Classroom Caffeine

A Conversation with Danielle Dennis

March 30, 2021 Lindsay Persohn Season 1 Episode 20
Classroom Caffeine
A Conversation with Danielle Dennis
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Danielle Dennis talks to us about asset-based thinking, teacher agency, and asking questions to lead to real change in schools. She is known for her work in the areas of literacy teacher education, curriculum, assessment, and educational policy. Danielle is currently the Director of the School of Education and a Professor at the University of Rhode Island. 

Lindsay Persohn:

Education research has a problem. The work of brilliant education researchers often doesn't reach the practice of brilliant teachers. Classroom Caffeine is here to help. Each week I invite a top education researcher to sit down and talk with teachers about what they have learned from years of study. This week, Dr. Danielle Dennis talks to us about asset based thinking teacher agency and asking questions to lead to real change in schools. She's known for her work in the areas of Literacy teacher education, curriculum, assessment, and educational policy. Danielle is currently the Director of the School of Education and a professor at the University of Rhode Island. For more information about our guest, stay tuned to the end of this episode. So pour a cup of your favorite morning drink and join me, your host, Lindsay Persohn for Classroom Caffeine, research to energize your teaching practice. Danielle, thank you for joining me. Welcome to the show.

Danielle Dennis:

Thanks so much for having me.

Lindsay Persohn:

So my first question for you today is: from your own experiences and education, will you share with us one or two moments that inform your thinking now?

Danielle Dennis:

Sure. So one of the moments comes from my early career of teaching, and one of them comes from a more recent experience. When I first started teaching, I was at a middle school in Denver. And when I arrived at the school, they said, you are going to teach a group of children that did not pass the fifth grade standardized assessment in reading and here's the phonics program that you'll teach them with. And being my first year and not really knowing yet how to teach adolescent readers, I thought, okay, I'll take the program, and I'll start using this to teach this group of children. I realized pretty quickly that children in the class could read the words on the page so phonics, decoding, that wasn't necessarily the kind of support that they needed in terms of a reading class that would help ultimately prepare them for the sixth grade standardized assessment in literacy. So it became pretty apparent very early in my career, that we often prescribed the same materials for all children who were deemed to have similar needs and that we very rarely looked at the abilities that these children brought into the classroom. So here are these young adolescents who were quite capable of reading books. They were capable of accessing text. But sometimes the texts that they were being asked to access were just much too difficult. Many of these children were second language learners, they, you know, English was not their first language. But they brought with them so much knowledge of their home language and we we didn't address that. And so that really sent me on my path. You know, I was very fortunate to work in a school with a principal who when I went to him and explained this, he said, what kind of professional learning do you need. And he sent me off to learn more about teaching adolescents. And, you know, my early research was ultimately informed by those first few days teaching middle school in Denver, and thinking about the ways that we come to understand assessments to help us tailor the instruction we provide children in the classroom. So rather than using this high stakes assessment that doesn't actually provide us with very much information in terms of what children know and are able to do, using a series of assessments that can help us better understand where their strengths are and how we can build from those. So that was that was kind of my early experience that that I think about quite a lot and that has always influenced my research, my teaching, the work I do in schools. The other experiences is a new one. So a few years ago, I had the opportunity to go back into the classroom and teach in the United Kingdom in a year one/two classroom which is the equivalent of our kindergarten and first grade. I think it was an incredibly eye opening experience to, after so many years of being out of the classroom, being back in it because in a class of ultimately kindergarten and first grade, there are vast differences in reading abilities and experiences. And, you know, some some of the children in the classroom, were already reading chapter books and other children in the classroom were really just beginning to learn their sounds. And so, you know, even with all of my knowledge and experience, that was challenging, you know, to think about how to build a curriculum, a process, a program, that really addressed those varying needs and abilities. You know, that honored the children where they were, that enhanced their practice and knowledge no matter where that was, and, you know, would hopefully lead to a motivating environment where they would find themselves engaged in the content across the curriculum. And, you know, although I've always known that is never as easy said, as, as it is, or done, as it is said, kind of thing. It really reinforced that to me, and it made me recognize, you know, I do a lot of work with pre service teachers, but I also work with in service teachers, and just how nuanced it is. And, you know, no two children are the same in terms of what they bring into our classrooms. You know, and we have to recognize that we need to spend a lot of time getting to know those children and their abilities and their experiences in order to build an appropriate reading curriculum for them. And so, you know, it's kind of one of those things that I think about teacher knowledge being so important, and yet how we so often look for quick fixes that don't necessarily involve deepening teachers professional knowledge, you know. Way too often, it's going back to that first experience I had, where I was given a program, as though the program's going to teach the children. And, you know, I was sent to a couple of trainings on how to deliver that program but those trainings didn't really enhance my understanding of why I would, or what it is, we would expect young adolescents to know and be able to do at that point, or, you know, and I think that happens far too often, that we, we look for the quick fix, which also very often happens to be the cheaper one. Because it, it can be expensive to spend a lot of time on sustained professional learning for teachers. But I think it, it's essential for, for the sake of the children, to do more of that.

