5 Reasons To Prioritize Relationships Over Content

It is the relationships that separates schools, not the content.” 

What makes the above statement from George Couros true? What makes the quality of relationships within a school so defining?

1. Content is available everywhere: Khan Academy, Google, tutoring software. Our secret weapon as teachers is our rapport and responsiveness to students’ needs. As such, we should challenge anything that seeks to twist our role from responsive guides to automated deliverers (we must remain agents that purposely wield the textbooks, tech, etc. to meet students needs — and not become pawns being acted upon by such resources).

2.Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” If you have somehow missed the phenomenally inspiring video from Rita Pierson, you’ve got to check it out. Our students will remember the way they were treated in our classrooms for far longer than any clever science lesson or math worksheet. While 180 days may seem long, if you do the math of an average class of 25-30 students, that only gives us 6-7 days per student to prove to them that they matter and belong in our classrooms.

3. It improves classroom management, which in turn increases time for learning. Edutopia recently shared an article based on 700 teacher responses on “5 Principles of Outstanding Classroom Management.” Guess what was on that list of top 5? Yep, building relationships. And when those relationships are secure, when they know they are seen and heard and belong, they are more willing to trust us as we guide them toward their learning.

4. It improves our modeling efforts. If we want our students to see themselves as readers, as writers, and mathematicians, as scientists, we need to model what exactly that looks like. As Lucy Calkins writes in her 10 Essentials of Reading Instruction, “Learners need teachers who demonstrate what it means to live richly literate lives, wearing a love of reading on their sleeves. Teachers need professional development and a culture of collaborative practice to develop their abilities to teach.” Such modeling is only successful if students have a desire to exemplify what we demonstrate, and that only comes through strong relationships.

5. It creates an atmosphere of greater authenticity. Especially for our students who struggle against “the game of school,” changing the rules by focusing on people first is powerful. Our students start to learn to trust that they can truly show up for the learning each day, because they will be seen and valued.

What are reasons you have found to justify the time required for prioritizing relationships?

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Love & Logic Limits: Is It Always a Choice? #TeacherMom

The lack of a school-bell telling me where to be at all times is probably my Achilles heel of stay-at-home parenthood. So a couple mornings ago — having gotten sidetracked by my newest flea-bitten idea for making our small space function more efficiently — by the time I got showered and ready for the day, my preschooler had stealthily pilfered the refrigerator and my one year old had had a fabulous time with a contraband stick of gum.

What’s more, having had a late bedtime the night before, my three year-old was also clearly ready for an early nap — evidenced by the fact when I asked him if he was ready to choose his clothes to go buy groceries, he dissolved into melt-down mode because he wanted a snack first. To top it off, the entire episode devolved to him irrationally stomping on his baby brother’s hands.

Now, if I were to focus on a strictly Love and Logic approach here, I might have told my 3 year year-old something like this: “Son, what sad choices to refuse to wear your clothes and to hurt your brother! I’m going to do something about this. We’ll talk later.”

Limitation #1: When we mistakenly assume that this is just about a poor choice. Such a response may help to temporarily and even effectively diffuse the situation, but it ultimately tends to puts the blame squarely on his shoulders when, in fact, there were factors so far beyond his control at work here (late bedtime, off-schedule morning, etc) that he was now operating in fight/flight mode.

Enter the discussion on “stress behavior.”

I’m fascinated by the concept of misbehavior vs stress behavior in Stuart Shanker’s Self-Reg. He writes:

“The concept of misbehavior is fundamentally tied to those of volitionchoice, and awareness. It assumes that the child willingly chose to act the way he did. He could have acted differently, was even aware that he should have acted differently. But stress behavior is physiologically based. When this happens, the child is not deliberately choosing his actions or aware in a rational way of what he’s doing…because his nervous system, triggered by a sense of threat, shifts to fight or flight. There are some simple ways to gauge when we’re dealing with misbehavior. Ask the child why he did such and such, and if he answers with any explanation — no matter what his rationale — there’s a pretty good chance he knew what he was doing. Or ask him to tell you with a straight face that he didn’t know that what he was doing was wrong. Stress behavior also reveals itself quickly. If you see confusion, fear, anger, or deep distress in that face, if your child averts his eyes or finds it hard to even just look at you, those are often signs of hyperarousal and of stress behavior.”

