Silent and Compliant

I was born to speak up or so it seems.  My mother taught us all the value of our words and of our spine.  I am sure she regretted it at times as we would battle fiercely as children when we felt wronged by our siblings.  She taught us to speak up, but do so kindly.  To stand our ground but not lose sight.  To question but not in a spiteful way.  To not settle, but to fight when needed, and not just fight for ourselves, but for others who needed our help.

Yet, when I became a teacher, it seems I forgot all of those lessons.  I did not teach my students to question.  I did not ask them to speak up.  I did not ask them what they stood for because that was not in my lesson plan.  We had science, math, reading, and writing to do.  Figuring out who they were and what they needed was not in my standards.  Thus it it was not my job to teach kids to be empowered.  To empower others.  To fight for change.

Instead my job, it seemed, was to make them silent and compliant.  Silent when they do their work.  Silent when the teacher speaks.  Silent in the hallways, thanks PBIS, whisper voices in the lunch room.  Don’t raise your voice unless you are outside.  Don’t raise your voice even when wronged.  Don’t raise your voice…

Do as I say and do it now.  Do as I say and do not ask why.  Do as I say and not as I do, because I am the adult in the room, and my rules only apply to you.  The better you were at being silent and compliant, the nicer of a kid we thought you were.  There goes someone who knows what it means to go to school.  There goes someone who we can be proud of.

I once had a child ask me straight up why they should do something.  The first time it happened, I was shocked at the audacity.  How dare they question my directions?  The second time it happened I brushed it off, and yet, as kids will be kids, there were always those kids who questioned.  Why is this important?  Why do we do it this way?  Why do I have to do this?  It wasn’t until I realized just what silent and compliant would do to my own ferocious daughter, a two year old at the time who never sat still it seemed, that I realized the damage I was doing.  That I realized that I had forgotten the lessons my mother had taught me.  That I was complicit in creating a populace that would be afraid to question authority.  That I would help create a polucae that does not seek answers on their own.  That we would look at all of the fake news and wonder why we are all falling for it?

So now I ask for silence so they can think.  I ask for silence when they read, or whisper voices if they need to share during that time.  But when we learn, I ask for them to question, I ask for them to discuss, to share their thoughts, to not just listen but to think.  To seek out knowledge beyond what I present.  To find an opinion, to fight for an opinion.  To find out what matters and stand up for it.  To create a cacophony of noise as they learn so they can process the information better.  There is still silence in our classroom when needed, but it is a privilege afforded to all who request it, it is used with purpose and not for control.

I ask them to follow directions yes, we all do, but I also tell them why.  I ask them to tell me how they can learn better so we can create a better classroom experience.  I earn their respect rather than demand it and for some that takes a long time.

Yes, we need kids that will follow directions, that know when to be quiet in our schools.  But we must not forget that that was never the point of an education.  That creating robots, afraid to speak up, who follow every direction blindly is one of the last things we should be striving for.  Because those robots grow up and their silence grows with them.   We can look to our history books to see what happens when adults stop speaking up and speaking out.

So do not lose your vision for what the future should look like for the kids you teach.  I wish I hadn’t.  I wish I would have embraced the questions rather than silenced them.  I wish I would have had the courage to have them question me so that i could realize why I did the things I did, rather than just follow the program.

I teach my own children to speak up, to stand up, to do so with kindness, but to stand firm when they believe in their own convictions.  They fight my husband and I, of course, but we also smile on the inside because we know that when they are older, when they must stand by themselves, they will continue to question, to advocate, and to not be afraid to demand action. So I teach my students to speak up as well.  To do so with kindness, but to stand tall.  Our schools should be filled with voices, and not just those of teachers, is yours?

