Friday, July 17, 2020

7 Characteristics of Learning that Cause Engagement and Empowerment

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A significant problem in education was amplified during the recent school closures across the country. As teachers scrambled to reach students with remote learning, successfully engaging students became an even bigger challenge than it normally was in the physical classroom.

And struggles with engagement were a huge problem already. Far too many students are not engaged in the learning process on a good day. But with distance separating us from our students, it became even more challenging.

So as we reflect on what worked and what didn't, we must return to the essential elements of engagement. As we prepare for the fall, we need to examine our instructional methods through an engagement lens.

How are we being intentional to design our classrooms or online experiences to make learning irresistible? That's a high standard. It may seem like it's an impossible standard. But if we aren't able to engage students in the learning process, we aren't going to be successful.

Too often it feels like we're struggling against students to get them to do what we need them to do instead of focusing on creating the conditions where they can be their best as a learner. 

We're successful only when our students are successful. And that means ALL students. So we must examine all of our practices through the lens of engagement and equity. We must create the conditions where all students can learn effectively.

If learning is a top priority, then making learning exciting and engaging and accessible must be a top priority too.

Now I know lots of things are barriers to learning aside from my list below. When remote learning became a thing, there were issues with internet and technology access, issues with adjusting to a new format for learning, and a whole variety of issues in homes and families across society that made giving attention to learning an incredible challenge.

But aside from those things, many of which we have no control over, we must design learning with these essentials in mind.

1. Curiosity

Learning begins with questions. It begins when your students realize a gap between what they know and what they want to know. Humans are naturally very curious and learning is completely a natural process. But when learning becomes simply an assignment to complete, it loses its variety, surprise, and wonder, and ultimately curiosity is stifled. Nothing destroys curiosity more than a worksheet or packet. That type of work gives students something to complete, not something to be curious about.

2. Relevance

Every learner is always seeking to understand the context and relevance of the learning. Why am I learning this? Is this important to me? We make decisions about where to focus our attention based on how we answer those questions. If we don't find it meaningful, helpful, interesting, or enjoyable, then we're not going to engage with it.

For too many kids, relevance feels like it's only to earn a grade or pass a class. And that's the end of it. They're just trying to make it through school instead of feeling like they're getting something meaningful from school. It doesn't feel relevant. So we must design learning experiences with that in mind. Students are asking these questions, "Why does this matter? Why should I care?" The answer should be more than, "Because it's on the test."

3. Choice

The lack of choice in learning leads to compliance, passivity, and apathy. Being human is making choices. It's been said the average person makes about 35,000 choices each day. 

If students aren't given the choice to have meaningful direction over their learning, they will likely choose anyway. They will choose to avoid it, resist it, or stop caring about it. For students to be excited about learning and invested in learning, they must feel like they have a real stake in it and real ownership over it.

Choice matters. Look for ways to increase student choice in "how" they are learning, "what" they are learning, "who" they are learning with or learning from. Choice in "where" they are learning and also "when" they learn. 

"The way a child learns to make decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions." -Alfie Kohn 
4. Identity

By the time kids get to high school, many of them have established a negative learning identity that is very difficult to overcome. The way they see themselves shapes how they choose to engage as a learner. Sometimes we don't see this internal dialogue they're having, but sometimes they also speak it out loud.

"I don't like reading."

"I'm not good at math."

"I'm not the type of person who participates in class."

"People like me aren't smart."

"School isn't for me."

A new one I've heard: "I can't learn online or with a computer."

I like to think every kid has a natural heart for learning that we have an obligation as educators to protect and nurture. But I fear that too often we are part of the problem. 

If we're not careful, well-intended interventions become a constant reminder of what a student isn't good at. Awards and public recognition only go to a certain type of student. A relentless focus on proficiency, test scores, grades, or honor roll, leads some to believe they aren't cut out for learning.

