5 ways to reset the energy in your classroom

It’s Monday morning.  Students are tired.  A quick glance around the room reveals half-full mega Dunkin’s, Monsters almost gone, and groggy teens. 

When my co-teacher and I talked about this lesson on Friday, we envisioned chart paper and brainstorming, our full group digging into standards and reflecting.

But now it’s Monday morning. A full weekend has lapsed, and I’m late to class due to other early-morning issues I had to address. So when I walk in expecting class to be engaged in meaningful reflection and discussion, I’m dismayed to find my co-teacher standing at the front of the room talking.  And talking.  And talking.  

I can see his message is failing to translate.  There are too many words for Monday morning.  Our students’ energy is so low, and yet it’s this elephant in the room that everyone is actively ignoring. How might we defeat this?

5 ways to reset the energy:

  1. Call it out. Embrace your inner Richard Simmons (where is he, anyway?) and kick that low energy to the curb with a quick brain break or simple yoga warm-up.
  2. Get them talking. It’s Monday. We just wakin’ up. Let’s talk about our weekend, our morning, our breakfast…just something to warm up those talking and thinking muscles so we can then start to think about the content.
  3. Switch gears with some media. Make a playlist of video clips to have on file for occasions such as these–short clips of genius that will help ease them into the right frame of mind (or just simply hit the reset button).
  4. Take a lap. Get outside and do a “walk-n-talk” guided by a question you (or your students) pose. Students pair up and discuss that question on their walk. It might be something content-related or it might not; make the call based on your students.
  5. Brain dump. Give students 5-7 minutes to write (or doodle, or whatever they create with a pencil and paper) about whatever they want to write about. Provide the open space to share afterward, which may lead to some lively conversation.

We eventually recovered, but we didn’t employ any of these strategies. (Failure is the best teacher?) Teaching is such a human-centered profession and so very personal, but sometimes we ignore that fact and soldier on in an effort to stick to our plans. Believe me, it’s worth the 10-15 minute investment to start with students who are ready to learn…and you might just be building relationships along the way. Let’s remember this as we return from December break!

photo cred Zachary Nelson: Unsplash

What are some ways you reset the energy in your classroom? Please share!

Reflection & Recapturing the Adventure in Learning (Part Two)

I’m not the most patient person on the planet, and like my URL suggests, I tend to cannonball.  My first few attempts were belly flops, but eventually I landed on an important realization…

Act Two:

Our Exploring Education class wrapped up quickly–too quickly, really.  School change takes root ever so slowly, and one semester was barely enough time to nudge our ideas into decision makers’ minds.  Following our students’ presentations to decision makers during which they shared their ideas, supporting research, and calls for change, we struggled to close with meaningful reflection and celebrate at the same time.  

The rushed experience highlighted for me the need for more flexible time in our schedules.

The ideal time to reflect on their presentations would have been immediately following them, and yet they rushed off to lunch and the rest of their day.  We attempted to unearth the residual excitement two days later at our next class, but the energy had left us and it felt disconnected despite our best attempts. Yet another example of the dissonance felt when a new model of learning is placed within traditional structures.  

Thankfully, our students continue to be passionate about their ideas.  They want to see change as badly as we do, and school change efforts move far too slowly for their young lives.  In motion are plans to completely remake one classroom with flexible seating, stand-up desks, LED lighting, and a fresh coat of paint, as well as grant applications to revamp all of our English rooms with new lighting.  In addition, two of our high school Science teachers–Amber Carbine-March and Kim Hoffman–were awarded a Rowland grant to introduce EPIC (Educational Path I Choose) Academy–a project-based learning model where students can opt into an immersive learning experience for nine-week rotations through the year.  In conjunction with this work, there is movement toward revamping our research lab space into one that supports independent, project-based learning–a perfect marriage between two of our groups’ visions.  

Jake & Ezra share their vision for a space to foster project-based learning.

With the realities of assessment pushing against the time we have with students, our push to balance time constraints with the need for meaningful reflection that sheds light on true learning remains a challenge.    

Act Three:

What I’ve realized this year in taking this deep dive into personalization is that

it is absolutely imperative to embrace self-reflection as the primary means of assessment in this new learning model.    

