Friday, August 1, 2014

Getting Tough on Character

I recently finished Paul Tough's How Children Succeed, which provoked tremendous thought for me on what he calls character, and what I call work habits, in the classroom.  Among his many salient points, here were a few ideas I earmarked:

    • Referring to the work of Angela Duckworth, "she found that standardized-test scores were predicted by scores on pure IQ tests and that GPA was predicted by scores on tests of self-control" (153).  In this same section, he refers to similar research which has concluded that the best indicator of a student's future success, which he defines not just academically, but also personally, such as a student's future ability to marry and stay married, is not ACT or SAT, but rather a student's GPA, regardless of the type of school where he or she earns that average.  Tough suspects this fact is attributed to the fact that GPA measures not intelligence factors pivotal to success, such as motivation, perseverance, time management, and responsibility.
    • Later, in addressing how we might cultivate such qualities in our students or our children, he emphasizes the importance of letting kids fail in a safe environment, and confronting those failures with honesty (183).
If accurate, these findings should be staggering in public education as, though a student may not be able to change the quality of schooling he or she gets, character is a great equalizer which can be produced in any environment.

He gives a couple specifics as to what cultivating character looked like in his research.  For instance, these are the character report cards KIPP schools use, which each student gets in addition to his or her academic report card.

I guess what I'm searching for is what it might look like to tackle this on the micro level in my own classroom. Carol Dweck inspired me to look at this "non-academic" side of my work in the classroom several years ago, and I've been experimenting with versions of helping students reflect on and cultivate what KIPP calls character since, but I've been unable to do it successfully and without tremendous amounts of push back.  For instance, in the last 2 years, I've given a mini-version of that report card for a work habits grade and, interestingly, have never encountered more contention from an assessment.

I'm searching for others' suggestions and success stories, hoping before the year begins to reinvent how this looks in my classroom so I can cultivate what Tough postulates are the biggest predictors of my students' success, not just in schools, but in life.  I'm also wondering if such "report cards" are necessary; for instance, do students already look at their GPA and see those grades as indicators of hard work, responsibility, motivation, etc. or do they simply see them as products of IQ?  What is our role and responsibility as teachers in helping students be reflective about how their work habits directly correlate with their successes and failures?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Flipping Out: the Triumphs and Struggles of Switched Instruction

A couple weeks ago when I attended a breakout session by Karl Fisch, during which he shared all the innnovative methodoligies he's implementing in his Algebra class, one of which includes the concept of flipped instruction.  My particular point of pride was when he said, "English is the original flipped classroom". At least in the way many of us have come to teach it. 

In my classes, with the possible exception of the days we have time to begin our reading in class, reading transpires outside the classroom and, instead, we dedicate our class time to reflection, group work, and discussion.  I love this idea in theory; I emphasize to my students that some parts of our learning can take place independently (reading) and some parts require us to be together (group work, whole class discussion).  Therefore, I think the latter is the best way to spend our class time. When students prepare, I see the triumph in this methodology.  Recently, for instance, my sophomore Honors students have impressed me so much in their discussions over our Gothic short stories.  (Here is a peek into the outer circle's discussion.)  Having read those stories outside of class, students come in to discuss, and because they're so well-prepared, we're learning a lot from one another as we discuss these stories.

The struggles, on the other hand, come in when students arrive not having completed the reading.  Last week, I was very frustrated when it was clear the majority of my freshmen were behind in their reading.  Because my classroom is flipped, not only did their lack of preparedness negatively affect their learning as they were unable to participate in what I had planned, it also negatively affected their classmates who were stuck working with these individuals.  Though they may have prepared, because some of their classmates didn't, they were now denied the opportunity to learn from, and have their thinking challenged by, their classmates.

Stubbornly, perhaps, I am not willing to change my teaching model.  I realize I need to consider make a more concerted effort to begin our reading in class; however, I will never use all our class time to read.  We can do that outside of class.

