Guiding student voice

Every parent that I know goes through this see-saw moment with their babies. There is such excitement, anticipation, and drive to get that baby to start talking with real words.

Then inevitably, there comes a time (somewhat quickly after) when the parent wishes that the child would learn to not talk so much. This usually occurs sometime during stretch of hearing the word “Mama” loudly… and on repeat… for minutes at a time.

It’s common. It’s real. And it prepares us well for this new era that we’ve embarked upon where capturing student voice is becoming a goal that is gaining popularity as a way to make the learning experience for students more personalized and relevant. I’ve seen this work well. I’ve seen students who otherwise were detached reengage because they were given a chance to more authentically speak, think, and create. (It also did wonders for my ability to effectively teach proofs in Geometry.)

But, just like literally everything else in education, it only works when it’s done right. This is true of instructional tech, explicit instruction and inquiry instruction, standardized assessments, etc. The better the execution, the better the results regardless of how well-meaning we might be.

Capturing student voice to personalize the educational experience and give students more ownership is not different in this respect. If you want your students to realize the full benefit of this, you’re going to want to figure out how to do it right.

Case-in-point: Let’s travel to Barrington High in Rhode Island where a few dozen students gathered on a fall Friday to lend their voice to a decision that the district was considering to delay start times at the secondary level to better align their schools to research that suggests quite strongly that starting school at 7:30 AM is a bad idea for adolescent learners. (stuff like this and this and… there’s more.)

Read the article, of course. But, in short: a district committee had made a motion to move secondary start times back a half-hour to support student achievement. This group of students organized a rally to voice their dissent in hopes of influencing the decision.

According the article “[The junior class president and lead organizer of the rally] and others said that pushing back the start of the school day would be far more disruptive to their lives, noting that it would cause all sorts of scheduling problems for extracurricular activities, including sports.”

So, here we go. We are capturing student voice. We have an authentic audience. The article was written in The Providence Journal which is a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper.

But now we are forced to show our students the authentic response to individual voice. Capturing student voice in authentic ways is only part of the story. Once the voice is captured and shared, the response is authentically assigned as well. And, like we all have learned, when you speak, sometimes your voice gets honored. Sometimes ignored. Sometimes corrected.

This is for lots of reasons. Sometimes your voice isn’t loud enough. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s too loud. Sometimes your voice isn’t well-informed enough. Sometimes it is. Sometimes your voice doesn’t doesn’t reflect a perspective that decision-makers find valuable. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it does, but you have to convince people of that.

And often, you don’t have control of those factors unless you are a decision-maker. So it goes. And that’s okay.

And the student group has chosen to chime in on quite an essential question for us as educators: If later start times for our secondary students produce higher levels of academic success while at the same time putting strain on our extra-curriculars (Montgomery County (Md.) reported a 30% drop in after-school activity participation the year it rolled back start times), is that something that school leaders see as a reasonable trade off? Will their communities agree with them?

It’s not cut and dry. Schools don’t exist to create sports teams, but sports teams are good for kids. Many schools have struggled to create viable robotics and maker-space curriculum pieces, so many places have those as extra-curricular pieces.

And the short article juxtaposes two conflicting perspectives. From the end of the article:

“School Principal Joseph Hurley said the students were asked to stay on the sidewalk — not school property — and to not disrupt the flow of traffic as students arrived for school.

“They’re exercising their rights,” he said. “They are being so respectful.”

“It’s not fair,” said junior Kannetha Brown. “They should have come to the people this issue affects the most. They still haven’t listened to us.”

There’s all sorts of interested nooks to explore about this situation. Including the statement by Brown, “They should have to come to the people this issue affects the most.” There is plenty to explore about that statement alone. Also, a student who is having a statement printed in a newspaper feeling like she’s not being listened to.

But regardless of the outcome or the level of satisfaction, isn’t this what student voice, authenticity and personalized learning is all about? To get these situations out of the textbook and in the hearts and minds of the students? Are these students fully engaged in their school community? Are they organizing? Leading? Collaborating with each other?

Absolutely. And what should their reward be for their efforts? Not a guarantee of success in their endeavor. And as this situation drags on, (the article cites an agreement to delay implementation of a time change) the students will learn perhaps the most valuable of lessons moving forward.

Not working this time doesn’t mean not working forever. If it doesn’t work this time, analyze why not. Make an update. And try again. That’s the heart of maker thinking, the NextGen Science, the Common Core SMPs, and more I’m sure. Students, if this doesn’t work out the way you wanted it to, then remember to fail forward.

And should that disappointment come, let’s just hope the school has adults who are ready to guide these young people in turning their frustration into productive reflection. For in that is the essence of turning immature voices into productive ones.

