A Mathematical Conundrum

It’s Wednesday.  I’m sitting in my office with two students waiting for a third to arrive when one of them shares this epiphany.

“I couldn’t stop Dr. Podraza.  I worked on this problem the entire weekend.  I looked up articles.  I had my parents Google stuff.  I got everyone involved.”

“And I don’t think the math is actually right.  After all, it doesn’t make sense that my answer was in the billions.”He then went on to explain why he thought his answer was implausible citing relevant facts.

There it was.  The thing educators all dream of.  A student who was so engaged in learning that he pursued it for the pure joy of it as opposed to turning it in for a good grade.

So what caused all of this determination and excitement?

Right before Winter Break, I was talking with these same students about how they hated the current way they had to learn math because they were given problems that were either out of context, completely fake, or that they were being forced to solve them in a way that was inefficient.

“So what do you think we could do about it?  How would you like to learn math?”

“We think math should be connected to the real world.  We should be able to solve problems about things that we can connect to, not some weird story about a monster at the bottom of a made-up lake or worse, Felicia’s cookies (this is an inside joke).  We get that we have to solve problems and learn the math behind it, but it’s frustrating when we are told we have to use a specific way of doing it.”

“Ok, so what might that look like?”

“Well, there’s stuff going on in the world.  Like global warming.  Stuff that’s actually a problem and math is probably related to it.  We want to solve problems like that.”

This was how the Top Secret “Tangerine” project began.  We decided at that meeting that the three of them would create their own YouTube Channel (real name forthcoming) based on real-world math problems.  It would be a weekly show where they presented a math conundrum to their viewers based on something happening in the news.  There would be opportunities for viewers to suggest problems or topics as well, but the work would always be done by the students.  They’ve even tossed around the idea of writing their own curriculum one day.

I’ve seen this type of enthusiasm in students hundreds of times throughout my career and it’s always related to the same type of work.  Ryan & Deci would attribute it to something called, “Self-Determination Theory” which hypothesizes that any human needs competence, relatedness, and autonomy to be intrinsically motivated.  In non-theoretical terms, it’s really just offering students relevant and meaningful work that they can connect to.  Genius Hour, Passion Projects, Project-Based Learning, Inquiry-Based Learning, & Service Learning are all examples of how educators are currently harnessing the power of relevance in their classrooms.

So here’s what I’m currently grappling with.  Students would love to pursue this type of work all day every day if we let them.  The group of kids in the Tangerine project has requested to come to school as early as 7:00 a.m. to work on it and would stay until five or later if I had the time.  It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that school should be a place where everyone pursues projects all day long, but in reality, that may not be the case.  It’s made me wonder…

• What would school look like if we gave kids longer periods of time to work on big projects instead of the way we currently teach?  What are the opportunity costs of this approach?
• How do we balance teaching students’ skills with working on the projects themselves so that they can handle the cognitive load required?  What types of teaching structures might work best for this?
• Do we teach the skills in isolation first and then give students time to explore projects or do we have them work on projects first and teach the skills as they come up? (the chicken or the egg question)
• What professional learning would educators need to successfully approach the classroom this way?  Are there any mindsets shifts that need to occur (within myself and others) related to this?

I wish I could tell you I had an even semi definitive answer to these questions, but unfortunately, I don’t.  I keep hearing that we live in a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous), so it makes sense that we should give students experiences where the answer is not immediately obvious.  However, within this world of unpredictability, there are also constraints that we all must adhere to so it also seems relevant to provide students with structured learning experiences as well.   The only way to really know how much of each is to continually experiment in the classroom and see what works best with our students.

I had the privilege of attending an amazing workshop on Monday with author and researcher Jane Kise.  It was a part of our Elmhurst D205 Professional Learning Strand initiative where teachers get to pick one topic and delve deeply into it throughout the year.  Her presentation was part of the Teacher Leadership cohort, but could have applied to any of the other four strands – Innovation, Inquiry, Behavioral Health, or Workshop Model.

The part that I found most fascinating was regarding people’s psychological preferences and how that affects pretty much every aspect of life.   She discussed four different types and had us consider which type we were.

• Sensing & Thinking
• Sensing & Feeling
• Intuition & Feeling
• Intuition & Thinking

We then got into groups with others who approach the world like we do and discussed the following prompts:

• Three ways we contribute to teacher efficacy
• If you want to influence us please…

It was amazing how easy it was to consider these ideas with like-minded individuals and how normal it made the little things that I had thought were weird quirks about myself seem.  I am an Intuition/Thinking type so I thrive on seeing the Big Picture.  I think about future implications and design coherent plans based on those ideas.  I love challenges and many times prefer to work alone.   It was funny answering the last two bullets because we all immediately said people who influence us have to be knowledgeable and if someone doesn’t have a plan it makes us go crazy.

If you are reading this right now and thinking, “Wait…doesn’t everyone think this way?” then you might be an intuitive thinker.  If you are wondering why I didn’t list considering the feelings of others as important, then you might be a Sensing & Feeling type or one of the others.  The important thing to remember is that there isn’t “one best type.”  It’s just related to our preferences and how we approach things.  Like being right or left-handed, our tendency is innate, but we can learn the others.

Our preferences connect with our strengths, but can also be a source of our blind spots.  When we get so used to thinking about things and approaching them the same way we may be missing out on better ways of doing something or we may be ostracizing others causing resistance to new ideas.  One way to avoid our blind spots is to regularly collaborate and ask for feedback from trusted colleagues who have a different lens.  If you are leading a team (or classroom of students), checking in regularly with a survey or meeting is another way.  Try to create groups that include people who have diverse perspectives.  If this is not possible, consider what blind spots the group may have and work to address them when making decisions.

