Where's the E?

Most teachers have–from time to time–encountered a completely random question from their students. It’s the nature of the profession. However, if you are a teacher of middle school children, you know that these random questions are not so much from time to time but rather most of the time.

For example, earlier this week I was talking to my students about an extra credit opportunity based on the grade they earned on an assignment. I put the grade scale on the board with the accompanying extra credit points:

  • 100 – 90% = A = 5 extra credit points
  • 89 – 80% = B = 4 extra credit points
  • 79 – 70% = C = 3 extra credit points

You get the picture, right?

Well, as I’m getting the students ready for the extra credit assignment…I’m explaining the steps, what they have to do, when the grades will be updated, and then suddenly a hand shoots straight up in the air.

I saw the students quietly talking while I was explaining the assignment, so naturally I figured someone was going to ask me a question about what I just said because they were talking while I was talking.

Wrong.

What occurred next is completely normal in a middle school classroom…

  • S1: Why isn’t there an E?
  • Me: What?
  • S1: You know, we have A, B, C, D, and F
  • Me: . . .
  • S2: Yeah, so where’s the E?
  • Me: Um, I . . .don’t . . . know . . . ?
  • S1: It makes no sense
  • S2: Yeah, there really should be an E

It was a question about the grade scale.

At this point, I busted out laughing, because what else can you do when posed with a random question like that?

I suppose some teachers might balk at being interrupted with what may seem like a completely off-topic question…and sometimes I’m a bit taken back, too. But truth be told, I want my students to ask questions. It shows that they are engaged…that they are thinking…and that they want answers.

Other reasons why I love random questions is because it shows that…

  • Middle schoolers are still curious about things
  • Middle schoolers harbor little fear when it comes to asking the weird questions
  • Middle schoolers have no problem seeking an answer the moment they have a question even if it’s not remotely related to the task or topic at hand
  • Middle schoolers are not afraid to ask me questions (Yay!)
  • Middle schoolers think I have the answers (Ha! Yeah right)

I felt the need to share this because I know that some teachers may get perturbed by the random question. But why? Isn’t the curiosity of kids one of the best parts about being a classroom teacher? I love their thinking and where it takes them. Oh sure, random questions interrupt my train of thought (especially if I’m on a roll)…but I have to say when I stop and engage with my students, it’s all worth it in the end. I mean, don’t we tell our students to not be afraid of asking questions because someone else likely has the same question, too?

I’m convinced that middle schoolers have tons of random questions that pop in and out of their heads. And I love the moments when one of them shares their question with me. Not surprisingly, their peers are typically curious about the answer as well. And it gives all of us a chance to be human. To connect. Bond. And better yet…to have a good laugh together.

Have I mentioned that I love my middle schoolers?

My #oneword2020

On our first day back from winter break, I had my students begin by choosing #oneword that they would like to be known by the end of the year – December 2020. I asked my kiddoes to think about the person that they would like to become and narrow it down to one adjective (or noun) that would best describe them. I told them that this #oneword would perhaps be easier to remember than a list of resolutions that many of us are quick to shed before January is even over.

And because I don’t ask students to do things that I wouldn’t do myself, I also chose #oneword that I would like people to use to describe me by the end of 2020…

I chose my #oneword because in the hustle and bustle of work, school, and life, I feel as if I’m juggling too many things…trying to straddle too many worlds…I’m flitting in and out of conversations, trying to pay attention to everything, but missing many things. To be clear, I am good about putting my cell phone away when I’m with friends, but that doesn’t mean that my brain isn’t somewhere else when it really should be here…in the moment…with my friends. I have felt very guilty about this for quite some time. In fact, in all of that craziness, I know I am not giving my full attention to my friends and family, and I should…because I know that life is short and that we cannot get back lost time.

So my #oneword for 2020 is to be present when I am with friends and family. It’s going to take quite a bit of effort, and I expect that I will fail quite a few times along the way. However, by December 2020, I hope that my friends and family will look back on the times we spent together throughout this year and know that I was present whenever we were together.

Wish me luck.

Teacher Choice & Voice

An interesting tweet showed up this morning which, honestly, made me shudder. And judging from the comments (in Twitterverse), quite a few educators and I are on the same page.

To be clear, I am not against coaching. I think it’s a valuable tool for teachers. However, that value is dependent on a number of factors including (but not limited to) interest and need.

NOTE: For the purposes of this post, I’m only going to focus on inservice teachers because preservice teachers need a different kind of support structure as they are new to the profession.

