Teaching overseas offers opportunity, adventure, and professional and personal growth
In the summer prior to entering middle school, I dove deep into the Choose Your Own Adventure book series. On page 11, as commander of a spaceship, I chose to put up the energy propulsion shields to try to escape a black hole; miraculously, though the propulsion system failed on page 22 and I ended my story quickly and happily in a sweet, new utopian world. Certainly, I appreciated that these stories allowed me to escape from my routine life amidst the cows and cornfields of mid-Michigan into castles, jungles, and spaceships. Even more significantly, I was enchanted by the act of making small choices that eventually led to entirely different outcomes. Simply by turning left or right, I might end up a hero or lost for dead.
Forty years later, teaching abroad continues to give me a similar sense of possibility and choice in life. Over the past 12 years, I have worked in international schools in Nepal, Morocco, and, currently, Austria. My choices—rather than an arbitrary turn to right or left—are now based on real-life considerations: financial, professional, and personal.
Twelve years ago, when I left a teaching position in the Oregon public schools to travel 180 degrees around the globe to Kathmandu, Nepal, I sought the mighty Himalayas and an immense distance from a fresh divorce. When I moved to Rabat, Morocco, I was drawn by a continent I'd never visited as well as a more streamlined teaching position. When I applied to Vienna, I knew that my rate of savings would diminish substantially, but I was certain the overall quality of life—working in arguably the world's most livable city—would rebalance the equation.
Though the decision to teach abroad is intensely personal and complex, here's a look into the opportunities and realities I faced living and working on three different continents, which may reveal considerations and insights to guide such a life-altering decision.
Exceptional Teaching Conditions
The year I left a public teaching position in Oregon, my work was split between two small suburban middle schools. I called myself the quadruple head of department because I was the only Spanish teacher and the only ESL teacher at both schools. Somehow, I enjoyed teaching, guiding, and monitoring all 35 ESL students and 50-60 students of Spanish each day. Certainly, it was better than my previous position in Portland, in which I'd taught six classes of 30 or more students every day, changing all 180 students every quarter.
Today, as an international teacher, I teach just five classes out of eight. Because I am a specialist, my classes are limited to 12 students. Mainstream classes typically hover around 16 students, but rarely number more than 20. As a result of these remarkable teaching conditions, I am able to reflect, research, differentiate, and collaborate much more frequently and effectively than I could as a US public school teacher. Though I look back with satisfaction and pride on my years teaching in Oregon, I do not think I could endure current conditions with so many students, so many external demands, and so little freedom to act as a professional.
While teaching conditions are enviable in the three private international schools in which I've worked, it's worth noting that I felt more ethically aligned and personally attuned to teaching in the inclusive and diverse US public schools. The students I teach currently are culturally and linguistically diverse, but socio-economically they are consistently the elite. Inclusion of those with significant disabilities is also extremely limited. In addition, I'm no longer teaching the fundamental language of my home country, but instead offering the opportunity to learn an additional language. My sense of essentiality as a language teacher is thus somewhat reduced; still, my responsibility to guide students towards ethical, balanced, and healthy life choices remains intact.
Professionally, my 12 years on three continents have offered abundant, satisfying career opportunities. Perhaps because the schools I've chosen have been fairly small (300 to 800 students), and because there was rather high staff turnover in Morocco and Nepal, opportunities have regularly presented themselves. I have headed the National Honor Society, served as the IB CAS coordinator, coordinated service-learning efforts, represented my middle school in our regional professional organization, and served on four visiting teams for accreditation agencies. Rather than becoming career-teachers in a single school district, most international teachers change schools every few years. There is little to no stigma tied to changing schools as long as you complete your contract.
Teaching abroad also builds in numerous opportunities to travel. Travel supported by the school for coaching, service activities, cultural opportunities, and educational conferences is frequently both an option and a mandated responsibility. This year, for example, I will travel to Copenhagen for a conference, Zurich and London to plan an educators' symposium, and to Kazakhstan as a member of an accreditation team. Bear in mind that these are school-sponsored trips, so there are work responsibilities and institutional rules to follow. Still, such opportunities to walk new horizons are frequent.
Of course, school vacations offer the freedom to pursue your own adventures. Each of my job locations has served as a useful pivot point to explore countries in the region. From Nepal, I visited Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia. From Morocco, I traveled to Malta, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Now, in Austria, I enjoy traveling up into the Alps and down to the Mediterranean coast of Italy and Croatia. My last passport was as thick as a wallet thanks to numerous visas and added pages.
Consider the Financials
There is no doubt that working abroad has increased my invested savings. Because the cost of living was so low in Nepal and Morocco, and schools in both countries covered housing costs, as a single person without debt, I was able to save more than 50% of my salary. In Austria, with housing unprovided and surrounded by tempting and costly experiences and products, my savings rate has dipped to about 30%.
While this savings rate is certainly higher than most teachers I know in the United States (and higher than many in international schools as well), it may or may not provide the same comfortable, predictable retirement that teachers with generous, consistent pension plans receive. Furthermore, my Social Security payouts will be substantially lower given that I have not paid into the fund for the bulk of my career. Finally, it's worth noting that exchange rates introduce an additional variable. Both in Nepal and Austria, the exchange rate of local currency to the dollar shifted dramatically during my stay. When converted to US dollars, my paychecks lost approximately 20% of their value. For teachers who had dollar-based debts, this was equivalent to a substantial pay cut. For those with expenses only in local currency, the shift in exchange rate made essentially no difference.
Adventure and Invigorating Life Experiences
It's true that I've trekked to Everest Base Camp, learned to scuba dive in the glass-clear waters of Thailand, and climbed high into the dunes of the Sahara. Smaller, more daily events are often equally memorable: haggling for the fisherman's prized crab each Saturday morning at the beach-side market outside Rabat, jumping rope on my rooftop terrace in Kathmandu as the sun set over the Himalayas, or listening to a concert cellist busking in the streets of Vienna.
Browsing guidebooks and websites prior to departure, it's easy to romanticize the adventures ahead. Miscalculations, missteps, and just plain bad luck are also a part of the experience. I was robbed, alone and in load-shedding darkness in Nepal. I was robbed again in Marrakech with a knife to my neck. I've been stuck several days between two flooding rivers in the Sahara without proper shelter or food. Similarly, even daily habits and routines abroad can be tiresome and disheartening. In Nepal, I used to lock myself in my bedroom each night because of the risk of burglary. Air and water pollution in Kathmandu turned tissues black and made my stomach churn. Even in charming Vienna, I daily struggle with the challenges of the German language's three forms of "the" and four grammatical cases.
Still, though these misadventures and challenging living conditions generated fear and annoyance, I feel that I have lived a wider breadth of experience, and therefore I am stronger. I know myself better because I have been stretched further. As a girl who grew up in a peaceful, safe, rural setting, I would have predicted that experiencing a robbery, alone in a foreign city at night, would have induced petrifying fear. I'm pleased to report that in both robberies, I lost my bag, but kept my wits.
Culture Comes to Life
Though perhaps not apparent on my professional resume, my time overseas has deepened my cultural understanding of the students, families, and colleagues with whom I work. With 40 to 60 nationalities represented within each of the schools I've taught, culture is no longer at risk of being presented at a food and flags level; rather, it becomes a part of daily conversations, practices, and choices. Like a wide-eyed sixth grader on the first day of middle school, I've entered each new position alert and curious about the unknown norms of the place. At the most basic level, I've learned to avoid certain cultural taboos: I always take my shoes off in an Austrian home or Gasthaus; I'll never again step over a Tibetan's outstretched legs, and I most certainly eat in private by day during Ramadan if I'm in a Muslim country. I've also learned to savor and adopt certain cultural practices. Like the Viennese, I keep my voice low in public places, and, most definitely default to discussion of vacations rather than work. Now that I live in Europe, I often keep a certain Nepali habit private, but I still love to eat with my hands. (A fork really does feel foreign, cold, and metallic in my mouth!)
As an ESL teacher, my experiences educating students from diverse language backgrounds have given me insights into the particular challenges students may face in learning English. Most Asians and Russians struggle mightily with articles, while many German speakers need focused practice differentiating their pronunciation of F and TH, V and W. The diversity of cultures in each school has also pushed me to question and justify certain teaching practices. Asian parents, for example, frequently ask me to justify a perceived lack of homework, while Scandinavians often challenge me to explain the importance of any homework. Such conversations help me clarify my own underlying beliefs rather than rely on unquestioned norms or habits.
These international experiences have also helped me look at my own culture through a lens perhaps reminiscent of my ESL students. I remember, in particular, one winter day shortly before Christmas when working in Nepal. Thais, Tibetans, Nepalis, and Japanese made up my class, and though none of them celebrated Christmas as part of their own culture, they were curious about the holiday. Off we went to the library to select some picture books on the topic. One student chose a book focused on the wonder of cutting and decorating the Christmas tree. One chose a book featuring the Three Wise Men and the birth of baby Jesus. And one chose a book on Santa Claus coming down the chimney. Needless to say, my students were even more confused about Christmas traditions after reading the three disparate books. What, after all, does Santa have to do with Jesus have to do with a decorated fir tree? Suddenly, I understood that, from an outsider's perspective, my cultural traditions could look as convoluted and illogical as the abundant Hindu gods and their various incarnations did to me.
Wherever I Go, There I Am
Though living abroad has brought me deeper into a real-life experience than most tourists encounter, I remain a foreigner in my life abroad. In Nepal and Morocco, I was immediately physically recognizable as an outsider. In Vienna, sometimes I can "pass" but my first syllable marks me as an Ausländerin. Smaller actions also reveal my identity. Sometimes, I still speak too loudly, forget the obligatory "Prost!" before the first sip of any drink, and I always use a knife poorly. In those moments, I am subtly embarrassed for myself and the tell-tale signs of my American-ness.
