Relationships and Adaptability: Tools of the Revolution

Last week we enjoyed videos and performances by our Year 12 students as we got ready to send them off to their next chapter.  As I watched those videos and thought about the high school experience through the eyes of a Year 12 student, I tried to figure out what they felt like they learned in their time here.  I’m sure if you asked them formally they would mention things like Physics or English but those certainly aren’t the things they focused on in their videos.

Relationships.  Without a doubt, relationships were the main focus of each of the six videos shared by the Year 12 students.  They celebrated the strong bonds formed over the last few years. They recognized the ups and downs, rejoicing in the unity of their particular cohorts. The power and strength of those bonds built through hard work and resilience demonstrates just how important it is for the success of students to have strong social-emotional skills.  

Our counselors have recently done a lot of work to help incorporate some of these skills into the every day curriculum.  That work is an essential part of our school’s mission but also to the what we’re trying to accomplish academically. Students who “demonstrate integrity, respect and empathy toward others” and “respond with confidence and reason to an ever changing world” aren’t created by studying a textbook, doing lab experiments or writing research papers.  These skills lie deep within the social-emotional lessons that our students need to learn. Kudos to the work our counselors have done recently to integrate more of these skills and lessons into the curriculum, there is still more to do though and the work must continue.

The other thing that came through in the Year 12 videos, albeit more implicitly, is the idea of being adaptable.  Many of those stories start off highlighting the nervousness of being put into a new cohort, working with different people and being completely out of their comfort zones.  Over time, however, as they learned to adapt and find their place within their new classes, these Year 12s showed an incredible ability to adapt and make the best of the situation.  I see this as more than being resilient. Resilience, while very important, means bouncing back from difficulties and continuing on. What I saw in our kids was more than that, not only did they bounce back but they adapted as needed to continue forward…a very big step!  

As teachers, we can learn a lot from these students.  It’s important to remember just how crucial it is for us to build relationships with our students, who are constantly changing and growing.  Additionally so with our colleagues, developing a program that meets the needs of a diverse range of learners doesn’t happen in isolation, building strong relationships with colleagues creates a positive work environment.  I frequently stress the importance of positive relationships (I would argue they’re the most important thing in a school) and it was interesting to see our Year 12s focus on their importance as well.

Generally speaking, younger people are less set in their ways and more adaptable than their more experienced (older) counterparts.  As we learn, grow and gain experience in the world, it is important to remember the we must remain flexible in our thinking. Being able to adapt is the hallmark of a successful educator.  We are in a professional field that is entering the early days of a revolution, more than 100 years of doing the same thing has proven insufficient for success in education. We, as the leaders of that change, must adapt and grow to ensure the success of our students.  

We’ve got a little over two weeks left and we’ll be doing a lot of celebrating and reflecting during that time.  Take a few minutes every now and again to think about all that our students have learned over the last year. Additionally, think about how we can adapt to improve the learning process for them next year and beyond.  It’s an exciting time to be an educator, the revolution is coming, what will be your role in the process?

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Inspiration from Harvard Graduate School of Education

This week I had a whole other topic written out and then I came across some great stuff.  I was reading through a few of my older Marshall Memos when I stumbled upon some awesome videos.  If you follow this link you can see Eight 8-minute talks about education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education:  http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/14/09/8×8-hgse-faculty-share-their-bold-ideas-improve-education

I highly recommend any of the eight videos but these specific few may be more relevant to our context than the others.  Here are the relevant titles along with Kim Marshall’s brief summaries of each.  Do your students a favor and take 8 minutes to watch one of these (or more) videos.

Karen Brennan: Getting Unstuck – Helping students and teachers move beyond using social media and use computers more powerfully. Brennan describes using ScratchEd, a platform for creating projects, and students’ problem-solving strategies when they’re stuck.

Todd Rose: The End of Average (Bret’s personal favorite) – What neuroscientists have found about how differently people remember and process information, leading to the conclusion that we can’t understand individual brains by using group averages. The same goes for how we deal with students; we must treat them as individuals, which we now can do better with recent advances in classroom technology.

Karen Mapp: Linking Family Engagement to Learning – Relationships between schools and families have to be relational, interactive, collaborative, developmental, and linked to what students are learning, says Mapp, so that families can be more effective supporting learning at home. In particular, Mapp is critical of traditional open-house meetings in schools.

