The Principal's Principles

A Middle School Principal, striving to make the world a better place, one day at a time.


Two weeks ago, a group of talented school leaders (I call them team#edfocus) got together to discuss the first part of Mike Schmoker’s latest book, Focus. The discussion was organized by a key member of my PLN, Justin Tarte (@justintarte) and was filled with exchanges about content reading, authentic writing, essential skills for successful lives, teacher preparation, interventions for struggling students, what should constitute “core curriculum,” and how to use the book with staff and colleagues.

The second installment of the chat is this evening at 8:30 Central Time (9:30 for those such as myself in the Eastern Time Zone), and I won’t be able to attend because I will be at a retirement party. Rather than keep my thoughts to myself, I thought I’d use this blog post to offer the thoughts I was planning to bring with me this evening.

Part 2 of Schmoker’s book focused on specific core content areas, and got me thinking the following:

– As educators, we must provide time for students to practice reading (fiction and non-fiction) in school. I saw some overlap here with my recent post on Reader’s Workshop. Central to this strategy is setting a very high goal of the number of books for kids to read and devoting time at school to allowing them to read. I think this is an outstanding idea, because as educators we invest one of our biggest resources (time) into something (reading) that we encourage kids to do on a regular basis.

– We must offer direct instruction to students on reading a nonfiction text. Encouraging kids to read closely, to write on the text (using post-it notes where appropriate or directly in the margins), and to take time to really struggle with text. We must also teach how to utilize textbooks, something I was rather poor at during my classroom work.

– Writing leads to thinking and to learning. By giving students time to write and respond to broad questions in content areas successfully, they must master facts, analyze them, then express their thoughts in a coherent way.We must invest time in writing as well as reading.

– Interactive lectures. When I work with staff who uses this strategy, I try to encourage them to shorten how much they present, and to use graphic organizers rather than notebooks. Realizing that everyone who goes to college will eventually have to sit through hour long lectures in a hall filled with 100 other freshman, with middle school students, less is more.

Schmoker’s book made me wonder:

– The value of advanced math. Schmoker points out (correctly I suppose) that as citizens, we primarily use concepts of addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication in our adult professional lives. As a school administrator, I cannot say that I often sit down to figure out specific algebra equations in my work. However, I DO problem solve complex issues that require me to think through multiple steps. I’d also argue that as time goes on, and my capacity to react to situations grows, I have a “formula” that I use as different instances pop up. Isn’t the value of advanced math teaching the skill of problem solving and analysis. I’ve always seen the value in the thinking, not in the mechanics.

– Textbooks, how do we use them? In my school district, I see extremes. On one hand, classroom teachers overuse textbooks and rely too much on the end of unit questions and offer very little outside resources. Yet, at the same time, others completely ignore the book altogether (as I said earlier, this was me). How do we encourage staff to “strike the balance?”

– The value of hands-on Science. Schmoker points out that hands on experiments offer very little value, and that our time would be better used implementing “task, text, and talk” approach. However, isn’t there something to be said for giving some of our students the chance to “do something?” The book refers to Gardner’s multiple intelligences, yet, seems to advocate using very little active learning where students move around. Our school is fortunate, we have plenty of space, access to wetlands, and even have an outdoor classroom. Utilizing these spaces also has a lot of value.

Some things I hope that team#edfocus will talk about:

– Practically speaking, can we reduce the number of standards we teach?

– I still think foreign language courses should be “in the core.” Where are others on this?

– Literacy is key, but isn’t experience important too?

– Do pre-service teachers learn enough about how to offer direct instruction of reading?


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2 thoughts on “Focus

  1. Thanks for taking the time to be a part of the #edfocus conversation. I like the progression that you use; reading-writing-thinking, and feel that it needs to be a big part of the instruction that takes place in every classroom.

    From my classroom experience in the high school I have seen many kids catch-fire and find their passion. However, many of these late bloomers find the door to their passion, or future, closed to them because of their poor literacy skills. If a student has strong literacy skills, then they are equipped with the tools that are necessary to catch-up and eventually follow their passion.

    I want all kids to be able to read, write, and think when they leave our middle school. For this to happen, all subjects must teach literacy skills (reading-writing-thinking). For students that are lacking the proper literacy skills there has to be an opportunity for them to spend extra-time in subject areas they like to catch up.

    If my son’s baseball game stays on schedule tonight I will include your questions into tonight’s #edfocus conversation.

  2. Pingback: Leaders of Learning « The Principal's Principles

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