April 27

What Have We Done?

Recently, I had a student ask me for a review pack for our upcoming state test.

“I’m not giving review packs this year,” I said confidently knowing my time spent gamifying their content would surely payoff.  My ego was quickly put in check by the student’s pale and unnerved face.

“Wait. What?! No review packet?! I WON’T PASS THE TEST!” And she meant business. Her world was crumbling around her.  Noticing the panic in her face, I attempted to bring a little levity to the situation.

“Except the big, thick one packet you are getting tomorrow for your Social Studies test!” I said with the absolute cheesiest smile I could muster.

“OH THANK GOD! We were all talking and we just don’t think we’re going to be ready without a packet!”  Her backpack slid down her arm as her expression of relief vibrated through to her finger tips.  She bounced down the hallway, everything right in her world but I was left standing, mouth gaping and dumbfounded.

What have we done?  Learning is everything.  It is the gentle flap of butterfly wings in your stomach when uncovering new information.  It is the power of curiosity to take one down uncharted paths.  It is a continuous lifelong adventure that winds and twists with excitement.

Our classrooms should be where these adventures begin: harbors where students stockpile supplies and head out on daring journeys but may always return for safety and comfort, to restock and head out again.

Instead of instilling a passion for learning, we have created a generation that successfully maneuvers packets.  This is certainly a 21st century skill that will propel them well into the future.   The depth at which my sarcasm is running need not be quantified here.

Is it too late to rectify this situation?  Identifying the problem is the first step.  Our schools need to be design labs, rich, interactive environments where students explore their passions and are guided by us on an unforgettable journey.  This journey must by make them life long learners, individuals who are willing to search out information for the simple benefit of learning more.

Setting out to create this environment can be challenging.  There are financial stumbling blocks and perhaps even administrative deterrents.  Before you begin, know your facts.  Research is important.  Industrialized learning spaces seems counterproductive to what needs to be accomplished therefore, learning space design was the best place to start.

Research into effective learning spaces yielded an enormous change in classroom atmosphere.  Students no longer equated our classroom with their negative connotation of school, rather, they called it home.  Comfortable seating in areas called “the living room” or “the genius bar” led to increased student interaction and many authentic learning experiences.

While student engagement had increased, pieces were still missing.  How do kids authentically learn?  They learn through play and exploration.  The completion of a photocopied worksheet allows for little play or exploration.  Games, however, offer a whole new world of both. Enter game-based learning and gamification.  How this has not been identified as the Holy Grail of teaching is unknown to me.  It is content, set into a meaningful and interactive context where students, through play and imagination, acquire the knowledge and skills they need.  Often, they have no idea it is even happening!

As we look at our classrooms, we must ask ourselves an important question: are we exotic ports of call or run down docks parading as marinas?  Be the harbor master and set your course, building a port they will always return to and be inspired by.  It’s not easy but it is certainly worth it!

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March 24

Can One Number Represent a Teacher’s Worth?

The alarm clock went off late and it was raining.  Not the spring shower kind of rain but the opening of the clouds kind of rain.  The bus was early.  The deep throttle of its engine laughed carelessly at the boy as it drove away spraying water onto the only jacket that made him feel good.  He picked the pieces of mud off the school logo as he walked back to the trailer his family just rented.  His dad had already left for work but mom was still asleep.  He would have to wake her up to go to school.  He wanted to just crawl back in bed but his teacher told him how important it was to be at school today.  It was the end of the year test.  He had to be there.  He had to show how much he had learned over the past several months in school.  He loved his math teacher and he didn’t want to let her down.

The ride to school was a long, silent ride.  He didn’t have time to change his clothes so he began to shake as the water in his shirt soaked through to his skin.  He walked into the office while his mom sped away with the door barely shut.  He had missed breakfast.  His stomach rumbled.  He felt like he was going to be sick.  That wasn’t an option right now.  He hurried to his locker and on to math class.  He knew they must have already started the test.  Everyone turned to look at him with the click of the door.  Water ran down his leg, dirty bus water.  He looked down to see his jacket covered in mud. Snickers could be heard echoing through the room.  His math teacher turned to see who had entered her class.  Her smile instantly warmed him.  She softly walked over to him and put her arm around him.  She made him laugh and gently squeezed his shoulders.  Instead of getting the laptop for him to start she pulled out a granola bar and an extra t-shirt from the walkathon.  He was still shaky and out of sorts from his morning but he would do the best that he could.