Older students aren’t going to have the same self-regulatory issues as the little ones, but we should still be on the look-out for when they arise, and cultivate their ability to self-regulate in the meantime.

Limitation #2: When we mistakenly assume that this is just about defiance. This is closely linked with the first. For our discussion on this limitation, we’ll take a look at this “nobody loses” approach on the Love & Logic blog below:

First, a disclaimer. Maybe Jessie was causing serious trouble and disturbing Brittany by moving her chair to work with her. If that’s the case, then I think this is an absolutely fitting Love & Logic response. However, if Jessie was simply trying to solve her problem of needing help by seeking it from a peer (as per the Love & Logic rule that we can do anything to solve our problems as long as it does not cause a problem for you or anyone else), it begs the question of whether the Love & Logic response here was necessary to begin with.

If our goal is control, then we will reap defiance in abundance.

I appreciate another passage from Self-Reg here:

“As parents [and teachers] it’s natural to assume that when our child’s behavior or our reactions feel “out of control,” then control is what’s missing. But to focus on control is also to shut down opportunity: end of discussion, end of a potentially constructive interaction, end of a teachable moment of lasting value. Self-Reg instantly opens the moment to opportunity. That begins with the simple act of asking, “Why now?””

And if the teacher in this hypothetical focuses more on control than on Jessie’s need for help, then an opportunity is missed indeed.

Naturally, angry, rude, and disrespectful outbursts are never acceptable, and require correction. But I wonder if we might find ourselves doing less correcting if we instead adopt what’s found in Brene Brown’s “Engaged Feedback Checklist” (esp #1, 2, and 7 for our context here):

Failure to recognize these limitations — to treat all poor behavior as deliberate and disrespectful decisions — can ultimately damage relationships with those who most need our help.

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Where Love & Logic Comes Into “Oppositional” Interactions with Students

In just a couple of weeks, I get to run a Love and Logic workshop at my old school. This has me reflecting on the purpose of the Love and Logic approach, and how it applies during particularly difficult situations.

For example, what do we do when our students actually seem to be getting something out of the opposition with us? One of Seth Godin’s recent posts examines what to do when someone refuses all our efforts to achieve a solution. “It might be, though, that being oppositional is making them happy. It may be that the best way to satisfy their objections is to let them keep objecting.”

Now, when that someone is very young and very stuck in their frustration or poor choice, we can’t very well just say “Fine! Keep being frustrated!” Not only does that kind of response leave everyone upset, but it doesn’t help teach the child better choices. So what options are left to us (especially when we’re not exactly feeling, “Oh, goodie, a learning opportunity!”)?

One of the important rules of Love and Logic is to keep anger, threats, and lecturing out of our communication, because kids actually tend to feed off this entertaining display of adult emotion.

So when a child is being oppositional, here are some Love & Logic strategies that might come into play:

  • Treat both the symptoms and causes.
  • Don’t set yourself up to lose, which includes avoiding making requests for a change in behavior in front of the class — the opportunity to argue on display can be another source that feeds the opposition.
  • Maintain your personal energy levels and feelings of dignity, even when logical consequences aren’t available, through the Energy Drain approach.
  •  Don’t feel like you must come up with a consequence in the very moment of the poor behavior, when emotions are likely running high all the way around. Instead, try Anticipatory Consequences.
  • Rather than engaging in arguments, neutralize them with statements of empathy or “one-liners.” Return to the discussion later when you are both calm and ready to talk.

We all want and need to focus on building the relationship with each child. But if they have become accustomed to argument and defiance, we must also work to help them break habits and understand that you value dignity, both for themselves and yourself. Through it all, work to be genuine and express love and appreciation for each and every child, because that is where any good relationship starts.

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10 Ways for “Every Student to Be On Their Own Learning Path”

Edutopia recently shared Sal Khan’s story and vision in establishing Khan Academy. What stands out most to me was his goal for Khan Academy to help “Bring [us] closer to this model of true personalization where every student is on their own learning path and feels fully engaged.”

