What About When They Don’t Choose What’s Best For Them? #DCSDBlogs Challenge

This is in response to the #DCSDblogs challenge prompt on sharing mistakes. (Note: While I’m not associated with the Davenport School District, I’m grateful for the warm invitation to participate in their blogging challenge, which is a wonderful initiative to encourage teacher blogging)!

We talk and share and write about giving students a voice and choice. To encourage them to own their learning process and make thoughtful, personal decisions along the way.

But after all the choices we give them, what happens when they don’t choose what’s best for them?

Like when you allow them to choose the classroom layout — and they choose rows, the most collaboration-unfriendly arrangement?

Or when you ask them for input on classroom management and rules — and they clamor to institute a stickers/candy/otherwise extrinsic-reward system?

Or when you turn time over to them to decide what kind of literacy word work task they will pursue — and they choose the option you know is least valuable to them right now?

In the past, when I encountered each of these, my response was to withdraw, clamp down control, or persuade.

But as I’ve learned from amazing teachers in my PLN (like Taryn BondClegg’s example when she encountered the exact experience of kids picking rows!), these, too, are precious learning opportunities. If we could just set aside our fears of falling behind or causing inconvenience, we might find a veritable goldmine of growth mindset/#FailForward/metacognition learning moments.

In the face of possible failure, if our response is to always snatch away the reins, our students will never have to opportunity to investigate and discover for themselves why and how these processes work. That means stepping aside and honoring their choices, no matter how painful it might be. 

Of course, sometimes their failures have more to do with our own failure — for instance, in the literacy example, we might not have done enough scaffolding to teach stamina, metacognition, or other tools to empower students to take informed action (see, “That Time I Failed at Inquiry“). In these instances, we can and should be constantly making adjustments in our approach as the teacher. But even when we’ve made mistakes, we should seize the opportunities to model our learning process!

In this way, the only real failure is when we try to mask it, hide it, or preempt it with control. Instead, let’s bring it into the light. Bring it into the learning.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Recovering from Perfectionism for Our Students, for Ourselves

Can you picture the first time you tried to write bubble letters? I don’t know about you, but for me, it did NOT go well. The letters bunched at the end of the page. Some parts of each letter were too fat. Others were too skinny. I knew my attempt looked nothing like my older sisters’ bubble letters, and even less like the cool typography I saw on posters.

I didn’t want anyone to see the ridiculous letters I had drawn. I wanted to hurry and throw the paper away and quickly revert to normal writing — quick! — before anyone could see that I had tried to deviate.

And that is pretty much how I felt about failure throughout my childhood.

AJ Juliani recently wrote about the difference between fail-ing and fail-ure, emphasizing the fact that when we focus on failing, we focus on the process and on how we pick ourselves back up. On the other hand, failure doesn’t have anything to do with getting back up, or with that resilience and determination.

And this is key for that wily perfectionism.

As Brene Brown wrote in The Gifts of Imperfection,

“Perfectionism is not the same thing has striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”

For our students, who are particularly susceptible to making efforts based on peers’ perceptions, we owe it to them to model what shaking off perfectionism looks like. To show the fails and, more importantly, the subsequent attempts.

These days, I try to be honest about what my “getting back up” looks like on a regular basis (When DIYpd Goes Terribly Wrong…Or Does It; That Time I Failed At Inquiry; What Driving Stick Shift Taught Me About Teaching). Where our students are concerned, I think that’s the least we can do if we expect them to take risks and to be courageous as they stretch, fail, and grow each day. And let’s be honest — it’s the least we can do for ourselves.

Here are a couple of videos (by New Age CreatorsDiana Laufenberg) that have inspired me in my continued journey to let go of perfectionism, and to truly learn from failure. May they do they same for you!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Resource Round-Up (aka early spring cleaning?)

My online bookmarks are a mess. The only thing that irritates me more than the fact that they aren’t doing me any good in their jumbled mess of folders is that they aren’t doing anyone else any good there either.

