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. 

 

 

 

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 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.

Goals Groupies: Synergizing the Passions of Staff

Last year, I read this post by John Spencer about the importance of being in a “Mastermind Group” with other educators.   It’s basically a group of teachers that meet regularly to explore and share ideas and also give one another feedback.  Because the members get to know each other well they can push one another in ways that would not be possible with other groups.

This idea has always stuck with me as something that would be great to implement with staff.  So when we started exploring options for our monthly staff meetings as an instructional leadership team, I brought this up as a possibility for a way to structure our time.  After talking through a variety of options, including a focus on the 6C’s or differentiated choices aligned to our School Improvement Plan, we ultimately decided on having staff finding a group of people who had written similar personal goals for the year.

The purpose behind this was twofold:

  1.  It gave people time to delve more deeply into something they were already personally invested in.
  2. It made our goal writing process more meaningful because staff would have dedicated time to continually work on them.  This is in contrast to past practice, where many educators (myself included) would wait until it was time to have a follow-up conference on their goals later in the year.  

At our first meeting in September, we had staff members do a “speed date” activity where they moved around the room talking about their goals for the year with different people.  Their goal was to find others who had similar interests or their “Goals Groupies.”  When they found a “match,” they would write that person’s name down on an index card.  At the end of the meeting, they met up with the people on their card and came up with an official focus for their group.  

Although I had met with staff members on their goals for the year prior to this meeting, it was fun to see how groupies ended up evolving and what they ultimately chose to focus on.  We had 5th-grade teachers working with first-grade and even kindergarten teachers.  There were groups of specials teachers mixed with grade-level teachers.  The goals chosen were just as diverse and included:  SEL, critical thinking, parent communication, inquiry-based and real-world projects, reading fluency and accuracy, and facilitated IEP and collaboration.  

This past Thursday was our second meeting.  Our Goals Groupies were given time to explore their work more fully setting specific outcomes for their impact on students, creating a plan of action and agreeing on what they would bring to share at the next meeting.  We gave them this template with guiding questions to help them to further think through their ideas.  As I walked around the room, I listened to rich conversations and genuine enthusiasm for the work they were doing.  It was a Thursday after school, but everyone was just as energized as if we were starting a fresh day.  

This process has only reinforced my belief that when we empower staff to take the lead, we embolden change that impacts students far greater than any mandated initiative ever will.  When staff is given dedicated time to collaborate with colleagues who have a common passion, we capitalize on our strengths as a school as well as build capacity in multiple grade levels. The goals the groups have chosen to work on have far surpassed my wildest dreams of what we could work on this year as a staff.   I am beyond excited to see the impact on students as the year unfolds.

 

A Culture of Inquiry Vs. A Culture of Learning

We were discussing data at an EC-12 meeting this week when one of my colleagues posed a question I had never really considered before:

Would you rather have a culture of learning or a culture of inquiry in your building?

He had recently gone to a training for a grant he was a part of and the trainer had focused part of the day on this question.  The discussion that evolved from this question ended up being the most meaningful part of the day.

This got me thinking about how I might answer that question and its implications for education.  I’d say traditionally most schools have focused on the former. Mission statements of educational institutions across the country frequently include phrases like, “to create lifelong learners” or “develop a love of learning.”  Since we want learning to continue way past students’ school days this focus makes sense to me.

But what if we instead focused on building a culture of inquiry in both our staff and students?  What might that look like?  What would the benefits be?

In their new book, Inquiry Illuminated, Goodvis, Harvey & Buhrow spend their first chapter making a case for an inquiry-based culture in classrooms.  They postulate that students who are supported by teachers in inquiry:

  • Live a life full of wonder and curiosity
  • Explore ideas and topics and issues that are central to their interests and concerns, linking these to the wider world
  • Read and respond inquisitively with an inquisitive mind and a skeptical stance
  • Think creatively to express and share new learning

To me, this means that in an inquiry-based culture, learners (both staff and students) are encouraged to ponder & discover problems or issues, ask deep questions about their cause, and spend time researching and exploring a variety of possible solutions.

From an educator stance, an inquiry-based culture would mean that we would take the time to ponder the why first before jumping into solutions.  For example, my kindergarten team was recently meeting in a PLC discussing how many of their students have been struggling to formulate questions about basically anything in class.  Instead of jumping right to, “let’s give them questions stems and organizers to help them to better formulate questions,” they spent the first part of the meeting talking about the root causes of the issue.  A variety of ideas were offered, but what they realized was that students were lacking in curiosity, not the ability to produce questions themselves.

From this realization, they designed a variety of activities to be done at home and at school including a Wonder Wall, “See, Think, Wonder, Talk” activity with pictures, question cards and more.  After the meeting one of the teachers even sent out a link to this article from ASCD about cultivating curiosity in students to further spark ideas.

