The Struggle is Real

 

I work with teachers every single day. I work with veteran teachers, new-to-the-profession teachers, highly skilled teachers, and teachers who are still learning the craft. Teachers most often feel confident about teaching the content they are required to teach. They tend to struggle more with classroom management/organization, classroom discipline, and providing for the multiple needs of their students on a routine basis. Another area of challenge for many teachers is allowing students to struggle.

Teachers by nature want to see students succeed; so much so that all too often teachers don’t allow students to struggle long enough to build deep understanding. Whether one calls it “productive failure” (a concept coined by Dr. Manu Kapur) or “growth mindset” (Carol Dweck) or something I like to refer to as “effort creates ability”, giving student time to struggle is a challenging instructional concept for many teachers.

Allowing students to struggle is different from intervening with struggling students. We know students will come to us with learning gaps. In education, we tend to think of struggling as something we need to eliminate or remove from the equation of learning for a student. In fact, if you do a Google search on “helping students struggle” you will find pages and pages of links to help the “struggling student”. We know we have students who struggle to learn and reducing the learning gaps that cause that kind of struggle is necessary. However, the purpose of this article is to help educators think about how they can build “struggle” into the learning process in order to help all students build knowledge, competency, and confidence in their academic pursuits.

Letting students struggle has some very important, and lasting, effects on students. Students who are given time to struggle with content, concepts, and critical thinking benefit by:

  1. orienting students to a focus on learning over knowing
  2. engaging in challenging tasks that help the brain make new connections and, thus, become smarter
  3. seeing how a “work hard and get smart” approach allows them to overcome many challenges
  4. learning that is easy isn’t usually a good use of their time
  5. developing a sense of academic pride and self-confidence in tackling and resolving challenging problems
  6. seeing the value in embracing mistakes instead of avoiding and covering up mistakes as a necessary part of learning
  7. gaining motivation and interest in the learning process as they seek solutions to mistakes and unknowns

Allowing students to struggle in the learning process promotes the process of studentsimage working hard at reasoning through challenging problems in order to gain new knowledge and understanding. The process of struggling will oftentimes include failure as students try out new thinking and apply prior learning to novel experiences. Students need to engage in difficult experiences where solutions and answers don’t come easily. They need to experience failure and frustration as part of the problem solving and learning process.

 

How can teachers help students embrace “the struggle”? What are some ways in which teachers can foster, in students, the appreciation of struggling to find answers and make learning connections? A few easy strategies include:

  1. Design the questions you will use as the teacher in a way that requires students to think more deeply about the problem or make connections to other content or concepts.
  2. Have students articulate their thinking process to their current point of struggle or even ask them “what would you do if you knew what to do?” Sometimes thinking from the endpoint to the point of struggle allows students to see new options.
  3. Utilize classroom routines that promote and develop struggle while providing a structured process to move students towards a solution. As the teacher, see how you can teach a concept/skill without explicitly telling students what they need to do.
  4. Utilize small, incremental goals throughout the learning process to help students see their progress and understand that success can occur throughout the struggle.
  5. When students succeed, praise their efforts and strategies as opposed to their intelligence.
  6. Design classroom activities that involve cooperative–rather than competitive or individualistic–work.
  7. Include student choice and voice in the learning process. When students can choose their topics of interest and evidence of learning, they are more likely to persevere during challenging learning experiences.

Helping students understand that struggling is part of the learning process is an essential consideration for all educators. Students need to understand that learning can sometimes be very difficult and answers don’t always present themselves easily or clearly. When we rely on the typical process of “I do – We do – You do” for our imageinstructional delivery, we may inadvertently shortcut deeper learning available to our students. Implementing the strategies mentioned above can help your students understand more deeply, persevere more consistently, and grow more fully. How will you help your students struggle this year?

 

Advertisements

Take the Wheel!

In cycling, there is a phrase known as “taking the wheel”.  The phrase refers to taking thecycling lead in a pack that is drafting.  The leader creates an aerodynamic “bubble” that allows others to take advantage of the slip stream and conserve energy.  In fact, the work of the leader and the pack that follows allows the entire group to ride faster and conserve energy!

