Friday, September 6, 2013

Creating Mountains Students Can Climb

cc flickr photo by azjd

A common struggle in many schools -- mine included -- is igniting the intrinsic motivation of students, particularly those who feel disaffected due to previous school experiences. I am currently reading, Motivating Students Who Don't Care, by Allen Mendler.  I have grown to appreciate the work of Mendler, and his frequent co-author Richard Curwin, because of their emphasis on the importance of relationships and meaningful connections with students.   In Motivating Students Who Don't Care, Mendler suggests five processes that can be used to connect with students and encourage active engagement in the learning process.
  1. Emphasizing effort
  2. Creating hope
  3. Respecting power
  4. Building relationships
  5. Expressing enthusiasm
While each of these strategies is very powerful, I was immediately struck by the importance of fostering hope for our challenging students.  I continue to be appalled by the number of times that I speak with students who honestly can not recall the last time they experienced success (of any kind) in a school setting.  These are twelve and thirteen year-old kids who see no relevance to education and have lost all hope that school will improve their lives. One way to begin turning the tables for these students is to actively generate opportunities for them to experience success.  As Mendler points out, "our challenge then, is to create mountains that students believe they can climb."  Just giving students a sense of accomplishment can be a powerful means of shifting their attitude toward school -- fostering a belief, that with some effort, they will be able to experience success.  We have to be purposeful about setting these students up to succeed -- not necessarily staging events, but certainly taking time to ensure that struggling students have multiple opportunities to experience the feeling of accomplishment.  This might mean calling on them when we are certain they know an answer, altering the way we address concerns (i.e. "I see you a majority of the assignment...that is great!  Is there something I can do to help you with the remaining problems?"), or just being cognizant of their little successes for celebration. As you work with students who seem to lack motivation, think about whether or not they have developed a sense of accomplishment and then consider what you can do to set them up for success.  How do you create mountains that students believe they can climb?

From the archives Molehills out of Mountains - originally published on October 11, 2012

Monday, September 2, 2013

5 Point Plan for a Great Day

cc flickr photo azjd
Let's be honest.  Some days we just don't feel like we have it.  We might be tired, stressed, overwhelmed -- simply not ready to face what the day (or week) has to bring.  It is easy to submit to those feelings, and chances are, things will go exactly as you expected (as Henry Ford said, "Whether you think you can, or you think you can't -- you're right.").  Even if you love your work, it is human nature to have days like this -- for some of us, more often than others.

So, here's a "five point plan," that won't necessarily be easy to implement, but if done with fidelity, should leave you feeling good about what you have accomplished -- regardless of what actually gets done.

  1. No Whining - go an entire day without complaining. This one is going to take deliberate effort.  Truth be told, I shudder to think how many times I complain about something during a given day.  Start out by vowing not to verbally, or outwardly, complain -- then, if you're up for the challenge, get control of your mental whining. 
  2. Less Me, More Others - think a lot less about your personal problems and struggles, and a lot more about how you can help others with their challenges.  This might include friends, family members, students, or colleagues.  Make it a point to do something that brightens the day for someone else, and see if you don't benefit from the reflection.
  3. Slow Down - mentally, and physically.  As difficult as it is, try not to multi-task, but instead give all of your effort and energy to one thing at a time.  This is especially important when you work with people.  Make sure that you give those with whom you interact, your undivided attention.  Take breaks.  Take a breath.  Smile.
  4. Identify Your Big Rocks - be sure to focus on what is important (which is not necessarily the same as what is urgent).  As Goethe said; "Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least."  I need to be constantly reminded of this -- living that quote is one of my biggest personal challenges.   
  5. Be Thankful - let's face it, most of us have many reasons to be thankful.  Our health, our families, our jobs, our friends -- and the list could go on.  When I think about many of the students I work with, it is a wonder that they walk in our front gates at all.  Some face challenges and circumstances that would make many adults (myself included) wither.  Consider what you have to be thankful for, and refer to point #2.

Following the steps in this action plan is much more challenging than writing about them.  Even though I don't claim to have come anywhere near mastering this process, I do know that my best days happen when I am mindful of these five things.

Have a great week!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Addicted to "Busy"

my wunderlist account
Beware the barrenness of a busy life.  ~ Socrates
It's a three day weekend, but I feel like I am working (on school related stuff) more than I should.  I keep reviewing the goals I outlined in my first post on this new blog, and the reviews are mixed.  As I glance at my Wunderlist account, and the sixty-three tasks sitting in my folders, I can't help but wonder if I am a "busy" addict.

Does feeling busy, a great deal of the time, provide me with a distorted sense of importance?  The opportunity to be the victim of circumstances?  A potential excuse in the event of failure?  I'm also considering if I am really as busy as I think I am, or just overwhelmed by an inability to sift what's important from what is not.  

