In My Future Classroom…

Though I know stepping away from the classroom for the time being was the right decision for me, I can’t help but continually dream about my future classroom upon my return. Today, I realized I need to get it down in writing for several reasons:

  • To create a working blueprint as my PLN continues to teach and challenge my thinking.
  • To establish personal accountability One of my worst fears is that I’ll instinctively return to old habits and comfort zones despite all I’ve learned and will continue to learn in this interim!
  • To remind myself and others that meaningful change is possible no matter our location/circumstances. My last classroom was at a PYP school where student inquiry and concepts-over-content are thoroughly embraced, and I’m not sure I’ll have that same opportunity again. However, no matter my future environment, I want to plan for what will be within reach instead of worrying about what won’t.
  • To concretely reflect on and prepare for the day I interview for my next teaching job. Thanks, George Couros, for inspiring me to do so with your recent post on interview questions for innovative teachers.
  • To encourage other teachers to share their classroom visions for next year, whether they have been away from the classroom or not. Please share! I would love to collaborate and learn from your vision, too!

So here we go. In my future classroom

…my students will have choice. The default has always been teacher control unless there’s a good reason for student choice. Why not change that default to student choice unless there’s a good reason for teacher control? Daily 5 literacy centers. Student-led conferences. Conversations about metacognition to help students internalize their own learning process and needs.

…my students will have voice. In our local community, I hope to help our students search out ways to apply and extend their learning in our classroom, school, and neighborhoods. In our global community, I will be on the hunt for networking opportunities that best suit their needs and audience, from blogging to building PLNs.

…my students’ parents will have a window. Our classroom and student blogs met this purpose beautifully in the past. But I’m also open to new possibilities when I return based on what would be most accessible for parents–Facebook, email, even home visits. I’m also looking forward to watching new platforms unfold by the time I’m back in the classroom.

…process will be proudly displayed and celebrated. I used to love our publishing parties at the end of writing units, and while I don’t think I’ll necessarily abandon them, I hope to search out ways to better celebrate the process along the way. Visible Thinking Routines have particularly caught my eye in recent months as a great way to better bring that process out of obscurity.

…my students will be seen as individuals first. Blind demands for achievement and performance are not about students–they are about rigid notions of “accountability” and timetables.  And when we allow ourselves to be swept away by these demands, we risk losing sight of our students as individuals. The lyrics from Donnie Darko’s  “Mad World” recently reminded me of what this can feel like for our students:

“Went to school and I was very nervous

No one knew me, no one knew me

Hello, teacher tell me what’s my lesson

Look right through me, look right through me.”

I will make the effort to look beyond data sheets and behavior issues so that my students know that I see them. That I see their perspectives and preferences. That I see their strengths and interests. That I see their stresses and victories. After all, real learning is messier than a benchmark chart would have us believe.

…learning will be valued above “doing school.” I used to think compliance was a tool for helping students learn respect, discipline, and cooperation. Now I know that it often ends up diminishing learning–not to mention that it’s less effective at instilling the above values than I thought anyway. I’ve also learned that activities and tasks can have the appearance of learning while actually being bereft of deeper, concept-based understanding.

…assessments will be ongoing and meaningful. My heart recently sank as I read Bill Ferriter’s “Are Grades Destroying My Six Year-Old Kid?” But his final recommendation reinforced my resolve to be part of the change when I resume my teaching career:

“Students — especially those who struggle to master expected outcomes — should be gathering and recording evidence of the progress that they are making on a daily and weekly basis.  More importantly, they should be actively comparing their own progress against examples of mastery and setting individual goals for continued improvement.  Finally, they should have as strong an understanding of what they’ve mastered as they do of the skills that they are struggling with.  Evidence of learning has to mean something more than “here’s what you haven’t learned yet.”

I constantly see new tech for facilitating this kind of ongoing assessment (So far, I’ve found SeeSaw and Google Classroom particularly appealing). But I know that it will be about much more than the tech–it will be about my attitude in helping my students take authentic ownership over their learning process.

What did I miss? What’s on your list? Please share below in the comments!

Featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

10 End Of Year Reflective Questions Every Teacher Should Ask

Amid surviving end-of-year testing, finalizing report cards, and sometimes, even packing up to swap classrooms, self-reflection can be the last thing on anyone’s mind. All the same, this time of year is a rich opportunity to do so; not only are the memories of this year fresh, but it’s also a great time to create a summer plan to help you better reach next year’s students (while you relax and recharge, of course)!

Below are 10 questions to help spark that honest reflection, along with resources that might help you get started in taking steps toward change.

