Take it up a notch

Take it up a notch

I was at a training last week and the presenter stated the following:

“When we stretch (students) brains beyond the baseline, they will be prepared for the baseline.”

It struck me because every year I hear statements like “This group can’t handle that because they don’t yet have the basic skills.” As teachers, we sometimes believe if students don’t have the base level skills, we can’t move into project work, or more hands-on assignments. We feel the need to make sure that our students had those base level skills first.

When I was in the classroom, I had points in time where I felt that way. For the majority of my career as a classroom teacher I taught 5th and 6th grade science. As a kid, I loved science! It was a hands-on subject, and that suited me well. I’ve never been one who learned well by being talked at, instead I needed to do something to help that learning to stick. Science was great for that. I remember building different styles of rockets in elementary school to investigate flight. I also remember days in elementary school of “creek stomping” in the creek that ran behind our school looking for fossils and learning about rocks and minerals. In high school, I remember spending hours in the chemistry lab making solutions and testing what would happen if you added X to Y. And in physics I remember using a laser to make my own hologram of a six-sided die. Those hands-on activities were the parts of the content that stuck with me over time. Science was awesome!

Once I moved into the classroom, I was excited to bring those awesome experiences to my students. Early in my career though, I think I may have lost my way. You see, I was of the impression that for my kids to be ready for a lab or project work, I had to make sure they all had the conceptual knowledge first. So, we’d spend time building that conceptual knowledge. What I didn’t realize completely at that time is that it’s really hard to build conceptual knowledge from taking notes, drawing diagrams, and watching video clips. True conceptual knowledge comes from the hands-on experiences that students do. Unfortunately because of the amount of time it took to learn that conceptual knowledge, sometimes we wouldn’t get to the fun stuff.

One year, I was teaching one enriched science class, and several classes that were not enriched. My students in the non-enriched classes started asking me why they didn’t get to do the fun stuff, and it caused me to pause and reflect. That year I worked on reorganizing the way I did my lessons. I started placing my lab activities and hands-on learning experiences at the beginning of each unit. What I found was that students seemed to do better in class when they had done a hands-on activity prior to teaching the conceptual skills. And as an added bonus to me, we often didn’t have to spend as much time on those concepts, because students had gained a greater understanding during the hands-on learning activities.

The same is true and other subject areas too. When we create math lessons that allow students to draw and visualize their thinking, they will better understand the concepts that go with what they are doing. When students look for grammatical structures within their own reading or writing they are more likely to value the importance of those grammar skills than when they work off of a grammar review sheet.

What I’m beginning to realize about the innovative work we are doing in education is that whether we call it project work, project-based learning, or something else, every time we take the learning up a notch our students are able to accomplish that much more. And I understand that sometimes we freak out about doing something innovative in our classroom because we may not feel like we are experts in the technology that goes with that activity. As teachers we don’t need to be the technology experts, rather we need to be the pedagogy experts. I know for a fact that no one taught me how to use Facebook or Twitter or many of the other apps that I use on a regular basis, rather I figured it out by clicking on stuff and seeing what happened.

So, what are some of the ways that we can have our students actually take it up a notch? What if every 10 to 15 minutes you pause what’s going on in class and have the kids record an audio or video reflection of what they have been learning? What if you have them create a photo or image or meme that represents their learning in class thus far? What if you asked them to sketch out a picture that shows a solution to the math problem they are working on? Each time we do something like this we are forcing our students to stretch their brains beyond that baseline and I would argue we aren’t doing anything that is that difficult. When we ask our students to do a drawing or create a video of their learning in class, we are helping them with their summarizing skills. I would also say that those small moments of creation help our students to develop one of the most in demand skills in the job market: creativity.

expected skills

I challenge you to look ahead at something that you are planning to do with your students in the next couple of weeks. Identify an activity that you would typically start with conceptual knowledge and find a way to do it hands-on in the first place. See how your students react. Weave in the conceptual skills that they need as you go through the project. Then take some time to reflect. Do the students end up with a better conceptual understanding of the topic? It may take a try or two but in time hopefully we can integrate more of those skills that are expected in the workplace into the things that are happening in our classrooms.

