Category Archives: Teachers Contribute to the Academic Success of their Students

What IS the Ultimate Goal of Schools?

I was poking through my Evernote collection today and I rediscovered this great Fast Company bit about the role that design thinking can (and should) play in schools.

In it, author Trung Le said something that resonates times about a thousand with me:

(Click here to view and/or download original image on Flickr.)

Slide - Outrank Other Countries

Trung is right, isn’t he?  

Outranking other countries on assessment tests ISN’T our ultimate goal.  Instead, our ultimate goal should be to leave kids better prepared to tackle the kinds of borderless challenges that our towns, our communities, our states and our nations are forced to wrestle with.  Whether we like it or not, issues like poverty, drought, access to healthy foods, and pollution in all of its forms are in need of solutions.

What if, instead of spending every bit of our professional energy preparing students to pass assessments of all shapes and sizes, we invested that same professional energy into helping our kids to master the skills necessary to solve complex problems with no clear answers?

Fifty years from now, our world ranking on international assessments isn’t going to mean very much, y’all.

But fifty years from now, the kids in your classrooms right now are going to be leading the world.  How can we best use our time today to prepare them to make a real difference tomorrow?

That’s a question worth asking.

#trudatchat

If you are interested in learning more about incorporating global challenges into the work you do in your classroom, check out Bill’s book, Creating Purpose Driven Learning Experiences — which is currently on sale for $5.00.  

 

 

Banning Phones in Class Might be the BEST BYOD Policy.

A recent report  from , and the University of Texas at Austin has me questioning my professional decision last year to allow students to bring their cell phones to my classroom.

In Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity (summary, full report), Ward, Duke, Gneezy and Bos argue something that I’ll bet all of us have experienced:  When your phone is present, your brain is not because you are constantly wondering what is happening in/on your device.  The urge to check your phone — to look for new likes or favorites in social media spaces, to answer the latest email and/or text message that has landed in your inbox, to check your news feeds for the latest celebrity blunder or political disaster or blockbuster trade — can be impossible to resist even when you are determined to attend to the world around you.

Specifically, Ward and her colleagues found that the presence of smartphones — whether they are turned on or turned off — had a negative impact on the working memory and fluid intelligence of participants in their study.  

Working memory is the ability of an individual to select, maintain, and process information relevant to current tasks and/or goals. Fluid intelligence is the ability of an individual to understand and solve novel problems.

Another finding was that the working memory and fluid intelligence of participants in Ward’s study increased consistently as their phones were put in locations that were less visible and accessible.  Participants who were asked to put their phones in their pockets or their purses did better on tasks requiring high levels of working memory and fluid intelligence than participants who could see their phones.  Participants who were asked to leave their phones in another room, however, did the best on those same tasks.

Figure

What’s interesting is that participants could not detect the impact that the presence of their smartphone was having on both their working memory or their fluid intelligence.

When asked, participants in each of the three control groups reported that (1). they weren’t thinking about their phones and that (2). the presence of their phones had no impact on their performance.  Evidence from each experiment, though, tells a completely different story.  “This contrast between perceived influence and actual performance,” writes Ward and her colleagues, “suggests that participants failed to anticipate or acknowledge the cognitive consequences associated with the mere presence of their phones.”

What’s also interesting is that working memory and fluid intelligence were impacted the MOST in participants who reported high levels of dependence on and emotional attachment to their smartphones.

Stated more simply, the participants who did the worst on the tasks designed to test working memory and fluid intelligence were the ones who reported the highest level of agreements with statements like “I would have trouble getting through a normal day without my cellphone” and ““Using my cellphone makes me feel happy.”

Ward and her team make a few recommendations and draw a few conclusions at the end of their study.  Perhaps most importantly, they note that the only strategy that worked to mitigate the impact that smartphones have on working memory and fluid intelligence was separation from the device.  Their testing showed that participants still struggled with working memory and fluid intelligence even when utilizing common mitigation practices like turning devices off, leaving them screen-down on tabletops, or leaving them in pockets or purses.

They also suggest that their research is specific to smartphones only — primarily because of our persistent and complex relationships with our phones.  “The role of dependence in determining mere presence effects suggests that similar cognitive costs would not be incurred by the presence of just any product, device, or even phone,” they write.  “We submit that few, if any, stimuli are both so personally relevant and so perpetually present as consumers’ own smartphones.”

So what does all of this mean for classroom teachers?  Draw your own conclusions, but I’m thinking that the BEST BYOD policy might just be to ban smartphones from our classrooms in most circumstances.  

I know.  That feels like blasphemy, doesn’t it?  Schools have raced to embrace technology at every turn.  We know full well that digital tools can make incredible things possible in our classrooms.  Students can ask and answer their own questions using digital tools.  They can connect to new information and individuals, find partners to think with and learn from, and direct and document their own learning using devices.  They are excited about their phones — and we figure we can leverage that excitement to do great things.

