Monday, November 24, 2014

Risk-Taking Teaching

        I am not a risk taker in most areas. Forget skydiving, mountain climbing, or anything involving eating strange foods. Serve me up traditional, please. People who can do some of these things amaze me. Just like some teachers I know who put it on the line in the classroom. They climb outside their comfort zones and may dress up as a book character, talk in funny accents to match the characters, act out scenes, employ new ideas that may not work, or ask students for input  The more I've seen them, the more convinced I am that teachers who are risk-takers engage students more deeply in the learning process.
Photo courtesy of
        So what are risks to take in the classroom? One common thread I've seen is that teachers who go outside the lines aren't afraid to fail and they encourage their students to do the same--fail. Not the class but the idea. Maybe the idea falls flat, but they try. When asked how he felt about being the all-time leader in throwing interceptions, Brett Favre responded that he felt okay about it. "It shows I was trying." Favre is a three-time MVP winner who led the legendary Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl win. Most in the sports field regard him as one of the best quarterbacks of the game. Favre  was  risk-taker. Sometimes those chances paid off, sometimes they didn't. He didn't view interceptions as failures; instead he looked at them as positives--he was trying.
       What if we took that attitude when students want to try something new outside our "box" of what school should be? What if we shared failures with students and showed our human side? What if we gave our students permission for an idea not to work? What would our classrooms look like?
        Dr. Alice Dregger, Lyman Briggs School at Michigan State University, believes there are several ways to take risks in the classroom. A couple of them are to try new teaching approaches and assess "on time." Trust their opinions and implement their ideas when possible. My students complete unit reflections where they evaluate their learning. What worked and what didn't? What ideas do they have to make it a stronger learning experience? Some of the best ideas I've gotten to strengthen what I teach and how I teach it has come from students. 
        Another point Dr. Dregger makes is that risk taking for teachers involves trusting students with their learning and being willing to learn from them. No one knows everything, although some of my students think they do. After researching this topic of risk taking, I realize I need to change. Instead of getting mildly irritated with these students who "know it all," why not allow them to teach the rest of the class? I have smart kids. They may not know Shakespeare but they are smart in other things. Why not make connections so they can teach me? I have a student who's terrific with cars. He works for a local dealership in the lube department. When something we read didn't make sense to us because of the reference, he clarified by explaining what was happening. It was a mechanical reference, one I knew nothing about then. Now, I'm educated because of this student.
        Maybe it's time we loosened up in the classroom and invited ourselves and our students to take more risks. Failure is a part of the learning process. Just ask Thomas Edison. Without failure, he would have never invented all that he did. It's something I need to learn to do more consistently.
        Being a teacher is an ever-evolving profession. Although I may never launch myself from an airplane, I know I will start to take more risks in the classroom. I've always been a fan of Brett Favre. Maybe interceptions aren't bad after all.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Mentoring Others

            My niece is frustrated. As a student teacher there is enough angst to go around. However, add in student teaching in a foreign country, one in which you don’t know the language, and it’s doubly anxiety ridden. Often times she has self-doubts, questioning the sanity of her decision to become a teacher. I’ve assured her every good teacher questions his or her practices in the classroom, wondering how effective the methods are. But are my words enough to bolster the confidence of this budding educator? She needs support, an invested mentor of sorts. A listening ear and an honest tongue. Do first year teachers receive the needed support to be effective educators?
            I’m not sure how other districts operate, but I know new teachers in my district are assigned a mentor. The two meet together, going over questions, discussing the classroom and any problematic areas. Overall, I think it's a terrific program that gives a new teacher needed support.
            I’m not sure if my niece will receive that type of support no matter where she goes. She will be  a good educator, if she doesn’t self-doubt herself silly. I may not be much, but I will continue to speak into her life. She has too much potential to be an effective teacher not to fight for her to remain in the occupation.
            So look for someone who’s new to your school. Maybe they came from middle school and transferred to high school. That person may not be new to teaching but he/she is new to the age group. When I first came to alternative ed from private education, I was adrift. A fellow teacher took me under his wing and gave me sage advice that impacted me then and still does. He's since retired, but whenever possible, I connect with him. At least yearly. So get involved. Offer suggestions, offer help, bring in a care package, take that teacher our for coffee after school one day and get to know him/her. You could make all the difference.
            Being a teacher isn’t easy but it can be meaningful. Look for first year or young teachers. Not only can we have an impact on our students but we an also encourage another teacher. Who knows, you may even learn a thing or two yourself!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Challenge Continued: Feedback for Learning

