education, effort, engagement, motivation, students, teachers, teaching

Spinning into Motivation

It’s a rare treat when I can go to spin class on a weekday morning (thank you winter break!), and especially one with Gina. Gina is a great instructor. She pushes us to our limits but she also allows for our strengths to shine through. She encourages us to try things that are challenging–hello there simulation of the 20th leg of the Tour de France (I couldn’t walk for 2 days)–and it ends up being so worth it. I like taking her class because I feel motivated to work hard when I’m there. (It’s not that I ever walk into spin thinking, “I’m just going to give it 75% today…”) but Gina helps me go above and beyond during my workout.

Before class, Gina greets everyone by name and introduces herself to new spinners. She helps set up bikes and she even helped me into my new clips today. (A story for another day–what a challenge that was!) Throughout class she looks out into the sea of bikes and picks out someone by name and offers them a compliment–usually that they are kicking some serious butt–and I love it when she zeros in on me. It’s not that I need my fellow riders to know that I am doing well; it’s because once I hear that affirmation from her I begin to work even harder. I think, “if I can do that, I can push it even further,” and I do.

When it comes to assessing students (and teachers, too!) we tend to focus on the weaknesses that are present in the work we see. (Look here again…try it this way…this isn’t quite there yet…) After my students finish an assessment, I score it and automatically look to see which questions they got wrong.

So as I was going into a seated climb–ouch–about halfway through my class this morning, it hit me. Why am I not focusing on student’s strengths as much as I am focusing on their weaknesses?   Well, it makes sense to focus on the areas they need to improve upon because I can begin to help them strengthen those areas. But in the middle of the climb I decided that a better way to bring attention to my student’s weaknesses is to start with their strengths: “hey, I see that you rock at determining author’s choices, but have some trouble determining an author’s diction. It’s a very similar skill. Try applying what you do to determine author’s choices to determine an author’s diction.”

Now, I realize that this isn’t earth shattering people, but I know if Gina said to me, “engage the same muscles you would for a standing climb when you are in the seated climb. It may be a bit tougher at first, but you will work through it and condition your legs to handle it over time,” I would be more apt to follow her advice. First, it makes sense. Second, I’m already going in the right direction–since I have mastered standing climbs–and third, I’m motivated. I’m right in my Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky!) both physically and mentally.

Now my task is to find a way to connect each student’s strengths and weaknesses and motivate them through their strengths to fortify their areas of weakness.

So thanks for the inspiration today, Gina. I’m going to bring it with me when I get back into the classroom in 2016 and I can’t wait to try it out.

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education, engagement, high school, learners, students

UDL: Differentiation at Its Best

UDL. Another acronym, I know. But this one I think you’ll like.

Universal Design for Learning has been around since the 90s and at its core, it is really about flexibility, differentiation, and helping students find their “flow”. (I’m a big believer in flow. Basically it’s about being so motivated by something that you don’t even realize the time or space you’re in. You’re essentially locked into what you’re doing and you enjoy this true engagement.)  If you want more info about UDL in general check out this video.

Although purist supporters of UDL believe in creating curricula using the techniques outlined in the philosophy, I find that using it in my classroom regardless of the curriculum for the course is highly effective. (Please note that my district uses a very open design for curricula which allows for such flexibility. It’s really a beautiful thing.) Allow me to offer an example:

We are reading Hamlet. (I know, it’s so exciting!!) This is by far one of my favorite units to teach because it allows for great use of the Multiple Intelligences and UDL theories. For instance, not only do we read important scenes together in class, but we also listen to them and watch them. I want students to see the language, hear it, and see how it is applied on stage or screen with actions. We also watch different interpretations of the play so students can see how the language is used and understood in different ways. (Shakespeare is the perfect vehicle for exploring multiple interpretations of complex language….but, I digress.)

Also, as a grade level team, my colleagues and I came up with various creative projects for students to complete to prove their understanding of the text and more specifically their understandings of the functions of the language, characters, and settings. Students can rewrite the script and create a movie, choose songs that characters might listen to that describe their relationships with others, create a comic book that details scenes and soliloquies, or create a scrapbook of character relationships and how those relationships relate to and function within the various settings of the play.