Professional learning opportunities for staff could also look different from a culture of inquiry stance.  Instead of starting with outcomes for the day, participants might be asked to first think about a problem of practice.  They would then be given time to talk about its root causes with peers and finally have time to develop solutions to be implemented in the school or classroom.  At the next professional learning opportunity, staff members could talk about the results of their work in teams and then either problem-solve another issue they were pondering or go more deeply into the first issue.

In education, many times we are quick to jump to solutions before thinking about what might actually be causing the issue in the first place. Sometimes this fixes the problem, but other times it makes us appear like we are a “squirrel-based” culture, jumping from one new best practice to another.  This results in frustration from many parties, and in many cases does not actually fix the issue.

I do not think that we should go full forward into developing a “Culture of Inquiry” over a “Culture of Learning,” but rather the two seem to be intertwined and necessary for success in our schools.  If educators and students are going to be able to come up with plausible viable solutions for the problems they find then they have to be skilled at learning.   Having a voracious desire for knowledge can only lead to curiosity and asking questions.

I am definitely interested in exploring this topic further.  I plan on creating a bulletin board in the staff lounge or by the copy machine with the questions,

“What does a culture of inquiry mean to you?”

“What does a culture of learning mean to you?”

“Which do you think is more important in our school? Why?”

Their answers will determine the next steps we take as a staff, but at a bare minimum, I hope to spark the curiosity that these questions evoked in me.

If you are interested in developing more inquiry in your classroom or school I highly recommend reading Inquiry Illuminated by Anne Goudvis, Stephanie Harvey & Brad Buhrow or Comprehension & Collaboration by Stephanie Harvey & Harvey “Smokey” Daniels.  They give a great framework as well as a multitude of examples and strategies that can be applied to any grade.  I have to give a huge shout out to my EL teacher, Kory Curcio for recommending the latter.

I would love to hear any other ideas or resources you have enjoyed related to this topic! Christina

 

 

Teaching Students to Respectfully Disagree

I observed a teacher this week who was doing a lesson on creating theories and finding evidence to support one’s thinking.  She used a text from our curriculum called, The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery by Jane Yolen.  It’s a great text for a variety of reasons, but one of the best things about the book is that it sparks such curiosity in students.  The cast and crew mysteriously disappear in the middle of the ocean in the 1800s and no one has ever figured out what happened to them

Besides the fact that this teacher artfully asked questions that got the students thinking deeply, what stood out to me the most was the way the students conversed with one another about their ideas and how, even when they disagreed, they did so in a way that respected the individual they were talking to.

The lesson began with the students sharing their ideas about what the characteristics of a good theory are. During this conversation, students eagerly raised their hands and shared things like, “it has to have evidence,” with others adding on, “the evidence has to be strong.”  After this, students were partnered up in two lines and did a sort of “speed dating” with their theories about what they thought actually happened.

It was during this time that I observed students saying things like,

“I respectfully disagree with you because…”

“I respect your opinion, but…”

“I can see why you think that, but have you thought about…”

“I thought the same thing….”

“Tell me more about…”

“Can you give me another example?”

“Can you tell me more so I can understand better?”

The purpose set by the teacher for this time was to get new ideas from their partners, evidence or theory.  No one got upset while they were talking.  In fact, students eagerly shared their ideas in authentic conversations.

When I asked the teacher for more information about how she developed this skill in her students, she said:

“I noticed a need for this because I was trying to have my students have deep and mature conversations, but for many this was new and they didn’t yet have the social tools to do this respectfully. Even as we get older disagreeing can be a difficult thing, so I tried to find visuals that the students could refer to when they were vocalizing their thoughts.  If they agreed, I wanted to give them language to further the conversation.”

Her plan is to continue to have her students practice this skill in literacy and then adapt it for math.  She thought this would be particularly useful for student discussions about the reasonableness of answers, which can be tricky for students of all ages.

 As I think about her lesson, I wonder if another element of success was the teacher’s use of the word, theory as opposed to argument.  Coming from the latin stem, argumentum, argument is literally defined as, “an exchange of diverging or opposite views, typically a heated or angry one.”  When we are asked to build an argument and then find support for our idea, the natural tendency is to fight with the person we are speaking with if they disagree until they come to our side.

The connotation of the word theory is quite different, less combative and more collaborative.  The word theory usually refers to a hypothesis that a person is formulating and still seeking information in the process to support the thought.  When talking to another person about his or her theory, the partner wants to help, to question or to add to the other person’s thoughts because it is not absolute yet.

With the volatile world that we currently live in, it is imperative that we teach students to respectfully disagree.  Being able to successfully communicate one’s ideas, as well as perceiving opposing thoughts as an opportunity to learn instead of a personal attack are key skills to success in making our world better.  

