Sunday, February 5, 2017

Along for the Ride - An Analogy for the Classroom

When I was young, I lived about thirty miles away from Flint, Michigan. That's where we'd head every so often when my parents wanted to do some shopping. I remember my mom laughing with a friend once, saying even though she had made the trip so many times, she never could have driven there herself. She just trusted my dad to know the way.

Of course, as a kid I never gave the details of the trip any thought. I recognized some buildings and roads enough to know I was close to the mall. I couldn't have listed the names of the roads we took, though, or directed a driver how to get there.

My mom and I were along for the ride. We got in the car at home and out of it at the mall. Shopping was the goal.

As the title of this post suggests, I've found a strong parallel between travel and the classroom. I shared this with my teenage daughter once when she was struggling in her math class. It seemed to connect with her and (at least so far) it has been the last time she had trouble keeping up with that subject.

I told her about how some students think class is like just such a trip. Maybe we could imagine everyone on a bus going on a field trip. They all board the bus at the school, they all get out at the destination. They were along for the ride and they arrived.

In class, this amounts to listening to the teacher, maybe even taking some notes and doing an assignment. Their butts were in the seat, writing is on the paper and credit was achieved. In their minds, they arrived.

I see many students who genuinely believe that's all that mattered.

The problem with this, I told my daughter, is that the goal of the classroom is not just to arrive. It's that everyone and anyone on that bus would be able to drive there themselves. 

Getting to a place was not the only goal. The how and why of the route mattered too.

So consider how differently a passenger spends his time on a trip when he knows he has to drive it himself. He'd be paying attention to every turn, trying to remember street names and landmarks. He'd be asking the driver questions if he missed something.

I've been learning a lot about John Hattie's work lately and he gives us this insight on what a good learner pays attention to.

"Their role is not simply to do tasks as decided by teachers, but to actively manage and understand their learning gains. This includes evaluating their own progress, being more responsible for their learning, and being involved with peers in learning together about gains in learning." (From Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning)

So ask them regularly, are they along for the ride or preparing to drive the bus?

Sunday, January 29, 2017

5 Reasons Every Teacher Should Present at Conferences

Early in my career my mentor, Bernie Cunningham, used to arrange for those of us in the math department to present at the international Texas Instruments T^3 Conference. I was far from a model teacher, but Bernie would help me pick one or two innovative ideas I could share with others. Those excursions were unforgettable. I felt out of league at times, but we bonded as a department and our vision of what was possible was stretched.

That was many years ago and I've since moved out of the classroom, but I've continued the practice of sharing my ideas at conferences. I also always ask other teachers in the district to present with me. I've been surprised at times by their unwillingness to do so. "I'm not techy enough to be presenting at that conference," they'll tell me. Or, "I don't have anything other teachers would care to see." 

I can relate perfectly to what they're saying. I still feel inadequate. But I also have seen the many benefits of preparing a presentation and putting the work out there to the masses. All I can say is it's well worth the risk. And there's always someone who thanks me for sharing.

Recently I created this graphic to sum up some of those benefits. I'll elaborate briefly on each one below.

It's empowering to know you positively impact several classrooms. - You see yourself differently when you know other teachers have learned from you. The thanks I receive at the end of my presentation, or maybe weeks later after they've tried out the activities I shared, help me realize what I'm doing for my students is worthwhile.

Trying out your ideas with your class requires you to stretch. - Maybe I do this differently than most, but I usually submit a proposal to speak before I tried out my session topic. Or I should say, I always promise a little more than I've already tested out 100%. I tend to dream big on those proposals! When I find out my proposal has been accepted, I'm then committed to pushing the limits with that innovative thing I had dreamed up.

I remember a few years ago when I received a grant in preparation for the conference. I had to deliver on the promise, but I was sick to my stomach with nerves the day we had to kick things off in class. I'm happy to say the activity and the conference session turned out amazingly well. It turned out to be an exciting experience, but I would have missed it had it not been for that requirement to present.

You (and your students, colleagues and administrators) will know you're not just a good teacher in your classroom, your building or your district. - It is easy for a teacher to exist in a bubble. The standard of a "good teacher" is subject to our students' limited perspectives and our own limited view of the other teachers in our buildings. Giving something of value to even a small group of teachers at a conference puts those standards to the test. In fact, one of the reasons I submit my work for conferences is so I'm sure it's of value to educators beyond my district. The students I teach deserve such quality.

Students are motivated when they know they play a part in a larger work. - I love to tell students that we are trying out something that I will share with other teachers across our state. It adds a lot more excitement to it, especially if I'm not sure it will work. They love to see how the project turns out and invariably they ask me later how the conference went. Some have talked to me about those projects years later.

