What If? On Coauthoring Learning Reports

I feel a pang of annoyance. Parent follow-up every day? I wonder if I should feel insulted by a lack of trust. And doesn’t that parent know I have 25 other students to monitor? And what if all of their parents requested the same level of communication?

Sadly, such was my attitude when I first started teaching whenever a parent asked for more frequent communication on their child.

Fortunately, over time, I started to recognize just how important it is for parents to have a better window into their children’s learning–not just because of the fact that they have entrusted them to my care for 7 hours a day, but also because I came to grasp just how really terrible grades are at conveying meaningful learning.

Student-led conferences helped me take one of the first leaps forward in creating that window. The student ownership, the authentic conversations, and the overall sense of meaning facilitated unprecedented parent/student/teacher communication. (the link above will take you to that process, along with a lot of pdf resources)!

Student blogging came next in furthering the communication cause. I knew I wanted my students to be able to showcase their learning journeys in ways their parents could more easily access. The students loved commenting on one another’s blog posts, but the real joy came as parents started leaving responses, too–words of encouragement, support, and love.

Now that I’m away from my classroom, I have time to reflect on how I can further build the school/home window.  Michael Bond-Clegg’s recent post, “Are We Prioritizing the Tradition of a Report Card Over Student Learning?” really got me pondering this when he writes:

timely-learning-reports

Here are just a few of my what ifs for now. I would love to hear your feedback, especially if it’s something you’ve tried/dreamed about as well!

  • What if teachers and students regularly coauthored learning reports (do you think something like this would work–I was thinking that notes could be added in each relevant category as learning developments worth noting arise, not as a chart to be completely filled each week)?
  • What if teachers openly discussed our anecdotal notes with each student and asked for their feedback?
  • What if parents were able to write and respond to notes with what they are seeing at home with regards to specific learning goals?
  • What if students were able to write and respond to notes with what they are experiencing with regards to specific learning goals?
  • What if we completely eliminated surprise “grades” and moments like those illustrated in the meme below?
Meme Binge
Meme Binge

featured image:

Sitting On The Same Side of The Table: On Student Accountability

We’ve seen the signs.

stop-parent-sign

We’ve said to ourselves, “Been there!”


And we’ve typed out responses like, “Preach!”

Because student accountability is tough. But it’s also one of the slipperiest slopes in education.

On the one hand, we have a desire for/belief in students’ ability to grow, and expectations for responsibility.

An example of the reasoning in this camp includes when author Jessica Lahey says with regards to the above parent stop sign, “Childhood is a continual, long-term process of learning how to make our way in the world, and parents who short-circuit that education by rescuing their kids are not doing them any favors.”

On the other hand, we have a desire to both exemplify and show compassion, patience, and developmental understanding.

Outspoken advocates in this camp include Alfie Kohn when he states, “A pair of studies by researchers at the University of Texas and New York University confirmed that parents who “attribute greater competence and responsibility to misbehaving children” are more likely to get upset with them, to condemn and punish them. Such parents become frustrated by what they see as inappropriate behavior, and they respond, in effect, by cracking down on little kids for being little kids — something that can be heartbreaking to watch. By contrast, parents who understand children’s developmental limitations tend to prefer “calm explanation and reasoning” in response to the same actions.” http://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/high-low/

Amid the missing papers, messy desks, and forgotten lunch ID numbers, it’s easy in our exasperation to want to point across the table at that little human’s deficiencies. To implement stricter consequences. To put up more posters on students taking responsibility.  In other words, it’s easy to put it all on the children in front of us, sitting across from them instead of “sitting next to” them (see Engaged Feedback Checklist below) to look at the issues together.

I don’t necessarily believe there’s never a place for the sentiment or action displayed in the above photos in specific contexts. BUT at the same time, I wonder how the culture in our classrooms would be impacted if these kinds of posters plastered our schools instead.

Like Brene Brown’s Feedback Checklist (this one had a significant impact on my attitudes and practices the year I decided to display it in my classroom):

brene-brown-feedback-checklist

Or this profound reminder to us all:

made-them-feel

Or even just:

good-day

Yes, student accountability is messy. But I think we do a better job navigating it if, instead of trying to create one-size-fits-all zero-tolerance policies, we choose to simply accept the messiness and focus on the relationships.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Come back next Friday for another “Learning Through Reflecting” post. Read here for the rest of my weekly blogging topic schedule/background.

“Mistakes Are For Learning” #TeacherMom

On Monday, my first grader came home from school and announced, “Mistakes are for learning.” Throughout the rest of the day, she repeated the mantra in various contexts–including sharing it with a restaurant manager helping us out when we found wax paper in a burger.

Pleased though I am that she seems to finally be grasping this essential element of the growth mindset, I can’t help but marvel at how long it took for this concept to sink in.  After all, having studied Carol Dweck’s growth mindset, I’ve made it a point over the years to try to help her celebrate failures and recognize opportunities for growth.

