The bear trap analogy

Today I was sitting with a student who had a rough start to the day.  He had gotten himself into some trouble because of a poor choice he made in class.  We were talking about what happened, and instead of talking about the incident today, the student started sharing with me about an argument he had with his dad yesterday.  It was almost lunch time and this student’s frustration was not with anything that happened today.  It was an eye opener to me – here’s a kid who had been in our building for almost 3 hours.  He was angry about something that happened yesterday, but he hadn’t had a chance to process those feelings with anyone.

As we started talking about what happened over the weekend and how it related to his incident in class, this student came up with a brilliant analogy.  He shared a story about a picnic, and I’m going to try to recreate it here:

Imagine going on a picnic, you have your lunch set up, and then you realize that you left something you needed in the car.  You walk back to the car to get what you need, and when you return there’s a bear eating your picnic lunch.

So maybe the next time you go on a picnic, you set a bear trap to keep the bear away, but while you’re busy watching for the bear, a bird sneaks up, and tries to takes some of the food, but the bear trap chomps down on the bird.

Somet
Sometimes the bear isn’t really here at school.

The student shared with me that in this analogy, the picnic lunch represents the student’s peace of mind.  The bear represents the true thing that the student was truly upset about, for this student it was the anger about yesterday’s argument.  The bear trap represents the student’s anger – for this kiddo it’s set and ready to go off at any time.  The bird can represent that thing that happens here at school that sets off an angry student – it could be another student, it could be something a teacher says, it could be the bus driver, etc.

More often than not, the students who walk in with their bear trap set are not actually on edge because of things that are going on here at school.  Even though this student “went off” here at school, his bear wasn’t in this building.  Instead a bird managed to set him off.

None of us are able to read our students minds, so we can’t always know who it is that is walking around with anger bottled up inside, however we all know who it is in our class that often seems to be the one who does lose their temper.  These are the students that we need to be aware of at all times.  Make it a point to check in with your students who might be that bear trap just waiting to go off.  It seems like more often than not, these students who reach their breaking point do so right before or after a break – sometimes even just the break of a weekend.  It also seems that for most of these students, once they have a chance to talk, a chance to process, they are much more likely to hold it together for the rest of the day (or sometimes even longer).

If you have a student like this in your homeroom, seek them out, check in, build relationships, let them know that you care, and make sure that they know you are there for them.  If you aren’t able to connect with that kiddo, maybe there’s someone else who can – a teammate, another teacher, a counselor, or someone in the office.  We want these kiddos to feel like they have a trusted adult and a connection here at school.  If you find a student who seems to be ready to lose it, talk with them.  See if you can figure out what’s wrong, if they don’t want to talk to you, see if they would like to talk with that other trusted adult.  Keep looking for ways to support the struggling student.  Through these steps, you might be able to help protect the birds who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Have you ever had one of those moments with a student?  They are really upset about something beyond our control, but they reach their breaking point in your room.  What has worked well?  What hasn’t worked so well?  Share your experiences in the comments below.

Civil discourse

It’s a fact that we cannot control what happens every moment of our student’s lives.  We can’t prevent poor choices in the hallway, unkind statements in the lunchroom, or hurtful words on the bus.  However, we can try to right the ship in our own classrooms.

As a member of our building’s diversity team, this message came through loud and clear during a presentation at our most recent Diversity Coaches Meeting.  During this meeting, we spent an hour with Janet Chandler discussing the concept of Civil Discourse.  During the most recent presidential election cycle we saw endless attacks from various candidates, and many were not living up to the decorum that we might hope for from our elected officials.  The facts are that this type of climate has been in existence for a much longer period of time than just the past couple of years.

“A supporter of Thomas Jefferson once called John Adams “a hideously hermaphroditical character.”  Former Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton called Vice President Aaron Burr “bankrupt by redemption except by the plunder of his country,” an attack so heinous that the men dueled, and Hamilton died.

Go through the nation’s history, and the noise and heat in public political discourse have always been there, rising with the cycles of economic distress, immigration and cultural upheaval.” – Ann Gerhart (The Washington Post, In Today’s Viral World, Who Keeps a Civil Tounge?, October 11, 2009).

Although uncivil discourse has been a part of our history, with today’s world of 24-hour news, social media, and technology, the noise of the less than civil statements seems to be nonstop.  So what are we to do when that spills over into our classroom?  Here are some tips that I took away from our conversation last week, as well as a link to a great resource from Teaching Tolerance (the link will be at the bottom of this post).  These tips are in no particular order, but hopefully will provide you with some ideas about how to handle discussions that may be a little difficult within your classroom.

If not us, who?

maslows-hierarchy-of-needsIt would be easy to say that these conversations on civil discourse are not our responsibility, but the fact is, there are uncivil things being said in our school building.  We simply cannot have the attitude of “it’s not my problem.”  When we become aware of issues, we have a responsibility to step in.  I can’t recall, nor can I find, where I first heard this, but the quote “we’ve got to take care of the Maslow stuff before you can ever hope to get to the Blooms stuff” comes to mind.  Our students can’t learn without their basic needs being met!