As leaders, there are things we can learn from this cycling analogy in our own work with educators on our campuses or in our districts.  We are always trying to develop our team and encourage them to achieve goals and improve the work of the team members, individually and collectively.  Knowing the most effective actions a leader can take in steering the process of collaborative improvement is critical.  Let’s take a look at some of the principles of “taking the wheel” that can help us as leaders:

  1. If you’re the stronger rider, take the wheel!

In cycling if you’re a strong rider you are expected to take the lead for the group and help pull everyone else towards the goal. follow-my-lead

As a leader on your campus or in your district, you’re staff is expecting you to take the lead and help to pull them towards the goal and to encourage them to push on even when they are tired and ready to stop.  Leaders aren’t afraid of challenging headwinds and they refuse to allow excuses to rise up and prevent the team from charging towards the intended goals.

  1. Be a mindful leader!

The leader who takes the wheel is allowing the riders who follow to recover by riding in aerodynamic slipstream that forms behind the leader.  The bubble can actually extend to 7 or 8 riders behind the leader.  This can prove helpful for the pack in keeping them fresh cycling-2and together but the leader has to remember to watch the pace of the ride and the terrain ahead.  If riders aren’t prepared they can easily be dropped from the pack and might not be able to catch up to the pack once left behind.

As a leader on your campus or in your district, you too need to be a mindful leader.  You have to monitor if or when your followers need a rest and when the pace of work needs to be adjusted.  You have to be watching the terrain ahead and prepare your followers for what is coming.  The goal for the leader is to not “drop” anyone along the way.  The best leaders help their team set attainable goals with clear markers along the way.  They know that progress can be its on motivator and they ensure that the whole team experiences that progress.

  1. Know when to lead and know when to follow!

In cycling, if you tend to follow too often and are reluctant to do any work in leading out you’ll be labeled lazy and considered a “follower”.  In cycling terminology, a competent rider never wants to be labeled a follower.  On the flip side, jumping out to the lead too often or for too long can lead some to be seen as the hero for sacrificing themselves for the good of the team.  They can also be seen as a sort of donkey with no brains for failing to use their efforts more wisely.

As a leader on your campus or in your district, it’s imperative that you undergatens-leaders-followersstand your team and your organization well enough so you can lead when you need to but follow when necessary as well.  Understanding that giving others on the team who have better or different skill sets than others a chance to lead is important if the team is going to improve and getter better at what they do.  As a leader, if you’re always out front you will get burned out and your effectiveness will diminish as other team members crave a chance to lead or grow tired of looking at the same back side.  By developing other leaders who can take the wheel for your team, you develop capacity in your team and relieve yourself from being the only one who breaks new ground.

  1. Equipment can make all the difference!

I can remember when I started riding as part of my training for a spring triathlon.  I used my hybrid “get around” bike and it often times seemed like I was pedaling a bike with cement tires.  Once I finally invested in a true road bike, not only did my times improve but riding was actually enjoyable!

As a leader on your campus or in your district, do you have the right equipment?  Do your plan-prepare-performteam members have the right equipment?  If your organization is going to meet the goals set before them, they will be more likely to
do so if they have access to the right kind of data along with coaching in how to use the data and time in which to do the work it takes to improve instruction.  How about professional development?  Equipment makes a difference but the skill and competence of the rider has to improve to get the most out of the equipment.  It works the same way with our teachers.  Leaders have to develop the skills, talents, and understandings of their staff in order to maximize the benefits of having the right tools.

Low SES and Minority Students More Likely to Have Inexperienced Teachers–How to Address this Challenge!

A new White House report reveals what many of us in education have known for a long time: our most needy students often times have the least prepared and experienced teachers.  The report states the share of first-year teachers was strongly correlated with the share of black and chart3_k12_sharefirstyrteachersHispanic students.  Nearly twice as many first-year teachers are teaching in predominantly minority schools (which are often times low SES as well) compared to schools with no minorities.

We know that teaching is a very difficult profession to gain mastery in and that it takes teachers 5-7 years to develop the content knowledge, pedagogy, and skill sets to become a master teacher.  For minority students, the constant revolving door of first-year teachers comes with the reality that their academic gaps will most likely not be closed with novice, inexperienced teachers.  Many schools and districts compound this challenge by placing minority students, often the ones with the most academic needs, in the most inexperienced teacher classrooms.

