If Only Parents Would…

My initiation to the parent side of the school table was abrupt and rather unpleasant. It was the first of many moments over the last two years that would expand my perspective and empathy as an educator. I have been reflecting lately on my old list of things I wished parents would do:

If only parents would

  • Practice spelling with their students for just a couple minutes each night.
  • Check their child’s backpack every day.
  • Sign the reading log.
  • Help their child practice math facts at home.

Interestingly enough, now that I have a first grader myself, my wish list for her teachers have very little to do with the list above:

If only teachers would

  • See my child as a person–not a benchmark result–first.
  • Help her con-construct meaning for herself rather than rely on worksheets.
  • Focus less on compliance and control and more on student voice/choice and ownership.

When I examine these two lists carefully, I have a few important takeaways:

  • My old “if only parents” list was more focused on grades and standards.
  • My new “if only teachers” list is more about student autonomy and powerful learning.
  • When I return to the classroom, my new “if only parents” list will undergo at least 2 important changes:
    • It will be transparent and more collaborative in nature (I hope it will become less of an “if only” list and more of an ongoing dialogue with parents).
    • It will stop assuming that parents who don’t worry about grades aren’t concerned about learning (because they are most certainly not one and the same).
  • Getting on the same page as teachers and parents is easier when we stop making assumptions and start finding better communication channels (not just #StudentVoice, but #ParentVoice, too).
  • I need to make it a point to find out my future students’ parents’ “If only teachers would” lists (ie, while I would personally be inclined to do away with homework altogether, I will be sure to work with parents to find out their thoughts and needs for their individual children).

Do you spot any other tips for me? How have you improved parent/teacher communication?

featured image: clogsilk

Inspiring Inquiry: On Refugees

I’ve shared resources about refugees before, but a new piece has recently captured my attention.

It consists of a series of photos of refugee high school students relocated in Boise, Idaho. Depending on the ages of your students, the article itself might be a little beyond your students, but the captions for each photo were what interested me most. There is something powerful about viewing a picture of seemingly ordinary teens alongside their stories that are anything but ordinary.

Provocation Questions:

  • What is the value of sharing our stories?
  • How does the process of refugee relocation work?
  • Why are there refugees?
  • What is the difference between a refugee and a migrant?
  • What challenges do refugees face, even after they are settled in a new, safe home?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

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

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

Why & How to Abolish “Can I Go to the Bathroom?”

The way we handle one of our students’ most basic needs can reflect a lot about the degree to which we cling to control. Not only does this topic take a lot of honest self evaluation, but it requires genuine empathy for each of our students.

Why?

unnecessary interruption

When students are required to raise their hand to ask to use the bathroom, it often disrupts the flow of a discussion.  And with intercom announcements, drills, and more, don’t we have enough interruptions anyway? 

Domino effect

Particularly with younger students, a restroom announcement from one student often triggers several more deciding to go unnecessarily. This turns a simple, individual routine into a larger disruption to learning.

humiliation factor

We probably don’t need to list all the circumstances that may require a person to visit the bathroom more frequently than others.  And because those circumstances are often deeply personal and sometimes embarrassing, forcing students to raise their hand each and every time can be humiliating for some, and perhaps debilitating for others.  Students have enough on their shoulders without the added anxiety of whether they’ll be able to discreetly take care of their bodily functions.

Student autonomy


We often worry so much about our responsibility as teachers to keep tabs on all our students that we lose sight of their capacity. However, with some training and discussion, the majority of our students can handle the simple social contract of only using the restroom when needed, and to monitor appropriate timing to do so.  If you’re worried about them getting up in the middle of instruction, tell them that. Explain the concern that they will miss important instructions, and encourage them to utilize independent or group work time. Explain the privilege and associated accountability with this autonomy. And of course, continue to keep an eye out to pick up on misuse and possible intervention. See ideas for this in the tips below.

Put yourself in their shoes

We may think we’re teaching them responsibility to check in with you first. We may think we’re teaching them time management to tell them to just go during their breaks. But in the end, we must honestly ask ourselves the tough questions: how would we feel to work in an environment where we had to check in with someone each time we needed to go?  How would our concentration be impacted? What messages are we sending to our students when we strictly control their bathroom use?

How?

  • If you’re coming from a place of more thorough bathroom-use monitoring, start by opening up the conversation with your students. Arrange a class meeting and ask students how they would feel about a new bathroom procedure that allows them to take care of things without coming to you. Discuss the functions of trust, responsibility, and safety, both during that meeting, and throughout the year.
  • Set alternative requirements that will still fulfill your responsibilities as a teacher.  For instance, stipulate that students must put an object on their desks, such as a bottle of hand sanitizer, to indicate they have left (win-win). Another idea is to further require that only one boy and one girl may be absent simultaneously to avoid group bathroom hangouts.  
via 3rdGradeThoughts
via 3rdGradeThoughts
  • Really ask yourself, is one of  your main worries that they’re going to the bathroom just to escape? If so, ponder what you can do about your classroom environment or practices to make your room a more desirable place to be.
  • For students who are accustomed to total teacher control, they may view this new privilege as a continuation of the “me vs. teachers” game they’ve learned.  If this happens, work with that individual student, reminding him or her about trust.  You may find it necessary to create an individual system for that one student (small check-out sheet, etc), but make sure you do not punish the entire class for the lack of responsibility of just a couple students.

featured image: Sam Breach