 

 

 

Slowing Down

“Why are you so mad at that driver mama?” asked my daughter Alexandra on the way home from the grocery store last Saturday.  I wanted to say in my most indignant voice, “Because he is driving slower than molasses and deserves to be yelled at,” but something about the way she asked the question snapped me out of my crazy road rage.  Instead, I took a breath, paused, and wondered…

What was I so mad at?

It was by all accounts a gorgeous day.  One of those beautiful days where you open the windows, breathe deep and smile at the luck you’re having on a September weekend in Chicago.

Except I wasn’t.  Not one bit.  The night before I had painstakingly mapped out every waking moment that day from my 5:30 a.m. workout all the way to Alexandra’s birthday party that night.  I went to sleep that night thinking I was a genius of time management and that I was going to avoid any stress because I was so prepared.  What I ended up doing was spending the day jumping from one activity without a moment for pause.  The anxiety I was trying so hard to avoid had escalated to monstrous proportions.   

What I realize now is that in my brilliant timetable, I had neglected to schedule a time for a pause in my day.  A time to just do whatever I wanted to do.  A moment of quiet or catching one of my favorite shows or reading a book or even just talking to a friend.  Because of this, I was walking through the day feeling on edge.

I remember feeling this way many times throughout the years when I was a teacher. As the list of important objectives grew, the time in the school day remained the same. The only way to get everything done was to over-schedule every subject down to the minute leaving no time for pause, a teachable moment or connection to something not already planned in the day. Each day blended with the next, and although I had accomplished everything on my list I grew more and more overwhelmed.

Kids feel the anxiety as much as we do. Even when they are offered choice and voice, the purpose is still determined by the teacher. They spend 6-7 hours of their day doing essentially what someone else is asking them to do. When we do give them a moment away from the academic schedule, it’s usually a “brain break” where we dictate exactly what they will be doing to “relax.”  What message does that send to them?

 Google, “the effect of breaks on the brain” or “taking time for ourselves” and you’ll find a plethora of research and articles that support the idea that taking periodic breaks are actually better for learning.  In a recent article from Edutopia, the authors posit that taking periodic breaks (including brain breaks) actually decreases stress and increases productivity.  One of the most interesting studies they reference showed that when the brain is at rest it is actually highly active with different areas lighting up.  “Breaks keep our brains healthy and play a key role in cognitive abilities such as reading comprehension and divergent thinking.”  

If you’re still not convinced that learners need more downtime in school, think about the increase in mental health issues we have seen over the past few decades.  According to the CDC, “1 in 6 U.S. children aged 2–8 years (17.4%) have a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.” Behavior disorders are greatest in students ages 6-11 while rates of depression and anxiety rise as children age, peaking at ages 12-17.  

I have to believe that some of this is a result of the fast-paced world the students are a part of.  At school, with the exception of lunch and recess, the content and schedule of their day are chosen for them.  Many students continue this pace when they leave school moving from one activity to another.  Even though most of these after school activities are chosen and preferred by the student, it still doesn’t leave time to just be present and reap the benefits of having time to pause.  

If we want learners to be cognitively flexible and creative thinkers then we have to start giving everyone more breaks in their day.  I’m not saying we need more brain breaks, or even more recess.   Just some time broken up throughout the day when everyone in the room gets a moment to choose something that he or she wants to do that is not tied to a standard or a demand of another human being.  The research seems to show that if we can do this, we’ll not only be better learners but happier humans overall.   

So I’m starting with me.  Next week I’m blocking out time in my day for myself.  I’m talking to my teachers about doing this for not only the students, but themselves as well.  We all work insanely hard inside and outside of school.  Let’s give ourselves some grace and slow down the pace of the day.  I don’t know where the quote below came from, but I’m going to end with it as a kind reminder.

Who’s Doing the Thinking?

It’s no secret.  Education is a “mile-wide, inch-deep” endeavor with new ideas about what’s best cropping up in district initiatives all over the nation.  Some people attribute this to caring deeply about students and wanting what’s best for kids.  Others say the world is changing quickly and it is our responsibility to keep up.  Whatever the reason it seems like anywhere between two and ten new things are being added into initiative soup each year.  

With so many options to choose from, I’ve found myself frequently wondering how do we know what to focus on?  

A visit to my school this week from education author and presenter, Eric Sheninger, helped to shine light on the answer to this question. Initially, we were told his purpose was to visit our schools to do a “tech audit” of how the staff is integrating technology in the classrooms.  He did come into our classrooms and give us feedback on this,  but shared that his real purpose was to look at the level of thinking that was occurring in students, technology or not.  Essentially, his driving question was, 

“Who’s doing the thinking?”

I love how simple this question is, and yet how impactful it can be on any lesson. It transcends ideology as well as level and gets to the heart of what we want students to do in a lesson, become independent.  If we are the ones constantly doing the thinking for students then how will this ever occur?  

