Is Your Tech Integration Mostly a Garnish?

My MiddleWeb article from 5/17/15

During my college years, I worked as a server at several restaurants to pay my rent. At the swankiest of these, I recall the chef once telling his sous chefs to take their time plating neatly and to remember the garnish. He was fond of saying, “Do you know the difference between a ten-dollar dinner and a fifteen? Parsley.”

In the current educational climate, where any lesson that utilizes technology is considered superior, I can’t help but notice that a lot of what is being done is just adding parsley.

chef hat parsley 330Don’t get me wrong. I am in no way anti-technology. I am as hooked on my devices and what they can do as the next user. What I am is anti-bad pedagogy. One may be able to get away with outdated teaching practices using a tech-free lesson, but any flaws or faulty methodology become enhanced when technology enters the picture. No amount of parsley can compensate for a tasteless sauce.

The limits of “cool”

Exposed to decades of modern education research, teachers are well aware of best practices. We know that modern classrooms should incorporate 21st century skills, be student-centered and brain-based, strive to reach all learners, and provide authentic learning opportunities. My fear stems from what I have observed happening in the last several years.

Whereas during the NCLB years instruction was driven by what was on the state test (much of it rote learning), now curriculum is influenced heavily by what app we want to use just because it’s “cool.” The problem with this thinking is that cool fades—learning sticks. No one ever fondly recalls the delicious taste of the garnish.

computer tablet etc with app cloud 310All too often, I see teachers get excited about a new, fun app or device and immediately start to think about how they can incorporate it into their classroom.

They are more concerned with the trimmings than the entrée. Teachers need to determine what is to be taught before they decide what technology to use. The task at hand should influence the choice of technology and not vice-versa.

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating, that technology, whether in the form of a device or an application, is but a tool in our teaching toolbox. It needs to be an integral and vital part of the lesson, and must truly improve the instruction.

You want students to be able to answer the question, “What are you learning?” and not, “What are you playing with?”

New fangled drill-and-kill

Another issue is that a great deal of the incorporation of technology occurs at the most superficial level and only serves to replace current practice rather than improve upon it. Teachers should be focusing on what students can do with the addition of technology that they could not do without it before. Too many apps are just animated drill-and-kill exercises.

While some rote memorization is necessary in school, especially as one is developing the foundation for more advanced skills, if the only thing you do is replace one monotonous practice with another, you are not getting much bang for your technology buck. Research shows that focusing solely on rote tasks does not promote understanding or long-term retention of information. A digital worksheet is still just a worksheet.

hands swiping talblets or phonesI have also seen brilliant uses of flipped classrooms, but many times flipping classrooms is nothing more than putting some digital garnish on an ineffective lecture or confusing homework and sending it out the door.

“Sit and get” at home is not better than “sit and get” in class. We know that active rather than passive learning is a worthy goal. It is imperative to keep in mind that teaching should be brain based, not screen based. We know that too much screen time can lead to isolation, when what we should be encouraging is collaboration and higher-order thinking. Screens should only be an addition to our lessons if they are truly enhancing students’ learning.

Why tech motivation is extrinsic

Good middle school teachers strive to keep their students engaged and productive. They want to make the best use of their precious few minutes of time with the kids. However, using technology for the sole purpose of increasing engagement is a very short-sighted goal. Alfie Kohn and Daniel Pink have devoted considerable effort to sharing the science of what motivates us. If we’ve paid attention, we know that by focusing only on engagement without purpose, we will never achieve true mastery of content.

Being engaged with the fun aspect of technology is a form of extrinsic motivation, and outside rewards do not lead to internal desire to learn material. Educators must not trade a true wish to make meaning of information for a short-term distraction to keep students occupied.

cameras etc 300 1Years ago, education was primarily dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge, but needs have shifted and today’s students must be more focused on the application of knowledge. They must go beyond what they can memorize and replicate.

As the saying goes, we are preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, and so we need to prioritize the 21st century skills of creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.

Our classrooms need to be student-centered and incorporate authentic learning tasks. We don’t need to make the same old entrée look better; we need to reinvent it or prepare it in a completely new and improved way.

1:1 equals student to teacher

Students need to reflect on what they are learning, be able to demonstrate it in myriad ways, and share what they have learned with others. All of this will never happen by just swiping a screen.

