App Review: Free “LocatED” app is the tool educators have been waiting for.

This spring, a new app for educators launched, quietly transforming the ease with which educators can now reach out for help or advice in specific areas or share innovative ideas with others looking to improve their practice, school, or overall organization.

LocatED’s concept and structure are both uncomplicated, which is part of what makes this the best tool for connected educator hopefuls. Most who are hesitant to engage on Twitter beyond “lurker” status feel that way because it’s so public. Reaching out for help from a specific educator on Twitter means the entire Twitter-verse sees the attempt, which makes a lot of users apprehensive who genuinely want to connect. That’s not the fault of Twitter. While it’s been adopted by educators as “the place” to connect and it’s a great tool for leading, learning, and sharing, it wasn’t created specifically for educators. Luckily, LocatED was.

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LocatED’s Purpose

The importance of connecting with other educators in the 21st century can’t be overstated. LocatED aims to make connecting easy so that “innovation can take root and grow in our schools.” Even in the most collaborative of environments, teachers often feel bound by the constraints of their schedules and school days, but LocatED breaks down the walls of a school so that teachers can implement better practices for students regardless of geographical access to resources or experts.

Ease of Use

The app is comprised of two main features, which are the key to its practicality but also its usability.

 

For teachers who are looking to collaborate outside of their districts with experts in a multitude of topics — some of which include 21st Century Learning, Innovative Teaching/Learning, Professional Development and Instructional Coaching — Locate Guidance offers a quick click to an experienced practitioner in the user’s area of interest/need. After selecting “Locate Guidance” from the home screen, users are asked to select the skill and then ask their question. Upon clicking “submit,” the user is directed to a list of potential educator matches in that area of expertise, and by clicking on that user, your question is delivered to them through the messaging function of the app.

What separates the Locate Guidance feature (and the LocatED app in general) apart from other social media tools used by educators is that people are there to both learn AND provide advice, so when you reach out, you’re not reaching out blindly in hopes that someone experienced will answer; you’re being directed to a targeted, expert audience that you otherwise wouldn’t have known existed. There is no lengthy search to find someone who can help because the match is made for you. In my short time as a user, I’ve reached out for guidance three times, and each time I’ve received a timely and helpful response, even though the experts were total strangers to me before our LocatED interaction.

“Locate Innovative Ideas” is the second feature, and is comparable to an Instagram feed. The best part about this feature is that people can filter for ideas in certain categories or browse the entire feed for inspiration.

Users can search by keyword (i.e. subject area or grade level) or filter by the aforementioned categories like Professional Development or 21st Century Learning. Adding an idea to share in the stream is as simple as posting to Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat: Users click the plus icon and add a picture of their idea in action, a quick description, and then select applicable categories before submitting. Other users can like and comment, which adds another opportunity to connect with educators with similar interests or varied skills.

Free with no strings attached

Education is changing more rapidly now than probably ever before, and as states and districts continue to strive to meet the needs of developing staff and providing quality 21st century learning experiences to students while fighting shrinking budgets, LocatED brings together experts and learners in one, easy-to-access location. The developer, Joanna Carroll, started the app as a Google Innovator project, and is committed to keeping the app free for educators — always. While ads are present in the app and are noticeable and applicable to users, they are unobtrusive so as not to interfere with the user experience. In all aspects, LocatED has been created for the needs of the user, and as its reach spreads, it will likely become the go-to virtual meeting place for educators.

LocatED is available for free download in the App Store and Google Play.

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We Need to Treat Education More Like a Garden

On top of teaching full time and raising two curious, active kids (with another joining us in August!), my husband and I also raise chickens and bees and have a pretty substantial garden. Each year, we add more fruit trees, more blueberry bushes, and expand our vegetable section, and every year, I question if we have the energy or sanity left to keep up with it all. But somehow, every year, it gets better and easier to manage — maybe despite or perhaps because of its size. We know that if we’re going to make it bigger and better for our family, we have to find new and better ways of managing growth, weeds, watering, and harvesting the fruits (and vegetables) of our labor.

