Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Building Fences

I've learned, through my love of disaster films, that a well maintained electric fence will deter velociraptors from escaping and wreaking havoc all over a fictional theme park.   They will test the fence over and over again to make sure it is electrified. They will test it even it it results in pain. They won't stop testing it.  It's in their nature, they're intelligent beings. They are looking for their boundaries.

In the very real world of a school, a well maintained metaphorical fence will deter your students from wreaking havoc in your classroom.  (If you teach kindergarten, you will understand that there are many parallels between raptors and kinders.)  

Many new teachers don't understand the relationship between forethought and classroom management.   I have had conversations with new teachers who think they need tricks and training in behavior management in order to have a controlled, seamlessly functioning classroom.   While it's not a bad idea to understand the basics of classroom management and behavior control, the trick is in building and maintaining the fence.  

Before it can be maintained, your fence will need to be built.  The elements of your fence will include the following:
  • Well rehearsed procedures.
  • A sense of community that has been deliberately created.
  • A classroom set-up with purpose and forethought.
  • And, of course, a behavior plan.
The fence is built early in the school year.  The set up is thought through, the furniture is moved again and again to make sure there is a clear, clean traffic flow and inviting learning spaces. The procedures are rehearsed, over and over again.  You will do numerous community building, and team building activities with your learners.  You will review the school's or the district's behavior plan and rehearse it in your mind.   But, even though you have taken care to build a solid fence, your little raptors, will attempt to tear it down.  Why?  They are intelligent beings.  Like the raptors, they are going to constantly push to find a gap or hole in your fence.  Once they find a hole, you're in trouble. Your learners will continue to look for holes.  You will need to maintain your fence constantly. Here are a few maintenance tips: 
  • Solid lesson planning, leaving no time gaps.
  • Preparation of materials needed to carry out lesson plans
  • A toolbox of solid instructional strategies and practices

If your fence includes all of the above components, it will not only be functional, but it will be a beautiful learning space.  Of course, as a new teacher, you will need to build your personal learning network in order to find the resources needed to build the fence.  

I can point you in the right direction for some:
  • For procedures, look for the book The First Days of School by Harry Wong
  • For community building, refer to anything Kagan.
  • Classroom set up ideas can be found online; Pintrest, Teachers Pay Teachers, etc.
  • Your behavior plan should follow your school or district recommendations.
  • I'll plan on writing a whole blog on lesson planning, but just remember this; ALWAYS, ALWAYS OVER-PLAN.
  • For instructional practices, and strategies, you can't go wrong with the gradual release model and any of Marzano's nine practices. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015


This is a very nice article by Angela Stockman  I follow her on twitter, she's very insightful -- here's a link to her blog: http://www.angelastockman.com/

The article is from a site called Brilliant or Insane - great place to find good insightful articles also.

Here is the link to the 10 truths:


Number 9 is the one I heard about the most, but didn't really take seriously until it happened!   Protect yourself!!!!!!

Monday, July 27, 2015

6 Steps For Creating a Safe Failing Up Classroom

Failing UP is defined in the urban dictionary as: 
Failing Up - (verb, intransitive) to derive gain in spite of failure that would 
usually either preclude said gain or have adverse consequences.

Changing the implications of failing will open your students to a growth mindset. Make 'failing up' common language in your classroom.  Here are 6 tips to establish a safe environment for failing up:

1. Make mistakes yourself.

This is the best way to establish a safe environment, let your learners see you make mistakes. Invite them to work through them with you and encourage them to give you feedback (See #6 below) and help you arrive at solutions in the process.  

2. Define healthy responses to failure.

Make an anchor chart with your students. Keep it handy and refer to it often - here is an example:

3. Provide students with highly challenging tasks.

Carol Dweck found in her research that once a growth mindset is established, learners will embrace challenges.  If your learners know that there will be no negative consequences for their failure, and it is just a step in the process, they will begin taking more chances and embrace more and harder challenges.  Failing up will become their mode of learning. 

