ChatGPT for teachers

ChatGPT for teachers

Last week, I shared a post to give some background on artificial intelligence in general, and the work of OpenAI and their chatbot ChatGPT. You can see that post here. Today’s post is my effort to think about how we might utilize AI within the educational realm.

If you’ve followed my writing for long, you know that I have often talked about teaching as something of a craft. It’s something that educators are bound to refine over time. If you compare the early writing of your favorite authors or earliest works of art by a favorite artist with things they created later in their career, you are going to notice differences. Whether we are talking about being an educator, artist, or anything else, we see that skills change over time. By no means am I suggesting that we remove the craft of teaching, or the creativity that comes from designing lessons that are responsive to the learners in your classroom, but as I start playing with AI like ChatGPT more, I’m finding that there are probably ways that we can use it to carry out some of the tasks that exist in our role as educators.

I’m not completely sure where I heard it, or even what the exact quote is, but it goes something like this:

Between the rise of digital technologies, search engines, and artificial intelligence, content knowledge is cheap. The creativity to take knowledge and skills and combine them in new and creative ways is what future employers will be looking for. We must remember that we aren’t trying to help our students be prepared for the jobs that exist in our world today, but rather we hope to have our students prepared for the jobs that will exist in the future – some of which may not even exist yet! The sooner we as educators can embrace new technologies, the more quickly we help our students find ways to use that technology in new and creative ways.

So, with today’s post, I wanted to think a bit about how technologies like AI might help make the life of a teacher a bit easier. Here’s a quick list of a few things that ChatGPT might be able to help educators accomplish:

1: ChatGPT could assist with creating and generating lesson plans and ideas – While visiting a first-grade class today, I noticed they were learning about text features in nonfiction writing, so I asked ChatGPT to create a lesson plan for me. Here’s what it created (click on the first image, and then you can swipe through the gallery):

Now, depending on the needs and interests of my class, my own personal knowledge of standards, and other information that I as a teacher might have, I would probably make a few changes, but this is something that could certainly serve as a starting point. And the cool thing about ChatGPT is we can ask follow-up questions. I asked the chat to adjust the lesson for a small group that was reading more than a year above the expected level, and it made several changes. Next, I asked for a lesson that was more student-directed. It adjusted by adding in more small group exploration into text features, and less teacher-directed time. With each follow-up, the adjustments made the lesson better in my eyes. The craft of teaching now comes from taking these initial ideas and focusing on how I can make sure that the lesson meets the individual needs of my students.

2: ChatGPT can assist in creating a quiz – I think we all would agree that we’re not going to be giving quizzes to our first graders, but just to test an idea, I next asked the AI to create a quiz that would assess student knowledge from the above lesson. It created a 10-question, multiple-choice quiz with three choices given as potential solutions. At the end of the quiz, it created an answer key. Again, the craft of this can come from adjusting what the AI creates to meet the needs of our students, but think of the amount of time I just saved!

3: ChatGPT can help create accessible materials for students learning English as a new language – Next, I asked ChatGPT to translate the quiz into Spanish. By no means am I fluent in Spanish, but I took enough in high school to recognize some of the questions and answers. I probably would want to check with someone that I knew was fluent (or at least more fluent than me), but at first glance, it seems pretty good. Next, I wondered what other languages might work. I tried Arabic, then Russian – now, I have no idea how accurate it is, but it must be at least as good as Google Translate!

4: ChatGPT can assist in answering questions in real time – As a former science teacher, one of the things that I loved (and at times hated because we could get so off track) were the curious “What if…” questions students would ask. These invariably ramped up during our unit on outer space. Just for the fun of it, I asked what would happen if astronauts could take a rocket at the speed of light from Earth to Mars. Questions like this were bound to happen when we started talking about the distances in space. It shared that it would take just a few minutes to get there but went on to discuss Einstein’s theory of special relativity, the concept of time dilation (where time appears to slow down for the rocket’s occupants), and the fact that the astronauts wouldn’t be able to see anything outside the ship because light would not reach them since they were traveling at the same speed as the light. How often have you had students ask you questions that you didn’t know the answer to? Or that you weren’t sure about the answer? ChatGPT could be a quick way to find an answer to whatever the question was.

Now, as I write this post, I know that I cannot use my school laptop to access ChatGPT – I get an alert that it’s been blocked. As I shared in my post last week, several schools across the country have chosen to block ChatGPT. Is that the right decision? I’m not exactly sure what the answer is. There have always been concerns as we introduced technology into schools. But when we think about school as a system, we also need to recognize that these technologies exist outside of the school setting. Our students will be able to access them when not on the school wifi (and keep in mind, if you work with an age group that has cell phones, they can probably just use their phone on their cell network while they are at school to access AI). If they have access to the technology, we need to start having conversations about how to use it in responsible ways.

I’m a big fan of teaching our students how to use all the various technologies that exist around them to support their learning. The only way we can do that is to also understand the capabilities of the technology and how it can support us in what we do. This is yet another opportunity for us as educators to refine our craft. My belief is that while the blocking of artificial intelligence is commonplace right now, at some point AI will be a mainstream tool that is used daily. Now, I know based on the various opinions that I have seen out on social media around artificial intelligence that this may make some of us uncomfortable.

