Sparking curiosity #IMMOOC Week 1

When school is

Ever since seeing the animated version of Ken Robinson’s “Changing education paradigms” TED Talk, I’ve been thinking a lot about the things we do in school. I’ve definitely noticed, and at times have been a part, of the factory model version of school. In this model, kids come in, we give them what we believe they need, and then we move them along to the next level. I feel the biggest shift in my beliefs about education began around the time my oldest child was born. Throughout my career, I have run into the occasional student who made comments like “I hate school,” or “School’s boring.” Early in my career, the typical response to these types of statements might have been something along the lines of “Well, you have to be here, so you need to make the most of it.” I put the onus on the students – it was their responsibility to do school, and if they didn’t like it, well too bad.

After our daughter was born, I started to notice things in a new light. It wasn’t just the kids who were disconnected socially or the kids who were doing poorly in class that were saying that they didn’t like school, or that they thought it was boring. I started noticing kids who were really bright, kids who seemed to have great relationships with their classmates, who even seemed to like me and their other teachers, that just went through the motions in the classroom. They did what they had to in order to keep the adults in their lives happy, but they would never have thought of doing anything that was above and beyond. And those kids told me about how much they didn’t like school, they shared how boring they thought some of the things we did in class were, and I began to think that if there were kids who were so on top of things and did well in class who hated school, maybe this wasn’t a student issue, but rather a teacher issue. Maybe this had to do with what I was doing in my classroom.

As a science teacher, I noticed that kids were pumped for the days we were doing hands on learning. If we were in the lab, the curiosity was there, and energy was flowing! I began trying to find more opportunities for students to be active in their learning and found that some of those more passive learners were much more excited to come into the classroom. This seemed like a win to me.

Maya Angelou has a great quote – “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” For a long time, I viewed the role of the teacher as the gatekeeper of information. I was the keeper of the knowledge in my classroom, and students got what I thought they needed when it was time. But the results were poor. Students were bored, disengaged, and there was no desire to learn. Many just went through the motions.

As my mindset shifted, I began to seek out more opportunities for students to make choices in their learning. I began integrating technology as a learning tool, checking out iPad carts and using tech to enhance learning opportunities.  Little did I know that I was on the leading edge of innovative thinking in the classroom.

No longer do students need access to teacher for content, but they desperately need teachers to guide them as they develop the skills, knowledge, and dispositions to be lifelong learners

Currently, I’m reading Learner Centered Innovation by Katie Martin.  In it she says that “Our job is not to provide the answers that can be found in a textbook or in a webpage but to create the conditions that inspire learners to continue to wonder and figure out how to learn and solve problems and seek more questions.” The most important piece of the puzzle in this process is not the technology, or access to it, but rather teachers who can help to spark that curiosity in their students. Those teachers need to be able to find the wonder that exists in all kids, and then fan the flames to help them turn that wonder into amazing learning opportunities.

I look forward to continuing to share my learning from this awesome book from Martin, it will probably be the basis of my posts over the next few weeks.  But I’m curious… What have you noticed about learning when you create opportunities for your students to explore their wonders in connection with your material? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!


Developing wonder

I was recently having a conversation with a teacher. We were talking about her efforts to integrate more creative, outside the box style of learning activities in her class. She knows that for future success, her students don’t need to simply be able to regurgitate facts – Google can do that for anyone. It’s about what students can do with that knowledge, and she’s struggling with how to get there. You see, some of her students just don’t seem to be able to “think” in a creative way. They seem to prefer to have an activity with direct questions and correct answers. If given a choice between a creative activity that forces thinking in depth of knowledge level 3 or 4 or a worksheet with depth of knowledge level 1, her students would choose the worksheet.

