Tag Archives: education

The ‘A student’

“Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people.”                                         -Martina Navratilova

Over the years I have encountered the label ‘A student’ in a variety of situations. Students identify themselves with it, parents use it, even teachers talk about students by using this label. When I was younger I thought of myself as an ‘A/B student’. But what does it really mean?

Let’s start with the multifaceted composition of an A. Does the letter indicate that the student achieves at a high academic level? Or, does it connote that the student is compliant and follows all the rules? Could it be that a student has shown so much growth over a marking period that the teacher wants to reward it? Grades get muddied so often in the educational world that many times we don’t know what has elicited an A.

Letter grade labels can become tied to students’ identities. The label is a part of who they are and it can define them both in and out of the classroom. For these students As are what should appear at the end of every marking period for every class. But what happens when an ‘A student’ gets a B? or even a C? This is a crushing blow and can feel like they have failed. How do ‘A students’ react to struggle, frustration, and failure (which to them does not necessarily mean a grade of F)? For true learning to happen, these are part of the process. Learning is uncomfortable at times. Often the process begins with making mistakes, having misunderstandings, and working over time to develop proficiency.

Parents attach an ‘A student’ label as a source of pride. They at times talk very openly about their children’s grades and put the label out as a sign of excellence. But is it a sign of excellence? And if so, what type of excellence? I go back to the idea that an A can represent so much more than academic achievement and we may not know what has contributed to it. This also creates stress for students. When they hear how proud their parents are about the As, they feel as if anything less would be unacceptable. Don’t get me wrong, there is reason to be proud as a parent when kids are successful, but we need to move away from labels and focus on student learning.

Let’s consider the converse situation. If a child is labeled an ‘F student’, how do they feel? Do they believe they can move up? Letter grade labels have the impression of being fixed and in turn, hinder motivation. The ‘A student’ perceives they are doing just fine the way they are, and the ‘F student’ feels as if there is no way to move up and grow. Have you ever tried to remove a mailing label from a magazine? They don’t come off easily and it is the same for our students.

To turn this around, learning environments need to be safe places while students progress to proficiency. This journey has potholes, bumps, wrong turns as well as an achievable destination. A safe environment sans labels with one goal – to meet the learning objectives. A safe environment with a teacher who models growth mindset and sets high expectations for all students.

For me, it took a long time to break away from my label of ‘A/B student’. It defined me and I’m sure I could have gotten more out of my classes if I didn’t rely on being ‘good enough’. Let’s remember that labeling files or clothing is acceptable, but labeling people is not.  We all learn, we all strive for growth, and we are all capable of success.

 

Strength in letting go

Do teachers own their content? Are the information and concepts taught at each grade level and subject area exclusive to that class? The issue of content and where/when it should be taught to kids is something we hold near and dear to our hearts as teachers. It is something that feels as though it is ours and has a personal connection. But do we own it? Are there certain concepts that can only be taught in a particular grade or at a certain time of year? I don’t believe this is true. There is a natural flow of complexity as kids grow and learn, but limits on how far students can go are detrimental.  I believe we should focus instead on skills and understanding, leaving content to the contexts where it is appropriate.

This evokes nervousness in some teachers. It can derive from uncertainty about how next year’s teachers will react when some kids are further along. Another part of the fear lies in knowing students will leave at the end of the year in different places with content. But doesn’t that happen already? No matter how great a curriculum map or scope and sequence is, the student variance will exist. Let’s move past that anxiousness and focus on learning.

When working with students, I want to develop and encourage their curiosity. Over the years, I have experienced curriculum maps, state standards, benchmarks, and goals. I liked having a guiding framework, but at the same time didn’t want it to limit what I  or my students did. I preferred open-ended standards  or maps that allowed students to delve deeper with their learning. Final outcomes should be laid out without confining teachers and students to a restrictive day by day timeframe for their learning. Topics should not be limited or bound, there is no ceiling to learning unless we create one.

What happens when kids are told ‘No, we cover that topic next year.’? What happens to their motivation? Do we as teachers own certain concepts and allow others to own different ones with no space for deviation? If we believe that learning never stops kids need to believe it too. If we want their passion for learning to drive motivation we cannot get in the way. Be intentional with language and communication in the classroom. Ask more questions rather than giving answers. Learn about your kids and show them how learning is encompassed in every part of their lives. Tell students to go, not to stop.

