The value of communication and collaboration

Lombardi - Work Together

About a month ago, one of my posts (What are you learning?) made reference to the National Association of Colleges and Employers Job Outlook report.  I want to come back to that report today and look at the top 6 items on the report.  As I look over the list it keeps bringing me back to one of my favorite questions when thinking about learning in our classrooms: What do our kids need in order to be successful in the future?  This list can help serve as a guide.

NACE Attributes Employers Seek

Think about some of the most successful companies in our world today.  Whatever the company is, if they are trying to be innovative in their field, they are focused on creating the best products possible for their customers.  What does work look like for those innovative companies?  I’m guessing that they are concerned about their teams of employees working together to create innovation.

Think for a second about your best lessons.  How many of you can claim that every aspect of your best lesson for your students was imagined, planned, created, and developed completely by you?  I know when I was still in the classroom, I was constantly collaborating with other teachers to improve my lessons, to add cool new ideas, or to make the learning experience even better for the learners in my classroom.  I’m guessing that most (if not all) of you will say the same thing.

If we know that innovative companies seek communication and collaboration, and we know that we achieve our own best work through communication and collaboration, and the data from the most recent NACE Jobs Outlook report shows that employers value communication and collaboration, what are we doing in our classroom to explicitly teach our students how to communicate and collaborate?  Paul Solarz, the author of Learn Like a Pirate has an entire chapter on peer collaboration.  He shared lots of great ideas of how he creates a collaborative environment for his students.

Early in the chapter he talks about the importance of establishing classroom expectations and norms as a group, where all members of the class have their input in those norms.  As you build in and truly teach collaboration skills, students will take ownership of those skills and will help one another to be better collaborators, letting each other know what they need from one another so that all can be successful.

Even with the opportunity to teach collaboration, the only way students will be able to learn and grow in this skill is through the opportunity to practice.  Be looking for as many ways as possible to integrate collaboration and communication into your lessons.

And something has to be said about the classroom environment in order to create an environment that is conducive to communication and collaboration.  Think about when you are working with colleagues, how do you choose to sit?  Based on my informal observations visiting team PLC time in our building, generally we sit in a group in such a way that everyone can see everyone else.  Students need to be able to do the same when they have time to collaborate.  Rows aren’t conducive to communication and collaboration.  Seats where students are far away from their nearest neighbor don’t facilitate collaboration either.

Many of the classrooms in our school have created opportunities and spaces for students to be able to sit together and collaborate, whether it’s a small spot on the floor, a rug area, creative seating options, a couch, or high tables and chairs, there are places where students can sit together and collaborate in the classroom.  To take it a step further, how many of you have considered not having a seating chart in your classroom?  A true flexible seating environment can be created where there are norms about students choosing the space that they are able to do their best space.  And as a safety net for you, you can always set the norm that poor choices by students may result in the teacher asking the student to make a different choice.  Think about the way you would empower the learners in your room to be able to select their own seat each and every day in order to meet their learning needs!

I want to conclude this post sharing some pictures from offices for Google and Apple, two of the most innovative companies around today, as well as one of my favorite shared working space, Starbucks.  I’m not saying that our classrooms need to necessarily look like these (they’re a bit extreme), but we might want to think about how spaces like this create environments where employees are able to put out amazing and innovative products.  We also should realize that some of the students will be doing work in environments like this in their future.  What can we do in our classrooms today to help them be successful in their future?

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So what are your thoughts?  Have you had success teaching students communication and collaboration explicitly?  What has worked for you?  What concerns do you have about integrating more collaboration and communication into your classroom?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

What are you learning?

“What are you learning?” It’s one of my favorite questions to ask kids when I am visiting a classroom, or when I see them working in the hallway.  More often than not, their answers will relate to the specific content they are working on in that moment.  The reality is though that they are learning so much more than the math, social studies, science, or whatever the content area may be.

We ask so much of our students when we put them to work.  We expect them to pay attention in class, to be engaged, to think critically, to work collaboratively.  Just think about how much work we are expecting our students to do.  All in the service of learning and growing.

Your role in the learning process of our students is so important.  They need us every day in order to learn, grow, and find success.  It’s such an important job!

But stop for a minute to think – when someone asks you what you teach, what is your answer?  Do you respond with your content area?  Do you respond with your grade level?

I’m going to share something with you that you may not like to hear though – the content is irrelevant.  That may be an uncomfortable thing to think about, but let me share with you why I believe this.  In my role, I get to walk into a lot of classrooms, I get to see a lot of lessons, and I get to see a LOT of GREAT TEACHING!  But in my role, I also get to notice some things that as a classroom teacher you might not get to see.

This year I saw a 6th grade science class doing a lab activity that was identical to something my daughter did as a 2nd grader.  Even the paper that went with the lab looked the same.  The teacher who was leading the lesson was teaching as though the students had never seen anything like this before.  I asked one of the students about the lab, and he shared that he did the same activity when he was in elementary school.  I can’t imagine the depth of knowledge on this activity was as great as the teacher might have believed since the student had already done it.  Another time I was visiting a junior high classroom and I saw a lesson on scientific method being taught in an 8th grade classroom as though the students had never seen anything like it before – it was identical to one I had just seen in a 5th grade classroom.  I know that when I taught 6th grade, my scientific method lesson was very similar as well.  Where’s the rigor in a lesson that is being taught to our students so many different times in basically the same way?  Where’s the depth of knowledge?

