Thoughts on Motivation

I had a Twitter conversation last week about motivation for teachers. Since then, numerous posts, tweets, and situations have popped up right in front of me, and I knew I needed to write about this.

The gentleman¹ I was debating on Twitter (the actual thread isn’t important to recount in its entirety) about motivation was correct in his statement that motivation is intrinsic. I can’t truly motivate another person to change behavior. I can, however, provide an environment that helps to inspire, challenge, and provide opportunities for autonomy and creativity. That was my point in the debate. When the environment is lacking, it’s difficult to stay motivated. We can’t and shouldn’t always blame an individual for a lack of motivation.

Since that tweet thread, I read tweets from an account called AnonymousProfessorAngus Johnston quoted this one and added his own thoughts:

This resonated with me and led back to the conversation I’d had earlier. How do we expect students to be motivated when they’re treated as adversaries? Even if the kids aren’t treated in that manner, they still sense it. Kids are entirely more perceptive about their teachers than most people believe.

This goes for teachers and administrators also. If the environment in which we learn and work stifles who we are, how we learn, how we help others to learn, it is very difficult to be motivated. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but day after day, month after month, the drudgery wears on a person’s ability to remain motivated. In some instances, it’s quite soul-crushing.

I read another post on Facebook this morning by a former teacher who watched a video of a guitar-playing youngster on Steve Harvey’s show, Little Big Shots. His comment with the video was something along the lines of “I wish some of my former students had shown this kind of drive.” My first thought after reading that was… what did YOU do to help those kids recognize their own passions? Knowing this person, I’m sure he did a lot. He was a fantastic teacher… but this comment still wore on me.

Do we recognize and honor our kids’ passions? What could they be excited about and want to learn more? Because the drive to excel at something is personal, we have to ensure that kids have the opportunity to show us those things that excite them! Additionally, we have to help introduce concepts/skills/topics to kids in a way that might create a new spark. If kids don’t know what they don’t know, how can we help them explore new ideas that might generate a new passion? This is all about the culture of learning in our schools. Is the culture in YOUR school open to these ideas to help kids explore their own interests, or only that which is in the written curriculum?

Drive… motivation… whatever you want to call it. You can’t be motivated about things that aren’t interesting to you. You might summon up some willpower to trudge into the things you just have to get through, but that’s not motivation.

I don’t want kids to have to see learning as something to suffer through. I don’t want classroom teachers to feel like they just have to make it through until summer break… or worse, until they can retire. In either case, for students and teachers, that’s a lot of years to go uninspired.

I get it. We are human beings. We’re going to have ups and downs. If I’m in a classroom (which I am currently), it’s up to me to stay motivated for my students. And I’m not a superteacher… I have my sucky days like anyone else. Where I’m fortunate, though, is that I am in a learning environment where I have autonomy and room to be who I am… to teach in a way that suits me, but also inspires my kids.  I am inspired daily by our school leader and my colleagues, and we have each others’ backs. Our students benefit from that, because that’s what we hope to provide for them as well. But not everyone has that type of environment.

So what can we do? Collectively, there are ways to help.

  1. Recognize and be aware that some people – students and teachers- go to school/teach in a place that wears on their emotional well-being. It’s not always a matter of “just suck it up.” You can only do that for so long.
  2. LISTEN. Don’t interject ideas of what they could do better… just be a listener. Sometimes people who feel they are trapped in a no-win situation at a school just need a friendly ear. Yes, it’s probably going to be negative, but just be there for that person. Use supportive phrasing, such as “I can imagine that would be very difficult,” etc.
  3. Instead of giving them platitudes, motivational memes,  or “go get ’em, tiger” suggestions, ask them how you can provide support.
  4. Probably the most important: If YOU are in a place to help change the surroundings, DO IT.
    • If you’re a teacher with students who don’t seem motivated, don’t blame them. Look at yourself and make the changes your students need. ASK THE KIDS ABOUT THEMSELVES. <– This is a good place to start.
    • If you’re an admin, and there is a morale issue in your building, that’s on you to help change. Enlist some people who are willing to step up and help you turn things around. Change “business as usual” by asking for input, and then actually read it and implement some new practices.
    • Ask for help. Ask other people what they do to inspire.
    • Find someone who inspires you, and then model some of those same practices in your own leadership.

I think the most important way to help another individual to be motivated is to look around, reflect on the surroundings, and be brutally honest with yourself… how are you contributing to a place where it’s easier to be complacent or just go through the motions? I know from experience how hard it is to admit that YOU might be the problem… but YOU can also be part of the solution.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

¹I’m not sharing his name here, because this post is a) not about our debate, b) not a wish to prove him wrong, nor c) an attempt to out or shame another person in any way.

² This account makes me embarrassed for the people who contribute and for those who like/share its contents. This is a shameful practice for educators, and you can #dobetter.

Learning vs Teaching

Do you ever write a blog post and leave it in “drafts” for so long… you forget your wrote it? That happened with this post. This post was initiated last spring and completed today with some additions.

For too long now, we have equated “learning” with the “result of being taught.” I’m not refuting the fact that we can learn from great teachers… in fact, that’s not my point at all. Teachers make a significant impact in whether students have an opportunity to learn or not in a school environment.

Rather, the point I want to make is that, for too long, we have equated learning with consuming what has been delivered TO learners. Traditional schooling has tried to make learning a passive activity, and I feel the damage we’re doing to children is resulting in generations of people who cannot think for themselves. Additionally, they have a difficult time learning anything that is new or unfamiliar – if a problem is put in front of them that doesn’t resemble a problem they’ve already seen, most students will struggle.

Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of educators talking about how we need to help students learn “how to learn.” I vehemently disagree. Children come to us as innate learners. If anything, most schooling conditions children to turn off their learning brains and substitute with their compliance/consumer brains. If you think you have students who need to be taught how to learn… you’re wrong. They just need help reprogramming themselves to actually learn, and that requires removing almost everything they have been conditioned to do in a traditional school environment.

Learning isn’t memorizing something and then performing on a test. If you disagree with me, pull out a test from one or two months ago and give it to your students. Most of them will not be able to pass this test, even if they aced it before. Now, if those same students created something through building, baking, composing, painting, etc. – something where the learning was meaningful, my guess is that they would be able to replicate (and most likely improve) their creations over and over again.  

When I speak to other educators about learning, they usually agree… except when it comes to facts and skills they strongly believe must be TAUGHT.

EXAMPLE: I am constantly asked how I TEACH my students to read, considering I do not focus on teaching and drilling sight words, phonemic awareness, etc.
 
I usually answer, “I don’t TEACH my students to read.”
 
I get the same questions when it comes to math… “How do they learn math if you don’t practice math facts?” *
 
And the question, especially from other educators, “How will your students learn to read, learn their math facts (etc.) if you don’t TEACH them?”
 
Yet… my students DO learn to read. They do learn their math facts, and so, SO much more!
 
How is it at all possible that the students in my classroom are reading, are applying math facts to actual math problems that they find (not necessarily problems I give them to solve)?
 
The answer is simple, and it’s one we’ve forgotten over years – nearly a century really- of delivering information to kids to “learn.” Consuming information that is delivered from a teacher is not LEARNING. 
 
When I memorize a bunch of stuff that someone else decides is important for me to know, that process takes one of the most important facets of learning out of the learners hands– the agency of the learner.
 

Human beings learn about the world around them when they’re curious… when they see a need to know and understand something… and then want to USE that newly found knowledge/skill. Good teachers know this and help provide an environment where kids are able to learn and pursue those things that make them curious. Master teachers know how to expose children to new experiences – those they may not discover on their own – to create new opportunities for learning to occur. 

Inventing, planning, and building a new form of mass transportation for water.

Inventing, planning, and building a new form of mass transportation for water.

 
When WE (educators) decide what students should learn, it becomes a chore. Curiosity lessens. And the opportunity to actually use that new knowledge is rarely provided outside an artificial environment.
 
Case in point… I have observed years and years of children sitting in science class “learning” from a textbook. THAT is not science! That’s reading comprehension. When you have never practiced actual science and only read about it… that is not learning science.
 
In discussions with other educators, I often hear things along the lines of “Well, if I don’t explain it to them first, how will they learn it?” This line of thinking misses the beauty of true learning. Ask any adult what they remember the most from high school. I guarantee it won’t be anything they were “taught” and memorized for a test. Delivered information resides in our short-term memory if we don’t do anything beyond memorizing it. We KNOW this… it’s not new to teachers. We learn that memorization is the lowest order of thinking. So why do we still concentrate more in this area in education than the others? Short answer: it’s the quickest and easiest to test. Efficiency for the win (or not). The longer answer is much more complicated.
 
I’ve written several posts like this before with explanations about what learning IS and what it IS NOT.  So have a lot of other people. I’ll add some to comments and welcome your additions as well! 
 
So to get back to my original example (and reason for writing this post)…
The answer to the questions I get from educators who see what we do at Anastasis Academy  – and wonder how on earth my K/1s learn how to read, write, understand math, etc.  -without teaching via traditional methods educators are used to seeing –  is THIS:
 
I don’t teach kids to read.
I don’t teach kids to write.
I don’t teach kids to memorize math facts… or vocabulary… or any of those other delivered items/standards to which we have clung so tightly in traditional education.
 
I facilitate a learning environment where they are curious.
 
I facilitate a learning environment where they want to learn to read.
 
I facilitate a learning environment where they want to make sense of numbers.
 
(I could go on, but I think you get the picture.)
 
We do not drill phonics or math facts. We read all the time. We talk about letters, sounds, word endings, rhyming words, patterns, etc. IN THE CONTEXT OF WHAT WE ARE LEARNING. Always.
 
Let me emphasize that…
Yes, sometimes we’ll stop and talk about how verbs in the past tense sound like they end in a “t,” but the patterns we see in our books are “-ed.” We remark about this pattern every time we see it, and then we also start noticing it in our writing.
Pretty soon, the students start to think and edit themselves in their writing of past tense verbs. It makes sense to them, because it comes up in the context of what they’re already doing. These types of little mini or “pop out” lessons happen all the time, but the most important part is this: it’s always in the context of what we’re learning. I cannot stress this enough.
 
So if you ask me how I teach my kids to read if I don’t focus on all the traditional 20th/21st century methods of teaching reading, I will tell you…
 
I don’t teach them to read. They LEARN to read.
You can substitute any other concept/skill in the above sentences, because the emphasis is always on LEARNING, not teaching.
 
 
 (My class and I blog at architectsofwonder.edublogs.org… we share a lot of what we do and how we learn there. We also tweet from @TeamBaldwin and would love to hear from you!)