Howard Gardner: Beyond Wit and Grit  – Our understanding of “wit” has been expanded to include multiple intelligences, says Gardner, and we now realize the importance of “grit” – the cluster of non-cognitive skills. But these are not enough. Gardner believes we also need a moral dimension. “You can have plenty of grit, and multiple wits,” he says, “but they need to be directed towards becoming a good person, a good worker, and a good citizen… There’s a ‘triple helix’ of good work and good citizenship: excellence, ethics, and engagement.”

Trying it Myself: Doing what we ask the students to do

Last weekend I read a great blog post written by Grant Wiggins, who is a leader in the field of educational reform and is perhaps most well known for co-authoring Understanding by Design.  This blog post wasn’t about UbD though, it was actually Wiggins sharing a story of a teacher turned Learning Coach.  This Coach had done what many school leaders have been recommended to do but never find the time to try; she followed the schedule of a student for the whole day.  She experienced school from the student’s perspective, doing the work, taking the tests, and participating in class.  So I was motivated to try it myself…

This Coach made three key observations, disturbing observations in fact, about how kids were experiencing school.  Now, to be fair, she did this with High School students so it’s not exactly aligned to the Middle School context but I was a little scared just the same…I mean, her “Key Takeaways” were frightening.  So what did I find while I was a Middle School student for a day???

Let’s use her three takeaways to guide the discussion:

1.  “Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.”

First off, I won’t argue the point that sitting is exhausting.  It’s boring, your body starts to fall asleep, and your brain doesn’t get as much oxygen (think about how bad your kids, and maybe you, want to move – bouncing legs, rocking chairs, fidgeting and all!)  However, in my day as a Middle School student I most certainly didn’t sit all day!  In one class, I have to admit, we didn’t do much moving but I was still engaged in the lesson and didn’t feel too exhausted by the sitting.  In my other three classes I was moving a majority of the time.  I had a group project to work on with my four table mates which allowed me to get up and move around the room for about half the class.  I had a Science lab that had me moving around for almost the entire period and I had a music lesson that had me playing for almost the whole class period.  Honestly I was a bit tired, but not from sitting!

2.  “High school students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their day.”

Now, as I mentioned, this woman was a High School Coach, but I think the worry is still the same for us – we don’t want our kids sitting passively all day long.  So how was my day?  Well, as you saw in the first takeaway, I was active for a good portion of the day.  AND, even when I was sitting I wasn’t passive and listening the whole time.  In one class we were sitting in our seats but having a lively discussion about the Daily Question which engaged us in the day’s topic and got us off to a great start.  Overall I would say that I spent about 25% of my class time that day sitting passively and listening, a far cry from 90% and if spread out through the day in different classes then most certainly a tolerable amount.

3.  “You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.”

I’ll explain this a little bit first.  What she meant is that students are constantly being told “to be quiet and pay attention.”  She also talked about hearing a lot of “sarcasm and snark directed at students”.  These things are most definitely things to watch for and look to eliminate from your classroom.  However, during my day as a Middle School student I have to say that I didn’t feel like a nuisance at all.  This was actually an area that I was focusing on a lot; I was waiting to be told to be quiet but it didn’t happen once!  That is not to say that my classes were totally silent and obedient the entire time but the teachers all had good communication skills and were able to bring their class back to focus without making the kids feel like a nuisance.  I can honestly say, despite the fact that I was really looking hard at this point, I never once felt like the teacher was annoyed or found students to be a nuisance – it was a warm and welcoming environment all day long, something I know our kids appreciate!

So what does all this mean for you?  Obviously this is a very small sample size (I hope to continue this practice).  However, when you think about these three “Key Takeaways” and then think about your typical classroom, what do you realize?  Are your kids exhausted, are they sitting passively, or do they feel like a nuisance?  I strongly recommend that you take a look at this blog post and see some of the recommendations she makes to avoid these things from happening in your class.  It is an inspirational piece in that regard, it makes you question your classroom and what you’re doing to help the students’ learning environment.

http://www.teachthought.com/teaching/teachers-shadowing-students/

The Freedom of Choice

Today I’m writing as I sit in the back of the advanced guitar rehearsal session at our awesome 2014 Music Festival and thinking about last year when I sat in the beginning guitar rehearsal with these very same kids…it’s amazing to see how much they’ve grown in so many aspects over the last year but particularly in their guitar skills (especially since my skills have gone backward over that same time!)  Their dedication and motivation to learn and grow is impressive…it got me to thinking.

