Thoughtful in what we do

Far too often in education, we spend time thinking about a question. It’s a question that will sometimes cause stress. It will sometimes lead us to look for new programs or resources. And at times, it creates overwhelm because we then feel like there is too much to do. The question I’m thinking of is “What more should we be doing?”

Depending on your perspective, that question may not feel like that big of a deal. But here’s the issue, if we always ask about what we should be doing more of, we end up with so much to do that we aren’t able to do any of it well. We can’t sustain the practice. Adam Welcome loves to talk about how schools in general are really good at collecting programs and things, but they are really bad at getting rid of those programs or things that are obsolete. This is something that I have definitely noticed (I have seen your pile of textbooks from 3 adoptions ago that you just can’t bring yourself to get rid of!).

The other issue I see with asking about what more we can do is that it leads us to a deficit mindset. That’s the thinking that leads us to only focus on the things that aren’t going well or the things that we can’t do enough of. Deficit thinking leads to a sense of hopelessness before we have even started anything.

One of the pain points that I have noticed in my time as a leader is that every spring and summer, I spend time with our leadership team. We look at the data we have, the growth we’ve made, and the areas to target for continued growth. Based on that information, we develop a school improvement plan that is focused entirely on the data that we can connect to the learners that we know in our building. Then, invariably, we come together at a beginning of the year administrative meeting, and there seems to be some new initiative or some new curricular resource that must be added to our plans. When that happens, the intentional design of the school improvement plan that was developed as part of our thoughtful work must be either revamped or potentially scrapped for a period of time.

I do have one quick caveat since I know that some of the people who read this blog are colleagues of mine, or maybe even are among the group that sometimes brings those initiatives to us… Oftentimes those initiatives involve us in doing good work that is for the benefit of our students, but it sometimes feels for the leaders in the buildings that we have now been given one more new thing to cram into the already busy schedule of the school year PD plan.

So, imagine if you could, hearing the following statement at your back-to-school meeting:

Much like Chris Lehmann, I believe that “Schools are better when they create spaces and expectations for reflection.” A formalized process for reflection is a necessity. This reflection can certainly occur as an individual, but I think the power of the reflection comes from when you are able to chat with others about what happened in your classroom, how the students responded to the learning opportunity, and what your data shows you about student learning and growth.

This is why I see such value in the PLC process. It’s the perfect place for the reflective process to take place. The four key questions of the PLC guide us toward reflection on a question that is much better than the one I mentioned at the beginning. Instead of asking ourselves “What more can we be doing?” we should be asking “How can we do what we’re already doing, better?”

Think about the power of that mindset shift with your team. Instead of coming into a PLC meeting with a deficit mindset that might imply that we don’t yet have the tools to be successful, we come in with the belief that within our team, we have the answers to help ourselves improve. That’s collective teacher efficacy at work.

And here’s the reality of this process. Sometimes we will start with reflective practices, we will begin by trying to problem-solve within our team, and we may find that the tools we have available to us are not working. This is where things get exciting for me. Now, your PLC team can begin some work in action research. Do some professional reading, ask for help from an administrator, work with your curriculum coach, or collaborate with another team that might not be having the same problem as you. Whatever you do, find a way to keep trying until you find something that does work for your students. Again, this is not about finding something new, it’s about refining something that we were already doing, but wasn’t working as well as we’d like it to be.

Another thing to keep in mind: as you begin to refine your processes, be sure to identify the pieces that you feel are already going well. Having an idea of the things that are working will help us feel more comfortable as we make shifts in the areas that aren’t working as well. Also, keep in mind that if you try to solve too many problems at one time, you probably aren’t going to solve any of them. Pick one area of growth to focus on and stay focused on that. Remember what your team’s limitations are for time and energy!

So, the next time you are together with your team and able to reflect on what’s been happening, be sure to focus on the question “How can we do what we’re already doing, better?”

How do you think that might shift the conversations in your work? As you reflect on what you can do better, how might you use that to set your own short- or long-term goals for your own learning and growth? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

The power of the rerun

I try not to spend too much time sharing about the #educelebrities that I follow, or have had the privilege to meet, but for this week’s post, I’m back again with some more thoughts based on the day I spent recently with Cornelius Minor. One of the things he talked about was something he phrased as “The Power of the Rerun.” As a child of the 80s (I try not to date myself too much, but it’s my reality), reruns were a regular occurrence. Saturdays would often mean getting up, grabbing a bowl of cereal, and turning on cartoons. Unlike you millennials who might be reading or the Gen Z / post-millennials that we’re teaching, when you turned the TV on, you watched what was available. There were no streaming options. We couldn’t find what we wanted to watch on YouTube. Sometimes that meant watching an episode of GI Joe that you’d seen what felt like hundreds of times.

