Cult of Pedagogy By Jennifer Gonzalez.+Add.Feed Info1000FOLLOWERS
Cult of Pedagogy is a community of people obsessed with education with Jennifer Gonzalez, the editor-in-chief. Visit the blog to discuss and solve problems, share ideas, and support the growth of other educators.
Five years ago, the physical education department in Wellsville Secondary School, in Wellsville, New York, confronted a problem that plagues many middle and high school PE departments: Their students were showing up unprepared to participate in class, and they knew that if this problem went unchecked, it could prevent many kids from earning a diploma. Worse, many students would leave high school having missed out on the opportunity to learn important things about caring for their health.
In my work with this school, we discovered that some districts were attacking the problem by increasing the number of make-up classes offered after school. Others went even further: They took a closer look at the amount of choice provided to students in their pursuit of physical education credit. They considered the unintended consequences of traditional schedules and curricula, and they began thoughtfully redefining what it meant to be a successful physical education student. Expanding the definition allowed them to broaden the criteria for success as well.
Physical Education Department Chair Bill Sortore and his colleagues explored these and other options in their efforts to better engage students. In the end, they chose to do something completely unexpected: They took a step back in order to assess and reflect, rather than leaping forward. As the facilitator of this initiative, I remember this moment well.
“We want to try to figure out why they won’t participate in class to begin with, rather than making assumptions,” Bill explained during our first meeting together, and the other teachers in his department agreed. “And we need to take a step back and really think about what matters when it comes to teaching kids about their health and wellness.”
We began by observing students, interviewing them, and immersing ourselves in their worlds. Essentially, we tried to empathize with them, in order to learn more about their interests and needs, in order to create solutions that attended to the root of the participation issue, rather than making assumptions. This is a perfect example of design thinking in the wild: practicing empathy, conceptualizing potential solutions, testing them, and using what is learned from implementation to improve—or iterate—on original ideas.
By the end of our initial meeting, this department was committed to getting to know their students like they never had before, and what they discovered changed everything.
It changed me, too.
Putting Culture Ahead of Curriculum
The information gleaned from our interview process was revealing. Some kids, for a variety of reasons, didn’t want to change for class. Others were intimidated by the exceptionally athletic kids in their school and worried about competing against them. Some didn’t understand why PE mattered so much. Others didn’t enjoy specific class activities, themes, or sports, and they were resentful that they were required to play anyway.
One particular reality hit all of us very hard, though: We realized that some kids didn’t have washers or dryers at home. Others were living in multiple locations and bouncing between them all week long. Some were working almost full time after school to help out with family expenses. Quite a few couldn’t afford a separate set of clothes for PE.
Those who were failing to participate weren’t lazy or disorganized. They were stressed, and in so many ways, doing their best.
Addressing the Literacy Component
Meanwhile, the Common Core State Standards were just beginning to settle into New York State schools and classrooms. Teachers were grappling with the instructional shifts that underpin the Core. Many struggled to define how literacy could support learning outside of English, math, science, and social studies as well.
PE teachers, in particular, needed the most support.
Again, we started with questions.
“How do people rely on their literacy skills to become healthier?” Bill and his colleagues wondered, and when he framed the work to be done in this way, ideas began to emerge. For instance, they knew that many grown adults were guilty of hitting up Google every time a health concern troubled them. Many used their reading and writing skills to set and monitor nutrition and fitness goals. Savvy readers knew that some of the things they read online were accurate and helpful, while others were misleading. Some were unnecessarily frightening, too. The department realized that these skills needed to be taught.
“What if our students learned about the best ways to do this kind of research?” Bill’s colleague Marc Agnello pondered aloud. “What if they assessed their health, then set their own goals to improve it?”
I wondered, “What if they continued researching along the way, in order to meet those goals, too?”
What if? How might we? What more do we need to know? These questions guided our thinking as we worked to build more literacy work into the physical education curriculum and understand the participation issues that were plaguing not just Wellsville, but many New York State schools. We had our work cut out for us.
Crafting a Vision
“What is your vision of the graduate that you hope to play a role in producing?” I asked the teachers at a follow-up meeting.
Their answers were not what I expected. They spoke about the need to help their students achieve better balance between mind, body, and spirit as they grappled with the challenges their lives presented them. They wanted to empower their students to assess and monitor and improve their own health, long after they graduated from school. Most importantly, they wanted them to appreciate the fact that PE was about so much more than sports or athletic performance. It was bigger than that.
And these teachers? They were bigger than that, too. They weren’t interested in imposing rigid definitions of success on their students. Instead, they wanted to help them learn how to advocate for themselves so that their teachers could be responsive to their interests and needs.
This vision became the anchor for Wellsville’s new standards and outcomes in grades 6-12, which changed how students participated in physical education classes. It helped these teachers come to know each one of their students differently.
Planning the Work
Once the department clarified this mammoth vision, we spent the remainder of our professional learning time that first year defining aligned grade-level outcomes. Our work together sounded something like this:
“If graduates are going to ‘sustain a lifelong habit of assessing and attending to personal health and wellness,’ what will they need to know and be able to do by the end of grade twelve? Eleven? Ten? Nine? Eight? Seven? Six?” Our answers had to be explicit. What was produced had to be observable, too.
What if? How might we? What more do we need to know? Curriculum design opened new investigations, and this led to the development of a detailed plan that created a much tighter connection between the PE and Health departments. The gym and field were for physical activity and building the skills—many of them critical thinking and visual literacy skills—that enabled team play. Health teachers began providing different reading, writing, and inquiry opportunities that involved a bit more print while supporting the physical education curriculum.
Together, we examined each element of their bold vision statement and aligned the outcomes for each grade level to it with careful intentions, creating a coherent and powerful trajectory for learners to travel as they moved through their middle and high school health and physical education classes.
Then the real work began.
Working the Plan
Achieving a bold vision isn’t the work of a single lesson or unit or year. Often, it’s the work of an entire career. The road is never smooth, and there are many detours along the way. It’s not uncommon for curriculum plans to fail. Transitioning from print to practice is tough stuff. It takes a long time for vision to become reality.
I’m impressed by what’s been sustained in Wellsville. More important, I’m inspired by how their vision is growing.
“We’re still working our plan,” Bill told me when I called to check in a few months ago. I haven’t visited Wellsville in five years, and since then, they’ve experienced a great deal of change. The department has evolved, the structure of their school has changed, and administrators have shifted roles and positions.
“Our spirit remains the same, though,” Bill assured me, as he began bringing me up to speed on all that he and his colleagues are currently committed to. For instance:
Teachers have begun quietly and respectfully assisting students who need better access to clean and comfortable clothing for class.
They aren’t reacting when kids can’t change for class, and in fact, they’re being more thoughtful about which activities truly require a change of clothes and dropping this expectation entirely when they can.
They’ve sustained their work with the health department, so that kids don’t have to miss play time in PE to read and write in ways that boost their health. Learners are researching and writing about pertinent issues in health class and using what’s discovered from the process to self-assess, reflect, and set clear goals. They’re also learning how to create action plans. “I’m taking this approach into the weight room too,” Bill told me. “We’re setting monthly goals and monitoring our progress.”
Bill has begun conferring with his students one on one and in small groups. “Spending some time talking with each student helps them clarify their goals. It helps me get to know them better, too. We develop action plans together, and I’m checking in to help them problem-solve and stay motivated.”
Finally, students are about to begin keeping records of their activities, their results, and their reflections on their growth and experiences.
My exchanges with Bill over the last several months have left me with a profound sense of gratitude. What strikes me isn’t what has been accomplished, but why. These teachers realize the importance of seeing the kids in front of them rather than sorting them. They talk with their kids. They respect the places they come from. They recognize the strengths that their students are cultivating by scaling the barriers they face, and they realize that it’s their responsibility to help their students get a bit of traction, build up speed, and catch enough wind to scale some pretty tall walls, rather than adding one more layer of bricks.
It’s not all about overcoming adversity in Wellsville, either. This department is very sensitive to the privileges their community enjoys as well.
Paying it Forward
Wellsville students have great access to a wide range of diverse athletic equipment. They’re appreciative of this, and they make great use of everything on hand.
“What if we could find a way to share it with other schools?” Bill asked me toward the end of our last phone call. “What if other kids in our region could have the same access to these resources that our students do?”
What if? How might we? What more do we need to know? These questions are guiding Bill’s thinking as he works to understand the challenges and opportunities inherent in this kind of sharing. He has his work cut out for him.
“But I’ve already made some calls,” he told me. “I think we can make this happen if there is interest from other schools and our regional leaders can give us a bit of support. Who knows? Maybe this is how I will spend my retirement.”
I have no doubt that retirement will only deepen Bill’s commitment to his community and kids. I have no doubt that this entire department will continue to lead with vision, too.
What if? How might we? What more do we need to know? These are the questions that put the Wellsville Secondary School PE department on a path toward more student-centered practices five years ago. They’re the questions they still ask themselves now.
I’m grateful to Bill Sortore and the Wellsville Physical Education Department for working with me so graciously and courageously five years ago and for being willing to check in with me this year, in order to bring me up to speed. Although I haven’t visited there in some time, our conversation reminded me of the greatest lesson I learned while facilitating this work: Having vision isn’t just about the statement, it’s about our willingness to see.
Are you interested in learning more about designing compassionate-based learning experiences for your students? Visit Angela Stockman and Ellen Feig Gray online at Designing Compassionate Classrooms. You may also connect with them on Twitter at @AngelaStockman and @EllenFeigGray.
Come back for more. Join the Cult of Pedagogy mailing list and get weekly tips, tools, and inspiration that will make your teaching more effective and fun. You’ll get access to our members-only library of free downloads, including 20 Ways to Cut Your Grading Time in Half, the e-booklet that has helped thousands of teachers save time on grading. Over 50,000 teachers have already joined—come on in!
Suppose you know a lot about a certain topic. For the sake of argument, let’s say that topic is sushi.
One evening you’re on social media somewhere and an acquaintance posts this: “Have never tried sushi. Any advice?”
Oh my gosh! You totally have advice!
You start by sending your friend a link. Then you find another one. Then, well…there’s just so much great stuff out there! She should know about it. So you send her over to this Google Doc you made that contains more links:
I hate to break it to you, but your friend? She went to that first link you sent and read most of the article. It gave her some useful information—stuff she probably could have looked up on her own, but still. It helped. The second link she meant to get to, but she got called away from her computer and never got back to it. And your Google Doc? She took one look at it, got overwhelmed, and left.
And it’s a shame, because you have some really good stuff on that list. Especially the one in the right-hand column, second to last on the list. This one. It’s funny. And practical. It’s like a real person helping the reader find a way to add sushi to her life.
But your friend never read that one, because there was no way to sift it out from the others, no way to know what made it special, and like everyone else, your friend only has so many hours in the day.
You just dumped too much on her at once. You were being a dumper.
And it’s unfortunate, because you have vast experience with sushi. You really are the ideal person to hand-select a few resources that would perfectly meet her needs. Imagine if you had looked over your list and picked out a smaller number of items, then shared them in a way that would preview each one before she even opened it.
Something like this:
If you’d sent this to her, you would have been curating, not dumping.
I have written about curation before, but last time, I was talking about curation as a class assignment, something students do. Now I want to focus on you, the educator. Whether you’re a teacher, an administrator, a librarian, a researcher—whatever you do, chances are you have information to share with other people, and developing your curation skills—both in terms of how much you offer and how you deliver it—is going make that sharing a lot more effective.
