Friday, April 3, 2020

Week Four of Distance Learning

Rather than an article summary, I decided to write a short note to all of you today.

For me, time is simultaneously moving fast and slow—with March being the longest month I ever lived through while at the same the same time I can’t believe we will begin Week Four of distance learning next Monday!

If you’re like me, you keep hoping to hear some positive news that the COVID-19 pandemic is abating, yet it just keeps getting bleaker and bleaker. We’re all waiting patiently for that first indication that things are beginning to turn for the better.

This week I watched the first few episodes of the wildly-popular documentary Tiger King on Netflix. For me, the show’s oddball characters and  bizarre, surreal story line is an apt metaphor for the confusing, chaotic world we’re currently living in. I find myself ending a lot of my emails not with the standard ‘sincerely’ but with comments like ‘the weird keeps getting weirder.’

Technology has become an even more ubiquitous part of my life. Sadly, I’m 24/7 on some tech device—be it video conferencing or responding to phone calls, emails, texts, etc. I’ve always been a sound sleeper but over the past month have been waking up in the middle of the night to check my phone for whatever new development will occupy my time come morning. I’ve typed and said the words ‘synchronous’ and ‘asynchronous’ so many times over the past few weeks that both Microsoft Word and Google Docs finishes those words for me.

When I’ not on a tech device, I make sure to get outside and exercise daily. I am definitely more appreciative of this therapeutic time to exercise my body as I try to unwind my brain.

But most of all I’m proud of all your work and effort in supporting our students, parent, and colleagues. We may not be at physical school but we’re all doing beyond-the-call-duty efforts on the virtual front!

I’m sure you heard Governor Kemp’s announcement that Georgia public schools will be closed for the rest of the 2019-20 school year. While Trinity has not made the ‘official’ announcement yet, being closed for the rest of the school year is our probable reality. I’m guessing we’ll make the official announcement after Easter.

The admin team has reviewed the calendar of events for April/May and will reach out to individuals or teams regarding to what extent we will be able to provide some sort of virtual experience for our students.

For us the present remains uncertain but I recommend you look toward some future time—maybe this summer, maybe next fall, maybe even a year from now—when predictability and normalcy will return.

I can’t wait to see our students and all of you back on campus, at drop off, in the hallways, in the Dining Hall!

Finally, here’s my corny joke of the week:

My favorite time on my grandfather clock is 6:30.

Hands down!


Friday, March 20, 2020

COVID-19: Week One

As we reach the end of our first week being out of school, I first want to thank all of you for your efforts!

I have been buoyed by the overwhelming positive emails I’ve received from parents about how efficiently and effectively we set up distance learning. We’re all on a learning curve and we will continue to hone and enhance, but please know your efforts and energy this week were visible and appreciated!

For many of our families, we are the rock of stability upon which they rely and trust. As educators, we are caregivers and our depth of empathy and compassion can seem bottomless. Except it’s not. We also need to care for ourselves—our physical, emotional, and social well-being.

I read this article yesterday and its perspective resonated for me: it helped me take a deep breath, reflect of what I am still thankful for, and not feel guilty about not being able to support everybody, all the time, in every situation.

We all have our school responsibilities and need to help our students and their parents through this unique and un-nerving time--and we will get through it! But not at the expense of neglecting to tend to ourselves. 

A few sentences from the end of the article had particular impacted me:

“Often people complain about the ordinary until they no longer have it. Then, when it’s disrupted, they desperately want it back—but don’t realize that what they took for granted is still right there in front of them…In being confined to our homes as much as possible, whether alone or together, we have an opportunity to embrace the ordinary—to play board games, cook meals, watch entire TV seasons, read books, take walks, do puzzles, catch up with people we ‘meant to call’ weeks or months ago and make one another laugh—precisely because our busy routines have been disrupted…All of this ordinariness connects us at a time when we need connection the most.

Thank you again for this week, and take care of yourself as you care for others in your family, at Trinity, and wherever you help others!

Just as a respite from all the seriousness, I heard this lame joke yesterday (and I love lame jokes!):

Past, present, and future walked into a bar.

It was tense!


Friday, February 28, 2020

Helping Students Remember

For me, this article was extremely interesting and provocative in explaining the two primary ways we store memories.