It can also be surprisingly hard to sink into local culture and make strong local friendships. Every work day, I pass through the walled and guarded entry to school—into a "Little America." Within these walls, staff members, textbooks, teaching strategies, conversations, grading criteria, and even the cafeteria food are all very much dominated by American culture. In Nepal, the contrast between the rutted dirt road outside the campus and the immaculate grounds within its fortified walls was so great that it made me feel that I was visiting an America Epcot Village each day.
Living abroad has also certainly stretched some of my relationships into dissolution. It has caused me to miss the funerals of my four grandparents, and to learn of my mother's cancer on Skype. At the same time, those friendships that truly count remain meaningful and vibrant.
When I go "home" each summer to Oregon, I appreciate the solid, immediate understanding built into my conversations and actions. I am liberated from maps, translators, and TripAdvisor reviews. I immediately know what to do when I get a parking ticket, and I know intuitively when shops will be open or closed. I understand cultural references and historical influences. Back in the United States, I know more clearly who I am, and how I am interpreted and perceived. Old friends know me and our shared history is spontaneously resurrected. I feel a greater sense of ease, calm, and confidence walking through the streets of Portland than I suspect I ever will in another country.
Yet Still, I've Chosen This Adventure
Four years ago, I was ready to seek a new position. After struggling with the cultural differences and developmental challenges of both Nepal and Morocco, I was ready to relax into a lifestyle that gave me certain essential freedoms that were largely unavailable in Kathmandu and Rabat. I wanted to walk alone again at night without apprehension; I wanted to ride my bike without unwanted attention; I wanted to sit alone in a cafe and feel normal. With these basics as my guiding principles, I chose a position in Vienna. Now, four years later, it seems my choice may have been such a good one, that I will stay. For the first time in my career abroad, I have signed a contract for my fifth and sixth years.
For more than a decade, I have chosen my own adventure and watched the consequences of those choices unfold. As I make my decisions, I maintain only limited control over the actual outcome; indeed, living in a foreign culture arguably yields even less accurate predictions than those made in my home culture. It is perhaps this factor—the willingness to accept and even seek out the unknown—that is at the heart of my ongoing decision to remain abroad.
Alex Dailey is a middle school EAL (English as an Additional Language) teacher at the American International School of Vienna.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2018.
Project Based Learning that takes advantage of student voice, choice, and creativity
What would middle schoolers call a "Shark Tank" style competition about the national parks? "Park Tank" of course! Last spring, seventh grade students from Hudson Middle School in northeastern Ohio presented their solutions to the invasive species problem at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP) at "Park Tank." Their audience? Teachers and peers ... and park rangers, too!
It was an authentic, real-world problem with an opportunity for student voice, choice, and creativity, and a chance for our students to make a difference in their community! This was the focus of the teachers from 7 Respect, one of our seventh grade teams, as they embarked on Project Based Learning (PBL) with their team of 110 students.
PBL, according to the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) "is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge." Energized after participating in training through BIE, one 7 Respect teacher shared her new insights with colleagues. Others on her team had attended professional development related to PBL and growth mindset, and the ideas resonated with the group. They immediately began brainstorming with their students and community in mind.
What occurred, through partnering with the neighboring national park, was a sustained inquiry for students that included
- Engagement with experts: CVNP rangers visited our school to provide background and context, presenting several authentic problems faced by the park
- Student choice in selecting their PBL problem: Students chose invasive species and determined their challenging question, "How do we educate the community about invasive species?", and students researched and planned a unique solution
- In-the-field research: Students explored the park and identified and removed invasive species (generously funded by our PTO)
- Reflection opportunities: Student groups reviewed their research and creatively solved their challenge
- A presentation: The students presented their solution to an authentic audience at "Park Tank"
Recognized by AMLE through the Collaboration Mini-Grant program, this teaching team inspired students, colleagues, and the community with their innovation and collaboration. The connection with the community is a true strength of this project: interacting with local organizations and resources, learning from and with them, and helping our students become positive, contributing citizens.
Academically, each content area was represented in the project design, so students mastered standards in an interdisciplinary approach when they needed to and because they needed to. Students had a why for learning. Through this connected and real-life project, the team sought to, as George Couros urged in Innovator's Mindset, "spark a curiosity that empowers students to learn on their own. To wonder. To explore. To become leaders."
Because PBL encourages students to be "active, not passive" in "a project that engages their hearts and minds, and provides real-world relevance for learning," (Buck Institute), we are grateful that our school district values training for teachers, not only in PBL, but in creating learning environments that foster perseverance, grit, and hope. Throughout our district, teachers have moved beyond closed-ended questioning to more open-ended challenges that promote collaboration, creativity, communication, and critical thinking. As our students participated in this partnership with the CVNP, they learned these crucial life skills while deeply furthering their understanding of academic concepts such as invasive species, survival of organisms, life cycles, statistics, communication, migration and invasion, and the environment.
In the end, we found what we already knew to be true: Our students are amazing! They are creative, critical thinkers who have a passion to make a difference in the world. Their ideas ranged from organizing a 5k run, to designing t-shirts, to establishing a fundraiser with a local restaurant, to designing hiking stick badges to be earned by volunteering to remove privet (an invasive species), all the way to creating a virtual hike through the park so all people, even those with physical challenges, could enjoy the beauty of the park.
The CVNP has been a wonderful resource for the local community for more than 100 years. Through the AMLE grant and other grant funding, the team's partnership with the CVNP has continued this year and will continue in the future. As the park looks to remain a relevant environmental space in the future, the types and manner of partnerships are abundant for our students in the coming years, and we look forward to new opportunities for our students to make a difference.
If you are considering PBL or supporting others who are, John Larmer, editor in chief at the Buck Institute for Education, suggested, "If you're not quite ready to launch your first project, begin laying the groundwork—for your students and to get used to it yourself—by using driving questions to frame a unit; giving up some control and encouraging more student voice and choice; asking students to conduct inquiry; focusing on real-world applications of content. Many PBL practices are just plain good teaching."
We have found that the beauty of PBL at the middle school level is that teachers have the support and encouragement of their teaching team, and classes filled with young adolescents who have the desire—and ability—to make a difference in the world!
Middle school educators share a belief that students "deserve for us to bring our best, to be crazy about them, to believe in them, and to inspire them in new ways" (from Culturize: Every Student. Every Day. Whatever It Takes, J. Casas, 2017). It's comforting to know that we are all working toward this goal together. When we are learning and trying new things for our students, we especially need a team of people who support one another, share with one another, challenge one another, and build one another up so our students can have our very best every single day.
We are appreciative of AMLE for supporting this group of middle school teachers, and middle school teachers around the world, in their commitment to empower students, and to connect students and the community through real-world learning!
Kimberly Cockley, PhD, is principal of Hudson Middle School in Hudson, Ohio.
Published March 2018.
Applications for the AMLE Collaboration Mini-Grant
, sponsored by the AMLE Foundation Fund, are accepted each year through April 15.
Putting standards in place for collaboration to prepare students for the workplace
Collaboration. The buzzword that gets crowned as one of the most important student skills. It has emerged as one of the major components of 21st century learning. The idea of collaboration is far from new, and the importance of it has been well stated in frameworks that inform teachers which major skills should be emphasized during curriculum planning.
Oddly, this is a skill that people struggle to define. It's described using words such as teamwork, cooperation, group work, and my personal favorite, "being nice." Although these words may fit into collaboration, I believe collaboration is a bit nebulous, and educators need more insight on exactly what it entails.
Teacher Lindsay Price does a fantastic job of bringing to light some of the differences that exist amongst the aforementioned list of words. Teamwork and groupwork are built around individuals who contribute to the whole. It is centered around a singular leader who can take control and guide the group in the direction they need to go.
Collaboration, on the other hand, is defined by individuals thinking and working together. There is no defined leader, but rather a shared vision. The hallmark of collaboration is flexibility. Group members are constantly reshaping their ideas together while assuming various roles in the process.
The importance of collaboration has been echoed by business leaders, as found in current research on valuable professional skills in today's workplace. A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) had hiring managers rank the skills they deem most important when hiring new employees. The results showed that the most desirable trait sought by hiring managers was collaboration abilities. According to Alison Doyle, "Virtually every imaginable job in today's workplace entails at least some joint effort by team members in order to accomplish goals, making cooperation an essential skill in most sectors of the work world." Although Doyle is addressing cooperation, I believe her sentiment is directly related to collaboration, because collaboration at its very core is amplified by positive cooperation and dampened by lack thereof. This should speak volumes to any stakeholder in education.
During my time as a middle school science educator, I have seen multiple examples of students struggling to work together, let alone be in the same room with one another. For example, when students are divided into groups, the first critique usually sounds something like this: "I don't want to be with her. She and I can't work together." Or once they do get placed into groups I tend to overhear these types of sentiments from students: "He is being so bossy. He won't even let us help." These recurring statements pushed me to think about reasons students have a hard time collaborating with one another. I believe it comes down to a lack of respect, communication, and accountability. Although these reasons may directly relate to the students, I believe the problem starts with our current standards and lack of assessment frameworks in the area of collaboration.
When searching the Common Core or Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) websites, it came as a shock to find very little on collaboration. The only standards that explicitly state the development of collaboration are found in the speaking and listening strands of the English Language Arts (ELA) section of Common Core. Collaboration is also mentioned in the Next Generation Science Standards, but only implicitly. It is also curious that it is only indirectly stated as a connection to Common Core ELA standards for grades K-2.
The NGSS standards do not even make direct reference to collaboration after Grade 2. The only other way that collaboration may be seen as part of the NGSS standards is found in appendix H of the website that talks about science as a human endeavor. Even then, there is no clear description of how collaboration is used in the field of science.
