Category Archives: school culture

Five Equity Moves

My daughter has a significant reading disability.  As a parent I found it difficult to imagine how hard school was for her since it had always come easily to me.  As teachers I think it is often difficult for us to imagine the lived experience of some of our students.  Most of us got into teaching because we liked learning and school.  We want to recreate our great experiences with learning for our students.  But it is difficult to recreate that exact experience when we don’t recognize that our students may be experiencing school differently than we did.   The equity question becomes how do I create that great learning experience for all students, not just the ones who learn like I did?

The problem is big.  And the more I learn the bigger it becomes.  However daunting the problem of equity in our schools is, there are four small moves (and one big one) teachers can make that begin to address the issue.

  1. Think about how you partner students.  My other daughter, who loved school and underlined all her titles in red, twice, used to come home sighing that she was partners with “Tyler” once again.  I wonder how Tyler felt.  What did the rest of the class notice, about both my daughter, and “Tyler”?  When we let students choose their partners you can watch the social power dynamics in the classroom right away.  There are the few students whom everyone clamours to partner with.   Students surround them, pleaing to be chosen.  There are the students who are never picked.  But if you visibly randomize how you group students it is an equity move.  What you are saying to your students is that everyone matters and everyone can be partners with everyone else.  On top of that, there is research to show that it works.
  2. Think about who gets to work with you at the guided learning table.  It is easy to always pull the same group of kids to work with you.  You want to strategically choose who works with you, and some students will need more support than others.  But that certainly sends a message to the whole class.  I worked with a teacher once who created an atmosphere in her class whereby it was “cool” to work with the teacher.  She often started the class working with a specific group, which she tried to change up regularly.  But then as seats at the table became available, other students would come to their table with their questions.  No longer was the guided learning table seen as the place for the “dumb” kids; needing help was for everyone.  Allowing all students access to work with you is an equity move.
  3. Think about open ended tasks.  Time and time again I have seen students who are working at a lower grade level sitting off to the side with a booklet of worksheets. These students are definitely not feeling part of the group although the booklet was created with the best of teacher intentions.  When we have a variety of leveled texts or when the math question is open-ended with multiple entry points or when the science experiment can be recorded in a different ways or when you can choose volleyball or beach volleyball or ping pong, we allow all students to participate at their own entry level.  When all students are part of the class, it is an equity move.
  4. Think about how you have students respond.  How often do you ask questions and have students raise their hands to respond?  Every time you choose one student to respond over another, someone  feels left out.  “The teacher never picks me…” and even if that is not true, that is how it feels.  Students will make up their own reasons as to why that is.  And what about the students who just aren’t raising their hand?  How do they feel?  You don’t have to give up the practice entirely but it is worth adding other strategies to your repertoire.  Turn and talk gives all students a chance to think about the question and participate in learning.  In number talks when students have the answer they put their thumb up by their chest.  This is a much more private gesture which does not stop other students from continuing to think because they see hands waving in the air.  Providing students with little white boards so that all students answer and hold up their boards is another one.  When all of your students are participating in answering the questions and doing the thinking, it is an equity move.
  5. Think about high expectations – really think about it.  We all bring preconceived ideas to our practice, even when we think we don’t.  When I think back to some of the students I have had over the years, I wonder if I really had high expectations for them or if I quickly categorized them into a group in my head and unintentionally lowered my standards.  It is hard to examine our own biases but they often get in the way of high expectations.  When we know a student belongs to a particular socio-economic group, or has a learning disability,  do we have certain expectations, even if we think we don’t?  So, although having high expectations for all is a phrase we throw about, I think it is harder to realize than we believe.  When we truly believe in high expectations for all students, and we teach in ways that allow students to access those high expectations, then it is an equity move.

 

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Who is sitting on the edge of your learning organization?

