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When we need to recharge

10 Nov

What happens when you hit a rut? In the 180 plus days of school, it is bound to happen. The mid-semester innovations slump seems to be upon us here in the basement. We have had a few failures, a few successes, but now it is time to take what we have learned and do something amazing.

As I sit and listen to an unusually quite room here in innovations class, it is clear that my pre-blogging speech inspired some reflection today. So what do we do when we need to be inspired?

Reexamine your passions

Why are we even here? What are we good at? How can I align those passions and skills with a problem that lies ahead? On Monday for our brainstorm activity, we made a list of our passions and skills. We then narrowed them down by grouping them together in order to find “the sweet spot” where our passions intersect. We then made a list of problems we have seen around us. How can our passions and skills help to solve those problems?

Take a look at the video below to see what we did at the start of the week.

The next step is for those who were unable to determine a problem they cared about in that session. The assignment over the weekend will be to start a “Bug List” in the notes app of their phone.

Put yourself and your beliefs out there

When we are challenged, we have to determine whether we will stand behind our beliefs or want to disregard them. Blogs help us do to this. My most important example came from innovations class last year. She and I each tweeted her blog post about sexual assault and a discussion with a teacher. The responses she got were rude, offensive, and ignorant. She came to class and asked, “What should I do? Should I take it down?” What we learned was that when trying to make a change, we often run into resistance. This is the time when we determine how strong our beliefs are. That resistance meant that she hit a nerve and needed to keep going. After seeing that response, the student had a renewed commitment to her project and her ultimate goal of educating her fellow students on sexual assault and rape culture. If our beliefs go unchallenged, it can be difficult to find the dedication and determination to make something happen.

Collaborate with trusted peers

When we work with others whom we respect, we have an opportunity to grow our thinking. Even more important is the energy that comes from a great sharing session with a group. We have a chance to be that source of energy for others each day. Think about the last time you met to talk about a great idea, great book, or great speaker. When we have something to discuss that truly matters to us, it is energizing to share that sense of community and build ideas together. Be an energy creator, not an energy vampire!

My hope is that our innovations class continues to see the potential in their ideas and the world around them. Looking back at these three ideas, I find that I use them in my professional life, and that is what makes innovations class so important. If these students can build these skills in high school, they will be far ahead of their peers as they head on to their next steps in life.

Knowing and addressing this slump is an important step on our road to big successes.

 

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What would Atticus say about Ferguson?

4 Dec

After participating in a #gfedchat (the hashtag for our district’s online PD) on Twitter Monday night about empowering students, I thought, “Why not empower my students tomorrow?!” I had planned to take what was happening in Ferguson and tie that in with To Kill a Mockingbird in sophomore English because of the many tweets like this one:

In terms of student empowerment I wanted my students to learn as much about this situation as possible so that they could be informed citizens, but how they did that and proved it was up to them. This quote became a point of contention for my students. Was this the most applicable quote from the book to the situation in Ferguson? Here is what we have done the past three days:

Day 1 – Track your thinking and start learning

I want to know what my students think and how their thinking changed. I asked them to create a map of their thinking throughout the week. I gave an example of how it might be done, but they had freedom in choosing what point they want to prove. I offered this as a starting point if they wanted:

Innocent


Guilty

The goal of this activity is to make students aware of their thinking. What changes their opinions? What changes their goals in this assignment? Maybe guilty and innocent do not matter anymore to a student, and the most important issue becomes racist vs. empathetic or good vs. evil.

At the end of the first day, I asked students to return to their map and determine where they were. They also asked what questions they had about anything that they had read, watched, or thought about.

 

Day 2 – What is important, and how do we use it?

We discussed some of the areas of confusion in the Ferguson case. The Washington Post’s article on eyewitness testimony of Michael Brown approaching Officer Wilson offers a variety of different stories about what happened. We discussed the reliability of witnesses as well as the reliability of what people say. Who can we trust? How do we determine what websites and news sources to trust?

We also looked at NFL player Benjamin Watson’s Facebook post on his feelings. As a white teacher, Atticus Finch’s words are important: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Does this post offer facts that help students understand the case? Nope. But if we are going to strictly look at the facts, it is going to be impossible to understand why riots were spilling over into the streets.