*Two of my “learning and math” posts that are relevant:

We Don’t Need Badges for Reading

IMG_9386

(c) 2016 Michelle K. Baldwin (all rights reserved)

My students love to read… and I don’t exaggerate when I say “love.” They adore books of all kinds, and they are excited for any time of the day that includes a book. This love for reading has come from a very carefully cultivated classroom environment where they have access and abundant choice in reading. (I can’t take all the credit, though. For many of them, that love of books is also nurtured greatly at home. My goal as their teacher is to help that love continue to grow.)

When I want them to do some research about the topics that interest them, I pull as many books as I can from our own little library and spread them across the tables in our classroom. We read picture books together. We read books with accompanying CDs and songs. There’s a great mix of non-fiction and fiction available to them. Reading is not a chore in this classroom – it’s a right that feels like a gift.

My emergent readers have access to the same books that my developing and fluent readers have. Sometimes they choose books that they cannot yet read (emphasis on “yet”), and sometimes they choose books that might be considered too easy. What I see is a continued love for books and continued progress in where they started when they first came to this classroom in the fall.

Earlier in the year, we were very excited to get an app on our iPads that brought us access to even more books. The kids could search for a keyword, and many titles showed up in the results. When we needed to do some investigating in our inquiry block and didn’t have enough books on each topic for individual research, this app helped fill a void. I was very pleased and often tweeted about how happy I was with this app*.

Then something changed. All of a sudden, my kids wanted to read on this app all the time. They were quietly chattering amongst themselves about how many books they had been reading, how much they read over the weekend… but something seemed “off” to me.

This past Monday, one of my little girls was in tears. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong until she was finally able to tell me that she didn’t get the Mother’s Day badge. I asked her what she was talking about, and the other kids showed me their badges page in the app. Sometimes, you get a badge just for reading on a special day. I explained to her that it was ok that she didn’t get a badge for reading on that day… and that the badges don’t matter at all to me. She told me that she had spent the day with her family and not on her iPad… and I explained to her that it was a better thing to be doing than reading for the purpose of getting a special badge.

On top of that exchange, I heard my students’ conversations change. Instead of being excited about what they had learned from reading, as had been the case before, now they were all talking about which badges they received.

I brought them all to the center of the room and asked them what was going on. I questioned, “Why are we reading books?” Some of them answered, “because we like reading and because we learn a lot.” But then the responses changed, too. They started to talk all about the badges- how they liked getting more badges and how important that is. One of them even mentioned how you can page through all of the books in the app to trick the app into thinking you’ve read the book… and then you get MORE BADGES.

They could tell from the look on my face how disappointed I was. There was a bit of silence for a while, and then one of the 7 year olds started to say, “Guys, I think we forgot about why we read. Badges aren’t important.” Not everyone agreed with him. My solution was to tell them that we will continue to use the app for research, but that’s it. If we’re reading just to get a badge, then we’re reading for all the wrong reasons. If the badge mania continues, we’re going to delete the app. 

Just like that… my students’ motivation to read – because they love reading and want to learn more – flipped like a switch. This is what happens every single time we apply extrinsic motivation to something we want to encourage. EVERY. TIME. I’ve taught long enough to see cycles of rewards for reading… or learning to play the recorder… or learning multiplication tables… whatever you want to add to the list. You might help a kid memorize something or change a behavior, but extrinsic rewards always fail on a long-term basis.

I’m not the only person to write about this…

Pernille Ripp has written extensively on reading motivation here, here, and here – These posts are very specific to reading logs, but make a similar point. (If you’re not reading her blog, please do. The posts on reading instruction alone will be well worth your time.)

Alfie Kohn wrote a great post (amongst many) about The Risk of Rewards… but most directly about this topic in A Closer Look at Reading Incentive Programs.

As I spoke with Kelly Tenkely this morning about this blog post I needed to write about reading incentives, she recommended a book called Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher. I haven’t yet read this book, but I can guarantee that badges (or pizza coupons) are not going to be the solution to what’s happening in reading instruction and motivating kids to read.

Larry Ferlazzo has an entire curated list dedicated to posts he and others have written about the failure of extrinsic rewards in education. Take the time to read these!

Honestly, I could have just posted links to the above posts and the book recommendation and not even written THIS post… however, there’s a story here. I saw firsthand what happened to my littles when they were incentivized with something other than reading itself. They already loved reading… but then their focus changed for the worse. I have some “badge damage” to undo with a few of my kids.

*I’m not blaming the makers of this particular app, and I’m not using this blog post to call them out publicly. They are providing what scores of other teachers (unfortunately) want.

Here’s what I want:

  1. Get rid of the badges. ENTIRELY.
  2. Create a graphic of a bookshelf within your app to show kids which books they’ve already read (I know there’s a scrollable section where they can see what they’ve read, but the virtual bookshelf would make it easier to see the sum total.)
  3. DO NOT CREATE POINTS OR BADGES FOR THE NUMBER OF BOOKS ON THE VIRTUAL BOOKSHELF.
  4. Continue to provide great choices for the kids to read… because ultimately, that’s what will keep us reading.

If none of my suggestions are possible, then consider giving teachers the option to turn off the badges. We don’t need them, and I’m not putting my students in a situation where badges are an option anymore.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. If you made it all the way to the end, you can give yourself 10,000 make-believe points as a reward. *wink*

Star Wars, The Cool Kids, & Ridicule

I’m a huge Star Wars nerd, and I’m proud of that. I think I was in 2nd grade when A New Hope was released, and it absolutely captivated me. I have so much nostalgia for those movies, and I don’t care if other people think I’m weird for liking them so much. Yes, I have an R2-D2 USB charger in my car, and I nearly lost my mind the other day when my Waze navigation app asked if I would like to have C3PO’s voice deliver my driving instruction. Umm… YES!

