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

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.”

We 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

An Open Letter: To Pinterest, from a Teacher

http://honorsgradu.com/an-open-letter-to-pinterest-from-a-teacher/

First, I want to thank you. I’ve loved your many ideas for organizing my pantry, throwing my five year-old’s princess party, and introducing the blue-Dawn-and-vinegar trick to my shower.  Not to mention the hilarious memes and marshmallow treats.

Your resourcefulness has carried over into my classroom through the years, too:

Like the sponge of glue,

glue

the hand sanitizer bathroom passes,

pass

the visually-appealing display of learning objectives,

objectives

oh, and that fantastic example of comma use that had my whole class giggling.

commas

And of course, you know you’re my go-to for holiday art crafts and kid-made decorations.

 

ornaments

But I have to tell you, I’m worried. I’m worried about those ultra popular pins that circulate because they have all the glitz and appearance of learning, but that really promote something…else.

Like micromanagement,

ticket

compliance,

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or perfectionism–

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–all with an adorable flair.

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Of course, you and I both know that truly inspiring, learning-based pins are out there. Why, I recently came across a whole slew of fabulous self-assessments to help students become more metacognitively aware. But as I searched out those pins, I waded through what felt like an endless supply of teacher-centered fluff.

I must say, I’m not blaming you. After all, I’m the one who sometimes gets mesmerized by all things color-coded and lovely. But “it’s not you, it’s me” aside, now that I’ve identified the problem, I can move forward. I can reflect. I can ask why. I can rethink even some of the most commonly accepted practices. And I can guide my future curative efforts with questions based on what matters most, including:

  • Will this help me better understand and reach my students?
  • Will this enhance student ownership over learning?
  • Will this encourage the 4 C’s (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, or creativity)?
  • Will this help me personalize student learning?
  • Will this help me pursue greater challenges as a professional?
  • Will this help my students better understand their own thinking and learning processes? (metacognition)
  • Will this help all my students to better access resources in and out of the classroom?
  • Will this help my students investigate concepts?
  • Is this centered more on empowering student-directed learning, or on getting students to sit still and listen?
  • Is this trying to solve a problem that I could actually just open up to my students for discussion instead?
  • Will this help my students grow as leaders?
  • Will this help my students build an authentic audience and/or community?
  • Will this help me reinforce my core values as a professional?

So thanks for everything, and I look forward to richer pins to come on my education board!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

10 Meaningful Student Self-Assessments: A Pinterest Curation

 

With an abundance of clever crafts, cute bulletin boards, and coordinated decor, Pinterest generates much that is adorable in classrooms. But the meatier stuff is out there, too–if you dig a little deeper. Below are 10 Pins to brainstorm better self-assessments for your students.

#1: Create a hard working turn-in system:

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 (also, a file folder version)

#2: Practice Visible Thinking Routines together:

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#3: Evaluate Personal peer teaching level: 

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#4: Take exit tickets to a new level: 

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#5: Reflect on IB Learner Portfolios for End of Unit: 

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#6: Cultivate networking & smart peer tutoring:

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#7: Structure Authentic Student Analysis of Reading Fluency: 

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#8: Lend words for reflecting on personal emotional well-being:

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#9: Lay out guidelines for a Writing journal snapshot assessment: 

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#10: Design a Student led conference survey:

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(after all, you know how we feel about student-led conferences…)

And WHATEVER you do, PLEASE don’t let your assessments ever resemble this: 

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What are your favorite self-assessments? How about your most outstanding Pinterest boards on teaching? We’d love to hear them!

Featured image: DeathtotheStockPhoto

Beginner’s Guide to Maker-ize An Elementary Classroom

When most penny-pinching, time-crunched, and exhausted teachers hear about lofty ideas like the MakerSpace movement in education, they are likely to dismiss it as another passing and impractical fad. However, the more we investigate, the more convinced we are that there are practical–and profoundly meaningful–ways for teachers to implement its ideals, even in an elementary school classroom.

