That Time I Failed At Inquiry: 5 Missing Elements

Years ago, toward the end of the school year, I felt like our class was in a rut. I wasn’t sure what we were missing–Autonomy? Inspiration? Creativity? All of the above?

Whatever it was, I decided to do something drastic. I had recently come across a story online of a teacher who encouraged her students to create videos, and it seemed like a great idea to me.

So the next day, I checked out the laptop carts and dived head-long. I told them they had to work in small groups. I told them they could create any commercial they wanted. I might have had slightly more structure than I can recall, but if there was, it wasn’t much. And I stepped back, awaiting the student-centered magic to come to life.

It was bedlam.

Shocked and dismayed at the chaos and the discord and the aimlessness, I cancelled the whole thing the next day.

Today, a small part of me still wants to leave this experience forever buried in the corner of my memory labeled, “I-can’t-believe-you-actually-tried-that.”

But the rest of me knows that our failures are rich with learning opportunities. It reminds me of a teacher’s remarks during a PD session on inquiry this fall in which she expressed a wish to hear more about inquiry attempts that have crashed and burned. So, having come a long way since then (I hope!), I think I’m ready to finally retrieve that memory from its dark recesses and shed light and learning on it instead.

Here are 5 major elements that I now realize I was missing:

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

10 Tips for Tough Conversations between Home & School

I was devastated. It was my first email from a parent expressing unhappiness, and I struggled to take it in stride. After all, I was devoting all my intellectual, emotional, and even physical capacity toward my students’ success and well-being. Yet the parent reported that her daughter had been spending longer and longer evenings frustrated over homework, culminating in one tearful 2½-hour evening of math.

What I hadn’t yet recognized was just how difficult it can be for parents to send such emails to begin with. Despite the fact that they entrust their children to our care for 7+ hours a day, parents often face debilitating intimidation to reach out.

So this is a post for those parents, who worry that despite their best efforts to impart concepts of self-worth and love, their children go unseen at school. Who fret that the learning is losing its joy and wonder amidst all the pressure. Who ache when their children seem to struggle for belonging in vain.  

But this is also a post for teachers like me, who worry that despite their best efforts to impart concepts of self-worth and love, they have overlooked a student’s needs. Who fret that the learning is losing its joy and wonder amidst all the pressure. Who ache when their students seem to struggle for belonging in vain.

This is a post for us all. Because no matter how fleeting, these moments are real–and raw, and messy, and dark. And no one, not parents, not teachers, and especially not our students, should have to face them alone.

#1

Parents: Just click send. Have courage to speak. You can spend the rest of the year worrying and hoping for things to improve, or you can open the channels now for clarity and support.

Teachers: Recognize and validate that courage. Look at every email from parents as an opportunity to build trust and understanding.

#2

Parents: Don’t underestimate your voice. Yes, teachers and administrators are professionals, but they are also human beings. And most are striving for positive change and growth every day. You have an opportunity to be part of that change if you only let your voice be heard.

Teachers: If you make sure you daily revisit your priority to find better ways to reach your students, the rest will follow, including recognizing the value of parent voices in that pursuit.

#3

Parents: Recognize that criticism doesn’t equal disrespect. Even while facing serious concerns for their children, I’ve heard parents express, “Well, they’re the professionals, right? So I should trust what they’re doing.” Again, even the most phenomenal teachers and administrators can and do make mistakes. You can absolutely convey concerns without being disrespectful.

Teachers: As hard as it can be, take it in stride. Even if some parents seem undiplomatic in their communication, remember that you are united in the common goal of promoting their child’s welfare.

#4

Parents: Remember that they “cannot solve problems that [they] don’t know exist.” (George Couros) Depending on the issue, it may be better for parents to encourage their older children have these conversations with teachers themselves, but especially for your younger children, if you don’t communicate the problem, who will?

Teachers: Except for the rare occasions of absolutely wild and unfounded accusations (we’re talking extremes here that are an entirely different blog post), each of these emails are an opportunity for you to reflect. Remember to seek support from your administrators, particularly when problems stem from a more complex source.  

#5

Parents: Acknowledge the big picture. To minimize an accusatory tone, include what is going well, and, if applicable, acknowledge possible extenuating circumstances you’ve observed that may be contributing to the problem. However, be sure to remain clear on what you have observed to be an issue.

Teachers: Try to be proactive in communicating with parents to begin with, giving them abundant opportunities for interaction, as well as a window into what’s really happening in their child’s classroom. Problems sometimes stem from differing or even misguided notions of pedagogy, but if you give parents a chance to thoroughly see the why behind what you do, you are more likely to bridge those gaps.

#6

Parents: Be specific. Give details, examples, and anecdotes of what you are observing. It’s easier for teachers and administrators to address what’s going on if you can give them a clear picture. If possible, try to volunteer in the classroom at least once before sending the email–chances are, either you’ll find it unnecessary after all, or else you may find additional details you may want to include in your communication.

