Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Don't talk down about baby steps

Having children has taught me so much more about education than most of the formal schooling on the subject.

While there have been many slams and jabs about how Common Core is ruining education, I think that the requirements of having students discuss their problem solving attempts and thought process will cause greater improvements than the mere algorithmic thinking that was previously emphasized. It is almost amusing how parents and teachers will be very quick to judge what looks different that when they were in school, but not take the time to look at the steps needed for implementation and the long term goals. Is seems that when a student, or more often the parent, stumbles and has the first bit of frustration with something new, they want to give up and revert to the former system.

But this is where we need to remember the baby steps. In helping your child walk, talk, potty train, use silverware, say please and thank you, and all of the other things we teach children, we know what the goal is, we understand that there will be stumbles, and we know that it takes time. Somewhere, adults learn that, in certain situations, it is ok to give up and stop working at the first sign of difficulty, because they expect to be able to be successful on the first attempt. I already see some of this learning present in my soon to be six year old and I am fighting, with all of my parenting strength, to not solve the problem for him, but to help him persevere and keep trying.

My son is going through first grade at his school and we are working on math and reading. He has shown an interest and a certain aptitude in both reading and math, but they both came with relative ease. Now that we are progressing into deeper levels of difficulty and comprehension, it has thrown him for a bit of a loop and he has lost some interest and wants to give up at the first sign of trouble. This is where his interest in problem solving games and his younger siblings have come in for help.

My son has show an interest in a Disney puzzle game and will experiment and try new methods to beat the level and earn the coveted three stars. When he gets frustrated with a reading or math issue, I like to help him remember how he kept trying with the game and eventually solved the level. Sometimes, it was on his own, and other times he would ask for help. But that was the key, he asked for help, not the solution.

The other support for this has come from my younger children. As my oldest sees my younger children work through letters, numbers, or even learning to walk/run, he doesn't fully understand why they can't just do whatever they are trying to do already. My wife and I talk to him about how it takes time to learning how to successfully do things and there will be times when we try and fail, but that allows us to learn more.

How does all of this translate into formal education? We need to help students and parents recognize what the end goal is for a lesson, chapter, unit, semester, and course. Teachers, also, need to be explicit about these. There need to be meaningful benchmarks that they pass and if they are having difficulty reaching them, we need to have the safety nets to catch them as they fall. Again, not to solve the problem for them, but to help them generate their own solution. But it is a long process and we must take the baby steps to get to the end goal.

Whether Confucius (The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step) or Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers (10,000 hours to become an expert), we must take time and understand we will not get there in one day. With common core, we are in about hour 20 of the 10,000. We need to give it some more time and keep trying. We will stumble and fall, but we need to get back up and keep taking those baby steps.

I know, for me personally, I could do the chemistry when I was in courses in college, but I did not understand the chemistry until I had to teach it to someone else. This is the importance of students describing their steps in problem solving and thought processes. When a student can successfully describe their thinking to someone else, actually verbalize it to make it more concrete, then they have made some true progress.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

What we do in a day

Today was quite a day for a friend of mine.

Before I get into the events of the day, I think that the general public needs to understand that students are dealing with far more emotional issues than ever before. With the advent of social media, there is no break from potential torment from bullies, online trolls, or even an escape from the minor things that bother us from day to day. Looking at the recent leaked photos of certain female celebrities, parents, students, and educators will hopefully begin to learn that the Internet is not anonymous, and to quote The Social Network, "The Internet is written in ink".

In the past, if a mean, nasty note was written about you, you could grab the note and physically destroy it in a cathartic purge. The emotional injury was still there, but at least the note could not be shared anymore. Today with shares, likes, re tweets, etc. there is practically no escape. This should lead us to teach more about about digital citizenship and how to leverage social media and digital communication as a tool for personal and professional growth, but as educators, we are getting bogged down in the muck of new standards, new assessments that are high stakes for educators, but no one else, and the barrage of comments from a part of the public that think because they went to school, they know how schools should run.

If it were as simple as closing the door, discussing the content to which the educator felt a strong enough connection to earn a degree, and even being entertaining while doing it, many of the perceived issues of what is wrong with school would be finished. But it is never that easy and his day may illustrate why.

The day started as any other, greeting students, trying to make sure that IDs are worn, pants are pulled up (no sagging), and that students got to class on time. My friend began looking at his schedule for classroom observations, excitedly got to poke his head in some classrooms to see what teachers and kids were doing, and then he got a call from the nurse.

They had a student go into labor here at school. The student's mother did not have working transportation and was doing her best to get to the school ASAP. In speaking with the nurse and the student, they were able to arrange a local police officer to pick the mother up and bring her to school. From there, the ambulance was called and both mother and mother-to-be went to the hospital in a safe and cared for manner.

