Practice

Practice

Over the years, I have participated in a wide variety of sports. I recall hours spent in the gym at the Boys Club for basketball, summer days on the ball field for baseball, spring and fall nights on the soccer field, and fall evenings on the football field. I also remember the ups and downs of hours of practice for each of those sports. But the best part of playing a sport was always the game. It made sweaty July days on the ball field, or two-a-days in August that much more worth it because we saw that our practice paid off in terms of performance when we were playing against the opposing team.

Recently, I’ve been reading the book The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. While I’m not finished with the book yet, the main idea that I’m getting so far is that our most memorable positive moments are all made up out of the same elements – elevation, insight, pride, and connection. If we are intentional in what we do and how we design experiences, we can create more of those powerful moments for ourselves and others. This seems to have some pretty obvious translation to the classroom setting.

One of the chapters is titled Build Peaks, and is all about creating experiences that rise above others. Several of the stories that are shared focus on classroom experiences that build peaks for students. In one high school, the teachers wanted to create a peak experience for their seniors, and created what’s called “Senior Exhibition,” which asked students to do what many of us might call a passion project or genius hour activity. Students were able to pick anything they wanted, it did not have to tie directly to curriculum. On the day of the exhibition, students gave an oral defense of their project, which many parents attended. In a normal school setting, parents are not able to see the outcome of student learning in person. Typically, the only outcome of learning that parents see is grades in the gradebook, or maybe an assignment that has been returned with feedback. This experience was different. Jeff Gilbert, one of the creators of the senior exhibition, and now a high school principal, shared:

All this talk about practice has me thinking about one of my all time favorite press conference rants by an athlete.

Now, I’m going to be really honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of Allen Iverson. As an Indiana kid, my heart was with Reggie Miller and the Pacers. But I still use phrases from this clip in everyday conversation. And in this clip, Iverson shares his passion for the game of basketball. In case you need a reminder, that passion isn’t about the practice. It’s about the game.

Going back to the quote above from The Power of Moments, when I read that passage, I had to put the book down for a moment. How do we go about making the experiences in our classrooms feel less like practices, and more like a game?

Let’s pause here for a moment. Grab a piece of scrap paper, or a post-it note, or go to the notes app on your phone. Make a quick list of the peak moments you remember from your schooling experiences? I’m going to focus on elementary since that’s the grade level that I’m working with. Go ahead, stop reading for a moment, jot some notes, and I’ll be here when you come back.

Here are a few of the moments that I recall: In third grade our class made bread – some of the moms came in and as groups we made the dough. Then they took it home, baked it, and brought it back in the afternoon. I can still remember the feeling of getting to take a bite of that warm, soft bread that I had helped to make. In fifth grade, we did an invention convention. Each student was asked to create a new invention. I built a desk that you could remove the back panel from and put on the other side so that it could work for either a right-handed or left-handed person. As a lefty, I was tired of my arm hanging off the side of my desk anytime that I was trying to write. The day of the convention, we presented to classmates and students in the other fifth grade class. That night we came back to school and got to present to parents who came to learn about our various inventions. I had one parent tell me he was a lefty and would buy a desk like that. Many more that were right-handed said they never would have noticed the problem. In sixth grade we researched a foreign country. I worked with a partner to learn as much as I could about Belgium. We took some of our combined kitchen skills and made snacks from Belgium to share with our visitors. We also had a presentation board with pictures and interesting facts. During the day, students from all over the school came to visit our presentations in the gym, and that night we came back and presented to our parents. I was able to share all that I had learned, and found out that the family of one of my good friends had ancestral roots in Belgium. It was an instant connection and conversation piece that night.

What do all of those memories have in common? They weren’t practice. They were the game. If we want students fired up about school and about learning, we’ve got to be intentional about finding opportunities to create more games for students. Could you invite parents to come in so students can share their learning? Could you do a video chat with an expert in the field you’ve been studying? Could you try to connect with the author of the book you’ve been reading in class?

Take a moment to reflect on what some of the favorite things you’ve done with your students. What were the elements that made them a peak moment for your kids? Possibly, one of the indicators is that there were some elements that took the learning beyond the practice phase, and into a realm where it felt more like a game or performance.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any activities that you’ve done in the past that you could make a bit more game like? Or do you have an idea of a way to make learning less like practice and more like a game that I haven’t shared already? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Rethinking assessments

Rethinking assessments

It’s late spring, and for those of you who know much about education, you know that means we are living through spring testing. We started ILEARN testing this week. ILEARN is the Indiana summative accountability measure for the state of Indiana. The testing window opened last week, and each afternoon since it opened, I have been spending a little more than an hour as a proctor in a fourth-grade classroom.

If you’ve followed my blog for any significant amount of time, you probably know that I get jazzed up for making learning exciting. I love for our schools and our classrooms to be places of joy. The vast majority of times that I walk into classrooms in our school, that is what’s happening. You see, learning is never a quiet activity. One of my professors in college drilled a phrase into us: “Learning is social.” She encouraged us to work in groups, to discuss, to collaborate, to challenge one another so that we could all learn. She constantly reminded us that we would need to do the same type of thing when we had classrooms of our own. To put it another way, she taught us that “The smartest person in the room is the room” (I’ve heard this quote from multiple sources but believe it can first be attributed to David Weinberger). That mindset of social learning followed me for most of my teaching career – sure there were moments where we had to be quiet, but if you walked into my science classroom on most days, students were actively involved in labs, gathering data, doing research, etc.

In fact, if I’m being completely honest, when I walk into a classroom where it is totally silent, I often find myself thinking “What’s wrong?” or “Where is the learning?”

I think that’s part of why I struggle with the testing season so much. I’ve long believed that a child is so much more than a test score. I have seen students who should have been able to soar through the state assessment have a meltdown because of test anxiety. I’ve also personally witnessed a child who probably didn’t read any of the questions end up with an amazing score because of lucky guesses. How they do on a single assessment on a single day may not tell us a whole lot about who that child is.