We had a student-centered discussion on their opinions before returning to the computer lab. Our research time there was very focused. The students are starting to see the relevance in something that is happening right now.

 

Day 3 – Big questions and determining our product

Today we mapped our thinking again at the beginning of class. I showed my map where I switched from “guilty vs. innocent” to “racist vs. empathetic.” My students had the chance to do the same. What really matters in this case? We need to get past the focus of just one dead person and understand what implications this has for our world – issues of trust, judgment, class, poverty, and so much more.

Big questions. We started to discuss what some of those topics might be. We talked about the riots and celebrity opinions to determine what those tell us about the importance of this issue. An example from Kenny Smith’s open letter to Charles Barkley was, “Why is there so much distrust in the police and the legal system from the African American community?” My goal is for my students to walk around in someone else’s skin and understand the importance of this situation.

We then moved on to determining how we will prove what we know and answer our big question. Here is what I was told that I will see on Monday: debates, conversations, email conversations, papers, TED talks, and videos.

What has become clear through these three days is that students are becoming less concerned with guilt and innocence, and more concerned with bigger questions and ideas. It has taken some prompting, but it has been fun to watch students start to think deeply. And I hope the students learn just as much about themselves as they do about Ferguson.

Just wasting time

12 Sep

Call me a softie, go ahead.

I’ve done enough talking about the importance of relationships and rapport with students that I am not ashamed of focusing on it. Whatever time I spend in the first three days (our first week) of school that builds relationships is not going to be wasted time. I truly believe that.

Thanks to Dave Burgess and Teach Like a Pirate, I began my year with both sophomores and juniors playing with Play-Doh. And as the new guy in the building, I heard all kinds of comments from other students and teachers. And they were good! The Play-Doh was to be shaped in a way to represent something about the student sculptor. This gave me a chance to try to learn everyone’s name and something about them. Learning names has always been easy for me because I knew students in the upcoming grades, and my classes weren’t as big. Now with 125 students that is a different story. Calling each student by name is one of my first yearly goals.

The second day was a collaborative group experience where students had to determine which 5 out of 10 people on a deserted island would be brought back to safety and which 5 would be left on their own. I patched a variety of images and youtube videos together to tell the scenario’s story. I added a little ridiculous voiceover and let the students decide. It was a great introduction to the collaborative projects that are coming up this year.

The connections that I have made with students will help me throughout the year. If I can convince a few reluctant students that English might be worth some effort this year, I’ve accomplished a lot. I don’t think I’ve wasted a minute.

Motivation

21 Jul

As an English teacher, basketball coach, and golf coach, I spend a good deal of time thinking and learning about motivation. What will get my kids to try their best, work hard, and care about individual growth as well as the improvement of the group. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink offers a great look into how motivation has changed from a rewards-based system to a need for intrinsic motivation.

I like to take notes of page numbers and quotes that stand out to me, and I found more than usual to take note of while reading this one. Here’s a little glimpse into my summer front-porch reading.

IMG_1303 IMG_1304

The basic idea is that rewarding someone for doing an activity, that activity becomes work. We “lose intrinsic interest for the activity” (8). In order to motivate people in creative and intellectual tasks, they need to be engaged and motivated from within. The rewards/punishment system of motivation “rests on the belief that work is not inherently enjoyable – which is precisely why we must coax people with external rewards and threaten them with outside punishment” (30). I picture the lack of joy and engagement on some students’ faces, and this is exactly why.

So what do we need to do instead?

“Humans have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when this drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives” (73). Think about how so many classrooms and schools are run with a philosophy exactly opposite of this. We limit autonomy, we reward students with grades and more, and we often fear connectivity. It is no wonder we see students bored in class and just doing enough to get by. That is what our system of rewards teaches them to do! We have narrowed down our standards to encourage mastery, but “only engagement can produce mastery” (111). It is time to reengage our students in meaningful work that helps them connect to the world in their own way.

“First, consider nontangible rewards. Praise and positive feedback are much less corrosive than cash and trophies.” This will help to increase intrinsic motivation. “Second, provide useful information” (67). Give positive comments and provide specific feedback to our students.

And now for the hardest hitter of all. “We’re bribing students into compliance instead of challenging them into engagement” (174). Let that sink in a second. Instead of offering students appropriate challenges that stretch an individual’s thinking, we are rewarding students for doing just enough.

We need to help our students to answer the questions that they all want to know: “Why am I learning this? How is it relevant to the world I live in now?” (179).

Helping my students reach an authentic audience with their writing is one way that I am making a change. Writing pieces are not just for me, but for the world. Videos are to be published after a script is crafted. Presentations are to be presented to an audience, and recorded to be shared to the world. That is where we see kids make connections and find passions. Where kids see a need in the world and do something to fill that void.

That is motivation.

The power of music

11 Jun

I’m fresh off of the North Dakota Google Summit this weekend. Nothing can energize me more than spending a few days learning amazing things with other passionate people.  And while I’m in no way ready to start to form a cohesive thought about all of the incredible things I picked up this weekend, I thought I’d share something that I talked about with a colleague while at the summit.

ImageMusic.

It is many of our students’ lives! They would sooner go without water than their iPod and their new Beats headphones. Music can change the mood of a person. It can change the feel of a classroom, and it can change the atmosphere of a school.

Because of Monte Selby’s advice at a Nuts and Bolts Conference, I decided that I would harness the power of music and use it to my advantage to make connections with my students, start class off in a positive way, and sometimes change the mood.

After starting my class with music for the past four years, I’ll never go back. Not only does the music give the students a chance to get themselves involved in the class, but it is also a signal for students that, when it’s over, it’s time to get started. Let’s talk about some of the details.

I start with some of my own music as well as older music. Students may complain that Frank Sinatra isn’t quite their style, but when they ask if they can bring their own music in, you know you’ve got them. Of course they can! As long as it is appropriate for school and under four minutes long, it’s good enough for my class. Monte’s advice was to not push them to bring their own music, but to make them bring it up.

“As a teacher, you cannot be the keeper of what’s cool.  Let them decide.”  That is a memorable quote from Monte, and it is so true. Student choice becomes a big part of the music in my class, but they have to follow the rules. I haven’t had many issues with rules being broken, but if they do play an inappropriate song or if a song is too long, we can go back to my choice for two weeks.

I allow students to bring in a song or find one on Youtube. My colleague had the idea of using a Google Form to submit song requests. This would eliminate the few times I experience frustration in waiting for a student to come up with the song title. We have the list of requests, move through them, and class runs like a well-oiled machine.

Now music is great just for the atmosphere and feeling of the classroom, but it also has value in building routines and signaling our class. During the song, there should be a few things that must be done before the song is finished. These are up to you, but here are mine:

  • Have a sharpened pencil with you as well as your English notebook
  • Respond to the following ___ in your journal
    (I rotate this with a question, quote, fun/interesting fact, and various other short writings)
  • Be quietly seated in your desk before the song is finished

Other ideas include:

  • Fill in your planner or schedule
  • Have certain materials out
  • Tell someone something positive
  • Ask a question about a topic that we are involved in

The main point is that with this routine built in, my students don’t feel that I’m immediately talking to them and starting class. It almost feels as if they have a choice and some time to breathe. But once that song is over, it is our time together. When the song ends, I greet them as a group and we begin our day together.

Another great part of the music is that I have a chance to greet my students at the door, take attendance, and do any other last-minute things before we begin together. This allows me to be fully prepared and not waste time. When we begin, we are focused together.

One story that I remember Monte telling us was about a principal who played music in between classes over the speaker system. The music would start out soft, giving teachers a chance to finish up their classes, then play until the fade out began, signaling that it was time for class to start again. He said that seniors would dance their way to class. Talk about transforming school culture!

And that is the power of music – whether it is changing a moment, making a connection, or shifting an entire school’s climate. Putting a smile on someone’s face with music can change their attitude, and attitude is everything.

Let’s start a school…

2 May

where one of our main goals is to engage students in a meaningful unit of study that is completely based on student interest and ends with creating something authentic to be used in the world.

