Gentle pushback

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

The bear trap analogy

Today I was sitting with a student who had a rough start to the day.  He had gotten himself into some trouble because of a poor choice he made in class.  We were talking about what happened, and instead of talking about the incident today, the student started sharing with me about an argument he had with his dad yesterday.  It was almost lunch time and this student’s frustration was not with anything that happened today.  It was an eye opener to me – here’s a kid who had been in our building for almost 3 hours.  He was angry about something that happened yesterday, but he hadn’t had a chance to process those feelings with anyone.

As we started talking about what happened over the weekend and how it related to his incident in class, this student came up with a brilliant analogy.  He shared a story about a picnic, and I’m going to try to recreate it here:

Imagine going on a picnic, you have your lunch set up, and then you realize that you left something you needed in the car.  You walk back to the car to get what you need, and when you return there’s a bear eating your picnic lunch.

So maybe the next time you go on a picnic, you set a bear trap to keep the bear away, but while you’re busy watching for the bear, a bird sneaks up, and tries to takes some of the food, but the bear trap chomps down on the bird.

Somet
Sometimes the bear isn’t really here at school.

The student shared with me that in this analogy, the picnic lunch represents the student’s peace of mind.  The bear represents the true thing that the student was truly upset about, for this student it was the anger about yesterday’s argument.  The bear trap represents the student’s anger – for this kiddo it’s set and ready to go off at any time.  The bird can represent that thing that happens here at school that sets off an angry student – it could be another student, it could be something a teacher says, it could be the bus driver, etc.

More often than not, the students who walk in with their bear trap set are not actually on edge because of things that are going on here at school.  Even though this student “went off” here at school, his bear wasn’t in this building.  Instead a bird managed to set him off.

None of us are able to read our students minds, so we can’t always know who it is that is walking around with anger bottled up inside, however we all know who it is in our class that often seems to be the one who does lose their temper.  These are the students that we need to be aware of at all times.  Make it a point to check in with your students who might be that bear trap just waiting to go off.  It seems like more often than not, these students who reach their breaking point do so right before or after a break – sometimes even just the break of a weekend.  It also seems that for most of these students, once they have a chance to talk, a chance to process, they are much more likely to hold it together for the rest of the day (or sometimes even longer).

If you have a student like this in your homeroom, seek them out, check in, build relationships, let them know that you care, and make sure that they know you are there for them.  If you aren’t able to connect with that kiddo, maybe there’s someone else who can – a teammate, another teacher, a counselor, or someone in the office.  We want these kiddos to feel like they have a trusted adult and a connection here at school.  If you find a student who seems to be ready to lose it, talk with them.  See if you can figure out what’s wrong, if they don’t want to talk to you, see if they would like to talk with that other trusted adult.  Keep looking for ways to support the struggling student.  Through these steps, you might be able to help protect the birds who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Have you ever had one of those moments with a student?  They are really upset about something beyond our control, but they reach their breaking point in your room.  What has worked well?  What hasn’t worked so well?  Share your experiences in the comments below.

Civil discourse

It’s a fact that we cannot control what happens every moment of our student’s lives.  We can’t prevent poor choices in the hallway, unkind statements in the lunchroom, or hurtful words on the bus.  However, we can try to right the ship in our own classrooms.

As a member of our building’s diversity team, this message came through loud and clear during a presentation at our most recent Diversity Coaches Meeting.  During this meeting, we spent an hour with Janet Chandler discussing the concept of Civil Discourse.  During the most recent presidential election cycle we saw endless attacks from various candidates, and many were not living up to the decorum that we might hope for from our elected officials.  The facts are that this type of climate has been in existence for a much longer period of time than just the past couple of years.

“A supporter of Thomas Jefferson once called John Adams “a hideously hermaphroditical character.”  Former Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton called Vice President Aaron Burr “bankrupt by redemption except by the plunder of his country,” an attack so heinous that the men dueled, and Hamilton died.

Go through the nation’s history, and the noise and heat in public political discourse have always been there, rising with the cycles of economic distress, immigration and cultural upheaval.” – Ann Gerhart (The Washington Post, In Today’s Viral World, Who Keeps a Civil Tounge?, October 11, 2009).

Although uncivil discourse has been a part of our history, with today’s world of 24-hour news, social media, and technology, the noise of the less than civil statements seems to be nonstop.  So what are we to do when that spills over into our classroom?  Here are some tips that I took away from our conversation last week, as well as a link to a great resource from Teaching Tolerance (the link will be at the bottom of this post).  These tips are in no particular order, but hopefully will provide you with some ideas about how to handle discussions that may be a little difficult within your classroom.

If not us, who?

maslows-hierarchy-of-needsIt would be easy to say that these conversations on civil discourse are not our responsibility, but the fact is, there are uncivil things being said in our school building.  We simply cannot have the attitude of “it’s not my problem.”  When we become aware of issues, we have a responsibility to step in.  I can’t recall, nor can I find, where I first heard this, but the quote “we’ve got to take care of the Maslow stuff before you can ever hope to get to the Blooms stuff” comes to mind.  Our students can’t learn without their basic needs being met!

