Lost at school

Lost at School

I have recently been reading the book Lost at School by Ross Greene and wanted to share some of my thoughts with all of you as I wrap up the book.  For a while now I have wondered if a traditional school discipline system was capable of reaching some of the students that I see who have the most behavioral challenges.  I have been an assistant principal for 6 years now, and one thing has remained consistent throughout those years – on average, about 30% of the referrals that are written for students in our school go to the same 10 to 15 students.  This small group of kids can take up huge chunks of time for teachers in the classroom.  These students also spend huge chunks of time outside of the classroom, which means that they aren’t receiving the access to learning that we want all our students to receive.

One of the main ideas of Greene’s writing is that “kids do well if they can.”  My experiences when I was a classroom teacher would have wanted to tweak that statement a bit and say “kids do well if they want to”, but the problem with that version is most kids know exactly how we want them to behave (just ask them what they did wrong), and most of them even want to behave the right way.  The reason they don’t is not a question of whether or not they want to behave, rather it’s a question of whether or not they have the tools to be able to behave.

If a student in your class is struggling academically, it’s most likely that they are lacking some skill to be able to perform successfully on the tasks that you are asking them to complete.  What do we do when this happens?  We take time to work with the student, we figure out where their gaps in learning are, and we try to reinforce those weaknesses.  It can be time consuming, but it is what we are charged to do.

Behaviorally, students who struggle the most are not acting out in an effort to make things more difficult for us.  They aren’t acting out because they don’t have support at home, and it’s not about the kids that they are around.  What it’s really about is that kids with behavioral challenges lack important thinking skills.  I believe we need to start thinking of these behaviors as something of a developmental delay.

The most important thing to remember

If we begin to think of behavior as a developmental delay, what does this do for our typical methods of handling student discipline?  It definitely has me thinking about things differently.

The facts are that those 10-15 students that I was referencing earlier have received all kinds of different disciplinary actions and interventions throughout their school careers: detentions, in-school suspensions; out-of-school suspensions; conferences with administrators, parents, and teachers; and a variety of other strategies.  Even with all these forms of discipline, many times those students are referred to the office again just a day or week after serving a consequence.  What this tells me is that traditional discipline simply doesn’t work for some of our kids, and if it doesn’t work for some of our kids, is it truly beneficial for any of our kids?

Greene describes the issues that our struggling students have as lagging skills.  Those lagging skills sometimes lead to unsolved problems, which in turn can lead to a behavioral outburst.

As an example, one of the lagging skills that Greene talks about is “Difficulty handling transitions, shifting from one mindset or task to another.”  We might see this lagging skill manifest as an unsolved problem of having trouble transitioning from recess where we are running around, making noise, and socializing to the classroom where we need to be quiet and sitting in our seat working independently.  When we can identify a lagging skill, and then label an unsolved problem, it becomes much easier to support students in solving this problem.

By shifting to Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS), we might be able to better help our students who struggle most learn coping skills for how to deal with their unsolved problems in more appropriate ways.  While it can take time to work through this process with students, the reality is that those students are already taking lots of our time, and most of the time we are working in a reactive mode where we simply respond to the behaviors after they have occurred.  The CPS process will allow us to have proactive strategies to support our kids.

In next week’s post, I’m going to go a little deeper in the strategies of CPS, and what it looks/sounds like in a classroom setting.

Lost at School has me completely rethinking the way that we look at student discipline.  If you are curious to know more, or like me are feeling that the current student discipline methods are not working for some of our kids, I highly recommend the book as a way to learn more.  Add it to your summer reading list!

I know that there are some of you reading this who have probably read Lost at School as well.  If you have, let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Steele - behavior (2)

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These kids are changing

“These kids are so different from…”

I can’t tell you the number of conversations that I have had that included some version of that quote above.  If we pause and watch the students who walk into our classroom, I’m pretty sure that we would all agree that they are different than our past students.  I know they’re different than when I was in school, they’re definitely different than the students I had in my first fifth grade class, they’re even different than the students that were in my building when I made the shift from classroom teacher to assistant principal.

