One of my favorite tropes in media is the team building trope.
Someone sees a need and begins to cultivate a group of individuals to meet that need. You get to meet the individuals, see their particular skill set and just how they are introduced to the team. The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Avengers, and coming soon- the Justice League all have this trope.
What I love about it is how the individual's strengths play into the team's success. But at the same time, their individual personalities do not always mesh. The psychology of the team can drive or destroy a group. There is a line in the Avengers about this psychology.
Teams are a volatile mixture of talent and ego, skill and personality. Find the right mix, and you get amazing things. But find the wrong mix, and....
Personally, I am a Justice League guy more than Avengers. So I am eagerly awaiting November, and soaking up all the trailers being released. In each trailer, we see that there is a need for a team, but there will be some volatility. But I also think that volatility is why we love these team movies. If everyone just gelled immediately, it would be boring to watch.
But when it is our life, our classroom, we do not want volatility. We want cohesion, unity, collaboration. We want a team.
The truth is, our classroom is our team, our Justice League of Students. There are lots of personalities represented- we've got our Supermen, our Wonder Women, our Batmen. We also have our Cyborgs, Flashes and Aquamen. Each with skills, each with personalities, each with histories and struggles. In part two of this blog, I want to go into detail about dealing with these personalities, but for this blog, I want to focus on you, the teacher. Because, according to another great team movie, Remember the Titans:
It does not matter how talented or amazing a group is, if their leader reflects a poor attitude, so will the team. And....
Is your classroom chaotic, disorganized, and rebellious? Check your attitude to make sure you don't come off as random and unfocused.
Is your class sullen, disengaged, or checked out? Maybe you've been acting kinda cynical.
Is your class driven, focused and productive? Maybe you've set clear expectations and upheld them.
In short, check your attitude. It could be positive or negative, and the way you check is to read your kids. Their behavior is in many ways a mirror of how you teach. They can become like you, or respond to you. If you are condescending and treat with little respect, guess what? They will return in kind. When I am down, they can tell. When I am excited and ready to be there, they can tell.
You cannot control how students come to you, but you can control how you come to your students.
You may be a Batman or a Flash, a Wonder Woman or a Cyborg, but as the leader you must find a way to relate to each student. That starts with an intent and willingness to engage the students and meet them where they are. When you do that, you set the stage for uniting your class- or league.
The simple steps to start with today are these
1. Identify your attitude
2. Make needed adjustments to attitude
3. Read your students current state
4. Move to where they are
5. Create meaningful opportunities to connect there.
In Part Two, we will look at the students' various personalities- and maybe even identify your own.
Not surprisingly, the Coffee Talk (student led discussion) in four of my five classes today centered around the tragedy in Las Vegas. Students argued for gun control, countered with the difficulty of enforcement, and the fact that gun conrol laws will never stop all violence.
Students were, for the most part, humble and respectful and more than a little insightful. They were sad, some were fearful, but few where angry beyond what is normal when lives are lost for such...senselessness.
One student asked a pointed question, though- "Does it impact you personally?"
There intent was if we knew anyone there (I think), but the question is hinting at something that always lies just beneath the surface of most conversations in education:
"Why does it matter to you?"
In the face of yet another national tragedy, latest in a line far too long to count over the last few years, let alone decades, we can become desensitized, or even question why the things we teach daily even matter when there is such madness in the world.
But today, I say it matters all the more. We teach math, science, reading, writing, history, debate, art, athletics, career tech, and personal skills. But hopefully we teach so much more. Hopefully we teach character and kindness, patience and endurance. We should be teaching how to offer a hand not a judgment, and a second chance instead of a failing grade. We should, at the same time, teach consequences and expectations- though not in that order. We need to show that we care and are there- and approachable. We need to listen to the room even when the room is full of overactive kindergarteners (or seniors) because these are the voices that can save us from the mess we have made.
Why does Las Vegas matter to me?
Because if it is ever going to stop, it will not be because of legislation or destruction of guns or sweeping reform of mental health screening.
It will stop because people learn to be better. It will stop because we teach respect and honesty and integrity and the hard way that is sometimes the best way to make a difference.
It will stop because teachers- those professional educators and clergy and parents and peers and people on the street who are all in fact a part of our human education- show us why it matters to each of us.
