Engaged or empowered? Am I allowing my students to love and own what I teach?

A student writes a poem about writing a poem:

Venice

Standing in an hourglass,
Sand funnels beneath my heels.
I dig them in
desperately, frantically.
But swirling doesn’t stop,
only funnels faster,
down, down
to nothing.

My mind gets blanker –
blanker than the page
I’m forced to fill.
The timer goes off.
The last grain falls
and hits the pile,
loud, echoing.
I see lines and space between.
Failed again.

She hasn’t failed! I rejoice. She used metaphor, imagery, tone, great diction – I halt, suddenly aware. She hasn’t failed, but I have. The underlying meaning would be much different if her poem read this way instead:

The hourglass, my beach.CT, Italy
Sand funnels beneath my heels,
and light currents sweep me,
wave after wave, crisp and cool,
refreshing.
Words unending.

The page: an ocean of opportunity.
Freeing.
There’s not enough water
for a swimmer like me,
cutting, gliding through currents,
no need for air.
I am the wave. I am the page.
I have the words.

 

 

A New Recipe for Writing Instruction (with Only 3 Ingredients)!

I am a writer.

For years, I scribbled in notebooks or clacked away on a keyboard always hoping that one day, I would become a writer. Do you see the flaw in that thinking? I WAS a writer – I have always been a writer – but I believed I wasn’t. Because I was a student, because I wasn’t a professional, because I didn’t see my strengths, and because no one told me I was, I must not have been a writer.

writer

Image from pixabay


How many of your students would say that they ARE, present tense, right now, writers? If your students are like many of mine used to be, my guess is that very few, if any, would describe themselves as writers if you asked. In contrast, how many of your students use writing as a means of communication daily? How many of your students will need to be effective writers/communicators in their futures? Yes, all of them.

Writing instruction is an area with which even English teachers struggle. Truth be told, most of us aren’t taught HOW to teach writing, and if we don’t see ourselves as writers we’re not likely to dip our toes in and try teaching it. But you don’t have to be professional chef to cook well or enjoy cooking, and the same is true for teaching writing. With a few simple ingredients, anyone can help make writers.

Ingredient 1: Choice

The other night I was reading Kids Deserve It by Adam Welcome and Todd Nesloney, and they quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1950) when discussing leadership: “If you want to build a ship, don’t gather people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” (Nesloney & Welcome, 2016, p. 53). This same philosophy could be applied to just about any subject, but it’s particularly relevant for writing.

Students will rarely truly care about, let alone enjoy, writing activities if they don’t care about the writing topic.  Caring about writing begins with caring about WHAT you’re writing. And if our goal as educators is to help students develop a love for reading and writing long-term, it doesn’t seem to make much sense in assigning them topics that feel irrelevant to them or even assigning them specific topics at all. Does this mean we ignore content and standards? Not at all. What it means is that we put students in the driver’s seat. And believe it or not, when students know we trust them and that they have the freedom and responsibility to choose their topic, they focus MORE because they know they need to evaluate their interests if they are to find the idea they’ll enjoy most. I don’t want them to stare at a blank page or plunk away on their keyboards dutifully; instead I want them to be so immersed in their writing that they are surprised when the bell rings and can’t wait for their next free moment to continue.

Ingredient 2: Conferencing (with peers and adults)

I once had a colleague ask me why I would use a fully processed written piece as a summative assessment. “It’s not a test,” she explained. “How do you know what a peer offered or what they would be able to do on their own?”

I understood her concern. It was something I’d worried about before I’d shifted to more authentic and less formulaic, rigid writing instruction in my classroom. But there are a few reasons that that thinking is flawed. The first reason is more logic than anything else: How many people do you know that want to complete someone else’s work for them? Right, none. But our kids DO want to help one another, especially when they are relying on others in the class to help them see their gaps in logic or errors that cloud meaning. Even as an English teacher, I rely on people all the time to preview my ideas or writing before I share them. That’s collaboration and communication at their finest, and we have to teach and learn those skills in context, not piecemeal or as part of a simulation type of lesson that isn’t true learning.

The second reason is more about curriculum. Common Core doesn’t exist so that we can teach students independent standards and check them off a list as students “master” them. The Common Core guidelines exist so that students learn skills in conjunction with other skills. Even in seventh grade, students should, “with some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.5) because that’s what life looks like. It’s just smart to check with other people before you submit a proposal or present major findings, and it’s also what employers want future workers to be able to do: work together, take feedback well, revise, think through ideas, and polish a good product. That process is quality experience, and experience is an incredible way to learn.

