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.

Sometimes Small Wins add up to Big Losses

Just got done with my almost four year old having an epic tantrum at gymnastics class.

The cause?

I made her put on her shoes and socks when she came out of class before she did anything else.

I know.  I’m the worst.

That’s not what actually caused the epic tantrum.  That was more of a prequel to the disaster.  A foreshock if you will.

What actually caused the “drop on the floor, red in the face, screaming at decibels heard by two towns over tantrum” was the fact that I was unaware of the magical lady who hands out lollipops to all of the good little boys and girls who have stamps on their hands after class.

So, if you tell your daughter to put on her shoes and socks on before she does anything else she is inevitably going to miss the magical lollipop fairy lady because:

  1.  Asking a toddler to do anything will take ten times longer than anyone could ever imagine is humanly possible.
  2. When you were a kid at some point you threw temper tantrums and your mom said the stereotypical phrase, “I hope one day you have a kid just like you!” (Which at the time you blew off, but now as an adult you are wondering if she has some sort of voodoo power that you were not aware of.)

So here I am standing in the vestibule, trying to rationalize with a toddler that missing the magical lollipop that she “earned” is “No Big Deal” while her screams keep getting louder and her stomping is reaching epic proportions.  Minus her face turning purple I’d say she was pretty close to a direct reenactment of Turtle Throws a Tantrum.  (Side Note: DO NOT laugh at this point.  It is apparently not funny.)

People are staring.  Dogs are barking.  I’m about to pick her up and put her in the car kicking and screaming when guess who comes out of her office?  The magical ninja lollipop lady.

And do you know what she did?

SHE ASKS MY FULL ON TANTRUM CHILD IIF SHE WANTS A LOLLIPOP.

I looked at Alexandra.  I looked at the lady.  I looked at the faces of the moms ( totally not judging) staring at me.  I swear time froze.

I knew I had two options.  I could tell her no, that the way she was behaving did not merit a lollipop or any reward for that matter and endure the escalation that would ensue or I could let her have the lollipop ending the campaign of torture.

So, what did I do?

I totally caved.  I told her that if she would apologize to me for her behavior that she could have one.  I was worried about getting to her next activity on the other side of town on time and was honestly sick of listening to the tantrum that seemed to last for all eternity.

She apologized, instantly calmed, got her lollipop and merrily skipped to the car like nothing happened.  We made it to Little Actors Club on time and the rest of the day was great.

It appears that I made the right choice right.  But did I?  The entire car ride home I kept thinking all she is going to remember from this event was that a tantrum equals candy.  I chose the easy way out simply because of my fears of getting to our next activity on time (and yes of being judged) and now the next time I was going to have to start all over again with how we behave when we don’t get our way.

My short little win was most likely setting me up for defeat later on.

Choosing What’s Easy in Education

This longwinded story got me thinking about when I was in the classroom and the times I would choose what was easy over what would be a better learning experience for students.

How many times did I choose to teach whole class rather than differentiate because it was easier for me to cover the content that way?  I could say I covered the objectives, but were ALL of my students really learning from the lesson that day?

How many times did I teach something just because it was in the curriculum guide even though I knew that many of my students had mastered the objective already?

How many times did I make decisions based on what was easy for me, not on what was right for the students and then end up teaching it all over again?

I’d say the answer to these questions was more than I’d like to admit.  For a variety of reasons, (pressure from administration, district assessment deadlines, anxiety about keeping up with peers, inner drive to teach it all) educators feel a huge pressure to cover content over teaching the students in front of them.  None of these reasons are illegitimate reasons.  The expectations put on teachers are astronomical.  It is completely reasonable to feel like covering content should take priority.

Unfortunately, this dynamic causes many of us (myself included) to plan learning experiences and lessons that do simply that, cover content instead of creating learning that sticks with engaging in-depth experiences like we know we should.  Many times we end up reteaching these lessons because the learning was not meaningful to students.  Taking the time to prioritize and go deeper at the beginning would actually save us time in the end.

If I could be a classroom teacher again (one day maybe I will), I would stop placing the greatest importance on content and start with relationships.  I’d find out what was important to my students, learn their strengths and build from there.  I know there are many constraints with time in the school day, but I’d try to plan my schedule with longer blocks of time so that I could plan out integrated lessons that include time to ask questions, interact with peers, and causes students to engage in the learning.

I’d take the time to make it stick as opposed to getting it done.

