Getting Creatively REAL with Our Students

Fractions. History. Essay-writing. We like to tell ourselves that these are neat, linear, and formulaic. That the perfect boxed curriculum or textbook will give us step-by-step instructions and printables. That we can contain and document the learning in a consistent, objective, and measurable path.

But the truth is that real learning is messy, nonlinear, and oh-so-creative.

I was inspired by this new video by New Age Creators entitled, “An Honest Look into Creativity:”

I was struck by the parallels between what I’ve learned of the learning process and how she describes her creative process.

When I search my memory for the most magical and in-depth learning moments with my students, I find that creativity was usually the common denominator. It doesn’t take long for two specific anecdotes to come to mind:

1. During my third year of teaching, I decided that if I was going to ask my fifth graders to make goals that were truly meaningful and challenging for them, that I should openly lead the way. I shared that I had always told myself that I was not at all artistic. I explained my desire to make more room for art in class and for myself. I told them how I’d always wished I could consider myself creative. And I asked them for their help. For the rest of the year, it was as if they responded to a clarion call. I was amazed not only at their deep interest and support of my personal goal, but at how much more open they seemed to digging deeper and taking risks with their own growth.

2. One day, as my students were working on writing some limericks, I sat down to write my own. During wrap-up, I shared–not just the finished product, but my thought process and inspiration in putting it together. That kind of modeling became more second-nature for me as time wore on, but at the time, it was a risky move in creativity. And again, it seemed to result in opened floodgates of my my students’ enthusiasm and willingness to discuss their personal writing processes.

These and other experiences have taught me that no genuine effort in cultivating a creative learning environment goes to waste. The profound benefits I’ve witnessed include:

  • Strengthen the teacher-student relationship as students sense you are right in the learning trenches with them.
  • Make the process more tangible and open to dialogue.
  • Decrease the hypocrisy of expecting students to do what you would never do yourself.
  • Help students and teachers better understand their own learning processes.
  • Create a sense of authenticity and decrease the perfectionism as students and teachers learn to drop the charade of learning looking a certain way for everyone.

What are reasons you make creativity a priority?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

The Unexpected Outcome of Morning Messages

My introduction came early in my teaching career. A visiting professional development speaker invited us to maintain “small daily doses” when it comes to modeling quality writing, emphasizing consistency over complexity. One of his recommendations was the Morning Message. Working on improving visual imagery? Add an example to your morning message. Having some confusion with certain homonyms? Toss ‘em in. Intrigued by the concept, I portioned off a space on my whiteboard to give it a try.

The results were as he described. I often modeled very specific writing skills in my morning message that we sometimes dissected as a whole class. Other times, I just let students notice them on their own. Soon, they were grasping the idea that writers employ specific tools with great purpose, and that they could identify and use those tools, too. They added techniques to their toolboxes. They openly discussed their strategies. And slowly, they came to see themselves as capable authors, too.

But there were certain other results that were quite unexpected. Wanting to be authentic with my students, I wrote those daily 3-4 sentences about my real-life experiences and feelings–and what much of my life revolved around at that time was my new baby girl, Lizzie. Her first year of life was my first year of teaching, and morning messages became a window for my students into my world with her.

Mostly, I shared moments that made us laugh. Like the time Lizzie tripped and then insisted that the floor pushed her. Or the time she instructed herself to smell a dandelion (and not to eat it) and then did so for 10 minutes. Or the time she combed her hair with a syrupy fork to be like Ariel in The Little Mermaid.

Occasionally, I shared moments of sadness. Like when she woke up from a nap helplessly covered in vomit. Or the morning she told me, “Mommy no bye-bye.”  

Whatever I shared, it was real. And my students came to see me as a real person, experiencing the ups and downs of real life.

Morning Message
Morning Message from November 26, 2012

But that wasn’t the end of the surprises that morning messages brought to our class. Eventually, I realized that it would be fun to capture those little memories for my daughter to enjoy someday. Quietly, at the end of the day as the students cleaned up and did classroom jobs, I’d snap a photo of the morning message and email it to an account I’d created for her.