In my conversations with teachers, parents, and others about why students are different, there are a few reasons that seem to come up quite often (this list is not intended to be all inclusive, but does highlight some of the most common opinions I hear):

  • Parenting – In conversations about kids being different, this one comes up a lot. I’ve heard statements from adults in our building that say “I never would have gotten away with that with my parents” or “When my kids were this age, they never would have done that.”
  • The last school (or grade) – This one’s tough for me to even put in writing, but I’ve heard people telling me that the expectations for students at earlier levels have fallen off, and as a result, kids are different. I’ve heard this from teachers I know at all levels – elementary through high school.
  • Technology – When every student has a device of some kind in their hand, and they use it to communicate, to access information and videos they are interested in, and to create things of their own, it seems to lead to an expectation of immediacy that doesn’t always square with what we’re doing in our typical classroom.
  • Availability of stuff – This one ties into technology, but that’s not all there is to it. We live in a culture of YouTube, Google, Netflix, and Instagram just for a few examples.  Whatever you want to see or know, you can find with your laptop, iPad, or phone.  But it’s more than just that…  As a kid for me, there were just a few options for extra-curriculars before you got to high school.  The big one’s were baseball, basketball, and soccer, and each one had a specific season.  A few kids in my elementary school played hockey or football, but that was about it until you hit junior high school.  Kids in my school now are playing all the ones I remember, but now there’s also lacrosse, track/cross country, rugby, and volleyball just to name a few.  And then we add in other extra-curriculars such as drama, music, art, etc.  There are so many options available to draw our students interests and attention.  Many of these activities can happen year-round for the kids who want to participate.

Ok, so we agree that kids are changing, we have a few answers to the question of why, but as educators who work with these students every day, how do we meet their needs, and help them to be successful?

If we all agree that kids are changing, the only answer that I can see is that we have to change with them.

Today I had a student walk up to me to tell me about her experience last night on the iNaturalist app.  It’s an app that her class has been using to document various living things they find on the property of our school.  Last night at home she found some prints in the mud next to the river behind her house.  She took a picture, uploaded it to iNaturalist, and labeled it as racoon prints, because that is what it appeared to be to her.  Later, she received a response in the app.  Someone looked at the picture she posted and let her know that the tracks were not actually from a racoon, but rather from a river otter.  On Google images, the student pulled up a picture of river otter tracks and realized that she was incorrect in her initial assessment, and that there had been a river otter in her backyard.

Talk about a transfer of learning.  Because of an innovative activity that happened in this student’s classroom, she took the activity home with her, put her thoughts out to the world, and then learned from someone with more experience than her.  I bet she will be able to identify river otter tracks in her back yard for the rest of her life!

If we continue to teach students in the ways that may have worked for students when we were still in school, or in ways that mirror what was successful in our first year of teaching, we are going to miss the needs of today’s students.  They are changing.  We have to change with them.

I say that knowing that change can be hard.  But for many teachers, the place to look for ideas may be as close as the teacher down the hall that’s “always trying something new” or a colleague who works in a different grade level or subject area in your building that you’re always hearing cool stuff about.  And if you don’t have innovative people near you that you can learn from, Twitter is one of the great equalizers for us all.  Search the hashtag of the topic you are interested in.  You’ll be amazed at the things you will find!

In my district, last night was the first ever HSEvening of Innovation.  I was only able to attend for a short period of time, but the excitement in learning that I saw from the students and families that were there was spectacular (if you want to see some highlights, follow this link to go to a Twitter search of the event’s hashtag: #HSEveningOfInnovation).  Seeing the excitement from students, teachers, and families that were there last night gives me hope that even though today’s students are changing, we can find a way to reach them all!

Education is not

What are your thoughts?  What successes have you had in reaching kids in new and innovative ways?  What are some of your old practices that you are choosing to eliminate to meet the needs of the kids in your class?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Creativity

Over spring break, I had the opportunity to do some reading, and finished 3 different books that were awesome. One of those books was Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull (the president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios).  Primarily, the book is about creativity, but Catmull also describes it as “an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible.”