Episodic memory results from big emotional events. We all have vivid memories of important events in our lives. Think of your earliest memories; chances are they involve unique events like a birthday party, first date, an important rite of passage, etc. Typically strong emotions are attached to these memories—be it happiness, disappointment, or anger.

Semantic memory, on the other hand, is stored in long-term memory through metacognition—thinking about thinking. These memories rarely include strong emotions. All the skills, concepts, procedures we have in our brain have been learned from practice, repetition, testing. Some examples of semantic memories I have are the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, the word ‘occasion’ is spelled with two c’s, and 8 x 8 is 64. I don’t have any episodic memories about learning them; rather I learned them from studying and thinking about them.

What does this mean for us as teachers?

Because episodic memories are so vivid, we often think that they are more effective than semantic. But the reality is we have many more semantic memories than episodic ones. We may not remember all the studying, reviewing, and test-taking we did in school, but it’s those semantic experiences that make up the bulk of our learning, memory, and knowledge.

Hence, in the classroom we need to make sure we provide students ample opportunities to think about their thinking (practice metacognition). Kids need to be reminded about what they need to think about and what they are learning. Yes, we remember emotional events in our lives but, as the article relates, it’s semantic not episodic memories we use to transfer knowledge and apply it to think critically and creatively.

We all enjoy fun-filled and exciting projects and activities—and students will remember the joy and fun of doing them--yet these memories are typically cued to the context of that specific  experience and hence often can’t be recalled or utilized in a new situation.

It's ironic but it’s the humdrum routines of school that have the most impact on our learning.



When we look back on our own school days, our strongest memories are probably a mix of big occasions—field trips, plays, and sports days alongside more personal events tinged with strong emotion. Things that happened that were really funny or sad, or that made us feel excited, interested, exhilarated, or angry.

We don’t tend to remember vividly, if at all, actually learning the substance of math or English classes. We might remember amusing anecdotes from lessons gone awry, or still bristle at past injustices.

All of which leads to us making the entirely reasonable hypothesis that if we want students to remember what we teach them, then we need to make our lessons more like the spectacular one-off special events. Memorable events, in this view, should form the template for creating memorable lessons.

As reasonable as this seems, this is a myth. It is a myth because human memory works in two different ways, both equally valid but one of which is much better at enabling us to transfer what we have learned to new contexts. This transfer is an essential prerequisite for creativity and critical thinking.

The two forms of memory are known as episodic and semantic memory.

Episodic memory is the memory of the ‘episodes’ of our life—our autobiographical memory. This takes no effort on our part, it simply happens. Episodic memory is “easy come, easy go.” If you try to remember what you had for lunch yesterday, you will probably remember. If you try to remember what you had for lunch a year ago today, you will have no idea.

Semantic memory, on the other hand, involves much harder work. We have to expend effort to create semantic memories. This is the kind of memory we use when we consciously study something because we want to remember it. Unlike episodic memory, it does not just happen. The upside, however, is that the effort involved results in a long lasting memory.

Emotional and sensory cues are triggered when we try and retrieve an episodic memory. The problem is that sometimes students remember the contextual tags but not the actual learning. It has serious limitations in terms of its usefulness as the main strategy for educating children. This kind of memory does not make for flexible, transferable learning that can be brought to bear in different contexts and circumstances. Yet it is this transferability that is the essential prerequisite for creativity and critical thinking.

Semantic memories are context free. Once a concept has been stored in the semantic memory, it is more flexible and transferable between different contexts. Semantic memory is central, therefore, to long-term learning.

This explains the frustration teachers feel at the beginning of each school year when children they have been assured are very competent appear to have absolutely no clue. It is not that their previous teacher was deluded when they said they understood fractions. It was that the previous teacher had not realized that this understanding was not yet secure in semantic memory and was still highly reliant on episodic memory. It was therefore highly dependent on strong contextual cues to be remembered. Move the child to a different classroom, with a different teacher, sitting next to different classmates, and, without the familiar context, the learning simply cannot be recalled.

Forming semantic memories requires work and practice. Unlike episodic memories, they don’t just happen. If you want to remember something, you need to think about it, not just experience it. Memory is the residue of thought—the more you have thought about something, the more likely it is that you will remember it.

So teachers have to make sure that lessons give students the opportunity to think about the message of the lesson, rather than the medium we use to teach it. This is where “fun” lessons can unintentionally prevent learning happening.

