Augustine, our youngest, was born 10 weeks early. Weighing in at less than 4 pounds, unable to breathe by herself, we were told the consequences her hasty arrival might have on her. We were told that there might be blindness. We were told there might be attention issues. We were told there might be learning disabilities. We were told that some of her deficits would not show up until she was much older, surely lulling us into a false sense of security. The problem is; nobody told her.
So when she left the hospital at 5 pounds, 4 weeks ahead of schedule, she didn’t care what her plan should have been. When she started to crawl at the age of 7 months, she didn’t care that developmentally her age was 5 months, and 5 month old babies shouldn’t be crawling. At 11 months she shouldn’t have been walking. At 13 months she shouldn’t have been trying to make words. She shouldn’t have been trying to run after her siblings or do what they do. She shouldn’t be so small, yet be so mighty, that even the NICU doctors can’t believe how ahead she is. No one told her that she should slow down, act her age, stop developing, stop getting ahead of where she really should be. We may have been told what to expect but we didn’t have to believe it, and really Augustine made that choice for us anyway. Yet, we also had a choice as parents when we took her home; treat her with the expectation that life would be harder for her or treat her the same as our other children. The choice was easy for us.
I think of the labels we place on our students, of the expectations we have based on our casual judgments. How we label some students slow readers, struggling writers, or problem students. How our report card comments, parent/teacher conversations, and casual references become the labels that our students define themselves by. No child comes to school thinking they cannot achieve their dreams, school plants that seed in their heads through the expectations we set.
Augustine serves as a daily reminder for me that we can expect our children to soar or to fail. That we place limitations on our students based on our own beliefs of their capabilities. That we can create more obstacles for them than there was before. That how we handle them, how we speak to them and about them can determine the path they take in life. I wan tto make sure my words set high expectations, that my words will help students achieve, not lessen their dream, not change their focus to something more within reach. Augustine is conquering the world with us cheering her on; doesn’t every child deserve that same chance within our schools?
It has been two days since a black unarmed teenager was shot and killed by a police officer here in Madison. 15 minutes from my house. He went to the high school across my street. For the past two days, we have checked the news, watched the protests unfold, and searched for answers much like the rest of the country. This is not a post on what happened, because I do not know. But in the past two days I have been inherently aware that we live in a country that solves its problems with force. That we keep ending up in situations where unarmed children are being killed because that is the resort we go to. As the teen’s grandmother shouted to the police, “Why not just tase him?”
We see it in our schools as well; the escalation of punishment and force when a child, according to us, gets angrier. When a child loses control and reacts in a negative way, we take away the rest of their control to show them that we mean business. They lose all power over their day and then we wonder why they get angrier rather than just give in. When a child comes to us angry, we assume more will follow and we prepare plans for what to do when that anger comes, not plans for how to keep it at bay. We live in a society that punishes rather than investigates.
I have had the angry children in my classroom. I have had the kids with the file, with the police records. With the outbursts that scared me. I have had the child who threw a table across the room when another child called him a name. I have had the child where parents didn’t want their child in the same room, afraid of what would happen. I get it; fear is a powerful emotion, and when it comes to being fearful for our own safety or that of others, it becomes critical that we react.
Yet it is within our reaction that we must pause. If a child is angry or violent, we must ask why? We must dig for answers until something is uncovered. Yes, start the plans, but start the investigation at the same time. Relationship and trust has to be our first line of defense, not excessive force. Not assuming that the worst will happen, thus waiting for it to happen, and then not being surprised when it does. If we look at an angry child and expect anger, we will find it. If we look at a child that may become out of control, they will. Our mindset is what has to change, even if it means pausing before reacting. We have to stop our line of escalating punishments if they are not solving the problem.
So with all of my angry students, I had the showdowns. I didn’t always call for the principal, and perhaps I should have, but instead I stood my ground and asked questions; why are you doing this? Why is this your reaction? How can I help? I even cracked a joke or two. And it wasn’t a miracle, these children did not change overnight, they still got angry, they still threw chairs, but at least sometimes I knew why and I could work on that. Yes, there were consequences, but they were ones that made sense; speaking to the counselor or the psychologist, working through it with me, parents getting involved, teams put in place. Not suspension, not detention, not always.
