I Am My Words

ID-10094137My SmartBlog on Education article for 12.04.14

As a child, any report to an adult of another child saying mean things to me was met with the adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Those adults were so wrong. Words in the hands of the right person can be weapons of mass destruction.
As a teacher, I am acutely aware that my words have the power to uplift or destroy. An entire year of progress can be undone in an instant. This was reinforced for me recently when I attended the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention. I saw many of my students’ favorite authors speak and a common thread emerged. In their early school careers, many of these authors were in the classroom of a teacher whose words and actions left them deflated and hopeless. They began to believe that they had no worth as a student, or more importantly, as a person.
So what changed the trajectory of failure for these authors and prevented these damaging words from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy? One teacher. Each of them could point to the one teacher who saw them as a person with individual gifts and talents and did not penalize them for not fitting a preconceived mold. That one teacher got the message across that they were worthy and this gave them the will to become their authentic selves.

These authors put into words what I wanted as a child and what I want for my students. This is my idea of the perfect classroom — a place where every student feels acknowledged, validated and cherished. They need to know that they have value solely for who they are.
My classroom climate is based on this ideal. I want every child to know that I see them. I hear them. They matter to me. I am extremely careful with my words and actions and I am quick to apologize and try to make it right if I ever do realize that I have hurt a child. My words have power, and I must use that power for good.
A few years ago I received one of the best compliments I’ve ever been given by a student. She told a peer that the best part about my class was, “Every student is Mrs. Mizerny’s teacher’s pet.” I am proud of the fact that all of my students feel like my favorite, because they are. They and their parents have trusted me with their minds and hearts, and my main duty is to protect that like the precious gift that it is. Hiam Ginott, who pioneered the idea of supportive conversations with children, said, “If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

http://smartblogs.com/education/2014/12/04/i-am-my-words/

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.com

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Passion Project Serendipity

My SmartBlog on Education article from 01.09.05

Passion Project Serendipity

One thing I have learned in over 20 years of teaching middle school is to expect the unexpected. When the unexpected surpasses the original plan: serendipity.

This fall, I had high hopes that implementing Passion Projects would accomplish several lofty academic goals. My classroom is student-centered, meaning I believe in choice and inquiry-based learning. I do not spoon-feed information to my pupils, but rather encourage them to seek answers on their own. Their learning experiences should be purposeful and authentic to the extent that this is feasible. For better or worse, a world full of information is at their fingertips. This, coupled with adults who often don’t allow children to grapple with challenges, means that many of our students don’t have practice with critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. I wanted to spark their curiosity as well as inspire them to work beyond what comes easily. As an English teacher, I also wanted students to practice their verbal communication skills and thought that a presentation on a subject about which they were passionate would be the best avenue. The end result was full of happy accidents and completely exceeded my expectations.

To introduce Passion Projects, I asked my students to contemplate the following three questions: 1) What do you want to learn how to do? 2) What would you like to create? or 3) Who would you like to help? (I allowed them to combine two of the three.) When they submitted their project proposals, I was a bit concerned by the results because I wasn’t sure if they were overreaching their abilities or how they would be received at home. Fortunately, I worried needlessly, because things worked out surprisingly well in the end.

The first unexpected result was that many of my students chose Passion Projects that involved little or no technology. Their plans involved old-fashioned “domestic” pursuits such as knitting, sewing, needlepoint, crocheting, or cooking. Others selected technical projects such as building architectural models, crafting organizational products for school lockers, or constructing an LED lit umbrella. A few elected to explore the arts through photography, creative writing, painting, and paper sculpture. What’s more, almost all of these involved learning the skill from a parent or grandparent or actively involving them in the execution. I had anticipated neither the desire for traditional, hands-on experiences, nor the wish for family involvement. The feedback I received from the adults thanked me for the opportunity for bonding time at a time when it is the child’s natural instinct to pull away. The students themselves stated that they enjoyed getting to spend the extra time with their parents or grandparents to create what became keepsakes or new family traditions. Many marveled at the level of skill involved. I was touched hearing their stories during their presentations and was even inspired to replicate a couple of the projects with my own family.