Set the example, not just the expectations!

It’s easy to talk about expectations.  We can say again and again what we expect.  But if, even once, we slip up, some of our students may follow our lead on this.  In a civil discussion we use titles: Mister, Misses, or Miss; President; Senator; Representative, etc.  If we refer to people without those terms, we diminish their role.  Just looking at my Facebook feed in the past couple of weeks, there have been a lot of people who aren’t using titles.  I’ve had people tell me that they won’t use certain titles because of a lack of respect in a person.  Isn’t that part of the issue here?  If you then read through Facebook comments on political posts, you see less than civil statements being made.  When you use a title, you add a level of civility and respect.  By modeling civility in your classroom discussions, you will help your students understand what that looks and sounds like.  Remember – kids act in a way they they see the adults in their lives behaving.  Modeling civil discourse will help lead to more civil conversations in the hallways.

Facts vs. Alternative Facts

I’ve referred to social media a couple of times, and I’m going to do so once again.  No matter your political beliefs, your party affiliation, etc., I think that any of us who have been on Facebook can agree that there are some outrageous statements being made.  The phrase fake news and alternative facts has become something of a joke.  Earlier this school year I posted a blog titled “Finding the author’s purpose” (if you want to go back to it, click here: http://wp.me/p6BRrr-6J).  In this post, I reminded you of the definition of nonfiction that Beers & Probst used in their book Reading Nonfiction:

“Nonfiction is that body of work in which the author purports to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, an idea, or a belief.” (emphasis added)

In that post, I went on to encourage you to teach our students to have a questioning stance when reading nonfiction.  Every author has a purpose in what they have written – sometimes that purpose is not simply to inform.  Facts can be twisted and manipulated to support either side of the political spectrum, and social media is one of the most likely places to see this play out.  More often than not, the articles with the most extreme language seem to be coming from sites that are extremely liberal or conservative, or from sites you’ve never heard of before.

One important piece of a civil discussion is that it has to be based in fact (I could probably do a full post on the definition of the word fact…).  If you are having a civil discussion and someone shares a “fact” that is truly extreme, or is something that is not agreed on by most in the class, it’s time to talk about the idea of triangulating sources – can we find that fact from more than one source?  Do most people agree on this fact?  These conversations are so important because as Beers & Probst remind us that there is a greater purpose to teaching our kids the nonfiction signposts:

“Far more important than the ability to capture a teacher’s information and thoughts is the ability to acquire information on ones’ own, to test ideas against one another, and to decide for one’s self what notions have merit and which should be rejected or abandoned.”

If you read through the Teaching Tolerance link at the bottom, you’ll find a whole section on the three parts of an argument.  Here’s a quick breakdown:

  1. Assertion – The simple statement that is the basis or main point of the argument.
  2. Reasoning – This is the because part of an argument.
  3. Evidence – This is where you truly back your argument.  This may include statements from experts, statistics, data, or other research that supports you assertion and reasoning.

If you’re trying to have a civil conversation, encourage your students to include all three of these parts of an argument.  If you’d like more info on this, it can be found in Teaching Tolerance link below.

Respect

Probably the most important reason to work with our students on the concept of civil discourse is simply the idea of respect.  We are all entitled to our opinions, and we are all allowed to disagree with one another, but we have to make sure that these conversations are happening respectfully.  Our students need help to learn that it’s okay to agree to disagree.  Again, we can’t control what happens everywhere for our students, but we can do our best to make things right once they come in to our classrooms.

What experiences have you had in working with your students on civil discourse?  What has worked well?  What hasn’t?  Does the idea of having conversations like this in the classroom simply freak you out?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.  We can all learn from one another!

http://www.tolerance.org/publication/civil-discourse-classroom

This class just can’t handle it…

When I was in high school, I remember taking a physics class – I believe it was my sophomore year.  At my high school, physics classes were taught in the wing that had once been the area for “shop” classes.  My physics classroom was this huge open space.  One side had a large garage door that once allowed cars to come into the building for students to be able to learn how to work on them. By the time I was in high school, the “shop” classes had been shifted to the Hoosier Hills Career Center across town, and the shop classrooms had been converted for other uses.  On any given day, I would walk into this classroom, and around the outside of the class I would see various experiments in process.  There were large lab tables – at one point there were lasers on every table that were being used to make holograms.  Another time there were these air rails that were angled and allowed people to measure velocity and acceleration based on the time it took an object to travel across the rail.  In one corner, there was Newton’s Cradle built out of cable and bowling balls and hanging from the rafters high up in the room.  I could go on…largest-newtons-cradle2-500x334

As a sophomore, I would walk in and see these awesome experiments that would pique my curiosity.  I made it a point to arrive to physics class as early as possible to check out these things.  I remember wondering how you could use a laser to create a hologram, or just how the timing controllers worked on the air rails.  But then, the bell would ring, I would make my way over to my desk in the middle of the room in front of the chalk board, have a seat, and take out my textbook.  You see, as a sophomore, I was in the basic physics class.  Those experiments were not set up for our class, but were there for the AP Physics class that also met in the same classroom.  Now, I don’t want to imply that we never got to do experiments in my physics class that year, but it was nothing on the level of what the AP class was doing.