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In so many ways, managing this garden is like managing a classroom.

You can’t force a plant to grow in conditions that aren’t suitable for that plant.

I have always loved the quote by Alexander den Heijer: “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”  It seems obvious in relation to teaching, and yet every time I read it, it carries new weight for me, both as a teacher and as a parent.

I recently read an article on NPR about a new book by psychology and philosophy professor Alison Gopnik titled The Gardener and the Carpenter. I’ve not yet read the book, but it’s in my Amazon cart because of this description from Sasha Ingber’s NPR article:

“The “carpenter” thinks that his or her child can be molded. “The idea is that if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you’re going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult,” she says.

The “gardener,” on the other hand, is less concerned about controlling who the child will become and instead provides a protected space to explore. The style is all about “creating a rich, nurturant but also variable, diverse, dynamic ecosystem.

When I think about those concepts as a teacher, I realize how much I want to be a gardener in my classroom. I think that helping kids find their purpose is the most important thing we can do in schools. Purpose is about finding your place in the world and living your passion, and I can’t give that to a child. What I can do is provide opportunities for kids to find that for themselves in a classroom that supports ALL learners, whatever their current talents and interests.

One of my students, at the end of the year, shared with me that the best thing I did for her and her classmates this year was to give them the space and responsibility to “figure it out.” She said that at some point, there would be a time I wouldn’t be there to answer a question or tell her what to do, and she felt confident now that she had the skills to make good decisions and find the answers she’d need. All I did was provide the soil, water, and sun. She did the growing herself. What more could I want for my students?

You can’t rush (and you shouldn’t want to):

Last night was our first night of a summer that will be filled with picking blueberries, and the thought crossed my mind that it would be so much easier if all the blueberries ripened at the same time. There would be no hunting for the bluest ones through the leaves, I could grab whole bunches at a time, and while it would take more time at once, ultimately, I’d spend fewer hours picking in the heat.

I’m sure you know where I’m going with this.

As educators, we often have this same thought, both as administrators and teachers. It would be easy if everyone “got it” at the same time and in the same context, but it’s not the way it works, and quite honestly, we shouldn’t want it to work that way.

I’m a firm believer that everyone hears a message at the time they need to hear it — or in some cases, when the world needs them to hear it. We don’t know how a stream of thinking will trigger new ideas in another person, and so it’s not only natural for people to learn in different ways, it’s also necessary if we want new, powerful ideas to keep pushing our world forward.

My blueberries get different amounts of water and sun simply because of their circumstance and when each one was pollinated by our bees, but each one will be delicious in its own time, and I’ll be glad to still have fresh blueberries at the beginning of August so that my kids and I can make delicious recipes all summer long. The beauty is not in the ease of the task; the beauty is in the process toward the ultimate outcome.

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If you hover, you block the sunlight.

William Ferriter wrote a really meaningful post recently about helicopter teaching, and how it “strips agency away from the kids in our care, and that’s NOT a good thing.” I am inclined to agree. No, I’m not suggesting we remove all structure and oversight, but I am suggesting that we let kids choose their paths to proficiency and excellence because if we don’t, they won’t know how to acquire new skills when their formal education ends. We might, in fact, be stifling their growth.

In short, channel your inner Elsa and let it go.

I don’t know a single adult who believes they stopped learning when they left school, but I do know a lot of adults who feel like they didn’t learn how to learn while they were in school, and to me, that’s not a problem with those adults; instead, it’s a problem with prescriptive education that assumes all kids can learn in the same way at the same time with the same methods.

If we’re standing over our kids telling them how to do every. single. thing, they can’t stretch to the sun and grow greater than we imagine for them. We need to guide them but also know when to walk away and let them shine. In that same respect, I don’t plant my garden in full shade or full sun. It needs a good amount of both to flourish.

You have to try new things to find better things.

The first year we lived in Illinois and planted our garden, it was a total disaster. We couldn’t keep up with the weeds, everything was totally overgrown, the Japanese beetles took over, and we eventually let the chickens pick through the whole thing.

