Category: Teachers Reflect on their Practice

Grades AREN’T Motivating.

Check out this tweet that landed in my Twitterstream, y’all:

Brett’s right, isn’t he?  

We SHOULD barf every time someone makes the argument that without grades, students can’t be motivated to tackle meaningful tasks.

More importantly, we should stop using grades to sucker kids into completing assignments in our classrooms:

 

Slide - If It's Not Graded

(click here to view original image on Flickr)

So how SHOULD we motivate learners?  

Easy:  By rethinking the kinds of work that we are asking them to do.  Any task that is worth doing should be relevant and interesting.  Learners should be hooked by our assignments and should be convinced that every task will strengthen their knowledge and skills in important areas.

Any task that is worth doing should also be challenging.  Create assignments that are too easy — or that seem completely impossible — and learners tune out.  But create assignments that require kids to stretch just outside of their comfort zones, and they will invest completely in the work.

Finally, any task that is worth doing should help students to drive meaningful change beyond the walls of their classrooms.  The simple truth is that today’s students want to be influential.  They aren’t satisfied with work that has no clear purpose beyond filling their report cards.  But if you can show your kids that the questions they are asking and lessons that they are learning can improve their families, communities or countries, and they’ll tackle anything.

Now don’t get me wrong:  You CAN use grades to try to influence the kids in your classroom — and most will probably respond.

The vast majority of our students still want to earn passing marks.  And they still feel pressure from their parents and their teachers to score highly on classroom assignments.  After all, they’ve been buried in messages like “you’ll never get into college with those grades” and “for every A that you make, I’ll give you $20 bucks” and “make anything less than a C and you will lose your phone for a whole quarter” for most of their lives.

But don’t mistake those reactions with motivation.  

If anything, what you are seeing when students put effort into assignments simply because they are being graded is compliance.  Motivation begins when our classrooms become places where interesting, relevant, challenging, and powerful tasks become the norm rather than the exception to the rule.

#trudatchat


Related Radical Reads:

Celebrate Your TEACHING Geeks, not your TECH Geeks

Are Kids REALLY Motivated by Technology?

Are YOUR Students Doing Work that Matters?

When Did Teaching Science Become Political a Blood Sport?

Did you see what Scott Pruitt, the Chief Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency said today?

Despite almost a century’s worth of scientific evidence, the consensus of the vast majority of the scientific community, and the scientific opinion of national groups like NOAA and NASA, he made the argument that carbon dioxide ISN’T a primary contributor to global warming.

Pruitt’s argument aligns nicely with the argument of the fossil fuel industry — who he has a long history of supporting at all costs.  “I think that measuring with precision human activity on climate is something very challenging to do,” he said.  “And there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of the impact, so no, I would not agree that it is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

Now, Pruitt is definitely in the minority here:  There’s NOT “tremendous disagreement” about the impact that carbon dioxide is having on our climate.

Need proof?  Then check out the Climate Change Consensus page on NASA’s website.  You’ll find that:

  • 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists believe that human activities are having a negative impact on our climate.
  • 18 scientific associations — people like the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of America — believe that human activities are having a negative impact on our climate.
  • 11 international science academies believe that human activities are having a negative impact on our climate.
  • US Governmental Agencies — INCLUDING Pruitt’s EPA — and other international governmental bodies believe that human activities are having a negative impact on our climate.

So you can either believe the guy who has taken thousands upon thousands of dollars in donations from energy companies and their Political Action Committees OR you can believe thousands upon thousands of scientists who have spent their entire careers researching this issue.

This should make for a PERFECT lesson in my sixth grade science classroom, y’all.  

My standards require that I teach the carbon cycle — which includes the impact that excess combustion (think burning coal to create electricity and oil and gas to power vehicles) has had on the balance of carbon in our atmosphere AND that I teach students how to “distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in a text.”

Think about that for a minute.  Climate change is very public example of how an imbalance in the carbon cycle is having an impact on our day-to-day lives.  More importantly, Pruitt’s statements are a very public example of a place where students can distinguish between facts, reasoned judgment based on research and speculation.  I’d LOVE to let them decide whether or not Pruitt’s argument is believable.

Isn’t that EXACTLY the kind of lesson that today’s students need to learn if they are ever going to be scientifically literate?

After all, we live in a world where politicians let donations govern their decisions — and those decisions end up governing our lives.  We also live in a world where the value of scientific research is regularly denigrated if it stands in opposition to positions that are going to cost businesses money or politicians donations.  Lobbyists whisper in the ear of guys like Pruitt, making promises in order to gain influence.  If kids aren’t prepared to recognize those conflicts of interest and aren’t able to interpret the meaning of scientific findings when making personal decisions about who to support, our planet is screwed.

But here’s the thing:  I won’t mention Pruitt’s comments to my class at all.  

Why?  Because over the past decade — ever since Al Gore started talking about our world’s Inconvenient Truth — I’ve been buried time and again by complaints from angry parents who ALSO believe that there is “tremendous disagreement” over the role that carbon dioxide plays in our changing climate.

It’s the exact same criticism that I get when I talk about natural selection or evolution — topics that are ALSO in my required curriculum AND scientifically settled, but widely panned by a small handful of people in America.

Most of the complaints that I get parrot talking points that you hear on radio programs hosted by guys like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin.  People suggest that “I’m teaching climate science as if it is fact instead of opinion.”  They argue that, like most public school teachers, I am a part of a “left-wing conspiracy to brainwash children.”  And they ask if I’m going to bother teaching both sides of the story, even when there really AREN’T two sides to any of these stories.

Think about how frightening this all is.  

Essentially, I’m admitting to you that I shy away from introducing my students to scientific fact simply because I know that there’s a good chance that I’ll be attacked when I do.  Maybe I should be ashamed of that.  Maybe I should teach controversial topics no matter how much flak I’m likely to take.  Maybe I’m failing my kids and my community by keeping silent even in a situation where silence isn’t warranted.

But it’s just not that easy.  

Somehow, teaching science became political blood sport — and sometimes, I just don’t have the energy to fight.   

 

 

 

 

 

More on My Digital Portfolio Project.

As regular Radical readers know, I started a Digital Portfolio Pilot Project in my room last week.

I have 25 students using Blogger to record evidence of their learning over time.  I am trying to encourage them to write four different kinds of posts in the main stream of their blog — which we are calling their “Learning Portfolios.”  I am also trying to get them to think deeply about the essential questions in our required curriculum on static pages in the main navbar of their blogs that we are calling their “Showcase Portfolios.”

While we are only a week into our project, I’ve learned a few lessons worth sharing:

Blogger is better than I thought.

When I started this project, I was worried about using Blogger.  I’ve always seen it as a wonky tool.  That wonkiness was confirmed as I tried to create a template for my kids to use as a starting point for their portfolios — which isn’t impossible, but which also isn’t as easy as it should be (see my previous post).

But for every example of wonkiness that I find in Blogger, I discover a feature that I really like.  One specific example is Blogger has a feed reader built right into the blogging platform.  It’s called the “Reading List.”  What that allows users to do is consume and create content in the exact same place.

(click images to enlarge)

As soon as I found the reading list, I had my students add the blogs of their classmates — and then I started encouraging them to read and comment on new entries during silent reading time.

That does three things:  (1). It provides extra motivation for writers — if you know your friends are reading, you are more likely to create something new on a regular basis, (2). It provides readers with a constantly updated stream of new ideas for posts that they can create in their own digital portfolios and (3). It encourages students to comment on the content of others, which is exactly the type of first-draft thinking that I want to encourage in our digital portfolio project.

The reading list has also made MY life easier.  I’ve added the blogs of all of the participants in my portfolio project to the reading list in my Blogger platform.  Now, new content posted by my kids is one click away — making it easier to monitor their work and provide the kind of feedback and encouragement that they need in order to become better at systematic reflection.

A clear naming structure for student blogs is super helpful.

I think the best decision that I’ve made so far is requiring all of my kids to use the same naming structure when creating their blog in Blogger.  That has made it easier for me — and for the students involved in my project — to track down content being created by kids on our team.  Our blog addresses are predictable — and that predictability makes it possible to quickly guess the blog address of peers that you are interested in following.

I won’t tell you what our naming structure is yet — I don’t want anyone stealing it on me until I get all of my students signed up first! — but here’s a sample of what I mean:

Blog Naming Formula:  [student first name]isalearner.blogspot.com

Samples:  joeisalearner.blogspot.com, samiyaisalearner.blogspot.com, dewanisalearner.blogspot.com, laurenisalearner.blogspot.com

If I hadn’t required a common naming structure, my guess is that my students would have chosen blog names that would have been as unique and diverse as they are — and while I love that uniqueness and diversity, having a standardized way to find one another without much challenge facilitates connections between the kids in my classroom.  Those connections matter most to me right now.

A common naming structure also made it possible for us to get started quickly.  Instead of spending thirty minutes trying to come up with an interesting address for their blog, my kids spent two minutes replicating the naming structure that I created for them.  Getting started quickly matters, too.  It builds momentum in the hearts and minds of the kids who are participating and it reduces the likelihood of teachers saying, “I love the idea of digital portfolios, but I don’t have the time for them!”

My kids needed no technical help, but they DID need a ton of nudging around content and formatting.

Getting started on our digital portfolios was a complete breeze.  It took less than 30 minutes to get our blogs up and running and then another 30 minutes to show kids how to create posts, monitor comments, and personalize their templates.  The simple truth is that because twelve year olds like to tinker with tech, they didn’t need much coaching at all on how to accomplish basic tasks in Blogger.  In fact, the first portfolio entry written and posted by a student went live in the middle of my first 30 minute training session.

But they DID need a ton of nudging around content and formatting.

For example, every one of my students wanted to personalize the colors and text styles on their blogs — and at least half of them chose color schemes and font families that made their blogs more difficult to read.  Instead of thinking about their audiences, they were thinking about themselves — and the result was content that few people could consume without serious challenge.  That’s been a neat conversation and learning opportunity — but it is one I didn’t totally expect going into this project.

Another example:  My kids haven’t always done the best job REFLECTING in their initial posts.  Instead, they are REPORTING on what they are learning in their classes.  I blame that on the traditional structure of schools, y’all.  We don’t ask kids to do a ton of reflecting, so it’s not something that they are naturally drawn to.  Until we start to teach the difference between reflecting and reporting — a conversation we are going to have together in class next week — I shouldn’t be surprised to see that the content my kids are creating isn’t all that reflective yet.

I’d love feedback from all y’all on this stuff.  Does it make sense to you?  Do you have any suggestions for how I can make this better?

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Related Radical Reads:

My Digital Portfolio Project Planning

 

 

Want Better Faculty Meetings? Start Here.

Last week, I blogged about my decision to write “Kudos Cookies” notes to my students.

A simple idea built on a suggestion from my friend Chris Tuttell, Kudos Cookies are short, handwritten notes of praise paired with a sweet treat.  I write anywhere from two to eight notes every morning — depending on how much time I have after arriving at school — and make deliveries all day long.

The entire experience has been fantastic.  Not only are my kids surprised and thankful for the kind words that I’m sharing, my own spirit is buoyed every morning by the simple act of showing gratitude to the kids in my classroom.

But as I try to convince colleagues to write their own notes to kids, I’m hit with the same response over and over again: “That’s such a great idea!  I’m impressed you are doing it.  But I just don’t have the time.”

Now don’t get me wrong:  I understand the time crunch all too well.  I’m behind in paper grading right now simply because I’ve chosen to spend 20-30 minutes every morning writing to kids instead of scoring assignments.  I’ve also been slow at replying to emails in my inbox — which I imagine is frustrating the dozens of people who need answers from me every single day.  The truth is that even I feel pressure to quit writing to my kids because I’ve got a ton of other things that need to get done.

Think about how heartbreaking that is, all y’all.

How did we get to the point where writing kind notes to kids is something that we can’t find the time for?  How many items on our To-Do lists would have a GREATER impact than telling our students that we are proud of them and spotlighting moments where they have impressed us?  If I quit writing and caught up on my grading and answering my email, would our school be a better place?  Would I be a better teacher?  Would my students be better learners?

Of course not.  The BEST thing I do each day is write to my students.  Each note strengthens a relationship and builds the confidence of a kid.  Nothing else matters more.

#simpletruth

The good news is that Matt Townsley and Santo Nicotera have found a solution.  Both are starting every faculty meeting with the same agenda item:  Writing positive notes to two kids that are hand delivered the next morning.

How awesome is that?

Imagine a room full of teachers spending a few minutes together reflecting on the strengths of individual students.  Imagine a building where written expressions of gratitude became a norm instead of an exception to the rule.  Imagine the positive message sent about priorities when writing to kids was the first thing done whenever teachers gathered together.  And imagine the frame of mind teachers would be in for the rest of the faculty meeting or professional development session after thinking about the kids that they serve.

And THEN imagine the joy that would ripple through your building on the morning after a faculty meeting or professional development session.  

Have 30 staff members?  Sixty students are going to start the next day with a tangible reminder that they ARE successful learners and that their teachers DO believe in them.  Wouldn’t that make your school a more joyful place?  Isn’t that what we mean when we talk about building a community of learners?  Aren’t kids more likely to respond to hand-written notes from the important adults in their lives than to the PBIS points and trinkets that you are currently giving to encourage positive behaviors in your school?

And 30 staff members are going to start the next day with a moment to show gratitude to your students — a behavior that we often overlook in schools because we are too darn busy.

So how do you get started?  Here are a few ideas:

Build 10-15 minutes into your meeting agendas for writing positive notes:  It doesn’t take long to write, guys.  I can write six notes in twenty minutes.  Setting aside ten to fifteen minutes is plenty of time for two notes.

