Educator’s Lifesaving Tip 5: Collaboration

Educator’s Lifesaving Tip 5: Collaboration

As we all navigate the beginning of the 2020 school year, the ability to collaborate is more important now than ever before. This is not only collaboration amongst our content teams, but collaboration across the country as a whole.

Biggest Picture

Three years ago I learned the power of Twitter. I grew my personal learning network from my individual school district to nationwide over night. I began to learn about the twitter chats that take place weekly and teachers across the globe can participate. These chats helped challenge my thinking and grow as an educator to be inclusive of all students backgrounds. I would recommend anyone who is new to education or looking to expand their learning to check out twitter. Here are three of my favorites-

  • #leadupchat Saturdays at 8:00am CST
  • #edchat Tuesdays at 6:00pm CST
  • #EduAR Thursdays at 8:30pm CST

Along with Twitter I use Voxer on my iPhone as a way to communicate and connect with people everywhere. It is a great app that allows you to leave short voice messages as well as written messaging.

Narrowing the Scope

Collecting all sorts of resources across the nation is only a piece of the puzzle. The next step is to collaborate within your region to find partnerships and help all students and families be successful. This aspect is looking outside of the schools and working with businesses to build up partnerships to support student learning.

Right now everyone is struggling with what is to come next. When we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs the base/foundation is the need for stability in the necessity’s; air, food, water, shelter, and clothing. This is not a time to be competitive with one another with test scores. This is a time to come together and determine how best to meet these needs for every single student. Everything else will follow.

Reach out to other school districts in the area and collaborate with one another. We are all in this together to help find solutions to better our nation.

Vertical Alignment

Within our specific districts we need to look outside of our own content area and look for where students are coming and where they are going. This is vertical alignment. In my previous career I was an Algebra 1 teacher. In my role, I needed to know what prior knowledge they had so I could better meet their needs. I also needed to know where students were going so I could prepare them to be successful in their future classes.

It can be difficult to find time– especially if your vertical alignment is in other buildings. But as we have learned this past year, we don’t have to be in the same location to learn from one another. Set aside time to meet with different grade/content levels to learn from one another. Student needs will change every year, therefore, we must make this a regular practice within our schools each year.

Personal Learning Communities

In the state of Arkansas, there is a huge push for all schools to implement PLCs. I have shared before what a PLC is so I will not go into details on that right now. What I will share is that PLC have always been essential for student success, but now it is even more imperative than ever for all parts of education.

Teachers are being asked to do more and more every day; teaching students face to face, remotely, and virtually. Teachers must be given the time to meet with content level teams to answer the 4 questions of a PLC to make sure students are continuing to learn at high levels. With students being literally all over the place physically and academically these questions can help guide learning and ensure students meet the essential learning standards for each subject.

No matter where your district is on the PLC journey, every teacher can still make the decision to get started. Reach out on Twitter or neighboring school districts to see how to get started. We must make collaboration a priority for all stakeholders.

First Days on the Job

First Days on the Job

On May 14, 2020, I was hired by the school board of Siloam Springs School District as the new Assistant Principal at the high school. This is a dream job with one of the best administration teams I have had the privilege of knowing.

On July 13, 2020, I started my first official day in my new role. It has been a rollercoaster with many highs and lows in the past three weeks. We are put in impossible situations and have to choose what is best for students and staff- sometimes those do not line up and it makes our job even more challenging.

Over the past three works I have learned so much and wanted to get my thoughts down on paper (blog) to reflect back in years to come.

I am not trying to win a popularity contest.

A few days ago I made the comment, “I don’t think that teacher is going to like me much, but what I am suggesting is best for the students.” My mentor looked at me and said “Brittany, you are not trying to win a popularity contest. You got this job because we trust you and know you will do what is best for students.”

I have to be adaptable.

I also made the comment that I feel like I will be a first year administrator all over again next year when **hopefully** COVID-19 is gone or at least more manageable. The vice principal kindly chuckled and said “It will be something else, that is the job. There will always be something that you are dealing with, you just have to be able to roll with it.”

I will make mistakes.

