The kids we worry about

Over the past 2 weeks, I have been spending a lot of time in meetings. These meetings bring our MTSS (multi-tiered systems of support) team at school together with classroom teachers. The goal is to hold an initial meeting to review the beginning of the year data on our students. For each class, we look at the class profile on NWEA assessments, current guided reading levels, and any other data a teacher has to bring about their students. We spend time in these meetings discussing what the data tell us about our students, and how we might provide the best possible support.

We always love to begin our conversations around strengths, but ultimately, a big chunk of our time is spent discussing students of concern.

I know that when I was in the classroom, I always had a running list in the back of my mind of kids I worried about. If any of you are like me, you probably have a list as well. But what do we do with that list? After a recent learning session with Cornelius Minor, I found myself pulled back to his book We Got This, and there’s a section that caught my attention based on the conversations we’ve been having in our MTSS meetings. On page 38, Cornelius shares a resource called “Thinking About Kids in My Classroom.”

What I love about this resource, is that it takes what many of us may do – having a running list of our students of concern in the back of our minds – and asks us to make it more formal. So, here’s what I challenge you to do in the next couple of days – On a piece of paper, a post-it, the notes app on your phone, or wherever works for you, make a list of the kids you worry about. This might include kids who are struggling with curriculum, or maybe something in their assessment data is concerning, or it might be kids who don’t seem to “fit in” with the rest of your class, or maybe you see that they are acting out in your classroom. I believe there is so much power in making an actual list of the kids we’re worried about. When the list is mental, it’s easy to just forget about someone, or almost feel like you’re playing whack-a-mole with the issues that seem to be the biggest at the moment. But when we make the list more formal, when we write it down, we have to reflect on what we can do to create an environment where all our students can thrive. As I reflect on the work of Cornelius Minor, I’ve learned that maybe those students on that list are not successful because there is something about our system, the way we do school, that fails a subset of people.

As Alexander Den Heiher reminds us, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” If a whole subset of our students is unsuccessful in school settings, we might need to engage in the hard work of looking at what about our environment needs to be changed.

So, once we have our list of kids we’re worried about, what we can do is think about how we might sort them into groups. Examples of groups Cornelius shares in We Got This include (but are not limited to) “kids who are below benchmark”, or “kids who are still learning English”, or “kids who can’t stop talking.” As you learn more about your students, consider all the other things these students might have in common. The more commonalities we identify, the easier some of our later steps might be.

Next, it’s important to think about what students need to do to be successful in your class. When was the last time you took a moment to define your own success criteria? And even more importantly, have you defined this for your students? If you can’t define what success looks like in your class, how could your students who struggle possibly know what they need to do?

Once you’ve defined success criteria, Cornelius asks “what barriers keep some students from achieving that success?” This is why relationships matter so much. We have to know our kids well in order to define our barriers. Sometimes identifying those barriers may mean we need to work with the family of our students.

Once you have identified some barriers, you can make a list of ways that those barriers could be removed. What could you try? What could you implement? Then, treat your ideas as little experiments. As you try things, pay attention to how it impacts your students. Does it make a difference? If not, try a different strategy to remove that barrier. If you’re struggling to figure out ways to remove barriers, seek support from a colleague. Maybe they have an idea that you haven’t tried yet! Have you ever created a formal list of the kids you’re concerned about? How has that changed the way you reflect on your students? If you’ve never utilized this strategy, what ideas or questions are you left with? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Channeling student behaviors

It’s always interesting to me watching students at the beginning of a school year. We are already approaching the end of the first month of school here in our school district, and while many of our students have settled into the typical routine, some are continuing to struggle. I’m trying to reflect on a couple of my recent learning opportunities as I think about some of the behaviors we’ve been seeing and how we as a school might respond to those behaviors.

A couple of weeks ago, I was able to participate in a training called Restorative Leadership: Authority with Grace. Much of this training was spent learning about and then reflecting on how to lead our sphere of control in a restorative way. One basic concept that fits with other thinking recently is that we should separate the deed from the doer by affirming the worth of the individual while disapproving of inappropriate behavior. We must first see our students as people. This allows us to identify their strengths, as well as areas for continued growth. Challenging behaviors are often telling us of some unmet need, and when we look at it that way, it’s easier to separate the child and the behavior.

