Thursday, October 27, 2016

Leaving the Controversy Out of the Presidential Election

This election season has been tense.  Many have become quite heated about both candidates which has made others very tentative. With unimaginable accusations swirling around the two major parties’ candidates, many teachers have experienced consternation around discussing the election in their classrooms.

Presidential elections have generated positive excitement in the past, even when people vehemently oppose a candidate. Being aware of people’s heightened sensitivity surrounding this election, I contemplated what I should do in my classroom.

As a social studies teacher, I would feel negligent not bringing the election into my classroom during the race for the presidency. A presidential election generates meaningful and long-last learning opportunities for students while encouraging them to take steps in becoming active citizens.

My conundrum: how do we adequately discuss the election while keeping the enhanced controversies involved with this election outside the classroom door?

I decided we need not delve into discussion about the candidates and their imperfections. Rather I took the approach of students wrestling to identify where they stand on national issues. By avoiding the personalities of the candidates, I could better open the students’ eyes to the election.

Students looked at a broad range of issues, sought to come to a basic understanding of the issues, attempted to recognize opposing views on the issues, and strove to identify on which side they felt they may fall. Students struggled to fully understand - I told them they would, especially since most adults do - but I encouraged them to try to get some sort of sense as to each issue and their own view. I reassured them that they manner in which they happened to answer now did not define them, especially with limited understanding.

Student reflection on what she learned from our election 2016 activities.
After they analyzed the issues and determined where they stood, we discussed. Students moved to a side of the room based on their view - some started in the middle because they were torn or unsure. And then...conversation. The big realization for the students was that each side had legitimate reasons for their views. They respectfully listened to one another and considered the reasoning. Sometimes students directly addressed another’s point; sometimes they simply contributed another argument to their side. But sometimes students switched sides. Some in the middle were swayed to a side; some on the opposite side sometimes made the long walk over to the the other side of the classroom.  Students in the middle were able to articulate how they were torn: noticing they felt reasons on both sides of an issue were equally strong.

Students next looked at some basic information defining liberals and conservatives. They again looked at some different issues and determined if they felt the reasons on the liberal or conservative side were more compelling. Next the students aligned themselves on a spectrum from liberal to conservative. The students were well spread out though many clumped on either side of the middle.

By first examining their own thoughts, students were ready to look a little bit at the candidates. Instead of determining which candidate they agreed with, the students determined - issue by issue - which candidates agreed with them. Students discovered two significant points. One was that the candidates, whom they only thought of as being opposed and disagreeing with one another, had some agreement on some issues. This was eye-opening for many.  Another moment of revelation involved the candidates agreeing with the student views. Students saw that each of the four candidates on the Massachusetts ballot agreed with their own views on different issues. So, although they didn’t see themselves as a supporter of a certain candidate, they saw that there was some agreement - and disagreement - between themselves and EACH of the candidates.

To conclude their investigation into the election, prior to a mock election experience, students will practice media literacy skills. They will analyze political ads from different candidates looking for the techniques they have used to sway voters. Students will also propose alternative ways the candidates could have conveyed the same message. I anticipate similar success with this activity as was had with the others.

Clearly, I’m please with both my approach and the students' interactions with difficult content. The activities helped to show that understanding political issues is difficult, identifying our own views on the issues can be difficult, there are legitimate reasons on both sides of the issues, and there was no perfect candidate that matched all of their views.

Hopefully, this learning opportunity will inspire some of the students to become more concerned and active citizens.

If you have been teaching about the election, or if this post has generated some thoughts of your own, please share in the comments. I would appreciate hearing from you.

Friday, July 29, 2016

14 Times Innovator's Mindset Forced Me to Reflect

You’re kicking back enjoying your summer, looking forward to get lost in some books, the beach, or maybe even your own garden.
"Free Image on Pixabay - Sunglasses, Desert, Reflection." Free Stock Photo:
Sunglasses, Desert, Reflection. Accessed July 27, 2016.
But your mind drifts back to your classroom. Subtly stirring in the recesses of your mind is the upcoming school year.
Ideas about what you want to do better or differently silently creep into your conscious.
You are reflecting on your teaching.
And when you choose to attend a conference or read a book about teaching, your wheels start churning again...maybe even stronger and more deliberate. The reflection allows you to see things in a different way.
When I picked up “The Innovator’s Mindset” by George Couros (@gcouros), I suspected it would prompt me to reflect on my practices as a teacher. I was not disappointed.
Below, I share some reflection that came streaming forth when Couros’ accompanying lines prompted.

“To succeed, they will need to know how to think for themselves and adapt to constantly changing situations. And although we say we want kids to think for themselves, what we teach them is compliance.”