Our minority students deserve to have the same access to high quality teachers and resources as non-minority students.  Our low SES students, which often cross over racial demographics, deserve the very same access to high quality teachers.

Districts and campuses that serve minority students and low SES communities have to begin to think about providing the in-service support new teachers need in order to develop competencies and confidence as quickly as possible.  A well implemented teacher induction program is not only the best way to support new teachers in those crucial first years but it will also help improve the likelihood that new teachers stick around longer and become the invested teachers these campuses and districts need if they are to truly turnaround the achievement gaps in their system.

Here in West Oso ISD, we are trying to address this very need through our teacher induction program, Bear TIPS.  Our program seeks to provide 3 years of in-service support teacher-induction-logoto our new teachers.  We begin with a First Year Teacher Academy (FYTA) that meets with teachers six times during the first year.  We follow that up with a FYTA2 in year 2 that focuses on deepening teacher understanding of best practices and effective instructional strategies.  FYTA3 is in year 3 and focuses on assessing for learning.  The program also has specific mentor training so that our new teachers are supported by an experienced colleague on their campus in addition to the FYTA supports and the site leader support.  We add to these components a periodic newsletter that lets the entire district know what the FYTA teachers are working on and how to support our new teachers in those crucial first years.

We were fortunate enough to be recognized by Texas School Business magazine fobragging10r the Bragging Rights 2016-2017 issue as an innovative program.  We’re humbled to be included with the other 11 districts recognized in the issue.  We accept the recognition as proof that when district leadership wants to take specific steps to address the staffing challenges and the academic challenges that can come with minority dominant communities, great things can happen.

We know that much work remains and the struggle to provide our students with the highest quality teachers available will exist for some time.  We hope that we have at least modeled a way in which districts, small or large, can begin to address the needs of all students and create the equity we know should exist across the educational spectrum.

Campus Principals: Do you attend PD with your teachers?

I left the campus principal role a few years ago and moved into central office to lead curriculum and instruction at the district level.  One of the things I still try to keep as a priority is to attend PD sessions with district teachers and leaders.  I do this to monitor the quality of the PD I am sending district staff to but I also do it to build my own knoteachlearnblocks1wledge and skills while also connecting with the teachers in my district.  I want my teachers to know I’m approachable, I don’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to learn new things and I want to stay in tune with what is happening in the classroom.

I believe most campus principals share my thoughts.  Campus principals are always thinking about professional development for their staff and looking for ways to improve student learning through better teaching.  Campus principals know an effective professional development (PD) plan can be one of the best ways to improve student learning and develop a cohesive campus culture.  All too often the campus principal is the one providing the professional development to the staff or is responsible for authorizing and sending staff members to various PD opportunities.  However, I suggest one aspect of PD that principals should consider more carefully is the process of learning alongside their staff.  Yeah, that’s right!  Principals should attend PD with their teachers and learn with them.

There are 4 good reasons why principals should attend PD sessions with their teachers.  I hope the 4 reasons I’m going to share with you inspire you to join your staff in learning at an upcoming PD opportunity.

