If Teacher PD Looked Like Popular Pinterest Pins

In “An Open Letter: To Pinterest, From a Teacher,” I reflected upon why certain pins so heavily circulate around the education community despite their lack of learning value. Since then, I’ve continued to wonder on the matter, especially as debates have ensued over the subject of compliance. A recent post by PYP educator Taryn Bond Clegg further pushed my thinking, particularly when she writes:

“…there were some things that surprised me about adult learners – the very same things that used to frustrate me as a classroom teacher. I have started to wonder if these similarities might have more to do with being a human, than being a child.”

This perspective has placed a new lens on my reflections. Namely, what if those pins were applied to teachers themselves?

Drawing from some of the most popular pins I’ve seen time and again, I created 6 images to further drive the discussion.

1

As Taryn says in a comment on her post, “I wonder how I would react if the facilitator took my device away, shut my screen, flipped my device over, called me out publicly or “moved my clip” down the colour chart…”

2

Some of the items on this list might be legitimately appealing, but that’s not the point. The true pride in and intrinsic motivation for our work is degraded when it is turned into such a carrot-and-stick exercise. As Alfie Kohn recently wrote,

“When we deal with people who have less power than we do, we’re often tempted to offer them rewards for acting the way we want because we figure this will increase their level of motivation to do so.”

 

3

The playfully spirited teacher may think, what a low-key and silly way to get students’ attention when they are off-task! But when we truly consider the function of establishing true mutual respect with students, it becomes clear that such communication can only erode it. After all, no matter how playful the intent, it still reinforces your ultimate authority and their ultimate subordination.

 

4

Hand signals may seem benign, and indeed there may be specific instances where they are useful (ie, quick whole-class comprehension check, etc). However, when we outline an entire arsenal of codes for students to silently convey basic needs like going to the bathroom or grabbing a new pencil, we single-handedly undermine their ability to solve their own problems appropriately, along with our trust in their ability to do so.

 

5

At first glance, this one may not seem to be about classroom management. However, experience has taught me that these kinds of worksheets are more about control than learning; they are usually utilized in hopes to keep everyone else “busy” during guided reading or other small group times. But of course, such a sheet will no more make teachers tech-savvy than cylinder sheets will make students adept mathematicians. But if it were replaced with actually using Twitter itself…

 

6

It might not be so bad when all the other teachers start out on the low end of the spectrum, too. But as time passes, how would you feel to see the numbers moving further and further away from yours–because even without names attached, you know exactly where your scores stand? One might argue, “But it’s a great way to motivate,” but is it really? Is demoralizing someone by reminding them of everyone else’s superior performances the best way to elevate effort? As a study cited in this Washington Post article found, “many well-intentioned teachers…appeared to be using data with students in ways that theoretically may have diminished the motivation they initially sought to enhance.”

What about you? Have you seen Pins that could hinder more than help the teacher/student relationship? What are your views on the ones I’ve shared? I’d love to learn with you!

featured image: Highways England

Current Events, a Controversial Read Aloud, & Changes I Can Make to Better Promote Peace

Nearly five years ago, I selected One Crazy Summer for my fifth graders’ end-of-day read aloud. In it, three young sisters are sent to spend a summer with their mother in Oakland, California in 1968, amidst intense developments in the civil rights movement. While the themes of the book are many, race is a prominent issue, mostly presented through the girls’ involvement with a Black Panthers day camp.

As I taught in a mostly middle-class white suburban area, I viewed the book as a great opportunity to discuss civil rights. Still in the naivety of second-year teaching, I was surprised when one student started to be picked up about 15 minutes early every day–to avoid read aloud time. When I asked about it, my student explained the family’s viewpoint that “Lil Bobby” Hutton (whose death the girls were to protest in a march with their day camp) was “a thug” that provoked the police.

At first I was shocked. Then disappointed. After all, didn’t the parents trust that we were having open-ended and lively discussions with every issue raised? Didn’t they see the benefit of considering multiple opinions? Didn’t they know that I would never try to indoctrinate my students with my personal opinions on sensitive issues?