There seems to be an incongruence between what is expected from students and what is needed in the professional world, and I believe part of this is linked to the lack of collaboration standards. Without explicit standards or frameworks to help students develop collaboration skills, we are doing students a disservice. Any stakeholder in the field of education needs to understand that there is a blatant gap in our standards. We need to realign what and how we are teaching with the current needs that exist for students after they graduate.
I want to bring forth a call to action. Let's sit down and agree on what collaboration means and strategize about how we can sharpen collaboration skills in the classroom. I believe that once we create a working set of subskills for collaboration, we should outline how those subskills can be developed through various types of assessment.
The last step of the process should include communicating ideas. We need to share what worked in the classroom, what didn't work, and why. The process will take time to gain footing, yet this cause is worth the growing pains.
Going forward it will be essential to maintain the discussion around collaboration in the classroom. We know it is a crucial part of everyday life, so it is time we take purposeful action to put collaboration standards in place to help guide educators and, as a result, serve our students.
Andy Landburg is a science teacher at Valley Middle School, Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Published March 2018.
Oral history project engages students and builds family and community connections
Using a microfilm machine for the first time…
Watching a local news broadcast from the mid-nineties about the Blizzard of '93...
Holding an authentic newspaper from 1941…
Facetiming across the Pacific Ocean, bridging generations, cultures, and language…
Visiting the largest library in Pittsburgh to conduct research...
Becoming published authors of an iBook downloaded across 4 continents...
These were just a few of the unique learning experiences for our eighth graders last year and this year on Team Heinz at North Hills Middle School. Connecting with family members and with others in their community or around the world is not something that one normally gets to do in a middle school setting. Yet, frankly, this is one experience that we both envy.
Both of us were not fortunate enough to be able to gather stories from those who lived through historic events. One of us did get to interview his 95-year-old-grandmother about her experiences as a member of the Women's Army Corps during World War II, yet the other one of us regrets not talking with her own grandmother about life during the Great Depression.
A summer conversation led the two of us to discuss our upcoming collaborative research unit and how we could change it so students could make connections such as these and insert their own voice alongside a larger narrative. Although our students live in an interconnected world, they sometimes struggle to connect with those who are closest to them.
We decided to help our students build a bridge to the past while obtaining 21st century skills they can use in the future. A bonus to this effort is that they would become worldwide publishers of content.
Last fall, our middle school became a 1:1 iPad school, which gave us hope that our idea could actually come to fruition. Our middle school has a previously established framework to support effective teaming and collaboration, so we, as the English and social studies teachers, had long collaborated on our grade level research project. We had both beamed with pride while writing lengthy prompts with long-winded phrases and twenty-dollar adjectives, yet, upon greater reflection, had little to no meaningful connection to our eighth grade students. We simplified by asking a basic yet profound question, "How do historical events impact individual stories?"
Prior to the December holiday break, students learned about the project. They were to take time during the break to connect with relatives and figure out what significant event they would want to research and who they would want to interview. After the break, students watched oral history interviews as guides and began to write their interview questions in our classes. They then connected with their family or community member and conducted their interview.
With the assistance of our library/media specialist and special education teacher, students then researched and cited the historical events that their person lived through and prepared to integrate their interviews and research into a cohesive explanatory essay that was meaningful and met and exceeded the Pennsylvania Core Standards.
Many students went above and beyond with their projects. Several students elected to interview grandparents and great-grandparents on the topic of the Great Depression and World War II. The Vietnam War was one of the more prominent topics as well. Still, some students reached out to family members around the world, with one student interviewing a relative about the first post-apartheid election in South Africa, while another interviewed her grandfather about living under Mao during many of his reforms.
Some topics included significant tragedies including a professor at Kent State during the 1970 shootings, a Holocaust survivor now living in Washington state, a father fleeing Vietnam during the war, a New York City emergency call center employee on 9/11, and a Washington, D.C. air traffic controller on September 11, 2001, just to name a few.
Some topics offered local connections, including the closing of a local theme park that was a major part of the community, a record-setting blizzard in the city, the decline of the steel industry, and how flooding impacted the region at various times.
No matter the topic, students reported an underlying theme: they became more connected to those they interviewed and took a greater interest in their topics. The apathy we saw while the students researched topics concerning the westward expansion era of our country was now gone, and engagement and interest took its place.
Students actively combined "old school" and "new school" research methods, used historical thinking skills to locate archived magazines and newspapers in digital formats, analyzed database sources, discussed photos and old VHS footage with their interviewees, and brilliantly infused their primary source interviews into their research.
Our roles in this project was that of guides of historical research and oral history, and on the educational technology side, developing and releasing our class iBooks. Last year's four volumes were released on the Apple iBooks Store in April 2017, and our next volume will be published in April 2018.
Students certainly took ownership of their own learning, while being guided by us, their families, and our community. The community stepped up as well to contribute to student learning, which was refreshing for us all.
We were fortunate to be able to complete this project a second time with the assistance of the AMLE Collaboration Mini-Grant. With these funds our students visited the largest library in Pittsburgh and found sources and specialized expertise that they could have only discovered at a major research library. We were also able to purchase much-needed equipment to aid in recording.
While the project was certainly a success last year, this grant allowed us to offer our students an experience that they never would have had otherwise.
It will come full circle when the students "give back" to the community members who assisted them as we work on creating our second iBook series that archives the audio of astounding stories and personal contributions to our local, national, and world history. A bridge was truly built using oral history, primary source research, a team of educators, and a grant provided by AMLE.
Joe Welch is a National Board Certified Teacher and Apple Distinguished Educator who teaches eighth grade history at North Hills Middle School, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Vicki Truchan is a National Board Certified Teacher who teaches eighth grade English at North Hills Middle School, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Published March 2018.
Applications for the AMLE Collaboration Mini-Grant, sponsored by the AMLE Foundation Fund, are accepted each year through April 15.
Helping you achieve work-life balance
Last September, Eva waited impatiently at the copier, her blood pressure rising as she realized she would be late for class yet again. She could barely make eye contact with her colleagues, her aggravation impeding any casual conversation.
At a staff meeting that afternoon, Eva overheard two teachers talking about their foray into mindfulness. She skeptically listened to them describe deep breathing and other relaxation techniques. Although she couldn't imagine sitting around meditating, she recognized that her stress level wasn't sustainable and she wanted to make a change.
By the time February arrives, many educators feel like Eva. We have survived the frenetic start of a new school year and juggled the holiday madness with work and family demands. But as we settle into a more natural rhythm, we start to feel the fatigue that comes with the monotony of winter. As we all strive to achieve the elusive work-life balance, mindfulness strategies can help us stay centered, focused on the present, and better equipped to deal with the inevitable bumps in the road.
When we put our own oxygen masks on first, everyone benefits. We become less reactive educators, better friends, calmer parents, and more giving colleagues. Here are ten mindfulness strategies educators can use at school and at home.
Put lost time to work for you
Whether we are waiting in a grocery line, for the copier, or at a stoplight, we can take advantage of any found time to be mindful. This might mean tightening and releasing our muscles, taking a trip to an imaginary happy place, or simply noticing the details of our natural surroundings.
Educators have very little time to pause between classes or before responsibilities such as bus duty. We are so busy, we may not even notice when we need to use the restroom. Even scattered moments can be transformed into structured mindfulness sessions. Eva chose to join her colleagues for an after-school staff-led mindfulness group. In just 15 minutes, she was able to disconnect from the stress of her workday and feel emotionally ready to enjoy her family.
Make the most of mealtimes
We can set aside the ungraded papers and the unread emails and concentrate on the simple act of chewing. Although we may have mere minutes to scarf down our lunch during the school day, it doesn't take much time to mindfully focus on our food. Take care to notice the smells, the texture, and whether it's crunchy or salty. Often, we multitask as we eat. When we dine with family or friends, we can practice the art of slowing down and really listening to each other.
Have an attitude of gratitude
Practicing gratitude reduces stress. At the Campbell Soup Company, the CEO spent a small portion of every day writing notes of gratitude to his thousands of employees. Regardless of our role in the building, we do more than just please individuals through acts like these. We also create a positive work climate in which people feel valued. When we feel appreciated, we are more likely to treat others kindly. There are many ways to incorporate gratitude in schools. We can provide opportunities for staff to thank one another, whether through bulletin boards, personal notes, or newsletter shout-outs. This can be done any time, even informally.
Stretch beyond yoga
We tend to think of yoga first when we talk about mindful exercise, but any sport can be performed in a mindful way. We can bring awareness to our bodies in space, the rhythm of our footsteps, or the sounds of our equipment making contact with a ball. We might consider removing our earbuds to focus on the natural sounds in the environment.
Tweet and text mindfully
Technology is an area ripe for mindful behavior. We spend so much time checking emails, tweeting, texting, using apps, and surfing the Internet. We can follow Twitter feeds devoted to mindfulness. We can download breathing and meditation apps, and we can use our phones to set reminders to take a pause and slow our frenetic pace. It's equally important that we establish technology-free time.
Utilize your senses
Whether we are holding an object and describing its properties, noticing the sun against our skin, or savoring the taste of our morning coffee, connecting with our senses brings us into the moment. We can listen to music mindfully, focusing on either the lyrics or the rhythm or even a particular instrument. When we enter a room, we can take in subtle details we might normally miss.
Find your inner child
Drawing isn't just for kids; nowadays, adults can find a variety of mandala coloring books for relaxation. We can play Jenga with our students or our own children, and toss balls or use yoyos. We can make stress balls using balloons and flour, or we can swat the balloons, imagining that they represent specific worries. We can use visual imagery to go on a magic carpet ride, or play with putty or pizza dough, concentrating on how they feel in our hands.