Just as importantly, we bear at least SOME responsibility for teaching kids to use their own devices productively, don’t we?  If our kids don’t recognize the power sitting in their pockets, backpacks and purses, we are failing them — and we can’t just assume that kids will automatically figure out ways to leverage their phones for learning on their own.  That’s the kind of expertise that WE can bring to the table and pass on to our students.

But here’s the thing:  We are also failing our students if we don’t help them to recognize how to mitigate the negative impacts that those exact same devices have on our lives.  

As educators, we tend to give technology the benefit of the doubt, assuming that more technology is always a good thing.  Ward’s study proves that’s not always true — and we owe it to our kids to help them see that sometimes — particularly in spaces where working memory and fluid intelligence are important factors for being successful (read: classrooms), the best plan for maximizing your ability to concentrate and to develop strategies and to find novel solutions is to leave your smartphone in your locker unless it is absolutely necessary for whatever task you are trying to complete.

In the end, that may just be the MOST important lesson that we can teach our kids about their personal devices.

Need some specific recommendations?  Try these:

  • Revise your BYOD policy.  Make sure that it explains that smartphones will be allowed in classrooms only on an as-needed basis.
  • Start a conversation about Ward’s research with everyone (parents, students, teachers) in your school community.  Emphasize the importance of working memory and fluid intelligence to classroom success.  Detail the positive impact that separation from smartphones has on working memory and fluid intelligence — particularly for people who report high levels of dependence on and emotional attachment to their phones (read: students of darn near any age.)
  • Begin recommending to parents interested in providing their children with devices that they invest in Chromebooks and/or tablets instead of smartphones.
  • Remind everyone in your school community that technology isn’t ALWAYS additive and encourage everyone to think more deliberately about the costs of the technology used in your classrooms.

 

 

This is Why I Teach: Powerful Goodbyes.

This has been a tough year for me, y’all.  

I found myself second guessing my decision to stay in the classroom just about every single week.  Little things left me frustrated even more than usual.  I felt angry a lot — and dissatisfied and discouraged and sad.  Moments of true inspiration were few and far between — both at school and in my professional life beyond school.  Nothing seemed to come easy.

And then, yesterday happened.

It was our last day of school and the eighth graders were having their graduation ceremony.  It’s a moment of celebration for them — another rite of passage marking the end of three years in our care.

As a sixth grade teacher, though, I never get the chance to attend the ceremony.  I’m busy with my students, celebrating in our own small way even though we will see one another again in just a few short weeks.

In some ways, missing out on the eighth grade ceremony bugs me.  

There are so many students that I want to say goodbye to — kids who I’ve mentored and coached and taught in both formal and informal ways.  The suggestion that the only teachers who should be present are those who taught our kids last — instead of those who have known our kids for the longest — just feels silly to me.

But the kids that I am the closest to always seem to find me — and no matter what I’m in the middle of, I drop everything to connect one last time.

That’s what happened in the middle of our sixth grade Quiz Bowl, when Jacob, James and Thomas* — triplets that I’ve grown connected to over the years —  showed up in the media center.

The minute I saw them, I knew that I was going to struggle to say goodbye.  Each of them has impressed me and made me smile time and again over the last three years.  They are creative and funny and competitive and kind — unique boys with great personalities and a willingness to listen and learn and take advice.  Given that they’ve stopped by darn near every day during their seventh and eighth grade years, I knew that they appreciated me — and I’ve certainly appreciated them.

We talked for a few minutes — but the words were hard for all of us to get out.  We found a way to smile for pictures — but it was in between wiping away more tears than any of us would be willing to admit. Watching them walk away for the last time felt like a loss.

But instead, that single moment was a huge win.  

Those tears — which came quickly and caught us off-guard — were proof that the time we spent together mattered.

And those tears reminded me that I’m not in this position for the pension or the summer vacation or because I am passionate about teaching science.  To be honest, the pension will be nice if I can live long enough to earn it, the summer vacation doesn’t exist given that I have to work multiple jobs to pay the bills, and most of the kids in my class will forget most of the science I teach them before they even start seventh grade.

I teach because I love knowing that I can make a difference in the lives of kids.  There’s nothing more rewarding than that.  And powerful goodbyes on the last day of school are the evidence that I needed that the daily grind of teaching is totally worth it.

This is why I teach.

 

(*Not their real names, y’all. )


Related Radical Reads:

This is Why I Teach:  Watching Kids Learn

This is Why I Teach:  Individual Moments Matter

This is Why I Teach:  They are Learning from Me

More on My #Hashtag180 Work.

Regular Radical Readers know (see here and here) that I’ve accepted Kyle Hamstra’s #hashtag180 challenge.  That means I’ve been sharing regular content in my Twitterstream highlighting the work that I’m doing in my classroom with specific curriculum standards.

I’m a month into the challenge, so I figured some reflection is in order.  Here are four lessons that I’ve learned so far:

I really HAVE looked at my curriculum more this month than I have in years.

One of Kyle’s central arguments is that #hashtag180 work matters because it makes teachers more familiar with their required curriculum.  That’s definitely been true for me.  Because I know that I am going to make new posts each day and that each of those posts needs to be tagged with a standard from my curriculum, I’ve opened my state standards and unpacking document every work day for almost a month.

And that’s had a huge impact on my instruction.  Specifically, I’ve discovered things that I’ve taught for the better part of a decade that aren’t really emphasized in my curriculum AND things that ARE in my required curriculum that I didn’t even realize I was supposed to be teaching.

I guess I should be embarrassed about that confession — but my guess is that MOST teachers don’t spend a ton of time revisiting their standards after they’ve taught them for a few years.  Participating in #hashtag180 has changed that for me.

Recording video posts and aiming them at my students and parents was a great decision.

Many of the people who are sharing content in the #hashtag180 stream share still shots of students working on projects or evidence of their standards in action spotted in their day-to-day activities.  While I respect those posts and recognize that those teachers are learning just as much about their required curriculum as I am, I decided early on that my #hashtag180 contributions were going to be short (less than two minute) videos aimed at my students.

My reasons were simple:  I knew that if my #hashtag180 efforts were going to be sustainable, I had to get as much value from the time, energy and effort that I was investing in making posts as possible.  By creating videos, I knew that I was also creating interesting content that my students and parents might be interested in watching, too.  That turned each #hashtag180 post into more than just a learning opportunity for me.  Each post is now a learning opportunity for me AND a review tool for my students AND a communication tool for my parents.

And I know it’s making a difference:  First, more than one student has come up to me to share that they are always excited to see the newest video that I post.  In fact, one complained after I missed a day last week.  Then, a parent at our rising sixth grade open house Tuesday night approached me and said, “I follow you on Twitter.  Love your videos.  Made my kid watch every one of them already!”

That’s totally worth the time that I spend working up #hashtag180 posts each day — and my bet is that video content is the reason that my posts are gaining attention.  If I was sharing still shots, I’m not sure that parents or kids would be all that interested.

Adding our school’s hashtag to each #hashtag180 post adds vibrancy to our school’s social presence.

As I mentioned in an earlier bit here on the Radical, I’m working hard to market our school to interested parents in our local community.  To help with those efforts, I’ve started adding our school’s dedicated hashtag (#SalemProud) to each of my #hashtag180 Tweets.

Here’s why that matters:  Now, any parents who follow our school’s hashtag will see MORE than just scheduling information or celebrations of school happenings.  They will ALSO see teachers sharing academic content in an approachable and engaging way.

That SHOULD leave them better prepared to understand just what it is that kids are learning in our school.  More importantly, that SHOULD leave them with the feeling that teachers in our building are passionate about communicating their content to kids — and that’s a feeling I want everyone in our community to have about our school.

And what does it cost me?  Nothing.  I’m making #hashtag180 posts anyway.

That gives me yet another stack of added value for every post that I make.

#notbadright

I love (like seriously LOVE) my growing digital portfolio.

Another great decision that I made was to figure out how to use IFTTT to automatically cross-post each #hashtag180 Tweet to a dedicated blog sorted by standard.

The result:  I’ve got the beginnings of an AWESOME digital portfolio that I can use to PROVE that I know both my content and the kids that I teach.

Check it out here.

Notice how each video is neatly embedded in new posts?  See how every post that I’ve made is sorted by standard in the sidebar?  ALL of that happens automatically every time that I make a new post in Twitter.  IFTTT searches my Tweets, finds posts with standards-based hashtags, and adds them as a new blog entry WITH the correct labels.  The entire process is automated.  It takes me no time at all.

Like zero.  None.  Nada. Absolutely zippo.

Think about how valuable that all is.  Not only can I go back next year and review the questions that I asked and demonstrations that I did, I can prove to my principal — or to anyone that I interview with in the future — that I understand my standards and have developed effective ways to teach those standards to my students.

And better yet, I’m not the only one that benefits from my digital portfolio.  I’ve shared the link with the parents and students of my team again — figuring that most are unlikely to follow me in Twitter or to spot the posts that I’m sharing their regularly.  Now, they don’t have to worry about joining a social space they may not be interested in (or old enough to join) to see the content that I’m creating.  They can bookmark my blog — or subscribe to get new posts delivered to their email inbox — and see everything that I share.

Other teachers who are responsible for teaching similar standards or concepts can also learn from my digital portfolio.  Maybe they will see a demo that they hadn’t considered before.  Maybe they will hear language that they hadn’t considered using to explain individual concepts before.

