The Issue of Focus: Working for Student Ownership

Glazed-over eyes. Wandering minds. Fidgeting bodies.

There are endless reasons our students might be disengaged, and almost an equal number of ways to address it. There’s the good:

  • Evaluating & reworking our practices (Too many worksheets? Not enough movement?)

The bad:

  • Ignore it and press forward with a ghostly Professsor Binns doggedness.

And the ugly:

  • Blame it exclusively on the kids and technology (vocalizing with key phrases like “newfangled,” “millennials,” and “lazy.”)

In the midst of a long winter while teaching 5th grade (February can be particularly tough around here), one approach came to me in the form of this quote:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” ~Steve Jobs

The lightbulb flicked on, and I immediately turned the quote into a poster above my door.

As a class, we analyzed the quote together and came to several conclusions, the most important of which was to validate those “other good ideas” on our students’ minds. The discussion went something like this:

“So, is it bad to want to play with toys? Of course not! Is it bad to think about planning your get-together with friends? Absolutely not. Those are good and important things, too. It’s just that we have to say no to those other good things when you have other important things to turn  your attention to.”

This was pivotal for many of my students. The demand to “focus” had long been a struggle of good vs. bad — the things adults wanted vs. the things they wanted. This reframing helped them see that we all have to regularly choose focus by saying no to the other good things in our lives.

It became clear that this kind of validation strengthened my relationship with my students, building mutual trust. It helped them see that I am human, too, and that I, too, need to learn to prioritize my time.

One important note, however: if we view this or any other similar approach as a simple strategy to placate our students, we miss the broader picture. Rather, we should view this as one step toward greater student ownership over their learning. Only then will we move from disengagement to engagement, and then finally to empowerment.

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5 Signs of 21st Century Teaching to Watch For During Conferences #TeacherMom

Those who have followed this blog for some time know how much I support the student-led parent teacher conference. And while it can be an indicator of student ownership and a 21st century teaching mindset, its absence does not necessarily rule those things out, either.

Last week, my 1st grader’s parent teacher conference with her wonderful teacher proved the latter. Here are 5 signs I observed that showed me that essential 21st century teaching elements, such as student ownership, voice, and choice, are thriving in her classroom:

1. A commitment to learning over “doing school” or compliance. I loved listening to the discussion about how my daughter could work on “sitting still at the carpet.” Her teacher clarified, “I don’t think we should call it ‘sitting still’ because I’m not really worried about that. It’s more when it really disrupts classmates with the laying down and sticking legs straight up in the air — that sort of thing.” I loved that she was making it clear that this was not an issue of control/compliance, but of trying to create an environment where everyone could learn and thrive (and I couldn’t help giggling internally at the tone that this was an easy mistake to make for a person to not realize that sticking one’s legs in the air might be problematic. Ah, first grade…)

2. Creative resources/differentiation are sought out. Instead of leaving the above issue with an “ok, well, please work on that,” we all brainstormed ways we could help. That’s when the teacher pulled out a sensory seat cushion and asked my daughter if she’d like to try it out, which she did right then and there.

3. Student voice is valued. After my daughter decided the cushion would be useful, she was encouraged to identify and articulate its purpose and expectations; there was no lecture on responsibility because it was clear that her teacher trusted her to establish that for herself.

4. Process is celebrated. When they explained a new math problem-of-the-day, the teacher wrote up an example and gave my daughter time to work on it. When she had finished and answered correctly, her teacher didn’t just move on from there. Instead, she asked my daughter to explain to us her thinking. We were able to learn so much about how my daughter is currently thinking about ten frames and other math processes.

5. Students are seen as individuals first. Data was present. Valuable assessment was present. Accountability was present. But none of those things took precedent over my daughter’s value as a person. Her teacher recognized her strengths and her opportunities for growth, and it was clear she had invested in building a positive, trusting relationship.

I am so grateful for teachers like this. Who refuse to let the time-crunch stand in the way of developing meaningful relationships. Who seek the balance of a smoothly-running classroom without feeling like they must have rigid control. Who trust their students to do more than just follow instructions at all times. To this teacher and teachers everywhere like this, thank you!

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Our Best Intentions…

We put up behavior charts with the intent to recognize the positive just as often (or more often) than the negative…

…but how often is it truly used to do anything more than monitor those few “naughty kids?”

We create class bucks for our students to earn for stellar work (and maybe to learn a bit of economics)…

…but how often do they end up fining just a few kids, and/or regularly overlooking those steady, dependable kids?

And we designate special accolades to honor students for “being really good…”

via MrsMeganMorgan

…but for the large pool of (rather disappointed) children who meet that vague standard, does it end up doing more harm than good as they wonder what more they could have done for such recognition?

(And we’ve all heard the argument that “Someday they might hope to be employee of the month, and not everyone gets to be that either, so let’s prepare them for that now” — but I believe that’s an apples and oranges argument for the simple reason that these are children. Who work so hard to please and do their teachers and parents proud).

Yes, we want to notice the good. We want to stay organized. We want a smoothly-functioning classroom. But I can’t help but wonder if all our energies spent toward making those charts, buying those prizes, and creating fancy spotlights (having done all those things myself in the past) would be better spent with just simple, daily relationship-building…

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Weighing the Pressures of Preparing for the “Next Level”

“They have no study skills.”

“They’re so unprepared for college studying, like organizing lecture notes.”

“Those high school teachers are letting my kids retake tests, and it’s making them lazy.”