A reality check for me is when people with whom I work begin conversations with, "I know you are incredibly busy, but..."  When I hear that, I generally feel a tinge of guilt that comes with the understanding that I am projecting an air of importance based on busyness (i.e. don't bother me, I have too much too do).

We all have days when we feel like we have much more to get done than what is humanly possible to accomplish, but truth be told, in most cases it works out.  I know that the key to solving this challenge lies in identifying what is most important, and making sure that our "busyness" addresses those issues of highest value.  That, in itself, is a challenging task.

While I continue to struggle through this personal challenge, I'll do my best to heed my own advice from Do Over: 5 Things I'll Do Differently:

  • Take breaks
  • Minimize multi-tasking
  • Turn off my phone
  • Do less
  • Fill the day with what is important

In fact, I'm headed to the pool with my daughter right now.  That should address all five.  Feel free to share your thoughts, and strategies, for breaking the addiction to being busy.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Fostering a Growth Mindset

Ask "How will they learn best?" Not "Can they learn?" ~ Jaime Escalante
cc flickr photo by azjd
Look closely on a junior high school campus, or in a junior high school classroom, and you will see a lot of uncertainty.  It is simply an awkward age.  Not only do social situations generate anxiety, but many students have already developed a keen sense of their academic challenges (i.e. "I'm not good at math," or "I don't like to read.") which add another level of discomfort to school.  By the time they have reached seventh grade, many students have experienced multiple years of academic challenge, and even failure.  They exhibit what Carol Dweck would say is a "fixed mindset" about learning.  These students feel like "what you see is what you get," many believing that they have little (or no) control over their level of intelligence.

As educators, our words matter.  The way we talk to our students, the type of feedback we give, and the little things we do to encourage students are essential to helping them acquire a "growth mindset" -- the belief that their intelligence can be developed through hard work, practice, and persistence.  As teachers, it is critical that we work with our students in ways that foster the belief that intelligence is a product of effort, and that we establish classrooms where grit and tenacity are encouraged.

For an excellent overview of the ideas behind a growth mindset (and the impact that it has in the classroom), check out this brief TED Talk, by Eduardo Briceno.

In the Education Week Article, Classroom Strategies to Foster a Growth Mindset, by Larry Ferlazzo, Professor Carol Dweck and Dr. Lisa Blackwell suggest the following strategies for establishing a classroom environment that encourages growth:

  • Establish high expectations
  • Create a risk tolerant learning zone
  • Give feedback that focuses on process -- the things that students can control, like their effort, challenge-seeking and persistence
  • Introduce students to the concept of the malleable mind -- research that indicates that our brains develop through effort and learning

Larry Ferlazzo, has compiled a great list of resources to aid teachers who would like to focus on helping their students develop a growth mindset: The Best Resources on Helping Our Students Develop a Growth Mindset.  You will also want to check out the Mindset Works website, for more ideas of how you can incorporate Carol Dweck's research in your classroom.

How do you foster a growth mindset with your students?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Seating Chart that Shouldn't Be

Another post prefaced by the statement that this is my personal blog and the thoughts and opinions expressed in this post, and all other posts published here, are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer, or anyone else, for that matter.

A little over a week ago, I ran across the following message, from Diane Ravitch, in my Twitter stream.

Being from Arizona, I was naturally intrigued.  Maybe Dr. Ravitch had run across a pocket of innovation, a teacher who was doing something great, a school that was finding success in hard times -- something to emulate in a state that (like many others) seems to devalue public education with every passing legislative session.  We do have positive examples here in Arizona -- schools that are finding success against the odds, teachers who are truly "sentries against hopelessness" (Robert Debruyn), and educational practices (and practitioners) to emulate.

But, when I saw the linked image, I wasn't sure whether to laugh, cry, be angry, or saddened by such a simple depiction of what I believe to be the greatest challenge (and frustration) of public educators.

Published with permission - Artwork by David Fitzsimmons

Take a minute and read each position in this school seating chart.  Sound familiar?  In far too many of our schools, this image hits too close to home to be considered humor -- but the circumstances that lead to this mess are laughable.  In We Need to Know, I wrote about the danger of becoming immune to the circumstances of our students.  As educators, it is imperative that we are aware of what our students face if we are to have any chance of meeting their needs -- socially, emotionally, or academically.  But faced with an increasing number of students who are dealing with the cold realities of cruel circumstances, situations that force them to grow up too fast, differentiating is a daunting task for the best of educators.

Now, I certainly don't mean to imply that problems of this nature are the exclusive domain of public schools -- several of these issues plague our society, indiscriminate of socioeconomic status, or the school a student attends.  However, many of our public schools work with a greater percentage of students from challenging home situations (those without sufficient support, or vocal advocates) and they do it with less than adequate resources.

