Relevance – when things come together

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I have a lot of things going on in my head. I’m sure you do as well. When a bunch of things come together, I’m a firm believer that we are supposed to take notice. Follow me as I take you on a six-part tour of my mind: a video, a podcast, a lesson plan, a conversation, a blog, and a crumpled note that let me to thinking about schools. Don’t worry, I’ll give you the links along the way; here we go!

My wife shared a video featuring Matthew Kelley of The Dynamic Catholic from a series called “Best Lent Ever” on what service can mean for us. Here is the part that stood out to me:

You know, we’re always reading these articles about how young people have self-esteem issues, or this generation has less self-esteem than the last seven generations, or all sorts of articles about these types of things. Part of the problem, I think, is that we’ve become very internally focused. And we perhaps raise children in our society to be very internally focused, when the reality is that self-esteem comes from, largely, a sense of identity, a sense that we are loved, a sense that we have value, and a sense that we are children of God. And the other thing is that we draw self-esteem by serving other people. This piece is radically missing in the development of young people in our culture today in many, many arenas.

Service is powerful and something that should be encouraged in young people. And when they serve other people in need, their self-esteem blossoms, because our self-esteem comes from knowing we’re children of God, and knowing that we can add value—that we can add value to other peoples lives, that we can help other people live more richly, or live more fully, in their daily lives.

When I look back at when my students are most engaged, excited, and empowered, it is when they have a chance to do something that makes a difference. Our students are craving this connection. They want to have a sense of fulfillment and helping others is a way to see that they are a contributing part of our society.

How often do students have a chance to serve in schools?


My sister-in-law, during a discussion on parenting, brought up a podcast called Goop with “some Wharton professor.” I realized this had to be Adam Grant, and I was immediately clicking download on my podcasts app. Here’s a quote (or as close as I could get with my typing speed):

Parents want to raise resilient kids. Kids need a sense of mattering. Other people notice me, they care about me, and they rely on me. I count. I make a difference to them.

Grant goes on to say how we’re very good at the first two, but that we come up woefully short in relying on our children. We save them rather than value their opinions. He tells a story about asking his seven-year-old daughter for advice before he had to give his TED Talk. She gave great advice about practicing as well as picturing the worst that could happen and telling yourself that it wouldn’t happen.

A few weeks later when she was nervous for her big speech, he could revisit that advice with her. She could see that her dad had relied on her, and, more importantly, that she could rely on herself.

How often are students taught that they are relied on for authentic reasons?


In junior English we spent a little over two weeks, thanks to Kelly Gallagher’s example, examining what can be done to stem or stop mass shootings. This was meant to be a place where we could all agree that school shootings need to be stopped. We would not, of course, all agree on how that could happen. There are many issues to consider, and we did our best to look at them with an eye towards learning.

One issue that was brought up as a way to combat mass shootings was to increase our focus on mental health in schools. Whether it was a need for more counselors in schools or that people should be more aware of how they are treating others, there was a concern for the mental health of our young people.

This goes far beyond the tragedies of Parkland, Florida. We have many students in our classrooms right now who are struggling with something. Some of them we know about, and some of them we do not.

How often are educational leaders making choices that will help with mental health?


As part of our school district’s innovations committee, we are looking at ways that we could reimagine what education looks like. We have discussed the ideas of having academies where students solve problems geared towards their possible future, increasing project-based learning, and adjusting school schedules.

One aspect that has been brought up by both students and teachers is a need to change the stigma of mental health. We could offer classes or seminars that help students deal with the pressures of school and society. I found an article from the New York Times, Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness that seems to emphasize the need for students to learn the habits needed to be successful and happy.

Insightful student voices who have shared their views of school. It isn’t pretty, but it sounds accurate. Lots of sitting. Lots of boredom. Lots of busywork. Lots of preparing for a test. Lots of shuffling from class to class. Lots of being tired.

There are bright spots when these students see relevance. They see passionate educators. They see people who care about them. They see the possibilities for change. They see times when they can explore their passions.

How often do we value a student’s happiness over the work they produce?


And finally, I read a post on Medium from Isabella Bruyere Why School Sucks (hint: it’s not because it’s “boring”). I chose this quote, but the entire view is definitely worth the click of that link.

School slowly became a place of memorizing facts just long enough to get the A, doing the bare minimum to get into the best college. Everything was just to get into college, to be better than your peers. Why help your classmate? Why not sabotage them so you have less people to compete with when it comes to applying to Harvard, Stanford, Yale. That is the mentality that I hate, yet it is the mentality of everyone around me, and maybe even myself.