As a principal, I have started asking for feedback from my staff at the end of each trimester through a survey.   It is broken down into four categories to better pinpoint our strengths and areas for growth:  Operations/Logistics, Communication, Professional Learning/Instructional Leadership, & Relationships.  (click here for a copy)  I review the results independently for individual reflection, and then meet with my leadership team to create responsive plans.  The more I think about this I am realizing the importance of connecting with a coach or colleague in a different building who approaches leadership from a different lens to help me with regular reflection.

It’s impossible to think about blindspots as a leader without considering classroom implications.  What are our teaching tendencies?  Creating predictable structures and routines is a hallmark of good teaching, but what might we be missing if we always do things the exact same way?  When is it appropriate and how often are we asking students for feedback on our classroom?  If a student is struggling, is it because they lack knowledge or is it because we’re not structuring learning experiences in a way that connects with them?

I’m not advocating changing every moment of the day to fit each child’s preference.  Just like learning to write with the opposite hand, kids can learn to work in a variety of non-preferred structures.   However, considering that they may approach or think about the world in a different way than the way we are structuring learning might help us to figure out the puzzle of students who appear unreachable or disengaged.  For example, a student who views the world through a Sensing-Thinking lens craves structure, immediate feedback, organization, and right or wrong answers.  If your classroom is filled with mostly open-ended projects, explorations and collaborative work this student may start to feel frustrated with school even though you are using practices that most students adore.   Giving students opportunities to work in structures that connect with their lens will help to engage all learners in school.  A simple way to do this is to offer choice throughout the day in your classroom.  If you are interested in learning more about the four lenses and how they connect to choices you might offer in the classroom, click here.

Our strengths are what make us individually great, but considering our blindspots and being open to feedback and other perspectives will create a place where everyone’s greatness is maximized.

Am I Doing It Right?

During my five years as a coach in Naperville, we implemented at least 15 new initiatives, maybe more.  So it makes sense that I was frequently asked, “What’s the right way to do this?” or similarly, “Am I doing it right?” Questions of this variety reflect our desire as educators to do our best.  Many of us grew up in an education environment where there was almost always only one path to the correct answer.  When we became teachers that mentality had already been ingrained in us so it makes sense that we would continue to ponder correctness of our actions in the classroom.

The problem is there are so many “right ways” to teach depending on our students that there really isn’t an easy way to answer that question.  When teachers ask me if they are doing it right, I always respond with, “what’s the impact on the students?”  If you are seeing students grow, then you are “doing it right.”  If not, it doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong, it just means it’s not working for that group of students.  And that’s okay.  It just means we need to reflect on what we know about our students, tweak our approach and try again.

Some years one structure or teaching strategy will have a phenomenal impact on kids and other years it will absolutely flop.   The best teachers are constantly in “beta” stage, regularly creating, reflecting on student growth and refining their work in a continuous cycle of improvement.  When something doesn’t work they don’t give up or blame the students, they try something new from the plethora of strategies in their own toolbox or reach out to their PLC or PLN for more ideas.

Change is inevitable and constant in education.  As we implement new strategies and structures, it is important to not get hung up on perfection of the thing being implemented, but instead, place greater importance on the impact we are having on students.  Asking the simple question, “what’s the impact on students?” will always lead to “doing it right” for our kids.

Predictions for the Next Decade of Education

I recently read this article from the Atlantic titled, Elementary Education Has Gone Terribly Wrong.  It’s an interesting read for a variety of reasons, but what stood out to me was the plethora of evidence that confirms what many of us have known for decades: the standardized testing movement simply doesn’t work.  Despite our efforts to systematize learning and add more “rigor,” we continue to end up with the same results along with an ever-expanding achievement gap.

The author, Natalie Wexler poses the questions, “

“What if the medicine we have been prescribing is only making matters worse, particularly for poor children? What if the best way to boost reading comprehension is not to drill kids on discrete skills but to teach them, as early as possible, the very things we’ve marginalized—including history, science, and other content that could build the knowledge and vocabulary they need to understand both written texts and the world around them?”

She pokes holes in many common literacy practices in the U.S. as well as presents examples of teachers who are finding success in trying out different approaches.  The article got me thinking about education overall, how we have tried so many new things, abandoned many ideas, gone back to the same ideas, but education has, for the most part, looked the exact same way for generations.

The start of a new decade feels like a fresh start for everything, education included.  There is no guarantee of what the next 10 years will bring, but I am optimistic that this decade will bring what the past hundreds of years have not, an education system that is valuable for all.  There are a plethora of amazing educators who are leading the charge and sharing their stories on social media and beyond giving me hope that we can and will create powerful educational experiences to help ALL kids succeed.

Predictions for 2020-2030

The ideas I present in this post are a result of two decades of personal experience working with students, a lot of reading, watching & learning, and most of all, connecting with amazing educators across the globe.  (Thank you PLN!)  You will notice that no idea is brand new.  I believe that we already have the answers which we seek, it is the way that we use them with students that has the power to shift education for the better.

One of the chapters that stood out to me in The Innovators Mindset was the chapter where George Couros discusses the importance of students being “problem-finders.”  This was sparked from the work of Ewan McIntosh. The premise is that we spend a lot of time working with students to come up with solutions to problems, but what we really need in a dynamic world is students who can find problems and innovative ways to solve these problems.

Besides the fact that solving problems with predetermined answers can be monotonous and insanely boring, (geometry proofs anyone?), if we spend all of our time giving students problems to solve with a finite answer we are giving students the impression that the purpose in life is to simply get the right answer.   Students leave school thinking there is a simple methodology to life and if they follow the success formula given to them they will be successful when really the opposite is true.  We need creative thinkers, students who can look at the world with a new lens and make it better.

A great way to develop this skill is by teaching students to ask great questions and giving them opportunities to explore ideas that are meaningful to them.  Genius Hour or Passion Projects, QFT, TQE Method, and Socratic Seminar are just some ways that educators around the globe are working to develop the questioning ability in students.  Each of these methodologies helps students to not only create questions of their own, but they encourage rich discussion among students as well which can lead to new ideas from students.  It is exciting to think about what kind of learning will take place when we spend more time empowering students to question, explore & discover as opposed to encouraging them to simply find the right answer.

