ASCD Summary Part 2: Personal Reflections on Learning

[Cross-posted at The Cornerstone Blog]

Can one student threaten the stability of an entire classroom and prevent a teacher from being effective?

Is it possible to bridge the gap for EVERY child?

How can teachers and students keep from drowning in the sea of distractions that compromise learning each day?

These were the questions I was wrestling with during the four-hour drive to Orlando last month for the 2009 ASCD conference. A special group of students were weighing heavily on my heart…the ones who just can’t seem to experience a consistent measure of success in any area. Even though it’s springtime, adhering to the well-established group norms has proven too great a challenge because of the extensive issues these children bring into the classroom: learning disabilities, emotional impairments, social difficulties resulting from bizarre and dangerous home situations, and personal wounds that run far too deep for my comprehension.

Every teacher has these students, and those in high-poverty schools usually have the most. The neediness of these children wears us down, their lack of progress causes burn out, and their unresponsiveness to traditional teaching methods makes us feel like educational failures.

I kept these children—and their loving, frustrated teachers—in the forefront of my mind as I chose conference sessions. Sure, I’d love to attend a workshop on 25 new strategies for teaching vocabulary, but I don’t NEED that. What I need is strategies for helping special needs students (diagnosed or not) attend to my present variety of otherwise effective lessons instead of constantly sabotaging them. What can I do to keep ‘Jose’ from banging his head on his desk and sobbing every time he gets a wrong answer? How can I help ‘Sara’ compromise when doing cooperative work, instead of resorting to violence or a string of four letter words whenever her partner expresses disagreement? Is there some way I can convince ‘Deshaun’ that he’s a capable reader so he’ll stop defiantly tuning out before I can even explain the assignments?

An outside observer might have noticed only the slightest continuity between my session choices: neuroscience and its implications for learning, personal efficacy, strategies for challenging students, successful traits of high-poverty schools, using rap to teach literacy skills, alternatives to suspension, and incorporating humor in the classroom. However, each session I attended was a deliberate choice that brought me one step closer to answering my own essential question: How can we as teachers have the fortitude to continue reaching out for the unreachable?

I mulled over several important understandings garnered from my conversations, studies, and reflections during the conference weekend and the weeks that followed:

-The opportunity for students to actively construct knowledge MUST take precedence over the need to cover curriculum. Not in theory, in DAILY practice. Learning takes place through personal involvement and discussion, and attending this conference shamed me into realizing that I simply MUST let my students TALK. Conversing with other conference attendees (and synthesizing what I learned via the internet for those who weren’t present) made the greatest lasting impact on my own learning: why would this not hold true for students? As a teacher, I cannot afford to skip this step, cutting off children’s discussions in an attempt to impart a few more facts before the hour is up. I am now focused on going narrow and deep rather than wide and shallow, and I am consciously slowing down my instruction so that kids can share more. I am choosing to forgo the whirlwind review of an entire page of problems so I can allow my students to actively reflect on the strategies they used for the first few. I’ve always known this is best practice, but allowed myself to be intimidated by the sheer amount of curriculum I’m expected to teach. The increased student involvement I’m seeing confirms that I should have prioritized my kids’ need to interact many years ago. I’m also establishing a deeper personal connection with my most challenging students, and forging a greater bond with those children that I simply had not listened to enough.

-It seems like teaching is getting harder because it IS: we’re attempting to reach more kids than we used to, and address a wider variety of issues and needs. It’s critical for educators to understand the magnitude of what we’re attempting without letting the results overwhelm us. Low-performing students from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ and those with learning problems are no longer siphoned off into special education classrooms while we wait for them to drop out. As much as we bemoan the pitfalls of NCLB, in our daily practice we are in fact attempting to leave no child behind—not even the ones who WANT to be left to their own devices, or who don’t have the cognitive or emotional capabilities to try. And the 3 R’s are just the tip of the 21st century iceberg: we want our kids to graduate with technological and communication skills, well-developed creativity, interactive problem-solving abilities, financial savvy, an applied understanding of personal health and nutrition, environmental awareness…and the list is growing every year. We are trying to do it all, and we’re expected to succeed. Yet we cannot become discouraged when our students, our administrators, or we ourselves fail to achieve an increasingly impossible mission. When teachers become overwhelmed, the cycle of learning and growth is stopped cold.

-Students from impoverished backgrounds and those with other learning challenges can be reached, but their success is most dependent upon the fostering of a personal and collective vision within the school community. Are high behavioral expectations and consistently-enforced disciplinary actions important? Yes. Should there be strong administrative leadership with substantial teacher input? Definitely. Do we need ongoing school-wide activities that build a sense of pride and accountability in students? Of course. Other measures such as school uniforms and single gender classrooms also frequently contribute to success. But there must be a pervasive shift in perception amongst faculty and students if significant and lasting improvement is to take hold. Everyone involved must develop both the desire and plan for mastery and personal efficacy. Without a vision, the sense of purpose becomes lost among the innumerable day-to-day problems that exist in a high-poverty school.