So, as you think about integrating artificial intelligence into your practice, what thoughts do you have? Do you see benefits? What about drawbacks? Finally, what do you think about schools that are choosing to block AI within their technology ecosystem? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

ChatGPT in schools

Artificial Intelligence – when I hear that, one of the first things I think of is the movie The Terminator. I’m guessing most of us can hear Arnold Schwarzenegger saying, “I’ll be back.” If you don’t know the movie, or you’re too young, Schwarzenegger plays a cyborg that is sent back in time. That cyborg is created by Skynet, which is basically a giant artificial intelligence network from the future trying to take over the world and gather a slave labor force of humans.

What’s fascinating to me is that some of the technology that drives the plot of this 1984 movie seems to be coming to life – artificial life – today. Hopefully without the efforts to take over the world and turn humans into slaves.

At the end of November, a company called OpenAI released ChatGTP to the world. If you aren’t super techy, let me tell you a bit about what that means. Let’s start with OpenAI.

OpenAI is an artificial intelligence research lab. The organization’s mission is to ensure that artificial general intelligence (AGI) benefits all of humanity. They conduct research on machine learning and AI and provide access to its technologies to the public through various products and services. Artificial Intelligence is built on the concept that computers can learn on their own through scouring the web, accessing resources, etc. The organization has been involved in the development of several popular AI-powered tools, such as GPT-3, a state-of-the-art language processing model. OpenAI is also involved in research on the ethical and societal implications of AI and works to promote responsible and safe AI development. Additionally, OpenAI has been active in the open-source community, releasing many of its research papers and tools to the public.

ChatGPT is one of the tools that has been developed by OpenIA. It is a type of artificial intelligence (AI) that is trained to understand and generate human language. Essentially, it’s a computer program that can understand and respond to the text input in a way that mimics human communication. For those of us who have been around technology for a while, you may remember the days when your search terms had to be very specific, and utilize Boolean search terms (AND, OR, NOT, or AND NOT) to combine or exclude ideas to drill down to what you were looking for. Normal human language would rarely find you what you want. Today, search engines like Google can be much more successful in finding what you are looking for when entering searches with natural language. The work of OpenAI and other forms of artificial intelligence have helped make technology easier to use. To expand on ChatGPT, it can be used for a variety of tasks such as text generation, text completion, and language translation. ChatGPT is also used for automated customer service, language education, and more. It’s a powerful tool that can be used to create engaging content, generate personalized responses, and assist in a wide range of language-related tasks.

In my Twitter feed recently, there have been a lot of conversations about the positives as well as potential issues of students having access to ChatGPT. When I was playing around with ChatGPT the first time, I asked it to write a 5-paragraph essay on a book that one of my kids was reading. It’s a book that I’ve read too, so I felt confident that I’d know if it was on the right track. Here’s the thing, the response, was pretty good. Probably not something that would be assessed as a perfect paper – there were some grammar issues and a couple of confusing groupings of words. But if handed in by an upper elementary or middle school student, I wouldn’t be any the wiser.

Technology like this has raised a fundamental question – should we block OpenAI and ChatGPT? Several school districts have already made that choice. But I’d like to remind you that there was a point when YouTube was blocked in many schools. These days it’s used in classrooms all over the world as a learning tool.

About a week ago, New York City Public Schools announced that they would be blocking OpenAI, and in particular ChatGPT on all of their networks and devices. They fear that it does not build critical thinking and problem-solving skills. I’m not sure I completely agree.

Here’s what I’ve found while playing around with ChatGPT. There are some things it does well. The other day I asked it to create a playlist for my workout based on a song I like. It was good, surprisingly good. Then I asked it to create a 45-minute HIIT workout that only used bodyweight exercises. It was decent – I would make some changes if I were following the workout, but it would definitely get me sweaty. Then I asked it to adjust the workout to use a kettlebell and adjustable dumbbells – both of which I have in my basement gym. Again, it was pretty good.

Just for fun, I asked ChatGPT to tell me the story of The Three Little Pigs as told by Michael Scott from the office. In my head, I could hear the correct voice, just the right amount of funny, and just in case you’re wondering, to Michael, the moral of the story is to just go ahead and build your house out of bricks so that you don’t have to worry about a big bad wolf.

On Twitter, I’ve seen other funny exchanges – create a poem in the style of a Shakespearean Sonnet about something in modern day pop culture. It will write computer code for you. And there’s so much more. ChatGPT also has some limitations that they openly share on the homepage. It occasionally generates incorrect information. There have been some issues of harmful instructions and biased content. And it has limited knowledge of any events after 2021.

But for our students, if they learned how to utilize ChatGPT to help with research, AI can help build a solid outline of thoughts. They have to feed the information in, and then think about what they get out. Does it work for their needs? Do they need to edit it in some way? These are critical thinking and problem-solving skills. I don’t think that blocking a resource is always the best solution. Students will have access to artificial intelligence outside of school. They may have access to them as part of work in the future. Part of our job as educators is to prepare our students for their future world, not our current world. It’s something I want to process a bit more.