  1. It’s Fun!
    • It’s easy for principals to get caught up in the day to day administrivia. There are many days where principals can feel far removed from the teaching and learning that goes on each day at the campus because of the administrative duties that come with the position.  Principals should be the instructional leader for the campus and while most principals love the chakeep-calm-fun-learningllenge of leading a campus, they also know that it comes with a price that often times removes them from being directly involved with student learning like when they were still teaching.  By going to PD with their teachers, principals get the opportunity to reconnect with the skills and experiences that attracted them to education in the first place.
    • Getting out to a PD workshop with teachers can make the process of staying current on best practices and researched-based instruction much more interesting, engaging, and relevant. Don’t just read an article or a book but rather jump in with your teachers and learn in an authentic and meaningful way!  That is much more fun!
  2. Learn about and relate to your staff!
    • Much like sitting down at a meal builds fellowship and helps one get to know someone, attending PD with your staff and learning beside them is a bonding experience. By participating in PD, you get to engage with your staff in a way that is different than the typical supervisory roles and duties principals take on.  By learning with your teachers you get to see their thinking and understand what they value and how they reflect on their practices.  Opportunities for deeper discussions about learning and the teaching craft can occur in an authentic setting like a PD workshop.
    • Also, don’t bail out at the lunch break to go answer emails and return calls. Take the lunch break and go eat with your staff.  Again, this provides wonderful opportunities to learn more about the personal side of your teachers and you can share similar stories and happenings as well.
  3. Show them you are a learner too!
    • When you attend PD sessions with your teachers you let them know that you are a lifelong learner and are willing to acquire new skills and ulead-learnernderstandings as well. It shows them that you are vulnerable and interested in the things they do day in and day out with their students all year.  It will also provide you a natural connection to deeper conversations later in the year as you and your teachers reflect on what was learned at the PD and how they are implementing it in their classroom. You will also have a better understanding of how the PD fits with the initiatives and goals of the campus from firsthand experience.
  4. Identify potential leaders!
    • Another aspect of attending PD with your teachers that can pay off in the long run is the opportunity to identify potential leaders on your campus. By engaging with teachers in PD you will begin to see which teachers are natural leaders in those kinds of settings but you will also be able to sei-am-a-leadere your thinkers, dreamers, and even your pioneers who are willing to lead the charge!
    • By having a deeper and more authentic understanding of the skills and personalities of your teachers, you can better match leadership opportunities with teachers on your campus. You don’t have to leave it to chance or to those who always tend to lead but instead can tap into the experiences you had with your teachers during the PD and connect the traits you saw in your teachers with the opportunities on the campus.

So this is a call to all principals (and even central office leaders), go find some PD opportunities for your teachers and be an active participant with them!  You just might find you enjoy the opportunity to learn with your staff while at the same time building trust, competence, and a culture of collaboration!

We can’t afford not to invest in our teachers!

I read a very compelling article in the Harvard Business Review last month that highlighted the steps one fast food company in Tennessee uses to build a high functioning culture while attracting and keeping key personnel in an industry that is notoriously transient and arbitrary.

Click here for the story.

In the article Thomas Crosby, CEO of Pal’s Sudden Service, discusses how they build a culture of consistency, high performance, skill building, and success.  As a an educator that leads curriculum and instruction work for a district along with teacher induction and professional development programs, I was quick to note his big three points align quite well with the work all educational leaders should embark upon in their daily work with developing teachers and other staff on the campus.

While often times looking at a business world model for improvement can break down at some point when trying to compare it to the education world where we do not control the quality of the raw materials at the outset nor do we remove or kick out imperfect raw materials during the process of teaching students, the truths of this article can stand the test of time and cross over to the educational arena.

  1. The best companies hire for attitude and train for skill–As educational leaders, we can sometimes become overly focused on the content that needs to be taught and particular skill sets or backgrounds that teachers possess when we hire.  We will be better served (and so will our students) if we, instead, focus on exactly what kind of character and attitude our current and aspiring teaching staff possess and realize that we can teach and develop skill but the core of a person is much more difficult to mold.  Lesson for leaders: define and know what your core values are for your staff and your campus and skillfully measure anyone who wants to be part of your staff by those standards.
  2. Even great people need constant opportunities for improvement–As an educational leader, how do you check the “calibration” of your staff?  Just like machines, people can become uncalibrated.  We have to be specific and purposeful in how we design our professional development and how we ensure that our teaching staff participates in the appropriate and necessary type, style, and amount of training.  Moreover, we have to provide opportunities for our most talented educators to share what they know with others and to be a vessel for others to fulfill that constant need for improvement opportunities.
  3. Leaders who are serious about hiring also have to be serious about teaching–As an educational leader, one has to be committed to modeling an insatiable desire to learn for the entire campus.  Michael Fullan describes this as being a “lead learner”.  The most successful leaders formalize the learning and teaching (sharing) expectations for their campus or organization.  Pursuing knowledge and sharing the learning from that pursuit cannot be optional.

So there you have it.  Three statements of truth that work for leaders whether yTwo handsour running a fast food burger shop or a comprehensive high school or even a school district.
It matters what we do (or don’t do) when it comes to investing in our teachers and other instructional staff.  While some may argue that the task is too difficult or that there isn’t enough money/time or that it takes too much money/time, a quote by Thomas Crosby sums it up quite well:

“People ask me, ‘What if you spend all this time and money on training and someone leaves?’” Crosby says. “I ask them, ‘What if we don’t spend the time and money, and they stay?’”