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This is my oldest with her hens the year the garden went to the chickens.

The next year, we had a choice: We could give up and miss out on the incredible harvest we’d been accustomed to in Texas, we could do it the same way and hope for a better outcome (which is just crazy), or we could try something new knowing we couldn’t be any worse off than we had been the year before. So each year, we’ve taken away something that didn’t work and replaced it with something new that we’ve read online or watched on YouTube. Two weeks ago, my husband looked at our garden and then at me and said, “Did we finally figure this out?” Three years after our initial attempt, we feel confident we’ve found some tried and true tricks, but we also know we’re never done improving, and as climate and pests change over time, we’ll have to keep evolving in our practice, too.

Education is no different. If you always do it the way you’ve always done it, you’re not ensuring success, even if those practices have garnered success for your students in the past. Kids change. Times change. Cultures change. We have to adapt with all of it if we want kids to have long-term success, which is to say that they become lifelong lovers of learning and creating rather than passive consumers of information they don’t quite know how to use for themselves.

Education can’t be a K-12 endeavor where we attempt to manufacture a product to send it out into the world, hoping it won’t malfunction. In that scenario, we’re asking for problems down the line. Instead we’ve got to plant seeds and then help them grow, providing water when it doesn’t rain, and helping the stems stabilize until they can withstand the wind and grow stronger on their own. Eventually, a healthy plant makes its own seeds and grows a harvest more plentiful than one could ever hope to produce.

The equation I was missing

Reflection is an important component of quality teaching. As preservice teachers, we are trained to think deeply about our emerging and improving practice, all with the expectation that the emphasis on that act will not only become habit, but also will serve as a continuous springboard for growth and change; the intention is not simply to think about it, but also to act on it.

Really, reflection should be ReflAction — reflection + action.

That seems simple enough: think about it and then make a change based on your observations and data. As a preservice and first year teacher, I felt pretty confident in my ability to do that. My mentors told me it was clear I was thinking about my choices and then adjusting based on what I thought was needed. Often, they felt my adjustments helped student learning. Woo! ReflAction expert: check?

Not so much. There was one major problem: I was alone in that RelfAction. I was doing the deep thinking. I was doing the changing — and I was doing it based on “student data,” which told me what kids knew or didn’t know based on what I just taught, but left out why each of them didn’t learn it. I would argue the second entity is just as important, if not more, than the first.

Missing from my ReflAction were the same things missing from my practice: student voice, true student choice, and empowerment. When I started giving the kids a major voice in their learning and asking them for their honest feedback with explanations (and then taking their advice as often as I could), my practice improved in ways I could have never previously imagined because it stopped being my practice — what I needed. Instead, it got to be our practice. What we needed. Together.

Sometimes educators get nervous about giving voice and choice to kids, both in learning and ReflAction. We sometimes fear that means we’re not needed or that we’ll lose any semblance of order. Sometimes we’re scared to hear the reasons kids are struggling in our classes. Those are real fears, and I understand them, but I also think that again, in those concerns, we’re only focused on the teacher. And what I know now that I didn’t know two years ago is that the magic doesn’t happen until we’re a team. The reward I feel as a teacher and the reward a student feels in authentic learning doesn’t happen much without the empowerment. On top of that, kids don’t learn to be self-driven and reflective in their learning if we haven’t made that part of the process for them. Isn’t that the goal?

Reflection(with kids) + Action(with kids) = Magic

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Empowered learners: What a student’s project taught me about education

I co-teach a new, interdisciplinary English III/US history course with my colleague Chris. When we designed this class, we knew our kids needed more than what they were getting to prepare them for a world where critical thinking, problem-solving, computational skills, collaboration, creativity, character, and citizenship are valued far greater than fact knowledge and regurgitation. We knew that research proved that teaching our subject-area content and skills cohesively would be more effective than teaching independently. We knew it would be challenging to create a course that personalizes project-based learning, but we also knew it would be rewarding, and let me tell you: It’s been way more of both challenge and reward than we could have ever imagined. We also knew that we had absolutely no idea where to begin.

