How video games can help students develop important life skills
This is part 2 in a two-part series on the benefits of video games both in and out of the classroom. Part 1 covers practice and patience, teamwork, socializing, and leadership.
While Monopoly may be one of the oldest games to impart some business strategies to the player, software products today can develop your career, track your investments, or help develop a brand. Sophisticated simulations can replicate real situations within a safe environment to practice and receive feedback for improvement.
Gamification is the concept of applying game mechanics and game design techniques to engage and motivate people to achieve their goals. The oldest models of gamification are frequent flyer programs to improve customer loyalty. Gamification products abound that motivate employees, create competition among teams, build customer loyalty, and track personal goal attainment. Such goal success releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is a reward and creates an environment where the brain seeks more opportunities for dopamine release. It is why elements of gamification can create an addiction just like alcohol and gambling. Such elements can create a culture of success or a culture of cut-throat competition.
Many companies want to build a business-savvy workforce in which individual contributions add to the bottom line. Modifying your plans as the external factors change, as in life, have morphed from board games into video play. Professional training programs have tapped the virtual space to offer simulations and essential elements of improving businesses. The US Army is using games for training purposes and has attracted millions of new recruits. School districts are using Avatar simulators to create training situations for mentors and coaches.
A video game classic, SimCity is a city-building game that lets the player build a dream city. From running utility lines to landscaping parks, you control the progress and are faced with making big decisions, overcoming roadblocks, and managing a budget.
It may not be exact real-world experience, but some of the decisions you're forced to make in the virtual realm are situations you will encounter in business dealings. Shedding light on economic transactions and the establishment of political communities and political theory such as cooperation, reputations, and self-governance can all be explored in the safety of a game environment.
Child development advocates believe the best way to instill empathy is through interactive play and stories. Can video games help the player manage emotions, cope with conflict, or deal with social issues? According to the General Aggression Model (GAM), the aggressive material in violent media can affect our thoughts, emotions, and arousal. Too much exposure to such content can desensitize how we react to such scenes, affecting future emotions.
Perhaps, too, pro-social material can foster empathy. As the brain molds and changes, new neuro-pathways are formed. This ongoing process is called neuroplasticity. It allows our brain to change; the question is whether it is changing for the better or not.
Helping students develop behavioral skills like perseverance, teamwork, conscientiousness, and empathy is a key part of ensuring a child's future success. Kids already play video games. Reaching them through a channel where they already want to spend time and where they already feel comfortable may be possible with some of the newly emerging games.
With the expansiveness of the internet, gamers play across vast distances and communicate with one another through audio interface, which frees many from constraints they may encounter in face-to-face society. Subscribing to a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role playing game) can involve thousands of other gamers at any given time. Such group interaction results in the formation of friendships as well as personal empowerment.
Online multiplayer games encourage communications between players, and some demand it to make progress in a game. A single game can require communicating in the form of text, image, and sound between two people or whole groups and communities. Applications for crowd-sourcing skills during such interactions may apply, especially when opportunities for "after-action" reviews are conducted in some games.
We want our students and the work force to be resilient. That can take many forms. Being able to deal with adversity, setbacks, or changing conditions is a character trait that is difficult to teach. Video games are effective tools to learn resilience in the face of failure. Bouncing back and not giving up on a task are considered positive psychological traits usually required for active gamers.
By learning to cope with ongoing failures in games, players build emotional resilience they can rely on in their everyday lives. Deriving social support from online communities can be a supplemental benefit, but "too much," especially for the socially isolated gamer, must be noted.
While comprehending the negative implications of "too much of anything," gaming activity has been often cited in the media as fostering immaturity, violence, and even addiction. Claims of the lack of physical exercise, anti-social behavior, and the lack of social interaction abound in the "couch potato" stereotype associated with video gamers.
Yet, as a stress reliever or an escape from reality and with the proliferation of game-based classroom applications, is there an optimum level of participation that would enhance our social, emotional, and intellectual or problem-solving skills?
Looking at current use of video games in the classroom, more than half of students play them as part of the curriculum each week. As always, too much of a good thing could be bad, but a balanced approach may derive benefits.
Perhaps someday soon we will see 3-D reality chambers where we can practice real life situations, or practice specific life enhancing skill activities such as role playing, decision making, leadership scenarios, or empathy enhancement with interactive avatars instead of just reading case studies or randomly hoping we are providing useful learning opportunities.
The opportunity to enjoy gaming and all its diversions may too enhance the quality of one's life … within limits. Engaged and excited classrooms may be enhanced when educators and game fabricators collaborate to replicate experiences found in the real world but in an environment free of social pressure.
Clark Godshall, Ed.D. is the senior district superintendent of the Orleans-Niagara BOCES in the state of New York.
LaVonna Roth, M.S. is an international speaker, author, and consultant. She is the founder of LaVonna, Inc. and creator of Ignite Your S.H.I.N.E.® You can see LaVonna at the AMLE Middle Grades Summit in Hawaii.
Published October 2017.
Engaging middle school learners in metaphoric thinking through self-expressive prompts
|Everyday Leadership Object Prompt A
Please take a few minutes to think about characteristics of leaders you know and respect. Then choose an object from the table that represents a quality or characteristic you value in a leader. Be prepared to explain to classmates why you chose the object and how it represents a leadership quality you value.
"I chose the duct tape because it reminds me of someone who is willing to solve problems. It might not always look pretty, but if it works, then who cares? Usually, duct tape is something you have around, so it doesn't cost a lot of extra money to solve the problem at least temporarily. You can buy time to look at other ways to solve the problem more permanently. I admire leaders who problem solve, not just spend all their time talking about the problem. My grampy is like that, he's a fixer, and I think he's a great leader in our family."
—Josiah, a 7th grade student
"Pom-poms. Pom-poms, because I think a leader needs to be like a cheerleader. They need to cheer others on and encourage them to get involved. Our cheering coach tells us that our role is to get as many people in the stands involved in the game as possible. I think that's what good leaders do. They want as many people to be involved as they can get. Plus, good leaders are positive and encouraging."
—Emma, a 7th grade student
Every time I engage middle school learners in a symbolic representation activity such as the one briefly described above, I am wowed by their insightful answers, especially compared to the answers I typically get if I alternatively word the prompt like this:
|Everyday Leadership Prompt B
Please list qualities or characteristics you value in a leader. Be prepared to explain to classmates one of the leadership qualities you value.
Purposefully Planning Questions/Prompts
Planning a few well-designed questions or prompts (such as prompt A) to elicit higher-order thinking as well as to promote varied skills of the middle school learner has the potential to vastly improve student learning. I first learned of questioning in style through the work of Silver, Strong, and Perini and their application of Carl Jung's work. They introduced the idea of mastery, interpersonal, understanding, and self-expressive learners and asserted the need to pose questions, prompts, and learning tasks from the various quadrants. I since have come to see the work not so much from a learning style perspective but from that of different thinking skills. Dr. Robert Marzano and Dr. John Hattie's work on high-impact teaching and learning strategies has provoked me to re-examine the quadrants from a thinking and doing perspective. Figure 1 depicts the types of thinking learners are asked to do in each of the quadrants, the kinds of questions posed, and the high-impact strategies associated with each (as represented by the effect sizes from Marzano and Hattie's research). Note that typically, the larger the decimal, the greater the impact on student learning.
Figure 1. Different Types of Prompts
Purposefully planning prompts that engage learners in different types of thinking improves engagement by a wider majority of young adolescents. In addition, purposefully posing questions or prompts to all students in the various quadrants encourages all learners to develop thinking and processing skills across the styles.
Analyzing My Questions, Prompts, and Learning Tasks
When I first learned of the application of Carl Jung's work to questioning and prompts, I decided to analyze my units of study and associated tasks and questions through this lens. I was startled to discover that I did not provide many, or often any, opportunities for self-expressive thinking within my integrative units. I asked lots of "what," "why," "how come," and "so what" questions but rarely asked "what if" questions. Rarely, if at all, did I think to pose questions that asked students to think metaphorically or to consider "what if" possibilities or to express their knowledge using alternate analogies or modes of articulating their thinking. Sure, I encouraged learners to demonstrate their understanding through a variety of creative means, such as multi-media presentations, written papers, songs, oral presentations, and drawings, but I did not weave ongoing opportunities for them to practice thinking metaphorically during the learning. I clearly missed opportunities for my self-expressive learners to share their unique ways of thinking about and linking concepts and ideas, and just as important, I missed ongoing opportunities to help all students develop their metaphoric thinking skills across varied content and curricula.
