Saturday, March 29, 2014

Seven Lessons My Son Taught Me That Made Me a Better Teacher

Dear William,

Today you turn 20.  You are no longer a teenager.

As I think about you this morning, I am filled with so many emotions.  Sadness.  Sentimentality.  Hopefulness. Optimism.  The tears that fill my eyes are tears of joy that you have reached this milestone in your life, and tears of sadness that you will no longer need me in adulthood as you have in childhood.

So many memories flood over me.  Your birth brought great joy to your daddy and me.  A boy to carry on the Sullivan family name.  A three-year-old wearing green Wellies and riding a firetruck.  A kid easily entertained with matchbox cars.  A student sneaking into my office for a few dollars or a snack.  An athlete practicing to prove himself worthy of playing time.  A willing worker bearing the heat and dirt of his grandfather’s business.  A young man of character cognizant of the value of faith.

You have paved your own path. You have done it your way, temper tantrums and all.  You have believed in yourself when others have not.  You have pushed yourself to prepare for your dreams. 

I witnessed your indecision, your struggle to decide on a college.  I prayed for you to make the best decision for you.  For you to be able to live the dreams you have.  For the door to your opportunity to swing wide open and for you to know, without a doubt, that your choice also was God’s choice for you.  You listened to Him, and followed with confidence and peace where He led.

Thinking back over the years, I realize how much you have taught me about life and about teaching.

I simultaneously giggled and cringed many times as you learned to pronounce your favorite toy, a fire truck. My reaction called attention to your problem and embarrassed you when I didn’t mean to; it took years to overcome that.
Lesson 1:  Speech therapy is life altering; it’s okay for students to miss my class for therapy.
Lesson 2:  Don’t embarrass kids; they don’t get over it.

In a standoff with my husband over which one of us would drop you off at daycare, we inadvertently left you home alone for a few hours.  Fortunately, you survived! You watched TV, ate some breakfast, put on your boots, went outside to ride your fire truck on the sidewalk, and locked yourself out of the house.  We can laugh now; we didn’t laugh then. 
Lesson 3: Even good parents mess up on occasion.  Behind the children I teach, there are good parents who sometimes mess up. Don’t judge them.
Lesson 4: Given the chance – or necessity -, kids can be self-sufficient.  Let them!

A seven hour school day, with six of them in a classroom under expectations to sit still, be quiet, listen attentively, and do the work is painful for a boy with energy.  Your body needs to move, you need to talk, you need some freedom.  At some point, you have to have it! I was tired of work after a long day; so were you.  Homework is often busy work, anyway, assigned because someone somewhere thought kids should have homework every night in every subject.
Lesson 5:  When homework disrupts the calm of a home, it is not worth the fight. Homework can wait.
Lesson 6: Rethink what I send home in my class.  Families deserve peace, free from the nightmares of finishing homework.

Who would have believed you would have had the chance to continue playing your favorite game after high school?  You showed ‘em, didn’t you?  You lived your dream.  You made it come true with extra hours of practice and perseverance in marketing yourself to college coaches.  What a fun year it was!
Lesson 7: Never underestimate a child’s resolve when it comes to his dreams. With or without you, he will go for it.  So you might as well encourage him.

Simple lessons I learned the hard way.  Lessons learned through motherhood that made me a better teacher.

Happy birthday, William! I am so proud of the man you have become. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Evidence of Understanding: Improving Assessment

Why do we give students vocabulary terms to learn?  What is the purpose of knowing these words?  How does our assessment of students’ knowledge of the terms reflect our purpose?

As I look around my school I see lots of vocabulary lists and vocabulary tests.  Vocabulary is at the heart of much of what we teach.  Words are in vocabulary workbooks. Lists come from reading stories in literature and from boldfaced terms in science and social studies texts.

Nearly every teacher will defend her position that students need to know these words to understand the content of the class.  Teachers who use workbooks for vocabulary study swear by the improved results on their end of year achievement.

I’m not opposed to the study of vocabulary.  Everyone, including me, needs to build a more robust vocabulary.

I’m just trying to dig deeper, to peel the layers of the onion, to move toward a more specific understanding of why we teach vocabulary so that we can assess our students’ vocabulary in the context of that purpose.

Many vocabulary tests consist of matching the word to the definition.  Others may use a multiple choice format, but that is still likely to be just a word and four definitions from which to choose (vs. ten or fifteen definitions in a matching column).

