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:

What is the Ship? What is the Sea? 4 Ideas for Vision #TeacherMom

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These words turn my mind to all the spheres of my life, past and present. What is the ship? What is the sea?

When I look at my children, the ship-building vision comes readily: raising healthy, happy, and competent individuals. It’s why I require them to wear clean underwear, to eat vegetables, to brush their teeth, to say ‘sorry.’

When I recall my 5th graders, a similar ship comes to mind: self-aware and self-driven people who can drive their personal learning and growth. It’s why I asked them to write in complete sentences, to reflect with peers, to study out evidence for thinking, to keep track of goals.

I find it interesting how easily these tasks and expectations quickly slip from being part of grander vision, down to dreary repetition. In isolation, no one much wants to do any of those things. But when we elevate our sights to that “vast and endless sea,” our days change. A few ideas come to mind when I consider how we can help our children and students catch the vision of the sea, not only for their futures, but for their present daily experiences:

    • Constantly ask why, and help them to do the same. It’s tough because there is always so much to do in a perpetually tight schedule, but it’s worth the effort to slow down. Ensure students aren’t just “getting it done” so we can get it done. I admire the way Katherine Hansen brings the why into a simple yet effective place in her classroom:

  • Deliberately cultivate creativity and inspiration. Show videos of awe-inspiring phenomena, mind-boggling inventions, and stories of perseverance and possibility. Help them find their personal passion to help them drive their daily efforts.
  • Let them experience natural consequences. This is not really about “tough love,” grades, or getting them to see how correct we are in our requests for them to perform the daily tasks. It’s about helping them gradually discover the need for these tasks and skills independently. And it requires a lot of metacognition instruction on our part to help them think more about their thinking process so they can identify what is going wrong and what is going right.
  • Cultivate ownership, choice, and voice. Yes, they still have to wear clean underwear and write in complete sentences. But when we give our kids as many choices as possible and let them in on the learning plan, it makes a tremendous difference in their ability to see beyond the mundane daily to-do list. Check out this fantastic example of student agency by Charlotte Hills.

If we’re not careful, life can become like one long series of “gathering wood, dividing the work, and giving orders.” Elevate the vision. Seek the inspiration. And help all those around you to also “yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

I would love to hear more ideas for ways you help your students elevate their vision! Please share in the comments!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

In My Future Classroom…

Though I know stepping away from the classroom for the time being was the right decision for me, I can’t help but continually dream about my future classroom upon my return. Today, I realized I need to get it down in writing for several reasons:

  • To create a working blueprint as my PLN continues to teach and challenge my thinking.
  • To establish personal accountability One of my worst fears is that I’ll instinctively return to old habits and comfort zones despite all I’ve learned and will continue to learn in this interim!
  • To remind myself and others that meaningful change is possible no matter our location/circumstances. My last classroom was at a PYP school where student inquiry and concepts-over-content are thoroughly embraced, and I’m not sure I’ll have that same opportunity again. However, no matter my future environment, I want to plan for what will be within reach instead of worrying about what won’t.
  • To concretely reflect on and prepare for the day I interview for my next teaching job. Thanks, George Couros, for inspiring me to do so with your recent post on interview questions for innovative teachers.
  • To encourage other teachers to share their classroom visions for next year, whether they have been away from the classroom or not. Please share! I would love to collaborate and learn from your vision, too!

So here we go. In my future classroom

…my students will have choice. The default has always been teacher control unless there’s a good reason for student choice. Why not change that default to student choice unless there’s a good reason for teacher control? Daily 5 literacy centers. Student-led conferences. Conversations about metacognition to help students internalize their own learning process and needs.

…my students will have voice. In our local community, I hope to help our students search out ways to apply and extend their learning in our classroom, school, and neighborhoods. In our global community, I will be on the hunt for networking opportunities that best suit their needs and audience, from blogging to building PLNs.

…my students’ parents will have a window. Our classroom and student blogs met this purpose beautifully in the past. But I’m also open to new possibilities when I return based on what would be most accessible for parents–Facebook, email, even home visits. I’m also looking forward to watching new platforms unfold by the time I’m back in the classroom.

…process will be proudly displayed and celebrated. I used to love our publishing parties at the end of writing units, and while I don’t think I’ll necessarily abandon them, I hope to search out ways to better celebrate the process along the way. Visible Thinking Routines have particularly caught my eye in recent months as a great way to better bring that process out of obscurity.

…my students will be seen as individuals first. Blind demands for achievement and performance are not about students–they are about rigid notions of “accountability” and timetables.  And when we allow ourselves to be swept away by these demands, we risk losing sight of our students as individuals. The lyrics from Donnie Darko’s  “Mad World” recently reminded me of what this can feel like for our students:

“Went to school and I was very nervous

No one knew me, no one knew me

Hello, teacher tell me what’s my lesson

Look right through me, look right through me.”

I will make the effort to look beyond data sheets and behavior issues so that my students know that I see them. That I see their perspectives and preferences. That I see their strengths and interests. That I see their stresses and victories. After all, real learning is messier than a benchmark chart would have us believe.

