Monday, December 5, 2016

Our Duty to Share

A recent article in Kappan Magazine* details a talented elementary school teacher who was being observed by another educator (external to her building).  The observer wanted to learn from the teacher’s uncanny ability to differentiate instruction to multiple learning styles in a humorous and engaging way.  However, what became more striking to the observer was that none of the teachers on the same grade level with whom she taught had ever observed her; not once.  In fact, one teacher had worked alongside this master teacher for nine years and the other for seven years.  The author exclaims that this, “isn’t just poor practice, it’s almost malpractice.”

Now, before there are too many feelings of guilt, I am the first to admit this has described me at times.  In fact, just a few months ago, I saw a news segment that featured my assigned mentor teacher from my first year in the classroom.  She was being honored for her 50th year in education and has no plans to retire.  In my initial year and those that followed, she gave me advice on lesson plans, pedagogy, school culture, classroom management, and so much more.  Yet, I can only remember watching her teach one time!  Imagine all of the decades of knowledge that were readily available to me that I did not take advantage of when I had the opportunity.

As I reflect, I realize that my focus was upon teaching my own classes, grading assignments, meeting the immediate needs of my students, and a variety of other daily demands.  The truth is, however, I could have made time to engage in observations and further hone my skills as an educator.  As Father James Keller noted, “a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.”  Margaret Fuller similarly opines, “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.”  I believe both would argue that we have a duty to share what we have learned so that others may grow.  Naturally, this benefits students and advances our profession, which is where our focus must always remain.

In some ways, I find it ironic that we impart knowledge every day to the students who pass through our doors, but rarely do we do so with the adults on either side of our own doors.  Observing colleagues is quite common and even required in other professions, from surgeons to electrician’s apprentices and those practicing law.  I challenge you to take a page from their script and try the same.  Start small and schedule a time with a colleague you admire.  Do not worry if the subject matter being taught is vastly different from your own.  In fact, you may be surprised by how much you can learn!  Then, if you are feeling confident, invite others to observe you.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, make time to discuss the observation afterwards.  This should not be an evaluative conversation or a time to pass judgment in any way.  Rather, it is a time to ask questions, discuss techniques, and grow together as colleagues.  Light a fire and, in doing so, perhaps rekindle your own.

*“Getting Better at Learning” by Joan Richardson in Phi Delta Kappan, November 2016 (Vol. 98, #3, p. 4),

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Innovation not Memorization

Recently, in the Future of Jobs Report of the World Economic Forum, the most desired qualities of workers sought by employers were reported, both presently and in the near future.  The qualities were then ranked after surveying business leaders, which are listed below.

                  2015                                                       2020
    1.      Complex Problem Solving                  1.  Complex Problem Solving
    2.      Coordinating with Others                    2.  Critical Thinking
    3.      People Management                            3.  Creativity
    4.      Critical Thinking                                 4.  People Management
    5.      Negotiation                                          5.  Coordinating with Others

At first glance, there seems to be little difference between the qualities desired last year and those that will be desired in 2020.  However, upon closer review, a new skill makes its debut in the 2020 list.  In fact, it is the third most desired skill—creativity!  You see, business leaders recognize that to continue to survive in the future marketplace means employees must do much more than simply replicate or manufacture someone else’s idea—they must come up with the ideas themselves.  This requires a spirit of innovation, creativity, and a recognition that there are multiple pathways to success as opposed to one “right” answer.  Or, as the folks from Google put it:

“We’re less concerned about grades and transcripts and more interested in how you think.  Show us how you would tackle the problem presented—don’t get hung up on nailing the ‘right’ answer.”

Through the application of creativity and innovation, the most desired quality of employers on both lists—complex problem solving—can be accomplished.  The problem, however, is that in a system measured by multiple choice tests with high stakes consequences, creativity often gives way to “right” or “wrong” answers and singular approaches to less than dynamic or relevant problems.  Fortunately, the state recognizes this and are currently working on an entirely new accountability and accreditation system, which will be unveiled later this school year. 

