October House Day Success!

If you don’t know, we’re in the process of implementing a House System at my elementary school (read for more info). We plan to host a House Activity Day once a month. Last Wednesday, we hosted our October House Day.

During the time allotted for our House Activity Day, students and staff in each House created a banner that displayed their House animal and House color. Students and staff personalized the banners by putting their painted hand prints on them. The banners look incredible! Even our superintendent came by and made his mark on each House Banner!

Yet, the thing I noticed most about this exciting day = how palpable the energy was in the gym as I began to introduce the day and lay out our expectations for the activity. It was incredible! Seeing all students sitting together with their Houses, wearing their House colors, doing their House chants… it was riveting! As soon as I walked into the gym, I got goosebumps! They were pumped to be with their Houses, and excited about creating their House Banners! The pride and excitement on their faces was contagious. I loved it!

Since Wednesday, I’ve been reflecting on this experience, and can only imagine how it’s been for our students. I’ve had parents calling me about how they and their children love this new initiative! During arrival/dismissal, I’ve had parents and/or guardians running up to me gushing about the Houses, the animals, and the colors! Teachers and staff have talked to me about how they’re so excited to come to work on House Days because of the reaction they see in their students! At the end of the year, I plan to interview and film students regarding their experiences with the House System, and collect any suggestions they may have for improvements.

So far, it’s been an incredible experience, especially for our kids! I can’t wait to continue with this endeavor!

Empathy: We Need It Now More Than Ever

While listening to talk radio over the weekend, I heard an analyst posit that there has been an increase in violent shooter massacres across the world. As a rebuttal to the analyst’s statement, someone called in and asserted that there’s been no increase in these types of situations, just an increase in their media coverage, and that we’re more aware of these situations now because of social media and the 24-hour news coverage cycle.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there actually has been an increase in these types of events. That being said, no one seems to agree on the root cause of these issues. Researchers, analysts, talking heads, and armchair experts have blamed these massacres on everything, including video games, popular movies and music, traumatic home lives, healthy diet imbalances, mental health issues (which may result from Adverse Childhood Experiences/trauma), etc.

Through my preliminary research, I’ve noted that it’s very difficult to isolate one variable as the root cause of these situations. Granted, in many cases, the perpetrators seem to come from broken homes where they may have experienced some sort of trauma that may have resulted in mental health issues. In no way am I downplaying that explanation. In fact, I agree that trauma and mental health issues probably contribute to the majority of these situations. However, I hypothesize that there’s another issue at play.

In my career as an educator, I’ve noticed something very troubling.   Many students (not all) have serious difficulty understanding someone else’s emotions, coupled with the inability to sense and understand how someone else is thinking or feeling. This is usually referred to as empathy. In my day-to-day experiences with students from a variety of grade levels, I’ve seen that many students don’t grasp the concept. Many students lack the ability to predict/foresee how their actions impact others or how their actions are perceived by others. Often times, they can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They don’t conceptualize that, “Hmm. I wouldn’t like it if someone did this to me, so I probably shouldn’t do it to them.” I don’t know why students seem to lack empathy. What’s happening now that’s causing this major paucity of empathy? I can’t put my finger on it, yet.

Regardless, I try to employ certain practices/strategies/approaches that will help teach/display empathy. For instance, while dealing with behavior issues, I always employ Restorative Practices. For years, Restorative Practices have been touted/advertised as a way to decrease the school-to-prison pipeline, and subsequently decrease crime and other issues. Restorative Practices emphasize how our actions can harm our relationships with others and our community. While using these practices with students, we focus on our actions, the consequences, and how members of our school community feel as a result of our actions. Not only do we focus on the way our actions harm relationships, we brainstorm and implement solutions that help repair said harm.

What other ways can we inculcate our students with empathic dispositions? I know some schools have social-emotional curricula. But, I’m just looking for ways throughout my everyday interactions with students where I can help teach and model empathy.

This School Year, Prioritize Teacher Clarity to Maximize Student Learning

I heard an awesome quote today… “Clarity is the antidote to anxiety.” I can truly attest to the accuracy of this quote. We all want clarity in our lives. Guess what? Students really want clarity as well, especially in school and in class.

