Reflection & Growth

Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.

At the end of every school year, one of my favorite things to do is to take some time to reflect on the year – what worked well?  What didn’t work so well?  What are the things I want to improve upon?  And conversely, what are the things I want to just forget ever happened?

As you are wrapping up your year, keep in mind that moments of reflection can be one of the most powerful pieces of the learning puzzle.  After you have finished cleaning your classroom, preparing for summer break, finishing student grades, and the multitude of other things that the end of the year will bring, take a little quiet time by yourself to just reflect.

You might choose to look back at your lesson plans from the year, you might look at samples of student work that you hung onto, or you might have another method that works for you to remind yourself of all that happened in your room during the last 180 student days.  Whatever method you choose, ask yourself some questions:

  • What are the things that happened this year that were awesome, and you can’t imagine not doing again?  How will you make sure not to forget by next year?
  • What are the things that you were excited about that maybe your students didn’t enjoy as much as you thought they would?  What could you add to get the students more excited about that topic? (If you’re looking for some ideas to hook your students into a lesson, check out Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess – tons of great hooks that can build interest, excitement, and engagement)
  • What did you feel was the single most effective thing you did in your classroom this year?  What ideas can you take from that activity to make other activities more effective?

As you reflect, also take some time to think about things you wish to learn more about.  Make a list of those things that you wish to learn more about.  Write it down so you don’t forget.  If you’re anything like me, the first few days of summer break will be just that, a break.  At some point, you’ll get the itch to think a little more about the things that will help you grow as an educator.  At that time, go back to your list and use some of your free time to grow as an educator!

Many of us also love to have an accountability partner so that we don’t get to the end of the summer and feel like we didn’t accomplish any of the things we wanted to do.  Share the things that you are interested in with your colleagues at the beginning of summer – your teammate, your PLC, others with similar interests – and then reach out to them from time to time.  Share what you are learning, a great book you’re reading, a blog post you loved, or something else that fits with your topic.  For those of us on Twitter – use the hashtag #RSISummerLearning (clicking the link will take you directly to a search of that hashtag on Twitter) to share what you’re up to.  Even if you don’t post to Twitter, you can go to that search anytime to see what others may have shared.  The more we all share, the more we all can learn from one another!  Next August we’ll all be able to bring that learning back to school to support our students and do even more amazing things!

Most of all, enjoy your summer time!  I know that I’m looking forward to my summer for some relaxation, a Cubs game or two, time with family and friends, and time to do some of the things that I never seem to have time for during the school year.  Have a great summer!


Engaging & empowering our students

Last week I shared with you some data on student mental health issues, anxiety, and student engagement.  I closed the post with these three points:

  1. Mental health concerns in our students are rising.
  2. Levels of engagement decline as our students grow older.
  3. Even with increased focus on standards, performance on standardized testing has remained stagnant.

So what can we do?  I’m sure that all of you have noticed these patterns in our own classroom, but knowing the pattern is only part of the task of finding a solution.  In last week’s post I shared the work of two college professors.  Going back to their work, I hope to share a couple ways we might be able to help fight anxiety and lack of engagement.

Peter Gray, the psychology professor from Boston college, feels that the key to learning and growth for our students is free play:

Children today are less free than they have ever been.  And that lack of freedom has exacted a dramatic toll.  My hypothesis is that the generational increases in externality, extrinsic goals, anxiety, and depression are all caused largely by decline, over that same period, in opportunities for free play and the increased time given to schooling.

So as a school, what does play look like?  For one it means we have to be sure to value recess/physical activities during the school day.  There is clear research that one of the benefits of physical activity is increased student engagement.  Think about your classroom on an afternoon where we did not have outdoor recess due to weather.  What are the engagement levels like?

Several recent research studies have looked into increased free play time in the school day, and the results suggest that students with regular recess behave better, are physically healthier and exhibit stronger social and emotional development.

Knowing these facts, does that lead you to think about changing what you do when you return to the classroom on a day when we are unable to go outdoors for recess?  Hopefully you can think about finding a way to squeeze in some free play on those days.  If not free play, then a few short brain break activities to get the kids out of their seat and moving.

