This Year in Teaching

I can stand in front of a classroom all day long and teach. I’m actually pretty good at that. I explain well, I have a deep understanding of my subject so when half formed questions come up I can usually see where they are coming from, but this is not the way I teach. This method of teaching meets the needs of students like me, but I don’t teach students like me. Most people at the age of 13 don’t want to sit and take notes from a teacher. they want to talk, move, text, snap, whatever, anything except sit and take notes.

I won’t try to incorporate all that into my teaching. That would be forced. What I will do is to allow students to take more responsibility for learning. For me this means projects. I’m calling what I am doing this year project based learning, but it isn’t quite fully that. We have one project for each unit, but they are not always natural teachers of the content.

For example the first project will be rewriting a song so that the lyrics teach operations on rational numbers. The project, could be more natural if we asked the student to explore sound frequencies, but I am not going for pure project based learning, I’m going for standards based learning.

I know studying song lyrics won’t teach anything about operations on rational numbers, but writing the lyrics correctly will. Maybe it isn’t project based learning right away, maybe call it project based assessment except that the project will be given first and students can choose to learn from me or through other resources until they feel confident enough to finish the project (or test if they prefer that sort of assessment).

The organization of each unit is pretty simple. (and I use the word unit loosely as we mostly group units by strand of mathematics) Introduce the CCSS standards, walk students through how I make standards into objectives, have students break the objectives into learning targets through the questions they have. (a KWL chart) Next introduce the project and show how it meets the objectives. Show students resources we have that will allow them to learn the target skills  necessary to meet the objectives and allow them to choose how and when to learn those skills. (Still individualized learning and not personalized (or vice versa I always get those confused), but giving a lot of voice to the students).

The important thing is the student choice. They don’t actually have to do the project. They can learn all the skills from me and then take a test, they can learn all the skills, from another resource such as Khan Academy or CK12 and take a test. They can learn on their own and then do the project. They can learn on their own and then do a project of their own choosing. It doesn’t matter as long as they check in with me at least weekly and are working towards the goal as measured by mastering learning targets.

We will see how this shift in learning goes. Oh and did I mention we are also going 1 to 1 and shifting towards Standards Based Grading? I actually don’t think I could do this without those two elements, but first things first changing the culture of the classroom. No more work turned in for a grade, instead steady feedback on a long-term project.

Getting My Sea Legs Back

Working on a ProjectComing back to the classroom after almost 7 years has been a rough adjustment. The textbook  we have is, in my opinion, garbage, so I spend a lot of time creating curriculum. Thanks goodness for the Internet and sites like betterlesson.com. Then there is the new evaluation procedures which require a lot more work on the teacher’s part. Finally, we are a SIG school so there is paperwork and data collection everywhere.

This week I finally went full in on the problem based learning (PBL) bandwagon. I’ve talked about it for years, but I’ve always fallen back on the teacher directed lessons. I’ve tried to do the Madeline Hunter formula, Hook, Model, Practice, Evaluate or I DO, WE DO, YOU DO TOGETHER, YOU DO. I see the logic in the formula, but at the end of the day what happens is the students who are good at school get it, the students who are bad at school don’t, and the behavior problems are behavior problems because they get it and are bored or the don’t get it and don’t want to ask.

I didn’t think my kids were ready. I spent a week preparing them and they still think a good student is defined by how well they listen. I emphasized trust.

I thought I had to trust that everyone can and will work without me watching over every movement. They have to trust each other to do the work. Everyone has to trust me that they will be ready for the quiz.

I wasn’t sure if I could trust them. I took the plunge anyway. On Tuesday, I shared the problems and stepped back. I didn’t even assign problems, I gave a choice of four. I didn’t choose groups. I set parameters:

  • Choose someone smarter than you
  • Someone who works harder than you
  • Someone who will keep you out of trouble.

The task Tuesday was to read the problem, decide what it means, and then split up the work. It went pretty well, but a lot of groups didn’t really fill out the work assignment sheet.

For Wednesday I displayed my one slide.

