The Struggle of Letting Them Struggle

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Today I was teaching an honors level class how to add and subtract rational expressions.  These are the students that have pushed themselves to take Algebra 2 over the summer to advance their potential opportunities as they become upperclassmen.  We’re talking serious students.

To begin the unit, I modeled my teaching after a Dan Meyer inspired idea and, although, not the most exciting thing, it helped students gain a little buy-in.  The previous day we had actually looked at adding fractions, discussed the similarities and differences of adding rational numbers and made significant progress.  So I thought.

We started today by checking over the homework and there were a lot of questions.  THERE SHOULD BE  A LOT OF QUESTIONS.  This is hard stuff and I was fortunate to have curious students, anxious to learn the content at a deep level and ask about their confusion.  If there aren’t any questions after the first day please don’t assume they’re good.  In fact, I could sense the frustration and kept telling them:

This is hard, but that’s why it’s better than many of the other things we look at.  It’s a chance for you to struggle and flex your creativity in solving problems.  Keep trying, keep failing, and keep asking questions.

Instead of moving on, I asked them if they would prefer to practice this a little more; they said yes.  I started by giving them a more simple problem.  Then, I increased the level of difficulty, and finally, gave them this harder problem:

__5__  +         4         –      2  
x(x+2)         -x – 2             5x

The students were able to handle the first two problems fairly well with asking only a few questions.  The final question pushed many of them outside of their comfort zone.  I let the students begin on their own, then as they began to ask questions I went in to help clarify some confusion.  But….it was rough.  I’m talking seriously rough.  Like, why would you do that, how can you even think that after the other things we looked at rough.

What I found myself doing as they asked me questions was becoming overwhelmed.  Student after student asked me questions, and I was having the most difficult time thinking about how to steer them in the right direction without showing them exactly how to do it.  At one point, I told a student:

Just hang on for a minute; I’m going to go through it with the class in a little bit.

It was at this point I realized the struggle of letting kids struggle.  Learning is messy, but when we have a quality problem of difficulty and students ambitious enough to struggle through it, we must ask ourselves whether we are ambitious enough to help them through the struggle rather than re-gain control and show them how it is done step-by-step.

As teachers, we need ways to encourage kids to take risks, while demonstrating that it is okay to do so.  We need to allow kids to make mistakes and fail, but we cannot be there to catch them as soon as it gets a little difficult.  Instead, we need to foster a classroom where creativity is encouraged and wrong answers are explored and shared.  In that moment, I wonder how the learning in my classroom would have changed if I grabbed three students’ notebooks, threw them under the document camera and, as a class, we discussed the math (wrong or right) that the student displayed.

I, like many other teachers, get caught up on the right answer rather than the process of getting there.  Because of this, I get frustrated when students are nowhere near the correct answer.  Instead, we need to embrace the messy process and the learning that is held within.  Maybe the student that struggled and got a problem wrong three times actually ends up learning and understanding the process at a deeper level than the student that got it right on the first attempt.

I ask you to be careful next time you get frustrated because no one in your class is finding the right answer.  Use the opportunity to talk about mistakes and continue to give them chances to flex their creativity and make mistakes.  It’s a struggle.

Being Proactive with Struggling Students

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There has been a growing number of people who have been sharing their “why I teach moment” on twitter.  Maybe you’ve seen them.  I know that I made of one those a while back too, but not remembering what I said before, I would currently say I teach because I enjoy the opportunity it gives me to learn and grow as a human being while allowing me to help others do the same.  It really comes down to helping others improve and be the best they can be.

Personally, I think I nailed the answer to that question.  Yet, in the thick of a day to day struggle “helping others improve” really looks like emails home, silent prayers, and a consistent struggle of getting another human to do ANYTHING productive.  Like seriously, you don’t need to face swap in my class.

Struggle is something that is inevitable in teaching and, when you stop to think about it, is an important part of helping others.  As a teacher, I preach the importance of struggle to my students; using positive strategies to overcome challenges is how I expect them to improve.  Although stressful to the everyday life of a teacher, the struggling students are the ones that push us to be great!

