Category Archives: Big Questions

Survey says . . .

I am working on a master’s degree in Sociology and have recently been delving into the world of social change and development. As one of my course papers, I was required to conduct a study (a very quick one) related to a topic involving social change.

I’m an educator, and I have a strong interest in the power of community, so I decided to do a study to begin to determine whether educator communities could conceivably be a catalyst for education reform, and thus, social change.

Big topic – no way I could possibly handle it in a study I’m supposed to complete over the course of two weeks. I decided to do a quick study that would, potentially, lay the groundwork for future, in-depth studies on the topic. I chose to create a survey which would be used to gather qualitative data from teachers on their perceptions about the influence formal educator communities have had on their teaching styles and skills.

Again, this by no means is a scientific study – it is just a gathering of data for the purposes of narrowing down a focus for future study. There is no quantifiable data to support the claims made by the educators who answered the study. There isn’t meant to be – it is meant to be a view of the perceived impact educator communities might have on teachers.

My study was conducted over just a few days, using a Google form tweeted and posted to FB, then subsequently retweeted and shared by others. During those few days, 124 educators responded to the survey. The average years of experience of the respondents was 17.

78% belong to an educator network. This was skewed because I asked for teachers who are in a network to do the survey when I tweeted and shared the link. 61% of the educators surveyed who said they were in a network belong to the Discovery Educator Network (DEN). Again, this was skewed because that is the network I am most active in, so a majority of educators who took my survey and who shared the link with others were also active in the DEN.

I wasn’t surprised that the response was overwhelmingly positive when asked about whether a community had positively impacted their teaching. When asked the reflective question, “Thinking back to your teaching practices before joining the community, then how they are now, would you say that the community has had a positive influence on changing your teaching practices?” 97% said “yes”.

Here are some of the other results. Note that this survey was about formal communities organized by businesses and organizations, not about PLCs at school or other district or campus communities. In order to obtain scientifically relevant data, one would need to identify quantifiable measurements and a way to include all kinds of communities.

community

Responses to questions about community influence. Click on the image to see full-size.

In addition to these questions, a comment box was provided for educators to add any information they wished. These comments were also very positive, such as:

  • “I don’t think I would still be teaching if I hadn’t attended DENSI!”
  • “Sometimes my job can be lonely – it helps SO much to be able to connect …. for support”
  • “…now the ideas I use are not always my own … and because I share where the ideas come from – my students also see me as a learner.”
  • “those who reach out, collaborate and intentionally connect with others are actively involved in growing their practice!”
  • “I always thought I was a good teacher but when I became a connected educator I realized how much more I had to learn and how much more I could do for my students …. I could not imagine teaching without these connections.”
  • “I like seeing what other educators do. It makes me step up my game.”

Thank you to everyone who answered the survey. The fact that I received so many responses in such a short time is evidence of the strength of the network to which I belong!

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Top three classroom management tips that have nothing to do with procedures

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn my profession, I have worked with first-year teachers, seasoned teachers, and teachers in between and have noticed one common thread – struggles with classroom management. This is not to say that all of the teachers I have worked with have classroom management issues – instead what I’m saying is that when I see issues in a classroom, or ask a teacher what their biggest struggle is, classroom management is usually at the top of the list.

When I see classroom management issues, I can usually see the reasons for it. It isn’t always about procedures and it isn’t always about whether the teacher has prepared a meaningful lesson that will reasonably take the whole class period to complete. Often, it has so much more to do with the way the teacher interacts with his/her students.

I’d like to point out the three most important things (in my opinion) to consider when examining the reasons behind classroom management issues:

1. Like children. We all got into this profession, hopefully, because we wanted to make a difference in the lives of children. However, I have seen teachers who clearly do not like kids. Whether they have always disliked youngsters or whether they have become burnt out and resent them, the result is always the same – constant battles between students who are keenly aware of their teacher’s dislike for them and the teachers who are just counting the minutes until class is over.

If you find yourself in a position where you are quick to make statements like “kids nowadays have no respect” or “teenagers are just a bag of hormones” – you may want to step back and see your students for what they are – young versions of the adults you and others will influence them to be. Young people are all the hope and possibilities contained in our futures, wrapped up in little bodies and brains that are (or can be) excited into wonder. Be in awe of them as they walk in your door. Smile at the realization that you have been given one more class period to be a part of who that child will be for the rest of his/her life.