It’s sometimes difficult to understand the concept of understanding in the context of our own subject areas and standards. So I continually seek examples outside of “school” to illuminate complex ideas.

In our volunteer firefighter emergency medical responder class, we were given a list of 74 objectives.  I would expect these objectives to be the skills and knowledge we must acquire to successfully perform our responsibilities as volunteer EMRs.  In fact, most of the objectives are just that.

But there a few that puzzle me, at least in the way they are written.

One objective states, “Define abandonment.”  No problem; it’s easy enough to look up the definition in the text, write it down, memorize it, match it or select the right choice on a test. That level of work constitutes knowledge of the definition.

I’m more interested in knowing what is the purpose of the objective.  Is it really to have me define the term?  I seriously doubt it.  More likely, the instructor expects that I will understand the concept of abandonment as it applies to my responsibilities as an EMR so that I will not abandon a patient.

If the instructor does not assess my understanding of the concept, how will he know whether I get it?  Perhaps, as many teachers do, he thinks that testing my knowledge of the definition demonstrates my understanding of the term.  How do we assess for understanding?

At this juncture there is a disconnect in education. We teach and assess knowledge, often at the expense of teaching for and assessing understanding. 

We must rethink our assessments to ensure we are getting the information we need about student learning.  If I just need a weekly grade, matching vocabulary works.  If I want to know that my instruction is effective, that students are learning what I intend for them to learn, then my assessment must provide information about students’ understanding of what they have learned.  How do I do that? 

  1. Establish the purpose of the vocabulary.  Why must students know this word?  How do I expect them to use this word?  What understanding do I expect them have of this word?  Start with an Understanding by Design framework.
     Standard: Define abandonment.
The student will understand that once he begins treatment, a trained medical responder must not leave a patient until care is taken over by a person with the same or higher training.
Vocabulary (definition): abandonment
Avoid abandoning a patient

  1. Create assessment items that measure knowledge AND understanding in context.  Design multiple assessment items.  Then select the one(s) which best demonstrate the level of knowledge, skills, and understanding you expect.
Multiple Choice Item
Assessing Vocabulary Knowledge
When an EMR fails to continue providing emergency medical care to a patient until another qualified person takes over is called:
a) incompetence
b) assumed consent
c) duty to act
d) abandonment
Multiple Choice Item
Assessing Concept Knowledge
You arrive on the scene, gain permission to treat the patient, and begin treatment.  You bandage the patient’s bleeding leg, and he is stable. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, you receive a phone call and need to leave the scene. May you abandon the patient?
a) Yes, the patient has been treated and is stable.
b) Yes, the ambulance is only a few minutes away.
c) No, you have begun treatment, so you must wait for the ambulance.
d) No, the patient’s status may change if you leave.
Performance Task Assessing Concept Application
Establish a role-play scenario in which the EMR must decide whether to leave the patient. Have the responder verbalize his actions and defend them.

 Assessing for understanding is a challenge.  We are quite accustomed to assessing for knowledge, but assessing for understanding requires us to think beyond what we’ve always done.  It requires us to have a deep understanding of why we teach what we teach. Without this understanding, we cannot provide the level of instruction or assessment that our students deserve.

How do you assess understanding in your classroom?  What evidence of understanding do you require?  How does understanding the concept of understanding affect your assessments?  Share your ideas.  We learn from one another.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Power of This Connected World We Live In

Until recently, I had not been a Twitter user.  For one thing, I didn’t understand it.  I followed a few news organizations and personalities, but that was mostly uninteresting. I didn’t send Tweets because I had no followers to receive them. 

Then one day while searching, I found some educational organizations. Following them, I happened upon an ASCD chat one evening with guest host Grant Wiggins.  I’m not going to lie; that was cool. Especially when Wiggins tweeted a response to @sullivan884.

I left that chat session feeling like I had engaged in a personal conversation with a sage whose work in education influences what I do each day. 

Twitter addiction about to happen.  That event piqued my interest. Who else can I follow?  What chats can I join? What more can I learn?

I have since — ha!  All of three weeks, maybe?--  found interesting hashtags, more chat sessions, and dozens of energetic educators who share ideas, pose thought provoking questions, link to articles and personal blogs, and offer intellectual challenge and learning within the confines of 140 characters at the time.

