27 August 2015

Kids > Your Professional Learning or Goals

As we wrap up professional development plan season in teacher-land, let us remember that it's the little things we do as PEOPLE that make all the difference to the children in our care. 

Just because I have a passion for X doesn't mean that doing X is going to advance my skill and proficiency at helping students do Y. X might look good on a resume, and be good for career advancement to adminstration, but making hard decisions that make the adults in our schools uncomfortable often are the most student-friendly. 

As a couple examples...

If you are hyper-focised on classroom management and eliminating distractions, you might target locking-up student devices as a strategy to ensure attention and engagement.  We give up a lot of control when we allow students the freedom to use their electronic devices as they choose in the hallway or commons, but we trade it some for more convenient opportunities for kids to complete school work or communicate with their teachers or classmates. You may end up coming looking like you don't have "control," but if you've coached your students in appropriate usage and times for usage, the KIDS are better off. 
It's certainly not sexy, and not usually effective in promoting and engaging higher-order thinking, but can you leave room in your professional planning that some days students might need a worksheet (with answers/solutions) to gain practice and feedback?

 My own goal on my professional development plan is related to engaging kids in vague, "ungoogle-able" questions that require them to find and sort through information and then choose from procedural skills to apply in their problem-solving process. I'm really excited about this goal, and in the long term its best for kids to have these skills, but I know some days I'm going to need to step back and give more support than I really want to or think they need. In the Disney version of your classroom, kids always respond well to your efforts and initiatives, and always appreciate higher standards for learning. That often happens in reality, but there are also those kids with those days that need a relationship more  than they need rigor. 

Our goals can sometimes stand in opposition to students' legitimate will to learn - on those days its important to remember that my relationship with a student endures in my legacy far longer than the lesson for the week.

13 August 2015

My Syllabus, in Emojis

One of the most basic rules of writing is to use only as many words as you must, and I think this especially holds true for syllabi. The denser they are, I imagine the less they get read, right? 

There's a cute version that my son's teacher gave him tonight that involved lots of tabs and you can download and edit for yourself here: Mrs. D's Editable Parent Handbook Flapbook. (You may have already had your first day of school, but maybe you could wow all of your friends with this flapbook next open house or parent-teacher conference night?)

Anyway, I'm not here to talk about flapbooks, because while I think they are good for notes in class, they aren't so much my thing for simply conveying information. 

This idea was borne today when a colleague of mine was trying to think about how to be represent the Teach Like a Champion strategy "100%". You figure you want some imagery that the students would really internalize, right? Thinking through how much our students communicate solely through emojis on Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter, I knew that the "100" emoji was just what she needed.

But why stop there? 

Tomorrow's syllabus will be supplemented with text as needed, but I mostly want my students to remember my procedures and expectations through emoji this year. 

Can you guess what each one represents? 

10 August 2015

10 Questions for Finding Your Classroom Theme

Yesterday I shared about my theme for this school year and reflected on past years. As I was writing that post, I thought it might be helpful to generate a list of reflection questions for processing through what YOUR classroom theme might be if you're feeling uninspired.

  1. What's the most important aspect of your educational philosophy?
  2. What do you MOST want kids to know after leaving your class?
  3. What is your community currently rallying around?
  4. What's the character trait you wish your students had more of but need some guidance acquiring?
  5. What piece of professional learning is most transformative to your teaching right now?
  6. What are your students most interested in (that you can wrap most of your curriculum around for relevance)?
  7. Is there a new tool you're super excited about implementing this year? (chromebooks/tablets, Google Apps, Google Classroom, PBL, etc)
  8. What's your favorite inspirational quote or scripture?
  9. What role as a teacher do you most identify with? (coach, brother/sister figure, mother/father figure, counselor, friend, etc)
  10. Are there any commonalities between the major projects/learning experiences in your class that your theme could connect to enhance the engagement/memory of both?

The last tip I'd have for you in finding your theme is to rephrase it this way?
What are you about as a teacher?

09 August 2015

What's the Theme for Your Classroom?

Anyone else like to have a “theme” or a mission for each school year to help you and your students wrap your minds around the goals you have for each other in that classroom?

In longer musical pieces, a theme is an underlying melody that returns again and again, weaving its way through the score to interact in different tempos, timbres, and volume with the rest of the piece. In a classroom, your theme would be what you use most of the year as you make instructional decisions, what interactions you value in the classroom, and how you respond in success and adversity.

Because our schedules often change some even at semester, I will often have different themes each semester, but here’s the my recollection of some of the themes I’ve had in my 7 years in the classroom.

