Sunday, December 1, 2019

Hacking learning, again? Meh. Teach on.

Just before Thanksgiving there was a #HackLearning Twitter Chat. I did not participate but I did see the questions, obs or they wouldn't be included in this post.

And I mean no offense to the #HackLearning team, but I was a little hacked about these questions, and not the kind of hack to which these folks referred--and can I tell you how over I am "hacking" pretty much anything?

Let me speak first about my understanding of English Language Arts. I know that ELA has experienced a lot of changes and certainly many were informed by our venture into Common Core. The key to ELA is the phrase "language arts" with the emphasis, I think, on the word "arts." What are the arts of language? Reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

To the first question: What are the challenges of integrating English Language Arts in the content areas? Huh. You mean making sure that students can read, write, speak, and listen in math, science, social studies, art, music, PE, health, consumer science, etc.? Um, shouldn't that be happening by virtue of the fact that students are in each of the classes?

Okay, I'll stop pretending I don't know what they're talking about because they're talking about the likelihood that all of those non-ELA teachers don't have reading and writing strategies in their teacher toolboxes. Fine, but that's really easy to rectify. I'll come back to this.

To the second question: What are the advantages of integrating ELA in the content areas? I won't be quite so snippy because there are some interesting textures in this question. One of the first advantages is that students will stop thinking that reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills are the sole domain of ELA class and begin to realize that reading, writing, listening, and speaking are important in everything and all the time. However, it is important for students to recognize that reading strategies may be different in non-ELA classes just as writing strategies may be different.

The last question is a bit perplexing: What are some ways we can find time and resources to integrate ELA into other content areas? I think this third question is inextricably connected to the first. I don't think it's really a matter of time. I do think it is a matter of resources just as it is also a matter of inclination for non-ELA teachers in middle and high school who believe their tasks are to teach their content areas even as they are possibly complaining that students don't know how to read and write in their content areas.

A sidebar. When I taught ENG 101 at the university level, I had some colleagues who complained bitterly that their students didn't know how to write for their respective content courses. We'd already seen a wave or two of writing across the content areas which was exhausting for most freshman writing teachers who found the first thing we had to do was un-teach the five paragraph essay and help students understand the value of specific writing rules, like punctuation and capitalization (I kid you not). Weary of colleagues who gently berated me for frittering away the 15 weeks I had in ENG 101 and clearly not using that same number of weeks wisely in ENG 102, my writing colleagues and I had a little symposium with our non-writing colleagues. We had them review some freshman papers and score them using our rubric. The numbers were, as expected, all over the place. Interesting conversations ensued and a modicum of understanding might have been achieved. That didn't stop them from complaining because they knew they didn't have the skills to help students correct their writing in their classes and didn't want to spend any of their precious 15 weeks providing any kind of instruction for writing correctly in business or science or whatever. Stalemate achieved.

But let's take a step back. The majority of reading and writing in non-ELA classes is termed "non-fiction." So we're talking about students knowing how to use text features: titles, subtitles, graphs, charts, etc. Some ELA teachers spend a bit of time on such things, but quite possibly not enough although elementary teachers could fairly easily incorporate some coaching in their non-ELA blocks of the day. Non-ELA teachers assume students know how to read graphs and charts which they could have learned in elementary school, but might not have done.

Well, we need to take a further step back because my question to non-ELA teachers is this: what skills exactly do you need of your students in the areas of reading, writing, listening, and speaking? Or, let's focus just on reading and writing. And, I put it to you again, what exactly do you need them to do? Yes, you need them to read the word problems and take the time to read them. There's no special strategy for that though you could practice a variation on a close reading strategy to see if that helps because you need to help them understand the importance of content area fluency and comprehension which isn't just an ELA thing but a human being thing.

You need them to write in complete sentences and, because you're not an ELA teacher, you're not comfortable being the grammar and mechanics police. Well, if they're in middle school or high school, they should know better; however, if they have time and opportunity, they could do a quick check of their work using Grammarly. What I don't like about this kind of a tool is that they don't learn what they did right and what they need to learn how to correct.

There could be ways for students to keep track of what's corrected by Grammarly and, perhaps, in collaboration with the ELA teachers in your building find a way to create a writing workshop time or study hall. It would have to be by choice. Depending on your classroom and technology situations, there are ways way to gather this information so ELA teachers will have more targeted information and, perhaps, find ways to bring non-ELA texts into their classrooms.

As a matter of fact, that is one of my favorite things. Maybe every two weeks, the students work from their math, science, social studies, or other texts in their non-ELA classes. They use those texts for their independent reading. Wigs kids out a bit, which is fun for the teacher for a little while, but also reinforces that reading and writing skills are important. Period.

I think finding the time isn't an issue, not really. I think figuring out how to create assignments or think about student work is how and where language arts skills practice and development can be reasonably integrated into any other content area.

If you are looking for more concrete resources, you might check out Reading Non-Fiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies by Drs. Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. They quite literally wrote the book on the subject.