From there, he went to the Principal's office to discuss students with known gang affiliations, pictures of them with weapons, and trying to figure out how to keep the school safe and still find a way for these students to earn credits in classes when as a 3rd year high school student, some of them only had 1 credit to their transcript.

After some planning, he did some follow up on a student who received a txt on Friday that her mother was in danger of doing harm to herself. Checking in on the student while still trying provide her and her siblings at the school support without stirring the pot when things, thankfully, had calmed down.

In the middle of this, he ran into a student who has sought some extra support to help him make better choices from previous school years. My friend ran into him as he was being escorted out of a class by the police liaison for a repeat of the poor choices he has been known to make.

He then got a call from a teacher that she needed to speak with him about a student who told her some alarming things, which necessitated a call to DCFS and the support of the guidance counselor and social worker to ensure a safe environment for that night for this student. While they were working he did some follow-up from Friday about a student who was being bullied and ensuring that the appropriate steps were being taken.

After all of that, he got another phone call to go back to the nurse's office. A student had received a txt that there was a family emergency. This student's mother had known cardiac issues and thought that the emergency dealt with her. Instead, the student was able to speak with his mother, but was told that his uncle, with whom he was very close, had passed away this morning. The student was distraught and sought the support of the nurse and his football coach.

Birth, gangs, attempted suicide, bullying, abuse, and death. And these are the instances that became somewhat public and sought the assistance of professionals in the building. What about those who remained silent?

It was a tough day, but reminded him that we are here to support the students and to help them make their goals into reality. Relationships matter and we, as educators, need to know that there are many things going on in the lives of our students that might prevent them from completing that homework assignment. Sometimes a re-focus of perspective is needed from time to time.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

#iledchat's collaborative post on Social Justice

This post is a very special one because it was a collaborative effort of multiple members of the #iledchat community on Twitter. #ILEdchat is a chat held weekly on Monday nights at 9 pm CST where educators from all roles and responsibilities get together to discuss issues related to school, learning, and leadership in Illinois Education. While the chat is organized by Dr. Jill Maraldo, Kathy Melton, Dr. Kevin Rubenstein, and me, it would not exist without the great learners and leaders who join us every week. As #ILEdchat want to push our learning experiences, we thought we would experiment with a collaboratively authored blog post that was written together in real time, using Google Docs. Below is the result of this amazing learning experience. Responses have been woven together to create a cohesive post. All contributors are listed at the end of the post and are great people from whom I learn a lot.

Graphic accessed from

What is a functional definition of social justice for schools?

Schools and teaching are social justice. Social justice is about providing equity in resources and providing a voice for the typically under-served populations. With an understanding that equity is not the same as equal, there will be some students who will receive more than others, because they need it. A functional definition would include equal opportunity for all students along with community involvement and opportunities. It doesn’t mean everyone is the same, just need to provide same opportunities. And then from these opportunities to learn and teach, the social justice will occur when the lessons learned are applied in real life through a critically conscious curriculum.

It is about educators ability to ensure that all voices, regardless of background, are heard in the classroom.  That students are able to achieve and move forward with the right supports at the appropriate time without worrying about how their backgrounds might impact their futures. Social justice is about giving voice to the voiceless and being about student-centered decisions and structures at schools that support success for ALL!

Social justice is treating all members of a community as equals. Treating each person with equal amounts of respect and valuing each person’s contributions equally. Also, it is accepting each person exactly as he or she is and never demanding that they change who they are. Removing barriers that stop voices from being heard - celebrating diversity and learning from them and their experiences as well!

Knocking down the classroom walls to not only let new people in, but to allow the learning to leave the classroom. Connecting students with the world around them will help foster a sense of empathy for others and  bring pause for their own individual reflections.

Learning need to be created and experienced through multiple lenses and perspectives, not just that of the majority. Schools need to knock down the classroom walls to not only let new people in, but to allow the learning to leave the classroom. Connecting students with the world around them will help foster a sense of empathy for others and bring pause for their own individual reflections.

What are some indicators that social injustices could be occurring in your school?

This section of the discussion caused some serious reflection on our own schools and learning environments that we provide for the community. 

Dr. Lisa Stevenson provided the following for our post:

Data speaks volumes in uncovering social injustices!
-more boys in special education for behavior
- PTA not representative of school's minority and poverty
- teacher efforts and admin to reach the hardest to reach parents
- diversity of kids in extras like band, orchestra, intramural vs. summer school/after school tutoring

Joey Grace, a student at Illinois State University added:

Lately, I’ve been hearing about model nuclear families within literature found in the library. This can cause a distorted view for the ones not from the “typical” family. Also, within a clinical observation of a local alternative school I witnessed, or noticed, language and attitude can be detrimental. If we treat “gangstas” as such, then that behavior persist.