Fixing that today with this little graphic of resources, strategies, and ideas that I couldn’t help but bookmark over the years (even though I knew it meant adding to the mess). It also links to a few of my posts that included many of those bookmarks to further help me organize my favorite resources/strategies.

As you browse, please remember that innovative ideas will only make an impact when wielded by innovative teachers–individuals committed to thinking outside the box, encouraging student empowerment, and cultivating a personal growth-mindset. Also know that they aren’t intended as a silver bullet for classrooms everywhere; some might be more/less useful than others to you and your circumstances.

But I hope that you will be able to find something new, useful, and/or inspiring from this graphic!

I decided to frame the entire thing around the 4 C’s of 21st century education (I wanted to use the ISTE standards for students, but it proved too much for the visual I intended, but if you check those out, you’ll see a lot of parallels anyway). Please let me know what you found most useful, or if you have additional ideas to share! Enjoy!

My #OneWord2017: Synthesis

Have you ever looked up the definition of compartmentalization? One Wikipedia it reads:

“Compartmentalization is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person’s having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.”

My translation: compartmentalization is driven by fear. And I’m done.

I recently came across a quote (and for the life of me, I can’t remember where it came from or who said it, so if you know, please share) that went something like this: “I’ve spent much of my life trying to compartmentalize it. I’m ready to try to synthesize instead.”

With each day since then, this notion has grown and swelled within my mind and my heart. And it makes my 2017 one-word goal an easy choice: synthesize.

The longer I reflect and write, the more I recognize the inter-connected nature of this world. I think this is the reason my favorite blogging days are my provocation and #TeacherMom posts.

For the former, I gather scraps of inspiring resources scattered across the digital world, weaving them into broader concepts. For the latter, I gather scraps of inspiring moments scattered across my days as a mom, weaving them into broader teaching principles.

Opportunities for learning and growth are everywhere. As I work to step back and mindfully embrace the ebb and flow of life — the diaper changes, the lunch boxes, the library trips, even the tantrums — it all starts to join into a larger tapestry.

As I synthesize instead of compartmentalize, the most precious principles in my life become more pronounced and accessible: authenticity, resilience, courage, compassion, kindness. Everything begins to work toward a greater, self-perpetuating whole, rather than getting piecemealed into an eternal, competing to-do list.

My word is synthesis. What’s yours?

10 Ways For Practice & Student Ownership to Co-Exist

In a recent reflection, educator Faige Meller recently posed some excellent questions:

“As I reflect on what I call the “transference of learning to application,” I wonder how this works for our diverse learners? Is drill and practice an option? How do the programs you have, work with your students? How do we adapt our lessons to meet their needs? We know one size doesn’t fit all, but where is the “give” that’s okay?”

Readers of this blog know I am a huge advocate for student ownership over learning. To me, Faige’s questions come down to the balance of asserting our timetable over our students’ progress vs honoring their individual pace, development, and interests.

There is no quick, easy answer to this. But I strongly believe that every measure we take to be aware of this balance and to prioritize our students’ needs over external agendas/pressures is worthwhile. Here are 10 strategies I have found to be helpful in this pursuit.

1. Focus on big concepts first. I like Kath Murdoch’s description of this approach of setting up “rich, transferable concepts” in her article Inquiry learning – journeys through the thinking processes:

“For example, the inquiry into invertebrates has potential for students to develop a greater understanding of interdependence, cycles, growth and adaptation. Once we are aware of this, we can stretch students thinking beyond the ‘topic’ itself and compare and contrast the learning we are doing in this instance with conceptually similar contexts in the past.”

This helps place skills and abilities from standards into better context as students make connections within broader, more meaningful/relevant scale.

