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.

Last I Checked, Compliance Isn’t a Learning Standard

compliance or learning final (1)

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

Today’s guest post is written by 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.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou

For five years I took the same route to work. I was comforted by the familiar surroundings. I could listen to music, drink my coffee, and be alone with my thoughts. I never considered whether or not this route was the most efficient way for me to get to work. Then, one day there was an accident on the highway. I needed to find an alternate route. I entered my destination into Waze (I love this app!) and immediately learned there was a much quicker way, one that would save me time regardless of a back-up on the highway.

As I usually do, I connected this personal experience to my professional life. When I was in the classroom, how many practices had I utilized out of habit without evaluating their effectiveness? The answer was simple- too many.  I required my students to keep reading logs even though the logs did not provide insight into my students’ reading development or interests. I gave all students summative vocabulary tests every ten days regardless of their readiness. I assigned final products with mandatory components without student input. This reflection led me to make the larger realization that many of the tasks I required students to complete were exercises in compliance rather than learning.

This summer, for the third time, I read Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning by John Hattie. In his book, Hattie shares the results of a meta-analysis of 15+ years of research involving thousands of students to provide evidence as to what really works to improve learning. Hattie writes:

“The aim is to get the students actively involved in seeking this evidence: their role is not simply to do tasks as decided by teachers, but to actively manage and understand their learning gains. This includes evaluating their own progress, being more responsible for their learning, and being involved with peers in learning together about gains in learning….fostering active learning seems a very challenging and demanding task for teachers, requiring knowledge of students’ learning processes, skills in providing guidance and feedback and classroom management. The need is to engage students in this same challenging and demanding task….start lessons with helping students to understand the intention of the lesson and showing them what success might look like at the end.”

Hattie stresses that teachers and students must have a clear and shared understanding of both the learning intentions and success criteria. Students need to know what to do to be successful, and they need to see examples of what success looks like. In Visible Learning, Hattie uses a driving analogy to illustrate the importance of success criteria:

“Imagine if I were simply to ask to get in your car and drive; at some unspecified time, I will let you know when you have successfully arrived (if you arrive at all). For too many students, this is what learning feels like.”

With this perspective, let’s re-evaluate having students complete reading logs. I asked my students to keep reading logs to “ensure” they were reading independently. My learning intention was to foster my students’ love of reading while simultaneously strengthening their reading skills. I didn’t ask myself what success would look like for this task and therefore required students to complete an assignment that was misaligned to the learning intentions. With reading logs, students succeeded by reading an arbitrary number of pages each quarter. This task certainly did not foster a love of reading for my students, and moreover, the logs didn’t provide any insight into the progression of their reading skills.

Now, with the availability of research like Hattie’s, we can better determine the effectiveness of the practices we employ in our schools and classrooms.  We need to dig deep and ask ourselves the right questions. We need to be prepared for the realizations we make when we look critically at ourselves. Inevitably, we will recognize some of our practices promote learning and others do not. What we may find is we can group practices into two overarching categories: those that cultivate learning and those that promote compliance. Items rooted in compliance hold students accountable regardless of learning. Those created using research-based high impact methods encourage academic and social-emotional learning, growth, and success.

In addition to applying educational research, we must also leverage the power of personal reflection and collaboration to determine the effectiveness of our teaching practices.

I find self-reflection followed by collaboration with a colleague to be the most powerful way to make sustainable changes to the way I teach. To guide my reflection I ask myself the following questions:

  • Why am I asking students to complete this task?
  • How does this task provide information about students’ progress toward the success criteria?
  • Does this task promote collaboration (student-student and student-teacher)?
  • Does this task promote student ownership?
  • Does this task take student readiness into consideration?
  • Does this task promote a positive rather than punitive learning community?
  • How will I know this task is effective?
  • What will happen if I stop having students perform this task?

After I answer these questions honestly, I take a deep breath and consider the changes I need to make. I remind myself that change is a difficult but necessary part of life. I also tell myself that making a change does not mean that what I did in the past was “bad.” Rather, making a change means I have received new information that is too valuable for me to ignore.

When I am ready, I share my reflections with a trusted colleague. I collaborate with this person to determine a plan to guide the change I seek to make. I attempt to adhere to my plan even when there are bumps in the road. I try to look at setbacks as opportunities to improve further rather than reasons to stop. Most importantly, I strive to keep my eyes on my success criteria: the growth and success of students.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter @lisa_westman

Set your reading logs adrift 

I need to admit something. I hate reading logs. I hated them as a student. I hated them as a teacher, and I hate them as a parent. However, I spent years as a student completing reading logs because I was a rule follower. Then, regrettably, I spent years assigning reading logs to my students because I thought that was the only way to ensure they were reading at home. Now, as a parent, I have “logged” more time arguing with my child to fill out his log than the amount of time his teachers have required him to read! As my disdain of this practice continues to grow I really think it is time that we set reading logs adrift.

Reading logs are assigned in good conscience with the best of intentions. Reading is a fundamental part of learning and as diligent educators, we want to make sure that our students are reading both in and out of the classroom. Considering that we can’t monitor students while they are at home, we assign reading logs. This way, the students are held accountable for reading outside of school hours. The issue with this, however, is completing reading logs simply does not cultivate a love of reading. In fact, reading logs can actually have the opposite effect as often times they produce unfavorable feelings about reading. Furthermore, reading logs encourage students (or their parents) to “bend the truth” to avoid consequences as reading logs are frequently punitive in nature.

So, let’s rethink reading outside of school hours.  What is the goal? For me, the ultimate goal is for students to become stronger readers. We know that for students to become better readers they need to read more. So, how can we achieve this goal? Perhaps, the following ideas combined with appropriate in-class instruction and assessment just might do the trick.

  1. Encourage a love of reading through conferencing. EVERY student CAN enjoy reading if both the content and difficulty level are appropriate for them. During conference time use targeted questions to engage with your students. Ask questions that show your genuine interest in what they have chosen to read. Additionally, ask questions that help you garner whether or not your students are comprehending, whether or not they are reading enough, and what they need to grow.  The information you gain during the conference time (in conjunction with information from other formative assessments) will give you a far better idea of what the student needs than a reading log ever could.
  2. Allow for authenticity. Don’t require students read a certain number of pages or minutes each night. Initially, encourage students to read ANYTHING in their free time. Yes, this includes magazines, online blogs, and even The Guinness Book of World Records.  Through conferencing (see #1),  you will gain insight into students’interests and preferred mediums. Then, you can use this information to help direct them to other reading sources (literature, non-fiction books, higher level news sources, etc.) that correlate to their interests.
  3. Eliminate consequences for not reading. Instead of docking points or chastising students for not completing their reading, try rewarding accomplishments instead. Alex Corbitt gamified reading in his classroom. I think this is an incredible idea that pairs nicely with suggestions #1 and #2. In the infographic below you can see how Alex structures this proactive approach and start thinking of ways you might be to adapt this idea to work with your students. 

gamification Alex Corbitt

What else? I would love to hear other ways that you promote independent reading in your classroom. Feel free to comment here or on Twitter. Together we can set our reading logs out to sea.

Want more like this? Last I Checked, Compliance Isn’t a Learning Standard