Recently, I have seen some really well-reasoned arguments on both sides of the assessment spectrum. A recent article from The Fordham Institute argues that assessment data is needed, this year in particular, for 3 reasons: state assessments gauge where students are against grade-level expectations; state assessments provide an “external audit” of proficiency that complements course grades and diagnostic tests; baseline state assessment data is essential to tracking progress moving forward.

On the other side, a recent ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) guest post shares some of the things that make standardized testing problematic any year, not just this year. Some of the reasons include: standardized tests don’t provide feedback on how to perform better; standardized tests don’t value creativity; standardized tests don’t value diversity; standardized tests cause teachers to spend more time “teaching to the test.” This article didn’t even really go into the problems of the added stress that is put onto students when being given a standardized test in a year that has been anything but normal.

The reality is that while I have my personal opinions about standardized assessment, I can’t make up quite which way to go. As an administrator, I know that data helps drive our decision-making processes to be able to better support our students. That data can also be utilized to drive professional learning for our teachers. I also know that a test environment creates stress that can literally be felt when you enter a room during testing time.

Last week, while I was in the testing environment, we were giving a math test. It was a multiple-choice computer adaptive test. What that means is that as you answer questions the following questions are adjusted based on whether your previous answers were correct or incorrect to allow for a more individual test with more precise data about a student. During this math assessment, I saw a student in tears because the test was so hard. Even though we had encouraged students to simply do their best, and not worry about the outcome, this kiddo broke down in tears. At another moment, there was a student who leaned back in his chair and simply stared at the ceiling. When I made my way over to check-in, he said “This is hard. How many more questions are there?” The assessment ended up have 45 questions. He was on number 6.

What I find in practice is that state assessments take the joyful classroom learning environment that we have worked so hard to build and suck all the joy out of it. As I write this, we are nearing the end of the second week of testing, and even I am feeling worn down by the stress it creates. Is this what we want for our kids?

We’re spending several hours a day for 6-7 days in our third and fourth-grade classes on standardized tests. It takes away from time that could be spent on more meaningful learning opportunities. It takes time away from our students digging into projects with their classmates that can help solve problems in our school and community. Plus, because of our Covid-19 protocols, our school day is already shorter than normal. In practice, when you take out that time each day for testing, we are losing the opportunity to extend learning on at least one of the subjects we would normally be working with. Not to mention the fact that it causes stress on our students – kids who struggle feel inadequate, kids who are perfectionists will never think they did well enough, kids who don’t test well might simply shut down or break down from the stress.

The reality is that for our students’ futures, simply having content knowledge isn’t what will make them successful, but rather what students are able to do with the knowledge that they have (For more on that, check out previous posts here and here). It’s time we really start rethinking standardized assessment. We need much more of a focus on performance-based assessments, where students actually have to do something with what they know.

On the bright side, I do have to give some credit. In the ILEARN, there are performance task sections. In the performance task, students have to read passages, analyze data, and then respond to questions about the passages or data. While these tests can be challenging for our students, they are more in line with the future-ready skills that our students will need in order to be successful. And as an added bonus, they don’t seem to be as stressful for the kids because even they realize that all the information they need is right there. The scores on performance tasks are based more on how they use that information. And because of the way the assessments are structured, teaching to the test would actually be in line with some of the better practices that we’re trying to use in our classrooms! Now if we can work towards an assessment system that is completely focused on performance-based assessments, and less on adaptive tests, we might better serve our kids and what their future holds.

What are your thoughts on standardized tests? Are there positives you see? Negatives? Has any of what I’ve shared above caused you to rethink assessment? Let me know in the comments below.

The future of work

The future of work

Last week was kindergarten open house, and it was so great to have our future students and their families come into the school for a brief tour. One of the things that we had set up for students was a picture frame that said: “It’s a great day to be a Tiger” at the top, and Class of 2034 at the bottom. That’s right, the kindergarten class that will be starting this August is the class of 2034!

It’s hard for any of us to imagine what the world might look like in 2034, just 13 years away. So, to give us some perspective, let’s think back 13 years. What do you remember from 2008? That year, Eli Manning and the New York Giants beat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in what was considered a huge upset after the Patriots had gone undefeated in the regular season (as an Indianapolis Colts fan, this feels like something I must include). Also, since I often think in terms of technology, I think it’s important to come back to the technology that existed in 2008. The first iPhone was released in 2007, so unless you were an early adopter of the iPhone, or you had a Blackberry, you probably didn’t have a smartphone in 2008. In the last 13 years, Apple has released 21 other models of the iPhone, sometimes releasing as many as 3 different models of the iPhone in one year. The first iPad wasn’t released until 2010! In 2008, I wouldn’t have imagined riding in a stranger’s car when I traveled somewhere – that would be hitchhiking. Now that’s called taking an Uber. In 2008, if I didn’t know how to get where I was going, I had to be sure to print a map from MapQuest so that I had directions. Now I can just use a maps app on my phone. I’m sure I could go on and on, but I think it’s safe to say that we all recognize that a lot of changes have taken place in the last 13 years.

I also think it’s worth pointing out some of the jobs that exist today that were not in existence 13 years ago. Here are a few examples: Social Media Manager; SEO Specialist; App Developer; Uber Driver; Driverless Car Engineer; Podcast Producer; Telemedicine Physician; and Zumba Instructor. This is not an exhaustive list. Just Google “Jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago” and you’ll come up with tons of hits.

The point of sharing these things is to remind us about the cycle of change. We’d all agree that our world changes quickly, and the changes only seem to come faster each year. Think about it, the students in our elementary schools today have not existed in a world before smartphones and on-demand access to music, video, and more.

So that brings me to the point of this post – as educators today, it is imperative that we exist in a future-driven mindset. What we do in our classrooms must constantly be thinking about what children will need in order to be successful, fulfilled, and healthy in all senses in their futures. This means coming to the realization that learners today are different from learners of the past and have different innate aptitudes and abilities.

I’ve said it before, but our schooling system was built based on past influences. The school year runs from the fall to the spring based on the agrarian needs of the past. This was necessary so that children could help their families work the farm in the summertime. The daily schedule and bell model were created to meet the needs of the industrial revolution and having employees who could work based on a start and end time. The bell schedule was also related to that same system of work/breaks in factories. That system is old and outdated.