So let’s take a look at how the brain responds to dumping, some school-related situations when good curation skills would come in handy, a set of curation guidelines to follow, and a short list of tech tools that can help you curate digitally.
Why Dumping is Bad for Brains
When we dump a lot of information on a person at once, we are working against their brain. Cognitive load theory suggests that the brain can only take in so much at once. When we’re presented with a whole bunch of information, our brains have to ignore some in order to process the rest. Eventually, if too much keeps coming at us, we reach the point of cognitive overload, where we get more than we can handle. At that point, a lot of people just shut down, and even simple information can’t get in.
It’s a bit like this photo. Imagine being told to go learn something about history from the objects in this room.
No doubt, there are plenty of items in the room that have historical significance, but they’re all just dumped in there. Our brains learn by grouping lots of pieces of information into groups and patterns—cognitive scientists call these patterns schemas—and connecting it to knowledge we already have in long-term memory. Someone with considerable knowledge of the time periods represented in that room would be able to make some sense of it.
But the rest of us would do better off with the help of curators. That’s what a good museum does for us: It takes piles and piles of artifacts and selects only a few to represent an idea, a moment, an event, or a phenomenon. Then it carefully arranges those artifacts, starting with an introduction, often something written by the curators themselves to introduce the collection and provide us with meaningful context.
Then it introduces the artifacts in groups—again, adding its own editorial comments and explanations along the way, guiding us through the experience so that we aren’t forced to take too much in at once. We’re given time and space to savor each artifact one at a time.
It’s not only museums that pay attention to this stuff. The tech industry is also very concerned with cognitive overload. In fact, there’s a whole field in tech called user experience design (UX for short). UX designers spend all of their time looking at how to improve the way users interact with websites and other digital products. They look at the smallest details, like the shape of the buttons we click, whether serif or sans-serif fonts get better responses, and where exactly to place a menu on a page. This article from Smashing Magazine does a deep dive into the topic, if you want to read more. Companies that invest in UX know that if they don’t bother with these details, you will eventually leave and go to another, better designed site. Even though educators don’t have the financial incentive to pay attention to this stuff, we should. Plenty of situations would give us better results if we did.
Here are a few education-related scenarios where good curation could make a difference:
Student-Directed Learning: As more classrooms move toward differentiated, flipped, blended, and student-directed learning models, we will need to do more gathering and sharing collections of resources for students to choose from, rather than picking one resource to deliver to everyone at one time. If our delivery is sloppy or our collections are thrown together kitchen-sink style, these models will be less successful. One of the most popular HyperDoc models includes an “explore” section, where a set of resources is provided and students choose which items to engage with in order to learn about the topic. Too many choices just dumped together will overwhelm most students. So offer choice, yes, but curate those choices carefully so students don’t waste a lot of time wading through all of their options.
Classroom or school libraries: If students aren’t checking out books very often, you may be able to improve things with more curation. This may come in the form of aggressively weeding out books that students have no interest in, a process teacher Pernille Ripp described as an essential step toward building a thriving classroom library. It might also include creating special displays of books grouped around a common theme, or posting student recommendations on specific books like they do with staff recommendations in bookstores.
Communication with Parents: When we send newsletters, flyers, and emails home to parents, we obviously want them to be read. But as a mother of three, I can tell you that an awful lot of skimming is happening. With that in mind, we will have much greater success if we apply some basic curation and design principles to those items. I wrote about this in a guest post for Corkboard Connections a few years ago: Why No One Reads Your Classroom Newsletter.
School or Teacher Websites: It seems that one company designed the basic template for all school and district websites around maybe 2004, and since then, far too many schools have never strayed from that. I’m not going to point fingers at any one school, but I think you know what I mean: The menu has hundreds of items, the page is broken up into dozens of little squares of information, and everything is in 12-point font. No white space. They are functional, yes, but cluttered. By contrast, take a look at the websites of The Dalton School, in New York City, Vail Mountain School in Vail, Colorado, or the Gibraltar School District in Woodhaven, Michigan. These sites make me want to click around, learn more. They make me excited about the learning that is happening in these schools. And it all comes down to the design, the thoughtful way the content is organized with the user experience in mind.
Sharing Research: Maybe you’re trying to convince your team to try a new method. Maybe you’re an administrator who wants your staff to learn more about a certain learning theory. Maybe you’re delivering PD to a group of teachers. Or maybe you are the one doing the research and you want to get it out to the world. In any of these situations, taking the time to narrow your focus to just a few items, then share them in a way that’s appealing will make it more likely that people will actually consume the stuff you’re sharing. For in-person delivery, getting better at slide design and presentation can help a lot; for that, I recommend Garr Reynolds’ book, Presentation Zen. For online sharing, check out The Learning Scientists and RetrievalPractice.org—both are excellent examples of taking complex research and making it consumable for a wider audience.
In any of the above scenarios, keep the following guidelines in mind when deciding what to share and how to share it.
1. Keep the Best, Lose the Rest Less is almost always more, so once you get to the point where you’re sharing multiple resources on the same topic, you should be able to get rid of some and keep only the very best. This is easier said than done, because you want to be helpful and every additional item probably does add something unique to the mix. Just keep reminding yourself that the goal is to have the person actually consume the thing you’re sharing, and too much will send them running for the hills, so keep paring it down until it’s a nice, manageable size.
2. Chunk It If you are sharing more than just a few resources, break the collection into smaller sub-sets. Give each section some kind of title to help users find what they are interested in more quickly.
3. Add Your Own Introductions Just like museum curators place an explanatory paragraph near most artifacts, you can do the same with your resources. Give your audience some context to help them know what the resource is and what they will learn from it. Another way to do this is to offer a brief preview or excerpt from the article itself.
4. Use Images as Anchors Although this can take extra time, adding an image before each item, like I’ve done below for the list of tools, can help readers visually distinguish one item from another. It will also help them find items more quickly later on.
5. Polish your Hyperlinks When your resource sharing includes a link to something, you can provide that link in one of two ways. Giving the person the raw “http” link will certainly work, but these links usually look cluttered and complicated. What’s more appealing to the human eye is text that tells us something about the thing they’re clicking over to. You can accomplish this by changing the link text.
Every program does this a little bit differently, but once you’ve learned how to do it in one place, you should be able to figure it out in other places. To get you started, here’s a quick tutorial for how to insert a link in a Google Doc.
6. Always, Always Build in White Space I can’t emphasize this one enough. Creating space around your resources is essential for a good user experience. So whether you’re sending an email, creating a newsletter, or designing a bulletin board, avoid cramming items together. Instead, cut back on the number of items and give your audience’s eyes some rest.
For times when you’re curating digitally, these tools can help:
elink elink.io This is probably the simplest of all: Just insert a link and the tool lets you add your own introduction paragraph and image. This is the one I used for the sushi example at the beginning of this post.
Save links to resources on themed boards, then share those boards with others.
A LiveBinder is like an online notebook, where you can organize collected items under individual tabs. In a single LiveBinder, you can gather links to websites, videos, uploaded documents, and personal notes you type in yourself, making this an excellent tool for larger, more complex collections.
Collections on this platform are organized as vertical timelines. This is an especially nice option if you want your audience to experience your collection in a specific order, almost in the same way that a museum creates a “path” for visitors.
This virtual corkboard offers a nice space for posting notes, images, and links to online articles and videos. Because it has good features for collaboration, this is a nice option for curating a collection with other people.
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As teachers, we pretty much give feedback all day long. We tell students how they can improve on assignments, we praise them for things they’re doing well, we correct their incorrect responses, and we redirect them when they behave in ways that aren’t helpful to learning.
And that’s just the students. We also give feedback to our colleagues, although in most cases, these exchanges don’t happen as often or as freely as they probably should. We receive plenty of feedback as well, from our students, their parents, our administrators, and our peers. And we encourage our students to give feedback to each other, albeit with pretty uneven results. Really, the experience of school could be described as one long feedback session, where every day, people show up with the goal of improving, while other people tell them how to do it.
And it doesn’t always go well. As we give and receive feedback, people get defensive. Feelings get hurt. Too often, the improvements we’re going for don’t happen, because the feedback isn’t given in a way that the receiver can embrace.
It turns out there’s a different way to give feedback that works a lot better, a way of flipping its focus from the past to the future. It’s a concept called “feedforward,” which was originally developed by a management expert named Marshall Goldsmith. As far as I can tell, not a lot of educators are familiar with the practice of feedforward, and I really think if we learned how to do it and started using it more consistently, it could make a huge difference in how our students grow and how we grow as professionals.
When we give feedback to our students, or when our co-workers or administrators give feedback to us, the focus is on the past. “People can’t control what they can’t change, and we can’t change the past,” says Hirsch. “And that happens to be the focus of most of the feedback that we give or receive.”
More specifically, backward-looking feedback doesn’t often get good results for three reasons:
It shuts down our mental dashboards. “When we get negative feedback about something that we can’t change or control,” Hirsch says, “our brains flood with stress-inducing hormones, cortisol, that trigger our threat awareness and put us on the defensive. The parts that are responsible for executive function, for creativity, the parts that allow us to sort of set our agendas and make rational decisions, essentially we are in a state of mental paralysis.”
It focuses primarily on ratings, not on development. Most of feedback’s time and energy is spent on looking back and rating (or grading) performance that’s already over, rather than focusing on what can be done from now on. “When feedback consists of an impersonal set of performance standards, we’re overlooking the essential goal of feedback, and that’s to create positive and lasting improvement.”
It reinforces negative behaviors. “When we hear about flaws that we can’t fix anymore—because they’re in a past that we can’t change—it creates a feeling of learned helplessness, the feeling that we are unable to do anything about our future. Instead of committing ourselves to improvement, which is what we would hope would happen, we hold onto this debilitating view of who we are instead of focusing on who we are becoming.”
What is Feedforward?
When we give feedforward, instead of rating and judging a person’s performance in the past, we focus on their development in the future.
Suppose my student is writing an essay. Instead of waiting until she is finished, then marking up all the errors and giving it a grade, I would read parts of the essay while she is writing it, point out things I’m noticing, and ask her questions to get her thinking about how she might improve it.
In his book, Hirsch takes this broad concept of feedforward and defines six components of it, six specific characteristics of feedforward that make it so effective. He refers to these by the acronym REPAIR (regenerates, expands, particular, authentic, impact, refines).
So let’s take a look at each of these. If you want to implement feedforward well, it should have these attributes:
It REGENERATES talent.
The most effective kind of feedforward helps people see opportunities for growth—ways they could take on new opportunities and roles. “At the simplest level,” Hirsch writes in his book, “it leads to the unmistakable feeling that we’re moving forward in our professional and personal lives. Getting positive feedback about our performance may feel good, but it doesn’t break new ground. It merely confirms what we already know about ourselves and our talents, essentially holding our growth in check. But when feedback gets us thinking about how to spread that talent to others, it has a multiplying effect.”
So when we notice that a student is developing a strength or an interest in an area, instead of just pointing that out, we might give the student an opportunity to enter their work in some kind of competition, publish it in some way, or share it with others in a presentation, rather than simply keeping it to themselves. This helps students see themselves in a new light and gets them thinking about ways they could grow.
It EXPANDS possibilities.