Of course, I’m not a classroom teacher this year.  I’m an administrator and a mom.  So here’s my effort to choose differently than I have in the past.

  1.  If you work in my school I will support you 100% in teaching the students in front of you, not covering vast amounts of the curriculum.
  2. I will set up a schedule where you have flexible time to integrate subjects and plan deeper learning experiences.
  3. I will set up structures so you can coteach, collaborate, and reflect regularly with your peers to learn from one another and build upon one another’s strengths.
  4. I will plan engaging learning experiences that meet your needs as opposed to the God awful “Sit & Get” institute days.
  5. When you come to me with innovative ideas I will be your cheerleader, your support system and do anything in my power to make your idea a success.
  6. I will not take the easy way out and spend time in my office doing clerical tasks.  I will be present in the building getting to know the culture of the school so that I can contribute and elevate the great work being done.
  7. I will listen to what you need, not try to force my agenda on you.
  8. When there is an issue (anything, including missing a magical lollipop lady), I will listen, reflect and work to solve the problem with you.

At the end of the day, it is better that we have contributed to creating amazing humans  than to have taught a vast curriculum.  Is teaching knowledge to students part of that formula? 

Absolutely.

But if you ask me what to prioritize in your school I’d choose deeper learning and relationships over being able to say I covered all the content any day.

dyer quote 2

(Quote by Wayne Dyer)

Coaching for Innovation

This post originally appeared here on the LaunchPad: Official Blog of TeachBoost.

Over the past decade, innovation has become one of the more popular buzzwords in education. Thought by many as a path to make students successful or “future ready,” innovative teaching practices are highly sought after by leadership at all levels. The problem is, when many educators hear the word “innovation,” images of technological grandeur and unimaginable teaching strategies are often conjured up, instead of something that can be as simple as a small shift in practice.

George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset, defines innovation as “something that is new and better.” I love this definition because it recognizes that innovation isn’t changing things just for the sake of change. If something is to be innovative, it needs to be not only new but better for students. In order for innovation to thrive in our schools we have to build school environments that foster idea generation, collaboration, reflection, and risk-taking without fear of repudiation if something doesn’t go as planned.

So where does the role of a coach come in? To strategically enhance these key elements.

Laying the Foundation: Assessing Needs and Trends

It starts with foundational best practices for anyone in a school: build relationships, be present, and get to know those you serve. In this way a coach finds out the needs, interests, and strengths of both students and staff. Not only does this lay the foundation of a great relationship built on trust, it also gives the coach an idea of current practice around the building. If we want “new and better” practices to flourish then we have to first be experts in the great work that is currently happening with students and build from there.

One of the things that I did as a learning support coach was meet with every teacher both at the beginning of each school year and halfway through. We would discuss what they loved most about teaching, areas they were interested in, ideas they were working on, puzzles they just couldn’t figure out, what they enjoyed most outside of school, as well as areas they might want to work with me on.

In addition to meeting with them in person, I’d send out a Survey and a Needs Assessment to get to know the staff a bit better. Over the years, these tools have been modified to meet our school’s improvement plan, previous work we had done, conversations, and coaching cycles I was regularly involved in.

After my meetings, I compiled all of the information I gathered into one large document and looked for trends. From this information, I was able to personalize my coaching and create strategic groupings and partnerships based on the needs or interests of teachers, plus send them articles or videos as resources. As a result, innovative practices spread more quickly, teachers began to collaborate, and relationships built on trust flourished.

Being Vulnerable Through Modeling

An integral, and often scary, part of innovation is the possibility of failure that leads to risk-taking. In order to encourage others to take risks, we need to first model it ourselves. One way to do this is by being vulnerable and to share both your success and setbacks of a new strategy or idea you’re trying out.

In my fourth year of coaching, I found a lot of teachers asking me about the difference between compliance and engagement: “What does it look like in practice?” or “How do we know if students are truly engaged or just complying?” From these conversations the “Student Engagement Inquiry Group” was born. The purpose of this group was to define student engagement versus compliance and then explore teaching practices that would enhance student engagement during lessons. Knowing that a large part of engagement is offering choice, during the first few meetings staff members explored a hyperdoc—a master document with links to various resources.

Using Video

After creating a deeper understanding of student engagement, as well as teaching practices needed to support it, we (the student engagement inquiry group) created an observation template with student engagement “look-fors” when in a classroom.