Thinking back to my experience as a sophomore in high school in my physics class, I know that some of those experiments probably were things that I did not yet have the true theoretical understanding to be able to carry out and understand, but that doesn’t take away how bummed I was to see cool things set up in my classroom and feel as though I could not participate.  The reality is though, there were probably variations on many of those experiments that would have tied to the standards that my basic physics class was expected to cover.  There were probably ways my teacher could have provided scaffolding and support to allow the students in my basic physics class to participate in those cool experiments.  Would we have gone as deep with the experiments?  No, but we would have had that hands-on experience that was sometimes lacking from my physics curriculum that year.

This memory comes to me when I occasionally hear teachers say things like “My regular class just isn’t ready for this.”  Or “this group is my resource group, so they may not be able to do that activity.”  (I’ll admit – I may have made statements like this when I was a classroom teacher).  That fear that students aren’t ready or aren’t capable can hold us back from such cool learning opportunities for our students.  If you’re worried about kids not being ready, you should know that there are some second-grade classes in this district that have been doing some of the same experiments that I have seen happening this year in some of our sixth-grade classrooms.  I’m sure there were adaptations to make the learning accessible for a second grader, but if a second grade student can successfully carry out activities that our sixth grade students are doing, isn’t it worth finding ways to adapt our activities so that all our fifth and sixth grade students can do them?

Whether we’re talking about a socrative seminar, a hands-on experience, an experiment, or a project, we need to makes sure that all our students have the opportunity to learn in exciting ways.  Think critically about how you might be able to adapt your class so that no matter what level your students are at, they have the opportunity to be challenged.  How could you scaffold and support those students that some might say just aren’t ready?  If you’re struggling to find ways to integrate some of these higher-level experiences into your classroom, find someone to collaborate with – it could be with a teammate, a teacher down the hall, a teacher in another grade level, a TDS, one of our resource teachers, or maybe it’s one of our related arts teachers.  We have lots of great people working in this building, and through working together, we can make sure that all our students are able to participate in amazing learning opportunities!

Also, just so that you aren’t too worried about my long-term well-being, I apparently liked that basic physics class enough to go on and take the AP Physics class the next year.  I was able to participate in all those cool experiments that I was so curious about as a sophomore.  I learned how to create a hologram of a die using a laser, I got to do those experiments with the air rails while learning about acceleration and velocity.  I also remember AP Physics as the most difficult class that I took that year, but at the same time it was the most interesting and rewarding because of the hands-on experiences that we had throughout the year.

The cool stuff, the fun stuff, those are the things that get students excited about learning.  Those are the things that students will talk to you about when they run into you in the future.  Those are the activities that stick with them as they get older, that they can go back to and recall what they learned while they were in your classroom.

Do you have memories similar to mine?  How did it make you feel to not be able to do some of the “cool” things that your teachers did with other classes?  Have you ever talked to your students who don’t get to do some of those things because they “just aren’t ready?”  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

The impact of words

watchsuccessChances are that you have seen the quote to the left before – it’s hanging in our building outside the gym.  According to the poster by our gym, the quote is attributed to Frank Outlaw.  As I was researching the quote, I found it attributed to several people including Lao Tzu and Mathatma Gandhi, among others.

For the past couple of years we have been on a path of shifting assessment practices in an effort to focus more on the learning process, rather than the outcome or finished product.

Combined with that, I know that many of us have given thought into the idea of mindsets.  Many of you have talked with your students about having a growth mindset as compared to a fixed mindset.

Recently I was reading an article in Education Week by Starr Sackstein (@mssackstein on Twitter).  Sackstein is a high school English teacher and teacher coach in New York.  She is also the author of the book Hacking Assessment – part of the Hack Learning Series.  I have not read the book myself, but have listened to Sackstein talk about her shift in grading practices, as well as follow her on Twitter where she an active proponent of making a deliberate shift in assessment practices to focus on the learning our students accomplish as opposed to the grades they earn.

In the article I was reading, she shared her beliefs that the language we use matters as much as, if not more than, the practices we employ.  She goes on to say “What we say and how we say it has a big impact on how students and other stakeholders respond to our choices.”  Take a look at this chart from her book:

grades-vs-assessment

If, as educators, we use the terms on the left side with our students, or their parents, what are we saying we value?  I may be going out on a limb here, but to me the terms on the left are focused on the product.  They are a fixed mindset concept that doesn’t allow room for growth.  In addition, it says to students that they don’t need to learn anything from their mistakes.  These terms symbolize an ending to the learning, and each time we use those terms in our classroom, we are telling our students that we are more concerned with the product.

