The North Star of Great Learning

Moving the RockThis summer a group of educators in my school district did a book study of Moving the Rock: Seven Levers WE Can Press to Transform Education by Grant Lichtman. I was not an original member of the book study, but when that group came to an end, they decided they wanted to keep meeting, and that they wanted to grow the group – so, I was invited to become a member. That group is called the Innovation Task Force. Since I felt a bit behind the other members, I decided to read the Moving the Rock. I picked it up and read it in just a couple of days (I could have finished it in a day if I let myself!).

When discussing the first of his seven levers, Lichtman used the phrase the “North Star of Great Learning.” In the book, he suggests that defining that North Star is one of the first ways that we can create the demand for better schools. So, what is our North Star? As a way to help define what that may look like at our school, we spent a portion of our first staff meeting talking about what great learning looks like. We began our meeting with the following image:

Learning
Thanks to Susan Drumm for creating this image.

We asked each teacher to respond with a single word. We then created a word cloud from the ideas that were shared by our staff. This is what we came up with:

Opening Day Word Cloud

I think that’s a pretty impactful list of words to describe what great learning looks like, and it definitely helps us as a building chart the plan for what deeper learning should look like in our building. It seems that if this is what we believe, it should serve as the foundation of the North Star of Great Learning.

BestPracticesModel_HSE21_standalonegraphic_2017_05_24As a district, we also have our Instructional Framework, Called the HSE21 Best Practices for Teaching and Learning (it can be found to the right). As I look at this framework, and compare it to the words that we as a staff selected to define great learning, they seem very well aligned.

I wonder at times though, how often we reflect on what is happening in our classrooms on a daily basis compared to what our beliefs about great learning actually are. Is our practice meeting what we say that we want great learning to look like? I wonder if we were to ask our students about learning in our classrooms what they might say about our daily practices.

I’ve often heard leaders talk about the idea of cognitive dissonance, that idea of being a little bit uncomfortable with what you are doing. Of being ok with others questioning our practice. Of understanding that we are all here to create the best possible learning environment for our students (and sometimes that will not be the easiest path for the adults!). Of understanding that if you are completely comfortable in all you are doing, you probably aren’t growing that much.

During our last meeting as the Innovation Task Force, one of the colleagues in the group shared that instead of thinking about how to prepare our students for when they graduate from high school, maybe a better thing to think about is how do we prepare them for life at 22. When we think about graduating from high school as our end goal for students, we let ourselves off the hook for helping them be ready for what they need to know in those first couple of years AFTER they graduate from high school.

Raise your hand if there were things that you didn’t understand about the world when you graduated high school. I can assure you that my hand is up too! Creating a transformational learning environment will help our students to see that learning is something that can happen anytime and anywhere, not something that is done to them while they are sitting in a classroom.

Just like the mind shift that it takes to transfer our classrooms from the traditional learning environments that most of us grew up in towards transformational learning environments who implement the 4 Cs on a daily basis (Creative Thinking, Collaboration, Creativity, and Communication), we have to shift our thinking about what it is that we are truly preparing students for.

The next chance you get, ask your students about the favorite things that they have done in your classroom so far this year, or ask them to tell you what great learning should look like. Reflect on the things they share with you. Create more learning opportunities like that! Then, share their responses in the comments below. I’d love to hear from our students.

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Relationships matter

I think you all know how much I value relationships in the classroom. I’m a firm believer in the idea that no significant learning can happen without a meaningful relationship. Earlier this week, I was listening to one of the episodes of the podcast “We’re Doing It Wrong”, and it was a reaffirmation of that belief.

In the podcast, the host Joseph Pazar (a middle school math teacher) was interviewing the authors of Angels and Superheroes, Jack Jose and Krista Taylor. The conversation covered a wide variety of topics including relationships, behavior, and student misbehavior (I included a link to the podcast below).

I’m guessing that you’ve all heard the great TED Talk from Rita Pierson, “Every kid needs a champion” (if you haven’t, take 8 minutes right now and watch!), and in that talk, she shares the wisdom that kids don’t learn from people they don’t like. Krista Taylor takes it a bit further. She says:

Students need to like you,

I heard that quote and then rewound to relisten to that section of the podcast. Leading up to this comment, Taylor shared that most teachers don’t go into teaching because they want their students to get a good test score. More likely, they go into teaching because they want to:

  • Work with students
  • Build the whole child
  • Have social emotional learning happening
  • Raise responsible citizens
  • Raise students who care about each other and their community.