Critical thinking requires significant mental effort, but this is the only way we can make meaning of the tremendous amount of information available at our fingertips. Students must have a sincere motivation to master the material, and that begins with relationships to the teacher and purposeful action, not just deciding which app they get to play at school today.

large parsley 320Every generation believes they will discover that one revolutionary tool to change education as we know it. But if the use of these tools is not supported by sound pedagogy, then we will never achieve the desired result: students becoming self-directed, lifelong learners.

I’m not saying don’t use technology. Please use it! But incorporate it mindfully and purposefully in order to reap all the potential benefits. Try to make sure your dinner is truly worth $15 and not just the same old $10 dish with a pretty, yet unmemorable, throwaway.

Channeling Goldilocks, Revisited

Smartbrief published a modified version of my Goldilocks post on June 8, 2015

As a naturally reflective person and educator, I am on a never-ending quest to design the “just right” English class experience for my students. Unfortunately, I am becoming convinced that no such animal exists, as I realize that it is the end of the school year, and I haven’t accomplished everything I had planned. Worse, I am growing weary of striving for perfection. I’ve been trying for several years and have not yet found the magic formula that will allow me to address everything. I wish to teach it in a mere 45 minutes per day. I have tried every new idea that sounds exciting to me, but it is always at the expense of something else I’ve loved teaching in the past. Is the “just right” class a reality or a fairy tale?
Here’s my problem: I am addicted to professional literature and development. I want my students to love literature like Penny Kittle’s do, to write as much as Kelly Gallagher’s, become life-long pleasure readers like Donalyn Miller’s, and to enjoy active engagement strategies from Dave Burgess and Jeff Wilhelm. I have read all of their work and had the pleasure of meeting most in person. I am simultaneously inspired by their ideas and insecure that I will never be able to measure up.
I also attempt to go to at least one national literacy conference per year. I consider these endeavors successful if I can gather one new strategy, concept, or resource from each session. This doesn’t even include the fantastic ideas I get from weekly Twitter chats. Trouble is, these add up. Every single experience yields at least one great technique I want to implement the very next day. At this point, I have an extensive list of approaches I’ve tried — all of which produced great results. The problem is that I struggle to incorporate all of them in one school year, and have never once done so.
Here are some of the things I learned from the greats and loved doing with my students:
Genius Hour
PBL
Reading/writing workshop
Book clubs
Article of the Week
Independent, choice reading
Whole-class novel study
Student blogging
Book talks
Read alouds
Debates
TED-style talks
Author visits
Community service
and many more
The difficulty is that I haven’t found a way to do everything in the short amount of time I am given, but I don’t know how to prioritize what to eliminate. I get frustrated because I know all of these add value, but whole-class novels (the foundation for my school’s curriculum), choice reading, and writing workshop are my non-negotiables, so I have to cut things that are not part of this trifecta such as read alouds. I know this is not good, especially when I hear experts I respect tell me how they could not imagine an English class without read alouds. I nod because I know the research backs up this practice, and I would love to share this experience with my students, so I try to find a way to put it back in the mix. Unfortunately, it means I must forgo something else. Thus begins the cycle of beating myself up for not being able to do everything I want and need to do in my class.
Whenever I get down on myself, I pull one of my favorite books out of my professional library and sit down hoping for some sort of magical inspiration. This never works. I usually end up becoming more discouraged because I want my class to look like that in the text — every single day. Yet, it doesn’t, and probably never will. I, like all teachers, have to function under the parameters of my current teaching situation. For me, my limitation is that I have 45 minutes per day with my students to teach them reading, writing, speaking and listening. No small feat, indeed.
In an effort to cheer myself up, I remind myself that we all have challenging teaching situations. Many middle-school teachers have much longer classes than mine — some are even double in length. True, they have their own constraints and obstacles, but I know that I could do so much more just going from 45 to just 60 minute class periods. I can’t foresee a time in the near future when I will miraculously have all the time in the world with my students, so I keep trying to get the porridge to just the right temperature.
Logic then enters and also helps ease my mind. I tell myself that most of the authors I read focus primarily on the topic in their writing and often don’t wish to include every other great idea out there because they have been incredibly successful with their own methods. They have one passion and they are great at it. Sure, I would love to be Penny Kittle and do equal justice to both reading and writing in my classroom, but I am not her, nor do I have her situation. The best I can do is to incorporate the portions of her brilliance that I can, and forgive myself for what I cannot. I guess that is the key. I have to be okay with being the best teacher possible within the parameters I am given. And I have a pretty fabulous teaching situation right now. The only thing that would allow me to make it “just right” would be having more time.
I eventually find solace in the fact that many of the other great teachers I know are in the same boat and also fret over not being able to squeeze in every great idea. Many of us communicate on Twitter and try to put our brains together and figure it out. We haven’t yet, but I am relieved that I am not the only teacher who loses sleep over trying to be better. So, while comforted, I remain frustrated searching for the perfect balance of activities. I may never achieve Goldilocks status in my classes, but I will continue to try. In the interim, I will keep utilizing the wisdom of others and refining my own practice. I may eventually get to the point where I have a structure with which I am completely satisfied — but I doubt it. It’s part of the quest for the classroom fairy tale.