2. Have clean slates. I’m not talking about making sure to clean your whiteboards or chalkboards, I’m talking about wiping clean the slate in your brain that says “Johnny always gives me trouble” or “Susan never has her books”. This slate absolutely must be clean every single time a student walks in your door. If you are remembering Julio acting up during yesterday’s class while he is trying to answer the question you just asked, you will react differently to his answer than you would if you had wiped the slate clean. It is so important that each new day is truly new – that our students understand that if they made a mistake yesterday, it will not be held against them today. If you tend to hold grudges, or predict how your “troublemakers” are going to react, the result will be constant battles with specific students which quite possibly could be because of your own influence.

3. Think about the big picture. I have witnessed teachers spending many precious minutes of instructional time enforcing rules that have no bearing on the potential for learning in that classroom. If I have a rule that says my students cannot chew gum in my class, and it takes me the first five minutes of class each day to make students spit their gum out, I’ve just placed gum as the most important thing in that classroom for the day. We all know it is going to take longer than five minutes in a secondary classroom, because students who are subject to rules that make no sense to them will stretch those rules to see how far they can go. I’m using gum as an example, but what I want you to do is take a look at the rules you have in place – are they really necessary? Did you just add this one because the teacher next door has it on her list? Does it really matter if Tanya has a pierced lip?

Ask yourself: Does this affect the ability of students in my classroom to learn? If the answer is yes, then it must be a part of the rules you enforce in your classroom. If the answer is no, choose your battles wisely, because it is very easy for us to make a small situation much worse and demand much more time than is warranted. When working with teenagers, this is especially important because when they are in your classroom and you think they are thinking about other things, they are often considering the reasoning behind the rules and the reasoning behind the assignment you just gave them. If they cannot “buy in” to why they have to comply, they won’t, and some of those students will turn nonsensical rules and irrelevant assignments into the miserable hours of disciplinary issues that some teachers face daily.

I’m not trying to say that procedures should get thrown out the door. Obviously, there must be procedures in a day of learning that has so much in it and so little time. These tips are just a way to think about classroom management AFTER you have the procedures in place and are still struggling.

Take a look at your style from an outsider perspective. Then take a look at it from a student perspective. Reflect on those perspectives and make the changes necessary to provide the best learning environment for your students. You will go home at night much less stressed and there is a bonus – you will build stronger relationships with your students.

Start with what we have

I recently read a blog post by Chris Lehmann entitled Root Causes and the Save our Schools March. It was a very thoughtful post and clearly shows the sincerity of Mr. Lehmann’s education philosophy. In the post, he describes a classroom he observed and why he supports the Save Our Schools March in Washington, D.C.

I was directed there by a former collegue’s Facebook page, which shared the link, saying she wished she could work for a principal like him. After seeing who she was talking about, I knew that I would be writing a blog post about it.

You see, Chris Lehmann is in fact a really good principal. He is respected by many educators across the country, including me, as a forward-thinking education reformer. From his school, the Science Leadership Academy, Mr. Lehmann is able to try new things, make observations, learn from his teachers, and spread the word at conferences throughout the country. He is a true education leader. However, it isn’t all about the principal.

Principals have people who give them directives, who have people who give them directives, who have legislators who came up with the directives, who are following the lead of the nation’s leadership who have the ideas behind the directives. It all trickles down. Each individual principal has to make a decision about how much they are willing to put on the line for their vision. At the Science Leadership Academy, administration and teachers have the support of people who are able to provide a bit of an umbrella around them so that teachers can teach the way we all believe they should teach. Even as I type this, I’m thinking that Mr. Lehmann might have a different opinion – maybe he struggles against directives, as well, and just doesn’t make that as apparent to us as he highlights the really great things that happen at his school, and that is how it should be.

Which brings me to the reason for this post.

I listen to educators complain all the time about administration, about standards, about testing, about their students. I have witnessed educators whose response to something they don’t agree with is effectively a removal of good practices from their classroom. They decide to throw out everything they ever hoped for in their classroom and instead sit behind their desk and let their students figure everything out for themselves. While student-centered learning is a good practice, this type of learning is not – same lessons every year in the same sequence with a product of one PowerPoint with 13 slides, etc.

I have seen teachers who leave the profession because they didn’t agree with one administrator. I have seen teachers who turn into the teacher Mr. Lehmann described or the one I described in a post two years ago: Burnout: Trickle or Flood? They focus on what they don’t have. They focus on what they don’t like about their job.

They do not focus on what they do have.

