What Learning to Drive Stick-Shift Taught Me about Learning

I could make a wall of shame with all the times I’ve tried–and failed–to learn to drive a manual transmission car. My dad’s instruction in his Ford pickup through the high school parking lot. My sister-in-law’s guidance in a church parking lot. My husband’s many attempts in varied locations through the years. Each instance ended with a loving concession that success seemed out of reach for the time being.

Until now. My husband’s recent surgery on his left foot and need to commandeer my automatic car for his commute presented me with an interesting dilemma: resign myself and my children to a homebound summer, or master stick-shift once and for all so I can use his car?

I woke up one morning last week determined to make it happen. I watched Youtube videos. I read tutorials. And I fiercely grilled my husband to understand not just the required motions, but the why behind how the clutch interacts with the gas and brakes. And then we got in his car for yet another shot at instruction.

I have now made two successful independent drives. Even while basking shamelessly in my victory of shifting from 3rd to 4th for the first time, I started reflecting on how it all connects to the learning process in general…

Growth mindset matters. While recognizing my weakness in spatial learning has provided clarity over the years regarding why I struggle with certain skills, it has also been a fixed mindset pitfall. Between this self-awareness and prior failures, I had predisposed myself to future failure. We are all prone to this kind of thinking, both for ourselves, and sometimes for our students. I believe this time was different in part because I finally acknowledged this pattern of thought. 

Students need a real reason to make it happen. Especially when something has proven particularly difficult in the past, we need to help our students discover their authentic reason to try again (and not our reason or the district’s reason in disguise).

The why matters. Another crucial difference between this and previous attempts was my pursuit of greater background knowledge. I knew that if I didn’t learn why the clutch needed to be disengaged when it did, it would continue to stump me when it came to action.

Edtech can empower individualization. I also knew that I needed to give myself the time to just quietly explore and digest instruction. The ability to play, replay, and pause video tutorials on my terms was powerful for my learning process–it allowed me to voice questions and ponder on what was trickiest for me.

Intense controlled instruction can give an inflated sense of difficulty. Empty parking lot instruction had always been necessary for safety’s sake, but the moment I was actually out driving on the streets, I realized why such conditions made manual-driving seem so impossible: the hardest tasks and concepts are extra-concentrated in a small space. Rather than having a minute or so between each stop or turn afforded by street driving, parking lot driving required me to think extra quickly/frequently about the next step.

Sometimes, learners need the space and time to put it in practice alone. After that final parking lot instruction, I decided to venture out alone. I started slowly on quieter back roads, gradually moving to busier areas to give myself more experience as I felt comfortable. It was certainly rocky, but I appreciated the real-world exposure so I could finally put all the pieces together (and put certain lingo into context, such as “sluggish engine”).

Expect variable progress, even after initial success. During my first independent drive, I did not stall the car once. During my second, I stalled almost half a dozen times. I’m sure things will continue to be up and down for a while, but I’m ok with that. I’m just glad to finally be making progress in a skill I had always wanted to master.

featured image: Patrick Machado

10 End Of Year Reflective Questions Every Teacher Should Ask

Amid surviving end-of-year testing, finalizing report cards, and sometimes, even packing up to swap classrooms, self-reflection can be the last thing on anyone’s mind. All the same, this time of year is a rich opportunity to do so; not only are the memories of this year fresh, but it’s also a great time to create a summer plan to help you better reach next year’s students (while you relax and recharge, of course)!

Below are 10 questions to help spark that honest reflection, along with resources that might help you get started in taking steps toward change.

Would I benefit by finding ways to rekindle my sense of fulfillment as a teacher? Is burn-out becoming your reality? Check out resources like the “Teacher Wellness” section of Edutopia to find inspiration to refocus your why as a teacher.