I made a phone call today, no big deal, just a quick chat. I went and told my boss about it and he said “I would have said that this way… but you already talked to him.” My heart sunk. I felt like I had failed miserably and I was only 14 days into the job. I played it off like no big deal but I have been thinking about it all day. I am writing this hoping I can actually take it to heart- I will make mistakes, and THAT IS OKAY. I have to own them, accept them, learn from them, and move forward.

I need to listen and ask questions.

Clearly these are unprecedented times, so not only am I learning, but so is everyone else. No one has the perfect solution for how to open schools right now. It is times like these that we all need to be able to truly listen to concerns, seek out ideas, and ask questions that get everyone heading in a positive direction.

I know I will learn much more as the years go on, after all, we are all life long learners; but for now I am going to look forward to this next journey and celebrate the start to a new school year.

Three Promises I Make to My Children

Three Promises I Make to My Children

Parenting is tough, like really tough. I had no idea what I was signing up for 12 years ago when my son came into this world. I have made more mistakes than I care to share, but I have also experienced more joy than I thought possible. As time has gone on, I have been able to define my personal goals as a parent.

I tell my children regularly that their are three things that I must do. Every decision that I make can be traced back to these three jobs or promises that I have made to them.

As I look at my role as an educator I can apply these same promises to my students no matter the capacity to which I serve them.

For the sake of clarification- throughout the rest of this blog when I say “my children” or “children” I mean both my biological and students at school.

1. My promise to LOVE and show you love.

Keep in mind, these three promises are in no particular order, they are all equally important.

This first promise is to make sure my children grow up to know what love is, feeling loved, and learn how to appropriately love others.

Choose Love is a popular Social and Emotional Learning Curriculum that is being used around the country. The title says it all, choose love. I want to model this with my children that in all situations you have a choice and I hope they choose love. There will be times when we mess up and that is okay. It does not mean you are a bad person, but you need to own it, learn from it, and do better by choosing love the next time.

2. My promise to PROTECT you.

My daughter is a little dare devil. Throughout her life I cannot tell you how many times I have told her she cannot do something. The conversations goes like this;

“Why not mom? I want to.”

“I know you want to, but you cannot. It’s not safe because…”

As children get older the conversations will change from “you can’t run with scissors, its not safe” to “let’s talk about why you should not vape and how dangerous it is for you.”

Protecting children in a school setting can look different. It can be protecting students physically, such as having crisis plans in place to ensure the safety of all students. But protecting a child is no only from physical harm, but emotional, social, and mental harm as well. Just a few examples are cyber bullying, dealing with struggles of life in and outside of school, and equipping students with the skills needed to survive and thrive after school.

Letting children learn from mistakes is a part of growing up; therefore, make sure you can clearly identify what you are protecting them from and why this is not a good learning opportunity. If you cannot identify those, then you may actually be keeping a child from growing.

Continually reflect.

3. My promise to TEACH you how to be a GOOD HUMAN.

My husband and I say this often to our children- just be a good human. Be kind, be accepting, be generous, be selfless… the list go on.

If you notice, none of those attributes are political. I do not have to impose my beliefs on children to communicate how to be good. If anyone disagrees and thinks that being a good human needs to be addressed cautiously in the classroom, please feel free to write to me so we can start a dialogue.

Every day when I leave for work I tell my children at home “be a good human today.” I have said the same thing to my children at school as well. I hope when children see me they are able learn from my example of what it means to be a good human.

I also recognize that leading by example is not enough. The promise is not “to SHOW you how to be a good human.” It is to “TEACH how to be a good human.” Teaching how to be a good human must be intertwined with the daily learning at school.

Imagine an entire school where every person lived by that phrase- be a good human.


Yes, people make mistakes, but that is the beauty of school. Children get to learn and have loving adults in their lives to help guide them.

One of these promises alone will not do. I have to live by all three when I am parenting at home and as educator at school. If one fails, the overall well-being of the child is at risk.

Respect- The Key to Empowerment

Respect- The Key to Empowerment

“I will give respect when I get respect.”

“Yea!”

“I better get treated right before I even think about giving someone respect.”