It’s important to note, too, that giving feedback is not giving answers. For me, giving feedback is asking a lot of questions to help students notice their own gaps. It’s commenting on strengths, and asking students if they notice areas for improvement. When students review their peers’ work, they look for different things depending on the writer’s progress at that point, but it’s important for them to think big picture early on and small scale late in the process. In a first draft, I usually don’t comment at all on grammar, usage, or mechanics because a rough draft is meant to be rough. Instead, feedback is focused on cohesion, logic, and purpose. Punctuation placement doesn’t mean much if the readers can’t follow the message! I often have to explain that revising takes more work than changing around a few things. It often means deleting, rearranging, and writing more, which takes a lot of time. With feedback from multiple readers, though, we can notice a lot and help each other find the best direction.

So writing instruction is mostly one-on-one or in small teams in my room now, and as a result, I spend very little time at the front of the room anymore. Small group instruction might happen when a group of kids is ready to learn more sophisticated transition techniques or needs a few more examples of citation. Individual conferences then allow me to spend my time working with struggling students on reading comprehension and analysis strategies (because even high school students need reading instruction) or with an advanced student who is ready to move on to higher level standards or just needs feedback. In both cases, I learn exactly what that student needs and provide as many students as possible with opportunities to ask initial and follow up questions without the pressure of a classroom of listeners. In addition, the responsibility is put on the students to then take that feedback and do the work to improve their writing, and that’s the hard part — the experience — that helps them improve their skills.

I often hear this question: How do you have time for that? Truthfully, it takes up the majority of my time. But simply put, it’s the BEST use I’ve found so far of my students’ and my time. I can SEE their learning happening, and it’s so much more rewarding than HOPING they’ll remember the lesson I just taught at the board enough to apply it in their own work.

Ingredient 3: Audience/Purpose

About a year into my marriage I learned that my husband loves carrot cake. He had been deployed to Afghanistan for almost all of our engagement (and even went back for a few months after we were married), and somehow carrot cake didn’t come up until we had moved again and were expecting our first child. Needless to say, our honeymoon period wasn’t typical, so when I found out he liked carrot cake, I was determined that my first attempt would be perfect for him. I researched recipes online and scoured the reviews to find the best one. I poured over the winning recipe to ensure I noticed all the important details. As it baked, I constantly checked its progress, and when it had cooled, I carefully decorated it with little icing carrots. It wasn’t perfect (in fact, as you can see, my decorating was a little lopsided), but it he loved it, and I was proud of my effort and product.

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The carrot cake I made for my husband (over five years ago). 

The truth is, we work harder if we feel that what we’re doing is important or we’re passionate about it or we’re going to share it with someone else. George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset (2015), talks often about the power of shared reflection through blogging. He says that knowing we will probably be read by others (some of whom we’ve never met before) makes us think more deeply about our message, and when we write with the purpose of informing or helping our reader, we naturally want to do well not for only ourselves, but more for our reader, so that he or she can understand clearly.

While I certainly think blogging is a worthwhile writing exercise to strengthen any writer, our students don’t necessarily have to blog to have a purpose and audience. But it is necessary that students have a purpose and share their process and product with an audience whether they make a video about the dangers of stereotypes to publish on YouTube or write a poem about the water cycle that they submit to a science-related publication. Even making a carrot cake can help us develop critical reading skills and attention to detail if we’re making it for someone we love.

Mixing it all together

After a year of writing with choice, purpose, conferencing/feedback, and for different audiences, one of my high school students reflected on her learning as a writer:

Not only have I learned in this class, not only have I experienced in this class, but I have grown. I feel like I have sprouted like a beautiful flower because someone finally gave me the chance. Academically, I feel like I write in such a more sophisticated sense from writing for the school newspaper. I also feel personal strengths of mine, like descriptive detail, emotional writing, poetry, and persuasive ideas, will only grow stronger from here.

This student changed lives through the writing projects she shared, and her confidence grew immensely because she finally had an audience to hear her and cheer her. She felt a purpose in sharing because she wrote about real issues in our school and in her world; she cared deeply about her message and she wanted that message to be well-received by readers, even if they didn’t agree with her. Most importantly, she found her voice and now knows how to push herself in the future. Isn’t that our goal: to help students develop an independent love for learning that lasts a lifetime?