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Undoing Old Expressions ( #MTBoS30 )

During my undergrad (a decade or so ago now), there was a fairly common expression that I believe was designed to comforting interns who were struggling with classroom management and student engagement.

“No activity will work for every kid.”

It played like, “Hang in there, no one’s perfect. You did the best you could.” Nice enough message, I suppose. However, we need to be careful that a second, much less productive (and potentially harmful) message doesn’t begin to run parallel to it.

“No activity will work for every kid” is just a short morph to “understand that a certain number of disengaged students is just the cost of doing business”. And the latter is an extremely risky mindset. While students are going to struggle to stay fully engaged 100% of the time given our limitations as instructors, that should never stop being the goal. “No activity will work for every kid” might need to get reworded into “Make sure your classroom activities have the POTENTIAL to meaningfully engage EVERY student in class, and don’t stress over factors beyond your control.”

That’s a message that is much trickier to morph because the first portion drives so much.

Every single lesson plan for every single class period should include opportunities for each kid to meaningfully engage. What does that look like?

Well, every struggling learner will be supported every day. Every excelling learner will be challenged every day. Every fidgety kid will get a chance to get up and relocate every day. Every kid will get a chance to practice and get feedback every day. Every kid who needs some worked examples will have ready access to them every day. Every kid will be held accountable for their participation every day. It’s a mindset. Does my lesson have the potential to engage 100% of the learners?

It looks like every question being answered by every kid. It changes from “Any questions?” to “All right, take 3 minutes, solve these two problems and I’ll walk around and look at them.”

One formative assessment attempt is okay with disengaged students. No news is good news, right? The other formative assessment values each student’s thoughts. Okay, yeah… the second one takes a minute or two longer. But then again, the students are much more likely to learn something. That seems like a fair trade to me.

It looks like removing assumptions. “Okay, so back in 4th grade, you were taught area or rectangles, so…” falls away and “Okay, every one draw a 3 in by 5 in rectangle. Use a ruler. Try to make it perfect. Oooh! Look, Alex used graph paper! Nice move! Now, let’s see if we can find the area. No discussion right now. 60 seconds of silent, individual work. What’s the area of that rectangle?”

 

One sets up a barrier for students who don’t know, don’t remember, or weren’t taught. The other leaves nothing to chance, demands that each student demonstrate their skill set and gives opportunities for reteaching as needed.

It looks like creating expandable experiences. “All right, once you’ve finished 3-13 (odds), you’re done for today” falls away and “Okay, so, if you can get through 3-13, I’ve got the answer sheets floating around. Make sure they’re right and then come and see me. I’ve got a challenge for you. Remember, you knock out 5 challenge problems during the quarter and you get a…”

One generates rush to “get stuff done” with lack-of-productivity being the reward. The other creates incentives for pushing yourself.

And no. These plans aren’t going to work for every student. There. I said it.

But they are ways to make sure that each student will have something meaningful to engage it when they decide to.

The environment for risk-taking

Yesterday, I was in a local elementary school having conversation with grade-level teams about their students’ math learning. I heard something that I found incredibly impressive.

In one particular grade level, there was a small number of students who were still not quite mastering the targeted skills, but were getting really close. Many of these students had begun the year with a long way to go, so this is a very impressive amount of growth for these students. (In some cases, some of these students experience a year’s growth in their math abilities during the first semester.)

We started examining what had led to such growth, one of the classroom teachers remarked, “Well, they really try hard. They like to work problems out in front of the other students. They make mistakes, but the other students correct them.”

I paused.

Think of that. Just… do me a favor, will ya? Go ahead and picture the typical struggling math student. Got the image? I’ll bet you that student just LOVES putting their math skills on display for the whole class to see, don’t they? I’ll bet that student loves letting the other students in the class critique his/her work. (Sarcasm may not come through real well in the blogging medium…)

Seriously?

I asked this teacher, “You’ve created an atmosphere the atmosphere in your classroom that makes that student feel safe to make mistakes in front of the other students?”

Teacher shrugged as if it were really no big deal. “Mmm-hmm. Yeah.” (As if to say, “Sure, what’s the big deal? We’re all just trying to learn as much as we can.)

I love that it’s no big deal to her and her colleagues. But that is not common.

Believe me, I am convinced in the power of students examining and critiquing each other’s work, but ordinarily there is a bit of strategery involved to keep the pieces of work anonymous. (See Best Reflection for an example of what I’m talking about.)

But that’s not the case for this teacher. What a vision for a classroom. A place so safe and so locked into the mutual learning process that there is no need for anonymity. A student can stand up in front of his/her peers, submit their best try, the peers appreciate the sincerity and can offer feedback.

It’s just no wonder that the students who entered that class behind their peers were catching up so fast… and imagine where they’ll be by the end of the year.