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

The Grading Conversation We Need to Have

 

On Monday, we discussed grades and standards scores in our classroom.  As the end of the semester is here, it is now time for my students to assess themselves and somehow turn that evaluation into not just a standard score, but also a letter grade.  I meet with them individually to discuss as well, but the initial work always starts with them.  So on Monday I asked them, “What does a “1” mean to you?”  as a way to get our conversation started.  I was surprised, to say the least, at their answers…

“It means that I have failed…”

“It means I am bad…”

“It means they didn’t try…”

Receiving a “1” on standard score did not mean they were at the beginning of their learning.  That they had not yet mastered something.  That they had some knowledge but still had a way to go.  No, it meant failure, no effort, that they were stupid.  Even in our classroom where students self-assess all of the time.  Where we have actively tried to change the conversation from a score to feedback.  Where I have tried to put students in control of their learning.  They still think that if they get a “1” they are bad kids.

So rather than move into the definition of letter grades (they did this after) we stopped for a moment and discussed what each standard score really means.  What they need to do when they give themselves a “1” or a “2.” How a “1” does not mean they didn’t try but that they do not understand yet.  That a “2” does not mean they are bad at English but that they still have teaching to be a part of.  That those scores certainly can have something to do with effort but must of the time it does not.  That those scores do not determine how smart they are but are really just an indication of what they have shown me so far.

The sigh of relief in our classroom was nearly visible as a new sense of understanding dawned on the kids. These scores were in their hands, these scores were meant as signals, these scores were meant to guide not punish.  I thought they already knew that, after all, this is not their first year with standards based scores, and yet the conversation showed me otherwise.

So have you had this conversation with your students?  Do they understand what their grades mean and not just from a project standpoint?  Do they feel in control of how they are assessed?  How they are seen by themselves and others?  I encourage you to ask, I encourage you to have students set their own grades.  I encourage you to reframe the narrative that they may have when it comes to scores and assessment.  Assuming they know what they really mean means you are probably wrong.  I know I was.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

5 Tenets of Choice

I have long believed in putting the “person” back in personalized learning.  In creating engaging classroom experiences with our students as we try to help them discover how they learn best and what they still need to grow in.  However working in the public school system in a state that has mandates and tests to take, means that we sometimes cannot just do whatever we want as we explore 7th grade English.  Means that I am not always able to tell my students to create whatever they want and make it work within our standards.  Means that sometimes we all do the same lesson or produce a similar outcome.  Even if I work in a district that is focused on doing what is best for each child and puts immense trust in its teachers.  Even if at my core I believe that children need to feel like they have control in their learning experience so that they will invest themselves.  And I think this is the reality for many teachers that are trying to do their best in engaging all of their learners.  So how do we truly create experiences where students feel empowered and engaged and have choice, even when it is not free rein at all times?

One of the foundations in our classroom is the five tenets of choice.  These ideas by themselves are the foundation for many successful educational experiences, these ideas have been around for a long time, and these ideas, when coupled together, mean that my students always have choice in something, even if it is not apparent at a quick glance.  While the optimal experience would be for them to have all of these choices at any time, sometimes this is not possible within the system I work.  So, instead, I strive for at least two of these, but preferably more, at any given time.

This tiny excerpt from my forthcoming book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Engaging and Reaching Every Child, details the five tenets of choice, hopefully they will be of help to others as well.

1st Tenet

Choice in engagement, meaning how they access the learning; do they need small group instruction, one-on-one conferring, are they independent or want to work with a peer?  I have students do a pre-assessment of how they would like to work through a project and then plan my classes according to their needs.  To see a sample pre-assessment survey, please see the appendix.   

2nd Tenet

Choice in product, meaning what would they like to create to show their understanding and exploration of a concept.  Sometimes this means full control of the product depending on the standards we are working with, while other times it only means minimal choice such as the format of their written work.   

3rd Tenet

Choice in setting, meaning how and where would they like to learn.  As discussed previously, students need to be afforded opportunities to manipulate the learning community environment to suit their needs.  This is part of their learning journey and so students can choose where they sit, how they sit, whether they work in the learning community or in other designated areas, as well as how they use the environment they are working in.   

4th Tenet

Choice in timeline, meaning when they are ready to be assessed.  While this one is harder to do at times, I do try to provide flexible timelines for students, as well as stay in tuned with what else is happening in other classes.  This may mean that for a longer project I will tell students what the final day is for them to turn something in but that they can turn it in any time they are ready before then.   