You might also watch this video focusing on teaching non-fiction, which is a significant clarification about "non-fiction" and what it is.

As you continue to think about language arts skills in content areas, it can be easy to be dismissive or distracted by so many resources that seem geared towards elementary classrooms. For example, in an Edutopia article published first in 2010 and then updated in 2014, some of the strategies might seem inappropriate for AP Physics or Math III or even high school social studies classes.

But here's the thing: you don't have to do those exact strategies. For example, the "stop and jot" strategy is one that is often overcomplicated, in my opinion. Sure, you might use some sort of a graphic organizer or worksheet for younger students, but for older students--middle school and up--just have them write in their journals or wherever. They write for 1 minute or 30 seconds or 42.3 seconds or whatever and they write to secure what they've just been hearing. Maybe they end up jotting down two things they remember and a question. Great! We like questions because questions help us know what kids are really getting, what they're really understanding, what they're thinking about, what kinds of connections they're making.

By having them write down what is essentially a learning summary, they are creating a hook to what they've heard and what they're retaining. They are creating what could become a framework for study and review.

Can you build on that? Sure. Use Wheeldecide or some other approach--craft sticks with a student's name on each stick works--to pull a random name or two. Don't belabor it, but doing a quick check also helps ensure that most students stay focused. And by chunking it with lecture or discussion or reading, and then a "stop and jot" periodically, students are more likely to be able to sustain and retain.

Here's another thing. You can start your chunking by talking and them jotting every, say, 7 minutes. Do that for a week or so. Then chunk for about 10 minutes, then let them jot. After a couple of weeks, chunk to about 12 minutes, then let them jot. I honestly wouldn't go much further than that just for retention and comprehension purposes, but by slowly extending the amount of time they go between jots, you are also helping them build stamina. Sneaky, huh?

So are some of these suggestions hacking learning? Or just some recommendations for helping students learn? You decide, and teach on.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Data is cool. . .and beautiful

A colleague of mine and I were talking about data recently and how hard it is for many folks to understand data and to contextualize it. She'd found a really cool video, which is among those below.

What I'm thinking is this: perhaps one of the data videos would be fun and interesting for students, and perhaps they might think differently about how they try to create data representation or how they use data or why data is important or how they can use data representations in something they write. 

One of the first videos you might want to watch is this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Zg-C8AAIGg. There are other TED and TEDx talks about data. Okay, this one is pretty cool, too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DqQCZMawNg.

There is a "Data is Beautiful" channel in YouTube. Here are a couple of videos I found fascinating. You might need to set aside a few minutes to watch these but set a timer so you don't get lost in  this beautiful demonstration of how data works.
This is cool for different reasons.
What I love about this second one is how long AOL is at the top and then what happens when Yahoo! takes the top spot and Google begins to make its run. And keep an eye on Amazon and WalMart. Fascinating. There are all kinds of social implications to those changes, too.

Enjoy, and I hope you can find ways to use some of these, especially if there's a way to use one (or more) of them across content areas and be interestingly transdisciplinary. Let me know what you're able to do in your classrooms!

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Learning is not a competition. But what is it really?

Ms. Sackstein has a point and you'll learn more about her thinking in her article "How Can We Move Education Forward When So Many Educators Can't See Past the Way We've Always Done It?" The upshot of her article is this:
Once we jump down the grading rabbit hole, for example, we aren't just changing the way we label learning on a report card, we have to look deeper (italics mine). What are we calling learning? How will it be assessed and by whom? Which standards are we using? Are they universal? How do we agree on what mastery looks like at every age level in different content areas?"
All of these are complex questions and yes, answering them, agreeing on the answers, and norming those answers would be great. But my oh my will be it difficult, if not impossible.

I love the universal standards questions. We've tried Common Core for Math and ELA and, it still exists in many forms, some slightly modified and renamed by states and yet essentially Common Core.

In October 2018, Singapore announced it was doing away with ranking systems in its report cards. The Education Minister announced that, "Learning is not a competition." The Education department and, apparently, the teachers of Singapore realize there is no point in encouraging students to compare themselves to their classmates.

The reality is that our world and the future world of our students is and will be radically different. We have to make radical changes, and we have to make them now.

As I thought about Sackstein's writing and what we think we might be looking for, I realized that I already know a number of teachers who are just doing what they need to do and not just because we've been saying that one-size-fits-all doesn't work for anyone: not the student and not the teacher. I remember having a long conversation with a social studies teacher who noted that success for one of her students was different from success for another student. Which leads me to think that defining mastery at every age level in any content area is not a good use of anyone's time.

I've long been a proponent of the one-room schoolhouse concept: that kids work through their learning at their own pace, achieve proficiency or mastery or whatever they need, and then move on to the next thing. That teachers facilitate that learning to help them discover what they're really interested in and guide them accordingly. Oh yea, I know that's hard to do for about a zillion reasons though the "modern" one-room schoolhouse isn't a new idea.

