Back when I was in the classroom I was approached by someone in our district who wanted me to submit some of my students’ artwork in a public showing. Normally I would be all over an opportunity like this. But this time the timing was all wrong. Much of the students’ best work was already on display at a local museum and so would not be available. Our open house was the same day as the deadline to submit work and I need to be sure the open house was strong. And to top it off, many students were in the final stages of preparing for the SkillsUSA California Championships. I did not need another thing on my plate. But I did not want to alienate the district person either. What to do?
I turned it over to the students. I told them about the opportunity. I did not give them an assignment. I did not give them requirements. I didn’t tell them what they had to do. I told them what they could do if they wanted. It turned out they wanted to. Many students went the extra mile to produce pieces for the district event. Of course they did. They had spent the year experiencing success- public success- by doing the kinds of things they wanted to do, as opposed to doing the silly useless tasks I used to assign that nobody wanted to do. Including me. Giving kids a voice really brings out the best in them.
“This kid stood up and told my wife F*#@& you right to her face in front of me and that kid didn’t even get suspended.”
“Classrooms are wild these days. Kids are so out of control, it didn’t use to be like this. And the Principal never suspends anybody, that’s why it is so out of control. All these out of town kids moving in.”
“This administrator is always undermining teachers. I don’t know what it takes to get suspended at this school.”
I have heard these kinds of comments my whole career. They seem to be more frequent lately. Perhaps it is because of public pressure, including legislation, to school districts to reduce suspension rates. How can you teach a kid if the kid is not in school? I think this pressure is a good thing.
In my career working in inner-city schools, I have worked with a lot of kids with disruptive behaviors. I have seen many kids kicked out of class for being disruptive, aggressive, or disrespectful. I will admit to kicking a few kids out for these things myself, especially in my early career when I didn’t know any better. Removing the student from the classroom never solved the problem. Sure, the immediate issue was gone; the outbursts were gone for the day, or for a few minutes, but the problem was not corrected. Usually, the problem was not even addressed.
I have found that when kids lash out in class it is a result of some combination of two reasons:
Something bad (often horrible) is happening in that student’s life or environment and the student does not have the ability to deal with it in a healthy way.
The teacher has not been as skillful in their craft as they could be.
In either case suspending the student will not solve the problem. Sending the student home means the student misses instruction and falls even further behind. When the student returns, nothing has changed. Rinse, lather, repeat.
As teachers, we can not solve all of the world’s problems. We are not psychologists. We are not social workers. We are not law enforcement officers. We are educators. Our job is to educate all of the kids that are enrolled in our classes. In order to do our job, we need to have a healthy supportive relationship with every student in the room. Kids need to feel safe in the classroom. A person can’t learn at an optimum level if they do not feel safe and supported. I have found that when a positive supportive climate exists those disruptive students magically go away. They are replaced with students that want to be in class. If they are in class they can be taught. If the student feels supported then those other issues of terrible, awful, very bad things happening in their life can be addressed. It all begins with a positive healthy relationship between the teacher and the students. All of the students.
A colleague of mine recently gave a talk about this that can be found here. (Warning: tissues may be needed.) If you are one of those teachers struggling with disrespectful kids, ask yourself about those relationships. Have you done the work to develop those relationships? It is never too late to work on it.
When I started my current position one of the projects being worked on was a redesign of the district science fair. It seemed everyone was frustrated with the status quo- a collection of cardboard tri-folds and volcano models. Not much had changed in decades, and no one felt it was a good example of what our kids are capable of. An emphasis seemed to be placed on quantity over quality. I joined the team and we all started coming up with ideas of what an engaging science fair could look like. We took a field trip to the Google Science Fair in Mountain View, CA. It was amazing. It was what we want our kids to do.
