Monthly Archives: January 2019

Making a “quarter turn” in your teaching practice: little changes that have huge impact

The year my daughter, Jill, turned 12 she discovered cheesecake.   Jill’s first 12 attempts at baking cheesecake were dismal failures and our family ate our fair share of under-cooked soupy cheesecakes and over-cooked dry cheesecakes and there was the one where she forgot the sugar.  Yet Jill forged ahead undaunted, convinced that the next cheesecake would be the perfect one.  And eventually it was.

All of us have had experiences of trying new skills and recognize that it takes time and patience to develop them.  Except, perhaps in our teaching practice where we are often unwilling to make changes or when we do try something new it doesn’t turn out like  the recipe, we go back to the old and comfortable way of doing things.  I’m not exactly sure what the difference between baking cheesecake and changing teaching practice is but I surmise the following:

  • We are emotionally tied to our practice and it defines us.  We don’t want to fail.
  • We feel that it is not just us, but our students, who will suffer if it doesn’t go well.
  • It feels like we lost time trying something new that didn’t work.

The reality is that our students don’t have access to our day plans and are probably unaware of when a lesson didn’t go as we thought it should.  And, if it isn’t going well and the teacher just stops and does something else (read a story, do jumping jacks, run around the school, play a game, start the homework early), the students will be just fine.

One of the problems with changes in teacher practice is that we often elect to make a 5 course meal, not a cheesecake.  Teachers often try, or administrators and districts suggest, big “blow up your course” changes.  That is hard work and more likely to have a lot of bumps along the way.  Instead I suggest the “quarter turn change”.  What change can you make that is small but that you think might have a huge impact?  What can you do that is just a slight deviation from how you normally do things?  When you make that change what happens with your students?  Does that little change inspire you to make another change?

A teacher I worked with, Karen, taught grade 6.  She wanted to move towards inquiry-based learning in her flight unit but was nervous about leaving something that was tried and true.  So I suggested a “quarter turn”.  She always taught her unit and then at the end culminated with a big “fly off” in the gym with student-made paper airplanes incorporating all the principles of flight.  The “quarter turn” was to start the unit with making a paper airplane.  Throughout the unit, taught the same way as always, students continued to refine their paper airplanes, tryout  modifications and share what they were discovering.  This small change had huge impact in both student engagement and learning.  We still had the big “fly off” at the end but the planes were of a much better quality and there was a great deal more pride in the students’ creations.  Plus, students were much better able to explain why their plane could fly.

A group of junior math teachers wanted to start spiraling their math course but it seemed like an overwhelming task ( TEDx talk). The “quarter turn” was to only spiral for 5 to 15 minutes a day.  We spent a morning exploring some short, fun and engaging activities students could do to increase conceptual understanding and fluency in math.  We played with creating human number lines to explore ordering and comparing numbers, we practiced number talks, we did some work with puzzle pieces on a hundreds board, we played some estimating games, and did activities such as building two digit numbers with only 6 base ten blocks.  Then we made a list of curriculum expectations that could be addressed with these types of short activities repeated many times over the course of the year.  Teachers went back to their math classrooms with a small change but the impact was huge:  students were engaged and loved the activities; teachers were covering curriculum expectations throughout the course of the year which freed more time for their longer units of study during the rest of the math black.

A secondary math team was not ready to dive into learning through problem solving full tilt but decided to start their unit on linear relations with one problem.  They called it their “mentor problem”.  Throughout the rest of the unit, which they taught as they always had, they returned to this “mentor problem” to highlight key concepts.  Students were better able to connect to these key concepts as they returned to their thinking during this one task over and over.  A “quarter turn” changed practice.

A grade eight teacher, Monica,  was intrigued with incorporating mindfulness into her classroom practice but wasn’t willing to “give up” 10 -15 minutes of instructional time a day.  So she made a “quarter turn” in her thinking.  She devoted the 10-15 minutes for one week only  to teaching some mindfulness practices but then turned it back to the students, allowing them the permission and space to take a mindful moment when they needed.  She was thrilled when those students who needed it, took their mindful moments and found that it did not interrupt the flow of her day.  Every few weeks she incorporated a whole class refresher mindfulness session to keep the thinking alive.  She didn’t need to blow up her program; her willingness to make a small adjustment in her own thinking about how to incorporate mindfulness into her program worked.

“Quarter turns” are bigger than “baby steps”.  I dislike that terminology because it is usually in relation to a top down change.  I often hear that a staff or a group of teachers or an individual teacher is making “baby steps” towards a new initiative.  It usually means that nothing of any significance is happening.  A “quarter turn” is teacher driven.

Like learning to make cheesecake, changing our practice and adopting new pedagogical ideas takes courage and time.  We need to give ourselves and the teachers we work with permission to make a “quarter turn”. Think of one small move you could make within your existing program that you think might make a big difference.  Give it a try and see what happens; no one will die and you might be surprised.

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The label isn’t the individual

A colleague, Jason,  has been experimenting with teaching grade 9 applied and academic math in a combined class*.  It has been going well and he has learned a lot.  His goal has been that all students have the opportunity to achieve the expectations of the academic credit but to offer the flexibility to all students to attain whichever credit they earn.  It is not a matter of teaching the academic course and then just “granting” the applied level credit for those students who are unsuccessful.  Expectations for each pathway are tracked and students earn the credit they earn.

