Meeting the Needs of Gifted Learners in the Core Classroom? Try Sitting in Their Seats

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As we begin the year, how often do we educators see things through the eyes of the diverse, gifted learners in our classrooms?

Perhaps the best way to start is by putting ourselves in their chairs.

As summer days come to an end, a useful ritual is to check out the view from each student’s perspective by sitting in each of their places. How easily can each student see the projector screen? A talkative friend? A view of the playground?

Considering what students “see” can help teachers eliminate distractions and physical obstructions to learning; it can also help us find new ways to motivate high potential, gifted learners.

The National Association of Gifted Students defines “giftedness” as follows:

Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains. Domains include any structured area of activity with its own symbol system (e.g., mathematics, music, language) and/or set of sensorimotor skills (e.g., painting, dance, sports). [1]

Regardless of what “definition,” most of us educators believe that gifted learners exist and expect to encounter them. So, when setting up a classroom, why not take a few moments to “take a seat” as a gifted child at the beginning of the new school year? Here are some focal points to consider:

(1). Role Models and Vision: Can I see a picture of an inspiring adult role model who shares my gender, culture, and/or race—a depiction that celebrates his or her contributions and achievements? What does that picture communicate to me about my future possibilities and potential?

(2). High Level Questions: Is there a provocative, deep question that captures my attention and curiosity? Is there a question that I find fascinating to discuss with my friends at school and my family at home?   How could the themes or topics we explore in the classroom this year be important or relevant to my life?[2]

(3). Rich Vocabulary: Is there a new, rich vocabulary word presented that would be fun to learn and use? How might it relate to math, science, or the world around me?

(4). Personal Interests: Is there any place in this classroom for my own “learning agenda?” Does this classroom have a place for me to explore and share what I love to learn? Do I see something that shows me that the teacher or any other students might want to  hear and talk about my interests and passions?

If answers to the above questions are difficult to spot, some simple changes to the classroom landscape could positively impact instruction to meet the needs of gifted students.

And once we consider the view from the students’ seats, our classrooms may provide a better vantage point to “see” more gifted students than we ever expected.

 

 

 

[1] National Association for Gifted Children website: http://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/definitions-giftedness

 

[2] For question examples, see “Essential Questions.” Essential Questions. Authentic Education, 2013. Web. 24 July 2016. <http://essentialquestions.org/random_questions.lasso&gt;.

 

Packing Up My Classroom: What I’m Taking With Me

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Last week, I packed up my classroom after ten years of teaching to begin a new chapter in my career as an elementary school assistant principal/gifted coordinator.   Perhaps because these years have been so full, I was surprised that the boxes and bags I packed fit so easily into the trunk of my car.

What am I taking from my teaching experience to my new role as an administrator? I prefer to travel light, so I’ll condense it down to one item – respect for this beautiful, challenging, and impactful profession.

Whether making a U-Turn or simply changing lanes, it can be difficult to take a new road in life. Years ago, when I “packed up” my career as a lawyer to follow my dream of becoming an elementary school teacher, I worried that others would think I “failed in the law.” When I shared this concern with my education program advisor, his wise response emboldened me: “Yes, they will…Do it anyway.”

So I did it anyway. And over the last ten years, I have developed a profound respect for teaching. A teacher’s work is never done, and there is always more to learn.

As a teacher, I’ve learned that a positive classroom community that welcomes diversity and builds trust is essential for learning. Without such a community, instruction is like dancing on air, and it can’t last very long.

Moreover, I’ve discovered that when students come to school, teachers cannot always “see” their joys and sorrows.   We do not see all of our students’ interactions with others, and we may even have difficulty seeing their talents, struggles, and obstacles that they have already overcome. When working with students, I have learned to acknowledge these sight limitations.

But despite such challenges, I’ve found that teachers can and do make a difference, and it is the wonderful relationships we build with students, families, parents and colleagues that make it all happen.