Originally when I set out to write this post, I intended to get to how we might use ChatGPT in our classrooms, but this post is getting a little long. So, for now, I’ll leave this as an intro to what OpenAI and ChatGPT are and some initial thoughts on the impact of our world and classrooms. Next week, I’m going to delve into some ways that we as educators might be able to utilize this technology in the classroom to support learning. In the coming week, take a few minutes to try logging into ChatGPT (just a forewarning – sometimes you have to wait a bit for the servers to be available, and depending on where you are). See what you can find – ask it questions about topics that are meaningful to you. Can it create a lesson plan for you? Can it give you a new strategy to try with one of your students? Or can it help you create something at home – a recipe for a new type of food; a workout; or a suggestion of what book you should read next based on your current read. If you try it out, share with us in the comments below what you figured out.

#OneWord 2023 – Impact

It’s that time of year again – the closing of one year and the beginning of the next. For many, this is a time of reflection, but it’s also a great time for goal setting. I’ll be honest though; I’ve never been that big a fan of the idea of New Year’s Resolutions. Too often, I feel they are broad goals with no timeline, and little incentive to accomplish them. Don’t get me wrong, if you are a tried-and-true believer in setting resolutions and have had success in meeting them, kudos to you. For me, it just doesn’t work.

A few years ago, I was introduced to the work of Jon Gordon, and in particular, his One Word Challenge. At the time, several people in my professional learning network were talking about this as an alternative to setting resolutions. You can think of the one word as something of a filter – it impacts what you do personally, professionally, and all areas between. That same year, I learned that Indiana University head football coach Tom Allen utilized the idea of One Word to set goals for the team and encouraged players to choose their own word for the year. That winter break, my Twitter timeline was filled with educators and football players posting graphics with their chosen word.

Over the years, I’ve participated in this process a few times. In 2018, the first year I participated, I failed to pick just one word, and instead had several words. In 2020, my word was Why – based on the ideas of Simon Sinek’s TED Talk “Start with why.” In 2021, my word was Vision as we were engaged in a vision-setting process at FES. I seem to have missed the #OneWord challenge for last year. This fall, at the Indiana Association of School Principals Fall Conference, I heard Jon Gordon speak, and that keynote reminded me of the One Word process I’ve used in the past.

Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time digging into the concept of Collective Teacher Efficacy (CTE) and John Hattie’s work around the influences of learning for students. CTE has been identified as the influence with the greatest impact on student learning. I define CTE as the beliefs that educators hold about our own ability to impact student growth. Given the amount of time that was spent thinking about this concept, it was easy to make a jump from there to my #OneWord for 2023:

What I’m reflecting on in my role as a building principal is the fact that my actions can have a huge impact on many people. So, this year, as I make decisions, I’ll keep my One Word in mind – what will have the greatest positive impact on student learning and growth? How can I help the teachers in my school have a greater impact? What can I do personally to impact our school as a learning organization? These questions will help guide me throughout the year.

I encourage you, as we move into this new year, to take a moment to reflect on what your word might be. If you are looking for ideas of what others have chosen, you could simply click this link for a search on Twitter for posts others have made about their #OneWord for 2023. Once you choose your word, find some way to make it meaningful to you. You could create a graphic and print it out to hang near your desk, or you could post a graphic on social media. This year, I chose to have a MudLove Personalized Bracelet made with my word. Each time I wear it, I’ll have the reminder of my impact.

Some of you might even feel the desire to have your students create their own One Word. Check out this idea:

If you choose to participate in the OneWord Challenge, please share what you create!

Practicing gratitude

Practicing gratitude

As you all probably know, I spend a lot of time reading and listening to podcasts. The positive to that is that often some of my most exciting ideas come from that learning. The negative is sometimes a line sticks, but I’m not sure where I picked it up – that’s the issue for today. I have this quote that’s been bouncing around in my mind since I heard it a few weeks ago, but I can’t recall who said it. I like to credit others when I can, but this is one that I just don’t know who to credit:

Think about it – if you’re thinking about something positive, it’s hard to also devote thinking time to the things that are causing you stress. As some might say, if we’re practicing gratitude, we are feeding the positives. And if you’re anything like me, your own worst critic lives inside of your brain. If we spend too much time listening to ourselves, we might start to believe it. So, I challenge you to seek out moments to talk to yourself instead – call out the good things happening, whether they are in your professional life or your personal life. Notice that difference? Listening to ourselves is a passive activity and our negative thoughts can spiral out of control. Talking to ourselves is an active way of noticing the good. It will really lift our spirits!

As we wrap up the end of the semester and move towards winter break, and knowing that there are plenty of opportunities to find stress this time of year, I want to devote this week’s post entirely to some of the things that I’m grateful for.

