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 -
Our connections on social media allow us to connect with educators like never before!
Matt Miller –

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!

All means all (Part 2)

Last week I shared the following question for us to think about: Should we be worried about whether the kids are ready for the school, or should we be worried about whether the school is ready for the kids?  Today I am going to share my experiences visiting a few elementary classrooms here in HSE a few weeks ago.  I share these not as a way of saying that our classrooms need to mirror these classrooms, but rather to get us thinking about the learning environments that our students will be coming to us from, and in turn thinking about how the changes at elementary schools might change our practices.

Reggio EmiliaA couple weeks ago I had the privilege to visit FCE and see 2 of the kindergarten classrooms that have transitioned to a Reggio Emilia approach (if you don’t know what that is, click here to learn a little more).  A few of the things that stood out to me while I was there: there were no typical student desks or tables, instead there was a large picnic table (that almost the whole class could sit at) as well as a couple of coffee tables, end tables and in one of the rooms, an old dining room table; seating was flexible, there were chairs, stools, benches, tree stumps, and the floor; everything on the wall was student created, the numbers chart, the alphabet, a color chart with labels, and of course student work, I didn’t see a single thing that you would buy at “a teacher store”; all around the room there were stations with questions to get kids thinking, one allowed students to build their own birds nest, another had a mixture of various items in a pan and they could write about their thoughts; this list could go on!  We were there right at the beginning of the school day, and when the students came in they put their things away and then began to explore the room.  In the time that we were there, we saw high levels of engagement, and almost only heard the student voice in the classroom.  I can hear some of you right now – but that was a kindergarten classroom!  I agree, but are there aspects of that classroom that could translate to what we know about the developmental stages of our 5th and 6th graders?

The next stop was BSE to visit a 4th grade classroom.  When we walked in, students were in the process of coming up with the essential questions for their unit on the Civil War – let me reiterate, Students were coming up with the essential questions.  They had been provided copies of various primary source documents and artwork from the Civil War.  In addition to the primary source documents, the teacher had also created a Symbaloo (if you’ve never used Symbaloo, click here to see what that is) students could use to navigate to preselected safe websites to research additional Civil War information.  As I walked around, students were completely engaged in their work.  As they came up with a question they were interested in, they would share with a neighbor.  Eventually some of these questions would be written on a post-it and added to the essential questions chart paper at the front of the room.  The role of the teacher in this classroom was one of a guide who hopped from group to group checking in to see what they were coming up with and thinking about, and at times asking questions to get them to think deeper.

Both of these classrooms were great examples of HSE21 Best Practices in action.  The learning was student centered, highly rigorous, collaborative, and inclusive.  So often as teachers at the intermediate level we build our expectations for our students based on where the students need to get to.  Intermediate schools in HSE were not originally created to be mini junior highs, and in many districts 5th and 6th graders are still in the elementary school.  Again, I’m not saying that we’re doing something wrong, or we need to imitate the examples above, but based on what we know about the developmental stages of our students, what aspects of these classrooms might be beneficial to our students?

What ideas do you take away from the descriptions of these classrooms?  Are there things you could see translating to your own classroom?  What might it be?  How might the physical appearance of your classroom change as you think about the students that will be joining us?  How might teaching and learning look different in your classroom based on these descriptions?  Are any of you interested in thinking about what a Reggio approach might look like in an intermediate setting?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

All means all

Einstein genius

How many times when talking with others in our school do you hear the phrase “We have to get them ready for ____”?  You can fill in the blank with all kinds of different phrases – things like 6th grade, junior high, ISTEP, or any one of the other things we are trying to get our students prepared for.  It is a valid thing to think about because we do have to prepare our students for the future.  However…

This is how some of the students in HSE are starting their experiences in our kindergarten classrooms.
This is how some of the students in HSE are starting their experiences in our kindergarten classrooms.

How often do you hear the words “We have to be ready for the students that are coming to us.”?  In most schools, the environment of the school is set up for one specific developmental stage.  I know through conversations with many of you that we have at least a cursory understanding of the fact that our 10, 11, and 12 year old students fall all over the developmental spectrum.  It’s one of the things I love about working with 5th and 6th grade students, but it can also be one of the greatest challenges.  While not being intentional, sometimes schools set up a system that expect all students to fit within a certain box, and when they don’t fit, it creates struggles for students, teachers, and parents.  So the question begs to be asked, is our system set up to meet our students wherever they are in terms of developmental needs?

Think about this for a moment: Should we be worried about whether the kids are ready for the school, or should we be worried about whether the school is ready for the kids?

Next week’s post will share with you my recent experiences visiting a few elementary classrooms.  I am sharing these not to say that we need to try to mirror their methods or strategies, but to help us understand the types of classrooms our students will be coming to us from.  One of the things that I feel sometimes happens in education is that teachers of older grades sometimes “look down upon” the teachers of younger grades.  I think there can be great value in learning from the ways that teachers in grades below us meet the developmental needs of their students.

As we move forward, let’s work towards building our expectations for our students based on where they are when they get to us.  We can still strive to move them to where they need to be, but we need to be open to the fact that some of our students do not fit in the box that we have created for them.   Some of those outliers may need us to provide extra support, while others may just need us to get out of the way and let them learn.

What strategies and methods do you use to meet the needs of the student who walks into your classroom on a daily basis?  Are there methods that seem to help your students who are less mature than the rest of your class?  Or, on the other end of the spectrum, what do you do with the students that are much more mature than the others in your classroom?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!


Technology to Make Life Easier

Last week I talked about how living in a digital world makes it easier to connect with people all over the world, or in your own backyard.  In addition to allowing us to communicate so easily, technology can make us all more efficient.  While there are times that technology might seem to make life more difficult, there are so many benefits that it’s hard to ignore.

Its easier to go down a hill

Here are just a few ways that tech can help us transform teaching and learning:

-Field trips – instead of spending weeks planning and preparing for a field trip (think scheduling the trip, collecting money, permission slips, scheduling buses, etc.) you can create a field trip experience during a class period without leaving the room. Skype or Google Hangouts can let you chat with people almost anywhere in the world.

-Grading – instead of sitting at your desk with a stack of papers, you can use online methods to assess your students. In the case of simple assignments, they can be auto-graded through apps and websites.  Something more complicated can be assessed and returned to students anytime of the day.

-Materials – no more digging through file cabinets, folders, or binders. Now you can do a quick keyword search in Office 365 or Google Drive to find the document you need.

-New ideas – you don’t have to spend hours flipping through books to find new ideas, now a quick search on Google or communication through social media could come up with new ideas in a matter of minutes.

To understand their world we must be willing

Those of you who know me well know that I am pretty “techy.”  If any of the ideas above sound like something you’d like to learn more about, let me know.  I can help you find resources to use the digital world to allow yourself to be more efficient.

What tech have you used to make life easier in your classroom?  Share some ideas in the comments below so that others can learn from you!