Teacher Talk

(Getting) Better Together

posted Nov 10, 2019, 1:48 AM by HSD Principal   [ updated Nov 10, 2019, 2:29 AM ]

At EARCOS, I attended a couple of sessions with a presenter from Resources for Better Teaching (and it was mostly for reasons other than that they are from Boston). During each session, the speaker mentioned that in thirty years of research and consulting, he and his colleagues had never seen an effective school in which teachers were not working together to improve learning. In other words, collaboration based around improved practice was a factor present in every effective school they have seen.

As you have been working together this year, hopefully you have found engaging with colleagues about your teaching practices encouraging. But maybe you are wondering how to make your group work more effective. The cover story in the current Harvard Business Review is Cracking the Code of Sustained Collaboration. As Francesca Gino has studied organizations in which effective collaboration happens, she found three common employee characteristics: they respect colleagues’ contributions; they are open to experimenting with others’ ideas; and they are sensitive to how one’s actions affect colleagues’ work. Gino specifies six skills that can be taught and learned that she says will help anyone looking to improve their collaboration. In the upcoming ASERT times, try to pick one and work on it with your team.

Train to Listen, Not Talk
We should:
  • Ask expansive questions: Try to get others to elaborate on ideas by asking "why" and "how" type questions instead of yes-or-no questions.
  • Focus on listening, not on yourself: Practice active listening techniques instead of spending time thinking about what you will say or how you will respond.
  • Engage in "self-checks": Constantly evaluate how you are responding in interactions. Pay attention to and critique your own tendencies while working with others.
  • Become comfortable with silence.

Train to Practice Empathy
You will understand your colleagues' contributions better if you can learn to see things from their point of view. 

Train to be More Comfortable with Constructive Feedback
This can be one of the main hinderances to observing and being observed in your classroom; it is uncomfortable to have others tell you what you don't do so well. But all professionals evaluate their own performance and ask coaches to do the same. "Discuss feedback aversion openly" in your groups and give each other the permission to give it when needed.

Train to Lead and Follow
Everyone will fill both roles at some point while working together.

Train to Speak with Clarity and Avoid Abstractions
Clearly state your thinking and conclusions. And speak directly to specific things you notice while working together. Saying, "The assessment guidelines you gave for the photosynthesis lab were not clear," is much more helpful than saying, "We should make sure students know what we want."

Train to Have Win-Win Interactions
Make sure you fully understand what other people are asking or expecting. Sometimes outcomes that seem mutually exclusive are not after all.

You're Getting Better

posted Oct 20, 2019, 3:59 AM by HSD Principal

I remember my first year teaching: It took forever to get ready for each day. I was super inefficient at grading and returning student work. And I couldn't think more than a day or two ahead. (Moving to being guidance counselor, chaplain, and then principal brought back many of those same feelings and experiences.) I also remember thinking, "Other teachers have been here forever (anything over five years seemed like a really long time), so it must get easier at some point."

In his article in Education Week, Justin Minkel argues that teaching doesn't in fact get any easier over time; the instruction and student interactions are just as challenging year to year. But, the job does get better as teachers continue to learn and grow. Here are some growth experiences he highlights that make the job more rewarding:
  • Looking at your next class and seeing each individual student with all their potential;
  • Balancing responsibility with moments of joy, with students working hard every day but also laughing;
  • Learning when to follow your instincts and when to question long-held beliefs, “when to trust yourself and when to ask for help, when to give your methods time to work and when to try something different;”
  • Bringing your hard-earned experience to bear on each new dilemma, “whether it’s a child who still can’t read or a child who won’t stop crying and come out from under her desk;”
  • Being less negative about tests, rubrics, and standards, seeing them as important tools for teaching and learning (think back to Leighton's UBD presentation);
  • Teaching little brothers and sisters of former students and reconnecting with families that love you.
  • Learning, “like Odysseus does in Homer’s Odyssey, that the trials of a day, year, or an entire career can become sweet in the telling – that the absurd situation that made you gnash your teeth this morning is kind of hilarious as you tell your loved ones about it.”
As we push into second quarter, remember that that things you learn each day, week, and year will help you as the next class of students walk into your room.

Keep Yourself Going

posted Sep 22, 2019, 2:15 AM by HSD Principal   [ updated Sep 22, 2019, 2:16 AM ]

In Educational Leadership, Chase Mielke wrote A Letter to New Teachers, giving advice on how to start off in a new place. But reading his advice, it seemed appropriate to all of us as we try to keep ourselves inspired for an entire school year - or for another entire school year. The linked article is short and worth the read, but here are the highlights:

Find a positive tribe. Look for people who will give you energy, excitement, and passion for your teaching.  Ask advice, share ideas, and get better together.