A Rubric for Lesson Plans

I’m starting to see a lot of different teachers teach. Yesterday I got to see 13 different teachers teach, in 10-15 minute snapshots, in their classrooms while I observed their students. Reflecting on teaching through the lens of student behavior, learning, and active engagement is quite interesting. The goal of this wasn’t to draw any conclusion about the teachers as professionals, but instead to see how different“teacher moves” seemed to facilitate different student behaviors.

I’m becoming fascinated by the mechanics of effective instruction. What makes good teachers so good? What can we learn from them that we can then share with others interested in improvement? What is the essential skill set that creates the type of results we have grown accustomed to from good teachers?

I’ve had several opportunities to engage this idea through the lens “blended learning” (enhancing/augmenting instructional and assessment techniques with the strategic use of technology). Based on what technology is available, some teachers are doing some pretty effective blending with some Plicker cards and an iPad camera. Others are able to create vibrant online launch pads for their classrooms so that students could stay home a day or two per week and still be full members of the classroom community.

But a good teacher move is a good teacher move. The forces and resources that lead to technology integration in any classroom are highly localized, but effective instruction is, in many ways, global. Most students don’t learn well sitting still in the same chair for long stretches. Most students don’t learn well when they are never given a chance to demonstrate new learning. Most students don’t learn well in isolation. (Notice all these pseudo-generalizations said “most.”)

So, if we can pseudo-generalize the things we know don’t work, we should be able to reasonably pseudo-generalize the things that do… right?

So, that leads us to an essential question: To maximize the chance of producing effective learning, what must a lesson have? Or do? Or avoid?

Imagine that I’m giving you the opportunity to create a rubric to score a lesson. (In my mind, I imagine the moment when the lesson falls apart or it becomes apparent that the kids didn’t learn. Was it because the lesson was poorly-designed? Or because of some outside factor?)

Pause here for a moment…

Resist the temptation to think that I am trying to define some cookie-cutter-type template that all lessons will originate from. (Like, “all lessons must start with a review time, then all lessons must have 10 minutes of teacher-led direct instruction, then…”) That’s not what I’m doing. “A good lesson” is going to look any of a countless variety of ways.

But the fact remains, “good” lessons exist. And they differ from “lousy” lessons.

But what makes them different? What do “good” lessons have/do/avoid, that “lousy” lessons don’t?

I tossed out an idea to the blended learning PLC that I lead (which included a #flipclass MS math teacher, a HS social studies teacher, an instructional coach at a special education school for students who have a variety of cognitive and physical disabilities, and a HS Spanish teacher who does blended learning coaching half time).

What are the instructional “musts” that we can agree on? I challenged them to create four “musts”. In order to have the highest chance of creating good learning, a lesson “must” ______________________.

What would you say? There’s a comments section you can use, if you’d like. I’m interested in your thoughts.

(Next post, I will share the answers produced by the PLC. But I’ll wait until then. I want to give you think time first…)

A toolbox that is truly full

When I think of a math activity that really flexes it’s muscles, I’m reminded of the activities that could reasonably be solved multiple different ways with no method being preferable on the surface. These are tricky to create (or to find and steal). They are also somewhat taxing on your students (especially if they aren’t used to this kind of problem-solving). It requires a more intense, higher-order level of thinking.

photo credit: Jo Fothergill - Used under Creative Commons

photo credit: Jo Fothergill – Used under Creative Commons

Many schools are reaching the stage where students are carrying around smart devices. Increasingly schools are issuing them (we are up to 4 districts in our country that are now 1:1). Also, in many districts, students can be trusted to bring smart phones in with them. With all of these devices available, it seems like we could integrate a new set of tools into our tool box for consideration. We should design activities that allow the students some control over what mathematical techniques they choose to employ. But increasingly, it’s making more sense to also allow the students some control over what tech tools they are making use of.

That is a nerve-racking idea for some, especially since as soon as students start dabbling in technology that the teacher is unfamiliar with, they become their own tech support. There is a very real (and perfectly understandable) anxiety over students using technology pieces that the teachers aren’t familiar with. But we could flip that on it’s head.

First, we could model some of the tech pieces that we are familiar with.

Consider an activity where in the students use a Google Form to poll their classmates, then enter the data into a Desmos sheet to do the analysis. The formative assessment of the analysis could be done on Socrative or Google Forms.

