Gentle pushback

How do you spend the beginning of the school year?  What types of activities are you using in your classroom?  Keep in mind that the expectations that you set in the first few weeks will carry throughout the year.

So often at the beginning of the year, we spend lots of time on relationship building.  Those of you who know me will know that relationships are a key part to success (see previous posts here, here, and here).  Relationships alone aren’t enough though (I have a bigger post on this topic coming soon).

Part of what got me thinking about this was a series of tweets from Rick Wormeli – I happened to be on Twitter last Saturday evening, and he had a string of tweets on this topic.  He focused on the first week of school – we’re past that already in my school corporation – but I think that his sentiment can carry over to the first month of school.

What things have you tried for the beginning of the year to push your students in intellectual, academic, or creative ways?  What do you think about Wormeli’s thoughts?  Do you have different opinions?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Solar eclipse memories

This is my sister and I – probably summer of 1985, just to give a frame of reference!

As we build up to Monday’s solar eclipse, I was thinking back to the only other solar eclipse that I recall seeing.  The date was May 30th, 1984. That May was the beginning of my last summer before I became a “school kid.”  I would be starting kindergarten that fall.  My mom ran an in-home daycare, which was great because that meant I had friends to play with every day.  She had been collecting shoe boxes for a few weeks leading up to the eclipse, and on the day before the eclipse we turned them into pinhole cameras. (One fun fact for all of you who are at RSI – Dave Bradley was one of the kids that was at the daycare on the day of the eclipse).

http://www.mreclipse.com/SEphoto/SEgallery1/image/A1984Mosaic.JPG

While I don’t remember exactly what the sky looked like that day, I remember that there was a lot of excitement about the event.  I also remember that there wasn’t a lot of talk about NASA approved sunglasses (maybe there was and I was too young to know about it).  That day my mom reminded all the kids not to look at the sun, we took out pinhole cameras outside, and we watched the eclipse.  I do remember that the big trees in our backyard were making it hard to see, so Dave and I moved to the backyard behind mine, and we had a much better view.

As many of you know, when I was still a classroom teacher, my favorite subject to teach was science, and my favorite unit was always space science.  I think that my experience with the solar eclipse set me up with curiosity about outer space.  As a kid I loved watching shuttle launches.  I remember crying when the Challenger disaster happened.  I had the chance to go to space camp during my first year as a teacher.  Even today, I can get sucked into a livestream of a SpaceX launch or landing and not be able to turn away.

http://www.history.com/topics/challenger-disaster

I know that there are some who are concerned about safety for our students, but I would hope you seriously consider finding a way to give your students an opportunity to see the eclipse.  My experiences that day have helped lead to the things I am still curious about today, and for our kids it could be such a great provocation to lead into student wonder.  Who knows, a future space scientist, astronaut, or science teacher could be sitting in your classroom!  If you have something cool planned for the solar eclipse, share with us in the comments below!

One key to student success

With it being the beginning of the school year, many of us have been spending countless hours getting ready for our students.  We made sure our classrooms look just right, we made sure to pick the perfect activities for our students to get to know each other (and for us to get to know them).  Before the first day I’m sure you were all just as excited as I was thinking about this school year.

One thing that many of us think about during the summer time is how to help our students to be successful.  For those of us in education, that is something that we all want for our students.  I’ve read many philosophies of education, written by lots of great teachers, and all of them say something about helping our students to be successful.  So what needs to happen in order to help our students be successful?

As I was thinking about this question earlier this week, I found myself drawn back to a book that I read a while back – What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know by Dave Brown and Trudy Knowles.  I know I’ve mentioned this book in previous posts – if you haven’t yet, it’s definitely worth the read!

In order to create cognitive growth for our students, they have to be willing to take risks in their own learning.  They have to be willing to try things that they’ve never done.  They have to be willing to fail from time to time.  Failure leads to growth for all of us!

The problem is, failure is scary.  How many of us have not tried something because we were worried we wouldn’t be able to do it?  During my high school years in Bloomington we would hang out at the Indiana University outdoor pool.  If you’ve never been there, one thing you should know is that there are multiple diving boards, including a platform.  I had a couple of friends who were divers, and they made it look so easy to go off the 3-meter springboard, or any one of the platforms.  I on the other hand, while being a strong swimmer, was scared to death to jump off that top platform.  Multiple trips to the pool, and many times watching others go for it, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.  Finally one of my buddies got me to go up the platform with him – “don’t worry, if you don’t want to jump, you can go back down.”  Once I got to the top, he jumped right off.  I was next in line, I turned around and there was a line behind me.  I didn’t want to walk past all of them, so I walked up to the end of the platform, looked over the edge, thought about it for a moment or two, and went for it.  What a rush it was to take that jump!  My fear had held me back and prevented me from a fun experience.

