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!

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.

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!

Doing a project, or project-based learning

I’ve been reading a book called Project-Based Learning: Real Questions. Real Answers. How to Unpack PBL and Inquiry by Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy, and I find myself reflecting on my past as an educator. As a science teacher for most of my career, I had a lot of opportunities for project work to happen in my classroom. But here’s the thing, I’m not sure that I was always achieving the full potential impact of project work. And I think the difference lies in whether we are “Doing a project” or if we are engaged in “Project-based learning.” I’d love to dig into those ideas a little bit more.

Doing a project

When I taught sixth-grade science, a section of the standards we covered each year was related to space science. One standard was something about gaining an understanding of the planets and objects in our solar system. It seemed like a great opportunity for a project. So, I opened a word document to start writing some directions. I pulled together resources (checked out books from the library, found some websites to share, and collected some videos on our solar system). I decided that the best format would be a poster. When I finished my directions, it was about a page long. The only choice that a student got to make in the project was what planet/object they wanted to learn about.

While we were working on the project, I provided class in time to do research. I provided supplies for students to make their posters. I met with students regularly on their projects to make sure that they were on the right track (most of these meetings were about whether or not they were following the directions). At the end of the project, I collected the posters, and as I went through them, I noticed a few things.

Every one had the name of their planet/object centered at the top of the poster. Everyone had one of the same two dozen pictures that I had printed out for them to use. Everyone had the same types of facts (size, mass, distance from the sun, length of the day, length of a year, etc.).

Now, there is nothing wrong with this project. Students learned about their planet/object. Students created something that they were proud of. Students were excited to have them displayed around the classroom as well as in the hallway outside of our classroom.

But what they did, I don’t know that I can call it true project learning. I had the privilege of meeting Chris Lehmann when I was at the ISTE Conference in Philadelphia. Something that I’ve heard him say is:

Think about it. Websites like Serious Eats or Bon Appétit post some amazing recipes. Many of those recipes have been developed by professional chefs working in professional kitchens, and then they are tested by others in their home kitchens so that the recipe can be adapted so that I, as a home cook, can make J. Kenji López-Alt’s All American Meatloaf recipe in my house and end up with a result that looks (and hopefully tastes) like the version that Kenji made himself (by the way, this is seriously one of my family’s favorite recipes that I make, and is worth every second of the time it takes to make).

So, what’s the point? What does recipe testing have to do with project work? Well, recipes are developed so that anyone who makes them can make a version that they can be proud of. But if you are great at following recipes, I’m not sure that you can call yourself a chef (yet). Similarly, doing a project is more likely about following directions, especially if a category of your rubric is based on following directions! Often, doing a project has more to do with following directions than learning.

Project-Based Learning

So, let’s think about how Project-Based Learning might be a little different than simply doing a project. Here’s an example from when I was teaching social studies.

One year I was part of a team of sixth-grade teachers. Within that team of teachers, my role was to teach all our students in science while the other teachers would teach our students other subjects. Then each one of us would teach social studies to our homeroom class. One of the years I was teaching social studies, my students got into doing “extra” research on the topics we were learning about. As we were approaching our unit on the Roman Empire, I wanted to lean into that interest that they had. Instead of teaching that unit in the typical format that was suggested by our curriculum guide or our scope and sequence, I decided to create a project. But this was when I was several years deeper into my teaching career. I had learned from some of the issues of “doing a project” that I had learned as described above.

For this project, instead of creating a word document that was full of directions, pulling together a bunch of resources, and then expecting a similar outcome, I decided to go very much minimal. I wanted to see what my kids would come up with. I decided that I was going to create the conditions for students to dig into the things they were most interested in about the Roman Empire. And my students did not disappoint! So, here’s what we did:

At the time, there was a single standard that said something along the lines of “understand the rise, fall, and cultural achievements of ancient civilizations in Europe and Mesoamerica.” Then it listed several examples including the Roman Empire.