  1. Our students – One of my favorite moments of the day is during morning bus duty. Seeing our students as they get off the bus, the little moments of connection, a chat about something they are excited about, or simply giving them a high five will always bring a smile to my face. I’m an educator today because I truly love kids and I want to be able to support them in their path. That process of support is made easier when I know our students, and when I have relationships with our students. As a parent myself, I also know that there is a great responsibility for all of us to take care of every child while they are here at school. I take that to heart and work hard to give each child what they need to be successful at this moment.
  2. A staff that loves to laugh and learn together – In my almost 20 years of working in education, I have had the privilege of working in several different schools and with several different teams. I have always been grateful for the relationships I have built with my colleagues. Currently, I work with a team who always refers to our relationship as one of a family. This work family can find joy and laughter in the little moments with our students – both the good moments and the ones that can be a little rough. We can support one another in moments of difficulty – both professionally and personally. We also can help hold one another accountable to being our best. You know there is a good culture in a building when our relationships are strong enough to maintain accountability. Finally, I love that we are all willing to learn from one another. The other day I was chatting with a teacher as she was adding some data into a notebook. I was blown away by the level of organization and thought that had gone into creating and maintaining this data and how the teacher utilized that notebook to drive instruction in the classroom. When I asked about it, she shared with me that she had learned how to track data in this way from a colleague. Whether we’re learning together in formal professional development, or just in our own self-improvement in the craft of education, the great work happening here is spreading!
  3. The investment our district and school have made in Restorative Practices – As a leader in several buildings, I have led a lot of different professional development activities. One of the things that leaders do not often hear about these PD sessions is how enjoyable or interesting they are. Earlier this year, I was able to work with a leadership team here at my building to help lead training in restorative practices. After the session was over, several teachers stopped me and shared with me how much they appreciated the training, what they enjoyed about it, or something they had learned. Positive feedback like that is great, but when it comes on a topic that I also feel could have a powerful positive impact on all the students that attend our school, that positive feedback feels even better. I so appreciate getting to work in a district that has chosen to make a massive investment in our students and staff in terms of widespread restorative practices training. Since our training a little more than a month ago, I have already seen some shifts in language and practices within our building.

These are just a few of the things in my professional life that I am feeling grateful for right now. As you have time over the coming break, I encourage you to take a few moments and practice some gratitude. I can tell you that while I was working on this post, the stresses in my life were able to disappear from my brain for just a little bit. The more we find ways to practice gratitude, the easier it is to find things that we are grateful for. And as a side tip – take the time to write it down. If you are a journal keeper, start adding a gratitude section. If journaling isn’t your thing, you could use the notes app on your phone, or something like that, to jot down a couple things you are grateful for every day.

What scares you?

What scares you?

When I was younger, I used to love to watch the television show Unsolved Mysteries. I still remember sitting in our basement with the TV on, trying to figure out about these strange things that happened in our world. It was probably during the same phase in my life when I loved books like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I loved these types of things for a while until I didn’t. I don’t know if any of the rest of you went through a phase like that where horror and mystery were exciting. At the point I’m at in my life now, I don’t need fear like that – I have zero desire to read a scary story, or watch a horror movie… I can’t even get into the true crime fad that so many others I know love.

But it’s interesting to think about how much fear can impact us in our day-to-day lives. Most people, like me, have decided that they don’t want to put themselves in situations where they feel scared. That is something that is also true for many of our students too – they don’t want to go outside of their comfort zone, and often will do whatever it takes to avoid a feeling of shame or embarrassment. In fact, sometimes the behaviors that we see that seem outside the norm are actually related to their efforts to avoid shame and embarassment.

I think sometimes that fear of trying something new comes from a feeling of cognitive dissonance. You may know that phrase, but to make sure we’re all on the same page, cognitive dissonance is defined as having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change. It’s not just our students who will try to avoid feeling embarrassed – many adults will do it too. It could be relating to something in our personal life, or it could have to do with trying that new classroom practice that feels a bit out of our comfort zone.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I believe that all schools are learning organizations. Part of what makes a school a learning organization is that all the people who come here – students, teachers, staff members, parents, etc., can learn something while they are here. So, let’s dig into that idea of learning for teachers and staff members.

A previous administrator that I worked with used to talk about being on the “growing edge.” To be on the growing edge, you must feel a little bit uncomfortable. Think about schooling – what it looks like today is different from what it looked like when I was in school, and that is different from what it looked like when my parents were in school. A schoolhouse is a place of innovation. As we learn more about how kids learn, we implement new strategies and see if they help our students. These small changes over the course of many years are part of what has caused the school to look so different than in the past. The more we know about how kids learn, the greater impact we can have on their learning moving forward.

And the things we do in our classroom, that are considered “best practice” are meant to put our students on their own growing edge. In a place where there is some feeling of being uncomfortable, they also must work to figure it out. In a lot of ways, our efforts to move our students to higher levels of thinking is considered best practice because it helps push students beyond their comfort zone. It helps them create new neural pathways in their brain, and suddenly they have learned something new!

But here’s one of the things I’ve noticed – so often we as educators will learn about something new relating to student learning, but we hesitate to implement it. Maybe we want to start implementing Universal Design for Learning, or maybe we have seen some amazing examples of Project-Based Learning out there on social media. As an educator, it might be something we’re curious about, but at the same time are relatively early in the learning process. This is where the fear of teaching can sometimes come in. Does this sound familiar: 1) I’m curious about a new strategy; 2) I have done a little bit of learning about the topic; 3) I want to try, but I’m just not sure where to start; 4) I’m worried it won’t go well; 5) I put that idea on the shelf and go back to what’s comfortable.

The thing I know about most teachers is that there are some personality traits that are similar. One of those similarities has to do with a desire to make sure that whatever we put in front of our students is as close to perfect as possible. I’m sure that there are times that I felt that way, and probably held back on some of my more creative and innovative ideas because they didn’t seem quite perfect. What I’ve learned is:

Here’s the challenge we face as educators – innovative ideas help to push learning forward for our students, but our own perfectionism might get in the way of trying something that would be a benefit for our kids. How do we balance the need for innovative ideas with our personal feelings that our school or our classroom needs to be perfect?