-CS

 

The 10% Running Rule…for Teaching!

If you’re a runner there’s little doubt that you’ve come across a training principle called “The 10% Rule” or 10PR.  The idea behind the principle is that when training for a running goal, especially longer ones, a runner should never increase their weekly mileage10PR  by more than 10% over the previous week.  This principle has value to runners because most injuries in running come from overuse.  They symptoms start out as aching or throbbing and eventually lead to limping and even periods of rest to recover.  Often times, these overuse injuries are the result of great exuberance at the prospects of a race or some personal goal but, alas, the best intentions are derailed by poor or ineffective planning.

So what does The 10% Rule have to do with teaching?  How can it help teachers plan for more effective and successful teaching while contributing to increased student learning? Most teachers each day have anywhere from 375 to 420 minutes of instructional time.  For elementary grades these minutes can  be blocks of 30 minutes all the way up to 90 or 120 minutes, depending on the content area.  For secondary grade levels, these are typically 45 to 90 minute blocks per day or every other day.  Trying to improve and maximize the instructional time can be a daunting challenge if we consider several hundred minutes a day, five days a week, and six to nine weeks per grading period.  It’s enough to make some teachers shy away from ever even wanting to attempt to improve their instruction or classroom structures.

I propose taking The 10% Rule (10PR) and using it to breakdown the instructional block into more manageable chunks, over a more manageable amount of time.  The goal is to take 10% of the instructional block and look at how teachers are using the time to explain the learning objectives, build context for the learning, engage students on the learning objectives for the day, allow for student collaboration, and monitoring or measuring student mastery.  If a teacher tried to tackle all of these things at once, they would most likely get overwhelmed or frustrated or suffer the teaching equivalence of a runner’s “overuse injury”.  The risk is teachers will return to old habits or structures and lose out on the chance to improve their skills and create a richer, more engaging learning environment for their students.

Some possible steps to take when implementing 10PR in the classroom could be:

  1. Examine the opening and closing activities students are engaged in while in the classroom.  Typically, the first two to three minutes andEngagement the last two to three minutes of an instructional time are the least organized and instructionally productive times for many teachers.  Harry Wong says, “The most essential thing for a teacher to do is to structure an assignment the second the students walk into the room.” I would add that having a culminating or reflective task for students to participate in is just as critical.  These 4-6 minutes (the beginning and ending of a class) constitute 10% of a typical class period or lesson and, if well planned, can be essential to building student engagement for the entire lesson while ensuring a time for a quick assessment for understanding.
  2. It’s important to keep in mind that each time a teacher takes on the process of adjusting 10% of what happens in their classroom, they may need a week or two or more to master that aspect of their teaching time.  That’s ok and just as runners might need to stay at a certain mileage for a couple weeks or more before using 10PR, teachers should be confident and successful with the 10% of their instructional time they adjusted before moving on to the next 10%.
  3. After making adjustments to the start and end of a lesson, teachers can then begin to look at the questioning that will occur during the lesson.  Again, using 10PR means teachers are looking at about 4-6 minutes of a typical lesson or up to 10 minutes for a double blocked class.  This amount of time often aligns well with the discussion portions of many lessons.  Unfortunately, most discussions in classrooms call for simple recall or perhaps the application of an idea or a skill and rarely moves into deeper, questionsintellectually challenging interactions.  By taking the time to examine how questions can promote deeper thinking and more consistent student engagement, teachers can begin to build on the successful start that students have as a result of the previous 1oPR actions.  Teachers have many resources available to them to help in designing quality lessons.  The most successful teachers I’ve worked with take the time to pre-write and think through the questions they will use during the course of instruction.  They identify the issues or skills to be learned.  They craft the questions carefully so that questions elicit multiple responses.  They think through possible student responses.  They ensure that the questions will promote equitable student interactions and participation.
  4. Again, a teacher might need to stay on the 10% of the instruction that focuses on questioning for a a couple weeks or so.  That’s perfectly fine and it’s essential that they are confident and successful with this 10% of their instruction before moving on to the next 10%.  At the end of this time, 20% of the instructional time has now been improved upon and just as runners gain confidence and stamina with their running by following the principles of 10PR, teachers too will begin to feel more confident in their teaching and energized by the conversations and interactions taking place in the classroom.
  5. Teachers can then begin to look at the remaining portions of their instructional time and use the concepts I shared in “Chunk and Chew”, for example, to adjust their actions and the student learning activities in 10% intervals until the entire lesson cycle or instructional period has been revised and improved.

