Tuesday, December 30, 2014

10 things students want all educators to know

1). Students want you to actually spend the time to get to know them...

Get to know your students by name as soon as possible. Learn something unique about them and find out what makes them tick. Students know when teachers don't know anything about them, so make getting to know your students a top priority.

2). Students want to have a voice in the learning process and want to share 'their' way of doing things...

Students want learning to be done 'with' them... not 'to' them. Schools are idea factories with a seemingly limitless amount of new and fresh ideas, so it's time we start tapping into that potential. Also, students bring unique perspectives and ways of thinking about life, so let them move up from passenger and let them drive the bus from time to time.

3). Students want to be treated with respect and dignity...

Students don't magically become motivated when they are embarrassed. They also don't appreciate it when you call them out to make a point and use them as an example. If you wouldn't like somebody doing it to you, then don't do it to your students.

4). Students want to be 'appropriately' challenged with meaningful and relevant learning experiences...

Students learn pretty quickly the differences between meaningful and productive work and mindless busy work. Students want you to push and challenge them with learning that provides them the skills to succeed. Additionally, students want and need the necessary supports as they struggle and navigate these more challenging learning experiences.

5). Students want educators to know that they too have bad and off days...

We all have bad days, and students are no different. Also, some students have quite a lot occurring in their lives outside of the education world. With that, education is at times understandably just not a top priority for them. Empathy and understanding go a long way in the classroom.

6). Students want their interests and passions to be infused into the learning that occurs in the classroom...

All students have interests and passions that go beyond the traditional school setting. It's these interests that students want you to integrate and combine with the learning that occurs in your classroom. When students are able to explore and further develop their interests while simultaneously meeting classroom learning objectives, great things are possible.

7). Students want educators to be truthful and honest...

When students feel you are being truthful and being honest, they can start to trust you. When students trust and respect you there are few things they won't do for you. This two-way street takes time to develop, but will yield significant dividends in the long-run.

8). Students want to be partners with you when it comes to the learning process...

Students don't want a 'teachers' vs. 'students' mentality in school. Students are looking to you for partnership and camaraderie in regard to learning and growth. It's this shift in traditional mindsets that really strengthens trust and collaboration between teachers and students.

9). Students want to know the work they are doing and the time they are committing to school will actually make a difference in the world...

Students spend a significant amount of time in school as they grow up, so it's only fair and appropriate that the time they spend and the work they do actually goes toward making the world a better place. The disconnect between doing something that makes a difference in the world and simply just doing something, makes all the difference.

10). At the end of the day, all students want to know their existence matters and that they are important...

Don't we all...?

Monday, December 29, 2014

The phrase 'research states' has become overrated in #education...

Think back to the last conversation you had with your education colleagues. Perhaps it was during your planning time with a member of your department/grade level, perhaps it was during lunch, perhaps it was during a school-wide faculty meeting, or even perhaps with an administrator in passing.

As you discussed whatever you were discussing, everything being shared was really just anecdotal evidence surrounding whatever the topic was. It was based on your recollection and your subjective memory of what happened.

The basis for your reasoning and/or justification was either something you observed personally, or something you heard from someone else who may or may not have personally observed it.

Your thoughts should automatically have been called into question on that basis alone...

But then...

At some point, you start your next statement with the all powerful two words...

'research states.'

Now, like magic, every word you say thereafter is amplified in importance. Every word is now immediately justified and validated. You've become a voice of empirical evidence which no other can counter.

We've all lived through this feeling and experience...

The difficult part is it's hard to not throw out those two magical words. 'Research states' helps us as individuals to self-validate what we are saying and reaffirm our beliefs. It's these two words that make us feel credible and worthy of sharing knowledge with another.

But here's the thing...

There's research that states class size isn't really that important when you have a 'great' teacher. Tell that to an elementary teacher or any other teacher at any grade level in any content area...

There's research that states that some kind of merit pay or monetary based system for educators will lead to increased performance and enhanced collaboration. Tell that to anyone who is a part of a team working in education...

There's research that states that retaining kids when they don't meet the required levels of mastery actually helps get those kids caught up. Tell that to any at-risk or intervention specialist who has seen the limited positive results of such a measure...

