The end of every school year leaves a gnawing feeling of self-doubt: What more could I have taught my students? How could I have developed their skills further? Did I truly inspire anyone? Did I change how they view themselves or the world?
As I sit in front of empty chairs and desks I’m trying to channel this self-doubt into self-reflection and identify what I did well and what I need to improve for next year. Although these reflections are primarily for my own growth, I find that sharing it with others pushes me to think and write more clearly.
Here are 3 of my takeaways from the year:
#1: Be Present
Like many teachers, I often find myself replaying how I handled a tough incident earlier in the day or mentally crafting an email I plan on sending to teachers on my team after school. It’s difficult to be totally present.
To help alleviate this, I have tried to make mindfulness a more regular practice in my classroom. What started with a daily quote, led to Mindful Mondays, and this year, mindful minutes at the start of nearly every class. These daily activities included short breathing exercises, stretches, or reflection questions.
Although I didn’t collect empirical evidence, noticing my own mental state before & after mindful minutes along with anecdotes from students, I am convinced that taking just a couple minutes to breathe, reflect, or move can truly help us be more fully present with the people and work in front of us.
Next year, I plan on researching more effective mindfulness activities and practicing them more regularly so it becomes a consistent habit for myself and my students.
#2: Really Know Your Students
When I’m interacting with nearly a 100 students over the course of a school year, it’s often easier to get excited about trying new tech tool or lesson than trying to get to know each and every student. However, I have never regretted the time I invested building relationships with students while I can’t say the same about the former.
For example, this year, I had a refugee student in my U.S. History class who has lived in 3 different countries in the last few years, and for whom English is her 3rd or 4th language. To make matters worse, she had an ongoing medical condition which made her really tired and miss a fair amount school. Despite all of these challenges, she worked harder than nearly all of her peers and earned a scholarship to a solid 4-year university.
Hearing her story and observing her determination daily helped me get perspective on my own life. It also reminded me that students are the best source of inspiration. While I do spend time getting to know all my students, too often my knowledge of each student stays at the surface level—interests & hobbies—instead of life stories.
Next year, I plan on making more time to regularly chat with individual students whether it’s during passing periods, conferences during class, and by using online tools.
#3 Break Free from Technology Addiction
This year I became more keenly aware of the harm technology can do to our minds. As an enthusiastic user of technology who helps other teachers innovate while utilizing technology this was hard to come to terms with. However, I believe, integrating technology effectively requires me to be clear eyed about its potential & pitfalls.
Watching videos like these helped me realize how social media is designed to leverage weaknesses in human psychology. Specifically, variable reward schedules via dopamine hits get people hooked which fuels social media companies’ ad-driven business model.
Also, reading books like Deep Work made me realize how the immediate bite sized rewards from technology has rewired our brains and made it much more difficult for me to work on challenging, thinking-intensive activities for long, sustained periods of time.
Finally, a couple months ago I read this blog post by Pernille Ripp, a middle school teacher from Wisconsin who I really respect, on how she is trying to get her students off cellphones during class. I have started to make similar changes with my students.
This summer, I want to make sure I’m using technology more deliberately by not tweeting and mindlessly reading articles while surfing the web. Instead, I want to spend more time reading books and re-reading all the ideas I ‘liked’ on Twitter and planning how to apply them to my classroom.
From debating whether I used the right approach while dealing with a challenging student earlier in the day or mentally crafting an email I plan on sending a parent after school, the stressors of everyday teacher life lead me to constantly think about what happened in the past or what I will do in the future.
It’s extremely difficult for me to be present. The same is true for our students.
To begin to remedy this, with inspiration from my colleagues Gina Gagliano & Robyn Corelitz, this year I’ve tried to practice mindfulness daily with my students. The “mindful minute” that we start most classes with has helped my students and me be calmer and more attentive to the present moment.
I wanted to share the activities I’ve used in case they’re helpful to you. Feel free to add the Slides below to your bookmark bar and use them with your students. I found that if I could easily access the Slides I was more likely to take out 1-2 minutes from class to make it a daily habit.
