Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Engaging Students

A while back, a parent asked me an important question.  "What kind of active learning opportunities do you provide?"  At the time, my instinct was to feel a little defensive.  My class is pretty fun, but we were covering some somewhat dry content that week.  And I was not on my best game.

Once I got over the perceived insult, I thought a lot about that question.  What are the ways I provide active learning that engages each student?  The discussion broadens when you think about work product - what are we asking students to produce that is engaging and meaningful?

These questions are so important that we must never stop asking them.  But it helps to think about some possible options, some tried and true ways to engage learners purposefully and meaningfully.  Here are a few that have been working for me lately:

Pear Deck - Pear Deck has been my go-to source for fun lessons and formative assessments.  My students even ask "Can we please have a Pear Deck today?"  In essence, Pear Deck allows the presenter to share information -slides, pictures, videos -  and ask questions that require a variety of different responses - numbers, text, drawing.  Teachers can share the responses with the class (which are pretty cool when there are numbers involved) or not, depending on the purpose.  It is a great way to give each student a voice, spark a lively conversation, practice writing skills, clarify thinking - you name it!  Pear Deck sends me weekly emails with data about the number of students engaged each week and the times each student participated.  Last week, I learned that 16 students engaged a total of 299 times - which would not be possible in a traditional classroom set up.

Drama - As the mom of a budding actor, I have grown to appreciate this performing art.  The benefits for the audience are one thing, but the actors themselves learn a great deal about their character and human nature in the process.  As a result, we act things out often.  Not simply confusing chapters in the book (see picture below), but confusing content in science, history and math.  Why did people volunteer to fight in the Civil War?  What does mitosis look like?  How can we find the average of our heights?  These questions require deep understanding, which is nearly impossible to obtain from simply reading the text book or listening in class.  Having students act out difficult concepts allows them to be engaged and invested, which supports their understanding in powerful ways.

Build Things - I am not particularly good with my hands, but nothing gets a class excited about learning quite like the opportunity to create things.  Models, machines, inventions - it really doesn't matter.  Building stimulates thinking, creativity and movement.  Messy, but fun!

Engagement matters.  Students need to participate actively in their own learning if it is to have meaning and value.  Our world requires thinkers and do-ers and the beauty of actively engaging students is that they learn to become both.

Monday, January 26, 2015

What did you learn today?

I don't know if parents still ask this question.  I don't really remember my parents asking me this question, but it is a question - or a form of a question - that I like to contemplate often.

Learning is a big deal, but not always in the ways that we think.  Often, learning is equated to knowledge acquisition, but it is so much more.  While it is true that learning involves skill development, skills and knowledge should, ideally, result in the learner developing a worldview.

That is a pretty big deal, if you think about it.  In learning, we create a lens through which we see everything.

For me, the lens is a positive one. Interestingly enough, this was not always my way.  I used to be more pessimistic and would often react to unexpected things in negative ways.  Learning from my students, I adopted a better worldview.

Each day, students add my my skill base and knowledge, if I take the time to notice and reflect.  They teach me to laugh a lot.  To forgive mistakes.  To embrace mistakes.  To keep trying.  To remember that what worked last year, or even last week, might not work today.  They teach me to plan ahead, but but be willing to ditch the plan if it isn't working.  When I learn from students, I learn to listen more carefully, but to also pay attention to what people aren't saying.   I learn to look more critically and to notice how others are feeling.  All of this knowledge enhances my worldview.  It makes me a better teacher and a better person.

I wonder if students know how much they teach educators. I rather doubt it, but I do hope that all educators are paying attention to the valuable things we can learn from students.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Finding That of God in Everyone

"Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one."
~George Fox, 1656

I teach at a Quaker school.  As you might expect, we admire George Fox.  The above quote is framed in our Meeting House.  I like to read it every day.  It also finds its way into our Mission and Core Values.  
For many, the idea of God is tricky - difficult to discuss publicly and hard for some to accept.  That said, I think Fox is using words that had meaning for him to explain and idea that most humans can accept - each person has something within that is beautiful, unique and unexplainable.  Is that the same as "holy," "divine" or "godly"?  You decide.  But we all have it. 
George Fox was pretty radical.  He was vocal in what he knew to be right, stood up for equality and went to jail a few times.  He reminds me of Dr. Martin Luther King, who's legacy and life we celebrate today, who had different ways to saying the same thing.  "Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness."
Finding that of God in everyone or choosing the light of altruism is easier on some days than others.  When the students work hard, when the faculty collaborates effectively and when we are working towards a common goal, one can see God all over the place.  But most of the time, it seems easier to choose the darkness of destructive selfishness.  Students get in bad moods, they argue with us, they forget their homework.  As teachers, we tend become frustrated by the demands of instruction and assessment or the behaviors of students.  In short, we choose darkness and selfishness and ignore "that of God in others."  All people are unlovable at times.  We hurt each other and ourselves.  We work hard to make it difficult for other to see our unexplainable uniqueness.
Dr. King said, "the time is always right to do what it right."  And he was right.  We all need people to see us for who we are and "answer that of God within."  Especially on the days when we are at our most unlovable.
As teachers, as colleagues, as friends and as humans, we need to make certain that we choose the light of altruism, even when it is difficult and we would rather not.  We must step back and remember that each of us is lovely and beautiful in their own, sometimes unexplainable way.  And it is THAT person to whom we must respond.  Not the one who forgot their homework or skipped out on the meeting.  After all, "love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend."  (George Fox would have capitalized that last word.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Find Your Avocation

"Whatever career you may choose for yourself - doctor, lawyer, teacher - let me propose an avocation to be pursued along with it.  Become a dedicated fighter for civil rights.  Make it a central part of your life.  It will make you a better doctor, a better lawyer, a better teacher."   ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today in class, students blogged about Martin Luther King.  I had promised to blog along with them, but then various duties got in the way.  Several hours later, I'm catching up.

