Motivation vs. Discipline

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

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

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

I was motivated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a link to that podcast – it’s only 9 minutes long!

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

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

No complaints

Earlier this week, I was walking into our central office and ran into one of the other principals in our district. We were chatting about how things were going, and I just loved her response. First, she said, “I’m doing really good right now!” Then she said:

It felt like a breath of fresh air at the moment. I think we all know that the reality of working in a school can invariably lead to negative conversations. If you spend much time in the teacher’s lounge or the workroom it almost seems inevitable that you’ll get sucked into a negative mindset. That’s why Crystal’s statement above stood out to me so much. We all know that it’s easy to find things to complain about. The question is, do we put those complaints out in the world, or do we choose to hold on to them? Think about the impact of holding our complaints to ourselves!

Obviously, there are things that need to be complained about – so long as we come at it with a mindset of problem-solving. When someone comes to me seeking a solution to a problem they are dealing with, I often ask them what ideas they might have. Instead of getting sucked into a conversation about the problem, we work to create a meaningful solution.

But sometimes we run into another teacher who chooses to continue to go down that path of negativity. It seems to be unavoidable. And no matter how much we try to shift into problem-solving mode, the negativity just keeps flowing. How might we respond?

We all know that there’s at least one person that just never seems to be pleased – kids aren’t great, parents aren’t great, the admin isn’t great, but complaining about any or all of them can be good – at least for that person. When I think of my past, there have been some people like this that I’ve worked with. And the reality is, maybe it’s not a person at school. When I think back on those people from my past, I could almost always identify something positive about them, but I also knew that they could steal my joy! In fact, one of my previous administrators said to me once, “If you tell that person to stop being a joy stealer, I’ll give you a Starbucks gift card” after I was seeking advice on what to do.

For most of us, when we see the joy stealer coming, we’ll just try to avoid them. Or worse yet, we might even engage in some of those negative conversations. We probably know it’s not right, but as the saying goes, “It’s easier to go along to get along.” A lot of the time, we go along because we don’t know what else we could do or say. Todd Whitaker has some thoughts on how you might respond to these joy stealers, or as he calls them “Negative Nelly (or Nelson).” In the book The Ten-Minute Inservice, Whitaker has a section all about improving school climate. One of the chapters is called “Dealing with Negative Co-Workers.” Here are a couple of his suggestions with some additional thoughts from me:

  • “I love that student.” There is nothing that takes the air out of the sails of a joy stealer more than saying that you love the student they are trying to complain about. Even if you don’t really know the student, you’ve just let the joy stealer know what your beliefs are about students. Conversation over.
  • Then there’s the situation where a teacher seeks out the teachers of his/her former students to “warn them.” So, what could you say? Here’s the response Whitaker offers: “Thank you so much for telling me about these students. These kinds of students are the reason I became a teacher. You obviously must care about these students a lot to have taken time out of your busy schedule to speak with me about them. I’m so glad they are in my classroom. They definitely need loving caring teachers like you and me. I’ll keep you posted on their progress.” Think about how that might diffuse your joy stealer!
  • Gossip – the joy stealers always seem to be in the know of all the gossip. If they come up to share, you can always say “I’d love to chat, but I’m in a rush. See you later.” Then, walk away. If this is how we all respond to the joy stealer, they can’t spread the gossip. Or maybe they’ll go try to find an ear that will listen.
  • I often find that joy stealers like to spend time complaining about parents as well. A great response might be to say, “Our students are so lucky to spend so many hours with positive people like us.” Again, total deflation for the joy stealers.

As you reflect, do a quick self-assessment. Where do you find yourself on the scale of joy stealing? Are you a total Negative Nelly (or Nelson)? Or do you work hard to seek out the positive spin on any situation? As you assess yourself, think of where you want to be. Nobody I know likes dealing with a person who is always out to steal our joy. Working in a school is a hard enough gig to begin with. We don’t need to be adding to it by stealing the joy of our colleagues, and you don’t have to listen to someone who wants to steal your joy.

Ultimately, school climate is about what each one of us chooses to make it. No leader, no single teacher, and no one person can change the climate of a building. It takes a collective effort to create an environment that we all want to be in. So, when you are next asked how things are going, think of Crystal’s words: “I could probably find something to complain about, but I’m not going to.”

The kids we worry about

Over the past 2 weeks, I have been spending a lot of time in meetings. These meetings bring our MTSS (multi-tiered systems of support) team at school together with classroom teachers. The goal is to hold an initial meeting to review the beginning of the year data on our students. For each class, we look at the class profile on NWEA assessments, current guided reading levels, and any other data a teacher has to bring about their students. We spend time in these meetings discussing what the data tell us about our students, and how we might provide the best possible support.

We always love to begin our conversations around strengths, but ultimately, a big chunk of our time is spent discussing students of concern.

I know that when I was in the classroom, I always had a running list in the back of my mind of kids I worried about. If any of you are like me, you probably have a list as well. But what do we do with that list? After a recent learning session with Cornelius Minor, I found myself pulled back to his book We Got This, and there’s a section that caught my attention based on the conversations we’ve been having in our MTSS meetings. On page 38, Cornelius shares a resource called “Thinking About Kids in My Classroom.”

What I love about this resource, is that it takes what many of us may do – having a running list of our students of concern in the back of our minds – and asks us to make it more formal. So, here’s what I challenge you to do in the next couple of days – On a piece of paper, a post-it, the notes app on your phone, or wherever works for you, make a list of the kids you worry about. This might include kids who are struggling with curriculum, or maybe something in their assessment data is concerning, or it might be kids who don’t seem to “fit in” with the rest of your class, or maybe you see that they are acting out in your classroom. I believe there is so much power in making an actual list of the kids we’re worried about. When the list is mental, it’s easy to just forget about someone, or almost feel like you’re playing whack-a-mole with the issues that seem to be the biggest at the moment. But when we make the list more formal, when we write it down, we have to reflect on what we can do to create an environment where all our students can thrive. As I reflect on the work of Cornelius Minor, I’ve learned that maybe those students on that list are not successful because there is something about our system, the way we do school, that fails a subset of people.