I have been reading a lot about creativity recently. I’ll be honest, I sometimes struggle to describe myself at a “creative” person. I always felt that I struggled in the related arts classes – while I enjoyed going to art class in elementary school, my work was never the type of thing that would have been chosen to hang in the display case outside of the art room. Even today I sometimes doodle in my notes and have been playing with the idea of sketchnoting as a way to increase learning and memory on certain tasks, but those sketches aren’t something that I feel very comfortable to share publicly. While I learned to play several different instruments in elementary, middle, and high school, I have not stuck with any of them beyond my school career. I have a guitar that spends more time in my closet than anywhere else in my house.

6 Cs of LearningBut here’s the thing, if I just accept that creativity isn’t my thing, then I feel like I’m doing a disservice to the students whose life I impact. In previous posts, I have shared the graphic to the right. One of the keys to developing kids who are ready for their unknown future is developing creativity, and if we just throw our hands up and say “But I’m not that creative, so I can’t teach others to be creative” then we are not helping them be ready for whatever their future may hold.

One of the first books that I read that really got me thinking about the importance of creativity in teaching and learning was the book Ditch that Textbook by Matt Miller (also the book that got me thinking about starting this blog – one of the ways that I express my own creativity).  If you haven’t read DITCH That Textbook, DITCH is actually an acronym for Matt Miller’s teaching model.  DITCH stands for: Different; Innovative; Tech-laden; Creative; and Hands-on.

Creative GeniusAfter reading Miller’s book, I was led to Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.  Burgess spends a huge chunk of time in this book talking about creative ways to hook our students into our lessons. He believes that creativity is something that can be developed in anyone through practice and effort. I have to say that I agree with him on this one – we can help develop creativity in others by giving them the time, space, and opportunity to use their creative ideas in their learning!

I’ve shared before that I often think of teaching as an art. Developing lessons that are interesting, exciting, and engaging takes time and effort. Some days our lessons nail it, and our kids are totally into it. Sometimes the lessons that we think are going to be “so cool” just fall flat.

In Creativity, Inc., Catmull shares that “If we can constantly change and improve our models by using technology in the pursuit of art, we keep ourselves fresh.” For many of our students, they continue to look at their iPad, their phone, or other pieces of technology, as a tool for entertainment purposes. They can play games, watch videos, and consume in so many ways. While there are times that consumption can be necessary for the purpose of learning, we generally retain so much more when we take our knowledge and create something with it. When we use the technology that our students see as a tool for consumption, and help our students see that they can use it for creation, they can go so much further in their learning.  I’ve said it before, technology can be an accelerator that pushes our learning to new heights.

With that in mind, here’s the gentle nudge – think about ways that your students can use technology to create something that would never have been possible without the iPad they have in their hands. Help them to think about how they could make something that reminds them of the things they most like to consume. Then, set them free to be creative.

In Ditch that Textbook, Miller encourages us to think about how to integrate more creativity with the following questions:

Creative: What types of products do you and/or your students consume a lot? How can the role of consumer be flipped to creator? How do you or your students demonstrate original ideas? How can those translate to the classroom?

What are some ways that you have integrated creative thinking into learning opportunities successfully? What are some ideas you have to add a creative piece to what you are already doing? I believe that most kids want to be creative, but they don’t often get the opportunity to in service of learning. When we set those creative juices free for our kids, they will be so much more likely to retain the learning that was going on in connection with their creative thinking.

Compliance diminishes creativity

In last week’s post I was thinking about the idea of student apathy, and how sometimes what you or I might identify as an unwillingness to work might actually be a sign of fear that the student is moving out of his/her comfort zone. One of the suggestions I made for how to handle that issue was to prepare for those students by providing scaffolding for our students to support them as needed.

Have you ever watched a building being built? Living in a neighborhood that is still growing, I get to watch houses being put up constantly. My 6-year-old son loves seeing the excavator or bulldozers doing their things. Around our downtown area, there’s lots of construction going on. A couple days ago I noticed a new building going in right behind our favorite pizza place (Greek’s Pizzeria – possibly the best breadsticks in the whole world!). As they have added to the height of the building, the scaffolding is added for the next level. Builders don’t put up all the scaffolding they need at the beginning, and then begin building – instead they add the scaffolding they need at the “just right” moment.