When teachers plan lessons, we need to be mindful of what children will be thinking about during each part of the lesson, rather than what they will be feeling or doing. Have we planned activities that will ensure children think hard about the right things? If not, don’t be surprised when children remember very little beyond the confines of that specific lesson.

Unless teachers plan opportunities to revisit concepts again later, some time removed from recent teaching of the concept, it is likely that semantic memory will not yet be strong enough to do the job we need it to do. We need to multiply the opportunities pupils have to think hard about the important things we want them to learn. Are we giving students opportunities to think about concepts in a less highly cued environment?

It is not uncommon for people to disagree with this emphasis on building semantic memory. Sometimes people argue “but I don’t remember anything I learned at school.” When people say this, what they usually mean is “I don’t have strong episodic memories of learning specific things at school.” This is actually a good thing for which they should be grateful. Much of what we learned at school we don’t remember learning, and yet we know it. This is because the episodic memory of the actual lesson has long since faded, while the semantic memory formed through thinking hard about the content endures.

Strong emotion makes things stick in episodic memory, as does novelty. So doing some sort of less routine, novel or exciting event to round off learning about something might complement semantic memory—a trip at the end of a topic of work for example. Returning to the early example of teaching angle using water pistols, maybe doing this after a series of more traditional lessons might be a good way of reaping the benefits of both forms of memory, as might be doing that science experiment that proves the concept you have been learning about. It is not a simple binary choice between always only doing one or the other. Nor is it the case that episodic memory is in some way “bad” or inferior. It’s just different. The deliberate building of semantic memory is much more likely to result in long lasting, flexible and transferable memory than putting most of your energies into the episodic basket, so should form the bulk of what we spend our time on. But not every moment of every day. Knowing the limitations of both forms of memory can help us make wiser and more productive choices.

Friday, February 21, 2020

How to Teach Grammar in Schools

This week’s article summary is How to Deal with Student Grammar Errors and it’s a follow-up to last week’s summary on making writing more fun and interesting for students.

If you had a similar education to me,  you used  a grammar book  in 7th, 8th, and/or 9th grade English class. For me it was Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition, which comprehensively laid out all the rules of grammar and provided ample practice exercises. The prevailing belief was students, after learning the rules of mechanics, grammar, and usage, would then apply these techniques to their writing.

I was a pretty good grammar student. I completed all my homework worksheets and scored well on grammar tests.

But for me there was zero transfer of my grammar test results to my writing. I could diagram a compound-complex sentence but I couldn’t write one.

The article below explains that even though research (which goes back to the late 1800s) has definitively confirmed the ineffectiveness of teaching grammar in isolation to writing improvement, schools continue to teach grammar this way.

I think the reason is because it’s an easy way to teach and from a logical perspective it would seem to work: writing include grammar, mechanics, and usage, so teach it to the kids so they can apply it to their writing.

As I wrote last week, writing is both easy and complex. Much thought and reflection go into a truly refined, fit-for-publication piece of writing. Yet the fine-tuning comes after the fun stuff. Writing first needs to about what you find interesting: content precedes craft.

Th article provides research-tested strategies to strengthen student writing, including its craft—many of which we have implemented at Trinity like mentor sentences and mini-lessons based on common issues students are experiencing.

It’s always interesting to me seeing how often education falls back into what its research has disproven. Elementary schools are usually more open to new ideas and innovation yet education overall is slow to change.



Every year it seems teachers decide that once and for all they are going to fix the problem of student grammar errors. These kids can’t write, they say. They don’t know their parts of speech. They can’t spell. They write in “text language.” Their writing is full of run-on sentences. They don’t even put capital letters at the beginning of sentences anymore!

These teachers usually commit to going back to the basics: One, two, three full weeks of nothing but parts of speech lessons, grammar drills, punctuation exercises. Surely if they teach it hard enough, that ought to take care of it.
Except it doesn’t.

As the school year wears on, despite all those drills, students continue to make the same mistakes. And all across the land, their teachers’ voices rise in chorus: “I taught you this! We went over this! Don’t you remember?”

First of all, let me quickly mention that when I say “grammar,” I am broadly referring to all the conventions that make writing correct: spelling, punctuation, usage, capitalization.

