Be a connected educator (Part 1)

How often have you felt that you were “alone” in your classroom?  You plan for your students – nobody else’s class is quite like yours.  You plan for your content – nobody else is at quite the same place as you.  It’s easy to build up walls and confine yourself to them.  But think for a second…  Is that what’s best for you?  Is that what’s best for the kids in your class?

When we provide more students the opportunities to share in the classroom, we are building bridges to the world instead of placing them in a silo.
When we provide more students the opportunities to share in the classroom, we are building bridges to the world instead of placing them in a silo.

If the answer you find yourself coming to is no, then it’s time to think about how to connect beyond the walls of you classroom.  I think we all know that there is a wealth of information out there on the internet.  Can you imagine what teaching was like before Google? (I’m sure some of you are saying “Yes!  I lived it!”).  I think we all know that we can find great resources with a simple web search, but sometimes we find a lot of junk too!  Taking the time to sift through it all can be time consuming!  What if there was a way to connect with others who did have students similar to ours, or who were sharing something that was just right for your class to do as well.

One of the best ways to connect with other educators is through Twitter! Matt Miller:

In addition to websites, there are also other educators out there waiting and eager to help you!  Or they might be looking for the help that you can provide them.  The community of educators on Twitter grows every week.  According to one report from Twitter, about 1 in every 100 tweets are related to education, and there are about a half-billion tweets a day!  You can tweet at someone, or just to a hashtag, and get a response in moments.  For an overwhelmingly long list of education hashtags, check out this link:  Some of those hashtags are related to education twitter chats – you can see a calendar of what’s out there here: Education Chat Calendar.

You can also connect with other schools and teachers for your students benefit.  Earlier this year, my daughter’s first grade class did a Skype session with a class in New Hampshire to learn about geography and discuss a book from the Global Read Aloud.  This was the third Skype session (that I’m aware of).  Their online connections included chatting with the author of a book they read, and talking with another class in Colorado.

Last week Barbara tried out a Mystery Skype with her class (she can tell you more about how it went), and once the technology was working correctly, it was a cool experience for the kids in her class.  All over HSE, there are elementary classrooms participating in mystery Skype’s to learn about new places and things.  Want to know more about the idea behind a Mystery Skype, click here!

It’s also important to point out that here at RSI, we have several staff members who already use Twitter from their classroom.  If you want to know more about it, just ask Jenna, Mary Lynn, Barbara, Christian, Samantha, Mary, or Krista and Jennifer (you can also click on their name to go to their Twitter page) about how they use Twitter to connect with the world beyond our walls.  As a parent I also feel that Twitter enriches my understanding of what is happening in my daughter’s class.  I have followed and subscribed to Lainey’s teacher, Courtney Gibson, and I get alerts whenever she posts a tweet (typically just once or twice a week).  Sometimes she shares what they are doing, sometimes there is a picture, but always it tells me something about what the class has been doing which in turn allows me to have a conversation with Lainey about her learning.  If you want to see how it’s used by her teacher, click here.

Online educator communities provide you with 24/7 access to people, ideas, resources, philosophies, and opportunities that can expand your world (and the world of our students).  In next week’s post, I’ll talk a little more about some of the benefits of an online presence.

How have you used digital connections to improve learning opportunities for your students?  What new things have you learned or tried?  Share with us below!


How much is enough?

In this week’s post, I would like to build upon the ideas of a post from before winter break titled Choosing to Cheat.  The concept of that post was built on the idea that we don’t have an unlimited amount of time in our days to be able to fulfill all of our priorities.  Feel free to go back to that post if you would like.

For some of us it is difficult thing to think about cheating at anything.  We might think “If I skimp here, my students might not get it.”  Or we might say “If it doesn’t look pretty and perfect, I won’t feel as proud of it.”  There are a lot of people who spend a lot of time in this school building.  They are all effective or highly effective teachers.  Sometimes it’s hard to leave the building knowing that there is more that could be done.  But for all the teachers who put in long hours, there are others who do not spend that amount of time in the building.  Does that mean that the teachers who spend less time are less effective?  Or is there something more to the story?

In order to be more effective in our time management, we have to think about the concept of the minimum effective dose (MED).  Tim Ferriss, the author of The 4-Hour Workweek, defines the MED as:

2835194472_40e2ab981a_b“the smallest dose that will produce the desired outcome.  Anything beyond the MED is wasteful.  To boil water, the MED is 212 degrees Fahrenheit at standard air pressure.  Boiled is boiled.  Higher temperatures will not make it more boiled.  High temperatures will just consume more resources that could be used for something more productive.”