Every single child we teach has a story.  They are all puzzles with intricate pieces.  As teachers we try to control as many of those pieces as we possibly can but we do not have absolute control over the entire puzzle.  To suggest we do is foolish and irresponsible.  Yet many legislators and administrators believe that we do have a grasp on all of the pieces.  Could you imagine having 30 different puzzles, mixing up all the pieces and sorting them out to put together a whole complete, perfect student?  Impossible right?  Some pieces are at home.  Some pieces are at their second home.  Some pieces are at their grandparents house or an aunt or uncles, maybe a friends house.  And unfortunately for some kids, some pieces are lost forever.

We do our best everyday to identify their pieces and put them together, to make connections and build relationships.  On top of all that, we work to teach content. Who we are as educators is no longer defined in granola bars or smiles.  It is no longer defined in kindness.  Its no longer defined in the hours spent after school working on fractions or proportions.  It is not defined in the moment that a child finally learned all of their multiplication tables, in sixth grade.  It is not defined in the millions of tiny successes that students use as stepping stones to move forward.  It is defined in one number.  The number they earn on the end of the year assessment.  Have they grown enough to show that their teacher is a good teacher?  The circumstances of their morning or of their day does not matter.  The computer that recognizes a colon but not a semicolon does not matter.  The fact that the student could not read the question or their neighbor kept kicking them under the table does not matter.  It all comes down to one number.

This one number is defining teachers around this country.  Teachers who have been identified as wonderful, hard working, exceptional teachers are now marginalized by a percentage and put into a category.  When your life’s work is dismissed by a casual percentage your self worth declines.  One begins to question everything they do in the classroom.   Hours are taken from family and friends and depression follows.  How is this okay?  Why do we allow it to happen?  It is incredibly painful to watch talented colleagues fall lower and lower as data, small pieces of data, determine their future.

As teachers we work hard to inspire our kids and light the fire of passion in them.  Why do we not do this for our teachers?  Are we robots, programmed to teach to the test?  No, we are self driven individuals who are passionate about their work.  As teachers we know what is destructive to our students.  We know what causes morale to go down.  We know what causes them pain.  How and why can no one recognize this in us?

I started a book group in our school to help raise morale.  One of the hardest things I have ever seen is a talented, amazing, teacher beat down by the system.  We all give so much and deserve better. Our book is Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.  My hope is that we will all find our passion again and stop allowing one number to define who we are as educators.  Let’s let our passion define us.  Let’s have our students remember us for the fire we instilled in them because it burned strong in us. Numbers do not define us. Our passion for what we do defines us.

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March 5

Engaging Assessment

Admittedly, I have a problem with assessment.  Luckily, my school is going through formative assessment training right now.  Knowing this is one of my weaknesses, “FIP Fridays” have been well worth the time.  This week mineral formation was the topic of the assessment.  As educators, in this time of multiple timed assessments, we are almost coerced to believe that an assessment must be paper/pencil or if the technology allows, the digital version of this.

Assessment is about understanding where the student is on their learning voyage and then using that information to propel your instruction.  This is a concept that seems as if it would be common sense but for me, I am just starting to embrace the full ramification of what you can do with this data and all that assessment can be.

Enter this week’s assessment  on mineral formation. Starting with the traditional paper/pencil test (in digital form on schoology), the grades were okay, not impressive.  Part 2 of the assessment involved a two stage process.  The students described the three different ways in which minerals can form and then created models of each.  They could choose to make models in one of two ways, with actual LEGO sets that sit on their desk daily or an amazing site from Google. Build with Chrome is a powerful FREE site that allows you to construct anything with LEGO on a basic building plate.  Students can change the colors, change the bricks, the possibilities are endless.  Students were equally divided choosing the LEGO sets and Build.  The results were amazing.  There was a quiet hum throughout the room as they went about their work.  Their understanding of the concept was spot on.  I should also point out that this was a quest for the Science game were are currently involved in playing.  It was a great Friday in the Middle!

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