Of course I have friends who don’t “get” my love of all things Star Wars. Most of them chuckle at my excitement… some of them politely rib me about it… some come right out and say, “I don’t understand how you can get so into these sci fi/fantasy movies.”

And that’s okay. I’m almost 47 years old, and I’m at that wonderful place in my life where I don’t always care so much about what other people think of me. It’s taken a long time to get to that place, even though I still struggle in some areas.

I started thinking this morning about how people sometimes make fun of others simply for the things they LIKE… or are really passionate about. A friend and I were chatting yesterday about how mainstream Comic Con has become. Conventions like that used to be fodder for a lot of jokes. People dressing up like the characters in comics, science fiction, or fantasy? What nerds, right? Now we know that cosplaying is an art form, and I’m increasingly in awe of the incredible attention to detail in so many of those costumes!

A couple weeks ago, a “news” channel, which shall remain unnamed (and not linked, because I don’t think they deserve more attention or traffic to their website), spent time making fun of people who like Star Wars. One of the commentators went on and on about how ridiculous these people are, and that she is too cool and “attractive” (yes, she actually used that term) to be into Star Wars. She presented herself as one of the Cool Kids, and liking something she thinks is stupid is unthinkable.

So, ridicule is important enough to air these days? (Again, I consider the source, but still…)

As always, my teacher hat pops on, and I think about the students in my classroom, in our school… and kids all around us. What does it say to THEM when they hear someone ridicule another person or group of people simply for what they LIKE?

When I was a shy, little girl, I was VERY aware of what the people around me thought. In 5th grade, I was really excited to wear my brand new Peanuts socks to school. Every character was on those socks, and I thought they were really cute. I wore a dress that day, and proudly pulled up those socks to my knees, so that you couldn’t miss seeing Charlie Brown and company.

When I got to school, some of my friends looked at my socks and then walked away. Later, I overheard them whispering to each other, “Can you believe she likes Peanuts?” “That’s so stupid.” “I hate Charlie Brown and Snoopy.”

3345031799_ff51aaf115_b

CC licensed photo by Matt Grimm

I was crushed. I kept trying to hide my legs under the table so no one would see them. I thought about taking them off and putting them in my backpack, but I lived in Omaha, Nebraska… and it was a chilly day. I excused myself to the restroom and tried turning them inside out, but you could still see exactly what they were. I stayed in the restroom and cried for a while, because I didn’t know what to do.

[Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/66Aaq4 by Matt Grimm]

That was one example… but I know most of us have have multiple examples of situations like that. As I got older, I started hiding the things I REALLY liked from my friends. I was a closet nerd. Most of the kids in my class loved Star Wars, so I didn’t have to hide that. Luckily, it was cool to like Star Wars in the late 70s and early 80s. But my tastes in music, certain books, TV shows, toys I played with… much of that was hidden from the kids at school. I stopped sharing the things I was really passionate about and pretended to like the things that the other kids liked. Sad, but pretty typical, right?

When I became a music teacher, I often invited the kids to bring in music they wanted to share with their class. I didn’t realize that asking 7-12 grade kids to do this could open up a lot of pain for some kids. As they brought in their cassette tapes and CDs, I asked them to play a song for the class and then explain what they liked about the music, lyrics, etc. We had to go beyond just saying, “It’s cool,” to discussing the music a little more deeply. I asked the rest of the class to also ask questions or provide comments about the music…  Which instruments do you hear?What do you hear in the bass line? How does any of this make the song unique? etc.

A lot of the kids brought in heavy metal (to this day, I think I know all the lyrics to “Enter Sandman by heart.), rap, and a lot of country. Often, I would hear comments about how stupid someone was for liking a particular song… and that took me right back to the days of being ridiculed for liking something that others did not. I couldn’t let it go.

I asked the kids, “Do we all have to like the same things? Is one type of music better or cooler than another type? Or is it just different?” We started discussions that, at first, weren’t very productive. But as we started to analyze the music more deeply, the kids started to notice some common elements, patterns, and other factors that helped them move forward in their thinking. I kept reminding them how boring it would be if we all liked exactly the same things. Some of the kids started listening to music they would never have dreamed they’d like. For those kids whose tastes were completely different than their peers, I started to see some relief, and eventually, more confidence about those tastes.

Inevitably, the kids started asking me about my tastes in music… and other things as well. I shared the things I liked. When they laughed at some of the songs, movies, TV shows, and books I brought up, I stopped and just looked at them. And waited. And waited… until one of the students stood up for me. That was HUGE! By modeling for them that it was okay to like different things, and that it was actually cool to be an outlier with your tastes, some of them were able to step up and advocate for me, and eventually their peers. When kids begin to act as leaders in your school and start to show acceptance of diverse tastes, the rest of the kids take notice.

Fast-forward to the present in my teaching with 5, 6, and 7 year olds, I’m seeing the same things. They all tend to want conformity, and they’re sometimes afraid to share the things they really love that are different. We spend a LOT of time really working out those issues and sharing that we SHOULD all like different things. We are better together, because we have diverse tastes.

Now… back to the recent Star Wars ridicule. Or whatever it is that someone is really passionate about. If you’re an educator (or parent, or someone who has influence with children), how are you modeling acceptance? How are you showing children that we should celebrate our differences? That it’s okay to like something that isn’t mainstream or popular?

