Thursday, September 26, 2013

Teacher Disengagement

We talk a lot about student engagement in schools.  Probably not as much as we should, but it's still a topic that comes up rather often.  "My freshman Algebra class looks at me with glazed eyes while they drool on their textbooks" is probably a sentence that's repeated in high school faculty rooms all over the country on a regular basis.

Lack of teacher engagement is something that's discussed far less frequently, but it's a huge problem.  Disengaged teachers probably don't create amazing learning environments.  Disengaged teachers probably don't inspire students to be engaged.  Disengaged teachers may or may not be drooling on their teachers' manuals.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr - Jayegirl99

Last night I had a tough time falling asleep.  Sometimes this happens due to stress.  Other times it happens because the New York Giants played a night game and found a new, creative way to lose in the last few minutes.  Last night it happened because I was really fired up about all the great things that are happening in school.  Kindergarten kids are sharing their learning on individual and class blogs.  First graders are using Blabberize to share what they've learned about different animals.  Second graders are blogging about different types of communities.  Third and fourth graders are Skyping kids in other states to learn about geography.  Our fifth graders are building room-sized models of plant and animal cells.  The grad class of teachers I'm working with is excited to radically change pedagogy to be more student-centered. 

Despite my lack of sleep, I couldn't wait to get into school this morning to do more of this stuff with kids.  I'm engaged and passionate about what I'm doing, and this lead me to a few thoughts:
  1. Sometimes when teachers say "I'm exhausted", they really don't mean "I'm exhausted."  They may think they are exhausted, and I'm sure they're tired.  But, what they really mean is, "I'm not excited about what I'm doing right now."  When you are engaged and passionate about what you are doing, you often ignore tiredness.  Eventually we all need rest, but when we're in that zone of passion, doing the amazing supersedes the need for rest.
  2. Too many times disengaged teachers will be resentful of others who are passionate.  That teacher who stays at school until 6 getting incredible stuff ready for the next day, that teacher who won't shut up about the stuff they learned in a Twitter chat the night before, and that annoying guy who routinely gives up his weekends to go to something called an EdCamp are not trying to show you up.  They aren't trying to gain brownie points with the principal.  They are just lucky enough to be engaged.  Try asking what has them so excited.  You may just find something that flips your switch from turned-off to turned-on.  And, tell them that there are many brands of decaf on the market that are just as tasty as the real thing. (If you recognized that as a Real Genius reference, you get bonus points.)
  3. Nobody went into the teaching profession to be the best deliverer of test-prep.  If you are disengaged, and that's what your job has become, there's probably a correlation.  So stop doing that.  I understand that moving away from this is much harder in some places.  This testing culture is responsible for a great many disengaged teachers.  So, do what you can.  Step outside your comfort zone and do one thing a day that bucks the system.  Take one action that reminds you of why you chose to be a teachers.  That one act of civil disobedience may just be the thing in your day that reminds you why being a teacher is the best job in the world.  It also may be the one thing in the day that stops your students from drooling on their textbooks. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Math - Draw More Chickens, Write Fewer Numbers

Today I had the pleasure of being asked to work with 4th and 5th grade special education students.  Their teacher had explained to me that they were having trouble understanding multiplication.  Even though my new position is technically supposed to be helping teachers incorporate 21st Century Skills into lessons, I will never be able to pass up an opportunity to teach math.  I love it too much.

I started by asking them what multiplication was.


I said, "OK.  When I say 'multiplication', what comes to mind.  There's no wrong answers.  Throw some words out."

One student said, "Times tables?"  Another said, "Skip counting."  After a pause another offered, "That line with two dots around it."

I'm guessing she meant the division symbol.

Here's the thing - I don't think the answers in most 4th and 5th grade regular education classes would be much different.  Kids think that math is about tricks we do with numbers, and that the key to being good at math is learning those tricks.  Special ed students, and lots of other kids think that because they are bad at memorizing rules, they'll never be good at math.  That's wrong.

Next, I told those kids that multiplication, and math, was not about numbers.  They looked at me like I had three heads.  At least I had their attention.  I reiterated, "You've been lied to your entire life.  Math is not about numbers.  And I'm going to prove it to you."

They were hooked.  Probably because they didn't believe me and they couldn't wait to see the head teacher crash and burn in a fiery mess.  Figuratively, of course.  Well, maybe literally for some of them.

So I told them, "Draw a picture of three chickens on your white boards.  I'm going to draw chickens, too.  Please don't laugh at my chickens.  I'm a mathematician, not an art teacher."
I'm a Mathematician, Not an Art Teacher
They were nice.  They didn't laugh at my chickens.

I said, "OK, each chicken just laid 3 eggs.  Go ahead and draw 3 eggs under each chicken.  You see, multiplication isn't '3x3'.  That's just the numbers and symbols we use to describe multiplication.  Multiplication is all about groups.  '3x3' just means that we have three groups of three."

The light bulbs started to go on.  They stopped looking at me like I was crazy, even if they didn't totally understand yet.

We modeled groups of airplanes with passengers.  Cookies with chocolate chips.  Flying saucers with aliens.  My flying saucers rocked.  Much better than my poor attempt at chickens.  Each time we talked about how there were repeated groups of the same number.  I only showed the multiplication problem in number/symbol form after we had figured out the answer to "How many do we have in all the groups."

