Using outdoor spaces

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

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

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

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

Solar eclipse memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One key to student success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cognitive load

How many times have you been in a conversation with a colleague, and they started giving you suggestions?  Each one sounds great, you think they could work in your room, but then you walk away from the conversation and nothing has stuck.  All those great ideas went in your ears, passed through your brain, and then disappeared into the ether.  No amount of thought can bring them back, and you feel embarrassed to go back to the colleague because you think that they might be offended that you didn’t remember the first time.

Created by Marshall Vandruff

For all of us, there’s this idea called cognitive load.  Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory.  When you were talking with that colleague and they were sharing more and more ideas with you, it was causing your brain more and more of a cognitive load.  In that moment, your brain is kind of like a cup – it can only hold so much new information before it begins to overflow.

Now, if each of us struggles cognitively to hold on to multiple ideas in a short conversation, how does this translate to our students?  In a lot of the research on cognitive load in children, there is a clear difference between adult and child knowledge.  Because of the differences in knowledge, children have to make a greater effort to simply process what is coming in, which means that their cognitive load will be exceeded more quickly.

I know that there were times as a teacher when I might have a student ask me a question.  As I was answering the question, I might give more detail than was entirely necessary in order for students to better understand.  Then, a few minutes later the student would ask the same question.  At the time, it was frustrating – “Come on, I just told you that!” but I now understand that by giving the extra details, I was causing too heavy of a cognitive load on my students.

So, what does that mean for us?  As we talk with students – whether we are giving them feedback on classwork, discussing their behavior, or making suggestions, we need to keep it short and to the point.  In a recent post from Matt Miller, he suggested using the sandwich technique:

 

  • A compliment (positive feedback)
  • A change they could make
  • Another compliment (more positive feedback)

Is it possible that we could suggest 17 corrections?  Sure!  But if we make all 17 at one time, the student will be overwhelmed, and none will get done.  Pick your main point, your main concern, and focus on that.  Once the student has shown that they understand your initial change, then maybe attack one of the other 17 things.

Meaningful feedback to students is one of the best ways to increase learning outcomes for our students.  Give that feedback in the moment – while you’re walking around and peaking over shoulders, and keep it to the point.  Students will learn and grow.

What are some of the strategies you use to give feedback to your students?  Share with us in the comments below.  If you’re looking for a few new ways to give quick feedback to your students, check out this awesome post from Matt Miller:

10 strategies for lightning-quick feedback students can REALLY use

When should we try something new?

How many of you are like me, you see something cool that someone else is doing and you think “I want to try that!”  You may be hearing about a cool activity that a colleague is doing, or it might be seeing something on one of your social media accounts that you think would be great for your classroom.

Sometimes, once we are “into” the school year, it can be tempting to see a cool idea and think “I’ll look at that in the summer.”  Maybe you even go so far as to save the idea as a bookmark, or send yourself an email to keep in a folder in your inbox.  I know that happens to me.  Then what happens?  If you’re anything like me, you might actually go back to that folder or bookmark, but all the context is gone, and you don’t remember why you were so excited about the idea.  Or even worse, you might forget to ever go back to the bookmark or folder!  Please tell me that I am not alone in this!

Earlier in the spring semester, I was participating in a massive open online course led by the author of The Innovator’s MindsetGeorge Couros.  I’ve mentioned it in the blog before.  Couros is all about innovation in education – he defines innovation as things that are new AND better for learning.  During one of the activities for the course, there was a conversation between Couros and a couple of his guest hosts.  The question came up – “When is it best to try things that are new?”  While many of us would feel the temptation to wait until our next group of students so that we can set up expectations and “get it right,” Couros and others encouraged a different mindset.  Think about your current students.  How excited are they when you switch things up?  Something as simple as a new seating arrangement can be the biggest deal to your class.  If a new seating arrangement has such an impact, how might a new and exciting teaching method go?  How much might that accelerate the learning in your classroom?

As an added bonus, you have the benefit of trying something new with a group of kids that you actually know.  Does this activity seem to motivate that kid that you’re always trying to pull along?  Maybe you have a winner of an idea that you want to continue to play with and tweak.  On the other hand, if your kids don’t seem that into it, you know that the idea might not be the best, and you can quickly shift gears back to something that you know will probably work better.

