Gone sailing…

Gone sailing…

As I sit at my kitchen table tonight, just after having received the news that school has been cancelled tomorrow, and trying to wrap my mind around how cold a -40°F wind chill will actually feel like (yes, I do plan to go outside just to say I did it!), I find myself thinking about summer and much warmer weather. For some reason, I started thinking about my summers spent on Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin at Camp Brosius, and the time I spent learning to sail on one of the many Sunfish sailboats.

campbrosius
The sunfish that I learned on may very well be one of the boats in this picture, with one of the buildings of Camp Brosius in the background.

My first experience with sailboats involved a Hobie 16, my dad, and a little help from the rescue boat. We were both learning what we were doing! Over time he became better, and I recall as a young boy enjoying riding with him while he guided us around the lake – sometimes on the Hobie, other times on a Sunfish, or any one of the other boats that the camp had available to use.

Eventually, around middle school, I decided I wanted to learn to sail all by myself. I remember Jim, the camp director, pulling one of the Sunfish into the swim area one morning, teaching me about the various parts of the boat, and what they did. As I reflect on it now, after a shockingly short lesson (probably not over 30 minutes), he had me climbing aboard and shoving me out into the lake. I can hear Jim saying “You don’t learn by talking about it and looking at it, you learn by getting out there and trying!” The wind wasn’t that strong yet that morning, it normally picked up in the afternoon, so I was planning to tool around just off the shore in front of the camp’s waterfront. I grabbed the rudder and main sheet, set my sails, and I was off! Or so I thought…

As I got further from the shore, the wind caught a bit more of my sail, and instead of heading straight, as my rudder was pointing, my boat seemed to be sliding sideways across the top of the water. No matter how I moved my rudder, the boat just wouldn’t go in the direction I wanted.

As I drifted further from the shore, without any real control, I could hear someone yelling at me from the swimming t. Jim, the camp director, was yelling “You forgot the centerboard!” I looked, and sure enough, the centerboard was laying inside the cockpit. I quickly pulled it out and placed it down the middle of the hull. Next thing I knew, I was moving (mostly) in the direction I wanted (remember, I was just learning).

Thinking about sailing got me thinking a bit about teaching and learning. Part of what I love about the Sunfish is how simple of a boat it really is. There’s the hull (or body of the boat), the mast that holds the sail up. Then there’s the sail that absorbs the energy of the wind and translates that into motion. The rudder helps the sailor to guide the boat in the correct direction. And finally, there’s the centerboard. Even if everything else is working in perfect harmony, without the centerboard, the best sailor isn’t too likely to stay on course.

What’s the connection to learning? The hull of the boat is our classroom. Then let’s think of the rudder as being our standards. They help us decide on what our students “need” to be learning about. It gives our boat direction. The sailor on the boat (most of the time) is the teacher. You get to make the decisions about how to set the rudder and the mainsail (although hopefully your students are getting some input here too). You point the boat in the direction you think it needs to go. The sail is our students, and the wind is the constant opportunity for learning. So that sounds like most all that we need to think about, right?

Not quite. For true learning, we need to have the centerboard to help keep us on course. That is our North Star of Learning.

Moving the RockGrant Lichtman, the author of Moving the Rock: Seven Levers WE Can Press to Transform Education, has often used the metaphor of the North Star to talk about the idea of having a shared vision of where we want to get to in terms of great learning. If we don’t agree on where we are going, we have random movement, in random directions, and we end up nowhere! Think about the North Star, no matter where you stand, we can all find it, we can all point to it, we can all figure out our route to get there. In that same way, when we have a shared vision of learning, and we understand that no two educators are moving towards it from the same place, we all have to set a course of our own.

As educators, we are used to the idea that our students all come to us from a different starting point, and we have to adjust our teaching to meet them where they are in order to get them to where they need to be. What does it mean though if not all educators are starting their trip towards the North Star from the same place?

It means the day of one size fits all professional development has passed us by. It means that each of us has to be reflective on where we are on our path towards our North Star. It means recognizing our own strengths and weaknesses, accentuating our strengths, and being willing to seek out opportunities to professionally grow in order to move closer to our North Star. It means deciding to take your own learning into your own hands. If there’s something you need to get better at, seek out a resource. It might be someone just down the hall, it might be a blog post or article, it might be a book. It could also mean approaching your administrator to ask for ideas on how you might continue to grow in that area. Given that our focus is on LEARNING, I would hope anyone would feel comfortable to ask for assistance in finding the best possible resources for their personal growth. I know that I am constantly seeking resources from colleagues, mentors, and leaders that are around me.

As an educator, I’m hopeful that this post encourages you to reflect on a couple of things. First and foremost, do you feel that there is a North Star for your district or school? If not, start a conversation with your colleagues, ask your administrator, reflect on your own opinions and beliefs, and start that conversation for a true shared understanding. Next, take a moment to reflect on where you are as an educator, and what it is that you need to do to course correct so that you can help your students to reach that North Star.

As we come to the end of this post, take a moment and think about what your beliefs are about students. What is your personal North Star of Learning? Share with us in the comments below!

Indiana STEM Education Conference

Last week I had the privilege to attend the Fourth Annual Indiana STEM Education Conference at Purdue University. Purdue’s College of Education sees K-12 STEM education as one of its two signature areas of focus for pre-service teachers. In this K-12 STEM path, Purdue is “preparing teachers who can weave STEM subjects throughout their curriculum and introduce the concepts through real-world application. Our focus goes beyond the specific STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and math – to include literacy, social studies, problem-solving, critical thinking and communication.” This belief fits well with the Indiana Department of Education’s STEM Six-Year Strategic Plan (can be found here: http://bit.ly/IndianaSTEMPlan). This plan has the stated mission to “Ensure Indiana teachers are prepared to provide every student in grades K-12 with an evidence-based, effective STEM education…”

aldrinThe opening of the conference included a guest speaker that I was super excited to see – Buzz Aldrin!  It was cool to hear Aldrin talk about his experiences, as well as his hopes for continued space exploration. Aldrin is a huge supporter of getting a human being to Mars. Not to mention, there’s something pretty awesome about being in the same room as someone who actually walked on the moon.

