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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Essentially speaking

Wow, time sure does go by fast! Apparently I’m already a month into this whole high school thing. At least that’s what they tell me.

Recently we had a chance, as English teachers, to examine all of the secondary English curriculum maps. One thing stood out, well I guess we better say that two things stood out. The first point was that English teachers are protective. Don’t you dare take my books to that grade level! Just kidding (sort of).

But the main point, at least in my eyes, was that an essential question framing a unit makes a huge difference in how that unit is perceived. I have written about Jeffrey Wilhelm before, but his views on essential questions are starting to spread throughout English teachers in our district because of our work last week.

Essential questions must:

  • Get to the heart of the discipline
  • Be compelling and “sexy” in order to capture the students’ attention
  • Not be able to be answered by Googling it

As part of the seventh grade team of teachers who worked on creating essential questions last year, I was proud to hear the chatter of those great questions. Although using the word “sexy” when describing an English lesson might sound ridiculous to some (we almost had to use earmuffs at one point), it is true! How can we be edgy enough to motivate our students to learn?

Here are the unit titles or essential questions that we came up with:

  • How much control do I have over who I am?
  • What would I give up to be free?
  • How can I get people to do what I want?
  • How can I be a hero?

All important to students’ lives, unanswerable through a Google search, and lead students to important parts of English.

New to the tenth and eleventh grade curriculums (curricula? Apparently they are both correct. Thank you, dictionary.com.), I am trying to create some essential questions that are even more powerful and important to my students’ lives. Here is what I have for quarter one.

In American Lit, my first unit is shaped around the question “What power does a label have over me?” We have looked at labels through multiple This I Believe essays dealing with labels. This week we read about the controversy about yoga pants in a local North Dakota school and how the students were shown a clip of Pretty Woman – some pretty interesting labels were being applied to both males and females there – and a blogger’s response to the dress code. And we are moving towards The Scarlet Letter, one of the most famous labels of all. Supporting that will be a look at a girl named Jada who was raped, photographed, and became a hashtag joke on Twitter. Rather than hide in shame Jada stood up for herself and many others and gained national support. Talk about taking over a label!

Creating a unit like this is fun to teach! When I want to be a student in my classroom, and I get fired up about making a connection from a supporting text to a larger piece, it tells me that something great is going to come of it. It also gives me focus in looking for nonfiction articles to support the larger texts.

The hardest part of essential questions is coming up with them! What matters to students right now? What do you know will get their attention?

Challenge yourself to be more engaging in your themes and units. Your student engagement will show you that it was worth it.

Google Presentation – So what am I going to do with it?

For a long time I have told myself that I need to get better at creating visual presentations. That I need to stop relying too heavily on my students’ listening skills and not properly supporting them. And that it is just more fun to have images to go along with what I’m saying.

I think I was probably a little afraid to be bad at presentations, and probably slightly overwhelmed. I have used a few SlideRocket presentations that were simple and interactive, but it wasn’t often enough. I just didn’t want to put up slides of words and read them to my kids – ever.

A session from the ND GAFE Summit immediately caught my eye – Breathe Fresh Life into Google Presentations with Mark Hammons. Yes, please! So let’s take a look at the ways this presentation on presentations is going to be my biggest change for 2014-15.

One of the goals was to use 40 words of less in a presentation. If we focus on using pictures, that will allow the presenter to tell a story, and that story has the power to resonate with the audience. We even got to swear like a Boy Scout, “I vow to tell a story and not teach what can be read.” If the audience can read it, why am I there?

If you do have a slide that must have words, that can be done in a creative way with a word cloud. This will avoid the reading of bullet points that does not accomplish anything, and keep the presentation moving in the right direction.

But let’s get back to pictures. We learned all sorts of tricks with color matching and photo editing that are going to make my presentations awesome. I’ll do my best to share them! It might help to take a look at the Presentation Playground that Mark had us use. That is my copy, so you can see the few slides that I created by following the directions, but feel free to make your own copy and practice!

Here’s the first example from Google Presentations:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 9.49.15 AMScreen Shot 2014-07-01 at 9.49.28 AM

We used the research tool that is found under the “Tools” menu. Amazing. By searching for a famous person, you will get quotes, pictures, and links to websites that make creating a slide a piece of cake! Just click on “insert” and make it look great. We used a Chrome Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 11.01.41 AMExtension for that called ColorPick Eyedropper. This allows you to find the color hex number (an ID of sorts) that you can use to customize your background to match a picture (and much, much more).

Example #2:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.01.46 AMScreen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.01.57 AMThe power of pictures was something that stood out to me during this session. When a quality picture takes over an entire screen, it is an eye-opening experience. So we resized this image of Mark’s son pretending to throw up in order to fill up the entire screen. We can then insert a text box over that to get our couple of words in.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.16.39 AMTo make the text box a transparent color, click on the “Fill color” icon, go down to “Custom” on the bottom, choose your color, and adjust the transparency bar (the farthest to the right) to the level that works best. This will help your viewers to focus on the words as well as the great picture.

Example #3 – For some reason the most mind-blowing at the time:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.20.51 AMScreen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.21.06 AMThe ColorPick Eyedropper was great, but what do you do when you’re stuck with a picture that is straight up and down, but the background color is different from top to bottom?

Mark took a screenshot of the tiny sliver on the right side, being careful not to catch the finger at all. We then, following his example, inserted that screenshot into the presentation, resized it to fit from top to bottom, and stretched it all the way across the slide. Now we have a gray screen that is very similar in color to the background of the picture. So easy, but so cool!

Example #4:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.27.03 AMWe used the Eyedropper again, this time go grab the color from this great picture. Copy the hex number, change the color of your text to a custom color, and paste the number in the box on the top! Such a simple way to connect your text colors to your photographs.

And example #5 sums it all up:

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.38.54 AMPresentations can be incredibly engaging – as long as we do them right! The most important thing to remember is that slides should help your audience connect with what you are saying. Make them funny. Make them personal. And make them great!

We can also begin to think of the power we can give our students to create when we teach them how to be confident and engaging presenters. These tools go beyond just the creation of an all-encompassing PowerPoint and require our students to deeply know the content of their presentation.

And if you want to dig a little deeper into the power of presentations with Nancy Duarte, check out this TED Talk.

Hey students, tell me what you think

A few years back I mostly stole an evaluation that Larry Ferlazzo has his students fill out at the conclusion of his class.  By “mostly stole” I mean that I changed one question. Let’s have a look at the questions and my 8th grade students’ thoughts. What good is an evaluation without reflecting on it?

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 3.26.29 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 3.26.40 PMAs an 8th grade teacher, I am fairly pleased to see these results. I want my students to feel that they have examined their own writing and worked hard to improve it. My focus in reading instruction is for students to build their own love for reading. We do this through reading books mainly individually and discussing those books.

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 3.38.47 PMThat is 76% of my students who are doing what I hope to see, but there is definitely room for improvement here. I need to continue to find more strategies and activities that get students to engage with. Students try their best when they have authentic learning experiences and are depended upon by others. I’m at redesigning my blogging unit from individual blogs to creating group blogs. This would help those students feel like their work is important and necessary to the success of their group.

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 3.43.56 PM

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 3.44.05 PMIt isn’t a surprise that students enjoyed creating a short movie based on their creative writing stories was the most popular unit. It also shouldn’t surprise us that the other two creative outlets, creative writing and poetry, were the most popular. Students like to have a voice! And if we can get them to use their creativity, those writing skills translate into all of the writing that they do.

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 4.09.57 PMThanks!

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 4.10.15 PMI’ll take that, but there are always those students who it seems like it is impossible to connect. The answer? Try harder.

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 4.10.23 PMI noticed as I looked through these that the majority of the some of the times came from my 5th period class. Either I find a way to take a nap during lunch, or I find a better way to energize myself and come back ready to be my best. And the moral of the story? Kids notice.

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 4.28.04 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 4.28.11 PM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I feel that I need to continue to build class activities and routines that are easily identified by the students. Not just so that they can be recalled on an evaluation, of course, but because I want my students to know what we are doing and why we are doing it.

I was pleased to see that my students valued the individual conferences we had on their writing pieces. This, along with writing in class, is something that helps students receive immediate feedback on their work. I value this time very highly, so it was great to see that my students valued it as well.