In regards to John Hattie’s influences and effect sizes, you can’t focus on any other influences or effects without first addressing teacher clarity. You can’t have effective teacher feedback with students without first addressing teacher clarity. You won’t have solid RtI practices for students without first addressing teacher clarity. Teaching practices such as direct instruction and reciprocal teaching will not be successful for students without first addressing teacher clarity.

Feedback has an effect size of .7. RtI has an effect size of 1.29. Reciprocal teaching has an effect size of .74. Direct instruction has an effect size of .60. Those are all solid effect sizes. However, remember… you must first prioritize teacher clarity (effect size of .8) in order to reap the benefits of any of those teacher practices. Clarity is paramount.

One way to focus on enhancing teacher clarity is through the clear and consistent utilization of Learning Intentions and Success Criteria. Learning Intentions are general statements about what we intend our students to learn. Success Criteria let us know if the desired learning (learning intentions) have been successfully or unsuccessfully achieved. Success Criteria help students understand what their work should include.

Sounds easy enough. And, many think, “I’m already doing this with my ‘learning objectives’/’learning targets’ and ‘I Can’ statements.” I don’t deny this. However, it’s the refinement that’s important. It’s the consistency that’s important. It’s more than simply posting these targets, objectives, or intentions.

In my own practice as an administrator, I’m also going to work to provide clarity from my standpoint as well. This will certainly help teachers, students, parents, and community members.

How do you work to improve and increase teacher clarity?

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Celebrities And Their Social Media Blunders: What Are We Teaching Our Young Ones?

Roseanne Barr, Samantha Bee, Lena Dunham, Kathy Griffin, Azealia Banks, Josh Rivers (I’m sure there are more). All these people have one interesting thing in common: they’ve recently used a social media platform to discuss/gripe/complain/assert/share questionable (or flat out disparaging/racist/rude/sexist/etc.) information to copious amounts of people. Consequently, as a result of their online behavior, many of them have issued public apologies, retracted some of their statements, and/or are seeking redemption.

Sure, we see these people in positions of power (it’s not just celebrities) also receiving consequences for their actions. This may demonstrate for children that there are consequences associated with our behaviors. However, the consequences are very reactionary. For the victims, the damage has already been done. Point being, these people in power, with huge social media followings, should never be saying or doing these things to begin with. Our children are witnessing these people in power display this kind of behavior regularly. They see it on TV, they hear it on the radio, they see it on various forms of social media or on the internet, they hear about it from their peers/parents, etc.

As educators, I see it as our responsibility to combat these negative influences and take a more proactive approach to this issue. I’m no expert in digital citizenship. But, based on my limited understanding of the concept, it sounds like it should be an essential part of the curriculum as we continue growing and developing in the digital age. I mean, just based on some of the digital citizenship elements, descriptions, and goals, it’s quite apparent that schools should emphasize:

  • Digital communication – helping students understand the plethora of communication mediums and the standards and responsibilities associated with each medium.
  • Digital etiquette – helping students grasp the notion that various mediums require standards of etiquette. The etiquette of these mediums includes appropriate behavior and language.
  • Digital rights and responsibilities – helping students understand that, yes, they have access to platforms that have the potential to reach thousands of people online. But, with this power comes immense responsibility. Children need to demonstrate responsibility when engaging in online communities.
  • Digital footprint – helping students understand that information exists about them on the internet as a result of their online activity.

Overall, we need to inculcate our children with the necessary knowledge and skills to successfully navigate the precarious terrain that is the online world. They must be able to demonstrate responsibility, empathy, restraint, good decision-making, caution, control, and respect (just to name a few).  I see digital citizenship curricula as a way to help us accomplish that goal.  In a time when narrowing the curriculum is so pervasive, this may sound like I’m asking a lot.  Yet, I truly believe we must educate our children so that they can survive and thrive in the digital world.

Like/Comment/Share! What are your thoughts on the recent celebrity/people in positions of power social media blunders? What should we do about it to help our students? Does your school have digital citizenship curriculum?  If so, how is it structured?  When do you fit it in?  Let me know!