This teacher however, understands that things that are depth of knowledge level 1 may not be what students ultimately need to be successful in the future.  Check out this short video that will show why:

If you search for Siri, Alexa, or Google Home homework help, you will find videos of students going down their worksheet and asking their “smart speaker” the problems they have to solve, and then copying down the answer. If there are other kids who have figured this out, you can guess that your students have too. Personally, I don’t have any problem with students using the tools around them to help them with their homework – I mean, what do most of us do with a question we don’t immediately know the answer to? But I recently read a quote from Yong Zhao, a Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas gave me pause and made me think about the types of questions we’re asking students:

If all children are asked to master the same knowledge and skills, those whose time costs less will be much more competitive than those with higher costs. There are many more poor and hungry people in the developing world willing to work for a fraction of what workers in developed countries need. To be globally competitive, developed countries must offer something qualitatively different, that is, something that cannot be obtained at a lower cost in developing countries.

In this quote, Zhao was talking about the standardization of curriculum and teaching methods, and the fact that our standardization fails our students in the long term. You see, when our students from a developed country move into the workforce, they will be too expensive for the jobs that take a low level of thinking. The students from developed nations need to be able to do things with their knowledge, and developing those skills can’t be done from DOK 1 questions on a worksheet. WorksheetsIf a student can turn to Google, Siri, Alexa, or whatever smart tool comes out next to find the answer to your question, then maybe we aren’t asking the right questions.

So here’s the challenge for this teacher. She knows that students will get more out of learning opportunities that push into higher level thinking. She knows that activities that require more creativity are inherently more “sticky” when it comes to student learning. But her students are have not been successful in doing this so far this year. Does that mean we give up? My answer would be no – just as with anything else, we have to keep trying.

Compliance-PinkThe students in our school in general are very compliant. Compliant students sometimes struggle with creative tasks because they want specific directions to follow. They may not remember what it feels like to be creative or curious. Years of compliance in the school setting seems to suck creativity and curiosity out of our students. I think that sometimes students lose that ability to be creative and curious because they have grown accustomed to the amount of scaffolding that we provide for learning activities. That scaffolding can begin to feel a bit like a cage, and students forget how to get out.

I’m not sure how many of you have had the opportunity to be around a kindergarten classroom. I get to visit one on occasion because my wife is a kindergarten teacher. When I walk into the room and listen to what’s going on, all the students have questions, and comments, and wonders. All those students feel creative and love to color, draw, paint, write, tell stories, and so much more! When I talk to the fifth and sixth grade students in my own building, many of them have a hard time identifying their own curiosities, their own interests, their own what ifs.

So how do we bring a little bit of that creativity and curiosity back to our students? One suggestion that seems promising is the idea of a Wonder Day. In a recent blog post by John Spencer (you can access it here) he talks about the idea of a Wonder Day where students spend the day immersed in research on something they are curious about, with an end goal of a multimedia presentation – it could be a blog post, podcast, video, or whatever other multimedia format that the students choose.

If you’d like to see a short intro of what a wonder day project might look like, here’s a 2 minute intro from John Spencer.

And if you’re not sure when you’d have the time for something like this, I love the suggestion that I’ve seen elsewhere that one of the best times to try something new and innovative is when the schedule is a little wacky. In my school, next week is the week of ISTEP, our annual state assessment. Because of the test, we run on a different schedule on each of the test days. I would encourage teachers to think about a time like this as the ideal time to try something new. If it doesn’t work for you to try during your testing window, then maybe you try it right before or after an upcoming break, or on the day of a school assembly, or just because it’s a Tuesday!

Our students need to be able to think. They need to identify their curiosity because, as Ken Robinson shares in his book Creative Schools, “Human achievement in every field is driven by people’s desire to explore, to test and prod, to see what happens, to question how things work, and to wonder why and ask, what if?” If we have the goal of students who are college and career ready, we have to help them develop that wonder.

Less curious

What do you think? Have you seen similar issues to the teacher above? What’s worked for you to spark that curiosity in your students? Share your thoughts in the comments below. Or, if you decide to try a Wonder Day – or something like it – share you experience with us! We’d love to hear about it!

Why are we teaching the stuff we’re teaching?

I recently saw a quote from Will Richardson. It’s kind of long, but I think it’s worth sharing the full quote for context:

More than, what, 90% of what we currently teach and talk about … is quickly forgotten once the next topic in the pacing guide comes up. Climate change, literacy, fake news, #metoo, what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, racism, income gaps, privacy, future jobs, AI, cryptocurrency… We can make a list of things that really matter today (or probably will in the future) a mile long.

