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.

#IMMOOC #IMMOOCB2: School vs. Learning

The graphic above was created by @sylviaduckworth in response to a blog post by @gcouros about the differences between a traditional school setting, and comparing it to what we know best about how people learn.  It makes me think of the TED Talk by Ken Robinson on Changing Education Paradigms (check out this version).

Couros looks at the differences from the graphic above in his post School vs. Learning where he looks at the traditional school model compared to the way that research shows that people and students learn.  Think about the ways you learn best.  Do the descriptions on the left or right of the graphic above fit with your experiences of learning?  The next question – what do the classrooms that you are in most look more like?

Engagement is great, but engagement alone is not learning.  My kids can be engaged with YouTube for hours if I let them.  Does this mean they’re learning?  If we want learning to happen for our students, we need ask “what can I do less of?”

Reflect on what school looks like for you.  If what you reflect on makes you uncomfortable or gives you pause, think about where you can implement change to make learning new and better for your students.

#IMMOOC #IMMOOCB1: A culture of yes!

So we say we want innovation in our schools, in our classrooms.  Many of us feel that this is the best way to get our students past the point of engagement, and moving to the level of empowerment.  But there is one little word that can kill that process – no.

In the past couple of years, we have had many opportunities to interview potential teachers.  Every time we bring an interview team together, we all agree that we are looking for people who are “go-getters” – people who will do whatever it takes to make the learning experiences for their students new and exciting.  They have helped to bring exciting new learning opportunities into our school.  At the same time, many of the teachers in our building continue to learn and evolve – trying new formats of teaching, new activities, new technologies.  This innovation continues to spread, and is so exciting to watch!

If you know much about improvisational comedy, you know that during a scene the key is to not say no.  The mindset has to be to have an attitude of “yes, and…”  This is what we’re seeking for innovation.  When there are new and exciting ideas that will make learning better for students, I strive to say “yes, and…”

My hope is that this culture of yes will allow us all to continue to learn and grow.  Ultimately, our growth will allow us to make learning more innovative for every student!  Isn’t that the goal?

#IMMOOC Week 2 – How did this work for our students?

As I was reading Part 1 of The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros this past week, one of the “Critical Questions for Educators” really struck a chord for me: “How did this work for our students?”  In the book Couros shares that he used to survey his students at the end of the year, and I often gave my students a similar survey at the end of every school year.  I would ask what their favorite lessons were, and what were the things that they didn’t enjoy as much.  I would analyze the results, and use it to improve my practice for the next school year.

In retrospect, I feel I may have been missing an important piece.  I valued my student’s opinions, and would use their responses to improve, but how did my survey help them?  It didn’t.

Think about it like this: When was the last time that you were out to eat with your family or friends and had poor service?  Or what about a time where you server was so awesome you just wanted to show love in more ways than just a good tip? How did you handle either of those situations?  Did you ask to speak to the manager?  Did you call the restaurant after you left?  Maybe they had comment cards, or a website where you could leave feedback.

Have you ever thought of your students as being kind of like the customers of your classroom?  How often do your students get a chance to leave you feedback about your lessons?  They are in your classroom on a daily basis.  Shouldn’t we all know what our students like or don’t like about our class?

In The Innovator’s Mindset we’re reminded that innovation isn’t just doing things that are new, but doing things that are new AND better.  These days through the use of Google/Microsoft Forms, SurveyMonkey, and other simple survey tools, we can always be seeking the feedback of our students.  Wouldn’t it be a learning experience to take a moment to reflect on your student’s opinion about that lesson you were so excited about?

Create a simple survey.  Make a QR code that students can scan that will take them to the survey.  Encourage students to provide anonymous feedback of what’s happening in your classroom, and take that feedback to grow as a teacher.  What a way to build student empowerment in your classroom – when they see you responding to your feedback in a way that model’s growth, they will see the value in a growth mindset of their own.

Have you ever surveyed your students before?  What kind of questions have you included?  Share your thought in the comments below!