I sat there puzzled, not quite knowing how to respond to this. I was in my classroom, end of spring semester, during our Advisory period doing a discussion with my 10th grade students on respect. At my school, we had incorporated the Choose Love Curriculum as our SEL curriculum and we did the lessons during Advisory. The school has Advisory classes that loop with students each year so I know them all quite well at this point.

As I was looking at the script that I was supposed to read and seeing the direction I was supposed to take this conversations in, yet, listening to where my students’ were taking it… well, they did not line up in the slightest. I was raised to respect my elders. Period. End of discussion. Yet, here was an entire group of 15 to 16 year olds who were adamant that my way of looking at respect was crazy. We continued the discussion with me trying to show them my side of the debate such as choosing kindness and love always. Sure, if someone had lost my respect then that was an entirely different story. However, why not start with giving the other person a chance? The students went on trying to get me to see their side- that people needed to earn respect first and so on and so forth.

When I got home that evening I told my husband about the debate, expecting him to side with me. Instead, I was left with wide eyes and opened mouth. He said, “good for them.” After staring at him for a good five seconds, I asked him to explain that response. He said why should elders be given respect automatically. Some of the worst people he knew were adults and some the best were children. He said you could withhold judgement of whether or not a person deserves your respect without being unkind. Not giving someone respect does not immediately mean you have to be a jerk to that person.

It was in that moment it clicked for me.

Along with being a teacher, I have two children of my own. I have always said that I wanted my children to grow up to be strong and independent, and it dawned on me, my thoughts of respect and how I wanted my children to grow up went against each other. I decided right then that I needed to change my way of thinking.

So, how have I found a way to empower all of my students in the classroom? By giving them the respect that they so desperately want and most of them deserve.

Prior to this discussion my Advisory class , I would say I was a “good” teacher. I designed engaging lessons, individualized instruction for specific student needs, and built relationships with each of my students as best as I could. The part that I was missing to truly empower my students was incorporating respect based on their definition, not mine. I have always respected my students in the sense that I treat them with kindness, fairness, and make decisions that I think are best for them.

Now I am viewing respect in a completely new way. I need to make sure I give my students a reason to respect me; I want to earn my students’ respect rather than simply not lose it. By wanting to earn respect from each of my students based on their terms, I have empowered each one of them to see their self-worth. When a child is able to see their self-worth, they are unstoppable and become the movers and shakers of the world.

After that night, I had changed my ways of thinking, so now it was time to figure out how to put this new concept into action. These are three ways I have found to earn my students respect, and in turn, empower them.

  1. Weekly feedback on my lessons- I am constantly giving students feedback on their work, so why not flip the script and give the students a voice to analyze my teaching each week? I have a sheet that has the weeks worth of bell work on it (or space to, I do not like them to work ahead) and at the end I have a box that allows them to share their glows, grows and feedback to me. On Friday, I go back over each of our lessons for the week so they can remember what all we done. On a daily basis, I encourage students at the end of each class to jot down any feedback they may want to share. I use this as a time to show students what constructive criticism is and how to use words in a kind and thoughtful way when giving feedback.
  2. Open and honest communication- some days are better than others. I have learned that if I am open with my students (within reason) then they tend to be more open and honest with me. This has led to me meeting the needs of my students better as well as showing them they are worth my time. There are some days that a student will need to go work in the hallway to be alone, so I let them. There are some days that a student needs to lay their head down for 30 minutes, so I let them. Then there are days that a student will come to me needing affirmation, so I tell them that they are strong and I am proud of them. Open and honest communication helps build that mutual respect and fosters a positive environment for all students.
  3. Goal setting- I can have my goals all day long for my students and that will not matter one bit. To really show students that I want to respect them and empower them I have to give them a say in their education. This takes time getting to know each one of my students. When I say goal setting, I do not just mean short term (which are also good). I mean really talking to my students about their future and what they want for their lives. By understanding their passion, I can help facilitate conversations in the classroom that will peak student interest, engage them, and allow them to take ownership in the classroom. I can show students why my course is relevant to their dreams and goals; I can incorporate technology that will be useful down the read to each of my students. We need to shift our thinking globally and long term- not just our subject and short term.