For some of our students, the fear that I felt about jumping off that platform is what they feel about reading aloud, or writing a story.  Maybe a teacher has told them that math isn’t their strong suit, so they don’t want to solve a problem for the class.  We expect our students to come to school for 180 days to do something that feels risky.  How many adults would do something risky every day?  A lot of us might just give up.  For the kids who feel this level of fear about their academics, they may say to themselves “If I’m not good at it, why even try.  I don’t want to embarrass myself.”

These students need our encouragement and support to build enough confidence to take risks.  That comes back to our classroom culture – the expectations we set about how students treat each other, as well as the things we (the adults in the room) say in the classroom.  Kids need to feel safe enough to be able to take risks.  Brown and Knowles share the following list of things students need to feel academic safety:

  • No one laughs at them when they attempt to ask or answer questions
  • Teachers establish realistic academic expectations and outcomes for every student
  • Students’ efforts are recognized, as well as the products of those efforts
  • Teachers eliminate competitive situations that create inequity among students
  • Teachers develop cooperative grouping strategies that encourage students to collaborate in their learning and share their knowledge and expertise with one another
  • Teachers play the role of learning facilitator to encourage student independence
  • Teachers choose alternative instructional strategies to meet each student’s learning style
  • Teachers recognize and appreciate talents other than academic skills

This list is not meant to be the end all be all solution for all our students, but it provides some ideas that we can reflect on in our planning and preparation to make sure that our students will feel safe in our classroom.  They need that safety to take risks, and they have to take risks to grow.

What steps do you plan to take in your classroom to make sure that all of your students feel comfortable to take risks in your classroom?  How can you model your willingness to take risks in your own learning and growth?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

What does John Wooden have to do with teaching?

As many of you know, when I was still teaching, I also coached basketball.  In one of the first seasons I was coaching, I attended a coaching clinic.  I learned a ton that day, but one of the things that has stuck with me even beyond my time as a coach was probably a throw away comment by one of the assistant coaches about John Wooden – one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time.  During the clinic we were talking about a variation on Coach Wooden’s famous secondary break, and someone mentioned one of Wooden’s books.  I jotted a note to myself, and ordered it from Amazon later.  When it arrived, I expected a book with information about various plays and strategy – after all it is a book on coaching.  What I found however, was that the majority of the book was on coaching philosophies.

To me, this was valuable information as well, I mean the guy is one of the most successful college basketball coaches of all time, coaching his UCLA teams to 10 national championships, including a stretch of 7 consecutive national championships.  During his years as the coach at UCLA, he was able to get some of the best basketball players in the country to come and play for his team.  One of the things that I found most intriguing as I read about Wooden’s coaching was in how he began his season.  He was bringing in some of the best recruits in the country, there were many players who went on to careers playing in the NBA, and yet every season, no matter who was on the team, Wooden would start the first practice in the locker room talking about how players should correctly put on their socks and shoes.  He felt that you had to start at the absolute beginning with everything in order to make sure that the players on his team knew the expectations and procedures that were part of success for UCLA Bruins basketball players.

Every year at the beginning of the school year a new group of students walk into your classroom.  We have to look at each of those kids as our top recruits – we know that they are in the eyes of the parents who trust us to help their children learn and grow while they are here with us.

When Wooden got his top recruits, he could have easily gone straight to the basketball court to start working on offenses and defenses that the team would run throughout the year – I mean these guys all knew how to put on their socks and shoes, they had to have been successful players in high school to end up at UCLA.  But Wooden knew that expectations and procedures were the key to a successful season.  He started with the small things – socks and shoes.  Once they made it to the basketball court, much of their time in the early part of the season were on fundamentals – dribbling, passing, footwork.  Wooden understood that if you had a solid base of expectations, teaching players to play the game the way they needed to in order to be successful would be so much easier.

So, how do you spend your time at the beginning of the school year?  I know that it can be tempting to think that our students, most of whom have been “in school” for 5-6 years, know what is expected.  It can be easy to skip over the base level procedures.  Just like Wooden could have said that his players knew how to put on their socks and shoes, or they knew how to dribble, pass, and move their feet, we could assume that our students know how to line up, how (and when) to sharpen a pencil, how to work in a small group, etc.  But here’s the thing – it’s possible that the way you expect students to do some of these things is different than the way that a past teacher expected things to be done.

I am writing this post in late April, knowing that I’m not going to post it until the beginning of the school year.  In my role I have the privilege of visiting lots of different classrooms, seeing how different people spend their time, and seeing what people value.  One thing that I notice in April is that the teachers who have invested time throughout the year with the basic expectations – like Wooden did with socks and shoes – are currently (in April) having the most success with student behavior.

