What are you learning?

“What are you learning?” It’s one of my favorite questions to ask kids when I am visiting a classroom, or when I see them working in the hallway.  More often than not, their answers will relate to the specific content they are working on in that moment.  The reality is though that they are learning so much more than the math, social studies, science, or whatever the content area may be.

We ask so much of our students when we put them to work.  We expect them to pay attention in class, to be engaged, to think critically, to work collaboratively.  Just think about how much work we are expecting our students to do.  All in the service of learning and growing.

Your role in the learning process of our students is so important.  They need us every day in order to learn, grow, and find success.  It’s such an important job!

But stop for a minute to think – when someone asks you what you teach, what is your answer?  Do you respond with your content area?  Do you respond with your grade level?

I’m going to share something with you that you may not like to hear though – the content is irrelevant.  That may be an uncomfortable thing to think about, but let me share with you why I believe this.  In my role, I get to walk into a lot of classrooms, I get to see a lot of lessons, and I get to see a LOT of GREAT TEACHING!  But in my role, I also get to notice some things that as a classroom teacher you might not get to see.

This year I saw a 6th grade science class doing a lab activity that was identical to something my daughter did as a 2nd grader.  Even the paper that went with the lab looked the same.  The teacher who was leading the lesson was teaching as though the students had never seen anything like this before.  I asked one of the students about the lab, and he shared that he did the same activity when he was in elementary school.  I can’t imagine the depth of knowledge on this activity was as great as the teacher might have believed since the student had already done it.  Another time I was visiting a junior high classroom and I saw a lesson on scientific method being taught in an 8th grade classroom as though the students had never seen anything like it before – it was identical to one I had just seen in a 5th grade classroom.  I know that when I taught 6th grade, my scientific method lesson was very similar as well.  Where’s the rigor in a lesson that is being taught to our students so many different times in basically the same way?  Where’s the depth of knowledge?

If the content was truly relevant for our learners, we wouldn’t be wasting our student’s time teaching them things that they already know as if they have never seen it.  I know what some of you are probably thinking though – maybe some of the students forgot!  Maybe there are students that weren’t in our district who have never done this before!  I’m going to push back on those ideas – what about the students who didn’t forget?  What about the students who were here, did this exact activity, and are bored out of their mind?  Even if the lesson is fun or one of our favorites, how are we serving the learning of our students?  A good formative assessment at the beginning of the unit may lead you to realize that what you were planning to teach isn’t valuable because the students already know it.

And that’s the thing, the most valuable commodity we have is time.  In education we are always asking for more of it.  One of the biggest complaints I hear from teachers about innovation and change is we don’t have enough time to do new things.  If we can gain some of our time back by not teaching a lesson of material that our students already know as if they have never heard it before, we might be able to do something new and innovative.  Instead of continuing on that lab that a student did in elementary school, what could we have our students do that would develop creativity?  How could we let our students communicate the knowledge they already have?  Is there some way they could work collaboratively?  The image below is one that I have seen shared on Twitter by so many people, I can’t even begin to guess exactly where it came from, but it’s an important reminder of the things that our students need to know for their future.

6 Cs of Learning

If the image above isn’t enough for you, what about some research?  According to the National Association of Colleges and Employees in a recent job outlook survey, reported in 2016, these are the top 5 attributes that employers are looking for: 1) Leadership; 2) Ability to work in a team; 3) Communication skills (written); 4) Problem-solving skills; 5) Communication skills (verbal).

As I was researching this post, one of the other topics that kept coming up is the ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

Hopefully, like me, you notice that none of the things listed in any of this research is specific to content knowledge.  That should challenge us to think a little differently about the question what do you teach.  I think the answer to what do you teach should probably be something like this: “I am teaching my students to have strong dispositions of learning.”

Our students don’t need to be able to recite back the scientific method.  They need to be able to use the process to solve problems they encounter in the world.  Our students don’t need to be able to solve stand-alone multiplication or division problems.  They need to be able to apply those math skills in real world situations.  If this is what our students need, what does that do to the way you might plan a lesson?  Assess your students?  Create a project?

