10 Tips for Tough Conversations between Home & School

I was devastated. It was my first email from a parent expressing unhappiness, and I struggled to take it in stride. After all, I was devoting all my intellectual, emotional, and even physical capacity toward my students’ success and well-being. Yet the parent reported that her daughter had been spending longer and longer evenings frustrated over homework, culminating in one tearful 2½-hour evening of math.

What I hadn’t yet recognized was just how difficult it can be for parents to send such emails to begin with. Despite the fact that they entrust their children to our care for 7+ hours a day, parents often face debilitating intimidation to reach out.

So this is a post for those parents, who worry that despite their best efforts to impart concepts of self-worth and love, their children go unseen at school. Who fret that the learning is losing its joy and wonder amidst all the pressure. Who ache when their children seem to struggle for belonging in vain.  

But this is also a post for teachers like me, who worry that despite their best efforts to impart concepts of self-worth and love, they have overlooked a student’s needs. Who fret that the learning is losing its joy and wonder amidst all the pressure. Who ache when their students seem to struggle for belonging in vain.

This is a post for us all. Because no matter how fleeting, these moments are real–and raw, and messy, and dark. And no one, not parents, not teachers, and especially not our students, should have to face them alone.

#1

Parents: Just click send. Have courage to speak. You can spend the rest of the year worrying and hoping for things to improve, or you can open the channels now for clarity and support.

Teachers: Recognize and validate that courage. Look at every email from parents as an opportunity to build trust and understanding.

#2

Parents: Don’t underestimate your voice. Yes, teachers and administrators are professionals, but they are also human beings. And most are striving for positive change and growth every day. You have an opportunity to be part of that change if you only let your voice be heard.

Teachers: If you make sure you daily revisit your priority to find better ways to reach your students, the rest will follow, including recognizing the value of parent voices in that pursuit.

#3

Parents: Recognize that criticism doesn’t equal disrespect. Even while facing serious concerns for their children, I’ve heard parents express, “Well, they’re the professionals, right? So I should trust what they’re doing.” Again, even the most phenomenal teachers and administrators can and do make mistakes. You can absolutely convey concerns without being disrespectful.

Teachers: As hard as it can be, take it in stride. Even if some parents seem undiplomatic in their communication, remember that you are united in the common goal of promoting their child’s welfare.

#4

Parents: Remember that they “cannot solve problems that [they] don’t know exist.” (George Couros) Depending on the issue, it may be better for parents to encourage their older children have these conversations with teachers themselves, but especially for your younger children, if you don’t communicate the problem, who will?

Teachers: Except for the rare occasions of absolutely wild and unfounded accusations (we’re talking extremes here that are an entirely different blog post), each of these emails are an opportunity for you to reflect. Remember to seek support from your administrators, particularly when problems stem from a more complex source.  

#5

Parents: Acknowledge the big picture. To minimize an accusatory tone, include what is going well, and, if applicable, acknowledge possible extenuating circumstances you’ve observed that may be contributing to the problem. However, be sure to remain clear on what you have observed to be an issue.

Teachers: Try to be proactive in communicating with parents to begin with, giving them abundant opportunities for interaction, as well as a window into what’s really happening in their child’s classroom. Problems sometimes stem from differing or even misguided notions of pedagogy, but if you give parents a chance to thoroughly see the why behind what you do, you are more likely to bridge those gaps.

#6

Parents: Be specific. Give details, examples, and anecdotes of what you are observing. It’s easier for teachers and administrators to address what’s going on if you can give them a clear picture. If possible, try to volunteer in the classroom at least once before sending the email–chances are, either you’ll find it unnecessary after all, or else you may find additional details you may want to include in your communication.

Teachers: Remember that there’s a difference between just saying you welcome volunteers and facilitating an easy way for parents to volunteer. Create a Google Spreadsheet outlining what you could use help with and with slots to volunteer (see an example I designed for our entire 5th grade team here).

#7

Parents: Express your genuine willingness to help the situation. In the words of Tina Fey, “Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.” Offer to meet for an in-person discussion, or to come in and volunteer. To further make it clear that you would like to be part of the solution, you may also find it helpful to use phrases such as, “I have a question I was hoping you could help me solve,” or “I was wondering what I can do to help address an issue I’ve noticed.”

