Wednesday, July 30, 2014

But I've already got too much on my plate...

One of the many beauties of working in education is the constantly changing environment in which we work.

As society evolves and as new technologies become available, the opportunities that are available in our classrooms and in our schools are plentiful and exciting. Additionally, as we learn more and more about learning theories and their impact on the brain, we are bombarded with new ideas and new approaches to student learning.

With all this excitement comes the challenge of the 'plate.'

So, we are all given a plate and most of us have our plates pretty full. Most of us have more to do than there are hours in the day. Most of us struggle to find the time to truly address what's on our plate.

One of the things we struggle with in education is balancing what we currently have on our plates and those things we want to add to our plates.  We also must consider those things we don't add to our plates because there's not room.

Here's the thing, with all the new thoughts on student learning and with all the new opportunities that are available as a result of technology, the quality of stuff we can add to our plates is at times better than the quality of stuff that already fills our plates.

A choice must be made...

A choice to take something off to make room for something new...

This is a common and frequent conversation within the walls of school districts. It's the type of conversation that gets people 'fired up' and 'passionate' if you know what I mean.

But, I must fall on one side of the fence... and the side of the fence I fall on is the side that says, 'yes, I'd love to try that because I think it will help our students.'

Far too often we shut the door on possibility because we become married to what we've always done and what we are comfortable with.

Here's my advice, take a chance and push something that isn't producing off of you plate and replace it with something that has potential.

Obviously in the beginning you won't know if this change will pan out or not, but if it has potential then that is better than something you know isn't working.

Take a few minutes and consider your 'yes' ratio when it comes to trying something new and experimenting with a new approach.

Hint... if you are more frequently saying 'no' and keeping all those things you've always done on your plate, then I think you may be missing out.

Better yet... I think your students may be really missing out too...

Saturday, July 26, 2014

5 easy ways to improve your classroom learning space

We are continuing to learn more and more about how kids learn. As a result, this information has significant implications on how we design and recreate our learning spaces. Here are 5 ways to simply and easily improve your classroom learning space.

1). Check out your lighting system...

It's easy to think that turning on all the lights in the classroom is what you should do. That's why we have lights... so they are used, right? Well, I encourage you to experiment and mess around with how you use the lights in your classroom and observe how it affects your students and their behavior. I've found that when the lights are dimmed or not all turned on, the classroom mood is calmer and more relaxed. I've found students to be more at-ease and more comfortable. Also, do you have spots in your classroom where different colors of lights are available? Different colors and brightnesses affect each of us differently, so having a wide-range of spaces available will enhance your classroom. Natural light is the best, so if you have that available, be sure to use it!

2). Sometimes less is more when it comes to classroom decorations...

As a teacher, white empty wall space was my enemy. I did everything I could to cover each and every inch of wall space because I wanted to have a cool and awesome looking room. I never really realized it at the time, but this type of learning space was 'too much' for some of my students to handle. They were unable to retain their focus because there were too many stimuli. There has also been quite a lot of research recently on the topic of room decorations being a distraction for students and that limiting what is included in the learning space actually enhances student learning. Ask yourself if there is a practical and functional purpose for what is in your room, or if it's because it's 'cute.'

3). Add some tunes...

When we are cleaning the house, cooking dinner or washing the car, many of us enjoy listening to music while completing these tasks. Music does more than just entertain our ears while we work, it can also inspire us, it can motivate us, and it can completely recharge our mood on a cloudy and rainy day. Music also helps to keep our focus on the task at hand. Music allows us to disengage from the rest of the world while streamlining our focus on what we are working on. Too often we discourage music in the classroom because it may distract the students, but a little music in the background may be just the ticket to increase engagement and focus on the task at hand. Check out how different types of music affect different types of activities to take adding tunes to your learning space to the next level.

4). Make sure your learning space is mobile...

Physical movement and activity have huge implications on the brain and on how kids learn. A learning space that is constantly stationary and never moves is not taking advantage of what we know about how kids learn and how the brain works optimally. Allow your learning space to be mobile and flexible and encourage movement as part of your everyday approach to learning. Some don't like that moving spaces will make learning less predictable and add more variables, but in the end, the positives will far outweigh the negatives in terms of student engagement and student learning.

