The Issue of Focus: Working for Student Ownership

Glazed-over eyes. Wandering minds. Fidgeting bodies.

There are endless reasons our students might be disengaged, and almost an equal number of ways to address it. There’s the good:

  • Evaluating & reworking our practices (Too many worksheets? Not enough movement?)

The bad:

  • Ignore it and press forward with a ghostly Professsor Binns doggedness.

And the ugly:

  • Blame it exclusively on the kids and technology (vocalizing with key phrases like “newfangled,” “millennials,” and “lazy.”)

In the midst of a long winter while teaching 5th grade (February can be particularly tough around here), one approach came to me in the form of this quote:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” ~Steve Jobs

The lightbulb flicked on, and I immediately turned the quote into a poster above my door.

As a class, we analyzed the quote together and came to several conclusions, the most important of which was to validate those “other good ideas” on our students’ minds. The discussion went something like this:

“So, is it bad to want to play with toys? Of course not! Is it bad to think about planning your get-together with friends? Absolutely not. Those are good and important things, too. It’s just that we have to say no to those other good things when you have other important things to turn  your attention to.”

This was pivotal for many of my students. The demand to “focus” had long been a struggle of good vs. bad — the things adults wanted vs. the things they wanted. This reframing helped them see that we all have to regularly choose focus by saying no to the other good things in our lives.

It became clear that this kind of validation strengthened my relationship with my students, building mutual trust. It helped them see that I am human, too, and that I, too, need to learn to prioritize my time.

One important note, however: if we view this or any other similar approach as a simple strategy to placate our students, we miss the broader picture. Rather, we should view this as one step toward greater student ownership over their learning. Only then will we move from disengagement to engagement, and then finally to empowerment.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

3 Lessons from Blogging for More Authentic Literacy Teaching

I expected that this opportunity to blog regularly would bring benefits to my writing over time — if nothing else, at least train words to flow a little more easily as I typed more and more.

But I did not anticipate the powerful lessons about writing that would also come my way, lessons that I can and most certainly will apply when I return to the classroom. They all stem from a place of authentic, raw honesty about what it really means to be in that writing arena.

1 Writing elements and structure are not about ticking off a checklist; they are about making your writing more enjoyable to read. When I skip out on a conclusion on a post, I might have convinced myself at the time that the rest of the content was sufficient and that a conclusion would just be excess. But more often than not, I know that what it really came down to a “good enough” mentality.

When I return to the classroom and we’re breaking down those elements of good writing, we will search together for that sense of completeness. We will analyze how and why pieces do or do not feel quite right, and I will work to help them discover and seek out each of those elements for themselves.

2 “Write only what you alone can write” (Elie Wiesel) Most of us have probably heard some variation of this advice before. But it was only when I really started to take it to heart that I began to understand. If I stuck to writing just what I thought was supposed to go on an educational blog, or if I just wrote about those trending topics all the time, I knew my desire to write anything at all would dry up. The surest way of making writing feel like a burden is to deny it any sense of personal touch. After all, the entire point of writing is connection; if we never connect with what we write ourselves, how can we expect to find meaningful connection with our audience? 

I know that in the past, I have spent far too much time trying to help my students prepare for those state writing assessments or otherwise drilling template, soul-less writing. Even if those tests don’t go away, we can still prioritize the notion of identifying and conveying the messages within each unique individual.

Trust the authentic writing process. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just follow one linear, well-defined process and produce good writing every time? The above-mentioned state writing assessments would have had me and my students thinking so (and we worked hard to meet all those requirements — 1 thesis statement, 3-4 reasons, 3-4 details per reason, x # of transition key words, and on and on).

The reality is, the authentic writing process requires a lot of trust. Trust that as we live our lives and engage in the things that matter most to each of us, inspiration (those stories only we can tell) will come. Sure, the viciously practical part of me might prefer to have the next 6 blog posts all neatly planned and ready on the assembly line. But if I am to truly discover the rich stories and powerful observations woven into the fabric of real life, then I must engage with real life, compartmentalizing less and engaging more.

I’m far from a perfect blogger or writer now. But I know I can hope for greater capacity and joy in the future as I work to live and write as authentically as possible.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Our Best Intentions…

We put up behavior charts with the intent to recognize the positive just as often (or more often) than the negative…

…but how often is it truly used to do anything more than monitor those few “naughty kids?”

We create class bucks for our students to earn for stellar work (and maybe to learn a bit of economics)…

…but how often do they end up fining just a few kids, and/or regularly overlooking those steady, dependable kids?

And we designate special accolades to honor students for “being really good…”

via MrsMeganMorgan

…but for the large pool of (rather disappointed) children who meet that vague standard, does it end up doing more harm than good as they wonder what more they could have done for such recognition?

(And we’ve all heard the argument that “Someday they might hope to be employee of the month, and not everyone gets to be that either, so let’s prepare them for that now” — but I believe that’s an apples and oranges argument for the simple reason that these are children. Who work so hard to please and do their teachers and parents proud).

Yes, we want to notice the good. We want to stay organized. We want a smoothly-functioning classroom. But I can’t help but wonder if all our energies spent toward making those charts, buying those prizes, and creating fancy spotlights (having done all those things myself in the past) would be better spent with just simple, daily relationship-building…

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

I’m Finally Using the PYP Key Concepts!

I hope I’m not the only one who struggled with all the lingo when starting out as a teacher at an IB PYP school (International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme). Units of inquiry? Learner profile attributes? Transdisciplinary skills? 

I was so bogged down by the extensive framework that partway through my first year, I may or may not have complained about, “all this IB crap.”