Effective feedback starts with what is and helps add to it, expanding what’s possible, rather than simply pointing out problems. In his book, Hirsch describes a concept used by Pixar studios called “plussing.” When Pixar’s creators get together to review a day’s work, they are expected to give each other feedback to improve the work. What makes these sessions so effective is one important rule: Participants can’t point out a problem without proposing an alternative, saying “What if?” to a problem.
This concept of “plussing” could work wonders in staff or committee meetings: When we are discussing possible solutions to an issue, rather than shooting down ideas that might not work, we could add to them by making small tweaks. “That’s an interesting idea. What if we made this small change and tried that?” This technique would also work beautifully with project-based learning tasks, when students may need to come up with several ideas for solving a problem before arriving at the best solution.
It is PARTICULAR.
Far too often, feedback is given in an “information dump,” with lots of criteria being measured and reported on at the same time. This can be a pretty ineffective way to help people grow. “There’s a limit to how much we can absorb and operationalize in any given time,” Hirsch says. “Feedforward is really about picking your battlegrounds strategically and selectively.” He advises us to make feedback an ongoing process that is embedded in the day-to-day work, and to only focus on a few things at a time.
So rather than wait until an assignment is done to point out all the ways a student can improve, find ways to give them specific pointers while they work, and only one thing at a time, so students can process and act on it right away.
It is AUTHENTIC.
No one particularly likes giving criticism. “We see problems, we see pitfalls in other people, and we know it’s a problem,” Hirsch says, “but we don’t want to be mean, right? We don’t want to crush them. So the tendency is to either avoid giving feedback altogether or to disguise it as a praise sandwich, where we basically slip one piece of criticism in between two very, very surface level gauzy praises.”
The problem with that approach, Hirsch explains, is what’s called the recency effect: People remember most the thing they heard last. So when you tack on some praise after delivering constructive feedback, the person doesn’t really absorb the critical part as well as they would if you’d just given it to them more directly.
Hirsch recommends a more direct approach: Describe what’s happening, explain why it’s a problem, then prompt the person for a solution. “When delivered this way,” Hirsch explains, “it puts people at ease, it takes them off the defensive. It is clear, it is concise, it’s locating the problem, it’s looking for solutions together. People don’t want a praise sandwich. People want the truth.”
This approach could work with academic situations or classroom management problems: If you’re dealing with a student who is disrupting class, describe the behavior you’re seeing, explain why it’s a problem, then ask the student for ideas on how to solve it. It sounds really simple, but if what you’re doing right now isn’t giving you the results you want, it’s worth a try.
It has IMPACT.
One of the reasons people don’t make progress after receiving feedback is that they don’t necessarily know what to do with it. “If you want feedback to make an impact,” Hirsch notes, “you have to put it in terms that people can operationalize.” In his book, he cites studies showing that regular feedback doesn’t typically result in a transfer of new skills or habits, but when that feedback is combined with coaching, the transfer skyrockets to 95 percent.
So if a student regularly forgets to bring materials to class, rather than simply telling him to change, help him make a specific plan for improvement. Ideally, that plan should have lots of small steps to make it achievable, and the student should take the lead in developing that plan.
It REFINES group dynamics.
“Feedback is a team sport,” Hirsch says. “It is not just something that happens one to one. It happens in groups and across and within organizations. And when we dump that command and control nature of traditional feedback, we make room for something much more collaborative and shared.”
So rather than give feedback in a top-down, hierarchical model, open up more pathways for people to get feedback from their peers, even those whose jobs might on the surface have little in common with our own. In his book, Hirsch borrows a term from management circles known as “creative abrasion,” which is what happens when people with opposing views work on the same task together. Although it can result in more conflict, the contributions from different points of view usually produce a higher-quality product in the end.
This idea can play out in a lot of educational settings: Instead of just having our department head observe our teaching, why not get feedback from someone who teaches a completely different subject? When students go to the same peers for feedback on their work, have them seek out the opinion of someone new, or consider getting the input of a group of students from a different class or grade level entirely.
There’s nothing simple or straightforward about telling people how to improve. So it’s no surprise that we’re still figuring it out and finding new ways to refine it. If the feedback you’re giving to your students, your coworkers, and even the people at home isn’t having quite the effect you intend, try shifting to a feedforward approach. Doing so can help us, as Hirsch says, stop seeing ourselves just as who we are, but who we are becoming.
Come back for more. Join my mailing list and get weekly tips, tools, and inspiration—in quick, bite-sized packages—all geared toward making your teaching more effective and fun. You’ll get access to our members-only library of free downloads, including 20 Ways to Cut Your Grading Time in Half, the e-booklet that has helped thousands of teachers save time on grading. Over 50,000 other teachers have already joined—come on in!
I had asked my friend Philip Russell to write it after he shared on Facebook about how well his students were able to discuss difficult topics in class, and how proud that made him. This past year has been a flood of controversy, of hard conversations, and I assumed that many teachers were wrestling with the question of how much of that should be brought into their teaching. Since Russell seemed to be managing it, I wanted him to share his experiences with my readers in the hopes that more teachers would take the brave step of allowing these conversations to happen in their classrooms.
We went through about four drafts of the piece to get it organized and make it clear and actionable, but it still had problems that neither of us recognized.
That’s what Twitter is for.
Not long after the post went live, voices of concern began to rise up in tweets. The people who responded made me see things I hadn’t considered before, and I soon realized a follow-up was needed. Rather than revise the original post—which would likely confuse anyone who read the comments about it—I’m opting to keep it as is, but invite those who read it to come here next.
Briefly: Although I still agree with the intent of the original post—that we should welcome, encourage, and guide the discussion of controversial issues in our classrooms—I now see that we needed to outline a more nuanced approach, one that avoids placing marginalized students in a position to have to defend their humanity.
Below, I will summarize the main points that were made, with links to some of the original threads on Twitter.
Issue 1: Having students discuss these topics in a “debate” format implies that all sides are equally valid.
Because many of the topics Russell used as examples centered around racism, the notion of giving equal weight to each side of such a debate is problematic. Christie Nold was the first to raise this issue: “I’m concerned about the impact of encouraging Ts use Charlottesville as a debate topic. A topic for conversation? Yes. To debate? I wonder how this might further the idea that there are ‘two sides’ in conversations about white supremacy.”
In a later tweet, Melinda Anderson highlighted an exchange near the end of the post, where two students discuss the recent H&M ad. Anderson took issue with the way Russell drew equivalence between the perspective of Sam, a student of color, and another student who thinks the ad is no big deal. She also suggested that students moving on after this exchange without further comment may not be worthy of celebration.
When I talked with Russell about the false equivalence concern, we agreed that some things in the post were presented more simplistically than what actually takes place in his classroom, and that this gave a falsely simplistic depiction of the conversations themselves.
“I think debate was a problematic term,” he said. “I use debate when I argue with my dad about nuances of policy. He thinks taxes should be one way; I think taxes should be the other, so we debate the issue. I wonder if using discussion would have been better. Having these discussions is such an involved process. The post is an outline of how I have them, but it’s not comprehensive.”
For teachers who want to have these kinds of discussions in their classrooms, I think the important takeaway here is that the way you initiate such conversations matters: Introducing a question as a debate suggests two equally valid sides, while opening up a topic for discussion or conversation doesn’t send the same message.
Issue 2: Asking students of color or other students in marginalized positions to participate or even listen to these “debates” can have a dehumanizing effect.
In the original post, Russell shares how he encourages students when they respectfully share their opposing views. But if one of the students in the discussion has a personal stake—their right to be treated equally and humanely—in the topic, validating arguments against those basic rights tells marginalized students that they don’t matter. Marian Dingle helped me see this scenario through a different lens: “as a SOC in that room, I would’ve felt silenced when the T praised the comments.”
In a different thread, Jess Lifshitz shared a similar perspective about what it would feel like for a student whose humanity is being debated: “As a gay educator, an adult, I imagine listening to students debate my right to be served at a bakery where the owner denies I have a right to be treated equally. It would be enough to bring me to tears. And I am an adult. The impact of kids feels too great.”
So what’s to learn from this? Teachers need to be careful not to introduce every subject as “up for debate,” and recognize that there may be students present who are personally impacted by these issues. Even if they are not present, it’s worth considering the impact this neutrality has on student attitudes, regardless of their background. When we give a neutral thumbs up to the expression of an idea that is inherently discriminatory or racist, even if we believe we’re merely encouraging its expression in civil tones, we communicate at least some approval of that idea.
My Lingering Questions
While this conversation has certainly deepened my understanding of how we approach these issues in our classrooms, as I hope it has done for other teachers who read the original post, I am still left wondering how, exactly, we should handle these conversations. When I first read the objections, including Justin Schleider’s link to a Huffington Post article about the recent Heineken commercial (a commercial I liked before, but that I now see problems with), I had two questions:
If a student comes to us with racist views, what is the best way to approach that student to help him or her grow? If we accept the premise that most people hold some racist views that need examination, that means we’re talking about a lot of students. The original post encourages us to clarify opposing views, but there is a concern that clarifying gives too much validity, so what should be done instead? In my own private conversations with friends, I have seen people change their minds on an issue only after I have worked to understand where they are coming from. Understand is a loaded word here, not to be confused with agreeing; just clarifying. If, by doing that, we are sending a message that we feel that view is equally valid, what would be a better approach?
How do we avoid silencing certain viewpoints…or is that the goal? Although no one stated outright that certain viewpoints should be silenced, I can’t shake the idea, mostly because I’m still not clear on the answer to my first question. The notion that certain viewpoints should be silenced feels dangerous to me, because if the shoe were on the other foot and the classroom were being run by someone who saw the world very differently from me, I certainly wouldn’t want them deciding who gets a voice.
Having considered these two questions, I get the sense that the answer lies in encouraging open discussion, framing the initial questions more thoughtfully as Benjamin Doxtdator wrote in his response to the post, and, as Kaitlin Popielarz and others mentioned, preparing ourselves as teachers with some historical context before getting the conversation started.
Another answer might be found in Stephenie Eriksson’s post that came out the day after ours: Teaching Conversation vs. Debate in Academic Argument. In this post, Eriksson describes other discussion formats that allow for a difference of opinion without necessarily giving equal weight to every viewpoint.
Apart from the articles mentioned above, these two texts were also mentioned as good resources around these issues:
Summary from Amazon: Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies raises fundamental questions about the purpose of schooling in changing societies. Bringing together an intergenerational group of prominent educators and researchers, this volume engages and extends the concept of culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP)–teaching that perpetuates and fosters linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of schooling for positive social transformation. The authors propose that schooling should be a site for sustaining the cultural practices of communities of color, rather than eradicating them. Chapters present theoretically grounded examples of how educators and scholars can support Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian/Pacific Islander, South African, and immigrant students as part of a collective movement towards educational justice in a changing world.
Summary from Amazon: Some Americans cling desperately to the myth that we are living in a post-racial society, that the election of the first Black president spelled the doom of racism. In fact, racist thought is alive and well in America–more sophisticated and more insidious than ever. And as award-winning historian Ibram X. Kendi argues in Stamped from the Beginning, if we have any hope of grappling with this stark reality, we must first understand how racist ideas were developed, disseminated, and enshrined in American society.
Let’s Keep Talking
Based on all the conversations I’ve been reading, it appears that many of us agree that these topics should not be swept under the rug, and teachers can serve a valuable role in helping to shape discussions of them. What we haven’t quite nailed down (in this space, anyway) is how best to do that. I would be grateful if we could continue talking about it here. Please share your thoughts, experiences, and links to other resources in the comments below.
