Monthly Archives: April 2016

Classroom cultures that support, not just teach, social skills and well-being

While we know that we are responsible for the 3Rs and other curriculum stuff, we also know that teachers have a role to play in shaping students as they grow into healthy and competent adults.  I met with a woman this week who is interested in developing a program for schools that teaches kids about skills such as growth mindset, autonomy, resiliency, autonomy, kindness, empathy, persistence, etc.  I liked her ideas but it did make me think how do we actually go about doing those things in schools?  After all, over the years there have been a number of “programs”.  There have been posters and puppets and film clips and blackline masters.

It is important that teachers know the skills we want kids to develop, but I am not convinced that they learn them from a course or a binder of lesson plans.  Sometimes when a school adopts a particular program it is useful to have a common language, but if that is all there is, it doesn’t change much.  What does work?  I suspect that when you are able to shape the teaching in the school to support the development of the skills is when you get the greatness traction.  What types of things do we do and how might they help students to develop these important life skills?

When we have multiple opportunities for students to try things in our classrooms without being graded, without needing to get it “right” the first time, and with our trust that they will figure it out, I think that we help them to develop growth mindset, resiliency and persistence.  For example, they know in Maker Space that it is not about getting the project to be done, or to be the best, that is important, but understanding the science behind the mistakes that is important.  They know in problem solving in math that students will solve the problem in a variety of different ways.  They know that they may be asked to share their answer that is incorrect, and that is ok.  They know that we will give them immediate feedback on their writing so that they can improve it BEFORE it is graded.  When we listen to student groups and do not take the lead, or participate as an equal, or make a small suggestion and walk away, we are saying “I trust you to figure this out”.

Empathy, kindness, and autonomy (being in charge of yourself) are also developed in our classrooms.  When our students recognize that different kids get different supports it helps them to develop empathy.  When we have them read novels with strong characters or complex issues, they develop kindness and empathy.  When we allow them to make choices that are good for them in their work, they develop autonomy.  When they have opportunities to redo and retry they develop grit and persistence; they get to know themselves as learners.  When they see us treating students with kindness, respect and understanding, even when that student is struggling, they learn about kindness, respect and understanding.

I do not think that students develop all of these social and well-being skills through lessons alone.  An anchor chart on growth mindset will not ensure growth mindset if the classroom environment doesn’t support it.  A lesson on empathy won’t have any impact when students don’t see their teachers showing empathy and understanding.  But when we purposefully shape our classroom instruction and environment so that students have many, many opportunities over the year to experience the effects of these skills, and we, at times, name them and celebrate them, then I do think that students learn them.

Programs may guide us and help us to know the skills but the program alone won’t make the difference we want it to.  Students will always be learning social skills and personal skills in the context of the classroom.  We can choose which ones we want to develop by how we shape the instruction in our classroom:  a room that is about competition, compliance, completion and grades or a classroom that supports problem-solving, multiple attempts, and challenge.  A school of rigid and unbending rules or a school where staff model inclusiveness, empathy, understanding and kindness.  It may be worthwhile thinking about how we do this in a planned and purposeful way.

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What’s the hardest thing a teacher does?

I have always said that assessment is one of the hardest things a teacher does, and I still think that.  But a conversation with one of my teachers this week made me wonder if maybe something else teachers do is even harder.

Maybe the hardest thing a teacher does is self-assessment.  Their own self-assessment and self-reflection on their practice.  Maybe the hardest thing a teacher does is to be willing to look at their practice, decide it needs changing , and do the hard and messy work of changing how they teach.

I know this is a hard thing for teachers to do, because lots of times teachers don’t.  But I don’t think teachers don’t change because they are lazy or uninterested.  In fact, I almost never meet teachers who don’t truly care about their practice.  Most do.  However, change is scary.  For teachers, a change in practice is also intertwined with a fear of losing classroom control (who doesn’t have the scary teacher nightmare in August?).  Probably the way that the school system implements change doesn’t help either.  One shot workshops don’t work because when a teacher goes back and tries out the new idea, it probably doesn’t work very well at first.  But, there is no support.  The workshop is over.  Or, there is an implication, delivered by the principal or board staff, that this new idea is it, we will all do it, we will all get it right, and that’s that.  Again, there is little support, little deep understanding of the change, and, therefore,  little buy in.