Then last week I had the privilege to spend a day learning from and with Cornelius Minor. If you aren’t sure who that is, he is an educator who is dedicated to working with teachers, school leaders, and others to support equitable literacy reform across the globe. If I had to distill my thinking about the day into one thought, it was a question he posed at one point. He asked, “How are we making sure that our institutions are more hospitable to kids?” A train of thought that I’m thinking about because of this has to do with the systems that exist within the school culture. Cornelius pointed out that in schools, some of our approaches do not see kids. Kids know that this isn’t ok, which causes them to act out. In turn, we treat kids as if they are broken, and we give them labels. He went on to share that disproportionately, this can happen to our multilingual students, our students with learning disabilities, and our marginalized populations. If we go back to the beginning of the chain and try to fix the fact that kids are not always seen or heard in the school environment, then maybe we break that chain.

Then, today, I happened to be over by the bookshelf in my office and I noticed a book I haven’t picked up in a long time. Early in my career, the members of my fifth-grade team read the book Teaching with Love & Logic: Taking Control of the Classroom by Jim Fay & David Funk. As I reflect on all these pieces of learning from my many years of public education, it keeps bringing me back to the relational side of management, leadership, and most importantly for this post, discipline.

What if we started thinking about how we handled problematic behavior differently? If the goal of equitable work in schools is to create a more hospitable environment for kids, we must go back to another one of the basic beliefs of restorative work: We respond to situations WITH people, not TO them, FOR them, or NOT at all.

As educators, we need to think of ourselves as “child watchers” who are observing our students. What do we notice about them? What makes them happy? When do they get frustrated? What seems to motivate them?

If you’d like an idea of how to keep track of the things that you are learning about your students, there are a couple of options:

  • You could use a page in a notebook for each student.
  • You could create a spreadsheet with a list of all your students and begin filling in things you notice.
  • You could use a paper with several boxes on it and use each box for a different student (this was a method I used – I would have 8 boxes per page, which meant 3-4 pages for a class).

If you notice that there is a student’s page or box that isn’t as full as the others, it’s time to create some opportunities for learning. Seek that student out for 2 minutes a day to talk about anything not related to school. It’s amazing how much you can learn in a few short stints of time.

The more we notice about our kids, the more we can use those things to our benefit. As an adult, if you have a student who talks out in class and causes disruptions, the easy solution is to remove them from their group, seat them on their own, or possibly even have them leave the room. And how does that feel to the student? That we are doing something to them, not with them. And ultimately, we must remember that the word discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina which means instruction or knowledge. Discipline isn’t about what we do, it’s about teaching how to do the appropriate thing.

What if instead, we took a moment of our day to have a conversation with a student about the impact that behavior has on the class? What if we turned it into a topic for a community circle where other students can share how talking out or creating disruptions impacts them? Next, you might be able to process with the student during an unstructured time of the day (in the hallway as you’re walking to related arts, during a passing period, or a quick chat during recess) about how their behavior has impacted others. Then, what if you find ways to feed that student’s desire to talk? Could you increase the number of turn and talks during a lesson to help that student who is talking too much? Could you make a portion of the lesson partner or group based? If you let the student know that you see what it is that they need and that you are going to try to create more opportunities for that, it may help shift the behavior. When we think of teaching as art and creation, we must ask ourselves what we can create that will support our students who are struggling.

When we create a classroom environment that provides students with a way to have their needs met, we make the learning environment more hospitable for the student that needs to talk.

Take a moment to reflect on the problem behaviors that you are seeing. See if you can piece together what the behavior is, and when it is happening. Then, ask yourself if there is a way you can take that behavior and channel it towards something more positive. In the Love & Logic mindset, this would be called providing choices within limits. We all know that there must be certain limitations within the classroom, but if we let students know when and where in their day they will be able to make choices, they should be able to uphold your expectations in other parts of the day.

And something that I want to make clear – none of what I’m saying is meant to imply that there should never be consequences for a child’s poor choices. Whether we are working from a restorative mindset, from the mindset of creating a hospitable environment, or from a Love & Logic mindset, consequences certainly can be a part of the learning process. We just need to make sure that the consequence is reasonable, natural, and appropriate. In fact, “Children will learn from their mistakes when: They experience the consequences of their mistake; and Adults in their environment provide empathy.” (Fay & Funk, Teaching with Love & Logic, pg. 37). When adults express sorrow for a student’s poor choice and the resulting consequence, children have a much greater opportunity to grow.

What ideas does this spark for you? Do you want to think about how you might react to problematic behavior? Or does this spark some questions for you? Learning happens when we reflect, so share your reflections in the comments below!