As Alexander Den Heiher reminds us, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” If a whole subset of our students is unsuccessful in school settings, we might need to engage in the hard work of looking at what about our environment needs to be changed.

So, once we have our list of kids we’re worried about, what we can do is think about how we might sort them into groups. Examples of groups Cornelius shares in We Got This include (but are not limited to) “kids who are below benchmark”, or “kids who are still learning English”, or “kids who can’t stop talking.” As you learn more about your students, consider all the other things these students might have in common. The more commonalities we identify, the easier some of our later steps might be.

Next, it’s important to think about what students need to do to be successful in your class. When was the last time you took a moment to define your own success criteria? And even more importantly, have you defined this for your students? If you can’t define what success looks like in your class, how could your students who struggle possibly know what they need to do?

Once you’ve defined success criteria, Cornelius asks “what barriers keep some students from achieving that success?” This is why relationships matter so much. We have to know our kids well in order to define our barriers. Sometimes identifying those barriers may mean we need to work with the family of our students.

Once you have identified some barriers, you can make a list of ways that those barriers could be removed. What could you try? What could you implement? Then, treat your ideas as little experiments. As you try things, pay attention to how it impacts your students. Does it make a difference? If not, try a different strategy to remove that barrier. If you’re struggling to figure out ways to remove barriers, seek support from a colleague. Maybe they have an idea that you haven’t tried yet! Have you ever created a formal list of the kids you’re concerned about? How has that changed the way you reflect on your students? If you’ve never utilized this strategy, what ideas or questions are you left with? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Channeling student behaviors

It’s always interesting to me watching students at the beginning of a school year. We are already approaching the end of the first month of school here in our school district, and while many of our students have settled into the typical routine, some are continuing to struggle. I’m trying to reflect on a couple of my recent learning opportunities as I think about some of the behaviors we’ve been seeing and how we as a school might respond to those behaviors.

A couple of weeks ago, I was able to participate in a training called Restorative Leadership: Authority with Grace. Much of this training was spent learning about and then reflecting on how to lead our sphere of control in a restorative way. One basic concept that fits with other thinking recently is that we should separate the deed from the doer by affirming the worth of the individual while disapproving of inappropriate behavior. We must first see our students as people. This allows us to identify their strengths, as well as areas for continued growth. Challenging behaviors are often telling us of some unmet need, and when we look at it that way, it’s easier to separate the child and the behavior.

Then last week I had the privilege to spend a day learning from and with Cornelius Minor. If you aren’t sure who that is, he is an educator who is dedicated to working with teachers, school leaders, and others to support equitable literacy reform across the globe. If I had to distill my thinking about the day into one thought, it was a question he posed at one point. He asked, “How are we making sure that our institutions are more hospitable to kids?” A train of thought that I’m thinking about because of this has to do with the systems that exist within the school culture. Cornelius pointed out that in schools, some of our approaches do not see kids. Kids know that this isn’t ok, which causes them to act out. In turn, we treat kids as if they are broken, and we give them labels. He went on to share that disproportionately, this can happen to our multilingual students, our students with learning disabilities, and our marginalized populations. If we go back to the beginning of the chain and try to fix the fact that kids are not always seen or heard in the school environment, then maybe we break that chain.

Then, today, I happened to be over by the bookshelf in my office and I noticed a book I haven’t picked up in a long time. Early in my career, the members of my fifth-grade team read the book Teaching with Love & Logic: Taking Control of the Classroom by Jim Fay & David Funk. As I reflect on all these pieces of learning from my many years of public education, it keeps bringing me back to the relational side of management, leadership, and most importantly for this post, discipline.

What if we started thinking about how we handled problematic behavior differently? If the goal of equitable work in schools is to create a more hospitable environment for kids, we must go back to another one of the basic beliefs of restorative work: We respond to situations WITH people, not TO them, FOR them, or NOT at all.

As educators, we need to think of ourselves as “child watchers” who are observing our students. What do we notice about them? What makes them happy? When do they get frustrated? What seems to motivate them?

If you’d like an idea of how to keep track of the things that you are learning about your students, there are a couple of options:

  • You could use a page in a notebook for each student.
  • You could create a spreadsheet with a list of all your students and begin filling in things you notice.
  • You could use a paper with several boxes on it and use each box for a different student (this was a method I used – I would have 8 boxes per page, which meant 3-4 pages for a class).

If you notice that there is a student’s page or box that isn’t as full as the others, it’s time to create some opportunities for learning. Seek that student out for 2 minutes a day to talk about anything not related to school. It’s amazing how much you can learn in a few short stints of time.

The more we notice about our kids, the more we can use those things to our benefit. As an adult, if you have a student who talks out in class and causes disruptions, the easy solution is to remove them from their group, seat them on their own, or possibly even have them leave the room. And how does that feel to the student? That we are doing something to them, not with them. And ultimately, we must remember that the word discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina which means instruction or knowledge. Discipline isn’t about what we do, it’s about teaching how to do the appropriate thing.

What if instead, we took a moment of our day to have a conversation with a student about the impact that behavior has on the class? What if we turned it into a topic for a community circle where other students can share how talking out or creating disruptions impacts them? Next, you might be able to process with the student during an unstructured time of the day (in the hallway as you’re walking to related arts, during a passing period, or a quick chat during recess) about how their behavior has impacted others. Then, what if you find ways to feed that student’s desire to talk? Could you increase the number of turn and talks during a lesson to help that student who is talking too much? Could you make a portion of the lesson partner or group based? If you let the student know that you see what it is that they need and that you are going to try to create more opportunities for that, it may help shift the behavior. When we think of teaching as art and creation, we must ask ourselves what we can create that will support our students who are struggling.