Even more encouraging is the fact that students who are exposed to innovative and creative ways of tackling material typically score better on standardized tests, not worse.  This does not imply that we should throw out all traditional forms of instruction, quite the contrary.  However, we know that when students are allowed and encouraged to seek creative solutions to relevant problems, their level of engagement increases, discipline decreases, and they often come up with solutions far superior to what most would expect.  This should assist us in taking a leap of faith to approach at least some lessons in a more innovative way.

So, how can you begin?  First, start small with one or two lessons that you might wish to consider altering and then ask yourself these questions:

     1.      Is there a more applicable way I can accomplish the same content/SOLs?
     2.      Is there a way to make the lesson student-centered, where students not only produce the end product, but likewise have some say in the process to create the end product?
     3.      Can I recognize that even if this is not successful, that appropriate risk taking is both a good model for students and the only thing that improves the status quo?
     4.      Most importantly—Is what I’m doing best for students and serving them well?

      Doing something new is always a risk.  You may ask, “Could a process I’m unfamiliar with end in failure?  If I give students more say, will it feel as if I’m relinquishing control?  Could it get the class off pace and negatively impact end-of-course tests?”  All of these are legitimate concerns and questions.  However, I believe the bigger risk is not challenging our students to innovate, create, and find novel solutions to very complex, real-world problems.

      So, praise students for thinking outside of the box.  Encourage creation and creativity.  Use their interests to enhance lessons and give them permission to experiment without fear of failure.  This same innovative and creative spirit has produced Edison, Bell, Jobs and Gates, among many others.  Foster it and you may be amazed at the results

Friday, September 30, 2016

What does it mean to know your students?

As the school year began, I shared with you the important role I believe we each play in meeting the needs of all learners through an equitable and relevant education.  Truly appreciating the needs of each learner, however, is predicated upon knowing each student individually.  In fact, numerous studies have shown there are two main reasons learners become disengaged at school—a lack of connection between lessons in the classroom and what students observe beyond the walls of the school, and students feeling that no adult truly knows and/or cares about them.  Not surprisingly, students who drop out of school prior to earning a diploma cite these very reasons, above all others.
So, what exactly is important to know about each student?  There is no magic answer to this question since each student is unique.  However, I’ve listed a few ideas below for consideration, adopted in part from a list provided by Rick Wormeli in a recent issue of Educational Leadership (September 2016):

  •          Personal Interests (sports, music, television, movies, books, hobbies, etc.)
  •          Family dynamics
  •          Transience rate
  •          Home responsibilities
  •          After school work schedule
  •        Previous school experiences
  •         English Language Learner status
  •          Health concerns
  •          Socio-emotional learning strengths and challenges
  •         Vision or hearing problems         
  •     Gifted/advanced learner (keeping in mind giftedness can manifest itself in a number of ways)
  •         Leadership qualities
  •         Multiple intelligences         
  •     Personality profile
  •         Recent life changes or personal struggles
  •         Accomplishments in or outside of school of which they are proud

Again, these are just a few ideas to get a better glimpse of each child.  This list could be expanded in a variety of ways.  The point is that each student is a unique individual with unique needs and talents.  When a person feels both understood and appreciated, the chances of success are greatly multiplied.  Or, as Rick Wormeli writes: Yes, student, you exist.  I accept all that you are, and I value time in your company.  You will commit to being the best version of your maturing self, just as I will commit to being the best version of my maturing self for you.  We’ll achieve our goals together.  Now, I see that your name is “Ellie.”  Is it short for something?  Tell me more.  You are a person worth knowing (Educational Leadership: Vol 74, 1; p.15). 

