For many years now, schools have been making a concerted effort to increase the levels of cooperation and collaboration, both within the classroom among students and within the schools themselves among students. It seems strange to me, then, that we still assess students individually.
Think about it. Students spend most of the day working in groups, talking to one another, helping one another, supporting one another. They are taught to share knowledge and resources to find solutions to complex problems, to find creative paths to those solutions. The school day is literally filled with co-laboring, which is the root of the word collaborate.
Then, after they have spent all this time learning and designing and producing together, we sit them at individual desks with individual copies of an assessment and we tell them to show us what they know on their own. Is it any wonder that so many of our students who flourish working in groups (and I mean actually working together, not just copying the work of someone else) struggle when we give them an assessment and tell them it has be completed without any help from others?
There are so many other ways we could assess our students. Portfolio reviews, group assignments with individual contributions recorded, and whole-class discussions are some that I have used after seeing the research that goes into them. There are surely a multitude of other tools that we could use to determine whether or not our students know the material they have been taught and understand how to use the tools they have been given.
And yet we still default to the independent assessment. It is built into our DNA as educators, it has been enshrined in our practice, and it has been encoded in our laws.
A few nights ago I rewatched a favourite film of mine: Australia. There is a line shared a few times that I often come back to when I reflect on what we do in our classrooms and in our schools: It is this simple but profound statement: “Just because it is, doesn’t mean it should be.”
I often think about what schools would look like, sound like, feel like, be like if I could start from scratch with a team of highly-skilled teachers, staff, and leaders and recreate the education system from the ground up. We did it in our nation over a hundred years ago, back in 1893 when the Committee of Ten designed the system as we know it today. What would happen if a new Committee of Ten were commissioned and charged with redesigning the system with 21st century learning as the focus? What would we change? What would I change? Why?
These are some of the things that I think about. I don’t really have any answers yet. What do you think?
I was out of the classroom all day last Wednesday. I had a great substitute, a former Wiley teacher that many of my students know because they had her in first grade: Miss C, who has been mentioned in this blog more than once. While things were generally okay, there were still struggles and challenges while I was gone that I wished had not happened.
I was out of the classroom again this afternoon, and I had Miss C, who is now married but is known by the same name (at least for the time being), but I wanted to see if I could help the students have more success. One thing I had thought about was empowering them to make choices on their own.
I had one student who likes to work in another teacher’s room when he is feeling overwhelmed by peers around him. I gave him two passes that he could use, one during reading workshop and one during writing workshop. I reminded him who the substitute would be and encouraged him to stay in the room to help as needed but made sure he knew he could use his passes if he needed to.
Another student often gets bored in class and needs something to do to feel like he is contributing in a helpful way. So I gave him the task of putting mail in the mailboxes and in helping Miss C with technology issues if they happened again.
A third student had a math assessment he needed to complete. He knew that he would be able to use his Chromebook once the assessment was completed, and so he had an incentive to complete his work.
And so it went. Students were given specific tasks and were encouraged to do their best while I was gone. I left the room right before lunch, with students excited to help their former teacher and show their current teacher what they could do.
The report I got at the end of the day was that the students were awesome. They worked on reading, vocabulary, and writing. They helped the substitute, they cleaned the room at the end of the day, and they generally followed directions, met expectations, and showed that they knew what they were expected to do.
I have often been asked about my approach to student discipline. I am not shy about stating that my approach is one of encouraging actual discipline: self-control, self-regulation, and pro-social skills. Discipline is helping student treat others with respect and dignity and to advocate for themselves when they feel that they are not being treated with respect and dignity. Too often, teachers use “discipline” to mean “punishment.” What I heard from my friend and substitute today was that my students showed that they have the discipline to do what is expected when they are empowered to do it. They didn’t need threats of punishment or retribution; they only needed to know what to do, how to do it, and why it should be done. Knowing they can do it in the classroom, I hope they realise that they can do it anywhere!
Does it work every day? No, of course not. My students are children who are still learning. I am still learning and I am 35 years old as of last Friday. I don’t ask for perfection; I ask only for effort. I am pleased that my students responded by rising to the occasion!
Any regular reader of my blog should know that restorative justice practices have become a big focus for me in terms of my professional practices and goals as an educator. I have made a very concerted effort to use more restorative practices in my classroom this year, although I would say that the results have been somewhat mixed. That being said, I am constantly looking for ways to improve in my use of these non-exclusionary practices and so was excited to see if one of my professional journals a blurb about a new book called “Better Than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management.”
I was even more excited when I realised that two of the authors, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, were the authors of Checking for Understanding: Formative Assessment Techniques for Your Classroom, a book we read as an entire staff a few years ago.
There is a lot of good in Better Than Carrots or Sticks, especially if you are new to the ideas of restorative practices. The authors share practical suggestions based on actual implementation in the schools they work in and with. They present a clear case for why such practices are more effectice than the traditional practices of rewarding desired behaviours and punishing undesired ones. They provide a lot of resources for how teachers and school leaders can examine their practices, especially when it comes to office referrals, and how to improve conversations with and about students to help them learn how to be more successful in their classrooms and in their lives.
