If We Strip Away The Arts at School, What Do We Have Left?

In a fit of sentimentality, I recently looked up my old grade school: Laguna Road Elementary. After soaking up memories of scraped-knees on the blacktop, Oregon Trail in the library, and art projects in the patios, my thoughts turned to the crowning glory of those years: the sixth grade play.

Winter 99, 7
Me on the left!

Moments from our class’ rendition of Into the Woods are forever etched in my memory–my absurd shoe-fitting as wicked stepsister Florinda, the princes’ hilarious performance of “Agony,” our paper mache Milky White cow. My thoughts also turned to my older sisters’ productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oliver!, and another Into the Woods.

My reminiscences were suddenly interrupted, however, by a startling parent review on GreatSchools.org.

“They spend too time on the 6th grade play and little time reviewing for the CST (California State Testing).”

Another parent wrote:

“Best part of all….when they get [to their new school], our kids will not be wasting their 6th grade at this new school putting on a play.”

I was shocked. Perhaps these reviewers’ children were simply disappointed at the roles they received for their plays (I know I sure was at first). Maybe they just felt uncomfortable with public speaking. Or maybe they do in fact value standardized testing over performance arts.

If the latter is true for these and other parents, my question is, are the arts really a waste? And what happens to schools when we strip them away?

At the recent passing of legendary David Bowie, Stephanie wrote a brief but thought-provoking reflection on why everyone was taking the time to exchange favorite songs and memories. Her bottom line? “Because music matters.”

The case for the arts in school is also well-backed by research. One study at the University of California Los Angeles found:

“…”arts-engaged” students from low-income families demonstrated greater college-ongoing rates and better grades in college. As an example, low-income students from arts-rich high schools were more than twice as likely to earn a B.A. as low-income students from arts-poor high schools. Moreover, the UCLA researchers found the students engaged in the arts were more likely to be employed in jobs with potential career growth and more involved in volunteerism and the political life of their communities.”

The list goes on; other studies spanning the last couple of decades detail the many irreplaceable benefits of the arts for kids, ranging from greater proficiency in academic subjects to increased capacity for community connection to higher graduation rates.

As for me, the answer to what would be left without the arts is–very little. I honestly remember almost nothing else from sixth grade–least of all the testing. But I will forever and vividly recall that play. Furthermore, I don’t find it a coincidence that sixth grade was a major turning point in my confidence and interest as a learner.

What has been the longterm effect of the arts in your life? And would you have traded it for more time testing?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

3 Reasons We Hate Science Fair–And How to Fix It

The day my school decided to move science fair to sixth grade instead of fifth, we all cheered–students, teachers, and parents alike. Years later, I’m reflecting on the root of our mutual animosity toward the project. And it seems to come down to three problems–and solutions!

Lack of Teacher Modeling

We ask students to dig deep. To ask questions that don’t have an answer yet. In short, to go beyond comparing popcorn brands. But how often do we model how we develop our own original questions? Share our honest, raw wonderings? Demonstrate our process of Googling to refine an idea?

Creativity and innovation are skills, and science fair projects are an advanced exercise of these skills. If we expect our students to suddenly showcase skills we’ve never helped them cultivate (or worse, that we’ve never cultivated ourselves), we are setting them up for failure–or just another diaper absorbency project.

  • SOLUTION → Metacognition: MindShift recently wrote about 5 inquiry tools to help students “learn how to learn.” These metacognitive strategies encourage students to honestly reflect on their own learning processes and emotions when facing challenges (see also “Smart Strategies that Help Students Learn How to Learn”).
  • SOLUTION → Teach questioning: If you want students to ask “measureable questions,” teach them how to do so long before introducing science fair. Strategies like frequent use of Visible Thinking protocols trains students how to develop and refine their questions. (see also Tubric).
Lack of Existing Student-Driven Project-Based Learning

The science fair should not be an isolated experience of students taking ownership over and driving their own learning process. If it is, it’s unlikely that many will rise to the freedom in ways that will fuel their passion and motivation.

