Monthly Archives: September 2011

Investigating in 2011

My students are researching the Republican candidates for president as part of our Government unit. They began by listening on YouTube to President Obama’s speech on the American Jobs Act. They made lists of what the president identified as challenges that the country is facing and what his solutions were. They were then randomly handed cards with the name of one of the declared candidates written on it. Their task was to research the positions that the candidate had on the economy and one other topic of their choice.

I have done this project twice before, 4 and 8 years ago, and the difference this time was plain and simply the access to information. Everyone, from the candidates and their supporters to my students was aware of the power of the internet, and they were all using it learn and to present their thinking. For the political process, this means that students do not have to wait for the newspaper or the evening news to find out ideas. Eight years ago, candidates had websites, but they were bare and basic in comparison to today. Today, the sites are layered with engaging photos and snappy text to keep a viewer there for more than a second and a quick click to something else.

I talked with my students about how to go about learning about their candidate. Their first stop is Wikipedia. There is current and studied articles that will give a solid overview for understanding the background and current role of that person in American politics. In the past, I had more hesitation about using Wikipedia as a resource, afraid that what was written there would not stand up to in-depth scrutiny, but over time, I have changed my views. For middle school students, on topics of general interest that many people read, it is a great place to start. The reading level is usually manageable. I have taught them that it is never the final source, just as an encyclopedia isn’t, but it can give them enough context to build their own questions.

Last year’s class researched important people of the 21st century. We went to the library to use the encyclopedias for an experience of non-laptop research. The only problem was that we ran into issues like the fact that there was no mention of Hillary Clinton, except in Bill Clinton’s biography. She was the Secretary of State and unlisted. So while, there may be errors in Wikipedia, as there are in all encyclopedias, it is a good start for an overview.

We talked then about how to find other information on their candidates, and the two sources that I pointed them to, which truly surprised all of them, were Twitter and Facebook. It took awhile to convince them that social media is a powerful tool that politicians want to harness. While they use these places simply for chatting with friends and looking at photos, I told them that many companies and individuals are using them to reach out to the public. They began to understand that those spaces might well be places where they would get the most recent ideas from their candidate.

They are used to instant communication with each other, but they hadn’t made the connection that social media allows them to learn at the same pace and with the same level of interaction that they have when sharing with each other. It is a new way of learning, when the information is not stagnant but constantly shifting and being enhanced.

Goals as teachers: 1. investigate the tools that will help them identify the best sources for information; 2. provide models for how to handle all of the information that they find. They, like we, are drowning in the information that surrounds us.

We need to curate for them and for each other, so that we spend time with the most important and significant and avoid the overwhelming amounts that we do not need.

Share the Energy

This morning, I saw a tweet from @CoachB0066 saying that he was beyond thrilled to be back in school. It reminded me of last week, when a student told me that I was awfully “peppy, not in a bad way,” and I responded that it was because I love my job. Teachers, especially ones who love learning, both teaching it and doing it themselves, are some of the happiest workers I know. Challenges and conflicts simply send us into overdrive, trying to figure how a certain student thinks or what better way to help each one gain mastery. It is all a wonderful and ever-changing puzzle that draws us on, rather than discourages us.

I realized that that same kind of love of the work is what I want for each of my students. I want them to come to school with an eagerness to take on the challenges. I want them to feel “peppy” when confronted with both tasks where they quickly succeed and tasks that force them beyond their comfort zones.

I think that there are two parts to making that happen. The first is humor and fun. I want my students to enjoy being in class; I want them surprised and interested. It is one reason I change my desks around all the time. I want them curious before they even start a lesson, before they get to my door. “What will she have us doing today?” I want them to discover that learning is exciting, that discovering new facts and understanding complicated ideas is energizing and simply fun. They need to feel part of this journey of discovery!

The other part of learning and growing is building resilience and determination in a world of quick answers. My students often want the work to be done, quickly and easily. They want to “google” it and have the task be over. They often are discouraged when they have to return to the task and add more, or when they simply get the wrong answer. They tend to experience it as failure, rather than part of an ongoing process.

Teaching them that the best work is rarely the first draft is one of my goals. I have to think of more ways to break down the steps of the learning, so that they can feel a sense of accomplishment with each one, and realize that the final product took a lot of work. I didn’t do this well this week. I assigned a project to my 8th grade US history class to research the city of Philadelphia and create a brochure on why it is a great city in which to live. I told them that we would send the best brochure to the Chamber of Commerce. I set up a list of research sites and sources as well as topics to investigate: economics, government; arts and culture, etc. They were to collect a wide variety of facts and then create the brochure. They had 3 classes and homework time for the project.

After one class, they were all working on the brochure. I could hardly wrestle them back to gathering facts about the city. The task, for them, was the brochure and  completing that was where they were focused. The research was simply something to get done as fast as possible. Next time, I think that the research will be one task, distinct and unique, with conversations around that before moving on. Then when that is completed, and they have reflected on what they learned from the research process, then I will introduce the brochure. It will build on the research that way and not overwhelm it. Live and learn!

So the goal for me and for my students is to be full of “pep” and determination!

Sort of Like Whitewater Rafting!

The first time I went whitewater rafting, I remember listening to the guide, a college kid who clearly knew what he was doing but still seemed too young to actually keep my entire family safe on rough waters. He said that all we had to do was follow his instructions, learn from him what to watch for, pay attention to the water ahead of us and have a great time. It all sounded exciting but more than  a little scary. I am a bit too much of a “want to be in control of my surroundings” to feel comfortable turning it all over to this person I didn’t know all that well.

At the beginning of this school year, I saw a look in my students’ eyes that reminded me of that trip. I was explaining to them that they would not be assessed by grades.

“No grades! But how will we know if we are doing it right?”

I was clearly taking them away from a shore where they felt very comfortable. I was asking them to leave a place where, whether they had success or not, they at least knew “how to do school.” If there were no grades, then how would they know who they were in my class? What would make them do the work? Why would they care? For so many of them, school had become, over the years, a place where the adults in their lives were in control: their parents, who wanted them to succeed; and their teachers, who evaluated and assessed them at every turn. It was their job to perform: follow the rules, do what they were told and hope that the evaluations proved them worthy.

“How will I know whether I am doing it right?”

“How will my parents know if I am a good student?”

“What about colleges?” An interesting question coming from a 7th grader, but one that shows how much they are programmed to work for the outside evaluation, people “in the know” who tell them if they have learned or not. It is the adults who tell them if they are good students or not, if they are working hard enough or not. The motivation is not intrinsic learning, but for adult affirmation.

As I spoke to them, it was clear that they thought that if there were no grades, then I was somehow deserting them, leaving them on a deserted island, a Lord of the Flies kind of experience where they have to find their own way. “I don’t know how to learn history!”

When grades are taken away, school becomes a entirely new place. It almost felt to them like there would be no teacher, and they would have to learn by themselves. I reassured them that I wasn’t going anywhere. My job of teaching them to be the strongest possible learners that they could be was still the same. I was going to teach them to be better readers and writers. I was going to provide lots of times for them to practice new skills and develop their thinking. I had to convince them that the primary change was simply that they were going to become part of the process of reflecting and evaluating the work that they each did.

They simply shook their heads with worry, so I set them to a task to show them that they could do what was being asked of them. Using Peter Pappas’ “Bank Robbery” activity, I had them solve the mystery. It is a great critical thinking activity, and a perfect set-up for a history class, because it gets them to use two important history skills: asking questions and making categories. They worked in groups of three, and I wandered around, asking questions and offering encouragement and some guidance. After each group finished, I had them write a reflection: What did they do well in solving the mystery? What was challenging about the activity? What would they do differently if they had to do it again?

A simple exercise, but by the end of it, they began to understand. They knew who they are and how they worked; they just needed to be asked to talk about it. They knew when they have listened to their partners or when they have interrupted. They knew if they figured out how to organize the material or if they simply got frustrated.

It has  been two weeks of school so far, and they have written 4 reflections on different kinds of work. When the trimester ends, they will have a collection of reflections to help them write their Comment for their report card. They will put together a portfolio that shows how they have grown as a student over the course of the trimester. They will talk about their work: where they have grown and where they still need to grow. With each new reflection, they are taking charge of their learning, identifying strengths and setting new goals for themselves.

This is even more exciting than the whitewater rafting trip! No doubt about it!

Special thanks to Joe Bower and Peter Pappas for all that I have learned from their blogs!

10,294 Steps!

Today was my first full day back at school. I wore my new pedometer, and at the end of the day, without stepping outside the four walls of the building, I had walked the equivalent of 5 miles, without even realizing it. Just up and down the halls, checking on students, retrieving copies from the printer, walking to the cafeteria, getting books from the library.

I read last year that isolated exercise, an hour a day at the gym, while good for you, is not as good as we once thought. The body need ongoing exercise during the day.

I always thought that teaching took a lot of energy. I just didn’t realize that it also was that ongoing exercise activity, but I know that it is true that there is rarely a moment when teachers are sitting down, simply staring at a computer screen. We are wandering among desks, asking questions, looking for solutions. We are taking students to the nurse or leading groups to their next destination. We have work to do, most of it on our feet, all day every day.

So my take-away from this rather amazing number: be careful what shoes I buy! I will be on my feet and using them all of the time that I am at school. My feet are a much more important part of my job than I thought!

So buy  a pedometer, and let me know how many steps you walk in the course of your day in the classroom.

Just Like My Students!

School starts in full tomorrow! I am filled with the joy and terror that comes at the beginning of every new school year. In many ways, I am no different than the students, asking myself the same questions:

“Will I do well this year? Will they like me?”

“How can I make sure my weaknesses don’t defeat me?”

“Is it possible to not make the same mistakes all over again?”

Like my students, I want to be my Best Self this year in school. I want to do it all right, have energy and enthusiasm for each lesson and for each student. I want to avoid exhaustion and discouragement. I want to understand each problem and find an immediate and perfect solution. I want all my skills to shine: my writing to be clear, my speech to be insightful. You name it; I want it to be the best!

Unlike most of my students, however, it almost makes me smile to know that, with all of the best goals in the world, I still take myself, strengths and weaknesses into school each day. While I want only the strengths and abilities to be visible, the weaknesses and mistakes will find their way in as well. No matter how hard I try, I will never escape the days or the minutes when I don’t understand, when I am tired or confused, when I simply want to be done.

Over the years, though, I have learned that they can be an important part of what I have to offer to my students. As they can live with me through it all, the high moments and the lows, sharing in the challenges and the successes, then together we can grow. No student who enters through the classroom door is perfect, so working out how to be the very best students and teacher, the best people we can be, in spite of our weaknesses and failures, is part of what I want in the learning that happens in my classroom.

To make that happen, my classroom needs to be a place where we all are safe to learn, making mistakes and figuring out the lessons that can be seen through them. That is where I can not fail! I must never tolerate, from myself or from my students, any word or action that belittles the thoughts of another. Every moment needs to be vigorously protected from cruel criticism. I must create a space where all of us are safe. That is my first and foremost job. We all learn best when we can safely take risk and experiment with new ideas.

I know that I will make mistakes during the year: plan lessons that simply are not interesting and engaging, forget to finish a task that needed doing, say something that didn’t lead to learning and understanding. I have to turn those times, and all of the others like them, into learning times, modeling that making mistakes does not need to be scary or humiliating.

Part of it is sharing the disappointment at not getting it right. None of us wants to fail or get it wrong, even when we haven’t done the necessary work to get it right, we still hate the feeling of failure. Talking about what I didn’t get right and showing a way beyond it is a valuable lesson. They need to learn that none of the mistakes is something BIG, either about me as a teacher or about them as students; it is simply a time to assess and figure out how to make it better next time. If I can model that learning is ongoing, that mistakes do not need to stop that process, then perhaps they will join me, and together we can create a great learning year.

So here’s hoping we all do well this year, undefeated by our weaknesses and strengthened through our journey together!