It matters to me because I believe we can be better. And I believe we will be.
We just need to learn how.
And it starts with a conversation.
Join me, won't you?
I have never thought of myself as a control-freak. One look at my desk will tell you I am not neat and tidy, I believe that letting my own personal children figure things out on their own is the best path, and I am usually pretty laid back about life.
But over the last year, I have come to realize that I have control issues in regards to some big things in life. I want to make things happen, but get frustrated when I cannot.
I can start to relate to our students in this, and to a degree, I can relate to the struggles teachers have with the concept of student-centered instruction. At a training, I heard a teacher express this concern "Teachers have so little control in the decisions from outside their classroom, that they have difficulty letting go of control of the things inside their classroom."
I have control issues, sure, but not about surrendering control in the classroom. That being said, I completely understand and relate to the concerns of this and other teachers. Can we trust students to do the right thing when we give them power in the classroom? The short answer is not always, but the longer answer involves understanding that that is ok. There are a few steps and places where we can give our students ownership in class and also give them "structured freedom" to explore their ideas.
Every year, my students will ask some variation of "What is the rubric?" They have been conditioned to expect a rubric, and while there is nothing wrong with a rubric, I have begun to wonder if how we do them is limiting student creativity. What that means is this: are we teaching students to think, or think like us?
When a student asks for a rubric, what they mean is; What do I have to do to get the grade I want? They are looking for the quick path to an A. Students absolutely need to know the expectations, but do the expectations have to be so linear? I fear that traditional rubrics become more about getting students to align with our plan (and sometimes perspectives) than discover their own.
The issue is one of conformity. Now, when there is a right and a wrong way, we must teach the right. But more often than we want to admit, a student may be able to get to the right answer by a way other than the one we have used. Should we not encourage this creative thinking and problem solving? So I propose a method called the Balloon Rubric. We give a clear start and end point, and give some parameters to keep some focus, but we give a lot of room for students to explore and create.
What I have found is that students initially balk at this. They have truly come to need the strict guidelines of the traditional rubric. So, to get them thinking more in the Balloon style, I start by having them design their own rubric. It gives them the structure they have come to need, but one that they develop. And you have created ownership.
My classes have just finished their first round of blogs. What has impressed me is how quickly some have latched onto this method of reflection. Some blogs have been short and to the point, but others have had depth AND creativity. Some have made connections I was not expecting, and it is only the first attempt!
The first issue, however, relates back to the rubric question. Students immediately wanted to know what it needed to have. What lengh? What content? And I responded with a traditional style of rubric.
Then I realized that by given too much structure, I was actually limiting the range and depth of reflection. When I told them to include four specific things, I immediately cut down the possible insight they could have. Moving forward, it will simply be a completion grade where they can engage in higher order thinking without the limitations of a traditional rubric. I will still read them all, and comment on their blogs, of course. In fact, what I have read so far has thoroughly impressed- and impacted- me more than I had hoped or expected.
I may sound like a broken record to long time readers, but voice is the best way to student-center your classroom. Students want to talk. Letting them take a lead role in the class discussions - and even in instruction is incredibly empowering. It is also an excellent way to check student understanding. Much like the blogs, when students begin to engage each other in conversations about content, amazing things happen.
Not sure where to start? Have a student develop a question of the day. It can be done at the beginning of class as a review time, or at the end as a closer. I like the beginning, because it acts as a warm up for class discussion. Let your students develop a class problem, or give a literature review. But empower them to have opinions, and to express them. If you fear topics that might get risky, set some boundaries, have a "balloon rubric" in place to keep things on track.
For me, it really is like the Beatles sing- Let It Be. The hardest part about surrendering control is letting go. I hear teachers say all the time how much they believe in their students- it is the most common thing teachers say they wish their students knew.
So, let them know by giving them a chance to express themselves, and take ownership of their learning.
Let it be.
A few years ago, my students were learning about poetry interpretation in debate class. So, I promised to model for them what the performance should look like. I chose a poem to weave in with other poems (that's debate talk for 'edit') called "What Teachers Make" by Taylor Mali. And I chose the edited, version, for those who are aware of this particular piece. The piece starts with the question about teacher compensation, but over the course of the poem, Mali argues that teachers make kids learn, grow, mature, see the world uniquely and push the boundaries. He concludes with this:
"Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
Teachers make a --- difference! Now what about you?"