Teachers: Take advantage of any offer parents make to contribute to the solution. Warmly acknowledge that offer, and be flexible in arranging meeting times.

#8

Parents: Don’t just accept the status quo. “It’s always been that way” should not command blanket approval. It’s not just ok to ask for the supporting research–it’s essential if we hope to move beyond outdated practices within our educational system.

Teachers: Make sure that you refuse to accept the status quo, too! The burden of asking why lies on everyone involved in education.

#9

Parents: Don’t assume. Remember that as you express your concern, do so as objectively as possible. Simply share what you have observed, and allow your teacher/administrator the opportunity to investigate and share the the cause.  

Teachers: Ditto. Resist the temptation to assign motive or labels to the parent.

#10

Parents: Recognize appropriate channels. It can be difficult to determine whether to direct your issue to the teacher or an administrator. Generally, if it is related to happenings within the classroom, it’s better to email the teacher; if it seems to be a more widespread or policy-based issue, it may be better suited for an administrator. When in doubt, email teachers first, because they can always pass it along to the administration if it is out of their hands–and you can always follow-up with the administration later if you are unable to reach a resolution with the teacher.

Teachers: Don’t assume that a parent is trying to go over your head if they email your principal first–they may simply be unsure how much power you have to address their concern.

Returning to my above-mentioned email, in the end, I was simply grateful. That parent’s email gave me the chance to reinforce what a priority my students’ well-being was to me. During our next class meeting, we revisited that priority, we listened to others’ experiences on homework, and we reminded everyone that sincere effort, balance of time, and best judgement are valued over simple completion of assignments. And all because one parent had the courage to share.

featured image: deathtothestockphoto

5 Ways to Stop Using Your Interactive Whiteboard as–a Whiteboard

Remember when I shared that story of the diy interactive whiteboard last year? Remember how I commented that we only even used it for occasional game show activities, eventually ditching it altogether? 

That was a classic example of what happens when edtech exceeds innovation. In all honesty, our usage level probably matched our abysmal functionality level, but I have witnessed this phenomenon in multiple classrooms equipped with full-fledged and shiny interactive whiteboards. And in these classrooms, they might as well have been using bog standard whiteboards. Sure, students may now be coming up to click “turn the page” on a book, or to tap the apples to add them up in a basket, but is that really elevating the learning experience beyond the pre-interactive whiteboard era? I’ve shared the GIF below before, but it seems especially appropriate to revisit here:


This is where this list comes in. In my experience, teachers learning and sharing with teachers is the best way to refine our practices. And in this case, we can help one another access the innovation necessary to prevent that new tech from just assimilating into business-as-usual, and we can do so in just 4 steps:

  • Step 1: Identify areas in which learning is stagnating, or even being diminished.
  • Step 2: Be the provoker by asking how a practice/resource enhances and challenges the classroom learning.
  • Step 3: Write, search out, and/or share strategies like those listed below–in the teacher’s lounge, on your Facebook page, on your blog…
  • Step 4: Reflect & repeat.

And so, here are 5 ways to maximize that interactive whiteboard. Keep in mind that these are targeted toward practical whole-group circumstances. For instance, it may sound tech-savvy to have a student zoom through Google Earth in front of the class, but consider whether that might be better suited for independent or small-group exploration on devices.

1. Document formative assessments: We all know that formative assessments should be a frequent staple, but we also know how cumbersome that documentation can be. Put your interactive whiteboard to work by doing those group Visible Thinking routines on the board. The large Chalk Talk board? Saved for future discussion! That KWL chart? Imagine the layers of reflection as you can easily save and revisit it throughout the unit or even year.

2. Collectively reflect on methods. I’ll let two photos speak for themselves on this one:

via Making Good Humans
via Making Good Humans
via The Curious Kindergarten
via The Curious Kindergarten

3. Provocations: Starting a unit with some thought-provoking photos or videos? Allow students to annotate screen shots with their initial thinking, and then easily revisit at the end of the unit. 

4. Reading and Writing workshop: When it comes to unearthing the complex journey of literacy development, interactive whiteboards can be pure magic. Annotate a students’ writing sample (with their permission, of course). Highlight what individuals notice about a mentor text passage. Co-construct anchor charts of all shapes and sizes. And as you go, shrink them all down to printable a size, pinning them up as evidence, examples, and resources.