Knowing that it’s difficult to be judged in front of one’s peers, I offered to teach and record lesson and then have the group evaluate me using our template. Afterward, we used our next meeting to evaluate how engaged the students were. This led to some great discussions and increased the learning process because teachers could focus on what the students were doing. Ultimately, the video process led our group to eventually observe and provide feedback to one another—which supported a shift in an innovative process throughout the building.

Going Further: Building Teacher Leaders

One of the greatest discoveries in my first year as a coach was that teachers who loved the work we were doing together would go back to their team and share. This would cause a ripple effect and the innovation would spread!

Coaches looking to spread innovative practices need to be adept at building up teacher leaders in their schools. Educators love learning from their peers because they’re literally “in the trenches” doing the work daily with the multitude of outside factors that might affect how successful or unsuccessful an idea might be.

Co-Presenting

There are a variety of ways to build leaders of innovation in schools. Besides selecting leaders at each grade level to work with, another great way to build leadership in innovation is to ask a staff member to co-present with you at a staff meeting or professional learning day on an idea you have worked on together in their classroom. This highlights great instruction but also takes away some of the pressure a staff member feel when they have to present by themselves.

Edcamps

Another way to build up teacher leaders is to offer an “Edcamp”-style professional learning day where teachers can learn from their peers. Teachers can present on their own or with a peer or group. The other teachers who are not presenting get to select sessions that they would like to attend. Oftentimes this results to more learning beyond the day because teachers will continue to reach out to that staff member after the event. Check out #hawthorneignites on Twitter for some examples of how this has been successful in one of the buildings I am currently an administrator at.

Making Innovation Visible

I read a recent blog post by AJ Juliani where he talked about the importance of highlighting the instruction we want to see in our schools. As a coach, I created a biweekly newsletter that I send out to staff; in this example, I organized the newsletter into different categories, all related to the practices we wanted to see in our classrooms. Additionally, I’d provide examples of the work that I was doing with staff to spark interest in new ideas as well as show cohesion in our work. Even if someone only briefly glanced at the newsletter they could see the focus of the work being done for the year.

Social media is another great way to spread innovative practices. Tweeting, or posting to Instagram, videos and pictures of instructional practices that you see in classrooms is a simple way to make practice visible. A fantastic way to enhance this is by tagging other teachers who you think might be interested in the post.

Final Thought

Innovation for the sake of doing something new is meaningless and leads to frustration by others. However, once we get to know the strengths of those we serve and connect new ideas to the needs of the building, we can truly create something new and better benefits all parties!

When You’ve Had One Too Many Google Slides

My Post (6)Audio version of this post.

Email at 9:30 p.m. Sunday night.  Tomorrow school is cancelled due to inclement weather.  (Cue the cheering)

Email at 9:45 p.m.  All admin must still report to fulfill their contractual obligation. (Cue the booing)

Not gonna lie.  That last email didn’t exactly make my night, BUT it did lead to an amazing meeting Monday.  So, one might argue that the 9:45 email was actually better than the 9:30 one.  Let me explain.

When I got to school I sent an email to my staff saying I was available if anyone needed anything.  About 20 minutes later I received a response from a teacher asking if I would like to meet.  We had been trying to officially talk for weeks about an idea she had, but up until this point it was all hallway conversations here and there.  Turns out her power was out so this was a great opportunity for us to actually create a plan as well as a warm place to be.  Win. Win.

The teacher was planning out a social science inquiry unit about the Age of Exploration.  Her problem was twofold:

  1.  She frequently offered her students choice in how they would demonstrate their learning, but they ALWAYS seemed to use Google slides.
  2. Finding good resources for the students to explore in the Hyperdoc she was creating was super time consuming.

Enter two of my favorite things:  Curation & Meaningful Content.   I learned about curation when listening to a podcast from Jennifer Gonzalez’ Cult of Pedagogy website when I was an instructional coach.  (Sidenote: If you do not listen to her podcasts or at least check out her website periodically you are missing out on a WEALTH of tools, strategies, and just plain good stuff.)

There are many different ways to approach it, but basically curation is taking the concept of a museum curator and giving it a classroom context.   Students might create a playlist of videos that are all relevant to a topic they are studying, make a list of articles, images, and videos that answer a question or even a create Top 10 list.  The idea is that they are sifting through a wide range of information and choosing the best items to fit.  In addition to giving them a purpose for watching and reading numerous content, it also causes them to have to apply critical thinking skills such as determining importance and synthesis.  Check out her post for many more ideas for curation applications.