Khan Academy can indeed be such a tool for this personalization goal. But it certainly cannot and does not stand alone in such a lofty pursuit. Fortunately for us all, teachers are globally and daily sharing their aha moments and best practices. Here are additional ideas, largely thanks to my PLN’s incredible willingness to share their learning journeys, for helping students get on “their own learning path.”

1. Allow them to plan their day. As teachers Taryn Bond-Clegg and Aviva Dunsiger have illustrated, this can be done with older and younger students:

A good reminder and a little learning for me today … #iteachk #teachersofinstagram #ctinquiry

A post shared by Aviva (@avivaloca) on

Taryn’s full post “Supporting Students’ Agency Take 2” is definitely worth a read. Click on the above images for the link.

2. Do whatever it takes to find out how they really feel. I believe it’s mainly fear that holds us back from uncovering student voice — because what if they say they hate our subjects? What if it invites conflict? What if it takes too much time?

Indeed, when I read posts from Pernille Ripp like her recent “When Reading is Trash or Magic” that shares how she seeks for students’ honest feedback, I wonder how on earth I would respond to some of their bold answers. However, the truth that she and others who do the same have taught me is this:

Only when we uncover students’ true feelings can we help them develop shifts in mindset.

Only when they recognize that they can express what they truly feel — without fear of teacher disapproval or backlash — will they be willing to let their guard down enough to give things a shot.

And only when they see that we are willing to work with them wherever they are will they be able to embark on their own learning path.

3. Help them break down required learning outcomes to tackle them on their terms. Again, Taryn Bond-Clegg shares a fabulous example of this in her post above. Rather than just presenting students with a list of objectives, she helps them break things down into a gradual increase of independence. I have yet to find a better way to negotiate the existence of required learning outcomes with student ownership over their learning.

Taryn shares ways they helped students learn from experts to “ensure [they] are on the right track”
4. Explicitly teach AND model the growth mindset. And it’s not enough to settle on simple platitudes of, “you can do anything if you just try.” It takes being authentic and vulnerable with them. As Jo Boaler recently shared in season 3 episode 1 of #IMOOC (32:10):

“One of the problems kids have is they look at their math teacher and they think, ‘Oh, that’s what being a math person is; you know everything, you never make mistakes, you’re totally sure of everything.’ That’s a terrible image to give kids. So one of the reasons teachers don’t try some of those more open creative tasks is because they don’t know what will happen. They don’t know what kids are going to do.”

Katie Martin adds, “[We must] have conversations with kids about making mistakes — and not just a fake make-mistake — but when you’re actually taking a risk, where you have the possibility of something not working out, [that’s] really powerful.”

5. Explicitly teach AND model metacognition. Visible thinking routines are especially useful on this front because it brings that thinking to the surface. I loved having the opportunity to work with teachers at my old school last year during which we applied visible thinking routines to bring their thoughts on inquiry to the whiteboard for group dissection. Students must learn their processes to bring their thinking to the surface in order to more fully take the reins over their learning.

6. Provide choice in how they organize their thinking. Melanie Meehan recently shared an excellent example of how we sometimes get caught in the pitfall of believing all the students need to use the same graphic organizer to gather their thoughts. Here’s her example of several writing graphic organizers:

(speaking of ways writers plan, have you ever geeked out over seen J.K. Rowling’s timelines for her plotlines?)

7. Provide choice in how they express/assess their thinking. Seesaw, notebooks, vlogs, portfolios, word clouds, Storybird, Prezi, sketchnotes… the list goes on and on. The point is that we need to get out of the mindset that all the students need to have the same presentation in order for it to be valid.

8. Create a rich and diverse culture of reading. I loved watching Colby Sharp’s vlog touring his classroom library — quite aside from the sheer volume, I was impressed at his clear efforts to reach all his students’ reading needs. Obviously, this culture goes beyond just the presence of books — my short list for additional inspiration includes Nerdy Book Club, Pernille Ripp’s blog, and LibraryGirl.