The second fortunate happenstance was that I had forgotten about the natural altruism of middle school students. I was completely surprised that so many chose to complete projects to benefit others through causes close to their heart. Many designed fundraising opportunities for charities such as animal shelters, medical research, domestic violence shelters, or the homeless—to a great degree of success. Some even received public recognition for their contributions. During the Passion Project presentations, their pride in their accomplishments brought me great joy.

One final, completely serendipitous, result of the Passion Project experience was that it naturally promoted a growth mindset. On their written reflections, students unknowingly expressed growth mindset tenets such as “it was really challenging and we had to work past our limits,” “it taught me a work ethic—I didn’t want to quit,” “it pulled something out of me that I might not have discovered otherwise,” and, “we didn’t need a teacher to hold our hands—just to stand beside us.” The parents provided similar feedback marveling at the maturity and inspiration they saw in their children.

Even though Passion Projects began as a way to provide real-world research and fun public-speaking opportunities, they evolved into so much more. Now that I’ve seen the power of their passion, I look forward to repeating these projects. Who knows what surprises lay in store?

http://smartblogs.com/education/2015/01/09/pbl-spotlight-passion-project-serendipity/

Finding the Gift in Every Student

ID-100281002My SmartBlog on Education article from 02.19.15

While scrolling through my Twitter feed, I saw a Rick Wormeli slide someone shared about “What Doesn’t Motivate?” posted from his presentation at the 2013 National Conference on Differentiated Instruction. The last bullet point on the slide struck a chord with me: “Students spending the majority of their day working on their weak areas, being reminded of their deficiencies.” As a former special education teacher, this is a practice I have fought against my entire career. Sadly, with the added emphasis on standardized testing, this soul-crushing practice has become even more common. Is it any wonder that many students are disenfranchised? There has to be a better way. I believe one large piece of the motivation puzzle lies in emphasizing children’s strengths — not dwelling on deficits.
Educational researchers have extensively studied how students learn best. Many of the best techniques we know of are now primarily used with students identified as gifted. Herein lies my frustration. If these are our best teaching practices, why are they not used with all of our students?
I am known to say that I teach all of my students as they are gifted with learning differences. While this is meant to be facetious, it is somewhat based in my truth. I believe that all students can be successful in a classroom designed with them in mind. I saw how students who were all but written off by their general education teachers because they could not memorize basic multiplication tables could perform incredibly well on complex problem-solving tasks in algebra with some basic scaffolding. We do our most challenged learners a great disservice when we leave them mired in the depths of repeatedly failing at rote learning tasks. They may never be able to memorize those facts, but they are more than capable of rising to the challenge with proper support. By not providing critical thinking and problem solving opportunities for all students, we are holding them back and we may never discover their unique intellectual gifts.
In Carol Ann Tomlinson’s 1997 article, What it Means to Teach Gifted Learners Well, she states,
“What it takes to teach gifted learners well is actually a little common sense. It begins with the premise that each child should come to school to stretch and grow daily. It includes the expectation that the measure of progress and growth is competition with oneself rather than competition against others. It resides in the notion that educators understand key concepts, principles and skills of subject domains, and present those in ways that cause highly able students to wonder and grasp, and extend their reach. And it envisions schooling as an escalator on which students continually progress, rather than a series of stairs, with landings on which advanced learners consistently wait.”
In short, this is a student-centered classroom that addresses individual needs. Although this article is nearly 20 years old, its core premise still rings true. My philosophy of teaching encompasses all of the above criteria, but I believe it is common sense to get all of my students onto that escalator instead of leaving any waiting on the landing.There are no easy solutions to providing needed support to struggling students while not simultaneously killing their love of learning, but there are better ones. My educational goal is lofty. I want to develop the “just right” Goldilocks class for my students and myself. I want to reach every student where they are and take them to new heights. I constantly strive to uncover the giftedness in all my students, regardless of labels. Providing rigorous, engaging instruction to all students, I believe I can achieve this goal.

http://smartblogs.com/education/2015/02/19/finding-the-gift-in-every-student/

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Low-Tech Learning as a Novel Concept

Today’s students have never known a time when computers didn’t exist. What’s more, they have the ability to carry a ridiculously powerful computer in their jeans pocket. Funny enough, even while having an electronic appendage with instant access to the world, I am noticing more and more that students appreciate being exposed to low-tech experiences.

