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

 

Choosing a Path

paths canvaEquipped with my love of science and passion to reach every single student every single day, I accepted a position as a full-time high school Biology teacher.

Quickly I realized that this is, indeed, where I belong. Sharing my knowledge of science and enthusiasm for learning did not feel like working at all; going to school in the morning was my distinct pleasure. Joyfully I filled my days with slide presentations, videos, posters, construction paper, markers, and glue and my nights with grading, researching, and planning. I eagerly devoured any and all professional development opportunities which I used to inform my practice resulting in more lab activities, projects, and new methods of sharing information about science. I was having a blast! 

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

My prior teaching experience with my sister, Winnie, Barbie, and Tiffany paled in comparison to the satisfaction of a room full of human students. 

At the end of each day, I sat and thought about my day. I did not plan for this time to be for meaningful reflection but as I simply sat utterly spent with my head resting atop my crossed arms on my desk and my thoughts naturally trailed off to what happened during the day.  First, my mind wandered to the things that did not go as planned and as a new teacher there were lots of them! 

I noticed the rough patches and places where students fell through the cracks.

  • New vocabulary may not be new to everyone and maybe too complex for others
  • Taking handwritten notes does not work for students who think in images or prefer other representations 
  • Kids who did not do homework were asked to stay for extra help after school or some other punitive action
  • Dipsticking gauges the whole class progress but individual students struggle with the pace
  • Students who do not know the vocabulary may not understand many of the concepts 

Once I acknowledged the bumps and cracks, I realized that there were just as many – if not more times – when everyone stayed on track. There were even days when we all traveled as a team and exceeded my goals. The more days I spent sitting exhausted wondering what I could have done differently I found what I should be doing is more of those good things that built a strong team. So I began to look for patterns.

“We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.”― John Dewey

Daily reflection was the first practice that I decided that I must continue to do with purpose. I reserved 15 minutes at the end of each day to sit quietly and reflect on my own effectiveness, student engagement, and enjoyment. 

During these reflections I found 

  • Students work best when they aren’t being evaluated 
  • I teach best to small groups
  • Students learn best in small groups 
  • Students learn best when they are engaged; engagement increases with ownership
  • Every student is doing the best they can right now. 
  • Every student can do better with time and support. 

 

Those first few years reminded me that the biggest reward comes from the most challenging journey. While there are times when I have chosen the easy route, I am always most satisfied after I have decided to blaze a new trail into uncharted territory. 

 

 

 

The Natural

My sister hated it; from the time she was an infant she was my student. I loved school and being 6 years older, I felt compelled to prepare her for her upcoming journey. She progressed from being in a booster seat reciting the alphabet and counting to 10 to eventually being able to sit and write sight words at her tiny wooden desk in my bedroom in front of my worn out chalkboard. I was in my glory. Among her classmates Winnie The Pooh, Barbie, and Tiffany the dog she was the star pupil. I remember explaining the importance of what I was teaching her as she tried to leave to go play with her Strawberry Shortcake dolls. Eventually, Strawberry and her friends were enrolled in my class as well. 

Although it seems that my path was set out before me, my road to becoming a teacher was anything but straight and narrow. The first curve was in junior high where it seemed most of my teachers did not value curiosity as much as compliance. My grades plummeted as I became disinterested and disengaged. I was ultimately labeled a trouble-student. Eyes rolled when I was introduced to my teachers in freshman year.  The D’s and F’s on my academic record are the landmarks along the path that tells the story of the importance of connecting with a teacher or not. Eventually, there were more diversions than times I stayed the course and my dream of being a teacher diminished along with my GPA.

While working on my BS in Biology, I worked in a variety of jobs from medical assisting to insurance case management; I was always assigned the preceptor for new employees. People often asked me why I wasn’t taking education classes.

“You’re a natural” 

“This is your calling” 

were things I heard regularly. My response was always the same

 

“I can’t be a teacher because 

I love learning too much”.

 

My career in education started as a result of months of prodding by my college career counselor. She convinced me that my fresh perspective and curiosity are needed in education. I had the honor of being the instructional assistant to several veteran teachers over the course of five years. The lessons learned from this experience have helped build the foundation of my career. I saw teachers’ various styles and observed their short and long-term patterns.  A persistent and comfortable cycle seemed to remain consistent and hadn’t changed much since my disappointing experience in junior high:

  • Teacher schedules test according to report card date 
  • Teacher gives notes, student take notes 
  • Students take quiz 
  • Teacher gives lectures, students take notes 
  • Students take quiz  
  • Review 
  • Students take test  
  • Grades go on report cards.  

Notice the ownership here; teachers give and students take. There was a theme of students being passive recipients while teachers were in control of the tempo and content. There was a lot of teaching but not so much learning.

This experience provided the push that I needed to pursue my teaching credentials. Perhaps all of those people along my journey have been right. What if my calling is not simply to be a teacher but to help transform teaching AND learning?

Since the day I decided to become a teacher, I have focused on creating engaging and relevant student learning experiences for every student. I promised to support students like 12 year old me who need more – even when they can’t articulate it or behave in ways that cause us to think differently.

I remind myself of this as I begin planning for my 8th year teaching high school science and renew my commitment to help transform learning experiences for students.

How I am Going Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School

My gradeless journey began 6 years ago after witnessing how easily grades can be manipulated by teachers. I will not go into depth here about how grades can be impacted by compliance and family situations; I believe that is common knowledge. I decided that if traditional grades do not help students learn, I was going to find a way to create a grading method that did.

I have 2 grading categories
Formative assessments – do not count toward reported grade
Summative assessment – comprise the entire reported grade

Formative assessments are varied in size and type but consistent in their frequency and intent. These assignments increase in length and complexity from warm-ups and exit slips to question sets as a unit progresses. All formative assessments are evaluated using a proficiency scale. A basic outline of the scale is below.

LP – limited proficiency, student is able to complete task with help
AP – approaching proficiency, student is able to complete task independently with
DP – demonstrates proficiency, student is able to complete the task independently and uses content vocabulary, or examples appropriately
EP – exceeds proficiency, student is able to complete the task independently using appropriate vocabulary and novel examples

Opportunities for students to independently demonstrate their knowledge are summative assessments; these counted toward the reported grade. Grades are reported as content goals rather than a list of assignments. For example, in biology class, the summative assessment for the cell unit is a poster. This poster is listed as “cell structure and function” in the gradebook. Summative assessments are evaluated using a single-point rubric.

Not yet Met Exceeds

STRUCTURE

Phospholipids are drawn and labeled polar/non-polar correctly
Glycoproteins drawn and labeled correctly
Transport proteins drawn and labeled correctly
Receptor proteins drawn and labeled correctly
Signal molecule drawn and labeled correctly
FUNCTION
Transport proteins role in active and passive transport
Example of diffusion
Example of active transport
Example of endocytosis and exocytosis

Students will get this rubric back with my feedback; their grade will be reported only after they have had the opportunity to reflect upon and address my feedback.

Aspects that I continue to work on:

  • reporting progress
  • self/peer assessment
  • assessing 3-dimensional learning
  • rebranding formative assessments as practice opportunities
  • timely feedback with large classes

Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts; as you do, please keep in mind although there have been many hours of research and collaboration, I do not consider myself an expert. I share my journey with the hope of expanding my PLN and reflecting on my progress.

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