  • SOLUTION → Project-Based Learning: Make it your next weekend project to create one new PBL opportunity. Guides like this one found on Edutopia can help you get started.
  • SOLUTION → Student Voice & Choice: Mindfully consider your students’ choice and voice in their day-to-day learning. When we gradually let go of control and allow our students to steer the learning, they will grow in confidence and self-understanding.
Lack of Engaged and Authentic Audience

Even if students do manage to find a passion-driven project, how often does their work ever go beyond a cardboard trifold display in the gymnasium (unless they happen to move on to regionals)? Too often, we only allow our students small sips from locally limited audiences–when we could lead them to the very fountain of global conversation with our fingertips. It’s time to throw open the floodgates and watch what happens when our students swap ideas with peers, scientists, and experts across the world.

  • SOLUTION → Student Blogging: Encourage your students to blog not only the final presentation, but their entire process along the way. Then, teach them how to ask for feedback to fine-tune their ideas.
  • SOLUTION → The Wonderment: This is an especially wonderful platform for younger students to collaborate safely online.  They can upload photos, videos, and text, asking questions and getting inspiration from kids around the world (see other excellent blogging alternatives here).

Let’s break the mold of hating science fair this year. What are some of your strategies to do so?

Featured Image: Andria via Flickr

3 Timeless Lessons From “The Yellow Star” About Cyberbullying

The “Yellow Star” by Carmen Agra Deedy beautifully illustrates the legend of King Christian X standing with his Jewish people by wearing a yellow star during Nazi occupation.

And while the Danish Jews were never actually forced to wear the star, confirmation of the king’s support for his Jewish people have surfaced, including “substantial evidence that the King actually suggested the idea of everyone wearing the yellow star should the Danish Jews be forced to wear it.” (source)

Legend or not, this 20th century story highlights timeless lessons of humanity that we find especially applicable to the 21st century subject of cyberbullying.

  1. Teach Solidarity

“Early in the year 1940…there were only Danes. Tall Danes, stout Danes, cranky Danes, even Great Danes.”

We must actively teach our students that what we have in common outweighs our differences. Cyberbullying offers a shroud of anonymity that can tempt some people to forget that a living, feeling human being is on the other side of that unkind post or dehumanizing poll. We can bring that shroud out of obscurity by directly talking about it. About digital citizenship. About the human experience. And about whether it’s really worth making someone else feel like they don’t belong.

  1. Teach Courage

“If you wished to hide a star,” wondered the king to himself, “where would you place it?” His eyes searched the heavens. “Of course!” he thought. The answer was so simple. “You would hide it among its sisters.”

I recently came across a disturbing article about a poll for the ugliest girl at a high school. And though the young woman who was targeted responded courageously, I was left wondering how each kid involved in that poll could have acted with more courage, too. How can we teach them to take initiative and take a stand, even if it isn’t very popular? I believe it starts with us. We need to model the courage to stand up and say no, even in a society that often turns “cruelty into entertainment and sport.”  

  1. Teach Empathy

“What if the good and strong people of the world stood shoulder to shoulder, crowding the streets and filling the squares, saying,’ You cannot do this injustice to our sisters and brothers, or you must do it to us as well.’ What if?”

Empathy requires us to truly reach other people. It rejects in-group/out-group. It embraces vulnerability and imperfections. It places genuine value on every human being. Cyberbullying creates in-group/out-groups. It exploits people’s vulnerabilities and imperfections. And it tears apart the self-worth of everyone it can. We need teachers who will dare to voice exactly what cyberbullying is all about, “Go[ing] beyond praising the right behaviors — proactively counteract[ing] the forces that stand in their way. This is where standing up, not just standing by, comes in.” (“Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply”).

King Christian X’s Jewish people may never have been forced to wear the yellow star, but his solidarity, courage, and empathy are likely what prevented that unjust mandate to begin with. What could these three qualities do for your students, your school, and your community?