5th Tenet

Choice in assessment, meaning how and what I assess as far as their mastery of concepts.  Inspired by Kelly Gallagher I will often ask students to turn in the piece that they think showcase their depth of understanding the best and then assess and confer with them regarding this one piece of work.  This allows students more flexibility and control over how they are assessed, as well as gives them the opportunity to reflect on what mastery really means.  This tenet also means that once students have shown mastery for a quarter, they do not have to prove it to me again but can instead move on to more challenging work.  This is a way for me to ensure that students are provided with learning that matches their needs better and also allows them for more self-directed learning.  

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

We Don’t Just Teach Curriculum

My first year of teaching I don’t think I ever thought about the end of the year until the end came.  Taught every day as if this was the only day that mattered.  Taught every day with short-term goals in mind but was too overwhelmed to think about the whole year.  To think about how my 4th graders would have changed by the time they were ready for 5th.  I think this is common, it is part of the first year survival strategy.  One day at a time, sometimes it seems like one lesson at a time.  We keep the whole child in mind but really just teach the skills that we set out to cover and hope we do a well enough job.

Now, nine years in and counting, with the feedback given to me by my students, I keep an eye on the end.  Not to count it down, in fact the end always comes to soon, but instead to remember the big picture, the end destination; better children, bigger minds, more knowledge, more self awareness.

So while I teach to ensure equal success with our content, I also teach with a larger goal in mind, always propelling us forward; how to become better human beings.  How to walk away from 7th grade English and feel like they know themselves better.  How to adapt any learning environment to learn better.  How to have courageous conversations.  How to figure to figure out who they are and where they want to go.

So we weave in the small, but often missed, questions throughout our curriculum, throughout our explorations.  I ask my students what is their writing process, they often have little clue, and we revisit the question as the year progresses, so that they know that this matters to who they are.

I ask them how they adapt the environment to fit their needs.  Where do they sit to learn?  How do they learn best?  How does who they sit by affect the way they feel about our class?

I ask after every major unit what they grew on and what is next, how will they get there?  They always assess themselves on anything bigger before I do, after all, they need to have a part in what they have accomplished.  I ask for feedback on the things we do to make sure they matter to the kids.

I offer choice, of course, but not just in product, but in engagement, in assessment, in process, because sometimes product choice is not an option.  I constantly ask them to self assess, even those who cannot be bothered, so that they know that how they feel they did matters to me and to them.  We stop and discuss when we need to and adjust course when we must.

I ask them who they are, how they feel, and how I can be a better teacher for them, for the class.  Do they feel respected, do they feel this matters, do they want to come to class?  And I listen, and I do something based upon what they tell me.

We were never meant to just cover curriculum, we were never meant to just prepare kids for the test, for the next year, for college and career readiness.  We were meant to be the handlers of the future.  To guide our children to stay curious.  To protect the innate love of learning they come to us with.  We were meant to help create a better populace that can accept who they are and know that within them there are things that matter, things that still need work.

So don’t just cover the curriculum, don’t just go through day to day.  Embrace the amazing opportunity that comes with being in education; the chance to shape the future with the conversations we have now.  We are not just teachers of our subject areas, we are teachers in every wonderfully convoluted term of the word.  So ask questions beyond the subject, give time to reflect, to slow down, and to find  a pathway to being better.  Keep an eye on the end not because you want the year to be over, but because in the end, you know that what you did together mattered.  That those kids you were lucky enough to teach grew in more areas than one.  That is the promise we can make every day.  That is a promise we can keep.

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum.    So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

Planting a Seed – Our Project on the Refugee Crisis

I grew up in a home that had a newspaper on our table every morning.  Laid out for us kids to see, we grabbed the comics first, then the Danish news.  I was a teen when I started reading the international news.  Being aware of the world was something that was expected of us, after all, Denmark is a small nation.  We read the paper, we listened to the radio, we watched the news.  Not always fully attuned but always aware of at least some of the bigger things happening in the world beyond our own.