Teachers: Remember that there’s a difference between just saying you welcome volunteers and facilitating an easy way for parents to volunteer. Create a Google Spreadsheet outlining what you could use help with and with slots to volunteer (see an example I designed for our entire 5th grade team here).

#7

Parents: Express your genuine willingness to help the situation. In the words of Tina Fey, “Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.” Offer to meet for an in-person discussion, or to come in and volunteer. To further make it clear that you would like to be part of the solution, you may also find it helpful to use phrases such as, “I have a question I was hoping you could help me solve,” or “I was wondering what I can do to help address an issue I’ve noticed.”

Teachers: Take advantage of any offer parents make to contribute to the solution. Warmly acknowledge that offer, and be flexible in arranging meeting times.

#8

Parents: Don’t just accept the status quo. “It’s always been that way” should not command blanket approval. It’s not just ok to ask for the supporting research–it’s essential if we hope to move beyond outdated practices within our educational system.

Teachers: Make sure that you refuse to accept the status quo, too! The burden of asking why lies on everyone involved in education.

#9

Parents: Don’t assume. Remember that as you express your concern, do so as objectively as possible. Simply share what you have observed, and allow your teacher/administrator the opportunity to investigate and share the the cause.  

Teachers: Ditto. Resist the temptation to assign motive or labels to the parent.

#10

Parents: Recognize appropriate channels. It can be difficult to determine whether to direct your issue to the teacher or an administrator. Generally, if it is related to happenings within the classroom, it’s better to email the teacher; if it seems to be a more widespread or policy-based issue, it may be better suited for an administrator. When in doubt, email teachers first, because they can always pass it along to the administration if it is out of their hands–and you can always follow-up with the administration later if you are unable to reach a resolution with the teacher.

Teachers: Don’t assume that a parent is trying to go over your head if they email your principal first–they may simply be unsure how much power you have to address their concern.

Returning to my above-mentioned email, in the end, I was simply grateful. That parent’s email gave me the chance to reinforce what a priority my students’ well-being was to me. During our next class meeting, we revisited that priority, we listened to others’ experiences on homework, and we reminded everyone that sincere effort, balance of time, and best judgement are valued over simple completion of assignments. And all because one parent had the courage to share.

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!

3 Timeless Lessons From “The Yellow Star” About Cyberbullying

The “Yellow Star” by Carmen Agra Deedy beautifully illustrates the legend of King Christian X standing with his Jewish people by wearing a yellow star during Nazi occupation.

And while the Danish Jews were never actually forced to wear the star, confirmation of the king’s support for his Jewish people have surfaced, including “substantial evidence that the King actually suggested the idea of everyone wearing the yellow star should the Danish Jews be forced to wear it.” (source)

Legend or not, this 20th century story highlights timeless lessons of humanity that we find especially applicable to the 21st century subject of cyberbullying.

  1. Teach Solidarity

“Early in the year 1940…there were only Danes. Tall Danes, stout Danes, cranky Danes, even Great Danes.”

We must actively teach our students that what we have in common outweighs our differences. Cyberbullying offers a shroud of anonymity that can tempt some people to forget that a living, feeling human being is on the other side of that unkind post or dehumanizing poll. We can bring that shroud out of obscurity by directly talking about it. About digital citizenship. About the human experience. And about whether it’s really worth making someone else feel like they don’t belong.

  1. Teach Courage

“If you wished to hide a star,” wondered the king to himself, “where would you place it?” His eyes searched the heavens. “Of course!” he thought. The answer was so simple. “You would hide it among its sisters.”

I recently came across a disturbing article about a poll for the ugliest girl at a high school. And though the young woman who was targeted responded courageously, I was left wondering how each kid involved in that poll could have acted with more courage, too. How can we teach them to take initiative and take a stand, even if it isn’t very popular? I believe it starts with us. We need to model the courage to stand up and say no, even in a society that often turns “cruelty into entertainment and sport.”  

  1. Teach Empathy

“What if the good and strong people of the world stood shoulder to shoulder, crowding the streets and filling the squares, saying,’ You cannot do this injustice to our sisters and brothers, or you must do it to us as well.’ What if?”

Empathy requires us to truly reach other people. It rejects in-group/out-group. It embraces vulnerability and imperfections. It places genuine value on every human being. Cyberbullying creates in-group/out-groups. It exploits people’s vulnerabilities and imperfections. And it tears apart the self-worth of everyone it can. We need teachers who will dare to voice exactly what cyberbullying is all about, “Go[ing] beyond praising the right behaviors — proactively counteract[ing] the forces that stand in their way. This is where standing up, not just standing by, comes in.” (“Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply”).

