Sunday, February 24, 2013

Top 3 Issues Impacting Students of Today

Yesterday I came across a challenge by Marty Stevens (@martylstevens) encouraging educators to personally identify the issues they believe to be impacting students the most. For me, the following 3 issues quickly came to mind:

1. An Increased Need for Social/Emotional Development

The students in our classrooms today need us in different ways than the generations of the past. The times have changed dramatically, and our current world requires an increase in skills that support effective relations and acceptance of diverse perspectives. Our students need us to not only strengthen and support their minds, but their hearts as well. Unless we are reaching our learners through relationships we will not reach them academically. We must first work to establish safe learning environments for our students, ones in which they feel supported to take risks. This begins with positive interactions among the entire classroom community, as well as the school culture as a whole. A safe environment, through, is not created through a laborious list of rules and expectations, but rather through the development of social skills that support the affective domain of our learners. Intentional lessons and activities must be infused into our classrooms daily to support social and emotional growth. Listening intently to student voice will also prove to be valuable as community expectations are discussed. When this foundation is in place our learners will then, and only then, thrive academically.

2. Insufficient Resources within Education Today

Educational funding is very limited these days. We have experienced an insane amount of cuts especially over the past 5 years. These cuts have not just affected teachers' salaries and benefits, but also the supplies and tools we can put in the hands of students. And I am not necessarily even referring to large scale curriculum adoptions, but rather genuine resources our students need access to regularly (updated technology, a variety of literature, field trips, supplies to support the Arts, manipulatives that enhance science and math explorations, etc.). These are the resources that provide our students more opportunities for genuine learning experiences and direct connections to the real-world. These are also the resources that allow the basic skills or reading, writing, and math to be authenticated and solidified. And most importantly these resources support teachers in helping students achieve true retention and master relevant skills.

Stripping the educational budget of professional development monies allotted to school districts has also dynamically impacted students. The advancement of technology and the skills required in this era have outpaced teacher development. A large gap now exists between what students need in a learning environment and what teachers are able to naturally provide. Teachers need time to collaborate in order to learn and grow and meet the students' needs in the classrooms of today. Frequent (inexpensive) professional development opportunities must exist in order for teachers to advance with the rate the changes of today are requiring, otherwise the gap will just continue to widen.

3. Learning Environments that Meet the Needs of this Generation

Our students are facing an unknown future; that much we know. However, some of the materials, skills/strategies, and curriculum existing within the classrooms of today are equipped for the generations of the past. Traditional practices were not developed to meet the needs of the learners of today. They were developed during different times to prepare students for a different future. Our students struggle with engagement within environments that is so extremely different than the world they know. They are acquainted with the technological advances, the momentum of the world, the desire to connect and collaborate with people frequently, the need to question in order to learn, and the aspirations that are building inside them as they recognize the possibilities the world has to offer. It is our current responsibility to teach students, in this innovative generation, to think critically, create, communicate, and collaborate with the people of the world. We must recognize these as essentials and find a way to ensure that our learning environments foster these skills so students are prepared for success as they approach their future.

These are 3 issues that constantly weigh on my mind as an educator. What about the issues that weigh on the minds of our students? As Marty also mentioned, maybe we should be asking students to identify 3 issues that impact them. I think the answers to this question would prove to be of value. Ann and I will definitely be infusing this question into a Brain Breakfast this upcoming week. I am very curious to find out if their perspectives will overlap at all with mine... I absolutely look forward to listening to their collective voice.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Learning from Their Perspective

