Sunday, March 4, 2018

The "L-Word" Challenge

This time of year is rough. A lot of us are in the middle of a long stretch of time with no break in sight. We've been at school for a month with no break. And we have another month to go. That's hard, y'all. Plus the spring semester is just so busy, and we know the summer is in sight, but not before we have our end of year tests. The pressure's mounting, and we all feel it. Things that we may have been handling all year now seem so "touchy." A comment we hear from a student all year long suddenly frustrates us beyond measure. I've been there, and I'm sure you have too.

During this time period and other stressful times for that matter, we tend to be a bit blameless and a bit more careless with our thoughts and opinions. This is most often when the "L-Word" rears its ugly head.

"I can't believe these research papers. They are terrible. Why are students so lazy these days?"

"Another Friday, another 12 students who did not turn in their work this week. How do we combat such laziness?"

And the worst... an actual classroom accusation:

"There is no excuse for lazy in this room. You don't have to like it, but you have to do it, so let's get to it."

We throw the "L-Word" around like it means nothing. But it does. If you were, as an adult, called lazy in your job, how would you feel about it? Incensed? Disheartened? Defeated? All of the above, possibly? Being called lazy is not an uplifting experience for anyone, but it's especially detrimental if it is used to describe a child in a classroom who doesn't necessarily have the capacity to use it in a motivational way. So today, I'm issuing a challenge for us all. Let's outlaw the "L-Word" in our schools.

Before I continue, let me say that I am just as guilty of using this in the past as anyone. I also completely understand the need to vent about frustrations that happen with our students and our jobs. But even when we feel we are only casually voicing our frustrations, our comments cannot be unspoken, and we may be delivering more of a message about ourselves as educators than about our students.

Instead of questioning why our students aren't working to their potential, what if we ask ourselves a few questions:

-Are we sure what we are asking is reasonable for our students' current entry points?
-Are we wielding grades as weapons for motivation, or using them to communicate to students where they are and where they are headed?
-What are the possible reasons (besides what we perceive) as to why our students aren't meeting their expectations?
-What have we done to show students the importance and relevance of what they are doing?
-What have we done to show our students how important they and their learning are to us teachers?

If the answers to these don't come easily, then we may need to reassess our approach. We may be creating the circumstances that we are labeling as lethargic. No student wants to be lazy. Even if they call themselves that, they don't mean it. (Think about a time where you've called yourself that in jest. It happens.) Students generally are not as apathetic as we deem them to be. If we haven't reached them, there's more we can try, but we don't get to assume things about their work ethic based on our past experiences. We are inadvertently perpetuating the problem, and that's not fair to them or us.

So back to my challenge.  Can you help me ban the "L-Word" in education? Can we work together to eradicate it from our conversations? From our classrooms? From our school culture?

Friday, December 15, 2017

How productive is your struggle?

   I spent some time today in a classroom working on math with a small group of students.  Math can feel tough for some people (and if it is you've probably heard them say so).  And we didn't even really get started before I noticed the visible frustration on the kids' faces.  Heads were down on the table, they were fussing with each other about silly little things that normally wouldn't bother them much, and they just started trying to copy what I was doing.

   At one point, after one too many frustrated sighs, I had to call a time out.  And we started talking about their frustration.  I talked to them about a conference I attended this summer, which was specifically a math conference, where I learned more about the concept of a productive struggle.  (I should note at this point that these students barely knew me, so you can imagine the looks I received when I started this.). You ever have it happen where you feel like you have "known" something for a long time but also didn't "know" it?  This was me with this productive struggle concept.  I can be particularly tenacious about succeeding in some ways, but I can also waver quite a bit in my resolve with others, depending on all kinds of factors.  In other words, I approach problems in the way that most people approach them; I try until I either figure it out or am done trying.

   Because math has felt easy for me most of the time (except for TRIG... yikes) it has been quite a journey as a teacher over the years.  I think it must be human nature that it's really hard to understand why others don't like what you like.  It's like you have to struggle with it too at first to really feel the frustration or anxiety or whatever emotion.  And honestly it was not as easy for me to work towards empathy rather than sympathy as I would want everyone else to imagine.  And it is work--you have to try, repeatedly, to put yourself in the shoes of others on a consistent basis.  It takes intent and patience.  I had to learn it the hard way for sure.