Not so long ago, I would have said that change in education is a slow process. Imagine trying to turn around a giant ship in the middle of the ocean. It’s not going to turn on a dime. And until March of 2020, I would have said that education was the same way. Then we lived through a global pandemic and in a weekend, we shifted from a system that we knew into a system of emergency remote teaching. Over the course of this school year, we have shifted between a variety of different learning modes and done so with grace. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that change is possible in education, and it can happen quickly.

To be ready to meet the needs of our students, and have them prepared for their futures, we have to be aware of the shifting skills, knowledge, and behaviors that learners need. Instead of teaching students outdated skills that prepare them for our past. We have to filter our thinking through an understanding that our learners will be in a world that will continue to be transformed by technology acceleration, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and more.

My biggest take-away of what I know about the needs of our learners is that they don’t necessarily need to be content experts, but rather they need to have adaptable skills that could translate to any content. Some of those “soft skills” include problem-solving, ability to work in a team, strong work ethic, analytical/quantitative skills, written communication skills, and leadership.

What implications might this have in your classroom? How does this have you thinking of learning differently in the coming weeks, or as you move towards a new school year?

The gist of this post comes from reading An American Imperative: A New Vision of Public School. You can access the report here.

Think Again

Last week was spring break, which was a great time to rest and recharge. We didn’t go anywhere this year, so I was able to enjoy a lot of time at home with family, some time doing projects around the house, some yardwork, several bike rides and workouts, and lots of time reading. Just prior to the break, I started reading Think Again by Adam Grant. I was first introduced to Grant’s work through his TED Talk: The surprising habits of original thinkers. If you’ve never seen this talk, take a few minutes to watch it now:

This TED Talk led me to Grant’s previous book, Originals. If you’ve never read it, you should pick it up. When I saw that there was a new book coming out, I placed a preorder without even really knowing what the book would be about.

Think Again was such a great read that I wanted to share a few of my takeaways from the book. The gist of the book is that there is a great amount of benefit in doubt. Embracing the unknown and finding joy in being wrong can actually help us to be more creative. In the book, Grant shares that creative geniuses are not attached to one idea or identity, but rather that they are able to rethink. Alvin Toffler, an American writer and futurist, shared that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” My greatest takeaway from this book was the idea of being flexible in our thinking, be willing to treat our ideas as hunches or hypothesis and get really comfortable when admitting that you’re wrong.

Throughout Part 1 of the book, Grant focused in on Individual Rethinking. What I find is that the key is for us to practice moments of intellectual curiosity. Instead of choosing to defend your own belief just because someone else’s idea doesn’t fit, get curious. “How do you know that?” is a great question to ask to try to dig a little deeper. Understanding where someone is coming from may help you find that there is some common ground in your seemingly different opinions.

So, let’s bring this back to education. One of the things that I have found is that there are certain topics that seem to be “sacred cows.” The number of times I’ve been told that’s the way we’ve (or I’ve) always done it is enough to drive me crazy. What if the thing that you learned as a “best practice” actually isn’t really best anymore? What if there is a better practice out there? Maybe one form of rethinking we need to do is throw out the term best practices and replace it with the concept of better practices.

But look, I’m not saying we have to rethink everything about education! In the past year and a half, we’ve been working on forming a new vision for learning for my current school. It’s been a long and arduous process, but after gathering information from a variety of stakeholders, our vision setting team has landed on 5 key concepts that we aspire to bring to our school:

  • Project-Based Learning
  • Innovation
  • Collaboration
  • Empowerment
  • Inclusivity

Now, there may be some that see those phrases – especially project-based learning – and think that this means we are going to have to completely revamp our curriculum. I don’t believe that is accurate. While there may be some changes in the way we do things, I still foresee times of reading, writing and math. There are still times we might use a math book, or a writer’s notebook. When we think about rethinking, finding the aspects that don’t have to change may make us a little more comfortable with the change that’s coming.

I’d like to think that rethinking is a skill that I have. I don’t often get set on an idea until I’ve had some time to think things over, talk to a variety of people, and let my thinking simmer for a bit. There are definitely some ideas that have really shifted in my beliefs in the past 18 years I’ve been in education. I find that often when I take the time to process, and gather thoughts from others, the ideas I have end up being even better than my initial thought. And I hate to be put on the spot and tell someone an exact answer right away. I know that there are times that people come to me with issues seeking an immediate solution. I often will ask them when they need to have a response from me. If it’s not right away, I ask them if we can circle back to the topic at some later date or time so that I have time to think and rethink.

What are your thoughts about rethinking? Have you read Think Again? Or are you tempted to pick it up? I very much recommend the time spent. Also, I’m curious, what’s something that you’ve rethought? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Sometimes you grab a shovel

About a month ago we had what we, for Indiana, consider a pretty decent snowstorm. Roads weren’t in great shape, sidewalks were a bit slippery, and the parking lot felt like an ice rink as I was walking in. Luckily, the roads were clear enough that all our students were able to get to school, and we had what felt like a pretty normal school day. In the afternoon, after dismissing our buses, I came back inside and was taking my jacket off when one of our people came in looking for some help. She had parked in a street parking spot across from school, and over the course of the day the snowplows had gone by and made it impossible for her to get her car out.

Now, as building principal, there are a lot of things going on at the end of the day. But in that moment, I made a decision. I walked down to our dock area where I knew we had a snow-shovel, grabbed it, and headed back outside. It would have been easy to delegate this task, maybe to a custodian, or someone else, but I believe that relationships are a powerful thing.

(Picture for effect – Not an actual picture of the shovel in use!!!)

It took some digging, and then some pushing, but eventually we were able to get the car out. I gave the person a wave, she headed home, and I headed back inside the building to put the shovel away.