For the past 5 years I have tried to give power back to my students. I have asked them what they need in our classrooms to learn. I have listened and tried to provide a classroom that they felt in control over, where there was room for them, where they didn’t have to escalate to get what they needed. I have moved away from my own instant judgment and punishment as much as possible. It has been hard. My gut reaction has often been to punish, yet I knew that long-term it would not help the child but only grow the problem. I am not alone, other educators have been doing this for years, so how do we do it as a nation? How do we move away from more and more force being used, from creating more angry children who end up becoming angry adults? What can we change? And what can we change right now?
PS: I don’t know what prompted the officer to shoot Tony, I don’t know if there was anger. The post is simply the train of thoughts that were prompted based on what my community is going through.
I never thought I would be the parent of a child who couldn’t pay attention. Who had a million ideas in her head except for the one she should be focusing on. Who tries so hard to look you in the eye yet can only last for a few seconds because that thought she just had is just so amazing and she has to tell it you right now. Even though you are talking. Even though now is not the time to interrupt. I never thought my child would struggle with reading. I never thought my child would struggle with sitting still. I never thought she would be like this. After all, I did what good parents do.
Yet, here she is, in a school that embraces her wholeheartedly and yet those amazing qualities she has; her imagination, her need for movement, her sense of righteousness and independence don’t seem to always fit in a school day’s work. She doesn’t really fit the system’s definition of what good girls do. Because good girls pay attention when asked. Good girls look you in the eye. Good girls are friends with everybody. Good girls know how to do school. Good girls are teacher-pleasers, peacekeepers, and direction followers. Not wild girls with crazy hair, incredible ideas, and a need to go go go. Thank goodness her teacher loves her.
My child doesn’t fit the mold of what a girl should be and yet she amazes me. The stories she tells are far-fetched and fantastic. The way she carries her emotions and feels others’ pain. How angry she gets when she feels the world is against her. How she declares everyone her best friend. She doesn’t know what good girls are supposed to be like, and I hope she never does. Because in her I have found an independence I never knew a child could have. In her I have found the realization that not all girls will act like girls, but they will still be good. And also not all boys will act like boys are supposed to but they will still be good boys.
All hail the girls that break the mold. The boys who dare to defy. The kids who make us worry and yet continue to captivate us when we wonder what they will do next. There has to be room in our schools for them. Not just the kids that are easy to teach. Not just the kids that do as we ask. All hail the kids who are themselves in a world that tries to define them.
I thought teaching 7th graders would mean that they had a cool distance to school. That they knew that the grades we give reflect the work they do. That a report card is not meant as a slap in the face, but rather a tool to be used as they grow toward their goal. I thought that moving from letter grades to standards based meant students would get it better, would embrace the chance to see what they needed to focus on and then work harder to master their deficits. Yet again what I thought has proven to not be so, so when I asked my students their thoughts on grades so that I could add their voice to the re-publication of Passionate Learners, I had to take a moment to digest what they told me. It wasn’t what they said about whether teachers should grade or not, it was how they reacted to the grades they were given.
Once again, I am the mouthpiece for my students, they asked that I please share this with the world in the hope that it will inspire change. In the hope that it will inspire discussion, that we will take their thoughts and use them to push our own. So what my students wish teachers knew about grades is simple, yet significant. I hope it makes you think.
That they feel they have little to no control over what grade they get. Even in a standards-based grading district, where I ask them to show me mastery with deconstructed standards using rubrics we have created together, they still feel that they have little control over how they are assessed, and more importantly what that assessment means to them. Now imagine how students feel when they haven’t created the rubric, self-assessed, or deconstructed the standards. They don’t understand the rubrics we give, they don’t understand at times what they should know to be labeled proficient. They don’t understand the number they are given. They crave feedback and conversation, rather than a number or letter. They crave classrooms that relish growth, failure, and attempts at learning.
That grades means they are done. The minute we grade something, they are done with it. It is the signal they need to move on, no matter that I teach in a district that allows and encourages re-takes for everything. If we want them to continue working on something then we should give feedback but no scores.
That grades sometimes become the one thing that their parents look at, nothing else. The minute a grade is placed on something that is all their parents can focus on. Their parents don’t always care about the effort, they don’t always care about the growth, just what the final result is. The conversations then centers around reaching the “3” or the “4,” to get that A, rather than what they learned, how they liked it, and what they are working on next.