Ever been to a party and even though you were invited you didn’t feel welcome? Or, perhaps you were invited to the party but you did’t really know everyone?  Or perhaps it was a sporting event and you didn’t feel like you had the skill level everyone else did? Or maybe you’ve been to a party that wasn’t well hosted and there were long periods of uncomfortable silence?  And  in these situations did you quietly move off to the edges of the gathering, not feeling like one of the gang?

It is the same thing in a learning organization at a school. Teachers who are seen to be resisters are often relegated to sitting on the edge.  “Don’t water the rocks” is a common phrase.  Administrators and superintendents who may feel that they don’t have sufficient curriculum knowledge to lead put themselves on the edge of the learning.  Even central staff like consultants and coaches are often pushed away as they are seen as threatening; in such cases there is probably not a lot of learning going on and no one wants anyone else to know.

But in a true learning organization everyone is  simply assumed to be “part of the gang”.  Not only is everyone invited to join in but they are welcomed in, at their own starting point.  The excitement of the learning carries everyone along.    Schools as learning organizations is a term that is bandied about frequently in education but often seems to be a moving target.  Everyone knows that is what we are striving for but how do you get there?   I certainly don’t have all the answers but I do know it happens when everyone attached to the building feels like “one of the gang”.

This came to light the other day in a meeting with a school administration, consultants and coaches attached to the school, system staff and the superintendent.  This particular school (low SES, low standardized scores, high needs) is becoming a learning organization.  What was remarkable during this meeting?

  • Everyone at the table could talk knowledgeably about the school.  Everyone had specific examples to share.
  • Both administrators clearly participated in the staff learning.  Again, they could speak to specific examples of teacher learning and changes in student participation.
  • The principal said that the system consultants were seen as part of the staff at the school level.  It was not an “event” that they were in the building.
  • The superintendent was as equally involved in the conversations as everyone else.  He clearly saw himself as “one of the gang”.
  • No one at the table had all the answers but everyone believed there were solutions.
  • Monitoring and data were part of the conversation but it was not a meeting about data.
  • There was a feeling of good will and excitement around the table.  Things were happening and everyone was involved.

I meet with this group frequently.  Although this feeling of “togetherness” has grown, it has not taken long.  Often we hear that a learning organization takes time to develop; that the hard work of forming working relationships needs to be done before the culture can change.  I don’t think so.  Relationships grow fastest in a culture that honours the work, sets a purpose and creates a sense of “we are all in this together”.  Relationships grow as a result of the shared work.

People tend to pay attention to the things that their supervisor is interested in.  In schools, students pay attention to what their teacher values.  We see this all the time; if the teacher values putting up your hand, students put up their hand; if the teacher values reading, the students love reading; and the list goes on.  Teachers are similar.  When their administrators value learning and are interested in their teaching practice, teachers also value it.  And when superintendents lean into the nitty gritty specific work of a school and show interest, principals pay attention.  This was what had happened at this particular school and some others with which I work.

But in many schools, with the same levels of system support available to them, there is not a feeling of togetherness.   There is a feeling of good intentions and a desire to create a learning organization but it is just beyond grasp.  Consultants and coaches are invited but not necessarily welcomed and sit on the edge.  The administration cites the business of running the school as a barrier to learning.  They sit on the edge.  Some teachers on staff are identified as “resisters”.  They sit on the edge.  The superintendent does not participate fully in the conversation, sitting on the edge.  When you have so many who are not part of the gang, there is not a learning organization.

So the administrators and the superintendent need to become part of the gang, not just the facilitator of the group.  They need to pay attention to the learning, be excited about it, ask questions.  But most importantly they need to feel like they are “part of the gang”.  And this is hard because often those in the highest supervisory positions may feel they don’t have the specific curriculum knowledge to engage in the conversation.  But those who take a learner’s stance, who ask questions, who are truly engaged in the conversation, who read the professional literature, who try to make connections between ideas – they are part of the learning organization, part of the gang.