So, what activity have you selected? Share with us in the comments below so that we can check in with you to see how it goes.

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Experimental teaching in progress

The beginning of the school year is exciting for a lot of different reasons, but in the past couple of weeks I have been really fired up by the beginning of the year goal setting meetings I’ve been having with our teachers. It’s been so exciting to hear about the goals that teachers are setting to push themselves to new learning experiences and create amazing opportunities for their students. It’s a lot of fun to talk with them about their ideas and how to create a goal that will truly impact their teaching and learning throughout the year.

One of the things about learning new things, we all need to reflect on our learning. It’s a part of that learning cycle, and I look forward to the opportunity to help our teachers reflect on their goal throughout the year. But in addition to reflection, we also need feedback from others on how we are doing. When I think about my most powerful learning experiences, there has always been someone there to provide feedback – let me know what I was doing well and where I needed to improve. That feedback may have come from my coaches on the basketball court or football field, or it may have come from a teacher or professor in the classroom.

I respected the feedback that I would get from my elders, but sometimes the best feedback came from my teammates and classmates. They could often connect with me in ways that an adult just wasn’t able to. Even today, some of my most trusted people are peers who are in similar positions as mine. It’s so great to make a call or send an email to someone that I trust, share my thinking, and get their feedback. While there are definitely times that I hear “You seem to be right on track”, there are times they have said “You might want to think about that a little more and here’s why.” It helps me so much to get that peer feedback.

The problem with this in teaching is that we often live in our own silos. What happens in our classroom is often invisible to our colleagues, whether they be across the hall, on another floor, or in another wing. So what do we do about that? Luckily there are awesome people out there on Twitter who help us find solutions to our problems. This week I saw a tweet from Jed Dearybury that took me to his newsletter “A Dearybury of a Day”. (You can – and should – follow Jed on Twitter here). At the very end of the newsletter was this Fab, Fun, Freebie:

Screen Shot 2019-09-20 at 7.09.04 AM

Here’s what Jed said about this sign:

Whenever you are trying something new with students, hang this sign on your door to let those passing by know you are experimenting with a new teaching strategy. When this sign was on my door, it always made me relax a bit more because sometimes, experiments fail, and that’s ok!

So, here’s a thought – What if every time you are trying something new and you want to have feedback, you could hang this sign outside your door? What if you sent an email to the staff at your building with a picture of the sign? What if you shared the sign on Twitter (and tagged @mrdearybury)? There would be an awesome opportunity for people to come and watch what you are doing and give you meaningful feedback on what they saw. I know that many of us feel a little uncomfortable when we have other adults observing what we’re doing in our classroom, but we aren’t living on the growing edge when we’re totally comfortable in what we’re doing.

Remember, we’re all in this together guys! Our goal is to support the students we see on a daily basis, and the best way I can think of to do that is to support one another in our own teaching and learning. I’ll include a link to the pdf that Jed shared below.

So what are your thoughts? Are you comfortable to use a sign like this? I’d love to see some pictures being shared throughout your building!

Want to download the poster? Click here!

Is yet enough?

I was listening to a recent episode of the Making Math Moments that Matter podcast, which has become one of my new favorite podcasts (you should check out their website here for lots of awesome math resources and links to their podcast or check them out on Twitter @MakeMathMoments). There are tons of great ideas packed into every episode, and their back catalogue includes interviews with some amazing math educators! In a recent episode (episode #39 with Alice Aspinall) they got started talking about the language we use when talking about growth mindset.

For a long time now, we’ve been talking about the concept of growth mindset in many different formats. One of the things we’ve talked about (it was even our school hashtag recently) is The Power of Yet. Our discussions centered around the idea that people who have a growth mindset will say something like “I haven’t mastered this skill, yet.” By adding that yet, we were implying that it was something that we were still working on. It’s a powerful statement to remind ourselves that we have room to grow.

