Category Archives: differentiated instruction

Pushing learning ‘out of the box’

Should learning be unsafe? As I consider the idea of unsafe learning, my answer would be a resounding yes.  As confusing as it may seem, I believe that unsafe learning happens in a safe environment.  Unsafe learning involves taking risks, making mistakes, and failure.  Unsafe learning pushes the envelope of innovation and creativity.  Unsafe learning challenges our students to push the ceiling higher, stretch their knowledge farther, and use content in new and exciting ways.  But how do we create an environment that fosters this learning in our schools and classrooms?  How do we facilitate innovation in a world that demands standardized tests, high stakes grading, and cultivates a fear of not being perfect?  We have spent generations in a safe learning mode where a one size fits all model indicates fairness, and competition and grades are seen as motivation.  We have a moral imperative to change this model and push learning to new levels, outside the traditional norms we have grown accustomed to – ‘out of the box’.


It begins with creating a learning centered environment – a safe place to try new things, grow, and improve.  True learning cannot be high stakes, standardized, conforming, or perfect.  Learning must be personalized and focused on the individual student and meeting their needs.  The culture of learning must be conducive to collaboration and growth.  Students must come in feeling comfortable, and leave feeling accomplished each day, while also sensing an urgency to work.  The role of the lead learner is an essential one – behaviors and learning must be modeled.  Educators must engage in unsafe learning themselves and model risk taking.  Students must own what they are pursuing and engage in challenging work.  This fosters the growth mindset essential for learning.


What does this look like in my classroom?


When you step into my classroom, learning is valued above all else. My students demonstrate proficiency and mastery of standards in a variety of ways.  Standards are posted, discussed, and exemplified in the formative work we complete. I share my own learning in the classroom, successes and failures. Learning and thinking are facilitated while creating a safe haven for my students.  Grades are only discussed when necessary – evidence and a focus on feedback for learning drive the experience.  Redos and retakes are a normal part of the learning process, and each day is a new opportunity to improve.  Once this safe environment is established, my students can dive outside of the box of traditional schooling without fear.


Our safe haven evolves throughout the year as I continually get to know and form relationships with my kids.  Formative practice is differentiated by readiness, interest, and learning profile.  Learning is happening in different ways, and at varying speeds in my classroom all the time.  Student choice is essential for growth and carries many imperfections as my kids learn how to make good decisions about their learning and practice.  At times poor choices are made, and it is my role to assist and guide, but not to mandate compliance.  When we dictate behaviors for our students, we deny them an opportunity to learn.  Failure can facilitate growth and improvement when it is handled properly.  I let my students know that they will fail before they succeed, and that learning is a journey of progress and recession, of struggle, frustration, and achievement.  Perfection is no longer a part of our goals, but rather proficiency and mastery.


How do you get your students to push ‘out of the box’ while helping them feel safe?

Kids and success

In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure. -Bill Cosby

Inherently kids want to be successful.  They don’t show up to school thinking about how wonderful it will be to fail at school.  No matter how tough they are on the outside, they all show up wanting to be themselves, grow, and achieve.

This has been very apparent at school in the past few days.  My students are getting to a milestone in Spanish class – the first round of summative assessments.  This week, they will show me what they can do in the four skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  They have been working for weeks, and it is show time.  There are nerves, excitement, and a lot of apprehension.  For many of my students, this is their first time taking an summative assessment in Spanish, and for all of my kids this is their first time taking one from me.  Little do they know just how prepared they are.  We have been working very diligently.  The students have been practicing all four skills, and they have been given tools to practice additionally at home.  Yet any time you take a risk and try something new, there is a possibility of failure.

I must be realistic.  Even though I feel that these kids are well prepared to assess, some will fail.  Some will fall below the line of proficiency.  Some will do it out of nerves (the wonderful test brain freeze, anyone?), some will not have done enough practice.  But standards based learning and grading will save the day.  It will swoop in to help these students find their way to proficiency.  More practice will take place, formative feedback will be given, and they will reassess.  Why? Because it is important that they learn it, not when they learn it.

Some of my students are arriving at the point of retakes and are finding success.  The smiles that light up their faces when they know they improved is one of my favorite parts of teaching.  They appreciate a second chance, and are ready to move on and learn more language.  Success breeds more success, and that is what I want to spread in my classroom.

Be a champion for your students.  Demand that they learn, show them how to get up after they fall down, and lead them to success.  We will create a class of students who are excited about learning, and who know how to seek and find knowledge.

Best self, best work

It is the mantra at my school this year – Best self, best work.  Our administrators started the year at our kick off assembly talking to the kids about this phrase and what it would mean for their school year.  Each day since, the morning announcements end with “Best self, best work.”  The kids have actually started to say it along with my principal each morning.  So, I began to reflect…

What does it mean for me?

My favorite thing about this mantra is the idea of best.  Best doesn’t mean perfect or flawless.  Best isn’t the same thing every day for every person.  Best challenges without insisting on the superhuman.  Best is never ending, there is always room for improvement.  I would hope that our best shows growth throughout the school year.  Our best will give us a redo the next day, and the day after that.

The next piece to the mantra is self.  We each bring our own individuality to our learning community.  We need a variety of passions and strengths to give our students what they need each day.  Each member of the community needs autonomy to learn in their own way, students, teachers, and administrators alike.  Learning is a personal, individual activity and schools provide a place where we all share the experience.  We form relationships that in the end better ourselves at least as much as the academic studies, if not more.

And finally, not to be left out is the concept of work.  Learning is full of vigor and hard work.  If we don’t bring our best self, the work may seem impossible and more difficult than it actually is.  Learning is a demanding process, not to be taken lightly.  Work is a key part of the mantra, it is the promise that it won’t always be easy, but if you bring your best self and persevere, you will succeed.

The expectation is clear – bring your excellence, bring your individuality, and bring an inquisitive persistence to seek knowledge.  I can’t help but smile when I imagine the greatness that will abound if everyone just subscribed to this simple request each day.

Best self, best work.

Let’s go outside!

I said the magic words today in class…the ones that make students’ faces light up and cause smiles to emerge.  “Let’s go outside!”

It was a beautiful day today, temperatures in the 70s and partly cloudy.  Why keep these kids inside all day wishing they could just get a moment or two outside?  It is not that the activity we were doing couldn’t be done inside – of course it could.  But the beauty lies within this question…could we go outside for that?  Could we take advantage of the nice weather before yet another harsh Chicago winter bears down on us?  One of my goals for this year is to move my kids outside the walls of our classroom more often.  We can not only go outside, but use the other spaces within the school to provide a change of pace and setting.

Too many of our students go through the monotonous motions of their day – every day.  A simple act like moving our class to a different locale will make today memorable.  It takes an activity that might be easily forgotten and turns it into a shared experience of something different and fun.

Here they are outside!

Here’s to making every day as unforgettable as possible! 

Be relentless

As I was looking for inspiration for my next blog post, I reflected on several conversations I have had with colleagues at work as well as with members of my PLN on twitter.  I realized I had been asked the same question several times in the past week – What do you do when students won’t do their work?

With a standards based, differentiated classroom, my students don’t always do the same work.  All I care about is that my students an interpret and produce language at the end of the day.  It doesn’t matter how they get there, just that they are always growing, learning, and improving.

Ok, so back to the question…what do I do in my classroom when students won’t do their work?  There are so many things to consider, but here are a few…

  • is the work too easy?
  • is the work too hard?
  • have I considered learning profiles?
  • is the work interesting and engaging?
  • is there something going on in this student’s life (safety threatened, basic physical needs, etc.) that must be addressed before they can focus on school?
  • have I effectively communicated the importance of the skill we are working on?
I believe there is one more way to answer to this question, and maybe it is the best one.  This has been the best solution for me, the answer that made a difference when I was frustrated, backed into a corner, and didn’t know what else to do.
Be relentless.  
Some of our students simply want to be left alone to fail.  This is completely unacceptable.  Form relationships with them.  Talk with them – every day.  Know that there will be good days and some that feel unproductive. These kids are persistent, but you must prevail.  When they see that they have someone on their side, fighting for their education, their future, their growth – they still may not respond.  These students may not feel the impact of your shared struggle until much later on, but it is still worth it.  Don’t give up.
Be relentless.  
Be positive, assure them that they can find success in your class, and show them how.  Seek evidence of achievement and explore areas for growth.  Don’t let their negativity impact other students.  Celebrate the positive and address any negatives in a firm but caring manner.  
Be relentless.
Allow everyone in your classroom (yourself included) to make mistakes and learn from them.  Showcase the learning that happens in response to a failure.  Admit the failures you make and model the behaviors you want to see in the aftermath.  Model perseverance in pursuit of learning goals.
Be relentless.
Show your students that learning happens everywhere, not just inside the walls of a school.  Often learning gets a bad reputation as being boring and something you just have to get through in childhood and adolescence.  Change this and show them how they learn all the time in every part of their lives.  Learning is a constant for us in a world where many things are inconsistent.
Be relentless.
Be prepared to change what you thought was appropriate work.  Keep trying different types of work until the student latches on to something and engages.  Ask the student what type of work they want to do, letting them know that doing nothing is not an option.  Don’t get angry when they don’t want to do what you suggest, work with them to find the best answer.  Let them see you are on the same team, not in opposition.
Be relentless.

Moving toward September

As I work through my third week of school, I finally feel like things are settling down a bit.  From the whirlwind first three days, to the introduction of genius hour, and time spent getting to know my kids, we are ready to get into a bit of a routine.  This week, I am introducing my learning contract for our first thematic unit.  I enjoy giving my kids a contract for each theme to allow them to drive their learning experience, find good practice and resources, and gain essential feedback prior to our summative assessments.

I love to see the student responses once I show them that the ownership is theirs.  Fear and anxiety always appear – concerned that they won’t make the right decisions about practice or pacing.  I remind them that this is my role.  I will help them when they feel stuck, guide them when they feel lost, encourage redos and retakes whenever necessary, and further them on the road to autonomy in their learning.  That is our job in high school, is it not?  Before we send our kids on to colleges, universities, the military, trade school, or the workforce, don’t we want to make sure they know how to learn on their own?

The first theme/contract is always a precarious one.  I need to give them autonomy and control while showing them all the resources, practice, and feedback available.  What I usually end up doing is meeting with small groups of kids to offer suggestions and give some feedback not only about their Spanish, but also their decisions on practice and assessment.  I talk to them about practicing until they feel ready for an assessment, and remind them they should be retaken until they reach the level of proficient or distinguished.

I also want to make sure that I infuse some incredible learning experiences for my kids this year.  Experiences that we share together no matter where each individual student is on their journey.  This is something I struggle with as I need to let my kids grow, improve, and learn at their own pace, yet want collective experiences as well.  I do have deadlines for my assessments each theme (although they can retake after the deadline to improve their mastery) so I am thinking I could capitalize on the days following those deadlines to create some unique adventures where we apply what we have learned.  Stay tuned for those, creative ideas take time to develop!

Here’s to a routine, but holding a few tricks up my sleeve to keep them on their toes!

Meet the parents

I had my yearly curriculum night this week, an evening that some teachers dread.  Even though it makes for a long day (and night), I enjoy the experience of meeting the parents, letting them see a bit into their child’s world, and hopefully getting them on board with what I do in my classroom.

My biggest challenge with this night – I only get 10 minutes with each class to explain my grading system, how to get extra help, my curriculum, my expectations, contact information, etc.  Any of these could take up all 10 of those minutes, but I must carefully divide my time, try not to overwhelm my parents, and maintain my enthusiasm for learning and their children.

So, here is what I did this year.  I welcomed my parents and thanked them for taking the time to come and learn about my class.  I let them know various ways to get in touch, and included my blog address and twitter handle.  I set out my expectations, which are:

  • Work hard every day.
  • Have fun.
  • Search for learning in every experience.
  • Relentless pursue success and mastery of the standards.
  • Be kind.

At this point, I could see parents nodding along with me, and looking like they were agreeing with what I had to say.  So far, so good!  After that I needed to get into my differentiated methodology and standards based grading system, but I had to tell them one more thing first.  I said, “You need to understand that your children and their learning is the most important thing to me.”  At the high school level we can get very bogged down with curriculum guides, standardized testing, and content standards.  I knew that it was imperative for me to communicate that learning is the focus of my room, relationships are key, and once those are in place the rest will follow.

I spent the rest of my time explaining how I differentiate for all learners, how standards based grading works and makes grades meaningful, how redos and retakes impact student success and learning, and how we would infuse technology in the classroom.

By the end of the night, there were many thank yous and smiles as they went on to their other classes, but my favorite comment of the night from one parent was “Thank you for all your enthusiasm, my daughter loves your class.”

Bring your enthusiasm and love of learning to your class each day, and extend it to your parents!

To open the year

The first few days of school are crucial to set the stage for the year. I have spent significant time thinking about how I want to open the year and what I would like my students to leave either saying or thinking about my class. Here are my thoughts…

  • This is going to be fun!
  • She actually knows my name and wants to learn about me.
  • I wonder what we are going to do tomorrow?
  • Is she that way everyday?
  • I will find success in this class.

Fun is first on the list because I want my kids to look forward to coming to class. We can absolutely accomplish our goals for the year while having a great time in the process. There will be smiles starting the first day and every day following (can you tell I am not one of those don’t smile until after Christmas people?). Not everything will be easy, but stress levels can be reduced for a difficult task by making the learning environment an enjoyable, fun place to be. Each day will start with music not only because I love it, but because music is such an important part of the adolescent life. I started this last year and my kids would tell me how it was like entering another world when they came in.

Relationships are of utmost importance  I get to know my kids names within the first couple of days but I must not stop there. The primary focus during the first week is to form those critical relationships. I need to get to know my students as fast as humanly possible and let them know that I am a person as well. I am not some entity that lives at school, but a mother, wife, reader, learner, runner, and more. If I can give them a window into my passions, hopefully they will give me a glimpse of theirs.