After last night, I’m really hooked.  I joined #ELAchat at 8:00 PM and continued with #TeachWriting at 9:00 PM.  The ideas were flying by on my screen. I had so much fun! But more than that, I learned from others, and I shared with others. Some tweets reinforced my philosophy; others challenged me with new ways of thinking.

Not only did I find and follow new personalities, but also I received some new followers.  One in particular made my day.  She asked for ideas about how to write in ways other than formal paragraphs and essays.  I offered some suggestions.  Today, she tried one of those suggestions in her classroom and sent me another Tweet to say how well it worked. You think she was the only one excited?  I was excited, too. And I have a sneaking suspicion that her students were excited trying a different style of writing today, also.

My goal as an educator is to help students learn better and to help teachers teach better.  In 140 characters or less, I made a difference in some students’ lives today because their teacher connected with strangers to improve her professional practice. That’s the power of this connected world we live in.

Professional development via Twitter.  Quality ideas shared with thirsty educators.

What chats do you join?  Which educators do you follow?  Share your ideas. Let's grow together.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Thoughts On Being Coachable

An exasperated teacher cornered me seeking advice. What to do?  Her students’ reactions to feedback and grades on their essays reeked of disrespect, pouting, and murmured comments. 

I felt her pain.  I, too, have experienced something similar.  The most academically promising students are sometimes the worst at receiving feedback. These are the students who most often earn perfect or nearly perfect scores on every assignment. 

It’s one thing to memorize facts and be able to make 100’s on tests; however, these skills may not translate into strong essay writing.  And it hits kids hard when they realize their work needs work.  Their performance has been “good enough” to make A’s in previous classes, so why isn’t it good enough now?

Receiving feedback is difficult.  We own our work; it is a reflection of us.  For someone to find flaws in it may hurt our feelings.  Worse, it may turn us away from the very one who seeks to help us.

So I began to think about what qualities it takes to be coachable.  After all, providing effective feedback to students on their writing is much like a coach providing feedback to his players.

For me, being coachable means listening to what the coach offers, making an effort to incorporate the coach’s suggestions, and having a positive attitude about learning and practicing. 

A little research revealed that others have similar ideas about what makes a person coachable.  One coach offered these qualities:

  • Respectful
  • Willing to accept responsibility
  • Work hard at practice & in games
  • Exercise self control
  • Confident but not arrogant
  • Have emotional control to concentrate under pressure
  • Competitive but have fun & enjoy the game

 Another coach described coachable players as having:

  •  humility (because they know there is always more to learn) 
  •  high self esteem (because they know that constructive criticism is not a personal attack) 
  •  courage (because they willingly attempt even the most challenging or intimidating tasks)
  • ambition (because they have a vision of what they want to achieve)

Not only do we want our students to be coachable, but also, we as professionals should consider our own coachability. 

Are you coachable?

Yes, maybe, not sure?  Reflect on this list to see if any of these characteristics describe you.  Here are some symptoms of uncoachability:

  • challenge credentials of the coach
  • announce you’re being unfairly singled out
  • pointing out, angrily, that the last few times the coach was wrong
  • identifying others who have succeeded without ever being coached
  • resisting a path merely because it was one identified by a coach

Reflecting on the qualities of coachable people and the symptoms of uncoachability, I can see myself at various points in my career.  Depending on the situation, I may have been more or less coachable.  What I have learned is that at the points when I was most coachable, I grew most.   

Maybe the most important element of coaching is building a trusting relationship between player and coach.  Without trust, how can we open ourselves to another’s suggestions and criticism?  As a teacher, I must work toward building trusting relationships with students so that when I do offer constructive criticism they are more likely to accept it and to use it to improve.

The same holds true for my work with other teachers.  Trusting relationships are vital.  In the absence of trust, coaching does not work; we may get compliance at times, but we will not get the lasting results coaching intends if trust is lacking.

Most coaches are not looking for the best player, but they are looking for those who take coaching best.  Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summit once said, “How can you improve if you are never wrong?  If you don’t admit a mistake and take responsibility for it, you’re bound to make the same one again.”

We need coachable teachers just as we need coachable students and athletes.  Learning must never stop. Coaches who offer insight and suggestions to help us improve our teaching practice become valuable partners in our Professional Learning Network. 

Are you coachable? 
If not, what barriers prevent you from being coachable?  How can you overcome these barriers?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

How Dare You Question My Grades: The Road to Standards Driven Assessment

How dare you question my grades!

