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Hybrid, Remote, In-Person: Some things remain the same

With schools opening shortly, there is so much unknown. Will we be meeting students for in-person teaching and learning? Will we be teaching remotely – and if we are will all students have devices? and access to the Internet? What will a hybrid model look like? As a classroom teacher, the best I can do is support decision-makers, provide suggestions when asked, and prepare for an unprecedented journey into what will surely be a historic school year.

I take comfort in knowing that I am not alone in this. Every teacher in the world has been faced with these same thoughts and tough decisions. Education is my purpose. Not simply gathering children in a classroom and imparting my knowledge of science to them, educating the individuals with whom I have the privilege of crossing paths.

While I do not know everything, there are some things that I do know.

The human race is resilient.

People want to be heard.

Trust is the most important factor in a classroom.

Every family wants what is best for their children.

Years of research and repeated studies have shown that parent/family involvement leads to student success. Parents will be concerned about their children and want to know that you understand their situation, their needs, hopes for their child.

Just as teachers feel as though our work needs to be supported at home, parents feel that their beliefs, culture, and hopes for their child need to be supported in the classroom.

So let’s start there.

What is your plan for connecting with families this year?

What tools do you have at your disposal to ensure that you are reaching the family of each student regardless of their access to and ability to use technology?

For myself, I prefer email. I can send messages to multiple parents at the same time and create lists to save time. This will not work for every family so I also use Google Voice. Using these 2 tools, I was able to successfully connect with the majority of families during the COVID shutdown. Other families preferred Zoom calls, Facetime, and paper mail.

Once you’ve connected with parents what are you going to say?

What information will you need from them?

How will you find out what they need from you?

Start a dialogue. I have found that asking parents & guardians to tell me about their children has improved my ability to connect with them. Simply calling and introducing myself and saying “please tell me about [inset child’s name]”, listening, and taking notes has been a game-changer for me. Remember, people want to be heard & families always want what is best for their children. This is not the time to explain classroom routines and requirements. I just listen, ask clarifying questions, and ensure that my interest is evident as I gather information about how I can support their goals for their child.

Next, find out what families do at home to support learning. In “Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships, the authors outline specific information to gather from home (linked below). The most impactful thing that I remember from reading this book has been that some families inadvertently exclude themselves from activities and decision-making processes. An important action to eliminate this exclusion is to extend personal invitations to each family to attend school functions. Simply reaching out to disenfranchised families can make a difference in the achievement of a child.

No matter how we return to school this year, we can be sure that establishing relationships will be essential. For this reason, I am not completely terrified of the unknown. I am confident because family-school partnerships will be the foundation that my classroom is build upon.

https://www.education.ne.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Family_Engagement_Surveys.pdf

Henderson, A. T., Mapp, K. L., Johnson, V. R., Davies, D. (2007). Beyond the bake sale: The essential guide to family-school partnerships. New York: New Press. 

Everyone is doing the best they can right now

One of my first jobs was working in an insurance claims office.  I  watched the vice president of the small company graciously deal with customer complaints about employees almost everyday. One day I asked her how she could possibly have such a positive attitude toward customers and employees when she dealt with complaints most of the day. Her response is something that has stuck with me. She said “no one is trying to do a bad job, everyone is doing the best they can right now”.  Since then, I have called upon those words of wisdom many times; they have saved me from judgement and aggravation more times than I can count. One thing I’d like to add to her wisdom is if we want people to improve then we should help them develop the tools and knowledge to do so. 

Regardless of their current achievement or academic level we must acknowledge that every kid is doing the best they can with the tools they have right now.

I had to come to the realization that sometimes biology is not the most important thing in a student’s life right now [gasp]. Sometimes forcing or reprimanding a student for not being able to be present in class can damage a relationship. Building relationships with students has been critical to my welcoming and productive classroom ecosystem. I can better understand students’ behaviors and help them develop the tools they will need to be successful in our class.  Tools like collaborating, leading, following directions, and using feedback rather than seeing it purely as criticism can be especially difficult for students. One year or semester may not be long enough to gain these skills but every student has the potential to be successful eventually. Every little bit helps. 

