Which is more important- the Why or the What?

When it comes to professional development, which is more important- the Why or the What?

Time is so limited, so in an effort to be efficient, most “professional development” opportunities focus on the what.  Over and over, you will hear teachers say,  “Just tell me what to do and I will do it.”  I completely understand this sentiment, but lately I’ve been wondering if this is really what’s best for us in the long run.

Sure, in the short term, it seems most appropriate.  We only have 30 minutes to attend this training- so  just explain what teaching strategy we should use, and then send us on our way.  But does this really help us become better teachers?

Without understanding the why behind the what, the teaching strategy becomes simply a task to be completed. Teachers are not robots to be programmed with tasks to carry out (although I must admit, it does feel that way sometimes).  While we may not realize it at the time, as we are juggling a myriad of responsibilities, understanding the why is what truly makes us better teachers.

We are fortunate to be teaching in such exciting times!  New research on learning theory and cognitive development is emerging much more rapidly than ever before. And with it comes more effective teaching strategies- strategies that align with the latest and greatest research findings.

But I don’t think it will do us much good to focus solely on these new teaching strategies without considering the research behind them.  By understanding the rationale behind the strategy, I am empowered to use this information to develop learning opportunities specifically for my students and their individual needs. I become a more knowledgeable educator overall.

By understanding the Why, I am refining my pedagogical knowledge, allowing me to more effectively:

  • Implement teaching strategies to their fullest intent
  • Adjust instruction to achieve the intended results
  • Create ongoing purposeful learning experiences for my students without being told exactly what to do
  • Persevere when the going gets tough
  • Pursue the ultimate goal- helping each of my students reach his or her fullest potential

In a way, it goes back to the proverbial man needing fish- do we give him a fish, or do we teach him to fish?  It’s easiest to give him a fish, but is this really in his best interest?

Habits of Mind and Habits of Practice

The habits of practice we use most often stem from our habits of mind.  Attempting to change the habits of practice without changing the habits of mind is futile.

We need to change our habits of mind to have a lasting effect on our habits of practice.
What do you think?  Has understanding the why behind the what made you a better teacher?

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Who has Time to Teach Writing?

Sadly, I confess that those six words have run through my head and have even crossed my lips a few times.

 Writing

As a 5th and 6th grade teacher with an infatuation with math and science, teaching writing was not my priority.  My students needed to pass the state reading, math and science assessments, but since writing was only tested in 4th, 8th, & 10th grade, I didn’t have to worry about it.  Lucky me!  I could focus on the subjects that really matter.  With all the math and science concepts I had to cover, I did not have class time to devote to writing stories and 5 paragraph essays explaining what the students’ favorite subject are and why.

In the rare event that I did assign an essay, the amount of time it took to grade them was immense. And because I wasn’t that good at writing myself,  giving corrective feedback was a real challenge.

Five years ago, I would have never considered that I would be any good at writing, let alone enjoy it.  (Hence my avoidance of teaching it). But as I began to dabble in the realm of writing, I discovered the powerful relationship between writing and thinking.

Where it all began….

My respect for writing began to take root when I started working towards my National Board Certification.  At that time, I didn’t teach writing and didn’t like writing.  But since the National Board process is nothing but a bunch of writing, I had to do it. (But I could still avoid teaching it, by golly!)

Luckily, I had lots of ideas rolling around in my head and I was passionate about teaching, so I sat down at the computer and began to write all the seemingly wonderful thoughts that came to mind about the topic I thought I was supposed to be writing about.  Then I handed it to a colleague proudly to get some feedback.

This is the feedback I received:

  • Did you read the question?  Because you didn’t answer all of it.
  • Why are you writing this entry?  I don’t think the evaluator wants to read an account of what your college professor thinks about education.
  • Where’s the evidence to back up your claims?  You can’t just tell me that you are the best teacher since Socrates and expect me to take your word for it.

So I sat back down at the computer feeling sorry for myself and cried.

But when my pity party was over, I reflected on this feedback and learned a very important writing lesson that I somehow failed to learn when I was in school- When writing, you have to consider your purpose and audience and address all parts of the question with cogent support.

So I sat down a tried again…..and again……and again.  Until I had something that I was actually quite proud of.

While this process didn’t make me fall in love with writing, it did help me develop my craft.

So it wasn’t love at first “write”…..