My question, then, is what to do with those students who don't prepare.  I know many other teachers implement flipped instruction, and I'm eager for some sagacious words.  When your classroom is flipped, how do you address those students who don't do the reading or watch the lectures?  How can we all make the most of our class time when some don't do their part?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Keeping Score

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had the fortune, thanks to my employer Littleton Public Schools, of attending the Learning Forward conference this summer.  At each conference I attend, my hope is to leave having attended one session that substantively informs my practice.  At this conference, I attended many, my favorite of which was "Feedback: the Hinge that Joins Teaching and Learning", by Jane E. Pollock.  Pollock co-authored the first edition of Classroom Instruction that Works:  Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement.  One section of the text addresses the value of feedback, a section which Pollock's session expanded upon.

Among the topics of this session was score sheets, a component presented by Ian Mulligan from Regis Jesuit High School.  I'm thankful to Ian that he was not only willing to share this strategy, but also to email me the exact document he uses.  The document is a grid on which, each day when students enter class, they record, among other things, the date, the day's learning goal(s), a pre-learning score, and their understanding as they leave class.

I've implemented this strategy as it satisfies all three of my professional learning goals.  Not only does it give students an opening exercise, as each day they are responsible for writing down that learning goal as soon as they enter class, it is also an excellent source of student reflection and feedback for me.  Often, I walk around the room at class's end, checking to see how their understanding as they leave class compares to their pre-learning score.  In doing so, I find out if they are clear about what our purpose is each day. I also know how/ if they are growing using the teaching methods I employ. This strategy also asks them to reflect each day on their learning. Periodically, I check these score sheets as a way to get a bigger picture sense of how, if at all, they are evolving as learners and what I may need to reinforce in upcoming lessons or units.  In short, I love Ian's idea.

Interestingly, I collected these score sheets from my Honors class at week's beginning as we are wrapping up our biggest unit of first semester and I wished to check in with their learning and to obtain their feedback.  In other classes, learning growth has been consistent, with pre-learning scores registering lower than their understanding as they leave class nearly every day.  Unlike what I've found in other classes, I discovered that, for many of my Honors students, their pre-learning scores were high and their growth was minimal or, in some cases, non-existent.  Just as these students experience minimal growth on tests like CSAP as they enter at a higher level of performance, they enter class with a higher level of understanding and are exhibiting less growth than other students.  My concern, then, becomes their reflection on our class time.

Can a student still feel his time is well-spent when he leaves without a higher understanding level or with only minimal growth?  How can I continue to challenge them to continue to grow as learners given their high levels of achievement and understanding?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Raising Risks

A couple years ago, a brilliant colleague named Kristin shared a culture-building exercise she does with her students.  In the first days of school, Kristin gives her students a blank seating chart and challenges her students to, in the first two weeks, know the first names of their classmates as well as something about each of them that can't be inferred based on appearance.

As one of my goals this year is effectively building classroom culture, I challenged my students to complete this assignment with some guided activities and, after these two weeks, I asked them to share what they found. I also asked them to flip these seating charts over and respond to these questions:

1. On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the highest, how comfortable do you feel raising your hand in class to ask a question?

2. On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the highest, how comfortable do you feel raising your hand in class to answer a question you aren't sure if you're answering correctly?

3. On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the highest, how comfortable do you feel engaging in cooperative learning exercises with you peers?

4.  To become more comfortable with these these skills, I could...

5.  To become more comfortable with these skills, my classmates could...

6.  To become more comfortable with these skills, my teacher could...

My first realization is that I need to conduct such a survey more often.  Not only do this assignment and survey align with two of my professional goals this year on soliciting student feedback and improving classroom culture, I also obtained insightful feedback.  Here were some of my most interesting findings:

  • In my two English 9 classes and my English 10 class, the area of greatest discomfort was the first, asking questions.  Due to my lack of psychic powers, this response was concerning; how am I to know if my students are confused if they don't tell me?  I shared this concern with them; now I need to help them gain this comfort.  

