Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Listening to students
Shane Safir recently wrote an article for Edutopia on "Becoming a Listening Educator." In it, she outlines "four traits of the listening educator." 

I have always believed that it is crucial for every student to have "a person" at school whom they feel they can go to with whatever they need. On my small campus, we teachers talk a lot about who they feel sees us as that "person" so we can make sure no one is left out. Sometimes, there are kids nobody really likes (terrible, but true) and those are usually the kids who need a "person" the most.

So how can I be that person? With some kids, it's easy. We click. We like the same TV show or music. We have some connection. With others, it feels darn-near impossible. It is for those kids, we need to practice the traits Safir discusses. First and foremost, we need to ask questions.

  • What did you do this weekend?
  • What did you have for dinner last night?
  • Have you ever __________?
  • Did you hear about (recent news story)? What did you think about that?
These types of basic, simple questions help us build relationships and open the door for kids to talk about deeper things. When kids are talking, we need to stop and listen. 

Seriously. Stop. Stop looking at your computer. Stop passing out the mindset. Just stop. Look at the kid talking and listen.

I teach these kinds of listening social skills to kids who really need to learn them and it has made me realize that teachers can be terrible models of good listening skills. But we can fix that. We can slow down. We can stop.

Safir asked me in a comment on Edutopia, "What has to "give" so that we can listen to and grow to know every child? How can we release ourselves from the tyranny of tasks to simply show up and listen to students, parents, and colleagues alike?"

I have been wrestling with this question and I think this is the answer:

Recently, I had a student become visibly frustrated when I asked him to make some changes on a formative assessment he'd taken. I asked him what was frustrating him. He bravely, calmly, maturely asked if he could talk to me about it after class. Instead of pushing it and forcing him to fix his errors right this minute, I respected his wishes and waited. 

After class, he, a student who rarely speaks up, unleashed the details of some big family issues. With tears rolling down his nearly-grown-up face, he told me that it felt "so good to just talk about it" because he "hasn't felt like he could talk to anybody." 

This wasn't the kind of thing that needed to be reported to CPS or administration. It was the kind of thing that just feels huge when you're 14. He just needed a person to listen.

I now feel confident that I could get this kid to do any massive amount of challenging work because he knows I am here for him. He knows I believe in him. He knows I will listen. 

So, that's how I convince myself that it is worth my time to listen. This kid will work. He will not blow things off. I won't need to spend whole class periods nagging him to do his work. 

Now, I live in the real world. I know that just because I've connected doesn't mean he will always stay on task, but it sure helps a whole lot. Trust me. 

This is a cultural shift but it's we teachers that need convincing. Investing time in kids is more valuable than investing time in curriculum or planning or grading or whatever other tasks we have to do. It saves time in the long run. And afterall, it is the whole point to what we do, isn't it? 

What do you think? Are there other ways we could make time to listen?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

10 Tips for Staying Sane When It Seems Like Everything is Changing

Cha, Cha, Cha, Cha, Changes... I think I like David Bowie's song better than I actually like change. Most of us aren't big fans of change. In education, things are certainly changing.

It's easy to get overwhelmed as a teacher. Kids change. Standards change. Administration can change. We can be moved to a new subject or grade level. We are being asked to do more and more. High-stakes testing is raising the stakes for us by involving scores in our evaluations. There's a lot going on.

My district has had an override fail, so we know more changes are coming. We are implementing relatively new College and Career Readiness Standards and we've implemented Beyond Textbooks this year. I'm seeing my colleagues (myself included) feeling more and more overwhelmed about work, so how can we chill out especially during this busy holiday season?