I've given a lot of thought to how I would design a school system if I were starting from scratch. There are a lot of conditions and requirements, of course, and would require that unions completely rethink the role of a classroom teacher and the expectations of a teacher. And it would require that colleges and universities approach teacher preparation completely differently.

Whether it's a redesigned school system or a one-room schoolhouse, or what we have now, the key element is the student and what and how the student is learning. It's about the learning, the learning, the learning.

We've been toying with differentiation and personalization for a long time now. We have adopted tools and software programs that claim to assist in both or either, but the structure of how we do school hasn't changed radically. We adopt new programs and initiatives and hope for change, even as we try to cling to old ways of doing. We are reluctant to change in case it doesn't work which is exactly the wrong reason not to change. But if we don't have a vision or an idea of the kinds of outcomes we want before we change, we'll be setting ourselves for failure because we have to be thinking about students and their learning.

I think the most important question Ms. Sackstein asks ends up getting buried: "What are we calling learning?"

Don't crowd learning with how its going to be assessed because then you've already predetermined what learning is. Don't weight learning with the need for data, with trying to determine the socioeconomic challenges or privileges of a student. Don't confuse it with curriculum or pacing guides or even content areas.

Strip it to its bare minimum: what is learning? It's the process of acquiring new skills and knowledge through experience, study, or being taught.

Now we can reimagine how learning could be accomplished by students, for students and with the help, guidance, coaching, facilitation of classroom teachers. Especially if we stop thinking that learning is a competition and that every student has to learn everything to the same level of competency.

Maybe some day this will be more than a dream. Maybe.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Social Emotional Learning matters. . .to everyone

I didn't grow up with FOMO--the fear of missing out--and many of the other challenges today's kids experience so it can be easy for me to dismiss legitimate SEL concerns. After reading this article about social emotional learning, I realize that it can also be easy for education to adopt a new concept or issue and ask teachers to add it to whatever else they're doing, that we don't always train folks to understand why something is important, and HOW and WHEN to make use of any training.

When I think about the stressors of growing up and how those can be exacerbated by social media, it's no wonder "7 in 10 teens think anxiety and depression are major problems for their peers." Some will say the easiest solution is take away students' phones and to limit their time on social media. I suspect that would just be FOMO amplified. Of course, kids aren't the only ones influenced by FOMO as adults can fall victim to it as well.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has been doing this work of SEL education for over two decades, so the concept really isn't new. I think it's become a thing because there is finally recognition that students need to be taught how to manage themselves.

The SEL wheel is informative and the explanations for each of those pie segments might be enlightening.

I hear teachers remind students to "make good choices." They say that repeatedly throughout the school day. Yes, responsible decision-making is important, but what if kids really don't know how to make good decisions? What if they have limited self-awareness or self-management? What if they don't have much experience with social awareness because of their age or their own family background? What if they're still working on those relationship skills?

I get to work with teachers at all grade levels and I have mountains of respect for kinder and 1st grade teachers because a lot of what they do is related to these SEL core competencies in addition to teaching them other stuff like, IDK, how to read, how to blow their noses, how to write, how to count--that list goes on and on.

Somehow we stop being overt in teaching or coaching these core competencies as students get older. We tend to assume (always dangerous) that students have some proficiency, even mastery, of these SEL core competencies by the time they're in upper elementary and certainly when they're in middle and high school. And yet, student behavior tells us that is simply not the case.

High school teachers are often flummoxed because this SEL stuff is not what they expect to have to do. Some middle school teachers seem less perplexed because they are champions at working with kids who are going through multiples of changes--physical, emotional, hormonal. (If you have not thanked or honored a middle school teacher recently, it's way past time.)

If anything, I think FOMO amplifies these SEL concerns for middle and high school students. All that self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making is likely in tatters by the time they hit middle school and then shredded again in high school, especially for freshmen.

So I think it's imperative that we are mindful that there are stages of SEL, compounded by FOMO, and often exacerbated by whatever is or is not happening at home. Helicopter or snow shovel parents? Complex adult/guardian relationships? Absence of regular adult/guardian positive influences?

This is all a big ask for teachers. The expectations for educators are immense and there is no sign of that letting up with increasing demands and concerns from a wide range of sources. But educators can't be expected to just "do" SEL; they have to be trained and, in fact, they often need a little SEL for themselves.

I suspect we make it a lot harder than it really needs to be with fancy programs and PD that, in theory, help teachers embed SEL. I'm not saying PD or training isn't necessary, but I do think that those who are making decisions about professional learning and expectations for SEL as well as trauma-informed teaching and learning (a whole different area that needs to be included and not treated as its own one-off) need to think holistically about what they would like to see happening in their schools and their classrooms, and they need to do so with teacher input as well as parental input.