Benefits of Maker Spaces

“Makerspaces come in all shapes and sizes, but they all serve as a gathering point for tools, projects, mentors and expertise. A collection of tools does not define a Makerspace. Rather, we define it by what it enables: making.” (MakerSpace Playbook)

They cultivate creativity. For students who already love doing, they will love this outlet to get their hands on a myriad of resources. For students who feel that they are lacking in creativity, they will have an opportunity to rekindle their inborn wonder and curiosity.

(Remember Caine’s Arcade? This video goes on to show the resulting movement, all from a bit of cardboard)

They provide an opportunity for students to take the lead. How much of our students’ time involves them being directed in what answers to give, what products to create, and even what art to design (and when)? A MakerSpace gives them the opportunity to learn how to pursue their own ideas and possibilities, and on their time-table.

They make for a much more productive fast-finisher. Have you ever had a parent report to you that their child is bored?  Get a MakerSpace zone going in your classroom, and watch what happens to that boredom.

They develop essential characteristics. In this ever-evolving global landscape, we must focus on giving our students practical tools that will serve them in the long-term. Critical thinking, problem solving, and intrinsic motivation–these are just a few attributes that are encouraged in a MakerSpace’s atmosphere of tinkering, iterating, and exploring.

They canCreate a physical laboratory for inquiry-based learning

MakerSpaces are designed to make students wonder, question, and experiment as they work to make sense of the world around them.

4 Realistic Tips to Maker-ize Your Room

#1: Start with designating a small space for your makers. A full-blown high school makerspace can cost over $30,000, complete with 10 different modules, including a workspace and tools area, and zones for woodworking, metalworking, electronics, textiles, computers, digital fabrication, 3D printing, laser cutting and more. Instead of getting overwhelmed by the magnitude of such a vision, simply pull elements that would be practical for your students and classroom. Put up a Wonder shelf in the back of your room. Mount a pegboard to display all the tools. Get creative with a workbench for multi-use storage and workspace, such as putting casters on a dresser.

#2: Look at existing resources. Add casters, table tops, and plexiglass to your student desks  for flexible workspaces & collaboration (Third Teacher + redesign).

  • Look at other teachers’ strategies for starting simply, such as this teacher’s list of top 5 materials to provide.
  • Ask for donations of cardboard, remnant fabric, playdough, and scrap wood. Look for tools you can borrow from home, like your hot glue gun, miter box, & travel sewing set. Recycle juice bottles and egg cartons. Make your space a poster child for “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” in the best possible ways!  

#3: Plan for Guidelines. As open-ended as a MakerSpace can and should be, be sure to consider basic boundaries and safety:

  • Create, display, and discuss posters that outline appropriate and safe use.
  • Support the growth mindset, being particularly mindful of embracing risk-taking, perseverance, and failing. We love this FAIL sheet as a guide to help students reflect upon and learn from their failures.
  • Decide when your MakerSpace will be open. Before or after school? Open lunch? Fast finishers? Family nights?
  • Consider designing open-ended projects/challenges for your students (top projects for beginners), especially those who would appreciate a little more structure.  For whole-class project-based learning that is actually graded, consider creating rubrics to offer more support.
  • Think about the conversations you’ll have with your students when they get stuck, overconfident, or frustrated. Gayle Allen and Lisa Yokana share great insight on student/teacher discussions during each stage of making.

#4: Gradually Invest. As tempting as it may be to try and dive in with one show-stopping gadget, you are better off letting your students gradually acclimate to their MakerSpace, learning and deciding together its growth and direction. Consider these ideas:

  • Make it a point to learn about your students’ interests. Would they love more electronics? How about a few Lego sets? Perhaps a sewing machine? Prioritize your MakerSpace growth based on those interests.
  • Look to teacher funding resources like Donors Choose to help your students’ dreams happen. Start small with fascinating tools like a Makey Makey, and perhaps eventually build to bigger ticket items, like a Printrbot 3D printer.

