The Issue of Focus: Working for Student Ownership

Glazed-over eyes. Wandering minds. Fidgeting bodies.

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

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

The bad:

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

And the ugly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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5 Signs of 21st Century Teaching to Watch For During Conferences #TeacherMom

Those who have followed this blog for some time know how much I support the student-led parent teacher conference. And while it can be an indicator of student ownership and a 21st century teaching mindset, its absence does not necessarily rule those things out, either.

Last week, my 1st grader’s parent teacher conference with her wonderful teacher proved the latter. Here are 5 signs I observed that showed me that essential 21st century teaching elements, such as student ownership, voice, and choice, are thriving in her classroom:

1. A commitment to learning over “doing school” or compliance. I loved listening to the discussion about how my daughter could work on “sitting still at the carpet.” Her teacher clarified, “I don’t think we should call it ‘sitting still’ because I’m not really worried about that. It’s more when it really disrupts classmates with the laying down and sticking legs straight up in the air — that sort of thing.” I loved that she was making it clear that this was not an issue of control/compliance, but of trying to create an environment where everyone could learn and thrive (and I couldn’t help giggling internally at the tone that this was an easy mistake to make for a person to not realize that sticking one’s legs in the air might be problematic. Ah, first grade…)

2. Creative resources/differentiation are sought out. Instead of leaving the above issue with an “ok, well, please work on that,” we all brainstormed ways we could help. That’s when the teacher pulled out a sensory seat cushion and asked my daughter if she’d like to try it out, which she did right then and there.

3. Student voice is valued. After my daughter decided the cushion would be useful, she was encouraged to identify and articulate its purpose and expectations; there was no lecture on responsibility because it was clear that her teacher trusted her to establish that for herself.

4. Process is celebrated. When they explained a new math problem-of-the-day, the teacher wrote up an example and gave my daughter time to work on it. When she had finished and answered correctly, her teacher didn’t just move on from there. Instead, she asked my daughter to explain to us her thinking. We were able to learn so much about how my daughter is currently thinking about ten frames and other math processes.

5. Students are seen as individuals first. Data was present. Valuable assessment was present. Accountability was present. But none of those things took precedent over my daughter’s value as a person. Her teacher recognized her strengths and her opportunities for growth, and it was clear she had invested in building a positive, trusting relationship.

I am so grateful for teachers like this. Who refuse to let the time-crunch stand in the way of developing meaningful relationships. Who seek the balance of a smoothly-running classroom without feeling like they must have rigid control. Who trust their students to do more than just follow instructions at all times. To this teacher and teachers everywhere like this, thank you!

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On Perfection & Imperfection: A How The World Works Provocation

This is part of a series of of IB PYP units of inquiry provocations. For more, click here.

The PYP unit, How the World Works is designed as:

“An exploration of the physical and material world; of natural and human-made phenomena; of the world of science and technology.”

I believe one of the biggest overarching concepts — stretching across the “physical and material world” –is the concept of perfection. We search for it. We strive for it. We pay billions for it. And yet, it remains elusive.

Moreover, imperfection possesses its own beauty — the persistence, the originality, the innovation.

Below are three resources that could take your class in many different directions as they explore the idea of perfection/imperfection in the world around them:

Resource #1: Unsatisfying, by Parallel Studio

Resource #2: Forms in Nature

Resource #3: Audri’s Rube Goldberg Monster Trap

Provocation Questions:

  • Why is imperfection so much more common than perfection in the world?
  • How do people respond to imperfection? Why?
  • What is the purpose of imperfection in nature?
  • What is the purpose of imperfection in human’s creations?
  • What does the growth mindset have to do with perfection/imperfection?

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I’m Finally Using the PYP Key Concepts!

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

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

The key concepts were no exception.

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

via Graeme Anshaw at Mathematical Enquiries

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

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

And so on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Provocation Into Growth Mindset & Problem Solving

As teachers, we sure love the skill of problem solving. After all, in a class of 30 students (each with their own daily sundry problems), the more they can figure out their pencil situation, bathroom needs, and minor spats among friends, the more energy we can devote to, well, teaching.

But of course, we all know there’s more to the skill of problem solving than classroom management. There’s empowering students with ownership. There’s equipping them with the ability to face future unknowns. And there’s helping them access solutions that will bring them joy throughout their lives.

Problem-solving is also closely tied to the growth mindset. As Carol Dweck has put it:

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”

Thus, with the growth mindset, we learn that our efforts are instrumental in helping us to grow, and are resilient when our initial solutions fail.

On that note, these are both resources I have shared with students in the past that have led to wonderful discussions on this topic:

Video of how the Panyee Soccer Club began amid less than ideal circumstances:

Anchor chart developed by the teachers at Fieldcrest Elementary School:

by Fieldcrest Elementary School teachers

Provocation Questions:

  • What makes a person a problem-solver?
  • How does knowing that our brains are flexible help us with problem solving?
  • What is our responsibility to the world to be problem solvers?
  • What is our responsibility to ourselves to be problem solvers?

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If You Give A Kid A Spelling List…

If you give a kid a spelling list…

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

If the words are on the right level…

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

If she is breaking them down for bigger concepts…

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

If you show her why it matters…

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

If she is practicing spelling with more ownership…

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

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

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

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

Some of the most important changes include the following:

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

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

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

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


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A Provocation into Online Research, Media Litearcy, & #FakeNews

The content for this week’s provocation began with me investigating all this viral talk on #FakeNews. The more I researched, the more I came to two conclusions:

1. The need for educators to help students discern accurate sources is not new, though the stakes are getting higher if we don’t succeed.

2. Rather than focusing on the current FakeNews frenzy, it’s more valuable for us to step back and examine the big concepts surrounding the issue.

So yes, this provocation is useful if you’re wanting to talk to your students about Fake News. But more importantly, it’s more useful for helping your students recognize all that online research entails: the good, the bad, the ugly, and why all that matters for them.

Resource #1: “Where Things Come From”

Resource #2: What IS Media Literacy?

Resource #3: What is Media Literacy?

Another resource from TED_Ed on verifying factual news.

Provocation Questions:

  • Why do we ask questions?
  • How does online research compare with other research (from books, newspapers, etc.)?
  • How has online research changed over the years?
  • What is the power of information that can spread quickly?
  • What is our responsibility to cite and share accurate information?
  • Why are there different perspectives on what sources are trustworthy?
  • What role does social media play in research?

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