I challenge you to take a moment to reflect on some of your new ideas that you might have been hesitating to try. Pick one and give it a try. What’s the worst that happens? If the lesson is a flop, you can use it as a chance to model for your students that imperfection is ok. And if the lesson goes well, you might find some ways to take that idea, do it again in the future, and make some small changes to make it better.

Learning is all about being on the growing edge. Part of that cognitive dissonance comes from doing the things that scare us before we feel they are perfect. But, it’s how we learn, it pushes learning for our students, and it models risk-taking, which is something we are constantly asking our students to do!

The Warm Demander

The Warm Demander

Recently, I attended the Indiana Association of School Principals Fall Professionals Conference. This conference brought together school leaders from all over the State of Indiana for a few days of learning with several keynote speakers, and then some great breakout sessions. While there are many things that I could share with you from the various learning opportunities, there was one thing that stuck out to me. In one of the sessions, our presenters shared something called the “Warm Demander Chart.” This chart is based on the work of Zaretta Hammond, and it looks like this:

As you look at the chart, you’ll notice four quadrants, which are based on two axes. The vertical axis is based on a spectrum from passive leniency to active demandingness, in other words, it’s how high of expectations we place on our students. The horizontal axis is based on a spectrum from professional distance to personal warmth. These traits will impact actions by teachers in a classroom, but also impact students’ perceptions about their sense of belonging.

Recently, in our building, we have been digging into the work of John Hattie. In that work, we’ve learned that research should impact practice within the classroom. In his work, Hattie has identified a variety of influences on learning. In that research, things like teacher-student relationships, school climate, sense of belonging, and teacher estimates of achievement (in other words, our expectations of students) all meaningfully contribute to accelerating academic success.

Which is why I want to come back to the Warm Demander Chart. Take a moment to go back to it and reflect on a couple questions. First, where do you strive to fall on that chart? Next, if you don’t fall where you strive to fall, where do you feel like you end up instead? Finally, as a spectrum, there may be moments when we might move from one quadrant into another. What are the things that might cause you to move somewhere other than where you strive to be?

When I was at the conference session, we were split into groups to discuss the chart. Within that small group, all of us agreed that we strive to fall into the “Warm Demander” quadrant, but that there might be moments when we land somewhere else. As people around the room shared with the whole group, almost everyone said that they want to fall in that “Warm Demander” quadrant, and I’m guessing that is true for those of you who are reading this post.

But the more we talked, the more we realized that there were similarities in the moments we might move into more of the “Sentimentalist” quadrant. What I notice when I look at this quadrant is that because we care about our students so much, we want to protect them – from failure, from difficulty, from the struggle. Most likely, we do so with the best of intentions. We might know that the student has lots of struggles outside of school, such as poverty or trauma, and we don’t want to add to that.

Then a guy I was sitting near said something that I hope will always stick with me:

Let that sink in for a moment…

Now, pause and think about your students. There is probably at least one (and maybe more than one) student that we lower our expectations. And again, we do this with the best of intentions. But here’s the reality – for that student, one of the best ways to help them out of the situation they are in is a solid education. In life, there are going to be struggles for each of our children. One of the best things that we as educators can do is to provide them with a safe space and appropriate scaffolds in moments of productive struggle. Over time, they will then develop skills to help them handle moments of productive struggle independently. If we lower our expectations because “My poor babies just can’t handle that” (yes, I have heard that said about students by teachers that I have worked with), we might be crippling them in the situations they will face in the future.

It is appropriate as a teacher to hold all students to high expectations and then add in some personal warmth so that all our students know what struggle will look like, but also that people are there to provide a helping hand along the way. This is such an important piece of the learning process for our students. So, the next time you begin to think to yourself that you might lower your expectations for one of your students, remember that decision could have long-term impacts on our kids.

In the long run, our goal is to meet every kid where they are when they come to us and provide them with learning opportunities and support along the way so that they may grow to the greatest extent possible. That won’t happen when we lower our expectations for kids.

Challenge yourself to keep the expectations high for every student. We can still be that loving, warm, caring person while also expecting the most of our students they are capable of!

Science or craft

If you’re anything like me and live in a world surrounded by elementary education, you have certainly heard about the “Reading Wars.” If you aren’t sure what that is, it’s basically a back-and-forth debate among many educators about what is the best way to teach students to read. A quick Google search will show that articles about the reading wars have been in existence for years. In a search today, I see reference to Horace Mann arguing a whole language approach in the 1800s, or Rudolf Flesch arguing in support of systematic and sequential phonics instruction in 1955. Since the 1980s, the debate has gone back and forth between explicit phonics instruction as compared to a whole-language approach. I learned to read in a school that bought into a whole language approach, but I know I had friends who struggled to learn to read that way. Personally, I started my career as a teacher in a school that utilized the Four Blocks Literacy Framework. For years as a classroom teacher, I referred to Guiding Readers and Writers by Irene Fountas and Gay Pinnell constantly (my version is marked up, dog-eared, and tabbed from years of use). Most recently, the buzz has been around The Science of Reading, which refers to the research of cognitive scientists on how we learn to read and what is needed to reach a level of proficiency.

Now, I must be completely honest here, I feel I am relatively early in my learning about the Science of Reading, and that’s not really what this post is about. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the topic because I want to be knowledgeable, and as a former science teacher, I believe in the importance of learning from the most recent research available.