Interest: If teachers are not interested in being coached, no amount or type of coaching is going to work. It’s just not. Forcing teachers to be coached without their consent is futile. Just watch teachers forced to sit through mandated PD. #exerciseinfutility However, if teachers are open to being coached, then the conversation should begin with options for coaching: face-to-face versus video, realtime versus delayed, face-to-face versus ear-piece, peer versus outside coach, etc. Could this coaching support include bug-in-ear coaching? Sure, if the teacher is open to that.

Next teachers should be a key part of the structure of coaching and feedback. Teachers should determine whether the feedback is immediate or delayed. They should have a say in whether they would like the feedback in writing or delivered in a face-to-face conversation. The bottom line is that teachers should be an integral part of the coaching process, not something that a coach does to them.

Teachers should have a voice and choice.

Need: Some teachers know what they need, others may be wearing blinders or are just plain clueless. If teachers express a need for coaching, then they should be part of the coaching design process (see previous paragraphs). Now if the school leadership determines that a teacher needs coaching, the teacher still should be an integral part of the coaching design process. Telling a teacher what they need to improve upon is important, and all teachers should be receiving this type of feedback during the evaluation process (for sure) as well as during non-evaluation years. If the school leadership believes that coaching should be part of the solution or support, the teacher should still be part of the conversation regarding format, frequency, feedback, etc. No ifs, ands, or buts.

At no point should teachers (who are adults) have things done to them without their input. Teaching is part craft and part science (this is not the blog post within which to split hairs)–so yes, there will always be room for improvement. Students change, standards are revised, learning strategies are refined…no group of students are the same. Ever. Teachers who believe that they don’t need to improve are the ones wearing blinders.

If coaching is on the table (whether brought up by the teacher or school leadership) under no circumstance should the coaching process be dictated to the teacher. If teachers are interested in being coached, awesome. If they would like to have a co-teacher in the classroom with them, great. If they like the idea of recording a video of their lesson to watch later alone or with their coach, fine. And if they prefer wearing an ear-piece to get feedback while teaching, that’s totally up to them.

Teachers should have a voice and choice.

My point is that teachers should have a say in how they improve their practice. Although I would find it extremely invasive to have a voice telling me what to do (or not) via an earpiece, if other teachers are open to the whole bug-in-ear thing more power to them. Just count me out.

P.S. Yes, I’m aware of CT3. I didn’t care for it when I had to review the process in one of the doctoral classes. But once again, if teachers want to wear an earpiece so that they can receive real-time feedback from someone sitting in the same room as them, fabulous.

Just let teachers have a voice and choice in the matter, please.

Reflecting on Reflections

The incorporation of blogging for my students has been one of the highlights of this semester. I love reading their thoughts on what they’ve learned not only in my class, but in their other classes as well. Their honesty about their struggles and victories has been quite enlightening.

My directions for the blogging assignment were pretty open-ended. I just wanted the students to think about their learning and experiences as a middle schooler. In order to differentiate for the varied interests and skills, I offered students the opportunity to complete the reflections alone or with a peer (or two!). They could have created a website, YouTube channel, or simply used Google Slides.

Besides getting a sneak peek into their thoughts, the reflections also gave me information on how to better support my students.

“In videos and slides can listen (keyword “listen”) to them very well”

~ Student

For example, the above quote from a student’s reflection was quite enlightening. I did not realize that they preferred audio over written or visual media. Because they wrote this (knowing that I would read it), I have already reached out to that student to let them know that our textbook has an online, audio component and that I would help them access this next week.

Little tidbits of information like this allow me to better support my students. It’s no secret that student’s basic needs must be met before they can move up on Maslow’s hierarchy.

These reflections, while it may seem like extra work for both the students and for me, help me to better support their social and emotional needs. In fact, many of my students have been quite transparent in their struggles with algebra. They mention the stress from their parents as well as the stress they put on themselves. This insight helps me when I interact with the students in class as I like to check in with these students.

These reflections also help me to adjust my teaching practices. Many students wrote that they were worried about the Sensory Figure: Samurai summative assessment. I didn’t think that the project was all that difficult, but to them it was quite stressful. In fact, one student wrote in their reflection…

Honestly, I’d rather take a unit test and digital notebook.

~ Student

This was news to me, because the unit test and digital notebook are both quite difficult as they require students to move through the various levels in order to get the grade they desire: Level 3 (C), Level 4 (B), and Level 5 (A).

Interesting, right?