The first statement has been a belief of mine for quite some time. I will often press students who have questions with questions of my own to help show them that they have the answer readily available or if they think through it a bit.  This has been quite effective...although it is initially frustrating for some students….and the frustration lingers for those who just want the answer.  

This leads to the second statement. Those students who just want the answer - and there are many - are those that are being compliant. They want to make sure they can get the grade that is acceptable to themselves and their parents. Tell me what the answer is; tell me what I need to know; how long does the writing have to be.

Although I have cajoled some into become more independent in their learning, I have not been thorough or swayed most.  Even those who appreciate my answering questions with questions are still striving for high levels of compliance.

I need to do better showing them that the learning, not the grade, is what matters so they can break free from the shackles of compliance.

“As leaders, if we ask teachers to use their own time to do anything , what we’re really telling them is: it’s not important.”

Quite a few years ago, I stopped having homework influence student grades.  I knew that the homework either artificially inflated or deflated students grades which are somehow supposed to show what they know, not whether or not they completed work.
I made the transition to no homework two years ago.  I wanted the students to do their work in front of me so that I could give them feedback, guide them, and support them.  Often parents, on the pretense of helping their children succeed, can intervene with homework.  This can give an artificial sense as to what the student actually knows and can do.  I don’t want parents to be heavily influencing their children’s work so that there is not as great a degree of learning.
But this passage presented a different lense to look through.
If the work assigned as homework is not important enough to be done with immediate teacher feedback, guidance, and support, is it really worth the students’ time? And will the students be sufficiently motivated to put their best effort forth with it - or will they just do it quickly so they are able to show they got it done?

“....what do most schools focus on when talking about technology? ‘Cyberbullying’ and ‘digital safety.’”
“We are spending so much time telling our students about what they can’t do that we have lost focus on what we can do. Imagine that if every time you talked about the ability to write with a pencil, you only focused on telling kids to not stab one another with the tool. What would you really inspire in your students?”

The past two years, I had the privilege to serve on my school district’s Digital Learning Committee.  The culmination, at this juncture, was a presentation to the school committee.
The presentation had two foci: rights and responsibilities and scope and sequence.
Immediately afterward, I felt disappointed. I quickly realized why. The officials focused their questions and comments on the rights and responsibilities portion of the presentation. They zoned in on concerns about student safety and technology potentially distracting from learning.  They were very pleased with the proactive approach regarding rights and responsibilities.
But they focused little on the potential of technology to impact student learning. In fact there were no questions and few comments about what the students will know and be able to do with technology.
I understand that the reaction may be due to thought that the pitfalls which sometimes happen with technology seem overwhelming, and, in their role, the school committee may be very attuned to that. I also realize they do have a sense that technology is important for learning. But I hope they will quickly begin to understand, in a tangible way, how digital tools can deepen, extend, and transform learning.

“I’m defining innovation as a way of thinking that creates something new and better. Innovation can come from either “invention” (something totally new) or “iteration” (a change of something that already exists), but if it does not meet the idea of “new and better,” it is not innovative.”

I like the distinction the term “innovation” is given.
But, initially, it is quite intimidating.  How could I ever create something that is new and better? What a tall order.
Upon further reflection, however, I realized that the idea only needs to be new and better for me and my students.  Innovation does not need to be some completely original concept that the world has never seen before. Instead, innovation can simply build on what is already out there. Take something you haven’t done before and tweak it to meet the learning needs of your students. Without realizing it, my lessons, my classroom, my students’ learning experiences have started to become more innovative.

“The power of networking is sharing ideas, clarifying our thinking, and developing new and better ideas.”
“Sometimes, the most valuable thing you get from the network isn’t an idea but the inspiration or courage to try something new.”

A past administrator I worked with encouraged teachers to engage with Twitter. He didn’t have much success. Although he did not push hard and make it an expectation, many teachers felt he made an edict and that they would be judged negatively if they did not use Twitter.
He has since left and so has the “pressure” to use Twitter. Some teachers had created accounts and tweeted a couple of times, never really seeing the value. Others have been more embracing.
I think it is a lost opportunity in not connecting with other educators. Our hands are often tied if trying to interact with those within our own building - different schedules and so many “urgent” tasks on that list.
But connecting through social media, allows flexibility for teachers to meet on their own time. Use five minutes to take a sip from the stream of information. There are people sharing ideas that will be useful to your role as an educator. It also allows you a moment to reflect on your current practices and clarify your beliefs about education.
This blog furthers that purpose. I not only wanted to model blogging for my students, but I wanted a simple, convenient, and consistent arena in which I could reflect on my work as a teacher.
The connections to be made via social media enhances teaching. It accelerates our abilities to meet our students needs. The power of social media is getting better together - with countless numbers - and giving confidence to take a risk, rather than going it alone or with a small band of confidants.