What I have learned about the Science of Reading drove me to a book by Mark Seidenberg called Language at the Speed of Sight. Seidenberg is a cognitive neuroscientist (in case you need a definition, cognitive neuroscience is the study of the biological processes that underlie human cognition – in simpler words, it’s the study of how people learn). His research has been focused on learning and early childhood development. While there are many directions that I could choose to dig deeper based on this book, the piece I want to examine first revolves around the role of teacher education as a potential lever to lead to further growth in the reading proficiency of students.

Before I dig too deeply into that, I want to say something first – I’m not sure how much I buy into the whole “Reading Wars” argument. I don’t know how we grow together in our learning when we equate something to a war. In general, based on my studies of history, there are no winners in a war. Ultimately, as an educator, I am constantly trying to grow so that I may have a greater impact on my students. One of the things that I have noticed as I dig deeper into articles and research on the “Reading Wars” is that it seems that there is little willingness to find a middle ground. People are entrenched in their beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. I have long believed in the power of growing together. At times I read and research topics I don’t completely agree with because if someone believes in that thing so strongly, maybe there is something I can learn from them, and often, I do learn something. That idea of being better together does not seem to really be in existence from the two sides of the “Reading Wars” argument.

There was something that Seidenberg said near the end of the book that stood out to me. In Chapter 12, he talks of “the absence of a strong commitment to basic science as a source of evidence within the culture of education…” He goes on to argue that this absence of science has potentially had detrimental effects on reading education. So often in education, decisions about teaching and learning are made in the classroom by teachers who truly believe that the steps they are taking will support students. Those decisions might be based on feeling, experience, or something that is working for a colleague. What Seidenberg argues is that those decisions need to be based more in the realm of science and research. But in most Schools of Education, prospective teachers were not taught to cultivate a “scientific ethos” that allows them to be able to identify meaningful and recent research, and then make teaching moves based on what the science says. I’d argue that unless you have an advanced degree in education, you probably haven’t learned a lot about how to seek out research-based tools and interventions. I know that before my master’s program, I don’t think I had a solid footing in what it meant to be an educational researcher.

I’m not ready to say that I completely agree/buy into all that Seidenberg shares about education, but I will say that this scientific ethos does seem to be lacking in some schools of education. Part of this point from Seidenberg relates to the fact that so much of what schools of education focus on is developing philosophical beliefs in educators. I know for a fact that one of the courses I took required me to write a philosophy of education. I don’t recall much work on learning how to be an educational researcher until I was forced to research while completing my master’s program.

Many in education, myself included, have defined teaching as heart work and referred to it as a craft. But as I dig more into an understanding of cognitive psychology and the study of how people learn, there are certainly some long-held beliefs of my own that I’m being forced to reflect upon because the research tells me I might be wrong. We probably can’t get by purelyon feeling and heart and craft. Those things are a piece, but we also need to have a solid grounding in the science of learning as well.

So, there’s a question that I’m left to continue to reflect upon: What if educators saw education as science, in addition to craft? I believe there are some important areas that all of us as educators might be able to learn and grow.

Part of the role of educators is to figure out how to support our students who are not growing as learners in the way that we might hope they would. Maybe they are reading at a level that we consider below proficiency. When this happens, as teachers, we put into place interventions to support our students. Too often, it seems to me, we put in place an intervention based on what we “feel” might work best. But we do so without making sure that the intervention is research-based, and at times without making sure that the intervention supports the area of weakness for that student. I think that part of why this might happen is that many educators were not trained to look at the research.

In addition, many of us may not know how to do our own action research on strategies we try within a classroom. In action research, you identify a question or problem, test out a strategy, gather data, and determine if it works. In true action research, there is a phase of literature review where we try to gain a deeper understanding of research that may have already been done that is tied to our question or problem. This is where I think that sometimes action research falls apart because many educators haven’t been trained in the process of reviewing research. Our background gave many of us a solid background in philosophy, but not as solid of a background in research.

And here’s the issue – learning to do this takes time! It isn’t insurmountable, but on top of all the other things that are on the plate of teachers, it is challenging.

As I continue to reflect on these points, I’m challenging myself to find ways to support teachers in their efforts to learn about research. I’ll be looking for ways to share knowledge and provide sources of quality research. Luckily, we live in a day and age where Google allows us to find scholarly articles quickly and easily on just about any topic in education. Hopefully, through this continued exposure, we can expand our knowledge as researchers. In addition, I’ll be seeking opportunities to help guide teachers through action research of our own.

I’m curious to hear from you – what is your experience with education research? On a scale of 1 to 5, how well prepared do you feel you were to do your own research on educational tools, interventions, and strategies? If that number is lower than you’d like, what do you plan to do so that you know the decisions you make in the classroom are rooted both in research and science, as well as feelings and experience?

Literacy as the foundation of everything

About a month ago, the Indiana Department of Education put on the Get Your Lead On (GYLO) conference for leaders all over the state. I heard about it, thought it looked interesting and signed up as soon as possible. I am a big fan of the learning that happens at events like this – there are keynote-style presentations, break-out sessions, and then a closing session. And of course, there’s also the time to chat with others in between sessions – those are some of my favorite moments (and best learning moments) at any conference! The first thing that I’ll say about GYLO is that it was fun!

One of the speakers that day was Todd Nesloney. I first heard of Todd as an author when I was introduced to the book Kids Deserve It! He was a teacher, elementary principal, and is now the Director of Culture and Strategic Leadership for the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association. He led the second session of the day all about Literacy.