My students started to notice.

And then they started asking to take the photo for me.

And then they started fiercely safeguarding the message from getting prematurely erased before it could be photographed.

I started to hear them swapping “Lizzie stories.” Former students came in and reminisced about them. Even parents expressed how much their students looked forward to those stories.

In hindsight, I’d say that the morning messages became an instrumental way we built rapport, authenticity, and empathy in our classroom–because being real with our students is one of the most precious gifts we can give them. For you, that may be better achieved in other ways, but if you’d like to give morning messages a try, below are some tips to keep in mind.

Tips for Morning Messages

Keep them brief. For younger grades, maybe even just a sentence. For older ones, just a few. Don’t bog yourself or your students down.

Keep them optional… At first, we tried reading the messages aloud together, but it just felt so awkward for all of us that we decided to skip it. Maybe it would be suitable to read it together with younger students, but for my fifth graders, I didn’t want to burden them with another “to-do.” The only time we read it together was when we were evaluating specific writing techniques as part of our unit.

…but make them engaging. Make it something your students will want to read, even if you don’t require it.

Tie in current writing concepts... Though it was always a small dose of modeled writing, sharing my thought-process with my students on how exactly I decided to craft my sentences was always a powerful teaching opportunity.

…but keep them authentic. Don’t sacrifice authenticity for an overly-contrived teaching moment. Share your true experiences and thoughts. If it doesn’t feel natural and helpful to weave the morning message into your writing instruction, don’t force it for that particular message.

Cursive? I always wrote my morning messages in cursive simply for consistent, but small exposure. As I told them, I didn’t want anything to limit their able to read any text, because cursive does still show up now and then.

What about you? Do you do morning messages? Please share your experiences below!

Featured image: Jack Amick via flickr

3 Reasons We Hate Science Fair–And How to Fix It

The day my school decided to move science fair to sixth grade instead of fifth, we all cheered–students, teachers, and parents alike. Years later, I’m reflecting on the root of our mutual animosity toward the project. And it seems to come down to three problems–and solutions!

Lack of Teacher Modeling

We ask students to dig deep. To ask questions that don’t have an answer yet. In short, to go beyond comparing popcorn brands. But how often do we model how we develop our own original questions? Share our honest, raw wonderings? Demonstrate our process of Googling to refine an idea?

Creativity and innovation are skills, and science fair projects are an advanced exercise of these skills. If we expect our students to suddenly showcase skills we’ve never helped them cultivate (or worse, that we’ve never cultivated ourselves), we are setting them up for failure–or just another diaper absorbency project.

  • SOLUTION → Metacognition: MindShift recently wrote about 5 inquiry tools to help students “learn how to learn.” These metacognitive strategies encourage students to honestly reflect on their own learning processes and emotions when facing challenges (see also “Smart Strategies that Help Students Learn How to Learn”).
  • SOLUTION → Teach questioning: If you want students to ask “measureable questions,” teach them how to do so long before introducing science fair. Strategies like frequent use of Visible Thinking protocols trains students how to develop and refine their questions. (see also Tubric).
Lack of Existing Student-Driven Project-Based Learning

The science fair should not be an isolated experience of students taking ownership over and driving their own learning process. If it is, it’s unlikely that many will rise to the freedom in ways that will fuel their passion and motivation.

  • SOLUTION → Project-Based Learning: Make it your next weekend project to create one new PBL opportunity. Guides like this one found on Edutopia can help you get started.
  • SOLUTION → Student Voice & Choice: Mindfully consider your students’ choice and voice in their day-to-day learning. When we gradually let go of control and allow our students to steer the learning, they will grow in confidence and self-understanding.
Lack of Engaged and Authentic Audience

Even if students do manage to find a passion-driven project, how often does their work ever go beyond a cardboard trifold display in the gymnasium (unless they happen to move on to regionals)? Too often, we only allow our students small sips from locally limited audiences–when we could lead them to the very fountain of global conversation with our fingertips. It’s time to throw open the floodgates and watch what happens when our students swap ideas with peers, scientists, and experts across the world.

