Friday, September 23, 2011


The tug of war of control between federal and local governments over education, union and school board, parents and school districts, teachers and administrators, are ever-present in any discussion of education reform or transformation.  But the control issue that seems to come up most often in my discussions on both #edchat and #langchat is the issue of student control.

It is evident that in order for students to have more control of their learning, teachers must give up some of their control.  For many teachers, this is a very scary prospect.  The idea that good classroom management equals a quiet classroom filled with obedient students is a traditional view that has been reinforced in teacher education programs for decades.  Then again, I have also seen tweeted and retweeted, even by educators I greatly respect, the sentiment that noisy classrooms are where the most learning is taking place. Judging from my own three-ring circus (read:  classroom), depending on what activities are taking place and how many activities are going on at any given moment, the volume can range from a dull roar to almost pin-drop quiet (which I find almost unnerving) but in either case, students are engaged.

I have students who choose to work alone when they have the opportunity.  I have students who choose the low-tech options when they are available.  With guidance, this is how they learn which learning methods work best for them.  Do they have completely free rein?  Of course not.  Am I endorsing classroom anarchy?  Never.  But students respond positively when allowed to make choices within a system of structure.

I was prompted to post on this topic by an experience I had with my students last week.  I had just introduced them to their electronic portfolios in wikispaces.  They were setting up accounts, embedding their first speaking pieces, when the buzz began among them that there was a chatroom in the wiki.  Now, I had planned to introduce this in the future, so having them discover it on their own, saved me quite a bit of direct instruction.  Of course, my little angels thought they were putting one over on me, but because I let them be in control, I have some found time with this group.

The day after I drafted this post, (but before I had a chance to type it), I had another experience with students that made an even bigger impact on me.  In a class of novice French students, one group was working on being able to count out loud up to 20.  I had selected two different counting songs (here and here) for them to use to model their pronunciation, and use for memory aids.  I was working with other groups for a few minutes, and when I went to check on the counting group, they were watching a youtube video I had never seen before (here).  They knew from a previous class that my teacher account (which was logged in on the computer they were using) did not have youtube blocked, and they took it upon themselves to try to find a better alternative to what I had offered.  They were successful.  I subsequently used the video they found with other classes, who also enjoyed it.  Here was a group of students who were allowed some control of their learning, realized there were better alternatives out there, found them, used them, and LEARNED.  I couldn't have planned it as well myself.

Giving students choice will not bring the world to an end.  In fact, it just might make your classroom manageable.  You might even find your students teaching YOU a thing or two.

My challenge to you:  Find one area in which you are willing to give up some control to your students -- homework, seating, practice method, assessment method.  Let them surprise you.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

On Failure

Having finished the first week of school as a teacher of novice students of French, this post (that has been percolating in the draft pile for weeks now) seems very timely.  All learners benefit from this message.  I've often seen the message "Failure is not an Option" as a motivational bumper sticker/poster type message designed to raise expectations, but the fact is, that failure MUST be an option in order for learning to occur.  This blog is normally intended for the audience of educators passionate about making the changes they have the power to make in order to transform education, but I am writing this also to share with my students, because I believe it is a message they need to hear.

I am normally confounded by the alphabet soup that edjargon has become, but I've seen this acronym tweeted numerous times in the last several weeks, and it really touched me:

FAIL:  First Attempt In Learning

Thomas Edison said:
I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.
Brad Flickinger expanded on this philosophy in his blog about how great ideas are born from failures.  Learning can be increased -- perhaps exponentially -- when failure is embraced as part of the process -- something to be analysed and transformed.  Like Henry Ford said:  "Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently. "

My favorite point from Abhijit Kadle's blog is how he puts failure in to the context of video gaming -- a concept most of our students understand quite well.  If you've ever played a particular video game for any length of time, reflect on the number of failures required to move from level to level.  Probably the first two or three levels can be moved through rather quickly, maybe even failure-free, but as you move forward, you may be stuck on a particular level through numerous failures until you finally succeed.  Put in the context of learning content in a classroom.  Some concepts come to some students very quickly, others require numerous failures, but boy what a great feeling when the success eventually happens.
Alina Tugend quoted a teacher in her post on Edutopia as lamenting that students have become "victims of excellence".  They have become afraid to fail.  Teachers have the responsibility to reassure them that

1.  It's Ok not to know something, as long as you are willing to find out

This is one of the most powerful things a teacher can model.  We are not the "keepers of the knowledge".  It is guaranteed every class we walk into that every student has something s/he can teach us that we didn't already know, so when we say "I don't know.", we make it OK for them to do the same.

2. It's Ok to take a while to learn

This is a particular point with me, and it bears repeating.  Students need to be allowed to learn at their own pace. When we allow them that comfort, it may come to bear that the pace picks up as students gain confidence, and realize they will not be shamed or penalized for taking a little longer to absorb the information

These excerpts from this post by Scott Dinsmore sums up the message I'd like to send with this post.

It’s ok to not be the best at something.

In fact there’s huge power in being a beginner. Here are a few:
  • Keeps you humble
  • Gets you out of your comfort zone
  • Removes expectation or comparison
  • Connects you with people on a new level – gives a window into their world
  • Gives you a chance to find something that lights your heart on fire
So, for a dual audience, a dual challenge:

Teachers:  I challenge you to tell your students directly that failure is part of the learning process.  Make your classroom a place where failure is embraced as a mile marker on the road to success, not something cloaked in shame.

Students:  I challenge you to play Angry Birds, and the next time you feel like a failure in French class, remember Angry Birds.  Remember how many failures it took to get to that next level.  The, remember how great it felt when you finally got there.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Power of Gratitude

I've started watching more TED talks lately -- many on the recommendation of another of my favorite tweeps, Terry Woolard.  The most recent TED talk I've watched was by Adam Grant, and had to do with the effect of gratitude on teacher burnout...and wearing dark suits, but you'd need to watch the video to understand that last bit.

Teaching, particularly in the current political climate, can be an isolating and thankless job -- especially if you teach secondary school, and have contact with far more students for a far shorter amount of time.  (And let's face it, spontaneous gratitude is not part of the general makeup of most teenagers).  "Teacher gifts" at the end of the year and holidays usually become a thing of the past as soon as parents figure out "You want to buy gifts for HOW many teachers?", which is as it should be, because after all, it really is the thought that counts.  And although there have been relatively few true expressions of gratitude I have received in my career, I cherish those I have gotten -- flowers from a student who passed after long hours of remediation, a guidance counselor thanking me for my hard work on behalf of students, an administrator telling me he was impressed with how I handled myself in a meeting with an irate parent.  We all like to think we go the extra mile for selfless reasons but the truth is, it matters when someone notices and says thank you.

Two years ago my school district moved to the PBIS system of student discipline (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports).  At the high school, part of this new system includes paper tickets known as "fist bumps" that are filled out by students or teachers who "catch a student being good".  Yes, there are monthly drawings for small prizes, but I have a hunch that the real prize is the "thank you" that is the fist bump.  The PBIS committee, made up of fabulously enthusiastic educators, had the wisdom to include faculty in the fist bumps, so students and faculty can give fist bumps to faculty as well.  To many of my colleagues it seems kind of silly, I know, but to me, a personalized thank you from a student or colleague -- even for something as simple as always being on time for lunch duty -- means someone is paying attention and, yeah, it matters.

So my challenge to you, as you go through your first weeks of school, is to sincerely thank a colleague for their hard work, or for helping you, or just for being on time. 

It matters.