As more schools go 1:1, students and parents are demanding a central hub for organizing the rapidly growing number of digital materials teachers are creating. Google Classroom, Schoology, Canvas, Edmodo and other Learning Management Systems (LMS) have helped many schools tame this digital information explosion; however, as with any remedy, there are side-effects you should be aware of before taking the LMS plunge.
When schools see neighboring districts go 1:1 or adopt an LMS they feel they must do the same to keep pace with “innovative” practices of “21st century education.”
This chart from Gartner Research explains the adoption process of digital marketing tools but parallels my experience with education technology as well.
After a school implements 1:1 technology or an LMS the results too often follow a predictable pattern:
While there is some initial trepidation about having iPads or laptops in the classroom, teachers become excited and develop inflated expectations about the new, easier ways to assign & collect essays, facilitate discussions, grade quizzes, etc.
A few years after the 1:1 rollout, teachers often realize that computers merely allowed them to deliver their traditional curriculum more efficiently. Many also become disillusioned by the limitations of technology.
Therefore, a critical examination of the opportunities & limitations of 1:1 technology broadly, and an LMS in particular, is necessary to have more informed expectations, avoid disillusionment, and create a long-term plan for meaningful educational innovation.
Too often the structure of the technology dictates the curriculum & pedagogy when the reverse should be true.
3 Potential Promises of an LMS
Helps students & parents organize the multitude of different digital resources teachers use. I’ve heard of nightmares of parents of middle school and high school students having to bookmark dozens of different websites so that they can help their child stay on top of their schoolwork.
More immediate feedback on student work with features like a speed grader or peer review. Teachers can use integrated rubrics, voice comments, automated comments on objective assessments, etc to provide more timely feedback that hopefully improves student learning.
Access key dates & resources in one place which is invaluable to students that are absent for extended periods of time or need extra helping keeping track of their work.
5 Possible Pitfalls of an LMS
1. Limiting Students to the Walled Garden: Requiring students to submit all of their work in the LMS helps teachers track work completion and provide more timely feedback. However, it generally restricts students not enrolled in the class, parents and the world from seeing student work. Research shows that students produce better work when it’s for an audience beyond the teacher.
When adopting an LMS, don’t stop having students post their work to blogs, websites, public spaces, etc. Leverage the best of both worlds by having students publish some of their work online or in other public spaces while also submitting it in the LMS.
2. Narrowing of curriculum to teach what can easily practiced & assessed via an LMS. Most modern LMS offer robust tools to teach concrete skills: clicking hotspots on a political cartoon or graph; dynamic feedback on physics problem sets, categorizing a list of key terms by literary themes, etc.
It is relatively easy to create a series of learning activities to prepare students for objective assessments which can also easily be delivered and graded via the LMS. In fact, teachers could carefully tailor learning activities and assessments to show tremendous student growth—a key component of many teacher evaluation systems these days.
While creating curriculum that will be housed in an LMS, be careful not to simply do more of what can easily be taught & measured at the expense of what’s truly important and meaningful.
Often, the messiest learning activities that are the most difficult to assess—student-led experiments, simulations, debates, controversial discussions—-are the most memorable and transformative experiences.
3. Ignoring self-management: A LMS can be valuable tools for students who struggle organizing their homework and remembering long-term deadlines. Many platforms even auto-create to do lists for students to remind them what work they need to complete each day. However, a useful tool can also be a crutch if teachers & parents begin to not teach time management & long term planning.
While planning assignments for an LMS, be sure you’re not just creating a playlist of activities to complete. Instead, make a conscious effort to create a dynamic space where students are continuously monitoring their own learning and seeking out the materials they need to help them achieve the content & skill goals. This might happen through open-ended assignments, research projects, regular journaling, reflection forms, etc.
4. Teacher Centered: When creating a course for an LMS teachers are firmly in the pilot’s seat while selecting and assigning activities and assessing students. However, this reduces student agency and excuses them from monitoring their own learning and identify materials that will help them achieve their goals—-skills that are increasingly important to becoming “lifelong learners” in the information explosion of the 21st century.
Be sure to leverage more open ended activities such as discussion boards and wikis to charge students with asking questions, finding resources and charting their own learning progression.