I’m not telling you this story because I need a pat on the back, or to brag about a good deed I did. I think all of us who work in schools (or really just about any position that deals primarily with people) know that there are times that someone might need help from us that isn’t really a part of our job description. It’s easy to find a reason why we can’t help in those moments – I have a meeting to get to, I have lesson planning to finish, etc. But think for a minute about how much helping someone might lift them up. And here’s the reality, when we do something that makes someone else happy, we get a little dopamine hit in our brain too, which makes us feel good.

It doesn’t have to be grabbing a shovel and helping to push a car. Maybe it’s providing some support to a colleague, or a listening ear for a student who is having a rough day. Whatever it is, take just a moment, think about how the other person might feel, and find a way to help.

If we model this mindset for our students, they will learn to look at the world in a similar way.

So here’s what I’m going to encourage you to do in the coming few days: Find a time when you can be the one to “grab a shovel” and do it. See how it helps the other person, and notice how it makes you feel as well!

Negative relationships with math

Negative relationships with math

When I say math class, what do you think of? One of my favorite math podcasts, Making Math Moments that Matter, asks their guests to share a memorable math moment. Pause for a second, close your eyes, and think of math class. What do you see? What do you remember?

For me, the first thing that comes to mind is third grade. During third grade, we did timed math tests every Friday. The page was full of problems. Once you hit a certain level with addition, you moved to subtraction, then multiplication, then division. I hated timed tests. I got through addition and subtraction all right but remember getting stuck on my multiplication facts. For whatever reason, I could not get over the hump on the multiplication timed tests. Here’s the thing though – I did well in math, I always scored high on tests and quizzes, and was successful with my homework assignments. But because I didn’t do well on my timed tests, I felt like I wasn’t good at math.

The next thing that comes to mind is high school math and my Trigonometry / Pre-Calculus class. We would walk into class, sit down, open a notebook, and then take notes of sample problems for the entire 45-minute class period, then we’d go home and do 15-20 homework problems. The monotony of this process was broken up only by test or quiz day. While I liked my teacher, I did not feel like I learned a lot in this class. Often when doing my homework, I would go back to my notes because there was something I didn’t understand, but my notes would not help me solve the problems. I felt like this was a point where I ran into a wall. I did all right in my math classes up to that point, but for whatever reason, that year, I felt like I was no longer a mathematician.

Even with these two experiences, I generally enjoyed math. I felt like I was pretty good at it, so in college when I had to select an area of endorsement to go with my degree in Elementary Education, I selected math. When I was hired for my first teaching position, my school saw that I had a math endorsement and had me teach the advanced math class for our fifth grade. As I think back on how I taught math those first couple of years, I utilized some of the strategies that I hated about math when I was younger. I fell back to those strategies because that’s what math class was supposed to feel like, right?

Recently, I’ve been reading the book Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead, and Live Without Barriers, and it’s taking me back to my days as the advanced math teacher early in my career and wishing that I would have thought of doing things differently. The premise of the book is that there are six keys of learning. Each chapter of the book presents one of the keys. Chapter 4 is titled “The Connected Brain” and focuses on the following learning key:

“Neural pathways and learning are optimized when considering ideas with a multidimensional approach.”

Jo Boaler, Limitless Mind, 2019, p. 101

Reading this chapter has been mind-blowing in helping me understand why I struggled so much with the timed tests in third grade. To me, those papers were just a jumble of numbers on a page. I couldn’t make sense of it all. Even today, I see pictures of worksheets like this, and I feel the anxiety kick in immediately.

So, what is this multidimensional approach that Boaler is talking about? Did you know that even when working on a simple math problem, there are five different areas of the brain that are put to work, and two of them are visual? Our brain wants to take those numbers on a page and create something visual! And when we, as teachers, help our students to access multiple parts of the brain, and communicate with one another, the learning is so much greater!

As I reflect on my learning, I don’t recall exactly when math stopped being visual, but I’m pretty sure that change happened somewhere in my elementary school experience, quite possibly in third grade when I was struggling with those timed tests! So, what are some ways that we can add more visuals to our math practice? Boaler suggests that instead of having our students practice a series of nearly identical questions, have our students practice a small number of questions (like three or four) and think about them in multiple different ways. These are some of the questions that Boaler shares in Limitless Mind (2019, p. 109):

  • Can you solve the questions with numbers?
  • Can you solve the questions with visuals that connect the numbers through color-coding?
  • Can you write a story that captures the question?
  • Can you create another representation of the ideas? A sketch, doodle, physical object, or form of movement?

What does this look like? Here’s an example that I created using a simple division problem:

Boaler credits this “Diamond Paper” approach to Cathy Williams, one of Boaler’s colleague’s and fellow director of youcubed. When I saw Diamond Paper, I immediately thought of the Frayer Model. Earlier in my career, I taught science, and one of the ways that we learned some of our difficult vocabulary words was through the Frayer Model graphic organizer. I found that my students had a better conceptual understanding of our vocabulary words and used them appropriately in their lab write-ups. The reality is that something like the diamond paper method or the Frayer Model can be used in lots of different subject areas. The multi-dimensional thinking that is required to complete something like this activates more regions of the brain, creating stronger connections within the brain, which leads to greater learning.

Those timed tests that I struggled with were not helping me learn. While I did eventually pass my multiplication and division timed tests, it was purely memory-based. I did not have a conceptual understanding of what was going on. I still believe that the wall that I ran into in my year of Trigonometry / Pre-Calculus came about because I didn’t have the flexibility of numbers to understand the concepts behind what happened in multiplication and division.

I’ve defined learning on this blog before, and ultimately that’s what the focus is here. How do we learn and grow, and how do we help our students have greater levels of learning? The more we can do to connect different parts of the brain around a topic, the better the conceptual understanding we have in the long run.

Chasing greatness

Chasing greatness

Last night I was scrolling through Twitter, and the following tweet came up:

You see, yesterday was day 1 of spring football practice for my alma mater, Indiana University. Now, traditionally for me, March was typically much more about IU basketball than IU football, but the winds are changing. IU is a football school now! And unfortunately, our basketball program is on the struggle bus. I encourage you to take a moment to watch the video clip again, and pay attention to what head coach Tom Allen says as he’s coming up the tunnel.