Technology Restriction and Confiscation: There Are Better Strategies for Teaching About Being Safe in a Connected World

Last year, I attended a Protecting God’s Children workshop at a Catholic parish up north. These workshops are required if you plan to work with children in any capacity through the church or in parish schools. A group of approximately 20 people were in attendance that evening. The age range in this group was quite large. We had some teenagers, middle-aged people, and some elderly folks.

Obviously, we talked about the importance of maintaining appropriate relationships with all children. We watched videos and read articles about the safety of children within our care. We discussed various scenarios and were quizzed on making appropriate choices while interacting with children. Pretty standard stuff for anyone interested in getting into education or working with children (public or private).

Interestingly, when we started talking about inappropriate online relationships and social media, an intriguing conversation commenced over appropriate technology usage. A woman in the group started saying that her own children wouldn’t experience these types of problems because she restricts their usage by confiscating their technology before they go to bed at night. In addition, she had their passwords to all their devices and their accounts (which she checked regularly). What is more, as a punishment, she would also take away their phones if they ever misbehaved. One or two other parents chimed in and stated they followed a similar protocol in their homes.

I tried to remain cool, calm, and collected. I tried to refrain from entering the conversation. I tried focusing on other things (like the new Star Wars movie that would soon be in theaters). But, if you know me, you know I have a really hard time with this. Thus, I engaged.

I started with an easy question. “Excuse me… do your children have any social media accounts?” Of course, they responded, “Absolutely not!” (that they know of, LOL). I figured this would be their response. I then decided to ask some leading questions that would surely help. “Do you have video game systems or a SMART TV in your home?” They all said yes. I stated that, if so inclined, one could use either a video game system or a SMART TV to surf the web. They responded that the TV was password protected and that, like phones and tablets, video games were confiscated at a certain time. “What if your child has a project to do that requires him/her to use technology past the technology curfew?” They responded that they would supervise their children as they completed online work. I saw where this was going. But, I thought I would try one more inquiry. “What about when your child goes on a sleep over to a friend’s house?” They stated that they knew the parents of every single friend their kids had, and that they trusted those parents.

I thought with my leading questions, these parents would soon see that they would not only become exhausted in their efforts to monitor their child’s online usage/presence, it would be almost impossible to fully monitor ABSOLUTELY everything. I thought they would see that if a child really wanted to, he/she would find a way online (where there’s a will, there’s a way). I was wrong. They continued to wholeheartedly believe that technology restriction and confiscation would keep their children safe from the dangers of the online world.

I’m not saying don’t set boundaries with children when it comes to technology. However, I’m proposing that rather than trying to hide children from the realities of the online world, we focus on teaching our children how to safely and successfully navigate those precarious situations. Just a few tips:

  • Keep yourself and your children informed about the internet and its rapid changes.
  • Teach kids about the different types of online dangers that exist and what to do if they come across any of them.
  • Teach kids how to keep personal information safe and private.
  • Teach kids about passwords.
  • Encourage your child to come to you if he/she encounters a problem.

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The STEM Challenge Conundrum: Learning and Making Meaning Through Interactive STEM Challenges

DISCLAIMER: I LOVE STEM! I was a cofounder of a STEM school. I spent summers developing integrated project-based learning (PBL) curricula for the school. I procured computer coding and Project Lead the Way engineering curricula for those students. My doctoral dissertation focused on STEM (specifically, challenges facing upper level female undergraduate engineering students). I LOVE STEM!

All that said, I can’t help but be somewhat critical of the “STEM Challenge” craze currently gripping schools throughout the nation. I’ve observed this craze all over Pinterest, Teachers-Pay-Teachers, and at teacher stores like Lakeshore Learning. Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure STEM challenges garner high levels of student engagement. It seems STEM challenges also really pique student interest. Yet, that’s not what concerns me regarding STEM challenges. I’m focused on the actual learning that occurs while students engage in STEM challenges (currently, I can’t find any research on this. Maybe it’s still too new).

