They hated it when I first introduced it. They tweeted, “This is killing me.” They even begged me after class to never do it again.
Eight weeks later, I suggest it, they do it. They like it.
I call it No-Talk Thursday.
Sure, there are still the skeptics and the resistant, but as a whole the class fades to silence much quicker now than it did then. It is a stretch of time where they are allowed/encouraged to disconnect and instead plug into themselves.
This isn’t to say they never do it on their own time, but when the world is buzzing around you too many of them choose to buzz along.
In about fifty days, I’ll be leaving K/W and flying to B.C. to begin my 42 day Bike Across Canada. Forty-two days of solitude, pedals and scenery. As I’ve explained to my classes what I’m doing, many of them ask, aren’t you going to get lonely? Aren’t you going to get bored all by yourself?
The truth is I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I’ve never gone this long on my own. I’ve never allowed myself this long to be contemplative.
I’ve never been silent for so long.
As we shift gears and move into our “No-Talk Thursday”, I often think “Is seventy-five minutes a week near enough?” Should we be practicing quiet contemplation more in schools? Is school too loud?
As we shift our classroom pedagogy towards a more online presence, a more “connected” existence, do we also allow the natural hustle and bustle of technology into our classrooms and in essence, into the learning procedure?
We know that learning happens when a student “thinks about thinking” or a student “wrestles with the knowledge/concepts/ideas”, however, are we giving students space to do that critical contemplation, or meta-cognition?
Should we be taking more time to resist the hustle and bustle and add more silence?
I want to be one of those teachers that inspires his students. Not quite Michelle Pheiffer in Dangerous Minds or Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, but somewhere in that vicinity. Someone who makes a difference. I know I’m not the only one.
It’s cheesy, I recognize.
The point is, I want to have high expectations of my students. I want to set the bar high and I want to help each kid get over it.
I want be a consistent positive force.
Every morning, that’s my goal. Make a student believe and move a student forward.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been very cognizant of the feedback I give my students. I try to tailor the feedback to be positive, to be constructive, to remind them of the successes they’ve achieved.
But upon reflection, upon sitting down and talking with students, I realize I’ve been glossing over the honest feedback. I’m trying so hard to polish my message, that the truth is being washed away.
This unsettles me.
Where is the line? Where is the tipping point between positive, constructive feedback and honest feedback? Because they aren’t the same thing.
In a discussion with some colleagues, the idea of “tough love” came up. Is there room for tough love in schools anymore? Some teachers felt that there really wasn’t. They felt that the expectations now (with credit recovery, credit rescue and all manner of student success) lead to a sanitized feedback loop where no one admits there is dirt anywhere to be seen. I’m not sure I fully agree, but I can see where they are coming from.
So, I ask you, how do you balance being positive and constructive with providing honest feedback?
I write this blog on a semi-regular basis. I follow a few other teachers, from across the province and Canada, that also write blogs. Not many. In fact, out of all my friends, I might be the only blogger. (Unless, they are blogging anonymously, which is distinctly possible.)
The point is, blogging may not be as “authentic” as I think.
I tweet on a semi-regular basis. I follow teachers from around the world that also tweet about education. Not many, really. In fact, out of all my teacher colleagues, about half actively use Twitter. (Unless, they are tweeting anonymously, which is distinctly possible.)
The point is, tweeting may not be as “authentic” as I think.
I read books and talk about them. I share the books I read and my thoughts on them with a group of people that fluctuates. In fact, many of my friends read sparingly, mostly the news or internet gossip sites. (Unless, they are reading novels and not talking about them, which is distinctly possible.)
The point is, reading and talking about what I read may not be as “authentic” as I think.
And so I’m left questioning, what am I in the pursuit of?
Theoretically, I want students to use their words as means of connecting with people. I want them to learn how to use language to move people, to persuade them, to inform them. I want them to understand that we must approach different audiences in different ways.
But who are these audiences I speak of?
My wife is an engineer. She writes on a regular basis, probably more than I do as an English teacher. Her audience is other engineers and she typically writes technical memos.
My brother is a radio promotions manager. He writes on a regular basis, probably as much as I do. His audience is other co-workers in e-mails, with point form descriptions of ideas and logistics.
I suppose I’m wondering, who are the audiences we are preparing our students for?
Most of us are not bloggers, or tweeters, or book club enthusiasts, yet I’m calling this the act of writing for authentic audiences. I’m wondering if I’ve missed the mark.
So, I ask you, where is your authentic audience?
A whole host of studies show that kids with engaged parents are more successful in school. They achieve more, are generally more safe, and most importantly, are more confident as they go through the schooling continuum.
I worry sometimes that this is because parents are marks-driven. I worry that the engaged parents are the ones saying, “You need to get 90s.” I worry that these studies reinforce the idea of parents and teachers as enforcers of compliance. But that’s a separate blog post.
Getting parents involved is important. Their involvement must go beyond parent’s night and report cards. And so I try something new.
Every Friday, in one of my classes, I’m having students write an e-mail to a parent. In the scope of a good conference, I’m having them write the e-mail, cc-ing me, that includes three components. 1. Their successes of the week. 2. Things they struggled with this week. 3. Their goals for next week. Every Friday, each student is going to answer the question, “What did you do at school, today?” with something more than, “Nothing.”
The idea of the e-mail is to encourage and enable students to tell the story of their learning. In their words, reflect on what’s working, what’s not and how they plan on going forward. But that’s not all. Every two weeks (I’ve divided the class in half, so 15 one week, 15 the other), I plan on replying to the e-mail, to each student and their parent. My reply will acknowledge, encourage, support and strategize with that student and their parent. It’s my attempt to let learning take precedence. It’s not about communicating a number, but rather it’s about documenting the process.
There are some reservations I can foresee: What if there are no parents? I think send an e-mail to someone you hope to make proud. What if the parent doesn’t have e-mail? We go old school and we write a letter. What if a student doesn’t write it? I still write my e-mail to them and the parent. However, it is based on my observations and conversations. The idea is that someone else is then telling their story.
Like anything, it’s an experiment. It’s an attempt at bringing together three pillars of a child’s education (themselves, school, parents). It’s something active that brings parents into the community of learning. But it might not work. I’m willing to take that gamble.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this plan, possible problems, etc.
Thanks to Mike Pinkney for helping me refine my ideas while shouting over the playing of the house band and thanks to Anne Doelman for lending me the book, Conferencing and Reporting by Kathleen Gregory et al.
I have no use for statistics and numbers that mean nothing. That goes for grades, literacy test results, credit accumulation, etc. They rarely tell me anything of value about a student.
They don’t tell me her story. They don’t tell me where she’s been, the view of the world she holds or the magnitude of her dreams. Truthfully, they don’t tell her that either.
It’s the time of year when grades and report cards become the bittersweet taste on everyone’s tongue.
I’ve made my position clear on quantitative data for learning. But then something happened today.
A colleague, for whom I have the utmost respect, pointed out how often I use quantitative data to achieve my creative and qualitative goals.
Every time I step outside the door to run, I start my watch. I upload the GPS data onto Strava and relentlessly track my progress. I can tell you which kilometre of the last seven runs was my best, the elevation of my typical training run and I can track myself against my friends. But running isn’t about the number.
As I sat down to write a novel in these past four months, I used a word-count tracker that gave me real-time results based on my intended “delivery” date. I knew how many words I wrote each sitting, how many times I’d used the word “stillness” (7 times) and how many pages per chapter. I watched these numbers regularly to fulfill my need for discipline. I knew when I had short-changed a writing session and that I’d have to make it up tomorrow. These numbers helped me achieve my creative goal.
So you see, I have a data dilemma.
I use data to help me pursue my learning, improving, achieving, but I hate when it is forced upon students and teachers. Especially in saying this is the “important data”.
As I was out running, trying desperately not to look at my watch and become data dependent, I considered that I like the data I self-select. The data that is important to me. The data that fits into my goals and my definition of what I want to achieve. I’m not looking at my time and thinking it’s not as good as Craig Alexander, instead I’m thinking, “Man, I’m really off the pace I want, I’ve got to pick it up.”
Therein lies the rub, self-selection.
We need a system that allows students to determine what data matters to them. Then allows them to access that data, track the data and use it to achieve. We need a system that allows teachers to determine what data matters to them. Then allows them to access that data, track the data and use it to achieve. Each for their own means.
Maybe we don’t track enough data, real data. Data that matters.
Where this sits with my thoughts on standardized test data, I don’t know.
That’s why it’s my data dilemma.
I suffer from “The Bus Syndrome”.
The Bus Syndrome is a terrible affliction, which hampers my role as effective collaborator, effective teacher and effective colleague. The Bus Syndrome is such that I live in my own head. I am terrible at writing down my lesson plans. I am terrible at recording what I do on a daily basis. Sure, I document some things, but in general, I never take the time to keep good records.
If I was hit by a bus, my replacement would be lost. Thus, I suffer from The Bus Syndrome.
After thinking about the possibility of this demise, I thought I should record a few thoughts about my lesson plans. After reading James Robbins’ blog for awhile now (and directly in response to the format of his book), he has given me the vocabulary to process how I plan for the week ahead.
Following these nine questions allows me to be ready for the week:
1. How will I demonstrate my genuine interest in the lives of my students? Will it be an “impromptu” conversation, greeting them at the door, an acknowledgment of the major events in their lives, etc?
2. How will I provide timely, effective, productive feedback to each student over the course of the next week?
3. How will I reward and recognize specific students for their performance this week? Will I highlight their work to the group, tweet it out to the world, hang it on the wall?
