Friday, August 28, 2015

What Can I Do?

My district has been hit with wave after wave of tragedy over the last five years. The loss of three teachers since March has caused so much heartache and created voids that just cannot be filled. Our superintendent, Bob Hastings, wrote a post where he shared some words of wisdom about what we can do in times of such sorrow. With his permission I am reposting What Can I Do ? with the hope that it will inspire you to follow his advice.

Written by Bob Hastings (@BasicBobH) on August 27, 2015

Over the past five months, Gering Public Schools has been stricken with unspeakable tragedy and loss. In March, we dealt with the unexpected death of 39 year Geil Elementary teacher Kathy Keller. In May, we once again faced tragedy with the unexpected death of 23 year Freshman Academy math teacher, coach, and assistant athletic director Gary Smith. Then, just this past Monday, we were struck by the sudden loss of 30 year GHS social studies teacher, theater and speech coach Jason deMaranville.

In each instance, as our staff and students have dealt with extreme grief, we have been touched by the love and support that our community has poured out upon us. The gifts of food, kind words, and support are made meaningful not so much by what they are, but by what they represent. These gifts show us that you are worried about us, that you are thinking of us, that you care.

Through each of these tragedies, after talking about how Mrs. Keller, Mr. Smith, or Mr. D have somehow touched their lives or the lives of their kids, the question that I have been most asked has been, “Is there something I can do?”

I want to tell you, there is something you can do. Something that doesn’t cost money or take a lot of time to do. But it is something that means everything.

What is that something? Find that teacher that made a difference for you. Find that teacher that has touched your child. Find that teacher and tell them what they mean to you. Find that teacher and send them a note of gratitude. Find that teacher and tell them about that time when they did something that made a difference for you or your child.

This week, I have been awestruck listening to the stories of grieving students as they have talked about what Mr. D meant to them. I have listened to friends and students say things like, “I wish I would have said…”

So, is there something you can do? Yes. Go tell your teacher thanks. Thanks for pouring their life into yours. And, please, don’t wait. Do it today!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Ditch the Worksheets and Notes and Make Learning More Meaningful to Your Students

For the first few years I taught I KILLED myself grading. My students would complete at least one worksheet during class and they would usually have at least one other assignment and a test or quiz. It was a LOT of work! It was not only a lot of work to grade all of it, but I usually created the assignments myself. (Other than the first year I taught I never used the materials that came with the textbook.) My classes followed a pattern that way too many classes still follow today: introduce a unit, take notes & answer questions out of the book, review the highlights, take a test (usually multiple choice and true/false so I could use the Scantron to grade them) and repeat for the next unit.

During the summer of 2008 I was part of a group of teachers that was responsible for designing online classes for a virtual academy. One of the classes I created was a World History class and the other one was a US History class. The curriculum specialist that worked with us for the first few days introduced us to the work of Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. She walked us through the framework known as Understanding by Design (UbD) and it completely changed how I looked at teaching, learning, and assessment. UbD is often called Backward Design because traditionally we start with content and then design our assessments which are usually multiple choice tests, at the conclusion of the unit of study. The Backward Design begins with the assessment. I love UbD because it is very simple and straightforward. There are only THREE steps!

Step 1
Determine what students should know, understand, and be able to do.

Step 2
Determine how you will know what students know, understand, and can do.

Step 3
Plan lessons and learning experiences.

This is an incredibly simplified explanation but for the purpose of this post it is enough. There are additional resources regarding UbD at the end of this post, but I want to share how I used this process in my classroom.

During that summer while I was designing courses using the Backward Design model something clicked. I began using this method with the classes I taught face-to-face and things just began to make so much more sense to me. I realized that my old routine of reading/notes, answering questions, then testing was not allowing my students to demonstrate their learning. It was during the 2008-2009 school year that I completely stopped using multiple choice tests and exclusively began using performance-based assessment. The days of trying to keep all students on the same page were over and it was so liberating for both myself and my students!

A common frustration I still have when reading blogs is that teachers share great ideas, but they rarely share the steps in the process. This post might end up being very long, but in the end you might walk away with some ideas that will transform your classroom routine.

The classes I taught were 9 weeks long and I taught 4 different classes each year. It didn't matter if I was teaching geography, history, or government, the planning process was still the same. I always started with a calendar and the state standards. One of the first classes I taught face-to-face using Backward Design was a course I developed called Learning Geography Through the National Parks.