Mixing it up might not be easy: Sometimes a new recipe is difficult to put together. But trying something new is usually a worthwhile adventure. And I can tell you from experience, this one is delicious.

Summer Reading Recommendation: Shift This!

Whether you’ve been on a summer break for a month or just a few days, now is the perfect time to get started on your personal professional development if you haven’t already.

shift this

I just finished reading Shift This! by Joy Kirr, who has increasingly empowered her students to direct their own learning during her time as a seventh grade ELA teacher. There are so many reasons to read this book, but I want to highlight a few specific (and exceptional) benefits and takeaways I’ve garnered from this quick read.

Step by step shifts

My sister and I teach in the same district and collaborate as often as we possibly can, so it’s no surprise that we often “talk shop” at family dinners or in our free time. During one of these discussions last week, my sister commented that she wished that all educators who share a criticism would always provide a rationale and an alternative. If you “would never (insert classroom activity here)” in your classroom, it would be nice to explain why and then give a more beneficial practice instead. She added, “If we knew a better strategy or activity, wouldn’t we already be doing it?” .

Kirr’s book does that, but goes a step further, and step by step. She starts with small shifts in every chapter, and the chapters seem to order by ease, so along with getting the answers and student-centered practices we are looking for, we’re left feeling capable. None of her suggestions seem overwhelming, and each one provides a foundation for the next so that all learners (teacher included) feel as comfortable as possible with the adjustments.

The voice we need to hear

Kirr devotes an entire chapter to resistance, which is a word that seems to be paired often with both innovation and change, unfortunately. Nevertheless, resistance is a real thing. What I love most about Kirr’s comments on and suggestions for resistance is her honesty about her own role, both past and present, in resistance. She admits to having once been a teacher who held tightly to traditional practices, and so now, is able to empathize with educators who still feel strongly about holding on to all or much of the control in their classrooms. And though she is no longer resistant to change, she admits that she has more work to do:

I have often thought that teachers at my own school are my harshest critics. I’ve realized, however, that many times it’s only in my own mind. Why is this? I believe it’s because I’m afraid of failure, and I’m taking many risks. I am still unsure of what I am doing in the classroom. I have realized as well that I react — instead of stopping to listen and trying to recognize other teachers’ perspectives. It is my own fault that I do not take the time to explain the reasons behind my actions to teachers at my own school. I am a people-pleaser. This behavior, however, can be a detriment to yourself and also to your students. (p. 160)

These words ring true for so many educators, and this is all especially true for me.  And while the tone of this section is one of accountability and directness, as a whole, her voice is encouraging rather than chiding, so that readers don’t feel guilty about what they haven’t done yet, but instead empowered about what they CAN do.  Her honesty about her journey with change, even after many years as an educator, is so refreshing because it shows change as a never-ending practice — something to look forward to rather than resist or resent.

Embracing the conversation

Near the end of her book, Kirr asks readers to write — to share their thoughts, questions, or experiences to help her and others keep learning. She goes a step further to encourage people who disagree with her to share their ideas, too, in order to “make these ideas stronger” (p. 175). The message that she’s sending here to readers is that there is no right or wrong, but there are maybe instead scales of better and different. What I mean by that is that our kids are not going to go an entire year and not learn a single thing in our classes if we give the very best that we have. But could they learn more from one method over another? Absolutely. Could they feel more excited as learners if I tried something new? Sure! Might they be empowered if I relinquish some of the control rather than compliant and maybe uninspired? Yes, definitely. So if we keep talking, keep sharing, keep the conversation going even when it gets awkward or tough or we disagree, then the chances are exponentially higher that our students’ lives and learning will benefit even greater than they would have had we not embraced the conversation. Isn’t that the whole point?

I missed the boat on the book study that Illinois Computing Educators (ICE) is currently facilitating on Shift This!, but the discussion forum is open the the public, and I would definitely recommend jumping in to see what others are saying about the book and to expand your PLN. If nothing else, read the book and reflect for yourself on the subtle shifts you can make this fall that will impact your students in big ways for years to come.

Leading by example: Readers and writers don’t just happen.