Every classroom needs a little glitter
We can bring small moments of mindfulness to our classrooms. We can shake homemade glitter jars to mark transition times. We can use chimes to draw kids' attention or to do sound awareness exercises. We can ask them to rate their stress on a 1-10 scale, then turn on music for a 90-second dance party. After they get a chance to move around, they can reassess their stress level.
Don't forget to breathe
We all can do breathing exercises. Kids can focus on their breath using bubbles, Hoberman spheres, or apps. We can even have them hold real or imaginary hot cocoa, alternately inhaling the smell and exhaling to cool it off. No one needs any special supplies to breathe, but we do need to practice so we can access different techniques when faced with stressful situations.
With practice, these strategies do more than help us relax. When we take the time to center ourselves, we build our capacity for empathy and feel an increased sense of gratitude for the little things.
On a recent commute home, Eva was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. As she felt that first surge of stress, she realized she had a choice. She could let her exasperation dictate her state of mind, or she could use the time to ease the transition between work and home. Instead of anxiously checking her watch, she turned on calming music and focused on the lyrics.
As she peered out her rearview mirror, Eva became aware that her active choice to be mindful had freed her from both the endless line of cars and the emotional remnants of a demanding workday.
Rebecca Best, LPC is a school counselor at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda, MD
Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post. She is the author of Middle School Matters (Da Capo Press, forthcoming 2019).
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2018.
Advocating for this important role in education
Myths come in all shapes and sizes, from UFOs in Roswell and Elvis in Vegas, to whether a tomato belongs in the fruit or vegetable section of a market. Yet, most unexplained phenomena are straightforward; you either agree or you don't. Why then when educators are asked to explain the role or purpose of teacher leaders is there such hesitancy, resistance, even confusion? Why does a school need teacher leaders? Doesn't the principal just tell everyone what to do?
Teacher leaders are often tasked with school-level responsibilities such as mentoring new hires, rolling out adopted curriculum, attending meeting after meeting after meeting, and stepping in as pseudo-administrators in a pinch. Additionally, the title may be used synonymously with curriculum coach, team leader, department head, grade level chair, role model, teacher-in-charge, or "Carrie-Catch-All." However, throughout the menagerie of descriptors and job titles the underlying assumption is that teacher leaders possess a multitude of talents and skills and will rise to a calling to best serve the school.
Whether a teacher has an extensive list of accomplishments and is eager to share with the next generation of educators, or a new staff member readily embraces opportunities to enhance a learning environment, teacher leaders provide foundational structures and supports at the school, district, and state levels. However, blurred lines still exist when perceptions of what a teacher leader is or what a teacher leader is not comes into play. Below are myths often associated with teacher leadership and clarifying points advocating for this pivotal role in education.
Myth 1: Teachers need permission to be leaders.
Educators are inquisitive and perpetual learners with a curiosity that drives the desire to seek out resources, best practices, and growth opportunities to share with others. It's second nature to learn together, which is why effective teachers will often transition seamlessly to effective leaders, modeling lifelong learning when given the chance. So how does it begin? Where does a teacher interested in pursuing leadership opportunities go for support and experience if not readily identified or aligned with traditional leadership routes? It's as simple as finding one's own homegrown interest.
Kellee Kelly (@khapa79) of Kea'au, Hawaii found her spark when she realized she could be a catalyst for change without a traditional title. Through the local teacher's union, she applied for a newly developed Teacher Leader Initiative program, which enables educators to spread their wings and take risks through a variety of avenues. According to Kelly, "You don't need permission. Apply for a grant, join one of the teacher leader groups represented, give testimony. Do what you feel is right for students!" Kelly took initiative without bucking a system or disrupting any line of authority. She simply stepped into roles that allowed her to grow as a professional and model for others what teacher leadership can look like.
Myth 2: Young, new teachers are not capable of leading.
Hierarchal structures often require a specified number of years served or dues paid before one is elevated to leadership status. Why is that? Does quantity really trump quality when it comes to effective practices? How can innovative and enthusiastic novices break down barriers or stigmas associated with being new? And, can young leaders be valued and respected in the same way as their veteran counterparts? Abrams and von Frank (2014) posed the question, "What do we do for [Millennials] since they are so much younger than those they will be leading?" to bridge the conversation gap between generations. And, how do we break down barriers or update beliefs hinged on outdated practices?
The mindset associated with experiential levels needs to change in order to reap the benefits from teacher leaders willing to step forward. Anya Nazaryan (@anya_nazaryan), a Teach for America (TFA) graduate and middle level teacher at Kealakehe Intermediate, found her voice and purpose while serving in a school on the Big Island of Hawaii. Encouraged by a supportive administrator, Nazaryan began dipping her toe into leadership waters by sharing success stories with peers and inviting others to join projects and events focused on student success. Additionally, by taking the initiative to revive AVID programming at her current school, she demonstrated commitment, determination, and investment for stakeholders involved. This bold step helped Nazaryan build credibility with her often older and more seasoned colleagues.
Myth 3: Teachers have to be ready to jump into a leadership position.
How are readiness levels for leaders determined? Does one need to include a laundry list of exemplars on a resume to be ready? Do higher-ups preview aptitude of leader wannabes through a crystal ball? Can an individual be ready to learn but not ready to lead, and how would we know? And, when do teachers determine if they are ready to take the leap into leadership?
Tracey Idica (@TraceyIdica) secondary teacher in Aiea, Hawaii, had never perceived the notion of teacher leadership when she looked into the National Board Certified Teachers (NBCT) program. However, interested in expanding her craft while following the journey of colleagues pursuing the endorsement, Idica set her sights on growing as a learner, without realizing she was also flourishing as a peer leader. Once she obtained her own NBCT status, she was motivated to help others pursue the same opportunity within her school, district, and state. Idica's philosophy stems from key National Board Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS, n.d.) propositions to guide her work: "Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience" and "Teachers are members of learning communities." Educators participating in the NBCT program fine-tune and hone their expertise while building capacity as teacher leaders in order to pay it forward to their ready-or-not colleagues.
Myth 4: Teachers need positional authority to impact change.
Position or status does not necessarily determine one's ability to impact change. Inspired by the work of Frederick Hess who encourages "cage-busting" teacher leaders to rethink the "there's-nothing-we-can-do" mindset, Hope Street Fellows begin with "'What do we want to do?' and then make it happen" (Hess, 2015). Kelly Miyamura (@HSG808), Honolulu, Hawaii and Michael Kline (@mkline999), Kilauea, Hawaii work within a community of teacher leaders who share effective actions employed by Hope Street Fellows in Hawaii. Initiatives include facilitating focus groups to collect data that inform decision making about Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS); administering a statewide survey to promote career readiness programming for K-12 classrooms; developing shared partnerships between teachers, administrators, and school-level stakeholders on all the islands; and leading opportunities to amplify teacher voice to inform education policy.
Teacher leadership is an exciting and expanding asset to the field of education. Opportunities for personal and professional growth have evolved from individual professional development courses to action research projects and community-based learning experiences. The question is no longer if teacher leadership should be an option for schools and districts, but how stakeholders will capitalize on the evolving roles of teacher leaders to promote student success. According to Jack Welch, "Before you are a leader, success is about growing yourself; When you become a leader, success is about growing others." The mindset of teacher leaders models the same philosophy as lifelong learners invite peers to join in the process of growing, while impacting change within the profession.
Myths about any profession can hinder the growth and advancement of its members when perceptions are deeply ingrained. However, the landscape of education continues to evolve, and educators are recognized more for their innovation and contributions to the field today than for the apples on their desks of yesteryear. The Loch Ness monster may continue to elude onlookers, but one does not have to look far to see the impact teacher leaders are making in our schools now!
Abrams, J., & von Frank, V.A. (2014). The multigenerational workplace: Communicate, collaborate & create community. Corwin, Thousand Oaks, CA.
Cameli, S. (2016) What is a teacher leader? Retrieved from http://tlahawaii.blogspot.com/2016/01/what-is-teacher-leader.html
Hess, F.M. (2015). The cage busting feacher (pp. 14, 19). Harvard Press, Cambridge, MA.
National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS, n.d.). The five core propositions. Retrieved from http://boardcertifiedteachers.org/about-certification/five-core-propositions.
Welch, J. (n.d.) Jack Welch quotes. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/3770.Jack_Welch.
Sandy Cameli, Ed.D., an educational specialist for the Hawaii Department of Education, currently facilitates Na Kumu Alaka'i - Teacher Leader Academy (TLA) and publishes its blog: http://tlahawaii.blogspot.com/. The TLA program is a member of the Hawaii Teacher Leader Network (HTLN): http://teacherleaders.wixsite.com/hawaii, which works to provide a variety of opportunities and supports for teacher leaders
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2018.
Inspire student interest and positive attitudes toward math
Four hundred years ago Galileo Galilei observed that "Mathematics is the language with which God has written the Universe." The "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics," in the words of famous physicist Eugene Wigner, has been and continues to be incredibly successful in describing the world around us, from the movement of atoms to the Big Bang, from the spread of diseases to political election predictions. Mathematics is a universal language because it has no border: a formula or a proof is the same in any corner of the Earth and for anybody in the world whatever verbal tongue they use in their daily life. And because mathematics as we know it now has been created across centuries—and in fact millennia—of hard work and inspiration by cultures and scholars across the globe, it is truly a shared, common tool that is not owned by a single civilization. It belongs to all.
Adding a little history of the various mathematical ideas to classroom discussions whenever time permits is a way to cherish and celebrate mathematics' universal foundations. What child doesn't enjoy the story of the number zero, a most unusual number conceived in the Indian subcontinent and spread around the world by the Arab traders or the Al-Khwarizmi geometric proof of the "completing the square" method for solving quadratic equations, a method otherwise so dry and abstract? In addition, the history of mathematics, with its wealth of elegant concepts and proofs, colorful characters, and interesting stories, can inspire students' interest and enhance positive attitude towards learning math.