Our music program here at SCIS is mandatory for all Middle School students but the fact that we provide so much ‘choice’ for our students has led to a music program that thrives.  Our students get to choose, not only their music class, but their instrument too.  The positive energy around campus during the Music Festival stems directly from the enjoyment our students get from learning and playing their instruments, awesome stuff!

Choice is extremely important in education for many reasons but, in my opinion, one of those reasons sticks out more than the others.  Last week I wrote about the importance of curiosity and I believe that choice is directly related, in that they both spark people’s intrinsic motivation to learn.  Every one of us has an innate desire to feel competent and at the same time have the freedom to do what we enjoy.  Choice lets our students pursue their passions while also putting them in the position to feel successful.  The intrinsic reward for achieving success with a self-selected goal is tremendous and spurs even further motivation to continue growing.

Another area in education that allows for choice is allowing students to demonstrate their learning by choosing a method that suits them.  Now, this doesn’t mean a complete free for all but no two students are identical and each has their own strengths (and weaknesses).  Allowing students to choose between a selection of options for demonstrating their learning can be an extremely effective way of engaging learners who may otherwise be disinterested.  Writing a song to demonstrate understanding of vocabulary words, designing a math game to show comprehension of algebraic concepts, or creating a melody to prove mastery of strumming techniques in guitar are all examples of ways that students could share their learning while also choosing their own path.

Give some thought to how you currently incorporate student choice into your classroom as well as how you could increase the amount of opportunities for choice.  Don’t forget to come out tomorrow and enjoy the fruits of all the motivation and skills that our kids have demonstrated over the last two days in their rehearsals and sectionals!  (I know the advanced guitar will rock!)

A great piece about student choice:  http://www.edutopia.org/lesson-engagement-student-choice

Curiosity May Have Killed The Cat, But Thankfully We’re Not Cats!

Over the summer I watched and played with my nephews (two and four years old) as they explored and played with their Legos and other newfangled toys.  I realized that there were two likely traits of a successful toy.  The first trait of a successful toy, for my nephews anyway, is that you can throw it, hit (with) it, or kick it.  The second, is that the toy sparks curiosity.  This is what I want to talk about today, maybe I’ll get to the throwing, hitting, and kicking another (more stressful) day 🙂

One of my favorite parts of working with young people is the opportunity to watch them be curious.  In time, I have come to strongly believe that curiosity is one of, if not the most important character strength in successful people.  Each day at break as I make my usual tour of the café, courtyard, and soccer field I keep an eye out for students who are lingering on the periphery.  When I first started I was concerned about these students, worried they weren’t making connections with their peers.  Over time, however, I’ve come to understand that many of these kids are just pursuing their curiosity of the world around them.

During China Trips last year it was wonderful to see the wide eyes and ‘ohs and ahs’ as kids explored the outdoors.  The opportunities for exploration of curiosities in that setting are almost endless.  Similarly, the chances for students to independently pursue curiosity exists here at school as well.  As an example, there was a sixth grader last year who took a direct route to the bushes near the field at lunch.  It took me a couple days to realize that this was a pattern and when I wandered over to see what had drawn her curiosity she explained that there was a spider who had spun a web and she was admiring the geometric patterns while hoping that it would trap something.  She was curious, she wanted to watch and wonder in awe about how this tiny creature had created something so seemingly perfect but at the same time she was concerned that it wasn’t “working” because nothing had yet been trapped.

Curiosity is a character strength that is, perhaps, more easily fostered than actually taught.  I couldn’t have paid some students to be interested in that spider web but others would have had the same sense of curiosity and awe if they had been exposed to that wonder.  They, however, hadn’t gone searching for it like this little girl had done – which is where we come in.  There is currently a lot of research going into character education and I think we’re still a ways away from any definitive answers as to how we could teach some of these character strengths.  However, we can facilitate them and foster their growth when the time is right.  So, how are you helping to encourage curiosity in your classroom and beyond?

