How do we take them further?

Reading NonfictionOn Monday I was able to attend a PD session that was led by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, and one of the things they said early in our day struck a chord with me:

“Some teachers don’t realize that if they just stay out of the way, the kids who do well will keep doing well.  How do we take them further?”

This is such a challenge in our district.  Most of our classes are filled with compliant students who generally do what we ask them to do, they show gains in the normal way, and then they move on to the next grade.  But is that what we want for our students?  Show gains in the normal way?  Don’t we want them to gain spectacularly in the time we have them?  For most of these students, they will hit a wall sometime.  It might be a high school AP class, it might not be until college, and there may be some who can get by until they are out in the “real world” in their job/career.  But eventually their act of going through the motions won’t be enough because they won’t be able to truly think deeply and problem solve.

I think we can all agree that nonfiction reading skills are important.  But research shows us that strong nonfiction reading skills are one of the highest indicators of success.  Unless you’re a literary critic, a novelist, or a teacher (I know, we’re teachers), you probably only read fiction as an escape, but you read nonfiction every day.  That means our kids need the tools to be able to dig deep in the text, think through the text, and figure it out.

And here’s one of the amazing things – if you teach the kids the tools, and you give them the time to read a text, think deeply about it, and talk with each other, they will start asking themselves the same questions (or possibly even better questions) than the ones you would be asking.  During the PD, Probst said “Our goal should be to get our students to be able to have deep conversations about their reading without needing our help.”  Don’t you love the idea of students walking out of the building at the end of the day so tired because of all the deep thinking they have been doing, and you walk out with a smile on your face?  Our students should be doing the hard work, not us.

Too often as teachers we spend our time filling in the blanks for our students, and that is hard work!  We give them the background knowledge, we ask the questions, and then what do we get back?  Low level answers without much deep thinking.  When you ask the question, that leads our students to believe that there is one answer, and if they’re lucky they can find it in the back of the book – that’s how school works, and we all know our students can play school.  But if students were to ask those same questions, on their own, the conversations will be so much deeper.

Sound good?  I think so, but where do we start?  Beers and Probst suggested that the initial starting point would be with their 3 main questions:

  1. What surprised me?
  2. What did the author think I already knew?
  3. What changed, challenged, or confirmed what I knew?

As your students are reading, have them code what they read (this means you need something that they can write on, some post its, or a digital format that they can annotate).  Beers recommended using an exclamation point for question 1, a question mark for question 2, and the letter c for question 3.  Then, after they have read, have them talk in small groups about their thinking.

Next week I plan to go a little deeper with some more of the information that Beers and Probst shared on Monday, but as you get your year rolling, start with the 3 questions.  These 3 simple questions will make the reading more personal and relevant.  It will push thinking and learning to a much deeper level! (If you want to see a great video of where these questions can push students, scan the QR code on page 88 of your copy of Reading Nonfiction – it’s a 3 minute video clip of 6th graders in a 1:1 classroom).

If you haven’t yet read the book Reading Nonfiction by Beers and Probst, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  There is so much there to take your reading instruction to a greater level, and this instruction can take place in ALL classrooms.  We all use nonfiction reading skills in our lives, no matter what subject we teach, to help ourselves increase our knowledge and understanding.  Let’s help our students develop the skills to be more successful nonfiction readers.

Share your thoughts in the comments below.  Have you used the 3 questions in your nonfiction instruction?  What changed for your students?  What things were great?  What struggles did you have?  As a community of teachers, we are also a community of learners, and we can learn most from one another!

What our classrooms need

Summertime is one of my favorite times of the year.  I’m able to spend more time with my family, play with my kids more, and have the freedom to do some of the things that there just isn’t time for during the school year.  With all of that fun, I also make it a point to spend some time learning too.  During the school year I don’t always have the time to read the books that have been piling up on my desk, or delve deeply into new ideas and ways of thinking.  Luckily, the summertime allows just that.