The rest of the conference was made up of several break-out sessions, and I have to say that every one I attended was excellent. I want to share some of the tidbits I picked up while I was there.

My first session was on the connection between STEM and Project Based Learning. In that session, we began by talking a little about the Science and Engineering Process Standards (SEPS). If you look at the science standards of any grade level or science curriculum, the first two pages of the standards are made up of these process standards focusing on 8 key areas:

  • SEPS.1 Posing questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
  • SEPS.2 Developing and using models and tools
  • SEPS.3 Constructing and performing investigations
  • SEPS.4 Analyzing and interpreting data
  • SEPS.5 Using mathematics and computational thinking
  • SEPS.6 Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
  • SEPS.7 Engaging in argument from evidence
  • SEPS.8 Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

By looking at the specific standards for your grade level or subject area, you can see a deeper description of those process standards. Look here for more info: https://www.doe.in.gov/standards/science-computer-science

In two of the sessions I attended, presenters talked about the value of STEM Challenges or Engineering Projects as a way to help meet some of these process standards. Here are a couple of examples:

  • The Paper Chain Challenge: For this challenge, students need 1 piece of paper, scissors, and tape. The challenge? Try to make the longest possible paper chain. As a constraint, you could change the materials allowed. Another variation on this was that you do not provide tape, and you had to make the longest continuous piece of paper without using tape, paperclips, or any other objects to connect the paper back together. When we did this challenge, we were only given 5 minutes, then had a 5 minute conversation to process our designs, compare the length of each chain, etc. In those 10 minutes, we hit on 5 of the SEPS!

 

  • Drop Copter Challenge: Have you ever made a drop copter? For directions, click here: http://bit.ly/DropCopter. Once you have the students create their drop copter, then you add in the challenge. Now they have to make one modification to their copter to improve the way the copter falls to the ground. I’m sure there are a variety of ways you could define “improve”, so you can figure out what it means for you (or even better, let the students decide!). After the adjustment and testing, spend another 5-10 minutes processing the challenge with students. Again, several SEPS hit in less than a half hour!

 

  • Parachute Challenge: Provide students with large sheets of tissue paper (like for wrapping a present), tape, 5 paperclips, and 2 pieces of string (you can decide on the length). Give students 5-10 minutes to design, build, test, and redesign a parachute. The goal is to design a parachute that takes the longest to reach the ground. When time is up, have all the students come to the front, drop from the same height, and compare the fall time. Finally, spend some time processing the challenge with the kids. Again, we’ve just hit on multiple SEPS in less than a half hour!

These are just a couple of the potential STEM Challenges that were fairly short. Another session I attended also hit on the SEPS, but they were coming at it from the Engineering Design process. I’ve seen lots of different models for the Engineering Design Process, but I liked the language that was used by Science Learning through Engineering Design (SLED). Check it out:

sled

SLED has an awesome website, STEMEdhub.org, but I wanted to direct you in particular to their Design Resources page (check that out here). This page lists a multitude of activities and various grade levels. When you click on a title, it takes you to a page with more information about the project. Want to see more (like the lesson plans, materials needed, etc.)? Click the purple Download button to the right of the title. Unlike the STEM Challenges above that could be done in a half hour or less, these are more in depth, long term projects that will take your students through the design process you see above.

real worldI wanted to briefly touch on my final two sessions, which were on similar topics. One was about an intermediate school in Ellettsville that implemented a school-wide genius hour program. At this school, every other Friday, the entire school basically shuts down for the last hour of the day. Students then work on their genius hour projects. These projects are ungraded, student-led, and lead to a STEAM Night Showcase where students share their findings from their genius hour project. The teachers, administrators, counselors, custodians, and other adults in the building are all able to serve as advisors for students who choose projects on a topic that they have an interest or understanding in. The school has even partnered with outside professionals who can come in and help be mentors for topics students are interested in. Being located near Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center and Cook Inc. opens up the possibility of some great partnerships for this school.

recipeThe final session of the day that I attended was put on by the innovation director and principal from New Palestine Intermediate. This year they created a new day in their related arts rotation called Innovation Hour. Other schools might call this learning clubs, or choice activity time. To create the clubs, staff members signed up with something they were passionate about. Examples include gardening, drones, coding, woodworking, etc. Students then sign up for their top three choices. Once assigned to an Innovation Hour, then they meet every 4th day from 8:30 to 9:20, and all the students are able to participate in the club they are assigned to. So far, everyone has been able to get one of their top 3 choices.

One of my current goals is to figure out how to bring something like either the Genius Hour project, or the innovation hour to Riverside Intermediate. On February 6th, our students will be participating in the Global School Play Day, and we have it set up with choice activities that students will be able to get involved in. It is my hope that this will serve as a jumping off point for one of these more long term learning opportunities for our students!

So, what are your thoughts? Anything here that you plan to use in your classroom? Anything that you already do that you can share with our readers? I’d love to hear what you have to say!

Cognitive Complexity

At a recent PLC meeting of the Humanities teachers at my school, we were spending some time digging into the concept of Cognitive Complexity vs. that of Difficulty. This conversation was rolled into a much deeper conversation about the ILEARN, Indiana’s new computer-adaptive assessment that all students will be taking in grades 3-8. We began talking about the differences in difficulty and cognitive complexity because we were learning that no matter what difficulty level a student fell into on the adaptive test, all students will be solving problems that are cognitively complex. So, what’s the difference between the two concepts?

