Bathroom or bust (literally)

At an Illinois high school, students are being asked to make up for lost instructional time when they use bathroom breaks excessively, by serving time after school. A detention. I can’t imagine making such a big deal about this with students, for the following reasons:

1. Students will ‘hold it’ when great things are happening in the classroom.

Certainly, no teacher wants to compete with Angry Birds for attention. However, if we provide great classroom experiences, there’s a major decline in bathroom breaks and “inappropriate use of technology” (cell phones). It’s a barometer for the success of your teaching: lots of pit stops is a great indicator that instruction could improve.

2. Save “political capital” for the rare and truly important situations.

There are rare times when things boiling over in your classroom – anger explodes between students, or your plans blow up in your face, etc. In these times, you need to be able to say

“I don’t have time to explain myself, and you probably won’t like what I’m about to ask you to do, and I’m sorry. Will you support me anyway?”. If you’ve shown respect to your students, and you’ve earned their trust – they will support you.

If you are fighting daily battles with students about something as trivial as bathroom breaks, you won’t have enough respect in the “interpersonal bank account”.

3. Most importantly, if you EVER wrongly accuse a student of abusing bathroom privileges:

If this happens, you have personally failed that individual student, and broken trust with all your students for years to come.

You will have mentally abused that student to some degree. You have asserted your authority over someone else, and that person may model this same behavior when they are in position of power at some point in the future. Whatever embarrassment happens for this student will never be forgotten.

Your reputation as an unreasonable person will quickly spread to students in your other classes. They won’t want to trust you or your judgment in the future. Younger brothers and sisters of current students will hear of your reputation and may hold it against you.

Thoughts on handling excessive bathroom use:

  1. If a student is constantly leaving for the bathroom, just do a GENERAL “check in” with them – not mentioning the bathroom use. “Hey, I don’t want to pry, but I’ve noticed you’ve seemed less interested in class activities lately. Is everything going OK at home and in your other classes?”. It seems like 80% of the time, this question gives me some context as to why class isn’t the top priority at the moment.
  2. If a student asks to go in the middle of class, suggest they wait for 3 minutes, because you’re about to transition to something else. This may cause the distracted student to ‘forget’ they needed to go.
  3. If a student approaches you one on one, say something like “Oh, can it wait?” If they say it can’t, you can really insist that they go. If it WASN’T urgent, you’ve appealed to their higher nature and shown respect. If it WAS urgent, you’ve built some trust with that student, and people don’t like to lose someone’s trust.
Please share your own comments – what do you think about the bathroom issue? Do you have strategies or troubles of your own?
-Phil

Protecting the STEM reputation

Some high security science and engineering jobs in the US require that the people in those positions are US born. Whether you feel this is good policy or not, the reality is that fewer students qualify for these positions.

As a result, the Department of Education and leading organizations like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are all investing heavily in STEM education. Bills proposed to revise No Child Left Behind are also including language in support of STEM.

People are promoting their solutions as STEM-related that have nothing to do with a truly integrated environment. As a result of this dilution, the STEM process can seem unhelpful and disorganized.

The blog EducationNews, a new segment appearing on Sesame Street is said to have STEM content. On closer inspection, the Grover 2.0 segments are good exercises in observation of simple machines and phenomenon occurring with magnets. Observation skills are certainly important, but exercising those skills isn’t the same as a meaningful integration of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Using the STEM acronym too liberally will turn it into a meaningless phrase, and can give good education a bad name.

Defining True STEM Education

Our schools have evolved to teach these skills in artificially separate subjects, like Chemistry, OR Math, OR Engineering design. Then, we anticipate that students will combine these skills later in their career to solve a problem.

True STEM teaching occurs when students are taught to use the combination of many skills to solve a tangible problem.

Creating a classroom environment that is designed to authentically pull these skills together is very challenging, and requires a teacher to have an understanding of a wider range of content in real ways. When teachers look for support in implementing STEM education, we will waste too much time finding the true STEM experiences if they are grouped together with other loosely related resources.

