November 10, 2016

Learning with EdPuzzle

Jennifer Hogan’s recent post inspired me to write about my experience with EdPuzzle.

I’ve used EdPuzzle in facilitating PD.  We may use it a bit more as a staff later this year.  Edpuzzle is really powerful.  It allows you to clip videos, add in audio, and insert questions directly into an instructional video, providing an opportunity for formative assessment.  There are a number of “channels” available to pick and choose videos.

I signed up as a teacher using my Google account.  I used the one-click Google button to sign in.  You can see from the image below there are a variety of channels available.

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In the next image, you’ll see the dashboard.  From here you can apply due dates to the assignments (videos) you create.  You can also view the progress of students who have completed the assignment, and you can prevent or allow skipping (fast fwd) during the video.

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In the next image you see who has watched the video till the end and you’ll see their score.  By clicking on a name you get a more detailed view of their responses, how many times they’ve viewed the video, etc.

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This is an individual student’s view provided to the teacher.  You can see this student of mine viewed this video 2 times after the question was proposed.  You are not limited by the numbers of questions you can ask.

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So here’s the most important question: why would a teacher incorporate videos into their instruction?

  • Videos give students an opportunity to learn in ways that are relevant and important in the year 2016 and beyond.  Ask your students how many have watched a video to figure out how to fix a 4-wheeler, braid hair, or flip a bottle.  Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.
  • Videos can liberate you to provide the support that is difficult to provide when you’re instructing the whole class.  So many times I hear teachers say it’s difficult to teach their class because the skill level gap is so wide.  Videos can actually carve out MORE time for you to do what you do best, support students. 
  • EdPuzzle is like videos on steroids because you can insert questions to check for understanding and guide thinking.  The charts that are provided after your learners complete the videos can inform you about what to do next. 
July 4, 2016

Two Questions Around Standards Based Learning

Last week I completed two days, approximately nine hours of instruction at AFT-WV (American Federation of Teachers – my union) summer camp for teachers.  I’ve been honored to serve as an instructor for the week-long event the last three summers now.  The emphasis is always on technology integration.  This year I decided to take the opportunity to engage participants in an interactive conversation on grading and assessment.  This represented about two hours of our class time.  Over the last year, I had developed a two-part academy, via Nearpod, designed to expose a staff to standards based learning.  The goal or target was to generate momentum for a staff to begin improving the way they communicate learning to students.  I had 20 participants in my class at AFT-WV summer camp and they represented a wide variety of content and grade levels.  I wasn’t sure what to expect as this was the first time I had ever used the content I designed.  My participants stepped up and fully engaged in some incredible discussion.  I was really shocked.  Navigating the waters of grading and assessment requires some intense reflection about century-old practices that have dominated classrooms and teacher mindsets.  During the lesson, as the participants began to really consider how to more accurately communicate learning to students, they brought to my attention some common problems or even misconceptions that I remember grappling with during my own journey towards a culture of learning that is standards based.  I’m going to offer these issues to you as they were offered to me, then I’ll follow up with my response.

Derek, it does make sense when you asked us to consider if we believe all students learn on the same timetable or conveyor belt, as you put it.  But, I can’t figure out how you seem to manage different assessment schedules in the same classrooms?  That almost seems like a moonshot idea that isn’t practical or possible in the real classroom.

Penalized for learning different rate

First, I’m a math teacher, so this issue was something I really struggled with for some time.  I recall passing out tests in my classroom and as I walked around handing the test out to students, I would almost cringe as I placed that test on some students’ desks because I knew that student wasn’t ready.  At that time I began to leverage technology quite a bit more in my classroom.  I could tell when he or she hadn’t completed the assignments and tasks I had prepared and the formative results indicated such.  Here I was handing out a summative opportunity to students that I knew weren’t quite ready.  I asked myself “would this student be ready if I just gave them an extra day?  Was there any data I could view that would indicate where this student was struggling?  Could I meet with that student in a 1-1 or small group setting to better prepare him or her for this summative test?”  Of course, in my mind, none of those questions were possible because I had asked students to learn according my timetable.  Why?  After much thought and reflection, the only answer I could come up with was that my timetable was easier and more convenient for me.  If you’re reading, stop there and think.  Ok, I hope you’ve given some thought to my answer for why I was so committed to my timetable for learning.  At this point, I think it’s safe to say that little can improve in your classroom or your school if our focus is on keeping teachers comfortable, keeping instruction convenient, and keeping our work easy.

If you decide to allow multiple pathways to that summative, standards aligned, assessment you create, I think you’ll find that what happens is not quite what you had in mind.  See, my participants last week had this thought in their minds that if they had 23 students in class, nearly all 23 would choose a different day to take that summative assessment.  WOW!  How in the world could a teacher manage 23 different days of testing, provide adequate feedback to those students after their tests, then keep them busy while the rest of the class tested for days after.  Let’s be clear.  That doesn’t happen.  In my experience, being more fluid with when your students test means you’re not as concerned with when but more concerned with results (learning).  I think you’ll find that most students still move through your curriculum, those assignments you’ve designed as opportunities for students to practice or engage in that new skill or concept, together.  This is especially true if you successfully nurture a culture of collaboration in your classroom.  If students know that talking, sharing, and working together is appropriate and encouraged, learning rates for students will begin to merge together.  You’ll find that your attention is given, more appropriately, to those students who begin to move at a slower pace.

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Students Helping

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Let me give you an example of how allowing more choices about when students test will actually benefit the teacher.  In my own journey towards improving the way I communicate learning to my students, I began shortening the tests I gave to my students.  I more accurately aligned my tests to specific learning targets I had communicated to my students.  So instead of a 25-30 question/problem test that likely takes an entire 45-minute period to complete, I started offering shorter, targeted assessments.  This allowed me to provide 1-1 feedback to students immediately after completing those assessments.  If all 23 students take that assessment on the same day, it becomes more difficult to meet 1-1 with each student after their assessment.  Time becomes an issue, I just can’t meet with all of them in 45 minutes.  However, if 12 students take that assessment on Thursday, I can then meet 1-1 with all 12 after they complete their assessment.  This conference becomes crucial to the learning process.  My goal is for each student to leave my conference knowing where they are, where they need to be, and how they can get there.  Students leave my conference knowing exactly what they need to do to remediate and strengthen those learning targets in which they failed to demonstrate proficiency.  Some of those 12 leave my conference and go back to work.  Some students provided evidence of learning in every standard or learning target.  My point is, if 7 more students test on Friday and go through my 1-1 conference after, that leaves just 4 students for me to check on before pushing students ahead to the next set of learning targets.  It’s more manageable than you think.  As I often tell educators, find someone who is already doing this and lean on them.  That’s what I did!

The second issue or misconception I want to address is around the idea of allowing retakes or redos.

Derek, if you allow retakes and redos on every summative assessment, what do you do if you hand a student a test and he or she says “I don’t want to do that one, I’ll just take the retake”?

This was a great question and one that I’ve heard before from educators at the beginning of this journey.  Hopefully my last response brought some clarity to this issue.  Is this student ready for that test?  Let’s consider why that student is saying “I’ll just take the retake.”  If that student was ready for the test or at least felt they were ready, what reason would they have to not take the test?  Another issue here may be that students have learned that your retakes are easier than the first version of the test.  Be sure your summative assessments, all versions, are clearly aligned to learning targets you’ve already communicated to students.  In fact, it’s good practice, especially at the secondary level, to allow students to explore what would be considered mastery of your learning targets.  For example, take the following learning target from 9th grade language arts: I can cite strong and thorough textual evidence that supports my inferences and analysis of the text.  After providing your instruction, try allowing your students to provide examples of mastery and examples that do not provide evidence of mastery.  How would they measure if another student could demonstrate mastery of this standard?  You may find some deep learning occurs during this activity.  To summarize, if this issue appears in your classroom, it’s likely you’re placing an emphasis on when students learn and it appears this student isn’t ready to demonstrate learning.  Otherwise, you may have an issue with the validity of your retakes.

April 21, 2016

Side Effects

You’ve heard them right, those pharmaceutical commercials where everyone appears to live a better life by taking that drug?  Then I’m sure you’ve noticed the often lengthy list of side effects that are read at the end of the commercials.  I find it comical, because there’s always happy people on the screen with soft uplifting music playing as the narrator reads a long list of side effects that are often worse than life without the drug.  View this real commercial for Chantix and try not to laugh.

Ok, so we know sometimes what is intended for good can have some pretty harmful side effects.  Let’s turn that around.  I hope that our students don’t feel any harmful side effects from attending our classes or our schools, though that is something to consider.  Instead, I wonder what positive side effects would be experienced by students that attend our classes and our schools?  It’s a thought that has been on my mind a lot lately, especially as schools across the country enter standardized testing season.  There’s a lot of conversation in my PLN that would suggest the side effects could be more important than the effects that we acknowledge up front.  For example, one could imagine that students who attend my math class should leave my math class with a breadth of knowledge as determined by the content standards.  However, year after year I become more interested in those side effects and the impact those can have on student success beyond school.  It’s not that I’m uninterested in the content I teach, but I’m more in tune with the side effects that I want my students to experience as a result of attending my class.  For school leaders, what side effects do students experience as a result of attending your school?  I invite you to consider the side effects that students experience from attending your class, school, or district.  Please share those side effects in the comments section of this blog post.  Here are mine:

  • increased awareness of one’s learning preferences and style
  • perseverance
  • empathy
  • tolerance
  • confidence in their ability to leverage digital sources to learn anything
  • a growth mindset
March 31, 2016

They Can Still Grow

My wife and I are both school teachers.  We teach in separate districts but thankfully our spring breaks fell on the same week this year.  As a result, we took a trip today to Old Man’s Cave in the Hocking Hills region of Ohio.  It is a beautiful area and I highly recommend the trip.

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The entire hike surrounds you with the beautiful scenery you see above.  My daughter Miley loved the waterfalls.  I was amazed by the size of the rock that towers over Old Man’s Cave.  Story says a man lived underneath that rock and I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to camp out under there.  Of all the wonder there was to see there, it was a small tree that stuck out the most to me.  I paused briefly to snap a picture of that tree as it literally appeared to be growing on a small outcropping of rock that made up the humongous overhang of rock known as Old Man’s Cave.

Grow Anywhere

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The pictures don’t do it justice to how resilient that tree must be.  I know it’s difficult to see, but above the tree is even more rock.  In fact, there was really no more room to grow, so you can see the tree just turned down and has continued to grow down over the edge of the cliff.  I wondered how it received any water, but it must receive just enough rain to survive at that location.  As soon as I saw this tree, I was reminded of my students that were born into rocky situations.  I thought of those students whose life has placed them in a situation that seems insurmountable.  I count myself extremely fortunate to have spent the first year of my career substitute teaching at a juvenile detention facility.  All of the students at that facility were court ordered.  It’s been six years since I’ve spent any significant time teaching in that setting but I remember those experiences like it was yesterday.  In fact, I can’t imagine what my career would have been like without that experience.  My commute, at the time, was 30 minutes one way.  I can recall many drives home where I left the radio off and reflected on the conversations I had with those students.  To consider that for nearly all of that population, those 9-12 months are the best months of their lives, it’s overwhelming.  The mark left by students that were leaving that facility will never heal.  The tears that landed at my feet will never dry.  See, many of those students grew up in situations similar to the tree I noticed today.  I needed the reminder that students can grow even under the most insurmountable conditions.  I think our students need that reminder too.  I can’t summarize all that I learned from my teaching experience in institutional education, but I know it allowed me to develop an intense passion for reaching those students that live in conditions that would appear to deny them of any opportunities for growth.  I wish I had a magic recipe, but I don’t.  I know it requires resilience on the part of the student and the teacher.  And I know it requires your heart.  Growth won’t occur in the absence of our heart.  Here are my suggestions on ways you can give those students your heart:

  • Be sure your classroom policies and procedures take into consideration the conditions in which those students go home to each day.
  • If you can’t be anything else to those students, be a smiling face and a listening ear.  You may be the only person that smiles and listens.
  • Don’t allow your upbringing to shape your attitude towards those less fortunate.  Give others your heart not because they are like you but because they are unlike you.
  • Colossians 4:6 has been a permanent fixture on my white board for two years now: Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, so that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.  Nothing strikes harder than the tongue.  Guard your tongue, especially when considering those students facing uncertainty at home.  Will what you say bring you closer to that student or take you further from that student?
January 25, 2016

The Learning Divide

Jonas made it’s mark on West Virginia this weekend.  In Parkersburg, WV we got about 13 inches of snow.  On Friday as the snow was dropping my family decided to drive about 20 minutes north to my aunt and uncle’s house because they have a fantastic hill for sleigh riding.

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Powell House

It turns out we got snowed in and the roads were just too much for our Ford Fusion to travel so we decided to spend the night Friday.  Jonas continued to pour into Saturday so we were forced to stay another night away from home.  My aunt and uncle were keeping their eight-year-old granddaughter Kiera for the weekend so my four-year-old daughter Miley had a playmate.  As you can imagine, this was an excellent deal for Miley.  As she was climbing into bed with Kiera Friday night she told us “this is my first big girl sleepover!”

I brought my Macbook Air with me as I figured I could use the time stuck inside to get some work done.  I got it out Saturday afternoon and attempted to access the wireless internet available at my uncle’s home.  For reasons unknown to me, my Macbook would not connect despite entering the correct password.  It appeared to try to connect over and over but I never received the typical message telling me it was unable to connect.  I honestly don’t know what happened and the issue exceeded my own level of expertise.  My eight-year-old cousin Kiera noticed my frustration and asked me what was wrong.  I told her my computer wouldn’t connect to the internet.  She asked if I wanted her to try.  I smiled politely under the guise of frustration.  I had reached the point where I just wanted to toss something out the window.  Kiera asked me again if I wanted her to try so this time I took a deep breath and kindly said “Kiera, I’ve tried to input the wifi password correctly, but it still won’t connect.”  Do you know what Kiera did?  Kiera grabbed her Ipod Touch and proceeded to ask Siri how to fix my Macbook.

Sunday morning my family got up and I told my wife Julie that we should begin packing our stuff and heading home.  I was certain that by this time the hill leading into our neighborhood would likely be cleared enough for us to make it.  Kiera and Miley were determined they were going to eat ice cream for breakfast.  It was a weekend long party for these two!  Kiera told us she wanted to make ice cream with snow.  Do you know she did?  She grabbed the Ipad and looked up a recipe on Youtube.  Within 30 seconds we had a recipe for making ice cream with snow.  Outside we went with a couple bowls to scoop up some snow.  IMAG3403It wasn’t until we got home Sunday afternoon till I started thinking about what my eight-year-old cousin had taught me.  I considered how Kiera so quickly attempted to learn the things she wanted to learn using Siri and Youtube.  I had the opportunity to observe how an eight-year-old leverages technology that is as ubiquitous to her as a pencil is to me.  In fact, as I replayed the situations in my mind I realized she didn’t even think twice about seeking a solution from Siri or about searching for a recipe on Youtube.  What implications does that kind of access have on today’s classrooms?  Consider your own classroom, is it engaging to today’s students?  Is there still a disconnect between the way students learn outside of school and the way students learn inside of school?

 

October 3, 2015

Putting The Problem Back On The Students

My classroom is student-centered and instruction is blended.  I’ve got 23 Macbook Airs in my room.  I don’t know for sure but I imagine this is my students’ first experience in a student-centered blended classroom.  I say that because their reactions to my classroom indicate pretty clearly the type of classrooms from which they have previously been a part.

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In a very general sense, my instruction runs in three phases: Instructional, Practice, Assessment.  It’s a lot more fluid than that, but that’s enough to understand the purpose of this post.  The instructional phase represents the time that I offer the most support.  Perhaps it’s the phase that appears most like a 20th century classroom.  I incorporate a buffet of opportunities for my students to dive into the skill or concept.  The next phase represents the biggest phase, from the standpoint of time.  During the practice phase I often gauge the level of support needed by my students by the number of hands up in the classroom.  During this time, I rarely address the entire class as a whole, rather I spend most of the time down on a knee beside one student or a group of students.  I issue the daily agenda through our learning management system, Canvas, and this allows me to spend more valuable time with my students.  As I said, during the practice phase, students generally get my attention with a raised hand or a verbal cue.  During the class, I find myself constantly gauging the level of support needed by the class, diagnosing common weaknesses, and identifying common strengths.  This means I occasionally need to stop and address the whole class.

I’m realizing, through observation and conversations with students, that the number of hands and verbal cues I’m receiving during the practice phase doesn’t necessarily indicate the level of support students need, rather it indicates the level of support students want.  Putting the problem back on the students means I have to intentionally exercise caution during my interactions with students in order to continually put the problem back on the students.  Most importantly, I have to employ the right kinds of questions when dealing with students.  Questions that require them to think, because it’s likely they would prefer that I respond in a way that liberates them from thinking.  See, the number of hands up during class more accurately indicates the lack of thinking.  The system I have put in place in my class arms each student with opportunities to learn.  In general, I’m finding that they view these opportunities, even using Google, as a way for me to stop teaching.

Ultimately, I’d like for my students to develop resilience, grit, and perseverance that empowers them to relentlessly dig at their problems before giving up and seeking support from me.  

This goal is not achieved without a teacher that is intentionally aware of the effects of each interaction with students seeking support.  It requires the teacher to act more as a coach.  A coach empowers his/her students to hone the skill of learning by putting the problem back on the students.  The right questions are key for a teacher or coach to put the problems back on the students.  For example, one of my students held her hand up for 15 minutes in class this week waiting for me to make it around to offer support.  When I made it to the student, her question was “Is this a negative sign or a minus sign?”  First, bless her heart for holding her hand up in the air for 15 minutes.  I’m afraid she worked harder holding her hand in the air than she did in solving her problem.  My response could have easily been “that number needs to be treated as a negative” and I could have walked away and moved on to the next student.  That would have done nothing to foster resilience or risk-taking in that student.  The situation that exists with this student depicts the struggles in all of my students.  She has never been empowered to take control of her learning, take risks, and accept failure.  These skills are critical to success in today’s global society, yet they are perhaps the most neglected in today’s classrooms.  Students have been conditioned to believe that arriving at the right answer is the only measurement of achievement that matters.  Risking failure or making a mistake is shameful and not something that is embraced by many of today’s classrooms.  The following tips can help you begin to empower students to embrace failure as part of the learning process.  This is critical to putting the problem back on the students.

  • Be aware of your language and the impact that it has on cultivating learners.  Praise and encouragement are not the same thing.  Too often praise is given as a result of the product.  It’s more effective to provide encouragement during the process.  Be sure you’re emphasizing the process over the product.
  • Questions, questions, questions.  Your questions are key to empowering students to leverage the tools available to solve their own problems.  Your questions should require reflection and risk taking.  Too often students are spoonfed the answers, rather than provided opportunities to think.
    • Can you draw a picture that may help? 
    • What would happen if you tried it? 
    • Is there a similar problem we’ve done that may help us understand this one? 
    • Have you Googled it?  Yes, that’s right.  Teach your students to leverage the tools they will use in the real world.  If you don’t want your students Googling your answers, then start asking better questions.
    • What have you tried that hasn’t worked? 
  • Talk about a growth mindset.  Our students should know the term and understand that growth is not limited by prior experience or our genetic makeup.

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  • Growth-v-Fixed
September 19, 2015

Math Class 2.0

I saw this tweet this morning and it almost consumed my thinking during my 45 minute commute to school:

