Mom, Can You Pleeeease Record Me?

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This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Making slime from scratch (a combination of Elmer’s glue, Borax, water, and food coloring) is the latest craze amongst school-aged children. This trend is so popular that many stores have completely sold out of Elmer’s glue.

My 8-year old daughter has jumped on the slime bandwagon, and I must admit, this fad is not my favorite (the slime is messy, smelly, and I am constantly searching for more glue).  Additionally, my daughter has “hired” me as her personal videographer, and contracted me to film her slime-making process. But, sassiness aside, there is a silver lining in all of this slimy mess, which is the insight I have gained about kids today:

  1. Children will record anything and everything. Then, they will watch their recordings over and over again.

  2. Children today are accustomed to seeking (and applying) honest, actionable feedback. (Watch the end of my daughter’s video to see what I mean).

  3. Educators are grossly underutilizing the potential of video recordings.

The Power Of Video
I am currently participating in a year-long intensive instructional coaching institute led by Jim Knight of the Instructional Coaching Group.

At our last session, we concentrated on the content of Knight’s book, Focus on Teaching which discusses the many advantageous applications of video as a professional learning tool.

As an instructional coach, I have been quite impressed with the significant impact video has on learning. In Focus on Teaching, Knight explains one reason why video is so powerful:

“– professionals often do not have a clear picture of what it looks like when they do their work….they (many teachers) do not know what it looks like when they teach until they saw the video. And because they are unaware of what it looks like when they teach, they often do not feel the need to change. They might be open to trying new practices, but they don’t feel compelled to change.”

Every time a teacher chooses to use video in a coaching cycle, Knight’s observation rings true. Without exception, after watching videos of themselves, teachers are surprised by what they see. They either recognize tendencies they were completely unaware of and are propelled to take action, or they are pleasantly surprised with the footage as their impression of themselves was too harsh (I call this teaching dysmorphia).  Either way, in my experience, coaching cycles that utilize video are more successful than those that do not (as evidenced by data pertaining to the cycle’s goal).

Could Video Have The Same Effect With Our Students?
Knight’s workshop got me thinking about our students and their perceptions. If adults don’t have an accurate view of their teaching, how can we conclude our students have a clear sense of their learning? If video has such a powerful effect on the likelihood of teacher goal achievement, couldn’t the same process work with students?

According to the National Education Technology Plan Update released by The US Department of Education in January 2017, assessing and documenting the growth of students’ non-cognitive competencies (also referred to as social and emotional learning which includes a wide-range of skills) is as important as assessing and documenting students’ academic progress.

The plan reports some small advances in data collection and curricula addressing social- emotional learning, but stresses there is still a profound need for more reliable and relevant tools (both the learning and data collection pieces).

But, How?
Video learning is one way to address this deficit. As stated, just as a teacher may have a blindspot in their practice, chances are students do not have an accurate picture of their performance either. Video can help illustrate this.

Keeping in mind our students organically record much of what they do, and video is a proven effective learning tool (for adults), educators can capitalize on this set of circumstances to better meet our students’ social-emotional learning needs.

At first, it may seem a bit overwhelming to add something “new” to our repertoire, but as with most things, over time the process becomes less intimidating as the kinks are worked out, and success is experienced.  Also, it helps to keep in mind that while new tools (in this case using video) may be new to us, they are not new to our students. There is no shame in tapping into our students’ knowledge of video to help us with the logistics as outlined below:

Video Logistics

  1. Use any device with video recording capabilities. You can use multiple devices simultaneously.
  2. Set the devices up in the location(s) you wish to record (whole class, small group, individual student desks).
  3. Store videos in an accessible, but not public location (Google Drive, Flash Drive, YouTube listed as a private).

Learning Logistics

  1. Student(s) record themselves for a predetermined portion of a lesson which is likely to garner the best evidence.
  2. Teacher and student(s) confer to identify the skill they want focus on (i.e. appropriate communication with peers).
  3. Teacher and student(s) co-create a list of look-fors for the skill to be observed (i.e. ineffective vs. effective communication of ideas) and cite examples of each criterion:”you are wrong” vs. “I see things a different way. Let me explain.”
  4. Teacher and student(s) co-create a data collection tool or rubric which specifies look-fors. The simpler, the better, tally systems work very nicely.
  5. Student(s) and teacher watch the videos and collect data (separately).
  6. Teacher and student review their findings and set a reasonable, quantifiable goal (i.e. ratio of effective to ineffective comments is 3-1).
  7. Any differences in understanding could be discussed further by reviewing parts of the video together and comparing examples to the rubric.
  8. The teacher and student(s) determine an action plan which includes a learning piece.
  9. After a predetermined interval of learning, the teacher and student(s) repeat the process and determine next steps (adjust action plan to continue to work toward goal or determine the goal is met and set a new goal).

An additional bonus of having students use video to self-assess their non-cognitive competencies is they have additional opportunities to interact with the content of lesson when they watch their recordings.

This model does not have to be used with all students at the same time, nor do all students need to have the same look-fors/data collection tools. This method can be differentiated to meet the social-emotional learning needs of individual students just as we differentiate for students’ academic needs.

Non-cognitive competencies are only one example how video can be used in our classrooms. Check out this post’s accompanying infographic for other suggestions, and please share ways you have used video with your students so we can learn from each other.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Check Your “Selfie” Advice From a 58-Year Veteran Teacher

tom-obrien-post-image-finalThis post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

 Take a minute and think about where you were when:
1)  JFK was shot

2)  The Challenger Space Shuttle exploded

3)  The Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11

My answers are:
1) 14 years before I was born

2) A student in third grade

3) One month into my first year of teaching

However, my colleague and friend, Tom O’Brien’s answers are all the same; he was in his classroom, teaching. And, Tom is still teaching. In fact, this school year marks Tom’s 58th year as a middle school teacher.

With close to 60 years of experience, Mr. O’Brien is quite familiar with teaching during times of uncertainty. He understands the intricacy of meeting students’ needs and strives to strike the delicate balance of giving students enough objective information, so they feel safe, but not too much information to cause them fear.

In the days since President Trump’s election and inauguration, Mr. O’Brien has had the opportunity to put his skills to the test as he determines the best way to field questions and concerns from students about the current state of our nation.

A Serendipitous Encounter
Last year, I had the privilege of joining Mr. O’Brien on the last day of school when he met his incoming 8th graders and explained the foundation of his class:

“History is not about memorizing facts. This class is not about me telling you what you need to know. History is about learning from our past. This class is about empowerment. Remember, dates change. People don’t. Make connections, own your learning.”