Each school, classroom, teacher, and student are different and how you find ways to empower students may look different than how I am able to. That is the beauty of education, it is specific to each child’s needs.

Educator’s Lifesaving Tip 2: Goal Setting

Educator’s Lifesaving Tip 2: Goal Setting

SMART Goals– A term that every educator has heard, and most likely multiple times at that. If you are new to education or live under a rock (not judging), SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. Every goal should meet these five criteria to be a SMART/good goal.

I remember years ago when I first started teaching, it felt like every meeting was centered around writing SMART goals. We would spend 40 minutes on the wording to make sure it was just right, but miss the purpose of the process of writing these goals in the first place. In this blog I am going to review the purpose of setting goals- whether those are personal or work goals and how to use the SMART goal format.

The Why and How to Setting Goals

In as basic of terms as I can put it– goals can bring a group of people together to develop a long-term mission and give short-term motivation along the way.  When people create goals it is a way to increase their self-confidence as they achieve those goals; either academical or personal. Whether you are creating goals for yourself or as a group it is essentially a three part process.

  1. Define your big picture. This can be curricular for content areas, school wide improvement plans, student academic growth plans, personal fitness plans, developing a positive habit… goals can be applied in infinite situations. Make sure to use the SMART goal format when creating your big picture plan as well as your short term goals.
  2. Next, after you have your picture clearly drawn out, break the picture down into smaller pieces and create targets that are essential to achieving your goal.
  3. Lastly, develop a way to track these small goals and cross them off once you have finished them. This contributes to the motivational aspect of setting goals. I personally like a physical representation such as a chart on a wall that I can check off targets as I accomplish them.

Specific

The more specific the goal is, the more likely you are to follow through on it. The S in SMART can also stand for Significant. Your goals should have a significant impact on the overall picture. Tip- it is better to make more small specific goals, than fewer vague goals.

Measurable

If you write a goal that does not have a way to track or collect data then you cannot measure how you are doing in terms of meeting that goal. In education this part is crucial and typically one of the hardest to meet. The goal “to increase positive culture at Haden High School by the end of the 2019-2020 school year” is a great thing to want, but how are you going to measure if you have achieved this goal? Developing the tool that will be used to measure the goal should be incorporated while creating the M of the SMART goal.

Attainable

Now is the time to do a gut check. Are you writing goals that are too attainable- you want to make sure you are successful so you do not challenge yourself or others enough? Or could you be writing goals that have the best intention, but are not realistic? The first can lead to mediocrity; whereas, the second can lead to frustration and a sense of failure.  Think of it this way, if you have never ran before then setting the goal of running a marathon in 6 months is not reasonable; however, setting a goal of running for 5 minutes straight after training for a year is most likely not challenging enough. This is the time to be rigorous, and yet realistic.

Relevant

I do not think I am speaking for myself when I say I do not want or like busy work. Every goal and target needs to be relevant towards the big picture. This part of the SMART goal is a good time to look at assignments in the classroom that you have always given and determine if you are doing the assignment because it is relevant or because it is just what you have always done? If you have a team that is having a hard time nailing down the relevant portion, it is probably because the big picture or the “why” has not been clearly defined or agreed upon.

Time-Bound

Every goal needs to have an end date to see if you achieved the goal or not. To simply say “I will live a healthier life” is neither time-bound or measurable. To even say “I will lose 20 pounds by running” covers all parts (kinda), but is not time-bound. How often are you going to run? When would you like to have the 20 pounds gone by? Placing a time element with a goal helps everyone on a team or PLC strive towards the end target with tenacity  to be successful by the deadline.

Extra Tips

  • Be flexible- if you realize a goal is not working- rewrite your goal.
  • Create checklists (check out my blog on checklists!)- this can be daily or weekly to help you stay on track.
  • State goals in a positive way.
  • Write down goals- make goals visible so you have a reminder of what you are striving for.
  • Celebrating- when you achieve a goal, celebrate it!!

