Starting Today for a New Ending

I love quotes, I collect them and enjoy reading them at all turns.  Perhaps more than anything I like breaking them down, contemplating their potential meanings and considering the context in which they were originally given.  

Recently a friend and member of my PLN posted a quote on Twitter.

@posickj got me thinking about this quote and I’ve been knocking it around in my head for a while now…

I immediately thought of Growth Mindset when I read this quote.  What could be a better philosophy in life than moving on from past troubles and starting anew?  Of course the past is important and we can learn a lot from our experiences, but the chance to wake up each day with a fresh opportunity is certainly motivational.  I could go deeper philosophically with this quote but I’m happy to focus on this marvelous message as a positive opportunity for the future.  I’d like all educators to stop and think about how this quote can be applied to their lives?  Was it a bad class or lesson?  Was it a long and stressful week?  Has the transition to a new school and city been harder than expected?  In all of these situations, “anyone can start today and make a new ending.”

It’s been a long start to the year without any breaks.  We’re staring down a five day weekend at the end of this month but we have to get there first.  Take some time for yourself and sharpen the saw.  Also, take a minute to think about where you can start working toward a new ending…

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The Rewards of Risk

Last week I wrote about granting yourself permission to stop, in order to maintain balance in your life as you work towards our students’ success.  I was inspired by a few conversations with teachers this week and once again want to plead with you to grant yourselves permission, this time for something else.  We strive to practice what we preach with our students but many times in our efforts to always be our best for our kids we ask them to do something that we omit from our regular practice.  

This year as we coached our students through the SMART Goal process in the Middle School we asked them to set a risk-taking goal.  We want to see all of our students stepping out of their comfort zones to try new things, meet new people, and expand their horizons.  It is an essential part of learning and growing, something that applies to not only students but everyone.  As educators we often learn new strategies, read great articles, share ideas, and evolve our skill set.  However, something that is hard for everyone to do, especially teachers with an adolescent audience, is to take risks.

I was speaking with a teacher recently who told me about a lesson she had planned and executed that included a few new tools and ideas, it sounded fantastic.  There was differentiation, wonderful use of technology, group work, and an opportunity for reflection.  As the teacher explained, this lesson also had one more element, ”it was a disaster!”  The feeling of excitement about having a great lesson planned was stolen away from her because the lesson didn’t go as she had envisioned.  The tech didn’t work correctly when the kids accessed it and the downward spiral that followed totally took the wind out of her sails. She had taken a risk and tried some new things with this lesson but didn’t get the result she was hoping to achieve.  Her feeling of despair was completely reasonable, after all the lesson (in her mind) was a disaster and she could’ve done better.

My first reaction to this story, however, was completely the opposite of how this teacher was feeling, I was excited!  Taking risks as a teacher is hard to do.  To put ourselves in front of our students and risk something going wrong is a scary feeling, sometimes difficult to overcome.  Yet it is those risks, those attempts at something new, that really pushes our educational practice forward.  We could lean back and teach the same lesson year after year because we know it “works”, but what if we could do something better?

Just as it is important to achieve balance by granting ourselves permission to stop, it is also important to open ourselves to the idea of taking risks by granting ourselves permission to fail.  Having a growth mindset and “failing forward” is something we want our kids to do, so why shouldn’t we be doing it too?

Have a look at your next unit(s) and think about some lessons that could be enhanced by a little risk-taking.  To be sure, just as with our kids, we don’t need to be taking risks every single day or every lesson.  Perhaps a fair goal would be to take a risk and try something new every unit or maybe every couple weeks.  Some will be hits and others will be disasters but the end result will be long term gains for your students!  

It Takes a Village To Raise a Child – Successfully

The first semester is quickly coming to a close and a number of students’ names have come my way for having late and missing assignments.  I’ve had a number of conversations with teachers about strategies for holding our students accountable to their work.  It seems that whether we’re talking about a 6th grade student or a high school senior, the conversation goes the same way.  Often times, as responsible adults, we have a hard time figuring out what is preventing these young adults from living up to the expectations we’ve laid out for them.  

I don’t think there is any one “problem” or “issue” that is common to all students struggling to meet expectations.  In fact, there usually isn’t even a common factor when I sit down and look at a small group of 6th grade boys, for example.  Every student has different struggles and they usually are experiencing these difficulties for various reasons.  There are myriad factors that play into the development of a young mind and trying to place our thumbs on any one “problem” is a bit of a fool’s errand.

As I sat back and thought about all of the different struggles that our students experience and considered their excuses (I think I could write a pretty long book full of the different excuses I’ve heard over the years!) I tried to think back to my first days as a teacher and recall the strategies I’ve used to help hold kids accountable.  To be perfectly honest, the list is long and it’s full of failed attempts but in the end there are two strategies that, when combined, have achieved the most success.

Just for kicks, let’s see…In the early years, there was the guilt trip which was very successful at drawing forth tears and a careful analysis of footwear (lots of hung heads and feeling ashamed).  There were also the whole class heart-to-heart sessions about responsibility, these seemed to have an immediate but very short term effect…I just didn’t have the time or energy to pull these out twice a week!  Then there were the raised voice conversations, random calls home, and sending students to the ‘in-school-suspension’ room.  None of these did anything for the students’ responsibility levels and they most certainly didn’t help me build any form of positive relationship.