My #reflectiveteacher friends are blogging today about choosing education as a profession.  The two are related, I think, if one reflects on MLK's words.

I cannot imagine another life for myself.  I love school.  Showing up at school makes me feel better.  Almost instantly.  I love to connect with students and hear their stories.  I love to witness their progress.  I love to grapple with ideas along side them.  I love to problem solve.  School is, in many ways, my "happy place."

However, it isn't all sunshine and roses.  My students face real challenges.  Many of them struggle to learn and remember.  Some have been looked down upon by others because of their socio-economic status, their race or their disability.  

As a Quaker school, we embrace equality.  Fighting for civil rights is something we take seriously.  And I believe it does make us a better school.

So would I encourage a young person to pursue a career in education?  Maybe.  If teaching was a passion and they wanted to dedicate themselves to equality, then certainly.  

The beauty of being a teacher is the potential that I witness in all of my students.  I sometimes refer to this as their spark.  Dr. King calls it their avocation.  And, like Dr. King, I always encourage students to find a place in the world that allows them to share their spark every day.  If that place is a school - great!  But if that place is somewhere that inspires them to fight for civil rights every day - even better.

Monday, January 5, 2015

There is no wrong answer

I am inherently optimistic.  Some people, my sister in particular, find this annoying.  I work with teenagers.  Sometimes they are grateful for my rosy outlook and other times they find it hard to swallow.  My own children are both teenagers, so they can be fairly skeptical of my optimism as well.

As an optimist, I like to recruit people to play on the team.  This can be difficult as the aforementioned teenagers don't always want to join.  Sometimes (and this is true for all of us), it is just easier to wallow in the moment of icky feeling or frustration.  I get it, because I have been there.  But I also know that wallowing is rarely a good idea.

In an effort to help someone (student? child? I honestly don't remember) out of a funk, I presented them with some options.  After reviewing the list of possibilities I said, "just choose the best one for you.  There is no wrong answer."  That did the trick and the person in question was able to move beyond the sadness, woe and negative feelings.

Since that time, I have found myself using this phrase often.  A student has something to say in class, but is reluctant to be "wrong" - there is no wrong answer, I assure him.  What ever you have to add, we can use.  The class has to select a task or assignment that is best for them - there is no wrong answer.  Pick the best one and we can make it work.

The message is subtle, but effective.  We have to choose something, because we can't just sit here feeling negative.  Just choose.  Whatever you pick will be right.  It is empowering, but also demands a response.  Safe, but places ownership for the change on the chooser.

Tennyson said to "cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt."  More often than not, that means choosing something.  Anything but sitting there.  Choose.  There is no wrong answer.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Improving Vocabulary Instruction

Vocabulary is a fundamental component of reading and comprehension.  It is, therefore, a barrier for many students, particularly those for whom reading is a struggle.  Or those with auditory processing difficulty.

I love words.  I think about their origins, sort them, find synonyms and examples.  Make up songs about them.  Learn how to spell them.  Think about their parts of speech and how they are used in sentences.  I do these things alone, with my classes and for fun.  

All of these are excellent first steps, but I need to improve.  Here's why:

Often when we get lost in a new word in class it occurs on the spur of the moment.  There are ideas and resources that I lack on the fly.  Surely, I could anticipate these moments better.  Not always, but often enough to make the moment more teachable.

Typically, our discussion is oral.  What about the visual kids?  I need to have more visual input for them - pictures, the word printed, examples.  When all we do is TALK about the word, some kids are missing out.

Finally, I need a repository for all these wonderful words, maps, webs and examples.  Sometimes, I save the Smart File and we can refer to it later, or I can make it a PDF for the students.  But other times, we wrote on the board and it got erased.  Then what?  All of our hard work is gone.  Forever.

My 2015 Instructional Goal is simple - improve my vocabulary instruction.  To that end, I will:

1. Plan more effectively to anticipate the words we need to learn and prepare for discussion.
2. Provide more visual and tactile experiences for the new words and concepts.
3. Collect our words and work in a convenient place that students can access (Google?  Padlet?  Still thinking)...

Keep me accountable and I'll keep you posted...

Thursday, January 1, 2015

This is how we do it!

How do students learn best?  The question has as many answers as their are students.  Each student has her own unique needs, and yet there are a few universals.  When these conditions are present, students are most likely to learn in deep and meaningful ways.  This is how we do it:

Motivation - Students learn best when they have a desire to do so.
Challenge - While the task cannot be too difficult, it must not be too easy, or students will not invest.
Fun - If the environment is lively and energetic, students are more likely to try and engage.
A well designed task - Too vague and they will flounder, too structured and there is nothing for them to figure out.
Food - Students are human and they love to eat.
Input - Students need some say in what and how they will learn.
Acceptance and appreciation - Students need to know that their opinions and ideas have merit and value.
Freedom to make mistakes - Mistakes can be an excellent teacher.  Students need to experience and embrace them.
Slight discomfort - This is really important.  Students cannot be too comfortable, not can they be too uncomfortable, for learning to take place.

When teachers can create classroom environments with most or all of these conditions in place, students are more like to invest in their learning and internalize the outcomes.