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I even responded to Andrew with:
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If you don’t know Andrew Stadel, he is the mind behind Estimation 180.
Andrew, Dan Meyer, and a number of other authors are also the brains that created this awesome list of 3-Act Math Tasks.  I’ve been watching these guys (@mathletepearce is another good one) for a while and they really make you consider what your math practice looks like and how effective you are at designing memorable opportunities for students to develop conceptual knowledge of math over procedural knowledge.  They are THE evangelists of opportunities for deeper thinking in math class.  Just look up Dan Meyer on Youtube and his talks will likely blow your mind.  Dan speaks at NCTM conference every year.  He now works as a fellow for Desmos, and what he’ll do with an already amazing product at Desmos will be unbelievable I’m sure.
I also found this video Here’s Why Math Is Taught Differently Now  and it just seemed to fit the theme this morning.  The video is 8 minutes long but I really encourage you to view it when you have time.  The skill he dives into is two-digit multiplication and I know none of us really teach that specific skill, but the video is more than that.
I don’t write this post to condemn or judge anyone’s practice, in fact, like most of my blog, I’m judging my own.  The bulk of my own class, dare I say, all of my class is spent on memorizing algorithms and procedures long enough to pass a test, then forget it.  As is stated in the video, that works for some people (perhaps that’s why we chose to teach math, it worked for us) but for most people, it’s proven to be a miserable way of developing a joy for math and gaining a deep and lasting understanding of math.
Honestly, I thought of the conversation yesterday in dept meeting about quadratics.  I obviously have no clue how quadratics was taught last year and I’m certainly not making any judgments on that, but why did the students forget it all over the summer?  What prevented them from recognizing a quadratic this week on the POD?  I’ve taught 8th grade math for 5 years and it hasn’t went unnoticed that my own students forgot way more math that I taught vs what they actually remembered.  Teaching mostly freshman this year, it’s pretty clear that these students aren’t any different than the ones I used to teach in Parkersburg.
Consider this post from Dan Meyer about Photomath.  If you haven’t heard of Photomath, it’s a mobile app that allows anyone to use their device to scan a variety of math problems, and it spits out the solution along with a series of steps to solve the problem.  PhotoMath
Dan’s post epitomizes the changes that really need to occur in more math classrooms.
I just needed to get some things off my chest and this was the best way I could that.  I wish there was more time to talk about these things and there’s no people I’d rather talk to then the people I work with.  I’ve been trying to change my practice by myself and it’s hard.  I’m fairly connected and it’s still difficult to learn, integrate, and develop a more conceptual understanding in my students.  Not to mention all the other barriers that math teachers face: the products of an educational system that doesn’t require mastery of standards in order to pass.  However, I know this to be true:
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ChooseGreatness
September 15, 2015

Remediation: A call for change

Having spent about 4 weeks in the high school math setting, I can say with certainty that reaching those students that are hard to reach is not given enough attention in middle school, or at any level for that matter. The quality of math courses at the high school cannot endure the percentage of students sitting in those courses with monumental deficiencies.  A student that has failed 6th grade math, 7th grade math, and 8th grade math lands him or herself in 9th grade math at the high school level a high percentage of time.  That statement is not meant to condemn the practice or lack of practice of holding students back when they can’t perform to a minimum acceptable level.  The statement simply means the system places a growing percentage of students and teachers in a difficult position, to put it kindly.  This post really isn’t meant to spout statements that math teachers have been spouting for years.  Instead, I’m reminded of the importance of reaching EVERY student all the time, especially during the critical years where learning foundations are established.  More specifically, I’m thinking about what that requires.

To combat this cruel series of events that plays out every year, many schools are turning to extra periods of remediation and intervention, loss of recess, extended class periods for math, and a deluge of other techniques that really only increase the time to “learn” math.  Instead, I wish more schools, administrators, teachers, etc. placed more of the focus on improving the experience for those students in their regular math class.  I’m not talking about adding time, taking away an elective so the student can be placed in remediation classes, or doing more of the same thing only longer.  I wish more teachers considered why that student was failing their class instead of how they can get that student to spend more time doing math.  None of that is to say that more traditional means of remediation aren’t or can’t be effective.

It’s time to look at remediation from a comprehensive whole-child perspective.  I feel like we’ve completely overlooked reaching that child during class and jumped straight to “what can we do to that kid during remediation?”  The following list represents the tip of the iceberg, but I wonder what results these would yield in comparison to traditional remediation techniques.

  • The failure that is occurring, by teacher and student, can only be remedied if a relationship is present.  In fact, if you’re talking remediation but the conversation doesn’t begin with “How do I get into this student’s bubble?  How do I break the shell?  What can I do to reach his or her heart?” you’re wasting your time talking strategy, technique, or pedagogy.
  • Have you called home?  The first call home should be on purpose, it should be early in the year, and it should be positive.  Not sure which students need called?  Unfortunately if you just listen to the previous grade level teachers, they’ll probably indicate who needs a phone call.  The names usually follow “just wait till you have…”
  • A handwritten note takes a mere seconds to write.  “Never underestimate the value of a well placed compliment. -Todd Whittaker”  The students that need the most love, the most reinforcement, and the most pats on the backs, ask for it in the most unloving ways.  Don’t let that stop you from writing a 30 second note.  This practice seems easy, but when you’re talking about these students, you have to watch for something positive, on purpose.  I know, positive behaviors may be like Bigfoot, you hear about him every once in a while, but you never see him.  If you watch on purpose, you’ll find something to write about.  Think about it, we watch for negative behaviors all day long and often find them.  Try watching for positive behaviors a while and see what happens.
  • Have you given up a lunch break to eat with a student or group of students?
  • Have you visited the home?
  • I know what you’re thinking, “Gee Wiz Oldfield, there’s no way a person could do all these things.”  The perpetual and consistent failure that these students experience year after year acts like a huge weight on the everyone: teacher and students.  The quality of courses is not enduring this weight that is only getting heavier year after year.  The level of performance is declining and bars are lowering.  What we’ve been doing isn’t working.  Nothing great is accomplished by doing something easy.

I’ll be honest, the focus of this post came from my own frustration entering the high school math realm for the first time this year.  I was previously an 8th grade math teacher for five years.  I often wondered back then how teachers at the high school actually taught their courses at the level required by the standards without failing more students.  I thought one of two things were occurring: the teachers were extraordinary teachers of the kind of talent I could only dream about, or the teachers recognized the cavern between the instructional level of the students and the performance required of the standards and spent the year measuring student learning at the current level then stamped a grade on the report card under a course name that did not really represent what was being taught.  I believe the cure involves better reaching those students who are hard to reach.  Consider the penalty if they get left behind?  Prior to high school, the penalty is… they move on.

Now don’t get me wrong, do I believe instruction and pedagogy need to improve?  You bet I do!  I believe too many students sit in classrooms designed for a style of learning that is irrelevant and disengaging to today’s learners.  That’s for another time.

August 20, 2015

The Handwritten Note

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I adopted the practice of writing handwritten notes about 3 years ago.  It wasn’t until this year that I really began to harness the power.  Before, I would occasionally write a note when a student performed extraordinary in class.  If I recognized that a student had overcome a large obstacle in content, I would try and write the note and deliver it within the same day.  At my previous school, we had Blennerhassett Middle School post cards that you see in the above picture.  I moved schools this year and realized that as far as I knew, I didn’t have anything similarly suited for writing handwritten notes to students.  I have used Vistaprint this year to order business cards that include my contact information, website, and instructions on signing up for my Remind class.  On the back of the card, I included a motivational image from Dave and Shelly Burgess, authors of Teach Like A Pirate. IMAG1052 IMAG1054

In addition to ordering the business cards, I also ordered postcards for handwritten notes.CYMERA_20150820_075401

 

This year I determined to leverage the power of a sincere note to a greater degree than I had before.  During the first few days of school, I made literal and mental notes about students through observation and conversation.  I tried to identify students who seemed disengaged.  In some cases, I have students who are repeating the course for a second of third time.  As I identified those students, I watched closely for that small spark of excitement, engagement, or some input to any conversation.  That was when I jumped on the opportunity to praise!  As soon as I could I wrote a handwritten note, checked out their schedule, and began delivering the notes during my planning period.  In four days of school I have delivered four quality notes with a sincere and personal message to that student.  I ordered my Vistaprint cards late so I had to use notecards for a few days. IMAG1045

Often the only feedback you get from a handwritten note is the evidence of excitement, motivation, and engagement that student displays the next day in class.  Occasionally you’ll get a “thank you” in return.

A couple years ago I had a student that many educators would have considered a handful, to say the least.  During our team plan, this student’s name would come up often when discussing behavior issues.  This student was among the top five offenders in detention-hall that year.  I wrote him a handwritten note praising him for his perseverance during an exercise in class one day.  A few days later I noticed his binder laying on the floor next to his desk.  In the clear plastic sleeve on the front of his binder was my handwritten note.  He was displaying it proudly for all to see.  I didn’t want him to notice, but I tried to quickly snap a picture of that binder that day.  The image isn’t real clear but that’s my handwritten note in the sleeve.  IMAG4724 He never thanked me for my note.  I got all the thanks I needed when this student worked his butt off in my class the rest of the year.

August 17, 2015

Mouse Traps & Blindfolds

IMAG1033IMAG1034 I saw this life changing lesson performed during a church service about three years ago and I have used it in the classroom ever since.  I call it a life changing lesson, titled after Dave Burgess’ LCL’s he uses in his classroom (Teach Like A Pirate).  I recommend setting the stage with some of Dave’s hooks, like the taboo hook or a mystery box hook. Both of these will add to this amazing experience. I’ve done this for years on days 2 or 3 with my classes. I still don’t know all their names, but they leave with a memorable experience. The experience begins by blindfolding a volunteer at the front of the classroom.  It’s necessary that the volunteer take his/her shoes off as it helps increase the suspense or thrill.  Obviously, you need enough clear space to establish a point A and point B for the volunteer to travel.  Once blindfolded, the teacher will grab his/her bag and begin to pull out mouse traps, knives, forks, scissors (anything that will elicit some gasps from audience).  Strategically place the mouse traps and other obstacles out front of the volunteer, creating a maze-like pattern of dangerous obstacles.  I do this slowly, while instructing the volunteer to stand very still.  I even let a mouse trap or two snap loudly to help build the intensity.  Often the volunteer will nervously ask “what was that Mr. Oldfield?”  I typically respond “Oh that was nothing.  You trust me right?”  Anything you can do to help increase the intensity here will help hook the audience and the volunteer.  Once the path is set, I explain that the audience will have opportunity to direct the volunteer down the path, but they’ll have to be careful and very specific in their directions.  What usually plays out next is a combination of the audience calling out directions, some good and some bad, while I stand next to the volunteer confirming some orders and monitoring his/her safety.  Once the volunteer has surpassed one or two obstacles, I will step on one of the mouse traps, setting it off loudly.  This normally ignites some anxiety in the volunteer.  I kick the trap out of the way and the volunteer continues.  Once the volunteer has completed the journey, he/she is allowed to remove the blindfold and look back at the obstacles.

The next portion of the lesson is where the teacher facilitates the valuable learning experience.  My discussion begins by acknowledging that this experience that took place actually represented something larger.  I like to give my students some time to discuss at their tables some ideas they may have about what they think the entire experience represented.  Next I usually reveal the three key players in the experience: the mouse traps, me, and the crowd.  I allow my students some time to discuss the three roles and who each of them represented.  During the discussion at the tables, I make my rounds listening and guiding the discussions in the right directions.  The easiest connection to make seems to be that the mouse traps represented danger or obstacles that lie in our paths.  So that’s a good place to start with your students.  You can carry the rest of the discussion out however you best see fit.  But I think it’s important to emphasize the distinction between the teacher and the crowd, and who those two parties represent.  In my opinion, the teacher represented the following groups of people that you may want your students to recognize: parents, teachers, coaches, pastors.  The crowd represented the following groups of people: classmates, friends, teammates.  While developing this distinction, I always try to remind my students which person kicked one or two of the obstacles out of the way for the volunteer.  I (teacher) kicked an obstacle out of the way because I was close to the volunteer.  It’s all about distance, literal and figurative.  Typically classmates, friends, teammates have an impact on us, but they can’t really remove obstacles from our path.  Their impact is never that direct.  But parents, teachers, and coaches sometimes have an impact that can be that direct.  Moral of the story is that during my students’ years (14-17 years of age), they often tend to distance themselves from those who have the most impact on their journey.  The class always agrees that the volunteer never would have made it through the path without any guidance.  It’s often the case that they never would have made it exclusively on the guidance of the crowd, because it was sometimes hard to distinguish between good advice and bad advice when listening only to the crowd.  The noise level also made it hard to hear the right voices.  Bottom line, it’s nice to be reminded at 14-17 years of age, that as much as we sometimes think we don’t need them, we really do need those people who offer to walk life’s journey right by our side.

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