When we create a classroom environment that provides students with a way to have their needs met, we make the learning environment more hospitable for the student that needs to talk.

Take a moment to reflect on the problem behaviors that you are seeing. See if you can piece together what the behavior is, and when it is happening. Then, ask yourself if there is a way you can take that behavior and channel it towards something more positive. In the Love & Logic mindset, this would be called providing choices within limits. We all know that there must be certain limitations within the classroom, but if we let students know when and where in their day they will be able to make choices, they should be able to uphold your expectations in other parts of the day.

And something that I want to make clear – none of what I’m saying is meant to imply that there should never be consequences for a child’s poor choices. Whether we are working from a restorative mindset, from the mindset of creating a hospitable environment, or from a Love & Logic mindset, consequences certainly can be a part of the learning process. We just need to make sure that the consequence is reasonable, natural, and appropriate. In fact, “Children will learn from their mistakes when: They experience the consequences of their mistake; and Adults in their environment provide empathy.” (Fay & Funk, Teaching with Love & Logic, pg. 37). When adults express sorrow for a student’s poor choice and the resulting consequence, children have a much greater opportunity to grow.

What ideas does this spark for you? Do you want to think about how you might react to problematic behavior? Or does this spark some questions for you? Learning happens when we reflect, so share your reflections in the comments below!

Share your work

In the past couple of months, I’ve been thinking a lot about Project-Based Learning (PBL). If you follow my blog or read my posts much, you know that I have been working with a group of teachers at our school to help pilot some PBL units. Over the course of time, we met to talk about the planning process, to think about assessment, and then to kick off the project. Most classes are currently in the action portion of the pilot where they are hard at work on the projects they have planned. It’s exciting to see the learning that’s happening. But as we continue to move forward, we need to think about the end of our projects. It has me thinking about this quote from a TED Talk:

If you want to see the TED Talk by Alan November, you can click on the image above, but in this TED Talk, November tells the story of a girl who has decided that she isn’t going to be as invested in the writing assignments that her teacher gives her because she’d rather spend her time writing Harry Potter fan fiction on a website for people all over the world. It’s an interesting thing to think about – even as children, our students recognize who their audience is going to be, and the level of effort that goes into their work will change depending on the audience.

So, for our teachers who are beginning to wrap up their projects with their students, we have encouraged them to find a way to make sure that the work that has been done is for more of an audience than just their teacher. In fact, recently I received an invitation from one of our first-grade classes to come “Learn with us.” These students wanted to share what they have learned with an audience beyond their own classroom, so two afternoons a couple weeks ago they opened their classroom to others to see what they have accomplished. I was able to visit the classroom on one of the days, and the energy from the students for the audience of teachers, staff members, and peers, was so strong you could feel it.

Ultimately, when we think about sharing something we have learned with the world, we are reflecting on the things we have learned, and deciding what it is that we think others need to know about our topic. I have shared before, and I’ll share again, that I write this blog more for myself than for the audience who reads it. These posts are an opportunity for me to gather my thinking on a topic, and share what I know with a broader audience. It forces me to reflect, analyze, process, and then share with the world. Think about how much more meaningful the reflection process would be for our students if they were able to share what they knew with a broader audience. Not to mention, when we think about the learning process, reflection and feedback are the two most important parts! When our students share their learning, we are causing them to reflect on their learning.

There are several ways we can create a more authentic audience for our students.

  • For some of our students, an audience made up of their classmates might be authentic and exciting enough.
  • You could expand that audience by inviting members of your school community – think of other classes, other grade levels, and other adults in your school building.
  • Things could be a little bigger by inviting parents, members of your school district administration office, or maybe even community members.
  • If you really want to broaden your audience, you might consider having your students write their own blog posts, create a video for TikTok or YouTube, or share out their learning on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.
  • Maybe your students could create an infographic, a digital portfolio, a website, or even an eBook!

All of these are going to generate more excitement for your students than creating something that they are only going to turn in to you, their teacher (not that you aren’t cool, but being TikTok famous is even better!).

Another advantage of sharing with a wider audience is that the family members of our students can learn so much more about what’s happening in the classroom. What better way could there be than to share your own learning journey throughout a project! I know that when I am at home talking with my own kids, I don’t always get a ton of details about what happened each day. For those of you who are parents, you know how this goes – ask a question about school, get a one-word answer. Ask a follow-up, get another word. Luckily, there have been a couple of teachers that my children have had who are great at sharing things on social media and through their newsletters that allow me to know the story of the classroom. When I know what’s going on already, I can ask better questions about what is happening in the classroom and have a fuller understanding of the learning that is taking place.

Now, I know that the idea of having students share their learning through a blog, video, or social media might seem overwhelming to some. Here’s where knowing your students comes into play. If you know your students, you might better understand what it is that will motivate them. For some students, simply being able to share their work with their classmates is plenty of an audience to bring about some serious work. If you have students who have not done a lot of project work or are in an early elementary classroom, then sharing within the class might be enough. But if you teach students who have already had several PBL experiences, and they have shared their work more broadly, they are going to think bigger than their classmates.

Recently I heard of a teacher in our school district who wanted to have a poetry event in the evening in her classroom. After talking with students though, just having something small in the classroom wasn’t enough. The students wanted to make it bigger. Planning was turned over to the students. They contacted a local coffee shop and set up a poetry reading evening at the coffee shop. Students and families were there of course, but members of the district administration team also attended. Friends and their families were invited. Other teachers from the school attended. Members of the community who just happened to be at the coffee shop were entertained. The power of the audience made the experience so much more powerful!