I mean, this is a standard math task: Gather some data, represent it visually, analyze, and produce a product to submit to your teacher. What makes this different it two-fold: First, some of the more annoying parts are going to be relieved by the technology (namely recording the data, plotting the points, and drawing/calculating the best fit line… those are also the parts that create barriers to our students with special needs). Second, you are giving the students meaningful experience using their technology for something that makes their school work easier and more productive. (Imagine that… both easier and more productive… both…)

One of the goals of an activity like this is the students gaining an appreciation of the roles of each of those different technology pieces, in the same way as we give them specific prescribed practice with the math skills to gain comfort. But it should stay there in either case. At some point, the students need to build in a working understanding of each of the tools in their tool box – math, tech, or otherwise. (I was even vulnerable to whining… the right kind… used at the right time. Proper tool for the proper job.)

Then, when we unleash our students to solve a problem by any means necessary, with a proper foundation underneath them, we run a much lower risk of them choosing something completely off-the-wall. Students might replace our technology with choices of their own, but if they know that we have a standby that will work, then often the replacement is something they find more useful… and it might be something we’ve never seen before… and they might be able to teach us how to use it.

And never underestimate the power of allowing a student to be the expert in the room once in a while.

Full disclosure: The data that I plugged into the Google form came from here. Many thanks to cpears93@stu.jjc.edu who is named as the owner on the site.

Fun with The Magic Octagon

So, we are wrapping up our unit in Geometry on rigid transformations, which means it is that wonderful time of year when I show the students Dan Meyer’s The Magic Octagon!

Seriously… have you seen this? (Go through it like a student. Pause it to make your first prediction.)

The Magic Octagon from Dan Meyer on Vimeo.

Isn’t that cool? Not sure whether you predicted correctly or not (I did not the first time), but I’ve used this video with 6 or so geometry classes and the results are somewhat predictable. 85-90% of the class guesses 10:00. Most of the remaining voters choose 7ish:00 and get called crazy.

Then they see the answer and they JUST… CAN’T… BELIEVE IT!

“Wait… wait. How does one side go clockwise and the other side go counterclockwise?

“No. Run the video again. What did I miss?

That would be a 10-out-of-10 on the perplexity scale, when, like 85-90% of the class gets the math problem wrong and that suddenly becomes a motivator!

Then as they start trying to figure it out, they start making lots of hand gestures, which is surprisingly helpful to them and

2014-10-06 12.53.28

 

Then they don’t want you to move on. They want two more minutes to talk about it. Then a classmate starts explaining it. Not all of them get it the first time, but some of the demand to have it explained again.

Then they move on to the second rotation and they feel so confident. You ask for explanations. They give them… quickly. Quickly because they can’t wait to see the answer. And then they did.

And those who got it right cheered! Quite loudly.

Then a boy stopped us and offered a sequel.

“If the front side arrow is pointed at 5:00, would the other arrow point at 5:00, too?”

He turned the tables enough close to the end of the hour that we left with that question unanswered.

 

And I fully expect a couple students to have something to say about it tomorrow.

My Most Recent Thoughts About Student Blogging

I have spent the last few months processing this temptation to integrate student blogging into my instructional practice. I have some medium-rare ideas. And some Iron Chef colleagues who do a nice job of focusing my thoughts and cooking medium-rare ideas. Like this very evening in a conversation with two such colleagues:

 

 

Like… bingo. That’s it.

 

So, here’s are my goals. Here’s what I’d like to accomplish:

A. I want to give the students a meaningful way to explore math topics, or think mathematically when they aren’t in my classroom. I don’t trust traditional homework problems to achieve this goal. I think there is value in understanding that in class we spend an hour exploring thoughts and ideas that have real value during that hour and the other 23 hours of the day. I’d like to create SOME mechanism that enforces that.

B. I want to give the students a chance to develop their own voice when talking, writing, and reasoning mathematically. Too often, I use gimmicky phrases, memorized lingo, and rigid vocabulary to guide student language. There are wonderful reasons for this. But, I want them to develop their own voice, too. I’d like to see them develop their own ability to verbalize a mathematical idea and…

C. I want to open the students’ ideas up to each other and to the greater math and educational community. I feel like this will offer a level of authenticity that simply having the students submit their work to me wouldn’t. Also, I want them to be able to think about the mathematical statements of another student and respond. I want to break away from this idea that the students produce work simply for my review. A mathematical statement isn’t good and valuable simply because I say so.

I think blogging can do that. I am sure other things can do that. Perhaps other things that are easier. Or less risky. Or have undergone better battle-testing. Or…

 

And as for the second question. The evidence would be a gradual improvement in the math discourse in class. More people talking, and talking better. Explorations becoming richer. Questions becoming an increasingly regular occurrence. Students trusting each other, and themselves, and not looking at me as the lone mathematical authority in the room. We would begin to talk and explore together, and sense-making would become a bigger and bigger part of what we do.

I told you. Medium-rare ideas.

I’m hoping that some more of my Iron Chef colleagues will take my ideas, season them, finish cooking them, and help me turn them into an action plan.

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