This isn't just an education concern so kids behave in classrooms and do well on their tests. This is a community well-being and growth concern, and matters--or should matter--to everyone.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Of comfort zones, compliance, and the student "why"

I'm weary of the oft-made connection between comfort zone and fear, though I get it. I know that people are often afraid to step out of a comfort zone and for common reasons: "Tried that before and it didn't work." "My colleague tried that and it didn't work and she's smarter than I am." I think there's more to it than that.

Sometimes I think I hear behind that reluctance is: "If I try this and I'm successful, they'll ask me to do more and I'm just tired."

Sometimes I hear a whisper of this: "If I'm no longer sure why I do what I do, or if I no longer believe in why I do what I do, why should I change?"

And sometimes I hear a whisper of this: "My students don't seem to want to learn and I can't figure out how to motivate them to learn, how to make them care about learning. I'm not sure why I should try anything else new when so much of what I've already tried doesn't seem to work or help them."

Eric Sheninger recently wrote about the comfort zone and fear. Now he's better known than I am: he's actually published the books he's written and has way more followers in all forms of social media, speaks around the world, so you'll likely believe him before you believe me. However, I ask you to think through this and your own experiences with change and your comfort zone.


The image Sheninger uses is a good one and he points out there are nuances in each of these. It occurs to me that some of this comfort zone/fear discussion has something to do with one's prior experiences, one's general need to be in control, and one's stage of life.

There have been very clear times in my life I have not been willing to step out to make a change, and all of those fear zone factors came into play. But part of what held me back was a gut sense that the decision to make that change would not be a good decision ultimately.

In the instances I have stepped into change, it's mostly been so that I've been able to use my skills and expertise in a different way; to extend my skills and expertise and, therefore, learn more; and/or because I was ready for a change. That underscores that not all elements of each of the zones is applicable to all people in all change situations.

Because we're talking about change, I have to bring up one of my favorite change management models first introduced in 1991 by Dr. Tim Knoster. Typically  we hear about this model being applied to organizations, which makes sense. I've used this model when I've talked with district and building administrators, but I've also referenced this when I've talked with teachers. What has crept into my conversation over the past few years is the question "Why?"

That's always been my favorite question; I can be very toddler-like in wanting to know "why" though I hope slightly less exhausting. And many of us have been influenced by Simon Sinek and his golden circle as people think about their "why." There have been plenty of articles and blog posts and keynotes and other such addressing how we can know our why and why that matters. Let me pursue that for a bit.

In Knoster's model, he points out the need for vision, skills, incentives, resources, and an action plan. Teachers have a vision for what they want to accomplish each day, the standards they hope students may be able to achieve or begin to achieve. They think about the skills and resources they need to teach and facilitate, and the skills and resources their students need to learn. And they have a lesson plan that documents all of this.

It is likely the skills and resources teachers think about for themselves and their students are fairly concrete: textbook, digital resources, laptop, calculator, grasp of math facts, recollection of particular information, etc.

I haven't talked yet about incentives because that is most definitely at play, but perhaps for reasons that aren't the usual. For teachers, the incentive for what they do and try to do every day is tied to their "why." And, I believe, their incentive, interwoven with their understanding of their "why," informs how they view their comfort zone and their willingness to step beyond it, even a little.

We all know that fist-pumping moment of sheer joy that a student "gets it," or when that reluctant reader has his own revelation about himself as a reader, or when that student who has often been difficult behaviorally turns some sort of a corner. The thrill of that moment can be a teacher's "why."

I work with a high school teacher who teaches one of the sciences and has that typical challenge of students who don't see the point. She works hard to engage them and find ways to entice them to learn. She has a group of students in which she is so proud because the strides they have made even though so much seems to be against them and the ways they have embraced learning in that class.

I work with many other teachers, mostly elementary teachers, who consistently battle different kinds of mostly minor behavior and attitude issues and who work just as hard as that science teacher. What I hear from them is this: "Kids don't want to learn."

All right, so I'm going to wander down a rabbit hole for just a smidge because I'm going to follow it further in another blog post because I don't think the issue is that kids don't want to learn. I think kids really have little incentive to learn because we've been telling them, directly and indirectly, that all they'll ever need to know is at their fingertips thanks to their friends Alexa, Siri, and Google. We further their confused understanding of school and learning because of the way we assess and what we value in assessment.

Kids seem to think that learning is the completion of a task, the production of some product of Google Slides or Google Sites or Powerpoint or a Google Doc. I have frequently shared the story of a frustrated second grader who threw down her pencil because she couldn't do a two-digit subtraction problem. She wailed that she didn't know how to do it and looked genuinely perplexed and surprised when I told her that's why she was in school--to learn how to do it, that we didn't expect her to come to second grade with that knowledge and skill.

And that's what prompted me to start thinking about the student's "why."

Do students understand, really understand, why they are going to school? Is it for compliance or for what could be the more compelling reason of needing to know how to learn? of needing to know how to frame questions for Alexa, Siri, or Google? of needing to know how to filter the information provided by any research source to know what could be valid and what is not? of needing to know basic math and literacy skills so they can start to become whatever is the best version of themselves?