Shane and Becca squared off. They had done their research and came down on opposite sides of the Confederate flag debate: One supported its appearance in public; one opposed it. Sitting on opposite sides of the room, they began their back-and-forth:
“I understand the symbol is loaded,” Shane began. “I get that the South used it as their symbol. I know that many fought for slavery. But I also know my family members fought to protect their land. They didn’t own slaves. They were too poor. Can we not recognize the flag they bravely fought under?”
The rest of the class looked at Shane, genuinely listening to his ideas. Those who agreed nodded in approval; those who disagreed wrote down his response as part of the opposing perspective.
“I get that,” Becca responded, “but what do we do with the racism clearly symbolized by the flag? It doesn’t just go away, right? That doesn’t change your family members’ motivations, but it seems that we need to at least acknowledge that part of the symbol.”
“Excellent!” I jumped at the chance to step in. “Class, where are they diverging here? They clearly agree on parts of this debate, but they’re coming to different conclusions. Why is that?”
My students, as a class, teased out that one student focused more attention on individual motivation (“Yes, the Confederacy’s cause was racist; however, there were also soldiers fighting from individual motivation.”); the other student focused more attention on the Confederacy as a collective idea (“Yes, the Confederacy’s cause was racist, and participation in that cause, regardless of individual motivation, promotes racism.”).
As we discussed their focuses, the two students involved nodded, affirmed their classmates’ analyses, and conceded the limitations of their arguments.
No heated exchange. No emotional meltdowns. Just good debate.
When I talk to my colleagues about these kinds of debates, I often see uneasiness in their faces. Some teachers would consider the Confederate flag, or any kind of controversial debate, taboo. I have found, however, that the right approach paired with developing and maintaining real relationships with students yields civil discourse, even when covering the most emotional of topics.
Why would I bring controversy into the classroom?
The standards fit.
It’s not the most inspirational reason, but it’s important. Teaching in my state means teaching the Common Core State Standards, so I feel the weight of and importance of the Speaking and Listening, Writing, Language, and Reading standards.
This means I’m consistently looking for units, mini-units, and lessons that dynamically engage multiple standards. My debate mini-units hit 12 standards: five Speaking and Listening, four Writing, and three Reading. While not all of them are explicitly assessed, practicing 12 standards in four days gives, at the very least, intellectual and academic credibility to controversy in the classroom.
The critical thinking is clear.
Reading, writing about, and debating controversial topics allows students to wrestle with difficult nuances. As the Confederate flag debate continued, my students talked about our nation’s complicated history with racism; the irony of the Constitution—a document originally written by slave owners—eventually outlawing slavery; and the balance of honestly reckoning with our past without forgetting the ugly details.
This debate and the practice of wrestling with controversy in the classroom ensures that students cannot walk away when the debate gets hard. Instead, they drill down and do the difficult intellectual work of forging an opinion that is simultaneously individual and appropriately nuanced.
The applicability beyond school is evident.
As they move on in life, students will face passionate debates in relationships, at their workplace, in their homes, and in this democracy. By teaching this kind of argument in a safe, secure space, we foster the respectful civic engagement students can take beyond the walls of our schools. As they move on to debate health care, immigration, America’s use of force, etc., they will be well versed in developing articulate views and, just as importantly, listening to the views of others.
What does this look like in the classroom?
Structured, productive moments of respectful debate do not occur organically. They are carefully manufactured from a teaching philosophy and managerial procedure. I use three practices to manufacture these fulfilling moments in the classroom
1. Prepare Early
My students know, literally from the first day, to prepare themselves to have these discussions. Here’s how I begin setting them up for success and participation in these debates:
Students walk into my classroom on the first day of school to find their seat posted on the smartboard and a paper clip sitting on their desk. Their instructions on the board are simple: “Study the paper clip.” After a brief introduction to myself, I have each and every student get up, shake my hand, and introduce her/himself to me in front of their classmates. This normalizes speaking and interacting in front of the whole class, a huge step to facilitating meaningful, inclusive debate.
After the introductions are finished, students analyze the paper clip. They list as many uses of a paper clip as they have witnessed. This is practice in convergent thinking. Then, students are asked to list as many possible uses of paper clips as they can manage. This is a practice in divergent thinking.
The takeaway is to look at our future topics, readings, and writings like a paper clip. To be able to look at an issue in new, unique ways, shifting your paradigm. Then, whenever we get stumped on a topic, especially a controversial one, I instruct students to think of it like a paper clip.
2. Practice Often
As we move through the year, we consistently practice non-controversial debate. This practice doesn’t make our larger debates perfect; it makes them normal. Normalizing debate allows students to rely on familiar skills when debates get passionate. At times these debates occur because of current events that link to our unit; other times I bring up a topic with the sole intention of practicing a debate. I have some sort of back-and-forth between students about once every two weeks.
Here’s a list of non-controversial debates we’ve used to practice:
Whose fault is it that Tom dies in To Kill a Mockingbird?
Will the men walking back to the city at the end of Fahrenheit 451 be successful?
Which has the best chicken: Chick-fil-a or Zaxby’s?
Is pumpkin pie actually good?
Is Black Friday a positive or negative for American culture?
We consistently practice debating fairly, arguing well, and enjoying the process.
As we work on this process, I reinforce proper techniques for debate. Before getting into the debate, controversial or not, we remind ourselves to 1) Respect those with whom you disagree; 2) Assume the best intention of others, even when your disagreement seems to run along moral lines; 3) Make your point using evidence; 4) Clarify the opposing viewpoint and build off of it to rebuttal. (For guidance, I followed Megan Phelps-Roper’s powerful TED Talk about leaving the Westboro Baptist Church.) By practicing these four, students simultaneously develop skills needed to argue well and the civility desperately needed in our society.
By the time the second quarter rolls around, we’ve gotten to know each other, are comfortable talking in class, and are well-versed in the practice of debate. We’re ready for argument writing. I introduce argument writing by way of some sort of controversial topic, like the Confederate flag debate this year. Here’s how that looks:
Day 1: Introduce the basics of argument (Claim, Evidence, Commentary) and pose this question: “Should the Confederate flag be flown in public places?” Students freewrite their initial thoughts.
Day 2: Reinforce CEC with a fun topic (Zaxby’s v. Chick-fil-a is a favorite) and introduce concession/counterargument. Students begin developing their argument AND developing an opposing argument.
Day 3: Students fully develop their argument, and write out their stances using the basics of argument from Days 1 and 2.
Day 4: Debate the use of the Confederate flag in public places.
Day 5: Debrief the debate. Students give shoutouts to classmates who challenged them or helped them see the argument in a different light. Then, introduce their extended argument writing piece.
3. Be an Open Book.
I always tell students exactly what I think about a given topic. Always. Now, I’ve seen the tweets, I’ve read the posts, and I’ve heard the PD sessions about how teachers are not meant to sway kids’ opinions by sharing their own. And I agree. I don’t share my own opinions to sway the kids. I do it for two other important reasons.
It’s disingenuous and counterproductive to feign neutrality. When teaching these controversial topics, I ask students to be passionate and engaged. I ask them to care deeply about a topic. Then I’m supposed to stand back and play the neutral moderator? No, thanks. Instead, I am an open book. The students knew, during the aforementioned debate, that I’m not down with the Confederate flag. HOWEVER, students also knew that I valued their opinions, respected their use of evidence, and allowed myself to be challenged by their ideas. I reject and resent the idea that teachers cannot simultaneously share their opinions honestly and moderate a debate fairly. To think so perpetuates our society’s divisiveness and insults teachers’ professionalism. I can, in short, throw myself into the debate while simultaneously controlling and moderating it.
I can teach and model the skills during the debate. During the debate, I can, as an opinionated moderator, show the students how to clarify points of contention, points of agreement, and points of confusion (see the intro for an example). This allows me to take the “I do, We do, You do” model seriously. Until students are ready to debate without me, I can reinforce the skills they need to use on their own. Also—and this is vital—I can model that arguing and debating well is not primarily about holding a position; it is primarily a skill set. So I switch sides randomly during the debate. Students know what I think, but I’ll switch it up to model the important skills we’re working on.
Again, I know some will freak out about expressing a political or controversial opinion to your students. Remember that this work goes back to Day 1. My willingness to interject my own ideas is the culmination of the relationships I develop with my kids, the consistent presence of debate in the classroom, and the understanding of debate’s long-term value.
What topics should be used?
That’s the toughest question for me. We have no shortage of controversy in our society to explore, so the main advice I can give for this is know your kids! Know what your students are emotionally, intellectually, and socially ready to handle.
Here’s a list of the controversial issues I’ve covered the last two years:
Should the Confederate flag be flown in public places?
Should Syrian refugees be let into the country or banned?
Should one fight when drafted, or does personal morality and ethics supersede your country’s call to action?
Does To Kill a Mockingbird speak to the police shootings we’ve seen the last few years? If so, how so? If not, what are the differences?
What did you think about Election Night?
Who was at fault in Charlottesville?
Does America still have a major issue with racism?
Should the Confederate flag be flown in public places?
Is it right to kneel during the national anthem?
Should immigrants protected by Temporary Protected Status (TPS) be sent back to their nation of origin?
A few days before this post was set to drop,H&M met a fury of online rage for an advertisement on their website. My students were reading Things Fall Apart, a story of culture, colonization, and dehumanization (a central issue behind the backlash to H&M). At the beginning of class, I put up the picture H&M used on the advertisement and posed this question, among others: Does H&M deserve the visceral reaction they received?
Familiar faces perked up, eyes lit up, and another quick debate ensued. It was lively, fast-paced, and intellectual.
“Sometimes,” James began, “we just have to get over stuff. It’s honestly not that big of a deal.” Several students nodded around the room. “Nothing negative can come of it if we don’t give it a spotlight.”
“But it’s racist,” a few young ladies said at once.
A hand went up. Sam, a contemplative student and occasional vocal participant, wanted to jump in. “As a person of color,” she said, “I can’t overlook this. That little boy is being dehumanized. If he’s the monkey and the white kid is the survival expert, it’s continuing a tradition of racial hierarchy. And, it has always been the case in advertising. And make-up. And politics. People of color are the last to be thought of as fully human.”
We clarified that James saw the incidental racism (assuming the best of H&M) as just that, an accident, and Sam saw it as the continuation of institutional oppression in the West.
Then, class continued. The students had their say, and then they moved on.
At first, inviting controversy to my classroom intimidated me. Now I see it as an academic and social necessity. These debates are not just one-off activities or deeply personal arguments. They are an opportunity to flex our abilities to read, write, reason, and think critically. They are, simply put, when we are collectively at our best.
Learn something new every week. Join the Cult of Pedagogy mailing list and get weekly tips, tools, and inspiration—in quick, bite-sized packages—all geared toward making your teaching more effective and fun. You’ll also get access to my members-only library of free downloadable resources, including my e-booklet, 20 Ways to Cut Your Grading Time in Half, which has helped thousands of teachers spend less time grading.
Around October of every year, while teachers are waist-deep in curriculum, kids are thinking about what they’re going to be for Halloween, and retail stores are already gathering steam for Christmas, I’m thinking about one thing: technology.
That’s because every January I put out a fresh version of The Teacher’s Guide to Tech, my uber-fabulous directory of tech tools. All year long, I take notes on new tools I hear about from teachers I talk to, in conversations on Twitter, and by paying really close attention at conferences. Then, from October through early January, I start figuring out which ones are going to make it into the guide. This year I added 60 new tools, and I’m so excited to share them with you.