Image credit: the lost gallery

An Open Letter: To Pinterest, from a Teacher

First, I want to thank you. I’ve loved your many ideas for organizing my pantry, throwing my five year-old’s princess party, and introducing the blue-Dawn-and-vinegar trick to my shower.  Not to mention the hilarious memes and marshmallow treats.

Your resourcefulness has carried over into my classroom through the years, too:

Like the sponge of glue,

glue

the hand sanitizer bathroom passes,

pass

the visually-appealing display of learning objectives,

objectives

oh, and that fantastic example of comma use that had my whole class giggling.

commas

And of course, you know you’re my go-to for holiday art crafts and kid-made decorations.

 

ornaments

But I have to tell you, I’m worried. I’m worried about those ultra popular pins that circulate because they have all the glitz and appearance of learning, but that really promote something…else.

Like micromanagement,

ticket

compliance,

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or perfectionism–

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–all with an adorable flair.

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Of course, you and I both know that truly inspiring, learning-based pins are out there. Why, I recently came across a whole slew of fabulous self-assessments to help students become more metacognitively aware. But as I searched out those pins, I waded through what felt like an endless supply of teacher-centered fluff.

I must say, I’m not blaming you. After all, I’m the one who sometimes gets mesmerized by all things color-coded and lovely. But “it’s not you, it’s me” aside, now that I’ve identified the problem, I can move forward. I can reflect. I can ask why. I can rethink even some of the most commonly accepted practices. And I can guide my future curative efforts with questions based on what matters most, including:

  • Will this help me better understand and reach my students?
  • Will this enhance student ownership over learning?
  • Will this encourage the 4 C’s (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, or creativity)?
  • Will this help me personalize student learning?
  • Will this help me pursue greater challenges as a professional?
  • Will this help my students better understand their own thinking and learning processes? (metacognition)
  • Will this help all my students to better access resources in and out of the classroom?
  • Will this help my students investigate concepts?
  • Is this centered more on empowering student-directed learning, or on getting students to sit still and listen?
  • Is this trying to solve a problem that I could actually just open up to my students for discussion instead?
  • Will this help my students grow as leaders?
  • Will this help my students build an authentic audience and/or community?
  • Will this help me reinforce my core values as a professional?

So thanks for everything, and I look forward to richer pins to come on my education board!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

10 Meaningful Student Self-Assessments: A Pinterest Curation

 

With an abundance of clever crafts, cute bulletin boards, and coordinated decor, Pinterest generates much that is adorable in classrooms. But the meatier stuff is out there, too–if you dig a little deeper. Below are 10 Pins to brainstorm better self-assessments for your students.

#1: Create a hard working turn-in system:

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 (also, a file folder version)

#2: Practice Visible Thinking Routines together:

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#3: Evaluate Personal peer teaching level: 

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#4: Take exit tickets to a new level: 

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#5: Reflect on IB Learner Portfolios for End of Unit: 

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#6: Cultivate networking & smart peer tutoring:

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#7: Structure Authentic Student Analysis of Reading Fluency: 

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#8: Lend words for reflecting on personal emotional well-being:

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#9: Lay out guidelines for a Writing journal snapshot assessment: 

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#10: Design a Student led conference survey:

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(after all, you know how we feel about student-led conferences…)

And WHATEVER you do, PLEASE don’t let your assessments ever resemble this: 

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What are your favorite self-assessments? How about your most outstanding Pinterest boards on teaching? We’d love to hear them!

Featured image: DeathtotheStockPhoto

High-Lows: Highlighting the Human Experience

High-lows is a simple ritual of sharing our high and low moments each day. It can strengthen your student rapport, inform you of your classroom climate, and offer closure each day–all in less than 5 minutes!

The Human Factor

In the bustle of standards, projects, and assessments, do you give students time to step back and reflect? Do you encourage them to consider their personal responses to the various learning experiences each day? Do you encourage them to vocalize their emotional state in appropriate ways? And do you model all this YOURSELF?

