This school year, I'm beginning work on my masters degree in educational leadership. The first course in that program has just finished, and I thought I'd include two papers that I wrote for the class here.
The first is one I wrote in response to and article by Sarah Fine, where I discuss what I see as my next steps in developing PBL and helping it shed it's oppressive history. I read new educational theory as part of the pre-work for this class, and this paper helped me get my thoughts in order.
The second paper was my final paper for the class, where I summarize what I learned and how the class had developed my thinking. At the end of this course, we were tasked with a self assessment, something that I have never done before, but that I enjoyed and will probably adapt to use with my own class.
For teachers that are beginning to teach at a distance using videoconferencing tools (like me), my major takeaways from this learning were these:
1. Use small groups/breakouts as much as is appropriate. The best learning happens in small discussions. You may apply accountability techniques for what happens in the breakout room, but don't jump in unannounced, let the kids have some responsibility for doing the work,
2. Ask your class what they want to learn. If possible, only teach them things that they ask about. A good place to start it to give them something to do in your subject area and then see what questions they have about doing the work. This is much better then telling them everything you think they will need to know.
3. Related to #2, student voice and experience should lead as much as possible. Teaching to student questions is one way to do this. Negotiating about videoconference etiquette is another. By centering everything on the student experience you will avoid becoming the teacher you hated in school and motivated you to become a teacher yourself.
What if they all just copy you?
This is a phrase that I heard a couple times when visiting teachers would ask about my most recent project, Lakeview. While the kids are working, my complete prototype is hanging on the wall behind them. I use it a lot to show the class how I put something together or what size hole I drilled or whatever. While some might see imitation and copying as a problem, I see it as an essential part of learning.
"I can't even begin to think about next semester yet."
I hear this often. Project teachers at this time of the year are usually very absorbed with planning their exhibitions. Issues and snags appear and they must react quickly to try and display all of the student work. They must make a lot of decisions and it's exhausting. There is not enough room to do all of this and also plan out a project for the next semester, even though a quality project takes a lot of time to plan. It is a cycle of decision fatigue
Time Well Spent
I spend a ton of time planning out time with my students and making plans for projects. There's a cycle of Idea --> Predict --> Observe --> Improve. Because I have had a lot of practice with this pattern it comes pretty naturally to me. Lately I have been recognizing that being able to go through these steps is a skill as much as writing, building or public speaking so I have tried to give students chances to practice the cycle of ideas.
Lots of times I will notice students get distracted or off task when something had gone unexpectedly. Their measurements were wrong or they forgot to add something important. My interpretation is that they are skipping the Predict step and not getting into the Improve step. By not making predictions they don't see potential conflicts or issues in their idea and my not being practiced in making improvements they see their first failure as the end of the process and don't continue to try new things. To be the most help to the class I've been trying to give them lots of opportunities to practice and develop these skills.
"Children exhibit challenging behavior when the demands being placed upon them outstrip the skills they have to respond adaptively to those demands. The same can be said of all human beings."
The above quote is attributed to Dr. Ross Greene (as are the rest in this post), a clinical child psychologist who has been trying to help teachers and parents understand what they see as misbehavior from their children or students. The first thing that I like about the quote is that he expands the idea to all human beings. Something that I've learned while teaching is that it's no use at all treating my students like some subset of humans that have different dreams and desires and needs than myself.
This quote is in reference to the explanations traditionally given as to why people misbehave. If one believes that those who exhibit difficult behavior are doing so because they are manipulative or coercive or something then you will view them in a more negative light. However if one believes that everyone wants to do well, and that misbehavior is better explained as a lack of the skills to do well than there is an inherent sense of compassion. This is a much better place to start and a more helpful way to address the behavior than a negative place.
"When do you look bad? When you can't look good"
As above, the things that I'm learning about when I learn about my students are applicable to the rest of humans. The above quote is true of myself. I can remember times when I let people down, made an offensive joke, or embarrassed myself. In none of these situations was I trying to look bad, I just made a mistake or misread the situation. I must believe that the same is true of my students. People do well if they can. In this perspective misbehavior is nothing malicious but a lack of ability or skill to do the right thing. Greene says that from this perspective ones role is no longer trying to make a difficult person do the right thing but figuring out what's getting in that person's way and helping them get rid of it. This is a much more collaborative and compassionate perspective and the one I prefer to take.
