Thursday, February 13, 2014

It's a Culture Thing

The change began several years ago for me after reading a book by one of my favorite authors, Rafe Esquith. He spends a lot of time talking about teachers giving up as much time as possible to their students. He is a firm believer that schools would be better if teachers would increase the contact time they can give to their students. Have time during lunch? Start a book club. Have extra time after school? Start a guitar club. His theory is kids will learn better if they have more opportunities to practice the skill.

As a sports guy, I completely related to this statement. If I have a player who needs to get better at free throws, I have them shoot more from the line. If I have player that needs to improve their dribbling skills in soccer, I make sure they increase their touches on the ball. Have trouble turning a double play in baseball? You got it! We are spending extra time on that part of the game...

I immediately found time during my school day to take students: lunch time. My school is still a walking district where students can go home for lunch. As a result, we have one hour for lunch everyday. I decided this would be the time to use and increase my contact time with my students.

Since that day, I am proud to say, I have created a solid culture of learning in my classroom. I go down to the lunchroom Monday through Thursday to take a group up to my room. This group has been as small as two or three and as many as standing room only. The students come back to my room to work on redoes/retakes or to do corrections. The students have also used the time to retake quizzes or tests that they would like to show improvement on. Also, the students may need to get extra help on a topic. I have found this to be a great way to get to know the students outside of the classroom setting. This smaller setting provides an environment where some students are more likely to ask questions. It gives me an opportunity to see where they are going wrong and help them correct it.

I did not realize that my practice was getting noticed until my Superintendent pointed it out to me about a year ago. He informed me that he overheard Fifth Graders saying to their friends: "That will be me going up next year." That had a profound impact on me....

What if we all made decisions based on how it would impact learning? What if every decision by every teacher was centered on this very question? Would we all have the same classroom? NO! That's the beauty of what we do. We all would have different styles or techniques that we would use to get the most learning out of every student that entered our room. We would push ourselves to focus on what the students are learning instead of what we are teaching!

Whether you are a teacher that uses project-based activities or hands out worksheets, if you make every decision about creating a positive culture of learning, you will have a positive impact on your students. That kind of culture is contagious. Students want to be in that kind of environment. They crave for the classroom that invites them in and challenges them while they are there. Our students deserve that opportunity!

I think as educators we get so caught up in the latest "buzz-words" that we forget that the most important thing a student wants is a teacher that is excited to be in the same room as them. A teacher that gives 100 percent everyday. A teacher that works hard at creating an environment that focuses on learning and all the ups and downs that go along with that.

I am still looking at ways to improve as a teacher. I am constantly looking at changing my questioning skills, pacing or grading practices. But the one thing that will not change is the culture we have created in the classroom. I will not agree to anything that will disrupt this. My students, and myself as well, are better because of it.

What are you doing to create a positive culture of learning for your students? Please share your ideas/practices. I would love to hear what others are doing!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Feedback...Feedback, Please!

We all want to get better. We all want someone to help us figure out what we are doing incorrectly that is causing things to go wrong. The hope is being shown what we are doing wrong will lead us to make adjustments to improve that part of our craft. How often do we seek the advise from PLN members to assist us in areas from varying our questions during our lesson to implementing genius hour?

Feedback is defined as: "Information about reactions to a product, a perons's performance of a task, etc., used as a basis for improvement. Over the last several months, I have attempted to increase the amount of written feedback I provide my students on their work. I am replacing the grade with a short list of my thoughts throughout the assignment. I have the great members of #sblchat and #colchat to thank for this change in my practice.

I have a confession: I am a recovering "chronic grader". I used to grade everything students handed-in to me. At the end of "good" marking periods, I would have close to 45 grades for each student. I was spending a lot of free time grading assignments. I used to believe that was the best way to get students motivated. Slap a grade on it! There, that should make them happy.

I have learned over the last several months how wrong I was. I am getting students stopping by at lunch or after school to ask about comments I left on their papers. I have used this as an opportunity to ask more questions to see what the student was thinking. This simple change has given me a great chance to stop bad habits from repeating. Well, for most of them, anyway!

Here are some guidelines I have found to providing feedback:

1. Keep it short and simple. Make it a bullet list of about 2 or 3 things. Anymore, the students will not read them.

2. Be specific. Don't write: "improve your conclusion." Share details that they can use to create their own.

3. Don't do the work for them. Stop short of writing the conclusion for them. Do not solve the math problem for them. This would be easier, but the student does not learn anything. Other than, eventually, you will solve the problem for them.

4. It is time-sensitive. Students should not have to wait several days to receive the feedback. By then, they have either forgotten what they wrote or have continued long enough that now it is a bad habit. This will now take longer to "unlearn".

5. There must be one positive thing in the list. No one wants to constantly read a list of things they do not do well. Find at least one positive to help "wash down" the constructive feedback you are providing.

The list above is a compilation of things I have noticed over the last several months of implementing more feedback. But, do you want to know what must be in place prior to any of the above mentioned working? You must have a connection with the individual! I have found that students are much more receptive to digesting and using the feedback if it comes from someone they have a connection with. If you do not have the connection, you might as well talk to the wall.

This brings me to another confession: I missed the "connection boat" on a couple of my students. I could not figure out why they did not implement any of the strategies I wrote on their assignments. They just kept repeating the same mistake over and over. Finally, I asked if they even read what I wrote. They responded with a resounding, "NO!"

I could not figure out why. My feedback was helpful. It was short. I praised at least one thing they did well on the assignment. What didn't I take the time to do? I failed at making a connection with them. Since realizing this, I make it a point to engage them in conversations when I see them in the hall. I ask about the music they listen to. Find out what kind of movies they enjoy...

I am proud to say they are slowly using my feedback to improve their work. It is not all the time, but it is a start. I am happy with this. I am going to continue reaching out to them with the hope that over time, they will incorporate more of my feedback. Only time will tell...

Did I leave anything off of my Feedback List? Do you use any different methods or strategies to get students to use your feedback? I would love to add your suggestions to my list.