I know from conversations that many of you have already shifted your thinking about assessment, and are truly focused on the process.  Using those terms that appear on the right side of this chart will truly show our students and their parents what we value.  Assessing students where they are, providing feedback, and encouraging students to try again will help students to understand that you value their learning, not their grade.  It will help students see their challenges as a way to grow and move towards proficiency.

Think about the language you use in the classroom with your students.  How can you shift the words that you use in the classroom to show that you truly value student growth?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

The Apple Teacher Program

How many of you like to play games?  Maybe you like board games or card games that you can play with your family and friends.  Maybe you like to play video games on the PlayStation or Xbox.  Or maybe you are more into games that you can play on your iPad or phone.  One thing that has become a trend in a lot of the digital games is the idea of earning badges to symbolize advancement in the game.  People love to compete for those badges.  Some teachers have even integrated this gamification into the learning process.  Today I want to share with you something that Apple has developed that can allow all of us as educators to collect our own badges, and maybe learn some new things in the process.

A couple of days ago I saw a post on Twitter from an educator that I follow saying that he had just earned a new badge in the Apple Teacher Program.  I didn’t know much about the program, but a quick Google search took me to Apple’s site with more information about the program (click here if you want to check out the site!).

Reading over the short pieces of information on that site, I learned that through this program you could learn how to use built-in apps to “enhance creativity and productivity” in the classroom.  As you complete lessons, you can take a quiz, and if you pass the quiz you earn a badge.

I decided to sign up so that I could learn more about the program.  Once I was signed up (almost instantaneous – you sign up with your Apple ID, and then you receive an email with the link to sign in to the Apple Teacher Learning Center), I was able to find links to learning resources for teachers, inspiration for new things to try out, and links to earn badges that are based on the iPad or the Mac.  Since we are 1:1 with the iPad, that is where I went first, and without having to participate in any lessons I was able to pass quizzes to earn a couple of the badges.

There are options to earn general badges for the iPad, to learn about productivity, and to learn ways to integrate creativity with the iPad.  There are also badges for specific apps like Pages, Keynote, Numbers, iMovie, and GarageBand.  When you select a badge you want to earn, you have the option to go to a Starter Guide with tons of information about apps – I just skimmed through looking for things that were new to me.  What I also found interesting about the started guide is that it instructed you on how to play with the app in order to learn to use it better.  We all know that we learn better by doing!  In addition to the starter guide, there are links to online help for the app, or even options to sign up for a live workshop at the Apple Store.  Once you feel like you understand the app, you can take a quiz and earn a badge.

In addition to the original options for badges, once you complete all the badges you earn an official Apple Teacher logo, as well as access to additional learning resources and badges.  I wanted to share this with you because I found it interesting.

Have any of you ventured into the Apple Teacher Program in the past?  There seem to be tons of great (and free) resources that could be used in the classroom.  Share with us if you decide to sign up, and then let us know as you add badges to your collection!

Reflections from Tuesday

I hope that all of you were able to take something positive away from Tuesday’s PD: HSE21 Inquiry in Action.  I know that whenever I attend a PD such as that, I feel overwhelmed.  There are so many great ideas, and sometimes some things that just don’t seem to fit for me right now.  Trying to figure out what to do with the information overload can be a bit daunting.

One of the things that I have definitely learned throughout my years of PD – if there was something good, I better try it soon.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen something good at a conference, but I’ve found an excuse to not implement it right away (I don’t have time, I’m not sure my students are ready, etc.).  When I put those awesome ideas off, they end up getting lost in the black hole of professional learning – that’s where all great ideas that we never try go.

So… With that in mind, here’s some simple advice.  Think about the questions that the presenters were asked to frame their sessions around:

  • What can you do to transform your classroom tomorrow?
  • What can you do to transform your classroom next week?
  • What can you do to transform your classroom in the long term?

When you get a chance to reflect on your learning from Tuesday, try to find the nuggets that you might want to use to answer those questions.  What is the thing that you can try tomorrow (or on Monday if you’re reading this the day it posts)?  Commit to it and give it a shot.  If you know you can’t do it tomorrow, set your own goal of when you want to try that new thing.  Put it on your calendar, share with a colleague, or do something to hold yourself accountable.

Next, set one or two long term goals based on something you learned on Tuesday.  Maybe take your idea and collaborate with a colleague, or use the ideas you learned to plan a new unit for your class.

Remember that reflection is one of the most important pieces of the learning process.  Tuesday was nonstop without much time for contemplation between sessions.  Make sure you take a little time while everything is still fresh in your mind to look back on any notes you took, or ideas that you came up with.

As you reflect, share with us one takeaway from your sessions on Tuesday.  What is the one thing you plan to try?  Or tell us what you have already tried.  We’d love to hear about your learning, and your excitement from the day.  Share with us in the comments below.

How do we respond to student behaviors?