There are lots of examples out there of people who have cut back the amount of time spent, only to find that it actually improved their outcome.  As a runner I always taper the amount I run in the last couple of weeks leading up to a big event so that I will feel fresh on the day of the race.  Every year at the end of the NFL season you hear analysts arguing about whether a certain team should rest their star players prior to the playoffs.  I follow a couple of blogs that post daily, but rarely do I have time to read them every day.  On the days I miss a post, I feel as though I am missing something that could be important.  If the authors of those blogs cut back to 3 posts a week, I wouldn’t be upset.  I might actually be able to read everything they post!

Ultimately, we have to remember that our audience are the kids sitting in our classroom.  No matter how hard we work, they are only going to take in as much as they think is necessary to be able to complete your upcoming performance task.  So think, are you trying to over boil the water in your classroom?  Remember, water temp can’t go over 212 degrees, no matter how much energy you put in.  At the same time, no amount of overwork will cram more info into your students’ heads if they can’t absorb it.  Keep your focus on your goals and what you want to accomplish.  Try to reduce the wasteful or ineffective things we do, and ultimately we will use our time in more valuable ways!  In the Choosing to Cheat post, I shared the chart below.  Focus on placing your energy in the activities that we believe will help our students grow.

Use this to help guide your thinking and the areas where you may choose to cheat.
Use this to help guide your thinking and the areas where you may choose to cheat.

As for how much time to spend at school, I can’t say that there is a correct answer to that questions.  At different phases in my life there have been different amounts of time spent.  I feel that through appropriate time management, we can all do our job to the best of our ability, and meet the needs of our students in a reasonable amount of time.

Have you ever tried to over boil the water?  What are some of the things you cut when your realized you were doing more than you actually had to?  Share in the comments below!

Teachers vs. Students

It’s the beginning of class, and you are checking to see what students came to class prepared, and you get to “that” student (admit it, a name just came to your mind!), and of course, they are not prepared for class today.  This is the third time this week, and who knows how many times this month…

All of us have been there at one time or another.  It can be so hard not to take it personally.  In your mind you may think about the amount of time you have invested in that student, or the help that you provided yesterday to make sure that student was organized and prepared to be able to finish the homework, or maybe you think of the assurances you had from the parents who told you they would help make sure work was being completed.  How can we not take it personally?

Of course, the reality is that for the vast majority of our students, they are not doing this purposely (although on the day I am writing this, I did see a student with a t-shirt that said “I’m just here to annoy you!”).  In fact, you are probably the furthest thing from their mind when a student does not complete his work.  Instead, the lack of completion could be for a lot of reasons (maybe they didn’t understand how to do the assignment, maybe they didn’t want to do it, maybe they thought it was boring, or maybe there was nobody at home to make sure they did it – you get the idea, there are lots of possible reasons).  I think logically all of us understand that students are not intentionally coming to class unprepared in an effort to drive us crazy, and yet we can’t help but feel that way.

no significant learningOne of the great beliefs I have about education is that relationships are one of the keys to success for our students.  I know that many of you feel the same way.  We take the time to build relationships with all our students.  We feel invested in each of them.  We can’t help but believe that the feeling is mutual.  Unfortunately, our students don’t always feel the same way.  Sometimes even with our best effort, it is hard to help all our students to feel connected here at school.

When “that” student comes to class unprepared, the simple solution is often to get angry or frustrated.  It is much more difficult to figure out the answer to the key question – why?

Finding the answer to the question of why is not easy.  The answers that students will give run the gamut – I forgot, I had a basketball game last night, my parents couldn’t help me, etc.  A lot of time we see these answers as excuses.  Instead, maybe we should look at them as clues.  If they say they forgot, are they disorganized?  Do they need additional support so that they won’t forget in the future?  Could you help them set an alert on the iPad or phone to go off in the evening to remind them of the work they have to do tonight?  If they say that they had another activity, can we assess what they do have done to see if they understood the concept?  Do they need more work time here at school?  We can’t control how their time is scheduled outside of school hours, but we can help control how that student uses their time here at school.  If they say they didn’t have a parent to help them, then do they need to have the concept retaught to them?  If a student needs a parent’s help to be able to complete a homework assignment, then they don’t really understand the material.