Everyday Ann and I learn with our students. 
Sometimes they bring new ideas to the table.  This week they suggested graphing the improvement of our community behavior, while setting personal goals based on the data, in an effort to positively affect the synergy in the classroom (totally working).  Sometimes they provide evidence to support our thinking.  Conversations this week about emotions and colors confirmed how daily infusion of the Arts has passionately impacted authentic connections (totally amazing).  Sometimes they motivate our daily plan.  Our one-on-one conferences have shown us how much they truly love to read and share their love of books (totally heart-warming).  Sometimes we are just purely inspired.  An individual student taught us how to celebrate relationships through personalizing Valentine’s Day cards to us in a unique, artistic way (totally impressive).  These are the instances we treasure because they truly provide the “AH-HA” moments we need to propel ourselves forward, with our own personal goals and the goals we have for our students and program.  Their voice always shows us another way, another thought, a different perspective.
But how often do we learn FROM their perspective?  How many times do we sit with them, at their angle, to attack the same task we have asked them to accomplish?  Do we solve the same problems, ponder the same question, or attempt the same challenge? 
Ann and I are advocates for listening to student voice and empowering them during the learning process.  Their thinking always pushes us to reflect more deeply about our practice, lesson scope, and projected journey.  When we look at a task or question through their lens we can view it for what it really is and analyze the relevancy of its existence in our learning environment.  This year we have raised the bar for ourselves and look for every opportunity to join them in learning moments.
For instance, I posed a multiplication problem recently in math (stretching students into thinking about a new operation, decimals, and money- also a little formative moment for Ann and me).  Many students came to the answer quickly, but only solved it one way.  But then I asked them to think more deeply and work with their partner to solve the problem using 3 different strategies.  I did receive many googol-eyes due to the fact that we were entering new territory.  I gave them a hint that they needed to consider multiplication the “cousin” of addition.  The googol-eyes turned to twinkles, and the conversations unfolded.  Students worked for 10 minutes with high-engagement, and I decided to take the opportunity to figure out how many ways I could solve the problem.  I absolutely love math and truly enjoyed the time to play with the possibilities.  The benefit of permitting myself the time to do this, while joining in on conversations around me, allowed my thinking to become even more flexible to new ideas and strategies I had not considered.  I was inspired by the strategies the students had discovered through this process, and after 10 minutes students had recorded more than ten examples on the whiteboard for all of us to ponder.  This moment proved incredibly more powerful and impacting than if I had showed them 5 traditionally great ways and gave them time to practice. 
Other times if Ann and I sit WITH our students AS students, in a moment of full-on engagement, we can assess from a different perspective.  By becoming students ourselves, we have the opportunity to hear different conversations.  Those “insider” conversations that unfold naturally with their peers during the learning process can only be captured from the angle of sitting amongst the group, rather than over the group.  We gather our own supplies and thinking, and we participate as an equal learner in the moment.  And often we joke with them, “Don’t bug us, we’re learning!”
One day I was sitting amongst a table of 5 other students participating in a science experimentation process, led by Ann.  Our focus was on variables, along with the scientific process.  I was enthralled by the conversation of the other learners in my group, but was also captivated by the discoveries at the table groups near us.  The learning going on all around me was priceless, AND I also was having my own pivotal moments of learning during the inquiry process.  I even announced to my group at one point, “Seriously!  I wish I could come to this classroom everyday as a learner!”  One of the other students looked at me perplexed and stated, “Uh, you do.”  A complete DUH moment for me, as she was absolutely right.  Ann and I ARE the learners we expect our students to be every day.  We bring nothing less into the classroom.  It was then that I realized the students had not thought it was bizarre that I had sat amongst them as a LEARNER during that lesson, because that is how they view us in our classroom. 
Most recently, Ann and I both joined them during art time, creating our own watercolor paintings [see mine above; I learned specific strokes to add texture to a watercolor, expressing emotion through color…very exciting for me!].   No one was shocked...except maybe the visitors in our room J.  For us and our students, it was business as usual.  Occasionally we bantered back and forth to one another, shushed the group when our favorite songs came on our classroom playlist, and joined in conversations about the techniques being used by the artists at our tables.  Learning should be fun, sometimes unruly, but always focused.  Our students often do not need us to manage them during this time, in fact they prefer we step out of their way.  Or even more, they thrive off of occasions when we put our “learner hats” on and join them in the moment.
We live by the motto that if we do our jobs right, they won’t need us to manage them, provide them resources, or confirm their thinking.  As self-managers, resourceful learners, and confident thinkers genuine learning for them can occur.  We love the days when the classroom runs like a well-oiled, flexible machine in true synergetic motion.  These are the days when marvelous, awe-inspiring moments occur;  when we stretch our arms up and yell, “Hizzah!”
So our advice based on our lessons learned this year?  Become one of them.  Take the time to learn from their perspective.  Listen to the valuable dialogue that unfolds.  Interact from the learner’s level of conversation.  Share your own ideas and cooperate as an equal participant in the learning process. 
There is always more to learn about a topic, or a new perspective to discover, when you allow yourself the freedom to let go and allow the students to be the teachers.  They will lead to down a powerful learning journey.  And it will be so worth it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Aspects of Whole Child Classrooms