I introduced the concept of Genius Hour (which I call Passion Projects) to my sixth grade students last month. They were given the option to learn a skill, create something new, or find a way to help others. I was quite surprised that, when given completely free reign, less than 15% of my students chose anything that involved technology. Instead, they wanted to learn how to do handicrafts such as knitting, cooking, cake decorating, and sewing. Also popular were model building, designing, and creative writing. Over a quarter of them are designing fundraisers to help charities close to their hearts. I did not expect that they would eschew technology. When I thought about this a little more, I realized it is because technology isn’t new for them. It is completely integrated into their daily lives so when given the task of choosing something new to learn, they opted to stray from their beloved technology.

Then it happened again. The middle school where I teach has an advisory period and a couple of days a month, this time is devoted to teacher-led clubs from which the students may choose. As each of the teachers introduced his or her club, the ear-splitting cheers were for clubs such as board games, knitting, eco-art, brainteasers, and the like. Although there were several clubs involving technology that will no doubt be equally as popular, I was again struck that students were also excited to learn hands-on skills or participate is low or no-tech activities.

The following week, at an assembly on the history of our school, the presenter showed pictures of girls in home economics classes cooking and sewing. This led to a classroom discussion about the “olden days” when students were required to take either home economic or shop classes. As I described these classes to students (because I took them), they were full of questions as to why we don’t still offer this kind of education because it sounded so “cool.” They were clamoring for the opportunity to cook and sew. Who knew this old-fashioned class would sound so interested to today’s students?

As a PD junkie, I come across dozens of articles each month lauding the use of technology in the classroom and detailing the myriad ways that technology can replace the old-fashioned classroom assignments. Don’t get me wrong—I am in no way anti-technology. I am as addicted to my devices as the next girl. However, I don’t find that students are nearly as engaged in most educational uses of technology as adults would hope. I’ve even heard students complain about too much screen time in school. Perhaps this is because some of the crafty, not necessarily pedagogically sound, projects that teachers are enamored of have merely been replaced by digital versions of equally dubious merit.

I think that perhaps one of the reasons so many teachers of all ages have jumped on the digital bandwagon is that we feel it is something that defines us as current or means we are teaching 21st Century Skills. It could also be that the use of technology in school is exciting for the teachers themselves because many weren’t exposed to much when they were in school. I know that I am often excited when I see the classroom possibilities of a new app or program. My point is not that technology doesn’t belong in the classroom, it does. It is that we may be overestimating the amount of engagement bang for our buck that tech provides. Not everything in our classrooms needs to be digitized and our students will appreciate the chance to experience the excitement of analog learning in a digital world. Excuse me while I go read my book (on paper, of course.)

Collaborative Constructivism in Language Arts Class

At several professional development sessions I attended this year, the speaker reminded us, “The person doing the talking is the one doing the learning.” This hits home for me because I am a constructivist at heart. It is one of my core beliefs that adolescents need social interaction in order to engage with the material and discovery to cement the learning. To that end, one of the instructional techniques I use nearly daily is that of Gradual Release of Responsibility (“I do, We do, You do” process), but I usually begin with the step: “You do together.” I find that the students are very motivated by the challenge of “figuring things out” and end up retaining the material better.

An example of how I use collaborative inquiry is with grammar, usage, and mechanics (G.U.M.) instruction. We are studying the characteristics of a personal narrative so today’s lesson was on dialogue punctuation rules. Rather than going through a book, worksheet, or power point, I had the students open up their choice reading books to a page with dialogue. Working as a group, they determined the rules of how to use commas, quotation marks, capital letters, paragraph breaks, and dialogue tags and wrote their responses in a chart. After they finished, we shared and they all added any missing information to their chart. Finally, I gave them the actual rules for punctuating dialogue and they determined which ones they had gotten correct (resulting in lots of cheering) and which ones they had overlooked. The culminating practice assignment was to write a properly punctuated conversation between themselves and another person (real or fantasy/positive or negative) with each person speaking at least three times. The feedback from the students was that the assignment was great fun and all were fully engaged in writing their conversations.