Consequences versus Punishment

Consequences versus Punishment

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

This blog is based on the podcast “Consequences vs Punishment with High School Students” by Dr. Becky Bailey, the creator of Conscious Discipline.

Dr. Bailey begins the podcast by first defining the two words. Did you know that the word consequence has roots in Latin and French meaning “that which follows” or along the lines of growing out of an event or an effect. The legal definition of punishment is to afflict pain or a person losing something. As you can see, these two words are extremely different in definition, and yet are typically used interchangeably in education.

Through Conscious Discipline, students are taught that there are consequences for actions and to take responsibility for those ramifications rather than try to place blame and assign punishment for the behavior. This is a shift in mindset that we must make in education. In our role, we are always educating children. When we approach an issue from the standpoint of consequences so that the child understands this is the effect or the outcome of an event due to their actions rather than taking revenge on a child for disobeying, then child is able to take responsibility.

We should never give a child a punishment in school. The difference between punishment and consequences is the mindset that one views a situation. When a child is always afraid of the impending doom of a punishment then a child will not be able to learn in the classroom or change the problem behavior. Students (all people) go into a fight or flight brain mentality which inhibits the ability for them to learn from the situation.

Now that we know there is a significant difference between consequences and punishments, how do we implement consequences in the classroom? Let’s look at a systematic issue that I have seen in most buildings I have worked in so far.

Johnny decided to skip class one day. When he came to school the next day the principal called him into his office and gave him In School Suspension (ISS) for the day. Johnny goes to ISS and does not attend a single class all day. Let’s exam the consequence for Johnny, he did not want to go to the class he skipped and his consequence is to not got to class a second day… To me, Johnny was rewarded with not having to go to class again. This would be a scenario of a punishment rather than a consequence since it was not a natural event that grew from a situation. The punishment was removing social interaction and isolating the student.

A more appropriate consequence would be for Johnny to have to stay after school or come before school to make up the missed class time. The natural sequence of events would be that Johnny made a decision to skip his class time, and therefore has to make it up at a different time.

In the classroom we should look for naturally occurring consequences that come from a child’s decision. When a child chooses to not study for a test, the consequence is they get a low grade on the assessment. If it is a behavioral issue, such as a child acting out, we need to find out what the root cause for the behavior is and determine a natural consequence that matches the misbehavior. This is the whole purpose of Conscience Discipline, to be mindful of what the behavior is and why it has occurred. Once we understand why behavior has happened, then we need to show students that there are natural consequences for their decisions.

I want to make sure people understand, implementing consequences versus punishment does not mean that we as teachers turn our backs on bad behavior. Looking to use consequences in the classroom is working towards correcting the behavior and teaching the students long lasting changes. If a child is refusing to participate in the classroom activity simply sending them to the office for defiance will not result in any change. You will just get the satisfaction that the child got in trouble. Instead we should work to understand why the child is refusing to participate. Determining the why does not eliminate the need for a consequence, it just makes sure the consequence matches to behavior.

I am continuing my journey of understanding more about Conscious Discipline and look forward to helping my students socially and emotionally as well as academically. Here is the link for Conscious Discipline, give it a look and let me know what you think!

 

Motivating Teachers as a Newbie

Motivating Teachers as a Newbie

I have had a nontraditional career so far as an educator: It all began in college. I started off as an art major, but as the first semester was coming to an end I began thinking about my financial responsibilities after graduation… which led to me to the drawing board for another degree. Next, I settled on becoming a nurse, that was, until I had my first class and passed out from the sight of blood. This time my college advisor made me really think about what I wanted to do with my life. The funny thing about that was that I was a single mother and had no idea what I was going to do when I got home, let alone, what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

After looking through several course catalogs I finally settled on being an elementary teacher. I would love to say I got into teaching because I wanted to change lives and I loved children so much. But if I am being honest, I wanted to have the same schedule as my son and make a livable wage.