Teachers change their practice when certain conditions are in place, at the school level, that give teachers the support to make changes.  Here are a few things that have worked in my schools to help create cultural changes that last:

  • “Try something new; no one will die”.  I say this often to my teachers.  They made me a sign that hangs on the wall.  We have to support teachers with new ideas by allowing them ample time to muck about and try things.  They need to know that it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work.  They need to know that as they are trying out new ideas they will be learning, too, not just their students.  They will be reflecting and changing and assessing as they go.  Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to have it all figured out before you start.  Just start trying it and see.  You may have to change your rubric.  You may end up changing what your learning goal was.  You may not get to all your lessons.  You may change direction half way through.  That’s ok so long as you are reflecting about your new idea in light of what are students learning and able to do.  Your students won’t die and everyone will learn something.  Next time you will teach it better.
  • Teachers need to believe that teaching is the coolest thing they do.  Most teachers went into teaching believing this.  When a culture in the school is established that reinforces this “coolness” factor, there is renewed energy in the building.  The easiest way for that to happen is for everyone to think that I, the principal, thinks that, too.  I have conversations all the time with my teachers about teaching.  I talk about what they are doing; I talk about what one teacher is doing to another; I talk about things I’ve seen; I talk about ideas I’ve heard about; I talk about books I’ve read; when I go into classrooms, I talk with kids about their work or I teach.  No one in the building doubts that I think teaching is really a very cool thing to do.
  • Teachers work in teams.  We always work together–in subjects, in grades, in cross subject teams.  Teachers who teach similar things are in classrooms that are next to each other.  Budget decisions are made in teams.  The work of learning about teaching is done in teams.  But, the work is rarely about planning the same thing together.  Teachers do plan together but it is not mandated.  Learning together is mandated but how you teach your class is left up to individual teacher style and professional judgement.  Almost all my teachers teach similarly but I have never told them they have to.  What has been the same is the deep conversations and learning we have done about pedagogy, assessment, teaching practice and student work.  We never have PD by compliance.
  • You need to have and build capacity in the building, and I have to be part of that.  We are all learning to be better together.  We read books, watch video clips, work with consultants and Learning Support Teachers.  We learn from each other.  We consult.  While I have lots of expertise in curriculum, I don’t have it all.  And when I don’t, it isn’t a big deal.  In front of the teachers, I pull out a book where I think we might get some better information.  There are definitely better ways of teaching, and not so good ways of teaching.  There is a lot of research out there to point you in the right direction.  Everyone at my school, me included, knows that we are heading towards the research-based ideas.  We aren’t taking “baby steps”–we are diving in (me, too).  But, if we don’t get it right, well, no one will die and we will figure it out next time.
  • Start with little things you know will work.  When you can offer teachers little ideas that you know will work, and the freedom to try them without fear or evaluation, then it is easy.  Teachers change their practice because it works for the students in their classroom not because the principal is coming to visit or check.  For example, the prescribed posting of learning goals and success criteria in classrooms across the world has not changed practice as we might have hoped.  Why?  The posting alone doesn’t automatically change what happens with kids so it isn’t exciting or fun or cool.  A teacher can post learning goals and success criteria and students can stay the same.  What does make a difference is that the posting means that students are more confident in the learning, and that in order to post, the teacher has done the deep work of being planned and purposeful.  But the posting alone doesn’t ensure those things. But, when teachers find something that does engage their students or helps them to learn better, well, that’s exciting.  So, then teacher practice changes.

We need to recognize that changing one’s own practice is really, really hard.  Teaching is a personal profession.  Teachers want to do a good job and feel successful.  A class of 30 disengaged or unruly students can make you feel pretty unsuccessful pretty quickly.  So, without the right conditions in place, teachers are reluctant to change.  But, when teachers have ownership, the freedom to experiment, someone interested in what they are doing, and the support of colleagues and administration, then it is much easier to give it a try–no one will die.

 

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A Day in the Life of a Student at Your School

A group of teachers was talking the other day about the pros and cons of prep periods at the end of the day.  There was talk about having to be “on” for 4 periods and how exhausting that was.  There was some talk about whether it was harder to teach kids at the end of the day.  And then there was a comment, “If we feel wiped after 4 hours in a row of school, imagine how the kids feel.”  It reminded me of an article I had read where a teacher had followed two kids for two days of high school and done everything the kids had done.  The full article is here: https://goo.gl/utB7iA.

The author, a high school teacher herself, made some interesting discoveries:

  1. Sitting all day long is boring and exhausting.  The author was astounded at how tiring it was to just sit.  As teachers we forget that we stand, sit, kneel, and walk around as we teach.  Mostly the kids sit.  I know that when I go to an all-day PD session, even if I get to change workshops every hour, it can be exhausting.
  2. She found that for 90% of the day students were passively receiving information or regurgitating information: listening to the teacher or other students present, or writing a test.
  3. She felt like she was a bit of a nuisance. By the end of the day the teacher felt that she’d been nagged at all day long.  Even though she personally never got “in trouble” she felt that all day long students were being told to line up, be quiet, get to work, listen carefully and so on.  As well, she heard a fair amount of “sarcasm and snark”.  Interestingly she reflected that as a teacher she probably did the same.