And after we do, we have to own up to the fact that, by and large, even though we know that’s the stuff of modern life, we in schools say to kids “Good luck with all of that. Hope you figure it all out. We can’t really deal with that stuff because we have to teach you Geometry, which, btw, we know most of you will NEVER use, but hey, it’s in the curriculum and we’ve been teaching it forever.”

This is one of the many existential questions we need to be grappling with: Why are we teaching the stuff we’re teaching?

Now… before you get all up in arms at me, remember that this is not my quote, but the sentiment behind it got me fired up. I know that when I was in the classroom as a teacher, I spent a lot of time concerned with whether or not my students met the standard, whether or not we covered what needed to be covered. I also know that every year I had at least a handful of students who visibly and very apparently checked out. They didn’t do work (classwork or homework). I got frustrated.  I called their parents. Nothing changed. As I reflect now, I wonder how many other students in my class were simply too compliant – too good at playing the game of school – to take that path of not doing anything, and in actuality were completely bored by whatever we were doing because they didn’t care. I wonder what kind of disservice I did for those students. They were trying to tell me something, but I was too caught up in what I “had to do” to be able to hear what they were saying.

Now, I’m not saying there’s no place for traditional learning in our schools. I use geometry from time to time (I love woodworking, and often use those skills when creating a new design), and I know many of the topics our kids complain about do have real world value, they just don’t see it.

Here’s a quick quiz of some things that we all probably learned while we were in school (I have to admit, I saw this on the Modern Learners blog in a different post by Will Richardson). See how many of these things you can get correct – and NO CHEATING!

  1. What’s the circumference of a circle with a radius of 4?
  2. What Scottish scientist discovered penicillin in 1928?
  3. What geologic era are we in right now?
  4. In the sentence “The swimming pool is closed today,” is the word swimming the gerund or the participle?
  5. What’s the most abundant element in the universe?

I’m going to be honest… I thought I had three, then I checked.  I only had 2. Way back in the day, I’m sure that I passed the test with these questions. I was a compliant kid who did just enough to keep the teachers off my back. But did I truly learn? No way!

A term that I’ve heard before that gets at what Richardson is talking about above is the idea of the relevancy gap. We have this list of standards that our students are expected to learn. We have our preferred methods of teaching those standards. We go through the motions of covering the material, hoping the students do well enough on the test, and then we go on to the next topic.

Think about what you are getting prepared to teach next. We spend a lot of time thinking about “Did our students achieve X?” or “How do we make sure they learned X?” What the relevancy gap asks us to think about “Is X going to matter in the lives our learners are likely to live?”

That question is much more challenging to think about, because it messes up that list of standards, those preferred methods for teaching those standards, the curriculum maps, the pacing guide, and those worksheets and packets that we’ve lovingly created, not to mention the general model of school as we know it.  And here’s the issue with the relevancy gap – if the students don’t see the relevance, you’ll continue to have students who are checked out, and there will continue to be students who are compliantly doing the work while they are bored out of their minds.

RelevanceSo how do we add relevancy to the things that we are teaching our students? I’ve had this conversation with several people recently, and my best suggestion is that we need to help our students see how the thing that they are learning about in class actually applies to their life. Recently in my school, many of the science classes have been learning about outer space. Can we tie last week’s amazing launch of Falcon Heavy into their studies of our solar system? What research could be done on the potential and kinetic energy of a rocket launch? Or what about the fact that there is research on the angle of release of a basketball shot being related to it’s likelihood of going in the hoop? Or maybe there are amazing connections that our students can make to our content that we would never even think of – we just have to get out of the way and let them share!

Whenever I write about these grand ideas, I always try to leave you with some strategies to move forward.  Here are 4 ways that come to mind as ways we can add relevancy for our students:

  1. Discuss how learning can be applied in practice – what is a real world use for your students?
  2. Make a link to local cases – how does this knowledge tie in to something happening in your students’ community?
  3. Relating the subject matter to everyday applications – where might students see this in use in their lives?
  4. Discussing or finding applications in current newsworthy issues and events – what’s happening in our world or in pop culture that can be tied into your content?