As I reflect on the blogging/reflection assignment, I believe that this has been a positive experience for all. Students have a chance to reflect on their learning, strengths, areas in need of improvement and I get the opportunity to find ways to better support their academic and social/emotional needs in my class. It’s really a win-win situation.

I rolled this blogging/reflection assignment out to only one class this semester (my GATE/PreAP class) to see if this process was worth the effort. And I have to said that it was.

Next semester, I’m going to roll this out to all six classes of students. I will need to provide a bit more scaffolding for them, and I will take the lessons learned from this semester and apply them to my new group of students.

All-in-all, I’m very happy with this semester-long assignment. I think my students know themselves a bit better…and I certainly know more about them than I would have without this assignment.

It was an adventure worth taking.

Create Your Own Star

I was having dinner with friends last night at a restaurant in Dana Point. The chef came to our private room several times to check in on us as we were happily grazing through the eclectic menu.

He was a young chef whose passion for cooking was evident in his face. He was in his element. The creations that came out of his kitchen were beautiful to behold. In fact, there were two dishes that no one wanted to touch because they were so artistic. At one point, he shared that he had the opportunity to work at a three Michelin star restaurant in L.A., but when presented with the opportunity to work in a restaurant in Orange County (where he grew up), he said that he couldn’t pass it up.

“Don’t chase your star, create your own”

This young man’s passion for pursuing his dream led him to the realization that he didn’t have to ride on the coattails of someone else’s accomplishments; but rather, he could pave the way himself. To be clear, all of the employees at the restaurant worked seamlessly as a team. And I don’t think that he was in any way promoting just himself, but rather he saw himself as part of a team who could make a difference in the food industry in Orange County. The restaurant doesn’t have a Michelin star (yet). But I wouldn’t be surprised if the accolades started racking up in the near future.

But the conversation with this young chef got me thinking. Why are we so intent on chasing the accolades of others? Why not create our own pathway…our own star to chase? The metric of success doesn’t have to be measured by society’s standards. Why not figure out the definition of success–our own star–as it relates to us, our passions, our goals in life?

I’m guilty of looking at the success of others and wanting what they have. It’s an easy trap to fall into. But I need to not chase their star…but rather, I need to create my own. What is success to me? What will make me happy? What will fulfill my need to make a difference in this world?

I became an educator because I wanted to work with children. I wanted to make a difference in their lives. I also wanted to give back to a profession that gave so much to me. I was blessed with so many wonderful educators throughout my entire schooling (kindergarten to doctoral studies) who have challenged me, supported me, and encouraged me to become a better version of myself. Their respective stars were theirs to pursue (or create). Now it’s my turn.

As I figure out what I want to do for the next stage of my career, I will keep in mind the words from this young, up-and-coming chef…

“Don’t chase your star, create your own”

“One Success Tells Us What is Possible”

This quote is from Payne’s (2009) book So Much Reform, So Little Change. I read this book in my Turnaround Leadership class a few years ago, and many elements struck me to the core.

A question was posed to me recently: “Do you think the leadership plays a role in the climate of a school?”

In short order, yes.

As a long time classroom teacher, I have seen reforms, initiatives, directives, or whatever you want to call them come and go. Thus, it’s very easy to slip into the not again mindset when a new idea is presented (or when an old idea is presented as new). It makes sense that after awhile teachers become jaded with the trends that come and go, especially if the school has a weak leadership at the helm.

What often happens when a school is experiencing a decline (it doesn’t matter if it’s test scores, school climate, etc.) is that someone swoops in with a reform that is touted as the silver bullet to the problem.

I have worked under six administrators in my 25 years of teaching–two of which stand out because of their leadership ability, integrity, and focus on what’s best for students. But they also focused on cultivating relationships among all stakeholders. These relationships were built on mutual respect and authenticity.

However, when a school has weak leaders in place, it’s easy to succumb to the trappings of a demoralized school climate.

In a demoralized school culture, one will likely find disgruntled teachers (Payne, 2009). One will also find instances of where a distrust of higher authority exists, and where the status quo supersedes common sense (Payne, 2009). The factors that lead to a demoralized school culture are multi-faceted, complex, and likely have been festering over time. But these factors are all related to humans and the relationships cultivated (or not) among them.

Reformers who are quick to jump in with their magic bullet often attack the symptom, but not necessarily the root cause. And that is why many reforms fall flat. But here’s the catch, Payne (2009) aptly points out that “knowing what happens on the average…is often perfectly useless. We need to know more about what can happen, not what ordinarily does happen” (p. 7).

