I have been fortunate to work with some amazing educators in my career. In recent years many of those have come through online collaboration and connections via Twitter or other social media. Those interactions have formed me into the educator I am today. Colleagues were there to support me when I needed it, but more importantly to challenge me when I wasn't measuring up. They pushed me to want to do more and be better. I am by no means an exemplary educator, who did extraordinary things with my students. I am someone who has that as a goal but isn't there YET. I think there are a lot of teachers who aren't there yet. These are the individuals we need to support and provide guidance in their journey.
In my new role I am fortunate to be invited into teachers' classrooms and assist in both planning and execution of lessons. This for some is difficult because they are vulnerable. They know there is another set of eyes in the room making note of what happened, or in some cases didn't happen. This in my opinion is a good thing. I used to invite others into my classroom. It leads to great conversation and growth if both parties approach it this way.
They're not there YET moments!
When I am in classrooms, I sometimes see or hear things that make me cringe- like "You need to do this because it is worth a lot of points." I cringe because I used to say that early in my career. It was how I was taught and taught to teach. I used phrases like that and I take notice of it because I once was that teacher trying to do their best to get kids to buy in, to connect, and accomplish the goals. I now know points and grades don't motivate students, in fact I have had some of the most amazing products and learning experiences happen when there were no grades assigned. I also take notice because I realize our young teachers are still being taught this way and they need help breaking away from those traditional methods to truly unlock their own potential of that of their students. They are on the cusp of greatness, they just aren't there YET! Our conversations are a way to help unlock this potential and we both learn from the conversation.
When observing areas where teachers aren't there yet, I approach it with my coaching hat. Meaning I am there to help them grow and move forward, not judging them. We can all do better and most of us are aware of that fact. All teachers need to be encouraged and shown a reason for making that growth and changing because let's face it change is hard.
The Call to Action!
How do you support your colleagues? How do you help them grow and prosper?
We all have opportunities to help other teachers whether it be those in our own building or connections made online, we have the chance to make positive change. Each of us has the potential to make a positive impact on those around us by doing some simple and some difficult things.
First the simple things:
The Difficult things
As I was finalizing this post, I came across this challenge on Twitter from two amazing Admins, Shelly Burgess and Beth Houf - LeadLAP Challenges This is one in a series of challenges for Leaders to embark on creating a positive school culture. I love this week's challenge of visiting other teachers' classrooms. During our observation cycle we were expected to get into other teachers' rooms to observe. This was a great experience because I got to see great teaching. It gave me great insights into how to connect content and to build relationships with kids. I saw a lot of different content areas and many different teaching styles. I would encourage you whether classroom teacher, or admin to take on these challenges. Visit classrooms, see what is happening and start conversations to learn and grow together.
What are the top 5 things you would like to change about education? - Go list them now!
What are the top 5 things you would like to see change in your own school or district? Name those!
I bet it didn't take you long to come up with a list of 5. You may even have been an overachiever and come up with 15 things without blinking. Why is it so easy to come up with the things we don't like about our current reality?
Now that you are hopefully pondering the potential for change, let's talk about making change!
Changing Student Behavior
If you have been in education for any amount to time I am sure you have experienced some issue with student behavior that you wanted to change. These things could be very minor things to potentially defiant behavior.
During my career I have found myself in this situation, and at times I struggled to find the proper response. I share my failings because I want to be very clear when writing these posts that I am not in a position to judge others. As the saying goes, to err is human, and honestly I am very very human. I have not always lived up to the ideas I am going to share in these posts, but I at least realize that the way I have done it in the past were not best practices.
What I have realized in my own reflection of situations is that we need to ask better questions. I have many times asked the easy question, and what I mean by that are the questions that led to my expected answers. The questions we really need to ask are those that challenge our current practices and force us to evaluate and modify our beliefs and values.
There are a few scenarios I have encountered in my career that allow us to investigate and find out more about our students and our classroom environment.
Scenario 1 - Student Behavior
There is a student you are struggling with in class whose behavior isn't inline with your expectations. We can fill in the details for what those behaviors are. The behavior has prompted your decision to contact other teachers who have this student enrolled in their class. This is the critical point in your quest for making change.
