Thursday, February 26, 2015

20 ideas to make it more about learning and less about the grade

In a compliance driven culture, students are not likely to pursue learning for intrinsic reasons. They have learned to expect compensation for every learning activity they do. It's evident by the questions they ask, "Do we get a grade on this?" Or, "How many points is this worth?" But if we truly desire to help students take greater ownership in learning, we need to develop ideas for motivating students that rely on intrinsic motivation. In the typical school, learning has become a passive experience for the most part. Students expect to be told exactly what to do and when to do it. And, they expect to be compensated with a grade for doing work, even if the work doesn't reveal their learning or is of poor quality.

I've created a list of ideas that can be useful for motivating students beyond grades. These ideas naturally generate interest or curiosity for many students. They are inherently engaging. No grade required. Some of these ideas are simple to implement while others require significant development to be effective. This list is just a starting point. As teachers plan for instruction, it's important to consider how each idea will support learning and generate greater engagement.

It's also important to realize that using a high-interest idea doesn't guarantee learning. Students may be enjoying themselves, but they will need support from the teacher to ensure that the learning goals are being met. I believe this happens from feedback the teacher provides throughout the learning process. The best learning experiences are designed for high engagement and high impact. Teachers are constantly keeping a pulse of learning and making adjustments to help students succeed.

All of these ideas must be used within a framework of solid relationships. Build a relationship with your students and then use your influence to engage them in learning. Students will want to partner with you in learning if they feel you truly care about them.

1. Choices. People are motivated by a sense of autonomy. We can't give unlimited autonomy to students, but we can provide the next best thing—choices. Students feel a greater sense of control over their learning when they have some input into how the learning goes.

2. Passions. Find students' passions and then use those interests to generate learning experiences. If students are passionate about something, the grade won't be the driver as they will simply pursue the learning.

3. Student Voice. Most students like to share ideas with one another and communicate about what they are learning. Make learning social and students will become more engaged in the process.

4. Technology. I like to see technology used when it can enhance a lesson. If students are motivated by the opportunity to use the technology, then that is one way the lesson can be enhanced.

5. Movement. Students need to move around during the school day to stay alert and active. When teachers build movement into lessons, that can help students focus more and engage for longer time periods. Get students on their feet and out of their seats.

6. Music. Where would the world be without music? It's a powerful force and can be used in the classroom to enhance learning.

7. Solve Real problems. When students feel like they are solving a real problem, it's easier to see the relevance of learning. It's immediate and the learning is driven by something authentic.

8. Drama. Bring the power of acting and performance to your lesson plan. Throw caution to the wind and develop some crazy accents or wear a costume. You will have their attention!

9.  Film/Video. Videos clips can be used to generate interest or provide information in an accessible way. But it's even more powerful when student directed. Videos can be used by students to showcase what they've learned.  

10. Be creative. Give students opportunities to be creative as they learn your subject. Reward ideas that feature originality or artistic elements.

11. Tell stories. Be a storyteller in the classroom and find ways to use stories to help students connect to material.

12. Get out of the classroom. Take students to a different part of the building or go outside. Move outside the walls of the classroom to keep learning fresh and avoid monotony.

13. Make it a game. Use games to learn the content. Or turn you class into a simulated game with badges, levels, and other gaming principles. This type of approach is referred to as gamification.

14. Have a debate. Debates require students to make a claim and support it with evidence. They have to listen carefully and think quickly. It's a great learning tool

15. Provide real audiences. Have students create a learning artifact that will be presented to an audience outside of the classroom. The audience could be other students in the school, staff members, a panel of guests, or something online that potentially has an unlimited audience.

16. Humor. If you can incorporate humor into your lesson, students will be more interested. I had an amazing psychology professor who told a joke before every class. He often tied the humor into the content for the course.

17. Make stuff. The maker movement is all about engaging students as designers and builders. There are many inexpensive ways to bring making into the curriculum in ways that will support learning goals.