  • In my Honors class (some call this pre-A.P.), the area of greatest discomfort was responding to a question they aren't entirely confident about.  An interesting disparity between these two types of learners, but not entirely surprising; they are generally perfectionists who pride themselves on their academic prowess so I can see how appearing "wrong" may be a fear.

  • In response to the fifth question, some students said their classmates could be more kind and approachable, get to know each other, invite students to join their group work, could ask good questions and could smile.

  • To #6, some students said I could talk about me, provide feedback on their in-class responses, call on a variety of students, ask follow up questions, and help them get to know each other better.
I shared their responses, the above only being a small sampling, with their classmates and hope knowing what they need for each other will improve our learning environment.  I also certainly learned about some elements of classroom culture that I can work on.  I'll conduct a similar survey later in the semester, using this survey to monitor my improvement on these two professional goals. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

On Feedback

As I suggested in my last two posts, much of my summer learning centered around feedback, spawning learning goals focused on this concept.  I'm excited about how a couple of these ideas have manifested themselves.

Carol Dweck, whose lecture I had the fortune of attending, made me rethink the way I offer students feedback on their learning. Last weekend, I sat down to grade my first set of essays for the 2012-2013 school year--you know school is in session when you're sitting down with sophomore essays on a Saturday night.  In the past, here is what my feedback on one of these essays may have sounded like: 

"Great essay.  You are eloquent and your ideas are organized well.  Consider how providing at least three examples for each point you make can provide a more substantive body of evidence for your argument.  Excellent job with grammar and mechanics." 

Thanks to Dweck, here is how I gave feedback on an essay showing those same qualities this fall:

"You worked hard on this essay.  I can tell you put a lot of effort into your diction as well as into your structure.  (The constructive criticism would remain the same.)  You have challenged yourself to master grammar and mechanics, and it shows." 

Nuanced disparities, yes?  Here is the central difference, however.  In the first comment, I praise the student.  In the second, I praise the student's effort.  Though one may find the difference inconsequential, Dweck suggests that when we attritute a student's success to who he is instead of the effort he puts in, we cultivate a "fixed mindset" in our students, a term Dweck defines as an understanding that one's intelligence is finite as opposed to malleable.  A student comes to learn his successes are the result of who he is, not the effort he puts into his work. 

Conversely, when we suggest to a student his effort toward mastery has created his success, that student understands with increased effort comes increased success, a term Dweck calls a "growth mindset".  In actively cultivating this growth mindset, we teach them that one's success is not a tendency we're born with, but rather something he must work for, giving all students equal opportunity for success.  How powerful.

Thanks for putting in the effort to read this blog.  You challenge yourself as a learner.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Enacting My Vision

Yesterday I shared a Donahue poem called "For a New Beginning" that a mentor shared with me this summer.  As the title suggests, the poem speaks to that chasm I find myself in at the school year's beginning, the chasm where I try to find my way out of what has been to explore what might be.  He writes, "[You] Wondered would you always live like this./ Then the delight, when your courage kindled,/ And out you stepped onto new ground,/ Your eyes young again with energy and dream,/ A path of plenitude opening before you."  I asked my students to imagine to what they would dedicate their energy, toward what they would dream.  And I also told them I would share the new ground I'm attempting to tread on this year, so here goes:

1.  Classroom culture:  this doesn't come easily.  As I shared with my students, I switched schools every couple years and dreaded when teachers would ask me to meet someone new, or to stand up and tell the class about myself.  I'm trying to imagine different ways getting to know one another can look, but to also instill in my students the importance of knowing themselves and their classmates.  I often begin the year eager to create this environment, but get excited about the curriculum at the sacrifice of that culture.  I realize that's a mistake.  Further enforcing this realization was a session I attended at Learning Forward this summer with Kathleen Cushmann, whose new research identified the 13 factors that most strongly correlate with students' mastery of content.  #1?  "A sense of safety and well-being".  Additionally, Senate Bill 191's new teacher evaluation system measures a teacher's classroom culture, reminding us of the importance of the relationship among students and between teacher and student if one is to learn well.

