Examining Learning vs. Education: Introducing the 2017 HGU Scholarship

Ownership over learning. My favorite element of 21st century education. It stands for much of what has often been missing in the history of formal schooling: encouragement to pursue personal meaning, challenges to take risks, empowerment to share a voice.  As I carefully selected this phrase in one of last year’s prompts, I hoped to witness some of these moments of authentic student ownership through our scholarship’s five creative mediums.

Though the efforts of last year’s applicants were inspiring, authentic, and reflective, it quickly became clear to me that this notion of true ownership over learning is still a mirage for too many of our students. Too many have been trained to believe that ownership is simply working hard enough for the grade, or otherwise looking outward for the measure of success.

But with companies like Google completely abandoning typical hiring standards like GPAs since they have found no correlation to successful employees, and other companies looking for digital portfolios instead of resumes, the traditional model of schooling is quickly becoming less relevant. As Josh Bersin, Founder of Bersin by Deloitte stated:

“Companies want someone who thrives on challenge [and is] willing to learn something new.  [They want] a seeker of information, willing to adapt. If you’re the type of person that wants to be told what to do, you might be a straight A student. In fact you might even be a better student than the other type of person.”

And of course, it’s really much less about what 21st century companies want, and much more about cultivating personal authenticity. It’s just that fortunately, it seems the world is starting to recognize the convergence of the two.

So instead, for this year’s scholarship, we’re asking students to examine the issue themselves. The 2017 prompt is as follows: Represent your views about the concepts of education vs. learning.

It is my hope that it will encourage greater reflection and dialogue on what matters most during the many years we invest in formal schooling.

For additional information on our 2017 creative multimedia scholarship, see the overview here (note the graphic at the top–for someone with a longstanding awkward relationship with creativity, I’m grateful for opportunities for growth like these as I try to lead out in pushing my comfort zone), and detailed FAQ’s for each medium here. It is available to high school seniors and college students with at least one year left of school, and has a deadline of April 16, 2017.

Finally, my reflections from last year’s participation have prompted me to also share a list of some do’s and don’t’s. These are meant to help promote the creativity, rather than to impede it (not to mention, to make sure that we will actually be able to review your submission)!

DO:

  • Do have a great time expressing yourself through your medium! The joy always shines through!
  • Do double/triple-check the sharing settings so we can view your file. There were quite a few that we could not evaluate last year because of this.
  • Do choose a creative title to help your piece stand out and to do it justice!

DON’T:

  • Don’t try to force a medium for your piece that isn’t a natural fit (ie, submitting a video that is really just you speaking would be better suited as a written piece).
  • Don’t submit a random assignment from a class. The lack of meaning and connection to the prompt is always apparent.
  • Don’t submit a formal ESSAY! This is a creative, multimedia scholarship. The creative writing medium is for creative pieces, including short fiction stories, poetry, screenplay/scripts, monologues, etc.

If Teacher PD Looked Like Popular Pinterest Pins

In “An Open Letter: To Pinterest, From a Teacher,” I reflected upon why certain pins so heavily circulate around the education community despite their lack of learning value. Since then, I’ve continued to wonder on the matter, especially as debates have ensued over the subject of compliance. A recent post by PYP educator Taryn Bond Clegg further pushed my thinking, particularly when she writes:

“…there were some things that surprised me about adult learners – the very same things that used to frustrate me as a classroom teacher. I have started to wonder if these similarities might have more to do with being a human, than being a child.”

This perspective has placed a new lens on my reflections. Namely, what if those pins were applied to teachers themselves?

Drawing from some of the most popular pins I’ve seen time and again, I created 6 images to further drive the discussion.

1

As Taryn says in a comment on her post, “I wonder how I would react if the facilitator took my device away, shut my screen, flipped my device over, called me out publicly or “moved my clip” down the colour chart…”

2

Some of the items on this list might be legitimately appealing, but that’s not the point. The true pride in and intrinsic motivation for our work is degraded when it is turned into such a carrot-and-stick exercise. As Alfie Kohn recently wrote,

“When we deal with people who have less power than we do, we’re often tempted to offer them rewards for acting the way we want because we figure this will increase their level of motivation to do so.”

 

3

The playfully spirited teacher may think, what a low-key and silly way to get students’ attention when they are off-task! But when we truly consider the function of establishing true mutual respect with students, it becomes clear that such communication can only erode it. After all, no matter how playful the intent, it still reinforces your ultimate authority and their ultimate subordination.