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Image from Empower by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani (pg. 7).

But it’s amazing what happens when we give kids a voice in their learning. The longer I work with design thinking and PBL, the more I realize that true, meaningful learning doesn’t really happen without giving kids the main voice in it, and their voices — all 60 of them in one room — have been the driving force behind almost every decision we’ve made this year. And for as much as our kids have grown and thrived this year, I have loved becoming a learner again alongside them. They’re teaching me incredible new skills and content through their projects, but their voices and questions and ideas are teaching me even more about myself, both as a person and an educator.

Our very first personalized PBL unit of the year was American History through Education. The kids thought about problems they saw in education and then created essential and supporting questions that they thought might help them arrive at solutions for the individual issue about which they each felt most passionate. They had one-on-one conferences with Chris or I to help them talk through those thoughts and questions. Once they researched and felt they understood that problem deeply and had thought critically about potential solutions, they created a project proposal that investigated the history of the problem, the type of writing/speaking they felt would best help them share their message (informative, persuasive, or narrative), the medium they thought would best help them deliver this message, and an authentic audience with which they should share this message upon completion. After that conference, they were free to start creating their individual projects.

The following video is one of the projects created through that very first unit. Watch what Emily, a junior in our course, developed to encourage educators to allow student voice and develop personalized learning experiences in schools.

For me, this video is both something I celebrate and something that hurts. I celebrate it because I am proud of the way Emily used the design thinking process to develop the concept and product from start to finish. I am proud of how she integrated research and interviews to develop such a strong message in this project. I am proud that she took a challenge posed and conquered it to share an important message with members of ICE and FutureReady as her chosen authentic audience. But it hurts because the faces and voices on that video are my kids. In my classes. And they aren’t the exception to the rule in our schools. If our kids don’t see value in what we’re doing, and if we can’t offer them the pace and challenges suitable for them, we’re going to have a tough time engaging them in learning and empowering them to take the driver’s seat.

Their thoughts weren’t rehearsed or coerced. Emily simply asked them the question, and their responses flowed so easily and naturally. How often are we doing what Emily did, which is asking our students exactly what they need? When we do, how often are we providing for those requests?

And more concerning to me: Why are they waiting to be asked? Why don’t they feel comfortable telling us without being prompted? Are we teaching kids how to advocate for themselves? To see learning as not only their responsibility, but more importantly, also a passion worth fighting for? Why aren’t they telling us — their teachers — what they need from us? Why haven’t we created spaces where that is the norm?

These are questions with which I’ve been grappling all year, and I can see that our course is giving kids those opportunities to discover and explore passions. But it is one course, and it’s not the only course I teach. I have so much more to learn. I have so much more that I want to improve. I’m so glad the experts — my students — are helping me along the way, using their voices to change the narrative of their educations.

Today I gave my students permission to walk out of my class #IMMOOC

This week I attended and presented at #ICE18. It was an incredible conference as usual, filled with lots of passionate educators sharing their ideas and building networks of support. One of the best things about being an adult at a conference (or at an EdCamp) is that if what you walk into isn’t what you thought it would be, you have the freedom to get up and find something that suits your interests, passions, or needs better. No one batted an eye when participants showed up late or left early. In fact, those actions are not only welcomed but are actually encouraged if it means growth is happening. I was thankful that as a student in those sessions, I had the ability to decide for myself.

Then last night as I listened to George Couros, Katie Martin, and AJ Juliani talk about innovation and compliance in schools during season 4, episode 1 of the #IMMOOC, I had an epiphany. How many of my students would walk out of my room if they weren’t worried about the repercussions of doing so? What would it tell me as a teacher, and how could it help me change my practice if that were an option for them?