Our students have incredibly curious and creative young minds.  Feel free to allow them the opportunity to open up and explore new ideas.  Some of the greatest minds in the world have been successful because they’ve been freed of restricted thinking and have been allowed to think openly about their ideas.  If curiosity really killed the cat then I guess we’re all lucky not to be cats…open yourselves to exploration and let’s do the same for our kids!!

“I have no special talents.  I am only passionately curious.” – Albert Einstein

“Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why.” – Bernard Baruch

“Curiosity is the lust of the mind.” – Thomas Hobbes

There is a fast-growing movement in education right now around 20-Time.  It is based on a similar concept perviously used at Google and other companies to encourage the pursuit of passions during working hours.  I’m not asking you to turn over one class every five days to the pursuit of curiosity but I think there is definitely room for including pieces of this concept in our day-to-day lessons.

20-Time informational website:  http://www.20timeineducation.com/

An interesting article about Google and 20-Time:  http://www.wired.com/2013/08/20-percent-time-will-never-die/

The (Growth) Mindset of a Teacher

Over the last couple weeks we’ve been getting all of our students through their first round of MAP tests, much to their dismay!  I was covering in a few of these classes and tried having a conversation with them about the idea of growth and celebrating just how far they’ve come at the end of the year; it seems like this whole concept just washes over them like a huge wave of “whatever Mr. Olson!”  I, however, take solace in the things I heard kids saying at the end of last school year.  As we finished up the MAP testing in late May I heard all sorts of conversations between kids, with me, with teachers, and with parents about the amount of growth they had made over the course of the year.  The mentality of our students has started to make a promising shift toward a growth mindset, especially for the kids who saw a significant amount of growth!  It was an awesome feeling to hear those kids talking (and bragging) that way.

We’ve talked a lot about growth mindsets, especially when we read Mindset by Carol Dweck, and we all buy into this theory for our kids.  There is great work being done by curriculum teams to plan differentiated work, for not only struggling students, but also for more advanced students who need a bit of challenge.  We all know that every student CAN learn when we meet them at their level; growth can and will happen!  We are working hard to ensure that every student has the chance to learn, whether today, tomorrow, or some time down the road.

Another reason that got me thinking about this idea of growth is our recent addition of the mini-observations and the coinciding feedback efforts.  I’ve had some awesome conversations with you based around what’s happening in your classrooms.  For me, some of the most rewarding parts of this process have been the conversations we’ve been able to have about the student-learning that we’re seeing.  To hear the excitement in your voices when you talk about the amazing things you’re seeing and doing with your students is energizing for me.  Coming back to the growth piece of this, it’s awesome to see all of the additions and changes that people have been making based on our conversations.  Good teachers are made from hard work, practice, and continuous learning.  Teachers don’t just fall off of trees, it takes a lot of effort to become a great teacher.   To see everyone working so hard to improve themselves on a day-to-day basis is inspiring…awesome!!

I’m attaching a great article summary to this email about five things that great teachers do to have an impact on student-learning.  The summary comes from the Marshall Memo, which is written by Kim Marshall.  It’s a great resource that comes out each week summarizing important topics in educational research and practice.

Pushing Our Limits

Last weekend our Outdoor Education group went for their weekend adventure which included hiking 12k in constant rain, battling leeches, and a midnight visit from two local bulls having a fight right in the middle of the campsite.  On Monday morning there was nothing but smiles and happy stories from the 20+ exhausted kids who enjoyed this experience.  The parent reaction was just the same, nothing but positive feedback despite a myriad of potential complaints.  This coming week we head out on our China Trips with all but a small handful of our middle school students and teachers.  For some this will be their first time away from their parents for so long, their first time camping, their first time kayaking, or any other number of potential firsts.  This coming week our students will have their limits pushed in many ways, they’ll be challenged, there will be tears, breakdowns, and home sickness.  BUT, at the end of it all, no matter what challenges these students face they will persevere and come back with smiles and happy stories to accompany their tales of overcoming fears and challenges.  I know that for us as teachers this is also a week full of challenges and stress, with perhaps a few activities or meals that will push us out of our comfort zones.  Take the opportunity to push your limits, try something new, get to know students in a different setting, and have fun!!  Enjoy the coming week, it’s my favorite week of the year!