 

My old literacy bulletin boards

5. Expand the conversation: After utilizing any of the above, remember your option to share these moments with a broader audience. Ask your quadblogging buddies to add their own annotations to your class’. Post tricky questions to Twitter with the hashtag, #comments4kids. Invite your students to share their follow-up thinking on their own blogs

What are your favorite uses of your interactive whiteboard that match the innovation to the tech? Please share below!

featured image: DeathtoTheStockPhoto

The “Imposter Syndrome” Battle for Edubloggers

A week ago, I opened my email to find a lovely message from Edutopia telling me they had published my article. The sequence of my response went something like this:

“Woo-hoo! I feel validated!”

[clicking on my article] “Wait. I wrote and submitted this back in November. Is it even as relevant anymore?”

[frantically rereading my article] “Shoot, I would totally reword this entire section today!”

[reaching the end of the article] “How did I think that people would actually benefit by this?”

[a few hours later after the retweets started coming] “Wow, people are reading this!”

[a few seconds later] “Shoot, people are reading this! What if they read my bio and see I’m not even in the classroom right now? Or won’t they scoff at the fact that I’ve only taught for 4 years?” There’s no way this will keep up…”

[the weekend after] “Um, a lot of people are reading this. And commenting on it. And sharing it. I can feel good about that, right?”

And this morning, exactly one week later, I came across, “Overcoming Imposter Syndrome.” Though centered on the common struggle experienced by designers, I realized that this “Imposter Syndrome” nails it for me as an educational blogger, too. The fear of being “found out,” the hesitation to share, the worry of being under-qualified.

But it’s comforting to know this is a shared human experience. And those dark and shady fears look quite different when they’re named and standing together in the light.

Because the truth is, our individual stories and voices matter. They are making a difference. Even if our only audience is ourselves. These words are journeys, helping us better make sense of the world, and to become better teachers, better designers, better people. And that’s the truth to hold on to.

Have you ever felt the “imposter syndrome?” Please share your experience in comments!

Our 2016 Scholarship Submissions Statistics!

As of midnight on March 20, our 2016 scholarship is now closed and we are busy enjoying the beautiful efforts from our applicants. This year, we had 5 times the applications from last year (so we may need to extend the date by which we contact awardees…we’ll keep you posted)! Meanwhile, here are some fun facts and stats on our applications.

Our biggest pool of applicants came from California at 15.9%.

States stats

Though the scholarship is available to students from high school seniors to college juniors, the vast majority were high school students.

image (1)

Of our two prompt options, most preferred to respond to “What is your opinion on how education affects the quality of life?

image (3)

The creative writing medium was the most popular again this year with 48.5% of the applications.  

image (4)

featured image: Joel Penner via flickr

10 Signs You’re Contributing to Your Own Classroom Behavior Issues

http://honorsgradu.com/10-signs-youre-contributing-to-your-own-classroom-behavior-issues/

Your students always have to wait on you to know “what’s next.” Picture this hypothetical: your class returns from PE before you get back from a quick bathroom break. What scene do you anticipate facing when you walk into the room? If your vision resembles Lord of the Flies, consider that there may not not as much trust in place as there could be. Let them in on the plan. Ask for their feedback. Consciously strategize to break down the all-too-common game of “student vs. teacher.”

You see choice only as a reward for positive behavior, rather than a means to promote improved behavior. What if, at the beginning of the year, you tell your students that you trust them to choose right now? What if you tell them you’re there to facilitate learning–not to command it? What if you spend more time coaching them to identify and reflect upon their personal learning needs, and less time on determining the daily learning? When you commit to searching out meaningful student choice in learning space, time, and process, classroom management better falls into place.

Your voice is on more often than your students’ voices. There’s a difference between teaching students polite listening skills–and expecting them to have all their attention on you nearly all the time. We can better strategize to give them more time to digest, experiment, and work one-on-one with teachers. One teacher even committed to actually time her blocks of instruction time, keeping them to 10 minutes or less with her 7th graders.