When is the just right moment in education to provide that scaffolding? If you provide too much scaffolding too early, and you give it to all your students, you may take away some of the opportunities for choice. In one of the first years I was at Riverside, I decided that I wanted my students to do a project at the end of our unit on Ancient Greece. I had them research a Greek God or Greek Hero, then create a poster. At the beginning of the project, I gave them a list of resources that I suggested, I gave them a detailed rubric, we talked about what the final project might look like, and I shared an example that I created. Then I set them free reminding them throughout that they had freedom to use additional sources that they might find in the library, and that they were free to switch up the design however they wanted. On the day the project was due, I had everyone share their work with the class. I must admit, I was a little disappointed that everyone’s poster was almost identical.

I didn’t make the connection in the moment, but as I reflect on it now, I provided too much scaffolding too early in the process. Instead of being there to support the learners as they needed it, I created boundaries that they chose to stay inside of. Instead the resources I gave them acted as a recipe to what success looked like, and compliant kids are going to take the path of least resistance to success.

As we continue down a path of creating learning experiences that allow student choice and voice, we have to remember that true authentic learning doesn’t happen when we have prescribed experiences. It doesn’t happen when we hand out recipes to success.

Control leads to compliance;autonomy leads to engagement.

Reflecting further and thinking back on what I would do differently with that project, I’d probably remove a lot of the stuff that I provided in advance. I’d still prepare a list of potential resources, but I’d hold it back and only share with students who were struggling to find a good resource. I wouldn’t hand out a highly descriptive rubric to all the students, instead I’d create one that left lots of freedom. I definitely wouldn’t create an example of the poster that all the kids could copy! If students weren’t meeting my expectations I’d give them specific feedback on where they were lacking and how they could improve. We’d start with the standards, I’d share with the students our goal and purpose, and then I’d set them free. As I observed their work, I’d add scaffolding to those who needed it, but a lot of kids are probably going to come up with something way better than you imagined when you started the project. Don’t believe me? Try it. What’s the worst that happens? You already have the scaffolding ready, so you share it with all who need it.

What have been your experiences with scaffolding? Have there been times you added too much at the beginning and it was like a recipe? Reflect on that experience and share what you might do to make it better! Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Student apathy: #IMMOOC Week 3

During a recent #IMMOOC YouTube Live event, the topic of student apathy came up among the presenters. For any educator who has tried to do something innovative in their classroom, you probably know what this looks like – that student that is really good at “playing school”, but when you give them a task that is innovative, they just struggle to even get started. These are the kids that might ask you for a worksheet in place of the innovative student inquiry project that you are beginning to work on. John Spencer started talking about his take on students who show apathy about those innovative tasks. While I didn’t capture his quote exactly, I tweeted out the general idea of what he shared:

Spencer is a former middle school English teacher, and currently a professor working on training our future teachers to come into the classroom ready to teach in innovative ways. In the book that Spencer co-wrote with AJ Juliani, Launch, Spencer introduces the design cycle he used in his classroom to help his students become creative thinkers and problem solvers.

For those of you who have read my blog in the past few years, you know that I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the skills that our students will need in order to be successful in the future. In the current model of education that still exists in a lot of classrooms, there can be a lot of focus on assigning and grading.

When we focus narrowly on assigning and grading, we can miss out on the learning

The problem, as Katie Martin points out above, is that when we keep our focus on assigning and grading, we lose sight of actual learning. Think back to your most impactful learning experiences – it could be anything that you are passionate about – for me I think back to learning how to ride a bike. I didn’t learn to ride my bike because my mom wrote out strict lesson plans with specific standards to meet. Instead I learned through time spent on my bike. Nobody told me that I had to know how to pedal the correct way before I could give it a shot. Did I fall down? YES! Did I get back up again? YES! I wanted to be just like the other kids on my street who could ride their bikes.