Lately, this quote has weighed heavily on my mind as I have been struggling to focus on anything other than historical connections. And, the links I am making are frightening.

It has been easy for me to place blame on certain individuals and groups of people whose views, in my opinion, threaten to “ruin” our country.  It has also been very easy for me to confirm my biases. Contrarily, it has not been easy for me to see anyone else’s point of view.

But, I have come to I realize that my feelings are counterproductive. I am perpetuating a divide that is tearing our country in half.  And, while I want to look at the bright side, I am struggling to find one.

In an effort to feel better about our country’s future, I had lunch with Tom with the hope of tapping into his wealth of historical knowledge. During lunch, I rattled off the list of terrifying historical parallels that keep coming to mind (i.e. Japanese Internment Camps, The Holocaust, McCarthyism) and I asked (ok, begged) Tom to share a historical similarity that was promising. What has happened in history that tells us everything will be ok?

What did I learn?
As cliche as it may be, history does repeat itself. But, if we aren’t looking carefully we may not see the reasons why.

I learned there are similarities between society today and civilizations as far back as Ancient Greece. And, more important than the likenesses are the lessons. Specifically, Tom reflected on the difference between The Persian Wars (The Greeks vs. Persia 492-449 BC) and The Peloponnesian War (Athens vs. Sparta 431-404 BC).

During the Persian Wars, Greece was successful in defeating Persia in large part because Athens and Sparta put their differences aside and joined forces. However, shortly after their victory, Athens and Sparta engaged in a series of brutal civil wars known as the Peloponnesian Wars, which stemmed from conflicting political views and contrasting value systems. These internecine battles ultimately led to the implosion of the Greek civilization.

The most notable difference between The Persian Wars and The Peloponnesian Wars was the focus. During The Persian Wars, Greeks’ priority was freedom for Greek citizens regardless of where they were from, and during the Peloponnesian Wars, the focus shifted to what was best for individual city-states with blatant disregard for the common good.

Tom presented me with these two “stories,” and left me to form my own connections. After a few minutes of thinking, I asked Tom if he was trying to tell me that people today are more concerned with self-interests than the interests of others.  Tom answered my question with another question:

Is “The Selfie” A Metaphor For Today’s Culture?
This question gave me the chills. I immediately thought of a disturbing viral video which recently appeared in my Facebook feed called Holocaust + Selfie Culture = ‘Yolocaust’  and, I started to wonder if as a society we are so hyperfocused on ourselves that we are missing the mark on the most formidable threat to our country. Perhaps, our most pressing issue isn’t what our government is doing wrong, but what as a society have we done to allow it to take place?

We Must Come Together and We Can Start In The Classroom
During our lunch, Tom reminded me that an educator’s job is to help students process their thoughts, not to tell them how to think.

He remarked that over the past 58 years students have not changed much. Middle school students still experience the same trials and tribulations of entering adulthood. They still feel the pressures of the world around them. But, with that being said, his students’ reaction to the election has been the strongest he has ever seen.

Students’ heightened responses are likely due to the increased availability and accessibility of information. However, another observation Tom shared forced me to think more deeply about our students’ reactions.

Tom explained that when JFK was assassinated, students were justifiably distraught. They had many questions, with the most common question being, “what is going to happen to JFK’s children?”  Since the election and inauguration of President Trump, the question most frequently asked is, “what is going to happen to me?”

Students, especially students who attend a school with over 70 nationalities represented, have legitimate cause for concern for themselves. Teachers have legitimate concerns for themselves, as well. But, the key is to have that same concern for everyone, including the people on the “other side.”

As educators, we are obligated to present our students with unbiased evidence. Therefore, we have the unique opportunity to help our students find answers to questions about themselves while encouraging them to ask questions about others. By fulfilling this obligation, we promote perspective taking and induce dialogue about shared responsibility for creating a system of values that best describes our society as a whole.

Mr. O’Brien believes educators can accomplish this task by focusing on 4 Cs. And, he is not referring to the 4 Cs of 21st century learning. He is referencing the 4 Cs  of humanity: civility, citizenship, connection, and compassion.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

4 Phrases All Teachers Say and No Students Understand

shift-focus-graphic-finalThis post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Before I had children, I had no idea just how crucial explicit directions are for their understanding. Case in point, the time my son took his first independent shower. It seemed simple enough. I told him to “take and shower,” and then asked him, “do you know what to do?”

He responded with a resounding, “yes!”

Ok, then! I turned on the water, set it to the right temperature, and proudly waited outside the bathroom door for him. So, imagine my surprise when he came out of the bathroom dripping wet, with shampoo in his hair, and soap on his face, trying to wrap a towel around himself.

I was reminded of this incident while attending an inspirational and thought-provoking workshop led by George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset last week. At one point, George showed us a video clip of a dad telling his young son to “keep his eye on the ball,” and the little boy literally put his eye on the ball.

I started to think about all of the ambiguous things educators say to students with the assumption our students share an understanding with us:

“Study.”

“Work in your groups.”

“Finish your work.”

“Behave.”

More importantly, I started to think about how often we believe we have given students clear directives and put the onus on them meet these vague expectations. Then, if our students do not meet these expectations, we allow ourselves to make convenient excuses, “I told them to study. They didn’t.  I can’t do that for them.”

“Is what we teach as important as how we teach?”
Couros asked us to think about this question during his workshop. As an instructional coach, my focus is on instruction. I strongly believe that regardless of the content, good instruction is good instruction. So, my inclination was to answer, “how.”

But, as I pondered this question more deeply, I believe the answer is actually, “both.” Part of high-quality instruction is offering the right content for individual learners. And,  part of high-quality instruction requires us to be explicit in our communication and flexible in our implementation.

To avoid using vague phrases like those stated above we need to shift our focus from the action (study) to the desired outcome (learn). We can accomplish this shift by implementing the research of John Hattie (Visible Learning For Teachers).  Hattie has found certain criteria to have a greater impact on student growth than others. Strategies with an effect size of .4 for or above are proven to result in a year’s growth for a year’s (appropriate) use. For example, take a look at these four shifts.

Instead of asking students to study, focus on how they learn. (Metacognition .69)

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t understand how I learn best until I became an adult learner, and was given the autonomy to “study” as I saw fit. As it turns out, making flashcards and writing outlines were not the most effective strategies for me. But, creating mind maps and visual depictions are highly effective for me.

With the availability of research about learning, our students have the opportunity to ascertain how they learn best now, as children. The key is for educators to recognize and embrace the fact that all students do not react the same way to all learning strategies. Therefore, we should avoid requiring students use a certain strategy (take notes), and instead, expose our students to a variety of learning strategies and help them determine what strategies were helpful or not.  Then, we can tap into this knowledge to choose/differentiate learning strategies for subsequent learning activities.

