Reflection as a Tool

The end of the year is a busy time and there is certainly no shortage of things to do.  So, I’m not going to ask you to do anything new right now! However, I want to encourage you to take some time for the most important tool for professional growth that is available to you…reflection.  

Reflecting on our professional life is what allows us to grow as educators.  I realize that most people don’t think they have time to sit down each and every day to reflect on their work, but it certainly would be valuable if you did!  Taking time to reflect about a particular lesson or unit allows for immediate and relevant feedback. In many cases you won’t teach that lesson or unit again for a whole year, what specific information will you be able to remember a year from now?  Taking the time to stop and reflect will cement the ideas you’ve had about how to improve your lesson or unit.

“Hey Bret, that’s a great idea and all but we’ve only got one week of school left, right?”  Exactly, and that’s why I’m mentioning this now. Reflecting takes time and it is something that, if not scheduled, will be hard to commit adequate time to.  So, make a plan now and commit to setting aside 10 minutes at the end of each day or during a prep period. This time will not be wasted, I promise. You’ll begin to see the payoff very quickly.  Taking time to stop and reflect will help you to grow as a teacher and improve the learning experience for your students.

I strongly recommend taking the time to reflect after each lesson and making those notes for yourself to look back on in the future.

Some things you might reflect on after a lesson:

  • What went well with that lesson?  
  • What could be improved?
  • Did the kids have any feedback about today’s lesson (the content:  i.e. it was really hard, really easy, etc)?
  • Did you try a new strategy or activity today?  How did it go? What can you do better next time?
  • Were my students engaged throughout the lesson?  If not, where did I lose them? What can be done to prevent that next time?

As you go through the process of reflecting on a daily basis you’ll improve and it will become second nature.  When it comes time to teach those lessons again you should start with your reflection notes and then look at the lesson with those thoughts fresh in your mind.  Going through this process not only helps you to grow in the future but you’ll immediately begin to grow as some of the reflections will be ideas you can implement in your very next lesson.  

Plan the time to reflect and hold it as sacrosanct, don’t give it up for anything!  I promise, you’ll be glad you did!!!

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Embrace Some Discomfort

Amy and I watched a new show recently, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman.  The first episode had a guest who, believe it or not, needed no introduction…Barack Obama.  It was a great interview and, whatever your political leanings, is worth watching.  One of the many topics discussed by Letterman and Obama is something I’d like to think about in our context as educators, “Nothing right in this world occurs without, at least, some discomfort.”

As educators we have our comfort zones, they are our safe little bubbles that we use to help us stay confident in the classroom.  I’m going to ask you today to take a step out of yours, and be a little uncomfortable.  I’ve got four things I’d like to ask that we all commit to doing for the rest of the year, they are things we can start today and will immediately improve the learning environment for our students.  Some of you may already be doing the some of these things but the I think, on some level, these will apply to everyone…

  1. Get a basket/box/container or something else and require that students put their phones into it before the class starts (unless you have a specific reason they need it that day.)  For our students, and all of us in fact, our handphones and other devices are distractions.  They vibrate when we get a message, they ding when we have a new Instragram follower and they overtake our concentration.  99% of the time our students don’t need a handphone in class…get the basket and have them put their phones in before the lesson begins.
  2. Make kids close their computers until they absolutely need them open.  If we remove the handphone distraction but allow students to keep their laptops open, we’ve accomplished nothing.  There is very little our kids can’t do from their computers that they can from their phones.  You’ll be amazed by the increased level of concentration from your students once you’ve removed these two distractions.  (Tip:  If you want their concentration back once they’ve opened their computers…have them close them again!)
  3. Don’t allow students to listen to music while they work.  This will come with some controversy, especially from the older students, and will put many of us out of our comfort zones.  There is a lot of research that proves that multitasking doesn’t work, it makes people worse at all of the things they’re trying to do in comparison to focusing on one task.  Here is one small study that is a good example…basically, if you want your kids to learn at an optimal level, take the headphones out of the equation. (Note:  In Arts classes, this step may be skipped…music tends to increase creativity and can be helpful for artists at work.)
  4. Now that we’ve eliminated a lot of the major distractions, get up and engage your students!  If students are using their computers, get up and move around the room so you can see their screens frequently.  Kids will still find ways to be distracted despite our best intentions.  If students are working, that is your time to be checking their work, discussing with them, and monitoring their progress.  

At the end of the day, some of these challenges will be easier for some than others but they are all sound educational practices that will improve the learning environment for our students.  As the quote above mentions, “Nothing right in this world occurs without, at least, some discomfort.”  These four things will cause some discomfort for you and the students but at the end of the day, they’re all things that are “right” for education.  

Teaching Strategy CPR

Last week I was fortunate enough to participate in First Aide training and refresh my skills in CPR and basic immediate care.  As I waited to take my final practical assessment I pondered how important knowing these skills, as basic as they may seem, could help me professionally.  Aside from the obvious fact that I could now be at least somewhat helpful in a real emergency, I realized that CPR doesn’t always have to be taken literally to be helpful.