Curate the good and don’t hoard the bad. Don't hold onto or fret over bad days, a failed instructional practice, or a current situation you can't change. Focus your mental energy on helping students learn.

Forgive. Students are sinful people. We are all sinful people. We will all cause hurt to and be hurt by those around us. We need to be willing to forgive wrongs and not hold them against others. The unforgiving person is the one who suffers.

Own your present and future. There are thing about our situations that we cannot control, but you are the most influential factor on your students' learning. Remember all that you do have control over and make wise decisions about how to move forward. 

Craft your calling. None of us teach or relate to students in the same ways. Find ways to play to your strengths and account for your weaknesses. But also know why you teach and keep that at the forefront of your mind. (If you were in the Christian Philosophy of Education group last year, it should be in your paper :) )

Mielke concludes his article:
Be proud that you are in a meaningful profession. But be prepared to fight every year—and every day—to keep your passion alive. Remember that the conditions of teaching matter, but your actions matter most.

Peer Observation

posted Sep 14, 2019, 11:42 PM by HSD Principal

Over the next two weeks, all teachers will be determining their teacher growth goals for the year and beginning to plan on how to achieve them. One simple and free way to grow as a teacher is to observe other teachers at work and have others observe you. We all have our own blind spots - especially when it comes to our practices. Having an additional set of eyes in your class can help you realize things you never would have otherwise. It's also a good starting point for discussion (e.g. "Why did you include that activity?" "What could I have done better to respond to that student?"). 

To get you thinking, here are some articles about teacher peer observations:
All of the linked articles are short and can be read quickly, so instead of me summarizing them for you, I'd encourage you to take a few minutes and read through them. 

Take some inspiration from teacher Ben Fabian. Each year, he posts an open invitation for anyone to come observe his class at any time. But beyond welcoming observation, he asks for feedback on specific questions:
  • Can students describe what they are working on and why they are working on it? (This assumes observers are welcome to interact with students while in the room and that it is unlikely a lecture will be happening at the time.)
  • Are my activities well scaffolded to help students of all abilities?
  • Do my activities in class encourage engagement and collaboration?
  • Are there ways I can better use technology to achieve the goals of the activities in my class?
As you plan your teacher goals for this year, consider what practices you would like feedback on and plan on making those known to your peers. Also, be willing to observe and be observed at any time. We all get better by working together and helping each other.

Making Connections

posted Sep 1, 2019, 5:36 AM by HSD Principal

We are far enough into the school year that you likely have begun to develop relationships with your students - hopefully High School Retreat and homeroom sessions have helped that. But there are probably still some students with whom you are struggling to make relational connections. Earlier this year, Leslie Cyr wrote about 8 Ways to Connect Effectively with Your Students

Read the whole article (it's short) for her explanations, but her top 8 list includes:
  • Find Common Ground
  • Celebrate Them
  • Know & Ask
  • Be Consistent
  • Listen
  • Communicate
  • Check Your Emotions
  • Care
Jennifer Gonzelez (Cult of Pedgogy) addressed a the same topic a few years back as she reviewed the book You've Gotta Connect by James Sturtevant. Again, the article is short and worth the read - and it includes an interview with the author if you just want to listen. Sturtevant's advice includes:
  • Drop the Nostalgia
  • Tell Your Own Stories
  • Learn Their Culture.
  • Keep Prying. Keep Persisting. Be Patient.
  • Run Toward Trouble.
And if you are looking to elicit feedback from your students to help build those connections, here is an idea sent to me by Brian. It was originally posted on Facebook by Julia Brown, but has since gone viral and was reported on by many different internet sources. I am imagining how many problems we could prevent from escalating if students had a regular venue to provide feedback like this.

A few weeks ago I posted about the “I need” box I was starting in my class. I wanted to give everyone an update.

If you recall, it was a way for my students to ask for help without having to come directly to me. They would write it on a card and leave it in the box.

The first week, two boys let me know about a bullying situation. We got it taken care of.

The next week I changed the format a little and starting having EVERY student put a card in the box every day. They didn’t have to write on it, but every student visits the box daily.

Since then, I’ve had a plethora of “needs” submitted. They range from specific supply needs, seat changes, special handshakes when entering class, after school help, bullying situations, and even daily hugs.

