Saturday, January 30, 2016

Why We Need Each Other

I have a student; for this post, we'll call her Lisbeth. She is in one of my honors ELA classes this year. In our district, placement in this class can be overridden my a parent request in spite of teacher recommendation. Now, I am not here to debate this practice, because as their teacher, it is my responsibility to educate every child that is in my classroom. Lisbeth is one of those students whose parent placed her in honors classes.

As I got to know my students, I observed that Lisbeth often took a great deal of time in completing any classroom assignment or project. In spite of the extended time in class and at home, she was actively engaged in her work and she demonstrated mastery in content area standards. She provided her peers with deep and insightful feedback. When she read aloud (yes, she volunteers), she struggles to decode words and lacks fluency. She demonstrates great reading and word strategies as well as endurance when tackling new words or text. Doing some one-on-one work with her, I discovered that although she lacked fluency, her comprehension far exceeded many of her peers.

From my experience, I wanted to conclude that her lack of fluency and the extra time that she needed to complete tasks was not something to focus on. Also, I did not want to make any decisions regarding her obstacles that could potentially damage her self-confidence.

As an educator of middle level students, I don't often need to work with students who lack fluency (unless it's also tied to other reading deficiencies).  Although my instinct told me that since Lisbeth was still finding success, I didn't need to go into rigorous lessons on fluency, I lacked that data to substantiate that decision. That's when I turned to two highly accomplished K-3 educators. Dr. Gay Barnes and Kim Bowen both who have years of experience in positively impacting student learning, especially in reading.  They are vocal advocates for doing what is best for students regardless of whatever trend is blowing through education. I knew they would really listen to all of my observations and the conclusions that I have drawn regarding Lisbeth and give me honest feedback and recommendations.

As we spoke, they came to the same conclusions that I did, but they recommended that I conduct a Qualitative Reading Inventory (QRI) in order to evaluate if I was missing something in diagnosing Lisbeth and designing the appropriate support for her learning. I hadn't thought of a QRI in thirteen years. Although time consuming, those assessments provide the data I had been lacking regarding the conclusions I had drawn.

Without my conversation with Gay and Kim, I could have easily misdiagnosed what Lisbeth needed. It could have had a negative impact upon her growth professionally and personally. We all need Gays and Kims in our lives who can provide us with honest insight, feedback, and expertise so that we can provide our learners with the best learning opportunities possible.

As we begin a new week, let's all be mindful of the  breadth and depth of experience we have around us, both face-to face and digitally. Let's harness that collective and channel it into empowering our students with the best support system possible.

Photo credit

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Where can student voice lead?

I know that I write about, speak about, and advocate for student voice....often. I truly believe that is a key to reaching our students. They need to have control over their learning, not just in the now, but for a lifetime. Then on Friday,  real-life example of how far student voice and choice can take an individual walked into my classroom.

I have a full-time intern this semester. She prepared a brief activity to introduce herself to my learners. As she began sharing a few things, one item opened a door to a lot of questions for me and my students. She explained that when she completes her internship with us and graduates, she already as a teaching job....for two years....with the Peace Corps....in Madagascar. I'm sure you can imagine the questions that tidbit sparked. She transparently shared her story and it starts in one of her high school English classes.

In high school, she had a teacher who told the students that they could choose any topic to research. In searching for a topic, she came across the Peace Corps and her interest was peaked. As she dug into her research, she began to see this as an opportunity for her to grow as a person and give back to others.

Upon entering her teacher preparation classes at the University of Alabama, this idea of serving in the Peace Corps resurfaced and she began the journey of making this a reality. She isn't traveling with friends and she knows no one who is or has been in the Peace Corps. Yet, this is something about which she is passionate....thanks to a teacher who gave her an opportunity to choose. And where did that passion take her? All the way to Madagascar (come June 20th).

Her story reinforced why it's truly worth all the planning, conferring, and time involved in giving students a voice in their learning. In so doing, we are investing in our students and their future...and we have no idea how far that will take them. It could take them to the other side of the planet, out into space, or into the great unknown. But we'll never know until we give them that opportunity. Let's give them a voice and let them start their own journey.