I began by examining the Nebraska geography standards:

  • 12.3.1 Students will analyze where and why people, places, and environments are organized on the Earth's surface. 
  • 12.3.2 Students will examine how regions form and change over time. 
  • 12.3.3 Students will interpret how natural processes interact to create the natural environment. 
  • 12.3.4 Students will analyze and interpret patterns of culture around the world. 
  • 12.3.5 Students will evaluate interrelationships between people and the environment. 
  • 12.3.6 Students will analyze issues and events using the geographic knowledge and skills to make informed decisions. 
Since we only had 9 weeks (approximately 18 90-minute classes and a no homework policy) I had to determine which standards were most important. I eliminated standards 12.3.4  and 12.3.6 right away because they did not fit well into what I wanted my students to focus on for that quarter. Using the remaining four standards I came up with a list of what I wanted my students to know, understand, and be able to do. This list included things such as: 
  • Describe how your park was formed. (Each student selected a national park that they focused on for the quarter.) 
  • Describe how climate impacts the flora and fauna in your park.
  • Explain how erosion, humans, and natural forces such as earthquakes, tornadoes, etc. impact your park. 
Each student set up a Google Site to act as their workspace for the quarter. I created a template for them to use that included a page for each of the standards. Each of those pages included a list of performance indicators such as the ones listed above. (There were a few more, but I only included three for demonstration purposes.) Students had the option of which section they wanted to work on. During class I circulated around the room and made sure they were not stuck and that they were actually making progress. Students would let me know when they completed a section and were ready for me to grade it. In addition to giving them a rubric for each component,  I provided them with constant feedback so they knew exactly how they were doing on each step. I would also let them know if they needed to spend a little extra time outside of class or if they were right where they needed to be. Since everything was done inside of Google it was easy to provide private, written feedback as well as verbal feedback during class. 

Students used resources on the web to find the information they need to answer the questions. They were required to evaluate each site using a form much like this one. Their websites looked very much like an Wikipedia page because they contained facts, images, and references. Once they completed all of the pages they used Google Earth to create a narrated virtual tour of their park that included at least a dozen points of interest. During the last couple days of class the students presented their websites and tours to the class. 

There was no final exam or other tests. The websites and tours were the assessment! Through synthesizing and creating my students demonstrated their knowledge, understanding, and skills. Moving to this type of learning not only was much easier for me, it was much more engaging for my students. They were provided with the opportunity to make choices along the way and I was able to provide support for students when they needed it. 

I was in the classroom five more years after I learned about UbD. As I became more comfortable with technology I allowed my students to make even more choices, especially when it came to how they would demonstrate their learning. Instead of being stressed out about my students being all over the place I embraced it. I was also more confident that the letter grades students were more accurate because they reflected what the students were capable of doing. Students were not held to due dates because they were working on different things. You might be thinking that if there were no due dates then students would just mess around during class. There were a few students who never did much, but that would be the case no matter what. The overwhelming majority enjoyed the challenge of finding information on their own.

The focus was on learning, not grades. They were actively engaged in their learning and they were not the least bit concerned about tinkering with their cell phones. I cannot tell you how satisfying it was when students were upset when class ended each day because they wanted to keep working! No matter what subject you teach I highly recommend redesigning your classes using Backward Design. It will take a little bit of getting used to, but it will be worth it! The links below have more information as well as some very useful templates to help you get started. 