5. Replacing in-person interaction with digital ones. An online discussion board can help ensure all students participate in a discussion especially more introverted students who may be reluctant to share their views in class. Similarly, an online video (i.e. flipped learning) with embedded questions can ensure all students understood core concepts and provide teachers with valuable data on which topics they need to re-teach. Migrating learning materials to a digital format is a slippery slope that could lead you to one day come to class and realize you have unwittingly stripped much of the serendipity, fun and humanity from your course.
Be sure not to fall into the LMS trap.
There’s a reason why it’s called a Learning Management System —too often it’s a tool for teachers to more easily manage students.
Deliberately seek opportunities to empower students to manage their own learning via ongoing portfolios, self-assessments, and self-directed research questions.
The national ICE Conference (February 26-28, 2018) was an incredible opportunity learn from incredible teachers, instructional coaches, and administrators from around the U.S. Although the focus was on educational technology I was especially interested in sessions that addressed practical considerations for pedagogy.
Here are my Top 10 Takeaways from ICE 2018:
1. Teach Digital Literacy by Modeling how to See, Think, Wonder and Create
Kristin Ziemeke (@kristin_ziemeke) made a compelling case for the evolution of literacy (just think of all the different media you consumed during the past week!) Then, she offered a few ideas on how to improve digital literacy instruction.
First, we must continue to improve students’ underlying literacy skills and love for reading by offering:
Choice: Students can often read a text that is to 2 grade levels higher than their current reading level when they get to choose the text they read.
Volume: Provide many opportunities to read; libraries are more important than ever in this digital age.
Authentic Response: Encourage students to respond to reading in authentic ways– informal discussions, journals, etc.
Second, while teaching digital literacy can seem daunting, we can model what we already do as expert readers for our students:see, think, and wonder. For example, we could project an image like the one below and model for students how we observe various details, then show what those details make us think about, and finally share the questions that arise in our minds.
Here are some resources to help teachers create tech (text) sets for your curriculum:
Finally, Kristin argued that students need to spend more time creating media, not just consuming it. Currently, approximately 65% of the time teens are using digital technology they consume content but spend only 3% of their time creating it.
We should strive to design more assignments that allow students to create infographics, videos, blog posts, etc. The process of changing ideas from text to visual (or vice versa) leads to increased activity in both halves of the brain and deeper learning.
2. You Build or Break a Culture During Every Interaction
Joe Sanfelippo (@Joe_Sanfelippo ) reminded us that every interaction, whether it’s with a student, colleague or parent can build or break a school’s culture. It doesn’t take long! In 30 seconds we can promote great work of a colleague, thank someone, get to know a student, and more. Make every interaction count!
3. Reassess your Gradebook
Joy Kirr (@joykirr) pushed us to re-examine what, how, and why we grade in our classroom. A large body of evidence shows that feedback without a grade leads to the largest student growth.
There’s no one right way to do grades; but, we shouldn’t continue grading the way we’ve always done it because…that’s how it’s always been done. We have to stop being the monkey trying to grade everything and push students across the finish line (end of the quarter, semester, etc.):
Sort the terms on the right into the categories on the left:
What needs to be included in the gradebook?
Late Work Penalty
0s for Missing Work
4. The 3 Keys to Successful PD: Learning, Experimenting and Reflecting
Kristi Sutter (@kristi_sutter) and her team at The Feast showed why all professional development must include time for teachers to experiment in a supported environment and, most importantly, reflect on what they learned so new tools & practices are integrated thoughtfully.
If you’re bold enough, practice radical transparency during extended professional development by asking participants to complete a feedback form multiple times. Then, read the feedback out loud and share what changes you will make as a result of their feedback.
5a. Affluent Students Need Grit
Dr. Kenneth Hoover argued that we’re mistaken if we believe the main purpose of teaching “grit” is to motivate students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Students from less fortunate families often have had to learn how to overcome struggles their entire life while affluent students have experienced few major obstacles in life. Therefore, when affluent students face truly challenging academic curriculum they often don’t know what to do. Affluent students probably need to learn how to be gritty more than their less privileged peers.
