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?

Like/Comment/Share!

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!

The Culmination of Another School Year

Woah! My district has 7 official school days left. But, the end of the school year has been a whirlwind! There are so many events both inside of school and after school! I don’t know if I’m coming or going!

Though the end of the year breeds chaos (organized chaos, mostly!), I always wonder the following at this crazy time:

  • It’s essential that we as teachers and teacher leaders continue learning and developing our craft. For many, summer is the best time for that continued professional development.
    • How do you encourage your staff/team to engage in professional learning during the summer?
  • What are some ways you celebrate the culmination of another school year (both with staff and students)?
    • I’m not saying learning should stop. But, I am saying that it’s essential to look back on the year, dialogue about goals met/not met, celebrate successes, analyze failures or obstacles, and plan for the future.
  • Some teachers take summer very seriously (for good reason). I’ve heard about some in the field of education who don’t check the work email for an entire three months!
    • How do you tactfully connect with your team over the summer (so as to not invade privacy or disturb their time with family)?
  • As leaders, it’s also important for us to take a step back and relax over the summer. I’m not very good at maintaining that work/life balance.
    • How do you disconnect and recharge over the summer?

Like/Comment/Share! I’d love to hear from you!

Walk Out or Walk Up: Quit the Divisive Rhetoric and Celebrate the Students

As I’m sure you’re all aware, many students across the nation participated in a Walk Out on March 14th in order to protest government inaction regarding gun control. I’ve seen news coverage of the story across the U.S. I got the chills when I heard some of the student activists speak on the matter. Overall, I was impressed by the demeanor with which many students approached this highly controversial, yet extremely timely and important topic.

Then, I noticed another budding movement on Twitter. I first saw a picture on my feed advertising a “Walk Up.” I immediately became intrigued and conducted further research. This “Walk Up” focused on walking up to other students and being kind in an effort to create better/safer school environments. To me, this completely made sense. The way I see it, in all honesty, regardless of any protests held on a myriad of school-related issues/policies, there will always be students who are ostracized or cast out or alone in every school. Thus, I really gravitated toward this movement, as it seemed to focus more on an issue over which we in education actually have control: being kind and reintegrating students who may be lost or ostracized.

Unfortunately, in regards to both movements, a politically motivated, dichotomous dynamic has presented itself. It seems that adults have successfully oversimplified and debased both ideas/movements to either gun control related or mental health related. People have declared that Walking Out won’t help because it won’t address the heart of the problem: poor school environments and students feeling isolated. People have decried that Walking Up won’t help because it won’t address the heart of the problem: guns. The debate has raged on in the Twitterverse for over a week now.

Whether Walking Out or Walking Up, I think it’s important that as adults, we celebrate the students’ courage, leadership, determination, organization, social awareness, creativity, passion, fortitude, and unity (among other qualities). Granted, some adults are celebrating these efforts. But, I think it’s important to remember: rather than distracting from the students’ achievements by hijacking the foci of these movements, we should acknowledge that Walking Out or Walking Up requires strength and perseverance. I truly believe these students, whether they Walk Out or Walk Up, are striving to make changes in a world where, unfortunately, children have been dying in the one place where they should be the safest.

Also, I mean, does it really have to be so two-sided? Honestly, can’t schools/students engage in both a Walk Out AND a Walk Up? Obviously, the national Walk Out was held March 14th. The Walk Up sounds like an ongoing endeavor.

Let me know what you think!

Like/Comment/Share!

Distributive Leadership: Why It’s Essential in Schools and Districts

We all have different leadership styles. Some leaders employ a transactional leadership style that is very business-oriented, where goods and/or services are exchanged for money (paycheck). Some leaders utilize a bureaucratic leadership style by ensuring people follow the rules and always complete tasks by the book. Other leaders may use a laissez-faire leadership style where the workplace is characterized by a “let them do/let it be” or “hands-off” approach. Others embrace a transformational style that inspires staff through effective communication strategies and helps create an intellectually stimulating environment. There are numerous more leadership styles. I’ve seen entire books dedicated to defining each leadership style, and then proclaiming to help individuals develop the style that best suits them.

Whatever your leadership style or take on leadership itself, I believe that if we conceptualize leadership as being confined only to those in “leadership” or “authority” roles, not only are we overlooking the potential leaders and leadership capabilities of the many people within our buildings, we are overburdening ourselves as administrators and teachers. It’s no secret. We can’t do it all. And, to be honest, we shouldn’t have to. Like the old adages say, “two heads are better than one” or “it takes a village.” When optimal conditions exist (minimize opportunities for group think, norms for collaboration have been established and modeled, a clear purpose has been established, people are working together for the betterment of children, etc.) the more people working together collaboratively to generate solutions, the better.