Madagascar Image

Want to read more? Here are a few other posts I've written on student voice and choice:

Monday, January 18, 2016

Being Present and Making Moments

At the beginning of a new calendar year, there is much discussion about goals and resolutions. Although my students composed a an email on futureme.org outlining their plan for the second semester, we set goals in our classroom just about every day regardless of what the date on the calendar reads. Each day is fresh with new ideas, new possibilities, new opportunities. Each day, we are a little different and therefore our path may need to be altered.

Yet, as my students were discussing and writing an email to their future selves, I began to think about what changes I wanted to make, personally and professionally. With the integration of digital tools into our every day lives, we have opportunities to connect and collaborate with people globally. I know I am a much better teacher, a much better person, because of these regular connections through social media. However, as a result, like many of my students and friends, I realize that we often disconnect with those around us in the three-dimensional world to catch up with those in our digital world. Have you ever looked around restaurants? It is very common to see a group of people (of all ages) dining together, but not conversing because they are each on devices.  This happens in professional settings too. 

As I reflected on this, a thought crystallized. We only have limited amounts of time with our students, with our family, with our friends. Once a moment is gone, it will never return. We need to clear time and mental space to truly be present in each of our moments with others. 

For me, I realized that my mind was too cluttered to be able to enjoy moments giggling with my nieces or planning an amazing simulation for my students. I had to clear things off of my plate and out of my mind. That meant saying "no" to truly worthwhile opportunities. It meant removing devices from some of my activities. I have to have space to be creative and breathe so that I can be the best teacher for my students and the best version of me for my family and friends.

Teaching is not about content, it's about students. Life isn't about a checklist, it's about the people that we surround ourselves with and the choices we make. So whether we are conferring with a student on writing, facilitating an improv activity with our class, meeting with a parent to design a path to lead to a student's greatest success, hiking with friends, cooking dinner for loved ones, or binge watching TV in your PJs with your family, let's all strive to make moments. Be present...because that's the greatest gift we can give another person.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