For their entire lives many affluent students have had parents trying to brush away any obstacles along their path like curlers during the Olympics. It’s difficult for parents to let their son or daughter struggle because we always want to give our children more than what we had growing up. However, if we want to raise a resilient generation we must let them face hardships and persist.
5b) Practice should be Interwoven, Varied and Distributed
Using the above chart, Dr. Hoover also argued that we need to quiz/assess students more often; not for a grade but to improve long-term retention. True mastery is when students can apply a concept or skill to unfamiliar contexts. To prepare for this they must have varied and interwoven practice.
For example, hitters who just practice hitting curveballs do worse then those that focus on curve balls but mix in a variety of pitches during practice—that’s what they’ll see in a game!
Kristine Ziemke (@KristinZiemke) challenged us to stop assigning “fake work” and strive to create opportunities for real work that is authentic, important, and relevant. When was the last time you made a diorama? Elementary school?
Have your students do work they will actually do outside of school. We no longer have to wait for the annual science fair to give students a broader audience; use technology to create authentic audiences and address real challenges that are relevant to students.
7. Address Teachers’ Mindsets before you deliver Professional Development
Cindy Crannell (@ccrannell) and Annmarie Clasky (@AClasky) shared why it’s important to introduce the concept of a growth mindset before presenting a new tool or strategy during PD. Too often teachers believe that learning how to use new technology is too hard; they’ll never get it, etc.
Teaching the growth mindset can help teachers self-monitor when they slip into the fixed mindset and try to move back into a growth mindset. This video can help introduce the concept of a growth mindset:
8. 11 Protocols for Creating a Culture of Questioning in your School
Kim Darche (@kimdarche) gave powerful yet practical suggestions for creating a questioning culture among students and adults in your building. While project based learning, genius hour, design thinking, etc are important trends in education, a critical prerequisite to any of them being successful is students’ ability to ask powerful questions. Unfortunately, this isn’t happening in most classrooms.
Research shows that on average teachers ask 200-300 questions/day while students ask only 2 questions/day. In an age where Alexa, Siri & Google are available at our fingertips there’s a greater need for problem finders than problem solvers.
11 tips for creating a culture of questioning:
Only Questions Allowed: Get brains primed for questioning by asking pairs of students to have a conversation but only using questions. Once someone makes a statement instead of a question, they “lose” and rotate to a new partner.
Dice Game: Post a topic for students (e.g. theme in a book, imperialism, climate change, right triangle, etc.). Then, in pairs or small groups students take turns rolling a dice. Based on the number they roll they have to:
4-What is your stake in the ground about it?
Rule of 5 (Inspired by Toyota): Ask Why 5 Times in a Row
Start with any problem (e.g. There isn’t enough social & emotional support for students)
Why isn’t there support? Lack of Resources
Why aren’t there resources? They misallocate resources.
Why aren’t priorities aligned with resources? The School Board doesn’t understand the problem.
Why doesn’t the school board understand the problem? They don’t spend enough time in classrooms.
These series of questions helps us get to the root cause of a problem.
Notecard: Write a problem on a notecard and ask someone else to solve it, this will give you valuable new perspectives. Too often we’re biased and don’t even realize it.
Universal Questions: Commit to memory and make a poster with these questions:
How might we….
Ask What, Not Why
Asking someone ‘Why’ makes them defensive, ask ‘What’ instead
E.g. Why didn’t you pay the bill? Makes us defensive. Instead ask “What happened to the bills this month?”
Point of View:
Present an issue then ask students to list 5-20 characters who might be involved in the situation and discuss what each of them would do. For example, for bullying students might list parents, teachers, counselors, school bus drivers, etc.
Shrug More Often: Create a habit where students and teachers seek answers to questions on their own. Don’t answer everything for them!
Follow every statement with a question: Help colleagues & students find the root cause of an issue by insisting that all statements be followed by a question (Source: Action Learning in Action). Without such a protocol it would be easy for discussions to devolve into a pity party. Here’s an example of the protocol:
Statement: We have a large issue with physical aggression at our school.
Q: How large of an issue is it?
A: It happens every week.
Q: Is it the same group of students?
A: Yes …
Q: Why is it those group of students?