Experiential Learning

In the next ten years, whether virtual or in-person, learning will extend more and more beyond the four walls of the classroom.  Mentioned in the Wexler article, research confirms students learn best when they have experiences and background knowledge to be able to comprehend the texts they are reading.  Creativity is the number one quality that employers are currently looking for.  Reeves & Reeves suggest in their book on creativity, The Myth of the Muse that one of the ways to enhance creativity is through inspiration from experiences.  The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) recommend starting science lessons with a phenomenon so that students have a shared experience to ask questions and develop theories from.  Although I still think the best experience is one in real life, Augmented and Virtual Reality makes this a daily possibility for students.

One school that is doing an amazing job at teaching from this approach is the GEMS World Academy in Chicago, Illinois.  In this school, the teachers plan out larger units that explore a broad question related to an essential idea.  Included in each of these are field trips to a place in the city where students can explore.  From the shared experience students then create questions they have and spend the unit exploring answers to the questions they create.  Each subject area is tied into this big idea including specials.  The result is that students see learning as interconnected as opposed to limited to one subject area which enhances their creative ability to connect ideas and create new ones.

A More Personalized Approach to Education

If you would have asked me if this was possible ten years ago my answer would have emphatically been no.  It takes too much time.  It’s not necessary or realistic.  It is amazing what a decade of experience can do.  I now believe it is more necessary than ever.  As you will hear me mention throughout this post, in the dynamic world we live in we no longer need students who can just get the right answer, we need students who are curious, think creatively and can find new problems to solve.  We want students to leave school with a positive view of themselves, recognizing not only what their talents are, but how they can use them to make a positive impact on the world.

When I say a more personalized approach to education, I am not saying that every student would be doing something different in every moment of the day.  Students need foundational knowledge in order to be creative, ask questions and generate new ideas.  However, I think it’s a different approach to looking at the school day.  Design39 Campus in California has been exploring this idea for the past five years.  You can check out this link for more information, but their day is split up into Integrated Learning Time, Deep Dives & Explorations.   During Integrated Learning Time is when they explore content across curriculums for purposeful application of skills.  Deep Dives is time for students to explore their passions in an academic setting.  Explorations give students time to explore new things they are interested in trying.  I love the way they organize their day because it gives students foundational understanding as well as time to explore passions and build new ones.  For more information on how the idea began and the success they are having with students, check out this podcast from Modern Learners.

At some point, we have to recognize that grades are just meaningless little letters that students look at and then toss.  Even when we add in comments to the grade or SBR number students associate more meaning with the grade and typically ignore the feedback.   Both John Hattie and Susan Brookhart have written books on the topic and the research shows that feedback is a much more effective learning tool for students over grades.

Many educators are already moving towards a feedback-heavy or gradeless classroom.  (check out the #gradeless on Twitter) Instead of using grades or fear of punishment to motivate students to complete their work, they have shifted their instructional practices to have students set goals that are meaningful to them.  The teacher and/or peers give them feedback on progress towards their goal to move their learning forward.  Learning then becomes a continuum as opposed to an endpoint.  I’ve linked a few useful resources below if you are considering making this shift.

6 Tips for Going Gradeless by Starr Sackstein

More Teachers are Going Gradeless.  I Asked Them Why.  EL Magazine July 2019

Collaboration Over Competition

One of the best videos I have seen this year that has had a huge impact on the way I think about the classroom is Why School Should Be about Us Instead of Me from Trevor Muir.  Besides the fact that it has a totally Hamilton-esque vibe, the premise that school sets up a culture of competition as opposed to what our world needs, a culture of collaboration, rings completely true.  I’ve watched it probably 20 times.

I was definitely one of the students who groaned every time I heard it was time to work on a group project.  There was always the people who did everything, a few people who did nothing, and then somehow a project evolved.  It never felt to me like there was any purpose in working together.  As a teacher, I tried to circumvent this issue by assigning roles to each student, but even this had uneven results with students continuing to work in silos as opposed to creating something together.

After reading a wonderful post by John Spencer about collaboration, what I realized was missing was students seeing the value in one another’s strengths and using those strengths to build something greater than what could be done alone.  Instead of starting group projects by assigning roles, have students share their strengths, set goals for the project together and give them opportunities to give one another feedback along the way.  This creates greater meaning for the work and also mirrors the type of work they will be doing outside of school.  In the working world students will be collaborating daily, we have to increase the amount of collaboration they do throughout the day, but it also has to be done in a way that is meaningful so that it doesn’t just become another one of the dreaded group projects.

If you’re looking for ways to create this type of classroom, Trevor Muir’s new book, The Collaborative Classroom, filled with practical ideas and examples, is a great place to start.

The End of Labels

This last one I am most excited about, although I think it might take a little bit more time.  I predict that gradually the labels we use in education, “gifted, special education, EL” will disappear.  As we start to shift the focus of school from everyone ending up in the same exact spot to encouraging students to be curious learners who explore their passions and develop their talents, the need for labels will go away because we will see students for their greatness of whom they already are, not some arbitrary standard we want them to become.

“Logic will take you from A to B.  Imagination will take you everywhere.” – Albert Einstein

We have spent the past hundred years approaching education from a logical standpoint.  Students need to learn ______________ so we will teach them ___________________.  We will set standards that everyone needs to reach and if they don’t reach those standards we will fix them with _____________________.   This is a very logical approach if we are working with products, but hasn’t always served us well with students.  We need more creativity and flexibility if we are going to reach all students.

I am optimistic about the shifts I continue to see happening in our schools.  I believe that through these shifts we will have students leaving school with more creativity, empathy, equity, and curiosity than we ever have in the past.  It is inspiring to think about the wonderful world that these students will create.

