Teachers Learn to Show, Rather Than Tell

 Consultant Charlotte Knox coaching fourth- and fifth-grade Top of the World and El Morro elementary school teachers last week. Photo by Rita Robinson

Consultant Charlotte Knox coaching fourth- and fifth-grade Top of the World and El Morro elementary school teachers last week. Photo by Rita Robinson

Participating rather than being told is the key to learning, even for teachers, says a consultant hired last month to help integrate new state learning standards into the curriculum of Laguna Beach’s school district.

“Here’s a brutal fact about professional development for teachers,” said consultant Charlotte Knox, of Point Richmond, Calif. “…The likelihood of training changing teaching practice is about five percent. That is, ‘sit and get’ training is almost entirely ineffective.”

Knox was hired to show teachers different instruction methods to help students write expressively, succinctly and clearly as emphasized in the new Common Core state standards now being taught in California schools. She was hired for $31,200 to conduct three, three-day sessions throughout the school year. Her first sessions were held at the elementary schools last week.

“The kids will be writing about real world applications, real problems, not necessarily things that always have one right answer,” said Darlene Messienger, the district’s new assistant superintendent overseeing the new standards.  “We’ll call on the kids to really use those four C’s to think about an issue or a problem. We’re building an opportunity for students to collaborate, communicate, think critically and demonstrate creativity.”

One exercise Knox brought to the classroom was a classic sales tool, the elevator speech, known for its succinct message. Students are assigned a subject to research, such as community gardens, and asked to give a speech about the topic.

“I have them do a three-minute version, then a two-minute, then a one-minute,” Knox said, “so they get better and better at choosing what’s really important to say.”  When the students rehearse by speaking before they write, their writing improves, she said.  “It’s way fun.”

Participation makes learning more fun for teachers, too, she said, by encouraging them to collaborate and analyze their results together and to receive coaching on showing students how to think on their own.

“It’s not regurgitating information anymore,” Knox said.  “It’s using information, it’s coming to your own conclusions, it’s inquiring and using your own brain to go for it.”

The days of multiple-choice tests are also coming to an end.  Tests will now be entirely essay, which makes learning to write effectively a priority.

“We’re going to have tests with what are called performance tasks,” said Knox. “They’ll be asked to formulate their thoughts and feelings about a subject using cited examples to come up with their own creation.  And they’ve got to do it in a high-stakes test situation.”

It’s well-recognized by psychologists that emphasis on perfection and high performance on children can create excessive stress.  But educators familiar with the new standards say they are going to make teaching and learning what they’re supposed to be, more creative rather than rote.

“The (Common Core) philosophy and approach to teaching reading and writing are not stressful for children,” asserted local parent Tammy Keces, an educational consultant who studied under Columbia University’s Lucy Calkins. Knox said Calkins, a renowned educator who developed the Reading and Writing Project, has influenced her approach for years.

“For years, we’ve been teaching out of textbooks and it’s been very dry,” Keces continued.  “The old style, the last 10 years of teaching traditional reading and writing, has not been supportive of children’s ability to think and express themselves. The new approach actually draws from their own thinking and feelings about the world.”

Standardized testing was based on memorization and often seen by students as an unknown expectation.  “When it comes to the Common Core tests,” said Keces, “students are going to be prepared.  It’s not like a shock. They’re not meant to be tricky or difficult.  The Common Core is what teachers were taught to do 20 years ago.”

The complaint that prompted the new standards was lodged by corporate America, Knox explained.  Graduates were smart, the business community agreed, but not adept at teamwork or doing more than one thing at a time.

The focus is undisputedly on better preparing students for college and jobs, Knox admitted, but she said that is realized when students become more independent thinkers, resourceful researchers, better writers who substantiate their findings, more collaborative with others and computer-proficient.

Over the past several decades, higher education has changed from its broad liberal arts approach.  Education today, say some analysts, concentrates on producing a more efficient worker with more technological skills.  “Globalization of the political economy and the attendant reductions in government funding, liaisons with business and industry, and marketing of educational and business services has been changing the nature of academic labor,” says a synopsis of “Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University” by Sheila Slaughter and Larry L. Leslie.

“It’s important with our shrinking world that we’re thinking about global issues,” attested Messienger.  “It’s asking kids to explore feelings and characters and emotions more deeply. It will include more opportunities for kids to talk and think together. We want to build the empathy that students can have for others and other issues.”

Knox adds an emphasis on creativity. “I guess you can call it free-thinking, in that in order for us to remain competitive in the world market, we have to turn out kids that can come up with new solutions to things.”

With the high-performance Common Core standards, students will be taught fewer subjects more intensely for greater understanding.  “Fewer, deeper and clearer,” Messienger explained.

One of the purposes of the new standards, according to reports, is to “tighten the achievement gap” with students in other countries, particularly Japan.

Writing, said Knox, is first on her list because it’s the hardest subject to teach.  “It’s easy to assign writing,” she said.  “You can tell kids, ‘Ok, you have to write a five-paragraph essay about this.’  How to do it is a different story.”

To do this, Knox asks teachers to write in front of their students and to talk as they go about figuring out where to start, finding an engaging opening sentence and making the essay interesting.  Showing instead of telling, she reiterated, is key.

Knox, who said she also works in “high-poverty areas,” gave good marks to students in her first three-day teacher-training session with Laguna elementary schools. “They’re so articulate and enthusiastic about writing,” she said. “I noticed how thoughtful the students were.”

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