But it wasn’t until a first grade teacher shared it in such simple terms as “Mistakes are for learning” that things clicked. And I couldn’t be more grateful for the timing. First grade is packed with pivotal moments for learning, failing, and growing. With a fresh school year, she’s still dazzled by every aspect: practicing spelling lists, listening to audiobooks, participating in a computer math program that advances users as they demonstrate mastery.

But I know that it won’t be long before the novelty will wear off. The tasks will become more challenging. The routine will become less enchanting. Mistakes will always be for learning, but that will not make them frustration-proof.

The key will be to help her maintain her understanding of the positive outcomes even amid the discomfort. To recall previous moments of victory as a result of repeated effort and failure. (Like when she recently wrote a book title, and when she asked me to read it, and I read aloud phonetically, “The Kumfee Kav,” she dashed off saying, “OH! I forgot ‘cave’s’ silent ‘e’ to make the ‘a’ say its own name! I can fix that!”). To remember that though progress may be slow, as Khan Academy’s video below emphasizes, “[She] can learn anything.” Most of all, to celebrate the journey along the way.

So to all the teachers currently in the classroom, thank you. Thank you for stepping in, shedding light, and reaching our kids in ways we parents can’t always do.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Come back next Wednesday for another “#TeacherMom” post. Read here for the rest of my weekly blogging topic schedule/background.

Why You Should Watch The Little Prince As this School Year Starts

When Netflix announced their film rendition of The Little Prince, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who worried whether it would do justice to the literary masterpiece.

Creative license was certainly taken to help weave the original ideas through a more chronological narrative, but I found it to have a complementary rather than competing effect.

But for reasons beyond simple enjoyment of a beautiful piece of art, I found myself repeatedly thinking what a marvelous watch this would make for anyone involved in education. I’ve listed the reasons I found most significant below.

#1: It reminds us to see the world through students’ eyes.

Amid a tense plot point when the Aviator’s fate hung in the balance, the protagonist’s mother told her, “Remember, tomorrow is a very important day.”

My daughter promptly said, “Not to her. The only important thing to her is that old man.”

It seems ironic that the very standards/hopes/priorities that are supposed to be about our students are the very fog that can prevent us from truly seeing those students: their learning, their hopes, and their priorities.

#2 It reminds us not to take too much stock in one solution, program, or set of standards.

“How can everything that is essential be in one book?”

When we depend entirely on one boxed program to “cover” content, we will absolutely miss out on what is most essential. After all, it’s in the little, messy moments that we find the real thinking and learning (not, as those boxed programs would lead us to believe, in all the “right answers” that students regurgitate).

#3 It reminds us to honor the present

“You’re going to make a wonderful adult.” (Protagonist’s mother)

With all the pressures on “readiness,” we can all use a reminder to see the child in front of us right now.

#4 …While also reminding us to consider what matters most for the future.

“You’re going to make a wonderful adult.” (Aviator)

I found it significant that this same line takes on different meanings in the two contexts. The same is true when we consider our children’s futures in general. Allowing our actions to be driven by fear of failure (theirs and de facto ours) just yields more stress and panic. Acting out of optimism for who our children are now and their worthwhile developing qualities produces more hope and confidence.

featured image: MissMayoi

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

10 Mixed Messages: Are You Confusing Your Students?

#1: “I want you to voice meaningful opinions and learn to articulately participate in group discussions, but you need to listen to me speak 90% of the time.”

Speaking and listening skills do not spontaneously happen; they take years of purposeful cultivation. When the teacher voice is the predominant one in the classroom, it takes away from opportunities for students’ voices to be heard, challenged, and refined.

#2: “You are competent, but you need to ask me before you use the restroom.”

I recently wrote about the need to abolish “Can I go to the bathroom?” There will always be specific exceptions for unique situations, but if we want our students to believe that we consider them to be competent and trustworthy, we should make trust the rule, not the exception.

#3: “It’s ok to fail and make mistakes, but remember you’re going to be graded on this!”

Nothing quite like holding a weighty grade over someone’s head to keep them from wanting to take risks with their learning!

#4: “I want you to learn to be a critical thinker and problem solver, but I will give you all instructions for completing tasks!”

How often do we let them struggle? How often do purposefully teach the fixed vs. growth mindset to help them learn to persevere and problem-solve? (check out this wonderful example of supporting students as they learned to examine their own fixed vs. growth mindsets).

#5: “We are part of a shared learning environment, but every lesson, transition, and conversation starts and ends with me.”

We may tell our students that this is a shared learning environment, but are you really sharing it? Giving up control over every aspect of the learning can be a struggle, but it’s an important step toward creating a truly student-centered classroom.

#6: “I want you to discover and act upon your passions, but covering this curriculum is our biggest priority.”

Of course the curriculum is generally set, but does that mean it must be the be-all-and-end-all in your learning environment? What if we let students take the lead with inquiry and project-based learning, while we pull overarching concepts (as opposed to content) and help them connect the dots?