On the day we started the project, I had no directions sheet. I had not pulled together any resources. I put the standard on the board, and as a class, we dissected what it meant. We talked about what it meant for an Empire to rise and fall. I had students share what they thought the phrase cultural achievements meant. I let them make conjectures based on current cultural achievements. Students brought up music, art, clothing, design, architecture, and so much more.

Next, we talked about resources we might be able to use to learn about some of these things. Students brought up our textbook, the library, digital encyclopedias, and the web, among other options.

The next day, I gave students time in class to learn. I had gone to the library and checked out everything I could on Ancient Rome. I checked out the iPad cart (does anybody else remember those) and put a handful of quality resources on my class website (this was before having an LMS like Canvas for a middle school class). But I also told them that if they had other ideas of places they might look for information, they certainly could use it. I told them that by the end of our third day, they needed to select a topic they wanted to learn more about and share with the class.

The next few days in class were a blur of research and work time. When students were struggling to find what they needed, I would sit down with them, but they also worked collaboratively at times. My role was that of a guide, not the all-knowing sage. They became aware of others learning about similar topics and they shared resources. On Monday of our second week of the project, we came back together for a brief share of what they found most interesting about our topic, and then we started talking about ways they could share what they knew. Some students wanted to make a poster, a few wanted to create a PowerPoint, one student who was studying architecture wanted to build a model, yet another student said she was going to design and sew a Roman outfit. We set a target due date of Friday for students to share what they had learned.

That week, our classroom converted to a working space every day in social studies. We had kids designing, building, sewing, and more! They spent time developing and then practicing their presentation. The learning was electric! A couple of times I needed to pull the class together to go over a few important details where I noticed some misconceptions. When Friday came, it was sharing day. The kids were so excited to share what they had learned. We invited our principal and assistant principal, our librarian, and anyone else who wanted to come for a visit that day. We had food, we had a fashion show of Roman clothing, we had a student who built a miniature working Roman aqueduct. This is a project that will stick with me forever!

Pulling it together

What I want to point out about the difference between the Space Science project on planets, and the Ancient Rome project was in how the learning happened. In the space science unit, learning happened prior to the project. We tacked a couple of days onto the end of the unit for students to put together a poster of things they had already learned. All the resources and materials were provided by me, and the results were identical. But in our Ancient Rome project, the work we did for the project was where our learning occurred.

One of the things that I figured out by the time I led my students through our Roman project is that some of the best learning experiences take place in integrated learning experiences that are fun and authentic! And even more important than that, I’d argue that the overall learning that happened for students during this project went far deeper than what the standard asked for.

Next week, I plan to look at how we might go about planning a great PBL experience for your class. I also hope to share some of the mistakes that I think I made in some of my earlier PBL experiences (hint: assessment! It can be hard in PBL settings!)

I’d love to know more about your thoughts. Have you ever noticed a difference between doing a project and engaging in project-based learning? Is there something that you’re still wondering about? Let me know! This is a topic I’m going to be digging into in the coming weeks, and your questions may help guide my direction.

Moving from why to how

In the last post, I shared the importance of meaning and purpose in learning. As Grant Lichtman has pointed out, “…there is substantial evidence that having purpose, more so than strong test scores, leads to outcomes of success and happiness that most of us want for our students and ourselves.”

I’d like to think that we all agree, in some form, on the importance of purpose in learning. And that is true whether we’re talking about our own learning or the learning of our students. For most educators, we got into this profession because we want to help our students to learn and grow. For most of us, helping our students to learn is a big part of our why. But I’d also say that embedded in that desire to help our students learn is the continuing desire for all of us to keep learning too!

I’ve referenced Simon Sinek before on the blog. His TED Talk about the Golden Circle helped me to shift my thinking, realizing that the real driver of transformational education is that we have to start with the why rather than focusing first on the what (you can see that TED Talk here). If you don’t have time to watch the TED Talk, the basic gist of the Golden Circle is that the most inspiring leaders, brands, and ideas don’t start with a question of what, instead they start at the core of understanding their why, then moving outward on the circle to the how and what.