Over time, those emotions faded into the swirl of the years, but I never quite forgot the incident. But in light of the tragic recent events in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Dallas, and more, this memory has resurfaced, and with it, reflections turning inward. How could I have handled the read aloud differently to help this family feel more comfortable with difficult subjects? How can I better use my role as a teacher to promote peace in the future? 3 ideas have come to mind:

  1. I can avoid assumptions. Everyone has a story, and I can’t even begin to understand the intricacies of every family’s background experience in shaping their current perspectives. But it is unacceptable for me to assume a reason for their sensitivity to or withdrawal from something we do in the classroom.

My job is not to help students to “see the light” in favor of my opinions. Rather, it is to encourage them to ask their own questions and to analyze information as independent and confident learners. Some families may misunderstand even this simple motive if their child appears to start coming home questioning their opinions or family values. Which is why the next two steps are so important.

  1. I can preface potentially controversial topics with reassurances. No matter how much I’ve worked to build mutual trust with parents throughout the year, at no point am I “done” in that endeavor–especially when we are about to ford hazardous waters. No parent is ever going to respond well to what is even perceived as a “teacher knows best” mindset, even more so when the issue might be emotionally charged.

In the future, I will be sure to dedicate a post on our class blog with not just background on the book or activity, but more importantly, with information on differing perspectives and the respect with which we will be treating that diversity.

  1. I can share student conversations. Once we get going, I can continue to promote transparency by documenting and sharing the discourse. A SoundCloud snippet, a YouTube video, photos of visible thinking routines–the options are abundant for giving parents a window to see for themselves the impact of open dialogue.

Of course, some of those discussions might be more spontaneous; if that’s the case, this sharing would be even more essential for parents to gain insight on the quality of the dialogue happening in our classroom. (In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think it would be worthwhile to replace my inspirational quote of the day component with a student dialogue of the day section…).

I know this is just a start to changes I can make. But any step toward promoting greater mutual understanding, trust, and compassion for students and their families to engage in a safe environment is one step closer to a more peaceful future.

I would love to learn from your experiences or recommendations. Please share in the comments below!

Featured image: Lisa Ouellette

Do Summer Reading Program Incentives Work?

I guess this question depends first on what libraries hope to achieve by setting incentives with their summer reading programs.

Is it to get kids to enjoy reading?

Is it to create a community of readers?

Is it to reward kids for their growing love of reading?

Is it to get kids to come to the library who may not otherwise do so during the summer?

And maybe it’s a combination of a few. But amid all the research on the harm that extrinsic rewards and even reading logs themselves can have on students’ intrinsic desire to read, it does make me stop and think.

Don’t get me wrong. I love our community’s summer reading program–the story times, the crafts. My daughter even pretend plays “library,” directing her cousins to call her by the name of her favorite local librarian. But it’s the incentives aspect that I wonder about, both in the library and at school.

Take the third possible question, for instance. Aren’t the kids who are being brought to the library on a regular basis also typically receiving reading immersion at home? (habits like laptime reading as babies, bedtime stories, healthy book collecting, watching parents read, etc.) So it seems to follow that kids who receive summer reading program rewards are being doubly rewarded–mostly for their parents’ initial commitment to cultivate a love of reading. Which further follows that the incentives aren’t actually rewarding growing reading habits, but existing reading habits.

Then there’s the matter of tracking books. Libraries and schools will often put stipulations on books to “qualify” toward the quota–after all, we don’t want to give the same reward to a nine-year-old who read 20 picture books vs. one who read 10 hefty chapter books, do we? (I have certainly bought into this thinking in the past)

But consider this anecdote from Misty Adoniou:

“When my son was nine years old, he put aside the large Harry Potter novel he had been slowly, but enthusiastically, reading each evening and instead began ploughing through lots of fairly uninspiring books that he brought home from school each day.

