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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.