At the same time, we can leverage mathematics' global reach with relevant, authentic, real life examples from other parts of the world or cultural contexts. As we strive to graduate globally minded, competent problem solvers and citizens of the world, mathematics can provide plenty of opportunities to foster and reinforce the 21st century skills of creativity, critical and higher-order thinking, breadth of knowledge, interpersonal skills, and dependability (https://www.brookings.edu/research/skills-for-a-changing-world/, May 19, 2016). Today I would like to share some of the projects and resources I have used and look forward to hearing readers' ideas, suggestions, advice, and recommendations.
Many curricular and extra-curricular occasions at our school, such as Mini-mester and Out of the Box (OTB) Days, promote interdisciplinary and experiential learning opportunities that are enriched by, and encourage the development of, global competencies in math. During Latin America Day we concentrate on the Mayan numerical system to learn about different base numerical systems (including decimal and binary) and introduce the way computers communicate with each other. During the Golden Age of Islam OTB Day we explore the contributions of Arab mathematicians or we look at geometric patterns, tessellations, and transformations. For Africa Day we are planning a Market Day funded with microcredits and possibly connected with the online lending platform Kiva. We have been studying freshwater scarcity and walking for water in the Water Mini-mester and explored sustainability and cryptography in other Mini-mester courses, to name a few opportunities. All these topics and projects can be integrated in the regular math classroom any time the appropriate skills and concepts need to be studied or reinforced.
Technology can be useful for cultivating global mindedness. Tools like Google Earth and Google Maps can foster and exercise spatial thinking. "Students' skills in visualizing and reasoning about spatial relationships are fundamental in geometry" (NCTM Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, 2000, pg. 237); they are essential in many fields, and crucial in any STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) discipline. And while there is evidence of a gender gap in this area (I teach in an all-girls school), there is also evidence that they can be improved with practice.
Incidentally, there are plenty of lesson plans available online, and Google provides a website for using its mapping tools in education that includes tutorials and lesson plans. The following are a few examples of how I have used Google Earth:
- Coordinates – Cartesian coordinates are just the beginning! It is fun for the students to find interesting places on Earth and record the coordinates and vice versa starting with coordinates and seeing where they land. (Scavenger hunts are a big hit and there are plenty of ready-made examples in the resources listed above.) Mathematically, a lesson like this opens the opportunity to talk about different types of coordinates, different ways to map a surface, and even different types of surfaces that need to be mapped.
- Measuring distances, calculating ratios, and making maps – The (Google) map of Chicago is extremely useful when drawing a map on scale for the book Divergent and the areas where the different factions live.
- Geometry of solids and polyhedra – Create a building tour of famous, interesting, original buildings around the world on Google Earth and deconstruct each complex shape as the composition of various simple solids.
Another tech tool that fosters a global outlook in the math class is Gapminder, a website provided by a non-profit foundation that promotes the achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals through understanding of statistics about social, economic, and environmental development at local, national, and global levels. At the beginning of our small statistics unit, a look at what Hans Rosling does with statistics and how many layers of information his graphs display is a great reminder of the power of visualization and of current world knowledge.
Statistical literacy can be encouraged by reading articles in high quality magazines (like The Economist, NewScientist, and Scientific American) and newspapers (The New York Times (its Upshot section, in particular), The Washington Post, etc.). Online print and digital publishing software tools allowed my students to create a couple of STEM magazines out of their summaries. The students really enjoyed this project because the articles were appealing to them, they had the freedom to choose what they were most interested in, and they could be as creative as they wanted to be in formatting their article page.
For another project, each student in my classes interviewed a woman in mathematics/STEM and wrote an essay about her, which was later entered in a contest organized by the Association of Women in Mathematics. The women they talked about (and their stories) were inspirational for me as well as for the girls, and because of the diversity of our schools, they came from around the world: South Africa, China, Russia, Argentina, Thailand, Italy, USA, Bangladesh, India, etc. For easy sharing, I compiled their essays in two websites to give the students an idea of their collective achievement and allow them to enjoy each other's work and share it with their families.
Finally there is the entire field of social justice and equity, about which there are many great resources online including on the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics website. One of the most important ways to generate empathy is simply sharing correct information and letting it sink in, as ignorance and distorted information can be powerful bases of prejudice and bigotry. In particular, democracy is an important global issue and math is well-suited as a discussion item in this area. For example, students discover there are several ways of counting votes and that depending on the counting method the winner can be different.
The students are flabbergasted by this result, and realize the necessity to understand the set of counting rules in depth, to monitor them carefully, and to keep them stable for the duration of the election once the election has started. The students are even more surprised (and also have a great time) when they play the re-districting game and realize that a mapmaker can have an outsized effect on an election through redistricting. The game allows them to actually redraw the map of a voting district to accommodate the wishes of the chairman of a party if they are careful enough and follow some basic rules. There is a lot to learn to protect our democracy and democracy around the world. Or, as Sam Wang (professor of neuroscience at Princeton) puts it in his New York Times article, let math save our democracy!
I would like to end with a quick mention of Games for Change, a collection "of social impact games that serve as critical tools in humanitarian and educational efforts." The website, useful for interdisciplinary and STEM exploration, carries a great variety of games, all with a socially conscious, "gaming-for-good" bend—from trying to understand the global refugee experience to realizing how individual "harmless" preferences can create a harmful world or institution. Most of these games are free, and there is some research that shows that practicing positive behavior in a game setting pays real-life dividends.
As the Asia Society so cogently puts it, "math helps students make sense of the world;" it "enables them to make contributions to the global community … and to solve complex problems in a complex world …. The global era will demand these skills of its citizens—the education system should provide its students the wherewithal to be proficient in them."
Alessandra King is a mathematics teacher and middle school mathematics coordinator for Holton-Arms School, an independent school for girls in grades 3-12 in Bethesda, Maryland.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, Febuary 2018.
Why we should give full credit for assignments not turned in on time
Every day 200 students file into my language arts classroom. When I give a writing assignment, spending just five minutes commenting on each paper is a 1000 minute –or 16 hour—investment. That is for just one assignment. I feel like I am constantly behind in my work (because I am!), but here is the really crazy part: I take late work. I even give full credit for those assignments not turned in on time.
The Big Picture
Some students have really good reasons why they did not submit an assignment on time. The team on which I teach is assigned all of the English language learners in the building. Many of these students have responsibilities after school that afford them no extra time in which to do school work: they care for younger siblings; work in order to contribute to the household income; cook for their working parent(s), etc. Quite often these students do not have the resources necessary to complete their assignments on time. Many of these students come to school worried about their immigration status, subtly asking questions about college opportunities for their cousin who came to the United States from another country. Add all of that adult stress to a language barrier, and it simply amazes me that these students do as well as they do in school.
There are other students who do not have any reason at all for their late work other than they forgot, or the dog ate it, or I left it in my locker. But truthfully, whatever the excuse, it does not really matter to me. All students are allowed to turn in late work—no matter how valid or invalid, good or bad, truthful or deceptive the reasons. Late work is accepted from all of my students. With that said, this does not mean that students are not held accountable for their responsibility in turning an assignment in on time—they absolutely are. I just care more about my students learning the material that I was hired to teach them than I do about these same students turning in their assignments on time.
Recently I discussed these ideas with a new friend, and she mentioned that it reminded her of a little book that she often shares with pre-service teachers called Mr. Devore's Do-Over by David Puckett. The book is an effective reminder that sometimes students (especially middle level students) learn on a different continuum than the one the teacher originally planned. Mr. Devore is intuitive enough to recognize that his students are individuals who are motivated differently. After all, middle level students are full of gifts and talents that they are only beginning to discover, and it is up to the teacher to provide the learning environment that is structured enough to nurture these gifts and talents, rigorous enough for depth of knowledge, yet flexible enough to provide every opportunity for every student to succeed.
Before I lose you as a reader, I absolutely do not advertise to my students that they can choose their deadlines. I have due dates, set high standards, and then choose to administer grace. Being compassionate means choosing the student first. Compassion chooses kindness over anger, and it chooses to make a person's life easier, not harder. Truthfully, since I have already pre-decided to accept late work—no matter what—I do not get frustrated with excuses given by students because I have already decided how I will respond.
With this policy, you may wonder just how I hold students accountable. When entering grades into our grading program, if a student is missing an assignment, I enter a 0 with an m code for missing. It is up to the student to request the missing assignment in writing through our online learning management system, giving the reason that the work is missing. Parents automatically receive all messages from the student to the teacher and from the teacher to the student. In other words, parents are aware of their children's missing work because their children have told them through a message to me. My philosophy is that it is my job to teach the students language arts, and it is the parent's job to teach their children responsibility. And yet, isn't asking for missing work in itself a type of responsibility?
I did not always have this philosophy. There were many, many years that I would not bend on the due date. I was determined to teach these students responsibility, which would be demonstrated by their prompt attention to their assignment due dates. It did not matter what these students were going through, what was happening at home, or if they had even eaten that day. I was more concerned with being personally inconvenienced by having to grade an assignment late. I chose myself over my students, and in doing so sent them a message that if they did not learn the material on my timeline, then they would not learn it at all.
Differentiating and Enabling
Every year teachers expect to receive a batch of students who learn differently. This is why we take classes in college that train us how to accommodate students who learn with auditory strengths, kinesthetic strengths, and visual strengths. Students also come with different types of motivation. Some are intrinsically motivated—those are the students who learn for the joy of learning. Others are extrinsically motivated—these students can be a bit tougher to reach. But the bottom line is that teachers differentiate instruction to best meet the individual student's needs. By doing so, teachers enable their students to learn.