9. Give them autonomy over self-regulatory basics. This includes bathroom use and snacks. I wrote some time ago about why and how we need to abolish “Can I Go to the Bathroom?” and it’s just as relevant as ever now. I also appreciated Aviva Dunsiger’s classroom tour when she showed where and why she has a designated spot for her kindergartners to “eat when they feel hungry.” After all, how can we expect them to be on their own learning path if they are distracted by waiting to take care of their personal basic needs?

10. Prioritize the pursuit of meaning Time and time again, through my own practice and through the many wonderful teachers in my PLN, meaning is the way we get out of “the game of school.” If it doesn’t personally matter to them, nothing we do will matter in the longterm. See my story of “Digging Deeper in a Poetry Unit” on Edutopia for a personal example.

I look forward to continuing to learn and discover ways we can truly help our students own and personalize their learning. Thank you to all the teachers out there who have and continue to share their learning journeys!

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Keep ‘Em Busy or Facilitate the Best Busy-ness #TeacherMom

When we are stressed out by our kids’ busy-ness, how do we respond?

My youngest has recently reached an apex of busy-ness I never thought possible from such a small person. The term “relentless” is probably his most readily identified descriptor.

And for the sake of maintaining my sanity, I have definitely been in the camp of trying to keep my own children busy long enough to let me hear my own thoughts from time to time.

With our students, it can become a strong temptation to do something similar — particularly when we are trying to work with small groups.

Norah Colvin’s recent post had me thinking more about this notion. She writes:

“What about a busy toddler? Toddlers are some of the busiest people I know. And they are generally quite joyous in their busyness, demonstrating the true meaning of being in the present moment. For me, being busy is a joy when the activities are of my choice and for my purposes. I have no need to find things to keep me busy. There is more I wish to do than I will ever have time to complete. I resent tasks that keep me busy and away from what I’d rather be doing.”

No matter how much our kids grow, we can help them uncover the busy-ness that will spark that joy within. But not when it’s overly contrived and designed around our agenda — it seems that for whatever reason, even the most engaging endeavors become less so when kids sense there’s an end-game for distraction for grown-ups’ benefit.

For our classrooms full of vastly different, busy students, this means to providing authentic choice. It means teaching them to regulate their own time and interests. It means facilitating the very best kinds of busy.

And for my house that seems to be bursting at the seams with a busy 1 year-old, it means finding ways to just let go and enjoy this crazy ride together.

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The Magic of “You Can”

In an article on TED-Ed clubs this last summer, one tip particularly stood out to me:

“Don’t tell them ‘you can’t’ even if the idea is crazy, tell them ‘you can’ and you will see the magic.”

On the same day I read the article, I had also read about a boy who has invented a small device intended to save babies accidentally left behind in hot cars.

It’s clear from this video that this is a child who is told “you can” on a regular basis in a loving environment. But what if he weren’t?

The naysayers in Facebook comments on this story were abundant, insisting that this idea would just encourage lazy parents, or that it would be futile against extreme heat anyway. And while many of these people are just exhibiting the unfortunate behavior typical of those who don’t see themselves as digital citizens (ie, they enjoying the roles of anonymity, consumption, and sidelines over authenticity, contribution, and involvement), they completely miss the beautiful picture here:

A 10 year-old child has actually devised a prototype in an attempt to better the world around him!

It still makes me wonder, how often do we, as the grown-ups, shut down our kids’ ideas, though they might have potential for brilliance? With my own children, I know I can sometimes have a much greater tendency toward anticipating the mess and the the improbability and the disappointment.

The point is, even if there is validity in our grown-up criticisms (it will take forever to clean up; it won’t help as many people as you think; it will be way slower to do it your way), when a child exhibits any kind of enthusiasm, compassion, and initiative, do we really want to shut that down?

So again, I remind myself:

“Don’t tell them ‘you can’t’ even if the idea is crazy, tell them ‘you can’ and you will see the magic.”

