#IMMOOC Week 3: Proactive vs. reactive

In my first year as an assistant principal, I felt at times I was running around, putting out fires, and never seeming to make any progress on the things I was doing.  For those of you who have been an assistant principal, you probably recall the feeling of only being able to react to the things that were happening around you.  I was trying to learn my role, learn the expectations that students and staff had for me, and help however I could to lead our students towards success.

I’m so glad that I’m past that feeling! (Most of the time, let’s be real, sometimes you have no choice but to react!)

Currently I’m in my sixth year as an assistant principal, and it has become a lot easier to identify ways to avoid reacting.  I have learned that every year there is a group of students that I lovingly refer to as my “frequent flyers.”  I typically know who those 6th graders will be because I probably got to know them in the 5th grade year.  I typically learn who those 5th graders will be because they start to have some difficulties early on.  For these frequent flyers, I work (and sometimes it really is work) to build relationships with them.  I talk with them at times other than when they have made a poor choice or are feeling escalated.  I work to get to know what makes them tick, and use that to my advantage.

This strategy helps me to recognize when something is off.  At the start of every school day I’m on the sidewalk greeting students as they come in off the buses.  If one of my “frequent flyers” has his/her head down, or is behaving differently than normal, I know that something must be off.  I might pull them aside to have a quick chat right there, or I might go find them as classes get started so that we can have a more private conversation.

School teachers (or leaders

By getting to know those kids that most need to be known, I have found that they are not as likely to have the explosive behavior that might lead me to have to go back to my reactionary steps.  I’m a big believer that when we know what makes a kid tick, we are a lot more likely to be able to find the spark that leads to success and learning.

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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!

#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!

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.

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!

Building on our strengths

When you get up in the morning, what are you excited about?  For most of us, the thing that gets us going in the morning is also the thing that drives us throughout the day.  It’s also typically something that we feel confident about, that we think we do well, and we enjoy doing.  Most importantly, that thing is also something we would identify as a strength.

I feel that often in education, we get drawn into thinking about weaknesses.  As a teacher, we have to identify weaknesses in our students in order to find ways to support their growth.  As an administrator, evaluations often include identifying weaknesses of the staff in our building, and planning to lead to future growth.  We get caught in a cycle of looking for the weaknesses around us.  If our strengths are the things that motivate us, isn’t it safe to assume that our learners would be motivated by their strengths?

A few years ago, as an ongoing activity throughout our unit on Ancient Rome, I provided students with a list of possible ways they could articulate learning.  These choices involved aspects of Roman society and culture.  I was amazed by the projects that students were able to create based on their strengths.  I had students designing roman outfits based on research because they were interested in style and design.  I had a student write a children’s picture book about the Roman Empire because they felt they were good writers and illustrators.  And probably my favorite, I had a student, Patrick, who had struggled all year long but designed and built a scale model of a Roman Aqueduct that was SPECTACULAR (it’s still in my office today) because he liked to build things.  While we were doing in class activities for learning, students were also researching for these projects.  They were able to select a project that fit their strength, and the results were amazing.  Having students present something that they had learned that also fit with their strengths was such a rewarding experience for me, and I’m sure led to a greater transfer of learning for each of them.  I would guarantee that none of them would be able to answer any of the questions we had on a summative exam, however I would also bet they could tell you about what they created for that project.

Knowing how strengths can motivate all of us reminds me to be on the lookout for strengths as I am walking the halls.  I am challenging myself to look for the strengths or everyone, and recognize those strengths!  I challenge you to do the same.

Be thinking about the data that you collect on students.  Don’t just look for patterns in terms of weaknesses.  Also look at the data that supports their strengths.  Give them the opportunity to build upon those strengths.  Most of our students will choose a career path based on their interests and passions.  Wouldn’t school be a better place if we gave our students the opportunity to accentuate their strengths?  I’m not saying we ignore areas where a student needs to grow, but I can tell you that all the time that my sophomore English teacher had me spend diagraming sentences is not what has led me to be a good writer, a good reader, or any of the other skills I have developed.  All it did was make me hate sophomore year English (sorry English teachers!).

Take a few moments in the coming days to seek out the positives in the students that are in your classroom.  Identify the things you see, and share it with your students.  See how they react to some strength-based feedback.

#IMMOOC #IMMOOCB3: Engage or empower

Engagement.  We all say that this is what we’re striving for when our students are in the classroom.  We want our students to be engaged in whatever’s happening in our classroom.  Normally that means getting your students excited about whatever it is that your class is studying.

But as we think about what it takes for any of us to learn something new, being engaged in the activities doesn’t guarantee learning.  I can guarantee that in the next few days I will be engaged in hours of watching NCAA Basketball.  The likelihood of any kind of deep learning happening in that time is not very high.

Bill Ferriter – @plugusin

To get students to that deeper understanding, the learning needs to be meaningful.  Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) says “Kids need to be empowered NOT engaged.”  So how do we get there?  Ferriter goes on to say that “Empowering students means giving kids the knowledge and skills to pursue their: Passions, Interests, Future.”

One of the things I believe in education is that we have great power to help our kids be excited about learning.  The more student choice and voice we give, the more authentic and relevant approaches we take, the more we shift our students from engagement to empowerment.