Trying to be hands-off for creative tasks

 

To finish the year, I have my Year Eight students working in teams to engage with the ‘now what’ question that flowed quite naturally from the work we have been doing on social justice, third world countries and aid agencies. Effectively, I have given them free reign to complete a task of their choosing. This is not ‘academic’ work but it is definitely making use of higher-order thinking skills. This is not life-like learning. This is real-life, make-it-happen, dirt-under-the-fingernails learning.

It is challenging! Both for the students and for me. There is no planning I can do. There are no defined outcomes I can aim for. All of it is in the hands of the students. And it is stretching us all.

I have kids who want to use social media to promote a cause. Others are wanting to visit the local hospital to hand out toys to kids. Others are creating social justice themed art work. Still others want to tattoo symbols on wrists. (Seriously!)

Now, I tend to be a fairly hands-on teacher with clear plans and goals. You could see how this is definitely outside my comfort zone and why I’m feeling a degree of being out of control. (OK… I’m a bit of a control-freak when it comes to learning in my classroom…)

Basically, I need to be prepared for my students to (potentially) fail. But, as I’ve said many times, it is in those times and scenarios that the kids will learn. It’s a tightrope to walk for a teacher… How much do I input to ensure success, and how much do I let things run a natural course recognising the risk of failure. Is success needed? How do we define success anyway? How do I determine busy noise from distracted noise in the classroom? And does it matter? Does every kid need to demonstrate they are involved or, again, does that not really matter? Is the process seen as being as important as an end-result?

These are just a few of the questions that run through my mind, lesson by lesson, as we work through this process. I’m not sure I have too many of the answers at this time but I’m hoping I do in a week or so once we are finished.

But that’s just like life, isn’t it?

Hopefully, sometime soon, you’ll see some links on this blog to the work the kids are doing…

 

I know you’re busy but… 10 ways to be present for your students

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I got pulled up recently by a passing comment from one of my students… “Mr Wilcox, I know you are really busy but could I come and talk with you about my work?”
For some reason (guilt?) the ‘really busy’ bit was the barb in her words.

Why did she perceive me as busy? In what ways am I communicating that to my students? Sure, there are always plenty of things going in my professional life, but the most important of them must always remain my ability to be present for my students and their learning.  Teaching is a very busy career but it is a profession  founded on the needs of the students.  We must never put the cart before the horse.

Here are some things I have observed that will likely communicate the wrong message to students about your availability. (Some I confess to, others are not ‘me’.)

1. Using technology
Technology is an important part of teaching and should be seamlessly integral to what we do. Sometimes, however, it can become a distraction and a time-drain. Be sure it never gets in the way of solid student relationship.

2. Tweeting, texting, emailing in class
Seriously?!
I am aware of people who will do this during a class they are teaching.  It’s time to disconnect from your online world and connect with the kids in front of you.

3. Getting stuck at your classroom desk
It can be easy to set a task that engages kids and then find yourself, as the teacher, working on something else. But consider how this looks to the students. Be 100% present in every element of your student’s learning, wandering and questioning and encouraging.

4. Frequently focusing on what you (or they) need to do by a deadline
Deadlines are real and necessary but an over-emphasis on them will communicate a one-dimensional approach to learning: the busier you are the more you are effective. Take care not to let your own deadline pressures to complete things or have kids complete tasks get in the way of quality time for engaging, relational learning.

5. Being late for class
This is obviously poor form and can easily communicate that something else is more important that your presence with your class.

6. Leaving class quickly
Very much like point 5, this yells ‘too busy’ to the students. Or, even less desiringly, ‘I’m done with this teaching stuff’. Frequently, the after-lesson time will be when students will hang back and chat about learning or life. Be present for them.

7. Turning up with a coffee or cookie in your hand
Personally, I hate it when teachers bring coffee or food to class. I know there will be times when you have duty and don’t get a chance to have a break, but let’s be sure that we don’t become so relaxed about our class setting that we lose a professional, attentive approach toward our kids. By all means, have a snack time with the kids if you want. But be careful not to inadvertently communicate that you are so busy you can’t even take a break during break times.