It’s no wonder we need a class on helping make students happy!

The innovative education bill that was recently passed in North Dakota allows us to file a waiver to adjust the amount of time a student needs to spend in a class. Students could then learn at their own pace. But if schools are just going to help students get done with boring stuff faster, we are missing the point. We have an opportunity to change schools and make them places where students look back and think about the incredible value they got out of their high school experience.

Is high school a place of value or a stepping stone to college?


And just now, as I pick up a crumpled note that I had set on my unorganized desk. It read:

When it’s work, we want to do less. When it’s art, we want to do more.

– Seth Godin, Stop Stealing Dreams TEDx Talk

He challenges the idea that great performance in school leads to happiness and success.

How often do we inspire our students to do more?


Kids need purpose, a chance to be relied upon, and an opportunity to serve. We have a huge concern for the mental health of our students. And many of our students complain because of the pressures, the competitive mentality, and the irrelevance of some parts of school.

What if schools could do more than just treat the symptoms?

Or what if schools were part of the problem causing the symptoms in the first place?

Our school district had Dr. Ross Greene speak to us at the beginning of the school year. One key phrase stuck with me: “They don’t solve problems, and they don’t teach skills.” He is referring to the punishments that we often give to students in an effort to change behaviors. He refers to the behaviors as symptoms of lagging skills. The overall point is that if we are only going to treat the symptoms, we are never going to solve a student’s problems.

So what are we going to do in order to give our students a sense of purpose? How are we going to show them that we value collaboration over competition? How will we assess students in order to help them grow and learn instead of sorting them after the process is finished?

We know that schools should teach skills necessary in the world rather than knowledge that can be easily found with an algorithm.

We know that students will do amazing things then they find purpose and relevance in what they are doing.

We know that high school students should not start before 8:30 am.

We know that grades serve as a way to rank students and sort them.

Then we have the audacity to say how we are trying to help improve students’ mental health.

We have an opportunity to give our students a sense of relevance in their education, a purpose in their day. It’s time we step up and take it.

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How are we supposed to have failures already?

It is our goal in innovations class to be learning through doing, well, through failing to be more specific.

In order to celebrate failures, we completed our own failure résumés, an idea from Tina Seelig’s What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20. Here is how Tina explains it on her website.

I require my students to write a failure résumé. That is, to craft a résumé that summarizes all their biggest screw ups — personal, professional, and academic. For every failure, each student must describe what he or she learned from that experience. Just imagine the looks of surprise this assignment inspires in students who are so used to showcasing their successes.

 

So I did the noble thing and shared a few of my failures to the class:

In junior English my first year teaching high school, we tried genius hour. I thought of it as “vague Friday projects,” but that name didn’t seem to have much staying power. Unfortunately neither did the system. I did see some passion, and one group did something pretty awesome, but there was a lot of wasted time and many voicemails to the CEO of Monsanto about school lunches.

Lesson – students need time to explore their passions. High school students need more time than just one day per week in order to create something that lives up to their expectations.

I was convinced as a high school senior that there was no way I could possibly be happy staying anywhere near home. I also have procrastination issues, leading to a late admission into the University of Wisconsin. I was not able to get a place in the dorms, so I ended up in a private residence hall, a hotel-like building where everyone had their own friends, or at least that’s what I decided. I got homesick and transferred, but that campus, the city, and the college atmosphere is something I wish I would have been a part of longer.

Lesson – get out and do something. Meet people. It is ok to put yourself out there. People won’t think you’re a loser.

There are more, of course (not getting a job I applied for, underestimating an opponent as a basketball coach, not walking a girl home when I clearly should have), but you get the idea.

My students enjoyed my examples, but when it came time to write their own, I found lots of blank looks and weak statements. That’s when Grace spoke up:

But all of your failures happened while you were in college or later even. How are we supposed to have any failures when we’re still in high school.

Wow.

Isn’t that the truth?

I paused for a second. Thought about what gave me the right to think they should do more than me. Then realized that if I don’t hope for more from my students, ask for more of my students, that I can’t expect them to go beyond what I did and learned. I had a high school career full of successes and absent of major failures. It’s no wonder why I took six and a half years to finish college. I’m not a doctor, by the way.

So I replied, “That’s exactly why we’re here. If we wait to fail until college or when you’re 25, or even later, it’s too late. Mistakes cost you even more when you’re older. If you choose a major and end up hating it, you don’t get a refund. We learn from our failures, and giving you the opportunity to fail in this class is the greatest gift I can give you. You won’t be punished for it; you’ll be rewarded with some of the best learning opportunities you can have before you graduate from high school. I want you to have goals that you don’t know for sure that you can reach, something that may seem out of reach, something that you care enough about that it doesn’t matter what happens because you know that you just have to try and see what happens. That’s why you’re in this class.”

That may not have been the exact quote, but in the film version of our class that is how it went.

Fail. Learn. Grow.

And as teachers, share your failures, show that it is ok to take risks, reflect on your failures, reward your students for doing the same.

Instead of watching Netflix, I just read now

YES!!!

When a student chooses a book over Netflix, it’s a victory. When a student tries to read straight through from before the bell rings through my instructions, and into reading time, it’s a victory. And when a student is already on his fourth book just 15 days into the school year, it is a huge victory!

For the past two years in my classroom we read on Mondays. It was a great way to start the week, give students time to read for pleasure, and build reading stamina. But in the interest of improving, I had to move out of my comfort zone.

This year we are doing it a little differently. Each class period starts with 10 minutes of reading. Being the time protestor that I am, there are days when we go 12. I admit it. But I do my best to stick to a quick book talk to start class (2-3 minutes), independent reading (10 minutes), then our instruction for the day. The shift was a little different for students right away, especially those who had been expecting full reading days, but it seems like we have gotten ourselves into a nice groove now.

Here’s what I notice:

  1. I never have to wake anyone up. We start first period at 8:00 am, and there were times when students would fall asleep. I get it. It is a lot to ask of a 17-year-old kid to be awake enough and engaged enough to read for 40 minutes at the beginning of a day on only a few hours of sleep. This problem is no more. I once heard someone say, “You can do anything for 10 minutes.” Even students who see themselves as nonreaders. My hope is that I can even trick a few students into becoming readers through these painless reading sessions.
  2. The pace of class is much faster. Everything we do has to be done with a sense of urgency. Instead of taking an entire hour to write, we have to get things done quicker. Instead of me babbling on a tangent, I have to be focused and know where we need to get to during the class. One piece of feedback I got in my first year teaching high school English was that the pace needed to increase. I finally feel like I have done it.
  3. It is not as hard to get into a book for a short time. To start the year I have been reading at the same time as students. I was a little concerned after the first class because I had a little trouble settling in and getting going. This went away after a few sessions. Now when we get to reading, the room is quiet within a few seconds and everyone is reading. They know that there is only 10 minutes, so it isn’t nearly as cool to waste time now.
  4. When I begin conferencing with students in the next few weeks, I will be forced to be focused with my questions and discussions. The goal will be to get to 3 students each day. My note-taking sills will need to be sharp so that I am prepared and make sure each conference builds on the previous one.
  5. Having a book talk each day right when the bell rings gives students insight to the possibilities that are out there. It is building this idea that books are important enough to talk about every single day.

My hope is that by reading every day our class builds a culture that is centered around reading and a celebration of books. When I over heard a junior girl say, “Instead of watching Netflix, I just read now,” I have to say, I felt pretty good about the culture we have here in the basement.

Penny Kittle – my newest hero

I could make some excuses about my blog like becoming a father, but let’s just get past that part for now.

What better than a great conference experience to get me back to blogging? The North Dakota Council of Teachers of English Conference did it again this year. After a great day with Kelly Gallagher in 2014, Penny Kittle lived up to the already-raised bar.

Back to the fatherhood part. I’m not sure that I can blame becoming a dad, but I seem to be a little more emotional than I remember myself being. I’ve noticed myself becoming a little more invested in characters in books. I won’t go into the details, but one drive to work in the morning involved the Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close audiobook, peanut butter toast, and tears.

But I didn’t expect to feel what I felt listening to Penny Kittle talk about books! What she had to say and lives that have been changed in her classroom are truly inspiring.

I’ve always taken pride in getting students to read. I love telling a student,”There is no such thing as someone who hates to read; it is just someone who hasn’t found the right book yet.” I can be better. And Penny Kittle has helped me see why I need to be better and how I can be better.

I’ll take a few of my favorite quotes from Penny Kittle and respond with SOMETHING HERE

200 pages per week is the average amount of reading needed for a freshman in college to succeed.