On several occasions I’ve had the thought that simply adding the yet to the end of the sentence didn’t do quite enough, but I couldn’t quite explain what was lacking. Then I listened to Alice Aspinall talking about her book Everyone Can Learn Math (find it here). In the course of the conversation she shared the following quote:

You could say I'm not good at multiplying yet, but that's kind of basic, right_ Can we change is so that we're saying I have not yet learned to multiply, but I've been practicing with arrays._

 

 

It suddenly clicked with me. I think the fear I have about simply adding the word yet to the end of a statement is that we may be modeling a false growth mindset. Does saying yet help teach someone how they get to success? I don’t think that it does. By articulating how you’re going about it, you suddenly change the game to be focused on learning and Multiplication Arraygrowing. Growth mindset can’t just be about saying that we aren’t there yet. It’s saying that we’re on a path to get there. By adding a statement of what you’re doing to get there, you have that path in place. In the quote above, a student is saying they are going to use arrays to help them better understand how to multiply. That’s a specific direction and provides specific action.

As a teacher, we can really work on our language, and modeling the idea of having a path to success in the things we say. If a student says that they aren’t good at something, or that they don’t like something, you can certainly help them learn to add the yet, and help them to begin to think about what steps they take in order to become successful.

It’s the same thing that we are doing when we set our own SMART Goals. We set attainable, realistic goals with the short-term and long-term steps we plan to take. By helping students set attainable, realistic goals with a plan in sight, you will help your students to be better able to set their own goals.

So what are your thoughts? Do you talk about growth mindset in your class? Have you seen students mindset change with the addition of the word “yet” in their beliefs about their abilities? Do you think adding a direction to those statements might make them more powerful? I’d love to hear your thoughts and reflections in the comments below.

The ‘uh-oh’ feeling

Goals. It’s the beginning of the school year, so I’m sure we’ve all got them. As you think about the goals for your year, how do you feel about them? This summer I read the book Run Like a Pirate by Adam Welcome. Adam has been a teacher, vice principal, principal, and director of innovation and technology. He also travels all over the country to speak with schools and districts.

The gist of the book Run Like a Pirate is his experiences during 2017. Now, you may wonder why that year. In 2017, Adam set a goal to run one marathon a month for every month of the year. Personally, I like to think of myself as a runner. Those of you that follow me on Twitter may see me post my run stats, pictures from my run, or something on Twitter about those early morning miles that I get in. I’ve run multiple half marathons and have contemplated stepping up to the full marathon. But the idea of running even a half-marathon a month seems completely overwhelming to me, let alone doubling those miles each month!

When you have set goals for yourself in the past, how often do you set a goal that you think “I’ve totally got this, no problem!” and then you do crush that goal? It makes you feel good to know that you’ve met the goal. After meeting that goal you probably set another one.

But here’s a thought. Goals are meant to stretch us. They’re meant to bring us to the growing edge. They should give you that feeling in the pit of your stomach that says “uh-oh” because you aren’t quite sure if you can do it.

It’s important to set goals with this ‘uh-oh’ mindset because the difficulty of meeting the goal is where the payoff comes from. If you set a goal that you can reach easily, that you can possibly reach without having to put in some extra work, you aren’t growing. It feels good to meet a goal, but what’s our point in goal setting? Is it to be able to say that we accomplished our goals exactly as we set them? Or is it about being able to look back on the process of trying to meet the goal and reflect on the struggle you went through and the growth that happened?

When I made the decision to run a half-marathon, that was a huge jump for me. Prior to registering, I had never run anything longer than a 5K. Suddenly I was committed to run a race that was TEN MILES longer than my previous long. So, I did research. I talked to the people at my shoe store to help pick out a good pair of shoes. I looked at multiple training plans for a beginner running a half-marathon. I read up on training methods – should I run hills? Do interval training? Mix in some rest days (because that’s important too)? Then I read up on nutrition. If I was going to be running early morning miles, what should I have for breakfast? How long before the run? What should I have after I got home? What about gels or chews or some other energy-based snack while I was running? And what about hydration? Do I carry a water bottle? Over time I figured out a strategy that worked well for me, but it took lots of trial and error, and I still haven’t met my goal time that I set for my last half-marathon.