First of all, if you don’t know much about Tom Allen, it’s that he is a super energetic guy (that might even be an undersell). You can hear that energy as he’s running up the tunnel! He has publicly shared that he’s gotten black eyes and broken teeth from jumping into players’ helmets in celebration. Last season, I remember watching social media highlights of some of the pre/post-game speeches that he gave in the locker room. My football playing days are long gone, but I was ready to go run through a wall for that man!

In the past, I’ve written about Jon Gordon’s book One Word That Will Change Your Life (you can see those posts here or here). Every year Coach Allen has been at IU, he has chosen a word that gives a theme to the season. This year’s word is:

What I love about the phrase “Chase greatness today” is the growth mindset that is built in. When you chase something, you might accomplish it, but you might not. The key is to not give up in the chase. During a chase, there is no way to truly fail, you can always get a little bit better, a little closer, when you chase greatness.

This idea of chasing greatness has me thinking of Tom Brady. The guy is 43 years old, and will be 44 prior to the beginning of the next NFL season. After winning his 7th Super Bowl (that’s more Super Bowls than any single franchise in the NFL has won, and makes up almost 13% of all the Super Bowls that have ever been played), it would have been easy for Brady to hang up his cleats and go live the good life of a former NFL star, just waiting for his eligibility for the NFL Hall of Fame to hit. But did he? No, he’s going to continue to work, to play, and to chase greatness.

That’s the thing about chasing greatness. There’s always more that can be done to be even better. Think about the greats, and not just from the sports world. People like Mozart, Curie, Jordan, Galilei, Bryant, Hopper, Aaron, and Einstein are often referred to as “genius” in their area of success. But if you take the time to do some research on each of them, you quickly learn that their genius is actually a function of extreme dedication and hard work over many years.

As I was thinking about this idea of chasing greatness, I was reminded of the book Relentless: Changing Lives by Disrupting the Educational Norm by Hamish Brewer. If you don’t know about Hamish Brewer, you should take a few moments to go and watch this video (I’ll be here when you get back!)

In his book, Brewer talks about this concept of “Chasing 100.” For each of us, that means we are striving to give our best each and every day. None of us can ever be perfect, but we can always chase the best we have and do our best.

And let’s pause and think about the difference between the word chase and the word achieve. The phrase “Achieve greatness today” has a very different feel to it. As I said above, the great thing about the use of the word chase is that there is no fail point. The chase never has to end. There’s always room for growth, whether you are the junior high quarterback who dreams to be like Tom Brady, or you’re actually Tom Brady, the chase goes on. On the other hand, if you use the word achieve, and you don’t get there, you have just failed. You didn’t make it.

Words can have immense impact on our beliefs about ourselves.

In his book East of Eden, John Steinbeck has one of his characters say “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” Think about the pressure that perfection and achievement put on us all. Being good at something, and striving to continue to grow is so much more powerful than ever trying to be perfect. And the reality is that nobody can ever be perfect.

As many of you know, in my past I was both a football and basketball coach. Each day at practice, we’d close by bringing it in to a huddle, putting our hands in the center, and taking a moment to reflect on what each of us had done to get better.

So, let’s all bring it in and put a hand in… Think for a moment about what it is that you are going to chase.

OK, now, Chase on 3…

1…

2…

3…

CHASE!

What does this child need right now

What does this child need right now

Today I had one of those days with a student. I decided to visit a classroom to observe a kiddo that had been struggling. We had a meeting scheduled with mom, and I wanted to do a little “Time on Task” assessment. I’d seen him “in action” a few times throughout the year, had looked at behavior charts, and talked with the teacher, but there’s nothing that quite compares to being in the room for a chunk of time to witness interactions with peers and the teacher, behaviors, etc. When I first walked in, he wasn’t in the classroom, but when he rejoined, he quickly noticed me. I was sitting far away from where he normally sits, and I was watching the rest of the class and their reading lesson. He seemed to know that I was there to observe him. I could see him watching me, and he then started acting out. I’m not going into a lot of detail about all the behaviors, I don’t believe that is important for this post. While all the behaviors were nothing we hadn’t seen before, there seemed to be no trigger other than my presence. Later, after he calmed down, the student actually said to me “I didn’t like that you were spying on me.”

Smart kid! He knew why I was there, but instead of my presence being a motivator of appropriate behavior, it motivated the exact opposite behavior we would want to see. It reminded me of a quote I saw on Twitter the other day:

We have come to the realization that the student in question needed some help! And trust me, our team is working hard to figure out exactly what that help looks like.

A couple years ago, I wrote a post based on the book Lost At School by Ross W. Greene (you can see that post here). My experience today took me back to that book. Over the course of the past few weeks, I have had several meetings about this student, trying to peel back the layers to even find a starting point. We’ve met as a teacher team, with our student support team, with parents, etc. Initially I was thinking that we were concerned about classroom participation. At this point, based on our most recent conversation, our goal is simply for the student to be present in the room without creating a distraction for the rest of the class.

The problem behaviors that we see in the classroom generally don’t have a lot to do with what the adults in the classroom are doing. And the reality is, even for our most challenging kids, they can typically tell us what they are supposed to be doing, where things went wrong, and how they should act in the future. And even more so, they want to be successful. One of the key tenets in Lost At School is that “kids do well if they can.”

So, if we can agree that kids want to be successful, and that they do well if they can, and that acting out is a sign of unmet needs, then that means there must be something lacking for that child. That brings us to the idea of Lagging Skills. In Lost At School, Greene shares the “Assessment of Lagging Skills & Unsolved Problems” (you can see the ALSUP here). Take a look at the list of lagging skills. As educators, we often reframe the behaviors of challenging kids with phrases like this:

  • “He just wants attention.”
  • “He just wants his own way.”
  • “She’s manipulating us.”
  • “She’s not motivated.”

“Behaviors that trigger our automatic thought that a child is “bad” or “lazy” or “slow” are often a sign that his stress level is way too high and there’s no gas left in his tank – no energy left to manage anything else.”