And yet this book wasn’t grand slam for me. While it had a lot of great ideas, I felt like they were the basics of restorative practices. I was hoping for more depth. Maybe it is because I do a lot more professional reading than many teachers I know, but I am growing weary of the books that lay out the basics and then end. I’ve had enough of the basics; now I am ready for the next steps. (My wife keeps suggesting I ought to write my own book to do just that, but that seems to miss the point that I sometimes feel like I don’t have enough of the depth to be able to do that!) This is, incidentally, the same issue I have had with many professional workshops and conferences I have attended on this incredibly important topic: everyone seems to present with a belief that the audience knows nothing about the topic. I need the presenters who assume that the audience knows the basics and now wants more.
Over all, I was reminded of a lot of great ideas in Better Than Carrots or Sticks and discovered some new ones that I will be implementing in my classroom this coming semester. And I would certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about restorative practices and how they look across the K-12 spectrum. In fact, I may suggest it as a book study selection in my district as we continue to embark on this journey toward better practices that seek to restore and heal relationships among students and staff. In the meantime, though, I will work on using these ideas with my students and see if we can have more positive results by the end of the year.
Many years ago, when I attended my first Joint Annual Conference in Chicago, I heard a keynote address by Dr. Tony Wagner and was immediately captivated by his work. It took a while, but I acquired three of his books: The Global Achievement Gap, Creating Innovators, and Most Likely to Succeed. I read The Global Achievement Gap about a year and a half ago and wrote a review, which you can read here. While I haven’t read Creating Innovators yet, but I recently read Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era, which Dr. Wagner co-wrote with business expert Ted Dintersmith.
The Global Achievement Gap focused on seven “survival skills” students need to be taught to be successful in our 21st century society:
- Critical thinking and problem solving
- Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
- Agility and adaptability
- Initiative and entrepreneurship
- Effective oral and written communication
- Accessing and analyzing information
- Curiosity and imagination
Creating Innovators focuses on the three aspects of education that will, well, create innovators:
I will be reading this book soon, but I have made a commitment to myself to put new books on the bottom of my To Be Read pile so that I don’t let books languish for months or even years before being read.
Most Likely to Succeed is, in many ways, a synthesis of these two books, with relevant anecdotes to show practical application. Dr. Wagner and Mr. Dintersmith put together a compelling thesis that what we have been doing in public education, especially in grades 9-12, need to be radically changed in order to meet the needs of today’s students and today’s society. More specifically, our education system was designed by a Committee of Ten in 1893 and hasn’t, at its core, changed much. Students still take classes on biology, chemistry, and physics not because these are the most fundamental or important scientific fields but because they were essentially the only scientific fields in the late 1800s. Students still take math courses that lead them toward calculus instead of statistics because, in 1893, statistics weren’t very important. And so on and so forth.
After decades of this structure, the United States came to a cross-roads in the 1950s when the Russians launched Sputnik 1 and our nation developed a national interest in “beating the Russians.” This came to a head in the 1980s when President Reagan commissioned the report on public education that we know as A Nation at Risk. This provided an opportunity for the nation to move from the assembly line model of education to a new framework. Instead, policymakers doubled down on a century-old model. The authors suggest this was one of the greatest disservices to students and society in generation.
So what is the solution? How do we change? It will take a massive effort of students, teachers, parents, policymakers, researchers, and school leaders. They need to take a good long look at what students are doing and what we want them to do and make the changes necessary to get us where we need to be.
That’s scary. Really, really scary. But I am ready to jump into the dark with my flashlight. Who’s going to join me?
Students in fourth grade talk. A lot. And because they talk a lot, they say a lot of different things in a lot of different ways. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have read a few books by Dr. Tony Wagner, an educator who has focused his research on the skills or competencies students need to survive and thrive in the 21st century, and the seven he has identified are: problem-solving, collaboration, adaptability, initiative, communication, analysing information, and curiosity. (This is very much a simplification of his findings, but if you are interested in knowing more, I recommend his books The Global Achievement Gap, Creating Innovators, and Most Likely to Succeed.) All of these survival skills connect to communicating with others, though, so it would make sense that, as students enter the middle grades (4-8) and really start developing these skills, that they are going to spend a lot of time talking to and with each other.
But because they are in the early stages of learning how to do these things, it also means that they spend much more time saying things that they ought not to say than I, their other teachers, or the classmates, would prefer. Today was one of those days where the opportunity to teach students to THINK before they speak presented itself and I took full advantage of the moment.
Many teachers, and others, I would hope, are familiar with this concept. Before saying something, you should ask yourself five simple questions:
Now, I certainly did not come up with this acronym, nor did I make the image. (I tried to find an original source for it, but failed in my efforts.) And there are some variations on it, but this is the one I prefer.