Image found here.

I am very excited to share that this past week Aspects of Whole Child Classrooms posted on ASCD's Whole Child Blog. This post was written to support the mindset that is necessary while facing the challenging changes within education, along with the needs of our current generation of learners.  As I considered the other posts I have written for the Whole Child Blog (along with a collaborative post by Ann and I), I was reminded of the educational practices that have made a positive difference with our students.  It has been so important to us to design a multiage learning environment that allows us to meet the social, emotional, and academic needs of our learners, but also one that assists us in embracing the change agents we continually face in an unknown future.  Ann and I have found these aspects to allow us to keep an open-mind when change comes our way, while also allowing us to keep the needs of our students first and foremost in our minds. 

The aspects of whole child classrooms, as outlined in the blog post, include:
  • Character Development
  • Collaborative Environment
  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • Reflective Practice
  • Inspiration Focus
  • Emerging-Infused Curriculum
  • Personalized Instruction
Each of these have grown to become near and dear to our hearts.  We appreciate and value how each have dynamically shifted our mindset to focus on the whole child.  Our students continue to amaze us each and everyday with their thinking and insight, along with their empathy towards others.  This supportive group of learners thrive off of these essential components of our classroom.

Which of these aspects have you found to be imperative in supporting the needs of your students?  What other aspects do you feel are missing from this list?  What other educational practices support you in designing a classroom that advocates for the current generation of learners and the future they will face?  We would love to hear your feedback!


Sunday, February 10, 2013


"My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company." ~Jane Austen

Conversations are essential for growth to occur.

Whether they take place through a means of collaboration, discussions with individuals, or self-reflective processes, conversations offer opportunities to discover new ideas and perspectives. They also open doors to deeper understanding of concepts. Each allow for moments of self-discovery and trajectories of forward movement.

Taking every opportunity to engage in frequent conversations is a quality of a life-long learner. Those who seek deeper understanding and a variety of perspectives gain a wider lens in which to view a situation or accomplish a goal. They also provide themselves with the possibility of exponential growth.

One must be an integral part of the conversation, though, to reap benefits. Bystanders profit minimally and offer very little to other participants. Every member present should encourage the equal participation of all, as true learning will occur from valuing all perspectives.

Choosing to participate whole-heartedly in discussions breaks down barriers and clears up misconceptions. Assumptions are limited when all perspectives are shared, questions are asked and answered, and open-minds are present. Individuals should provide evidence to support their stance, but also listen intently to other viewpoints. Progress toward goals can only be achieved when all perspectives are considered.

It does take courage and trust for authentic conversations to occur. Counting on one another to bring experiences, knowledge, and resources to the table is a first step. Dialogue can then move forward efficiently when common goals are understood. Participating with positive energy keeps a conversation in motion. Considering various standpoints, while valuing evidence, builds momentum. Demonstration of appreciation is necessary to keep people energetic and committed to conversations. Finally, identifying solutions/progress regarding goals strengthens future conversations and collaborative relationships.

It takes the minds of many to make amazing things occur. Change is not an individual process, but rather a collegial effort to make things happen. The support of one another causes dynamic shifts when we align our practice, share our knowledge, and create common goals. Let the conversations begin.