Lindsay Persohn:

Danielle, I think you've already touched on several points that are really encouraging for teachers: that this is difficult work but it is doable, when we have those tools, and we have the support and certainly, you know, you talking about having a principal who was receptive to the idea of you coming back to more or less critique that program that was given to you saying this, this isn't really a great fit for what I'm doing here. And I think that that's also very encouraging that we can have those conversations. And we can get to a point where we're maybe doing something a little bit more productive than just delivering the packaged item that was handed to us. The idea of asset-based thinking around students comes up again and again, in the conversations I have for this podcast. And that also, I think, is a very encouraging idea for teachers. I don't know, at least I know, in my own teaching practice, we lost sight of that for a while. It was all about like you said, here's the program; go ahead, read the script, do it, deliver it without Oh, shockingly, we didn't get the results we'd hoped for, you know, but right. It's a real real surprise there. But I think as teachers, we've always known that but maybe didn't know how to push back or how to get the dynamic kind of knowledge and continued development of professional knowledge that we need in order to get to true differentiation. Because it is difficult. It's difficult to not only know every kid but then to gather enough information so that we have a robust picture of who they are, what they bring, and then how we can get them to the next level in their learning. And like you said, knowing it versus living, those are really different things. So what would you like teachers to know about your research?

Danielle Dennis:

So I think it was Richard Elmore, who said something that in one of his papers that really struck me very early in my graduate school career. He said something to the effect of the teaching profession is one that is too often done unto. And that really struck me. And I think about it often, in terms of my research, in ensuring that I'm not doing unto teachers, through my research. Also just, you know, through my work in schools, but also from a policy perspective, because so often policies that impact educators don't involve them in the development. And so the unintended consequences that so often come from them, probably could have been avoided if they had just brought educators to the table in the first place. So I bring that up, because something I really want teachers to know from my research is that they very often have more agency than they believe. And, you know, the knowledge that they have from working with children day in and day out, and recognizing the significant differences, and celebrate those differences in the children that they teach, can inform, not just policies that are at a, you know, global level, but policies, you know, very locally in the school, even in their grade level team, you know, just to be able to think through, why are we doing what, what we are doing? Is it in the best interest of children? Will it support their learning, as opposed to their passing a test? And if not, what do we need to change in order to be able to answer those questions in the affirmative? And I think, you know, a team approach where possible, can very often have dramatic impact as well. So if if I'm, you know, my example, earlier was I was one teacher that was able to have this conversation, but if my entire sixth grade team had gone to our administration and said, you know, this is what we're finding, this is what we would like to do, here's our plan. And here's some research that helps us back up what it is that we are proposing, I can't even imagine the kinds of changes we could have made. And and I you know, I think because teaching is such hard work, and it's tiring. I mean, I can remember being back in that year, one/two classroom thinking, like, oh, I forgot just how bone tired you are when you teach every single day. But I think if groups of teachers or you know, even individual teachers, really think through those questions I just asked about, whether we're supporting student learning, and how we can best address the needs of the children in our classroom, I actually think the job would be easier, because I think part of the reason it is so tiring is that we're so often fighting against these tensions that we know don't belong in our classroom, but that we don't really know how to address. And so, you know, that would be

number one:

I really believe teachers have more agency than they often feel they do. Along the line of agency, I also think about it or is it like a verb, so something that's constantly developing, and something that's constantly flowing, that it's not like, you gain agency, and all of a sudden you have it forever, and, and you're able to do sort of, like everything under the sun, it's that you're building it constantly as you're learning. And I think that kind of takes me to the next point of just the importance of sustained, long term, context based professional learning. And, you know, while I know sometimes it can be frustrating to be asked to go to the same district training for the third year in a row, I think there are things that teachers can do with each other in sort of communities of practice, to build that sustained long term professional learning amongst themselves as peers. You know, so it might be a book club. It might be Lesson Study. It might be being really brave in videotaping each other's practices and having conversations around the teaching. You know, if as a group of teachers, we say, you know, we really want to think about our fluency instruction. You know, we don't want it to just be fast reading, we want to, you know, we want to try a reader's theater, we want to try to work with some poetry what you know, we don't know what it looks like. Okay, well, I've done reader's theater before so I'll videotape myself. Don't make fun of how I sound on video. So I'll videotape myself, and then we'll watch it together. And we can talk about not just what worked, but also, how do we enhance it? How do we make it better? You know, what, where, where, where were some missteps in what I did? It takes a trusting community but I really think that we can grow and develop together as educators, and help create some of our own professional learning if we can find that trust amongst our colleagues. So, you know, part of my research really focuses on how the way that teachers develop their what's called "pedagogical content knowledge." And that's across the lifespan. So looking at it from a novice, someone who was just entering the teaching profession, to very experienced teachers. And, you know, I think one of the things about education that is so unlike many professions, is that the first day on the job, you're placed in your own classroom and expected to do the same thing that the person next door who's been teaching 20 years is doing. And, you know, we wonder sometimes why people leave the profession after so few years, and I think that has a lot to do with it. And so, you know, going back to my earlier example of thinking about the ways that teams or communities of practice can really support each other, we have so much to learn, obviously, teachers have so much to learn from their experience colleagues. And likewise, novice teachers bring quite often some really novel ideas and new ways of thinking about practices that either haven't been tried or could be tried in a different way. And so I think if, you know, leadership, in particular, sort of nurtured those types of relationships, and moved from sort of this, with so often in schools is just sort of acts of compliance, as opposed to, you know, really thinking about the school community as a professional one, that, that needs to be nurtured and supported in order to grow, I think we would see a massive shift in how schools operate, and the way that we think about children.

Lindsay Persohn:

These are such important ideas about the way we think about being good colleagues, and the way we think about serving our students and our communities. And if I'm hearing what I think you're saying, I think maybe the first step here is that teachers began to ask the questions, moving out of that, that feeling of compliance, which I think is very heavy. You talk about fighting tensions, and I think that that for me, as I was working as a classroom teacher, that was one of the heaviest things is really first understanding that there is tension and everyone's feeling it but what do I do about that? Because, you know, the, the pressure can feel almost like it just sort of squashes the life out of you, I think. But this realizing that teachers have some agency there, I'm thinking that the first step is really asking questions, and whether it's asking your administrator, asking your district leaders, asking your state, asking the federal government, what are we really doing here? What is the intention of this mandate, or this thing I'm being asked to comply with? And perhaps if it's not working, then coming back with a suggestion with, you know, some way, you know, how can we see this differently? Or how is this even how is this working out in our real lives? Because as you mentioned, if teachers aren't at the decision making table, and they're being handed things, it would stand to reason, then teachers could say, this thing you gave me... Well, there's some really great bits. But these things aren't working out so well. Could we try this instead?

Danielle Dennis:

Absolutely. Those questions are so essential. And, you know, another reason they're really important is that sometimes I think these mandates and policies and whatnot, get lost in translation. So what's being implemented isn't necessarily the spirit of the mandate, but it's how it's come to be understood. And so, you know, if we don't ask the questions, we keep implementing it and keep thinking, well, this isn't working. But if we ask the questions, then we can oftentimes figure out like, oh, we're making this much more complicated than it was meant to be or we've added another step. And that step that we added, actually, is where the the crux of the issue is. You know, and so I think sometimes we don't ask the questions, and we keep doing things that we know aren't quite working, but that they also weren't meant to work that way. So yes, ask a lot of questions. That's a great first step.