Set the example, not just the expectations!

It’s easy to talk about expectations.  We can say again and again what we expect.  But if, even once, we slip up, some of our students may follow our lead on this.  In a civil discussion we use titles: Mister, Misses, or Miss; President; Senator; Representative, etc.  If we refer to people without those terms, we diminish their role.  Just looking at my Facebook feed in the past couple of weeks, there have been a lot of people who aren’t using titles.  I’ve had people tell me that they won’t use certain titles because of a lack of respect in a person.  Isn’t that part of the issue here?  If you then read through Facebook comments on political posts, you see less than civil statements being made.  When you use a title, you add a level of civility and respect.  By modeling civility in your classroom discussions, you will help your students understand what that looks and sounds like.  Remember – kids act in a way they they see the adults in their lives behaving.  Modeling civil discourse will help lead to more civil conversations in the hallways.

Facts vs. Alternative Facts

I’ve referred to social media a couple of times, and I’m going to do so once again.  No matter your political beliefs, your party affiliation, etc., I think that any of us who have been on Facebook can agree that there are some outrageous statements being made.  The phrase fake news and alternative facts has become something of a joke.  Earlier this school year I posted a blog titled “Finding the author’s purpose” (if you want to go back to it, click here: http://wp.me/p6BRrr-6J).  In this post, I reminded you of the definition of nonfiction that Beers & Probst used in their book Reading Nonfiction:

“Nonfiction is that body of work in which the author purports to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, an idea, or a belief.” (emphasis added)

In that post, I went on to encourage you to teach our students to have a questioning stance when reading nonfiction.  Every author has a purpose in what they have written – sometimes that purpose is not simply to inform.  Facts can be twisted and manipulated to support either side of the political spectrum, and social media is one of the most likely places to see this play out.  More often than not, the articles with the most extreme language seem to be coming from sites that are extremely liberal or conservative, or from sites you’ve never heard of before.

One important piece of a civil discussion is that it has to be based in fact (I could probably do a full post on the definition of the word fact…).  If you are having a civil discussion and someone shares a “fact” that is truly extreme, or is something that is not agreed on by most in the class, it’s time to talk about the idea of triangulating sources – can we find that fact from more than one source?  Do most people agree on this fact?  These conversations are so important because as Beers & Probst remind us that there is a greater purpose to teaching our kids the nonfiction signposts:

“Far more important than the ability to capture a teacher’s information and thoughts is the ability to acquire information on ones’ own, to test ideas against one another, and to decide for one’s self what notions have merit and which should be rejected or abandoned.”

If you read through the Teaching Tolerance link at the bottom, you’ll find a whole section on the three parts of an argument.  Here’s a quick breakdown:

  1. Assertion – The simple statement that is the basis or main point of the argument.
  2. Reasoning – This is the because part of an argument.
  3. Evidence – This is where you truly back your argument.  This may include statements from experts, statistics, data, or other research that supports you assertion and reasoning.

If you’re trying to have a civil conversation, encourage your students to include all three of these parts of an argument.  If you’d like more info on this, it can be found in Teaching Tolerance link below.

Respect

Probably the most important reason to work with our students on the concept of civil discourse is simply the idea of respect.  We are all entitled to our opinions, and we are all allowed to disagree with one another, but we have to make sure that these conversations are happening respectfully.  Our students need help to learn that it’s okay to agree to disagree.  Again, we can’t control what happens everywhere for our students, but we can do our best to make things right once they come in to our classrooms.

What experiences have you had in working with your students on civil discourse?  What has worked well?  What hasn’t?  Does the idea of having conversations like this in the classroom simply freak you out?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.  We can all learn from one another!

http://www.tolerance.org/publication/civil-discourse-classroom

We can all be a mentor

In last week’s post I shared with you a bit about the concept that language matters.  The words we use in our classroom have such a way of showing our students what we value.  But words can matter in so many more ways.  Who knows what words you might say in your classroom, in the hallway, in the lunchroom, or at recess that might resonate with a student for the rest of their life.

ted-logoI’ve shared with you before that I love the NPR Show titled TED Radio Hour.  It’s great as a podcast because I can download it to my phone and listen whenever I have a chance.  If you have never heard of the TED Radio Hour, each episode has a common theme, and portions of various talks are shared that fit into that theme.  The host, Guy Raz, also inserts portions of interviews with the speaker.  I was listening to the most recent episode, titled “A Hero’s Journey,” while I was on a run.  One of the Talks resonated with me as an educator and a mentor, so I wanted to share the story with you here.

This portion of the show is from a TED Talk by Jarrett Krosoczka, a children’s author.  He went through a difficult childhood, being adopted by his grandparents when he was 3, having a mother who would come in and out of his life, and a father that he did not meet until he was 17.  He had a couple of mentors who made major impacts in his life, and some were through such simple acts.  When you have a chance, listen to this section of the episode.