When I consider any meaningful learning experience I have had since leaving high school, the lessons came from deep reflection on experience.  If we seek to measure students’ understanding, that must be done through reflection, and clearly, we must be intentional in the teaching of it.  My sense is that it’s about asking questions repeatedly, looking at strong examples of reflection and dissecting them for meaning, and modeling. In short, good teaching.

In Learning: A Sense-maker’s Guide, Chris Watkins includes a chapter on “Helping Learners Make Sense of Their Learning,” in which he explains “four classroom practices that help learners:  notice learning, have conversations about learning, reflection, and finally making learning an object of learning” (28-29). Each builds upon the previous practice, and I noticed this exact pattern in our class.  Although I initially set out to help students reflect, I found that they were much more successful after we asked them specific questions about their learning.  Watkins purports that we should stop students when they are “in the flow” and ask them to notice how they are learning–another practice that would take plenty of un-learning, but would very likely result in deep metacognition.  I found myself coaching during our writing sessions, reading initial responses, discussing the why and probing for deeper thinking, and encouraging students to truly reflect. They didn’t like it so much–it’s not easy, it’s not a box to be filled in–but it’s worth it.

Production Team:

As Vermonters, we were given the gift of Act 77 to mandate change in our education system though our interpretation and implementation of that is left to local control.  I’ve seen numerous changes fail at our school because we lacked the systems and structures to support them regardless of how well-intentioned they were. In the Heath brothers’ genius book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, the authors emphasize three important elements of making meaningful change stick: direct the rider (that is, build on your bright spots and make it clear where you’re headed), motivate the elephant (that is, make explicit the why of the change and then break it into small steps), and shape the path (that is, make it easy to switch and to build new habits).  Reworking the school schedule is the type of system change that has the potential to shift practice, and I’m looking forward to the changes our school has made with personalization in mind.  You make time for what you value, and schedules are a clear demonstration of that. Indeed, in this new school year, we have scheduled long blocks four days per week (all fixed days) with short blocks on Fridays.  I see great potential for Fridays as reflection day–a chance to think about what’s been accomplished over the week, what it means in the larger context, and how it might inform next steps.  

How might we encourage teachers to use this time to allow for student reflection?  I’m thinking there are two key elements: first, to model the importance of reflection with a deep dive into teachers’ own personalized learning plans (PLP’S) and second, to provide resources for encouraging, teaching, and assessing thoughtful reflection.  Katie Martin, author of Learner Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion and Unleash Genius offers this thought:

“Teachers are professionals and should be treated as such, but part of being a professional is working to meet the goals and expectations of the larger system.  If we wouldn’t allow our students to opt out of learning or trying something new, why is it okay for educators? More importantly, as educators, we should be modeling and sharing our learning, not just telling others to do it.”

Martin, Katie. Learner Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion and Unleash Genius. IMPress, 2018 (239).

If we are requiring our students to create personalized learning plans complete with reflection, and requiring teachers to establish yearly goals and reflect on them, why are we not requiring teachers to use the same process we create for our students?  What better way to empathize with our students’ plight? And what better way to understand how we must make time for reflection during our classes if it is to be meaningful? I envision students helping teachers set up online PLP’s, suddenly in the role of expert as they share their struggles with platforms, with the time they didn’t have to document their learning, with the lack of reflection.  Goosebumps, right? (Or is that terror at the thought of creating one of these plans? Interesting…)

Does the thought of creating your own PLP terrify you?

The second element to encouraging teachers to use Fridays for reflection is to provide the resources necessary to make it worthwhile.  Here, a list to start:

WHY?

  • AMLE’s Student Reflection: A Tool for Growth & Development (Originally designed to garner student feedback on her teaching, Brooke Eisenbach discovered deeper learning in the 10-15 minutes she allotted each Friday for student reflection: “An activity intended to suit my own instructional needs became an activity that inspired connection, openness, diversity, metacognition, and sense of community for my students.”)

HOW?