   So I'm talking to these teenage boys about frustrations and why the process of working through something so difficult is still so important.  Some look at me with no expression (though I can imagine what some of their thoughts were at the time), while others nod, perhaps in agreement, perhaps to get me to leave them alone so they can just finish copying what I'm doing.  We talk and then get back to work.  And there's this one student who has scowled quite a bit through this process, and he chose this moment to voice the source of that scowl.  "This isn't what Ms. Teacher said to do.  I just don't understand this.  I don't get it," in a tone that suggested he was at a fairly high level of stress by this point.

   Earlier in my career I would have let this be the time where I gave him some space to calm down some, not pushing the angst any higher, and honestly probably giving myself an out in the process.  I can see it now, "I mean I don't want to make him feel any worse.  We'll just try again another time *maybe*".  I would have done exactly what this student, who routinely experiences this emotion, wants me to do.

   Or does he?  Does he really and truly want me to just ignore his frustration and leave it be?  I guess it's possible.  But I really doubt it.  He doesn't want to feel this way about math.  He doesn't want to have a struggle that causes him to lash out instead of feel proud.  He probably expected me to ignore it, and wouldn't have been surprised if I did.  But I didn't.  I said, "okay, let's talk about it.  Let's start over and you help me get through this problem."  And I asked questions to him, and I made a point to tune out the others who were eager to try and make a guess or interject.  I asked him what he thought, what happens next, how do we fix that...  and then he answers me, puts his head in his hands, and says "uhhh I'm so dumb!"

   Now it seems like he was saying it because he struggled so much, but actually he had just realized that he did know how to do it.  He knew how to solve this equation, and he had protested its difficulty so much that he felt silly about it now.  And that's what I told him.  "You obviously aren't dumb, and you shouldn't feel that way.  You let your frustration from before cloud your head.  It felt like you couldn't do it, so you shut it out."  And he nodded in assent.  And then this kid, who sat stone-faced for the first two problems, helped me solve the last two.

   I'm not rolling out the teacher of the year carpet here y'all.  This isn't one of those movies where I work diligently to get the kids on my side and everything comes up roses.  These boys still struggle with math, and they perhaps will continue to for a while.  But I was honest with them and tried to help them see the positive of these challenging experiences, and I feel that honesty may help this student not jump to a self-deprecation so quickly next time.  I'm also not so naive as to think this one instance has changed his course or made him a believer in his math abilities.  He did get two more problems correct though than he would have otherwise, so it didn't hurt either.

    I just read this amazing blog post by Josh Parker, an instructional coach and teacher.  You can find it here.  Part of the awesomeness is that he used quotes from a great book, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, but the best thing about this post is that you can feel yourself in the position of this teacher and the interaction with this student.  It can be so hard to feel your lesson is sliding off the rails, or you have a student that isn't appreciating your effort, and not trying to either.  And the thought of determining the cause of this student's actions runs through your head, but pursuing it seems too difficult to try at this point.  We absolutely need to try anyway.

   We spend a large portion of our day with students who are struggling with some aspect of what we are doing, and that's our job.  I wonder, though, if we couldn't help alleviate what feels like that "burden" by getting students more involved in the process?  If we can get students to recognize the importance of how they approach their problems (all their problems, not just math) and how they prioritize the procedure for solving them, in what ways would that change the look and feel of our learning environments?  Could we have more students feel less frustration during instruction and instead look at the fertility of their effort?  I'd like to think so.  I don't know that it would be a sudden, magical transformation but if we all had a moment or two each day with our students like I had in math, it seems like some pretty hefty changes could occur, and maybe we would all feel a little more productive in our struggles.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

So Meta

   Real talk: I love my job of helping educators, but I have really really enjoyed some classroom time as of late.  Teachers have been so welcoming of new ideas and have invited me in to model them, so I've been lucky enough to work with students on all kinds of activities, from Math Talks to #booksnaps to even video recording.

