8 ways I am using this time to grow and learn

As teachers, we get so much of our purpose from pouring ourselves into others – our students, their families, our colleagues. All of a sudden everything grinds to a halt and we find ourselves dropped in this unknown area of working from home with the expectation of helping from afar – through online classrooms and resources. I am a teacher, as is my partner, and it already feels different.

For teachers, we are used to making hundreds of decisions in mere minutes as we orchestrate the learning needs of our 20 or more students. And now, we are deciding if we should put on pants for the day or just stay in bed to read that book or watch one more Netflix episode before we check on our students’ progress. I predict it will be easy to fall into habits of summer or maybe unhealthy, sloth-like moods, but for my mental health and physical well-being I have chosen to frame this time as an opportunity.

I know there is plenty to be worried about and this situation is by no-means something to wish for, but since we find ourselves in this moment (quarantined or not) we need to reframe the moment into one where we have time to learn, to grow, to challenge our minds and our bodies in ways that we normally do not have with the traditional pace of life. It is also time to slow down and reflect about our lives and our dreams. We will come out of this on the other side and how we use this time could be the difference of setting us up for the next great thing or returning us to the same place of stress and anxiety we currently find ourselves or have found ourselves. Here are a few things that I am committing to during this time away from school:

1.) Don’t stay up late. Wake up early and exercise.

Gyms are closed and I’m definitely not getting in as many steps as I would be teaching! It would be easy to use “closed gyms” as an excuse to not work out but, physically and mentally, I know that I feel more refreshed and happy when I exercise. That means going to bed by 11PM and up by 6:45AM so I can start working out by 7AM. It’s only push-ups, dumbbells, squats, and planks but it’s something. Also, once my foot heals I’m hoping to get out running.

2.) Organize all the reading and professional development I’ve learned or am learning.

I’m in the middle of reading a really thought-provoking book right now, Grading for Equity. I think what I am reading is really powerful and wonder how I could have conversations with my peers about what I’m reading. I have started to summarize the chapters and questions posed by the author to make a “learning guide” I could use in the future with teachers to help them think about the author’s arguments without the need to read the whole book. I am also interested in organizing what I’ve learned about race as it pertains to teaching and thinking about how I can organize the different things I have read into something coherent to share with others. I’m not sure what either will look like or how they will be used but they are both things I find valuable that I would love to incorporate more in my teaching and share it with my peers.

3.) Make a calendar!

In addition to the things on this list, I have regular teaching duties that I need to perform. To motivate myself and have something to look forward to @sivanichalebra inspired me to make this and fill it in. I have my exercise on the calendar and my mornings are dedicated to school work of one kind or another. The afternoons and nights are more open which I am choosing to fill with things from this list!

4.) Learn and practice a new language!

There has never been more time to learn a new language than now! I have used Duolingo for over a few years now (on and off…) but my new plan is to spend 20 minutes a day learning Mandarin (I already speak decent Spanish). A good chunk of my students speak it and it’s something I’ve wanted to do for some time! It is important to remember that you’re not going to master it by using Duolingo but maybe listening to a podcast (like the Duolingo podcast) in addition to practicing on the app would help you become a stronger understander of a new language!

5.) Listen to podcasts.

I’ve been listening to podcasts whenever I have some downtime. I’m not someone who can work productively and listen to a podcast, but I enjoy doing dishes, folding laundry, going for a walk and listening to a podcast. I find it interesting and engaging which is something that may be lacking these days without school or work.

What I am currently listening to: This American Life, Dave Ramsey (new to me as of two days ago), The Moth, and Fish Nerds. I’m open to other suggestions! ūüôā

6.) Play guitar, learn banjo!

Besides blogging, my mind needs some kind of creative escape. I have a guitar that I don’t play nearly enough and a banjo that I don’t really know how to play. This is the perfect time to sit at home, watch a videos, and start strumming along. Music can be soothing and I’m hoping this acts as a creative outlet and a way to bring peace to my mind as I wake up each day reading the newest terrible news.

7.) Reach out to friends and family!

I have finally had time to call my family. As I have more time at home I hope to call more people in my life and catch up with them. I might not be able to be with them but we can still hang! Tentatively planned this week is a virtual game night with my family (located in three different states) and a virtual party with games (my friends located in the general area).

8.) Be nice to people.

We are all in this together. Our county, our state, our nation, our world. Wash your hands, keep your distance, but don’t lose sight of the human dignity that each and every person deserves in person or online. Respect the authorities as they help in these crazy times, buy a gift card from a local shop that is going to be struggling, and look out for one another.