In last week’s post we discussed the role of trauma in student behaviors we see.  Each one of us can think of one or two students who manage to get under our skin and push our buttons.  What we have to remember is that for some of these students, they are acting out due to something that we cannot control – they have been through some type of trauma in their life.  It leads to behaviors we don’t understand, and that makes it difficult for us to respond in the appropriate way.  The goal of this post is to think carefully about how we respond to those students so that we are intervening in a way that offers support.

Imagine for a moment that you were to look up from your computer right now, and see this:

Imagine this bear walked into the room you’re in right now. What would you do?
Imagine this bear walked into the room you’re in right now. What would you do?

What would you do?  How would you react?

For our students who have been impacted by trauma, every adult that they meet is a bear like the one you see above.  That includes their teachers!  For these students, they are constantly watching for the dangerous bear.  They may not be able to interpret an innocent or neutral look, action, or touch from their teacher or others at school as being benign.  The brains of our traumatized youth lose the ability to understand the difference between safety and danger, and will falsely signal danger and hostility EVERYWHERE.  As a result, these students behave in ways that are not considered appropriate in the normal school environment.  They lack the language skills to be able to describe how they feel, so they act out in ways that we might describe as reactive, impulsive, aggressive, withdrawn, or defiant.  These challenging behaviors have become coping skills that help them survive in abusive or neglectful situations.  Remember from last week’s post, children who have dealt with trauma are living with their focus on the survival portion of the brain (fight, flight, or fright).  Since all of life is about survival for these students, they generalize the behavior to all other environments – even school where we think they should feel safe.

So when students are acting out, especially students that we believe (or possibly even know) have lived through one of the traumas addressed last week, we need to shift our perspective in how we react.  Oftentimes we see this behavior as willfully acting out or disrupting class, or consciously refusing to engage with learning.  Instead, we need to see that:

  1. These responses are based on personal experiences
  2. Students are seeking to meet their needs
  3. They have difficulty regulating emotions
  4. They lack some of the important skills to be successful in school
  5. They believe that adults cannot be trusted

troubled-childrenWe need to put into place supports and other interventions to address these issues.  Instead of seeing the behavior and asking (or even thinking) “What’s wrong with you?” we need to shift our mindset to “What happened and how can I help?”  In order to be sensitive to trauma, we must recognize the prevalence and impact of trauma in our students’ lives and create a framework that provides support, is sensitive to the unique needs of students, and is mindful of avoiding re-traumatization.  I’m sure that some of you are looking now for a list of exactly what to do in each situation.  It doesn’t exist.  Each child is different, their needs are different.  You must take the time to offer your support, your help, and let these children know that you truly care for them.  You do this through paraverbals (tone of voice, body language, volume, and cadence of speech).  Deliberately slow your speech, soften your voice, choose a kind tone, and be supportive of the student.  Students who feel supported are more likely to feel safe.

I think we can all agree that when students feel safe, they are more likely to act in ways that are safe, so how can we support that?  First, we need to ask ourselves if the student is fearful, anxious, frustrated, or tense.  Next, our responses to inappropriate behaviors need to be predictable, and our students who struggle need to have an agreed upon safe haven (maybe the resource room, maybe the counselor’s office, maybe with another teacher) where they can go to work through their complex emotions.  Finally, when that student is ready to return to class, we must find an opportunity to rebuild rapport with that student (this step is quite possibly the MOST important in helping students to feel supported).  Continue to let them know you care, and that you are here to help.  Ask them to let you know how you can help.  They may not have an answer today or tomorrow, but eventually they may have an idea that will support them.  We also have to remember – for students to behave appropriately, we must model and teach the behavior we want to see (this is not the same as telling students what we expect).

In order to help students feel connected in schools, we should work hard to build relationships – especially with the students who struggle the most.  Greet each student at the door of your classroom every day.  Be aware of your student’s likes and interests (these can be used as a distraction in times of crisis).  As I’ve said before, know your kids and love them for who they are.

While we can’t protect our students from all the evils of the world, we can be allies, mentors, and role models.  The relationships we build with our students will help them as they grow, recover, and begin to heal from their trauma.

What experiences have you had with students who have been through trauma?  Have you found strategies that seem to be successful?  Let us know what has worked for you in the comments below.

 

Incremental improvement

without-continual-growth-and-progress-such-words-as-improvement-achievement-and-success-have-no-meaning

If you were to draw a path to success, what do you think it might look like?  I recently saw this visual, and it made a lot of sense to me:3dd260bf-ecde-4bdd-b88d-ebdcd9bbc539

I think we all would agree that the path to success is not a straight line.  We’ve all had bumps in the road on our own path to where we are.  In the version of success that appears on the right, there are some ups, some downs, and some times in the totally opposite direction of where you want to go. When you understand that this is what the path to success looks like, you also understand the concept of incremental growth.  These are the small steps we take to get closer to our goals.  When we focus on incremental growth, we don’t care as much about the external factors, and instead focus on the things that we can control.  Hopefully you will see the benefit of the rest of this post if you hear questions like this in your classroom:

  • How many points is this worth?
  • Can I earn extra credit?
  • Did you grade the tests yet?