I realized after my first few years of teaching that working with struggling students was something I needed to improve.  With no time to waste, I decided to reach out to my struggling students, but more importantly, their parents.

Before the school year began, I looked up the historical grades of my incoming students.

An easy enough idea but something that was never provided to me at the start of the school year.  Because of this, I knew which students had struggled in previous years before I even met them.  This was good because I knew who may be my struggling learners, but potentially dangerous because now I had preconceived notions of these students as possibly lazy or dangerously unskilled.

I decided to email the parents of any student with a C-, D, or F and set up a conference during the first few weeks of school.

Some of you may be thinking – these are the students with uninvolved parents. Will they even show up?  The answer is YES!  Okay, the majority of emails sent do go unanswered, but when parents of a handful respond, you are given a great opportunity to meet them, get to know more about your students, and set clear expectations from the beginning.

From the meetings, I can tell you that parents are thrilled to see a teacher take the time to really know their son/ daughter from the beginning of the year.  Students, on the other hand, are often aloof because they don’t know if you’re someone that is out to get them or someone who really cares.  Despite a student that appears to be annoyed that a teacher has brought their parent into the mix before the school year even started, you will find as the year progresses you won them over day one.  Showing that you’re more than a teacher that simply goes through the motions to teach students, you win major brownie points.

I try to keep the meeting short – about 20 to 30 minutes.  Here are a few questions/ topics that I like to discuss:

To student (if present):

-tell me about one of your strengths, it doesn’t need to be in school
-why do you say that is a strength?
-how did you get good at it?
-tell me about one of your weaknesses, again it doesn’t need to be in school
-why do you think that is a weakness of yours?
-what do I need to do as a teacher to help you have a successful year?

To parent:

-tell me about your child (parents can run and run with this one, but it all helps paint a picture)
-what have you found your child struggles with in school?
-what strategies do you use at home to help him/ her with learning?

I usually end with a quick mini-lesson on growth mindset and the importance of using the growth mindset language at home and at school.  

Teaming up with the parents won’t mean the year will be perfect, but it does give you a more well-rounded view of the student and sets a positive tone for the start of the year.  I have found success by adding this to my teaching arsenal and hope it could work for you too!

My Journey With Growth Mindset

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Past

If you’re like me, you enjoy teaching, and you enjoy finding cool new ways to help kids learn. Specifically, I teach math.  Learning math can be a struggle.  I know that teaching it is!

In my experience teaching, I have tried new tricks, I have tried to make math more engaging, and in my student teaching days I even rapped about it (probably something I should bring back).  With all of these attempts I still found that my students that “cared” worked hard and found success, and those that “didn’t care” struggled to learn or be engaged at any time.

Along comes growth mindset – a new idea.  I like new ideas.  I burn through more of them than the average person, but I find triumph in trying something that most people haven’t – even if the idea crashes and burns.  And trust me, they’ve burned.

I began my experience learning about growth mindset in a free online course I took through Stanford one summer, How to Learn Math.  In the course they presented math as the meaningful connection of ideas and conjectures, and it emphasized the importance of students modeling and sharing their experiences with these ideas.  Most importantly, it emphasized the importance of failure and the importance of making (and sharing) mistakes.

In the course, I was introduced to Carol Dweck and her work with growth mindset.  I was intrigued by her research, and the following year, I began to use the language in my classroom.  I embraced the mistakes that students made and tried my best to use language that would help foster a growth mindset.  Half way through the year I started to question whether this new idea was all it was cracked up to be.  I found myself saying, “Is anyone even listening?”  I still had those go-getters that were finding success, and I still had those strugglers having difficulty.  Perhaps this was yet another crash and burn, which is pretty standard in room 253.

And then, this happened.

A student sketch of me talking growth mindset.

A student sketch of me talking growth mindset.

It was not uncommon for student to make sketches of me.  In fact, I recall one class period where a student drew normal Ulrich, skinny faced Ulrich, fat faced Ulrich, monkey Ulrich, and even Ulrich as a banana.  I know, I’m inspirational.