That a grade tells them whether they are smart or not. We may say that grades are in their control and that they don’t reflect how smart they are, but they are not listening. If you get good grades, you must be smart, if you don’t well then you are dumb. Grades are leading them to a fixed mindset, rather than the growth mindset we are all hoping for.
That publishing honor rolls or GPA’s mean that their private learning is now public. We may see releasing these names as a way to celebrate their learning, but many of my students says it just creates a divide. And it’s not the students who are not on honor roll that said this to me, no, over and over it was the students that made it. They didn’t see their accomplishments as anyone else’s business.
That grades are for the future, not for the now. So many of my students reported that grades mattered because they want to go to college, and while at first I found this to be great (they care about the future!) I soon realized that this is so far from the purpose of what school should be. Students should keep an eye on the future, yes, but they should also keep an e eye on the now. They should be focused on the learning journey they are currently on and be excited to see their own growth and how it will help them right now, not 6 years from now.
Once again, my students are pushing me to change the way I asses in the classroom. While I strive to give them meaningful feedback, I have slipped from my ways. That’s what happens when you teach more than 100 students. Yet, the numbers I am so carefully doling out are not helping them grow, so I am not doing my job as their teacher. My students are making me a better teacher, imagine if we asked all of our students what grades means to them?
I was going to write about all of the things we have been doing to try to break down the barriers to poetry in class. All of the eye rolls I have been seeing, the grunts and groans. The many “Roses are red…” poems I have sen in the last few days as I ask them to write me a poem, any poem, just write something. I was going to write about how many of my students hate poetry because of all of the rules we have forced upon them in our pursuit of helpfulness and understanding. I was going to write about how my students are slowly inching further away from a disinterest or total hate to a small interest or even like when it comes to listening to poetry. Writing it is an entirely different battle.
But I decided that this was bigger than that. This moment, in our classrooms, is bigger than that.
It is not that my students are the only ones that hate poetry. In fact, some of them do, some of them don’t.
It is not that my students are the only ones who hate writing. Hate reading. Hate book clubs. Hate English. Some of them do, some of them don’t.
It is not that my students are finally expressing their hatred not to be mean or out of spite, but so we can do something about it.
It is not that my students are different from most students.
It is more that I have had the same conversations every year.
It is more that every kid has something they hate about school because of choices I have made, choices we have made, when we decided to teach a certain way.
It is more that student curiosity seems to have been drowned out by our carefully planned lessons.
That inquiry and critical thinking have been buried by the pursuit of the one right answer.
That we have taught students that school is black and white while life is multicolored.
That we tell them to sit still so much that they forget their own voice.
That we make all of the choices for them and then get frustrated when they cannot create on their own.
That is what I need to write about because that is what I have discussed with my students. That is what teaching poetry has revealed so far. That is what I need to change.
Who knew poetry would be the place my students found their voice.
I didn’t know I was doing personalized learning when I first changed the way I taught. It wasn’t until I wrote about it in a blog post and someone gave me the name and description that it clicked. It made sense really; I wanted students to have a voice, have choice, and to be re-ignited passionate learners within my classroom, all tenets of the personalized learning philosophy. For me it was a no brainer; why not teach in a such a way that students would want to be part of the learning? Why not teach in such a way that students became experts and have a place alongside the teacher? Yet, wherever I go resistance remains for personalized learning. In fact, some educators or districts are quite against it, but for many different reasons. I cannot be alone in seeing this resistance, so I thought a discussion of what those barriers may be and how you can approach a discussion to work around them would be in order.
Barrier: It’s one more thing to do. We are faced with seemingly more tasks every single year as teachers, from major ones forced upon us to the little ones we cannot wait to do because we were inspired. When will we ever find the time to do personalized learning as well?
Discussion Point: Personalized Learning should not be an add-on but a replacement. So if you are already doing something, change it with a lens of personalized learning. Can you add choice into a pre-existing project? Can students show mastery in a multitude of ways? Embrace personalized learning as a way to become a better educator by sharing more control with the students, keep it manageable for you and integrate in a natural way to alleviate the feeling of one more thing being added to the to-do list.
Barrier: It is overwhelming. It is easy to see why personalized learning can be viewed as overwhelming. Often those who discuss its merits have been doing it for years and has framed their whole classroom around it. Their personalized learning initiatives is a long list of to-done’s.
Discussion Point: One small step at a time. When discussing personalized learning focus on how to start, what to do in the beginning, and the small changes that can make a big difference. Certainly keep the end-point in mind, but don’t worry about it yet. Worry about where you are right now and how you will start your journey, not when you are going to get to the end.