Questions like these are a sign that students care only for an extrinsic motivator – the grade.  The problem with our students having this mindset is that when students are motivated solely by a grade, they will find ways to get the work done and earn the credit, but they will completely miss the educational value of the lesson, and will not retain anything.  The best way to get them past these extrinsic motivators is to shift the mindset of your students.  Work to get them to focus less on the external motivation, and more on the internal motivators.

The first step – make sure that students understand that grades are just another data point, nothing more or less, that tells teachers and parents a little about where students are right now.  When you attach rewards or consequences to a grade, you train the students who do well to expect an external motivator, and you completely miss that kid who might be doing everything in their power just to keep their head above water, and never getting anything for it.  When you talk about report card grades, make sure students know that you are much more concerned with their day to day efforts than you are with their overall grade.

So what are some of the ways that you can give this message to your students?  Check out the points below:

Improving through effective feedback

If you want your students to value growth, you have to give them feedback that shows you recognize their growth.  Normally this can’t be shown just in the grade on a paper, but rather through the words you speak to a student.  During work time, be walking around, observing what students are doing, ask questions of them, and sharing your thoughts.  Since we all know that our students have a jagged learning profile (see the last post on “Average” students), we should also be aware that every child is at a different place, with different goals and different needs.  Our feedback should focus on what’s most important to THIS child at THIS time.

One of the other keys to effective feedback – focus on the future, not the past.  Instead of saying “You shouldn’t have done it this way; you should do it this way…” you might want to try saying “Next time, I’d like you to do it this way because…”  Our words totally change the feedback and focus on incremental growth moving forward.

Improving Results

One of the best ways for students to be able to see their improvement is to have a way to reflect on their learning process easily.  A great way to do this is through portfolios.  In this day and age, the portfolio can be totally digital, and easily viewed, shared, and managed.  Apps like SeeSaw, or a blog, can allow students to share their work and create a reflection in writing, audio, or video of what they have learned in their work.

Depending on the task, what you might ask students to include in their portfolio may vary, but some of the things that would probably be valuable to include would be:

  • A title that describes the Big Idea or concept
  • A picture or video of the process or final product from the activity
  • Answers to reflection and synthesis questions that guide each child to successfully demonstrate their understanding of the concept.

The reflection questions should vary depending on the activity and be based on your learning goals, but the idea is to get students to reflect on their learning.  If nothing else, ask them “What did you learn?”  If they can reflect and articulate that, their retention will be that much stronger.

If you feel that students are lacking in their answers to the reflection questions, there is a simple solution.  Follow up their answer with “Tell me more.”  This simple statement gets students to think a bit deeper, and if you model this enough, your students will eventually begin answering your questions in a more complete way without you having to ask.

Critical Peer Feedback

If you are the only person in the classroom who is able to provide feedback, some things might get missed.  We all know there’s only so much time in the day!  The key is to get students to understand that when they are looking at each others work, they are not being judgmental, rather they are looking for specific things that could be improved.  In order to help students understand how to do this, here are some steps you could introduce to them:

  1. Tell your peer that you have an idea of where they might improve. This way they know that you are just trying to help them make their work better.
  2. Start or end with a specific compliment! Let them know what you like and why you like it – when they know you appreciate something they have done, it’s easier to take some critical feedback.
  3. Give your suggestion as a question rather than a statement. Instead of telling your peer what to say, you could ask “have you thought about doing this…” or “I wonder if others might understand it better if you…”

Hopefully you see a couple of ideas here that you could implement in your classroom to help your students move towards an attitude of incremental improvement.  Maybe you noticed that a big key to incremental growth for students is feedback.  Meaningful feedback is the key to incremental growth for all of us!

If you decide to try out any of these strategies in your class, I’d love to hear how it goes!  If you’ve tried anything like this, tell us about it in the comments below.  What worked well?  What were your sticking points?

What is the “average” student? (Part II)

Last week I shared with you a little bit about the idea of averages.  From astronomers in the 16th century, to the work of Quételet in the 1800s, to Lincoln’s efforts to standardize the military during the Civil War, averages have a long history of being used to understand humans both physically and mentally.  During World War II, the research of Gilbert Daniels showed that averages were not a great idea for design of the cockpits of airplanes because no pilot fit the mold of the average man.  As a result, the Air Force banned the use of average for design, and began demanding design to the jagged edges.  This led to adjustable foot pedals, helmet straps, flight suits, and seats (things that seem like a no-brainer today).

airforce-dimensionsThrough the choice to move to flexible design, our Air Force was able to move forward in ways that they were not able to do when design was based on the average.  Now I know that some of you probably read last week’s post and may not have seen an immediate connection to education.  If you recall, in last week’s post I mentioned Todd Rose, a Harvard professor and a high school dropout, who is doing some interesting research in the science of individuality.