But I began to love writing out of necessity.   For most of my teaching career, I have worked with fabulous teachers who were patient enough to listen to me ramble on about my thoughts and ideas about education.  But when I changed schools and was suddenly the new kid on the block trying to maintain a appearance of normalcy, I realized that I could not just start spouting off ideas all the time and expect them to still want to eat lunch with me.

I tried to contain these thoughts inside my head , but the pressure kept building and eventually I needed relief.  So I started to write them down.

And when I did, I made the most amazing discovery!

Not only did writing help me get these ideas out of my head and relieve some pressure, it helped me to clarify and solidify these ideas.  I was able to see these ideas, rather than just think them.

When I looked at my thoughts on paper, I could:

  • organize them
  • make connections among them
  • identify weaknesses in my thinking
  • evaluate them more objectively

I was astonished….and I was hooked!

The Moral of the Story…

I am completely embarrassed that as a teacher,  I  did not fully understand the power of the writing-thinking relationship.   When I thought about writing, I thought 5- paragraph essay.  I failed to see that writing was so much more.  I am ashamed that for some time, I failed my students in this area.  By neglecting to teach writing, I denied them the most powerful tool for thinking.

The primary job of every teacher, no matter what subject, is to teach students to think.  I am fully convinced that this can’t be done without teaching them to write.

Now, I teach writing in every class.  If the students can think it, they should write it.  When students put their ideas on paper, they free up space in their working memory to think more deeply- to manipulate, examine, and study the ideas from all angles.

Another benefit is that it allows me to see their understanding in black and white, enabling me to make better instructional decisions.

  • Want to know if your students fully understand the area of a circle? 

  Have them write to explain what would happen to the area of the circle if the circumference were doubled.

  •  Want to know if your students understood the main idea in the article they just read? 

Have them write to explain what the author was trying to say in 25 words or less.

 When I know what my students can do, I know exactly what to teach them.  There is no other way to peek into every student’s mind every single day.  And the more effort that is put into teaching students to write clearly, the better their ability to think.  It’s a win-win situation for everyone.

Prepare your students for a lifetime of success.  Empower your students with the ability to write.

What are some ways that you engage your students in writing and thinking?

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What is Professional Development?

Is training focused on understanding how the standards will be tested really professional development?

I guess it depends on what we believe a teacher’s job to be.  If one considers a teacher’s sole purpose to train a child to pass a test, then I guess this would be appropriate professional development.  By understanding how each standard is tested, the teacher can tailor instruction to the test expectations and thus be considered successful as a professional.

But I have a problem with this.  I did not go into the teaching profession to teach kids to pass tests.  I chose this profession to inspire greatness in my students,  to help them realize their fullest potential, to make this world a better place.  It’s insulting to think that my role has been so devalued.  I refuse to consider myself simply a trainer for a bunch of test takers.

In my opinion, true professional development should be focused on inspiring students to be critical thinkers, creative problem solvers, and lifelong learners.  These are the skills that enable students to reach their potential, motivate them to continue learning, and allow them to persevere when faced with challenges.  Teach me ways to facilitate proficiency of these skills.  Teach me the latest research on cognitive development.  Teach me how to determine what critical thinking skills students are using well and which ones may need to be strengthened.  Teach me how to design lessons that will engage my students in real world application of skills at a high level of rigor.  But don’t try to convince me that knowing how the standards will be tested, and planning my lessons to match these assessment conditions,  is sufficient for my students to attain critical thinking & problem solving skills that they can apply in the real world. In real life, does it really matter if standard X.Y.Q.1.2.3 is tested at a cognitive complexity level of 4 using a multiple choice format?

Don’t get me wrong.  I do think it is important to know the test item specifications to be a well informed teacher, but please don’t provide training on this information, emphasizing that I should address each benchmark to a certain level of rigor with the justification of “this is how it will be tested,” and then assume that I have received quality professional development that will help me provide a better education for my students.

I guess it all comes down to this: Are teachers supposed to be preparing students for a test, or for life?

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Teach, Lead, and Transform- Be a Teacherpreneur!

Here’s a short excerpt from an article I read today- What the Heck is a ‘Teacherpreneur’?:

the concept of “teacherpreneur” involves giving classroom teachers more of a voice in educational leadership, while allowing current educational leaders and policymakers opportunities to spend a part of each year working in a classroom with students.