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4 Reasons We Just Can’t Break Up with Basals (& How to Finally Move On)

The typical basal-reading program lesson frequently boils down to something like this:

  • Assigned shared text read aloud.
  • Definitions of carefully-bolded vocabulary words copied down.
  • Comprehension worksheets filled out.
  • Students and teachers alike feeling bored to tears.

The truth is, putting kids through this kind of soul-less exercise will produce authentic readers no more than the mastery of connect-the-dots sheets will produce artists.

And we know it. Master teachers refer to the need to “finesse and hybridize” basals to make sure they’re effective. ¹ (which also makes basals’ claims at “research-based effectiveness” shaky since there’s real possibility they take credit for master teachers’ adjustments).

There are so many other ways to help our students develop the reading skills they need while protecting and nurturing their love of reading. Here are a few of the messages I believe we keep getting from basal program companies to convince us otherwise.

#1: Inexperienced teachers need me!

Basals assert that new teachers won’t be able to navigate the waters of literacy instruction without their careful direction. However, if our solution for offering literacy support to new teachers is to let them muddle through a sub-par program, we’re doing a disservice to both our teachers and our students.

Furthermore, even with all the details of a basal program (many of which supply ideas for differentiation, activating background knowledge, etc), “only a well-trained teacher can make the multifaceted decisions involved in developing such instruction”² anyway. Outsourcing this training to a one-size fits all manual is simply inadequate.

P.S. Going basal-free doesn’t mean you have to/should abandon a framework. One phenomenal example is a a workshop framework by Pam Allyn that I reviewed a couple years ago.

#2: You can’t be sure students will develop skills without my guidance.

In a workshop/units of study model, not only do students develop literacy skills, but they do so with a greater degree of context and response to the ongoing trajectory of student learning.

Meanwhile, basal programs tend to spend disproportionate amounts of time drilling specific skills, such as the ones involved in reading comprehension. Consider this:

“It is critical to note that these and other reading programs allocate as much or more actual time to rehearsing comprehension skills than they allocate to teaching any other element in their language-arts program…In reality, when children experience problems comprehending text, it is much more likely due to the child’s lack of knowledge of the subject matter…The notion that we can teach students a set of skills that they will be able to apply to new and unfamiliar texts or situations is a process that cognitive psychologists call “skills transference.” This is regarded as an inordinately difficult task for our brains to pull off and, therefore, is not a practical educational goal. But it is a goal set forward by every major reading program on the market.”³

In addition, even if students develop said skills, if they never apply them because all those basal worksheets suffocated their love of reading, what’s the point? As educator Ross Cooper wrote, “First and foremost, we must promote a love of reading, not a culture of literacy-based micromanagement.4

#3: You won’t have ready access to ability-appropriate text!

Twenty years ago, this may have been the case. But just consider this small sampling of today’s possibilities:

  • Shared texts via projectors/document cameras
  • Newsela (engaging, level-able text at the click of a button)
  • Wonderopolis (text based on “more than 90,000 Wonder questions submitted by users” and differentiation features such as selected-text-to-audio and hover-to-define-vocabulary)
  • DOGO (kid-friendly news that’s also leveled at the click of a button and includes assignments, vocab, and Google Classroom integration)
  • Savvy multimedia librarians that can help identify/pull relevant texts during the immersion phase of units.

#4: You won’t have as much time without me to meet students’ individual needs!

Basal models assume that most kids’ learning takes place right at the top of the bell curve, with “differentiation tips” for the few kids on either side of the curve. But the truth is, every journey is unique. The sooner we disentangle ourselves from all the micromanaged requirements of a basal, the sooner we can spend our time where it really counts: 1-1 conferences, responsive mini-lessons, mentor text studies, student ownership/agency, etc.

No matter what promises are made to the contrary, we need to remember that “there’s no simple solution, no panacea, or miracle cure for reading. The range of ways to solve reading achievement challenges is as broad as the range of student profiles.”²

Sources:

1. http://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1507&context=ehd_theses

2. https://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/resources/2/Principal/2009/J-F_p26.pdf

3. http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Basal_readers.pdf

4. http://www.bamradionetwork.com/edwords-blog/3-reasons-to-rethink-your-basal-reader

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