Ultimately, as the leader of a PBL project, you must work with your students to see if the authentic audience you had in mind fits with their ideas. If not, then it’s time to reflect. How could we have a better audience? How might you encourage students to lead the process and planning for their event? I don’t know too many people that open an invitation written by our students and don’t smile to see that they have been invited to an event by a classroom full of excited learners. I encourage you to consider how you might allow your students to share their learning with a wider section of their world!

Being trauma-responsive

Being trauma-responsive

Last week, we hit a big milestone – two years since most schools shut down due to the Covid-19 virus. This anniversary had me thinking about the trauma that we have all been living through over the past two years. But I’ve also been thinking about the impact it has had on our students. We have now hit the point where school is starting to feel a lot more normal in terms of our day-to-day operations. At the same time, there is something different going on. I was thinking about the impact that the trauma of Covid-19 has had on our students in the past couple of years. I know that here in my school, we’ve been seeing behavioral trends different than anything that might have been considered “typical” for our students.

Let’s think about why that might be. In my K-4 school, the students we serve were somewhere between 3ish years old and second grade when things shut down in March of 2020. When I think about what happened to those students in the past couple of years there are several things that stand out to me. For the ones who were not yet school age, they probably missed out on opportunities to attend pre-school, summer camps, sports, and other activities outside of the home, among so many other potential events. Think about the amount of social interaction and peer-based learning that was missed! I don’t love the phrase learning loss for a multitude of reasons, but one of the things that I believe strongly about how humans learn is that it is done socially. This missed social interaction can help explain so much about behaviors occurring in kids currently. And many of our students who were already school-aged at the beginning of the Covid-19 reality also missed out on much. Along with activities outside of the school building, they may have lost connection to friends and trusted adults when school shut down. You could connect trauma to those lost connections.

Now I know, not all kids have been impacted in quite the same ways. When I walk into classrooms, there are certainly students who seem to be rather normally developed based on their age and grade level. But one of the things I understand about trauma is that the same event may be traumatic to one person, but not impact others in the same way. And another thing I understand about trauma is that those experiences change us. Trauma has an impact on our brain chemistry, it leads to bottom-up control in our brain.

I wanted to throw in a quick reminder about how the brain works here – the amygdala is the lowest part of the brain and is our alarm system, the hippocampus is the mid-brain and assists with learning and memory, and the prefrontal cortex is the front of the brain and manages thoughts, behaviors, and helps us control emotional responses. When the amygdala takes control of the brain, it causes most of the other parts of the brain to go offline.

If you want to know more about the impacts of trauma on the students in our schools, you might want to learn a little bit about the Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey (ACES) study. I’ve written about that in a two-part post titled “Childhood trauma.” You can see part 1 here, and part 2 here. In the ACES study, there is a 10-question survey, and each question that is answered yes equals 1 point. The higher the score for a person, the greater the correlation to a variety of negative health outcomes later in life, including alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, suicide, and even heart disease and lung cancer. In one study, students who had at least 3 ACES were 3 times as likely to experience academic failure, 5 times as likely to have attendance issues, and 6 times as likely to exhibit behavioral problems.

Last week I connected with a former colleague who now works with students in multiple school districts in the area. As we were talking, she shared that the behavioral trends I was seeing had become something of a universal experience in the schools that she serves. If we consider the experiences of the past two years, you could argue that the Covid-19 reality has created at least one ACE for all our students, and depending on other experiences, possibly more (we know that there are students who lost a close family member, that equals one ACE).

What helped pull all this thinking together was an article in the most recent edition of Principal, a publication from the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “Safe Signals for Preschoolers” is an excellent article on the role that trauma-supportive schools can play in creating an environment where students feel safe, cared for, and ready to learn. Based on that article, I wanted to share some tips that you might consider implementing in your classroom or setting. One thing to note: you might be thinking “But I don’t have any students with trauma in my class.” The data we have on ACES says that is probably false. In the initial ACES study, the participants were 75% white, 39% were college-educated, another 36% had college experience. We also know that most of them would be considered affluent because all the participants in the study had health insurance. ACES know no bounds and can impact students of various backgrounds. Odds are pretty good that you have students with one or several ACES sitting in your classroom right now that you don’t even know about. Implementing trauma-responsive strategies will benefit those students who have been through trauma that we aren’t aware of. In addition, trauma-responsive interventions are beneficial to all students, not just the ones we think need them.

First and foremost, to be ready to learn our students need to have a safe environment. The human brain is like a radar, constantly monitoring what’s going on around them, and for most of us, that just happens in the background. For students who have several ACES, their brains are dealing with higher levels of cortisol (the body’s stress hormone). This higher level of cortisol in the brain causes what’s sometimes referred to as toxic stress. This causes the brain to be stuck in survival mode or the lower portion of the brain. When stuck in the lower brain, a student’s brain cannot physiologically take in knowledge or problem-solve. Here are a couple things you might do to help a student feel safe in your classroom:

  1. Relationships: Students must sense that you can take care of them – to send signals of safety, think about things like your appearance, facial expressions, eye contact, etc. Often what we do through our nonverbal communication can help a student feel safe or unsafe, even more so than any of our verbal communication. And a child’s perception of this is what matters most. If they don’t perceive that you care, then they may not feel like they do have a meaningful relationship. Kids are pretty perceptive!
  2. Predictable schedule: Students feel safe when there is consistency, and the brain mistrusts uncertainty. Consider a visible schedule, and let students know in advance (when possible) of changes.
  3. Transitions: Whenever possible, try to minimize transitions. Each one feels like something of a loss for our students. When a transition is coming, give plenty of warning – let them know there are 5 minutes left, or a 1-minute warning to wrap up, or a count down.