I have to be honest; I’ve always enjoyed reruns of shows. There are episodes of Friends that I have literally seen more than a hundred times, and yet I still laugh (pivot). I don’t know if I want to admit how many times I have watched the entire Breaking Bad series (probably still my favorite series of all time!), but I will share that it’s a lot!

What I love about rewatching a show is that often, I notice things I didn’t notice the first time. Maybe there’s a character that didn’t seem that important on the first watch that I now know is important later in the show. Or I might notice something that I missed in the background of a shot because I was so focused on the main action the first time. The rewatch allows me to dig a little deeper.

Now, I’m sure there are some that are wondering what in the world reruns of TV shows have to do with an education blog. This is where Cornelius comes in. While talking to us about ways we might model specific skills, he talked about the benefit of doing a reread of a text that was previously shared in class. The first pass of a story is a great time to introduce a concept or idea. If you are doing a lesson on character analysis, you might read a text where you want your students to notice what characters do over and over, so you read that text and ask students to pay attention to the actions of a specific character and ask them to think about what this teaches them about this character. That may meet a standard for you, but you recognize that your class seems to show clear understanding, or maybe even mastery right away. That might mean a reread of the book is a great time to do some deeper thinking about the text.

You see, once you’ve read a text one time, you have done most of the heavy lifting. The understanding of the story is already there. Vocabulary words have been defined and used in context. All your students have an initial understanding of what will happen in the story, so now we can go deeper.

Recently in our building, we’ve been spending a lot of our time in Professional Development focused on the power of the PLC. We’re really digging into each of the 4 key questions of the PLC. If you aren’t sure what those questions are, these are them:

  1. What do you want your students to know? (This one’s about knowing our standards, having a map, and identifying priorities)
  2. How will we know they know it? (This is all about how we formatively assess our students along the way, or how we summatively assess at the end of a unit so that we are ensured of student learning)
  3. What will we do if they don’t know it? (This is about what strategies might we try during a reteach to reach a student who didn’t understand the first time)
  4. What will we do if they do know it? (This is about how will we enrich the learning of students who seem to have already mastered the standard or skill)

So, when we think about the rerun of a text, it’s a great opportunity to approach skills that will enrich our students. What is the next level of the standard you are trying to teach? You might check the vertical alignment of your standard so that you know what your students will be expected to know or be able to do next year. During a rerun, you can push your students to a higher depth of knowledge because there is already an initial understanding.

I’d love to hear about other ideas related to the concept of a “rerun” in reading. Have you ever used this strategy? How did it go? What worked well? What would you think about differently? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

What scares you?

What scares you?

When I was younger, I used to love to watch the television show Unsolved Mysteries. I still remember sitting in our basement with the TV on, trying to figure out about these strange things that happened in our world. It was probably during the same phase in my life when I loved books like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I loved these types of things for a while until I didn’t. I don’t know if any of the rest of you went through a phase like that where horror and mystery were exciting. At the point I’m at in my life now, I don’t need fear like that – I have zero desire to read a scary story, or watch a horror movie… I can’t even get into the true crime fad that so many others I know love.

But it’s interesting to think about how much fear can impact us in our day-to-day lives. Most people, like me, have decided that they don’t want to put themselves in situations where they feel scared. That is something that is also true for many of our students too – they don’t want to go outside of their comfort zone, and often will do whatever it takes to avoid a feeling of shame or embarrassment. In fact, sometimes the behaviors that we see that seem outside the norm are actually related to their efforts to avoid shame and embarassment.

I think sometimes that fear of trying something new comes from a feeling of cognitive dissonance. You may know that phrase, but to make sure we’re all on the same page, cognitive dissonance is defined as having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change. It’s not just our students who will try to avoid feeling embarrassed – many adults will do it too. It could be relating to something in our personal life, or it could have to do with trying that new classroom practice that feels a bit out of our comfort zone.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I believe that all schools are learning organizations. Part of what makes a school a learning organization is that all the people who come here – students, teachers, staff members, parents, etc., can learn something while they are here. So, let’s dig into that idea of learning for teachers and staff members.