This same process works well with other topics such as capital letter or comma use, but I also use this technique for lessons beyond G.U.M.. For example, last week, I distributed a stack of eight brief memoir mentor texts to each group. Working together, they each read a couple and then attempted to determine the commonalities between the texts. I was pleasantly surprised at their rich discussion and the resulting list of qualities and characteristics of personal narratives they compiled. They hit the nail on the head and I didn’t have to lecture once. I am excited to read what they write as a result.

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Teacher

This time of year, teachers all over the country are meeting the parents of this year’s students. Without fail, when a teacher meets a parent of a child who has stood out in some way (usually negatively) he or she will say something about the apple not falling far from the tree. It does seem to hold true that many mannerisms, behaviors, or beliefs can be explained when one meets a child’s parents. However, I never hear these teachers say the same thing when a child is having a negative experience in their class. If parents entrust us with the care of their children for several hours per day, it stands to reason that we, as educators, must bear some responsibility for the results of that education. Like it or not, the apple also doesn’t fall far from the teacher.

I have gone on record saying that when a child performs poorly in my classroom, I bear some of the responsibility. True, I can lead the child to the knowledge, but I can’t dunk their head in the trough and force them to drink. That being said, there are numerous reasons as to why a child fails and in my experience as a special education teacher consultant for children with behavior or learning difficulties, I can tell you that they are generally not failing deliberately. Failure does not feel good and it is human nature to avoid it whenever possible. As a teacher, I need to put in the time and effort to determine WHY a child is not performing up to par in my class.

Some of the reasons why students fail a class have nothing to do with school. Unfortunately, there is often very little a teacher can do about harmful home or social issues, but we can try to help lessen their detrimental effects. Regardless of (or despite) outside issues, there are steps a teacher can take to have a shiny, happy classroom full of successful, engaged learners.

Motivation is the key to a child’s learning. Motivation leads to engagement, and engagement leads to success. So let’s begin at the beginning.

Much has been written about what truly leads to intrinsic motivation. Alfie Kohn in Punished by Rewards, Daniel Pink in Drive, and my edu-hero, Rick Wormeli, are great reads on the topic. One thing we know for sure—carrots and sticks don’t work. The will to undertake a task and reach for success must be organic. Sadly, for many chronically failing students, they have never experienced much academic success and have just come to accept that they never will. We want students to actively participate in their literacy development and must help put students on the path to success.

It is not as if students do not have literate lives. They text, direct message, and Facetime with friends. They play video games or read beauty books where they have to read directions. They write song lyrics or stories for fun. The success of teen novels has led to numerous movie franchises. Many adolescents just don’t want to participate in the literacy activities that teachers design. Sadly, most of these activities are not particularly motivating or engaging. Therefore, reading and writing in school become something that students must “get through” in order to pass, but they never really care about the material.

How You Can Help Motivate A Struggling Student:

The assignment may be something students do not see as relevant to their lives. A good teacher can bring all texts (even “boring” classics) to life if they show the universal connections and themes that exist. (I’m working on this for my next series of posts.)

Many students have too many things diverting their attention from the task at hand. If their home life is difficult, perhaps speaking to a trained school professional may help. If it is a social relationship issue, time is a teacher’s best friend as many of these resolve themselves. If they don’t, this could become a teachable moment to recommend reading material, have a general class discussion, or suggest a writing assignment on the topic to allow a child to process his or her thoughts. If the problem is that a child is legitimately overscheduled, then assistance with how best to prioritize his or her time may be in order. I have been in meetings with parents where I’ve addressed this topic and asked for the parents to work with me to develop a plan so the child can pursue passions and still find time for schoolwork.

For some children, reading is arduous, not enjoyable. Asking them to read material that they must slog through causes them to give up. A good teacher can assist the child in understanding by facilitating lively class discussion, allowing for audio texts (which I love), or encouraging them to read with others. Additionally, there should be safe, low-stakes activities designed for all students to practice and make mistakes without severe academic consequences. Practice without meaningful, targeted feedback and support can lead to poor learning. Meeting with the student often, or scaffolding the reading activities to build confidence, is crucial.

