A Simple Smile

I love this tweet:

Honestly, I could not agree more.

I am really trying to make going to the gym a priority every morning, and some days, it is harder than the others.  There is never a day that I regret going to the gym. Ever.  But that being said, it is sometimes hard to get going and push yourself.  Every morning, when I check-in, I always say “good morning” and smile. A lot of times though, I am sometimes ignored or brushed off.  It is probably the worst way to start my workout.  Being there is tough and to really push yourself can be exhausting, not just physically, but mentally.  Someone’s demeanour towards you can really make an impact on your day.

Then I think of this in the context of school.  I have seen schools where educators walk right by a student without even acknowledging them, and every time that happens, it kills me inside.  We can’t say how important are students are to us, and then follow it up by not acknowledging them.  This is not just educators to students, but educators to educators as well.  And what message does that send to kids?  If we don’t acknowledge each other, what lessons do students take from that, and apply to their interactions with peers?  Learning is hard and sometimes exhausting, so every moment we can make a difference and school a welcoming place, we have to take.

School culture is not as complicated as we make it.  If we want people to get better, they have to know they are already valued.  If they don’t know that, good luck.  This is something so simple, but for some it still seems way too hard.  A smile can make someone’s day, can be infectious, and have a tremendous impact on school culture.

Questioning the Data

Proven methods of working with students are something that are important when working in schools, but there are a few things that I question when I hear schools talk about solely “data driven”.

First of all, nothing works for everyone. Nothing.  So when we look at “proven methods”, we are often looking at something that is more focused on the “system” than an individual, kids still get left behind.  We might get a better “grade” at the end as a system, but we are still failing kids.  If something worked for 100% of kids, we would all know it, and we would all do it.

Secondly, there are often so many things that are going on in school, how can we really compartmentalize the “one thing” that works?  For example, let’s say your school is focusing on the thoughtful use of technology in classroom, health and wellness, and improved assessment, and you see an increase in grades through the school.  Which initiative led to the increase or how much did anyone single initiative lead to whatever score you are looking for?  Unless you isolate something it is hard to tell what is successful.

This leads to another issue…what is the measure of success?  You may see an increase in test scores but kids might hate coming to school every day, because it is easy to teach to a test, while also killing a love of learning in our students.  You can also see that you can improve a score in anything if you put a massive focus on it. If you have a school or district focusing solely on “literacy scores”, leading to more hours focusing on traditional literacy (reading and writing) in the classroom, other things get lost in the shuffle.  Many organizations are looking for people who are creative, yet you see many programs in arts education that promote this creativity getting cut in search of “better test scores”.  So then what? When we focus on becoming great at one thing, something else usually gives.  So what is important and what isn’t?

But maybe I am way off with these thoughts.  I am not saying that data is not necessary, but more importantly, that we question how we got the data in the first place. I recently read a blog post titled, “The Lack of Evidence Based Practice; The Case of Classroom Technology“, where the author talks about how the use of technology has not increased “academic achievement”, and I would not argue this at all.  Adding technology to your schools often only makes your it “school plus computer”.  If you are not looking to change teaching and learning practice because of these technologies, obviously nothing will change.  But there is to more what is happening than any number can tell us, and that is why questioning the data in the first place is extremely important.  I also think there is a great irony that many school district statements “vision and mission statements” say very little about test scores, but when they measure if they are successful, that becomes the biggest driver.

So it is essential to find a balance.  We have to still look at “what works” from other places, and ask questions to dive deeper.  But we also have to still develop the “innovator’s mindset” in educators to encourage them  to develop new ideas that may help the kids in front of them right now.  If we wait for everything to be researched before we use it, we are going to lose a lot of kids.  Before something was researched, somebody tried it first with no data to support if it would be successful or not.  That is why relationships are so important in education.  Understanding who the learner is in front of you will often lead to creating new solutions for that child.  They don’t have the time for you to wait.

Data is important, but so is the ability to be adaptive and flexible.  We have to look at what works, what has worked, ask questions why it worked, but also look to create new and better opportunities for the students in front of us.  If we don’t look to people within the education system to be innovative, why would we expect kids leaving the system to do the same?