So, who sits on the edges of your learning organization? Your learning organization might be your class, your division, your school, your area or your whole system. In any learning organization, it will only be successful when everyone joins in whether it is students in your class or teachers on your staff or schools in your system.  It is hard work to create an organization where everyone belongs; not everyone is going to jump in with two feet and it is easier to dismiss them as disinterested or unable.  But learning is about the what ifs and when you do create a learning organization, it really is just so much fun – like a good party.

What are the intentional and specific moves that you can make to invite everyone to the party, to feel part of the gang?  What are the definitive actions that you can take so that you feel like part of the gang?  Because if you feel like part of the gang, everyone else will want to join, too.  Don’t leave anyone sitting on the edges.

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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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Filed under Differentiation, school culture, student behaviour

Hook your students into learning from the first day of school

Which day of the year will you have all eyes on you?  The keenest students? The least amount of student misbehaviour?  The first day of school.  So, try thinking about how you can capitalize on that to engage your students in the deep thinking and exciting work you want them to do.  Often we think, as teachers, that we have to set down all the expectations on the first day of school or the rest of the year will be chaos.  You do have to live and model your expectations, but I’m not sure you need to talk about them.  Maybe that class agreement is something to save until later in the first week.  By then, I suspect your students will have already figured out your expectations and the activity will go a lot faster.

Let’s think about the first day of school from a student’s point of view.  They are excited to be back and meet their new teacher and see their friends.  they are excited to use their new and shiny pencil crayons.  They actually WANT to do some work.  But frequently it is a day of “sit and get”: one teacher after another going over the rules and expectations.  Really, our rules aren’t any different than last year’s rules.  And most rules are self-evident.  We don’t really need to talk a lot about keeping your locker tidy since I doubt any of our students would think that our expectation was to do otherwise (although they may act that way over the course of the year!).

In some schools/classrooms, there is a feeling that we need to ease students into school with a week of fun activities.  I don’t think so.  First of all, they just had 10 weeks of fun activities or camps.  Second, if you describe your first week as “fun”, then by default you are saying that real school is not “fun”.  You may want to have a few team building activities, but I would urge you to have them be within the context of curriculum.

Why not have that first interaction with your students be challenging? Be engaging?  Be creative?  Set the tone for how learning will take place in your classroom.  Pose a question, get them creating or writing or exploring or problem-solving.  Hook your students in right away.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Read aloud the best short story you know, or the first chapter of the read aloud.
  • Introduce writer’s workshop with idea generation activities so that they are itching to start writing.  You could even start writing. Do a quick write about what you didn’t do this summer, or the best small moment, or what you wished you had done.
  • Introduce a complex but open ended problem such as “How could you measure a puddle?” Or, “If all the  students lay head to toe, how far would we reach?” Or, “What are all the different ways we could arrange the desks in this classroom?  Why are the advantages and disadvantages?”  Or, “If we all joined hands, in the whole school, could we encircle the school?”.  Check out these sites for some great problems: http://learn.fi.edu/school/math2/ or www.estimation180.com or http://www.101qs.com/
  • Get in teams and create an obstacle course that will challenge the rest of the students. Or, read the rules to Harry Potter’s Quidditch and figure out how to create your own version of the game (without the flying broomsticks).
  • Have some equipment available and have students figure out how to move an object from point A to point B without carrying it.  Or, review structures, movement and friction by having groups create a marble maze that goes the slowest.  Or, provide students with a stack of newspapers and masking tape with the challenge of building a piece of furniture.
  • Put out a variety of art supplies and have students begin to experiment with texture and line with mixed media.  Have them create and critique a piece in the first week that can then be their jumping off point for the remainder of the year:  what did they like? What would they want to do differently?
  • In any subject present a problem to solve by the end of the week.
  • Start the year with a week of genius hour where students can learn about and present about a passion of theirs.
  • Have students create a class song on their instruments or in garage band.  Show them a clip from “Stomp” and have students create their own number.
  • If you teach kindergarten or grade one, you have to teach them to “read” on the first day–even if it is just a shared poem.  Let me take a copy home to read to their parents.
  • Just start your course–but not by lecturing, or reviewing, or a really big diagnostic test.  Start by engaging your students in the kind of learning you want them to be doing all year.