Lindsay Persohn:

That's a whole other layer of tensions, I think whenever we add that translation piece from policy into practice, because certainly we feel the tension of the policy, but then the translation of it is this whole complicating factor.

Danielle Dennis:

Yeah, absolutely.

Lindsay Persohn:

I think that's that's such good advice to ask the questions. And really one of the intentions of this podcast is to give teachers that sort of knowledge and, even point people in the field to say, "Well, I heard from Danielle Dennis, and she says that, maybe phonics isn't everything that sixth graders need in order to become good readers." But it really does, I think, give a give us a bit of a compass in the world of education whenever we can tie it to the ideas of particular people.

Danielle Dennis:

Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah, I think that's very true.

Lindsay Persohn:

So Danielle, given the challenges of today's educational climate, what message do you want teachers to hear?

Danielle Dennis:

Well, I think the first message is that you're doing a good job. You know, this is, I mean, I know the word "unprecedented" gets thrown around a lot since March of 2020. But it's true. Nobody knew how to stop and operate in, in this current world. And yet, teachers, you know, have done it every day. And I've had to do it in very different ways, you know. The school district next door could be completely virtual, while you're face to face, or trying to run a hybrid classroom. And, you know, kudos, the work that you've done is amazing. The second piece, I'd want to say is, leverage those new skills. So we all learn new things, by having to go virtual, or even part time virtual. And I think, what, what we learned is that we can use technology in some pretty innovative ways. Most places now have a little bit more technology than maybe they did before. And we can really be thinking about creative uses, for those digital tools in our classrooms. And trying to think about how we, I think I said, leverage these newfound skills to enhance our practice, which is a lot of fun, as a professional, but also, you know, to give to give the children in our classrooms some different ways of thinking about text. Whether it's how you use it to write or illustrate or, or read, or listen, you know, I think we can really think about these technologies in different ways. The last thing, I think, I would say, is, take time for your professional learning, you know, I mean, know that you're important enough to keep learning and growing and trying new things, I think, when it gets hardest in the classroom, is when you feel like your feet are stuck in quicksand. And it can be really frustrating because a lot of times that happens, because teaching as a profession that's too often done unto. But sometimes we can undo the unto by by spending some time on ourselves and our professional learning. And, and, you know, again, I think whether that's on your own or with a team, just finding some things that motivate you, you know. If you're an elementary teacher, which subject is it that really fires you up? What is it? What is it that you get so passionate teaching? And what more do you want to learn about it? And I know it's so easy to be like, I don't have the time. But I really think that it, it can motivate you and engage you in ways that when you find the things that matter, you make the time for them.

Lindsay Persohn:

That's great advice. Well, Danielle, thank you so much for your time today. Thank you for your contributions to education.

Danielle Dennis:

Thank you. I really appreciate you having me, Lindsay.

Lindsay Persohn:

Dr. Danielle Dennis is known for her work in the areas of literacy teacher education, curriculum, assessment, and educational policy. She has authored or co authored over 20 publications that appear in The Reading Teacher, Journal of Reading Education, Childhood Education, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Action and Teacher Education, The Teacher Educator, School University Partnerships, and Teaching and Teacher Education. She led the Urban Teacher Residency Partnership Program at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where she was funded by a US Department of Education grant. She has also done significant work in schools in Cambridge, England, where she coordinated and led a study abroad experience for eight years. That work led to a Professor In Residence appointment at the Cottenham Primary School in Cambridgeshire. Danielle serves on the Board of Directors for the International literacy Association. She also serves on the editorial boards for Literacy Research and Instruction, The Reading Teacher, and The School University Partnerships journal. She's received awards for her partnership in teacher education program work from the National Education for Professional Development Schools, the University of South Carolina, and the Association of Teacher Educators. She has also received awards for her excellence in teaching. Danielle has worked as a classroom teacher, a professional development facilitator, and professor. Dr. Dennis is currently the Director of the School of Education and a professor at the University of Rhode Island. For the good of all students, good research should inform good practice and vice versa. listeners are invited to respond to our guests, learn more about our guests research, and suggest a topic for an upcoming episode through this podcast website at classroomcaffeine.com. If you've learned something today, or just enjoyed listening, please subscribe to this podcast. I raise my mug to you teachers. Thanks for joining me.