I think we’ve all done it, we’ve learned about a new teaching strategy, tried it out on an unsuspecting class, and…nothing…it died on the table.  More often than not, in cases like this, we move on and forget about the new strategy.  Either it failed so miserably that we were scared to try again or perhaps, it was too much effort to try another time.  We’ve all been there, I’m sure of it.  So, think back, what was the most recent new strategy you tried and abandoned?  Let’s breathe some life back into it…

The first thing we learned about helping to save someone is that we should never put ourselves in danger in order to do so.  So, if this strategy isn’t the right one, if it’s too big and will only weigh you down, then leave it and find another one.  Next, once you’ve settled on a safe strategy for saving, you need to call for help.  This isn’t something anyone wants you to do alone.  Talk with your department head, a colleague you trust, or an SLT member.  Get some advice, share ideas and develop a strong plan for breathing life back into this strategy.

CPR is a process, it takes effort and care.  So too will reviving this strategy.  As you consider trying this strategy again think about the right time to implement it.  Perhaps you’ve got a class that is more flexible and open to new ways of learning, that would be a good place to start.  If not, consider the right lesson to implement this strategy.  Review sessions are always a good time to try new things and get creative.  Whenever you decide to make the jump and try this strategy again, go in knowing that it is part of a process, one that may include multiple steps.  

One thing that became apparent during CPR training and holds true to trying out a new strategy in class is that they both take a lot of courage.  To jump in and try to save someone’s life takes a special amount of courage that, to be perfectly honest, I wonder if I’ll have should the moment ever arise.  Trying a new strategy, while not on the same level, also takes courage.  The difference, however, is that you can control the situation with a new strategy and go in confident that you’re prepared.  So, find that strategy that died on the table, work to breathe new life into it, and confidently know that you’re becoming a better educator as you do so.

Finishing the Year on a Strong Note

As the year quickly comes to a close we’ve begun to see some of our students falling into a “senior slump” of sorts; more students than usual are not completing homework, usually strong students are slipping, and they are showing signs of overall decreased motivation for school. So what can be done? I think the first, and most important thing, is to talk about this situation with kids, let them into the conversation. Then you need to model good strategies and share your experiences with your students. There’s a great quote by James A. Baldwin, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

Try these strategies to finish out YOUR school year on a solid note and share your efforts and results with your kids, set a positive example for them to follow!

1. Plan and Budget Time: Our kids are terrible at this and, for many of us, this time of year and all that comes with it makes it hard for us to balance our time as well. Show your kids how you budget your time. Do you use a calendar? Something on the fridge at home?

2. Focus on successes/Stay positive: Celebrate successes with your students and let them know that school is still important by emphasizing positive moments. Focusing on the negatives will only serve to drive kids further into the “Isn’t it summer yet?!?” attitude. Remember to stay positive yourself; counting down days until summer sends the message to your students that you can’t wait to get rid of them.

3. Prioritize: There are lots of things that happen at the end of the school year. Focus first on the most important tasks and then enjoy the celebrations and nice weather! Make a “to do” list and celebrate as you cross things off; a completed daily list is a great reason to feel good at the end of a long day 🙂

4. Avoid procrastination tools: Facebook, that TV show you never really watch unless there is something important to do, etc. They’re all used as tools to distract us from completing the important work that we know we have to do. Banish those things from your life (temporarily) to create an optimal working environment.

5. Take care of yourself: Exercise, eat well, and find ways to de-stress. Go get a massage over the weekend, go for a walk, and enjoy your free time so that you can be your best self for your kids.

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!

Effective Use of Open-Ended Questions

In our most recent SST meeting we took a close look at some of our students who we worry may have slipped through the cracks.  As part of this conversation we thought long and hard about some of the reasons as to why these kids may have been overlooked as ‘struggling’ students.  One point that was raised is that perhaps the “checks for understanding” that are happening in classes aren’t truly checking for understanding.  How often do you ask a question that could be answered with a one word response?  Is it a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer?  The use of open-ended questions in the classroom is a practice that sounds a lot easier in theory than it really is to implement.  Kids take time to process and answer, sometimes the answers are repetitive or seem like ramblings, often times we fell like we need to rush to get through the day’s lesson and we don’t have time for long-winded answers.  All of these things are common feelings to experience when pushing students to answer open-ended questions.  However, forcing kids to process their thoughts through a think-pair-share or by writing their answers and then sharing ensures that kids don’t just hitch-hike their way through class and slip through the cracks.  In this write-up from the Marshall Memo you will find a more in-depth discussion of how to use open-ended questions as well as the importance of doing so in the classroom.  This article was written in relation to elementary classrooms but there isn’t one word of it that doesn’t apply to our middle school classes…enjoy and let me know what you think.