I am sure for your subject area you have thousands of ideas.  Often I hear teachers saying that we need to ease into school.  Maybe that is not true.  Maybe we should jump in with both feet and just start.  When our students go home after the first day of school, we want them to go home full of excitement, joy and enthusiasm for learning.  It is up to us to create those conditions.  The first day of school could be the best day ever..until the second day of school.

 

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Filed under Authentic Tasks, classroom environment, pedagogy, school culture

Teachers change their practice when their students are successful

I’ve been going to a lot of conferences lately, and watching a lot of video clips, about how leaders can influence change in teacher practice.  Mostly they are full of big ideas about collective inquiry, distributed leadership, forming relationships, using evidence-based practices, learning goals and success criteria, etc.  All of these big ideas are true.  But they are big ideas and sometimes big ideas are overwhelming to implement.

So I’ve been thinking what are ways of engaging teachers in changing practice which are not overwhelming but do lead teachers to changes in practice.  In the end, my experience is that teachers are learners and do want to do their very best for their students.  I do not adhere to the notion that we have great numbers of teachers who are resistant to new ideas.  I believe that the great majority of teachers walk in the school doors every day believing that they are teaching the best way they know how.  But I also believe that there are many teachers who are clinging to very traditional practices, probably because they appear to be working.  How does teacher practice change?

Teachers change their practice when they see that their students are successful or more engaged in learning after implementing change in practice.  When a teacher tries something new, and the lesson is successful, the teacher feels good.  The teacher goes home feeling like “this is the profession for me”!

However, often we ask teachers to change practice in ways that are not successful or make no difference.  Without a belief that the change will make a difference for an identified problem, teachers are most likely to simply comply:

  • Asking teachers to change assessment practices without changing pedagogy might mean they rename their quizzes formative assessments.
  • Asking teachers to have lots of anchor charts, without teachers understanding how the anchor chart scaffolds learning, results in lots of pretty anchor charts that rarely change.
  • Asking teachers to post learning goals and success criteria, without teachers actually changing how they plan, results in learning goals and success criteria that are often just the recipe for the day’s lesson.

Compliance is not change.

On the other hand, when teachers feel empowered to identify changes they’d like to make and try new ideas that they have identified as possible solutions, then they are more likely to change their practice.  Now, I don’t suggest that teachers who decide that the solution to a lack of student engagement is to feed them chocolate cake!  However, when teachers work collaboratively, with their principal at the table as an interested learner, identify aspects of their practice they’d like to change, look at some of the research or resources that might support that change, and then have the freedom to try it out, I’ve never never met a teacher who isn’t interested.

These conversations can come out of conversations which begin with:  What do you wish your students could do better?  Most teachers can identify an aspect of their course where students don’t seem to do as well as they’d like.  It might be a curriculum need or a behavioural/attitude need:

  • I wish my students knew their math facts.
  • I wish my students would persevere on challenging tasks.
  • I wish my students would write with more voice.
  • I wish my students thought critically about their reading.
  • I wish my students took more risks in solving problems.

The next step is to assess what the students are actually doing now, usually by looking at student work or by observations and conversations.  And then, teachers need to be empowered to try something new without feeling they are being judged, have timelines, or that there is a “right” way to do this.  But it is key that the teacher feels supported in the implementation of this new practice.  And this is the role of the principal as instructional leader; the principal needs to be interested in what is happening in the classroom, ask how the new practice is going, and be willing to offer suggestions and ideas as an interested co-learner not as a boss.

When teachers “play” with their practice and engage in thinking about what works, what doesn’t and what solves the problems they notice, then they change.  Success breeds success.  We need to be careful that our professional development ideas don’t bog teachers down to the extent that they comply rather than change.  If what teachers are asked to do, doesn’t have a fairly immediate effect on their practice, they aren’t likely to engage.  Who would?  But, when teachers implement ideas that they understand, that they choose, that they believe in, then their students will be successful.  Teachers change their practice when their students are successful.