  • Reflection Prompts, Journal Ideas, and Creative Reflection Methods compiled by Mark J. Jackson for the Service and Learning Leadership Team at Trinity Lutheran College (Helps frame reflection in a “What? So What? Now What?” fashion–concrete, attainable, and effective.)
  • 40 Reflection Questions from Edutopia (Arranged into four categories: backward looking, forward looking, inward looking and outward looking, Edutopia provides  a slew of different questions to jumpstart reflective thinking.)
  • R is for REAL Reflection by Tarrant’s Life LeGeros (The REAL framework is reflective and built on student engagement.  Incredibly helpful links in this article as well as ideas for taking reflection off the page and allowing students to speak their truth–literally.)
  • 3 Ways to Use Flipgrid for Reflection by Tarrant’s Scott Thompson (There’s a reason the #Flipgridfever hashtag exists.  It’s a thing. Better, it’s a REFLECTIVE thing.  And, it’s fun.)
  • Ideas for creative reflection in the form of metaphor: Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom by Dan Ryder & Amy Burvall (book & website) (This book should sit on every teacher’s shelf, dog-eared, highlighted, and pulled off weekly for fun activities to engage students in deeper learning and reflection by tapping into their creativity and exercising their playful abstract minds through metaphorical thinking.)
  • Allison Zmuda’s Learning Personalized website (If you’re deep into personalized learning and haven’t yet heard of Allison Zmuda, get your head out of the sand and check out her work.  This post from 4th grader Ava Strauss will warm your heart and convince you of the power of student reflection.)  

Last, a couple of resources from our class, should you choose to embark on a similar crusade:

  • Exploring Education blog (my class’s blog–examples of reflective writing and thinking about our process.  Hopefully you’ll see some growth.)
  • Our Exploring Education course description (Feel free to use this as inspiration to create your own course that leverages the power of student voice to move change forward in your school)
Image: Simon Migaj (Unsplash)

Learning feels like an adventure when students can dive into their curiosities and explore with abandon.  When we help them along the way by constantly questioning the why, we encourage them to notice how they’re learning and in turn how they will succeed in future ventures.  It’s common knowledge that most students enter elementary school full of curiosity and wonder and leave high school with it tucked neatly away in a small, forgotten place.  

Let’s recapture the adventure with them and reflect on the glory of learning!

Reflection & Recapturing the Adventure in Learning (Part One)

Image: The Principal of Change, George Couros’ Innovator’s Mindset

Setting the stage:

Three years ago, I set out to recapture the adventure in learning through a Rowland Fellowship.  I embarked on an amazing journey of discovery–visiting innovative schools, attending conferences with innovative educators, and embracing innovation as a matter of course.  Three years later, I’m still chasing adventure, working to encourage and implement the innovation I saw elsewhere into our small Vermont school. It’s been a slow process. Personalizing learning takes time, among other resources difficult to come by.  Still, I’m inspired by the hard work taking shape.

With each day I teach over the two decades I have already logged, I am reminded that

teaching is a practice that must continually be improved.  

This year, I practiced in the role of technology integrationist for Lamoille Union, a 7-12 school in Hyde Park, Vermont. In addition, I co-taught two classes: a semester-long course called Exploring Education (with my colleague, Pat LaClair) and another semester-long business start-ups course (with my colleague Bob Fredette).  Both classes had small enrollments of students (cannonballers like myself) in grades 9-12 who took a chance on a new way of doing things.  

Act One:

I dove deep into personalization this fall in Exploring Education. Our small group of seven students in grades 9-12 rolled up their sleeves and worked to make change at our school through the open PBL (project-based learning) structure of our class.  Over the course of the semester, and through a lot of research, our students decided on three main focus areas: flexible learning spaces, project-based learning, and revamping our proficiency based graduation requirements.

“Pretty much our entire class was just based off of how you wanted to learn and what you wanted to learn…It was really fun.”

The essence of the class was this: choose something you’d like to change at our school; create a presentation, and pitch it to decision makers.  Once our students chose an area on which to focus (a feat in and of itself), they did just that. They presented their pitches in January to our superintendent, director of curriculum, high school and middle school principals, two department chairs, and two guidance counselors.  

Backstage:

With each passing class, Pat and I struggled to find the best means to assess our students’ learning.  Did we really need to assign a grade to a design thinking challenge?  It felt as though that grade would somehow cheapen the experience.  

Eventually we came to the conclusion that meaningful reflection was the only logical answer.