In general, schools need to look for misrepresentation (over or under) of individuals/voices among school groups: social, athletic, academic, or extracurricular. Are there opportunities for students to express their opinions and concerns? If no, that might be an indicator that injustice might be occurring. Why? The minority might not feel a chance to discuss what their individual needs are as a member of the learning community. Does our curriculum represent examples of the cultures that are present within our communities?

Specifically, within the learning experiences of students, we must ask the following questions: Who is being represented in the books that we read to our students? Are there races, ethnicities, types of families, religions, nationalities that are not being shown? Are we preventing students from seeing themselves reflected in the literature we read and the stories we share? Are we stopping students from building empathy for specific groups of people because we are not sharing their stories?

Look at the curriculum.  Whose voices are not being heard? Whose version of history is not being told? We send strong messages to our students about what we value when we choose who to include in our curriculum and who not to include.  If we leave out voices, we send the message that we don’t value their experiences. 

As a part of building the culture and climate for the school among staff and families, there are other groups that can feel misrepresented or that they do not have a voice. This can be localized around students and staff who feel silenced or excluded or even a general feeling of apathy towards the school and community. How often do we listen to those with the least amount of power? 

When we open the doors to our schools, do we notice who is attending? Possibly more importantly, do we recognize who is NOT attending? Are there certain groups of parents and students who continue to not have their voices heard?

Students are sometimes easily persuaded by their parents and older siblings. Parents can sometime send their children to school with preconceived opinions on certain cultures, races, and religious backgrounds. Students then take that as THE way to think. Having communication with parents/community and establishing a true sense of treating everyone as a blank slate, regardless of their background can help eliminate injustices from occurring. Students sometimes don’t even realize what they are saying or how they are acting is causing harm to others.

Discovering misrepresentation among student and community voices/demographics in extracurriculars, academics, fine arts, vocational, parent groups, and on and on. Examine why particular voices are either over or under represented.

In what ways do student & community voice shape the equity of resources and educational opportunities in your school?

One contributor described opportunities for community forums at the school and district levels. There have been chances for students, teachers, administrators, and community members to sit down with both building and district level leadership to discuss the current state of affairs and where they would like to see us go in the future. There have also been chances for community collaborations on grant proposals for community training sessions that would be desired.

Some other suggestions for for the inclusion of under-represented communities included ensuring the inclusion of stakeholder reps for all committees. This will assist in improving communication and making actions more transparent.

One contributor felt like we miss the voice of many when we rely on electronic means to invite, gather, record, etc. Social capital is not had by all and we must differentiate and value how we welcome and hear all of our communities and parents. When conducting needs assessments, do we include all stakeholders and how is the information requested? Too often, for ease of collecting and reporting, we will utilized electronic forms that not all community members may have
What kind of needs assessments do you conduct? Both student and staff. How are the results used? Are you partnering with other community resources? We created a Universal Leadership Team that combines the best aspects of Student Council with Key Club-type actions. They help develop leadership among students that isn’t stifled by top-down mandates.

Sometimes the types of events used to build community spirit can divide communities. School boards or board members with "agendas" can invite or stifle conversation. Even an invitation can act to stifle. The sense of homogeneity some schools adhere to is a myth--on the other hand, a facade of tolerance does not veil bigotry & bias.

What actionable steps would be recommended as a starting point to improve social justice?

As administration, single best thing would be to hire quality teachers! Include interview questions to gauge their level of passion. Additionally, administration can create opportunities for students to activate their voice within the school. (e.g. Principal Student Advisory Board, Community Coffees with the principal., etc.) Also, having school teachers and administrators go out INTO the community to meet them where they are instead of expecting them to constantly come to the school.

Student projects and learning should Include a variety of perspectives, within the social science realm, and implement real life actions to correct ills. And they don't have to be within the four walls of the classroom. To build empathy of students, they should connect to peers and experts all over the world. Pen pals of the 21st century include Twitter convos, cyber relations, use of digital tools such as Skype or the collaboration used to create this document are great ways to connect and learn and explore the world.

Some instructional tools to improve social justice and augment student voice were described and listed below:
  • Hip hop as pedagogy! Giving voice to the voiceless, but more importantly, giving them their OWN voice! Story Corps has an awesome theme. Zinn-like!
  • Flocabulary! ←--YES!!!!
  • Literature can be a great vehicle to improve social justice in a school climate. Taking that a step further, trying to connect with an author, or the area in which the story takes place can truly be a powerful learning activity. Ex: reading about the religious extremists protesting military funerals, and then having a 1:1 Skype session with some of the families. Students take note of it and it changes their daily approach to learning and develop action plans to truly make a difference.
  • Following social media sites geared toward social justice keeps a class up to date with latest world or local news. Assign home- or classwork so students engage in a dialogue about it. Build lesson plans from those current events.
Overall, schools should give the people in your community a voice to tell their story. We can use technology as one possible vehicle to improve communication. Tell the story of your school and the people in it.  Open the metaphorical windows and the doors to the school and this can be one way to combat community apathy. Engage the community and the students  - allow students to connect with and understand the needs of the world around them by giving back to their own communities  -- start local.