We have over 18,000 students worth knowing.  Thank you for your daily commitment to our students and getting to know them in an authentic way.  They won’t forget it.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Importance of Relevance

One of two key focus areas for our division this year is “relevance.”  In education, we must be mindful that the Information Age is now two decades old and giving way to the Creativity Age.  As such, anyone (our students included), can look up basic facts with just a couple of clicks.  While some knowledge will always be timeless, we must also challenge students to think in more critical ways to solve real-world issues, tackle complex problems and provide innovative solutions as opposed to basic comprehension.  By doing so, we provide relevance, which yields heightened student engagement.

Of course, saying that we believe in relevance and engagement is the easy part.  Transforming long embedded practices can prove to be more challenging for all educators.  The first step is to become comfortable with the idea that a teacher is not supposed to have all of the answers, contrary to the traditional notion that a teacher is the dispenser of knowledge.  The speed with which technology moves means that a teacher mastering all concepts before students is an impossibility. 

Instead, structuring lessons in a way that allows the instructor to learn along with the students (facilitating), designing collaborative activities, or giving students time to be innovative within the context of the curriculum will provide students with “voice and choice,” leading to deeper, more relevant learning.

Not enough?  Well, try this Relevance Top 10 list as a way to be innovative in the classroom this year.  If this is a brand new way of looking at things, start small with only trying one or two items.  Have fun and watch relevance and student engagement grow!

Drum roll please…

#10: Use a couple of planning periods to observe other teachers—not for evaluation, but for observation.  How do your peers engage students?  Also, spend at least 20-30 minutes later in the week discussing what you observed and how you might implement some of their techniques.

#9: Review your own assessments and in doing so, ask these questions:
-Could anyone with access to an online search have answered the questions with no instruction?
          -Do they help develop critical thinking skills?
          -Are they aligned with the curriculum?
If the answer to any of these is “no,” then more opportunities for relevance exist.
#8: Structure a lesson in which students get to be the instructor in an area in which they have expertise.  This can be done in small groups, as opposed to the full class, for both the sake of time and lessening the intimidation for students.  You will be amazed at how well students can assist their own peers if it is a topic that they are passionate about learning themselves.

#7: Have a peer (or a student if you are really brave) record how much time is spent with “teacher-talk,” as opposed to student-centric activities over the course of a week.  If more than 20% of the conversation is teacher-centric, then students may need more involvement.

#6: Assess students on both the questions they ask, as well as the ones they answer.  This is a simple and yet radical idea.  Creativity comes in part from curiosity and questioning, not just in providing answers to someone else’s questions.

#5: Do students have voice in creating their own projects, defining goals, developing a plan, or communicating their results to a larger audience?  Of course, all of these items must be done within the constraints of the curriculum, but the point is that when students have “voice and choice,” they are more likely to see relevance and stay engaged.

#4: Can a student make a mistake without penalty?  Some theorize that fear of the red “x” is what causes us to be cautious in our risk-taking as students and later as adults.  However, as any inventor knows, without trial and error, progress will never occur.  As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  Many successful businesses are recognizing the need for experimentation and “play” without penalty.  In fact, Google believes that every good idea they have ever had as a company came from a period of time set aside for productive play to come up crazy ideas without any fear of failure.

#3: Take a virtual field trip.  A virtual field trip is a guided exploration that organizes a collection of thematically based web pages into a structured online experience. Teachers can take students beyond the classroom walls into some of the world’s most interesting locations!  If you are looking for a place to start, try

#2: Try arts integration in a collaborative approach with teachers in your fine or performing arts department.  In this environment, students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form of some kind (e.g., music and drama). Students engage in a creative process which connects an art form and another subject and meets evolving objectives in both content areas.  In fact, integrated approaches in any discipline show the connectedness of the content being studied, thus enhancing its relevance.
#1: Video yourself teaching and do a self-analysis.  This one is unnerving at first, much like hearing a recording of your voice for the first time.  However, if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth a million!

*Note: Top 10 items were contributed from ILS Directors, as well as from the book Most Likely to Succeed, by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith (2015).