To accomplish any of these goals, and so many others that might come to mind for you when you pause to think about why you became a teacher, it takes meaningful relationships! Meaningful relationships aren’t built just because you make class fun, they don’t happen naturally for most kids. True relationships take work! So, how can we go about building those real relationships with our kids? Here are a few ideas for ways to build relationships:

  • Get curious and ask questions – Find out what they like to do when they aren’t at school. Engage with them on their interests, even if it isn’t an interest of yours!
  • Take your students outside of the classroom – I loved my 6th grade class and teachers. I remember doing a camping trip on the property behind our school one night. I remember walking from school into the neighborhood next door where one of my teachers lived to have a picnic. Those were powerful events to build relationships with my teachers and with my classmates! I can’t tell you much about what we did during class time, but I definitely remember those fun moments outside of the classroom. And I still think fondly of both of those teachers.
  • Listen to your students concerns and pause to re-examine ourselves – the reality is that implicit biases creep into all of us! And the more tense a situation may be, the worse our decision making process becomes. When students share concerns about something you are doing in the room, hear them out and reflect. It’s tempting to defend our actions, but if it’s bothering one brave soul enough that they tell you, there may be a few more who feel the same, but aren’t brave enough to share!

As the conversation in the “We’re Doing It Wrong” podcast went on, Jack Jose shared that when we work to build relationships, we also have to:

“Trust that the child in front of you wants to behave, wants to succeed, wants to do well… then, work with that child to get past those gaps so that they can be successful”

If we think back to what we’ve learned from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, misbehavior from a student is a form of communication. It lets us know that some need is not being met. Most likely, the missing need is a feeling of belongingness. When we don’t fulfill that need, they continue to misbehave. Our punishments might redirect that need in the short term, but it will not solve the overarching need that is creating the misbehavior.

Let’s think about a typical situation, and how we might respond:

A student in your class is often off task. He talks to his neighbors and generally goofs around. Occasionally, that student will raise his hand to answer the question, so we call on him, excited that he wants to participate. We praise his answer to the question hopeful that it will instill a greater desire for participation. The next day, he comes in, goofs around, and causes a disruption. You schedule a conference with his parents. On the day of the conference, you and the parents gather with the child around the table and share that the student is “so bright” and capable of so much more. In the meeting the student commits to doing better. The next day in class, you see a little improvement, but later that week the behavior returns to what you were seeing prior to the conference.

Now, let’s look at this from the perspective of the student who is misbehaving:

  • The student has a need for the feeling of belonging. During class he gets to talk with the friends he likes, they laugh at him and make him feel good.
  • He cherry picks the questions that you ask to only respond to the ones he feels confident in because he knows that he will get it right, then he gets your praise for being bright, fulfilling yet another need. And do we really know that he’s that smart if the child is cherry picking the questions he wants to answer?
  • He creates a situation where there are several adults (most of whom he likes and trusts) around a table telling him how bright he is.
  • He returns to class and goofs around again because that fulfills his need to belong with the other kids.

Our traditional methods do not fulfill the needs that this child has – only a true and meaningful relationship will allow that child to have the sense of belonging he needs to help stop the misbehavior. Keeping that kid in the room, making them do the work, holding them to a high standard is not “letting them off.” In actuality, kicking them out of class or sending them to the office is letting them off because now they don’t have to do the work, they will get one on one attention – the secretary will talk to them about what happened, maybe the counselor will too, another teacher might talk to them, and they get one on one attention from the principal or assistant principal. These all give the student attention, and may allow him a sense of belonging with those people, but it doesn’t lead to that sense of belonging in the classroom where he needs it most!

A more powerful method – have the student complete a reflection form on what they’ve done and have them return to class when they are finished. Maybe that’s done in the back of the classroom, maybe it’s done in another teacher’s classroom, or maybe it’s done in the hallway. By sending them out we all get a break from one another which allows us to re-regulate, the kids reflect on the situation and process that, and then when they walk back into the classroom, they will most likely be ready to learn. The child sees that misbehavior isn’t going to lead to his needs being met, and they will trust that you will treat them fairly, and that trust helps give a sense of belonging.

What are your thoughts? How does relationship building help you? What are some of the ways you build relationships? Share out your best strategies so that we all can have some new ideas!