When runners want to improve their endurance and prepare to be their best when it counts, race time, they follow the principles of 10PR.  It allows them to systematically and methodically improve their running while giving their body time to adjust, heal, and grow stronger.  Teachers can use the same principles in 10PR to breakdown their instructional time in a way that improves student learning and grows them as educators.

If you found this article useful, please consider sharing it with other educators and use the comment features of Facebook or Twitter or other social media to begin your own dialogue about improving teaching and student learning.

-CS

Chunk & Chew: Giving Learners Processing Time

How brain friendly is your classroom?  In the race to cover material and teach concepts/skills, do your students have time during their “learning” to actually process the things being taught?  In almost any lesson there is new or essential information presented to students.  Some times students are able to acquire this information without much difficulty while other times, it can be quite the challenge and even interfere with mastery of the essential learning goal.

In Robert Marzano’s seminal book, The Art and Science of Teaching, he shares one strategy that can prove to be very effective for students when trying to help them acquire new information or essential concepts/skills.  Instead of forcing large amounts of new information on students at one time or during an extended amount of time, he recommends “chunking” the information.  Chunking is the process of taking essential information and breaking it into small, digestible bits that allow students to understand the information more deeply while also making connections and building context for deeper understanding.

Spence Rogers adds to this idea by allowing for processing time as well and calls it the “10-2 Rule“.  For every ten minutes of instruction, students should be given two minutes to process or interact with the information.  I like to think of this in t10-2erms of pouring a bottle of soda into a glass.  At one point the glass will be filled and there will still be soda left in the bottle to be poured (more information).  You can either keep
pouring it and spill the soda all over the counter OR you can take the time to drink some from the glass which will allow you to pour more soda into the glass.  Our students, all learners really, are like that glass.  They must be given the time to process the information we are sending their way.  For younger students, this time can be even shorter than 10 minutes.  Another good rule of thumb to use is no more than one minute per year of age before taking a break for processing.  So if you’re teaching an 8 year old (2nd grade), you should be stopping every eight minutes or so to give them a couple minutes to process the information, concept, or skill.

I tend to use the term “chunk and chew” when I refer to this processing time within instruction.  There are lots of ways in which teachers can chewimplement a processing time within their lessons.  It doesn’t have to just be a stop, turn and talk, then back to the lesson process.  A few other examples of effective processing strategies include:

 

  • Think-Pair-Share:  Teacher teaches.  Teacher asks asks a question or gives a problem.  Teacher asks partners to think about it on their own.  Partners take turns sharing their thoughts.
  • Mix-Pair-Share:  Teacher teaches.  Group mixes around the room (music playing in background helps).  Teacher tells students to pair up with nearest student.  Teacher gives them a topic to discuss.  Mix again and repeat.
  • Round Robin:  Team numbers off (1-4).  Teacher assigns a task, question, or problem.  Teammates answers question in turn order.  Teacher leads a whole group discussion to verify and clarify.
  • Four Corners:  Teacher has the room divided into four areas/regions/corners with a theme or answer choice (stongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree).  Teacher gives a prompt and students move to the corner that aligns with their their thoughts/understanding.  Students form groups of two or three in their corner and discuss their ideas further.  Students can then report out their ideas to the whole class.  (A spinoff or extension of this could be to let the students choose a new corner after hearing from all of the groups to see if they have changed their mind.)

These are just a few simple and fairly common strategies teachers can use with their students to give them processing time.  Some of them even have the added advantage of being kinesthetic and tapping into multiple learning styles which is also an important consideration in helping students master new information, concepts, and skills.

I hope you’ll give this notion of “chunk and chew” a try in your classroom and if you have other strategies or ideas, please share them as comments to the blog so others can learn as well!