Difficulty:

When we try to define the concept of difficulty, it is considered a measure of the effort required to complete a task. In the purpose of an assessment, a problem that many students missed would be considered more difficult than a problem that everyone got right. So when looking at the difficulty of a problem or task in your classroom, the more likely it is that all students will get it correct, the less difficult it is.

As we know, all our students come to us varying levels of understanding. In his book The End of Average, Todd Rose talks about the jaggedness of people. Not only do our students walk into our classrooms with physical differences that we can all see, they walk in with different abilities in math, reading, etc. In adaptive testing, an assessment will adjust its level of difficulty based on the answers students get correct or incorrect. As one student gets a question correct, the next question will most likely be more difficult. On the other hand, a student who gets a question wrong will then see a question that is less difficult. All standards can be measured at varying levels of difficulty. Take for example the following two math problems that are working on the same skill:

Easy: Sarah planted 5 rows of 7 flowers in each row. Write a multiplication equation that shows the number of flowers in Sarah’s rectangular garden.

Difficult: Tom told Mary he planted 48 flowers in the rectangular-shaped garden. Select the correct number sentence Mary could use to describe how the flowers were planted.

 As you can see, both questions require students to solve the same type of problem, using a similar level of thinking, but because of the wording, the second question would be considered more difficult.

Cognitive Complexity:

To define the idea of complexity, we have to think about it as a measure of the thinking action, or knowledge that you need to complete a task. One way to think about this is to think about how many different ways can a task be accomplished. I think the best way to think about the idea of complexity is to think in relation to Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. DOK can be broken down into 4 different levels: Recall and Reproduction; Basic Application of Skills; Strategic Thinking; and Extended Thinking.

So basically, cognitive complexity is a way to measure how demanding of a thought process is necessary to complete a specific task. Items that simply ask a student to recall basic facts from an article they just read would be much less complex than an item that required analyzing the points of view of two separate authors and making a comparison of their purpose for writing.

So… How should an understanding of these two concepts impact our teaching in the classroom? The reality is, no matter what level of difficulty a student may be working at – whether they are reading below grade level, or working on math that is above grade level – all our students need to see the types of problems that have a high level of cognitive complexity, because no matter what level of difficulty they are working with, they need to be able to use a variety of levels of thinking in carrying out tasks in the classroom.

There are a couple of great resources that you can use to help find ways to up the level of cognitive complexity no matter what level of difficulty your students are working at.

EngageNY: A huge collection of resources for both math and language arts (and everything is FREE!!!) that will include performance tasks and opportunities for students to perform cognitively complex activities. You can search by specific topics, or seek things out based on grade level and topic.

YouCubed: A wealth of activities for math instruction, based on the work of Jo Boaler. You can seek out tasks for your students to complete, find resources for your students or parents, and so much more!

Open Middle: Another math based site that provides tons of challenging math problems. Again, you can search by grade level, topic, and more. Carrying out a problem like this a couple times a week in your classroom will up the DOK immensely!

I’m sure that there are lots of other ideas you may have to help increase the cognitive complexity within your classroom. What resources do you have? How do you make sure that all your students have opportunities to carry out tasks that are truly cognitively challenging to them? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Principles of Restorative Practices in Our Classrooms

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop on the Introduction to Restorative Practices. It was one of the most powerful learning events that I have attended in my many years in education. For the past couple of years, I have been dabbling in the concepts of restorative practices, trying to gain an understanding of just what it is, and how we could use the ideas in my school building. Until attending this workshop, I’ve struggled to figure out just how to implement some of the things I have learned. This seemed like the perfect opportunity!

Restorative PracticeToday’s post will focus primarily on the principles of restorative practices as shared by Kristina Hulvershorn of the Peace Learning Center in Indianapolis, Indiana. But before we get into the principles, let’s talk about why we should be looking at restorative practices as a piece of our plan for handling behavior and conflict.

One of the things that I think we can agree on is that our more traditional methods of blame, shame, punishment, and exclusion just don’t effectively work for our stakeholders. It may make you as the teacher feel better when the student who has made a poor choice is removed from the room, but does it really solve the underlying problem? When we push students out, we’re providing the opposite of what they really need – an opportunity to learn to do better. When misbehavior occurs, it’s the perfect time to help students learn the skills they are lacking. As Dr. Ross Greene reminds us in his book Lost at School, “Kids do well if they can.” In addition, restorative practices help to address disproportionality of discipline on students of color. I hope we can look at restorative practices not as something new and different, but another tool to use when incidents of misbehavior occur.

So, what are the principles of restorative practices?

  • Acknowledges that relationships are central to building community.
  • Builds systems that address misbehavior and harm in a way that strengthens relationships.
  • Focuses on the harm done rather than only the rule-breaking.
  • Gives voice to the person harmed.
  • Engages in collaborative problem solving.
  • Empowers change and growth.
  • Enhances responsibility.

Traditionally, our system of discipline in schools has been mostly based in punitive measures. Things like detention, suspension, or expulsion has been the primary method of handling student discipline. I know that in my own history, I had moments of discipline where the consequences were purely punitive. But let’s remember for a moment the root of the word discipline – it comes from discipulus, the Latin word for pupil. That word is also the source of the word disciple. What if we began shifting our mindset on discipline towards the idea that it’s based on teaching, not on consequences? How might that change what you do when a student misbehaves?

Now I know the pushback from some of you – the real world won’t look at discipline as a teaching tool. If our students make these mistakes in the “real world” when they are older, they will face serious consequences, like losing their job, facing fines, or maybe even jail. You’d probably be able to come up with some great examples of times where this has happened. I agree that maybe this isn’t how the real world works. But here’s the thing: We’re a school, we’re dealing with kids who are bound to make mistakes, and we’re teachers. Shouldn’t we make it our goal to teach students how they should behave while they are still with us?