If a child has never developed language skills to the point where he or she can comfortably participate in class, this must be addressed. There are numerous avenues available and no stone should be left unturned. This problem will only get worse and intervention is of paramount importance. With individual coaching and explicit instruction, the student will make progress. Once a child experiences some sort of growth, they will want to continue on this path. Nothing breeds success like success and baby steps can be cause for private or public celebration.

As always, choice and opportunities for collaboration motivate students. The more they can be involved in and direct their education, the more invested they will be to produce their best work. The use of technology can also be motivating as long as it is not a substitute for or replication of weak pedagogy. If technology is more than bells and whistles or rote practice, it can assist students with self-expression and understanding.

Positive, supportive relationships between the teacher and the student are the key to classroom management and student learning. The classroom environment can support or undermine a child’s success. I wrote about this previously in How to Create a Shiny, Happy Classroom and The Class Where Everyone Knows Your Name. As Rita Pierson says in her TED talk, “Students will not learn from a teacher that they don’t like.” They also will not learn from a teacher who does not like them. Research proves that a positive classroom climate creates the conditions necessary for true student engagement.

A classroom full of successful learners does not happen by accident. The teacher has more influence over this than many acknowledge. Taking even small steps toward motivating students can have a profound effect on breaking the cycle of failure. All great teachers want to lead students on the path from motivation to engagement to success. Make sure the apples in your classroom don’t fall far from the talented, caring teacher tree.

 

Just Because It’s Fun, Doesn’t Mean It’s Easy

I’ll admit it—I enjoy being known as one of the “fun” teachers in school. 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. I work tirelessly to present material in ways that are not only effective, but also enjoyable. It gives me 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, there are many colleagues who are not so enamored of my fun class. They are under the misperception that students enjoy my class because it is fun and therefore easy. Some have even said as much. They don’t believe the students could possibly be engaged in rigorous educational endeavors. This is absolutely not the case.

To these other teachers, rigor (by the way, I hate that word when applied to education) usually just means hard. It means more worksheets or problems assigned every night. 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. It means many students dislike their class.

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. This first time I heard each of them say that, I wrote it down in my notebook with a huge exclamation point next to it. It truly speaks to my philosophy of teaching.

Below, I will give an example of how I teach a fairly boring required skill (comma usage) in a way that challenges and engages my students. These are some of the activities my students do in class. I don’t use all of them every time and there are a few more not listed here. They are in no particular order.

  1. I show funny examples of comma misuse (such as this one) so they can see how commas avoid confusion.
  2. I show funny examples (such as this one) of how commas placed in different locations change the meaning of the sentence.
  3. We discuss the ongoing debate about the use of the Oxford comma.
  4. I give them a set of mentor text passages using all of the different types of comma usage. I have them work in partners or groups to see if they can determine the rule being exemplified in each passage. We share these together to make a master list. They are so excited when they get them right.
  5. They do scavenger hunts in their choice reading books for interesting sentences with commas to share and determine the rule being used. The more advanced version is to have them work together to find examples of every comma rule.
  6. They become human commas to punctuate sentences. I have a group of students write a sentence a couple of words at a time on individual white boards. I have them line up in order and the human commas must stand in the correct positions.
  7. I give them a passage using all of the different comma rules but with the commas missing. I tell them there are exactly X number of commas in the passage and challenge them to find every one. They generally work on this in pairs, but it could also be an informal assessment.
  8. I show them a video such as Flocabulary’s Comma Camp. There are other songs about commas online, but I have not yet used any of them.
  9. If they want to practice more at home, they can play online games. NOTE: these change often and I preview them every year, so I did not provide a link.

Over the years my students have enjoyed all of these activities. At no time was there a lecture with me requiring them to take notes and there was a lot of collaboration involved. Many of these activities require strong critical thinking skills as well. Most importantly, they remembered what they had learned because they were active participants. One of them even bought me this plaque because she saw it while on vacation and determined that I had to have it.

There’s no reason that the serious business of education needs to be serious. 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. My students aren’t.