8. Brushing kids off
I guess this is the ultimate way of communicating you’re too busy to care. If you cannot speak with a student immediately, negotiate the soonest time possible to catch up. And then, don’t forget.

9. Not providing good eye contact and attention when speaking with students
This is akin to brushing kids off. Your body language is critical in communicating positive, healthy, connected communication with your students. If you can’t give them your full attention, don’t try to give them just part attention. Either stop what you are doing or negotiate another time when you can give all of your attention to the student’s needs.

10. Not being able to be found by your students
I can think of a few teachers I have worked with who did a very good job of disappearing during break times or spare lessons. Sometimes, these are the best times for students to access you and work through issues.

Let me finish by saying again: teaching is a very busy job. There is a lot that goes on and many things that demand our time. But I believe that, in reality, many of the tasks can wait so that our students remain our main focus.
What’s your opinion?

 

6 things teens need to hear every day…

Listening-Ear1

Tomorrow
As in, “You were to have this completed today.  Let’s work toward tomorrow”.
Grace is needed with teen learners and sometimes there are very good reasons why something needs to be put off for a day or two. Teen’s lives are complex. The reason why the task is not complete today might be as varied as the sky and the earth. Listen to the reason, evaluate, then show grace when you can.  Give them until tomorrow if you can.  But then hold them to account.

 
However
As in, “You’ve done well here, here and here however what do you reckon about this part?”  Students crave balanced feedback on their work. Providing just the positives eliminates the need for improvement. Providing just the negatives is crushing. The balance of the two provides the goal and the improvement needed to get there.

 
I believe you can
Advocacy is invaluable.  Our positive encouragement is vital.  Helping teens see the pathway to further success is enlightening.

However, never should we leave them to flounder in finding that success.  Scaffolding is necessary and cushioning their failure-fall is imperative.  Which leads to…

 
You made a mistake
Mistakes are normal, needed and need to be noticed.  Celebrate the growth that comes from the discovery of a mistake. And make sure you show your mistakes and your growth too.

 
Yes
How often do we restrict learning because of our preconceptions.  We need to listen to suggestions from students and say yes more often. Creativity and thought are based on permission and exist beyond the boundaries of restriction.

 
In other words
Adolescents require explanations to be given in various way, as many times as needed. Don’t become frustrated by their lack of understanding. Be the adult. Be the teacher. Find new ways to explain. And this is not just about new words to use, but also new methods and process to demonstrate and engage in learning.

 

What would you add to this list?

 

Learning Forgiveness

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How real are you in front of your class of adolescents?  Are you willing to make mistakes?

My early teaching career was one built on the foundation of ‘the teacher is right’ (even when I was wrong).  It was not a healthy place to be and I’m glad I am not there now.  My students know I will let them know if I make a mistake; indeed, they will usually point them it to me.  We’ll also use those mistakes, as well as the ‘I don’t know’ moments, to learn and grow together.

As I have blogged before, I want my students to embrace their mistakes and learn from them.  I want them to be real; to understand their limitations as possibilities and their errors and ‘not yet achieved’s.  Hopefully they will see that modelled in me.

I trust I am helping my student to forgive themselves for the mistakes they make and to continue the growth toward maturity.

 

 

If these walls could talk 2.0

Graduation-caps

I got a bit carried away last week as I started writing on this topic.  Let me try again…

 

The end of the academic year is racing toward me at break-neck speed.  There is so much to do and so little time to do it and I know I shall be saying goodbye to my current crop of kids before I know it.  And this year it will be a bit different to many in the past because, with a role change next year, I will have less opportunity to join in the journey my students will continue through the Middle Years.

I was reflecting on the year and asking myself, “What would the walls of my classroom say about the past year?”.

