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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#IMMOOC Week 2 – The networked learner/leader

Recently I wrote a post about my takeaways from the book The Innovators by Walter Isaacson. One of the big takeaways that I had from that book was the fact that the innovations that led to a digital revolution did not happen in several giant leaps. Instead, innovation takes place through little steps that are layered on top of each other. In addition, most of those tiny steps did not occur because of one person. When you think of the iPhone, who do you think of? For me the first name to come to mind is Steve Jobs.  And while he was an important part of the process that made the smartphone a marketable thing for consumers, that idea would never have been possible without the work of so many other innovators in the digital revolution. Names like Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Robert Noyce, Grace Hopper, and Bill Gates (along with many other innovators) all made it possible for the iPhone to be the powerful tool that I carry around in my pocket every day.

Not too long ago, I was at #DitchCon2017, put on by Matt Miller. During his keynote, Matt put a picture of the Twitter logo on the screen and said “This little bird saved my teaching career.”  As educators, we all get into our own little silos and forget that there are lots of other people doing the same work as us.  If we forget to lift our heads up and look around, we may miss someone else’s awesome idea that could make learning for our students new AND better.

I have been on Twitter since January of 2010.  Initially I joined in order to follow athletes, pop-culture icons, politicians, and people of that nature.  One day while I was driving to school, I was listening to Morning Edition on NPR and I heard a story about #Satchat, and I saw a totally new purpose for Twitter (in fact, the first 3 educators that I followed were Brad Currie, Scott Rocco, and Billy Krakower, the co-founders of #Satchat).  Suddenly I realized that Twitter wasn’t just a way to absorb information from pop-culture, instead it was a way for me to learn and grow.

Twitter became my new go to for learning.  I began seeking out ways to leverage hashtags to find ideas that could impact the learning in my classroom.  I participated in Twitter chats and learned from educators who were just as passionate as me.  Sometimes I just lurked and listened, other times I dove in and shared my ideas.

Today, I talk to everyone I know about how we can use Twitter (or Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Voxer, etc.) to learn and grow in our own ways.  Once I started to participate more in Twitter chats, I began to grow followers.  The more followers I had, the more I had to think about what was really valuable information to share with them.  I became very intentional in the types of things I post (not that I’d never post a silly gif or my thoughts on the Cubs or Colts).  This has led me to seek out high quality information to share, and causes me to be constantly reading, learning, and getting better at what I do.

We all would agree that collaboration helps us all grow.  Sometimes it’s great to collaborate with that colleague down the hall, but sometimes it’s awesome to be able to collaborate with someone on the other side of the world.  As Couros says in The Innovator’s Mindset, “Isolation is often the enemy of innovation.”

Going back to my lessons from Isaacson’s The Innovators, the best innovations that we will make as educators are not going to happen in giant leaps and bounds.  They’re going to happen when we continue to layer our own ideas on top of the other innovators that we are learning from, and we can create truly mind-blowing, amazing, awesome learning experiences from our students!  Networking is one of the best ways that I know of that we can do that!

A cool new app (for me)

 

I recently came across a hashtag on Twitter that I found pretty interesting: #PersonalizedPD.  As I was going through some of the tweets with this hashtag, I saw this tweet:

It caught my attention for a couple of different reasons – first there was the #PersonalizedPD idea that I was interested in.  Second, there was some gamification to the learning that was happening which sounds cool and potentially highly motivating.  I decided to send Jeff Mann a reply to the tweet saying that I had a few questions.  Later in the afternoon I got a response from him asking if I was on Voxer.  I had heard of it, but never set up an account, but I really wanted to learn more about the Superheroes of AMCMS.

Twitter is great for learning in a lot of ways, but if you want to be able to have a real conversation with someone, it’s not ideal.  Just like a text chat, you can only type so fast, and you lack the tone of voice that goes with a true conversation.  Plus you’re limited to 140 characters in a tweet.  So, I downloaded Voxer, set up an account, and told Jeff I was in business.

VoxerBasically, Voxer works like a walkie talkie, but also has the ability to send text, photos, and videos within the app.  After setting up my account, I was sitting on my deck while Jeff was driving home from school in Texas, and we had a conversation about the Superheroes of AMCMS.  At the end of the conversation, he asked me to send him my email address, and he was going to email me some additional resources for continued learning.