What was different about this was what the student quoted me saying.  When this student decided to draw a picture of me, rather than saying something mathy, I was encouraging students to work hard and stretch their brains.  I got one of those warm fuzzy feelings.  They’re listening!  This growth mindset thing actually gets through those ears!  On a side note, this class also liked to yell “SHAME!” every time I made a mistake on an answer key or in the notes and that also appeared in the drawing. We’re working on that…

Present

To start this school year, I decided to focus on developing growth mindset in my students early and never let them forget it.  We worked more as a group and I emphasized the importance of collaboration and using each other to find mistakes.  As the year progressed I found myself saying a lot of the same lines to encourage students to change their mindset.  Here are a few:

Worse case scenario you get it wrong and learn something”
         – I use this when students are reluctant to share their work.

That is the PERFECT wrong answer.  Thank you.
         – I think it is important to be as excited about incorrect answers as the correct one.

“Awesome!  Guys, let’s check out this mistake.”
         – I like finding mistakes and then sharing it with the class.  It goes a long way to make people comfortable with making mistakes.  As an added bonus, learning occurs!

“How are you supposed to stretch your brain if everything is easy?”
-This is a good response when students are complaining that something is too difficult.

“I made it difficult so that you can actually learn something”
        -Even the brightest students with a fixed mindset can be annoyed by challenges.  As teachers we want to push students and this phrase I’ve use a lot with honors students.


Growth Mindset In Action
im so sick of school

Let me tell you about a recent situation I encountered.  I have an honors geometry student that is just the best.  She works hard, asks questions, comes in outside of class when extra help is needed, and truly cares about understanding math.  You might even say she has a growth mindset, and yet, last week math class made her utter, “I’m so sick of school”.

What did it take?  She earned a B- on a test with a few essential skills also incomplete.  She worked really hard to prepare for the test and still came up with less than she hoped.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard the phrase, and I know it won’t be the last.  What would be your response?

“Keep working hard!  You’ll do better next time!”

“Earning a B- is not bad!  That’s still a really good grade!”

“You get an A for effort in my book.”

The problem I have with each of these approaches is that it brushes off the learning that actually occurred.  This student worked really hard and, yes, she came up short, but why not focus on what she did learn?  Here was my approach as soon as she said, “I’m so sick of school”.

lets find your mistakes

Response #1: Let’s find your mistakes.

I took the time to look over her test with her.  What we found was that she was very skilled in visualization and breaking down shapes into more manageable pieces.  She was persistent in solving difficult problems and took many approaches in order to find the solution.

On the contrary, her struggles were very small.  She forgot to use pi in a few problems and read too quickly, misreading the numbers given.  Her struggles and stressful B- assessment came down to a few silly errors.

Response #2: Look at all you learned.  You didn’t know how to do any of this two weeks ago!

Taking the time to point out all of the concepts she understood took 90 seconds out of my day, but did a world to show this student that her hard work did, in fact, pay off.

Future

Recently I read an article shared by a colleague, and it rewired the way I think about growth mindset.

 “It seems the growth mindset has run amok. Kids are being offered empty praise for just trying. Effort itself has become praise-worthy without the goal it was meant to unleash: learning.”

The article challenges the average proponent of growth mindset, forcing them to rethink the way in which growth mindset manifests itself in the language, curriculum, and assessments of their class.  After reading it, I boiled implementing growth mindset into these four questions:

1. What specific language do you use to encourage growth mindset?
-Do you value mistakes?
-Do you value struggle over speed?
-Share your growth mindset language with the hashtag #growthlanguage

2. How do we model the process for students?
-If we ask students to embrace mistake and overcome struggles we should probably being doing it too.  What does that look like in your classroom?

3. How do we create a system that allows for a growth mindset?
    -How can we value mistakes and struggle if we don’t give students a chance to fix them and learn form them?
-Telling kids they can succeed but not giving them the support or tools to get there is something we probably do but need to change.

4. How can you demonstrate to students they are learning and growing?
    – Think about the student that says, “I hate school.”  How can you show them that all of the work they are doing is paying off?  I’m not talking about the gradebook or even pre-test/ post test.  How can we connect their struggles and effort to their success, however small it may be?