Do We Need Grade Level Standards Any More?

I’m writing this post as a question, not a statement for a reason.  I’ve been thinking about it for a while and I’m honestly not sure.  Writing this post is an effort to organize my thoughts.

This struggle is mostly connected to the conviction I have that students are all individuals who have a variety of strengths and talents.  The primary function of education should be to help students to recognize and develop these strengths and talents to their fullest capacity.  Saying that students must reach the same standards at the end of the year based solely on their birth year seems counterintuitive to this notion.  It’s giving the message that everyone can and should grow at the same exact rate each year.  It is rare that I have found this to be true.

Additionally, most grade-level standards are broken into different subject areas.   This places emphasis in school on mostly academic learning areas like math, literacy, science, and social studies.   Students whose strengths lie in areas outside of these traditional subjects seldom get an opportunity to shine in school because of this.

Breaking standards into different subject areas also sets up the false dichotomy that subjects are always separate from one another.  In the world outside of school, new ideas and solutions are overwhelmingly created using interdisciplinary work.

Finally, no matter how much we tell ourselves that grade level standards-based reporting is better than traditional grades, it still communicates to parents and students that the purpose of education is to get some sort of score.   We can share the descriptor for the grade level standard, and continue to give them feedback towards mastery, but when a number is factored in, it still shifts motivation towards a number instead of the reward of progress and learning.

What If…

Instead of using grade-level standards, what if we looked at learning as a continuum?  Instead of breaking this continuum into subject areas, it would incorporate broader, ideas.  Asking questions, constructing ideas with viable support, collaborating with others, creating plans and executing long-term projects are just some of the ideas that would incorporate multiple subject areas.

Instead of using numbers or letters to communicate progress to students in report-like format, what if we met with students weekly in conferences to discuss their progress on the learning continuum.  At the beginning of a cycle, we would set goals with students on areas they wanted to work on based on the continuum.  We decided with them artifacts that would show they had progressed to the next stage in the continuum.   We gave them time to work on the standards individually as well as in groups.  These conferences would be recorded and shared with parents.  Parents could even electronically be a part of the conference through a digital tool like Google Hangout.  This would make education truly a collaborative effort between home and school.

Instead of putting students into classrooms based on age, what if we put them in multi-age classrooms? We developed their leadership and collaborative skills at all ages.   We celebrated mentorship and the ability to help others, instead of placing a focus on being better than others.  Better yet, what if we grouped students into classrooms based on areas they wanted to explore more deeply?  We put kids who had mutual passions in the same classroom who were passionate about the same things and empowered them to explore these ideas.  What might happen to kids’ perceptions of the purpose of school then?

But…

What about basic foundational learning that everyone needs to know?

Setting up school this way would definitely require a different way of looking at the way we organize the school day.  Instead of teaching in subject blocks, students would need to work for longer periods of time.

I recognize that colleges currently select students based on their grades and ability to score highly on standardized tests.   Getting rid of grades and grade-level standards definitely muddies the water on this, but should we really never change what we are doing solely based on a system that colleges set up hundreds of years ago?  The world is changing exponentially each day.  Colleges need to change as well.  If we continue to keep our system the same, there is no motivation for colleges to change either.  We need to stop viewing change as an unwanted thing and embrace it for its possibilities.

There is no reason that this shift would abolish foundational knowledge.  When learning is seen as a continuum, any type of knowledge can be included.  Learning to read, write, draw, perform, code and build foundational skills for math (the list could go on) would all be included.

Using grade-level standards is an easy way for us to communicate progress to parents because it is a system that most people have experienced and understand.  As a principal, I see student success in a variety of standards on a daily basis.  I also see students struggle.  I hear conversations about meeting standards.  I see kids celebrated and I see kids defeated.  I am wondering what the shift in the percentage of celebrated success might be if we looked at education differently.  Ultimately, is ease of communication really the standard we want to use in deciding how we give feedback to students and structure our schools?

The Phrase in Education That Needs to Go

Teach with Fidelity.

If you want to get me riled up, tell me I need to do anything with this as the standard.

I remember when I first started teaching almost 20 years ago, I was told by a colleague that the first year we implemented a new curriculum we had to, “teach it with fidelity.”  After that, we could maybe make changes, but the first year we had to do every single lesson exactly the way that it was written in the exact order that it was written.  The thought behind this was that by teaching every lesson we would have a better understanding of how the program worked.  If we didn’t teach it exactly as the curriculum said, it was our fault that kids weren’t learning.

This philosophy made sense at the time.  It was the era of No Child Left Behind where there was a heavy focus on “research-based programming.”  According to the rhetoric (being propagated by politicians), our schools were failing and we had to do something about it.  Curriculum written by mythical education gurus was suddenly the answer to everything.  Teacher weren’t the experts.  Curriculum writers were.  And so began the fallacy that curriculum has all the answers.

Teaching With Fidelity is an archaic phrase that needs to disappear.   I might argue it’s actually one of the most harmful phrases in education today.

If educators are told that they cannot change any lesson and must teach it exactly in the order it is written, it nullifies their ability to respond to the learners in their classroom.  This is counterintuitive to responsive instruction, an effective instructional practice that results in growth in students because it meets them where they are and grows their abilities from there.   When we teach every student every lesson exactly the same way we are harming both kids who can go beyond the curriculum as well as the ones who are not yet ready for the lesson.  It takes away the ability of educators to select lessons that are connected to students’ lives and interests which takes away their ability to make lessons meaningful.  The result is boredom, frustration or even apathy in students.

Teaching with Fidelity is harmful to school culture as well.  It sends a message to teachers that I don’t trust you and your expertise and experience in teaching.  Unfortunately, there is a dichotomy of “us vs. them” with teachers and admin in some schools and this phrase only adds to that tension.  We have to trust our teachers.  They are the ones who work with students daily.  They know the students’ strengths and the intricacies of the next steps in instruction because of the relationships they work hard at building.  Because of this, we need to empower them to make instructional decisions, not undermine their competence by expecting them to follow a box.