Even now, this resonates with me, and with countless other teachers. We want to make a difference. We want to inspire, to challenge and to have a hand in shaping our students. I think we are "Made to Make" as this Craftsman video explains/
I think we are made to make, but like the video says, somewhere we became more about assembly than creation, we make for convenience and simplicity.
Yet, I believe we long for impact greater than we see. We want to see students create, make, and make a difference in our world, but often we find ourselves bound to the structures and standards of our content. We want to see students make a difference, and we want to equip them.
We want students to see the needs of the world around them and address it. Two students from College Station did that a few years ago when they created Books and a Blanket. They observed that some students did not have access to books, and in some cases the comfort and needs of a blanket fo warmth. They went out and developed a plan and a program to meet the need. A small plan gained traction and exploded. Since 2012, they have distributed over 52,500 books to over 4,300 kids. They have brought national attention to a need. They have made a difference.
Another student named Srinidhi saw that there was a significant lack of interest in math among female students. So she began a program to reach them. Our local paper carried the story about how Srinidhi's program- meeting twice weekly at a local church- not only creates interest in math for girls but maintains it. Her impact is showing up in classrooms and extra-curriculars already simply because she saw a need, and sought to meet it.
Both of these stories are about students being leaders, being made to make a difference. And neither story was confined to a classroom.
This is where we as teachers struggle. How can we empower students to effect change beyond the classroom?
This question was at the heart of a discussion started last year in the College Station ISD Dream Team. Several educators met over the course of a few months and discussed this idea of turning student voice into student empowerment and action. Those discussions ultimately led to an idea now known as LEADS (Lead Empower Act Develop Serve).
At its heart, LEADS is about providing our students with an opportunity to become aware of the world around them- its needs and possibilities- and then help them to develop plans and programs to meet those needs and achieve those possibilities. The impact of Books and A Blanket and Srinidhi's math program has been significant, but LEADS is looking to amplify the power of students to effect change in their schools and community. Imagine not two or three students charging forward and taking a risk to better things, but four to six per campus, from all secondary campuses in a district. Imagine if these forty two students developed seven to twelve (or more) programs like those above, and impacted students, schools, communities and perhaps even more with thier passion, determination and drive.
What if we could harness the energy and excitement of a generation HUNGRY to make things better? What if we dared to look at them as leaders today- not just someday? What if we empowered them with a "YES!" instead of a "We'll see." What if we gave them time, resources and training to turn raw passion into a focused plan with materials and funding needed to make them happen?
What if the one that held that power to empower was you?
Because it can be.
See, LEADS needs teacher advisors. Teachers who want to see students empowered and equipped for world changing. LEADS needs educators that believe as much in their students as their students believe in their dreams. LEADS needs teachers that refuse to be told what they can't do, and refuse to let students accept that response from anyone else.
College Station ISD is looking for some teachers who are willing to take a risk and develop leadership and service ideas with students. Educators who want to connect with students that are inspiring and inspired should take a look at this application and submit it to their principal. This is an opportunity to help make something that is lasting, powerful and impactful to their students, school, and community.
This is an opportunity to make an even greater difference.
I hope you will join the LEADS team on this journey.
Feel free to contact me at email@example.com for more information about LEADS, or check the website linked above.
On Thursday, my debate class coffee talk was about dress code for the first time. This year. Cumulatively, it feels like it was the 1000th. It impacts our students a great deal, and I think it is high time that we as adults looked at it.
When I was in high school in the 90's in Mart, Texas, we had a pretty strict dress code. Even for guys. A friend of mine had really thick facial hair by the time he was a junior, and our school's rule was no facial hair. He would shave in the morning, and be given a warning and a razor by lunch.
My first day as a teacher at College Station High School, I mistook a sophomore for a teacher because he had a FULL beard. Like, Paul Bunyon would be jealous, full.
Times have changed, and in some ways, our school dress codes have as well. But now, I am seeing them not just as a former student and a teacher, but as a parent. While I was invested in my students' voice before, now that it is a personal connection, I am hyper invested.