How to Become a Tween-Centered Teacher

My Middleweb Post from 7.07.15

Teaching middle school is unlike any other level of education. Early adolescents are not just large elementary school children, nor are they small adults. They are a unique animal with their own quirks and characteristics. Psychologists and educators realized this and it is for this reason that junior highs were abolished in favor of the middle school concept. For those of us who are able to appreciate the distinct nature of what the job requires, teaching middle school is a true Magical Mystery Tour (no offense to the Beatles).

As teachers use their summers to plan for the following school year, it is important to keep in mind that early adolescents need classrooms tailored to their specific needs and aligned to their developmental stage in order to be successful in school. The challenge for middle school teachers is that the changes in their students occur rapidly and are widely varied. Dealing with these changes can feel overwhelming, but it can also be exciting. One key to help students achieve is to design your classroom and instruction with tweens in mind. The benefits of designing a tween-centered learning environment are students who are actively engaged and invested, are responsible for their own understanding of material, have learned strategies to become lifelong learners, and are proficient in social interactions.

Middle school is a time of tremendous growth and development—more so than any time since infancy. Students are struggling with the expectations of adults, in addition to the confusing changes in their own bodies and emotions. The child who begins in sixth grade is almost unrecognizable as the one who enters high school. If teachers can meet the physical, intellectual, social, and emotional needs of their students, they will provide a great service in helping these tweens become fully functional young adults ready to succeed in high school.

PHYSICAL

Teachers have all been through the puberty process and I don’t want to stir up any horrible memories, but I hope they keep in mind how truly out of control they felt most of this time. Tweens are acutely aware of their physical growth and changes, and how they respond to this can change day-to-day, sometimes minute-to-minute. Teachers can help students deal with these changes by providing learning experiences that help students feel more comfortable in their own skin.

  • Provide ample opportunities for students to move about the room freely, without having to ask permission (although you can discuss with them appropriate times to do so). Sometimes getting up to grab a tissue, sharpen a pencil, or throw something away can dissipate their excess energy.
  • Allow them to go to the bathroom or get a drink more often than you may feel is necessary. As you well know, the point of these trips is not to use the restroom or hydrate. If their minds are distracted by some new sensation or a comment about their appearance by a peer, they are not going to be able to fully attend to instruction anyway, so let them go without too much of a fight.
  • Incorporate emotionally safe ways for students to use their new bodies. For example, don’t single out one student to come to the front of room, but rather allow students to do so in groups or ask all students to stand up and perform a movement. Additionally, use physical body movements as part of learning a topic.
  • Even though we tend to think of them as something primarily for younger children, incorporating brain breaks can be extremely useful in regaining their attention.
  • Over the course of a unit of study, students will learn and remember more if lessons include using all five senses. Music is especially motivating for young adolescents.

INTELLECTUAL:

While scientists once thought of our brains as fully developed by this age, they now know this is not the case. Growth and changes abound and exciting things are happening. The best teachers take advantage of these changes.