And what about the days that students already get their recess?  Does that mean we don’t need to look for other opportunities for play?  Many of our teachers have been doing outdoor activities here at school this week.  I’m sure that they would share that the students are loving the activities they’ve been doing – they are active, engaged, and empowered in this learning environment.  My question though: Do we only save activities like this for the end of the school year?  Or do we try to integrate play into our lessons throughout the year?  How can we make use of our outdoor space, our small and large group instruction rooms, or even just the hallway to get the kids up and playing as they are learning?

Next we have the issue of engagement.  For the purpose of this piece, I am defining engagement in school based on the Schlechty’s Center for Engagement definition:

  • The student sees the activity as personally meaningful.
  • The student’s level of interest is sufficiently high that he/she persists in the face of difficulty.
  • The student finds the task sufficiently challenging that she believes she will accomplish something of worth by doing it.
  • The student’s emphasis is on optimum performance and on “getting it right.”

Is it engagement when we work hard to get students into content that we have selected for them?  You may be able to get their attention, but if it’s based on extrinsic goals (like a grade) the motivation may not last.  So here are some ways you might be able to increase motivation in your classroom:

  1. Students are more motivated academically when they have a positive relationship with their teacher.
  2. Choice is a powerful motivator in most educational contexts.
  3. For complex tasks that require creativity and persistence, extrinsic rewards and consequences actually hamper motivation.
  4. To stay motivated to persist at any task, students must believe they can improve in that task.
  5. Students are motivated to learn things that have relevance to their lives.
HSE21 Best Practice Model
HSE21 Best Practice Model

As you spend time thinking about bringing more inquiry into your classroom, as you work to better incorporated the HSE21 Best Practice Model, you will begin to notice increases in your student engagement.  When we provide our students with challenges, with activities that are relevant to their lives, when learning is rigorous and based on inquiry-driven study, when students are able to apply their learning in collaborative ways, when we work to incorporate more of the HSE21 Best Practice Model we will see increases in student engagement.  In fact, if we work towards truly relevant and rigorous study students will not only be engaged, but actually will be empowered to take their learning to levels that we can’t possibly imagine!

As we approach the end of the year, take some time to reflect on things you have tried that have been new.  What activities have led to increased levels of engagement?  What ways have you been able to get a kid truly excited about what they are learning?  Now, think ahead – how can you take the things that have been successful and expand on them for next school year?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Moonshot Thinking

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. ~John F. Kennedy

Anxiety & Engagement

This year at RSI we all read the book The Price of Privilege.  I know from follow up conversations with many of you that we see some of the issues that were described by Dr. Levine.  I don’t want to go through everything that she shared once again, but one of the things that jumps out at me from that book has to do with the level of anxiety in our kids.

Recently I also read a paper written by Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University.  In the study she looks at the mental health of kids just like those you would find in just about any school in the country.

In her paper, Twenge looks at four studies covering 7 million people ranging from teens to young adults in the US.  Among her finding: high school students in the 2010s were twice as likely to see a professional for mental health issues than those in the 1980s; more teens struggled to remember things in 2010-2012 compared to the earlier period; and 73% more reported trouble sleeping compared to their peers in the 1980s.  These so-called “somatic” or “of-the-body” symptoms strongly predict depression (for more on this study, click here)

In fact, the growth in mental health support in the form of services or medication in the 6-18 age group is somewhat shocking:

I think the writing of Peter Gray, a psychologist and professor at Boston College, sums it up this way:

We would like to think of history as progress, but if progress is measured in the mental health and happiness of our young people, then we have been going backward at least since the early 1950s. (to see the whole article, click here)

I know that mental health is something that we have been talking a lot about in our community and our school.  In further reading of the research from both articles, there are differing opinions of the why, but you may notice some similarities.

Twenge has seen a noticeable shift away from internal, or intrinsic goals, which one can control, toward extrinsic ones, which are set by the world and are increasingly unforgiving.  On the other hand, Gray believes kids aren’t learning critical life-coping skills because they never get to play anymore.

We have all had the students who had to have the right clothes, the right phone, the right video game in order to feel as though they could fit in.  We have also seen students who cannot, without adult mediation, play a game at recess that doesn’t end in a fight.

The increase in anxiety and mental health support for our students is one concerning piece, but let’s add to that another issue.  As students grow older, the general trend for all students is towards a lower level of engagement.  In a recent post on the blog Dangerously Irrelevant by Scott Mcleod, the following data from the annual Gallup poll of middle and high school students was shared:

I’m going to let those charts sink in for a bit, and leave you here with 3 thoughts.  Next week we’ll come back to this topic:

  1. Mental health concerns in our students are rising.
  2. Levels of engagement decline as our students grow older.
  3. Even with increased focus on standards, performance on standardized testing has remained stagnant.