In this ideal world, teachers spend part of their time in the class as co-teachers, part of their time researching and writing curriculum and assessments for schools, part of the time mentoring new teachers (who have a reduced work load while they’re being trained), part of their time innovating ideas for teacher development, and part of their time drafting educational policy.”

This is what I want to be when I grow up- a teacherpreneur!

Not that I don’t like my current job.  I am currently serving as an instructional coach and I truly enjoy it.  It’s definitely a close second to being a teacherpreneur.  I have the privilege of providing professional development to teachers, I can offer my two cents (for what it’s worth) on the educational policy of my school, and I get to observe and learn from other fantastic teachers. Sometimes I even get lucky enough to be asked to model a lesson in a  classroom, or provide interventions for a student or two, which helps satisfy my need for student interaction.

The Limitations of Being an Instructional Coach

As much as I love my job, at times it can be frustrating when I have an idea that I would love to try.  For those of you who don’t know me personally, you should know that I am known for being readily open to trying new things in my classroom. (Some may attribute this to possible ADD, but I like to think of it as educational enthusiasm!) Most of the time, the ideas turn out to be pretty good ones that help the students learn.  As for those occasional bad ideas- while the students may not learn much from them, I learn PLENTY!!

I spend a lot of time reading professional literature (yes, I really do this for fun) and like any true nerd- when I read about ideas, I want to try them out.  Think of it like being a student in a science class reading how to calculate speed, but not able to actually measure the time and distance of a toy car rolling down a ramp.  Instructional coaches (like myself) would be the first to ask “How much learning can really take place without hands-on experiences?”  The same rings true for anyone in the education field who is not working directly with students day-in and day-out.

As an instructional coach, I can read up on the latest research and best practices, I can attend the most inspiring professional development, and can observe the most fabulous teachers, but if I never have an opportunity to implement firsthand what I have learned, a complete understanding will never be realized.  I may have surface knowledge of the concept, but it won’t run deep.  I liken this to the shift to in-depth standards which require the students to delve deeply into concepts and explore them on multiple levels to understand these concepts more thoroughly.  It’s just as important for educators to have a deep understanding of teaching practices and how they affect student learning, and this isn’t possible without hands-on experiences.

The Benefits of Being an Instructional Coach

On the other hand, I feel that by being involved in more “global” issues outside of my immediate classroom, I have grown tremendously as a member of the educational community.  Sometimes teachers get tunnel vision and all they have time to care about are the students in their own classrooms and the students’ performance in their class.  They aren’t able to see the big picture.  And often, it isn’t their fault.  At some schools (thankfully not at mine) the administrators make all the decisions and tell the teachers exactly what they will be doing.  So the teachers don’t even bother trying to see the big picture.  What’s the point?

But when teachers’ eyes are opened to the big picture, that’s when things get exciting!  When teachers within a school or district come to view themselves as part of a larger network, and are invited to provide educational insight and advice, they become more invested in the system.  Since becoming a coach 5 months ago, I have learned to question seemingly outdated policies and procedures, consider ways to better meet the needs of students and teachers, and make suggestions for improvements.  Many of my ideas have been accepted and implemented, and some have been politely acknowledged and then quickly forgotten, but either way, the fact that someone values my opinion encourages me to continue seeking ways to improve as an educator.

Being a Teacherpreneur- The Best of Both Worlds

My fear is that as time passes, I may forget what it was like to be in a classroom and start inadvertently providing input that is irrelevant or even worse- counterproductive.  And this is more pertinent now than ever before. Because of the rapid changes in society, it is extremely likely that the classroom will be a completely different place than it is now in just 5 short years.  If I am not engaged in the experience of teaching students, I will not be as effective in making sound educational decisions.

In a school of teacherpreneurs, this fear doesn’t have to exist.  All members of the teaching community will stay connected and informed through classroom teaching, while also serving as a valued leader in a capacity that best suits them: administrator, author, curriculum developer, college professor, policy maker, etc.  Say good-bye to disgruntled teachers who complain about irrelevant policies that don’t make sense, and say hello to motivated professionals working towards a common goal of improving student achievement through continual learning and collaboration.

Do you believe this educational structure is attainable?  What are some obstacles that will need to be overcome in implementing this idea of teacherpreneurs? What are the benefits of this type of system?

If you are interested in learning more about this idea of “teacherpreneur”- check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LXFVpp3wQ0

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Death & Inspiration

It’s funny how death puts things in perspective.

