3 Tips to Help Students Rise Above the Echo Chamber

I recently had the opportunity to volunteer again as an exhibition mentor at my old IB PYP school. And, as usual, the children were brilliant, brimming with ideas and enthusiasm for taking the lead on their unit of inquiry.

But over the last few years, I’ve started to notice a puzzling trend: no matter how much research and exploring the kids do, and no matter how many counter-articles I suggest, the basic opinion they start with is often the opinion they end with (plus some charts and figures to support it). Why?

How do we help kids make the shift from searching out facts that support their existing opinions (something the internet is all-too-willing to give us all), to instead searching out the truth, even when the truth is surprising?

Here are 3 thoughts I’ve had since the end of this year’s exhibition (that hopefully I can better employ in mentoring next year!!). I would love to hear your suggestions, as well!

1. Model research that responds to the unexpected.

My first thought was on how we model research to our students. Most teachers extensively model how to find answers to their questions. But I wonder how often we show them what it looks like when we encounter an article or chart that assert alternative possibilities? Do we think aloud as we digest this new information, or do we discard it in our search for the information that backs us up? If the latter, I think we’re missing an important opportunity to teach students to be open to new ideas.

2.  Employ visible thinking protocols — especially “I used to think…Now I think…

This is a kind of mental scaffolding exercise to help students break down their thinking and how it is evolving. Reflecting not just what our opinions are, but on why we have them is crucial for healthy metacognition for us all!

3. Play the “Devil’s Advocate.”

I have had a tendency as my students’ mentor to help them find articles to help them find out more about their topic — which generally involves research on their existing opinions. But I have come to realize that what they need more from me as a mentor is just the opposite — to share resources that directly contradict their claims, encouraging deeper digging and questioning.

Videos like these from Futurism come to mind, especially since they start with phrases like “Despite what you might have heard…”

Genetically Modified Food Is a Great Advancement

Three Major Reasons Automation Won’t Leave You Unemployed

In this information age, it’s easy for all of us to get stuck in our own echo chambers of opinion. It’s crucial we help our students learn to rise above it now.

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“Are You Sure?” #TeacherMom

It’s spring break, which means my 2 year old gets to have his big sister home from school for more make-believe play together. Yesterday, I overheard them playing “house.”

In the course of their play, I heard my daughter ask her little brother how he wanted his kitchen to look. After he gave his idea, she asked, “Are you sure?” She proceeded to try to convince him of all the reasons for why her way would be better.

It was like looking into the proverbial mirror.

I knew I was witnessing my 6 year-old simply playing out the many times I’ve asked her the same question — after all, in their game, she was the mom.

It made me pause and reflect on the idea of autonomy. I’ve written about its benefits for our students before, but I wonder just how effectively I walk the walk with my own children. When we offer them a choice, but then cast doubt on their decision, we don’t give them the full opportunity that real autonomy affords.

Of course, that’s not to say that my young children get to choose in all things, just as my students did not always have a choice. But if we want to build trust, confidence, and ownership, honoring the decisions they do get to make is pivotal.

And when we don’t, well, I guess we’ll just watch the cycle start all over with our own children…

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Inquiry into Collaboration

Whether you are beginning the PYP Exhibition or otherwise would like to recharge your students’ teamwork skills, this week’s provocation centers on collaboration.

One word of caution however: spend more time “coaching from the side” than you do lecturing from the start. Chances are, they’ve heard it all before, and they need hands-on, timely feedback more than anything! (I’ve definitely gotten this all backward in the past, giving far too much time and energy to the initial instruction and then expecting them to put it into practice effectively).

Resource #1: “They All Saw A Cat” by Brendan Wenzel

via Amazon
via Amazon
via Amazon
via Amazon

Both the advantage and disadvantage of collaboration lies in the fact that we all have different perspectives. Enter “They All Saw A Cat” to get kids thinking about what this means.