Some of the best days are the ah-ha moments but many of the best days are the breakthroughs connecting with the student seeing a struggling student get help from a peer watching a quiet or insecure student emerge. 

I want to do everything that I can to teach with C.A.R.E. 

  • Choices
  • Authentic experiences
  • Real-world applications
  • Empowerment to safely share their learning

Sometimes even with all of my best effort, students still aren’t accomplishing the tasks that I wish they would; either it is taking them longer than I expected or they are not reaching the goals that I had set for them. They’re just falling short. I have to remind myself that every student is doing the best they can right now. 

So what does this mean? Is there something else I can do for this particular student? Is there something outside of school that is out of my control that is keeping this kid from accomplishing stuff?

When a person is struggling, even small accomplishments feel like something. As teachers we can create these small accomplishments intentionally to build student confidence. Any assignment can be broken down into smaller chunks that students can complete successfully. The amount of support given to each student will vary.

Think of a student who comes to school everyday distracted by things that are happening in their life. They come to school every day. Every day we have an opportunity to show them what success feels like even if it is just a small one. Let’s not dwell on what work is not being done or what goals are not being met; we can focus on the positive.

It’s simple math, adding even small things is better than subtracting. 

Every accomplishment is a step toward a goal. So, when we see these kids that come to our class and just show up but don’t get any work done and don’t participate in class then perhaps this is our time to step back and remember that just coming to school is an accomplishment and that this may be the best that that kids could do on that day. One thing I remind myself is that kids aren’t giving me a hard time. Kids are having a hard time and it is difficult not to take interactions personally. Teaching is a very personal profession. We are investing in our students, we are passionate about our content, and we want to see everyone being successful. During these times I remind myself that everyone’s success will look different. Everyone’s success should look different. 

I am the River

These thoughts have been ruminating & this work has been an unfinished draft for several years. Today, I realize that the very nature of these thoughts demand that it be left unfinished – a perpetual work in progress. Please excuse my indulgence and journey into untraditional prose.

Go with the flow

Turbulent rapids

Waves crashing

Boats smashing

Calm flatwater

Swimmers, kayaks

Sailboats, rowboats

Moving in the same direction

Different paces

Equally supported

I create the flow

I am the river

I am the current

I am the course

Inspiration

This beautiful story from RadioLab of finding meaning in senseless loss. Well worth the 25 minute time commitment. Gray’s Donation

AND

Much like the river never being the same water twice; each time I listen to this song, I am hearing with new ears.

I have been reflecting on recent events and feel obligated to share my thoughts and what it will mean for my teaching and culture of my classroom moving forward. I have found three quotes especially helpful in navigating my journey forward and share them with you here.

“We don’t know who discovered water, but we’re certain it wasn’t a fish.” John Culkin

The recent events have made it abundantly clear that racism is a persistent evil that impacts us all in every aspect of our daily lives. I have come to the humble realization that by thinking that being hopeful, thoughtful people we are doing our part as non-racist members of society. It is now clear that doing this only makes us complicit in a system that perpetuates the oppression of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. Thinking that eliminating systemic racism is someone else’s responsibility and believing that it doesn’t exist in our own communities is only slightly different than participating in the acts of violence that we despise. Every day I recognize new situations where simply being a white person gives me privilege that all people do not have.

“While white people are learning Black people are dying.” Chenjerai Kumanyika 

For years I have been learning about social justice, a consumer of diverse literature, and made an effort to include these into my teaching practice. I am ashamed that it has taken the recent brutal murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, at the hands of police, for me to come to the realization that what I have been doing is not sufficient. It is time for white educators to listen to Black communities, to re-examine how we honor Black lives in our curricula, classrooms, and communities. 