All the ins and outs of how Jason organizes his course are beyond the scope of this blogpost (and I’d be happy to introduce anyone who is interested).  As Jason was presenting his findings to a group of administrators the other day, he made a comment that has stuck with me.  This is his second semester with the combined class and while reflecting upon his experience he said, “I don’t even think of the students as applied or academic any more.”  This wasn’t part of his slide presentation.  I don’t even know if he remembers saying it.  But I do.

How do labels we use to describe students affect our expectations and perceptions of them?  I wonder if the students in Jason’s class also now feel like students and don’t classify themselves as “academic” or “applied”.

I have been working very hard lately to avoid saying things like “applied kids” or “autistic kid” or “IEP kids”.  Even though I have always tried to see each individual student’s strengths, I have begun to wonder if the label I casually apply, more for expediency than anything else, actually does mean that I tend to group students with a label under an umbrella of similar traits.

My journey started, as many do, on a personal level.  I was sitting in a system level meeting of administrators and the presenter was talking about how difficult “applied kids” were last period on Friday afternoons.  At the time my son was taking applied level credits.  I was surprised at the force of my reaction to that simple statement – one that I had probably said myself on occasion.  That was my kid someone was generalizing about and I didn’t like it; I didn’t like it one bit.  Yet I know that had I asked the presenter if he felt that all students in applied level courses misbehaved on Friday afternoons he would have said, “Of course not.”

We all do it.  We take some experiences and generalize.  In math, we want this very ability to generalize the pattern or the rule.  But in dealing with people, students included, the labels and generalizations are detrimental.  They cloud our judgements and our ability to really see each student as an individual.  As soon as we put students under a label, consciously or subconsciously, we begin to assign the perceived attributes of that group to them.

I read a lot of Individual Education Plans.  Often they don’t sound very individual.  Part of this has to do with the format and sheer number of them (another blog post to be written).  But perhaps some of it has to do with our belief that once under the IEP label, all students are sort of the same and therefore we should respond similarly.

So, I have been catching myself in my language.  Although it is more words to say, I try now to talk about a student who is taking an applied level course or a student who falls on the autism spectrum or a student who has an IEP.  I challenge my thoughts to see to what extent I might be presuming that all these students share similar characteristics.  It is hard work.  I catch myself a lot.  But I think it is worth the effort.

Back to Jason’s math class.  The student who got the highest mark in his class, and achieved the expectations of the academic credit, was originally enrolled in the applied level course.  The label isn’t the individual.

*In Ontario when students hit grade 9 they choose either the applied or academic pathway.  Other jurisdictions may refer to them as college/workplace vs university  prep courses.

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Self-regulation does not mean being good when you are bored

When I am in a meeting (and I go to lots and lots of meetings) and there are challenges to solve, or the speaker is entertaining and has something to say that I am interested in, and when I get opportunities to talk about what I am learning, I am totally engaged.  I don’t check my email.  I don’t text my friends.  I don’t secretly hope my secretary will call with an emergency.  I don’t drink lots of coffee so that I have to visit the restroom.  On occasion I have to remind myself to listen to others when I am excited about the topic and be patient with others who may have a different viewpoint. My level of engagement and my ability to attend, though, is more about the content and structure of the meeting and my social and emotional skills are secondary.

Now, when I go to a meeting that is not engaging it is a different story altogether.  At first I try to be attentive but soon my attention wanders.  I  look around.  I check my phone.  I read my email. I even do my email if it won’t look too rude.  I play with anything I can find to fiddle with.  I get up and get more coffee.  I frequent the restroom. If you watched me you might think I have very poor self-regulation skills.

Self-regulation does not mean being good when you are bored.  Grit, perseverance and resilience are not skills that you develop in environments that are not conducive to obtaining them.  I worry that we are jumping on the bandwagon of teaching students skills they seem to be lacking before we examine whether the classroom environment we create may be a contributing factor.

Lest teachers feel I am picking on them, administrators tend to do the same thing.  We often look at our staff meetings and see that no one is participating or attentive and think, “Those teachers just don’t care.”  But perhaps they are not engaged.  Teachers care.

But this is difficult to do because it means we need to examine our own teaching and facilitation practices.  And when you are leading or teaching, you are usually engaged.  It is hard to step out of our own shoes and look at it from the participant’s perspective.  We are deeply tied to our work emotionally and therefore it is extremely difficult to examine our own practices.  So we often tend to blame the lack of engagement or poor behaviour on the participants.  I know as a beginning teacher my go-to response to a bad day was to change the seating plan.

Do kids need to learn to manage their emotions appropriately?  For sure.  Do teachers need to teach and support students to develop self-regulation?  Absolutely.  Is it worthwhile creating norms for adult working groups?  Yes.  But don’t jump to blame the participants for not using those skills when things don’t go as you wish.  Check and make sure that the lesson or the meeting was the very best ever. Seven year olds aren’t going to sit quietly if they have been on the carpet for a long time.  Fourteen year olds aren’t going to ignore their phones and friends if you have been lecturing for more than 15 minutes.  Adults are not going to engage in professional development if it is not relevant and interesting.    Sometimes I hear “Well, everything in life isn’t fun and kids need to learn to behave in those situations.”  Really?  The job of school is to train kids to be bored?  Workplace meetings need to be boring?  I don’t think so.

As educators we know more about how people learn and how to engage others in learning than most.   We have an obligation to ensure that happens every lesson, every meeting, every day.

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Filed under classroom environment, classroom management, student behaviour, Uncategorized