Working on a Project

Before the bell even rang I stepped into the room and said, “You do not need me to tell you what to do, you do not need to wait for the bell, you can start right now”. Then I went back into the hall for duty. When I came back in most students in most classes were working.

On Thursday I said the same thing. I stopped them for 5 minutes so I could show a sample presentation on a project nobody had, then they went back to work. They were supposed to finish the bulk of the work on Wednesday and finish the bulk of the presentation on Thursday for presentations on Friday and Monday, but the word bulk gave them permission to not actually be finished and still feel the pressure to actually put in work. One group finished. One came in for lunch to do bit of extra work.

In my lowest class students worked and asked questions. I taught the one lesson I would have taught at the board 4 times, but this time everyone listened because they wanted to know how to solve the problem.

In my class where I have a lot of strong personalities it was silent. I went from group to group and they were all working and didn’t need or want any help.

It isn’t all roses though. I have two students in one class who have failed to join a group, despite being assigned to two. They now try to wander the room and join random groups. When I ask them to stop they blame me. I have one student who is in a group, but still doesn’t do any work. And of course I have a lot of groups that are busy trying to create a presentation, but  have no idea about the math they are using.

I’m ok with most of this. I wish the two students would join one group and do some work, but there are more issues than just math there. I hope that during the presentation we will have some decent feedback and they can learn from that. If not from students then hopefully from me.

Finally, today was the dreaded question. Will this be graded? Well yes, but it will only be worth up to 2% in the gradebook because we have to use a Common Formative Assessment which will be the quiz. I would much rather grade this project and put that into the gradebook. On the other hand for those students who fail the quiz, and there will be a few, this will be a good lesson on doing the math first and worrying about presentations second. They can always retake the quiz and if last quarter is any indication almost half would have to anyway.

Stages of Instruction

The Delivery

I’ve always been the type of teacher that likes to design a good lesson plan then forget about the student aspect.

There’s a story of college professor who says, ‘I just delivered the best lecture of my life, it’s too bad no one was there and listen to it’.

That’s the mindset of a person who believes education is delivering information. I don’t. I just find it very easy to fall in that trap. I can spend time developing a wonderful lesson and then deliver it and feels like everything’s going great then I look at the exit slip or the quiz the next day or the next week or whatever and find most of my kids fail.

 

MIley Cirus OMG

My brain is like, ‘what happened?’

I did an awesome job of delivering the lesson. I went through each example slowly and carefully. I scaffolded each step in the problem. It was very clear. I asked for questions and there were a few. When I asked questions about how to do the problem students could easily walk me through it. I was even careful to ask students who I knew would have problems understanding, and I didn’t let them off the hook. I stood and waited until they gave me an answer, then I used the Socratic Method to lead them to the right answer.

Michael Caine "I fialed you"

I was confident everybody knew this, so how did they fail?

 

And that is a very easy trap to fall into. You see it all the time, everybody’s looking for the best curriculum, the best textbook, to teach from. Reformers come in and create scripted lessons, telling teachers exactly what to say, and how to say it. What questions to ask and what answers to expect. Some curricula even talk about common misconceptions and how to use them to enhance the lesson. At the end of the day learning is not about delivering information it’s about the student’s understanding.If they don’t understand it then it doesn’t matter what delivery method you use.

 

Taking it PBL style.

 

I’m trying very hard to break away from the traditional style teaching where I deliver information and students write it down and then regurgitate back to me. It’s hard to get away from it. All of this emphasis on meeting standards, you look at the standard, you find the lesson that meets the standards. Then you teach the lesson and do a quick quiz on it and say ‘oh good 70% of my students understand’. The problem is everything seems to follow the same general format – hook, explanation, and an exit slip. It’s still dependent on delivery.

Go Fish

Next week I start a problem based learning unit. I created my own, I hope they go well. I just have this nagging feeling that I have no idea what the heck I’m doing. Comments and suggestions are welcome Housewarming, Mortgage, Retirement, Reflections.