I think this is a significant barrier to a teacher's willingness to step out of a comfort zone. It's not for want of learning and growth. It's because of an intrinsic yet unspoken recognition that many students have little or no incentive for being in school other than parental or legal ones.

Sure, there are many students who want to learn and like to learn. They have their own internal incentives, which is why those kids are in AP or honors classes and why they are the ones who do well in whatever they approach. They understand why they are in school, they have a vision for what they want to accomplish even if they can't articulate it until they're older, and they are not afraid to step out of their comfort zones. Those students check all of the Knoster and Sinek boxes.

Stepping out of a comfort zone may have something to do with fear--fear of failure, fear of looking incapable or incompetent. Absolutely. But it's not just that and it's not that easy. In the exploration of why teachers won't or don't try something new, we have to give them space and grace to contemplate their perception of change and their "why" for teaching, their reason for trying or not trying something new, and how what they do and how they do it helps students grasp their "why" for learning, if our emphasis really is on learning rather than compliance.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Contemplating "Success," Part 2

In Part 1, I meandered a bit as I contemplated success on a more micro or personal level. It had occurred to me that I, at least, need to success on an individual level before I can see success across a broader spectrum.

In Part 2, I want to talk about how we view success over time. Let me give you a bit of context. I work with schools and school districts for a variety of reasons. When I work with individual teachers, we talk about their goals--what do they want to achieve during and as a result of our time together? We rarely, if ever, talk about what the end result will look like or sound like because it is tied to their pedagogy, so could be hard to measure; however, it is possible to know that there is growth or change. When I work with schools and districts, we talk about their goals, too--again, what do they want to achieve during and as a result of our time together? This is much harder to define because I'll be working with different teachers at different grade levels and often in different content areas.

Some years ago I was working as a consultant for a company for which I was doing product training. One of the administrators said he would consider our work successful if his teachers was using that product at least three times a week. I balked a little. Yes, it's a benchmark, I thought, but it's a false benchmark because it may not make pedagogical sense for them to use it three times in a particular week. And what if they use it five times in a week? Do they get "credit" towards a week when they use it less than three times? We talked through his proclamation, but I also realized his conundrum because how else was he going to measure "success"? After all, we know there are multiple factors that could yield what we consider a successful day for a teacher and his students, and we have to realize that if 24 of those students have a good day and 1 does not, it's still a good day overall.

It's this kind of thinking that prompts my own contemplation of how we connote and denote success.

For any given initiative in a school or district, how does one measure success? More students are doing better on tests? Attendance is better? Reports of student misbehavior is down? Teacher morale is better or up? Some of those things are measurable and others are anecdotal, more subjective.

Is there a correlation of a single initiative to student performance? No. What if there are three or four initiatives? How can anyone know if there is overflow of one initiative into another that is helping improve student test scores or performance on tasks or attitudes in school?

What about administrator support? For any given initiative in a building, were participants voluntold or given opportunity to apply or raise their hands? What kind of administrator support is there for any or all of the initiatives? Is that support equal? Does support need to be equal?

What about the role of the consultant? I work in one school district in which there are at least three distinct initiatives for which there are at least three specific consultants. How effective are we and how does the administrator or the teachers measure our effectiveness? I know how I'd report out for that school district and I know that my success self-assessment would be different for each building. Overall, however, I think they're doing a great job and I've seen a lot of growth over the past couple of years. Can I measure that growth and provide specific success factors? Um, no.

So where am I going with this? I know there are those who will tell you that you have to have benchmarks with timelines, that you have to have S.M.A.R.T. goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. I think that's a worthy objective and I think it makes sense to use the S.M.A.R.T. goals guidelines.

When I start working with teachers and administrators, I invite them to identify a goal for us. Most of them find something fairly concrete, others have far too many things they want to address. We pick one or two things on which to work for the semester. We revisit those goals periodically through our time together and they make adjustments once they have a more realistic view of what they really want to focus on. We think in S.M.A.R.T.-like terms. At the end of the semester or the year, we review. Most administrators are happy with what they've seen and hear.

It's not about test scores. It's about teachers making changes in their pedagogy and students being more engaged. It's hearing different kinds of conversations from students and their parents, from having different kinds of conversations with teachers. It's having teachers will to do quick "show and tell" events with their colleagues. It's a change in culture, a change in atmosphere and attitude.

It's about teachers feeling like they've re-connected with what made them want to teach in the first place. It's about teachers feeling like they have an ally as well as a coach, someone who can and will listen to them vent without judgment or trying to find a reason/excuse/answer, and then helping them work within constraints, or in spite of them.

Success isn't one and done. Success is a slow crawl. It is truly one step forward and three steps back. It is a momentary high followed by a depressingly stressing low. Success is recognizing that today might be a good day or a great day, or not. It is putting in the effort and doing the work, no matter what.

It's about students saying things like "Can we do that again tomorrow?" or "That was the hardest math I've ever done. That was so fun!" or "Can we stay in from recess to finish?".