Instead of asking students to work in groups, offer them structure. (Cooperative Learning .59)

Contrary to popular belief, group work is not synonymous with cooperative learning. To ensure all students in a group benefit from learning activities, all group members must have equal and active participation and opportunities to learn. This goes beyond setting roles for students in groups (sorry, the timekeeper does not have the same learning opportunity as the discussion leader).

There are multiple ways you can encourage true cooperative learning. Hattie recommends jigsawing content amongst groups to be later shared. This suggestion, however, assumes the learning intentions and success criteria are clear (see below).

Another way to ensure true cooperative learning is to provide structured ways for groups to run, like Kagan Structures. As an instructional coach, I have collaborated with teachers to implement such structures and seen remarkable student growth from tweaking just this one piece.

Instead of asking students to finish their work, provide explicit learning intentions and success criteria (Teacher Clarity .75)

Hattie coins the terms “learning intentions” and “success criteria” in Visible Learning. He uses what has become one of my favorite analogies to describe the need for clear learning intentions and success criteria:

“Imagine if I were simply to ask to get in your car and drive; at some unspecified time, I will let you know when you have successfully arrived (if you arrive at all). For too many students, this is what learning feels like.”

When we tell students to finish their work without providing them with the specific learning intentions and a concrete example of success criteria, while it may feel like we have set clear expectations, students, more often than not, do not know what they need to do to finish their work. Therefore, it is crucial for teachers and students have a shared understanding of the learning intentions and success criteria.

Instead of asking students to behave, focus on building rapport (Teacher-Student Relationships .72)

It is easy to believe we have strong relationships with students just by having their best interest at heart. And, perhaps there is some truth to that. But the question is, what type of relationship is it?

Because of the inherent age and status differences between teachers and students, many teacher-student relationships revolve around compliance and one-way respect (student respects the teacher).  But, genuine relationships require both parties to equally commit to building trust which ultimately leads to respect.  The teacher and the student must also show vulnerability, be transparent, and approachable.  Again, because of the inherent age difference between teachers and students, it is the obligation of the teacher to model these qualities.

“Behave” is a non-specific directive often used in response to a variety of actions: disruptions, fidgeting, yelling out, fighting, etc. The root of these actions is what really needs to be addressed, rather than demanding students “behave” which is unlikely to result in any sustainable change. Contrarily, when authentic teacher-student relationships are established, teachers and students are more likely to discuss the issues and create effective action plans.

In the end, these are just four phrases of what is probably a long list of things we say that don’t clearly communicate intentions to students. What other ambiguous statements have you said in the past and how have you adapted your practice? Please share; I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

 

How Differentiation Fosters a Growth Mindset

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This post was originally published on Corwin Connect.
For more on differentiation, click here. 

The great teachers believe in the growth of the intellect and talent, and they are fascinated with the process of learning.”– Carol Dweck, Mindset

The theory of growth vs. fixed mindset popularized by the research of Carol Dweck is ubiquitous in today’s educational landscape. A cursory Pinterest search for “growth mindset” produces a plethora of options for bell ringers, bulletin boards, and other resources encouraging students to adopt a “growth mindset.” Similarly, a Google search will show an abundance of professional development opportunities on growth mindset for educators.

Perhaps, for these reasons, Carol Dweck is now cautioning us not to fall prey to a “false” growth mindset. Dweck explains in a recent interview with The Atlantic:

“False growth mindset is saying you have growth mindset when you don’t really have it or you don’t really understand [what it is]. It’s also false in the sense that nobody has a growth mindset in everything all the time.

Many people understood growth mindset deeply and implemented it in a very sophisticated and effective way. However, there were many others who understood it in a way that wasn’t quite accurate, or distilled it down to something that wasn’t quite effective, or assimilated it into something they already knew. Often when we see kids who aren’t learning well, we might feel frustrated or defensive, thinking it reflects on us as educators. It’s often tempting to not feel it is our fault. So we might say the child has a fixed mindset, without understanding instead that, as educators, it is our responsibility to create a context in which a growth mindset can flourish…

-another misunderstanding [of growth mindset] that might apply to lower-achieving children is the oversimplification of growth mindset into just [being about] effort. Teachers were just praising effort that was not effective, saying “Wow, you tried really hard!” But students know that if they didn’t make progress and you’re praising them, it’s a consolation prize. They also know you think they can’t do any better. So this kind of growth-mindset idea was misappropriated to try to make kids feel good when they were not achieving.”

As educators we can put up beautiful bulletin boards and use growth mindset language with our students, but unless our actions support and match our growth mindset, we are most likely sending contradictory and/or ineffective messages.

What teacher actions are indicative of a growth mindset?

In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck addresses the question, “What makes a great teacher?” Simply, a growth mindset is present in almost all “great” teachers. Dweck shares multiple examples of teachers who instruct with a growth mindset, which include teachers who:

  • Believe talent and intelligence can be developed and are not innate
  • Embrace the challenge of ensuring all students can succeed
  • Set high standards for all students
  • Determine appropriate strategies to ensure all students meet those high standards
  • Are more interested in learning alongside students rather than imparting knowledge (Dweck 193-202).

DIFFERENTIATION EMBODIES GROWTH MINDSET

Differentiation is an approach to teaching in which educators actively plan for students’ differences so all students can best learn. In a differentiated classroom, teachers divide their time, resources, and efforts to effectively teach students who have various backgrounds, readiness and skill levels, and interests (ASCD).

Teachers can differentiate in a variety of ways depending on need. Teachers can differentiate one or more of the following:

  • The content (what students learn)
  • The process (how students learn)
  • The product (how students demonstrate their learning)
  • The learning environment (where and with whom students learn)

By differentiating instruction, teachers can better ensure they are promoting an actual growth mindset. Additionally, differentiation allows teachers to focus on the process of learning and provide feedback around learning strategies which is an approach proven to develop a growth mindset.

In contrast, a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction will increase the chances that a false growth mindset is created. When instruction is not differentiated, students are inevitably praised for performing well with minimal effort (too easy) or praised for an effort that ultimately didn’t result in growth (too hard). False growth mindsets over time will inevitably present the same way as fixed mindsets.

TEACHER MINDSET IS OFTEN THE BIGGEST OBSTACLE TO DIFFERENTIATING INSTRUCTION.