So, what can you do to start building a more restorative setting in your classroom? There are a few universal steps that will help you start down that path:

  • Daily community circles – Think about sitting in a circle with your class every day. Take a few minutes to have students share how their feeling, a high or low point of the weekend, what they are looking forward to, etc. The ideas are endless, and if you are struggling to come up with topics, ask your students to submit them for you! These circles will help build safety and trust among your class, help kids make connections, and help you build relationships with your kids because you know more about their interests.
  • Student-led norms/rules – What if all your classroom norms and rules were set by the students? I know there are a few classrooms in my school that use this. If you don’t, what ownership do students have in the norms? Most of the time, students will create norms that all can agree on, that meet your needs as the teacher, and then we can all agree to those norms and refer back to them on a regular basis.
  • Explicit teaching of SEL skills – Social Emotional Learning is such an important piece that too often gets shoved to the bottom of the to-do list (which means it doesn’t get done). If we want students to understand what is appropriate in our school, we have to take the time to teach them. It’s tempting to say “they should already know this!” but if their actions show that they don’t, then maybe it’s something they need to be retaught. Just like how you’d reteach a math or English lesson if you realized that students don’t understand, it’s important to reteach behavioral skills too!
  • Affective StatementsRestorative language (the use of affective language) – To the right you’ll see a screen shot of a document with sentence starters for affective statements (I’ve also included a link to the document at the bottom of this post). If you share this with your students, post it in your room, and begin using statements like these, the kids will too!
  • Effort to build relationships – I think all teachers have stories they can share about “that kid” who has given them so much trouble, but then when you take the time to get to know them and what they care about, you begin to have more success. Building real relationships can help you get there with any kid! The community circle is one way to learn about kids, which can then help you find connections and conversations that you can have with that kid.

I hope to share more about restorative practices in the future, but here’s my ask to you: Take one of the 5 universal steps and give it a try. See what happens in your classroom. Does it change the way students treat one another? Does it lead to better relationships?

I know there are some of you who are already doing these things. If you have tried any of the ideas offered here, share with us what your experience has been. Let us know that positives (or struggles) you have found with these ideas?

Affective Statements

What’s the goal of education?

As many of you know, I love to listen to podcasts. I probably spend more time listening to podcasts than listening to music. I see them as an awesome learning tool. In past posts, I’ve shared tidbits that I gained from some of those various podcasts. Recently I’ve become a big fan of Reimagine Schools hosted by Dr. Greg Goins. Goins is currently the Director of the Educational Leadership Program at Georgetown College in Kentucky, and previously has worked in many different roles in schools, including time as a district superintendent in Illinois. The podcast is a way to share some of his ideas on transforming our schools.

He’s had several great guests on the podcast, but a recent episode really struck a chord with me. That episode was an interview of Alfie Kohn. Kohn is a writer and speaker on topics such as human behavior, education, and parenting. He has written 14 books, as well as numerous articles over the years. I must be honest, some of Kohn’s ideas really push me to the brink of being a little uncomfortable, but they cause me to pause and reflect on his thinking. I’ve said it before, no growth takes place when we are entirely comfortable, so I’m hoping these ideas will help me grow in my thinking. I’ll include a link to the podcast episode at the bottom of this post.

There were several things about the conversation that really made me pause and think. While the conversation meandered between topics, I’m going to break up my thoughts into what I saw as the 3 primary topics: what’s the goal of education; measuring student growth without traditional assessment; and the role of homework in education.

What’s the goal of education

During the conversation, Kohn shared that “Traditionalism has ill-served the students of today.” Much of the current American system of education is based in economic and competitive ways. Things like standardized assessments were often instituted and created by people who look at education from a purely economic perspective – we put in this amount per student, and based on that, this percentage of students can pass a test at the end of the school year. For those of us in education, we understand that this economic perspective is not where learning happens. Kohn pushes that we need to move beyond stuffing kids with facts, and instead get to understanding ideas from the inside out.

Many schools are still focused on grades, rubrics, tests, quizzes, homework, and worksheets. Kohn calls this “intellectually unengaging” and shares that based on research, learning shouldn’t be this way. Instead, true learning should grow from kids questions. Our role as educators is to empower our students and create welcoming communities that encourage student learning. We as the teachers have to start by minimizing our own power, and providing students with the opportunities to make decisions because the only way to learn to make good decisions is by making decisions.

Student growth without traditional assessment

Most of the timeIn his conversation with Goins, Kohn challenges us that there is no way to measure or quantify true learning. The moment we try to put a numerical or letter-based score onto a learning task, we take away much of the motivation that students have to learn, and instead we create a system that trains our students for compliance. The things that can be easily measured in an assessment are not the things that truly matter. The example that Kohn used here was that on an assessment of a writing task, we may spend more time and effort in measuring the number of times that a student used punctuation correctly, however we don’t spend nearly as much time on whether the student expressed meaningful ideas in their writing. If we are developing learners in our world, what’s more important? I think most would agree that the ideas are the most important part, but ideas are hard to quantify, so we struggle to factor that into our assessments. As Kohn puts it “More focus on data in teaching means that we teach the trivial stuff more than the important stuff.”

This was an area that I really struggled. Currently we live in a system that we are judged based on our data. For better or worse, that is the system that we live in. If I as a teacher, or we as a school, decided to shy away from that data and focus on the so called “more important stuff,” there may be stakeholders who question our choices because the data is important to them. It’s a struggle between what we feel is best for students, and what our community and society expect for students. What to do?

