Using outdoor spaces

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

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

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

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

Gentle pushback

How do you spend the beginning of the school year?  What types of activities are you using in your classroom?  Keep in mind that the expectations that you set in the first few weeks will carry throughout the year.

So often at the beginning of the year, we spend lots of time on relationship building.  Those of you who know me will know that relationships are a key part to success (see previous posts here, here, and here).  Relationships alone aren’t enough though (I have a bigger post on this topic coming soon).

Part of what got me thinking about this was a series of tweets from Rick Wormeli – I happened to be on Twitter last Saturday evening, and he had a string of tweets on this topic.  He focused on the first week of school – we’re past that already in my school corporation – but I think that his sentiment can carry over to the first month of school.

What things have you tried for the beginning of the year to push your students in intellectual, academic, or creative ways?  What do you think about Wormeli’s thoughts?  Do you have different opinions?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

One key to student success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make it meaningful

I was recently directed to an interesting article by Zachary Johnson titled “Bored Out of Their Minds” (click here to access the article).  While there were several aspects to the article that I connected with, and lots of interesting data and statistics about students’ engagement, one passage in particular stood out to me.

“But the biggest shift we need,” Rose believes, is much more elemental. “We need to get away from thinking that the opposite of ‘bored’ is ‘entertained.’ It’s ‘engaged.’” It’s not about pumping cartoons and virtual reality games into the classroom, it’s about finding ways to make curriculum more resonant, personalized, and meaningful for every student. “Engagement is very meaningful at a neurological level, at a learning level, and a behavioral level. When kids are engaged, life is so much easier.”

Parts of this quote come from Todd Rose, author of The End of Average.  I read the book last fall, and wrote a couple of posts on the ideas learned from the book here: Part 1; and here: Part 2.  The idea of the book is that the “average person” just doesn’t exist – there is jaggedness to us all.  The implications of this jagged profile for educators is that we have to remember that no matter what label a student may carry, they all have strengths and weaknesses.  We can’t expect our students to fit into specific characteristics that we place on them.

What leads kids to disconnect as they grow older?  One of the things that Johnson brings up is that as students grow older, they have less and less choice in what they do.  I think back to my own educational career – in elementary school we were given great leeway to dig into the topics that interested us.  I was free to choose what books I wanted to read (my sixth grade reading log would show lots of Stephen King novels), what topics I wanted to research for the science fair, and how I wanted to share my learning as we discussed European explorers visiting the “New World” – these are just a few of the choices I got to make.

This photo was titles “Boring Lecture, 1940s”
https://www.flickr.com/photos/dukeyearlook/2076633334/in/photostream/

By the time I got to high school free choice was mostly gone, most classes were lecture based.  Many of my class syllabi were the exact same as the ones that were used for the students before me, and the students before them.  I remember being checked out of my trigonometry class (sorry Mr. Petry), putting forth just enough effort to get through biology, and being bored out of my skull by the filmstrips that were shown on a daily basis in world geography (at least I could get extra credit by bringing in a box of Kleenex anytime we were running low).

So how do we help our students to stay connected to the learning that happens in our room?  The HSE21 Best Practice Model helps us to get there.  We can help provide the relevance for our students to see why it’s important to learn whatever it is that we’re doing in our classroom.  We can give our students choices in how they express their learning.  We can push our students to ask questions and wonder once they have seen the relevance in their learning – getting us to that inquiry driven study that we’re looking for.

As the summer approaches, take some time to reflect on the things that your students have done this year.  What are the things that worked best?  What are the things that fell flat?  With those things that were best, what was it that got the kids excited about learning?  And with those things that may not have been so great, how can you add more relevance and choice so that students may be better engaged?  Remember, as Johnson says above, engagement isn’t about entertainment, it’s about finding ways to make the curriculum more meaningful for every student.  I’d love to help you on that path!  If you have an idea and want someone to brainstorm with, let me know.  Two brains are always better than one!

What are some of your best engagement strategies?  How have you been able to get your students highly engaged in learning in your classroom this year?  Share with us in the comments below!

Guardrails

Have you ever driven in a freshly painted empty parking lot?  There seem to be no limitations, you can go any direction at any speed you’d like.  As a few more cars join you, things become more difficult – lines have to be added, maybe even stop signs or curbs in order to keep us all safe.  These limitations are visible reminders to all of us about the correct way to go, as well as the ways we should not go.

As teachers, we set guardrails for our students at the beginning of the year.  We explain our expectations.  We practice what we need to do.  Over the course of the year, as you become more comfortable with your students, and your students become more comfortable with you, then we may loosen our expectations, give more freedoms, and allow things to slide a bit.

Then comes the end of the school year.  Suddenly things seem to change.  We want to be able to give our students the freedom that they have been enjoying, but we begin seeing poor choices.  Don’t hesitate, even in the month of May, to take time to review your expectations.  Explain your expectations, practice them.  In some cases you might even need to add a few new expectations.  When students do well in the moment, show that you appreciate it.  If they do poorly, review it again.

Just like the parking lot needs additions to keep drivers safe, you might need to add some lines, curbs, or guardrails to keep your students safe.  Even late in the year, a few moments invested can be so valuable.

I’m sure that some of you have things you’ve tried at the end of the year.  What are your best tips and tricks to help your students finish out the school year successfully?  Share with us in the comments below.

When should we try something new?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So…  What’s your why?

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