Other resources to launch your MakerSpace:

Featured Image: DeathtoTheStockPhoto.com

8 Tips For Non-Manipulative Classroom Praise

“Praise, like penicillin, must not be administered haphazardly. There are rules and cautions that govern the handling of potent medicines— rules about timing and dosage, cautions about possible allergic reactions.” (Haim Ginott, 1965, p. 39)

Praise Research 

Praise researchers have set up various camps for decades. Some maintain that praise encourages student behavior and motivation, advising teachers to “reward the student with verbal reinforcement when she or he exhibits desired behavior” (Dev, 1997, p 16). 

Others believe that it can damage motivation–and in some cases, even become downright manipulative. Alfie Kohn contends that praise “leads [students] to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and dole out some more approval” (5 Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job).  They argue that “Praise can create excessive pressure to continue performing well, discourage risk taking, and reduce perceived autonomy.” (Henderlong, J. & Lepper, M.R. “The Effects of Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation: A Review and Synthesis,” p. 776).

Despite these opposing camps, still other researchers examine specific variables of praise that can impact students’ intrinsic motivation both beneficially and detrimentally. In their comprehensive praise review, Henderlong and Lepper conclude, “rather than asking whether praise enhances intrinsic motivation, it is far more useful to ask about the conditions under which this is likely to occur” (The Effects of Praise, p. 791). Some of those conditions include:

  • Sincerity: honest and specific evaluation
  • Performance Attributions: focusing on controllable processes vs. student ability/overly simple tasks
  • Perceived Autonomy: focusing on students’ autonomy vs. our control (finding, in fact, that no praise has a better effect than controlling praise)
  • Competence and Self-Efficacy: focusing on information on performance vs. social comparison
  • Standards & Expectations: focusing on specific praise on appropriately-challenging tasks vs. praise for too-easy or too-difficult tasks

8 Tips

Be mindful of the growth-mindset

Never praise students for what they are right now. Elevate your sights to the vision of where their efforts can take them; if your praise focuses merely on their current abilities, they will be less likely to view that potential for growth in themselves.

“I could tell you worked so hard to figure out that math problem. Way to stick with it even when it was tricky!” instead of “You’re so good at math!”

Be descriptive

Vague statements like “good job” can undermine student motivation because it does not offer concrete support for a student’s effort, nor does it recognize their personal reasons for pursuing the task. On the other hand, a detailed description becomes more useful feedback.

“Nice–when you made eye contact and responded constructively to your group members during that activity, it showed them respect and helped your whole group have a good discussion.” instead of “Good group discussion!”

Make the positive reinforcement more of an observation than explicit praise.

Set the tone of optimism by noticing the good more often than the bad. This helps create a positive atmosphere not only because students know you’re not going to harp on every error, but also because they’ll tend to pay more attention to the good things happening around them, too.

“I notice that Carlos is stacking everyone else’s chairs for them.” 

Connect the praise to genuine principles of respectful relationships.

Really, everything else hinges on this one. As Henderlong and Lepper concluded, “…provided that it is perceived as sincere, praise is likely to enhance intrinsic motivation when attributional messages prevent maladaptive inferences, when autonomy is promoted, when perceived competence and self-efficacy are heightened without undue use of social comparison, and when realistic standards and expectations are conveyed” (The Effects of Praise, p. 791). Nothing else will quite matter if your students sense ulterior motives.

“Wow, when Becca turned her chair around when I was sharing instructions, I could tell she was offering not just her attention, but her respect for my time, because her body language showed it. I really appreciate that.”

Genuinely thank students for their efforts to create a supportive classroom environment

They should know that you understand that it’s not easy to bring 25+ people together in a cooperative, positive, and safe learning environment every day. Give them the tools to help by verbalizing the kinds of choices that support learning.  Express your appreciation for those efforts frequently, reminding them that we’re all in this together!

“When Johnny was sharing his story, I saw Ashley put down her papers and look up at him. It’s not easy for anyone to get up and share, so thank you for helping Johnny feel more comfortable with sharing with such an attentive and respectful audience!” 