As I pack up my classroom, I am bringing along a respect for teachers everywhere.

I don’t have many boxes or bags, but my heart is full to bursting.

An “Old Thought” for 21st Century Learning

IMG_1608Despite the advantages of teaching in the information age, I sometimes wistfully imagine myself teaching in a “one-room schoolhouse” surrounded by wildflowers, shuffling slate pencils and McGuffey readers.

Why not get lost in a little imagining now and then? In our 21st Century elementary schools, teaching is so complicated. There’s always something for teachers to implement–new technology, new curriculum, new instruction techniques.

Our heads are overflowing as we “facilitate instruction.” It seems we barely have room to grasp what truly makes school a place of ideas–the ideas, themselves.

This year, my sixth graders read and discussed “A Bouquet of Wildflowers,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In this essay, Wilder asserts that manufactured “improvements” cannot take the place of “simple things” that are true and natural. She explains:

We heap up all around us things that we do not need as the crow makes piles of glittering pebbles…we chase after this new idea and that; we take on an old thought and dress it out in so many words that the thought itself is lost in its clothing like a slim woman in a barrel skirt and we exclaim, “Lo, the wonderful new thought I have found![1]

Although she wrote for a larger audience, Wilder’s words resonate for educators. If elementary schools are to be places of ideas, we teachers need to take a moment and cycle back.  We need to pause, enjoy, and engage in an “old thought” — learning.

We educators need to pursue our own academic interests and share them with students and colleagues. Students need to see teachers engaging in academic discussions just for fun. They need to hear us sharing thoughts about the books and articles we read. They need to catch us being curious, asking questions, and trying online searches “just to find out.”  Children have grown to expect energy and engagement from coaches and fans on the athletic fields.  Similarly, teachers (and parents) need to share a genuine passion for the “game” of academics if we want our children to keep playing.

As elementary school teachers, we need to reach beyond facilitating an engaged learning community.   We need to be one.

 

 

[1]Laura Ingalls Wilder, “A Bouquet of Wildflowers” (1917) – Center for Gifted Education Staff,  Mary Pleiss, contributor. Patterns of Change: Student Literature. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 2003. Print.

Teaching From A Bag Springs Training

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During my first year of teaching, I did not have a classroom space of my own.  Instead, as many teachers do, I put my materials in a bag that I carried from room to room. Although “covering the bases” in this way presented challenges, the experience provided some of the best teacher “spring training” ever.

This month in my Language Arts classes, the students have been studying and writing poetry.  I wrote a sonnet about “teaching from a bag” to add to our collection:

Spring Training

 

 

Spring Break Learning: A Nugget from The Grand Canyon

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Grand Canyon, AZ

What approach works best when helping learners to overcome academic challenges? As educators, it can be helpful to reflect on our own learning struggles. In fact, hiking in the Grand Canyon over this Spring Break, I experienced a memorable learning challenge at the edge of a magnificent precipice.

Though I wanted to continue down the path at the start of the Grandview Trail, I was uncertain about how to approach it, and my knees were shaking with apprehension. Before barely descending, I returned to the top, defeated. But a little later, with the help of our guide, I tried again and made it far enough to enjoy some incredible views of the canyon.

My journey on this historical mining trail uncovered some valuable nuggets for struggling students (like me):

