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!

If We Strip Away The Arts at School, What Do We Have Left?

In a fit of sentimentality, I recently looked up my old grade school: Laguna Road Elementary. After soaking up memories of scraped-knees on the blacktop, Oregon Trail in the library, and art projects in the patios, my thoughts turned to the crowning glory of those years: the sixth grade play.

Winter 99, 7
Me on the left!

Moments from our class’ rendition of Into the Woods are forever etched in my memory–my absurd shoe-fitting as wicked stepsister Florinda, the princes’ hilarious performance of “Agony,” our paper mache Milky White cow. My thoughts also turned to my older sisters’ productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oliver!, and another Into the Woods.

My reminiscences were suddenly interrupted, however, by a startling parent review on GreatSchools.org.

“They spend too time on the 6th grade play and little time reviewing for the CST (California State Testing).”

Another parent wrote:

“Best part of all….when they get [to their new school], our kids will not be wasting their 6th grade at this new school putting on a play.”

I was shocked. Perhaps these reviewers’ children were simply disappointed at the roles they received for their plays (I know I sure was at first). Maybe they just felt uncomfortable with public speaking. Or maybe they do in fact value standardized testing over performance arts.

If the latter is true for these and other parents, my question is, are the arts really a waste? And what happens to schools when we strip them away?

At the recent passing of legendary David Bowie, Stephanie wrote a brief but thought-provoking reflection on why everyone was taking the time to exchange favorite songs and memories. Her bottom line? “Because music matters.”

The case for the arts in school is also well-backed by research. One study at the University of California Los Angeles found:

“…”arts-engaged” students from low-income families demonstrated greater college-ongoing rates and better grades in college. As an example, low-income students from arts-rich high schools were more than twice as likely to earn a B.A. as low-income students from arts-poor high schools. Moreover, the UCLA researchers found the students engaged in the arts were more likely to be employed in jobs with potential career growth and more involved in volunteerism and the political life of their communities.”

The list goes on; other studies spanning the last couple of decades detail the many irreplaceable benefits of the arts for kids, ranging from greater proficiency in academic subjects to increased capacity for community connection to higher graduation rates.

As for me, the answer to what would be left without the arts is–very little. I honestly remember almost nothing else from sixth grade–least of all the testing. But I will forever and vividly recall that play. Furthermore, I don’t find it a coincidence that sixth grade was a major turning point in my confidence and interest as a learner.

What has been the longterm effect of the arts in your life? And would you have traded it for more time testing?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

What Happened When We Ditched Our Boxed Spiral Review Program (Mountain Math/Language)

I used to love Mountain Math and Mountain Language.  The spiral review. The simplicity of swapping laminated cards each week. The security of knowing my students were practicing concepts that could show up at the end of year tests.

ML in my classroom

During Independent Study time, students would grab a fresh answer sheet and try their hand at weekly examples of 20 grammar concepts (ie, parts of speech, dictionary guide words, spelling corrections, syllables), and about 22 math concepts.

However, the summer after my second year of teaching, I began to doubt. Was it worth the sizable chunk of time spent every week? Did it help struggling students to improve? Did it help not-struggling students to grow? Were there better ways to help them with retention? Most importantly, what was the big-picture program design more about: students becoming better readers, writers, and mathematicians, or standardized test drill?

As a fifth grade team, we reflected, and came to realize that while it did have some merits, the program was an opportunity cost for better things. We scrapped it cold turkey and worked together toward more purpose, more thoughtfulness, more curative effort, and more reflection.

What Changed in Language Arts

Wrap-Ups:

I was already committed by that point to wrap-ups for most lessons, but I became even more acutely aware of their necessity. Wrap-ups became a golden time for connection-making and conclusion-recording.  I began to be more mindful in helping my students highlight specific concepts that occurred naturally in our lessons.