Perhaps you, too, feel this way or have had the pleasure of such company in a hallway conversation, in a parent conference, or in a professional learning experience. 

We teachers are defensive about our grading.  After all, we taught it, we tested it, and we’re sticking to it.  The students had their chance to learn it, to study it, and to prove they did it.

Fourteen years ago I learned to take responsibility for my students’ grades.  The nine weeks reporting period ended and my third graders had science averages in the 50s and 60s.  I couldn’t fail a whole class of third graders in science.  It wasn’t their fault; it was my fault.  Reflecting on the quarter, I recognized flaws in my teaching, in my test items, in the frequency of tests, in what I expected students to be able to do without explicit instruction, and so much more. 

That was a learning experience.  No grades went on the report card; instead, a letter to parents explained the situation.  Fortunately, an understanding principal and supportive colleagues backed my decision.

That experience was one of the best things to happen to me because it revealed that I am not perfect, my teaching is not perfect, my tests are not perfect, and my grading system is not perfect.  So, how can my students’ grades be a perfect reflection of their achievement in my class?  The short answer is that they are not. 

Wiggins’ recent posts on validity and reliability drive the point home even further.  Our tests are valid only if they truly measure what we set out to measure, and they are reliable only when the scores are consistent and errors are minimal.  Standardized tests take into account Standard Errors of Measurement (SEM), so there is a range in which the score is reliable.

Hmm…how about our classroom tests?  Do we take into account SEMs?  How do a student’s outlier grades (zero for not turning in homework, uncharacteristically low – or high – quiz scores) affect their course average?  What about the student who initially takes longer to learn the material (hence, low grades to start), but eventually learns as well (or better than) the student who made high grades all along?  Are percentage grades and averages the best indicator of a students’ learning? 

I submit that our current system of grading rewards the students who already have learned what we are teaching, or who are quick learners, and our system neglects those students who are most in need of learning and who need more repetition to master the content and skills being taught.

In a classroom that reports grades, we are likely to receive a fuzzy picture of what students can do and where their efforts need to focus for improvement.  I cannot count how many conferences I’ve attended where the teacher tells us every grade and assignment – science chapter 3, To Kill A Mockingbird test, vocabulary quiz ….  What skills and knowledge did the test assess? What strengths and weaknesses did the test reveal about this student?  Well, she turns in her work, but she needs to study more for tests.  Sounds like good information, but really, it’s useless because we don’t know what content knowledge and skills she lacks. 

A standards based grading system offers an alternative.  The assessment data teachers gather is coded with terms like proficient, progressing or needs development, as opposed to number or letter grades, but even this system is only as a good as the assessment it reports on.

I wish that well-crafted assessments and grading practices were the norm.  But they’re not. 

In truth, few teacher education programs focus courses on developing classroom assessments.  Mine didn’t.  Did yours?  I took a masters’ level course titled Tests & Measurement which focused on understanding standardized measures.  Other courses may have required me to create a test to accompany a unit, but there was no instruction in how to create a valid and reliable classroom test.  That learning has been left up to me to do on my own.  And I’ll bet your experience is similar.

Standards based grading results in more useful information than percentages and points.  (For another convincing viewpoint on standards based grading, read Jessica Lahey's article in The Atlantic.)  However, not only does standards-based grading require a philosophical shift to the grading mindset, but also it necessitates professional development for teachers to learn how to use a system that assesses differently and to learn to create assessments that more accurately represent the knowledge and skills students must master.

I’m not suggesting a one-shot workshop; significant initial training, followed by job-embedded regularly scheduled training and debriefing sessions must lead to teacher and administrator buy-in.  We need collaborative assessment writing and critiques of our test construction in the context of the standards being assessed. 

Maybe your school isn’t considering a change in grading policies.  You don’t have to work in a school that adopts a standards-based grading system to assess your students better.

This work can begin immediately.  In each teacher’s room.  Regardless of school wide buy-in. Every test, every assessment ought to provide specific indicators of students’ content and skill mastery. 

Suffice it say, all roads lead to the necessity of developing a deep understanding of standards.

More on this later.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Analysis: Breaking Down the Standard, Getting to the Core of the Work

Standards are fraught with challenge.  The foremost challenge is not a student challenge, but rather is a teacher challenge. Teachers must first understand each standard. What does the standard expect the student to know, understand, and be able to do?  Then they must be able to teach not only the content knowledge, but also the expected skill performance.