What have you noticed in your classroom?  Is there a connection between anxiety and engagement?  What strategies have you tried to help students feel less anxious or more engaged in your classroom?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

5 Paragraph Essays & Newspaper Articles vs. Blog Posts & Copywriting

If I were to ask you to write a mission statement as a teacher, what would you write?  If it could only be one sentence, what are the things that would be most important for you to share in your beliefs about our students?  For most of us, I think somewhere in there we’d say something about preparing our students for the future.  That means we have to think about what the future may hold.  I know I’ve shared the quote below, but remember what Thomas Friedman says about today’s workers:

Daily Quotes (2)

While we may not know exactly what the future may hold, we know that there are some things that our students probably will not be doing much of in the future.  Stop and think for a minute – when was the last time you wrote a five paragraph essay?  ELA teacher please don’t hate me for saying this, but really, when was the last time you needed that skill?  I say all of this knowing that when I last taught ELA, we always had at least one research paper that was submitted in the five paragraph format.  Now, I agree that there are aspects of a five paragraph essay that are essential – being concise in our argument, having a clear structure for our writing, etc., but are there other formats of writing that could allow us to teach these same skills and at the same time be innovative?

What about another one of those writing activities that appears in many classrooms (including mine in the past) – the newspaper article.  Now, I will say that I have a subscription to the Indy Star, and while I can’t say that I ever read it cover to cover, and that there are some days that I don’t get to it at all, I do love having the option to sit down and read the paper.  However, the statistics on print media are noticeable.  I did a quick google search and found the charts below.  There’s less money coming into print media in the form of ad revenue, and the number of workers employed in newspaper publishing has been in pretty steady decline.

Now, I may be ruffling a few feathers here – and by no means am I saying that I think our students should never write a five paragraph essay or a newspaper article, but given the probable lack of a need for those skills in their future, what might be more valuable ways for our students to spend their time?  Two things that come to mind – blog posts and copy writing.

More and more, newspapers are trying to reach readers in formats other than print media.  I see IndyStar writers pop up in my Twitter feed sharing copy trying to get people to click the links and go the their site.  I see news articles online that are formatted more like a blog than a newspaper.  Two ways to help our students be able to reach the greater world would involve writing blog posts (like what you’re looking at right now), and learning a little about copywriting (the art and science of writing words used on web pages, ads, promotional materials, etc., that sells your product of service and convinces prospective customers to take action).  Now, I know that our students aren’t trying to sell things, but the skills of writing good copy will help our students be better overall writers.

HSE21 Best Practice Model
HSE21 Best Practice Model

Throughout the year you have heard us talk about the HSE21 best practice model.  You’ve also seen examples of the “Less of this, more of this” charts.  Again, I’m not saying we should throw out the five-paragraph essay or the newspaper article.  But we also need to think with an eye towards the future.  What types of writing will be the most valuable for our students when they leave school and move on to a career?

Think about it, a student in your class could write a blog post on something they have been learning about.  Other students (or teachers, parents, family members, or maybe even experts in a given field of study) would be able to read and respond in the comments to their thinking.  Students would be able to share their blog site with their friends and family members.  Parents wouldn’t have to ask the dreaded “What did you do at school today?” because they could have looked at the most recent blog post and say “I saw in the most recent post to the blog that you are learning about …, tell me more about that.”

It’s also been proven through study after study that ELA scores are impacted most by reading and writing across the curriculum (teaching reading and writing skills should not only be the job of the ELA teacher).  What a valuable expression of learning it would be for our students to write a blog post about their experiences in math, art, science, or gym (or any other subject!!!).  And another great thing about blog posts – they don’t have to be just words.  WordPress (and most other blog sites out there) will allow pictures, video, and audio, and if I really wanted to, I could create an entire post from my WordPress app on my cell phone or my iPad.

What are your thoughts on student created blogs?  Can you see a way that you could enrich the learning of the students in your class through writing about it?  What about copywriting?  Curious how it could fit into the writing activities you are already doing?  Wanna talk more about this?  Share your thought below.  We can find a structure to make it work in your classroom!