It turned out the Year 4 teachers had devised a competition at his school – whichever class read the most books would be rewarded with an end of term pizza party.

The aim, I presume, was to motivate the children to read. It is ironic then that the effect was that my son stopped reading for pleasure and instead began reading for the numbers.”

Don’t students get enough of this numbers game without summer reading programs jumping on that bandwagon, too?

I really appreciated how Nancy Bailey put it in a recent article, “Those who control what a student reads, really mean they don’t expect the student will read without being pushed to do so. They actually have low expectations, or no expectations, of the student.”

Of course, every summer reading program is different, and many strive to give as much choice as possible to their readers. But for the sake of protecting and cultivating our readers’ authentic love of learning, we need to be ever-vigilant for incentives that make reading about a carrot and stick instead. 

featured image: Bethany Petrik

Getting Creatively REAL with Our Students

Fractions. History. Essay-writing. We like to tell ourselves that these are neat, linear, and formulaic. That the perfect boxed curriculum or textbook will give us step-by-step instructions and printables. That we can contain and document the learning in a consistent, objective, and measurable path.

But the truth is that real learning is messy, nonlinear, and oh-so-creative.

I was inspired by this new video by New Age Creators entitled, “An Honest Look into Creativity:”

I was struck by the parallels between what I’ve learned of the learning process and how she describes her creative process.

When I search my memory for the most magical and in-depth learning moments with my students, I find that creativity was usually the common denominator. It doesn’t take long for two specific anecdotes to come to mind:

1. During my third year of teaching, I decided that if I was going to ask my fifth graders to make goals that were truly meaningful and challenging for them, that I should openly lead the way. I shared that I had always told myself that I was not at all artistic. I explained my desire to make more room for art in class and for myself. I told them how I’d always wished I could consider myself creative. And I asked them for their help. For the rest of the year, it was as if they responded to a clarion call. I was amazed not only at their deep interest and support of my personal goal, but at how much more open they seemed to digging deeper and taking risks with their own growth.

2. One day, as my students were working on writing some limericks, I sat down to write my own. During wrap-up, I shared–not just the finished product, but my thought process and inspiration in putting it together. That kind of modeling became more second-nature for me as time wore on, but at the time, it was a risky move in creativity. And again, it seemed to result in opened floodgates of my my students’ enthusiasm and willingness to discuss their personal writing processes.

These and other experiences have taught me that no genuine effort in cultivating a creative learning environment goes to waste. The profound benefits I’ve witnessed include:

  • Strengthen the teacher-student relationship as students sense you are right in the learning trenches with them.
  • Make the process more tangible and open to dialogue.
  • Decrease the hypocrisy of expecting students to do what you would never do yourself.
  • Help students and teachers better understand their own learning processes.
  • Create a sense of authenticity and decrease the perfectionism as students and teachers learn to drop the charade of learning looking a certain way for everyone.

What are reasons you make creativity a priority?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

3 Ways to Organize & Maximize diyPD Time

When I finish reading articles that illustrate the sad statistics on absurdly high teacher workloads and burn-out rates, it makes me pause. I wonder whether all my reflections and recommendations about developing PLN‘s and diyPD are just a mirage for teachers trapped in such circumstances.

And perhaps they are. Which is why it is important to continue to spread awareness of such issues and to challenge policymakers to address them. But meanwhile, I find it equally important to share our strategies with other teachers that serve us even amid less-than-ideal circumstances.

On that note, here are 3 resources to better organize and maximize time for personal diyPD learning. I have found them to be enormously beneficial to keep me organized, and it’s especially my hope that they will help lessen the load for those teachers seeking to find scraps of time for personal professional learning!

RSS feed reader. Are all of your email subscriptions bogging down your email box? Try switching to an RSS feed reader. Chrome has some simple and free extensions that I’d recommend, like “RSS Feed Reader” if you want a simple menu bar icon that will give a drop-down menu of new posts; or “Feedly” if you want a more news-oriented layout that you can also sync to a phone app). You can then organize your content into folders to better select what/when you want to peruse specific topics. Remember that you can also subscribe to individual Youtube or Vimeo channels! 

