch the surface of what there is to be learned. We need to focus on building students’ metacognitive awareness so they recognize when and where they are learning, so they can self-identify what strategies to use to best understand the new information to which they are constantly exposed. By doing so, even when students are at home “playing video games” all summer, we give them the greatest opportunity to learn something from playing these games (plotline of a story, digital imagery, strategizing) and make connections.

Incorrectly “using” formative assessment
In Formative Assessment 2.0, Larry Ainsworth offers Stiggins’ explanation of formative assessment as something that, “happens while learning is still underway. These are the assessments that we conduct throughout teaching and learning to diagnose student needs, plan for next steps in instruction, provide students with feedback they can use…”

When done correctly, formative assessment (sometimes referred to as assessment for learning) informs both the teacher and the student of whether or not concepts/skills have been consistently mastered. The consistent “loss” of skills or knowledge over the summer months is indicative of improperly assessing students’ progress/mastery throughout the year. Furthermore, this loss suggests the focus is on moving students as a whole, rather than focusing on individual student growth which would require the use of formative assessment evidence to differentiate for their needs.

Perhaps, if we truly shift our focus to assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning, and resume teaching our students where they actually left-off the year before, the gaps will not be as cavernous.

Making reading a punishment
If (as advertised) reading is the key to preventing the summer slide; the one thing all educators must do is curate a love of reading.

Unfortunately, however, we tend to do just the opposite and systemize reading. For many students, reading is seen as a chore, a measure of compliance, or worse, something it is ok to “lie” about (read more about this here or here).

With this in mind, it is no wonder that students choose to not read in the summer. They need a break because reading feels strenuous and stressful.

Rather than assign reading in it of itself, we need to pose relevant and provocative questions which will naturally compel students to read. Instead of assigning 20 minutes of reading a night, we can ask students questions about what they read outside of class (online, in books, in magazines, even subtitles) and accept that reading takes on many forms.

When we expose students to reading in a variety of forms and recognize learning from reading of any source (wow, that’s pretty cool. where did you learn/read about that, I’ve never heard that before? Can you show me that?) it’s pretty incredible how much more students are willing to read.

In The End
Until school runs year-round we may never fully eradicate the summer slide. But, we can certainly do our best to ensure that what our students learn is permanent and not fleeting. What are your thoughts on the summer slide?

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Student-Driven Differentiation: Putting Student Voice Behind The Wheel

Student Voice

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Over the weekend, while at a BBQ, I had a conversation with some middle schoolers and their parents about our summer plans. I mentioned the work I will be doing with student-driven differentiation which prompted one of the parents to ask me a question I get asked frequently, “what is student-driven differentiation?”

I replied as I normally do. I stated the traditional definition of differentiation (an approach to teaching in which educators use ongoing assessment to actively plan for students’ differences and adjust instruction so all students can learn). Then, I explained that student driven differentiation calls for the use of one additional, non-negotiable, piece to effectively plan instruction: student voice.

After giving this long-winded answer, one of the middle schoolers sitting at the table said, “Oh, my teacher asks me a lot of questions, but she never listens to any of my answers.”

I respect my students, just ask them!

A few months ago, I read The School Voice Report published by The Quaglia Institute. The report disclosed some very thought-provoking numbers. Most notably, after surveying over 60,000 students and 4,000 teachers, researchers found 99% of teachers surveyed reported they respect their students, while 58% of students surveyed reported feeling respected by their teachers.

Additionally, of those surveyed, 82% of teachers said they actively seek out student opinions and ideas, yet only 47% of students feel teachers are willing to learn from them.

These discrepancies did not surprise me. I often see a disconnect between teachers’ and students’ perceptions of respect and listening. Many teachers will ask students for input and innocently, yet mistakenly, believe that just asking students questions is a clear indicator of the respect they have for them.  However, students feel respected when their thoughts and questions are heard and addressed accordingly. So, without action (whether that be a change or a valid explanation of why a change cannot occur) students do not necessarily feel respected.

When differentiating instruction (student-driven or not), teachers are mindful that some students will master content and skills more quickly while some students will struggle to learn the same content and skills. With student-driven differentiation, rather than plan in advance how to address student needs, students’ voices (collective and individual) are sought to craft the plan. Student-driven differentiation lends itself to teacher action which produces the ultimate result: students who feel respected, heard, and who learn.