When my Mass Communications students turned in their fall semester final projects, almost every single student mentioned something about how our class is a writing class, which made me proud and confused all at once. I was proud because writing is a part of everything we do, both in class, and I believe, in the way we communicate with others. But I was also a little confused because I had never TOLD them this — that our class was a writing class.

And that’s when I realized that it matters not even a little bit what I tell them. What matters is what we’re living. I can tell them that class will be fun, that I value their opinions, that education is important, but they won’t believe me if I don’t MAKE those things true and lead with my example. In fact, I might as well not say a thing.

This morning I watched last night’s episode of #KidsDeserveIt. Adam and Todd’s guest, Mandy Ellis, talked about the importance of giving kids access to books “with no strings attached,” and when she spoke about her one frustration in education leadership, it resonated deeply with me: If we want to create a culture of reading, why aren’t we all reading?

As research and experience have proven, reading and writing go hand-in-hand, and I have continued to be frustrated myself when teachers and administrators complain that their students “aren’t writers.” My response recently has been a simple question: “Are you?”

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image via @writersedit on Twitter

I don’t think any of us have to be incredible writers or readers of the deepest and most profound texts to be good at showing kids the importance of writing and reading. Quite simply, we just have to start with DOING those two things in our classrooms and schools. Maybe growing up someone turned reading into a chore for us, or maybe we feel uncomfortable writing because we’ve never felt “good” at it (or maybe our writing assignments were all prompts on boring books and we saw no personal utility in it so we didn’t give much effort or feel any inspiration). No matter the reason for avoidance, if we want our students to read and write, we need to do more than tell them those are important; we need to live those valuable activities with them.

Pick up a book. Pick up a pen. Grab your tablet. Start today — it’s that simple, and #KidsDeserveIt.

Facilitate and get out of the way

Two weeks ago, I walked into my seventh grade language arts a few minutes after the bell. My students were tossing around a whiteboard eraser and talking.

I was thrilled. I’m not kidding.

All year, we’ve been working on having a discussion without raising our hands because it’s, well, ridiculous. And yet, there were still lots of times in my room that I not only responded to kids raising their hands, but also encouraged it — sometimes through my words, and sometimes just through my actions. But these bad habits paired with our new strategies in discussion were actually all good things: My kids saw the benefit of realistic discussion techniques compared to the constraints of the hand-raise. And they came up with a way to organize their discussion without me.

You see, my kids weren’t throwing around an eraser to be silly or to cause mischief. They were starting the lesson without me. We had a list of discussion questions from the novel we had finished that we had started the day before, and we didn’t have time to finish in the previous class. They decided that they didn’t want to wait for me, and that they would talk to each other and ask for the next turn (and the eraser) to speak if they had something to say to build on the previous speaker. If they had something unrelated, they would wait until that thread was exhausted and then make a comment or ask a new question.

When I walked in, it was clear they didn’t need me. So I sat and listened. And I was amazed at all the connections they had made and the questions they were asking and answering of each other. Everyone in the class spoke without any prompting from me, and the depth of their analyses and evaluations of the novel and the author’s writing blew me away.

What I’m about to say kills me a little bit, but it’s true: Sometimes I am the biggest barrier to my students’ independence without even realizing it. Sometimes I spend all year giving them strategies and then I forget to let go and trust that they’ll figure it out when I’m not right there. Sometimes I keep the training wheels on so long that they don’t see the purpose in trying out two wheels on their own. Sometimes, in trying to give extra support, I provide something they don’t want or need, and it hinders their individual growth.

I know that throwing the eraser doesn’t look exactly like a real-life conversation, but it was closer than my directing hands in the air. More importantly, they came up with a plan to meet their goal, they executed the plan well, adjusting when needed, and they had the best discussion they’d experienced all year.

As teachers, we need to be facilitators. And then we need to get out of the way and let our students soar.

The school year is not over yet.

My seventh graders have been reading Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt. If you’re in education and have never read it, you should. It’s about a slightly dramatic seventh grade boy named Holling who ends up spending Wednesday afternoons with his language arts teacher, Mrs. Baker, reading the plays of Shakespeare. At first, neither one seems thrilled about the arrangement, but soon they come to realize that, in many ways, they need each other. Set during the Vietnam War, this book take readers from laughing to crying and back again, especially if you grew up diagramming sentences.