  • Students are most likely to persist if the goal is personally relevant and meaningful to them. The reason I overcame the challenge is because I really wanted to explore the canyon.
  • Students must recognize that “trying again” is part of the learning process. When I first climbed back out of the canyon, I would have been finished with this trail had I not understood that “trying again” was a ready option.
  • Students must feel comfortable asking for help. As I hiker, I was thankful to have a knowledgeable, friendly guide who kindly helped me on this trail.
  • Sometimes a student’s difficulty may be based more upon self perceptions of ability, rather than actual ability. Teachers need to express their confidence in their student’s ability to meet challenges. Hearing that others were confident in my ability helped me immensely on this trail.
  • Sometimes students need the opportunity to work through challenges slowly. Accomplishing my goal at a speed that was manageable for me brought success.  I’m glad I wasn’t being timed on this one.
  • Laughter is key. When hiking in new terrain, a laugh and a little humor helped to make learning fun and to keep difficulties in perspective.  Laughter in the face of challenge is empowering.
  • It really works to break down challenging tasks, set individual student goals, and celebrate success. Catching up to the rest of the group was not going to happen for me on this hike. However, I left feeling that I accomplished a great deal. My guide helped me adjust my goal to meet my learning needs—even if this was just to navigate the first leg of the journey. When the other hikers returned from their longer journey, I still had my own accomplishment to celebrate. I left the canyon wanting more…
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Hardened Grand Canyon Hiker

Instant Grit? A Recipe for Teaching Perseverance

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“Instant Grits.” I smile to myself when I see them on the store shelf, because as a Chicagoan, I always associate grits with vacation ease in a warmer climate. Grits are supposed to take time—you sit down and savor them with honey and biscuits.

As an alternative to instant grits, a “grit” I’ve encountered in professional development sessions has potential:

In the education arena, psychologist Angela Duckworth asserts “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not jus for the week, not just for the month but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint”[1] According to Duckworth’s research, “grit” is an essential ingredient for success—even beyond I.Q.

So, as teachers we may ask, “Can grit be taught? If so, what is the recipe?…Can we just add water?”

For some, grit seems to be about prolonged attention span and perseverance even when activities are not immediately rewarding. This idea of “grit” sounds akin to pitting cherries, shelling peas, or husking bushels of corn. The world is full of mundane tasks for “teaching” grit in this way.

Yet, in the classroom, it does seem more palatable to teach students to develop grit by striving and persevering for their own goals, rather than chasing unfulfilling ones. In light of this, some educators suggest that “grit” can be naturally fostered by having children identify their own passions or engage in project based learning.

I do believe that passion projects bring joy to learning, and even students who otherwise lack “grit” may choose to stick with projects that are authentic and meaningful to them. But passion projects are unlikely to guarantee instant grit. Deciding what one’s passion is in the first place requires a respectable bit of perseverance for some students. Moreover, on the road to pursue passions, some students “fall out of love” with their projects when challenges arise. Perhaps in order to prepare students to achieve excellence in any subject, we need to make “developing grit” a more intentional part of our daily routine.

One suggestion I have heard during discussions about teaching “grit” is the idea that “children need to fail.” Rather than being coddled and protected from failure, children need to learn to scrape themselves off the ground and try again.

Although I will never know the complete recipe for “grit,” from what I have tasted, I find that the essential ingredient is not found in failure, but in student success.

Teaching grit means helping students to see the connection between individual effort and excellence, and this can apply to any subject. As teachers, the challenge is to teach “grit” everyday. Celebrating effort and realizing the results – even incremental results – again and again is what motivates students to develop the habit of striving.

Given this reality, the secret ingredient for teaching and learning “grit” may be time.

…time to develop and create thoughtful work products.

…time to revise work to achieve excellence.

…time to break tasks down and master each part of a skill

…time to practice each skill until it comes easily

…time to recognize progress

…time to celebrate success

…time to reflect on what could have been done differently

…time to change direction

…time to try again

…time to ask questions

…time to come up with new ideas

We may need to make time from scratch.  But there is one thing for certain —

There is no “Instant Grit.”

 

[1] “The Key to Success? Grit.” Angela Lee Duckworth:. TED Talks, April 2013 Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit?language=en&gt;.