Can any of us say that we are building the reading stamina needed for college success, let alone survival? She goes on to say that more prestigious universities, Ivy League colleges for example, require 600 pages for their freshmen. When we ask students to read the four required novels for an English class, we are telling our students that that’s what is needed for success. Wrong message.

Professors didn’t care whether all students read any particular books, only that they read a lot so they would have a variety of experiences to draw on and the ability to handle the volume of reading expected in college. (Book Love)

If kids have no reading life, we are pushing them to be part of the 50% of kids who drop out after their freshman year of college.

Now that we know why we must help our students become readers, let’s talk about the emotional part of the whole thing. The joy and love that come with the experience of books is where we develop life-long learners and readers.

Small wins test implicit theories about resistance and opportunity and uncover resources and barriers that were previously invisible – Charles Duhigg The Power of Habit

When we see our students start reading, and I can picture some of my favorite success stories…let me take a second to keep my emotions in check, we see them overcome something that they thought was not in their realm of possibilities. They start to see themselves as readers, start to talk about books with friends, and start to spread the love! Can you tell that I’m slightly excited about the reading that I am going to see in my classroom next year?

Stacks of books and stories about overcoming the fear of books. I can’t wait. So how do we do it?

Help students develop a plan for their reading. Every student needs a plan for their reading. My middle school students always had this, but when I made the switch to high school, I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I didn’t require it. It was one of those things that I didn’t think my students would need. I saw such a huge difference when kids finished a book. There was too much time spent milling around the book shelves and never ending up with a great book. I’m debating the merits of goodreads.com or just good old pen and paper as the tool for planning what students will read next.

Book talks. Every. Single. Day.

Give students books that they feel just have to be recorded on that “Next” page. I will be committing to this idea that we should be talking about great books all the time. And if there is a teacher that doesn’t think that sounds like a community that they want to create, I’m guessing they already quit reading this post by now.

Reading conferences every day as a way to push readers as well as to support them. We can help students become better readers while they read something that they truly care about. I will not be so arrogant as to say that the only way a student can learn about revenge is by reading The Count of Monte Cristo. Meet students where they are and help them develop their thinking.

And my last big takeaway from Book Love, and possibly the most daunting, is to reorganize my classroom library. I’m lucky enough to have four big bookcases stuffed full of great books (with stacks piling up on top of them even). I have some beautiful signs labeling the genres to make it easy to find books. After hearing how Penny Kittle has her library organized, I started to think about how my system makes it easy for me to find books. Kids don’t say, “Hmmm I’m in the mood for some great realistic fiction. Let’s see… Here we have The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, or maybe Hoot by Carl Hiasson right next to that. Those books have nothing in common besides the fact that they take place in our contemporary world.

I plan to organize my classroom library by subject. Interested in war? We have that section. Interested in love? Over here. Life in high school? The World? Death and dying? LGBTQ? Comedians? Athletes? Prisoners? History? Poetry? Understanding differences? We have just what you’re looking for.

A book isn’t rigorous if students aren’t reading it.

If students do not read the assigned texts, nothing important is happening in your lit classroom.

Here’s a list of books that I frantically typed when I decided it would be too slow to try to purchase them on Amazon during the keynote. These books are going to get kids reading, not fake reading. I left the list unedited to let you judge my speed-typing skills:

Butter, Alabama Moon, Dirt Road Home, Werewolf, The Monster Calls, Reality Boy, The Girl Who Could, Please Ignore Very Dietz, Beserck, Hive, Fascinating Pathetic LIfe, BEfore I die, Thank you for your service, No easy day, The good soldier, The Forever War, Soldier Dogs, REdeployment, The Yellow Birds, Bitter End, The Unschooled Mind, Nothing to Envy, I was Here, Love leatters to the dead, Before I fall, Held Stil, Me EArl Dying girl, My Heart and Other Black Holes, Memoirs of a teenage amnesiac, Lost in the Meritocracy, One Amazing Thing, Juvenile in Justice (pictures), Prisoners – Wally Lamb Women of york, Hole in my life, a place to stand, last chance in texas, Homeboyz, Period 8, The Reason I Jump, Wake Fade and Gone trilogy, Winger, Food Girls and other things I can’t Have, Stick by Andrew Smith, The Sky is Everywhere, LIttle Bee, Best Night of my pathetic life, Above the Dreamless Dead

Book love. It’s a surprisingly emotional topic!