The most important thing any teacher of English language arts should know is grammar taught in isolation, outside the context of meaningful writing, has no significant impact on the quality of student writing; in fact, excessive drills can have a detrimental impact on it.

These findings are supported by decades of research.

A 1984 study concluded with the following: “School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice that should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing. Teachers concerned with teaching standard usage and typographical conventions should teach them in the context of real writing problems.”

In fact, the evidence is so strong against this kind of teaching that the National Council of Teachers out forth a resolution affirming that “the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises is a deterrent to the improvements of students’ speaking and writing.”

Even without academic research to back it up, the ineffectiveness of piling on grammar drills is evident every time a teacher implements the practice, only to discover that it hasn’t had any significant impact on the quality of student writing.

In her 2014 piece for The Atlantic, “The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar,” Michelle Navarre Cleary describes her own experiences teaching in an urban community college, where most students failed to complete a two-year degree in three years. “These students are victims of the mistaken belief that grammar lessons must come before writing, rather than grammar being something that is best learned through writing. A primary culprit: the required developmental writing classes that focused on traditional grammar instruction. I witnessed aspiration give way to discouragement.”

So what should teachers do instead?

Give Students LOTS of time to read and write: There is no better way to improve students’ writing than to have them read and write as much as possible. Building your daily classes around some form of Reading and Writing Workshops is a good place to start. And “reading” means real books, articles, and other texts that will turn students into people who love to read and read frequently. Regular exposure to lots and lots of good writing will naturally improve the correctness of students’ writing. This is much less likely to happen with scripted reading programs or day after day of reading passages that have no meaningful context. Read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer for inspiration on how to make this happen. “Writing” means both formal pieces that are taken all the way through the writing process and informal writing, like journal entries and free-writes. If you choose to abandon most or all of your formal grammar instruction, you’ll free up lots of class time for students to do this.

Curate a database of quick grammar lessons: All the reading and writing in the world won’t magically turn students into perfect writers. Because they will continue to make mechanical errors, and because these conventions are best taught within the context of the writing they’ll be doing in your class, set up a system that allows individual students to quickly learn the conventions they need: This could take the form of a file cabinet or even a shared drive with folders that contain one high-quality lesson for each error: a folder for your-you’re errors, a file for then-than errors, and so on. These lessons can come from almost anywhere—an old textbook, YouTube videos, worksheets you’ve collected over time, or a combination of these. What’s important is that they are (a) effective: Rather than dumping everything you can find into this folder—which will only frustrate and confuse students—curate only the most effective materials, and (b) self-running: Set these up so that students can access and learn from them independently, without requiring your help.

Have individual students do individual lessons as needed: As students do the daily work of writing in a range of genres, for a variety of purposes, send individual students to these lessons as needed. Students can go to the lesson they need, refresh themselves on the rule, and then get back to their writing, where they can correct the error and keep an eye out for future uses of that same convention. Occasionally, you might find that many students are making the same error, in which case it may be appropriate to spend five minutes reviewing a concept as a whole class. At other times, you might want to push students to try more advanced types of sentence structures; so doing craft lessons like a study of mentor sentences could be an effective way to accomplish that. Eventually, once students become familiar with your database of lessons, they should start to seek them out on their own as they write. This is the ideal: Students who are aware of when they need help, and who can find the resources they need to help themselves.

Understand that this is a process: You will never, ever be able to teach in such a way that all students are error-free, and even students who understand the rules will occasionally mess up. Spend 10 minutes on social media and you’ll see that most adults are still constantly making grammar errors. So rather than try to fix it once and for all, get your students reading and writing as much as possible and help them develop a personalized, proactive approach to producing correct writing.

Friday, February 14, 2020

How to Best Teach Writing

This week’s article summary is Scientific Evidence on How to Teach Writing is Slim.

About 30 years ago, my wife and I tutored the same student. We’d go to his house every Saturday, my wife working with him for an hour on math followed by me spending time with him on writing. At the end of the two hours, we’d meet with the boy’s mom on progress we were making with the child. My wife always had very detailed corrections, clarifications, and adjustments she had made with him in math, while I was pretty vague about his progress in writing, because, after all, working a hour a week with a reluctant writer is not a recipe for rapid writing improvement.

I didn’t know it then, but there are two simple rules for becoming a better writer: read a lot and write a lot.