Initially, effectively differentiating instruction can be challenging for teachers (you can read more about this here). However, as strenuous as differentiating instruction may be, as I stated earlier, teachers with a growth mindset welcome challenge and enjoy the trial and error that goes into determining the best way to meet students’ needs. Therefore, they tend to differentiate without issue and cut themselves some slack along the way. They look at failure as information to help them determine how to proceed in the future rather than as a reason to not try or give up. The trial and error part of differentiating instruction is an important piece of learning for teachers which in time will streamline the process for teachers.

With these connections between mindset and differentiation in mind, what personal connections can you make? How do you view challenge and failure? What do you see as the potential positive outcomes (for both yourself and your students) of differentiating instruction and fostering a growth mindset? What do you see as potential obstacles?

I would love to hear your thoughts and dig a bit deeper. You can connect with me on Twitter @lisa_westman.

What? Principals Are In It For The Money?

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This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.


“I love our principal.” The first time I uttered those words was thirteen years ago. At the time, I was joking around with my teammates- I had just married my building’s principal (no impropriety here, we were both teachers when we met, dated, and got engaged). But, as I have progressed in my career, I have continued to say the same thing, “I love my principal” as I have been very fortunate to work for some exceptional instructional leaders.

With this bit of personal background, it may come as no surprise to you that two recent EdWeek articles have left me scratching my head.

The first article, “Principals Work 60-Hour Weeks, Study Finds” explains the findings of a recent study of the workload of school principals. As the title suggests, the study found that, nation-wide, principals average 60-hour workweeks. While no two principals account for their 60-hours in the same way (some cite managerial tasks and others cite paperwork or parent meetings as taking up the bulk of their time) the study found that to perform the role of principal in a meaningful way, principals are looking at 20+ hours of “overtime” per week.

Frankly, I found this average to be quite conservative. Thinking back on my days as the wife of a principal (meet my husband, Keith Westman), 60-hours would have been a light week. In addition to the school day, we could consistently count on school-related functions that required the presence of “the principal” several nights each week and on many weekends.

With this first-hand experience, I was shocked when I read Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers blog post Teachers’ Views of Leaders: Feedback From Our Readers in EdWeek which was a follow-up post on their post “Boss and Buddy: Can A Leader Be Both?” Jill and Ann had a similar reaction to some of the responses they received as the response from some readers was disheartening.

Many teachers painted their principals as egotistical, money-hungry, micro-managers who couldn’t hack it in the classroom. Reading these comments was like driving a stake through my heart. On one hand, I felt terribly that so many teachers have not had the invaluable opportunity to work with inspirational, transformational leaders. Yet, on the other hand, these comments made me angry. Because some of the claims were just plain wrong.

You may not like your principal, but do you really know why?
In any industry, there are professionals that are “good” at their job and others that are lackluster or downright incompetent at their job. Education is not immune to “bad” employees. Fortunately, we have ways to remedy these situations. We have evaluation systems, accountability measures, and if all else fails, we can litigate.

However, a recurring theme in Berkowicz and Myers’ post is that teachers believe their principals went into administration for the money and this financial goal accounts for their leaders’ perceived lack of leadership.

“Few teachers get into education for the pay. But there’s a subset of teachers who go into education not to teach, but to climb the ladder. In my thirty years, I’ve seen one physical education or special education teacher after another teach for five to seven years, go get an M.S. in administration, and then start climbing. One made it as far as regional superintendent. In my experience, that particular subset was never really good at teaching. As a consequence they were mediocre (at best) administrators. The goal was money and a career-climb, not young people.”

As we all know, the vast majority of school administrators- good, bad and otherwise- started their career in education as teachers. And, since we know teachers surely don’t enter into the profession for the money, how can we conclude that money become a significant motivating factor for one to become a principal?

If the goal of teachers who aspire to be administrators is to climb the “lucrative corporate ladder”, as some respondents to Berkowicz and Myers insisted, there are surely industries that allow for much quicker ladder climbs and ones that lead to much more lucrative heights.In addition to the hefty expense of  the additional education to acquire administrative credentials; being a principal simply does not pay a lot when we consider some facts.

After doing the math, the national average salary for a principal breaks down to $34.88 an hour (60 hours a week, 48 weeks a year). (EdWeek, Glassdoor). The average teacher salary breaks down to $26.56 an hour (53 hours a week, 40 weeks a year) (Washington Post). For basis of comparison, equivalent positions to principals (advanced degrees + internships + experience) make an hourly rate that is substantially higher.

So, why, then, do principals Become principals?
In the summer of 2014, ASCD reported the results from a survey of over 20,000 teachers conducted by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In answer to the question, “why did you become a teacher?” 85% of teachers surveyed said they chose teaching “to make a difference in the lives of children.” Only 4% of teachers surveyed said answered, “for the earning potential.”

As stated earlier, most administrators started as teachers. So, if the vast majority of teachers became a teacher to positively impact students, can it be true that those same individuals suddenly changed their professional motivation to swap making a difference with making a buck?

In The Roles and Responsibilities of the Principal as Perceived by Illinois K-8 Principals Who Belong to Generation X, my husband found that the majority of principals do, in fact, become principals to make a positive difference in the lives of students and their staff. After surveying hundreds of principals, he found that 97.6% of principals said their motivation for entering administration was their passion for student learning.  Additionally, almost all of the principals surveyed cited the most rewarding aspects of the principalship that fell into one of two categories, being witness to the growth and development of students and being witness to the growth and development of adults, including parents, teachers, and community members.

In short, administrators choose administration for the same reasons teachers decide to become teachers. Sure, less than 5% of principals may have ulterior motives, but these are likely not financially inspired. If a principal lacks some of the qualities his or her staff deem desirable, perhaps these perceived deficits are due to years of working 60-hours a week and being pulled in many different directions.

New evaluation measures, standardized testing, and a shift in the way teachers instruct and assess have all increased the stress and workload associated with being a teacher in the year 2017. Teachers are not the only educators affected by these changes. Remember, principals feel these demands, too.

Being a principal is not an easy job; neither is being a teacher. But, we (teachers and principals) choose this line of work because of the impact we can make. And, when we make this impact, this is inarguably the best form of compensation.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

 

 

Instructional Coaching In 20 Seconds Or Less

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This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

I have always wanted to be an instructional coach.

In fact, I wanted to be an instructional coach before I truly knew what an instructional coach did. Several years ago, when I first entertained the idea of pursuing an instructional coach position, a principal asked me, “If you were riding in an elevator and someone asked you what an instructional coach does, what would you say in 20 seconds or less?” As I inarticulately tried to put instructional coaching into words, I should have cut my losses and quoted Einstein instead:

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

A few years later, my school district listed an instructional coach position, and I wanted this job. I strived to have my elevator speech down pat should I once again need to describe the role in 20 seconds or less. To prepare, I studied the work of Jim Knight, the foremost expert on instructional coaching. I read and annotated three of his books (Unmistakable Impact, Instructional Coaching, and High Impact Instruction).