If the content was truly relevant for our learners, we wouldn’t be wasting our student’s time teaching them things that they already know as if they have never seen it.  I know what some of you are probably thinking though – maybe some of the students forgot!  Maybe there are students that weren’t in our district who have never done this before!  I’m going to push back on those ideas – what about the students who didn’t forget?  What about the students who were here, did this exact activity, and are bored out of their mind?  Even if the lesson is fun or one of our favorites, how are we serving the learning of our students?  A good formative assessment at the beginning of the unit may lead you to realize that what you were planning to teach isn’t valuable because the students already know it.

And that’s the thing, the most valuable commodity we have is time.  In education we are always asking for more of it.  One of the biggest complaints I hear from teachers about innovation and change is we don’t have enough time to do new things.  If we can gain some of our time back by not teaching a lesson of material that our students already know as if they have never heard it before, we might be able to do something new and innovative.  Instead of continuing on that lab that a student did in elementary school, what could we have our students do that would develop creativity?  How could we let our students communicate the knowledge they already have?  Is there some way they could work collaboratively?  The image below is one that I have seen shared on Twitter by so many people, I can’t even begin to guess exactly where it came from, but it’s an important reminder of the things that our students need to know for their future.

6 Cs of Learning

If the image above isn’t enough for you, what about some research?  According to the National Association of Colleges and Employees in a recent job outlook survey, reported in 2016, these are the top 5 attributes that employers are looking for: 1) Leadership; 2) Ability to work in a team; 3) Communication skills (written); 4) Problem-solving skills; 5) Communication skills (verbal).

As I was researching this post, one of the other topics that kept coming up is the ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

Hopefully, like me, you notice that none of the things listed in any of this research is specific to content knowledge.  That should challenge us to think a little differently about the question what do you teach.  I think the answer to what do you teach should probably be something like this: “I am teaching my students to have strong dispositions of learning.”

Our students don’t need to be able to recite back the scientific method.  They need to be able to use the process to solve problems they encounter in the world.  Our students don’t need to be able to solve stand-alone multiplication or division problems.  They need to be able to apply those math skills in real world situations.  If this is what our students need, what does that do to the way you might plan a lesson?  Assess your students?  Create a project?

I would love to hear your thoughts.  How do you get your students to have the dispositions for learning?  What would you do if you found that several of the kids in your class had already done the activity you had planned for today?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Reaching all our students

One of the challenges of teaching kids in the middle grades (I’m calling that 5th through 8th grade for the purpose of this post) is that physical maturity and social emotional maturity do not always match up.  A couple days ago I was talking with a teacher about the immature behavior of a student.  A comment that stuck with me after I walked away was “But he’s the biggest one in the class…”

Sometimes there is a misconception that the tallest kids are going to be the most mature and therefore capable of doing the most, and that the smallest ones are the least mature.  But in my experience, that expectation doesn’t always work hold true.

The next chance you get, just scan your room.  As you look, you will see a huge variety in physical differences among the kids that are sitting in your room.  Not only are each of those kiddos physically different, they all have differences in their cognitive, social, and emotional needs.  While it’s easy to recognize those physical differences, perceiving what’s going on inside a child is much more difficult.  With all of these differences, how do we try to meet those needs?

Meeting the needs of all learners by differentiating instruction begins with accepting the fact that your students are all cognitively different than one another.

The Center for Applied Special Technology has been focusing their work on the Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  There are three main principles of UDL, and thinking about these principles as you design learning experiences will help you better to reach the diverse needs of your students.

  • Principle 1: Provide multiple means of representation: We can all agree that our students all learn in different ways.  This means it is so important for us to present and represent learning in multiple ways.  Some students would learn best from a video clip.  Others might learn best from a reading assignment.  Others might need graphic organizers to help them to capture their learning.  The key is to remember that if you only provide one entry point for learning, you probably will not reach all your students.
  • Principle 2: Provide multiple means of action and expression: We all have our preferred ways to be able to express our knowledge.  For me, I love to share my learning through written expression. Others might prefer to record a quick video clip, while still others might want to create a presentation through Power Point. The same is true of our students.  While we can have our big ideas and learning targets that we want students to reach, they don’t all have to show what they know in the exact same way. The more choices we offer students in expressing their learning, the more likely we are to meet the needs of every student.
  • Principle 3: Provide multiple means of engagement: We all know that if learners are not engaged, they are not going to be learning.  Students are most engaged when they are given the opportunity to participate in authentic learning experiences that are responding to their questions, concerns, or interests.  If we can give students opportunities to develop they questions or look into their concerns and interests within the scope of our learning goals, they will be more engaged, and feel empowered

Ultimately, our goal for all students is that they learn and grow.  Through the use of these 3 principles, you can design learning experiences that allow our students to feel engaged and invested in their learning, and in turn you will be more likely to move our students forward in their learning.  What are your thoughts?  Have you seen these principles help your students find more success in the classroom?  Are there any principles that you would add to this list?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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!