What are some of the ways that you add relevancy for your students? Share some of your best ideas in the comments below. We can all appreciate a great idea!


And… because we all want to be able to assess our own work, the answers to the quiz above are: 1. ≈ 25.13; 2. Sir Alexander Fleming; 3. Cenozoic; 4. Participle; 5. Hydrogen.  How did you do?

The relationship of teaching and learning

The key to raising

This past week was the Global School Day of Play.  In our school, we formatted the day as a choice day.  Teachers shared activities that they would be hosting throughout the day, students were able to see all the options and then select the classes that they were the most interested in.

As I walked around the building, watching teachers share things that they are passionate about, watching students participate in fun activities that they had chosen, the smiles were everywhere!  I heard multiple comments from students throughout the day of “Best Day Ever!”

One of the other awesome things that I saw happening was our students were able to connect with new adults around the building.  Many of our students chose activities with teachers that they did not know, they never had met, but who offered something that interested them.  Those students chose to be in the room of our teachers because what they were offering sounded fun to them.  This makes me think of a line from Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.  The book is all about student engagement, and in it, Burgess asks “If your students didn’t have to come to your class, would you be teaching to an empty room?”

That’s a challenging question to consider – I can tell you for a fact that with the model of our day of play, students did choose to be exactly where they were.  The lessons and activities that teachers were doing may have been outside of the normal classroom environment, but there was so much amazing learning happening.

I have heard (and earlier in my career may have even said) “my students don’t have to like me, but they will learn from me.”  In my experience, if your students don’t like you, they probably aren’t going to learn very much from you.  In her famous TED Talk, Rita Pierson talks about the value and importance of human connection, of relationships.  I think we all know that we learn much more from people we have a meaningful relationship with.  Sometimes we have to be reminded, our students are people too, just like us, and they want to feel loved, cared for, and supported.

For true teaching and learning to happen, there must be a relationship between the teacher and the student.  There must be a connection between the people involved in the transaction.

Now here’s the reality – I know that there are some kids that were easy for me to connect with.  I also know that there are some kids that seemed to want to hide from any adult interaction.  And, there are some of us who have a hard time connecting with certain personalities.  I know that when I was in the classroom, it was easy for me to connect with kids who were into sports, because I was into sports.  On the other hand, there were students who I sometimes struggled to connect with because we didn’t share common interests.  One of my favorite strategies with those kids was to just ask questions – what did you do last night?  What do you like to do when you have free time?  Do you like to play any games?  Eventually, after asking enough questions I would normally find something that we could chat about, that we could connect with.  And the amazing thing… Once I made a connection to that kid on a personal level, it seemed like the teaching and learning transaction between us was suddenly supercharged!

I recently read an awesome post by Aaron Hogan with 6 ways to build credibility with students (you can find it here).  If you’ve got a kiddo that you’re struggling to connect with, there might be an idea here that would work for you!

Here’s the challenge I have for you – what did you learn about your students on Global Play Day that you could leverage in your typical classroom lessons?  Is there some passion that they have that you could bring back?  Is there some interest that you found in common with them that could be part of a lesson?  Seek out ways to bring your students interests and passions into your daily class, and you will see increases in the relationship building immediately!

The ways we learn

The other day we were at Fort Benjamin Harrison State Park enjoying some beautiful weather on a late January day – not something you get a lot of in Indiana!  While there, we were passed by a kiddo that was probably about the same age as my son Brody.  She was riding a bike.  Brody watched her go by, and said “I wish I had my bike!”  We told Brody that he could bring his bike the next time we came if he learned how to ride without his training wheels.  Imagine the whiniest 6-year-old voice you can as you read his response: “I’m never going to learn how to do that” and his head went down in disappointment.

I told him “The only way you’re going to learn is if you try!”