  • Students at this age are gaining perspective on their own thoughts and emotions as well as those of others. Use this as an opportunity to incorporate many opportunities for exploring topics from various perspectives as well as those requiring empathy.
  • The thought processes of early adolescents are moving away from the concrete toward the abstract, but will require significant scaffolding to clear this hurdle. When students are learning new material, provide models, visual aids, prompts, templates, and coaching to ensure they understand the information. My students love my graphic organizers and often tell me they are one of the most helpful tools I provide. Many even return in subsequent years to ask for blank copies. As they become more proficient, these supports can gradually fade.
  • One sensational, and often untapped, ability of tween brains is that they are becoming more flexible. They are able to manipulate information so as to understand metaphor, allegory, symbolism, and hypothetical situations. They also enjoy deductive reasoning tasks. I regularly incorporate all of these in my class and am pleasantly surprised with the depths of insight that result.
  • Students at this age are curious and imaginative and enjoy tackling “big ideas.” Middle school is the perfect time to incorporate essential questions and real-world inquiry and problem solving tasks. It is a time ripe with divergent thinking and dissent. Encourage these creative tangents and provide the time, space, and materials for these explorations. Whenever possible, incorporate an authentic issue for them to grapple with. The results they achieve may surprise, or even delight, you (and them).
  • While providing predictability and structure is crucial for this age range, novelty within these parameters is a huge stimulus. A wide variety of learning experiences and techniques enables students of all talents and backgrounds to shine. It also keeps them excited to come to your class every day.
  • Aristotle said, “To find yourself, think for yourself.” At this age, tweens are becoming capable of understanding how their own brains work. This is the ideal time to introduce metacognitive strategies. Model your own thinking in front of them as you work through a problem, have them develop plans and monitor their own learning, show them how to visibly demonstrate their new knowledge, and help them deeply reflect on what they did well and what they can improve upon. Show them when to use the new strategies you’ve taught and what to do if they experience challenges. This is the key to them becoming proficient, lifelong learners.

EMOTIONAL/SOCIAL:

Normally, I would separate these two categories, but they seem to be intertwined at the middle school level. Just as play is the primary job of early childhood, socialization is the duty of early adolescence. For these children, due to biological and environmental influences, emotional growth is heavily influenced by social experiences. The following ideas incorporate both facets of tween development because the curriculum needs to reflect sensitivity to both emotional and social issues.

  • As tweens strive to develop their social identity, they often begin to express self-doubt and teachers will hear a lot of negative self-talk. For this reason, it is important for them to have a sense of self-efficacy, self-determination, and self-worth. It is crucial to help them understand how their actions can directly influence the results, how they are capable of being responsible for their own learning, and that they can experience success somehow. This is the ideal time to teach about a growth mindset and the benefits of failure as a learning tool.
  • It seems as if middle school students need to talk as much as they need to breathe. If you design your classroom to focus on quiet, individual tasks, you will constantly be fighting their natural impulses and the result will be frustration on behalf of all involved. Instead, develop ample and “legal” ways for them to talk to one another and explicitly teach them effective communication skills along the way. Cooperative learning, Socratic seminars, role-playing, simulations, debates, skits, etc. are all valuable learning tools, but also satisfy the urge to talk.
  • Early adolescents are now capable of appreciating multiple perspectives on an issue and to accept those of others. Curricular materials and experiences that allow students to express admiration, feel empathy, or explore morality are very interesting to students at this age because this kind of thinking is so new to them. I tap into their natural altruism whenever possible as well.
  • At the time in their lives when group affiliation is paramount, individual differences can begin to feel most noticeable, divisive, and uncomfortable. It is very important to honor the diversity of your students and encourage them to explore, accept, and be proud of their own cultural identities. I am very careful to use multicultural materials in my classroom, as well as those that reflect the students’ own interests and talents.
  • Even though they may be trying to navigate life themselves without adult intervention, they still greatly need the approval of teachers and they truly want to please. Help them understand that mistakes are part of life, that you forgive them, and that they are worthy in your eyes. Help them reflect on their choices and determine a new course of action for the future.
  • Finally, the concept of fairness is foremost in their minds. Try to administer any consequences (positive or negative) in a fair, consistent manner. Tweens can sniff our favoritism from a mile away, whether it be real or perceived. It will pay off to be hyper vigilant in ensuring that your students feel you have treated them well and fairly.

I am aware that a lot of this sounds like common sense and “just good teaching.” However, I am constantly surprised at how many teachers focus on “preparing kids for high school” and “teaching them how to be adults” without taking into account that they are not developmentally ready for either of these experiences. They treat them as tiny adults and are perplexed by how poorly their students perform. By exploiting the very things that make tweens who they are, you will allow your students to experience the magical journey that is middle school and will save yourself a few headaches along the way.

Sixth Grade Summer Reading Recommendations

I asked my sixth grade students to do book talks on their favorite novel of the year. The only caveats I gave them were that the books must be appropriate for their age range (middle grade) and not have been made into a movie in their lifetime. I loved the choices they made!