There's research that states that ability grouping helps teachers best meet the needs of students based on their 'tracked' levels. Tell that to the students who are deemed 'low' and retain that stigma their entire education careers and eventually just accept their 'low' designation...

But here's the other thing... every piece of research that states one thing there is another that states quite the opposite.

So, ask yourself, when you use the 'research states' line while conversing with your colleagues, what is your intent? Is your intent to persuade toward your viewpoint, validate your contributions and wealth of knowledge, or just to sound 'educated?'

And lastly, just because someone says 'research states,' don't blindly jump in the 'I must agree with everything you say' camp and completely dismiss your own personal thoughts and beliefs.

Sure, empirical evidence tends to stand up stronger in court, but it's the anecdotal beliefs and mindsets and gut feeling soft touch that reach the hearts of kids...

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The H&R Block Budget Challenge returns!

A trend has been emerging for several years now and unfortunately this trend is confirming some pretty significant concerns for young soon-to-be adults.

Financial literacy is something that doesn't tend to get people excited and fired-up. There's nothing sexy about or shiny when it comes to talking about budgeting and monetary awareness.

Here's the catch though... we live in a world that's fueled by money and when our students aren't getting the necessary knowledge, experience, and awareness of how to navigate the world of finance, we are putting them in a tough spot as they truly enter the 'adult' world.

USA Today has even written an article titled, 'Millennials Struggle with Financial Literacy' to bring some of these concerns to light.

Enter the H&R Block Budget Challenge...

The H&R Block Budget Challenge is a FREE financial literacy game that simulates many of the real-life scenarios that adults encounter when it comes to money. Things like paying bills, managing expenses, considering tax implications, saving for retirement, and saving for a rainy day, are all situations students will experience in this simulation. This wonderful learning experience is open to all students 14 and older in grades 9-12.

Check out some of these quotes from teachers who've successfully experienced this challenge with their students:

My kids love this challenge. Every day they are engaged and want to learn more about personal finance—and, more importantly, they are becoming more financially literate.

 I must thank you for the wonderful resource this simulation is and how useful I'm sure it is going to be for their future financial success. They are checking on their status in class all the time, even when it isn't our scheduled activity. Those who have downloaded the app have found it incredibly useful and convenient as well.

 My Juniors and Seniors do this for a project grade every Wed. and Fri. We have a good time with this "bonding" experience and there is great laughter as well as dread when they have late fees! I really appreciate the people who put this challenge together. It is wonderful to witness them learning about "real life"! 

 The Personal Finance teachers at our school have incorporated this simulation into our daily class procedures. The students (and teachers) love the real-world components and valuable lessons to be learned. We are very grateful to have this free resource to help students better understand financial responsibility.

 I am so thankful that you guys have put together such a wonderful curriculum for teens.  Every time I am out and someone asks what I do and I tell them I teach financial literacy to teenagers they all say "I wish they had that class when I was growing up." Thank you for everything you do!

Additionally, not only do students and teachers get the opportunity to experience this real-world simulation, there are also several opportunities for teachers to win classroom grants and for students to win scholarships based on their performance in the budget challenge. Up to 3 million dollars is being awarded by H&R Block to help promote financial literacy and awareness for students all across the country.

So, in just a few short weeks, the next rounds of this simulation will start, so please be sure to check out the challenge and get your students registered before it's too late!


Full disclosure, this is a sponsored post and I have received compensation for recommending this product.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Do you have to be a great teacher to be a great administrator?

I saw this tweet by Josh Stumpenhorst and it got me thinking...

The tweet got me thinking about my own personal experiences in education. I was a high school German teacher for 6 years before moving to administration. I was 27 years old when I started my first administrative position. At that time many thought I was still too young and not experienced enough as a teacher to be an administrator.

To be honest, I think some of them were probably right...

But here's the deal, as a teacher I had helped to build a successful German program that was thriving. In a high school with around 1,800 students, we had about 300 of those students taking a German class. I was involved in our professional development team, I was leading a professional book club for teachers, I was leading a push for technology integration, and I really honestly believed I was positively affecting the overall school culture and climate which was leading to increased learning opportunities for students.