What do you want leaders to do with technology?

Recently in a workshop, I asked the group how many people thought Twitter was “stupid”, to which had seen several hands raised.  I followed up with the question, “How many of you think it is beneficial to learn from other teachers?” This has 100% of hands up in the air.  So, if we think that learning from other teachers is beneficial, and we can use Twitter to do that, it seems like a no-brainer.

This made me think about how so many people often focus on the technology (Twitter), not the aspect of learning from others, which is so much more important. The fact of the matter is, that many educators/administrators that are labeled as being “great with technology”, are maybe not as savvy as it may seem.

I asked a colleague if they thought they were really good with technology (they knew it was a trick question), so she didn’t know how to answer.  What I said is that many educators/administrators that are deemed as very tech savvy, are really not as good with the technology as we think.  Personally, I have a minimal amount of knowledge on coding (very minimum), and if I was to take apart a computer, I would have no idea how to put it back together.  I would however know that I could look it up on YouTube, but I am not sure when I would be in that situation.  I know how to Tweet, use Google Apps, blog, and do some other things, but so does a large portion of the population.  I know it is cliche to say, “it is not about the tool”, but it isn’t; It is about something much more.

The way I look at it, is that it is more about using some of these simple technologies, to do powerful things.

Serendipitously, as I tried to put these thoughts into my head, someone shared this graphic from Bill Ferriter on, “What do you want kids to do with technology?.  I then thought, what is it that we want leaders to do with technology, and based on Bill’s original idea, I put down my own thoughts:

What do you want leaders to do with technology

This post is not about measuring one’s ability with technology if they are able to use Twitter or write a blog post.  It is about something much deeper.  If the purposeful use of technology can enhance or accelerate those ideas above, shouldn’t more leaders look at how these tools can be used in their own practice?

They Will Follow Your Lead

When I first started to teach, coaching basketball was everything to me. I played basketball since I was in grade 4, and to be able to still be a part of the game was an amazing opportunity. Watching years and years of the NBA, the rivalries between legends like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and some new guy named Michael Jordan, I would try to mimic their plays on their court, into my own style. I wasn’t even in close, but like every kid that played basketball at that time, I wanted to “be like Mike”.

Transitioning into coaching, I followed the same script. Imitate NBA players when you play; imitate NBA coaches when you coach. It seemed pretty easy. I would watch countless games in the pros, and try to draw up similar plays that I would see in games and we would call them “Bulls” or “Lakers”, so everyone knew what we were running. It wasn’t only the “x’s and o’s” of the game, but it was also the interactions these coaches had with referees. They yelled, I yelled. If you wanted to get the attention of the ref, best thing to do is start screaming across the court at them. That’s what I saw. That’s what I did.

One game, while in my first year of teaching and coaching, I remember constantly yelling at a ref who I felt had made a bad call, and my players totally agreed, so they joined in. I called a timeout, and the ref came over to talk to me, and what he said changed me forever.

“No matter if you are kind or a jerk, these kids will look up to you and follow your lead. What direction do you want to lead them in?”

That was the last time I ever yelled at a ref. Would I talk to them or challenge their calls? Absolutely. But it was always in a manner that was respectful.

This does not only translate to the coaching ranks, but the way we teach as well. If we model that we struggle with any type of change, or hate being flexible, what do we think our students will become? If we don’t try to push ourselves and think of innovative ways about our teaching and learning, why would students be any different?

I could not thank that referee enough for that moment. He could of yelled at me, thrown me out of the game, or ignored me, but he saw someone just starting off in their career, and made it into a teachable moment. Those words stick with me to this day.

Twitter Equals Growth Mindset?

There is a lot of talk in education about Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset”, in which she discusses the idea that beliefs that “abilities, intelligence, and talents can be developed.” It is an idea that educators have latched on to (for good reason) since this is not something we want to only be able to develop in students, but in ourselves as well, in a world that is constantly changing.  I have even tried to even further this conversation talking about the notion of the “innovator’s mindset” in which this growth leads to the creation of new and better ideas.  With new knowledge, it is important to not only be open to it, but to take it and move forward with it.