Far too often, my students justify a comment they make by arguing that what they said is true. I don’t disagree with them. However, I do ask them to consider further if the comment is helpful to our learning community and, if so, how. I then ask if it is important to say it right then and there. This is slightly different from being necessary, which may need to be said, but not at that moment. And I end by asking if it is kind. When presented with these questions, students will often recognise that while what they said was true, it usually wasn’t helpful, important, necessary, or kind.
Now, to be honest, there are still some students who say things that are hurtful or unimportant or unnecessary or unkind anyway and will try to justify it to themselves and others but, most of the time, they will acknowledge that the comments were not appropriate for that setting and will apologise to their classmates and/or teachers.
That is part of learning how to do something. We try, we make mistakes, we change, and we try something new. Sometimes we try the same thing several times before finally admitting that it isn’t working. But we never give up on ourselves or others; that’s what being a community of learners is all about, and that’s why learning how to THINK before we speak is so very important.
The status quo is such an interesting concept. On the one hand, innovation that results in changes for the better is key to successful teaching. If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got. On the other hand, there are certain things that are done because they are tried, tested, and effective. The goal, for me, is to find the balance between doing what has been known to work and making changes that will result in improved outcomes.
For those who have been reading my blog, it should be no surprise that this year has been a year for me to resist the status quo when it comes to responding to student behaviour, whether desired or not. I have been reading and researching effective systems of classroom management, especially when it comes to restorative practices, and it has become increasingly apparent to me that doing what teachers have always done is resulting in the same outcomes that we have always seen, despite sincere efforts to change.
I expected some push-back as I began to make changes in my classroom management approach. I knew that there would be people who would prefer I use the traditional approaches because they are familiar. But I’ll be honest: I expected the most push-back to come from colleagues who might have felt like I was implying that what they have been doing is wrong and from parents who very often don’t like big changes in how teachers do things. I was wrong on both assumptions. While many of my colleagues are not yet ready to jump into restorative practices, many are testing them out and seeing how things work for me. Most parents have been very supportive, especially as I have been open and honest about why I am doing what I am doing.
Instead, the push-back has been coming from my students, who still don’t understand why I don’t just call their parents in the middle of class, send students to the principal’s office, take away recesses or other privileges, or suspend them for acting out. Even though they can articulate my reasoning (these practices don’t result in changed behaviour and often result in increased challenges), they don’t really understand that we have to be willing to do something else.
Often what I hear from students is accusations that I don’t do anything. This isn’t true; it is just that what I do isn’t always obvious to everyone. But that is kind of the point. The traditional approaches often incorporate very public punishments: things that are, at their root, intended to shame students into correct behaviour. However, there are very few instances when such an approach actually has the desired outcome. And so I am using approaches that, in many ways, are similar to the Boy Scouts of America’s EDGE method of teaching: I explain, I demonstrate, I guide, and I enable. My goal is always to teach my students the self-discipline to be active agents in making better choices.
This is a lofty goal, I know. But I also know that my students are very capable of rising to the challenge. It may take a long time to unlearn the expectations of the past, but it will happen. I know it. Some of them know it. Eventually I hope that all of them will know it.
In the meantime, I will continue to resist the status quo. I will resist the urge to give in to the pressure and resort to old methods that haven’t worked for me and, more importantly, haven’t worked for them.
“Authentic” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in education, much like “meaningful,” “reflective,” and “engaging.” Some educators, unfortunately, use these words as a way of playing a game. As a result, I try very hard to make sure that I don’t throw “eduspeak” around just to say it; I think often about the counsel to say what you mean and mean what you say. So when I talk about “authentic choices,” I mean giving students options that are both real and acceptable. (This is likely a topic I have written about before, but my computer’s battery is about to die so I don’t have time to search for it.)
I used to give students many different choices at once, but I discovered rather quickly that there were too many options and students were easily overloaded. So, instead, I usually limit the choices to just two. I make sure that they are options that both the students will find want to select and I am okay with them selecting because they all result in students learning. Sometimes these options relate to selecting a book for a guided reading group. Sometimes it is whether we are going to work on writing first and then math, or math first and then writing. Sometimes the choice is whether to do read to self with lights on or off, or music playing or not.
The point isn’t to have life-changing or mind-blowing choices. It is simply to give the students choice and to make sure they know that they are the ones deciding. I always tell them how many choices they have and that either option is completely acceptable to me. What I don’t do is give them false choices, such as choosing between reading at their desks or having a detention after school. Using language like that does nothing more than lead to student distrust and resentment.
Authentic choices definitely improve the culture of the classroom as students recognise that they have a say in what they do. (Obviously, there are times when I cannot give them choices, such as if they have to do a state-mandated assessment or we have to be at one of our special classes at a specific time.) But whenever possible, I try to give students choices so that they can experience making decisions and observing what happens as a result of those choices.