As a result of new knowledge and an analysis of my own teaching practices, I began a mission to provide more opportunities for my learners to develop skills around metaphoric and divergent thinking.
Developing Metaphoric Thinking
Like any other worthy learning task, modeling and scaffolding are requirements for success. I often begin a symbolic or metaphoric thinking prompt with a sentence starter for those who need it.
| ________ (object) reminds me of _______ (quality or characteristic)
Learners share their thinking with a partner and, whenever possible, do a "whip" around the room, where they share with the larger community of learners. This activity allows some of my learners who may not be engaged with other types of prompts to shine. The whip around also provides multiple models of metaphoric and divergent thinking for all learners.
In addition to scaffolding, modeling, and interpersonal engagement, symbolic/object representation activities such as the one I have described provide a tangible object for those who need to interact with something in a tactile way.
In order to encourage metaphoric thinking beyond the object prompt, I regularly provide self-expressive exit tickets or reflection prompt choices. Other times, learners are invited to explore "what if" questions or to provide an alternate way of thinking about the topic.
|Self-Expressive Reflection Example
Was today's work session more like a soccer match, watching a beautiful sunset, riding a bike, writing a poem, climbing a mountain, or playing a video game? Please explain your thinking.
Benefits and Results
Without exception, every time I have engaged learners in this type of thinking task, an emotional reaction occurs in the learning environment. "Oh, that's so clever." "I never would have made that connection." Those engaged in the metaphoric activity recognize that this is different thinking and are impressed by the connections their peers make. The connections made are most often ones that the learners would have never thought about if they had not engaged in the learning task.
The more learners practice metaphoric thinking through the use of objects and symbols, the more common it becomes for them to engage in this type of thinking without objects being present. Examples in classroom discussions and in writing change. Learners begin to use analogies to explain relationships, connections, and abstract ideas. Language becomes more colorful, more vivid, and more engaging.
I encourage learners to listen and watch for examples of metaphoric thinking in the books they read, the movies they watch, the music they listen to, and the conversations they hear. One middle school colleague I am privileged to know has her students tweet examples; for those who do not tweet, she has a Twitter bulletin board where examples get posted.
This is not merely a literacy exercise in rich word choice, although I will be the first to acknowledge that the metaphors are often poetic and artistic in delivery and composition. This is divergent thinking coupled with comparative thinking—a sophisticated and challenging way of thinking about how unlikely items or ideas are similar. Comparative thinking is often a precursor to evaluative thinking and decision-making. Self-expressive questions and tasks push learners into deeper thinking beyond surface recall or surface level analysis, asking them to imagine or create something new.
Middle Level Educators and Symbolic Representation Activities
After having spent a decade in the middle school classroom, I had the privilege of becoming a middle school administrator and now a faculty member in an educational leadership program at a university. I carry two baskets of varied objects with me everywhere I go so I can engage educators in symbolic representation activities to promote metaphoric thinking. Their responses are stunning and insightful. They articulate how "hard" the task is and how it stretches their thinking. They are delighted by their peers' responses. They inevitably try the task with their own learners and come back to meetings or classes excited to share their experiences with young learners engaging in this type of thinking.
So, go ahead. Grab a basket or a recyclable shopping bag and begin filling it with an eclectic assortment of items or photos. Present it to your learners with an invitation for them to think metaphorically. Be prepared to be awed by their insightful responses.
Anita Stewart McCafferty, Ed.D. is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Southern Maine and co-director of the Southern Maine Partnership.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2017.
Committing to our students' stories is an investment in their success
I'm a sucker for a good Taylor Swift song. As a 32-year-old middle grades educator I feel confident enough to put that in writing, especially in this venue. The weeks before I began teaching outside of Houston, Texas, were filled with anxiety about what was waiting for me in my classroom. One way I dealt with the growing anxiety was through whistling. Before coworkers even knew my name, they knew me as "the whistler." The day before school started, I wandered the empty hallways taking in the atmosphere while whistling the tune of Taylor Swift's Love Story. It seemed fitting. I was a nervous bundle of excitement. My first classroom mirrored what I had in my middle school, with desks in rows, a cup of pencils, and small crates for students to turn papers in. I did well in middle school. Why not provide for my students a classroom environment like what I had? While whistling the final verse—you know, the part where Romeo says "Marry me Juliet, you'll never have to be alone" (the part that brings in all the feelings—my math department chair stuck her head in my classroom door and said "Moulton, you're whistling now, but you won't be after the year is over."
Talk about Bad Blood
Determined to just shake that off, I persevered into the first few weeks of school trying to fit my predominantly Hispanic, high-poverty, English language learning students into my white south Florida parochial school opinion of what a middle school should look like. "Mr. Moulton, Esme doesn't speak English," one of my students proclaimed while I attempted to brute-force-math my way into the creation of a productive learning environment. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be overwhelmed, out of my element, and out of ideas this quickly. I failed to recognize that what I had been looking for had been there the whole time! My students yearned for a connected relationship with their teacher and each other; one where we shared who we were with each other while crafting an environment where I could learn from them and where they felt comfortable expressing themselves.
Where am I From?
Ever-present in my interactions with students were my personal cultural and historical experiences. I grew up on two different ends of I-95 on the east coast. I was born in Maine and carry that with me no matter where I go. Middle school and high school took place in south Florida. A northerner transplanted to the fertile citrus groves of the Indian River. Regardless of the location, my family's Catholic faith had an impact on life in and out of school. My classmates were overwhelmingly white and upper middle class. College brought some incredible learning experiences and expanded my view of the world and who lives here, but the most growth took place in that classroom in Texas.
Working With not On
There was definitely a learning curve, and the patience my fabulous students displayed was admirable. So much of my first few weeks was introducing myself to students. There was no reciprocity. Absent from my efforts to present myself to students was any intentional effort to get to know them. Where were they from? How did they make sense of the world? Why did I assume that this wouldn't affect what happens in my math classroom?
I hit the reset button, allowed myself to be vulnerable, and apologized for the broken environment I had created in my class. We started over in an attempt to work with each other on math, life, early adolescence, and making sense of the world. This took an intentional choice of being present at school and in the community. During the school day it meant escaping the confines of the teachers' lounge during lunch for walks through the cafeteria, intentionally saying every students' name in class each day, and making sure to acknowledge and say hello in the hallways during transitions. After school it meant jumping into pickup basketball games, visiting with the gamers club, and opening up my room to whoever needed a space to avoid the humid and hot Houston temperatures or just a place to hang out.
Navigating Outside Influences
The vocabulary needed to work through the complexity of negotiating my personal history with my students was not part of the alternative certification program that granted me entry in a middle grades classroom. The students and I were participating in a system that dictated how we interact in the world, whether we acknowledged it or not. It may or may not have been an intentional choice by the alternative certification program to spend so little time on guiding future educators in the development of authentic and caring classroom communities, but it definitely affected my classroom.
This, by far, wasn't the only time that some outside source affected the experiences in my classroom. Budget cuts, scripted curriculum, societal views of immigration, beliefs about students' families, and many more unspoken, unacknowledged, or covert systems played a role in the experiences of the members of my classroom, myself included. We didn't know we were navigating them but we still did with a desire to honor and respect each individual throughout that journey. Assuming that life outside the classroom could be left at the door and students could enter some sort of blank space devoid of real problems just couldn't happen.
Community Contexts in Middle Grades Education
Now, I am a teacher educator and I teach a class called Community Contexts in Middle Grades Education. The co-creators of this class and I noticed that there was a gap in understanding between our future teachers and the students they taught in their field placements. What is disguised behind a name that seems to imply going out to learn about communities begins with an abundance of self-exploration about personal cultural and historical experiences that definitely color perceptions of the world. Three course questions guide the learning and my continued educational journey:
- Where am I from and how do my cultural and historical locations influence how I perceive and interact with the world?