A few years ago, we had a summertime training on Trauma-Informed Schools. Jim Sporleder, the former principal of an alternative high school in the state of Washington and now a consultant on training others on how to implement trauma-informed strategies in our schools, led the training. One of the things that I always recall about that training is that he challenged us to “Be the one…” Often for students of trauma, the best intervention is a solid relationship with a trusted and caring adult. The kids we struggle with most are often the ones who most need that relationship. They might push us away as a defense mechanism related to the traumas they have been through. We just have to keep trying to let them know, through our words, our actions, and our non-verbal communication, that we are there to support them, and that we care for them.

As I’ve worked in schools and implemented more trauma-informed strategies, one of the things we’ve had to also think about is how to respond to negative behavior. For our students who have lived through trauma, those cortisol levels in their brain often cause them to live in a constant state of “Fight – Flight – Freeze.” A self-protection strategy that they have developed is to act out, shut down, or sometimes simply run away. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen an increase in students leaving class without permission, I’ve seen an increase in students who simply shut down in class, and I’ve seen some acting out towards peers, teachers, or others. Here are some strategies that you might implement to help create that trusting environment:

  • Modeling appropriate behaviors, then using guided or independent practice and repetition
  • Do-overs or reboots when things go wrong – a teacher can coach a student through a difficult situation and help them try again and be successful
  • Role plays, puppet practice, scripted stories, or behavioral rehearsals

Remember, behavior is a form of communication. Often students are telling us that they don’t have the words or skills to describe what they are feeling. Some people though, mistake trauma-responsive strategies as implying that consequences are not appropriate. This is not the case. There are times when students need to be held accountable for their actions. These accountability measures help students to learn that they are accountable for their actions, but at the same time, they will not necessarily change a child’s behavior. When our students feel a true relationship with their teacher or another trusting adult at school, they will have a stronger internal drive to please the people who care for them. Consequences may be a temporary measure to help other students feel safe or to help parents understand the severity of the behavior, but they will not change a child.

Ultimately, for healing to happen in our students who have been through trauma, we need to show them the everyday acts of kindness that we might want to see when going through struggles in our own lives. As I shared before, connections to invested adults are the best intervention to provide opportunities for healing for our students. Our students may not remember all the things we teach them, but they certainly will remember how we made them feel.

Getting it right

I recently saw the quote above while scrolling on Instagram. Greg McKeown is the author of a book called Essentialism (thanks for the book recommendation, Trice!). I want you to know that I view the role of a teacher as the role of a leader. Within your classroom, you are the leader in what happens. You set the conditions, you design the learning experiences, and you model reactions in both good and bad situations. Your students will learn so much more from you than reading, writing, and math.

Recently, I ran into a student that was in one of my first fifth-grade classrooms. We were talking about what he was up to, and then I asked him what he remembered from fifth grade. He shared a story that related to one of the character ed lessons that I did with students, and he also talked about the way the classroom felt. He didn’t bring up anything about our coursework.

A couple of weeks ago, I joined one of our fourth-grade classrooms and led them through an activity that revolved around the question “How do you want to be remembered?” I was trying to help them see that the students in their class were people that they would probably remember for the rest of their lives. And those classmates would probably remember them. So, we talked about how people wanted to be remembered by their peers. I still have yearbooks from my time as a student at Child’s Elementary School back home in Bloomington, IN, and on those occasions that I look through them, I have pieces of memory of many of the people in my class. Some of those memories are positive, but some are not. When I was with that fourth-grade class, I shared a few of those specific memories and how they made me feel.

In addition to the students, I also have memories of the teachers. I remember Miss Brown being so kind as my kindergarten teacher. I remember Mrs. Samuelson being much stricter when I had her in sixth grade than she was when I had her in first grade, but I also remember her being the teacher who developed in me a love of reading. I remember Mrs. Gromer as the teacher who made me want to be a teacher. The reality is though, not all my memories of teachers were positive. I point this out because someday when your students are as old as me, they will probably remember you too.

As teachers, I think we all strive to be the best we can be, but what I love about the quote above from Greg McKeown, he reminds us that we may not get it right every single day. When our goal is always to be right, then we create a very fixed mindset. In this fixed mindset, we hold the power, and we can never be wrong. If we can’t be wrong, we don’t allow ourselves to learn about how we impact the classroom environment and our students’ reactions to it.

On the other hand, if we focus on trying to get it right, we understand that there are times we will make mistakes. When those mistakes happen, we can reflect on why they may have happened and what we can learn. If you think about the learning process, the time to reflect is the point where the most learning happens. I try to find a few minutes to look over my calendar at the end of each day to assist me in that reflection. One of the things that I think about when doing this is “What did I learn today?” Some days the answer is easy, and some days it’s hard, but every day there is an answer.

As I reflect once again on the McKeown quote at the top, I’m thinking about the fact that teachers who spend more time in the “trying to get it right” mindset is probably more likely to be the teachers that have students remember them in a positive light. In a trying to get it right classroom, students feel heard. Students feel cared for.

All of this also has me thinking about student behaviors. When our students act out, that is generally a form of communication. But teaching is a very emotional gig, and it’s hard at times to not take behaviors personally. Sometimes it feels as though a student is doing “it” to us. Ans sometimes that behavior is kind of like the embers of a fire. What we do can either be the water to put it out, or the gas to accelerate it. But if the behavior is a form of communication, what are they trying to communicate? Generally, they aren’t trying to communicate their displeasure with you (as much as it may feel like they are). I encourage you to not take poor behavior in your class as a personal affront. I also encourage you to think about how your interactions with a student can

I like to use the analogy that oftentimes our students are like a puzzle. Each thing we learn about them is like a piece of that puzzle. Some puzzles are simple to put together, others are really challenging. Every time we come across new behaviors, they become a new piece of the puzzle, and we must figure out how it fits into the rest of the puzzle of that student.