Additionally, teachers expect there will be students who need extra attention (I bet you are thinking of someone right now!). This year that student for me is James. James is chronically absent, has never met his father, lives with a mother who cannot hold down a job, and comes to school smelling dirty. To make matters worse, James got a concussion at the beginning of the year: the perfect excuse—with a doctor's signature—to not do any school work. If I chose to enforce our school district's absence policy regarding homework, James would have a 0 in my class right now. Instead, I choose to accept late work. I faithfully gather up assignments that he has missed and make sure he understands what to do. Sometimes it is weeks past a due date that I finally receive an assignment from James. But, James has a C in my class. It is a grade that James has earned by learning, and he is proud of it. It is the best grade that he has right now, and he is determined not to lose it. By doing something as simple as accepting late work, I am able to breathe life and hope into a student like James who will simply be lost if not given second, third, and fourth chances. Some may criticize this philosophy by saying that I am enabling poor habits. I disagree ... I believe I am enabling my students to learn by differentiating the timeline on the learning continuum.
The Bigger Picture
I decided to become a teacher 25 years ago because I wanted to help make people's lives better. I get to teach reading and writing, and when students learn to do these things, it gives them the tools they need for an incredible life. I want to be an inspiring person who leads my students to reach higher than they ever thought they could reach. Sometimes it takes students a little longer to achieve those skills than I would like, but at the end of the day, how I am measured as a teacher is not whether my students turned in every assignment on time. Some would measure my teaching by how well my students can read and write as determined by state tests, but I think there is more. State tests cannot measure the brightness of the lightbulb that finally burns in the eyes of a student who submits their work consistently late, but it is submitted none-the-less. I believe the greater measure of my success is when my students trust that I will meet them where they are, and no matter what the timeline, I will be their teacher.
Rebecca Brock teaches eighth grade language arts at Westfield Middle School in Westfield, Indiana. She has taught for 25 years.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, Feburary 2018.
The social, intellectual, emotional, and physical needs of middle schoolers
The Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) emphasizes that attending to the social, intellectual, emotional, and physical needs and assets of middle school children is central to their intellectual development. As middle level teacher educators, it has become apparent to us that there is great diversity in how teachers attend to these, if at all. Further, as parents of middle school children, we have insight into how middle school student needs and assets are addressed.
In this article, we view the middle school experience through the eyes of one boy. This is not meant to neglect girls. We have chosen to focus on a boy’s experience because as parents of middle school boys, we feel most qualified.
We constructed this diary of a typical seventh grade school day from a fictitious boy’s experience based on what we have observed and heard from our own children. In closing, we discuss the major features of the middle school child’s experience that deserve further attention from practitioners.
Thursday, September 17
Well, the first few weeks of seventh grade aren’t so bad. Last year, I was pretty nervous about starting middle school. The first day was kind of confusing. In middle school we have to switch classes, and we have lockers. Some of the eighth graders seemed big and scary. I feel more used to it now. I’m in seventh grade and I’m not as low as a sixth grader, but the eighth graders still pick on us. Jameel was book-checked yesterday by an eighth grader. That is when someone smacks down really hard on your books when you are carrying them and they all fall to the ground. Everyone laughed.
Mom got me up to catch the bus early today because I missed it yesterday. I am hardly ever hungry for breakfast so I skip it and am starving by lunch. There are some bullies on the bus, so I usually sit by myself in the middle so no one will notice me too much. Sometimes Jason sits with me and we talk quietly. He likes Minecraft too, and he even can record his games and put them on YouTube!
1st Block Math 8:20 am
Anyway, we have four periods a day, because we have this weird block scheduling where we have “odd” and “even” days. First block today was math. I can’t really remember what we did. Something about fractions and ratios? It seems like it’s always fractions. Who cares about fractions? I have a hard time paying attention too. Ms. T is nice, and she only yells when people start to talk too much, but it’s always the same. She tells us we’re going to do something, then she shows us how to do it, and then we do it. Alya sits next to me, which is totally awkward because this summer I had a crush on her and asked her to go to a movie with me. She turned me down and Ms. T insists on having us sit in the same seats all quarter. So I am stuck next to her and it’s so embarrassing.
2nd Block PE 10:00 am
Second block today was PE but we only get it every third time because we have to rotate with Art and Spanish. Ms. P is cool. She pretty much lets us play whatever game we are learning about for the unit. She just kind of sits in her chair and watches. Jason’s in that class and I always try to get on his team. Today Ms. P was out and there was no sub, so Mr. G had to teach our class. He’s kind of bossy. We were doing basketball and he made us write a paragraph about how to pass the ball. We didn’t even get to play until the end of class! At least it was better than the puberty and drug units we did in Health.
Lunch 11:45 pm
I get to sit with my friends at lunch, which is cool because in sixth grade we had assigned seats. A bunch of the really popular kids sit together. Today they sat with the girls and Jason went over to sit with them too, but I stayed in our group. Lunch was pretty rushed today though, like it usually is. Mom didn’t have time to make me lunch, so I had to stand in line at the cafeteria, and by the time I got through there was only about 10 minutes left. Lunch is like the only time we have to talk to our friends so I hardly ever eat much. It was worse today. They actually cut our lunch by 5 minutes because we have state testing next week and they needed to have us do some drills or something in our 3rd block classes.
3rd Block English 12:15 pm
Mr. A, my English teacher, is pretty nice and he is also my advisory teacher, which is pretty cool because he was a baseball player so we talk about that. He even came to one of my games when my dad was deployed and couldn’t come. He lets us sit wherever we want but we have those stupid desks that have the attached desk and chair and I’m getting tall and hardly fit. Mr. A is always bugging me to sit still but I can’t in those weird desks. Anyway, we are reading Flowers for Algernon. Spoiler alert, the mouse dies. I know this because my grandma gave me the book last year and I already read it. Mr. A told me to read it again. Ugh. Mr. A gives us time to read in class, so I’ve been daydreaming lots and doodling. Then, I started nodding off and my stomach was growling. I was worried people would notice. I kinda started paying more attention when we were allowed to talk in our groups to plan our final project. It is more fun and makes the class go by faster when we can work with other people.
4th Block Science 1:45 pm
Last block was science. Mr. R … I don’t know what to say about him. He’s kinda strict most of the time, and we have to do some boring stuff, but then sometimes it’s fun. Today is a good example. He showed us a bunch of slides about disease and wanted us all to be quiet. I don’t really remember what he said. He didn’t tell us to write anything down. And then all of a sudden, it got fun! We did this activity where we got to get up and go around and spurt water in each other’s cups with eyedroppers. Then Mr. R put some drops in everyone’s cups and they all turned pink! Mr. R explained how it had to do with disease, but Jason and I were trying to squirt each other without Mr. R seeing, so I didn’t really hear it.
I did all my homework in advisory, which is totally cool. That way I can go home and play Minecraft before baseball practice. All my friends get on and we can talk to each other while we play. It’s cool ‘cause you can build stuff together and battle each other. Totally psyched for a weekend to chill out and sleep and not have to deal with any teachers or annoying people from school.
Growing understanding of young adolescents’ social, emotional, and physical needs and assets suggests that if these are not addressed, children may not reach their full capacity to learn in school. Here are some examples of this boy’s needs and assets and ways in which the school could better serve him.
Like many young adolescents, the boy is social. He wants to sit with his friends and he responds well to learning activities that are social. He enjoys working in groups in English and science while goofing around with his friends. At the same time, though, he is self-conscious. He is embarrassed about asking out Alya, distracted about his hair, and concerned about interacting with bullies. His teachers could take more advantage of opportunities to have students collaborate socially in positive ways. The school might think of ways to alter the school day, or create cooperative projects that engage students socially and benefit the school and community.
He is also developing intellectually. Most adolescents have the intellectual ability to understand even very abstract concepts. Merely focusing on social activity that is fun is not enough. These social activities must have some intellectual purpose that motivates the students to think. The science teacher, for example, seemed to have a creative activity for demonstrating the spread of infectious disease, but he made the connection to the disease concepts for the students. Instead, during the activity, he could have had the students discuss and explain how the disease was spreading throughout the population. With their attention focused on this task, the boy and his friends might have been less likely to be distracted by squirting each other.
Young adolescents are usually in the middle of puberty, and can be prone to emotional outbursts and mood swings. The middle school child may be seen laughing one minute and crying the next. A teacher might try to make herself aware of particularly difficult situations. For example, the math teacher might be more flexible with her seating chart. Even if she doesn’t know about the boy’s history with Alya, she might create a structure where students can change their seats throughout the semester. Maybe they can even “earn” the opportunity to choose their own seats. Mr. A’s efforts to connect with the boy when his father was deployed are notable. By attending to children’s emotional needs, we can support their academic potential.
The growing adolescent boy encounters boundaries within the middle school structure that physically impact him or otherwise constrain his need for physical activity. For example, the desks in English class are constricting. He is physically uncomfortable, which causes him to fidget and his teacher to become annoyed. PE is only offered every three days, and not all the class time is dedicated to physical movement. At lunch there is not enough time to eat; good nutrition is particularly important at this age.
These are just a few examples, from this single short diary, to illustrate the importance of attending to young adolescents’ needs and assets. Motivated middle school teachers might want to think of one of their own students as a “case study.” How is that boy, or that girl, being appropriately served by your school and in your classroom?
Daniel M. Levin, Ph.D., is clinical assistant professor and director of middle school programs in the Center for Science and Technology in Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership in the College of Education at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Molly Mee, Ed.D., is associate professor and chair of the Department of Secondary and Middle School Education in the College of Education at Towson University in Baltimore, MD.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2018.
Benefits of quick access to working memory and 25 memorization techniques
In a world in which we can always look things up, memorization still matters. Depending on the situation, engagement, meaning, progress, expediency, and safety are increased significantly if participants have the following information at their mental fingertips ready for immediate use:
The alphabet's sequence
- Blue paint mixed with yellow paint becomes green paint
- The outcome of the Tinker v. Des Moines (Students do not, "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.")