What became readily apparent was while I could, in fact, perfect my elevator speech, just being able to describe what a coach does is very different from actually performing the role successfully. Take, for example, the following parts of a coach’s job description and my initial thoughts:
  • Coaches are responsible for forming partnerships with teachers to align their practices to research-based, high-impact, instructional strategies. So, what if a teacher has a goal that has nothing to do with high-impact instructional strategies?

  • Coaches should enroll teachers in coaching cycles which include multiple meetings. How do I make coaching cycles compelling enough for teachers to share their most coveted commodity (time) with me?

  • The single most important thing a coach needs to be successful is her principal’s support. Yet, coaches must tread lightly as not to become too close to the principal or teachers may resist (Knight, Unmistakable Impact). How do I strike this balance?

Where Do I Begin?
In September 2015, I read Peter DeWitt’s blog post 4 Reasons Why Instructional Coaching Won’t Work. The post was timely (I had just started as a coach) and enlightening as well. Item #3 on Peter’s list especially piqued my interest,  “coaches lack credibility.” I had found my starting point.

I needed to gain credibility. Just because I may have been a “good” teacher didn’t mean I would automatically be a good coach. Moreover, I didn’t want teachers to work with me or principals to endorse me because they “should.” I wanted teachers to partner with me and principals to support me because I had proven added value.

But, what is credibility exactly?
Dictionary.com defines credibility as “the quality of being believable or worthy of trust.” I trust people when they are real, dependable, and humble. As a coach, I was confident I could establish credibility by remaining true to myself and by using the same strategies I had previously used with students: determine need/want, collaboratively figure out the best way to get there, and remember that our work is about them and not me. My “students” were now my coachees and my building administrators were now my students’ “parents” (always wanting what is best for their staff).

I decided I would continue to be the educator I have always been. I would respond to my colleagues in a similar fashion to how I responded to my students. I would build my credibility with actions like the following:

  • Sharing my passion: “Thank you for inviting me into your classroom! I LOVE how excited your students are to vote for ‘quote of the week.’ I wish I would have done that in my classroom!
  • Modeling continued learning: “You know, I am not that well-versed with complex math instruction and I am interested in learning more. Give me a few days, and I will get back to you with more information.”
  • Being consistently consistent: “You have a partner in this entire process. You worry about teaching and your students’ needs. Let me worry about the logistical hurdles. I promise we will figure this out together.
  • Being honest: “Hey, Building Principal!  A few teachers have asked me the same question about our new student learning objective plan. I think I need to deepen my understanding, can we chat about this part?
  • Not taking myself too seriously: “Kudos to you for recording yourself teaching a lesson. I still cringe when I watch certain footage of myself. But, the truth is, I always learn something from the recordings. Minimally, I know what outfits I should never wear again.

A Second Chance
Last October, I was a guest moderator for #LeadupKatycast, an inspirational and informational podcast hosted by three savvy building administrators, Chris Bailey, Dr. Jake LeBlanc, and Mark McCord, from Katy, Texas. Our podcast explored a singular question: “What is the role of the instructional coach?

Oh no, that question again.

This time I had my elevator speech ready (and it takes much less than 20 seconds):

“Instructional coaches form long-term, non-evaluative, mutually beneficial, partnerships with teachers and administrators to support the implementation of research-based best practices through coaching cycles focused on teachers’ goals.”

Deep breath.

Only… I didn’t need the memorized script. Instead, we talked and learned from each other’s experiences, successes, and struggles. And, by sharing on a larger scale, we collectively help build credibility for instructional coaching programs on the whole.

As I listened to how passionate these principals were about coaching, I was reminded of an insight my own building principal, Allison Stein, shared with me on the day I accepted my instructional coach position. Allison said:

“Remember, we are all on the same team.”
It’s amazing how one simple sentence can be so impactful. As a coach, viewing an organization as a team rather than a hierarchy erases so many of those initial fears.

I no longer worry about the reasons teachers seek to work with me. Because teachers always come to me with the best interest of their students at heart. Then, I help them determine and implement appropriate strategies.

I no longer worry about teachers being too busy. Sometimes teachers just are too busy, and that is ok! Teachers will reach out to me when things settle down.

Most importantly, I have stopped worrying about how teachers view my partnership with my principal. Because, as Allison said, “we are all on the same team.”

On our team, we each play a different and equally important role. We win when our students succeed. Principals are the instructional visionaries and teachers execute that vision. Coaches are simply the choreographers.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

*Special thanks to my Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, Becky Fischer for helping me to continue to define my role through exceptional training and coffee talks about praxis. To Mark McCord for the invitation to co-moderate #LeadupKaty, to Chris Bailey and Jake LeBlanc for their hospitality, humor, and promises of Texas BBQ. And, most importantly, thank you to all of the amazing teachers who have trusted me as your partner; I learn the most from all of you.

‘Bad Moms’ and Why Parents Need Professional Development, Too

parent-learning-community-graphic

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

“Organizations only improve ‘where the truth is told and brutal facts confronted.”Jim Collins: Good To Great

(This is part two of a two-part series of posts on parents. Please note, this post refers to the community where I reside, not the community where I am employed).

Last week, I wrote Teachers Make The Worst Parents which explains how I struggle being both an educator and a parent. I find it almost impossible to separate my roles when engaging with my childrens’ teachers. Well, my conflict of interest is not limited to other educators; it also extends to other (non-educator) parents, particularly PTA members.

I used to think my feelings toward PTA members stemmed from a subconscious jealousy (sure, I would love to volunteer for one of your events or be a room mom, but they all seem to be between 8AM and 3PM and I have a job which happens to be educating children).

Or, I thought because I am an educator, I was more aware of how the PTA doesn’t seem to gather or use feedback from parents, teachers, and students to operate. Rather, they employ a top-down (and usually inefficient) approach to attempt to engage the community (as always, we will be selling pizzas to raise money to buy graduation tshirts for students who cannot afford them).

But, then, I saw last summer’s sleeper hit comedy “Bad Moms” which parodies a suburban PTA chapter and it’s members. Scott Mendelson from Forbes Magazine said: “movies like “Bad Moms” don’t get to $100m+ from a $23.8m opening unless the people who saw it liked it and talked about it with their friends.” And, all of a sudden, I realized other parents, whether they are educators or not, also felt disenchanted with the PTA.

In particular, this scene resonated as a crowd-favorite:

Gwendolyn: Now, I called this emergency PTA meeting to address an issue that radically affects the safety of our children. The bake sale.