My kids have been spending a lot of time analyzing character interactions so that we can discover how authors develop strong plots and themes, and through their analyses, I’ve seen just how much they understand about the world, life, and relationships. While the author does a nice job of showing readers what’s happening, my kids are digging even deeper to understand what each character might have been feeling during every interaction.

And even though I’ve read this book with a few different classes over the years, I am reminded every time I read it that there is always more to discover in a favorite text. While I’ve always felt that strong relationships between teachers and their students are vital to a successful learning environment, after participating in #IMMOOC in the fall and spring, I was able to understand that even more through Holling and Mrs. Baker this time around; my experiences changed the way I read and what I noticed in the text.

At this time of year, it’s easy to feel defeated if we let ourselves. The kids can feel summer creeping into their bones. They start doing things and acting in ways that are completely out of character because they are full of anticipation — for freedom, for time, for warmth. And what I noticed this read-through of Wednesday Wars is that Mrs. Baker gave Holling exactly those things. She gave him the freedom to be himself when it seemed that everyone else had already determined his future for him. She gave him time, not just on Wednesday afternoons, but also by going to his play and making sure that he received guidance and support when he didn’t get it at home. Her warmth changed his perspective about school and life and even the writings of Shakespeare.

I don’t need to wait for summer for my students to receive those things from me. Like Mrs. Baker, I can give them freedom, and time, and warmth right now. Today.

 

 

 

The cure for teacher burnout is actually doing more.

It’s fourth quarter and standardized testing season. All around my building, I see students who are eager for summer and even more impatient for a spring break that is still two weeks away. In our small district, our students wear themselves thin with school, sports, and clubs. They are all involved in seemingly everything, and at this point in the year, they are perpetually exhausted. I recognize their look because I’m wearing it, too. You see, the teachers in small districts are just as overinvolved as their students.

So last Friday, I was preparing for my itty bitty prep period at the end of the day — the only prep I get all day on A days — when I checked my e-mail and saw that a student whom I’ve never had the pleasure of teaching in one of my classes was wondering if I could meet and give her some feedback on her FFA speech. It was due Saturday, she’d explained, and she realized that it was kind of last minute, but she’d appreciate my help. I was tired and I wondered how much good feedback I had in me at that point in a difficult week.

But at 2:35, she bounced over to my room, energetic and ready to write, so I made a cup of coffee, and we began the work of talking, evaluating, reworking, revising, and learning. Before I knew it, the clock read 3:45. The final bell had rung at 3:10, and we had barely noticed as we dissected her work and strategized her presence. She walked out grateful for my help and confident in her work, and I left school for the weekend re-energized and fulfilled once more as a writing teacher.

As I got into my car, I wondered how I could have felt so drained just a few hours before because it felt like such a distant memory. I started thinking about all the other times I’d felt that same burst of energy in my career, and I realized that the secret to curing teacher burnout is actually more teaching.

give flickr

photo from flickr

Let be clear about this: the secret is not doing more work because I am here to say loud and clear that so much of my job is not teaching at all, and those are not the reasons I became a teacher in the first place; however, they are necessary aspects of this important profession that I tolerate to do the work I love to do. So when I am feeling overwhelmed with all the “extra stuff,” I take a break and think about the parts of teaching that fuel me.

Trying something new

So often, I hear frustration from teachers about how often things in education change but somehow stay the same, and I think it’s because the heart of teaching has always been to help kids grow into the people they aspire to be. I certainly hope that never changes. But finding new and better ways of doing that is not only necessary, it’s also exciting and energizing. What burns me out more than anything is doing the same thing over and over again, so if you’re feeling sick and tired of the old routine, you probably are, and trying something challenging and unknown might help nurture some excitement in both you and your students.

Do things that provide both immediate and delayed reward

Coaching students in writing one-on-one is my absolute favorite part of teaching. I can see how much they learn in a fairly short period of time. Our discussion helps me see their individual needs, and I can address those on the spot. Seeing that reward right away is really important, but so is long-term impact. I am serving on our Future Ready committee right now, and it has challenged me in innumerable ways. It’s often difficult to see how the work we’re doing impacts my community, school, and students, but when something comes full circle, it’s so worth the wait and (sometimes) frustration.