Now, I am not writing this to complain about the dress code itself. I generally have no problem with what the dress code is consistent of. How it is interpreted, generated and applied, however, I do have questions about. And maybe some suggestions. But I also really want feedback. So, I want to briefly share my questions/suggestions, and then I would love to hear how various districts address this.
I have seen and heard stories of students reduced to tears by being dress-coded. I have also seen teachers and administrators make every effort to protect the emotional state of a student. It is an embarrassing thing to be called out for the way you dress, so we need to make sure we are still treating a student with respect and dignity. I think privacy and obviously same-gender dress-coding is most appropriate. What conversations do we need to be having about guarding our students hearts- and teaching them how to protect their own?
The most common complaint I hear is that the dress codes are heavy handed towards female students. I cannot deny this, as I have tried to reason it out. I cannot. So much of what is deemed out of dress code seems directed at female fashion. Beyond that, I hear the accusations that enforcement is not equal. There have been conversations about equality in how we discipline our students based on race and ethnicity as well as socioeconomic status, it may very well be time to devote similar energies to our treatment of students based on genders. Are your boys being held to the same expectations as the girls? If not, how can that be balanced out?
My daughter asked this, and I did not have a response: if we have not been dress coded by 3rd period, but suddenly are in 6th period, is that fair? I saw it as an issue that we have at our school- a student walks past dozens of teachers and three or four class periods before being coded, despite the best efforts of teachers. This creates an atmosphere of inconsistency for students, but it also can lead to friction between teachers. One teacher is seen as overly strict, another too lenient- and then judgment of each other is imminent. How can we address this issue effectively?
How is dress code developed in your district? I would imagine most come from the school board, or maybe even district administration- especially in larger districts with multiple campuses. One student asked me this in class, during our discussion. When I told them where it comes from in our district, one responded- "Why don't they ask us?"
Why don't we have student input on the dress code? I am not saying students design it all, but I think they should definitely be allowed to air their concerns.
As a teacher, a parent, and an aspiring administrator, I like to ask the questions about the systems we operate under. Like our students, I think we need to understand the why's behind our rules. Sometimes, when we ask the question, we realize that our why is not relevant any longer- or more relevant than it has ever been.
We cannot be afraid to talk about the issues that impact our schools on a day to day basis. In some ways, it is easier to talk about school finance or STAAR or teacher unions than it is things like dress code. All of those things have an effect on students, no doubt. But things like dress code are the things that the students are aware of, and therefore are the things THEY care about.
And if students care about it, so should we.
If you have walked into a tall building and seen the dreaded "elevator out of order" sign, then you know the importance of an elevator. It gets you where you need to go with minimal effort- but if it does not meet you where you are- it does not fulfill its purpose.
And the one that feels the pain is the one who has to use the stairs.
I have come to believe that teachers are educational elevators. We are there to raise a students understanding by making their path to success more accessible. But the key for us is to meet the students where they are. If the elevator only goes down to the third floor, you have to walk up three floors to get to that elevator that takes you where you want to go. Is the elevator really doing what it was meant to do?
I think the most obvious example of educational elevators is in content.
I started my educational career as a math lab assistant at an elementary school, performing interventions with students in kinder through second grade who were falling behind. Every day, I had to gauge where the students' understanding was, and move my instructional strategy to where they were. This was more than just "can they add and subtract," as I would show five manipulatives, hide two behind my back and ask "How many do I have now?" They would answer five, because technically, I still had five. So, I knew I had to change my approach and methods- and not underestimate these young learners.
Now, I am at the high school level. We like to talk about how secondary educators are experts in their content area. I believe this to be true at my school- we have teachers who are brilliant in their content area. But I sat in many college lecture halls with experts who had no clue how to meet me where I was. Many of our students will disconnect and fail to learn if we are unable or unwilling to take our elevator down to their level.
Getting a baseline measurement of where students are at the start of content introduction is a great way to move the elevator. It lets you know what areas of strength exist, and what areas of growth are possible. That allows me to shape instruction moving forward, spending more time in areas of greatest need. In a less formal manner, you engaging in open conversation in and around class time is a great formative assessment.