HSE21 Best Practice Model
HSE21 Best Practice Model

This summer, in addition to the learning that I did on my own, I was able to participate in a couple of different conferences, and the learning opportunities that were provided to me there continued to reaffirm that we are on the right path.  Throughout the posts that I have made to this blog in the past year, I have constantly referenced the Best Practice Model.  When we look at the HSE21 homepage, we see the following statement to describe learning in HSE:

We must ensure that our students develop a strong academic edge through experiences with rigorous academic content and effective information, communication, and technology skills. Our students’ future education and career choices require critical thinking, creative problem solving, and the ability to work together with others to successfully compete in today’s world. In HSE classrooms, students think deeply and critically about content knowledge and complex issues. Students regularly collaborate and actively investigate real-world problems. Hamilton Southeastern Schools is dedicated to implementing curriculum and learning opportunities that build the skills and abilities necessary for our connected society. When students graduate from HSE Schools, they will be ready for their future and equipped for excellence. (from http://www.hse.k12.in.us/ADM/academics/hse21/)

So…  What does that mean for our classrooms?  Here are some things that I think we all should expect to see in a classroom:

  • Voice – In the summer before my senior year at IU, I took a class, and the mantra of my professor was “Learning is social!” This is just as true today as it ever was.  Our students need the time to co-construct their knowledge.  They need time to share their learning, and to learn from one another.  Empower your students to speak up in your classroom so that they are able to use their voice when they move beyond the classroom.
  • Choice – Students need as much choice as possible. Allow your students times to choose what they learn, how they learn, what they produce as a result of their learning, etc.  How many of you struggled early in your undergrad years, only to do much better as you moved along in college?  Why does this happen to so many?  It’s because as a freshman or sophomore in college, so many of your courses are prerequisite, not something you chose, rather something you are required to take.  What happened as you got into classes that were more directly related to your degree?  If you’re anything like me, you did much better.  These are the things you were interested in and the learning was more relevant for you.  The choices we give students helps make their learning more relevant!
  • Time for Reflection – John Dewey is quoted as having said “We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience.” That time for reflection is so important!  We need to be intentional in building that time in for students, and we also need to build it into our own practice!  I know classrooms are busy places, and we are busy people, but a few minutes of reflection allows us to really think about and understand what we have learned.
  • Opportunities for Innovation – When our students are passionate about something, the learning never stops. If our students are playing a video game and get stuck, they aren’t going to give up – they’ll find a way to beat it (maybe a YouTube video, help from a friend, a cheat code, etc.).  How can we create that attitude for learning?  Help students to find the curiosities in your subject matter, or give the students the time to explore their curiosity, and then let them innovate in that space!
  • Critical Thinkers – One of the hallmarks of the educations system has been the idea of compliance – this came about as part of the factory model of education. This factory model and expectation of compliance does not allow our students to be critical thinkers.  Our students need to be taught how to respectfully ask questions and challenge ideas of others for the sake of helping us all move forward. Hemingway once said that “Every man should have a built in automatic crap detector operating inside him.”  Our students need this skill in these days of social media and internet hoaxes.
  • Problem Solvers/Finders – While at a Pure Genius workshop this summer I heard a story of a high school student who saw that families who were part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) who were often unable to use their benefits to purchase healthy food for their family. The student began working with the Noblesville Farmers Market to find a way to allow families to use their SNAP benefits at the farmers market.  As part of her project, the student created wooden coins that she designed and printed using technology available to her at Noblesville High School.  Now families can take their SNAP card to the farmers market, swipe the card for the amount of benefits that they wish to use, and receive market currency in that amount to be spent on items at the farmers market.  One thing I know about most kids – they recognize things that they feel are not just.  Allow them to identify those problems, and create learning opportunities in the classroom that allow students to find solutions to the problems they see in our world!  Then, help them take that learning outside of the classroom.
  • Self-Assessment – Earlier I talked about the importance of reflection – on the day to day level, that reflection allows us to better understand new information, but on a long term level, that reflection allows us to see our own growth. A portfolio is just one way that students can look back and see their own growth.  Students can see where they were and how far they have come.  It is a valuable skill for all of us to be able to identify our own strengths and weaknesses.  We need to provide students with opportunities to assess themselves.  What might a digital learning portfolio look like for your class?  If you’re struggling to visualize it, let me know and we can try to come up with a plan that would work for your classroom!
  • Connected Learning – When we encourage students to be problem finders, we might run into some issues. What if the problem that students want to solve is something you know nothing about?  You might feel there is no way you can guide them to a solution.  That may be true, but in today’s connected world we can use technology to connect to experts who are able to support your student’s learning.  Though Twitter, Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, and others, our students can create connections that allow them to learn.  Imagine if your students were connected with students at other levels with more background knowledge, or maybe even with people who have gone much further.  Who would you rather learn about space from?  A teacher or an astronaut?  With social media like Twitter, that astronaut is only 140 characters away!  With technology we can teach students how to facilitate their own learning.