 

4

Hand signals may seem benign, and indeed there may be specific instances where they are useful (ie, quick whole-class comprehension check, etc). However, when we outline an entire arsenal of codes for students to silently convey basic needs like going to the bathroom or grabbing a new pencil, we single-handedly undermine their ability to solve their own problems appropriately, along with our trust in their ability to do so.

 

5

At first glance, this one may not seem to be about classroom management. However, experience has taught me that these kinds of worksheets are more about control than learning; they are usually utilized in hopes to keep everyone else “busy” during guided reading or other small group times. But of course, such a sheet will no more make teachers tech-savvy than cylinder sheets will make students adept mathematicians. But if it were replaced with actually using Twitter itself…

 

6

It might not be so bad when all the other teachers start out on the low end of the spectrum, too. But as time passes, how would you feel to see the numbers moving further and further away from yours–because even without names attached, you know exactly where your scores stand? One might argue, “But it’s a great way to motivate,” but is it really? Is demoralizing someone by reminding them of everyone else’s superior performances the best way to elevate effort? As a study cited in this Washington Post article found, “many well-intentioned teachers…appeared to be using data with students in ways that theoretically may have diminished the motivation they initially sought to enhance.”

What about you? Have you seen Pins that could hinder more than help the teacher/student relationship? What are your views on the ones I’ve shared? I’d love to learn with you!

featured image: Highways England

Current Events, a Controversial Read Aloud, & Changes I Can Make to Better Promote Peace

Nearly five years ago, I selected One Crazy Summer for my fifth graders’ end-of-day read aloud. In it, three young sisters are sent to spend a summer with their mother in Oakland, California in 1968, amidst intense developments in the civil rights movement. While the themes of the book are many, race is a prominent issue, mostly presented through the girls’ involvement with a Black Panthers day camp.

As I taught in a mostly middle-class white suburban area, I viewed the book as a great opportunity to discuss civil rights. Still in the naivety of second-year teaching, I was surprised when one student started to be picked up about 15 minutes early every day–to avoid read aloud time. When I asked about it, my student explained the family’s viewpoint that “Lil Bobby” Hutton (whose death the girls were to protest in a march with their day camp) was “a thug” that provoked the police.

At first I was shocked. Then disappointed. After all, didn’t the parents trust that we were having open-ended and lively discussions with every issue raised? Didn’t they see the benefit of considering multiple opinions? Didn’t they know that I would never try to indoctrinate my students with my personal opinions on sensitive issues?

Over time, those emotions faded into the swirl of the years, but I never quite forgot the incident. But in light of the tragic recent events in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Dallas, and more, this memory has resurfaced, and with it, reflections turning inward. How could I have handled the read aloud differently to help this family feel more comfortable with difficult subjects? How can I better use my role as a teacher to promote peace in the future? 3 ideas have come to mind:

  1. I can avoid assumptions. Everyone has a story, and I can’t even begin to understand the intricacies of every family’s background experience in shaping their current perspectives. But it is unacceptable for me to assume a reason for their sensitivity to or withdrawal from something we do in the classroom.

My job is not to help students to “see the light” in favor of my opinions. Rather, it is to encourage them to ask their own questions and to analyze information as independent and confident learners. Some families may misunderstand even this simple motive if their child appears to start coming home questioning their opinions or family values. Which is why the next two steps are so important.

  1. I can preface potentially controversial topics with reassurances. No matter how much I’ve worked to build mutual trust with parents throughout the year, at no point am I “done” in that endeavor–especially when we are about to ford hazardous waters. No parent is ever going to respond well to what is even perceived as a “teacher knows best” mindset, even more so when the issue might be emotionally charged.

In the future, I will be sure to dedicate a post on our class blog with not just background on the book or activity, but more importantly, with information on differing perspectives and the respect with which we will be treating that diversity.

  1. I can share student conversations. Once we get going, I can continue to promote transparency by documenting and sharing the discourse. A SoundCloud snippet, a YouTube video, photos of visible thinking routines–the options are abundant for giving parents a window to see for themselves the impact of open dialogue.

Of course, some of those discussions might be more spontaneous; if that’s the case, this sharing would be even more essential for parents to gain insight on the quality of the dialogue happening in our classroom. (In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think it would be worthwhile to replace my inspirational quote of the day component with a student dialogue of the day section…).

I know this is just a start to changes I can make. But any step toward promoting greater mutual understanding, trust, and compassion for students and their families to engage in a safe environment is one step closer to a more peaceful future.

I would love to learn from your experiences or recommendations. Please share in the comments below!