What about when a concept comes up in the future that students worked with previously? As a language teacher, did I need to be concerned if a student learned a verb tense prior to when it was supposed to appear in the curriculum? No. When it comes back around, students can go even further with the concept. We don’t ‘own’ particular concepts…let’s be cognizant of the fact that with technology at our fingertips, students have access to limitless information. Now we return to a focus on skills and understandings. Students need practice at how to apply, analyze, and synthesize all the information available to them.

Some of us think that holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.                     -Hermann Hesse

Be together, not the same

Such a simple, yet powerful idea…let’s be together, not the same. Across the educational realm, this is where the sweet spot lies. Together is where learning from one another is maximized, where respect is gained by each individual as they make their contribution to the whole.

Being together brings diverse minds, perspectives, and thoughts to one place. Being together allows us to share as an educational community. Being together communicates that we work for the same goal yet acknowledge the many wonderful paths to get there. Being together shows possibilities that we ourselves could not fathom alone.

For me, being together with other educators in any capacity – whether it be face to face or via technology, allows me to engage and learn on a level that otherwise wouldn’t be feasible. Making connections with those who share my beliefs and others who challenge my convictions are invaluable to my growth and development as an educator.

I have the  honor of collaborating with educators from both close to home and distant places. We are far from the same…coming from different states and countries, different school systems and roles, different stages in our careers and lives. Together we share ideas and research. Together we talk about ideas and plans. Together we recount stories and offer insight. I am fortunate to learn and work alongside some of the best in the world and these experiences send me to school each day with a renewed passion.

If our focus were the opposite, that is, being the same, what would happen? What is the outcome of everyone working in the same way rather than toward a common goal? In my opinion, this creates stagnation. With no one to push the limits and force thinking in a new direction, we simply don’t grow. Maybe that is a little harsh, growth can definitely occur through other means such as reading and researching on our own, but without someone to bounce ideas off of does the change happen? Without the crucial discussion or debate do we move forward as fast to make a new idea work? I know personally that when I have to defend something that I believe in, I more fully understand it. When I engage in conversation about a topic, my thought process deepens.

I have heard many teachers want more time to think, talk, and process during and after professional development sessions and I agree with them. I need to talk things out with others and hear different viewpoints to grow my practice.

A quick anecdote – I could not have changed my grading practices (and if you know me, this was the most monumental change I made in my educational career thus far) on my own. I needed to be together with someone else who shared my mission but had their own ideas about how to carry it out. We worked for the same goal, challenging each other along the way. We came from two different content areas, Spanish and Social Studies, yet came out of the experience achieving our shared goal. It was a better experience because we weren’t the same…

…but we were together.

Strength lies in differences, not in similarities. – Stephen Covey

Change the lens, change the language, change the practice

When taking a look at standards based practices and grading reform, many times people get stuck on logistics, letter grades, and conversion charts. I would to argue that none of that really matters unless the standards based learning piece is in place. This is the ‘why’ for the shift and if we simply jump to the ‘what’ the change can go by the wayside and be tossed in the virtual trash heap of educational initiatives that ‘don’t work’. There are many ways to go about the implementation of a standards based system depending on the needs of your school or district. I believe the lens with which we look at grading and learning as well as the language we use is what impacts student achievement and learning.

We can’t just change the reporting system, or change letters to numbers (or to symbols for that matter) and expect proficiency levels to automatically improve for our students. So what can we do to make those key changes to create a standards based, learning focused environment?

Change the lens, change the language, change the practice.

The lens with which we have traditionally looked at grades is flawed. Grades are used for multiple purposes, with very few having to do with communication of learning. How can grades shift to something meaningful for everyone involved? Looking at grades through the lens of communication rather than other lenses such as motivation or compensation provides a clear purpose for the process.

Language and how we speak with kids is an absolute game changer. It can transform the learning environment to a place where grades are not part of daily conversations. In my classroom I had a couple of students waiting to talk with me during class. I overheard their dialogue as they waited.

Student 1: “I’ve got to figure out what my grade is on this (pointing to an assignment).”

Student 2: “Dude, she is not going to talk with you about grades. You’d better figure out how to talk about the learning.”

When you change your language, so do the kids. Disclaimer: this is not an easy task. Throughout my transition, students would catch me using more traditional language and point it out. We held each other accountable for making the change in how we talked about learning. It was a group effort, and we were all better for it in the end.