Which is worse, for a child to leave our schools without reaching proficiency on learning standards or to leave our schools with the belief they can't learn? For me, knowing their strengths and how they are smart is more important than checking off mastery of a standard.

As we build that confidence in learning, more kids are going to reach proficiency as a consequence of the focus being on the person, not on an arbitrary measure or data point. The focus needs to be on growth and nurturing strengths, not fitting all kids into the exact same academic box.

Every kid should be aware of their strengths as a learner, not just their weaknesses.

5. Competence

For students to engage in learning, it must be challenging but not too challenging. No meaningful learning happens without mild frustration. Some discomfort is part of the learning process. 

But when the learner is overwhelmed by the concept or the task, they are likely to do what most every human would do under the same conditions. They'll avoid the learning, turn their attention to something else, or act out in frustration.

If you haven't been to the gym for years and you show up and the trainer puts you through a workout like you're a CrossFit champion, you're not going back for the second workout, and you probably aren't even going to finish the workout. You physically won't be able to.

It's a difficult balance for teachers. Too much challenge is overwhelming. But too much scaffolding is enabling. 

What I have noticed is that kids can take on greater academic challenges when they really care about and connect with what they are learning. For instance, a student will push through a text that is above their reading level if the topic and content captures their imagination.

6. Connection

Relationships matter for learning in undeniable ways. When I reflect on the most powerful learning experiences I had as a student, the connection I had with my teachers was significant.

I viewed the teacher as someone who cared about me, who could help me, who was a mentor to me. I wanted to be more like the teacher. I could relate to them and connect to who they were as a person.

I felt like they valued me, believed in me, and wanted the best for me. I didn't feel like they just wanted something from me. They opened me up to new possibilities.

What I've found is the people in my life who influenced me the most were the people who believed in me. Even if I wasn't the best, strongest, smartest, or whatever, they had a way of showing that they believed in me. I want to be that person for my students, and I hope you do too.

At its very essence, learning is social. We are meant to learn with others, from others, and to also be able to contribute to the learning of others. Every kid has something to offer to the learning of the other students in the classroom. How are you elevating these voices as the teacher?

Every kid is trying to answer these questions every day:
1. Am I important to someone here? 
2. Do I belong here? 
3. Am I good at something here? 
4. Who will listen to me here? 
5. Is my presence here making a difference?
I'm not sure if it's true that students can't learn from teachers they don't like. I remember one teacher I didn't like at all, and I'm pretty sure I still learned some stuff from her. 

But what I am certain about is that students will learn even more from teachers they like. They will learn even more when they buy into the person who is teaching them.

7. Feedback

I remember submitting a paper in college and when it was returned from the professor I noticed there was nothing on the front page. I started flipping through the pages, looking for comments, or markings, or anything. 

On the very last page, at the conclusion of my very last paragraph, there was one thing written, simply a "B."

What the heck, I thought! It wasn't that I was that terribly disappointed with the "B." But I was just frustrated there wasn't any other comment or justification for the grade.

And this was feedback after the learning had taken place. It was the type of feedback I was most familiar with as a student. It was rare during my years of schooling to have feedback from the teacher during the learning. And yet this is the most powerful kind.

There's been a lot written about feedback for learning in recent years. I highly recommend Dylan Wiliam's work on this topic. His book Embedded Formative Assessment is one of the best books on pedagogy I've ever read. And the title is riveting, right?

I noticed Bill Ferriter posted this great quote from Wiliam: 
Learners need feedback throughout the process of learning, to be more effective in the learning but also to be more engaged in the learning. Feedback guides and encourages the learner. It gives direction, but it also says keep going.

Student work becomes more meaningful when it's not just about turning in the assignment, finishing the task, being done with this so we can move on to the next thing. Learning is most meaningful when there is a cycle of sharing and revision and growth that is reviewed and made visible in the classroom.

One note here: Not all of this feedback has to come from the teacher. In fact, it's often just as effective when the feedback comes from other students or another third-party. When students know their work will be shared with an audience for feedback, it brings new purpose and meaning and contribution to the work.