5). Have a space for creative thinking and open and visible collaboration...

Every learning space needs a space where kids can get their ideas 'out there.' Learning spaces also need a spot for kids to work collaboratively while brainstorming and discussing. Take a wall in your classroom and use IdeaPaint or add a few whiteboards for kids to document and record their thoughts while working. Make sure this space is visible for others because the process of learning should be celebrated and embraced. We shouldn't focus just on the outcome, but also on the process as it's just as important.

What ideas or strategies would you suggest to improve a classroom learning space?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dear Principal: Some things I need you to know...

Dear Principal,

I'm sure you are just as excited as I am for the upcoming school year. The summer has been full of learning for me and I am definitely recharged and ready to do this!

There are however some things I'd like you to know and some things I will need from you this school year. Please don't take this as me telling you how to do your job, as your job is very difficult and encompasses much that I probably don't understand. Please read this with an open-mind and remember that I love my job and I aim to do what's best for our students.

1). I'm planning to try some new things this year that I've learned this summer as well as just wasn't able to fit in last year.

I need you to understand that when I try these new things they may not go over well. There may be confusion in my classroom and it might just be a total disaster. But, I do promise to learn and improve from what I'm trying. Having said that, if you come in to do an observation and I'm trying something new, I need you to understand I'm taking a risk. And, just as we tell our students, it's OK to fail sometimes because that's an important part of the learning process.

2). If we are going to be gathered for a staff meeting, please do everything in your power to keep it positive and constructive. 

I know the hot trend now is to empower building staff and to allow them to run and control meetings in an effort to get buy-in and to get ownership in the process. I completely agree with this approach, but at the end of the day, you're our leader and I assume you were put in this position because you have a specific skill-set and expertise that allows you to move our building to consensus. Sometimes when teachers lead the meeting, not all voices are heard and the meeting can become disconnected and confrontational. We need you to be present and we need you to ensure this doesn't happen. Most people don't enjoy confrontation, so the idea that we will 'police' ourselves isn't always sound. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing a meeting high-jacked by a personal agenda while building administration sits by and does nothing.

3). If I make a mistake, please let me know. If someone else makes a mistake, please let them know and not me.

There's an epidemic in leadership that undermines the integrity of leaders all around the world. It's simple... don't reprimand and lecture everyone about a problem that you are having with only a few people. As Todd Whitaker would say, don't use the 'blanket monkey' to avoid dealing with those few individuals who are causing the problem. When you speak to the entire group about an issue, we all start to second guess ourselves and worry if you are talking to us. Do everyone a favor and increase the chances of eliminating the problem by going directly to the source. Your entire staff will appreciate this, I promise you.

4). Push me in my thinking and help me grow as an educator.

This is difficult for some people, but it comes with your job, so hopefully you can handle it. I need you to push back on my ideas and some of things I'm doing in my class. I need you to help me grow and develop as an educator. I need you to be an instructional leader in our building. Now, I'm not saying I want to be completely torn and ripped apart when I share an idea, but push me and question me and make me squirm just a little bit to justify my idea and approach. This will help flush out my true goals and objective and create clarity in what I'm trying to achieve. I might not like you at the moment, but I will respect you in the end.

5). We are all busy and we all have a full plate. Help keep my plate full of what matters most.

Yes, there are things you will be told we need to do from the 'higher-ups.' Yes, there are things we need to do to stay in compliance and stay legal. Yes, there are pieces of information and data you need to help in your decision making process. But, let's not forget why we are here and what our primary focus should be. Help me and others in our building to keep the focus on student learning. Avoid as much as possible asking us for mundane paperwork and menial tasks that steer us away from what our ultimate focus should be. We will need your protection and coorperation here because it's very easy to say it will only take a few moments. Each time we say it will take just a few moments a small puppy somewhere cries because we all know that nothing takes just a few moments. Also, all these 'few moments' tasks seem to pile up quite quickly.

Thanks for taking time to listen and please know we are all looking forward to a great and wonderful school year!

Thank you,

Your favorite teacher...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

5 ways to boost creativity in your classroom

1). Find opportunities in your class that allow your students to be the lead learners.