“There’s no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom.” Paulo Freire

I promise to be actively anti-racist and ensure that the policies that I follow do not diminish cultural differences but rather recognize, elevate, and value the beautiful diversity of our community while I continue to learn better ways to model leadership, tolerance, and appreciation. I will be cognizant of the disadvantages of our community members due to race, gender, class, and language and of the role school plays in challenging these inequalities. I will name and condemn racist policies and acts and call them out. I will continue to invest time in building a classroom culture of acceptance while respecting the benefit of the diverse cultures that students bring to my classroom.

Dismantling systemic racism will require sustained effort beyond the current crescendo of awareness. I maintain hope that with our combined voices we will fight for racial justice and usher in change. 

Bonnie Nieves, M.Ed.

I Love Communicating Ideas Visually

How I Use Visual Learning In My Classroom

I have always found it easier to communicate through images and have used doodles, sketch notes, mind maps to help me work through thoughts and complex ideas. I encourage my students to do the same. Recently, I found a tool that helps me communicate more effectively and helps me empower my students to do the same. I use Visme for all my new graphics because it is easy to use and comes with tutorial videos that explain graphic design concepts to help me communicate more effectively.

I use it for a range of purposes from simple Twitter introduction cards to entire presentations. This has become unexpectedly useful during remote learning to increase engagement with students and parents. I use social media templates for Instagram to create animated posts that get attention and have improved student engagement by 200% for my daily update posts.

Engagement with social media does not always translate to classroom participation. What does work, is empowering students to use their voice to communicate learning through multiple outlets. In 2016 ISTE announced the standard for students; these include being empowered learners, digital citizens, knowledge constructors, innovative designers, and creative communicators. Visme’s intuitive platform helps with all of these. For example: Human Anatomy and Physiology students are asked to research and coordinate a public health fair. They determine which topics are relevant to our community and how best to communicate their information outside of school. It was not so long ago that students would have worked on expensive cardboard trifold posters that took hours to assemble and got little attention partnered with printed trifold pamphlets that were jam-packed with valuable information that no one read because of text-heavy the presentation. With Visme, students create visually stunning infographics that attract visitors and professional-quality posters that clearly communicate student research while graphics help to make the complicated health data easy to understand. This year, we were unable to hold the face-to-face health fair exposition. While students were disappointed to not be able to share their work widely, they were able to share publicly using social media graphics that they shared with their networks of friends and family.

I have also decided to use Visme to create my session presentation for a state conference. I have used Google Slides in the past because of its portability and ease of use. Now that conferences are moving to online delivery for this year, I am certain that Visme is the best choice for this because of its vast library of themed templates that are totally editable. I will also be able to add elements such as images, icons, and videos along with animated characters. Best of all, presentations can be shared by publishing to the web, embedding on a website, or downloading in an HTML5 file so I will not be worried about internet access the day of the presentation.

Perspective

How a change in perspective has changed the meaning of one of my essential questions.

How Can I Change Where I Work?

In my desire to strive for more, to reach higher, and achieve more, this question has always been in the back of my mind – propelling me upward and fueling my goals. Over the years, my experiences have given me a broader perspective and I see that this has always been 3 questions and I was not answering the right one.

How Can I Change Where I Work?

As a young professional, I was always reflecting on this question. Seeking out professional development and training to become more marketable in order to get a better job – to change where I work. I began to find that no matter where I worked I was always going to have the same drive to accomplish more. Changing the physical place where I worked was not satisfying my ambition.

How Can I Change Where I Work?

Then, as I became more confident and experienced, I found that there was a second question in there. Changing jobs is not always the best solution; sometimes it is better to affect change where you are. I began change the environment that I worked in by sharing my experiences and coaching others.

How Can I Change Where I Work?