Resource #2: 21 Balançoires (21 Swings) by Daily tous les jours

Every time I watch this, I keep forgetting that the background music was not, in fact, a professional soundtrack, but was created by these people simply cooperating with one another on the swings. Sure to evoke serious thought from your students!

Provocation Questions:

  • Why does perspective matter when it comes to collaboration?
  • What makes collaboration work?
  • How has the need for collaboration changed over history?

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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.

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Sharing PD Learning with Students

Professional development meetings are usually an aside, right? We often want to hurry and get them over with so we can get back to our classrooms and students.

But what if we deliberately embraced them as part of our learning process? And no, I don’t mean a general, feel-good, kiss-up-to-the-admin kind of embrace.

I mean, what if we identified one genuine learning moment, and then (here’s the important part) shared that learning with our class when we returned?

It was easy for me the first time I did this, simply because that particular professional development training had been a particularly engaging and enlightening session.

My students had always asked where I’d been when I returned from meetings. But this time, rather than my usual quick response of “meetings,” so we could get back into our learning, I opened up:

(them) “Mrs. Wade, where did you go?”

(me) “A meeting for teachers to learn about how to become better teachers. Did you know we do that? And guess what?! Do you know what I just learned about? Reading workshop! Want to try it?”

My enthusiasm was contagious, and they were instantly curious. I couldn’t have planned a more perfect opportunity to introduce the very concept we’d been encouraged to start implementing.

I continued sharing with them about how I’d learned that we could model reading workshop just like we do writer’s workshop; namely, a mini lesson, guided practice, and wrap up. I shared how I’d discovered that they can make connections during reading workshop that will help them strengthen their writing, and vice versa. And I shared how excited I was because discovering and practicing reading strategies in this way seemed much more interesting than reading comprehension worksheets.

When I asked them if they wanted to give it a shot, they were all-in. And when we actually started, we kept the open dialogue going. I would say things like, “What did you think? How did that compare to the way we used to do that? How could we improve this process?

There was an openness, an energy, and a collective commitment to make this work. And I believe this stemmed from trust. Because the truth was, I was a novice at reading workshop. I had just barely learned about how to implement it.  So I know that had I instead pretended to be the expert, rolling it out in a grand introduction of authority, we would have lost that precious element.

When we let our students see our authentic learning process, we build trust and respect and cooperation because they know we’re in this arena, too. And when we let them in on the vision (even if all the little pieces are not yet in place), they are more willing to bring it to life together.  Our students need our genuine, messy learning process more than they need a polished and perfect appearance of control.

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Converting Frustration to Teaching Moments #TeacherMom

Last week, I asked my 6 year-old to get something from the car. I knew the item had fallen under the seats, so I added the instruction, “Make sure you look all over!”

She came back empty-handed, telling me it wasn’t there. Of course, with mom omnipotence (momnipotence?), I knew that item was indeed in the car and that she had simply not looked thoroughly enough.

Anyhow, I was ready to heave my usual sigh and go look for it myself when it occurred to me that “look all over” is a very vague and abstract concept for a 6 year-old. My mind jumped to an old-school Sesame Street episode featuring Grover we had recently watched:

I referenced Grover’s silly song about prepositions, telling her, “Try checking one more time, only this time, be sure to be like Grover and look ‘Around…over…under…and through’ all the seats.”

Though she did not end up finding the object during her second search either, she nevertheless took much longer and was clearly far more thorough (in the end I discovered it had fallen down into a remote and camouflaged corner).

As I reflected on that small teaching opportunity, I realized how often I take for granted what I think my kids ought to be able to do, yielding to frustration rather than teaching. In my classroom, I generally made it a point to help my students explicitly identify, “what does _____ look/sound/feel like” (ie, what does working respectfully in pairs look/sound/feel like?).

Yet there were still moments when I felt frustrated by shortcomings I felt my fifth graders should just know by now (penmanship, writing in complete sentences, group work skills). The reality was usually that they simply needed more modeling, more support, more patience.

I hope this #TeacherMom moment will help me better recognize those learning opportunities with my own children and my future students.

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