If you have read any of my blog, you will know that I’m pretty passionate about the Middle Years, working with young adolescents, and engaging them in real, relational teaching as a foundation for learning.  And that means that, at times, what goes on in the classroom is rather left-of-centre from what might be considered ‘normal teaching’ (whatever that might be).

So now that we’re almost at the end of the academic year, what would my classroom report card look like (or sound like, from the classroom walls’ perspective)?

  • I would hope to get an A for laughter and tangents, as well as for learning and content connections.
  • I’d expect to do well in eye contact and listening and reflective questioning and empathy.
  • I’d be hoping to get a good mark for (appropriate) toilet humour in my boys’ class and for (seemingly) irrelevant chatter in my girls’ class.
  • I pretty sure I’d get good marks for my ability to get content stuck in brains but I trust I’d get a better mark for getting content stuck in hearts.
  • I hope I’d fail at ‘discipline’ but get a solid pass at relationships and respect.
  • I would expect to pass at mistake-making and get credit for mistake-learning.
  • And I would hope my students would report positively on their personal growth as much as their intellectual growth, and that they would report on who I am as much as what I taught.

Because of all of that, I actually am not so sure I would want my classroom walls to talk because somehow I don’t think everybody would think I’ve met the benchmarks ‘education’ likes to impose on me…

 

What would your classroom walls say about you?

 CC Image: http://yourhomebasedparties.com/category/graduation

 

Being Liked… (revisiting AMLE Characteristic 1)

class.stickers2

I’ve been revisiting the thought processes around my blog of a few months ago… and considering it in light of a post by Renee Moore titled ‘What if Your Students Don’t Like You’.

Rather than answer her question directly, let me share some things about the need for, and degree of, ‘being liked’ that a Middle Years teacher needs.

First and foremost, it is important to understand that ‘like’ may not be the most appropriate word.  Perhaps respect and understand or value would be better.  These words might best define the sort of healthy, care-filled relationship needed when teaching young adolescents.

 

So, how do we live out this healthy relationship with our adolescent students?  Let’s explore it in terms of what we are not…

  • We are not their friend; though we must be friendly.
  • We are not their peers; though we must understand something of their world and the adolescent micro-society they live in.
  • We are not their parents; though we often are blessed to speak into their lives as a parent would.
  • We may not always be liked because we know that sometimes truthful words are needed but will inevitably bring discomfort.

What we are, then, is an individual in relationship with a select group of individuals for a short period of time (within their life) who will best do the job of education through the framework of that relationship.  Like every human relationship, it will be determined and defined by many factors.  The difference for us, as educators, is that the very effectiveness of our job is shaped by the quality of the relationship.

We must not be ‘liked’ for being familiar or fun or energetic or eccentric.  We must be liked for being real and warm and interested in the individual – and being so with passion.  Everything else flows from that foundation.

As Renee Moore says…

It is no coincidence that great teachers tend to be passionate about their responsibility to their students, about learning, and about the profession…  Passionate, highly accomplished teachers should be advocates for the educational needs of their students, particularly for those who might be especially vulnerable.

 

How do you develop real and warm, engaging relationships with your students so as to become the best Middle Years teacher you can be? 

 

Image: http://www.inquisitiveclassroom.com/teacher-note-to-student/

The Past – The Adolescent – The Future

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What a great statement about adolescence. It’s so true isn’t it; adolescence is a time of transition between the comfortable and known world of childhood and the exciting, scary and enticing world of adulthood.

Now, we know that adolescents or teens or tweens can often feel they are stuck in the middle, always looking forward while wanting to maintain some hand-hold on their past.

One area in which I see this as a problem are during those times when kids want to solve their own problems, especially in the playground.  I’ve lost count of the number of occasions where I’ve had to deal with a relational issue that arose because teens wanted to explore the adult word of helping and decision-making but with disastrous results.  I’m sure you know the sort of thing… Sally has a problem with a friends and so all the girls gather around to give advice in order to sort out the problem and they decide that certain things should be said (less than tactfully).  Invariably, the problem grows way beyond what they can handle and I’m left to mop up the mess.