During a TEDx Talk titled The Myth of Average (if you have a chance, this is a really good TED Talk with some real implications for the education of all students), Rose talked about the educational repercussions of using average to design learning.  Sometimes our classrooms are like the airplane cockpits at the beginning of World War II.  There aren’t a lot of options for adjustments, and because of that, there are students who struggle.  Here’s the dirty little secret though – it’s not just the kids at the bottom who struggle in school.  When you look at dropout rates, a significant portion of high school and college dropouts aren’t leaving because it’s too hard, they’re leaving because it’s too easy and they aren’t challenged or engaged.

Over the summer I had a video post to the blog titled “An Open Letter to Educators.”  More recently I have been reading the book The Boy Who Played with Fusion, the story of Taylor Wilson, a 22-year-old who built a fusion reactor at the age of 14.  Both talked about a need to embrace new formats of education in an effort to be more individualized and prepare our students for the real world.  The implication I saw was that this individualization isn’t just for the kids that we identify on the low end of the spectrum, or those on the high end of the spectrum, but also for the kids we identify as the “typical” student.

No matter how we might identify our students (typical, below average, above average), our students come to us with jaggedaverage-student learning profiles.  Some are strong in math, but struggle in ELA.  Others have a talent for memorizing facts in social studies or science, but when you try to get them to think deeper, and solve the problems of our scientific world, they just can’t do it.  What if our education system was designed to adapt to the jaggedness of our students instead of expecting our students to adapt to the school setting?

The HSE21 Best Practice Model is a great method to get there.  Through student-centered approaches, transfer of learning, cognitive curriculum, and fundamental classroom conditions, we can develop an environment that accepts students where they are, and helps to move them further.

As you continue to design your classroom conditions for your students, be thinking about their jagged profile of learning.  How are you making the learning environment more flexible?  What are you doing for that science genius who struggles with the reading?  They may be awesome with the hands-on portion of science, but when it comes time to read and learn about theories, they just don’t get there because the textbook is too challenging for them.  Our goal has to be one of constant incremental growth, both for the kids who are struggling in a lot of areas, as well as those who seem to have it all together.  Remember, we’re all jagged!

Technology can help us to get there.  With an iPad, each of your students has the ability to translate text, look up vocabulary, or even have text read aloud to them.  With programs like NEWSELA or Achieve 3000, we are able to have our students read materials that are at the appropriate level for them, be able to understand what they have read, and in turn have an opportunity to grow.

Flexible design in learning is the school equivalent to adjustable seats!  These adaptations will nurture the potential of each individual in your classroom.  And remember, adaptations aren’t just for those on either end of the spectrum.  That kid that you think of as average probably has a jagged profile of learning too, with strengths that we can tap into, and weaknesses that we can target for growth.  The adaptations that we’d make for anyone with a label can work for those without any specific label too – and as the teacher, you are allowed to make the choices of what is best for your students!

What might flexible design in education look like in practice?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Get rid of specific numbers on assignments (3 pages, 5 paragraphs, 4 signposts, etc.) and shift to requiring quality work instead.
  • Allow modifications on assignments.
  • Create a loose structure for projects to allow more student autonomy in what they are creating and how they are making it.
  • De-emphasize standardized test scores or other systems where averages are used to judge students.
  • Let students select the strategies that work best for their own learning (that student who struggles with reading might be able to listen to a podcast or watch a video on YouTube and think just as deeply as that star reader who can learn from the text).
  • Change the pace so that certain students can finish earlier and have enrichment opportunities and others who are behind can have more time to work and not feel like all they are doing is to catch up.

Now, I know some of these ideas sound crazy, or scary, or hard to put into practice.  We can’t change everything at once, but we can move incrementally to try to develop an environment that our students will be able to have more success.  Just like setting goals for students to grow, we have to set goals for our own growth, and then take steps to get there.

But isn’t it worth it?  Who knows, that kid who is struggling in your class right now might be on the path to dropping out, but they may have the potential to be a professor at Harvard – or any one of millions of other successful paths.  They just need to have the opportunity to embrace their individuality!

So what are your thoughts?  What successes have you had when adapting to be better suited to the individuality of your students?  What challenges do you see in this way of thinking?  Let us know in the comments below!

What is the “average” student? (Part I)

99piI’m not sure how many of you listen to podcasts, but for me, it’s almost all that I listen to – in the car, on a run, working on the yard – if my earbuds are in, I’m probably listening to a podcast.  I used to love to listen to talk radio, but the commercials drove me crazy, not to mention that I had to put up with topics that didn’t interest me to get to the interesting stuff.  One of the great things about podcasts – you only have to download the ones you find interesting.  If you don’t like a topic, don’t download it.  There are a couple of podcasts that I listen to no matter what the topic is.  The other day I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible.  It’s a show all about design, but looks at it from all kinds of perspectives – sometimes architecture and infrastructure, sometimes history, sometimes visuals, even a series on vexillology, which is the study of flags (I know, I’m a geek!).

the-end-of-averageOne of the most recent episodes was titled “On Average.”  Much of this episode is based on the work of Todd Rose, author of The End of Average.  One of the things that I found most interesting was that Rose, who is a professor at Harvard, is also a high school dropout.  His research on the science of individuality is based on his learning that nobody truly fits the average – more on that later.