Barrier: It will be chaotic. We often envision chaos when we stop doing a one path to the learning format for students and that when students are given choice they will not know what to do.
Discussion Point: Personalized learning does not mean giving up control, but rather that control is shared with the students. It also means multiple paths to mastery, but these are planned out either by yourself or in conjunction with your students. Yet, you know yourself best; what can you give up control of and what can you not. You are also a member of this learning community so if there are certain things that need to stay in order, such as an assignment being done a certain way, or students sitting in a particular way, it is okay to hold onto that. Find the things that you can let go of, invite student input into the process, and grow together.
Barrier: My subject matter won’t work. Personalized learning means hands-on and project based; how do you do that in English, Spanish or any other class?
Discussion Point: Personalized learning can be implemented into any classroom, the lens just has to switch. I had a lot easier time giving choice in social studies and science because a lot of our learning was hands-on, project based. So when I switched to just teaching English, I had to change my way of thinking. Personalized Learning in my English class means students have choice in how they show mastery (different project choices), when they show mastery (timeline), and often how they work within the classroom (classroom setup/management).
Barrier: It will be replaced with another idea soon. Education is a long list of new ideas and change is the one constant we have.
Discussion Point:Personalized Learning really just means great teaching and great teaching will not be replaced with a new idea. So while new initiatives are bound to come, the ideas of personalized learning helping you be a better teacher remain because it speaks to student autonomy and re-igniting a passion for learning.
Barrier: I don’t want to integrate more technology or don’t have access. Technology inequity is a real problem. So is technology fear. Some teachers want to feel comfortable with the technology they bring in before students use it, and others will never be able to get the things they wish they could.
Discussion Point: Personalized learning is not about the technology. Personalized learning is about creating an education process that takes into account the needs and desires of each child, while still working through the set curriculum. Technology is a tool that can be used in this process but not a central tenet. I started out with 4 computers in my room for 26 students. We naturally did not incorporate a lot of technology and we didn’t need to. Choices involved the things we did have and students bringing in things from home if they wanted to. We made it work with what we had.
Barrier: I won’t be a good teacher. It is hard to change the way we teach because we may already be teaching really well.
Discussion Point: Change is hard for all of us, but modeling risks for students is instrumental in their learning journey. I am uncomfortable every time I make a big decision about the way I teach or something we will do, but I think the discomfort makes me a more thoughtful practitioner. By sharing and modeling this for students, I am showing them that I take risks and that sometimes those risks pay off and other times they don’t. We have to grow to evolve and sometimes that means even leaving behind things that were just fine. Besides, our students change every year, so should we.
Barrier: I have to do the same as all the other teachers in my subject or grade level. We don’t want students to be a part of an educational lottery where the quality of their education hinges on which teacher they get, so sometimes uniformity and in turn, conformity, is preached above all else.
Discussion Point: Have what other teachers do as one of the choices for students. This brilliant idea was shared at the task force meeting I was a part of in my district. Instead of dismissing what other teachers are doing, simply make it on e of the paths that students can take. That way you are also catering to the myriad of ways that students learn. You may learn best in a hands-on project based environment, whereas others may learn best with a read/reflect/discuss with a test at the end pathway. make room for all of your learners and include the ways of other teachers in your room.
Barrier: Parents/administrators/community will be upset. When we are faced with unknowns our first instinct may be to revolt.
Discussion Point: School should look different than when we were students. Yet communication, understanding and examples are vital when integrating more personalized learning into your classroom our school. Any change is hard for parents who want to try to help their children, so make sure you are communicating the why and the how behind your changes whatever they may be. If administration is wary bring them in to see the change, show them other classrooms, and explain your motivation. Tell them you will do a trial period and you can discuss and evaluate. Just like you are asking others to be open to change, be open to frank discussion yourself.
Moving toward personalized learning has been one of the most significant changes I ever did in my educational journey, but it wasn’t always smooth. I have faced many of these barrier myself but now love being in a district that has it as part of its vision. Wherever you are in your journey, or even if you haven’t started, don’t be discouraged by the barriers that may face you. Reach out, connect with others who are on the same journey, and find the support you need to be successful. I am here to help if you need it.
If you want to see 6 things you can change to start your personalized learning journey, read this.