I can never expect students to just understand what I am talking about. I will have to work to move toward their understanding to bring them where they need to be. That takes relationships. I would never set foot in an elevator that has holes in the floor, exposed wiring and groans and complains with every movement. Teachers need to develop warm class environments- physically or emotionally or both- that are welcoming to students.
Educational elevators must be accessible and inviting to fulfill thier purpose.
In a conversation with fellow educators and school stakeholders, we discussed how to best reach our school sub-populations that were underperforming. In the course of the conversation, we turned to finding ways to engage parents, and get them on board with the district's approach to educating students. It came up that we do offer opportunities to come to our schools often, but the parents that come are the ones we have already established a relationship with. The parents we need to connect with are the ones that never come.
So, it was asked, why don't we go to them?
When I was a minister, we often talked about the flaw in modern American churches that expected the people to come to them. "We have services every Sunday and Wednesday, we are a big building, and they know where to find us." All true statements- churches are nothing if not consistent. But there is often a shortage of reaching out- unless you are missionary minded.
Schools could claim the same thing- we are open every day, we have big, distinct buildings, and they know where we are. We even send home emails and flyers. But it always comes from a stationary approach. Come to tutorials, come to events, come see us.
When do we take education to them?
I feel that schools are beginning to adopt a more missionary mindset in regards to parent outreach. At least two schools in my district had events where teachers went to neighborhoods of their students to establish relationships. One gave out sno-cones in a neighborhood park, allowing them to meet large numbers of the students they were going to serve. Todd Nesloney and Adam Welcome share in Kids Deserve It events they have done that go to where the hard to reach parents are. Offering food is always a good idea, by the way.
Educational elevators must be mobile, or they are not meeting thier purpose.
You Gotta Get On
Personal responsibility is vital for students to grasp. As educators, we tend to blame ourselves for everything that does not work with students. Yet I know educators who have done EVERYTHING to reach students and nothing happens.
When an elevator door opens, appears safe, and meets you where you are, it has done everything it can to meet your needs. You gotta get on for it to fulfill its purpose.
Some students simply will not get on your educational elevator.
Do not take this personally. But at the same time, even if a student has called for you a dozen times in one day, and you have met them where they are every time with no response, we must be willing to answer every call, every time.
But ultimately, our students must make the choice to raise their understanding.
Educational elevators have to always be available, even to the students who are reluctant to get on board.
Education is about growth, movement, and progress. Yet it can become very easy for us to get fixed in one position or approach to education. Flexibility is a core characteristic of educational elevators, and one we need to constantly maintain.
One word of caution to you as an educational elevator- don't take on too much.
One summer I was at a Student Council camp as a sponsor, and too many people got on the elevator in the dorms. It got stuck. For two hours. Thankfully for me, I saw the overload and did not get on. Not so fortunate for the sixteen or so people who were on it.
Know your limits- what you can do and can't, where you can help and where you can't. Know who to turn kids two when the weight is too much.
Do whatever it takes to get students to success, even if you are not the one to get them there.
I started the 2016-2017 school year with high hopes. 2016 ended well, lots of momentum and great possibilities abounded. Then 2017 hit.
I stood in my kitchen last night talking with my wife Kristin about how disappointing 2017 has been for me. I have had two interviews for admin positions that did not result in jobs, and a couple other times I did not even get an interview. We put our house on the market in College Station, where houses sell in days or weeks at the most- ours went on the market almost a month ago with no offers anywhere in sight. Then, as I was expressing my frustration, I pulled out some cling wrap to cover the cake we had just made and there just wasn't enough to cover it.
I just can't catch a break.
This year, you will have students who just can't catch a break. They will enter your room with hopes for the year- or they will enter with desperation that it will be just another year of the same. How do we connect with them, how do we meet them where their need is?
If my struggle through 2017 has any value, it is in learning how to empathize with students in three areas:
High Achievers Not Achieving
I want to be an admin. I have worked hard over a short time in education. I have had success in and out of the classroom, but I have not yet achieved a goal I set for myself. Well meaning people tell me that I am talented, but the timing is not right, or to keep in mind that I have only been an educator for five years, or that there are a lot of talented people out there as well looking for jobs.
Now imagine an AP student expresses frustration with not getting the score they hoped for, or another student out-performing them. Would you tell them that there are a lot of talented kids that are just better than them? Would you tell them they are just juniors and they have plenty of time to be a high achiever?