4. How will I connect the purpose of what we’re doing to each student this week? This requires me to consciously know what makes each of my students tick, so I can be deliberate and intentional when connecting purpose for each of them.
5. What choices will I give my students this week that will give them a sense of control and autonomy? How will I encourage them to make choices that strengthen them, rather than taking the road of least resistance?
6. How can I help them grow this week?
7. How will what we do foster a greater sense of community within the room? How will I strengthen social bonds amongst students and between students and myself?
8. How can I inject some fun into what we do this week?
9. What skills, strategies, ideas do my students need me to model for them this week? Will it be a specific academic skill, a social skill, forgiveness, kindness, or maybe it is a time management strategy, an idea about living with passion, etc?
I believe these nine questions allow me to maintain a specific focus on my lessons and understand the virtue of public education.
If I’m ever hit by a bus, use these questions to figure where to continue on from.
It’s easy to tell the stories. I like telling the stories. And, over my years of teaching, reading and living, I seemingly have a story for every lesson I wish to impart on my students. Not to mention, I think I’m a pretty crackerjack storyteller.
I understand description and nuance. I can even use different voices, if needed to maintain pretend engagement.
But, that’s not my job anymore.
It’s time to realize that I need to shut up.
Given the tools and the opportunity, students need to be released from the clutches of my soul-sucking storytelling ways. They need to dive in and learn their own stories.
The other day was one of those days.
You know, one of those days where I marvel that I get paid for this gig.
My students wowed me with their engagement. From an on-fire class debate about political power, economic power and our inability to sometimes know the difference, to another class “bringing it” in a major way on their spoken word poems, rants and raps. I was left beaming.
And the thing is, I can take very little of the credit.
The success of the class wasn’t because I had worded the learning goal most precisely or scaffolded the learning in just such a way. The success of the class was precipitated by students making other students better. They inquired, challenged, cajoled and supported each other. Exactly what learning should look like. The thing is, I have no doubt the teacher matters, but the teacher matters less when students are giving time, space and opportunity to learn.
I did my job flawlessly, on that day, as I got out of the way. I was able, by fluke most likely, to know when to shut up. I just observed, provided minimal feedback, and stopped acting like I needed to “manage” the classroom. This doesn’t happen often, especially the shutting up part.
Is the flood of “classroom management” techniques inciting us into a winless cycle? Is good teaching the small, unnoticeable details that build confidence and not the noticed lesson plans and scaffolds?
When talking about student success, how do we move teachers away from the conversation about themselves?
It is rare in high school to split a class between two teachers at the same time. But we’re doing it. Tonight marks the first night in this experiment with HC.
We are teaching a night school course of Grade 12 College English. She’s teaching Monday nights, I’ll be teaching Thursdays.
The prospect of splitting a class has made me very aware of various elements of my teaching persona, my teaching process and my teaching organization. It has forced me to verbalize, solidify my opening day plans and be accountable to someone else. These are all things that have challenged me.
And, most importantly, how does this split affect the learning environment for the students? Will it be overwhelmingly beneficial because there are now two people caring for the success of each student? Or, will it be detrimental that students will have potentially different learning environments each night?
And so, I pose the question to my readers:
What are some factors that need to be specifically considered for two teachers who are co-teaching?
He is 17. A total of 8 credits. His attendance, spotty at best. His troubles, plenty.
Yet, he’s here. He is here and ready to learn. Today.
He tells me that a night ago, as he was getting ready to go to sleep, “I had an epiphany. I just realized out of the blue that it’s up to me. I mean, no one else will get me to where I want to be, but me.”
I ask, “Hmm, so where is it you want to be?”
“I don’t know, probably the military. But more importantly, I just had an epiphany that all the things you’ve been telling me about owning my learning and it being my education, with the emphasis on my decisions, are right.”
“So, what now?”
“Well, I got get as many credits as I can.”
“What’s the first step to getting the credits?”
“Probably, showing up. That’s my biggest challenge, after that, the work, but first showing up.”
I smile. He smiles. And then he grabs the netbook from my desk and proceeds to work steady, even while the rest of the class is quite distractible. He works uninterrupted until I ask to see what he’s got so far. He shows me … progress.
Now, if this is where the story were to end, it would be great. Simple motivation and a reminder to keep doing what I’m doing. Connect with kids, continue to remind them that they have power to direct their learning and rely on the fact that eventually the message will sink in and when it does, I’ll be there to help them.
But it doesn’t stop there.
He’s human. Not a case study, just like his learning it doesn’t come to a neat package. It’s going to require a constant re-evaluation and reflection on where he is and what he needs.
But starting from an epiphany is fine with me.
****Author’s Note: Although the gist of this reflection and the conversation is true and accurate, I have changed some of the details and timing to protect the identity of the student.
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