Stuart Shanker, Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life, 2016

I’m sure you have heard phrases like the ones above, and more! But if we see misbehavior as something other than being out to get us, then the most important thing we can understand is that “the kid isn’t testing limits or being manipulative or controlling; rather, he’s lacking an important skill” (Greene, Lost At School, p. 17). By examining the ALSUP, we might be able to identify lagging skills that a student has. Once we’re able to identify those lagging skills, we then need to look at the unsolved problems.

“Challenging behavior occurs when the demands and expectations placed upon a child outstrip the skills he has to respond adaptively.”

Greene, Lost At School, p. 27

Understanding a lagging skill helps us to know why a challenging behavior may be happening. Unsolved problems help us identify the when. This is where it gets a little harder for us as adults. According to Greene, when we begin to identifying those unsolved problems, there are a few guidelines we must follow. First of all, this is not the place to identify the challenging behavior. Behavior is what happens when the student is lacking skills, not the problem itself. Next, we have to remove our theories. Typically once we start saying “because” we have moved from the unsolved problem to the theory behind the problem. Then we have to make sure problems are split rather than clumped. Saying something like “difficulty writing” is a clumped problem. We need to split it into the various situations that lead to the maladaptive behavior, so instead we might focus on “the student has difficulty writing when he is unable to make the words look the way he knows they should look.” The final guideline is to be as specific as possible. This about the “w” questions: who, what, where, and when.

The reality is, for most of our struggling kids, there will probably be multiple problems that we can identify. But it’s simply not possible to try to attack everything at once. We have to pick one problem that is our priority.

“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word, we can bend reality.”

Greg McKeown, Essentialism, 2014

So with the student I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there are several problems that our team can identify. But right now, we have to pick one. When you run into a challenging student, you may be tempted to try to solve all the problems at one time. It’s important to remember that you have to start with just one. Once that problem seems to be solved, then pick the next. Always just one problem at a time!

I’m hopeful that the time we invest trying to solve this initial problem will help make the next steps easier in the long run. We have a lot of work to do for so many of our students that it can be overwhelming. Know that for all of us, the key is to work with a team. If you’re having trouble with a student, ask for support – a fellow teacher, a counselor, an administrator. Oftentimes the solutions someone else sees work much better than we’d ever expect!

Solving problems for kids can sometimes feel like we’re trying to solve a puzzle without knowing what the picture looks like, and with some of the pieces missing. Over time, you eventually get there, but it requires trying a strategy, seeing if it works, and then going back to the drawing board. And one more word of caution – behavior often gets worse before it gets better. Be prepared for some snags as you start with a new plan. Try to stay consistent for a couple of weeks, then reassess. Are we seeing improvements? What is working? What isn’t? And finally, remember that you probably won’t solve all the problems, no matter how hard you try, so be on the lookout for small victories. Celebrate them loudly, both with the student, and with your team!

Writing vs. Writing

What is writing? What does that question make you think? Now, grab a scrap of paper, a notebook, or a post-it and jot your definition. Hopefully, it will give this post greater meaning.

As I see it, there are two different ways to define writing. The first definition I think of is the physical task of holding a pen or pencil in our hand and manipulating it in such a way as to create letters and symbols. The second definition that comes to mind is thinking of writing as a form of communication where we represent language with symbols and use those symbols to express our ideas. Take a moment to glance back at your definition that you wrote down. Were you thinking more about the physical process of handwriting? Or were you thinking more about the expression of ideas? For me, I think much more about the expression of ideas than about the physical process. Maybe that’s because most of my writing happens on a device through either typing or dictation. I decided to look to see what others had to say on the topic, and these are a few of the definitions of writing that I found:

  • “Writing refers to the act of creating composed knowledge. Composition takes place across a range of contexts and for a variety of purposes.” – National Council of Teachers of English Position Statement – Understanding and Teaching Writing: Guiding Principles – (2018) accessible here
  • “Support students in writing often, with fluency, about topics they care about, for an audience of other kids, working on kinds of writing they’ve seen other writers attempt.” – Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, & Laurie Pessah – Leading Well (2019)
  • “Writing is mind traveling, destination unknown.” – Patrick Sebrenek, Verne Meyer, & Dave Kamper – Writers INC: A Student Handbook for Writing and Learning (1996)

Recently I was having a conversation with a colleague about writing. I thought we were talking about the expression of ideas, but I quickly became aware that this conversation was very much focused on that physical act of holding a pencil and creating letters and symbols. To me, that just isn’t what writing is truly about. Now, I do have to adjust my mindset a little bit – remember, I’m an elementary principal now, but I’ve spent most of my professional life as an educator working in intermediate grades. The physical act of holding a pencil and writing on paper was a given for the vast majority of our intermediate students. But I recognize that for our youngest students, the process of handwriting letters and words is a skill that we need to pay attention to. That said, massive amounts of time devoted to handwriting (that physical process), especially if it leads to less time to practice the expression of ideas, may take away from our goals on writing.

So, what are the goals we have for writing?

Ultimately, when we are talking about writing in schools, the main focus needs to be on getting ideas from our student’s brain into a media that others can then read and respond to. That might include pencil and paper, but it could also include using a device to type our thoughts, or it could even involve using the dictation function on an iPad or computer to “type” our thoughts. (quick aside: A little more than a year ago, I broke my left hand. I am left-handed, so once I had a cast, handwriting was almost impossible, and typing meant finger pecking since my cast didn’t allow my ring and pinky finger to move. I learned how to use dictation on my laptop. It was a game-changer that I even still use at times today since my speaking is even faster than my typing.) “Writing” could even be a verbal telling of a story that has been recorded (think Flipgrid!!!). I still remember in one of my writing classes that our first assignment was to learn a joke to tell to the class. Telling a joke is a form of story telling!

What if we were more concerned with writing as the expression of ideas, and not as the physical process of using a pencil for handwriting? I believe that the best way for our students to get better at something is through the time they spend practicing. What if we allowed our students to use dictation on their devices to take in their ideas? Isn’t the expression of ideas what writing is truly about? When I use dictation, it allows me to see words and punctuation appear on my screen as I speak. Our students will see this happen as well, and some of what they see will be absorbed and then translate into their handwriting. And the fact is, my dictation is never perfect. I always have to go back through for editing and revision purposes. But I can get my ideas out much quicker this way.