Amy: Is this a joke?

Gwendolyn: Now, this is a list of the toxic ingredients that are absolutely banned from the bake sale. No BPA, no MSG, no BHA, no BHT. Plus no soy, no sesame, and, of course, no nuts or eggs or milk or butter or salt or sugar or wheat. Okay?

I have friends who are active in the PTA. I understand the importance of food safety. I also understand that the truth is said in jest and if “Bad Moms” is the current or perceived reality of parent teacher organizations, this partnership is in trouble.

“A little perspective, like a little humor, goes a long way.”Allen Klein

Being able to see other perspectives is a powerful communication and leadership skill and undoubtedly also one of the hardest concepts for people to master. Unless humans make a conscious effort to see things from another person’s point of view, the path of least resistance is to point fingers and make the other party “wrong.”

In fact, that is exactly what I did when I initially drafted this post. I did not have trouble rattling off all of the outdated and irrelevant activities my local PTA continues to promote. I did not struggle to list examples of how the PTA has marginalized working and minority families, and I certainly did not have a difficult time citing ways some PTA members use their roles for personal gain rather than to support the PTA’s mission: to advocate for all children. (pta.org)

But, I couldn’t seem to publish that draft. Something didn’t feel right, and that something was the hypocritical nature of the post. While I am deeply disappointed to live in a community where many PTA members are so lacking in perspective that it gives Hollywood fodder for movies, I also recognized I hadn’t considered the PTA’s point-of-view.

So, I attempted to remove emotion and intellectually consider the other side’s perspective. In doing so, my parent/educator conflict once again got in the way. This happened because I am privy to information and experiences that non-educator parents are not. I know that there is a vast difference between the “school” I experienced as a student and the “school” I experience as a professional educator. And, this I believe, is precisely the problem: because all parents are former students, they mistakenly feel as if their experiences with school give them a level of educational expertise.

Look Back To Move Forward
The PTA was created in 1897 to be a “voice for all children, a relevant resource for families and communities, and a strong advocate for public education.” Throughout history, the national chapter of the PTA has been responsible for instrumental changes to the landscape of public education like the creation of kindergarten classes and healthy lunch programs.

But, what, if any, learning specific to the field of education have members had since 1897? What level of understanding do chapters have about district initiatives? If the PTA is truly a partnership between parents and teachers to benefit all students, don’t parents need relevant professional development as well?

As an instructional coach, I am very proud to see more and more school districts implementing the most effective form of professional development for teachers: job-embedded instructional coaching (read more about coaching here). In contrast, parents are usually informed of changes rather than involved with the change.  This severely limits parents potential for true understanding. Parents are educators’ partners, and we need to ensure that we include parents on our journey and not just tell them about our trip.

What is the solution? A new type of PLC.
Educational PLCs (professional learning communities) use a systems approach to allow for teacher autonomy while working collaboratively on teams to achieve common goals with shared accountability. In the book, On Common Ground: The Power of Professional Learning Communities, contributing author Richard DuFour highlights the three big ideas of effective PLCs:

  1. Ensuring that students learn- shift from focus on teaching to focus on learning

  2. A culture of collaboration- create and use structures to promote working together

  3. A focus on results: establish a goal, work together to achieve goal, and provide periodic evidence of progress

I believe three similar big ideas could also be the operating system for parent-teacher organizations also called PLCs (parent learning communities):

  1. Ensure students are the beneficiaries- shift from focus on what parents want (or what has been done historically) to focus on student interests and needs

  2. Promote an inclusive culture: create and use structures to guarantee the diverse perspectives and needs of all community members are heard and considered

  3. Focus on results: establish a goal, cooperate to achieve goal, and provide periodic evidence of progress

The infographic accompanying this post provides suggested guidelines for parent learning communities. This new take on PLCs coupled with professional development would provide parents greater learning opportunities and a way to implement their learning. If resources allow, instructional coaches should be considered a primary form of PD using a team coaching approach.

As with any change, altering the way parent-teacher organizations function will take time. I am a strong believer in evolutionary change rather than revolutionary change so long as we take steps to get there. What do you suggest is the best first step?

Questions or comments about this post?  Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

 

Learning Progressions: Student Need and Student Choice

corwin_connect_featured_button1This post was originally published on Corwin Connect.

By

“Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved.” William Jennings Bryan

Students are not reborn every September. They are not new to education or to subject-area content. Their desire to learn is innate. While students may get a “clean-slate” each September and have the opportunity to make a new first impression, they are, in fact, the same learner they were the year before. They have the same needs, the same perception of learning and school, and the same eagerness (or perceived lack thereof) that they had on the last day of school the previous year.

Why, then, do we feel the need to re-identify what students need to learn and how they need to show their learning? Why do we hear comments like, “they should have learned this in grade  x” as if educators are then absolved of ensuring that skill or content in question was acquired?

What if, instead, curriculum and instruction were so vertically aligned that teachers were able to take evidence of student proficiency and academic behavior from years past, and use that data to immediately start filling in gaps and advancing learning right from day one? How might this approach affect student learning? How might teachers be better able to differentiate?

While this may seem unrealistic, it doesn’t have to be. By using the information we can garner from high quality assessment and tapping into the power of vertically aligned learning progressions, moving individual students along appropriately can become educators’ reality.

In Visible Learning for Teachers, author John Hattie writes:

“This [learning progressions] is to ensure that appropriately higher expectations of challenges are provided to students: teachers need to know what progress looks like in terms of the levels of challenge and difficulty for the students such that if they were to interchange teachers across grades and between school, their notions of challenge would synchronize with the other teachers’ understandings of progress. This does not mean that there is one right trajectory of progress for all students… Instead, it is more critical to analyse closely how students progress….there is also the question of how to move each student forward from wherever they start through these levels of achievement…”

Rick Wormeli, one of the foremost experts on differentiation, also sees a need for consideration of learning progressions in addition to lateral needs when differentiating for students. In Differentiation From Planning To Practice, Grades 6-12 he writes:

“Tiering generally refers to the way teachers adjust instructions and assessment according to the learner’s readiness level, interests and/or learning profile. I’m not sold on this brief definition as it seems to reflect more lateral than vertical adjustments.”

We are doing students a disservice if we are not intentional about the progression of their learning. What Hattie and Wormeli both describe is another way to differentiate via learning progressions. Learning progressions should be regarded as a fifth way to differentiate in addition to the four generally accepted categories (content, process, product, and learning environment) in which we can differentiate for students (read more about these categories here).