The Prove You Belong Here Year
I went to the University of Missouri to teach social studies and later added on math and science certifications, so a lot of my first year was about proving to myself and others that it wasn’t a mistake to hire me. But even if you went to school for what you end up teaching, isn’t this really the theme of everyone’s first year? You do your best to love your students (for as naive as you are coming into it), but its really hard to not just make sure you keep your head above water and do the very very best you can with your inexperience dealing (as an adult) with teenage hormones.

The Standards-Based Grading Year
After a day of in-service from 2 Biology teachers in my building that had implemented standards-based grading into their curriculum, I jumped headfirst into feeling my way through doing the same with my students. There was a lot of (in my opinion) superflous data tracking on spreadsheets that they did (and the legacy continues upstairs in the science department), but the retake-prove you know what you know methodology behind it had me hooked. I spent a lot of this year convincing counselors, parents, and students that it really was for the best for the kids, and that yes, even though a kid with a 58% and a 20% on an assignment got the same grade in the gradebook, the 58% kid just has a little to remediate before improving their score, and that they would get rounded up in spots, too. The blog of Shawn Cornally was invaluable that year as I paved the SBG path (in the math department at least) on my own

The iPad Year
I got my class set of iPad 2s in January of 2011, so this year was really a year and a half. In this year, I completely rearranged my room to facilitate more collaborative work and as many tables as I could squeeze into my tiny room so that kids could spread out their materials without worrying about knocking the iPads on the floor.

I also went out of my way to use the iPads as much as I possibly could, figuring out what did and did not work for tablets in a math class. There was some wasted instructional days this year from doing things on the iPads that were awkward because the technology just wasn’t quite there yet or because I under/overestimated my students’ ability to seamlessly use the technology, but overall I think I took away valuable lessons to share with other teachers in my district that were starting to roll out some carts in their buildings

The kids in this class were also overwhelming flexible with me making mistakes because as the only one in the building with iPads, they knew they were privileged and that I was kind of making it up as I went along. :)

The Reading and Writing Years
Part of my iPad training was to get a semester long graduate credit through a 6 session course with the Gateway Writing Project and UM-St. Louis called, “Writing That Works” (That’s right, my IPAD training was about writing.) It was actually a transformative experience in my teaching however, because it was the first time I had REALLY been able to take some things I’d learned in my social studies teacher education (reading for understanding, group brainstorming, analyzing arguments, offering critique) and think through how those ideas can work in a math class.

This most often manifested in having kids explain their reasoning and tirelessly working on improving working vocabulary from “move that over here” to something more like, “add 4 to both sides to isolate the variable using the addition property of equality,” but it was baby steps toward behind more comfortable with having kids write longer pieces in my Stats classes as they explained experimental designs and analyzed data.

One of my METC sessions in this period was about using tech to get “The Daily 5” literacy techniques (1) in a math class, and (2) facilitated by technology.

The Ask Questions that Aren’t Google-able Years
This is my current quest that is carrying over from last year. Spring and summer of 2014 I had a great opportunity to work with Pathways to Prosperity in their teacher program aimed at getting educators up-close experiences in different facets of industry in order to go back and better craft PBL lessons aimed at replicating those experiences as best they could and reinforcing “soft” skills that NCLB kids are seriously lacking as the first generation of multiple-choiced-to-death-tested graduates.

Out of that experience I resolved that I wanted to work with data (real or made up) as often as possible in algebra when modeling and solving equations, that deriving and memorizing formulas was not nearly as important as being able to know when and how to flexibly apply them, and that whenever my kids begged for worksheets back, I was probably doing exactly what I needed to. I think the kid that begs for a worksheet is almost primed for a learning breakthrough - they want to be successful, and they think that’s the answer because its a little safer and more familiar to their experiences.

The Beta Years
A sub-theme to spring 2015 and this coming school year is the idea of “being beta.” I laid it out here in more detail last January, but its the idea (supported by the methodologies of standards-based grading,) that NO ONE is ever a finished product, and that the ways we grow fastest and more frequently improve ourselves with new “features” is to have an attitude that failure is just an opportunity to figure out what mistake to not repeat.
The best thing I did to reinforce this last year was to have students reflect toward the end of the year on what “beta” things they did that semester to improve and to then share the list I had compiled for myself. The worst thing I did related to this theme was waiting until the end of April to do it. :) There were a few kids that I had lost while doing non-traditional projects or treatments to content that understood the whole process and my heart in it after I’d shared my own list.

So what’s your theme for this year?

For me and my colleagues (besides what I just listed above), the spectre of #Ferguson and social justice continues to hover over us, but in a good way. We all understand our students a little bit better and want now, more than ever, to do the very best we can for them as a matter of equality than just professional code or intrinsic motives to "change the world."