“If innovation is going to be a priority in education, we need to create a culture where trust is the norm.”

I speak of trust with my students. And I’m getting better at giving them my full trust.
Fortunately, my classroom is 1:1 with Chromebooks. While others may be concerned as to what mischief students may get into while they are supposed to doing their work on the device, I share with students that I am trusting them to use it appropriately. They seem to appreciate that I present the technology as an opportunity and a responsibility with which I am entrusting them.
Students are also being allowed more and more autonomy in my classroom. I am affording them greater trust in making decisions about their learning: What will your final product be? How will you go about showing they understand? How will you demonstrate you have that skill? What are you going to go about finding out about that topic?
Putting the students more and more at the center demands greater trust of those students. They respond well, and I believe their learning is enhanced while developing skills and attitudes that they can apply to other classrooms, other grades, and other areas of their lives.

“Can you imagine going to a place every day where you felt your voice didn’t matter?”

Students have been given greater voice in my classroom over the last several years. As I noted in my comments about trust, I am affording students more choices regarding their learning. Also, to the end of greater voice, students in my class are expected to maintain a blog.
Their blogs are an opportunity for the students to reflect on and share their learning. In addition, they are encouraged to view classmates’ blogs and comment on the posts. This allows them to develop their own voices and to observe the voices of their classmates.
I need to, however, do a better job of getting others - students, parents, educators, community members - to view and comment on their blogs. This will accentuate that the students’ voices do matter. Right now, they do not see their blogs as very far reaching. I need to facilitate the power of their blogs in a much better manner so that students’ voices are amplified and they can feel the significance of their voices.

“Engagement is a good thing, but I’ve since learned that we must also empower students and equip them with the skills to learn. It is imperative that we teach learners how to be self-directed and guide their own learning, rather than rely on others to simply engage them.”
“Would you rather hear about changing the world, or do you want the opportunity to do so? A story about a world-changer might engage us, but becoming world-changers will change us.”

Discussion about students taking their own lead often comes up indirectly in my classroom. I usually emphasize how little they need me by guiding them to finding their own answers and solving their own problems. In my mind, I have always strived for engagement by the students. But I guess my example shows I am actually trying to strive for more; I just never considered self-directed learning to be on a higher plane than engagement.
Tapping into students’ strengths and interests seems to be vital in engaging students.   It may also help lead the students to seeking the opportunity to become a “world-changer.” By grabbing students by their strengths and interests and combining that with touching their hearts, a classroom can elevate a student’s interest and engagement into wanting to make a mark on the world.
My students care; they have a strong sense of right and wrong; they want to help. Tugging on their heart strings through our common human story while allowing students to direct their learning will allow them to accomplish the great things of which they are capable.
If I loosen their reins more, they will, perhaps, realize the great power they have at their disposal.

“8 Things to Look for in Today’s Classroom”

Screenshot 2016-07-27 at 10.32.49 AM.png
When first reading this section of "The Innovator's Mindset", I immediately began reflecting on my own classroom to “see” if those eight elements are presented.
Viewing Sylvia Duckworth’s sketchnote, I saw a simple, yet engaging reference which I could quickly look back at as a reminder of elements I want to strive toward.
THEN, it hit me…..I need the students to look at the sketchnote.
I want the students to view the sketchnote and assess their learning experiences: Where have you seen these happen in classrooms?  What did it look like?
And to push it further: What can we do in this classroom to make sure we experience each of the eight elements?
This would not only push me as a teacher, but it would also give the students greater voice and control in the classroom, creating a powerful opportunity for them to direct their own learning.

“Drop Everything And Reflect.”

I understand the importance of reflection. I struggle, however, with having the students reflect.
I’m not sure whether this is due to feeling a pressure to get through curriculum or whether it is due to feeling unsure as to how to structure that reflection for students. I always struggle as to how to prompt the students to reflect.
I feel like the simple label “Drop Everything and Reflect” helps to give a simple structure. It at least identifies to the students what we will be doing and stresses its importance.
Reflection also needs to be done during the learning process, not just afterwards. Opportunities for growth and learning are lost if there is no reflection during the learning process.
I may turn, as a starting point, to the simple reflection questions that are offered in “The Innovator’s Mindset”:
1. What is something you learned about today that you would like to further explore? Why do you want to explore that topic?
2. What is one big question you have moving forward?
3. Any other thoughts that you would like to share?
These questions at least give me reassurance that I am on a right track and that I have something for a fall back plan.

