It is what you don’t expect . . . that most needs looking for.
My husband Dave was happily driving our new car home from the dealership. We hadn’t traveled ten miles when he gasped. “There’s something wrong with the steering system! Look at this!” He gestured to the steering wheel, which was shuddering as he changed lanes. Then the movement abruptly stopped.
I racked my brain trying to figure out how to say something tactfully. After almost 30 years of marriage, that’s not my strong suit.
After a moment, I replied, “Hon, remember how this car has a lot of new safety features and sensors? Is it possible you forgot to put on your turn signal when you were changing lanes?” (The tactful part was not saying, “Is it possible you’ve been forgetting to use your signal for changing lanes for the past 30 years?”)
Dave rolled his eyes, but sure enough, when he changed lanes a few minutes later, he carefully turned on his signal, and voila! No more shuddering steering wheel.
I felt so smug. So superior! At last, this new car with all its safety bells and whistles would clean up Dave’s lousy driving habits.
But the next week it was my turn to drive, with Dave in the passenger seat. As I passed a car on the highway, I signaled to return to the right lane (as I always do). No shuddering steering wheel, yet when I changed lanes, the car emitted a loud beep.
I pretended I didn’t hear the noise, as I desperately tried to figure out what I was doing wrong.
A few minutes later, I passed another car, signaled to return to the righthand lane, and heard the beep again as I changed lanes.
“You know why the car is beeping, don’t you?” Dave asked. He sounded almost smug as he challenged me.
I find in these situations, a little feigned stupidity never hurts. “Oh, is the car beeping?”
“Yes, the car is beeping because you ALWAYS cut in too close to other cars when you pass them.”
It turns out, objects really are closer than they appear in the rearview mirror. Who knew? Obviously not me.
So after 30 years of a pretty happy marriage marred only by some ingrained sloppy driving habits, we are finally getting the driving lessons we need, because our car is teaching us. And we’re willing to learn them, because it’s nothing personal — the sensors don’t lie. They don’t care who is in the driver’s seat. They are programmed to alert anyone who is screwing up when it comes to signals, distances from other cars, and following the rules of the road for weaving in and out of lanes.
The idea that tests are the best sensors in schools is the benign lie behind the testing craze. Sometimes we are most open to learning when the criticism is truly objective — not an opinion, but a measure that can’t be disputed. The problem with many tests is that they are faulty sensors at best. We need sensors, but we also need to know something about the person in the seat, and why and how they tripped the signal.
That’s why keeping student work at the center of professional development conversations is so crucial. They are the best sensor we have of what’s going on in our classrooms. When we read a student’s writing, with their teacher right at our elbow to tell us who they are and what the red flags mean, we learn more about our own classrooms. Transcripts are another great sensor — they don’t lie about the ratio of teacher-to-student talk, or how many open-ended questions are asked, or whether the lesson is more maxi than mini. A piece of student work or a transcript, warts and all, is a little objective honesty for any teacher who shares it about what might need work in her classroom.
I look forward to the coming days of self-driving cars. I think they will be good for my marriage (and realistically, for the safety of any driver in the vicinity of our car). In contrast, our classrooms will never be self-driving — we’ll always need teachers as wise guides. But the more we can attune ourselves to the objective sensors in our midst, through careful observation, conversation, and reflection, the better equipped we’ll be to get students to whatever their next destination is.
This week we consider the value of slowing down and looking closely — at texts, and what is and isn’t working in classrooms. Plus more as always — enjoy!
Founder, Choice Literacy
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Christy Rush-Levine uses striking texts that inspire multiple readings by her middle school students, building close attention to details in the process:
Propaganda, word clouds, and close reading engage students in Holly Mueller’s sixth-grade class:
Vicki Vinton is thinking about the power of noticing in workshops:
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Shari Frost and a teacher she is assisting notice some bins collecting dust in the classroom library. When the teacher resists removing the books, they work together to find creative ways to help students develop enthusiasm for neglected series and authors:
Why bother with close reading? Jennifer Schwanke finds many teachers asking themselves if close reading is worth the time, when schedules are already overstuffed. She shares some prompts to help assess when close reading makes sense:
Mark Levine capitalizes on what captures his middle school students’ attention with his Stop and Inquire routine:
In this week’s video, Christy Rush-Levine confers with eighth grader Tori about her reading response to Why We Broke Up. She encourages Tori to make connections between the characters in her current book and her previous reading by paying close attention to surprising action:
In an encore video, Mandy Robek introduces a science observation activity to her kindergartners. Paying close attention to animals is a great starting point for helping young learners understand the importance of details:
That’s all for this week!