 

These are the questions I hope to answer moving forward.  Being mindful of them and working toward progress is where I’m at now.  I’m sure crashing and burning is still in my future, and, yes, I still will have some students that care and some that don’t, but I’ve noticed an overall change in my kids.  They’re growing; they’re working hard and persisting through struggles more than they did at the start of the year.  I’ll count that as a win.

Creating a District Culture of Sharing

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Teachers are awesome people.

They care about kids.  They force students to challenge themselves.  They make learners question the world around them, and when needed, they listen.  Yes, I am a teacher, but the stories from other educators are what inspire me.

There is one weakness of teachers that I would like to point out but hope to improve: sharing.  For all of the awesome things that teachers do in the classroom we are afraid to have someone else look at our work as if somehow the miracles we perform on a daily basis aren’t up to someone else’s standards.

Here are three ways I plan on trying to start building a culture of sharing.


1. Make time to watch other teachers teach.

How?

I’ve been saying that I want to this for years now, but this year I’m going to make it happen.  It is easy to make excuses.

-I’m a young teacher; I don’t have time for it.
-My curriculum changed; I don’t have time for it.
-I’ve got parents to contact and I’m behind in grades; I don’t have time for it.
-…you get the picture.

We make so many excuses that we don’t have time…and I get it, I make those same excuses.  So here’s what I’m going to do (hopefully blogging this will help hold me accountable):

Make a list of people that I would like to see teach.  Ask them if I could come watch them teach. Schedule a specific day and time to watch them teach and add it to my calendar.  Things come up, yes, but reschedule and make it happen.  Think of it as a meeting, but this meeting you will actually grow as an educator.

Why?

I will get a better understanding of what my students go through in an average school day.  I will be able to see how other teachers question students, encourage students, and hold them accountable for their learning.  To think that I know all there is about teaching or that my way is the best is simply foolish.  How can I grow unless I am introduced to what else is out there?

I can create a better relationship with my peers.  If they are comfortable with talking about it, I can ask them their rationale behind decisions.  Did you notice you did this?  Why did you make that decision?  It creates an opportunity for educators to be reflective while having a meaningful conversation about improving learning for students.


2. Create a hashtag your district can use to collaborate and share resources or ideas.

twitter

George Couros is a boss educator, and I had the pleasure of listening to him speak at ISTE 2015. One of the many moving quotes was simple:

“Isolation is now a choice educators make”

Often we as teachers hide away in classrooms, overwhelmed with the tasks that lay before us, but twitter presents a new form of learning, connecting, and growing as professional educators.

How?

I plan on writing a more detailed layout of how this has worked in my district, but here’s the general roll out of what I have done in regards to creating a district hashtag.

1. Find a hashtag that is short and not already used by others.

2. Find other innovators and tell them about your idea.  Keep this group very small for the first few weeks to generate content and help determine what type of content will be shared.

3. After three to four weeks try to expand your group to other early innovators.

4. Try to get administration on board – show them or, even better, have them try it!

5. Ask to share the idea with the rest of the staff.  Take time during the next staff meeting to share your thoughts.

6. See if you can lead training sessions for interested staff members.

Why?

In this day and age we have access to all of the info in the world, but more importantly, we have access to one another (another Couros quote).  In the crazy routine of teaching there are days we do not have a moment to eat lunch or even go to the bathroom.  Getting out of our room to have a conversation seems daunting, but taking a minute to tweet one awesome thing that happened each day allows us as educators to connect, have conversations, and share learning at pace that matches our lifestyle.



3. Create a Tagboard to share experiences in the classroom, at sporting events, and in the community.

vision

Districts are made up of much more than teachers.  To fully create a culture of sharing, students, parents, administrators, coaches, and community members also need to be a part of the process. Many of these members are already producing content whether it is on facebook, twitter, or instagram. Tagboard allows all of these mediums to be collected and shared in one place.