- How will I discover where my students are from and how their cultural and historical locations influence how they perceive and interact with the world?
- Why is it important for me to consider that we are participating in a network of systems?
What I have witnessed throughout the process of the class is our future teachers developing a deeper, more nuanced view of who middle grades students are and that even though they may get clumped together as a mass of hormones and immaturity they are incredibly diverse in historical and cultural experiences. These future teachers, through structured conversations and shadowing assignments where they must become a seventh grader (including taking tests, running a mile in PE, and all other things the student is doing), are amazed at how connected middle grades students are to their communities and what's going on in the world. Middle grades students are passionate about societal injustices and adamant about being part of a solution. It is amazing what can be accomplished when adults stop talking and truly and empathetically listen to the wisdom of middle grades students.
Living in the world as connected and engaged middle grades educators requires a commitment to being all in and investing in the success and story of our students. These stories will include the influence of larger societal forces. They will require a constant personal reflection on beliefs about people, places, and things and how those beliefs impact our ability to work with our students. The stories of our students need audiences, validation, and consideration of how to incorporate them into our classroom settings. Doing our part as middle grades educators requires a suspension of judgement and an adoption of the mantra that my normal is not your normal and that is ok. Once we have taken on the privilege of working with middle grades students we must commit ourselves to co-writing the ballad that guides the dancers in our classroom. What results may not be typical, conventional, or polished, but it is our song written and performed by all the voices and experiences in our classroom.
Matthew Moulton is a former math department chair and teacher who currently is pursuing a Ph.D. in educational theory and practice with an emphasis in middle grades education from the University of Georgia. He teaches classes on middle grades curriculum and community contexts and works directly with future middle grades teachers.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2017.
Exploring instructional strategies that engage introverted students
Everyone has heard the idiom, "The squeaky wheel gets the grease." In our busy, sometimes hectic classrooms, our squeaky wheels—our most extroverted and outgoing learners—are most likely to attract the most attention. Our society, like our classrooms, often highlights the extroverted, outgoing, highly social students. But what about those non-squeaky wheel learners? The introverted or quiet gifted learners can be overlooked. Forty-five percent of children are introverts, but this number is much higher with gifted learners. There are more introverted gifted learners than extroverted gifted learners, which seems at odds in a society that is drawn to bigger and louder. Actually, more gifted students are introverted on average, and as the IQ scores go up, the percentage of introverted students goes up. According to Leslie Sword, author of The Gifted Introvert, as much as 75% of highly gifted children (IQ scores above 160) are introverted.
Gifted students with quiet or introverted personalities have a great deal to contribute to our learning communities. They are often deep thinkers with deep interests, have exceptional powers of engagement, and are often creative problem solvers. However, our schools are riddled with activities that promote and encourage extroverts. Many school-endorsed activities favor students that demonstrate leadership and outgoing or extroverted tendencies: student council, drama, classroom representatives, ambassadors, class plays, speeches, presentations, and even classroom discussions. Finding ways to encourage and engage quiet personalities can be well worth the effort. Here are some strategies to help pave the way for more authentic engagement from your quiet learners and your outgoing learners alike.
Introverted gifted students have valuable knowledge to impart, but sometimes hearing from these students can be difficult. Most find it intimidating to voluntarily respond to discussions and present information to the entire class.
Let's consider wait time. Teachers tend to wait less than one second for students to reply to their questions (Rowe, 1974, cited in Van Tassel-Baska, 1998). Allowing breathing room after questions are posed can help quiet learners form their answers and build the courage to raise their hands. I am a big fan of Ian Byrd (byrdseed.com), an educator for gifted students. He uses several strategies in his classrooms and identifies two types of wait time: Wait Time I is the time you wait between the question and the answer, Wait Time II is the time you wait after a student speaks before moving on. If teachers get in the habit of waiting, breathing, or counting between the question posed and response time (Wait Time I), introverted learners have time to digest the questions and determine their responses. Waiting at least 3-5 seconds is a great place to start. If you are asking open ended, higher level thinking questions, your wait time should increase with the depth of the questions. In addition, wait time can add more complexity and richness to discussions.
Think time is one of my favorite strategies. I tend to use it with my students and family alike. Ask a question, but ask for a minute of quiet (think time) before answering the question. Think time was a brainchild of Mary Budd Rowe. She found that quiet students needed time to think; time to be engaged, actively listening, and thinking. I also like to ask a question twice and pause after the question is asked, both times.
Think, Pair, Share
If students are hesitant to raise their hands, another strategy is Think, Pair, Share. This equity pedagogical practice developed by Dr. Frank Lyman helps vary and increase participation without being overt. After a teacher poses a thought-provoking question to the class, each student "thinks" about the question and writes down their response. Then they are encouraged to share it with a peer ("pair"). Sometimes a quiet, gifted student can find her confidence through the encouragement of a single peer. Once the pair has "shared", you can move on or a larger group discussion can flow from the paired contributions.
Pick Your Neighbor
Quiet gifted students thrive when around like-minded peers with similar interests and personalities. Quiet students are usually more comfortable working with someone they know. Allowing students to sit next to a like-minded friend can benefit quiet students. They may feel more comfortable sharing with a friend or someone that shares their temperament.
Prep the Discussion
As much as teachers love to talk (myself included), students can be overloaded with verbal information. My sons often complain that teachers talk during the entire block (85 minutes). That would be difficult for adults to handle, much less young adults and teenagers. Students need time to digest information, just like the rest of us. As teachers begin a discussion, students should be encouraged to jot down some thoughtful notes. Once the discussion turns to comments and questions, quiet students armed with these notes have more confidence to participate, or alternately these notes could be shared with the teacher (one to one) after class to demonstrate active listening. Discussion notes also can be shared at classroom conference time or after school.
There are numerous ways to solicit feedback from your quiet learners. Slower paced discussions tend to foster more thoughtful answers. Introverts often find it difficult to interrupt discussions with questions and comments. Asking for feedback with a sticky note placed on the teachers desk, through journaling, or in small group "breakaways" where students are able to demonstrate evidence of learning, makes the quiet learner more comfortable.
Some introverted students have told me they find that when they offer comments early in discussions it helps alleviate their anxiety as the conversation progresses. Non-talking modes of engagement such as thumbs up or down, nodding, smiling, and shrugging shoulders are ways introverted students can demonstrate active listening and engagement without overt participation.
Encouraging your quiet learners to demonstrate their different and varied points of view will enrich your entire learning community. These strategies will let your quiet students know that you value their contributions without forcing them to ignore their unique personalities. Remember, when quiet students hesitate before responding, it doesn't mean they are not engaged. Some students need time to think before they speak (introverts) and some students need to speak in order to think (extroverts).
|More Strategies to Engage Introverted Learners
During reading time in class, quiet students can be engaged in solitude. Reading in class lets them absorb information, concentrate, and demonstrate their curiosity while letting them recharge by being alone.
Headphones with instrumental music (without lyrics) help quiet students take a break from the normal classroom. This strategy has been successful for all of my students, extroverts and introverts alike.
Online chats and forums can supplement overt class participation. These platforms allow quiet students to participate without feeling like they are in the spotlight.
Small Group to Whole Class
Starting with small group work that leads up to whole class discussion helps students think before they discuss.
Ice Breakers with less Pressure
Ice breakers for extroverts are exciting and fun, but they can be painful and nerve-racking for introverts. At the beginning of school when icebreakers are popular ways for students to get to know one another, try to come up with activities or games that don't put pressure on your quiet students.
Patricia Clendening Buzzerio is an enrichment specialist for The American School of The Hague. She taught in various cities in the U.S. and she currently resides in The Netherlands.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2017.