…learning will be valued above “doing school.” I used to think compliance was a tool for helping students learn respect, discipline, and cooperation. Now I know that it often ends up diminishing learning–not to mention that it’s less effective at instilling the above values than I thought anyway. I’ve also learned that activities and tasks can have the appearance of learning while actually being bereft of deeper, concept-based understanding.

…assessments will be ongoing and meaningful. My heart recently sank as I read Bill Ferriter’s “Are Grades Destroying My Six Year-Old Kid?” But his final recommendation reinforced my resolve to be part of the change when I resume my teaching career:

“Students — especially those who struggle to master expected outcomes — should be gathering and recording evidence of the progress that they are making on a daily and weekly basis.  More importantly, they should be actively comparing their own progress against examples of mastery and setting individual goals for continued improvement.  Finally, they should have as strong an understanding of what they’ve mastered as they do of the skills that they are struggling with.  Evidence of learning has to mean something more than “here’s what you haven’t learned yet.”

I constantly see new tech for facilitating this kind of ongoing assessment (So far, I’ve found SeeSaw and Google Classroom particularly appealing). But I know that it will be about much more than the tech–it will be about my attitude in helping my students take authentic ownership over their learning process.

What did I miss? What’s on your list? Please share below in the comments!

Featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

5 Ways to Stop Using Your Interactive Whiteboard as–a Whiteboard

Remember when I shared that story of the diy interactive whiteboard last year? Remember how I commented that we only even used it for occasional game show activities, eventually ditching it altogether? 

That was a classic example of what happens when edtech exceeds innovation. In all honesty, our usage level probably matched our abysmal functionality level, but I have witnessed this phenomenon in multiple classrooms equipped with full-fledged and shiny interactive whiteboards. And in these classrooms, they might as well have been using bog standard whiteboards. Sure, students may now be coming up to click “turn the page” on a book, or to tap the apples to add them up in a basket, but is that really elevating the learning experience beyond the pre-interactive whiteboard era? I’ve shared the GIF below before, but it seems especially appropriate to revisit here:


This is where this list comes in. In my experience, teachers learning and sharing with teachers is the best way to refine our practices. And in this case, we can help one another access the innovation necessary to prevent that new tech from just assimilating into business-as-usual, and we can do so in just 4 steps:

  • Step 1: Identify areas in which learning is stagnating, or even being diminished.
  • Step 2: Be the provoker by asking how a practice/resource enhances and challenges the classroom learning.
  • Step 3: Write, search out, and/or share strategies like those listed below–in the teacher’s lounge, on your Facebook page, on your blog…
  • Step 4: Reflect & repeat.

And so, here are 5 ways to maximize that interactive whiteboard. Keep in mind that these are targeted toward practical whole-group circumstances. For instance, it may sound tech-savvy to have a student zoom through Google Earth in front of the class, but consider whether that might be better suited for independent or small-group exploration on devices.

1. Document formative assessments: We all know that formative assessments should be a frequent staple, but we also know how cumbersome that documentation can be. Put your interactive whiteboard to work by doing those group Visible Thinking routines on the board. The large Chalk Talk board? Saved for future discussion! That KWL chart? Imagine the layers of reflection as you can easily save and revisit it throughout the unit or even year.

2. Collectively reflect on methods. I’ll let two photos speak for themselves on this one:

via Making Good Humans
via Making Good Humans
via The Curious Kindergarten
via The Curious Kindergarten

3. Provocations: Starting a unit with some thought-provoking photos or videos? Allow students to annotate screen shots with their initial thinking, and then easily revisit at the end of the unit. 

4. Reading and Writing workshop: When it comes to unearthing the complex journey of literacy development, interactive whiteboards can be pure magic. Annotate a students’ writing sample (with their permission, of course). Highlight what individuals notice about a mentor text passage. Co-construct anchor charts of all shapes and sizes. And as you go, shrink them all down to printable a size, pinning them up as evidence, examples, and resources.

 

My old literacy bulletin boards

5. Expand the conversation: After utilizing any of the above, remember your option to share these moments with a broader audience. Ask your quadblogging buddies to add their own annotations to your class’. Post tricky questions to Twitter with the hashtag, #comments4kids. Invite your students to share their follow-up thinking on their own blogs

What are your favorite uses of your interactive whiteboard that match the innovation to the tech? Please share below!

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

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.

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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,

bbbfd9ad4c4b14cba518ffc0c92d3710

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

The Universal & Essential Action Cycle

Beginning to teach at an International Baccalaureate school can be an intimidating experience.  Terminology alone, from “transdisciplinary skills” to “line of inquiry,” can be difficult to understand and incorporate into teaching, especially if you have a background that emphasizes direct instruction.  However, becoming familiar with the Action Cycle, or learning cycle, can help ease that transition–whether you’re a new IB teacher and or are simply interested in cultivating a more inquiry-based, student-driven classroom.

Continue reading “The Universal & Essential Action Cycle”