2. Encourage autonomy & metacognition in skills practice. I am a big fan of the Daily 5 routine for literacy skills (& Daily 3 for math) for this very reason–it’s one framework that not only allows students to choose how to spend their learning time, but helps them learn how to discern how to spend their time. In other words, help students stop waiting for you to tell them what skills they need to work on, & start teaching them how to identify that themselves.

3. Use Visible Thinking Routines. This practice helps strengthen metacognition and allows you a way to document thinking in a setting that provides much more student ownership and expression than perhaps a worksheet might.

4. Model reflecting on progress frequently. In the above article by Kath Murdoch, she lists possible questions that might help students to better understand the learning process, such as “What have we been doing to find out about this? What have been some of the most effective resources? How might we go about organizing this information?” This allows students to take greater ownership over the learning process, better understanding when and why practice might be necessary.

5. Make assessments as metacognitive & student-centered as possible. 5th grade teacher Jess Lifshitz shared a phenomenal example of this in the revision process with her students. Their “Revision Checklist” for their fiction writing unit prompted students to examine not just what their writing was like, but the specific reasons their writing improved.

6. Use standards-based grading over traditional grading. Younger grades are generally already good at focusing on the standards instead of grades and averages. But for older students in particular, it’s crucial for them to break away from the mode of doing “enough” for the grade, and that starts with a shift in mindset to the actual progress. An ASCD article entitled “7 Reasons for Standards-Based Grading” gives a great example of what this kind of grading might look like:

screenshot from ASCD.org, credit Patricia L. Scriffiny

7. Keep whole-class instruction to a minimum. Rely more heavily on student conferencing, small group sessions, and, when needed, whole group mini-lessons. You’ll be better equipped both to differentiate and to keep up individual conversations on students’ progress and what practice is needed.

8. Use creative problem-solving to promote student voice & to assess. We have countless digital tools at our fingertips today to help us solve old problems in new ways. A recent example of this was when Taryn BondClegg introduced back-channeling to her 4th graders so they could share and discuss ideas during their read aloud–without actually interrupting the read aloud.  She even uses the transcript as a formative assessment of their reading comprehension. An ingeniously authentic way to both ascertain and develop their abilities.

9. Allow students time for personal inquiry. This goes by many names– Genius Hour, 80/20 time, Passion Time. Allowing our students time to pursue their questions gives them the opportunity to practice & build upon many of the skills they are learning in a way that’s meaningful and directly relevant for them.

10. No “Secret Teacher Business.” This is one of my favorite phrases learned from Edna Sackson, and it makes complete sense. We are all be on the same team, and students should be familiar with all the vocabulary, longterm goals, standards, etc. that are in place for their progress and benefit.

Student ownership is key for taking practice from a place of “doing school” to a place of purpose and context in our individual learning journeys.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

That Time I Failed At Inquiry: 5 Missing Elements

Years ago, toward the end of the school year, I felt like our class was in a rut. I wasn’t sure what we were missing–Autonomy? Inspiration? Creativity? All of the above?

Whatever it was, I decided to do something drastic. I had recently come across a story online of a teacher who encouraged her students to create videos, and it seemed like a great idea to me.

So the next day, I checked out the laptop carts and dived head-long. I told them they had to work in small groups. I told them they could create any commercial they wanted. I might have had slightly more structure than I can recall, but if there was, it wasn’t much. And I stepped back, awaiting the student-centered magic to come to life.

It was bedlam.

Shocked and dismayed at the chaos and the discord and the aimlessness, I cancelled the whole thing the next day.

Today, a small part of me still wants to leave this experience forever buried in the corner of my memory labeled, “I-can’t-believe-you-actually-tried-that.”

But the rest of me knows that our failures are rich with learning opportunities. It reminds me of a teacher’s remarks during a PD session on inquiry this fall in which she expressed a wish to hear more about inquiry attempts that have crashed and burned. So, having come a long way since then (I hope!), I think I’m ready to finally retrieve that memory from its dark recesses and shed light and learning on it instead.

Here are 5 major elements that I now realize I was missing: