Change. That one word evokes so many different emotions. Why? Because those six letters have an incredible magnitude. Over the past four years, I have been both fascinated and frustrated with the change process. I have read many research articles on topics such as Implementation Science. I have read many books describing different change theories. And I have had numerous discussions with many bright minds on all things "change". My conclusion is...change is difficult. Large change is extremely difficult. But so what? Does that mean we just don't make the effort? Most days, I feel like it isn't worth it because in the end, there is little, if any movement. BUT I also know that if we are not trying to solve the problem, we are just contributing to it. So...WE can do hard things, because we need to. Our kids are counting on us.
In a recent post: "Stop The Insanity", I wrote about a math lesson that I observed. This could have been any lesson in any classroom. Things need to change. But how? I have thought long and hard on this and here are some of my thoughts. I am going to use Math as my example, but insert any educational idea for clarity.
Start with a Mindset shift: This is so incredibly difficult, changing minds...but I believe if this step isn't conquered, the rest will not be sustained. Our wold, our students, our future are continually changing at a rapid rate. Education, instruction and classrooms must change with it. How can it not? But for some, it hasn't. I go to my former schools for Back To School Night and Open House and they are not much different from when I went to school. I have been through 13 years of school with my own children and have seen worksheets that are dated from when I did them as a student. I have witnessed frustration to complete endless problems that are not understood. Why do we need to change? Because everything else has.
I believe that in order to change mindset, we must create urgency. The urgency is our future and our students' futures. They don't need rote memorization skills, they don't need copy notes off the board skills. They need the skills that will help them to be adaptable and agile in the real world because that world is yet unknown. They need to be critical thinkers, creative problem solvers who aren't afraid of risk taking and persevere through many iterations.
Under mindset, I believe there are three ideas we need to consider:
1)The Myth of Average: In Todd Rose's TedX Talk, he pleads the case that there is no "average" student, so we need to change the way we teach. He talks about "designing to the edges" to meet the needs of our diverse learners. I have written about this idea here. Because of this, we can no longer teach one way. We can not "shoot down the middle". We can not say we did a "reteach" by just redoing the exact same lesson. We must meet the students where they are. To do this, we must take the time to first know them. Then we must be equipped with a large tool belt of strategies and ideas to pull from, to meet them.
The unfortunate part is that I don't think many educators have had the opportunities to add many tools. Maya Angelou said "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, you do better." When I was in the classroom, I never visited other rooms, I didn't see others teach, so how could I do better? Luckily, I had an instructional coach come in to my room to do a two day math lesson...and she changed me. She demonstrated how to ask questions to elicit thinking in my students. She showed me how to pose problems to get them talking and struggling in math. But had I not had that one experience, I very well could have been teaching the same way I was taught. Luckily now, with so many resources at our fingertips, we no longer need to be on an island. Teachers can learn and collaborate at any time, any where. But beyond that, we need to create opportunities for them to see others, collaborate and grow their toolkit.
2) Change the tasks: We need to be looking at what the students are doing through out their day. Not what the teacher is doing, the students. Are they being passive learners, "listening" to the teacher or are they digging in and doing the work? One of the easiest checks I use when creating experiences for students is the 4 Cs. Are they critically thinking, communicating, collaborating, creating? If not, we need to change the task. Another idea is that less is more. Specifically in math...we need to have students dig deeper, not wider. I used to have my students spend a whole math period working through one problem. Why? More bang for their buck. The conversations, thinking and understanding about math were far more complex with that one problem, than if I would have had them spend the time doing 30 of the same problem. The difference? The task. Students were given "low floor, high ceiling" problems. They were open ended tasks that all students could access (low floor) but could take it as far as they are able (high ceiling) and stretch beyond, with scaffolds. They were asked to first think on their own and then with a group. There was productive struggle which leads to deeper learning. But it didn't end there. There was always discussion. Not lecture, not me showing them how...discussion on how they solved the problem. They did the talking, they did the teaching, they did the learning. And the proof was in the pudding. My students (at a Title 1 school) always hit it out of the park on the standardized math tests. Why? Because they had an understanding and had the ability and stamina to think and work through the problems.
3) Honor and celebrate divergent thinking: Just like there is no average student, there is no longer "one way" to solve a problem. This is uncomfortable as the teacher, as I have lived it. But it isn't about us, it's about them and the pay off is tremendous! We need to allow, encourage and celebrate different ideas in the classroom. We need to be the "activator" in the classroom, we are not the one with all the answers. To do this, we must offer open ended tasks where students feel safe to discuss their ideas. One tactic I used, that left the students empowered was I was just the scribe. When students shared their ideas, I simply wrote it out in real time. I then named it ("Brian's Way") and we talked about "Brian's Way". By the end of the Math Talk, there were multiple students' "Ways" charted to be hung up in the classroom. This not only empowered the student that shared the idea, but it also gave the rest of the class ideas in which to hold on to and build.
These are just some preliminary thoughts that I often share in different settings, but decided it was time to write them out. Will these ideas change the world? Probably not. Will they change our students? Absolutely. And those students can change our world.
Here we are, Thanksgiving 2017... The holidays can be a time of joy, family, fun, stress and for some, sadness and loneliness. The holidays seem to amplify every emotion we have bubbling under the surface. I spent a lot of time yesterday doing something different. I decided to send "Gratitude Messages" to some important people in my life. I did this not only to help lift others up, but to help lift myself up as well.
Many years ago, I heard Oprah speak about a "Gratitude Journal" that she kept. She wrote in it every day. Throughout the day, she would jot things in that journal. Sometimes they were big things, but often times, they were the little things. One of her examples was being grateful for waking up. That is something that we often take for granted, but we probably shouldn't. Her reason? When you go through the day, looking for things to be grateful for, it changes your day and it changes you. I loved this idea, so I started my own. I will be honest that it has a lot on the first few pages and it has been blank for the past few years. This doesn't mean that there were not things to be grateful for, I just didn't write them down. BUT, from that first day forth...I do set an intent to go through the day looking for those "bright spots" no matter how big or how small...it really does change you.
Another interesting thing...this morning, I went back and re-read my blog post from last Thanksgiving (this is something I rarely do), I don't even remember writing it. In it, I decided to reflect on things in my life that I was thankful for...this one below, stuck out today:
"My experiences: We are all shaped by our experiences, it is what we choose to do with those experiences that make the difference. We can choose to either repeat or change those stories for others. I choose to help create a new narrative. Through my experiences, I have learned how much people need to feel valued and appreciated. We are all doing the best we can, at the time, with what we have...and often times, we feel it isn't enough. So I have made a conscious effort to always...always let people know that they are important and valued. I try my best to show appreciation and let them know about all the good that they are doing. This is completely authentic and sincere, and I hope that is how it comes across. I have also learned how important it is to support and help others grow. I try to find that "thing" in everyone and foster and grow that."
I still believe this. That is why I sent those "Gratitude Messages" yesterday. But here is the thing. Thanksgiving is not the only day that I send those, for those exact reasons I wrote about last year. I often, randomly let people know that they are valued and appreciated. For most people, they don't seem to know what to do with me when I send them. I usually send a "warning" message first that things are about to get #mushy :). But why? Why are people uncomfortable with words of gratitude? Is it because it is not the norm? Is it because they don't believe it? I always hesitate before I say or send them, because I don't want to put people off...but I believe that people need to hear about their good. There is enough negative chatter both inside and outside of our own heads, we need a different narrative. So this is why I do it...and here is the thing...it is completely authentic. I am not one to blow smoke, I don't say things that I don't believe.
So here is my call to action: Don't wait until this specific holiday to look for and appreciate what you are grateful for. Let those in your life know that they matter. You friends, family, colleagues and most importantly, your students. We all want to know we are valued and cared about...let's not leave people wondering. Make everyday a Thanksgiving.
This week was one of those weeks...you know the one where frustration and doubt are front and center? Where you let those negative thoughts consume you, detour you, get you down. This is when I am so thankful to have people in my corner who not only support me, but keep me straight.
I started spinning on something that had nothing to do with me and I had no control over, yet I spiraled in to "I'm done...I can't make a difference...why even try?". I started questioning my purpose, whether I was better off when I was in my four walls, oblivious to what was happening outside...when I was small and quiet.
That is when I got the text "Ignore the chatter, focus on the mission". But I had to ask the question back "What IS my mission?" The response was "Changing school". Well there it is, can't argue with that one. The next question was, how do I do that? I have very limited control or power to create change. In which I was hit with...
Truth...in my face! Time to pick myself up...stop whining and fight. We all have a megaphone, how do we choose to use it? We must use our platforms to create a difference...for the better. My megaphone reach may not be far or wide, but that doesn't matter. As long as it is used for good.
I believe I personally have four platforms:
Within each of those, I always weave through the same ideas, questions and themes. These are the things that I am passionate about, so they can't help but come through. Anyone that has read any of these blogs, exchanged tweets or words with me, should know my purpose. And my friend hit is on the nose: Change school. Our kids deserve better! Everything I do, falls under that umbrella.
It is interesting as I have found, especially this week, that I am not alone in feeling uncertain of my path, of my purpose. That same night, I found myself telling someone else "You are needed...you are blazing a much needed path for others to follow. Suit up, stand up and fight passionately for your purpose.". I have said before that I am my own "Worst Advocate" as I can easily encourage others to do the things that I need others to encourage me.
So here is my call to action: Find your megaphone and use it! Everyone has one...how can you use it to evoke positive change? What is your purpose, your passion? Pursue that, share that and know that you ALWAYS have the power to make a difference. YOU are needed! Use your voice. Use that megaphone for good!
One of my fondest memories as a kid was "Family Game Night". Every time I think about this, I am reminded of one particular game and one particular night. One of my favorite games to play was "Pictionary". My dad had only two shapes in his drawing tool kit-a square or an oval. On this evening, he drew his oval and then pointed to it. We shouted out answer ideas. He continued to point. We continued with more answers. Now the pointing got faster. We just couldn't get it, so he tried a different strategy. He drew a twin oval and pointed. As the time began to run out, the pointing got more frantic and filled with frustration. We just couldn't figure it out. Time was up. A baked potato! Geez, how could we not have figured it out? (insert sarcasm here). This became a huge source of laughter because of the ridiculousness of it all. How did he expect us to change our understanding...our answers, if his delivery did not change? Pointing more frequently and frantically did not change the fact that we had no idea what he was drawing.
Fast forward to a math class. The teacher has pulled a small group of students that "needed help", to the front white board. She stood in front of them, students sitting at her feet, workbooks on laps. She explained how to do a math problem (I don't even remember what it was). She talked and the students listened. She then told them that they aren't "getting it" so she was going to show them again. So she did..., the exact same way. She again told them that they weren't "getting it" and this time showed them the same way again, but a little louder and more aggressive. This went on and on for a good 20 minutes while the rest of the class who "got it", was supposed to be doing their workbook pages. Well, they weren't, they didn't understand the problems that lay before them, either. So they just talked to each other, about everything besides the math.
This teacher was obviously annoyed at the students for not understanding the concept. This was very apparent as an observer, so I know it was very apparent to the students. I did not find this humorous like the baked potato scenario. I felt extremely uncomfortable and sad. I was not there to evaluate, judge or give feedback, so all I could do was leave. I couldn't take it anymore. My heart was broken...it was broken for those students and the many others who have had similar experiences with other teachers, at other schools, in other grades.
"Louder and slower" does not equal learning, it does not equal teaching and it does not equal differentiation. If students are struggling, it is on us, the adults, to do something differently. We can't blame the students. Try a different strategy, ask a different question, get the students talking and doing. Use what you see and hear to decide what triage needs to happen.
My friend David Culberhouse always talks about the idea that our students need to be agile and adaptive to best be ready for the future. I believe we, as teachers need to be this way too. We need to be flexible and armed with multiple tools and strategies to meet our students where they are. The only way to do this is to know them, understand them and work for them.
In the above scenario, a few small tweeks could have made the difference. Instead of standing in front of the students, the teacher could have been sitting with them. This tiny shift would lower the students' affective filter and because of the proximity to the students, the teacher could get a grasp of the students' thinking. Another small change is not talk at the students, but involve them in the learning. Pose questions and give them time to think and struggle. When there is cognitive dissonance, the learning and stickiness increases. We need to allow the time and space for this. We don't need to fill every space with our own voices. We need to hear their voices. Rather than empty workbooks on laps, why not white boards so every student can be showing visible thinking? Instead of showing steps of an algorithm, pose an open ended question and let students figure out a way that makes sense to them. Then let them share with their peers. One idea can spark another and another...The students need to be at the center of everything we do, they need to be the ones talking and working.
Our students deserve better than us pointing at the same oval, expecting a different answer. They deserve to be seen, heard and understood. They need to be considered. Plain and simple. When we can do this, we can reach them. It is also important to note that as Todd Rose states in "The Myth Of Average" there is no average student. We must design to the edges. We must be cognizant of who our students are, their strengths, weaknesses and learning styles. What works for one, may not work for another. We need to adapt that oval drawing so that each and every student we serve, can identify that baked potato. We can't expect students to have a different understanding if we don't teach in different ways. In fact, isn't that the definition of insanity?
My call to action is to rethink what we are doing to kids. Let's work for them and with them. We are in a service business, after all.
"What does a typical day look like?", "What would your plan book typically look like for the week?"
These are questions that I have been asked multiple times over the years, more so now, than ever. I really struggle to come up with an answer. There is what I want to say and there is what I should say. Here in lies the struggle...the limbo.
Let me rewind a bit. When I began my position four years ago, there was a shift away from the boxed curriculum because the old stuff was not aligned with the new standards. YES! For me, this was exciting...I was blessed that my past administrators ditched the textbooks before it was cool. Seriously. They led by "meet students where they are, by whatever means necessary". At first, this was scary...where was my safety net if I didn't follow the book? Where do my lessons come from? How do I know what my students are learning? But I quickly learned that the best way to get students to learn, was to first know the students. I knew my students. Because of this, I was able to tailor their learning to best meet their needs.
This meant that I didn't keep a neat plan book. I had objectives, goals for the students and activities and strategies to get them there. But my lessons flowed with THEM. I used my understanding of where they were, their needs and where they needed to go, to guide the learning. This did not mean that I did not work, that I did not plan, that I came in unprepared. In fact, it meant the opposite. It meant that I needed to be armed with a very large arsenal of ideas, strategies, protocols and materials in which to draw upon at any given moment. I learned to enjoy not having net. I appreciated the autonomy to be able to reach my kids without the worry of being compliant, fidelitous or race to finish a textbook.
How did this work for me? That really doesn't matter...what matters is, how did this work for my students? Well, it worked out incredibly. My students left my room feeling like confident critical thinkers and creators. They left feeling like readers, writers, mathematicians and scientists. They left having deep understanding of how and why things worked. They left with their heads held high. I don't believe this would have happened had I followed the teacher's manual and cranked out worksheets. Like my friend Jon Corippo says "Has anyone ever congratulated you for finishing the textbook?" I sure hope not.
Fast forward to the present, we are at a time when new curriculum has been purchased. Teachers are now in limbo...how do they keep doing the awesome things they created when they didn't have to follow a curriculum AND also fit in this new box? You don't. You create experiences for the students that sit before you. You use the resources you have and you meet those in which you serve, right where they are...then you move them forward.
So my response to those questions about "typical" days and weeks is now this: I can not answer what a typical day looks like because there is no such thing. My students are different than your students and your students are different than her students hers are different than his. In fact, they are all different from each other. Thank goodness for this! Can you imagine if they were all the same? So, we need to shift our focus away from curriculum and move it to the students. What works for one student in my class, may not work for one in yours or it just might...so let's have those conversations and share. There is no "typical" student, there is no "typical" classroom there is no "typical" day. And I believe there is no "typical" teacher. To me, this is beautiful!
If the curriculum states that we do certain activities on each day and the goal is to test the students on Friday, we need to really think about our purpose. What happens if our students are not on "track"? What if they are struggling with concepts on Tuesday and Wednesday...does it make sense to just plow through to officially show them what they don't know on a test on Friday?
So my call to action is this...let us rethink our purpose in education. Is it to finish the book or is it to help our students to become learners? I understand that the way I am proposing, is a more difficult path for us as the teacher...we need to work harder to create, collaborate, collect ideas-but who are we in this for? We chose this profession to help students, let's not lose focus on that. It's about the kids...always about the kids.
Pernille Ripp reminded me of this quote from my friends Tony Sinanis and Joe Sanfelippo at Fall CUE.
"The Problem: We set schools up for adults, not for kids."
Let's flip the switch on this. It's for the kids!
Mother, teacher, TOSA, GCE Level 1 & 2, Encourager of others.
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