18. Social media. Students love to use social media. Why not use it for learning? Students can use Twitter, Facebook, or blogs to share ideas in all sorts of ways.

19. Food. Incorporating food can be very motivating and can relate to a variety of topics. Of course, this one can be a little tricky since school wellness policies may limit such activity.

20. Experiment. Inquiry is a great way to increase student engagement and stimulate critical thinking. Students develop a hypothesis, design an experiment, collect the data, and interpret the results. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

What breaks your heart as an educator?

If you are truly passionate about your profession, there are undoubtedly things that break your heart as an educator. I'm not referring to your frustrations with long hours, low pay, or unnecessary paperwork or these types of challenges. These things are important, and can really make it tough to stay positive, but these aren't the things that are truly heartbreaking. The things that really break my heart have a purpose beyond self-interest.

Most educators entered the profession because they wanted to make a difference for students. They were filled with hope and passion and the belief that they could change something for the kids they taught. Even if these young educators were idealistic as they entered the classroom, I cannot help but admire this youthful zeal.

As the years wear on, it's easy to become a little jaded and forget some of the reasons we took this path. The constant external pressures coupled with the complex social problems we encounter can easily overwhelm us and cause us to retreat to simply implementing lessons. But when we lose our way on the larger mission, we miss great opportunities for change.

So I've been thinking about what truly breaks my heart. What are the injustices in my school or community that I can impact? I challenge you to reflect on that question and then consider what you can do to change the way things are. You can be a difference maker.

Are any of these realities heartbreaking for you?

1. Many students don't have someone at home who cares about them and cares about learning. Maybe you can be the mentor this student needs. Even if they aren't loved at home, maybe you can show them love at school.

2. Students who don't enjoy learning. It's a shame how many students have lost the desire to learn. Some of this is related to #1, but how can you create a classroom that rekindles the curiosity and interest that motivates students to want to learn?

3. Students are living in poverty with basic needs unmet. Teachers are often heroes for these students. Helping them find resources. Making sure they get something to eat. How can you be a champion for an impoverished student?

4. Too many students feel like they are failures at doing school. Instead of reinforcing the failure messages these students often receive, maybe you can be the person who discovers and celebrates their strengths.

5. Our system is obsessed with high-stakes standardized testing. Can you make your class more about learning and less about testing? I realize the performance pressures are enormous on teachers, but if the testing culture breaks your heart, what are you doing about it?

These are just a few examples of things I believe are heartbreaking for teachers. There are many, many more. Bullying, discrimination, lack of resources or opportunities are a few other biggies. But I believe we can make a difference. If each person recognizes what breaks his or her heart, and then works to bring greater justice and opportunity, that can start a chain reaction.

Most of the examples I listed before can be addressed, at least in part, right in the classroom. But I would also challenge educators to think beyond the classroom. What can I do to make our school a better place? How can I influence and cause change even beyond my school?

Whatever it is that breaks your heart, don't stop feeling passionate about it. Make it part of your work as an educator. Don't shoulder too much and forget to take care of yourself or the people closest to you. But keep a larger mission in mind. The work we do that arises from our soul is what helps us feel the sense of purpose and the desire to meet the challenges ahead of us.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

When students act out, don't ask 'why' (the reason may surprise you)

While doing some reading recently, an idea really caught my attention in a practical way for dealing with harmful student behaviors. In the past I've often asked students why they did what they did in a particular situation. Why did you say that to the teacher? Why did you act in a way that was not kind? Why did you cheat? Why were you disrespectful? Whatever the particular situation, one of my first instincts is to ask the student to explain why they did what they did.

And it's no wonder I'm inclined to ask this question. It is our natural line of thinking. We are taught from childhood to use justification and judgment to explain away our bad behavior. Not a good thing. In fact, it's one of the most common ways people avoid personal responsibility.

