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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Inquiry Into Our Common Ground

This week’s provocation is inspired by this powerful video by Asger Leth (please note that this is not part of the intended provocation for your students as it may be unsuitable for children). 

“There’s more that brings us together than we think.”

Whether you hope to address existing contention in your classroom or to proactively build a stronger sense of community, this provocation aims to unearth more empathy, respect, and common ground.

Resource #1: Step In the Box If…

This resource is an activity I learned from an adult team building exercise a couple years ago. It goes something like this:

1. The leader puts tape on the ground in the shape of a large box, with the participants standing around outside it.

2. The leader starts by asking participants to “Step in the box if…” for fairly innocuous topics, such as, “…if you are wearing jeans today.” “…if you like sports.” “…if you love chocolate.”

3. The leader then asks participants to “Step in the box if…” for more personal concepts: “…if you are nervous about school this year.” “…if you have ever felt like you don’t belong.” “…if you have ever felt afraid.” “…if you have big ideas to change the world.” “…if you are responsible to take care of a younger sibling.” “…if you love someone who has a disability.”

Resource #2: Shawn’s Paper from “Turkey Day,” Season 4, Episode 10 of Boy Meets World (in which Shawn’s and Cory’s families try to come together for Thanksgiving but find discomfort with their social class distinctions)

Provocation Questions:

  • Where does the phrase “common ground” come from?
  • How do people find things they share in common?
  • How does it impact communities when people search for what they have in common?
  • How does it impact individuals when they search for what they have in common with others?
  • What is the relationship between finding what you share in common with others and being true to makes you different?
  • How is finding common ground connected to respect?

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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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The Power of One Young Digital Citizen

Thanks to Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano sharing about her upcoming sketchnoting presentation this summer (all those near or able to get to Boston, you should go!), I was introduced to a pretty remarkable digital citizen today. Her name is Olivia, aka LivBit, and she loves books, sharks, and always doing “good things for this world.”


After experiencing bullying in second grade, Olivia’s mom helped her start LivBits for her to share her voice and rekindle her feelings of self-worth. Since then, she has shared weekly videos on books,

has spread her passion for sharks,

and has even presented in conferences!

She is a wonderful example of what kids can do when they are encouraged as positive digital citizens!

It reminded me yet again of this conversation educator George Couros shared:

We may feel tempted to wait until they are in junior high or high school, but now is the time to help our young kids learn to harness this technology to spread their passions, make a difference, and do good.

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10 Favorite Board Books #TeacherMom

As I geared up to attend two back-to-back baby showers, the familiar gifting dread gathered. I’ve never enjoyed shopping, and my practical taste never looks very cute in pastel tissue paper.

Just when I was about to go the gift-registry route, it hit me. Books. BOARD BOOKS! I might not be able to pick a onesie that gets me terribly excited, but books have me geeking out on a regular basis.

In the past, many board books have tended to just be sturdier versions of regular picture books, sans several pages. Or else they have consisted of overly syrupy or didactic text paired with equally uninteresting illustrations. In short, most board books just haven’t been fun to read.

But as long as babies tend to be skillful paper-shredders, we need board books, and we need ones that will make parents and babies actually look forward to storytime together.

Here are ten of my current favorites:

The Epic Yarns books by Jack & Holman Wang (and especially the Star Wars books for my Force-loving family) are delightfully unique. Each page consists of a photo of a detailed set crafted out of wool, along with a single word to capture the essence of that moment.

All Board! National Parks: A Wildlife Primer by Kevin & Haily Meyers is perfect for all parents who want to cultivate enthusiasm for the outdoors from the cradle. Each page takes you to a different national park, also featuring animals found in that location. I also love how the last page displays their animal tracks.

No list of board books would ever be complete without Sandra Boynton. Moo Baa La La La has delighted all three of my kids with its bouncy tempo, hilarious farm animals, and of course, pigs singing instead of oinking. The “No, no, you say, that isn’t right!” with enough high-pitched expression even gets the infant grinning every time.

Angela DiTerlizzi published Some Bugs a couple years ago, and I was delighted when the board book version rolled out last year. It includes every one of the delightful original pages filled with gorgeous illustrations and fun rhymes. Given the spare text, it includes a surprising amount to learn about bugs, too!

Jennifer Adams’ BabyLit books have me especially geeking out. They are the perfect way to introduce young readers to classic literature as they share passages with gorgeous illustrations. I’ve read most of them at my local library, but The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Midsummer Night’s Dream top my list of favorites.

Ashley Evanson’s Hello, World books, such as this London Book of Opposites, are fresh concept books with a colorful view of the most iconic features of cities around the world.

Eric Carle‘s books are classics that aren’t diminished in board book form. I don’t see the cadence of Brown Bear, Brown Bear ever wearing off.

A is for Atom by Greg Paprocki is a nostalgic walk down memory lane, both with the ideas that defined the 50’s, and the mid-century-styled illustrations to match.

Is Your Mama a Llama? by Deborah Buarino and Steven Kellogg is one more classic treasure that will never get old. My kids love guessing the animal to match the rhyming clues as the baby llama talks with various animals to find his mama.

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