I hope this post challenges you and gives you some things to think about related to engaging and even empowering students as learners. If we are striving to make learning irresistible, even when we fall short of that, we can know we're prioritizing the right things.

Our kids need to be engaged and empowered as learners and have experiences in school that make them want to learn even more.

What's your response to this post? What else would you add to this list? What have you found to be most effective for engaging students? How are you growing in this area? Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter. I would love to hear from you.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Share Understanding and Spare Pain

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Like many of you, I've had so much on my mind lately. I have several blog posts upcoming that will express more of what I'm feeling. But I wanted to share this quick bit with you. 

If we only read and share things that confirm our current thoughts, feelings, and beliefs...

If we only pursue our own certainty and confirmation of our current way...

If we only listen to the stories of people who are like us...

If we only seek to debate "the others" and don't really listen to them...

If we gather in our tribes and seek opponents instead of allies...

If we dismiss, diminish, deny, or invalidate the pain of others...

If we avoid the things that make us uncomfortable or that are painful...

If we don't question ourselves deeply, our motives, our hearts, our privileged lives...

Then we will never grow, and we will never love more deeply, and we will spread even more pain in this pain stricken world.

How can we develop a spirit of curiosity and empathy for others? Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter. I would love to hear from you.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Combine Your Skills With Technology

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The best advantage is the ability to combine your human abilities with the best tools available.

In the world of chess, the best players in the world can no longer beat the best machines in the world.

However, a combination of top players with machines can nearly always defeat a machine-only opponent.

Even more impressive, a slightly above average chess player teamed with a machine can defeat the top computer chess algorithms in the world.

Some people push for technology like it's the answer. But technology doesn't usually solve problems alone. 

Although technology is getting smarter every day, it's most effective when people leverage the technology to solve problems.

It's the combination of well-developed human skills and the effective use of technology advancements that will lead to the best opportunities.

What does this mean for modern learning? How are you taking into consideration the tools your students have at their fingertips?

If students don't learn to leverage their skills with technology, they will always be at a disadvantage.

Learning must consider the world our students live in, and we mustn't cling to the world we grew up in.

If you’re teaching just as you were taught, you’re basically teaching in a time capsule. 

And as a result, your students will be precisely prepared for a world that no longer exists.

How are you teaching your students to leverage technology? How have modern tools changed what is taught or how it is taught in your discipline? Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Doing Your Best Work

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No one does their best work out of compliance or out of obligation. 

No one does their best work expecting a reward. 

We do our best work when we see it as a privilege, a contribution, and an enjoyable experience. We do our best work because we want to, not because we have to.

Can you do quality work out of obligation or compliance? Probably so. But you won't do your best work.

Can you do quality work to earn a reward? Probably so. Many people will work very hard for rewards. But again, I don't believe you do your best work for rewards.

I'm not suggesting you won't try hard even if it's out of compliance or even to seek a reward.

But your passion, your purpose, your gifts are greater than transactions. 

This for that. 

Give to get. 

Rewards and punishments.

You'll do your best work when you care about the work. When you care about the people who benefit from your work.

The reward is in the work itself and the opportunity to contribute to something larger than yourself. It's the opportunity to make a difference. It's the opportunity to do something of significance. It's the opportunity to use your unique gifts and strengths in meaningful ways.

Your best work comes from your desire to add value to others. It's from a desire to contribute, not from a desire to be highly esteemed or to avoid punishment.

It's not that we "have to," it's that we "get to" contribute from our very best selves.

Teachers and leaders must create conditions where students/others can do their best work. That means they need a measure of autonomy to use their gifts. They need a purpose larger than themselves. And they need the opportunity to take risks, be creative, and make choices about their learning and the direction of their efforts.