Oh yeah, and we even got to have lunch with Mrs. Kittle.
Oh yeah, and we even got to have lunch with Mrs. Kittle.

It doesn’t have to be Genius Hour

Genius Hour, what isn’t there to love? And it is easy to see why – learning becomes a joyful experience that is owned by each student. Our classes become authentic environments where students choose what to learn. Of course this sounds great!

But I’m slightly afraid.

I love the idea of inspiring kids to learn by giving them ownership over the topic. I have been experimenting with Genius Hour/20% Time/Innovation Hour in my junior English classes this year, and let’s just say that I’ve learned a lot.

What happens if we ruin it?

My biggest fear is that I’ll have a group of juniors walk in to my room and moan because, “We did this last year,” or, “I never know what to do,” or, “This is boring,” – all sure signs that we ruined it. But it is so important that we do not destroy this experience.

In order to do my part in avoiding ruining Genius Hour, I decided to do something different with my sophomore English classes, something with a little more structure. We created magazines in small groups in order to address real-world writing purposes. It has been a great experience and has helped my students develop a sense of the audience they are writing for.

We still had the most important element in a project like this – student choice.

We created a magazine for each of the first two quarters, and there was some great work! But now it is time to switch things up. Students are going to create a blog or a video blog/YouTube channel on the topic of their choice. The goal is to build a following and create their own brand.

Our first brainstorming session had a great buzz. Students were coming up with great ideas, thinking deeper about those ideas and their potential audiences, and coming up with even better ideas. Some student were working together, and some were working in a group of up to three. There were even a few people who are going to do their own thing but be in the videos of another group.

One key that we discussed in the brainstorming process is that usually our first idea is not our best idea. If I were to sum up my inspirational speech of that day, I think it would sound something like, Get past that first idea, take it out of the mix. What else do you have? Keep building on something unique. Find you niche. What can you offer that others cannot? 

The highlights of my day were the few interactions that went just like this one:

Student: Mr. Sanders, this (a makeup blog) is actually what I want to do for my career.

Me: Yes, this is the start of your career! In a year you will be able to point to your blog and say that you have been doing this for a long time.

And the young man who wants to be a baseball scout will be able to point to his portfolio and show off how much experience he has.

There are groups doing fashion advice and makeup advice and spoofs on makeup advice with guys who are clueless. Food, hockey, tattoos and more.

Give students some choice and see the excitement build. Instead of prodding students to get going, you’ll answering the question, “Can we get started right now?!” Trust me, that’s slightly more fun.

It isn’t Genius Hour, but it sure feels genius to me!

What would Atticus say about Ferguson?

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.

Stop being safe, and start failing

Book drives, winter clothing drives, and canned food drives.

This was not what I had planned when I ventured into my Vague Friday Projects/Genius Hour. But you know what? I just jumped in. Am I failing? Yes, I’d say that I am.

Hey, at least I’m modeling failure for my students!

If I want to see innovation, creativity, and genius in my Genius Hour, I need to start getting kids to question what school is supposed to look and feel like. After one quarter, it’s time to do some reflecting, changing, and flipping upside down. Here’s what I wish I knew at the start of this process, and what I will work to change for my classes now:

Break the rules. Innovation is all about getting people out of their comfort zone. We have to get past the first wave of ideas, past the second wave of ideas, and get to something that is truly innovative. Book drives happen because students think, “I know this will work.” It is my responsibility to open their minds and keep going when the easy and safe answer is staring at them. Innovators do not follow rules. Know the rules so that you can break the rules.

Start with something small. Ideas are hard. If we are going to work on something for one hour on Fridays only, it is tough to expect all students to be ready with their idea in a short amount of time. Students should choose something that they are interested in, write a proposal for the length of the project, the amount of points it will be worth, and what they will accomplish. This will give them practice with the process and experience finding something that they care about. This first project should last three weeks or less.

Keep the groups small or work individually. So much of this type of project depends on students being passionate about learning something. If you get to the point where a group is choosing to do something because it sounds the easiest, it’s time to do some reflecting. Trust me. Some students may want to learn a certain skill, some may want to research a current event, and some may want to invent a new product. Just make sure that each student is following what he or she wants to do.

My next step is to break down the rules that I inadvertently created and start to encourage risk taking. I will use my failure and the reflection that I have done as a model for my students. We’re all in this together, and we don’t learn anything new without failing along the way!