Kohn did have some awesome suggestions for ways to assess students in more authentic ways. He talked a little about performance tasks, which I know there are teachers in my current building who do this at times. He talked about exhibitions of mastery – imagine a gallery walk at the end of a unit, or grading period, or school year at least, where students are able to share something that they learned with an audience of more than just their teachers and peers. Another suggestion that I know that I’ve mentioned below is a portfolio with a place for reflections by students. I see this blog as my own personal learning portfolio – by scrolling through past posts you can see what I’ve learned about, what I’m passionate about, and you can see my own reflections on those topics. You may even notice that opinions on some of the topics have evolved in the time I’ve been posting. A final suggestion from Kohn is something that a teacher, or even school as a whole could do to assess overall learning – that’s a random sample of students achievements (notice that both are plural, that’s important). By looking at the achievements of various students, you can see a little about the types of learning that have happened within your classroom / school over a given period of time.

The role of homework in education

For those of you who know of Alfie Kohn, you may know what to expect here. Kohn is not a fan of homework. As a short precursor, Kohn sees homework, especially before high school, as educational malpractice, and he has a few reasons for his opinions. First a foremost, he doesn’t feel that a kid should have a “second shift” of school at home. Most people, when they leave work, are done with work, but in education we send students home with more to do.

Now I know, some of you are saying “not my homework, it’s meaningful,” but let’s keep in mind what we are asking when we send work home with a student. First, homework can be tough on families and kids. By assigning homework we are imposing our demands on their family time, and Kohn feels that families should be able to determine how to use their family time. Second, according to Kohn, no study has found any benefit of any kind to any student before high school. And finally, Kohn says that homework leads to several potential negative outcomes for our students: frustration; exhaustion; family conflict; less interest in learning; and less time for kids to develop in other ways (socially, artistically, etc.).

I’m not saying that we should never assign homework ever again, but Kohn’s thoughts fit with some of the opinions that I have as a father. Our family time is precious, and I don’t want to spend it fighting with my kids about whether they have their assignments done from school. We’ve got much better ways to spend our time. Kohn’s definition of appropriate homework is “on those rare occasions when we can say that this will help kids think more deeply about questions that matter, and when it will make kids more excited about learning, then and only then will we infringe upon family time.”

So what are your thoughts? Are you going to listen to the conversation (the link is just below)? Do any of the ideas shared above cause you to reflect on your own practice? Do they make you uncomfortable? I can say for sure that there are things from this post that make me a little uncomfortable, but I’m trying to live on the growing edge! Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Progressive Education with Alfie Kohn

Lines of permission

How many times have you heard about some cool project that a teacher you know is trying, and had the thought “Man, I wish I could do something like that with my class!”

I know that there were times that I would have those exact thoughts – sometimes the thing holding me back had to do with resources, sometimes it was fear that I couldn’t pull something like that off with my class, and sometimes it was that I wasn’t sure if it was something that I would actually be allowed to do with my students.

At the beginning of the school year, our Superintendent shared with all the teachers in the district a catchphrase that he wanted to become a phrase we all used to describe learning: “Incubating Awesome!” If we believe that it is our job to create an amazing learning space that leads to awesome opportunities for students to learn and grow, we cannot allow any doubt to get in the way! We have to move forward and do amazing things for our students because it’s what we know is best for kids!

In his book Creative Schools, Ken Robinson shares that “People everywhere have ideas they would like to develop, but they need permission to try them out and see if they work. If they fear failure or humiliation or disapproval, they usually hold back. If they’re encouraged to try their hand, they usually will.” I want this post to be that encouragement for you! Don’t let any of those fears or that thought of needing permission, be the thing that prevents you from incubating awesome in your own classroom!

It is my goal to create a culture where all the people in our school feel empowered to do what they think is necessary to create awesome learning opportunities for the students they work with! Robinson reminds us that culture is about permission. Not so long ago, the NFL was kind of a no holds barred world. True, there were personal fouls and calls for unnecessary roughness, but this year the NFL put into place new rules regarding leading with the helmet. This rule was put into place as an effort to keep players safe, but in the NFL Preseason there was an uproar over some of the penalties that were called. As a former football coach and player, this one is an example of some of the struggles with the new rule:

To me, this looks like a perfectly clean tackle. However, the referees in the game saw it as a player leading with the helmet, and called a penalty. The reality is that the lines of permission in society have been redrawn. We can see this in sports, or in the real world. The things that once were impermissible become common place, while other things that were once the norm become impermissible. Schools are changing too, and that affects our own lines of permission.

The next time you have an idea to try something new and innovative with your class, you may have something that pulls you back and tells you not to do it. Don’t listen! When we take risks as educators, we encourage our students to take their own risks. When we show our students that we’re willing to try something new, we show them that it’s ok to try something new. We teach in so many ways, and sometimes what students learn from us is not as much about the lessons we have planned as it is about the skills we help them develop through our own efforts to model what it means to be a lifelong learner.

And here’s the reality, if you are trying out new and innovative things, there are going to be times that you fail! We have begun to celebrate failure in our society. One thing that I’ve been thinking about though: it’s not the failure that we need to celebrate. It’s the willingness to reflect on that failure and figure out what we can learn and how we can get better that we should be celebrating.

So, knowing that you have permission to go out there and do something new and innovative, what ideas do you have? What ways are you going to incubate awesome in your classroom this year? Share your thoughts in the comments below! I can’t wait to hear about your ideas!

The North Star of Great Learning

Moving the RockThis summer a group of educators in my school district did a book study of Moving the Rock: Seven Levers WE Can Press to Transform Education by Grant Lichtman. I was not an original member of the book study, but when that group came to an end, they decided they wanted to keep meeting, and that they wanted to grow the group – so, I was invited to become a member. That group is called the Innovation Task Force. Since I felt a bit behind the other members, I decided to read the Moving the Rock. I picked it up and read it in just a couple of days (I could have finished it in a day if I let myself!).

