Get Out Of Their Way And Let Them Learn

I never cease to be amazed at kids’ capacity to learn when they are motivated. In particular, I amazed with how much kids can learn on their own. I think that sometimes that us adults get in their way far more than we think we are or we should. I think, if given the chance, kids will learn far more than we give them credit for. 

This past therm in Science I did something that I had never done before. Our unit of study was human body systems, so I spent a day talking about the things that the kids already knew and laid out the things that the kids were supposed to know at the end. The students then needed to come up with a plan that laid out how they could learn what they were supposed to learn and how they would present their learning at the end. From that point forward I let them go. My role was more one of a facilitator than a dispenser of knowledge. I gave them some structure for their data collection and laid out deadlines for pieces of the project, but other than that I moved around the classroom giving advice to some, checking the work of others, and fixing technical issues of others. At the end the students presented their learning to the group. I also did a short interview with each kid to see how much they had retained. It was awesome. I was amazed with the depth of understanding of the material that most kids had. 

Why don’t teachers (myself included) not do more of this? There are two reasons that I can think of. First, this kind of learning is chaotic and messy. I think that most of us have a difficult time giving in to and embracing a less than structured learning environment. The second is control. I think that most teachers are control freaks one way or another. It is difficult for us to hand over that control to anyone else. 

So, what can we do? I think we need to give up that sense of control that we cling so dearly to. We need to better embrace a little bit of chaos. First and foremost we need to get out of kids’ ways and let them learn. 

Discipline vs Motivation

Perhaps I am not the only one, but my first year of teaching was very challenging for a number of reasons. Primary among those was  my complete lack of understanding of how to create a classroom environment that was conducive to learning. All that I learned in my teacher training was that “You don’t need discipline. You need to create an environment where students want to learn.” Sounds great right? Easy peasy. What it has taken me years to get a handle on, and I still am not sure I have it, is the fine balance in a classroom that needs to exist between structure and creativity.

I think all teachers want what they teach to be motivating to their students. I don’t think that any of us begin our day thinking of ways to make our students’ lives difficult. I think that what I find difficult is how to find activities that are motivating and engaging to all of the kids in my class when they are all so different and have such a broad range of gifts and interests. This is where structure comes in. I need to structure my space and my interactions in such a way that students know what is expected of them, and that they know what happens when what they do does not meet those expectations.

Here’s the rub though. This structure can or come at the expense of student engagement. Research has clearly shown that students learn more when they are engaged in their learning. Kids learn more when they have some element of choice to how or what they learn and learn more when they can reflect on  and share their learning with others.

So, teachers walk a fine line between structure and creativity. Between discipline and motivation. Usually it is a fun journey. Occasionally it is draining. It is never boring.

Exhibit A- By Joy DiNunzio

exhibit A

Saturday, March 14th brought the first Saturday of Spring break 2015. Operation staycation commenced with a piping hot coffee in hand after waking up and shifting into second gear rather then the typical weekday morning fifth gear. I took a moment to acknowledge the feeling of absolute euphoria as I gazed out the kitchen window watching the heavy rain drops hit the glass and bounce off with the type of spring like a tennis ball bouncing on cement. My focus shifts to the right to see my iMac, the lone item in our home literally screwed down to the surface it sits on. Two years ago our house was broken into. At 6pm we stepped out of the house, only to return an hour later to find every piece of electronic equipment we owned gone. Were we covered by insurance? Yes. Was there a back up to all of our data? Thank goodness there was! You better believe the first thing I did right after I took my replacement iMac out of the box was thread a chain link bike lock through a hole in the base and fasten it to the desk it sat on. Should we be met with an uninvited guest again the burglars biggest need will be wire cutters to get the job done, massive strength, and speed as it would be a little hard concealing the worlds first 55lbs iMac down the road.

I headed over to my desk and tore the big yellow post-it note placed strategically smack dab in the middle of my screen before bed, in huge letters “Spring break to-do’s” written at the top. You see I have a little confession to make, I’m guilty of being a life long list maker. The jury is still out whether I’ve decided if this good thing or a bad thing. My little habit started around grade nine. I remember feeling the excitement over not the unusual heavy amount of homework I had that night, but of sitting at my desk in my room eagerly removing all of my textbooks and binders in order to create a list. A list documenting what would be my first priority and so on. I have found list upon list in jacket pockets I haven’t worn in ages and know exactly what my state of mind was when writing them by my penmanship. My lists are not limited to handwritten, back in 2000 I bought my first Palm Pilot- the Palm V. What a beauty it was, although seamless syncing not so beautiful. That’s when I took the majority of my lists electronic. Should you accidentally come across my data stored on iCloud I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprised to find my folder named ‘Lists’ containing dozens of you guessed it, lists! You need a Christmas present list? Got it. You need a camping list? Got that too. How about a home emergency kit list? Doesn’t everybody?