I sure hope not.
Understand this- high achieving students are driven, focused, competitive, impatient, and hungry. When they struggle, they do not want to be told how close they are, they want to know how to get there. They want to solve the issues that are keeping them from success. They take defeat personally. So, we need to recognize that they are in fact grieving for low performance outcomes. It is emotional and personal when they do not achieve as they hoped they would. They do not need platitudes and patience, they need practical steps on how to move forward. What can they do to improve? So begin a dialogue, ask them questions to get them thinking, and provide them opportunities to practice their practical steps.
Low Achievers Not Achieving
Our house has been on the market for almost a month. It is forty years old, but the bones are good and there is updated decor throughout the interior. It is in an established neighborhood with lots of mature trees and big lot sizes. It has a lot going for it, but no one wants to buy it. It just cannot seem to please anyone.
Some students come to you with baggage. They have something to offer, but no one seems to see it. They try- they take criticism and make efforts to fix those concerns, but it just does not produce results. So they start to give up. They let the negative comments get to them. They get weary. Telling them to try harder becomes an insult, because they already are trying harder than many students around them, they just struggle.
So, tell them positives. Always start with positives. And any negatives must be addressed as actionable suggestions, not definitive descriptions. Like with the high achievers, ask them questions to get them thinking, help them to own their learning. Find out what instructional strategie works for them. Help them find a success, even if it is a small one, because success can breed confidence, which breeds more success.
Students Who Just Have No More to Give
As I stretched the cling wrap out, desperately hoping it would cover the cake to keep it fresh, the telltale sound of the plastic pulling completely away from the cardboard tube rang in my ears. I tried to stretch it, , unfold it, rearrange the position- there was just nothing left to give.
You will have students enter your room this fall who have nothing left to give. No amount of stretching, unfolding, or rearranging will change the fact they are stretched too thin between home, school, work, and extra-curriculars. They are being the parent to younger siblings because the parents work two jobs or are otherwise engaged. They have to devote extra time to their sport because that scholarship shot is the only way they get to go to college. They are in all upper level classes and the workload has become more than they can bear.
These students have two options that you can be a part of. First, they can quit something. Maybe that is the need from an academic standpoint, but what if that second job they work is how thier family eats? Maybe the student can afford to cut back on something, we can help them through that tough choice. And it will be tough, for them and you.
The second option is make the best of what they have to offer. Find a way to help them be successful. Coach them, tutor them, help them sort out a schedule that maximizes their opportunities.
Both of these require you to be present for the students who have nothing left to give. That way, you can give to them.
We learn from life. Sometimes it relates to the content, sometimes it relates to the skill of learning our students are discovering. We must use our experiences to connect with students where they are- and when we can relate and empathize, we create a safe and trust filled place to engage education.
What is it they say about politicians?
"They will say anything to get elected."
Well, it is that time of year when many educators will be tempted to say anything to get their classes and campuses to listen. We are going to make a lot of promises over the next few weeks, make some big shows of what we intend to do, but I want to caution you:
It is not in the big things that we make the most impact, but in how all the small things will add up.
I am not against the big things- they have their place. But what too often happens in the world and in education is we make a promise or put on a big show on day one, but after that we never do anything like that again. The big thing becomes a sort of island in the midst of an ocean of the small things, and it does not connect with people. Here is an example.
I am a huge proponent of student voice, as anyone who reads this blog knows. A big thing for that would be to host a student panel where I got ideas on how to shape instruction and develop class environment and design. I would tell the students they get to have a hand in how they are educated. I tell them their voice matters.
Then from day two on, all their suggestions and ideas are ignored.
That's a big, glaring example. For most of us, it is more like we do some fun team building games on day one, and then never do them again.
If you want to go big, you have to maintain the small in the day to day. I believe there are two ways in which the big things can and do work in education- be they at the classroom, campus or district level.
Each year, our district has a Kickoff- some districts call it Convocation. It sets the vision for the year ahead by celebrating accomplishments from the past year and outstanding students and teachers. It works when that vision then becomes a driving force for the year. One of the best examples was our Kickoff two years ago when the district unveiled it's You Matter campaign. The very next day, our district-wide professional development was all about teacher choice of six sessions that were led by district employees. Both were big events, but they had an impact because they set up all the small things. Our district employee page still posts pictures of staff members that have been nominated for the You Matter Hall of fame. We have You Matter extended sessions of popular classes offered at the beginning of the year. We have You Matter post-its that can be shared with staff and students.