Once the lens and language have progressed, the practices follow suit. As I mentioned, changing the practice without the shift in lens and language will not elicit the change in anything else for our students. Practices morph and transform. We separate behaviors from academic achievement and growth for clear communication. We set learning standards and targets that are transparent and join students on their journey to proficiency. We eliminate punitive grading practices that work against motivation and the drive to learn.

Change the lens. Change the language. Change the practice.

Note taking…for fun?

Today I had the opportunity to visit one of the 6th grade science rooms (shout out to @KatieBudrow) at my school and introduce Sketchnoting. The kids and I spent some time talking about traditional note taking and some of the difficulties they encounter during the process. They talked about how many times they frantically write and don’t process any of the information they are putting on paper or in a digital document. I asked if any of them doodle during class, and the overwhelming answer was Yes! So, this was the question…

What if your doodles could become part of your notes and help you learn WHILE you take them?

As expected, this garnered quite the positive response. So, we dove in. I didn’t give many instructions to the kids, simply that we could include drawings and words to capture the main ideas and key points of what was being presented. We looked at a couple of examples and got started. At the beginning of the period, the students had journaled about ‘What is the scariest or spookiest, or creepiest species on the planet? (Today is the day before Halloween just for a point of reference!). To begin I had the kids think about how they could turn their journal entry into a sketchnote.

sketchnoting 3sketchnoting 6

We then moved on to a more difficult task of sketchnoting with a video segment – the football scene from It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown. The segment was short – just over a minute, but below are examples of what they came up with. They needed to know that it didn’t have to make sense to others, but it had to make sense to them.

sketchnoting 1sketchnoting 2

Finally, we shifted the conversation to science and some quick drawings/icons we could use with their current unit on ecosystems. We didn’t have a lot of time, but it was neat to see what they came up with for some of the key ideas – a sun for energy, arrows for cycle, pizza for food, grass, trees, and flowers for a habitat…

sketchnoting 4

The best part? The students made comments such  as – Can I do this during class? This is fun! I like this better than writing everything down. Can I add to the notes afterward? The kids then realized that adding to the notes later on would actually be doing what their teachers ask them to do daily with notes…review them.

 

Here’s to our newest members of the sketchnoting community!

sketchnoting 7

Break the yo-yo

We’ve all been there…the fantastic moment after a workshop, training or some variety of professional learning and you are inspired. You can’t wait to take it back to your school or classroom. You are intrigued and want to learn more. The new ideas swim in your head and the passion for learning is sparked.

But then life happens, and the excitement fades. You return to your busy schedule. When new ideas are brought to colleagues peer pressure can develop to maintain the status quo and not ‘rock the boat’. Time and energy are always at a premium so a change can feel overwhelming, especially without support from others. The new idea goes by the wayside for a variety of reasons and the learning is for naught. Sigh…I wish I could say this hasn’t happened to me, but I shall not tell a lie.

The other night my husband picked up a yo-yo that belongs to our boys. He started to use it without realizing it was broken. He sent the yo-yo down and once it reached the bottom – it fell apart. Rather than swallowing up the string on the return trip and recoiling into his hand, the sides and string from the yo-yo came falling to the ground.

broken yoyo

At that moment I made a connection. We need to be cautious that our professional learning does not become a yo-yo. I was very guilty of this – getting excited about learning something new but retreating into old habits once back in my classroom. The yo-yo goes out, the growth happens, and then we pull back into the comfort zone without applying the new learning. The movement forward is stopped and we regress.

Let’s break the yo-yo.

Break it so we can move forward as educators. Break it so learning doesn’t stagnate. Break it so that our kids experience new things and new ideas. Break it so the growth mindset we need to model is loud and clear. Break it so our passion as teachers becomes their passion as students.

…and I’m keeping the broken yo-yo as a reminder.

Margin of error – Know your story, tell your story

This is the third installment of a series of posts on storytelling – Know your story, tell your story. My hope is to share a few anecdotes that have shaped me as a person and as an educator in order to connect and grow.

Growing up, I was a gymnast. I was one of those kids (aren’t we all?) that bounced off the walls and had so much energy I didn’t know what to do with it, nor did my parents. I treated every space as a new challenge – is there room for a handstand? I saw grocery aisles as hallways for cartwheels, parking curbs as balance beams…you get the picture. The sport grew from something that kept me from breaking everything in our house to a serious endeavor that by high school consumed most of my time outside of school.