So when we ask 'why', aren't we really asking for justification of a bad behavior? Does it really matter why we did it? The last thing I want to do is reinforce the belief that if you have a good enough reason it is okay to act in a way that is harmful to others. Unfortunately, this belief is pervasive in our culture, but it is a belief that causes more pain and damages more relationships.

Instead of asking why, try this approach instead. Simply ask the student what happened? And then, instead of asking why, ask what they might have done differently, "What do you think you should have done?" Keep the focus on their behavior and not the underlying motivations. As soon as a person feels judged for their motives, they will feel rejected and look to shift the blame. When we focus on what happened and how it had an impact on others, we encourage full responsibility.

If we truly want our students to grow and learn from their mistakes, we need to keep the focus on the choices they make and how decisions impact self and others.

These ideas are drawn from How to Stop the Pain by James B. Richards. Thanks to @RobbyHoegh for recommending the book. It is a fantastic read with Biblical principles on the harm of judging others, and the harm of giving power to the judgments of others in our lives. It's filled with wisdom for developing healthy mindsets and loving relationships.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

12 characteristics that make you a teacher-leader

As a principal, it is important for me to remember that the success we experience in our school is thanks to the efforts of teachers and students, along with all the others who contribute to the life of a school. When I use the word success, I use it in the sense that we are growing and learning as a school and changing in ways that allow our students to have more meaningful experiences, ones that will better prepare them for their future.

I'm extremely blessed to work with teachers who desire what's best for students and actively challenge the status quo and look for opportunities to improve themselves, their classrooms, and our school overall. It's important to recognize that teachers are leaders too. They make an impact on the learning experience of their own students, but they also influence the culture and climate of a building.

The actions of teacher-leaders have impact beyond their classroom. They influence the whole school and likely have influence far beyond the school. A teacher-leader has a legacy of helping others and making the teaching profession stronger overall.

I spent some time thinking about the qualities of teacher-leaders. Maybe you will think of others to add to my list.

1. Teacher-leaders are teaching-geeks. They love to discuss pedagogy and how they can improve the learning for their students.

2. Teacher-leaders are lead learners. They seek out opportunities for professional learning from a variety of sources such as edcamps, graduate courses, or through a Twitter PLN. As principal, I consider myself a lead learners, but all of our teachers should be lead learners too.

3. Teacher-leaders seek out critical feedback. They want to know ways they can improve, and they seek out this information. We may not enjoy critical feedback, but it's necessary information for us to improve. Leaders use negative feedback to get better.

4. Teacher-leaders have a voice. In order to influence others, teacher-leaders are socially connected and respected. Their peers see them as walking-the-walk and talking-the-talk. They build relationships and friendships with their colleagues.

5. Teacher-leaders champion the work. They infuse energy into conversations about change and growth. They aren't afraid to take on new challenges or have difficult conversations.

6. Teacher-leaders ask questions. They don't automatically go along with every idea that is presented, whether from administration, central office, or the state department. But they ask questions that will create dialogue and cause thinking. They don't ask questions to tear down, destroy, or self-protect. There is a big difference!

7. Teacher-leaders serve others. They seek ways to help other teachers succeed and often put their own needs second to the needs of their students and their fellow teachers.

8. Teacher-leaders are positive. Even during negative situations, teachers who stay positive will have the greatest positive impact. It's easy to stay positive when things are going well. Leaders stay positive when it's rough.

9. Teacher-leaders stand for what's right. If something is happening in a school that is harmful to students or to learning, they will use their influence to work against the harmful action. They will even stand against administrators or fellow teachers if needed, but they will always do it in a way that is respectful and preserves dignity.

10. Teacher-leaders have purpose. They view their work as meaningful and want to be part of something bigger than themselves. As a result, school communities are made stronger by their commitment to the team.

11. Teacher-leaders take time to reflect. They think carefully about the work they do and the collective work of the school. What worked well and what are opportunities for improvement?