Use Deborah Meier’s Habits of Mind: Create a poster with these statements for your classroom —they can be used in nearly every subject area. Deborah Meir created an entire school centered on these 5 questions!
Evidence: How do you know what’s true or false?
Viewpoint: How might this look if we stepped into other shoes?
Connections: Have we seen this before?
Conjecture: What if it were different?
Relevance: Why does this matter?
9. Portfolios Facilitate Student Ownership, Continuous Feedback and Learning Without Grades
Although I wasn’t able to attend their session, the materials Ana Thompson (@AnaAnamta15 ) & Lisa Berghoff (@LisaBerghoff ) shared demonstrated how portfolios create opportunities for frequent feedback and student ownership of learning—especially for ELs!
10. Students can apply Design Thinking in 12 (Fairly Easy) Steps
Sarah Thomas (@sarahdateechur) used her final project from the Google Innovator Academy to show how students can use design thinking to pursue their passions. She also shared the site Rock Your World (@rockyourworld70) which helps students address true global problems like human rights, discrimination, education, homelessness, human trafficking, food insecurity, women’s rights, and access to water.
Sarah has created a Google Form that guides students through the design process which creates a slick Google Doc to help students prototype & set intermediate deadlines.
Design Thinking Steps
Step One: Define the Problem
What is your big idea?
Step Two: Brainstorm Possible Solutions
What can you create or make to address the need identified in Step One?
Step Three: Research Ideas/Explore Possibilities
Do a search, or draw upon your background knowledge to answer the following questions: What similar projects may be out there? How have they addressed this need? Where is there room for improvement?
Step Four: Specify Constraints
What obstacles may be in your way to achieving your goal?
Step Five: Consider Alternatives
How can you overcome these obstacles? Figure out as many possibilities as you can.
Step Six: Select an Approach
Given the information from the first steps, which approach would be the best, and why?
Step Seven: Develop Written Proposal
Come up with a brief plan, highlighting action steps that you plan to use.
Step Eight: Make Model/Prototype
Try your idea on a small scale.
Step Nine: Test & Evaluate
Run your prototype! What worked well/what didn’t?
Step Ten: Refine/Improve
Figure out how you can tweak your model or idea to make it work.
Step Eleven: Create and Implement Model/Project
Go for the gold!
Step Twelve: Communicate Results
Use social media to speak about your experiences, and generate more buzz. This guide from The Sullivan Foundation gives some good advice, especially if you are involving students.
Teachers at predominantly white schools, especially those in conservative communities, may be reluctant to discuss race in the classroom. However, it is precisely in these communities that conversations about how race, ethnicity, and other social identities are critical for broadening students worldview.
Here are some ideas on how to have these conversations based on a town hall that a group of teachers and I helped organize at my school in an affluent, predominantly white public school in the suburbs of Chicago.
During the town hall we first asked a panel of diverse students share an experience that exemplified their experience with race or ethnicity in our school community. Then, we asked these students to join teachers who had signed up to attend the town hall to help facilitate discussions with their students.
A special thanks to Robin Vannoy, Robyn Corelitz, Billson Rasavongxay, Noah Lawrence, Cassandra Richardson and Deborah Powell for their ideas and support!
“Our racial history is part of our present, it is in our structures…in the ways schools are organized, in how neighborhoods are laid out, in the composition of our family trees, in the unconscious stereotypes that get primed when we mentally sort people along racial lines. We walk around with it, and while it is never the only dynamic in the room, it matters.”
4. Establish Ground Rules
Assume good intentions. Everyone is in the room because they desire to learn from one another.
Speak from your own experience instead of generalizing (“I” instead of “they,” “we,” and “you”).
Respectfully challenge one another by asking questions, but avoid personal attacks — focus on ideas.
Actively speak & listen — community growth depends on expressing & listening to every voice. The goal is not to agree but to gain a deeper understanding.
Be conscious of body language and nonverbal responses — they can be as disrespectful as words.
With the start of the new year I’ve committed to becoming a more reflective teacher by blogging at least once a month. Here’s my first post of the year which coincided with the start of a new semester at my high school.
NOTE: I’m well aware that this activity might not work for teachers of all grade levels or settings but I wanted to share my experience in case it is useful to you.
