Thursday, September 29, 2016

Building a Culture of Learning, Easy Right?

Teachers' roles in Project Based Learning.
We are already into a month of school, and the start of this school year has been unique and, I would say, great in an important way! The word “great” to some might mean that students arrived and compliantly adapted to our rules, all of which give the impression of orderly classrooms where students sit quietly listening to their teachers. Now mind you, we live in middle school, so orderly might be a stretch. In contrast, what I have observed is something a bit more unique from previous years! From the first day, our kids were thrown into groups doing collaborative activities, getting to know each other, establishing group norms, and accomplishing group goals. It was noisy, and it was messy, and it was awesome!

I am constantly amazed and am very proud of our staff and their work with kids, due largely in part to their willingness to take risks in order to better serve our kids' best interest. There has been a lot of talk about developing 21st century skills and creating thinkers and doers as opposed to teaching strictly content and compliance. Our staff has been learning together about how to incorporate strategies and tools such as Project Based Learning and Design Thinking to teach the content standards differently. We have found that it has required us to think differently and, in most cases, it means almost starting from scratch. We have been fortunate in that a group of us had the opportunity to work together over the summer to create these kinds of experiences for kids with the goal of deepening learning.

Teaching tool for a focus on teamwork.
This week I got to see first-hand some challenges among students working in groups, communicating with one another, and struggling to learn together. It’s much different than watching them struggle independently with solving a math problem or finishing up an essay.  What makes deeper learning experiences different, and perhaps the most difficult, is creating a culture of learning where students have a much larger role and responsibility. As in just about every other aspect of life, without exposure to a variety of situations or opportunity to practice skills, we will most likely not become proficient in our endeavors. Working in groups has been the bane for many teachers as students struggle managing time and sharing the workload. Despite student inexperience or lagging skill, though, our teachers are reporting great success stemming from activities designed to teach kids about working in groups and managing roles as the key learning outcome. Just like anything, we have learned that we cannot expect a skill such as collaboration to simply exist within our kids; we have to be purposeful and guide them along the way. The work our staff has done relates to the perceived messiness at the start of the school year, which I believe has paid off for our students. Starting the school year with high expectations has caused our students to settle in and get going with a clear focus and a set of tools with which to practice.

I am fortunate to be a part of an organization that values kids. As teachers, we do not want our kids to fail. This year I have watched our teachers work very hard, yet struggle, with being ok with failure in the sense that it is a very important part of the learning process. This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges we are finding with students working in a project-based world. Once our kids have established a direction, the level of maintenance required through continual coaching is relentless in some cases.

It is here where we have to work to stay the course, staying positive, adding guidance to each unique situation, and focusing on the teaching of a lagging skill like self-management. It would be really easy to fall back on natural consequence as a teaching tool; but if our students are to learn to be successful, it will be much more likely in a supportive environment, as opposed to a hands-off approach, where failure is accepted as a natural part of learning for both the student and the teacher. To some kids, failure is unfortunately ok and it marks the end of their work, which typically means no work at all, and that is not the failure we should be OK with. Though there are times that, despite the scaffolded levels of structure and supports we put in place for kids, they will ultimately choose whether they are motivated to try, which lends itself to a future exploration about student voice and choice and adding authenticity to learning as a means to motivation.

Being reflective, in my opinion, is one of the premiere skills a person can possess. It is especially important for teaching and guiding developing young humans who are creating their sense of identity as learners. As teachers, using projects that are collaborative in nature can put us into some pretty unfamiliar territory as our kids take a much more active role in their education. I am excited that our staff has begun conversations around learning from each other as professionals and understands that we are sometimes our best resource since we share some of the same experiences. Creating opportunities to share questions, ideas, strategies, successes, and, yes, even failures is what a healthy learning environment is about. We have much important work to do, and I am excited to have the opportunity to retool our school’s strategies together with an amazing, creative staff, and I am really looking forward to the positive impact that is surely to come from our efforts.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Shadow a Student Challenge...Check!

This past week, I took a day and walked in the shoes of one of our students.  This was a part of the Shadow a Student Challenge given to people who work for or in schools to encourage them to get perspective of the kids.

Any Volunteers?
The student response was overwhelming. In just a few days, I had over 70 students sign up to be shadowed. Using a simple Google Form and a QR code, students placed their requests. Looking at the list I knew this would not be an easy process. Up until the day before, students would find me in the halls and ask eagerly if I had chosen yet. I even received the kindest note from a student written on multiple sticky notes requesting I shadow them and leaving off with wishing my family well!  I was horrified at the thought of letting kids down. I ended up using an app to pick names from a hat, and even this was heart wrenching! I invited our lucky winner down to ask if she was still interested, and she was to-the-moon excited! I listened as she excitedly outlined our day and the things that I needed to be ready for, like a test in one class and a reminder we would have PE. I knew then this was going to be fun!

May I Have Your Phone Please!
Initially, I found myself thinking about all the other things going on that morning -- did we have enough substitutes, aren't those bells working yet, did we get all the information out about tonight's play? I even got my phone taken away first period as I was texting my office manager for some important information, and requesting some much needed coffee! It's hard being a kid! I had to know that one was coming! But, it made me realize, in a lot of cases, we as adults find it hard to focus because we are so connected all the time we miss out on some important things going on right in front of our faces. Having no access to my world as principal allowed me to shift gears, to live in the moment, and observe and enjoy the things going on around me. I have to admit it was a bit refreshing! Maybe I will lose my phone more often.

Our Kids Own Their World!
Viewing the world from the gym floor, or seated at the cafeteria table or from the back row of the class, gave me a perspective of the highly organized world in which we and they have built and how in each environment the comfort of each setting  was safe and supportive. I could tell that this was their world, they owned it! My host was very patient and understanding when I didn't understand something and was helpful when I needed to find something or didn't really understand how to do my math. Others around her were the same in this regard, and I got to see first hand that in their world, they are not reliant on just a teacher, but on one another. This is a great thing -- a great place for learning! 

Relationships Are Key!
Our kids are comfortable and confident! As each class progressed, I was excited to see the variety of tasks we as kids got to take part in and challenge ourselves with. Our kids are well adjusted, full of creative ideas and really thrive on being successful. The only disruption to their day was me, a strange lumbering kid in their classroom. We did, however, have fun making up my backstory -- where I did I come from, what's my favorite color and animal? These were hot topics! 

Though the day did not reveal any earth-rattling discoveries about education theory or practice, it did drive home the fact that relationships are the key to any successful school. I was able to witness that our students are not numbers or figures represented on charts or reports; they are unique living, breathing human beings, whom I believe we are blessed to work with.  

Until Next Time!
Would I do it again? I would do it again! And, I look forward to it! I got just one short glimpse into the life of being a kid at our school. I was able to hear from students some of the ways that kids perceive us as adults and their school, which is great feedback I feel is important to know. On this first challenge, my host was so very gracious, and I could tell she had a genuine love for school, which made this experience a treat. I do not pretend to think that every student of ours feels exactly this way, but I have a sense that with the culture our staff has created, one where kids come first, there are very few who are unable to make a positive connection to this thing we call school.