Saturday, August 18, 2018

Day 1 - The Most Important Day...

The days are getting shorter and the street lights coming on sooner. That can only mean one thing - the start of school is right around the corner. Whether you are a teacher, administrator, parent, or student, the anticipation of the school year brings about many emotions. Amidst all of the anxiety and excitement, students wonder with curiosity about the type of teacher they will have and what fun things they will accomplish by the end of the year.

As a parent of three elementary age students, I love listening to their stories of the first day of school. Who they sat by. Whom they ate lunch with. What they got to do. Without question, their favorite part is always sharing the cool, unexpected fun they had on the first day. The glow in their eyes and big smile are infectious as they retell every detail of the activity and why they can't wait to do it again. Learning on Day 1 was...dare I say FUN!

As I reflect and prepare with teachers for the first day, I am reminded of three valuable lessons that helped me kick off each new year: Kindness starts with a clean slate, Growth Mindset through strengths and passions, and Wow them on Day 1.

Kindness Starts with a Clean Slate
Every student that walked through my door on the first day of school entered with a clean slate. While I understand the importance of having data days, and viewing student profiles, I rarely wanted to know any historical information on student behavior and home support. There are way too many factors that play into those elements and I wanted every student to believe he or she could make this year the best school year ever. If I wanted my class and students to model kindness toward one another, then it had better start with me toward each and every student. Whether it was a hand shake or high-five at the door, allowing students to pick their seat, or having music playing, I wanted students to know they were welcome in my class. Combined with gathering students' self identified profiles and wowing them on day 1, students needed to know they were going to be valued and an integral part of the look and feel their classroom was going to take.

Growth Mindset through Strengths and Passions
In addition to starting with a clean slate, I always wanted to know what my students perceived as their strengths and self-identify who their friends are and support structures each has in place. As students grow from year-to-year, so do their strengths, passions, and support structures. I had been using a document to gather that information, however, I recently stumbled across this document from Kevin Honeycutt. Kevin talks about filling this out with each student to demonstrate collaboration between teacher and student, as well as building rapport with students on a different level. I always liked giving each student time to share who they are with me. It helped me to demonstrate that FAIL really meant First Attempt In Learning and that we were all going to experience a moment of failure throughout the year. The important part was learning from those moments and 'failing forward' as I described it.

Wow Them on Day 1
You may be wondering at this point, how did I fit all of this in at the beginning of the school year? Truth be told, I was more concerned with getting to know students, helping them feel welcomed and comfortable in their new class than I was with getting into content. I figured the more time I spent building rapport on the front end, the less time I needed to spend reminding students of the expectations and rules - and it always paid off. However, probably the most important thing I could do to set the tone for the school year was in attempting to make the first day the best day of the year. Aside from taking attendance, I wanted students to experience a high energy, face paced classroom that infused technology as part of the learning process. Whether it was an iPad station with math apps, a math table that students could write on, a coding station to build critical thinking and problem solving, or a mini Rube Goldberg station, I wanted students to see that learning in my class was going to be different than any learning they had ever experienced before.

Think carefully about the message you are sending students on day one this year. What do you want them to go home and tell their family and friends about? How do you want them to come back on day 2, day 50, and the rest of the year? You have the ability to paint a future for each student that may have never been painted before. Show them your kindness and passion - giving each one a chance to succeed.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Get The New School Year Started Right with Full Transparency

When talking about Flipped Learning, I'm often asked how I get students and parents to buy in to this 'new' approach to teaching math. My answer quite often shocks people - I am completely transparent and honest with them! I start the beginning of every school year not introducing Flipped Learning, but rather introducing learning as a growth process through which we are using math as the vehicle. We are simply using math to learn character, problem solving skills, critical thinking, grit, and collaboration - all skills necessary in any potential career choice for students. 

Perhaps the greatest moment comes when I share the following analogy with students and parents alike. Imagine I asked you to sit down at a piano and begin playing most likely could not do it right away. It would take time, maybe lots of time to learn many new skills related to the piano. Math is much the same. I am going to ask you to learn new skills that you may not have mastered in the past, or may even never been introduced to. Just like anything you've become good at, I'm asking that you give math a fair shake. I will most likely be teaching math in a way you've never been taught before - Flipped Learning!

After describing what Flipped Learning is, I reassure them that they are going to fail at some point in my class. They will fail at watching a video, completing a practice set, understanding a new concept, or any number of things I ask of them. Failure is inevitable...however, it's how you respond to that moment of failure that will define how good you become at math. Are you honest with yourself,  your group members, and your teacher? Are you willing to change habits that you developed? Will you make excuses or develop grit to persevere through the tough, challenging concepts? 

My goal is to really show them that learning is all in their control. That each one of them possesses a unique skill set that can be used in my class. It's through this transfer of learning and ownership that I establish a sense of growth through math...dare I say a growth mindset. I cannot tell you the number of parents that thank me after each initial open house, or first few weeks of school how appreciate they are of the approach to teaching and learning I have taken. Their sons/daughters don't dread math - they rather look forward to it! And why - all because I commit to complete transparency from day 1.

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Heart of Teaching

Photo Courtesy of:

I'm often asked what makes a teacher great? Is it the way they can manage a classroom of 25 six-year olds? Or is it the way they can engage 20 sophomores in math class for 45 minutes? Perhaps it's the technology used by the middle school science teacher that encourages students' creativity and innovation? Yes, all of these aspects of teaching are important. However, what you often don't get to see in the greatest of teachers is their heart!

While success in a classroom is often measured by grades and attendance, the heart of teaching isn't quite measured for years, even decades later. Students will enter our classroom doors daily, bringing with them a wide variety of hopes, skills, dreams, passions, strengths, troubles, fears, and history. The greatest of teachers embrace all of these attributes and find a way to encourage each and every student to use them to their advantage. There is an understanding of mutual respect that is built upon the foundation of trust between student and teacher.

The greatest of teachers understand their classrooms might be a safe haven, a place of escape for some students. They know when to push and when to be the ear to listen. They see their students as individuals with a variety of skills and talents, waiting to bloom when given the right environment to succeed. They understand the various hats they may wear and how each hat supports students differently. They willingly come in early and stay late to prepare their classrooms and content for all levels of learners they will encounter.

These teachers look at change not as a hurdle to overcome, but an opportunity to be unique. Opportunities to help all students succeed in a world that often pushes them aside. Opportunities to help other teachers see students for who they are today, not who they were last year. Opportunities of hope for a future that is vastly different than the world of education we often witness. Opportunities to collaborate and share across a multitude of platforms. Opportunities to listen to suggestions, offer input, and stand up for students that are under served. 

All of us have that one teacher that simply stood out from everyone else. They seemed to understand us on a different level and we could just relate to them. The heart of teaching doesn't simply happen over night. It takes years of practice, years of observing, and a noble effort to truly put students first. The greatest of teachers don't often know the impact they are having because it isn't until years later that students come back and thank them for their passion, joy, and love for teaching and treating them with respect. Ironically, they often don't want to, or need to be, recognized for the work they do because they believe it's simply the right thing to do!

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Student Voice as Assessment

I am often asked by faculty on our campus how to better support engagement in an online class. While many know the question has multiple layers, it is often easiest answered by asking faculty what they are doing to model engagement? If we pretend students will engage themselves in content I provide as an instructor, we are sadly mistaken. Engagement takes intentional action by an instructor, and modeling, so that students feel safe and welcome to share thoughts, ideas, questions, and concerns. What does this mean for an instructor? Honestly, it means more work than a traditional in-person class, as well as risk-taking in the form of putting yourself out there as an instructor.

Like any class, the tone you set from day 1 goes a long way in establishing your class norms. Why not start an online class with a self-made video that shares who you are, why you teach, and what you are passionate about. Putting a face to the instructor of the class helps to open the door for engagement to begin. The more you are willing to model engagement as an instructor, the more likely students are willing to step out of their own comfort zone. And as students begin to explore the class content with you, the level of engagement will increase, allowing you to use student voice as an assessment tool.

Interactive tools, such as Flipgrid, have changed the way classroom discussions and student engagement can be shared and assessed. In an effort to replace dry, text based discussions, Flipgrid is giving students the opportunity to share their reflections and questions via VIDEO! Instructors provide question prompts, web resources, video links, and more for the students to react to. Students create 90 second - 5 minute video reflections. Advanced features allow students to respond, react, and create video responses to classmates' posts. In an online class where students rarely 'see' each other, Flipgrid has provided the opportunity for an online class to come to life.

Instructors can assess student responses, engagement time, and content by reviewing videos as well. The once in-class discussion can now take place in the online environment with all students participating. Mix in an instructor response or funny video clip and students begin to feel like they belong to a community of learning. Mix in the ease of use and Flipgrid brings engagement and assessment to a whole new level for online learning.

While there are numerous tools that exist for video discussion and engagement (VoiceThread is another excellent example!), the responsibility of engagement falls at the feet of every instructor. We cannot expect students to continue to learn and be engaged using the same resources we have for the last 10-15 years. We must be willing to explore, adapt, and listen to what our students are saying. We must be willing to model the way, encourage our students throughout the process, and empower them to understand that learning is not always about knowing an answer - it's about knowing what to do when they don't know the answer!

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Why Change

Created by Zach Groshell @ Education Rickshaw
As I was connecting and interacting with my PLN this week on Twitter, the image to the left quickly caught my attention. All across the country and globe, educators are crying out for education reform - reform in what classrooms look like, what student engagement feels like, and how educators can make the changes in their own classrooms.

This image is perhaps the best I have seen that demonstrates how students learn using a variety of learning and teaching strategies. Rather than the one size fits all approach of traditional lecture (or drill and kill approach), learning today consists of project-based learning, self-guided learning, collaborative group learning, standards-based assessment, and is infused with a variety of technology that grows farther than we can see. Learning is no longer confined to what students can take in and regurgitate on a test. No, it happens at various times and through various modes.

Yet, if the right-half of the image is so accurate of what teaching and learning SHOULD look like, why are so many educators resistant to changing from their traditional methods of instruction? While the answer is packed with numerous excuses and finger pointing of blame, the harsh reality is that teaching by methods demonstrated in the right-half is much more difficult. Pulling up a powerpoint, or wiping a transparency clean from last year is so much easier for me to do as a teacher. I've taught this way for 10, 20, or 30 years and it's easier for me to be prepared this way!

While I don't think I can argue against that statement, I do wonder where the student-centered mentality was lost. There is no doubt that preparing an engaging and innovative classroom today is far more difficult than in the past. Yet, it's also far more rewarding. Watching students work collaboratively, critically thinking about solutions, and finding creative ways to share their results is far more rewarding than an exam score. But for educators, it takes time to build a classroom environment that promotes these skills, while also trusting that students will take ownership for their learning.

As a flipped educator of over 5 years, I can admit I needed to learn how to relinquish the power of holding students accountable. I started by checking daily work with students and making sure they watched video lectures. What I quickly learned, though, was that students knew what they needed better than I did. Some could watch the first 5 minutes and be successful. Others need to watch the lesson 2-3 times before being comfortable. And ultimately, my goal was focused on students mastering a skill. What did it matter how much time they spent on the video if in the end they could demonstrate that mastery.

As a result, students needed me less...less of my instruction, less of my guidance, and less of my expertise. They needed me to provide the sandbox and the toys, but not tell them which toy to use. They needed help in developing communication skills, creativity, and character. They needed me to help them think about ideas differently and encourage them to take risks, even fail, and learn from their failures and successes. I realized the role I needed to play was much different from how I learned when I went to school. And designing these avenues for students and being prepared for the multitude of questions unrelated to math took me a lot of time to learn and master. It was not easy by any stretch of the imagination. But it was far more rewarding to witness students learn and grow throughout the semester.

And why did I decide to make that change? Why am I encouraging others to do the same? George Curous states it best in his blog The Principal of Change

Friday, March 2, 2018

Time to Teach Compassion

There are no words that describe the horrific details of the events that recently happened in South Florida. There is no such thing as the 'right words' to console hurt souls and hearts of students, parents, teachers and a community. What should have never happened, did. As leaders and educators try to learn from this event and put legislation into place to protect students, I am dismayed at the finger-pointing and blame I continue to see span across social media. Why is it so hard that ALL of us have contributed to this paralyzing event? 

I am reminded of a recent conversation I had at a conference with other faculty. I was sharing my approach to Flipped Learning and the intentional design I used to foster the 4-C's of learning - Collaboration, Creativity, Choice, and Character. And as I was sharing how I allowed students the choice of self selecting their level of confidence after watching a video, which in turn selected the type of practice they would work on each day, a few puzzled looks were sent in my direction.

"You mean you asked students to identify if they were felt they were in the basic, average, or advanced group each day," asked one of the faculty? "Doesn't that imply dumb and smart groups," joked another. It was in this moment that I recognized even these individuals lacked compassion for each and every student. "How did you handle when other students would point out or make fun of someone for being in the dumb group," questioned the other faculty? All I could do was shake my head. While it would be easy to simply refute their questions and prove to this group that their beliefs were wrong, I shared the following example from one of my classes. 

Of course this happened occasionally in my classroom. More often, it happened during the first chapter we were studying. And when it did, I took every advantage I had to create a teachable moment with my students - a lesson on compassion for others. You see, we cannot predict what someone else has encountered along their journey to come to school each and every day. We have no idea if their parents were fighting, if their grandmother is dying, if their pet is lost, or if they were sick and struggling to keep up. Instead of pointing fingers. laughing, and mocking those individuals that choose to go into the basic group, why don't we offer them a helping hand? Why don't we ask them if there's some way we can help, be it personally or with school. That's the lesson and reminder I teach all of my students when that happens in my classroom.

How do I know it works? One particular year, I had a student that chose the basic group every day for the first two weeks. She knew the content, but was struggling with school in general. She was very quiet and kept to herself. On one particular day, one of the advanced students failed to watch our video lesson. He knew he needed to be part of the basic group so that he could develop the basic understanding first. As I started with these two in the basic group, the rest of the class worked with a few students making fun of the young man. As I walked over to address the individuals and have a conversation, I turned back to the two individuals working in the basic group. I was shocked by what I saw - the young woman was actually teaching and demonstrating to the young man. 