Going back to that tweet that I shared at the top of this post, I am really intrigued by that idea of fear of uncertainty, of failure, of being outside their normal. This seems like a pretty normal human reaction. Part of the joy of learning to ride a bike is that little bit of fear, mixed with a bit of excitement, that runs through our body as we get ready to pick our feet up off the ground. So how do we get our students past whatever it is that’s holding them back? My best suggestion is through scaffolding.

When we try something that’s new and innovative, we need to be prepared for those students who might struggle to get started. When you’re planning, be thinking about what might be struggles, and then prep for that. Are you asking students to come up with inquiry questions? Have some question stems ready to help them get started. Are you wanting students to research a topic that interest them? Have some general topics that you know your kids are in to as well as locations to go to find information to help them start on a path.

One thing though – some students in your class will be ready to dive right in. Make sure that you don’t provide too many scaffolds for everyone – make sure that students do have some choices that they can make themselves. Save the extra scaffolds for the students who really need them. If you provide too many scaffolds for all, you will end up with work that all looks and sounds the same. That’s not inquiry, that’s not project based learning, that’s a recipe. And when we have a recipe, that means that some students might feel too boxed in, and not enough opportunity for creativity.

I recently saw a tweet from Alice Keeler that I thought summed up the stages that some of our students might go through as we try to move towards a more student-centered model:

With the appropriate steps to help our students who are afraid to go out on a limb, we might be able to get our students through those 7 stages more quickly.  All the better for you and for them!

What are your thoughts? Are there things that you have tried that have helped your hesitant students get going on an inquiry project? Have you had successes that I don’t mention here? Share your thoughts with all of us!

Compliance or empowerment: #IMMOOC Week 2

Are your systems designed for people to

I recently had a post titled Why are we teaching the stuff we’re teaching? The post was based primarily on a single quote from Will Richardson about the fact that we’re aware of all the things that our students are interested in, but today, what we have to focus on is our geometry lesson that we know most of our students won’t be likely to ever use. Reading the quote above got me thinking about that post again. In that post, I was looking at what we can do about our teaching to make sure that we are finding ways to make learning relevant to our students. Today, I’m thinking more about the things that teachers do in their classroom and making sure that the things we ask of them are relevant in the eyes of teachers.

This year in my school, we began the school year with two slogans we wanted to focus on:

  • The Power of Why
  • The Power of Yet

We encouraged our teachers to think about why they did the things they did, and also to focus on having a growth mindset. When we met our students on the first day of school, we encouraged them to do the same. Throughout the year I’ve had conversations with teachers and students about these two ideas – why do we do the things that we do, and what does it mean to have a growth mindset about whatever we are learning or doing.

Even though we have encouraged these ideas, I still think there are things that happen in classrooms that we can’t really identify why we are doing it. And not knowing why we are doing something takes away from the potential value.

For several years now, many of the teachers in my school have had the standards and objectives for their lessons posted on the board, or in their agenda PowerPoints, or however they communicate to their students what they will be doing today. For some teachers, I think the main reason that it’s put there is because the Teacher Effectiveness Rubric that we are all assessed on has a section about lesson objectives, so they include it because that’s what the rubric says to do. That’s all about compliance.

Here’s the thing though. If the only reason you’re doing something is because it’s what you’re supposed to do, how is it serving the learning in your classroom? In her book Learner Centered Innovation, Katie Martin points out that putting the standards and objectives on the board is not just about checking some box. As Martin reminds us in her book: “The reason “they” make teachers put the standards and learning objectives on the board is because when students know what they are supposed to be learning or where they are headed, that knowledge impacts student engagement and achievement.”

So, why are you placing the standards and objectives on your board? Is it about checking some box, or is it done in service of the learning and growth of your students? If we do things with our learners in mind, and we think carefully about how those choices will impact the learning of our students, we can use our actions to guide coaching conversations with our students so that they better understand the reason behind what we do.