Give your energy to the right places

When I was a first year teacher, my mentor Kristi shared “The Marigold Effect” with me. If you’ve never read it before, it’s a valuable message for new and veteran teachers alike. As a gardener, I know the value of companion planting: certain plants just do better near one another. But I also know that sometimes even the strongest plants will die if the soil or plants around it aren’t compatible with the seedling’s needs. Kristi gave me a bag of marigold seeds and told me that she promised to always be a marigold for me rather than a walnut tree, and she was. She helped me grow so much in that first year, and I feel so fortunate to know so many marigold teachers who use their energy positively, both from my first district and my current school, who have helped to mentor and encourage me.

marigold pixabay

photo from pixabay

I know it seems strange to say that giving more is the cure for feeling like you have nothing left to give, but I think it’s true both in life and in teaching. Give to your students, give to new experiences, give to positivity, and I think you’ll find you’re actually giving back to yourself, too.

Why we have to stop making assumptions about students #IMMOOC

Today I heard that a teacher at my former high school was surprised to find out that I had become an educator “based on who I was in high school.” Now, I can’t begin to imagine what this person may have meant by that, but it’s hard to think it was said in a positive context. It took me back to my senior year in high school when I had my heart set on going to the University of Iowa and my guidance counselor told me he didn’t think I would fit well at Iowa. He suggested a smaller school. And then the next year, he sent his own child off to become a Hawkeye. I wondered what that meant: that Iowa was a good fit for his child, but not for me.

Disclaimer: I was not a straight A student in high school. Though I took advanced courses, played varsity sports, and had parents who were strict and supportive, I spent my time on the weekends with a wide variety of people, sometimes making good, responsible choices, but oftentimes not.  I did not work extra hard for a grade because I didn’t see much personal utility in the things I was learning. College would teach me what I needed, I’d assumed, and all would be well.

Oddly enough, I planned to be a teacher when I went to college. To put it nicely, I was an “uninspired” student in high school. (To put it honestly, I was bored stiff). After winning a teacher’s union scholarship my senior year of high school, I headed off to college hoping to change young lives in a way my high school experience hadn’t changed mine. When I got to college, I took one education class and decided it wasn’t for me. I told my college adviser: “I’ll be burnt out in five years. I need to do something that changes periodically.”  Becoming an English major instead, I ended up spending my time reading and writing. It was a constant challenge to read, think, and write in new ways and from new perspectives, so I finally felt fulfilled in my own education.

I didn’t realize that I needed to be a teacher until I was in my first post-college job. I worked in advertising sales, and despite my not quite cum laude college GPA, somehow I excelled right away. After training new hires in the field, I was asked by my boss’s boss to teach a training session at our headquarters. They didn’t give me any tips or guidelines; I was free to teach the session however I saw fit. I realized then that good teaching happens that way — when passion meets freedom.

Maybe I found my way back to education, or maybe I found it for the first time when I was living it in that first job, but either way, I am glad to be an educator now. George Couros says that “the biggest barrier to education is our own way of thinking” and “the biggest game-changers in education are, and always will be, the educators who embrace the innovator’s mindset.” Looking back, there are obviously a lot of reasons that I didn’t become a teacher until my mid-20s, but I have to wonder if maybe those influencers in my life and their mindsets had something to do with it.

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As a teacher now, I am so thankful to have found the innovator’s mindset, and I hope that when my students are living their passions, they remember me as someone who was a game-changer for them rather than a barrier-builder.

Innovating Together: My First Lesson in Co-Teaching #IMMOOC

“My mother always said, ‘If you’re not striving for the ideal, you’re not working hard enough.’”  – Roni Riordan

together

Image from pixabay

This week in the #IMMOOC, there was a lot of mention of designing the ideal. This fall, I will have the opportunity to move toward my ideal for school. A colleague and I will be teaching a combined English III/American History course that allows students to take control of their learning and choose the way in which they are assessed. When the course was approved, I was ecstatic, but that enthusiasm quickly transformed to panic when I realized I would truly be working with another teacher. Another teacher. In MY classroom. Ehem, I mean, OUR classroom.

At the ICE Conference this morning, Adam Welcome said, “Teaching really isn’t that collaborative.” We ask our kids to collaborate effectively and we preach that this working together is the way of the future. But we don’t do it very well in schools. I realized this myself when my panic set in about sharing the room with another adult — even when it was a colleague I admire.

Chris and I (my future partner in co-teaching) had our first planning meeting last week. There were two main takeaways that I wanted to share this week that might help others take the jump from innovating in a bubble to innovating together.