Three years ago today, I was sitting at my brother-in-law’s funeral.  He was 22.  I watched him grow from an annoying, mischievous, yet lovable, 8-year-old to a fun-loving and golden-hearted young man.  His first words to me were, “You’re fat, you’re ugly, and your feet stink.”  I’ll never forget the day I met him.  Or the last day I saw him- he stopped by to bring me a birthday card featuring a good-lookin’ shirtless cowboy.

John and I spent a lot of great times together.  In junior high, he joined band and played the trumpet. I like to think he chose the trumpet because I played the trumpet, and everyone knows that’s what all the “cool” people play.  I had the opportunity to work with John as he was learning to play, and we played together at church and at his grandmother’s funeral. He was asked to play a trumpet solo when his school band performed “Sweet Georgia Brown” which happened to be the exact same solo I played when I was in junior high.  I was proud of that kid!

I also worked closely with John when I was in college.  For my remedial reading class, I had to work with a student with reading difficulties.  I chose John.  John had been a struggling student pretty much all his life.  He was deaf until he was three, so his language development was delayed.  He was identified as having a Learning Disability, and was reading below grade level.

John never thought he was smart.  He never really stated it outright, but I could tell that he didn’t have a very high self-esteem.  But John was gifted in so many ways.  He was very mechanically inclined and artistic, as well.  (And boy did he have a sense of humor and a kind heart!)

I remember the modifications he made to his go-kart as a kid along with all the other contraptions he put together to get into some sort of mischief.  He was always drawing and sketching and his artwork was much better than anyone else’s I knew.  I remember his last Christmas with us- he effortlessly assembled my daughter’s Barbie castle without even looking at the directions.

While I may have taught John a few things about playing the trumpet and about reading in his short life, it will never compare to how much he changed me.

Displayed at his funeral, there were many “statues” that he had welded together from pieces of scrap metal.  John saw hidden beauty in this junk and had brought to life a cowboy, a dog, and several other humorous characters.  This young man died thinking he wasn’t good at much, when in reality he had so much to offer this world.

I can’t help but wonder if things would be different if his school experiences had built upon his strengths.  I realize the car accident wasn’t directly related to his self- image, but perhaps his path in life would have been different and he would not have ended up behind that log truck.

I realize that we can’t change the past and there is no point dwelling on it, but even if the accident were inevitable, it would make things seem a little better knowing that John realized his value while he was alive.

Now looking back, I realize John’s death wasn’t in vain. For me, it emphasized the importance of understanding the magnitude of our role as teachers.  Each one of the students we touch is a unique being with a purpose to fulfill in life.  Each student has a wealth of untapped ideas ready to be cultivated and used to benefit society.  We are often pressured into thinking about our students as a product moving down an assembly line and we must do our part in crafting this item into the pre-identified end product.  This is wrong.

And often, we don’t realize how detrimental this mentality can be.  I never realized it until John’s death.  Some individuals are fortunate to have teachers who recognize their value as an individual, who build upon their natural strengths. And many people have time after their “schooling” ends to explore their interests and realize they have something to contribute to this world. Society has been fortunate to reap the benefits of the contributions of those individuals who have had the opportunity to use their ideas for the betterment of others. John was beginning to do this, but his time was cut short.

We never know how long we, or any of our students, have on this Earth. If we aren’t careful, if we get too caught up in teaching and covering content, we may overlook the value within each of our students.

After John’s death, I made a vow to myself that I would do my part to help inspire teachers and students to see the value in themselves and those around them. I realize this blog isn’t much, but it is one small way to honor John. John changed me, and I plan to change the face of education for the students of tomorrow.

(This isn’t a bad goal for someone who is fat, ugly and has stinky feet!)

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X marks the spot: Where to Find Hidden Treasure

If you knew where a valuable treasure was buried, what would you do?

  • Start digging frantically, trying to uncover it.
  • Ignore it. Digging is a lot of work.
  • Bury it even deeper.

I believe most people would start digging frantically.  I know I would.  If you are independently wealthy and have no need for money, I could possibly see the logic in ignoring it, but who in their right mind would put forth the effort to bury it even deeper?

I am sure most would agree that heaping loads of additional dirt on buried treasure does absolutely no one any good. Digging is hard work, so I can see someone being willing to put in this hard work to get the reward of the treasure, but nobody in their right mind would put in this sweat equity for nothing.  And what about eventually accessing the treasure?  The deeper it is buried, the less likely it is that it will ever be uncovered.  And what good is a valuable treasure if it cannot be accessed and used?