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Filed under collaboration, pedagogy, school culture, school improvement plannig, Uncategorized

Changing the culture of implementation

Change is cultural.  We’d like to think that school change was about adding a new program, or providing new resources, or even hiring the “right” people.  But it’s not.  School change is about changing culture and that is hard-but not impossible. In fact, changing school culture results in increased motivation and enthusiasm.  Cultural change is energizing.

Let’s look at the mathematics crisis in Ontario.  It is not as if we have been giving teachers incorrect information over the last five years.  No, the information being rolled out to schools from boards of education and from the ministry is research-based, current pedagogy.  It is not as if we do not have the resources available in most schools, in most classrooms.  No, Ontario teachers have access to professional resources, professional development, additional qualification courses, math manipulatives.  It is not as if our Ontario math teachers are waking up every morning with an intention not to teach mathematics well.  No, most teachers that I meet are deeply committed to doing the best job they can.  It is not as if the demographic of students in Ontario has changed so radically that they are incapable to doing mathematics.

In order for there to be wide scale change, there needs to be a wide scale change in both beliefs and practices.  In order to have wide-scale change, there needs to be a change in both school and board culture with regards to the implementation of change.  Typically, in education, we focus efforts at the teacher level:  they go to professional learning, they get new resources, they are charged with change implementation.  eThere is a quick aside to the principal:  “Just be the instructional leader here and make sure it happens.”  And then, everyone crosses their fingers and hopes for the best.

Unfortunately, change in teacher practice is messy and hard.  It never happens like the video would have you believe. It almost never works out the first time.  Teachers have to risk losing the well-oiled machine of classroom management when implementing a new pedagogical practice.  Students, too, will be wary of new approaches.  And, so, change happens in a very ad hoc manner, landing in some places but not others.  In the face of messy, many individual teachers will abandon new practices or, adopt only parts of new practices that they think they understand.

But what if the implementation of change was a joint effort between all levels of the organization, both at the board and school level.  And that effort meant taking a real interest in the change, not just managing one’s respective part in the process.  For example:

  • Principals take the same amount of interest in learning about the instructional change as their teachers do.  They are not merely present but active learners.  They don’t abandon the learning to deal with a small recess issue; they participate actively in classrooms instead of sitting back; they try teaching; they read the same resources; they engage in authentic discussions about teacher lessons.
  • Principals actively monitor the change, and can do so because they understand what the change really needs to look like.  This monitoring involves using both qualitative and quantitative data. The data helps them to know where to focus support.
  • Teachers have the freedom to try out changes without the fear of being evaluated immediately.  There is recognition of the messiness.  The change process is honored over compliance.
  • Superintendents have authentic and deep conversations with both principals and teachers about the work they are doing.  Superintendents  are also learning alongside teachers and principals.
  • Professional development and training is not attended only by teachers but also by principals, vice-principals, and superintendents.  It is visibly obvious that the change is of interest to all.
  • The change is not invitational.  Throughout the organization there is a recognition that the change is important.  However, there is also recognition that the change will be big, and messy, and require support.  The support is not provided only through training and resources, but also through authentic interest and learning by all levels of the organization.

We think that change is scary.  But, my experience is that change is exciting.  Change in practice that affects student learning energizes teachers more than anything else I know. But, change is cultural not procedural.  So, ask yourselves, does educational change in my school/board/system create high levels of anxiety or high levels of energy?  If it isn’t creating high levels of energy, then chances are, the implementation of the change is not affecting culture.  And, in the end, there will be limited change.  However, change the culture of implementation, and everyone will be excited to be learning-students, teachers, principals and superintendents.

 

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Filed under classroom environment, pedagogy, school culture, school improvement plannig, Uncategorized

Thinking about the first day of school already-or not!

I have posted this, or something similar, at the end of June before, but I always think it is a good time to think about it.  Or at least, a thought for you to tuck away for some time later.