At this point in the year, with so many things going on, and the general stress that goes with the approach of the end of the year, it can be comforting to say “I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”  But here’s the thing, as our student’s attention begins to wain – they see the sunshine and recognize the warm weather, they start thinking about their spring/summer activities that are getting started – it can be difficult to maintain that high level of engagement in the best of situations.  Some of us, without thinking about it, react to that by lowering the cognitive load of our students.  We think that slightly lower expectations may lead to higher engagement.  So, how’s that working for you?

I know that these were choices that I sometimes made when I was in the classroom.  An extra video clip instead of a more challenging activity.  Maybe a simplified version of an activity so that my students could just get through it.  I think back to those choices, and wonder how many of my students I may have short changed in the last few weeks of school.

Keep pushing yourself to look for the new and better activities.  Instead of lowering expectations for students to keep them engaged, throw in a new and exciting activity to amp up the learning in your classroom and hopefully lead to higher engagement for all your students!

What cool new things are you thinking about trying as the end of the year approaches?  What hesitations do you have for trying something new at this time of the year?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

What’s your why?

The vast majority of the people reading this blog are in the educational realm.  Whether you are a teacher, a counselor, an administrator, or you work in a school in some other way, something called you here.  Take just a moment to think about it, what was it that brought you to this point?

For me, when I think about what brought me into education, there are a few moments in my lifetime that stand out.  I remember my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Gromer.  With her, the Maya Angelou quote to the right comes to mind.  There aren’t very many specific things I remember happening in her classroom, but I remember that I always felt welcome, and valued, and important.  I felt that if I wasn’t there, someone missed me, and some value was lost from the class.  While I had great teachers before her, and great teachers after, nobody ever made me feel as important in the classroom setting as Mrs. Gromer.

In high school, one of my stand out teachers was Señora Cease – she was my Spanish teacher for all three years that I took the class.  While I may not be fluent in Spanish today, I learned some valuable study skills that I don’t believe I would have learned anywhere else.  Learning a language came hard to me, and while some friends were valuable parts of my studying, her efforts and ideas in class gave me skills that translated to so many other areas.

Then I think about Professor Katz.  Easily the most entertaining professor that existed – I’ll put money on it.  He was a history professor at IU.  I had the luck of knowing him when I was young, which meant that when I walked into his class, I became an easy target of his.  In a lecture hall full of 400 students, he would find me no matter where I sat and ask my opinion.  While I am a fairly confident person now, I’m sure that term didn’t always describe me. On the first day of class he asked me a question, to which I responded in a noncommittal way.  His response “Are you asking me?  I was asking you.”  Professor Katz helped teach me to be confident in all that I do.  While many of the small groups were led by instructional assistants, I had the privilege of being in the group that Professor Katz led himself.  You had to know your stuff – there was no hiding from him.  In addition to confidence, Professor Katz taught me about preparation.

All of these pieces of my history in education are part of what I brought to my classroom.  I wanted to bring the warmth that Mrs. Gromer had – I wanted my students to know that they were valued and important in my classroom.  I would work to provide scaffolding to support students who were struggling, just as Señora Cease had done for me.  And I would challenge my students at times – push their thinking when I thought they were just giving me surface level knowledge – just as Professor Katz pushed me.

I’m sure there are other things that come from my history that led me to the role that I’m in now, but now, I have an even more important why.  I look at each of my kids.  They have such unique personalities.

Lainey is the quiet rule follower.  Last year she actually received a reminder from her teacher – just one – and she cried about it as soon as she walked in the house.  We still can’t talk about it for fear of another evening full of tears.  She’s also very intentional, to the point of perfection on some things, which causes her to work slowly and sometimes not complete her in class work or feel as though she is falling behind her peers.