In addition to all these factors, there is at least one other factor to success for our students in the future.  Our students need to be good people.  I don’t care how smart you may be, if you are unkind and disrespectful you will never find the same level of success.  In most schools we talk to students about their actions as a choice.  Remind them that it is always important to choose kind (if you follow me on Twitter, you will see the hashtag #choosekind a lot this year!).

What have I missed?  What can you expand upon?  Keep the discussion going in the comments below!  Enjoy your remaining weeks of summer, and be thinking about what you can do to make your classroom the best environment possible for your students!

Engaging & empowering our students

Last week I shared with you some data on student mental health issues, anxiety, and student engagement.  I closed the post with these three points:

  1. Mental health concerns in our students are rising.
  2. Levels of engagement decline as our students grow older.
  3. Even with increased focus on standards, performance on standardized testing has remained stagnant.

So what can we do?  I’m sure that all of you have noticed these patterns in our own classroom, but knowing the pattern is only part of the task of finding a solution.  In last week’s post I shared the work of two college professors.  Going back to their work, I hope to share a couple ways we might be able to help fight anxiety and lack of engagement.

Peter Gray, the psychology professor from Boston college, feels that the key to learning and growth for our students is free play:

Children today are less free than they have ever been.  And that lack of freedom has exacted a dramatic toll.  My hypothesis is that the generational increases in externality, extrinsic goals, anxiety, and depression are all caused largely by decline, over that same period, in opportunities for free play and the increased time given to schooling.

So as a school, what does play look like?  For one it means we have to be sure to value recess/physical activities during the school day.  There is clear research that one of the benefits of physical activity is increased student engagement.  Think about your classroom on an afternoon where we did not have outdoor recess due to weather.  What are the engagement levels like?

Several recent research studies have looked into increased free play time in the school day, and the results suggest that students with regular recess behave better, are physically healthier and exhibit stronger social and emotional development.

Knowing these facts, does that lead you to think about changing what you do when you return to the classroom on a day when we are unable to go outdoors for recess?  Hopefully you can think about finding a way to squeeze in some free play on those days.  If not free play, then a few short brain break activities to get the kids out of their seat and moving.

And what about the days that students already get their recess?  Does that mean we don’t need to look for other opportunities for play?  Many of our teachers have been doing outdoor activities here at school this week.  I’m sure that they would share that the students are loving the activities they’ve been doing – they are active, engaged, and empowered in this learning environment.  My question though: Do we only save activities like this for the end of the school year?  Or do we try to integrate play into our lessons throughout the year?  How can we make use of our outdoor space, our small and large group instruction rooms, or even just the hallway to get the kids up and playing as they are learning?

Next we have the issue of engagement.  For the purpose of this piece, I am defining engagement in school based on the Schlechty’s Center for Engagement definition:

  • The student sees the activity as personally meaningful.
  • The student’s level of interest is sufficiently high that he/she persists in the face of difficulty.
  • The student finds the task sufficiently challenging that she believes she will accomplish something of worth by doing it.
  • The student’s emphasis is on optimum performance and on “getting it right.”