Student learning progressions are different than the learning progressions of the standard. Standards progressions are macro. Here, we are referring to “micro-progressions” within an unpacked standard that allow students to move up one rung of the ladder at a time to reach the standard itself. We will know what student learning looks like and be so deliberate in our planning that we truly meet students where they are and fill the gaps to stop the “they should have learned this” and “we need to move on to the next unit in one week….”

Students need to be viewed as individuals who have different needs that must be met in a particular order for them to be successful. This means teachers will be inclined to vary the type of differentiation they employ rather than just choosing to differentiate “content” or “product” for any given assignment.

This leads us to our next point. For differentiation to be effective, it must be targeted to both the student needs and learning progressions.  A popular method of differentiation by many educators is “student choice”.  Typically, teachers offer students a variety of options and students choose the one or some that they like best. While we wholeheartedly support giving students choice as this builds ownership in the learning process, all choice is not created equal.

For instance, I (Lisa) gave my children a choice for dinner last night. I was tired, rushed, and didn’t feel like cooking. So, I gave them a choice of McDonald’s, Burger King, or Wendy’s. While they may have voted me “mom of the year,” I certainly didn’t offer them the best choices for their nutritional needs. Similarly, we sometimes we offer students choices that are not appropriate for their needs and may even muddy the learning process when the learning intentions are not clear.

Take, for example, the tic-tac-toe style choice board that many teachers give students.  Students get to “choose” learning activities based off of their personal preference, not necessarily their need. For teachers, this may seem like differentiating, but, without a targeted goal, action plan, or progression, students are just working to complete different tasks, not necessarily growing.

Take a look at this example of a choice board on The US Constitution:

Constitution Tic Tac Toe — Learning Progressions

While some of the tasks on this choice board may meet the needs of certain students, the likelihood that students will choose the three in a row (assuming the boxes are aligned) they need to grow academically, is improbable.  Additionally, the idea that a student would be able to clearly understand the learning intentions and success criteria (Hattie) from this choice board is equally improbable.

So, what do we suggest?

We suggest to offer students choice (in choice boards or other formats) by using student learning progressions.  In contrast to the tic-tac-toe board above, look at the stairstep example below which accounts for one of the civics learning progressions outlined in the new social studies C3 framework:

Learning Progressions

By considering student need in addition to student choice, teachers can better ensure they are effectively differentiating to affect growth in their students.

Below is a helpful list of questions you can use in with your grade level/department colleagues to create choice boards based on learning progressions:

  • What is the learning intention for this lesson/unit?
  • What prior knowledge do students need to complete this?
  • Where do they need to go next? How do I know this?
  • How will students know where they are going and how to get there?
  • How will I provide feedback?
  • How can I incorporate choice?
  • How can students suggest options which demonstrate their learning?
  • How will the students know if the success criteria has been met?

How do you use learning progressions to differentiate for your students? We would love to hear other suggestions that help best meet the needs of our students. You can connect with us on Twitter @lisa_westman and @stephlarenas.

Teachers Make The Worst Parents

parent-communication-hacks

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

(This is part one of a two part series of posts on parents).

My husband and I are both educators, and as luck would have it our oldest child is the student who educators commonly refer to as “that kid.”  From the moment he was born, our son has been strong-willed, inquisitive, and likes to push the limits (we have no idea where he gets this from).

Teachers often describe our son as “spirited” or “rambunctious,” and he frequently gets in “trouble” at school. In fact, our son got in trouble in his very first classroom setting: the hospital nursery. Yep, that’s right. Our newborn was “kicked-out” of the nursery after a brief 45-minute stay because he was bothering the other babies by crying too loudly.

As he has grown, our son has maintained this dynamic personality, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. We appreciate his sense of humor, and ability to engage in lively debates. However, we also recognize that our son defies the definition of a “good” student and can be perceived as a challenge. Because of this, my husband and I become closely acquainted with our son’s teachers over the years. And, while it pains me to admit, at times my husband and I have been “those parents.”

Difficult parents are part of the job for educators. During my career, I have certainly had my fair share of “those students” and “those parents” (you can read about one of those incidents here). But, education is no different than any other profession. Just as doctors have difficult patients and businessmen have difficult clients, teachers encounter difficult customers as well. The key to successful relationships with difficult clients (parents in this case) is to determine what the parent wants and then try to deliver.

But, what do parents want?
Distinguished educators and authors, Todd Whitaker and Douglas Fiore, make a simple claim in their book, Dealing With Difficult Parents. They assert that all parents want the same thing: what is best for their child. However, problems arise because parents don’t always know what is best for their child or how to communicate this desire.

Whitaker and Doulas present profiles (single parent, economically disadvantaged, etc.) and behaviors (yelling, defending their children, unresponsiveness) of demanding parents. None of these groups or actions describe my husband and me. We fall into an entirely different category of difficult parents, perhaps, a much more undesirable bunch. We belong to the category of parents who are also educators.

Ideally, parents and educators are partners in the education of their children. So, in theory, a teacher-parent would make for a perfect partner. But, many times, the opposite occurs as teachers (myself included) feel threatened by educator parents.

Why do teachers feel threatened by educator parents?
Whitaker and Douglas address the notion of teacher defensiveness when they encounter difficult parents. The authors write:

“If we are truly caring people, then as teachers, principals, and superintendents, we should never feel defensive when we deal with parents. We might feel awkward, uncomfortable, intimidated, but we should not feel defensive. If we are making all of our decisions based on what is best for students, then this defensiveness should not be occurring. If we do feel defensive, then it is probably because we, or someone we are attempting to support, has done something wrong.”

The Best Defense is A Strong Offense
And, the best offensive play for educators is effective communication. Peter DeWitt, author of Collaborative Leadership, (yes, I am a guest writer for his blog. No, he didn’t ask me to plug his book; I am plugging his book because it’s awesome) writes: “Make sure you use positive words when talking about students, teachers, and school. It may sound silly to offer this advice, but we hear one positive for every ten negative statements.”

This statement is so true, yet we often don’t realize the words (or the tone) we use are negative. Take the two examples below which both address our son’s inability to focus/engage in learning. Notice how word choice and tone contribute to the message:

Example #1: “Your son has demonstrated an increased attitude of disengagement in classroom activities (whole group, small group, and independent work). He selectively chooses what he will and will not participate in. As I stated in his progress report, “it is a goal for him to become more invested in his learning.”

Example #2: “Good morning! I wanted to let you know that your son received a card change in library this morning for not engaging in the lesson. When he and I chatted about it after he returned to class, he said that he was having a hard time focusing today since he found the lesson to be boring since he already knew the information. I was impressed that he was able to openly talk about how he is feeling and just wanted to keep you in the loop. I will continue to help him practice effective problem solving and from what your son tells me, I know you are doing the same at home.”