So naturally it made sense that if I could have this much of an impact on the building as a teacher, I'm sure I could have even more of an impact as an administrator...

I remember the question during the interview just like it was yesterday...

'So, why do you want to become an administrator?'

Well, as a teacher, I can directly impact just the students in my class, but as an administrator I can indirectly impact an entire school and community.

That's the 'go-to' response for all teachers interviewing for an administrative position when asked 'why do you want to become an administrator?'

I'd like to challenge folks to ask a different question instead...

What if we started asking teachers wanting to move into administration this question:

What specifically have you done as a teacher to help your students maximize their potential and how have you positively influenced the lives of your students?

This question in my opinion forces the candidate to identify what they've done as a teacher to help their students.

The reality is there are administrators who were excellent teachers who did absolutely wonderful things for their students. Some of these same great teachers really aren't that great as administrators.

On the flip side, there are also administrators who really weren't that effective as teachers but now find themselves leading a building and they are doing great. There are also those who weren't very effective as a teacher and similarly are struggling as an administrator.

So, does one have to be a great teacher to be a great administrator...?

If not, what message does that send to the great teachers wanting to move into administration...?

Lastly, if someone struggled as a teacher, can that same individual be an effective instructional leader for a building full of teachers?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The types of leaders we need in education...

What makes a school successful? The principal... the teachers... the students... the parents?

Can one individual (or group of individuals) be the determining factor of success or not?

Can leadership come from the middle or must it originate and live at the top?

None of these questions are easily answered, but in my experience as an educator, it's principal leadership that makes all the difference.

It's this difference that we are so desperately needing in our schools...

We need leaders who see the big picture and are able to give meaning and purpose to what we do. Sometimes it's the simple ability to 'connect' the dots that makes everything possible.

We need leaders who recognize and pay homage to 'what was' in an effort to maximize and capitalize on 'what could be.' Schools are in need of a leader with a vision; a vision that is bigger than any one individual.

We need leaders who won't shy away from asking tough questions and won't yield on having high expectations for all with a belief that all can achieve in their own respective way.

We need leaders who are willing to be visible. We need leaders who are willing to stand up and speak when others choose to remain quietly seated.

We need leaders who are able to adapt and shift based on what's needed of them. There's no such thing as black and white and straight-forward when it comes to education, so being flexible is absolutely critical.

We need leaders who can commit to making a decision even when they know the decision won't be popular. People will eventually come to terms with something they don't agree with; people can't come to terms with uncertainty and confusion.

We need leaders who can effectively and clearly communicate. It all may sound great in our heads, but if nobody else knows what the plan is or what is being done, then the great plan and idea will fall short.

We need leaders who own their weaknesses and shortfalls. It's a great leader who builds a team of folks who complement each other and ensures that all gaps are filled.

We need leaders who stand behind and move forward with their strengths. It would be a crime to sit back and not utilize one's strengths, so we need leaders who not only recognize their strengths, but also act on them.

Make no mistake, leadership in schools is of the utmost importance, and it's the presence of or lack thereof that separates those schools that are able to make positive strides and those that struggle to gain traction...

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Our students need 'different,' not more...

We've all been there and we've all done it.

As the teacher, we teach something but the students don't understand it.

In our minds the material and skills are quite simple and straight forward, but for some reason the students just aren't grasping the information.

Our natural instincts take over and we do what makes sense to us...

Maybe if I talk louder and more slowly and repeat myself 4 times the students will understand it.

Maybe if I give more homework problems for practice the students will eventually work themselves into understanding the material.

Maybe if I explain it a few more times the information will begin to sink in.

And then... with all these maybes, we still don't see results.

So, then we do once again what makes sense to us...

Let's repeat all those maybes because something's bound to stick if we do it all again.

It's like a bad recurring dream and we've ALL been there and we've ALL done it.

As educators we tend to believe that kids need 'more' of whatever we are doing if it's ever going to make sense to them.

So we give them more... and more... and more... more right up until the kids are disgusted and we the educators have forgotten why we are even doing what we are doing.

The more we give the further our students get from actually understanding or mastering the skills.

Let's ditch the 'more' and start focusing on ways we can get the same information or skills across 'differently.'