   I've always tried to model a "kind transparency" with my students.  If there are strengths or weaknesses, I share them both, but in a way to encourage perseverance, not excuse a lack of effort.  And over the years, I've realized that honesty with students is not only important for your relationship with them, but it's also really beneficial for their own agency.  Somewhere along the way, we as a society formed a pretty solid assumption that students know the importance of their actions without our help, and they can adequately monitor their decisions and thinking without our assistance.  And yea, some of us grew up and were able to pick up what we needed to know through the observation of our family, teachers and other adults.  But it also seems evident that some didn't receive the same opportunities and counsel.  Bottom line is that we cannot wish into our students the importance of knowledge and thought towards their futures.  We have to walk the talk so that they hopefully will too.

    Students don't want to feel foolish or unprepared, and more often than not, they aren't as apathetic as they'd like us to believe either.  So if you show them ways to be better, and encourage that potential, they will respond.  There's a word spreading all over the middle school where I work: metacognition.  I've brought it up in almost every class I've visited, disguising it initially as a way to impress their parents with a large, multisyllabic word.  We talk about the importance of thinking about your thinking.  I show them ways that they didn't even realize they were already using metacognition.  I provide a *very* basic explanation of what the process of metacognition does for your brain, which usually gets me some intrigued but kind of skeptical facial expressions.  (I totally understand their skepticism though; I mean how often does it work that you get physical benefit from essentially doing what you normally do naturally?  It's like losing weight by sleeping just because you roll around and breathe.)  

   After we talk about it we usually do something fun.  If you haven't done a Math Talk before or don't even know what it is, check this book out.  It is still something that I did not do with enough fidelity in my classroom, but any chance for a student to practice explaining their thinking, right or wrong, is productive time.  Plus there are variations of the process you can do that could work in all subject areas, because the goal is just to get kids to consider their processes for thinking and solving problems.  In some language arts classes we have worked on #booksnaps as a way for students to reflect on the effects of reading on their thinking and emotions.  If you want to learn more about it, check out this post by Tara Martin, the teacher that started it all.  
   Several years ago the expression "so meta" rose to popularity for a year or two.  I personally can't say it without thinking of That's So Raven (which I didn't even watch--I know, it's weird).  Anyway, it was one of those colloquial phrases that come and go, and when you look it up online today there's still no real agreement on a specific definition.  I never really used it, but I remember hearing it a few times, and at each instance it sounded like it was describing a moment that was "next level cool" or an experience that was relevant or influential on multiple levels.  That was my unofficial definition.  Anyway, this expression has popped up in my head a few times in the last couple months because of the continued use of the word metacognition by myself and others.  I've honestly had to stop myself from trying to "reintroduce" the phrase to the general public.

But I finally get why it was a thing.  There is something so cool about seeing a truly impactful idea or practice take root and grow.  It is absolutely amazing to be able to ask a group of 6th graders what metacognition means and have them immediately answer you, or watch students get excited about reading reflections when they used to outwardly groan.  It is "so meta" to hear students talk about how they realized that voicing their metacognition helps them get better ways to solve problems.  Imagine the "meta" of hearing a learner tell another that the answer isn't as important as the process.  When I think back on those metacognition exercises (see what I did there?), I can't help but feel excited about the places our kids are going.  And I hope that we can continue to help them on their journey too.  That would be "so meta."

Friday, October 27, 2017

What's in a grade?

At my previous school, we started talking about grading a long time ago--several years in fact.  So I guess I have been pondering the idea and necessity of grades for a bit.  To be honest, I was still undecided throughout that debate.  I held a solid anti-process grades position, but past that, I honestly didn't know how I felt about it.  Grades have seemed kind subjective to me as a teacher, though as a student I was obsessed with them.  I mean when I say obsessed I mean I cried when I got my first (of three) Bs in school.  Ridiculous, right?  But that number was so important to me.  And in retrospect, all I can think of is "why?"  At the time it felt that it was my measure of success.

Funny thing is, my success in high school did not transfer over in the same way to college.  Only three Bs in college would have been astonishing.  The set up was different, the rigor was substantial (as it should be), and it was just plain hard.  And I wasn't prepared, not really, even with all my prior success.

