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!

This is hard…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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!