And maybe it's success for that moment. But it's a moment that everyone felt and saw and experienced. And that gives teachers hope. And that gives students hope and motivation.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Contemplating "Success," Part 1

Success factors. We talk about them often. Probably too often. I know I (too) frequently ask administrators and teachers what success looks like and sounds like in their buildings.

Like many others, I've fallen into the S.M.A.R.T goals trap of thinking about success, and I know better. There is a lot of value in using S.M.A.R.T goals; however, sometimes what we know as "success" isn't measurable nor time-bound. It's not quite "I'll know it when I see it" because there is often a specificity to what we recognize as success. But sometimes we don't know until we see it, though might mean we can't articulate what success looks like and sounds like because we haven't been clear on our intentions and goals before we've started an implementation or an initiative.

I have always loved this quote from Up From Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington: "I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed." Of course, in context, it has more nuanced and complex meanings for Mr. Washington, a black man working towards his very particular experiences of success.

What I like about his definition is that it underscores that true success acknowledges and honors the journey. That's what I hope students know, even as we push them towards compliance and task completion. If they believe that success is, for example, finishing a worksheet by the end of a class period, we have done them a serious and egregious disservice.

In "Staying Mission Focused as a Leader," Matthew Howell asks this question in his conclusion: "Did you give your best effort for the students you serve?" It's a compelling question and one of several we could ask ourselves. I have to wonder how many teachers and how many leaders will and do honestly answer that question with a hesitant "no." I wonder how many internal dialogues reflect the vacillation of their rationales as they struggle to try to get to "yes," but believe that through the exhaustion, the frustration, and the host of other factors, they cannot. Did they give their best efforts under the circumstances? Probably? Is that enough? I think so.

So let's follow this a bit. What gets in the way of a teacher, or an administrator, giving their very best for their students? Many will say time as that's the favorite barrier to any accomplishment. And if it's not time, it's some combination of time, money, resources, and/or training. Or it could be because there are just too many initiatives and this is just "one more thing." Sometimes the reason teachers or leaders can't do their best is the students themselves, or the parents. In other words, it is always something outside of the individual that constitutes the barrier for success.

Or is there?

You see, I'm not really responsible for anything other than my own actions, attitude, and behaviors. Sure, there are dozens of things conspiring against me every day, but I still have the choice of how I respond.

I can't help but think of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography. In Chapter 9, he articulates his "Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection." The man aimed high, and that's likely one of the reasons he was successful. But what I've always admired and appreciated is his daily schedule and his two questions: "What good shall I do this day?" and "What good have I done to-day?"

Big questions. Good questions. And they remind me what might constitute "success," at least for me. Did I do as much good as I could throughout the day? Did I, despite what I perceived to be as unnecessary and annoying questions or "bad" behavior or attitudes of others, persevere and do my best? Did I leave the internal monologue as an internal attitude release only and focus on making sure I was doing the right thing, even the best thing? I'm never going to answer a resounding "yes" because I'm a flawed human being. But if I can honestly say that I did my best to manage the complexities of the day that threaten to confound or undo me, then I can say I did my best and I was successful that day.

And that is all very well and good for a day-to-day analysis, if you will, of success. But what about success over time? Ah, that is the question for another blog post. . .coming soon.


Monday, January 28, 2019

The Siri/Alexa Effect: It's a Real and Significant Thing, Part 2

The Siri/Alexa Effect was mentioned the other day in a professional learning session when a teacher noted how easy it is for kids to get homework help from Siri, and that's precisely one of the things I talked about it my first post about the Siri/Alexa Effect.

So let's talk a bit more about these fabulous resources, and I'm not being tongue-in-cheek. Like a proud parent, Amazon likes to tout new skills Alexa is learning. Apparently Alexa has over 70,000 skills, and counting. You can find Alexa's top 2018 skills here, or just ask her about her top skills.

Let me say this about Alexa: there are a lot of game connections. A lot. There are other features for home security and management, task management, and wellness. I don't think education was at the forefront of developers' minds when they started developing Alexa.

The voice assistant boom isn't limited to Siri or Alexa, of course. In the run-up to Christmas, we saw Facebook and Google advertising their versions with video and video call capability as well. What tech insiders are trying to tell us is that this technology isn't nearly as sophisticated as we might think; not yet anyway.

Music is the number one reason to use the smartspeaker, or the news or weather. It's stuff we can find anywhere else pretty easily but it's just so much easier to say "Alexa, what's the weather today?" than go all the way over to the computer and make sure it's out of sleep mode and find the icon for The Weather Channel and then, oh my goodness, tap the icon and then actually read the weather information. Exhausting.

But I have an understanding of why people dig the access of Siri and Alexa. And I understand the suspicion many have of Siri or Alexa secretly recording everything we say and not just to make the AI interface smarter. In my house, when we're talking about Alexa, we say "Voldemort" so she doesn't try to respond to something that isn't an actual request.