Inbox. Speaking of email boxes, Inbox by Gmail is a fantastic way to lasso out-of-control email. Not only can it sort incoming emails into neat folders, but it’s an excellent task-managing, sanity-saving tool. See more reasons to give it a try: “Why Google Inbox Is an Organized Teacher’s Best Friend.”

OneTab. Seeking respite from the dozens of tabs I perpetually left open on our computer, my husband introduced me to this beautiful little Chrome extension. With one click, all those tabs collapse into an easy-to-organize list in a single tab. I love it because I can more easily see all the pages/titles I’d opened with less mess. And my husband loves it because it saves our computer speed. Win-win.

What are some of your favorite time-saving management tools when it comes to media use? Please share!

Featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

What Learning to Drive Stick-Shift Taught Me about Learning

I could make a wall of shame with all the times I’ve tried–and failed–to learn to drive a manual transmission car. My dad’s instruction in his Ford pickup through the high school parking lot. My sister-in-law’s guidance in a church parking lot. My husband’s many attempts in varied locations through the years. Each instance ended with a loving concession that success seemed out of reach for the time being.

Until now. My husband’s recent surgery on his left foot and need to commandeer my automatic car for his commute presented me with an interesting dilemma: resign myself and my children to a homebound summer, or master stick-shift once and for all so I can use his car?

I woke up one morning last week determined to make it happen. I watched Youtube videos. I read tutorials. And I fiercely grilled my husband to understand not just the required motions, but the why behind how the clutch interacts with the gas and brakes. And then we got in his car for yet another shot at instruction.

I have now made two successful independent drives. Even while basking shamelessly in my victory of shifting from 3rd to 4th for the first time, I started reflecting on how it all connects to the learning process in general…

Growth mindset matters. While recognizing my weakness in spatial learning has provided clarity over the years regarding why I struggle with certain skills, it has also been a fixed mindset pitfall. Between this self-awareness and prior failures, I had predisposed myself to future failure. We are all prone to this kind of thinking, both for ourselves, and sometimes for our students. I believe this time was different in part because I finally acknowledged this pattern of thought. 

Students need a real reason to make it happen. Especially when something has proven particularly difficult in the past, we need to help our students discover their authentic reason to try again (and not our reason or the district’s reason in disguise).

The why matters. Another crucial difference between this and previous attempts was my pursuit of greater background knowledge. I knew that if I didn’t learn why the clutch needed to be disengaged when it did, it would continue to stump me when it came to action.

Edtech can empower individualization. I also knew that I needed to give myself the time to just quietly explore and digest instruction. The ability to play, replay, and pause video tutorials on my terms was powerful for my learning process–it allowed me to voice questions and ponder on what was trickiest for me.

Intense controlled instruction can give an inflated sense of difficulty. Empty parking lot instruction had always been necessary for safety’s sake, but the moment I was actually out driving on the streets, I realized why such conditions made manual-driving seem so impossible: the hardest tasks and concepts are extra-concentrated in a small space. Rather than having a minute or so between each stop or turn afforded by street driving, parking lot driving required me to think extra quickly/frequently about the next step.

Sometimes, learners need the space and time to put it in practice alone. After that final parking lot instruction, I decided to venture out alone. I started slowly on quieter back roads, gradually moving to busier areas to give myself more experience as I felt comfortable. It was certainly rocky, but I appreciated the real-world exposure so I could finally put all the pieces together (and put certain lingo into context, such as “sluggish engine”).

