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

Is Your Team “Flunking Unsuccessful Practices” Together?

Over the summer, I had the chance to hear Eric Twadell — the Superintendent of Stevenson High School District 125 in Illinois — deliver a keynote at a Solution Tree PLC Institute.

While his whole keynote was amazing, Eric shared a quote from a book called How Children Fail — which was written in 1964 by John Holt.  Holt’s goal was to study the characteristics of highly effective schools.

His main finding about exceptional schools is as relevant today as it was when first written over 50 years ago:

“The researchers then examined these schools to find what qualities they had in common.

Of the five they found, two struck me as crucial: 1) if the students did not learn, the schools did not blame them, or their families, backgrounds neighborhoods, attitudes, nervous systems, or whatever. They did not alibi. They took full responsibility for the results or non-results of their work.

2) When something they were doing in the class did not work, they stopped doing it, and tried to do something else. They flunked unsuccessful methods, not the children.”

Those are two really easy filters to evaluate the work that you are doing together, y’all. 

If you catch yourself coming up with alibis to explain away the struggles of your students, change is necessary.

And what change is the most important to embrace?  Start studying your practices in a systematic way.

Put evidence behind the impact that those practices are having on students — and then amplify those that work the best and give up on those that are doing little to move your kids forward.

The good news is that there’s nothing difficult about any of this.

Studying practices in service of student learning should already be a regular part of the way that you are doing business.

#trudatchat

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Related Radical Reads:

What Role Do Hunches Play in Professional Learning Communities?

Interventions are NOT Optional.

Our Compulsive Obsession with the Impossible Sexy. 

 

Three Tips for Throwing a Solar Eclipse Viewing Party for Your Students.

I’m sure that by now, you’ve heard that on August 21st, a total solar eclipse will cut a path across all of North America for the first time in over 100 years, haven’t you?

That’s HUGE, y’all.

While eclipses — including total solar eclipses — aren’t all that uncommon, because the path of a total solar eclipse is so narrow, they are typically visible to less than one HALF of ONE percent of the earth’s surface.

What does that mean for educators?

If you have ANY students on your campus on August 21st, you’ve GOT to take some time to teach them a thing or two about eclipses.  And if you are ANYWHERE in the path of the eclipse, you’ve GOT to get your kids outside to see the eclipse as it happens.

Want some help pulling some plans together?  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

You’ve got to buy approved solar eclipse viewers NOW:  It won’t come as any surprise  that looking directly at the sun for any prolonged length of time can cause significant damage to your eyes — so if you plan to watch the eclipse at all, you need to buy solar eclipse glasses that are certified as safe for solar viewing.

There’s two hitches here.  First, there are tons of companies selling knockoff glasses that LOOK safe, but haven’t been certified as safe.  Second, companies making eclipse viewers are rapidly selling out, as most of America gets in on the excitement of a once in a lifetime event.

Viewers aren’t terrible expensive.  You can get them for somewhere between $1.50 and $3.00 a pair, depending on how many you plan to order.  But ONLY order them from companies that are reputable and certified.

You can find a list of reputable vendors here on the American Astronomical Society’s website.  And you can find a list of vendors who’s lenses have been certified as safe by NASA on their eclipse safety website.

Give kids chances to practice making scientific observations:  Solar eclipses are awesome opportunities for students to practice their scientific observational skills.  Not only will the moon slowly block parts of the sun from view, temperatures and amounts of light drop, shadows cast by objects become darker and more clearly defined, reflections of the eclipse can be seen in the shadows cast by light passing through the branches of trees, and the behaviors of animals — who are confused by the early onset of night time — change.

Consider asking students to make systematic observations of these changes throughout the observational period.  Being deliberate about observations, spotting changes over time, and keeping careful records of just what is being observed are core practices of successful scientists.

Here’s the observation sheet that I’ll be asking my students to fill out.

Don’t forget to incorporate some social studies instruction into your viewing party:  One of the lessons that I always like to teach to my students is that early civilizations were just as curious about the natural events happening in the world around them as we are — but they didn’t have access to the tools and technologies necessary to fully understand those events!  That led to some interesting explanations for natural events.

Take solar eclipses for an example:  People in India believed that a headless demon named Rahu was swallowing the sun during an eclipse — but because he was headless, the sun would fall right out of the back of his throat every time that he swallowed it!  Similarly, the Chinese believed that a Celestial dragon was swallowing the sun and the Norse believed that wolves were chasing and eating the sun during an eclipse.

Because all cultures knew about the importance of the sun, eclipses were a source of great fear for them — and in many places, residents would pour out into the streets to try to save the sun from attack by those mythical creatures.  They’d scream at the sky, bang pots and pans, shoot arrows and even fire cannons in an attempt to save the sun from attack.

Why not teach kids about that mythology?  Here’s a great National Geographic bit with some of the best myths from around the world.

And better yet, why not have your students develop their OWN chant designed to save the sun from attack on eclipse day?  Maybe consider modeling it after the haka chants used by the Maori people of New Zealand to scare away perceived enemies?  YouTube is full of great videos of the New Zealand rugby team dropping hakas on opponents before games.

And then, have your kids drop their own hakas during your eclipse viewing party.

How much fun would THAT be?!

They can learn a bit about mythology, understand the connections between mythology and early scientific understandings of natural events, and have a heck of a good time all at once shouting at the sky together!

Whatever you do, DON’T miss out on this once in a lifetime chance to experience one of our universe’s most remarkable events. Science is about observing the world — so get your kids outside and learn together. 

#truth

 

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