Being a globally aware and invested teacher is something I have tried to live and breathe for many years now.  After all, the Global Read Aloud was created with the idea of making the world not only smaller, but also more interconnected to create more empathy and kindness.  My students have therefore in varying degrees always brought the world in, been a part of projects that involved others and tried to know more about the outside world than when they came in.  Working on a team with an incredible geography teacher has only made my job easier.

So this year as my English standards starred me in the face a small idea started to form, a seed began to grow; what if instead of “just” doing summaries, what if instead of “just” having an opinion, I was able to structure an inquiry project into something that I have been following myself; the Refugee Crisis?  What if we created a two-week experience where the students got to learn at their own pace with the end goal of having an opinion?  With that, I started to plan…

We would have two weeks roughly of work time, with time dedicated every single day after we do our 10 minutes of independent reading.  Students could choose how they wanted to work and engage with the materials.  I used a sheet that simply asked kids how they would like to engage with the learning and then crafted lessons based on this.  I have used this approach in the past and it has worked pretty well, this time I should have been more diligent with using it though after the kids filled it out.  However, that being said, kids were also good at reaching out and asking questions, as well as use each other for help.  I did promise the students that I would only do one whole class lesson; how to write an opinion piece using the MEL-Con format, and I kept my word.  My students have asked me to do less whole class teaching and I am adhering to that as I can help them better in small groups anyway.

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Our anchor chart for the MEL-Con format

We first needed a question, one that would give us a focal point but would not be shaped or tainted by my opinion, after all, I did want the students to come to their own conclusion.  So our guiding question became ; What should America’s role be in the refugee crisis?  This was what the students would work toward and discuss.

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We created a running word wall as student questions came up.

I knew I needed texts to start with; thank you Newsela for your text-sets, you saved me so much time.  So I pulled nine different texts that highlighted different aspects of the crisis, printed them at three different reading levels and told the students to choose three of them to read at least.  I also made all of the texts available as a folder in case they lost their copies.

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Another teaching tool for students to reference

I also wanted students to watch videos; I created a padlet with different short videos that would be appropriate for 7th graders and also less than 20 minutes.  Students were asked to watch at least one, but could do more if they wanted to.

I then crossed my fingers and asked on Twitter; would anyone Skype with my students about being a refugee?  I am so grateful for the response.  Three of my classes were so incredibly lucky to Skype with the incredible Rusul Alrubail,she graciously and courageously shared her story of how she became an Iraqi refugee at a young age.  To say my students were moved by her story would be an understatement.  Yet, the kindness of strangers continued.  Another teacher, Emily Green, from Michigan asked her students, some of them refugees, if they would create a small video for my students.  Last night, I received three different videos from her courageous kids sharing their stories.  Today as I played them for my students, you could have heard a pin drop.

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So for the past two weeks, my students have annotated the texts (using their own systems rather than ones created by me) for anything that stood out, they have written a summary on one article, and they have crafted an opinion on the guiding question, as well as craft an opinion piece based on all of their newfound knowledge.

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In some classes we started in small group before we went to whole class discussion.

Today, as we came together as a group to discuss what we have learned and what our opinion is, I sat back behind the kids and watched them practice their discussion skills.  As kids navigated the ins and outs of adult unmoderated conversation, I couldn’t help but feel just the tiniest bit proud.  Yes, they were discussing, yes they were listening to each other, but that was not the only thing I observed.  I observed kids who all of a sudden understood just how vast of a nation we live in.  Kids who now know where Iraq and Syria are.  Who know tales of children passing through Europe unattended as they try to reach freedom.  Of people who never wanted to leave their homes but were forced too.  Of what we can possibly do as a nation but how many hurdles there may be to making any decisions.  I also saw kids who started to understand that for some reason they equate refugee with terrorists.  Who thought 10,000 refugees is a large number but have since discovered it might not be.  Who know that we need to help but are not sure just how to do that.

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Discussing  as a whole class

I didn’t set out to shape the opinion of my students, that is not my job as their teacher.  Instead I wanted to create an opportunity for them to form an opinion on fact rather than hearsay, on research rather than rapid talk.  I know that some believe America should do more and others think we do too much already.  I know that for some they don’t really care either way.  But I also know that by giving them more control over their learning, by giving them tools to start with, by creating a guiding questions and then by bringing others in via Skype and YouTube that we have created an experience that matters.  That together we now have this piece of the world that ties us together and that will continue to crop up through the year.