Expect variable progress, even after initial success. During my first independent drive, I did not stall the car once. During my second, I stalled almost half a dozen times. I’m sure things will continue to be up and down for a while, but I’m ok with that. I’m just glad to finally be making progress in a skill I had always wanted to master.

featured image: Patrick Machado

In My Future Classroom…

Though I know stepping away from the classroom for the time being was the right decision for me, I can’t help but continually dream about my future classroom upon my return. Today, I realized I need to get it down in writing for several reasons:

  • To create a working blueprint as my PLN continues to teach and challenge my thinking.
  • To establish personal accountability One of my worst fears is that I’ll instinctively return to old habits and comfort zones despite all I’ve learned and will continue to learn in this interim!
  • To remind myself and others that meaningful change is possible no matter our location/circumstances. My last classroom was at a PYP school where student inquiry and concepts-over-content are thoroughly embraced, and I’m not sure I’ll have that same opportunity again. However, no matter my future environment, I want to plan for what will be within reach instead of worrying about what won’t.
  • To concretely reflect on and prepare for the day I interview for my next teaching job. Thanks, George Couros, for inspiring me to do so with your recent post on interview questions for innovative teachers.
  • To encourage other teachers to share their classroom visions for next year, whether they have been away from the classroom or not. Please share! I would love to collaborate and learn from your vision, too!

So here we go. In my future classroom

…my students will have choice. The default has always been teacher control unless there’s a good reason for student choice. Why not change that default to student choice unless there’s a good reason for teacher control? Daily 5 literacy centers. Student-led conferences. Conversations about metacognition to help students internalize their own learning process and needs.

…my students will have voice. In our local community, I hope to help our students search out ways to apply and extend their learning in our classroom, school, and neighborhoods. In our global community, I will be on the hunt for networking opportunities that best suit their needs and audience, from blogging to building PLNs.

…my students’ parents will have a window. Our classroom and student blogs met this purpose beautifully in the past. But I’m also open to new possibilities when I return based on what would be most accessible for parents–Facebook, email, even home visits. I’m also looking forward to watching new platforms unfold by the time I’m back in the classroom.

…process will be proudly displayed and celebrated. I used to love our publishing parties at the end of writing units, and while I don’t think I’ll necessarily abandon them, I hope to search out ways to better celebrate the process along the way. Visible Thinking Routines have particularly caught my eye in recent months as a great way to better bring that process out of obscurity.

…my students will be seen as individuals first. Blind demands for achievement and performance are not about students–they are about rigid notions of “accountability” and timetables.  And when we allow ourselves to be swept away by these demands, we risk losing sight of our students as individuals. The lyrics from Donnie Darko’s  “Mad World” recently reminded me of what this can feel like for our students:

“Went to school and I was very nervous

No one knew me, no one knew me

Hello, teacher tell me what’s my lesson

Look right through me, look right through me.”

I will make the effort to look beyond data sheets and behavior issues so that my students know that I see them. That I see their perspectives and preferences. That I see their strengths and interests. That I see their stresses and victories. After all, real learning is messier than a benchmark chart would have us believe.

…learning will be valued above “doing school.” I used to think compliance was a tool for helping students learn respect, discipline, and cooperation. Now I know that it often ends up diminishing learning–not to mention that it’s less effective at instilling the above values than I thought anyway. I’ve also learned that activities and tasks can have the appearance of learning while actually being bereft of deeper, concept-based understanding.

…assessments will be ongoing and meaningful. My heart recently sank as I read Bill Ferriter’s “Are Grades Destroying My Six Year-Old Kid?” But his final recommendation reinforced my resolve to be part of the change when I resume my teaching career:

“Students — especially those who struggle to master expected outcomes — should be gathering and recording evidence of the progress that they are making on a daily and weekly basis.  More importantly, they should be actively comparing their own progress against examples of mastery and setting individual goals for continued improvement.  Finally, they should have as strong an understanding of what they’ve mastered as they do of the skills that they are struggling with.  Evidence of learning has to mean something more than “here’s what you haven’t learned yet.”

I constantly see new tech for facilitating this kind of ongoing assessment (So far, I’ve found SeeSaw and Google Classroom particularly appealing). But I know that it will be about much more than the tech–it will be about my attitude in helping my students take authentic ownership over their learning process.

What did I miss? What’s on your list? Please share below in the comments!

Featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto