Category Archives: high school

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.

Tapping into the genius – genius hour week 1

I enjoyed sharing the concept of genius hour so much with my students this week, that I actually had a little bit of a let down the day after.  It was like the day after Christmas, when there is a great level of satisfaction along with that little sadness that the anticipation is over.

We watched Ashton Kutcher’s acceptance speech at the 2013 teen choice awards, and talked about the fact that they were all geniuses.  There were a few chuckles, but by the end of the period I had changed some opinions.  Then I put up a slide with the following question:

What if…I let you learn about whatever you wanted?

There was a hush in the room, and then I started to hear responses such as:

  • Cool!
  • I would be interested.
  • Awesome!
  • I would like it.
  • It might be chaos.
  • Yes.

Then I let them know that I would.  Genius hour would be every Monday and they would get to pursue a topic that they cared about, that they were passionate about, that was important to them.  I told them that they mattered, and they mattered now.  Too many times we tell adolescents that they will matter one day – when they are adults, or when they have made something of themselves.  I disagree with that sentiment, these kids can matter now, they do matter now, and we are going to do something about it.

We moved into brainstorming next, and the topics that came up were wonderfully varied.  The lists included sports, music, dance, theater, bullying, the environment, famine, the media, technology, people who are treated unfairly, and on and on.  Some poured out their ideas and others sat very contemplatively.  I could tell they had some ideas stirring, but were not ready to share them yet.

Many of my kids told me that it was hard to think of what they would like to learn more about or investigate because they had never been asked before.  They are used to coming to school, being told what they need to know and going back home.  What we were starting was so different, so huge, it was difficult for them to wrap their brains around.

We finished the day with some discussion surrounding potential topics.  They talked to each other to see about collaborative groups, share some of their passion, and see how they might be able to move forward together.  I told them to let their ideas simmer for the week, not to make any decisions right away.  A pep talk from Kid President left us reminded to be awesome and that we are all on the same team.

Next week, we move into the computer lab to start researching potential topics and see what is out there.  This is one reason I didn’t want them to make many decisions on day 1.  They need to see how they can learn about their topic in Spanish, and then transition to work on pitching their project.

Until next week, recognize your inner genius!

Anticipating the genius

You are a genius and the world needs your contribution. –Angela Maiers

It all started this summer on twitter.  I was looking through my feed, and something caught my eye.  I kept on seeing “genius hour” being spoken about.  Naturally, I was curious and decided to find out more.  The more I found out, the more I loved the idea.  This was a concept I could get excited about!  My students could pursue their passions in my classroom and really own the experience.  They will impact themselves, their classmates, and even the world.  

I just finished up my first week of school, three days with my new students, and it was quite an experience.  We started by getting to know each other, exploring our learning environment, discovering how we would find success, and even had some fun!  Monday begins our journey with genius hour, and I can’t wait.

I am looking forward to next week so much – eagerly anticipating what passions my students will pursue.  We are going to start our first session with an explanation of the genius hour concept and then have a brainstorming session.  I am going to provide different prompts for my students on large paper throughout the classroom.  They can add as many ideas as they want, and we will narrow it down later on.  Here are my ideas for the brainstorming posters:

  • What are you passionate about?
  • What do you wonder about?
  • How can you change the world?
  • What breaks your heart?
  • What bothers you?

Once I feel we have exhausted our ideas, it will be time to collaborate and begin to make decisions about topics.  Students will be encouraged to work in small groups, but if there is an individual that would like to work alone that is acceptable.  Throughout the first semester, the focus will be learning about our topics in the realm of Spanish language and/or culture.  We will share out in December our findings and new learning.  The students can choose how to present the information they have learned.  Second semester, I will ask them to take their new learning and figure out how they can change the world with it.

I hope Mondays take on an entirely new reputation in my classroom and become something we look forward to.  I will be blogging about our journey as we make new discoveries, learn language, and explore different cultures.  I will let you know next week how it goes!

beforeclassroom3

Ready, set…

The new school year is right around the corner, today is Friday and this coming Wednesday is opening day.  I am thrilled to welcome my new students, introduce them to my learning environment and start the journey.  I am working with my space a little differently this year; below are a couple before pictures of my classroom.  I always love to see the transition from plain walls and boards to a lively space ready to receive students, so this year I decided to take pictures and document a bit.

I am so fortunate to have a large room and tables to work with, and I want to make sure I arrange my room carefully for what I have planned.  I tend to move things around a lot depending on our needs, but to begin the year I need four groups, so that is my table configuration.  I also wanted to leave a lot of bulletin board space open for my students this year.  I moved all my other decorations (posters, etc.) to the walls to leave my largest board for student work and a smaller one for gamification stats.

When students arrive, they will get a ticket with two pipe cleaners attached as they walk in the door. The ticket is a glimpse of the adventure they are about to embark upon, and the pipe cleaners will soon let me know a bit more about them.  This year will be framed as one huge journey, with stops at each theme (unit), but the ultimate destination will be learning.  We will take different paths to the destination, but the expectation is that all will arrive in the end.  The pipe cleaners are mimicked off of Dave Burgess’ idea in his book Teach Like a Pirate, he uses play-doh the first day to have the kids mold an item that tells him something about themselves.  I will be doing the same thing with less messy pipe cleaners.  This gets all my learners engaged on the first day and helps me get to know them at the same time.  There is visual, auditory, and kinesthetic input, and a fun atmosphere on top of it all.

I look forward to seeing how the first day plays out and I am sure I will be blogging at some point during the first week to share my experiences.

Have you set up your learning environment yet?  Share and we will all benefit!

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?

Finding passion

This week I attended Staff Development for Educator’s Extraordinary Educator Conference.  It was a wonderful experience where I got to meet some of my educational heroes like Rick Wormeli and Dave Burgess in person.

The conference experience was like many others, you feel such a rush of excitement when your opinions are validated and thinking challenged.  You want to run, no sprint back to your classroom and conquer the world!  You have ignited the fire, and rediscovered your passion for teaching.

The cool thing was that I had a colleague and administrator along for the ride to share my passion with.  We bounced ideas off each other as we travelled to and from the conference each day.  We shared perspective not only from the classroom view, but from an administrative one as well.  We did something fantastic…
(I know you want to know what we did, but I am learning to use some presentational hooks to keep you in anticipation!)

In a session with Dave Burgess, he talked about three ways we find passion as educators.

1. Passion within our content areas – what things can’t you wait to teach in your curriculum?
2. Passion within our profession, but outside our content area – why did you become a teacher?
3. Passion outside our profession – wait, what?  there is life besides teaching?

Later that day, we were reflecting on our experiences and my assistant principal tells me that in her role it is difficult to be a jack of all trades, and that she had, up until now, been passionate about what I was doing in my classroom because I was passionate about it.  She would come into my classes and feel the excitement through me and my students.  I know she trusts me and I am eternally grateful that she encourages me to take risks and try new things in my classroom (she also reminds me to slow down sometimes and smell the roses!).  But after going to this conference, she was able to learn more about why I am so passionate about what I do and the decisions I make.  Then the fantastic thing happened…
(Are you ready for it???)

The three of us ignited our passion together.  We had a brainstorming session on the way home our last day.  A social studies teacher, a Spanish teacher, and an assistant principal giving ideas, making them better, helping each other.  We used our passions from our areas, our reasons for being in the education business, and our interests outside school.  It was a fantastic collaborative learning experience.  One of those unforgettable times when we laughed, figured out some cool stuff, and were inspired by each other all at the same time.  We didn’t want the conversation to end so the discussion will go on via technology as the summer continues.  Our kids are in for quite an experience this school year.

We all found passion that day…how do you find yours?

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!

Why standards based grading?

Standards based grading is something that has transformed my classroom into a true learning environment. Points have disappeared, as well as grades on formative assessment.  We simply learn, practice, apply, connect, assess, rework, revise, and reassess.

This may sound wonderful, and it is a huge improvement over what I had previously done with grading, but let me be clear…this was not an easy road!

But despite the challenges of writing standards, developing scales, working with (and at times against) our computerized gradebook program there was this excitement.  I felt that this new system would be a game changer for my students, and I was right.

No longer did my students and I discuss points, extra credit, homework, or the value of assignments.  The conversations were centered about learning – where they were in the process, what our goals were, and how to achieve those goals.  We replaced percentages, numbers, and letters with meaningful feedback for growth.

Sometimes my students struggled with the new system, having spent their elementary school years with a traditional grading program.  In the beginning of the year there were a lot of questions and some push back.  But when we got to the end of the year, I read my students reflections and talked with them during the last weeks of school.  Things had changed!  They enjoyed a year without the high stakes of grades infiltrating every assignment and assessment.  They sought learning over grades, with the assurance that once you achieve the former, the latter will follow.

Why standards based grading?  I believe it is imperative for the future of our children.  It teaches them perseverance, responsibility, and to focus on learning.  We are in this business to create lifelong learners, right?  Then the time is now, we cannot wait.  Our students deserve more than just a letter or a number.

My 5 words

If you had to choose five words to describe your class, what would they be? -Dave Burgess

This question was posed the other evening during planning for our World Languages Teach Like a Pirate chat, and it intrigued me.  How could I possibly narrow down my class to five words?  It was not easy, but I focused on what I would like my students to take away at the end of the year.  Here we go…

Respectful
I respect the learners in my classroom for who they are.  I get to know them, meet them where they are, and show them how to improve.  Respectful tasks, honest feedback, and reflection will be a part of each day.  Everyone will have a voice in the classroom.

Student-owned
Everyone is in charge of their learning.  When I give the ownership of learning to the students, they exceed my expectations.  I have to set the stage for learning, and let them go!   Students must learn to make decisions, even if it means making a few poor ones (opportunities to learn) along the way.  I will model learning, but not dictate the process.
Passionate
We will express our passions this year through genius hour.  I am passionate about Spanish and student centered learning.  I will help my students find their passion, look at it through the lens of Spanish, and then figure out how their passion can change the world. 
Positive
As Starr Sackstein wrote in her blog, we must manifest positivity.  There is too much negativity in our world, especially concerning schools and education.  I will be a positive influence everyday for my students.  I will show them what happens when your life’s work is not just a job, but a passionate profession.  Enthusiasm is contagious, and I am ready to share it.
Shared
My students must know that we share the experience.  We are all learners, traveling together.  I like to see it as a messy trip with lots of stops, and frequent questions that lead us all to new learning. There is no guided tour with a prescribed script, just some destinations with multiple ways to arrive.

What are your five words?

Get out of the pressure cooker!

“It hurts students to accept sloppy or incomplete work, so give it back and release yourself from the pressure of deadlines.” Power of ICU – Dr. Jayson Nave and Danny Hill

Guadalupe’s story

On the first day of school last year I had a quiet, shy girl approach me.  Guadalupe (her chosen Spanish name) was in one of my sections of Spanish 2 and she asked if we could talk.  She let me know that she didn’t feel she could ‘hack it’ at level 2 and wanted to move down.  This is a frequent occurrence during the first week of school as I have high school freshmen and many get overwhelmed rapidly.  As I normally do, I asked her to stay for two weeks, let me really see where her readiness level was, and to relax!  Beginning high school is a daunting task, and many times after a few weeks things calm down.

Over the next two weeks, I informally assessed her level of proficiency with the activities we did in class.  She was appropriately placed, but definitely lacked confidence.  I spoke with her and let her know I felt she could do the work and that she should stay.  By that time, Guadalupe had made a few friends in the class and reluctantly agreed.

Things got better for Guadalupe, she was practicing her skills in Spanish and found that her readiness was very similar to other students in the class.  She was growing, improving, and gaining confidence.

BUT THEN

We had an assessment to complete – students had to record themselves speaking in Spanish, an assignment that generally evokes fear in the language classroom.  She had practiced in class, so I gave her the iPod to record herself and off she went.  I was roaming the classroom while she recorded, helping other students and giving feedback…when I saw it.  Guadalupe was staring down at her palm where obviously she had written what she wanted to say.

I had a decision to make – do I react to this, get upset with her, and dole out some harsh consequence, or do I take a deep breath, walk over there, and talk with her about it.  It may sound like an easy decision, but if you teach you know how hard it is not to be upset when you see a student cheating.  You are disappointed, angry, and hurt.  You feel like the trust between you and that student is broken.  I had to decide who was going to be in the pressure cooker, me or her.  Was it I or she who needed to learn from this?  Turns out it was both.

I took a deep breath and walked over to her.  I got down on her level and spoke quietly.  I asked her what she had done to practice and why she didn’t come talk with me about feeling unprepared.  I reminded her that learning was more important than a due date.  She was embarrassed, sad, and expecting punishment.  I am sure by her reaction to me that behavior similar to this was punished with zeroes in the past.  I told her to go home, practice, and let me know when she was ready to reassess.  I explained I didn’t have any evidence of learning until she did this.  She was shocked, thanked me, and left for the day.  I exhaled.

The next week, Guadalupe came in and recorded her speaking.  I eagerly listened to it and discovered she had really worked hard to improve and feel ready.  We had done it!  We had taken a bad situation and turned it into a learning experience.  This was pivotal for me as a teacher and for her as a student.  Over the rest of the year she worked very diligently in my classroom in part because of the relationship we had built.

I learned so much from this experience… I will never put myself in the pressure cooker again about accepting inadequate or incomplete student work.  It is their responsibility to show me proficiency, and mine to seek the evidence.