Potential Pitfalls - Asking the wrong questions
Don't ask if the student is a behavioral issue for others! Asking if others see bad behavior is a negative question. Whether the response is yes or no doesn't help resolve your issue with the student. To Illustrate this, if the teacher responds yes, this potentially reinforces the belief that it is the student alone who is creating this behavior and that you can write this off to the student being a behavior issue. This leads to little or no change in the teacher and also tends to create a strained relationship between the teacher and this student and could result in broader negative classroom consequences.
If the teacher responds NO, you still don't have insights into what motivates this student to behave in this manner. You are still searching for the resolution to your issue and a way to connect to this individual student and help them feel connected to your classroom environment.
Potential Resolution - Ask better questions
In the above scenario, the teacher made an effort to learn about their student, however as pointed out, the question likely doesn't result in the information necessary to create a successful resolution. When inquiring about student behavior whether with another teacher, guidance councilor, administrator, coach, or others we need to ask better questions. I also think we need to enlist people beyond school personnel to help us get to know our students. We should contact parents, they know their kids and have tremendous insights into their own child's behavior. Also think about their peers when beginning your inquiry. I put this group last because I think you need to choose both your questions and those you ask those questions carefully.
Focus on the positive
Why are students behaving the way they are in my class? We looked at a potential question that tends to lead to validation of the idea that the student is a behavioral problem. How do we avoid that pitfall? Ask questions that seek to learn more about the student.
When meeting with the teacher, parent, etc. ask them "What are some good things you are seeing of this student?" Imagine the difference in potential responses compared to the previous inquiry. This changes the focus to being positive and something you as a teacher can use to build a relationship with this student. If you find out they like to hunt, bowl, read, run, whatever it might be, you have information you can now use to explore this interest with the student. If it isn't an interest to you, let them teach you about it. I have had many conversations about engines, video games, stereos/electronics that were well beyond my on knowledge level. Each conversation let the student showcase their interest and let me peek a little more into their personality.
Another aspect of this conversation is that your questions could be directed to both academic and behavioral performance. In both cases the responses provide more detail to help us resolve poor behavior or academic issues because we can utilize this information to build a positive relationship with our students.
Scenario 2 - Student Engagement
I have seen students who don't speak a word in my class laughing and telling stories with their friends in the stands of a sporting event or at the lunch table. I am overjoyed at seeing that they have a group that they feel comfortable enough to share themselves with. At the same moment I am struck by that ominous notion - If they are so gregarious in laughter and storytelling here, what is the obstacle for them in my classroom? What do I need to change to assist them in their journey to be confident and comfortable in my classroom? How can I make them feel like they belong in OUR classroom?
My initial response to this situation is that I need to build a relationship with this student. I need to look at the actions I describe in scenario 1 to begin learning about this student. I also know this must include creating opportunities to spend time with the student in conversation. I know it is easy to say get to know your students, and that is the most important thing. I say this with the understanding that we are all faced with lots of expectations and demands that pull us in different directions. However if we put student relationships above all other things in our classroom environment, many other things take care of themselves. I also say this honestly admitting that I didn't always put this first in my classroom and didn't always break down those barriers with my students. I don't have all the answers but can speak to the fact that not making relationships my first priority had negative consequences on my learning environment.
1. Give up your stage! - Being the sage on the stage where you dispense information to students with few or infrequent opportunities to participate does not bode well for relationship building. You hold the keys to who and when can have a voice in your classroom. I am not saying that Direct Instruction has no place in education, but it can't be the one and only format.
You need to put the students in situations where they are collaborating or working independently. This provides you with opportunity to observe, and jump into conversations with the students.
2. Meet them where they are! - Catch them at the door and engage them as they walk in. Sit with them at least a few minutes at lunch. Anything you can do to show them you are interested in who they are. This is not about academics, but about them as a person.
3. Genius Hour- While I definitely gave up the stage and tried to do more to engage with students outside of class, the greatest game changer was Genius Hour. I instituted this in my class, and it provided so many opportunities to get to know more about students and their interests and passion. I can't say enough about giving students an opportunity to follow their passions. They will shine and the insights into who they are is priceless.
4. Give Students Choice! - Much like Genius Hour, give students opportunities to decide how they will demonstrate their learning. I have heard teachers say, my students have checked out- My response, how can we check them back in? Why aren't those students interested in our classroom or our activities? Provide students a variety of products to choose from. This could include a choice board where you have skits, songs, essay, movie, advertisement, art work, etc. that students are able to adapt to their personal learning strengths.