                                                How It Works

Anytime someone uses a hashtag on facebook, twitter, or instagram it is displayed on a tagboard devoted to that tag.  For example, check out the tagboard for #badgers.  As you scroll, you can see that most of the content came from twitter and instagram, but there are occasional facebook posts that appear as well.  All that is needed is a simple tag you can use for your community and spread the word to start sharing.

                                   Why?

Taken from https://ggulibrary.wordpress.com/2014/04/18/featured-database-statista/

Facebook, twitter, and instagram all tend to be favored by different demographics.  From my experience, many parents have and use facebook.  They love to post pictures of their daughter/ son’s sporting events or club outings.  Some parents, teachers, and students prefer to use twitter to share experiences.  For me, it is the preferred method to share content.  Lastly, the preferred form of social media among students is instagram.  They already throw a million hashtags on their pictures; why not add one more that will share a classroom experience/ basketball game/ musical/ band performance/you-name-it with others excited to be part of the community?  Could you imagine a district where student learning and success was displayed openly and everyone was welcome to be part of that community?


I plan on writing more about my experiences as the next school year begins, but I challenge you to find ways to expand your comfort zone and push others around you to share more of what you do on a daily basis.  Teachers are awesome people – its time to show off.  Own your greatness; everyone loves learning.

What Is The Point Of All This Data?

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http://spotfire.tibco.com/blog/?p=10941

“The greatest value of a picture is when it forces us to notice what we never expected to see” – – John W. Tukey. Exploratory Data Analysis. 1977.

 

Data is everywhere.  Data is used in sales, marketing, politics, and now more than ever education.  Information helps to inform businesses and mobile apps, and helps to shape the world around you.  The card you scan or number you enter at the grocery store gives the store a snapshot of your spending habits.  Those things you “like” on facebook dictate the ads that you see when scrolling through your news feed.  There is plenty of data floating around in the world, but only the best organizations understand how to interpret it into something meaningful.

21st education understands that data collection is important, but I believe that interpreting is still in its infancy.  School districts cannot afford statisticians and often we are left with spreadsheets of data that tie only numbers to students. Ugh, spreadsheets.  What – a – headache.  Way too much time is spent figuring out what number goes with what student or whether that number means growth, mean score, percentile, or whatever.  Either way you put it, interpreting the data is HARD.

What is the point of data in schools?

1. Large amounts of collected data should help see pockets of strengths and weakness in a building to make celebrations and next steps more clear.

When a company finds that some employees are thriving and others are struggling two questions arise.  What makes the thriving members so great, and what support do the struggling members need?  Without proper visual displays of data, it becomes difficult to determine the thriving members as well as those in need of support.  This is a problem and impedes potential progress for schools.

2. Smaller, more individualized data, should help paint a detailed picture of each student.

Between the MAP, ACT, and ASPIRE kids are absolutely tested out.  Throw in literacy assessments, math tests, and every other academic grade students receive I sometimes wonder the actual ratio of learning to assessing.  Every student deserves their information to be collected and visually organized in a matter that can help them and others make meaningful connections about their learning.

Possible SolutionsMAP

While attending ISTE 2015 I sat in on a session led by Sujoy Chaudhuri and Shabbi Luthra.  Their approach to data was interesting.  Instead of looking at MAP scores through a spreadsheet, they created visual displays that broke the scores into smaller strands and organized students visually depending on their strength or weakness within a set of skills.

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Instead of deciding which teaching standards needed to be emphasized and hoping it would work out, they tracked and compared artifacts as they related to ISTE standards, state teaching standards, and Marzano’s effective teaching strategies.  They were able to visually see areas of weakness, emphasize the work, and within a year a visual improvement was noticed.  It is amazing stuff when the data is presented so clearly.

Things to Consider

Regardless of the data collected it is up to you to determine what patterns are important.  As said by Blaise Pascal, “We are more easily persuaded by the reasons we ourselves discover than by those which are given to us by others.” We were left with these guidelines when interpreting data:

Wonderings – What do you find yourself wondering about as you look through the data? Wonder, discuss, uncover but don’t jump to conclusions

Observations – Look for patterns. What are you seeing? What are the outliers? What are the surprises?

