What do you know about each of your students?

At the beginning of this school year we held a back to school retreat.  One of the slides was based on something that Aaron Hogan, author of Shattering the Perfect Teacher Myth, had shared in his Twitter feed this summer.

My Challenge

We have talked over the years about the value of relationships.  We all know that there are some students who are EASY to get to know.  At the same time, we all know that there are some students that are very difficult to get to know.

Getting to know about the things that are tied directly to school is what teachers do. Test scores, homework completion, attentiveness in class…  I think all of us are good at that.  To have a true and meaningful relationship with a student, we need to have a knowledge of all the aspects of the child’s life, not just their ability to “play school.”  To know this, we have to be excellent watchers and listeners.  This watching and listening has to come from the idea that the only way to create solid learning environments for our students is through truly knowing a student.

Do you have a system of tracking what you know about kids?  Whether you have a spreadsheet that you type info into, a stack of notecards with one for each kid, a class list with simple notes, sticky notes in a binder, or whatever works for you, there needs to be some way to keep track of the things you know about those kids.  If you haven’t done this yet, take a few moments in the coming week to assess your own knowledge of your students.  What do you know about their life outside of school?  What interests do they have?  What did they do over the weekend?  What do you know about their family?

As you assess your own knowledge, are there any kids who stand out as someone you don’t know much about?  If you don’t know much about that child, how can you be sure that you are creating a learning environment that meets that child’s needs?

The good news, it’s still very early in the school year!  If there are kids you want to get to know better, there’s plenty of time for that.  Make it a goal to learn what you can about those kids you aren’t able to write much about.  Use strategies like the 2 for 10 method (spending 2 minutes every day for 10 days talking about something that has nothing to do with school) can help you learn a lot in a very short time.  Conversations in the hallway or at recess can be a great chance to get to know kids too.

Caring about kids can have a huge impact.  The kids who drop out of school in 9th or 10th grade don’t decide one random Monday morning that they are going to sleep in and never come back.  Dave Brown and Trudy Knowles share in What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know that:

“The decision to drop out is a reflective process that begins during the middle level years based primarily on the relationships they have at school with classmates and particularly with teachers.”

In the book Canaries Reflect on the Mine: Dropouts’ Stories of Schooling, Jeanne Cameron interviewed several high school dropouts.  One of the things that stood out in the comments from those students was the belief that they needed teachers to notice them and care about them.  That care doesn’t come just from looking at students grades and test scores.  It comes from the recognizing the difficulties that each of our students have in their lives.

If that isn’t enough of a motivator for you to try to get to know those quiet kids a little bit better, I don’t know what would be.  Do you know there are kids that you don’t know much about?  What do you know about the quietest kid in your class?  What are you going to do in the next week to get to know those kids?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

What is school for?

Put yourself back in one of your childhood classrooms – at the beginning of the day what was it that your teacher always said?  If it’s anything like my childhood experience, it was something like “Good morning class.” Then what would happen?  The whole class would respond “Good morning…”  And what happened if you weren’t loud enough, or respectful enough?

I think we all have lived that situation – and I may even have been guilty of fulfilling the teacher role (as recently as the first day of school… THIS YEAR!!!).  But here’s the question, what are we teaching with that call and response open to the day?  It’s mostly about teaching obedience.  Traditionally, the common school was built to prepare children to become the factory workers of the future.  Implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, schools taught students to be obedient, to hold a little back, to do the work assigned and nothing more.

Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.So that brings us to the bigger question: What is school for?  While some of our students may consider a role in manufacturing, the factories of today are way different than the ones of the early to mid 1900s that led to this factory model of education.  Many of our students will not be heading down the path of manufacturing, so that factory model of school definitely doesn’t apply.  If you believe that innovation is going to keep happening (and why wouldn’t it?), then we’re preparing our students for an ever changing world!  That is so different from the traditional model of school as a factory.  In an excellent TED Talk by Seth Godin, he gives 8 examples of things school should be doing:

  1. Homework during the day, lectures at night – flipped learning
  2. Open note and open book all the time – if it’s important enough to memorize, it’s also ok to have to look it up
  3. Access – any course at any time – programs like Kahn or MOOCs can achieve this
  4. Precise focused education – not a one size fits all model
  5. No multiple choice – life isn’t multiple choice
  6. Experiences instead of test scores – learning is focused on the experiences that take place inside (and outside) of our classroom
  7. End of compliance as an outcome – while compliance may be needed at times, it shouldn’t be our end goal
  8. Cooperation instead of isolation – the ability to work with others

I could go into more detail on each of these, but I can’t do any better than what Godin did in his talk, so if you’d like to know more about any of these things, check out that TED Talk here.