Now, these projects are nothing new. Teachers have been using them for decades, but what I find to be so great about them is their ability to appeal to all different types of learners. For instance, there are several students in my classes who participate in our school’s morning news show. They are interested in visual media and its construction, so the movie project is perfect for them. It serves their interests and they have access to the proper equipment in order to do justice to such a project. When they feel they can properly complete the assignment, make it their own, and enjoy working on it, they are achieving “flow”. And that type of motivation is what we want for our students in school. Learning has to be engaging, or students will lack the buy-in needed to make learning happen in the first place. (And please don’t get me wrong, not every assignment is like this, but I work in the fun where I can!)

In everyday classroom life–whether we are working on Hamlet or not–I use UDL to appeal to students’ interests. I will present to them the goal of the class (I call it “The End Game”) and I will allow them multiple pathways in order to achieve that goal. (Note: I teach seniors and they have enough independence and know-how to complete a task in whatever way they please. This does not always work as well with freshmen and sophomores unless you spend time “training” them.) I give students hard copies of things, I post assignments on Google Classroom, I offer helpful websites, allow them access to multimedia, and various texts, etc. I also allow them to work at their own pace, yet within a time constraint. For example, during the research paper unit, I will teach a mini lesson and then allow students time to write; I call it “workshop”. Some students will keep up with the pace and work on what they learned in the mini lesson, and others may be behind or ahead. Either way, students can sign up for writing conferences with me during their workshop time and I will help guide them through the process. In the end though, the due date stands–so they must find ways to finish on time–and I am there to help during lunch and after school.

Ultimately, I truly enjoy using UDL. It allows for differentiation, emphasizes that we all learn differently and are motivated by different things, and allows for reaching goals in multifaceted ways. It’s not always easy, and it is a lot of work for me, but it’s worth it in order to help kids see that learning is fun and worthwhile. And that’s what I want for them. I want them to see that learning is not a one-size-fits-all activity. And when they walk into my classroom, I want them to know that I will do whatever it takes to help them see that.

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education, engagement, teachers

Reso-and Revo-lutions for 2015

In my classroom:

  1. Create more buy in.  I recently read the transcript of a speech given by Simon Sinek about how great leaders inspire action.  He repeats this very impactful phrase: People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. So I vow to share more of my love and passion for my profession with my students.  They don’t have to love English class, but they have to try hard, work hard, and be successful. I am the variable–and catalyst–in that equation.
  2. Create real engagement. I want my students to take my class seriously.  I work hard to make lessons for them that are not only valid and worthwhile, but engaging. But what is real engagement? Silent students working at their desks?  Loud groups debating important content? For me, it’s making my kids forget they have a cell phone.  When they are so engaged in something that they do not need to check their latest text or play a round of Trivia Crack, I know I’ve got them.
  3. Offer real feedback instead of praise.  I’ve written about feedback before, and I truly try to follow my own rules concerning it, but at times it’s so easy for me to walk around my classroom and say “nice!” or “good job!”–sometimes I give in. I want to focus my feedback to students in order to help them reach the lesson’s goal instead of making them feel “good”. So I vow to incorporate more questions that lead my students to truly reaching the goal set forth for them. No more shallow praise!  Everything that comes out of my mouth needs to be worthy of being said and have a purpose for my students.  Praise can be saved for more 1:1 experiences if necessary.
  4. Let go and trust…myself and my kids. If I truly want to teach my students about persevering through difficult content and learning challenging skills, I need to let them struggle.  Sometimes I think, “Oh no! I made this too difficult. Now they are never going to get to where I need them to be.” This almost always turns out to be false.  By the end of a difficult lesson I have heard “I can’t” more times than I can count, but 99% of the time, the kids are successful and accomplish the goal of the lesson.  I have been teaching for 7 years.  I’m no newbie and I need to trust that my skills and understandings of my students are on par. And I need to trust that they will make it to the goal without my constant watch.

 

In my career:

 

  1. Stop questioning my own decisions.  I make professional decisions every day.  Not only about content, teaching and learning strategies, and lessons, but also about how to interact with my students, how to tackle a particularly difficult situation, and how to combat (and comply with…) the constant barrage of mandates from the state, county, and district. I make professional decisions because I am a professional. I can back them up with valid evidence and reasoning. There is no need for me to question my own thinking every step of the way.  So I vow to trust myself.
  2. Not get pushed around. I will not let politicians–or anyone else who knows nothing about educating students–tell me how to do my job.  I am going to do what is right for my students (within the boundaries of my position) because, well, I DO love my job, and I AM passionate about what I do. And I am not about to let someone who is not invested in my students’ success tell me what is best for them.


What are your Reso-and Revo-lutions?

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