She could see a young man struggling - struggling with the content and with being made fun of. Yet, she chose to show compassion through a helping hand. And this young man actually realized she was much smarter than she 'appeared' to be. As the weeks went by, I watched the young man often as the young lady for suggestions and to check his work. You see, she chose compassion to deal with the moment. In return, the young man displayed the same compassion he was offered to others. It was a teachable moment that I could not have planned.

"Life is full of choices," I concluded with the group of faculty I was with. "What I watched happen that day helped me to choose to continue fostering a classroom environment that learned more than math." And while I'm not trying to imply that more compassion would have prevented any events from ever happening, I am suggesting that we can help our students see and understand that everyone has their own unique story. The more we take the time to listen and try to understand someone's story, the better we serve each other in true, genuine compassion.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Impact of Classroom Design

Have you ever given thought to the idea that the design of your classroom provides students a first impression upon what your class will be like? Desks in rows, all facing the front of the classroom tells them strict, rigid, and boring. Desks in pods, central focus, and teacher station up front tells students group work is expected while also paying attention to teacher up front. For some this is intriguing, while others will feel scared and anxious. If we want students to believe that learning can be fun, that learning is about the journey and not the destination, then we need to strategically consider how we design a classroom setting that fosters engagement and participation.

The design element to my Flipped Classroom was essential in aiding the expectations I had for student learning to occur. There was NO front of the classroom. A teacher desk/station did not exist. There were very few desks in the class, much less any structure to how they were placed. My classroom looked like your neighborhood coffee shop - high tables with stools, couches, student art work, and chaotic layout. Students first impression on day one was a little confusion quickly followed with a smile. Three elements that were essential to this dynamic shift in student perception were flexible seating, work stations, and white board tables.

As a caveat, substitute teachers disliked my classroom upon first entrance. I did not use a seating chart - I do not believe in telling students where to sit! Students were well aware of my expectations for class and quickly became aware of whom they should sit by and whom they shouldn't. There were stools, comfy chairs, couches, singles desks, round tables, and rectangular tables for students to choose from. If a student needed some individual work time, he/she knew to find an individual desk. If they needed some additional help in tackling the video lesson and practice sets, they would often sit with peers they trusted. If they wanted to sit or lay on the floor, then so be it. My goal wasn't to restrict their seating arrangement and force them to be still. I wanted them to be comfortable and able to focus on learning!

Eventually, this lead to having designated work stations throughout the room. There was a spot for "oops, I forgot to watch the video lesson." This had headsets, iPads, and paper for note taking. There was a round table for challenge problems...I think I got this topic, let's try something harder. There were two areas for "Help! I need somebody" where students could converse with each other about practice problems and seek out the teacher for advice. These stations ended up providing a functionality I had never planned for. Students became flexible and honest in their individual needs for learning - a transfer of ownership had taken place.

Both of these elements really led to the final element taking place. And honestly, this final element happened by student mistake. One particular work day, two students were working collaboratively on the floor. They were discussing and sharing their thinking for solving a set of math problems. Out of nowhere, they began drawing their solutions on the floor with an erasable marker. Thinking nothing of it, they kept going at it. When I initially saw them, I was shocked. How in the world could you think that was acceptable. They both looked at me with a smile and calmly said, "Don't worry...we tested to see if it would come off easily first." 

I was faced with two decisions. Come down hard on them, laying out the law of the land. Hopefully, by reading this post you can tell that isn't quite my style. Rather, I applauded the students for thinking outside the box and working so well together. I thanked them for trying it out first, and then asked them if they thought there might have been a better approach to trying the markers on the floor. They looked, nodded, and said "maybe we should ask for permission next time!" While I can only assume they learned their lesson, I gave their experiment a little bit of thought. Could this be a viable option that would encourage students to show their work and share their thought processes?

Like many educators do, I decided to beg for forgiveness rather than permission. I sought out my two experimental students for help in deciphering which desks the dry erase markers would work on and which it wouldn't. I wanted to recognize them for the creativity and empower them to help me make the classroom better for all. Low and behold, nearly every surface in my classroom was 'erasable'. Over the course of the next few weeks, students were grasping for markers and even bringing in their own. Classroom discussions increased in context and length. Students were eager to share and show others what they did to learn. Further, students began to seek out additional ways to submit their practice problems to me as their teacher. "Can I snap a few pictures and email them to you?" "Could I put the pictures on my blog and share the link?"

The creativity and innovation I witnessed from students was remarkable. Students were not afraid to try something and fail at it. They knew there were resources at their disposal to be successful - fellow classmates, video lessons, and their teacher. Ironically, the fewer rules I gave students, the more they felt the freedom to be kids. They knew the ownership of learning fell solely in their hands. And they were quick to run with the responsibility and embrace their own individual uniqueness.