4. Celebrate the attempt.

Leah Alcala gives her students a hard problem as a warm up every day, each response gets feedback, but, she chooses her favorite mistake as a means for failing up.  Watch this video of her technique:

5. Open the floor to suggestions.

When analyzing mistakes, model respectful, specific feedback and encourage other students to do the same with their colleagues.  You can practice this by pairing students up and using sentence stems.  Here are some examples of stems you may want to give students to get the conversation started:

I disagree with your answer because . . .
You used a different strategy that I did . . .
I wonder why _________ happened . . .
Can you explain your strategy . . .
Can you explain why .  .  .
What would you do differently . . .

You can make up stems for the specific task and subject matter your are teaching.  After a few weeks of practicing in pairs or small groups, you class should be ready for a full class discussion like in the above video. 

6. Give specific feedback 
I will probably have several more posts on feedback as I gain a better understanding of it, but please know that feedback and praise are VERY different. Praise will not give the learner any insight into what went wrong (or right) in the learning process.  It is limited to comments like "great job" or "this answer is wrong".   Specific feedback looks something like this:  "You were asked to ________.  You did  ____ and ____, but you forgot step 3, that affected the final product" At this point you can ask, what other information the student may need to accomplish the task correctly. 

Do you have other techniques to make Failing up more comfortable for your students?  I would love to hear them and share with other readers. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Bird Approach or Flock Approach?

The Eagles
A few Februaries ago, students at my school became infatuated with the Decorah Eagles.  If this is unfamiliar to you, the Raptor Resource Project hosts a web cam from early to late spring each year.  Anyone can log on and watch these beautiful birds at any time of the day or night.  Our learners became so obsessed with them, that one kindergartner was overheard asking her teacher, "Do we have to go to recess? Can't we just stay in and watch the eagles?"
Aspiring Young Activists
Watching the eagles indirectly spawned a service learning project in our 2nd graders this year. (See Chimney Swift Project, below) It started a month before the eagle cam went live.  Concurrently, the building principal who, is a strong proponent of service learning, along with the second grade teachers created a hands on social justice lesson with their young learners.   As part of a study of Martin Luther King Jr. the teachers and principal decided to incite some social unrest among the students. After reading about 'sit ins' and 'peaceful protests', the principal announced that there would be less recess time for second grade because they weren't as deserving as the students in other grade levels. Not without encouragement from their teachers, the 7 & 8 year olds decided to hold a sit in of their own in the principal's office.  They orchestrated it beautifully with a march, chants, and banners.  With this overwhelming show of solidarity, the principal had no other choice but to rescind her earlier proclamation and allow full recess to all second graders. 
This was the first in a series of social justice lessons to which these young learners would become exposed (thanks to the skill and competency of their teachers and principal).  They had the opportunity to ask questions about injustice.  They also explored the root causes of the injustice.  They began to understand that it was the responsibility of everyone to change things that were not right.  In essence, these little folks were becoming 'fired up' knowing that they had the power to change things that needed to be changed, and they needed a cause to expend their newfound "citizenship energy".  
Back to the Eagles  
In late February, the students read an article about one of the previous year's offspring of the eagle pair.  The young eagle had flown into a high power line and was electrocuted.  The letter writing campaign began.  
After visits and letters from the local electric utility company, the students learned what was being done by utilities to protect wildlife around high wires.  However, their thirst for active citizenship had still not been quenched.  Then they invited a speaker from the local chapter of the Audubon society to school.   During this visit, another issue arose: They learned of the decline of a bird in our region called the chimney swift.  
The Chimney Swift Project Began
One of the standards for 2nd grade has to do with persuasive writing.   The standard in second grade actually asks kids to state their opinion and back it up. These kids went a few steps further. Our kids had the opportunity to practice persuasive writing and every aspect written conventions, when asking for money and materials donations.   A home improvement center answered the materials call and some firefighters from our local station helped the principal, and PTO president with labor.  By the time school was out for the summer, we had a chimney swift tower anxiously awaiting birds.  