Don’t just use positive reinforcement as a misbehavior redirect

Notice and point out times when the entire class is pitching in to help the classroom run smoothly, and explain the difference you can feel–and ask them if they can feel it, too!

“During that transition, everyone put away the math cubes and moved back to their desks for wrap up immediately! I love that we have plenty of time to discuss our math noticings now–thank you for helping our class run smoothly!” 

Notice everyone

Seriously. Use a class list on a clipboard and tally off names if you need to. Otherwise, you and your students both know you’re going to wind up primarily noticing the same 5 line-of-sight people every day.

Get rid of tangible extrinsic rewards that often accompany praise

These devalue the positive attention given because students are less likely to internalize the value of the behavior or task for its own sake.  Keep close tabs on your extrinsic rewards in general, and always be willing to ask yourself the tough questions.

Featured Image: fs999

What Happened When I Stopped Teaching History in Chronological Order

“Wait–what?!” That was pretty much the universal response from when I first suggested the idea. But after teaching U.S. history in relentlessly chronological order for a couple of years, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a better way. Wouldn’t teaching all the wars in one unit help them better comprehend the nature and cause/effect of war?  Could teaching about the evolution of governing documents–from the Magna Carta to the 27th U.S. Constitutional Amendment–help students better understand the processes of government? And is chronological order really necessary for students to get a clear picture our country’s past–and more importantly, is it the best way to help them apply it to their present and future?

Back to the Drawing Board

So in my third year of teaching fifth grade, our grade level team decided to take a leap and rework our social studies approach. The priority shifted from individual facts and dates to overarching concepts.

As an IB school, 6 units of inquiry were already in place; we revisited the central idea for each one and considered historical concepts that would relate to each other. Below were the results:

  • Unit: Who We are
    • Central Idea: Understanding the similarities & differences of the human experience helps us explain shared humanity.
    • History concepts included: Rights movements (slavery, civil rights, women’s suffrage, child labor, etc.)
  • Unit: Where we are in place & time
    • Central Idea: The evolution of civilizations stems from human relationships & personal journeys.
    • History concepts included: Westward expansion, Industrial Revolution, Great Depression migration
  • Unit: How the world works
    • Central Idea: Scientific discoveries increase humans’ ability to expand.
    • History concepts included: Pivotal inventions that led to the exploration, formation, and expansion of the U.S.
  • Unit: How we organize ourselves
    • Central Idea: Order drives the systems of our world.
    • History concepts included: Study of governing documents, 3 branches of U.S. government
  • Unit: Sharing the planet
    • Central Idea: The world evolves due to the cause and effect of changes.
    • History concepts included: Study of U.S. wars
  • Unit: How we express ourselves (this is the fifth graders’ self-directed exhibition unit at our school)

Unknown Waters

Throughout the implementation process, I remember actively discussing the new approach with my students–I wanted them to know that I did not know how it would work, and that we were seeking answers together. And answers they found! A couple months in, one suggested that we post a timeline in the corner of our classroom, adding dates and pictures of important events as we explored them to help us all put things in context.  Others exclaimed when they realized that we used to teach each war often months apart, instead of studying them side-by-side.

By the end of the year, my students possessed unprecedented historical comprehension. They didn’t just know the names and dates of important wars; they understood the cause-and-effect within and between each one.  They didn’t just memorize the names of the three branches of government; they understood that governing documents and systems are a work in progress in which we all must participate. They didn’t just watch a couple videos about human rights movements; they made in-depth connections about the human experience and our treatment of one another. For our class, the question of teaching history by concept became a resounding YES.

Final Take-Away

It’s important to note that my most valuable learning from this experience did not come from watching my students flourish in concept-driven history (though that was indeed rewarding!). Rather, it was the realization that we must never stop questioning our practices.  Look among the dustiest and most longstanding ones and simply ask yourself why–and remember to take your students on the journey with you!

If you’re interested in other ways to challenge the status quo, check out our post, “What Happened When We Ditched Our Boxed Spiral Review Program (Mountain Math/Language.”

Featured ImageJános Balázs