Being trauma-responsive

Being trauma-responsive

Last week, we hit a big milestone – two years since most schools shut down due to the Covid-19 virus. This anniversary had me thinking about the trauma that we have all been living through over the past two years. But I’ve also been thinking about the impact it has had on our students. We have now hit the point where school is starting to feel a lot more normal in terms of our day-to-day operations. At the same time, there is something different going on. I was thinking about the impact that the trauma of Covid-19 has had on our students in the past couple of years. I know that here in my school, we’ve been seeing behavioral trends different than anything that might have been considered “typical” for our students.

Let’s think about why that might be. In my K-4 school, the students we serve were somewhere between 3ish years old and second grade when things shut down in March of 2020. When I think about what happened to those students in the past couple of years there are several things that stand out to me. For the ones who were not yet school age, they probably missed out on opportunities to attend pre-school, summer camps, sports, and other activities outside of the home, among so many other potential events. Think about the amount of social interaction and peer-based learning that was missed! I don’t love the phrase learning loss for a multitude of reasons, but one of the things that I believe strongly about how humans learn is that it is done socially. This missed social interaction can help explain so much about behaviors occurring in kids currently. And many of our students who were already school-aged at the beginning of the Covid-19 reality also missed out on much. Along with activities outside of the school building, they may have lost connection to friends and trusted adults when school shut down. You could connect trauma to those lost connections.

Now I know, not all kids have been impacted in quite the same ways. When I walk into classrooms, there are certainly students who seem to be rather normally developed based on their age and grade level. But one of the things I understand about trauma is that the same event may be traumatic to one person, but not impact others in the same way. And another thing I understand about trauma is that those experiences change us. Trauma has an impact on our brain chemistry, it leads to bottom-up control in our brain.

I wanted to throw in a quick reminder about how the brain works here – the amygdala is the lowest part of the brain and is our alarm system, the hippocampus is the mid-brain and assists with learning and memory, and the prefrontal cortex is the front of the brain and manages thoughts, behaviors, and helps us control emotional responses. When the amygdala takes control of the brain, it causes most of the other parts of the brain to go offline.

If you want to know more about the impacts of trauma on the students in our schools, you might want to learn a little bit about the Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey (ACES) study. I’ve written about that in a two-part post titled “Childhood trauma.” You can see part 1 here, and part 2 here. In the ACES study, there is a 10-question survey, and each question that is answered yes equals 1 point. The higher the score for a person, the greater the correlation to a variety of negative health outcomes later in life, including alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, suicide, and even heart disease and lung cancer. In one study, students who had at least 3 ACES were 3 times as likely to experience academic failure, 5 times as likely to have attendance issues, and 6 times as likely to exhibit behavioral problems.

Last week I connected with a former colleague who now works with students in multiple school districts in the area. As we were talking, she shared that the behavioral trends I was seeing had become something of a universal experience in the schools that she serves. If we consider the experiences of the past two years, you could argue that the Covid-19 reality has created at least one ACE for all our students, and depending on other experiences, possibly more (we know that there are students who lost a close family member, that equals one ACE).

What helped pull all this thinking together was an article in the most recent edition of Principal, a publication from the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “Safe Signals for Preschoolers” is an excellent article on the role that trauma-supportive schools can play in creating an environment where students feel safe, cared for, and ready to learn. Based on that article, I wanted to share some tips that you might consider implementing in your classroom or setting. One thing to note: you might be thinking “But I don’t have any students with trauma in my class.” The data we have on ACES says that is probably false. In the initial ACES study, the participants were 75% white, 39% were college-educated, another 36% had college experience. We also know that most of them would be considered affluent because all the participants in the study had health insurance. ACES know no bounds and can impact students of various backgrounds. Odds are pretty good that you have students with one or several ACES sitting in your classroom right now that you don’t even know about. Implementing trauma-responsive strategies will benefit those students who have been through trauma that we aren’t aware of. In addition, trauma-responsive interventions are beneficial to all students, not just the ones we think need them.