2.  Reflection:  After each class I teach, I ask myself what went well and how I'll strive to improve in the days to come.  I repeat this process at a unit's conclusion.  I feel I improve all the time because of it.  So why don't I consistently ask my students to do the same?  Both the Common Core Standards and the new teacher evaluation system ask students to consistently engage in the evaluation of self, others, the importance of the material they learn, and ways they learn best.  I incorporate this in my classroom sporadically, at best, and hope to do this better this year.  One way I'll do this is using a score sheet that asks students to rate their level of understanding of our learning objectives before and after class as well as to evaluate their in-class effort each day.  More to come on how this practice works...

3.  Soliciting student feedback:  Another part of the new evaluation system, I hope to encourage my students to give me feedback on my practice.  I've also engaged in this practice perfunctorily in the past, but gave it up largely because I anticipated the compliments and criticisms to come.  Because I reflect so consistently, often this feedback was just another painful reminder of where I fell short, but I realize its importance as I certainly don't always see what's happening in class from a student's point of view.

Here's to your new beginning, to the delight when your courage kindles you forward to the path of plenitude which opens before you.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What I Learned This Summer

As with most summers, I spent a good deal of my vacation learning. I focus on improving my understanding of effective teaching as well as my understanding of the students I instruct.  Though I read avidly throughout the year, summer also provides opportunity to immerse myself more deeply in the world of literature.  Here are some highlights from my summer learning, in no particular order.  Bear with me, I love to learn and certainly learned a lot in a few short months:

Highlight 1:  My first professional development was at my Alma Mater, Trinity University in San Antonio. As I have the last several years, I spent a week reconnecting with the Department of Education faculty and its alumni, developing curriculum with recent Masters graduates.  I can't say enough about the wonderful faculty of this department and the wealth of knowledge, support, rejuvenation, and inspiration they provide me.

Highlight 2:  Upon the recommendation of Becca, a brilliant scholar and wonderful young lady in my Honors American Literature class last year, I read Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, a beautiful collection of short stories about Indians acclimating to American culture while hoping to maintain their cultural heritage.  I will surely recommend this collection to both friends and students as a masterfully crafted piece to study and simply a work to read and enjoy. Lahiri's work is certainly the best book I've read in over a year.

Highlight 3:  I attended the Learning Forward conference.  My favorite sessions included a keynote by Carol Dweck, who, in addition to a long list of accolades, is a professor of psychology at Stanford University.  I learned I can change the way my students think about intelligence and can challenge their understanding of their capacity for learning.  I will certainly share her research with my students to help them understand no potential is limited and will keep her research-based advice in mind as I give my students feedback.  Another highlight from Learning Forward was a session by Jane E. Pollock and several faculty from local high schools about giving effective feedback.  I walked away with two great strategies for monitoring students comprehension and for giving them feedback on that comprehension, both of which I will implement this fall.

Highlight 3:  I rarely read non-fiction, but challenge myself to read a few works each summer.  The Learning Forward sessions I mentioned above inspired 2 of my 3 selections including Drive by Daniel Pink and Classroom Instruction that Works (2nd. edition).  The former complimented Dweck's research about motivation, and though Pink primarily contextualizes his work in business, he challenged my thinking about students' motivation.  The latter publication, co-authored by Jane E. Pollock among others, discusses the 9 strategies most strongly linked to students' success according to researchers at McRel, certainly a great text for all teachers to read and keep in mind at the school year's beginning.  The last non-fiction text I read, a recommendation from Dr. Shari Albright, one of the brilliant professors of Trinity University I previously mentioned, was Teaching 2030 by Barnett Barry,  a book that challenges educators' notion of what's best for kids given the world's trajectory.  Barry's text is more philosophical than one that easily translates into the classroom, but I found his vision for education's future inspiring as I enter the school year.

Happy 2012-2013 school year to all teachers and learners.  Please share your favorite summer learnings.  I know that's one of the first things I'll ask my students to do.