Whether you’ve long admired John Dewey or you’re trying to live up to Danielson’s definition of a highly effective teacher, many teachers, myself included, are working to build a more student-centered class. Here is one way you can start the journey from the moment your students walk into your class on the first day of school.
Be prepared to push yourself and your students out of their comfort zones by avoiding all the things we normally do at the beginning of the semester: Don’t stand in front of the class, Don’t review rules, Don’t lead the class through a series of activities.
In fact, do nothing.
Instead, let students lead the class, make a plan and guide their classmates. Set the tone from the very first day that students will be at the center of the classroom experience.
Before students walk into class have the following instructions projected on the screen:
Welcome to Mr. Chokshi’s class!
I’m conducting a social experiment to see what students can do on their own.
Please take your Chromebook according to the list on top of the cart and your seat according to the chart at the front of the room.
By the end of period you should:
Know the names and a unique fact of everyone in your group
Create ONE class Google Slides presentation introducing your partner:
One thing your partner is proud of (e.g. skill, character trait, etc.)
A major challenge they have overcome (e.g. family, socially, academically, etc.)
Greatest academic strength
Greatest academic challenge
Present your partner to the class
Return your chromebook to the correct location
If time remains, learn the names & unique fact about another group. You will be expected to know everyone’s name and something about them by the end of the week!
Then, as students file in, greet them but give no instructions. When the bell rings to mark the start of class, say nothing. I find it helpful to take a seat on the side of room so they know you won’t be guiding them.
While students struggle with finding their seat & Chromebooks, creating a shared presentation, and figuring out how to connect their computer to the projector it’s absolutely critical that you remain silent. Not a word. If your students know you’ll swoop in and save them whenever they face a challenge they won’t become accustomed to seeing their peers as their first resource.
Other than creating the norm for student centered learning, such an approach helps you learn within the first moments of the school year which students enjoy leading the class and which students prefer to play a more supportive role.
Doing this activity on the first day of school does require a little more prep work such as having a roster and seating chart prepared in advance; however, most teachers have these ready before the first day of school anyways. The most difficult preparation is mental: realizing that we’re not the most important person in room and that the class can function without us leading them.
Investing time to create a student centered class pays dividends throughout the year as students follow instructions with minimal guidance from you, ask their classmates for help first and, above all, direct their own learning.
You’ve collected exit slips, spot checked students’ homework, skimmed their Google Doc, seen the results from a Google Form, Pear Deck, Formative or Socrative. What do I do next?
In this era of student centered-learning and data informed instruction we know we should be formatively assessing our students frequently. However, what should we do after we administer the formative assessment?
What do I do with that data?
Here are 10 easy to implement strategies to help you make changes to your instruction and meet your students where they are at:
1.Plan branch activities for students to do at the beginning, middle or after class: if you feel comfortable with X then you should do Y, if you’re struggling with X then you should do Z.
2. Create a resource area on your website or in your classroom where students can review key topics & skills (preferably organized by objective) so students can easily review concepts they’re struggling with.
3. Have students discuss & defend their answers with partners & groups before presenting them to the class. This leverages peer feedback in a low stakes environment before creating opportunities for students to learn from each others’ mistakes while presenting to the class.
4. Bunch related lessons together and turn them into a project so students have a menu of activities they complete at their own pace while you help students individually or in groups.
5. Post answer keys around the room and write the next steps students should take if they get the answer wrong or right.
7. Solicit the help of their resource/study hall teachers. Email them review activities/ links to help students review concepts & skills they’re struggling with before a quiz/test.
8. While helping students who need extra review, have other students complete quick but complex challenges that ask students to think strategically and apply what they learned to real world problems. Extension activities don’t always have to mean doing a lot more work (for the student or the teacher!)
9. Ask a student or small group of students to come in before/after school to get 1-on-1 help. Often, helping a student for 5-10 minutes outside of class is more effective than trying to help 30 students for an entire class period.
10. Prioritize objectives, if all students won’t be able to reach a level of mastery for every single objective in the same amount of time, which are most critical for students’ success in future lessons, units & courses? Plan subsequent lessons & units to continue to reinforce those critical objectives. You can’t do it all in one day!