Over the years I fell, crashed, struggled, cried, and wanted to give up so many times I can’t even count. At times I was injured and had to figure out how to overcome. By the end of my career (always funny to say it that way with gymnasts, I was 17) I was 5’4″. For anyone who is not familiar with the sport, I was very tall for a gymnast. I had to work harder than my teammates who were much shorter to achieve the same results. The work was demanding, but it was worth it. I found success. I enjoyed the challenge, and loved to express myself through the artistry of the sport. My favorite event was balance beam, the event that most female gymnasts dread. I liked the mental toughness required to stick a beam routine in competition.

Here’s the catch – I never thought of gymnastics as a learning experience, I only associated learning with school. I knew I was going to have to work though a lot of struggle and failure to acquire new skills to improve my gymnastics, but didn’t make the connection that this was just as important to experience in school. In school I felt I had to be perfect. Perfect from the beginning of the year until the end. Perfect on every assessment, assignment, and piece of homework. There was no room for failure in that building, however when I stepped in the gym everything changed. Why? Everything I did in school ‘counted’. My classmates and I were under a microscope being assigned grades for everything we did no matter whether it was academic or behavioral. Failure and setbacks were not framed in a positive light – there was no time for those.

Reflecting now, it’s no surprise that these two worlds didn’t make a better connection for me until I was older. It’s funny that the margin of error seems very small when thinking of gymnastics, yet I felt the margin was narrower in the classroom. As an educator, I make it a point to use sports analogies frequently when talking about the learning experience. Kids and adults connect with the comparison, and it becomes easier to see how classrooms and schools can best support learning. When students see that learning is not confined to the walls of the school, they come to a couple of understandings I wish I would have realized earlier. Learning happens everywhere. Learning is full of setbacks, discovery, failure, and success. Learning is just what we do.

The reality of being a kid – Know your story, tell your story

This is the second installment of a series of posts on storytelling – Know your story, tell your story. My hope is to share a few anecdotes that have shaped me as a person and as an educator in order to connect and grow.

As I mentioned in my opening post, my grandmother and her stories were instrumental in my youth. Living only a block away from me, I was able to spend a lot of time with her throughout my childhood. The fact that she was retired and I was little gave us the luxury of time. On many occasions she talked about the fact that she and her two sisters (one of them a twin) were school aged during the great depression. She would tell me that as kids, they didn’t realize this era was so different from other times in history because it was all they knew. Families were struggling, but it didn’t seem that way at the time – it was just their reality. Kids were kids, attending school, playing, socializing, and spending time with family.

This story gives me pause to think and reflect. Reality for our kids is wherever they are – much smaller than our reality as adults. They may not fully realize how different things are outside the world they live in (I am guilty of this sometimes as an adult!). Whether living in poverty or an affluent community – kids are kids. We tend to be more aware as adults of the increased struggle that some of our students face day-to-day.

This story also reminds me that the definition of opportunity and accomplishment varies from community to community. There are some students who arrive to kindergarten already knowing their educational expectations include post-secondary schooling, whereas others are from families where they could be the first to graduate from high school. By sharing stories outside of our students’ realities, we can introduce inspirational ideas that could potentially change their future.

Her story was and continues to be part of my story as I grew from a child to an adult and into my profession as an educator. I recognize that students bring their varied stories to school. We have the gift of opening their eyes other realities through everything from novels to science experiments, from mathematical applications to diverse cultures and history, from physical education to the arts. We encourage sharing of stories to further understand their worlds and honor their personal realities. When reality gets too emotional or personal, we engage with kids one on one and listen. We show compassion for difficult situations and provide support or guidance to find additional help. Their stories become part of ours and the vital connection of relationships to learning is strengthened.

How is your reality reshaped when you connect with your students and listen to their stories? For me personally, this is one way I know I learn…every day.

 

Know your story…tell your story

Recently I had the fortune of being invited to and attending the ECET2 (Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers) National Convening. This along with the #semicolonEDU movement inspired the following post. I hope to do a small series of posts related to this that share some stories that have shaped me as an educator and a person.