            Ever do a great job on something yet no one says anything about it? Put your all into a work project, only to have your boss murmur, “Nice work” in passing? Everyone needs feedback, good and bad. Especially students. Feedback is one of the more tenuous aspects of teaching. It’s a dance between some positive comments to a critical (but not negative) review of the work. This delicate balance is a fine ballet put on by some teachers and an Elaine-dance (think Seinfeld) by others. I fall somewhere in between.
            Several years ago I attended grad school. There was a LOT of writing. Don’t get me wrong; I love to write, but the volume even taxed me. However, one of the greatest lessons learned during that time was the importance of quality feedback. How did I learn that? By being on the receiving end. After turning in papers or written work, I looked forward to getting my stuff returned, not so much for the grade but for the comments made by the professors. To be honest, some modeled much stronger feedback than others. It set a standard for what I did and didn’t want to do in my own classroom.
            So what is feedback for learning? I think it’s a way as a teacher to guide students in the learning process. At the end of the day when I’m still correcting papers, it’s tempting to write “Nice work” or “Good job” at the end of a paper. But then I remind myself how inadequate that would have been for me had I gotten comments like that in my own work. The words I received from teachers prompted me to deeper thinking or consideration of new ways to approach something. In other words, it was valuable feedback. Words I could put into practice. Words I could use.
Photo courtesy of
            Since getting my masters, my approach to feedback has changed. It’s still not great, but it’s a lot better than previously. I try to think of what I would like to receive from a teacher—instruction as to how to improve a piece of writing structurally, insights/connections/ questions that arise as a result of something I’ve written, or comments about the effectiveness of my writing. I try to base my feedback on these three things.
            Feedback is an ever-improving area in my teaching realm. I spend time thinking about what I’m saying because it’s so important. I’ve seen quality feedback motivate students and lazy feedback stall them in their writing. So what’s a teacher to do when giving their comments? Look for the good first. Comment on what needs improvement. Finally, look for the good, overall, in the project. Teens are just like adults. We all respond to feedback. The better it is, the better the response.
            No matter what, giving students my best in this area requires effort. Concentrated effort. When I get tired of reading papers and want to take the easy way, I remember my anticipation in grad school to getting back my assignments. And that makes all the difference.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Connecting with Kids

            I work with students. Mostly juniors and seniors. Mostly students who have had problems learning in traditional high schools. Mostly students who have failed, in some way, academically. And mostly, I LOVE my job. Seriously, I wouldn’t trade where I work or the kids in my classes for anything. Recently, though, I’ve been wondering about connections. I see how effortlessly some teachers relate to students and observe others who struggle to find common ground. Some teachers have former students who visit periodically while others are as lonely as the Maytag repairman. So what is it that allows some teachers to connect so easily with kids while others have a difficult time doing so?
            Research states that students who connect with a caring adult (teacher/mentor) early on in their high school experience have a greater chance of matriculating with their cohort class. The reason most kids drop out of school, especially after freshman year (the riskiest year for at-risk students)? The students have no strong relationships with a caring adult.
            I teach the “dropouts.” Those students who have flailed in high school but never bad enough for intervention. Or if they did have an intervention, they grew frustrated and discouraged and quit. When asked, most students don’t have a high school teacher they connected with at their former school. They refer to their middle or elementary teachers as being someone to whom they responded, not anyone in high school.
            So what does it take to develop relationships with students? According to a study done by University of Minnesota researchers, students feel more connected to teachers and their school when the teacher shows empathy and is consistent. One of the researchers, Robert Blum, MD, PhD, stated that teachers who make students feel important, show empathy and consistency, allow students to manage themselves, and encourage them to make their own decisions will have a stronger relationship with students resulting in fewer discipline problems and more connected students.
            The research proves out what I see daily in my classroom. For readers who have never been a teacher, let me tell you, teaching involves much more than instruction. That is about two thirds of what I spend my time on. The rest is spent on kids, and developing that relationship and being a mentor and guide. I want students to feel safe in my room, to know I care, and to approach me, if needed, with things going on in their lives. But to do that, I need to have a relationship with them.
            So how can teachers develop this kind of relationship? I say every student is different. I’ve had some that never melted the iceberg which encased them. Others had Mt. Everest on their shoulder while others put up walls to keep from being hurt. In my years of working with students, all 24 of them, I’d say there’s an innate knowing of how to handle each student.
Yet despite how you approach them, all students want basically the same things. They want structure/boundaries. Even though it may not seem like it, I believe students feel safest when they know how far they can go. They like structure and the security it offers them. Students, at least my students, want to be treated like adults, shown respect and given responsibility for their own learning. This correlates to the study cited previously—allow students to manage themselves and make their own decisions.
I’d also agree with empathy and consistency. To build relationships with kids I think it’s important to be an active listener and to be fair/consistent with how you handle situations.
Another key to developing relationships with students is to not be stingy with the praise. Kids love to get feedback, especially positive feedback. Who doesn’t like to be told he/she has done something well? How much more for insecure teens who question their every move? Praise is important for all of us, including teens.
There are many more strategies to develop relationships with students. However you look at it, relationships are vital to seeing students be successful in the classroom. No matter what others may think, teachers know that making students feel they matter and are important, in verbal and nonverbal ways, are foundations to building strong relationships with students.
And that can make all the difference.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Technology (and School) Update