Featured image: Lisa Ouellette

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

What Learning to Drive Stick-Shift Taught Me about Learning

I could make a wall of shame with all the times I’ve tried–and failed–to learn to drive a manual transmission car. My dad’s instruction in his Ford pickup through the high school parking lot. My sister-in-law’s guidance in a church parking lot. My husband’s many attempts in varied locations through the years. Each instance ended with a loving concession that success seemed out of reach for the time being.

Until now. My husband’s recent surgery on his left foot and need to commandeer my automatic car for his commute presented me with an interesting dilemma: resign myself and my children to a homebound summer, or master stick-shift once and for all so I can use his car?

I woke up one morning last week determined to make it happen. I watched Youtube videos. I read tutorials. And I fiercely grilled my husband to understand not just the required motions, but the why behind how the clutch interacts with the gas and brakes. And then we got in his car for yet another shot at instruction.

I have now made two successful independent drives. Even while basking shamelessly in my victory of shifting from 3rd to 4th for the first time, I started reflecting on how it all connects to the learning process in general…

Growth mindset matters. While recognizing my weakness in spatial learning has provided clarity over the years regarding why I struggle with certain skills, it has also been a fixed mindset pitfall. Between this self-awareness and prior failures, I had predisposed myself to future failure. We are all prone to this kind of thinking, both for ourselves, and sometimes for our students. I believe this time was different in part because I finally acknowledged this pattern of thought. 

Students need a real reason to make it happen. Especially when something has proven particularly difficult in the past, we need to help our students discover their authentic reason to try again (and not our reason or the district’s reason in disguise).

The why matters. Another crucial difference between this and previous attempts was my pursuit of greater background knowledge. I knew that if I didn’t learn why the clutch needed to be disengaged when it did, it would continue to stump me when it came to action.

Edtech can empower individualization. I also knew that I needed to give myself the time to just quietly explore and digest instruction. The ability to play, replay, and pause video tutorials on my terms was powerful for my learning process–it allowed me to voice questions and ponder on what was trickiest for me.

Intense controlled instruction can give an inflated sense of difficulty. Empty parking lot instruction had always been necessary for safety’s sake, but the moment I was actually out driving on the streets, I realized why such conditions made manual-driving seem so impossible: the hardest tasks and concepts are extra-concentrated in a small space. Rather than having a minute or so between each stop or turn afforded by street driving, parking lot driving required me to think extra quickly/frequently about the next step.

Sometimes, learners need the space and time to put it in practice alone. After that final parking lot instruction, I decided to venture out alone. I started slowly on quieter back roads, gradually moving to busier areas to give myself more experience as I felt comfortable. It was certainly rocky, but I appreciated the real-world exposure so I could finally put all the pieces together (and put certain lingo into context, such as “sluggish engine”).

Expect variable progress, even after initial success. During my first independent drive, I did not stall the car once. During my second, I stalled almost half a dozen times. I’m sure things will continue to be up and down for a while, but I’m ok with that. I’m just glad to finally be making progress in a skill I had always wanted to master.

featured image: Patrick Machado

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 “Imposter Syndrome” Battle for Edubloggers

A week ago, I opened my email to find a lovely message from Edutopia telling me they had published my article. The sequence of my response went something like this:

“Woo-hoo! I feel validated!”

[clicking on my article] “Wait. I wrote and submitted this back in November. Is it even as relevant anymore?”

[frantically rereading my article] “Shoot, I would totally reword this entire section today!”

[reaching the end of the article] “How did I think that people would actually benefit by this?”

[a few hours later after the retweets started coming] “Wow, people are reading this!”

[a few seconds later] “Shoot, people are reading this! What if they read my bio and see I’m not even in the classroom right now? Or won’t they scoff at the fact that I’ve only taught for 4 years?” There’s no way this will keep up…”

[the weekend after] “Um, a lot of people are reading this. And commenting on it. And sharing it. I can feel good about that, right?”

And this morning, exactly one week later, I came across, “Overcoming Imposter Syndrome.” Though centered on the common struggle experienced by designers, I realized that this “Imposter Syndrome” nails it for me as an educational blogger, too. The fear of being “found out,” the hesitation to share, the worry of being under-qualified.

But it’s comforting to know this is a shared human experience. And those dark and shady fears look quite different when they’re named and standing together in the light.

Because the truth is, our individual stories and voices matter. They are making a difference. Even if our only audience is ourselves. These words are journeys, helping us better make sense of the world, and to become better teachers, better designers, better people. And that’s the truth to hold on to.

Have you ever felt the “imposter syndrome?” Please share your experience in comments!