But here’s the thing:  This has to be the FIRST item on your agenda.  Not only will that help by putting teachers in a positive, student-centered frame of mind at the beginning of your faculty meeting, it will ensure that you aren’t tempted to cut letter writing from your agenda because you run out of time at the end of the meeting OR put teachers in the position where they have to decide between writing a meaningful letter or going home at the end of a long staff development session.

Bring school-inspired stationary for every teacher to write on:  I write on cards that are 4 by 5 inch squares.  Four fit on one piece of 8 by 11 card stock.  On the front is a colored, school themed logo.  The cards are big enough for me to say meaningful things but small enough for me to fill in five minutes — so I don’t have to spend forever writing.  Print a stack of these.  Have someone cut them before your faculty meeting.  Ask teachers to pick up two as the enter your meeting — or hand out two at the door as teachers arrive.

Interview kids who have received letters:  The easiest way to convince teachers that writing to kids matters is to interview a few students and get them to talk about the letters that they’ve received.  One or two short videos of kids saying things like, “I felt noticed when I received my letter” or “I wasn’t sure my teacher liked me until I got my letter” will help to cement the notion that time spent on writing letters is well worth it.

Ask every staff member — not just teachers — to write letters:  Don’t forget that your custodians, classroom assistants and office staff members have positive relationships with kids, too.  In fact, they often have positive relationships with students who don’t stand out on the radar of classroom teachers.  Asking them to join your letter writing project will help to ensure that every kid is recognized over the course of the school year.

Recruit parents, the PTA, or your Family and Consumer Science classes to bake Kudos Cookies for you:  My students love the letters that I write.  They COULD be the only thing that you hand out to students.  But let’s face it:  My students also love the cookies that they get, too!  It makes getting a letter from me an extra special treat.  So talk to your parents or your PTA or your Family Consumer Science classes.  Give them a list of your faculty meetings and professional development days.  Have them bake cookies that you can hand out with your letters.  It’s a simple way to spread this project beyond just your classroom teachers.

NEVER skip letter writing:  Never.  Like ever.  The minute that letter writing is bumped from your agenda, you are sending the message to your staff that all of the other items you grind through — details on the new dismissal procedures, reports from the district’s financial planner on changes to your 401K plans, mandated video training on blood borne pathogens or sexual harassment in the workplace — matter more than showing gratitude to kids.  That’s what got us in this pickle to begin with!

So whaddya’ think?  Is this something you can see doing in your faculty meetings?

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Related Radical Reads:

When Was the Last Time YOU Wrote a Positive Note Home to Parents?

Simple Truth:  Kids Want to be Noticed

Writing Positive Notes to my Students is the Best Way to Start the Day

 

Writing Positive Notes to My Students is the BEST Way to Start the Day.

Regular Radical Readers know that I made a commitment last year to handwriting positive notes to the parents of all of my students (see here and here).  The entire project was awesome.  Parents appreciated hearing kind words about their kids and kids appreciated being noticed.

I started a handwritten note project again this week, but with a twist inspired by Christine Tuttell.  This year, I’m writing directly to my kids instead of their parents — and along with each note, I’m giving my kids a cookie:

Like Chris — who does a similar project with the staff members that she supports as an Instructional Technology Facilitator — I’m calling these daily gifts of positive words of praise paired with sweet treats “Kudos Cookies.”  Also like Chris, my main goal is just to spread a bit of joy every day.

And like last year, my kids are really enjoying receiving letters from me.  Every hand delivery has been met with smiles.  In fact, many mornings, I think I’m catching kids off guard simply because they aren’t used to getting direct praise from me.  That makes me feel bad — I wish I had the chance to give every kid direct praise every single day.  But the reality is that with 120 kids and 50 minute class periods, things move too fast in a middle school to interact with every child in a deep and meaningful way every day.

Here’s what’s interesting, though:  I get just as much benefit from the positive notes that I’m writing as my students do!

Starting every morning sitting quietly at my desk thinking about just what makes each of the kids in my room special matters.  It serves as a constant reminder that no matter how hard teaching can be, it is truly an amazing profession.  Better yet, it serves as a constant reminder that every kid sitting in my classroom has unique sets of strengths that are worthy of recognition and celebration.

That kind of intentional reflection about every single kid gives ME joy, too.  Better yet, that kind of intentional reflection makes me more tolerant in the moments when the wheels fall off during the course of the day for the kids in my classroom.  Because I’ve started the day by deliberately naming the strengths of my students, their weaknesses don’t leave me frustrated.

So whaddya’ think?  Are Kudos Cookies a project you’d ever consider tackling?  

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Related Radical Reads:

When Was the Last Time YOU Wrote a Positive Note Home to Parents?

Simple Truth:  Kids Want to be Noticed