This could be something to applied the idea of educators using Twitter.  The “growth mindset” is the openness to learning about the medium, but the idea of the “innovator’s mindset” leads to people creating hashtags to share things that are happening in their classroom, or using it to connect with educators that teach the same discipline as they do.  With the Twitter now implementing video in the service, it will be something that people will not only be open to learn, but I am sure will do interesting and new things with.  With new technologies, people not only learn how to use them, but they repurpose them to create new and better ideas.  It is probably one of the reasons why Twitter moved from the idea of “what are you doing”, to “what’s happening” in the update box.  People were not solely focused on sharing their own personal updates, but started sharing news from their viewpoints, and created movements moving forward.  Twitter became what it is today because of people’s willingness to not only use it, but to further it with ideas that I am assuming the developers could have never imagined.  Our openness to learn and to develop new ideas because of this development was crucial in this process, as with so many other technologies.

Recently though, I read a post by Tom Whitby and was intrigued about the following quote:

Without a mindset for continually learning, or a limited view on what one is willing to learn, it will be difficult to change the status quo in education. Connecting with others may be a great idea that we all agree will make a difference in education, but what good does that do us, if a majority of educators are only comfortable doing what it is they have always done. Of course, it should go without saying that if staying within those comfort zones worked, we would not be having a global discussion on needed reforms for education.

In order to create these much-needed Personalized Learning Networks educators will need to learn about social media and its culture. The ins and outs of Twitter would be the most efficient and effective way to share what is needed for educators. This however takes some time to learn, and it also takes a commitment of at least 20 minutes a day interacting with connected colleagues for anyone to benefit from this. The benefits far outweigh the time and work involved, but the fact of the matter is that not every educator has a growth mindset. Not every educator shows a willingness to leave those zones of comfort. For those reasons Twitter will never connect all educators. The shame of it is that Twitter is probably the best way to share and learn available to us now.

What threw me off when reading this is the idea that it somewhat equated the idea that if you are on Twitter you have a “growth mindset”, and if you aren’t, you don’t, and you are not willing to grow.  This could be lumped into the same area of making statements such as “you are a bad teacher if you use worksheets”; it may spark thought but it could also alienate some really great teachers.

Here is a couple of things on the idea that you have a “growth mindset” if you use Twitter.  First of all, I don’t really believe that the idea people have a “growth mindset” in all areas at all times.  If you took my own viewpoints, with many things in education, I am very open to learning about them and applying them to my own work, but if you took the idea of skiing, my mindset is very fixed.  I have no interest in learning or having the growth mindset towards flying down a hill in snow in freezing Canadian temperatures, all the while so many people tell me how amazing it is. You do not have either a “fixed” or “growth” mindset; you have either a “fixed” or “growth” mindset on certain things, and for most educators.

This is not just outside the idea of education as well, but well within in.  I have challenged people on the ideas of awards for students, and from some of my conversations, some educators have no interest in thinking differently about the process no matter what is presented to them.  It is not about a right and wrong in the process, but more the idea of  “I am good with what we are doing at this present time”.  I used to feel the same way about Edcamp; I did not really understand the appeal of the process and thought it seemingly was a waste of time, even though so many people said the exact opposite.  Having gone to it at one point, I saw how powerful it could be and my mindset towards it moved from a very “fixed” one to an “open”.  On Google Plus I have a pretty “fixed” mindset at this point.  Do I know it can be powerful? Absolutely.  Do I care about learning more about it at this point? Nope. I spend enough time using the social networks that I am currently on that I do not have time to add something that is probably great, but in many ways similar to what I am using.

It is not an “either/or” process, but something that can develop over time.  Some educators were totally “fixed” on the idea of using Twitter at one point, but at some point they had a “growth” mindset that was sparked to try the service.  To get people to that point, it rarely is achieved with a hard push, but often more of an understanding of where they are, and putting them in a place where they can make their own connections.  I think that people are sometimes reluctant to change, but I also think that we can be equally terrible of helping move people to change.

The other notion from the article is the idea that if you are an educators that is on Twitter you have a growth mindset.  There are many educators that actively use Twitter, went through the process of learning it, yet aren’t necessarily open to new ideas, or ideas out of their usual circle that they may connect with.