Bulletin boards:

With the extra space, I got a second large bulletin board installed on my wall, and designated one for reading workshop and one for writing workshop. As we shared our connections and defined new concepts (especially during wrap-ups), we would record and display them on our bulletin board throughout each unit.  Not only did this serve as a helpful visual reminder as we built upon unit concepts, but the connections to grammar ideas became more organic–which resulted in greater student ownership and retention.
my literacy bulletin boards

Independent Study Shift:

Our school’s practice of dedicating about an hour of independent language arts study time underwent a gradual transformation over the next few years as we worked to identify better ways for students to practice language arts while teachers met with small reading groups.  Eventually, we realized that students could learn how to prioritize that time themselves, if only we gave them the tools to do so.  And so we adopted the Daily Five, which helped us lay out a better structure in teaching students to make purposeful choices for how they spend their time.  Choices included read to self, read with someone, word work, work on writing, and listen to reading. I loved the shift in the mentality even more than the shift in the program selection.

Mini, teacher-designed Grammar Practice:

We started to design and select our own mini-grammar practices wherever we noticed students could use extra practice. When I went on extended parental leave, this was still an imperfect process, but I was excited about the direction and potential for growth.

What Changed in Math

Because we did not rely as heavily on the Mountain Math program, things did not shift quite as dramatically in that subject. Our most tangible change was implementing mini formative assessment quizzes. This involved creating small, two to four question quizzes each day based on the previous day’s study, often throwing in one bonus review question.  As a result, we became more deeply and continually aware of the class’ understanding, and became better equipped to course-correct as needed.

What Changed in Me

In the end, this was a story about shifting ownership–both for my students and for me.  I became more aware my students’ needs because I did not just rely on a program to “cover” concepts. I became more confident in my students’ abilities to choose what mattered most for their own learning–especially as I searched out meaningful tools to help them learn how. The bar was definitely raised for us all, but I have found it to be one of the most worthwhile changes in my teaching career so far.

If you’re interested in other ways to challenge the status quo, check out our post, “What Happened When I Stopped Teaching History in Chronological Order.” 

Featured Image: Domiriel

Icebreakers: A Learning Moment & Follow-Up

Have you ever read something that challenged your teaching approach? I hope so! And it’s an important enough type of learning moment–one we hope students will embrace, and one we should welcome ourselves–that I wanted to share what my latest experience with this looked like.


Last week, I published a post with some of my favorite icebreaker games.  I’d played and enjoyed each of those games myself before with students and other adults, and had almost always found them to be positive, bonding experiences (most recently on a COPE course with about 30 other adults last month).

But then today, Pernille Ripp, a teacher and blogger whose work I have followed and admired, published “3 Non-Ice Breaker Things to Do the First Week of School.”  I loved her ideas, like having students pick picture books to express themselves or drawing lines to show common interests. But as I read, I realized her low-key, calm activities stood quite in contrast with my loud, crazy, and silly ones.  And so the self-reflection began:

  • Should beginning of year games be more quiet and reflective?
  • Have my games been embarrassing for my students?
  • How can I better help my students settle into their new environment the first week of school?

To be honest, the questions were not comfortable.  There were moments when I even wanted to just delete the email notification with the blog post and move on.

But as I persevered in pondering these and other questions, I noticed something. Though I’ve never met her in person, based on what I’ve come to know of her through her work, Pernille’s suggestions seemed to me to reflect her personality–the quiet, the reflection, the picture books. 🙂 On the other hand, I noticed that I could see myself reflected in my ideas; some of my favorite moments while teaching fifth grade were playing capture-the-flag at recess or trying silly role-play activities. And I came to an important conclusion:

The best way to break the ice with students is to be ourselves.

Trying to be someone we’re not is a surefire way to get everyone seized up in discomfort and mistrust. Students have an uncanny ability to sense inauthenticity. So if our back-to-school plans involve activities that we would personally loathe, but that we think we’re arbitrarily obligated to do, it’s time for some planbook revising.

My reflection also reminded me that it’s important to be mindful of all our students’ personalities and needs; we should be sure to include a variety of ways to get to know them and to gently invite them to our learning communities.  I feel certain that when I return to teaching in a few years, my first week of school will certainly benefit by taking time “for the quiet, for the reflection, for the conversation.”

Thank you for this learning experience, Pernille!

Featured image: DeathToTheStock