They have students sitting in that classroom who want to learn. Those students have been conditioned to expect the burned out teacher instead of the one with a plan. They also have colleagues who share, or at least once shared, their vision.

Yes, they have standards they must teach. Tests they must proctor. Administrators they must satisfy. But 95% of the time they spend in the classroom, nobody is watching but the kids. They have control over the how in their classroom, even if they don’t have control over the what.

The end result – whether our students master the content – should be what we are focusing on. Any time we spend focusing on the negatives of our job is time we have stolen from children.

All of this is not to say I don’t see a need for education reform. I do. I just have an opinion about how it should come about. In presentations, I will often put  a picture of a mountain up. When it appears, I talk about the approach we have to take when we are tackling a problem and I see this as applying here, so I’ll share:

When we are climbing a mountain, we often lose sight of the top. We can’t necessarily see how to get up there – our view is obstructed by many obstacles and still others that we haven’t encountered yet. Once we get to the top and look down, we can see clearly the path we chose and the obstacles that path offered, but we can also see the path we should have chosen – the one with fewer obstacles – or the one with the kind of obstacles we could handle.

When we talk about education reform. We have to do it from the top down. As long as Washington is doing what they are doing, our states will do what they are doing, our districts will follow, and our principals will have to comply. As educators, we have the choice to either focus on the negatives or instead, to start with what we have. Run with what we’ve been given and make the best of it while we fight the fight from the top down.

I vote for starting with what we have.

What should we teach them?

I’ve been going through a bit of an evolution as a teacher over the last year or two. If we are honest about it, we all go through evolution from the first day we walk into a classroom until the day we walk out for the last time, but I’m talking about major shifts in the foundation of my pedagogical beliefs.

I’m going to confess some things here:

1. I was brought up in a sage-on-the-stage educational culture and I thrived in it. My individual learning style demanded that someone feed me information and I would ingest it and make it my own.

2. I hated group projects. All a group project meant to me (and still means to me as an adult) was that I was going to do all the work and everyone would get credit for it. This wasn’t, and isn’t, always because nobody else is willing, it is really because I often don’t want to give up control of a project. I’ve gotten better about this in recent years. If I’m in a group of able people, I will gladly let them all decide everyone’s roles and I will fulfill mine and nobody else’s.  But put me in a group of people that seem incapable, and I’m all about doing the entire project myself.

3. This is probably the most important confession/thing I’m willing to acknowledge: just because I don’t like group work and just because I prefer to have someone lecture to me in order to learn, doesn’t mean that I think everyone should be taught that way.

And that brings me to my difficulty with education today. The standardized nature of education today demands that we make a decision – which way are we going to teach students? What specific lessons are going to cover the all-important standards, no more, no less?

I was in a session today at Podstock 2011 where we discussed the future of professional development. When the presenter/facilitator asked us what professional development needs, it was very difficult to answer, because teachers are a diverse set of learners, just like our students are.

What is my point?

Maybe we need to quit teaching standards and instead teach how to learn.

Someone told me today that Kansas standards don’t include ANY history for elementary students. A couple of weeks ago, I found out that Texas doesn’t require students to EVER learn about the dinosaurs.

If we can’t engage students with lessons that focus on things that interest them, what are we doing? If we constantly cater only to standards that some unseen set of people found to be important and we don’t try to speak to a student’s natural curiosity about the world around them, what message are we sending them?

I’ve always been a proponent of major education reform. I’ve often said that what we need to do is pretend like we never knew anything about teaching and start with square one again.

What would it look like?

In today’s connected society, I think it would look like a place where students gathered together based on an interest. They would explore their world in a knowledgeable way because in their early education, they would have learned how to find information, how to discern what was credible and what was not, and they would have learned how to apply that information to completely different situations.

In the process, they might even learn about dinosaurs and about history because they want to know about them. It saddens me to hear experts tell me that classroom teachers no longer have time for lessons that don’t specifically address a standard.

Look it up. The dictionary definition of standard means that it is something ordinary, expected, something someone with authority has come up with.

How can we ever expect to have Einsteins, Newtons, and Da Vinci’s come out of educations that make students adhere to ordinary?

Define “cheating”

As the result of a tweet by Milton Ramirez, a/k/a @tonnet, I visited a blog post by Scott McLeod, a/k/a @mcleod, entitled Geometry homework: Is this cheating?.  It really resonated with me because it discusses a piece of the symptoms I have been trying to find a cure for in classrooms today.