This will be a formative moment for all of us and the mindset we have will go a long way toward making it out the other side stronger and prepared to tackle the challenges that await us. Stay safe everyone!

Clear Expectations and Direct Feedback

February is has always been a difficult month for me.  It always has been, and I predict it always will be (at least in the current system as a teacher).  It is cold; it is dark; it is that perfect sweet spot where the beginning-of-the-year expectations have seemed to be forgotten, energy is drained, and the end of the school year is too far away to smell hints of its sweet release.

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Although, I probably could write about the coping strategies needed to get through these difficult weeks, I’d prefer to share something I’ve been thinking about in regards to classroom expectations during this time.

For framing, this past week was one of the more difficult weeks of the school year.  A 1st period class was nearly empty one day, one third of another class was consistently late to each day this week, and larger relationship issues between students and between individuals and myself seemed to escalate to more than the normal level.

As a teacher, it is easy to get angry at students.  They are late, they are playing, they are misbehaving, and they don’t seem to want to give any respect to me or the other students in the class that are on-time and prepared, ready to learn.  I tried all the stages of “pre-anger” as I’ll call it:

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These are my go-to moves, but they just weren’t really addressing the root cause of why these students consistently were having trouble following these expectations.  Sure, kids had bad days and needed to check-in about big things happening in their life, but it was clear that the problem was larger than that.  It was a good chunk of students in a good chunk of my classes. I’m not a fan of blaming the kids or writing them off as “lazy” or “unmotivated” or even using the crazy things that are going on in their life as an excuse.  Instead, I looked inward at the ways in which I set clear expectations in my classroom and communicated my needs with students.

To help frame my thinking, I reflected on some work I studied from David Bradford, a researcher and professor in the business school at Stanford University.  Bradford talks about the deep need for clear feedback on behaviors.

“All feedback is positive if it is regarding behavior because we can change our behavior.” (Bradford, 2017).

Bradford writes about the interpersonal cycle in which between two people there are actually three sets of realities.  First, the reality of person A, who has their own needs and personal motivations; second, the behavior by person A which is a shared reality between the two people; and third, the reality of person B who receives, interprets, and responds to the action.  It is important here to note that the intent of person A can often have a different effect what was intended.  Without direct and clear communication and feedback person B is left guessing.

“When we don’t know why the other acts the way they do, we start to guess. This is a natural tendency because we want to have some sense of how the other person might act. We believe that if we understand motivation that it will reduce future uncertainty. (Bradford, 2017).

(Bradford, 2017)
(Bradford, 2017)

Based on these thoughts, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which I present myself as person A.  In teaching, I have my motives of encouraging all students to learn English (I teach emerging multi-lingual students) and math.  I have the needs of sleep and more time, often worn from meetings and other responsibilities held as a teacher-leader.  And, I have the situations of tardy students, students talking over other students, and the larger issues of support I face each day in my classroom.

In my mind, I am being reasonable, and it’s the students that are unreasonable.  But, Bradford’s work makes me question whether I am actually clear with students.  Are my motives clear?  Do students understand my expectations?  Do they understand why those expectations are important to me, to them, or to the learning process?  Are students left to guess what is expected from them or how I will respond?

I reflected on the things that I wanted to see more consistently in my class and focused on the positive things I was looking for, avoiding the negatives.  For example, instead of saying “don’t throw things”, I wrote “respect the space and property of others”.  These were the five expectations I created:

  1. Be on time.
  2. Sit at your table. 
  3. Use professional language.
  4. Listen to others. One mic.
  5. Respect the space and property of others and Mr. Casey.

Finally, I thought about the ways in which I exert my pre-anger strategies.  As a teacher, I have become skilled at remaining calm even though I am severely frustrated.  Are the students aware that I am feeling frustrated as I go through those steps?  Are they aware that I am getting more frustrated by the moment and their behavior is contributing to the frustration?  How can I be more clear about how I am feeling before I reach step 4 or worse?  I decided to make it as clear as possible.

IMG-0738

Along with my expectations, I plan to post a “mood meter” in the front for all students to see.  My hope is that if students have the information they will be able to make better decisions and lessen the need for pre-anger steps one, two or three.

“Feedback is information that gives the recipient options. What they do with it is their choice. They might accept it now or there might be other things they work on.  People will change when they are ready to change – not when you are ready for them to change!” (Bradford, 2017).

I’ll try it out starting Tuesday when we are back to school.  Wish me luck and feel free to share other expectations/ strategies you use to make things clear for students. Teaching is a process and reflection is key.  We can’t make February less cold or less dark, but we can be clear in what we expect from students.