PBL: Many Paths, One Destination

I have a responsibility to educate my students beyond the “now.” But in a world where we are often mandated to prepare students for looming high-stakes tests, how can we provide our students with the opportunity to learn crucial life skills like communication, problem solving, creativity, decision-making, time management, and organization? Is it possible to both guide students into mastering their grade level standards as well as empowering them with the life skills that they will need in the future?
For me the answer came in the form of project-based learning (PBL) more than four years ago where students use life skills to create a project that demonstrates mastery of content areas standards.  Along the way, my students and I have learned a few tips to make PBL manageable within the classroom environment while empowering students to have a voice and choice in how they learn, what they learn within a standard, and how they demonstrate mastery of their standards. Here are the things that we have found yield the greatest degree of success:
Exposure. My students come to me from two different elementary schools. Although they have had experience in doing projects, most of those projects are very teacher-directed with heavy assistance by parents. When I began PBL, my students were not accustomed to having to make choices, solve problems, or direct their own learning. I always hesitate to show an example of how a student could create a project to show mastery of standards because ultimately you get 85 almost identical projects. On the other hand, students also need to “see” their target.
As I contemplated that conflict, I realized I already had a large database of projects from previous students published on our class website, blog, and wiki. All I needed to do was expose my students to all of the possibilities. Instead of pointing them out to the class, I created an online scavenger hunt for my learners to explore digital resources and they spent a lot of time exploring and engaging in the projects of their predecessors. They have seen how one standard can be met in many different ways. They understand creativity and individuality are key components in making the learning theirs.
Gradual release. In our class, PBL means students are working toward demonstrating mastery of the same standard. Same goal. Different paths. When I speak with other educators, I can feel overwhelmed facing the idea of a large variety of projects going simultaneously.
Students can feel overwhelmed because they can no longer compare their learning against a peer’s as they are working on different projects. They can no longer depend upon parents to assist (or complete) their projects for them. In our classroom, as in many other PBL classrooms, a bulk of the work is completed at school. You can’t measure a student’s mastery if they had assistance from parents. You would have no idea where the student’s learning ended and the parent’s began.
To alleviate that pressure, we begin with small projects within one or two class periods. When we practiced using adverbs to paint more powerful images for our audience within our writing, students were tasked to demonstrate a mastery of adverbs. Some students opted to write a paragraph with and without adverbs demonstrating the difference descriptive language makes to a reader. Other students create Instagram videos where they acted out adverbs and asked their global peers to identify the adverbs. The digital dialogue gave those students the opportunity to defend their learning and add to the learning of peers.
These types of projects were not a list of suggestions I gave my students, but ideas they came up with on their own. This gave them the opportunity to look at what a content standard really meant beyond the classroom walls. It gave them insight into how to manage their own work with a clear deadline. They learned how to problem solve, apply knowledge, and articulate their own learning.
Confer, confer, confer. This has been the most important shift I have made when moving to PBL. When students are working on projects for longer durations of time, they need feedback often. No one wants to get derailed for three weeks only to discover his or her mistake. With my students, I aim to meet with each student at least twice a week. They bring their work, ideas, questions, obstacles, and goals for the next couple of days. These sessions keep students focused on the purpose of their project: to prove mastery of content standards. As the teacher, I know where they are and if I need to plan a small group lesson or a reteaching session to provide the support—or challenge—each student needs. With regular conferring, I can do that in a timely manner. If students are struggling with how to demonstrate mastery, I can ask them a series of probing questions to lead them in the right direction.
To manage all of the feedback and discussion, my students now handle all of their brainstorming, research, note taking, planning, and writing drafts in Google Drive. This enables us to have conversations about their writing, making the feedback visible where they can easily refer to it during their project. With Drive, students can also invite peers to provide insights and feedback adding another perspective to the publishing of their final project.
When it is time for a student to be assessed on their project, the grade is never a surprise because they have been discussing it with me and with their peers for days (or weeks).
Stay focused. Just like each one of our students are unique, so are their projects. It is easy to get wowed by a project with a lot of bells and whistles. Often these projects overshadow projects that appear simple. However, the appearance of the final project is not what this is about. Recently, a teacher asked how to compare a project where a student has created an intricate and professional-looking movie with a student who had drawn a comic strip. The answer is simple. You don’t. That’s not the point. The point is to compare each student to the standard. That’s the target for each student.
For one of our quarter assessments, my students took the six standards that we had been working on and each created a project to prove mastery of those standards. Some students created video games that required an audience to apply their learning to solve the problems. They built this gaming world with challenges, obstacles, and rewards. It took countless hours. And another student created a simple Power Point that had hand drawn illustrations. Although these projects were very different, they each had proven mastery of the six standards. Truth be told, the learner with the simple Power Point actually showed a much higher level of mastery with her project—something that is easy to overlook if we don’t stay focused on what matters most—students owning their learning.
Although PBL seems to be a trend right now, it isn’t anything new. Teachers have been doing this for decades because it empowers students to take ownership and apply their learning in authentic ways. It’s the best of what education can offer our students—the opportunity to master content standards, apply life skills, and learn how to take that content and apply it in authentic ways. It strengthens them as not just as learners, but as individuals who will shape the world of the future.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Setting the Stage for Successful Student Collaboration

In today’s digital world, our roles as educators have shifted. We are no longer the sole proprietor and expert in the classroom. Truth is that if Google can replace us, we are no longer doing our job. Our role in the classroom is to teach our students how to apply content knowledge to solve problems. We promote skills like critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. However, those are not skills that come naturally to our students. 

We live in a time where boundaries of learning are being pushed. With the myriad of digital tools at their fingertips, our students have the ability to connect and collaborate with peers both locally and globally. Students have access to experts in any field. Because of the lives they lead, they crave feedback. Yet, their efforts at collaboration often lead anywhere from shutdowns to meltdowns.