I think that part of why this conversation stuck with me is because I do think of myself as a writer now, but if you had asked the elementary school version of me, I would not have said that same. There are times that I wish I could pick up the phone and give Mrs. Samuelson (the saint of a teacher who was both my first-grade teacher and my sixth-grade teacher) a call and tell her “I’m a writer now!”

So, what has changed? When I was in elementary school, I was not very good at the physical process of handwriting. I didn’t like that I had bad handwriting that others couldn’t read. I hated the way that as a left-hander, whether I wrote in pen or pencil, my hand would drag across what I had written, and then the text would become smeared, and my hand would have ink or lead all over it. I didn’t like how slow I was at writing – sometimes my brain would be three sentences in while my hand was still on the first sentence and invariably by the time my hand caught up, some of those thoughts were lost forever. When I was in elementary school, typing and dictation were not an option at all. While I remember a couple of my classrooms having an Apple II with games like Oregon Trail, we didn’t have a computer lab with a word processing program until I was in sixth grade.

That was my school self. But at home, we had a typewriter. I used to sit in my room with that thing and write story after story. Often, I would try to imitate the stories I’d been reading. I went through a Stephen King reading kick, so I started writing my own versions of his stories. Then I got really into mysteries, so I wrote a story about a detective from my hometown. Unfortunately, typewriters are really heavy, and I couldn’t carry it back and forth. My at-home writing didn’t make the journey to school.

With the changes in technology that have happened since my elementary school days, there are so many ways for our students to collect their ideas and then use those collections to actually go through the process of writing. If you have a student who struggles to write but has lots of ideas, allow them to use dictation on their device. Or let them record a voice memo that they can then transcribe (or maybe even have someone else dictate). Or does the expression of ideas have to always be written? A part of our ELA standards here in Indiana includes a Speaking and Listening component. Some kids might be able to express a better story structure in a spoken form. They could do a video recording. Or maybe they could create an audio story like a podcast. The presentation of knowledge and ideas are what we’re really going for here.

What other ideas might you have? What impact might there be for your classroom? Or for student learning? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Also, a few years ago, I wrote a post about the types of writing that we engage students in. In that post, I was comparing the writing of 5 paragraph essays and newspaper articles to the writing of blog posts and copy (see that post here). While it doesn’t tie directly to what this post is about today, I think that reflecting on the types of writing assignments we ask our students to do is still a worthy conversation and point of reflection.

The Power of Play

The quote above is backed up by the following research:

Let the Children Play: Why more play will save our schools and help our children thrive, Pasi Sahlberg & Bill Doyle (2019)

The LiiNk Project: Effects of Multiple Recesses and Character Curriculum on Classroom Behaviors and Listening Skills in Grades K-2 Children, Deborah Rhea & Alexander Rivchun (2018)

Over the long weekend, I started reading The Playful Classroom by Jed Dearybury and Julie P. Jones. I think many of you know that I love to play. I have a basketball hoop on the back of one of my doors in my office. I keep a RAZR scooter behind the other door in my office. At home, you can regularly find me with my kids in Nerf gun battles or building LEGOS. The other day I spent several hours outside with my kids in the snow building a massive hill to make sledding in our front yard a little more fun. I like fun!

What I really love about this book (so far… I’m only about halfway through so you might hear more about it later!) is the mixture of real-life examples and classroom ideas/strategies, combined with research to support a shift to more play in the day. Reflecting on the quote above, when is behavior typically the biggest struggle in the classroom? In my own classroom experience, things went steadily downhill when we went over about 20 minutes of learning without some kind of transition or movement break. Even for me, depending on when you come into my office, you may find me standing at my “standing desk” (really it’s a closet with the doors and some of the shelves removed), or I might be sitting at the table by the window (this is a reading/creative thinking spot), or maybe at the round table in the middle of the room (this is my focused work/thinking spot). Sometimes I’m even at my “standing desk” but actually sitting on a high stool. For me, movement is an important part of my day. My brain gets sluggish if I spend too long in one spot or with one view.

As an adult, I’ve learned how to cope with those moments that I’m not able to move around much. I choose to sit in the back of meetings a lot (pre-Covid), not so that I can check out of what’s going on, but so that I can stand if I start to feel antsy. That way I stay focused on the meeting. Most of our zoom meetings I do at my standing desk so that I can stand, or pull my stool up if I need to sit. When I went to China to visit and learn about STEM education from their perspective, I had a 13-hour flight from Chicago to Shanghai (Yes, I said 13 HOURS!!!). While my seat was an aisle seat and it was easy to get up, there weren’t many options for movement. I adapted. I read (a LOT), I slept (a LITTLE), and I watched at least part of 3(!!!) movies. When we arrived in Shanghai and got off the plane, I wanted to sleep in a bed, I wanted to run, I wanted to move. Unfortunately, we weren’t at our final destination yet and had to take a bus 3 hours to Hangzhou. As exciting as it was to be in China, that was a tough day for me mentally. Luckily I was with a pretty awesome group of fellow educators that kept my spirits lifted!

But our students aren’t adults! The human body has adapted over the last 1-2 million-ish years to move. Our early ancestors were hunter-gatherers who spent much of their days up and moving around. It wasn’t really until the industrial revolution and digital age that most humans became much more sedentary. That’s just the last 300ish years! In terms of time for human adaptation, that’s nothing more than a drop of water in a bucket. As adults with a fully formed prefrontal cortex (you know, the logic part of the brain), we are able to notice what’s happening in our body and give ourselves what we need. That’s why when we were in virtual instruction in December/January, I’d run into some of the teachers in my school walking around the building. Our brains craved movement! But our students probably haven’t developed that part of the brain yet. Did you know that current research says that the human brain isn’t fully developed until somewhere around age 25? As educators, if we know that humans need to move, and we know our students probably aren’t able to cope with those long bouts of seat time, aren’t we duty-bound to provide them times to move?