Sometimes, we might feel a need to see our rules and a student’s behavior as a black and white scenario. In every school that I taught in, there was a rule that said that students were only allowed to eat in the cafeteria. I quickly figured out that keeping a stash of granola bars, or other similar snacks, in a drawer in my desk, could help alleviate many of the negative interactions that some had. My students might have seen me as the “cool teacher” because I gave out snacks or allowed them to bring drinks, but have you ever tried to concentrate when you were hungry? It’s darn near impossible. I know that when I was flexible with the rules when I could, my students were more willing to listen when I said that there was a rule that we couldn’t stretch. Again, this goes back to the conditions that create a good learning environment for our students.

When we strive to see our role as a teacher as being the leader of children and then take that leadership role as a learning opportunity, we are bound to create better conditions for learning for all our students. In turn, those conditions will impact how your students remember you. If you are currently struggling with behavior in your classroom, maybe take a moment to reflect on what you might be able to do differently with that child. Are you looking at things in a black and white, right and wrong format? Could you try to find the gray areas that always lie in the middle, and then bend the rules a little bit because you know it’s what your student(s) need? As the leader in a classroom, that is well within your rights. I always try to remind teachers that they probably know far more about their students than I could ever hope to know, so if they want to try something outside of the box with a student, I’m almost always game!

What are your thoughts on the connection between teaching and leading? How might that impact what you do in your classroom moving forward?

Doing the same…

Recently I’ve been really digging into Project-Based Learning. My last three posts have all revolved around this. Often when I talk with people about a shift to more learning that is project-based, inquiry-driven, choice-based, and experiential, I get pushback asking for the research that backs it up. The truth is, there is a lot of support for this type of learning. If you want to do a deep dive into that research, check out this great post from A.J. Juliani on The Research Behind PBL, Genius Hour, and Choice in the Classroom.

If you take the time to read through that post from Juliani, you’ll find research on engagement and achievement, success stories from fellow teachers, ways that PBL is connected to standards, and some related reading. I’m thinking about this question of research because two authors that I follow both recently shared posts that questioned why we continue to do some of the same things in education. We’re so driven to think about what the research says about new practices, that sometimes we don’t look at what the research shares about the stuff we’re already doing.

Before I get into that too far, here’s what I have learned. Research changes over time. Methods and strategies change over time. Things that were considered “Best Practice” in the past may not be true best practice anymore. And there are times we find that things that we thought were not a best practice have become one after further study. The other thing I’d say about best practice is that sometimes there are practices that we utilize that are pretty good, but when we learn that there are better practices, it might be time to make a shift. What is it that Maya Angelou says?

A recent post from Scott McLeod (here), and then a related post from AJ Juliani (here) both shared a link to this post from The Hechinger Report. As we spend time talking about transformative learning opportunities in our schools, I think the data that The Hechinger Report is sharing should drive us to think more deeply about why we do the things we currently do in education. Let me share some of the key points that stood out to me from this post.

As we all know, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 mandated that every student in the 3rd through 8th grade need to take an annual test to see who was performing at grade level.

In the years after the law went into effect, the testing and data industries flourished, selling school districts interim assessments to track student progress throughout the year along with flashy data dashboards that translated student achievement into colored circles and red warning flags. Policymakers and advocates said that teachers should study this data to understand how to help students who weren’t doing well. 

Anyone who’s in education probably has spent significant amounts of time in the past 20-ish years analyzing student performance on tests. Here in Indiana that might include the IREAD-3 or ILEARN tests. It might also include time spent poring over data from NWEA, or other formative assessment data within your district. So, here’s the question. If these tests are supposed to help us identify the students who need the most support, and help teachers adjust to meet the needs of those students, why do we continue to see the same learning gaps from many of the same demographic groups?

According to Heather Hill, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “Studying student data seems to not at all improve student outcomes in most evaluations I’ve seen.” A review of research by Hill (found here) finds that in terms of student outcome, most of the 23 identified outcomes were unaffected, and of those that were affected, only 2 had positive impacts, and in one case the result was negative.

So, if the time analyzing student data (something that seems like it would be beneficial and impactful for students) isn’t having a positive outcome for students, we must ask the question, why?

According to these studies, teachers are using various assessments to identify content that they need to return to. Often, they then make plans to revisit those concepts using a combination of whole-group and small-group instruction. But we need to go a step further. We must take that data that’s been collected, along with what we know about kids, to deepen our understanding of how kids learn, identify the reasons behind misconceptions, and then adjust our instructional strategies.

If our strategy to support students on concepts that they are not currently grasping is to re-teach the topic the way we did the first time, hand the student a worksheet, or put the student on a technology-based program to practice, we’re not going to impact student learning. We can’t do the same thing again for a student who is struggling.

That is part of why I am on this path of pushing others to think about doing school differently. More inquiry, PBL, or design thinking will put our students in learning situations that are different. It forces students to move out of their comfort zone and to the growing edge. And that’s the reality – we all need to be a little bit outside of our comfort zone to grow. Trying new instructional strategies are going to force you out of your own comfort zone.

And I don’t want a takeaway from this post to be that we have been wasting our time with data-driven instruction, PLCs, RTI, etc. That work is valuable, but if that work doesn’t also change teacher instruction, the learning gaps are going to remain.

As McLeod closed his post, so will I: It is time we make schools different.

PBL Assessment

Today I’m continuing a series of posts about Project-Based Learning (PBL). I first wrote a bit about the difference between doing a project and PBL (see that here). Then I wrote a bit about the process of developing a PBL Unit (see that here). This week’s post is focused on assessment in PBL. Before I get started on explaining the process of assessment, I need to share with you a bit about my journey related to the assessment of project work.

As a classroom teacher, I considered myself a person who understood assessment. I remember team meetings in 2005 discussing the question “What does a grade mean?” I felt like I had a firm grasp on formative and summative assessment. But as I reflect now, I think that my definitions of assessment would have been a bit too close to the idea of assigning a grade.