But… there is always a “but”.

In my work with teachers on student-driven differentiation, I regularly encounter concerns about differentiation in general (read more about that here), and with student-driven differentiation, teachers often share two additional concerns: not having enough time (we have so much content to get through, it doesn’t leave time for talking with students) and the number of students they have (I have too many students to talk to all of them on a regular basis).

In Student Voice: The Instrument of Change Russell Quaglia and Michael Corso address these and other perceived barriers to seeking student voice to which they respond with the following statements:

  • Time sacrificed in the short run to listen to students pays off in the long run in the form of higher engagement (26).
  • It is impossible to teach well without knowing your students (53).

Back in my day, teachers didn’t talk to students.
In the blogpost, Why Differentiation Misses The Mark for Gifted Students, I ascertain that one of the reasons differentiation can seem unattainable is due to remnants of the factory model of teaching that still exists in today’s classroom. The lack of attention to student voice would be a prime example of one of these remnants. Historically, taking student voice into consideration has not been a component of teaching and learning.

Therefore, using student voice to guide instruction can seem foreign to teachers and they often have fears about adding this element into their practice. When I partner with teachers on student-driven differentiation once we get past worries about time, I frequently hear and address the following matters:

Concern #1: I don’t know what questions to ask students which will help drive my instruction.
Remedy: As educators, we often overthink things. Debating the right questions to ask students would be an example of such overthinking. In short, the answer to any question you ask a student can likely inform instruction. However, I know teachers want more direction than that. So, teachers and I usually work together to create questions related to the four categories of differentiation. For example:

  • Content: What intrigues you about this concept/topic? Or, (for an apathetic student), why do you find this topic boring?
  • Process: Is taking notes helping you to understand the material? If so, how do you know? If not, what learning strategy might be more helpful?
  • Product: In an ideal world where you could show your understanding of this concept/topic in any way, how would you show your understanding?
  • Learning environment: Are you and your groupmates able to work collaboratively on this task? If so, how do you know? If not, what are your groups’ obstacles?

Concern #2: Students will become entitled if I do whatever they want.
Remedy: Listening to students relay information about their wants and needs does not necessarily mean you do whatever students say. Rather, listening means students’ thoughts are considered. To show such consideration for these thoughts you can follow these steps: ask questions of students, summarize their responses to check for understanding, and then genuinely think about their questions/thoughts in relationship to your expectations. In doing so, you will gain information as to how to differentiate for their needs within the realm of your expectations. For example:

Teacher check-in with student: “It appears that you haven’t made any progress on your PowerPoint.”

Student response: “Can I make an infographic instead of a PowerPoint to present this information?”

Teacher response: “It sounds to be like you would like to present information about (state concept) in an infographic rather than a PowerPoint. Can you tell me how you will (state learning intentions) in an infographic?”

Teacher’s next steps: Continue to converse with the student to determine the best way the student can incorporate the learning intentions into his alternate product suggestion. If along the way it becomes clear that the suggested alternative won’t allow the student to show understanding, converse with the student as to the reasons why; the student will likely have already come to the same conclusion.

Concern #3: I don’t want to blur the lines with my students. I am their teacher, not their friend.
Remedy: We have lots of conversations with people who we aren’t trying to become friends with, why are students any different? Instead of worrying your students will see you as a friend, follow the three tenets of building genuine relationships with students through conversation:

  • Be Real: ask questions and share appropriate personal anecdotes to find common ground and connect.
  • Be Consistent: deliver on promises and react to similar situations in the same way regardless of which student is involved.
  • Be A Listener: seek first to understand your students before you ensure their understanding of you.

What other questions or comments do you have about student-driven differentiation? How has listening to students helped you meet their needs? Feel free to comment below or contact me directly.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

It’s Time For The Field Of Education To Step Up To The Plate

westman leadup now image

This post was originally published on LeadUpNow.


One of the best parts about being an instructional coach is learning from other teachers. Like today, when one of our math and STEM teachers, Fil Dudic, stopped by to talk about two of our favorite topics: education and The Chicago Cubs.

Ok, I admit, I’m not a die-hard Cubs fan like the rest of my family, but I certainly like all that goes along with the Cubs: hot dogs, getting sunburnt in the bleachers, singing Go, Cubs, Go. But, until this conversation with Fil piqued my interest, I knew very little about the team or the game of baseball in general.

