Who am I?

I'm a passionate teacher who is constantly looking for better ways to connect my students to content and concepts. These are some of the best resources and ideas I've found and how I use them with students.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

What I learned about teaching at Soccer Camp


            I've spent the last week observing energetic, talented, teachers in an outdoor classroom …at soccer camp.   So many of the techniques they used can easily be transferred to the regular classroom.  It also pointed out again to me an important rule of teaching, which is, if kids understand what they are supposed to do and they are in a supportive environment, they will do it.  Invariably, when kids were not complying with the activity it was because the coach had moved to fast and the students didn't understand what to do.  The good coaches realized instantly that they had lost the students, stopped, retaught and then moved on with successful students.  Watching over 300 kids from 3-9 years old of vastly different abilities and experiences, I saw NO students refusing to try when they understood.  Not one.  I saw kids being goofy, I saw kids being confused, I saw kids being nervous, I saw kids who were gifted at soccer and kids who were challenged by the skills…but I saw NO kids refusing to learn. 
               I realize that in some ways these are self -selected students whose parents are interested enough in sports to shell out 150 dollars for the week.  These kids all ate breakfast, came with their materials, and had transportation to camp.  These are not kids that are struggling in poverty.  But at the same time, the fact that 100% of the students were learning and trying indicates that the coaches were using strategies that all teachers should try implementing. 

Building relationships-  The coaches excelled at building relationships.  They set up some basic norms at the beginning, like a call and response to the word “REEEE SPECT”, they had a positive behavior system called “world cup points” where students could earn points for their world cup teams.   These basic boundaries helped that coaches maintain respectful and fun attitudes during the learning.  The coaches were more interested in pointed out the things the students were doing well, than telling them how to improve.  You could see this positive environment grow the ties between child and coach.  The fact that the coaches did not surprise the kids with negative outbursts or frustration meant that the students gave the coaches their trust and attention. 

Joining in-  The coaches were themselves members of the class.  They also did the activities, joined in the games, wore the silly costumes and were not afraid to interact at the level of the students.  Only when the students were scrimmaging, were the coaches standing outside of the learning.  The effect of this on the students was incredible.  The coaches never lost their authority, but it encouraged the students to try difficult skills, because they saw their mentor trying it right along with them. 

Formative Assessment -  The coaches used formative assessment after each activity or scrimmage to reinforce the skills they were focusing on.  They did NOT give an exhaustive evaluation of all the skills the students were using.  Instead they would pick one skill and point out a student that was doing that skill well.  This not only allowed the coaches to recognize more students for a variety of different values, but also gave them a platform to push all the students in the class towards that value.  

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

To Collaborate or NOT to Collaborate

      Collaboration.  The newest educational buzzword.  How are we going to make the impossible work...COLLABORATION! The irony of the word collaboration in schools is that when you are teaching students, there isn't much time to collaborate with adults. I mean let's be honest...there isn't much time to use the bathroom, so there REALLY isn't much time for rich collaboration.  To alleviate this opposition, there have been a rash of new inventions that enable people to collaborate in online environments...something that is supposed to take less time.  But perhaps the real questions we should be asking are when should we collaborate and what does that look like?
      Before getting into it...here are some situations to consider.  A veteran teacher is teamed with a new teacher for collaboration.  What should each person take away from the collaboration?  A group of eight teachers is asked to collaborate to plan a 30 min award ceremony.  When are there too many cooks in  the kitchen? Two teachers with opposing educational philosophies are asked to collaborate on a common unit.  Who has to compromise their core values?  
     Each one of these situations points out some of the common pitfalls of collaboration.  We all need to admit that collaboration is NOT the magic bullet.  Sometimes collaboration creates a rich, creative, problem solving environment and sometimes it becomes a way for everyone to devise a different way to line students up.  When is collaboration essential and When would we be better off doing things independently?

    As a basic rule collaboration adds to greatness when
  • Deep thinking is going on.  The task is conceptually difficult.
  • Objective viewpoints are needed.
  • There need to be more ideas on the table.
  • There need to be different ideas on the table.
  • There is too much work for one person.
  • There is enough common ground to build on.
  • Consensus is going to be needed for a path.
Don't Collaborate...Just get it done!   
     Collaboration can get in the way when
  • The task is easy and conceptually simple. 
  • There are lots of options that are all equally fine.
  • There is a time crunch.
  • One path has already been decided on.
  • Arguing might get in the way of accomplishment.
        So if you are needing to design a new grading system for the school, you want to take the time to collaborate and learn together so that you get a creative vision that works for kids.  And if you are simply deciding how to take attendance on a field trip, one person can make that decision and it will be fine.  Think of it this way, how many people do you need to make a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese?  
       When it is time to collaborate, it is a great idea for people to know where their blind spots are and what they bring to the table.  Everyone should get to walk away with something and the product should be better because the right people were in the room.  You know collaboration is working when people are looking energized and the pace of conversation is fast and engaged.  When you see people digging out their iphones to play candy crush, it is time to split the work and call it a day.  

Monday, September 2, 2013

Creating a Learning Community

     Fall is a magical time of year for teachers.  For everyone else, it seems like the year is getting older and worn out.  But for teachers everything is fresh and new.  Crisp clothes worn for the first time show no dirt and the smell of newly sharpened pencils fills clean, organized rooms.  The first days of school magically unfold like a fresh blank journal.  And like journal, these few magical days will determine what comes after.  Every veteran teacher will state that the first days of school are essential to the learning of the rest of the year.  For me, there are five things everything teacher needs to accomplish during the first three weeks of school.

Systems and Structures-
    Before the students walk in the door, the teacher should know the answer to some essential questions.  How will students turn in work?  Where will students store folders?  How will students start the period?  How will the teacher get students' attentions?  These pesky structural problems are small but without answers they will grow and nourish a chaotic environment.  Students can't guess how you want them to put their names on their papers or how they should raise their hands in class, even if it seems obvious to you.  New teachers often don't realize the intensity of teaching or forethought these structures need and end up being frustrated four weeks later when a student asks where to turn in work or doesn't have a pencil.  The answer is simple.  Cut the frustration by setting up a structure for all repeatable tasks and teaching to and practicing the structures multiple times the first week, until they are habits.  
Some of the structures I plan and teach to are:
  • Work- turning it in, late work, redo work, locker passes to get work, consequences for not doing work, absent work, folders for class work, no name work, handing back work, labelling work, grading work, recording and monitoring work.
  • Behavior- raising hands, seat position, jobs, responses to poor behavior, beginning of period, end of period, bathroom passes, coming into the class, leaving the class, moving to groups, moving to discussion, and getting supplies.                             

Norming and Rules-  
     There is an old saying, "Good fences build good neighbors."  The same is true about norming.   Kids need to know the boundaries in the classroom.   As a brand new teacher, I didn't want to be seen as too strict and I had only one rule, "Act right."  The problem is...nobody but me knew what that meant, and even worse depending on my mood it was a moving target.  I still don't have very many rules and the ones I have are all designed to aid learning.  The students and I collaboratively decide how we can BE SAFE, BE LEARNING, and BE LEADERS.   We word the rules simply, clearly, and post them in the front of the classroom.  Students still make impulsive decisions sometimes, but with the rules clearly understood, the class doesn't get angry when someone is renormed.

      Virtually every education guru from Marzano to Hattie will tell you that the teacher-student relationship is the basis of any learning that happens with the walls of a school.  As one principal told me, "Kids will do all sorts of stuff for a teacher they like, they will even learn to divide decimals!"  However, having a great learning relationship goes well beyond a kid simply "liking you."  Students need to have a variety of emotional needs met before the start learning, and the more impacted a student is...the more emotional holes they need filled.  Students have a strong sense of justice, they need to see that everything is fair and transparent in the classroom  They need to hear you make mistakes and admit to making mistakes.  They need to feel safe to be learners.  Students have an unerring ability to tell whether an adult enjoys talking to them.  Kids, especially teenagers want to be able to joke, be sarcastic, and laugh at themselves.  Being a positive model for behavior actually means being positive and happy.  In the atmosphere of the classroom, teachers make the weather and the students magnify and reflect it. 

Positive Atmosphere-
    It is the easiest and most common teaching teaching skill of all to recognize a poor behavior and correct it.  "Tim please raise your hand next time."  "Dan put the chair down."  "Sarah, please get out your work."  There are really only a few student responses to being called out and corrected.  1) The student is embarrassed and corrects his/her behavior.  2) The student is mad and corrects their behavior.  3) The student is not listening and ignores you. 4) The student is listening and chooses not to comply.   Most of these don't  have the positive outcome of encouraging learning, building a relationship, or even getting the task completed.  Much more effective than continuous nagging is recognizing the learning leaders.  "Thank you Sam for writing down the learning goal."  "Thank you Mayra for having your paper ready."  It is shocking how much more quickly the rest of the class will not only comply with the task but be begging for recognition.  "Miss! Miss!  I have my paper out too."  There are so many ways to switch from saying something negative to honoring something positive.  The more teachers do this, the more trust and respect the students feel, and then tighter the community becomes.

    There are very few parent/teacher issues in the beginning of the year.  Every student still has a shining slate with no marks and every parent is still confident that this year will be great.  Grab that time!  Devise several methods of normal communication with parents so they know what is happening in the class.  This will enable parents to be involved in their kids' education and be able to offer support if things get rough.  I am a firm believer in communication overload.  I have a general email list for weekly updates, a text service for announcements, a class facebook page to post funny memes, build excitement, or celebrate work, an open classroom policy, and a class website where parents can get basic questions answered.  As well, I make sure that I reach out to each parent in the first month and give them my email and phone number.  By the time the first conferences roll around, parents already know who I am and what I'm about and we can jump right in to challenging and supporting the students.  

A great learning community takes time and energy to set up, but the payoff is big.  In the years where I didn't do this, I would get to May and be a nervous wreck.  The kids would be feisty and hard to engage, the parents would be frustrated, and I was exhausted from all putting out fires.  With a strong classroom community in place, we learn right up until the last day of school joyously celebrating and enjoying the process.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Leadership- Advise from a Follower

It's the beginning of August and the staff converges on the library eager to see what kind of year it is going to be.  Some of the school leaders will be standing in front of the crowd trying to motivate and inspire.  Others will be sitting in the crowd listening and deciding whether to be motivated and inspired.  Regardless of your "official" role or title in school, all educators can take up the mantle of leadership and use it for good or evil.  

I've done jobs where I had a title of leader, I've taken on leadership roles because I was inspired to, and I've also watched the ship crash and burn because of poor leadership abilities.  I can say without hesitation that good teachers are the most important asset of a school, but good leadership is a close second.  Even great teachers need good leaders to define the vision, paint the big picture, and inspire all to a growth mindset.  

If you are aspiring to be influential to others in education, here are some strategies from a hopeful follower.  

1.  Have a vision.  Vision is the spider web that is going to help me stay connected to others and the big ideas.  I'm going to see it in all of my work and feel connected to the work of the school.  I'm going to understand your job better and have more respect for you when you talk within the vision.  The vision is going to help me step out of my classroom and see the bigger picture.  Once you have a vision, use it constantly, re-spinning it to help me stay on track and involved.  

2. Care about me.  All those books that tell you leadership is about relationships are right!  You have to know who I am and care about me in order to inspire me to grow.  But it isn't just about caring about my feelings.  It is about caring about me as a professional.  What am I interested in professionally?  How can you use that?  What is going on in my classroom?  How could I get better?  Who would be a good fit for me to partner with in the school?  How can you make that happen?  Care about me enough to be the person gently (or not gently) pushing me forward from behind.  

3. Stay involved.  Look, I know your job is important.  I know you are busy from sunup to sun down.  I know you have paperwork on your desk.  Someday soon, we are going to have a party and bring our work to compare.  But until then, as a leader, you need to put the organization in front of that work.  Be in my classroom, be in my meetings, listen to my voice and add jewels of ideas to the end of mine.  Find a way to rise above the minutia of your work to stay involved in my daily practice.  Because minutia tends to try and escape the cage, I would schedule me into your calendar.

4.  Know more than me.  I love my job.  I live my job.  I put instructional books on my Christmas list and shop for office supplies on Saturday.  To inspire me, you need to know something I don't.  So use Twitter and Facebook to connect with others and find out about new ideas.  Know what you  want to see and be explicit about how I can make that happen.  And if, as might happen, you find yourself in a position where you don't know, ask me to be your partner.  I'll be flattered and impressed and then I'll go out and run miles for you.

5. Encourage me to make mistakes.  I'm going to make mistakes.  In fact, I'm probably going to make three before I get to school.  Trust me, I am focusing more on them than you.  If all you see of me is my mistakes, than you will belittle me and push me into the nearest closet.  Instead, be happy I am making mistakes.  Mistakes are the path to learning and changing.  I can do the stuff you told me to do two years ago...making mistakes is a sign I'm trying the stuff you told me to do last month.  Mistakes are like rainbows because they are going to lead me to success.  Congratulate me for making a mistake and help me see what my next step is.  

Being a leader is hard.  You have to be ready to be the stage crew for the performance and then clean up all the equipment later.  But you'll also know that you are a part of every successful performance I give.  Be the leader I need, because I do need you.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Evaluations- Harness the Power!

 When I started teaching, I was observed and evaluated at the most once a year and at the least every four years.  There were only two markings, meeting standards and not meeting standards, and no matter how ineffective a teacher was there were always ways for the principal to mark the teacher as meeting standards. While I did have some principals that put the time in to make me better, mostly because I wasn't great, I also had some that didn't even show up in my class and just asked me to sign the report.  I did become a better teacher during this time, but it had nothing to do with evaluation and feedback, I simply wanted to be better.  This is all changing now.  Rigorous and frequent teacher evaluations are here to stay because every research point out there says that better teachers have better student outcomes.

All of this may be true but that doesn't change some of the other outcomes of teacher evaluations.  They feel bad.  They feel scary.  They put barriers between teachers and principals that hurt relationships. They can vault a teacher into better practice, but they can also push a teacher into a spiraling funk of depression and fear.  Evaluations can offer an outside glimpse of internal practice, but only if the evaluator is well trained and experienced.  And yet, deep reflective feedback is invaluable to helping guide teacher practice.  Parents and communities are demanding a higher amount of accountability in teachers and growth in students.  In other words, regardless of the problems, rigorous evaluation is here to stay.

There are as many systems of evaluations out there as there are school systems and education books, While I'm sure that there is "best practice" somewhere out there in the muck, I'm certainly not qualified to say what it is!    In the system I am in now, I am formally observed three times a year and have multiple opportunities for informal observations as well.  Here are some suggestions on how to use evaluations, regardless of system, personale, or philosophy. 

1. Don't perseverate on feedback being completely fair.  Evaluations will never be completely fair, just like there is no perfect reffing in an NFL game.  Observations are based on perception and grounded in philosophy.  Teachers can spend a lot of time and soul energy by concentrating on aspects that seem unfair, but that won't help anyone.  

2.  Think in terms of deepening.  Maybe you don't agree with a "ranking" or a number, maybe you think that the comments were inaccurate, but stop yourself and say, "OK, I don't need to believe this statement 100% to deepen my practice."

3. Always ask the evaluators for clarification.  The principals and peer evaluators I work with are doing this job to help teachers build understanding   They WANT to help you.  When faced with a statement I'm not sure about, I try to paraphrase and ask a question to make sure I get it.  I'm also never afraid to ask questions like; what would this look like, can you give me an example, do you have any resources you can suggest.  

4.  Before leaving the table, make a list of a few things to concentrate on.  Tape the list to your computer and make that the focus of your lesson planning each day.  Over a couple of months you will start to see that the items on the list are now entrenched in your daily practice.  

5.  Get help from peers.  There are a wealth of strategies and techniques to be learned in your building.  Take one planning period a week and use it to visit different classes.  You may see things you want to steal, you may see things you hate, you may see things you don't understand, but, you will always see things that help you reflect on your own practice.  

There are going to be good and bad systems of teacher evaluation.  There are going to be fair and unfair ways that the evaluations are used.  Teachers can address these through unions or teacher leadership organizations.  However, no matter what the system is, teachers can make the choice to grow through the evaluation process, improving student learning and their own craftsmanship.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Homework- Mistakes and Fixes

An interesting aspect of being a teacher is that you have so many models of teaching in your life to follow and overcome.  Sometimes, I think this is why education is slow to adopt change; we are unconsciously following models from 30 years ago.  No aspect of teaching displays this characteristic more than homework.  Homework is almost synonymous with school.  These days it starts as early as kindergarten and students in middle school can be doing up to 3 hours a night.  Greater pressures on  teachers to have higher achievement combined with more content to teach acerbates the problem as teachers pass the work load to students. 

Interestingly, though, there is very little data that supports homework being successful in raising student achievement. Some of the experimental and philosophical misconceptions about homework can be found in this 2006 article by Alfie Kohn, who wrote The Homework Myth.  I'll leave explaining research to the people that are qualified ;) and instead focus on application in the classroom. 

In the classroom, homework is universally hated by students and quickly becomes a nightmare for teachers as well.  As soon as you give an assignment you now have many questions to answer.
1. What if they don't do it?
2.  What if they do it but don't turn it in?
3.  What if they are absent?
4.  What if they fail because they don't do homework but are clearly understanding content?