In last week’s post we discussed growth mindset in teachers.  An argument could be made that situations like the one described at the beginning of this post could be the perfect opportunity to use some of what we learned about having a growth mindset.  Instead of taking it personally when a student isn’t prepared for class, look at it as a puzzle to be solved.  Try to understand why the student isn’t prepared.  Once you understand the why, it will be much more likely that we can approach a solution.  If you don’t have an idea of how to help the student, talk to your colleagues, counselors, or administrators to see what ideas they may have (collaboration = more opportunities for growth!).

If you’re still struggling to come up with a way to motivate the student, come at the problem from a PBIS perspective.  Most of our kids who struggle simply want attention of some kind.  Getting negative attention is easy, but when given a choice between a positive and a negative consequence, most kids will choose the positive (it’s amazing what I used to get kids to do for a sticker or a jolly rancher!).  And if you show them that it is possible to earn that positive consequence, then they find success.  Once they show a pattern of success, you can make it more difficult to earn that positive feedback, and hopefully the student will begin to learn that the feeling of success from a job well done is a good enough reward (I know that this process takes longer than we like, but it does work!).

Instead of looking at the unprepared student as the enemy, spend some time thinking about them as a puzzle.  If you don’t know what will motivate him, spend some time to get to know him (2 for 10 strategy).  Look back on one of our earlier posts: Know your kids – Love you kids for a little more on how a 2 minute conversation can help you learn about your kids.

What success have you had in motivating the unmotivated or reaching the unreachable?  Spread the wealth!  Share some of your experiences in the comments below.

Growth Mindset for Teachers

Over the past couple of years I have had several conversations with members of our school community about the idea of Fixed Mindsets vs. Growth Mindsets.  I previously shared a video featuring some of the findings of Carol Dweck.  In those conversations and in that video, the discussion is framed around how to help our students to develop a growth mindset.  What about all of us?  How do our mindsets impact the learning that takes place in our classrooms?  How might those mindsets impact our relationships with students?  As a review, I included a couple of graphics showing the difference between a Fixed or Growth Mindset. (I know the pictures below appear small – if you click on them, they will be easier to read).

According to Dweck:

In a fixed mindset students believe that their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits.  They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.  In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching, and persistence.  They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

What if you reread that statement, but you replace students with teachers?  Where do you fall?  Are your abilities as a teacher a fixed trait, or do you believe that your talents and abilities can be developed through effort?  Are you somewhere in the middle?  Draw a continuum with Fixed on one end, and Growth on the other.  Put an X where you think you are, and then ask if you are comfortable with that location on the continuum.  If the answer is no, how can you move that X to where you want it to be?

Yes, even you have permission to fail! Just make sure that you learn and grow from those failures!
Yes, even you have permission to fail! Just make sure that you learn and grow from those failures!

One of the things that concerns me most for teachers comes from the second sentence of Dweck’s definition above.  Is it your goal to “look smart all the time and never look dumb”?  What does that show our students?  If we tell them that they should see failure as a first attempt in learning, but never model for them what it looks like to fail and then improve, what message are we sending our students?  Do we really want to have an attitude of “do as I say, but not as I do”?

I’ll admit, it’s never fun to make a mistake in front of a group of students.  But let’s think about the concept of gradual release – I do, we do, you do.  We would never assign our students something they have never done before without modeling it and expect them to be successful on their first try.  Instilling a growth mindset in our students means we have to be willing to take risks, and sometimes fall flat on our face.  Then, we can model for our students what it looks like to get back up, dust yourself off, make an adjustment, and do better the next time.

If you look at yourself as a learner first, and a teacher second, you will recognize that this craft we carry out is something that we are all learning.  Every day that I’m here at school, I see someone doing something that I’ve never seen before.  When I scroll through my Twitter feed in the evening I often end up reading education related blog posts that provide me with new ideas or ways of thinking.  I see things my friends share on Facebook, and I get new ideas.  Hopefully you see your experiences here at school, and those outside of school, as something that you can learn and grow from as well.  Hopefully you’ll be looking for ways to shift your own mindset further down that continuum towards the ideas of growth.

Throughout this month I hope to use this forum as a way to look further at the Growth Mindset continuum, and in particular focus in on how our mindsets can affect our relationships with the students sitting in our classroom.

In the comments below, feel free to share with us a time that you may have fallen flat on your face.  What steps did you take to correct it?  What did your students learn from your failure?  Or you can share something that you plan to try that you aren’t quite sure how it will work out.  What are you nervous about?  What’s the worst that could happen?  I look forward to hearing from you!