It’s difficult enough for kids, especially when peer pressure is so great an influence in their lives… if the adults are acting like Regina George from Mean Girls and dictating our tastes and opinions, how are the kids supposed to deal with that on their level?

One of the parents from my school told me earlier this year that she could hear “my voice” in her son’s conversations at home. At first, I was flattered… and then I started thinking even more about how great my influence is on these children… and what a heavy responsibility that is. If I were to make fun of a movie I didn’t like, for example, what would that do to a child in my class who liked that movie? What impression does that leave with that child?

I can’t just leave that in the classroom. I see it among the adults in my network, on Facebook (which is its own evil monster sometimes), and in conversations with acquaintances. Yes, snark is often funny, but I wonder how we could learn to appreciate our different tastes more… or maybe just let it go. If you don’t “get” why everyone is losing their minds over Star Wars right now (or whatever the new thing will be after the Star Wars mania dies down), that’s okay. Maybe just keep that to yourself. We won’t tell the other Cool Kids.

You don’t make your flame any greater by extinguishing that of another.

Trust, Compassion, and Love

Think about this:

Why do we cheer on Katniss Everdeen and company in the Hunger Games? Katniss sees a wrong and wants to fix it. The authority (the Capitol) abuses its power. When a person in one of the districts breaks the rules or speaks out against the Capitol, they’re physically and publicly punished. Katniss doesn’t trust the Capitol, and she leads a revolution… and we cheer.

When our STUDENTS communicate to us something they see as a wrong, do we applaud them for speaking up? Or do we try to shut them down and force compliance? When they break our rules, do we sit down and talk with them? Or do we punish? How often is that punishment public and/or physical?

 

What if…

  • we showed kids that we trust them?
  • we stopped requiring absolute compliance with no questioning? (because we wouldn’t want that requested of us, right?)
  • we looked at their acts of defiance as courage to stand up and advocate for themselves?
  • we taught them how to respect others by showing them respect first?
  • we looked at “discipline problem children” as who they really are? Human beings who need our care, trust, compassion, love… and no labels. They are children. Period.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the video* I watched where a young girl was thrown around her classroom while still in her chair… because she didn’t put her phone away. People commented that it wouldn’t have happened if she would have just done what she was told. Comply with my rules, or we will physically cause you harm? In my eyes, the ONLY justification in putting hands on a child is if he (or she) is endangering himself or others… and then only to restrain.

Reading more about her story is heartbreaking. What if an adult in that school had taken the time to simply stop and TALK with her? I’m betting we wouldn’t have seen a video of her being thrown around the room.

It’s extremely obvious that we do not trust kids… and that the depth of our fear OF those children (yes, children) goes so far that we allow them to be hurt by us. We allow them to be treated as LESS than. Less than human. And when you account for the suspension/expulsion rates broken down by race, you see an even more sinister story. We don’t trust kids, especially children of color.

I say “WE,” because each of us is complicit in allowing to this happen over and over again when we don’t stand up to make it end NOW.

I’ve come a long way from my first few years of teaching. Those years when I required absolute compliance. Those years when I didn’t listen to a “sob story,” because I didn’t trust the kids to do what they were “supposed” to do. Those years when a lot of my students hated me and didn’t trust me at all. I didn’t trust them. I didn’t respect them. As their teacher, I was supposed to anticipate that these students would try to get the better of me… would try to be lazy… would try to do anything but what they were supposed to be doing… if I didn’t have the upper hand.

Now, I look back on some of those kids I had… the really defiant ones… and I know they were hurting. I know they needed me to teach them that life was more than what we learning in the classroom… that someone could care about why they were upset. That sometimes an adult who will just LISTEN is more important than following the rules every step of the way. And I wasn’t that teacher.

I’ve read and heard a lot of comments about how “kids are so disrespectful nowadays,” and how they need to be taught respect properly. (Read here: we need to teach them to fear us). Any time I’ve ever heard someone use the phrase, “they need to be taught to respect me,” it always comes across as derisive. Full of contempt. As a child, why would I ever want to respect someone who wants me to fear them?

How can we teach kids to respect us if we don’t respect them?

How can we teach kids to trust us if we don’t trust them?

I am the adult in the classroom. THE ADULT. I need to ensure the safety of my students… yes. But they are in my care, and I take that very seriously. My second priority as a teacher is to help these children love to learn. My first priority is to make sure they know they are cared for. They are trusted. And yes, they are loved. When they make mistakes… and they WILL… I need to be the adult who can think past the mistake. I need to be the adult who sees the child in front of me. The child waiting to see how I will react.

I didn’t do that when I first became a teacher, and that still haunts me. I will not make that same mistake again.

 

 

 

*I didn’t link to the video. There are too many of these types of videos. This is a crisis, and we have to step up. Do better.

Start With The Kids

School started for us at Anastasis Academy last Wednesday. We’ve had three days with our classes so far, and I’m so excited about all the possibilities in store for our students.

My students on the playground (c) Michelle K. Baldwin 2015

My students on the playground
(c) Michelle K. Baldwin 2015

I have nine kids in my class this year, four of whom were with me last year, too. They range in age from 5 to 7, and watching every little aspect of the school day through their eyes is an incredible experience already.

I should back up a bit and explain that we have meetings with each child individually before the first day of school. We call these meetings “Learning Profiles.” We ask the kids about themselves, their favorite movies, what they like most about school, their best vacation ever, etc.