I would love to hear your thoughts.  How do you get your students to have the dispositions for learning?  What would you do if you found that several of the kids in your class had already done the activity you had planned for today?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Q-TIP – Quit Taking It Personally

Earlier this week, I shared a document with the staff of my school with some strategies in dealing with students who are dysregulated.  I can’t claim that I created it, it was shared with me by another administrator in the district (thanks Lisa!).  I know that for some, the term dysregulation may be a new one, so let me define it quickly:

Dysregulation: An emotional response that does not fall within the conventionally accepted range of emotive responses.  These emotions can be internalized by our students, which causes them to appear withdrawn, shut down, or non-engaged.  For other students dysregulation will manifest as externalized behaviors such as acting out, being emotional, and trouble calming down.  Some students may show a combination of internalized and externalized behaviors.

Dysregulated ExpectationsThis term came to me as I began learning more about the trauma-informed school model at a training this summer with Jim Sporleder.  Earlier this year I had two posts related to childhood trauma (you can find them here and here).  While the strategies that we learned in our training definitely are beneficial for students who have been through trauma, we know that any student has the potential to become dysregulated, so it is important that all teachers understand how to communicate and work with a dysregulated student.  At the right you will see a screenshot of the document I shared with my staff (if you click on the screenshot, it should enlarge, or feel free to download the document here: ExpectationsStudentsDysregulating).

In the email that went with the document, I shared with our staff that working with a dysregulated student can be very difficult if we aren’t able to keep ourselves regulated.  I reminded our staff of the acronym Q-TIP – Quit Taking It Personally.  Logically I think we all know that when students are dysregulated, it’s not because they woke up with the goal of making the day horrible for us.  There is always a lot more to the story.  It’s still very easy for any of us to feel as though a dysregulated student is “doing it to us.”

After sharing the document, I heard back from one of the Instructional Assistants that works with some of our Exceptional Learners, and her opinion about what she notices with teachers interacting with students who are struggling:

What I notice, and what I think goes along with your Q-tip reminder, is because my kids (FAP, CFL, FIATS) are -labeled-, teachersstudents react different to them. They are way more pa

I think what Kristin says above about expectations is such an important point. We expect our students, especially for those of us who live in the middle grades, to have the appropriate responses.  When they respond in ways outside those norms, we have a harder time maintaining that patience and empathy that we might be able to show students who do have a “label.”

My hope is that we can all remember that when a student is struggling, no matter what their label may be, the manifestations of that dysregulation has very little to do with us.  What happens during and after the dysregulation however is something that we have control over.  If we can use the suggestions in the document above, we may be able to help a student return to a regulated state, which in turn will allow us to move forward in learning and growing.

What are your thoughts of the document above?  Are there strategies that have been successful for you in working with dysregulated students, that aren’t included in this list?  Have you found that there are things on this document that don’t work?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Reaching all our students

One of the challenges of teaching kids in the middle grades (I’m calling that 5th through 8th grade for the purpose of this post) is that physical maturity and social emotional maturity do not always match up.  A couple days ago I was talking with a teacher about the immature behavior of a student.  A comment that stuck with me after I walked away was “But he’s the biggest one in the class…”

Sometimes there is a misconception that the tallest kids are going to be the most mature and therefore capable of doing the most, and that the smallest ones are the least mature.  But in my experience, that expectation doesn’t always work hold true.

The next chance you get, just scan your room.  As you look, you will see a huge variety in physical differences among the kids that are sitting in your room.  Not only are each of those kiddos physically different, they all have differences in their cognitive, social, and emotional needs.  While it’s easy to recognize those physical differences, perceiving what’s going on inside a child is much more difficult.  With all of these differences, how do we try to meet those needs?

Meeting the needs of all learners by differentiating instruction begins with accepting the fact that your students are all cognitively different than one another.

The Center for Applied Special Technology has been focusing their work on the Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  There are three main principles of UDL, and thinking about these principles as you design learning experiences will help you better to reach the diverse needs of your students.