I once participated in a STEM challenge a teacher was conducting with her students in her classroom. She distributed the directions, gave the students a bunch of supplies, and then told them to accomplish the task clearly delineated in the directions. Like I said, as I watched and participated, there was no denying the high levels of engagement and interest. Later that year, I was presenting at the International STEM Education Association Conference in Branson, Missouri, and I sat in on another STEM challenge presentation. This teacher did THE SAME EXACT THING. Obviously, two teachers (out of the millions who probably conduct STEM challenges with their students) who conduct STEM challenges the same exact way is NOT generalizable. However, that got me thinking… What learning (if any) is actually occurring during these STEM challenges?

Applying what I know of cognitive psychology and cognitive load theory (which, admittedly isn’t a lot), I’m attempting to better understand and articulate how students learn (or don’t learn) during STEM challenges. First, let’s briefly discuss a basic premise of cognitive psychology. Knowledge is stored in long-term memory (LTM) and new information is processed in short-term memory (STM). When considering learning and problem solving, for people who have the necessary information stored in LTM, it’s easier for them to bring that information into STM and manipulate it to make sense of newly received information.

Cognitive load theory suggests that our working memory capacity has inherent limits. Many cognitive researchers posit that our STM can only hold seven plus or minus two units of information at a time (some people can hold and manipulate up to nine units of information while others can only hold and manipulate up to five units of information in STM). When excessive cognitive load exists, it creates error or some kind of interference. So, for people who don’t have the necessary information stored in LTM, asking them to manipulate a variety of supplies and simultaneously learn new content and concepts may be excessive cognitive load (i.e. STEM challenges).

This may then suggest that students, depending on the capacity of their STM and how much knowledge they have stored in LTM, would only have space to possibly manipulate some of the supplies, rather than also learn the new content and concepts associated with a STEM challenge.

I always refer to this in my integrated PBL presentations and when talking about other constructivist approaches to learning as well. If students don’t have the necessary information already stored in LTM, and they’re being provided with too many units of information during a STEM challenge (being given a variety of supplies, being asked to learn new content, and being asked to understand new concepts), they may be experiencing cognitive load which could be hampering their learning.

I’ve heard from some teachers that they like to engage in a KWL or anticipatory set in order to gauge prior knowledge before starting a STEM challenge. I think this is definitely a good way to start a STEM challenge. However, I’m very interested in empirical research about learning using STEM challenges. Know any? Please share!

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Does Over-Assessing Students Perpetuate the “Is This for a Grade?” Mentality?

DISCLAIMER: I am in NO WAY saying assessment is bad. I don’t mean to place value judgment on any type of assessment with this blog post.

I don’t think it’s any secret. We assess students a lot in schools these days. In addition to the daily formative assessments that teachers utilize in their classrooms, students still take summative assessments/exams, interim assessments (MAP, Discovery Ed., etc.), and state-standardized tests (I may even be missing some).

Of course, I don’t think anyone would argue that certain types of assessments are very important. I posit that the majority of teacher-created assessments designed to assess a student’s level/progress with the intention of providing feedback immediately (or closely) following the assessment are far better than state standardized tests (of course) and a good portion of the interim assessments currently available. Obviously, this brings up the debate about the quality of teacher-designed assessments and how teachers actually use the data generated from the assessments they administer. I don’t really want to debate that. For the sake of this blog post, let’s just assume that teachers administer quality formative assessments and know how to truly utilize the assessment data to provide relevant and timely feedback.

While researching the validity and effectiveness of grades and homework, many researchers state that grades themselves turn students into “number/letter/grade monsters” or condition them to severely over-embrace the “is this for a grade?” mentality. Students often simply pursue a grade, rather than pursue learning for learning’s sake. In fact, researchers have found that grades diminish intrinsic motivation to learn anything. Obviously, this type of mentality, perpetuated by grading habits and traditions, is counterintuitive to actual learning. In addition to grades, I wonder if over-assessing students also contributes to that “is this for a grade?” mentality?