In the post, the author discusses a dilemma in which he found himself, where his daughter was working on Geometry homework and trying to decide whether using help from the internet was to be considered cheating.

My response to this was “if she learned from it, isn’t that the objective?”

I am so tired of education being all about how well students can comply, rather than how well they have mastered the content. I am so tired of teachers who try to keep their students from using the tools at hand to facilitate their own learning. I am so tired of traditions that keep us standing in front of a classroom or sitting behind a desk. I am sick of looking at my own children’s gradebooks and seeing that their grades were hurt by the fact that they didn’t turn in a roll of paper towels or didn’t turn in a progress report with my valuable signature.

I join my students and children in their lament over meaningless assignments and purposeless routines in their classrooms.

The Geometry assignment in question should have included a mandate that students find their own answers on the internet or by asking someone else. The student who finds the answer to a question on the internet should be guided to understand what to do with that information. Teaching a student how not to simply copy an answer but to use it instead to figure out how to work the problem will not only help them immediately, it will assist them in their learning throughout their lives.

I, myself, learned how valuable having the answers can be when I was in college. I took a Physics class and struggled with it. I couldn’t ever seem to “get it” and I finally dropped the class. I knew that I would take it the next semester, so I routinely went to the homework binder that the teacher would leave in the computer lab to look at the answers to the homework, even after I dropped the class. The next semester, I got an A in Physics. Did I cheat? I don’t believe I did, because the homework taught me how to solve the problems and it also taught me the one little piece of the course that I had apparently missed the first time, which shed light on the rest for me.

Of course, this college experience was different from a student’s experience in high school. I was graded only on my performance on summative tests, which I had no way of examining ahead of time. Most students in today’s high schools are graded on their formative work, as well.

Assessing a student’s mastery of a subject should be our only concern.

Sometimes we get so lost in the routines and the traditions that we never take a step back and ask ourselves “what is the point of this assignment?”

The process of learning how to learn is far more valuable than teaching a student how to comply.

Which is it? Same or different?

Through all of my education to become a teacher, one thing was repeated over and over – you MUST differentiate! Differentiate for different learning styles, differentiate for students at different levels of English language fluency, differentiate for students with learning disabilities or physical accomodations, differentiate for students with different life experiences and/or interests – the list goes on.

So why is it that we continue to require standardized testing? What is standardized testing other than an expectation that all students should be the same?

In Texas, the new end-of-course exams come with a promise to be more rigorous, to test the subject areas at a higher level of complexity in order to more accurately assess each student’s understanding of the content. That is all well and good, but when the testing is high-stakes – where the score on the test influences both the student’s grade in the course AND their ability to graduate – why is it that we expect every student to achieve the same level of knowledge in subject areas in which many of them will never develop an interest?

I’m all for making sure that every student can read, write, and do basic math – even basic Algebra – but do we really need every student to understand Algebra II and Physics to the depth at which an end-of-course exam will demand?

The new TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) in the sciences include standards that were never even introduced to me in my education until I started with my Chemistry and Biology for majors classes. Why does every single student in the state of Texas need to fully understand these components?

It seems to me like we are taking a step backward. While I can see the benefit of a student who is actually interested in a career in math or science to have a diploma that reflects that interest and a true level of understanding, I do not believe that every single student in the state should be required to achieve the same level of understanding of these subjects.

Sound off – give me your opinion!

Going Paperless: Journey or Destination?

I had the opportunity to make a very brief presentation to Discovery Educator Network (DEN) educators during a webinar last week. It is part of the DEN “Shining STAR” series of webinars where Discovery STAR Educators like myself can share the things we are doing in our classroom.

Making the move toward going paperless has become a focus of mine this school year, so I shared some of my thoughts about the process. I really don’t know if every teacher can accomplish being completely paperless. I really don’t know if every teacher in a 1:1 school district can accomplish being completely paperless. What I DO know is that every teacher CAN make steps toward becoming paperless. Now is the time to do it. With Earth Day coming up April 22, there has been a push for teachers to make the pledge to be paperless on that day. This pledge isn’t about making sure you’ve made all your copies the previous day, it is about trying to develop lessons for the day that do not require the use of paper and create positive learning experiences for students. To make the pledge, complete the pledge form. This movement was started on the TeachPaperless blog.

Over the next few days, I’ll be posting parts of my presentation on this blog with a more detailed discussion of the things I’ve learned through this process. Stay tuned!