- Definitions of a subject's working lexicon – Qualitative is different from quantitative, DNA different from RNA, pitch is different from key, and the domain of a function is different from its range
- Weight and measure conversions
- Rate = Distance/Time
- Musical notes, symbols, and dynamic instructions
- A better action verb is stronger than an insufficient verb with multiple adverbs
- Formal and informal versions of the same language
- Knowledge of which chemicals are so toxic they should be handled with gloves and under a ventilation hood
- Multiplication tables
- Proper stretching and weight-lifting techniques
- The five protections under the First Amendment
- Lab and construction site safety procedures
- Knowledge of the three branches of government
- Control-Alt-<button> commands when coding
- Log-in names and passwords
- Basic geography, locations of states and countries
- Proper CPR procedures
- "Righty-tighty, lefty-loose-y"
- Great poetry (column-writer's license here – It lifts and connects us all when we memorize swaths of great poetry and literature and share them with others)
Almost 10 years ago, I wrote a piece for this magazine about the power of memorization. The conversation continues, and in some ways, has become more urgent. We've grown even more reliant on the Internet for everyday, let alone subject-specific, information, storing little in our own brains, giving up some of our human sovereignty over thoughtfulness, somehow integrating the Internet as a natural extension of what it means to be human.
Problem: Only half of low income children have access to the Internet after school hours (Rachel Monhan, "What Happens When Kids Don't Have Internet at Home?" The Atlantic, 2014). It's seven out of ten students in Detroit public schools (Jessica Rosenworcel, "Limited Internet Access a Challenge for Detroit Kids," Detroit Free Press, 2015) and five million families nationwide (Clare McLaughlin, "The Homework Gap: The 'Cruelest Part of the Digital Divide'," NEAToday, 2016). What happens when we've made them rely on the Internet for their working memory data resource, but beyond the school day, it's not there?
Even for those with consistent access at home, has our reliance on the Internet to provide the answer we didn't take the time to memorize hindered students nonetheless for not cultivating in them a working memory fortitude with the focus and skills to retain chunks of information purposefully for later application or simply because they enjoy a topic, and to access both while in situations without Internet access?
In his 2013 Atlantic article, "When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning," California high school teacher, Ben Orlin, wrote that he still remembers 48 prepositions from his sixth grade class where his teachers asked students to use, "mnemonics and other artificial tricks" to remember content. Later, he cites the power of repetition to help people remember things:
In 10th-grade English, I wrote a paper on Robert Frost's apocalyptic poem 'Once by the Pacific.' I read it dozens of times, dissecting every phrase. Months later, standing on a rocky, storm-swept beach, I found that I could recite the poem by heart. I never set out to memorize it. I just ... did.
I get goosebumps thinking of what a moment that must have been. His deep study of that poem led to an otherwise unachievable moment by the sea he values to this day. It invokes Pasteur's, "Chance favors the prepared mind," observation heartily. Absent that deep study of the poem, it would have been one more walk on the beach among many, never crystallizing into a moment of moving insight. What opportunities for resonance and connection are lost because we didn't have the knowledge base inside of us to perceive the now?
Of course, Ben said he read the poem dozens of times and dissected every phrase. This was a huge effort in meaning-making, and this is what led to such exceptional recall years later on the beach. Connections can't be made, though, unless they are attached to something already in mind. Students don't know what is salient and worth elevating, or what warrants time and energy to look up in outside resources, unless they have at least some basic set of data already in mind, gathered initially by rote or not. As Ben says later in the article, "It's a mistake to downplay factual knowledge, as if students could learn to reason critically without any information to reason about."
Interestingly, Ben says at one point that memorization by repetition, "…bypass[es] real conceptual learning. Memorizing a list of prepositions isn't half as useful as knowing what role a preposition plays in the language." Ben is right, of course, except for one word, bypass. Instead of a bypass, let's consider memorized content as a stepping stone towards conceptual learning.
Before we can debate a topic, we have to have the particulars of the topic at our mental fingertips. If we want to make connections among different elements of curriculum in our working memory, it's easier if those elements are already stored to some degree. If we want to work expediently without losing momentum to stop and look up information, that information must be ready to access in a timely manner. As my students in past years have studied Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, they have also memorized every word of it. In the midst of discussion, then, someone makes a claim, and every student's analytical mind quickly compares the claim to each of the sections of text and makes an informed response. They also compare the Address to other speeches, literature, and government policies. As a result, content has more meaning, students are more engaged, and learning lasts longer.
Let's be clear, though: We should never settle for students merely parroting back to us what they've memorized as demonstration of mastery. In Poor Richard's Almanac (1750), Ben Franklin writes, "Tim was so learned, that he could name a horse in nine languages; so ignorant, that he bought a cow to ride on." A memorized Periodic Table of Elements is useless unless we understand the reasons for clustering the elements in families as they are, and we can use that knowledge in scientific applications. It's safe to declare that memorized material significantly aids students' understanding and application of new information learned. In short, the more students know, the more they can learn. Memorizing information expedites this process.
North Yorkshire England, psychologist and teacher, Marc Smith, writes in his November 2012 blog,
Memorising facts can build the foundations for higher thinking and problem solving. Constant recitation of times tables might not help children understand mathematical concepts but it may allow them to draw on what they have memorised in order to succeed in more complex mental arithmetic. Memorisation, therefore, produces a more efficient memory, taking it beyond its limitations of capacity and duration … There exists a considerable body of evidence to suggest that a memory rife with facts learns better than one without.
— "Why memorising facts can be a keystone to learning," https://www.theguardian.com/
teacher-network/teacher-blog/2012/nov/21/memorising-facts-keystone-learning-psychology, downloaded December 28, 2017
Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Virginia, Daniel T. Willingham, writes,
…[M]any of the cognitive skills we want our students to develop—especially reading with understanding and successfully analyzing problems—are intimately intertwined with knowledge of content. When students learn facts they are not just acquiring grist for the mill—they are enabling the mill to operate more effectively. Background knowledge is absolutely integral to effectively deploying important cognitive processes.
— Retrieved from https://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/spring-2006/knowledge-classroom, referring to his longer article, "Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise," in the Winter 2002 issue of American Educator.
Willingham cautions, though, that we shouldn't simply have students memorize random facts for their own sake: "Mindless drilling is not an effective vehicle for building students' store of knowledge." The facts, definitions, dates, formulas, etc. that we ask students to memorize should be part of a larger unit of study, connected in some way to other bits of knowledge. So, when asking students to memorize parts of a plant, for example, it is because they are using that knowledge to understand the plant's role in a particular ecosystem, or how a plant's vascular system differs from an animal's vascular system. When students learn the definition of a new word, they use it thoughtfully in the context of our unit of study, but also in other arenas: They discover that interest can be compounded, but so can errors, illnesses, and sentences. The facts we ask them to memorize are not inert, they are applied or referenced meaningfully in some way.
Imagine not knowing the definitions of the subject terms or even some of the action words used to describe what you are supposed to be learning. The teacher might declare, for example:
Transfer RNA (tRNA), [is a] small molecule in cells that carries amino acids to organelles called ribosomes, where they are linked into proteins. In addition to tRNA there are two other major types of RNA: messenger RNA (mRNA) and ribosomal RNA (rRNA) … Ribosomal molecules of mRNA determine the order of tRNA molecules that are bound to nucleotide triplets (codons). The order of tRNA molecules ultimately determines the amino acid sequence of a protein because molecules of tRNA catalyze the formation of peptide bonds between the amino acids, linking them together to form proteins.
— From www.britannica.com/science/
transfer-RNA, downloaded December 28, 2017
For those of us with no background in biology, we're lost and slightly panicked. We will not join the class conversation, ask questions, or engage with content at a deeper level for fear others will discover and confirm our ignorance. If, however, we fully understood the terms amino acids, proteins, nucleotide, codons, catalyze, and peptide bonds, we have a healthy self-confidence. We make compelling connections, construct meaning, and engage. We won't fully grasp the big picture by simply memorizing key word definitions, of course, but we can't even perceive the first brushstrokes of the larger mural without having initial reference points.
Just as we find in effective SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) for English Language Learners, students engage and learn English and subject content much faster and more solidly when there is meaning. So, we encourage them to work with content in their own language from time to time to get them to that meaning-making level, then we substitute English wording for their native language's wording, then use the new wording contextually and frequently, and they get it, and just as importantly, they retain it.
The rest of this column describes the more successful memorization techniques I've taught students over the years as well as some suggested by others. Note that some of them come from theater world—a perfect place to learn techniques for memorizing! Some are weird, but they work, so don't be too quick to dismiss them. Note that doing just one of these rarely works; it's four or five together that lead to the best memorization. It's worth momentarily suspending the content curriculum just to teach these techniques, as they can help with many subjects down the road, not just here in your classroom. In the end, using these techniques actually moves your students farther than would have been achieved without them.
25 Suggested Memorization Techniques:
- Teach the concept to someone else. Ask students to do this to classmates, students in other grade levels, or adults in their lives. By interacting with their "students," they actually memorize the information themselves.
- Practice reciting lines or information while standing in front of your family or friends. This simulates the pressure we'll feel when reciting the lines for performance or test, and we need to condition our minds to be able to do this prior to the actual assessment.
- Start at the end and work back to the front. With a long body of text or information to learn, start by memorizing the last few words of the last line, then add the word or few words in front of that last segment, and continue all the way to the end of the phrase you already memorized. Then memorize the word or few words in front of that second to the last segment, and go all the way to the end, and so on. If we start by memorizing the first words of a passage, then add the next words in sequence and continuing through until the end, it seems overwhelming, but it doesn't feel that way when working backwards like this. By the time we work our way back to memorizing the text's very first words, the rest of the passage has been repeated many times, and we know it well.