A cool new app (for me)

 

I recently came across a hashtag on Twitter that I found pretty interesting: #PersonalizedPD.  As I was going through some of the tweets with this hashtag, I saw this tweet:

It caught my attention for a couple of different reasons – first there was the #PersonalizedPD idea that I was interested in.  Second, there was some gamification to the learning that was happening which sounds cool and potentially highly motivating.  I decided to send Jeff Mann a reply to the tweet saying that I had a few questions.  Later in the afternoon I got a response from him asking if I was on Voxer.  I had heard of it, but never set up an account, but I really wanted to learn more about the Superheroes of AMCMS.

Twitter is great for learning in a lot of ways, but if you want to be able to have a real conversation with someone, it’s not ideal.  Just like a text chat, you can only type so fast, and you lack the tone of voice that goes with a true conversation.  Plus you’re limited to 140 characters in a tweet.  So, I downloaded Voxer, set up an account, and told Jeff I was in business.

VoxerBasically, Voxer works like a walkie talkie, but also has the ability to send text, photos, and videos within the app.  After setting up my account, I was sitting on my deck while Jeff was driving home from school in Texas, and we had a conversation about the Superheroes of AMCMS.  At the end of the conversation, he asked me to send him my email address, and he was going to email me some additional resources for continued learning.

While this chance encounter was cool, I could see Voxer being used within a school building for a group chat with members of a PLC team, or having the account of your teammate to be able to chat.  I know we’re all comfortable and used to texting, but I noticed that the back and forth that Jeff and I were able to have happened much faster than trying to text back and forth with one another.

Do you have any ideas for additional ways that you could use Voxer within your classroom?  What about with your colleagues?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

The innovators

I’ve recently been reading a book called The Innovators by Walter Isaacson.  If you don’t know anything about Isaacson, he’s written biographies about Ben Franklin, Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo Da Vinci, but several of his other books are more about groups of people who have played a role in some way – one book, titled American Sketches, is about some of the great leaders and creative thinkers of our society.

The InnovatorsThe Innovators has the subtitle “How a group of hackers, geniuses, and geeks created the digital revolution.”  This book caught my attention for a couple of reasons – first, I’ve always been something of an early adopter of technology.  I love to check out new and exciting innovations.  A second reason that this caught my attention is that I’m always curious about how people made the leaps to take us from the earliest computers (devices that took up entire rooms in the basement of college buildings or at military bases), to the technology that I can hold in my hand every time I pick up my iPhone.

Innovation is something that we often think of in terms of those big leaps.  When I was in sixth grade, my elementary school was renovated, and one of the classrooms was converted into a computer lab.  The first time we walked into the computer lab as a class, we saw a room with about 30 IBM computers.  The only thing that I remember being able to do on those computers was a keyboarding program that began the process of teaching me to type.  For me, this felt like a HUGE innovation.  Little did I know how much more our students would be able to do in the future.

The chapter that I am reading right now is all about software, and one of the big names in the development of computer software was Bill Gates.  Early in the chapter is a quote from him about what an innovator is:

An innovator is probably a fanatic, somebody who loves what they do, works day and night, may ignore normal things to some degree and therefore can be viewed as a bit unbalanced.

Reading about Gates, and many of the others who appear in the book, I can see how this definition certainly applies to innovators.  Here’s the thing though – I think there are times that you could substitute the word teachers for innovators and that definition would still work (I know my friends think I’m a little unbalanced to spend so much of my time with 10, 11, and 12 year olds!).  We are all something of a fanatic about what we do – we’re fanatics for our kids.  We love them, we want to help them learn and grow, and we want them to be successful.  I know that our efforts to get there make us all feel a little unbalanced at times.

One of the things that I have taken away from the book The Innovators is that the transition to the digital revolution was NOT made up of several giant leaps.  Instead, the innovations that have led to the amazing technology that I am able to carry in my pocket has happened because of little steps layered on top of one another.  And more often than not, those innovations were not made by any one person.  People such as Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Robert Noyce, Grace Hopper, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Larry Page (along with so many others) all played important roles in the digital revolution, but the steps of each of these people built on the ideas of others.

We as teachers need to remember that as fanatics, it may not always be easy to get our students to learn and grow as quickly as we want them to.  They may not be immediately successful, but if we continue to innovate in our teaching, if we continue to try to reach kids in new and exciting ways, we are going to be able to reach more of them.  We also need to remember the value in teamwork for our students to learn.  Just as so many of the innovators mentioned above found success by building on the ideas of others, you may find success with a student through strategies others share with you. Whether it be a teammate, your PLC team, someone down the hall, or any one of the multitude of other people in the building, there are others who might have an idea that helps you get that kid to move forward.

What are some of the things that you are fanatical about?  Have you ever tried something new that seemed to be the key to reaching that kid?  Share you experiences 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!