So where does that leave us?  From where I sit, there isn't a clear plan (on a national, or state level) that will adequately address these concerns.  A conversation about viable solutions (not that I have any) is probably best left for another day, and another post.  However, I like the suggestions, and questions, fellow Arizona educator John Spencer raises in his blog post Seven Thoughts on Education Policy. I think it is a great conversation starter for educational advocacy.

In the meantime, I encourage all educators to maintain a balance of high expectations, support, and an appropriate level of empathy, and understanding, for ALL students.
When the world says give up, hope whispers, try it one more time.  ~ Anonymous
(Special thanks to David Fitzsimmons for permission to share his artwork in this blog post)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Keep Going. Keep Going. Keep Going.

cc flickr photo by azjd
Believe it or not, tomorrow is the beginning of our sixth week of school.  My twitter feed is filled with messages about schools starting up, and teachers/students returning to school.  Meanwhile we have surpassed the midway point of our first quarter.  Overall, it has been a relatively smooth beginning to the school year.

That being said, when I committed to renewing my effort at blogging, I promised myself that I would be honest in my writing. A career in education isn't always a walk in the park, and I think it is important that in writing about our experiences in school we lay out the challenges -- as well as the successes.  Sometimes those who are feel discouraged, from time to time, need to know they are not alone.  

This year, our student enrollment is up.  That is good.  Our staffing is about the same.  That's not great.  We have fewer administrators.  Good, or bad -- depends on your perspective -- but as one of those administrators, I am definitely feeling stretched.  I see more students with personal, and academic concerns.  That increases the challenges and pressures faced by our teaching staff.  I know we don't have the resources we should have in a perfect world (but, when has that ever been the case).  In short, we have a arduous road ahead of us...something that could be said of all committed educators.  

Truth be told, there are days that I'm tired.  Days I'm frustrated.  Times when I am not necessarily giddy about facing the challenges of the day...or the week.  But just like we emphasize to our students, grit and determination is important.  See challenges, and failure, as opportunities.  Get back on the proverbial horse.  We have to keep going.

Each Monday is a chance to climb back in the trenches.  An opportunity to make a difference for others -- students, parents, colleagues, and the school community.  I can guarantee that there will be many successes in the week to come.  They may be small, and we may have to do some searching, but they'll be there if we are willing to look.  Use those small victories to fuel your efforts.  

Like many, I have become a fan of Soul Pancake's, Kid President.  One of his latest messages is A Tiny Poem to the World.  Sound advice as we begin another week.  Keep going.  Keep going.  Keep going.

Make it a great week!

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Casualty of Testing

cc flickr photo by azjd
In my own philanthropy and business endeavors, I have seen the critical role that the arts play in stimulating creativity and in developing vital communities...the arts have a crucial impact on our economy and are an important catalyst for learning, discovery, and achievement in our country.  ~ Paul Allen
I worry about the arts.

The current political obsession with assessment testing, and accountability, has left us with public schools that, by and large, marginalize courses that emphasize creative expression.  The emphasis on standardized testing, coupled with severe under funding, has forced schools to focus resources on core instructional elements (reading, writing, and mathematics) at the expense of classes that develop, or enhance, student appreciation for the fine arts.  In a world in need of creative problem solvers, I think this is a potentially devastating mistake.

I sometimes struggle with the fact that my daughter (who is passionate about music, acting, and drawing) attends a school  where, until this year, she has only had music class about once a week, and has never, in her elementary school career, had an actual art class, during school hours.  This isn't a knock on the school--or the leadership and staff members--but it is a black eye for an educational system that views the fine arts as expendable.  Unfortunately, my junior high is not much better.  Over a ten year period, as budgets have tightened, and accountability has increased -- elective courses have been whittled to the bone in terms of class time, and choice.  As a society, I think we have to recognize that many students have an intense interest in the arts, and when we marginalize the content students are passionate about, we also marginalize the students.

There is also an issue of equity in this dilemma.  As a family, we have been able to supplement my daughter's limited to exposure to the arts through our own efforts.  I have traded attendance at sporting events, for musicals, plays, art exhibits, and concerts.  My daughter takes after school art and music classes.  We have the means, and access, to do that.  The same is not true for all kids, and all families.  

I understand, and support, the emphasis on mathematics and science, but exposure to the arts should not be an "either/or" proposition.  My wife (@ideanad) has earned her PhD in electrical engineering and is a self-described "math geek," but she is also an accomplished pianist.  She would tell you that fine arts encourage students to look at things from a different perspective, developing a unique eye (and ear) for problem solving.

As usual, I don't have an immediate solution.  I know many schools that are finding creative ways to integrate the arts and expose students to this medium of learning.  However, I fear that until funding improves, and the emphasis on standardized testing is diminished, fine arts will be continue to be a casualty of assessment testing.

Breakfast - Still Life by Alina