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.

Finding your potential

When is the last time you thought to yourself “I just don’t think I can do that.”? I think that many of us have those thoughts from time to time. I know that I do! In my last post, I shared a bit about setting goals that make us feel a little uncomfortable. I know for some, that is a challenging thought.

Most of the people who read this blog are educators, and one thing that most educators have in common is that we like to be sure that we are doing things “right.” Because of that, setting a goal that we might not reach just feels wrong. But as a reminder from the last post, growth happens when you are in that zone of being a little bit uncomfortable. I am sure that if you were a reading teacher and you noticed a student always picking books that were really “easy” for them, you’d challenge them to pick a book that pushes them a little more. We’re really good at pushing our students to the next level. But sometimes it seems that we aren’t so good at pushing ourselves to that next level. Hopefully this post can help provide a gentle nudge!

As you may know, our family is pretty active. Because of that, our kids are typically given the chance to try lots of different things. When Lainey was in kindergarten, she decided that she wanted to run in the Liger Mile – this is a one-mile fun run put on by the cross-country teams of both of the high schools in our district. We did a couple of “training runs” in the neighborhood and thought that she would do great – I mean, it’s only a mile. Little did we know! That run was a struggle for her! I promised to wait right by the finishing line so that Lainey would know where to go when she finished. Diane made sure to be along the course, which turned in to her almost running the whole mile with Lainey. She needed the encouragement, but finally made it to the finish! Just check out the finishing picture:

Lainey Liger K

After that experience, we didn’t expect her to want to run ever again. But sure enough, sign up time came for the first-grade version, and she said she wanted to try again! This time it went MUCH better! We even got smiles at the finish (and it didn’t hurt that the weather was a LOT better):

Lainey Liger 1

Lainey has run the Liger Mile every year that she’s been in school and is looking forward to it this year! Brody has even joined in on the fun! What this experience taught Lainey (and Brody) is that they have the potential to accomplish difficult things, but it takes hard work to get there. So, in an effort to help model the importance of pushing ourselves, we signed up to run the Geist 5K as a family in 2018. We went on a few training runs (probably not as many as we should have), we had some struggles on the course (Brody was ready to walk about a half-mile into the run), but ultimately we all finished the run successfully, and with a smile on our face:

Family 5k

As a family, we have now all run multiple 5K races together. The kids are going to soon be at the point that Diane and I won’t be able to keep up with them!

One of the things that I’m concerned about is that too often people have this mindset of “I could never do that!” when they think about something that’s challenging. I’ll admit it – I still am not sure that I’m ready to make the jump from half-marathons to the full-marathon. We’ll see if that changes some day! But what concerns me about that mindset of thinking that you don’t have it in you, then you take yourself out of the game before it’s ever really started! I think we all have this internal fear – of doing something new, of not being successful in what we try.

Recently many of the staff members in my building read the book Out of the Maze by Spencer Johnson. It serves as a reminder that sometimes we get stuck in what we do because it is comfortable. Because of that focus we have on what we know, it makes it hard to let go of what we’ve done, even when it isn’t working. One of my takeaways from the book is that there are no limits to what we can believe, and that our beliefs allow us to have experiences that are more joyful. All we have to do is to choose a new belief.

So, here’s the question I have for you – what’s the jump up that you haven’t made yet? What’s the thing that you’re curious about, but say to yourself “I just don’t know if I can do that”? What’s the belief that you’ve noticed that it might be time to let go of? All of us have tremendous amounts of potential within us. And when we set that potential free in our classroom, we have a tremendous opportunity to impact learning for our students! Start thinking a little bit more about that thing that gives you the uh-oh feeling and make the jump! Or at least take a few steps in the right direction!

There is no heavier burden than an unfulfilled potential (1)

So… Before I ask you what you plan to accomplish next, here are a couple of my goals in no particular order:

  • Ride the RAIN Ride (Ride Across Indiana) next summer – this is a one day, 160 mile bike ride from the Indiana border with Illinois to the Indiana border with Ohio
  • Create and share out a weekly update video – something like a “5 for Friday” – to send to our families along with our newsletter
  • Start a social media club to allow students to share things happening at The River to the @RSIHawks twitter handle
  • Make at least 3 #GoodNewsCallOfTheDay phone calls per week

So now, I want you to reflect – what’s that thing that you have been considering but just haven’t done yet? Share in the comments below! I’d love to know what you have in mind!

Love what you do

Today was one of those days. I came home wondering what I had actually accomplished. I knew I had done a lot, but I didn’t feel like anything I did really helped in the goal of serving the students, teachers, and families of Riverside.

I think we all have days like that. We feel like we weren’t that successful. We start to doubt ourselves. At times we may even question if we are meant to be where we are.

Here’s the thing though – even on days like today, I love what I do. I love to see students accomplish amazing things in their classroom. I love to see teachers do the great things they do in their classrooms daily. I love the mission of helping kids be successful for anything that may come their way in the future!

I recently heard an interview of Kevin Systrom. If you don’t know who he is, he’s one of the co-founders of Instagram (I hope you all know what Instagram is!), that helps me on the days where I feel things didn’t go well.

A lot of people are like, you should love what you do. And I agree. But I think it's more you should love what you're shooting for. Cause work is hard. It can be miserable at times... It's a universal law that great

I think we all realize that education can be really hard. And the end of the school year is one of those times that can be extra difficult. There’s so much we’re trying to accomplish during those final few days. We’re trying to soak up every last moment with this group of students because no class will ever be exactly the same. Add to that students who may be counting down the days for summer break who have mentally checked out of class. I’ve had several conversations recently with teachers and students about the difficulties of this time of year.

As an educator, many of us have heard (or maybe even said) that you have to love what you do to be able to be good at it. If that is something that has been ingrained in us, having a bad day can be really difficult to take. That’s why I love Systrom’s take on loving what you do. This work is hard, and some days don’t go that well. But he reminds us that great things happen through hard work. If the job were easy all the time, anyone can do it. But I think all of us in education know that this is not a job that anyone can do. It takes a special personality, a special heart, to be able to serve your students and community in this role.

The next time you have a bad day, and are questioning your ability, take a moment to reflect on the long-term accomplishments. Maybe it’s the growth you’ve seen from one of your students. Maybe it takes thinking about a big project that has come to fruition. Or maybe it’s as simple as that moment where you could tell that something you did or said to a kid had a positive impact. It’s easy to get sucked in by the bad, and we go on this negative spiral. Always be looking for the good. It’s there. And when you find it, hold on to it, because that’s the reason you love what you do!

So to close the post for today, I wanted to share just a few pictures of the awesome things that have happened at Riverside – just this quarter! These pictures were posted to Twitter by various teachers and staff members in our building.

 

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Do you have any ways that help you focus on your love of what you’re shooting for when you have those days that don’t go so well? Share 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!

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!