Over the summer I read Shift This by Joy Kirr, which I've mentioned several times before.  One of the most memorable chapters in the book was on grading, because it helped me solidify my stance.  Basically, with Joy's help, I realized that numeric grades are completely arbitrary.  What do they even mean?  For some they signify several processes completed successfully mixed with a couple assessments here or there.  For others they may be a quotient of correct responses to available questions that may be related strongly or weakly to curriculum standards.

The point is, the numbers provided aren't standardized in any way, so how can we use that to compare two students in two schools who have received the same grade?

We can't.  We have been and are continuing to use this model, but when we think about it, though it "works," it really doesn't.  Not for everyone.  And our flawed assumption that successful people will just fall in line with our grading arrangement has kept some incredibly bright and gifted people from reaching potentials beyond what we can imagine.  I wonder how many people got Cs and thought they were just ordinary, and so when some inspiration struck them, they just dismissed it because, what could they do about it?

I understand that it's an incredibly hard idea to just stop using numeric grades.  Not only would it involve a ton of new changes that would take planning, preparation and adjustment, but it also has us go against everything we've ever thought about grading in schools.  It's not an easy discussion or decision.  Even those who agree with me on numeric grades disagree with me on how we would implement something more meaningful.  But just because it is hard doesn't mean it's not worth an attempt, or at least a conversation.

When talking to others about this, I've gotten a lot of different protests.  One that comes up repeatedly is what happens to those high school students who use grades to determine class rank, grade point average, and scholarship potential if we do away with numeric grades?  Without those numbers, how can students prove their success or potential worth to universities?  It's another genuinely good question, and it makes me think again back to my experience as a successful high school senior.  What did those numbers provide me?  It helped me get into UNC Chapel Hill, which is awesome.  It did not help me get a vast amount of financial aid, even though I applied for many merit-based scholarships.  It made me feel good because I could do well and get those high numbers.  But looking back on it I feel like in spite of those benefits from numeric grades, I could have shown my worth to my teachers and universities in other ways that didn't require that type of system.  And I also feel like if that system had changed, others may have been able to show their potential too.

To me it boils down to this... numeric grades are not as helpful and necessary as we (myself included) have always felt they are.  What's better?  Not sure yet, but I do know that we don't need to be afraid of the possibility of something that could be better.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


I had a conversation with a teacher this past week, who experienced a fairly sad epiphany.  This teacher is a truly wonderful and compassionate educator.  She had started working with some developing readers (developing is the word I like to use to replace "struggling"--thank you Donalyn Miller), and she was overwhelmed with what she saw in this small group.  Once she was able to narrow her focus to one student, she really saw the extent of their difficulty, and it really made an impact on her.

If you have never worked with developing readers in a small group or one-on-one situation in your class as an educator, you really, really need to at least once.  We often make assumptions about our students when they come to us, and we do not frequently enough actually seek to know if those assumptions are correct.  Primarily we believe that our students, for the most part, have come to us with a base knowledge built on from their previous years, so they are ready for our content and instruction.

We know that some students may have "gaps" or "holes," which are basically little pockets of content that they may have missed for some reason or another along the way.  And we often can tell which students that we see daily that really experience some significant difficulties, though we don't really know the depth of it.  It's time to strap on some scuba gear though, because we can't continue to make assumptions that are routinely false.

Now I know that teachers have a bazillion things to do, and already don't have enough time to do it in.  So we prioritize based on how we can reach "the most" students, and do our best to help the others in some way, usually by calling in another professional to assist with the ones who need the most help.  We tell ourselves things like "there's just not enough time" or "there will still be a plan for them to be successful in high school," or my least favorite phrase--"they are just going to be passed on anyway."  I absolutely understand that, and have even uttered those phrases myself before.  But saying those things doesn't absolve us from doing everything we can for our students.  Reading is important.  It is the most important.  The ability to read, or lack thereof, can make an extraordinary difference in a child's life and future, and then in their own children's future.  It's not just a skillset.  It's a measure of confidence and real-world savvy.  And hopefully, for most, it's a pleasure.  So when you cannot read at a level comparable to those around you, it can be tough.