We hear our colleagues extolling the virtues of connecting students for collaborative learning and it may cause us to wonder what is going wrong in our classroom. The truth is that everyone, no matter how well intentioned, enters with certain expectations and perceptions. Many of our students expect to walk into a group situation where everyone is working on the same goal doing the exact same thing as their fellow group members. That is simply cooperation or compliance. Often cooperation does not push students into authentic tasks that require higher level thinking and reasoning. True collaboration comes when each member in a collaborative group brings his/her strengths, ideas, experiences, and knowledge to share with the group. Everyone contributes towards the common goal using their unique talents for the good of the entire group.

As teachers, I’m confident that a great majority of us have probably experienced the same frustration as our students when trying to collaborate with our colleagues. I thought I would take an opportunity to share with you some of the practices that my students have learned through our years collaborating with peers both locally and globally.  By preparing them of these mindsets in advance, their likelihood of success is greatly improved.

Communicate expectations up front. The first step that my students do when forming a new collaboration partnership is to outline a list of the norms and expectations that they have for their upcoming project. They discuss timeline, deadlines, behaviors, work ethic, and accountability to the group. Through these conversations, they have the opportunity to share their goals and their concerns about their impending work together. This dialogue lets every member know before they begin the first step exactly where they are headed. It not only helps them create a relationship with one another where they feel safe to be transparent in their thinking, but also connect with one another as individuals on a deeper level. Although this may seem time consuming in an already jammed packed learning day, the group will make up the time in the long run as their project will not suffer from constant derailing due to miscommunications.

Remain flexible.  Things happen. People get sick. Schedules get rearranged. Parents set appointments.  As adults, we understand this is part of life, but sometimes students get frustrated when a deadline isn’t met by a teammate, one member seems to fail in following through with their part of a project, or they miss a time for real time communication. By guiding our students into becoming adept at adjusting plans, they are learning valuable life skills. Often when a student comes to me aggravated because something has disrupted their project, we can lean on the strong foundation that they set in the beginning. Once they open that dialogue, the learners discover a solution together that stronger than their initial plan. They learn to listen to one another, have patience, and pull their resources to reach towards their common goal.

Keep an open-mind. As adults we understand that not everyone is like us. However, many of our students in spite of being globally connected, often live under the false premise that everyone is like them. I’ve discovered over the last several years that this is often the most challenging part of collaboration for students. Students may feel that they are the expert, the smartest, the most organized, the most creative, or the most talented individual in the group. Those beliefs are why I believe that collaboration is an integral part of the learning process. Students need to have experience with students who in many ways may not be like them. No single person is who they are with the talents they have without the guidance and input of others. We become the best version of ourselves by working and learning with others.


By preparing our students in advance for the shifts they will need to make in order to successfully collaborate with the peers, both in the classroom and through digital means, we give them the tools to open a world of learning possibilities. Through collaboration, students find commonalities with a diverse community of learners and apply content knowledge and higher order thinking skills for an authentic audience while becoming the strongest version of themselves. Collaboration, although challenging at times, is well worth the investment for us, our students, and the future.


photo credit: Empty Stage via photopin (license)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Superheroes Don't Exist, But You Do

"Not every one is like you."

Today is the first official day of ILA15 and the statement above seems to be the underlying theme that I am hearing, experiencing, and discussing formally and informally. The stories told by Shiza Shahid from her childhood in Pakistan to cofounding the Malala Fund in order to advocate for education for every student spun me into introspection. 

Many of us work with high needs students by choice. Where I am teaching, we have both ends of the socio-economic spectrum. Our students go home to lives that are not our own reality...and we, as their teachers, need to be aware of that. Even students labeled "high needs" lead sheltered lives compared to their global peers; in spite of being involved in social media, they still often remain disconnected from global events. They live under the assumption (as do many of us) that the 11 and 12 year olds on the other side of the world have the same privileges and civil rights.