As an elementary principal, I see literacy as the key to everything we do at school, which was in line with what he had to share. In today’s post, I want to share with you some of what I learned from Todd, as well as some next steps that I want to lead in our building.

First and foremost, Todd made it quite clear that he sets the expectation that he will celebrate reading in all that he does. Let’s take a moment to reflect on how much we use reading and writing in our daily lives – from the start of my day check-in with my to-do list to some bedtime reading, text is something that I see constantly, and it’s going to be something that our students will use throughout their lives as well. Even more reason to put literacy front and center in our schools! One of the ways that he celebrated literacy during the day was that he took small moments out of each of his presentations to do a quick book talk. He’d share a title, a bit about the author, and a bit about the story. I walked out of the day with several new items in my Amazon cart!

Next, he talked about ways that he would celebrate reading as a leader. The bullet points below are just a few of the ideas he had. I encourage you to think about how/what you might implement in your setting to celebrate reading.

  • What we’re reading – When Todd was an administrator, he created a graphic in Canva that he then printed out for every staff member. At the top it said “What is Mr. Behrman reading?” then there was some space, and then at the bottom, it said, “What are you reading?” The document was laminated. If you wanted to, you could print out a picture of the book cover, or you could just use a dry-erase marker to write the title of the book. This was for all staff members, not just teachers. He included secretaries, custodians, cafeteria staff, and more! This is something I hope to get rolling at my school soon!
  • Book Talks – Todd started adding short book talks to the morning announcements. In time, he asked teachers to share their own little book talks for the announcements. Eventually, they got to the point that students were creating book talks on the things they were reading. What better way to celebrate the reading that was happening than allowing students to share the books they loved!
  • Reading Photo Wall – Each time a student finished a book, they could bring their book down to Todd’s office. He’d take their picture, print it out, and then hang it on the reading wall in the cafeteria. It made reading visible to all students. What if you did this within your own classroom? Or on the wall right outside of your classroom?
  • Guest Readers – Anytime someone visited Todd’s school, they were asked to bring a book along. Before they did anything else, Todd would take them to a classroom and have them read their book. If someone forgot, they’d go to the library to pick out a book! A variation of this is the mystery reader. As a teacher, you can ask parents to sign up for a day to come and read. Have them share a few clues about who they are so the class can try to guess. Then, on the day of the reading, the class can find out of their guesses were correct or not.
  • Email signature – Those of you who are reading this blog and who receive emails from me may have noticed I already implemented this. At the bottom of my email signature, I added a place that says “What I’m currently reading:” Then I went online, copied an image of the cover of the book, and pasted it into my signature. If you notice that the same book is in my email signature for more than a few weeks, let me know you noticed! That means I’m not reading enough!

There were a ton of other ideas shared during this hour-long session, and while I’d love to share more of them, I think this is a great place to stop for now. One thing I would leave you with was what Todd shared about high-interest books:

One of the most difficult conversations for me to have with a student is when we are in the library, and I offer to help a student find a book, and when I ask them what they want to read they say something like “I need a level L book.” Where is the celebration for reading that comes from that? As a fifth grader, I read Garfield books like crazy, but wouldn’t challenge myself. My 6th-grade teacher allowed us to pick what we wanted, and I read a ton of Stephen King books. Something about the suspense kept me engaged, and I read more that year than I ever had before. Because my teacher allowed me to pick a book I loved, I became a reader who always had at least one book to read at any given time (currently I’m reading 4 different books, and will pick up a different title depending on my mood).

What are your thoughts? Do you have ways to celebrate reading that are not included here? Let us know in the comments below. We can all learn from one another!

The reason behind the behavior

Last week, I was on Twitter, and I noticed this tweet:

It has me thinking about the baggage that our students carry each day. Unlike in the image that Weinstein shared, we can’t see that baggage as something that’s labeled and apparent for us.

Part of the reason that this stood out to me has to do with the time of year – we have just reached the end of the first grading period in my district. By now, we have most likely identified a couple of students of concern. Maybe that concern is academic. Maybe the concern is behavioral. Or maybe the concern is related to attendance.

That attendance group is the one that I want to dig into today. Let’s think about it, for most of our students, being present at school is not purely their responsibility. I am the principal of a suburban elementary school. Most of our students are between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. Who is responsible for making sure our students are present and on time for school? Most of the time, this responsibility falls on the shoulders of the parents. Most kids at this age do not set their own alarm clock, get themselves up and ready, get breakfast, or do whatever else needs to happen to be able to be present and ready to learn. Most of our students rely on their parents to make sure that happens. And some of our students have already had A DAY just to get here. Especially if they are part of a family dealing with the trauma of homelessness, illness, or food insecurity.

So, let’s think for a moment about what we say when a student shows up to school a little late. I know that often we hope that all our students can arrive here on time and ready to learn. I also know that there were times that I took it as a personal affront when a student showed up to my class late. I know that when a student shows up late, it means they may have missed the things we’ve already done – we must adjust attendance, find out lunch count, and re-explain things that we’ve already gone over with the students who were present. It’s hard to not feel a little frustrated in this moment, and think to ourselves, “Why couldn’t they be here on time?!”