In Martin’s book, she talks about the idea of an Innovation Ecosystem, where teachers should feel trusted to learn, improve, and innovate in order to better serve our kids. I hope that through my actions, through the things I say and do around my building, that the staff in my school understand that I hope we all see our school as an innovation ecosystem. I hope the teachers in my school don’t feel bogged down by compliance-based tasks, but rather feel empowered to push the innovative envelope in order to create amazing learning opportunities for our students.

It is my hope that as I continue with my learning throughout this round of #IMMOOC, I learn new ways to help the teachers in my building feel that empowerment! And to the teachers in my building that may not currently feel empowered, and feel that you are bogged down by compliance, please remember that we all have the power of why. If we don’t know why we are doing something, we aren’t going to do it well. Feel free to ask why when something doesn’t square with what you believe is best for your students. Hopefully we can work together to create a solution to those problems.

I’m curious what you do to make sure that there is an Innovation Ecosystem in your school? Or, do you have ideas about how we can create a better innovation ecosystem within our schools? Share your thoughts with all of us in the comments below!

Sparking curiosity #IMMOOC Week 1

When school is

Ever since seeing the animated version of Ken Robinson’s “Changing education paradigms” TED Talk, I’ve been thinking a lot about the things we do in school. I’ve definitely noticed, and at times have been a part, of the factory model version of school. In this model, kids come in, we give them what we believe they need, and then we move them along to the next level. I feel the biggest shift in my beliefs about education began around the time my oldest child was born. Throughout my career, I have run into the occasional student who made comments like “I hate school,” or “School’s boring.” Early in my career, the typical response to these types of statements might have been something along the lines of “Well, you have to be here, so you need to make the most of it.” I put the onus on the students – it was their responsibility to do school, and if they didn’t like it, well too bad.

After our daughter was born, I started to notice things in a new light. It wasn’t just the kids who were disconnected socially or the kids who were doing poorly in class that were saying that they didn’t like school, or that they thought it was boring. I started noticing kids who were really bright, kids who seemed to have great relationships with their classmates, who even seemed to like me and their other teachers, that just went through the motions in the classroom. They did what they had to in order to keep the adults in their lives happy, but they would never have thought of doing anything that was above and beyond. And those kids told me about how much they didn’t like school, they shared how boring they thought some of the things we did in class were, and I began to think that if there were kids who were so on top of things and did well in class who hated school, maybe this wasn’t a student issue, but rather a teacher issue. Maybe this had to do with what I was doing in my classroom.

As a science teacher, I noticed that kids were pumped for the days we were doing hands on learning. If we were in the lab, the curiosity was there, and energy was flowing! I began trying to find more opportunities for students to be active in their learning and found that some of those more passive learners were much more excited to come into the classroom. This seemed like a win to me.

Maya Angelou has a great quote – “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” For a long time, I viewed the role of the teacher as the gatekeeper of information. I was the keeper of the knowledge in my classroom, and students got what I thought they needed when it was time. But the results were poor. Students were bored, disengaged, and there was no desire to learn. Many just went through the motions.

As my mindset shifted, I began to seek out more opportunities for students to make choices in their learning. I began integrating technology as a learning tool, checking out iPad carts and using tech to enhance learning opportunities.  Little did I know that I was on the leading edge of innovative thinking in the classroom.

No longer do students need access to teacher for content, but they desperately need teachers to guide them as they develop the skills, knowledge, and dispositions to be lifelong learners

Currently, I’m reading Learner Centered Innovation by Katie Martin.  In it she says that “Our job is not to provide the answers that can be found in a textbook or in a webpage but to create the conditions that inspire learners to continue to wonder and figure out how to learn and solve problems and seek more questions.” The most important piece of the puzzle in this process is not the technology, or access to it, but rather teachers who can help to spark that curiosity in their students. Those teachers need to be able to find the wonder that exists in all kids, and then fan the flames to help them turn that wonder into amazing learning opportunities.

I look forward to continuing to share my learning from this awesome book from Martin, it will probably be the basis of my posts over the next few weeks.  But I’m curious… What have you noticed about learning when you create opportunities for your students to explore their wonders in connection with your material? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!