In what area(s) do I wish I could better reach my students? Choose a summer project based on just one item on your list. Want them to be better digital citizens? Try paving the way by connecting with other teachers on Twitter or Facebook groups (I recommend TTOG for a start). Hoping they’ll take more ownership over their learning process? Explore how you might improve your feedback methods. Wish you could make math more meaningful? Study inquiry and student-centered options, such as guided math.

Do I need to recalibrate my perspective on outside forces that I can’t directly control, such as standardized tests? By all means, please keep up the good fight against large-scale practices that diminish learning. But reserve the bulk of your energy on what is within the more immediate sphere of your control. As Edna Sackson shared on Twitter:

Am I selective enough about the practices that continue from year to year in my classroom? Take a look around your quiet, empty classroom. Leave no stone unturned as you inventory every item’s impact on authentic learning. For a personal example, check out, “What Happened When We Ditched Our Boxed Spiral Review Program–Mountain Math/Language.”

How can I better shift the learning to be more about overarching concepts instead of a thousand individual Google-able facts? For another personal example, see, “What Happened When I Stopped Teaching History in Chronological Order.”

Do I know the required curriculum well enough that I can stop worrying so much about whether I’m “covering” everything? In other words, can you see your role shifting from delivery-person to facilitator/connector? The former centers on a rigid agenda from the state, school, or you. The latter centers on individual students’ learning needs.

Do I give my students the opportunity for frequent and authentic reflection? Having a wrap-up is a simple yet often overlooked reflection strategy, and it’s a great place to start.

Is learning confined within the walls of our classroom? Once we started student blogging, the ability to connect globally with peers through Quadblogging blew our minds. Perhaps the summer project calling your name is to explore a platform that is age-appropriate and that complies with your school’s privacy guidelines.

Am I doing all the “heavy lifting?” Exhibit A: As George Couros recently suggested, you can either spend an age trying to find that “perfect Youtube video,” or you can challenge students to find it instead.

Are extrinsic rewards crowding out students’ intrinsic drive to learn? It’s ok to be afraid of rampant chaos. But don’t let that fear keep you from taking risks and giving students the chance to show you they can really bring to the table as learners. See “6 Thoughts on What’s Wrong with Compliance.”

4 Reasons You Should Join the TTOG Facebook Group

Especially if you are an educator on Twitter, you’ve probably heard of Starr Sackstein, Mark Barnes, and/or the going gradeless movement. But did you know that Starr and Mark also have a Teachers Throwing Out Grades Facebook group? No? Neither did I, until a month ago. Even if you are not interested in tossing grades yourself, here are four reasons TTOG is a must-join group for teachers everywhere.

It challenges the status quo.

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This photo recently circulated around Facebook. Most teachers I knew shared and applauded its sentiments, exhausted by whining and irresponsibility. And I get it. Yet I appreciated the way TTOG members chose to set aside those frustrations in favor of digging deeper. Comments examined the underlying sentiments and root causes behind the sign, and questioned ways we can better cultivate responsibility and respect.

It will help you reflect upon and refine your why.

When you join a group that consists of thousands of teachers who are re-examining their entire assessment approach, you can’t help but glean inspiration. Even if you don’t agree with every opinion, you will likely begin to realize just how many practices we take for granted in the classroom, and start to better evaluate why you do what you do.  

The discussions are some of the most thought-provoking I’ve ever seen in my PLN.

A recent post posed the following question:

“A few colleagues have said recently that “you can’t have rigor without accountability”.

Thoughts? How would you respond?”

The subsequent conversation included follow-up questions, definitions, resources, anecdotes, and every other ingredient of a healthy, lively debate.

It will remind you about our students’ humanity and what matters most.

This was not shared in TTOG, but I would say this drives its ideology. Contrary to popular belief, tossing grades and tests is not about trying to cushion delicate students’ self-esteem. Rather, it is about putting the emphasis back on learning and challenging teachers to better elevate and uncover meaningful learning.

featured image: DeathtoTheStockPhoto

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,

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the hand sanitizer bathroom passes,

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the visually-appealing display of learning objectives,

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

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

 

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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,

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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