You’ve done little to create parent buy-in. Do you contact parents about the positive more often than the negative? Do you keep a class blog to give them greater insight on the learning in your classroom (or better yet, do your students blog, giving parents, grandparents and other relatives to leave comments on their work?) Do you have a well-organized system for parents to volunteer? If the answer is no to one or more of these, you might be fighting an uphill battle on the home-front.

You rely heavily on treats, tokens, stickers, and other extrinsic rewards. As effective as these extrinsic motivators may seem, they actually tend to diminish students’ authentic motivation to learn and discover. Instead, seek out ways to cultivate more intrinsic motivation.

Many of your assignments are worksheets. Translation: little student-driven learning and inquiry is happening. If you’re feeling pressured to show “student progress” in benchmarks, open up communication channels with your administration to gain their support as you work to move away from drill and kill, and toward lasting and authentic student involvement in their learning.

Your routines are lacking. That’s not to say that you need to hammer down explicit routines for every minute thing (see my thoughts on bathroom permission), but if chaos ensues in the morning, end of day, and every transition in between, consider what you can do differently. A reliable signal and a united sense of purpose can go a long way–especially when you need to deviate from the norm.

You rely more heavily on formal, summative assessments than daily formative assessments. If you don’t have meaningful, daily practices in place that help you gauge student progress, you are missing precious opportunities to inform your teaching. Here are a few strategies that might help:

You do not greet students at the door. It’s less about the doorway, and more about reminding your students that they are your daily reason for being there (see more ideas for building student rapport). If that message ever falters, you can be sure that behavior issues are sure to follow.

You do not hold class meetings. Or an otherwise community-building time that helps build a sense of shared ownership over what happens in the classroom. You may ask yourself if you can afford to spend the time–but you might just find that you need to ask yourself if you can afford not to spend the time.

featured image: Alan Levine via flickr

The Story of A Teacher Without a Classroom: 10 Lessons Learned

Mid-February in 2014, I shut off the lights in my fifth grade classroom and headed home for the weekend–for what would turn out to be the last time. That weekend, pregnancy complications abruptly landed me on bedrest.  With a due date near the end of the school year, I was not fated to return to my fifth graders that year.  And the following fall, I decided to continue my leave from teaching until our small children are in school.

So that’s it, right? One day, learning amidst a thriving classroom, and the next, dropped off the face of the map for an unknown length of time.

Only not quite. As chance would have it, during bedrest, I was offered the opportunity to run an educational blog sponsored by Honors Graduation here on HonorsGradU. I consider it my voice in the education world. And once I revived my dormant Twitter account (and the wonders of a PLN) I discovered my window. And so, with a voice and a window, I find myself still very much (and very gratefully) involved in such an important facet of my life.

For other teachers out there who currently find themselves without a classroom, and to thank all the teachers who have taught me so much over the last two years, I’d like to share 10 of the most essential insights I’ve gained while equipped with just a blog and Twitter.

#1: Nothing matters more than the fact that we are working with human beings. The most important lesson I’m reminded of again and again is this: people over paper. Sometimes, the textbook strategies need to be set aside. Sometimes, we need to stop and think if our assessments are showing us who our students really are. Sometimes, we need to just remember that the 10 year-old in front of us might need more help being 10 than preparing for college.

#2: No shiny platform or gadget is worth it if it simply maintains the status quo. I remember investigating Flipped Learning with great enthusiasm–until it became clear to me that it’s still often rooted in direct instruction. That’s not to say that it’s not useful (and some teachers do an amazing job of using flipped learning to foster inquiry). However, it was an important realization of how we sometimes think our tech makes us innovative, when in fact we might not have changed at all. 

#3: Personalized professional development is out there for the taking. I am living proof of it! Twitter chats, my PLN, and even just reflecting on prior classroom moments like diy PD have all provided rich opportunities for professional learning. And it has all been free and personalized to my needs.

#4: Emphasizing concepts over content isn’t some pie-in-the-sky notion. Thousands of teachers practice it every day–and they share how they do so in abundance. Just take a look at the Twitter feeds for Taryn BondClegg, Graeme Anshaw, Chris Beddows, or the entirety of hashtag #aisq8.