Just maybe, over the summer, sitting on the patio, paddling in a canoe, relaxing in a deck chair, watching the sunset, running, or whatever it is you do, you might think about school.  I always find that my mind drifts there every once in a while, and often a lot of my deep planning gets done—the ideas that anchor me.

Which day of the year will you have all eyes on you?  The keenest students? The least amount of student misbehaviour?  The first day of school.  So, try thinking about how you can capitalize on that to engage your students in the deep thinking and exciting work you want them to do.  Often we think, as teachers, that we have to set down all the expectations on the first day of school or the rest of the year will be chaos.  You do have to live and model your expectations, but I’m not sure you need to talk about them.  Maybe that class agreement is something to save until later in the first week.  By then, I suspect your students will have already figured out your expectations and the activity will go a lot faster.

Let’s think about the first day of school from a student’s point of view.  They are excited to be back and meet their new teacher and see their friends.  they are excited to use their new and shiny pencil crayons.  They actually WANT to do some work.  But frequently it is a day of “sit and get”: one teacher after another going over the rules and expectations.  Really, our rules aren’t any different than last year’s rules.  And most rules are self-evident.  We don’t really need to talk a lot about keeping your locker tidy since I doubt any of our students would think that our expectation was to do otherwise (although they may act that way over the course of the year!).

In some schools/classrooms, there is a feeling that we need to ease students into school with a week of fun activities.  I don’t think so.  First of all, they just had 10 weeks of fun activities or camps.  Second, if you describe your first week as “fun”, then my default you are saying that real school is not “fun”.  You may want to have a few team building activities, but I would urge you to have them be within the context of curriculum.

Why not have that first interaction with your students be challenging? Be engaging?  Be creative?  Set the tone for how learning will take place in your classroom.  Pose a question, get them creating or writing or exploring or problem-solving.  Hook your students in right away.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Read aloud the best short story you know, or the first chapter of the read aloud.
  • Introduce writer’s workshop with idea generation activities so that they are itching to start writing.  You could even start writing. Do a quick write about what you didn’t do this summer, or the best small moment, or what you wished you had done.
  • Introduce a complex but open ended problem such as “How could you measure a puddle?” Or, “If all the  students lay head to toe, how far would we reach?” Or, “What are all the different ways we could arrange the desks in this classroom?  Why are the advantages and disadvantages?”  Or, “If we all joined hands, in the whole school, could we encircle the school?”.  Check out these sites for some great problems: http://learn.fi.edu/school/math2/ or www.estimation180.com or http://www.101qs.com/
  • Get in teams and create an obstacle course that will challenge the rest of the students. Or, read the rules to Harry Potter’s Quidditch and figure out how to create your own version of the game (without the flying broomsticks).
  • Have some equipment available and have students figure out how to move an object from point A to point B without carrying it.  Or, review structures, movement and friction by having groups create a marble maze that goes the slowest.  Or, provide students with a stack of newspapers and masking tape with the challenge of building a piece of furniture.
  • Put out a variety of art supplies and have students begin to experiment with texture and line with mixed media.  Have them create and critique a piece in the first week that can then be their jumping off point for the remainder of the year:  what did they like? What would they want to do differently?
  • In any subject present a problem to solve by the end of the week.
  • Start the year with a week of genius hour where students can learn about and present about a passion of theirs.
  • Have students create a class song on their instruments or in garage band.  Show them a clip from “Stomp” and have students create their own number.
  • If you teach kindergarten or grade one, you have to teach them to “read” on the first day–even if it is just a shared poem.  Let me take a copy home to read to their parents.
  • Just start your course–but not by lecturing, or reviewing, or a really big diagnostic test.  Start by engaging your students in the kind of learning you want them to be doing all year.