Have you ever tried to do something that was new or difficult for you, and when you finished you were just so tired?  I recently taught myself how to type some code into google sheets to get the cells to do things I wanted them to do.  It took a while, and when I finished my eyes and brain and self were just so tired.  We expend so much mental energy learning about challenging or unfamiliar things that we are often unusually fatigued, maybe even exhausted.

We need to think about this idea in terms of students who are developing readers.  If you are unable to read words with more than one syllable, how do you get through a day where you are expected to know and understand a host of them?  If I, as an intelligent, grown educator, get fatigued by reading things when I can actually read them, how does a thirteen-year-old feel who reads on an approximate second grade level?  They are frustrated, exhausted, drained, dog-tired, and not nearly as successful as they, or we, want them to be.

So here are my pleas:

1) Take some time and listen to one of your students read aloud, especially if they are a developing reader.  It is more than worth the time it takes out of your class.  You may even find a way to help them understand your content better.

2) Remember that your developing readers have more obstacles on the path towards comprehension than others, and an entire day fighting what they struggle with is hard.  If you get frustrated in class trying to help them, imagine how they feel.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Rally Caps

So I didn't learn about the concept of a rally cap until I was at least in college, maybe even later.  I understood what rallying behind someone meant, so I kind of understood the central point, but when I saw the baseball players turn their hats inside out and backwards, I was more than a little confused.

Once I figured it out (or was told about it by either my friend Stuart or my husband, can't remember who), I started using the phrase frequently.  I think sometimes it feels more appropriate to talk about rallying from behind rather than "never giving up."  Because sometimes, honestly, we do give up a bit.  Not altogether, hands in the air and bounce, but we tell ourselves that we will get back to that "tomorrow," which often turns into next month, or sometimes, never.  We'd all love to be the one who says they don't have to rally, but we'd also be lying to ourselves.

Teachers, I feel like, experience more trouble with losing steam and having to rally than most.  We get extended breaks from work in between school years and we rest, recuperate and dream of what we are going to do next.  We get so excited about books we've read and changes we want to make.  Some of us even daydream about a period in our "new" classes and all the magical learning that is taking place in our heads.  And we start school with a work-adrenaline that helps us ride high through the first weeks of school, in blissful ignorance of the same old responsibilities that are slowly mounting.

Then it happens.  Our shiny new strategy or activity looks duller.  We can't plan for the next one because of the meetings or paperwork, or other school functions that demand our attention.  We say we'll definitely get back to it because we think it's important.  Then we move its priority down a little bit in our list for the other things we don't enjoy as much.   And there's that week of chaos, of altered school schedules, or a particular class of students who are struggling to get through the content quickly enough.  so so tired.

The inner struggle is real.  The lull that happens in your innovative instruction is real.  Your frustration with your job and all the things you want to do but can't is real.  But it doesn't have to derail your mission. Just put on your rally cap.

Rally caps help you acknowledge that you are slipping some, that things aren't going exactly like you feel like they should be in your room.  Usually it's because of the myriad of things you have employed in your room that the time in the day doesn't allow for.  But the thing I think is important about rally caps is that they show your willingness and drive to come back from being down.  It's one thing to say "woe is me, my class isn't working the way I want it to," but it's quite another to say, "it's not okay right now, but it's going to be."  It reminds me of a conversation many of us in my district had this past Friday about teacher agency.  You are the one in your room with the power to make the changes needed to see your vision come to fruition.  So it's up to you to decide when it's rally time.

Once the cap is firmly in place, backwards and inside out, it's time to prioritize somethings.  Look at all the things you have going on in class, and the reasons why you do them.  Look at the things that conflict and how you can h
elp them conflict less.  Look for how you can decrease the frequency of things you do so that you can continue to do them all, if their "why" is important enough for you.  Look for things that may need to happen now  so your days can flow more smoothly later.  It's okay to invest time early on in something that will make life easier as you go.

The biggest thing about rally caps though, I think, is that it's a reminder, both for others and for yourself, that you aren't giving up.  What you're fighting for is too important to lose heart over or to quit.  So don't let the lack of time, or pressure of other responsibilities take you away from why you're doing it.  It's time to rally like the Cleveland Indians* in 2001, so let's get to it.