Abbott, Tony Firegirl
Anderson, Laurie Halse Fever 1793
Asher, Jay Thirteen Reasons Why ***
Bauer, Joan Close to Famous
Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker The War that Saved My Life
Burkhart, Jessica Canterwood Crest series
Byng, Georgia Molly Moon series
Clements, Andrew Things Not Seen
Condie, Ally Matched series
Constable, Cathryn The Wolf Princess
Costew, Lori Sherpa’s Adventure
Craw, Gloria Atlantis Rising
Dashner, James Maze Runner series
DeStefano, Lauren Wither
DiCamillo, Kate The Tale of Desperaux
DiCamillo, Kate Flora and Ulysses
Dionne, Erin Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking
Draper, Sharon Stella by Starlight
Draper, Sharon Out of My Mind
Erskine, Kathryn Mockingbird
Funke, Cornelia Inheart
Gemienhart, Dan The Honest Truth
Graff, Lisa Absolutely Almost
Green, John Paper Towns ***
Gruener, Gruener, and Gatz Prisoner B-3087
Haddix, Margaret Peterson Among the Hidden
Harrison, Lisi Revenge of the Wannabes
Henkes, Kevin Junonia
Hiassen, Carl Flush
Hunt, Lynda Mullaly One for the Murphys
Kessler, Jessica Has Anyone Seen Jessica Jenkins?
LaFleur, Suzanne Eight Keys The Lions of Little Rock
Levine, Kristin
Littman, Sarah Darer Backlash ***
Lord, Cynthia Touch Blue
Lu, Marie Legend series
Martin, Ann Rain Reign
Messner, Kate Wake Up Missing
O’Dell, Scott Island of the Blue Dolphins
Palacio, R.J. Wonder
Patterson, James Maximum Ride
Riordan, Rick The Lost Hero
Russell, Renee The Dork Diaries series
Sloan, Holly Goldberg Counting by 7s
Spinelli, Jerry Stargirl
Stein, Garth Racing in the Rain, My Life as a Dog Drama
Telgemier, Raina
Telgemier, Raina Smile
Turetsky, Bianca The Time Traveling Fashionista series
Van Draanen, Wendelin The Running Dream
Verne, Jules 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Woods, Brenda The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond
Zusak, Marcus The Book Thief

The Serious Business of Classroom Fun

The text from my SmartBrief article on April 13, 2015

I’ll admit it: I enjoy being known as one of the “fun” teachers in school. I get a little lift when they walk in and the first thing they say is, “I heard English was fun today. I’m excited.” It gives me great satisfaction to know that my students enjoy coming to class and that they often share what we do with their parents when they get home. This doesn’t happen by accident. I consciously work to present material in ways that are not only effective, but also enjoyable. It gives me infinite pleasure to hear their giggles in the middle of an activity. It’s one of the reasons I continue to love my job even after all of these years.

Unfortunately, not every teacher shares my philosophy. Some are under the misconception that students enjoy a class because it is fun and no real learning is involved. They don’t believe that students can possibly be engaged in rigorous educational endeavors if they are laughing, moving and talking. This is absolutely not the case. Just because it’s fun doesn’t mean it’s easy.

To some teachers, rigor — by the way, I hate that word when applied to education — just means hard. It means worksheet packets or excessive problems assigned every night, including weekends and vacations. It means the teacher drones on and on while requiring students to take copious amounts of notes. It means rote learning and very little critical thinking. It means they are not allowed to “help” each other learn. It means the child’s interest in or connection to the material is irrelevant. It means assignments that might be beyond the reach of their students. It means that many students fail their tests. This is why so many education writers speak of “grit.” It would take real fortitude to tough it out in the classroom described above. Children wouldn’t need grit if the task weren’t such drudgery. The bottom line is this: If many students dislike a class, they are not learning as much as they could be.

I strongly believe in what two of my edu-heroes say about rigor. Both Kylene Beers and Harvey Daniels say that there can be rigor without rigor mortis. The first time I heard each of them say that, I wrote it down in my notebook with a huge exclamation point next to it, and I’ve never forgotten it. It truly speaks to the essence of my teaching.

How do I achieve a high level of rigor without killing the love of learning? Simple. I put myself in my students’ shoes. I figure that if I am bored while designing learning opportunities, they will surely tune out. Every time I sit through a mind-numbing professional development day, I vow to keep this at the forefront when outlining a unit. I think about how I would want to learn and what keeps me interested.

In my experience, there are several facets to “edutainment” and the best lessons incorporate as many as possible.