As I have done every year since 2015, I’m going to shine a spotlight on six of the tools I added to this year’s guide: They’re not all brand-new, but I think each one could make a real difference in the way your students learn or the things they produce. One of them is super trendy right now, but it deserves the attention. One of them takes you into the past in a way that can be breathtaking. Three can be used in a dozen different ways and in all subject areas. And one—I would bet money on this—you’re going to want to try right away.
OK, so this one I have to get out of the way first. Even though I don’t think Flipgrid actually needs any more attention than it’s gotten lately, there’s just no way I’m writing a post about up-and-coming tech tools without including it. For me, this has been hands-down the most talked about tech tool of the past year, and for good reason.
So what is Flipgrid? It’s an app where someone, usually a teacher, poses a question or prompt, and students respond to it with short videos. Once they’ve finished their video, they can leave responses to other students’ videos.
Flipgrid: The Power of Student Voice - YouTube
This tool would be a great way to get students talking about any topic, reflect on a book or film, or ask questions about something you’re exploring in class.
At a time when we are all getting less and less comfortable with face-to-face communication, preferring instead to talk through text, Flipgrid gives us a way to bring our real voices, our actual faces, our true, less-edited selves back into play.
With this tool, you can basically take any page on the Internet and turn it into a lesson. Suppose you find a great article from The Guardian that you’d like students to read, but you’d also like to ask them a few questions about it, add a bit of commentary of your own, and insert a related video. With InsertLearning, you can do all of that right on the article.
InsertLearning, formerly called DocentEDU, is an extension you add to your Chrome browser. Once it’s there, turning any web page into a lesson can be done in minutes. You start with a web page of any kind, then highlight text, add notes, and embed your own questions—either multiple-choice or open-ended—that students answer right on the page. You can also embed other content like YouTube videos, ThingLink images, flashcards from Quizlet, mind maps from Coggle, even videos you record straight from your webcam.
Making a lesson with InsertLearning timelapse - YouTube
Once an InsertLearning lesson is created, you assign it to classes of students with a special code or through Google Classroom, and student responses are sent to a teacher dashboard, where you can grade them right inside the app. You can also share lessons with other teachers, so they can copy and edit them for their own use.
I think we’re getting beyond the point where we count on one platform to do everything for us. Instead, teachers are probably better off using different tools depending on what best fits the learning goals at any given time. A tool like InsertLearning would be a fantastic addition to your collection of resources for creating engaging, dynamic lessons.
Book Creator is a beautiful, flexible tool that allows students of any age or skill level to create, publish, and share online books.
Creating books using this tool can be as simple or complex as you make it. Students who prefer more structure can choose a comic book layout and insert Google images straight from the app into locked panels. Those who want more flexibility can choose a completely blank page and upload their own artwork. Students can customize the font, add shapes and stickers, hyperlink the text to other online resources, and import audio and video files.
When the book is ready to be published, the pages turn like a real book, and the audio and video play right inside the app.
Book Creator for Chrome - YouTube
This tool would also be wonderful for teacher use. You can create books and place them into either a private library—just for you—or create a public library that your students can join by using a code. Within the shared library, anyone can create books to be shared among the other members.
Book Creator really could work for any age level and in any content area: Students can create books to show how a key science concept impacts their daily lives, explore a social justice issue throughout history, study examples of math principles at work in the real world, or craft an original, illustrated story. A book could chronicle a student’s journey through a genius hour project, showcase a student’s artwork or photography in a portfolio, or record class memories after going on a field trip.
If you’ve gotten stuck in a never-ending cycle of worksheets and multiple-choice tests, introducing a tool like Book Creator could open up some incredible possibilities for students to demonstrate and share their learning.
Social studies and history teachers, you’re going to love this one.
Produced by Newseum, a news museum located in Washington, D.C., NewseumED houses an incredible online collection of primary sources, news artifacts, and lessons that help teachers teach media literacy, civics, and all aspects of the First Amendment, giving you and your students an up-close look at history.
The site gives you several ways to search for content—by state, century, theme, topics, type of resource, and so on. Once you find something you’d like your students to use—a map, a newspaper, a quiz—you can share it with them using a URL that lasts for two weeks but can be renewed an unlimited number of times.
If you find a lesson you’d like to teach, handouts are there for you to download, print, or copy, and everything has been aligned to NCSS, NCHS, NCTE, and Common Core Standards.
Why NewseumED - YouTube
When I first saw this site, I thought about way back when the Internet first became a thing that regular people used. We used to talk about how theoretically, you could go online and find just about any document you could think of; like, the whole Library of Congress would be on there. Except back around 1994 when I tried to find stuff, it ended up not being that easy. When I look at a site like NewseumED, that vision is starting to look more like a reality now.
At a time when the concept of “truth” has become pretty shaky, having access to primary sources has never been more important. NewseumED deserves a place on every history teacher’s list of go-to resources.
OK, I have to admit: This one I included just because it’s so frickin’ cool. Someone showed it to me on Twitter one day and I freaked out. I do think it has some educational value, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but first let me just tell you about it.
AutoDraw is a tool that uses artificial intelligence to guess what you’re trying to draw. You start with a blank screen, begin sketching something, and AutoDraw gives you a strip of professionally illustrated images to choose from, based on what the tool thinks you’re trying to draw.
Every time you add more detail to your own sketch, AutoDraw’s guesses change. When you see an image that matches what you’re going for, you can choose it, then add color, resize it, or basically manipulate it however you want. If you choose to, you can turn OFF the automatic feature and just sketch without any assistance, but seriously, that feature is a thing to behold.
When your masterpiece is complete, you can automatically download it as a PNG file, share it on Twitter or Facebook, or grab a unique URL and share it that way.
AutoDraw: Fast Drawing for Everyone - YouTube
So here’s where I see some educational value beyond this tool just being neat-o: Images help us remember things. I’ve talked on this site about the value of dual coding, visualization, and nonlinguistic representation. A tool like AutoDraw fits in there: If you want students to add doodles to their notes, and they get frustrated with their own drawing skills, this tool can help. If you like to add icons or illustrations to your classroom materials, but you don’t have the time to create your own or look all over the Internet for pre-made ones, this tool can help.
Beyond that, if you have early finishers in class or need something fresh for preferred activity time, giving students ten minutes to play around on AutoDraw would be great. And if students need illustrations for projects, videos, or books, AutoDraw can help them create those.
First we had PowerPoint. Then Prezi came along and shook things up quite a bit. Then a little over two years ago, Microsoft quietly introduced Sway, a unique platform that gives you dynamic, almost cinematic presentations that have the feel of a modern website.
You start by selecting a template, a topic, or a document you already have on your computer—or start from scratch. You work within a storyline, getting all your information typed in, images and videos inserted, forms added, and content embedded. The program is set up so that you can add content from the app without having to toggle between tabs. This includes Creative Commons images, so you don’t have to worry about copyright laws.
What is Sway – Office Sway Vision Video - YouTube
Once your storyline is complete, you can design your Sway: Choose from a number of styles or use the Remix button until the preview of your work looks exactly how you want it. You can choose for your Sway to scroll up and down, left to right, or be presented in slides just like PowerPoint.
Sway would be another nice option for presenting your own content or offering students a different way to share their learning or produce creative projects of their own.
All the tools, all in one place.
If you’re not yet familiar with the Teacher’s Guide to Tech, let me introduce you: It’s my encyclopedia of educational technology, a 329-page PDF you can keep on your home computer, work computer, or any device that will read a PDF.
The whole purpose of the guide is to make it fast and easy for you to navigate the world of ed tech. Once you start using it, you won’t believe how much you’ll learn, or how FAST you’ll learn it!
To get the guide for your team, school, or even district, you can save a lot by getting multi-user licenses. Although these are available on Teachers Pay Teachers, I am offering deeper discounts for multiple licenses on Teachable.
Learn something new every week. Join my mailing list and get weekly tips, tools, and inspiration—in quick, bite-sized packages—all geared toward making your teaching more effective and fun. You’ll also get access to my members-only library of free downloadable resources, including my e-booklet, 20 Ways to Cut Your Grading Time in Half, which has helped thousands of teachers spend less time grading!
Suppose you’re standing at your classroom door, greeting students as they arrive. One of them—let’s call him Gabe—comes through and sees that on the daily agenda, you’ve written “Choose topics for speeches.” Right away, his shoulders slump.
“Oh man,” he says to no one in particular, “I hate speeches!”
What do you say?
What? Speeches are awesome.
You talk all the time! You’re gonna love it.
Shocker! Gabe has another complaint.
Gabe, we enter the room silently, please.
What do you hate about speeches, Gabe?
With options A through D, you’re arguing with Gabe, dismissing his feelings, attacking him personally, or ignoring what he said altogether.
But with option E, you’re reacting with curiosity. You’re trying to learn more. With option E, you’re already on your way to validating Gabe’s point of view.
Validation is the act of recognizing and affirming the feelings or perspective of another person. It’s acknowledging that these thoughts and feelings are true for that person. It’s a very simple, astoundingly fast way to make progress in a conversation: It eases tension, builds trust, and gets you and the other person to a solution more quickly.
The only problem with validation is that at first, it’s really hard to do. We’re so used to defending our own position, to staying sort of clenched in our own stance, that shifting to a place where we try to see things from another point of view can feel unnatural, almost painful at first. But once you’ve given it a real try, you’re going to see some of your most difficult conversations get a whole lot better.
Why Validation Works
People want to be understood. They want to feel heard.
When a person doesn’t feel heard, she just clings more tightly to her own position. It really is that simple, and it’s one of the reasons so many conflicts last so long and often escalate to ridiculous proportions. People on both sides of any conflict try and try to explain and defend themselves, to make the other person see something the way they see it.
And unfortunately, our typical responses usually make the situation worse:
Arguing with the other person’s viewpoint, like saying that speeches are awesome in response to Gabe’s statement, is a natural reaction, but it probably won’t impact his opinion. He’ll most likely want to come back with an argument about why speeches do suck, and you’ll just go back and forth. Until he feels heard, Gabe will have a hard time considering your point of view.
Dismissing the other person’s feelings, like pointing out to Gabe that he talks all the time and therefore couldn’t possibly dislike speeches, will not only not change his mind, it will also make him feel misunderstood. His original negative emotion tied to speeches has now been joined by a feeling of frustration that you just don’t get him. And depending on how serious the underlying problem is, your flippant dismissal could really hurt.
Ignoring the person’s concern by focusing on something else, like we did when we merely addressed a rule about being quiet, can make a person feel like they just don’t matter. Reminding Gabe to enter the room quietly doesn’t actually change his mind about the speeches. It hasn’t taken any of the negative feelings away. And by completely ignoring his concern, we are telling him that his feelings just aren’t important.
Ad hominem attacks, like the snide comment about Gabe complaining all the time, are another way of dismissing and delegitimizing the other person’s viewpoint. When our students voice a concern and we accuse them of being insubordinate, asking “silly questions,” or trying to stall or waste time, we are attacking them personally while avoiding the content of what they’re saying. This response can be the most destructive: Not only does the person still feel the way they felt before, but now they have added a layer of resentment toward you.
In all of these cases, the other person has not learned anything new, you have not come to any new understandings or solved any problems, and you have very likely created new negative feelings. Keep repeating this cycle and you have the makings of a problem relationship.