To get rid of the cardboard tri-folds we need to change the mindset, so we started with the name. Everyone knew what to do for the “old” science fair: the same thing they did last year and the year before. So the Science Fair became the Science and Engineering Expo. No one knew what to do- they had never heard of one! Including us. We needed to figure this out. We would have a number of “events.” The science exploration event would consist of individuals or teams of students (depending on age) presenting their science exploration, similar to what we saw in Mountain View. Kids would submit a digital presentation rather than the traditional cardboard product. They would then bring artifacts of their project, and present to judges and whoever else happened to be there to watch.
We built the day around 4 sessions, each with up to 10 presentations. The young scientists would come in and set up their work in a relaxed, casual atmosphere, and deliver their presentations to judges and whoever else happened by and was interested. Each student repeated their presentation 3 or 4 times, each time to a different audience. Then, after an hour or so, those students would pack up and the next group would come in. It was fun to watch the students revise and improve their presentations with each retelling. Even in their final presentation they were refining their learning. It was amazing.
In addition to the science presentations, we had a Minecraft challenge, our first ever Vex Robotics demonstration, and even a paper airplane competition. One of the comprehensive high schools sent a student video crew to record the day. It was fun to see these kids interact with the competitors. Just like the world of work! And another school had their CTE kids use a laser cutter to make awesome awards!
It was a huge success. The kids were amazing. The projects were wonderful. There was only one cardboard trifold, and it disappeared quickly! Kids talked about their learning, and it was genuine learning, not memorized stuff, or stuff copied from a book! Mission accomplished! In the words of one of the judges, “This was amazing. It was a science teacher’s dream. I am so glad I participated!” Or the words of one of the younger scientists “This is the best day in my whole life!” OK, she is only 8, but still.
Today my district ditched the Science Fair. We turned it into the Science and Engineering Expo. It was a blast. It took a whole crew of people to pull off, and it was a huge success. The part I was most involved in though was what we called Top Chef: Minecraft Edition, with a tip of the hat to Jon Corippo for the Top Chef idea. The idea was kids would work in groups of three to create an environment in Minecraft that would support the fictional “Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus.” Every now and then in the two-hour event a new “secret ingredient” was to be announced that teams needed to add to their environment in a meaningful way. It was a great idea, but I had no idea how to actually pull it off. I have dabbled in Minecraft, but I don’t even rate the novice level. I am a total newb.
I turned to social media, and my friend Diane Main connected me with Shane Asselstine, in Hawaii, who provided us with the perfect Minecraft world to work in. One of the tech guys in the office, Darin, built a Lynux server for the event and repurposed some old laptops. He actually knew what to do with the world that Shane provided us! On the day of the event we had 7 teams of three kids each, and a whole big cheering section of family, friends, and teachers for each team. It was a whole thing!
I started to explain the event to the crowd; what the world was and how it worked when I was interrupted.
“Each block is 1-meter square. You should not say the area is 100 blocks by 150 blocks. You should say it is 100 meters by 150 meters.”
And that is how we started our first ever Minecraft Showcase, me being schooled by a 6th grader.
I corrected myself and continued explaining how the Minecraft challenge was going to work. To be honest, I had no idea how it was going to work, I was just hoping it didn’t end in disaster. It didn’t.
The first “Secret Ingredient” was an easy one: sand. I noticed that everyone had a lot of water in their area, and figured they would put the sand along the edges of the water, but I would trip them up by asking them WHY they put the sand there. The first time I did, the kid looked at me like I was a total scientific newb, and gave me my second schooling of the day “Sand is eroded rock. That is what it is. It flows into rivers and is deposited on the banks. It’s what sand does. That is where it goes. It’s natural.”
One of the high school video crew suggested the second secret ingredient: paintings. How was a bunch of middle schoolers going to use paintings in an environment for the tree octopus in a meaningful way? No problem.
The first group put their paintings in a cave. You know cave paintings. Since the tree octopus prefers to hang out in caves, this team had a cave from “an ancient civilization whose population had mysteriously disappeared. These paintings are artifacts from that civilization” the 8th grader told me. That led to the discussion about the fallen tree that was just outside the cave. It was decomposing, providing a home for the frogs. Then they discussed the water lilies that attract the insects that the frogs eat. Because, you know, the tree octopus eats frogs. It said so right in the middle of the two solid pages of small text that I had given them explaining the tree octopus. You can’t have a tree octopus without frogs to eat, and you can’t have frogs without insects to eat. You see, they actually read the material. All of it. Then they discussed it among themselves. And made a plan.
We all know about maps, right? You know, Google Maps. We all use Maps to figure out how to get somewhere, what’s the best route, or how long it will take. I remember that first time, at a Cue Conference, when a collegue showed me that if you type “nearby pizza” into Google on a phone, you would get a map to a nearby pizza place! I have been hooked ever since. But do you use Google Maps in the classroom?
Last week I was working with some high school Social Science teachers in a professional development session on integrating technology into the classroom. The subject of Maps came up. “Why would you use Google Maps in the classroom? Where is the curricular standard in finding the quickest route to San Jose?” The teacher raised a legitimate question.
I had a simple answer. Social Science teachers are concerned with events that happened in the past. Every event that ever occurred, since the beginning of time, happened someplace. Every event had a location, and that location can be displayed on a map. And maps that show where events occurred tell stories. Why not have kids write these stories, collaboratively? Why not have kids share these maps with each other and the world? When kids make their own maps of events they can then see trends and relationships between the events, acquiring a deeper understanding of the events, and having an opportunity to write also!
We then spent some time collaboratively building some maps. We started with a Google sheet. Whoa there Mr. Hall you may say, I thought you said maps, now you are talking about spreadsheets! Yeah, we built a spreadsheet, one column was the name of a WWI event, the next column had the coordinates of that event, and the third contained a description of the event. This is where the students do their writing. Directly in the spreadsheet. All of the teachers were writing in the spreadsheet at the same time. It worked wonderfully. Then I imported the spreadsheet into Maps, and boom, we had a map!
I can’t wait to see the maps these teachers students create!
This last week I was invited to attend some presentations in one of our elementary schools. The invitation was an opportunity to go and see how technology is being used in schools. On Tuesday morning I made my way over to the Primary Years Academy, pushed my way through a crowd of proud parents outside Ms. Matty’s first grade class, and was amazed. Kids were grouped around their little tables, in teams of two or three. Each table had a bunch of props representing aspects of the country the kids had researched. The kids were in costumes, respectfully representing the traditional clothing of that culture. Each team had a Chromebook the kids were going to use for their presentations. They were getting ready.
As the kids were getting logged in to the Chromebooks, the problems started. Something had changed on the network the night before, and kids were presented with a screen they had never seen before. They didn’t know what to do. With a crowd of parents outside the room waiting to get in, and Ms. Matty busy with all the details involved in a day like this, I watched a boy and girl interact:
“Hmmm, That’s not right” the boy said.
“Try clicking here.” said the little girl.
“That didn’t work. I’m going to log out and try again.”
This went on for a few minutes before word spread among the kids on how to solve the problem. It was really impressive. Remember, these were first graders! Six year old kids! They had run into an unexpected problem, and were doing a fantastic job of problem solving. The kids solved the problem, and went on and gave their presentations to a room full of parents, and then repeated the performance for classes of older kids.
The kids did a great job. I saw really wonderful presentations. Kids were using technology in an authentic way, blended with realia to make a meaningful learning experience. I just wish everyone could see what is happening in Ms. Matty’s room. Great things are happening in that class. Ms. Matty is my Edu-hero.
Now that I have been in my new job for a half of a year, it is time to start getting back to the blog. One of the things that bothered me about being a classroom teacher was the isolation. A teacher never gets to go out and see what other teachers are doing. Sure you can go to conferences – I did that often- but that is not the same as going to other schools and seeing what is actually happening, what are teachers doing, and what are kids doing. So it is really difficult to have a sense of where you are at in the bigger picture. I thought I was a rather innovative teacher, but really, I had no idea. I had nothing to compare what I was doing with.
