Wisdom Begins with Wonder

Doin’ time

The longer I teach, the more important I perceive each day to be. This puts me at direct odds with my students, most of whom spend their entire school day trying to kill the clock in any remotely amusing way possible. An hour to them is an eternity, while to me, every minute wasted is a crime against the gods of opportunity cost.

There are times where I’m able to transcend this barrier in my classroom; when the kids and I get into the “flow” and time flies. These are the days when the bell rings and kids say, “class is over already? I don’t want to go to next period!” Unfortunately, I can’t make this magic happen every day. Sometimes we hit a “hot” streak and have several good days like this in a row. Other times we hit a slump and every day feels like a battle – them wanting to be off task and me wanting them to accomplish some learning experience and to do so faster.

Sometimes this dance wears on me. I get tired of the negotiation – how much time on task is enough? how much off task conversation is too much? how do I reign in the social chatter without turning my classroom into a mausoleum?

The ultimate irony of this conundrum is that the more I crack down to force compliance, the less productive the students become. Groups refuse to collaborate, class discussions attract chirping crickets, and all joy seems to leave the room.

On the flip side, if I leave students to be self-directed, fires erupt in all corners. A few dedicated individuals block out the noise to forge ahead. Groups fade in and out of productivity interspersed with length periods of social chatter.

Tasks to which I want to allot 10 minutes take some groups 10 minutes and others 20.

The sad thing is that I see two types of tasks where students are most compliant: individual work and lecture. These two types of tasks are ones which I use sparingly and yet with which students seem the most comfortable.

Conversely, the tasks with which students most seem to struggle to focus on are complex group tasks which require higher-order thinking skills. These are the tasks during which productive social discourse becomes most critical. These are also the tasks with which I struggle most to keep student conversations on topic. I hustle from group to group facilitating discussion. A group will make progress while I am there, so I leave to check in with other groups. When I return to the same group 5-10 minutes later, I often find them at the same point where I left them.

To be clear, this is not an every day problem. Unfortunately, it happens enough to be a concern. I realize that my expectations are high but I know my students are capable of much more than they are often giving.

I have dabbled with group roles and this does help – but only when the roles are clearly defined and closely match the task. In the past I worked really hard to push a consistent set of group roles but often found that 2 or 3 of them didn’t fit the given task. Because I like to have my students do a variety of activities, often with multiple transitions within one class period, it is incredibly inefficient to create and introduce new group roles for every single task.

So, my questions to you, dear readers:

  • What strategies do you use to keep students on task, especially during group tasks?
  • If you assign group roles, what roles do you use?
  • If you have specific group roles you use, how do you help students to effectively play those roles?

13 things I would do with more work time

I work about as much as is humanly possible while still maintaining a personal life and time for my family. I have read about innovative schools where teachers have a lighter class load and more time during the day to do the complicated job of teaching more effectively.
I often wonder what I could do if I had more time during my work day. Here is a list of 13 things I would do with more time:
  1. Reflect daily on the effectiveness of my lessons and plan better ones for tomorrow
  2. Plan more creative ways to integrate technology effectively in my classroom
  3. Keep detailed records of the learning evidence shown by each of my students
  4. Contact parents regularly with detailed reports about their students
  5. Maintain a classroom website that would be updated daily with information about what happened in each class, both for students and their families
  6. Give students more detailed feedback about their work, their learning, and their potential
  7. Plan more individualized and differentiated activities based on specific student needs and interests
  8. Do a lot more inquiry-based activities
  9. Do more professional reading
  10. Meet with my colleagues to learn together
  11. Meet with my colleagues to plan together
  12. Blog professionally more consistently
  13. Meet with students individually outside of class time to discuss their learning and set goals
What would you do with more time during the work day?

Group quiz question follow-up

Here is where edu-blogging +Twitter really shines, folks. To bring you all up to speed, here is a brief summary of events:

1. I read a post by Joss Ives about 2-stage quizzes (stage 1= solo, stage 2=group)

2. I said, “cool idea, how can I make that work with standards-based grading?” and made a blog post about my quandary

4. I sent it to a few Twitter users whom I know are #SBG veterans

5. I received a great comment from Matt Townsley that helped me to see the problem more clearly

So, to tackle Matt’s questions one by one, here goes:

Matt: What instructional or classroom management concern are you trying to address by introducing this idea into your class?

I see the idea of immediately following an individual quiz with a group quiz as a chance for students to, (1) get immediate feedback from their peers about the quiz and where their knowledge level is, and (2) improve their understanding of the content/concept at a time when they should be most receptive to correcting misconceptions and filling knowledge gaps.

The main problem I think the group quiz may address is the problem of students generally sucking at diagnosing their knowledge gaps and taking intentional steps to repair those gaps. I’m hoping the group quiz will help those who bombed the quiz be more successful upon re-assessment.

Matt: Another idea – could you add a third stage? After students receive feedback (no letter grade…or a fictitious grade based on the75% + 25% formula) from the second stage, could you add a third stage where students completed it only individually?