Our kids don't need more of something they don't understand... they need what they don't understand presented differently.

Oh, and while we are at it, let's commit ourselves to allowing our students to have a voice in determining what different might look like.

You never know, their version of different just might make all the difference...

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Has 'finals week' become antiquated & redundant?

I recently posed a couple thoughts to the Twitterverse in regard to finals:

Here's a scenario that plays out in many secondary schools all across the globe...

The teacher explains what will be on the final. This 'final' encompasses everything that has been covered throughout the prior semester. The teacher also explains how much the final will be worth and the impact the final will have on the students' semester grades. The teacher then hands out some kind of study guide for the students to use to review and prepare for the final. All learning stops as class time becomes solely focused on preparing for the final.

The students use the study guide to guide their studying in preparation for the final but the study guide is so broad and far-reaching the students are unable to specifically identify what they should really know. The students then play out scenarios in their head about how the grade on the final will impact their final semester grades. The students then begin a sporadic process of cramming as much possible information in their heads in preparation for the final only to be forgotten soon after.

So, here are some of my thoughts...

Finals are summative assessments with no opportunity for revision; no opportunity for feedback/input; no opportunity for correction... so what's the point other than filling the gradebook?

We spend all semester and all school year working with students... do we really need a final to tell us what our students know or don't know? If so, that's a problem...

If we are doing finals just because the next level of schooling does finals, that's a pretty poor excuse to rob our students of so much time and energy at the end of each semester.

Almost all school districts have a final exemption policy... if kids can exempt, then the argument that finals prepare kids for some next level of schooling falls short. Shouldn't every kid be required to get this 'experience...?'

The typical final uses low-level questions and focuses on quantity over quality in an effort to cover as much as possible. Finals are the shotgun approach to assessing with very little ability to identify specifically what kids know vs. don't know.

Many finals are able to be scored via scantron and are built around memorization of facts, terms and dates, just to be forgotten as the kids walk out the door.

So, is it time to revisit our practice of doing finals?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

10 signs you have a grading problem in your class

1). You create and design assignments and assessments based purely on the number of grades you currently have in your gradebook.

2). When talking about the next assignment or learning event, the first question the students ask is, 'is this for points?'

3). When talking about the next assignment or learning event, the second question the students ask is, 'how many?'

4). When many of your students who have the strongest grasp on the material and/or skills have some of the lowest grades due to 'not doing their work.'

5). When talking with parents at parent teacher conferences (which honestly need a complete overhaul by the way) you find yourself telling multiple parents that their child would be doing much better grade-wise if they would just do the homework.

6). When at the end of the quarter or semester, students and parents start asking you for additional work and/or extra credit opportunities to pull up a grade in the 11th hour.

7). When you have to attach a grade to anything and everything because if you don't, students won't do it.

8). When you do group work, you give every single group member the same exact grade based on the work output of the entire group.

9). When you want and expect there to be a balanced number of students at each grade achievement level.

10). When you believe that grades should be used as compensation for work done and when you believe that a grade will motivate students to do their best work.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

It can be pretty lonely on that island...

You know when someone is new, everything seems to be perfect.

The 'honeymoon' period they call it... everyone loves the new person and the new person can do no wrong.

The new person is viewed as refreshing and thought-provoking even when someone else within the organization has been saying the same thing all along. The same words coming from a different mouth just have a different effect on people.

The new person doesn't intentionally or maliciously encroach upon anyone's turf, but in the end it becomes a passive takeover that leaves many scrambling and wondering about who does what and who's responsible for which duties.

New blood within a system can be healthy and vital to long-term sustainability, but then again, there are times when the body rejects that new blood as it just doesn't match up.

Then perhaps, after time has passed and the dust has settled, the new person is no longer new.

The new person has (as previously mentioned) unintentionally stepped on the toes of others and has crossed lines that can't be uncrossed.

By the simple fact of doing one's job, the once lines drawn in the sand have been kicked over and reassembled until they are almost unrecognizable.

The new person is no longer considered new.

This individual is now considered an expendable asset that bounces around from task to task with very little direction and guidance.

So, now this individual, who once could do no wrong, feels alone on an island that drifts deeper and deeper into the sea.