I’ve been cogitating about how all the assessments may add to the perpetuation of “is this for a grade?” mindset. I’d venture to say that the teacher-created assessments that informally gauge a student’s progress (or lack thereof) and that are often seamlessly embedded into classroom instruction do less to perpetuate the “is this for a grade?” mentality than interim assessments or yearly state-standardized tests. If the teacher-created formative assessments are seamlessly embedded into classroom instruction, I bet students don’t even think about a grade (some students may not even know they’re being assessed). However, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard students ask “is this for a grade?” when taking interim assessments or state-standardized tests.

So, when formative assessment becomes such a part of the classroom environment that students don’t even know it’s occurring, grades become less of a focus. Suppose we were to do away with interim assessments and state-standardized tests. Suppose we only focus on teacher-created formative assessments and the resulting feedback. Suppose we got rid of grades and replaced them with a standards-based grading system (many districts are moving in that direction as we speak). It’s strange to think about an education system that would look like that. But, I’d venture to say that this type of system would probably eliminate the “is this for a grade?” mentality and possibly increase intrinsic motivation to learn for learning’s sake.

I’m sure there’s research on this. If you know of a study, please share it! I’d love to read it!

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Reflecting on the School Year So Far: My Idea Log

I’ve been writing songs since I was approximately 8 or 9 years old. At that time, I would carry a notebook with me in my guitar case or in my pocket, and if I felt inspired, I would write lyrics or compositional notes (chord progressions/charts/etc.) inside that notebook. I brought that notebook with me to school, to band practice, to basketball games, to family parties… In short, I brought it with me everywhere!

When I got into high school, I got my first cell phone. Instead of using the notebook, I began texting myself lyrics. I would pull up a blank text message, input my own cell phone number, type any lyrics I was drafting at the time, and hit send. This served as an ongoing record or database of lyrics for me. When phones become more advanced, I started using note-taking applications to document lyrics and I would use the phone’s audio/visual technology to record the actual music while I played my guitar or hummed/whistled the melody. As a doctoral student endeavoring through my dissertation, I continued to use cell phone applications such as the Google Drive/Docs and Evernote to document or audio record ideas for exploration or inclusion in my drafts.

Now, in my profession as an educator, I’ve regressed back to using the traditional notebook. I’ve done so for a few reasons. Writing notes using pen and paper (the research I’ve read deals with students using pen and paper to take notes vs. using a computer to take notes during classroom instruction) allows the note taker to retain information better. In addition, I use a highlighter to highlight notes (or aspects of certain notes) that I’ve implemented/accomplished, which allows me to better visualize progress I’ve made over a certain period of time. I call this notebook my “Idea Log.”

Over break, I always take some time to peruse my Idea Log and reflect on the highlighted portions. These highlighted portions help me visualize the things I’ve tried/changed/implemented/achieved/etc. The following is a brief list of ideas I’ve tried or implemented this school year so far (quoted verbatim from my Idea Log):

  • “Utilize a Contact Journal to keep note of who I’ve spoken with and which classrooms I’ve seen. Take notes in the journal and follow through when someone needs support with something.
  • “Make positive phone calls home to the parents of my teachers. Try starting or ending the week with this strategy.”
  • “Create a ‘What Are You Learning Today? A Visit from Dr. E.’ shared document. Share the Google Form/Office 365 One Note with staff members so they can edit the document in real time and share the wonderful things happening in their classrooms that they would like me to see/observe.”
  • “Use Animoto to make monthly videos of the happenings in the school and share through social media channels.”
  • “Find an interesting and timely ‘Article of the Week’ and share through email. Encourage staff to share their own and continue through our journey of professional learning.”

Looking through the Idea Log, I am also reminded of a few other ideas I’d like to try this coming semester.

How do you record your ideas? What have you done or accomplished this year and how do you keep track of your progress?

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State Standardized Testing: A Quasi-Debate Concerning Feedback

I recently engaged in a quasi-debate on Twitter with a few educators regarding the data generated from state standardized tests. An educator proclaimed that viewing state tests as a waste of time that reduce and limit classroom instruction is “ignorant of the bigger picture.” I immediately inquired, “Hmm… What exactly is the ‘bigger picture?’” A digital debate ensued.