All of the other issues on the table pale in comparison to this single truth. The commitment to a personal vision is what ensures success and brings both the teacher and student back into the classroom each day. And while it’s critical to create buy-in among students, the concept of a personal vision must originate within the teacher. It is the teacher who creates the classroom environment and community, and so it is the teacher who holds real power for systemic change.

I am convinced that the key to personal efficacy, effectiveness, and longevity in the classroom has more to do with a teacher’s internal state of mind than any outside attribute. Efficacy is impossible when a teacher is distracted by personal issues, taking offense at student misbehavior, holding onto grudges against administration, and constantly judging parents for the way students are raised. These poisonous attitudes will slowly destroy a teacher’s vision…and the phenomenon is pervasive. Even the most self-aware amongst us fall prey.

There are certain internal attributes–a mindset for successful teaching–that must be developed for a teacher to be effective for any sustained amount of time. Now more than ever, I attribute my own success to these unarticulated traits and trace my shortcomings back to the attributes that I have not sufficiently developed. This visionary mindset is the key to avoiding burn out and staying motivated…and of course, to getting even the most challenging students to become motivated and engaged in the learning process.

My time at the ASCD conference reinforced the inestimable value of interaction and discussion that makes every in-class moment dedicated to those activities worthy of the investment. And it solidified my belief that social media tools are astoundingly powerful and almost fundamentally important ways for educators to connect with one another and extend their learning. To an increasing extent, this holds true for students as well. But most importantly, attending this conference caused me to reflect on personal efficacy. It has triggered a desire to learn more about the mindset of successful teachers and to help other educators find and sustain their personal vision.

What IS the mindset of a successful teacher? How can educators create a personal vision? What keeps you going back in the classroom day after day even when faced with insurmountable odds? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

More of my reflections on the 2009 ASCD conference, including notes from 3 of my favorite sessions:
ASCD Summary Part 1: Observations and Analysis
Notes on Pushing the Effects of Poverty Out of the Classroom
Notes on Maintaining Efficacy in Difficult Situations
Notes on Teaching Strategies That Reach Challenging Students
My notes from all sessions

ASCD: “8 Strategies for Using Humor to Improve Learning”

This session is being presented by Peter Jonas, and is the last one for Saturday. More sessions follow on Sunday at 8:00 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 3:00 p.m, and 4:45 p.m.. I’ll be live-blogging the afternoon sessions (is there anyone who’s not at the conference that would be up at 8:30 a.m. to follow a live-blog? I think not.) Feel free to jump in and share your ideas today!

How Is A Good Teacher NOT Like Indiana Jones?

I just saw the newest Indiana Jones movie, after having re-seen the first three last week. Here is my list of light-hearted and semi-serious thoughts on How A Good Teacher Is Not Like Indiana Jones. Feel free to add your own ways on why a teacher should not (or should) be like the famed action hero.

A good teacher….:

… does not have a whip as part of his/her professional “toolkit.”

… respects his/her student’s cultural background and doesn’t smash or abuse it, and doesn’t use it as a blunt force weapon against someone, especially not against their head.

… doesn’t necessarily hate snakes, but might feel that way about standardized tests.

… juggles a lot of balls in the air, but avoids having a humongous one that tries to roll him/her over.

… always keeps his/her eyes open to what’s going on (even if it might mean being turned to dust by malevolent forces)

… is willing to take risks, but isn’t reckless. Examples of being reckless might include jumping out of an airplane with an inflatable raft as a parachute, clinging to the top of a moving submarine for a thousand miles, or doing a science experiment that might result in an unhealthy explosion.

… believes that knowledge is gained through hard work, and not from beings from another dimension.

… hangs out with people who want to put their heart into what they believe, not take it out….

Other ideas?

Letter to a First Year Teacher Regarding Using Technology

Many bloggers have written complaining about teachers not using technology in their classrooms. Rather than complain, Jeff Utecht’s recent post on “Evaluating Technology Use” established a rubric for evaluating technology use. But what if you are a new teacher or you aren’t using technology in your classroom now? It’s not reasonable to expect that you’re going to become a technology MacGyver overnight.

Here’s a letter I received from a new teacher and my (hopefully reasonable) response.

Hi Mr. N,
I am a first-year teacher (5th grade), and would love to consider using technology in the classroom. However, I feel swamped as it is, just cranking through the written Open Court [required district language arts curriculum] materials. Where do you find the time to use technology in the daily agenda, and how much of your own prep time to you expend getting it all ready to go?
Thanks, Pat

Dear Pat,

Welcome to teaching. My advice to you is to concentrate in your first year on teaching the core subjects. If you teach language arts and math effectively this year then you are doing very well. Look around you and see what other teachers are teaching. You will not likely find much technology in use. Nevertheless, do what other people are doing. Try to collaborate with the best teachers you can find at your school.