The other important aspect is to create meaningful learning activities. Students will engage when they believe the activity is valuable to them.
Scenario 3 - Homework
Homework has become a debatable topic in the past few years. Some think homework is key to learning, others that there are multiple obstacles to student completion and so we shouldn't assign it. I started in the camp of assigning homework because I was told it was an expectation. Students were expected to work to earn credit. I was also told that if students didn't do it they weren't being responsible. To not do homework was showing insubordination to class expectations. I heard and likely even said, well they wouldn't be failing if they would only do the homework. What I learned was this mindset created a barrier between myself and my students. I battled with them about doing their homework. What was lost in that behavior on my part was that by giving students a zero for not doing homework didn't show their level of understanding of the concept. I have found many issues with how I had dealt with homework during my early career. I share those failings in hopes that you will engage in the conversation to find a better solution for you and your students.
What if when students don't do homework we ask not only why they don't do it but go further - what is the purpose of homework and am I assigning meaningful authentic work?
1. Don't Grade Homework! - If homework is a part of the learning process, but not the end result, then why grade it? I stopped grading homework my last year in the classroom. I provided students opportunities to engage in the material outside of class, but used it as formative assessment. Students would come to class and we would discuss the learning task. The task showed up in the grade book but counted as 0 points and 0 percent of their grade. I just recorded it to help track their progress and provide more details to aid in the discussion of student progress.
2. Assign Meaningful Authentic Work- This can be the most difficult to change to achieve. However it is also the most important to truly change the dynamics in your classroom. I am not claiming to be good at creating meaningful tasks on a regular basis, but I have seen the tremendous positive response by students to these tasks. I have heard of teachers having students spend hours working on what they called side quests, and my students have demonstrated similar as part of non-graded Genius Hour projects. When students are interested in the task and see value in completing it, they will do amazing things. They will put in extraordinary effort and the results are phenomenal!
3. Don't Assign Homework- If you struggle with homework, and it hasn't provided the educational benefits you were looking for, then don't assign it. If students can do well on your assessments of learning, cumulative projects and tests, but don't do the work, then is the homework necessary?
I struggled with homework for a long time. I described this struggle earlier. I must admit that I only made it to suggestion 1 in my transition. I was working on reinventing homework to fit suggestion 2, but definitely had not embraced number 3.
I am not here to tell you that there is one perfect view on homework, but rather to challenge your thinking on the topic. I have freely admitted my shortcomings in all of these areas and decided to write this post to generate conversation. I wish others had challenged my thinking earlier in my career. I have always found that when others question what I am doing or why I am doing it as an opportunity to reflect on my practices. Sometimes I have been justified and strengthened in my professional practices. Many times the challenge has lead to change in my methodologies that have helped me grow and improve as a professional but more importantly as a person.
Creating an amazing lesson plan is like creating the perfect recipe. It takes planning organization a vision and most importantly repetition and reflection. Few get it right the first time so we need to examine what went well and what doesn't work.
The first step in creating a lesson should be to decide what your learning outcomes should be. When searching for the perfect recipe you need to figure out what you want to make. If you have a sweet tooth, you have to decide between a torte, cake, brownies, cookies, pies, etc. Let's say you choose cake, you then have to decide chocolate, carrot, red velvet and the choices go on as well. There are so many potential choices made in this process that it can seem daunting. The same is true of lesson planning. Both are essential to the process. In order to read your desired outcome, you have to define it clearly. In Lesson planning, if we want students to walk away with a specific understanding, they need to know what it is we want them to know.
Today I am working with teachers as they design unit plans and lessons. They are using Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. I am a fan of this curriculum design methodology. You need a clearly defined goal and then think about desired results. What will students learn and do with the content. What Essential Questions will students wrestle with and what will they produce to demonstrate their level of understanding. This is the framework for a lesson plan much like you have your vision of what your desired desert will look and taste like. Now you can begin to pull together your ingredients to achieve your goal.