First and foremost, solid research exists concerning the actual narrowing of school curricula as a result of state standardized testing and the pressure schools feel to do well on these tests. This pressure and the resulting narrowed/hallowed out curricula are especially prevalent in economically disadvantaged areas. Essentially, the exact opposite of this educator’s claim that standardized tests reduce and limit classroom instruction is true. This testing and the deleterious pressure put on schools as a result of this testing has been shown to reduce and limit classroom instruction.

Honestly, that’s not even where I found the deepest flaw in his proclamation (though that flaw is pretty significant and not to mention the research that suggests that state standardized tests don’t accurately show what students know and can do). After reading his edict, my mind immediately jumped to the idea of feedback. The feedback generated from state standardized tests is notoriously delayed, at least here in Illinois. Yet, I presume this issue would impact all states that are a part of the PARCC consortium.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of administering a state standardized test, you know that schools don’t receive the feedback generated by these tests for months after the test is administered (maybe even years). Even after these testing consortiums claimed that going computer-based would help expedite feedback, schools don’t receive the feedback much faster (if any faster at all) than previous paper-based state standardized tests. I’m sure most Illinois educators recall the Illinois Science Assessment (ISA). We administered this exam to students in 5th and 8th grade in the Spring of 2016. Frighteningly, we still haven’t received the results from that assessment.

I know state standardized testing feedback may help some districts make program decisions. This type of feedback might help from a macro perspective (finding trends in learning across schools/subgroup populations). Susan Brookhart describes feedback as “just-in-time, just-for-me information delivered when and where it can do the most good.” I love this quote! When considering assessment feedback, the question must be: how can this feedback be used immediately in the classroom, where it can have the biggest impact on student learning?  That being said, I find it much better/more efficient/more logical to use formative assessment feedback for the purpose of impacting student learning in the classroom (I know I’m not alone in this thought.  But, the amount of people in this debate who vehemently approved of our state testing prioritization concern me).

With that in mind, another question arises: should schools/districts/states limit or forgo state standardized testing (like Finland) in order to focus their time and attention on the formative assessments that generate feedback that is most useful to teachers and students in our classrooms (not to mention the money/resources it would save districts)?  Throughout my career in education, I’ve never known a time without state standardized testing. Many educators from my generation share that sentiment. It’s hard to imagine an education system without these tests. However, at this point, I see state standardized tests, with their delayed feedback, as mostly accountability measures with limited relevance to improving classroom instruction in a timely manner.

Important to note, I’m not advocating for zero standardized testing. I think some value can be derived from certain standardized tests. But, I find the way we prioritize state standardized testing problematic.

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The Best Professional Development Providers are the Educators You Already Employ

I know there’s debate concerning the distinction between “professional development” and “professional learning.” Many believe that “professional development” is outdated and that districts (on a macro scale) and educators (on a micro scale) must consider and employ “professional learning.” For the sake of brevity, I won’t get into the clarification between the two concepts in this post (I plan to discuss the distinction in a later post). But, I’m going to use the phrase “professional development” throughout this post to help make my point.

In regards to districts providing professional development for their teachers, it is essential to remember that the best professional development providers are the educators currently employed by the district/school. The educators on staff who are in the trenches and charged with the tasks of implementing new curricula/designing and rolling out innovative behavioral management plans/actualizing cutting edge learning strategies/etc. are the experts. They know more about all of that than the grand majority of “consultants” or “PD providers” from any of those large education corporations/text books companies/etc. They’re the ones in the classrooms making this stuff work with their students! They have the best firsthand knowledge regarding the good, bad, and the ugly of every district initiative!

Educational leaders must work to identify the teachers (or other staff members) who have successfully implemented the district initiatives and build up their capacity so they can share their knowledge with others. Seeking out the expertise of educators currently on staff and offering them the opportunity to share their knowledge with others is empowering. Offering these opportunities to educators already on staff is encouraging and helps foster leadership qualities.

Now, I’m not saying that the teachers on staff with this expertise are the best PD providers or presenters. And, to be clear, some staff members wouldn’t want this added responsibility or feel comfortable presenting in front of their peers. I get that. But, if we’re concerned with offering the best professional development for our teachers, we owe it to them to at least try and get the best professionals to provide that development.

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