Marzano posits that teaching the Common Core standards requires a different skill than most teachers have experience with in the classroom. It is essential that we teachers open ourselves to learning and to improving our craft.  I’ve witnessed many examples of instruction and assessment that don’t rise to the standard; I believe lack of understanding of the standard and lack of strategies prevent instruction and assessment from meeting the demands of the standards.

On that note, this post offers a strategy for teaching students to analyze.

Instruction must follow from a deep understanding and thorough unpacking of the standard.  The backward design process challenges many veteran teachers whose experience with curriculum involves selecting their favorite activities and chapters from an assigned textbook. 

Perhaps these are the teachers who test hundreds of obscure facts from the text under the premise that a student should read every word of the book and remember it verbatim; or, given standards, they seek out only the key content terms rather than the performance the standard expects.  For example, the test question may ask students “What is the organizational structure of the piece?” or “What is the Preamble?”   The focus here is on identification of key terms.

It is likely that students must know this background information in order to analyze it well, but when the assessment is comprised solely of identification and memorization items, the students will not build the skills they so desperately need to prepare them for college and career.

The days of identification level only tests are gone.  Or, they should be gone, replaced by a focus on standards, targets for student learning.  Granted, students must know facts and terms in the context of the standard’s required performance.  More precisely, though, what does the language of the standard tell us students must know, understand, and be able to do?

For the sake of example, let’s analyze this Georgia Performance Standard for a high school American Government class:
Analyze the purpose of government stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution.

First, isolate the key terms.
Analyze the purpose of government stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution.

Under a standards-based curriculum, I cannot simply teach these terms at the identification level.  This standard assumes the student knows the terms (or will learn them here).

I also find the noun purpose.  Students will need an understanding of what purpose is, but it is not an identification term like the other three.
Analyze the purpose of government stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution.

Now my work is to determine what students must do with these terms. 
Isolate the action (the doing part!) of the standard.
Analyze the purpose of government stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution.

 That’s it:  my students must be able to analyze.  Analyze what?  Analyze the purpose of government.  But not just any purpose of government.  The purpose of government stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution.

So there it is, my students must know what the Preamble is, what the U.S. Constitution is, and what government is; they must understand each of the terms and the term purpose; and they must be able to analyze the purpose of government as stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution.

Once we know what to teach, we have to know how to teach it. We can’t just tell students to analyze something.  After all, what does that really mean?  How do we analyze? 

Expecting students to be able to “analyze the structure of texts”  or to “analyze the purpose of government” without teachers understanding how to teach the skill of analysis and having tools to teach this skill will result in frustration more so than in increased achievement.

Analysis breaks a whole into its component parts.  Close reading provides us an avenue for finding the parts.  What are the parts of the Preamble?  In this case, it is possible to separate the phrases to more easily see them as separate items.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Who:  We the People of the United States
Operational term that let’s me know that what follows is the purpose:  in Order to
To do what?  Heads up; the purpose is coming:
·       form a more perfect Union,
·       establish Justice
·       insure domestic Tranquility
·       provide for the common defence
·       promote the general Welfare
·       secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity
So they created (“do ordain and establish”) this product (this Constitution for the United States of America) in order to do all of the phrases above.

Highlighting and creating a bulleted column of items are strategies to help students visualize the various components of the text. Graphically organized.  Isolated.  Easy to see. Broken apart. 

Once we’ve identified the components of the text, venturing into understanding the meaning of each phrase really begins.  I believe it is important for teachers to work through this process with students to demonstrate how to locate the parts; then approach how to explain the meaning of the parts, and finally, how to bring it all together for a summary explanation of the text as a whole.

Explicit teaching is paramount.  Name the work.  Students need to know that the work here is analysis.  I’ve demonstrated two strategies, or tools, to use to analyze text. Students need to become familiar with a variety of tools to do the work.

How do you teach analysis?  How do students break down information into meaningful chunks or component parts?  What visual organization tools do you offer your students to aid in this process? 

Comment to share your ideas.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Mirror, Mirror: Reflecting on Our Practice

The past three weeks have been so much fun.

I had the opportunity to teach our AP English students.  From the moment it was mentioned, until just a few minutes ago, I have buried myself in this course. 