So here’s my answer to the question “What is school for?”: I want our students to be equipped to go out into the world and make something that has an impact on their lives and the lives of others.  And I want them to know that if they get stuck, to ask for help and support.  While we might not always have all the answers, hopefully we can help our student to find the answers.

I’m curious to hear your answers – for you, what is school for?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Using outdoor spaces

Today I was reading a recent blog post by John Spencer about the ways that nature helps us to be more creative (check it out here).  Personally I love to be out in nature, so the post really caught my attention.  The gist of the post was about the fact that time in nature can lead us to greater levels of creativity.  His 5 ways that nature makes us more creative are listed in bold below, with my own thoughts added:

  1. Nature creates positive disruptions – Life draws us into the natural hustle and bustle of our world. Being in nature helps us get away from technology, current events, and everything else that makes it hard for our brain to stay focused.  That time away from all those distractions allows our brains to think more deeply.
  2. Nature encourages problem-solving – Almost every time I go for a hike, or spend some time in nature, I’m inspired to write a new blog post, or solve a problem, or be creative.
  3. Nature helps us embrace deep work – When do you do your best thinking? There is a lot of research that says that simply being active can lead to deeper thinking.  Simply going for a walk helps us activate our brain in different ways.  According to some research, throw nature into the mix and you multiply that effect.  So what does that mean for you?  Before teaching a particularly important skill, take your class for a walk in the woods outside of school.  Your students brains will be better prepared for deeper thinking when you return.
  4. Nature humbles us while also expanding our worldview – I’m not sure how many of you know this about me, but I was a 10 year 4-H member. I didn’t show animals (we weren’t on the farm), but I did lots of other projects over the years.  One of the projects I did required me to take multiple observations of a natural environment every day over multiple weeks.  I chose a small wooded area with a trail just a little over a mile from my home.  I had to observe at different times in the day, and I began to notice changes in what seemed like an untouched environment.  Some animals were more or less active at certain times of the day, some plants looked different depending on various factors.  The time I have spent in the natural world helps me realize that there are so many things happening in the world around us that we miss when we are in our cars, or on our devices.  Sometimes you really do have to slow down, look around, and smell the flowers in order to be aware of what’s happening in our world, and to realize how little control we have over so much of what’s around us.
  5. Nature can spark innovation – Did you know that Velcro was designed by a Swiss engineer after his dog was covered in burdock burrs after going on a hike? Or that the design of the nose of Japanese high-speed trains was meant to mimic the beak of a kingfisher?  These are just a couple of examples of innovations that came about because of things that people noticed in nature.  Imagine what the future scientists of the world (our students) may be able to develop if they learn to look to nature for ideas and solutions to our problems.

Reading Spencer’s post got me thinking about the natural wonders just waiting to be explored outside of our school.  By walking out the doors of our building, you can access a variety of outdoor environments.  Between the trails in the wooded areas, the stream running through the woods, the untended plain near the baseball fields, or the river, there are so many ways for us to access nature.  And the benefit doesn’t just stop with the kids being out in nature away from their devices.  Something they see while they are with you may inspire creativity and wonder in a way that is totally unexpected.

What have you done with your class in our outdoor areas?  Have you seen increased levels of creativity as a result of the time you have spent outside?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Gentle pushback

How do you spend the beginning of the school year?  What types of activities are you using in your classroom?  Keep in mind that the expectations that you set in the first few weeks will carry throughout the year.

So often at the beginning of the year, we spend lots of time on relationship building.  Those of you who know me will know that relationships are a key part to success (see previous posts here, here, and here).  Relationships alone aren’t enough though (I have a bigger post on this topic coming soon).

Part of what got me thinking about this was a series of tweets from Rick Wormeli – I happened to be on Twitter last Saturday evening, and he had a string of tweets on this topic.  He focused on the first week of school – we’re past that already in my school corporation – but I think that his sentiment can carry over to the first month of school.

What things have you tried for the beginning of the year to push your students in intellectual, academic, or creative ways?  What do you think about Wormeli’s thoughts?  Do you have different opinions?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Solar eclipse memories

This is my sister and I – probably summer of 1985, just to give a frame of reference!

As we build up to Monday’s solar eclipse, I was thinking back to the only other solar eclipse that I recall seeing.  The date was May 30th, 1984. That May was the beginning of my last summer before I became a “school kid.”  I would be starting kindergarten that fall.  My mom ran an in-home daycare, which was great because that meant I had friends to play with every day.  She had been collecting shoe boxes for a few weeks leading up to the eclipse, and on the day before the eclipse we turned them into pinhole cameras. (One fun fact for all of you who are at RSI – Dave Bradley was one of the kids that was at the daycare on the day of the eclipse).

http://www.mreclipse.com/SEphoto/SEgallery1/image/A1984Mosaic.JPG

While I don’t remember exactly what the sky looked like that day, I remember that there was a lot of excitement about the event.  I also remember that there wasn’t a lot of talk about NASA approved sunglasses (maybe there was and I was too young to know about it).  That day my mom reminded all the kids not to look at the sun, we took out pinhole cameras outside, and we watched the eclipse.  I do remember that the big trees in our backyard were making it hard to see, so Dave and I moved to the backyard behind mine, and we had a much better view.

