This class just can’t handle it…

When I was in high school, I remember taking a physics class – I believe it was my sophomore year.  At my high school, physics classes were taught in the wing that had once been the area for “shop” classes.  My physics classroom was this huge open space.  One side had a large garage door that once allowed cars to come into the building for students to be able to learn how to work on them. By the time I was in high school, the “shop” classes had been shifted to the Hoosier Hills Career Center across town, and the shop classrooms had been converted for other uses.  On any given day, I would walk into this classroom, and around the outside of the class I would see various experiments in process.  There were large lab tables – at one point there were lasers on every table that were being used to make holograms.  Another time there were these air rails that were angled and allowed people to measure velocity and acceleration based on the time it took an object to travel across the rail.  In one corner, there was Newton’s Cradle built out of cable and bowling balls and hanging from the rafters high up in the room.  I could go on…largest-newtons-cradle2-500x334

As a sophomore, I would walk in and see these awesome experiments that would pique my curiosity.  I made it a point to arrive to physics class as early as possible to check out these things.  I remember wondering how you could use a laser to create a hologram, or just how the timing controllers worked on the air rails.  But then, the bell would ring, I would make my way over to my desk in the middle of the room in front of the chalk board, have a seat, and take out my textbook.  You see, as a sophomore, I was in the basic physics class.  Those experiments were not set up for our class, but were there for the AP Physics class that also met in the same classroom.  Now, I don’t want to imply that we never got to do experiments in my physics class that year, but it was nothing on the level of what the AP class was doing.

Thinking back to my experience as a sophomore in high school in my physics class, I know that some of those experiments probably were things that I did not yet have the true theoretical understanding to be able to carry out and understand, but that doesn’t take away how bummed I was to see cool things set up in my classroom and feel as though I could not participate.  The reality is though, there were probably variations on many of those experiments that would have tied to the standards that my basic physics class was expected to cover.  There were probably ways my teacher could have provided scaffolding and support to allow the students in my basic physics class to participate in those cool experiments.  Would we have gone as deep with the experiments?  No, but we would have had that hands-on experience that was sometimes lacking from my physics curriculum that year.

This memory comes to me when I occasionally hear teachers say things like “My regular class just isn’t ready for this.”  Or “this group is my resource group, so they may not be able to do that activity.”  (I’ll admit – I may have made statements like this when I was a classroom teacher).  That fear that students aren’t ready or aren’t capable can hold us back from such cool learning opportunities for our students.  If you’re worried about kids not being ready, you should know that there are some second-grade classes in this district that have been doing some of the same experiments that I have seen happening this year in some of our sixth-grade classrooms.  I’m sure there were adaptations to make the learning accessible for a second grader, but if a second grade student can successfully carry out activities that our sixth grade students are doing, isn’t it worth finding ways to adapt our activities so that all our fifth and sixth grade students can do them?

Whether we’re talking about a socrative seminar, a hands-on experience, an experiment, or a project, we need to makes sure that all our students have the opportunity to learn in exciting ways.  Think critically about how you might be able to adapt your class so that no matter what level your students are at, they have the opportunity to be challenged.  How could you scaffold and support those students that some might say just aren’t ready?  If you’re struggling to find ways to integrate some of these higher-level experiences into your classroom, find someone to collaborate with – it could be with a teammate, a teacher down the hall, a teacher in another grade level, a TDS, one of our resource teachers, or maybe it’s one of our related arts teachers.  We have lots of great people working in this building, and through working together, we can make sure that all our students are able to participate in amazing learning opportunities!

Also, just so that you aren’t too worried about my long-term well-being, I apparently liked that basic physics class enough to go on and take the AP Physics class the next year.  I was able to participate in all those cool experiments that I was so curious about as a sophomore.  I learned how to create a hologram of a die using a laser, I got to do those experiments with the air rails while learning about acceleration and velocity.  I also remember AP Physics as the most difficult class that I took that year, but at the same time it was the most interesting and rewarding because of the hands-on experiences that we had throughout the year.