When discussing the first of his seven levers, Lichtman used the phrase the “North Star of Great Learning.” In the book, he suggests that defining that North Star is one of the first ways that we can create the demand for better schools. So, what is our North Star? As a way to help define what that may look like at our school, we spent a portion of our first staff meeting talking about what great learning looks like. We began our meeting with the following image:

Learning
Thanks to Susan Drumm for creating this image.

We asked each teacher to respond with a single word. We then created a word cloud from the ideas that were shared by our staff. This is what we came up with:

Opening Day Word Cloud

I think that’s a pretty impactful list of words to describe what great learning looks like, and it definitely helps us as a building chart the plan for what deeper learning should look like in our building. It seems that if this is what we believe, it should serve as the foundation of the North Star of Great Learning.

BestPracticesModel_HSE21_standalonegraphic_2017_05_24As a district, we also have our Instructional Framework, Called the HSE21 Best Practices for Teaching and Learning (it can be found to the right). As I look at this framework, and compare it to the words that we as a staff selected to define great learning, they seem very well aligned.

I wonder at times though, how often we reflect on what is happening in our classrooms on a daily basis compared to what our beliefs about great learning actually are. Is our practice meeting what we say that we want great learning to look like? I wonder if we were to ask our students about learning in our classrooms what they might say about our daily practices.

I’ve often heard leaders talk about the idea of cognitive dissonance, that idea of being a little bit uncomfortable with what you are doing. Of being ok with others questioning our practice. Of understanding that we are all here to create the best possible learning environment for our students (and sometimes that will not be the easiest path for the adults!). Of understanding that if you are completely comfortable in all you are doing, you probably aren’t growing that much.

During our last meeting as the Innovation Task Force, one of the colleagues in the group shared that instead of thinking about how to prepare our students for when they graduate from high school, maybe a better thing to think about is how do we prepare them for life at 22. When we think about graduating from high school as our end goal for students, we let ourselves off the hook for helping them be ready for what they need to know in those first couple of years AFTER they graduate from high school.

Raise your hand if there were things that you didn’t understand about the world when you graduated high school. I can assure you that my hand is up too! Creating a transformational learning environment will help our students to see that learning is something that can happen anytime and anywhere, not something that is done to them while they are sitting in a classroom.

Just like the mind shift that it takes to transfer our classrooms from the traditional learning environments that most of us grew up in towards transformational learning environments who implement the 4 Cs on a daily basis (Creative Thinking, Collaboration, Creativity, and Communication), we have to shift our thinking about what it is that we are truly preparing students for.

The next chance you get, ask your students about the favorite things that they have done in your classroom so far this year, or ask them to tell you what great learning should look like. Reflect on the things they share with you. Create more learning opportunities like that! Then, share their responses in the comments below. I’d love to hear from our students.

Relationships matter

I think you all know how much I value relationships in the classroom. I’m a firm believer in the idea that no significant learning can happen without a meaningful relationship. Earlier this week, I was listening to one of the episodes of the podcast “We’re Doing It Wrong”, and it was a reaffirmation of that belief.

In the podcast, the host Joseph Pazar (a middle school math teacher) was interviewing the authors of Angels and Superheroes, Jack Jose and Krista Taylor. The conversation covered a wide variety of topics including relationships, behavior, and student misbehavior (I included a link to the podcast below).

I’m guessing that you’ve all heard the great TED Talk from Rita Pierson, “Every kid needs a champion” (if you haven’t, take 8 minutes right now and watch!), and in that talk, she shares the wisdom that kids don’t learn from people they don’t like. Krista Taylor takes it a bit further. She says:

Students need to like you,

I heard that quote and then rewound to relisten to that section of the podcast. Leading up to this comment, Taylor shared that most teachers don’t go into teaching because they want their students to get a good test score. More likely, they go into teaching because they want to:

  • Work with students
  • Build the whole child
  • Have social emotional learning happening
  • Raise responsible citizens
  • Raise students who care about each other and their community.

To accomplish any of these goals, and so many others that might come to mind for you when you pause to think about why you became a teacher, it takes meaningful relationships! Meaningful relationships aren’t built just because you make class fun, they don’t happen naturally for most kids. True relationships take work! So, how can we go about building those real relationships with our kids? Here are a few ideas for ways to build relationships:

  • Get curious and ask questions – Find out what they like to do when they aren’t at school. Engage with them on their interests, even if it isn’t an interest of yours!
  • Take your students outside of the classroom – I loved my 6th grade class and teachers. I remember doing a camping trip on the property behind our school one night. I remember walking from school into the neighborhood next door where one of my teachers lived to have a picnic. Those were powerful events to build relationships with my teachers and with my classmates! I can’t tell you much about what we did during class time, but I definitely remember those fun moments outside of the classroom. And I still think fondly of both of those teachers.
  • Listen to your students concerns and pause to re-examine ourselves – the reality is that implicit biases creep into all of us! And the more tense a situation may be, the worse our decision making process becomes. When students share concerns about something you are doing in the room, hear them out and reflect. It’s tempting to defend our actions, but if it’s bothering one brave soul enough that they tell you, there may be a few more who feel the same, but aren’t brave enough to share!

As the conversation in the “We’re Doing It Wrong” podcast went on, Jack Jose shared that when we work to build relationships, we also have to:

“Trust that the child in front of you wants to behave, wants to succeed, wants to do well… then, work with that child to get past those gaps so that they can be successful”

If we think back to what we’ve learned from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, misbehavior from a student is a form of communication. It lets us know that some need is not being met. Most likely, the missing need is a feeling of belongingness. When we don’t fulfill that need, they continue to misbehave. Our punishments might redirect that need in the short term, but it will not solve the overarching need that is creating the misbehavior.