Last week’s post really dug into my thinking about why learning should bring meaning and purpose for our students, but it didn’t get so much into how we might do that. As I was thinking about how to bring more learning and purpose into our schools, I remembered a book I read a few years ago by Katie Martin titled Learner-Centered Innovation. The basic premise of the book is that we live in a world that requires people to think creatively and work collaboratively. Our traditional learning experiences in schools are driven by a curriculum and by teacher decisions that do not allow our students to think creatively or work collaboratively.

I’m reminded of my experience as a sixth-grade science teacher. One of our units was on space science. If you’ve ever taught any form of science, you know that it is ripe with opportunities for students to ask questions and get creative. We could spend an entire class period talking about the “what-if” questions that my students had. Unfortunately, as a teacher, I didn’t always see this as a good thing. I mean, I had my scope and sequence that I needed to try to stick to if I wanted to “cover” all the material. I literally remember saying “We don’t have time for your questions.” Insert face-palm emoji here! Also, if any of my former students are reading this, I’m sorry I discounted your curiosity. It’s one of the things that I find myself reflecting on as I learn more.

In retrospect, that unit was an ideal opportunity to create a project-based learning experience. I could identify the standards, create learning targets for my students, and then help them develop their own project that would allow them to meet the learning targets while also allowing each student to scratch the itch of curiosity! They could have helped create a plan for how they would show what they know in relation to those standards!

Now, I admit that not every unit we teach will have this level of curiosity naturally embedded in space science. But I do have some ideas of little tweaks that we might be able to make to take something traditional and turn it into something more meaningful.

Imagine if you would a unit on literary devices. Maybe you have a standard that says that your students need to understand simile and metaphor, or maybe they should understand imagery and symbolism. Or you might have a series of standards related to the point of view in a story. In a traditional format of teaching, you might work on defining the terms, you might have students read a passage and identify an example of a specific literary device. Maybe the student would be asked to read a sentence and then answer a multiple-choice question identifying the literary device. Maybe then there would be a test or a quiz, and we can check off that standard and move on. (And just to be clear – I AM NOT saying that there is anything wrong with a unit design of this nature!)

Here’s what I’d challenge you to think about though. Our standards are meant to be a guide, not a checklist. And when we think about learning, does being able to regurgitate some information in a moment on a worksheet, or in a packet, or on a quiz/test mean that I have learned that information? I would argue that true learning doesn’t happen until we are asked to do something with the knowledge we have gained.

So how might we take that Literary Devices activity up a notch? Again, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with any of the steps we have taken thus far. Part of the learning process requires that we as teachers share information in some way, part of it requires students to practice a skill, but the true magic happens in the doing. You see, learning definitions, identifying examples in a passage, answering questions, are all relatively passive parts of the process. Thomas Jefferson said, “What we learn to do, we learn by doing.” What if after the introduction of skills, we asked students to create a piece of writing that includes the literary devices that are included in your standards? We could have them write a short story and label where they used simile and metaphor, identify the point of view, or highlight an example of imagery or symbolism. Now, we’re taking a Depth of Knowledge level one or two activity and turning it into a DOK level 3 or 4. It’s more challenging for students, but that challenge helps develop stronger synapses in the brain.

This is just one example of how we might be able to take a more typical learning experience and make it more transformative without having to completely rewrite the way we do things. Here are a few more things that you might consider that would help students better see meaning a purpose:

  • You could start a classroom blog – not for you to write, but for your students to write. They could share what they are learning about. They could share how it impacts them and their world. They could choose to include pictures or videos. As students share their learning, they will see that they have an audience that wants to know about what’s happening. If a whole blog post seems overwhelming, maybe you could start a classroom Twitter or Instagram page where students craft the message that will be shared, and then (pending your approval) they post the update. Many of us utilize classroom jobs – this could be one of the jobs in your classroom. Students could have a specific time each day or week to update the world on what’s happening.
  • Help your students find ways to use their learning to create action – at a previous school, a group of students noticed that many of their items from the lunch tray should be recyclable, but it all went in the trash. This happened to tie to a standard on sustainability. They worked with their classroom teacher, did some research, and eventually were able to get a representative from a local recycling company to visit their class. They were able to present to the representative, and our school was then provided with a recycling dumpster. The students then took on the challenge of teaching other students what should go in the recycling and what should go in the trash. They created PSA videos, put posters up around the school, and even created smaller fliers to go on the lunch table. The ownership of all parts of this project was taken on by the students in this classroom, and the learning was able to spread throughout the building. For something like this to happen in your classroom, you just have to pay attention to what your students seem interested in and are talking about. That teacher recognized early on that her class was full of “social-justice warriors” and she found ways to let them use that drive in their learning. You might notice other things about your class and find ways to integrate your standards into their interests and desires!

It’s important that we all remember, as Katie Martin says, that “Learning is a process, not an event.” The more chances for students to do something with their learning, the more likely it is that the learning sticks. When we help our students to explore what they are learning, we help inspire students to solve problems and innovate!

Talent is jagged

I was recently scrolling Twitter (as I often do). I often think that Twitter is one of the best free and on-demand professional development resources out there. The number of new ideas I’ve gotten from it is too great to count, not to mention the friends and connections that I have made because of my activity in that space. I know not everyone loves social media, and I really do understand why, but I think it is one of the greatest ways to share the story of your classroom or school and connect with others with who you might never normally be able to connect.

While scrolling last week, I came across an amazing infographic on Universal Design for Learning:

This graphic on UDL comes from Katie Novak. I’ve mentioned her on the blog a couple of times before. You can see those posts here and here. What really jumped out at me about this infographic is the section about the variability of “Average” Student A and “Average” Student B. The graphic immediately made me think of the book The End of Average by Todd Rose.

In that book, Rose tells a story about the history of the Air Force. When designing the planes in the 1940s, a lot of pilots were having issues in flight. This was happening as the planes were transitioning from propeller-driven planes to jet propelled (that made them much faster!). Initially, designers struggled to figure out why those issues were coming about. The earliest opinions issued were that the issues came from “pilot error.” Pilots were convinced that the issue could not be them, so they blamed mechanical issues. But study after study showed no sign of mechanical issues.

Over time, the focus began to be on the design of the cockpit itself. After some research, it became clear that the cockpit was designed based on the average measurements of hundreds of pilots in 1926. The dimensions of the cockpit were standardized based on these measurements so that all planes had the same measurements within the cockpit. The Air Force was concerned that maybe the average size of pilots had changed a bit over the years.

Now, let’s pause for a moment there. If you have a vehicle, think about what it would mean to have a car that was designed for the average-sized person. Imagine not being able to make adjustments to the driver’s seat in your car, the height of the steering wheel, or even the mirrors!

So, going back to the story, beginning in 1950, a new study was started. Over 4,000 pilots were measured on a wide variety of variables, and then averages were found on each dimension. The initial belief was that this new study would lead to a better-fitting cockpit. But one member of the team had some doubts. Lieutenant Gilbert Daniels decided to compare the individual measurements of all the pilots in the study with the average for 10 of the physical dimensions. What he found surprised even him. Not one pilot fell within the normal range on all 10 dimensions. There was no such thing as “an average-sized pilot.” Instead, the Air Force recognized that with each person there came some variability.

After learning this, the Air Force went back to the drawing board and made the decision to create environments that fit the pilot, rather than expecting pilots to fit the environment. This meant that new planes had to have adjustable seats, foot pedals, helmet straps, and flight suits. When these changes in design went into place, performance among pilots improved significantly. And as a side bonus, the lessons learned in this research were able to help make automobiles adjustable too!

So when we think about UDL, we have to think about our students. Like the pilots who had different measurements, no two students will have all the same strengths and weaknesses. Take a moment to scroll back to the infographic at the top. Those zig-zag lines that represent student A and student B remind us that every child has variability (In his book The End of Average, Rose refers to this variability as a jagged profile). No two students are the same! Talent is always jagged. When we better utilize UDL strategies, we help adapt the learning environment to the needs of students, as opposed to expecting students to adapt to the learning environment.