Selecting focus standards.  Sketching a unit plan.  Researching topics for discussion and for writing.  Re-reading the novel.  Developing the unit plan more fully.  Writing lessons. Creating assignments and rubrics.  Organizing materials.  Grading papers.  Providing feedback.  Meeting individually with struggling writers.  Evaluating my work and considering changes I would make next time.  Reading the students’ feedback on my work after I finished grading their final submissions and recording them in the grade book.  Reconsidering my work and the changes I would make next time.

So much work, but so well worth it.  What a group of students!  I couldn’t be more proud than I am at this moment.  Their final papers rocked.  Hurray!

Teaching is so invigorating.  Perhaps even more so when it is taken in small doses – like three weeks at the time!  My head is swirling with ideas to take what I’ve learned from this experience and inject it into other areas of our program. 

Although the teaching is done, the papers are graded, and the grade book is posted, the work is not finished.

Reflecting on my teaching is a necessary part of my work. I can’t get better at my craft without giving serious thought to what I have done and to the results of my efforts.  Not only am I looking at the content of the course – the assignments, the discussions, the materials, the activities --, but also I am looking at how I handled questions, student concerns, late papers, one-on-one assistance.  My attitude, my actions, my words. 

I also need feedback from students to know what worked for them and what didn’t.  They see things in the classroom from a different vantage point.  It’s hard to ask students for honest feedback; they don’t all like us or like the way we do things.

A reflective practitioner engages in self-analysis and welcomes feedback from others. 

And uses the findings to improve the next learning encounter.

I am a reflective practitioner.  Will you become one, too?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

An Attitude of Gratitude

I generally consider myself an optimistic person, one oriented toward a growth mindset. But I find that when it comes to “quality control” issues in our school environment, my critical side takes over.  I want the best for our students, so naturally, I turn my attention toward those areas that need improvement.

“Okay,” “mediocre,” “good enough” – really isn’t good enough for me.  Because I’m not willing to settle for “good enough” for our students.  They deserve the best education.  The best instruction.  The best assessments.  The best environment.

My goal always is to provide the best in education for them.  And that is the perspective from which my critical nature emerges.  Because I care – maybe to a fault --, I agonize over our shortcomings, seeking solutions to move every student, every teacher toward a first-rate educational experience.

So this Washington Post article about Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg resonated with me (so much so that I tracked down the Business Week article that first quoted him).  Zuckerberg and I have something in common:   “’It’s important for me, because I’m a really critical person,’ he says at Facebook’s sprawling corporate campus in Menlo Park, Calif. ’I always kind of see how I want things to be better, and I’m generally not happy with how things are, or the level of service that we’re providing for people, or the quality of the teams that we built.’” 

Hmmm.  That could be a description of me.

What really hit home is how he finished that statement:  “’But if you look at this objectively, we’re doing so well on so many of these things.’”  Yes, we are doing so well on so many of these things, I think to myself.  “’I think it’s important to have gratitude for that.’” 


I am grateful. 

I am grateful for the students whose parents have entrusted us to teach them, to nurture them, to guide them.  For our teachers who spend countless hours planning & grading beyond their paid hours, for the expertise they bring to the classroom and to the athletic field, for their compassion and understanding, for their patience – even when they’re at their wit’s end, for their willingness to learn, to improve their practice, always striving to provide the best. For our administrators, whose unwavering support fortifies our efforts.  I am grateful.

I may not give up my “critical nature” for the Lenten Season, but I can take these forty days to express my gratitude.

After all, if Zuckerberg can write thank-you notes every day for a year, I can, at the least, do it for a season.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Removing Obstacles to Student Motivation