As an assistant principal, I was asked to be a part of a committee to revamp the intermediate report card in our district. As part of this process, I read the book A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades by Ken O’Connor. I probably read that book a little too late! As I learned more, I began to realize how many “grading mistakes” I made as a teacher – averaging grades, grading group work, focusing on deadlines, and other compliance-based measures in my grading. This book led me to more about assessment from authors like Alfie Kohn, Thomas Guskey, Bob Marzano, Rick Wormelli, John Hattie, and Thomas Reeves.

Over time, I grew to understand that there is a difference between assessment and grading. When I think of assessment, its goal is to improve student learning and move students towards mastery. Grading on the other hand is typically about placing an evaluation on the current level of performance. True project-based learning is going to lean more toward the assessment and feedback side. I’ve heard it said that the moment a teacher puts a grade on something, it narrows students’ focus. The first thing they look at is what their grade is, the next thing they look at is how their classmates did, and then if they do look at the feedback you put on the assignment, no matter how well thought out and meaningful, they probably don’t take any of it in because the grade tells them that learning is done, so they put the paper in a folder or the trash can, never to be seen again. If we really want our students to learn from the feedback we provide them and want them to move closer to mastery of a skill, feedback with no grade given is the key!

Today, I was going back through some files and found this:

This is a typical and traditional rubric I created for my students during the 2006 school year for a planet poster project. In a previous post, I shared a quote from Chris Lehmann that says that when everyone turns in the same thing, you don’t have a project, you have a recipe. And I would say, when I look at the standard that I was trying to meet and then reflect on this rubric, it is probably closer to a recipe than a true project. At the time that I created this, I didn’t have the knowledge that I have now in terms of assessment. Let me point out a couple things I notice about this rubric:

  • I included time management, appearance, and whether it was on time as 18 out of the 50 points. In A Repair Kit for Grading, Fix 1 says “Don’t include student behavior (effort, participation, adherence to class rules, etc.) in grades; include only achievement.” And Fix 2 says “Don’t reduce marks on ‘work’ submitted late; provide support for the learner.”
  • The accuracy section, which is the only part that ties to the main purpose of the project, is only 12 out of the 50 points. Another 20 points of the project (Research fact sheet, bibliography, and spelling, grammar, & punctuation) are all academic and important, but do not relate to the standard this project was focused on. In A Repair Kit for Grading, Fix 7 says “Don’t organize information in grading records by assessment methods or simply summarize into a single grade; organize and report evidence by standards/learning goals.”
  • Appearance making up as many of the total points as the accuracy of information is just flat out embarrassing. Yes, we want what we share to look nice for our audience, but to be equal to the value of the learning? Nope. I’m sorry to my students from 2006!

As I have learned more, I would totally revamp this rubric. My first step on this rubric would be to remove the columns labeled 4, 3, 2, and 1. These categories tell students very little about what I was looking for in the project. I would also remove the column for scoring, because as I shared above, the moment we put a grade on something, students stop looking at any of the feedback provided. Instead, I would have a rubric that had 3 columns based on the Progress Assessment Tool developed by Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy:

  • Learning Targets: If you read the post last week, I talked about learning targets. These are the student-friendly statements of what we want our students to learn or be able to do at the end of the project.
  • Success Criteria: This column would define what it looks like for a student to hit each of the targets. Ideally, this would be developed in a collaborative process involving students and their teacher. If possible, developing this might involve looking at exemplars that you have pulled from past projects, or elsewhere (for example, if there is a learning target related to writing a persuasive letter, you might have examples of well-written persuasive letters for students to reflect on).
  • Feedback: This is the location for you to give written feedback to your students at various waypoints through the project. When students see that your notes are formative and meant to guide them to higher quality work and learning, they will begin to look at feedback as part of the process of learning. I would also build in points for the students to do some self-reflection on how they are doing on each of the learning targets.

Ideally, I would create the Project Assessment Rubric as a shared file that my student and I could both access and edit. I would be able to add notes and see the student’s reflections. Through the use of something like OneDrive or Google Drive, this could be accomplished easily!

Now, I know that projects are about moving students toward mastery, but I also recognize that when we devote periods of time to learning, some teachers will feel that they need to take grades. If you utilize a purely standards-based reporting measure, you can tie your feedback on the project to the standards on your report. But if you have a report card that requires you to assign grades to your students, feedback alone is not going to be what you need. If this is the case, you might consider using a more formal assessment to measure student learning. If I were doing this, I would put it at the end of my unit and might be a quiz or test that specifically assesses students’ abilities on the standards our project is focused on. If I were using a formal assessment, I would probably give a version as a pre-assessment, and then another version as a post-assessment to see how much my students had grown during the course of the project.

I’m going to be honest, if I were heading back into a classroom, I would do the absolute best I could to shift all the assessments in my classroom to a standards-based feedback model. I believe that this does the best to help our students move towards mastery of our content. If you are in a system that will allow you to assess your students in this way, I encourage you to begin thinking about how it would work. Could you track student growth on standards over the course of the year? Could you create learning targets and success criteria in collaboration with other teachers on your grade level team? As you learn more about assessment, you may find that your students grow much more in this model of feedback.

If you are in a system that requires grades, I encourage you to think about how you might be able to push back on this system. Go to your administrator. Tell them about what you are trying to do, and frame your plan as a pilot program. Then, begin thinking about how you might track your student learning and growth.

A word of caution though – the initial shift may be difficult for some students, especially the older they are. It may take some time, and they may even push back on you about your assessment practices, but the research really does support a classroom that focuses much more on feedback, and much less on grades.