“Carolyn reminds me and others that when we show a genuine interest in those whom we serve and go out of our way to help them become successful in areas about which they are passionate, they are more likely to go above and beyond what is expected.”

This screams to me: How can I help students work with topics for which they have passion but are not topics we are investigating in class - the ones not in the curriculum?
And then comes the softly spoken answer: Ask them.
I would love to be able to offer my students this opportunity. Imagine getting to work with students who want to learn coding, architecture, costume designing, etc. How invigorating would that be for both students and teacher?
The big roadblock does not really seem to be “how” but “when.” When, in the course of a very busy school day for both teacher and students, can I offer time to encourage their passions?
Perhaps I can carve out class time. Perhaps I can work with them as a resources asynchronously. Maybe it would need to be reserved for after school.
There is some solution. We just need to find the one that works for us.

“Let’s take the time to understand what is possible from a learner-centered point of view, instead of blindly buying technology then asking ‘Now what?’”

I am frustrated with the “Now what?” approach.
Technology, it seems, is often purchased simply to have it.
There was a big push several years ago to make sure their was an interactive whiteboard in every classroom. Although a powerful tool, I felt money would have been better spent to get technology into the hands of the students rather than invest in a teacher-focused device. There also was minimal training. So, the primary result has been whiteboards from which you can electronically save the notes.
Blending technology into my classroom has always been a priority in my classroom, I am ahead of the curve of most in my district, and I know that it's best when students can use technology to make connections with others and to create content. Yet, in nearly 25 years of teaching, I think I have only been asked input on technology once. That was through a general survey to all teachers when, I think, the district was trying to gauge teachers’ comfort levels with technology.
Clearly, I think my opinion (my voice!) should be valued and sought after.
But to add a layer of student feedback and insight would be invaluable.  Meet the students where they are at and accentuate their voices. Show them they are valued and that their input matters. The impact of technology would probably be far more reaching if all stakeholders had input.
This may even open students’ eyes even wider to the possibilities presented through technology simply because they were asked.

“I quickly learned that the best way to become a better educator is to have access to other teachers.”

You are a first-year teacher, wide-eyed and overwhelmed. You barely even know where to begin.
You turn to that teacher next to you with the adjoining door.
Years later you’re still opening that door for support and also seeking support from others who you’ve come to trust.  We always turn to others to help us be better.
But now, the entire teaching profession is at our fingertips. Twitter, Facebook, Google Hangouts, etc. enhance our ability for getting better together.  A great pool of collective knowledge and experience is there for us….waiting to be tapped. But many stay isolated. They may reach beyond their own classroom walls into their neighbors’ classrooms, but they are reluctant to access those other connection that can be made.
Remember back to that experience as the overwhelmed first-year teacher. You opened that door; you didn’t really know or trust that person...yet.
The same is true for those you could get to know through a platform such as Twitter. You just need to reach out and take that risk. And, just like the colleague next door, if you are not getting what you need from that person, move on to another.
And you can expand ten-fold as a teacher.

“....the success of a school should not only be measured by what students do when they are in school but also by their impact on the world after they leave the school environment.”
“If we want to build on the strengths of our students, we need to develop them as learners who explore their passions and talents. For schools to do that, educators will need to unleash that talent and hunger for learning in themselves first. If we only teach students the curriculum, we have failed them.”

Well, that just upped the ante. And stated much more clearly and succinctly than I would have.

Students need to realize that just learning the curriculum is not enough. They are too important for that. They are too powerful for that.

When students leave my classroom, I want them to have a sense of their importance and power. The development of their character, behavior, and habits are far more important to me than whether or not they remember some facts about some topic or event.

I need to give them greater opportunity to impact the world NOW, while they are still in seventh grade, so they can carry that sense of collective responsibility, empathy, and power with them. I want them to feel their own significance.

I have the opportunity to create, for students, opportunities which will show them them their value and the far-reaching impact they can have.

If you have had your own moments of reflection this summer, or if this post has generated some thoughts of your own, please share in the comments. I would appreciate hearing from you.

Monday, June 13, 2016

“Unto Every Person There Is A Name”

The past two years, the student council at our school has organized a Holocaust Remembrance Week. It is a very powerful experience for students and staff alike.

Organizing the week falls largely on the shoulders of the students guided by two teachers dedicated to creating awareness about the Holocaust. The biggest challenge is for the students to give their peers context. They are not exposed to much history prior to middle school, never mind the Holocaust. But the students do wonderfully putting together information and videos displayed on our school's morning news broadcast.