A teacher's guide to planning a high-interest, engaging writing project
Three years ago an eighth grade class of mine had a blog project called "Dear Terrorist" where students researched their topics and wrote letters to anyone considering (or participating in) a decision that could harm themselves or others. One girl wrote an open letter to anyone seriously considering suicide. A month later I got an email from a suicidal teen who claimed my student's letter had got her thinking and stopped her from killing herself! The message brought me to tears and made me think: This is about as authentic and meaningful as writing can get! I often use this example at the beginning of a writing project when I know the culminating goal is to produce a published work for an authentic audience. Though this life and death anecdote is exceptional, my experience in teaching writing through publishing has helped me develop some useful tent poles in leading students to create powerful writing.
Whether it's a persuasive letter, essay, memoir, or short story, I emphasize to students that their writing will be published (online and in print) with thousands of potential readers. Perhaps skeptical at first, they believe me when they see prior examples of writing and video projects. Blogs don't excite them all that much, but knowing that a book will be for sale on Amazon.com usually does. Realizing that they'll have a printed book and a "real" audience initially sparks their attention, yet students still require a deeper sense of purpose to truly motivate the substance of their writing. Typically, this means the writing topic should both pique their interest and somehow connect to the real world and to the interests of their intended audience whether fiction or non-fiction. For example, my most recent writing project with eighth graders was called The Letter Project. The purpose was to write a persuasive, essay-style letter to someone famous or influential who the student felt could affect positive change if nudged in the right direction. The idea was that if Donald Trump or Miley Cyrus didn't actually read their letters, then at least an online audience would get the message. Framing the project this way also allowed for considerable student choice and voice as they could pick any figure (from a celebrity icon to the Korean Minister of Education!) and discover their own persuasive style along the way.
Part of what helps motivate or inspire my students is that as their teacher, I too am writing for an audience. This can be replicated by other teachers and done on various levels. By doing the assignment yourself—a common and recommended practice—teachers can better understand the obstacles and pitfalls of the work and use it as a model (ideally open for critique and feedback as well). Thus, the teacher's audience becomes the student's and perhaps colleague's. I usually do this step, and it tends to pay dividends in student learning by showing students that writing is a process and needs continual refinement and by giving students a strong exemplar to work from. I must also admit another advantage that I personally have in the classroom: I have published a young adult novel that my students are familiar with (through me, not any bestseller lists!). Perhaps it helps motivate them if they view me as an authentic writer, but my author aura (if any ever existed) likely fades within the first week of class. In the long run, it's not my published work but the intrinsic motivating factors that move students forward with enthusiasm for the project.
It Starts with Reading
The best writers seem to agree: Good writing starts with good reading. Thus, in my class, a writing project begins with reading great models in the same genre. If we're writing short stories, we'll read and analyze Hemingway, Chekov, and Shirley Jackson; if memoirs, we look at excerpts of Stephen King, Maya Angelou, Malala, and Malcolm X. I also bring out former student work and something I've written for the students to critique and practice giving feedback. This portion of the prewriting process could last a few days or a few weeks. During this time, we ask questions about story elements, the author's voice, intention, audience, theme, characters, organization—all of the Common Core reading standards can be covered. Of course, all language arts teachers hit these standards throughout the year, but the difference is that the students are engaging these standards with a greater sense of purpose within the larger publishing project. They begin to ask: How will reading this make my writing better? Which author will I use as a model for my writing? What will my voice, theme, and organization be? How will it come across to the audience? These questions are not posted on my classroom wall. They emerge organically because all of the students know that their stories will be in a printed book that's sold on Amazon. It becomes a big deal, and some students even begin to see stars and dream of dollar signs! In most cases, the letter grade (extrinsic motivation) becomes secondary, and their pride in publishing a quality story (intrinsic) becomes the primary goal.
Bad First Drafts and Good Feedback
It's difficult to write and perhaps even harder to share your writing with a group of peers. So there has to be a protocol for giving feedback. I recommend dedicating a full class period to discussing bad first drafts. I begin with a warm up asking "What is difficult about writing?" After "pair-sharing," or however you prefer to spark discussion, we read and discuss Anne Lamott's Shitty First Drafts. If you teach young or sheltered kids, this brief excerpt can be photocopied and censored, but it usually initiates great conversations and reinforces the idea that good writing is crafted through revision and editing, not some mysterious inherent talent. Lamott's mindset gives students the courage to write and the idea that their first drafts will improve; they just need to stop thinking about it and write!
After students have had time to write their first draft, the writing workshops begin. Based on a common workshop seating arrangement, we move the desks into a large circle so all the students are facing each other. To relieve any tension or stress that students may have in sharing their work, I make anonymity an option, where I (or other volunteers) can read the work of other students. But before anyone starts sharing, I try to establish what Ron Berger calls the "Culture of Critique." I explain that writers don't want just any feedback; they want specific, quality feedback. While I encourage starting off with a positive comment, I clarify that saying "Good story, I liked it" might momentarily boost the writer's ego, but is not very helpful. On the other hand, commenting that a writing piece was "boring" or "sucked" isn't a critique; it's rude and hurtful. The emphasis is on giving helpful and specific feedback, which is what all writers want and need to improve. Then the class watches six minutes of video that has become akin to the Gospel in my classroom: "Critique and Feedback, The Story of Austin's Butterfly." Something about watching adorable second graders give quality feedback and commentary on student work gets middle and high schoolers to buy into the value of this critique method. It doesn't hurt that Austin's final draft turns out so remarkable! Ultimately, students see the value of quality feedback and are ready to critique knowing that the end goal is to create excellent, publishable writing. Student participation in the workshop increases not only because of authentic interest in the project, but also because they are familiar with the oral language and presentation strands of the Common Core standards and know that everything we do in class addresses these. Whole-class peer critique goes from being a dreaded and uncomfortable idea to a purposeful and valued part of the process.
The Peer Editing Funnel
Early in my teaching career, my mentor English teacher once told me that he never read a student's first draft. Flat out refused. I laughed, but he wasn't joking. He explained the funnel: workshop editing, peer editing, and gallery editing. The whole-class workshop editing helps get the big picture kinks out by sparking reflective questions that apply to all writers: Is the piece clear? Does it make sense? What is the theme? The intention? Is it effective? What's it missing? What needs to be cut? It might take two full class periods to get through every student, but keeping it down to five pieces of feedback per story and having students share only their first page makes it manageable and time efficient. The second round should be familiar to all English and humanities teachers: peer editing and revision. Students are given partners and they must closely check their peer's writing with a checklist and give detailed feedback. The last round of group editing is the gallery walk. Students print out their writing and post it on the wall. The class is instructed to pick a story to scan for final edits and quick fixes, then they rotate when cued. During the entire filtering process, I make sure to check in with each student individually or through commenting or suggesting changes on their shared Google doc. By the end of it all, students are usually impressed with how much their writing has improved through revision and editing—and most of it they've done through effective peer collaboration.
Early Finishers = Publishing Team
All teachers appreciate their self-starting, over-achieving students, but what do you do with them when they've finished light years ahead of everyone else? In this kind of writing project, they are assigned a leadership role in the publishing process. As part of the publishing team, they can become the chief editor, an editing team member, formatter, or cover designer. Perhaps they can even take on the role of event manager or lead marketer for a school library unveiling, book sharing event, or student exhibition. Once roles are allocated, I make sure that a few essentials are understood. First, a master Google Doc must be created for all the students to paste their final written work and for the editing team to scan as copy editors. Google Docs is an excellent tool for this task. Second, students in charge of design and formatting must acquaint themselves with the chosen online publishing platform like CreateSpace, Lulu, or Blurb, and watch related tutorials. Third, if students are keen on getting their books some real exposure, marketing teams can be formed to research and make a social media plan or plan local promotional events. By this phase, there is typically such a sense of purpose and an "authentic job" for each student that the project runs itself, and I can troubleshoot and help the struggling students with greater ease as we wrap it all up.
Aside from being authentic, this kind of writing project hits almost all the other education field buzzwords—differentiated instruction, peer collaboration, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning—while covering nearly all of the Common Core standards.
Students seem to genuinely enjoy collaborating and come to understand the value of editing. I won't pretend that every student ends up loving the writing process, but they definitely walk away respecting it, and have learned new strategies along the way. Lastly, I have described some of my favorite writing project plans, but there are many different options and websites that feature a long list of teachers' favorite authentic writing projects. It's amazing how much intrinsic motivation and inspiration comes to students who know that their work will be published online, printed, and ultimately reach an audience outside their school.