One fact becomes clear the moment teachers start discussing homework in the faculty lounge.  To many doing homework = work ethic + time management.  Nothing could be less true.  Work ethic cannot be measured by being forced to do a task you deem as worthless.  No adult would do it!  Adults work hard to do tasks that are important to them.  What if I said to the nearest group of adults, "I'm going to measure your time management skills by asking you to add 3 hours of pretend play to your daily schedule." We might all be better off with more play in our lives, but I doubt they would do it.  (Ironically, creative play has a higher effect size on learning than homework!)

Here are 5 mistakes with homework I have made (Apologies to the Students!):
1.  Giving more homework to make my class look more rigorous.  You will see this often at schools that pride themselves on rigor.
2.  Giving homework in class because I didn't have enough time to teach it (Talk about time management!)
3.  Giving homework passes as a reward for behavior. Why should being well behaved mean you learn less?
4.  Giving homework that I myself haven't done and therefore don't know how long it takes.
5.  Giving homework that students might do wrong.  More chances to practice wrong methods doesn't increase learning.

For the last ten years, I realized that no homework was better than bad homework and have earned my students love and adoration by having a no homework policy.  This might not work for everyone and I am looking for a way to tweak my own practice.

If you want to have homework or home learning as a part of your class, try these 5 fixes.
1.  Don't give zeros.  They are mathematically unfair and create grades that reflect compliance over learning. Also, stay away from rules and systems about late work. Honestly, it isn't worth it.
2.  Give homework that focus students to personally connect with content; either to their lives or to the prior knowledge. These connections will deepen discussions in class.
3.  Make homework optional but IMPORTANT.  That way students aren't punished but rewarded.
4.  Keep it short! I can't focus for more than 10 min in PD after school.  Give them little appetizers for bigger learning in class.
5.  Create homework that is implicitly engaging; an "itchy" question to answer, a discrepant event to explain,  an injustice to think about.  

Give quick meaningful feedback instead of grades.

Your homework today?
Think about homework that was meaningful and important to you as a kid! 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Shared Reading- Doorway to Reading

Today, I went to the third day of training on using Shared Reading in Content Classes.  This amazing training by the ERD people in Jefferson County, CO, was intriguing, thought provoking, and exciting.

The basic concept of Shared Reading is to mimic the effect of reading one on one with a parent.  Clearly, teachers cannot read one on one with every child; however, by using some of these strategies over time, the student can become a more self-sufficient reader.  http://www.eduplace.com/rdg/res/literacy/em_lit4.html

In middle school, where I live, this strategy is used in content areas to extend the student's ability to read a variety of different genres, gathering and processing information. http://www.glencoe.com/sec/teachingtoday/educationupclose.phtml/12  The teacher uses a 3 day strategy to teach the student, not the content of the reading, but how to attack and absorb that type of text. For example, the teacher may be focusing on political cartoons, illustrated texts, data tables, or diagrams.  The three days look like this;
Day 1- Focus lesson on text features and predictions
Day 2- Clarifying, Questioning, Determining Importance, or Visualizing
Day 3- Summarizing, Inferring, or Synthesizing

Without a doubt, not only is the overall strategy effective with students of all ages at building a higher independent reading level, but the individual strategies are also research-based and "wise" practices.  Using Shared Reading in the classroom can develop community experiences that the teacher can reference again and again during the year to aid the students in being able to understand their own content.  These strategies provide the types of scaffolds found in Gradual Release and Reciprocal Teaching that help ELL, Sped, and LD students interact on the same level as other students in the class.  The discussions around how and why an author writes allows students to move forward into creating their own texts using the modeled examples.

While in some aspects I feel like the strategy as applied by my district may be a little too structured, I understand the benefits of that structure in training teachers and beginning practice.  I hope to be able to modify and adapt for my classroom as I gain confidence and skill at this complicated endeavor.  In future posts I will share student work and discussions.

Things to Remember
1.  This strategy is about helping the students learn to read a type of text...not to learn content.
2.  Use focus lessons and modeling so that students can see YOUR thinking about the text.
3.  Make anchor charts that can be brought out again when students use a similar text independently.
4.  Keep the strategy short...this is meant to only take up 10- 15 min of a lesson.
5.  Give students a chance to process and practice through turn and talks, table top blogs, post it chats, and other processing activities.

Give it a shot.  I think you'll like it!