Keep ’em coming back for more! One thing I am trying for the first time this year is to leave them hanging a bit at the end of each day.  This has worked countless times in books, television shows, etc. Why not use a little anticipation in the classroom? I have seen my children in the days leading up to Christmas and the excitement is palpable. Now, I don’t expect that this will be to the same level, but the same principle applies.  I want my class to be engaging, interactive, and a little different each day. Do you remember from your school experiences the class that was the exact same each day? Was it your favorite?
  
I want my students to wonder if I can possibly keep my enthusiasm level up for 180 school days. I love teaching and this should be present in everything I do. I also love Spanish and can’t wait to introduce them to a new language, new cultures, and a more global perspective. Enthusiasm is contagious, and I am ready to let it spread and grow in my classroom  And on the days when my enthusiasm wanes? If I have worked this out correctly, my students will bring enough to share with me.

Success will need to be loosely defined in my class before we pursue it. I will give my students the standards and let them determine the path to achieve mastery. I say loosely because I don’t want to stifle my students creativity or achievement by setting the bar and just waiting for them to get there. I want to encourage them to go beyond, the possibilities are endless. There are only so many things that I can imagine for them, but they can go much farther.  I tell my students that we will find success no matter the struggle and that it is worth all their effort.

So, as I am planning the specific activities for the first few days of class, this is what I am going to keep in mind.

What do you want your students to say and think after your first week?

It’s not the destination, but the journey

As my family and I get going on our cross country minivan tour to Yellowstone, I am reminded that vacation is a great time to let your brain relax a bit, reflect, and let the creativity shine through.

We are taking this trip with my parents and my brother and his family, and I cannot help but notice the uncanny comparison to teaching.
We are all starting from different places, various parts of Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, even New York.  We are all going to end up at the same destination…hmmm, sound familiar?
What a great analogy to the differentiated classroom!  I will find out your starting place, and help you find your best route to the learning destination.  Each student will have a different path, which makes the process messy but fun.
How to travel?  That is an individual choice as well.  My parents are flying, we are driving our minivan, and my brother’s family is renting a 15 passenger van.  We are headed west first, then will head north.  Others will head north first, and I am not sure of the flight pattern the airplane will take!  The routes and means of travel mean nothing, all have chosen the best way to arrive at the destination.
There are various stops along the way for my family, but they are different for the other parts of the group.  We all take our own journey, taking care of individual needs whenever necessary.  I couldn’t be happy making all the stops that other pieces of our family are taking, and I am sure they wouldn’t be pleased with all our stops either.  We again must keep the end goal in mind while making the best individual decisions possible.
And when we all finally end up together, we can share our individual travels and reflect upon the journey.  It will be that much sweeter to reminisce together, much like it is for our students once a major learning target has been conquered.
This is something I will definitely share with my students as we get started this year.  What a great analogy of what their year should be like in my class.

Leaving the comfort zone

I spend a lot of time forming relationships with my students throughout the school year, and it is one of the most important things I do as an educator.  It helps me reach them and facilitate their learning to the best of my ability.  I try to consider their preferred learning profile and interests as we discover and grow together.

One goal I have for this coming school year is to make sure I push them out of their comfort zone as well.  Sometimes I get too caught up in trying to make sure they are working in their best possible environment that I forget the power of working in a slightly uncomfortable one.  There is so much growth possible for students when pushed just past what is comfortable.  If the visual-spatial intelligence is their strength, have them work in the linguistic area for awhile.  If a student is a very practical thinker, challenge them to be creative. Get the visual learner out of their seat for a kinesthetic experience.  You may get a lot of weird looks and doubtfulness, but remember you are taking a risk along with them…time to model!

Risk taking is such an important part of the educational process, but it is easy to bypass. Why challenge someone to work outside of their comfort zone when they are perfectly happy where they are? I have to push through the push back and help these kids grow.  We are not always able to work in the best environment, and we must know how to handle adversity.  I must show them growth is the goal and failing is just a natural part of the process. All of us are faced with tasks in our lives that can be seen as uncomfortable, difficult, and even boring.

How do we as educators help them? Let’s model the correct behavior. I am honest with my students about how I handle difficult situations (and it’s not always perfect – I’m a learner too!). Lead them to look at life as countless learning opportunities. Remind them that they are in control of their emotions, actions, decisions, and destiny. Experiences that may seem routine, unimportant, or overly challenging can be turned around at the drop of a hat. Empower your students to take control. Let them in on this little secret – they have the power to make each part of their day (school included) awesome.

If we can successfully help our students handle tough situations, they may just jump at the chance to throw caution to the wind when we ask them to take a risk!