Not being on Twitter doesn’t mean that you have a fixed mindset, any more than being active on Twitter means that you have a growth mindset.

Learning is a very personal thing, and sometimes we aren’t open to things not because we aren’t open to them, but because we just aren’t ready to take that leap at this certain point.  I would say the majority of educators that are actively using Twitter to share ideas on education, were at one point against the idea of using it.  Learning can be very circumstantial, and sometimes we just aren’t ready for new ideas, no matter how good they might seem.  If we are never open to new ideas, that is a problem, but some of the best educators that I know display a “growth mindset” in so many areas, yet do not use or care to use Twitter.  They still make a major difference for kids and we have to recognize it.

There are many great reasons why we should try new things, but if we (educators) are not open to one thing, it is not about simply lumping people into one category or another, but understanding there is always more to the picture than we might be able to see.  If we really want people to be open to change, I think it is essential that we focus on what they are great at first, as opposed to where they are deficient.  Showing someone that they are valued for what they already do, is important in the process of learning as it builds both confidence and competence, and if we are going to really embrace a “growth mindset” where we are willing to take risks, that feeling of safety with our peers is essential.

School Culture and Mental Health #BellLetsTalk

The #BellLetsTalk hashtag has been a great initiative to not only raise money for mental health initiatives in Canada, but to promote conversations about the topic amongst individuals.  Our understanding of mental health has come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

Today, I am working with a group on how we can help improve mental health of our world through our schools.  My caution to the group is that we have to be really weary of creating another initiative that eventually causes more work and anxiety for teachers, but to think about how to do things differently.  It is not about doing more, but doing things different and better.

Simply though. school culture is huge in mental wellness and there are a lot of things school can do that are not “programs” but just become a part of our every day world in schools.

Here are some ideas that I think are crucial to not only improving mental health, but to also promoting creativity and innovation in schools.  The more comfortable I feel in my environment, the better I will do.

  • If you are a principal, start every morning welcoming kids at the front of the school.  If you are a teacher, welcome kids when they come to their class.
  • Never pass a student or an adult in a hallway without acknowledging them in some way.  Every person in that school is important and should be treated accordingly.
  • See supervision as not “more work”, but an opportunity to get to know students that aren’t in your classroom.  We need “school teachers” not “classroom teachers”.
  • Invest time in conversations with kids that have nothing to do with school.  10 minutes showing you care about another human being will often lead to them moving mountains.
  • Focus on strengths, not weaknesses.  People will always get better when they know they are valued first.
  • If a student is having an issue, sending them to another adult tells them that a) you don’t value them enough to spend the time with them or b) you are not able to deal with it.  Severing this relationship has a long term impact.
  • Laugh and have fun.  It is contagious.

Think about this practice…if your boss walks into your classroom, do you get out of your desk to greet them? If you do, is it because you consider them important?  We should treat kids with the same response.  Every person that walks into a school should feel that they are highly valued.

If we are wanting to improve mental health in schools, we can make a huge impact by treating school as a place of, as Dean Shareski would say, a place of joy.  If people want to be there and are happy, comfortable, and feel safe, schools will move a lot further than if these things were absent.

As Rita Pierson stated, “every kid needs a champion.” So does every adult.

The Worksheet Conversation

I was having a conversation with a teacher the other day, that does some very innovative things in the classrooms and is a master of relationships with students. She does amazing things, and by the end of the year, kids are better for having her as their teacher.

One comment she made to me, really made me think about some of the things that we say in education. She had said that sometimes she will give students a worksheet, because sometimes that is what works for students. Although she does this, she feels guilty because so many people talk about how you should never use “worksheets” with a student, but sometimes in her class, she feels that is what is sometimes needed.

Personally, I have talked about worksheets in the classroom, and I would say that I used to speak in absolutes, but now I say that once in awhile, if a teacher deems that it is beneficial, there is nothing wrong with a worksheet. If using worksheets is a consistent practice though, that is an entirely different story. I have actually had some parents say to me that it this practice is sometimes beneficial to their child because of the structure that it provides.  Their voice matters.

