Educational Insights, Victories, struggles, Parables and questions
In 2014, at the end of my first year of teaching at College Station High School, I penned this blog- http://amidoingthisrightteachers.blogspot.com/2014/04/it-takes-team.html
In it, I talk about the power of the department around me, the admin team, and my fellow UIL coaches. It was about a 3A high school units second year of existence, with just under 1,200 students and no senior class. I was teaching US History.
It is now 2017, three years after I wrote that, and much has changed. We are 5A, well over 1,800 students, and we've graduated two classes. I now teach Debate, Psychology, and Sociology.
And how I define team is very different. For one, there are more teachers, new admins, and for me, a new location. I've moved from the 3rd floor to the zero level, as I call it the "hole in the bottom of the school." I love my room, but I am no longer surrounded by my department. Or many teachers at all. There are four of us on that hall, two split time in a room, one is around the corner, then there is me. No one teaches my classes on my level, so I've got no level team.
While I am still very much a part of the team of CSHS, it has become harder to be in the midst of a team of teachers. At least physically. See, I have found that my team is redefined in a number of ways.
First, I have a team via Twitter. Our district Twitter chat #CSISDchat "meets" Tuesdays at 8 for encouragement and idea sharing- it has powerfully affected how I teach and lead on my campus.
Second, because my administrators saw potential in me, I was given the chance to be a part of the District's first ever Teacher Leader Academy. We (three other CSHS teachers and I) developed a risk taking opportunity centered around peer coaching and developed the idea with other teachers around the district. Again, encouragement and idea sharing. This year, my involvement in TLA opened the door for me to be on the Dream Team, an innovation think-tank of sorts for our district. More growth made available.
Finally, the most important new members of my team.
Yes, one of the most powerful teams I have found is my class full of students. I've learned to listen to their voice, their ideas, and how they want to learn. It's challenged me to create a new way to run a classroom, to design it, and to share content. When teachers (and admins) put together teams, we MUST consider the students.
In 2014, I discovered the power of a team at CSHS. Since that time, I've expanded and altered that team, just as our school has grown. My role on the team has changed, and my concept of what a team is has moved beyond the walls of my school to my district and beyond. And it is no longer just teachers and admins- it's students, too.
Much has changed since 2014, but this remains true:
Back then, I saw greatness in our students. I wish I knew then what I know now- there is power in their voice and in their dreams. What greater things could have happened if I'd listened more to students then?
I am now working to finish grad school, then hopefully attain a job in administration. It may be next year or years from now, but what I have learned in my four years at CSHS and in CSISD is that it takes a team- teachers, admins, students and community.
A team is more than the peers around you, and without them, we are never as excellent as we could be with them.
May I never take my team for granted.
I am attending the Texas Association of Student Council's State Convention in Arlington this week. The theme is "Dare to Dream, Dare to Do." We have, in our first day, heard a speaker talk about daring to be who you are even when it does not seem to be as successful as others, the famous Apple "Crazy Ones" video, and Prince Ea's "Every Dies but Not Everybody Lives." I will share the videos at the end for reference.
They are inspiring and the kids loved them. I hear loud cheers and yells of "YES!" and other agreements throughout the night. Nearly five thousand teenagers and a few hundred educators are being challenged to pursue their dreams, find the real you, and change the world.
That is a great thing!
But, it is not the only thing.
"The Crazy Ones" captures it better than the others. They point out that innovators make the world a better place, they make new things, unique things. But it hints at something else they make.
If you have ever tried to do something new- I mean really new- chances are someone said you couldn't or shouldn't. Maybe they even moved to block you with laws or rules or even by poisoning the well before you had a chance to drink from it. They fed you doubts, they dosed you with fear, they strangled your hope.
But maybe, you didn't listen to them. Maybe you smiled, accepted thier advice with humility, and did it anyway.
Then another opposition arose. This time, it was denial that the benefit was real, or that it could work for others. Others ignore you, thinking your idea will go away, or die on the vine of inspiration. That is bad stuff, but the worst is apathy- no one cares or notices. It is said that many artists die before they are discovered- but how many innovators are NEVER discovered? Or are, and just ahead of their time?