     The school year is doing what it usually does--zooming by. At my school, we're almost halfway into our second block (out of six) and I still feel incredibly behind in what I want to accomplish. The learning targets I've set for myself this year have been high, but achievable. Despite the busyness, I have seen some progress towards those targets which include integration of new technologies into my classes.
      One way I'm accomplishing this is by continuing the digital magazine concept I started at the end of last year. It will be done by the end of this block. This has been an incredible learning experience for all the students and also for me. Would I do something like this again? In a heartbeat!
Digital magazine created by students

     Another area of progress is in class offerings. A few years ago I developed a project-based class, approved by the district, which would allow me to offer students a chance to answer a problem or address a problem they saw in the schools or community. I haven't taught the class lately; however, after a recent conversation with my principal, I think I may be teaching it next block. In anticipation of that, and with two colleagues from the other two high schools in town (one of whom will teach this class next year), I am meeting with someone from our local college about innovation and getting students engaged in problem-solving.
     I'm looking forward to this meeting for a few selfish reasons. One, I ome up with better ideas when I work with others. Not sure why, but my brain works better when it's not stuck by itself. The second reason is the meeting itself. I'm anticipating the conversation and gleaning information from the professor. Our college has a Center for Innovation and an Entrepreneurship Program which are pretty cool places if you like that sort of thing. I think the job the director has done in developing this program and expanding it and integrating it across campus is amazing. It's a model that other curricular areas could plagiarize. Our med school does so successfully, which is pretty cool, too.
     One thing I'm doing this year that I've not done before is teaching an enriched English class. I have a few students who expressed interest in taking an advanced English class. We've never offered such a thing at my alternative high school, but if I have students who want to learn at a deeper level...well, I can't say no to that. This class has required quite a bit of time to develop, but I know it will be worth it.
     Another bright spot has been the ACT review. Students look forward to that and we've had some good discussions about the test and what they can expect. We'll be starting the writing portion of the review soon, which will be a good exercise for my students.
     Finally, I've been able to integrate a bit more technology into classes. The tech partner at my school told me about a timeline generator that I've had some of my film students use. They developed a timeline on the history of technological advancements in film and LOVED using the online program. Once finished, we discussed what they learned which was so much MORE than I could have hoped they would have absorbed from a boring discussion led by me. It was the enthusiasm with which they participated that kind of blew me away. Once again, it only reinforced my belief that hands-on, student-led learning works.
      So, school life has kept me busy. And busy is good. It's a continual learning process as a teacher. Learning to step out of the norm and experiment with new ideas. Learning to accept the failures as well as the successes of those ideas.  Learning how much to take on in a school year and still be effective as a teacher. Learning to trust my kids and give them the latitude to try new things, even things that are a bust.
     So even though the school year is zooming by and I've been busy, that's not a bad thing. What's important is that my students and I go to school where we all learn together. And that is a good thing. A very good thing.