As I run up to this week I’m trying to prepare my students for working in a problem-based learning environment. This is difficult because I’m not so sure how to do it. I started the year saying the words, “You (students) have to take responsibility for your own learning”.

The problem is that, for the most part they aren’t and I’m not forcing them to. (I have another bad habit of doing things for people when they should be doing it themselves.)

To Do List

I have to teach my students to monitor themselves. It’s going to be a learning experience for my students as well as myself. How do I get them to effectively monitor their own learning? How do I keep them on task without chasing them around the room and saying, “hey get back to work”? During class, I’ve been asking what makes a good team member? What makes a good teacher? What makes a good student? I tried some team building stuff from Kagan. I just hope that I can continue to be consistent on this. I also created some daily reflections sheets.

 

One thing that happens to me as a teacher is I set the kids on a task and then I step aside to do paperwork for 10 seconds, suddenly there’s a line in front of me and the first questions is quick so I answer, the next thing I know there’s 12 people in line and instead of students working intently in the groups students are gathered around socializing about this that the other thing and it’s not an effective learning environment. What I would like to do is to emphasize trust. I will trust that they will do work and they can trust that I will provide the resources necessary to learn.

 

Monday is the first day. We’ll start by writing contracts. What will we do as students, what do we expect from our group? What do we expect from our teacher? What do we expect from ourselves?

Next, the groups will examine the problems and decide what exactly they mean. They will have to determine what a good project should look like. Then determine a checklist of activities they will have to do to complete the project. Finally, assign tasks to each person in the group.

My task the first day it to not spend too much time with one group. Just a few minutes at a time and put them on the right track. Don’t answer questions, just ask.

Reading the Words

Imagine reading a paper (Culture Shift: Teaching in a Learner-Centered Environment Powered by Digital Learning) that said this:

 Learner-centered education dramatically impacts the work of educators, and education systems and school must empower teachers to apply their pedagogical knowledge, instructional skills, and digital tools and resources to meet the needs of individual students.

So teachers should know about the science of teaching and be given the authority to determine best practices for teaching in their classrooms.

Educators are empowered to use innovative approaches and personalize learning in face-to-face, blended, or virtual environments.

Teachers empowered again to choose different approaches.

…opportunities for teachers to learn from each another and from outside experts, …

Teachers as chief learners, right?

…students who have the knowledge and ability to solve problems, think critically, collaborate with others, and communicate in a variety of media.

More important than content is teaching students to think critically, and problem solve.

Deeper learning skills:

  • Knowledge and mastery of … content

  • Critical thinking and complex problem solving

  • Effective communication

  • Collaborative work, self-direction, and incorporation of feedback

We might be able to measure mastery of content with tests, but the rest of those skills require more of an experts subjective observation.

…meeting students where they are and helping them to develop the knowledge and skills they need.

Getting to know our students and tailoring instruction to them.

For example, a student may have the option to utilize simulations or access content that is in a visual or audio format.

Note it doesn’t say teacher creates content in all possible formats but allows students to access.

…open-ended nature…problem-solving strategies and critical thinking are applied…

More thinking skills

…access to learning anytime and anywhere.

This might just require a touch of Connectivism

…flexible…

Imagine a public school (not just a teacher) that is flexible in terms of meeting a student’s needs.

…extend learning opportunities outside of school…

This is flexible. Will the learning I do on my own time have meaning to a public school?

Learner-centered instruction demands that teachers develop different professional roles and responsibilities.

I am willing is my administration? Is my school board?

…shift the teacher’s role from disseminator of knowledge to a facilitator of learning or “education designer.”

A teachers evaluation should not depend on how well students listen.

Formative assessments…

A formative assessment could be an observation while a student struggles with a problem and a well-timed question or comment.

Providing the student with control of his or her learning

Is this possible in public school? Does this fit with Common Core State Standards?

Eliciting student work to demonstrate understanding of specific language and concepts

This is called measurement of knowledge, or mastery of content, through a means that does not include a test. Sometimes known as allowing teachers to be professionals.

…learner-centered teaching encourages collaboration …

Meaning teachers talk about how effective they are, and what they can do better, not how poorly the students listen.