Additional Resources

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Dear Teachers,

Dear Teachers,
What an exciting time to be in education! The combination of more affordable devices and bandwidth mean more students have access to technology than ever before. For the first time since I became involved in educational technology, I feel like we are on the cusp of seeing what we can really happen when students have access to devices. But simply having access to devices is not enough.
Education philosopher John Dewey said, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” Think about the implications of this for a moment. Are we really preparing our students for their world or for the world in which we grew up? So many of us teach the way we were taught because that is what we know and are familiar with. Our need for comfort and our natural desire to resist change can often times stand in the way of progress. Change simply for the sake of change is typically not a good idea, but we can no longer ignore the fact that we have to change and adjust what we are doing to make sure we are equipping our students not just with knowledge, but with vital skills as well. The days of lecturing and taking notes for hours on end and having students read and complete questions out of the book need to come to an end.
Skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, research, collaboration, communication, innovation and creativity are not new skills. These are the same skills that have been valued for generations. Technology can be a game changer, but innovation does not happen overnight and it does not happen by accident. Districts across the country have wasted millions of dollars on devices because they made the faulty assumption that simply providing students with devices it would somehow miraculously turn their schools around. Technology with no purpose or vision is worse than having no technology at all.
Many districts hire technology integration support specialists to make sure they keep moving in the right direction. Striving for classrooms where instruction is personalized and differentiated so it meets the interests and needs of students is typically the goal. Technology helps make this process much easier because it gives us unprecedented access to resources including other teachers! Student-centered classrooms where inquiry and project-based learning are the focus are the key to helping students build the skills they need to thrive in 2015 and beyond. Many districts, including mine, have adopted the SAMR model of technology integration as well as the ISTE technology standards for teachers and students. The SAMR framework and ISTE standards have proved to be incredibly useful during our journey.  
As a technology integrationist, a large part of my job is to help teachers increase the use of technology in their classroom. Many times teachers start where they are comfortable. My job is to push teachers out of their comfort zones and support them as they learn and grow. If you are lucky enough to work in a district that has a technology integrations on staff please take advantage of their skills and expertise. They can help you get going in the right direction and provide guidance and support, saving you countless hours of frustration and oceans of tears.  

Using technology to substitute (S in the SAMR model) what they are already doing is the usually the first step in integrating technology, but we HAVE to do more. While Chromebooks (and other devices) are a handy for word processing, reading online textbooks, and taking quizzes, we cannot even think about stopping there! We would be doing a huge disservice to our students if those were the only things they used computers for.
If your students have access to technology here are just some of the things they can do this year:
  • participate in a backchannel chat with their peers and possibly experts in whatever they are learning about
  • work with their peers to find the answer questions and solve problems that are meaningful to them—-not ones found in dry, boring textbooks
  • take virtual field trips (Just wait until I show you Google Cardboard!)
  • Skype and Hangout with other classrooms around the world
  • Blog so their voice can be heard by a real audience and they can get authentic feedback from anyone in the world
  • Connect with experts in a variety of fields using a variety of social media tools
  • Develop a global perspective by connecting and communicating with students from around the world---they can talk about school, culture, music, food, entertainment or anything else they want
  • Use a social bookmarking tool such as Diigo to curate and mark up websites and have an asynchronous conversation around the content on that site
  • Design and publish digital posters using Tackk, LucidPress, and Google Drawings (as well as countless other apps!)
  • Create a website to serve as a digital portfolio of all of their projects during the semester/year
  • Create screencasts where they explain a concept
  • Create interactive images using ThingLink (possibilities for this app are endless!)
  • Use MyMaps in Google to map ANYTHING! (Locations of specific events in the novel they are reading, all of the battles in a war, a trip they plan in a geography class, etc)
  • Use the Google Cultural Project to learn more about different works of art—-great for ELA, world language, math, social studies, music and art classes.
  • Collaborate with peers on shared docs, slides, drawings.
  • Collect and sort data using Google Sheets
  • Use models and simulations to learn about the world
  • Come up with creative and innovative ideas and share them with the world
  • Demonstrate their ability to conduct searches online and evaluate information they find online
  • Apply their prior knowledge to create workarounds when they encounter problems
  • Demonstrate their ability to use social media responsibly by creating positive examples of their work
  • Communicate and express their ideas and products using a variety of media and formats (still pictures, video, audio recordings)
  • Write and publish a book
  • Open a storefront on a site such as Etsy to sell physical items they create
  • Work with their peers to identify issues in our community, state, nation and world and come up with ways to solve them

I'm not suggesting that you should do everything on this list. What I am saying is that if you continue teaching the way you were taught you are holding your students back from reaching their full potential and developing important skills. The world has changed and it is time that our classrooms reflect these changes. What are you waiting for?!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Kids Need to Be Kids

During the first week of school last year my daughter who had just started 4th grade came home and she was a little upset with me. Some of her friends had received a prize for completing a workbook over the summer that was the size of the JCPenny Christmas catalog. The workbook was filled with hundreds of drill and kill worksheets that were designed to keep students from forgetting skills they had learned to that point. Back in the spring we had the option to purchase the workbook again. Again I declined and this time I discussed the reasons with my daughter. 