So, what’s the point, you ask?

My point is that instead of looking at the pitfalls or perseverating on the negatives perhaps we need to look instead at instances of where something did work. This is where research and practice mutually inform each other. Or rather, this is where research and practice should inform each other.

Organizations are complex. Schools are complex. And humans are most definitely complex. The solutions to turn-around a demoralized school may not necessarily be found what didn’t work, but rather in what did work.

All it takes is one instance of success to tell us what is possible.

Making Retrieval Practice a Force of Habit

As I mentioned in a previous post, students need guidance on how to study. So I instruct them on the various strategies that they can use to help them remember the information as well as make connections across concepts. To that end, I use checks for understanding as well as various types of activities that require students to recall information (aka retrieval practice).

And we practice them. Over and over and over again.

The students know what’s in store if the following words appear in the agenda for the day:

  • Brain Dump
  • Retrieval Practice

Before I go any further, I have to admit that I didn’t come up with the term of a brain dump on my own. I actually came across this term in my Twitter feed and it stuck. The term brain dump accurately sums up the purpose of retrieval practice: dump all of the knowledge that one can remember on a blank piece of paper.

When asking students to do a brain dump, however, I think it is important to give them a structure. Students work better with parameters. The type of structure will depend on how you want students to make connections across concepts. Now, I’m a fan of Tony Buzan’s Mind Mapping strategy as I am a visual learner and I like to doodle. In fact, mind mapping is what helped me prepare for my oral comprehensive exams. I used a combination of mind mapping and retrieval practice for the six months preceding my examination date.

One of a bi-jillion mind-maps I created while studying for my comprehension exam as part of my dissertation study.

To be clear, I define mind mapping as a specific strategy that uses colors and visuals to make connections across concepts. Thus, mind maps can be quite complex or refreshingly simple.

I have taught my students the basics of mind mapping, but we haven’t explored the extent of this practice using color coded branches (yet). There’s only so many instructional minutes in a day, so believe me when I say that this is on my list of things to do with my students.

Onto the point of this post…

Our current unit is China (during the Middle Ages). Students are required to identify the cause and effect of the rise of the Tang Dynasty. I began the study of this standard by giving students an envelop with little slips of paper inside. Students were instructed to organize the strips of paper however they best saw fit. During this time, I walked around asking students to explain their reasoning for the format and order of the slips. When all tables were finished, I projected a multi-flow map on the board and then told the students to reorganize the slips so that they aligned to that format…essentially asking them to identify cause and effect.

Once again, I walked around asking the students to explain their thinking to me. If you’re wondering if the students had any background knowledge of the Tang Dynasty prior to this activity, the answer is no. Students reviewed information from 6th grade (about the fall of the Han and Sui Dynasties), but the information for the Tang was presented cold turkey.

Throughout our three-week unit, students were periodically asked to recall the information for the multi-flow map. They used pencil when writing down their recollections. The initial recall was done independently. I gave them about five minutes to literally dump their brain onto the paper in a multi-flow map format.

Students use pencil to write what they recall on their own.

Then students were given three minutes to chat with their tablemates about the gaps in their recollections. Using a pen, students added the information gleaned from their peers onto their multi-flow map.

Students use pen to add additional notes after talking with their peers.

This practice always ended with the students dumping out the contents of the envelop and organizing the slips of paper accordingly. After that was finished, students added any further missing details (in pen) onto their multi-flow maps.

The last step is to organize the details and add any other missing information to their multi-flow map (in pen).

We repeated this exercise several times throughout our unit. The last time my students did this particular retrieval practice activity, I passed back their original multi-flow maps that they did three weeks prior. I had the students compare their progress over time, paying particular attention to the amount of detail written in pencil from the first to the last multi-flow map. I can attest that students were amazed at the amount of information that they could now remember.

The whole point of this practice was to ensure that students were able to make the connections between cause and effect as well as remember key facts related to the rise of the Tang Dynasty. I always stress to the students that they don’t need to study what they’ve written in pencil as they already know that information. But rather, whatever is written in pen is something that they should focus their attention on because they did not know it first-hand. Middle schoolers struggle with time management, so I feel that it’s important to help them figure how what should be a priority. Pencil versus pen is an easy visual reminder.

Students have two opportunities to demonstrate their ability to recall or retrieve key details about the rise of the Tang Dynasty: a quiz and unit test.

Almost all of them rocked the quiz. Now we just have to wait and see how well they do on the unit test in two weeks. #fingerscrossed