Let’s think about a typical situation, and how we might respond:

A student in your class is often off task. He talks to his neighbors and generally goofs around. Occasionally, that student will raise his hand to answer the question, so we call on him, excited that he wants to participate. We praise his answer to the question hopeful that it will instill a greater desire for participation. The next day, he comes in, goofs around, and causes a disruption. You schedule a conference with his parents. On the day of the conference, you and the parents gather with the child around the table and share that the student is “so bright” and capable of so much more. In the meeting the student commits to doing better. The next day in class, you see a little improvement, but later that week the behavior returns to what you were seeing prior to the conference.

Now, let’s look at this from the perspective of the student who is misbehaving:

  • The student has a need for the feeling of belonging. During class he gets to talk with the friends he likes, they laugh at him and make him feel good.
  • He cherry picks the questions that you ask to only respond to the ones he feels confident in because he knows that he will get it right, then he gets your praise for being bright, fulfilling yet another need. And do we really know that he’s that smart if the child is cherry picking the questions he wants to answer?
  • He creates a situation where there are several adults (most of whom he likes and trusts) around a table telling him how bright he is.
  • He returns to class and goofs around again because that fulfills his need to belong with the other kids.

Our traditional methods do not fulfill the needs that this child has – only a true and meaningful relationship will allow that child to have the sense of belonging he needs to help stop the misbehavior. Keeping that kid in the room, making them do the work, holding them to a high standard is not “letting them off.” In actuality, kicking them out of class or sending them to the office is letting them off because now they don’t have to do the work, they will get one on one attention – the secretary will talk to them about what happened, maybe the counselor will too, another teacher might talk to them, and they get one on one attention from the principal or assistant principal. These all give the student attention, and may allow him a sense of belonging with those people, but it doesn’t lead to that sense of belonging in the classroom where he needs it most!

A more powerful method – have the student complete a reflection form on what they’ve done and have them return to class when they are finished. Maybe that’s done in the back of the classroom, maybe it’s done in another teacher’s classroom, or maybe it’s done in the hallway. By sending them out we all get a break from one another which allows us to re-regulate, the kids reflect on the situation and process that, and then when they walk back into the classroom, they will most likely be ready to learn. The child sees that misbehavior isn’t going to lead to his needs being met, and they will trust that you will treat them fairly, and that trust helps give a sense of belonging.

What are your thoughts? How does relationship building help you? What are some of the ways you build relationships? Share out your best strategies so that we all can have some new ideas!

We’re Doing It Wrong Podcast: http://www.weredoingitwrong.com/podcast/6-angels-and-superheroes

 

Teaching in the technology age

Out of curiosity, how many of you remember when the first iPhone came out? Did any of you have one? In case you have forgotten, that first iPhone looked like this:

iPhone 10th anniversary

In case you have also forgotten, that beauty of a phone was released to the public in 2007. Now I must admit, I did not have the original iPhone. If you recall, when the iPhone first came out it was only available on AT&T, and I still had a contract with Verizon – that meant I had to wait. But I remember friends who rushed out to get that first iPhone. And they were blown away by how amazing it was.

So why am I bringing up the release of the iPhone? If you haven’t been paying attention to the birthdates of your students, you may not have noticed it, but most of our 5th and 6th graders here at RSI were born in 2007 or later. Think about that. Most of our students have never lived in a world that didn’t have an iPhone! The kids we are teaching truly are digital natives. They have had the entire world at their fingertips their entire lifetime.

We are born without knowledgeLet’s contrast that just a bit with human history. I’ve recently been reading Walter Isaacson’s fascinating biography Benjamin Franklin. There were a lot of things that I knew about Franklin, his role as an inventor/scientist, his time as a member of the Continental Congress, and that he’s a writer and printer. I don’t know that I fully realized what a world traveler he was. I also did not quite realize just how curious he was – throughout his life he found wonder in the world around him, and spent time trying to learn more.

One of the things that being alive in the 1700s allowed Franklin, and his contemporaries, was time alone with their thoughts. There weren’t distractions like television, radio, podcasts, phones. I mean, when he wanted guidance from back home while working on the treaty for the Revolutionary War, he had to hand write a letter, sometimes multiple drafts, send it on a ship back to America, and wait, typically for several months, for a response. Think about how much time he had to just wait and think!

Now, when do your best ideas strike you? If you’re anything like me (and brain research says that most humans probably are), it happens in your moments of rest and solitude. I can’t tell you how many times a great idea comes to me in the shower, only to be lost by the time I get out and have a way to write it down. The truth is, there is constant thinking happening in our minds. Sometimes it’s self-talk, sometimes it’s planning, but other times it’s when we get our best ideas. How often do you spend hours laboring over something, not quite sure how to make it perfect, only to become frustrated and walk away? Then, in a free moment, it suddenly clicks and the solution you’ve been looking for is right there.

Our students don’t have enough opportunities to just wonder, to think, to get bored and then allow creativity to get them out of their boredom. Most digital natives are not used to that feeling. They are used to getting what they want when they want it. And as such, they need to be better trained to find their creativity and curiosity.

What does that mean for us in the classrooms? Sometimes we as educators get caught up in the idea of “I have to cover…” so we rush in, we swoop them up when they might get a little stuck, we solve the problem for them instead of allowing them the time and space to solve the problem on their own.

Our students, in their long term though, need to be able to work through problems and solve them. The reality is that there are a lot of things that the devices they have grown up with can do for them, but there are also things that those devices can’t do. In his book What School Could Be, Ted Dintersmith spends time in the first chapter talking about the digital revolution and the rapid growth in computing power. While computers are getting exponentially faster every year, and at some point, computers most likely will surpass the average speed of the human brain, they haven’t yet been able to do the creative problem solving that humans can do. Computers can only solve problems that they have the information and programming for. Dintersmith shares that “Children need to learn how to leverage machine intelligence, not replicate its capacity to perform low-level tasks!” The ideas that allow them to learn this skill only comes from time spent wondering or practicing creativity.