Looking back at the information that I gained from this evaluation, there are still some questions that I’d like to hear answers to.

  • What was the most memorable part of this year?
  • What do you wish we would have done more of? In some of the questions I asked during the year, I definitely already knew that students wanted to make another movie or create a class movie. I think we would have to offer a movie-making elective to focus on script writing and even more of the details that could go into that type of class. I’ll teach that class if my principal is reading this!
  • What, specifically, could we improve as a class?
  • What else could I do in order to be better? This is such a general question, and finding a way to narrow it down for students is difficult.

And even though this isn’t specific to my class, it is information like this survey from Grant Wiggins that is so useful to us as teachers.

I am still left without some information that would be valuable, but it is such a great experience to hear from my students. There are a few questions that only my students who are with me every day could be able to answer – not me, not my supervisor. We can use our students as valuable resources in order to become better better teachers, or we can continue doing the same thing and thinking that nothing needs changing.

I’ll trust my students.

#AMLE2013Day1

When I heard that the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) was holding it’s national conference in Minneapolis, it was up to me to do whatever I could to get myself there! Luckily, it happened. I was able hear some incredible presenters such as Jack Berckemeyer, Rick Wormeli, Jeffrey Wilhelm, and Kim Campbell. What a blast!

To make the conference even more valuable, I’ll do what I can to share some of the incredible ideas, activities, and quotes that I picked up. It’s time to do some reflecting through my notes, so I’ll post a few interesting and possibly random points today. Hopefully I’ll dig deeper into some of these in my classroom.

  • Assessment is something we do with and for the student, not something we do to the student.  – This one came from Mark Springer, who has been teaching without grades for over 30 years. His students write a narrative about their quarter in school.
  • Why do we have four columns in our rubrics? (Mark Springer) – Is our implicit message to students that it is acceptable to be “emergent” in a standard? Does a student even know what that means? What if we had three columns: exemplary, proficient, and not yet?
  • Powerful professional development tool: interacting with different scenarios at staff meetings. This came from Wormeli’s session on differentiated instruction. He had many different possible classroom and school scenes, but it is great for teachers to come with their own as well. Have staff members read a couple of scenarios in small groups and brainstorm five ways a highly accomplished, professional teacher would handle that situation. Too often we end up in a situation and only have one or two options. Let’s help each other build our toolbox! Start in a PLC and build some momentum. As Rick says, wherever two or three are gathered!
  • Mad, Sad, Happy (Monte Selby) – If you don’t look happy, and you don’t look sad, what does that leave you? When kids have trouble reading our emotions, it is our responsibility to teach them as well as to be happy ourselves and show it!
  • Use your out-loud manners to show students and children why we are doing something for someone. Instead of just opening the door for someone, let’s talk through it to show why we are doing it as well as how happy it makes the recipient of the good deed. (Selby)

Jeffrey Wilhelm does some incredible things with essential questions, inquiry, and motivation. I’ll give him his own section:

  • Studies have shown that you cannot, no matter what you say, possibly overestimate the role that motivation plays in a child’s education. And to add to that, it was found that students will only match the teacher’s level of enthusiasm for a topic.
  • Good essential questions must do two things: 1. Get at the heart of the discipline. 2. Be compelling to the kids, or as Wilhelm says, “Sexy.” If we aren’t taking the time to pique student interest, we are sunk before we begin.
  • Essential questions cannot be answered by looking it up, understood in a day or two, or easily agreed upon. Let’s have an argument and learn at the same time!

Here are a few examples of essential questions from Wilhelm:

  1. What are your civil rights, and how is this school violating them? (Civil rights unit)
  2. How far are you willing to go to get what you want? (Macbeth)
  3. What makes and breaks relationships? (Romeo and Juliet)
  4. Who will survive? (Dystopian novels/life science)
  5. What determines who wins? (A theme for an entire quarter of math)

The answers to these questions affect students in a way that feels immediate and relevant, perfect for a middle school student.

That was day one of AMLE 2013, from 10 pages of notes down to a few points. Who wants to know more? I’ll be happy to share! Of course, I still have two more days to go through in blog posts…