Monday, November 28, 2011

Question Everything!

Almost four years ago I came to the realization that, although I was a good teacher, my students weren't making the growth that I expected. I knew that there had to be a better way to reach my learners, but I wasn't sure how I would do that. So together, we set out on a journey to discover a better way to organize our class. The biggest shift was from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-directed learning environment. How did we discover a better way? We questioned everything. And even now, that is something that as proven to be the most power agent of change....questioning and reflecting on everything that we do.

So I want to challenge each of you (and myself) to question everything that you do with your learners. Here are a few questions to get you started thinking...

  1. Why is your learning environment set up the way that it is? Most of us will recognize that the classroom learning environment makes a drastic change after the primary grades. Why is that? Isn't good teaching, well, good teaching? This year, I let my students design our learning environment. They organized our classroom library in a way that was meaningful to them. They created the anchor charts and displays that are hanging in the classroom (they love the poster maker). Their self-portraits are the first thing you notice when you walk into the room which reflects whose learning environment this is. Our classroom was already set up for small groups, but they also wanted different learning spaces within the classroom. Somehow, even with 27 large desks, they have created different spaces for paired and small group collaboration. But, I think that their favorite area is the large rug. They love to stretch out and work with their peers. They also love to sit around our and have group discussions. Believe it or not, they LOVE to be read to while sitting around our big rug. So regardless of your grade level or content area, question why you have your room set up the way that it is. Ask your students what they think. Is "this is how it's always been" a good enough answer? Does your current learning environment meet the needs of your learners? Does it reflect them?
  2. Do your classroom norms and procedures meet the needs of your current students? Whose classroom is it? Is it yours or your students? We all remember at the beginning of the school year sitting in a new teacher's classroom and having them dictate a list of rules or procedures to us. Did that nurture and environment where you take ownership of what went on in the classroom? Of course it didn't. So often I hear that students are not interest in what's going on in the classroom. Could this be a contributing factor? We have class conversations for days about what type of learning environment we collectively want. Students come up with ideas that we may never think of including. As a teacher, we already know the basics that need to be included. It is important for us to guide students towards those topics, but allow them to set the procedures and classroom norms for the themselves. They take ownership of their own behavior and they hold one another to the standards that they set. My students know that the norms that are hanging on our classroom wall (thank you, poster maker) are a work in progress. They can change as our needs change. Have you asked your students to share their ideas about how the classroom runs? You'd be amazed at the difference it makes to them to feel like their voice is heard.
  3. Do all learners have to learn the same thing at the same time in the same way? Are any two of our students in the same place in their learning journey? No. Then why do we expect them all to sit through the same learning activities and do the same activities? I realize that we all have pacing guides to follow. However, if a student has already mastered a standard, should they have to sit through the same lesson and same activities as students who have not mastered the standard? No. That's why only having whole group instruction in a classroom has proven unsuccessful at meeting the needs of all learners. By giving a pretest on a standard, you'll find out who needs some instruction, who needs a lot of instruction, and who needs no instruction. That gives you the opportunity to provide students with activities that will challenge them. Also, within an umbrella of a standard, it gives you the opportunity to allow your students to explore what interests them. Let them write about a topic that peaks their interest and publish it with tools that strengthens their voice. No two students are alike so there is no way that one way to teach, one strategy, or one tool will meet the needs of your unique learners. This empowers students to guide the path of their own learning. 
  4. Why do you give the assignments that you do? Why do you give the homework that you give? What are these assignments really measuring? I recently had a fellow teacher tell me that the parents of her students told her she was a good teacher because she gave a lot of homework.Is that why we give homework... because of others' expectations? I hope not. It is important that we take the time to really evaluate what we are giving our students to do and whether or not that is relevant and reliable. Here are my thoughts on Homework and on the Reading Log Part 1 and Part 2.
  5. How do you assess your students? I realize that most of us have no say over many of the tests that we are required to give. However, is that the only way to assess our students? Of course not. Here's something to think about: How many of us have come up with a project for our students, created a rubric, taken it to our class, explained it to them and then they proceeded to pay little heed to the rubric? Why might that be? Could it be because this was all about what we wanted and they had little say in the project? Were they invested in this project? No. What do you do to make that shift? Let them design the rubric or standards for each of the projects in which they are engaged. Of course, you are the content specialist. You know what needs to be evaluated. But, it needs to come from the students. Guide them, through your questions, into designing the rubric for their own projects. Let them evaluate themselves and one another. What you will discover is that the students hold themselves to much higher standards because they designed the project and the expectations. It's theirs. So think about how you  assess your students. Is it effective? Is it reliable? Does it meet the needs of today's students?
This is a short list, but I think I've made my point. Just because we have done something in the past and it's worked or just because that's the way that something has been for years doesn't necessarily mean that it is what is best for our students. We are in the classroom for THEM. Our job is to provide them with the best educational experience possible and to help them along their personal learning journey. Our job is to provide them with the tools that they need to be successful outside of the classroom walls. That is why we need to rethink everything that we are doing to make sure that what we are doing is what is best for THEM.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Do We Misdiagnose Our Students?

This week was a difficult week..not because of my students but because I was returning from being absent from school for two weeks because I had pneumonia. The truth of the matter was that there really was no need for me to be gone from school for two weeks except for an experience I had with my doctors.

When I first came down with a high fever, I thought that it was probably a twenty-four hour virus (as teachers we pick all kinds of fun bugs), but twenty-four hours later I was worse and I went in to see my doctor. I explained all my symptoms. Although I'm not a physician, I had a sneaking suspicion I had bronchitis or pneumonia. My doctor shook her head in dismissal, never took my blood, never even took my temperature. She told me that a fever virus was going around and that was what I had. She gave me a shot and a prescription and told me I should feel better in a couple of days. However, a couple of days later I was infinitely worse. It was time to see a different doctor. When I arrived, he asked me a multitude of questions. He ran so many tests. When he returned, he brought his laptop and showed me the results of all of the tests. (If I hadn't felt so awful, I would have been so impressed with his technology.) What was the diagnosis? I had pneumonia...the data proved it. Now here's the part that really upset me. He explained that the shot and meds that the previous doctor had put me on had slowed down the healing process. Had I come to him first, I would have been better in two days. He had me return the next two days to run tests and make sure that the prescribed treatment was working.

So what can we learn from this experience in regards to our students? First, we can determine that it is important that we don't make assumptions about our students. Just because we have had other students with similar backgrounds, ethnicity, strengths or weaknesses does not mean that the child in front of us is necessarily like our previous students. Each learner is a unique individual. Secondly, it is important that we take the time to LISTEN to what our students are us and in interactions with their peers... both verbally and in writing. We need to make sure that we evaluate our students and get accurate and reliable data on them so that we know how best to proceed in meeting their individual needs.Then once we know what their needs are, we need to constantly check to make sure that our "diagnosis" is accurate and that our strategies are working in helping our students in the ways that they need.

I think it's all too often (after we've been in the classroom for several years) that we make assumptions based on our own experiences with previous students. Sometimes as teachers we get a little arrogant that we have all of the answers and we overlook some key bit of information on some of our students. This experience taught me to go back and reevaluate my previous diagnosis of each of my learners to make sure that I really am providing them with the support that each one of them needs. Don't wait for an experience like mine; I encourage each of you to take the time to do the same. Each of those learners is depending on us to help make them stronger.