  • Humor: No one is asking teachers to become Jon Stewart, but he does present challenging material on a nightly basis in an entertaining way, albeit on an adult level. By finding the humor in what the students consider mundane, teachers will be able to engage as well as inform. While humor cannot be found in every topic we teach, the more often we can find the fun, the more effective our instruction.
  • Novelty: It is true that children thrive on structure. In my class, that translates to our sacred 10 minutes of silent reading at the beginning of every class. Beyond that, I rarely do the same thing two days in a row. Students get a little thrill in not knowing exactly what comes next. I’m not the only one who believes this. When I read Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess, I was invigorated by the various “hooks” he presented as methods to engage students and ignite passion in both the teacher and the kids. Similar to Howard Gardner’s Entry Points, Burgess provides techniques for incorporating art, drama, story, and movement to introduce new material and keep the students on the edge of their seats wondering what the teacher will do next.
  • Ownership: Earlier this year, I had tremendous success with student-designed Passion Projects. These self-directed research and design projects held their attention for several months. In the feedback I received from students, many said it was one of the most enjoyable things they had ever done in school. It took very little preparation on my part. All I had to do was give them the opportunity and time. They had a blast and learned valuable skills in the process. It was such a hit that we are beginning round two next week. It doesn’t only apply to something as a long-term endeavor. To the greatest extent possible, I incorporate choice into every lesson we do.
  • Relevance: Provide some sort of real-world connection to the material. This works especially well if the examples are bizarre, hilarious or shocking. When the students see how the concepts they are learning have application to their daily lives or are evident in the world around them, they get much more excited to complete the necessary work to be successful.
  • Collaboration: I teach adolescents. That means I would constantly be fighting a losing battle by forcing them to keep to themselves and remain quiet every day. Human beings are social by nature, and none more so than teens and tweens. By incorporating “legal” opportunities for them to chat, I find that, when they do talk in class, they are mostly on task. Between small group and whole class discussion, they talk much more than I do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
  • Activity: The school days when I am most miserable are the days when no students are present– professional development days. It is not that I don’t enjoy the learning; I do. It is the act of being forced to sit in a hard, unforgiving chair for 8 hours with very few breaks that makes me want to act out and be disruptive. Imagine how awful it is when we ask beings with the metabolism of rabbits to sit still, be silent and avoid playing with things at their desk. I’m not saying we need to incorporate a calisthenics program, but allowing them to move from station to station, cross the room to look at a display, use hand movements to reinforce concepts, or even just rotate seats, will go a long way toward releasing some of the pent-up need for movement. On the days when sitting still is required, at least provide some sort of fidget toy for them to expend some of that energy.
  • Critical thinking: Some of the most enjoyable times I have in class are the days when we do collaborative inquiry lessons. Students work together, using inductive and deductive reasoning, to determine solutions to the task at hand. An added bonus to this type of learning is that the material is more cemented in their minds because they were active participants in the learning.

A fun classroom does not mean that students aren’t learning. It means that they are learning in the ways that meet their needs. It also doesn’t mean that only natural comedians will be successful teachers. It merely means designing lessons with the kids in mind. The side effect is that kids have a great time and maybe even learn something in the process — no grit required. So the next time you hear laughter coming from the classroom of the teacher next door, please don’t assume the students are goofing around. Mine aren’t.

5 Ways to Make Kids Hate Your Class

The text of my article for Middleweb from March 24, 2105

We’ve all read the rhetoric from self-styled school reformers perpetuating the myth of schools full of bad teachers. This has not been my experience. Most teachers I know are consummate professionals constantly striving to improve their practice.

Nevertheless, there are some ways that even the most talented teachers can undermine their own effectiveness. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to slip into these bad habits that make kids hate coming into your class. The best defense is a good offense, so it pays to be mindful of these ineffective teaching behaviors and avoid them when you can.

teacher-giving-orders1. Kids hate it when you over-control them

Because teachers are the dominant force in sole charge of a classroom of children, it is easy to become controlling. Furthermore, when so much else in our day feels out of control, we tend to clamp down on the things we can manage. However, leading with a heavy hand causes resentment among students because they feel helpless.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • deny them access to the restroom or a drink of water
  • keep them after class causing them to be tardy for the next one
  • get into power struggles with them in front of their peers
  • yell at or punish the entire class when not all of them were causing a problem