  1. Remember, there's a change curve. Give yourself a little break. Things aren't going to be perfect. It takes hard work and time for changes to take effect. Try to be patient and go easy on yourself, your colleagues, and your students.
  2. Set realistic goals and refer to them frequently. My principal had me write down three simple goals for the year. I refer to them daily and prioritize my to-do list according to those goals. Having realistic goals is important (see #1).
  3. Stay Organized. This is the toughest one for me. I'm not naturally organized and I really have to work at it. But I know that if I let grading and clutter pile up, I'm going to be more stressed.
  4. Collaborate. It's hard coming up with new ideas for new standards and new expectations. Bounce ideas around with a colleague and see if you can divide up some of the work load if possible. 
  5. Have fun! Teaching is about kids. Lighten up and smile and laugh. It's good for the kids and good for you. If you "waste" 5 minutes of class joking around and laughing, you've probably saved 5 minutes of redirecting grumpy kids. Build relationships with your students and enjoy your time with them.
  6. Be positive. Complaining about change won't stop it. Putting off complying with new expectations can only hurt you and your students. I'm being a little tough and frank here, but I am speaking about our own personal happiness about work. If you want to be less stressed, try to avoid complaining and procrastinating
  7. When possible (and I know it isn't always), leave work at work or at least designate time at home for work and time at home for family, friends, hobbies, and leisure. You need to still have a life outside of work or work will consume you.
  8. Relax. Drink some tea or coffee. Listen to music. Take a few breaths of fresh air on your prep hour. Try to stop and smell the roses even while you're at work. 
  9. Be humble. I don't know what it is about us teachers but we are fiercely independent and often hate to ask for help. If you are struggling with something, ask a colleague for help. 
  10. Last but definitely not least... Go with the flow. The world of education has become a world of constant change. Gone are the days when we could use the same lesson plans year after year. We need to accept that this is the way it is and just go with it. 

What would you add? What helps you stay calm when you're feeling overwhelmed? Please comment below. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Building a Positive Peer Culture

In my previous post on ways to prevent students from dropping out, I focused on teacher connectedness. Now, I'd like to highlight another research-based method to keep kids engaged in school - a positive peer culture.

Sometimes, kids are mean, even cruel and it's hard as a teacher, because there is so much they don't know about the power of their words and actions. We have to teach the kids we have (not the kids we wish we had) in ways appropriate to their own emotional maturity how to be kind to others. Yes, this is a parental responsibility, but we have a responsibility, too.

Some of my students are tough. They've been through a lot. Others are vulnerable because they've been through a lot too. So, believe me when I say that I get how hard this is, but we have to try.

Ways to Build a Positive Peer Culture

  • Be the biggest weirdo in the room. If I'm goofy and silly and make mistakes, then kids feel comfortable being weird, because they know that they'll never be the weirdest.
  • Lighten up. Let kids joke around, but make it clear that there is a line. If you come down hard on kids for every little thing, your life lessons lose some of their meaning. 
  • Don't force it. My husband does yoga with his kids for brain breaks. I know another teacher who has a corny joke of the day. Do what fits your personality. Be yourself
  • Have the occasional off-topic conversation. Kids start to feel comfortable around each other because they talk to each other, not because they sat and listened to the teacher all day. 
  • Have kids write affirmations for each other, but model how it's done. My kids' attendance tends to be spotty at the end of the year, so I like to pull one name a day and say what I'd like to say to them on the last day of school. (Tip: collect the notes students write for each other and screen them before giving them to the recipient just in case)
  • Have fun. Make it an experience to be in your class. Sometimes, any class can be a little boring, but it doesn't have to be that way all the time. Take every opportunity to make something fun. You'll get better results. 
This year, I started the year by asking the kids what kind of teacher they want, an idea from Teaching and Learning Together. I made a poster and hung it by my desk to remind me.

A special thank you to my husband for his contributions to this post. 

What would you add? What do you do in your class that builds a positive peer culture? Please share in the comments below!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

My 2014 Edublog Nominations

I am admittedly biased here because I am married to the talented teacher behind the amazing kids who create the Cougar News Blog.

However, since they won the Edublog Award for best class blog last year, I'm not the only one who thinks these kids are fantastic!

So I am happy to nominate the Cougar News Blog again this year.

The quality of student writing on this blog is superb. It is about students, for students, and by students. Think "school newspaper" in blog form.

I strongly recommend you nominate them, too! 

I also voted for Wwatanabe for best Ed Tech blog. Check her out. She's fabulous!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Dropout Prevention

I did my big culminating research project for grad school on dropout prevention and here's what I learned in a nutshell. I could go on about who is likely to drop out and what happens to them if they do, but let's assume you get that it's really important to keep kids in school and go from there.

The Top 5 ways to prevent kids from dropping out are...
1.Engaging Curriculum
2.Teacher Connectedness

3.Positive Peer Culture
4.Truancy Prevention
5.Parent Support

Notice anything? Three of the five are things we can actually impact as teachers! We control how engaging the curriculum is, how well we communicate that we care, and the culture we create in our classrooms.