Fast forward to my senior year in college. Fall semester I was placed in a 4th grade classroom to observe and teach 3 lessons. This wasn’t too bad, I actually liked them this age of students. The Spring semester of my senior year I was placed in a kindergarten classroom. This was a time when I should be rejoicing about my upcoming graduation, and yet, I found myself in full blown panic mode. I did not like kindergartners and had decided I had a made a huge mistake! I could not teach elementary, but I felt it was too late to change my major now. In tears I went to my advisor and we looked through my transcript. Apparently, I had taken enough math classes as electives that I had a math minor. This meant I could get my teaching license and teach secondary math. The day was saved!

Instead of doing the traditional MAT program that the UofA-Fayetteville offered, I did a distance MAT program through UofA-Monticello. This program allowed me to have a job as a teacher in place of an internship. I needed this option as I was a single mother and needed to start making money immediately. Problem was, my undergraduate was early childhood education and I had only been in the classroom setting as “a teacher” for a total of 6 hours (not even 6 consecutive hours). I had not been in a secondary classroom besides 4 years prior when I was the high school student.

I was fortunate enough to find a school that took a risk with me and I am so thankful they did. I began my career in a junior high that housed 8th and 9th graders. As much as I loved my first job, I decided I should experience more grade levels to find my perfect fit. I am currently in my 8th year of teaching and I have been in 6 different buildings and 3 different districts.

Some people may see that and say that I just move around, but the reality is I was learning from each job. I was finding my purpose and pursuing it. I chose the degree so that I would have the same schedule as my children, but now I am passionate about education on a whole new level. My long term goals are to get my doctoral degree in educational policy writing and to work in DC. Each one of the buildings I have been in have given me a new perspective and an appreciation for the different ways to approach education. But, it also meant I have been “the new kid” 6 times so far in my career.

I have come to realize that my coworkers are not simply going to listen to me or seek my advice because I have taught for 8 years or the title I am given with my new job. They know nothing about me, so why should they? This year is the first time I have been out of the classroom. My first 7 years I was a math teacher and for the last 3 of those 7 years I was an ESL Caseload Manager as well. This year I am an ESL Coordinator for 2 buildings and my role is to collaborate with teachers to help our growing ESL population flourish in the general education classrooms.

So here I am, brand new district, brand new school, and brand new position. I started to think about the ways to gain my coworkers trust as a new person in the building and what I have learned so far this year about that process.

Relationships

I feel like I hear this word a lot in education; relationships. Relationships with students, relationships with coworkers, relationships with parents, relationships with the community… you get my point. It is all about relationships. But practically, what does that mean?

  1. Present- It is amazing how much being of an impact it makes just being visible at meetings, in between classes, during lunch… It can be so easy with this workload to recluse to your classroom and never get out. Building a relationship takes work, and you have to be present to put that work in.
  2. Reliable- In my specific role I cannot tell you how many times I get stopped in the hallway and asked about some time of paperwork, a student, an email… and if I tell a teacher that I will look into, but forget and never do, I have damaged that relationship. My way of keeping my self organized is to always have my phone with me so that when I am stopped in the hallways or I need to follow up on something I make a Google Calendar notification. I have quickly learned that if it is not in my calendar, it is probably not going to happen. Another person in the district that is in a similar role as me says she carries around a notepad with her at all times. That way if she is stopped she can jot down a quick note. So my advice is to find whatever way that works best of your to be reliable.
  3. Kind- This may seem elementary, but can go the furthest out of anything else. Education is not for the faint of heart. There are days that the students are awful, parents are mean, or administration has to have a tough conversation with you. We all need that one person that keeps you going. Maybe you do not have to say anything, but just by offering a quick smile to remind others that we are all in this together can help a person keep going. Be the person that is always positive and making the most out of life, that positivity will be contagious and people will remember you.

Knowledgeable

Educators are called to be life long learners. One of the best parts about having a mixed level of tenure in your staff is that everyone can learn from everyone. The teachers fresh out of college may have new strategies or different types of technology to bring to the table. The veteran teachers have years of wisdom of how to handle those situations that are not taught in a college classroom. Both sides of the spectrum are valuable and should be respected.