“When teachers collectively engage in participatory decision-making, designing lessons, using data, and examining student work, they are able to deliver rigorous and relevant learning for all students and personalize learning for individual students”

Teachers are part of the decision making process of education. I wonder why students and parents were left out of this process?

Professional learning communities

Emphasis on professional

These other countries dedicate significant resources to professional learning opportunities that are ongoing and sustainable and emphasize collaboration among educators.  …about 60 percent of their time in classrooms.

Done right the most important part of a teacher’s day is his or her reflection and discussion of teaching practices, not time spent in the classroom. Remember from earlier, teachers’ roles are changing. They don’t need to lecture content as much, rather they are “education designers”. They need to spend a significant amount of time thinking, talking, and designing the educational environment. After that the classroom teaching really just happens.

Professional learning: Informal …Communities of practice

Informal yet still professional.

In some cases, teachers who are early adopters of digital learning or other instructional strategies do not have peers with whom to collaborate in their own school or district, so they seek out others on social networking sites or CoPs.

Like students learning for teachers is not limited to within the school walls or what is provided by the district.

…the education system faces many challenges that can hinder the development of strong cultures in schools.

Culture is empowering teachers to be the decision makers. Allowing them to take chances and innovate. Not everything will be perfect and that is what make each child’s education right for the students.

Classrooms many not be as quiet, ad students should be working on different things at different times.

Learning is often social and noisy.

While instructional practice should be evidence based, educators need to trust that it is acceptable to try a new lesson or strategy and possible fail, and that reflection and learning will be encouraged.

Not everything is perfect. No one person or one observation should make or break a decision about the quality of a teacher. It’s a holistic thing.

The culture shift required to move toward a learner-centered model must respect teaching and what is necessary to meet the individual needs of students on a daily basis. The culture must carefully consider collaboration among teachers and the development of professional learning community among educators in which they are all working together toward the same goal.

We are a long way from this and measuring test scores is counter-productive.

  • …understanding …a learner-centered environment…

  • Empower school and district leaders to develop collaborative working environments for teachers….

  • Integrate technology and digital learning into the strategic planning…

  • Elevate the profession of teaching

Again the power of teaching is not in how much content a student masters, rather it is in setting up the best possible environment to facilitate that learning. Measuring teacher quality through student test scores is counter-productive. Instead we should be measuring teacher quality through their ability to adapt to specific situations in their classrooms. This requires close observation over long periods of time. It requires collaboration among equals. It requires teachers to be allowed to make mistakes and honestly implement reforms that may or may not work the first time. reforms that may have to be reevaluated and changed depending on the circumstances. Basically the best teachers are those who are continually changing practices and implementing new ideas based on individual circumstances.

 

I just think if a group is going to say what we want to do but then later implement practices contrary to the stated philosophy then perhaps we should point to their words and hold them to it.

 

 

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Brain-Based Research and Speed Reading

I was in the library the other day looking for books on education. As usual I found the call numbers of a few books (I love the Dewey Decimal System) and just went to the general area to see what was there. I came back with a few books on Montessori and “Remember Everything You Read, The Evelyn Wood 7 Day Speed Reading and Learning Program” by Stanley D. Frank, Ed.D.

Cover of "Remember Everything You Read: T...

Cover via Amazon

 

I found the book interesting and useful. I read a lot, but haven’t really found speed reading to be conducive to memory. I have heard, done right it is supposed to improve memory. After reading the book I have learned to increase my reading speed (when I use the system) and it does help my memory. I also recognized an interesting connection to some brain research on learning.

Carol Dweck is a name I have heard associated with brain research and its implications for education. She describes two general conditions of the brain. A fixed mindset and a growth mindset. The fixed mindset is simply the belief that our intelligence is fixed. For example, if we think we are bad at math, then we are bad at math. A growth mindset is the belief that our basic abilities can be developed. For example, if we have a growth mindset then we don’t believe we are bad at math. Rather we have struggled to learn math, but we can get better at it. With a growth mindset we believe we can learn and that belief in itself is often enough to show gains in learning.