As Fil and I discussed the Cubs, Fil quoted Cubs Coach Joe Madden’s statement about themes for the Cubs 2017 season, “It’s really important to be uncomfortable. If you become a comfortable person, I think that subtracts growth from the equation” Fil was struck by this comment as it also applies to much of the work we are currently doing in the field of education.

As Fil and I dove down the rabbit hole of educational topics we have grown so fond of visiting, we landed again on one of our favorite topics: the application of research and use of data in education.

I told Fil about a compelling Ted Talk I watched recently Our failing schools. Enough is Enough!  by Geoffrey Canada. In his Ted Talk, Canada gives a compelling call-to-action, urging us to look critically at our system and practices:

Look, you go into a place that’s failed kids for 50 years, and you say, “So what’s the plan?” And they say, “We’ll, we’re going to do what we did last year this year.” What kind of business model is that? Banks used to open and operate between 10 and 3. They operated 10 to 3. They were closed for lunch hour. Now, who can bank between 10 and 3?  The unemployed. They don’t need banks. They got no money in the banks. Who created that business model? Right? And it went on for decades. You know why? Because they didn’t care. It wasn’t about the customers. It was about bankers. They created something that worked for them. How could you go to the bank when you were at work? It didn’t matter. And they don’t care, —one day, some crazy banker had an idea. Maybe we should keep the bank open when people come home from work.

Why don’t we [do this in education]? Because our business has refused to use science.As a profession, we have to stop this. The science is clear.”

Canada made it seem so simple, the evidence is clear, we need to change.

So, why then, does the business of education, in large part, turn a blind eye to science?

This was the question I asked Fil and proposed a simple answer. That being, there are some deep-rooted reasons for resistance, the most prominent one being nostalgia.

Using science to inform educational practice would undoubtedly tell us we desperately need to do something different. But, that is uncomfortable and intimidating. But, when we start contemplating what change entails, inevitably our heads start to hurt thinking about all of the systemic shifts, bureaucratic hurdles, and fear of doing something wrong.

We start telling ourselves, “things are fine the way they are. Students have gone through systems like this for years and they are fine.” And, to truly convince ourselves of this sentiment, our minds start producing examples of fond memories of our own school days, and before we know it, we are lost in a sea of nostalgia…”those were the days….” and we stop thinking a change is needed, we may even convince ourselves the science is flawed, not the system.

At this point, Fil brought the conversation back to baseball. He pointed that baseball could possibly the most nostalgia-inducing pastime in America.

I agreed, at this point, not quite seeing the connection until Fil told me about the book Ahead The Curve: Inside The Baseball Revolution where author Brian Kenny illustrates how some of baseball’s common practices (fielding errors, MVP election, pitching win-loss record, and more) are exercises in tradition rather than effectiveness.  And, moreover, Kenny articulates how baseball hasn’t changed, but our thinking about the game has evolved. For example, 150 years ago, walks were tabulated as an error for the pitcher, and today, pitching a “walk”  is considered a highly-cultivated skill.

Ok, and what does this have to do with education?

As the understanding of the game of baseball evolved, there was quite a bit of resistance from baseball fans. In the 19th and early 20th century, batters could request pitcher throw a certain type of pitch. Therefore, if a pitcher threw a “walk” it was an error as that was not the request.  But, then in 1900, some savvy pitchers realized throwing walks could be advantageous and strategically threw them. The MLB and fans were outraged. “Throwing walks is unfair!” people shouted. These pitchers’ tactics were not well-received and were considered an example of “gaming the system.”

Over time, as most things do, emotions died down and walks became an acceptable strategy. And, the most interesting thing about this? The number of walks thrown when throwing was considered an error is higher than when it became considered a strategic play (Kenny, 113).

“But, it’s not fair” is commonly and frequently cited by some educators, parents, and students in regard to standards-based grading, differentiation, no counting homework, and more. But, fair, as baseball teaches us is a state of mind, just as our understanding of the game of baseball has evolved, so is our changing perception of the game of education. And, with that, we must remember to be patient. Change does not happen overnight, but over years.

As another baseball great, Hall-Of-Famer, Branch Ricky said, “Baseball people, and that includes myself, are slow to change and accept ideas. I remember that it took years to persuade them to put numbers on uniforms.