One of the questions we ask is, “If you could change anything about yourself, what would you change?” Every single one of my littles replied with either “Nothing!” or “I don’t know… probably nothing.” (Wouldn’t it be awesome to go back in time to that place when we really liked exactly who we were?)

I always enjoy these learning profiles so very much. The kids make me smile, laugh, and sometimes even cry. Most importantly, I get to know quite a bit about these little friends before they join the rest of their classmates for their first day.

Before school even starts, we spend time getting to know each child… even those we’ve had in class before. We start with the kids.

Not the curriculum. (We don’t have boxed curriculum at Anastasis, but even the thoughts about what we want to do with our students come later… after we actually know something about the kids in our care.)

Not the rules.

Not the routine of each day.

Not which gimmick or trendy education panacea will be best for our students and help raise their test scores.

We start by having conversations with every single kid and really listening to them. And these kids have a lot to tell us about what they want to learn about, how they like to learn (spoiler alert: none of them likes to sit still all day!), etc.

Our school’s founder, Kelly Tenkely, often talks about how she started our school with specific kids in mind. That these are “kids with names.” That kids are more than test scores. That children are NOT data points.

As a teacher, I think very intentionally about every single child in my classroom… and I start truly considering what each of them needs.

Many of you reading this post know I’m a connected educator. I believe very strongly in connecting my kids with other classrooms, educators, and experts around the world to learn from them and share what we’re learning with them. I love bringing other connected friends into my classroom, either in person or virtually, to expand our learning beyond our classroom walls.

But I don’t start with those connections.

At Anastasis, we like to get our kids out of the classroom to other learning experiences – museums, performances, and service learning opportunities –  just to name a few.

But we don’t start there.

We start with the kids. If any one of us thinks we know what’s best for these children BEFORE we get to know them, we are doing a huge disservice to those in our care.

My advice to you as you continue with your newly started school year or before those kids walk into your classroom for the first time in 2015-16:

  • Forget the gimmicks. These are not the things that are going to help your students learn.
  • Forget the outside connections for a while.
  • Take the time to get to know your students. (I know that many of you are in situations where you have two or three times as many kids in your classes as I do. I also know that you’re not able to have Learning Profile meetings before school like we do.But that doesn’t mean you can’t get to know your kids before everything else grabs your focus.)
  • Take the time to ask them about themselves.
  • Give them a reason to open up to you, and then keep that privilege sacred. When a child trusts you enough to share something personal, show her that you value her and what she has shared.
  • Ignore the advice from your undergraduate training that told you to hide your “humanness” and to be the “firm, but fair” teacher. Instead, show the kids you really care about them (not just their learning).

THIS is where you start when you want to improve a child’s education. It always starts with the kids.

 

Dreams Fulfilled

As the school year came to a close for us this past May, I realized that I had just finished my 20th year in education: six years in 7-12 vocal music, eight years as a technology professional development coordinator, two years in elementary general music, and the last four as a teacher at Anastasis Academy.

At each stage in my education career, I have loved working with my students, both children and adults. But somehow, I always felt something was missing. I didn’t always like that students were required to learn a certain way or a pre-defined set of skills and concepts… and that I was required to teach in a certain way. It didn’t seem like real learning to me.

A good friend of mine, Sharon Comisar-Langdon (who just retired after 34 years!) visited Colorado a while back. It was great to catch up with Sharon and her husband, Randy. I found myself going on and on and on about how much I loved Anastasis and the incredible opportunities we have for our students. At one point, Sharon remarked, “Michelle, what you’re doing at this school is what we ALL went into education to do.”

That statement has stuck with me since that time, and she was right. I have never been happier as a teacher than I am now – watching our students at Anastasis grow in their confidence, ask amazingly deep questions, and become excited about learning! This is a place where students LOVE school. This is a place where teachers love school!

I watched a lot of my teacher friends post countdowns to summer break on Facebook and other social media sites a few months back, and I realized at the time, I had no idea how many days we had left. As much as I enjoy sleeping in occasionally during the summer, I’m not excited for summer break anymore. I miss my students! I miss the joy of learning I am so privileged to witness in those children every single day.

I didn’t mean this to sound like a commercial for our school, but more a testament to what happens when you stick your neck out and do something DIFFERENT. Anastasis is different.

To Kelly Tenkely (who is actually celebrating a birthday today), I express my profound gratitude. Thank you for thinking, “why not me? Why shouldn’t I just start my own school?” Thanks for writing a blog post that started Anastasis. Thank you for making a place where people WANT to be – what I have always loved about teaching and learning happens because of your dreams and drive to make them happen.

This also makes me wonder… why don’t more of us do this? Why don’t we stand up to the lawmakers, those who make and enforce policy, and demand what’s best for kids? Why do we insist on “fixing a broken system” with more of the same things that make kids unhappy? Learning should be an experience that is enjoyable, challenging, and based on the needs of each child. I don’t see that happening in most places.

My friend, George Couros, often asks, “Would you want to be a kid in your classroom?” I can truly answer an enthusiastic YES to that question now… and I wish my own children could have experienced learning in this school as well.

