Leveraging relationships

Relationships are critically important in classrooms and schools. Students must have strong positive relationships with each other and with the adults in the school. Relationships are the foundation of a successful school and classroom. Without healthy relationships learning cannot happen. Do these relationships between the adults and students have to be friendly? Not necessarily – but they do have to be mutually respectful.

That being said, the relationship must be positive for both sides. In the absence of a positive relationship, kids will hate going to class and can begin to associate that feeling with the content they are learning. Negative relationships can be a genuine barrier to learning. Taking it one step further, I think teenagers in particular need to perceive that they are not being treated as inferiors.

One of my greatest teacher skills is building strong, trusting relationships with my students. My students genuinely like me and enjoy being in my presence. They come to me on their own time to visit, to share successes, to seek advice or just to hang out. This is something I’ve always done naturally and done well.

So, here is my problem.

Though I naturally build positive relationships with my students, I sometimes struggle to leverage these into enhanced effort and focus.

Let me make it amply clear that I have no desire to manipulate my students. Far from it.

What I’m talking about is building upon the trusting, positive nature of the relationship to squeeze additional effort and focus from a student than they might otherwise give. I’m talking about the concept of the football coach whose players will “run through a wall for him” because they love, trust and respect him so much that his presence causes them to want to be a better version of themselves.

This is precisely my goal – to help students to become the best version of themselves that they can be.

I push myself daily to avoid asking my students to jump through hoops. I have no desire to leverage relationships into compliance. I want to leverage relationships to increased effort and focus. I want to leverage relationships into students being willing to try and fail and try again.

What I’m trying to wrap my brain around is how to maintain the type of relationships I have with my students while becoming more effective at pushing them do their best – or even better than their best.

When I’m able to do this with individual students, the transformation can be amazing. Some kids respond well to a well timed positive “pep talk” and take their learning to a higher level from that point forward. This takes too much time to be done effectively with a class of 30+ kids. I honestly think that if I had time to sit and talk with every kid a few times a week that they’d all be doing much better. Unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury.

I was spoiled

There is no other way to slice it.

For the last seven years, I taught in a school that gave me near-complete freedom to teach what and how I wanted to. With the National Science Education Standards and the Washington State Standards as rough guideposts, I focused on big ideas and my students investigated them deeply through prolonged project-based learning experiences. To ice the cake, I sported a 1:1 student:computer ratio in my classroom.

Inquiry was deeply ingrained in what we did but often on more of an academic, rather than scientific, level. Student curiousity and questions would absolutely drive the learning, much of which was accomplished via online resources. My students did some really amazing interdisciplinary technology-rich projects.

As proud as I was of these projects, I sometimes felt too little of the learning was rooted in scientific inquiry. This was especially true in biology. It is just plain hard to teach certain aspects of biology through scientific inquiry.

Physics and chemistry were always much easier to attack via rich scientific inquiry. I think this is mostly because the physical sciences are rooted in universal phenomena that we can often reproduce fairly easily (an inexpensively) in any classroom.

So, what’s so special about scientific inquiry?

When students actively engage in gathering data about the world around them and use this data to answer THEIR questions, they come to much deeper understanding of scientific principles than through “discovering” them on the Internet.

This brings us to my present context. Because I’m no longer spoiled with the freedom and technology riches that made my life easy before, I’m having to reinvent myself. So far, I’ve been surviving – sometimes using methods and materials that I would have shunned in the past few years. I’m increasingly finding my groove, though.

One thing is certain – it’s making me a better teacher.

Scientific inquiry is the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m identifying one or two key “labs” per content standard to serve as an anchor experience. From there, students will explore outward as their curiosity leads them. The key is helping them to come back together to share learning from their experimentation and to clearly connect their findings back to the standard. One way I’m doing this is with lots of whiteboarding and socratic discussion. Another way is with a strong emphasis on evidence and reasoning.

As I’ve started doing this, I’ve identified my students’ need for discourse skills. I’m thinking I need to develop protocols for small group and whole class discourse to scaffold them toward effective scientific discourse. Once I put these protocols together, I will share them here for feedback.

If you aren’t getting better, you’re getting worse

On homeostasis and entropy:

Homeostasis is a simple, yet powerful core concept of biology – that all living things strive for balance

The catch is that the mortal enemy of homeostasis is entropy – the principle that all things in the universe tend to disorder and that it requires energy to resist the inevitability of this disorder.

If I don’t work out every day, my physical fitness deteriorates. I have to put energy in every day to maintain (better yet, improve) my fitness level.

I want to be a better teacher. If I don’t direct energy every day into getting better, I’m getting worse.

A challenge to myself:

Teaching is incredibly complex and if we aren’t careful, we can get worse at it – and quickly. So I’m going to use this blog to help me do some work on my craft. I hope my readers will feel compelled to question, criticize and otherwise push my thinking.