“Humanity’s legacy of stories and storytelling is the most precious we have. A story is how we construct our experiences. At the very simplest, it can be: ‘He/she was born, lived, died.’ Probably that is the template of our stories – a beginning, middle, and end. This structure is in our minds.”                                                                                                                                         – Doris Lessing

Storytelling – this is powerful stuff. A quick look back into history gives us pause to the importance of storytelling. Generations upon generations have built their stories to teach, to laugh, to connect, and sometimes to cry. They are invaluable. I can remember as a little girl sitting with my grandmother as she would tell me story after story about childhood with her sisters during the depression. She told me about when my grandfather went to war. She told me about my dad and aunt as children. She told me about motherhood, jobs, and how she eventually landed as a librarian for her career. She was unafraid to tell me not only about the good times, but the bad as well. She knew her story and realized the importance of telling it. I carry my grandmother’s voice with me and I am stronger for it.

The longer I spend in education, whether working with kids or adults, the more I recognize the power of storytelling. Stories stick with us and touch our hearts. The stories that myself and other educators tell are at times hilarious (you really can’t make this stuff up), and other times heartbreaking. The importance of sharing them rings true when connections are made with our own lives, our own students. These stories have staying power; they are taken forward and recounted. They are as important for us to tell as they are for others to hear.

Stories generate strong feeling and emotion – the good, the bad, and even the ugly sometimes. A good one has us so engaged that we forget whatever else is going on at that moment. I know in my classroom when I would recount stories of my travels, of my family, or even of previous classes I had everyone’s attention. Of course students love to be the tellers as well – how many of them walk in each day with ‘Guess what happened…’? How many of them will better engage in the rest of class if given just thirty seconds to recount one?

Each day my story grows and develops. It is being constructed by me and all the other stories that connect with it. The more deeply I know my story, the better I can tell it. And telling it is what matters. If I keep my stories to myself, no one else can benefit from my successes and failures. No one can laugh or cry with me and let me know they’ve been there. It takes courage to tell the stories, but the value far outweighs the fear.

Know your story…tell your story.

Always ready to learn

“I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.”       – Winston Churchill

As humans, we are always ready to learn. Whether it be a new game, how to get results from a garden, ways to best get along with others, or more about a sport we love, we’re ready. Learning is everywhere in everything, but do we recognize it? Do we only associate learning when something is being taught to us?

I feel many students only think learning happens within the walls of schools and classrooms. They believe learning only happens when there is a teacher in the front of the room giving direct instruction. I wanted to check on this from a reliable source, so naturally I asked my son who just finished 5th grade – “Do you think some of your friends feel learning only happens at school? Do you think some of your friends believe learning only happens when the teacher is in front of the class?” To both of these questions he immediately answered “Yes.” At least from his lens, this is true. I fully realize this may be a biased opinion, but it’s compelling none the less. Finally, I asked him “Do you believe that to be true? Where does learning happen? His response – “Learning happens everywhere.” What a proud mama moment.

In my humble opinion, a much greater amount of learning happens when we experience it for ourselves. Natural curiosity is powerful and ignites engagement with new learning. Natural curiosity isn’t fueled by constant instruction. If the amount of learning in life that happens with a teacher leading us is weighed against the amount without one…well, lopsided could be an understatement.

The bottom line – we are always ready to learn.

To me, ‘being taught’ implies that there is a classroom with a teacher leading. It suggests the instructor is in control…hmm…I’m not sure this is the sweet spot in learning. Teaching has its role; however, it should be used intentionally when skills are to be modeled, or probing questions are to be posed. Kids should know that they own their learning no matter where it happens. Outside of school teachers can take the form of parents, other family members, neighbors, etc. But no matter who the teacher is, there is a time to step in and a time to step back.

In the school setting, I watch students in hallways and classrooms. I observe ownership in their learning and investment in the process. They are ready to learn and no one should stand in their way. Consider whether standing at the front of the room and being in control would be a better option than giving the kids the tools they need and watching them take off.

I truly believe that kids (and adults for that matter) want this ownership. We are naturally prepared to learn, but don’t always like being taught. Students come ready to make decisions and mistakes. They are primed to find success and rise to the occasion when challenged. They need their teachers to guide and support them and don’t always need someone else to be in control and take the lead.

Let’s be intentional about when we choose to teach and when we choose to put students in the driver’s seat. Honor the fact that they are always ready to learn, although don’t always like being taught.