2. Kids hate it when you neglect or ignore them

boy-left-outTeachers are human beings, so it is only natural that we are drawn to certain students more than others. That being said, it is never appropriate for this to be known by the students. Even if you think you are treating children equally, they are very sensitive to real or perceived slights.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • give preferential treatment to obvious “favorites”
  • don’t bother to learn a child’s name or how to pronounce it
  • call on the same children all the time without giving others a chance
  • spend class time on your phone or computer rather than teaching

3. Kids hate it when you teach them badly

boy-puzzledTeaching in an all-consuming, exhausting profession. At any given time, there are a million other things we could be doing rather than getting our teaching just right. However, there is no excuse for forgetting the reason you are there—to teach the children to the best of your ability. Every time.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • impose a strict deadline, yet take an inordinate amount of time to grade or return their work
  • be easily distracted and go off on an irrelevant tangent instead of covering the material for which they will be responsible
  • come to class unprepared and disorganized
  • don’t accept responsibility for poor teaching and blame them for not studying
  • give grades with little to no feedback or explanation
  • use the same materials for years on end, regardless of the needs of the current class

4. Kids hate it when you blindside them

boy-hard-at-workThere are already so many times in a child’s life when they feel powerless. School should not be one of them. There is no place in school for “gotcha” teaching and grading practices. Think about how you as a teacher would feel if an administrator did equivalent things to you.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • put trick questions on a test to “separate the As from the Bs”
  • include material on a test that you did not cover or mention in class
  • take points off of their work for minor infractions such as forgetting their name or a spelling error
  • call on them when they appear to be off-task
  • single them out in front of everyone

5. Kids hate it when you damage them

cartoon illustration of a boy talking with his mom isolated on whiteThis is the single most important thing to remember about teaching:You are trusted with the ultimate treasure – a child’s heart and soul. It is your solemn duty to protect this gift. Too many times, we forget that these are just children with fragile egos, and they can be severely damaged by something that seems insignificant to an adult.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • use sarcasm regularly
  • participate in any kind of shaming (e.g., stapling fast food restaurant applications to a low-scoring test)
  • compare them to other students, classes, or siblings
  • reveal confidential personal information in front of their peers
  • publicly berate them for small infractions such as not having a pencil
  • tease them over sensitive issues

I can’t imagine that teachers do any of these things to their students intentionally, but they do happen. We are not perfect, but we can be cognizant of our own behavior. None of us wants to be the teacher kids hate.

When we chose teaching as a profession, we did so with the implicit understanding that we would not only teach but protect and nurture the hearts and minds of our students. Keeping our classroom practices positive and supportive will go a long way in achieving that life-long goal.

Common Misconceptions about Mindset, Rigor, and Grit

The text of my article for Middleweb: April 5, 2015

I am a full-time teacher with a passion for (and degree in) educational psychology. This means that I am a rabid consumer of research on teaching. However, after spending a couple of successful decades working with students, I am that teacher who greets each “new” idea that is spawned with both curiosity and a healthy dose of skepticism.

Among the educational ideas that have gained momentum in recent years are the concepts of Mindset, Rigor, and Grit. While all of these ideas may have merit, as with all shiny new objects that attract our attention we need to proceed with caution and think about whether and why these concepts fit into our personal pedagogy.

Being willing to implement the hot new thing is admirable, but not if it is done feet first with our eyes closed.

MINDSET: It doesn’t thrive in a hostile environment

First, let me say that I believe in the Mindset theory. Several years ago, while teaching in San Jose, CA, I was lucky enough to see a presentation on Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success given by one of the graduate students who worked on the book with her.

The growth mindset framework is wonderful, inspiring, and perfectly logical to anyone who has ever worked with children. The problem is that many schools have jumped on the Mindset bandwagon without changing the school policies that work against the concept.

Many teachers and schools who say they believe in fostering a growth mindset in their students still have an environment that encourages a fixed mindset.

flower-road-570

Growth mindset . . .

Is not summed up by a grade. We tell students that they should grow and learn from mistakes and if they practice they will improve. However, we grade using an “F” for failure when we should be using a “Not There Yet” and allowing them to keep trying.

In fact, we should encourage re-dos and re-takes because, by trying again, students are more likely to learn the material. (See the writings of Rick Wormeli for more on this concept.) What is more important to us as teachers: that they learn the material or that they learn the material the first time?

Is not a now-or-never experience. In too many classrooms, something is taught and assessed once and if a student doesn’t get it, the teacher moves on anyway.

Is not a race to the finish. When we encourage speed and competition rather than thoughtfulness and collaboration, we tend to reward some students for “perfect” products and fail to encourage effort and growth over time.