Connections – Start to connect the data with your background experiences with a student, a class, a grade level, a school, a curriculum, other variables and other data

Questions – What are the questions you find you need to think about, talk about, act upon?


Whether you are a teacher or administrator it is important to find ways to produce and interpret visual representations of data rather than spreadsheets and lists.  Too often we find what want to see in spreadsheets and use data to justify our own rationale.  We now educate in the day and age where data rules.  It is time we find an effective way to use it and help propel us forward.  If we don’t, I’m afraid we will continue to spin our gears and not find meaningful progress.

If your school or district uses data in an interesting and meaningful way will you please share?

 

Midwest Google Summit 2014 Reflections and New Apps

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Sitting here at 6PM after the first day of the google summit for education my brain is overloaded.  Not the normal exhaustion that a school day brings, but a plethora of ideas and tools that I am excited to learn.  Here I offer a few of my reflections and key take-aways as well as a list of the apps that are either completely new to me or I am excited to explore more.  If you have other thoughts or other useful apps that you know about or learned this week please share them in the comments below.

Start, stop, share.  I love this phrase because it is simple.  For change to happen on a large scale it needs to start small and have a clear direction.  This simple phrase has given me that direction.  It is clear attending this conference that people are excited to start the journey that we all need to take to define 21st century learning.  People are open to sharing ideas and failure is encouraged in every session I attend.  We, like our students, are life long learners and I cannot wait to begin modeling that with my students and encouraging the explore because learning truly is an adventure!

Here are a few key questions and comments that made me deeply think about myself as an educator and is interesting food for thought.

  • What form of literacy will students need in the 21st century?  Is posting/ commenting on facebook/ twitter the new look of civic engagement?
  • communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking => are students doing this EVERY day?
  • there is a massive teacher gap, technology is pushing us to innovate and sometimes fail, but it is an adventure
  • We work in an industry whose greatest measure of success is change
  • before students are asked to present to the whole class, have them present to small groups
  • assessing students on collaboration and other 21st century skills needed => goes on report cards but not transcipts
  • a teacher asked students to find an oceanographer on twitter and ask them to help with a project
  • scheduling times with students to take reasessments on google calendar
  • teachers need to demonstrate what getting frustrated looks like so that students can see the proper way to deal with it
  • “Students should have their own personal (public) twitter.  It will be on their resume some day”
  • “I prefer google community (with reminder texts) because I get a notification on my phone – planners take up too much space”

A list of apps that I learned about today

Apps I LOVE

g(math) – google add-on; I love this because it allows me to write formulas, expressions, and equations into google docs and forms.  Really excited about the graphs that I can make in forms.

Google Calendar  – I already use this, but like the idea of setting appointments with students.  Especially with math reassessments needed to demonstrate proficiency

Google Keep – keep.google.com – A student found this and shared it as away to make awesome checklists.  I haven’t had a chance to explore it, but I remember being very excited about it.

TLDR – cool app; not sure if I’ll use it as a math teacher.  Shortens articles so students can see if an article is right for their paper.  Stands for “too long didn’t read”.

Twitter Bingo – okay, this is more of idea, but I loved it!  Used on a field trip or possibly for opening inservice to make an experience more interactive!

Tweet Deck – check it out if you love twitter.

Screencastify – easy way to record whatever is on the screen

Apps/ Websites I Plan on Exploring More

code.org, madewithcode.org, blackgirlscode.org  – using code to bring equality to classrooms; teaching a 21st century skill to all students

Google Draw – this looks like an awesome way for students to organize ideas; if you have ways you have used it please share!

Move it – chrome extension that gives students a mental break

Skype Qik – I was told it is like snapchat, but can be 42 seconds long..intriguing.  Did you just get the snapchat notification about “snap pay”?  My mind can’t even begin to handle this.

 

Mostly there are tons of things, but I am hungry.  Who is going to party tonight?!  I’m happy to learn of awesome things you have done and share my seemingly small resources compared to the giant known as google.  Please comment.  I’m all about learning more!  @mr_ulrich_uw

*not proofread and I’m a math teacher so get over any grammar/ spelling issues…*