Is it engagement when we work hard to get students into content that we have selected for them?  You may be able to get their attention, but if it’s based on extrinsic goals (like a grade) the motivation may not last.  So here are some ways you might be able to increase motivation in your classroom:

  1. Students are more motivated academically when they have a positive relationship with their teacher.
  2. Choice is a powerful motivator in most educational contexts.
  3. For complex tasks that require creativity and persistence, extrinsic rewards and consequences actually hamper motivation.
  4. To stay motivated to persist at any task, students must believe they can improve in that task.
  5. Students are motivated to learn things that have relevance to their lives.
HSE21 Best Practice Model
HSE21 Best Practice Model

As you spend time thinking about bringing more inquiry into your classroom, as you work to better incorporated the HSE21 Best Practice Model, you will begin to notice increases in your student engagement.  When we provide our students with challenges, with activities that are relevant to their lives, when learning is rigorous and based on inquiry-driven study, when students are able to apply their learning in collaborative ways, when we work to incorporate more of the HSE21 Best Practice Model we will see increases in student engagement.  In fact, if we work towards truly relevant and rigorous study students will not only be engaged, but actually will be empowered to take their learning to levels that we can’t possibly imagine!

As we approach the end of the year, take some time to reflect on things you have tried that have been new.  What activities have led to increased levels of engagement?  What ways have you been able to get a kid truly excited about what they are learning?  Now, think ahead – how can you take the things that have been successful and expand on them for next school year?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Moonshot Thinking

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. ~John F. Kennedy

5 Paragraph Essays & Newspaper Articles vs. Blog Posts & Copywriting

If I were to ask you to write a mission statement as a teacher, what would you write?  If it could only be one sentence, what are the things that would be most important for you to share in your beliefs about our students?  For most of us, I think somewhere in there we’d say something about preparing our students for the future.  That means we have to think about what the future may hold.  I know I’ve shared the quote below, but remember what Thomas Friedman says about today’s workers:

Daily Quotes (2)

While we may not know exactly what the future may hold, we know that there are some things that our students probably will not be doing much of in the future.  Stop and think for a minute – when was the last time you wrote a five paragraph essay?  ELA teacher please don’t hate me for saying this, but really, when was the last time you needed that skill?  I say all of this knowing that when I last taught ELA, we always had at least one research paper that was submitted in the five paragraph format.  Now, I agree that there are aspects of a five paragraph essay that are essential – being concise in our argument, having a clear structure for our writing, etc., but are there other formats of writing that could allow us to teach these same skills and at the same time be innovative?

What about another one of those writing activities that appears in many classrooms (including mine in the past) – the newspaper article.  Now, I will say that I have a subscription to the Indy Star, and while I can’t say that I ever read it cover to cover, and that there are some days that I don’t get to it at all, I do love having the option to sit down and read the paper.  However, the statistics on print media are noticeable.  I did a quick google search and found the charts below.  There’s less money coming into print media in the form of ad revenue, and the number of workers employed in newspaper publishing has been in pretty steady decline.

Now, I may be ruffling a few feathers here – and by no means am I saying that I think our students should never write a five paragraph essay or a newspaper article, but given the probable lack of a need for those skills in their future, what might be more valuable ways for our students to spend their time?  Two things that come to mind – blog posts and copy writing.

More and more, newspapers are trying to reach readers in formats other than print media.  I see IndyStar writers pop up in my Twitter feed sharing copy trying to get people to click the links and go the their site.  I see news articles online that are formatted more like a blog than a newspaper.  Two ways to help our students be able to reach the greater world would involve writing blog posts (like what you’re looking at right now), and learning a little about copywriting (the art and science of writing words used on web pages, ads, promotional materials, etc., that sells your product of service and convinces prospective customers to take action).  Now, I know that our students aren’t trying to sell things, but the skills of writing good copy will help our students be better overall writers.

HSE21 Best Practice Model
HSE21 Best Practice Model

Throughout the year you have heard us talk about the HSE21 best practice model.  You’ve also seen examples of the “Less of this, more of this” charts.  Again, I’m not saying we should throw out the five-paragraph essay or the newspaper article.  But we also need to think with an eye towards the future.  What types of writing will be the most valuable for our students when they leave school and move on to a career?

Think about it, a student in your class could write a blog post on something they have been learning about.  Other students (or teachers, parents, family members, or maybe even experts in a given field of study) would be able to read and respond in the comments to their thinking.  Students would be able to share their blog site with their friends and family members.  Parents wouldn’t have to ask the dreaded “What did you do at school today?” because they could have looked at the most recent blog post and say “I saw in the most recent post to the blog that you are learning about …, tell me more about that.”