I could go on to make suggestions for how you might implement more UDL practices into your classroom, but I really doubt I can do any better than what Katie Novak did in the infographic above. If you’re interested in trying out some of these tips, I’d suggest choosing one or two, and trying it out for a while. Once those tips become routine, then add in another. As you increase your utilization of UDL strategies, you will be better at adapting your environment to meet the individual needs of each student in your class.

If you want to dig into more of Katie’s work, check out her website here. On the site, you will find options for PD, Online Courses, other Resources, and Katie’s blog. While there are other resources out there for UDL, this is one that I know that I would trust!

If you decide to implement some of these strategies, I’d love to hear more about them! Be sure to come back and share on the blog, or let me know in some other way!

Are we a teaching organization, or a learning organization?

Recently I’ve been thinking about a statement I heard once – I honestly can’t remember who I heard it from first, but I think I recall versions of the quote from Dave Burgess, another version from Matt Miller, and yet another version from George Couros (all are some of my favorite authors in the educational space). The quote basically says that teachers who have a 25-year career need to avoid teaching 1 year 25 times.

Let’s unpack that a bit – the gist of what they are saying here is that as teachers, our students change from year to year. Their needs change from year to year. The world changes from year to year. A teacher who teaches 1 year 25 times is someone who has their “January” binder or folder that they pull out every year and it has all the activities for the month of January pre-created. In environments like this, the focus is on the teaching – often it’s about “what is easier for the adults in the building?” The problem is that it may not be what’s best for our students.

Instead, what these authors say we should strive for is to teach each year one time. We adapt our lessons and curriculum to meet the needs of our students, to meet the needs of our community, and to meet the needs of what’s happening in the world right now. And to me, that’s the beauty of the Professional Learning Community! Your PLC team is there to support one another in identifying needs, doing some research on how to meet those needs, and then testing it out.

As I think I have shared before, I’ve been reading the book Professional Learning at Work this school year. I finished it over winter break, and it has me thinking about what it takes to be a school that is focused on learning rather than just on teaching.

Let’s take a moment to define the differences – in a teaching organization, we might have our list of standards and skills or lessons from the textbook, and we say “I have to get through all of this!” It’s almost like we create a checklist for learning. Once I get through item number 1, I move on to number 2, and so on down the list. Can you see a problem with this? I don’t think students can be thought of like items we’re producing. A checklist will not meet the need of every learner in a classroom. Learning is not about developing a lesson design, implementing the steps, and ending at a finished product. I think we all know that students don’t work that way. Learning rarely happens as a straight line – instead, it’s often made up of a bunch of squiggly twists and turns.

On the other hand, a learning organization is all about looking at learning as a process of perpetual renewal – for us as teachers and faculty, for our students, for our community. We get there by focusing on the emotions that have brought us to the career path of teaching, and the emotions that keep us coming back each day (no matter how good or bad yesterday may have been). Ultimately a learning organization is a place where the community is passionate, driven, and in a continuous process of growth.

In a previous blog post, I wrote all about “My Why” – the things that motivate me to do what I do (You can see that post here: Starting with why). I encourage all of us to do a little self-assessment – where are you now? Do you trend towards the teaching mindset? Or do you trend towards the learning mindset? Are you comfortable with where you are? Is what you are doing helping your students to learn and grow?

If you feel completely comfortable with your answers, good for you (To be honest, I’m not sure I can say that I am 100% comfortable with my answers). But if your reflection leads you to feel like you have some growing to do, then go with that. Reassess what you can do to improve. My goal is to help lead a school that is a true learning organization. I see our process as one of continual growth and renewal, and I’m always thinking about how I can help in that process. We will never get to a point where everything is perfect! Even when we meet our initial goals, that creates a place where we can set a new goal. 

What are you working on? What growth do you seek? Share with us in the comments below!