It’s a comment we hear all too frequently: “These students are not motivated.”  As we have come under more stress to teach new curriculum standards, to increase rigor, and to be evaluated under a new, more specific system, these kinds of comments have increased.  Perhaps it’s the pressure of performance and the fear of failure that seeps into our minds and manifests a negative mindset.
We are quick to blame students for not studying, not completing homework, not paying attention carefully, not caring, and to blame parents for not being involved.
In reality, we cannot change another person, much less an entire classroom of students.  We have control only over ourselves.  So when frustration sets in, we must turn inward and take a careful look at ourselves. This kind of self-reflection is difficult, but necessary, if we are to become truly effective educators.  We educators must acknowledge that our attitudes and behaviors “can affect student motivation in ways that either facilitate or impede learning” (Svinicki).
What am I doing that negatively affects my students?  What tone have I unintentionally set in my classroom?  What is my non-verbal communication saying to my students? What am I verbalizing to my students?  Am I practicing what I am preaching?
What classroom policies have I implemented that may have unintended consequences? What assignments am I giving? Do these assignments have meaning and value for students? Are my instruction and assessment truly aligned to what students need to learn?
            Learning is risky.  Mistakes are inevitable. How we handle those mistakes is critical to creating a classroom environment that motivates students.  We can choose to react to student errors with interest and support, embracing mistakes as part of the learning process, providing opportunities to learn from errors and to progress toward mastery, helping students to see their learning growth, or we can choose to react with criticism and condescension, citing students’ failures, and noting the finality of low grades.
            If we take the latter path, whether by conscious choice or by default, our students eventually lose their motivation to learn.  Grades are motivational for only a few achievement-oriented students, yet in frustration we often threaten and punish students by assigning low grades, thinking that they should be motivated to earn higher grades. 
            Some students avoid the stigma of failure by doing only that with which they know they can be successful, leaving the rest unfinished.  Others avoid work that they find meaningless.  Adopting a supportive approach to students who fear failure and reexamining the assignments we give to ensure their value are ways we can better reach these students.
People are motivated to engage in behaviors that have value to them and where they have a reasonable expectation for success.  How does this apply to our students?
As teachers, it is our responsibility to select learning tasks that have value for students; sometimes, we must help them see that value.  We must eliminate meaningless tasks.  We also must structure the learning situation so that success is likely.  As students work on tasks, we must encourage and support their efforts.
            Typically, our students want to do well; they want to please their teachers. When you find this is not true in your classroom, dig deeper.  I doubt you are seeing a lazy student.  Many deeper issues manifest themselves in the school setting as laziness and lack of motivation.  There’s something that is creating an obstacle that is too large for the student to overcome alone. 
An honest reflection may well reveal that at least one obstacle lies within the teacher’s control. What will you do to help uncover and remove these obstacles so students can learn in your classroom?

Svinicki, M.D. (2005).  Student Goal Orientation, Motivation and Learning.  Retrieved from

Saturday, March 1, 2014

To Hearten or to Hamper: The Teacher's Choice in Setting the Tone for Classroom Interactions

            Entering a classroom recently, I cringed; what I heard was harsh, enough to make me want to turn around and leave; I had that freedom.  Sadly, though, twenty youngsters did not. 
Apparently, Mrs. Smith was having a bad day due to her students’ ill behavior.  She pointed out that Todd had not finished his math, and Seth couldn’t sit still for five minutes.  Beth was writing with a crayon instead of a pencil, and Ashley had left her lunchbox in the wrong place.  For each of these infractions Mrs. Smith felt compelled to express her exasperation to everyone in the room.
My heart broke for these students.  They had been wounded by her words.  Why would any student in this room want to come back tomorrow?  The embarrassment and the blows to their self-esteem that they had experienced that day would have been enough to make me not want to come back to school the next day.   
The climate in Mrs. Smith’s room certainly did not evoke the warm, welcoming nature that inspires students to work hard, to behave well, and to learn much.  While Mrs. Smith seemed to cast blame on students for their shortcomings, the real problem was not a room full of badly behaved kids. 
The problem lies in Mrs. Smith’s choice of tone and focus for classroom interactions. Her students’ behavior issues may well be remedied by examining her interactions with students.
Each day when we walk into our classroom we have the choice of embarking on a good day or a bad day.  We can allow our interactions to build up or to sour our relationships.  We can hearten our students or we can hamper their development. 
What we say has lasting effects on our students.  However insignificant a comment may seem to the teacher, its effect on our students should not be underestimated.  After more than twenty years in education, I have had students come back to me years later to say, “I remember when you said . . . .”  What a simple reminder that what we say has a lasting impact on our students!
Consider how you feel when people speak harshly or curtly to you as an adult.  Children feel no less insulted when we also speak unkindly to them, and because they are surrounded by their peers, they are more likely to feel ashamed or embarrassed.  After all, would you want your principal to say such things to you during a faculty meeting in earshot of your colleagues?
Building a safe and nurturing classroom environment requires a teacher’s willingness to forge meaningful relationships with students, to acknowledge and celebrate students’ accomplishments, be they ever so small. 
            While there are numerous characteristics that define effective teaching, perhaps none is greater than that which comprises our ability and willingness to forge trusting relationships with students.  As educators we are responsible for imparting not only academic knowledge and skills, but also helping to develop the whole child.

The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks. Luke 6:45 NIV