So, what are the things we need to teach on the most basic level?  Here are just a few ideas that come to mind:

  • Transitions
  • What to bring to class every day
  • Small group time / collaboration time
  • Lunch
  • Recess
  • Restroom expectations

What might you add to your list?  There might be expectations that are specific to your content area, or there might be things that don’t apply for your class structure.  In the last couple of years I was in the classroom, I created a 1 slide power point for each of these situations along with a few that were directly connected to my content area, and I would display them every time that it fit at the beginning of the year.  As the year went on, I would spend less and less time on the review, unless I noticed a pattern of issues.  Then we might review for a few days.  We would also spend some time reviewing each of the expectations after any break from school.  While this did not always solve every single issue, it helped in the long run, and by taking the time to create these slides in advance, it was easy for me to pull one up and display for my students.

As you prepare for your school year, what are the socks and shoes type of procedures that your students need to know about in order to be successful in your classroom?  After creating a list of expectations, think about the method that might work best for you to be able to teach your students those expectations.  It can be easy to assume that our students will know what to do, but they might not.  Maybe you will share your procedures in a power point slide like mine, maybe it’s something more involved like a student created video.  Whatever the plan is, take the time to think about how you can share your expectations with your students so that they truly know what to do.

For your students to be truly successful, they have to have a solid foundation.  What pieces of the foundation do you think you need to work on the most for your students to learn and grow in your class?  Share your ideas in the comments below – maybe your thoughts and ideas will spark an idea for others!

The why

This week was one of the most exciting learning opportunities that I will have all summer.  On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, my home school district held an event called Launching Inquiry.  This 2-day event had a keynote speaker both mornings, and then multiple breakout sessions throughout the day.  Today I’ve been reflecting on my learning from the event, rereading my notes, highlighting things, and thinking about next steps for all of the learning that happened while I was there.  I find myself repeatedly returning to one quote from the event:

This quote came from a breakout session with Will Richardson (@willrich45).  I’ve posted before on a description of my “why” for education (What’s your why?), but after sitting through Richardson’s keynote, and a couple of breakout sessions with him, I find myself re-examining my why.  In my original post, I identified my kids as the primary catalyst for growth, along with each of the students who set foot in my school.

For a fuller context of the quote above, in the breakout session we were talking about new literacies, and the role they may play in self-determined / self-directed learning.  Based on a question from one of the other participants in the breakout session, we began talking about the topics that today’s kids need to know to be able to actively participate in society.  If we let student learning be self-determined, some worry that they will only learn about the things that they are passionate about – so they might only study baseball, or animals, or whatever it might be that draws their attention, and never learn about the things that they aren’t passionate about.  If that’s all they “know” and all they learn, how will they be able to participate in dinner conversations that branch into other topics? (maybe it’s politics, maybe it’s history, etc.)

The issue with this idea of topics that kids “need to know” is that depending on who you talk to and what their background is, that list of things kids need to know is a moving target.  In the session, the example that was brought up was the idea of World War II.  While I consider myself to be a person who is well rounded, and a guy that likes learning about history, I don’t know how much I’d truly be able to offer to a conversation about the intricacies of World War II.  I could share my surface knowledge, but to be able to get into an in-depth conversation, I might need my brain hard wired into Google.

Think about it like this: if you were to put a math teacher, science teacher, English teacher, and history teacher together to create a list of the 3 most important things that all students need to know, odds are it would be impossible for them to come to consensus.  Each would likely put higher value on their own content, and lower value on the content of others.

As I processed this quote, and other aspects of the conference, I wonder if we might be having a hard time seeing the forest through the trees.  The research is solid, kids don’t maintain our “content” for a long period of time.  If you give a kid an end of course assessment in June, and then the exact same kid takes the exact same test in September, you are going to see a significant decline.  The content doesn’t stick – no matter how great a teacher you are, or how great a student you give it to.

So, what are the implications for each of us?  For most of us, when someone asks us what we teach, our answer is our grade level, or our content area.  I’m starting to think that the content area is the individual tree.  But the beauty of the forest is all of the trees together, along with all the other things that are living and growing (or sometimes decomposing) there.  And for me, that forest has to be the concept of learning.  If we know that content doesn’t stick, if we know that kids are probably going to forget a portion of the content that we teach them, then I guess the forest – the thing we need to focus on – isn’t so much what our students learn, but simply that they know how to learn, and have a desire to learn.

In Richardson’s keynote, he used the phrase productive learning.  Seymour Sarason says:

“Productive learning is where the process engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more.  Absent wanting to learn, the learning context is unproductive.”