Now that we have a plan for our desired outcomes, we have to fill in the details to turn the idea into reality in our classrooms. I will admit that throughout my career I have pillaged and plundered lesson plans. I am a huge proponent of beg borrowing and stealing others great lessons. However just because it was a magical experience in their classroom doesn't mean you will be able to reproduce that spark in your students. This is the premise for this post. While I think finding inspiration in others lessons and ideas, in the end you must make it your own and adapt it for your learning environment. Just because something is amazing for others doesn't mean it will have the same results for you.
One example of a great lesson that I borrowed was from Bill Bigelow The Cherokee/Seminole Removal Role Play. I found it amongst many other Zinn Education resources. I liked the fact that it put students in position to make the difficult decisions that those in the past also had to make. I thought students would be able to channel the spirit of their group by embracing their roles and thinking about the impact on themselves and others of their decisions. The students would spend time creating their position and then debate the issue. I did the lesson as was instructed, but if flopped. Students didn't embrace their roles. They didn't fully see the interests of their group or the impact of the decision they were making. They weren't able to truly comprehend the complexities of their assigned roles.
Something was missing! Just like great recipes that have been fine tuned throughout the years, so are great lessons. Sometimes the things that make them great are little things that the author doesn't put on paper or is something that is less tangible which is the culture that has been created up to that time.
I contacted Bill Bigelow and told him about my experience and he told me the key for him was the planning section where students work in their small groups and create their position statements. This is time where he has conversations with the groups. I had students create the statements, however I didn't jump into their conversations as much as I should have. I didn't delve into their thought process, challenge their ideas when they didn't match their historical counterparts thinking. I didn't push them to dive deeper about the consequences or to justify their decision. He had some suggestions for questioning and conversation starters that I hadn't thought about because I wasn't the author. I need to know that key piece of the activity in order to raise my version of the lesson to the next level for my students.
I figured out what was missing in this lesson. The challenge to teaching is that each lesson just like a recipe is there are key elements that can make or break a lesson. We know this in our own classroom. One class period will rock a lesson, and the next won't measure up even though you taught it the same way. Each experience is dependent on the human beings engaged in the experience and as we know each of our students is unique. What resonates with one student or class may not have the same level of connection for all students.
Teaching is an art and we are all unique artists, each painting on a unique canvas that is our classroom.
Sharing lessons and ideas is caring. The more we share the more we grow and it's good for kids. So continue to share, however with the power of Twitter and other social media we are able to contact or be contacted to help others find those key elements that make the lesson a magical experience.
Lesson planning requires a clear set of objectives that should start with the end in mind.
Lessons like recipes should be constantly reflected upon and refined to reproduce the great product repeatedly.
This past week I ran my first 10K. Previously I had only been able to run 4 miles, so this was a major accomplishment for me. I had planned on running this with my daughter with the expectation that we would run and walk together to accomplish this. Well the week before the run my daughter got sick and wasn't able to do it with me. I decided I would still do it, I mean I paid for the registration and had the t-shirt, so why not?
When I got there I was nervous, doubting that I would be able to run beyond the 4 miles I had previously done. I met a couple of people before the race and we started talking about what brought us out that morning and what our motivation and goals were.
I met an 11 year old and his mom who were running it for the second time, and he was looking for 10 minute miles. I thought wow, I haven't done that in my few runs this spring, so that would be difficult. But part of me saw this as a challenge. If an 11 year old can do that pace, so can I. Well that was my mentality at mile 0.
The Elite runners start at 8 am while the rest of us move through our corrals listening to Chariots of Fire waiting for our turn to meet the challenge that awaits us. Some look at this as a training run, others a personal mission. I mention this because before I started the race, the Elite runners were finishing the course. The top finishers crossed in 29 minutes, my 5K was 31 minutes so by now you can probably figure out I was not on a training run or an Elite runner.
Why the Title?
You are probably wondering why I would use such a self serving title to a post about how I am an average runner at best. Why do I think I am incredible? What did I do that completing a 10K was so amazing that I should write about it and take your time to read it?
The answer could be that for 1:03:45 I felt like I could do something pretty special in my own life. As I ran those 6.2 miles through the streets of Green Bay with about 14 thousand other people, and seeing so many others come out to support I was inspired.