  • SOLUTION → Student Blogging: Encourage your students to blog not only the final presentation, but their entire process along the way. Then, teach them how to ask for feedback to fine-tune their ideas.
  • SOLUTION → The Wonderment: This is an especially wonderful platform for younger students to collaborate safely online.  They can upload photos, videos, and text, asking questions and getting inspiration from kids around the world (see other excellent blogging alternatives here).

Let’s break the mold of hating science fair this year. What are some of your strategies to do so?

Featured Image: Andria via Flickr

6 Thoughts on What’s Wrong With Compliance

In “An Open Letter to Pinterest from a Teacher,” I wrote about worrisome pins, including those that circulate around compliance. One commenter responded with her perspective:
Compliance Comment

 

There seems to be differing views on what compliance really entails. When we are concerned about students’ disregard of rules and respect, where do we look for answers? I would assert that turning to compliance is treating the symptom and not the cause. This thoughtful comment has inspired me to further expound on my thoughts. Below are six issues with compliance that come to mind. 

Lack of compliance does not mean lack of rules

Creating rules is always an important strategy for forming positive learning environments. But if we approach the rule-making process from a teacher-centered “here-are-my-rules;-now-follow-them” mindset, we are unnecessarily centering that environment on a top-down compliance system. We can achieve a more positive–and accountable–environment when we share this process, asking students what they need to be able to learn.

Compliance does not equal respect

The very definition of compliance conflicts with building respectful relationships. Synonyms on Thesaurus.com include:

  • don’t make waves
  • fit in
  • satisfy
  • submit
  • give in
  • give up

If our primary interest is to build mutually respectful relationships with our students, plastering our walls with things like “blurt out” charts detracts from that message.

bbbfd9ad4c4b14cba518ffc0c92d3710

Compliance is often counterproductive for cooperation

Principal David Geurin discusses the problems that arise when we value compliance over commitment from our teachers. This principle equally applies to our students. As Geurin says, “[Compliance] may result in some change in behavior, but it may only get the appearance of a change in behavior.” If we instead shift our focus on truly connecting with our students, I believe we would cultivate deeper understanding of and commitment to a shared vision for a positive learning environment.

Compliance diminishes learning

I shared this example in a response to the comment and I’ll share it here, too. During the first few of weeks of kindergarten, my daughter came home chatting and singing all about nothing but following instructions and sitting at the carpet. And that seemed natural, because most teachers focus on classroom procedures and rules during the first part of school. But the unfortunate result was that she was trained from the get-go what school is about–and it wasn’t learning. It was compliance. Not anticipation for the wonderings they’d explore. Not hope that their curiosity and abilities would be cultivated. Not even simple joy for discovering the world around them. Compliance. And when compliance is the tone of a classroom environment, when it is valued above all else, at best, learning is diminished. After all, how can we expect students to branch out, take risks, and explore the possibilities when they are continually waiting to be told where to be, what to say, and how to sit?

Compliance sacrifices creativity for control

Educator Michael Niehoff distinguishes between two “camps:” compliance/control vs. creativity/innovation. He finds that when it comes down to a challenge, we often have a choice to make between the two sides, and that those who stubbornly stick with compliance can miss out on unexpected learning opportunities. If we want our students to think outside the box, we need to actively model that as well by sometimes letting go of our preconceived biases and attitudes toward how school “should” be done.