 

Class Discussions: Laying the Groundwork

In the book, Discussion As a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, Brookfield and Preskill[1] suggest that establishing expectations for classroom discussion can begin by having students reflect on their own experiences. So, I asked my sixth graders to identify characteristics of negative and positive discussions based upon conversations that they have experienced in the classroom, at home, or with friends. Here is the list they created:

Factors that negatively impact discussions:

  • Interrupting
  • Lack of flexibility
  • Lack of preparation
  • Difficult (sensitive)topics
  • Side conversations
  • Judgment of people
  • Facial expressions
  • Distractions
  • Attention Seeking

Factors that positively impact discussions

  • Engaging topic
  • Everyone talks
  • Feels natural
  • Everyone pays attention
  • Everyone’s opinion heard
  • Possible to change your mind
  • Many possible answers
  • Everyone treats others with respect

We discussed these lists and what we could do as a class to keep our discussions positive. Treat each other respectfully, give all students a chance to speak, and refrain from side conversations are examples of the norms that we established.

As I reflected upon this lesson, I realized that approaching discussion with a child-like honesty and a quest for the truth was not “starting small” in any sense.

Even at a young age, these children had already noticed, experienced, and/or internalized sometimes subtle inhibitors to meaningful discussions—facial expressions and judgment of others—that can silence meaningful dialogue. They understood that people may hesitate to discuss sensitive or difficult topics for fear of what others might think.

Yet, these sixth graders also embraced the idea that positive discussions are those that can potentially lead us to change our minds.

Classroom discussions belong to the students, and we continue to reflect on their quality and impact throughout the year.  Also, we refer back to this list as our discussions continue, deepen, or sometimes wander off course. Reflecting on personal experiences and understanding my students’ perspectives was essential groundwork for productive classroom discussion and continues to be well worth the class time.

 

 

[1] Brookfield, S.D. & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching: tools and techniques for democratic   classrooms. 2nd Ed. San Francisco, CA Jossey-Bass.

 

My Child Is “Bored” In School: Suggestions for Productive Parent-Teacher Conferences

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November parent-teacher conferences are an excellent forum for addressing questions and concerns about student progress.  Yet, when face to face with a child’s teacher, a concern such as “I think that my child is bored in school,” can be difficult to articulate. Here are a few suggestions for parents with concerns about insufficient challenge:

  • Be specific: Children’s academic strengths can vary with respect to subject area. If you feel that your child is insufficiently challenged, is there a certain subject, such as reading or math, that is of concern? Is there a particular topic such as spelling or multiplication that your child feels is too easy? If available, bring examples of your child’s work in these areas. The more specific your concern, the better able the teacher will be to address it.
  • Focus on Growth: We want children to be challenged because every child deserves to grow academically and be engaged in school. With respect to growth, here are a few questions to ask your child’s teacher: What are my child’s areas of strength and/or extra focus? How can I provide support at home? How are areas of growth/strength communicated to my child at school? What improvement has been observed in my child’s work since the beginning of the school year?
  • Share What You Know: If you have them, bring in samples of stories, writing, or projects that your child creates at home. This can provide the teacher with valuable information about your child’s interests and academic potential.
  • Avoid “Side-Stepping”: A child’s complaint about “boredom” may sometimes indicate struggle with the less “glitzy,” but important aspects of learning such as proofreading, revising, computation practice, or even problem-solving. It is true that “skill practice” needs to be balanced with opportunities for exploration, creativity, and fun. Yet, attention to detail, perseverance, and accuracy are important for success in school and beyond. When advocating for your high-ability child at conferences, do not sidestep these “challenges” — ask your child’s teacher about ways to support and encourage your child in these areas at home.
  • Keep Your Child Accountable for Behavior: For parents and teachers of high ability children, behavior issues in the classroom can be a “red flag” indicating that the child needs more challenge. In light of this, it may be tempting to empathize with your child’s feelings of frustration and look away from negative behaviors. But this response undermines learning and can even encourage underachievement.  Addressing behavior issues associated with insufficient challenge takes a “two-pronged” approach. Hold your child accountable for behavior, but don’t stop there; teach your child how to advocate for challenge in a positive way. Does your child have a story to write or a topic of interest that she could to explore if class work is finished early? Are there meaningful ways to improve his or her work? If possible, consider a follow up meeting with your child and the teacher to discuss ways to access more challenge in the classroom, as well as to “start over” and make positive behavior choices.
  • Ask what resources/opportunities are available for differentiation in the classroom for high ability students: Schools have different approaches to meeting the needs of high ability students. Ask about what kinds of opportunities are available in the classroom and are/may be used to meet your child’s needs for challenge.
  • Investigate Opportunities for Acceleration: If insufficient challenge is an ongoing issue for your child, the teacher or the principal may be able to provide information about other academic options, such as acceleration.* Are there opportunities for grade-level and/or content acceleration at your school? Is this an appropriate option for your child?

*For a recent study on the benefits of acceleration, see:

Assouline, Susan G., Susan G. Assouline, Nicholas Colangelo, and Miraca U. M. Gross. A Nation Empowered: Evidence Trumps the Excuses Holding Back America’s Brightest Students. IA City, IA: Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, U of Iowa, 2015. Print.

Acceleration Institute, Belin-Blank Center, College of Education, The University of Iowa

 

Challenging or Pushing? Finding the Right Balance

IMG_1963How much challenge is part of a healthy, “balanced diet” for learning?

Children are capable of wonderful things; we should never underestimate what they can achieve. Moreover, children need academic challenges in elementary school to prepare them for the future, and they need to develop dispositions, such as perseverance and resilience that lead to success in school and in life.

Yet, when parents encourage their elementary and middle-school children to take on academic challenges such as enrichment and accelerated classes, a question that can sometimes arise is: “Am I pushing my child too much in school?”

The answer is an individual one. The following questions may help parents when considering whether they are “pushing too hard” about school work:

  • Is my child healthy — physically/emotionally (sleep, diet, exercise, happy, energy level)?
  • Is my child excited and enthusiastic about schoolwork and learning?
  • Does my child have time to pursue interests and friendships that are positive?
  • Is the “homework load” generally manageable for my child (not a “flashpoint” for arguments or a consistent cause of stress)?

If the answers to any of the above questions are “no,” (in addition to addressing any health concerns with your child’s doctor), it may be time to ask your child’s teacher about possible options to support your child in school and/or to re-evaluate his or her academic placement.

Achieving the “perfect” balance of challenge and fun every day during the school year is an elusive goal.  Yet, parents can do a great deal to help their children keep healthy attitudes about academic challenge. Here are a few ideas:

  • Celebrate/validate incremental success and all kinds of achievement.
  • Talk to your child; keep tabs on his or her feelings.
  • Be self aware when modeling learning/responsibility/failure.
  • Think in terms of making choices that support your child’s individual personal and academic needs rather than “pushing.”
  • Play your “own game.” Do what’s right for your child – not someone else’s!
  • Reevaluate extracurricular commitments and priorities. What are your child’s interests? Does your child have sufficient time to pursue these interests?

As we fill our children’s lives with delicious, meaningful challenges, we need to continue to nourish our children by showing that we love them for who they are—not what they achieve.

“Question Me An Answer”

Question me an answer bright and clear.
I will answer with a question clear and bright.
Even though your answer may be wrong 
my question will be right…

The Right Question

From Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s song, “Answer Me a Question” performed by Bobby Van in the 1973 movie, “Lost Horizons.”


Teachers fuel meaningful, deep, classroom discussions with questions that deepen student knowledge and encourage critical thinking.

Although asking questions may sound simple, teaching resources for questioning abound. We have Webb’s “Depth of Knowledge” that designates four levels of activities of increasing cognitive complexity.We have the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy with six levels of knowledge including Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating and Creating.

In fact, for teachers who wish to help students develop questions at a “higher” level there is a dizzying array of Bloom’s Taxonomy “question stems” out there for students to write questions from a template of “high level” starters such as “”What would happen if…”, “How would you improve…” “Would it be better if….”, and “What evidence can you find?”