The sincere and true reason for the title is that it isn't about me. The above story is what inspired me to write about how we can apply this to eduction. I definitely don't think I am incredible, I know I didn't set any records for this run. In fact I am finally finishing this about 2 months after I started because I struggled with the title. The premise for this title is that we can all be incredible at times, at least we can feel this way. The crowd, the people I met, my kids and family after the race made me feel like I had done something pretty special.
I started thinking about this post as I ran the first few miles. I was feeling good, there were people playing music and holding signs cheering for loved ones and friends. As I progressed along the course, there were people spraying garden hoses to cool us off, others handing out cups of water. After mile 4 I started to feel the strain of running, my feet started to hurt, my pace slowed a little but then I started to see the signs saying "You are Awesome!" not directed at anyone individual but all of us. I felt like I was being supported by everyone out there. I pushed through mile 4 then 5. I reached mile 6 and was tired, but the crowd was amped up was so loud and positive, I couldn't walk, I had come so far, I needed to finish. I rounded the corner to the finish line the last few hundred yards and tried to sprint (I use the term loosely) but didn't have anything left. I finished and was tired but exhilarated. I ran the farthest I had ever run. I was close to my 10 minute pace, and I had people cheering me on. A side note, my feet hurt so badly after the run that I struggled to walk back to my car, which I couldn't remember which direction I had parked, so I experienced the agony of da Feet
For anyone who has participated in an organized event like this whether a run, as a member of a sports team, you have likely had people cheer and support you. However there are groups of our students and many of our colleagues who may not hear how awesome they are often enough. I found in my run that as the crowd cheered I became more energized, and pushed myself to finish strong.
Make Every Student Feel Incredible!
In our classrooms do we provide this support to all of our students? Do we treat them all as they are amazing? They are all different, but all of them and teachers all need to feel like we are doing good things. Getting excited when a student who doesn't normally participate shares something will likely help that student feel valued and be more willing to share more often.
How powerful it is to have a cheerleader rooting for you, supporting you and letting you know that you can accomplish something you think is difficult. I began to think about how we can leverage this with our colleagues and students. How can we be the cheerleaders for them? They need to feel supported, cared for and most importantly that they are incredible and capable of phenomenal things in their lives. We need to build them up every chance
Students need cheerleaders, fans, boosters and most of all people in their corner regardless of the type of student they are. We are here for them, never forget that and always let them know that is your first and most important reason for entering school each and everyday.
This year brought about BYOD in our classrooms, and so I decided to embrace this new opportunity. I will admit that I was a little nervous, and still am about the potential risks, but I have just completed my lesson on the FISHBOWL and am excited at the results. So you should be asking, what is the FISHBOWL, well before the year began I was looking for music for my classroom, and I have blogged about that already, so to the point, I stumbled upon the song, Welcome to the Fishbowl, by Kenny Chesney. I had never heard it before, but after listening to it, I realized there was a ready made lesson to begin my year.
This week I attempted something new with the students. We collaborated on a policy to implement BYOD into the classroom. My hook that really grabbed their attention occurred on the second day of the discussion when I took away all of their devices and told them this will be a no technology zone. It was interesting to observe the varied reactions. I told them that there were too many problems associated with the use of the technology in class to be worth the few opportunities to use them in a positive manner. I did give them the final chance to change my mind. They worked on creating a list of potential uses, and the ideas were amazing. They thought about using it to set up homework or important reminders. They could use it to collaborate on projects, look up information to help them complete tasks. They thought about the potential for contact, and even suggested using skype for students who were sick or absent a day to keep caught up with the class.
As the discussion continued over the next couple of days, I did have a few instances that happened in class that were used as great examples of reasons why we need to have a policy of expectations. Some students' behaviors exemplified the potential misuse of the technology, now no serious issues of concern happened, but they were great demonstrations of behaviors that we needed to address.
The students took this process very seriously, and were engaged in earning their devices in the classroom. I am very happy to say that we created a policy for use.
The basic principles of the policy are as follows:
The use of the device is at the discretion of the instructor who should be asked for permission to use the device during class. In this, the students should explain exactly how they will use the device during class time unless directed to use it in a particular way by the instructor.
Taking pictures may be allowed if the following conditions are followed:
Ask the person(s) in the photo for their permission, explain the purpose of the image, show them the end result, and do not alter the picture from what has been agreed upon by those in the image.
Students thought using images to take notes, for their portfolio, or of activities and tasks would be appropriate use of taking pictures, and the use of sharing them for their educational portfolios would be acceptable use.