I told her that I believe summers are for kids to unwind and relax. Her days should be spent reading books that she chooses and playing outside with her friends. I wanted her to spend as much time outside as she could----collecting bugs, swimming, decorating our driveway with sidewalk chalk. She is passionate about sports and I wanted her to focus on building her softball and soccer skills. On our recent trip to Florida she got to visit two different Aquariums. At the Clearwater Marine Aquarium she was able to touch stingrays and come face-to-face with Winter the dolphin. The only thing that separated them was about 3 inches of glass. She spent hours on the beach digging in the sand and building sand castles. She also spent time a little bit of time this summer doing absolutely nothing. 

She did exactly what she was supposed to do this summer. SHE WAS A KID! She explored and got dirty and I'm certain that she learned a few things along the way. Kids need to be kids during the school year as well. When they get home they need to play outside with their friends or spend time with their families. 

This is just one of the reasons why I HATE homework and I am opposed to it for students in all grades. Kids are overscheduled as it is. I have always believed when a student goes home that time is their time. My last school had a "no homework" policy, but even if they hadn't I never felt I had the right to expect them to go to school all day then do homework all evening. Instead of "covering" numerous topics in my classroom we went more in depth into fewer topics and we did everything we needed to do in class. I provided students with plenty of time to get their work completed in class. If they failed to get their work done in class or if they were gone then they were expected to complete it on their own time. This was a huge incentive for them to use their time wisely in class. 

I know my daughter is happier when she has the option to decide what she wants to do with her time. I read something the other day about how it is not good for employers to ask workers to put in more than 50 hours a week because the quality of work sharply declines after that. I have a hunch that the same is true of kids. Between the school day, extracurricular activities and homework we are demanding too much of our kids and they are burning out. I'm not suggesting that kids should not participate in extracurricular activities. I just think we need to be mindful of how much we are asking of our own children and of our students and make sure we allow them to be kids! 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Rules versus Expectations and What Worked for Me

The first day of school is right around the corner for most of us. It is an exciting time of year for students and teachers, but it can also be quite stressful. I want to share some of the things I learned over the years with the hope that maybe I can help get your year off to a good start.

It is important to recognize there is a huge difference between rules and expectations. So many rules that teachers post in their rooms are actually expectations---come to class on time, be prepared, be respectful, and the list goes on. Rules have consequences where expectations do not. In theory, when a student violates a rule there should be an appropriate and consistent consequence. The problem is that rules create a struggle for power that lasts for the entire year. We write these rules (sometimes very absurd rules) and we expect our students to follow them with very little to no discussion. It isn't realistic and it sets a negative tone from the very first day. (Thank you Louise Morgan for sharing the above cartoon with me.)

For the first couple of years of my career I wrote lots of "no" rules because it was what I experienced as a student. During my third or fourth year of teaching I attended a workshop where the presenter suggested that rules should be written using positive wording. For example, instead of saying something like no foul language tolerated the rule would say speak respectfully at all times. But these were still my rules and it was difficult to enforce consistent consequences because I knew that most of the time when students were breaking rules it was because there were things going on outside of the classroom.

About four years ago someone shared their class rule on Twitter. They took it directly from the Nordstrom employee handbook and it reads, "Use good judgement in all situations." It is so simple yet it covered everything. From that year forward instead of telling students what my rules were for our classroom we took time to discuss what good judgment looked like. I usually dedicated the first two full class periods to this activity because it was that important. During these two days it allowed me to get to know my students and begin to get an idea about what their experiences in school had been to that point. It was the first step in building relationships with my students.

Talking with my students instead of to them set a positive tone for the rest of year. When situations came up where I had to address behavior issues I was not bound by rules and a specific set of consequences. On the surface it might appear that applying the same consequences to each student is fair, but it isn't. By taking some time to visit privately with students I learned a great deal about what was going on with them. Just taking the time to talk to them was usually enough to show them that I cared. While I took the first two days to focus on expectations the discussion did not end there. We would revisit areas that needed improvement throughout the year. Sometimes we did this as a class and sometimes it was one-on-one, but it was always a discussion that allowed students to maintain
their dignity.

I will end this post with a challenge. Take down your rules and consequences that are plastered on your walls and replace them with the one rule about using good judgment. Invest time during the first week to establish a shared vision of expectations. If you really want to leave your students speechless then ask them what their expectations of you are. I can almost guarantee that no teacher has ever asked them that! Trust your students and get to know them. I promise that these two things will change their dynamics of your classroom and make it a much happier place for everyone.