Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Are Master Teachers Also Master Storytellers?

I love stories. Reading them, listening to them, watching them. Through stories, we can live many lifetimes. Travel to exotic places. Have amazing, death-defying adventures. Save the world. Experience life from a different perspective. As humans, we enjoy connecting with others. Through compelling stories, we get that opportunity, whether the characters are fact or fiction. Great stories touch our hearts and propel us forward as new, different individuals. When we read, hear, or view great stories, we want to know what happens to these characters. Will they survive? Will they be happy? We become invested in them.

As I reflect upon this, I can't help but think back to some of the most compelling stories that have stuck with me over the years. I remember having some fantastic teachers who wove the most intriguing stories that drew their audience (their students) into the world they were sharing with us, whether it was fact or fiction. What they said mattered to us as students because we became invested.

When I entered the classroom, without recognizing it (at first), I began emulating these fantastic teachers by weaving stories for my own students. It wasn't until I was observed by another teacher who pointed out that the students were hanging on my every word; they were engaging and interacting just when the story called for it. It was a history class and I was telling "The True History Story" about a historical that history books dared to leave out. That's when I realized that storytelling is a crucial skill for teachers to employ with their students.

We want our students to connect with our content. We want it to matter to them. By creating stories that set the stage for a lesson or frame a new concept, we are opening up a new world for them. When it's done well, learners connect and ask questions. They develop empathy for others. Students see the relevance of why they are learning what we are asking them to learn. Students become invested.

So when you enter the classroom and it's time to teach a new concept, introduce a new style of writing, dive into a new author, or explore a new principle, ask yourself, "How can I weave this into a story that will hook my students and make the learning meaningful?" It can be as simple as changing the lighting or arrangement of the classroom. Sometimes you take on a different persona or change your voice. Stories have power, a power to elevate our students and propel them forward to do great things. What story will you tell?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Data: Hero or Villain?

If you're in education long enough, you will see trends come and go. Terminology changes. Instructional focus swings back and forth on a pendulum. As educators, it is very easy to get caught up in the pressure of jumping on the newest bandwagon. However, we must always keep our eyes on doing what is best for our students. We need to question each new strategy, tool, or practice that comes our way to see if it's a fit for our unique learners.

One word which I've heard come and go is "data." Because much of my career "data" has also come with a punitive connotation, it isn't my favorite word. It frequently is used in conjunction with standardized test in these test scores must go up or else. I can read and disaggregate data with the best of them, but it wasn't until I realized what a disservice I was doing to my students by focusing solely on standardized test data that I began to dig deeper into the crucial role of data, valid data, that I began to reframe my ideas.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is based on Five Common Core Propositions. Proposition Number Three states:

Teachers Are Responsible for Managing and Monitoring Student Learning

Managing data is clearly an expectation for all educators, but how do we weave this into our daily practice without losing sight of what each of our students needs?

As I see it, teachers fall into one of three categories. Teachers may be data-driven with a singular focus on hard numbers. Often times these educators put on blinders and only look at their students through the lens of raising test scores. I've been in schools where we were all mandated to justify our instructional choices based on how it would raise those numbers. One day a week, every week, we were required to spend the day doing test prep. What I've observed is that in these situations, students and teachers get burned out. The love of learning and teaching dwindles for everyone. Often we resort to bribes to try to get teachers and students to care about those numbers without seeing the long-term damage it's reeking on our profession and our students as life-long learners, creative problem solvers, and empathetic human beings. The danger of being data-driven is that all of our focus becomes about numbers for one small aspect of learning and growing and we lose sight of what our students need. It tends to eliminate creative ventures, inquiry, exploration, self-expression, and student-voice.

When looking at data, there is another category of teacher. This is one who is living in data-denial. We all know these teachers. We may have been these teachers at some point. Ones who have complete disregard for data, formal or informal. Diagnostic, formative, summative or standardized. These are the teachers who are going to teach the way they want to teach regardless of what students need...because they really don't know what their students need. The danger here is that students easily fall between the cracks. Students go unchallenged and begin to fall behind in their growth. Individual interests aren't nurtured. Potential and hidden talents remained untapped.

Finally, there are teachers who are data-informed. These are the teachers who gather data from a wide range of sources. Data-informed teachers listen. They observe. They analyze...every student, every day. Data-informed teachers look at formal and informal data also taking into account students' interest and learning preferences. They create learning activities that foster student-voice, creativity, innovation, and individuality. These teachers understand that every student is in a different place on the learning continuum and by using a wide-range of data, from multiple sources, he/she is working as a partner with each learner to help him/her reach personal goals. In this type of classroom, the focus is on the student; the learning is diverse. Is there data? Absolutely. It's gathered every day to shape and inform the instruction for each student.

Data. It's easy to fall victim to the pressure and band-wagon of focusing solely on numbers from one source. We can easily become buried in all of those numbers. So much so, that we are tempted to completely disregard any data at all. Either way, if we do that, we have to take our eyes off of our learners and what they need. We aren't doing what's best for them. Students aren't going to remember some test that they took. They will remember how they felt when they were in your class. They will remember the things they created, their triumphs, the connections they made and how they used what they learned to make the world a better place.

Data: Hero or Villian? The answer ultimately is up to you.