As part of the week-long reflection, there is a day long reading of names of children who were victims of the Holocaust. An adult is paired with a student on either side of the main hallway. They alternate reading the names, country of origin, birth year, death year, and age of death of individual victims.

Students are hushed as they walk by.  Many show some sign of respect beyond the silence as they move from class to class throughout the day.

This part of the week is very powerful and can evoke strong feelings and thoughts. As I stood reading names, I kept glancing over at my student reader. She is the same age as many of the victims...older than many, too. "What is going through her mind," I wonder, as I also think, "How fortunate she is due to time and circumstance."

Here and there, I almost choke on the words as I'm reading the names and ages of the victims. But I keep my composure as I know I want to afford each of the victims the respect they were denied during the Holocaust by recalling their names today.

Too often, in school, we are focused on the standards and testing. But we are really in the business of humanity.  We need to take opportunities, like the Holocaust Remembrance Week, to touch students' hearts and bring out their emotions and empathy so they can better see their own significance in our world.  They'll probably learn better, too.

If you have a lesson or event that touches students' hearts, or if this post has generated some thoughts of your own, please share in the comments. I would appreciate hearing from you.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Students Appreciate Meaningful Feedback

Students often ask about grades:

“Is this graded? How much is this worth?”

I readily reply, “Does it matter?”

“Yes,” they say.

“Will you do better work and learn more?”

“Yes,” they often respond.

“Then your work is graded.”

I don’t like grades.

Does that assessment show they really know 90% of that topic? Does a conglomeration of grades averaged together actually show how well they understand.

This year I’ve had several serious conversations about eliminating grades with my students. They agree that it would be better - though, despite my clarification, I think some still don’t realize it does not mean the absence of learning and struggling with content.  (The big concern for some is getting into a good college. They are seventh graders! So much pressure they are putting on themselves.)

These conversations and my thoughts about grading led me to read Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School by Starr Sackstein.

A quick and practical read, Hacking Assessment offers tips to help you go gradeless. I’m not there yet, but it gave me lots to chew on and some things I could try right away.

When assessing, I had already removed a grade equivalent on rubrics, instead indicating level of mastery. I also had stopped indicating a grade on student work. They would have to look at the online grading portal to see that. I wanted students to focus on their work, their learning, and my feedback.

Sackstein discusses feedback in Hacking Assessment.  She references work by  Aric Foster and Mark Barnes around detaching the assessor from assessment:

The process taken during assessment is to “merely record what I see, how the work does or does not address standards, resources to pursue to amend areas of concern, and a new plan for resubmitting the work. My goals are to keep my comments as objective as possible,....while not judging harshly or praising superfluously.”

As a start, I latched on to the idea of providing feedback in the form of “I see” and “I don’t see,” referencing the standards and expectations. For example:

  • I see you have two specific examples to support your first reason.
  • I do not see effective use of transitions.

I found that this focused effort on feedback detached me more from the process of assessment.  I also found that it was more efficient and quicker to provide feedback in this manner. I was not longer riddling the students’ work with comments. Instead, it was a more global look at their overall work as related to the standards, expectations, and rubric.

I was pleased with my efforts, pleased at the ease of giving feedback in this manner, and hopeful the students would find it useful. So, after the students experienced this method of feedback, I felt compelled to ask them what they thought of it.

Their experience was literally 100% positive. Here are some comments:

  • I like this feedback because it showed us what we clearly did or didn’t do.  When it's just the rubric it tells us a list of things we could have done wrong, while this was clear.  It made it easier to improve because we know what to fix.
  • I like this style of feedback because I can figure out exactly what I did wrong and how I would be able to get there. Knowing exactly what I did wrong lets me know what I’m supposed to do to meet exemplary.
  • I liked the way you presented feedback because it helped me realize the things that are good in my writing and the things that I can work on.  Now I know some things I do should stay the same and some things I can change to make my writing a solid piece.
  • I did like this type of feedback because it is very straightforward and explicit.  This helps me better understand what I didn’t and did do well on.

I am going to continue this method of feedback as students are completing work and when they are finished.  I hope to incorporate other aspects of Barnes’ work such as providing resources and actions to encourage improvement and providing specific focus areas to resubmit (rather than the entire piece).

These efforts should help move me toward a gradeless classroom that focuses on rich feedback, growth, and learning and is student centered. Students will probably react favorably even if parents initially may respond negatively and administrators may be reluctant.

I look forward to this next phase of my journey.

If you are going gradeless or revamping how you give feedback, or if this post has generated some thoughts of your own, please share in the comments. I would appreciate hearing from you.

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