Curation fit perfectly into the explorer unit.  Students are first going to create their own question under the larger umbrella question of, “Is exploration always a good thing?”  After reading and watching a few common texts and videos, the students will next be tasked with curating their own list of videos, texts and images that answer their personal question.  The only requirement is that each resource on the list must be summarized with reasons for why it is included.  These curations will then be reviewed by their peers (creating even more shared ideas) and inevitably be used in future years as well.  Genius.

Books Make a Great Foundation, But…

Which led us to our our next dilemma.  What kinds of resources did we really want students going through?  Where would we start?  When we first started chatting it was suggested that we take the students to the public library to find texts to use as their primary sources.  Although I am a super fan of the library and will always believe in the power of a physical book, I thought we should also ponder digital content like YouTube, Blogs, and websites.  This would give them an opportunity to explore media resources that they were already regularly consuming outside of school, but with a critical lens.

As I brought this idea up to the teacher she said she loved it, but wasn’t sure where to find blogs that would be useful.  She had a few websites that she liked and a couple of videos, but hadn’t seen much else.  I did a quick search of,Social Studies Blogsand found a treasure of resources created by history teachers for other teachers to use with students.  (#sschat on Twitter is also a great place to look) I assured her that the beauty of curation was that we didn’t have to be the sole experts finding resources, it was up to the students.  My guess was that they would surprise us with what they knew or were able to find.  Just in case though we planned to make a list of a few good blogs and websites as well as some YouTube channels. (Crash Course Kids is one of my fave’s.)

Slide to the Left…Slide to the Right…

All of this curation led us back to problem number one:  What were the students going to do with all of this knowledge that they had curated and synthesized?  Although this teacher had offered choice in a variety of other units most students defaulted to the ever popular Google slides presentation.  It’s not that Google slides aren’t a good way to present information, but if students are always demonstrating their learning in the exact same way are we really helping them to be prepared to contribute to the world outside of school?

Knowing that with their friends they spend a lot of time on YouTube we decided to start there.  Students would come to class prepared to talk about their favorite YouTube videos that they have learned something from.  They would present their videos in small groups and work to answer the question, “What makes a good presentation?” From this small group discussion the students will create a list as a class of qualities that make a presentation engaging as well as informational.  These qualities will become what the students use to assess themselves on their work.

After this class collaboration the students would then get to work in stations to learn about some other options they could use to answer their individual questions including:

  • Adobe Spark – Students can use this to create videos with narration, creative graphics or scrolling webpages.  It’s a pretty intuitive site if you have not used it previously.  
  • WeVideoThis is an online platform for creating videos.  I have to give a huge shout out to Jennifer Leban (@mrsleban), our creative technology teacher at one of our middle schools for teaching me how to use this super fun tool! (I have a future post dedicated to my learning with this one coming soon!)
  • SeesawThis is a great tool for student creation, reflection, and collaboration.  It can be used in so many different ways.  One of the best parts is that it is easy to share with parents.  

Students still have the option to use Google slides for their presentations. They just need to make sure that they meet the requirements that the class had come up with together.  By doing this it will hopefully shift their presentations into more complex and engaging content as opposed to just bullet points and fun transitions with a few graphics.  Or, they don’t have to use technology at all if they don’t want to.  They have the option to create their own idea or use one from their teacher’s list like creating a book or a live interview.  

This entire plan is designed to spark not only curiosity, but to also develop four of the six C’s of creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking. The teacher plans on using reading, writing, science and social studies as part of the interdisciplinary unit giving students an opportunity to see education as a connected process as opposed to independent ideas.  After the students learn about historical exploration they are also going to be learning about space exploration to ponder how we can use the past to help us to understand or better create the future.


The two problems discussed in this post are not unique to the teacher I was speaking with.  As a teacher and a coach I would sometimes spend hours on end looking for the best resources to use with students.  This process would many times leave me frustrated blaming “the district” for not providing me with everything I need.   However, when I reflect on what skills students truly need to be successful in school and beyond I think we are doing a disservice to students if we are always the ones providing them with the content they should be reading.  We need to teach them not only how to find information that answers their bigger questions, but also how to evaluate the quality and validity of the information they find. 

I truly applaud this teacher for reflecting on the needs of her students and taking the risk of trying something new with a unit that could easily be taught in a very traditional way.  Moving forward she will be working mostly with our instructional coach, but it was such a treat to have time to talk this out with her on Monday.  I cannot wait to see the creative ideas and projects that evolve as a result!  #greatfulforasnowday