As I saw students get excited about innovation tonight, I was proud of them. I was proud that leaders were trying to challenge students to take risks. But I was also uncomfortable sitting there, waiting for someone to say to the crowd, "Dream- but if you really want to innovate, be ready to be feared, scorned, ignored, and maybe even hated. Be ready to endure, to survive, to struggle. "
I learn much from Batman. In Batman Begins, there is a scene that captures what innovators must do, what "The Crazy Ones" did. Bruce Wayne gets it:
As educators, I hope we do not take on a terrifying symbol, but you get the idea! Bruce Wayne's father had done a great deal to help his city, but nothing was more powerful than his death. Bruce sees that man is finite, but ideas are something else. Men and women who innovate can be ignored, their work destroyed, but if they create something more than themselves, something dramatic (speaking on equality at the feet of Lincoln's Memorial?) something "elemental" (like an Apple?), something everlasting (name your religious figure?), something incorruptible (those who cannot be bought or watered down?).
Tonight, I heard again the phrase "Think outside the box." I have several educator friends who squirm when they hear that, because they know that education will always be in a box of standards and laws drawn up by people not in education. They say, "It is how you innovate inside the box" that has impact. But the box is dangerous, it is costly. And it is often so because of the colleagues who have grown to love the shape and restriction of the box.
I have made changes in my teaching style and structure and room this year. It is innovative, but it also definitely builds on the shoulders of those who have gone before me. My students have- by a vast majority- loved it. They have fully accepted the concept, and started to share it with other students. And sometimes other teachers.
There has been opposition.
Not blatant "that is a terrible idea" opposition, but dismissal that the idea works beyond my room, apathy, and in some cases, completely ignoring what happens. As a person, this hurts, this bothers me. I want teachers to see it- not as a way to wholesale change their teaching, but as a way to reach students and engage them to empowerment beyond their current levels.
But there are other educators. They have embraced, shared and celebrated what happens in what I call the CREATE Classroom- which is called the Didactic Cafe by my students. I have had blogs shared, discussions on Twitter, invites to submit proposals for presentations. I am choosing to see these things, I am choosing to see the students who like different people than when I had them in a traditional class last year, and those who are different in my class than in others today.
I am no Spielberg or Einstein, no Da Vinci or Galileo. I have not rallied a nation like King or Ghandi. I definitely do not have the bank account of Gates or the name recognition of Ali.
But I am an innovator, a dreamer.
I aspire to be a "Crazy One."
And they realize this: It is not enough to dream, sometimes you must fight to make it reality.
So, I say bring it on.
Let's make some symbols.
Sometimes things do not go like you want them to.
I have students present speeches all the time, and inevitably, eventually, one of them will make a mistake. How they respond is telling. Some pause for the briefest of seconds before composing themselves and moving on. Some request a do-over. Some press on, but the momentum is lost and never regained.
Some give up.
As a teacher, I try to let the students sort it out themselves. I encourage them that often the mistakes they make are known only if their posture or gestures or faces or words tell me that they messed up. Sometimes, the mistake is profound and clearly observed. I say, "So what, we all make mistakes. It is not the end of the world."
But when it is me that has made a mistake, or failed, or had a setback- do I tell myself what I tell my students?
No, I do something else. I reflect, I ponder, and sometimes I wallow. Sometimes all at once. Now, reflection is VITAL. But it must be with the intent to move forward, not obsess over the failure. In the grief training I do with teachers, I do say that yes, you need to feel the loss, but you must keep moving forward.
As I write this, I am there. I am feeling the sense of falling short, of not achieving what I had hoped. Right now, I am wallowing.
But then, I found this video. It is no secret I am huge Switchfoot fan, and have been since the early 2000's. I made their song Hope is the Anthem my theme for this year, but today, that song was hard to listen to. But the title of this talk caught my eye. Starting at around the 9:30 mark, Jon Foreman talks about how our lives are our instrument, how they require tuning and practice, and a lifetime to develop. He talks until around 12 minutes from that 9:30 part, so take a listen.
He will go on to sing Dare You to Move, one of my all time favorite songs.
Today, that is my song.
I am learning from my students, as I reflect on what I have done and could do better, this song rings in my ears. I am thinking of the student who just last semester took not one single speech seriously, and yesterday gave one of the most challenging and inspiring TED style talks I have heard. I am thinking of one student who finally found their voice, and another that is learning how to best use their voice. I am thinking of the students who have made bad choices, and are learning to make better ones. I am thinking of the students who felt crushed by a setback, and how I need to empathize with them, and today I can.
In the words of Jon Foreman, I am tuning. I am learning to listen to the room, to grow from my missed notes so that I can impact others- and myself.
