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!

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!

#IMMOOC Week 1: Innovate… why?

Innovate!As we think about innovating in education, it’s always valuable to spend some time thinking about why we do what we do.  As I begin my participation over the next 6 weeks in #IMMOOC (Innovator’s Mindset Massive Open Online Course), I’m driven to think more intentionally about why we innovate, and what innovation means in education.  Below are 3 reasons that stand out to me as why we need innovation in education.

  • The Factory Model of Education – Let me describe something, and you tell me if it sounds familiar: a publicly funded system where groups of about 28 students who are about the same age are taught by one teacher in a room of about 800 square-feet. This is the system of education that developed as a result of the free public education movement put into place in Massachusetts over 150 years ago.  Pieces of today’s curriculum can be tied directly back to decisions that were made about the initial curriculum in the late 19th  In today’s classrooms we continue to teach skills to kids that the iPad they carry can do for them, and then seem surprised that they don’t find value in it.  To give you some ideas of what 21st Century Education might look like, TeachThough.com created a great graphic:

4 essential rules

  • Growth Mindset – Last school year I read the book Mindset by Carol Dweck. While there were many parts of the book that had great value to me as an educator, my favorites came from chapter 7: “Parents, Teachers, and Coaches: Where Do Mindsets Come From?” How we interact with the children in our lives can have such an impact on the mindsets that they develop.  In the portion on parents, I took away the appropriate ways to praise children.  When we give praise that is focused on a child’s intelligence (“you’re so smart!” “you did such a good job on this paper.”), we may harm their long term motivation and performance, because taking a risk would mean possibly not getting that same praise.  Instead our praise should be focused on a child’s efforts and achievements (“I can tell you worked very hard on this!” “I love the effort you put in, but let’s work together on this part to figure out what you didn’t understand.”).  As the chapter continues, it talks about the importance of the words that teachers can use regarding learning.  I think we all know that at times learning is hard.  We need to let our students know that the hard things help us to learn, but only when we put forth effort.  I love watching some of the teachers in my building who are teaching the concepts of growth mindset directly to their students.  The kids in those rooms understand that ideas like struggling and failure help us to continue to grow.

 

  • Risk Taking – Intuitively I think all educators understand that risk taking is an important part of the learning process. Whether we realize it or not, our students are taking risks every day.  For some, simply talking in the classroom is a risk, for others the risk is in trying something new.  But what about us?  How do we model our own risks to our students?  Recently I was in a classroom and there was an issue with technology.  I overheard the teacher say “I never should have done this” and then shift gears into something entirely different.  What message do we send to our students when we give up at the first sign of failure?  How can we expect them to continue to take risks if we have modeled our own hesitancy to take any kind of risk?  We have to shift our own mindset and be willing to take risks for our student.  If that innovation works, then you may have created a truly meaningful learning opportunity for your student.  If the innovation doesn’t work, you have a real-life lesson on mindsets and how we deal with adversity.  By making ourselves vulnerable in our classrooms, we will show our kids that it’s ok to be a little vulnerable themselves.

These are just a couple of thoughts on reasons why we need to innovate.  What thoughts might you have?  Share your own additions or 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 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.

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!