So where does the idea of average come from?  While there are some mathematical references that go back to ancient history, the first scientific documentation of the idea of averages comes from astronomers in the 16th century.  In tracking the orbits of planets, astronomers would scratch the lens of a telescope in 2 spots and keep track of the amount of time it took the planet to move.  Astronomers realized that individual measurements could be highly inaccurate based on who was taking them, and other factors.  However, by taking many measurements and finding the average, the data seemed more accurate among multiple astronomers.

Fast forward to the 1800s, and a Belgian mathematician named Adolphe Quételet.  He decided to take a tool primarily used by astronomers and apply it to people.  He started with a data set of thousands of Scottish soldiers, and found that the average chest size of the soldiers was 39 and three-quarters inches.  He considered this to be the “true” size of a soldier.  Quételet extrapolated this data to say that if all lived in optimal conditions, they would be average.  Over time Quételet’s ideas expanded to find the normal rates based on all kinds of data sets – marriages, murders, suicides, etc.  Quételet went so far as to say that the individual person was synonymous with error, while the average person represented the true human being.

One of Quételet’s fans was none other than Abraham Lincoln.  During the Civil War, Lincoln had the army take data on soldiers to assess them both physically and mentally.  The data sets were then used to decide on appropriate food rations, design of weapons, even the size of uniforms.  Prior to the Civil War, every soldier received a uniform that was custom made.  With the number of uniforms necessary, this was no longer feasible, so the soldiers were broken into average sizes (small, medium, and large) so that uniforms could be mass produced.  Today we buy clothes based on sizes that relate back to these measurements from the armed forces.

Average based design became the way for the military, and from the time of the Civil War until World War II, everything built for the military was designed based on the average size of the soldiers.  Whether we’re talking about uniforms, bedding, food rations, weapons, vehicles, and as they came into use, airplanes, all were built to specifications that matched the average size data.

During World War II, the Air Force noticed a huge decline in the performance of pilots.  As the first air based war, this was a problem.  Initially blame was placed on the pilots, then on the trainers.  In time, the Air Force realized the issue was the size of the cockpit.  The cockpit didn’t fit the pilots.  As a fighter pilot, when split second decisions can make a difference between survival, the Air Force saw that they needed to find a new average.

Researchers at Wright Air Force base in Ohio were tasked with finding new averages.  Members of the team traveled from base to base taking measurements of pilots on 140 dimensions (some were the obvious – height and weight – while others were much more unique – length of the thumb or the distance from a pilot’s eye to his ear).  One of the members of the team was Gilbert Daniels, a recent graduate from Harvard in the field of anthropology.  As he was taking the measurements, Daniels started to wonder how many of the pilots truly were average.

Daniels took the data from a set of just over 4,000 pilots.  He found averages on the 10 measurements that would be considered the most important in terms of the design of an airplane cockpit and set up norms based on a 30 percent range (the average height in the study was 5-9, so the range was 5-7 to 5-11).  He then he went back to the individual data.  The assumption going in was that most pilots would fit the definition of the average pilot.  When he compared the individual measurements of all the pilots in the data set, he was stunned to find that not one of the pilots fell within the average range on all 10 dimensions.  When they narrowed the study to only 3 dimensions, less than 4% of the pilots met all 3.

The research showed that there was no such thing as the average pilot.  Instead the data looked a little like this:

airforce-dimensions
Rose describes the variation that shows in these measurements as Jaggedness – which represents that fact that everyone has variations from the norm or average.

In response, the Air Force made significant changes to their design process.  No longer would they buy airplanes that had cockpits that were designed to the average.  The Air Force banned the average for design of airplanes!  Instead they needed planes to be designed to the edges.  Prior to World War II, the pedals, seats, helmets, controls, and anything else in a plane was static, it could not be adjusted.  Following the results of this study, the Air Force demanded adjustable seats, foot pedals, helmet straps, and more.

When the change was made, guess what happened?  Pilots got better!  No longer did they have to adapt to the size of the plane.  Now all planes can be adapted to the size of the pilot.  Think about it, how many of you would purchase a car that did not have adjustable seats, mirrors, or steering wheel?  These adjustable features came about thanks to the Air Force’s research on averages.

I know that this post hasn’t gotten into the education implications yet – I promise that’s where I’m going next week.  To help next week’s post make more sense, we needed some background information about averages.  Next week we’ll get into how the research on the science of the individual translates into the classroom, and what we can do to design education to the edges, not just to the average.

What thoughts do you have?  Do you already see a connection between this backstory and your students today?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.