As a teacher of high ability students whose mission is to encourage critical thinking and deep exploration, I have piles of print-outs filled with question stems. Yet, I seldomly reach for them.

Questions are personal creations; they grow from the raw, grasping desire to know. Answers are out there—but questions come from inside of us—from the heart. For me, reaching for “question stems” for students feels like I’m reaching for a defibrillator.

 So yesterday when we discussed Laurence Yep’s memoir, The Lost Garden, in our Sixth Grade classroom, this is what we did:

  • The students took a few minutes to think of the most interesting questions that they could ask about the memoir.
  • In small groups, they generated four questions that they felt would make an interesting class discussion about the book.
  • After reflecting on these questions as a group, they wrote a brief reflection explaining why these questions were likely to spark an interesting conversation.
  • After the students wrote their questions and discussed their answers, I compiled the questions to create a list.

Today, I introduced a table that provided the four levels of Webb’s “Depth of Knowledge” (Level I: Recall and Reproduction, Level II: Basic Application of Skills and Concepts, Level III: Strategic Thinking, and Level IV: Extended Thinking).  We talked about kinds of questions that would fall into each group. Then, I showed the students a chart that sorted their questions about The Lost Garden according to the Depth of Knowledge level each question reflected.

The students immediately recognized that their most interesting discussion questions fell under higher depth of knowledge levels.   However, they found that none of their questions reached the highest level, “Extended Thinking.” So, we discussed how we could ask even more thought-provoking questions about society and culture that related to the novel.  To find answers, we recognized that we would need to extend our thinking  by exploring a broad variety of sources and authors.

As the class ended, the students were soon revising and enriching their queries to probe for deeper meaning in the text. They were searching for better, more intriguing questions!

I’m not sure what answers my students will discover.  However, I hope that if one day these students reach for my pile of “question stem defibrillators,” it will be when they recognize the warm, lively heartbeat of discussion – authentic, high level questioning.

…And their questions will be right.

Find more information on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge levels at NYC Department of Education Website
Find more information on Bloom’s Taxonomy at Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching Website

Public Transportation: A Learning Destination Worth Visiting

IMG_1938Are you planning a downtown adventure with your child this summer? Public transportation is not only an economical, efficient way to reach city attractions; it can also be a fresh “destination” for learning.

Rather than tow your child along as you navigate the train or bus schedule, engage her in the journey.  Look over the departure and arrival times and answer questions together. At what platform will the train stop? How many hours can we stay downtown if we take the 8:00 a.m. train and leave on the 2:30 p.m. train? Should we choose to walk or to take the bus from the station?

Challenge your child to read the train schedule, to explain the subway map, or to choose the correct bus. Not only will your child to gradually learn to navigate the city with adult supervision; he or she will experience how to reach a goal by making real, responsible choices in an authentic context.
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Best wishes for a safe, fun, and memorable trip!

Looking Back on the Year

IMG_1917Another school year has sped by and I am again looking “through the rear view mirror” at another journey in the classroom.  Although bumper to bumper end-of year parties, assemblies, and classroom textbook return may create a sizable jam, I find that building some reflection time into those last few classes is essential.

Here are five “fuel efficient” ways for teachers to assess how the year went and to make next year even better:

  • “Scale” Response: A simple classroom feedback scale is an excellent tool to help students communicate general feelings about their classroom experience. Soliciting anonymous student feedback about what was “too much,” “too little,” or “just enough” during the school year takes only a few minutes, but can provide invaluable insights for improving instruction.[1]  These are also easy to administer online with survey tools such as Google Forms.
  • “How-To” Pamphlet: At the end of the year, our students are the “experts” on being in our classes. Accordingly, I encourage students to share their expertise by making “pamphlets” to guide next year’s students through a successful year. A black sheet of paper folded into thirds with such headings as, “The Year in Summary,” “Tips for Success,” and “This Year’s Highlights” provides a terrific end-of-year wrap-up and a peer-supported welcome when school resumes in the fall.
  • Pre/Post Assessment Review: In my language arts class, at the beginning and end of each year, students take a pre-assessment and post-assessment in which they answer the same literature analysis questions.   At the end of the year, I distribute these assessments for their review (before teacher feedback/grades are shared). Challenging students to identify two or three specific areas of improvement on their own reinforces a sense of “ownership” of their learning. Moreover, encouraging students to share their observations provides a wonderful “wrap up” discussion about the year’s accomplishments, learning trends, and accomplishments.
  • Written Student Reflections: Student self-reflections are another meaningful way to collect information about whether “it was a good year.” They also provide insights about student understanding, readiness for additional challenge, and activities that students find particularly meaningful. Student reflection questions that yield meaningful feedback may include prompts such as: What challenged you the most this year? What about this class would you enjoy? What would you change about this class? If you could plan a lesson that would improve this class, what would it be? (I have sometimes found some wonderful, fresh ideas for instruction this way!)
  • Invite Parent Feedback: Keeping school-home communication avenues open throughout the year is essential for classroom teachers. In addition to the fact that strong family-school partnerships support student learning, children will sometimes share perspectives with their families at home that they do not express at school. At the end of the year, sending home a form for parent written reflections and suggestions is one way to invite summative feedback from parents. Also, a simple email or phone call to parents at the year’s end to celebrate their child’s success, provide suggestions for summer practice, and/or identify areas of strengths and challenge is a natural way to open dialogue that can potentially deepen a teacher’s understanding about the overall classroom experience.

[1] Dr. Richard Best modeled the “too much” “too little” “just enough” categories to collect feedback in his graduate class in Educational Leadership at National-Louis University.  This idea for collecting feedback to be helpful both when leading professional development sessions for colleagues and when teaching elementary students.

Content Knowledge: Let’s Hear it For the Underdog!

photo from Microsoft Word Clip Art

 

 

As educators, is our lamenting that there’s “too much content to teach and not enough time” drowning out our enthusiasm about the “stuff” of learning?  In the tug-of-war of professional priorities, do we too casually make content knowledge the underdog?

For elementary school teachers, professional development related to Common Core State Standards, assessment, differentiation and social-emotional learning is important for keeping up on best practices.  But how much time per year do we spend expanding and deepening our own knowledge about the content that we are teaching?  If we teach Social Studies, Reading, Science, or Mathematics, do we set aside time to expand our knowledge and explore topics of personal interest related to these subjects?  Do we regularly enjoy meaningful discussions and share resources with our colleagues about these topics?

As educators, when we make it a priority to pursue and share content knowledge among ourselves, we naturally convey to our students a sense of renewed excitement about the “stuff” we are teaching and learning.

So if we haven’t cheered for content knowledge lately, let’s do it together…

Hooray for the amazing pleasure of learning lots and lots of new things!

 

Spring Morning: Bringing Schools To Life

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This morning was the first warm Monday that Chicago has experienced for a while — the sun was bright, and there was a high temperature of around 45 degrees.  As I stood at my crosswalk post, the sunshine revealed a crowd of diverse families and students entering the school doors, bringing the school to life again.  

How do we keep our schools alive?  Quite simply, school leadership can keep our schools healthy by building connections with the families who nourish them.  In fact, the following types of activities/practices offer a few ways that educators can bring families and schools together:

  • Welcome parents and family members to school and greet them as they come to the door. 
  • Schedule a rich variety of inclusive school events at different times throughout the year so that families with diverse schedules and interests will be able to attend and feel welcome. 
  • Routinely provide opportunities for parents to share their perspectives about the school and to better understand the needs and interests of families.  Such opportunities can range from one-to-one interactions, to coffees, town meetings, and surveys.
  • Engage with the community, understand its assets and struggles, and develop relationships with business owners, community leaders, and institutions. 
  • Take walks through the community, getting to know the surrounding neighborhood and its residents.
  • Understand the needs and preferences of families for communication avenues, so that school communications cross language and cultural barriers, and all families feel a part of the school community.  