Now, looking back, I find that I have been overlooking the most important question all along. Changing the physical place and the situation that I am in are less impactful and often more frustrating than changing myself. How can I change? That is the ultimate question because that is the only thing under my direct control. I have accepted that in any team there will be members who are at different places on the journeys. Their contributions will all look different but are all equally valuable.

When I find myself craving more, I dig deeper and realize that all I can effectively change is myself. The new question becomes

What am I able to do to improve myself and my practice?

Sandcastles and Blanket Forts

I have learned through conversations with teachers from various grade levels that the pressures of curricular timelines and standardized testing aren’t restricted to secondary school. They reach down into the elementary grades, too. We have become so preoccupied with achievement that some of our practices have been squashing curiosity in the interest of standardization and progress.

In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink (2009) explains that allowing people autonomy with clear goals increases intrinsic motivation. As children, we often experienced intrinsic motivation, the feeling of satisfaction that causes us to work more intently, more often than we typically do as adults. Remember the perfect sandcastle after the waves have pommelled multiple attempts, the days-long intricate Lego construction project, or the mightiest blanket fort for your sleepover? Older kids participate in sports where they come to practice and weekend games for either team or individual sports; the reward is not only the completion of the task or competition but the joy of working and the satisfaction of reaching a goal. As adults, we set goals for ourselves. For me, it is running a 10k race. 

Putting on those sneakers and heading out the door to run every day is not easy; it is the feeling that I have once the run is done that gets me motivated to do it and to keep on doing it. I want to engage students in a way that causes them to want to do the work because they know the feeling of success that will result. 

photo of woman wearing pink sports shoes walking
Photo by Daniel Reche on Pexels.com

There were two small things that frustrated me in the course of a teaching day. One thing is when my high school students raise their hand asking permission to go to the bathroom. Haven’t we all experienced this during a lesson? Just when I felt as though all of the students in the class are engaged – not just compliant actually engaged, participating, and listening – a hand goes up. In that instant, my hopes inflate imagining the questions or observations that a student will share. This could be the conversation that starts a knowledge-deepening investigation. But alas, “Can I go to the bathroom?”  Argh, disappointment, of course, a kid can go to the bathroom, but why now when I thought we had something good going?

Turns out they were not that interested in me.

I needed to find a way to capture the sandcastle and blanket fort feeling. I asked students to blog about their goals, many students wrote about the grade they wanted to have at the end of the term. Some were able to explain how they would achieve that grade. Sometimes they would explain the reason for their grade was to be on the honor roll or maintain a GPA or for athletic eligibility. 

I needed to help kids see the value of what they were learning.

When I began providing students with choices about what they were learning and how they learned it, they didn’t ask to leave as often.

Eventually, goals began to change and the process and reason for them changed also. Students were finding meaningful reasons to participate in class. It was no longer about the honor roll, it was about the satisfaction of knowing something that they did not know before, being able to transfer their knowledge, actually use it, and teach other people some goals were to learn new things or simply try something new. Sandcastles and blanket forts.

 

Evolution of Teaching

This week in my Biology class I told my students, as I always do during our natural selection unit, that the goal of living is to live, grow, and reproduce. Biologically, if your genes have gotten into the next generation then you are successful. If an organism is successful but doesn’t impact the next generation then what is the benefit of being successful anyway? Biologically, individuals are not as important as the fitness of the species. Students always find this discouraging at first. Why bother improving if individuals are not important? I tell them that the goal is to make the greatest impact for the greatest amount of individuals so traits must be carried on. Thinking in this way helps us to see the astonishing beauty of life.

This tweet from my friend, Aubrey, really resonated with me this week. Much like my students, I wonderedScreen Shot 2019-10-13 at 12.01.15 PM

What is the point of working to hone your craft if you don’t share it outside of your classroom?

 

Species evolve as a result of random changes in DNA. Individuals can’t evolve because they can’t change their DNA [although we are now finding that sometimes different genes can be active depending on an individual’s environment. This phenomenon is called epigenetics; see linked video if interested]. 