The key concepts were no exception.

I had a token key concept “parking lot” (laminated poster) at the back of my classroom, where we’d occasionally stick up questions for the unit at hand (that would often get forgotten until they fell off, littering the corner depressingly behind the door).

via Graeme Anshaw at Mathematical Enquiries

Worse still, whenever I would try to get my students to use the key concepts to ask deeper questions, I’d consistently wind up with the same hoop-jumping I was definitely modeling. ie, if the topic was “adaptation,” the questions just parroted the key concept guidelines with little to no real curiosity or connection behind them:

  •  Form: What is adaptation like?
  • Function: How does adaptation work?
  • Change: How is adaptation changing?
  • Reflection: How do we know about adaptation?

And so on.

Over the years, I gained a much better understanding and appreciation of what the IB was all about. But I still struggled making those key concepts genuinely accessible.

That’s why it was with surprise and enthusiasm when it finally clicked for me as I’ve started writing provocation posts. After carefully curating resources to help inspire inquiry into bigger concepts, I write possible questions one can use for discussion with students.

That’s where the key concepts have come in. Not only do they help me consider questions, but they help me see the resources with different lenses.

For instance, in my recent “How People Get Their Food” post, the key concepts of perspective and responsibility made me think that it would be interesting to discuss why we should even consider why people eat differently around the world–I realized that with the resources provided, big concepts this question could elicit might include economics, geography, politics, nutrition, cultures, and more.

The key concepts are finally valuable tools for me to to unearth bigger concepts!

Zooming out from this experience even further, I can now see that it wasn’t even so much about the IB jargon; I needed to completely rewire my mindset about asking powerful questions, prioritizing student voice, and making room for the “unplanned.”

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

If You Give A Kid A Spelling List…

If you give a kid a spelling list…

…she will need words that are on a developmentally appropriate, differentiated level.

If the words are on the right level…

…she will want to break them down for patterns, connections, and language concepts.

If she is breaking them down for bigger concepts…

…she will want to know why spelling matters in general.

If you show her why it matters…

…she will want to take ownership over the way she practices it.

If she is practicing spelling with more ownership…

…she will begin to find more autonomy elsewhere in her learning.

This “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” (by Laura Numeroff) thinking arose from reflecting on how spelling is great example of the need to challenge the status quo.

Spelling has looked the same for decades in many classrooms: everyone gets the same list on Monday, practices copying down the words throughout the week, gets tested on Friday.

This pattern often persists despite all we’ve come to know and continue to learn about spelling instruction and development (see the checklist for evaluating spelling programs on page 35 of this document by D.K. Reed at Center on Instruction).

Some of the most important changes include the following:

Instead of the same words, we should be differentiating. I enjoyed using the program, Words their Way for this purpose, as I was able to assess students within their individual stages of spelling. Quite apart from reaching students’ developmental needs, I also appreciate approaches that do not make spelling a one-size-fits-all situation that unfairly challenges only those who are below “grade level.”

Instead of mandating uniform spelling practice each day, we should be teaching students to recognize how to allocate their word study time. Even when spelling is differentiated, it will still come more easily for some students than others, which results in wasting valuable time. A framework that helped me adopt this approach was Daily 5 (for literacy; Daily 3 for math).  It was wonderful to watch my students make informed decisions about their learning time rather than just passively checking everything off the teacher’s list each day.

Instead of focusing on memorization, we should be helping our students break down and investigate each word. This better scaffolds students in their language acquisition, building upon their grasp on patterns in phonology.

When we step back to see an even bigger picture, we see that these changes are not only about better spelling instruction, but about broader 21st century principles including student ownership, inquiry, and personalized learning.

 

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

The Power of One Young Digital Citizen

Thanks to Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano sharing about her upcoming sketchnoting presentation this summer (all those near or able to get to Boston, you should go!), I was introduced to a pretty remarkable digital citizen today. Her name is Olivia, aka LivBit, and she loves books, sharks, and always doing “good things for this world.”


After experiencing bullying in second grade, Olivia’s mom helped her start LivBits for her to share her voice and rekindle her feelings of self-worth. Since then, she has shared weekly videos on books,

has spread her passion for sharks,

and has even presented in conferences!

She is a wonderful example of what kids can do when they are encouraged as positive digital citizens!

It reminded me yet again of this conversation educator George Couros shared:

We may feel tempted to wait until they are in junior high or high school, but now is the time to help our young kids learn to harness this technology to spread their passions, make a difference, and do good.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Resource Round-Up (aka early spring cleaning?)

My online bookmarks are a mess. The only thing that irritates me more than the fact that they aren’t doing me any good in their jumbled mess of folders is that they aren’t doing anyone else any good there either.

Fixing that today with this little graphic of resources, strategies, and ideas that I couldn’t help but bookmark over the years (even though I knew it meant adding to the mess). It also links to a few of my posts that included many of those bookmarks to further help me organize my favorite resources/strategies.

As you browse, please remember that innovative ideas will only make an impact when wielded by innovative teachers–individuals committed to thinking outside the box, encouraging student empowerment, and cultivating a personal growth-mindset. Also know that they aren’t intended as a silver bullet for classrooms everywhere; some might be more/less useful than others to you and your circumstances.

But I hope that you will be able to find something new, useful, and/or inspiring from this graphic!

I decided to frame the entire thing around the 4 C’s of 21st century education (I wanted to use the ISTE standards for students, but it proved too much for the visual I intended, but if you check those out, you’ll see a lot of parallels anyway). Please let me know what you found most useful, or if you have additional ideas to share! Enjoy!