My challenge for others is to think about the interpersonal cycle in your own life with friends, family members, co-workers, or students.  How can you be more clear about your own needs and motives in order to more meaningfully connect, inspire, and influence those around you?

Reference:

Bradford, D. (2017). Effective feedback and the developmental process.

Using Video To Improve Math Explanations

I work with emerging multi-lingual students every day.¬† The importance of focusing on content language as well as other language structures are at the forefront of how my lessons are planned and enacted.¬† One way to challenge students’ learning and improve the use of language having students¬†make math videos explaining their thinking.

It’s a simple idea with powerful advantages.¬† I’ve found that holding students to a high level of explanation (written and verbal) and use of content language has actually helped students make better arguments and even understand the math more deeply.

The project was simple.¬† (1) Choose an equation from this list.¬† (2) Draw the idea using algebra tiles.¬† (3) Explain your solution mathematically (with algebra tiles, a picture, or with numbers and letters). (4) Write a script and make a video explaining your solution (the script is super important for students new to the English language; different levels of structure and supports can be changed up to support the students with whom you’re working).¬† Here’s an example of a video from our latest project.

Using Charts to Model Student Progress

Since my first year of teaching, I have thought about the many different ways I could help to demonstrate a growth mindset to my students.  You can read some of my thoughts elsewhere in my blog but wanted to share an example of something new I am trying this semester.

As our school has focused more on formative feedback I’ve made it my goal to give more exit slips.¬† First, I found that I was doing it just “because”.¬† I claimed it would help my practice and I would make changes based on the feedback but the reality was that it just didn’t happen.

Then, I tried experimenting with tracking this data.  Below is what I put together this fall.  For each student, I tracked their progress and updated it as I gathered more feedback: exit tickets, classroom conversations, or projects.

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The problem I faced with the spreadsheet was that it was a lot of work on my end (valuable and meaningful data but a lot of work).  However great it seemed I did not share with students and it did not give them ownership of it.

I decided to go another way.

Currently, as you can see below, I am using sticker charts to map the progress and understanding of my students.¬† It is similar to the spreadsheet except it is more simple and student-facing.¬† If you’ve shown you understand a standard, you get a sticker.¬† The students see it every day, and it has been a regular conversation we’ve had in class.

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The picture here shows student understanding after Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday or the same week. The week following this data collection we had a short project before we took a group test and individual test.  The conversations around these charts consist of:

(1) Look at how you’ve grown!¬† Your hard work has been paying off!

(2) If you have three stickers, you should act with empathy and help others so more students can earn stickers.

(3) You should come in at lunch so we can talk and you can earn stickers by showing me you understand.

Looking forward, I want to reflect more on the student buy-in that this brings and think about even more effective ways for my students to own this information. I want them to actively reflect on how they are doing and what they need to do to continue on the path of understanding, despite struggles.

In the mean time, I will continue and be content with how much kids of any age love earning stickers.

Pay Attention to Patterns of Participation

In 2012, as a new teacher, I still remember my first staff meeting.¬†¬†I was one of many new staff members, including our new principal.¬† As a staff, we took a moment to think about the vision of our school.¬† What should¬†a thriving high school look like? Feel like? Sound like?¬† I was unafraid and raised my hand.¬† “Every week should feel like Homecoming week with all the excitement and energy it brings”.¬† The principal was quick to reply with a smirk, saying “spoken like a true rookie.”

I bring up this story because I believe the way voice and participation patterns exist in adult spaces greatly affects a school and organization.  Creating equitable learning spaces in classrooms begins with an equitable learning space among adults.

Thinking back now about that first staff meeting, I wonder how I had the nerve to raise my hand in front of nearly ninety staff members.¬† Where did I get the nerve?¬† Part of it, I would argue, is the fact that I was truly clueless and didn’t know any better.¬† But more than that, I think a large part of that nerve was because of my identity.¬† As a white male, society had always told me that my voice carries weight and there¬†would be less judgement toward me if I was wrong.¬† I did not feel afraid or fear being judged.

That was then, in a staff that was almost completely white.  Now, I find myself working at a school with about half of the staff being people of color.

Staff meetings, both large and small, are noticeably different.  Agendas are carefully crafted with a lens toward equity:

  • all staff members taking¬†turns facilitating meetings
  • creating small groups
  • giving time for each person to write first before sharing with a partner
  • giving¬†each person to a minute to share their thinking, not more
  • providing sentence frames to shape the conversation

Most importantly, each meeting is shaped by the norms of our school, one of them being “step up, step back” and another “pay attention to patterns of participation”.¬† As a staff, a department, or a working group, we consistently monitor our participation.¬† It is expected that those of us that could have more status – more experience, more expertise, male,¬†or white –¬†become aware of¬†our participation¬†and do what we can to allow more voices to contribute to conversation.