A previous administrator that I worked with used to talk about being on the “growing edge.” To be on the growing edge, you must feel a little bit uncomfortable. Think about schooling – what it looks like today is different from what it looked like when I was in school, and that is different from what it looked like when my parents were in school. A schoolhouse is a place of innovation. As we learn more about how kids learn, we implement new strategies and see if they help our students. These small changes over the course of many years are part of what has caused the school to look so different than in the past. The more we know about how kids learn, the greater impact we can have on their learning moving forward.

And the things we do in our classroom, that are considered “best practice” are meant to put our students on their own growing edge. In a place where there is some feeling of being uncomfortable, they also must work to figure it out. In a lot of ways, our efforts to move our students to higher levels of thinking is considered best practice because it helps push students beyond their comfort zone. It helps them create new neural pathways in their brain, and suddenly they have learned something new!

But here’s one of the things I’ve noticed – so often we as educators will learn about something new relating to student learning, but we hesitate to implement it. Maybe we want to start implementing Universal Design for Learning, or maybe we have seen some amazing examples of Project-Based Learning out there on social media. As an educator, it might be something we’re curious about, but at the same time are relatively early in the learning process. This is where the fear of teaching can sometimes come in. Does this sound familiar: 1) I’m curious about a new strategy; 2) I have done a little bit of learning about the topic; 3) I want to try, but I’m just not sure where to start; 4) I’m worried it won’t go well; 5) I put that idea on the shelf and go back to what’s comfortable.

The thing I know about most teachers is that there are some personality traits that are similar. One of those similarities has to do with a desire to make sure that whatever we put in front of our students is as close to perfect as possible. I’m sure that there are times that I felt that way, and probably held back on some of my more creative and innovative ideas because they didn’t seem quite perfect. What I’ve learned is:

Here’s the challenge we face as educators – innovative ideas help to push learning forward for our students, but our own perfectionism might get in the way of trying something that would be a benefit for our kids. How do we balance the need for innovative ideas with our personal feelings that our school or our classroom needs to be perfect?

I challenge you to take a moment to reflect on some of your new ideas that you might have been hesitating to try. Pick one and give it a try. What’s the worst that happens? If the lesson is a flop, you can use it as a chance to model for your students that imperfection is ok. And if the lesson goes well, you might find some ways to take that idea, do it again in the future, and make some small changes to make it better.

Learning is all about being on the growing edge. Part of that cognitive dissonance comes from doing the things that scare us before we feel they are perfect. But, it’s how we learn, it pushes learning for our students, and it models risk-taking, which is something we are constantly asking our students to do!

Science or craft

If you’re anything like me and live in a world surrounded by elementary education, you have certainly heard about the “Reading Wars.” If you aren’t sure what that is, it’s basically a back-and-forth debate among many educators about what is the best way to teach students to read. A quick Google search will show that articles about the reading wars have been in existence for years. In a search today, I see reference to Horace Mann arguing a whole language approach in the 1800s, or Rudolf Flesch arguing in support of systematic and sequential phonics instruction in 1955. Since the 1980s, the debate has gone back and forth between explicit phonics instruction as compared to a whole-language approach. I learned to read in a school that bought into a whole language approach, but I know I had friends who struggled to learn to read that way. Personally, I started my career as a teacher in a school that utilized the Four Blocks Literacy Framework. For years as a classroom teacher, I referred to Guiding Readers and Writers by Irene Fountas and Gay Pinnell constantly (my version is marked up, dog-eared, and tabbed from years of use). Most recently, the buzz has been around The Science of Reading, which refers to the research of cognitive scientists on how we learn to read and what is needed to reach a level of proficiency.

Now, I must be completely honest here, I feel I am relatively early in my learning about the Science of Reading, and that’s not really what this post is about. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the topic because I want to be knowledgeable, and as a former science teacher, I believe in the importance of learning from the most recent research available.

What I have learned about the Science of Reading drove me to a book by Mark Seidenberg called Language at the Speed of Sight. Seidenberg is a cognitive neuroscientist (in case you need a definition, cognitive neuroscience is the study of the biological processes that underlie human cognition – in simpler words, it’s the study of how people learn). His research has been focused on learning and early childhood development. While there are many directions that I could choose to dig deeper based on this book, the piece I want to examine first revolves around the role of teacher education as a potential lever to lead to further growth in the reading proficiency of students.