Let's focus on teacher connectedness.

Here's the problem - most teachers really care about their students, but that is NOT ENOUGH. Kids need to know it! So we need to show them we care in ways they understand. 

Here are 5 research-based, effective ways to show we care:

  1. Call parents and say nice things about their kids!
  2. Have impromptu conversations with kids daily 
  3. Set goals with kids and hold them to those goals. Revisit them frequently.
  4. Make the environment welcoming. This means a comfortable classroom and a positive peer culture.
  5. HIDE IT when the kids get on your nerves! All those groans and eye rolls say "you are annoying" and "I wish I didn't have to deal with you." They can crush kids.
I implemented these religiously and documented it and student achievement increased in my classroom. You may think you do these things, but tracking it and holding yourself accountable, makes you do it more.

What would you add to this list? How can we SHOW kids we care? Which of these is easier said than done? Please comment below!

Part 2 of this series... Creating a positive peer culture!

For the full paper and references, click here

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Diigo for student research

Do your kids do research or close-reading in your classes? Then, have you checked out Diigo

Diigo is great for keeping all of your bookmarks organized and allowing you to access them from any computer, (especially when the school district re-images and you lose everything). It's kind of like iCloud for links. It's also great for finding cool tools and collaborating and sharing with colleagues around the world. 

But... did you know that it can be a powerful tool to use with students? With the Diigolet bar or Chrome App, you can highlight and sticky note any website and save that information for your next visit! Think of how great that can be for kids to keep research organized or demonstrate close-reading skills!

You need to get an educator account by using your school email in order to get Teacher Console and use it with kids. 

Possible uses for Diigo with students:

More info here on this Emaze presentation I made. By the way, Emaze is pretty cool if you're sick of the same old Powerpoint stuff. 

Do you have any other ideas for using Diigo with students? Have you used it and have tips for others? Please share in a comment!

Friday, October 31, 2014

10 Tips for Weathering Stormy Days in the Classroom

Someone said that "teachers make the weather in the classroom" and it has always resonated with me. Sometimes, as teachers, we feel out of control, but this is saying we have a great deal of control (and responsibility). So, if I make the weather in my classroom, I want every day to be sunny.

Sometimes, though, my students aren't in sunny moods when they get to me. They're cranky or looking to pick an argument and get into trouble. So what can I do when this happens? I can choose to let their moods affect me or I can choose to make the sun shine and have my mood affect them.

Today was one of those days. In between classes, I saw students arguing with teachers (myself included) about following basic rules about how to act at school. They were heated and frustrated and it was just about time for class. Here are a few things I did:

  1. I gave the most frustrated kid a break. One kid was ready to blow, so I gently suggested he sit in the office for a few minutes to cool off. He could tell by my face and my tone of voice that I wasn't mad at him. He was up there a few minutes and when he came to class, he was in a great mood.
  2. I played music as the kids came in - something happy and upbeat that they would like. Think Top 40 (clean version/radio edits). I asked them to have out what they needed by the time the song was over.
  3. I went around talking to kids about nothing in particular. This shows I care about what's going on in their lives.
  4. I smiled, laughed, and joked around.
  5. When kids were rude to me, I calmly told them that I understand  why they are frustrated. I stayed calm and asked that they talk to me the way I was talking to them.
  6. I gave them a little snack once they started working. Empty tummies = cranky kids. A couple saltine crackers can go a long way.
  7. I talked about how important what we are doing is. I made them feel like I was helping them out in reviewing this concept to get them ready for the next thing.
  8. I let the little things go. I'm always an advocate for choosing my battles. 
  9. I thanked them for their patience. Today I had to give about 20 minutes of direct instruction before kids could work independently, so I made a big deal out of my gratitude for them sticking with me. 
  10. I played more music while they worked and went around helping everyone. 
These things are pretty simple, but, trust me, they don't come naturally when a kid is being rude to you and talking back. It takes a conscious effort to smile and be calm and friendly. When the kids are cranky is when they need us to be happy and warm. Otherwise, they make the weather for us instead of the other way around.

All of this was possible because I do this regularly and build relationships with my kids. It takes time and effort, but it makes everything else easier. It's all about RELATIONSHIPS!