Dominic Carrillo is an English language arts teacher at the Anglo-American School in Sofia, Bulgaria. He's the author of the YA novel The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2017.
Offering diverse texts as well as justice-focused critiques of traditional literature
On the first day of school in Chicago, I encountered a room full of Iraqi, Nepalese, and West African refugee students. Timid, cautious, and nervous, they sat in Room 34 with visible trepidation. Someone with an equal level of trepidation? Me. I was a first year, white, male teacher. What was I going to teach these students? How was I an authority on anything as it relates to their experiences? Who was I to instruct these students on the human condition, challenges, and struggles, when, in reality, the biggest challenge I had had up to that point was moving from Seattle to the Midwest? Hardly an authoritative voice.
Two weeks prior to that first day, I had received the curriculum map for the Grade 8/9 English class, took a glance, and was unsurprised to find a white-centered, euro-centric literature curriculum: Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Little Women, Jane Eyre. The souls of these dead white authors leapt off the page. On several accounts, these are amazing pieces of classic literature that have shaped and molded our universal intellectual thought. Yet, they are not representative of the group of students that was to appear in front of me days later. Where were their stories? Where was the mirror in which they could see themselves? Where was the window in which they could experience other voices, stories, and experiences?
I should have done this with a little more tact, in hindsight. I marched down to my principal, curriculum map in hand, slammed it on her desk and said, "We have a problem here." I argued that if we truly wanted to be a school that created a safe learning environment for all students, we would need to alter our curriculum. We would have to diversify our literary voices and authors, and open ourselves up to criticizing a white-centered curriculum.
I still look back on that first year as one of the most formative in terms of how I develop my curriculum and create a justice-focused learning environment. When I introduced a more diverse set of novels as well as opened up our classic novels to justice-focused critiques, students reported feeling more engaged, more interested, and felt that the curriculum was more relevant to their lives. That, to me, was success.
The theory is simple. Research indicates that when students can "see" themselves in literature and in curriculum across disciplines, they are more likely to be engaged. In fact, behavior issues even diminish. Most importantly, though, students who are traditionally disenfranchised from the literary canon are witness to their value. Every student deserves to see themselves in what they read. When teachers ignore topics of difference, race, and equity, we contribute to unsafe environments by showing our students that these voices and issues don't matter.
I will admit, this is a personal endeavor for me. As a young gay student, growing up I often felt unsafe. I often felt like my voice didn't matter. It was made even more difficult with the deafening silence I encountered throughout my entire K–12 public school experience. That silence spoke volumes. Never once did I witness an LGBT character in a novel, in a history book, or in a conversation or class discussion. The only time it was mentioned was in the context of a negative. The result was a feeling of isolation, loneliness, and fear. It was not until college—college!—that I finally was able to see people like me in what I read. For once, I felt like I had a place in the classroom. I was more motivated, more engaged, and increasingly excited about reading complex texts through the lens of my own identity. I was validated.
Our middle school students deserve the same, and, as teachers, we are morally obligated to help guide them towards discovering and exploring their own identity. Literature is just that powerful. Imagine if we could actually reduce prejudice by exposing our students to diverse characters. Or could we actually increase self-esteem by showing our students that they aren't alone? I think, and my experience dictates, that this has profound impacts on the culture of a classroom and school.
Over the years I have developed a literature curriculum that takes into account two aspects of social justice education. The first, and arguably the most important, is introducing texts that provide a window and a mirror into the lives of people of color, the disabled, LGBT people, and others. It is, on all accounts, literature that exposes my students to diverse perspectives. I try to ensure that the literature is more than a single story. While the story of war-torn Africa is important, it's not the only story from the continent.
A social justice literature curriculum relies on introducing these different types of texts that expose young readers to the experiences of the disenfranchised. It also challenges the Western literary canon and approaches classic texts with a high level of scrutiny and inquiry.
This latter requirement is sometimes referred to as the decentering of classic literature. Yes, classic literature has done wonders for our intellectual and literary worlds, but it's also problematic and not emblematic of the world we live in today. That, in and of itself, is an important opening into literary critique.
For example, after a media literacy unit analyzing how men and women are represented in popular media, my eighth graders read the classic, Lord of the Flies. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Lord of the Flies. I think it speaks volumes about the human condition, leadership, and the role of power in the development of identity. It's also homophobic, presents us with the emasculation of young men, and has hints of racist rhetoric.
In presenting Lord of the Flies to my students, my goal is two-fold. Students analyze the text as we would any novel—theme, message, language, etc.—but I also push them in a direction of more profound social critique, or what I call a "justice critique." By having contextualized the novel with a media literacy unit beforehand, students have some prior knowledge on the ways in which young men are presented to readers. Students are vicious in their justice critiques. Why are men always forced to be hyper masculine? Why are there no women in this story? In what ways does this book re-enforce our stereotypes of women? Why is this novel considered a classic when it negates a section of the population? What are the implications of reading this book in today's world? Now, of course, we put these books in historic perspective and analyze them in tandem with cultural and social beliefs at the time. However, there is fantastic power in allowing students to analyze a novel on a level that seems "scandalous" and, at times, dangerous and radical to a 13-year-old. As teachers, we often select novels that are deemed classics because, well, they're classics. We expect students to accept them for their literary value without ever opening up the opportunity to critique the novel that, yes, may suggest it is not as valuable as once thought.
Another novel we read together is Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples. It is a fantastic young adult novel that provides a window into the life of a young Pakistani woman. On all accounts, it is a coming of age novel that places a female character at the center. We spend weeks talking about gender equality, the wage gap in the United States, and other issues like access to women's healthcare and even how young women are treated at our school (the dress code becomes a heated topic of conversation!). We also discuss how the novel is problematic. We decenter it. The novel is written by Staples, a white woman from Pennsylvania. When students discover this, there is a mixed response. On one hand, students argue that the female voice is universal despite racial and ethnic identity. Others argue, however, that a white woman does not have the authority to speak on behalf of a fictional, Pakistani female character. The question that I pose is one of neutrality: What role does the author's identity play in the construction of a narrative? The responses are anything but neutral and the level of critique and analysis is astounding. I align this with actual Pakistani voices through video, short stories, and nonfiction narratives. We compare and contrast the authority of voice, and students draw some conclusions, even if sometimes there aren't any decisive decisions.
Another novel that is often used in eighth grade is To Kill a Mockingbird. There is no other novel in American history that has captured the intrigue of our curriculum maps for so long; it is a spectacular novel, and I try to read it once a year. Like most classics, it's a complicated text with some problematic characters (made more problematic by the recent release of Go Set a Watchman). I like to read this book with eighth graders in tandem with diving into the implications of the very public shootings of young black men in recent years. The parallels are overwhelming, unfortunately. We discuss media bias, privilege, and the concept of the American dream as it exists today. We make sure to set it in historical context, but ask essential questions that decenter our previously held notions of the literary "saviour."
This decentering of classic literature is, I'll admit, uncomfortable at times. It is inherently radical and that can be uncomfortable. There have been several instances when I have had to have very pointed conversations with both administrators and parents about the goal of my literature class. I argue that I have an obligation to expose my students not only to diverse texts from around the world, but to simultaneously push them towards deeper criticism of traditional curriculum. Isn't it the goal of educators to push students to think more critically, dig deeper, and question preconceived ideas? To ask questions? To second-guess what we have already learned? To ask questions that sometimes only lead to more questions? I want my middle school students to feel a sense of ownership over the curriculum. I want them to feel invested in the things they read. I want them to know that they have a space in the curriculum and that their value is something I take seriously.
Alex Lacasse is an eighth grade literature teacher at St. Joseph School in Seattle, Washington. Before his time in Seattle, Alex was the manager of a youth program for a community-based organization in New York City and worked with NYC public schools to create safer school climates for all students.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2017.
Assessment expert Dylan Wiliam says that student thinking is the primary goal for descriptive feedback. He contrasts that goal with what often happens when teachers use judgement instead of feedback with students: threatened ego. When we invoke the need to save one's honor or self-perception in a student through our comments on his performance, there's little to no learning or growth in that student.