It’s also been proven through study after study that ELA scores are impacted most by reading and writing across the curriculum (teaching reading and writing skills should not only be the job of the ELA teacher).  What a valuable expression of learning it would be for our students to write a blog post about their experiences in math, art, science, or gym (or any other subject!!!).  And another great thing about blog posts – they don’t have to be just words.  WordPress (and most other blog sites out there) will allow pictures, video, and audio, and if I really wanted to, I could create an entire post from my WordPress app on my cell phone or my iPad.

What are your thoughts on student created blogs?  Can you see a way that you could enrich the learning of the students in your class through writing about it?  What about copywriting?  Curious how it could fit into the writing activities you are already doing?  Wanna talk more about this?  Share your thought below.  We can find a structure to make it work in your classroom!

Selling your content to your students

Sketch of Sir Ken Robinson
Sketch of Sir Ken Robinson

“Nobody else can make anybody else learn anything.  You don’t make the flowers grow.  You don’t sit there and stick the petals on and put the leaves on and paint it.  You don’t do that.  The flower grows itself.  Your job, if you are any good at it, is to provide the optimum conditions for it to do that, to allow it to grow.”

I love the quote above from Sir Ken Robinson.  It goes with the old saying of “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t force him to drink.”  Recently I was sitting in a meeting with a wise member of our district curriculum team who pointed out that it’s true you can’t make the horse drink, but you can make sure they are thirsty.  Sometime getting our students to learn is a bit like selling them something, and that something is the content you are trying to get your students to learn.

A few weeks ago I shared a TED Talk from Daniel Pink, and now I’m going to use some of the ideas from Daniel Pink’s book To Sell Is Human.  Think about how you might take his messages on his career in sales and translate it into selling content to your students.

  1. Let them tell you why they agree with you. If your students are able to find a connection between your message and their own life, they will take whatever you have to offer.  Set up your lesson so that students have no choice but to agree with you.
  2. Decide whether to pitch with facts or questions. How do you persuade someone to agree with your opinions?  Most of us have figured out that basic persuasion typically requires a combination of facts and opinions.
  3. Remember that your digital audience is wider than ever. Think about the last great lesson you did – if your students were excited about it, you probably had a teammate or colleague asking about it.  Word of mouth spreads it from your students to other students, to colleagues, parents, and administrators.  And in a digital age those activities can easily go viral.  If you have an audience excited to see what’s happening next, they’ll be thirsty for whatever you have to offer.
  4. Be a servant leader. Relationships!  You know it works.  Did you have a good experience the last time you bought a car?  Some of that experience is because the salesman was able to build report with you, and then followed up on your needs.  Students will feel the same way – if they feel there is a relationship with you, they will listen to more of what you have to offer.
  5. Help people find their needs. One of your jobs as a teacher in this new age is to identify problems for your students to solve that cannot be solved by going to Google.  If your students trust you to help them find the problems that need to be solved, they’ll listen to you when you help them learn how to evaluate solutions.

I know that most of us didn’t go into education to be able to “sell” our students information.  We want our students to have a desire to learn.  But just as we can’t force the horse to take a drink, we have no way to force our students to learn.  In addition to the sales techniques listed below, the HSE21 best practice model is a good guide for creating the conditions in our classrooms and the learning environments that will cause our students to be thirsty for the knowledge we have to offer.  Work to include the core pieces of the best practice model in your classroom everyday – don’t reinvent your lessons, just find ways to remodel them to bring the aspects that will sell our students on our content.

HSE21 Best Practice Model
HSE21 Best Practice Model

How have you sold knowledge to your students?  What strategies have you used that made your students excited to learn whatever you had to share with them?  Share some of your successes in the comments below!

PLNs – Professional Learning Networks or Personal Learning Networks – you choose!