Now that I am out of the classroom I have the opportunity to go and see what is happening in the schools throughout the district. With some 2,000 teachers spread out over 53 schools I have some opportunities in front of me. I have seen some cool stuff so far. I loved seeing some second graders using Google Slides to give a career awareness presentation. It was a blast watching some 8th grade kids work on building a prosthetic arm. I got to see a bunch of high school kids pound on the door to get back into school – on a Friday afternoon, on a holiday weekend! They had work they wanted to get done. It wasn’t “due.” They just wanted to work. They didn’t see how school being over had anything to do with it. They wanted the dang door unlocked.
In reflecting back on these experiences, there was a common element in all of these, and it was the teacher. In all of these experiences, the responsible teacher was visibly passionate about what his or her students were doing. In thinking back on what I know about learning, what we know about high performing- high poverty schools, it is the role of the teacher that is most important. The teacher must believe in the kids; they must be passionate about the kids and learning. They must do whatever it takes to bring an interesting and engaging lesson to the kids. When this is done, the kids respond. They pound on the doors to get them open.
I am looking forward to seeing more passionate teachers, and helping others to rekindle their passion.
“It should be quiet in here. You should be studying for the quiz!”
“Sit down and do your work, I want it quiet in here!”
I have heard these directions, and others like them many, many times through the years, and I just do not get it. When I am trying to learn something, especially something difficult to understand, I need to talk to people. I need to compare my understanding with another’s understanding. I think we all do. That’s why we have meetings! Can you imagine a staff meeting where the trainer said “I want you all to read this article, and study it. Tomorrow you are going to implement this new procedure, so study! Quiet!”
It doesn’t work like that. When we teachers are learning something new, we talk about it. A lot. We compare understandings. We argue about understandings. We challenge each other. We draw diagrams. We discuss. We get excited! So why don’t we let kids do that? It seems to me when kids are studying for a test the room should be noisy. Kids should be talking about the topic. They should be challenging each others understandings. They should be helping each other with clues. They should be giving high fives to each other. The room should not be quiet. Quiet is not the same as engaged. Quiet does not mean on task, and quite does not mean learning is happening.
This year I am doing it, I am ditching the points. After years of pretending that giving points for assignments was an objective way of giving grades, I am finally admitting that all those points really do is keep track of how many assignments a student does. Points do not measure what a student knows or can do. They measure what the teacher wants measured, which is too often not the standards the class is supposed to be focused on. They measure compliance, not competence, and certainly not mastery. And don’t get me started about “Extra Credit.”
So no points this year. Students get a ‘P’ or an ‘N’ for each project. ‘P’ means the student did a proficient job at what they were asked to do. An ‘N’ means the work needs more attention. So far students have a lot of ‘N’s. And they keep redoing things, and the work keeps getting better. Eventually the project gets the ‘P’. And no one is complaining, it is amazing. The students share work with me, I give feedback, they consider the feedback and make a decision as to what to do about it, and keep going. We are only a month into the year and everyone is at a different level, doing different work. Every student has an individual learning goal for each day. And best of all, as I walk around the room I see more actual engagement than I have ever seen. I know it is only a month into the year, but I am really liking what I see so far.
It was one of the last days of the school year and Alex, one of our seniors, said it: “I just can’t wait to graduate high school, go to college and finally work on what I want to be in life.” He was so excited. As he talked to his friends it became apparent that he viewed high school graduation as the end of learning the things he was told to know, the end of jumping through pointless hoops, and college was where he could take control and do the things he felt relevant.
While I was happy for him and the rest of the graduates, I felt like a failure. Why can’t we have a school where kids can work on their passions? Where kids know the connections between their courses and the rest of their lives? Sure the state dictates what courses students need to take. But there is really no reason school can’t be a place where kids are preparing for their future, the future they see for themselves.
It has been done before, we have examples of how to do it. There are schools where kids are excited to go to school, where kids are in control of there learning, and it works. It is hard to break the paradigm, but it is not impossible- it’s just difficult. We have the chance for a new beginning with the transition to CCSS. So lets make it so. This year.