What you need to be careful with is that no one is expected to be an expert in all areas. No matter where you are in your career. It is okay to admit that you do not know, but that you will look into it. True collaboration and trust among coworkers with allow everyone to learn from one another with the focus always being on what is best for the students.

Trustworthy

Lastly, you must be trustworthy. I have already touched on this with the reliability aspect when you say you will do something, then do it. Trustworthy also means that people can rely on you to do what you are supposed to do when know one is watching (aka, integrity). Students and teachers talk. If you are lacking in any area it will not go unnoticed. It may for a while, but know that it will catch up to you.

Being trustworthy means keeping student information confidential. I think back on buildings where I have worked that at any given moment you could walk into the teacher lounge and hear teachers talking about students, gossiping really. This breaks down the trust among teachers. Even if a teacher is not participating in the conversations everyone knows who “talks” in the workroom. As a teacher, I never trusted those teachers with anything. I kept any issues I was having to myself. I wanted to show my students the respect they deserved by not talking about them in a negative way if possible. There are times when it is necessary to have tough conversations about students, but with a limited audience.

Be the teacher that can be trusted with any information and trusted to always do your work to the best of your ability. Couple this with being knowledgeable, humble, and building positive relationships will help you being a motivator in your school even as a newbie.

What is Project Based Learning?

What is Project Based Learning?

Over the years I have heard the phrase “project based learning” and have spoken with several teachers who have boasted about having a being project based learning (PBL) classroom. As I have had the opportunity to visit different learning environments it has become clear that there are some misconceptions about PBL. I do not claim to be an expert by any means, but I have done quite a bit of research on how to structure your classroom into one that lays a foundation for learning through inquiry and project based strategies that lead to authentic learning.

I have created a few infographics to share what I have learned so far about PBL. Feel free to download and share! The first image shares the origin of PBL and why it is an important style of learning that should be used in the 21st century classroom.

The second infographic is seven essential characteristics to have a successful project based classroom.

PhotoVoice: Giving a Voice to All

PhotoVoice: Giving a Voice to All

For the past 3 years I have gotten to work with a range of English Language Learners (ELLs). Not only do these students come in with a variety of different home languages, but they also bring their own unique story to my classroom. As an educator it is my job to give each of these students a voice to share their story. The main way I can do that is by helping them acquire English. The catch is, learning a new language takes years and a ton of hard work. I wanted to find a way to give my students a voice right now.

The Build Up

I had the opportunity to go to Montana for a sustainability conference a few summers ago and it was life changing. Not only for how I approached my work in the classroom, but also in the way I viewed every day life. I decided to live with purpose. Through out the course I was given several strategies to take back to my community to build awareness and help educate people on the sustainability struggles our world is facing today. One of my favorite parts of the conference was the presenters did not say we all need to stop driving cars, we need to only eat organic food and absolutely not meat, and no more toilets because of the water waste. Instead they gave practical solutions in areas that every single person can do. I will share those tips in a later blog.

What About Giving a Voice?

One of the strategies to help students put into words how they feel about the current state of our environment is to not actually make them say or write it down, but rather, to show it through pictures. This got me to thinking, what if I could do this with my ESL students. They can show me through pictures what matters most to them and their families. I did more research on this topic and a school district in Colorado had the same thought. Their approach was to have a select group of parents who were given cameras and asked to take pictures about their lives and cultures to share with the school. This was built into an adult literacy program to help the parents learn English along side their children.

I decided to take it a step further by giving the vision to the children. Let the students talk with their parents and decide what matters most to them. So I did just that and here are the steps. Disclaimer- I am going on year three of doing this and have changed steps drastically each year as I have seen what has and has not worked. I am looking forward to sharing how this years project goes.

Step 1

I wrote out a project summary and rubric. The purpose of this project is for me to understand my students and their families better. Each student is required to take a minimum of 10 and a maximum of 20 photos that show what they value in life. I encouraged students to complete a portion of the photos with their parents and secretly hoped this could spark some meaningful conversations about heritage between the students and their families.