It’s important for those of us who believe in STEM education to routinely describe it accurately to others, and set a high bar for our own efforts of integration. The STEM moniker doesn’t mean the same thing to every person, and I’m afraid that people will lose hope that integrating subjects is a valid pedagogy because it’s so watered-down.

Developing a suite of teacher tools

Stephen Anderson compiled a collection of how teachers are learning to use Twitter to help start conversations that support better teaching. He writes that Twitter is helpful for advice or ideas, but not a good tool for sharing classroom resources. Trying to put all our tricks into one giant bag can be time consuming. We can now use 3 bags for 3 different kinds of tricks:

  • Advice on improving the classroom design, relationships (student, parent, admin)
  • A collection of cutting edge classroom activities AND all the classic activities
  • Tools and support for our students during out of class learning or if you’re implementing a flipped classroom.

Advice on improving the classroom design and relationships:

As Stephen’s article discusses, this is a natural fit for Twitter. This is more effective than listservs, because it doesn’t clog your inbox. It can be used like a cocktail hour with teachers. A major difference is that you get to invite only your most inspirational teachers! You have access to teachers from around the world and mentors that might normally be busy writing books or teaching seminars.

Collection of cutting edge classroom activities

Edufy was designed to solve this problem. This is more effective finding links to multiple websites or meeting once a year to share best activities at a conference. Edufy provides activities that fit, not lesson plans that don’t. Use checkboxes to customize any activity. Comments and voting on activities let you know if your peers consider it to be quality content. No documents to download or links to follow.

Tools and support for our students:

Websites that share files like nyscienceteacher, videos at Khan Academy, or interactives at Howard Hughs Medical Institute are a great way for students to experience concepts in new ways, or to get additional materials for review. These are better options than having a student flounder at home with homework, emailing files back and forth, and certainly higher quality than anything we would be creating on our own.

Do you have other tools that you use that give you access to support in a specialized way? What are your experiences with the tools I’ve listed?

Reading vs Literacy

The Written Word

Vicki Davis from Cool Cat Teacher Blog recently wrote about some of the challenges that learners have when starting to read. Her story outlines the research available to help people learn how to read, and the success she has had with these strategies.

I hope to extend her message in two ways: 1) to broaden the definition of ‘literacy’ and 2) emphasize the need to try different approaches.

‘Literate’ vs ‘Can read’:

The ability to read is essential, and without the development of written communication, we wouldn’t have mp3 players. However, I prefer the following definition from AECT.ORG:

“literate: one’s ability to extract information from coded messages and to express ideas, feelings, and thoughts through them in accepted ways.”

We must be able to understand others, and communicate to others in the most effective ways possible. It’s not enough be able to read and write.

The innovations in free media allow reading to be part of a much more effective suite of tools to communicate. Students should be encouraged to explore the vast libraries of free audiobooks and podcasts as a way to learn. They must be practiced in using images and video to convey meaning to others.

It’s exciting to have so many ways to get students excited about learning without needing to rely on the written word. This opens the doors to many more students with various strengths and weaknesses.

Different approaches to help students learn:

Different Sizes

Vicki Davis highlights the effective reading strategies that are also effective teaching strategies.

As the global community of educators continues to freely share ideas and high quality resources for educating others, we are finally starting to have the ability to say to students “If the size and shape of the learning I’m giving you doesn’t fit you, I have many more in the back room (internet) that will also work.”

We are in an age where a student could learn from any teacher around the world. A teacher doesn’t need to possess the skills to create fresh approaches from scratch.

We are starting to become guides to our students, and helping navigate the masses of approaches that are possible. Shelley Wright is implementing the flipped classroom, and many of her students prefer listening to learn, so why not find something to help them? We can present our students with existing approaches that will best fit their specific set of strengths and challenges. We can help students become literate in their own way, in their own unique style.

When to copy and when to create

I’m a big fan of working together and sharing ideas with colleagues. I’m also a big fan of blazing your own trail as frequently as you can. When teaching, this is no different. You’d be a fool to ignore the glorious ideas shared freely by leaders in education, and it’s also good to leverage the paid-for resources as well as you can for their methods. However, spending time creating your own ideas is very valuable and promotes deeper understanding. But when should we copy from someone else, and when should we create from scratch?