And when sociologists spend time studying hunter-gatherer society, one of the things they learn again and again is that the children spend their day playing. The quote from adults in the hunter-gatherer societies that still exist today is “Why wouldn’t we let the children play? That’s how they learn.” 

Huh??? What have we been missing here in the “civilized” world about learning?

You see, when the human body is stagnant (sitting at a desk, on the carpet, etc.) the brain functioning goes DOWN not UP. Check out the graphic below to see what a 20-minute walk does for the brain.

When I was still a baby teacher, it was my goal that if an administrator walked into my room, the class would be seated at their desks and working silently. It took me a couple of years to figure out that this method didn’t work for ME or MY STUDENTS! Now, as an administrator, when I walk into a classroom that is silent my first thought is “What’s wrong here?” 

In the summer of 2000, I decided to take a couple of classes at Indiana University School of Education. One of them was a methods of instruction class. Our professor drilled it into us – “Learning is social!” She gave us time to talk, time to reflect, time to respond to one another. Clearly it mattered because it sticks with me to this day. When I was that baby teacher who wanted to look like I had my stuff (classroom management) together, I was actually doing a disservice to my students. I even had a parent who called me on that stuff early in my career. In our conversation, she said, “How do you expect Tommy (names have been changed to protect the innocent) to learn if he’s bored!” I thought she was wrong. I thought we needed quiet to learn. I was so wrong. I didn’t get it!

Luckily, I’ve come around to different understandings. In the 2 schools that I have served as an administrator, we have participated in the Global School Play Day. I have pushed teachers to rethink taking recess away from students who misbehave (see that quote at the top again). I don’t want to claim that we’re perfect, but we’re on a path to learn what it is that will help increase student learning as well as empower our students to be the best they can be. I have found that as we implemented more play into our days, behavior issues actually go down!

How many of you have ever done any research on schools in Finland? Consistently ranked as one of the top systems of education in the world, it’s worth pointing out one of the structures of their day: They spend 15 minutes of free play time out of every hour of their school day. You can read about the experience of one American educator who taught in Helsinki here. And when you add in some character education, the results are staggering (check out the work of Rhea & Rivchun at the top of this post).

As I think about this need for movement, for free play, for social time, it’s got me thinking about a few practices that we still see in our schools, especially our elementary schools.

Why do we only have one 30 minute recess per day? Is that truly enough activity to meet the learning and social needs of our students? I watch my kids at home. Most of their time is spent in some form of play. But then when we send them to school we expect them to sit in a classroom for 6+ hours per day. And as students get older, and they need movement more to adapt to their changing bodies, we first reduce recess time (15 minutes in 5th/6th grade in my community), and then take it away completely (7th grade is the end of recess here). I don’t remember much of my middle school years. I mean, who really wants to remember that time with all the changes we all go through at that stage in life? But you know what I do remember CLEARLY? 2 things… When the weather was nice, our cafeteria monitors would let us go outside for the last 10 minutes of lunch. We’d throw a football or frisbee around. It wasn’t called recess, but it was exactly what our bodies needed! The other thing I remember was the last day of school – we’d have a massive field day with games to play, a DJ to dance to, and free time to interact and socialize with our friends. My junior high memories wrapped up in one sentence: One day, plus 10 minutes of fun on nice weather days. If you could see me right now, you’d be dizzy with how hard I’m shaking my head.

Next, why do we need students to walk in a line down the hall? And why do some of them have to be boy/girl? You know where else people walk in lines? Prison and the army. In the pre-Covid world, when you were out with friends, did you walk in straight lines? how awkward would that be? Now, I know, the environment is different, but as adults, we all had to learn to act responsibly in the spaces we were in. We didn’t get taught that by someone telling us when we had to be silent. We learned by reacting to feedback from people around us. I remember being out with friends and walking through the student union in college. We were walking in what could best be described as a blob and so engaged in our conversation that we didn’t even realize we had entered an area that many were using to study. We got lots of evil looks from people and quickly got quiet until we had moved out of that space. Of course, when we were out of ear shot we burst into laughter, but we also learned from feedback. What feedback could you provide your students if they get too crazy in the hall? I don’t know that telling them to walk in a line is going to fix that! It sure didn’t work for me when I was a classroom teacher! What if we leaned on the empathy that so many of our students have? What if we asked them how it felt when we were in the classroom and someone was too crazy in the hall?

Another thing I wonder about, why do we encourage students to “put a bubble in it” when they walk in the hallway? Do we overuse phrases like “quiet coyote” or “give me five” in the classrooms? If we know that students need physical activity and cognitive breaks in some moments to help balance out those moments we actually do need them to be focused, are we choosing the quiet moments correctly? Now, I’m not saying that the hallway of all schools should be a free for all with students running every which way and yelling at one another, or that our classrooms should be a mixture of noise and movement at all times, but don’t humans learn responsibility by being trusted to act responsibly? Can’t we work on teaching our students to behave in a responsible way? Just yesterday I was in the hallway and I could hear the sound of a student running in their snow boots. He rounded the corner with a joyful smile on his face. “What’s up?” I said to him. “I have to get back to class! I don’t want to miss what we are doing!” He had such joy on his face that it brought a smile to mine! Don’t we want our schools to be joyful places for us all? In that moment, the last thing I thought about was telling that student he needed to walk. We should want our students to run to class so that they don’t miss what’s happening!

So, as I continue to read The Playful Classroom, it’s got me thinking and wondering about the things we do in schools. Do we do things like have students walk in lines in the hallway and stay quiet in the classroom because it’s what is best for our student’s learning, or because it’s what is easiest for us as adults? I’m going to continue to watch the things that happen in our buildings, and when I notice something that doesn’t seem quite right to me, I’m going to ask myself why. I’m also planning to dig into the work of Pasi Sahlberg, Bill Doyle, Deborah Rhea, and Alexander Rivchun (see the links above). Creating joyful learning environments should be our top priority! Not just because we want students to enjoy being at school, or because we want to enjoy being at school, but because play and joy actually open our minds to greater learning!