We’re Doing It Wrong Podcast: http://www.weredoingitwrong.com/podcast/6-angels-and-superheroes

 

Teaching in the technology age

Out of curiosity, how many of you remember when the first iPhone came out? Did any of you have one? In case you have forgotten, that first iPhone looked like this:

iPhone 10th anniversary

In case you have also forgotten, that beauty of a phone was released to the public in 2007. Now I must admit, I did not have the original iPhone. If you recall, when the iPhone first came out it was only available on AT&T, and I still had a contract with Verizon – that meant I had to wait. But I remember friends who rushed out to get that first iPhone. And they were blown away by how amazing it was.

So why am I bringing up the release of the iPhone? If you haven’t been paying attention to the birthdates of your students, you may not have noticed it, but most of our 5th and 6th graders here at RSI were born in 2007 or later. Think about that. Most of our students have never lived in a world that didn’t have an iPhone! The kids we are teaching truly are digital natives. They have had the entire world at their fingertips their entire lifetime.

We are born without knowledgeLet’s contrast that just a bit with human history. I’ve recently been reading Walter Isaacson’s fascinating biography Benjamin Franklin. There were a lot of things that I knew about Franklin, his role as an inventor/scientist, his time as a member of the Continental Congress, and that he’s a writer and printer. I don’t know that I fully realized what a world traveler he was. I also did not quite realize just how curious he was – throughout his life he found wonder in the world around him, and spent time trying to learn more.

One of the things that being alive in the 1700s allowed Franklin, and his contemporaries, was time alone with their thoughts. There weren’t distractions like television, radio, podcasts, phones. I mean, when he wanted guidance from back home while working on the treaty for the Revolutionary War, he had to hand write a letter, sometimes multiple drafts, send it on a ship back to America, and wait, typically for several months, for a response. Think about how much time he had to just wait and think!

Now, when do your best ideas strike you? If you’re anything like me (and brain research says that most humans probably are), it happens in your moments of rest and solitude. I can’t tell you how many times a great idea comes to me in the shower, only to be lost by the time I get out and have a way to write it down. The truth is, there is constant thinking happening in our minds. Sometimes it’s self-talk, sometimes it’s planning, but other times it’s when we get our best ideas. How often do you spend hours laboring over something, not quite sure how to make it perfect, only to become frustrated and walk away? Then, in a free moment, it suddenly clicks and the solution you’ve been looking for is right there.

Our students don’t have enough opportunities to just wonder, to think, to get bored and then allow creativity to get them out of their boredom. Most digital natives are not used to that feeling. They are used to getting what they want when they want it. And as such, they need to be better trained to find their creativity and curiosity.

What does that mean for us in the classrooms? Sometimes we as educators get caught up in the idea of “I have to cover…” so we rush in, we swoop them up when they might get a little stuck, we solve the problem for them instead of allowing them the time and space to solve the problem on their own.

Our students, in their long term though, need to be able to work through problems and solve them. The reality is that there are a lot of things that the devices they have grown up with can do for them, but there are also things that those devices can’t do. In his book What School Could Be, Ted Dintersmith spends time in the first chapter talking about the digital revolution and the rapid growth in computing power. While computers are getting exponentially faster every year, and at some point, computers most likely will surpass the average speed of the human brain, they haven’t yet been able to do the creative problem solving that humans can do. Computers can only solve problems that they have the information and programming for. Dintersmith shares that “Children need to learn how to leverage machine intelligence, not replicate its capacity to perform low-level tasks!” The ideas that allow them to learn this skill only comes from time spent wondering or practicing creativity.

When you try to think about ways to integrate curiosity and wonder, take the topics you are learning about in your classroom. Create provocations for students to wonder about that tie to what you are learning about. Allow the learning in your classroom go sideways just a little bit because of the “What if…” questions that students ask. When we feed into their wonder, we tell them it’s ok to be curious.

Then, provide them with opportunities to be creative! On Wednesdays, our media center has become the hub of creative activity with makerspace activities going on. This feeds the creative mind and soul! It helps our kids to understand that technology is not always the answer! Allow every child to see themselves as creative in some way! Not only does it turn on that part of the brain, it’s a lot of fun for you too!

 

What are your thoughts? How have you integrated creativity and curiosity in your classroom? What have you learned from your students when you take that time to dive into their wonders? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!