In schools, where our business requires constant interaction with other people, conflicts and misunderstandings are always available to us. And they cause all kinds of problems: They disrupt instructional time, interfere with student understanding, escalate into major power struggles that lead to serious disciplinary action, and that’s just the students. Among the adults in the building, unresolved disagreements create all kinds of inter-staff drama, lead to poor job satisfaction, and can ultimately end in teachers leaving their jobs.
Things go differently with validation. When people practice validating each other’s feelings and opinions at the first sign of trouble, conflicts rarely escalate. Instead, they become conversations. They become opportunities to learn from each other.
How to Validate in Three Steps
Step 1: Reflect the Content
The most important thing to do is simply paraphrase the main thing the person is saying to you to make sure you understand. Doing this lets them know you’re listening, and if you remove all sarcasm and “attitude” from your voice, you’ll sound interested and curious, not judgmental.
In some cases, like with Gabe, you might have to start with a question like “What do you hate about speeches?”
Assuming he gives you some kind of an answer, like “I don’t like being in front of all those people,” then you’d just restate that. You might say, “So it’s all the people watching that you don’t like.”
If the person’s explanation is longer or more complicated, you might use phrases like these:
What I hear you saying is ________. Is that right?
Let me see if I’m understanding you right…
In other words, _____
Step 2: Acknowledge the Emotion
The other person will really feel heard if you can label the emotion they are describing, or ask a question to clarify the emotion. Here are some examples:
That sounds frustrating.
It sounds like you’re feeling worried.
So you felt confused?
How did you feel about that?
With Gabe, you could simply say, “Speaking in front of people makes you uncomfortable.” This reflects both the content and the emotion in one fell swoop.
Step 3: Communicate Acceptance
An important part of validation is letting the person know that you accept their feelings as they are. You may not feel the same way, and their feelings might create problems for you, but they are what they are. Try some of these phrases:
I can see why you’d feel that way.
A lot of people feel that way.
It can be (upsetting, frustrating, nerve-racking, scary) when that happens.
Now if you strongly disagree with something a person is saying and you just can’t bring yourself to accept it, try looking for the part you DO agree with, the part you can relate to. When arguing about a proposed new academic policy in school, for example, you might really dislike the idea itself, but you can start by saying that you also care very much about student success and you agree that the current system needs fixing.
In some cases, you might even need to think back to a time when you felt or believed the same thing as the person you’re talking to. Even if you feel differently now, you can affirm that this feeling or belief is understandable from a certain perspective.
Once you’ve done these three things—reflected the content, acknowledged the emotion, and communicated acceptance—what comes next? Sometimes, nothing at all. You might just end the conversation there, with the other person returning to their thoughts, finally released from defending their point of view and ready to move on to a place of deeper contemplation.
Or the person might keep talking about this thing that’s bothering them—probably in a much calmer, more productive way—and all you have to do is listen quietly. They may arrive at their own solution without much need for your help.
At other times, you might need to continue to ask open-ended questions like, “Can you tell me more about that?” so the person can keep talking, and you might get to a new place of understanding on the issue.
Another thing that’s likely to happen is that the person will start to acknowledge your position without you even having to ask for it. This isn’t something you should expect, and you might have to introduce it on your own by saying something like, “Can I tell you how I see it?” But in a lot of cases, you’re going to be surprised by how quickly the validated person wants to return the favor.
The Pushback: Why We Resist Validating
Despite the incredible effectiveness of reflective listening and validation, you might still not want to do it. Here are some likely objections:
I don’t agree with the person, so I can’t validate their opinion.
This is tough, because you’re probably still trying to get your own point across. How on earth can you shift over to acknowledging their feelings? Validating another person’s point of view is not the same as agreeing with them. You’re just letting the person know you hear them.
Of course, it’s important to make sure your words reflect that: If a student says, “I suck at math,” you don’t say, “Yeah you do.” Instead, you could just restate their words as a question: “You don’t think you’re good at math?” This will prompt them to tell you more.
But their position ISN’T VALID. Why would I want to encourage it?
Remember that you’re not agreeing, just restating and clarifying their position. And keep in mind that by acknowledging the part of it that is true and by letting the person know you clearly understand their position, you will actually help them cling less tightly to it. In other words, they may be more likely to see your point of view because they feel like they’re dealing with a rational person who has taken the time to understand theirs.
This is all touchy-feely B.S. It’s not me.
Okay, validation doesn’t have to look and sound like you’re in a therapist’s office. You can develop your own style. It can sound tough, it can be quick, and it doesn’t have to come with hugs and cupcakes if that’s not who you are.
One of my CrossFit coaches, Donna, validates us all the time, and believe me, no one wants to mess with her. One time I was doing this really difficult stretch called a facing wall stretch, and she came over to basically tell me I was doing it wrong, that I needed to go lower, and so naturally I was whining about it. And she let me whine for a few seconds, then nodded at me and shouted, “CrossFit’s hard, Jennifer!”
That was basically validation. It cracked me up and it renewed my resolve to try harder.
I have more important things to do. Why do I have to waste time with this stuff?
Here’s the thing: If you make reflective listening and validation a regular part of your way of dealing with people, you will ultimately save yourself a TON of time.
Picture each conversation as a fork in a road. One path is the one where you argue, dismiss, or mock the other person’s position. It’s a loooonng road, full of continued back-and-forths, anger, and problems that build up over time, turning into much bigger and thornier issues. The other path is surprisingly short: It starts with a few minutes of reflective listening and validation, the other person feels heard, emotions stay at a reasonable pitch, and life goes on.
The problem is, people think the first path is shorter: You can quickly shut a person down with a withering comeback or silence them completely by just being loud and aggressive. But that person’s opinion hasn’t changed one bit. You haven’t had nearly the influence you think you’ve had; they just feel what they’re feeling even more strongly, and on top of it, now they think you’re a jerk, too. You’ve just made the problem worse.
The thing to remember is that validation is not necessary in all interactions, but if you find yourself in frequent conflict with other people, it’s definitely worth a try.
A Student Behavior Problem
It’s Thursday morning and my students are supposed to be reading silently for 10 minutes. I notice that Kendra has her book face down and is doodling on the cover of her notebook instead.
Now what I could do is give her some kind of behavior mark, or scold her, or just tell her to get back to reading. Or I could go over, squat down by her desk, and just say, in a completely neutral voice, “You’re not reading. What’s going on?”
Kendra might say, “It’s confusing.”
From there, I can reflect the content back to her, acknowledge her feelings, and communicate acceptance. I might say, “You’re confused, and that makes it hard to read. I’ve definitely had that experience.”
Then I can start helping Kendra solve the problem by saying, “Can you show me a place that confuses you?” From there, we can figure out how to get her unstuck, or maybe choose a different book.
If Kendra’s problem was not actually the book at all, but a more significant problem like something going on at home, me taking a few minutes to talk to her could be incredibly valuable in helping her deal with that. Either way, we have avoided a negative interaction that could have spiraled into a much larger behavior issue if Kendra or I were in the wrong kind of mood.
A Colleague Issue
Tracy, who teaches in the classroom next door to mine, makes this comment to a group at lunch one day: “Well I just couldn’t get my students to settle down this morning with all the noise coming from other rooms.”
I’m pretty sure the “other room” she’s referring to is mine, because my students were doing a really active group project that morning.
Now this is one of those situations that could easily turn into a bigger issue: I could pretend not to hear Tracy, since she wasn’t directly addressing me, and just resent her for being passive aggressive. Quite possibly, I would shut myself into another teacher’s room later and talk about Tracy behind her back.
Or I could get defensive and confront Tracy right there at the table, saying I didn’t think my class was that noisy and maybe if she quit forcing her kids to sit still for 45 minutes, she’d have an easier time settling them down.
Okay I definitely wouldn’t say that. I’m too much of a wimp. But I would think it.
A healthier, more productive approach would be to validate Tracy’s concern.
Like I said, this isn’t easy, but man, it could really make some significant changes in my relationship with Tracy. And the thing is, the main reason it isn’t easy is because I’m preoccupied with defending myself, with being right. But if I can step back for just a moment and put myself in Tracy’s shoes, to acknowledge that she really was frustrated, that I would probably have been frustrated, too, and that even though I didn’t do it intentionally, I was partly to blame for this frustration, I can accept that and do something to repair it.
I could start by clarifying the situation, “Was the noise coming from my room?”
Assuming she says yes, I could say, “I’m so sorry. It’s frustrating to try to get your kids focused when there are distractions.”
That’s all I’d really need to do. Tracy might not respond, or she might back off a little and add more information, maybe letting me know that the work she had students doing that day was admittedly kind of boring, or something along those lines. Regardless of what happens next, I’ve taken a step toward a better relationship with her, and a better understanding of how my actions impact others.
The Strength in Softening
Conflict with the people in our lives is inevitable. We want different things, we’ve had different life experiences. We just aren’t going to see things the same way. Unfortunately, our natural instinct is to respond to these differences with rigidity, by pushing harder, protecting our own egos, digging in our heels. Some part of our brain tells us that this is the strong response.
But there can be a real strength in softening, in loosening our grip for a few minutes to take in some new information, to look at someone else’s truth squarely in the eye and just let it into the room. It takes a lot more courage and self-control and self-confidence to do that. And almost every time, it softens the other person, too, opening them up to understanding you better.
That’s when the real progress can begin.
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On some days, teaching can crush our souls. But on other days it does the opposite. This story is about both kinds of days.
Hannah Thompson is a high school English teacher at Monrovia High School in Monrovia, Indiana. She’s brand-new to the profession this year.
Like most other English teachers, Thompson had a classroom library. This being her first year, the library was still on the small side, but it had been built with love.
“I’ve wanted to be a teacher for a very long time,” she says. “I was still in high school when I got the first book strictly for my future classroom.”
Thompson stocked the library with books she’d loved when she was a student—many were her own original copies. As she introduced various books in the library to students, she told some of the stories behind them: The book that had gotten her into trouble for reading it when she was supposed to be doing her math homework. The other one that kept her up all night in middle school.
“More than anything,” Thompson says, “I wanted to share the books I loved or the books that they could love.”
Alongside her own beloved fantasy and adventure books, Thompson added other genres, paid for with her own money. “Sports books, military books, dog books, books about high school drama, murder mysteries, puzzle books, graphic novels, history, and even some Nicholas Sparks. No matter who they were, students should be able to find something they would enjoy back there.”
Students were given five minutes at the start of every class period to read independently, and they were encouraged to use books from the classroom library. Thompson’s only request was that they check the books out if they wanted to take them out of the room.
A Rough Start
Ask any teacher about his or her first year, and you’ll hear stories about all the stuff that went wrong. Hannah Thompson’s challenges came mostly from her sophomores.
“I teach four classes of sophomores and two classes of juniors,” she explains. “The sophomores as a whole have delighted in hazing the new teacher. Among other things, I have a running list of my possessions that have been broken in sophomore classes: My fan has been broken twice, we are on our sixth stapler in three months, cacti that my friend had crocheted for me—whose pots I’d painted over the summer to use as numbered stations for things—were swept off my desk and shattered.”
The damage has extended to books: “My wax warmer was dumped all over my books, and the class set of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was banged up after only three days of use, and some were destroyed: Four were taken out of the room and not returned, one was ripped in half, and one had a BITE taken out of it.”
Thompson is quick to point out that this behavior does not represent all of her 10th-grade students. “I have some truly wonderful sophomores,” she says. “But the behavior of some has overshadowed the rest.”