All these small things started with a big thing, but they have been maintained.
If you go big to start things off, you better make sure to engage in the small things from then on out. Because if you lay out a vision and do not keep to it, the people (students and teachers alike) will wander from the focus. There is significant research to the effect that a big assembly does not have much long term impact if there is no follow-up in the day to day.
Ten year old me sat in front of the television watching a bunch of people standing on a wall, waving flags and celebrating. Then they started tearing the Berlin Wall down. I had little understanding of the Cold War beyond James Bond movies and Rocky IV, but I knew this was significant and real, and not just because Tom Brokaw told me it was. Twenty plus years later, as a US History teacher, I read a book about the Cold War. That wall coming down was a big thing that was made possible by all the small things leading up to it. Pockets of protests, years of negotiations, and a few accidental little coincidences and mistakes and a people were set free.
Sometimes we start our year with a promise- do you work and there will be a prize at the end. I find the Culmination big thing to be more beneficial because there is a build of expectancy. In my class, we make coffee cup goals on day one, and at the end of the semester we have a coffee/hot chocolate day to celebrate progress towards those goals. Its a big event that students look forward to and we build towards throughout the semester. But if I do not remind the students of their goals, or set the expectation before them and hold to those daily small things, then the big event has little meaning.
The Big Small Things
Over the summer, I have really begun to evaluate the importance of follow through. If I make a promise, I need to keep it. At the end of last school year, I said I was going to write a book over the summer. I have, but it's not done. Yet. It's close, and I plan to finish draft one in the next week or so, but I will finish it.
Have you ever been promised something by a teacher or student or administrator and it did not happen? It didn't feel good, did it? Now remember that our students hear our promises and our "Big Things" loud and clear on day one. We cannot be like those stereotypical politicians who will say anything to get elected. We must be diligent in all the small things that make our commitments to students and fellow educators come about.
I spent the last week at an Advancing Educational Leadership certification course. As a part of this week, we were tasked with developing a vision statement. This is more than a motto, which I've talked about in this blog- http://didacticchad.weebly.com/home/the-motto-of-teaching
A vision statement should be succinct, but also descriptive. It needs to be powerful and compelling.
And it it needs to mean something, so that it is not a phrase you craft and forget. Here is what I came up with:
The three main points align with my approach to education, but also my own personal morality. For more details, let's start with innovate.
I must admit, my daughter Kenna has gotten me addicted to Minecraft. Since it's summer, I've got some time. I've been building a hotel, I plan to build a pirate ship. Kenna asked me, "Can you do that?" I responded "We will find out!"
I learn by doing- usually by doing it my way. It's trial and error, but I love to create. I do it on Minecraft, I do it in my classroom design, and I try it in my instruction all the time. But it is not just doing new things for the sake of new- it's creating to make it better, to teach more students. My goal in innovation is to inspire my students to innovate- to think about different ways to approach problems. I value the kind of thinking and the courage it takes to innovate, so it leads off the value statement. But without a sort of boundary, innovation can go wrong.
There are actually two ways I approach Integrity. One, the most obvious, is moral. I want to honor and respect others, and I believe that teaching students to find their own moral compass- and follow it- is about integrity. I need to be an example of integrity to my students, to model honesty and loyalty and follow-through.
The second approach to integrity related to how I develop my craft as an educator. It is not just about my students, it is about how I can share my ideas and innovations with my fellow educators. In order to do that, I must honestly reflect on the data I collect in my class. I must dutifully and honestly evaluate what works- and what doesn't. All in pursuit of developing my craft.
I have always been fascinated by the idea of identity- how it is developed, grows, and evolves. When I Innovate with Integrity, I develop my identity as a teacher, and my class's identity. A teacher needs to know who they are, what they stand for. It's what a vision statement is all about. But as I innovate in my class with integrity, I am providing my students with tools to develop THEIR identity. They find how the content connects with their life, how it informs their actions. How it becomes a part of who they are.