While this chance encounter was cool, I could see Voxer being used within a school building for a group chat with members of a PLC team, or having the account of your teammate to be able to chat.  I know we’re all comfortable and used to texting, but I noticed that the back and forth that Jeff and I were able to have happened much faster than trying to text back and forth with one another.

Do you have any ideas for additional ways that you could use Voxer within your classroom?  What about with your colleagues?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

The innovators

I’ve recently been reading a book called The Innovators by Walter Isaacson.  If you don’t know anything about Isaacson, he’s written biographies about Ben Franklin, Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo Da Vinci, but several of his other books are more about groups of people who have played a role in some way – one book, titled American Sketches, is about some of the great leaders and creative thinkers of our society.

The InnovatorsThe Innovators has the subtitle “How a group of hackers, geniuses, and geeks created the digital revolution.”  This book caught my attention for a couple of reasons – first, I’ve always been something of an early adopter of technology.  I love to check out new and exciting innovations.  A second reason that this caught my attention is that I’m always curious about how people made the leaps to take us from the earliest computers (devices that took up entire rooms in the basement of college buildings or at military bases), to the technology that I can hold in my hand every time I pick up my iPhone.

Innovation is something that we often think of in terms of those big leaps.  When I was in sixth grade, my elementary school was renovated, and one of the classrooms was converted into a computer lab.  The first time we walked into the computer lab as a class, we saw a room with about 30 IBM computers.  The only thing that I remember being able to do on those computers was a keyboarding program that began the process of teaching me to type.  For me, this felt like a HUGE innovation.  Little did I know how much more our students would be able to do in the future.

The chapter that I am reading right now is all about software, and one of the big names in the development of computer software was Bill Gates.  Early in the chapter is a quote from him about what an innovator is:

An innovator is probably a fanatic, somebody who loves what they do, works day and night, may ignore normal things to some degree and therefore can be viewed as a bit unbalanced.

Reading about Gates, and many of the others who appear in the book, I can see how this definition certainly applies to innovators.  Here’s the thing though – I think there are times that you could substitute the word teachers for innovators and that definition would still work (I know my friends think I’m a little unbalanced to spend so much of my time with 10, 11, and 12 year olds!).  We are all something of a fanatic about what we do – we’re fanatics for our kids.  We love them, we want to help them learn and grow, and we want them to be successful.  I know that our efforts to get there make us all feel a little unbalanced at times.

One of the things that I have taken away from the book The Innovators is that the transition to the digital revolution was NOT made up of several giant leaps.  Instead, the innovations that have led to the amazing technology that I am able to carry in my pocket has happened because of little steps layered on top of one another.  And more often than not, those innovations were not made by any one person.  People such as Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Robert Noyce, Grace Hopper, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Larry Page (along with so many others) all played important roles in the digital revolution, but the steps of each of these people built on the ideas of others.

We as teachers need to remember that as fanatics, it may not always be easy to get our students to learn and grow as quickly as we want them to.  They may not be immediately successful, but if we continue to innovate in our teaching, if we continue to try to reach kids in new and exciting ways, we are going to be able to reach more of them.  We also need to remember the value in teamwork for our students to learn.  Just as so many of the innovators mentioned above found success by building on the ideas of others, you may find success with a student through strategies others share with you. Whether it be a teammate, your PLC team, someone down the hall, or any one of the multitude of other people in the building, there are others who might have an idea that helps you get that kid to move forward.

What are some of the things that you are fanatical about?  Have you ever tried something new that seemed to be the key to reaching that kid?  Share you experiences in the comments below!

What is school for?

Put yourself back in one of your childhood classrooms – at the beginning of the day what was it that your teacher always said?  If it’s anything like my childhood experience, it was something like “Good morning class.” Then what would happen?  The whole class would respond “Good morning…”  And what happened if you weren’t loud enough, or respectful enough?

I think we all have lived that situation – and I may even have been guilty of fulfilling the teacher role (as recently as the first day of school… THIS YEAR!!!).  But here’s the question, what are we teaching with that call and response open to the day?  It’s mostly about teaching obedience.  Traditionally, the common school was built to prepare children to become the factory workers of the future.  Implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, schools taught students to be obedient, to hold a little back, to do the work assigned and nothing more.

Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.So that brings us to the bigger question: What is school for?  While some of our students may consider a role in manufacturing, the factories of today are way different than the ones of the early to mid 1900s that led to this factory model of education.  Many of our students will not be heading down the path of manufacturing, so that factory model of school definitely doesn’t apply.  If you believe that innovation is going to keep happening (and why wouldn’t it?), then we’re preparing our students for an ever changing world!  That is so different from the traditional model of school as a factory.  In an excellent TED Talk by Seth Godin, he gives 8 examples of things school should be doing:

  1. Homework during the day, lectures at night – flipped learning
  2. Open note and open book all the time – if it’s important enough to memorize, it’s also ok to have to look it up
  3. Access – any course at any time – programs like Kahn or MOOCs can achieve this
  4. Precise focused education – not a one size fits all model
  5. No multiple choice – life isn’t multiple choice
  6. Experiences instead of test scores – learning is focused on the experiences that take place inside (and outside) of our classroom
  7. End of compliance as an outcome – while compliance may be needed at times, it shouldn’t be our end goal
  8. Cooperation instead of isolation – the ability to work with others

I could go into more detail on each of these, but I can’t do any better than what Godin did in his talk, so if you’d like to know more about any of these things, check out that TED Talk here.

So here’s my answer to the question “What is school for?”: I want our students to be equipped to go out into the world and make something that has an impact on their lives and the lives of others.  And I want them to know that if they get stuck, to ask for help and support.  While we might not always have all the answers, hopefully we can help our student to find the answers.

I’m curious to hear your answers – for you, what is school for?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Using outdoor spaces

Today I was reading a recent blog post by John Spencer about the ways that nature helps us to be more creative (check it out here).  Personally I love to be out in nature, so the post really caught my attention.  The gist of the post was about the fact that time in nature can lead us to greater levels of creativity.  His 5 ways that nature makes us more creative are listed in bold below, with my own thoughts added:

  1. Nature creates positive disruptions – Life draws us into the natural hustle and bustle of our world. Being in nature helps us get away from technology, current events, and everything else that makes it hard for our brain to stay focused.  That time away from all those distractions allows our brains to think more deeply.
  2. Nature encourages problem-solving – Almost every time I go for a hike, or spend some time in nature, I’m inspired to write a new blog post, or solve a problem, or be creative.
  3. Nature helps us embrace deep work – When do you do your best thinking? There is a lot of research that says that simply being active can lead to deeper thinking.  Simply going for a walk helps us activate our brain in different ways.  According to some research, throw nature into the mix and you multiply that effect.  So what does that mean for you?  Before teaching a particularly important skill, take your class for a walk in the woods outside of school.  Your students brains will be better prepared for deeper thinking when you return.
  4. Nature humbles us while also expanding our worldview – I’m not sure how many of you know this about me, but I was a 10 year 4-H member. I didn’t show animals (we weren’t on the farm), but I did lots of other projects over the years.  One of the projects I did required me to take multiple observations of a natural environment every day over multiple weeks.  I chose a small wooded area with a trail just a little over a mile from my home.  I had to observe at different times in the day, and I began to notice changes in what seemed like an untouched environment.  Some animals were more or less active at certain times of the day, some plants looked different depending on various factors.  The time I have spent in the natural world helps me realize that there are so many things happening in the world around us that we miss when we are in our cars, or on our devices.  Sometimes you really do have to slow down, look around, and smell the flowers in order to be aware of what’s happening in our world, and to realize how little control we have over so much of what’s around us.
  5. Nature can spark innovation – Did you know that Velcro was designed by a Swiss engineer after his dog was covered in burdock burrs after going on a hike? Or that the design of the nose of Japanese high-speed trains was meant to mimic the beak of a kingfisher?  These are just a couple of examples of innovations that came about because of things that people noticed in nature.  Imagine what the future scientists of the world (our students) may be able to develop if they learn to look to nature for ideas and solutions to our problems.

Reading Spencer’s post got me thinking about the natural wonders just waiting to be explored outside of our school.  By walking out the doors of our building, you can access a variety of outdoor environments.  Between the trails in the wooded areas, the stream running through the woods, the untended plain near the baseball fields, or the river, there are so many ways for us to access nature.  And the benefit doesn’t just stop with the kids being out in nature away from their devices.  Something they see while they are with you may inspire creativity and wonder in a way that is totally unexpected.

What have you done with your class in our outdoor areas?  Have you seen increased levels of creativity as a result of the time you have spent outside?  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!