I’ve heard of democratic leadership and shared leadership styles that encourage teams to share ideas and input together before making a final decision. I utilize these approaches daily. But, recently, I read about Distributive Leadership. Distributive leadership emphasizes maximizing leadership expertise at all levels to build widespread capacity throughout an organization. It also holds that no one person at the top makes all the decisions. For example, in schools, teachers are empowered to run/operate crucial aspects of a school, such as admissions, scheduling, professional development, and new teacher training and mentoring. Research suggests that one of the main differences between high performing and low performing schools is often attributed to varying degrees of leadership distribution. High performing schools often distribute leadership widely throughout the building.

Personally, I like its focus on interdependent interaction, ownership, and empowerment. I believe teachers should be empowered and encouraged to make the decisions that will impact them and their students most. As a leader, it’s my job to listen to my teachers and include them as we endeavor to improve all our practices. Most importantly, I must trust my teachers and not shy away at the first sign of bumps in the road.

What leadership style do you employ? What leadership style does your administration/manager/boss/etc. utilize? What leadership style do you think works best? Under what leadership style would you enjoy working most?

Like/Comment/Share!

Illinois Getting Rid of PARCC Tests… Can We Broaden the Curriculum and Focus on Performance-Based Assessments Now?

Illinois may be getting rid of PARCC (other states already have). For some, this is no surprise. Secondary educators lambasted PARCC testing and the tests were eventually removed from the high school setting. Others saw PARCC as another cyclical education reform that just so happened to bring about new types of assessments (“computer-based,” oh my!). PARCC replaced state-standardized tests like ISAT, which replaced IGAP and on down the road since the doom and gloom proclamations in 1983’s A Nation at Risk.

Obviously, in our test-based accountability system, PARCC will be replaced with something else. We’ve heard that the new tests may be shorter, allowing for teachers/administrators/districts to receive the results in an expeditious manner. What is more, it’s possible that the new tests will be adaptive in that test will adjust the difficulty of the questions based on student responses (similar to NWEA’s MAP assessments).

However, it’s my view that these changes aren’t enough. Sure, shorter tests will be good for teachers and students. Teachers and parents have decried that students are over assessed for years. Sure, more expeditious feedback is good. That’s always been one of the major drawbacks of these state-standardized tests. Sure, adaptive tests that adjust according to student responses could be a good thing, if this helps us better identify student deficiencies.

Yet, I’m not sure any of these adjustments will address a pressing issue facing all schools, but especially schools serving disadvantaged communities: narrowing of the curriculum. If these tests are tied to any federal funding (like what happened with Obama’s Race to the Top initiative), there will continue to be narrowing of the curriculum. If these test are used to evaluate, rate, and/or compare schools and districts, there will continue to be narrowing of the curriculum. If districts prioritize these tests and the data generated by them, there will continue to be narrowing of the curriculum. Point being, it’s a different means to the same end. We may have new tests on the horizon. But, the accountability movement/reform in education is still alive and well. When state-standardized test scores are used to evaluate schools/districts/teachers, narrowing of the curriculum will continue to occur.

What is more, as past research has shown, these state-standardized tests only assess low-level thinking skills, numb teacher and student creativity, and prepare students to take tests rather than to think critically and solve real-world problems. With more standardized tests, even though they’ve been shortened and allow teachers to receive feedback in a timely manner, I’m guessing we’ll still have tests that assess low-level thinking skills, decrease creativity, and don’t accurately show all that a student really knows.

I’ve always been an advocate of performance-based assessments, which challenge students to use higher-order thinking in order to create a product or complete a process. The essential components of performance-based assessments help to ensure complexity and higher-order thinking: relevant, real-world oriented, open-ended, time-bound, products presented to an authentic audience, embedded formative assessment and feedback.

Performance-based assessments are not new. In fact, they’ve been around in some form or another since the days of John Dewey. However, when accountability reforms increased the pressure facing today’s schools, we moved away from performance-based measures of learning to standardized measures. This pressure also forced the narrowing of the curriculum. Thus, I (and many others) appeal to our legislators and education policy makers to truly consider what’s best for our students, for our teachers, and for our schools. When moving forward with new state-standardized testing, we must consider all that we’ve learned from the pressures associated with these tests.

Like/Comment/Share! Help raise awareness about this issue!

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.

Like/Comment/Share!

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!

Like/Comment/Share! I’d love to hear from you!

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?

Like/Comment/Share!