I was pretty sure they understood, but I wanted to make sure.  So I told them, "Now, I'm going to give you a multiplication problem.  I don't care what you draw, but I want to see you express the problem as groups."  I gave them 7x4.

Some drew cookies, others drew flying saucers.  One kid drew seven tornadoes with four cars being mangled in each cyclone.  A bit graphic, but mathematically sound. All of them were able to model the problem without help.

For years I've talked about teaching math differently.  I've talked about the need to solve real problems, that there needed to be relevance behind everything that we teach - even basic facts.  I've talked about helping kids to understand before asking them to memorize.  Some were receptive.  Most thought I was crazy.  Many told me that I'd think differently if I didn't only teach the high math group.

They were wrong.  There's no reason that we shouldn't expect almost all students to have understanding of math the way we expect almost all students to learn to read.  We just have to stop expecting kids that have trouble memorizing to have no problems memorizing stuff that has no relevance to them.  In 40 minutes these special education kids went from thinking that multiplication was "the line with two dots around it" to being able to model multiplication problems.

Math isn't about numbers any more than writing is about the alphabet.  Numbers and symbols are just our way of expressing the quantities in the world around us just as the letters we use to write are the symbols we use to express our thoughts.  When we take away that context of that world around us, we take away students' understanding.

We'd never tell a student that they should do 40 letter manipulation problems for homework to get better at writing.  Or at least we shouldn't. (I'm not a big fan of spelling workbooks.)  That's not going to turn them into a writer.  Heck, it's probably going to turn them into a kid who hates writing.

Math is no different.  It shouldn't be about following rules to manipulate numbers.  It should be more about drawing chickens.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Blogging with Elementary Students: How Do I Get Started?

Elementary Bloggers
Often when I talk to other elementary teachers about the blogging I've done with my students and the incredible benefits that they have gotten out of the experience, I hear the comment, "I'd love to do that with my students, but I don't know how or where to begin."  With that in mind, I'd like to share how I introduce my students to blogging.

The first thing that you'll need to do as a teacher is to choose a blog platform.  There's lots of them out there, and they all have their plusses and minuses.  Personally, I've found Kidblog to be the easiest, safest, and best all-around blog platform for what I've been trying to do, so that's what I'm going to focus on here. 

Next, you'll have to set up accounts.  If you are using Kidblog, this screencast should help you out:

Once your accounts are set up, the next step is getting your students started.  I recommend letting students choose a topic that they want to learn more about rather than choosing a topic for them.  This allows them to take ownership of their blog right away. 

For older elementary students, I try to stress that their topic should not be something on which they are already an expert, but something they want to learn about.  This will allow us to discuss criteria for finding good sources of information, bias, and the importance of citing their sources.  If they are already an expert (or think they are), they will tend to write from memory rather than doing research.

Whether Wikipedia is a valid source is always a hot topic among teachers.  I like to discuss how wikis work with my students so that they understand that information on Wikipedia is a collaboration of information from people all over the world.  For that reason, I don't discourage students from using Wikipedia as a tool to get an overview of a topic and to find valid sources for their topic by using the references at the bottom of articles.  For example, I would not want them citing the Wikipedia article on Wallenpaupack Area School District, but would encourage them to use the references to get to the Pennsylvania Department of Education's graduation statistics page. 

For citations, I like to use BibMe.  I know there are multiple other citation tools on the web, but my students have found this one to be the easiest.  For most websites, you can simply copy and paste the URL into the site and it will give you the citation in the format of your choosing.  For our first blog posts, I require citations from at least two sources.

Finally, before letting kids start their posts, it's important to discuss the audience and purpose for which they are writing.  Most students who have no blogging experience have only written for their previous teachers.  Publishing information on the internet is not the same as turning in an assignment.  Help them understand that they will be publishing information that others will be able to use to learn about their topic.  Discuss how important accuracy, good grammar, and spelling are in order for the readers to believe in the credibility of the author.  Talk about keeping bias out of their informational writing. 

For younger students, allowing them to share what they already know is a great way to introduce them to blogging.  This can be done as young as kindergarten. (Here's a great example of a kindergarten class blog.)  Having a digital camera and adding pictures of student illustrations to their text can make this even more powerful.  Starting with a sentence or two and an illustration is great.  You want this to be a positive experience, and you want them to experience success.  Talk about the importance of good spelling and grammar, but don't harp on it so much that students focus on that over content.  As they write more and as they get more feedback in the form of comments, those things will improve.

One of the most important and powerful things you can do after students write their first posts is to publish them as far and wide as possible.  We know that students need meaningful feedback in order to learn, and blog comments can be powerful, meaningful feedback  Encourage parents, other classes to which you are connected, and anyone else you can reach to comment on your students' work.  Teach students how to leave meaningful comments and let them comment on each other's work. ("I didn't know there were elephants in India.  Thanks for sharing that information."  rather than "Great Job, Suzie!!!!!!!!!!!!!")

Knowing that their writing is being read and appreciated by others will make the efforts they have put into their first post seem totally worthwhile.  .  And it will probably leave them asking you, "When can I write my next post?"