Theories & Goals of educationHigh-lows is a tangible way for us to consider our students as human beings–and for them to view us as such, as well. Spending just a few minutes on this at the end of each day has taught me about my students’ interests, disappointments, priorities, and delights. My students in turn became familiar with what I consider to be moments of triumph or frustration–which gave them insight into my learning process as a teacher.  

Better understanding one another on such an honest, human level enhanced our mutual trust, communication, and respect. 

Tips

  • Spend the last couple minutes of the day (often wasted on door loitering anyway) with high-lows.
  • Introduce high-lows by modeling your own high-lows from teaching that day (“My high was during social studies today because the questions many of you asked were so inspiring and deep! My low was math because I felt like I spent too much time talking and not enough time letting you guys practice–I’ll be fixing that tomorrow, though!”). Feel free to occasionally share non-teaching high-lows when appropriate, too (“My high was when I found out my daughter will be my sister’s flower girl in her wedding! My low was taking my dog to the vet last night.”).
  • Model sharing your why for both highs and lows.
  • Keep the lows honest but light. Tell students that we should never give names, or even situations that could point to an individual who frustrated us. For an outlet for students to voice personal concerns, consider an alternative like a suggestion box.

What are other ways you show your students you consider them to be human beings?

featured image: Death to the Stock Photo

Resources for More Authentic Reading Comprehension Strategies

As a freshly-graduated educator, I had been extensively drilled on reading comprehension strategies. Excited to try out my research-backed literary stockpile, I whipped up beautiful little guided reading packets that featured multiple copies of each comprehension strategy, complete with instructions and fill-in-the-blanks.

So I was shocked to discover that my students hated those packets. No matter how much support I offered, all I seemed to receive in return were lost pages and careless responses. After months of toiling in futility, we eventually ditched those packets and sought other ways to cultivate reading comprehension strategies.

Years later, my reflections have revisited those packets. What went wrong? Why were even my advanced readers disengaged?  Why didn’t they help students see the value of the strategies?

After further reflection, I realized we need to put ourselves in our students’ shoes. Imagine you’re deep in the thralls of your novel when someone comes up to you and asks you to synthesize the perspectives and settings so far.  Or to make an inference right now.  Or to come up with a question about your last chapter. Maybe you’re able to give adequate responses, but how likely are they to be genuine, meaningful reflections that enhance your reading experience?

Both my packets and this not-so-hypothetical example are missing one crucial element:  authenticity. As we examine practical ways to increase authenticity in our reading comprehension strategies instruction, we should consider how metacognition and ownership can work in this setting.

Metacognition

Research has instructed us to focus on the “what good readers do” angle as we explicitly teach these strategies.  But does that really mean telling them that good readers constantly pause for outside-mandated reflections at arbitrary times?  Of course not.

We need to build on this instruction by teaching them to notice the natural moments of self-conversation and wonderings as they read, and then to learn how to identify the strategies that are already at play. This awareness of their own thinking will enhance their authentic use of these comprehension strategies because it will gradually strengthen their ability to consciously utilize and articulate them.

Ownership

Fifth grade teacher Jessica Lifshitz shared what happened when she shifted from merely teaching the what and how of comprehension strategies toward the why (1/12/17 edit: She’s also constantly using Google Apps to create student checklists and self-assessments that packed with ownership and metacognition, such as this Revision Checklist). These conversations help students internalize the real impact these strategies can have on our individual lives, which is crucial in using them in more authentic, meaningful ways.

To further help students take the reins on their own reading experience, I realized that we need to rethink how we ask students to express their thinking, being mindful of flexibility and choice. So I created the organizer below, which encourages them to consider which strategy they’ve used and how it improves their personal understanding.  Click here for the pdf!

FlexibleStudent-CenteredReadingComprehensionPracticeAs researcher Brene Brown summarizes, “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen” (The Gifts of Imperfection).  Let’s give our students the chance to make learning more honest and real for them, for reading comprehension strategies and everywhere else.  What are other measures you’ve taken to encourage authenticity in your classroom?

Featured image: Hazel Marie via flickr