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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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!

Celebrating Our Curriculum Work

I’ve been involved with a lot of great conversations lately about curriculum and the learning that is happening at our school, it’s very exciting!  The work we’ve done with our middle school curriculum team and in departments this year has been tremendous; we’ve made great strides to put crucial pieces of the puzzle in place. One of the pieces that excites me most is that we’ve moved from a model where we had been saying, “Hey, this is a great school, send your kid here and trust us!” to a place where we can now say, “You can expect your student to learn these things in school, here they are and here’s the map.”  For a lot of schools/teachers this may seem like a small thing but for all of us here who know the journey we’ve been on to get to this point this is a HUGE celebration!

As we know, there is still a lot of work to do and there always will be, this is an ongoing process.  We’ll continue to work in departments to improve our curriculum and I’d like you to think about what your work with our students really means.   So, this week I’ll put a few questions out for you to ponder as we embark on the fourth quarter down hill run to June.  All of these questions stem from Making Thinking Visible, the book we gave you earlier in the year.

  1. What kinds of thinking do expect your students to engage in while in your classroom?
  2. How do you force your students to think in this way in each and every class?
  3. What evidence do you have that shows that (or more importantly HOW) your students are indeed thinking in the desired manner?

Let me know what you think.  This is a very interesting topic to me and I would love to hear your two cents!

Ready-to-use Tools: Checking for Understanding

Recently I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about checking for understanding and using on-the-spot assessment strategies to figure out which students have gaps in their learning and, perhaps more importantly, where those gaps are occurring.  In my last two cents I asked the questions: ‘How do you know your students are actually learning what you want them to?’ and ‘When your students leave the classroom, do you know how well each of them understood the day’s objective?’  Since writing that piece I’ve been doing a lot of reading about this topic and I would like to offer a few of the best tips I’ve come across.  Keep in mind that this brand of assessment is not just a simple check-list of tips and tricks but rather something akin to a chess game, in which your next move needs to be dictated by the response and actions of your students.  These strategies are a good place to dip your toe into the water, so to speak.  They’ll give you a foundation to start with, they aren’t magical in any way, but employing these strategies will improve the learning in your classroom.  Have a look and try some out in your class.  My tip, start with number one and add a few others, it is essential!

1.    Take them to teacher’s college:

Our students are smart, they’re perceptive, they get it, and most of all, they like knowing what’s going on!  Explain the new strategies you’ll be employing in class, have a conversation with your students about what you’ll be doing and why.  Let them join the conversation.  When they’re aware of the strategy being used they can understand the intended results, which leads to increased awareness and engagement.  Inform the kids, they’ll buy in, and you’ll be amazed at their responses and the feedback you can receive when students are part of the conversation!

2.    Learn to teach with no hands:

Riding a bike with no hands takes practice and, for some, can be a daunting task (especially in China!)  Teaching with no hands may put you out of your comfort zone as well.  What do I mean?  What would happen if kids weren’t allowed to raise their hands to answer questions?  The best way to create an environment where participation is mandatory and expected from all students is to do just that, expect it from all students!  Popsicle sticks with names seem so 3rd grade but this strategy (we can call them equity sticks if that feels better) will ensure that all students are held accountable for thinking.  Ask the question (see below for strategies on questioning) before you choose the respondent.  If every student knows they may have to answer the question, they are all forced to engage and think.  This strategy may not be popular and it will take some time.  Explain it to kids, the eager students are going to feel frozen out (they can’t show off how much they know) and the quiet non-participants will be forced to contribute (*Note:  For your ESOL and reluctant students, try prepping them by letting them know you’ll be calling on them next and then forgoing the random draw for that particular question.  This allows more time to process and helps eliminate the nervousness of being cold-called.  You might also try “teacher’s choice”, “free pass”, “ask a neighbor”, “check my notes” and other ‘wild-card’ sticks to spice things up.)

3.    Questions that ‘work’ for everyone:

Okay, so if you’re calling on random students how do you prevent getting a bunch of “I don’t know” responses?  Allow ALL students to engage with your questions on multiple levels; don’t just ask questions that require a certain ‘correct’ answer, try some other options:

Check for Understanding Graphic

Example:  In math class, instead of solving a problem, give two problems and ask students to explain which problem is harder.  This requires everyone to solve the problem and allows for more advanced thinkers to ponder further, plus it allows you to discover where the misunderstandings lie for those who are struggling.  Another version of this may ask students to create a third problem that is similar to the original two problems, allowing the students to find commonalities and then create something new that fits into the group.

4.    Wait for it!

Slow down!  Too often we are in such a hurry to finish a lesson that we don’t check to make sure the intended learning is happening.  After asking a question, just wait, give students time to think and process.  ‘Wait time’ often comes with uncomfortable pauses but it also comes with increased participation and understanding.  If too many pauses feel uncomfortable, consider a think-pair-share followed by a journal entry routine.  Allow students a few seconds to think, then a few more to pair with a neighbor, and enough time to write a sentence or two in a special section of their notebooks.  Students can write their thinking or perhaps what they learned from their partner.  Then share, everyone should be able to share either their own answer or their neighbor’s.  The biggest issue with any ‘wait time’ strategy is the amount of time it takes, so plan ahead and budget appropriately while also picking your spots, find your balance.

 5.  Before anything else…”

Preparation is the key to success.  All of the strategies mentioned require time and effort in preparation.  Teachers who have been employing these strategies for many years need not plan much further in advance than a few minutes or even seconds.  However, if these are new to you, sit down beforehand and plan.  Look for places to include these strategies in your current lessons, plan time to have conversations with your students about their learning.  The amount of time and energy that one well thought out lesson may take is dwarfed by the incredible increases in learning gained from a prepared teacher!