Before I dig too deeply into that, I want to say something first – I’m not sure how much I buy into the whole “Reading Wars” argument. I don’t know how we grow together in our learning when we equate something to a war. In general, based on my studies of history, there are no winners in a war. Ultimately, as an educator, I am constantly trying to grow so that I may have a greater impact on my students. One of the things that I have noticed as I dig deeper into articles and research on the “Reading Wars” is that it seems that there is little willingness to find a middle ground. People are entrenched in their beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. I have long believed in the power of growing together. At times I read and research topics I don’t completely agree with because if someone believes in that thing so strongly, maybe there is something I can learn from them, and often, I do learn something. That idea of being better together does not seem to really be in existence from the two sides of the “Reading Wars” argument.

There was something that Seidenberg said near the end of the book that stood out to me. In Chapter 12, he talks of “the absence of a strong commitment to basic science as a source of evidence within the culture of education…” He goes on to argue that this absence of science has potentially had detrimental effects on reading education. So often in education, decisions about teaching and learning are made in the classroom by teachers who truly believe that the steps they are taking will support students. Those decisions might be based on feeling, experience, or something that is working for a colleague. What Seidenberg argues is that those decisions need to be based more in the realm of science and research. But in most Schools of Education, prospective teachers were not taught to cultivate a “scientific ethos” that allows them to be able to identify meaningful and recent research, and then make teaching moves based on what the science says. I’d argue that unless you have an advanced degree in education, you probably haven’t learned a lot about how to seek out research-based tools and interventions. I know that before my master’s program, I don’t think I had a solid footing in what it meant to be an educational researcher.

I’m not ready to say that I completely agree/buy into all that Seidenberg shares about education, but I will say that this scientific ethos does seem to be lacking in some schools of education. Part of this point from Seidenberg relates to the fact that so much of what schools of education focus on is developing philosophical beliefs in educators. I know for a fact that one of the courses I took required me to write a philosophy of education. I don’t recall much work on learning how to be an educational researcher until I was forced to research while completing my master’s program.

Many in education, myself included, have defined teaching as heart work and referred to it as a craft. But as I dig more into an understanding of cognitive psychology and the study of how people learn, there are certainly some long-held beliefs of my own that I’m being forced to reflect upon because the research tells me I might be wrong. We probably can’t get by purely on feeling and heart and craft. Those things are a piece, but we also need to have a solid grounding in the science of learning as well.

So, there’s a question that I’m left to continue to reflect upon: What if educators saw education as science, in addition to craft? I believe there are some important areas that all of us as educators might be able to learn and grow.

Part of the role of educators is to figure out how to support our students who are not growing as learners in the way that we might hope they would. Maybe they are reading at a level that we consider below proficiency. When this happens, as teachers, we put into place interventions to support our students. Too often, it seems to me, we put in place an intervention based on what we “feel” might work best. But we do so without making sure that the intervention is research-based, and at times without making sure that the intervention supports the area of weakness for that student. I think that part of why this might happen is that many educators were not trained to look at the research.

In addition, many of us may not know how to do our own action research on strategies we try within a classroom. In action research, you identify a question or problem, test out a strategy, gather data, and determine if it works. In true action research, there is a phase of literature review where we try to gain a deeper understanding of research that may have already been done that is tied to our question or problem. This is where I think that sometimes action research falls apart because many educators haven’t been trained in the process of reviewing research. Our background gave many of us a solid background in philosophy, but not as solid of a background in research.

And here’s the issue – learning to do this takes time! It isn’t insurmountable, but on top of all the other things that are on the plate of teachers, it is challenging.

As I continue to reflect on these points, I’m challenging myself to find ways to support teachers in their efforts to learn about research. I’ll be looking for ways to share knowledge and provide sources of quality research. Luckily, we live in a day and age where Google allows us to find scholarly articles quickly and easily on just about any topic in education. Hopefully, through this continued exposure, we can expand our knowledge as researchers. In addition, I’ll be seeking opportunities to help guide teachers through action research of our own.

I’m curious to hear from you – what is your experience with education research? On a scale of 1 to 5, how well prepared do you feel you were to do your own research on educational tools, interventions, and strategies? If that number is lower than you’d like, what do you plan to do so that you know the decisions you make in the classroom are rooted both in research and science, as well as feelings and experience?