From the perspective described above one becomes a partner in problem solving with the person that you are trying to help. This is already vastly preferred to being the teacher trying to make a student do what you want. As someone who is empathetic and compassionate and involved in helping solve a problem I feel way more engaged and helpful than if I'm telling someone why they're wrong or doing the wrong thing.
At the beginning of this semester I was looking for ways to improve in my teaching practice. I had had a fairly successful experience with my previous class though I hadn't collected much feedback from the class except for at the very end. I was asking a colleague how to know that I was doing a good job throughout the semester. What were some small metrics that I could keep track of that would indicate whether or not I was facilitating a good experience for my students? Among the advice I received then, one nugget of knowledge stood out and I have been thinking about it ever since. They said "Make sure everyone feels like they can be heard."
To address this I set out to try a technique called the "whip around". It's pretty straightforward and will get every student to respond to a question and helps get thoughts moving.
What: Start with a question that can be answered with a brief 1 or 2 word answer. These can be answers on a scale or yes/no responses among others. In this case I asked everyone to rate their sense of preparedness for exhibition, from 1 to 10.
Why: When I learned about this technique it was justified as a way to give everyone space to have their voice heard in the classroom. It's a low stakes, short response, and nobody needs to fight for attention. When I used this I told the group that it was important for everyone to hear the range of answers in how prepared we were so that they wouldn't feel bad about feeling behind, since there are others in the same situation.
How: Set up here is easy. The whole class is present, distractions away, and ready to listen. Give them the prompt and the scale. Before they responded I asked them to turn to the person next to them and discuss what their number would be. This is just another way to help people who might not feel comfortable sharing aloud plan out their response. Once they have a chance to chat for a minute, start going around with everyone just giving their number without a justification or explanation.
The value of this technique for me was in the follow up. Leading a reflective discussion was a great time in both classes, and I noticed a higher participation rate in this discussion than previously. Because they had all discussed their answers previously they seemed to speak up more. I asked the group to estimate the average preparedness based off of everyone's answers. I asked if they were surprised by group's answers or not.
To help everyone feel like they are able to be heard is a challenge. As a teacher or facilitator it isn't enough to ask good questions or keep everyone on time. One needs also to build in places where everyone is given a space to speak and create a culture of inclusivity. Activities like the above are helping me develop in this part of my teaching career. Like other aspects of teaching I've come pretty far and still have a long ways to go.
I can't remember to whom it is attributed, but I heard a great quote recently. "The only teachers are models and reflection." This quote gave voice to my convictions about PBL education. Everything I ask students to do needs a model, and an effective way to measure their growth is through their reflection.
In terms of social emotional learning, reflection is useful for building a sense of self-awareness too. Leading students to be reflective and examine their work and motivations helps to foster presence of mind in the future. Reflection can become a frequent act, occurring throughout a project or experience, until it becomes something like consciousness and presence of mind.
Honestly this is a goal for myself. Last semester while working through student reflections, I commented to a colleague that the students were more reflective that I had been in college, and that I hadn't been reflective at all during high school. "I just wasn't a reflective person in high school" I said.
"That's because nobody asked you to be" they replied.
Earlier in the semester I presented my students with a list of behaviors of learners. The list included things like "uses materials appropriately", "follows schedules" and "problem solves". We reviewed and critiqued the list as a way to be reflective about the class.
In reflecting on that lesson I realized that a few of the behaviors listed had anything to do with Social Emotional Learning, but those not explicitly. I wondered if I was building a culture that promoted empathetic learning and emotional management, but more broadly whether or not our school held those values for both staff and students.
This week I had conversations with colleagues centered mostly around conflict resolution. I asked them who they spoke with on campus when they felt frustrated or proud or needed help developing a relationship with a colleague. Mostly I discovered an informal network of supportive coworkers and not someone with a specific role related to SEL development.