This interaction got me thinking about when I was learning to ride my bike.  The training wheels had come off, I may have been wearing a bike helmet (come on, it was the 80s!) with my hockey shin guards and elbow pads.  I mounted up, and I tried…  I didn’t make it very far before I bit the dust.  But I kept getting up and trying again… and again… and… You get the idea!  Eventually I had it down – I could hop on and go without a second thought.

It took time for the neural pathways to connect so that my brain could figure out how to put together the locomotion, the balance, the understanding of body position, and so much more that goes into riding a bike.  Here’s the thing about learning to ride a bike… the only way you can learn is to do it.  No amount of time spent learning about how the bike works would have helped me to ride more quickly.  I wouldn’t have been a superstar rider on that first day if I understood the role that inertia, friction, and rolling resistance plays in being able to get myself to go.

I just had to get on the bike and try.  For those of you who are parents, or who might have helped a youngster you know learn to ride a bike, you know what that it’s so important to try it over and over.

I’d even argue – through my own experiences and the experiences of my daughter Lainey – that we learn how to ride a bike because of our failures, because of the falls.  Our brain figures out that we did something wrong, and helps our body to do it differently the next time until we have it down pat.

Learning anything does not happen by watching someone model.  Showing our students how to do something doesn’t teach them.  Having your students read about how to do something doesn’t help them learn how to do it.  Even watching a video doesn’t help them learn.  Ultimately the only way they are going to learn is by doing something.

Learning is an active process. We learn by doing. Only knowledge that is used sticks in your mind

Always be thinking about how you can make the activities in your class be focused on how students can actually do whatever it is that they are learning about.  Less time showing, more time actually doing!  That’s how we all learn just about anything!

What are your thoughts?  Am I wrong?  Are there things you’ve learned that didn’t actually involve “doing” it?  Are there other examples like the bike that you would only learn by doing?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Also, as I was writing this post, it got me thinking about an excellent video by Destin Sandlin, who runs an educational video web series called Smarter Every Day.  It’s a little under 8 minutes long, and goes through his process of learning to ride a bike in a whole new way.  Check it out to see how learning by doing really works!

How are you taking care of yourself?

Earlier this week there was a morning I woke up about a half hour before my alarm was set to go off. As much as I wanted to go back to sleep, my brain wouldn’t stop thinking about a specific student and family that I have been working with. I knew that there were some struggles going on for the family, and as much as I tried to make myself let it go in that moment (I mean… it’s not like I’m really going to solve this problem while lying in bed at 4 am!), I couldn’t stop my brain from thinking. I’m sure that each of you has a story much like this.  Educators are a compassionate bunch, and we often feel stress based on our efforts to care for the kids in our school.

self-compassion is simply

I can’t tell you how many times I have lost sleep or felt stress due to things that were happening that were well beyond my control.  It’s affected my sleep, it’s affected my ability to focus, and it’s prevented me from being my best self.  Compassion fatigue is a real thing – it’s a state experienced by those who are helping others in distress. In most extreme situations, it can create secondary traumatic stress for the helper.

I think there are times when we all focus so much on what is happening in the minds of our students that we forget to think about and assess where we are right now. Are you feeling stress? Do you feel like you are being pulled in too many directions? Do you feel “on edge” about something? Your answers to these questions can help you begin to assess if you might be feeling some secondary stress, or at a minimum help you identify times when you might need to take care of yourself.

In order to be our best selves, in order to help support our students, we need to make sure that we are in the best place possible. One of the ways that we can help make sure that we are ready to help others is by building our own self-care plan. As we begin to think about what a self-care plan might look like, there are 6 categories that you might want to think about:

  1. Physical Self-Care – These are the things we do to take care of our body. Examples might include: sleep; nutrition; exercise; and regular health care visits. What do you do to take care of yourself physically?
  2. Emotional Self-Care – These are the things that we do to take care of our own feelings. Examples might include: personal or professional support systems; journaling; talking about feelings with others; or counseling/therapy sessions. How well do you take care of yourself emotionally?
  3. Cognitive SelfCare – These are things we do to improve our mind and understand ourselves better. Examples might include: reading for pleasure or work; writing; and continued education. What do you do to take care of yourself psychologically?
  4. Social SelfCare – These are the things we do to relate to others and the world around us. Examples might include: spending time with family, friends, and colleagues you enjoy; having fun and playing; belonging to groups. Are there things you do to help take care of your social well-being?
  5. Financial SelfCare – These are the things we do to save or spend responsibly. Examples might include: balancing a checking account; planning for the future; spending money in thoughtful and productive ways. What are the things you do to take care of your personal finances?
  6. Spiritual SelfCare – These are the things we do to gain a perspective on our own life. Examples might include: meditation; contact with nature; prayer; or a connection with God or a Higher Power. How do you take care of yourself spiritually?

Your self-care plan is going to be unique to you.  You may find that there are items on this list above that don’t fit your needs. Ultimately, to be able to do our best and be able to serve our kids in the best ways possible, we have to first take care of ourselves. Hopefully the ideas above will help you think about the ways that you can focus on your own individual wellness. Our success in self-care will help prevent the negative consequences of compassion fatigue.

What types of things are the most successful for you to be able to care for yourself? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

The teacher from the movies

When you think of teacher movies, what comes to mind? Do you think of someone like Mr. Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Mr. Strickland in Back to the Future? Or do you go the way of someone more like Miss Riley in October Sky or Mr. Holland in Mr. Holland’s Opus? I’m sure that for all of you, there is a connection (and maybe even a feeling) that goes with each of those characters. You might even be able to think back on one of your own teachers who is a little like one of them.

I’m guessing that we would all agree that some of these teachers are a little stronger than others. But what is it that makes the “good” movie teachers? There are a few things that these great teachers have in common – they build connections with their students, the students and teachers have respect for each other, and the students are empowered. The “mean” teachers were focused on control and compliance, while the “good” teachers were focused on community and empowerment.

In creating the environments of the teachers that they make movies about, you build a relationship with your students where there is an understanding between the teacher and the students that we’re two people here. What those movie teachers understand is that classroom management has much more to do with the environment, and much less to do with the rules that are put in place.

One of my all-time favorite teacher movies is Dead Poets Society. Mr. Keating does some amazing things with his group of students. Many people think of the Oh Captain, My Captain! scene when they think of that movie, and trust me, it’s a great scene.  But one of the more overlooked scenes is the soccer scene.  Take just a moment to watch the scene:

The reason I love this scene so much is that it reminds me of the value of movement in learning – especially for students that are in the age group I work most directly with. Most of us know intrinsically that a fifth or sixth grader cannot sit still for much more than 10 minutes, and yet we consistently have classroom situations where students have to sit for double that – sometimes even more! One of the things that will make you a movie star teacher to your students is to allow them opportunities for movement consistently.

I always like to provide some kind of new idea, and here’s one that you could try tomorrow to add some movement in your class. Many people use the turn and talk consistently to get students to share their thinking. What if you take that a little bit further and do something new called musical chairs. Explain to students that you are going to play about 10 seconds of music, during that time they should move around the room and find a partner. When the music stops, they start talking about your question. After enough time for both students to respond, start the music again and let them find a new partner. It’s kind of like musical chairs for a turn and talk. Students get to share their thinking, and get their movement and wiggles out! The best of both worlds! After a couple of rounds, have them move back to their seats and continue.

Or you might try a walk and talk – take your class for a walk on our campus. Talk about your points while you walk. Occasionally stop and allow students to partner up for a pair share, then continue the walk.

With each of these strategies, you have to build to structure in advance. That’s what the movie star teacher would do. Set your expectations high, and then hold your students to them. Don’t let those 2 knuckleheads pull your expectations down to the mean. Let them know that you trust them to do the right thing, and then lay out what needs to happen. Most kids will not want to ruin something fun, even if they are a knucklehead!

Screen Shot 2018-01-18 at 8.44.13 PM
Just a few of the things that happen in the classrooms of the movie teacher!

So what movie teacher do you think of? What made that teacher great? Of not so great? What elements of the movie teacher do you try to bring to your classroom? Share your thoughts in the comments below!