Would I benefit by finding ways to rekindle my sense of fulfillment as a teacher? Is burn-out becoming your reality? Check out resources like the “Teacher Wellness” section of Edutopia to find inspiration to refocus your why as a teacher.

In what area(s) do I wish I could better reach my students? Choose a summer project based on just one item on your list. Want them to be better digital citizens? Try paving the way by connecting with other teachers on Twitter or Facebook groups (I recommend TTOG for a start). Hoping they’ll take more ownership over their learning process? Explore how you might improve your feedback methods. Wish you could make math more meaningful? Study inquiry and student-centered options, such as guided math.

Do I need to recalibrate my perspective on outside forces that I can’t directly control, such as standardized tests? By all means, please keep up the good fight against large-scale practices that diminish learning. But reserve the bulk of your energy on what is within the more immediate sphere of your control. As Edna Sackson shared on Twitter:

Am I selective enough about the practices that continue from year to year in my classroom? Take a look around your quiet, empty classroom. Leave no stone unturned as you inventory every item’s impact on authentic learning. For a personal example, check out, “What Happened When We Ditched Our Boxed Spiral Review Program–Mountain Math/Language.”

How can I better shift the learning to be more about overarching concepts instead of a thousand individual Google-able facts? For another personal example, see, “What Happened When I Stopped Teaching History in Chronological Order.”

Do I know the required curriculum well enough that I can stop worrying so much about whether I’m “covering” everything? In other words, can you see your role shifting from delivery-person to facilitator/connector? The former centers on a rigid agenda from the state, school, or you. The latter centers on individual students’ learning needs.

Do I give my students the opportunity for frequent and authentic reflection? Having a wrap-up is a simple yet often overlooked reflection strategy, and it’s a great place to start.

Is learning confined within the walls of our classroom? Once we started student blogging, the ability to connect globally with peers through Quadblogging blew our minds. Perhaps the summer project calling your name is to explore a platform that is age-appropriate and that complies with your school’s privacy guidelines.

Am I doing all the “heavy lifting?” Exhibit A: As George Couros recently suggested, you can either spend an age trying to find that “perfect Youtube video,” or you can challenge students to find it instead.

Are extrinsic rewards crowding out students’ intrinsic drive to learn? It’s ok to be afraid of rampant chaos. But don’t let that fear keep you from taking risks and giving students the chance to show you they can really bring to the table as learners. See “6 Thoughts on What’s Wrong with Compliance.”

4 Reasons You Should Join the TTOG Facebook Group

Especially if you are an educator on Twitter, you’ve probably heard of Starr Sackstein, Mark Barnes, and/or the going gradeless movement. But did you know that Starr and Mark also have a Teachers Throwing Out Grades Facebook group? No? Neither did I, until a month ago. Even if you are not interested in tossing grades yourself, here are four reasons TTOG is a must-join group for teachers everywhere.

It challenges the status quo.

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This photo recently circulated around Facebook. Most teachers I knew shared and applauded its sentiments, exhausted by whining and irresponsibility. And I get it. Yet I appreciated the way TTOG members chose to set aside those frustrations in favor of digging deeper. Comments examined the underlying sentiments and root causes behind the sign, and questioned ways we can better cultivate responsibility and respect.

It will help you reflect upon and refine your why.

When you join a group that consists of thousands of teachers who are re-examining their entire assessment approach, you can’t help but glean inspiration. Even if you don’t agree with every opinion, you will likely begin to realize just how many practices we take for granted in the classroom, and start to better evaluate why you do what you do.  

The discussions are some of the most thought-provoking I’ve ever seen in my PLN.

A recent post posed the following question:

“A few colleagues have said recently that “you can’t have rigor without accountability”.

Thoughts? How would you respond?”

The subsequent conversation included follow-up questions, definitions, resources, anecdotes, and every other ingredient of a healthy, lively debate.

It will remind you about our students’ humanity and what matters most.

This was not shared in TTOG, but I would say this drives its ideology. Contrary to popular belief, tossing grades and tests is not about trying to cushion delicate students’ self-esteem. Rather, it is about putting the emphasis back on learning and challenging teachers to better elevate and uncover meaningful learning.

featured image: DeathtoTheStockPhoto

10 Signs Your Child Might Be at a 20th Century School…and What to Do About It

Your child might be attending a 20th century school if:

  1. Silent seat work is more common than collaboration with peers
  2. The teacher asks all the questions (and most speaking in general…)
  3. Students wait on the teacher for most everything
  4. Basal reading programs and other delivery/content-based programs are heavily depended upon
  5. Technology is only used to consume–never to create, connect, and explore
  6. Seats are in rows facing the teacher
  7. Worksheets are the go-to in almost every lesson.
  8. Signs of extrinsic motivation through charts, cards, tokens, etc. for behavior control are more prominent than cultivation of intrinsic motivation through student voice, choice, and ownership
  9. The day is portioned into individual activities without interconnection between subjects or overarching concepts
  10. Questions like “Can I go to the bathroom” are frequently asked

***Bonus flipped sign: Play is a rarity. (***We call this flipped because just a couple of decades ago, practices tended to favor more play, especially for younger grades; today, even kindergartners are often laden with paperwork).