Interestingly, it's the same with teachers and principals. When we critique, evaluate, or provide feedback to them in such a manner that raises their defensive walls for self-preservation, there's little to be gained; the interaction isn't constructive. The question, then, is how we turn such interactions with one another into clinical, analytical experiences that create thoughtful insights within the teacher instead of a sermon on good teaching from us, or a fight to justify one's actions and save the ego from the teacher.
Consider Reflective Coaching
The world of reflective coaching is a great place to start. Many schools train specific teachers to be the building's cognitive, instructional, or transformational coaches (Peter DeWitt, "Which Coaching is Best for You?, Finding Common Ground column, Education Week, January 25, 2017), which is a great way to go—freeing these teachers from teaching duties so they can help their colleagues analyze and improve their teaching practices. My premise here, however, is that the skillsets for such coaching are invaluable for teachers. They can use them daily as they work with students, reflect individually on their own decisions and actions, and as they interact with colleagues on important policies and issues that arise. Absent these reflective coaching skillsets in teachers, all three of these experiences are much less productive, and doing them creates more stress and dysfunction in everyone involved. At that point, many of us start blaming circumstances or others for that dysfunction, and we make impulsive, ill-considered decisions. Little is achieved.
Let's empower teachers (ourselves) by getting these reflective coaching skills and insights into their (our) daily repertoire. The ultimate goal here is our self-efficacy: We can self-monitor/analyze/reflect, revise practices based on those reflections, grow professionally, and ultimately, improve student learning in our classrooms.
The University of Texas (Austin) has a wonderful overview of the basic goals of reflective coaching. They include:
- Clarify lesson goals and objectives;
- Help determine evidence of student achievement;
- Help teachers anticipate teaching strategies, decisions, concerns;
- Help teachers summarize their impressions and assessments of the lesson;
- Help teachers recall data supporting those impressions and assessments;
- Help teachers infer relationships between student achievement and teacher decisions/behavior;
Gosh, I would pay money to get someone to help me with these elements of teaching over the years. We're so subjective in what we do, and this provides a way to pull back the camera lens and see the larger picture with objectivity. In truth, I'm a much more effective teacher and I find more meaning in my work with students when I take the time to do these things, such as I did when going through National Board Certification or working as a peer observer for my school district. Having someone work with us on these things is like having an additional editor/muse/facilitator/encourager on board, an Obi-Wan Kenobi to our Padawan selves.
Most reflective coaching models require a three-step process: a discussion prior to what the coach is going to observe the teacher teach, the observation itself, and a post-observation discussion/reflection time between teacher and cognitive coach. This is similar to many school division "Peer Observation" programs. In the pre- and post- conversations, there are tips to make them more successful, each of which can be translated successfully for teachers working with their students individually:
- Be present and attentive – Make every indication that we are not distracted by other thoughts or rushing to finish the conversation; include what the person says in follow-up questions to show proof of attention paid.
- Honor the person – Find a way to respect the experience they bring to the discussion, make sure they feel like they are contributing to the goal.
- The teacher does most of the talking, not the coach. Put another way, the teacher speaks in paragraphs while the coach speaks in short sentences here and there.
- Avoid simplistic, sugar-coated platitudes and moralizing.
- Listen without judgment and regulate your internal editor. Don't give in to intellectual biases and impose them upon the other; empathize with first-time eyes. Try to remember what it was like to perceive these ideas the very first time we encountered them.
- Channel Stephen Covey: Seek to understand, then to be understood.
- Model the ideas, if needed.
- Ask questions without a specific answer in mind. We sometimes unconsciously telegraph that there is one, correct answer when we are hoping for a particular response in the other person, and we don't come across as genuine and exploring when we do.
- Use the first person plural rather than first or second person singular, i.e., "When we write we sometimes…." Instead of, "When you write, you…"
- Use tentative language (seems, might) and open-ended questions that come across as a mutual explorer expressing curiosity.
- Speak in such a way as to continue thoughtful dialog, not to prove that you are right or the problem is solved.
- Practice silence. It goes a long way and invites percolation.
- Paraphrase, a lot. This allows the teacher to see how their statements and thinking are coming across, then ask if they want to change their thinking based on how it was paraphrased.
- Work toward long term insights and gains, not just short-term fixes, though that can be done as needed.
- Focus on developing the intellect, not evaluation or judgment; seek phrasing and conversations that do not invoke the ego.
- The goal is teaching excellence and independence, and that might be achieved in the one we coach by using methods other than those that worked for us, so let's not limit the other person to our preferred way of doing things.
Most cognitive coaches develop their favorite questions to start and maintain helpful conversations. If we're just starting with this, identify five that seem to work well, then in subsequent coaching sessions add two or three more until we have a solid twenty or so at our mental fingertips. See Figure 1 for a starter list for reflective, analytical conversations, channeling Art Costa and Bob Garmston, and drawing from my own work.
Questions for Relective Conversations
View full list
How do you feel it went?
Tell me more about…
And what was your response?
Could you have said it any differently?
What was your goal there?
What did you do/decide that added to (or resolved) the issue?
What do you mean by….?
Can you give an example of….?
What have you tried so far?
Was this effective… How do you know?
Let’s brainstorm some possibilities together.
What have you done in the past, and what was the result?
How’s [X] going? You were concerned/happy with it last time.
Why did you choose….?
How will you begin?
What will you need for that?
Describe the time when this was successful for you.
Have you talked to….? They may have some advice on this.
Let’s consider the situation from his/her point of view….
How will you know your lesson/assessment was successful?
What would you like me to look for as I watch the lesson/assessment happening?
What did you see students doing (or hear them saying) that made you feel that way?
What do you recall about your own behavior during the lesson?
How did what you planned compare with what you actually did?
When you do this again next year, what will you change?
Reflective Coaching for Students
Look back through the lists of advice and questions again, but this time consider how helpful they might be if we considered them when working with students: Be present and attentive, honor what the person brings to the conversation, make sure the student does the most talking, remember what it's like to see this from first-time eyes, model if needed, don't inject your intellectual bias, speak in such a way as to maintain the conversation, and so on.
When teachers are well fortified with these skills and ready-to-use questions, they have the mindset and actionable tools to make the most of one of the most powerful teaching strategies in existence, descriptive feedback. Even better, they help students self-monitor how they are progressing toward their learning goals, which as John Hattie and Visible Learning adherents promote (visible-learning.org), has one of the highest effect sizes for impact on student learning.
'An added benefit to developing these skills in all of us: We aren't as divisive when discussing controversial issues with our colleagues or when implementing new building initiatives. We see the value of thoughtful, honoring-the-other, diverse-opinion-is-good conversations. We are willing to take the deeper dives into those topics with which we disagree with one another without fear of diminished status or threatening aftermath. When we have the tools of respectful discourse and investigation, we engage fully. With today's political, cultural, and economic tensions, these skills matter more than ever.
There's a lot of commentary about fast-thinking versus slow-thinking (as in reflective, deep dive thinking) these days, and reflective coaching certainly elevates the latter. I'm eternally grateful for all those mentors who were patient and advocated slow-thinking with me over the years. They didn't judge me for my weaknesses or let them define who I would eventually become. Instead, these mistakes were launching pads for the journey ahead. These mentors respected the need for me to resolve these issues and improve things myself, not just acquiesce to dictates from above. They sat with me and helped identify my teaching/learning biases so I could move past them and see clearly, which helped open me to my students and their learning success. My coaches did this without any agenda other than a sincere desire to facilitate my professional growth, but I can't help but think how their work with me also helped them analyze and improve their own instruction. What an honorable engagement, what a helpful tool it's time to share with others.
|Resources on Reflective Coaching
- “Reflections on Cognitive Coaching,” by Robert Garmston, Christina Linder and Jan Whitaker, Education Leadership, October 1993, Volume 51, Number 2, Pages 57-61
- Cognitive Coaching: Developing Self-Directed Leaders and Learners 3rd Edition, written by Arthur L. Costa, Robert J. Garmston, Carolee, Hayes, Jane Ellison, published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015
- The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation, written by Elena Aguilar, published by Jossey-Bass, 2013
- Coaching Classroom Instruction (Classroom Strategies), written by Robert J. Marzano, Julia A. Simms, Tom Roy, Tammy Heflebower, Phil Warrick, published by Marzano Research, 2012
- Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time written by Linda M. Gross Cheliotes and Marceta F. Reilly, published by Corwin Pres, 2010
Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant and author living in Herndon, Virginia.