Your PLN will grow. - We all know one of the greatest benefits of conferences is meeting other teachers. As a presenter, the opportunity for networking is increased. First, you are immediately recognized as a teacher of teachers. Many times just the badge around your neck will mark you as a bit of expert. You'll have plenty of opportunities to chat with other speakers. That chance to share ideas, or maybe just some laughs, greatly strengthens the bonds of the virtual networking that can continue past the conference. Of course, mentioning your Twitter handle and other contact information during your session gains more followers and increases opportunities as well.

So I encourage every teacher to look for opportunities to present beyond their district. Partner up with someone else in your building. Start with a small conference. It will take extra effort and cause some extra anxiety, but the benefits can be life changing.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Learning as a Story - A Google Drawings template for digital posters

When it comes to learning, we focus too much on the end product in school.

Instead, think of the whole process from initial curiosity to the struggles along the way and the final insights the learner gains. Could we start to see it as an interesting (maybe even exciting) story?

That's the basis for this digital poster activity I created as a Google Drawings template.

When it comes to telling a great story, I always start with Donald Miller's concise framework. He uses it as the basis of his Storyline book and conferences. There he says a story is...

  • A character
  • Who wants something
  • And overcomes conflict to get it

Whether it's your favorite movie,  that last page-turner you couldn't put down or how your grandma tells of winning your grandpa's affections, I bet the story fits that model.

What would happen if we helped students to see learning as a story within this framework?

To accomplish that, I made a list of questions and a template in Google Drawings for a Learning Story Poster that students could complete after a learning experience. These resources require them to consider four questions based on those parts of a story:
  • A character (or characters) - Who are they?
  • Who wants something - What do they wonder about?
  • And overcomes conflict - What challenges did they face?
  • To get it - What did they finally learn in the end?
Click here to open a copy of the question sheet. It has a link to the Google Drawing template, which you can also find at the link below.

Click here to open a copy of the template in your own Google Drive. Students will easily complete their poster by...
  • Adding or changing the text prompts as necessary
  • Deleting the shapes and inserting their own pictures in those places
  • Cropping the pictures into interesting shapes to make it visually appealing
  • Changing the background colors and elements as they like
  • Including images of any products they create, including physical charts or graphs
  • Adding a table to the Google Drawing if data needs to be included
  • Downloading the final product as a PNG or JPEG image

Here's a sample one I made using some pictures I had from our video announcement team. (Click here to see a larger version that you can zoom in on.)

A complete learning story poster like this requires students to consider a few things right from the start of the project. They will need to:
  • Make note of what they wonder or are curious about
  • Develop or be aware of the team identity (if working in groups) - Don't underestimate the importance of the "character" part. A team name and picture that represents the group personality can foster strong social connections that benefit for learning.
  • Get photos throughout the process - If they forget, some quick posed shots make an acceptable substitute.

Other Possibilities

If you don't want to use Google Drawings for this, you can still using the questions and have them present it in these ways:

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Problem Solving or Problem Finding?

A big part of "teaching like an artist" is being aware of our part in the environment we are making in our school. We do not create it alone, that's for sure, but we help shape it.

So sometimes my posts here turn into questions that I think could be useful for conversations between administrators or staff meetings. In this one I'll consider how we talk about problems in our schools.

If I could generalize to make a point, I see two distinct groups among the teachers I work with. Both can seem a little obsessed with problems, possibly to the point of being negative.

If you heard either group talking in the teachers lounge, you might not notice much difference. Their motivation is very different, though, and so is the end of their discussions.

One group wants to solve the problems. The other is happy to find the problem, as long as it has nothing to do with them.

No one wants to admit they're in the second group, but I think my co-workers would agree with me when I say I fall squarely in the first group. I want to identify the problem, get my brain around it and see what I can do to solve it. I'm sure I get caught up in "venting" or complaining sometimes, but my final goal is always to identify steps that will move us in the right direction.

So I talk about the problem...a lot. But what I started to notice recently is some people are content to stop the conversation before I am. It's as if they are convinced they found the real problem and (lucky for them) it was beyond their control. They aren't responsible and they can only do so much, right?

So of course we'll always have problems as we work in a setting involving so many people. We need to face the problems, identify them and discuss them. Sometimes we even need to vent our feelings about them.

But in all such conversations, we have to keep this question in mind:

Am I dwelling on this problem so I can find a way to make a positive difference? 

If not, what difference am I making?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

You Can Do Better

How would you feel if your boss told you that?

"You can do better!"

It probably depends a lot on his or her personality. Your feelings would also depend on how hard you had been worked at the task being evaluated.

But think about those four words:

"You can do better."

Taken at face value, it means there's something more in you that didn't quite show up...yet.

People often say the phrase as a softer way of saying, "These results aren't good enough."

But with the right mindset, couldn't it be a hopeful statement, filled with promise?

You could do better!

The simple fact is we can do better, and that's an exciting thought.