As many of you know, when I was still a classroom teacher, my favorite subject to teach was science, and my favorite unit was always space science.  I think that my experience with the solar eclipse set me up with curiosity about outer space.  As a kid I loved watching shuttle launches.  I remember crying when the Challenger disaster happened.  I had the chance to go to space camp during my first year as a teacher.  Even today, I can get sucked into a livestream of a SpaceX launch or landing and not be able to turn away.

http://www.history.com/topics/challenger-disaster

I know that there are some who are concerned about safety for our students, but I would hope you seriously consider finding a way to give your students an opportunity to see the eclipse.  My experiences that day have helped lead to the things I am still curious about today, and for our kids it could be such a great provocation to lead into student wonder.  Who knows, a future space scientist, astronaut, or science teacher could be sitting in your classroom!  If you have something cool planned for the solar eclipse, share with us in the comments below!

One key to student success

With it being the beginning of the school year, many of us have been spending countless hours getting ready for our students.  We made sure our classrooms look just right, we made sure to pick the perfect activities for our students to get to know each other (and for us to get to know them).  Before the first day I’m sure you were all just as excited as I was thinking about this school year.

One thing that many of us think about during the summer time is how to help our students to be successful.  For those of us in education, that is something that we all want for our students.  I’ve read many philosophies of education, written by lots of great teachers, and all of them say something about helping our students to be successful.  So what needs to happen in order to help our students be successful?

As I was thinking about this question earlier this week, I found myself drawn back to a book that I read a while back – What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know by Dave Brown and Trudy Knowles.  I know I’ve mentioned this book in previous posts – if you haven’t yet, it’s definitely worth the read!

In order to create cognitive growth for our students, they have to be willing to take risks in their own learning.  They have to be willing to try things that they’ve never done.  They have to be willing to fail from time to time.  Failure leads to growth for all of us!

The problem is, failure is scary.  How many of us have not tried something because we were worried we wouldn’t be able to do it?  During my high school years in Bloomington we would hang out at the Indiana University outdoor pool.  If you’ve never been there, one thing you should know is that there are multiple diving boards, including a platform.  I had a couple of friends who were divers, and they made it look so easy to go off the 3-meter springboard, or any one of the platforms.  I on the other hand, while being a strong swimmer, was scared to death to jump off that top platform.  Multiple trips to the pool, and many times watching others go for it, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.  Finally one of my buddies got me to go up the platform with him – “don’t worry, if you don’t want to jump, you can go back down.”  Once I got to the top, he jumped right off.  I was next in line, I turned around and there was a line behind me.  I didn’t want to walk past all of them, so I walked up to the end of the platform, looked over the edge, thought about it for a moment or two, and went for it.  What a rush it was to take that jump!  My fear had held me back and prevented me from a fun experience.

For some of our students, the fear that I felt about jumping off that platform is what they feel about reading aloud, or writing a story.  Maybe a teacher has told them that math isn’t their strong suit, so they don’t want to solve a problem for the class.  We expect our students to come to school for 180 days to do something that feels risky.  How many adults would do something risky every day?  A lot of us might just give up.  For the kids who feel this level of fear about their academics, they may say to themselves “If I’m not good at it, why even try.  I don’t want to embarrass myself.”

These students need our encouragement and support to build enough confidence to take risks.  That comes back to our classroom culture – the expectations we set about how students treat each other, as well as the things we (the adults in the room) say in the classroom.  Kids need to feel safe enough to be able to take risks.  Brown and Knowles share the following list of things students need to feel academic safety:

  • No one laughs at them when they attempt to ask or answer questions
  • Teachers establish realistic academic expectations and outcomes for every student
  • Students’ efforts are recognized, as well as the products of those efforts
  • Teachers eliminate competitive situations that create inequity among students
  • Teachers develop cooperative grouping strategies that encourage students to collaborate in their learning and share their knowledge and expertise with one another
  • Teachers play the role of learning facilitator to encourage student independence
  • Teachers choose alternative instructional strategies to meet each student’s learning style
  • Teachers recognize and appreciate talents other than academic skills

This list is not meant to be the end all be all solution for all our students, but it provides some ideas that we can reflect on in our planning and preparation to make sure that our students will feel safe in our classroom.  They need that safety to take risks, and they have to take risks to grow.