*Yes I had to look that up.  In 2001, Cleveland came back from a 12 run deficit to beat Seattle 15-14 in 11 innings.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Turn and face the strange... ch ch changes

    Over the last year or two, I really stepped up my game in professional development attendance.  I wanted to get involved more in the process of change, because I had felt for a long time that some changes were necessary for our students to start experiencing more successes.  And in all the sessions I've attended on changing our vision of education, all the conversations with like-minded or semi-like-minded individuals, I often don't hear one point that I feel is pivotal--control.

    It is a fact that life is never certain.  It feels especially unpredictable right now, which causes us as humans to desire something concrete and tangible, something stable.  For teachers, it is most definitely their classroom.  No matter what is happening around the world, or what we or our students may be facing once they leave our building, when they are with us, we run the show and provide their education.  We need that structure.  And we tell ourselves that our students need that structure too.  They come from all kinds of situations, some of which are absolutely heartbreaking or tumultuous, and so they need the constancy of coming into our class and following a routine.

   And there is something to be said about students--children--needing structure.  We know that helps when they are learning how to interact socially with peers or understand the demands in a learning environment.  A routine can be helpful for them all through their years in education and beyond.  And goodness knows it helps us as well, because, real talk, "adulting" is hard y'all.  So it's totally understandable that teachers would want to ensure a solid and somewhat rigid framework is involved in their educational practice.  Even if you don't agree with the way education has been in the past, it is hard to compel yourself to change, when the underpinnings of the system were established for what we felt like was the good of the kids.

   The thing is, it is possible to do a great many more student-centered things in your classroom while maintaining organization for your kids.  We don't have to view student choice and classroom structure as mutually exclusive.  Students can feel safe and secure in your room, even if it sometimes feels noisy and disheveled.  But coming to this realization and accepting it is tough because it feels so backwards from what we are used to.  It's always difficult to change a mindset.  Something emotionally, mentally, or physically demanding often precedes a massive shift.  Many times, though, even through the struggle, we feel some sort of fulfillment with our new outlook.

     But you know what?  Not one of us has time for a huge, daunting, possibly terrifying change of ethos.  We have too many students, too many meetings, too much paperwork.  In homage to Elaine on Seinfeld, we "haven't a square to spare" of our time on something like student choice, especially when we as educators know our content better than students.  I mean, they're children, amiright?

    They are just kids, but I swear they are some smart and creative cookies.  They are resilient, funny, and full of initiative to make things around them better and brighter.  They want to make positive change, and any assumption to the contrary is our fault.  To be honest, I think we need to be more like them in some ways.  And we as teachers, definitely, at the very least, need to give them a chance to show us their capability.

   When we talk about students needing structure, we really just mean that they need clear instructions, goals, and parameters.  We do not have to be the "all-brilliant giver of knowledge."  Frankly we could ask them just about any question under the sun and they could get an answer for us.  (Their resourcefulness and access to knowledge via technology is downright impressive.)  So why not help them harness that talent, and do so in a way that does not make us feel like we are losing all authority of our classroom?

   You can experiment with all types of student-centered and student-driven learning ideas.  Project based learning, Genius Hour, self-monitoring, interest-based learning, there are so many ways to go.  But there is one checklist-type question that should be addressed with every one: do you have in place expectations for your classroom that are consistently adhered to by all, yourself included?  If you have clear procedures in your room that are continuously monitored, then the activities types don't really matter, because you students will value those expectations just like you do.

   Now I am not preaching here.  It is incredibly hard to relinquish freedom to students.  We are filled with "what ifs" about it.  What if it turns into chaos?  What if the lesson or project goes wrong?  What if my colleagues get upset with noise levels?  What if parents complain?  What if my Principal comes in and sees what he/she thinks is chaos?  The truth is those are real, though unlikely, possibilities.  Even if they did, though, a change like this is in the best interest of students.  You are making them better learners, better people, and that's an argument that no one could refute.

  I really don't know if I've made a case for you or not.  I hope I have given you enough reassurance to try something.  It is truly an amazing thing watching a student take charge of some aspect of their learning.  Their pride fills me with pride.  Education is not a bed of roses, but it's worth it for moments like that.