We asked our students to consider these questions and craft a response.  Although we read them, we never graded the students’ responses. They remain in our Schoology course with the blaring blue “needs grading” flag beneath each student’s name.  And we never graded them because they were shallow. They were curt replies to our attempts to deepen understanding through what we thought were probing questions. However, from conversations with our students, I knew the writing didn’t accurately represent what they had learned.  And I started to wonder…

In retrospect, I can clearly see the disconnect between traditional grading and assessing project work.   Two of our nine students were on a traditional grading system, and the other five were on our new proficiency system.  In our minds, we had adopted the proficiency philosophy, and our discussions about how to translate an “emerging” grade into something between 1-100 shone a spotlight on the arbitrary nature of traditional grading.  For us, we felt that it was perfectly suitable to simply say that everyone was progressing. That said, it was clear to me that our students didn’t fully understand how to engage in the process of reflection.

I envisioned something similar to how this 4th grader reflected on her learning experience.  Was it too much to ask high school students to think about why they thought the way they did?  Was metacognition out of reach? Believing that more practice would help, we asked that our students reflect often on their experiences–from empathy interviews to school visits–and they still struggled.  We finally pared down and simplified our approach; we asked a few focused questions and drilled the WHY, and we started to see success. How do you feel about this? Why do you feel that way about it? What does that lead you to think about?  Why? Why? Why? We had to embrace our inner toddlers. We realized that there is so much UN-learning that must happen around quick answers and shallow thinking, and that takes time. Here, a great example to illustrate that idea:

The Backwards Brain Bicycle: Adventures in Unlearning & Relearning

In Handbook for Personalized Learning for States, Districts, and Schools, Murphy, Redding, and Twyman discuss metacognitive competencies (one of which involves “evaluating one’s own behavior” (23).  The authors call attention to the fact that it takes “a period of years” to adequately teach these types of skills (23).

In short, I needed patience.

What’s in a name? That which we call personalized learning…

doesn’t smell so sweet.  I battled a serious case of heartburn reading this recent NPR article by Anya Kamenetz parsing out the different definitions of “personalized learning.”   Take a look:

“In fact, in speaking about [personalized learning] with more than a dozen educators, technologists, innovation experts and researchers, I’ve developed a theory: “Personalized learning” has become a Janus-faced word, with at least two meanings in tension:

The use of software to allow each student to proceed through a pre-determined body of knowledge, most often math, at his or her own pace.

A whole new way of doing school, not necessarily focused on technology, where students set their own goals. They work both independently and together on projects that match their interests, while adults facilitate and invest in getting to know each student one-on-one, both their strengths and their challenges.

Which vision of personalization will prevail? Pace alone, or “Personalize it all”? And what proportion of the hype will be realized?”

Kamenetz, Anya, et al. “The Future Of Learning? Well, It’s Personal.” NPR, NPR, 16 Nov. 2018, http://www.npr.org/2018/11/16/657895964/the-future-of-learning-well-it-s-personal.

OH MY GAWD, LET IT BE NUMBER 2!!!

I spent last year engaged in a deep dive through an experience aptly named Learning Lab looking at this very question: what exactly is personalized learning?  With a group of incredibly talented educators, I grappled with an inquiry question around the importance of reflection in this new type of learning, attempting to refine my own definition. 

Lessons learned in stepping back: personalization in two student-centered classes (Business Start-ups & Exploring Education)

Still working on it.

Learning Lab 2.0 has launched with a new cohort looking at the same overarching theme, and diving into their own inquiries.  The range of questions is broad, but personalization in every context has a few things in common:

  • student voice and choice are paramount
  • students are partners
  • teachers act as guides, encouraging and inspiring, providing feedback and probing questions 

Part of my issue with Kamenetz’s article comes in this quote:

“At the beginning of a fad there’s a naming problem,”Rich Halverson says. He’s an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has spent the last few years traveling around the country to see personalized learning in action at public schools.

Kamenetz, Anya, et al. “The Future Of Learning? Well, It’s Personal.” NPR, NPR, 16 Nov. 2018, http://www.npr.org/2018/11/16/657895964/the-future-of-learning-well-it-s-personal.

FAD??  

Come on!  Shifting practice so students drive the learning??  That’s a fad?  You understand the heartburn.  I hope.  If not, here’s my point about the danger: we have to get on the same page about what works for students.  The first definition offered (tech-driven pace-focused learning in front of a screen) can’t be seen as a solution.  Maybe it’s a part of a much larger whole, but when people make sweeping assumptions about a model like this as a solution to what ails public education, you get this.  Instead, let’s come to terms with the fact that students deserve a nuanced definition of personalized learning that always puts them at the center.  Zmuda, Curtis, and Ullman’s definition is one I prefer: 

Personalized learning is a progressively student-driven model in which students deeply engage in meaningful, authentic, and rigorous challenges to demonstrate desired outcomes.