Compliance can silence student voice

One of the ugliest consequences of compliance is when our students leave their contributions at the door because they know that their voices won’t really be heard anyway. But it’s difficult to spot because teachers, administrators, and a parents alike sometimes confuse it with good discipline. This issue was recently documented by Inquiry Partners when a perceived top-rate classroom was observed and filmed. Most everyone came away with glowing reviews, but as the author states, “what none of them knew…was that what we were actually filming was a prime (and common) example of student disengagement.” They found that 86 of the 90 minutes, the students were sitting and listening. These are clearly students who have been groomed for years for compliance. And it happens in even the best teachers’ classrooms.


 

None of this is to discount the need for individual behavior contracts or similar measures on occasion. But even in those circumstances, we should be careful to ask ourselves if we care more about the students simply complying with the rules, or working to help them take steps toward meaningful change for themselves. What about you? What does compliance mean to you? And what has happened in your classroom when you begin to let go of control?

featured image: Jesse Moore

3 Timeless Lessons From “The Yellow Star” About Cyberbullying

The “Yellow Star” by Carmen Agra Deedy beautifully illustrates the legend of King Christian X standing with his Jewish people by wearing a yellow star during Nazi occupation.

And while the Danish Jews were never actually forced to wear the star, confirmation of the king’s support for his Jewish people have surfaced, including “substantial evidence that the King actually suggested the idea of everyone wearing the yellow star should the Danish Jews be forced to wear it.” (source)

Legend or not, this 20th century story highlights timeless lessons of humanity that we find especially applicable to the 21st century subject of cyberbullying.

  1. Teach Solidarity

“Early in the year 1940…there were only Danes. Tall Danes, stout Danes, cranky Danes, even Great Danes.”

We must actively teach our students that what we have in common outweighs our differences. Cyberbullying offers a shroud of anonymity that can tempt some people to forget that a living, feeling human being is on the other side of that unkind post or dehumanizing poll. We can bring that shroud out of obscurity by directly talking about it. About digital citizenship. About the human experience. And about whether it’s really worth making someone else feel like they don’t belong.

  1. Teach Courage

“If you wished to hide a star,” wondered the king to himself, “where would you place it?” His eyes searched the heavens. “Of course!” he thought. The answer was so simple. “You would hide it among its sisters.”

I recently came across a disturbing article about a poll for the ugliest girl at a high school. And though the young woman who was targeted responded courageously, I was left wondering how each kid involved in that poll could have acted with more courage, too. How can we teach them to take initiative and take a stand, even if it isn’t very popular? I believe it starts with us. We need to model the courage to stand up and say no, even in a society that often turns “cruelty into entertainment and sport.”  

  1. Teach Empathy

“What if the good and strong people of the world stood shoulder to shoulder, crowding the streets and filling the squares, saying,’ You cannot do this injustice to our sisters and brothers, or you must do it to us as well.’ What if?”

Empathy requires us to truly reach other people. It rejects in-group/out-group. It embraces vulnerability and imperfections. It places genuine value on every human being. Cyberbullying creates in-group/out-groups. It exploits people’s vulnerabilities and imperfections. And it tears apart the self-worth of everyone it can. We need teachers who will dare to voice exactly what cyberbullying is all about, “Go[ing] beyond praising the right behaviors — proactively counteract[ing] the forces that stand in their way. This is where standing up, not just standing by, comes in.” (“Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply”).

King Christian X’s Jewish people may never have been forced to wear the yellow star, but his solidarity, courage, and empathy are likely what prevented that unjust mandate to begin with. What could these three qualities do for your students, your school, and your community?

Image credit: the lost gallery

High-Lows: Highlighting the Human Experience

High-lows is a simple ritual of sharing our high and low moments each day. It can strengthen your student rapport, inform you of your classroom climate, and offer closure each day–all in less than 5 minutes!

The Human Factor

In the bustle of standards, projects, and assessments, do you give students time to step back and reflect? Do you encourage them to consider their personal responses to the various learning experiences each day? Do you encourage them to vocalize their emotional state in appropriate ways? And do you model all this YOURSELF?