 The Bird or the Flock?
The required learning standard that was the focus throughout this experience was opinion writing. As I reflect on this experience, I think about 2 different approaches that could have been taken to teach this standard.  Of course a 'bee and hive' analogy would have been more fitting, but we were saving birds this time.

Bird Approach  - Teach so that each bird understands the standard, concept and/or skill and can pass a test over it.  

Flock Approach - Teach so that the birds work for the good of the flock while learning the standard, concept and/or skill. 

If our teachers had decided take the bird approach they could have accomplished it like this:  Pull a subject out of a hat and have students start writing about it.  Then in typical 'writer's workshop' fashion, there would be mini lessons, edits, revisions, re-writes and finally the (pseudo)publication of the persuasive argument.   Writing would be limited to a 45 minute block of time each day, disjointed from the rest of the day.  During the month long unit on persuasive writing, they may even have time to write on 2 or 3 subjects.

Instead, our teachers decided to make this a rich learning environment. They took the flock approach. 

In lower elementary grades it is easy to get caught up in the idea of teaching the individual child a certain set of standards, skills or concepts.  That way, we can report to the parents "Your child is capable of X,Y, and Z".  The primary grades are the most logical place to do that,  kids need to learn the basics in order to function as human beings in our society. However, we should begin to introduce the concept of 'we'.  And when I say 'we' - I don't mean traditional "good citizen" concepts like: share, be nice, follow the rules, be honest, be kind, take turns, keep quiet, be obedient.  While these concepts help the individual to function, we can't stop at teaching just them. We must move forward and provide richer experiences for our kids. Experiences like this one, that shows learners that they are the ones who will make a difference in the world.  Then we can report to the parents with words like; "Together, we are capable of .  .  ."  That list will be much more impressive than the Xs, Ys and Zs on a report card.   

Our teachers did just that, they provided meaningful experiences.  They made the experiences not only relevant, but they triggered their kids to think about and learn about society and the roles and responsibilities that compose a functioning vibrant one.  These students learned a much more significant meaning of the concept of citizenship.  They learned that they had power to change things that they decided (through their own critical thinking) needed changing. While I'm certain that there were aspects of direct writing instruction involved in their experience, that was not the focus of the unit.  That instruction was a needed tool in order to accomplish the goal that they had set in saving those birds. The focus was solving problems using their creative and critical thinking.  

Why do you teach?  To better the bird, or to better the flock?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

3 Questions For Every New Teacher (And One All Important Answer)

If you have spent any time watching TED Talks, you have probably come across Simon Sinek's talk about leadership.  His breakthrough, the "Golden Circle" can be explained like this: In any organization and in our individual lives and careers, we function in 3 levels:
1. What we do
2. How we do it
3. Why we do it

Taking the time to answer these questions can prove to be a valuable exercise in self reflection for any teacher, new or experienced.   

As teachers, we implicitly know what we do, we deliver content, we inspire learning, we motivate learners, we educate, we instruct, we tutor, we coach, we train . . . the list continues.   No new teacher or experienced teacher would have trouble answering question number 1.  

New teachers may be a bit fuzzy on the second question.  How do we do it?  Many of these answers will come with time.  Your answer to question 2 will evolve and change over the years as you hone your craft and become an expert in pedagogy.  The beauty of the second question, is that, as a teacher, you will be able to personalize the answer to fit the subject the mood and the learners. You will learn new techniques, be exposed to new programs, adopt new textbooks, try new practices, and new initiatives. Many will try to tell you that all this change is bad.  You will hear this again and again.  But, once you embrace this constant changing landscape, you will find it to be a source of delight, triumph, satisfaction, and interest in your career. This is one of the greatest joys of teaching. NEVER let anyone tell you anything to the contrary.  Question number 2 is what sets you apart, is the source of pride in your career. 

As a new teacher, the sooner you can communicate and reflect on WHY you do what you do, the more focused and content you will become. WHY is your cause, your belief, and as Simon Sinek explains; "It's the reason you get up in the morning."  Take some time to reflect on this.  Once you have a clear understanding of your why, make a symbol of it.  Hang that symbol where you will see it every day as your inspiration, your drive, your conviction.  