As you can see, setting a goal that pushes you to a place you aren’t quite sure you can go forces you to learn a ton! Ultimately, I was able to finish that first half-marathon in a time of just over 2 hours. And then, a couple days later I signed up for my next half-marathon with the goal of breaking the 2-hour mark. As of the writing of this, I have successfully run 7 half-marathons, six of them in a time of less than 2 hours, but still, I haven’t met that goal of 1:45.

With the beginning of this school year, think about the goals you have set for yourself. Are you at the point of thinking “I’m going to crush this” or are you feeling a bit more of that “uh-oh” in the pit of your stomach. I’d like to challenge you that most likely you’re going to learn more when trying to accomplish an “uh-oh” kind of goal. You might not hit your goal exactly as you set it, but that’s ok! You will definitely learn more than if you set a goal that you can achieve easily. Make sure you have a little bit of that uh-oh feeling when you set your next goal!

Stop talking about what you want to do and start doing what you want to do. If you don't, it's just not going to happen.

What are some of the goals you have set for yourself? Share your plans with us in the comments below! A goal has a lot more meaning when we make it public!

 

Observing other teachers

It’s hard for me to believe, but this school year marks my 8th year as an administrator. For the past 7 years I have had the privilege of observing thousands of hours of lessons taught by amazing teachers. One of the things that I have come to realize is that I would be a much better teacher today than I was when I was still in the classroom. 

Why do I feel that way? 

I have learned more about teaching by watching the amazing things teachers do on a daily basis. It seems like almost every time I walk into a classroom, something happens that makes me pause and reflect on why the teacher made that choice. What does that reflection lead to? Growth. 

When I was still a classroom teacher, I had my daily prep, just like everyone else. I used it for things that I felt were important; grading papers, working on lesson plans, or preparing for upcoming lessons (and sometimes for chatting with my teammates) among the hundreds of other things that would happen during my prep. One of the things that I never did though – observe the master teachers in my building.  

At the time, I probably felt like I didn’t have time to just sit and watch someone teach. After all, I could just talk to them before or after school to get some ideas and resources from them. But the reality is that just talking with someone doesn’t bring in all the nuance that can come from observing a full lesson. Not to mention all the things that teachers do during a lesson that have nothing to do with their content. Things like their use of proximity with a student, the tone of voice when asking or answering a question, or even the way they handle a transition from one part of an activity to another. There is so much that can be learned by sitting and being present. 

So often as teachers, we live in the little bubble of our classroom during the school day. We may know the topic that another teacher said they were covering, and we may share something about a lesson we’re excited about, but there’s no way to really know what’s happening in a classroom until you get a chance to sit inside and observe. We need to be brave enough to break down those barriers that exist and give a little time to observation. 

And I know there’s another side to this coin. What if you’re the one being observed? I think we all get a little bit nervous when there is another adult in the classroom. But here’s the reality, just as King Solomon said, “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.”  

As iron sharpens irons, so a friend sharpens a friend.

We all become our better selves through learning from one another. Think of the compliment that is being given to you if someone wants to come to your room to observe. They are giving up one of the most valuable commodities, time, to try to learn from you. We want to create an environment where teachers sharpen teachers. 

I have some ideas about how I may integrate this idea of observing others in my own building, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you spent time observing other teachers? What have you learned from that experience? What are your ideas about how you might manage a system for observing one another? Share your thoughts in the comments below! 

Trauma-informed as a way of being

maya-angelou-know-betterI’ve always loved this quote from Maya Angelou. Over the past several years, there’s been a lot of opportunities for learning about better ways to interact with our students. In the summer of 2017, several of us had the chance to learn from Jim Sporleder about the idea of Trauma-Informed Care based on the work he did in his school in Washington. Many of us walked away with new ideas about how we work with kids. Others of us may have seen the movie “Paper Tigers” documenting his work with trauma-informed schools. Last year, several teachers read the book Lost at School by Ross W. Greene, and it gave us more to think about. Last semester several of our teachers attended a training on Restorative Practices at the Peace Learning Center. We are currently working on a plan to be able to provide this training to all of our teachers. At the beginning of this school year, we did a training on de-escalation techniques. For the past 2 years, I have worked as a member of our district wide Trauma-Informed Team, where we have talked about ways to expand this knowledge. All of this learning has taught us new strategies for how to handle difficult situations with kids.