Theories & Goals of educationHigh-lows is a tangible way for us to consider our students as human beings–and for them to view us as such, as well. Spending just a few minutes on this at the end of each day has taught me about my students’ interests, disappointments, priorities, and delights. My students in turn became familiar with what I consider to be moments of triumph or frustration–which gave them insight into my learning process as a teacher.  

Better understanding one another on such an honest, human level enhanced our mutual trust, communication, and respect. 

Tips

  • Spend the last couple minutes of the day (often wasted on door loitering anyway) with high-lows.
  • Introduce high-lows by modeling your own high-lows from teaching that day (“My high was during social studies today because the questions many of you asked were so inspiring and deep! My low was math because I felt like I spent too much time talking and not enough time letting you guys practice–I’ll be fixing that tomorrow, though!”). Feel free to occasionally share non-teaching high-lows when appropriate, too (“My high was when I found out my daughter will be my sister’s flower girl in her wedding! My low was taking my dog to the vet last night.”).
  • Model sharing your why for both highs and lows.
  • Keep the lows honest but light. Tell students that we should never give names, or even situations that could point to an individual who frustrated us. For an outlet for students to voice personal concerns, consider an alternative like a suggestion box.

What are other ways you show your students you consider them to be human beings?

featured image: Death to the Stock Photo

Resources for More Authentic Reading Comprehension Strategies

As a freshly-graduated educator, I had been extensively drilled on reading comprehension strategies. Excited to try out my research-backed literary stockpile, I whipped up beautiful little guided reading packets that featured multiple copies of each comprehension strategy, complete with instructions and fill-in-the-blanks.

So I was shocked to discover that my students hated those packets. No matter how much support I offered, all I seemed to receive in return were lost pages and careless responses. After months of toiling in futility, we eventually ditched those packets and sought other ways to cultivate reading comprehension strategies.

Years later, my reflections have revisited those packets. What went wrong? Why were even my advanced readers disengaged?  Why didn’t they help students see the value of the strategies?

After further reflection, I realized we need to put ourselves in our students’ shoes. Imagine you’re deep in the thralls of your novel when someone comes up to you and asks you to synthesize the perspectives and settings so far.  Or to make an inference right now.  Or to come up with a question about your last chapter. Maybe you’re able to give adequate responses, but how likely are they to be genuine, meaningful reflections that enhance your reading experience?

Both my packets and this not-so-hypothetical example are missing one crucial element:  authenticity. As we examine practical ways to increase authenticity in our reading comprehension strategies instruction, we should consider how metacognition and ownership can work in this setting.

Metacognition

Research has instructed us to focus on the “what good readers do” angle as we explicitly teach these strategies.  But does that really mean telling them that good readers constantly pause for outside-mandated reflections at arbitrary times?  Of course not.

We need to build on this instruction by teaching them to notice the natural moments of self-conversation and wonderings as they read, and then to learn how to identify the strategies that are already at play. This awareness of their own thinking will enhance their authentic use of these comprehension strategies because it will gradually strengthen their ability to consciously utilize and articulate them.

Ownership

Fifth grade teacher Jessica Lifshitz shared what happened when she shifted from merely teaching the what and how of comprehension strategies toward the why (1/12/17 edit: She’s also constantly using Google Apps to create student checklists and self-assessments that packed with ownership and metacognition, such as this Revision Checklist). These conversations help students internalize the real impact these strategies can have on our individual lives, which is crucial in using them in more authentic, meaningful ways.

To further help students take the reins on their own reading experience, I realized that we need to rethink how we ask students to express their thinking, being mindful of flexibility and choice. So I created the organizer below, which encourages them to consider which strategy they’ve used and how it improves their personal understanding.  Click here for the pdf!

FlexibleStudent-CenteredReadingComprehensionPracticeAs researcher Brene Brown summarizes, “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen” (The Gifts of Imperfection).  Let’s give our students the chance to make learning more honest and real for them, for reading comprehension strategies and everywhere else.  What are other measures you’ve taken to encourage authenticity in your classroom?

Featured image: Hazel Marie via flickr