#5: Providing students with authentic opportunities to make, create, and design isn’t just some passing ed fad. With our dynamically shifting future, most of us know that the content we’ve memorized is no longer enough. Providing students with opportunities to show what they can do with their knowledge–and better yet, to push the bounds into the unknown–will both better prepare them for the future and provide them with more enriching learning experiences now. MakerSpaces, coding, blogging, design–the list goes on, and you don’t have to have an enormous budget or a fulltime 1:1 classroom to get started.

#6: Digital citizenship is an urgent topic for students of all ages. Even if a school is hesitant about young students sharing their ideas with cyberspace, we must do all we can to help our students understand their role and responsibilities in the digital society. We must get digital citizenship out of the “wait-until-they’re-older” category. Today.

#7: Technology itself isn’t what makes edtech so amazing–it’s the way it encourages teachers to take risks, fail, try, and problem-solve WITH their students. It is SO easy to just “talk the talk” of being a lifelong learner. After all, we are in the business of trying to help people love learning. But do we truly embrace the messiness of learning? Do we move forward with unpolished ideas, even when we still have questions or feel like we could use more training? Modeling our own real learning process yields greater impact than delivering a lifeless lesson from a manual.

#8: “Letting go” as a teacher (trusting our students and giving them ownership over their learning) is essential, but it is a journey. Understanding that we need to let go is a major hurdle, but it’s just the first step. We need to be patient with ourselves as we gradually move toward that goal, reaching out to others who may be farther along on that journey. Whether or not you have that kind of support in your building, my shortlist of online recommendations include Kath Murdoch, Pernille Ripp, and Edna Sackson.

#9: Cute and orderly doesn’t automatically equal learning. Not that having a chaotic mess is necessarily conducive to learning either. But when an activity is adorable and highly pinnable, we sometimes fail to evaluate the real learning value.

#10: Kids can and need to understand words like metacognition.

Or at least the concept behind it. The unfortunate truth is we start labeling ourselves from a very young age, boxing ourselves into the fixed mindset. Realizing just how flexible our brains are might be more far reaching than anything else we learn.

What about you? What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from PLN, in our outside the classroom?

featured image: deathtothestockphoto.com

5 Simple Ways to Improve Student Rapport Today

With the three-day weekends over and a long stretch until Spring Break, this time of year can be prone to being a slump. If the foot-dragging and daily-grind brooding are on the rise for you and your students, you’re certainly not alone! But instead of just accepting the drudgery until the next break, how about hitting the refresh button on your relationship with students? Here are 5 simple opportunities for teachers to build rapport and revitalize their why for teaching.

#1: Make eye contact with every student as she or he enters the classroom. Greeting students at the door is a tip that shows up in almost every classroom management list. However, by this time of year, it often gets set aside for competing reasons, or even just forgotten. But it can be the key between knowing that Johnny had a rough morning at home, or that Amanda is nervous about a project due today–or missing those kinds of cues altogether.

#2: Keep a clipboard of how many students you personally interacted with on the day. If you are feeling distant from certain students, perhaps a small but concrete investigation might be in order. For one day, try tallying your interactions with each individual. You might even try videotaping your your room for a day to gain a sense of who might be slipping through the cracks.

#3: Do one out-of-the-ordinary thing based on student interests. If you have a class of basketball fanatics, how about collecting March Madness picks and displaying brackets on a bulletin board? Or for a class obsessed with selfies, try inviting them in a fun, simple way during an upcoming lesson (really make it dynamic by asking the class for their suggestions)!

#4: Start a Whole Child Assessment Sheet and fill in as much as you can. Last year, MindShift shared a post on holistic child data. With columns like “Family” and “Skills,” their sample assessment sheet goes well beyond subject areas. Make this a simple exercise to sit down and fill out as much as you can. Then discover where you might be missing opportunities to really understand your students. Don’t feel like you necessarily have to revisit the data sheet after that–just use it as a springboard to inform your future interactions with your students.

#5: Start writing Morning Messages to your students. As I explained in my recent post, “I’d say that the morning messages became an instrumental way we built rapport, authenticity, and empathy in our classroom–because being real with our students is one of the most precious gifts we can give them.” Find out for yourself if this is an opportunity for you to enrich your relationship with students.

What are strategies you have used to strengthen rapport with students?

featured image: Howard County Library System