The decision: What I ended up doing falls somewhere in between. We did a small-group whiteboard session yesterday where I circulated to ask questions and provide feedback. This served as a formative assessment for me and as a culminating learning experience for them. Today, they took the quiz individually for a grade. After all of the individual quizzes were complete, I had them complete the same quiz in small groups NOT for a grade.

In my next post, I’ll share the results and my reflection on the process!

Teaching “honors” students

Teaching in a new school comes with many new experiences. This year has been my “second first year” of teaching and it has been exhausting and challenging but also rewarding.

One thing that I’m experiencing this year for the first time is having a group of “honors” students.

<context>

  • School size = ~1,800
  • % free and reduced lunch = 90+%
  • % minority students = 90+%
  • # of 9th grade science students = ~500
  • # of 9th grade honors students = ~50
  • How honors students are selected = IHaveNoIdea
</context>

I have worked in two places and both were high poverty schools identified by our state as needing improvement. Similar schools, similar context. The big exception to the similarity is that my previous school had a graduation rate hovering around 50% and my current school has gone from 40% graduation to 80% in the last 5 years.

  • Effort - So, I have these “honors” kids and they like to learn. The compliance level is ridiculous, which scares me. The difference in innate desire to learn is dramatic – even when it’s not for points. Standards-based grading is rolling with these guys becuase they will go study and come back and re-assess when they aren’t happy with their initial grade on an assessment.
  • Computer access - Another key difference is that all but one of these kids has an internet connected computer at home. This obviously indicates a higher level of familial income than I have typically worked with. Most of the previous times I’ve polled classes about computer access at home, the percentage has been more like 50%.
  • Much greater parental involvement/ pressure - Many of these parents come to conferences. Several will call/ email me when they have questions. Kids report losing privileges at home for B grades.
  • Work gets done outside of class time - When I give homework, it gets done. Kids redo assignments that they didn’t do well the first time (and actually use my feedback!). My students are currently doing science fair. I gave the option to my non-honors classes and none took me up on it. In my honors class, 11 of 23 are participating in science fair. Nearly all of this work has happened outside of class time and yet they have made incredible progress, many of whom with complex projects (homemade motors, underwater robots, testing electrolytes in beverages).

The flipside of all of this is what keeps me up at night. What would my “regular” classes look like if each had another 2 or 3 “honors” kids returned to them? Does a rising tide lift all ships? Or would the “honors” kids just be bored/frustrated by the slower pace?

Working group assessments in with #SBG

Yesterday, I read a few posts from physics professor Joss Ives at his blog, Science Learnification. One of the posts that really got me thinking was about weekly two-stage quizzes in his physics classes.

A two-stage group exam is form of assessment where students learn as part of the assessment. The idea is that the students write an exam individually, hand in their individual exams, and then re-write the same or similar exam in groups, where learning, volume and even fun are all had.

I really like the idea of having students take a quiz individually, then take it again immediately afterward in a group. I’m going to give this a try next time a give a quiz. If nothing else, instant feedback mixed with collaborative problem solving is a powerful combination.

What I’m trying to wrap my brain around right now is how to work this in with standards-based grading.

Since I don’t give points, I can’t do the 75% individual score + 25% group score = quiz grade split that Joss uses. If I could sit with all groups at once, I could observe and listen for individual involvement in the discussion & problem solving.

It may be that we could just do the group quiz portion as a learning experience and leave it at that. Since my students are always allowed to re-assess, there is value in learning after the assessment.

What I think would be lacking for me is the level of engagement that Joss reports in the group problem solving portion of the quiz. His kids are engaged in no small part because everyone’s grade is on the line. I’m not sure where the immediate motivation would be for many of my students.

Any ideas?

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.

Euglena inquiry reflection

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” ~ Paulo Freire

In my previous post, I described my effort to take a “cookie cutter” lab and make it more inquiry-based.

My students decided to test 7 variables about the Euglena setup that we were working with:

  • distance from the light
  • type of paper covering the Euglena container
  • size of holes in the paper
  • type of material covering the Euglena container (foil)
  • type of light (black light)
  • amount of liquid in the container
  • size of container

Each group planned and carried out their experiment with minimal input from me. Today they gathered their data and put together whiteboards to summarize their results. I asked them to divide their whiteboard up with the following sections:

  • hypothesis
  • claim
  • evidence
  • reasoning

Here is an example of one whiteboard:

We ran out of time to have our culminating discussion, so that will have to wait for tomorrow. From my conversations with the students while they were making their whiteboards today, this inquiry will help set them up well for learning more about the process of photosynthesis.

A few random reflections:

  • I believe the students were more engaged in gathering data than when they just “do a lab”
  • I felt that there was more curiosity and more interesting questions posed today than usual
  • My students are still struggling with reasoning, so I need to keep working on that skill
  • I need to introduce a small group whiteboarding protocol to keep all students involved actively in the creation of the whiteboard