The teaching profession will evolve as a result of changing practices. Individual teachers must share their experiences widely in order to impact future generations of teachers and learners. Just as an individual is not biologically important to the health of a species, the effort of an individual teacher will only impact the students with direct contact unless they share with a community. Sharing will exponentially increase a teacher’s reach.

As is sit every Sunday writing, sharing, and reflecting, I am looking for ways to increase the number of people from whom I learn. I hope to get my ideas out to a variety of educators who will interact; people who understand that we have to join together in this educational ecosystem in order to have the greatest impact.

I am unmeasurably grateful for the people who are gracious enough to accept me into their community so that I may improve as a result of our mutual contributions.

Increasing Student Engagement and Agency with Choice Boards

I have learned through conversations with teachers from various grade levels that the insights from my reflections are not limited to high school teachers. The pressures of curricular timelines and standardized testing reach down into the elementary grades, too.

Have we become so preoccupied with achievement that some of our practices have been squashing curiosity in the interest of standardization?

In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink (2009) explains that allowing people autonomy with clear goals increases intrinsic motivation. As children, we experience this feeling of satisfaction that causes us to work more intently. Remember the perfect sandcastle after the waves have pommelled multiple attempts, the days-long intricate Lego construction project, or the mightiest blanket fortress for your sleepover? As they get older, kids participate in sports where they attend practice and weekend games; the reward was not only the completion of the task or competition but the joy of working and the satisfaction of reaching a goal. As adults, we set goals for ourselves. For me, it is running a 10k race. Putting on those sneakers and heading out the door to run every day is not easy; it is the feeling that I have once the run is done that gets me motivated to do it and keep on doing it. If this goal was set for me by someone else I would not have the same determination.

Challenging work that is delivered in a meaningful context increases student performance (McTighe & Seif, 2011) and intrinsic motivation (Pink, 2009). This can translate to classrooms in a variety of ways; providing students with choices for how they obtain, transfer, and communicate their learning is one of the simpler ways to increase student agency and you can start by making some pretty easy swaps.

Choice boards and learning menus are reasonable starting points for teachers to increase student agency. 

Providing the right choices is important. During the first week of school, I provide students with time to complete a “Tell Me About Yourself” survey. Prompts in the survey are designed to elucidate student preferences for learning without asking them directly. Answers to the following prompts have proven very useful to my practice:

I sleep ________ hours every night.

_________ makes me happy.

Knowing the end of a story helps me to focus on reading.

One thing I wish teachers knew about me is

Three words that describe me are:

Because I use music, videos, and lots of movement, I include items that will help me provide a comfortable atmosphere for each student in our classroom. 

My favorite kind of music is…

I feel stressed when ___________.

I work best when ___________.

What I learn about their interests is used to create choice boards for the first curriculum unit of the school year. 

My favorite subject in school is…

I am taking this class because…

What I hope to learn from this class is….

One problem I would like to solve is …

Choice boards typically give students a choice between three options to demonstrate their knowledge of a topic.

I make sure to include options for students who 

  • prefer reading 
  • prefer watching videos
  • like to write  
  • would rather demonstrate their learning using technology

Screen Shot 2019-08-27 at 6.06.14 PM

The one thing that every student must do is in the middle box. There are several options here to demonstrate knowledge and everyone is assessed by the same rubric. 

The options are all things that I have used in the past but found did not work for all students. (The one size fits most mentality). This is the perfect opportunity to empower students to self-differentiate by choosing the option that works best for them rather than me using the one option that works for the majority of students.

This method has been very well-received by my students and did not take much more time than traditional planning would have. Students are more invested in the process and product because they have chosen it for themselves.

 

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books. 

McTighe, J. & Seif, E. (2011). Teaching for understanding. Retrieved from https://jaymctighe.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Teaching-for-Understanding.pdf