  • Principle 1: Provide multiple means of representation: We can all agree that our students all learn in different ways.  This means it is so important for us to present and represent learning in multiple ways.  Some students would learn best from a video clip.  Others might learn best from a reading assignment.  Others might need graphic organizers to help them to capture their learning.  The key is to remember that if you only provide one entry point for learning, you probably will not reach all your students.
  • Principle 2: Provide multiple means of action and expression: We all have our preferred ways to be able to express our knowledge.  For me, I love to share my learning through written expression. Others might prefer to record a quick video clip, while still others might want to create a presentation through Power Point. The same is true of our students.  While we can have our big ideas and learning targets that we want students to reach, they don’t all have to show what they know in the exact same way. The more choices we offer students in expressing their learning, the more likely we are to meet the needs of every student.
  • Principle 3: Provide multiple means of engagement: We all know that if learners are not engaged, they are not going to be learning.  Students are most engaged when they are given the opportunity to participate in authentic learning experiences that are responding to their questions, concerns, or interests.  If we can give students opportunities to develop they questions or look into their concerns and interests within the scope of our learning goals, they will be more engaged, and feel empowered

Ultimately, our goal for all students is that they learn and grow.  Through the use of these 3 principles, you can design learning experiences that allow our students to feel engaged and invested in their learning, and in turn you will be more likely to move our students forward in their learning.  What are your thoughts?  Have you seen these principles help your students find more success in the classroom?  Are there any principles that you would add to this list?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

What do you know about each of your students?

At the beginning of this school year we held a back to school retreat.  One of the slides was based on something that Aaron Hogan, author of Shattering the Perfect Teacher Myth, had shared in his Twitter feed this summer.

My Challenge

We have talked over the years about the value of relationships.  We all know that there are some students who are EASY to get to know.  At the same time, we all know that there are some students that are very difficult to get to know.

Getting to know about the things that are tied directly to school is what teachers do. Test scores, homework completion, attentiveness in class…  I think all of us are good at that.  To have a true and meaningful relationship with a student, we need to have a knowledge of all the aspects of the child’s life, not just their ability to “play school.”  To know this, we have to be excellent watchers and listeners.  This watching and listening has to come from the idea that the only way to create solid learning environments for our students is through truly knowing a student.

Do you have a system of tracking what you know about kids?  Whether you have a spreadsheet that you type info into, a stack of notecards with one for each kid, a class list with simple notes, sticky notes in a binder, or whatever works for you, there needs to be some way to keep track of the things you know about those kids.  If you haven’t done this yet, take a few moments in the coming week to assess your own knowledge of your students.  What do you know about their life outside of school?  What interests do they have?  What did they do over the weekend?  What do you know about their family?

As you assess your own knowledge, are there any kids who stand out as someone you don’t know much about?  If you don’t know much about that child, how can you be sure that you are creating a learning environment that meets that child’s needs?

The good news, it’s still very early in the school year!  If there are kids you want to get to know better, there’s plenty of time for that.  Make it a goal to learn what you can about those kids you aren’t able to write much about.  Use strategies like the 2 for 10 method (spending 2 minutes every day for 10 days talking about something that has nothing to do with school) can help you learn a lot in a very short time.  Conversations in the hallway or at recess can be a great chance to get to know kids too.

Caring about kids can have a huge impact.  The kids who drop out of school in 9th or 10th grade don’t decide one random Monday morning that they are going to sleep in and never come back.  Dave Brown and Trudy Knowles share in What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know that:

“The decision to drop out is a reflective process that begins during the middle level years based primarily on the relationships they have at school with classmates and particularly with teachers.”

In the book Canaries Reflect on the Mine: Dropouts’ Stories of Schooling, Jeanne Cameron interviewed several high school dropouts.  One of the things that stood out in the comments from those students was the belief that they needed teachers to notice them and care about them.  That care doesn’t come just from looking at students grades and test scores.  It comes from the recognizing the difficulties that each of our students have in their lives.

If that isn’t enough of a motivator for you to try to get to know those quiet kids a little bit better, I don’t know what would be.  Do you know there are kids that you don’t know much about?  What do you know about the quietest kid in your class?  What are you going to do in the next week to get to know those kids?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

A walk in the woods

One of the things that I love about our school is the wonderful outdoor areas that we have on our property. From the simplicity of the outdoor amphitheater that could be an awesome place to take your class to change up the learning environment, to the trails, river, and prairie area we have just a short walk from the doors of our building. Last Friday, I had the opportunity to attend Ditch that Conference at Turkey Run State Park with several of the teachers in our building. This conference was put on by Matt Miller, the author of Ditch that Textbook and co-author of Ditch that Homework. One of the ongoing themes of the conference was “An Analog Conference in a Digital World.” This is the first conference I have ever attended that actually told us in advance not to bring digital devices. I left my computer and iPad at home, and took along my journal (little did I know that I wouldn’t even need mine, because when we checked in we got an awesome Ditch That Textbook journal!).

