I normally write a reflection at the end of the school year. However, given everything that has happened in 2020, I wanted to take a moment to breathe, reflect, and appreciate the incredible resilience our students have shown this past semester.
Below are just a few of the experiences I’ve had since August 2020…I’m sure many of my colleagues have similar stories to tell:
Students continued to work in retail, restaurants, and grocery stores–despite the health risks—to support their families and save for college.
While I was trying to simultaneously teach in-person and virtual students, I would occasionally forget to admit students who were knocking on the virtual door of my classroom in a Zoom waiting room. Instead of giving up and emailing me that they tried but couldn’t join our Zoom session, students in the waiting room would keep texting their classmates to tell me to admit them so they wouldn’t miss class.
Students used the Zoom app on their phones while they were in the backseat of a car on their way to a doctor’s appointment because they wanted to participate in a class debate.
A student who tested positive for COVID, who could have simply asked to be excused from a research assignment, instead asked if she could just find 2 fewer articles because she had a headache but wanted to write a strong essay.
Students logging into Zoom late into the night while they were with family in Lebanon or quarantining in a hotel in China to be sure they wouldn’t miss any class discussions.
A big thank you to students everywhere for your understanding and perseverance as we helped one another continue our learning during a global pandemic. I look forward to making the second semester even better than the first!
Trying to transition a traditional curriculum to an online setting can be overwhelming especially as we juggle taking care of our own families. The biggest struggle for me has been feeling a constant state of dissatisfaction because I feel like I’m not reaching every student; this has led to a lot of trial & error.
Here are a few strategies I’ve found to be effective while teaching via video conferencing the past couple months.
1. Public Chat
a. Check-in: Similar to the small talk you make with students as they enter your classroom, post a prompt for students to respond to in the public chat as they join the video conference:
Has your family had a celebration recently? Birthday, holiday (Easter, Ramadan, etc.) How did you celebrate?
What superhero would you be to defeat COVID-19? Why?
What’s your most memorable experience during the shelter-in-place?
What have you been doing to stay active & healthy?
Where are you on the mood meter? Explain.
b. Gather Questions & Ideas: Write 1 discussion questions from the video you just watched; What activity has been most helpful in learning how to conjugate verbs in the past tense?
2. Structured Group Work
A video conference facilitated by a teacher can easily turn into a one-way lecture. You can more effectively engage students by deliberating planning for collaboration.
a. Breakout rooms:Canvas and Zoom allow you to create random or assigned groups. You can also move in & out of each group to check-in and be sure students are on-task.
Tip: Change the shared settings on the Google Doc/Slide so anyone with the link within your organization can edit so you can see what each student has contributed:
3. Checks for Understanding
a. Polling: Canvas and Zoom allow you to poll your students. The results can be great discussion starters (e.g. Do you agree or disagee with using drones to fight terrorism?) or check for understand (e.g. Solve for X: 15 = 2x + 5 ; A) x=4 B) x=5 C) x= 10 D) none are correct)
b. Hand signals: If students have their cameras on, you can quickly check for student understanding with the following signals.
Thumbs up, sideways, thumbs down: How well do you feel you understand the motivations of Hamlet? How helpful was this video in explaining how to balance the single-replacement equation?
Raise your hand if: You can see…on the screen ; You agree with the statement…. ;
There is no digital tool that can ever fully replace high quality in-person teaching; hopefully these tips can help you re-create some of the effective instruction you’re accustomed to delivering everyday in the classroom!
“There are no resistant teachers, but rather, only teachers whose needs during change have not been met. Not YET.”
Identifying and fulfilling teachers’ needs is the golden key to creating meaningful change. How can we use this insight to create more effective coaching opportunities?
First, instructional coaches should identify their own personality type so they can understand how their tendencies affect their interactions with teachers. For example, an extrovert coaching an introvert might need to remember to give the introvert more time to process questions when de-briefing a lesson instead of filling the silence with chatter. Or, if according to the Myers-Briggs test, you’re more of the “feeling” type coaching a “thinking” type, you might want to use specific praise, assume ideas will be debated without taking it personally, collect objective data, and don’t be offended if the conversation is focused just on “business.”
Second, after we identify our own personality types, we can begin to identify and meet teachers’ needs in a coaching relationship. Below are the 4 most common types of instructional coaches teachers want based on their needs.
(NOTE: Jane Kise deliberately exaggerated each type of coach so the differences are more clear. In reality, teachers will likely need a mix of multiple coaching types.)
Type of Coach
“If you really want to help me improve instruction, give me hands-on relevant lessons that I can use right away in my classroom–with tangible results.”
Useful Resource: On-the-spot tips, structures, modeling relevant lesson plans with strategies that can be used in other ways, immediate assessment data from students, answers to questions.
“Instead of looking at theories or general ideas, let’s set goals for trying one new, concrete task or strategy at a time. If you provide too many choices, I’ll assume you want me to perfect all of them at once!”
Encouraging Sage: Concrete experiences, specific and clear instructions, modeling, on-the-spot encouragement and help, strategies that can be implemented piece by piece, relevant feedback, clear goals.
“I get all kinds of creative ideas from books and workshops. Let’s add my ideas to your and together decide what’s best for my students. I’d love your thoughts, then, on how to make it work well the first time.”