This phrase also results in a system where the ability to confirm is more highly valued than innovative ideas.  It tells both students and teachers that there is only one right path to learning.  If I cannot teach or learn exactly the way someone else tells me then there is something wrong with me.  This is the complete opposite of the world outside of school where creativity and innovation are sought out and celebrated.  We need to provide learners with school experiences that empower them to own their learning so they are prepared for the multitude of experiences they have outside of school.  I struggle to see how teaching with fidelity does that.

I’ve seen this quote from Maya Angelou quite a bit lately on social media.

“Do the best you can until you know better.  Then when you know better, do better.”

We know better than Teaching with Fidelity.  We know that getting to know our learners and building on their strengths and talents as is the best teaching practice to help them continue to grow.  The idea that there is one program that can reach all learners is archaic and misleadingJohn Hattie names Collective Teacher Efficacy as the number one factor being strongly correlated with student achievement.  We need to empower our teachers, not take away their ability to make informed instructional decisions.

We know better.  Let’s do better.

Empowered Learning Experiences

I recently finished, Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners through UDL by George Couros and Kative Novak.  Full of inspiring anecdotes as well as thought-provoking ideas, the book is split into three sections:

1. The Core of Innovative Teaching & Learning
2. Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset
3. You are the Change You Seek

One of my favorite things about the book is the reflective questions that come at the end of each chapter.   Every chapter was meaningful, but the one that has felt most meaningful for me to reflect on today is Creating Empowering Learning Experiences from the Core of Innovative Teaching & Learning section.  When I was in the classroom as both a teacher and instructional coach, my main focus was how to best engage learners.  I thought that if I could plan highly engaging lessons then I would be fully meeting the needs of my learners.

Previous work of George’s as well as this chapter has helped me to realize, if I am not providing empowering learning experiences, I am not adequately preparing them for the world outside of school.  When we engage students we are the ones who make learning meaningful and interesting to students, but when we empower them, they get to “develop the skills and motivation to solve meaningful problems.”  They are learning as a result of an internal drive which creates a cycle of perpetual learning, a skill that is incredibly important in the quickly changing world we live in.

Empowered Learning involves choice, developing better questions, as well as finding & solving meaningful problems with the opportunity to create.  At the end of this chapter, the following questions is asked,

What are some examples of “empowered learning” in your classrooms for students and in your school/organization as professionals?  How are you empowered as an educator, and how does that empower students in learning?

It got me thinking about how I was empowering learners when I was in the classroom as well as steps I would take if I were still in the classroom to create more empowered learning experiences.

Empowered Learning Experiences

Previous Classroom Literacy Practice:  When I was in the classroom I tried to offer as much choice as possible to students.  In literacy, they received a weekly schedule with options that they could choose from to plan out their time that included things like read to self, blog post, meet with the teacher, responding to reading, or talk with a partner about their book.   They got to choose the books they were reading as well as the order they wanted to accomplish the tasks.  When we met 1:1 or in a small group, I would give them positive feedback as well as goals for their next steps in learning.

Empowered Learning Upgrade:  Although I offered a lot of choice to students, the activities were dictated by me.  Empowered learning involves giving students opportunities to create learning experiences that are meaningful to them.  If I were in the classroom, I would also include an option for them to choose what they wanted to explore in literacy.  I would also try to balance the amount of feedback I was giving to the students with the number of questions I was asking them about how they felt about their progress in literacy and the new goals they wanted to set.  I would give them more opportunities to set goals for themselves as opposed to their goals being dictated by me.  In elementary this would involve giving students a choice board of goals and letting them pick so that I could support them in becoming independent in goal selection.

Previous Classroom Research Practice:  I used to give students a broader topic to study and let them pick which aspect they wanted to research.  The students learned how to ask questions, take notes, and write a research paper with headings for each section.  Usually, these research papers would involve some sort of creative expression at the end that they could choose from that ranged from making a diorama to creating some sort of video.

Empowered Learning Upgrade:  Although I taught students to ask deep questions during the research process, it was limited to when we were doing research.  If I went back into the classroom I would include asking questions as a part of daily practice woven throughout the day.  I might start a lesson showing a picture or with a short passage or even just projecting the learning target and have students ask questions that they are curious about.  We would have a Wonder Wall and I would give students opportunities to explore these wonderings.  Another problem with the research I was having students do was that the end product was solely connected to me, the final product reader.  If I was having students research now, I would want them to look for problems in the community, school or world around them and come up with solutions.  The end product that they create would be related to solving that problem.  I would provide opportunities and encourage students to connect with “experts in the field” to get more ideas.  We would share our ideas beyond our classroom by putting them in a blog, inviting the community in or asking meaningful stakeholders for feedback on our ideas.  I could still evaluate all the standards I was covering in this process, it would just take a different process on my part.

Previous Math Practice:  I love math and have always loved teaching it.  One of my frustrations as a kid was that I always had to go at the same pace as everyone else when I was ready to move on so I wanted to make sure that my students never had that frustration.  When I first started teaching this looked like me assigning all of the same problems to the students after I had taught a lesson and then students could come up and check their work with myself or my assistant when they were ready and could then move on to choice activities like games or projects.   In my last years of teaching, I would pretest the students on the upcoming standards on Friday.  On Monday they would get a sheet with the list of standards that they had already mastered and a schedule for the week that included activities like meet with the teacher, a web-based self-paced program or more problems in our workbook.  There was also a column for how they would know they had mastered the standards they hadn’t yet by the end of the week.