My theory based on hunch is that people who are chronic list makers also tend to keep a highly detailed calendar. Exhibit A, our family calendar. Accessible by all DiNunzio family Apple devices with a hard copy of the current and upcoming five months printed and placed on the back of the kitchen door. I’m sure I could make a dollar or two if I put together a video clip showcasing the rainbow of facial expressions by any house guest who happens to stumble upon mission control for the first time.

My husband is cool as a cucumber. I consider us late if we are five minutes early, he on the other hand would be in the mind set that it is an entire five minutes that could be allocated elsewhere of his choosing. So what does a clock watcher, compulsive list maker, and borderline obsessive calendar keeper do when a ball drops? Back in November I was fortunate enough to snag two row five seats for the production of ‘The Next Step…Live on Stage’ at the QE Theatre. Now if you know any 9-year-old girl who eats, breathes, and sleeps dancing chances are you are familiar with the Disney Channel TV show The Next Step. The live show includes all the actors from the TV show. The tickets were given to my daughter *insert screaming daughters shrieks of joy here* for her birthday back in January. Fast forward to 6:04pm Saturday night, dinner dishes complete, kids playing in their room, and I’m online sitting at my desk while drinking a cup of tea. I receive a text message from a friend “Are you here yet? What row are you two in?!?!”. I’m pretty confident my next two eye blinks could have been recorded for speed into the Guinness Book of World Records. What day is it? Was it on my list? Has my old friend calendar left me? Somewhere along the line I had dropped the ball. Time to shift my feeling of pure horror and frustration and replace it with a little belly breathing and determination. We had exactly 25 minutes to get from Surrey to downtown Vancouver. If Santa can make it around the world in one night, I could most certainly increase the RPM’s on the old Dodge Caravan to rival Santa’s sleigh. Down Nordel Way, over the Alex Fraser, onto the connector, jetted at the Knight Street exit, sped through the Night Street bridge, scurried down King Edward, sharp right on Main Street, and travel up the Georgia viaduct. Even the birds flying in the sky were looking down with thumbs up, that’s until our world came to a screeching hault as we become parallel with Rogers Arena. That’s right folks, the Canucks game had JUST ended and exactly half the population of Canada was exiting the stadium overflowing onto the streets surrounding us. Wherever I turned was blue, blue Canucks jerseys everywhere traveling at a snail like pace. At that moment you could hear a pin drop in the Caravan. Still practicing my belly breathing, I turn and look at my daughter in the seat behind. We lock eyes and in that moment we both started laughing hysterically. This situation was out of our control and like a bee hive swarming its nest, words like Sedin #22, Beiska #3, Borrows #14, and Edler #23 were popping in and out of sight. There was nothing we good do but sit at the corner of Beatty and Dunsmuir and appreciate the moment, laugh at ourselves (ok…me), and people watch. In the end we found an amazing parking spot a block away, giggled as we held other’s hand tightly while running mock five down Hamilton, was greeted by the warmest theatre employee opening the front door welcoming us in, and felt a little extra special being ushered in the dark theatre passed screaming tweens everywhere down to row 5 a half hour into production.

As a mother and Education Assistant I don’t pretend to be perfect, one extremely important thing I can do is model appropriate reactions and behavior when balls drop. Rest assured while I was quick to excel on green lights knew getting my little dancer to our destination safely was more important then an unsafe lead foot. I dropped the ball on Saturday and know for a fact I will drop it again.

I never did find out if the Canucks won on Saturday. Anyone?

Sunday Struggles #3

If you have read my Sunday posts before, you know that Sundays are where I put a question out there to anyone who might be reading and hope for some feedback or ideas. I write a post about homework earlier this week, so I wanted to ask:

How much homework is appropriate? And why?

  1. An hour a night
  2. A half hour a night
  3. 15 minutes or less
  4. It depends
  5. None

Audience

When I first started writing this blog I told myself that I totally didn’t care who read it and that I would be perfectly content for it to be read at all. That attitude lasted until the first person actually read it. Right now, I think I average about three readers a day. My colleague and friend Joy (she does’t know it yet, but I really want her to write a guest post for this blog) and a couple of other people. I have discovered that it doesn’t really matter the number of people reading, but it is exciting to have an audience.

This experience has been an important lesson to me as a teacher. Audience matters. Our students need an audience for their work beyond their teacher and their parents. They need their peers. I think many of them yearn for an audience even broader than that. Technology has opened up our kids to be and to create for a global audience. They are doing it already. Many of my atudents over the last few years have created instagram accounts and posted youtube videos that the adults in their life have no idea about. Some budding writers are posting stories on fanfiction.net that would put to shame the pieces that they write in school for their teachers.

The question then becomes how we as educators can tap into these energies while at the same time teaching lessons about online safety and citizenship. How can we give our students a global audience for the work that they create and hopefully increase engagement at the same time. As I have mentioned before, my class writes a blog, but I was hoping that anyone out there in my audience could share with me what they are doing to engage their students with a global audience.