Yesterday, a child asked me what the deal was with Mosul and weren’t they bombing over there?  A child that two weeks before was not even sure that Iraq was a country or what refugee meant.  That child had heard on the news that fighting was starting up again and now wanted to know more.  As teachers of literacy we have incredible opportunities to bring the world in, to help our children find their opinions, and to create experiences that connect us with other human beings.  I wrote a book on how to do just this,  not for the sake of the book, but for the sake of making this world a better place.

I ended our discussion time today with the following words; “My job is not to make you think a certain way, my job is to make you think.  So whatever your opinion may be, all I ask of you is to have one based on fact, rather than what others believe.  Keep your ears open and ask a lot of questions.  That is the least you can do as the future of this country.”

As teachers, we can bring the world in when it makes sense.  To make it matter more than just getting through the year or working off our checklist.  The year has just started and yet we have so much more to discover about the world.  I cannot wait where our learning takes us next.

PS:  If you would like to see my folder of resources, go here, some of it is loose.

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out January, 2017 called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum.    So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

Are You Doing Your Own Homework?

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This summer as I saw my niece, who is now a sophomore, we inevitably spoke about her reading life.  She used to be a voracious reader, we could not get enough books in her hands.  Then she came to the whole class novel, which inspired this post, and since then her reading life has been limping at best.  This summer I asked, as usual, “What are you reading?”  She told me The Kite Runner and then scoffed.  Surprised I asked why the reaction.  She then told me that she had read the book and loved it but now had to reread it to annotate it.  “The whole book?”  I asked.  “The whole book.”When I asked her why she was not quite sure, perhaps they would use parts for discussion.

I wondered then, as I often do, when I come across homework assignments that appear nonsensical, whether her English teacher had done their own homework?  Whether they had taken the time to annotate the entire book themselves.  Whether they understand the labor that was involved with that task and how it would take away from the enjoyment of the book.  It seems to me that once again something that is meant to teach kids how to better thinkers, instead is implicit in the killing of their love of reading.

Several years ago I started to do my own homework.  From the stories we wrote, to the essays, to the speeches, and to the presentations.  I started to experience what I was putting on the shoulders of my students and I quickly realized that what I thought would just take a few minutes never did.  What I thought would be easy hardly ever was.  What I thought would be meaningful sometimes wasn’t.  So I stopped giving homework, except for reading.  I stopped going by the formula of grade times 10 minutes.  I stopped handing out packets and instead vowed to stop talking so much and instead spend the time in class on discussion and work time.  I expected pushback or concern, but have hardly gotten any in the last six years.  Most parents express relief instead.

So every year I make a deal with my students; if you work hard in our classroom, you should not have to do work outside of English.  If you give me your best then besides reading a good book you don’t have to give me anything more after you leave our classroom.  And for most it works.  Most of my students come ready to work, ready to learn, and they hand their things in.  Not everyone, just like when we have homework we have those kids that do not get it done, I also have kids that do not use their time wisely.  So I work individually with them, after all, the acts of a few should never determine the conditions of the many.

So if you are still giving homework, I ask you for this simple task; do it yourself.  Go through the motions as if you were a student and then reflect.  Was it easy?  How much time did it take?  What did you have to go through to reach completion?  In fact, if you teach in middle school or high school, do it all, truly experience what we put our students through on a day-to-day basis. I would be surprised if the process didn’t shape you in some way.

I still do my own assignments, although I have been slacking lately.  Whenever I do, I am reminded of just how much time homework swallows.  Of sometimes how little actual practice it gives, or even learning.  How homework is unfair because we have already been given hours of their time in school.  How those who really need the practice do not need it at home, but instead with us as support in our classrooms.  Do your homework, tell your students, and see how they react.  Then ask them how they feel about homework.  Let their thoughts shape you as a teacher, I promise you won’t regret it.

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.