Is not about intimidation. Students do not develop growth mindsets in emotionally unsafe classrooms where they do not feel free to take risks – where there is one “right” answer and only the teacher and certain students know it.

Is not encouraged by lazy assessment practices. Grading or awarding points for every little thing a student does in class and then averaging them together at the end of the marking period does nothing to promote growth. If we truly want kids to learn, we need to be providing regular, constructive feedback throughout and letting them demonstrate their mastery toward the end.

Reverse all of these behaviors, and we are really onto something!

RIGOR: It’s not a throwback to the “good old days”

I have read Rigor is Not a Four-Letter Word by Barbara Blackburn and I like her definition:

Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at a high level, and each is supported so he or she can learn at a high level, and each student demonstrates learning at a high level.  (Blackburn, 2008)

rigor-4-letter-2ndI know that this kind of rigor is good practice, and some teachers are getting it right. Sadly, however, many in education are still longing for the good old days (which have never existed in the ways they think) when kids worked hard, weren’t babied through life, learned difficult material with ease, and knew their place in the scheme of things.

According to some, rigor from back in the day is defined as the hard work that they used to do when theywere in school. They will post on social media that ridiculous test from the 1890s that has made its way around the internet. If you look at that test closely, you will see that much of it is rote learning and also specific to time and place. Much of what is on the test is no longer relevant in today’s society.

We need to get over the idea that somehow there were these miraculous, genius students that existed when “we” went to school, but now all young people are lazy, coddled, and addle-brained. The idea of increasing rigor appeals to these stuck-in-time educators. Unfortunately, rigor is often misinterpreted as just meaning really, really hard.

Rigor does NOT mean:

  • a classroom that resembles a bootcamp
  • more and harder homework
  • a text or material several grade levels above the student’s current ability
  • high expectations, but no support to reach them

So if you’re doing that, stop it, okay? Thanks.

GRIT: Maybe we need to just drop this word

I have to say the current buzzword that most grinds on me is grit. Maybe it’s because so many of the grown-ups responsible for running the world have so eagerly embraced it. Human society, they are sure, will be much more likely to survive if we teach these “lazy, spoiled, whiny” children a thing or two.

pilgrims-first-winter-300They are remembering fondly our Puritan ancestors who worked hard and got ahead and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps while eating acorns and tree bark during those first freezing New England winters.

If these “kids today” would only put forth that kind of effort, they would be more successful adults. These are the people who say that children need to learn how to fail because it builds character. The trouble is that it often doesn’t.

Misinterpretations of grit:

► If perseverance were all it took to be successful, we would all have the capacity to be Olympic athletes if we just put our minds to it. Not true. Yes, it is always possible to improve, but it is a lot easier to hit a home run if you begin life on third base (through special talent or special circumstances). For the rest of us starting at home plate, we may need a little more support and encouragement to round those bases.

► Sometimes the students are working at their peak capacity; the task is just beyond their realm. Meeting the individual where he/she is and working within their zone of proximal development is more likely to yield positive results. It is destructive to tell children that if they only tried harder, they would be successful. Realistically, that may never happen for some.

► Generally, repeated failure does not motivate one to work harder. Usually, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the child believes himself/herself to be a failure. “That’ll teach ‘em to study harder next time” doesn’t work.

► Now, if what we mean by grit is the ability to stick with an assignment or pay attention in class, then we must be darn sure we are asking students to do work worth doing and making class engaging. Students who have creative, challenging work to do in a positive classroom environment do not need nearly as much “grit.”

mind-numbing► The need for grit is primarily useful when the task involves drudgery. Not every task is worth doing, and we need to be able to let go of the mind-numbing assignments of the past and move into the 21st century. Not that we still can’t teach the required material, we just need to do it in ways that we know engage their brains and work within a modern construct. The kids are already there and if you are not with them, you are against them.

► What teachers think is grit is often merely compliance. Creating an environment where students do what the teacher asks just to achieve a high grade or get the work finished is a sure recipe to crush souls.

Head-first and eyes wide open

There are often good ideas embedded in the educational jargon we serially embrace. Just be careful that when you decide to try something new, you understand the research and the actions required to make the ideas work. Be sure you’re ready to make the changes in your own practice necessary to support the concept.

Keep your eyes (and heart) wide open and your students’ best interests front and center. Then dive in!

http://www.middleweb.com/21699/our-misconceptions-about-mindset-rigor-and-grit/