These were a few sentiments I heard among a few other parents (one of whom was a college professor) while waiting to pick up our kids. That teachers just aren’t sufficiently preparing students for the next level.

This has had me asking myself tough questions ever since. A lot of them.

Like this one: Amid all my soap-box preaching about student ownership, what if, after all we do to teach our children to own their learning, they find that somewhere down the line, ownership is impossible?

When we try to focus more on powerful learning & less on “doing school,” are we doing our students a disservice for later expectations?

Where’s the line between building our kids up for what’s coming, and focusing on all their developmental needs now?

Or even, if I want my 1st grader to someday get into the university of her dreams, shouldn’t I do all I can to help her get “ahead of the curve” starting now? 

But then…

I see articles like this that suggest that kids who wait to start kindergarten for a year have fewer problems with ADHD & hyperactivity. Which makes me think (especially since kindergarten is the new first grade) that all this prep for the next level is perhaps taking its toll already.

And I see posts like Taryn Bond-Clegg’s sharing her dream of a system that supports rather than hinders a culture of student agency. Which makes me think that every action that focuses more on the here-&-now of our student’s needs helps us move closer toward a better system.

And then I see articles like this that remind us all that best practices are always the bottom line for the present:

We do not sacrifice good instruction because those in upper levels are not there yet. Instead, we employ what we know works, and we spend time mentoring those above us in what we do.

 

I still don’t have all the answers. But in the end, maybe college level study-skills can just — wait until college…

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I’m Finally Using the PYP Key Concepts!

I hope I’m not the only one who struggled with all the lingo when starting out as a teacher at an IB PYP school (International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme). Units of inquiry? Learner profile attributes? Transdisciplinary skills? 

I was so bogged down by the extensive framework that partway through my first year, I may or may not have complained about, “all this IB crap.”

The key concepts were no exception.

I had a token key concept “parking lot” (laminated poster) at the back of my classroom, where we’d occasionally stick up questions for the unit at hand (that would often get forgotten until they fell off, littering the corner depressingly behind the door).

via Graeme Anshaw at Mathematical Enquiries

Worse still, whenever I would try to get my students to use the key concepts to ask deeper questions, I’d consistently wind up with the same hoop-jumping I was definitely modeling. ie, if the topic was “adaptation,” the questions just parroted the key concept guidelines with little to no real curiosity or connection behind them:

  •  Form: What is adaptation like?
  • Function: How does adaptation work?
  • Change: How is adaptation changing?
  • Reflection: How do we know about adaptation?

And so on.

Over the years, I gained a much better understanding and appreciation of what the IB was all about. But I still struggled making those key concepts genuinely accessible.

That’s why it was with surprise and enthusiasm when it finally clicked for me as I’ve started writing provocation posts. After carefully curating resources to help inspire inquiry into bigger concepts, I write possible questions one can use for discussion with students.

That’s where the key concepts have come in. Not only do they help me consider questions, but they help me see the resources with different lenses.

For instance, in my recent “How People Get Their Food” post, the key concepts of perspective and responsibility made me think that it would be interesting to discuss why we should even consider why people eat differently around the world–I realized that with the resources provided, big concepts this question could elicit might include economics, geography, politics, nutrition, cultures, and more.

The key concepts are finally valuable tools for me to to unearth bigger concepts!

Zooming out from this experience even further, I can now see that it wasn’t even so much about the IB jargon; I needed to completely rewire my mindset about asking powerful questions, prioritizing student voice, and making room for the “unplanned.”

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If You Give A Kid A Spelling List…

If you give a kid a spelling list…

…she will need words that are on a developmentally appropriate, differentiated level.

If the words are on the right level…

…she will want to break them down for patterns, connections, and language concepts.

If she is breaking them down for bigger concepts…

…she will want to know why spelling matters in general.

If you show her why it matters…

…she will want to take ownership over the way she practices it.

If she is practicing spelling with more ownership…

…she will begin to find more autonomy elsewhere in her learning.

This “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” (by Laura Numeroff) thinking arose from reflecting on how spelling is great example of the need to challenge the status quo.

Spelling has looked the same for decades in many classrooms: everyone gets the same list on Monday, practices copying down the words throughout the week, gets tested on Friday.

This pattern often persists despite all we’ve come to know and continue to learn about spelling instruction and development (see the checklist for evaluating spelling programs on page 35 of this document by D.K. Reed at Center on Instruction).

Some of the most important changes include the following:

Instead of the same words, we should be differentiating. I enjoyed using the program, Words their Way for this purpose, as I was able to assess students within their individual stages of spelling. Quite apart from reaching students’ developmental needs, I also appreciate approaches that do not make spelling a one-size-fits-all situation that unfairly challenges only those who are below “grade level.”

Instead of mandating uniform spelling practice each day, we should be teaching students to recognize how to allocate their word study time. Even when spelling is differentiated, it will still come more easily for some students than others, which results in wasting valuable time. A framework that helped me adopt this approach was Daily 5 (for literacy; Daily 3 for math).  It was wonderful to watch my students make informed decisions about their learning time rather than just passively checking everything off the teacher’s list each day.

Instead of focusing on memorization, we should be helping our students break down and investigate each word. This better scaffolds students in their language acquisition, building upon their grasp on patterns in phonology.

When we step back to see an even bigger picture, we see that these changes are not only about better spelling instruction, but about broader 21st century principles including student ownership, inquiry, and personalized learning.

 

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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!

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