So what happens if you are devoted to exploring the edges of 21st century best practices, but your child’s school seems to match the above description?

  1. Send positive and supportive communication to the teacher. Odds are, she is drowning in all the meetings and paperwork that are often mandated at such schools, and can use all the support she can get.
  2. Frequently discuss with your child his/her motivations and passions. When she comes home with a sticker for cooperation, discuss whether stickers are the bottom-line for her choices. Would she cooperate without stickers? Why or why not?  
  3. Share those kinds of above conversations with your child’s teacher. During conferences and other opportunities, share your child’s thoughts on personal motivation (or better yet, encourage the child to do so). Get the conversations going that may help broaden perspectives and initiate reflection.
  4. Implement 21st century practices at home. MakerSpaces, coding, SOLE’s, blogging–the list goes on. Whatever you do, the point is to allow your child to drive the learning.
  5. Make play a high priority at home. As tempting as it may be to push your 6 year-old to prepare for next year…and the year after that…and the year after that, we must remember that “in play, children develop a lasting disposition to learn.”

Mr Rogers Play Quote

As parents and teachers, we can take action to cultivate our children’s pursuit of genuine learning, despite conflicting policies or practices. Please share some strategies that you have found effective below in the comments!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

 

10 Mixed Messages: Are You Confusing Your Students?

#1: “I want you to voice meaningful opinions and learn to articulately participate in group discussions, but you need to listen to me speak 90% of the time.”

Speaking and listening skills do not spontaneously happen; they take years of purposeful cultivation. When the teacher voice is the predominant one in the classroom, it takes away from opportunities for students’ voices to be heard, challenged, and refined.

#2: “You are competent, but you need to ask me before you use the restroom.”

We recently wrote about the need to abolish “Can I go to the bathroom?” There will always be specific exceptions for unique situations, but if we want our students to believe that we consider them to be competent and trustworthy, we should make trust the rule, not the exception.

#3: “It’s ok to fail and make mistakes, but remember you’re going to be graded on this!”

Nothing quite like holding a weighty grade over someone’s head to keep them from wanting to take risks with their learning!

#4: “I want you to learn to be a critical thinker and problem solver, but I will give you all instructions for completing tasks!”

How often do we let them struggle? How often do purposefully teach the fixed vs. growth mindset to help them learn to persevere and problem-solve? (check out this wonderful example of supporting students as they learned to examine their own fixed vs. growth mindsets).

#5: “We are part of a shared learning environment, but every lesson, transition, and conversation starts and ends with me.”

We may tell our students that this is a shared learning environment, but are you really sharing it? Giving up control over every aspect of the learning can be a struggle, but it’s an important step toward creating a truly student-centered classroom.

#6: “I want you to discover and act upon your passions, but covering this curriculum is our biggest priority.”

Of course the curriculum is generally set, but does that mean it must be the be-all-and-end-all in your learning environment? What if we let students take the lead with inquiry and project-based learning, while we pull overarching concepts (as opposed to content) and help them connect the dots?

#7: “I believe you can have a true voice in the world, but you’ll need to wait until you’re an adult before you can safely interact with individuals online.”

We want our students to be positive, contributing citizens of their communities; why do we hold back from teaching them to be positive, contributing digital citizens of the global community?

#8: “I want you to make authentic connections to this learning, but you need to memorize this because it will be on the test.”

If your answer to “why do we have to learn this” doesn’t reach beyond the test, it’s unlikely students are going to be making any personal connections any time soon. We can and should evaluate our students’ progress and learning, but it should be in the form of more natural feedback to their learning pursuits, rather than grading memorized content.

#9: “I want you to dream of possibilities, but the moment I give the quiet signal, you must immediately stop and pay attention to me.”

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t have a quiet signal. However, there are ways we can respect students’ thinking time, ie. giving them plenty of time to begin with, setting a timer, giving them notice before the transition, etc.

#10: What are other mixed messages you’ve seen? What can we do to change it? Please share in the comments!

featured image: Jon Wiley

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.

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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