I want to challenge you to think of how you are "tuned." When you hit that wrong note, what do you do? Do you power through, stop and compose, give up? As long as you do not give up, you are tuning, you are reflecting.
Today, I want to tune my life, make the needed adjustments as an educator. I am not completely happy with my song write now, so I will practice and work with it. I am not enjoying my song today, so I will listen and reflect to find a better melody.
So I ask- how are you tuning the song of your life (and classroom) today?
My debate students are preparing TED style talks, and so I modeled one for them. It went long, because when you do something you love, time flies. So I wanted to post this talk here, in case anyone wanted to hear what I hope will someday become a real TED Talk.
Each year in my psychology class, I show two movies. One is the Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It features great examples of states of consciousness, motivations, stress responses, and identity formation. Central to the movie plot is Walter Mitty's devotion to his soon to be extinct employer. The movie tells us that the motto of Life magazine (in reality, it ended in 1972 and had a much shorter motto) is this:
To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.
I love this movie. If you've not seen it, you really should. The clip below shows how the motto plays a role in Mitty's character development:
This is a vision statement if ever I saw one.
I am loving exploring vision statements. My class vision statement, prominently displayed in front of my class is this:
Don't tell me what I can't do.
I have to give credit to the TV show LOST there, but I use it to inspire students to think just how much they are capable of. It worked so well that at several points, when I was expressing something I felt limited by, my students pointed to the sign and quoted it back to me.
There is power in a motto, in vision statements. Yet, after a recent Twitter chat, I came to realize how few teachers have a vision statement for their classroom. Sure, they have a campus vision statement, but do they have one for their own unique culture?
And so, as I watched Walter Mitty again, I was once again struck by the motto of Life, and thought how it could apply to, and maybe inspire, our teachers. So, here is my paraphrase:
At the heart of this motto is not content. It is not curriculum. It is not instruction.
It is relationships.
How do we teach? With fact streams? With textbooks? With lectures? With discussion? With powerpoint or Prezi?
If we do not teach with heart, with vision- it doesn't matter.
So, if you do not have a vision statement for your class, what would you like it to be? I want to challenge you to seek vision, to define your purpose and goal- beyond teaching the curriculum.
Vision and heart- the two ingredients for great teachers that cannot be left out.
I say "student voice," and you hear a lot of things. Some people hear a music component, some hear discipline, others hear political activism.
Some just hear white noise.
This is last one concerns me. I am not a fan of insider talk or jargon, because it can alienate those not initiated to the terminology. It becomes white noise. I don't want people to lose sight of the powerful things happening in student voice- so I need to define what I mean when I say it.
In my classroom and my observations of other educators' work in student voice, I have identified four levels: student talk, student inquiry, oracy, and empowerment. I'd like to take this opportunity to check these levels- and clear up any fuzziness about student voice.
I think many teachers hear "student voice" and this image comes to mind:
Honestly, that's what I thought it was when I started this journey. Student voice equaled engagement in my mind- that was the goal. But I've discovered that getting students to talk- to engage- is just the beginning. It's no higher than level 3 on the dial.
But its still student voice, it is still important. My students often report classes where they don't get to or don't attempt to talk. They report that classes where they get to talk, even if it is only to respond to direct questions, are still more engaging than straight lecture. The reason that the level of student voice is low for student talk is because it lacks depth. It's not about the student analyzing and interpreting, just communicating and trying out answers. So, let's turn it up a level.
If student talk is about answering questions, inquiry is about students asking the questions. Here, students create questions, problems, and scenarios and pose these questions to themselves and each other. The student led discussions I start my class with are often at this level of student voice- up to a level 5. I've seen Dan Meyer talk about students designing math questions for their peers, and I image it's a small step to students designing experiments in their science classes.
Here, the levels begin to mix, some students inquire, others talk- but the basic engagement now begins to add up to a fuller sound, a more robust voice experience.
Ah, now we're talking!
Students are asking and answering their own questions and it is...chaos?
That is what some teachers fear- "I loose my grip on the class and it goes off topic, or the students don't actually listen to each other and no learning happens."
Enter oracy, and we go to level 8.
Oracy is defined by Merriam Webster as "proficiency in oral expression and comprehension." Why does that matter in math or science? Because if we can learn to be proficient in our math and science talk,we can gain deeper understanding, just like in language arts, debate and social studies.
But I still come back to how School 21 in England defines oracy, in this video:
I remind you- those are elementary students.