The cool stuff, the fun stuff, those are the things that get students excited about learning.  Those are the things that students will talk to you about when they run into you in the future.  Those are the activities that stick with them as they get older, that they can go back to and recall what they learned while they were in your classroom.

Do you have memories similar to mine?  How did it make you feel to not be able to do some of the “cool” things that your teachers did with other classes?  Have you ever talked to your students who don’t get to do some of those things because they “just aren’t ready?”  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

We can all be a mentor

In last week’s post I shared with you a bit about the concept that language matters.  The words we use in our classroom have such a way of showing our students what we value.  But words can matter in so many more ways.  Who knows what words you might say in your classroom, in the hallway, in the lunchroom, or at recess that might resonate with a student for the rest of their life.

ted-logoI’ve shared with you before that I love the NPR Show titled TED Radio Hour.  It’s great as a podcast because I can download it to my phone and listen whenever I have a chance.  If you have never heard of the TED Radio Hour, each episode has a common theme, and portions of various talks are shared that fit into that theme.  The host, Guy Raz, also inserts portions of interviews with the speaker.  I was listening to the most recent episode, titled “A Hero’s Journey,” while I was on a run.  One of the Talks resonated with me as an educator and a mentor, so I wanted to share the story with you here.

This portion of the show is from a TED Talk by Jarrett Krosoczka, a children’s author.  He went through a difficult childhood, being adopted by his grandparents when he was 3, having a mother who would come in and out of his life, and a father that he did not meet until he was 17.  He had a couple of mentors who made major impacts in his life, and some were through such simple acts.  When you have a chance, listen to this section of the episode.

Follow the first link below to listen to the story.  I have also included a link to the full episode (the second link), if you’d like to hear more about the topic of “A Hero’s Journey.”  On the TED Radio Hour page, you can also find links to the full TED Talk of each person featured on the show.  Enjoy!

How Can Mentors Turn An Uncertain Journey Into A Heroic One?

Here’s the full episode:

How do you use words to be a mentor to your students?  Are there kids that you’ve seen make a major change just by the words that we use to help motivate them?  Share your experiences in the comments below!

The impact of words

watchsuccessChances are that you have seen the quote to the left before – it’s hanging in our building outside the gym.  According to the poster by our gym, the quote is attributed to Frank Outlaw.  As I was researching the quote, I found it attributed to several people including Lao Tzu and Mathatma Gandhi, among others.

For the past couple of years we have been on a path of shifting assessment practices in an effort to focus more on the learning process, rather than the outcome or finished product.

Combined with that, I know that many of us have given thought into the idea of mindsets.  Many of you have talked with your students about having a growth mindset as compared to a fixed mindset.

Recently I was reading an article in Education Week by Starr Sackstein (@mssackstein on Twitter).  Sackstein is a high school English teacher and teacher coach in New York.  She is also the author of the book Hacking Assessment – part of the Hack Learning Series.  I have not read the book myself, but have listened to Sackstein talk about her shift in grading practices, as well as follow her on Twitter where she an active proponent of making a deliberate shift in assessment practices to focus on the learning our students accomplish as opposed to the grades they earn.

In the article I was reading, she shared her beliefs that the language we use matters as much as, if not more than, the practices we employ.  She goes on to say “What we say and how we say it has a big impact on how students and other stakeholders respond to our choices.”  Take a look at this chart from her book:


If, as educators, we use the terms on the left side with our students, or their parents, what are we saying we value?  I may be going out on a limb here, but to me the terms on the left are focused on the product.  They are a fixed mindset concept that doesn’t allow room for growth.  In addition, it says to students that they don’t need to learn anything from their mistakes.  These terms symbolize an ending to the learning, and each time we use those terms in our classroom, we are telling our students that we are more concerned with the product.

I know from conversations that many of you have already shifted your thinking about assessment, and are truly focused on the process.  Using those terms that appear on the right side of this chart will truly show our students and their parents what we value.  Assessing students where they are, providing feedback, and encouraging students to try again will help students to understand that you value their learning, not their grade.  It will help students see their challenges as a way to grow and move towards proficiency.

Think about the language you use in the classroom with your students.  How can you shift the words that you use in the classroom to show that you truly value student growth?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.