Some of you have heard about the concepts of trauma-informed care, and many of us have tried to implement strategies that we’ve learned through our various experiences to better support our kids. That said, there is a question that I continue to hear from time to time: “How do I know if this kid has trauma?” My response, more and more, is “Many times we won’t know.” But then I also wonder, does it matter?

Between what we have learned about Trauma-Informed Care, through Lost at School, Restorative Practices, and so much more, I’m beginning to think of these strategies not so much as something we do with “those kids” but more as something that we do with ALL KIDS because we know they work for everyone!

Let’s start thinking of all of these various new strategies not so much as something that we do with some kids or with the kids that need it, rather, these are strategies that we can use to support all kids because they work for all kids! Trauma-Informed should become part of our tier 1 process that we use with every child every day.

Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

So I’m curious, what have been your experiences? Have you tried using more trama-informed practices in your classroom? Or have you begun instituting proactive circles (sometimes called community circles) as a part of your learning about restorative practices? What have you noticed with your students? What works? What are you still struggling with? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

This is hard…

Recently I was talking to a friend who is a teacher. I noticed some cool project-based learning activities that she shared on Twitter, and I was talking to her about them. She’s a fairly experienced teacher, and one of the things that she said really struck a chord with me:

“You know, I used to teach really differently than I do now. Ten years ago, the things I was doing were easier for me. The things I do now are harder, and I keep hoping that those things will get easier. As I reflect though, while things have gotten harder for me, the learning experiences for my students have gotten better. I guess I’m not sure that I’m hoping for the right things. It’s not easy for us, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Woah! What a powerful statement! A favorite author of mine is George Couros. In his book The Innovator’s Mindset, he says:

“I’m defining innovation as a way of thinking that creates something new and better. Innovation can come from either ‘invention’ (something totally new) or ‘iteration’ (a change to something that already exists), but if it does not meet the idea of ‘new and better,’ it is not innovative. That means change for the sake of change is never good enough. Neither is using innovation as a buzzword as many organizations do to appear current and relevant.”

And in a recent blog post, AJ Juliani took it a step further… He argued that just being new and better isn’t quite enough. We need to make sure that it is also better for our learners.

Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.

And here’s the thing about that – we all know it is difficult to plan for a project-based learning experience. It’s difficult to build an inquiry project for your students. It’s difficult to create learning opportunities that integrate Language Arts, Math, Science, and more into a single unit of study. But what about the opportunities it creates for our students?

We talk about preparation for the next in education all the time. Whether we’re thinking about the next year, the next step, the first job, whatever… The reality is that with the world changing so rapidly, we’re naïve to think that we have any idea what the future really holds. I’m sure my elementary and middle school teachers never imagined that some of the kids in their class would be making money by taking pictures and posting them to Instagram. What amazing things that we can’t even imagine will our students be doing when they are out in “the world”?

So, given the fact that we can’t predict the future, more than anything we need to provide a skill set to our young people that prepares them for anything. We have no way to know where they might go!

So often we have been talking about 21st century skills, but we have to remember that we are now almost 2 decades into the 21st century, and some of the students sitting in our classroom will actually see the 22nd century!

So here’s the question. Why do we do these hard things? We know that it takes us more time and effort to create these deep learning experiences for our students but look at the results. Most students are more highly engaged when given true project-based learning experiences, or student driven inquiry projects. And with that higher level of engagement comes stronger learning experiences. And with those stronger learning experiences our students will be better prepared for whatever their future may hold.

If we’re worried about preparing kids for the “real world,” then this should concern us:

Yes, it’s harder to teach this way. The reality is that it’s harder for administrators to lead this style of learning. But when we look at the children walking into our building, and we remember that we have no way to know what their future may hold, we’ve got to focus on those skills that take them anywhere – critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication.

As you have shifted to deeper learning activities, what has been your experience? Have you noticed a greater desire and drive for learning from your students? Share your experiences in the comments below!