To start down this road, I’m pulling together 3 core tenets of my classroom to place emphasis on. The first is inquiry. Since moving to a new school, I’ve been swimming upstream to try to get back to the headwaters of inquiry. The second is student engagement. More student connection to the content, more student thinking, more student doing. The third is assessment; both formative and summative (standards-based grading).

To summarize, 3 goal areas to improve my teaching practice:

  1. Inquiry (more and better)
  2. Increased student engagement
  3. More effective assessment

How will I improve?

Cal Newport has blogged repeatedly and brilliantly on the idea of deliberate practice. Daniel Willingham, in “Why Don’t Students Like School” wrote:

“… if you want to be a better teacher, you cannot be satisfied simply to gain experience as the years pass. You must also practice, and practice means (1) consciously trying to improve, (2) seeking feedback on your teaching, and (3) undertaking activities for the sake of improvement, even if they don’t directly contribute to your job.” (Willingham, 2010)

All roads lead to practice, it seems. So that’s where I’m going.

The Plan:

It isn’t complicated: Pick a focus strategy, protocol, method, whatever. Plan it. Do it. Reflect. Revise. Redeem. Repeat. Attack those 3 goals fervently, consistently and intentionally. The plan and reflect parts will happen here – for all to see. If I get really ambitious, I’ll post some video. That idea scares me, so that probably means I should do it!

What makes for high quality teacher learning?

Professional development?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about teacher learning (aka professional development).


A few reasons:

  • I’m taking a class at UW Oshkosh this summer about professional development and doing research for this class
  • I was selected as one of ten Success at the Core Fellows and this organization is all about professional development (for teachers, teacher leaders, coaches, administrators, etc.)
  • I’ve experienced some good PD in my career and a lot of bad PD

So, the real question I’m wresting with right now is “what makes for high quality teacher learning?”

This question really has two  parts: what IS high quality teacher learning (what does it look, sound, feel like, etc.) and how can schools facilitate effective learning for teachers (what are the criteria, key aspects, logistics, etc.)?

A few core ideas that I keep circling back to about effective teacher learning are that it must be inquiry-based, differentiated, ongoing, supported, and job-embedded.

So, readers – if there are any of you left – what makes for high quality teacher learning?

Image used under CC license from http://cynicsgirl.blogspot.com

What to do when students resist inquiry

the inquiry's the thing!

the inquiry's the thing!

The scene: any classroom in America

Backstory: Our hero, the intrepid teacher, in the face of overwhelming evidence, has decided to open up his classroom to student inquiry. He has provoked curiosity, facilitated brainstorming and set the students loose to explore their world with gusto. He is just about to begin congratulating himself for his progressive teaching methods.

Let’s look in on him and admire his brilliance at work, shall we?

- Begin scene –

Teacher (to student, cheerfully): “so, how is your project planning coming?”

Student: “this sucks!”

Teacher (taken aback but trying to stay positive): “can you be more specific? are you planning to study vaccuums, leeches or hurricanes?”

Student: “I don’t know. This is boring. Why can’t we just do a worksheet or work from the textbook?”

Teacher (clearly flustered now): “You don’t really mean that! You can choose your own question to pursue here. What could be more interesting than that?”

Student: “I don’t have any questions. Why do you always have to make everything so complicated? Why can’t you just tell us what to do and how to do it like Mr. X does?”

Teacher (trying to get control of the situation back): “Because I don’t think that’s a very good way for you to learn.”

Student: “So you’re saying Mr. X is a bad teacher? I like Mr. X’s class!”

Teacher (clearly blushing, planning retreat): “umm… no… not saying that… uhh… I’m just going to go over here now…” (muttering to self) “my methods professor never warned me about this…”

- End scene -

Any teacher who has made the switch to a more student-centered, inquiry-based classroom has encountered an exchange something like this one.

At first you are flabbergasted. You feel like someone just said to you, “I don’t want the internet; why can’t someone just bring me a newspaper and tell me what to read?” or, “who needs all of those choices at the soft drink machine? It should just have 7 buttons that all dispense Pepsi because that is what I’m used to!”

When you really sit down and think about it, though, it makes sense…

Inquiry requires students to think critically and to make decisions. It requires them to be responsible and accountable for their own learning. Inquiry places the choice for learning (or lack thereof) squarely on the shoulders of the student. Inquiry also removes the ability for the student to blame his or her boredom or lack of learning on the teacher (they’ll still try anyway, of course).

I’ve come to the point with my students where I feel that I’m able to change the conversation. Through practice and reflection, I’ve gotten better at facilitating brainstorming and questioning. I’m not surprised by this reaction anymore because I’ve seen it enough times.