Second, we process-check each meeting in our closing moves.¬† We reflect on whether¬†we met all of¬†our norms and values¬†including leaving space for everyone’s voice.¬† Did anyone talk too much?¬† Did any specific group talk too much or too little?

There is no perfect answer to creating equitable voice in adult spaces, but I am really proud of the work my school does to move toward more diverse participation.¬† Next time, you’re in a staff meeting or department meeting pay attention to the different people and groups that are talking.

  • men/ women
  • white/ non-white
  • new/ experienced
  • content area

Create a conversation, establish a set of norms, check yourselves every time.  The process is never done.

Living Your Values

After graduate school, my goal was to teach at a school in which I could learn from and observe amazing leadership.  My advisor connected me with San Francisco International High School.  I knew it was an interesting opportunity because the school was committed to educating recent-immigrant students and had a unique model of distributed leadership.  I had met the principal in one my classes and was impressed.

I just started my second year teaching at SFIHS, and I have to say, I am amazed at how much I learned about myself, about teaching, and about leadership in the past year.  My learning did not come from an amazing curriculum or even an amazing principal; it came from the amazing leadership that emanated from all of the staff.  Everyone was a leader that challenged themselves, each other, and the status quo.  We learned together and supported one another in order to create change in our school and in the lives of our students.

This did not happen by accident.¬† What I admired most about the school is how deeply it lived its values.¬† Day 1, we teach the students about the values – what they look like, what they sound like, and what they feel like.¬† Living the school values isn’t an option, it’s what we do.

Almost more importantly, these are the values by which the staff operate as well.  Each staff meeting we start by drawing attention to a few and end every meeting with a process check to see how well we followed the norms.  Did we honor our time and show up to the meeting on time?  Did we assume positive intent even in those with whom we disagree?

The school values hang in every room and are printed on every agenda.¬† It’s the common language we all speak, even as students arrive from different countries with little to no English.¬† We learn together, we act with empathy, we challenge ourselves, and we create change.¬† These values define us and our students.¬† They drive us in our work and keep us in check when the workload is large and time¬†is limited.

  1. Learn Together 
    a.) Celebrate success and opportunities for growth.
    b.) Seek resolution.
    c.) Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome.
    d.) Be fully present. Honor our time.

2. Act with Empathy
a.) Assume positive intent.
b.) Communicate honestly about your needs and perspective.
c.) Seek to understand others’ needs and perspective.

3. Challenge Yourself
a.) Take risks and allow yourself and others to grow and learn.
b.) Step up; step back.

4. Create Change

I’m curious what values drive your work or your school?¬† Do you have a common language and method to keep¬†yourself and your school’s many personalities¬†in check?¬† Define your values and create a school where everyone leads and grows together.

 

Teachers Everywhere

The other day as I was helping transport twenty students across San Francisco for a field trip via public transit I sat and watched an experienced driver show a new driver the ropes.¬† “No need to rush.¬† Safety is always the most important,” he said as we pulled up to a roundabout.¬† “Which turn do we take from here?” he asked the new driver.

I smiled, thinking about how this man was a teacher and mentor for this new driver.  He was supportive and patient.  He asked questions and held on to answers only for the moments they were truly needed.  It reminded me a lot about how I traditionally think of teaching and learning within a classroom and the walls of school.  I smiled because I love education and it was a simple reminder that eduction is everywhere.  Everyone is part of the education system because we continuously teach one another and learn from one another in a variety of different ways.

That night, I came home to view some snaps from my girlfriend who challenged herself that day by attending an event put on by her school club: the claybusters.¬† The claybusters¬†are a high-school club that promotes recreational clay shooting (among other things, I’m sure).¬† I’m always amazed at how open she is to try new things.¬† She had never done it before and isn’t really a big fan of shooting in general, but she went because she loves her school, her students, and values being part of the community in as many ways as possible.

At the beginning¬†she¬†did not¬†like it.¬† She had 30 shots and was ready to give up after ten.¬† When we talked it sounded like she was holding¬†the gun wrong, not hitting any clays, and the overall experience wasn’t a good one.¬† Then she told me how the instructors were patient with her, but challenged her to keep going.¬† They taught her how to hold the gun, how to breathe.¬† Ten more shots and there wasn’t much improvement.¬† They supported her after every shot, showing her how to tilt her head, how to follow the clay.¬† The last ten, she hit eight out of ten, and she even said she would be open to¬†shooting again in the future.