I am sure for your subject area you have thousands of ideas.  Often I hear teachers saying that we need to ease into school.  Maybe that is not true.  Maybe we should jump in with both feet and just start.  When our students go home after the first day of school, we want them to go home full of excitement, joy and enthusiasm for learning.  It is up to us to create those conditions.  The first day of school could be the best day ever..until the second day of school.

 

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Sticky Learning

I recently gave a TEDx talk about this topic but for those of you who like to read….

Tradition and intuition play a big role in how we teach but our observations of student learning and research suggest that we might be wrong.  Traditionally we teach in units:  2, 4, or 6 weeks (albeit they sometimes stretch into 8 or even 10 weeks).  We think that if we teach the kids all they need to know about one subject (multiplication, persuasive writing, levers, time, the colour wheel etc) and give them lots of practice about this one topic, over and over again in a 2-4 week period of time, then they will learn the stuff.  Except, they don’t.  Students don’t tend to retain concepts they only learn once a year very well.

Our observations of student learning show us that this is true.  If you teach fractions, usually taught in a 4-6 week unit in the spring, you know this.  It feels like every year is like starting over.  I’m sure that you can think of many other concepts where the learning done last year doesn’t “stick”.

There is cognitive research that does tell us a lot about how people learn.  Two concepts, spaced learning and interleaving, are well-documented in the research but hold little traction in real classrooms.

We typically teach in a “massed” practice where we teach kids everything about one topic in a short period of time and then test them.  Students do well in testing situations immediately following the learning, but test them a few weeks later and they don’t remember very much.  However, when material is learned spaced over time, retention of concepts is much greater.  This positive effect has been documented in the literature since 1885!  John Hattie, in Visible Learning, listed it as the 13th most positive effect on learning out of 138 possibilities.  You may wish to consider what would happen if you took a big topic, like fractions or division or proportional reasoning, and instead of teaching it all at once, you spaced the learning out over multiple  opportunities over the course of the year.

We have found spacing the learning out to be very beneficial to our students.  For example, instead of our intermediate students reading just one novel over 6-8 weeks (and really, as a real reader, who does that except maybe for War and Peace?) our students read between 6 to 10 novels over the course of the year, spending between 2-3 weeks on each.  They learn all the same skills about analyzing literature, but they have multiple opportunities to practice the skills over the year.  We do the same in mathematics, returning to problems in proportional reasoning, for example, a few times every month instead of in a 3 week unit.

The other piece of research that has huge benefits for learning, but doesn’t really hold much traction in our school system, is interleaving.  We tend to block the curriculum into discrete units of study, studying each topic one at a time:  addition, subtraction, multiplication, division ; OR, fractions, decimals, percent; OR, persuasive writing, descriptive writing, report writing.  The problem, when students learn this way, is that they don’t learn to see the similarities and differences between the topics.  We hope they will make connections, but really it is left up to them to do it on their own.  When we teach like this it is called “blocked practice”.

But if you interleave the learning, you teach similar concepts all at the same time.  A writer’s workshop model allows students to explore a variety of forms of writing all within the context of writer’s craft.  If students were faced with problems in mathematics involving addition, subtraction, multiplication and division at the same time then they would be forced to develop an understanding of how the concepts are related and to know when to apply each concept.

I call teaching in this spaced and interleaved way spiralling.  While provincial and state curriculum  say they “spiral”, meaning that students learn about fractions, for example, once every year, I argue that the spiral loops are too big.  If we tighten the spiral so that students have many chances to learn the big ideas over the course of the year, I think we get to learning that is sticky.

Of course, spiralling is not easy to plan for.  Teachers like their units.  They like to be “done”.  Spiralling the curriculum really requires that teachers adopt a new mindset about curriculum design.  It isn’t easy…but the teachers that I work with wouldn’t ever go back to teaching traditionally in longer units.  Not only do we get sticky learning, but our students are much more engaged.  Every day is a new challenge for them and they have to apply their learning to specific and varied contexts.

If you want to give it a try, think about doing just a bit at a time instead of revamping your entire curriculum.  Try something new; no one will die.

 

 

 

 

 

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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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