As a child, I knew that I wanted to become a teacher, because I love learning… and I wanted to share that love and joy with others. As much as I enjoyed my previous experiences, there was always something missing. Teaching at Anastasis is not just a job. Now I am able to share my passion about learning with our students. As Sharon noted, I get to do what I always dreamed about doing. The smiles on their faces, the realization you see in their eyes when they learn something on their own terms, the pride they feel when they see their progress, and the joy they experience because they know they’re in a place that honors them as unique individuals – THAT is what I wanted to be able to experience when I dreamt about going into teaching. Dreams fulfilled.

Yes, Motivation DOES Matter

I teach in a school where I get to see children excited about learning. Every. Single. Day.

Is it always perfect? Of course not.

Do the kids sometimes get frustrated when they’re challenged with something difficult? Absolutely… but (stealing Tom Hank’s line again from A League Of Their Own) the “hard is what makes it great.”

When a child learns something new and rises up from a challenge, they find so much about what’s inside themselves. (We all know this. Should know this.) As a teacher, there’s nothing like seeing the satisfaction and joy on a child’s face when he/she has accomplished something that initially seemed too difficult. I love seeing how motivated my students are about what they want to learn.

Important to note… we don’t do traditional testing. (or grades, or homework, or grade levels, etc.)

This morning, my friend John Spencer shared an article and asked for thoughts: Does Student Motivation Even Matter? 

The article goes on to note that students actually perform better on tests when they are not motivated… as if this information should tell us something valuable. Students who are motivated to learn do not perform on tests as well as their peers who aren’t motivated.

Does student motivation even matter? Seriously

Do you care if kids care about what they’re learning? (Not what the curriculum tells them to care about, but what THEY actually care about.) Do you care if they are bored out of their minds? Do you care if they wake up in the morning and groan about going to school?

Do you care that they forget most of what they have memorized for a test after the test is over?

Do you care that we are producing automatons who have learned more about being compliant and filling in bubbles than about thinking deeply?

Do you care if these CHILDREN are basically little hamsters hopping onto their wheel to perfunctorily execute the “same old, same old” day in and day out?

I care, and I’m horrified. Have WE become those hamsters spinning the wheels in our own lives so much so that we don’t care if we suffer others to the same fate?

The homework battle, the incessant testing… these kids are becoming drones, and does anyone even care?

I don’t want that for MY life. Why would I even think that this would be ok for a CHILD?

Children should be running. Playing. Discovering. Examining. Creating. Singing. Dancing. Making mistakes with the freedom to learn from them… and that won’t go on a record to haunt them from one level to the next.

And for the record, when I write “children,” that doesn’t mean only primary aged kids. Have you talked with a high school kid recently? Some are so serious and stressed out all the time. Why do we do this to them?

As for me, I don’t want the kind of life where I am not learning something new and exciting every single day. I don’t want drudgery. In my current position as a teacher at Anastasis Academy, I’m extremely fortunate in what I get to do. I LOVE going to work every single day. I don’t wake up dreading the routine, because it’s different every day.*

That is what I want for my students… and for all children. I want them to find something that makes them happy. I want them to find and enjoy their calling. Not their job. Not their “have to.” Not their hamster wheel.

Too many kids associate “learning” with “painful,” something they must suffer through. Why have we reinforced this? Why have we allowed people who don’t have an inkling of what true accountability means to define it for us? For our children?

I want all kids to be able to experience learning the way that my students do. I want kids to care so much about the things they learn, that they begin to think deeply and ask questions.  I want all kids to be excited about learning something new and to know that school is a place where that can happen.

So, yes. Motivation DOES matter… but not if you think learning is something you could even begin to measure with a test.

 

 

*A lot of people will argue with me and say that my traditional schooling is what led me to the opportunity of finding my calling. Not true. I was one of those really fortunate kids in school, because I have a freakish memory. School was incredibly easy for me. I was able to learn beyond what was expected of me, because of my freaky memory. While other kids were forced to practice and drill facts over and over again, I was allowed to hang out in the library and read whatever I wanted. I was allowed to create art work for my school. I was allowed to spend time in the music departments learning more about music. As for my work as an educator… I had a lot of UN-learning to do to get to where I am now. An upcoming blog post will delve into this more. 

It’s All About Context – Part Two

This is part two of a post I wrote about the importance of context in learning.

Last month, my 5 and 6 year old students listened to and discussed “The Dream Keeper,” by Langston Hughes. I wrote it for them on the white board, and we left it up to display for the whole month. We talked about who Langston Hughes was, who might be the voice in this poem, what our dreams are, what our heart melodies sound like to us, and why “the Dream Keeper” would wrap dreams up for someone, “away from the too-rough fingers of the world.” Their responses were typical for 5 and 6 year old children.

One day, we drew what our dreams and heart melodies looked like for us. Each student imported a photo of the drawing into our Explain Everything app, and then recorded an explanation of what his drawing was about. On the next slide in the app, each boy typed the full poem and then recorded himself reading it – this activity was their decision. They wanted to have a typed version of the poem somewhere in this project file.

Somewhere along the way, the boys memorized the poem… completely unbeknownst to me. I only discovered this fact when we went to visit our “grand-friends” to make Valentine’s crafts with them right before Valentine’s Day. I mentioned something about our heart melodies, and the boys started reciting the poem. My jaw dropped! We never practiced memorizing the poem. We never practiced reading it aloud together, and they’re all at different stages in their reading. There are quite a few words in this poem that are challenging for many of them!

Why, then, did they memorize this poem? It was meaningful to them. They had some context of what the words meant, why someone might want to protect the dreams of another person, and how the world isn’t always kind. Every single one of them found some connection to this poem and their own dreams and heart melodies. Even now, a month later, they want to talk about that poem.