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So today, I shared that reflection with one of my classes, and I gave them the permission to leave my room if they needed me to change. Here are the parameters:

  • They have to physically walk out of the room. For one, sometimes kids look disengaged when they aren’t, and other times they look interested when that couldn’t be further from the truth; the visual of their leaving the room leaves nothing to be assumed. On top of that, no one has to raise his/her hand and say, “This is boring, Mrs. K.” Yes, I want to teach my kids to ask politely and appropriately for what they need, but I also think it might be a better approach to allow them to challenge my practice silently at first so that when they return, I can be the one to start that dialogue and help them frame a response.
  • They have to come right back. This is where the conversation between George and AJ comes in. Last night, George mentioned to AJ that there is certainly a place in education and the world for compliance. He said something to the effect of, “You can’t submit your taxes to the IRS on Google Slides if you feel like it.” Likewise, kids can’t just leave school. I want to help facilitate their learning, and at the end of the day, all kids want to learn. Both entities want the same thing, and walking away wouldn’t be the best way to accomplish that.
  • They have to tell me what I’m doing wrong and contribute ideas to make the activity better because that conversation is the key to a solution. We’ll redesign in the moment together so that the kids have a say in their learning, and hopefully, that empowerment will be a motivating factor for them as well as a great opportunity for me to improve for them.

 

 

For me, this is an innovation. I’ve asked for feedback before, but this is new because I’ve gotten that previous feedback when I ask for it. Instead, this change allows the kids to give me feedback at any time, which is far better because I’ll actually get that feedback when they need the change; however, there are also parameters with which they have to comply because life is filled with situations where compliance is necessary. They’re not allowed to come and go from school as they please (yet), so I’m trying to innovate inside the box (and still push it out a little bit).

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.

 

 

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.

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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.

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

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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.

An open letter to my seventh graders after their standardized tests

My wonderful, unique, 7th grade humans:

Today you finished up your winter MAP test. It’s results are supposed to show your areas of strength and weakness, providing you and your teachers with valuable feedback regarding your instruction. Some of you were jubilant about meeting your goal and showing how much you have learned since September. Others of you made growth but felt self-conscious that you didn’t hit the goal you set for yourself, or worried that your score was “still too low.” And some of you didn’t “make growth” this time around. I watched your disappointed faces as you finished your tests, and I watched the confidence you’d built all year slowly dissipate because of this one number.

Now, I don’t know everything, but there are two things I do know for sure: 1) You are not defined by a number determined by the answers you select on a multiple choice test, and 2) You have made more growth these last few months than a test could ever begin to show you.

Let me start by explaining that you came to my classroom this year already wonderful. Your parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and family frieKids working.jpgnds and previous teachers who all play a role in making you the people that you are have done an outstanding job. You are kind, thoughtful, enthusiastic individuals. You have empathy, and when someone else is hurting, you do whatever it takes to help alleviate their pain. Do you know how incredible that is? So many adults struggle to be compassionate when someone else’s experience or background has been different from their own, but it seems to come so naturally to you. The resilience you show when something doesn’t go quite right the first time is so admirable, and you’ve taught me that — to never give up and to always come back stronger and with a new plan after a day that tests me.

 

And throughout this year, you have only become even more impressive learners and people. You’ve kept the empathy, generosity, and kindness you brought with you, but you’ve also become some of the greatest critical thinkers I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching. When you write, you write about things that matter, not just to you, but also to your classmates and to me. You see the heart of a story, and you understand that writing isn’t meant to be formed from a prompt — it’s meant to deliver a message others need to hear: of hope, of change, of pain, of resilience, of love. All of you recognize that reading is a vehicle for exploring your passion, not a task of which the purpose is to determine your supposed ability.

You are not 210, 237, 205, 223, or 214. You are so much more than a score, and you are anything but average. You exceed my standards for what students should be every day. You take charge of your learning, inside the classroom and outside, and that motivation is the true determiner of success in life.

Keep striving to do well on these tests. Knowing how to survive or thrive in tasks that feel overwhelming is such an important life skill to master. More importantly, though, continue mastering these most important traits: caring for others, loving yourself, engaging in respectful debate and discourse, and reading and writing to learn. Aristotle said that we are more than the sum of our parts. What you do with the skills you learn will always be more important than having the skills themselves.

Keep doing. Keep creating. Keep changing your world. And know that I am proud of you — each one of you.

create

Image from flickr