King Christian X’s Jewish people may never have been forced to wear the yellow star, but his solidarity, courage, and empathy are likely what prevented that unjust mandate to begin with. What could these three qualities do for your students, your school, and your community?

Image credit: the lost gallery

High-Lows: Highlighting the Human Experience

High-lows is a simple ritual of sharing our high and low moments each day. It can strengthen your student rapport, inform you of your classroom climate, and offer closure each day–all in less than 5 minutes!

The Human Factor

In the bustle of standards, projects, and assessments, do you give students time to step back and reflect? Do you encourage them to consider their personal responses to the various learning experiences each day? Do you encourage them to vocalize their emotional state in appropriate ways? And do you model all this YOURSELF?

Theories & Goals of educationHigh-lows is a tangible way for us to consider our students as human beings–and for them to view us as such, as well. Spending just a few minutes on this at the end of each day has taught me about my students’ interests, disappointments, priorities, and delights. My students in turn became familiar with what I consider to be moments of triumph or frustration–which gave them insight into my learning process as a teacher.  

Better understanding one another on such an honest, human level enhanced our mutual trust, communication, and respect. 

Tips

  • Spend the last couple minutes of the day (often wasted on door loitering anyway) with high-lows.
  • Introduce high-lows by modeling your own high-lows from teaching that day (“My high was during social studies today because the questions many of you asked were so inspiring and deep! My low was math because I felt like I spent too much time talking and not enough time letting you guys practice–I’ll be fixing that tomorrow, though!”). Feel free to occasionally share non-teaching high-lows when appropriate, too (“My high was when I found out my daughter will be my sister’s flower girl in her wedding! My low was taking my dog to the vet last night.”).
  • Model sharing your why for both highs and lows.
  • Keep the lows honest but light. Tell students that we should never give names, or even situations that could point to an individual who frustrated us. For an outlet for students to voice personal concerns, consider an alternative like a suggestion box.

What are other ways you show your students you consider them to be human beings?

featured image: Death to the Stock Photo

Resources for More Authentic Reading Comprehension Strategies

As a freshly-graduated educator, I had been extensively drilled on reading comprehension strategies. Excited to try out my research-backed literary stockpile, I whipped up beautiful little guided reading packets that featured multiple copies of each comprehension strategy, complete with instructions and fill-in-the-blanks.

So I was shocked to discover that my students hated those packets. No matter how much support I offered, all I seemed to receive in return were lost pages and careless responses. After months of toiling in futility, we eventually ditched those packets and sought other ways to cultivate reading comprehension strategies.

Years later, my reflections have revisited those packets. What went wrong? Why were even my advanced readers disengaged?  Why didn’t they help students see the value of the strategies?

After further reflection, I realized we need to put ourselves in our students’ shoes. Imagine you’re deep in the thralls of your novel when someone comes up to you and asks you to synthesize the perspectives and settings so far.  Or to make an inference right now.  Or to come up with a question about your last chapter. Maybe you’re able to give adequate responses, but how likely are they to be genuine, meaningful reflections that enhance your reading experience?

Both my packets and this not-so-hypothetical example are missing one crucial element:  authenticity. As we examine practical ways to increase authenticity in our reading comprehension strategies instruction, we should consider how metacognition and ownership can work in this setting.

Metacognition

Research has instructed us to focus on the “what good readers do” angle as we explicitly teach these strategies.  But does that really mean telling them that good readers constantly pause for outside-mandated reflections at arbitrary times?  Of course not.

We need to build on this instruction by teaching them to notice the natural moments of self-conversation and wonderings as they read, and then to learn how to identify the strategies that are already at play. This awareness of their own thinking will enhance their authentic use of these comprehension strategies because it will gradually strengthen their ability to consciously utilize and articulate them.

Ownership

Fifth grade teacher Jessica Lifshitz shared what happened when she shifted from merely teaching the what and how of comprehension strategies toward the why (1/12/17 edit: She’s also constantly using Google Apps to create student checklists and self-assessments that packed with ownership and metacognition, such as this Revision Checklist). These conversations help students internalize the real impact these strategies can have on our individual lives, which is crucial in using them in more authentic, meaningful ways.

To further help students take the reins on their own reading experience, I realized that we need to rethink how we ask students to express their thinking, being mindful of flexibility and choice. So I created the organizer below, which encourages them to consider which strategy they’ve used and how it improves their personal understanding.  Click here for the pdf!

FlexibleStudent-CenteredReadingComprehensionPracticeAs researcher Brene Brown summarizes, “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen” (The Gifts of Imperfection).  Let’s give our students the chance to make learning more honest and real for them, for reading comprehension strategies and everywhere else.  What are other measures you’ve taken to encourage authenticity in your classroom?

Featured image: Hazel Marie via flickr