Either way, by using IFTTT to cross-post content on an outward facing blog, I’ve created opportunities for sharing that cost me absolutely nothing because that sharing is done automatically.

So let’s summarize:  By accepting Kyle’s #hashtag180 challenge, I’ve committed myself to five minutes of extra work every day.  That’s it.  

I am always on the lookout for something that I am doing with students in the classroom that I can turn into a video.  After recording — which I do directly from my phone in the Twitter app — I have to open my standards (which are also downloaded to my phone) to be sure that I am adding the right standard hashtag to my Tweet.

That’s it.  That’s all I do.

The hardest part of the entire process is holding the “record” button on my phone with one hand while trying to conduct a demonstration with my other hand.

#notkidding

#Ineedlongerarms

And in return, I get:

  • A stronger awareness of my required curriculum.
  • Final products that students can use to review important concepts covered in class.
  • Final products that parents can use to better understand what their kids are learning.
  • Final products that add a sense of vibrancy to our school’s social presence.
  • A digital portfolio that demonstrates my mastery of my required curriculum
  • A collection of resources that other teachers can learn from.

Not bad for five extra minutes of work each day, huh?

So when will YOU accept the #hashtag180 challenge?

#doubledogdare

_____________________

Related Radical Reads:

Will You Join Me in the #hashtag180 Challenge?

Turning #hashtag180 Posts into a Digital Portfolio

I’ve Started Using a Dedicated Hashtag to Market My School

Compliance ≠ Motivation.

One of my favorite students of all time was a boy named Thomas*.  

What I dug the most about him was his curiosity.  It didn’t matter what topics we were talking about in class, Thomas was always wondering and always asking questions and always doing independent investigation on related ideas that left him intrigued.  He was one of the most passionate learners and thinkers that I’ve ever had the chance to work with — and I’m certain that he is going to be more than a little successful in life.

But Thomas was rarely “successful” in school.

He wasn’t an “Honor Roll” student, pasting fancy certificates on his wall and bumper stickers on his parents’ cars quarter after quarter and year after year.  Instead, he was constantly racking up Cs and Ds in his classes.  Missing tasks were the norm rather than the exception to the rule — and the work that he DID turn in was never an accurate reflection of what he was capable of.  His apathy towards assignments was a source of constant frustration for his parents and his teachers, who tried every trick in the book — groundings, loss of privileges, after school detentions, low marks, even LOWER marks — to “motivate” him to give his best effort on every assignment.

If you went back and looked at Thomas’s academic record, you’d probably make a ton of assumptions about him.

The fact of the matter is that there is nothing inspiring about the grades that he’s earned during his school career — and outsiders who have to make decisions based on little more than transcripts would probably turn away from Thomas in a minute.  He’d be filtered out before anyone would give him an interview simply because Cs and Ds are quick indicators of struggles that most employers don’t want to bother with.

And all of those assumptions would be wrong.

Here’s why: Thomas’s academic record is nothing more than a reflection of what he was WILLING to do — not what he was ABLE to do.  He’d made a decision early on that he wasn’t going to play the “compliance game,” dutifully completing every task and meeting every deadline without question.  Instead, he judged each assignment individually — and if he found it challenging or interesting or relevant, he’d invest in it completely.  If he found it pointless or repetitive or disconnected from important questions worth considering, he’d skip it no matter what punishments you promised.

So what lesson can we learn from kids like Thomas?

Perhaps most importantly, we need to recognize that sometimes the lack of motivation that we see in our students is a function of the work that we are asking them to do.  Thomas didn’t skip assignments or turn in tasks that were partially complete because he COULDN’T do the work.  He skipped assignments and turned in partially completed tasks because he’d decided that he WOULDN’T do work just to please a teacher or to avoid a punishment.  If he couldn’t see value in a task, he wasn’t going to value it.

Stew in that for a minute, would you.  In its simplest form, Thomas’s refusal to invest in work that he didn’t believe in was a form of protest — his way of saying to his teachers, “If you want my best effort, I expect more effort out of you, too.”  Sure — it would have been easier to just do the work he was being asked to do.  And yes — there are plenty of kids who will follow directions and meet deadlines because they fear the consequences that both parents and teachers stand ready to dish out.

But please don’t mistake that compliance for motivation — and please don’t suggest that kids like Thomas who refuse to comply are automatically lazy or disobedient.

In fact, if you regularly have to use consequences — think zeros or low grades or signatures on work tracking tools or phone calls home to parents — as threats to encourage kids to complete your assignments, it might be time to look carefully at your instructional choices.

—————-

*Name changed to protect the identity of this student!

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Related Radical Reads:

Grades AREN’T Motivating

Learning > Schooling

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?