First and foremost, to be ready to learn our students need to have a safe environment. The human brain is like a radar, constantly monitoring what’s going on around them, and for most of us, that just happens in the background. For students who have several ACES, their brains are dealing with higher levels of cortisol (the body’s stress hormone). This higher level of cortisol in the brain causes what’s sometimes referred to as toxic stress. This causes the brain to be stuck in survival mode or the lower portion of the brain. When stuck in the lower brain, a student’s brain cannot physiologically take in knowledge or problem-solve. Here are a couple things you might do to help a student feel safe in your classroom:

  1. Relationships: Students must sense that you can take care of them – to send signals of safety, think about things like your appearance, facial expressions, eye contact, etc. Often what we do through our nonverbal communication can help a student feel safe or unsafe, even more so than any of our verbal communication. And a child’s perception of this is what matters most. If they don’t perceive that you care, then they may not feel like they do have a meaningful relationship. Kids are pretty perceptive!
  2. Predictable schedule: Students feel safe when there is consistency, and the brain mistrusts uncertainty. Consider a visible schedule, and let students know in advance (when possible) of changes.
  3. Transitions: Whenever possible, try to minimize transitions. Each one feels like something of a loss for our students. When a transition is coming, give plenty of warning – let them know there are 5 minutes left, or a 1-minute warning to wrap up, or a count down.

A few years ago, we had a summertime training on Trauma-Informed Schools. Jim Sporleder, the former principal of an alternative high school in the state of Washington and now a consultant on training others on how to implement trauma-informed strategies in our schools, led the training. One of the things that I always recall about that training is that he challenged us to “Be the one…” Often for students of trauma, the best intervention is a solid relationship with a trusted and caring adult. The kids we struggle with most are often the ones who most need that relationship. They might push us away as a defense mechanism related to the traumas they have been through. We just have to keep trying to let them know, through our words, our actions, and our non-verbal communication, that we are there to support them, and that we care for them.

As I’ve worked in schools and implemented more trauma-informed strategies, one of the things we’ve had to also think about is how to respond to negative behavior. For our students who have lived through trauma, those cortisol levels in their brain often cause them to live in a constant state of “Fight – Flight – Freeze.” A self-protection strategy that they have developed is to act out, shut down, or sometimes simply run away. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen an increase in students leaving class without permission, I’ve seen an increase in students who simply shut down in class, and I’ve seen some acting out towards peers, teachers, or others. Here are some strategies that you might implement to help create that trusting environment:

  • Modeling appropriate behaviors, then using guided or independent practice and repetition
  • Do-overs or reboots when things go wrong – a teacher can coach a student through a difficult situation and help them try again and be successful
  • Role plays, puppet practice, scripted stories, or behavioral rehearsals

Remember, behavior is a form of communication. Often students are telling us that they don’t have the words or skills to describe what they are feeling. Some people though, mistake trauma-responsive strategies as implying that consequences are not appropriate. This is not the case. There are times when students need to be held accountable for their actions. These accountability measures help students to learn that they are accountable for their actions, but at the same time, they will not necessarily change a child’s behavior. When our students feel a true relationship with their teacher or another trusting adult at school, they will have a stronger internal drive to please the people who care for them. Consequences may be a temporary measure to help other students feel safe or to help parents understand the severity of the behavior, but they will not change a child.

Ultimately, for healing to happen in our students who have been through trauma, we need to show them the everyday acts of kindness that we might want to see when going through struggles in our own lives. As I shared before, connections to invested adults are the best intervention to provide opportunities for healing for our students. Our students may not remember all the things we teach them, but they certainly will remember how we made them feel.

Developing a PBL Unit

Last week I was having a conversation with a teacher about planning for some Project-Based Learning (PBL) in her classroom. She said something to me that I think a lot of teachers might think when they hear the phrase “Project-Based Learning.” She shared that she wasn’t sure that she had the time to devote to project work in her classroom. And I think that’s what can be tough about moving towards project work. We hear stories about these amazing projects that spanned weeks or months, like the time some 6th graders at my previous school worked to bring ice cream to our school cafeteria (see a post about that here), or the long term project by a 3rd-grade class who noticed a big blank wall and felt like they could make something much more beautiful.

The reality is though, you don’t always have to have huge projects like this. Sometimes project-based learning may only take a day or two and be really focused on a specific skill. This post is going to dive into some ways you might think about the planning side of PBL. In my current school, our leadership team is working closely with a pilot team that will be launching a mini-PBL unit in their classroom in the coming weeks, and the process is related to what I’ll be sharing here.