Our kids come to school with a unique and different skill-set and far too often these wonderful abilities are suppressed under the weight of objectives and learning targets. What would happen if students were able to take their skills and build on the required objectives and learning targets? Better yet, what if students helped to come up with those objectives and learning targets? What if we allowed and encouraged our students to share their genius with others and join the ranks of teachers as facilitators of learning...?

via the Huffington Post
2). Do whatever you can to change up the learning space and get students to do things outside of the traditional classroom space. 

The learning spaces and environments that kids experience have huge implications on how they respond and what they are able to imagine. In a traditional four-walled classroom, students' creativity is limited and contained just like the classroom itself. Open up student minds by getting them outside and by getting them in different spaces. A cheap way to boost creativity is simply to keep the learning space fresh and unique.

3). Don't use rubrics for everything and don't tell students what the final objective is.

This might sound counter intuitive and against all typical teacher training programs, but far too often rubrics crush any level of creativity and when the final objective is outlined in the beginning there's no room for flexibility or variation. Let go and don't allow yourself to be consumed with how you are going to assess, grade, and how you are going to hold students accountable.

4). Encourage risk-taking and embrace failure.

When we tell kids it's not Ok to fail, we are telling them to never take risks and we are encouraging them to focus on playing it safe. Ironically enough, the biggest risk our students and even us educators can take is not taking any risks at all. Playing it safe is actually the most unsafe thing one can do, and it's in classrooms across the globe that we need to encourage kids to take risks. Naturally, these risks will result in failures, but it's in this process of risk-taking and failure that kids are able to take 'what is' and creatively think about 'what could be.'

5). Praise great questions over great answers.

The type of environment that breeds creativity is an environment where kids are free and encouraged to ask deep and thoughtful questions. Students are pushed to ask questions that have multiple answers and very rarely do these questions have a correct answer. When great questions are asked great opportunities for creativity quickly become possible. When students think they have an answer to a question, change things up by asking them 'what if...' and change a variable. Students in time will start to anticipate what questions will be asked which will open up their minds to a world of possibility.

Good luck in creating an oasis of creativity!

Monday, July 21, 2014

An open letter to educators

I write this post for all those who call themselves educators.

I write this post for superintendents and the schools boards for whom they work.

I write this post for both central office and building level administrators.

And finally, I write this post for teachers of all grade levels and all content areas.

There is a vicious epidemic that has been spreading and continues to spread unchecked across the globe. The achievement gap that is so often spoken of is merely a cover for what is really happening.

We don't have an achievement gap, we have an opportunity gap...

We have schools that are providing life-changing opportunities and experiences that others can't even fathom. We have kids who are doing work in their classes that is both impacting and affecting the world in which they live while other kids are doing worksheets from outdated textbooks about material and content they can't relate to.

There are kids who are being positioned to be game-changers in their respective parts of the world while others are being comfortably placed among the ranks of industry that is disappearing with skills that haven't been in demand in a decade.

The opportunity gap is widening at an accelerated pace during a time when technology and global connectedness are soaring.

Sure, it's easy to say that kids and their families have a choice as to which schools they attend. Families can move to different communities or choose to attend private or parochial schools that provide some of these wonderful before-mentioned opportunities.

But there's a reality that most know but seem to ignore.

Most families and students don't really have a choice as to where they reside and where they attend school. Communities are built around schools and more frequently than not, those schools who offer vast opportunities exist in communities that most can't afford. The 'haves' and 'have nots' legacy is deeply entrenched in education.

For educators, there are many variables that we can't control and as a result we must learn to work with and accept what we are presented.

This challenge can look very similar to an excuse and justification for why we can't or aren't able to do something.

I refuse to let what we can't control dictate what we can or can't do... and so should you.

When you go to school, fight for what our kids don't have. Fight for the opportunities that our kids can only dream of. Fight for the opportunities that our kids can't yet dream of. Fight to put an end to the opportunity gap and whatever you do, don't use it as an excuse.

Remember, the next time you hear about some school or district doing something amazing with their kids, keep in mind that the only thing preventing you from doing the same or preventing you from doing something better, is you...