We probably can't do better on whatever we just finished. It's done. Maybe we can't immediately do better on the job at hand, since there are deadlines and limited dollars and other priorities.

But overall, in time, we can do better.

That's an inspiring thought for a team focused intently on an important, common goal. On the other hand, it will probably illicit groans from a group that is mostly content with the current state of things.

Does the idea bring up feelings of hope or resentment? Is it a sunset or a sunrise?

What factors from leadership, the culture and environment contribute to how it is perceived? What attitudes make the difference?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Learning as a Story

Imagine you’re in science class. After a few days of studying cells, the teacher asks you to make a digital slideshow with some online tech tool. Let’s say it has to combine pictures, minimal text and some narration.

Think about what types of projects students would submit.

It’s a safe bet we’d get a lot of pictures of models of cells with some narration telling what the parts are and what they do. It’s the updated version of a PowerPoint presentation, which too often is an uninspiring display of information.

For the teacher, these final products serve as an assessment of what was learned. Nothing more, just the facts. 

That’s an important aspect of final products, but can we do better? Lately I’ve been encouraging teachers to push for more than just the final learning. I suggest we have students document the process.

In project-based learning, this often looks like a series of pictures showing the project coming together. What I’m thinking now, though, is something much more personal.

What if we asked students to document their learning experience throughout the process

Yes, in that science lesson it would still include those important parts of a cell. But what if we asked them to keep a record of what they looked forward to or what they were curious about before the lesson started?

How about their challenges, surprises and disappointments?

What new questions came up throughout the learning experience?

And then the most important part, which we rarely seem to have time for:  What did they learn about themselves and their place in the world?

What I’m hoping is we can see (and share) the learning experience as a story. Would it be a story students like to discover? Would it be worth telling? What effect would it have on school culture if learning stories were told as if they mattered?

Could we start with a learning story of our own that's worth sharing?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

5 Habits for Teaching Like an Artist in the Summer

Since most of us teachers aren't technically working in the summer, most of these are habits to prepare for teaching like an artist. Each one builds to the final one, though, which is a great teaching opportunity anytime.

Habit 1:  Carry a sketchbook - This might not be a book you actually draw in, but there might be sketching involved. Basically it's a place you "sketch out" your ideas in any way. If you like paper and a pencil, get a small notepad to carry with you. I suggest a digital version, like a Google Docs file, that you can access on your computer, phone anywhere and any time.

The main thing is that you write down (or copy and paste or snap a picture) of any good ideas you see or think of. You're a teacher at heart, so even when you're out of that school environment, you'll see connections to your work with learners. Make a habit of quickly recording all those thoughts. When you get time, flip through the notes and develop some of them. When the best ones rise to the surface, think of how you'll bring them into reality

Reflect - Artists are thoughtful and reflection as a habit. I suggest you use my free reflection journal, 31 Days of Teaching Like an Artist. That book will guide you toward a teacher mission statement through the discovery of purpose, exercises for vision and a chance to set goals.

If you don't want to use that book, at the very least you should think over the good and bad of the previous school year. Plan ahead for the upcoming one. Connect with the dream that brought you this far and dream big dreams for the one ahead. What lesson did you learn most in the past year? How will you teach it to others?

Hang out with other artists - Art starts when the artist sees possibilities most people miss. One way to see more is to hang out with people who see more. If you can't hang out with these people in person, at least connect with them virtually or through their writing.

I still hear great educators say the best thing they ever did for their teaching was to get on Twitter and follow people sharing the best ideas. Make it a goal this summer to take your next step with social media. Find some new favorite blogs. I always recommend starting with Vicki Davis and Larry Ferlazzo.

Of course, read books. My favorite recent find is The Innovator's Mindset by George Couros. I consider this required reading for today's teachers and principals. It's been a long time since I've highlighted so many good thoughts while reading. I also suggest Poke the Box by Seth Godin and Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon.

Make something - This doesn't have to be related to your teaching, but make something you haven't made before. Explore some tools and techniques you always wanted to, but didn't have time. Get used to following a project from original vision to reality. Practice making art happen.

If you aren't sure what to make, but you want to explore some simple, powerful digital tools, I suggest looking at Adobe Spark. Use it to document a vacation or even just a slow, beautiful day of doing not much at all. I made a tutorial for some of the features here and here.

Depending on how big of a project you take on, you might only complete one project this summer. If you have time for more, keep going. The main thing is that you form the habit of creating (and finishing) your art.

Share it - Here's where you actually can teach even in the summer. As I said above with connecting, take your next step with contributing through blogs and social media. Use those tools to show off the best things you and your students learned and did the past year. Share what you learned from doing the four other habits listed here. Share that thing you're making, even in the process of making it.

If you do share some work at any time this summer, please consider using the Summer Teaching Like an Artist hashtag:  #tlaasummer16