#7: “I believe you can have a true voice in the world, but you’ll need to wait until you’re an adult before you can safely interact with individuals online.”

We want our students to be positive, contributing citizens of their communities; why do we hold back from teaching them to be positive, contributing digital citizens of the global community?

#8: “I want you to make authentic connections to this learning, but you need to memorize this because it will be on the test.”

If your answer to “why do we have to learn this” doesn’t reach beyond the test, it’s unlikely students are going to be making any personal connections any time soon. We can and should evaluate our students’ progress and learning, but it should be in the form of more natural feedback to their learning pursuits, rather than grading memorized content.

#9: “I want you to dream of possibilities, but the moment I give the quiet signal, you must immediately stop and pay attention to me.”

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t have a quiet signal. However, there are ways we can respect students’ thinking time, ie. giving them plenty of time to begin with, setting a timer, giving them notice before the transition, etc.

#10: What are other mixed messages you’ve seen? What can we do to change it? Please share in the comments!

featured image: Jon Wiley

6 Thoughts on What’s Wrong With Compliance

In “An Open Letter to Pinterest from a Teacher,” I wrote about worrisome pins, including those that circulate around compliance. One commenter responded with her perspective:
Compliance Comment

 

There seems to be differing views on what compliance really entails. When we are concerned about students’ disregard of rules and respect, where do we look for answers? I would assert that turning to compliance is treating the symptom and not the cause. This thoughtful comment has inspired me to further expound on my thoughts. Below are six issues with compliance that come to mind. 

Lack of compliance does not mean lack of rules

Creating rules is always an important strategy for forming positive learning environments. But if we approach the rule-making process from a teacher-centered “here-are-my-rules;-now-follow-them” mindset, we are unnecessarily centering that environment on a top-down compliance system. We can achieve a more positive–and accountable–environment when we share this process, asking students what they need to be able to learn.

Compliance does not equal respect

The very definition of compliance conflicts with building respectful relationships. Synonyms on Thesaurus.com include:

  • don’t make waves
  • fit in
  • satisfy
  • submit
  • give in
  • give up

If our primary interest is to build mutually respectful relationships with our students, plastering our walls with things like “blurt out” charts detracts from that message.

bbbfd9ad4c4b14cba518ffc0c92d3710

Compliance is often counterproductive for cooperation

Principal David Geurin discusses the problems that arise when we value compliance over commitment from our teachers. This principle equally applies to our students. As Geurin says, “[Compliance] may result in some change in behavior, but it may only get the appearance of a change in behavior.” If we instead shift our focus on truly connecting with our students, I believe we would cultivate deeper understanding of and commitment to a shared vision for a positive learning environment.

Compliance diminishes learning

I shared this example in a response to the comment and I’ll share it here, too. During the first few of weeks of kindergarten, my daughter came home chatting and singing all about nothing but following instructions and sitting at the carpet. And that seemed natural, because most teachers focus on classroom procedures and rules during the first part of school. But the unfortunate result was that she was trained from the get-go what school is about–and it wasn’t learning. It was compliance. Not anticipation for the wonderings they’d explore. Not hope that their curiosity and abilities would be cultivated. Not even simple joy for discovering the world around them. Compliance. And when compliance is the tone of a classroom environment, when it is valued above all else, at best, learning is diminished. After all, how can we expect students to branch out, take risks, and explore the possibilities when they are continually waiting to be told where to be, what to say, and how to sit?

Compliance sacrifices creativity for control

Educator Michael Niehoff distinguishes between two “camps:” compliance/control vs. creativity/innovation. He finds that when it comes down to a challenge, we often have a choice to make between the two sides, and that those who stubbornly stick with compliance can miss out on unexpected learning opportunities. If we want our students to think outside the box, we need to actively model that as well by sometimes letting go of our preconceived biases and attitudes toward how school “should” be done.

Compliance can silence student voice

One of the ugliest consequences of compliance is when our students leave their contributions at the door because they know that their voices won’t really be heard anyway. But it’s difficult to spot because teachers, administrators, and a parents alike sometimes confuse it with good discipline. This issue was recently documented by Inquiry Partners when a perceived top-rate classroom was observed and filmed. Most everyone came away with glowing reviews, but as the author states, “what none of them knew…was that what we were actually filming was a prime (and common) example of student disengagement.” They found that 86 of the 90 minutes, the students were sitting and listening. These are clearly students who have been groomed for years for compliance. And it happens in even the best teachers’ classrooms.


 

None of this is to discount the need for individual behavior contracts or similar measures on occasion. But even in those circumstances, we should be careful to ask ourselves if we care more about the students simply complying with the rules, or working to help them take steps toward meaningful change for themselves. What about you? What does compliance mean to you? And what has happened in your classroom when you begin to let go of control?

featured image: Jesse Moore