See, as much as education is about equations and poets and dates and skills, it's about growing into the person we are to become. As a teacher, I want to create an environment where students can safely explore identity, with integrity and innovation.
What is your vision?
Below is the final assignment I had to write for my final grad school course (YAY!). I felt it was a good blog post as well, so I am sharing it here.
In Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk from 2006 (https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity#t-550265),
he argues that schools kill creativity. He develops a powerful (and humorous) image of how in education we focus on developing student’s mind, “and slightly to one side” as Sir Ken puts it. He then develops a mental image of a college professor- what he argues our education system thinks is the end goal- who is detached from their body. He says they view bodies as simply a means of transportation for their head. These walking heads are incredibly knowledgeable about their content of choice, but lack creativity, they can regurgitate, but cannot create. They have figured out how to game the system, move up the hierarchy, but have- in my opinion- lost their own voice.
And I see the same behaviors in our students.
I have seen brilliant students struggle to order a pizza, or communicate an idea that would seem common sense to others. But they get perfect scores on AP tests and SATs. They will make excellent researchers and professors, but will they be creators, innovators, good neighbors, or strong parents? Is that even the responsibility of the public education system?
I believe it is.
I believe there are five practices and policies that we need to explore to educate the whole child and at the same time, address student fears of failure, not fitting in and of making mistakes.
I believe it starts with teachers developing relationships with students that goes beyond content- teachers must make an effort to know the whole child in order to educate them. Connecting at the door with a “hello,” making an effort to learn and explore their personal interests, providing them opportunities to share about their life experiences helps you get a better picture of the child you are seeking to educate.
The next step is Student Voice- allowing students to ask the questions, not just answer them, then develop their own way to understand curriculum.
The third practice is making relevant connections- students have been asking for years “When will I use this in real life?” If they have been asking it for years, why haven’t we come up with an answer yet? We teach what we teach because we love the content (hopefully). We need to remember that we had to fall in love with it at some point, and try to find out how to help our students have their own experience, from their perspective, that leads to at least an appreciation of the content.
The fourth practice is empowering students through hands on learning. There is a growing trend toward Maker Spaces and Genius Hour programs where students take their learning from all content areas and apply it to real world, and relevant needs.
Finally, I believe that students need to be allowed greater choice in their learning and how they are assessed. Tests ask for regurgitation, papers and projects allow for student to express the learning from their perspective. And their perspective is important. If we are going to allow students to express their thoughts, we cannot crush those ideas because they do not align with our own. Unfortunately, I have seen teachers do this.
I want to look more in depth at two of these practices, Student Voice and empowerment. I believe they go hand-in-hand, and easily build upon each other. Both consider a child’s unique perspective and abilities, and allow a child to experiment and grow to overcome fears by playing to their strengths.
Student Voice may be the easiest to implement, and the scariest, because for teachers it means letting go of some control over the classroom. Basic student voice is getting students to answer questions, and from my own experience in class utilizing Student Voice, the best way to do that is let them ask the questions. I start my classes with student led discussion- students ask the questions that review the previous day’s content or connect with a relevant current event. Students will respond more readily and often more deeply when a peer is leading the discussion. Once they start talking, I want them to learn to be respectful- not talk to long, not talk over others, and ultimately to develop an appreciation for other viewpoints and each other. In doing this, we address those fears of failure, not fitting in and making mistakes. It is easier to correct a mistake in discussion than on an assessment.
Student empowerment is actually, in my opinion, the final step in Student Voice. I want to see students take action on their learning and their ideas. This could manifest in a number of ways, from Genius Hour or Maker Space projects in math and science, to political action taken during a government course, or even students teaching a full lesson to their peers. I have had students design their perfect classroom and present it to teachers and administrators. I have also had my students teach a full 50 minute class from bell work to closure. Most recently, my students developed proposals to present to school and/or government officials about changes they would like to see. Some are actually taking their findings to those who can implement the changes!
I chose these two practices because they also address and encompass the other three. I have spent the last year developing these practices in my classroom and plan to continue to develop and improve on the ideas next year. Someday, as a campus administrator, I hope to engage my teachers’ voices and empower them in the same way I have my students. In this, I want to lead a campus culture of educating the whole child, so that they make a greater impact on the whole world.
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.