We typically get better at something we like to practice and care about. If you don’t like to read, you probably don’t reach for a book in your idle time. And often, if you don’t read, you probably don’t do much writing either.

We are halfway done with our Embolden Your Inner Writer course for faculty and staff. Jill, Marsha, and I designed the class with the principal goal of making reading and writing enjoyable, meaningful, and habitual.

When I was a student, writing was a puzzle that I couldn’t decipher. And when I got my compositions back from teachers, all the their markings (in blood red, of course) made the puzzle even more confusing. (I’m hoping my English teachers weren’t so na├»ve as to think I actually read and reflected on the comments they wrote about how to improve my writing; like most other kids, I looked at the grade, then crumbled up the composition in a ball and tossed it in the trash can.)

Our Inner Writer course separates writing into two distinct parts: content and craft. Our belief is too many of us grow frustrated with writing because we jump past the content (ideas) and get overly consumed with craft (revising and editing content).

But in reality it’s content that’s more interesting. We all have thoughts, feelings, ideas, and opinions; we all have stories in our lives—those that are funny, poignant, inspirational, etc. Focusing on content during the drafting process lets us explore ourselves; it’s fun and freeing to write more intuitively, allowing your mind and thoughts to go in unpredictable directions. I used to think that writing in a diary was self-indulgent, but I’m guessing there is a correlation between those who wrote in a diary and those who are now confident writers.

Revising (is the content of what I’ve written clear and complete?) and editing (did I follow the standard conventions of writing?) are secondary to content. Yes, we need to get there but too often prospective writers get bogged down, bored, and intimidated by focusing too much on the standard rules of writing. When should I use who, when should I use whom?

In preparing for our Inner Writer course, I read a number of books on the writing process. My favorite was On Writing by Stephen King, the horror writer. I was  fascinated that when he writes a new novel, he doesn’t first dutifully lay out the plot in a sequence as I assumed. Rather, he writes based on a situation: for example, what happens if dead family pets buried in the backyard come back to life? Then he just lets his imagination run wild within that scenario and focuses on content, content, content. After he completes the initial rough draft, he waits at least a month before beginning to revise and edit.

I certainly hope our eleven intrepid faculty and staff are seeing that writing is more about freedom and habit than rules and structure. And I hope many more of you at some point get to take the course with us!

But I really wish 30 years ago, I had just sat with the boy I was tutoring and talked with him about his interests and passions and then just let him write without worry about spelling, punctuation, etc.


The poor quality of student writing is a common lament among college professors. But how are elementary, middle and high school teachers supposed to teach it better?
This is an area where education research doesn’t offer educators clear advice.
“What’s very odd about writing is how small the research base is,” said Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. “There’s remarkably very little high-quality evidence of what works in writing.”
Compared to subjects such as math and reading, the amount of research on how to teach writing is tiny. Earlier in 2019, Slavin searched for rigorous research on teaching writing from second grade to high school. He found only 14 studies that met their standards. By contrast, he found 69 studies just on teaching reading to high school students.

Many popular writing programs used in schools around the country, such as Writer’s Workshop or the Hochman Method, might both be excellent teaching methods but there are no controlled studies of their effectiveness. However, a large scientific study of Writer’s Workshop is underway and results are expected in 2021.

The 14 studies looking at 12 different writing programs were described in Slavin’s 2019 review. Some focused on explicitly teaching the writing process from planning to drafting to revising, others emphasized working with classmates and making writing a communal activity, and one other was to integrate reading with the writing.
It turns out all three approaches worked some of the time but none clearly outshone the others.

One broad lesson that emerges from the study was that students benefit from step-by-step guides to writing in various genres. Argumentative writing, for example, is very different from fiction writing.

Another lesson is that students also need explicit grammar and punctuation instruction but it should be taught in the context of their writing, not as a separate stand-alone lesson.

“Motivation seems to be the key,” Slavin wrote. “If students love to write, because their peers as well as their teachers are eager to see what they have to say, then they will write with energy and pleasure. Perhaps more than any other subject, writing demands a supportive environment, in which students want to become better writers because they love the opportunity to express themselves, and to interact in writing with valued peers and teachers.”

It may be that nearly every thoughtful writing curriculum is likely to produce results because it’s making kids write more than they currently are. In this country, pressure to score well on reading and math tests has pushed writing instruction down the priority list so there isn’t a lot of time spent on writing instruction.