An important thing to remember is that actionable steps have to be two-way. We have to go where our families are as well as expect them to join us in our school home. Speak their languages (literally) is powerful and respectful. Honor their time (and culture). Show them that you will DO something with what they share that will affect THEIR child for the better.

If I wanted to learn more about social justice, where should I look?

Below are some contributed resources to learn about and explore issues related to social justice and schools: This is the website of the Social Justice Learning Institute. They have some great resources and programs that can be brought into your school.

Read closely. Think critically. Be worldly.
Screen Shot 2014-07-14 at 9.56.20 PM.png

Social media sites. No links off hand but can contribute later. Zinn Educational Project Rethinking Schools (magazine and site) has a lot of useful information. I also personally follow social media sites, such as WBEZ Education or Teaching for Change twitter feed, I’m trying to dig through my following list! I hate to add the Badass Teacher Association with the recent claims of racism and other -isms, but they do bring to light social causes.

Someone switched up font size! Occupy and union pages also typically tweet/post a lot of social causes. Then we must use our creativity to form a lesson! Recent Israeli/Palestinian conflict was touched on in the summer issue of Rethinking Schools.

An oldie, but goodie is the magazine/website Teaching Tolerance
Social, Political, Economic and Environmental Issues That Affect Us All

My district will be having Susan O’Halloran as our opening day speaker. She looks like a great resource for social justice:

The development and collaboration of this post was a powerful learning experience for everyone involved. There were times of pure amazement watching multiple people contributing to a section at the same time. We were able to see people react to what other were writing and learn as they typed. This is one type of activity that could be easily brought into schools and let students learn and create with one another. The #iledchat team thanks everyone involved in the development of this post.

Collaborative writing team 

Twitter Handle
Role with students
Bob Abrams
Associate Principal
Jill Maraldo
Associate Principal
Joey Grace
Education student at IL State
Billy Spicer
5th Grade Demonstration Classroom
Adam Stevens
Secondary Mathematics
Robert Schuetz
Technology Coordinator
Kathy Melton
Elementary Principal
Jess Lifshitz
5th grade literacy teacher
Dea Conrad-Curry
K-12 Literacy/CC Consultant
Nancy Powell
Retired HS  Math Teacher, now consultant
Judith Epcke
Director of Instructional Tech K-8
Lisa Stevenson
PK-5 Principal

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Days 2 and 3 with UbD

Days 2 and 3 are more hands-on for the teachers in the creation of a functioning unit, lessons, and learning activities. During day 2, one of the big takeaways was the a memorized process without internalization does not lead to deep understanding. When students memorize a procedure and that procedure breaks down, it leads to misconceptions and only shallow learning of poor thinking. This was demonstrated to the group with a classic video of Abbott and Costello:

As the teachers discussed this, they came to the realization that there is some time within the process for some more classical instruction of concepts and to fix misconceptions, but it should be used only with students in small groups who require the instruction.

As the teachers were trying to identify a topic, they went through a development process to create transfer goals for the students. To reach that enduring understanding and overarching goal, the template below was utilized:

I want you to learn:_________________________________, so that, in the long run, you will be able, on your own, to ______________________________________.

The key understandings that the teachers learned were that the "Want you to learn" needs to be broad and fit the understanding that this is something that students should know and use 40 years after the class is over. Some reflective questions to include were:

  • Why is this topic included in the standards? 
  • Why do students need to know this? 
  • What real life context exists for this concept? If there is none (e.g. imaginary numbers), should that be an enduring idea? 
As teachers continued through their learning process, the discusses the difference between an assessor of understanding and an activity designer. The analogy that resonated with the group was it is the difference between a detective (assessor) and a cruise director (activity designer). The assessor of understanding is looking for evidence of learning versus we are going to do this, then this, then this. It is a transition from providing activities with a definitive answer to a focus on process.

The teachers began experiencing what the learning environment could look like with a learning activity of a mini-lesson board for JITT (Just In Time Teaching). The learners sign up for short, targeted lessons for either expected gaps or for topics that the students request and the students sign up for what they need. These mini-lessons are meant to last 5-7 minutes that are targeted instruction for the students that need it.

Additionally, there is the option for students to present their proclivities to the class by having an "I want to teach" board. This can be fore students who might be ahead of the game and students who have experience with a particular skill that can be shared with the class. This is an additional way to develop the presentation skills of students.

We ended with a gallery walk of the teachers' project ideas. Overall, it was a great learning experience for everyone involved.