Zmuda, A., Curtis, G., & Ullman, D. (2015). Learning personalized: The evolution of the contemporary classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

I love the idea of “progressively” student-driven, as it acknowledges that students do need some guidance; however, it suggests that students will eventually become capable of driving the ship themselves.  

If you haven’t seen Kallick and Zmuda’s Personalized Learning Sound Board yet, it’s a great metaphor for the mixing we must do as educators to find just the right balance for our students: 

Kallick, Bena, and Allison Zmuda. “Orchestrating the Move to Student-Driven Learning.” Educational Leadership, vol. 74, no. 6, Mar. 2017, pp. 53–57., doi:10.18411/a-2017-023.

Let’s acknowledge that we are professionals who understand that traditional teaching methods are not serving the needs of our students today.  However, the shift to update isn’t a simple answer but demands we consider the humans at the center of our profession.  The definition of personalized learning is as nuanced, multi-faceted and intricate as the students themselves, and that is as it should be.

Spirit animals & the power of reflection

While I would be proud to present my spirit animal as the wise owl, the shrewd wolf, or the majestic eagle, I share a far more ridiculous reality: SQUIRREL!  No, really.  It’s SQUIRREL!  It’s my inspiration junkie self finally coming to terms with the beauty of this animal in its abrupt pivots, its nimble movements over unstable terrain, its rapid adjustments and keen senses.  Squirrels are adorable bundles of explosive energy and it’s difficult to predict where they’ll go next.  I’m down with that, and it took a trip to SXSWEdu and a chance meeting of a fellow SQUIRREL! for me to identify and embrace this fact.  I understand its significance and importance in my life, and now I have an answer when someone asks that most revealing of questions as a conversation opener.

anthony-intraversato-445591-unsplash
Look at this guy…so ready to go get ’em!  Photo: Anthony Intraversato

All this erratic squirrel energy demands balance, and that prompts me to reflect on reflection.  I’ve pondered the place of reflection in the new educational landscape, and part of my struggle remains the time it takes to sufficiently reflect.  Who has time for reflection when you could be DOING something?!  Then my mind goes all John Dewey on me and I remember my wits:

“We do not learn from experience.  We learn from reflecting on experience.”

He’s looking all Uncle Sam with a pointy finger in my mind, but okay.  I believe this.  Reflection is important.  And our students do not have a firm grasp on what it means to reflect.  (Honestly, they’re more SQUIRREL! than I am.)  While co-teaching our Exploring Education class, Pat LaClair and I found ourselves mired in attempts to help students reflect.  We failed.  Often.  We started by asking thought-provoking questions.  We shared examples.  We asked what our students thought about their experiences and then we asked WHY?  Why did they feel this way?  While we eventually made some progress from relatively shallow answers to more in-depth thought, I was left with two observations:

1. reflection is absolutely imperative to deeper learning.

2. we need to vary our approach.

How might we do that?  Some moments of inspiration hit hard last week while I was in a workshop at SXSWEdu led by  Dan Ryder and Amy Burvall.  The two have created an incredible collection of activities in Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom that promise to develop metaphorical thinkers, and I believe that this is one way forward with reflection.  In a world of SQUIRREL! type thinkers, these activities are quick, fun, and genuinely compel students to reflect and think deeply.  With Legos.  And Oreos.  Check out our exercise in representing a social issue with Oreo:

That toilet?  Come on!  Brilliant.  We had two minutes and an Oreo.  Take a second (SQUIRREL time) and consider the kind of thinking one has to engage in to bring to life this simple creation.  It’s metaphorical, right?  And metacognitive.  It’s creative, and it’s deeper than even a thought-provoking question might elicit.  While I believe that written reflection is integral to learning, we need additional formative opportunities to help students move toward deeper reflection.  With short activities such as these (heavily weighted with fun), students can begin to develop the kind of mindset that deep reflection requires.

Dan and Amy: thank you for pulling together an amazing collection of “reflection recipes.”  It’s perfect for this SQUIRREL! and I know it’s going to be spot-on for those in my class…now what was that about design thinking, deeper learning, and wait, SQUIRREL!

Dan & Amy’s book can be found on Amazon.