Empowered Learning Upgrade:  Although I provided choice for my students and gave them feedback on their progress as well as expected them to monitor their understanding, a lot of the math was dictated by me or the program my district had provided for enrichment.  To improve on this process I would provide students time to explore questions they have related to math.  In my last years of coaching we had students explore questions like, “How is math related to gymnastics?” or “How is math related to animals?”  It would be anything that students were interested in.  They would have time to research and then present their findings.  To make this even better I would stop teaching math as a subject on its own and look for ways to incorporate it into the questions that students were asking in class.  I would give them time to explore these ideas and create meaningful products. (like mentioned above)

Instead of putting students on a web-based program, I would give them opportunities to create videos to help other students in math using applications like WeVideo or Explain Everything or Seesaw.   They could create games based on the standards or I would give them opportunities to work on math projects that solved problems connected to meaningful topics.  They could create problems or projects for other students to solve as well.  I would give them time to explore math-related problems and see what math they could use to solve these problems.

Final Thoughts

I am in no way criticizing the teaching that I did in the past.  I provided my students with many engaging as well as empowering (and even compliant) learning experiences.  I am proud of the work I did and loved every minute I got to spend in the classroom with my amazing students.  I am also not saying that it is possible to empower learners every minute of the day in the classroom.  As discussed in this chapter, there is a time for every type of learning in the classroom: compliant, engaged or empowered.

The purpose of this reflection was to help me to be a better leader as we move to give students more empowered learning experiences in the classroom.   By reflecting on what my next steps would be, I can further clarify what types of learning experiences I am looking for as I go into classrooms.  This will enhance my ability to have a deep discussion and mentor anyone who is looking to empower learners.  My next steps will be working on my own practice as a leader who empowers her staff.  I am looking forward to talking to my teachers about their thoughts on empowered learning and to co-create our idea of best practice in learning experiences at Jefferson School.

“Empowered learning experiences should be something that we, as educators, create with our students for our schools and classrooms.” – Innovate Inside the Box, Chapter 3

The Paralyzing Effect of Stress

This week was not a stellar one for me.  I found myself in the familiar place of adulthood where there is too much to do and not enough time to do it.  I followed none of the advice I know is best and instead retreated into my office for large portions of the day, worked marathon hours at home and caffeinated enough to fly a jet plane around the world.

I thought that if I scheduled every minute of my day I could get it all done, the presentations, the phone calls, the observations, the projects.  Sleeping less, and planning out the day to the finite minute would give me ultimate control resulting in maximum efficiency and total calm in the chaos.  At least that’s what I had convinced myself.

Of course, that’s not what happened.

By Wednesday afternoon, I had reached my breaking point.  I had been on all day for three days straight and was working on finishing, (ok honestly just starting) a presentation I was giving that night at a PTA meeting about our school improvement plan.  Prior to this week, I had been looking forward to giving it because I sincerely love our PTA and couldn’t wait to share the wonderful work my staff has been doing.  I had even invited my superintendent to come as an informal evaluation because I was so excited to share the work.

Instead of excitedly starting the presentation, I felt sheer terror.  I started thinking about the numerous other projects I would have to complete even after the presentation tonight and it just seemed utterly impossible.  To make matters worse, I realized around this same time that a portion of the Jefferson Family Project, which was debuting at the all-school Thanksgiving Feast the next day had disappeared.  I had no idea where the slides had gone and hadn’t scheduled time in the day to find them.  If that wasn’t enough, it was also my day to pick up my daughter from school and take her to her School of Rock lessons followed by dinner together and it was almost time for me to leave.  Life felt like a ticking time bomb.

I froze.  My mind went blank and I started tearing up.    My inner thoughts jumped from, “You are terrible at this job.  You are not good enough to be an administrator.  How could anyone ever give you this position?” to “How can you even call yourself a mom? You’re never home.  Other moms can do it all.  Why can’t you?  What’s wrong with you?”  I told myself things that I would never ever say to anyone, but for some reason felt free to shame myself with.

Lessons Learned

Spoiler alert.  None of the horrible thoughts I had during those moments ever came to fruition.  The Jefferson Family Project got fixed.  I gave my finished presentation to PTA and got wonderful feedback from both the community and my superintendent.  I didn’t end up getting to take my daughter to her class that night, but we spent the entire day together today and she still loves me unconditionally.  All of the projects that I needed to complete, the phone calls, the meetings, they all happened and went well.

So am I writing this post to tell you not to be stressed because it will all work out?

Nope.

I wrote that post in August.  It clearly didn’t work for me so I obviously need to readjust.

Really I’m writing this post because I learned something about myself as a leader, a human, a mother, and a friend.   I want to avoid getting into that awful mental space of overwhelmed feelings and self-doubt and shame and am hoping that what I share might help you too.  (Especially if you an overthinking stressosaurus like me.)

1.  You Can’t Do it All

Nor should you.  One of the best things I did in this was to go and seek out my instructional coach.  She was more than happy to be a thinking partner in the work I was doing.  Her help not only took some of the overwhelmed feelings I was having away, but also made the work I was doing 10 times better than if I would have done it myself.  Besides helping think, she also helped with style and made the presentation look professional.  Once I had a partner in the work it was amazing how much easier it was to get my thoughts together.   I can’t believe I didn’t go to her right away with this, and will definitely remember to do so in the future.

You know the saying, “It takes a village?”  Well, I ended up getting help from my assistant principal, coach, secretary, PTA President and wife, 5th-grade students, and teachers to finish the Jefferson Family Project and get it ready for the next day.   They all did different components and every time I pass by it I smile.  I am grateful for their help and the lesson learned.

This whole experience has made me start re-evaluating a lot of the tasks I am doing. Do I really need to complete them on my own?  Which ones can I delegate?  Who can be a thinking partner in my work?  I work with some incredible staff.  It is clear that I have been missing out on some opportunities to use them to their full capacity.