The instructors here modeled something that classroom teachers should always strive for: pushing students past what they think they can handle, consistent and unwavering support, and an understanding that students come with different abilities and desires to learn in the first place.

The final example came today in the grocery store as I passed a chatty two year old (I think?) and his father.¬† The child was asking questions and the dad was very focused on shopping. “Do we need an apple?” said the child.¬† “That’s a red bell pepper,” the dad replied.¬† This simple interaction reminded me of the amazing teaching and learning that occurs by parents and their children.¬† The dad was not focused on teaching in the moment but was a teacher.¬† How often and what do you and I and the people around us teach each other?

There are a million examples of teaching outside of schools and even outside of traditional structures devoted to teaching and learning.¬† If you stop and take a look around at an average day, I’m sure you’ll find them too.¬† If you feel like teaching me about where you see some of this please comment below and let me know what you’ve found!

FREEZE! Improving group work to be challenging and supportive

If you teach, you’ve seen it.¬† There are students with high status that tend to dominate group work and feel more confident speaking.¬† Likewise, there are those students that don’t feel like they have much to offer and often end up with their heads down, off task, or, at best, quietly listening to the conversation.

The goal of group work is an equitable sharing of ideas that allows all students to be challenged and supported.  What I found was missing was an easy way to celebrate students that stepped up to ask a question and admit they were confused or to celebrate students that were empathic and attentive to the needs of struggling students.

The freeze card was an idea stolen from a district PD which was then developed further to aid my specific students.¬† Below is iteration 3.0.¬† I began with just FREEZE.¬† Then, realized that students didn’t know how to have conversations after it had been laid.¬† Thus, I added some sentence frames to the back of the card.¬† Bouncing ideas off another colleague we arrive at the current card below.

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It should be noted that this idea was implemented at least six weeks ago and the actual use in class is slow, but consistent framing and celebrations when students lay the card have led to more and more use.¬† Just today, a student laid the card down and no one in the group stopped to explain.¬† I took the moment to celebrate the student and said “Nice job!¬† This student gets 10 points but everyone else in the group loses 2 points because they did not freeze to explain.”¬† That woke them up and soon they were talking. (it should be noted that¬†points were arbitrary – I had no idea what I meant by that but it got them working!)

What are your thoughts?  What would you change for version 4.0?  What else do you do to encourage equitable conversations and group work?

 

Substitute? No, I’m a visiting teacher.

Recently, a colleague was out from school, and I decided to check-in on the class during my prep period to make sure everything was running smoothly.¬† As I walked in I heard a student say, “no mister, when we have a sub our teacher let’s us have our phones out.”¬† The teacher quickly replied, “I see.¬† Well I’m not a sub, though, I’m actually visiting teacher today.”¬† This was one of the wittiest quips I’ve ever heard and loved it.¬† He had everything more than under control.

After returning the next day, my colleague emailed our team about her new strategy for when she was gone.

“On sub days I have been trying to track student work completion and hold students accountable. I ask that the sub sign their work packets only if students have been working the whole time and not copying from others. For obvious reasons I can’t be 100% sure kids weren’t copying, but overall the sub signature system seems to work. I then make a graph of student completion by class and show it as an opening the next day. I ask students to reflect on how they did; what was successful, what could they improve, how they felt in class, etc.”

Here’s the difference of work completion from the first time she was gone to the second.Screen Shot 2018-03-15 at 8.11.57 PM¬†Screen Shot 2018-03-15 at 8.12.12 PM

I love how this strategy increases accountability as well as the opportunity for students to reflect on why working with a substitute can be valuable.  Whether we end up with an average substitute or a visiting teacher, I think this idea is exciting and worth trying!

What other ideas do you use to motivate students when you are absent?

My favorite growth mindset ideas

I was recently asked by a friend to pass along my favorite growth mindset materials.  His company jumped on the buzzword bandwagon and was spreading the growth mindset message.  He was wondering if I had some other supplemental resources that would be helpful and less focused on the student/ school perspective.

The first to come to mind were these:

1.) Neuroplasticity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELpfYCZa87g&t=1s

2.) “How Praise Became a Consolation Prize” – A reflection by Dweck about what people have gotten wrong about growth mindset.¬†http://How Praise Became a Consolation Prize

3.) Understanding the Importance of Fixed Mindset РMy own thoughts and reflections and anecdote. http://caseyulrich.com/2017/07/understanding-the-importance-of-fixed-mindset/

4.) This photo

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What other resources should be added to this list?