After processing these thoughts, it’s time to come back to my why.  It’s going to continue to be my kids, and it’s going to continue to be the students that walk into my school building in August, but it’s also going to be about productive learning.  It’s going to be about creating situations where our students want to learn more.

What are your thoughts?  Do you have ideas on how you’re going to help get your kids have the desire to learn?  Share them in the comments below.

Make it meaningful

I was recently directed to an interesting article by Zachary Johnson titled “Bored Out of Their Minds” (click here to access the article).  While there were several aspects to the article that I connected with, and lots of interesting data and statistics about students’ engagement, one passage in particular stood out to me.

“But the biggest shift we need,” Rose believes, is much more elemental. “We need to get away from thinking that the opposite of ‘bored’ is ‘entertained.’ It’s ‘engaged.’” It’s not about pumping cartoons and virtual reality games into the classroom, it’s about finding ways to make curriculum more resonant, personalized, and meaningful for every student. “Engagement is very meaningful at a neurological level, at a learning level, and a behavioral level. When kids are engaged, life is so much easier.”

Parts of this quote come from Todd Rose, author of The End of Average.  I read the book last fall, and wrote a couple of posts on the ideas learned from the book here: Part 1; and here: Part 2.  The idea of the book is that the “average person” just doesn’t exist – there is jaggedness to us all.  The implications of this jagged profile for educators is that we have to remember that no matter what label a student may carry, they all have strengths and weaknesses.  We can’t expect our students to fit into specific characteristics that we place on them.

What leads kids to disconnect as they grow older?  One of the things that Johnson brings up is that as students grow older, they have less and less choice in what they do.  I think back to my own educational career – in elementary school we were given great leeway to dig into the topics that interested us.  I was free to choose what books I wanted to read (my sixth grade reading log would show lots of Stephen King novels), what topics I wanted to research for the science fair, and how I wanted to share my learning as we discussed European explorers visiting the “New World” – these are just a few of the choices I got to make.

This photo was titles “Boring Lecture, 1940s”
https://www.flickr.com/photos/dukeyearlook/2076633334/in/photostream/

By the time I got to high school free choice was mostly gone, most classes were lecture based.  Many of my class syllabi were the exact same as the ones that were used for the students before me, and the students before them.  I remember being checked out of my trigonometry class (sorry Mr. Petry), putting forth just enough effort to get through biology, and being bored out of my skull by the filmstrips that were shown on a daily basis in world geography (at least I could get extra credit by bringing in a box of Kleenex anytime we were running low).

So how do we help our students to stay connected to the learning that happens in our room?  The HSE21 Best Practice Model helps us to get there.  We can help provide the relevance for our students to see why it’s important to learn whatever it is that we’re doing in our classroom.  We can give our students choices in how they express their learning.  We can push our students to ask questions and wonder once they have seen the relevance in their learning – getting us to that inquiry driven study that we’re looking for.

As the summer approaches, take some time to reflect on the things that your students have done this year.  What are the things that worked best?  What are the things that fell flat?  With those things that were best, what was it that got the kids excited about learning?  And with those things that may not have been so great, how can you add more relevance and choice so that students may be better engaged?  Remember, as Johnson says above, engagement isn’t about entertainment, it’s about finding ways to make the curriculum more meaningful for every student.  I’d love to help you on that path!  If you have an idea and want someone to brainstorm with, let me know.  Two brains are always better than one!

What are some of your best engagement strategies?  How have you been able to get your students highly engaged in learning in your classroom this year?  Share with us in the comments below!

Guardrails

Have you ever driven in a freshly painted empty parking lot?  There seem to be no limitations, you can go any direction at any speed you’d like.  As a few more cars join you, things become more difficult – lines have to be added, maybe even stop signs or curbs in order to keep us all safe.  These limitations are visible reminders to all of us about the correct way to go, as well as the ways we should not go.

As teachers, we set guardrails for our students at the beginning of the year.  We explain our expectations.  We practice what we need to do.  Over the course of the year, as you become more comfortable with your students, and your students become more comfortable with you, then we may loosen our expectations, give more freedoms, and allow things to slide a bit.

Then comes the end of the school year.  Suddenly things seem to change.  We want to be able to give our students the freedom that they have been enjoying, but we begin seeing poor choices.  Don’t hesitate, even in the month of May, to take time to review your expectations.  Explain your expectations, practice them.  In some cases you might even need to add a few new expectations.  When students do well in the moment, show that you appreciate it.  If they do poorly, review it again.

Just like the parking lot needs additions to keep drivers safe, you might need to add some lines, curbs, or guardrails to keep your students safe.  Even late in the year, a few moments invested can be so valuable.

I’m sure that some of you have things you’ve tried at the end of the year.  What are your best tips and tricks to help your students finish out the school year successfully?  Share with us in the comments below.