The Importance of Getting To Know Your Students

42-17760391-resized-600As a teacher, I try my best to grow and to learn. I read books about different areas of education, I attend school and district professional development, and try to collaborate with my colleagues to grow my practice. I have a confession to make, however. I don’t learn nearly as much about teaching and learning than I do from the young people sitting in the desks in my classroom. The students I have this year, in particular, have been great teachers and I learn something new every day.

The other day I asked them, “What do you think teachers need to know? What advice do you think that I could give other teachers about how to improve?” It was an interesting discussion, and I may write about some of those things another time, but eventually, we finished up and moved on with our day. When school finished, one of the girls in my class, approached me once everyone had left and said, “You know, Mr. Schultz, I have been thinking about what you asked us earlier. I think the most important thing teachers need to know is how important it is to get to know their students.”

Well now here was a topic I really wanted to sink my teeth into, so a couple of days later I asked the kids in my class two questions. The first was why it was important for teachers to get to know their students and the second was how teachers could go about getting to know their students better. I found their responses really insightful and wanted to share them.

 

Why is it important for teachers to get to know their students?

There were really two types of responses to this question. The first had to do with students as learners. They understood that a teacher that understood their strengths, weaknesses, and interests would be better able to help them to be successful academically. They knew that someone who knew them as a learner would be able to know what areas where they were struggling and be able to help them through those struggles or know the areas where they were strong and build on those strengths. The comment that hit home most in this regard was a boy that said, “It is important for the teachers to get to know their students because the more they get to know each student the better they can teach them, in a way that they will learn.”

The other reason why students thought it was important for teachers to get to know their students was so that they would know them as people. They felt it was important for their teacher to know them so that they could help them when they were upset, having a difficult time with friends or the other things that were going on in their busy lives. They felt it was important to know and understand their interests, hobbies, and what was important to them so that a teacher could treat them with kindness and respect.

What are some of the ways that teachers should get to know their students?

Many of the answers to this question were what I expected. They talk about how teachers could have students write about themselves, fill out questionnaires, draw pictures of themselves, and other suggestions of that nature. Two responses, however, were simple, yet important to point out. The first? Talk to them. Have conversations with them on a regular basis. Talk to them about their learning, but not just about their learning. Talk to them about what interests them outside of the world of academics. The students thought it was important to be able to talk to their teachers about their hobbies and their friends and what sorts of music they liked so that they could get to know them as people.

The second piece of advice surprised me a little bit. What was it? Play with them. Students want teachers to play games with them. This could be games on the playground or in the classroom, but they were not talking about learning games. They were talking about fun. Students want teachers to have fun with them. Now there is a revolutionary idea in education!

Conclusion

There were a few things that I think are really important about what my students were telling me. The first was how important it is for teachers to know their students as learners and as teachers. Teachers who know how their kids learn can guide them and lead them to grow in their learning. Teachers who know their students as unique individuals can help them to navigate the often confusing and anxiety filled lives that they lead.

The second thing that teachers can take away from what my students told me was to have fun. Enjoy your time with your students. Talk to them. Play with them. Lighten up. I think this is a lesson that many of us still need to learn and I know that I hope to continue to have my students be my most important teachers.

Homework- Yes? No? Maybe So?

The longer that I have been a parent of school aged children, the more the teacher and administrator in me questions the value of homework. Almost every school mission statement talks  about the value of education of “the whole child”, yet asks families to cram extra academic work into time that could be spent on artistic or athletic endeavors that truly meet needs that the school says it values. As a teacher, I am still not sure exactly where I sit so I am going to lay out my thoughts and hope for some feedback from anyone who is reading.

Why do students have homework?
I believe the two main things that teachers are trying to accomplish when assigning homework are to either have students finish up what they were working on throughout the day or to reinforce concepts that are being taught through extra practice.

Does homework accomplish those things?
I guess that depends. Not all kids complete their homework on time, so a teacher still has the issue of not all students being at the same place. Additionally, there has been quite a lot written about the fact thst homework, particularly for younger children, does not appear to have many long term learning benefits.

What about those kids that work more slowly than others? When would they finish?
I don’t think that kids that have brains that take longer to process than others should be penalized for that. Fair and equal are not the same. There is no reason that teachers need to assign the same number of questions to each student or that each assignment has to be the same for each student.

Is homework fair to all kids?
This is a tricky one. We all know that each child walks into our classroom with a unique set of gifts, talents, and challenges. They also all come with unique home situations and level of parental support. I am not so sure that asking kids in difficult home sutuations to be able to navigate the same homework expectations of others is quite fair.

What can you see as benefits to eliminating homework?
Beyond creating a more level playing field for all kids? How about not having the aggravation of kids that constantly don’t have their homework completed on time and what that can do to a child’s self-image?

What would be the major challenge of eliminating homework?
In a word, change. Eliminating homework would mean that  many teachers would have  to change how they  do business. It would mean they would need to do a better job of personalizing learning for their students and communicating learning to parents. Many parents would also need to change because they  would need to see schools today as different from when they went to school.

So…verdict?
I am still not sure. Writing this post has helped me think things through a little bit, but I am hoping that anyone out there who is reading can give me their two cents.