Some time ago I was talking with a first grade teacher was annoyed that her students didn't understand why they needed to learn how 2 + 1 equals 3. They seemed to think it was enough that they knew that 2 + 1 = 3. They're in first grade so the nuances of place value or number sense is still a work in progress for them. I've been thinking about this a lot and I realize this is likely an outcome of the Siri/Alexa Effect not to mention the Wikipedia/Internet Effect. I mean, why should I know the why or how of something when I can watch it on a YouTube video or when I can just look it up on the internet or ask Alexa? I'm being facetious, but these first graders are likely reflecting what they see happening in their homes with their parents and any older siblings.

Just recently I read an article titled "The Rising Relevance Gap." Let me sum up: school is boring and what kids are learning isn't relevant. Oh yea, I can hear teachers protesting loudly and rightly so in most cases. However, let's think about this a bit.

Last week a facilitator shared a story about a lesson she'd done with some students. They were learning about the life cycle of plants, watching a plant grow and learning a bit about what bees do to help plants grow. The teacher mentioned something about the possibility that some of them might build a robotic bee if there weren't enough bees in the world. One little guy went over the makerspace and started gathering stuff. When asked what he was doing, he said, "Building a robotic bee. Why wait?"

Indeed. Why wait?

Did he know how? No. But he didn't care about that. He cared about figuring out how to create a robotic bee because that could solve a problem. And knowing how to solve a problem often means knowing how to ask questions.

A friend of mine asked me if she could use Voldemort to ask the names of an athlete's children. It took us a few times to craft the question to get to the answer. There was important learning on our parts to figure out how to ask the question to get the answer we wanted.

Just recently I found an article from last August about universities experimenting with Alexa. Students could ask about the university--what time a building closes, the final exam schedule, etc. The universities want more: they want to be able to set up smart tutors. And students want more: they want a personal assistant rather than "a reactive device."

But I want to go back to that smart tutor because I think that's what could really make the most sense for K-20, but then we might be in Google Home, Amazon Echo Show, and Facebook Portal territory. It's one thing to ask Alexa the answer to 3 + 2 or even more complex math problems, though she has her limitations.
Alexa did fine with some basic questions, as you can see. But then I asked her how to calculate a cube root.  Her answer was not helpful. Then I gave her a longer word problem. I asked her, "Alexa, if the width of a square is 4 and the length of a square is 6, what is the area of the square?" She asked me to repeat it, which I did, and then she told me she wasn't sure. I guess Alexa isn't a fan of word problems either.

I realize, though, that one of the reasons kids watch a lot of YouTube videos is because they can learn stuff from them. And let's be real: kids are not alone. I started baking bread again this winter and my first few loaves came out looking really weird. I couldn't remember how to shape the loaf, so what did I do? I looked for a video on YouTube. I can imagine being up to my wrists in flour and bread and asking a smart assistant for a video on how to shape a loaf of bread.

I can imagine being up against a deadline and asking a smart assistant how to solve a differential equation. (Not really, but I've had some weird fixation about differential equations recently; I can't explain it.) I know I'd need to see the process.

I can imagine being up against a deadline and needing someone to proofread my paper, and that one is a bit tougher. But what if there was a way for me to share my paper with the smart system and have it read the paper aloud to me while I followed it with the text. And what if the smart system were smart enough to recognize problem phrases, awkward transitions, shifts in verb tenses, etc.?

I can imagine being up against a deadline and needing a way to review for a test. Wouldn't it be amazing if the smart tutor had access to a teacher's old tests, the study materials, and my notes and could quiz me? And, even better, help correct me and direct me where I need to go to review?

I think one of the significant points is that students can learn many things through using a smart system. Maybe they learn how to ask better questions. Maybe they learn that some things they don't really need to learn because they can always ask or look it up.

I believe what's important for all of us to consider is what we'd like students to be able to learn. Perhaps if we helped developers understand those skills, they could begin to design with those ends in mind.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Siri/Alexa Effect: It's a Real and Significant Thing, Part 1

So a child is doing his homework and wants to get through his winter break math homework a little faster. What to do? What to do? Oh, of course. Ask Alexa. Which is what he did. And when he realized that Alexa could help him get the answer to 3 + 2, well, why not just ask her to help with all of his math homework? Yes, why not?

A quick aside: homework over the winter break is dumb. I know teachers think it might help a winter break slide, but it's still dumb. Homework as a general rule is dumb. But that and the whole slide things are different posts.

I've written a bit about the Siri/Alexa Effect here. There's nothing scientific about my thinking, just observational anecdotal data, which is enough for me to realize there is an issue. A problem? Yes, of a sort.