Our political leaders do not speak that respectfully or artfully.
Now imagine what you could do if your classes successfully combined talk, inquiry and oracy!
To paraphrase Spinal Tap, "Let's turn it up to 11!"
That is empowerment. Students talk with each other, ask the questions, communicate with skill and now we give them a chance to do something with it. Invite them to sit on school committees, have them write their politicians, gain an audience with the administration and school board.
And then we listen. And then we respond.
And then we are changed.
See, if student voice gets turned all the way up, there will be change. There will be innovation.
We must not fear student empowerment, but embrace it.
Our classrooms should be laboratories that develop leaders and let them test their skills. Student voice is how we do it. And there is no better place to explore the road to empowerment than our classrooms- we can guide the students so that they use their voice not in selfish ways, but in ways to help others. Student voice creates collaboration, unity, and a family. And we will raise the level of voice together, as our students learn to count and analyze and read and argue and learn from the past and create with open minds and words from the heart.
Let's raise the volume!
Over my teaching career, I have had a lot of observers. Administrators, teachers from my campus, teachers from other campuses, college student observers, Central Office administrators. On Friday, I had the most important observer I've ever had.
My 12 year old daughter Leslie.
She woke up with a migraine, and since neither her mother or I could really miss that day, we decided she could come to my class since it had low lights, and see if that could help. Fortunately, it did, and before long, Leslie felt well enough that I made a suggestion- why don't you take notes on the classes, and tell me what you think.
Boy, did she.
For each class, she made observations on student engagement, student behavior, and measured student understanding. Throughout the blog, I will post pictures of her notes- with class designates removed. Since most of these notes were about the students, I wanted to take the chance with this blog to get her thoughts on me as a teacher, and the classroom environment and culture as a whole. Here are the responses:
Me: Alright Leslie, let's start- what where your thoughts on the physical design of the classroom- seating, lights, smells, and stuff?
Leslie: I think that it can make kids feel more at home like with the couches and the comfy chairs, rather than in a classroom with desks and regular chairs. I think that flexible seating helps students focus because the pick where they sit so they can see better and hear better. I like it better because after a little bit you can get sore and lose focus because it's an uncomfortable seat.
Me: OK, so you also saw the Coffee Talk- our student led discussion. What did you think about that?
Leslie: I think that it's a smart idea to let the kids recap what they have already learned about, then tell the other kids to tell the leader something they like about them.
Me: Why is it important to let the students recap, instead of just doing review questions that people do individually, like in regular bell work?
Leslie: I think that it's better than bell work because you can say what you want to say with more emotion rather than writing it on paper.
Me: We are also doing the positive "Say something nice" version. Did this work, and why do you think it is important to tell each other nice things about each other?
Leslie: I think it is important because it can help people feel confident in them self and i do think it works very well.
Me: You saw classes of debate and Psychology- did you think the students and I connected well regarding the lessons- did they understand what they were supposed to?
Leslie: I saw that y'all understood what each other were trying to say, and the way you worded your questions helped the students understand what you were asking.
Me: Would you say the students had a lot of say in what and how they learned, or did I just tell them?
Leslie: I think they had it in control and you just help move the conversation along and keep them on track.
Me. Alright, so here is the toughest thing I am going to ask you- as a teacher- how did I do? Also, what did I do that you DID like, and what did I do that you DID NOT like? Be honest!
Leslie: You did a good job as a teacher, I would definitely want to have you as one of my teachers. I liked how you would try to get to everyone who had their hand up and then try to get to people who didn't have their hand up. Maybe something you could work on is trying something like a hand motion or chant to get the students attention.
Me: In your opinion- what makes a class a good class to be in? If you could tell your teacher 3 things that would help you learn more effectively, what would they be?
Leslie: The 3 things to help me learn more effectively would be flexible seating because I like pick where I can sit so I can be more focused, the second thing is the teacher being able to laugh with the students about something they said or did or anything like that, and the third thing is making the class laugh at a story that happened to them or in their lives or at a video or something like that. Something that would make a class a good class to be in would be to let the kids tell the class (if they want to) about something that happened to them whether it be something good or bad.
I believe strongly in the power of student voice- even when the student is my own child. I must admit, I was a bit nervous asking her to share- I had no idea whether or not she'd like my class or me as a teacher.
But that isn't the point, anyway. The biggest point to make here is this- students of any age can and should have a voice in how their classes work. That is student voice, that is student empowerment.