Chris Lehmann recently discussed the challenges that communities of teachers face at his school, like standards and standards reports, senior projects, etc. The additional challenge is that there’s limited time available for teachers to come together to solve those problems.

It’s a tribute to Chris’s leadership that he makes time for these conversations. I would argue that it’s too common that other districts can’t or don’t make the time. I would also argue that the challenges faced at SLA are foundational and similar to what’s happening at some other schools. I hope that we are all actively “sharing out” the learnings and “aha” moments, because it may work for someone else.

I follow Dan Meyer’s blog– a math man from California. Part of his premise is to “be less helpful” to students – let them explore real life problems and don’t give students a formula that “will solve the problem if you just figure out where to put it.”

There are some discussions in the comment sections that teachers can’t really share ideas with others without falling into the trap “being less helpful” with TEACHERS. Teachers would do best to design and create their own investigations. I hope that teachers are indeed finding ways to craft as many ideas on their own.

In the end, I feel that we find a balance between creation and borrowing. We ask the same from our students, to refer to the best ideas from the best minds, and to pull ideas and thoughts from inside themselves.

It’s exciting that information and ideas can be shared easily and quickly, and they can be found anywhere in the world. The tools for sharing and finding become faster and easier to implement. For the first time, we have the choice  to create or to borrow. It’s a good choice to have. Our challenge now is to create ways to determine which are the good ideas and which are the bad ones, and then create ways to find the best ideas fast.

Edufy continues to grow

I hope the first weeks of school are off to a great start!

It’s always been my dream to have 50,000 teachers, sharing their greatest activities, all in one place. No links to long lists of other websites, no annoying ads, no out of date content, no 3 week lesson plans. Just a place to search for an activity, and get a short list of great ideas that could be used quickly and easily,

Unfortunately, that website didn’t exist. We needed to create it. Check!

A place for people to share ideas isn’t useful until lots of people start using the site. We need lots of teachers to tell lots friends about Edufy. CHECK!

Precious Time

Now, more teachers are visiting Edufy than ever. Good. That pace is continuing to accelerate. Great. But most importantly, dedicated teachers are registering at a faster and faster rate, to join in voting, commenting, and contributing great ideas.

Finally, teachers can invest more time in important tasks, because they can use Edufy to search for new ways to reach students instead of recreating the wheel. Best wishes to everyone,

Phil

Bigger is not better so share activities not lessons

One is more versatile than the other

In education, salary may be better when it’s bigger. But with learning resources, bigger is much worse than smaller.

At an NSTA event last year, I spoke with a colleague I respect about resources available for teachers. He cited research that suggests that professionally designed unit plans result in the best learning outcomes when teachers are prevented from making adjustments to the plan. As teachers made more adjustments, the results actually got worse.

However, we both agreed that teachers would always make changes unless they were forced to leave things alone. In fact, there was evidence that these unit resources were not used again after the research had been conducted.

The reason that the professionally designed units worked better as a whole, is that all the parts were very high quality, and each part was chosen to work well as a system. My question to him was:

Pick the pieces that fit

“What if we just provided teachers with lots of high quality parts? Teachers could assess the specific student need in the classroom, and then choose the parts they need to build the learning experience that works best. I think teachers would use high quality resources if they have flexibility, and aren’t forced to use what works for someone else.”

My Question: Why are teachers driven to personalize their lesson plans?

My Response: Teachers care about students, and we want as much ownership as possible in decisions affecting their learning. If you give us something that we don’t think will work, we will take the extra time to customize it to our students for success. Some things aren’t worth delegating to others, especially when an awful lesson plan can lead to mutiny.

Teachers need a way to customize resources and take ownership over them. If we share lesson plans, it takes too long to do that. If we share great activities instead, it may fit what we need without customizing. If it doesn’t we need a super fast way to make it fit.

Edufy is a resource that make all this possible and makes it fast. Now, we can share, find, and customize our classrooms in no time flat. What do you think – if you have access to great parts, can you design something that will fit? Are you more likely to use resources if you can customize them? Post a comment and join the discussion!

Best wishes,
Phil