What’s even better is students are starting to come to me directly with issues/challenges they are having bypassing the box completely.

I’ve been teaching middle school for 15 years, and I can honestly say this is the best thing I’ve ever done to reach my kids this early in the school year.

Working to Outsmart Plagiarism

posted Aug 26, 2019, 12:48 AM by HSD Principal

If you are anything like most teachers, you have struggled with how to effectively teach students proper use of external sources - and then monitor how well they are doing. Amy Cavanaugh wrote about her experiences trying to work with a generation for whom sharing information is second nature. The whole article is behind a paywall, but here is a relevant anecdote from Kim Marshall:

Early in her career, Cavanaugh assigned the following essay prompt as her class read To Kill a Mockingbird: “What does the mockingbird symbolize in the novel?” Students who Googled “mockingbird symbolism” found a wealth of information: other kids’ essays on that exact topic, a comprehensive SparkNotes analysis with cited evidence, and impressive critical articles by scholars who had thought through the question and come up with top-notch answers. Teachers can’t expect students to ignore such a treasure trove of material, says Cavanaugh: “When the questions that are proposed ask them to regurgitate the ideas of those that came before them, we can guess what the outcome will be…”

One student said to her, “It’s just a matter of working smarter, not harder. If the answer is out there, it’s kinda dumb not to look.” But there’s a big downside: “Students often work harder to avoid getting caught ‘stealing’ ideas than they do thinking meaningfully about the question, or even about the answers they find, and they don’t have opportunities to improve.” Clearly, mockingbird symbolism-type essay questions are a problem and don’t advance the deeper mission of the English curriculum. 

Cavanaugh decided to take a different approach, making “the devil into my ally”: she asked students to do an Internet search for credible material on that question, analyze and evaluate the reasoning, and defend, qualify, or refute what they found. “This assignment,” she says, “requires the same kind of literary analysis, but minimizes the incentive to plagiarize and better acquaints students with using outside sources effectively.” She tries to orchestrate assignments and discussions that aren’t “busywork.”

As you evaluate your courses, are there "What does the mockingbird symbolize?" type assessments? If so, how could you modify them so that students are expected to refer to sources, but also required to evaluate them and integrate them into their own learning?

“Cultivating Critical Thought in the Gen-Z Culture of Sharing” by Amy Cavanaugh in English Journal, July 2019 (Vol. 108, #6, pp. 32-38)

A few new books:

posted Aug 17, 2019, 11:07 PM by HSD Principal

Thanks to the curriculum office, there are a couple of new books in the high school PD library. If either one strikes your fancy, pick it up to peruse in the coming weeks.

Marzano books

Thinking about Late and Missing Work

posted Aug 11, 2019, 12:37 AM by HSD Principal

This week, Jennifer Gonzelez at Cult of Pedagogy looks at how teachers deal with late work. She begins by asking a few questions about grades that help inform the conversation. She says teachers need to ask themselves:
  • What do your grades represent?
  • Are you grading too many things?
  • What assumptions do you make when students don't turn in work on time?  
  • What grading system is realistic for your context?
The whole article is worth the read as she addresses several different ways of handling work that is not turned in on time. But she ends with a few ideas to consider in order to help mitigate the issue:
  • Include students in setting deadlines so that they can take extracurricular activities and non-school considerations into account.
  • Stop assigning homework and do all significant work in the classroom.
  • Make homework optional or self-selected so that students can be a part of determining how much practice they need on your topic.
She also highlights her ebook 20 Ways to Cut Your Grading Time in Half.

Here's What Teens Say They Need

posted May 12, 2019, 1:44 AM by HSD Principal

Here's just one quick article during this busy time of year.

The May edition of ASCD has an article on what teens say they are hoping for in school. The sample size was small, but you can read through the article for the researcher's findings. Her conclusions fall into five main categories:
  1. Teens want explicit proof that the adults in their lives know them as individuals.
  2. Teens want easily accessible resources.
  3. Teens demand authentic, meaningful work.
  4. Teenagers crave human interaction.
  5. Teens want the opportunity to fail.

Student Stress

posted May 5, 2019, 5:17 AM by HSD Principal

I was going to post a list of research and articles here on helping students deal with the stress they are likely encountering this time of year - both academic stress and relational and transition related stress. But all the research points to the same three pillars of self-care:

Eat right. Stay active. Get enough sleep.

So, as you are able, continue to beat that drum with your students. Paying attention to those three things will serve them well as they enter the final month of school.

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