On the other hand, there’s Brody.  He’s not in school yet, but he’s been going to preschool.  Brody’s curiosity is almost indescribable.  He’s constantly asking questions – Why? Why do they call it baseball?  What does that word mean?  Sometimes it’s almost exhausting to answer all the questions he has.  To go with that, he loves to play rough – there are a couple of times I thought he was going to take me out by the knees, and even though he’s grown up with a sister, and almost all the kids in the neighborhood around us are girls, he finds ways to get them to play rough as well.  I expect Brody to be a kid who will probably rush through things.  While on spring break last week, he was always asking what we were doing next, so excited to get on to that, that sometimes it seemed that he couldn’t enjoy what we were doing in the moment.

And I know that both Lainey and Brody will have challenges as they grow older.  School can be a difficult place for kids.  Lainey will have times that her perfection will cause her to fall behind others, while Brody will be so concerned about getting on to the next thing, that he’ll probably hand in a paper half completed with several mistakes.

I have hopes and dreams for these two.  I want the best for them.  And I know that if that is the way that I feel, then the parents who trust each of us with their children have similar types of hopes and dreams.  The faces that sit in our classrooms each day are their everything, and they want the best for their kids as well.

So while Mrs. Gromer, Señora Cease, and Professor Katz may be the past why that pushed me into education, and led me to be the teacher that I became, they aren’t the why that will push me moving forward.  The past isn’t going to push me to strive to go further.  The past isn’t what’s going to help me continue to learn and grow as an educator.  Instead, I rely on my kids to be the catalyst for that growth.  And each of the 1,000 kids who walk into our building each day becomes the fuel that keeps that learning and growth going.

So…  What’s your why?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.  I’d love to hear what it is that drives you to do what you do.  Education isn’t easy, and we all need that why to push us!

Building on our strengths

When you get up in the morning, what are you excited about?  For most of us, the thing that gets us going in the morning is also the thing that drives us throughout the day.  It’s also typically something that we feel confident about, that we think we do well, and we enjoy doing.  Most importantly, that thing is also something we would identify as a strength.

I feel that often in education, we get drawn into thinking about weaknesses.  As a teacher, we have to identify weaknesses in our students in order to find ways to support their growth.  As an administrator, evaluations often include identifying weaknesses of the staff in our building, and planning to lead to future growth.  We get caught in a cycle of looking for the weaknesses around us.  If our strengths are the things that motivate us, isn’t it safe to assume that our learners would be motivated by their strengths?

A few years ago, as an ongoing activity throughout our unit on Ancient Rome, I provided students with a list of possible ways they could articulate learning.  These choices involved aspects of Roman society and culture.  I was amazed by the projects that students were able to create based on their strengths.  I had students designing roman outfits based on research because they were interested in style and design.  I had a student write a children’s picture book about the Roman Empire because they felt they were good writers and illustrators.  And probably my favorite, I had a student, Patrick, who had struggled all year long but designed and built a scale model of a Roman Aqueduct that was SPECTACULAR (it’s still in my office today) because he liked to build things.  While we were doing in class activities for learning, students were also researching for these projects.  They were able to select a project that fit their strength, and the results were amazing.  Having students present something that they had learned that also fit with their strengths was such a rewarding experience for me, and I’m sure led to a greater transfer of learning for each of them.  I would guarantee that none of them would be able to answer any of the questions we had on a summative exam, however I would also bet they could tell you about what they created for that project.

Knowing how strengths can motivate all of us reminds me to be on the lookout for strengths as I am walking the halls.  I am challenging myself to look for the strengths or everyone, and recognize those strengths!  I challenge you to do the same.

Be thinking about the data that you collect on students.  Don’t just look for patterns in terms of weaknesses.  Also look at the data that supports their strengths.  Give them the opportunity to build upon those strengths.  Most of our students will choose a career path based on their interests and passions.  Wouldn’t school be a better place if we gave our students the opportunity to accentuate their strengths?  I’m not saying we ignore areas where a student needs to grow, but I can tell you that all the time that my sophomore English teacher had me spend diagraming sentences is not what has led me to be a good writer, a good reader, or any of the other skills I have developed.  All it did was make me hate sophomore year English (sorry English teachers!).

Take a few moments in the coming days to seek out the positives in the students that are in your classroom.  Identify the things you see, and share it with your students.  See how they react to some strength-based feedback.