Our son presented with the same issue. The teachers responded differently, and so did we.

With example #1, we responded with a battery of questions for the teacher. What interventions had been put in place? What was different about the activities he was choosing to participate in? How did she know it was a choice? Whose goal was it for our son to become more engaged, his or the teacher’s?

With example #2, we responded with gratitude. We felt like we had a genuine partnership with the teacher. In spite of the fact we detested the school’s mandated public shaming system (card changes), we were able to get past our negative feelings because we were so appreciative of the teacher’s positive and collaborative approach.

Reading this back now, I can see the difficult parent in myself in example #1. I can see why the teacher became defensive. We put her in the hot seat.  But, as Whitaker and Fiore report, we acted the way we did because we wanted what was best for our child. And, perhaps, as Whitaker and Fiore suggest, our line of questioning caused the teacher to feel defensive because she knew she had done something wrong.

In reflecting on my reactions to my children’s teachers over the years, I have developed a list of items to consider when communicating with educator parents (and all parents for that matter).

Rather than listing attributes of the child, what concrete examples of behavior, academic, and social-emotional behavior can I share?

  • How can I best communicate the steps I have taken thus far?
  • How can I best communicate my plan moving forward?
  • How can I show (not tell) the parent I want to partner with them in the learning process?
  • How can I positively report negative actions?
  • How can I ensure I am proactively communicating with parents?
  • How can I mitigate the fact that this parent may (subconsciously) feel jealous that I get to teach her child?

This list is not comprehensive and we surely need to consider each parent situation individually, but it’s a start. What works for you when working with difficult parents? I encourage you to share your experiences so we can all grow as educators and parents.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Is the Internet the New Sex Ed?

 

edweek-teacher-image

Photo credit: EdWeek Teacher

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

In 1995 I enrolled at Indiana University as a Freshman. As I struggled to determine my major (journalism, education, or business), my dad offered me some very solid advice. He said, “Lisa, whatever you major in, just be sure to take psychology courses. That will help you in any field.”

And, he was right. My first college course was Psychology 101. In that class, I learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Grasping this basic psychological concept has proven tremendously helpful in understanding people, their motivations, and their reactions. Maslow categorizes the biological needs of humans into five categories:

1) physiological-food, sleep, air

2) safety- shelter, protection from danger

3) belonging- love, affection, being part of a group

5) esteem- self-respect, respect for others, feeling accomplished

5) self-actualization- achieving individual potential

Once we have our basic (physiological) needs met, we attempt to exert control on numerous aspects of our lives as means of survival. (Wikipedia)

However, sometimes we confuse our internal locus of control (what we choose to do, how we react) with our external locus of control (what others do, outside forces).  Striving to manage external forces gives us a perceived sense of control and we superficially feel better. However, this sense of control is a facade, because, no matter how hard we cannot control external factors.

This confusion frequently occurs in our efforts to keep ourselves and our children physically and emotionally safe both at home and at school. For example, take the long-standing debate over whether or not sexual education should be taught in school. Both proponents and opponents of sex ed attempt to control the content which students should/should not be exposed.

Regardless of the side, both parties seek the same thing: to control what students learn about sex to protect them from engaging in activity that could be harmful. We exert our external locus of control to feel as if we are protecting our students. For more than half of the states in our country this “control” takes the form of abstinence-only sex education programs. (NCSL)

“We (educators) will teach you (students) sex ed, but, we will protect you by only teaching you about abstinence.”

But, the role of an educator is not to protect students by covering content. The role of an educator is to protect students by ensuring they develop rich critical thinking skills and can protect themselves.

What is frustrating to me is a parallel I see between this protective approach to teaching sex ed and a similar approach to teaching research skills in today’s classrooms. In an effort to keep children “safe” educators and parents exert external control. This week alone I have seen the following examples:

  • Students are forbidden from using Wikipedia because (the teacher) deemed the site “not credible.”

  • Students are not able to use online sources for a research paper because they are too tempted to copy and paste (plagiarize).

  • Students are not allowed to Google answers to questions because this is cheating.

“We (educators) will let you (students) research, but, we will protect you by only allowing you to use [this] source.”

While these attempts to control research conduct are grounded in the best interest of students; this effort is in vain. We can not control the ease of access to vast amounts of information that students have nor can we control the accuracy of the information available. But, we can control how we teach students to use and analyze the information.

And, this is not my opinion. This is a fact and our obligation to students. The Common Core writing and research standards which vertically align learning expectations for K-12th-grade students prescribe the following as expectations for a 5th-grade student:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.6 With some guidance and support from adults, use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others;

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.7: Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.8: Recall relevant information from experiences or gather relevant information from print and digital sources; summarize or paraphrase information in notes and finished work, and provide a list of sources.

So, how do we keep our students safe?

Let students use Wikipedia and other sites they are inclined to use. Credible researchers corroborate their findings with other research.  If students find conflicting information they will need to search more and compare additional sources which is what we want. Teach students how to verify information. Offer them actionable feedback throughout the research process. Engage in discussion about how to decipher if an argument is credible and how credibility is perceived by others. Teach students about confirmation bias and why understanding a counterargument is vital to fully understand any argument.

Don’t make books a punishment.  Making the internet off-limits for student research is an unrealistic expectation and will certainly create resistance and resentment amongst students. Books can add depth to an argument backed with information from the web. Help students discover this breadth.

What should you do if students copy and paste? First, determine if this was intentional or inadvertent. “Plagiarizing” can be tempting for students because someone has already said what they want to say. The original author has likely stated the content more succinctly than the student thinks they can. Plagiarizing is not necessarily done to “skirt the system.” Point out how the student has done a quality job finding evidence and then work with them to incorporate evidence without infringing the author’s work. Either way, explicitly teach and offer feedback regarding how and when to paraphrase and cite work.  If the problem persists, consider altering the assignment to help the student avoid copy and pasting.

Look at Google as a friend, not foe.  Did you Google something today? Were you “cheating” or being resourceful? Google is like a calculator; an instrument which makes accessing information more efficient. With the right content and task, Google can powerfully impact and advance learning. Embrace the power and celebrate that we no longer need take up time or cognitive space memorizing facts. Facts will naturally be committed to memory with repeated exposure and authentic application. Adapt questions and tasks to require higher level analysis and synthesis.

Most importantly, take a step back and consider what you are trying to control and why. Temptations in life will always be present. Misinformation will also always be present. A teacher will not be. The sign of a solid education is when our students have the tools they need to rely on their internal locus of control and make informed decisions when we are not there to “protect” them.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

 

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