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. The latest edition of his best-selling book,
Fair Isn't Always Equal, will be released in winter 2017.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2017.
This is part 4 in "Mentor Me" questions about Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). There are five components of SEL: self-awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, social awareness, and self-management. Classrooms where teachers both overtly and organically teach these crucial skills give students the tools they need to be successful.
When I get anxious, I write things down. I make lists. I make lists to go with those lists. I make calendars on paper, electronically, and for home and school. I send my husband those calendars. Organization is the key to my self-management, both in the "get things done" way, but also emotionally, as I juggle the same types of lives many of you do. If I feel overwhelmed, it helps me keep all the balls in the air.
I don't know when this habit was formed exactly, but I remember folding a piece of paper into quarters to plan out my week as early as middle school, which makes sense given the added responsibilities and activities that come with that territory. Simply writing down what I need to do releases endorphins that have gotten me through the rough patches. It's my means of self-comfort when others can't possibly understand what I am feeling because, well, they aren't me.
Many schools use a planner simply as a matter of fact. How many times have you written the assignment on the board, given the kiddos time to copy it, only to receive emails from parents who want to know what the homework is because there's nothing written in the planner? Despite my initial hesitation, I now teach students to set Google Calendar Alerts and reminders on their phones. When something is really important, I advise them to take a picture and message it to their parents. I know the cell phone issue is a double-edged sword, but if they have this powerful tool in their pocket, I might as well teach them how to use it the way adults do instead of abuse it.
It is so important for educators to acknowledge and honor the specific emotional situations that our students are facing, ranging from test anxiety to peer pressure or all the way to trauma. My solutions are not right for everyone, and until recently, it had never occurred to me that I might actually make matters worse. It was a turning point in my thinking as I realized that my solutions can be someone else's stressor. Imagine how often that translates into issues in the classroom! It occurred to me that I had scheduled, listed, and calendared my students into anxiety on more than one occasion. As teachers, we must realize that our role is to facilitate the social and emotional growth of our students through added responsibility and complicated new peer interactions.
So many of the organizational tools we provide students or demand of them are meant to help students "keep all the balls in the air." We can't stand in for them and do the juggling that is required of them, but rather, we need to teach them how to do it themselves. Don't get me wrong, I love an organized binder as much as the next middle school teacher, but I've also watched some people cling to the organization as if it were the learning itself. In the same way, if we are requiring excessively specific management tools, aren't we contributing to the problem of students who can't figure out how to do things themselves—a sort of learned helplessness that grows from our good intentions? We might think we are doing the best thing for students, but if we don't seek their input and tend to their social and emotional needs, we might actually be contributing to our students' future struggles.
Amber Chandler is an ELA teacher and the ELA department chair at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, New York.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2017.
Helping students make sense of issues that concern them
In September 2015, a haunting image of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi circulated the world, mostly via social media. His lifeless body on the shores of Turkey was a confronting and emotive image for the average adult. For many young adolescents, it was unimaginable. The "why" was complex and difficult to fathom. Soon after, it was widely reported that the image of Aylan Kurdi appeared on 20 million screens within 12 hours of the original tweet. It seems that we no longer need to reach out on behalf of our students to help them connect to the real world. They are already connected in a way that previous generations were not.
An online survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2015 found that 71% of American teens ages 13 to 17 access more than one social network site. With nearly three-quarters having access to a smart phone, the potential for connectivity is constant. It is increasingly difficult to shelter students from real world issues, and this increased accessibility means that students need the skills to examine perspectives that may differ from their own. They need to know how to explore the complexity of the problems facing the world. As teachers, we must help students make sense of issues that concern them. While young adolescents value the perspectives of their peers, seemingly above adults, they still seek adult guidance and support, even if they don't freely admit it.
What is Relevance?
AMLE's position paper This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents identifies a "curriculum that is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant" as one of the 16 research-based characteristics for successful middle grades schools. An important question for educators is Who decides what is relevant to the lives of young adolescents? While the answer seems obvious, it is rare that schools consult with young adolescents about curriculum content.
Early proponents of a democratic approach to education, such as John Dewey, advocated that schools place students at the center, with relevant curriculum as a key element. James Beane appealed to teachers to begin curriculum development by focusing on the concerns and questions of students. Mark Springer's Soundings Program at Radnor Middle School has placed students at the center of their learning for more than 15 years, with a curriculum developed by students that is relevant to their own concerns about the world and their place in it. The approach suggested by Beane and adopted by Springer, invites students to ask questions about themselves and the world. In this way, student voice and choice becomes an essential starting point for curriculum development.
If we are genuine about our intention to offer relevant and appealing learning experiences to students, we must listen carefully, expand students' knowledge of local and global issues, and value their thoughts and opinions.
Listen to Students
Anyone who works closely with young adolescents understands that they are capable of compassion, open-mindedness, and genuine interest in the world. This poses a challenge to the persistent stereotype that they care for little beyond themselves. Middle level students do often care about superficial things, like Snapchat streaks and the right shoes/clothes/backpack/haircut, but they also have thoughtful opinions and questions about the things they see and hear every day. The problem is, we don't often ask them and they may think we're not that interested.
If we imagine that students are brimming with insightful and complex questions, just waiting to pour them onto the blank poster paper we have placed in the middle of our collaboratively-positioned desks, then we will be disappointed. Of course some are ready and will relish the opportunity. Others might wonder how to get the questions right. Others may worry their questions aren't smart enough, and some just want the teacher to tell them which questions to write down so they can get it over with. Students won't always be ready or motivated to ask their own questions. That doesn't mean they don't have any.
Expand Students' Understanding of the World
To help students generate their own questions about the world, they need to see themselves as global citizens whose thoughts and opinions are valued by others. They also need knowledge of the real world and opportunities to examine socially relevant issues. Unless it appears in their newsfeed, many students will not seek out world news and current events. Teachers need to make time for thinking about local and global issues and build a toolbox of strategies for exploring them. Select a controversial tweet, an editorial cartoon, an emotive image, or provocative clip and ask students to consider the perspectives that they see. Ron Ritchart's "thinking routines"provide teachers with proven strategies for promoting deep thinking and learning and are a powerful means to expanding students' knowledge of the world around them.
Once students have deeply considered an issue, they need to talk about it. Young adolescents are eager to talk to their peers, and teachers should facilitate discussion of a range of local and global issues. Students can practice converting their thoughts and concerns into urgent words, listen to the opinions of peers, and, together, discuss solutions.
Students also need opportunities for real action in response to their concerns. It's not enough to acknowledge issues and be informed; young adolescents need to know that they can impact the world around them. While social media can heighten awareness of relevant real world issues, many teens (and adults) are accused of slacktivism, where a willingness to "like" or "share" a post on an issue—or with slightly more effort add several lines of crying face emojis—is not followed by any real action. Awareness alone is not enough to solve the world's problems. Opportunities to serve others shows middle level students that they have something to offer the world and can inspire them to volunteer on their own time or pursue careers in social justice fields. They will meet people and learn things that will help them ask more questions, demand answers, and take responsibility for working towards solutions.
