Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Are Master Teachers Also Master Storytellers?

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 9, 2017

Data: Hero or Villain?

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

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

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

Teachers Are Responsible for Managing and Monitoring Student Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Using Tech to Meet Learning Challenges: Dyslexia

We all have students who present specific learning challenges. As teachers, we look for ways to remove the challenges impeding their learning...or at least find strategies that we can teach them to become successful on the learning continuum. In the last several years, I have had several students who have arrived with a diagnosis of Dyslexia. The thing about a diagnosis is there is a danger that we make assumptions that every child with the same diagnosis is the same...they need the same types of supports. This is simply not true. Each student is special and unique. They are much more than their diagnosis. They have interests, fears, strengths, and challenges like all of their peers. As teachers, we must look at each student as a unique case and compile a cadre of tools, strategies, and practices that will not only help meet the unique needs of each learner but also empower them beyond our classroom walls.

I wanted to take a few minutes to share some of the tools that I have found that work really well with students who may be faced with the challenge of Dyslexia. Some of these work very well to support the learning of struggling readers or those with limited language proficiency. The key is for us to find the tool that will best need the unique learning needs of each one of our learners.

  • Audio books: I know that this may seem like a given to many, but I know personally, I overlooked this option for many years. Yes, we want our students to be able to read, analyze, and enjoy reading. However, when we want our students to apply content area standards like comparing and contrasting texts, identifying a theme, or supporting an argument with textual evidence, an inability to physically read the text, impedes a student mastering those standards. One thing that I discovered in my research is that the processing that takes place when one's eyeballs read a text and the processing that take place when one hears a text is very similar. With this tool, all students will have the opportunity to discuss and analyze a text with peers. (Digital audio books can generally be checked out from school or public libraries.) 
  • Voice Typing: For students with Dyslexia, writing is a major challenge. One simple tool that we've discovered is "voice typing" in Google Drive. This allows a student to speak their writing into a document. They do have to tell it when to punctuate and when to go to a new paragraph. I've had students who it would normally take 30-45 minutes to type a couple of sentences, who could compose and entire narrative within 20 minutes using "voice typing." For the first time, I was able to see their creativity and ability to compose in different genres because "voice typing" removed an obstacle to their learning.
  • Dyslexie font: Did you know that there is a special font that makes it easier for students with Dyslexia to read? It's called Dyslexie. With this font, students have an easier time reading things that are written. When creating printed material for students, my interns and I have started using this font for all of the students. For someone without Dyslexia, it simply looks like any other font. It's just simpler and easier to read.
  • Google Chrome Extensions: There are several extensions that students can add to their Chromebook Google accounts. Speak It will read selected texts out loud. The Open Dyslexic extension overrides all fonts on web pages with the OpenDyslexic font, and formats pages to be more easily readable. It works at preventing the "funny things" that happen to letters for those with Dyslexia. Sometimes, we need our student to read a text in order to build background knowledge. With TLDR (too long didn't read) by, learners can get a summary of a web page without leaving the actual site. We've had various levels of success with each of these. It all comes down to the individual student. My middle schoolers are very conscious of being different. These extensions allow them to continue doing the same thing on the same sites as their peers but provide them the support that they need. 
  • Video diaries, building, making: When it comes to assessing a student's level of mastery, there may be challenges for students with reading obstacles. However, their obstacles should not impede our ability to assess their level of mastery of content standards. All of my learners have the freedom to choose how they demonstrate mastery of standards. Often students with Dyslexia are very intelligent and creative and they have struggled to keep their heads above water at school. Many of them are exhausted by school. By providing them the opportunity to build, make, or create they are able to excel in spite of their specific challenges. 
When we can empower our students with tools, practices, or strategies, we see their passions and hear their voices...and so do their peers. They become an integral part of the learning environment. 

I'd love to hear some of the tools and strategies that you've found successful with your students. Please share them in a comment below.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Managing the Mess of a Makerspace

In previous posts, Let's Make a Mess and Makerspaces in a Content Area Classroom, I outlined how we transformed our 6th grade ELA classroom into a makerspace. One thing that Caylyn Harden (my intern at the time) and I discussed early in the planning stages is how we could manage all the mess within our learning environment.

With our middle school schedule, we taught multiple classes of ELA. Furthermore, our classroom was originally designed as a resource classroom for a class of no more than 8 students. The physical space of our classroom is small...postage stamp small. Our largest class was 32. I already had dove into research on learning spaces and determined that each student didn't require formal seating...which is a good thing as there wasn't enough room for desks, tables, and chairs for 32 students. In our classroom, we have flexible seating, including several nontraditional seating options like camp chairs, ottomans, stools, floor pillows, a futon, small armchairs and carpet remnants. (we also have many different lighting options.) The students flourish within this space, but we knew that adding all other plus 80+ different project at various stages of completion was a challenge that we needed to meet BEFORE we began. Many would have looked at our small and cozy space and said that adding a makerspace to it was impossible. We didn't want our space limitation to hinder our students' ability to engage in making, so we put our heads together to find some solutions.

Since our floor space was at a premium, we cleaned out a section of cabinets and drawers to house the items that were donated for the students to use to make and create. I know ideally, the students could see all the materials, but this was the only space we had. There wasn't much usable storage space in our room. Then, Caylyn acquired a large storage bin with a lid for each class. These were the largest that they make. We had zip-lock bags for each student to store their work in each day (gallon to 2.5-gallon bags depending on what size they needed). Those bags would go into their class' tub and be closed up, preventing other students from accidentally damaging their work or pieces of their work from getting lost. Then, thanks to the generosity of a fellow teacher who has a large lab classroom, the tubs were stored in her room. If a student had something that needed to dry, he/she would leave it on our small counter space.

Regarding time management, after taking the last 10 minutes of class to clean up their work for the first couple of days, the students got much faster at storing their work away....and help those who needed additional hands to clean up their "making-in-progress."

Was this an ideal situation? No, it wasn't. However, with these we simple practices, students were able to excel with a makerspace in our ELA classroom. The learning wasn't impeded by our lack of space. Did our Makery look like other makerspaces? It did not, but isn't that what's wonderful about teaching and learning? It can be adapted to fit the needs of our learners in our learning spaces....and our makerspace did just that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

So You've Had a Bad Day

We've all had them...seriously. Those days that never seem to end. Nothing seems to go right. Your to-do list continues to grow. All around you, you see others whose lives seem picture-perfect both in the classroom and personally. Yet, you are struggling to make it through a single lesson....and those lessons are far from the vision that you had for them. You have students who need help academically, socially and in their personal lives and you feel like you are failing them every single day. You begin to wonder, "What am I doing wrong? What am I missing that everyone else seems to have figured out?" You may even be in a place where you are questioning your ability to continue in this position. What do you do when you have THOSE days?

In the interest of being transparent, I must admit that I have been having a series of THOSE days recently. And as I sit here writing, I have been trying to reflect on my choices and how I can change my mindset to best provide my students what they desperately need.

One thing that we all need reminding of is that we cannot compare ourselves to the highlight reels that other educators post. We are living the good, bad and ugly. We see it all. Typically, excitement leads us all to  share our successes with others. We've built relationships. We want to pay forward to those who have helped us out by sharing successes. Although these posts come from a wonderful place, as the audience, we need to remember that for every success there is a cache of failures. As educators, we are lifelong learners who have learned that failures can be a very positive way of growing. Unfortunately, we don't always share THOSE experiences which leave the appearance that everything is smooth sailing. I guarantee that every single educator that you admire, no matter who they are, is having that same feeling of inadequacy from time to time. That feeling is typical for educators because we all feel the weight of responsibility that we are carrying with us every day. Our students need us...

For many of our students, we are the light in their days. We are a break from their reality beyond the classroom walls. We are the safe place that inspires, encourages, nurtures and guides them into being the best part of themselves. We are equipping them for their future; the future they imagine for themselves. That is indeed a  grave responsibility. However, as I look back on some of my most significant successes with students, many of them have been born out of a failure, where something unintended happened. When we have a lesson that is less than stellar or the new strategy that we were hoping would support a student in a particular area of need, we all (and I'm speaking to myself here) need to remember that our students are going to learn from our example and how we handle things when the train comes off the rail. We need to remember that we are teaching humans, not content. Our actions speak much louder than just our words.

And with that idea in mind, we need to remain focused on our mission. It is easy to become derailed. We all have things that impede our time or ability to effectively teach our learners. We have pressure to give standardized assessments and collect data. Lots and lots of data. We have book studies, action research, new school procedures and committees that need our participation. There are parent conferences, IEP meetings, eligibility meetings, 504 meetings, RtI meetings, department meetings, faculty meetings and grade level meetings. We serve lunch duty, bus duty, and hall duty. We coach, mentor, sponsor, and lead professional development. Many of these come with their set of time, responsibilities and work. As educators, we have so many (worthwhile) things pulling at our precious time; it's easy to lose our focus. When we become overwhelmed, it is crucial that we remember WHY we do this: our students need us. They need us every day. We need to make them our number one priority.

It's okay to have a bad day. We all have them. Sometimes we have a bunch of them in a row. But as the lead learner in our classrooms, it's how we handle them that can make a world of difference in the lives of our students.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Makerspaces in a Content Area Classroom

In my last post, Let's Make a Mess, I shared how we began the process of turning our 6th grade ELA classroom into a  makerspace that we dubbed the Makery. As an ELA teacher, my administrators expect to see ELA instruction and learning taking place every minute of every day. The question that I get most frequently from other content area teachers is how one can blend best teaching practices, subject area content and a makerspace into finite teaching time. To be completely transparent, that was why it took me two years to take this step. I researched, went to formal and informal presentations, participated in digital conversations, and spoke with many educators. What I typically got was a list of tools and gadgets to stock without any connection to the learning. Yes, it promotes creativity, design, perseverance, communication, problem solving and critical thinking. However, I still needed to be able to justify my instructional choices as an ELA teacher...and I needed to be able to produce sound evidence as to why this was a worthwhile use of our ELA class time.

Here are some of the best practices that simultaneously occurred while students were using our Makery. I hope this answers some of the questions that you may be having as you look at bringing a makerspace into your classroom.

Content Standards: When Caylyn Harden and I stopped and looked at our state's College and Career Ready Standards, we identified twelve standards that directly correlated to our makerspace-informational writing project. There were six additional standards that could also be tied into this project. Looking at where our students were on the learning continuum and what they had mastered previously, we narrowed our focus down to four standards.

As is our usual practice, Caylyn guided the students into breaking down the standards into measurable components that allowed students the freedom to be creative and pursue their passions. These rubrics gave students a destination for showing mastery in each of these four content area standards.

Reading Literature:  Knowing our students, we knew that there needed to be a (slightly) different mindset. Although our classroom was already designed to promote a growth mindset where we try new things, fail, learn from those failures, and move forward with new ideas and experience, many learners were still struggling with perseverance. Many were afraid to try new things for fear of failure. We knew that we wanted to change that. Before beginning our foray into our makerspace, we read Mistakes that Worked by Charlotte Foltz Jones so students could see how many of the things we use, eat, wear or play with were mistakes that the inventor turned into something other than its original intention. Then each day, we would start our class with a read loud of a picture book that demonstrated through characters' actions important life lessons on perseverance, problem solving, failure, courage, individuality, collaboration and creativity. These opened the door to many insightful conversations about the work in which students were involved with our Makery. Furthermore, it provided students the opportunity to look inward, make evaluations and set goals in order to find success.

Reading Informational Text: Because students were going to be writing in a new genre, informational how-to, they needed mentor texts. The students were guided through a Blendspace of a wide variety of mentor texts to analyze in order to identify the nuances in this type of writing. Through this lesson, students who needed support in reading informational text, received small group instruction as many student would be reading information text in their process of making, documenting, writing and publishing.

Writing Workshop: Although each learner would be making something different, they were all documenting their progress in order to publish a how-to guide for a group of 3rd grade students. Having an authentic audience for their writing, encouraged the students to stay focused throughout the designing and making as well as the writing and publishing. All the writing, editing and revising took place in Google Drive. Caylyn and I (as well as their peers) left students feedback every 2-3 days. Students met with one of us for one-on-one writing conferencesAdditionally, students were included in small group lessons when a weakness was identified in their writing. 

During the 2.5 week project, their 3rd grade buddies came for a visit to see what we were creating. Their questions gave our students an authentic reason to look at the impact that audience has upon what and how one writes. We observed a sharp increase in the quality of students' writing.

So while all the wonderful mess was happening in our classroom, there was an enormous amount of authentically applied content area learning taking place as well. Students were being given the tools necessary to propel their learning forward while being engaged in learning that each individual designed. They became (more) brave, creative, courageous and confident when speaking about their learning...and isn't that something that our world really needs?

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Growing Great Teachers

Many of us are fortunate to get to host preservice teachers in our classrooms. In the last couple of years, many of them expressed to me a fear of entering the classroom because they know that the statistics show that many of them will not last for 5 years. Let's be honest. Teaching is hard. Very hard. It requires us to analyze and diagnose 30+ students simultaneously every hour every day. I'd like to see a doctor even attempt that.

Teaching is both a science and an art. It requires grit and passion....and a lot of flexibility. So it makes me wonder, for those of us who have been in the classroom and weathered the storms, how do we persevere? What have we figured out as professionals that we can pass on to the next generation of teachers so that they can not only take root, but flourish as an educator?

Develop a PLN. Unfortunately, teaching can be isolating. In many schools, teachers go to their perspective classrooms and shut the door. Some of our preservice teachers, will be in those schools where they are all alone with no one to throw them a life preserver when they are sinking. Many of us have been in that situation. However, knowing that you have a mentor, coach, or listening ear can make a world of difference.

I often get the question from interns, "how do you know so much?" I can attribute a large measure of what I know to the brilliant educators that I have connected with on social media. Although many of our interns use social media, they are unaware of how to connect with likeminded educators who can provide them with support, resources, answers, and encouragement. We need to take the time to help them learn how to build their PLN through tools such as Twitter or Facebook. They need to see how we build powerful relationships with educators who we can learn from and who we can share our experiences with. These carefully curated relationships don't just happen. They take time and guidance. By taking preservice teachers under our wing, we can guide them to a path where they will not be isolated in their classrooms.

Give them a vision of professionalism. So many preservice teachers have a limited view of what it means to be a professional educator. They lack a vision of where one can go as a professional. By giving them the opportunity to attend conferences, Edcamps, Twitter chats, workshops, and other professional events, interns begin to see that teachers are always learning, growing and sharing.

Many of them enter classrooms not knowing about the educational organizations that they can join or certifications that they can earn that will sharpen their teaching practice and propel them into powerful teacher leaders. Preservice teachers often do not have a vision of where they are headed as a professional in the next five years. We need to be that person who taps them on the shoulder and encourages them to become active in professional organizations to grow their practice. After they've been in the classroom for three years, as veteran teachers, we need to encourage them to pursue National Board Certification so that we can start growing great teachers early in their career. Imagine where early career teachers would be if they began their journey toward accomplished teaching early in their career.

Involve them early. Many of us have discovered worthwhile professional endeavors by accident. These are activities that not only keep us informed but also help us to develop relationships with policy makers. One thing that we can easily do is invite preservice/early career teachers to join us in educational functions beyond our schools. Invite them to join you when you go speak with your legislators. Encourage them to attend the town hall meetings or district forums where there are conversations about practices that can impact the teaching and learning in the classroom. When there is a meet and greet for an organization, encourage preservice teachers to join you and actively participate in the conversations. Our profession needs teachers who are articulate and can advocate for our students. This provides preservice/early career teachers the experience to be comfortable in these situations because students need the next generation of teachers to step into these roles. Furthermore, these experiences help them see the impact of what they are doing inside the classroom upon the community outside their classroom walls.

We want to elevate our profession. We want to attract and keep the brightest minds. That cannot happen if we keep losing our teachers. Let's reach out, be a beacon of light and start growing great teachers even before they enter our profession.