Ditch Journal
This is the front cover of the cool journal that every attendee who was at the conference received!

 

There were so many awesome things that I could share with you, but I just wanted to talk about one idea in particular. During one of the sessions, Jed Dearybury took us on a walk on the “Art”side! At the very beginning of the session, Jed had us all pick a leaf from along the trail. We were told that while we were walking, we should be thinking about a story involving the leaf. The reality is that you could have kids pick anything that you want (or you could even allow them to pick whatever they wanted to carry with them). Jed shared that if he was doing this activity, he would encourage students to jot down as many details as they could while they were walking – things they saw, things they heard, etc. Then, when they return to class, students would write a story about their leaf. They would use as many of the details they wrote down to include in their story.

There are some variations you could do with this activity as well:

  • Working on persuasion? Have the student’s object be trying to convince you of something.
  • Social studies? Tell students they need to set the story in the context of the unit you are currently studying.
  • Science? Have the story tie into the biome that students have been studying.
  • Math? Can we figure out a way to find the area of the leaf we picked? What about the volume of a walnut on the ground?
  • Collaboration? Have two students partner up and create a shared story involving both the objects they selected.

These are just a couple of ideas I came up with in just a few minutes of brainstorming. With as many smart and talented people as we have in this building, there could be a multitude of others that never yet crossed my mind!

In our 50 minutes together, Jed shared 2 other awesome ideas that could easily be integrated into activities for any classroom. Want to know about them? Ask me and I’ll share – I don’t want this post to get too long!

I walked away from this short session wanting to encourage you, once again, to find as many ways as you can think of to get your kids outside of the concrete box that is the typical classroom. So many of our kids don’t get the opportunity to spend much time in nature – seeing what happens in the woods, listening to the sounds of nature, and learning from those experiences. Make use of our beautiful campus and great outdoor spaces!

Do you have any ideas for variations on the leaf activity above? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Childhood trauma – part 2

Last week I encouraged you to watch the TED Talk by Nadine Burke Harris titled “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime.”  If you missed it and still would like to watch it, click here.  Even if you didn’t watch the talk, hopefully there will be information in today’s post that will help you understand: 1) the impact of trauma on children; 2) that childhood trauma can affect any community; and 3) a few ways to be able to impact the lives of students and their families to improve outcomes.

Childhood trauma: it affects brain development, the immune system, hormonal systems, and the way our DNA is read and transcribed. It leads to increased risk of heart disease and lung cancer, and can cause a 20-year difference in life expectancy.  Even with all these factors, many doctors are not prepared to be able to identify childhood trauma, and even fewer have the tools necessary to treat these issues.

Trauma

 

Many physicians, especially those that work in public health, are trained to try to identify root causes of an illness.  When 50 people from the same neighborhood begin exhibiting the same symptoms, doctors are not only going to treat the patients, they are also going to look at what’s going on in that neighborhood.

Dr. Harris began to notice a pattern in many of her patients that she couldn’t initially put her finger on.  She was having kids referred to her for ADHD, but she could not make that diagnosis.  As she got to know more of these patients, the pattern that she found in many was that they had experienced some form of severe trauma.

There is a direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease, as well as mental illness, doing time in prison, and work issues, such as absenteeism.Eventually, Dr. Harris learned from a colleague of a study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs Study).  This ongoing study is a collaboration of Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  I believe that every educator needs to be aware of the ACEs Study.  The study shows a correlation between ACEs that occurred prior to reaching the age of 18 and many health and social problems as an adult.  Here are some basic stats from the ACEs Study:

  • 17,300 adults were part of the original study
  • 70% were Caucasian
  • 70% were college educated
  • All participants have/had livable wages and health insurance
  • All were middle class or affluent

While there were many forms of trauma that the participants in the study had been through, the study identified the top 10 ACEs.  They are:

  1. Sexual Abuse
  2. Physical Abuse
  3. Emotional Abuse
  4. Physical Neglect
  5. Emotional Neglect
  6. Loss of a Parent
  7. Witnessing Family Violence
  8. Incarceration of a Family Member
  9. Having a Mentally Ill, Depressed, or Suicidal Family Member
  10. Living with a Drug Addicted or Alcoholic Family Member

ACEs scores are determined by 1 point per each of the ACEs listed above.  A couple things to be aware of about ACE scores: first, they are extremely common.  67% of the population had at least one ACE, and 12.6% had 4 or more ACEs.  Second, the higher the ACEs score, the worse the potential health outcomes.