12. Teacher-leaders embrace change. They aren't stuck in any way of thinking but are open to listen and consider new ideas. They will try new things and share with others the results of these new possibilities. They are innovators and have a spirit of adventure.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Does Professional Dress Matter For Teachers?

This topic has been in my list to blog about for quite a while. It’s not an easy issue and not at the top of the priority list, but it is worth discussing for several reasons. First off, how people dress matters. It creates a first impression and a daily impression. Fair or not, we are judged by how we look, including how we dress. Dress can communicate a sense of importance about what we are doing and can influence the importance others perceive about our work. And since educators are too often looked upon as second-class professionals, isn’t it important to combat that image in every way possible?

You should know I don’t spend much time or energy working on teacher dress expectations (and for the most part they dress for success). I’ve written encouraging emails a few times over the years, but for the most part I’ve had other causes I’ve championed far above this one. Maybe that’s why this blog entry was worthwhile to me. While other things may be more important it doesn’t mean that an issue like this isn’t important at all. My blog gives me a platform to explore even the topics that aren’t at the forefront of my “principal agenda.”

I’ve talked with my wife about this issue more than just about anyone. She is also a teacher, but works in early childhood special education. She often reminds me of the contextual difference for elementary teachers who need to get on their students’ level. Certainly, appropriate dress is dependent on the type of work an educator is doing. She is a fashion expert in my eyes. She always looks great! One of her frustrations is the blanket prohibition on jeans. She argues that jeans can look very professional and put together when paired with a blazer and the proper accessories. I soooo love our fashion talks. :)

My perspective...
1. I want my students to know they are important enough for me to dress up to meet with them. What we are doing is important, and therefore I will dress differently for them than when I go to the store or to the movies.

2. I want my students to understand how to be successful involves making a good impression by how one presents himself or herself. That includes what we say, how we stand, eye contact, and also how we dress. We must dress appropriate to our context. In many workplaces there are specific expectations for dress. Nearly 20 years ago I was required to wear a collared shirt to my job in a grocery store. Shouldn’t teachers far exceed this standard?

3. So why don’t all teachers dress for success? I think some teachers believe that as long as I’m a good teacher (maybe even a great teacher), it doesn’t matter what I wear. Maybe they just value their personal preferences over setting a standard of excellence in this area? Some teachers may not really know how to dress for success? It was never modeled in their home as a child perhaps?

Side note: I fear there are many decisions that are made more for personal preference than for what is best for learning. Some of these have far greater consequences than teacher dress. However, we should seek to challenge all areas that are not promoting learning or improved opportunities for students.

4. I’ve observed that some of the teachers who “dress down” as much as they possibly can are also ones to complain about student dress or hold students to extremely strict “non-academic” standards. For example, when we were discussing if students should wear hats or not inside our building, some of the teachers who are most casual in their own attire were most outspoken that students should NOT be allowed to wear hats.

5. It’s not hard to see all of the assaults on the teaching profession in the media. There have been cover articles of major magazines titled, “Why we must fire bad teachers” and “Rotten Apples” that basically blast the profession. I’ve seen the profession referred to as glorified babysitting on Twitter. We have to remember that our actions can either invite criticisms of our profession or combat them. One way we can stand up for teaching is by treating our work in a professional way. We need educators representing our profession positively in every possible way, not just the ones that are natural or convenient for you.

So how should schools deal with these issues? Should we require teachers to wear suits and ties and strict business attire? I would say absolutely not. I don’t want teachers to dress professionally because they are mandated to do so. I want them to do it because they believe it will help them and help their students and make the profession more respectable.

Besides, I don’t want to have my focus as a leader on a strict dress code that will consume my time to monitor and enforce. We need some basic expectations for dress, but we need adults to choose to exceed the basic expectations. Isn’t that what we want from our students? Don’t just slide by with the least expected. Make every decision to do what is best for students, learning, and the profession.

Question: What are your thoughts on professional dress for teachers? Does it matter to you? Leave a comment or share on Facebook and Twitter.
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