How Ownership Can Get Rid of “I Suck at…”

Think having students self-grade and reflect is fluff?

Think again.

Over the course of a 15 year study, John Hattie analyzed over 800 meta-studies to identify effects that have the strongest impact on learning (and he is constantly updating this list through continued studies). Self reported grades is almost at the top of the list of over 150 effects.

It beat out motivation. It beat out home environment. It even beat out “decreasing disruptive behavior.”

The truth is, students know a lot more about their own learning process than we so often give them credit for.

Which brings me to the issue at hand: When a student claims he/she “sucks at ___.”

When I hear that claim, I hear a student that has become convinced that their personal rate of learning is inferior to classmates. That because their progress has not looked identical to their peers, it must mean they are defective. That their learning is fixed, hopeless, and beyond theirs or anyone else’s reach.

Now, discouragement is normal for all learners from time to time. But when said discouragement is also rooted in learning that feels irrelevant or imposed, we’ve got problems.

Enter student ownership.

Any time we empower students with tools to take their learning in their own hands, we are giving them ownership.

Self-assessments are one such powerful tool.

Michael BondClegg recently wrote about giving students the opportunity to write their own report card comments, encouraging teachers to help students identify “ways in which learners can identify their strengths and areas for growth” and “plans for improving.”

This may seem trivial, but really, it turns the whole “I suck at” model on its head.

When a teacher fills out the comments, it perpetuates the whole “this is out of my hands” notion.

When a student is encouraged to fill out those comments in this way, it places the learning back in the students’ hands.

A student in diagnostics mode is student on her way toward a stronger growth mindset.

 

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Sharing Benchmark Scores With Students? #TeacherMom

I recently came across this article from Fountas & Pinnell entitled, “A Level is a Teacher’s Tool, Not A Child’s Label.”

Fountas and Pinnell believe very strongly that students’ reading levels have no place in teacher evaluation or on report cards to be sent home to parents. Too much emphasis on levels can lead to misconceptions on the part of families. Informing parents of the level at which their child is reading can make them uneasy.  They may see the level as a very exact measurement, but students don’t always read at a precise level. Parents also talk with other parents, and if they find that their child is reading at a lower level than other children, they might panic. But they don’t understand the intricacies of how those levels work the way you do.

I completely understand where Fountas & Pinnell is coming from here. As a teacher myself, I was glad during my daughter’s last parent teacher conference to possess the background knowledge of these assessments’ imperfections — we chatted about their subjectivity and the uneven spacing between levels (for instance, in the program my school used, it was an extra wide gap between levels T and U for some reason).

I also worry about our students and their parents taking too much stock in these assessments and therefore experiencing pressure, lack of confidence, and yes, even labels. And I recently wrote about my quandary over whether to share scores at all yet with my first grader (Will it Help Or Hurt to Review Scores with My First Grader?).

All that said, I believe that in order for students to take the wheel in driving their own learning, they should be able to reflect using available resources and data to inform their decisions and progress. Not to mention the whole idea of “No secret teacher business!

So is there an in-between place here?

The more I reflect on this, the more I believe there can be — but with some important considerations, including, but probably not limited to the following:

  • Data should only be one piece of the feedback puzzle. Reading benchmarks are a much less frequent and much more formal form of assessment. Students should rely much more on regular formative assessments as they make course corrections in their learning/growth.
  • Seek transparency not just about the data itself, but on its limitations. That it’s not an exact measurement. That there is a definite degree of subjectivity. That it’s meant to compare individual students’ levels against their own progress — not against anyone else in the class.
  • Are students developmentally ready for the type of data you can share? If, as in the story I shared in “Will It Help or Hurt to Review Scores with My First Grader,” the student has yet to even comprehend the nature of data, then it would be counterproductive to share.
  • Ensure there’s a clear connection between the data, metacognition, and “what’s next.” Help students tune into their own thinking about their progress, and maintain a dialogue on the strategies that will best help them move forward.
  • Ensure that students understand that the data is never the goal, but a guide. The goal is always learning, and data serves as lampposts along the way.
  • Protect intrinsic motivation. Students should want to progress for the sake of progression, not for the sake of their levels moving up.

There’s not necessarily a clear-cut answer to the question of whether we should share benchmark data with students. But as long as we are actively engaging with our students to help them take ownership over their progress, we are on the right track.

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“Perpetual Motion:” The Self Driving Engine of Student Ownership

Take a look at Pamela Kennedy’s “Perpetual Motion in Room 17” time lapse video:

What do you observe?

I notice:

  • Flexible seating choices
  • Variation in working in pairs, groups, or independently
  • Confidence regarding when and where to be
  • Order and efficiency, yet choice and flexibility

Now take a look at Mr. Humphrey’s class:

Choice – Making it Happen with 33 Students in a Math Classroom

Additional observations I make here include:

  • Freedom to set the pace of learning
  • Respect for students’ decision-making in how they explore concepts
  • Individuality

These are both wonderful examples of what can happen when we allow students to drive their own learning. And as students continue to steer more and more of their learning, I wonder what the next steps will be in each of these classrooms in furthering that ownership?

 

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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.

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How “Use Your Resources” Shaped My Classroom

“How do you spell _________?”

“What resources could you use to decide?”

“My pencil broke.”

“Could you use your resources to be a problem-solver?”

“I don’t get what we’re supposed to do at this point in our writing.”

“I bet you could use your resources to figure that one out.”

This was one of my go-to phrases with my students. But it wasn’t one of those silver bullet, use-this-and-the-kids-will-do-more-themselves kind of phrase. It took quite a bit of behind-the-scenes effort.

For one thing, there was a lot of ongoing dialogue behind it. 

We would discuss what it meant to be a problem-solver. I would always tell my students, “You may solve your problems in any way that doesn’t cause problems for you or anyone else.” For some, it took months before I could fully convince them that I meant it — for instance, that they could, in fact, use the bathroom without asking as long as they weren’t causing problems.

I would also continually spotlight when students would solve their problems in particularly creative ways, and would praise students for using resources effectively.

For another, I worked to set up a resource-rich environment that students felt comfortable using freely.

Whenever I gave any verbal instructions, I also wrote them on the board so they had that reference. Whenever we worked to uncover new writing or math tools, we wrote our strategies on anchor charts and then posted them as resources to check on. Whenever I brought in new supplies, I told my students about them and asked where would be the most effective storage place.

And perhaps most importantly, I worked to listen to student voice.  

They were always full of remarkable ideas for using and creating resources I hadn’t thought of.  The easy part of listening to student voice was keeping a suggestion box that we would review during weekly class meetings. The hard part was letting go to truly honor that voice by allowing sometimes imperfect or messy ideas to move forward.

After all, if “use your resources” meant they were only permitted to use my resources, or to solve problems within my set of solutions, I wasn’t actually cultivating an environment of student ownership. Real autonomy comes when those in charge don’t pretend they have all the answers.

I was certainly an imperfect executor of this ideal, but I’m enjoying the way I can use my current resources to learn more from my PLN to return to the classroom with a greater commitment to student voice, choice, and ownership.

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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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