One of the things that made me connect so strongly with Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner was the importance of authenticity in schools. These innovative young people were not innovative when completing their worksheets. They didn’t display their empathy for the world in the isolation of a simple report. The question or problem was one that the teacher did not already hold the right answer to.

SchoolThe teachers that were featured were outliers in the sense that they saw themselves as peers of the students in the creation and learning process. So how about we try that in our new middle school? Here’s what I’m thinking:

We create an interdisciplinary unit that is similar to the genius hour or 20% time. Every Wednesday (seems like a good day) we have the students working together in groups to investigate and solve their problem. Teachers are available in their rooms throughout the day for students to have a chance to get feedback and just-in-time learning if needed. The students are able to move from the science lab where they are creating something to the English room when they need to write a letter or prepare for a speech.

What are the questions or problems? Ed Carryer of Stanford’s Smart Product Design Laboratory has one problem for his students to solve in his course. The example from Creating Innovators was “The world’s most dangerous jobs.” Students designed boats for crab fishing that harvested the crabs and brought them back to the dock to unload them. The project had competition, innovation, and fun, or “whimsy” as Carryer called it. One group played the role of Greenpeace and tried to set all of the crabs free!  Here are some other examples from Stanford which are high level, of course, but it might give you an idea.

It might be a good plan to start our unit with all students working on solving a problem together in order to learn how to think this way. It takes a change of culture to get students to be more innovative. Any ideas of a problem or question we should use to start?

Eventually the students can identify their own problems that they want to fix. Let’s say that the chairs or desks that they are sitting on are uncomfortable. A group of students might choose to develop a chair that is more comfortable and still cost effective. Math and science would be necessary for the design angles and weight distribution as well as the costs associated with the chair. The English teacher would be a help in marketing the chair as well as writing any letters and applying for patents. And the history teacher, although probably not her area of expertise, could help in the research of chairs for inspiration. That last one might include the art teacher a little more, but go with me here. I imagine students pitching their questions/ideas like that one to the class and recruiting their group. When the project is over, students could create their own TED Talk to showcase their genius to the world!

Think of the engagement that a project like this would offer! To create something and make someone’s world a better place is the reason people want to learn and innovate. The hope is that our classroom walls are no longer the limits. I would imagine this would lead teacher to continue to expose our students to other parts of the world in order to see what the needs are all over.

This could be done as a competition where ideas and projects are presented to a panel. Picture Shark Tank or The Apprentice coming to your classroom. One class even presented to fourth graders to be their judges. Students receive feedback and continue to grow and learn. The best part? There are no wrong answers. We try and fail? So what. Try again!

When I mentioned a culture change earlier, failure is a part of our culture that needs to be looked at. Students feel like they failed when they know there is no chance to try again or to use what they learned in order to improve. This type of system encourages failure as a learning tool with feedback and time to try again. And when the end result is something authentic that can help others, there is a reason to keep trying.

A real inspiration

8 Apr

IMG_0803One of the things that I have always struggled with when reading Elie Wiesel’s Night with my classes is that the students look at the horrendous crimes and acts against humanity like they are a work of fiction. Although there is an initial shock at some of the memories of Wiesel, it seems like the real always needs to be reinforced.

We were lucky enough to have Marion Blumenthal Lazan, a Holocaust survivor and author of Four Perfect Pebbles, come to our school and speak to our middle school students along with eighth graders from two other middle schools. Now that makes things real.

She spoke of hope, courage, humanity, the importance of being kind to others, and valuing what we have while working for others to ensure equality for all. Her message was moving and inspirational.

But most importantly with Marion’s visit, she made history real for my students. She made the terror and hate a real event. She made the soldiers capturing Jews, ripping them from their own homes, and packing them into cattle cars a real story. When we read Night in the coming weeks, these students will be able to make connections with their growing background knowledge.

Connections to these times in history are disappearing. As Marion said, “This generation is the last that will hear the story of the Holocaust from a survivor.” If we are going to count on our students to fight against inequality and hate, to believe in the good in others, and to stand up for what is right, Marion’s lesson is a crucial one. I choose to read Night with my students because of this lesson, and there is no doubt that this year it will be more real than ever.