But when we have thoughts like that, the little bit of frustration we feel invariably creeps into our body language, tone of voice, etc. Even when we think we have the best of intentions, our “Why are you late?” may come out in a way that feels confrontational to a student. When someone feels confrontational to you, do you look forward to being around them? I know I don’t!

So, instead of questioning them, or pointing out to them the issues that come from being late, work on being able to look at them, smile, and say, “I’m so glad you’re here!”

When we set that warm and welcoming environment, we create a sense of belonging for our students. When you have a student who carries with them a variety of traumas, that welcoming environment is exactly the thing that they need. And for our kiddos who need a relationship to feel welcome and prepared to be successful, feeling like someone is glad to see them might just help them feel even more motivated to be here on time, or to push their family to make sure they are here on time!

What are your thoughts? What strategies might you have to help support a student who is carrying a variety of trauma with them each day? Let us know your ideas in the chat below!

Motivation vs. Discipline

As many of you know, I am active in the #FitLeaders community. This is a group of leaders who realize that being successful in leadership takes balance. To grow as a leader, to be my best, I must first take care of myself. For me, that means getting up early almost every morning to do a basement workout, go for a run, or hit the road on my bike. Many of you know that I am disciplined in my 4:30 get-up time. Some of you know not to try to schedule a meeting with me at 11:00, because if you do, I probably have not had lunch yet, and most likely will not be focused on our meeting. Many of you also know that I’m not likely to return a school email after 6:00 pm. These are parts of the discipline that I have placed in my life so that I can stay in balance in the various roles that make me who I am.

For those of you who know me well now, it may be hard to believe it, but what you see today is not the version of me that existed at the end of my college career. When I graduated from high school, I walked around as a generally healthy person, and my weight hovered right around 175 pounds. In college, things changed. Gone were the days of healthy home-cooked meals (thanks mom, I know you’re reading!), and they were replaced with the dorm cafeteria food that included all-you-can-eat ice cream stations, or the food courts around campus (would you believe I ate Baked Ziti from Sbarro’s for dinner almost every night for at least a couple of months. Later there were dinners in the fraternity, and while there was salad, that was not what I was eating most of the time. Then came the apartment year – carry-out, fried food, late-night pizza runs. When I graduated from college, I was up to about 225 pounds and was not that healthy at all. Climbing the stairs in the School of Education on the IU campus was almost too much to bear!

After graduation, I somehow ended up with a book about healthy eating and healthy habits. I don’t recall the title, but based on some of the ideas it shared, I felt like I could make some changes. I had a job and was living in a house with a friend. During that phase of life, there were probably still some bad choices in terms of what to eat, but I was motivated to try to make a change. I decided I was ready to re-up my membership in the YMCA, a regular part of my childhood and high school years.

I was motivated.

But here’s the thing about motivation, at the start, it looks like this:

But eventually, that fire burns down, and your motivation looks a little more like this:

My motivation at the start was high, but the changes in behavior were challenging. My muscles got sore. I was tired. And pizza tastes so good! Over time, that motivation began to die down, just like a fire if you stop adding fuel. There were swings between periods of success – eating healthy, working out, and seeing progress – and then periods of regressing to some of the bad habits.

Eventually, I got a full-time teaching job, which brought me to Indianapolis. I moved into an apartment of my own. When I did, the place where I ended up was right across the street from the YMCA. I couldn’t look out any window, go out my front door, or sit on my patio without seeing it. With that proximity and being in a new town without a ton of connections, it was easy to find my motivation again. What I found over time was that motivation switched. Working out became a part of my daily routine. Instead of thinking of it as something I “had to” do, it became something that just happened. My routine became this: go to school, come home and walk the dog, go to the YMCA, come back home and have a good dinner, and go to bed at an appropriate time. The routine became naturally ingrained in what I was doing, and instead of feeling like I needed motivation, I developed a level of discipline to do what was needed.

Over time, I got back to what I’d consider a healthy place. My weight is not quite as low as it was in high school, but it’s much closer to that than when I graduated from college. And I’d say that my overall health is in a much better place – I’m able to run around with my kids, and even outrun them at times. The discipline that I’ve developed helps me maintain the appropriate balance between a strong and healthy body and a mind that can take on the task of leading an elementary school.

Now, as many of you know, this blog is focused on my reflection, learning, and growth in education. So, you might be wondering how this story about my health journey relates to what I do as an educator, or what you can do as an educator.

As educators, we have the chance to learn lots of new things. Currently, the staff in my school has been learning a lot about our new literacy resources. Most of the PD we have done so far this school year has been focused on the goal of designing intentional reading practices around our new resource. As we learn about the new resource, we might be motivated to utilize some of our new pieces of information.

But as with anything else, motivation can die down over time. In a recent episode of George Couros’s podcast, he talked a bit about this idea. He said:


Here’s a link to that podcast – it’s only 9 minutes long! https://overcast.fm/+wluP1vlVM

What’s important for us to remember is that motivation is dependent on some outside force – a speaker, a book, a professional learning opportunity. We will feel that motivation for a period, but like the fire, it will go out without continued fuel. Discipline on the other hand is something that only we can control. If we shift from a mindset of feeling motivated, to focusing instead on how we stay disciplined, then we are more likely to make a difference in the lives of our students.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Have you ever been motivated to try something and found that motivation then faded over time? Was there anything that helped you keep moving forward? Share your thoughts in the comments below!