If there is no one at your school you can collaborate with (and even if there is) you might want to expand your teacher network online. Sites I like for networking with peers are Classroom 2.0 and Teachers.net. If you need answers or support there’s always someone on one of those sites to help out.

As you go through this year think about subject areas and units where you might integrate technology into the curriculum in the future. Inexperienced teachers often use technology for technology’s sake when it should be used seamlessly to support state standards and mandated curriculum at the same time that it empowers students and teaches twenty-first century skills. If everyone around you were using technology than I’d say work with them and jump in. However, since you’ll likely be on your own, work on developing your own teaching methods first, making sure you know why you’re teaching what you’re teaching.

In your second year, pick one unit and plan a technology project for it. If you pull off one good technology project in your second year (movies, eBooks, podcasts, or even powerpoints) then I’d say you’re doing well and then try to integrate a second technology project in your third year. You can keep increasing this as you go. So when you ask how I integrate technology on a daily basis, understand that it really isn’t on a daily basis. I’ve always had a one or two computer classroom and we do about three to four big technology projects per year. I’m not counting visiting web sites for research or inquiry, only times when students actually create something themselves.

As for how much of my own prep time I expend preparing technology projects…You may need to invest some time in professional development to learn how to use the tools but if you pick the easiest tool, you may already be ready to go. If you know what you’re doing and you let students do the work then you will spend very little time outside of school planning these projects.

In the beginning I used to make movies with students and do all the editing myself at home. That took hours and hours, probably more than teachers without a passion for filmmaking would want to spend. However, the goal of technology projects should be to put technology in the hands of students. Although early projects had a role in increasing reading fluency and comprehension, they did little to close the digital divide. In fact, they widened it by empowering me in my technology use and leaving the students behind. When students write, edit, and plan their own movies their learning is much deeper, richer, and valuable. These projects take up very little of my outside time. Again, since it is no longer my first year, I don’t have to spend as long planning the core subjects as I did in the beginning.

Good luck to you. Continue to stay connected online to the networks of teachers that exist and I hope to see some of your students’ work in a couple of years.

Your Qualifications Please?

Recently there have been some back and forths between various edubloggers (in some cases, one is tempted to say “so called” edubloggers, but I digress). One spitting contest (that really is a better metaphor for the particular exchange I’m referring to), led to a back channel chat among some of us. The discussion centered on qualifications of one of the participants. Below is not a verbatim, but the gist of the conversation…

Person 1: Hey do you see any degrees in their about page?
Person 2: I’m seeing the word consultant a lot, but doesn’t look like they are a teacher, or have an advanced degree.

Okay, I’ll admit that I was smirking along with the rest of the chatroom. I won’t speak for the others in that chat, but I began to wonder later about my reaction. Was I really being consistent? I mean, I’m the first to complain about academics and “scientifically-based” instruction, yet was I devaluing someone’s opinion based on the lack of a higher degree (which, by the way, I don’t have myself, because I haven’t yet gotten off my butt to get in a Master’s program—story for another day). Or was I more concerned about that person’s lack of teaching experience? Let’s face it, most of us teachers have no patience for outsiders telling us about our profession, and save most of our loathing for fellow educators no longer in the classroom. Let’s take a look at two consultants coming into an “under-performing” school:

Consultant One: I’ve spent the last 5 years studying behavioral/cognitive connections in direct instruction methodology at my university’s model school.

Okay, when the staff gets done laughing their butts off, they can begin wiping the pee up off the floor from totally losing it. Let’s look at why they had that reaction. The term “scientifically based instructional methods” have taken on a odor that started as intimidating but has now moved on to compromised and ridiculous. Using a university model school (full of professors’ kids) for a study of methods to implement in a high-poverty school is another absurdity.

Consultant Two: I spent 13 years teaching ungrateful middle-school students. By the time I was done with them, they knew how to write a 5 paragraph essay. I did some research based on this work, and I’m here to share it with you today.

The staff may be annoyed (isn’t she precious—gag), but they will at least listen to see if they can pick up a few “tricks” if not the whole program. The consultant will then usually insist you have to implement the program whole, or not at all, but that is a post for another day.

I think among practicing teachers, there is much more respect given for those who do, than those who study what you should be doing. I’ve been trying to examine my own criteria for who has an opinion that counts. Here is my simplified list:

  1. Other teachers in my position who are still learning, still trying, and seem to have their students making connections.
  2. People who have studied the environment I work in, but are willing to be flexible in their thinking, and can acknowledge the contradictions inherent in education research and in applying theories in this environment.
  3. Parents who have done some analysis and are not just making an excuse for their kid, but trying to be their child’s advocate.
  4. People who are willing to not just tell others they are full of b.s. but are willing to concede they themselves may be full of b.s. too.

This is, of course, subject to after the fact changes to avoid contradictions.