If we're creating an environment driven by compliance or by rewards and punishments, we may get more work out of people, but we won't enjoy the best work from people.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

How to Respond When You Feel Disrespected

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Once I was working with an entire class of freshmen at the beginning of a school year, and one of the kids made some kind of wise-guy comment in front of the whole group. I don't remember exactly what he said, but I do remember that I felt a little disrespected.

Another time, I remember a large majority of students were talking and being disruptive and generally not paying attention. Again, I felt like the students weren't showing their full respect.

If you work with teenagers long enough, you’re bound to experience some of these behaviors from time to time.

In each case, the student or students, may or may not have intended to be disrespectful, but that's how it made me feel. That's an important distinction. How you feel, or how it comes across, and what was intended may be two entirely different things. 

The behavior is probably more about the student(s) and their struggle(s) than it is about you as the educator.

So never tell a kid they're being disrespectful. It's not helpful, and you don't know what's in their heart. The behavior may have felt disrespectful to you, and it should be addressed, but do it in the right way.

Here are three steps I use when dealing with anything that makes me feel disrespected.

1. Let them know you're committed to always treat them with the greatest dignity and respect. 

So instead of accusing them of being disrespectful, let them know how much you care. 

"I want you to know I will never intentionally disrespect you. And if I do, I want you to let me know, so I can make it right."

Start with your behavior. Let them know how you will treat them...always. This is something you can say in a private conversation or with an entire group of students. 

I say this with my full heart because I mean it. I pledge my respect with humility and kindness. This is important to me. I want to preserve respect and show students I care.

Of course, you should only say this if you mean it. They will see right through this if you're sarcastic to kids or talk down to them or use disrespectful tactics to control them.

And then follow up with...

"Have I ever been disrespectful to you in any way? I want to know if you feel that way, so we can talk about it."

And then listen. Usually, they just tell me I've never made them feel disrespected. Of course, there have been times when my behaviors felt disrespectful to a student and responding to that with care is important.

2. Ask them about their intentions based on their behavior.

One of the most common problems in classrooms is students don't respond to reasonable requests made by the teacher. And that tends to make us feel ignored and disrespected. Even if you don't feel disrespected, this same conversation can be good reflection to address a non-learning behavior.

So, after you share your own intentions from the first step, address the behavior you observed.

"When you were on your phone today, after I asked you a couple of times to put it away, how did you intend for that to make me feel?"

And then wait...and listen.

Usually, they will say they didn't intend to be disrespectful. They might explain they're having a bad day, or something is going on that was upsetting, or they just made a bad choice in the moment.

Sometimes they will even apologize. 

3. Find a path forward and invite them to commit to a different set of behaviors.

This step is very important. I've noticed educators often describe the behavior they want to stop, but they don't always get the student to commit to doing better. That makes a big difference.

Listen with empathy if they have reasons to explain away their behavior. But then remind them of the expectations.

"I hear you. You have a lot going on. Stuff outside of school is pressing down. You still can't let your schoolwork slide. The expectation in this classroom is your phone won't get in the way of learning."

"Next time, can I count on you to keep your phone from being a distraction? And if I have to address it, can I trust that you will cooperate with me on that?"

Most every time, in my experience, the student will commit to doing better. But I don't stop there.

I want it to be crystal clear what my expectations are. And I want to check in with the student to make sure the expectations are clear to them also. So I follow up with this question.

"I want to make sure we're both on the same page with this conversation. What is your understanding of what we are agreeing to do going forward?"

Sometimes, students don't have the words to summarize the conversation at first, but I help coach them through it until they can verbalize exactly what the expectation is. I want them to be able to say it clearly because I've found that helps them to feel the weight of the commitment to the new behavior.

After they summarize what's been discussed, I ask one more question.

"I hear you saying that you will make sure your phone is not a distraction. And I believe you. I can tell you mean it. But if it continues to be a problem, what do you think should happen?"

They may have some ideas for responding to this and they may not. But I will further clarify the boundary.

