Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning
by Mike Schmoker
237 pages, Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, January 2011
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If you’ve been on Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest lately, you may have noticed a new spotlight on simplicity and tradition. Whether it be whittling your wardrobe down to 27 pieces, making homemade baby food, or recycling pallets as wall decor, it seems our society is determined to return to the good ol’ days. People are actively rejecting the over-processed abundance of the past few decades in favor of a more humble and simple life.
However, if you are an educator, you may observe the discrepancy between the trends in the outside world versus what is happening in schools. Get on those same social media sites and try not to drown in the deluge of ever-changing education trends. Changes in technology, STEM, STEAM, PBL, and trends in specific content areas make it hard not to feel overwhelmed by the expectation to keep up with everything. At this point, simple is NOT a trending concept in education. But I think there is a place for simplicity and tradition in education, and Mike Schmoker agrees.
In his 2011 book, Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, he lays out a plan that can be implemented in any school district: a concentrated focus on reading, writing, discussion and thinking across the curriculum. He writes that our highest priorities should be “the reasonably effective implementation of good curriculum, effective instruction, and authentic literacy.”
That’s pretty much it. Sounds too simple, doesn’t it?
Don’t worry, Schmoker goes into detail about these ideas, showing us that despite its apparent simplicity, a sharp focus on a few key areas can dramatically improve student learning. Citing examples of schools that have made similar changes with great success, he divides his book into three sections: what we teach, how we teach, and curriculum, instruction, and literacy in the content areas.
What We Teach
At times, I sit at my desk frowning at the English 11 CCRS standards and our district curriculum guide, wondering how on earth I will ever fit it all in. In Focus, Schmoker solves this problem: He says we need to sit down with our departments and determine what is actually important. We need to establish how much reading, writing, and speaking our students need to do and be consistent within our PLCs.
Currently, the drive is for college and career readiness, and the argument here is that we are also preparing kids to be citizens. The best way to prepare students for all three of these, Schmoker argues, is to refocus on literacy in every single class. Students need to be able to read, write, speak, and think critically in order to function as contributing members of society.
Again, this might seem too simple, but I think that’s what makes it so meaningful. As one sub-section is titled, we need to focus on “Plain old reading and writing.” While Schmoker doesn’t completely write off the importance of technology, he does point out that a lot of technology use has become a waste of time, taking away valuable academic learning time. This might rub some—especially those heavily involved in the tech movement—the wrong way, but it makes sense. These are the most essential skills that students need, and without them, it doesn’t matter if they can use technology or not. They will never become informed citizens, and that is a scary future. But technology gurus, please do not turn your nose up at this book. I, too, am a tech advocate. I believe in the importance of technology in our schools; however, I can see Schmoker’s point. Why are students making online posters about F. Scott Fitzgerald when they should be reading, writing about, and discussing his work instead? I promise you, anyone will find value in the simplicity of the message in this book.
How We Teach
In this section Schmoker provides specific ways to teach in order to effectively improve student literacy. I personally love the clarity of his guide to effective lessons. A teacher leading an effective lesson needs to:
Have clear objectives: What are kids supposed to gain from this lesson or unit?
Create purpose and interest: This doesn’t mean put on a dog and pony show. It simply means we should find a way to make the day’s lesson relevant. No one, including you and I, enjoys reading or discussing topics we are not interested in.
Provide background knowledge: Make sure students are equipped to understand what you’re about to guide them through.
Model: There are many ways this can be done, and sometimes it happens in the form of lecture or direct teaching (gasp!). Keep in mind the 5 minute limit: Every few minutes take a break and have students DO something—pair and share, write what they know, ask questions, etc.
Guide student practice: Lecture and direct teaching are not inherently bad, but they will not be successful without this particular step. Students absolutely MUST practice with the help or guidance of the teacher or fellow classmates.
Allow time for independent practice and formative assessment: Create activities that allow students to show what they know from the lesson. Schmoker gives examples of these such as discussion and debate, and writing, both formal and informal.
Once again, seems extremely simple, right? Thankfully, it’s also effective and doable in every subject. The best part, as Schmoker says, is that “perfect execution of these processes is not required. The real power of this simple, multipurpose template is in its being done regularly and frequently.”