Follow the first link below to listen to the story.  I have also included a link to the full episode (the second link), if you’d like to hear more about the topic of “A Hero’s Journey.”  On the TED Radio Hour page, you can also find links to the full TED Talk of each person featured on the show.  Enjoy!

How Can Mentors Turn An Uncertain Journey Into A Heroic One?

Here’s the full episode:

http://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/458496650/the-heros-journey?showDate=2017-01-06

How do you use words to be a mentor to your students?  Are there kids that you’ve seen make a major change just by the words that we use to help motivate them?  Share your experiences in the comments below!

How do we respond to student behaviors?

In last week’s post we discussed the role of trauma in student behaviors we see.  Each one of us can think of one or two students who manage to get under our skin and push our buttons.  What we have to remember is that for some of these students, they are acting out due to something that we cannot control – they have been through some type of trauma in their life.  It leads to behaviors we don’t understand, and that makes it difficult for us to respond in the appropriate way.  The goal of this post is to think carefully about how we respond to those students so that we are intervening in a way that offers support.

Imagine for a moment that you were to look up from your computer right now, and see this:

Imagine this bear walked into the room you’re in right now. What would you do?
Imagine this bear walked into the room you’re in right now. What would you do?

What would you do?  How would you react?

For our students who have been impacted by trauma, every adult that they meet is a bear like the one you see above.  That includes their teachers!  For these students, they are constantly watching for the dangerous bear.  They may not be able to interpret an innocent or neutral look, action, or touch from their teacher or others at school as being benign.  The brains of our traumatized youth lose the ability to understand the difference between safety and danger, and will falsely signal danger and hostility EVERYWHERE.  As a result, these students behave in ways that are not considered appropriate in the normal school environment.  They lack the language skills to be able to describe how they feel, so they act out in ways that we might describe as reactive, impulsive, aggressive, withdrawn, or defiant.  These challenging behaviors have become coping skills that help them survive in abusive or neglectful situations.  Remember from last week’s post, children who have dealt with trauma are living with their focus on the survival portion of the brain (fight, flight, or fright).  Since all of life is about survival for these students, they generalize the behavior to all other environments – even school where we think they should feel safe.

So when students are acting out, especially students that we believe (or possibly even know) have lived through one of the traumas addressed last week, we need to shift our perspective in how we react.  Oftentimes we see this behavior as willfully acting out or disrupting class, or consciously refusing to engage with learning.  Instead, we need to see that:

  1. These responses are based on personal experiences
  2. Students are seeking to meet their needs
  3. They have difficulty regulating emotions
  4. They lack some of the important skills to be successful in school
  5. They believe that adults cannot be trusted

troubled-childrenWe need to put into place supports and other interventions to address these issues.  Instead of seeing the behavior and asking (or even thinking) “What’s wrong with you?” we need to shift our mindset to “What happened and how can I help?”  In order to be sensitive to trauma, we must recognize the prevalence and impact of trauma in our students’ lives and create a framework that provides support, is sensitive to the unique needs of students, and is mindful of avoiding re-traumatization.  I’m sure that some of you are looking now for a list of exactly what to do in each situation.  It doesn’t exist.  Each child is different, their needs are different.  You must take the time to offer your support, your help, and let these children know that you truly care for them.  You do this through paraverbals (tone of voice, body language, volume, and cadence of speech).  Deliberately slow your speech, soften your voice, choose a kind tone, and be supportive of the student.  Students who feel supported are more likely to feel safe.

I think we can all agree that when students feel safe, they are more likely to act in ways that are safe, so how can we support that?  First, we need to ask ourselves if the student is fearful, anxious, frustrated, or tense.  Next, our responses to inappropriate behaviors need to be predictable, and our students who struggle need to have an agreed upon safe haven (maybe the resource room, maybe the counselor’s office, maybe with another teacher) where they can go to work through their complex emotions.  Finally, when that student is ready to return to class, we must find an opportunity to rebuild rapport with that student (this step is quite possibly the MOST important in helping students to feel supported).  Continue to let them know you care, and that you are here to help.  Ask them to let you know how you can help.  They may not have an answer today or tomorrow, but eventually they may have an idea that will support them.  We also have to remember – for students to behave appropriately, we must model and teach the behavior we want to see (this is not the same as telling students what we expect).

In order to help students feel connected in schools, we should work hard to build relationships – especially with the students who struggle the most.  Greet each student at the door of your classroom every day.  Be aware of your student’s likes and interests (these can be used as a distraction in times of crisis).  As I’ve said before, know your kids and love them for who they are.

While we can’t protect our students from all the evils of the world, we can be allies, mentors, and role models.  The relationships we build with our students will help them as they grow, recover, and begin to heal from their trauma.

What experiences have you had with students who have been through trauma?  Have you found strategies that seem to be successful?  Let us know what has worked for you in the comments below.