The best parts of this week, and another reason my work ended up going well, were conversations I had with staff, students, and friends.  On Wednesday night, two of my staff members stopped by my office just to chat.  It wasn’t about a need, it was about life or to share a funny story, one that I’m still laughing about.  One of those staff members surprised me with chips and salsa from my new favorite restaurant because when she was with me, the company that was delivering my food had brought me the wrong kind.  Her unexpected kindness made my day, my week honestly and got my mind in the right space.

On Thursday, knowing this is a busy time of year, in place of a staff meeting, I organized a wellness event.  We got to pick from yoga, cardio or a cooking class.  At the end, there were other optional things to choose from.  My favorite memory was sitting with staff in a circle in the library, with acupuncture needles stuck in our various limbs telling stories about our lives.  During the day we had our all-school Thanksgiving Feast, run by the PTA where we all eat lunch together.  Because of this, I got to spend about two hours connecting with students, staff and parents.   I left school feeling invigorated as opposed to deflated.  What a difference 24 hours can make!

When you spend your day talking only to people about work-related items it can be draining, but when you connect on a personal level it is invigorating and incredibly important.  I need to remember that as I go about my day.

3.  Stop Scheduling Everything

I am not a “Type A” person in many aspects of my life.  My house is often a mess.  It doesn’t stress me out to be late to social events.  I am happy to go on vacation without planning out every minute detail.   When I feel overwhelmed by something though, “Type A” tendencies often take over and I over plan to the point of taking the joy out of things I love.

I have also written about this before, but this time I am committing.  Because I am going to get better delegating and partnering on work, I am much more confident that it will actually happen.  Each day is going to include a half-hour of think time that I can use as I like to reflect, close my door and be by myself if needed or catch up.  I am going to try to give myself more grace if I don’t finish “all the things” in the timeframe that I thought I would as well.

I also need to make more time for family.  This week I failed terribly at the work/home balance.  I committed at the beginning of the year to focus Saturdays on family and friends only, but in reality that hasn’t always happened.  I am recommitting to that promise.

When I get stressed, I tend to go internal and reach for some sort of inner strength or answer.  What I’m realizing is that it is better to get out of myself and connect with and learn from the strength of others.  I also need to be kinder in my self-talk when I am feeling overwhelmed.  Mostly, I am incredibly grateful to everyone who helped me this week for the lessons learned, the help given and the love I felt as a result.

The Evolution of Parent Communication

I’ve been reflecting this week a lot about some conversations I’ve had recently with staff about parent communication.  In Elmhurst, we have something called, “Acceleration Block.”  It is a time when we group students based on a specific learning standard or need and plan learning experiences to accelerate their growth in that area.  In previous years we had focused solely on literacy, but this year I have opened up Acceleration Block to include any area that the teachers think would benefit students.

Because this was something new, last week I secured 1/2 day subs for my staff so that they would have time to reflect on our first round of Acceleration Block and plan for the next six-week interval.   Part of the planning was creating parent communication regarding how students progressed in the last round and how we would communicate progress during this round.

I have to confess that when I was in the classroom, I was a pretty basic communicator.  I had a weekly parent newsletter that shared what we were working on as well as a few highlights of students who had demonstrated great character that week.  I made sure to grade papers in a timely manner and send them home with a few comments or feedback.  If students were not meeting my expectations academically or behaviorally I made sure to email, send a handwritten note, or call depending on the severity.  About halfway through each trimester, I sent home a progress report in addition to sending home a report card at the end of the trimester.  If parents wanted to communicate with me they could email, call, or write a note in their child’s assignment notebook.

As we talked about different ways that teachers communicate with parents, I realized that as much as the need for communication has stayed the same, the medium in which it happens has expanded greatly.   The tiny world of email, notes, and phone calls has expanded into texts, video messages, class websites, blogging, social media, student self-assessment,  and on-demand access to student work.  There are so many options that it can get a little bit overwhelming at times.  Some of our questions became:

1. What information should we be communicating with parents?
2. What is the frequency that we should communicate?
3. What mediums make the most sense to communicate with?

In looking at these questions I decided to refer back to guidelines that Christine Trendel, a colleague whom I greatly respect created for her staff at the beginning of the year.  She starts by explaining that the overall purpose of any parent communication is to build relationships and to keep parents informed.   She then breaks communication into two groups: Global & Personal.   Also included are timelines, purpose and examples for both.

Global Communication

Purpose:  To communicate grade-level standards students will be working on, learning experiences happening in the classroom and resources that parents might find helpful

Frequency:  Once a week

Examples:

• Newsletter Created by Teacher:  Gives a general summary of what is happening in each subject with links to resources.  Teachers can choose to do a written version or record themselves in video format.  These can be sent to parents by email, in paper or through social media such as Seesaw, Class Instagram or Facebook page or text message using an app like Remind.
• Newsletter Created by Students:  Students can create the content at the end of the week by either writing a newsletter or recording themselves using a web-based service like WeVideo where they can edit together different clips and turn it into a show.
• Class Website or Blog:  Using Google Sites or another service like Weebly, Kidblog, Edublog etc.  teachers or students create different pages based on what has been taught or will be taught in upcoming units.  If a blog is included there can be additional narrative and reflection included by anyone in the classroom.  This gives parents an additional window into the work that has been done
• Social Media:  Teachers can create a class Instagram, Twitter or Facebook account.  They can use this to create stories or posts about different learning experiences happening in the classroom.  This keeps parents informed in real-time.  The account can be controlled solely by the teacher or students can be assigned as a class job for the week to document learning occurring.