One thing that I’ve started to do that has really resonated with students is to explain to them what they are experiencing and why it is good for them. I tell them something like,

“this is the perfect class for you! We’ve found an area where you need some work. The skills that I’m helping you to learn in this class will help you in future classes, college, careers, whatever. The ability to ask good questions and to find the answer to your own questions is fundamental to life. I won’t give up on you and I won’t think less of you for struggling or being frustrated. Don’t give up on yourself. How can I help you move forward?”

Some of them look at me like I have lobsters crawling out of my face. Most, though, react positively and welcome my help. Would that I could go back in time and help my past self (the hero in our earlier episode) navigate the stormy seas of adolescent frustration…

So, what is the would-be facilitator of inquiry to do in this situation?

  • Calmly acknowledge and affirm the student’s frustration – they’re really feeling it, after all!
  • Gently point out the fixed mindset and lack of personal agency that the student is displaying
  • Just as a teacher might do if a student doesn’t understand, say, the structure and function of DNA or how to use the periodic table, look at this exchange as information about the student’s particular learning needs
  • Understand that this behavior is classic evidence of a need to learn and develop inquiry skills
  • Make a note that this student needs greater support in inquiry situations
  • Explain all of this to the student (in student friendly terms, of course)
  • Check in with the student often and give lots of formative feedback to head off excessive frustration

What else should the teacher do in this situation?

Image of The Theater’s Stage of Yusupov Palace Saint Petersburg courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Freakonomics and education

This post began as a comment on Joe Bower’s blog, for the love of learning, in response to his post, “Shame on you Steven Levitt.”

I’ve been listening to Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics the past week while commuting. While I find the perspective and insight fascinating, I truly detested Levitt’s handling of the “cheating teachers” studies in Chicago.

His perspective on education is obvious when he talks about “bad teachers” and “good teachers” (as defined by standardized test scores). The disdain with which he talks about the teachers supposedly proven to be cheating the tests is also disappointing. The real problem, though, is that he asked the wrong question. The question shouldn’t have been, “do teachers cheat?” Sure, some teachers cheat – so do some people in every profession in the history of the world. Teachers are human too.

The real question should have been, “why are these teachers cheating and what does it tell us about the educational system?” Or, better still, “are standardized test valid measures of teaching and learning?” Instead, huge assumptions were made:

  1. Teachers are cheating to make themselves look good and to get pay raises (or avoid being fired) – while this may be entirely true, individual teachers’ motivations may have been drastically different;
  2. Standardized tests are valid measures of teaching and learning – obviously I don’t believe this at all;
  3. Test scores should be relatively stable from year to year – anyone who has pored over data from frequently administered tests knows this to be untrue. I’ve seen kids’ scores on the MAP test go up and down dramatically within a year

No debate as to the validity, reliability or value of standardized tests is mentioned. No concern about cohort effects is addressed.

Why should we expect an economist to understand the full scope of the issue?

We shouldn’t.

And yet, considering Levitt’s premise of using data and statistics to tell the story behind the story (I found his analysis of cheating in sumo wresting fascinating) I think he missed the true opportunity here.

The story Steven Levitt should be telling is the correlation between family income and test scores and what this indicates about our educational system and the future of our nation.


What can you do today to make yourself a better teacher?

I have a confession to make.

I’m a learning junkie.

There – I said it!

Yesterday was the first day of my Winter Break. I’ve been mildly sick all of the last week of school and refusing to stay home because I didn’t want to call in sick right before break. I have a 4 week old newborn at home. I really need a break this year!

So what did I do yesterday?

  • Wrote a proposal for a Washington STEM Entrepenurial Award (partly done with one hand while holding a sleeping infant)
  • Wrote a proposal to lead a Professional Learning Community study of formative assessment, feedback and summative assessment with my colleagues in January
  • Read 2 chapters of Making Learning Whole (mostly while riding my exercise bike)
  • Caught up on reading a few of my favorite blogs by my fellow educators

Of course, I also had plenty of time to read to the kids, hold the baby, take a nap, and watch A Christmas Story with the whole family.  Don’t worry – my family is not getting neglected!

I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t learn enough. I can’t improve my practice as an educator fast enough. The longer I teach, the more urgency I teach with.

The desire to become the best teacher I can be drives my voracious appetite for learning. I have a really hard time understanding teachers who don’t engage in any self-directed professional learning. It’s actually become a real pet peeve of mine to hear teachers say things like, “I don’t have time to READ!” Then they launch into a long-winded conversation about whatever crappy T.V. show they watched the night before.

How do you have time to NOT read?

How can you NOT care to improve as an educator?

I’m going to enjoy the heck out of my vacation. I’m also going to come back from this break a better educator than I was before it.

What can you do today to make yourself a better teacher?