Ever been so wrapped up in your own head and your own self that you missed what was going on with others? Ever done something that benefited you, but disenfranchised another? Ever taken the easy way out, knowing it wasn't the best for students? Or your peers?
I'm finding myself in a place of a bit of conviction about pride, selfishness and arrogance. As an educator, that is a horrible trifecta.
We've all had selfish days. Many of us have ambition, but can sometimes forget Education is about relationships- and ambition must never trump relationships- I am sorry for sometimes forgetting that.
I am eager to grow as an educator and I believe in the methods I use to reach students. In my zeal, I may come across as arrogant- I am sorry.
I have been impatient with students and hypocritically slow to respond at times. This is me putting myself before students- I am sorry.
If if I have missed your request for aid, or not given you the time you need, or acknowledged your concern- I am sorry.
I share this this because I am coming to recognize that as I seek to increase student voice, I need to model transparency and honesty. I have come to feel that I have fallen into habits reflected in the confessions above, and I wanted to express my regret because teaching is collaborative with our peers, and with our students. Pride and selfishness get in the way of that.
So my goals from here on are simple- be present for my fellow educators and my students. Be patient, and be humble. And when I am not- seek forgiveness. And if I am unaware, kindly accept an admonition.
We grow through reflection and coaching, but it doesn't just have to be about instructional methods.
It it can be about character, too.
Here are the final two components of the CREATE ClassroomL Timely Relevance and Environment. These two vlogs explain how to connect content with students in a relevant manner and how to design a physical and cultural environment that fosters collaboration and openness.
In chapter 6 of George Couros' Innovators Mindset, he opens by sharing a story of a cab ride with a deaf cab driver. He relates how he engaged the cab driver through gestures and careful mouthing of "Thank you" to close their ride. He then tells of a story of another cab ride, and another deaf cab driver, but this rider used YouTube to learn how to sign "Thank you." (Couros, 2015).
This story shows the difference between engagement and empowerment.
Couros goes on to argue- and I totally agree- that this versus is not like Batman Vs Superman where one is clearly better. (Batman) No, this versus is more about what they look like, what is the difference, and how do they actually work together(Couros, 2015).
My CREATE Classroom, Didactic Cafe, was created to increase student engagement. More conversations, more peer interaction, less napping and Snapchat. That was accomplished pretty quickly via Coffee Talks, our student led discussions that start each class. Engagement regularly runs at around 80-90%- which was my goal. These are daily shoulder taps and mouthing words like Couros did for his cab driver.
But are my students empowered?
Couros also relates that another versus exists: school vs learning. He argues that school seeks answers, learning seeks questions (Couros, 2015).
Coffee talks are student led- so the students are coming up with the questions- which is technically empowerment. Students are now taking discussions in class to administrators- mostly about dress code- but they are taking their voice outside of class. They are also taking ownership of their learning in other classes and with their personal time outside of class.
These are all things that have been happening all year in my class. But there is still a place where empowerment is needed.
Civility and open discourse.
We live in a time where civility and open discourse are hard to find. Our students see that, and often ask me what they can do. The answer to that starts with me asking- what can I do?
1. What should I do next?
I had already planned to try this, starting tomorrow, but I am waiting to write details until after I have run a few days of it. The plan is- Coffee Talk will be used in my debate classes to build each other up. The "facilitator" sits at the front of the room, and the rest of the class shares what they like about that person and/or what inspires them about that person. A little social emotional connection to empower each other with peer support.
2. Where could I use this again?
I want to see how this works, but I definitely see potential for it to roll out in Psychology classes to increase support and ultimately collaborative learning. I want to see, after a few iterations, what other benefits it could have.
3. What is important about it?
It builds a culture of support and collaboration. My students know that communication in society is not civil or kind- but this has the potential to empower them to make a change- to look for the good in each other. I believe this will lead to a more collaborative and supportive culture for classes, which will lead to more extended and impactful learning.
4. My goal?
I want to see my students see their safe place is not my room's physical structure. I want them to see the safe place is each other, and me as their facilitator of learning. I want to see students love learning, and feel safe to ask those questions that lead to empowered learning.
I plan to share more of this "positive" Coffee Talk soon. I look forward to seeing where it leads!
I teach Psychology, Sociology, Communication Applications and Debate at College Station High School, as well as coach the debate team and co-sponsor Student Council. I am an aspiring administrator.