Individual Communication

Purpose:  To communicate individual student progress towards meeting standards,  celebrate success, or communicate concern in all aspects of the classroom

Frequency:  Varies based on student, but at a minimum once a month

Examples:

• Student Work With Feedback Attached:  Students are more likely to learn from the work if it is in the form of feedback as opposed to a grade.  At Jefferson, we love the single-point rubric for this reason.  Making sure the feedback given is specific and timely is key.
• Progress Report:  Giving parents an update on their child’s progress between report cards is important.   This can be a simple one-page sheet with the standards you are working on along with executive functioning or SEL goals.  Sitting down with students and having them give feedback on where they think they are will make this process even more effective.
• Student Goal Setting & Reflection:  As mentioned in the previous bullet, involving students in reflecting on their progress and setting goals is a meaningful way to help them grow.  Having students share their goals with parents is a great way to increase home/school communication as well as collaboration.  Some of my teachers have students write about them and others have kids do a video reflection like a Vlog.
• Parent Access to Google Drive:  Giving parents access to their child’s Google Drive or inviting them to your Google Classroom is another easy way to communicate with families.  Even if you are not writing comments on their work, it allows parents to see what students are working on so they can talk with their students about it at home.
• Seesaw:  This is such a great tool for parent communication.  Students can record videos, take pictures with voice-over, fill-out templates, create demonstrations of their learning and more in this application.  Parents can comment on their child’s work as well or simply click a heart to like it.  Some of my teachers use this with their students almost daily and the parent response has been incredibly positive.
• Report Card:  No explanation needed on this one. (I think)
• Phone Call, Email, or Note to Celebrate or Voice Concern:  One of the mistakes I made my first years of teaching was only communicating when I had concerns about students.  As I got more experienced I realized that positive communication is just as important as expressing concerns.  I recommend creating a schedule of when you plan on sending a quick note, email or phone call about each student in your classroom.  As a principal I have teachers nominate a positive phone call of the week.  The students then get called down to the office and we call their parents and celebrate the good news!
•  Assignment Notebook:  Students can write down a daily reflection in their assignment notebook or set a goal or celebrate an accomplishment.  Assignment notebooks can also be used as communication logs back and forth between parents and school.

As we talk about parent communication it’s also important to remember that it shouldn’t be one-sided.  We should be just as proactive in reaching out to parents with celebrations/concerns as we are in asking them for feedback.  Requesting information on their child’s strengths and interests as well as discussing the goals they have for their child can only strengthen our ability to help every student in our classroom to grow.  Giving parents an opportunity to give feedback regularly will also strengthen our efficacy as educators.

School has changed greatly since many of our parents were in school.  (For the better I think!)  The trends that I have seen are less formal paper and pencil assignments where students receive concrete grades as well as less formal assessing overall.  The volume of assignments has decreased because we are placing greater importance on giving students more meaningful long-term projects and explorations and/or assessing students informally through observation and conversation.  Many elementary schools have decided to give homework only if it is necessary and meaningful for learning.  The unintended consequence of this is that parents have less of a sense of what their child is working on as well as how they are progressing in all subject areas.  We have to start thinking differently about how we communicate with our families.

Just like we design our learning experiences to meet the needs of our students, we need to create communication plans that meet the needs of our families.  I would recommend sending home a survey at the beginning of the year (or now) and then building a plan of action from there.  Do most families have older children in the school or is this their first year?  How do they prefer to be communicated with?  Email? Text?  Social Media?  What do they know about the learning in the grade that you teach?   As a general rule, the more communication the better.  No parents have ever complained to me their teacher overcommunicates with them, but I have definitely gotten feedback when parents feel that communication is lacking.

The changes to the way that we communicate with parents can be overwhelming, but can also be a game-changer when it comes to partnering with parents and building a shared vision of what we want our school to be.

Best Practice Isn’t Always Next Practice

I walked into a 5th-grade classroom Tuesday morning during our math block and almost walked right back out because I was sure the students were taking a test and I didn’t want to interrupt.  The students were working fervently on a worksheet, pencil to paper, pausing periodically to reflect, erasing at times, and moving on to the next problem.  Literally, a pin could have dropped and I would have heard it.

I slowly started to tiptoe backward out of the room when I caught the eye of the teacher who was looking over the shoulders of students at a cluster of desks.

“Are they taking a test?” I whispered.

“No, just independent practice.”

“Do you mind if I walk around and talk to the students?”

“Not at all.”

Now normally I wouldn’t ask, “do you mind if I talk to the students,” because that’s just a regular part of what I do when I go into classrooms, but I was still mesmerized by the perseverance of these students and was afraid if I talked I’d somehow break the magical spell and ruin the determined working the students were doing.

As I moved in closer (still slowly) and started looking over students’ shoulders I was even more impressed.  Not only were they highly engaged, they were working on multiplying decimals, a concept that can be tricky, causing some students to shut down and give up without even trying.  Not in this room though.  The air was thick with intellectual engagement.

Each student I spoke with could articulate not only what they were doing, but why they were doing it.  They had a process for checking whether their work was accurate and did this without prompting.  There was a palpable feeling of this work is important and I want to do it well.  When I think about Danielson Domain 2B, “Establishing a Culture for Learning,” this was it personified.

Deep Learning Doesn’t Have to Always Involve a Big Production

When thinking about student engagement, many educators (myself included) tend to think of having to create elaborate lessons that incorporate exciting content and usually require a lot of time and materials.  Words like collaboration and creativity are hallmarks of next practice that deepen learning and motivate students to be engaged in the work they are doing.

The work that I observed that day incorporated pretty much none of these things and yet the students were unquestionably deeply engaged in the work.  It was a good reminder that as wonderful and effective as collaboration creative projects can be, kids need time to process concepts and develop understanding on their own.  When they work independently, they get to work at their own pace, choose strategies that work best for them and develop their own conceptual understanding.  This leads to self-confidence in any subject area.

It also reminded me that as much as innovation is important in our classrooms, we also have to make sure we don’t just dismiss everything we did before just because we have learned something new.  Sometimes we simply need to tweak what we know has worked in the past layering in new ideas.  The work students were doing in this lesson was essentially a worksheet of math problems.  Many would dismiss this as an ineffective old school practice.  However, because the teacher had communicated clear expectations with success criteria to students, in addition to having a classroom culture that values learning and rising to challenges, the worksheet became a powerful learning tool for all.