Literacy as the foundation of everything

About a month ago, the Indiana Department of Education put on the Get Your Lead On (GYLO) conference for leaders all over the state. I heard about it, thought it looked interesting and signed up as soon as possible. I am a big fan of the learning that happens at events like this – there are keynote-style presentations, break-out sessions, and then a closing session. And of course, there’s also the time to chat with others in between sessions – those are some of my favorite moments (and best learning moments) at any conference! The first thing that I’ll say about GYLO is that it was fun!

One of the speakers that day was Todd Nesloney. I first heard of Todd as an author when I was introduced to the book Kids Deserve It! He was a teacher, elementary principal, and is now the Director of Culture and Strategic Leadership for the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association. He led the second session of the day all about Literacy.

As an elementary principal, I see literacy as the key to everything we do at school, which was in line with what he had to share. In today’s post, I want to share with you some of what I learned from Todd, as well as some next steps that I want to lead in our building.

First and foremost, Todd made it quite clear that he sets the expectation that he will celebrate reading in all that he does. Let’s take a moment to reflect on how much we use reading and writing in our daily lives – from the start of my day check-in with my to-do list to some bedtime reading, text is something that I see constantly, and it’s going to be something that our students will use throughout their lives as well. Even more reason to put literacy front and center in our schools! One of the ways that he celebrated literacy during the day was that he took small moments out of each of his presentations to do a quick book talk. He’d share a title, a bit about the author, and a bit about the story. I walked out of the day with several new items in my Amazon cart!

Next, he talked about ways that he would celebrate reading as a leader. The bullet points below are just a few of the ideas he had. I encourage you to think about how/what you might implement in your setting to celebrate reading.

  • What we’re reading – When Todd was an administrator, he created a graphic in Canva that he then printed out for every staff member. At the top it said “What is Mr. Behrman reading?” then there was some space, and then at the bottom, it said, “What are you reading?” The document was laminated. If you wanted to, you could print out a picture of the book cover, or you could just use a dry-erase marker to write the title of the book. This was for all staff members, not just teachers. He included secretaries, custodians, cafeteria staff, and more! This is something I hope to get rolling at my school soon!
  • Book Talks – Todd started adding short book talks to the morning announcements. In time, he asked teachers to share their own little book talks for the announcements. Eventually, they got to the point that students were creating book talks on the things they were reading. What better way to celebrate the reading that was happening than allowing students to share the books they loved!
  • Reading Photo Wall – Each time a student finished a book, they could bring their book down to Todd’s office. He’d take their picture, print it out, and then hang it on the reading wall in the cafeteria. It made reading visible to all students. What if you did this within your own classroom? Or on the wall right outside of your classroom?
  • Guest Readers – Anytime someone visited Todd’s school, they were asked to bring a book along. Before they did anything else, Todd would take them to a classroom and have them read their book. If someone forgot, they’d go to the library to pick out a book! A variation of this is the mystery reader. As a teacher, you can ask parents to sign up for a day to come and read. Have them share a few clues about who they are so the class can try to guess. Then, on the day of the reading, the class can find out of their guesses were correct or not.
  • Email signature – Those of you who are reading this blog and who receive emails from me may have noticed I already implemented this. At the bottom of my email signature, I added a place that says “What I’m currently reading:” Then I went online, copied an image of the cover of the book, and pasted it into my signature. If you notice that the same book is in my email signature for more than a few weeks, let me know you noticed! That means I’m not reading enough!

There were a ton of other ideas shared during this hour-long session, and while I’d love to share more of them, I think this is a great place to stop for now. One thing I would leave you with was what Todd shared about high-interest books:

One of the most difficult conversations for me to have with a student is when we are in the library, and I offer to help a student find a book, and when I ask them what they want to read they say something like “I need a level L book.” Where is the celebration for reading that comes from that? As a fifth grader, I read Garfield books like crazy, but wouldn’t challenge myself. My 6th-grade teacher allowed us to pick what we wanted, and I read a ton of Stephen King books. Something about the suspense kept me engaged, and I read more that year than I ever had before. Because my teacher allowed me to pick a book I loved, I became a reader who always had at least one book to read at any given time (currently I’m reading 4 different books, and will pick up a different title depending on my mood).

What are your thoughts? Do you have ways to celebrate reading that are not included here? Let us know in the comments below. We can all learn from one another!

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!

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.

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.

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!