Get It Inside You Or How To Avoid Magical Thinking: It’s No Secret

These are your orders. Top secret. Get them inside you.

The Navy duty officer hands a slip of paper to the young lieutenant, my father-in-law, and as Pop starts to read, the officer continues,

And once you’ve got it memorized, shred and swallow. Here’s some water.

Secrecy was that important in those early days of WWII.

Well for this high-achieving, high-poverty school I’m watching, the secret’s out: What’s important is Getting it Inside You.

Mrs P is teaching the strategy of estimating before adding and subtracting decimals to her fifth-graders.

Okay Millie, where do we start? (It’s the second day for this topic. Mrs P wastes no time waiting for volunteers. The kids are SLANT-ing as in Sitting up, Leaning forward, Attending, Nodding, and Tracking the teacher (or whomever has the floor).  Yes, exactly. And Wilem, what comes next? Remember the rounding rules? Tell me how it goes. Use the strategy that works best for you.  Armen? Yes, the number line works for you. Go with it. Let’s do one more together and then you try it. (So far, in these first 10 minutes, Mrs P’s done one problem and told the students: Watch me while I do this. Then she and the students did one, with Mrs P eliciting from the students the next step.)

During next phase, the Try-It, she grazes the room and coaches, with no pencil in her hand for demonstrating because at this point in the lesson the students are expected to do more of the math work.

Show me what you’re doing. Where are you using the strategy we just did on the board? What’s your strategy for this one? Tell me what you’re doing. Say it out loud. What will you do next? Tell me the words you’re using to guide yourself: yes, find the chunk; yes look at the smaller number; does it make sense. Good. You’ve got it.

And over and over she says: Use my words. Get them inside you. Then you’ll have a guide inside.

Her words are clear, relevant, and, yes, redundant. They have to be.

Mrs P doesn’t engage in any magical thinking; she knows that this hand-over step is as crucial as the initial first teaching. She’s teaching for transfer. Making the students responsibile for using what’s been taught.

If you’re saying to yourself, but of course that’s how it works in schools, you’re wrong. Teachers teach and students learn, but that doesn’t mean that the students are learning what it is the teacher is teaching.

Teachers need to deliberately teach for strategies first and then, just as deliberately, teach for transfer of those strategies. And the kids need to know that by next Tuesday- the 4th they are expected—on their own—to do the thing the teacher is teaching.

Get it inside you.

It’s that important.

And, unlike that poor young Navy officer who had to get the orders inside him by downing them with water?

It’s no secret.

Patty 8/28/12

Arne Duncan, I’ve Got Some Stories for You, Stories About a School That Works. You Need an Antidote for Atlanta.

Today I raced from the garden to the house to get to the telephone, and SWOOP the throw rug we have just inside the door went out from under me. I caught myself before my massive bulk hit the floor, but I jolted all my connecting parts.

And Arne Duncan came to mind.

Here’s the train of thought: Arne is U.S. Secretary of Education and he wants to make our schools great. He’s on the hunt for schools that work. Atlanta was one of those systems that people were nudging him to study, award, grant Race to the Top money to, etc.

And then–here’s where the slip and jolt thing comes in–we discover that Atlanta has cheated on its testing. Big Time. The let’s-study-this-district-and-find-out-what-they-do rug has been pulled out from under Secretary Duncan and the rest of us. Yet again.

Caveat: I choose not to join the band wagon of protesters who say it’s the pressure of the test. My goodness, my brain surgeon has pressure too. I hope! My perspective on this and any other how-to-fix-our-schools  furor is this: Hunt for and broadcast what it looks like in successful, high-poverty classrooms. And be specific. The devil is in the details. Tell the stories that show the way it works.

So, I’ve got one. I’ve got a school to be specific about, and I’m going to write about it. My credentials: I’ve taught for 40 years, the last batch of which was at this elementary school and at a teacher-prep college. Yes, I’ve got skin in the game as they say, but, pay attention here: my school has the results. Lots of them. (And, along the way it’s inspired a whole generation of new teachers with its powerful, observable narrative.)

I’m going to visit this school, since I have all this delicious post-retirement time. Partly I’ll sit in a corner of the classrooms in my teacher as stranger mode. What would this classroom seem like to a stranger I’ll ask myself? What might a stranger notice that I’m overlooking? But, like an archeologist who digs in a certain place because he knows that here is where he’ll find the missing knuckle that makes it all clear, I know the practices that make this school one of the ten top performing high poverty schools in the state, a school whose efforts culminate in a fifth grade where 90% of the students are at goal. And I’ll watch for the telling detail, the riveting story that makes this practice or that protocol clear and–well, here’s hoping, Arne?–replicable.

I’m going to make that fancy rug that fools the public with its pretty face, fools the public right up until it slips away and reveals the district’s feet of clay–I’m mixing metaphors here and laughing about it–I’m going to make it into a magic carpet that carries us to a place where we can take a good look at these classrooms that really work. I’ll tell their stories; it will seem like magic.

But it’s not.



PS I’ll use this blog as a writing workbench, similarly to how I use my notebook. I’ll have drafts of the stories, my notes and lists of what I’m hunting for, questions for revisions. I’ll use the blog to whittle the idea and see what emerges.