I first observed it when second and third graders were shouting questions at Siri because they didn't know how to or couldn't be bothered to do the research for something they were supposed to be doing. Let me unpack that a bit. First, they were shouting questions. Why? Because they didn't know how to frame questions and they figured they could simply repeat the question louder and maybe she'd get it. Of course, by then there are several students shouting similar questions at Siri on different devices and the students don't realize that each device is picking up what is now just noise. I can't do one of those "get your attention" whistles, but I can shout, which is what I finally did since the teacher seemed oblivious. . . a different issue altogether.

Second, they didn't know how to frame questions. They had no idea how to ask a question other than to repeat what was on the worksheet. Yes, they're in second and third grades (similar projects, different classrooms, different teachers), but that's part of what teachers are supposed to be helping them learn how to do. Right? Hmmm. Hang on to that thought.

Third, they were in a hurry to finish the project because they just wanted to get it done. They saw no value in the project. They apparently felt whatever learning might occur through that project was of no value to them. In their defense, they're urban kids so the whole habitat thing of prairies and such is foreign to them. They were completing a worksheet and then they were going to do a pizza box diorama. Why were they in a hurry? Because if they hurried they'd get to play games on their iPads.

So much going on there, right? I can imagine people suggesting that Siri be disabled on student iPads, which, by the way, a lot of teachers have already done. I can imagine people being outraged that Alexa might be in schools because it might enable students to cheat, but it's not just Alexa or Siri. It's not the technology that disturbs me.

I use Google all the time to do research, but I also know how to do research. I know how to craft a question. I have an idea of what I want to find so I know how to revise the question or the search terms if I'm not getting what I think I should get. I also know how to review the resources returned to me and to look at more than the first three items. Far too many students of all ages have no idea how to do any of that. That's what disturbs me.

It also disturbs me that students see technology as a resource for entertainment: videos, Snapchat, Instagram, texting, etc. They seem to see it less as a resource for learning, but, what's more insidious, they don't seem to value learning or learning how to learn. THAT is the Siri/Alexa Effect. Why should they bother to learn when they know they can ask a device anything and it will tell them?

A corollary to the Siri/Alexa Effect is that students, like many of their parents, don't feel the need to dig any deeper than that first item returned. They know nothing about search engine optimization, that organizations and people have ways to boost their sites and resources so Google or Siri or Alexa finds them first. They don't realize that often Siri and Alexa seem to default to Wikipedia. They don't know or seem to care that whatever answer they get may not be accurate, may be overly biased, may not be true.

There is a lot of learning science research going on just now. I have a stack of resources to read, to think about, and to synthesize. What I do already know is this: there is no easy answer. The other thing I already know is that we have to got help our students learn how to learn, and to value the process of learning.

When we ask them to complete a worksheet or a project and all of the emphasis is on the worksheet or the project (or the homework), we tell them that the end product is the most important thing. We also tell them that the process of learning is less important than their compliance to complete the worksheet or project or homework. No, we don't say that in so many words, but what we emphasize and how we emphasize it speaks volumes about what seems to be really important and, what they "hear" is that learning itself isn't important. That is becoming the worst possible outcome of the Siri/Alexa Effect.

I'm not suggesting we cut off students from using these technologies, but I am suggesting we need to help students learn how to use these resources for more effective learning. The fact is that such resources are a future for our students, so let's learn how to use them well, to determine how best to craft questions to do research in such a manner (more on that in a later blog post), and to be wise and savvy enough to continue beyond the first answer offered to us.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

2019 BTS: Let us be grateful

It's 2019. People are already pontificating about all sorts of things that could happen in 2019 though the year is barely in its second day (in the United States, in Central Time) as I write this. The reflection of what was the best, and worst, of 2018 continues and will eventually stop. Thank goodness.

Teachers and administrators are already working to start school again, thinking about those back-to-school lessons, how to greet students as they come back from the winter break.

Educators have talked a lot about mindfulness and SEL this past year, so let's speak of those two things in context of back-to-school. 

First, let us be mindful that not every child had a merry Christmas nor a happy new year. Not all holidays were merry and bright; some were dark and difficult for a whole range of reasons. Second, let us be realistic that for many of our students, school is a refuge and they will be grateful to be back at school even if they seem to be nominal students. And some of our students might be stressed because they're worried about the inevitable "What did you get for Christmas?" question.

You might invite your students to begin a gratitude journal (another resource is here), and model that by saying that you're grateful your students returned to school and how happy you are to see them. Your gratitude is about your students and maybe their smiles, not about stuff. If you're working with younger students, they may not yet have the writing skills for a journal, but they can draw pictures. So maybe they're grateful for school, for recess, for flowers. It doesn't matter but helping them focus on the good things they experience in their worlds is important. The more they express gratitude about small things, the better able they might be able to see and express gratitude for larger things as they learn to see and experience their worlds differently.

As students develop those skills for seeing their worlds and experiences differently, through a lens of gratitude, through a greater sense of safety and even control, perhaps, just perhaps the way they see and think about learning will begin to change for the better, which is the gist of SEL.

Expressing gratitude for one thing takes little time, but the payoff is bound to be substantial over time.

So thank you for what you do for your students every day. Every day.