The mind of every individual is filled with valuable treasure.  Every person has a unique set of strengths and talents.  Everyone has something to contribute to this world.

Young children are eager to discover and act on these innate talents.  At age two, my nephew started to sort his toy cars by color.  Nobody told him to do this, he naturally saw the patterns and wanted to create order.  My daughter has always enjoyed creating elaborate art projects.  While most four-year-old children are content to simply color a picture with crayons, my daughter would make 3-D pictures by making grass from crinkled strips of green construction paper and trimming white fur from her stuffed poodle to make puffy clouds.  I certainly have no knack for arts and crafts, so I know that this talent comes from within. Young children know that they enjoy something, realize that they are pretty good at it, so they act on it and it makes them happy.

Then these innocent eager learners enter school. And too often, instead of looking at each child as a mine of valuable resources, we focus on the content that we are supposed to put into each child’s mind.   Rather than helping each child brush away the extra dirt to reveal their inherent value for the world to see, with every shovelful of “knowledge” we dump into a child’s head, we bury that treasure deeper and deeper, making it harder and harder to find.

I sometimes wonder if we are really “educating” children or simply covering them with information so they can function “appropriately” in society.

I believe that deep down, teachers and parents want what’s best for their children.  They truly desire to see their children attain greatness.  But while our culture and way of life is changing so rapidly, our system of preparing students to function in this ever-changing environment has adapted very little.  We are entering an exciting innovative age, which requires a new way of approaching education.

Let’s change this view of “education” from shoveling knowledge to revealing and polishing the hidden treasure within each individual.  Only then will we see students reach their fullest potential.  Only then will we reap the benefits of this valuable treasure: the minds of our students.

So in the same spirit of William Butler Yeats as he stated, “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire,” I boldly state that education is not filling a hole, but revealing a hidden treasure.

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School: Friend or Foe?

Yesterday, I received an email from my principal sharing this inspirational story:  http://thelgroup.com/p_TheLetter/242.asp?v=play#video

The story of Anthony Robles, the one-legged wrestling champ, brought me to tears.  Like so many other inspirational stories, Anthony overcame a serious setback- being born with one leg- and ultimately achieved greatness.

In the video, a quote by Anthony’s mother is emphasized:

“Don’t let what you CAN’T do get in the way of what you CAN do.” 

Just about every teacher I know would nod their head in agreement, and proudly agree that this is their dream for all students.  But is it possible in schools today?

Society today has a tendency to focus on fixing what is broken, rather than celebrating what is good.  This same attitude is embedded within our schools.  I don’t believe it is intentional, but it is an unfortunate side-effect of using high stakes testing to evaluate the worth of teachers and students.

In our schools, much less time is spent developing and honing skills that students are naturally good at- the skills that are most likely to bring them enjoyment, satisfaction, and align with their future goals- while the majority of our time in school is spent trying to “fix” what is “wrong” with students- leading to frustration, resentment, and feelings of worthlessness.  I don’t know about you, but if this isn’t the ultimate example of letting what you can’t do get in the way of what you can do, I don’t know what is.

If Anthony’s mom would have focused on trying to get him to function as a two-legged individual, he would not have had the opportunity to develop into the wrestling champ that he has become.  If he focused on trying to repair the weakness in his lower body, instead of developing his naturally strong upper body, where would he be today?  Probably living life as an average individual who can generally function in society.  Or possibly worse- living life as a frustrated and hopeless individual who feels he has nothing to contribute to society.

I shudder to think of the wealth of resources that lay dormant inside the heads of frustrated, disenchanted, depressed students who have not had an opportunity to develop strengths because of the time required to “work on” weaknesses.  How much has our society been held back by our continuous focus on fixing what’s “wrong”?  What amazing contributions have we missed out on?

Alone, I don’t have the power to change the focus of our schools from weaknesses to strengths. And to be honest, I haven’t yet fully developed a tangible solution to accurately measure the success of students with such a wide variety of strengths, but I think about this often. I strive to be an example by building upon the strengths of the students I impact.  And I sincerely believe that I have made a difference with the few students I have been able to reach.  It is my dream that within my lifetime, our schools become places where we foster the strengths of each individual and capitalize on the value of our greatest resource- our students.

Do you think this is realistic?  What do you think is needed to shift the emphasis from weaknesses to strengths?

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