Texting is strongly discouraged as it creates a distraction to the student and potentially other students and classrooms. The exception was if contacting a parent or an absent classmate were necessary for school related purposed as decided by the instructor.
I plan on using the devices as part of the class. There are multiple ways students can utilize these devices from taking notes, looking up information sharing answers and ideas, communication, and increasing engagement that I think the benefits from using these in a sound educational manner is too great to pass up.
The final aspect of the policy is the enforcement. Students have agreed to first abide by the rules, second help support others in following the rules by encouraging those who are not following the rules to stop those practices, and they are willing to accept losing the privilege of using the device if they refuse to follow the policy they created.
So there I was in the middle of the desert on the hottest day of the summer when my car broke down. I began hiking back to the nearest city when I ran out of water. I was beginning to think that I wouldn’t make it, the dehydration, and delusions had begun, just then, it hit me, the greatest epiphany I have ever had in my life, I should start writing down every thought I have ever had and people will flock to my page and read it in droves. They will begin following me on Twitter and I will be like some cult leader. Okay, so none of that happened, but it sounds much more interesting than the fact that I finally realized I needed to record my thoughts for my own professional growth knowing that most of what I write will never been gazed upon by another set of human eyes. I realize I am adding to a flooded market in the blogosphere and I have no aspirations of anyone other than myself appreciating my blog posts.
This post is not going to belabor the point that I found Twitter this summer, but rather to expand on the idea of Twitter as a tool for learning and collaboration. I have already mentioned in my welcome message that I found twitter chats but I wanted to provide a schedule provided by @cybraryman1, Jerry Blumengarten who chronicles so many links useful for education. Here is the link to twitter chats.
Twitter can be a place to share your every thought, or it can be a place to share creativity, intellectual thought, innovative teaching practices, and share resources. Twitter like so many resources and technology is what you make of it. Use it wisely and it can be an essential part of your professional and personal development.
PLN, Professional Learning Network is something I must admit was new to me. I have taught since 1999 and have worked in several different school districts and during this time I didn't really build anything resembling a PLN. Schools tend to foster isolation over collaboration. We toss out the idea of collaboration, sharing, and growing together but don't model that in any substantial manner. Over my career I often discussed the idea of seeing other good teachers teach. I wanted to pick their brains, ask questions, share lessons, find better ways of doing things. The problem and I can only speak of my experience at the high school level is that we tend to be isolated, locked away in our own rooms. Teachers in the same discipline rarely have the same prep hour. We often times teach different courses as well. It seemingly makes collaboration even more daunting. Time is often the biggest factor working in opposition to collaboration. We have so many things on our plates it is hard to carve out time to do another thing.
This is where Twitter seems to be a game changer, at least for me. I could start with all of the people in lands far away that I have connected with, but I will start with my own building. I became inspired this summer by other educators on Twitter and have tried to share that passion with others. I sent emails to teachers in my district, set up a # for our district for a PLN and hosted our first Twitter chat. I wish I could tell you it was a rousing success and there were too many tweets to storify. I so wish that was the case. I had two other teachers show up and the three of us had a great conversation. It was nowhere near the turn out I was hoping for, but it is our start. I stepped away from trying to be the band leader and get everyone on board and focused on getting myself ready for school. I created a few lessons and shared them on Twitter. This is when the walls began coming down at my school. Last week we had our summer PD days and during this time I had a few colleagues mention that they followed me this summer and they thought some of the things I shared were great. Some commented on the lessons I created even providing me with some great constructive feedback. I discussed resources with a few other teachers and saw a spark when I talked about chats and the lessons and activities people on Twitter are willing to share. I was finally able to see the seeds of collaboration taking hold within my own building. I am working to extend my PLN to my school and district. Imagine how much improvement there would be if we were all sharing our best practices, our best experiences, and our best ideas. Next step staff meeting smackdowns!
I do want to end this first true blog post with a special thank you to those who helped me build my PLN, improve my knowledge and rekindle my passion! I don't want to offend anyone in my PLN for not mentioning them, but the final push to blog came from someone I had been following for most of the summer and recently began following me. I have learned so much from her and it was her latest blog post that pushed me to publish mine. Thanks Victoria!