I learned though, thankfully, and I turned my attention to more positive motivators.  I gave raffle tickets to those who completed their work, we started a challenge with other classes to see which class could have the most consecutive days of homework completed by everyone in the room, I wrote positive notes home for kids who finally turned in homework on time, and I praised, praised, and praised some more.  While these alternatives helped me form better relationships I still saw little progress towards increasing levels of responsibility among the students of concern.

To be perfectly honest, I know I haven’t solved the riddle yet and I’m most certainly not done pursuing better options.  However, over the last couple years I’ve employed a combination of two strategies that have led to increased responsibility over the long term and also led to positive relationships.

These two strategies are certainly not rocket science but they do require a level of dedication that will take a concerted effort to maintain.  So, what are they already, right?!

 Consistency is Key:  Many people, and young adults are no different, need consistency in their lives.  The students who struggle to meet expectations for timeliness and responsibility most certainly fall into this category.  The first thing we need to provide for our students is a level of consistency that might even border on manic.  As these young minds develop they are facing so many changes, stressors, and emotions that anything outside of a routine will easily become lost in the shuffle.  Establish precise routines for your classes.  For certain students who you’ve noticed struggling even more than the usual, increase the rigidity in their routines.  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

    • Post a detailed daily agenda in a visible place that will remain for the entire class period (build in small breaks that will act as targets/checkpoints.)
    • Ensure that students use a consistent system of organization (agenda, digital calendar, etc)
    • Post any homework or outside of class responsibilities in the same place each day AND give kids sufficient dedicated time to record their homework in a(n) agenda/digital calendar each class period.
    • Create a dedicated “inbox” for completed work and/or ONE specific system for turning in digital assignments.
    • Remind students about long term assignments every class period AND check-in on progress toward the long term goal.
    • Make time at the beginning (waiting until the end doesn’t work, trust me) of each class to check-in with students who need reminders, never let a class pass without this happening…remember, consistency is key!
    • Change up other routines to encourage flexibility…I know this seems to fly in the face of the whole point but try things like:  Changing the seating arrangement, seating chart, groups, or elbow partners.  Also, keep your bulletin boards fresh, rotate student work displays, and keep your room current.  

It Takes a Village to Raise a Child:  The African proverb is so popular and has been around so long for a reason…it’s true!  Students who require the most effort and attention will need the whole “village” to be involved.  Communicate with your grade level teams, share and harmonize strategies, and include other support (Sped, ELL, Counselors, Admin, etc) as necessary.  Similarly, communicate with the parents in a positive and supportive manner.  As a team share the strategies that are being employed, ask for support, and let them know that this is a team effort.  Last and definitely not least, include the student in the conversations as often as possible.  They need to understand their role in their success.  Try:

    1. When an assignment is late, or better yet about to be due, send the student a reminder email and CC the parents and other relevant support.
    2. Let students know that they should be proud of themselves when they do well.  Building the intrinsic sense of achievement is exponentially more powerful than letting them know you’re proud of them.  Try, “You should be proud of yourself for…” instead of “I’m proud of you…”  They will still know you’re proud of them but it also sends a message that they should be working for themselves, not to please you!  Remember, you won’t always be there to be proud of them!!
    3. Use Growth Mindset language with your students.
    4. Communicate, communicate, communicate.  I can’t stress enough how important it is to have all relevant stakeholders involved in the process of supporting a struggling student.

You can try yelling at students, ignoring the problem, or giving them detention, some of these will make you feel better but at the end of the day these strategies will achieve nothing more than a acidic relationship and a distaste for your subject or class.  By this point I’m 100% sure that you already have a small list of students in your mind.  Consider the strategies you’ve employed thus far and think about what alternations may be needed to help improve the level of success they are experiencing in school.  Finally, please involve me in the conversations.  As I hope you know by now, helping struggling students is one of my passions as an educator.  Every teacher in history has had students who’ve struggled for one reason or another, let’s work together to help those students succeed!

Grit and Growth Mindset…Necessities!

The other day a teacher walked into my office with some questions about student learning goals.  He wanted to teach his students “grit” and find a way to measure their growth.  I have to be honest, this was one of the most exciting educational conversations I’ve had this year.  When he left my office I was off and running on an uncontrollable urge to re-read all of the grit articles I had bookmarked and re-watch all of the related videos…it’s just too inspiring!

If you’re unfamiliar with the character strength called “grit”, then I strongly urge you to stop right now and watch this TED talk by Angela Duckworth, it is only 6:09 long and not shockingly has only 7.3 Million views…more people need to see this!!

For those of you who are in that 7 million plus viewer group, you’re already a convert…I’m sure of it!  The idea of “grit” and the data coming out of the research is just too impactful to ignore.  However, as Duckworth points out, there’s a problem…we (humans) still aren’t 100% sure of how to teach grit.  In her TED Talk, Duckworth points out that Carol Dweck’s concept of the growth-mindset is likely the best available theory for approaching the teaching/learning of grit.  If you’re not familiar with Carol Dweck and Growth Mindset then…stop and watch this now!  