What steps do you plan to take in your classroom to make sure that all of your students feel comfortable to take risks in your classroom?  How can you model your willingness to take risks in your own learning and growth?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

What does John Wooden have to do with teaching?

As many of you know, when I was still teaching, I also coached basketball.  In one of the first seasons I was coaching, I attended a coaching clinic.  I learned a ton that day, but one of the things that has stuck with me even beyond my time as a coach was probably a throw away comment by one of the assistant coaches about John Wooden – one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time.  During the clinic we were talking about a variation on Coach Wooden’s famous secondary break, and someone mentioned one of Wooden’s books.  I jotted a note to myself, and ordered it from Amazon later.  When it arrived, I expected a book with information about various plays and strategy – after all it is a book on coaching.  What I found however, was that the majority of the book was on coaching philosophies.

To me, this was valuable information as well, I mean the guy is one of the most successful college basketball coaches of all time, coaching his UCLA teams to 10 national championships, including a stretch of 7 consecutive national championships.  During his years as the coach at UCLA, he was able to get some of the best basketball players in the country to come and play for his team.  One of the things that I found most intriguing as I read about Wooden’s coaching was in how he began his season.  He was bringing in some of the best recruits in the country, there were many players who went on to careers playing in the NBA, and yet every season, no matter who was on the team, Wooden would start the first practice in the locker room talking about how players should correctly put on their socks and shoes.  He felt that you had to start at the absolute beginning with everything in order to make sure that the players on his team knew the expectations and procedures that were part of success for UCLA Bruins basketball players.

Every year at the beginning of the school year a new group of students walk into your classroom.  We have to look at each of those kids as our top recruits – we know that they are in the eyes of the parents who trust us to help their children learn and grow while they are here with us.

When Wooden got his top recruits, he could have easily gone straight to the basketball court to start working on offenses and defenses that the team would run throughout the year – I mean these guys all knew how to put on their socks and shoes, they had to have been successful players in high school to end up at UCLA.  But Wooden knew that expectations and procedures were the key to a successful season.  He started with the small things – socks and shoes.  Once they made it to the basketball court, much of their time in the early part of the season were on fundamentals – dribbling, passing, footwork.  Wooden understood that if you had a solid base of expectations, teaching players to play the game the way they needed to in order to be successful would be so much easier.

So, how do you spend your time at the beginning of the school year?  I know that it can be tempting to think that our students, most of whom have been “in school” for 5-6 years, know what is expected.  It can be easy to skip over the base level procedures.  Just like Wooden could have said that his players knew how to put on their socks and shoes, or they knew how to dribble, pass, and move their feet, we could assume that our students know how to line up, how (and when) to sharpen a pencil, how to work in a small group, etc.  But here’s the thing – it’s possible that the way you expect students to do some of these things is different than the way that a past teacher expected things to be done.

I am writing this post in late April, knowing that I’m not going to post it until the beginning of the school year.  In my role I have the privilege of visiting lots of different classrooms, seeing how different people spend their time, and seeing what people value.  One thing that I notice in April is that the teachers who have invested time throughout the year with the basic expectations – like Wooden did with socks and shoes – are currently (in April) having the most success with student behavior.

So, what are the things we need to teach on the most basic level?  Here are just a few ideas that come to mind:

  • Transitions
  • What to bring to class every day
  • Small group time / collaboration time
  • Lunch
  • Recess
  • Restroom expectations

What might you add to your list?  There might be expectations that are specific to your content area, or there might be things that don’t apply for your class structure.  In the last couple of years I was in the classroom, I created a 1 slide power point for each of these situations along with a few that were directly connected to my content area, and I would display them every time that it fit at the beginning of the year.  As the year went on, I would spend less and less time on the review, unless I noticed a pattern of issues.  Then we might review for a few days.  We would also spend some time reviewing each of the expectations after any break from school.  While this did not always solve every single issue, it helped in the long run, and by taking the time to create these slides in advance, it was easy for me to pull one up and display for my students.

As you prepare for your school year, what are the socks and shoes type of procedures that your students need to know about in order to be successful in your classroom?  After creating a list of expectations, think about the method that might work best for you to be able to teach your students those expectations.  It can be easy to assume that our students will know what to do, but they might not.  Maybe you will share your procedures in a power point slide like mine, maybe it’s something more involved like a student created video.  Whatever the plan is, take the time to think about how you can share your expectations with your students so that they truly know what to do.

For your students to be truly successful, they have to have a solid foundation.  What pieces of the foundation do you think you need to work on the most for your students to learn and grow in your class?  Share your ideas in the comments below – maybe your thoughts and ideas will spark an idea for others!