Our school environment is built around what I have recognized as some tenants of SEL, such as decision making and self-management, though I haven't found structures which emphasize or promote things like social awareness or relationship skills. As a result our staff and student body are well able to work unsupervised and manage their time, though there is inconsistency in self awareness and relationship. Before one can develop a skill it must be named, so perhaps there should be one within our community who makes those skills which we can improve obvious and clear.
As a staff we do not deliberately spend time developing SEL skills. Its hard to say how this effects us because I generally feel that our staff is amiable and cooperative, though SEL is more than that. If we were to model for our students what it is like to collaborate and work from a place of developed social emotional ability, I wonder what changes might happen in our student body.
I received Ron Berger's book "Ethic of Excellence" about a month ago but only read it over the weekend. I found it inspiring and centering as far as focusing on what parts of teaching I like the most. I collected my favorite parts of the book into Practices and Mindsets that I want to incorporate into my work.
** 1 Year Later Reflection, see end of post
Something that I do well in my classes is consistently asking my students to be reflective. I've learned and discovered that the most authentic learning happens in reflection, thinking back over a completed project and thinking into the future about what you will do differently. I wish that I could say that I put as much effort into asking the students to practice their critical creative thinking. I hope to be explicit about leading a class that can defend and justify decisions and choices in projects based on evidence, research and experience.
This week I've been doing some reading about different ideas in how to teach math, including The Mathematicians Lament by Paul Lockhart and a piece by Jo Boaler, a Stanford Professor of Mathematics Education (called the "goddess of math education" by some). Both of these authors points out flaws they see in the current mainstream form of math education and encourage others to make changes to how they think about teaching math.
It's good to be reminded of this tenant of human communication as I was while reading this article. During my orientation at High Tech High we discussed how everyone wants to do well, and behavior that traditionally is understood as problematic or rebellious can be better interpreted as communication. After hearing thinking on that idea, I looked inward.
In my first few weeks of teaching I was sensitive to my behavior and choices surrounding my interactions with students. When was I visibly excited? Frustrated? What did I dedicate most of our class time doing? By examining these things I could determine what I was communicating to my class and what I was showing them to be important to me or unimportant.
In a similar way I can look at my students working habits and behaviors and derive some kind of communication. A large percentage of my class fails to submit an assignment on time. I must not be giving clear directions or displaying due dates effectively. Quality of project work is low. I must not be showing students how to take details seriously. The class is loud and inattentive. I must not be building a culture of respect for others or emphasizing the importance of listening when someone else has something to share.
I still believe that everyone, students included, wants to do well. Nobody wants to be the one rushing to finish everything at the last minute or the person who gets called out during class for something. There are other motivations behind these behaviors and reasons why people choose to do or not to do things. By examining the causes of these behaviors I can shape my practice to respond to them as forms of communication and see these actions as gifts of insight rather than fires to put out.
Recently I've gotten interested in rock climbing. I go to an indoor gym pretty regularly and enjoy the challenge. As much fun as rock climbing indoor can be, it's nothing like getting outside and climbing some real rock. I recently went to Mission Gorge with a friend and got to climb a few serious walls. He's a very experienced climber who leads trips all the time so I should have felt safe but it was hard to tell myself that when I was preparing to rappel down a 100 foot face using some knots he had just whipped together for me.
In my class this week we were shown a presentation on Autism Spectrum Disorder and teaching strategies to help those in our classes who are affected by it. According to the presentation, major piece of what these students need is help developing relationships so it is suggested that teachers create buddy systems for their students who have ASD. Having somebody to model appropriate behaviours and habits is supposed to be really useful for students with ASD.
As I reflected on this suggestion I thought about climbing with my friend. I think we can all benefit from having partners and buddies in work or projects that we do. Because of this I thought maybe in future classes of mine I can set up study partners who help each other with make up work, submitting assignments and general check ins. I'm working to make my class as inclusive as it can be and so I hesitate to require something of a few of my students and not others
This week our class hosted Rachelle Archer from the Monarch School in Barrio Logan which is a school for children and families who are experiencing homelessness. She is the director of their Therapeutic Arts program and spoke to us about her experiences there as well as strategies she uses to create an inclusive environment.
Philip Estrada is a teacher at High Tech High Media Arts in San Diego California. He teaches Physics by having kids build things in a woodshop.