Curriculum, Instruction, and Literacy in the Content Areas
Schmoker says the standards for each subject area need to be reduced, with a renewed focus on literacy in every content area:
English Language Arts
- In the early years, students need time to read, not to do skills drills or reading “activities.” Schmoker points out that in the most effective reading classrooms, students “never, ever engage in cut, color, or paste activities that now occupy the majority of early-grade reading programs—more than 100 instructional hours per year.”
- Students should be exposed to broad, wide reading of both fiction and nonfiction: “We learn to read well by reading a lot for meaning: to analyze or support arguments, to arrive at our own opinions as we make inferences or attempt to solve problems.”
- Handle the paper load: Don’t collect or grade everything; focus feedback on specific issues rather than everything in a piece of writing.
- Students should be involved in discussions at least three times per week, with established criteria to guide them; write at least one formal essay per month (or a minimum number agreed up on by PLCs); and give one or two presentations per semester based on their formal writing.
- Reading and writing must be at the core: Too many teachers are falling for “faddish” activities like skits and posters.
- Build the bulk of instruction on some textbook reading with a lot of supplemental and primary source reading, along with articles on current events.
- Follow the task, text, talk framework: focus on a couple of guiding questions, read to inquire about these topics, respond in writing using evidence from texts to support ideas, and discuss or share regularly.
- Again, utilize the task, text, talk framework.
- Students must be taught how to read a science textbook (I wish I had been taught this in high school!): They will read complex texts in college and the real world, so they must learn how to successfully wrestle with this type of text.
- Teachers need to focus more on literacy and less on labs, learning through close reading of the textbook and supplemental texts to gain a deep understanding of the content before diving into content-focused labs.
- Reduce the overall number of standards and teach them with more depth and meaning.
- Move instructional focus away from abstract, algebra-based math—which people don’t often use in the real world—toward using simple math (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) to address complex situations and problems.
- Use data, articles, charts, and other visual representations to interpret and use math, which could lead to opportunities for discussion and writing.
How Schmoker Has Helped Me Focus
Sometimes it can be hard to stay focused (pun intended) as a teacher. With the new year in full swing we are reading blogs, PD books, and tweets, we’re attending conferences, and we’re meeting with colleagues to plan upcoming units. It’s a lot to keep track of. But this year I’m trying to filter the influx of ideas through the lens of Mike Schmoker:
- Schmoker says to focus on authentic literacy, so in my class we are writing more often, and more than just essays. Already this semester, my students have completed multiple quick writes, paragraphs, and two full essays. In addition, we have talked about and looked at examples of “real world” writing. Next week we will begin an expression piece modeled after an article we will read together, and at the beginning of next semester, we will write college admissions and scholarship essays.
- Schmoker says to model what we are asking our students to do. This is hard, but I have already forced myself to do this more times than ever before. For every formal writing assignment so far, I have provided them with an example. It’s hard enough to put myself out there on a blog, but at least I can’t see the faces of my readers. In class it’s very different because as I write there are 25 sets of eyes watching, judging. But already I think it has been useful. My students see that my writing is not perfect. They see that I have to wrestle with my writing just like they do. And they understand that throughout the year, we will work through our struggles together.
- I have narrowed down the list of 34 (yes, 34! plus sub-standards) CCRS standards that I am expected to address with my Juniors. Many of them can be grouped together and simplified, which has helped me to concentrate my planning on what they really need: reading, writing, speaking, thinking. My students read more than just class novels, and short stories chosen by me. Instead, we will study articles, contemporary poetry, independent reading, TED Talks and even manuals (I have a ceiling fan manual in my school bag right now).
- We’re taking writing to a whole new level. Rather than our daily warm-ups and the handful of essays we usually attempt throughout the year, instead we are writing almost every day. We use our reading as mentor texts to guide our daily writing. In the first two days of school my kids read a poem, wrote both days, and discussed in small groups and as a whole class. The bar was set in those first two days, and has been raised (or at least not lowered) every day since. I showed them how class was going to run and I explained that our goal is to increase the volume of their reading, writing and speaking so they can see improvements this year. They come into class every day knowing they will be working on at least one, if not all three, of those skills, and not a day has gone by this year that we haven’t. I’m excited by the way using Schmoker’s approach to teaching has already changed my classroom and helped my students grow this year, and I can’t wait to see where we all are at the end of the school year.
So, as you make your own decisions about what to teach and how to teach it, keep simplicity in mind. Despite being inundated by emails, posts, and pictures that make our job seem more complicated, use Schmoker’s guidance to refocus on what’s most important for our students: reading, writing, speaking, and thinking across the board. ♦