Not that I mind particularly because what the students are doing is discovering and learning about life, and life is messy.

What I do try to do, however, is remind the students that they still have some growing to do and some learning and understanding to acquire.  Ultimately, I want then to feel they can take some control but have adults they can (and should) bounce ideas off; adults who will help them explore healthy ways of dealing with problem.

Ahhh, the joys of teaching in the Middle Years…

 

The Synergy of Trust and Learning

There has been a subtle but significant shift in my classroom of late; so subtle I sort of missed it happening. But as I reflected on the past few English classes, especially with my boys’ class, I realised we’ve been working in a wonderfully close, trusting, and collaborative way.

We’re writing at the moment, exploring highly biased, persuasive text in a letter format. The topic is challenging but this fact in itself has brought about a level of banter between the boys and me that I simply love. They trust me and their peers to the point where they are happy to read their work aloud. Now I know that’s not a huge thing in itself but here’s what’s impressing me: they know I’ll challenge their writing and that I’ll do so quite directly but in equal proportion to the comments I’ll make about their successes. They know that any ‘criticism’ is given for the benefit of improvement and learning. And I’m excited that this level of carefully-spoken, balanced evaluation is also happening at a peer level.

This level of trust suggests an authentic learning environment and a genuine desire to learn. And these are 13 year old boys.
I can’t say I consciously did anything to make it happen but I love it.

Sometimes the synergy of education blows my mind.

Ski lessons

 

I can’t ski.

There… I’ve bared my soul by exposing a long-held secret.

In 2005 my wife, kids and I packed out bags and headed off to live and work in Canada for six months. It was one of the best personal, professional and family development times I have ever had. We made some awesome friends and experienced more of life than we thought could ever be packed into such a short timeframe.

During this time, just before Christmas, we headed to some ski fields to learn to ski. Now, I say ‘ski fields’ but the reality is less impressive than I’m sure you are imagining. Anyway, there was snow, there were not hoards of people, and we signed up for ski lessons.

None of us had skied before, primarily because the sum total of snow that falls in my state of Australia is measured in nanometres.

My two older kids were 10 and 12. They had one lesson and were off hitting the mildly sloping terrain with abandon. My youngest was in kinder-ski (she was six) and giggled her way through a few hours of hurtling into inflated animals because turning was not in her skill set yet. She was very cute. She became the darling of the (primarily Australian) ski teachers.

My wife and I, along with two other adults (I told you there were few people there) headed off to our lessons. We got the boots and skis on. We looked the part. We imagined ourselves heading for the triple black diamond run. We were pumped!

Then reality set in.

By lunch time, I managed to slide in a straight line without falling down. And I’d managed that… once. (Don’t ask about how incredibly difficult it is to ride those things that dragged you back up the slope or how much they hurt when they smack you in the back of the head when you’ve fallen down!)

I returned for the afternoon lessons hopeful that I’d master The Turn. I didn’t. I did, however, manage to justify in my mind the inherent value of skiing in a straight line (there’s much less wear and tear on one ski over the other).

The following day, because of the small number of skiers and despite my protestations that I just can’t ski, I ended up having an individual lesson.

By lunch time my instructor agreed with me. I can’t ski!

We all have strengths and weaknesses. There are those things that we struggle to achieve in.  And our students are just the same, especially during the early adolescent years when the complexities of hormonal changes and peer importance come into play.

Their beliefs about their failures are real (in their mind).  Their justification for failure becomes more engrained with every disappointment.

But I never want to be like my ski instructor.  I want to persevere and encourage and continue to find new instruction techniques that engage with my students so they can experience success.

I trust I am a better, more understanding, compassionate teacher in the light of my skiing experiences. I certainly understand the frustration of trying and failing.