Many of you may know that one of my personal passions is cooking.  I learned to cook basic things when I was in elementary school.  When I was in 4-H I had multiple county fair champions, and sent a few things to the State Fair.  In our house now I do most of the cooking because it’s something I enjoy doing.  Over the years I have developed my “favorite” meals that I have found out there and adjusted to suit my tastes, or the tastes of my family.  Last fall however, I noticed that I had a series of 10-12 things that we were just cycling through.  It was hard to choose anything to cook because I was getting bored with the options I had.  I needed something new.  Then, I happened to be listening to an interview of J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, the author of The Food Lab, and I knew I had to get his cookbook.  The guy was a self-described science nerd who became a chef and uses the scientific method to perfect his recipes – sign me up!

The book is almost 1000 pages, includes awesome step by step pictures and instructions for hundreds of recipes, along with scientific descriptions of what happens during the cooking process, explanations of experiments to find the best option in preparing certain dishes, and suggestions for home cooks to be able to carry out techniques that normally are reserved for professional kitchens.  In the several months that I have had the book, we have upgraded our meals in the Behrman household.  The only complaint?  I think I need to run a few extra miles every week with the food we’ve been eating (it’s been hard not to have a second serving with most of these meals!).

Now, some of you may be wondering what this has with a PLN, but I promise, I’m going to try to make it connect.  When you think about what you need to grow as an educator, what comes to mind?  Jot down the top 3 things that you think of.  Really… Take a moment to jot down those top 3.  This post will still be here when you get it done.

Now, if I were to poll you, there would be a massive variety of choices that would make it impossible for any administrator to come up with a school PD plan that would meet the needs of all of you.  Instead, here’s what I suggest– think about your passions, your areas of continued growth, and get learning!  You could talk to your colleagues about things you’re interested in.  There are tons of experts within your building and throughout your district.  If you’re looking for someone to help you in a specific area, ask around.  Maybe your administrator can point you in the right direction.  By sharing our knowledge and sharing our curiosities, we can become an environment that encourages lifelong learning.

You know when you find something exciting!  You know when you have an idea that you just have to try out!  Just like I became excited about new cooking with The Food Lab cookbook, you can find your own ways to grow as an educator, and hopefully the rest of this post will help with that!

Our connections on social media allow us to connect with educators like never before! Matt Miller - https://www.flickr.com/photos/126588706@N08/14562418440/in/album-72157645530010989/
Our connections on social media allow us to connect with educators like never before!
Matt Miller – https://www.flickr.com/photos/126588706@N08/14562418440/in/album-72157645530010989/

A couple weeks ago I shared links to some education hashtags for Twitter (click here to go back to that post).  See if there are any that tie to your 3 things you jotted down earlier – want to learn more about standards based learning? #SblChat might be perfect for you!  Interested in educational technology? Check out #edtech!  For things specific to your grade level, you might want to check out #5thchat (5th grade chat) or #6thchat (6th grade chat).  If Twitter isn’t your thing, you might try a search on Pinterest (yes, even I have an account!).  You can also search Facebook, and often you can find great videos on YouTube that may help you learn.

If you aren’t quite sure what you want to learn about, then you might have to take some other steps to find a path – you could ask your students what you should learn next.  Find out what interests them, what learning methods work for them, or what they’d be excited to do.  You could also check the blogosphere.  You’ve heard me reference blogs in the past – blogs like Edutopia, A.J. Juliani, Cult of Pedagogy, and The Cornerstone for Teachers are a few that I like.  Most of the blogs I have found have been through links from blogs I already followed.  If you find a blog you like, subscribe, or use Feedly as a single place to keep track of them all!

I know that some of you may be thinking that it’s the end of the year and you don’t want to mix anything up.  Think about it though – wouldn’t it be better to try something totally new with a group of students you already know, as opposed to trying it with a new group of students you don’t know yet?  Isn’t it easier to make adjustments to your teaching when one of the variables – students – is a known quantity?  Don’t put the pressure of learning something new on your future self!  There is no better time to try something new than right now!

Finally, one suggestion that might make some of us a little uncomfortable – seek out people with beliefs that might be different than you.  Being brave enough to learn from those who challenge you can be one key to your continued growth.  Find someone who challenges you and talk with them with the purpose of understanding their thinking, not getting it to line up with yours – you might learn from them, and they might learn from you.

What things have you learned through your professional learning network?  Share with us in the comments below!  We’d love to hear about it!