It might be worth thinking about what a day in the life of a student at your school would be like.  I know as a teacher, I was usually engaged. But I was organizing my time, and I tended to love my job.  The author of the article reflected that after her experience she wished she had done things in her classroom differently.  Here are some things that might help to make the time fly at school for kids:

  • Keep teacher talking to a minimum. I usually suggest no more than 7 minutes.  It seems short but it is doable.  Plus, you will feel guilty at 15 minutes which is probably the maximum.  Also, think about student presentations, particularly in the upper grades. What about having students present to small groups?  What about a few presentations over a shorter period of time?  What about kids doing their presentation to a smaller group and video taping it through an ipad so that you can watch it later since you won’t get to them all?
  • Collaboration and working in groups.  When I go to a conference I like to hear others’ opinions.  I also find that when I talk about what I am hearing I consolidate it more readily.  Humans are social by nature.  Sometimes we spend so much time telling kids to be quiet; maybe it would be easier, and more engaging, to give them rich problems to discuss. If I had to be quiet all day long, and work on my own, I think I’d be antsy and tempted to talk (or text) to my friend.
  • Teachers can incorporate a stretch, a quick dance video, a run around the school, some jumping jacks just to get blood moving if they find that there is a pervasive sleepiness in the classroom.  Although we worry about using up “content” time, perhaps 50 minutes of good work is better than 60 minutes of so-so work.
  • Are the tasks you give the kids engaging?  Worksheets are not.  Challenges and problems are engaging.  Try doing the activities you give the kids.  Is it engaging?  Is it fun?  Did you have to really think to do it?  Did you have a real sense of accomplishment when it was done?
  • We all know that a little bit of humour goes a long way. However, I do know that in my practice, particularly by the end of the day, or when I was frustrated, or my head hurt, or my shoes pinched, I could be sarcastic and nagging. The reality is that most kids are not misbehaving yet they probably heard my response to the few.  And I was just one teacher of 5 or 6 they had in a day. Or, in the days when I taught primary, I was the only teacher they had for the day-even when I was having a bad day.

I hope, at our school, that the author would have a more positive experience walking in the shoes of our students.  But, still I wonder.  Is there more we could be doing?  Do we need to rethink the type of furniture we have in classrooms?  Do we need to build in more movement?  Are we reflecting enough on the activities we know are engaging and trying to replicate those?  I don’t believe that going to school should be the equivalent of a birthday party.  But, it should be engaging.  Maybe you should ask your students:  does time fly while you are at school?  When I am engaged, that is what happens.  Usually time flies for me at school and especially when I’m teaching.  The time should fly for both us and the kids.  We are in charge of the time.

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Ten ways to get kids talking so that you aren’t

  • SEVEN MINUTES. If you are talking to your students for more than 7 minutes then you are probably talking too long. Plus, no one is listening any more.
  • Turn and talk. Use this far more than you use question and answer with just a few students answering.
  • Identify the table group that is going to answer the question instead of one student. Someone from group 6 give me the answer…group 4 you are on deck if they need help. (I stole this from Raegan).
  • Ask the question and have table groups discuss it. Ask one student (wearing green, with the longest hair, whose birthday is closest to summer etc.) to put their hand up when the table has an answer.
  • Ask a question. Invite students who agree to stand on one side of the room and students who disagree to stand on the other. Have the groups list their arguments.
  • Ask a question. Invite students who agree to stand on one side of the room and students who disagree to stand on the other. Pair students from the agree side with the disagree side and have them discuss the issue.
  • Ask a question. Ask students to form an opinion line with completely agree at one end and completely disagree at the other end. Have students talk to the people around them about why they chose to stand where they are.  Ask some students to share.  Invite students to change where they are in the line.
  • Little whiteboards. If you are doing a review, have all students answer questions on individual whiteboards not just some students who put up their hands. Not only is everyone answering but you get a quick idea about who knows what.
  • Ask a question. Ask students who think yes to stand and students who think no to sit on their desks. Everyone has to move so everyone has to commit to an answer.
  • Don’t take up work. If the work the students have done is easy to mark, then put up the correct answers and have them mark their own. Never have them mark another student’s work.  It gets it done fast.  If you want to ensure that kids really understand why their answer is wrong, have students pair up and compare answers.  If their answers are the same, assume it is correct (chances are slim that two students would have the same wrong answer).  If their answers are different then they should chat until they agree.  If you need to know how they answered, then you have to mark it.

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