Did they learn about Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance? A little. Do they know the connection to Hughes’ Dream Variations poetry and the structure of blues music? Not really, although they did notice it “sounded like a song.” Someday when they’re a little older and come across this poem again, they will already have a foundation to build upon. They have SOME context – in this case, an emotional connection – now for some very complex ideas.

Can you imagine what they’ll be able to do with this poem when they’re older?

I can’t always guarantee that each of my students will have an instant connection to what they’re learning. What I CAN do is help provide some context for each student… and that will look different for each and every one of them.

Most importantly, I think, is to remind ourselves (often) that memorization is NOT the most essential aspect of learning. A small step, yes; but as I mentioned in the previous post, a small child can memorize their ABCs. That doesn’t mean they can read or even tell you what sounds each letters make.

I always get a lot of pushback when I bring this up, but I’ll debate this with anyone. Yes, some foundational facts must be memorized in order to move forward with more advanced concepts, but memorization cannot be our only emphasis in learning.

So… in your school, where does most of your students’ time fall? Creating? Discussing? Evaluating?

Or is their time mostly spent on recalling information that someone has told them is important?

We emphasize to our students that which is most valuable by what we spend time doing with them.

It’s All About Context

Apologies to Meghan Trainor and her 2014 earworm… but it really is all about context

Have you ever heard a parent or teacher say something to the effect, “My child/student has regressed in the last 6 months. She knew this stuff last year! She passed tests and everything.”

Learning is fluid. Period. Brains are remarkable and in constant states of learning, unlearning, and relearning.  (Research in neuroplasticity is fascinating, and if you have any contact with kids, I hope you are reading about it.)

But here’s the deal: if your child has truly LEARNED something, she most likely won’t forget it or regress. While there are exceptions, most kids do not forget things they have truly learned.

What is more likely the case is that something was introduced without context. Kids- and adults- forget things they have committed to short-term memory that do not connect to something meaningful and relevant in their lives.

(OR… the context was only briefly visited because there wasn’t enough time to develop a real connection. Mile-wide curriculum that’s about an inch deep doesn’t leave a lot of room or time for context. But I digress…)

I’m on a math kick, so let’s use this as an example.

Young children who learn to count to ten do not actually understand counting. They’re simply mimicking a verbal pattern they memorized. Put 4 objects in front of a child who has just learned to count to 10, and he’ll point to each object, multiple times, and count to 10, not 4. This is a developmental issue, because the child does not connect the numbers he learned to say versus the number of objects in front of him.

If you put 3+2=5 in front of a child, she might memorize it easily, but if you give her the same number of objects to count, can she separate it into a group of 3 and a group of 2?

Children do not have context for numbers in print UNLESS they have something concrete in front of them. Even still, they need more exposure and experience with the concrete long before they begin to comprehend the abstract (number sentences in print).

I feel the same way about teaching music. Children should be singing songs and playing instruments long before they ever learn musical notation. You can memorize where the notes go on a staff and which note’s duration is a “ta” or a “ti-ti,” but if you have not had extensive experience with playing and singing those notes, you have no context for the notation. Some really brilliant man named Karl Orff believed this, too. (My fellow music teachers are laughing at me right now, because Orff is a really big deal).

Think about this: small children learn the alphabet song long before they’re able to make sense of the letters in the alphabet. You can recite the alphabet but not know which letters make which sounds. And you most definitely cannot read simply by reciting the alphabet.

I can sing hundreds of songs in various languages –  Italian, Portuguese, German, etc. – but I did not LEARN these languages. I memorized them and how to pronounce words in these languages. There’s no context there, other than what’s in the songs.

Those in real estate have their mantra, “Location, location, location.”

Educators should add to their repertoire, “Context, context, context.” Context helps kids make connections and move to deeper understanding, even if that deeper understanding happens down the road.

A recent example…

My 5 and 6 year old students have been using base ten blocks to help them think about adding and subtracting larger numbers. They know that, to subtract 35 from 50, they will have to swap out a ten for 10 ones. If I gave them 50-35 and taught them to “borrow,” some of them would remember HOW to do this, but they would not understand WHY. Most of them would not understand how to borrow and would become easily frustrated. Developmentally, they’re not in this place yet, but when working with the base ten blocks… every single one of them knows he has to swap a ten for 10 ones. There’s context there.

When I asked them to help me cover a wall with some paper, we learned that we had to measure the wall first. Our tape measure wasn’t long enough to measure the entire wall, so we measured in two steps. The tape measure ends at 120 inches. The second measurement was 58 inches.

I asked them to add 120 and 58. Blank stares. (Of course)

When I asked them what 120 would look like in base ten blocks (without actually using the blocks), they were able to tell me it was one blue (100) and 2 greens (10). I asked them to pretend the blue one was put off to the side for now. “You have two greens and 58. What does that mean?” They counted 58… 68… 78.

The said, “The answer is 78!” When I reminded them we still had a blue one off to the side, they were able to quickly say, “it’s 178!”

They did all of this in their heads without actually handling the base ten blocks. Because of our previous work with the blocks, they now have context about place value and adding larger numbers. Are they consistently able to do this? No. Not yet, and I want to really emphasize yet. They are 5 / 6 year old kids! But if they are able to get context in everything we’re doing – math and all the other things we learn every day – think about where they can go!

I could share so many more examples, but this post would never end. I will share a “part two” soon, because I have another wonderful example of poetry and context with my students.