Step 2

I went out and bought five digital cameras. My original plan was to get disposable cameras for the nostalgia of it, but then decided this was impractical. Now, these digital cameras are not fancy by any means. I purchased water proof/shock resistant Polaroid cameras for 45 dollars a piece. Handing these to my students was hilarious since none of them had used a camera before, they had only taken pictures with their phones. After a quick mini lesson on how to take pictures and delete the ones they did not like I sent them on their way. They had one week to take their pictures.

Step 3

Once students turned the cameras back in I uploaded them to my computer and created shared google folders between myself and each student with his/her own photos. Now it was time for the students to write a summary or explanation of what the photo represented and why it was important to them. I provided sentence frames for my each of my students to help them get started. This step took the longest as each of them had around 15 pictures to write about. I would suggest planning a few weeks of allowing students to work on these. My class is a Seminar style class so they had to fit in working on these around other commitments.

Step 4

Presentation- my favorite part! Each student had a choice of what format to use for the presentation. I suggested things such as a video/slideshow, a poster board/desk top presentation, and I provided clothes pins for them to clip the pictures up throughout the classroom. It was so much fun to see their creativity blossom during this part of the process. Each project was unique and truly a representation of their story.

Step 5

This last step is optional as each of these stories is the students own story to tell if they chose to. I took a new job this year as an ESL designee a school district and I work in two specific buildings. Once my new group of students have finished the project this year I plan to have a family night at school to allow the students the opportunity to share what they have down with their families and any school employees who wish to participate. In previous years I have only done a small classroom presentation, but decided it was time to share their beautiful experiences with anyone who wants to be a part of it.

Next Steps

I will be writing another blog after this years projects are finished and share the pros and cons of this latest sequence of steps. For now I am happy to be doing everything I can to give all children a voice.

Teachers vs. Everyone: Media’s Portrayal of Educators

Teachers vs. Everyone: Media’s Portrayal of Educators

30 years ago Robin Williams starred in the movie Dead Poet’s Society, which is still watched in classrooms today. In this film we see a teacher motivating his students to be the very best they can be. It’s a wonderful portrayal of an educator challenging and leading students to always do their best by seizing the day. It’s also an accurate representation of what an educator should be. It might not as romanticized as this Hollywood depiction, but it’s an educators job to connect with student and help them reach their potential.

But that was 30 years ago.

While the role of the educator is still the same thing, connecting with students, helping them grow academically, and preparing them for life, there has been a shift in the cultural identity of teachers.

Today, movies, television shows, and media in general represent teachers in a less glamorous way than they were depicted 30 years ago. Teachers are portrayed as the adversary. They are inept or incompetent. They are morally corrupt, and they are the enemy.

This summer it was recommended to me that I binge watch the show “Big Little Lies”. If you have not seen this show yet it has an all star cast with Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Shaliene Woolley, Zoe Kravitz, and many more amazing actors and actresses. I was intrigued by the line up alone, so I figured why not.

About 20 minutes into the first episode a first grade teacher calls an impromptu meeting with the students and their parents. She says that the day has been great, but a student has hurt a fellow classmate. She then has the victim stand in front of everyone, and asks for the attacker to step forward. When no one comes forward the teacher then asks the little girl to point to whoever hurt her, which she did.

The mother of the accused child (wrongly so we find out a few episodes later) was outraged as was the mother of the victim. All the parents were talking about how the teacher handled the situation and how awful it was.

Throughout the series there are several situations in which the principal and teachers act inappropriately and speak to parents in ways that I would never speak to another person: especially not in a professional setting. The show is not based around the students in school and quite frankly the principal and teachers have very small roles. This is why it bothered me so much that the educators were displayed as incompetent and unprofessional in so many ways.

While driving around with my husband I brought up my take away from the show and how the educators were portrayed. This lead to a lengthy discussion about teachers and principals being the antagonist in shows, movies, and the media and trying to decide why that is.

Big Little Lies is just one example. The negative portrayal of educators in media has become the new normal. This portrayal shapes the way society views educators. When people see teachers demonized in Hollywood it teaches them to treat educators as the enemy. I plan on writing a more data-driven paper in the near future. I just wanted to get my thoughts out there and get feedback from fellow educators, parents of students, former students, and current students as I move forward.