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).