What questions do you have? Are you looking for more on assessment practices? Do you need to think a little more about what a gradeless classroom would mean for you and your students? Do a little digging, or if you are like me, use your social media to connect with others that might be on the same journey!

Developing a PBL Unit

Last week I was having a conversation with a teacher about planning for some Project-Based Learning (PBL) in her classroom. She said something to me that I think a lot of teachers might think when they hear the phrase “Project-Based Learning.” She shared that she wasn’t sure that she had the time to devote to project work in her classroom. And I think that’s what can be tough about moving towards project work. We hear stories about these amazing projects that spanned weeks or months, like the time some 6th graders at my previous school worked to bring ice cream to our school cafeteria (see a post about that here), or the long term project by a 3rd-grade class who noticed a big blank wall and felt like they could make something much more beautiful.

The reality is though, you don’t always have to have huge projects like this. Sometimes project-based learning may only take a day or two and be really focused on a specific skill. This post is going to dive into some ways you might think about the planning side of PBL. In my current school, our leadership team is working closely with a pilot team that will be launching a mini-PBL unit in their classroom in the coming weeks, and the process is related to what I’ll be sharing here.

So, let’s start with how you might kick off the planning process. The way I see it, there are a few different ways that you might begin on the path to PBL work. Here’s a list of a few:

  • Academic Standard or Unit of Study: You might be looking at a list of standards that are coming up, or a Unit that you have used in the past, and that may spark an idea for a project. In last week’s post (see it here), I shared a social studies project that started in just this way.
  • The End in Mind: As I’m writing this, President’s Day has just passed. What if we looked at our school calendar and said, “I want my students to be able to share something about…”? This could potentially work for any holiday (US or elsewhere), or for other things that come up on the calendar. You have a clear end in mind, and you backwards plan.
  • A Way of Thinking: Imagine that you want your students to learn more about something like mindfulness, or restorative practices. Or maybe you want something that ties more directly to a standard, so you want them to learn more about the scientific method or engineering process standards.
  • Something Awesome: Maybe there is something that you recognize your students being really excited about (this is how the mural above got started). It’s taking that excitement in the moment and running with it!
  • Student Ideas: You might recognize that your students are really interested in Minecraft, or a video game, or animals. Take that idea that they are interested in and help guide them!

Now, some of you might be saying something like, “But what about my standards!?!?” And I get it, ultimately, we are all beholden to our standards, but I guarantee you that with any of the ideas I listed above, we can find a few standards that we can tie in. If nothing else, you’ve got standards related to reading, writing, and research that can be connected to just about any project. That said, if you can integrate multiple subject areas, you have hit the pay dirt! I also often found that as we worked our way through a project, there would be things that came up that I needed to create a mini-lesson on. When I was teaching sixth grade, I had to create a mini-lesson on plagiarism after seeing kids cut a paste from some of their resources. In another project, we folded in a grammar boot camp to help with some of the grammar issues that were coming up. These were teaching moves that I made in the middle of a project as I recognized a need.

Once we have our starting point on the path to PBL selected, we next need to think about how we’re going to get to the endpoint. You might have students work towards a product – something that could be shared on a specific day, or at a specific event. Every student will create some type of product, but choices are made in how they get from the start to that product. Another option might be to start with a problem – maybe leading up to President’s Day you have a bunch of students asking why there isn’t school on that day. This could be our problem that we’re going to solve – we need to find out why President’s Day is a holiday, and then we could share our findings with our school community. Finally, you might decide to make the endpoint more open-ended. You might have your starting point, share with your students what it is that you want them to learn about or take away, and then allow them to pick a product that suits their needs.

I don’t necessarily believe that any one of these three methods is the best. I would say that it might be challenging for students to jump into an open-ended pathway if they have had limited project experience in their school careers. As with any creative task, our students will need some guardrails to help guide them. When those guardrails are too wide-open, some students struggle to even get started.

So, at this point, we have an initial idea, and hopefully a pathway we will be following. Now we need to select a few standards that may serve as the basis for your project, as well as some standards that may support the learning. In my past, when I was planning a PBL unit, I’d pull my upcoming standards and look for standards that are seeking a deeper level of understanding (words like apply, understand, or explain are good key terms to watch for). And again, it’s a great idea to try to find standards from multiple subject areas to be the key ideas. These standards can be the driving force of PBL. One thing to keep in mind though – if you try to pack too much into a single project, you begin to lose focus on the main point. While there may be several skills that you are able to touch on throughout the work, you should have one or two standards that are the primary focus of the project.

Once we have a couple of standards identified, we want to think about what we want our students to learn or be able to do because of this project. These are the takeaways we want to highlight. When I did project work with my students, I would share the takeaways with them at the beginning of a unit and would reiterate them throughout the unit. I always tried to make sure that this was in “kid-friendly” language that they could understand and describe to others. I would often also use these takeaways to create what I liked to call our guiding question. This question would boil all our projects down into one question. A couple of examples from past projects I carried out in my classroom include:

  • What are the planets and objects that make up our solar system?
  • What are some of the cultural achievements of Ancient Rome?

OK, so I know this is a lot, but here’s what we’ve got so far:

  • Starting point
  • Project pathway
  • Standards
  • Takeaways
  • Guiding question

One of the things I have noticed about PBL is that there are lots of different protocols out there. You can choose to pick one to guide your planning, you can decide to create your own hybrid of the ones that exist, or you could create something all your own. But to me, the items that are listed above are keys to the planning phase, no matter what you call them. Even with the work we’ve done so far, we aren’t ready to dive into the project yet. We must always plan for the end in mind. So next week, we’ll talk about the importance of assessment. When thinking about backward design, we need to plan our assessment before we begin teaching our unit. We’ll talk briefly about pre-assessment, formative assessments along the way, and some potential options for post-assessment.

So, what have I missed? Is there anything that you are still wondering about with the planning process? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!