In Brain Plasticity: What is It? Learning and Memory, a page edited by Eric H. Chudler, Ph.D. on the University of Washington website, Dr Chudler tells us that the brain is most active in our early years, but it continues to change throughout our lives. That unused connections in the brain, called synapses, will be pruned over the years, but we can create new ones and strengthen old ones with repeated use.

English: Shows early psychological student mot...

English: Shows early psychological student motivation theorists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like to think of a synapse as a path through the woods. A path that is seldom used with soon become overgrown and disappear. However, if that same path is used it becomes more visible. As it become more visible it will be used more often and grow larger, leading to more use. Eventually, it becomes a road then a highway with enough use. Not every path in the woods becomes a f 4 lane divided highway, but not every path disappears into nothing either.

In the paper “Brain-Based Learning: The Wave of the Brain”, Ruth Palombo Weiss explains how high stress, patterns, emotions, memory, and motivation all contribute to learning and memory. This is where the science of the brain, learning, and speed reading really seem to start connecting.

Stress- the brain reduces the pathways in the brain as stress increases. Creative thinking is difficult in high stress situations. Speed reading starts with good posture and a quiet environment, though soft music is ok for those who prefer it.

Patterns- The brain loves patterns and will often fill in patterns even if it isn’t complete. For example if you ask a person to memorize a long list of cookie ingredients, but sugar isn’t on the list. Then later ask the subject if sugar was on the list they will almost always claim that it was, because they expect it to be there. The first step in speed reading is what was termed “Gestalt”, or getting an idea of what the reading material is about. Not reading, but scanning. Then stopping and writing what the purpose is for reading and possibly some question you want to answer. The second step is to go through the scanning again quickly, about four seconds per page or less. Just reading the words that jump out. Again getting an idea of what the material is about. Then go back and write some more or answer some questions if you can.

Emotions – Brain research shows that when we are learning at our best we are not entirely emotional or entirely devoid of emotion. It is though that our emotional responses to what we are learning connects the material to memory in a more permanent fashion.  While Dr. Frank d didn’t mention anything about emotions in his book I did note that he used a lot of personal stories. This is a technique that many advocate for increased comprehension and memory. I also note that the third step is to read the entire chapter or book (depending on the material) and mark passages that jump out at you for a slower reading later. Perhaps, those are the passages that strike your emotional core as it were.

Memory – Our memory is not set in stone. It is more like a cushion. What happens makes an impression on our brain, but it will soon rebound back to its original shape unless we sit down again and again in the same spot. While this sounds like I’m advocating repeated drills, I’m not. in my opinion that would associate the skill with a negative emotion making the person remember the associated pain, but not the learning. Instead the person is asked to learn or use a skill several times until it becomes natural. I’m doing this now by reading several articles on brain based learning and synthesizing it all into one paper. In speed reading the steps of “gestalt” scanning, reading, then post reading, and finally reviewing are all asking the reader to sit in the same spot again and again, but not drilling the students into submission.

Motivation – It is pretty obvious that intrinsic motivation is superior to extrinsic motivation. While brain research hasn’t found a silver bullet for finding intrinsic motivations for students speed reading does suggest that preparation and organization will lead to better grades.

Your Brain on Rainbows

Your Brain on Rainbows (Photo credit: garlandcannon)


So is speed reading a notion that was before its’ time or is this all just good common sense? Probably a bit of both. Should we change all of our teaching and learning habits to suit this new information? Perhaps not. As Larry Cuban, a good educator and good writer on education, has a few negative things to say about solutions labeled Brain Based, and I’ll agree with him when he says run away. At least when something is labeled as Brain-Based, that is most often just a marketing gimmick.  

I don’t think we should ignore ways of using the research in our learning.  As he said in his article “neurological findings can reinforce existing practices that experienced teachers have found workable”. I say feel free to use the research and experiment with your practices, but don’t do something just because it is called brain based, “because the connection between the brain and behavior is not obvious”.

 

 

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