I couldn't help but wonder, as educators, isn't it our responsibility to make them not just globally aware, but provide opportunities for them to put their compassion, empathy, and talents to use? The books that we read, projects they create, and conversations we have should include a global view of our world. Not every child will respond to every book, article, or video we share, but they still need to have those experiences to gain a sense of themselves in the perspective of the world in which we live.

I often hear that students are apathetic when it comes to learning. However, when students are asked what they want to get out of their education, thei
r answer usually is "to make a difference in the world." How can we meet that need if we shy away from the cotton candy world that so many of our students live in? Students need to know what is going on in the world. They need time to read about others who may not look like them, talk like them, or have the same beliefs. If they don't have that empathy or understanding for others, how can they ever turn their dream of using an education to make the world a better place into a reality? 

I must admit that is an area where I have learned much from my students this school year. This year our entire student body embraced a global project. They learned of a school in the Ikota village of Nigeria. In spite of receiving an excellent education, and privately funded scholarships (because school is not free in Nigeria) they didn't have a permanent structure. Their learning was done in bamboo structures and metal shipping containers on the village's dump. Our middle school students ran a campaign, educated others, shared learning with their Nigerian peers, and raised funds to put towards building them a structure which would allow for twice as many students to receive an education. These middle school students saw an opportunity and jumped in to make a difference. 

Sometimes the best thing that we can do for our students is to step out of the way and let them lead. It was exciting to watch them grow and change with the choices they were making. At no time did our students refer to themselves as "saving" their peers on another continent. They looked at it as a privilege and an honor to connect with these students and put their talents to use to impact the lives of those students and their community. 

When I reflect on what I've heard today and experienced with my students, I know that this year I need to be diligent in not only exposing them to the lives of others through the stories we read,and the classes with whom we collaborate, but also staying open when a student shows an interest in making a change in the world. As Shiza said, "we can't wait for superheroes to come and change the world. They don't exist, but YOU do."

Monday, June 29, 2015

What Social Media (and Professional Learning) Should Be About

I'm currently at my 15th ISTE. Many things have changed in education and technology over the last fifteen years. In 2000, social media did not have a presence in our lives. People walked around, attended sessions, looked each other in the eye, and spoke to one another....because that was the primary way to make connections. Quite a few years ago, I was standing in line at a convention center Starbucks with my students when the teacher behind us, Linda Cooper, struck up a conversation about why my students were at ISTE. That conversation grew into what was my first collaborative effort with my students and students in another geographic location. She and I built a relationship that greatly benefited all of our students. Our dialogue, sharing, and connecting opened up my mind to new directions to grow in my teaching practice.

Several years later, Web 2.0 and social media came onto the scene.  I joined in and began tweeting and posting. Like many others, I became excited by the number of followers I had or who chose to follow me. It took two years before I realized that wasn't where the true value of social media was found; it was in making connections, building true relationships, and giving back to others in our digital/social media community...the very same thing that Linda and I had done years before. That was when my professional growth escalated exponentially.

I was able to find answers to questions that I had about how to meet the needs of one of my students. I could find different ways to turn the learning and our classroom over to my students. I could form partnerships to connect my students with their global peers. Because of the relationships that I built, my students were able to find their voices, build connections with global peers, and make a difference in the world. 

Because we are connected regularly through social media, building these relationships, we get to know one another. Friendships built on mutual respect develop. On my flight to ISTE, I had a young woman sit beside me who noticed my ISTE app. She asked me if I was headed to the conference. She (a second year teacher) and her two colleagues (first year teachers) were heading to their first ISTE. Her passion and enthusiasm were contagious. She asked so many questions about ISTE and teaching. As she began taking notes, I realized that this is one reason why we go to conferences (and engage in social media)...to make these connections. 

There are people who are all along the professional learning continuum. Some are ahead of us in their journey. Others may be just beginning. However we connect, whether face-to-face or digitally, we need to strive to share our learning with others. 

So as we continue the next two days at ISTE, I want to challenge myself and challenge you to look for someone who you can share with, connect with, and grow with. This will not only benefit our practice, but also the learning of our students. And our students' learning is what it is all ultimately about.