With adults, it’s the same concept.  As an administrator or coach, if I’m the one who’s doing all of the talking during a coaching session or professional learning experience, how am I really empowering my staff to continue the work when I’m not there?  

I challenge you this week as you are planning to ask yourself, who is really doing most of the thinking in this work?  If it’s more you than them, I encourage you to shift what you are doing, or just don’t do the activity at all.

Some small shifts you can make to increase the thinking in your learners:

  • Make sure that students know what the success criteria of the lesson and the work they are doing.  Have them evaluate themselves at the beginning of the lesson as well as at the end.  If you’re feeling really awesome develop the success criteria with the students.  This lessens the number of, “Did I do this right? Am I done?” questions.
  • Incorporate more peer discussion where students have to defend their thinking in response to a question, prompt, or idea.  Have students share their ideas and invite the class to evaluate the validity of the ideas.
  • Talk less.  Pause more.  Thinking takes time.  I know it can be insanely awkward to wait, but when we rescue students at the first sign of struggle we are giving them the message that they are not capable and need someone to rescue them.  Pre-plan questions that you might ask to students who you know might struggle with the work so that they get there on their own.  
  •  Plan for activities that have multiple paths of success.  It is rare that I have ever seen a worksheet or graphic organizer do this.  I know that many curriculum come with these handy options and understand why they are frequently used, but if we are really examining the level of thinking it’s usually just filling in blanks and boxes to win the school game instead of deepening or extending learning.  
  • Make kids the creators.  Some of the best learning I have seen is when a teacher asks students to design something on their own based on their understanding of the learning target.  

By focusing more on increasing the level of thinking in our learners, and less on perfecting the latest initiative, we create a system for success that will transcend any subject, learning style or mandate.  As Todd Whitaker says, it’s people, not programs that make the difference in education.

Putting an End to the Meaningless Agenda

We’ve all been there.

Sitting at a meeting or a grad school class where the agenda is ten miles long, broken up into either short little choppy increments or hour-long blocks without a break in sight.

Half of the items on the list seem to come from out of nowhere or could easily have been addressed in an email.

The absolute worst?  When the facilitators in no way honor the experience and talents the people at the meeting bring to the table, making everyone learn about the same things as if they have no understanding whatsoever.

When I was a teacher I loathed these experiences.  It felt like meetings were “being done to me” as opposed to inviting me to bring my talents and grow my strengths.

Many of our students feel the same way.  No matter how great of a student they are, they feel like they are showing up to the “school show,” expected to follow the rules and expectations set forth for them with little input as to how the day will proceed.

Can you imagine spending every day this way? I can’t.

We can and should do better.

When I became an administrator I vowed I would never bring this type of experience to my staff.  Am I perfect at it yet?  Definitely not, but here are a few things I try to do so that I’m not bringing a case of the meeting dreads to my staff:

  1. Ask for feedback.  Although I haven’t yet been able to start from scratch with my school leadership team in creating an agenda due to time constraints (we’re almost ahead of this), I do bring the agenda to the team and ask for feedback prior to our institute days or Wednesday late arrivals.
  2. Build on the expertise of the team.  What are they good at?  What are they passionate about?  What do they see as the greatest need that would make the meeting most valuable to all?  Stop being the only one who presents and let teacher leaders lead.  They’re the ones who know the kids the best.  We need to trust them!
  3. Tie everything back into the vision that was created as a staff.  Ours this year is #unlimitedgrowthandconnection.  We make sure that every agenda item is connected to this and explicitly stated.
  4. Include breaks and don’t make people turn off their technology.  We’re all adults.  If we’ve made the topics of the meeting meaningful then people won’t want to distract themselves with other things.  We should trust people to use their resources when they need/want to.
  5. Include something fun.  Meetings are an opportunity to build culture and camaraderie.  We added in a “Walk-Up Song” activity at the beginning of each staff meeting where we asked staff members to send us the song they would have played when they walk into the classroom like they do in Major League Baseball.  The rest of the staff has to guess whose song it is.  We even have prizes.  From the response at the last meeting, we might add in karaoke.  What does your staff enjoy?  Thankfully mine loves music and food, two of my favorite things so I also try to bring some sort of tasty treat.

If you’re a teacher, what might this look like in your classroom?  How often do you ask for feedback or build the day around goals students have set for themselves? How can you make each learning target meaningful to the students so they see a connected purpose in the work they are doing?  What would the day look like if more choice and voice were incorporated?

I love this question that George Couros poses to educators,

“Would you want to be a student in your own classroom?”

For me, this question has transitioned to, “Would you want to be a teacher in your staff meeting?” I hope as the year progresses the answer to this question becomes an emphatic yes!  Let’s stop “doing school to people” and start asking for meaning from our people.