Growth Mindset is something that is so crucial to success that it just can’t be ignored.  There are, of course, very successful people who’ve never learned a Growth Mindset but there is just too much evidence that shows how having a Growth Mindset and believing in “the power of yet” can change someone’s life.  

The implications for “grit” and Growth Mindset for educators (and parents) are astronomical.  It may require slowing down a bit in class, taking time to help students “relearn” material, or adjusting our practice as educators.  Rick Wormeli, a former Disney Teacher of the year and one of the first Nationally Certified Teachers in the USA, speaks about the implications of the Growth Mindset for our classrooms.  This video is an absolute must watch for all educators, no question about it!  No matter if you’ve seen this video before or not, please watch it and contemplate the implications for your classroom.  

Our role as educators is extremely important.  The tasks we are charged with are many but the most important of all is the future success of our students.  “Grit” and Growth Mindset are two of the factors that research has shown to dictate success in life; how do these two things fit into your classroom?

Believe in the Possibilities for Learning

We all know about the power of the ‘Growth Mindset’ by now and (hopefully) we all buy into the idea that it’s possible for anyone to learn.  I read a very interesting blog post from the Mindshift organization (started, in part, by NPR) recently about what happens when we “believe in the possibilities” of what teaching and learning can really do.

I think you should take the time to read this blog post so I’ll try to stay as brief as possible but I’d like to highlight some of the main points as a preview:

  • The placebo effect is real and it applies to learning as well.  “When students are informed that it’s possible to improve their IQ, they respond by improving their IQ.”
  • Science shows us that the learning culture can have permanent effects on the brain.  Is the culture in your room as positive as you believe it to be?  Do you have a ‘favorite’ class?  (They know it if you do…and your least favorite class is also aware of their standing!)
  • Building positive relationships is as important as anything and they need to be sincere!  “Inquiry and innovation rely on a high-functioning brain activated by care and acceptance.”
  • Going back to last week’s discussion, the academic skills that we want our students to learn are highly linked to the character traits we also desire…how do we successfully teach those character strengths?

When we did our Strengths Finder work with the Gotuacos it became apparent that many of us have the “Learner” theme in our top five.  I don’t think that it takes a lot of convincing for any of you to believe that learning and growing are possible.  However, I know that the High School recently did a similar strengths activity (the student version of what we did).  It was interesting/sad/scary to hear one high school teacher bemoan the fact that NONE of her advisory students showed the “Learner” theme in their top five.  So for all of us who are energized and excited by the journey of discovery and learning we need to keep in mind that there a lot of students who don’t have this natural tendency…what can we do to foster curiosity and the desire to learn?

Growth Mindset and EAL Students

I’m writing a little earlier than normal this week because I’m away tomorrow (Friday) as I’ll be attending the SIS EAL Conference at Shekou International School.  It is being coordinated, in part, by a friend of mine from my time in Italy and the keynote speaker is EAL guru Dr. Virginia Rojas.  This conference has produced nothing but rave reviews in the past (some of you have been fortunate enough to attend) and I expect nothing less from this weekend!

Ever since I began in education I’ve been working with EAL populations.  My first classes in America were, in fact, comprised almost entirely of students who spoke a language other than English while at home.  I guess you could say that I don’t really have an understanding of what it would be like to teach a non-EAL population; I actually hadn’t come to that realization until just now!  When I think about all of the EAL students I’ve had over the years I’m always amazed at how fast these students can grow and excel in English and, usually, they do it in an incredibly short amount of time.  We’ve certainly seen this happen time and again at our school, take a second to think about all the incredible students you’ve encountered…in some cases it’s awe-inspiring to consider what they’ve achieved.

For many of these students, whether they know it or not, it’s the Growth Mindset that allows them to be so successful.  They know that with hard work, practice, risk taking and a decent amount of failure they will be able to learn English.  Interestingly enough, I don’t think many of these kids even realize what they are doing; this is just how they live their life.  On the other end of the spectrum are the kids who have seemingly given up and don’t put in the effort.  Last year we looked at Carol Dweck’s work in Mindset, a book I’ve gone back to a few times to re-read.  At one point Dweck discusses “Students Who Don’t Care”, she does doesn’t believe that this is really possible.  Before she launches into a discussion about Growth-Minded Teachers (a group we should all aspire to join) she says about these particular students, “It’s common for students to turn off to school and adopt an air of indifference, but we make a mistake if we think any student stops caring.”

Almost every single student at our school who is seemingly “turned off to school” is an EAL student.  Perhaps there’s causation perhaps not, but there is no denying that there is a correlation.  Take some time to think about those kids who seem “turned off” in your class and consider them in a different light for a moment.  Is there something that you could do to encourage them to turn back on?

I’ll leave you with that for now.  You all know me well enough to realize that I’m going to be coming at you fast and furious with EAL strategies and ideas next week 🙂  Enjoy your Friday and the weekend…get outside, it’s supposed to be a BEAUTIFUL weekend!!  Don’t forget that Jerry Rice is still in town, in case you didn’t get enough at Wednesday’s assembly.