ACEs can also have an impact on student success.  In one Washington State University study, students who had at least 3 ACEs were 3 times likelier to experience academic failure.  They are 5 times likelier to have attendance issues.  And they are 6 times as likely to exhibit behavioral problems.

Sunset chaserWhy does this happen?  For the normally developed brain, when it encounters a stressful situation the adrenal gland kicks in and releases adrenaline and cortisol, which gets the body ready for fight, flight, or freeze.  For a child living in trauma, those adrenal glands are constantly being triggered, which causes their brain to have bottom up control, and prevents the upper part of the brain (those that control reasoning, self-control, learning, and understanding), from being able to take control.  And what are the triggers for our trauma students?  You may never know.  It could be walking into their home, it could be a loud voice, it could be a simple as a facial expression.  These triggers are so frequent that the trauma brain is constantly in fight, flight, or freeze mode.

One of the things that we all know is that being an educator can be a very emotional task.  You become connected to your students, you want the best of them, and no matter how hard we try, there are times that they become frustrated.  These frustrations may manifest themselves in many different ways.  We have to be able to help our students to calm their brains and return to top-down control.  Punishments and logic will not work for a dysregulated student.  Instead, our students need relationships, connections, and acceptance.  When we are able to stay calm when our students are not, we may be able to help get our students back to calm.  Remember, when a student is struggling, it is not about us, and we can’t take it personally.

Your presence is the most precious gift you can give another human being.In their book The Trauma-Informed School, Jim Sporleder and Heather T. Forbes identified a few strategies that we can all use to interact with students (and I would suggest that these strategies work for all kids, not just those who have been through trauma).  Here’s a few of them:

  • Respond instead of react – ask yourself “am I responding to this student as a person or am I reacting to his behavior?”
  • Give emotional space – allow the student to be upset, and be there to support the student when they are once again regulated.
  • Ask the right questions – What’s driving the behavior? What can I do to improve my relationship with this student?
  • Statements that show support – What do you need from me right now that takes care of you and allows me to continue teaching?
  • Choose your battles – sometimes it’s best to just get your class going on something, then quietly approach the student to check in.
  • Keep yourself regulated – drop your personal mirror and seek the cause to the problem that is happening in front of you.

No two situations are going to be identical.  No two kids are going to react in the same way.  What works today might not work tomorrow, but simply being aware of what’s going on in the brains of our students, and some possible strategies for when a student becomes dysregulated will help all of us to be able to better meet the needs of our kids.

What strategies have been successful for you?  Are there things that you have done in the past with kids that aren’t included here?  Share your thoughts in the comments below so that we can all spread our knowledge.

Childhood trauma

Last weekend I was listening to the most recent episode of the TED Radio Hour, a radio show that is based on a common theme, and then embeds portions of TED Talks, as well as interviews with the people who gave those talks around that central theme.  The episode I was listening was titled “Hardwired” (click here if you’d like to listen to the episode), which was looking at how human behavior is based on both our genetics, as well as our experiences in life.

One of the speakers who is included in this episode is Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician in San Francisco.  After listening to her portion of the radio show, I had to watch her full TED Talk.  In her talk “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime” she talks about the unbelievable impact that trauma can have on childhood brains, as well as the long term health impacts of those who have lived through trauma.

Many of us are tempted to say “that doesn’t happen here.”  I challenged you to watch the TED Talk and think a little more critically about what Harris has to say about trauma.  This does happen here.  There are students who walk into our school every day who have faced adversity that has an impact on their brain development.  Next week, I’ll follow up with a little more of my thoughts on trauma in kids, but I hope you will find the time to watch this excellent TED Talk.