As the weather turns warmer, it is a wonderful time for teachers and principals to look for new ways to step outside and open doors for the diverse families that are our schools.  Let’s keep it “spring” all year round.

Ubi Caritas

 

UntitledDuring these days of tight school budgets, schools must make it a priority to support and treasure programs in music and the visual arts. One important reason for this is that we find so many talented, inspiring teachers in the arts who fill the school experience with creativity, meaning, and joy. In fact, here’s a personal story …

I remember myself as an eighth grader. As one of six siblings, all of whom played the violin, I had grown up in Corning, New York with music and was also a serious student. So, when the conductor of the high school Choristers, Mr. Perry, led an information session for incoming freshmen, I asked him, “What should I do if I’d much rather sing in the Choristers, but I’ve been told I should take Latin instead?”

He quipped with a laugh, “That’s easy! Join Choristers!”

So, I did.

For me, singing in the high school chorus was an experience that brought joy as well as learning. We sang a wide variety of music, explored musical theory, practiced singing in multi-part harmony, and learned how to perform with dynamics and expression. Mr. Perry’s content knowledge was extensive, and his musicianship and high standards for excellence were captivating. His rehearsal room was always filled with laughter.

When I think of what makes a great teacher, I think of Mr. Perry who developed personal relationships with students and demonstrated time and again how with perseverance and practice, a cacophony could evolve into beautiful music. Mr. Perry was authentic and approachable—and the learning that took place in his rehearsal room was lasting and genuine.

In high school, when I followed Mr. Perry’s advice to “Join Choristers,” I found that true joy in learning came, not by thoughtlessly following a course set by others, but by following my dreams—a journey that led me to teaching. In the end, I never took a Latin class, but from Choristers my heart is filled with beautiful song lyrics that we sang together—in Latin.

A New Year’s Resolution for the Classroom

New Year

For us teachers, “New Year’s Day” offers a second chance to look ahead at all of the possibilities and make new resolutions. In addition to the luxury of celebrating the new year with a fresh start to the school year in August, we observe the January 1st New Year along with the rest of the country. Teachers are experts at ringing in the New Year, and have twice as many opportunities to be creative with New Year’s resolutions.

As part of my personal “second New Year’s celebration,” I resolve to enjoy more meals with friends and family at home by pulling out a few of the “tried and true” recipes. By cooking up lasagna, bisque, or a pie, I need not worry about the basic recipes, but can add a special twist or two to the old favorites and focus on listening to and enjoying the guests.

It’s time for a similar resolution in the classroom…

Teachers have an endless smorgasbord of “new dishes” out there to digest and absorb into the classrooms—new Common Core standards, new changes in curriculum, new instruction, new technology.  Of course effective teachers need to continually sample and master new curricula, keep up with the latest technology, and learn new instructional strategies. However, to maintain excellence, teachers also need to fully digest, taste, savor, and add new spice to the instruction being served.   We need to nourish our students with some “tried and true” menu items that improve over the years with reflection, experimentation, and modification.

So what can we do to provide a balanced menu in the classroom? Very simply—let’s find some truly great recipes for learning and prepare them more than once.

To welcome 2015, here’s a simple New Year’s Resolution for the classroom– “Do something old.” Choose a lesson or a unit that was taught before, and find a way to improve it by approaching it from a different angle, presenting it in a more engaging way through technology, enriching it with questions to promote high level thinking, focusing on an applicable state standard, or adapting instruction to meet the unique needs of a student.   Have fun. Be fulfilled.

Let’s resolve to teach something old, but not just again—Let’s teach it better.