If you think about it, how many amazing teachers do you know that have used worksheets in their practice? I know many. My fear is that when we make statements that are absolutes, we marginalize a lot of great teachers in the process. It is important that we always question our practice, but it is also important to understand that if a teacher is really great, they should know their students better than anyone, and that based on those relationships, they make decisions on how to best serve those students.

There is not one thing that works for every community and for every child. Even a totally “innovative” practice that becomes “standardized” for every student, all of the time, does not serve all students. Standardization is standardization. Choice and variety is essential. Some things that work for us, might not work for our students, and vice versa. Although we need to challenge what school looks like, we also have to trust that there are many teachers that are doing a variety of things to ensure that students are successful.

Could that sometimes be in the form of a worksheet?

Questions to Challenge Practice

Recently in a workshop, I told participants that I was about to ask a question that might bother some of them. Then I asked the question, “in school today, what do you think is more important to teach today; how to write an essay or how to write a blog?” I told them that this was meant to challenge them a bit, and that, if you really think about it, is it more likely that a student writes a blog after school or an essay?  Some people were visibly bothered by the question.  That was kind of the point.

One teacher started to challenge the question, and said, “part of my job, is to prepare kids for their next step, and many of them will have to write an essay in post-secondary.” She then told me that the majority of her students were probably going to go to university and writing a proper essay is crucial.

I then asked, “what if you were teaching students that weren’t likely to go to university; would the answer change?” You could see that she was thinking about if the answer would change. We then talked about the idea of writing an essay and sharing it through a blog. Would a student writing for more than a teacher, but for an audience, improve the quality of work?

Ultimately, I don’t have a position on the question. I never did. Different students will need different things, and writing a blog post and an essay could be helpful with different aspects of learning, and a combination of both could also be powerful. The more a student writes, the better they will become at writing.

The point of the question was not to get an answer. The point of the question was to think about why we do what we do. If you have students write essays because students have always written essays, that is not a good answer. It has to go deeper than that.

The more questions we ask to really think about what we do in education, the better off we are. What would your question be?

A Fine Balance

I was sitting in Starbucks, listening to music, and reading blogs, when I came upon Amber Teamann’s post titled, “Collaboration…who doesn’t have time?”  I thought about her post, and linked it to my own thoughts on collaboration, and honestly, sometimes our over-emphasis on collaboration in schools. We tend to swing from one extreme to another in education, and I think about my own experience in the profession.

As I have become older, I have become more of an introvert, and my time sitting in a coffee shop, with headphones on, NOT talking to anybody has become pretty important to my development as a learner.  Many schools have adopted “common planning time”, with the idea that it is beneficial to work in teams to learn from one another while also ensuring that we work together to create the best learning opportunities for our students, shifting away from “prep” time alone.  In my opinion, a balance is important.  I need time bouncing ideas off of people and having conversations, but it is so necessary for me to make my own connections to my learning.  If you think about a teacher’s work, you are spending the majority of your time with students, then on the times, you are in meetings or professional learning with others. Where do we have built in time for reflection, connecting, or processing, which are so crucial to our learning?  If we don’t build that in to our own professional time, why would we build it into our classroom time?

Years ago, I heard of a school that actually had two hours a month on a professional learning day where you were NOT allowed to talk to anyone else on staff. No conversations, no phone calls, no emails.  You were on your own.  Some people might hate the idea, but in a time where our lives are seemingly becoming faster, the idea of slowing down seems kind of nice.

I spent the weekend with a friend and he was talking to his son about his “quiet” time later in the day.  It wasn’t a time for a nap (necessarily), but just about having some time to be on his own, for his development, not just for the sake of being alone.  It really got me thinking about our time as professionals,  Would slowing down, having some time to process, connect and reflect on our own be as crucial as collaboration for our growth?  Is that time built into our school year?  I think in an “always on” world, the opportunity to just be on your own for some time is crucial.

8 Things To Look For in Today’s Classroom (Visual)

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post on “8 Things To Look For in Today’s Classroom”, and it has been something that has helped my own learning, and hopefully others as well.

Sylvia Duckworth, who has been recently putting together a great series of visuals on different articles, made one specifically on the “8 Things” post.  Check it out below.