- Memorize in phrases and bridges, not individual words. Memorizing in short chunks as well as the relationships between those chunks really helps. For example, memorize one segment of a line, then the next segment, and finally, the last word of the first segment and the first word of the second segment, so the tongue flows from one into the other naturally.
- Practice reciting the information while looking at your eyes in front of a mirror. Looking at just our eyes in the mirror is a little unnerving and doing so as you recall the information helps solidify the memory; we really have to focus.
- After memorizing for a while, go do something else. Let some time pass. Then, recite your lines or concepts again. In her book, How to Teach So Students Remember (2005, ASCD), Marilee Sprenger reminds us that when first memorizing, the reciting/practice sessions should be frequent and with short time periods between each one. As we move farther from the original learning, however, we need to space them out. We're not telling students to memorize while working on other things. Overt memorization takes focus, not scattered, switch-tasking attention to many things simultaneously.
- At every waiting time in your life, practice the lines or information. This keeps the information on our mental radar scope and memorized under a wide variety of conditions, which creates a memorization dexterity that's important to recalling the lines when we most need them for a performance or test. The more contexts in which we recite the information, the more versatile we are with that information.
- Practice reciting the lines or concepts in the same place you'll be asked to remember them. The familiarity will make it easier to recall the lines. Students who learn math formulas while staring at your Calvin and Hobbes cartoon collection on the wall will remember those formulas when they see those cartoons again. Context has great impact on memorization.
- Use different voices to recite the lines. This is weird, yes, but try saying the lines with different accents or impersonated voices. Again, we're creating some additional variables, but each one provides more access points and makes the lines more vivid in our minds.
- Make sure your mind is awake. This seems simple, but it really works. If we're sluggish, memorization is hard, and even worse, recall fizzles. Remind students that adequate sleep helps memory formation. All-night cramming actually diminishes later recall of important facts.
- Eat a good breakfast with complex carbohydrates, proteins, and fluids. Orange juice and a Pop-Tart don't cut it.
- Hydrate. Drink a lot of water, even when you're not thirsty. Without regular hydration, we become sluggish and slow-thinking.
- Move a lot and exercise. This gets oxygen and nutrients to the cognitive/memorization centers of the brain. Seriously, an hour of swimming, basketball, or working out is one of the best ways to boost memorization.
- Read something interesting or intellectual that you understand before memorizing and before recalling the memorized information. It stimulates neurons to "fire" completely, puts the mind into a reflective, connecting mode, which is great for recall.
- Use memory devices (mnemonics). Many of us know the popular mnemonic for the order of operations in math (parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction): "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally," The Great Lakes, Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior can be remembered with the word, HOMES.
- Chain. This mnemonic device is good for lists or groups of unrelated items that have to be remembered. In a chain, we create a story or picture that incorporates every item in the list or group. For example, if we had to memorize horse, candle, dictionary, cryptology, violin, and thunderstorm, we'd imagine riding a horse through a midnight thunderstorm that threatened to extinguish the candle flickering in the lantern we carried in one hand above the horse's head. If it goes out, we won't be able to find our way to the cryptologist's home to give him the secret code dictionary that he needs to save the country. The suspenseful moment becomes a movie with soundtrack violins playing more and more urgently as the storm rages around us. If the sequence of the items to be memorized is important, then each item should occur in the story or picture in the order that reflects that sequence.
- Write everything you have to remember on one side of a regular piece of paper, then transfer all of it, encapsulating as necessary, to both sides of a 3 X 5 notecard. Then transfer the material from both sides of the card onto one side of another 3 X 5 notecard only. By the time you're finished encapsulating, abbreviating, and recording, you know the material.
- Express the information to be memorized through a different medium. Draw a picture, do a dance, or play music on an instrument that represents the information. Re-expressing the information in another domain such as art, dance, or music helps our minds recall the information later.
- Ask someone to call the cues for you. We all know that feeling when you think you've studied something well then ask someone else to test you by calling out questions, and suddenly your mind turns to cement. You knew this information just ten minutes ago, you lament, why are you going blank now? Truly, you take your memorization to a whole new level when someone gives you the word or idea ahead of what you need to recite, and you are able to come up with the right word or idea at the right moment.
- Make an outline of the lines or concepts, and memorize just that. This is kind of a mnemonic, of course, but it's more of a virtual metaphor for packaging the information. Pat Wolfe (Brain Matters, ASCD, 2010) says that students tend to be able to remember five or less unrelated items at a time. This means we should do lectures in terms of five or less major points, speak in terms of five or less steps in the math algorithm, and ask them to memorize five or less aspects of a particular historical era. The great thing, however, is that students can actually memorize more, if it's compartmentalized. For example, they can memorize five large categories, but then memorize the contents of those categories (again five or less items per category) independently. If each category had five items, they will have memorized 25 different items. Helping students to set up outlines of subsets of information within larger sets of information is helpful for memorization.
- Use props. The mind likes prompting. If we memorize a section of text about the way Eratosthenes discovered the circumference of the earth while placing a cloth tape measure used for measuring waist lines around the classroom globe, we remember the material better. If we can use the props in our performance or test, they will trigger our memories of the information. If we can't use the props at our desk or on stage, we can still line them up in the back of the room where we can see them and get the trigger that way, too. Even if we can't bring them into the room or on stage at all, we can memorize the material with each prop individually at home, then simply memorize the list of props in our mind. As we recall each prop, we recall the information associated with each one.
- Put the information in the form of a song. Songs are simply better remembered by most of us. Their patterns and familiar tunes serve to help us recall information. If your students are stuck for ideas on how to do this, ask them to rewrite the lyrics of a well-known song to include the information they have to memorize.
- Conduct conversations with others in which each time one of you speaks, you have to use one of the words/concepts/lines you're trying to memorize in a meaningful way. This helps you manipulate the words and concepts thoughtfully, which moves the information into long-term memory. Using the word or concept must be meaningful, however. "Tuberculosis is a word on our vocabulary list," wouldn't work.
- Frequent, challenging retrieval. Professor Jeffrey D. Karpicke describes a study in his 2016 Science Brief in which two different groups of students were asked to study science text, but one used retrieval practice and the other used concept maps. The retrieval practice group read the text, wrote down all they could remember from it, then they re-read it, and did the recall writing activity again. The other group created concept maps of the content as they read. In the final assessments, the retrieval practice groups outperformed the concept map creators. ("Practicing retrieval enhances long-term, meaningful learning." Psychological Science Agenda, June 2016, http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2016/06/learning-memory.aspx)
This isn't to say that concept maps don't help; they do, but basic, repeated retrieval practice of content shouldn't be missed.
- Interleaved practice. Cognitive scientist Dr. Pooja K. Argarwal reminds us that interleaved practice is also critical. In interleaved practice, we don't do large blocks of the same thing in a row. Instead, we use one set of concepts and skills, then do another set, and yet another set, then return to the first set, mixing up the practice a bit. Argarwal writes,
"Practice problems are interleaved if the problems are arranged so that consecutive problems cannot be solved by the same strategy. For example, if one problem is solved by finding the area of a circle, the next problem requires a different strategy, such as solving an inequality …. When practice problems are arranged so that consecutive problems cannot be solved by the same strategy, students are forced to choose a strategy on the basis of the problem itself."
This experience forces students to engage at a deeper level, achieving a more robust practice session with the material than could be achieved by practicing the same skills or concepts in long blocks.
Education journalist Marianne Stenger describes a study looking at interleaved practice:
In a study led by Bjork and Williams College psychologist Nate Kornell, students were asked to learn the painting styles of 12 different artists by looking at six samples of each artist's work. Some participants were shown each artist's paintings in a row, while others viewed them in mixed order. When tested later, the students who had seen the paintings in mixed order were better at matching them with the correct artist than those who had studied each artist's paintings in one group.
She confirms Argarwal's insight indicating the complexity of the retrieval and practice being key to student long-term retention:
[Citing Professor of psychology and director of the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab, Dr. Robert Bjork] … [W]hen we mix up our study materials, we start to notice both the similarities and differences among the things we're learning, and this can give us a better and deeper understanding of the material. Another possible reason interleaving is effective is that it makes learning more difficult … learning is simply more effective when it's challenging.
— "Interleaved Practice: 4 Ways to Learn Better By Mixing It Up," September 9th, 2016,
To really hit a homerun with your students as they learn these memorization techniques, use them yourself and walk into class on the first day of teaching the techniques with a famous poem, intricate scientific process, or a section of the textbook fully memorized. Dazzle your class with what you recall. Seriously, show off; this is a time to "Wow" the students. To really nail it, secretly ask one of your students to do this as well and ask him or her to recite what he or she knows. It's particularly effective if you choose a non-A+ student to do the demonstration.
Students are often astounded by what their minds can accomplish if they only put some effort into the task. These techniques will serve them well in later grade levels. I still remember esoteric names of human anatomy, differences in the art of different historical eras, Newton's Laws, conjugations of Spanish verbs, and some passages from the Federalist Papers as well as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and others from my high school days over 40 years ago because teachers asked me to memorize them back then. Yes, some of the material I memorized I don't remember immediately today, but when stimulated by reading about the topic or working with similar ideas, my mind floods with connections and insight I don't think I would experience unless I had spent focused time memorizing.
Once memorized, content becomes the launching pad for multiple applications and long-lasting learning. Un-memorized material must constantly be re-learned every time it's used. Why not increase students' dexterity and teach them how to memorize content, not just apply it wisely? We may never have to memorize something as long as a full opera, but it sure would be great if students could hold their own in debates, avoid wasting time looking up easily memorizable facts, navigate without the use of an ISP, and make astute connections quickly. Given the right context and information, it could even save lives.
Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from www.amle.org/store. His new book, Fair Isn't Always Equal: Second Edition (Stenhouse Publishers), is available in March 2018.
Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2018.