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

img_1549

Advertisements

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.

empower

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?

img_1353

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).