Hearing about the trouble she was having with the younger students, Thompson’s juniors sometimes tried to compensate. “I’ve been surprised many times by juniors who’ve heard I’d had a rough day,” Thompson says. “Once, one student divided up a huge bag of M&Ms and left some on my desk, a few wrote me kind notes (which are now taped on my mini fridge), and one gave me a stuffed Charmander.”
Despite these experiences, nothing could have prepared Thompson for what happened right around Thanksgiving, when she noticed books were disappearing from her classroom library.
The Missing Books
“It took me longer than it should have to notice books disappearing,” Thompson admits. “I noticed that the shelves never looked full, but I didn’t realize how many were missing.”
Books were rarely returned to the library in an orderly way: They were often put back on their sides or with the spines turned inward. They were regularly left under desks. Some favorites were hidden in the room by students who wanted to prevent others from checking them out.
One day in mid-November, in preparation for parent-teacher conferences, Thompson and a few students rounded up the books that had been scattered around her classroom.
“Once every book they found was on the shelf and the shelves were straightened up,” she says, “I noticed that about a shelf and a half were missing.”
She decided she would eventually need to move the books to another location to keep a closer eye on them, but decided to wait until Thanksgiving break.
As she was leaving her room for the day, she happened to look down while turning off the lights. “I saw one of my books in the trash can,” she says. “When I pulled it out, I saw another. Three of them were in there that day.”
The books weren’t just getting lost or misplaced. Students weren’t just checking them out and forgetting them.
The truth behind the missing books hit her: They weren’t just getting lost or misplaced. Students weren’t just checking them out and forgetting them; in fact, according to Thompson’s records, only a handful of books were officially checked out.
The following week, Thompson moved her books into a new cabinet. When students asked about the empty bookshelf, she explained why the books had been moved. This was when another student admitted to seeing five other books in the recycling bin the week before.
“With eight books confirmed to have been thrown away in a week,” Thompson says, “who knows how many more of the missing ones were just thrown in the trash?”
Once the final count had been completed, she estimates that of the nearly 200 books in her original library, over 60 books had gone missing. And as far as she could tell, a whole lot of them were being trashed by her own students.
“I just couldn’t believe that they would go so far as to just throw them in the trash. What makes someone decide to do that? Were they lashing out at me? Did they just hate the books? Did they just not want to carry them back to the shelf? Why?”
And Sometimes They Surprise You
Then on the last day of November, Thompson was in her classroom and looked up to find four of her juniors walking in with armloads of books: 70 of them to be exact.
As soon as she saw the students walking in, Thompson knew what was going on. “I bawled,” she says. “Immediately. I saw them walking in and my eyes got watery.”
They handed her this note:
Some of the books had come from the students’ own collections, and others they had just bought.
“No one has ever done anything so nice for me before,” Thompson says. “I couldn’t stop smiling all day. I even joked with some of my rough students.”
She shared the story with as many people as she could. “I told everyone I saw,” she says. “I sent a picture of the letter to my fiancé during lunch and told him what they’d done. He told me to tell them all that he loved them. I called my mom as soon as the bell rang and heard her choking up on the other end. I emailed all of their parents and told them how grateful I was and how much I appreciated them. I also apologized for the unprofessionalism of hugging their kids.”
At a time when it would be easy to focus only on the negative stories we hear about students, it’s important to stop and pay attention when something good happens. And despite how deeply hurt she was by the trashed books, Thompson has never stopped seeing the positive in all of her students.
“There are absolutely stellar individuals among them,” she says. “I see the amazing people they are every day in class. How kind some of them are. Funny in a way that doesn’t hurt someone else in the process. When they will humor the teacher when she’s doing something lame just because they can see she’s excited about it, help their peers who are struggling to make it through the day, or replace something lost just because it’s nice, they are showing that they are amazing people.”
Since the day her students showed up with those 70 books, more continue to come in.
“I have students coming into my room whom I’ve never seen before, asking me if I still want books,” Thompson says. “It’s just phenomenal.”
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If I had to pick one thing that makes the biggest difference in the quality of any person’s education, the quality of their life, really, it would be reading. And I’m not really talking about basic literacy—not about the ability to read—I’m talking about reading for pleasure, to satisfy curiosities, to understand how people work and find solace in knowing we are not the only ones who think and feel the way we do.
That kind of reading.
But when I see what my kids do in school for “reading,” it doesn’t really look like reading. I ask them what books they are reading in school, and a lot of times they give me a blank stare. What they do in reading, they tell me, is mostly worksheets about reading. Or computer programs that ask them to read passages, not books, and answer multiple-choice questions.
Knowing this has bothered me a lot, and it led me to Donalyn Miller’s book, The Book Whisperer, and then to Kelly Gallagher’s book, Readicide. Both of these books show us that the reading programs and activities schools are using don’t work very well to raise students’ reading proficiency, especially if they take the place of real interactions with real books. And they certainly don’t do anything to turn our students into people who love to read.
The only thing that can do that is books. Reading actual books alongside other people reading actual books.
What baffles me is that this message still hasn’t reached so many schools. Schools are still shelling out thousands of dollars on expensive programs, putting pages and pages of passages and comprehension questions in front of our kids every day, sending them through the system without ever having them read a real book. Just excerpts. Just passages. Just reading-related “activities,” but little to no time with actual books.
So today I’m going to do what I can to get the message out there by having my friend Pernille Ripp on the podcast. Pernille is a seventh grade English language arts teacher in Wisconsin. She has been blogging for years, she speaks all over the country, and she has written several books about teaching.
Her most recent one is called Passionate Readers, where she writes about her own journey from teaching reading through programs and activities to teaching in a way that honors books and develops a love of reading in every child. It’s an awesome book. The best thing about it is how transparent Pernille is about her own doubts and struggles in this process.
In our interview we talk about why she made the change, what her reading instruction looks like now, and how other teachers can change their own practices. The key takeaways are summarized below. You can read a full transcript of our conversation here.
What’s Wrong with the Way We Teach Reading Now?
In many classrooms feeling the pressure of high-stakes testing, instruction tends to emphasize what researcher Louise Rosenblatt called efferent reading, the kind of reading we do when looking for information, as opposed to aesthetic reading, which is done for enjoyment. Reading for information is a vital skill—without the ability to tackle challenging texts, locate evidence to support claims, summarize important ideas, and identify bias, students’ academic progress will be stunted.
Unfortunately, our push toward developing close reading skills has had collateral damage. In far too many schools, reading for pleasure has been treated as an afterthought, something we encourage but don’t really make time for. Instead of giving students time to read, we’re giving them activities, projects, computer programs, reading logs, and worksheets that detract from actual reading.
“We’re constantly reading for skill,” Ripp says. “We’re constantly asking kids to do something with their reading, and then wondering why they’re choosing to leave us and never picking up another book. They can’t wait to get out of school so that they don’t have to read.”
When she criticizes these practices, Ripp has no desire to teacher-bash. “I get it,” she says. “We are all kind of facing the pressure of our districts and our government and our testing and our parents and everybody’s focus on the data to show that these children can comprehend and compete with this global market economy that we’re a part of.”
“But unfortunately,” she explains, “what that has led to is just this further step away from what we know works within reading instruction.”
Even when we do have students read for enjoyment, we require evidence—reading logs, book reports, quizzes—to prove that the reading actually happened.
This was how Ripp taught for several years: “It was exhausting,” she says. “When we did book clubs, it was all about me, and I was reading five different books and coming up with all of the questions. All the kids had to do was show up, read aloud. There was no discussion about which book we were going to read or anything like that. It was just all teacher-centered, all the time, book reports just to prove they had read rather than doing meaningful work after they had finished the book.”
The Catalyst: What Caused the Change
Then one day a student said something that stopped Ripp in her tracks.
“I was doing the ‘reading is magical’ lesson that I think we all do at some point in the beginning of the year, and a kid in front of me whispered to his friends, ‘Reading sucks.’ And you know, I wanted to jump on him and be like, ‘Oh, you just haven’t found the right book,’ because how often have we said that?”
Instead, she asked him to tell her why.
Every year, Ripp invites students to share their thoughts about what they like and dislike about reading on Post-its.
That’s when the floodgates opened: Invited for the first time to honestly share their thoughts about reading, students told Ripp that they didn’t like having to sit still. They wanted to be able to choose their own books, rather than being limited to a certain level. And more than anything, they hated the fact that every time they read something, they had to do some kind of activity related to the reading afterward.
Thus began Ripp’s journey toward what she calls a common sense approach to reading.
Returning to a Common Sense Approach
Once her eyes were opened, Ripp found herself drawn to the people she calls the “pioneers” of a type of reading instruction: Nancie Atwell, Donalyn Miller, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Kylene Beers, Stephen Krashen, and so many others. She began to understand that scripted programs and reading-related activities—teacher-centered reading instruction—were not the way to help students become life-long readers. Over time, she shifted to a different approach.
When she talks about her current practices, she emphasizes over and over again that this is nothing new. “We have so many years of really great reading research out there, and yet it seems to be forgotten.”
Here are the most important components of Ripp’s reading instruction the way it looks today.
Time to Read
Ripp’s students are given ten minutes at the beginning of every class period for independent reading. “Every child, every day,” she says. Even though she only has 45 minute blocks with each seventh-grade class, she makes sure they get that time to read every day. “It is sacred time,” she says. When she taught at the elementary level, she was able to give students 30 minutes a day, but she no longer has that luxury.
During that independent reading time, Ripp does check-ins with students. “I’m sitting down and I’m simply saying, ‘What are you working on as a reader?’ And it gives me that two-, three-minute connection with a child if they need to book shop, if they’re not doing well, to see what their reading identity is, where are they on their journey, and then I kind of pull all this information to think about what I still need to teach them (during the other part of class time).”
Students are not graded for this reading. “We can’t actually grade their independent reading, because that’s practice,” Ripp says. So there’s no other work associated with that time: no worksheets, no logs, no written reflections. “Nothing to do except to read. I want them to fall into the pages. I want them to reach flow. I want them to be silent and in this moment of their book.”
Ripp uses the remainder of the 45-minute period to have students work on the other things you’d expect to see in an English language arts classroom. “When they come back to me (after the ten minutes), we then do a mini lesson on reading or writing or whatever it is we’re doing, 10 to 15 minutes. And then they go and do something, and that’s where I assess them.” But those first ten minutes are always, always devoted to independent reading.
“Whenever I ask kids,” Ripp says, “‘What’s the one thing you wish all teachers of reading would do?’ Choice. And yet, what do we do time and time again? We take away choice from kids, especially kids who might not be where we would hope they would be at this time. We end up with these limited choices for them, and then we wonder why they’re the ones that distance themselves from reading the most, because they never get to develop their reading identity. They never get to go through the selection process. They never get to just read and struggle with text and have meaningful conversations and sometimes yes, make the wrong choice.”
Students in Ripp’s class always have free choice of what they want to read during independent reading time. Through lots of conversations, students practice getting to know who they are as readers so they can make choices that work for them. “They’re constantly evaluating their book choices just either through conversation or self reflection or just their habits,” Ripp says.
Students go “book shopping” for their next read.
If a student finds that a book just isn’t grabbing him, he is free to abandon it. “We should be celebrating when we abandon a book,” Ripp tells her students, “because we know ourselves enough as a reader to know that this will not provide us with a reading experience that will matter to us. And we need to start building up that stamina, so we need books that work for us at that time, and that’s really important for my students to remember, and to know and to recognize that what they need at this moment might be different than what they need a month from now.”