"In the future, if your phone is a distraction again, then this is going to happen." Maybe it will be a phone call home to notify parents, or a discipline referral, or the phone will be "parked" each day at the beginning of class. The important part here is that a clear boundary is created and enforced as promised.

At the end of the conversation, I thank them for helping me work through the issue. And I try to find some way to encourage them. I may give them a complement or joke with them in some way.

Oh and by the way, this exact process will work in any relationship you have, not just with kids. The phrasing might be a little different if you're not an authority figure in that person's life, but the general framework remains the same.

1. Focus on your behavior first. What are you committing to? (respect, love, care towards the other person)

2. Clarify intentions. How did you intend for me to feel?

3. Establish boundaries. What are the behaviors needed to make this relationship work?

Because in the end, it's all about healthy relationships.

Was this helpful to you? What are your thoughts? Let me know what you think. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Authentic PD: 7 Benefits of a Book Tasting Event for Your Teachers

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We recently had a full PD Day for teachers in our building and wanted to do something special to start off the day. I'd heard of book tastings from my Twitter PLN and wanted to give it a try.

A book tasting is an event where people sample different books in a relatively short period of time. I was lucky to have some fantastic help with decorations, planning for food, and setting up our "book store" area.

At our book tasting, we selected about 75 books we felt added value to teaching and learning. Some of them were not necessarily education books. We also included books from psychology, personal growth, leadership, and more.

There were approximately 55 teachers included in our event, so we had plenty of extra books on hand. For each round, participants would select a book to review. We set a timer for 5 minutes for participants to quickly scan the book, look at the table of contents, pick out some interesting quotes, and take a few notes.

Each participant had a "menu" to help guide their book tasting experience. It included some general instructions and some questions to guide thinking.

Menu adapted from:

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

How Humor Contributes to School Culture

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I'm not sure exactly how it got started, but for the past few years I've shared a joke every morning with our entire building to start the school day.

It's important to me to help get each day off to a good start and part of that is my daily attempt to inject some humor. Let me tell you, though, it can be a lot of pressure to have a new joke every day. I am constantly searching for new material.

And I have to admit, my jokes get a mixed response. In my mind, people are laughing all over the building. But in reality, I think mostly it's eye rolling that's happening all around the building.

But there have been some interesting things that have happened as a result of this simple routine.

1. Students and staff share jokes with me regularly. I guess they think I need some better material. A teacher recently sent a student out of class to find me, because they had a really good joke for me.

2. When I see parents, they will share jokes with me. They always think their jokes are the funniest. I bet their kids disagree.

3. Multiple students have bought me joke books. "Hey, Dr. G, I picked up this book for you at Barnes and Noble over the weekend. You need all the help you can get!" 

4. One student rates my jokes each day. When he sees me, he will say, "Dr. G, your joke today was a 3 out of 10." I rarely get higher than a 5 or 6, and often it's a 1 or 2. Oh well.

5. On a survey of my faculty for feedback on my performance as their principal, one comment suggested that I should "watch some professional comedians and take notes." I wasn't sure how to take that.

6. We occasionally have some students and staff members who provide the guest joke of the day, to offer some variety.

7. We've also had joke battles. A student tells a joke. I tell a joke. And then everyone votes for which one they liked best via Google Forms. I've lost the joke battle every time.

8. One student in particular, who is living in extreme poverty and struggles in school, has been a joke champion for me. He has the best jokes, and he is constantly helping me with my material. I think he gains something significant from that. I know I do.

9. When students were asked to write notes of thanks/encouragement to a staff member, I was grateful to receive a couple that mentioned that they liked my jokes. Those kids are going to go far in life!!!

It's probably clear to you now that this joke of the day thing is really not about the jokes. 

It's about making connections.

It's about a sense of belonging.

It's about creating an environment that kids and adults enjoy. 

It's about bringing people together. 

And those are things that really matter for nurturing your school culture.

What rituals do you have at your school that contribute to your school culture? Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter. I would love to hear from you.
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