When you try to think about ways to integrate curiosity and wonder, take the topics you are learning about in your classroom. Create provocations for students to wonder about that tie to what you are learning about. Allow the learning in your classroom go sideways just a little bit because of the “What if…” questions that students ask. When we feed into their wonder, we tell them it’s ok to be curious.

Then, provide them with opportunities to be creative! On Wednesdays, our media center has become the hub of creative activity with makerspace activities going on. This feeds the creative mind and soul! It helps our kids to understand that technology is not always the answer! Allow every child to see themselves as creative in some way! Not only does it turn on that part of the brain, it’s a lot of fun for you too!

 

What are your thoughts? How have you integrated creativity and curiosity in your classroom? What have you learned from your students when you take that time to dive into their wonders? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

Change requires connectivity

The innovatorsLast summer, I read the book The Innovators by Walter Isaacson. As a brief description, the book was about the work of the many different people who played a role in the development of the computer and internet. For most of us, when we think of innovation, we think of people like Franklin, Edison, Bell, Morse, Jobs, or Gates, but in the case of the digital revolution, most of the work was not the creation of any one person. Instead it was the work of many who connected, collaborated, and iterated. Someone like Steve Jobs is seen as the creator of the iPhone, but really he took several technologies that already existed and combined them into a form factor that connected with a market.

Creativity IncThis past spring, I read the book Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull. Catmull is the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, and wrote a book about the steps that they take in order to build a highly functioning, creative environment that is able to churn out movies that people love (think Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. Finding Nemo, and more). One of my big takeaways from this book is that the amazing work that occurs at Pixar happens because of 2 things: teamwork; and a willingness to accept feedback from those around you, whether positive or negative, and understand that it’s being shared in the hopes of creating something better.

Now, as many of you know, this blog is geared toward education. You may be wondering what the creation of the digital revolution or the work that occurs at Pixar have to do with what happens in our schools on a daily basis. I’m hoping to make that connection here today!

The connection that I can make between The Innovators and Creativity, Inc. has to do with the collaborative networks that existed between the creators. As an educator, each of you is a creator EVERY DAY. You create the experiences that happen in your classroom. You decide on what the room looks like, you decide if the lights are on or off, you decide if there is music or not, you decide how the desks are arranged when kids walk in. Each of these little decisions plays a role on the learning environment, and those are just the decisions you make BEFORE the students walk in. Think about all the decisions you make during the lesson! None of you are ever allowed to tell me that you “aren’t creative” because you create EVERY SINGLE DAY!!!

Think for a moment about your existence as an educator. You work close to several other amazing teachers every day, but there’s one thing I know about teaching because sometimes I did it when I was still in my classroom: it’s easy to shut the door, do your own thing, and not worry about what’s happening around you. Education is one of the careers where we often live in silos – our classrooms, our content area, our team, our grade level, or our campus.

But there’s one thing that books like The Innovators and Creativity, Inc. hopefully remind us: innovation doesn’t happen inside of a vacuum, it happens with collaboration, teamwork, and connections.  With all the amazing educators and schools, we still at times fail to create those critical connections for collaboration that lead to real innovation in education.

This is why I see such value in what happens during our Professional Learning Community (PLC) time. It’s an opportunity for you to come together with your colleagues, to analyze the data your seeing, to talk about what’s working in classrooms, and then to be able to test out whether or not that works in your own room. It’s a chance for you as a team to take risks, to walk out on a ledge as a team, and try something new because as a team you feel it will benefit the students in your room. We all know there’s safety in numbers! We need to see PLC time not as something that’s done to us, but as a form of self and team-directed professional development with regular opportunities to collaborate and communicate.

But if we want to create the amazing innovative environments that our students need in order to learn and grow, we have to be ready and willing to connect on an even grander scale. If you are looking for other ways to learn and grow, there are lots of informal options out there. Things like Twitter chats, EdCamps, and blogs are free and easy way to seek out like-minded educators who are doing amazing things in their classroom. Or there are more formal ways to learn about innovation in the classroom. I recently learned of the Deeper Learning Network (click here to check out their website) that shares tons of resources for innovative ideas in you classroom. Some of the things you can find information about include: Project-Based Learning, Blended Learning, Inquiry-Based Learning, Authentic Assessment, and so much more!

Now, some of you may be wondering why we need to change. Well, the reality is that thanks to the work of the innovative people that are discussed in Isaacson’s book, many of our students are used to on demand learning, are used to making choices in what they want to learn, and how they learn. The digital revolution has changed the game for learners, which means we have to find ways to change the game as teachers to meet their needs. I think we all would agree that our students today are different than the students that were in our schools just 5 years ago. They are digital natives, and many know how to find what they want to know when they want to know it.

If we as educators don’t adapt to the new style of learning, our learners are going to leave us behind. If they don’t see the relevance of what they are doing, if they don’t get choice and voice in their learning, they will not engage. I continue to believe that the HSE21 Best Practice Model is our North Star that gets us to the learning environments that will work for our students. And the best way for each of us to learn and grow towards those best practices is through meaningful collaboration. As one of my favorite professors at IU repeated almost every day “Learning is social” and we are all learners too!

BestPracticesModel_HSE21_standalonegraphic_2017_05_24

Continue to seek out ways to collaborate. Take a moment to be vulnerable and ask a PLC team member to come observe one of your lessons to give you feedback. If someone asks you for feedback, be willing to give it. We ask our students to be vulnerable and a little uncomfortable every day because that’s where the learning and growth takes place. Why can’t we expect the same of ourselves?

What are some of the things you do to continue to grow? Is there a preferred method for learning from others that works best for you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!