A Robust Classroom Library
Ripp’s classroom library houses several thousand books that students can check out at any time. You read that right: several thousand.
Why so many? “I need a book for every reader,” Ripp says, “and I teach kids that read from about a second grade level to a college level. I teach kids with lives that share no similarities at times and others whose lives are very much like my own. And so I need to make sure that every child has a chance of finding a book that will speak to them.”
Where do they all come from? “I have three kids at home, you know, on a teacher’s salary,” Ripp explains. “I can’t go out and spend thousands of dollars on books, and my school didn’t have a lot of extra money, but I would rather that a child can go up to this bookshelf and find a high-quality book pretty much any time they go there rather than have to dig through the junk and hope they find something. So it just became my mission that instead of buying things to make our classroom prettier or anything like that, like, I bought books, and I used Scholastic, and I went to library sales and parents donated books, and I was always really picky. It was big for me that the books were good, and then I just purchased books.”
Why not just have students use the school library? Ripp believes students need both. “Kids need to see the books staring at them at all times, and I think that has made the biggest difference for some of my kids who would go through the motions of going to the school library and they would even check some books out, but then when it came down to actually sitting down and read it, they didn’t feel that same need or urge to read it.” Her experience has proven the research that says students read more in classes that have good classroom libraries. “I had a seventh-grader come back to me my first year at the end of the year,” she says, “and he said, ‘You know what made the biggest difference? The books were always right there staring at me.'”
Ripp’s classroom library also includes an incredible assortment of picture books. Having lots of picture books in the classroom helped remove the “babyish” stigma many middle schoolers attached to them. “If you walk into our classroom, yes there’s all those books, the chapter books and all of that, but then all around us are picture books. And it’s just a vibe, right? You feel it when you walk in that this is a classroom where you can have fun and where you get to read and you can choose whatever you want. No one cares what you’re reading in our classroom, because you can pick up picture books at any time.” To start building your picture book collection, take a look at the tons and tons of recommendations for picture books Ripp offers on her website.
Culture and Community
A constant thread that runs through Passionate Readers is the sense that a classroom culture is constantly being built, that every day, Ripp communicates how incredibly important books are to a good life, and how, if we get to know ourselves as readers, and have lots of conversations about our reading, we’ll really get to experience the true magic of reading.
Every year, students are challenged to read 25 books. At the end they celebrate their number: Some have read many more than 25, and some far fewer, but still more than they have ever read in any other school year.
The 25-Book Challenge is one way she encourages students to build more reading time into their lives. This was adapted from the 40-Book Challenge introduced in Donalyn Miller’s Book Whisperer. Ripp participates in the challenge herself, just one of the ways she shares her own reading identity with her students.
Outside of things like the challenge, the culture is ultimately built on a day-to-day basis. “Teaching reading is not supposed to be quick and easy,” she says. “It’s supposed to be about human connection. It’s one conversation at a time.”
She admits that this new way of teaching is not perfect, and she’s constantly reflecting on how she can do better for her students. “We cannot go in there and expect every child to change, but we can go in there hoping that we can help,” she says. “I tell my students this, I’m not here to make you love reading. I’m here to make you hate it less. And if you already love it, then I’m here to protect it with all of my might.”
Pernille’s book, Passionate Readers, goes into a lot more detail than I have room for here. It really walks teachers through how to implement a more reader-centered approach to teaching reading, complete with all the possible obstacles and pitfalls. I really encourage you to get a copy. To read more from Pernille Ripp, visit her fantastic blog at pernillesripp.com.
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I hear it all the time: The world is changing, and schools need to change. Lots of us recognize that we should no longer be relying on the old model, where we just dump information into our students’ brains and they regurgitate it back. The world we live in today requires more of people: problem-solving skills, creativity, collaboration, the ability to innovate, iterate, and design solutions for problems that don’t even exist yet. The way we do school now just doesn’t prepare kids the way it should.
It’s a good message, a true message, but too often, that message leaves us hanging. We nod along, we agree that things need to be different, but then we go back to doing more or less what we’ve always done, because we aren’t exactly sure HOW to change school.
Luckily, more people are starting to figure it out, and part of my mission here is to share their ideas with you. In the past, I have interviewed the teachers at the Apollo School, an innovative program blending history, English, and art that’s run inside a public high school in Pennsylvania. I’ve talked to Steven Ritz, whose incredible urban gardening projects transformed his Bronx classroom and the lives of his students. And I also told the story of an underused middle school library in Ohio that completely reconfigured its space into a collaborative, flexible, technology-rich learning hub that now stays busy all the time.
Now let’s look at another model for 21st century learning, a year-long elective offered in an Indiana high school where students design and execute their own passion-driven projects. The course is called Innovation and Open Source Learning, and the teacher’s name is Don Wettrick. In our podcast interview, Don tells me about how the course works, how he structures it to build in both accountability and freedom for his students, and how he’s changed and improved the program over the past six years. The key points from our conversation are summarized below.
My hope is that when you learn about this innovation class, you’ll start to think about how you might implement something similar in your own school; if not a fully fledged class, then maybe an after-school club or a pull-out program, a way to differentiate for some students. To learn even more about Don’s course and how it works, head over to Don’s website, startedupinnovation.com, where you’ll find links to his podcast, his Facebook page, and his YouTube channel, where he shares daily video logs that document his students’ work in class.
What is this class?
The official name for the course is “Innovation and Open Source Learning.” Wettrick started teaching it six years ago as an extension of the Genius Hour idea, where students work on projects of their own design, focusing on topics that interest them.
Although Wettrick found that Genius Hour worked fine in an elementary setting, it wasn’t as easy to implement in high school, where time is chunked into different content areas and teachers have fewer hours to spare. So six years ago, he introduced the course as a year-long elective.
Students in Wettrick’s class work individually on projects, or they may choose to set some goals as a group.
How does it actually work?
Part 1: Innovation
The first seven or eight weeks of the course make up the “Innovation” phase: This looks more like a traditional class, where Wettrick does a lot of direct instruction to prepare students for the rest of the year.
During this phase, students are introduced to the concept of innovation and taught to think differently about what school could be like. Wettrick opens their minds to new ways of thinking by exposing them to a collection of ideas and activities.
“We have a couple of TED talks that we watch,” he explains. “We’ll play a couple of games—Disruptus is such an easy, fun game that gets a lot of things going. I’ll give them short excerpts from books like Seth Godin’s Linchpin. I have them listen to podcasts. I’ll show them clips from Tony Wagner’s film Most Likely to Succeed. And I’ll show them all the urgency, all this media on ‘Schools should change, schools should change, schools should change.'” This helps students understand the point of the course and how it will require them to approach learning in a different way.
While reframing students’ thinking, Wettrick also equips them with the tools and skills they’ll need for the second phase, where they will actually design and implement their own projects:
They study the protocols they will use for planning, implementing, and reflecting on their projects.
They set up public-facing social media profiles “where people want to follow you, that they’re shocked and amazed that somebody at 16 years old is going to be tackling great problems,” Wettrick says.
Each student starts a blog, a podcast, or a YouTube channel, which they’ll use to submit the required course reflections.
Part 2: Open Source Learning
For the rest of the year, students get to work on their self-directed projects. Some work on a different project every two weeks, while others work on incremental stages of a long-term project.
Wettrick uses the acronym ROTH-IRA to describe their innovation cycle. In this case, it has nothing to do with finances, but the process of thinking of an idea and taking it all the way through and beyond its implementation.
R = Realization
In this step, students are noticing things and thinking about problems that need addressing. “Just go observe things,” Wettrick tells them. “And so they’ll get this realization. Like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and then when they do, I’m asking them to jot it down.”
O = Open Discussion
During this phase, students talk through their ideas with the rest of the group, which Wettrick says can lead to challenges. “What you thought may have been a good idea, you say out loud, and then the rest of the group, it’s their turn to fight.” This leads to the next step.
T = The Tussle
This is part of the open discussion, where students refine their ideas by talking through them—which can often be kind of a “tussle”—with others.
H = Homogeneous Grouping
As students shape their goals, they begin to come together with other students who might want to work toward the same goals but have different skill sets that can complement one another.
Open discussion is an important part of the innovation process. During these sessions, students challenge each other’s ideas, which ultimately helps to refine them.
Once the idea is in place, the implementation begins.
I = Ideation
This is where students make a plan of action: “What’s keystroke one?” Wettrick says. “What is prototype No. 1? What is phone call one? What is connection one?”
R = Reflection
After meeting the first two-week goal, students reflect on their progress, take an honest look at what went wrong, and celebrate successes.
A = Adjustment
Finally, students set new goals based on the progress they’ve made so far and the lessons they have learned.
This video explores the ROTH-IRA framework in more detail.
How do Students Figure Out What to Do?
All of this sounds really good if students already know what they want to do for their projects. But students who have spent years in a system that tells them exactly what to do need some time to adjust to all this freedom.
Wettrick teaches students how to listen to the conversations they hear in their daily lives. “When you hear people say, ‘You know what sucks?’ Their ears are going, ‘What?’ There’s money to be made. There (are) problems to be solved. And so they become active searchers of problem solving.”
Once students become more attuned to listening for problems, their next step is to choose the problems that fit their interests. “Pick your lane,” Wettrick tells them. “If you’re really into social justice, look around. What can you do to fix it? Don’t go to a protest and that’s it. What are you going to do? If your thing is animal cruelty, what are you going to do? If your thing is making money, what are you going to do?”
Before they can start setting goals for a project, students have to get the project approved. Projects have to satisfy what Wettrick calls the rule of thirds: “Rule number 1: Are you passionate about it? That one’s easy,” he says. “Number 2, what’s your skills acquisition on this? And number 3, who is it benefiting other than you? Because I don’t care if you’re successful. I want you to be empowering others.”
Here’s an example: One student wanted to focus on day trading. He had a definite passion for it. “He’s like, ‘Bro, I’m making money. I want to make money,'” Wettrick says. Although his skills weren’t great, he was committed to learning. When it came to rule 3, however, the plan wasn’t up to par, so Wettrick didn’t approve it. So the student decided to start a stock club, where he would teach other students what he was learning and do day trading with simulated money. Then his project was approved.
Some students get rule 3 on the first try, like these two who are building a school in Africa:
Vlog: My two students are building a school in Africa - YouTube
As part of their project proposals, students set goals for themselves. Every two weeks students submit reflections on their goals in the form of a blog post, podcast, or video. They also conference with Wettrick about the progress they’re making on their goals. Ultimately, their grades are based on the quality of their reflections and on how well they met the goals they set for themselves. This video explains the process:
How do you "grade" a #GeniusHour project? - YouTube
All of this is just a small sample of what Wettrick and his students share online about their process. If you’re interested in starting an innovation class in your school, visit Wettrick’s website, StartEDUp. Also, check out his courses on Innovation in the classroom.
Even if you’re not quite ready to go as far as pushing for a full course like this one, my hope is that this model will provide one more template we can all use to rethink the way we’re doing things now, one more approach to making school a place that gives our students a chance to practice solving problems for the rest of their lives.
There’s more where this came from. Join my mailing list and get weekly tips, tools, and inspiration—in quick, bite-sized packages—all geared toward making your teaching more effective and fun. You’ll get access to my members-only library of free downloads, including 20 Ways to Cut Your Grading Time in Half the e-booklet that has helped thousands of teachers save time on grading. Come on in!!
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