Collegial Mentor: Freedom to be creative, options, assistance clarifying directions for students, flexible tools, evidence that students are engaged & motivated.
“I do a fair amount of investigating by reading or talking with colleagues, to stay on top of my field, so please bring only cutting-edge strategies. Have the theoretical background or research handy—I may want to look it over.”
Expert: Theories & frameworks, expert knowledge, assistance in making rigorous assignments accessible for all students, rich conversations, challenges to their thinking.
Finally, we should remember that teachers’ needs will shift throughout the school year. During the summer teachers may be looking for expert ideas but in December teachers might just be trying to keep their head above water and seek concrete, useful resources.
By understanding teachers’ needs we can provide the type of coaching that is useful for them and build a long-lasting relationship which can pay dividends for students for years to come.
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.
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.
Progressive teachers for decades (perhaps centuries!) have long advocated for deemphasizing grades, developing various methods for re-learning concepts & skills, and providing students multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning.
These ideas have found a renaissance of sorts with the the recent movement towards standards based grading, mastery learning, competency based learning, and allowing students to submit assignments late without penalty.
I am an advocate for being flexible in how students learn and demonstrate their learning, but doing so has raised a number of practical and philosophical issues:
Personalized learning helps meet students where they are at. However, at what point does a class become too individualized? How do we balance personalization with shared experiences like whole-class discussions, debates, and simulations that are critical for building community?
Students learn at different rates. Can we expect all students to master the same number of objectives in a defined learning period? Should some objectives be required and others be for enrichment? What does it really mean to hold high expectations for all? Are some objectives (or some courses) more important than others? Who decides?
Define a learning period. A class period? A week? A unit? A semester? If we truly implement mastery learning, should teachers or students move on to the next lesson, unit or class even though some students haven’t mastered some of the objectives? What percentage of objectives or students? What level of evidence is required to demonstrate “mastery”? Should a student be asked to stay in a course until they demonstrate mastery of the required objectives even if stretches into the summer or next school year? Should all students be required to stay in a course for a full term even if they demonstrate mastery of the required objectives sooner?
Mastery learning & teachers’ sanity. How do teachers manage providing multiple opportunities for assessments to different students at different times? Should teachers have firm deadlines after which they will no longer will accept work or re-takes? Do schools’ grading policies push them to do so? To what degree is it the teacher’s responsibility to ensure all students master required objectives? To what degree is it the students’ responsibility?
These are some of the questions I’m grappling with as I try to emphasize feedback & mastery instead of learning for a grade in the courses I teach and with teachers I coach. I look forward to reading about, thinking about and discussing these questions further and share my reflections with you.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend and present at the Global Teachers Institute Axis Summit. The summit was focused on education in South Africa but teachers from all over Africa and America attended. Here ere are some of my key takeaways from the summit:
Dawn Oler: Personal Connection & Reflection are vital. Use a personal Venn diagram to create relationships with students by finding what you and your students have in common. At the beginning of the school year share your life story and have students complete the diagram to see what they have in common and explain what’s unique to them. Also, have students monitor their own progress towards mastering unit objectives. This process is key to empowering students to own their learning.
2. Amanda Burton & Linda Korbus: Expect, inspect & respectmistakes. Create a class culture where mistakes are celebrated and become a regular part of the learning process. The metacognitive process of evaluating your own learning & mistakes is vital to deeper insights.
3. Baba Bantu: Decolonize our minds. Critically examine how Eurocentric narratives & institutions have formed over time. Actively seek counter-narratives and passionately immerse ourselves in cultural practices (languages, traditions, etc.) even if they are not considered “mainstream” or “normal.” Encourage our students to explore and celebrate their own cultures and develop pride for their identities.
4. John Gilmore: Set personal & professional goals every year. Our personal & professional lives are intertwined . Share your goals with others to keep us accountable.
5. Pam Bylsma: Make your values transparent. Nearly every activity and critical decision made in school should include a conversation about values. For example, hallway monitors can recognize students’ citizenship when they pick up trash that’s not their own. Teachers can encourage citizenship by debating social issues in classes & clubs.
Administrators can keep values (such as those highlighted in the Character Counts program) front and center by referring to them when resolving conflicts between staff or making controversial decisions transparent to parents. The following ethical frameworks can help students, teachers and administrators make tough decisions:
Harm/Beneficence: Does it do less harm and more good than the alternatives?
Publicity: Would I want this choice published in the newspaper?
Reversibility: Would I think this a good choice if I were among those affected by it?
Code of Ethics: How does this choice relate to the ethical standards of my profession?
6. Tania Ham: Understand Special Needs. Can you imagine trying to draw with your eyes closed? Describe a painting you had never seen before? These types of exercise can help educators experience the types of struggles some students with special needs experience. By better understanding the challenges students face, teachers can better differentiate & scaffold learning activities.
7. Sunarku Clifford Sykes: Connect & Network. Be a teacher warrior for your students—-the challenges many of them face motivate us to give it our all everyday. Nearly every problem we face has already been solved by someone, somewhere—connect & just ask!
8. Kurt Minnar: ring your passions into your classroom. Connect your passions outside of school to the subjects you teach in school. Even subtraction & dancing can go hand-in-hand. Keep students engaged and moving, then they won’t have time to get distracted.