Value Students' Interests and Opinions
In the 21st century, educators clearly understand the importance of a relevant curriculum that honors students' questions and concerns about the world, but what about the seemingly less important inclinations of the young adolescent? Many teachers connect on social media to young adolescents in their personal lives outside the classroom. Their newsfeeds are a rich source of pop culture and teen insight, offering a multitude of teaching opportunities that are relevant to the lives of teenagers. During the teaching of a unit focused on conflict, I searched for a way to help students connect to Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce et Decorum est" and scheduled a lesson for the following day. Sometime during the evening, a teen-aged family member "liked" the newly released "Bad Blood" music video by Taylor Swift and it appeared in tenacious color on my Facebook newsfeed. In the classroom the next day, students compared and contrasted Swift's video, in all its glitzy glory, with the famous World War I poem, a harrowing account of a real conflict and the mark left on those who lived it. Students compared Swift's line "Band-Aids don't fix bullet holes" to the vivid imagery in Owen's poem and discussed which was a more effective and accurate account of conflict. Pop culture can connect the past to the present and draw in students who might otherwise not see a poem written almost a century earlier as relevant to their lives.
Even if you miss the mark slightly with your foray into popular teen culture, students appreciate the effort and love to let you know when the thing you selected is unforgivably uncool. The truth is that once things become popular they quickly become unpopular, especially for the young adolescent who is often an inexplicable oxymoron, wanting to stand out while still fitting in.
Some see popular culture as synonymous with low culture and there is a resistance to its inclusion in classrooms. The sentiment that the "cool stuff" students care about is not worthy of the classroom suggests disdain for the young adolescents we expect to develop relationships with. While some might criticize Taylor Swift's lyrics as lacking in complexity and sophistication, we should not deride the genuine interests of young adolescents by ignoring the music, stories, and issues they value.
Rachael Williams is Year 9 Coordinator, chair of LINKS Faculty, and head of Larritt at Ballarat Grammar School in Australia.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2017.
Moving Beyond Tech-Rich Classrooms
Imagine being tasked with teaching a class of restless adolescents, all of whom have different learning styles, strengths, interests, and needs. Or perhaps this daunting scenario is not so farfetched at all.
A team of innovative teachers at Middletown Middle School (MMS) in Frederick County, Maryland, decided to try something vastly different in an attempt to increase student success in their classrooms: blended learning.
Blended learning is a personalized, competency-based learning experience including increased student control over the time, path, or place of learning. When combined with devices in a one-to-one classroom, this model can increase student achievement, empower students to take more ownership of their learning, and create efficiencies that allow teachers to reinvest time saved in their students.
These dedicated MMS teachers muddled through the reading, research, and planning necessary to make the shift, not simply to technology-rich classrooms, which they do in fact have, but they've made the full instructional shift necessary for authentic blended learning. They have read Blended by Michael Horn, Moonshots in Education by Esther Wojcicki, and Blended Learning in Action by Catlin Tucker. They have turned to the Internet, relying heavily on materials provided by the Christensen Institute. They have spent countless hours after school, late nights at home, and weekend afternoons next to the pool discussing how to leverage technology and personalize instruction to increase student achievement and close the achievement gap. They have sacrificed blood, toil, tears, and sweat as they were brutally reminded of the dreaded "implementation dip" common when one encounters an innovation that requires new skills and understandings. But these teachers persevered, knowing they were on the verge of a revolution. Before long, their efforts paid off. The positive impact on students is impossible to miss.
Two sixth grade language arts classes that meet simultaneously at MMS, populated with a high percentage of students with IEPs and 504s, are supported by two content teachers, Cindy Cregar and Sarah Harrison, and a special education teacher, Amy Newkirk. Two sixth grade mathematics classes that meet simultaneously, populated with many of the same students with IEPs and 504s, are supported by two content teachers, Meagan Byrd and Amy Clipp, and the same special educator, Amy Newkirk. These two teams of teachers work together to plan and facilitate a station rotation model of blended learning. Each week, they pre-assess their students and use the results to create personalized playlists that support each student's learning as he or she rotates among various student-led, teacher-led, high-tech, and low-tech stations across two classrooms.
Initially, students moved through four stations, which these teachers coined Personalized Learning Time, Tech Time, Guided Instruction, and Collaboration. Sometimes the Personalized Learning Time was independent, but at times, it was collaborative. At times it involved technology, but at other times, it was more paper/pencil-based. Tech Time always involved technology, but these teachers felt strongly that the technology should always support new learning, not just reinforce past learning. Guided Instruction was always small group instruction with the teacher, in which she was better able to learn each student's unique interests and needs because of the small group setting. The Collaboration station always involved students working together to complete a task, sometimes using high-tech, while other times using low-tech strategies. Initially, these stations were very rigid in terms of expectations and pacing, but students struggled. So, their teachers adapted. As Newkirk reflects, "When implementing blended learning, you have to follow the kids, not the model. Flexibility is key when responding to kids' needs." Now, particularly because so much of the complex reading and writing that must occur in language arts classes requires sustained, uninterrupted time, the stations have become more fluid. Sometimes they are 20 minutes each; sometimes, depending on the tasks, they are 40 minutes. The key is to be flexible and responsive to students' needs.
When asked what they think of blended learning, these sixth graders report:
- "It gives us a chance to move around."
- "It lets us collaborate on our ideas."
- "I'm more in charge of my own learning."
- "It allows us to learn in different ways."
- "We're doing something new every day."
- "It's more challenging."
Lesson planning is complex, as most stations have three levels of difficulty and digital resources to support the various needs and interests of students. At first, these five teachers spent hours scouring the Internet to find digital content and videos to support their curriculum. They would become frustrated when they would find a near-perfect video, only to find that it interchanged a key vocabulary term. So, rather than being at the mercy of what they could find on the Internet, Cregar, Harrison, Byrd, Clipp, and Newkirk began creating their own differentiated videos using free online video recording tools.
By incorporating and creating so much digital content, students have 24/7 access to learning materials. When students are stuck, instead of turning to their teachers for the answers, they have learned to use the resources at their fingertips to solve problems. As a result, the types of questions students are asking teachers has changed drastically. Instead of asking recall or surface level questions, students ask deeper, analytical questions, and they work alongside their teachers to solve complex problems and tasks.
It's no secret that planning for blended learning is more time consuming and complex than traditional lesson planning. But the juice is worth the squeeze! Cregar explains how much more meaningful data analysis is. For the past few years, teachers at MMS, and many schools across America, have been asked to set Student Learning Objectives and use data to monitor students' progress toward that goal. With more traditional, or linear, lesson planning, very little differentiation happens as a result of the data analysis. Teachers may create a differentiated lesson that offers two texts, one more complex than another, or they may offer extension activities for students who demonstrate mastery earlier. But in a traditional classroom, it is nearly impossible to differentiate to a level that meets every student's needs. In a blended learning classroom, every station is differentiated. Personalized playlists are created to meet the needs of each student. Students have access to learning 24/7, and all of their learning resources are constantly at their fingertips. Technology is leveraged in a way that frees up the teacher to offer more small group and one-on-one instruction and opportunities for real-time feedback. In a blended learning classroom, data analysis becomes a natural part of the planning process, and the findings are used to personalize learning for every student in the room.
So, are there any other critical components for blended learning success? A supportive administration. Everett Warren, principal at MMS, has been a key player in their blended learning success. He purchased books so these teachers could participate in book studies about blended learning. He moved teachers' classrooms so Cregar, Harrison, Byrd, and Clipp were physically near each other in the building, allowing them to easily "share" students. He arranged to have their electronic gradebooks merged, so all three teachers in each content area were the official teachers of record. He worked with central office staff to provide devices to every student. But most importantly, Warren approached these blended learning pioneers early to say that they had "the freedom to fail." He knew that these teachers were dedicated, passionate professionals who would do everything in their power to increase student success, but he knew that the shift in instruction would be unconventional. He knew that these teachers needed the space, the freedom, and the permission to think outside of the box and learn what worked best both by extensive research and trial and error. Warren created the environment for success, and then stepped back, confident that these teachers would not settle for anything less than success.
This semester has been a journey of an educator's lifetime, but Cregar, Harrison, Byrd, Clipp, and Newkirk now find themselves with more opportunities for small group instruction, one-on-one support, student choice, and development of 21st-century skills. The sixth graders at MMS, who often come to middle school with significant gaps in understanding and a heavy dependency on the teacher, are notably more engaged, autonomous, and successful.
Kristi McGrath Schmidt taught language arts at the middle school level before taking a position as the teacher specialist for secondary English/language arts in Frederick County, Maryland.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2017.