So, let’s start with how you might kick off the planning process. The way I see it, there are a few different ways that you might begin on the path to PBL work. Here’s a list of a few:

  • Academic Standard or Unit of Study: You might be looking at a list of standards that are coming up, or a Unit that you have used in the past, and that may spark an idea for a project. In last week’s post (see it here), I shared a social studies project that started in just this way.
  • The End in Mind: As I’m writing this, President’s Day has just passed. What if we looked at our school calendar and said, “I want my students to be able to share something about…”? This could potentially work for any holiday (US or elsewhere), or for other things that come up on the calendar. You have a clear end in mind, and you backwards plan.
  • A Way of Thinking: Imagine that you want your students to learn more about something like mindfulness, or restorative practices. Or maybe you want something that ties more directly to a standard, so you want them to learn more about the scientific method or engineering process standards.
  • Something Awesome: Maybe there is something that you recognize your students being really excited about (this is how the mural above got started). It’s taking that excitement in the moment and running with it!
  • Student Ideas: You might recognize that your students are really interested in Minecraft, or a video game, or animals. Take that idea that they are interested in and help guide them!

Now, some of you might be saying something like, “But what about my standards!?!?” And I get it, ultimately, we are all beholden to our standards, but I guarantee you that with any of the ideas I listed above, we can find a few standards that we can tie in. If nothing else, you’ve got standards related to reading, writing, and research that can be connected to just about any project. That said, if you can integrate multiple subject areas, you have hit the pay dirt! I also often found that as we worked our way through a project, there would be things that came up that I needed to create a mini-lesson on. When I was teaching sixth grade, I had to create a mini-lesson on plagiarism after seeing kids cut a paste from some of their resources. In another project, we folded in a grammar boot camp to help with some of the grammar issues that were coming up. These were teaching moves that I made in the middle of a project as I recognized a need.

Once we have our starting point on the path to PBL selected, we next need to think about how we’re going to get to the endpoint. You might have students work towards a product – something that could be shared on a specific day, or at a specific event. Every student will create some type of product, but choices are made in how they get from the start to that product. Another option might be to start with a problem – maybe leading up to President’s Day you have a bunch of students asking why there isn’t school on that day. This could be our problem that we’re going to solve – we need to find out why President’s Day is a holiday, and then we could share our findings with our school community. Finally, you might decide to make the endpoint more open-ended. You might have your starting point, share with your students what it is that you want them to learn about or take away, and then allow them to pick a product that suits their needs.

I don’t necessarily believe that any one of these three methods is the best. I would say that it might be challenging for students to jump into an open-ended pathway if they have had limited project experience in their school careers. As with any creative task, our students will need some guardrails to help guide them. When those guardrails are too wide-open, some students struggle to even get started.

So, at this point, we have an initial idea, and hopefully a pathway we will be following. Now we need to select a few standards that may serve as the basis for your project, as well as some standards that may support the learning. In my past, when I was planning a PBL unit, I’d pull my upcoming standards and look for standards that are seeking a deeper level of understanding (words like apply, understand, or explain are good key terms to watch for). And again, it’s a great idea to try to find standards from multiple subject areas to be the key ideas. These standards can be the driving force of PBL. One thing to keep in mind though – if you try to pack too much into a single project, you begin to lose focus on the main point. While there may be several skills that you are able to touch on throughout the work, you should have one or two standards that are the primary focus of the project.

Once we have a couple of standards identified, we want to think about what we want our students to learn or be able to do because of this project. These are the takeaways we want to highlight. When I did project work with my students, I would share the takeaways with them at the beginning of a unit and would reiterate them throughout the unit. I always tried to make sure that this was in “kid-friendly” language that they could understand and describe to others. I would often also use these takeaways to create what I liked to call our guiding question. This question would boil all our projects down into one question. A couple of examples from past projects I carried out in my classroom include:

  • What are the planets and objects that make up our solar system?
  • What are some of the cultural achievements of Ancient Rome?

OK, so I know this is a lot, but here’s what we’ve got so far:

  • Starting point
  • Project pathway
  • Standards
  • Takeaways
  • Guiding question

One of the things I have noticed about PBL is that there are lots of different protocols out there. You can choose to pick one to guide your planning, you can decide to create your own hybrid of the ones that exist, or you could create something all your own. But to me, the items that are listed above are keys to the planning phase, no matter what you call them. Even with the work we’ve done so far, we aren’t ready to dive into the project yet. We must always plan for the end in mind. So next week, we’ll talk about the importance of assessment. When thinking about backward design, we need to plan our assessment before we begin teaching our unit. We’ll talk briefly about pre-assessment, formative assessments along the way, and some potential options for post-assessment.

So, what have I missed? Is there anything that you are still wondering about with the planning process? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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.