Be open minded:

In our first meeting, Chris said, “I want to share with you what I already do, but I need you to know that that doesn’t mean I expect to do things the way I have been doing them.” Wow. I consider myself pretty open-minded, but what that did for me was help realign my expectations for myself — that I should expect to change because he was expecting to change and grow, too. Eric Sheninger reminded us in his keynote this morning that “change is the only constant.” I am thrilled to be working with someone whose mindset is focused on being better.

Choose to work with those who challenge you:

I’ve long believed that the most important assessment is a project or product, not a standardized test. Yet, I have still given standardized assessments as part of how I assess students and “prepare them” for the inevitability of “the system.” In our meeting last week, I said that to Chris. His response: “Why?”

I had to think about that. And all my answers were about me. I want my students to score well. I need my kids to be familiar with the types of tests that schools require of them. Did you catch that? I want. I need. It’s about me. Because really, my kids don’t care much about the tests. They care about learning. In the words of Adam Welcome, “The kids should BE the conversation.” My dialogue was focused on the wrong stakeholder, because in the end, the stakeholder that really matters is the child.

“The kids should BE the conversation” – Adam Welcome, #KidsDeserveIt

Co-teaching, interdisciplinary learning, and student-led learning are huge aspects of my ideal, and even though I feel strongly about that, it’s still hard for me to take the leap. But how can I ask my kids to take risks if I’m not willing or enthusiastic to model that for them? It’s about the kids, yes, but it starts with me. And that’s a huge but really important responsibility to follow through on.

My students wanted to make their own final. When I let them, they did more than “exceed standards.”

In late November, my Mass Comm students and I were reviewing the finals schedule. One student asked, “What will our final be in here?” Every kid in the room had a puzzled (and somewhat concerned) face as they waited for me to answer.

I had to admit pretty quickly that I wasn’t sure. The previous year, the students in that class had written a blog post for their final. They had a detailed rubric with lots of writing and tech requirements, and they enjoyed it, but my class this year had already started blogs, and I wasn’t excited about just doing something similar because while we do blog in class, we do a lot more than that. They write the school newspaper, plan professional development on apps for teachers, sell advertising to area businesses, create digital stories, and pretty much take on any project they can find. How could I possibly assess their learning on all of those things in one traditional final?

The truth was that I couldn’t. And the kids knew that just as well (if not better) than I did. One girl raised her hand and asked, “Can we make our own finals and just show you what we’ve learned?” Each student nodded hopefully in agreement.

Absolutely.

But we had to do some brainstorming first. I gave the kids five minutes at the end of class to do a group quick list of the things they thought they’d learned in the semester. This is what they came up with together.

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These were great ideas but big ideas. I wanted to make sure they could narrow this down to specific things and also be able to show their progress in those areas. We sat together and came up with some requirements, and everyone had a voice in deciding what was important to show, including me. We all agreed that all things informative writing, multimedia, and presentation were important. Creativity was a must.

I wrote up the assignment and shared it with them to make sure I hadn’t missed or misunderstood anything. In it, I also included some hyperlinks so that they would feel challenged to really be creative and try producing something completely new for them.

After we went over the assignment, the kids only had one question: “Can we start now?” They spent the next two class periods (and time at home and in homeroom) working on these projects. I couldn’t believe their enthusiasm, and I got to spend all of my time during class checking in with them, giving feedback on their scripts, helping them self-assess progress with their rubrics, trouble-shooting equipment problems, and learning new apps they planned to use to present. My teaching was truly based on their group or individual needs, and most importantly, I saw their critical thinking in progress, and got to provide feedback on those skills as well as their writing and technology content skills.

The day of the final, there were no nervous faces, and there was no last minute cramming. The kids were so excited to share what they had produced. They supported each other like no other group of kids I’ve seen before, and they gave honest, constructive feedback (based on standards from the rubric) after each presentation. They evaluated themselves using the rubric as well, and their assessments were shockingly accurate. I had never felt more effective as a teacher, and all I had really done was give them the opportunity to choose their own path. They felt empowered to do more, so they did; it’s amazing what can happen when we hear and trust our students.

To my Mass Communications class: Thank you for pushing me to give you more opportunities and for your drive and commitment to make your world a better place. I’ve learned just as much (if not more) from you than you have from me, and your influence will stick with me long after you’ve left this class.