As the island continues its path into the unknown, the individual's short existence seems to fade and the individual quickly becomes a distant memory. 

How and when this shift actually happened really is a mystery as the transition from new to 'used goods' can happen in the blink of an eye.

The lonely island provides lots of time to reflect and think about what exactly has happened. This thinking can either continue to push the island further away, or the thinking can help change the direction of the current and shift the course entirely.

Being on the island isn't easy and it can be pretty lonely.

For all those island misfits, I salute you...

Monday, December 8, 2014

My 10 dreams for my son's education

Something pretty special happened recently for my wife and I. We are now officially the parents of @emorytarte.

So, now I can call myself an educator AND a parent, and the statement, 'you're not a parent, so you don't understand,' no longer applies.

Having said that, I've worked in education for almost 10 years and I've seen the system from the classroom to building administration to district administration, which gives me a rather unique perspective on how education is done.

Now, in a little more than 5 years, my son will be entering the education system, so here are 10 dreams I have that will hopefully be realized by the time he is ready to begin his formal education.

1). I dream of an education system that will never sacrifice play for more instructional time. Play is said to be the best form of research, and I want my son to do plenty of research.

2). I dream of an education system that really stands behind their statements of differentiation and personalized learning. My son is unique just like every other child out there, so I want him treated as such. Too often we treat these strategies as 'events' rather than the way we conduct business.

3). I dream of an education system that boldly recruits and goes after the most innovative and creative thinking folks in society. I want my son to learn with educators who think big and dream of what could be. I want my son's teachers to build their lessons around the question, 'what if?'

4). I dream of an education system that physically looks completely different from the current education system. The architectural layout of most schools just isn't conducive to the types of learning experiences kids need, so it's time schools revisit and retool as needed to account for new approaches.

5). I dream of an education system that commits to creating and designing authentic learning experiences that go far beyond the walls of the actual school and community. The world is getting smaller and global connectedness is the future. My son deserves the opportunity to see beyond his own community.

6). I dream of an education system that solves problems that will make our world a better place. There's no shortage of serious problems facing society, so why not tap into all the knowledge and brain power we have entering our schools every single day. I want my son working on these problems that will ultimately affect him as he gets older.

7). I dream of an education system that views my son's learning as holistic in nature and not compartmentalized into tiny different learning units. Education is a fluid process and isn't and can't be contained and most certainly shouldn't be siloed.

8). I dream of an education system that doesn't get in the way of itself. Far too often we know what we need to do and we know what is right, but yet we fail to do anything because the system we've built prevents us. My son can't wait for the red tape to be cleared.

9). I dream of an education system that focuses more on creation than consumption. Sure, my son will need some basic knowledge, but in the end he will need and will be expected to create something with that basic knowledge. I don't want my son limited to just eating... I want him to be able to cook too.

10). I dream of an education system that is flexible and adaptable enough to meet the ever-changing needs of my son. What he needs to know now vs. what he will need to know later aren't the same, and I expect his education system to recognize that.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The crippling effects of homework in schools

- More times than not homework adds little value when it comes to student learning...

- There is pressure from society to continue giving homework because that is the way it has always been done...

- Students rarely find relevance or purpose with homework, thus homework isn't completed and completion rates are negatively affected...

- When a student receives a zero for not completing homework, he/she is NOT learning about responsibility and "the real world."

- Grading homework on completion typically inflates grades and ultimately distorts the overall accuracy of a grade...

- Homework can be a valuable tool in schools, but too often homework is misused and ultimately detracts from the learning environment and causes resentment toward schooling.

- Homework should be an extension of the learning environment that provides students the opportunity to explore and discover...

- More homework does NOT equal more learning...

- Students should not spend all night every night doing homework as this time should be for pursuing student interests and passions outside of school.

- The natural love and curiosity of learning are destroyed by too much irrelevant and unproductive homework...

- Homework also naturally reinforces the gap between the kids who have parents/guardians available to help and those who don't...

- A school without homework and grades would be a school where student learning and success increased...

- Not enough Educators are having this difficult conversation about the role of homework in schools...

What are your thoughts...? Let's keep this conversation going in an effort to move the homework discussion forward.