For the first few years of my teaching career, if someone would have asked me question 3, I would have answered "I love kids" or "I want to help kids learn"  and I am sure that most teachers today would answer with some iteration of this response.  It's all about the kids, nothing more - nothing less. This is noble, responsible, and expected.  I relish the vision of a multitude of teachers waking up every morning thinking about the impact they will make on the hearts and minds of their young learners.  

Since watching Simon Sinek's TED talk, and reading his book Start With Why, I have spent the last couple years pondering the "Why" question.   Of course the answer still has to do with the kids, but it has evolved to go beyond that.   Deeper, if you will.   In my next post, I will try to explain my "Why".  It has much to do with our responsibility as citizens to move the world forward.   The evolution and refinement of my "Why" was bolstered when I read this book by Joel Westheimer:

Of course, my next post will focus on service learning.  

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

3 Types of Teachers, Which Do You Aspire To Be?

In preparation for the new school year and new principals in which to inflict my leadership coaching upon, I recently attended a leadership conference.  Author Todd Whitaker was one of the keynote speakers.  

About 3 years ago I became fascinated with one of his books: Shifting The Monkey 
(The Art of Protecting Good People From Liars, Criers, and Other Slackers).  I paraphrased and shared the information from the book with everyone I know who holds any type of leadership position.  I also lent the book to my brother and haven't seen it since.   So I missed the opportunity to have Todd sign the book, I did come away with this picture of Todd, along with myself and a colleague:

In the inspiring message that he delivered at the conference, my biggest take away was the way he ranked the types of teachers he encountered in the buildings in which he lead. As I listened, I began to relate to his words:

Teachers tend to fall into one of 3 roles:

Even without the explanation and exercise that would follow, I began to sift my colleagues into the 3 types of teachers in my head.  And you are probably doing the same.   But, before you get too far let me offer some of his explanations about each role.

Superstar: These are the kinds of teachers every parent would want for their child.   They are the type of teachers every principal wants to lead.  They are the most dedicated, hardest working, passionate, professional teachers you will encounter in your lifetime.  The vision of these teachers reaches beyond themselves.  It is broad, long range and uses the lens of others to see what needs to be done to improve. They are not afraid to change, because they understand that change is the only way to move forward. They want what is best not only for the children in their own classroom, but what is best for all learners.  They have the drive to make positive change happen.  

Backbones:  The bulk of the teachers you encounter are backbones.  They are willing to try new things.  They take pride in doing their job and doing it "right".  They do what they are told, and they want to make themselves and their students look good.  Their vision is usually limited to their own classroom and they become overwhelmed when asked to work for things that don't affect them (or their own students) directly.  Their drive for change comes from acceptance, and knowing that they did what they were asked to do.  

Mediocre:  The mediocre teacher. . . well you may have encountered this one from time to time.   If you think about the bell curve, there are probably as many of these as there are superstars.  Mediocres are difficult, they provide a warm adult body in the classroom. They may try something new, but not with any expectation or determination.  They are usually looking for reasons why it won't work (and someone to blame when it doesn't).  They refer to themselves as burned out (but one may question if they were ever on fire to begin with!) When greeted with 'How are you today?' they usually offer a negative response.  They don't have much motivation and their vision rarely goes beyond themselves.  

The rest of the keynote focused on leading these 3 types of teachers and I will leave the details of this to Todd.  He has several books on the subject. including School Culture Rewired, and What Great Principals Do Differently.  

But the focus of my post is to help you recognize which of the 3 types of teachers you are (or want to be).  If you are a new teacher just entering the profession, this information should be something for you to reflect upon.  If you are a seasoned teacher who would like to renew your role, you may want to reflect also. 

Here are 3 questions to ponder:
1. When you think of the upcoming school year, where is your focus? (yourself? your class? every stakeholder in your school?)
2. When you discuss your job with others, what is your tone?
3. Why are you a teacher?  

The last question leads into my next post - Start With Why.   (You can prime yourself by watching this video by Simon Sinek)